Chapter 20: Charlie Foxtrot
One of the most important, and yet most mind-numbingly boring, duties is sitting watchtower detail. You have nothing to do for sixteen to twenty hours but look around for movement. Ninety-nine percent of the time at the end of the day you just spent the majority of another day of your life memorizing the area around you and wishing, ironically, that nothing would happen so that all you’ve done is waste a day doing nothing. That other one percent was happening below me right now.
As a rule, watchtower is supposed to be watching for external threats to the base. Nothing about this entire situation is remotely normal though. Dead people aren’t supposed to get up and walk around. Dead people aren’t supposed to bite, and claw, and shred, and moan, and try to kill. So over the weeks I had gotten bored, and much to my discredit, had taken to watching a fifteen year old girl in the camp as she went about her day. She reminded me of my little girl, a memory that is equal parts pain and joy.
Little Jocylin died a hero, and I’ll be damned if I couldn’t be more proud of her for her actions. She bought time for the kids she was babysitting, all nine of them, to escape and be rescued by NORTHCOM base patrol. The patrol response offered to take her with them, not yet understanding the nature of infection. Somehow she knew, and closed the door to the vehicle telling them that she wouldn’t leave with them. She handed one of the kid’s insulin packs to the shotgunner, told the kids that they needed to behave for the nice men, and turned back around to re-enter our house. She fought her way through a pack of her classmates, friends, next door neighbors, fought to her room, took out the pink twenty-two I used to teach her how to shoot at the base range, wrote a short note asking for my forgiveness and understanding that she had tried her best, and blew her brains out.
The young girl I watched on the quiet days in the watchtower had that same sense of duty to the little ones. She herded them around, made sure they kept to their tasks, soothed hurts and calmed tempers, and never hesitated to do what was necessary. Today, I saw her calmly swinging a trenching tool, decapitating little forms that had once been her wards. Not five hours before, she had barely avoided joining them in undeath as she opened their tent for the day.
It was part of my morning ritual, climb up into the guard tower, relieve night-watch, wait for the first light, then watch her as she climbed out of her spider-hatch, set her gear to rights, then walk over and eat a quick breakfast. As she ate, I scanned the surrounding forest. Like clockwork, she finished her meal and I watched her go over to the tent. Three knocks, then two, then three, I mirrored her actions on the ledge of the tower. Clenching my hand, expecting her to do the same on the handle of the door, the synchronicity was broken as I saw her take two quick steps backwards. Leveling my rifle’s sights on the door-frame, I saw her stand ready with her trenching tool. No hesitation, no doubt, sorrow etched on her face, but no tears to cloud her eyes.
From a safe distance, but through the miracle of optics, seemingly right in front of my eye the door to the tent fell outward, and three small forms fell with it. Little Brandi, her hair in braids, her hands gripping…a small arm. Bite marks, rent flesh, chew marks clean through the bone. Must have been one of the toddlers. “GET CLEAR!” I shouted for my daughter to move out of the way of my line of fire. “TANGOS IN THE OPEN, CHILDREN TENT, ENGAGE TARGETS AT RANGE!” I saw movement from the farm quarter towards the tent, and as I put optics back to my eye, I saw my daughter, calmly swinging her shovel. Terminating the threat, child by child, calm as could be. A look of sadness on her face, but determination in her actions, she did what was needed. Slinging my firearm over my shoulder, I slid down the ladder and ran over to pull her away, to save her from the house, and ten yards from her, I was hit in the side. I pulled an arm free to strike and I saw Alvy’s face, her hand over my mouth, ferocity and anger in her eyes.
“Damn it Spellman, your daughter is dead! Let someone else handle her.” Alvy’s eyes calmed as she saw mine clear. “Man, it’s ok, but she’s gone. This girl, man, she hates men. I mean, she hates them. Don’t ruin it for yourself.”
Closing my eyes, I felt the present reassert itself, the chaos of memories dying and of the present danger now past. “Mmphahphaphhmmm.” Alvy’s hand left my mouth. “The kids are dead.”
“I know man. I know. Help me clear the firepit.” Alvy kissed my forehead, helped me up, and handed my rifle to a nearby Airman, pointing them up to the watchtower. Putting her arm around my waist, she walked with me towards the firepit, keeping me clear from danger, being a mom.
“How’d you know that I was in la-la-land?” I asked, more for something to talk about, than out of any genuine curiosity.
“I’ve seen you watching her. I was worried, so I kept an eye out.”
