Below was my first attempt at a piece of zombie fiction, submitted for the November LZ contest. Enjoy!
Death in the Cradle of Civilization
So this is what it’s like to watch a civilization collapse. That was the thought that had gone through Corporal Sean Murphy’s head at least a dozen times since his unit had fought its way into Baghdad five days earlier. First Tank Battalion along with Seventh Marines had come into the city from the east across the Diyala River. Since then the people of the ancient city had been participating in an orgy of looting. Everything that wasn’t nailed down, and many things that had been at one time, were being taken by the Iraqi citizens. Free from the grip of Saddam, the people were venting decades of frustration. There was no order to any of it, just pure chaos. Worst of all, the Marines of First Division had been given no orders at all as to what to do about any of it.
Since there had been little resistance to speak of since the initial bridgehead and taking of the city, the true enemy of any combat unit had taken hold; boredom. Sean Murphy sat on the turret of his Abrams tank, the butt of his Remington 870 resting on his knee. He hated being in the sun all day. His Irish heritage betrayed by his normally fair skin. Thankfully, it had stopped burning and developed something that resembled a tan. From behind the amber lenses of his Oakleys, his dark eyes watched the anarchy.
Lost in his thoughts, he smiled. The shotgun was his own personal weapon. Against orders, he had broken it down and stuffed it in his seabag before his unit had deployed along with 200 rounds of double-ought buckshot and slugs. Once in Kuwait, he had put it back together and carried it with him everyday. A few higher-ups complained about his actions, but they couldn’t deny that one more gun wasn’t exactly a bad thing. Several times during the drive up from Basra, he had pointed it at a few Iraqis who had gotten a little too close for his comfort. When some of his fellow Marines had leveled their rifles at them with no effect, the much larger muzzle of the 12 gauge seemed to get the point across. He couldn’t help but wonder what kind of existence they had to have lived in where a rifle pointed at them did little to invoke fear of any kind.
It was when his platoon sergeant, Gunny Stark walked over that he took eyes off the loaded down jalopies speeding by. “Afternoon, Gunny,” he said. “Anything going on?” The thirty-one year-old Staff NCO climbed onto the turret and watched the passing traffic for a few moments before speaking.
“Grunts are going to clear out some buildings a few blocks from here. First platoon is going with them in case they need some back up, and Second is going to be on react duty in case they need more. You or any of the boys wanna ride along with the crunchies and kick in some doors?”
“Shit, thought you’d never ask,” Sean said, already reaching for his helmet. Anything beats just sitting around here.” He looked down into the turret where his loader Lance Corporal Josh Berry was sitting in his station reading a battered copy of Hustler. “You hear that, man,” he called. “Put your cock down and lets go win some hearts and minds.”
The young Texan looked up from his magazine and grinned. “Hell yeah,” he said climbing out.
Ten minutes later, there were eight of them sitting in the back of a high-back Humvee rolling through a residential area. The brief they had gotten said they were looking for Ba’ath Party officials thought to be hiding in some of the homes of the neighborhood. The war hadn’t seem to effect the area as much as other places. Many people were just sitting in front of their homes like it was any other day. Since the American invasion, they had gotten used to the sight of GIs moving up and down the street. Few moved at all when the vehicles stopped and the Marines climbed out, forming a perimeter around the six HMMWV convoy. The high-pitched whine of turbine engines at the end of block reminded them that the tanks were in place at the end of the block, ready to spray any building with suppressing fire with its machine guns, or if needed, take a building out with a 120mm MPAT round.
Never taking his eyes off the Iraqis in his sector, Sean said to Josh, “When we get back home, I’m taking a week off, going to Vegas to drink, gamble and screw until I forget I was even here.” He spat on the ground. “Not that this is so bad. I just want a hot shower and a cold drink.”
“I’ve never been,” Josh said as he shifted the plug of tobacco from one cheek to the other. “Mind if I tag along?”
Sean briefly glanced over at his friend. “As long as we both make if out of this alive.”
The Lieutenant in charge of the infantry platoon was conferring with some of the locals with the help of a translator. All three were looking at what Sean could only assume was either a map or recon photos of the area. The hajji was enthusiastically pointing at places in the paper. Occasionally, the Louie would look up to verify what he was pointing out. After several minutes, they parted ways, and the officer seemed to make eye-contact with the team leaders, and automatically, they gathered around of the hood of one of the humvees.
