The red phone with its rotary dial and curly cue cord running from the handset to the base is a blatant anachronism in a world of smart phones, video conferencing, and the internet. My first day in the department I thought it was some non-functioning antique kept strictly for nostalgic decoration since the office area once served as the headquarters for a Cold War unit tasked to prepare for the unthinkable almost a hundred years ago. When I asked the others if that was the case they all laughed at my newbie ignorance.
They told me no, that it was a working phone tied directly the president's office with the same old fashioned copper conducting cable when it was first installed back in the 1950's. They went on to explain that the cable was so well armored and buried under tons of cement that even in the high-tech communications era it not only was completely secure but totally forgotten about by everyone. Occasionally, while sitting at my desk I will ponder how drastically and unbelievably the world has changed since that phone was first installed. The trouble comes when I also realize that it rings now, and often, for a reason that in many ways is far worse than the danger that brought about its existence.
Washington DC is a beautiful city in the springtime, more so in the twenty-two years that have passed since official end of the zombie plague. The provisional government had barely secured the east coast when the first president of the Second American Republic, James Webb, began pushing to have the entire district rebuilt from the burnt ruins of the Capitol Building to the city's most basic infrastructure. From there the efforts at national reconstruction stretched out like spider webs reestablishing nothing less that civilization which for three years had fallen into a new Dark Age.
It challenges the sanity of the average person to realize how much lost, but yet how much we have rebuilt and reclaimed. The howls of the undead are gone everywhere east of the Mississippi and even in uncivilized territories out west they are isolated with the U.S. Army units working to clear them out permanently. Even now though, teams of trained dogs in Washington and other big cities patrol the streets searching for the smell of some zombie that might have freed itself from a collapsed building or underground refuge.
This has allowed people here in the east to return to some semblance normalcy allowing them to walk the streets without being constantly armed. Like them, during these cool mornings early in spring, I walk to the work at the Hoover Building by way of the National Mall taking time to stop by several of the memorial statues dedicated to those who gave their lives during the Apocalypse. One of those statues is of my father.
Washington is a lot quieter now and I usually take a seat on the bench across from his statue and enjoy my time with him which was so short when he was alive. Depending on my schedule I can sit on that bench from anywhere from ten minutes to a couple of hours. It was on one of those unhurried mornings that my cell began to scream forcing an end to my reverie. “Yeah, Agent Marcus here,” I said to the screen.
The caring and concerned image of my supervisor, Carol Evans appeared. “Charlie, I know you'd like to stay with your dad longer but I need you to rush in, the red phone rang and I need to brief you on a mission.”
Despite Carol's motherly persona, you don't ever keep her waiting so I tossed my paper coffee cup in the trash and rushed into work. I reported directly to her office, was given the basic rundown on where I was going and who I had to contact, handed a rail ticket, and then sent on my way. I'd like to say its just another example of how the Second Republic cuts through the eternal problem concerning human civilization and sticky bureaucratic red tape but there has never been a situation like the one humanity finds itself in now.
The shiny, new high-speed rail line running up and down the entire east coast is the pride the restored United States. As I sit in my comfortable seat surrounded by my fellow survivors I stare out at the the ruins of hundreds of shopping malls, suburbs, and even entire towns that stand as stark memorials to those who fell to the plague. I'd like to think the determination to rebuild and optimism about the future we survivors show, not just here in America but all across this tortured planet, is in part a tribute to those who died. But I can't shake the belief that we are only this way because the plague scared us on a level that is comparable to the fear our shrew-like ancestors felt about dinosaurs millions of years ago. Which makes things even worse for me because while everyone now realizes the pre-plague world was on a direct and speedy path to hell it wasn't our species vaulted intelligence that changed us but a sudden and unexpected extinction level event.
Such dire thoughts are never helpful while I am working so I forced myself to concentrate on the mission at hand. I pull the computer tablet containing the mission files out of my briefcase and went about preparing for my arrival into Manhattan. It is important I am ready for what might happen because my little section of the FBI chief duty is investigating the origins of the zombie plague.
The train line ends at Jersey City where I am picked up by one of the local agents, Amanda Gracia, who drives me into Manhattan. A stunning blonde in her mid-thirties she is one of the best FBI agents ever to leave Quantico. While part of my group she earned her fame a few years back breaking up a ring of nortecubanos spies trying to smuggle weapons-grade uranium down to the Cuban-led Caribbean Federation.
