I sent this out to a few beta readers and never heard a peep back. The First Reader liked it, and we’d discussed making this into something longer, but I think it’s pretty far out from my usual, and readers might not want it. It’s a complete short story as it stands. I’m not known for fiddle-farting around, I hope. I’m warning you: this is dark, violent, gory, and filled with cursing. You’ve been warned. Now, read at will.
“I refused to let any of my kids play soccer. It’s not that I have anything against team sports, it’s just that I didn’t want to be a soccer mom. Which doesn’t stop my team from calling me that. I did put a stop to the inevitable nickname, though. No woman wants to be called socky. Not hard to convince your average team of Zekes to shut up and listen when you can shoot the wings off a fly at 20 meters, though.
Zekes is as much a nickname as socky, and about as accurate, too. Since we were never Zombie Killers, even if we were dubbed Team ZK28-2 by our forming agency. It made for great team patches, though. I wore mine with pride, and kept it clean after missions carefully, even when I had to replace the uniform it had been velcroed to. So, yeah, I’m a Zeke, and they don’t call me socky any more. But how I did earn my team nickname is a whole ‘nother story, and not one I can explain to my kids. Ever.
My real name is Consuela Evita Ramirez Cruz Cruz. Yeah, that’s a lotta names. More names than I am tall, nyuk nyuk. I’ve heard that one about a million times. I’m not going to bore you with my life story, but I figured you should hear the name, anyway, since this is a story about names. I’ve lead a pretty crazy life, with a small patch of calm and peace in the middle of it. Don’t know how it’ll end, except violently. I can pretty much guaran-damn-tee the violence of my death. Zekes don’t die in bed old and dried up. We go out loud and wet and too fucking young. Ahem. Sorry, trying to remember to keep the language down to a dull roar so the kids don’t pick it up.
Anyway, this is about the team. They aren’t my only family, not like they are for some of the members. I got it good. I deploy with the team, but I get to come home in between missions and pretend I’m a normal human being. A soccer mom, complete with minivan and a dog. I can hold onto that when we’re out there, in the dark, with no overwatch much less backup. Other guys? Well, I’ve seen what can happen when they think there’s nothing worth coming home for. It’s not pretty, and what’s worse, it can take the whole team on a fast ride to hell alongside them.
When I was a newb, they called me Cruz Squared. I was team 282 (we lose the dash when we say it aloud) sniper and tracker. Funny how the person who is mostly sitting still in one spot is the one who can see where others have been moving, right? Anyway. I’ve been shooting, and shooting for distance, since I could hold the rifle steady. Papa taught me well, and taught me before the… I’m getting ahead of myself.
So I’d been out on two deployments, three serious fire missions, but I was still the f… the newb. I’m not saying the reason the newbs don’t last long is because we use them as an ablative meat shield, but… So I was going in first. Look, what we do isn’t that hard. We go in where they tell us to go, we kill everything that moves, we get to wait for our ride home. See? And like I tell my kids, you get what you get and you don’t get upset. The helo drop went off like clockwork, which had my hackles up to begin with. I never like it when things go too well. Something has to be fu… screwed up or I’m not happy.
Here’s the sitch: I’m the team sniper, so me n’ a spotter get out first and boogie for our position, which we’ve usually scoped pretty good using satellite. Thank god for long-lasting orbits, eh? Now, what we can’t see are things like rattlesnakes sunning in good sniper hides, and ankle-high cactus or god forbid, cholla. So I don’t like to run into position. And, well, I’m not so worried about the enemy seeing me at this point. One thing about all the pressure on their brains, they say that’s why they can’t see so good. And stuff like binoculars is completely beyond them, poor souls.
What? Just because I send them to kingdom come don’t mean I’m not empathetic. They had mothers, too, once. So I kinda amble into place, keeping the roll of the terrain between me and the herd, and I get my mat down. I’m not afraid of spiders and scorps, but I don’t want to cuddle them either. My spotter that day was Harvey Diego, we called him Hi Def because he could see a ant on a road runner’s butt. While the roadrunner was moving. So he scootches up and starts looking for the targets. I come up alongside him, and slide my rifle up slow because if the sun catches the scope it’s like a signal flare. Anyway, there were a shi… um. A lot of ‘em.
