Welcome to Garrettland, Population ONE – Part 1 of 4

Photo by Bruno van der Kraan on Unsplash.com

Within a year of the zombie virus outbreak in 2029, nationwide martial law had been implemented. The whole country went on lockdown. Cities were cordoned off to help maintain order. Strict curfews were implemented. Food distribution networks that operated with all the stellar efficiency that one normally associates with a top-heavy, bloated bureaucracy sprang up everywhere. The first year of the zombie virus outbreak had caused the deaths of nearly 100 million Americans.

By the end of 2029, the rest world looked on, horrified, as the once-mighty United States begin to wither and die.

Many tried blaming Ivanka. But that was crazy, she was in office for what? A year maybe? By 2025, she was gone. She had done a lot of damage while she was in but then the next president had spent most of her first three months in office undoing her predecessor’s carnage.

Then, acting with all the compassion of a rabid pack of wolverines, some terrorist group or rogue faction of New America (a tiny but loud roving band of anarchistic survivalists) had bombed every major city on the west coast on July 11, 2031. Then, in 2032, the midwest and deep south were hit with several mid-size tactical nukes. Chicago and Atlanta were destroyed.

Lawless. anarchy and chaos were the new norms. Civility had, for some time seemed to be a thing of the past. But somehow, cooler heads prevailed and order and civility returned. Between the onset of the zombie pandemic that had started in the east and spread westwards and the nuclear attacks which had started in the west and began moving eastward, there was no place in the country that was free from the fallout.

By October 2034 the United States population was estimated to be hovering around an anemic 4 million. Three out of every four Americans were killed by either virus, zombie, nuke, or through the least popular option, the long, slow, dance with radiation poisoning.

In January 2035, a bruised American government reconvened with a few changes to the constitution. Some of the bigger rights were temporarily rescinded.

In April 2036 New Congress created the ZAACC – Zombie Assessment and Cleanup Coalition. Its charter mission was to find and kill every zombie in the United States. A bold mission statement. Especially when one considers that the entire population of the country had withered so drastically.

ZAACC was a skeleton crew in Washington that oversaw and coordinated the actions of satellite ‘zachs’ as they were called. In North Texas, there was the NTZAACC that fell under the auspices of ZAAC, etc.

At first, the newly formed agency had meekly asked the civilian population for volunteers. This approach had proven to be a waste of time. A population that had lived through 60 separate nuclear attacks, a zombie virus outbreak, and the ever-present threat of radiation poisoning, were for some reason, not especially eager to risk their lives to start door-to-door zombie extermination. The country felt a lot less crowded. And many of the fringe groups wanted a ‘live and let live’ philosophy to take root. The zombie group was more partial to the ‘live and eat brains’ philosophy the WV-29 had unleashed in their brain stems.

Then an idea was formed: What about using imprisoned felons? Specifically, those serving life without parole sentences? The agency would grant them an immediate pardon for their crimes contingent upon their joining ZAACC for a period not to exceed 20 years.

Others had scoffed at the idea of letting lawless criminals out of maximum security prisons, providing them with advanced tactical military training, sophisticated weapons, and setting them free in cordoned zones to begin ‘sweeping and clearing’ cities block-by-block. It felt like a recipe for disaster.

But Colonel Connor had the perfect answer to this, the STINGER; a miniature capsule injected into the neck, near the carotid artery of every felon who volunteered to work program. Each capsule was fitted with a tiny radio receiver and a tiny explosive charge. The explosive wasn’t a huge thing; it was just enough to create a problematic 4-6 inch gap in the carotid artery.

There were two positions for those that chose to volunteer. They could elect to be a sweeper or a cleaner. Sweepers went into each cordoned city and killed zombies. Then the cleaners were sent in to extract the zombie bodies, parts, blood, and gore. With the volunteers from the prison, the favorite by far was to be a sweeper.

Every team of ‘sweepers’ was provided a handler. The handler was responsible for ensuring none of them went AWOL and for keeping them equipped with supplies, ammo, food, etc.

The felon volunteer program had fared much better than calling for civilians to volunteer. Each participant would be free from imprisonment. They would be making a difference and paying their debt to society in a slightly different way than before.

ZAACC recruiting agent Keen had entered Huntsville Federal Penitentiary maximum security wing, and had arranged to meet with ‘Garrett Connor.’ On paper the ideal candidate for the program. He had served two tours in the Israeli / Palestinian conflict in 2026. He caught his wife in bed with another man and had killed them both. The judge handed down life without parole simply because of how gruesome and unrepentant the defendant had appeared. Garrett was perfect.

