The radiation suit pressed against my perspiring skin and my breath was loud through the gas mask. I was two hundred miles from any living human, deep inside the New Orleans exclusion zone. No one knew at the time it happened, but after the government nuked New Orleans, the Waterford Nuclear Generating Station melted down, further contaminating the area. Although my Geiger read above acceptable radiation limits, it wasn’t by much, and I was being a bit cautious. My sailboat, the Solitude, was anchored out a hundred meters from shore, and about a mile from where I stood.
In front of me was something very interesting. Very unexpected. Pre-undead technology hidden away in some bunker that’d never see the light of day if the dead didn’t start walking. A large balloon secured with a thin cable marked the spot like a dropped pin on a smartphone app; I’ll come back to that.
• • •
I’d stumbled upon a radio distress ping one week ago while out fishing with John. We were a day’s sail from our stronghold in the Keys. I didn’t say anything to him, as I didn’t want him to know I’d been scanning the old Remote Six frequencies. Just in case. People tend to get nervous if they think murderous psychopaths are still around to lob sound decoys like undead dinner bells or nuclear weapons at them. Remote Six tried to kill me a while back, but a group of men sacrificed their lives for a chance to save the Keys and our way of life.
I still chose not to share any of this with John even as Solitude made best wind back home. Not for any particular reason, if only that John’s advice was generally infallible and I was afraid to hear his take on it. I’d already made up my mind and didn’t want common sense to get in the way. After off-loading our haul of fish, crabs, and other scavenged items, I sailed the short distance to the marina. Jan, Tara, and our baby, Bug, were waiting for me and John on the pier as we motored in and tied up. Although Jan had lost half of what she lived for when Will died, she was slowly recovering. She and John were getting along nicely. I mean, it’d been months. Everyone wanted her to be happy. It seemed like Jan thought we’d judge her for moving on when the opposite was true.
It should be noted that it’s been a while since I’ve written anything . . . well, besides a few measurements scratched in chalk on the hull of Solitude. As much as I’d protested, my journals were all confiscated after the Hourglass incident; they were sent off somewhere north on the mainland to be scanned and studied along with almost everything else we’d found over there.
I honestly thought I’d want to settle down after Hourglass; I envisioned that on board Solitude would be the place where Tara and I would live our lives and raise our family. While aboard, we were our own island. We made our own freshwater and generated our own wind and solar power. The undead still ruled the land beyond in all directions, but Solitude was under my command. Those miserable creatures washed ashore from time to time, wreaking havoc on our growing shantytown, attracted by the lights and noises that nuclear power provided. Island life wasn’t safer than mainland living, mind you, just a bit less stressful. The aged and the sick still died and reanimated, and they still attempted to rip you apart.
Despite the terrors of living on solid land, Tara, urged by the birth of our baby, insisted that we move ashore. After long deliberation, I relented. She was right: Family life aboard a sailboat was cozy, to say the least. About a month ago, we picked out a vacant home on the beach near John and Jan, well inside the patrolled perimeter. Like everyone else, I was extremely concerned with security. I changed out the door on the baby’s room from the hollow residential type to a steel door. Her crib was a modified metal dog
kennel, so if the undead happened to breach her room, they’d still have to deal with a heavy cage to get to her.
This was the new normal. We were going extinct, and it was up to the last of us to at least slow it down.
After spending a week ashore, I convinced Tara that we needed more supplies for the approaching hurricane season. After all, as a new father, I was concerned that we might not have enough to see us through the next few months. I needed to get out there and bring home our livelihood.
At least, that was the main reason I told myself I was leaving.
The owner of the boat in the slip across the way didn’t say a word when he saw me toting my carbine, radiation suit, and gas mask aboard Solitude. I had enough canned food for a couple of weeks and the boat’s water desalinator was working just fine. The boat had half a tank of propane in reserve, but I could get all of that I ever wanted on the mainland. Millions of suburban backyards full of barbecue grill propane tanks, ripe for the picking. Signals from the mainland have gone dark with only intermittent HAM chatter. Whatever facility used to talk to us stopped, and no one knew what that really meant.
I didn’t get much sleep sailing single-handed northwest into the waters of the Gulf of Mexico. I had to do most of the piloting and all of the navigation myself. Only during the longer legs of the journey through deep water could I risk falling asleep. Even then, only in short intervals with the radar proximity alarm set. Engineers back at the Keys were working on a new navigation system using the old loran standard, but it was still a ways away from being operational for sail navigation and flying. Most of the GPS satellites were off-line, some having burned back into the atmosphere from lack of ground station intervention. The Garmin chart plotter eerily indicated a GPS signal strength of zero.