When civilization falls apart you get crazy results like about ten-million Anglo-Americans fleeing the chaos of a zombie infested North America on just about anything that even partially floated to the relative safety of Cuba. The island's compact size and highly organized medical system allowed it to implement infection control procedures the Old American Republic could have never dreamed of doing. This infusion of dislocated Americans, now called nortecubanos, had a huge affect on Cuban causing it to rapidly evolve and eventually begin expanding down the entire Caribbean basin to eliminate the plague and restore order. The Caribbean Federation formed about a year after President Webb and General Macey began their epic struggle and while the world is a much calmer and thoughtful place now, decades of mistrust and hate between Cubans and Americans will take even longer to heal.
“Does the target know we are coming?” I ask staring at the Manhattan skyline.
“Yes, his name is Simon Blake, he works for the Manhattan Examiner and has a reputation of being highly critical of the new federal government. Truth of the matter while he thinks we're screwing up the country yet again he's a willing and convenient lightening rod for the occasional Oligarch or Texas defector.” Agent Garcia said while navigating the traffic. “The information appear to come from a former Texas Ranger who was on the wrong side of the latest coup in Austin.” She finishes with a disgusted look on her face.
If there was serious flaw with post-plague America it was the Free Theocratic Republic of Texas. While the Second Republic of the United States was quickly getting organized and spreading many heavily armed and radical groups saw the handwriting on the wall and fled to Texas in an attempt to consolidate power and strike back. When the forces of the new United States and Free Texas finally met the result was a brief war that neither had the strength to win outright.
With most of the country still in chaos President Webb was forced to recognize Texas as an independent nation. In turn, the Reverend President of Texas came to understand that a half dozen tactical nukes exploding over his cities would end his efforts at creating a nation truly in tune with God. Seeing that discretion was the better part of valor the following leaders of Theocratic Texas gave up the idea of empire and kept strictly inside their borders while those in America sat back and watched as the former state descend further into ignorance and religious anarchy.
These days Texas was always on the verge of some coup with some group convinced the current government was a pawn of Satan or the new United States, which to them was the same thing. If those attempting a coup lost, or if the revolution was successful the losers always began fleeing like rats from the proverbial sinking ship. Unfortunately these losers often ended up in the United States bringing all sorts of information they think might buy them influence or power in the media or American government.
On the surface the operation was simple, get a look at what information the former Texas agent had in his possession, then turn his ass over to the Texas embassy. The basic United States government policy was to let Texas stew in its own rancid juices and eventually go in to pick up the pieces after it fell apart. Like I said, simple, but there is always underlining details that makes everything more complicated.
The meeting place was an old diner that was being cleaned out and rebuilt. Simon Blake has set up the meeting saying his editor and publisher needed to see the information and make sure it was legitimate before the stateless Texan could get his money.
For moment I let my mind drift and admire the newly resurrected section of New York. All the skyscrapers had been cleaned and if not renovated tore down with the land being used for city farming. It would be unbelievable to my pre-plague self who once lived in Old New York but no one in Manhattan went homeless or without enough to eat. Curiously enough, even though people were required to perform community service a few hours a week business was booming on the island to the point the city council was giving land grants to other sections of Old New York had long since been flattened and cleared. Even to someone as cynical as myself it was great to see that the island had regained a touch of its pre-plague always open and busy attitude.
Agent Garcia and I walk in and immediately identify the Texan along with someone who my mission files say is Simon Blake. There is a third person though that I could tell Amanda didn't expect to see.
“Dammit Simon,” she yells, “who is this person and why did you bring her?”
“Her name is Elizabeth Mitchell and she works for the New York Herald,” he says. Simon then motions towards the former Texas Ranger, “Seems Mr. Beck here hedged his bets by contacting her as well. Apparently, news of how defectors are treated has made its way back to Theocratic Republic. Just so you know, I've seen the cowboy's information and it give names and dates.”
The Texan just stared back at Garcia and myself. “You arrogant Yankees underestimate us Texans, if I don't get ten-million dollars and a ticket to one of the Pacific island-states Ms. Mitchell has enough information to ruin your precious Second Republic.”
