Jack, the ex-military survivor with the blank nametag lead us down a long hallway lit only sporadically by light streaming down from gratings set into the ceiling. On the other side of those grates were thousands of undead and the light in the tunnel constantly changed as they wandered the sidewalks above us, their shadows occluding the sun. For someone who lived here, like Jack, the walk might not have been so unnerving. After a minute of it there was icy sweat pooling in the small of my back. I felt a little better about it whenever Ayaan would spot a dead man walking overhead and lift her rifle in a spasmodic reflex. Once one of the dead dropped to the ground and stared in at us through the grating, his fingernails scratching at the metal. I could feel the wiry tension in Ayaan's body even though I was standing three feet away. It was all she could do not to fire off a shot, even though it would most likely ricochet off the grate and hit one of us.

We were rats in a cage. The dead had us trapped.


Finally just when I thought I couldn't take anymore the hallway ended in a wide aperture. Beyond was open space and some light. As we came around the corner I could hardly believe my eyes. The concourse of the subway station looked almost the same as I remembered it - almost. The white pillars made of girders were there, still holding up the low ceiling. The walls were still lined with advertising posters behind thin plastic scratched with endless graffiti.

There were still too many people in the low space but they weren't moving. Normally this station would have been crowded with great surging tides of humanity moving from one platform to another. Now the people sat on the floor in groups of five or six on a blanket or lounged against the walls, refusing to meet our gaze. Their clothes were brilliantly colored or expertly cut or lined with thousands of dollars worth of fur but their faces were sunken and pale. Their eyes showed nothing but the exhausted boredom that comes from living in fear. I'd seen that look everywhere in Africa.

I looked up at the ceiling and saw something surprising. "You have electricity," I said. A few scattered fluorescent tubes sputtered up there. Most were dark or the fixtures were bare but enough light was generated to see our surroundings. "I thought the power was out."

"There's a hydrogen fuel cell system. It got put in after the blackout in 2003, when people got stuck down here in the dark. It was only meant for emergency use but we've nursed it along."

"How long have you been down here?" I asked. It had not occurred to me before. "Since the evacuation?"

Jack squinted at me. "There was no evacuation."

I shook my head. "We saw piles of luggage outside of Port Authority. Signs telling people to keep together."

He nodded. "Sure. Because people went there and tried to get out and maybe some of them did. But there was no large-scale evacuation. Think about it. Where would people go to? There's no place safer than this. Except maybe where you came from. The Guard closed the city down block by block, protecting what they could but it was a losing battle. Times Square was the last place there was any kind of real authority. It lasted until maybe a month ago. Those of us smart enough to know that civilization was over came down here. The rest of them got eaten."

We were interrupted before I could ask any more questions. A woman came up to us, a living woman (I still felt the need to qualify her as such) wearing a full length Louis Vuitton logo pattern coat over a baby tee that read DON'T LOOK NOW. Even in the gloom of the station she wore peach-tinted sunglasses. She had to be at least six months pregnant, judging by the way her belly swelled out from under the shirt. Her nametag read HELLO MY NAME IS fuck you.

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"These are our rescuers?" she asked Jack. He shrugged. "They didn't get very far." Apparently word of our exploits had already reached the survivors. "Still, it'll give us something to talk about. Stories of abysmal failure always make for great gossip."

Jack's mouth had been a tight line before. His lips disappeared entirely now. He was bristling with disgust or hatred or rage or something but he wouldn't let himself show it. "They had a good plan, Marisol. It showed real ingenuity."

"So did plastic belts, darling, but they're gone now." She reached out and touched Ayaan's headscarf. "Britney Spears meets Mullah Omar. How fetching. I suppose I should welcome you to the Grand Republic but it wouldn't be sincere. There is food for you if you need it. We can probably scare up a blanket without too many fleas in it if you want to take a nap." She sighed and brushed stray hairs out of her face. "I'll be right back."

