Boulder, Colorado, USA
Interview with: Jenna Lehmann
One of the more unusual locations for an interview perhaps, but I meet Jenna in the middle of a field of potatoes. She works with a team of other tanned and healthy-looking people, and as I approach her, she leans on her hoe. The only slightly odd thing about her is the Samurai sword that rests on a blanket nearby.
Her team leader agrees to give her a few minutes to talk to me, and we sit on a rusting plough that stands idly on the side of the field, her sword slung jauntily across her back.
Although a grey day, it is warm and muggy with the promise of a storm that will roll off the heights of the Rockies, and the workforce is uniformly attired in jeans and t-shirts. They form the main farming team for the commune that has sprung up in the shadow of the mountains since the end of the war. Jenna takes a swig of water from a flask and begins her tale:
“I wasn’t really sure what woke me up, but I really wasn’t in the mood to face it. I’d had a particularly bad trip the night before, and had ended up drinking myself into oblivion to try and knock myself out before my demons got me.
“As was my morning habit, I rolled a spliff, smoked myself stupid, and passed out again.
“I was a mess. I’d been living in a cramped loft for six months with an on and off boyfriend, and I’d hit a new low: I’d started selling to support my own habit. Unfortunately, I wasn’t very good at it, and I’d overindulged on what I was meant to be selling. That meant I now owed gang members money.
“The second time I came around a few hours later, it was to a muffled thudding. The loft was at the top of a three-storey building. Up until 1950 or so it had been an old school apparently, but it had been badly converted into a group of shitty apartments. It was a shame really, the building was lovely, and had an ornate staircase that ran up through to the skylight at the top of the stairs.
“The thumping at the door carried on, and I thought the gang had come to get me.
“Dwayne, my fella, was a bit of a loser, but he came tooled up and ready for situations like this. He’d been a dealer off and on for years, so was used to getting busted or beaten up occasionally.
“I knew it wasn’t the police, they usually shouted “This is the Police” (bit of a giveaway really) or just busted the door. The door was still holding due to the number of bolts Dwayne had put on it, but the thudding was getting intense, so I grabbed Dwayne’s gun from under the pillow, and then, shaking like hell from fear and drugs, I went to the door.
“It was rattling in its frame. I quietly slipped off the safety, undid the bolts and flung the door wide open, pointing my gun at the hallway outside. As I did, I shouted at the top of my voice, telling them to shut up and er… go away. It wasn’t the gang. It wasn’t Dwayne either. It was something far worse.
“A dirty looking man stood there in tattered clothes, staring right through me. Blood was crusted around his mouth and his eyes seemed to be utterly colourless. He raised a hand and sorta lurched towards me, moaning horribly. I don’t know why, but I just reacted. I shot him in the head.
“As he keeled over backward into the hallway, more moaning started up from outside the halls of the apartments below, and more still from outside. I slammed the door shut, slammed the bolts home and barricaded it with a solid chest of drawers. Then I looked out of the window.
“It was chaos. A few people were running around screaming, one poor old man was being physically torn apart by a group of about five Zeds. As far as I could see there were shambling forms moving into houses and pulling out people or animals.
“The banging on the door started again and brought me back to myself. I threw on some clothes, slipped on my leather jacket, grabbed as much ammo as I could find and threw anything useful I could lay my hands on into a backpack. The door seemed to be holding momentarily, so I picked up Dwayne’s Samurai sword from its holder on the wall, slung it over my shoulder, and tried to get my drug-addled brain to decide what to do next.
“Dwayne, as I said, was a bit of a nut-job but he loved that damn sword. He’d decided he wanted to be a martial arts expert at some point in his past and had bought the sword. He looked after it though and kept it razor sharp. Thank God.
“I stopped to think, and noticed Dwayne’s bike keys on the side table. I picked up his helmet, pocketed the keys and looked out the window again. Just to the right of our window was the fire escape. With the door finally starting to splinter under the onslaught of several Zeds outside it, I opened the window and moved out onto the narrow ledge outside. I slid the sash window closed behind me, hoping to buy a little time, and then edged carefully towards the metal rungs of the ladder. I heard the crash of the door inside, and the scraping of the chest as it was forced across the floorboards. The moaning intensified as the Zeds shambled inside, and then a grey-skinned hand dressed in the ragged edges of a shirt, smashed through the window as I made it to the ladder. I made my way down to ground level as quickly as I safely could.
“The screaming was still going on outside, and I knew I had no time. I put on the helmet and ran towards the bike.
“I almost made it.
“A Zed had been just behind the wall where the bike was parked. I couldn’t hear much because of the friggin’ helmet, so the first thing I knew about it was the damn thing landing on me. As I fell, I managed to twist so I landed on my back, but it fell on top of me, pinning me to the floor, the sword under my hip. It was old Mrs. Marjorie from over the road, or rather the Zombie version. The only thing that saved me was the helmet. Her yellowing and cracked old teeth kept snapping at my face behind the plastic visor as I desperately struggled to get free. My desperately searching hand found the gun that I’d dropped, and then in a blurred panic I pumped several rounds into her head, spattering gore all over me.
