San Diego 2014: The Last Stand of the California Browncoats

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Prologue: Chasing the Story

The Rising is not a single narrative; there is no one true story that unifies that entire bloody summer, no one event which exemplifies the human experience. It is a piece of history like any other, a tapestry of lives which, viewed in total, may someday give us that rarest of commodities: We may, by looking at them all, someday discover the truth.

-Mahir Gowda

When I was a kid, people used to talk about living in the future. Well, I live in the future. I want to go back to living in the past.

-Lorelei Tutt

Captain, United States Coast Guard



Lorelei Tutt is a harshly attractive woman in her forties, tall and lean, with scars from her combat gear on her hands and elbows. Her naturally brown hair is streaked with natural gray and sterilization blonde, and she wears it in a short-cropped, almost military style that does nothing to soften the lines of her face. She walks with a subtle limp, the result of learning to walk on a prosthetic right leg at the age of twenty-five. Her left eye is shaped normally but filmed with cataract white from an old war injury. She moves with studied precision, and it is clear from her expression that she is not happy to see me.

The front room of her London flat is at odds with her appearance: The time she spent in the United States Coast Guard has left her seeming businesslike and cool, but her decor is that of a teenage member of the science fiction and fantasy subculture that thrived before the Rising. Books and assorted forms of recorded media pack her shelves, and the walls are covered in posters advertising long-canceled television shows, long-forgotten movies.

She indicates that I should sit. She does not do the same. Her accent is American: She may have left the country of her birth after she left the Coast Guard, but some things are not so easily forgotten.

LORELEI: You know, I don't know why you people keep coming looking for me, sniffing around the graves like this. San Diego was thirty years ago. There's no reason to keep dredging up what happened.

MAHIR: Actually, ma'am, that's precisely why people are becoming interested again. Thirty years…that's long enough for terror to fade and nostalgia to start taking over. Did you hear that there's been talk of doing another convention? The city of San Diego has expressed a willingness to host it. They think it might help restore the tourist trade.

Lorelei freezes. I have never seen this happen so literally before: One moment I am speaking to a living, if cold, woman, and the next, I am sharing a room with a statue made of flesh. When she speaks again, what little human warmth her voice contained is gone.

LORELEI: This interview is over. Get out.

MAHIR: You never intended to speak with me today, did you? [silence from Lorelei] That's your right, of course, but I have to ask you…why? Why did you let me come here if you weren't intending to actually have a conversation about what happened?

LORELEI: You people have wasted so much of my time over the last thirty years-all you damn bloggers acting like you're heroes because you stayed in your rooms and told each other about the zombie apocalypse. You people had been doing that since long before the zombies came. You weren't heroes.

MAHIR: But your parents were. [again, silence from Lorelei] Isn't that why you're angry? Because your parents were true heroes of the Rising, and almost no one knows their names? It was very hard to track you down, Miss Tutt. You have no idea.

LORELEI: I thought I told you to leave.

MAHIR: Miss Tutt…I've lost people, too. Maybe not as many as you have, maybe not the way that you did, but I've lost them, and I can't have them back. And I know that the only thing that would have made it even harder for me-the only thing that could have made the worst thing that ever happened to me even worse-would have been knowing that someone else was telling their stories, and telling them wrong. This story is going to be told. I can't stop it. Neither can you. But what I can do, what I have the power to do, is to ask you if you'll let me tell it the way you want it told. If you'll let me tell the truth.

There is a long silence. I begin to think that I've lost her-and then Lorelei gestures for me to stand, beckoning me deeper into the flat.

LORELEI: I need to put the kettle on. If I'm going to tell you what happened, I'm going to want a cup of tea in front of me.

I nod, rise, and follow the last known survivor of the 2014 San Diego International Comic Convention out of the front room. She leads me to the kitchen, where she fills the electric kettle and sets the water to boil. She moves with nervous efficiency. She does not look at me. The time for looking at me is done.

LORELEI: I was just a kid when the Rising started. I didn't think of myself that way-I was eighteen, I was a grown woman, I was not a child-but I was still just a kid. I had no idea how ugly the world could be, or how bad things could get. We'd heard the news. I mean, who hadn't? But we didn't think it was really happening, and even if it was, it wasn't happening where we lived.

