The three dead guys in my squad kept making too much noise. They shuffled their feet, dragging tattered boots through the underbrush, and every loud rustle, every crunch from their clumsy steps made the rest of us cringe. The living had dark stains growing down the armpits and backs of our shirts despite the cool air. There was a lot of armed resistance in these mountains — people who hated the war, sheltered re-sols, and would consider it a great moral victory to wipe out a Reanimator Squad. I’d briefed everyone before the insertion, but you never knew how much dead men really understood. They didn’t blink or nod or grunt. They just stared with eyes as black and empty as the graves we stole them from.
I held up my fist and brought the column to a halt.
Johnson, my second-in-command, moved up the column and crouched down at my side with his rifle ready. “What’s wrong, Captain?”
“Not sure, yet,” I told him. I nodded toward the trail ahead of us. We were taking a back route to our target, following an old logging road that wound its way higher into the mountains. In front of us the road curved past a rock formation, a field of boulders that had dribbled down from the mountain over the past millennium. I wasn’t getting a happy feeling. “Take Travell and scout around those rocks.”
Johnson glared at me. “Send the damned re-sols, Rick. Why do we keep resurrecting the things if we’re still taking all the risks?”
I grabbed Johnson’s shirt and pulled him in close. He stank of four days of sweat and fear and proximity to dead things. “I need someone scouting ahead who can actually think. Yours is the closest I’ve got here to an actual functioning fucking brain, so get moving!”
Johnson pulled away, angry, but he obeyed orders. He shoved Private Travell out in front of him and crept down the trail, rifle barrel sweeping back and forth.
I didn’t really blame him. We all had the same question. Just what in the hell were the re-sols for? What good were they other than getting good soldiers very dead? They couldn’t fight worth shit. The only reason I had them along was that someone with too many stars on their chest thought it hypocritical for a Reanimator Squad to go on a mission without a few reanimated soldiers along for the ride. All I could do was say yessir and shove some of the rotting meat onto the chopper with us. Johnson follows my orders, I follow the General’s orders, and the re-sols ignore us all. Makes me wonder sometimes who the real zombies are.
My unease paid off. Johnson and Travell tripped the ambush. Travell was killed right off, a machine gun burst catching him square in the chest and blowing right through his body armor. The rebels had to move out of cover to engage us or it might have been much worse. As it was, the fight was over in less than a minute. For some reason they stopped firing halfway through the battle. I thought I saw one of them put his hands up, but by the time I thought about telling my men to cease fire, it was over. We don’t have much use for live prisoners, anyway.
In addition to Travell, another one of my squad was blown in half and a re-sol lost its leg. I watched the stupid zombie bastard hop around on one foot, carrying its dismembered leg flung over its shoulder. Its rifle was nowhere to be found.
Great. Just fucking great.
“Six resistance dead,” Johnson reported. “Three are reanimatable.”
Johnson made a sick face. “He’s one of our own, sir. Can’t we let him be?”
I’d always liked Travell. The thought of having to stick a needle in his ear and watch him shuffle along, gray and vacant-eyed made me a little sick too. “We have our orders.”
“Fucking orders,” Johnson scowled and snapped a crisp salute. “Yes sir, Private Travell is reanimatable, sir. He’ll make a good rifle-toting reanimated zombie fuck, sir!”
I sighed and broke open a fresh case of syringes.
Our mission had two parts. We were supposed to be marching toward an old battlefield, looking for intact corpses. Research said there might be a few thousand buried there, a gold mine of dead bodies. The primary objective, as always for a Reanimator Squad, was to create reanimated soldiers, or re-sols. The brass called it ‘recruiting’. Not enough living men to fuel the war machine? Well, fuck it, lets get us some dead ones. They’re almost just as good.
Except, of course, they weren’t. I eyeballed the one-legged re-sol. It was trying to put its leg back on like it was pulling up a sock and didn’t seem to understand why the leg kept falling back off. It was messy, and the stupid bastard still hadn’t found its rifle. Our medic hadn’t taken a look yet. If it couldn’t be repaired we were down one re-sol. I could make plenty more, but I’d be a lot happier if I didn’t have to use a shovel to get them.
Our secondary objective was to ferret out some of the resistance in these mountains. Lots of hippie, anti-war, “free-the-zombies” dickheads lived out here. If that were all they were, there probably wouldn’t be a secondary objective, but more and more of their protests involved car bombs and mountain ambushes to prove the war was really our fault.
Any resistance we were able to reanimate was a bonus.
“Leg won’t reattach,” my medic told me. “Flesh too decayed. It needs a good week to repair itself.”
Of course we didn’t have a week.
“I can do it if you want,” the medic said.
