Bag Men: Vanguard (Book 4)

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Our parents survived the undead… or so they thought. Now war is coming. An ally becomes enemy, and the Sleeper threat—zombies that can think and plot—tightens its grip on the Republic of Sacramento.

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Episode 7

Forty years ago, after the brown stuff hit the metaphorical, the North American continent looked something like it had in the aftermath of the Civil War. Ghost towns dotted the country, boarded up houses and hotels, acres of farmland with unharvested crops either rotting where they stood or trampled down by hundreds of feet. Ripe wheat wasted like trash. Highways were cracked and dusty. Emaciated animals roamed through muddy streets—pets that had been forgotten and turned feral, or grubby herds of cows that had burst out of their barns after long, lingering days without anyone coming to feed them.

It was an age that bred strange travelers—families who had packed up their belongings and struck off to find something better somewhere, driving in cars as long as the gasoline lasted, then traveling on foot or in rattling horse-carts drawn by bags of bones after the last of the gas was gone. They were always filthy and hungry, and fed their kids God knows how. There were disbanded soldiers in faded army fatigues, singing songs, wandering the empty towns in search of anything edible they could scrounge from the ruins. There were quack chemists like ghosts from another century sleeping in old trailers beside highways, peddling useless elixirs and potions to frightened people, telling them they could cure the plague, and they could bring their loved ones back from undeath. There were orphans who banded together to survive, and there were gangs who formed in the abandoned jails, and left through the unguarded doors when they realized no one was coming back for them. The lost, disavouched tribes; the shadow-nation of vagrants.

Some resettled the land. Farmers in those days dug up weird harvests. The ploughshares always dragged up tons and tons of bullets and spent cartridges. There were bones mixed into the soil—sometimes the ploughshares turned up a femur, sometimes they broke open a grinning white skull the farmer hadn’t seen in the dirt until he felt the crack. The undead, in those days, were just another fact of people’s struggle to survive. The roving bands of shambling carcasses were a danger, but so were the land-mines left behind by the military’s doomed campaigns; so were the unmaintained gas-lines that exploded periodically, reducing already half-ruined buildings or city blocks to fireballs and burnt out husks. Malnutrition was a danger. Bandits were a danger. Wild animals and disease were dangers. Life was brutal, difficult and short. The remaining zombies, like everything else, were something the survivors learned to deal with. And over time, the survivors saw the numbers of the undead dwindling.

It was another new age. Things had changed again. The relentless years always brought change. A man chopping firewood in a field, carrying a rifle on his shoulder, would see a band of zombies walking towards him across the grass. Hands moving mechanically, he would cock his rifle and pick them off with head-shots as they came, and go back to his work as if he had never been interrupted. Day by day, year by year, the undead grew less common. Until finally, years after SHTF, most people agreed that the plague was over. If anyone saw a zombie anymore, it was alone—just one old remnant of the horde. It must have been hidden somewhere, eventually wandering out into daylight to be put down and burned. Forty years after the apocalypse, the world had moved on.

Only in one tribe, one bastion of civilization, did they know the truth: that the virus was not gone, it had evolved. It didn’t kill and reanimate victims anymore. It infected the brains of living hosts. They looked normal on the outside. The plague could spread through new populations without anyone realizing it was happening, until the carriers finally snapped, and could no longer resist the deep, primal drive to kill that had drowned out their personalities.

Only in the emergent city-state of Sacramento, where wise men and women had managed to hold onto the advancements of modern science and medicine, was it understood that the virus had changed and the threat it posed to the scattered remnants of humanity was still very real. Like a curse from God that had cracked and destroyed mankind’s civilization, the virus endured in the new world in a new form, as if it had the especial purpose of purging the human race from the earth—and it knew it hadn’t finished its work, yet.

In Sacramento, knowledge was power. The government understood the threat and took steps to contain it—but outside the city, there was no safety. The virus could trickle into human populations totally undetected, and plunge them into anarchy, hysteria and carnage before anyone realized anything was wrong…

Steve Bradford
McKinley Park, Sacramento
11:36 AM, April 4th, 2070

The sprawling rose garden of McKinley Park was reduced from its former grandeur—the flowers had not been spared in the apocalyptic chaos that had ravaged Sacramento, where humanity in 2027 made its horrific and unimaginably costly final stand against the great horde of the undead. The survivors of the North American continent finally stood their ground there. Some had been pushed westward in scattered bands like dust on the wind, as the interminable columns of plague-ridden marchers drove steadily overland towards the Pacific. Most were men and women of able body from the coastal cities—San Diego, Los Angeles, and all the others—who knew they had no choice but to make a stand against the sweeping desolation, because there was nowhere left to which they could retreat. The last humans picked a plot of ground, and strongly drew their figurative swords. They would stand until that plot of ground became their blood-soaked grave.

