“What’s your name soldier?”
“Private Louis Henning, sir.” I replied timidly. Assigned to the base for 2 weeks and already ordered to the Colonel’s office.
“Do you know why you’re here Private?”
“To maintain order sir.” This came out as more of a question but he didn’t really seem to be paying attention.
“Hmmm…good enough. Have a seat soldier.” His voice held a bitter edge but also an undertone of solemnity. “Your file indicates that you’re from a military family, the army is a life choice. Is that right?”
“Good, good, that’s what we’re looking for. You follow orders, don’t ask questions.”
“Yes sir.” Had I passed his test? Had it been a test? I had no idea but I didn’t ask any questions. It was not my place to question a superior officer.
The Colonel closed my file and dropped it in a bin marked recycling. I should have run then but I was trained to do as commanded and at that moment it was to head to the trucks waiting outside. Rain pelted my face as I tramped through wet grass to a waiting convoy and was directed to get in to the last truck. My pack had been placed on one of the benches between two very scared looking soldiers I didn’t recognize. I climbed in splashing water and mud everywhere and assumed the same terrified pose as the other men in the truck. There were 8 of us snuggly seated in the humid vehicle being jostled about as it rolled along the rutted road. Where were we going? Didn’t know. What was the mission? Didn’t know. Why were we chosen? Didn’t know. I followed orders, kept my mouth shut and waited to be told what to do next.
The truck finally stopped after what felt like hours. As the tarp door was pulled aside, I saw that the rain had stopped but the sky was still grey and cloudy. The driver, perhaps intentionally, had stopped so that the back of the truck was at the base of a 3 foot wide puddle of muddy water. I had a choice try to clear the puddle and possibly land in it or go back to childhood and jump in with both feet. Wet and muddy I joined the other soldiers in formation at the side of the road and waited for someone who looked like an officer to give us our orders.
While waiting I chanced a glance and broke my army issued stony, straightforward gaze to look at the surroundings. The area was beautiful, green, fresh and peaceful. We were in the woods away from any urban area. I couldn’t even see the barracks that should have been beyond the trees boarding the open field to the west. My mind briefly relaxed; maybe it was just another training exercise…a training exercise shrouded in secrecy and apparently fear.
The sudden burst of noise brought me back. Another commanding Officer from another company stood before us then walked up and down the line surveying the troops he had been sent. He looked very displeased but I figure this is how all commanding officers are trained to look at their troops. He started to talk about duty, loyalty…something, something, something. I lost his voice halfway through the speech as something more interesting seemed to be happening behind his bobbing head across the field near the tree line… soldiers emerging from the woods, dragging…burlap sacks? They looked terrible. Their faces and hair caked in mud and, and something else. From the distance it could have been anything but my mind went to a dark place and damn me if it didn’t look like blood. Some of them still had helmets on and some seemed to have their clothes torn. I moved slightly to the left and went on my tippy toes to try to see over the Officer’s head. I didn’t see the hairy backhand come at me as the Officer regained my attention. My knees slammed into the muddy earth and I tasted coppery liquid as my lip exploded. I spit blood into the mud creating a sickly reddish-brown mess before my eyes. I turned my head to avoid the disgusting sight and keep from getting sick and adding to my humiliation.
I could see the army issue boots of the other soldiers moving slowly back away from me and hear the Officer yelling at them to remain in formation. He yelled with such intensity that I could feel spittle hitting the back of my exposed neck. I looked to the boots beside me and saw them still moving; some down the line had even disappeared. Fear welled up inside me and blocked out the pain in my lip. The Officer’s massive hands suddenly lifted me by the collar and brought me face to face with him.
“Back in line soldier!”