The rest of the team had fanned out from the helo, working their way around the little bump of rock I was up on, and Hi Def starts to call ‘em on the team channel, when something kinda funny happened. I didn’t know what it was at first, just that it was weird. I didn’t know then what I know now, anything weird is bad.
Look, maybe the Zekes got sloppy. We’re not military, we’re para-military. Weaponized Boy Scouts. I was never a Girl Scout, selling cookies was stupid. I wanted to hunt, and camp, and do search and rescue heroic crap. But when the military got all chewed up overseas, and the wave came over the Rio Grande, I didn’t see any other way than to join up and fight. Long history, women fighting on their doorsteps when the men were away – women don’t belong in combat… Ok, I’m getting on my soapbox, sorry. What my point was, is that the enemy didn’t feel like a challenge any more. We just had to mop up any that made it through the natural defenses, before they got to people. Plain and simple, that was our job. Build a wall ‘o dead bodies, if they didn’t stop.
This herd, though? They had sentries. I wasn’t thinking that at the time, though. I just thought it was funny they had these spaced-out guys scattered around ahead of them. One was wading through that patch of ankle-biters cholla like the one I’d walked around. Stupid. But I guess you gotta have higher brain function to even be stupid. Animals are smarter than the enemy. Hi Def, he said something to the team about the outliers, and the team just clicked a response. They had gotten in position for their ambush, and were just waiting to slaughter.
That’s when the herd stopped. I could see them all turn and look in one direction, away from me, and then they made a noise. Raised the hairs on my neck. I’d never heard the enemy vocalize before, and it creeped me the fuck out. Sorry. So Hi Def, he swears, and then he tells the team that they’ve been seen. Which was impossible, but I didn’t know what else they’d be looking at other than my teammates in that direction. There wasn’t anything else. So I piped up and asked for permission to open fire.
The dust they’d been kicking up was starting to settle, and I heard the Leader swear over open channel, which startled me. We held pretty tight radio discipline, clicks or texts, to communicate without the herd hearing. They hear just fine, don’t know why they have trouble with seeing. Well, I do, but I don’t want to talk about it, and you didn’t hear that from me. We’ll just go with what the scientists say on the news. Anyhoo. He just said two words – one, depending how you write it, and then clear as day told me to shoot.
The dust tail was fading out, and I saw the problem, then. There were people in with the herd. Like… people. We dehumanize the enemy because it helps us cope. I may look like a hick, and talk like one, but I do read. And I know perfectly well that what we’re facing is both human, and not. Was human, I prefer to think of it. Was human before something infected them. Not zombies. That’s stupid. Some kind of weird plague, that makes them hungry, alla time starving, and vicious. The news says like rabies, but it isn’t rabies. I don’t know, and it doesn’t matter when we’re hunting them. All that matters then is keeping them from bringing what they have to us. Didn’t know why they cross the desert, not until then. Not until we saw the Coyotes for the first time.
Yeah, that was my team. No one before us had any idea that the herds were being herded. Everyone assumed they were just wandering in at random, and there were a lot of people who just thought since getting to America used to be the big dream, it was the last thing the infected could remember. Which was crap, but hey. Even in that moment, we didn’t know what the answer was. We just knew it was fuc… weird. For one thing, how the hell they found enough gas to drive that truck… and it wasn’t just the truck. It was the pintle gun they had mounted on it. You’ve seen pics. I know you have. I’ve seen them. It was the last thing Hi Def uploaded before they blew his head off.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. I’d been given the order to fire. I’d seen the truck. I froze. I’m ashamed of it. I replay that split second in my head all the time. All the fucking time. I never go a day without it. I might go a day without feeling Hi Def’s brains on my cheek, or seeing the team get ripped to red ribbons, but that truck… I pulled the trigger a second too late, because I froze. And then I didn’t hit what I was aiming at. I know it’s because my brain just couldn’t process the cognitive dissonance that fast, but it doesn’t matter. It’s my fault they died. I didn’t shoot the damn gunner. I shot the guy standing behind him.
