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And we’re back.
This book is dedicated with joy and gratitude to Kathryn Daugherty and Leslie Stewart.
There are so many sides to every story.
The two of you helped so much in writing mine.
It’s not what’s true that matters. It’s what people remember when the dust dies down.
You haven’t experienced real joy until the first time you’ve improvised a zombie trap from six yards of chicken wire, a bunch of old lumber, some string, and a guinea pig. I mean damn, people. That’s living.
—AISLINN “ASH” NORTH
My mother was a goddamn national hero.
She lived in Oakland before the Rising, and she was there when everything started going down. Just her, my grandma, and four kids. I was the youngest. Four years old, full of piss and vinegar and random fits of defiance. Too big to keep locked in a playpen, too small to understand what was happening, or why Mama cried all the time, or why the apartment was suddenly full of guns and strangers. I don’t remember much about those days. It’s just flashes, little glimpses of things my mind has mercifully decided I don’t really need to know.
I had two brothers once. I know that. I still have a sister. She was seven in 2014, and she wrapped herself around me like a blanket, and we both rode out the storm.
The world will never know what my mama did to save us. Just trust me: She was a hero.
We buried her this morning. Her name will never appear on the Wall.
—From That Isn’t Johnny Anymore, the blog of Ben Ross,
May 16, 2039
The world isn’t so good with funerals anymore.
Deaths, sure; we have plenty of those. We can give you death in any shape or size you want. Good death, bad death, slow death, fast death—the modern world is the fucking Amazon.com of dying. Maybe it wasn’t like that before the Rising hit and the dead started to walk, but hey, guess what: All that shit happened, and now we’re the rats in the wreckage, living and dying in the aftermath of our parents’ mistakes.
2014. That was the year when everything changed, when a bunch of bored jerks broke into a lab and let a nifty synthetic virus out into the world to have a party in the stratosphere. Only the virus didn’t stay up there, where it wasn’t hurting anybody. It dropped back down to Earth and got to work infecting people. Maybe that would have been cool—I’ve never had a head cold or a stuffy nose, and I understand that those were right annoying—but it met up with another nifty synthetic virus, and the two of them hit it off right away. They got right to the business of having babies, and like all babies, these ones took after both sides of the family. They got their airborne daddy’s communicability. They got their slower, stealthier mama’s adaptability. And then they got the world as a birthday present. Where Kellis-Amberlee walked, the dead got up and joined in the fun.
So yeah, we’re real good at dying. Every human on this planet has been in a full-time immersion course on the subject since the summer of 2014. What we’re not good at is burying our dead without putting a bullet between their eyes first.
I’d been waiting across the street from the funeral home for the better part of an hour, fussing with the hem of my floral sundress and wishing for an excuse to go do something else. Anything else. Taxes? I’m there. Trip to the licensing board to explain why my tracker sometimes went offline for no apparent reason? Okay, I’m your girl. Cleaning out my in-boxes on the various social media sites that I was supposedly curating for the team? All right, let’s not push it. Although it still might have been easier on my nerves.
Loitering has been illegal essentially forever, even before the Rising, although it used to be more erratically prosecuted. People got more nervous about it once we started coexisting with zombies, since now the weird guy who’s been standing on the corner for the last hour watching the traffic lights change is potentially getting ready to eat you and your entire family. The patrol cars had been circling the block with increasing frequency, and I was pretty sure all the local CCTV cameras were focused on me, waiting for the moment when I did something actionable. Again, technically, loitering was actionable: I was breaking the law by staying exactly where I was. But the local cops would have needed to get out of their vehicles to mess with me, and that would have put them out in the open. Nobody likes being out in the open.
Well. Most people don’t like being out in the open. The majority of the human population would be perfectly happy living and dying in hermetically sealed little rooms, never seeing the outside world again. Most people are pretty terrible, really.
A patrol car appeared around the corner, slowing until it was creeping along at maybe three miles per hour, the officers inside watching me suspiciously through the closed window. They were getting bolder, which meant they were getting ready to ask why I was mooching around the streets alone, with no visible weaponry. I stayed where I was, crouched gargoyle-style atop a weird modern art piece that had been installed to commemorate local victims of the Rising, and dipped a hand into my purse.
Before the dead walked, that sort of thing could have gotten me killed. Reaching into a bag while under police surveillance was likely to be interpreted as reaching for a gun—and back then, just having a firearm in the presence of the cops was considered a totally valid reason for them to start shooting. If the Rising hadn’t happened when it did, the police would probably have triggered a civil war. That would have been even nastier than the zombies, if you ask me. At least zombies were acting on hunger and instinct and blind need, not racism and paranoia and carefully nurtured power trips.
