2110 • Beneath the hills of Fulton County, Georgia
Troy returned to the living and found himself inside of a tomb. He awoke to a world of confinement, a thick sheet of frosted glass pressed near to his face.
Dark shapes stirred on the other side of the icy murk. He tried to lift his arms, to beat on the glass, but his muscles were too weak. He attempted to scream—but could only cough. The taste in his mouth was foul. His ears rang with the clank of heavy locks opening, the hiss of air, the squeak of hinges long dormant.
The lights overhead were bright, the hands on him warm. They helped him sit while he continued to cough, his breath clouding the chill air. Someone had water. Pills to take. The water was cool, the pills bitter. Troy fought down a few gulps. He was unable to hold the glass without help, hands trembling, memories flooding back, scenes from long nightmares. The feeling of deep time and yesterdays mingled. He shivered. The pills hit his gut, and his grip on the memories seemed to loosen.
A paper gown. The sting of tape removed. A tug on his arm, a tube pulled from his groin. Two men dressed in white helped him out of the coffin. Steam rose all around him, air condensing and dispersing like dreams upon waking.
His legs were that of a foal’s, working at birth but not well. Blinking against the glare, exercising lids long shut, Troy saw the rows of coffins full of the living that stretched toward the distant and curved walls. The ceiling felt low; there was the suffocating press of dirt stacked high above. All that dirt and the dead, stacked high. And the years. So many years had passed. Anyone he cared about would be gone.
Everything was gone.
The pills were bitter in Troy’s throat. He tried to swallow. The memories were fading. He was going to lose anything bad he’d ever known.
He collapsed—but the men in the white coveralls saw this coming. They caught him and lowered him to the ground, a paper gown rustling on shivering skin.
Memories flooded back before fading; recollections rained down like bombs and then were gone. Awareness came—however fleeting.
The pills could only do so much. It took time to destroy the past. Until then, the nightmares were vivid and with him.
Troy sobbed into his palms, a sympathetic hand resting on his head. The two men in white gifted him with quiet and calm. They didn’t rush the process. Here was a courtesy passed from one waking soul to the next, something all the men sleeping in their coffins would one day rise to discover.
2049 • Washington, D.C.
The tall glass trophy cabinets had once served as bookshelves. There were hints. Little things like hardware on the shelves that dated back centuries, while the hinges and the tiny locks went back mere decades. There was the clash of wood: the framing around the glass was cherry, but the cases had been built of oak. Someone had attempted to remedy this with a few coats of stain, but the grain didn’t match. The color wasn’t perfect. To trained eyes, details such as these were glaring.
Congressman Donald Keene gathered these clues without meaning to. He simply saw that long ago there had been a great purge, a making of space. At some point in the past, the Senator’s waiting room had been stripped of its obligatory law books until only a handful remained. These beleaguered survivors sat silently in the dim corners of the glass cabinets. They were shut-in, their spines laced with cracks, old leather flaking off like sunburnt skin.
The rest of the books—all the survivors’ kin—were gone. In their place stood a collection of mementos from the Senator’s two lifetimes of service.
Congressman Keene could see, reflected in the glass, a handful of his fellow freshmen pacing and stirring, their terms of service newly begun. Like Donald, they were young and still hopelessly optimistic. They were bringing change to Capitol Hill. And this time, somehow, they hoped to deliver where their similarly naïve predecessors had not.
While they waited their turns to meet with the great Senator Thurman from their home state of Georgia, they chatted nervously amongst themselves. They were a gaggle of priests, Donald thought, all lined up to meet the Pope, to kiss his ring. He let out a heavy breath and focused on the contents of the case, lost himself in the treasures behind the glass while a fellow representative from Georgia prattled on about his district’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“—and they have this detailed guide on their website, this response and readiness manual in case of, okay, get this, a zombie invasion! Can you believe that? Zombies. Like even the CDC thinks something could go wrong and suddenly we’re all eating each other—”
Donald stifled a smile, fearful it would be spied in the glass. He looked over a collection of photographs, one each of the Senator with the last four presidents. It was the same pose and handshake in each shot, the same staged background of windless flags and fancy oversized seals. The Senator seemed hardly to change as the presidents came and went. His hair started white and it stayed white; he seemed perfectly unfazed by the passing of decades, as if this was how he’d always been.
