Ruthless Mercy, by Kara Kreswell
November 8, 1942 – 0547 Hours
Propaganda machines don’t bother with the truth. Boot camp drill instructors do a lot of talking, but even the most graphic barking about bullets and bombs don’t compare to the bloody, messy actuality of war. Especially not this reality – a reality where the dead don’t stay dead and a soldier is expected to dismember his allies along with his enemies.
Staff Sergeant Jonathan Watson supervised the last minute preparations of his squad, carefully assuming a stoic expression. Of the two teams in his squad under the 7th Infantry Regiment of the 3rd Infantry Division, nearly half were green recruits on their first deployment. They didn’t know what might be waiting for them when they landed on the Port of Casablanca.
And he wasn’t allowed to tell them. Standing orders specified that enlisted personnel had to learn the hard way. The strong would adapt, fight to survive, while the weak would fall. Or get infected. Darwinism at its finest and it was only fitting for the code of the United States Army.
The well-worn thoughts drifted through his mind like an afterthought. He’d run out of time for woolgathering.
“Listen up, men.” Watson didn’t need to raise his voice. Every man in his squad immediately fell silent and snapped to attention. “Our fine Squids will soon be clearing us space to land and rescue the Vichy from the far-reaching guns of the Axis. If you have any last-minute questions, ladies, now’s the time to ask.”
Watson wasn’t terribly surprised that the soldiers with experience kept their mouths shut. Most of the new recruits did too.
PFC Samuel Miles, Watson’s personal pet project, cleared his throat and tightened his grip on his rifle. There was no doubt that the freakishly tall, muscular kid was a scared, green recruit. “Sir, what can we really expect out there?”
Silence permeated his squad like a sickly cloud. The new enlists tried to pretend that they weren’t looking at him, hoping against hope that he’d tell them what war meant. No one would admit it, but they wanted him to tell them what it felt like to charge into a hail of bullets, with shells exploding, knowing you have to keep going when your brothers fell all around you. They wanted him to tell them what it felt like to kill a man. To know that this day might very well be your last day alive.
They didn’t know to ask if war was more gruesome than kill or be killed.
Jon stared hard at Private Miles, unable to see him as anything other than a kid who looked up to him, and who had maybe graduated high school before signing up to die. He looked at the others, Privates Smith, Pace and Wilson, and felt a powerful urge to tell his men the truth.
He could order them to keep their lady mouths shut. Don’t tell anyone, and he could prepare them for what they might find out there. True, there hadn’t been any confirmed reports of the infection making its way out here to North Africa, but that didn’t mean the bloody French hadn’t accidentally unleashed an epidemic here. What was the value of following his orders? How many lives lost and desecrated by their own could truly be worth the lies he was forced to tell?
It was time to risk it. These were good kids, with mothers and fathers at home who had no idea that their precious sons were being deployed to win a war against the Axis – and mother fucking zombies.
He never got the chance to answer the youngster. Corporal Noah Quinn clapped Sam on the shoulder with a wry grin. “War, kid. A kind of war that the world has never seen.”
Before anyone could react, the sharp buzz of the PA diverted everyone’s attention.
“3rd Infantry Division, this is Major General George Patton.” His bass voice was mildly distorted, but unmistakable, through USS Thomas Jefferson’s PA radios. “The time to disembark is now. Line up and get on those landing boats in ten minutes. Departure is 0600 hours. God speed, men, and good luck.”
It was a damn good thing he didn’t open his trap. Otherwise, he might think that the CO could hear into his thoughts.
November 8, 1942 – 0653 Hours
The sharp staccato of machine gun fire sang through the port. Watson breathed a sigh of relief for each thwack, when the shells made impact with the deck. It was the dull thud of the bronze plated lead slamming into flesh that made him cringe.
Each one was another possibility of the dead rising – and not in the Biblical sense. If the infection was here in Casablanca, it was only a matter of time.
The French didn’t seem to understand that the American forces were here as liberators. Battle raged on the sea, and the incomplete Jean Bart’s one working turret was being aimed at the landed soldiers. The 7th was on its way to disable it. Another hundred meters, give or take, and they’d be home free.
It was his last thought before he heard a cacophony of thickly moist groans and dragging limbs whisper through the crack of gunfire.