The patrol car slowed to a stop as I pulled out my license and held it out for both them and the nearest cameras to see. The thumbnail photo of me had been taken right after a bad haircut and a worse bar fight, which was why I kept it: Given my line of work, if someone was ever trying to identify my body it was a pretty sure thing that I’d be covered in bruises and rocking some seriously hideous hair.
“Aislinn North, journalist, license number IQL-33972.” The “I” identified me as a journalist of foreign origin, granted permission to work on American soil. “I’m waiting for my colleague, Benjamin Ross, who is currently engaged in a legal visit to the Oumet Brothers Funeral Home.” I nodded meaningfully toward the building on the other side of the street. “This is a public street. I don’t have to file any paperwork to be here, and as a licensed journalist, I’m exempt from local vagrancy and loitering restrictions. Now shoo. I’m working.”
I grinned, revealing the gap where my left incisor had been prior to a nasty encounter with a man who thought that running a zombie dog-fighting ring would be a great way to spend his twilight years. Ben always says I’d be more photogenic and pull better ratings if I got it fixed, but Ben can stuff it. I don’t have the time or patience to mess around with dentures and bridges, and given the odds and how I tend to do my job, I’ll probably be a zombie someday. Being a zombie with unbreakable titanium implants in my mouth seems like an asshole thing to do. Besides, I hate dentists. They act lik
The policemen stared at me, mouths open and eyes wide, before hitting the gas and roaring down the road, probably breaking several municipal speed laws in the process. I didn’t know for sure. Northern California’s weird local regulations were a little outside of my comfort zone. Give me a small town in the Irish countryside, surrounded by rolling hills and burial mounds, and I’m your girl. Give me a city that should have been abandoned during the Rising, where the skyscrapers are just one more excuse for people to lock themselves away from the natural world, and I can rock it. But the suburbs of California? Nah. Unsafe, uncool, and not my favorite place to kill an afternoon.
The doors of the funeral home opened as the mourners began emerging. There was no reception line for people to tell the family how sorry they were: That had been handled inside, followed by the line for the blood tests that would clear them to go back out into the world. No one looked around or even hesitated as they beelined for their respective cars, unlocking the doors, sliding inside, and shutting themselves in the latest in the series of boxes that defined their lives. I would have been impressed by how efficient they were, if I hadn’t been so busy shaking my head at their cowardice.
“World didn’t end when the virus hit, you assholes,” I muttered, shifting positions atop the statue. The bronze was warm where it touched my skin. I could have stayed where I was all day long, bored but comfortable.
Fortunately, I didn’t have to. The crowd finished flooding into the parking lot, and there was a moment of chaos while they all tried to leave at the same time, cramming their cars into the exit without stopping to think about the fact that this was going to slow everybody down. I tapped the camera attached to my dress strap, zooming in on gridlock. The footage might be useful for something later, if I could go for a tight enough focus to keep people from realizing that it had been shot at a funeral home. No one likes to be reminded of the finality of death, and footage that forces that reminder never plays well. Kinda ironic, given how well the finality of death plays for an audience when it’s up and walking around, taking bites out of the neighbors. A good zombie video is still money in the bank, even all these years after the end of the old world and the beginning of the new.
The last car pulled away. The funeral home was still, save for a few crows that had landed on the lawn and were now pecking at the grass. They took wing, cawing frantically, as the door swung open one last time and a tall, angular black man in an even blacker suit stepped out, his hand up to shield his eyes from the sun.
I didn’t wave. I didn’t move. Ben was always trying to take in as much of his environment as he could. His defense against the so-called glare was just as likely to be his attempt to steal a moment to get the lay of the land. That was my cue to blend in as much as I could, settling into the deep, utterly practiced stillness that had seen me through my childhood.
Ben scanned the street for a few seconds before his eyes focused on me. Raising one hand, he signed “okay” in my direction, signaling that I had been well and truly spotted. I nodded, coming out of my crouch and sliding down from the statue.
The soft thump when I hit the sidewalk was almost obscured by the sound of wind rustling through the eucalyptus trees. I reached up and patted my former perch fondly. Much as I’d hated being here, the statue had been a good place to kill the afternoon, and I was going to miss it, at least until I found something else to sit on, some new high ground to claim. There was always new high ground. It was all a matter of knowing how to look for it.
“Ash,” said Ben, once he was close enough to speak without shouting. He never did enjoy raising his voice, not even in an emergency. “Any trouble?”
