I don’t know whether the kid got hit with something super high-caliber (like what, for god’s sake, a tactical nuke?) or just fumbled his own damned grenade, but he burst like a water balloon. Blood rained like sulfur, a veritable downpour, boiled by the heat of what atomized him. Like acid on my skin — I was shirtless, no less. I cursed the dumb-ass grunt for not staying down — one of those ‘hero’ types who just had to win the war, to the extent it was a war, by tossing his one grenade — but my reprimand made significantly less an impression on him than the blast. Nothing left but globs of jelly-mess bubbling from the remains of his smoking torso — still standing, oddly, grotesquely, from the waist down.
I took that as an omen, a message: be creative. Think. Didn’t want to spend another damned moment with those grunts — Marines, none too experienced with the savage nuances of jungle war-fare — they stuck me with for whatever god-damned reason. Incentive, I suppose. Force me to evaluate. Everything’s a test you don’t pass with anything less than 100-percent, A-plus, or it’s summer school for you, young man, getting splattered and scorched with the fiery blood, guts and bone-fragments of G.I. Joe.
Then, a gift from Heaven. Heaven, or a much higher authority? Could They — you know, Them, the Unseen — have known this from the beginning? Another in-the-field pop-quiz? Part of my education?
I crawled back a few yards to where a couple of corpsmen were working on another casualty (still under a barrage of ordnance; the bastards were shooting back; I had the authority to call in an air-strike, which is damned well what I planned to do, after I got cleaned up). Grabbed some gauze and peroxide to scrub my exposed skin (out, out damned spot!). This was before The Unseen had introduced all those needle-and-dick diseases to the populace, so I wasn’t overly concerned about contamination.
“No breath. No pulse,” said one of the corpsman.
“Still? Fuck it. Toast,” opined the other corpsman, and they moved on to the next hapless “warrior.”
While still availing myself of their gauze and peroxide, I paused for a few contemplative puffs of my electric cigarette (we’ve had them for years, these now popular consumer gadgets; only without the glowing tip, so we can smoke in the dark; and often with a little extra “something” besides nicotine, to help us concentrate and stay “alert”).
“Payback,” said the dead man.
“Shhh. You shouldn’t speak. You’ve just been killed.”
“Yes, sir. I was killed. Now I’m gonna get some payback.”
I was not astonished to see this erstwhile corpse reach for his weapon, stand up, then crouch down again to avoid the fusillade (at least death taught this one something), crawl to the sandbag wall and open fire. We learn early and well never to be “astonished” — by anything, ever — merely interested. And interested indeed I was, for this “dead man,” upon emptying his clip, had to be prevented by his astonished comrades (they have the luxury of wonder) from scaling the make-shift wall and charging toward the gunfire head on.
I then prudently called in the air-strike that put an end to that whole drama, for I had good reason. This particular dead grunt, apparently dead no longer, was a phenomenon to be observed. And analyzed. And protected. He was, I believed correctly, the solution to my “pop-quiz.”
The bombers ended that grim, tedious scene with a fire-and-light show worthy of Wagner, or a rock concert. Once the shooting had stopped, the enemy silenced, cries of the wounded became louder, desperate, hysterical, and that much more annoying.
“You’re going to the hospital, soldier,” I told my Lazarus.
“I’m fine, sir.”
Oh, you’re more than fine, your mine.
I rode with him in the helicopter, used my “authority” to by-pass triage at the hospital, and had him quarantined in a private room, to be examined by surgeons and seen by no-one, under any circumstances, without my approval. I took a seat outside the door, a most willing sentinel — nobody was getting at that man — and planned.
The man wore a civilian t-shirt, non-standard boots, and fatigues. A control, sent by the Unseen, to monitor the situation and, I assumed, my command of it, or lack there of.
“I’ve been told we have a ‘situation,’ Captain Spaeiouk,” he nodded toward the room in which my Lazarus was being examined (autopsied?).
“Interesting. From what I understand. An interesting situation. I wonder what is to be done.”
My cue: think fast.
I then conceived, in a fit of inspiration, aided and abetted by both desperation and perspiration, the basic architecture for Operation Zombie. My first real work.