Casablanca was infected. The damn Vichy French were rising.
And Watson didn’t have the space between the bullets and the zombies to breathe, not to mention worry about how the affliction made its way clear out here.
“Sarge? They didn’t tell us about this – you didn’t tell us about this! Sarge?!” It was Miles. His voice broke as the first of the shambling dead Frenchman extended a twisted arm towards him.
Watson dove towards Miles, tossing his rifle into his left hand as his right brandished an impossibly sharp hatchet. In a blur of speed, the squad leader relieved the risen Vichy of his arm and fired two shots into his head.
Without missing a beat, the Sergeant spun on his heel, using his own body as a shield for the younger soldier. His rifle barked sharply, displaying expert marksmanship with tightly clustered holes in undead heads.
“Listen up, kid, rules for survival are simple – chop off limbs, don’t waste your bullets unless you can manage a head shot,” which he demonstrated adroitly, “and for the love of your mama, don’t let them bite you. Clear?”
To his credit, Miles drilled two clean shots down the throat of a monster’s impossibly unhinged jaws. “A-aye, aye, S-sarge!”
The battle raged on, heavy caliber bullets flying from Jean Bart’s turret, while the regiment confronted the undead threat. A lightning quick survey, through the fog and the bodily fluids flying through the air, revealed that his squad was still fighting to a man.
Another 87 yards, give or take, to the incomplete destroyer meant a higher chance that wouldn’t be true at end game without a drastic change in strategy.
“Seventh Core Squad, to me!” Watson’s steady bass sliced through the blood and noise with resounding ease. Two other squad leaders made similar calls to their own sections of the 7th Regiment.
Fighting in tight knit cells, the soldiers pressed forward. Here and there, U.S. men succumbed to the two-pronged battle. Their fellows grimly provided the necessary mercy to keep them from becoming the risen dead, and doubled their efforts to attain the target.
Inside the red mist of war and dawn, in a scene that would do any horror movie proud, the 7th Infantry Regiment reached the Jean Bart.
It was packed to the deck heads with zombies.
November 8, 1942 – 0807 Hours
“Why didn’t you tell us what this war was really about, Sarge?” Miles cast a dark glare at the tangle of squirming undead flesh filling the Jean Bart.
Watson flinched internally at the wounded tone in the young soldier’s voice. “We can talk about that later, Private Miles. For now, it’s enough to know that we all follow orders in the Army. We have a situation that must be handled quickly. Any update from the Squids, Noah?”
Corporal Quinn gave one sharp jerk of his head in the negative and flipped the frequency switch on his radio. Each channel yielded the same frustrating static, punctuated occasionally with the belch of cannon fire.
“Lads, I’d say that means the Navy is a little busy and we won’t be seeing reinforcements until we get this turret offline. We don’t have the equipment to set the girl on fire. The Bell and Bayonet squads will take the bow and the stern approaches. That leaves us with the aft vector.
“Quinn, you’ll take the vets starboard. I’ll take the boys port side. Kill the biters, get to the aft turret and destroy it. We’ll fire the place when the rest of the troops can land.” Watson bared his teeth. “All infected are the enemy, no matter who they were before. Understood?”
“Sir, yes, Sir!” the familiar chorus of acknowledgement was briefly comforting. He took a moment to look at all of their faces. The tried and tested soldiers had expressions of grim understanding, while the newly deployed reflected nervous determination.
Odds were high that more than one would find themselves infected as before they reached the turret.
A flare detonated at the bow and the stern. Men in tight-knit teams leapt and scrambled onto the Jean Bart. Met with a wall of infected Vichy, the soldiers of the 7th Infantry Regiment responded with a hailstorm of bullets.
The action was fast, furious and just plain gross. Severed limbs and brain matter splattered the deck. Boots sloshed through blood and gore as the combatants pressed forward.
It didn’t take long for the first Army casualty to become one of the afflicted. Eighteen year old PFC Zachariah Pace pulled himself up on the bootstraps of Sam Miles, a gaping hole in his chest and pus oozing from the chunk of flesh chewed off at his neck.
