The Post by Kevin A. Munoz Genre: Dystopian Thriller
Ten years after the world’s oil went sour and a pandemic killed most of the population, Sam Edison is the chief of police of The Little Five, a walled-in community near Atlanta, Georgia. Those who survived share the world with what are known as hollow-heads: creatures who are no longer fully human.
A man and a pregnant teenager arrive at the gate and are welcomed into the town. They begin to settle in when suddenly both are murdered by an unknown assailant. In the course of investigation, Chief Edison discovers that the girl was fleeing a life of sexual slavery, and that some members of the Atlanta community were complicit in the human trafficking network that had ensnared her.
In retaliation for Edison’s discoveries, agents of the network abduct the stepdaughter of the town’s mayor. Chief Edison and three companions track the kidnappers to Athens, Georgia, where they discover that the entire city is engaged in human trafficking. By the time Edison has recovered the kidnapped girl, the other three rescuers have been killed, leaving Edison alone to bring the mayor’s stepdaughter home while evading both human and non-human monsters. Against such great odds, will Sam ever make it to Little Five alive?
“So it’s true? People beyond the wall? On foot?” She shoves her thick glasses back up the bridge of her nose.
“That’s what I’m told.”
“Ask them if they have any copper wire. We’re running low, and I’d really like to have spare wire in case Leuko has trouble again.” Leuko is a white Volvo station wagon. “Oh, and glow plugs. That’s what we really need. But they probably don’t have those. No one bothers to keep them around if they don’t know what they are.”
“I’ll ask, but I don’t think they came bearing car parts.” I walk more briskly, following Luther, until it occurs to Braithwaite that I’m in a hurry, and she wanders back onto her property, still asking questions but no longer directing them at me.
The tunnel is just beyond the biodiesel farm, and the tunnel wall is one third of the way through on both northbound and southbound sides. We built the wall closer to our side of the tunnel so that we would have some measure of control if any shriekers found their way here and decided to call their friends. Most days, we only get one or two hollow-heads, and if they come too close, they’re easily dispatched with arrows. There is always one rifleman from the sweep team on the wall as well, but they spend most of their days playing solitaire.
Mayor Aloysius Weeks is waiting for us with my other two officers, Pritchard and Kloves. Pritchard has about twenty years on me, but he’s a good shot. I brought him on mainly to satisfy the previous mayor’s paranoia about an invasion of the infected. Pritch has done a good job keeping the peace since then, so I haven’t seen any reason to let him go. And Augustus Kloves was my idea: a big,
powerful black man with an intimidating voice, he styles himself as my enforcer whenever someone winds up too drunk to go home quietly at three in the morning. I like to tell myself that in his
pre-collapse life he had a paradoxically benign occupation, like a certified public accountant, but it doesn’t matter. The end of the world changes a person. I’ve never seen an exception to that rule.
Mayor Weeks is Regina’s husband, but if I didn’t already know that, I would never have guessed it. Where Regina is friendly and forthcoming, Weeks is closed off, reticent. He never says anything
with ten words that he could say with none. I find this to be an admirable quality in a politician. There is a much lower risk of hearing a lie. Perhaps it comes from his time as a professor, before the collapse. He told me once that he used to teach a subject called “Southeast Asian religions.” One of his books is near the bottom of a stack I haven’t read yet.
The mayor shakes my hand as I approach the tunnel door. “A young girl, maybe fourteen, and a man. Thirties. With a shotgun.”
So that’s why I was called out here. With a few quick gestures I position Pritch and Kloves on the upper platform and Luther at the reinforced door at ground level. Pritch and Kloves make themselves
visible and draw their weapons. Once they’re in position, I spin the combination lock to the door and pull off the chain. I step through, and for the first time in what feels like ages, I am outside the Little Five.
I keep my own weapon holstered and my arms relaxed at my sides. Luther closes the door and locks it behind me. Before I approach the strangers, I scan past them at the light beyond the tunnel, checking for signs of hangers-on. Of course, if the strangers had made enough noise to be noticed by a group of hollow-heads, they wouldn’t have gotten as far as the tunnel wall. Clearly, they were careful. If there are any roaming hordes nearby, they’re here by chance alone.
“Good morning,” I say, keeping my body language as nonthreatening as possible.
The young woman is pregnant. That’s easy enough to see; she’s at least seven months along. Her clothes are torn and dirty. Her shoes are missing shoelaces and held together with old duct tape. She
hasn’t washed in days, at least. She looks hungry, perhaps confused.
The man is not much better, but he at least seems to have his wits. Weeks was right: he’s in his late twenties or early thirties. He holds his shotgun like a hunter, with the stock under his shoulder and his hand under the barrel. He carries it like it’s loaded, though, and when he answers my greeting he swings the barrel a few inches in my direction.
“Good morning,” he replies, looking up at the upper platform where Pritch and Kloves are watching. His accent suggests he’s from South Carolina. “We don’t mean any harm. We weren’t sure there was anyone still living here. But we could use some food and shelter, and the girl could use a place to rest.”