“I know now that had I swallowed any of that gore I’d be the one gnashing my teeth at some poor wretch. Instead, the helmet saved me again. The moaning started again as a group of Zeds heard the gun. I ripped off a handful of her dress, wiped my visor and shoved the gun in a pocket of my combats. As a group of Zeds appeared behind me, I jumped on the bike and thankfully the thing started first time.
“I rode like a woman possessed.
“The things I saw as I got out of New York, I will never forget. The motorbike allowed me to thread my way through the never-ending stream of refugees, their cars piled high with televisions and useless kitchen gadgetry: barely moving snails who would end up feeding the ravaging horde. We found out later that when they had finished raping NY, the horde of Zeds followed the trail of fleeing people. A stationary food source stacked and ready to eat: mile after mile of Zombie food that eventually gave rise to the first of the swarms as it tracked west.
“I avoided all the major routes and headed towards the setting sun. I don’t know why really, but I’d been to the Rockies as a kid, and had remembered seeing the entrance to the government bunkers under the mountains. It seemed safe.
“The first night I slept outside was the scariest thing I have ever done. I managed to find a deserted farm that had a kid’s tree house in a massive old oak behind the main house. I carefully looked around, managed to find a good stash of food, then parked the bike off to one side of my tree by an outhouse. I pulled up the ladder behind me, and despite being absolutely wired, I crashed out.
“The next morning I awoke to a shuffling noise. There were three of them. As I looked cautiously out of the open door, my movement must’ve alerted them and the horrible moaning began again.
“I have to say, I was not in the mood for company. I was on a massive comedown from my normal habit. I was tired, scared and angry. My so-called life was in tatters and now some moaning Zombie shit-head wanted to eat me. So I sorta lost it for a few minutes.
“I shot all three of the bastards, screaming my rage and frustration in an incoherent torrent of abuse at them as I did. There was distant moaning as I finished, and I knew I didn’t have long before I would have company again. The damn things seemed able to communicate over a massive distance.
“Thankfully I’d had the foresight to re-pack my bag the night before. I’d managed to find some fuel in the shed too, and had filled up the tank on the bike before I went to sleep. As I roared away from my little tree house I could see seven or eight Zeds approaching the farm from all directions.
“I travelled like that for a couple of days, sleeping high up on roofs of houses, out of the way. Thank God they couldn’t climb very well. Every morning I had company, every morning I went a little mental. The last day I ran out of bullets. There was one Zed left. Bullets had taken out three of his fellows but he stood there moaning mockingly at the empty click as I repeatedly pulled the ineffective trigger.
“I learned to use the sword pretty quickly. I took the thing’s head clean off its shoulders, leaving the disembodied head snapping at me futilely in the dirt of the courtyard.
“The army picked me up in the end. They were retreating along the road ahead of me. There was about a quart of fuel left in the tank of the bike: the army commandeered that of course. They made me strip quickly behind a sheet at the side of the road so that the army doctor could check me over, then I was given a clean bill of health (apart from the needle tracks) and told to get on the back of a transport with a bunch of regular army Joes. They took my gun too, but I was allowed to keep the sword.
“They fed me, clothed me and got me off drugs by the simple expedient of making me go cold turkey. I spent days shivering and shaking in grim comedown and then I was allowed to join the lines.
“The Rockies were grey. The caverns under the mountains were vast; acres and acres of space. Halls, tunnels, shafts, lifts, a power station, mess halls, sports facilities, washrooms, you name it, it was all there somewhere. Compared to a lot of people, we lived well, albeit slightly boringly. Canned food and powdered egg gets a bit tedious after a while. The boredom soon finished when the swarms started though.
“We spent weeks rolling out huge lines of barbed wire to act as defensive lines. Machines dug defensive trenches; we erected stakes, put up fences, planted mines and dug in. The first of the swarms hit us that summer. We’d had a while to prepare and had practised endlessly on the odd random Zed that happened to walk into the perimeter. There were plenty of those. All of us had been taught to shoot, had been given training in hand to hand combat and the American government’s Ideas Bureau had come up with new weapons to use against the Zeds. The best one, in my opinion, was the Bar.
“It was basically a length of hollow iron bar about four feet long. At the action end was a lump of shaped metal that resembled a discus; heavy, flat, round, sharpened around the edge. You could batter something to oblivion with it, or use it as an edged weapon. You could even jab with it, to shove your opponent back and give yourself some space for the swing. We had unofficial competitions to see who could send a disembodied head the furthest. Consequently, we all wore bite-proof gaiters that covered the leg below the knee. The heads carried on biting for quite a while after they were taken off. We’d lost some good people that way.
“You probably won’t believe this, but I ended up fighting with that guy from the vampire films. Robert thingy. Oh dammit, I can’t remember his name. English fella, pale, thin, good-looking, ah whatever. He was a nice guy; very quiet, unassuming and very English. He fought well. He’d had some martial arts training and handled himself well. Unfortunately, he ended up being the reason we started wearing the gaiters.