“Wait a damn minute,” Mitchell finally chimes in looking at Beck, “that wasn't the deal. We were going to expose the origins of the outbreak!”
This entire operation was heading south far too fast. I began to fear everything from the room being bugged to some television crew busting in with their cameras feeding live and straight to the internet. I looked at the Texan with contempt, “Sorry cowboy, we Yankees might be arrogant but your sorry inbred ass is just plain stupid.” It would have been nice to interrogate him and see if he was part of some Texan plot but I just couldn't take the chance so I pulled my pistol and shot him between the eyes.
The look of utter shock on Mitchell's eyes was unfortunate. It was then I saw the tattooed number on her left forearm. A relic of the outbreak orphanages established to take care of the tens of thousands of children left alone after civilization fell. It was people like my father who zealously guarded and loved these kids instilling a sense of hope and optimism in them that the world could be made better and that they were the ones to do it.
I had a duty to the new American experiment but more importantly I had a greater duty to the spirit those like my father gave their life to protect.“Ma'am.” I said, “killing you is the absolute last thing I want to do. Believe it or not the new United States government doesn't normally do those things. What I am going to do is tell you a story and hopefully you'll understand why the Texan's information must remain secret and help us keep it that way.”
The dirty truth involved how the old United States military-industrial complex developed the virus during the worst of the Cold War back in the 1980's. The idea was to drop it into the rear operation areas and cause massive chaos which they hoped would blunt the Soviet hordes. Thankfully, World War Three never happened but the zombie virus, instead of being destroyed, was kept and locked away.
Fast forward a few decades and society has changed all over the world for the worst. More wealth than half the people of the world own is now in the hands of a tiny percentage of multibillionaires who, at best, were contemptuous of those under them. These oligarchs built their empires on exploitation of cheap labor and easy access to resources and did everything to protect them from people suspicious of their true intentions. This even meant taking effective control of many national governments.
What scared these oligarchs more than revolution and social justice movements was the collective environmental damages they helped create. For years they paid out billions to deny global warming, massive bio-diversity extinctions, depletion of natural resources, and a growing world population making everything worse. But even they eventually figured out the growing dire global environmental situation would destroy their wealth and power.
For them it all boiled down to rational business decision, it was someone from the family of a former American vice president that remembered the zombie virus developed back during the Cold War. They rationalized that a greatly reduced world population would save their empires and even allow them to sweep away the niceties of national governments. But like all greedy bastards they began to fight amongst themselves to the point President Webb and other national leaders discovered their plan. Opposing the surviving oligarchs was not an option to any of the resurrected national governments, their private armies and access to resources made them unassailable even in their weaken state.
So a deal was made, the surviving oligarchs were allowed to escape to their redoubts, mainly small island nations in the Pacific and in turn they would not interfere in the reestablishment of civilization. The one catch people like President Webb had to agree with is that neither their identities or crimes of the oligarchs could be revealed to the world. Assuring the safety of the oligarchs were tons of modified zombie virus even worse than the original. The newly reorganized United Nations in turn had the usual nuclear weapons to make sure these monsters never ventured far from their feudalistic tropical estates.
Thankfully Ms. Mitchell agreed to keep the secret and we parted ways with me feeling only a little dirty. Of course I just can't trust her to keep the secret. It was during the early days of the Second Republic that President Webb made sure the new Congress established laws forbidding the type of surveillance state the First Republic had become up to the day it ended. And yes, that was before the agreement with the oligarchs.
I've been to the building that houses the National Security Agency deep in the woods of northern Virginia several times and seen the ungodly amount of raw computing power it has at its disposal. It is no less an evil place now even though delegates from the European Union, India, Brazil, China, Canada, Japan, South Africa stand watch with Americans making sure that the oligarchs both keep their promise to us and that we protects their identities. The other unspoken promise is that such close quarters among the delegates also makes sure none of the nations make any private deals with the oligarchs. It is depressing to think that after such a close brush with extinction humans are once again depending on mutual assured destruction to keep the peace.
That night I stand next the Manhattan harbor looking at the construction going on and the new airships in the sky that transport people and products across the free world and hope we can ultimately find our way out of this mess like our counterparts did during the Cold War. I just hope our souls are not the price we have to pay again.