Sacramento in 2070 was like a different world from what it had been in 2027, when the city and surrounding country was a barracks for nearly 3,000,000 human beings—a fraction of that number professional soldiers, the vast bulk mere civilians prepared to fight to the absolute end to preserve their species into the future. No one could guess the actual number of the undead horde that marched towards them—the horde had been gathering across all of America, advancing from where the virus first made landfall on the continent on the East Coast, filling its ranks with the dead, as the colossal viral scourge wrestled with all of civilization, and finally broke its neck and soul. Even the most conservative estimates told the defenders of Sacramento that a horde of 10,000,000 undead would crash against their 200 mile long, 90 mile deep defensive line when the time finally came to do or die.

But in 2070, McKinley Park was green again. The rose garden, though for years after the apocalypse it had withered in disease and neglect, was reverently tended and nursed back to life—in early June, the bushes were laden in buds and many were just beginning to bloom. It was more than just an historic park to the people of modern Sacramento—it was hope for the future. It was a testament to the survival of the race, and a symbol of the struggle to recoup civilization in a desolate, ruined world. Not long after the formation of the new Federal Government and formal establishment of the free Republic of Sacramento, Congress commissioned the creation of a monument to stand in the rose garden, memorializing the sacrifice of the millions who died defending the ground that would become their city-state. The moment was intended to signify the intent of those who came after to build a better world out of the ashes. So the Monumento Por La Nueva Humanidad had been designed by an artist named Agata Garcia, and erected in the middle of the rose garden, jutting out of the center of a reflective pool. A 100 foot tall spire produced by 3D printers, the monument was rough, jagged and scaly at the base, and gradually grew smoother as it climbed to a burnished, shining peak.

The artist intended it as a metaphor—humanity after the apocalypse rising from the shambles and working tirelessly to improve itself and its position in the world. Whatever one might think of it and modern art in general, Congress had been pleased with the design, as evidenced by the resources they allocated to producing it. Steve Bradford stood in the warm sun, looking up at the bright summit of the monument, and wondered wryly what the ancient Greek sculptors would have done with computer-aided design and 3D printers.

Beside Steve, Abbie Bonaventura turned slowly in a circle, taking one last look at the sprawling 1.5 acres of the oval-shaped rose garden before they left. The grounds were laced with walkways, dotted with almost 600 bushes in various stages of budding and blossoming. The cool breeze carried the smell of the flowers and the ionic scent of water, gurgling from four small fountains in the corners of the pool below the monument.

Abbie took a deep breath. “Aren’t you glad we’re alive right now?” she asked.

“No,” Steve said. “I was supposed to be born in Buckingham Palace, circa 1840. But the stupid stork got lost.” Abbie couldn’t not laugh.

“Sometimes you come across as a serial complainer,” she said, poking Steve in the ribs.

“That’s part of my charm,” Steve said, putting an arm around Abbie’s waist as they proceeded down a cobblestone walkway towards the archway leading out of the garden. Abbie stretched up en pointe to bring her mouth close to Steve’s ear.

“You’re off duty all day though, right? I’ve got some ideas even you couldn’t complain about.” She lightly bit his earlobe, and dropped back down into a normal stride, looking off in the other direction casually. There was a vibration in Steve’s pocket.

“Damn. Hold that thought,” he said, sighing and pulling out his ringing phone. Abbie looked at the smartphone in forlorn resignation. Sacramento designated its limited cellular service for official use only—civilians were restricted to landlines. They both knew that Steve was being called by the Bureau.

Looking at the smartphone, Steve read Sgt. Lillian Morgenstern above the accept and decline buttons on the touchscreen.

“It’s the Bag Lady, of course” Steve said apologetically, looking at Abbie. He touched the accept button, and raised the phone to his ear.

Agent Bradford,” he said flatly.

“Steve,” Lilly started, “what is your current location?” Her voice sounded as if she was under pressure. She was uncharacteristically terse.

“McKinley Park,” Steve answered, joining his squad leader on the other side of the neglected pleasantries.

“Someone will be there to pick you up in four minutes,” Sergeant Morgenstern said. “We need you to report to HQ for briefing.”

