Austin Alexander Whittom, Captain, Yuma Army
Campsite Field Hospital
7:58 p.m., April 12th, 2070
“Christ,” said Austin once Underwood finished his story. “What happened to you, though? The medic tell you?”
Underwood shook his head. “Well, sir, I took a round to the thigh. Missed all the arteries. I was lucky.” He sighed. “I didn’t know on account of I was running, but Corp’ral Brodowski caught two to the chest. Was dead for most o’ that slog.”
“Christ,” Austin said again. He drew a long, unsteady breath. “Still, hell of a brave thing you did.”
“So they tell me. When this is over, I’m set to receive a commendation for bravery under fire.”
“You damn-well deserve it.”
“Didn’t save nobody, though. I failed ’em.”
Austin coughed, wincing at the sudden resurgence of stinging agony in his leg. “You did what you could,” he rasped, took a sip of water, continued: “You ain’t got any right to be ashamed, friend.”
“Thank you, sir. If you say so. Anyways, that’s why I’m here, sir. I’m still in fightin’ form, but, on account o’ my wound, I can’t huff it on the front no more. ’S why I been reassigned to you.”
Austin chuckled. “What do the royals take me for? A cripple?”
Underwood’s expression remained neutral despite Austin’s attempt at lightening the mood.
The captain said, “Alright, then. I’m sure a man like yourself would want to be back out there rather than here — and I, no offense, was never much one for being baby-sitted. But, since this is the hand we been dealt…”
Underwood nodded but said nothing.
Austin said, “So, tell me, Gaines, how’s my leg lookin’? I honestly haven’t had the balls to take a gander myself.”
Leaning forward, Underwood wrinkled his nose. He leaned back, saying, “Bone’s set, sir. Bandaged up real good. That’s all I can tell. Ain’t no doc, I’m afraid.”
“Suppose that Dakin’s not a total quack.” Austin snorted.
“Speak freely, sir?”
“Gaines, if you’re gonna assigned to me, when you speak, I want you to always speak your mind. When it’s just the two of us, at any rate.”
Underwood finally smiled. “Dakin is such a quack water runs off his back. But that nurse o’ his knows what she’s doin’. Patched me right up quick.”
Nodding, Austin yawned. For a few moments, they said nothing. The orchestra of cicadas outside reached their crescendo.
Austin said, “This boredom might kill us, even if our wounds don’t.”
“True ’nuff, sir.”
“So where you from, Gaines?”
Austin quirked an eyebrow. “How old are you?”
“Look a bit older, if you don’t mind my saying. But still ain’t much younger ’n me.”
“M’beard grows quick and washing while on duty is hard.”
“You sayin’ the filth hides the twinkle o’ innocence in yer eyes?”
“If you like, sir. But I was really thinkin’ the slime o’ war ages a man before his time.”
“Hah! I heard that. You said you’re Third Regiment, earlier, that right?”
“Yessir. General ‘Barking Mad’ Bray.”
“Got a couple nicknames, as I recall, the ol’ Big Three.” Austin scratched the stubble on his chin. “Mad Dogs was one, ‘cause o’ Bray and his famous K-9 unit.”
“Actually, I’m K-9, sir.”
“Are ya? Damn. Now that’s some rough business.”
Underwood shrugged. “Needs doin’.”
“Let’s see… There was another one, wasn’t there? Nah, don’t tell me. I’ll think of it. Aha! The Cleaners. That’s right.”
Underwood gave one very slight nod. “That’s our day job, yessir.”
A moment of awkward silence.
Then Austin asked, “What’s it like, dealin’ with the infected? Haven’t seen one in a long time, myself.”
Looking to the ground, Underwood took a minute to answer. “It’s about the same as anythin’ else needs killin’. An enemy is an enemy.”
“Well said, soldier. Still, can’t help but think it’s harder to take out one of our own. Someone who used to be Yuman.” Austin was trying to get him to talk about what happened in Bullhead City, but Underwood didn’t seem ready to budge anytime soon.
Not much at all was known about that day, just two short years ago, when the Third marched into Bullhead City and killed everyone who’d lived there. According to the Royal Census, that number had amounted to some four hundred souls.