This was the worst part to Sean; the waiting. Being several vehicles away, he could barely hear what was being said, but it definitely sounded like they were going in to some of the houses. A sudden smell, very faint seemed to drift into his nostrils. Since the start of the war, he had gotten used to the smell of rotting corpses. They littered the roads, and the stench was something that one just got used to when in a place like this. Something about this though smelled simply of death.
Shaking it out of his head he looked over to see Sergeant Parsons walking over to where he was kneeling. The de facto squad leader gave a quick whistle and made the hand signal for everyone to gather around. The squad circled up as Parsons laid it out. “Okay, we’re going in. That house there,” he said gesturing with his head. Nods in the affirmative went around the assembled Marines. Parsons locked eyes with Sean. “You and Berry go around back and make sure no one comes out.” Looking around at the rest of the squad, he continued. “The rest of us will stack at the door. Hayes, you’ll kick it in, I toss a flash-bang. Once it goes off, we go in.” Sean looked at the faces of his teammates. More than a few of them looked nervous. They were tankers after all, and most hadn’t done any room clearing since their days at infantry school right after basic training. Parsons seemed to pick up on it.
“Once we’re in, fan out to the sides. Once the room is clear, the last one in stays on position, the rest of us will stack and clear any other rooms. Don’t worry, the training will come back to you. There’s eight houses we’re gonna be checking on this block. Once every team is set, everyone goes in at once.”
The Marines jogged up to the house. The breaching team stacked beside the door as planned while Sean and Josh went around back. The first thing he noticed was the stench had grown stronger in the back yard. A small building that looked like a shed occupied the backyard. It was made out of the same mud bricks like the homes on the block, except the back of the building extended out and was sloped toward the back. He couldn’t help but think it looked more like a bunker than a shed. I kind of doubt the owner of the house is keeping a lawn mower in there, he thought. They each took a knee on either side of the windowless structure and pointed their weapons at the back door of the house. In the spring heat, and under the weight of all his gear, sweat began to run down Sean’s face. His heart pounded in his chest, waiting for the inevitable sound of the door being kicked in and the flash grenade going off. He didn’t have to wait long.
Up and down the street, the sounds reverberated as the plan went into action. Hayes had been the perfect pick as the door kicker. The six-foot, three inch giant had played football back home in Nebraska, and had even passed up a scholarship to the University of Nebraska in order to join the Corps. The door easily gave way as he mule-kicked it open, ducked out of the way and Parsons lobbed the diversionary device inside.
The walls of the building muffled most of the sound and he heard shouts as his teammates went inside. Several shots rang out from some other houses on the block. The tankers’ target house must have been empty. A few seconds after they entered, Murphy heard them call out “clear” from inside. Parsons shouted from the other side of the back door, “Coming out Murphy. Don’t shoot!” He cautiously opened the door, and only then did they lower their weapons. “We’re gonna do a more thorough search in here.”
Sean motioned to the shed. “Shall we check this thing out?”
The Sergeant stared at it for a moment, considering. “Go for it. You need a flash bang?”
Murphy’s eyes went back to the shed as he studied the structure. It was less than ten feet wide, and maybe 15 feet deep. “No need. There’s probably nothing in here, just wanna make sure.”
“Okay, check it out then and meet us back inside when you’re done.” With that, Parsons ducked back inside the house.
Berry looked at his friend. “How should we do this?”
“Simple,” Sean replied. You open the door, I’ll go in. You be right behind me with your flashlight.”
The door had a crude slide latch. Josh pushed it aside and swung the door outward. Sean brought the shotgun to his shoulder and stepped in. The daylight pouring in confirmed what he had thought outside. Nothing was inside except a bare cement floor and a musty canvas tarp tacked to the far wall.
The stench, however, was much stronger.
Shining his Maglite around the small interior, Berry verified it was indeed empty. Still, something wasn’t right. Despite years of exposure to the sounds of heavy machinery, both their hearing was quite acute. “Does that sound like a generator?”
