The five of us pile into Micah's beat up old Ford. It's so ancient that it even has a docking station for the old Apple iCorp storage devices rather than getting music from the Stream.
Micah drives. Reggie takes shotgun. The rest of us sit in back. We head down Route 95, which is the quickest way to Manhattan, even though it means having to pass through about a half dozen checkpoints, including the ones at each interstate border crossing.
After about twenty minutes, we pass through the first. The guard looks bored. He scans our Links and doesn't speak.
I see the abandoned Teterboro Airport off in the distance. The moss-covered hangars poke out of the water like giant eggs that never hatched.
Finally the guard waves us through. He doesn't even bother to ask where we're going.
"There's the Meadowlands," Reggie says, pointing off to the side a minute later, and I think about how the old football stadium looks like a giant concrete nest to go with the eggs.
"Don't you mean the Swamplands?" Ashley remarks, making us all laugh.
This leads to a discussion by the boys about the banned sport of football, with Reggie arguing that they should bring it back and Kelly saying it was a brutal sport that has no place in our world today. I want to slap him and ask what place zombies have in our world, and isn't the television show, Survivalist, or The Game, on which it's based, just as brutal? But I don't. I feel like we're already treading on thin ice today.
We come to another checkpoint just before crossing the new elevated bridge that will take us into Manhattan. Here, the guard asks us where we're going and what we're doing. "School project," Ash pipes up. The guard gives us a doubtful look and she quickly adds, "Summer school."
"College track," he says, sneering, but he scans our Links, then asks if we all have implants. After recording our IDs, he lets us pass.
"School?" Reggie asks, once we're clear. "Really? That's the best you could come up with?"
Ash laughs and shrugs and says she just got nervous. "You know me. I don't think well under pressure."
Soon we're zooming right over Central Park. Looking down is enough to make anyone queasy, but Reggie sticks his head out the window and howls like a wolf. The wind whips the spit from his lips, and I'm suddenly glad I'm sitting in the middle of the backseat. If anyone gets sprayed, it's Kelly, but he doesn't say anything. He just sits there glowering out the window.
I elbow him and give him a smile. He sighs and offers me a half of a smile back, his way of forgiving me. He relaxes, resting a little more of his weight against me. For his reward, I give him a kiss on the cheek.
"Get a room, lovebirds," Ashley groans. But of course, this just makes us laugh and want to do it some more.
I'm practically sitting on Kelly's lap when the road curves right and begins its gentle decline toward south Manhattan.
"Another checkpoint," Micah announces. "I quickly plop back into my seat, wiping my lips with the back of my hand. I reach down and squeeze Kelly's thigh and he nearly jumps through the roof of the car. I can't tell if he's so tense because of me or because we're getting closer to LI.
And we are close. I can smell the ocean. Water surrounds us all around, canals wending their way through and around the old skyscrapers, most of them abandoned now, crumbling. It's our own version of Italy's Venice. Of course, the real Venice is long gone now, buried under thirty feet of Mediterranean Sea years before I was even born. A diver's paradise.
Not that any of us'll ever get to see it.
We pull up at the checkpoint and this guard, after giving Micah's car a good looking over, flatly tells us no access. "This is a commercial district," he states.
Ash points to me and says I have a permit. I flash him my Link with Eric's permit on it and he inspects it for minute before handing it back. "Remember the curfew," he says. We all nod dutifully and promise to be out of New York long before dusk.
Despite all the restrictions and the hassles of the checkpoints, the roads are crowded with business people. So are the waterways. Water taxis ferry people around, drawing white trails in the deep blue. Despite all the flood damage on this side of the East River, despite the proximity of LI, Manhattan still somehow manages to be a bustling city. It's still the financial center of the universe, even though New Merica has essentially isolated itself from the rest of the world.
But then, every so often, I catch a glimpse of the stark gray walls of LI rising up across the water, looking like a giant alien ship or a prison.
How do these people work here every day knowing what lies on the other side of the river, not two miles away? How can they look out over it and see that wall every day and not give it a second thought? It's so close. Or do they just pretend it's not there?
After the first outbreak, thirteen years ago, the military went in to control the Infected Undead and evacuate the living. Certain parts were declared disaster areas. They set up barriers and controlled access, preventing people from moving back in. These eventually became known as Forbidden Zones. But the zones kept growing, getting larger and larger, spreading out until, eventually, they began to connect with each other. The flooded Wastelands were now truly lost, leaving only the higher points of land free, isolated pockets on which the last stubborn islanders remained.
