Slater cursed silently as he watched the snaking rivulets of blood and saline wind over the concrete toward the rusted drain. The words of the medic were drowning in a haze of screams and weeping from the young man who lay bleeding and thrashing on the stretcher. A woman with a rag mask stabbed a thick needle through his corps fatigues and pumped him full of something thick and clear and the youth’s cries faded into a pathetic whimper. Slater shook his head as the medic addressed him again.
“Sorry, Doc…repeat that?” He focused on the medic’s green eyes, and tried to ignore the nurse who began to say a prayer through her mask.
“I said, ‘What the hell happened to him?'” The man’s brow was furrowed in frustration. The Captain was distracted for a split second as the gleam of sunlight flashed off a wickedly serrated saw blade being passed between blood-soaked hands.
“Not sure. I have the other two in my office waiting to report.” His stomach churned as the saw began to grind at bone with a growl.
Slater didn’t respond, but shot the medic a look that needed no explanation.
“Doctor Tagget?” The woman’s voice was shaky, and she choked on her own words. The old man turned from Slater and walked to the side of the table. The two bent over something near the unconscious man’s right leg, and exchanged bitter glances.
“What is it?” Slater chose to remain a safe distance from the mangled man.
The doctor turned, and Slater saw it in his eyes before he spoke, “A bite mark. Inflamed and infected.” The sentence had been read and stamped. The nurses and medics all took a collective step back from the man who still whimpered in his narcotic stupor, quickly stripping their gloves and checking themselves for any possible points of contact.
Slater didn’t waste a moment. With a grimace he drew his sidearm and took a single step forward. The medics all flocked behind him quickly and several covered their eyes. One said the Our Father. As Slater took aim, the youth turned his head and moaned sadly, his eyes cracking open just enough for the Captain to see his tear-soaked blue eyes.
The crack of the pistol seemed to follow Slater down the hallway and around the corridors of Zyracuse Central. He heard it as clear as he saw those blue eyes, pleading with him for a salvation he could not offer.
He slammed his own office door so hard the two figures seated inside jumped a clear foot from their chairs.
“Someone had better tell me what the hell happened, and it better be a damn good story!”
Of the two figures that stood in front of him, only the shorter looked him in the eyes. She was young too, perhaps 30. Her frame was lean and hard, with what might have once been a pretty face. Now it was worn, lined, and circled in the typical, post-outbreak weariness. The moniker “Pygmy” was painted on her vest.
Slater drove his own gaze right back at her, “Well?”
She cleared her throat, “Sir…we were on a sweep patrol by the old VINTA building. We split to circle and clear around the building…I went with Don, and Edward…” she tried to control the sneer on her face, but Slater noticed it–the subtle stain of rage, “…went with…with Susan.” Slater didn’t need a manifest from Clipboard to know that Susan hadn’t come back from the patrol.
Slater brushed a piece of dust from his uniform as she continued, “We had only circled a quarter of the building when we heard the scream and a few shots. Don and I made fast for the other side,” she was flexing her fists now, her nails cutting deep into the skin of her palms, “Susan was screaming. Edward was on the ground.” With each sentence, her voice grew more agitated and ragged, “There was a door, Sir. A side door–all boarded up. Zack was charging out like the Macy’s Parade. Sue was…was already down.” A tear started to escape from the corner of her eye but she blinked it back furiously.
“She wasn’t dead…She, she had to, to herself…”
Slater was taken aback at the rage in her gaze as she snapped back at him.
“You don’t understand a frigging thing!” She wheeled on Edward and the thin man flinched and shrank away, “You opened a sealed door, you moron! You didn’t listen, you didn’t check or call or use your freaking brain for one goddamn second before you just pulled it open!” She was screaming now, her booted feet carrying her to within an inch of Edward’s wincing face.
“Harley,” Edward tried to get a word in, but the woman didn’t pause her tirade.
“She died! Susan dead! Don’s…” she turned back to look at Slater with a question in her tear-brimmed eyes.