The closer I came to landfall, the stronger the distress signal became. Using rudimentary methods, I scanned the horizon with the whip antenna on my handheld radio. Adjusting gain and monitoring the signal meter and sound, I began refining my course and direction to pinpoint its location. I’d draw signal lines of bearing on the marine charts stored aboard Solitude. These lines would form intersections and give me a basic triangulation. Drawing RF
lines of bearing on a chart worked best the faster you were moving, and I wouldn’t be moving this fast ashore. Might as well take advantage of it.
After circling an area of interest encompassing about ten city blocks, I folded the chart and stuffed it into my pack. When land appeared through the haze at my bow, the Geiger alerted me that it was nearing time to don the familiar yellow suit and mask.
It didn’t take long after anchoring out and paddling to shore before I had my first encounter with the undead.
I’d tied my kayak to the docks and tossed my pack and carbine onto the sun-bleached boards. I always kept a reserve of water, ammo, and food in the watertight compartment on my dinghy. It wouldn’t be the first time I had to run for the water with a dry, steaming carbine hanging off my back after fighting off an army of those miserable things. Reluctantly, I climbed the dock support pole and planted my two rubber exposure suit boots on the boards, careful to avoid the rusty nail heads that jutted from them.
My mask had just a bit of condensation, nothing too severe. I could hear my breath as it sucked deadly, irradiated air from the outside through the filter. I shouldered my pack and slung my suppressed carbine across my chest. I was on my second suppressor, a SiCo Saker. My original can wore the hell out on me at about the same time as my carbine gas tube melted during a mainland excursion like this. I had to trade some serious loot for the Saker, as a quality can is a goddamned necessity out here in the badlands. Worth its weight in uranium.
I slowly made my way up the docks toward land, feeling the eyes upon me. I saw movement on the right through my mask, but dismissed it as a piece of unsecured sail flapping through its ripped blue cover. I passed by without giving a thought until feeling the vibration through the thick rubber outsoles of my suit. The heavy footsteps on the dock. I didn’t risk a glance before sprinting away, attempting to open enough distance to defend myself. My suit crinkled and scratched against my body as I ran. Nearly to shore, I tripped on a coil of rotting line and then a cleat, certain that the thing was nearly on me.
I swung my carbine around and turned to face my pursuer.
The dock was empty.
I’d nearly shot at a ghost, a sliver of my mind caught in the dimension just ahead or behind this one.
Breathing heavily, I picked myself up from the dock and set foot on the mainland for the first time since I scouted southern Florida on a quest for NICU equipment. People (including myself) were still having babies in the Keys, but not nearly enough. Wearing out my silencer was worth it after watching those newborns breathe via very hard-to-come-by mechanical ventilators brought in despite the dangers of the mainland hordes.
After hitting the shoreline, I stayed low and pulled out my radio for another DF reading. I was looking for the distress ping north by northwest.
A couple hundred meters inland was a two-story bistro overlooking the bay, with a roof access ladder on the side.
A vantage point.
The undead usually walk right off the roofs, so I knew it should be semi-secure up there. I pulled my magazine and visually checked. Black polymer–tipped 300 Blackout subsonics. Giving the can a twist and accompanying it with a series of clicks, I made sure the device was secure on the end of my weapon before scanning my route to the dumpster and the ladder next to it.
The undead were in the streets, but not mobile. They simply stood there, slightly hunched over, movement barely perceptible. They swayed slightly, as if dancing to a tune playing via some undead synapse in a primordial region of their rotting brains.
The good thing about a new radiation suit: I wouldn’t die from breathing radioactive particles or skin exposure.
The bad: Until you broke it in, it was like wearing a giant empty potato chip bag.
I moved slowly to the dumpster in a crouched position. My suit crinkled the entire time, causing one of the nearby creatures—shirtless, with a gold chain—to spasm and crane its head sideways at me. It raised an arm, gesturing in my direction. Before it could muster a groan, I leveled my suppressed carbine, placed the red dot at the top of its dome, and squeezed.
The thing fell, kicking up radioactive dust as it hit the ground in a tragic pose.
Subsonic 300 Blackout was the shit for undead wet work inside of a couple hundred meters. Outside of that? Run.
Miraculously, my 120-decibel shot only jolted two more of them from sleep. I dropped them to the deck and noticed that the distant creatures, a block in all directions, stayed in stasis, or whatever you choose to call what they were doing.
If I had been forced to shoot unsuppressed on this street, I’d have had the wrath of hell coming down on me in minutes. That’s why things like silencers are worth a king’s ransom on the mainland.