The government said sealing the island off was for the protection of the living from the Undead. But Eric once told me the truth was quite different. It was to protect the Undead from illegal poaching by people who didn't think it was right to let the Undead roam free.
"The government considers zombies assets," he told me. "Even those without implants. After all, each one could take the place of a living soldier who won't have to go into combat."
But nobody knows if anyone ever went in and implanted any of the IUs. It seems unlikely.
Congress passed the Life Service Law almost ten years ago. Now, every single person is legally considered government property after death, not just the ex-criminals, and not just the ones that made up the Omegaman Forces. Although the law has since been challenged several times in the Supreme Court, the politicians and the judges are too spineless to strike the thing down. And, honestly? Nobody except a few rights activists really wants to. We may not like the idea that we'll become one of the Undead someday and have to pay our dues to the government, but it's better than going back to the old ways, when living people fought wars and cleaned sewers.
The road finally reaches its lowest point, which is still about sixty feet above water level. It's where the experts say sea level will be when all the arctic ice finally finishes melting. They say that won't happen for another hundred years, but that's what they said forty years ago before the first major ice shelf broke off and raised sea levels by thirty feet.
"Times Square," Micah calls out. We all look to the right. The place is a dump, abandoned and disintegrating. "We should be just about parallel with the tunnel now. A few more blocks to the south and we'll be there."
Traffic has thinned out quickly and is now almost nonexistent. We come to one last checkpoint. Here, the guard is all business. We sit silently as he checks our Links. He takes each one and scans it, then does the same with each of us, making sure our Links match our implants. He spends a lot of time with Micah's until, finally, Micah asks for his Link back. He messes with it for a moment before returning it to the guard.
"It's been having problems lately," Micah says. "I think it's time for an upgrade."
The guard frowns for a moment, stares at the screen, then at Micah. His jaw clenches and he takes in a deep breath.
"This is an inner zone," he says. "What's your reason for coming here?"
This time, when Ashley explains that it's an extra-credit project for summer school, he just stands there tapping his thumb on his own Link, waiting for us to come clean.
"We swear it," Ashley insists. "It's part of our community service commitment."
"And the NCD permit? How does that fit in?"
"My brother works for the department," I explain. "Eric Daniels? You probably know him."
The guard just stares.
"We're doing a survey in conjunction with the police department. It's on…"
"Potential sources of outbreak transmission," Kelly says.
The guard sighs. "Zombie freaks. Okay. Just don't go anywhere restricted. Heed the signs. Don't get in any trouble. Fines are doubled in an inner zone. And remember the curfew."
We all breathe a sigh of relief as he waves us through.
"Outbreak transmission?" I ask Kelly, once we've pulled away.
"I had to say something. You guys were totally boffing it back there."
"Thanks," I say. "I knew there was a reason I kept you around." I lean over and grab his face for another kiss.
"Aw, sheesh," Ash complains. "Not again."
We stop at a traffic light, and dutifully wait for it to change, even though there are no other cars around. I glance down and see an empty water taxi stand just outside the old Grand Central Station. A bunch of obsolete train cars had been hoisted onto the rooftop platform and converted into high-priced restaurants and hotels. They all stand empty and rundown now. Grass sprouts out of every corner and crack.
"Take a left here," Reggie says, checking his Link. Micah turns on his blinker, making Reggie snort and shake his head.
After a few more minutes, the buildings thin out, become shorter, squatter. Then the vista suddenly opens up. We all exhale as one as the dull gray desert of the East River spreads out before us, as if it's the most wondrous thing we've ever seen. In truth, it kind of scares me.
"According to my Link," Micah says, "we're almost where the opening should be. Just a few hundred feet ."
We all look down, but of course there's nothing to see. It's not like there's going to be a blinking sign pointing the way: Access to illegal tunnel to LI.
Micah pulls into a deserted parking structure and stops the car. We're the only ones there. We get out and follow Reggie, who's got his Link held in front of him like a divining rod. After a few minutes, we reach the end of building and he points out about a hundred feet. "Should be right about…there."
All I can see is a big gaping pool of water, roughly three hundred feet wide. It stretches out for at least a quarter mile until we lose it in the distance.
"Look! You can see the sides of the entrance ramp there!" He thrusts his arm to the right and, sure enough, we can see part of the ancient roadway surfacing a few hundred feet away, looking like the tongue of sleeping beast hanging out of its wet mouth. He swings his hand in the opposite direction and adds, "So, that walkway there should be the old overpass covering the mouth of the tunnel."
