For the twelfth time in an hour, Bill shook his head and tried to wake himself up. This was only a dream, only a bad, bad nightmare. Through the field ahead of him another figure came rushing out of the night. The moonlight was the only thing that made fighting in these conditions possible. Bill was on the edge of a field with his squad, he had, true to Wilke's word, been promoted to sergeant at the brief ceremony two days before when the soldiers graduated. Also, true to his word Bill had raised up Ruben to act at his corporal. The old man had protested, just a bit too much in Bill's mind, but he took the job nonetheless. The squad had been called out once before their training was complete, there was an incident in the small city of Perry, IA. The military had roused them for action and they went house to house checking on all of the residents. Midway through clearing about half of their sector Wilkes had been called and told to move his men quickly towards the west edge of town and some trailer homes located there. Bill and the others had to search trailer by trailer and in the first two they found the undead waiting for them. After that bit of excitement, the rest of the fifty homes had been empty. The men returned to base at the end of the day and celebrated their victory with a few beers Ruben had scrounged up. Even John partook of the drink, which Bill didn't mind, old enough to kill meant old enough to drink a low-alcohol beverage. The entire squad was dead tired from the adrenaline rushes they had gone through during the afternoon of searching house by house for zombies, by seven o'clock that evening they had passed out like overgrown children coming back from a play date.
That was four days ago, after graduating they had immediately been sent to Sioux City Iowa, this was not supposed to be their final destination, but just a brief stop on their way to the Lincoln Nebraska area. What they arrived to find was something out of a deranged nightmare. There were a half dozen bridges across the Missouri river between Nebraska and Iowa, Bill and 'his' squad were assigned to push across a railroad bridge and take up positions on the other side, shooting all zombies they encountered, no exceptions. The official briefing given by Lieutenant Jenkins was way too vague for Bill's liking, he and another squad were all the assets allocated to what the militia was calling an area of 'light activity.' The Lieutenant was younger that Bill by almost fifteen years and seemed new at his job. Talking this over with Ruben Bill discovered that this was often the case, Lieutenants didn't know what the hell they were doing when they started any more than Bill had the day he 'graduated' from training. Ruben did know that Jenkins was a regular army, not recently drafted or promoted, which implied that the man at least had more training than most of the men he commanded.
“New Lieutenants are like a box of chocolates, you never know what you are getting. Most do okay if they have seasoned non-commissioned officers to respectfully suggest a course of action to them.” Looking Bill over Ruben said, “So ours is screwed in that respected. But he might do okay. Just think of him as your boss and you are the supervisor over this 'department.' You can run the day to day stuff and let him worry about the bigger picture stuff. If he screws up too badly, he will be replaced, probably demoted in this new world order or moved to be a rear echelon mother fucker, in charge of trucks or something. The army of my time didn't waste any resources.”
“So if I am the supervisor what does that make you?”
“Me? I am the eager young man training to take over your position and to show how much I want it, I keep this crew in line for you. You move up, I move up. Just like the business world. Of course it really isn't like that, the Army switched to promotion schedules and stuff during peace times. You know though, this is war and I might make it back to sergeant yet.” rubbing his chin thoughtfully.
“Third time's a charm, right Ruben?”
“How did you know that? Goddamn, you can't keep a secret in this army, even after five fucking decades!”
They moved out around two o'clock in the afternoon and each man had bagged a zombie or two as they pushed into the fields along River View Drive, the other sergeant, Don Williams, was given the objective of clearing out a sports complex to the north of the railroad tracks and Bill was supposed to hold the tracks proper and scout into the fields to the south. The entire area immediately close to the river was not settled, but South Sioux City Nebraska was less than a mile away. As the sun went down a steady stream of refugees started moving towards them, most were alive, but a few were bitten and infected and fewer still were undead.
Bill asked many of the people moving why they hadn't left during the day and they told him they had been told to stay put earlier, but then the military moved in after sundown and told them to leave and head east into Iowa. This didn't make any sense to Bill so he called up to the Lieutenant to confirm it. Jenkins got back to him and said no such orders had been given by either the Iowa or Nebraskan national guard, but he was checking into it. That had been six hours ago. Now they could hear William's squad firing almost constantly and Bill's men were having a hard time differentiating living from dead as they came towards them across the fields. One thing that did make it easier was that most of the living carried some belongings with them, chances were if the person coming towards you was not carrying anything it was a zombie, or a 'zed' as the men started calling them.