He pushed me back and I would have ended up in the mud if one of other soldiers hadn’t moved forward to steady me. I looked at him and saw panic shine through his pasty mud splattered face. The other soldiers had stopped inching away but didn’t move back to where the line had been. I looked towards the tree line again, fully expecting another blow from the Officer but not caring. The soldiers from the woods were about 20 feet away and still walking toward the convoy. More soldiers had prepared what looked like a bonfire in the middle of the field between the trees and the convoy. A moment of absolute silence went by as everyone just looked at the pile of wood, followed by a great whoosh as a match connected with the gasoline soaked tinder. The fire was brilliant and lit up the grey skies. It almost made the whole experience seem like a boy scout outing; that is until the soldiers from the woods began to throw their dripping canvas sacks on the fire. It took 2 soldiers to lift and toss them, one man at each end. No, something wasn’t right. Something didn’t look right, didn’t smell right as the sacks burned up. The burlap disintegrated quickly and I saw what the cargo had been. Horror. What I saw I couldn’t believe, didn’t want to believe. The soldiers were burning bodies. I should have run but I am a good soldier.
Others were not. Two of the braver or stupider guys in the formation rushed towards the makeshift bonfire. They went about 5 feet before being shot in their tracks by the soldiers surrounding the fire. Another one went in the opposite direction, away from the convoy and the fire towards the surrounding trees. He took maybe 5 steps before the Officer put him down with a bullet to the brain. My bloody lip and humiliation were completely forgotten and replaced by a familiar friend – fear. It felt like the world had suddenly gone mad and order was replaced by chaos.
“Attention!” The Officer broke the stunned silence but no one moved. Shocked and confused, we remained rooted to the muddy earth, the blood of our comrade slowly mingling with the wet grim and covering our souls…err…the soles of our boots.
“Everyone back in the trucks.” The Officer’s face had gone red as he yelled his orders.
Still no one moved. Another shot rang out as the Officer fired into the air bringing us, mostly, out of our shock. I stood blinking at him then moved toward the truck taking careful deliberate steps, making sure it was clear that I was following orders and not about bolt away or be a hero. I am a good soldier after all.
With 3 fewer soldiers, there was a bit more room on the benches. The truck lurched forward and we were off again. Being in near dark, I have no idea how long we were moving or which direction we were heading. I had gone numb but not from the cold and wet but from the chaos that we had just left. What have I gotten into?
Daylight was bleeding into orange and pink dusk when the truck stopped again and we stumbled out into the cool September air. My eyes adjusted to the fading light that was still brighter than the gloom of the truck and saw that we had come to a rest stop overlooking a small village. Judging by the sparse scattering of buildings, the village was probably one of those places that you passed through not realizing that it was an actual town; a place where the main street was just a continuation of the highway.
The Officer solemnly removed his hat and sighed deeply as he absent-mindedly fiddled with the brim of it. He appeared like an average man tired and broken down, not a hard ass Officer who had just killed one of his soldiers. He bore the same sad expression the other Officer had when he asked me about my loyalty to the military and I knew this was not a good sign; something bad was about to happen and I was going to be a part of it.
“Men, I’m going to tell you what the score is here but before I tell you what’s happening, I’m giving you boys one chance to walk away and return to the base and go about your lives. You will not be punished or considered AWOL. You can simply walk away.” He looked us over and continued. “You can leave here, alive, still a soldier and be reassigned. If this is what you want, step forward now.”
The thought of stepping forward didn’t cross my mind but half a dozen soldiers did tentatively step up. While we had been standing there listening to the Officer, the drivers had placed all our packs and weapons beside the trucks. The Officer swept his arm past the arrangement like a game show hostess showing off the prizes.
“Take your packs and weapons and get back in the truck. You’ll be taken to the base.”
The soldiers grabbed their gear and jumped into the nearest truck. The driver saluted, hopped into the truck and sped off.
“At ease men.” The Officer seemed to relax and went to one knee. “Let’s move in a little closer.” We moved to form a semicircle around him. “That village down there is filled with infected civilians. I won’t get into the details or science of the infection but it causes fever, delusions and a violent disposition. The trauma is triggering severe mental instability. Those people have gone crazy, they’re aggressive and without reason. They have been attacking everyone, they have no control or conscience and are even…eating pieces of the flesh torn from their victims.”