“A few days before the swarm turned up, a group of us out on patrol got caught by a small group of Zeds and ended up fighting for our lives. We lost two of the group pretty quickly, and I ended up resorting to my sword when I got my Bar stuck in a Zed. One of the other lads had been swinging away, and had decapitated a couple. A head landed next to Rob and bit him in the ankle.
“He went mental.
“He knew he was a dead man and tore into the rest of them taking several more bites but he dispatched the rest of them. I held him while he cried, and then in true British style he marched back to the camp commander and had a quiet word. By then, a lot of information had filtered back from the army doctors. We knew he had three days or so before he went Zed.
“The fighting was unbelievable when the first swarm turned up. We watched from the heights of the Rockies as the first of the major Swarms approached. The remnants of the USAF dropped bombs and strafed the approaching horde as they had been doing for a few days before they arrived at the foot of the mountains. We watched as antipersonnel mines went off taking out chunks of the horde of undead in ones and twos. Unfortunately, this method often left them crawling towards us as legless Infected, rather than walking. They were much harder to spot when they were only partially disabled. Mines weren’t deployed again after that.
“The barbed wire slowed them a little bit, but as some got tangled up, their moaning, shambling colleagues simply walked over them. Snipers took out the snagged Zeds; bullets were at a premium and so were only trusted to those who were dead shots. The trenches slowed them a little, but again they just trampled over the fallen ones and kept going. There seemed to be a never-ending sea of them.
“So, when we heard a plane coming over during the advance of the Zeds, we thought it initially that it was another bombing run. But it was just one solitary plane. A group of dots detached from the sides, and then parachutes bloomed above the battle.
” ‘There he goes’ said the voice of our Captain behind us. ‘It’s Rob and a few of the others who got bitten.’
“We watched in horror as they steered their chutes into the centre of the moaning morass that shambled along in front of us. Spreading out in their descent, the chutes were about a hundred yards apart as they hit the floor. All of them detonated simultaneously.
“Suicide squad: they blew a series of massive holes in the ranks of the Zeds. God only knows how much explosive they’d each been carrying, but they took out hundreds of them. We found out later that stocks of dynamite had been found that were all but useless. For some obscure reason, the army had hand detonators, but no lengths of fuse wire that could be used to set them off from a distance. The only way they would prove useful was if they could be detonated at the right place, at the right time. The bitten but not yet Zombiefied men had provided them with a solution.
“We saluted them and the religious among us bowed their heads in silent prayer. Then, the fighting started in earnest as the Zeds advanced on the slopes of the Rockies.
“The only way we could fight them effectively was in a slowly retreating line. Every time we killed a couple of Zeds, they just dropped and lay on the floor. After you’d killed five or six, there was a bank of dead bodies, so we had to step back a couple of paces to give ourselves a fresh killing ground. We fought in several ranks, the first rank using Bars to take out as many as we could, as quickly as we could. The rank behind us was issued with guns. They were instructed to take out any Zeds that threatened to break through the line. All were experienced soldiers rather than grunts or conscripts like me. Behind us, two more ranks waited, armed with Bars and face shields, as were we, and ready to plug gaps in the line or take over from us at scheduled changes. Changes happened regularly; we only had to fight for twenty minutes or so before a signal was sounded, and then as all the commanders blew whistles, the armed soldiers behind us used their guns briefly to clear a space. This allowed the changeover, and the tired and gore covered front line retreated to the rear to grab a drink, take a quick break, and then get ready to move forward again.
“Thankfully we had drilled incessantly for this style of warfare. The army had learned many bitter lessons in the withdrawal to the Rockies; the main one was humility. Awesome firepower and technology didn’t do much in the face of the Zeds. They were utterly emotionless. They had no fear, no strategy, and no need for supplies or backup. This was both their weakness and their strength.
“All we could do was keep hacking away and keep steadily withdrawing, keeping to the high ground. Thankfully the terrain we were fighting in was open, strewn with scrub and boulders, but little else. The Zeds were drawn to us, which limited their movement, a valley confining their advance along with strategically placed machine guns on higher ground. Our commanders had planned the staged retreat immaculately. As the back of the swarm came into sight, they sent in the tanks. They acted almost like mowers, and just drove up and down over the Zeds, crushing skulls and rendering them down to a sort of grey paste. They had some fuel reserves but had waited until an opportune moment before utilising the heavy machinery.
“Eventually we beat them. As the last of the raggedly moaning Zeds fell to a Bar blow, there was peace. We had been fighting for days, whether by sunlight or massive spotlights, or repeated flares arcing up into the night.
“We lost very few men in the assault. The tactics had worked and we had adapted to a new foe. The swarm had been hundreds of thousands strong. We now had to clear up. The tactic of steady withdrawal had left a field of bodies that stretched for miles. By drawing them out, we had given ourselves space and a little time, allowing us to use all of our dwindling supplies cleverly and efficiently.
“In the end, it gave us a win; the first and probably most important.
“After that battle, we started marshaling our forces and expanded steadily from the Rockies, retaking city after city. But that is a story for later perhaps.
“Now it’s time for lunch; potato salad probably.”