Back in the early days, we let in anyone who found us and counted ourselves lucky that we had one more person who could help us rebuild. From time to time that turned out to be a bad idea, but on balance, it worked for us. I, myself, was one of the first people let through what was a much smaller wall at the time. Even Mayor Weeks didn’t arrive until a few years after we’d built the perimeter fence.
The fact that the man has a shotgun doesn’t suggest anything other than that he has a head on his shoulders. Outside of the protected neighborhoods, Atlanta and presumably the rest of Georgia—and maybe the whole continent—are unsafe for travelers on foot. Hollow-heads haven’t been as much of a problem recently in this area, but I don’t know how far these two have traveled. So I choose to give them the benefit of the doubt. “If you’re willing to let us secure that weapon until you leave, I’ll consider letting you through the wall.”
It sounds reasonable enough, but most men in his position wouldn’t take me at my word. He doesn’t know anything about us. If we take away his only protection, that will leave him vulnerable to whatever we might want to do with him—or to the girl with him. I expect him to try to bargain with me, to find a way to keep his weapon and still be permitted inside. But he offers no resistance to my demand, setting his shotgun on the ground and pushing it out of reach with the toe of his badly worn boot.
I glance back at my men on the wall. They have the same curious expression that I must be wearing: they’re as familiar as I am with how this dance is supposed to go.
“Do you have a doctor?” the stranger asks.
I rest the palm of my hand on my holstered pistol and look over the young woman a second time. She looks far too young to be carrying a child—but I’ve seen younger. The combination of a collapsed population and no functioning condom factories makes for a lot of teen mothers these days. We don’t exactly encourage pregnancy, but we can’t quite bring ourselves to show righteous indignation when it happens. We need the babies more than we need the morality.
But none of that is what worries me. Doctors mean illness, and that could mean fever. And fever drags along with it the potential for something worse. At last count, the Little Five boasted a population
of six hundred—and four people whom we call doctors. I wish we had twice as many. They are indispensable to us.
The man must realize that I’m giving his companion more scrutiny, as he says, “The last doc she saw said she has—” and now he says the word carefully, to be sure not to make a mistake—“preeclampsia.”
The air goes thin in my lungs. Had someone else been standing here in my position, the man might have needed to say more, to plead more. But I know the word. I lost my wife two years before the collapse and nearly lost my unborn daughter because of what preeclampsia can become. The thought of this young woman suffering from seizures and stroke is enough to goad me into action.
“Luther,” I shout, “open the door.”
The chain rattles against the metal, and the door swings open with a low creak. I usher the strangers in, and as the woman passes me, I think I can hear her whisper, “Thank you.”
I am about to follow them back into the Little Five when I spot another figure moving on the far side of the tunnel.
“Is anyone else with you?” I hiss at the man. He says no, and I draw my weapon. I aim in the direction of the newest visitor, knowing that my officers will understand the gesture. It doesn’t take long before Pritchard grabs binoculars and identifies what I’m seeing.
“Looks like a hollow-head, Chief,” he says in his usual raspy, homespun tone.
My skin crawls under my coat. If handled calmly, a lone hollowhead is not a real threat. But we don’t handle them calmly, even after all this time. They look like human beings, but they behave like animals, and on some unfortunate occasions one or more of us will recognize a friend or loved one who was lost to us long ago. We try to think of them as being already dead. I’m sure I’m not alone in feeling a complex combination of relief and remorse every time I have to shoot one. They may be empty shells, but they were once like us, and they are most certainly still alive. In the depths of our gallows humor, we sometimes wish they were truly “the living dead.” Then, at least, we could put them down without feeling like monsters.
Instead, they are hollow-heads. The pandemic that ended the world made its mark by consuming chunks of its victims’ brains. The parts that control the higher functions are little more than slop
sloshing around inside the cranium. Personality is gone. Memory is gone. Gone, too, are all the cares of the world and all vestiges of civilization.
There is no cure. There was never going to be any cure. When the hollow-heads first appeared, the good oil was all but gone, and we were already out of time.
Braithwaite and one or two of the other mathematically inclined eggheads in the Little Five once did what they called a “back of the envelope” calculation and figured that ninety percent of the world’s
population succumbed to the disease. The entire world’s survivors, then, were less than twice the population of pre-collapse America. Less than the population of India. Of the ten million people who
lived in Georgia before, fewer than a million survived. How many are still alive today is impossible to know.
The hollow-heads are survivors, too. But they survive in a different world from ours, and they don’t do back of the envelope calculations, or remember that there once was an India, or an America, or a Georgia.
They travel in packs, most of the time, but have just enough brainpower to send off scouts in pairs and threes to search for food—wild dogs, cats, deer, the occasional goat, and people. They also seem to be able to tell the difference between the run-of-themill hollow-head and the shriekers, and use shriekers as scouts when they can. Most hollow-heads don’t make noise: they remain uncannily
silent, even when they’re agitated. A few, though—maybe one in twenty—still know how to scream. And because they don’t care about their voices, and don’t have the usual social anxieties about looking foolish in public, when they scream, they scream. Louder than anyone I’ve ever heard.
We make sure to put shriekers down quickly, remorse and selfdoubt be damned.