Garrett can remember Keen’s entire sales pitch. Well, the first half of it at least. Once Keen had promised him an early release, on that day, Garrett had simply stopped listening. Whatever contract or offer Keen pitched was as good as accepted. Garrett had angered some inmate gang and he was living on borrowed time in Huntsville anyway. Whatever little ‘cleanup’ crew of zombies Keen was talking about couldn’t be near as bad by comparison surely.

Agent Keen had paused his pitch at one point to take a drink of water.

Mistaking his pause for having concluded his deal offer, Garrett had excitedly said, “Sounds good. Where do I sign?”

Garrett was assigned to help sweep Garland in a random drawing. He had the STINGER injection, met with his other teammates, his trainers, and his handler. He took to his new life like a fish to water. And it felt good to be outside Huntsville, Garrett was also surprised to see how good it felt to be helping out.

On April 1, 2038, Garrett and his seven teammates were deployed to Garland. They were told they would be able to leave Garland when all the zombies had been killed. Killing a population of zombies is best done straight through. For logistical reasons, it was not something one could take ‘breaks’ from.

Garrett thinks it’s lucky President McConaughey had declared martial law and that the military had at least cordoned off the cities, enclosing each behind a 10-foot high barricade of steel, Constantin wire, and stakes. Otherwise, without the fencing battling a zombie invasion would’ve proven impossible he thinks. If you killed every zombie in a city, say Greenville, that had no enclosing fence or barrier, you couldn’t honestly say that the city was still zombie-free a week or even a day later. The zombies were always moving. Always looking to act out their rage upon the living.

“Remember, stay focused and frosty in there! Your drop days are every other Wednesday at a location we will send to your tablets, keep em charged ladies and gentlemen. If you need anything, think about it carefully before calling me for help. I have other teams and I’m not your babysitters. You are all competent trained sweepers, just don’t get sloppy and watch out for boredom! Anyone have any questions,” Travis says to the eight sweepers.

No one says anything. Most of them already so indoctrinated to the power differential in prison they would never dream of saying anything unless spoken to first.

“Okay, good luck in there. And remember if you, any of you, are tempted to cut and run,” Travis says, “You won’t be able to outrun your STINGER.” Travis taps the side of his neck with two fingers, reminding them of their painful injections months ago.

Several of the sweepers, gently touch their necks and wince as they remember.

All of this was twenty months ago. Ancient history. The team of eight, then seven, then six until there was just Garrett had done a fine job of clearing the city. Technological breakthroughs in audio sensor technology enabled them to go quicker as the months progressed. For a while, it seemed to Garret, every Wednesday there would be some new gadget or piece of apparatus in his weekly supply drop.

One week it was a tiny but powerful bass speaker with an MP3 recording of Highway to Hell. Garrett would place it in the center of the street, find a sheltered space from which to watch, and only then activate the speaker to begin playing its music and an astonishingly loud level for something smaller than his head. If zombies were around they would flock to the speaker. And then Garrett would do his thing from his protected vantage point.

In conjunction, the NTZAACC would deploy several drones with the most sophisticated audio technology to sweep circles around the area with the speaker at the center of the circle. If there were audible indications that there were zombies (perhaps trapped under a table, or locked in a room) the drones would relay that info to a data processing center and maps would be updated accordingly.

DECEMBER 7, 2039

Garrett carefully looks outside the empty house he slept in last night. He can’t see more than 120 degrees of the street, but he always looks before exiting a house.

Then he checks the live feeds from the two Tattle-Tells he’d left in the front yard last night. Nothing from either of them either. They looked like a video camera attached to a walking stick. Each one was equipped with sophisticated AI and image processing functions, to keep guard over their streets while the sweepers slept.

He checks the overnight activity summary report and happily notes there was no zombie activity on the street outside.

“Well there’s no time like the present,” Garrett says, lifting his pack onto his shoulders he emerges from the house. He automatically turns his torso so that his body-cam catches the metallic number house number he is exiting.

“Sweeper 3, exiting 1732 Elm. Proceeding north. Today’s objective is to continue clearing sector 5D,” he says into his headset.

“Roger that,” his handler, Travis says a few seconds later. “Stay safe out there today. It looks like a hot one. Hot days are the worst! They always make me sleepy. Being sleepy is no way to hunt zombies! Stay sharp agent Connor.”

“Thanks, will do Travis,” Garrett says as he pulls the two Tattle-Tell 500 Surveillance Cams from where he staked them on the lawn last night before bedding down. He wipes the dirt off the 4-inch stake, depresses the retract button, helps the telescoping base collapse back into the housing, and pockets both tactical cameras in an outside pocket on his pack.