“Here sergeant,” said Ruben, offering him a packed sandwich. Bill took aim at the man rushing across the field and fired at his head, the thing went down, leaving him to hope it had been a zed.
“Where did you get...?” Bill asked Ruben, then shook his head, he didn't want to know. There was not a store in sight and these were not army rations. He took the sandwich and a diet soda that Ruben offered. “Thanks, you getting everyone fed?”
“Of course sergeant. We are the last to eat, feed the men first, that is my motto. I got one of the civilians to cross the tracks and bring us this stuff, enough for thirty guys, I said, he brought back fifteen sandwiches on the first load, but he looked a bit skittish when Don's squad started firing, I doubt he will be coming with that second load of food.”
Bill frowned, officially civilians were supposed to be told to move to the southern bridge on highway twenty about three miles downriver to cross that way they could be inspected and allowed to pass. But sometimes they let a few people through. All of them had to pass Ruben or one of his crony's visual inspection, which meant stripping down naked as a jaybird to make sure they didn't have any bite marks on them. Those who protested could take the walk south, most didn't. Ruben had set up a tarp to offer the people some privacy from others in line and the soldiers who were nominally protecting them.
Looking out across the field Bill saw another group of zombies coming towards them. They had not seen any people for at least an hour now, these were zombies. “Ruben. Here they come, this is a big group.”
“Yeah sarge, it is. What do you want us to do?” Ruben said back.
Bill stopped for a moment, “You love this, don't you?”
“Being here, doing this?”
“No sergeant I do not like the zombies.”
“That wasn't what I was talking about. You love being here doing this stuff. Responding to an emergency, even though you are what? Eighty?”
Ruben stiffened, “I am seventy-one, Sergeant. Not a year older. And I was retired for eight years and about bored to death of it. Now I am doing something useful again and people depend on me and if you don't mind my saying we better do something because this group here does not look small enough for us to handle on our own.” he said, pointing with his left hand.
“Oh hell.” Bill looked again to make sure he saw things right, the far edge of the field had become an undulating wave of undead. “Send someone to tell Williams we have to pull back. Someone fast.”
Bill wanted to say 'no,' then shook his head to clear that thought, Ruben took that to mean not to send John and said, “Maybe Jerome then?”
“No, no that was to myself, send John, he is probably the fastest one here. Tell him to tell Williams we are going to be up to our eyeballs in bodies in fifteen minutes and they might not make it over the bridge if they wait longer than that.”
“Okay, I will send him off and have Kirk buddy up with Larry and Vic.” Ruben ran to the north end of the line where John was and gave the young man the news. Normal soldiers had radios to speak with each other, the national guard also had decent equipment, but Max and the other squads like his had to make due with one radio per ten men and the radio was a bulky, ancient piece of equipment that was mostly battery. It did have a global positioning device on it, so the Lieutenant could find them if he needed to plot the artillery. Williams squad had been issued a radio, but it had only lasted for a day before the battery gave out. Once Ruben spoke to him, John nodded and melted quickly into the night, running off to where the sounds of gunfire were coming from in the north. Each of the ten men in the squad, Bill included, had a designated 'buddy' whom they were not to leave for anything. You stayed with your buddy unless ordered to separate, the idea was that two men would not spook as easily as one. Bill's buddy was Ruben and the two of them violated the 'always stick with your buddy' rule constantly.
“All right men, we know what to do, if they get too close we are backing up to the next line of defense.” Bill bellowed out. He had used the slow pace of the fighting this afternoon to prepare two lines to fall back on towards the bridge as the Lieutenant had directed him to do. “Jerome! Get the lieutenant on the line and tell him we need reinforcements there are too many zeds over here. Fire at will everyone.”
The gunfire bellowed into the night, knocking down zombie after zombie. Bill was confident they could handle this mob, they didn't fight back with guns of their own and they were slow moving targets. The problems that developed were all too human in nature. Jerome, nominally the radio operator, and his 'buddy' Dan's rifles both jammed at the same time. Bill was close to them so he told them to fix the guns while he provided covering fire. Jerome's was a simple matter of a shell getting stuck in the ejection mechanism, it was jammed in, but the man had a screw driver handy and shrugged off his pack to pull it out and fix his gun. Dan's rifle was another story, the man was cursing it and trying to pull the clip out to see if he could clear it, but the clip was stuck too. Bill risked a glance at what the man was doing and said, “Leave it, look at the barrel.”
Dan glanced at it and saw the bulge that had not been there before, along with a tear I the metal, “What the fuck? How'd that happen?”