“You didn’t think I-“
“No, man. No. Don’t stress. I asked around at first, sure. Found out about your daughter and put two and two together. You weren’t giving her the kind of looks that would have set my alarm off, everyone knows where I came from, and you know I’d pick up on any Uncle Lester vibes from you. It is pretty obvious that you are still hurting, and I know that trying to raise a proxy is a way out, but this one, you need to keep clear of; she hates men in such a passionate way that I’m positive she’d stab you as soon as look at you.” Alvy squeezed my ribs companionably, slapped me on the ass and laughed. “Besides, if RUMINT is true, you ain’t interested in us señoras anyway.” As hard as I tried, I couldn’t keep the stunned look from flashing onto my face. “See, I knew it. It’s ok man, don’t stress! Don’t stress. Jesus loves you, I love you, man no stress. You know how we gossip in the barracks.” Grabbing the chains, we started to haul the grate off the pit to clear room for the bodies. “You don’t wear a ring. Nobody has ever mentioned a wife, or girlfriend, or lost love. No incest, no siblings, your mom’s been dead for a long time. Which begged the question, where’d the daughter come from? Jansen’s been on the same base with you since basic. Never saw you date, then one day you show up on base with a little person. Said you kept her on a tight line, but let her be a kid. Then, Jansen mentioned that you even tucked her in at night and that you’d always go out of your way to give her privacy. Problem is, he stammered a bit about the tucking in at night. See, I didn’t realize Jansen and you were a thing until that point. He’s way too pretty to be straight anyway.” She must have caught my sudden glare, because she followed that with, “Sorry, sorry. That was insensitive of me. But it’s true, he’s a pretty boy. He doesn’t act flamboyantly, and he doesn’t prance like some sort of ninny, but he just had this ‘I’m gay’ vibe about him. Bah, I’m fucking this up. Regardless, no, you don’t have to worry. I know you’re cool, and you ain’t no Lester. We’re good.”
Alvy smiled, and went to retrieve the shovels so we could clean out the ashes after burning…after burning the kids. My gaze turned from Alvy over to the tent. The young woman was talking to the security detail that was emptying out the tent. Every time a male asked a question, she just sneered and turned back to Roseburn and said something. It seemed like Roseburn knew about the issue and tried to include the men in the conversation, but to no avail. When Alvy came back, she sighed, “Someone needs to smack her upside the head and tell her to drop the attitude. Mom did not put up with that shit from me. Swearing, ok. Questioning her requests, ok. Raise my voice, or be rude to someone? Oh my Lord she’d have me by the ear and telling me that Jesus didn’t spend all that time in pain so that I could be rude to my fellows. No-no. Not allowed in her house, not in a house of the Lord.”
“So why don’t you take her aside and straighten her out?” I looked at Alvy in time to see her roll her eyes and jam her shovel spade-first into the ground harder than necessary.
“Because Alice told me to leave her be. Said that it wasn’t my place to tell someone to behave.”
“Rather odd order.” I looked back to see the security team carrying a litter holding little Vincente. Four people, one on each end of two 15 foot long poles, plus one guard with a sidearm aimed at the deceased. “You’d think that she’d want to remove any potential irritants.”
Once the pall bearers reached us, the lead looked at Alvy, “Ma’am, we’re not real sure we want to hold 21 funerals. Permission to perform two?”
Alvy looked thoughtful for a second, then shook her head. “Mass burn for the adults, separate burns for the little ones..”
Another of the pall bearers coughed, and looked down, the lead shook his head in turn, “Ma’am…there’s not much left of the three adults to recognize what belonged to who. We can send a WIT in and try to piece them together, but…well, honestly we’re trying to decrease the possibility of infection. That canvas is going to need some serious cle-“
A new voice spoke over him, “BIPMO.” Alice walked over and looked down at Vincente’s corpse. “This leaves Susan, and Tiffany, yes?”
“Yes, ma’am.” Alvy’s eyes narrowed, and the pall bearers wasted no time in moving back out of the way.
“Interesting. Tiffany will join me in the command tent, I have need of someone who can follow orders without question.”
The clenching sound from Alvy’s jaw mimicked walnuts breaking. “Of course. I can certainly appreciate how someone could use the mindless servitude of youth.”
“I’m not sure I take your meaning.” The Arctic was warmer; Cocytus seemed a tropic island by comparison.
“Gentlemen, you have your orders. Return Vincente to the tent and burn it in place.” Alvy dismissed the pall bearers to their grizzly task. “Spellman, if you wouldn’t mind lending a hand, we need a firebreak around the burn zone. No sense bringing the fire to the rest of the camp.”
I couldn’t follow fast enough to suit my emotions at the time. Alvy walked dangerously close to running into Alice, with Alice turning as if it was her intention all along to leave. Digging a ring around the little one’s tent, I caught sight of Susan holding onto Valerie, sobbing the tears of someone who’s between bouts of hysteria. “Ms. Valerie,” she began, “why isn’t anyone crying? The kids are gone!”
Valerie smoothed her hair down, and held her close to her side, “They are, my dear. Just inside. Everyone is rather burnt out right now, and adults don’t have the ability to release emotions in the needed fashion all the time.” She held the look herself like she wanted to cry, but simply had nothing left to give to sorrow. No one did. The camp had been beyond decimated. Seven in ten dead, and it seemed to happen all at once. The last team inserted into the well, and not two hours after people started complaining of hiccups, then uncontrollable laughter. Without warning, they went savage, and quickly looked just like the zombies. No signs of infection, no contact with zombies, no lead-up, just zero to zombie in sixty seconds.
