Chapter 11: Ari Levin, November 6, Year 1

People travel back-and-forth from Fortress Salt Lake to New Zion almost every day but Sunday. Since all travelers kill zombies on sight, there weren’t very many left along the way. Radio towers were spaced closely enough together along I-15 to keep the road between the two cities clear of vampires.

It’s a different proposition going north from Fortress Salt Lake. Only SaLTs and scavenge crews go north with any frequency, and there are still lots of zombies on the roads. There were only two radio towers between Fortress Salt Lake and Twin Falls, and no towers at all past Twin Falls.

I practiced Z-sticking whenever it was convenient. I’m getting a lot better with practice but it still takes a lot out of me to skewer zombies with a spear, and it’s harder on Harvey. On Z-sticking days, we didn’t get very far because we both had to rest.

Every evening, I prepared a secure camp. Zombies generally stay where they reanimated, so as long as I camped out in places that didn’t have a lot of pre-outbreak traffic, I didn’t get bothered much at night. The couple of times that a zombie or two found my camp, Harvey always woke me up in time to put them down with my Buckmark.

When I was within forty miles of a radio tower, I didn’t worry all that much about vampires. Yeah, there was still at least one uber-vampire who could resist the siren call of the radio towers, but I’d only seen signs of him near New Zion and the odds of me running across him out here were exceedingly low. If I wasn’t the kind that was comfortable with a little bit of risk, I wouldn’t be here.

When I was out of range of a radio tower, I needed some place where I’d have some warning before a vampire could get to me. This meant I had to camp out in a well-made masonry building with a steel roof, which also meant that I had to clean out the local zombies.

Before the outbreak, the US Army used the M24 Sniper Weapons System. It’s a ‘System’ because it includes rifle, scope, and accessories like night vision optics. The standard M24A2 or M24E1 takes the .300 Win Mag; the M24A3 uses the .338 Lapua Magnum that comes out of the barrel with twenty percent more down-range whack than the .300. The M24A3 is my ‘I don’t wanna carry a Barrett’ anti-material/extreme long distance sniper rifle. The only downsides to this rifle are the scarcity of the Lapua Magnum rounds and the recoil, which is a bitch.

I slept next my M24A3. With a few seconds warning, I was confident I could put a .338 through any vampire’s center of mass and knock him on his ass long enough for me to get a head shot. Sometimes, it’d take a while to find the right building, and I also had to forage for food and water for Harvey and me.

It took two months to travel three hundred and forty miles.

For the first six weeks, I had a good time. It was a relief to just be me and shed the role playing. I’d almost forgotten who the real me was. By the seventh week, the charm of sleeping in a new place every night, no hot showers, and having to be creative and resourceful in my ass-wipe choices was wearing off. By then I also remembered why I love playing roles; the real me is boring.

I really started missing my family breakfast with all my wives and kids. I wanted to talk to Alice about what was going on in New Zion. I missed Janelle waking me up in the middle of the night because she was horny, Esther’s sense of humor, Catrina’s cooking, and how relaxed and comfortable Miriam made me feel. It was ironic; I’d gone on vacation so I could get my family out of my head and I wound up missing them more than ever.

I had half a mind to just turn around and go back to New Zion the last week, but then as I got closer to Boise things started getting fun again.

On Z-day, forty percent of the US population transformed into zombies within minutes of each other. If you knew the pre-outbreak population numbers, you had a very good idea of how many zombies there should be.

According to Sally, it was common knowledge in Fortress Salt Lake that there just weren’t enough zombies in Boise. Mark Jones was getting antsy about it, and the SaLT Air Force had been running recon overflights of Boise with no results. For the last two days as I approached Boise, I didn’t see a single zombie.

There was definitely something going on in this town. Possibilities flitted through my head. I hadn’t been so curious about what might come next for a long time. It reminded me of the first time I’d walked into a CIA training center.

I approached Boise from the southeast, taking a route that paralleled I-84. It’s hard to be sneaky on a horse, so I left Harvey out at the Lucky Peak State Recreational Area several miles outside of Boise. Even though I hadn’t seen zombie one lately, I didn’t want to take the chance so I didn’t tie him up or hobble him. Horses are herd animals, and in the last couple of months I’d become part of Harvey’s herd. Henry Stevens rightly claimed Harvey was the best horse he’d ever trained, and as long as I came back in a day or two, I was reasonably sure he’d be waiting for me.