Slater didn’t say anything, but the answer to her question was etched into his dispassionate gaze. A storm raged in her eyes, and she sucked ragged breaths through her teeth. The grime on her face was etched clean as tears started to roll down her cheeks.
She rounded on Edward and struck him with the back of her fist, sending the slight man sprawling to the floor in a heap, “It should’ve been you! It should’ve been freaking you!”
Slater grabbed her by the shoulders and pulled back as she used her booted foot to kick him hard in the stomach. Edward made a sound like a deflating balloon and started to whimper.
“Enough!” Slater summoned his hard-edged voice to cut through the chaos. Pygmy went limp in his arms–he could feel her taking slow, uneven breaths. On the floor Edward still wept.
“I’m sorry…God, I’m sorry…”
“Get out of here, Edward.” Slater’s voice was devoid of compassion for the simpering man; it was only his position as Captain that disallowed him from letting the enraged woman pummel him into a greasy stain on the floor. There was nothing worse that a soldier who made careless mistakes–careless mistakes that cost lives.
Neither Slater nor Harley looked at Edward as he gathered his thin frame from the floor and slunk from the room. As he exited, Slater barked another order.
“Go see Chuck in the stock yard for reassignment. You’re off Corps.” The frigid words made Edward collapse into himself even more. He uttered a barely audible affirmative before closing the door behind him.
Harley slumped into a chair, clearly still hysterical.
“He’s useless. Do you know what he did before the outbreak?” She picked at her raw and bleeding fingertips as she spoke.
Slater shook his head.
“He was an opera singer,” she laughed mockingly, “a freaking opera singer. What the hell good is he for anything?!” She knocked her head back against the wall a few times, “I was a baker; I was a damn good baker before people stopped eating donuts and started eating brains.” She laughed, lost in memories, “The first zombie I ever killed? I did it with a rolling pin–not one of those small home kitchen pins, but a real chef’s pin. It was two and a half feet long and solid oak, best damn ZED I ever had.” She raised her gaze to meet her Captain’s eyes.
“I can cook. I can kill. Two skills that mean something. Susan was a welder. Don was a carpenter. They both could help. Ed? Ed’s a freaking singer. He’s a waste of breath, and it should have been him that Zack ate today.” She was calming now, her hysterics replaced with calm rage.
Slater didn’t disagree with her, either to himself or aloud. He cast he gaze out the window over the sprawling expanse of Zyracuse Central and the infected city beyond the makeshift walls.
“See the docs for an Adavan, and then get some rest. We’ll do services this afternoon.”
She nodded mutely, and stood. She looked at her feet as she exited, and Slater watched her go with a sick feeling in his stomach. After the door closed on its squeaking hinges, he slumped behind his desk. With a weary hand he pulled a bottle of amber liquid from his desk drawer and filled a glass.
Sipping slowly, he closed his eyes and tried to make the world go away.
The third time Chuck dropped his inventory list he swore and slammed his hook into the wood of a nearby crate. The steel point buried into the soft pine, but the shock made Chuck gasp in pain that lanced through his arm and sent a red-rimmed cloud over his vision. He bit his lip and tried to ignore the stares from the others helping him taker stock of the container.
“You okay, Chuck?” Elisha paused his count and came to Chuck’s side, gently touching him on the shoulder. Chuck shrugged him off with a terse smile.
“Fine, Eli. Just fine.” He tugged at the hook gently until in pried loose from the crate. Once it was free, Chuck tasted the copper tang of blood on his lips; he had bit through them to stifle the groans as he had wrenched the fresh appendage free.
“You know,” offered Eli, “I could record for you if you wanted…you just tell me what to do and I’ll be your right han…er…you assistant.” Chuck glanced sideways at the youth and shook his head.
“Thanks for the offer, but we’ll take forever if we don’t all work.” He lifted his steel hook and grinned sardonically, “After all…many hands makes light work, no?”