Sean didn’t answer. He wasn’t sure if it was the heat, the stinging in his eyes from the sweat, or just paranoia, but he swore it looked like there was a sliver of light coming from behind the tarp. Poking it with the muzzle of his Remington, instead of hitting masonry, the weapon continued forward. Keeping his weapon pointed at the “wall” Sean reached up and ripped the canvas from the wall. Behind it, a doorway sat at the end of stairs that descended downward. The hallway illuminated by weak lights.
The stench became overwhelming
Saliva flooded Sean’s mouth as bile rose in the back of his throat. Years of heavy drinking had given him an amazing ability to control his stomach. Josh clearly hadn’t acquired such a skill for he wretched onto the concrete floor. He brought himself upright again and rinsed his mouth out with a swig from his Camelbak. “Should we get Sergeant Parsons,” he asked.
Looking down the stairs, the sound of a generator became more apparent. Murphy found himself wishing he had taken the flash bang. With out another word, he stepped through the doorway. Slowly, deliberately, he moved down the stairs, shotgun at the ready, the safety off.
After five steps, he could see the stairs ended in what appeared to be a corridor no wider than the stairs themselves, extending farther back than he could see. He tried to listen for any sounds, but they were drown out by his heart pounding in his ears. He paused to close his eyes as the smell got worse and shook his head. He had to focus on breathing deeply through his mouth and out his nose. Not since crossing the Kuwait/Iraq border three weeks earlier had he been this terrified.
The noise of the generator grew louder as he reached the bottom and found what he figured had to be the source of the smell. “C’mon down, Josh,” he called.
The corridor went on for fifty feet from the bottom of the stairwell, at the end was a heavy steel door with a latch that looked like it belonged on a bank’s vault. Slumped against it on the floor was the body of a man dressed in the uniform of Saddam’s Republican Guard. The eagle and two stars on his shoulders identified him as a colonel. The back of his head had exploded outward, leaving a mess on the wall behind him. A Makarov pistol and a single empty brass case lay on the cement floor beside him. The body had begun to bloat, his olive skin taking on a grayish tone. Sean couldn’t help but notice the only other thing out of place on the body was the tear on sleeve of his right forearm. The area around it was stained with blood.
Josh stepped up beside him and stared at the body. “Looks like he offed himself.”
Sean nodded, then after slinging his shotgun, reached down and picked the Makarov up off the ground. He removed the magazine and pulled the slide to the rear, ejecting the round in the chamber. The 8 round magazine only held 2 rounds in it. He shot Josh a sideways glance before replacing the extra round in the magazine, inserting it back into the grip of the pistol and shoving it in the cargo pocket of his trousers. “You want to look to see what’s on the other side of this door?”
Berry shook his head. “Don’t you think we should get the sarge?”
“We’ll be alright. This guy isn’t going to hurt us.”
Reluctantly, Berry and Murphy moved the Iraqi’s corpse away from the door and turned the latch. As horrid as the stench in the hallway was, what escaped from behind the door was even worse. This time, the vomit did rise in Sean’s mouth. He held it in for a moment then spit it out. Opening the door, he found it strange that the other side was completely smooth. The only way it could have been opened and then sealed was from the side they had come from. Almost looks like that guy on the floor closed it, then ate his sidearm, Sean thought. The rattle of the generator was clear now, and bare bulbs lit the corridor. It appeared to extend for another fifty feet, mid-way down stood another uniformed Iraqi. Both Marines raised their weapons. “Get down on the fuckin’ ground!” Murphy shouted.
The Republican Guardsman turned slowly towards them, raised his arms forward and began shuffling down the hallway at them while letting out a horrific, gurgling moan. Sean closed his eyes and shook his head. Was he cracking up, or were those bullet-holes and bloodstains on his tunic.
“Kif!” he shouted. The only Farsi he knew, which he was pretty sure meant ‘halt.’ Again he yell, “kif!” The only reaction he got was another moan as the Iraqi reached out with his arms and continued his slow shuffle towards them. Fuck this, Murphy thought as he put the shotgun’s bead on the man’s chest and let loose with a load of buckshot.
The roar in the hallways was deafening, thankfully, adrenaline had a way of not allowing a person to hear the shots. He felt the Remington recoil, then automatically worked the action to chamber another round. Everything in his mind told him the enemy soldier should be a limp pile of muscle and bone on the floor, especially inside ten yards. That wasn’t the case. The Iraqi flailed his arms, stumbled backwards several steps, then extended his arms and continued forward.