As the days turned into weeks and the weeks into months, Garrett had gradually noticed begrudging respect from Travis. Garrett had thought, that like most people, Travis had pigeon-holed who Garrett was by his incarceration. Travis had done that and was less than respectful early on. But now Garrett felt almost like there was some slight admiration from his handler. Garrett was very agile, fast, and nimble. When he was on, when he was having a ‘good day,’ Garrett’s intuition was amazing, his instincts preternatural.

When a dangerous situation arose, which was more commonplace early on, less so these days, Garrett would simply respond with the intuition and grace of an Olympian. Travis recalls thinking at one point that he was about to have to return to Huntsville for a new volunteer sweeper when he watched Garrett charge headfirst into a pact of 12 zombies, both Garrett’s Glocks spitting hot lead and death. The ensuing skirmish lasted perhaps 12 seconds. When it was over Garrett had fired 15 bullets into 12 zombies (the bigger ones sometimes required two bullets), and every zombie had died their second, final death.

Travis had wanted to read him the riot act for going against protocols, but Travis also liked to watch Garrett work. It was like watching Ali box or Jordan play basketball. So, he gave Garrett more and more latitude to do his thing.

It is 7:30 AM and Garrett can tell it’s going to be a hot one. Even in December. No one was denying climate change anymore.

“Oh man I miss air conditioning,” Garrett says absently.

“Roger that,” Travis says a moment later. “I miss it too. We have fans here in CQ but all they do is blow the hot air around.”

“I thought that was Oswald’s job,” Garrett says. Oswald is Travis’s boss. He’s an officious, territorial bureaucrat and, worse, he’s a bore. He is disliked by almost everyone who works for him.

Travis laughs.

The odd irony, for the most part, electricity is out almost everywhere, yet 95% of the internet is still up! Most places are struggling with power, clean water, and hordes of zombies but ironically one can still view YouTube videos, search for stuff on Google, and some benevolent IT person at NETFLIX had hacked all user accounts to be paid permanently before the human side of the company was all let go. So free NETFLIX forever. Garrett preferred comedies and dramas to anything with suspense or gore. He’d seen and experienced enough of both that neither of them felt ‘entertaining’ anymore. Watching an episode of The Walking Dead pales in comparison to living an episode, day after day after day.

Garrett pulls his tablet from a pocket at the top of his pack. He flicks the power switch. A drop of sweat hits the screen. Not even 8 in the morning and he’s sweating already. He sets a mental reminder to purify some more water before noon.

Hot, sultry, boring, eventless days were dangerous. They made it impossible to not feel sleepy.

Tediously clearing house after house, building after building, car after car, you get the idea. It’s monotonous. The repetitiveness lulls you into a stupor. Like a gentle, mind-numbing form of hypnosis. The tedium, monotony, and loneliness of this job can kill you. Not as in you die from boredom. But when you get very bored, your imagination kicks in, you start to daydream, fantasize about other places, about how nice it would be to see another human. Or you start to think that maybe you’ve finished your job, that now the city is zombie-free. Gradually, imperceptibly, your guard drops. Then you’re just daydreaming as you lethargically shuffle up and down the endless, hot streets. Then you walk into a zombie or twelve and you die horribly.

Garrett bounces up and down on the balls of his feet to get his blood flowing. To shake away his lethargy. 

Garrett unlocks his tablet and rechecks his progress status. The map shows the current sector he’s clearing. Most of the area is grayed out, already cleared. He zooms in and sees a sliver of white. A tiny alley waiting to be cleared.

He hates alleys. Every sweeper hates alleys.

Back in 28, after the virus first hit and folks finally realized it wasn’t yet another variant of covid-24, homeowners got serious about home protection. Nearly every house put up a heavy, thick heavy fence, more like a wall.

The top of each sturdy fence was usually topped with metal stakes (carefully painted to match the wall) and a new type of barbed wire (some ingenious entrepreneur had created a new way of manufacturing it to look like a harmless bit of ivy). Such precautions weren’t put in place to deceive the zombies. Those infected, killed, and reanimated by the virus were filled with rage and had an insatiable hunger for human flesh. They never paid any attention to danger or their safety. The camouflage techniques were put in place because most folks didn’t need daily reminders they were living in a decimated war zone. They got that when they turned on the news.

So the ever familiar, ubiquitous alley, innocuous, mundane, commonplace; went from being banal features of suburbs to potential deathtraps. If you meet a group of zombies in an alley you had to fall back. And if you were unlucky enough to turn around only to see a second group at the opposite end, then you had a problem. All sweepers could climb safely over the ‘accessorized’ fences – it was part of their training. But it was tricky going and it took time. With zombies quickly approaching from both sides, a sweeper would not be a great time to try climbing over a wall. Plus once over the fence, you might not know what you’d find there if you hadn’t checked the yard beyond first.