Eli chuckled unsurely, and Chuck didn’t blame him. He had only had the hook for a few weeks, and it was still a sore spot to the former Corps member. Chuck was lucky to have gotten the hook, considering prosthetics was not exactly a common trade in the Zone. He had been off Corps rotation while he healed up…but he had a sinking feeling that Slater was not about to let him back out into Zombieland with only one opposable thumb.
He stopped and lifted the clipboard again as Eli went back to counting dry rations in one of the many crates that filled the cargo container. When Chuck stood, he saw a slight man standing in the sun-lit portal of the crate; he stood slouched, and pressed a hand to a rapidly swelling face. Chuck groaned internally.
Another reject…just like himself.
“Let me guess…you screwed up?” Chuck didn’t try and sound too friendly, but his voice had a natural genial lilt that always made it difficult to sound upset or angry. The corners of Edward’s mouth twitched slightly.
“Yeah,” he said.
Chuck shook his head, “Welcome to rejects-r-us!” He waved his metal hand and motioned for the thin man to come inside the container. Chuck waved his arms in the air as he drew Edward in, “So…would you like to count rations, or dry goods, or supply kits?” He flipped though his clipboard and pulled out a blank inventory sheet and a fresh pencil — balancing the board on his hooked arm.
Edward mumbled, “Whichever you need…I guess.” Chuck smiles, and pointed him toward a stack of crates, their splintering planks stenciled with the words, “Med Sply – BZ SYR.”
“Start counting,” Chuck gave his a gentle shove toward the piled crates, “I’ve got to take a leak.” The others laughed, and Edward slouched toward the work. With a wave, Chuck ran to the nearest bare field and relieved himself as slowly as he could, relishing the fresh air and the sunlight on his face. Zipping up, he took his time walking through the Zone, all the while rubbing the red-streaked flesh that sprouted from beneath his hook.
A passing child paused to stare at him, and Chuck leaned over to whisper in his ear.
“Don’t tell anyone…but I’m a pirate in disguise.” He winked, and the child laughed and ran to join his mother’s side. She glanced back at him through a wave of gold hair, and Chuck’s heart ached in his chest.
Gritting his teeth behind his smile, he waved and continued walking, “At least I’m good for something,” he thought, “I can hold hangers, and impersonate a pirate…oh the doors that will open before me!” He envisioned what he would do when he caught the bastard that gave him this hook — he would be his own personal Peter Pan.
“And clapping won’t do you a bit of good when I’m done with you.” He relished the violent fantasy for a moment before it was interrupted by a loud crash from inside the container in front of him. The sound of splintering wood was followed by angry and pained cries.
Chuck sprinted over the remaining tarmac and stopped in the doorway. Several crates had been knocked off their stacks, and their contents were scattered over the rusted metal floor. Two workers held Eli between them, his face divided by several thick streams of blood than ran from a lacerated scalp where it appeared the crate had hit him. His eyes were glassy but open when Chuck ran to his side.
“What the hell happened?!” Chuck sounded angry now…but it took all his will to do so.
Eli mumbled incoherently, but the women to his left shot a growl and a glance toward the slim figure standing on top of the crates, “Stupid frakker knocked the crates over and they hit Eli.” She swore rudely, “Nearly knocked his head in and took out a bunch of supplies at the same time…good job, moron!”
Only then did Chuck look down and realize that his booted foot was standing in the crushed remains of glass vials and thick, clear liquids. He stooped and picked one up, turning the broken glass to read what was left of the label, “-sulin.”
He didn’t say anything, but helped the others shift Eli out of the container and toward the Med wing. Chuck knew he would be fine…but the loss of the medicines weighed heavily on him.
When he came back, the container was empty except for a single figure sitting behind a crate. Edward’s arms were wrapped around his thin chest and he rhythmically banged his head against the crate behind him.
“I think it’s best if you took the day off, son.” Chuck tried not to feel sorry for the man, but he knew he would fail when Edward stood and his face was streaked with tears. He tried to speak to Chuck through broken sobs.