“No idea, toss that piece of shit and get a club.”
“Just do it!” Bill fired into the oncoming crowd again, noticing that some of the zombies were starting to go around the edges of his position, “Fall back! Fall back now!”
Ruben echoed his cry and the men quickly left their firing positions to retreat to the next in line, which were about forty yards further back and more compact around the railroad line. The elevation and trees cleared from the edges of the tracks gave them an even better firing position than before. Once they arrived Bill looked back and saw that the field was completely filled with the shambling dead, on one side he saw three faster moving people. “Over here!” he yelled, trying to get the human's attention, “Come this way! Men provide covering fire for those humans coming in!” leading by example he cut down some of the zombies between him and the humans out near the edge of the zombie mob.
“Sarge!” Ruben was by his side, “Sarge!”
“What Ruben? What?”
“Why aren't the zeds attacking those three?”
“Maybe they don't see them.” Bill said, but even he knew how lame the words were as soon as they came out of his mouth. “Okay, I get it, watch them. Jerome? You got that rifle working yet?”
“Good give it to Dan and get on the radio to Jenkins, tell him we fell back to the secondary position and....What?” Bill stopped seeing Jerome shaking and turning pale.
“He doesn't have the radio,” said Ruben.
“I didn't mean...I just...I was getting the rifle unjammed and you said to fall back and I fell back and I forgot it.” the man said. looking miserable.
“Not to worry sarge, I'll get it,” and before Bill could say a thing Ruben was running down the tracks back the way they had come from.
“Jerome! Cover Ruben!” Bill ordered then he started firing at any zombies he could see coming towards the old coot as he ran back to their last position. “Matt, Javier, that is Ruben out there, give him some supporting fire!” Bill turned back to keep an eye on the trio of presumed humans that had been on the southern end of the mob, but he could not spot them anywhere.
Ruben's rifle fired from down along the edge of the field where they had been, they saw the flashes of the shots as well as heard the retort of his rifle. The slow moving zombies had to have passed the area they had first held by now, Bill thought, holding his breath as more gunfire rang out.
'God and country. God and country.' Ruben thought as he swerved over to the tree line from the railroad embankment. 'Why am I out here running like an old fool?' Bullets whizzed by him close enough to catch, were he so inclined, and he pushed through the first, faster zombies as he made his way back to the position where Jerome had left the pack. There, the backpack with the radio unit was on the ground at edge of the barbed wire fence. Several zombies had already tumbled over the fence pushed from behind by the others. Ruben held off on taking a shot until he was at point blank range then he fired one shot at a time, making each one count. He had just moved out of sight from his squad, they could not provide him with covering fire unless they moved up, which 'Sergeant Bill' wouldn't do, he was a good man, but green as the summer grass in the ways of tactics. Even calling him a 'Sergeant' was a stretch for a man like Ruben, who had fought the Viet Cong in the jungles of southeast Asia for two tours of duty. A real sergeant would have eaten Bill for breakfast and gone back for seconds and thirds. The way these kids were coddled today, standing around with their hands out waiting for money to go buy their video games and drugs! They were learning better now, weren't they? Ruben ducked under the slow swing of a zombie and came up to the tree where the backpack lay, he snatched it up and fired his gun one handed at the closest zombie while another got a grip on his shoulder and started to pull the old man towards his gaping maw. The zombies he was fighting were a horrifying array of shapes and sizes. Being an old Swede himself Ruben didn't pay much attention to color, but fat zombies and naked zombies stood out.
“You young hippie, you won't get me that easy!” Ruben yelled trying to pull his rifle around, but another zombie grabbed the barrel. Firing a burst didn't get the thing to let go of his rifle; it had no feelings in its hands to burn as the barrel heated up. The female holding his gun had been an attractive young woman before something had gotten to her face and the side of her neck. The zombie who had eaten off of her had taken her ear, cheek and part of the flesh along side of her left eye, leaving a gaping dark wound that dribbled a black, inky liquid down her naked torso. Ruben was no innocent recruit when it came to dirty fighting, his skills may have seen fifty years of dis-use but he still had them. If the zombie would not let go of a heated rifle barrel there were other things he could do. Instead of trying to swing the barrel sideways to aim it, he pulled it straight back, angling the butt of the gun at the young zombie's head who was trying to gnaw on his shoulder, the butt hit the younger zombie's head with a crack, but had the drawback of pulling the other zombie into Ruben. The other zombie, the 'hippie' in Ruben's mind, was also young but must have outweighed Ruben by a two to one ratio.