No alleys were one of the worst, tactically dangerous locations for a sweeper. Garret knew this as well as anyone.

Of the seven other members of his team, Bobby, Samantha, Gerald, Harold, Tessa, Frank, and Kiky, four of them bought it in alleys. Bobby went first, then Frank, Harold, and Samantha on Valentine’s Day this year, just ten months ago. Each had let themselves get trapped in an alley.

Bobby was the first to die in an alley trap. He had been in Garland only three days before finding himself boxed in an alley, zombies approaching him from both ends.

Each sweeper carries a reservoir of tiny explosive charges for taking down an alley fence when deemed necessary. Now it might seem like a brilliant strategy to simply blow one of the fences down when facing such a scenario. Bobby thought so. But what Bobby forgot was that the experts felt certain that the zombies could go dormant for years. Dormant, they were much harder to detect. They were silent, immobile, in a sort of zombie hibernation.

Fellow sweepers, to help ward off boredom, to help keep each other on their toes, stay in regular radio contact with each other throughout the day. Garrett had been on the radio with each of his seven team members when they died.

He had sounded panicked on the radio. Tessa suggested blowing a fence. Then Gerald had reminded him to at least listen for activity on the other side first.

Bobby had stepped forward pressed his ear to a wall even as his hands were already placing the precise pattern of explosive-shaped charges to bring it down. Hearing nothing, he took a few steps and blew the charges the wall fell inward, just as it was supposed to.

Bobby was up and moving even as the fence toppled into the backyard. The water in the inground swimming pool was almost black. There had been a pool party here once. A pool party where someone had perhaps left a door open and somehow at least one zombie had gotten into the house and then into the pool area. One of the guests must have locked the doors to the pool area because all the zombies had been locked on the patio for twelve years. After a year of being left out in the rain, hot Texas sun, icy cold winters, the zombies just fell into their dormant state.

The zombies had stayed dormant on that patio for years. All twenty-four of them.

Lying on the chaise lounges, sitting in rattan, wicker chairs, and leaning against the fence where they had spent every single day of the past six years. Just chilling and waiting for a sweeper named Bobby to show up and be dinner.

From the sounds coming from each of their radios, it sounded to Bobby’s teammates as if the dormant zombies came out of their hibernation mode fast. The two groups of zombies meet at the newly felled fence and joined the twenty-four party-goers. Bobby never had a chance. After a while, I had to turn the volume down as it was over, and very surprising that, yes, we sweepers could die for real in here.

“Looks like two dozen of em … Oh god, they’re waking up! Going to try to reach the house,” were the last words Bobby had said into his radio. After that, it was just screaming.

Garrett reaches the end of the alley, He’s ensured that the backs of the houses are all sealed and will circle to the front and clear all these houses from the front.

As he turns right on Elm, he sees a raggedy figure 40 yards ahead, walking quickly. He pulls his rifle, flips the safety off, and follows the figure. He brings his rifle up, begins sighting a shot. It’s hard to hit a moving target in the head from 40 yards so he quickens his pace to close the gap. His stealth boots aren’t totally quiet so he moves onto the lawns to further silence his rapid approach. The figure reaches an intersection and the figure looks around. Garrett just makes it behind a bush when she turns.

The tiny figure with long red hair looks both ways at the intersection then darts across the street and enters a warehouse building. FurCo. It used to be an office furniture store.

“Trav, you there? You ever see a zombie look both ways before crossing a street?” Garrett asks.

“Nah, not after … what’s it been since Garland fell? Like four years? There were some stories about such muscle memory type things early on. But those behaviors all seemed to disappear after the third day of reanimation. Why? You think you found a straggler?”

Straggler, what ENTZAACC and the sweepers in the cities called an abandoned, survivor.

“Well possibly. I nearly put a bullet in its head but then it looked both ways before crossing a street. I’m following it, umm … excuse me, her now. It looks like a female to me. She looks young. Sweeper three out.”

Garrett smiles and thinks ‘If there’s another human in here, I will have to update the WELCOME sign! Two months after Samantha, the last teammate died – also in an alley – on Valentine’s Day this year, he’d noticed a Welcome to Garland sign at the edge of the sector he was sweeping. He found a spray can of paint and changed the sign to fit his wishes.

Welcome to GarrettGarland! Population 315,639, ONE!!

Of course, the census figure, that Garrett had spray-painted over, was wildly inaccurate but the government taking a new count of people was way down on its priority list.

