The Graveyard Tales
Chapter Twenty-Four: Frontline
Viktor Ivanov watched in horror as his beloved Moscow was bathed in a mushroom cloud. Tears streamed down his face and his hands began to shake with rage, the assault rifle in his hands rattling in response.
He had heard the rumors the city was about to fall into the rotted hands of the undead, but he thought it only the paranoid ramblings of the new recruits, not to be taken seriously.
His friend and troopmate Andrei thumped him on the shoulder. "Pay attention, you fool, or you'll wish you were in the Kremlin when it blew," he shouted.
Viktor turned just in time to see the open mouth of a zombie lunge toward him. Reflexively he raised his arm to ward the creature off, ignoring the alarm bells in his head that left little room for doubt that this reflex was one better off ignored.
But it was too late, the undead latched its jaws on the soldier's arm, the moldy teeth firmly clamping down on...
Those same teeth shattered on impact with the arm guard the army's eggheads had developed after numerous encounters showed Viktor's reaction, while incredibly stupid, was the one most commonly seen when cornered by a zombie. Viktor, his moment of patriotic catatonia now gone, raised the butt of his rifle up, sending the rest of the creature's jaw to join the teeth on the ground. The pop of the weapon was its only epitaph.
Andrei looked over his shoulder at his friend. He smiled, though the friendly gesture was hidden behind the gas mask that complimented the bite-proof armor he wore.
The suit, like the arm guard, were both prime examples of working under pressure. In this case, the pressure of hundreds of thousands of walking dead surging across the countryside, leaving armies in shambles, scrambling for cover like a whipped dog. The government had put every engineer not torn to shreds to work developing countermeasures to battle an enemy that failed to conform to any military strategy, decimated even the most highly-trained soldiers and whose sheer numbers made the most advanced weapons as useful as a flint spear.
Like I said, working under pressure.
Viktor gave his friend a thumbs-up, then pointed, training his weapon for emphasis. Andrei looked back ahead to see the undead swarm over the makeshift barricades of sandbags and scarp wood the troops had set up mere minutes as a last-second deterrent for the ghouls. At first they were able to keep the creatures at bay, as the zombies didn't possess the tactical knowhow to climb over the waist-high wall.
But as more and more were felled by the soldiers, the bodies transformed the barricade into a mound, one which even rotted feet could climb. Those undead not sporting a stylish bullet hole in their cerebral cortex now advanced on the remaining soldiers. Viktor tried not to note how many of the zombies wore army uniforms, and how many more were modeling the bite-proof suits he was relying on, though his was missing the stylish tears which his former fellow soldiers seemed to wear with pride.
The two soldiers backed away, firing as they went. The two were expert marksmen, and many a zombie skull imploded, reducing the once-deadly creatures to refuse. But the two were just that: two. And as the undead poured over the barricade in the hundreds, Viktor and Andrei began to contemplate moving the gun barrels away from the ghouls and towards themselves.
"Well, we had a lot of fun," Andrei said.
Viktor looked to his friend. "Where was I when you were having this fun?"
Andrei laughed, the sound muffled by his gas mask. "Not at your mother's house, or you would have gotten a front-row seat."
A high-pitched whine cut through the jokes, and the moaning of the undead. Both men looked at each other, their minds instantly identifying the sound of incoming artillery fire. They dove to the ground just as an incendiary shell struck the horde, shattering their decaying bones and setting their rotted flesh aflame.
A voice called over a bullhorn. "Full retreat, we are in full retreat," an officer called. "Fall back, I repeat, fall back."
The two began to move, unable to run very quickly because of the supposedly bite-proof suits.
"Guess the fun's not over yet," Andrei said.
Viktor noted with dismay how few of his friends had made it to the small town now commandeered as a military base. Many looked haggard, some hadn't eaten in days. One dropped his weapon the ground and began to cy, and when he looked up, Viktor could see he was a mere child, no older than eighteen. The boy sobbed brokenly, calling for his mother and saying he was sorry over and over.