“I’m sorry about what happened to your hometown, Gaines,” said Austin. “That must’ve been a hard tour.”
Flat-voiced, Underwood answered, “Helluva hard one.”
“Was your family there, still?”
No answer this time.
Austin raised his hands and lowered his head apologetically. “I won’t pry anymore.”
The sergeant’s unwillingness to even broach the subject told the captain all he needed to know. Though, Austin was still curious. Oh, well. Maybe it was better that the single, brief report given by General Bray about the goings on in Bullhead was all that shed light on that day. The Cleaners were a rough crew, and their job (wiping out pockets of infection within the kingdom) was the toughest one in the whole Army, you could say. Before Bullhead, the largest single batch of casualties had totaled fifty men, women, and children. There’d been many smaller incidents, over the years.
It had to be done, to keep the infection from spreading. But Bullhead had been a fucking mess. Nobody sane would disagree.
Amazing, really, that the virus had survived all these years and still popped up here and there. And nobody ever gave any signs of turning anymore — hadn’t for decades — which made it so much worse when they did. You were fine one minute, stark-raving mad the next. Then the only thing for you was to be taken to The Cleaners.
God, what a job.
Austin changed tack. “From Bullhead originally, you said. That would’ve put your people on the frontlines against the Vees back in ’63. ’Course, you were too young to serve back then.”
“Yessir. I was just a pipsqueak at the time, but my brothers fought the Vee, for sure.”
“Good family. You must be proud.”
“Yeah, they were great men, all of ’em.”
Austin noted the hurried were. Indeed, that’s how these things usually went.
“I know a little somethin’ about tough choices and bad days, Gaines.” He stared at nothing, wistful-like. “But I wouldn’t wanna bore you with the stories now.”
Really, Austin didn’t want to think about the era of his life he was referring to in an effort to sympathize with a fellow soldier; his days at the academy, in officer training, had not been kind to him — or any one of his graduating class, for that matter. Not many of them had survived to gripe about their fate, though.
The phrase “painful subject” didn’t begin to touch it. On especially lonesome days, like when he marked up charts or crunched supply and ration numbers pertinent to his platoon, Austin could still hear the screaming: Jesus fucking Christ, Whittom, do it!
Whittom, shoot him!
Shoot him! Shoot —
What are you waiting for?
The sounds: metallic whir; hydraulic hiss; bones snapping; pitter-patter of blood, impossibly audible in spite of the chaos…
Yeah, Austin knew a thing or two about getting a bum deal early on in life.
Despite his discomfort, it hadn’t occurred to him to drop the subject of war altogether; war was the talk of men, after all. There were only three worthy topics in Yuma, namely, and in order of esteem: football, dog-fighting, and battle.
He was just about to ask a question related to their no-doubt mutual distaste of the slop at boot camp (a universally safe conversation piece), all in an effort to pass the time and distract from the mounting inferno rising from his leg, when somebody stumbled into the field hospital tent through the flap.
Ugh. Austin scowled as he recognized Edwin Grady. God damn.
Underwood caught his superior’s expression and was immediately put on edge.
The captain would need a whole lot of alcohol before he’d be equipped to deal with that bumbling ginger. No coincidence that Dr. Dakin, basically a lunatic with a hacksaw rather than a medical professional, was also a redhead.
The worst thing about Edwin wasn’t his stumbling stupidity but his relentless evangelism. It’s not like it crept up slowly in conversation, or anything; every damn thing the kid said was an appeal for conversion to his laughable faith. And, boy, was he ready to nag you into submission, if he had to. He’d talk until Judgment Day had come and gone, until you, finally, out of deathly desperation, relented and admitted, deliriously, “Well, maybe, yeah, I suppose.” And then he’d blabber in your ear all the way up to Heaven, to the extent that Jesus Christ Himself wouldn’t have the patience to keep him there and it’d be a short, rushed rollercoaster ride down to Hell.