Seeing the photographs side by side devalued each of them somehow. They looked staged. Phony. It was as if the world’s most powerful men had begged their mommies to take their picture while they stood and posed with this cardboard cutout, this imposing plastic statue, some roadside attraction.
Donald laughed, and the congressman from Atlanta joined him.
“I know, right? Zombies. It’s hilarious. But think about it, okay? Why would the CDC even have this field manual unless—?”
Donald wanted to correct his fellow freshman, to show him what he’d really been laughing about. Look at the smiles, he wanted to say. They were on the faces of the presidents. The Senator looked like he’d rather be anyplace else. It was as if each in this succession of commanders in chief knew who the more powerful man was, who would be there long after they had come and gone.
“—it’s advice like, everyone should have a baseball bat with their flashlights and candles, right? Just in case. You know, for bashing brains.”
Donald pulled out his phone and checked the time. He glanced at the door leading off the waiting room and wondered how much longer he’d have to wait. Putting the phone away, he studied a shelf where a military uniform had been carefully arranged like a delicate work of origami. The left breast of the jacket featured a Lego-brick wall of medals; the sleeves were folded over and pinned to highlight the gold braids sewn along the cuffs. In front of the uniform, a collection of decorative coins rested in a custom wooden rack, tokens of appreciation from the men and women still serving.
The two arrangements spoke volumes—this uniform from the past and these coins from those currently deployed. They were bookends on a pair of wars. One that the Senator had fought in as a youth. The other, a war he had battled to prevent as a grown and wiser man.
“—yeah, it sounds crazy, I know, but do you know what rabies does to a dog? I mean, what it really does, the biological—?”
Donald leaned close to his reflection and studied the decorative coins. The number and slogan on each one represented a deployed group. Or was it a battalion? He couldn’t remember. His sister Charlotte would know. She was over there somewhere.
Before Donald could consider the long odds, he scanned a collection of framed photographs for her, a wall of pictures in the back of the glass cabinet featuring servicemen and servicewomen huddled around the Senator. He searched the faces among the sand-colored fatigues, all those smiles a long way from home.
“—you think the CDC knows something we don’t? I mean, forget weaponized anthrax, imagine legions of biters breaking out all over the place—”
Most were Army photographs. And, of course, Charlotte wasn’t in them. Donald studied one from the Navy. The Senator was standing on the deck of a ship with a crowd of men and women in neatly pressed uniforms. More smiles on warring faces. The ship may have been underway. The Senator’s feet were planted wide, a breeze lifting his white hair, giving him a fierce mohawk—or maybe the comical tuft of a cockatiel. Above the group, stenciled in white paint on gunmetal gray: USS The Sullivans.
“Hey, aren’t you even a little nervous about this?”
Donald realized he’d been asked a question. His focus drifted from the collection of photographs to the reflection of the chatty congressman in the glass. The man looked to be in his mid-thirties, probably Donald’s age.
“Am I nervous about zombies?” He laughed. “No. Can’t say that I am.”
The congressman stepped closer, his eyes drifting toward the imposing uniform that stood propped up as if a warrior’s chest remained inside. “No,” the man said. “About meeting him.”
The door to the reception area opened, bleeps from the phones on the other side leaking out.
Donald turned away from one last display: a piece of shrapnel, a Purple Heart, a note from a wounded soldier expressing his undying thanks. An elderly receptionist stood in the doorway, her white blouse and black skirt highlighting a thin and athletic frame.
“Senator Thurman will see you now,” she said.
Donald patted the congressman from Atlanta on the shoulder as he stepped past.
“Hey, good luck,” the gentleman stammered after him.