“No. I’ll do it.” I walked over to the re-sol. It was leaning against a tree, still fucking with its leg. I pulled my pistol and thumbed the safety. The slug took it right between the eyes and sprayed putrid brain matter all over the tree. Gray chunks, laced with a million nanomachines hidden to the naked eye, dripped down the bark.
Six months ago, it had been a living creature, one of my most trusted men. He had kids. I think. It was hard to keep them all straight anymore. The other re-sols all stopped what they were doing to stare at me. I wanted to yell at them to fuck off and go back to work, but I didn’t want the other men to see a couple of stupid re-sols getting under my skin. They’re trained to react to gunshots is all.
Still creeped the fuck out of me.
“Let’s get moving,” I told everyone. “Let’s find these graves so we can go home.”
Travell, or the mass of flesh and bone that used to be Travell, picked up its rifle and fell in line. It never took its eyes off the re-sol I’d just shot.
“How much do you think they feel, Captain?” Johnson asked me.
That was the endless debate among those lucky few rich enough to have avoided that draft, smart enough not to have enlisted, or wounded enough to escape the reactivations. How much did the re-sols feel? I looked at the spray of brain matter against the tree.
How much do any of us feel these fucking days?
We found the graveyard two days later, on the slope of a hill just outside the ruins of an old ski resort town. It was one of the early battles in the war against our ‘capitalist empire’, perhaps meant as a symbol, something about destroying leisure and decadence or some such shit. No one really remembers anymore. All anyone except the rebels cared about these days was that the front line was far away, and that the government and Reanimator Squads like mine churned out more and more re-sols to make sure it stayed away.
The graves themselves were nothing more than mounds of earth heaped over the dead, mass pits that had been dug with heavy machinery, the most efficient and impersonal way to deal with lots of dead people. I’d learned to spot a mass grave at a glance over the past couple of years.
We broke out the shovels and started digging. There were a lot of things that sucked about being on a Reanimator Squad, but digging up bodies deep in the backcountry had to be the worst of the lot. It was hot, muddy, and smelly work with nothing but a shovel and the strength of your back. The re-sols weren’t much help here either, managing one good shovelful every hour or so.
The Travell re-sol stood there and pecked at the ground.
“Get your ass moving, you stupid hunk of meat,” Johnson said, jabbing Travell with the handle of his shovel. Johnson sighed and pulled out a cigarette. When he flicked the lighter, Travell took several steps back, the most it had moved all morning. They were programmed to stay away from open flames. They didn’t have enough juice in them, the nanomachines kept them just lubed enough to walk, and they tended to burn like dusty, rot-scented candle wicks.
“I don’t know why they insist on sending them out with us,” the medic said. “They aren’t made for digging.”
“They aren’t made for much of anything,” Johnson said. “As far as I can tell, they only have one real job. To remind me I need to see it coming.”
“See what coming?”
“It. Death. I need to stay sharp enough, stay alive just long enough to put a round through my brainpan,” he tapped his head with fingers shaped like the barrel of a pistol. “I don’t want to come back as one of them. I’m not spending eternity digging holes in the fucking ground.”
My shovel struck something. I reached down and pulled up an arm. It looked like a blackened stick, with the tatters of a sleeve still attached like flannel colored leaves. I tossed it aside.
“Got something,” another soldier called out. “Couple of legs, looks like. Anyone need a spare?”
“Looks like you shot our re-sol too soon, Captain,” Johnson snorted.
Finding good bodies was harder than it would seem. The war didn’t leave many of them intact. For the next hour we dug up pieces. We created a trash pit for the unwanted bits and started a pile. We kept a heavy supply of phosphorous grenades on hand, good for torching large piles of body parts that can’t be used for anything other than breeding diseases, and we popped a few into the pit before we left.
Around noon the next day we finally stumbled across the motherlode — hundreds of corpses piled on top of each other, all reanimatable. We’d reanimate twenty or thirty of them ourselves, enough labor to help us clear a landing area for the choppers, then call in for reinforcements. With a little luck, the army could have a couple extra battalions within the week. It was a big find and the men were excited. Sometimes we got a few days of leave if we hit it big.
We laid out the best corpses and I pulled out the reanimator kits. This part bothered me for some reason. I don’t mind so much making them dead, but I always get a little queasy just before bringing them back. It’s not that I’m convinced there is some special place for people after they die, but every time I get ready to reanimate I have to wonder… what if there was? What if these people were sitting in some paradise, sipping fruity drinks and staring at perky angel tits, and we’re yanking them away just to be our zombie soldiers? That sort of shot the whole idea of being good in life so you could be rewarded later all to shit.
“What do you think happens after you die, Johnson?”
“You get a needle jammed in your fucking ear and it starts all over again,” Johnson said, glaring at me.
The needle crunched as it penetrated the eardrum and drove into the brain. I pushed the plunger and injected a pale protein that contained millions of nanomachines. The busy little machines would go to work repairing and reprogramming. Johnson and I went down the line. It took about an hour for the first effects to be noticed. A little twitch here and there. It would be a couple more hours before they were on their feet.
