“Permission to ask a stupid question, sir?”
Private Bough shouted to let himself be heard above the nearby engines. “I cannot wait to hear this. Permission granted, Private.”
“Sir, I don’t believe in zombies, Sir.”
Private Velez chimed in, “That’s not a question Bough, that’s a statement.”
“Fuck you, Velez.”
“Sorry, Sir. Let me rephrase it. Why are we being sent to fight something that isn’t real, Sir?”
“Private, I am happy you realize the stupidity of your question. Although I do not believe in zombies either I do believe in the Top Brass above. If they believe, we believe and that is why we are going to Bone Creek.”
Lieutenant Globuli Bianchi was a career military man and had spent a lifetime obeying without questioning. Then again, the matter at hand was zombies, something his adult mind firmly rejected. When he received his orders from Major Odporny he had to use every inch of his resolve to keep from laughing. Zombies? Was this some kind of military joke, to see how he ran, Z Company? Failing to see any humor in the eyes of his superior, he asked if “zombies” was a new code word being used by “Jerry,” their nickname for the Top Brass. When Odporny shook his head with a firm negative, Bianchi sucked in a breath and did what he always did, followed orders.
Bone Creek was inaccessible by air so Z Company had taken a boat down the stream to their destination. Their journey by boat was a slow one and they were arriving at the main dock as the day began. The incoming landscape should have been dotted with activity. They should have heard the chirping of workers bragging about their night or birds in the distance crying out their call. Instead, it was as if someone had turned down the volume knob on the radio. Bianchi could tell the silence unnerved his troops, even if they were all too macho to let on. Hell, it bothered him. Still, they had a mission to complete and silence would not be an acceptable excuse for failure.
Check that, there was no acceptable excuse for failure.
Even though Bianchi had detected no sign of life, he was still surprised to see the dock was empty. He didn’t expect a welcoming committee to greet their arrival but he did expect some sort of local presence. Fortunately, their driver didn’t need any guidance and used his expertise to deliver them to the rendezvous point. Bianchi didn’t want to remain exposed any longer than they had to and right before they reached land he said,
“Listen up. We are getting off this boat in one minute. We do not know how bad the situation is but we can guess. We have practiced this maneuver a hundred times; consider this one hundred and one. Any questions?”
His troops all met his eyes with firm resolve. They knew what to do and this gave Bianchi slight comfort. Of course knowing what to do now while traveling down the stream and knowing what to do when confronted with fictional creatures that were apparently real was something else entirely.
They disembarked from the boat and established a beachhead immediately. Intelligence had given them their destination, a vague description of cover about an hour march. Bianchi left out the vague part when addressing the troops and they made their way inland with nothing in sight. The landscape was bone dry, nothing to look at whatsoever. Despite his years of combat experience, the pervasive emptiness of the place made the hairs on Bianchi’s neck stand at full attention.
No sign of life anywhere, although their mission implied there wouldn’t be.
Time continued to click away, the soundtrack a continuous loop of boots walking in unison when Bianchi heard something that sounded like a wet smack. Two seconds later he heard the noise again, louder.
The men and women of Z Company, being the well oiled machine they were, all stopped and took positions.
That’s when it came out of the clearing.
It looked like one of them but it wasn’t. Deformed, deranged, a creature that had come from the depths of their imagination to the front of their minds. It should be dead and it wasn’t. A mutation of the worst kind stood there, looking, sensing, taking them in.
Until Murphy took its head off.
“Cease fire!” Bianchi screamed but not until three or four rounds were let off. “We don’t know what we’re looking at and I don’t want anyone wasting any—“
Another smacking sound.
“Christ this is big,” Bianchi thought to himself, “too big.” Out of the darkness they came. Tens, fifty, one hundred, hundreds, a mass of death. Z Company held their ground and let out controlled bursts to little effect. Every time one was taken down, three more appeared behind it. Two minutes crawled across the face of the clock and Bianchi, in tune to the biorhythms of the unit, could feel the beginnings of panic creeping in. They could spend a month in position firing at the enemy and feel like nothing was accomplished except the space between “us” and “them” would continue to narrow. Despite the barrenness of the landscape, a feeling of claustrophobia started to set in. Military superiority meant nothing when the enemy had an unlimited supply of bodies.
“Fall back! Back to the stream! Sax, get Command on the COMM and inform them of our situation.”
Sax attempted to get in contact with Command and received nothing but static for a reply.
“Sir, the COMM is down.”
“Keep trying! Davis, Buck, make sure you continue to give Sax cover.”
The rest of Z Company let their training kick in, falling back strategically, taking shots when they could and using cover fire to buy them some time. With nothing available to use as cover they had entered into a footrace. Almost sharing a hive mind, they all thought, could they last the hour and make it back to the stream?
“Sir, is that boat still waiting for us?” Taco was the newest member to the Company and also the youngest. They had taken a quick liking to him and broke his balls mercilessly. At this moment though there was no sarcasm or insult flying at his head. Nothing but gun fire as the troops listened and hoped. Bianchi always shot straight with his unit and that earned him the respect of all. When the man spoke, no lies came forth; this is something important when your life is in the hands of someone else. For the first time since he assumed command of Z Company, Bianchi fudged the truth.