Jack lead us into one of the concourse's less crowded corners and squatted down on his haunches. I sat down on the floor, glad for the chance to rest. Ayaan stayed on her feet, occasionally fingering her rifle. I don't know what she made of any of it. Jack clearly did not intend to talk to us so I broke the ice myself. "That's a nice shotgun," I said, indicating his weapon. He pulled it toward himself as if he thought I was going to try to take it away. Probably just a reflex left over from his training. "It's a SPAS-12, right? I didn't recognize it with that coating."

He looked down at the dull black enamel paint on the weapon. "I put a police coating on it because the standard finish glinted too much."

I nodded agreeably. Just two gun nuts talking here. The SPAS-12, or Sporting Purposes Automatic Shotgun 12 Gauge (the name was meant to fool Congress into thinking it was a hunting weapon - a complete lie, the thing was a military shotgun, a "streetsweeper" in the most violent sense) had been pretty high on my list of weapons systems I'd have liked to outlaw before the Epidemic but I could see its utility in protecting the station against undead attack. "You fire standard shells or do you cut them down to tactical strength?"

"Tactical." Jack looked away from me for a while. Clearly a man given to poignant pauses in conversation. Finally he gestured at Ayaan with his shoulder (his hands being busy with the shotgun). "She's a skinny, right? A Somali."

"A 'skinny'?" I demanded.

"Just Army slang. No offense meant. I was a Ranger with the 75th."

He didn't seem to feel the need to elucidate on what that might signify. Judging by the way Ayaan tensed up and even let out a little gasp I was able to tentatively fill in some blanks. The 75th Ranger Regiment, as I later confirmed, was the outfit that tried to capture Mohammed Aidid at the Olympic Hotel in Mogadishu back in 1993. The outcome of that mission saw the first time in history when a dead American soldier was dragged through the streets of a foreign capital.

"She's proven herself to be a valuable ally," I protested, but he quieted me with a look. This, it seemed, was something he wanted to talk about.

"I wasn't on that detail at the Hotel, I was back at the base playing cards all day. I saw plenty of other shit, though. The skinnies were smart. With all of our training and discipline they still got the better of us. Committed, too. I saw skinnies get shot and drop their weapons and other guys, kids and women even, would run out into fire to pick up the weapon and shoot at us some more." He shook his head and looked right through me. "We were occupying their land and they wanted us gone. We should never have been there and when Clinton broke contact I was so glad to come home. You're telling me it's the skinnies who made it through this plague okay, that they didn't get overrun like we did?" I nodded in confirmation. "I'm not surprised at all. Just keep it to yourself. If these people knew our only hope was signing up with Somalia... I don't think a lot of them would want to go there."

I guess that was all he wanted to say. I kept prodding, using my dated knowledge of Army acronyms and slang to try to draw him out but he would only answer in monosyllables after that. Finally he got up without a word and wandered away. Eventually Marisol came back with a couple of blankets for us and a can of creamed corn that Ayaan and I gratefully devoured. It was clearly the best the survivors had to offer. They must have been living out of cans the whole time.

"I see how impressed you are with our accommodations," Marisol said, watching us eat. "I do hope you'll stay as long as you like." Something seemed to change in her, a mask falling away and she sat down next to me. "I hope Jack didn't hurt your feelings. He can be a bastard, but we need him."

I had actually wondered about her, not him. What could her bad attitude and lousy jokes actually accomplish down here? I asked a different question. "He's in charge of your defenses?"

"Sweetie," she said, batting her eyelashes in a halfhearted attempt to regain her studied insouciance, "he's in charge of everything. He fixes the generator when it goes down. He organizes the search parties that bring in our food. Do you know how much food two hundred people go through in a day? Without him we would die. Horribly." She took the empty can from my hand when I'd finished eating. "Of course, I shouldn't underemphasize the importance of my little hubby. The old man does a pretty bang-up job himself. At least stay to meet him. Tonight he's giving his State of the Union address."

Night was falling and we no longer had any way to protect ourselves against the undead. It looked like we didn't have any choice.

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