Minutes later, a black SUV met Steve and Abbie at the gates of McKinley Park. Irritated at how his day was going, Steve reluctantly left Abbie to walk their bikes the 2.5 miles to home, and climbed into the SUV — seeing Sacramento Bureau of Public Health agent Adrian Saint-Exupéry in the driver’s seat. Steve realized his face must have betrayed his mood as he nodded to Adrian, because “Saint-Ex,” as he was usually called by friends, immediately handed over a peace-pipe in the form of a cup of coffee.

“Sorry, but you’re day is still going to get worse,” Saint-Ex said.

“Great,” Steve replied. “I was feeling way too good about life for a few minutes.” Steve subtly, as always, looked at Adrian’s ears. The previous December, the agent had had his outer ear ripped off his head by a Sleeper. But if Steve didn’t know which one Adrian had lost, he wouldn’t be able to tell from looking at him. A month after his encounter, a team of physicians had printed him a replacement ear, and surgically attached it. Now that he had fully recovered from both the injury and surgery, there was virtually no mark remaining to indicate how close he had come to being killed in the line of duty.

Saint-Ex pulled away from the gates of the park, continued down McKinley Boulevard, and took the onramp onto the mostly empty Elvas Freeway. The bulk of travel among the citizenry was done on an extensive public rail system, and with the exception of occasional 3D printed electric passenger cars used by residents, motor vehicles in Sacramento were, by and large, for official purposes only. Traveling northeast considerably above the posted speed limit, the BPH vehicle passed only a handful of passenger cars and a large truck and police cruiser, parked on the shoulder where some kind of minor roadwork was being conducted, before they crossed the American River and exited the freeway onto Exposition Boulevard. They were heading towards what, in a different era, had been the Kaiser Permanente Point West Medical Offices. But the world had changed. The ruins of the HMO facility had been recouped and refurbished after Sacramento was reborn, a new republic. It had become the Headquarters of the Sacramento Bureau of Public Health, upgraded, reinforced and brought in line with the new order of things.

It was the hub of agency communications, record-keeping and field operations, as well as providing training and educational facilities for new recruits. The sprawling headquarters contained classrooms and auditoriums, computer rooms, and batteries of well-stocked labs where BPH scientists and physicians conducted endless studies into the Vox Humana Virus and its victims, experimenting with treatments, and probing into the nature of its attack against human physiology. In the underbelly of the facility, the morgue was lined with coffin-sized incinerators like a crematorium, where the infected were disposed of, their ashes treated as hazardous waste. The building even contained a small museum, where personnel could go for a breath of inspiration, seeing what the world had been, once, and could be again.

Agents Bradford and Saint-Exupéry walked into the BPH Situation Room; Steve saw a couple dozen figures crowded around the long table, under a low ceiling lined with inset fluorescent lights. The bank of large screens at one end of the room were on standby, the displays black except for the BPH insignia in red: a single V with a tongue of flame suspended above it. Below, the agency’s Latin motto: Verum Ex Igne, “Truth From Fire.”

“Steve,” Sergeant Lillian Morgenstern said, looking over from the head of the table at the new arrivals. Her blonde hair was pulled tightly back, errant strands hanging around her face. She wasn’t in uniform. Neither, Steve noticed, were half the personnel in the room. There was a subtly harried, bewildered look about all the agents gathered at the table, as if, like Steve, they had all been called to assemble at a moment’s notice, and no one was quite sure what was happening. “Take a seat. We have a crisis.”

“Some of you already know what’s going on,” Lillian continued as Bradford and Saint-Ex found empty swivel chairs at the table, “But I’ll start from the beginning to get us all on the same page.”

She cleared her throat and looked down at the table, purely out of habit, ready to rifle through papers. But there were no papers. The crisis was too new. There was too little information to need anything printed.

“Around ninety minutes ago, at 9:26 AM, a transmission from Hell’s Gate was received by radio operators in the Technology Park. The message was recorded, the recording passed on immediately to the White House. It spurred an emergency briefing of President Elrod and his cabinet. Congress convened in a special session at 10:15.”

Lillian looked around the room at the twenty-four BPH agents and five military personnel of varying ranks gathered at the table. “The two-minute long message from the Armorer Dynasty was a declaration of war. The messenger identified herself as Maureen Sterling, the Dynasty ambassador. Their term is ‘Herald.’ She explicitly stated that the Dynasty has a functional nuclear weapon from the old world, and launch capabilities—they claim they are fully prepared to launch a nuclear attack against Sacramento.”