“That is the plan, Private.”
Truth be told there was no plan for full on retreat. The Top Brass had not accounted for, or failed to inform him, of how large the enemy was. Since Sax couldn’t get the Brass on COMM, they were flying blind out there. From here on out was full improvisation and Bianchi hoped that they would have the time to reassess and go back on the offensive. First things first, they needed to get back to the boat.
Meanwhile, the mass continued its destructive march and slowly but surely Z Company began to get picked off. First was Murphy. Next came Bough. LoBonti followed by Sax. Davis picked up trying to contact the Top Brass to no success. There was no time to process grief or wax nostalgic on what their fallen comrades meant to them. As the Company decreased in size, their orderly fallback turned into a full blown panicked run. Finally, the stream was within eyesight and Bianchi felt morale go up a tick. They were going to get out of this mess and come back to kick zombie ass. Taco was the first person to get close enough to see the reality of the situation.
“Sir, there’s no boat!” Panic flooded his vocal chords and his words came out almost in a shrill cry. “What the fuck do we do now, Sir?” Forget cursing, that was the first time Taco had ever shouted at his leader.
“You ever hear of the Alamo?”
“This is ours. Keep shooting.”
Bianchi’s troops fired and fired and loaded and reloaded to no avail. Within the hour the mass devoured most of Z Company. All except for Bianchi and Taco. They had found a sorry excuse for an enclave upstream from the dock they embarked from and crawled inside, buying them some precious time. Whenever the zombie hoard approached, Bianchi and Taco were able to pick them off. Eventually though they were going to run out of ammunition. Their time was short. In the moments between firing, Bianchi could see the strain beginning to wear on Taco. Eventually, Taco spoke.
“Sir…please don’t let me turn into one of them.”
“That will not happen. You have my word, son.”
“Thank you, sir.”
Another body appeared in their eyesight. Except this wasn’t just the enemy. This was Bough. Good old Bough. The man who always made them laugh and kept things loose was no more. What came towards them was an abomination. His eyes vacant, the face distorted. Taco witnessed this monster and gave in to the panic.
“I can’t do this!” Tears poured down his face. “I can’t do this!”
“You don’t have to, Private.” Bianchi got Bough in his sights and blew his head off. Taco, seeing his army brother die for the second time that night cracked and ran out into the open.
“Private, get back! Get back here, that’s an order!” Taco had snapped and within seconds, so did his spine. Bianchi could hear the young private, barely a man, scream in the distance as the hoard devoured him and there was nothing he could do.
Bianchi was alone. He faced two options. The first was to continue to fire his weapon, then Taco’s until his ammunition runs out. The second was a bullet to the head.
He had no choice.
He would not give up. He could not give up. As long as there was oxygen inside of him he would keep fighting until he could fight no more. This is who he was. This is what he was born to do. He would go down with honor and take as many bastards as he could with him. Looking up at the sky, Bianchi understood the reality of his situation. At the same time, he had no doubt the Top Brass would never surrender. The war was too important. If the enemy succeeded it would be the end of life as they knew it.
Bianchi felt a bit of emotion and quietly offered up a prayer. “I’m sorry for my failures. It was an honor to serve you.” With a grunt Bianchi picked up both weapons, hopped out of the enclave and mowed down the first wave of the mass. Then the second. Then the third before he had to reload. Over the next three minutes, Bianchi took out hundreds of the bad guys and when his guns ran dry he took out his knife and sliced and diced anything around him. Eventually though the numbers were too many and Bianchi was absorbed into the mass
“Thank you for coming down so quickly, Jerry.”
“What’s the word, Doc?” He sat down inside an office he had been in many times before. A wall full of old medical books and journals filled the bookcase behind the desk, framed by a series of diplomas written on yellowing parchment. Various trinkets and knickknacks spread across Dr. Dorio’s desk, gifts from grateful patients. In all the years he had been coming there the worst news he ever heard was a nasty case of adult chicken pox. This wasn’t chicken pox, Jerry was sure of that. The only question was what came next. His doctor sat across from him, holding his test results with a grim look on his face.
“I’m sorry, Jerry. Your tests come back positive.” He felt himself deflate and his body slumped into a nearby chair. A couple of seconds passed and he desperately tried to keep his composure.
“You are certain? No mistakes?” The last word barely made it out of his mouth.
“I’m sorry I wish there was. Sometimes our immune system just fails us.” Dr. Dorio slid his bifocals back up the bridge of his prominent nose. “There is good news, however. We caught it in the beginning stages.”
“What does that mean?” Dr. Dorio placed the results down on the desk.
“It means I’m happy you didn’t keep quiet about the pain in your leg. It’s early enough that we can aggressively fight the tumor inside your femur.”
“So I have a shot?” A glimmer of hope appeared inside the fear he felt.
“You have more than a shot, Jerry. There are several methods in fighting bone cancer. I’m going to give you your options and we can figure out what direction you want to go in.”
Jerry picked himself up and sat straight in the chair. The word hung in the air. Cancer. He was forty-one years old and he had cancer. This was a fact. What wasn’t fact was how this ended. He would not quit. He would not surrender. His only job was to defeat the cancer that had invaded his body.
He had no choice.