The shock of finding himself at odds with his best friend from boot camp wormed its way into his reflexes. Instead of the decisive action he showed at the docks, he continued to fire on the other undead with his pistol, while using the muzzle of his rifle to keep his friend from being within biting distance. The thing that was once Private Pace scratched and clawed at the fabric preventing him from tearing at flesh.
Killing the mindless infected, whose names and faces were unknown was easy. Turning that ruthlessness on a friend was a choice the youngster wasn’t prepared to make. And that was the true tragedy of the Allied Army’s standing orders. Miles yelped, the high-pitched sound of the uninitiated.
Watson heard the distress of his protégé through the dissonance of the fevered battle. He cursed under his breath, disabled several more zombies as he fought his way to Miles. He coldly fired two heavy caliber shots into the forehead of the unfortunate wearing a United States Army uniform.
“Hesitation will get you dead, Soldier. Once infected, it’s not your friend anymore. It’s a disease that has to be put down.” Watson managed to temper his irrational anger with sympathy, remembering how he felt his first time out.
Then he saw the shredded sleeve of Miles’ uniform and the blood bubbling up around the bite marks.
“Sarge?” Miles saw it too, and he couldn’t keep the panic out of his voice.
“Wrap that up. I’ll cover you while you do, Private. And don’t die. If you live, we can suck the infection out of you, like snake bite venom. If you die, the only mercy I can give you is a clean death.” Watson couldn’t keep his anger from bleeding through in his tone.
He wasn’t angry at Miles. It wasn’t the kid’s fault. He was angry at the commanders of the U.S. Armed Forces that chose not to prepare their soldiers. He was furious at Hitler for spreading the contamination in his zeal to exterminate the Jews. He was enraged at the cruelty of the world.
He took it out on the poor souls that had become parasitic on the rest of humanity.
Spinning and whirling, his reflexes quicker than ever, Sergeant Watson became a one-man death squad. Bullets flew furiously from his rifle with his trademark accuracy. His hatchet was coated thickly with gore. Zombie bodies and body parts piled high on the decks of the destroyer. Some of them wore the fatigues of the 7th Regiment.
What seemed like years later, but was only a handful of minutes, the surviving infantry had secured the turret.
“PFC Miles, would you do the honors?” Watson gave his men a broad grin, pleased that his squad had suffered only one casualty.
The three squads of the Seventh whooped and cheered as Miles disabled the turret. For good measure, he also ripped out the trigger mechanism and held it aloft like a trophy. They cheered him and he beamed with pleasure.
Amid the celebration, Watson turned away for just a moment to trade high fives with Corporal Quinn. He didn’t see the lone undead leap from the upper deck straight onto Miles, jaw unhinged disproportionately. He didn’t see the first bite.
He heard Miles scream. He spun around, just in time to see his men tear the zombie to shreds. He shoved Quinn and Smith out of the way in a desperate bid to reach Miles.
“Sarge?” Miles lay on the deck, clutching his chewed up gut, his voice tremulous and weak. “I’m cold, Sarge.”
Watson knelt by the kid, holding his hand tightly. “Keep breathing, Sam. Keep breathing and live, damn it all. Do you hear me, Sam?”
Sam didn’t hear him. Samuel Miles was gone. In his place was a mindless drone of the afflicted. It tried to bite Watson, but found the muzzle of his rifle instead.
The soldiers of the Seventh backed up, giving the Staff Sergeant space to face the inevitable. There was only one option left. The war would go on; the world still needed to be saved from this rotten disease and, at his core, Jonathan Watson was a patriot. His personal sorrow would be handled in the same way he fulfilled his duty.
Staff Sergeant Jonathan Watson pulled the trigger twice, adding insignificantly to the gore coating the Jean Bart. He stood, and stared down at the twice-dead corpse. This wasn’t the first time he had to kill a friend and it wouldn’t be the last. The war would end only when Hitler was defeated and the contagion was destroyed.
“Mercy is ruthless, Sam. Don’t let anyone ever tell you differently.”
Kara is an aspiring screenwriter. She began writing with crayons, finding it a much more appropriate use of the instrument than coloring. A fan of most genres in literature and film, her favorite movie is The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Her current occupation is as an Associate Producer at 343 Industries, the game studio which developed the upcoming Halo 4 release. She makes her home in Redmond, Washington. This is her first short-story publication.