I got the gunner next, but not before he’d gotten Hi Def. I don’t know why he was aiming at us. I don’t know. It makes no sense at all for him to be looking at us when the entire herd was looking in the other direction, at the team. But he was, and he squeezed off a burst, and one bullet got Hi Def, and another hit the leg of my bipod and jerked the rifle sideways and by the time I’d got control, he had swung around to point at the team, and the herd was running, flat-out bolting, and screaming the whole time. It was surreal. I just kept shooting, and shooting, and they just kept running.
You know, I’ve thought that day through a million times. I still don’t know why I did it. No. Fucking. Clue. But I lost it, that’s all. I snapped inside. I got up on top of that rock knob, and I started screaming at them. I kept firing, from the hip, because shit, I wasn’t going to miss. There were too many, too close. I didn’t know what I was saying until later, when they told me. I didn’t even know I was still on live radio. I just wanted them to turn around. I wanted them to leave the team alone. I wasn’t trying to be a hero. I just…
I just wanted to mother them. Wanted to take care of them. So when I ran out of ammo, I shouldered the gun and stood up there, all five foot nothing of me, screaming ‘You can suck my dick and balls!” And grabbing myself. Yeah, I know I’m not equipped for that. All I can say is that you start acting like your friends, and my friends were down there being overrun. My boys. Mine…
I don’t know who was more shocked, them or me. I suppose it was pretty comical, all things considered. I’ve never felt less like laughing than that moment. All I could see was this red haze over everything, and I was still screaming when they turned and started toward me. The guy in the truck was blowing his horn at them, but they were ignoring him, and gaining steam in my direction. Only… there were less of them.
Then the helo popped up behind me and started firing over my shoulder, and damn, that’s a beautiful sound even if it does abuse the eardrums. I dropped flat, mostly because I was afraid she’d take my head off going over, she was so low. So I didn’t see the rest of the team stand up out of cover and advance on what was left of the herd, mowing it down like wheat in a field. I just lay there, and I was crying. That’s when I heard it. Can’t tell you who said it – my hearing was kinda shot at that point. And none of them will admit it wasn’t them. They all wanna be the first to have said it, the idjits.
“Battle Mother.” Real quiet like, I heard that through my headphones.
Then a bunch of them started on it, like a chant. “Battle mother, battle mother, battle….”
I ripped my headphones off and threw them.
Later, they shortened it. Now? I’m Bam, or Bam-Bam. Heh. Ah, yeah. I can’t tell my kids how I got that one. I screwed up, and they treat me like a hero.”
Consuela looked out the window, then checked her watch. The psychiatrist, taking his cue that she was done, folded his notebook closed.
“It’s a term of honor.” He offered gently. “You should accept that.”
She faced him again, and he could see the tear tracks on her cheeks catch the light from the window. “They don’t know I could have saved them. Four dead, three wounded. One bite. Because I froze.”
“You found out that what you thought were helpless victims of disease who needed grace, were actually helpless tools being wielded as weapons by evil men.” Now he looked at his watch. “Next time, I want to know what you learned about their eyes.”
She grunted and got to her feet, one hand cradling her belly protectively. “Doc, you know I’m only here under protest for… well, I got kids to ferry to games.”
“Soccer?’’ He asked curiously. “I thought you said…”
“Not soccer. No. My boy, he plays baseball, and my girl? She’s in marching band. Neither of them’re gonna be on the teams. I don’t even teach them to hunt.”
“I see.” He followed her to the door and reached out a long arm to open it before she could. “Consuela, it’s always an honor.”
She snorted. “I notice you don’t say pleasure. At least you’re an honest shrink.”
And then she was gone, leaving him standing absently in the doorway, ihis mind far away from the small peaceful room they had just shared. It seemed smaller, somehow, when the vivid personality who had been storytelling was gone. Battle mother, he mused. How very appropriate it was for her. She was deadly, but… He shook his head and chuckled, wondering if there were videos anywhere of her vulgar display of berserk rage. Now those would be worth seeing!