“Son-of-a-bitch,” Murphy muttered as he put the bead on the man’s chest again. Looking past the end of the shotgun, he could see the damage caused by his shot. The enemy’s OD tunic was shredded and his exposed chest turned to hamburger buy the close-range blast. His brain not registering what his eyes were seeing, he fired again.
Most of the blast was caught by the targets extended right arm, the damage down was incredible as the hand was nearly completely blown off. It dangled from what was left of his forearm by the few threads of remaining muscle and tendons as he staggered a bit more and kept coming. Black fluid dripped from the gaping wound and onto the floor.
Racking the 870 again, Sean knew the next round would be a slug. Suddenly, the voice of his old platoon sergeant came back to him; two in the chest, one in the head. He raised the bead to a point just below the bridge of the nose. The one-ounce rifled slug entered the enemy’s skull at nearly fourteen hundred feet per second, causing the head to explode violently sending pieces of brain and bone along with the strange black “blood” spattering all over the walls and floor behind him. The corpse collapsed onto the floor in a heap.
Sean racked the slide again and took a deep breath of the foul air. “What the fuck was that,” he shouted over the ringing in his ears. He looked over at Berry who had gone all but pale. It was only then that he noticed the carnage in the hall.
Blood smeared the walls and the floor. Empty rifle cases also littered the floor, and behind the body of the man Sean had just shot, lay the remains of another body. Slowly, he stepped forward to get a better look. The new body’s belly had been ripped open, yet there were no signs of entrails. The ribcage had been torn apart, and along with the legs, stripped to the bone. Both arms had been torn off, the right arm was several paces down the hall, still clutching the pistol grip of a Kalshnikov rifle. Movement on the floor forced a double take at the body. Sure enough, the mouth was still moving, bitting mechanically at the air. Below the ringing of his ears, he swore he could hear the snapping of teeth.
Both Marines stared at the face of the second corpse. Much of the tissue what once covered the skull hung off in tatters, oozing with a blood that had taken a dark color and thick property. What little skin remained had taken on a dry, dark grey appearance. Sean pulled his 9mm Beretta from the drop holster on his left thigh, took the safety off and put a round into the thing’s head.
Returning his sidearm to it’s holster, the two continued down the hall. The t-junction at end of the hall told them is was some kind of small prison. Directly in front of them appeared to be sleeping quarters containing three sets of bunk-beds. Lining the opposite walls were what looked like cells, four on each wing. A small window covered with bars allowed anyone on the outside to see inside. Looking through it, Sean could see a body sitting on the floor against the far wall, its arms in shackles above it’s head.
Berry, looked into the second door, calling over his shoulder, “This one’s empty.”
He turned to continue down the hall when a rotting, grey arm shot out through the bars and grabbed him by his web-gear. He cried out more in shock than terror as he ripped himself free, tearing several of the fingers out of the knuckles and off the hand of his attacker. The arm waved back and forth wildly, searching for it’s lost prey. Despite the missing fingers, Berry noticed no blood coming from the missing digits. The cell’s occupant was snarling and snapping like a rabid animal. More cautiously, Berry looked into the third cell. Like the second one, it too appeared empty and he quickly backed away.
The fourth cell only added to the mystery. There, like in the first cell, lay a body shackled to the far, blood-splattered wall. The entire top part of his head had been blown off. The deck in front of the door was littered with empty Kalashnikov cases.
“None of this makes any sense,” Sean said. “What in the hell is going on here?”
Before Berry could answer, from the end of the opposite hall, they heard the groan of a door swinging on rusty hinges. Both Marines turned toward the sound and raised their weapons. It was then they heard the moan unlike anything either of them had heard before. Nothing about it sounded human. Shuffling out of one of the far cells came three of them. Two dressed in the same jumpsuits a shade of grey eerily similar to that of their skin that they had observed in the bodies in the other cells. The other was in the uniform of the Republican Guard. All of them had sunken eyes, dried, rotten lips that had peeled back over their teeth, giving them an appearance of a sick, twisted grin. They’re cloudy, dead eyes locked onto the Marines and they began ambling forward with their arms stretched out before them.