See, Austin believed in God, more or less, depending on the day. But Edwin believed he was God, truly and sincerely. With every bone in his body, he just knew himself to Jesus Christ, the Holy Ghost, and Jehovah all rolled up into one pasty, white, cigarette-shaped body.
It was really fucking annoying. Unsettling, too.
“What do you want?” Austin grumbled.
Edwin’s soggy red hair flopped around on his head. The beginnings of a patchy orange mustache poked out over his upper lip. Dancing from foot to foot, he said, “You promised. You promised.”
Rolling his eyes, Austin said, “We’ve promised you a lot. And we’ve delivered. You have wealth, power, even a bit of notoriety after that stunt you pulled with that Vee girl — wassername? Eight of Hearts.”
“Nasty bitch,” Edwin hissed, his whole body cringing so that he nearly bent double.
Austin caught Underwood’s eye. By the sergeant’s expression, it was obvious that he knew about the rather infamous incident of last month.
Edwin had gotten a little too handsy with one of the prisoners of war, somehow got it in his mind that he deserved some hanky-panky. Against the will of the girl, herself. Not that that mattered too much. Grabbing some hole was all well and good. The brass tolerated it as long as it didn’t end up too messy. But POWs were off-limits. An outsider like Edwin who took what didn’t belong to him disgusted scrupulous men like Austin Whittom, who had the sense to keep their junk in their pants when appropriate. Actually, there were only tenuous reasons why Edwin hadn’t been executed on the spot. First of all, he was the ringleader for the Resurrectioners, a group of fanatical survivors of the Resurrection City incident. After Sacramento’s Bag Men destroyed their home, all hundred-odd men and women who remained answered only to Edwin, because he was God to them. Second, Edwin’s predicament was the source of considerable amusement among the rank and file of Yuma. The ginger-headed fuck getting his cock bit off was something of a morale booster, so the royal lawmakers gave him a pass this one time. No harm, no foul, as it were.
He’d been real lucky, when you stopped to think about it. “Men” like Edwin, however, can’t ever seem to keep themselves from continuously stomping iron boots on thin ice.
Austin groaned. “What more could you possibly want? What is it now?”
“You promised,” Edwin whined.
“What, dammit? What?”
“Dara, my Dara. You promised you wouldn’t send her into the war.”
Austin sighed heavily. Fuckin’ one-track mind. He said, “Not that it’s any concern of yours what Yuma does with our own POWs, but Dara was held back, at your request. On the condition, of course, that you and your Resurrectioners fight for us in the next engagement.”
“She didn’t die today?”
Austin closed his eyes. “That’s what I’m tellin’ you.”
Edwin pumped his fist, hissing, “Yesss. That means there’s still time.”
Austin refrained from asking, “Time for what?” because he didn’t want the answer. He wanted Edwin to fuck off. So, instead, he said, “Now that you have the information you came here for, would you mind?”
“I just had one more ques—”
Austin barked, “Sergeant Gaines.”
The previously silent and watchful Underwood rose to his feet and saluted. “Yessir.”
“Escort the yammerin’ Mr. Grady from the premises and to his tent. I’m too tired for more shit. If I wanted to clean up after an idiot animal, I’d adopt one of the Wild-Childs as a pet. Get him out of here.”
“Sir.” Underwood saluted again and lumbered over to the much thinner Edwin, who was now twitching perceptibly.
Grabbing bony arm in meaty, calloused paw, Underwood dragged Edwin from the field hospital.
Well, alright. Austin actually smiled. Underwood certainly took care of that troublesome dingus in a jiff. I could get used to this whole bodyguard business, I guess. Perks of being promoted to captain.
Damn shame it had to come at the cost of MacLeroy’s life. But good old Jack wouldn’t want his buddy Austin fretting over that forever. “Enjoy life,” he’d say. Bet he would, anyway.
Austin took another swig from the tin water cup resting on the table beside him. With a little luck, his leg would heal up and he’d be back in the saddle again before the siege was over. He did still have an itch to personally kill some god damn Sackies; the more he focused on recuperating, the faster he could scratch it.