The young man had no visible wounds on him, his clothing looked unsoiled and it was only his opaque eyes and awkward movement that made him stand out as a zombie. His flabby arms were bare, he had on some sort of a cotton t-shirt with the arms torn off and some black pants that looked like denim. Around one leg was a bandana, which Ruben didn't think was hiding a bite mark and the thing's feet were bare, hence the "hippie" moniker. The zombies straining against the barbed wire of the fence were a mixed lot, one looked like a greaser from Ruben's era, another sort of resembled Burt Reynolds during his 'Smokey and the Bandit' days. All in all, Ruben thought there were simply too damn many of the things and if he were going to live to bring the radio back that he had better make a decision on what to do.
Clutching the backpack Ruben decided it was worth more than his gun, he dropped the weapon and took off back through the woods, pausing just long enough to pull a grenade from his belt and toss it back into the crowd milling about at the fence line. Not every soldier was issued grenades, in fact only Bill and Ruben had them; they were just not that effective against the living dead. Both the non-commissioned officers had received a fifteen-minute seminar on the appropriate time to use the devices. Thinking back on it Ruben realized this was not one of those times. He shrugged and jogged up the railroad embankment, trying not to break his ankle on the large stones making up the base. Behind him, the hippie's foot came down on the hand grenade just as it went off. The hippie was blown into a hundred different pieces, but was not dead, the body with one arm and his head still attached flew upwards through the trees, over Ruben's head and into the woods on the far side of the railroad tracks. The half naked gnawed on zombie woman was torn in half by the grenade as she turned to follow Ruben up the hill, one of the pieces of shrapnel entered behind her ear and had torn out the front of her face near her good eye, she fell silently never to rise again. Two of the zombies by the fence were also struck with pieces of the grenade in the head and stopped moving, dozens more suffered lesser wounds, which did nothing to slow them down. The explosion also cut the top wire of the barbed wire fence, causing a cascade of zombies to fall over into the light woods where the squad's first line of defense had been. Recouping and standing up the zombies who had been knocked off their feet by the blast poured through the half torn down fence like a wave.
Ruben continued stepping carefully from rock to rock as he picked his way up the railroad bed. The old man was wheezing heavily, but making steady progress. A zombie moving faster than Ruben ran towards him after springing out of the woods about twenty yards behind him. The pursuer had probably been older than Ruben when he turned, but the ancient corpse was not worried about breaking an ankle on the head sized stones that made up the base of the tracks. The zombie was gaining steadily on Ruben, despite the clear ichor coming out of its eyes making it half blind and the fact that it wore some sort of casual slippers on its blue-tinged white feet. There was nothing the old man could do, the thing was as fast or faster than he was. Ruben tossed the pack up to the top of the hill by the tracks and pulled his combat knife from his belt. The old zombie was two feet from him when it was hit by multiple gunshots from by the railroad tracks, one of the shots sprayed blood and foul smelling brain matter all over Ruben's face.
The old man wiped his hand across his face to clear his eyes and started to climb up again as the Sergeant and two other soldiers gave him covering fire.
“I figured we would have a better angle if we moved out of position.” Bill said.
Ruben nodded, “And thank you for that sarge. I think you might have saved my life.” he said with more respect in his voice.
“You looked like you had things under control.”
“Maybe. I would rather not get into a situation like that again.”
“Next time we send Jerome back, it was his radio, his responsibility,” said Bill.
“You are probably right, we coddle these kids too much these days, they got to learn to fix their own mistakes. Old men like me can't be bailing them out every time they have a problem.”
Bill nodded and continued firing into the sparsely spaced trees. “I heard your grenade. Thought you might have, well, you know.”
“Me? No, not me, not that. I will fight until the end.”
“Yeah, I see that.” Bill offered one of his grenades to Ruben, Sergeants were issued two of the six-pound explosives, Corporal's only rated one each, “Lost your rifle too. Damn.”
“Down two guns, three with John gone,” said Ruben taking the grenade from Bill.
“He hasn't come back yet.”
Both men turned to listen to the gunfire to the north of them. “He might be busy with problems of his own. I hope he is okay Sarge.” An explosion sounded from the north, as one of the other squad's grenades went off. Bill winced.
“He was the right one to send, regardless. He is the fastest runner. C'mon men let's get back to the others.” Turning they all headed back to the second line, Ruben pointedly picking up the pack before they trudged back.