“Some local cops got a trifle too interested in me when I didn’t move for an hour, but I showed them my license and they moved on,” I said. “I’m guessing I’ll have a ping from the licensing board by the weekend, reminding me that the police are not here for my amusement and should be treated with respect. Aside from that, there was nothing. No shamblers, no ramblers, no major local alerts. We missed a few little stories. Someone broke into a mini-mart near Mount Diablo—they named the mountain after the devil, Ben, this is where you’ve brought me—and someone else started a fire when they tried to cremate their dead parakeet. Nothing worth chasing. Hell, I wouldn’t even have turned my camera on if we’d been there.”
Now Ben looked amused, despite the pain lurking in his dark eyes. He was asking about the news because that was who he was: That was how he coped. I was less clear on why I was going along with it. Ben might be all about repression, but I’ve never seen the point of it.
Maybe that’s why we’re still married, apart from all the nonsense with immigration and then his mum getting sick and everything. I’m afraid that if I divorced him without someone else standing ready to take my place as terrible influence, he’d crawl into his own head and never come out again.
“You know,” he said, “I don’t think I’ve ever seen you turn your cameras off.”
“True,” I said, blithely. “Did you know that border guards have scramblers in their collars to keep their faces from showing up on video? It’s like they think people would illegally film the customs process.”
Ben raised an eyebrow.
“This is where you point out that one, I do illegally film the customs process, and two, Mat unscrambles that sort of shit in their sleep, and so what’s the big deal? I’ll tell you what the big deal is, Ben. The big deal is how it shows an essential lack of faith in the population.” I crossed my arms and pouted as exaggeratedly as I could. “Am I not an American citizen now? Do I not deserve the benefit of the doubt?”
“You’ve been an American citizen for less than two years,” said Ben. “Talk to me again once you’ve been tapped for jury duty and lost a week to sitting in a little box, staring at a bunch of grandstanding attorneys who see you as their ticket to a top-rated Internet talk show.”
I snorted, but I didn’t argue. The fondness of attorneys for shoving journalists in their jury box was well documented, even if being a journalist had been a get-out-of-jury-free card before the Rising. Making us serve was a way to punish us for our tendency to film whatever the hell we wanted—which had led to a whole lot of convictions over the years, including a few murder cases, which had become notoriously hard to prosecute since Johnston’s Law made manslaughter impossible in high-hazard zones and Willis’s Law made “he was a zombie when I shot him” a valid defense. Kellis-Amberlee activated in the blood almost instantly upon disruption of the body’s electrical systems, no matter what caused the disruption. Shoot somebody in the forehead and they’d die without reanimating, but any blood tests you cared to do would still show that boy howdy, they’d sure been a zombie when you took them out. Naughty, naughty zombies, always trying to eat the living.
Journalists screwed that up. Journalists did weird shit like strapping cameras to crows in order to get overhead shots of the city, and sometimes that meant we turned a misdemeanor “you shouldn’t discharge an unlicensed firearm after nine o’clock in a school zone” into a rare felony “you shouldn’t kill people, it’s rude.” So the attorneys made us suffer for our sins whenever they could, knowing we’d chase the story as soon as the verdict was in and we were legally allowed to get into the meat of it. Sometimes that made the attorneys look like heroes, because it was a better story that way. Sometimes it got them out of their crappy public service jobs and into something cushy and media-related, where they never had to be in an open courtroom again. Either way, it wasted a lot of our time, and that was what they lived for.
Ben rubbed his face. “No word from Mat?”
“Mat’s busy,” I said. Mat was always busy. A planet-buster comet could be falling from the sky and the people of Earth could be scrambling for their shelters, and Mat would hold up a hand and say “Sorry, come back later, this hard drive isn’t going to r
“You shouldn’t drink violet milkshakes,” said Ben. “Nothing consumable should be that shade of purple.”
“And yet I drink them anyway. Come on, Ben. Let’s go to Berkeley and have something nice before we head home. You can have boring vanilla and pretend it makes you morally superior. Maybe we’ll get lucky and a bunch of zombies will attack the soda fountain while we’re there, and then we can be Johnny on the spot for a story right in the middle of the Masons’ home territory. Can you imagine the looks on their faces?” I was laying it on a little thick, but that didn’t matter as much as getting Ben to agree to do something—anything—apart from heading home and wallowing in his sorrow.
Wallowing is dangerous. Wallow too much and you can forget what it means to do anything else. Maybe that’s not so bad for some people, the ones who live in gated subdivisions with guards at the gate and snipers standing at the ready, but for people like us? People who go out into the world and bring back the facts of the matter, whatever those facts happen to be? Wallowing gets us killed. There’s no room for grief in this post-Rising world, where bodies are cremated as soon as they hit the ground to keep them from getting up and going for the people they used to love. There’s only room for moving on, putting the sadness behind us, and letting the world back in. It sucks, sure, but it’s the kind of suck that keeps people alive.