Ashley pulls out the reassembled tablet and boots it up. The thirty or so seconds it takes feels like forever. Old tech, I think to myself. How did people ever have the patience for it? Makes me realize how lucky we are to be constantly connected, constantly on.
When it's ready, Ash opens an old photograph of the tunnel entrance and we all crowd around to see. The resolution's horrible, but now we can see the familiar landmarks. The walls look to have been constructed from hewn stone. The tunnel opening stops approximately twelve or fifteen feet below the top of the overpass. Now, only the upper five or six feet of the structure are above water, but there's a muddy high tide line just below the surface of the road.
"Must be connected to the river here," I say.
Micah nods. "Half of lower Manhattan is."
There's no water in the photo, of course, just ancient cars going into and out of the tunnel.
"Shall we try and get closer?" Micah says, extending his elbow to Ashley.
She twines her arm around his and answers, "We shall." They're acting like this is all a game. I'm actually feeling a little giddy myself.
Micah, Kel and I follow. We go down a couple flights of stairs and reach a sidewalk that surrounds the building. To the left is a loading platform for watercraft. It's probably less than fifteen years old, but it looks much older. To the right, the walkway arches out past the edge of the building.
Kelly holds back. "Seriously, guys? What are we doing? So we get closer. Then what? How're you going to know if the tunnel's open?"
"We draw straws," I joke. "The winner gets to go swimming."
They all look at me. But I shake my head. "Except me. I left my medicine at home."
It's got to be one of the lamest things I've said in a long time, and a really bad excuse to boot. Reggie laughs at me. He shakes his head and says, "Nobody's going swimming. We're just scoping things out today. I just want to see how close we can get. Next time we come back—tomorrow, maybe, or Saturday—we'll be better prepared."
"Prepared for what?"
Reggie raises his eyebrows at Kelly. "Duh. A little exploratory work."
This clearly doesn't please Kelly. He drags his feet while the others follow Reggie. I lag behind to walk with him.
"What's this all about?" I ask him, when the others are out of earshot. "Why are you acting like this all of a sudden?"
"What do you mean, Jess?"
I roll my eyes. I don't know what else to say that won't make things worse, so we walk along for a few more minutes without speaking. Then he elbows me and gives me a wry smile. "I can't believe you forgot your inhaler. Tsk, tsk. What's the Colonel going to say?"
"Grandpa doesn't know." I shove him playfully. "And he doesn't need to find out, either."
I've used the inhaler my entire life. I'm supposed to carry it around with me all the time and puff on it three times a day, so it's become almost habit. But I do forget on occasion, and when my grandfather finds out, he gets all OCD about it and interrogates me for like the next week. How am I feeling? Have I taken all three doses? Do I feel sick?
Most of the time I can honestly answer that I'm following my regimen, but sometimes I forget. Like today. I'd forgotten to take it out of my gear bag this morning and left it at home.
I shrug and tell Kelly that we'll be back soon and I'll just take a dose then. "It's not like I'm going to drop dead if I don't. It's just an immunity booster."
The truth of the matter is, I'm not exactly sure what it's supposed to do. I've always been told by the doctors that it's to help stave off infections, but they've never really clearly explained what's wrong with me that I should need it.
Sometimes I hate having the inhaler; it makes me feel weak and vulnerable. Other times, though, I'm glad for it. Like, for example, whenever I want to get out of having to do gym class, I just hold it up and complain that I feel like I'm coming down with something. It's a lot easier and less embarrassing than saying I'm having menstrual cramps.
We reach the end of the walkway. Ash and Micah have stopped and are leaning out across the railing. They're looking down into the darkness below us. "The opening's right here," Ash says, even though there's no way she can possibly see it. "Does it look to you like it's open?"
I look down, but it's too dark and the sunlight keeps bouncing up and into my eyes. I try to lean further over. Before I realize what's happening, there's a flash of color off to the side, a splash, and water sprays up at us. I stumble back gasping and wiping it from my face.
"What the hell was that?"
"Dude!" Reggie exclaims. He's got a huge smile plastered over his face. "Kelly is what happened, that's what. Crazy mother fucker. What'd you say to him to make him jump, Jessie?"
"Kelly?" I shout, running back over to the railing and looking down, but there's nothing to see. "I didn't tell him to jump, you idiot!"
This shuts him up.