A murmur went around the room. The military officials and some of the BPH agents present had already heard this, but Steve was blindsided, and took a few seconds to overcome his shock and tune back in on Lilly’s voice as she went on. “The Herald announced that she is en route from Hell’s Gate to Sac to negotiate the terms of our surrender to the Armorers. The Dynasty hopes, she said, this can be settled without a single shot being fired.”

Lilly stopped speaking and there was a brief, strained silence in the room. “The military is already prepping to meet the Armorer envoy outside of the city,” she continued after a pause, nodding to the gaggle of military officials. “We don’t know if Sterling is bluffing about the nuke. But we can’t run the risk of a hostile engagement of the Dynasty envoy, in case she’s telling the truth. If we provoked the Armorers into firing their weapon, it would blot Sacramento off the map. So at the moment, everything we do has to be purely diplomatic.”

Lilly looked towards Steve and caught his eye. “The military will meet them to begin negotiations at a point outside the city, because we have reason to believe that VHV has entered the population at Hell’s Gate. Agent Bradford identified a Sleeper there during his last routine escort mission.” Another murmur around the table.

God damn it, Steve thought. This is the exact fucking thing I knew we had to be looking out for. Whatever weapons the Armorers have been supplying us with, I knew they would keep something else for themselves that could trump it all in the event of a war. Now they’re holding the entire city hostage. We can’t fight them. They can march in here and do whatever they damn well please. And when they come in, they’ll bring in VHV. How the fuck will we contain it?

“The military will meet them outside the city in the hopes of preventing infected individuals from coming into contact with the general populace,” Lillian continued. “If we can get them to turn around peacefully, we can quarantine our own people before they re-assimilate. But if the envoy is hellbent on barging right into the city, fat fucking chance they will submit to vetting or quarantine.” She was verbalizing what everyone in the room already understood. “We don’t know how many yet, but some of you will provide BPH accompaniment to the diplomatic team outside the city. We need agents on the ground to assess the threat as soon as possible and communicate with HQ, so we have some idea how we can best control the damage. As we speak, Director Hooker is in a meeting with President Elrod. They are hammering out the details of the agency’s response to the emergency. The President knows that the BPH needs to be intensively involved in this crisis. We’re in a hell of a lot of danger with the immediate threat of nuclear annihilation, but if the Government

panics over that and turns a blind eye to the other dimension of this, the additional danger of an uncontrollable outbreak of VHV inside the city, it might not matter if we’re bombed to shit or not.”

Across the room, a figure walked quietly through the doorway. He did not announce himself, but the first BPH agent at the table to notice him sprang to his feet. Like a ripple moving through the room, all the rest stood at attention, turning towards the tall man in the doorway; chairs scraped; there was the rustle and huge sigh of individuals turning into a group. Every right hand in the room moved in unison, brought up in salute. The military men, too, saluted smartly, standing a little straighter. One of the soldiers present had a silver eagle on his uniform indicative of a colonel—it didn’t matter. He was outranked by the calm, white-haired man who had joined them in the situation room.

Lorne Hooker, M.D., Ph.D., D.P.H., Director of the Sacramento Bureau of Public Health, raised his hand, signaling his agents to take their seats. “At ease,” he said. “I take it you’ve all been apprised of the situation—at least in as much detail as we currently have. Thank you, Sergeant Morgenstern.” Lilly nodded to the Director. Steve, settling back into his chair and swiveling it around to face Hooker, was struck, as always, by how calm and collected he remained during a crisis. His white hair and sharp wrinkles in his forehead were the only indication that the Director was human and felt the pressure of his position. He was not an elderly man, by any means—when his face was covered with a gas mask, his athletic physique and ramrod straight posture would give observers the impression of a man in his twenties. But in that moment, as he stood before the assembled BPH personnel, his face showed he was a middle-aged man, living a life of nearly unrelenting intensity.

“I’ve just come from a meeting with President Elrod,” Hooker said, confirming what Lilly had told them. “He understands the need for BPH involvement in meeting with the Armorer envoy, but he is highly concerned that a contingent of agents will create a strained atmosphere for negotiations. We’ve dealt with the Armorers enough in the past that they know exactly what the Bureau does, and the President is worried that it will injure our diplomatic position if they feel they’re being evaluated. It’s bad enough, he feels, that we are intercepting them before they enter the city—automatically creating a tense interaction. The presence of agents, he thinks, will imply to the envoy our intent of hostility if we deem them vectors of the virus and a threat. This would especially come across badly, given the fact that the Dynasty has always ardently denied the existence of VHV and refused to take precautions against its spread inside their community.”

