I finish tightening the final clamp securing Sara to the rack, and step back.
The light summer sundress clings lovingly to her figure just like I remembered, but all the holes and dirt smears take away from her attractiveness rather than enhancing it. The same with the blood and other matter crusting her fingernails and mouth.
I look into her eyes, the cornflower blue eyes I could stare into for hours, now dull and clouded over but still looking into mine. Was some of Sara still in that dead body? The eggheads would say no, but I’ve seen evidence to the contrary, not that the eggheads would ever listen to a grunt like me.
I brush a stray lock of hair away from her forehead so it won’t get matted in the fluorescent paint of the number stenciled on her. Her hair feels gritty and I suddenly have an irrational desire to wash it before she is shipped out. I don’t know why I care, but I just know she would be irritated by it if she could see herself.
Her head leans towards me and for a moment her cold cheek brushes over the back of my hand, just like she would do in the few private moments we could steal. I feel tears trying to leak from my eyes, but for some reason they just won’t come.
I’m not surprised when she tries to bite me. Disappointed, but not surprised. The dampening field the eggheads generate to retard the infection makes her slow, almost lazy, but even at full strength it can’t totally overcome her new instincts.
I’ll have to find a way to thank the captain for allowing me to prep her for shipping. He found out about us of course, but didn’t rat us out to the base commander. A lowly private and the daughter of a general. It never should have happened, but it did.
I hoist her rack into final shipping position with the other packages being sent back east to the labs. All tired out, I rest for a moment and stare into the shipping container full of zombies. The smell of ruptured bowels and bodily decay is heavy in the air and I imagine it will only get worse on their week-long ride.
The thought of them experimenting on Sara kills me inside. What the Einsteins need with so many guinea pigs I don’t know, but standing orders are to capture and ship any intact subjects. I’d ask for an exception for Sara, but I know the captain’s sympathy will only go so far. He has his duty. We all have our damnable duty. A war where your defenders fall only to join the other side is an unwinnable war, and despite all the propaganda the defense department is churning out, I don’t think we’re winning.
I press my head against the cool metal of the shipping rack. I’m going to be glad to get back to my bunk; the events of the day have given me a massive headache.
“All finished, private?” booms a voice behind me.
I snap to attention, or at least I try to. I feel wrung out and drained, but the captain pretends not to notice. “Yes, sir! All packages secured and ready for shipment.” I notice a smear of blood where I rested my head. Unfortunately, you get messy on this job. After a while you don’t even notice it anymore.
“Good, good… However, we do have one more,” he says with sympathy in his voice.
I quickly stifle a moan of disappointment. I feel so damned tired and empty inside. All I want to do is get rid of this headache, but duty comes first.
He leads me over to the final shipping rack. Two other grunts from my unit are standing there and I look around for the package, but don’t see it. Then they grab my arms.
“Sir, I don’t understand…”
“Easy, son, just get in the rack.” I stare at him in horror as my friends secure my arms first, just like they taught us.
“The Science Corps is very interested in you. No other soldier infected under the dampening field has ever lasted as long as you have, but we can see the signs; you’re starting to turn.”
Realization dawns on me and my mouth falls open in disbelief. A groan escapes me, the same groan we’ve all heard every day from the beginning of this tour. A groan echoed and multiplied by those in the racks around me.
I try to catch the eyes of my friends, but they efficiently go about their duty and won’t meet my gaze. I squeeze my eyes shut; I can’t look at them anymore. “I’m not one of them! I can’t be!”
“I’m sorry, son, if it’s any consolation; the boffins think they will get a lot of intel from you. They say it might be a new strain of the disease. Personally I think they’re full of shit and it’s because you cared so much for your girlfriend that you couldn’t let her go even after she caught you and chewed up the back of your head. You don’t remember that, do you?”
I’m shaking my head back and forth and can’t seem to stop. As strong hands grab and hold my head, I hear the hiss of a spray can and feel wet paint on my forehead.
“Goodbye, son, it was an honor serving with you.” The finality of the captain’s words fill me with despair.
I open my eyes and see he has had me positioned across from Sara. Watching him leave, I don’t try to say anything more; I’m not sure I could say anything even if I wanted to, so I thank him silently. He’s a decent man.
Sara and I stare into each other’s eyes like we once did on a warm and sunny day on a hillside all to ourselves. It’s all we can do.
Brian J. Hunt is the editor of several books on vintage art including The Outlandish Art of Mahlon Blaine and the series of GB Graphics Tijuana Bible Archives. This is his first fiction sale.