I kept my knees locked and moved with a stilt-like gait to the dumpster, attempting to lessen the noise of my suit. I quietly rolled the large metal box far enough to get me to the access ladder and then took off my pack so that I could fit inside the ladder cage. Ascending, I heard a muffled metallic sound coming from below and felt a rough tug on my pack line.
I pulled free and kept climbing; my pack swung a couple feet below, secured to my web belt. Reaching the top, I turned to tug my pack the rest of the way and looked down the ladder cage tunnel to the ground.
She, it . . . was almost beautiful.
It looked up at me as if gazing at a full moon. For a long moment, it did nothing. It stood about six feet tall, blond hair in a ponytail, jean shorts, and a T-shirt. It was barefoot, but, based on the V-shaped stains on its foot, I could tell it had been wearing flip-flops when it died, or maybe sandals. Its solid white eyes followed my movement from one side of the ladder to the other.
I took the Geiger from my pack and tied some line to it. Turning the volume up all the way, I lowered it down the ladder, closer to the creature below. As it cleared the metal shielding of the ladder cage, my suspicion was confirmed. The Geiger went crazy with static: The creature was putting off high levels of radiation. I lowered the Geiger even closer to it to get a better reading.
It reached for the device.
I yanked the string, pulling the Geiger away like a cat’s toy. Angered, the irradiated corpse actually climbed onto the dumpster and began to slowly ascend the ladder.
I watched, nearly frozen in terror.
The creature bared its jagged teeth and hissed as it neared. I shot it in the head and watched it pinball down the lower half of the ladder. The noise attracted two more to the area, but, based on their level of decomposition, they didn’t appear to be irradiated and didn’t seem to know I was on the roof.
Using binoculars to read street signs and referencing the electronic maps on the tablet I kept in my pack, it looked like I was in eastern Perdido Key, near Pensacola. I confirmed this when I matched the paper charts and saw the name of the marina on the map, the same one where my kayak was moored not far from the rooftop.
I powered down the tablet and plugged in the solar charger. The panels attached to the exterior of my pack served to maintain the batteries for my night optical device, tablet, comms, Geiger, and flashlights. After taking a radiation reading, I took off my hood and mask and placed an N95 mask snugly over my nose and mouth and some goggles over my eyes. I took this time to catch my breath and let the condensation on the inside of my gas mask evaporate. The radiation levels were relatively safe here on the top of the bistro.
After eating two cans of Vienna sausages, I did more reconnaissance from the rooftop in all directions. I could see the small radar dome and wind vane on the apex of Solitude’s mast to the south. Across the street to the north, a dilapidated bank—near collapse, actually. Chunks of its brick walls and every pane of glass had been blown outward long ago, along with a large circular vault door that lay halfway on the sidewalk. The bank’s blast damage was old but told a story. Mutilated undead bodies still writhed in the brick rubble below like the dying reflexes of smashed spider legs.
A bright blue duffel bag sat in stark contrast on the street near the massive rusting vault door. Some poor bastard actually thought money would get them through or help them in some way. Even in the early days, the time when John and I had first met, money was the last thing on my mind.
According to my transceiver and charts, the distress signal wasn’t far from my position. Still north by northwest. Stationary. I had approximately two miles of suburban traveling to do and
it was getting dark fast. My night optical device, or NOD, would allow me to see in the dark, but not very far and not with a very wide field of view. Jan was our resident super-nurse, and according to her and the rest of her doctor cadre, those creatures had some sort of close-range thermal vision adaptation. Knowing this, moving at night among the enhanced irradiated undead was not at the top of my list of fun things to do.
I could risk heading back to Solitude for safety, but that was nearly three hundred meters away.
Making my decision, I descended the ladder far enough to kick the dumpster out from under it and went back up to make camp for the night.
The moldy wooden pallets leaning against the bistro’s air circulator made good fuel for a small stealth fire. This was sunny Florida, but hypothermia never seemed to care. By the glowing pallet wood light, I checked and rechecked my kit for tomorrow’s trek.
Between the pops of burning wood, I could hear the undead in the streets below. I’d made a little too much noise with the suppressed shots I’d taken. The undead’s throaty moans and clumsy movement made unholy noises that cut through sanity if one let their mental guard down too long. Would I rather be in Tara’s arms, hearing the breath of my newborn nearby right now?
But there are some out here like me who will never feel at “rest” until they’re hugging a ventilation pipe on a roof somewhere in the badlands. Like those shambling creatures on the ground below, part of me had died through all this. I’d left a piece of myself out here somewhere in the ether, between what was then and what surrounds everyone now.