“Oh God, I’m…I’m sorry.” He buried his face in his hands, and wept openly.
Chuck put on a mock serious tone that sounded not-coincidentally like a parody of Slater, “Now cut that crap out.” He knocked Edward upside the head gently. Edward look at him angrily.
“Don’t be nice to me! Don’t you see what I frakking did?!” He slammed his fist into the wall, “I nearly killed another person today…I was going for the freaking triple-threat! First Sue, then Don, now Eli!” His voice was thundering loud, and Chuck winced in the narrow confines of the container.
“Eli will be fine…” Chuck tried to offer.
“It doesn’t matter! Why don’t I go set fire to a nursery, or let a zombie into the school zone, just to top it off?!” He pushed Chuck’s hand away, “You don’t get it! I’m worthless!” His face was contorted and snarling; his eyes flashed madly.
Chuck slapped him. Hard.
Edward stopped in shock and held his hand to his face. Chuck had hit him on the opposite side of his freshly bruised visage, but a lefty would have to do. He wanted to stop him, not blind him. Edward didn’t shout any more, but slumped back down along the crate.
Chuck sat beside him.
“You screwed up.” He said, “So has every other person in the Zone, myself included.” Chuck’s channeled his inner Yoda and tried to shape his words of wisdom carefully.
“So you screw up once, or twice, or…” he winced, “three times maybe…but that doesn’t mean you get to act like a spoiled teenager.” He patted Ed’s shoulder with the side of his hook, and hoped the youth took the gesture as supportive.
“You need to find what you can do. Only you can figure that shit out, man. But you’re sure as hell not going to figure it out throwing a temper tantrum.” He watched Edward’s face closely, and he felt the other man’s breathing begin to slow.
“Hey…look at me!” He held up the hook, “I screwed up big time.”
“But you didn’t kill anyone.” Edward protested.
“How do you know?!” Chuck retorted, “How do you know that someone who dies next week wouldn’t if I was still on patrol, rather than counting bags of rice?” It was a thought that had occurred to him many times, and he hated saying it out loud.
Edward nodded, and said nothing.
Chuck looked outside at the sun as it grew crimson on its drop to the horizon. He took a deep breath, and stood up.
“Why don’t you go get some rest? Sleep it off if you can, and in the morning we’ll try again.”
Edward looked up at him, and Chuck thought he saw a glimmer of hope in his eyes. He offered his good hands and Edward stood.
“Thanks, Chuck.” He mumbled.
“Don’t mention it. Now get out of here.” He pushed Edward out of the container into the evening light. As the thin man slipped out of view, Chuck looked down at his own hand and hook, and swore to himself as the sunlight reflected in the mirror pools of insulin, morphine, and antibiotics that slowly soaked into the wooden crates or evaporated from the steel floor.
There was no moon that night, and the sky had slipped into a deep black that hid what remained of the Syracuse skyline. Shafts of feeble yellow and orange light failed to pierce deep into the night as they pulsed in time with the sputtering generators. Dark silhouettes walked the fences with LED flashlights that created ghostly blue-white clouds that jumped back and forth in the distance.
Inside the Zone, barrel fires tried to cheer the prevailing gloom. The small oases of light were all ringed-round with hunched figures with glazed eyes; the few voices that spoke did so in weary, muted tones.
Edward didn’t join a fire; he hid in the darkest corner he could find, and waited for sleep to overtake him. He pulled the ragged blankets taught over his lanky frame, and buried his face in the rough material of his makeshift pillow as he tried to erase the images in his head. He clenched his eyes tight and wished for oblivion.