“Jesus Christ, zombies!” Oops, I said the quiet part out loud.
“Don’t overact Private, this ain’t Hollywood. There isn’t any brain craving reanimated corpses shambling around.” He sighed and continued. “It’s a virus that causes an inflammation in the brain that upsets the chemical balance and short circuits those parts that control the ability to think, reason and keep people from being savages. The virus destroys it.” He stopped again to look each of us over, searching for reactions. “That’s all there is to it. Understood?”
“Yes sir!” Our unanimous response was a lie to how little we actually did understand about the situation.
“Good. Now here are your orders soldiers. Listen well.”
Madness. What have I done, what have we all done to this village, to these civilians. Men, women, children, the elderly, the innocent. Dead. All dead and how many did I kill stone faced with no mercy even when they cried and pleaded to be spared, insisting they weren’t sick. Orders were orders. Neutralize everyone in the village and leave no survivors. Blood, bone and gore littered the ground along with spent shells from all manner of gun. But the worst part was the fire and the smell that seeped into my clothes and clogged my nose. The fire was like the one back in the field earlier that day; a bonfire made to incinerate the bodies of the dead. My god, how did this happen.
“Alright men grab your weapons and line up.” The Officer ordered as we stood on the rise looking down at the village before the massacre.
We marched into the village as darkness seeped into the sky. 21 armed soldiers, 2 armed drivers and the Officer. It was quiet on the main street/highway as we entered from the east. Lights shone from a hand full of deserted businesses surrounded by a couple dozen homes. The Officer kept us in a group rather than having us spread out and find the residents. I was nervous. It was quiet and it seemed to me that if the residents were crazy or zombies, then why were there only 24 against 200ish infected citizens. It didn’t seem right. We would be severely outnumbered and may be even out armed.
The first one stumbled out from one of the stores to the right of our group. The village was so quiet that I could hear her dragging feet giving the effect of a drunk trying to walk a straight line. The thing that shambled forth looked like a woman wearing jeans and a bulky hoodie, long dark hair hung in tangles, matted to her dirty bloodied face. She looked like a homeless person but it didn’t seem right – homeless in a village this small? She turned her gnarled face towards us and lurched forward issuing a guttural, animalistic cry that echoed through the quiet streets. As she continued her awkward, jerky walk more sounds of movement issued from the surrounding buildings as a dozen more lurchers clumsily stumbled from the buildings. We didn’t move, didn’t react. We didn’t know what we were looking at or what to do. They looked sick, the way they moved with forced languid jerks and grunts.
“Fire!” The Officer yelled but no one moved. “I said fire goddamn it!” It was more the fear in his voice then the volume of his order that moved us to action.
Over half of us fired at the slow-moving people coming at us. I couldn’t say if I actually hit any of them as bullets were sprayed in all directions. Time didn’t exist as we went through main street firing endless rounds into the lurchers that were being drawn out by the sound of the weapons and by the howls of death from other lurchers…and non-infected civilians. At one point a group of about 15 norms took a chance while there was a break in gunfire to try to “surrender” themselves to us and get protection from the lurchers. We ceased fire as they ran forward. We were confused again and uncertain as to how to proceed.
“Fire!” Officer yelled again.
“But Sir, they ain’t sick and there are kids.” One of my bunk mates, an Opie looking fellow, said weakly.
“Shoot them! Our orders are everyone in the village. Whether they look it or not the entire village has been infected. Now fire!”
I did as ordered. I am a good soldier.
And then it was over. The shambling beasts were put down like rabid animals and so were those that clamoured to us seeking help. Not once during the assault did I hesitate when pulling the trigger after the Officer’s orders to cleanse the entire village. I didn’t even blink or think twice as I put a bullet into the angelic face of a little blonde haired boy running towards me, crying with his arms out hoping to be rescued and shielded from the horror all around. The blood and brain that exploded when the bullet impacted his tiny skull was bright against his fair hair looking like a morbid halo and disfiguring the innocent beauty of his face. When it was over, when we stopped firing we made the bonfire. I found the angel boy and gently carried his bloodied form to the fire and carefully tossed him into the flames that were hungrily lapping out to try to consume anything that came near it.