Every fiber in their being told them to not waste times with warnings to stop. Fire blasted out the muzzles of their weapons as they opened up. As with the first enemy they had encountered, the shots to the chest seemed to have no effect. “Shoot them in the head,” Sean yelled over the gun fire. Berry nodded and adjusted his fire. The smaller 5.56mm rounds from his M16 easily entered his targets’ heads, fragmenting inside their skull. Sean put the bead of his Remington on the face of the third and pulled the trigger. The monster’s head exploded, spraying the wall behind it with tissue and that thick, black blood.
For several long seconds the two of them stood before the three fresh corpses, breathing heavily despite the stench that hung in the air. At once, Berry placed a fresh magazine into his rifle as Sean fed fresh shells into the tube under the barrel of his shotgun. They looked each other in the eyes, and with a nod, quickly went back the way they came.
At the main vault door, they picked up the first body they had encountered and put him on the other side of the door and sealed it. The pair walked up the stairs and back into the shed. Murphy held is hand up and placed it on Berry’s chest. “If anyone asks, we didn’t find shit.”His eyes appearing yellow as they bore into the junior Marine. “If needs be, let me do the talking.”
Berry looked nervous. “We can’t just not tell anyone.”
“Bullshit!” Sean hissed, his voice dripping with venom. “We tell them about what we just saw, and they’ll Section 8 us both for sure. We were deep underground. Unless they heard the shots, they don’t need to know anything.”
They found the squad gathered around the Humvees, several prisoners on their knees with their hands zip-tied behind their back and sandbags over their heads. Parsons looked over at them when he saw them walking up. “Where the Hell you two been,” he asked.
Sean searched for anger in his voice and found none. “We were just checking something out. Dead end.”
Parsons nodded then motioned toward the prisoners. “Berry, help get these EPWs loaded in the 5-ton.” he then motioned Sean closer. “You okay? I’ve known you too long to know when something’s up, so spit it.”
Murphy swallowed hard. “I found a Makarov in the shed. I want to keep it on the down-loan ‘cause I don’t wan anyone to take it away.” At least I’m not lying, Sean told himself.
Parsons laughed. “I know when you’re full of shit, so at some point, you’re gonna have to tell me.”
From up the line of vehicles, the Lieutenant shouted, “Mount up! We’re outta here.”
Sean climbed into the back of the Humvee then turned back and offered a hand to help Parsons in. Once settled, he took a deep breath and shouted at the driver. “We’re up back here.” Looking around at his Marines, he added, “I’ll be glad to get out of this place. Stinks here.
* * * *
Sean stared at his computer screen, not believing what he was seeing. Ever since his return from Iraq, he had become obsessed with finding out just what the Hell it had been that he and Berry had encountered in the bunker. After months of searching, he had found something that bore an eerie similarity.
On the screen in front of him was an after-action report written by a Lieutenant who had assumed command of his company after the captain had been killed while fighting in the Solomon Islands in 1943. The report gave a detailed account of the company coming into a Japanese camp and finding it littered with bodies, and parts of bodies. As they had been the only American unit on the small island, the source of the attack was unknown. He continued reading, and the Marines soon found themselves facing a growing number of Japanese soldiers, unarmed, but shambling toward them. The shots they fired into the Japs had no effect on them. It was only when one of the Marines scored a head-shot did the rest of them adjust fire and drop the rest of their attackers.
Taking notes, he kept going. During the attack, three men were bitten, including the company commander. The wounds seemed to be minor, most of them occurring in the arms, but within 8 hours of being bitten, all three of them had become gravely ill. By the next afternoon, all three of them had died, and within an hour, all three of the supposedly “dead” Marines rose from where they had been placed and attacked their comrades. All three were again killed with shots or blows to the head, though this time, no one else was bitten. Their bodies were left behind on the island and the remaining Marines were picked up by the Navy several days later.
An addendum stated that the report’s author, First Lieutenant Kyle Goldberg was classified as suffering from “shell-shock” and spent the rest of the war in a hospital in Pearl Harbor. Try as hard as he could, no medical records were ever found. After a further search, Sean found Goldberg to still be alive and living in San Diego, just 3 hours away from Twentynine Palms. His hands were shaking as he picked up the phone and started dialing the number he had found. In the back of his sinuses, he swore he had caught a hint of that unmistakable stench.