I left my saddle and most of my equipment in a public restroom with an intact roof and windows, and took just a CamelBak, rifle, Buckmark pistol, and some specialized lightweight survival equipment I’ve found useful in the past.

From the recreational area, I hiked along Boise’s northeast perimeter where it butted up against a mountain range. A couple times, I climbed up a gully where I wouldn’t be skylined to get a bird’s eye view of the city. I didn’t see much—just an empty city.

When it got dark, I headed west down into the city through a park on the foothills of the mountain. As I moved toward the Capitol, I checked out a couple of houses along the way. There was no food, firearms, or ammo in any of them; no surprises there. What didn’t make sense was that the salvage crews who’d been through these homes hadn’t taken cigarettes, booze, or jewelry—and even diehard Mormons will take jewelry.

As I picked my way slowly into the city, I avoided the streets wherever I could by cutting through backyards and alleyways. From certain vantage points, I could see parts of the city below me.

It was about an hour past sunset when the Capital building and all the other multi-story buildings around it spewed out streams of people. I was still some distance away and there wasn’t enough light to see the people clearly, but there was something unnatural about them. It took me a couple seconds to figure out what; their personal spaces were too tight.

Different cultures have different conventions regarding personal space. The typical American becomes uncomfortable if a stranger gets within four feet; Middle Easterners are fine at half that distance. When I first started working deep infiltration in Afghanistan, I had to fight my instinct to back up every time a local invaded my space to talk to me. But even Middle Easterners don’t get as close together as these guys did.

Many of them moved their arms and legs in unison. It was creepy; it was like one of those highly choreographed North Korean demonstrations. They reminded me of army ants swarming out of their nest. I watched them separate into different groups, and tendrils of them started walking west and south.

Luckily, none of them headed my way. I understood why when I saw them enter buildings and come out with supplies; they’d already cleaned out all of the homes here. They had a definite division of labor; there were smaller groups of twenty to fifty people that were clearly guards with weapons ready, and much larger groups of several hundred people doing salvage work. Again, they reminded me of insects—soldier ants and worker bees. I had to get a better look.

I was next to a single story house; I climbed up the back side onto the roof and set myself up so only my head, rifle, and one arm were exposed. Were these insect people even human? A world that has zombies and vampires could have other monsters too.

My night scope has GEN-III OMNI-VII light intensification technology with an automatic gate power supply that instantly adjusted to changes in ambient light; unlike most other MIL-SPEC scopes, it could also pick up thermal images. The insect people had typical human heat signatures.

I turned off the thermal imager, set my night vision scope at the highest magnification, and panned the crowd nearest me. I was slightly disappointed; the people looked like normal Americans with the same exact blank facial expression and the same perfect posture—okay, well maybe not ‘normal’.

I was scoping a guard when he turned and looked right in my direction, almost as if he was staring straight at me. No way—it was too dark, he was way too far away, and I was just a bump on a roof. I dialed down the magnification. CRAP! All of the guards in this group were staring right at me. As one, they started running my way. I got off the scope and took a quick glance. Now there were hundreds of guards running my way.

In general, I live by the rule that if you take care of your tools, they’ll take care of you—but there are times when your stuff can get you killed. The M24A3 with scope, suppressor, and sling weighs seventeen pounds. It takes a five round magazine and I had two extra mags on my belt. This rifle with night scope and suppressor is a wonderful weapon and very possibly irreplaceable in this post-outbreak world But there was no way fifteen rounds—even fifteen rounds of.338 Lapua Magnum were going to help me now; nothing short of an airstrike would stop these guys. I had to ditch the gun. Dammit!

It was bad enough that I had to leave the gun; I wasn’t about to let an ant pop me with it. I emptied the chamber and magazine and pocketed the ammo. It took half a second to pull the bolt; that’d go with me too. I thought about trashing the scope, but maybe I’d be able to recover it when all this was over. Instead, I pulled the batteries and pocketed them too.

Feet first, I skittered down the roof on all fours, grabbed the gutter with two hands, hung for a split second, and then dropped to the ground. The first soldier ant made my head and rifle in the dark from a mile away, but unless they also had kryptonite-powered X-ray vision, they wouldn’t see me behind the house.

Hundreds of them were following me. If they were as methodical about hunting me as they were about going through homes for food and weapons, it probably wasn’t a good idea to try to hide in one of the abandoned buildings.