Denton, Merryman, Rivera, Simpson, Janus, Delgado-Cortez, the list just went on and on. What was once a bustling camp, cramped but still livable, seemed a ghost town. Eighteen souls, thirty-nine with the children and crippled, but now only eighteen…. Alvy knelt as the tent was torched, and began to pray silently for those poor little lives cut short. At least, I hoped she was praying for them. Any prayers for me should be for a quick death. Almost as if she heard me, Valerie came over and looked at my face, then intently at my eyes, “Spellman, yes?”
“Yes, ma’am, what can-“
“What’s your blood type?”
“I’m O neg.”
“Alvy, you’re also O neg, yes?”
Standing up and brushing off her knees, Alvy nodded in reply. “Yeah, I’m O neg.”
“That doesn’t make any sense.”
Alvy frowned, “Val, you’re going to have to include the rest of us in your internal monologue at some point. May as well start now.”
“We’re all O neg. Every one of the eighteen left standing here are blood type O negative. Spellman was the only one, other than you, that I hadn’t already known. But according to Denton’s ramblings it shouldn’t matter what blood type you have. I’m no hematologist, but I assume Denton knew what he was talking about. Ever since we started having the chaos here in camp, I started drawing specimens to compare from people. Denton was slowly working his way through camp, analyzing blood samples and seeing if there was some way that people were just slow burners, or maybe we had a ‘Mary’, or…something…FUCK I am so tired right now.”
Hearing Valerie swear was a bit like hearing your little sister swear, she knew the words, and she tried to emphasize it right, but it just sounded…off. “Uhm, Nurse Goëring, how far along did you get in medical training?” I frowned, trying to think of a clear way to say what I was thinking when I realized all eyes were on me. “I…uh…I wasn’t sure how much knowledge we were working on here. I know there’s a library about seventy-ish miles southwest of here, and...I…uh….” My words trailed off as I realized that I was talking above my pay grade.
“Go on.” Alvy urged me on with a smile.
“Well, there’s only 18 of us. We don’t have enough folks to keep this fort up, and if we’re going to accomplish anything, we need more information than we have at hand. I can keep the crops up with water, and I think I understand about fertilizer, but Jonas was the farmer. We don’t know enough about what we need to know about to survive here in isolation. 18 is an Element, and we can keep a tight enough formation to avoid large confrontations. Four miles an hour at a forced march, we could be there in about a day. Clear out the library, set up a temporary camp, fortify the area, tear the library apart for the information we need to survive, then hike back. I don’t know how to deal with crops, but I do know how to build a wagon like the settlers used on the Oregon Trail. Load one up with books, and we’ve got ourselves a chance to at least survive the winter.”
Valerie smiled, “I thought through this already, I like the nuance with the wagon, but there are a few problems with your plan. Four miles an hour is a good pace, in daylight over level ground. I’ve picked up some survival skills from chatting with people, and in best light we’d be lucky to make two an hour over this terrain. The problems go on from there. I like your motivation Spellman, please keep thinking on this for me? Alvy is a good source of information, but sometimes information can come from unexpected or inexperienced sources.”
I sighed, a habit a lot of people had taken to lately, then sat down and watched the flames build. Valerie nodded to us, then took Susan with her and walked away. The pall bearers went back to their tasks around the fort, and Alvy sat next to me, and put her arm around my shoulder, leaning into me. “So, I have to say I’m glad you spoke up. I’ve been saying we need to leave the fort for some time, and that urgency has only increased with all of the dying, but with it only being me speaking it has seemed to be a lost cause. Now that someone else has pitched in with an idea of how to make it work, we might be able to get more people interested.”
I shook my head, “Valerie is right though, I’m inexperienced in field operations. I’m sure that nobody is going to take me seriously in this.” A scream cut through our thoughts and set both of us to running, though it took me longer to get upright as my foot slipped out from under me. Rounding the corner of the tent complex a pace behind Alvy, I stumbled again as she stopped fully. My gait carried me right into her, and caused me to fall down on the ground and look up into the eyes of…a young boy? Thirteen, fourteen at most, a wild look in his eyes, and…oh God an explosive belt. He held Valerie by the hair, and had his other hand on a plunger. From my position on the ground, I started to laugh. “Heh…heheheh…You’re the kid from the assault a few days ago, aren’t you?” I coughed as I stood up, “You know, I had completely,” cough “forgotten about you.” Shaking my head, I ran a hand along my face. My thoughts grew chaotic, and scattered as I started to feel a porcupine crawl around in my stomach. “HAOW did,” cough, “you GEHT” somehow I was walking towards him. Valerie dropped to the ground as the food released his hand from her hair. “You were FHRR,” cough, “FHRR”…
The taste of food was delicious. Liquid warmth gushing, the food was still warm, so warm…. It is shaking as I pull at its warmth…slaking my need making our need gone. No more need. No…. MORE need! Turn, look at food. Food is screaming, screaming food taste. Warmth, need more warmth. Need more…sideways, why food sideways? Food can walk on wall! Food is amazing. Why not can move? Move makers not work? Use grabbers, get food… Dark. Cold and dark. Not dark, day! Day not dark, why dark? Need food, make cold stop. Rest now. Rest.
a principle or belief, esp. one of the main principles of a religion or philosophy : the tenets of classical liberalism.
a person who occupies land or property rented from a landlord.