What he had to be sorry about, Viktor didn't think he wanted to know.
He took his mask off, the stench of death and decay welcome and refreshing compared to recycled air he had been forced to breath for the past twelve hours.
An officer walked up to him. "Put that back on soldier," he said sternly. "We'll need to hold the line here until reinforcements come."
Viktor looked about, saw many soldiers divesting themselves of the bulky armor. "What's the fucking point?" he asked. "The damn things don't even work. I saw dozens ripped right out of their suits like presents on Christmas. All they do is slow us down and block our vision. Why the fuck should we bother?"
The officer glared at Viktor. "Careful, soldier. You're coming very close to insubordination."
Viktor laughed and threw the helmet at him. "So lock me up," he said, strolling away. "I'd be a hell of a lot safer."
The town they were in was a small one, the population around five thousand people, all long gone. Viktor looked about, saw clothes strewn about, belongings dropped in a panicked bid for freedom. With the military stretched so thin, warnings of the undead's approach often came too late. Here, they must have come just as the undead were crossing the horizon.
He wandered into a home, the door unlocked and open. There were plates of uneaten food on the table, and it looked like the home had been looted. Viktor heard a sound, and saw a housecat locked in a cage. The animal meowed at him and began pawing at the cage. The soldier saw a bowl of food and water inside the cage, which had been suspended from the ceiling, above his reach.
"I see," he said. "They couldn't take you with them, so they tried to keep you safe."
He reached for the cage and unfastened the blot, catching the cat as it leapt into his arms. The animal purred and rubbed against the soldier's dirty uniform. He patted it gently.
"It would probably be best for me to leave you in that cage, little one," he said, hearing the cat's steady purrs, like the drone of an engine. "But then, I doubt you'd see it my way. You're meant to roam free, not spend your life locked behind metal. Though like I said, you'd probably be safer."
Shouts from outside drew Viktor's attention. He left the home, dropping the cat. The animal watched the soldier run down the street, then turned and headed for the woods. It knew its owners were gone, that they were not coming back. It also knew its home was not a safe place, and departed without looking back.
In the center of the small town Viktor found the soldiers gathered around an officer, who was doing his best to placate the crowd. He heard questions, demands, and a few insults thrown in for good measure. It was clear something had happened, and his comrades wanted answers.
The officer in the middle was a young lieutenant, ten years younger than Viktor. He was sweating despite the chill in the air, and the fear in his eyes was obvious. Yes, something had happened, and it looked like the young man was going to be the scapegoat.
Viktor found Andrei in the crowd. He asked what had happened, and his friend's response turned his blood into ice.
"We've lost all communications with the higher-ups," he said. "The generals, the colonels, all the brass in the government, they're gone."
"Gone? What do you mean gone?"
Andrei smiled, that same laid-back grin that even a horde of the undead couldn't quell. "I mean we're on our own, old friend," he said. "We haven't heard from the folks in charge since we got the order to evacuate, and every time we try to make contact, all we get is static."
"Are they all dead?" Viktor asked, not really wanting to know the answer.
Andrei only shrugged, but the noncommital response did little to make his friend feel better. "Maybe, but we haven't heard from anyone with stars on their shoulders in a couple hours, and those zombies aren't too far away."
Indeed, Viktor could swear he heard moans carried on the wind. He found his hand straying to the pistol at his hip. Coming to this town was only meant to be a temporary measure; the junior officers in charge of his unit had no doubt expected salvation to come on the wings of someone of higher authority, someone to take away the crushing responsibility of commanding men older and far more experienced than they were.
Now, though, they had to make the decisions, and it was clear in the eyes and voices of the gathered crowd that their orders would carry little weight.
"We're staying here until we get word to the contrary," the lieutenant said. "We were ordered to hold the line against the undead and that is what we will do."
"Fuck that!" a soldier yelled. "Those things are coming and we ain't gonna be able to stop them alone! We need to get the fuck out of here!"