While we waited, I wandered around the hill, looking for other sites I could direct the diggers toward. There were at least two others that looked promising. Travell followed me, keeping guard like a dutiful soldier. I’d made it just out of sight of the main dig and was marking a site with a yellow dig flag when a rebel burst out of the trees and ran at me, his rifle aimed dead center. My own rifle was still lying back next to my shovel.
“Shoot him,” I yelled at Travell, trying to draw my pistol. “Shoot him! Shoot him!”
I watched the rebel run toward me, waiting to see the bright muzzle flash that would be the last sensation I ever had… until I’d feel a needle crunch into my ear. But the rebel surprised me. He stopped a few feet away and lowered his rifle. “My God. You really alive?”
What the fuck?
“Uh, Captain Richard Fitzpatrick, Third Battalion Reanimators,” I told him, trying not to sound unmanned. My knees were shaking. “You almost got yourself shot there, buddy.”
“Didn’t mean to frighten you. We just didn’t think there was anyone else alive out here,” he gave a nervous glance at Travell and moved closer. “We thought the re-sols had finally…” A loud roar drowned out his last word as his brains splattered all over my face. Travell just stared over the smoking barrel of his rifle, unblinking.
Better late than never, I guess. Fucking re-sols.
The rebel, or whatever the hell he’d been, seemed to be alone, but I went back to the men and put them on high alert. As soon as the new re-sols were moving around we’d get to clearing a landing zone. I wanted this place under heavy guard by this time tomorrow. I was definitely not getting a happy feeling here.
I picked up my rifle, went into my tent, and took a few deep breaths.
I was surprised to find I was still shaking. I’d been shot at many times, but for some reason I couldn’t get the image of a needle out of my mind. Would I remember anything? When the squad reanimated me, would I remember that I was once their Captain, or would I just shuffle along until the new Captain splattered my brains all over a tree somewhere? Maybe Johnson had it right after all. A round through my brainpan and a one-way trip to the afterlife.
“Captain!” of the men called. His voice cracked. “I think you’d better see this.”
I swore. Can’t a man get a moment, here? I popped my head out of the tent. “What the hell has gotten into you?”
The man pointed, his finger trembling.
Re-sols. An army of them.
One of them, he must have died somewhere in his fifties because a little gray hair still clung to his head, stood only a few paces away, aiming a rifle right at my head. I could only stand there, stunned, as Travell shuffled over to me and pulled my own rifle from my hands. They led us back to the main dig and within minutes, the entire squad was captured without a shot fired.
Travell handed me a shovel. The gray-haired re-sol pointed to the graves and mimed digging motions.
They wanted us to dig up the rest of the bodies.
They kept us in our tents when we weren’t digging, which wasn’t very often. We’d been digging for five days, and hundreds of corpses were stacked alongside the ditches. There were only four of us left from my squad and a dozen other men, once mountain rebels. The rest of my men had died of exhaustion or starvation. Finally the re-sols had tossed us into the tents to regain our strength. They’d left us a few meal packs, but all the rest of our equipment was gone, dumped by the re-sols into the trash pit.
“Welcome to the mountains, Captain,” an emaciated rebel with curly black hair said to me. The man extended a hand heavily calloused from digging. “Rudolph Halloway.”
“Captain Fitzpatrick. How long have you been here like this?”
“Almost from the beginning,” Halloway said. “A few months.”
He shrugged, his eyes almost as gray and hollow as the re-sols. “We thought we were helping the re-sols, sheltering them here in the mountains, protecting them from guys like you. I don’t know what changed. A few months ago we found them trying to dig up dead bodies and reanimate them.”
“Jesus,” Johnson said. “I didn’t know they could do that.”
“We didn’t either, but it worked,” Halloway said. “They started increasing their numbers. We tried to stop them, but they turned hostile. There were about a thousand of us living in these mountains once. I guess there’s only a hundred or so left.”
“Serves you right, you son of a bitch,” Johnson told him. “For fighting against your own country.”
“Remember that loyalty when you get a needle punched into your head,” Halloway replied. “The only difference between you Reanimator Squads and these re-sols is they don’t bother waiting until you’re all the way dead.”
“They stick you when you’re alive?!” Johnson turned white.
Halloway just nodded his head in the direction of one of his men, lying on the floor, curled into a ball. He hadn’t eaten yet. His buddy crouched near him and held food up to his lips, trying to get him to eat, trying to hide him from the re-sols. It didn’t work. Several re-sols edged near, watching. It went on for about an hour before the re-sols dragged him out of the tents, his heels leaving trenches in the dirt.