The hollow-head at the far end of the tunnel looks to be alone.
It’s female, wearing rags that were once proper clothes, with bloodcaked bare feet. For whatever reason, the infection is a jealous god, and hollow-heads don’t get sick like the rest of us. They don’t get tetanus, they don’t die of gangrene, they don’t suffer from any of the ailments that come from being bruised, scratched, stabbed, or cut. They can bleed out like anyone, and if they get gut-shot they
will eventually die of starvation or blood loss, but I’ve been assured by people who claim to know that hollow-heads don’t even die from having their own shit seep into the blood stream. Frostbite still
affects them, even if their limbs won’t rot, and some of our scouts have seen them chewing off their own dead arms. But even that is only helpful to people living in the north. Here in old Georgia,
where the coldest day is like a Pennsylvania spring morning, it’s not enough.
This hollow-head is intact, all of its parts in the right places, which makes it more dangerous than the average. Still, I’m the one with the pistol. I wait and watch to see if it realizes I’m here, but all it does is shamble from one side of the tunnel to the other, munching on something hanging from its mouth. A rat, maybe. Because hollow-heads operate entirely on instinct, I can’t rely on this one feeling full and deciding not to bother with me. If it sees prey, it will attack, full stomach or no, and if it’s a shrieker, it will alert its pack.
Shooting a gun attracts hollow-heads only about half the time.
Maybe the sound isn’t natural enough, or it reminds their hollowedout brains of thunder. No one knows. They certainly chase after voices, loud footsteps, biodiesel engines, and just about anything
else. Even so, I don’t want to waste a bullet at this distance, with this light. I inch forward, keeping as quiet as I can, trying to stay out of its field of vision. It reaches the northbound side of the tunnel
and stops to rub against the concrete like a dog scratching an itch. A few steps closer and I will be confident I can get a good shot to the chest. But that’s not enough: I need to shoot the head. If she’s
a shrieker and I leave her with one good lung, she can still cry out in the few moments she has before she dies.
A perverse part of me wants to holster the pistol and use my knife, but I’m not that stupid. Being bitten by a hollow-head is almost always a death sentence. Sepsis sets in, the fever comes, and
then you get six hours of feeling better than you ever have before, as every bad bug in your system is eradicated by the resurgent infection. But from there the descent is quick as your brain melts away
in your skull. I’ve seen it happen more than a few times, and the worst part, without question, is being aware of your own devolution.
It’s like suffering from an aggressive dementia that destroys you between breaths.
The hollow-head stops pressing against the wall and turns, its glassy eyes finding me at last. Its shambling motions give way to the instincts of a predator in sight of large prey, and it propels itself
toward me, arms reaching, blood-caked hands grasping for me. It shows blackened teeth and opens its mouth to scream, but I lodge a bullet in its throat. The body collapses immediately, a gurgling
sound pouring out of its neck along with the blood.
My gun arm feels heavy, as if the moral ambiguities had weight. One would think that after ten years this would get easier. And maybe it has. Just not enough. I don’t recognize the one I’ve killed, but it—she—used to belong somewhere. Her face once made her mother smile. I take a deep breath and remind myself not to think about such things.
I holster my weapon and return to the wall, fetching the stranger’s shotgun along the way. Luther chains and locks the door behind me, and my other officers come down from the upper deck.
Before I turn my attention back to the visitors, I tell the guards on duty to watch for more hollow-head scouts and to clear the body from the road.
Kevin Muñoz grew up just outside of Philadelphia. After wandering across the country for a few years, he received a PhD from Emory University in 2008. A little later, he decided to leave the academic life behind to pursue his first passion: writing. He has lived in seven U.S. states over the years, observing and adopting each new place as settings and inspiration for his fiction. He spent fifteen years in Georgia, where the seeds of THE POST were planted. He now lives near Seattle with his two beagle traveling companions.
I’ve been writing since I was a kid, but the “real work” of writing began in 1998 when I was 25 years old. But I didn’t start The Post until 2014, and the story of how it came to be is… well, if not interesting, then perhaps mildly amusing.
I started work on The Post as a challenge to myself. The genre isn’t one I’d worked in before, and I was curious to see what it felt like from the inside. The thing is, “zombie post-apocalyptic fiction” is a well-trod path. Most stories in the genre focus on the tropes of zombie invasion and are set during the peak of whatever precipitating disaster sets the stage for the story. There are some stories, novels, comic books and films that break the mold, however, to varying degrees. I wanted to break the mold and then grind it into powder.
The result is what I like to call a “zombie-slash-detective adventure novel” that has almost nothing to do with zombies. They are there - on the periphery, and occasionally right up in your face - but they don’t drive the story and aren’t the main antagonists the characters are facing. Some say that supernatural monsters, like vampires and werewolves and zombies, are metaphors for prosaic human evil. But human evil, I find, is more compelling than any artifice that masks the depravity in the shell of something that is very obviously not real.
The Post started as a challenge to myself, but it became something greater, more insistent, the deeper I got into it. This was a story I really wanted to tell, using all of the practice and skill I’d developed over the prior 16 years of writing. And now four years later, and a week out, I’m pretty happy with the result.
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