Susan screamed as a dozen rotting teeth shredded her uniform, ripping through her flesh and showering the undead faces with fresh blood. She screamed and screamed and screamed as they tore her open and pulled her insides out onto the pavement — the gray sausages of her intestines coiling over her feet. He heard Don bellow as he waded into the throng, trying to save Susan. He bashed zombies left and right with a baseball bat. Susan fell to her knees as they ripped open her face. Her eyes met Edward’s for a split second before she lifted her pistol into her own still-screaming mouth through the curtain of clawing gray hands and pulled the trigger…
Edward woke in a pool of his own sweat. his blankets clinging to his skin in wet patches. He couldn’t see anything through the darkness, and his ears still rang with the sound of Susan’s screams and the pounding of his own heart. He held the flat of his hand to his chest and tried to breath through the anxiety, but his chest began to heave and tremble.
He didn’t fight the tears as they started falling down his face.
A few seconds passed before Edward realized that the screams were not the echoes of his lingering nightmare, but a real voice cutting out from the pitch black interior. Somewhere in the zone, a child was crying. The small voice echoed round and round the building, seeming to come from everywhere at once.
Edward listened for a minute, and then caught the edge of a second voice adding it’s wails to the first — another small infant crying out in fear against the dark. A third voice joined, and then a fourth; the despair of Zyracuse was manifest in that moment in the weeping of children, and Edward hung his head and pressed his hands to his ears.
Here and there, adult voices rang out in barks and mutters and attempted soothings, but nothing could abate the chorus of mournful cries. Edward felt himself start to rock back and forth, his breath becoming panicked and shallow. He pressed his pillow to his face and moaned into it softly, but the screams of children were not stopped by stuffed canvas.
Edward screamed; he screamed into his pillow and beat his head against the concrete. A few voices nearby perked-up in angry reprimand, but Edward didn’t hear them. He rose from his bedroll and ran through the darkness and weeping, tripping over other prone bodies and leaving a trail of curses behind him. He groped through the darkness and pushed figures out of his way.
He pushed open a door and was climbing — the screaming at his back following him through the darkness as he fled from it like a wounded rabbit. He climbed, and pushed through several more doors before he felt the cool wind on his face, and the screams became muted behind walls of steel and stone. The stars glimmered above him in defiance of the black moon.
Edward slumped against an exhaust vent and stared up into the dusty blanket of distant suns. His hands slowly dragged over the tar-stained gravel that coated the roof of Zyracuse. Through the resonant steel of the exhaust pipes he could still hear the faint note of crying from far below. The voices all blended into one sound as they rose through the building, and Edward found himself humming it as he starred up at the night sky, and the stars winking back at him.
“E lucevan le stelle,” He sang softly.
The stars were shining.
“ed olezzava la terra, stridea l’uscio dell’orto.”
And the earth smelled sweet, the garden gate scraped…
His voice rose a note, and he let the song come ringing out of his chest and throat; he let it flow through his head. It was a memory from an era long-past; a useless tune sung by a useless man. He let the song wash his thoughts away on a stream of melody. HIs voice crescendoed, and the roof was his stage. He rose and spread his arms wide as his voice rolled over the hushed airport.
The song echoed through the air vents and mixed with the sounds of children crying far below. One by one, the childrens’ sobs stuttered and paused as their ears perked toward the voice from above. The black expanse of restless figures slowly slipped to dreamless sleep as Edward lulled them gently.
“E un passo sfiorava la rena.”
And a step brushed the sand.
Edward sang. Elsewhere, Harley rolled over in her sleep and ceased her soft murmuring. He face relaxed and the lines of pain and fear smoothed on her face.
“Entrava ella fragrante, mi cadea fra la braccia.”
She came in, fragrant, and fell into my arms.
In his own cot, Chuck listened for a second, and smiled. He stopped thinking about tallies, and thought of his daughter and happier days.
In the dark corner of his office, Slater let his cold mask slip, and he pulled a picture from his desk of a brown-haired woman. He touched her smiling face as the voice drew tears from eyes he thought long-dry.
Edward’s voice carried far without any other sounds to pollute it; it slowly rolled out over the vast dark of surrounding area, and danced and twisted among broken buildings and gently swaying trees.
Shuffling in the dark, miles and miles away, shambling figures heard the song and paused to raise their decaying faces and clouded eyes to the dark sky before they continued their awkward gait into the night.