Steve silently grit his teeth. On one hand, he understood the President’s concerns and argument. On the other hand, the man was a fucking imbecile if he sent diplomats and ordinary soldiers to meet the Armorers without BPH accompaniment. The Dynasty was potentially teeming with Sleepers. For all anyone knew so far, everyone there had already turned, and that’s where this wildly unexpected aggression was stemming from.

“President Elrod has authorized me to send a single BPH agent along with the greeting-party,” Hooker stated, “to assess the threat from VHV and communicate it to HQ. But with all due respect to the president, I feel that is inadequate. I’m accompanying the party personally, and I’m bringing two agents with me.” Hooker forced a strained, tired smile.

As the Director of the BPH, it was Hooker’s prerogative to disregard direct orders from the President in a crisis if, in his expert judgment, he deemed them inappropriate for protecting the public from the Vox Humana Virus. There were almost no limits on the constitutional power vested in the agency by Sacramento—given the nature of the virus, the BPH could only do their job if they had absolute authority to act, to apply force, to secure information, as they saw fit. Even President Elrod, giving his orders to the Director, had known that he was not speaking to an underling, but to a lateral authority equal to himself.

“Agent Bradford,” Hooker said, looking towards Steve. “You’re with me. Get your uniform. It has been less than two hours since the envoy left Hell’s Gate. Since traveling from the Mojave to Sac takes about six hours, we have a little time to prepare our welcome-wagon.”

“If you haven’t chosen a second agent to accompany the party, sir,” Lillian said, “I would like to volunteer.”

Hooker shook his head. “Thank you, Sergeant. But I need you here to organize your squad inside the city, responsive to the uncertain course of events. Agent Reynolds!”

Cora Reynolds jumped to her feet, at the other side of the table. “Yes, sir!”

“You’re with us,” Hooker said. He didn’t explain his thought process in selecting agents, but no one questioned it. The Fates and Director Hooker both had a way of choosing unlikely material, but the selections always turned out to be well-reasoned. Cora and Steve proceeded out of the room to take advantage of the little time they had, changing into uniform, gathering equipment, and making any personal calls they needed to make before heading out towards whatever awaited them.

Abbie Bonaventura
Residential District, Old Sacramento
12:40 PM, April 4th, 2070

Abbie sat on her bed, hugging her drawn up knees, window-shades down. There was a sick, cavernous feeling of dread in the pit of her stomach. Glancing again at her watch, she knew Steve had already left with the “welcome-wagon” to intercept the Armorer envoy on its way into the city. When he called her, he had asked her not to mention to anyone else what he told her about the potential nuclear threat facing the city.

“We don’t know yet if the threat is real, or just a bluff,” he had said to her over the phone. “There’s a good chance they’re lying about having the ability to launch that kind of attack in order to cripple our ability to force them off, but we have to treat it as a valid threat. The government has mapped the area surrounding Sacramento pretty extensively using airborne drones. So we know from aerial photography that Hell’s Gate does contain a large structure that appears to be a silo. But whether or not that silo is operational and prepared to launch an attack? We can’t say for sure. There are experts staring at those photographs right now.”

She understood why Steve had asked her not to tell anyone else about the nuke. There was nothing anyone could do right then that wasn’t already being done—disseminating information about the crisis could only serve to incite panic and make everything worse. But it would be hard to talk to anyone casually, holding onto a secret like that. She couldn’t just act normal. So she isolated herself, drew the shades, and hid in the dark bedroom.

This isn’t what I imagined today would be like, she thought, remembering her morning with Steve in the rose garden. He was supposed to be off duty. This is typical. In the park together one minute, and the next minute he’s off somewhere courting death. I have to sit here and wait and listen, and I might hear soon that he’s been killed. That’s a real thing. I really need to worry about that all the time. How am I supposed to deal with this forever? It’s unbearable. No one could bear this. Knowing that, she bore it.

Love isn’t grand, she thought. It’s not pleasure or happiness. It’s a staring yellow-eyed hawk that you feed your heart to. In spite of herself, she smirked. Who did I quote, there? Is that Benét? I didn’t even mean to. I guess Litterarum Doctor Bradford is rubbing off on me.

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