“Poor bastard. I knew he wasn’t going to last the day,” Halloway said. “They usually don’t remember to feed us, and when you get too tired or hungry, when you slow down in any way, then you get stuck.” He gave us an accusing look. “You should have let them stay dead. They deserved that much at least.”
Johnson was still staring at the heel marks in the dirt.
There were actually two distinct types of nanomachine suspended in the protein we used. One was designed to repair damaged tissue, but they would be inert when introduced to healthy tissue. The other was designed to form a new neural network in the brain that acted as a command station for the re-sol. It was assumed the brain was no longer functioning when it went to work. What would it do to a live brain?
We heard the man begging from our place inside the tent, then the begging turned to screams.
It was a long time before the screaming stopped.
The re-sols gave us the night to rest, then we were back at work on the graves at daybreak. My squad was exhausted, but I could only imagine what Halloway and the others had been through. We’d only been working a few hours when another one of his men dropped. This time we watched first hand as the gray-haired re-sol produced a syringe and stuck it in its own arm, drawing out some pale liquid.
The fallen man screamed as the needle punctured his eardrum and the thin spike drove millions of little machines into his brain.
“Programmed to replicate,” our medic said. “Of course.”
“It’s how a re-sol repairs damage to itself. The nanomachines are programmed to replicate. It must be what’s driving the re-sols. Somewhere along the way they just forgot to stop.”
Programmed to replicate. Jesus.
Over the next few days, the men fell one by one. I watched Halloway get weaker and weaker until he too was stuck. Soon it was just Johnson and I and a couple of rebels left. None of us would last a week and I was pretty sure Johnson only had a day or two left. I watched him shuffle along as we took armloads of body parts and dumped them into the trash pit. Poor bastard.
He must have seen it in my eyes. He stared at me for a moment, then started backing away, crying. “I don’t want to be reanimated, Captain. Oh god.”
He stumbled over something in the trash pit and landed deep in the gore. He pulled himself to his feet and glanced around, afraid the re-sols would drag him off for tripping. Then he noticed something in the pit and stopped. My eyes followed his.
It was one of our squad’s gear bags.
Johnson gave a tug on the flap, and I could see some food, several grenades, and the butt of a pistol. Johnson looked up to see where the re-sols were, then glanced back down at the pistol. I knew what he was thinking. One through the brainpan.
“Johnson,” I said.
He turned toward me. “I can shoot you first, Captain. They won’t get either of us. I promise.”
Johnson nodded, but he wasn’t really listening. He already had the pistol in his hand and was working the safety.
“Johnson,” I said carefully. “The grenades. Re-sols burn.”
“We can get out of here.”
I pushed the pistol down out of my face and reached for the gear bag. Some of the re-sols were noticing that we weren’t working. We had to go now or we’d lose our chance.
I popped the tab on a couple of the grenades. I lobbed one right in the middle of the tents, and the other right in the middle of the re-sols. The searing white light blinded us for a second, then it was chaos.
Johnson started firing the pistol as the fire blazed along the tents, caught up the corpses not yet reanimated, and started licking its way up the trees. A few re-sols stumbled out of the burning tents, lurching around blindly as flames engulfed them. The other re-sols shrank back.
I grabbed Johnson and dragged him into the woods. I yelled for the rebels to follow us, but they only stood and watched us run, watched as the re-sols lumbered in pursuit. A few stray shots thunked into the trees near us, then the re-sols were out of eyesight.
We could still run faster than them. We had that at least.
“Where’s the rest of your squad?” the gunner shouted in my ear.
We’d run from the re-sols for two days, afraid to sleep, afraid to stop, until we managed to get to our primary extraction site. I shoved Johnson into the chopper ahead of me. He stiffened and resisted, but I pushed him in anyway. When I jumped into the seat next to him, I saw why.
A re-sol was sitting across from us.
“Where’s the rest of your squad?” the gunner repeated.
The re-sol shifted slightly in its seat, adjusting its rifle.
It was just a coincidence, I told myself. It couldn’t know.
Johnson licked his lips. “Dead. Bomb hit us. Nothing left to reanimate.”
“That right?” The gunner looked at me. “Rebels?”
I glanced at the re-sol but it was staring, expressionless, out into the treetops. I nodded.
The gunner shrugged. “Tough luck.”
The pilot turned to say something to the gunner. The gunner nodded and leaned back toward us. “Just heard over the radio. Another Reanimator Squad was lost over to the east. I guess they found a massive grave, a couple hundred thousands or so, then we lost communication. Command wants us to fly out and take a look.”
A couple hundred thousand. Programmed to replicate.
“The war could really change with that many re-sols,” the gunner shouted.
Halloway was right. We should have let them stay dead.
I clutched the gear bag and looked at Johnson. We still had a couple of phosphorous grenades left.
Johnson leaned out the helicopter to puke.
© 2014 by J. Kenneth Sargeant
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