"Don't just stand there! Do something!"
But nobody moves. Nobody wants to jump into that murky water. We all wait and count the seconds.
Thirty heartbeats pass. Then forty… Fifty…
"Kelly," I moan.
A minute and half is gone just like that and now I'm really starting to get scared. Ashley's eyes have grown wide, too. She's got her fingertips in her mouth. She's chewing on her nails. Even Reggie and Micah are beginning to look a little nervous.
"It's barely two minutes," Micah says. "I can hold my breath for two minutes. Hell. I could hold it for three if I needed to."
But all I can think is that it's Kelly we're talking about, not Micah. Kelly's not conditioned for holding his breath.
"How long?" I ask. Nobody answers. "How long!"
"Kelly!" I scream. "Kelly!"
Then everyone's yelling, shouting his name. Reggie's peeling off his shirt and getting ready to climb onto the railing. Micah begins to kick off his shoes. But we're all interrupted by a shrill whistle coming from man in a dark green uniform. He starts running toward us.
"You there! You kids! Stop right there! There's no swimming here."
Reggie's standing on the first rail, leaning his knees against the top rung, looking like he's going to jump in anyway. The cop blows his whistle even harder and waves his EM pistol frantically at us. Now he's about a hundred feet away.
"Our friend fell in!" Micah shouts. "He fell in! It was an accident. We need help!"
The cop reaches us, his feet slapping the sidewalk. He's panting and I'm sobbing by then. So's Ashley.
"Our friend fell in! We have to save him!"
"You can't go down there," the cop says. He's an older man, graying at the temples. His face is rough and scarred. He shoves his pistol back in its holster but keeps his hand on it. "It's dangerous. Bad currents. Can't you see the signs?" He points.
"But our friend—"
Just then there's a watery gasp from below us and Kelly's head pops up. His face is blue and his eyes are bulging. He scrambles to grab onto something, but the edge of the overpass is too far out of reach. The cop bends down under the railing. He leans over and extends his baton.
"Grab onto this, young man."
Kelly gets a hold of the baton, but he's too weak to pull himself up. Reggie joins the cop. He reaches down and grabs both of Kelly's arms and he lifts him out of the water like he's nothing but a stack of wet laundry. Kelly shoots up and manages to grab the lowest rail.
Reggie slips out from underneath and quickly repositions himself over the railing. "Hold on!" Kelly hurtles over it and smacks down on the walkway, where he collapses in a wet, shivering heap.
I rush over and wrap my arms around him. He places his face in the crook of my neck. His skin is cold and there's a scratch on his cheek that's just starting to pink up with fresh blood. I notice he's hiding it from the cop.
"There's no swimming here," the officer repeats. "I could have you arrested." He gives us a stern look and keeps it on us a few seconds longer than necessary. We all know what that means. An arrest like this would go on our permanent record and add time to our LSC, time that would, without a doubt, get front-ended.
He sighs and shakes his head. "What are you kids doing down here anyway? This is no place for young folks like you to be. You should be at home enjoying the summer break."
We all look around at each other. Finally, Ashley manages to say, "School project?"
The cop snorts. "Right, like I'm supposed to believe that."
"We were just looking for some privacy," Reggie says. He sidles up to Ash and wraps his arms around her.
The cop sizes them up for a moment—giant Reggie and diminutive Ash—then he looks at me and Kelly. Finally his gaze settles on Micah and we can all see that he's figuring out the math. His eyes flit around, as if he expects to see another person to be hiding somewhere.
But he just shakes his head again and tells us the next time he comes by we had better be gone. "This is a class B zone," he tells us. "Only authorized individuals are allowed in here. It's not a… It's not a motel."
He turns on his heels and walks away, much to our surprise. He doesn't even bother to scan us.
"Class B?" Reggie whispers in disbelief. "Man, we are so lucky he didn't bust us."
Class A would be the East River, of course. The penalty for trespassing there wouldn't be arrest or LSC years. It would be vaporization by one of the mines.
When the sound of the cop's shoes on the pavement fades away, I turn back to Kelly and shake him. "What the hell were you thinking jumping in there? You almost drowned!"
He slowly raises his eyes, but he doesn't look at me. It's Reggie he stares at, his eyes dark and penetrating. "Well, Reg, you wanted to know if the tunnel's open. I got your answer." He takes in a shuddering breath and looks at the rest of us.
"Blocked?" Reggie asks.
Kelly shakes his head. He shivers again and says, "Open. All the way through."
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