After about fifteen minutes of doing his darndest to ignore the fire in his leg by thinking about all the Sackie heads that would roll, Austin Whittom fell asleep. He dreamed of the earth splitting in two and swallowing whole cities; he dreamed of the end of Mankind.
He awoke, awash in cold sweat, to the sounds of screams. Momentarily panicked, he thought his nightmare had come true, that the world was ending a second time. Bells tolled and everything…
Blinking his way into full consciousness, he remembered the alarm bells. Armageddon Part Two wasn’t coming yet, but danger was close, all the same. Someone was either attacking the camp — unlikely, given how thoroughly broken the Sackies must be by now — or there’d been a jailbreak.
Austin slammed his fist onto the bed and the thin metal frame nearly buckled inward. Jesus H. He felt so damn useless sitting there with both thumbs up his ass, but even the thought of rolling onto his side and trying to get up sent a twang of agony through his whole body.
Nothing for it but to wait.
There were so many capable officers out there right now. Whatever was happening would be handled.
Austin twiddled his thumbs, reassuring himself as often as it took.
The other patients, those who hadn’t yet expired, sat upright or shook their heads and murmured to another. In the grips of uncertainty, everyone looked around for answers.
A few minutes later, Lieutenant Colonel Wynkoop entered, disheveled, bleary-eyed and sputtering. He’d managed to throw on his brown vest and yellow sash, but the latter dangled loosely around his neck and the former looked ridiculous (he’d been off by a button). He must have rushed here directly; he huffed and puffed like he’d just finished a hundred yard dash while carrying a keg of beer.
Those patients who could stand stood and saluted. The bedridden ones managed weak salutes, too, with the exception of the dead and the armless.
“Whittom,” Wynkoop panted, bloodshot eyes zeroing in on the captain.
“Sir? What’s going on out there?”
“We don’t know, dammit. I came here to ask you…” He wheezed, bowed his head, struggled for breath.
“Ask me what?” Pull it together, old man, for Chrissakes.
Wynkoop gulped air like a fish did water and, between breaths, he asked, “Where is that lout Grady? The sum’bitch is missin’. Him an’ his whole damn crew o’ misfits.”
Why is that important now? There was no way in hell Edwin Grady could be in any way responsible for a disturbance of… Unless he got upset for some reason — meaning, no reason at all, where sane people were concerned.
“Shit, sir,” said Austin, trying to focus his thoughts. “Saw him a couple hours ago, I think. Hard to tell, as I’ve been asleep.”
“With your wound, I can certainly understand that, captain. But think hard, now. Do you happen to ’member anything the li’l bastard said when you saw him?”
Austin shook his head. “I don’t think — wait! He was talkin’ about that woman, the Sackie one with the glasses.”
“Yeah, I know who you mean.”
Wishing, for once, that he’d paid more attention to that living chore of an idiot Edwin, Austin said, “Somethin’ about there still being time.”
Whittom had caught his breath by then and set about tying his neck sash as he spoke. “Maybe he meant there was time to spring her.”
“Maybe, but he’s the reason we got her in the first place. Took her and all those handicapped Wild-Childs with her.”
“Well, they’re gone now.” Whittom rubbed his eyes. “Fuckin’ gone, boy, y’hear me? The sentries blew fresh holes into a few of ‘em what was too slow at escapin’, but the vast majority of ’em are lost to the night, now.”
“Christ on a crutch!”
“Yeah,” said Whittom, dragging out the ‘h’ sound until he trailed off. When he snapped back to attention, he said, “I’d best see about findin’ that li’l dickless Grady, then.”
“Wish I could help, sir.” Austin shrugged.
“You been a help and a half already. Rest now.” Whittom winked at him and withdrew from the field hospital.
Austin heard him say, “You, soldier.”
And the silhouette highlighted against the canvas by the moon saluted and replied, “Sergeant Gaines, sir.”
“Gaines, you’re with me.”
The pair of them went off together. Gaines walked with a heavy limp but still kept pace with the aging lieutenant colonel.
That left Austin alone with all the mumbling, grumbling invalids in the hospital. Twiddling his thumbs, waiting for news.
Not like I’ll be sleeping again anytime soon.