Now I stood in the light of a mass funeral pyre, feeling numb. Night had fully fallen sometime during the course of the assault. The sky had cleared and stars twinkled and danced above us. It felt like they looked down upon me, the only witnesses and judges to the dirty deeds that were committed. The Officer had sent out five two-man teams to sweep the surrounding houses for any stragglers. I fortunately didn’t get chosen for this duty and for that I breathed a silent sigh of relief. While I had killed like a machine, I don’t think I could have continued at that moment to be a soulless killer.
Shots rang out sporadically then finally ceased. The groups made their way back to the grim fire beacon. We stood in the shadows with the firelight glinting off the weapons and in our startled wide eyes. All I could think was what have I done. Blood and fire. Murder of innocents and fucking zombies. The world has gone mad.
“Alright men. The trucks are on the way. We’re heading to the next town, 40 miles down the road to rendezvous with two other companies.” He hesitated, that grim tone in his voice again. “The infection has spread.”
“How far has the infection spread Sir?” Opie asked looking even paler than before.
“We don’t know yet. Could be only within this 100 miles radius, could be more. The intelligence folks are working on getting more intel.” The Officer straightened and put on his hat. “Let’s get ready to move out.”
And so it went. We met up with the other units, 90 soldiers and a scattering of officers. The next town was like the village we had just left – quiet and seemingly empty. The Officer told us there were an estimated 2000 inhabitants and we were to follow the same orders, eliminate all life. The cleansing would be quicker with the additional soldiers and then maybe it would be over. Maybe this would stop the spread and we would be able to go back to our lives. Over a hundred heavily armed soldiers’ against sick and weak infected and frightened civilians.
We waited and nothing happened. One of the boys from one of the other companies decided to get the show going and fired his assault rifle into the air to draw them out. The other units seemed to know what was happening and weren’t entering the situation blind like we had. It took only seconds for the lurchers to surge forth from the darkened buildings, streets and alleyways. The infected here were more alert, quicker than the ones we had just encountered. Gunfire ripped through the approaching masses and lit up the night. We spread out and continued our rapid fire assault, not stopping, not hesitating. A dark-haired woman pulled her damaged body toward me, her broken face in a snarl as she looked at me like a starving animal trying to catch its prey. My first bullet smashed through her chest, the second sheared off the top of her head. The cleansing felt like it had been hours but we had the town put down within 90 minutes. Several fires burned to destroy the diseased flesh of the infected. For a while we all stood around the fires quiet and mesmerized. The officers had gathered together away from the soldiers having a hushed discussion. My Officer came back and told us to head back to the trucks. We were going back to base camp.
Dawn was on the rise as I stumbled through the door of the barracks and flopped onto my bunk. I couldn’t keep my eyes open and immediately drifted from the world. It didn’t last long before I started to see the shattered skulls, sprays of blood and melting flesh of those that I had killed without mercy. The boy. His beautiful innocent face shattering before my eyes, his tears turning red as his skull exploded. My eyes flew open and when I tried to close them again his broken face was there. I lay there thinking about it, replaying the memory of his death over and over…the guilt was starting, how could I live with what…
“Everyone gear up.” Bright light flooded the dim room as an Officer exploded through the door shouting over the sudden noise of explosions and gunfire from outside.
Every soldier was up at attention instantly, not gearing up but alert to the presence of a commanding officer.