Donald smiled. He fought the temptation to turn and tell the man that he knew the Senator well enough, that he had been bounced on his knee back when he was but a child. Only—Donald was too busy concealing his own nerves to bother. This was different. He stepped through the deeply paneled door of rich hardwoods and entered the Senator’s noisy inner sanctum. This wasn’t like passing through a foyer to pick up a man’s daughter for a date. This was the pressure of meeting as colleagues when Donald still felt like that same toddler from his bronco-knee days.
“Through here,” the receptionist said. She guided Donald between pairs of wide and busy desks, a dozen phones chirping in short bursts that sounded more medical than senatorial. Young men and women in suits and crisp blouses double-fisted receivers while somehow remaining calm. Their bored expressions suggested that this was a normal workload for a weekday morning. It wasn’t as if the world was coming to an end, or anything.
Donald reached out a hand as he passed one of the desks, brushing the wood with his fingertips. Mahogany. The aides here had desks nicer than his own. And the decor: the plush carpet, the broad and ancient crown molding, the antique tile ceiling, the dangling light fixtures that may have been actual crystal. Everything was noticeably more opulent in the Dirksen Senate building. It was the House of Lords compared to Rayburn across the street, Donald’s own House of Commons.
At the end of the buzzing and bleeping room, a paneled door opened and disgorged Congressman Mick Webb, just finished with his meeting. Mick didn’t notice Donald, was too absorbed by the open manila folder he held in front of him.
Donald stopped and waited for his colleague and old college acquaintance to approach. “So,” he asked Mick. “How did it go?”
Mick looked up and snapped the folder shut. He tucked it under his arm and nodded. “Yeah, yeah. It went great.” He smiled. “Sorry if we ran long. The old man couldn’t get enough of me.”
Donald laughed. “No problem.” He jabbed a thumb over his shoulder. “I was making new friends.”
Mick smiled. “I bet.”
“Yeah, well, I’ll see you back at Rayburn.”
“Sure thing.” Mick slapped him on the arm with the folder and headed for the exit. Donald caught the impatient glare from the Senator’s receptionist and hurried over. She waved him through the old door and into the dimly lit office before shutting it tight against the bleeping phones.
Senator Paul Thurman stood from behind his desk and stretched out a hand. He flashed a familiar smile, one Donald had come to recognize as much from photos and TV as from his childhood. Despite Thurman’s age—he had to be pushing seventy if he wasn’t already there—the Senator was trim and fit. His oxford shirt hugged a military frame; a thick neck bulged out of his knotted tie; his white hair remained as crisp and orderly as an enlisted man’s.
Donald crossed the dark room and accepted the hand that had clasped that of so many presidents.
“Good to see you, sir.”
As his fist was pumped up and down, he imagined flash bulbs popping and expensive cameras clicking wildly. He almost turned to the side and adopted a frozen and smiling pose, thinking the Senator would get the joke at once. Fortunately, the urge passed. Donald reminded himself that he wasn’t there to date the Senator’s daughter but to serve alongside him.
“Please, sit.” Thurman released Donald’s hand and gestured to one of the chairs across from his desk. Donald turned and lowered himself into the bright red leather, the gold grommets along the arm like sturdy rivets in a steel beam.
“Helen?” Donald straightened his tie. “She’s great. She’s back in Savannah. She really enjoyed seeing you at the reception.”
“She’s a beautiful woman, your wife.”
“Thank you, sir.” Donald fought to relax, which didn’t help. The office had the pall of dusk, even with the overhead lights on. The clouds outside had turned nasty—low and dark. If it rained, he would have to take the tunnel back to his office. He hated the tunnel. They could carpet it and hang those little chandeliers at intervals, but he could still tell he was below ground. The tunnels in Washington made him feel like a rat scurrying through a sewer. It always seemed like the roof was about to cave in.
“How’s the job treating you so far?”
Donald shifted his gaze away from the clouds. “The job’s good,” he said. “It’s busy, but good.”