The one in the candy-pink dress suit had tackled him - the Marge wrenched him off-balance with her aggressive pursuit, and he couldn't right himself once this new one rammed him. It straddled him and he felt the rifle grind into his back; he'd slung it over his shoulder during his pit stop by the window. He looked into the skel's spiderweb of gray hair. The jutting pins, the dumb thought: How long did it take for its wig to fall off? (Time slowed down in situations like this, to grant dread a bigger stage.) The thing on top of him clawed into his neck with its seven remaining fingers. The other fingers had been bitten off at the knuckle and likely jostled about in the belly of one of its former coworkers. He realized he'd dropped his pistol in the fall.
Surely this one possessed the determination befitting a true denizen of Human Resources, endowed by nature and shaped by nurture into its worthy avatar. The plague's recalibration of its faculties only honed the underlying qualities. Mark Spitz's first office job had involved rattling a mail cart down the corridors of a payroll company located in a Hempstead office park not too far from his house. As a child he'd decided the complex was some sort of clearinghouse for military intelligence, mistaking its impassive façades for clandestine power. The veil was lifted the first day. The other guys in the mail room were his age and when his boss shut the door to his office they got a splendid doofus chorus going. The only downer was the ogre head of Human Resources, who'd been relentless about Mark Spitz's paperwork, downright insidious about his W-this, W-that, the proper credentials. She served the places where human beings were paraphrased into numbers, components of bundled data to be shot out through fiber-optic cable toward meaning.
"Your check can't be processed without complete paperwork." How was he supposed to know where his Social Security card was? His bedroom was a dig. He needed special excavating tools to find socks. "You're not in the system. You might as well not exist." Where was The System now, after the calamity? It had been an invisible fist floating above them for so long and now the fingers were open, disjoined, and everything slipped through, everything escaped. By August he'd scurried back to the service industry, doling out pomegranate martinis on Ladies' Wednesdays. He tried to heave Human Resources off him. The skel's eyes dipped to the soft meat of his face. It went in for a bite.
Like most of the grunts in the sweeper units, he declined to wear his faceplate, despite the regulations, No-No Card, and all the times he'd witnessed that decision turn out poorly. You couldn't hump forty pounds of equipment up a New York City high-rise while fogging up a plastic faceplate. Supply lines were still a broken mess all around, and the sweepers were the lowest priority in everything except when it came to bullets. Everybody had enough bullets, from the Northeast Corridor to Omaha to Zone One, now that Buffalo had Barnes up and running, the former home-makers and chronic asthmatics and assorted old biddies on the assembly lines cranking out ammo day and night. Nowadays, Rosie the Riveter was a former soccer mom who had just opened her own catering business when Last Night came down and her husband and kids were eaten by a parking attendant at the local megamall's discount-appliance emporium.
Priorities: First Buffalo got what they needed, then the military, then civilian population, and finally the sweepers. Which meant Mark Spitz didn't have proper face gear, one of those fancy marine numbers with the lightweight impenetrable wire, proper ventilation, and neck sheathing. He'd seen one sad sack who patrolled in a goalie's mask - an affectation, really, because it was too easy for one of the skels to rip it off. Some of the guys in the other units had taken to drilling air holes into the thick plastic faceplate, and he made a note to try that last trick if he made it out of this mess. Face gear or no, however, you never wanted to get pinned.
Excerpted from Zone One by Colson Whitehead. Copyright © 2011 by Colson Whitehead. Excerpted by permission of Doubleday, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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