Garret reaches the warehouse. Presses his ear to the warm metal wall listens for sounds within. Luckily this side of the building is still in the shade at least. He peers through the glass doors, sees nothing, decides to try it.

Slowly the glass door opens. He peers in.

“Hello, are you okay little … girl?” he says as gently as he knows how. “I’m not going to hurt you. I’m here by the government. I’m cleaning your city up. But right now it’s not safe for you … we need to get you …” 

He rises from his crouch.

“This is ridiculous, she’s not here,” Garrett says softly to the empty room.

He looks around. This must have been a small reception room. There are half a dozen blue chairs against a featureless, white wall facing a smaller desk, no doubt where the receptionist sat awkwardly and tried to not make eye contact at those waiting just a few feet away. The ceiling is lowered.

At the north end of the room, opposite the entrance, a hallway extending east and west.

From the left, Garrett hears a small click like a door shutting, the latch clicking.

He pulls his gun but remembers this is almost certainly a young girl and not a flesh-eating, rage-filled killing machine, reholsters it on his hip.

The hall ends 20 yards from the reception area. On his right, is the door that was shut. There is no window so Garrett opens the door as slowly as it’s ever been opened. He slips inside and guides the door slowly shut to not produce the tell-tale click sound and startling or scaring the girl.

The room he is in has the ceiling far overhead. All around the edge of the room are piles of furniture, previous inventory, but the shelves had all been pushed flush against the walls. Whoever had ‘camped’ here in the past didn’t like the idea of all the ‘halls’ created by the rows and rows of tall shelves and had pushed them against the walls. Garrett thinks that was a good idea.

He sees one lone pile of furniture in the center of the enormous room. Something stirring there?

It’s gotta be her.

He takes a few quiet steps, decides it is her, changes his approach.

“Hey! Little girl.”

She turns, tense as a steel spring. Her upraised index finger at her lips.

But it’s already too late.

IDIOT! Garrett thinks to himself. He’s made the biggest error and Travis would be very upset. He failed to personally clear the room before letting his guard down.

Instead, Garrett has assumed that if the young girl (she looks younger than twelve he thinks) had survived this long in zombie-infested Garland, that she must have cleared the room herself. If you survived that long here, then you must have intuitively figured out such things even if you didn’t describe it in NTZAACC terms like ‘clear’, ‘sweeper’, ‘straggler’ etc.

Behind him and to his right he hears a bunch of shuffling, he looks over and sees a group of twelve zombies slowly approaching him.

Which way does he go? To his left are half the room’s shelving units shoved against the eastern wall. Lots of spaces in which to hide but that sword cuts both ways. So that’s out, there could be more nesting or even dormant zombies there. That’s out.

He doesn’t want to go forward and draw the group towards the young girl.

To the right is out of course.

If he retreats out of the room, he runs the risk of the group pursuing her.

BANG! He no longer has to choose a direction. The young girl has fired a gun into the ceiling and begun shouting!

“Yo! Hey dumbasses! You stupid monsters! Look at me! I’m fresh and tender. He’s old, he’s probably even thirty!”

Garrett cringes, he was thirty-two.

“I bet he tastes like dog food by now! Catch me if you can!” She fires once more this time at the group. She catches one in the arm that spins the character ninety degrees. She begins slowly jogging towards the north wall.

She’s going to be trapped … but then Garrett sees the tiny exit there.

She’s luring them away from him? She’s the straggler, she’s the child, she’s the untrained civilian but she is saving him?

Garrett has dozens of unanswered questions darting around in his brain. He wants very much to meet this girl. He likes her already. But she might not feel the same. He was the one who made the biggest rookie mistake one could make! He should know better.

She is still jogging towards the small white door, looking over her shoulder trying to gauge whether she needs to fire another one of her precious bullets to save the bumbling moron’s life or not. Fortunately, the group seems all too happy to chase the smaller human.

Garrett watches silently as the last of the zombies stagger through the tiny white door. The girl had smartly propped it open when she passed through.

He rushes to the door, exits it, guns drawn. The zombies are milling about aimlessly in the middle of a large unloading zone for trucks. The girl is gone! She is as agile and as quick as Garrett! He looks all around but sees no trace of her. He steps forward and quickly dispenses with the zombies. Garrett re-enters the warehouse, removes the soda can she had used to lodge the door open, and lets the door shut. While he’s here he decides to go ahead and finish clearing the building. He finds no more zombies in FurCo.

Once the warehouse is cleared he knows it is pointless, but he makes one pass around the warehouse just to make sure she’s not hanging around. She isn’t. But now he has a temporarily new mission. He needs to find her. She may be smart, she may be agile, but she is still a child. Garrett knows he must get her out of Garland!

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