The guards were running toward me from the south and west. They started from about a mile away and I figured they were moving at a six-minute mile pace, which is damn fast for anyone carrying a rifle. I had no idea if the soldier ants could keep it up for an entire mile but it’s always safer to overestimate your enemy’s capabilities.

Ever since I left Fortress Salt Lake, I’ve been studying the maps I’d bought of Idaho and Boise. I visualized a map’s eye view of where I was in the city. Mountains lay to the north and east about a half mile or so away, and the Boise River paralleled the mountains about two miles east and south of me. When anything’s chasing you, it’s natural to run away in a straight line, and the best thing about ‘natural’ is that it’s predictable. I ran due west toward the Boise River. I gambled that the ants chasing me from the west would head directly for the last place they’d seen me rather than running straight north and then east to cut me off.

When I absolutely have to, I can run a five and a half minute mile, and I ran as if my life depended on it. Gambling is only fun when you have something important on the line. When you’re betting your own life, winning is the best rush in the world.

It’s a sad commentary on the choices I tend to make, but this wasn’t the first time I’ve had crowds play ‘Chase the Infidel’ with me. I knew when I hiked into Boise that I might need an escape route and I also knew that Boise has a river. One of the lightweight pieces of survival gear I’d brought with me was a custom made snorkel that was molded and colored to look like a piece of drift wood.

I waded into the river, put the snorkel in my mouth, submerged myself completely and started drifting with the current to the northwest. The water temperature was the same as the ambient air temp—in the low fifties.

Within thirty minutes, hypothermia will kill the average person in water this cold, but Navy Seals and Pacific Open Water Swimmers often spend hours in water colder than this without any problem.

Former Navy Seals are the cockroaches of US Black Ops; they come out of the walls when it gets dark and are impossible to eradicate. Spend enough time with them and it’s inevitable one of them will invite you for some cold-water fun.

The most annoying Former Seal I ever met was Chief Petty Officer Matthew ‘Goose’ Timmons; a cocky, walking, talking, tobacco-spitting bundle of ‘tougher-than-thou’. One winter when we were in Northern California and the water temperature was forty-eight degrees he graciously invited me to join him for a dip in the Pacific Ocean. We ended up swimming ten miles in three hours, and we only stopped because he started cramping up. The fact that that a non-SEAL, non-SF, trained-solely-by-the-CIA pansy beat him pissed him off no end.

I laughed and asked him if all the cold water had made his pussy hurt.

He refused to believe that I’d never done any cold water swimming before that, but for once I was telling the truth. What I didn’t tell him was I’d done something very similar when I was a civilian: I used to firewalk as part of my magic act.

I was fourteen when I saw my first firewalker. I was certain it was a trick until I started researching it. According to the article I found on Microsoft Encarta, glowing coals are poor thermal conductors. The average human is sixty percent water, and water takes a while to heat up. The article stated that as long as only the soles of the feet contact the coals and don’t stay in contact for too long, firewalking is perfectly safe.

The article didn’t say ‘and folks, don’t try this at home’; that weekend I fired up a bag Kingsford’s finest. I burned the crap out of the soles of both feet. While I was healing, I did a little more research and found out that a lot wannabe firewalkers get burned. I learned that most successful firewalkers get into a semi-trance state before they walk barefoot over burning coals. Firewalking is usually a group activity—some sort of religious ceremony or corporate team-building exercise; scientific studies have repeatedly shown that successful firewalking teams have synchronized heartbeats and brain waves.

There’s a rational non-mystical basis to firewalking, but to do it effectively your head has to be in the right place. The only way I could do it was to tell myself that I loved it, that this was just so much fucking fun, and that it made me a better man than every other dipshit who couldn’t do what I could do.

In the past, the ability to infiltrate and exfiltrate in water that’s ‘too cold to survive in’ has been extremely useful, and smart money said that this could be one of those times. I got my head in the exact same place I’d had it when I’d gone swimming in the Pacific with Goose Timmons and considered all the fun I was about to have.

The water in the Boise River is fairly clear now, especially since there’s been no industrial pollution or run-off in the last year. If I’d tried this during the day, someone standing on a bridge would see me no problem. But it was night now and there was no way anyone could see me … but the soldier ant had made me while I was hunkered down behind the peak of a roof, in the dark, from a mile away … Oh my God, this was going to be so much fucking fun!

Go to Chapter 12.