I grabbed my sidearm and put on my helmet as I dashed outside into a cloudy morning of chaos. How I couldn’t hear the sounds of gunfire and screams inside the barracks, I don’t know but it was all around me as I stood slack-jawed looking at what had been happening. Soldiers were running everywhere. Gunshots exploded all around. What in hells’ name had happened since we came back? There was no order as I stumbled into the war zone that had only an hour ago been the base and a soldier’s sanctuary. The soldiers who followed me out of the bunks scattered, no one certain where to go and no commanding officer to tell us our orders. I ran to an overturned truck and crouched down for shelter trying to figure out what to do. I was a good soldier but I was also human and my life mattered more than being blindly thrust into battle. The Officer who had accompanied us on our killing spree suddenly appeared and flung himself next to me. Blood splattered his face and he had two guns blazing.
“Sir, what happened!?”
“The virus was in the water! Both of the village’s water supplies were contaminated.” He paused to kill an approaching infantry man and then continued. “Soldiers drank the water while sweeping the villages and brought the infection back. The attacks started in the barracks and it’s been spreading rapidly for the last 30 minutes. The infected are attacking everyone.”
The Officer looked past me and fired both guns inches from my head taking down two approaching infected officers.
“I’m gathering as many uninfected as I can and heading to the mess hall. Get it together soldier and get over there.” He was gone and I was left reeling from the reality of the situation.
They brought it back. Explosions and gunfire clogged the air. I had to get to the mess hall, only 5 feet away, across a battlefield of terrified armed soldiers and infected attacking everyone. I took a deep breath and tried to get ready to run. I looked right then left and froze. There was Opie coming towards me or rather stumbling towards me. Blood covered his cheek and his jaw bone glared white against bloody hanging flesh. I raised my sidearm and hit him between the eyes. He lurched forward and fell dead at my feet.
William James – Billy Jay. That was his name. I had killed one of my own. Chaos surrounded me. I wanted to believe that none of it was real, that my mind had relented to insanity and this was all in my head. Killing innocent civilians, children, killing fellow soldiers and zombies. I only had my sidearm for protection and no other supplies or gear. Checking around I mapped out the clearest path back to the barracks to gather more supplies before heading to the mess hall to join the Officer and whoever else was left. I took another deep breath and ran back the way I had come. Head down moving fast, I slammed through the door and quickly shut it behind me. The strange silence of the barracks folded around me again. Pausing for a moment I took in the silence then went to my bunk to get my pack and weapons.
Quickly I grabbed some socks and clean underwear and stuffed them in my pack –why this seemed necessary during this chaos, I couldn’t say. I went to my foot locker and grabbed rations and loaded up with spare ammo. I put on the pack and slung my rifle over my left shoulder then paused again and looked around the empty barracks. The peace was shattered as a grenade exploded outside the door I has just come through. Wood and metal splintered and flew like bullets into the room, one hot piece of metal sliced through my cheek as I dove too late behind an over tuned mattress. If I had not been in the centre of the room, if I hadn’t stopped, I would have been at the door when the explosion ripped through the barracks. I would have died or been fatally wounded and left helpless for the infected to enjoy. I had to leave. Leave the barracks and this madness and escape before there was nothing left but bodies and monsters.
I went to the back of the building and slowly opened the back door, peering into the increasingly overcast morning. The door backed out onto the forest and from what I could see there was no one in the woods. A couple of trucks were parked beside the barracks and I could use these as cover. Stepping carefully out of the barracks, I could hear the rattle of gunfire but it seemed to be lessening. Time was running out. I had to make my move before the chaos ceased and the superiors’ came looking for uninfected soldiers. Left, right, right, left. No one around. I sprinted towards the woods not looking back to see if I had been spotted. I ran for about 10 minutes into the woods going deep into the forest until the sound of the battle had almost diminished. I ran to a big old tree and went to the opposite side to hide from view of anyone that may be coming from the base. Tentatively I peered around the tree and saw no one. One Mississippi, two Mississippi all the way to 20 Mississippi and still no one was coming. Good enough; I turned and continued to run deeper into the forest.
I deserted; I was AWOL. I had left my fellow soldiers and commanding officers behind to fight the battle while I chose to save myself. I am – I was a good soldier.
© 2011, Denise Pasutti