We did the con every year. It was one of the things we all looked forward to as a family. Me, and Mom, and Dad, rolling into San Diego like we were going home…

Preview Night

The trouble with saying "I would have done it differently" is that we're always speaking from a position of knowing exactly what is about to go horribly wrong. The truth is, we'd be lucky to do half so well if the Rising began again today.

-Mahir Gowda

Get it in, get it up, get it done.

-Shawn Tutt,

Lt. Commander, United States Coast Guard (d. 2014)

The San Diego International Comic Convention was an annual event which drew hundreds of thousands of comic book, science fiction, fantasy, and horror enthusiasts from around the world. For a week every year, San Diego's Gaslight District would be transformed into a strange new country, one with its own traditions, rules, and hazards. It was a golden age for what those enthusiasts called "fandom," and as with all golden ages, it was not properly recognized until it was over.

It's easy to look back on July of 2014 from our modern perspective, with our full knowledge of what was already happening to the world, and condemn the people who chose to attend that year's comic book convention, or "Comic-Con." We tell ourselves that they should have known better. But why should they have known better? It was a different time. It was a more innocent era. And the fans of the world were descending, as they always did, on San Diego, California.

The following narrative has been assembled from eyewitness accounts, security footage, social media updates, and various other sources that I am not currently at liberty to disclose.
Some of the events described may not have happened in this exact fashion, but for once, I have put aside the goal of absolute truth in favor of a greater goal: understanding. To truly understand what it was like for those brave souls who died in the first major San Diego outbreak, we must first understand what it meant to be them…

-From San Diego 2014 by Mahir Gowda, June 11, 2044.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014: 10:24A.M.

The sky over San Diego was a beautifully pristine shade of blue, the sort of thing that triggered a thousand tourist snapshots and seemed impossible to anyone who hadn't seen it with their own eyes. The streets were already beginning to fill with the early arrivals, the people who had come to town for whatever reason before the official start of the convention. Some were there to wait for the doors to open on Preview Night, hoping to snag early bargains or rare collectibles. Others were there to settle into their hotel rooms and prepare for the chaos to come. And still others-such as the California Browncoats, a nonprofit fan organization modeled around the protagonists of a canceled science fiction Western called Firefly-were there to set up their official booths.

"I know you don't have much respect for authority, Dwight, but around here we respect the laws of physics," said Rebecca, a petite brunette with a clipboard in one hand. She looked from her paperwork to the former Marine, who was trying, somewhat vainly, to hang the awning from their booth's precarious piping-and-plywood frame. "That means that if you're not careful, you're going to plummet and crack your skull open on this lovely concrete floor. Can we try to not have any major injuries before the show opens this year? It would be a fantastic improvement over last year."

"I'm not the one who injured myself last year," Dwight shot back as he continued tinkering with the bolts that were supposed to hold the awning in place. "That honor goes to Leita, who doesn't understand that you're not supposed to pick up knives by the pointy end."

"Hey!" Leita's head popped up over the edge of the display case. She pouted prettily at Dwight, the studs beneath her lower lip poking upward at an angle. "It's not my fault."

"It never is," Dwight said, and kept working.

Rebecca sighed. "Just please try not to fall and die before we're finished setting up? I am begging you. This is my begging-you voice."

"Do you need me to whip these heathens into shape?" demanded a voice from behind her, loud enough to command attention without shouting, the kind of voice that made cadets jump and crowds clear out of the way.

"Oh, thank God." Rebecca turned, shoulders sagging in relief. "I thought you were never going to get here."

"Traffic was worse than we expected. This year is going to be crazy." Shawn Tutt-United States Coast Guard and designated booth organizer-walked over and gathered Rebecca into a firm hug. He was tall enough to tower over her, something that didn't seem to bother either of them.

Shawn's wife, Lynn, and teenage daughter, Lorelei, followed him to the booth, slowed by the large plastic tub that they carried between them. It was packed to capacity with T-shirts and rolled posters.

Lorelei cleared her throat. "Is there someplace we can set this down? My arms are getting tired." She was almost as tall as her father, and her naturally brown hair was streaked with bright green.