The other troops nodded agreement. Many had families they wanted to get out of the cities, the country if they could manage it. Like Viktor, they were loyal to their nation, but in the face of a growing threat no human army seemed capable of stopping, one started thinking about what really took top priority.
Viktor saw many of the soldiers already had their gear packed and ready to leave. Looking at Andrei, he saw his friend was already a member of that quickly-growing club.
"If any of you leave, you'll be reported for desertion and insubordination," the officer said.
"I'll remember each and every one of you cowards, and I'll make sure the generals know your names, too."
The threat was intended to strip some of the bravado from the crowd. But what the young man hadn't counted on was the effect the undead had on people, how it turned even the sanest, most rational person into a savage animal. A loud crack filled the air, followed by the smell of gunpowder. The officer looked down to see a red stain bloom on his neat, pressed uniform, mixing the green fabric with red. The young man looked at Viktor, looked at the smoking gun in his hand, an expression of shock and fear on his face.
With a slight whimper that sounded like "mother," the officer fell the ground, twitched for a moment, then moved no more.
The soldiers crowded around the corpse, which would soon rise to join a new army, one in which loyalty was absolute. Another crack sounded, and the officer's transfer was canceled at the last minute.
They looked around at one another, their goals once crystal-clear in their minds, now no more. Without a commanding officer, the world suddenly seemed a much scarier place. True, the late lieutenant had asked them to stand their ground, and in all likelihood, die there, but at least it was an order.
What would they do now?
The answer, as far as Viktor was concerned, was to leave. He shouldered his pack and left the town, headed east to his home. If his wife and children were still alive, he would get them out of the country. He had promised them.
Andrei watched his friend leave, then quickly grabbed his gear and followed. One of the veterans called out, "Where are you two going?"
Viktor turned around. "Away from here," he said. "Listen, this may be hard to fathom, but the government's gone. We're on our own here. You men are free to go wherever you please. Me, I'm getting my family and leaving."
Andrei nodded. "And I'm going with him, because I'm sure as hell not wandering about alone."
"What about the rest of us?" the veteran asked.
"Like I said, you can go wherever you want," Viktor said. "Find a safe place to hold up, get your families out of the country, move into one of those swank penthouses. It's your call."
The soldier looked at his fellow troops, then back at Viktor and Andrei. "What if we came with you?"
Viktor was taken aback. "With me?"
"Yes," said the veteran, his face brightening. "We'd stand a better chance together, and we could keep our families safe, maybe find a place to live where we could look out for one another."
Viktor looked at Andrei, but his friend only shrugged. "Don't look at me, friend, I'm not leading this walking smorgasbord," he leaned in closer so only Viktor could hear. "But, it doesn't hurt to have a few extra sets of eyes watching. Worst-case scenario, we can run away while they're getting eaten."
The soldier looked at the crowd before him, suddenly finding himself in the uncomfortable and unwanted position of leadership. He looked over at the dead officer, and realized just why the young man had been so scared. Being in charge held few rewards.
Viktor cleared his throat, a part of him wishing he had left without a second look. "All right, listen up. My second-in-command and I," he said pointing at a very surprised Andrei. "Have decided that it makes sense for us to stick together. The first thing we need to do is see to our families. We'll break off into groups; those living closest together will form into teams and will set out to get their loved ones. We'll meet in three days, whether you have your families or not."
A young soldier, barely old enough to shave, raised his hand. "What then, sir?"
Viktor winced at the honorific. "We find a place, a small town or a large building, one with supplies. After that, well, we'll think of something."
The soldiers quickly formed into teams and left. Viktor's, those soldiers with no families they thought were worth saving, took on the task of finding shelter. As they marched north he heard a soft meow. He looked into a tree, and saw the cat, looking down at him. Viktor held out his arms and the animal jumped, climbing onto his shoulder. "So you want to come with us, then?" he asked.
The creature purred in response. Viktor shook his head, laughing, and walked on. "And away we go."