- Author : Trisha J. Wooldridge
- Narrators : Alethea Kontis, Kyle Akers and Alex Hofelich
- Host : Alasdair Stuart
- Audio Producer : Chelsea Davis
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Originally published under the title “Steadfast in the Face of Zombies” in Once Upon an Apocalypse anthology that went out of print shortly after publication due to publisher buyout.
This short story has a special place in my heart because it was a challenge to write. I was invited by the anthology’s two editors, and as much as I adore fairy tales and study them for fun, I couldn’t think of one to adapt. Finally, Rona, three days before the deadline, messaged me, “Hans Christian Anderson’s ‘Steadfast Tin Soldier. Go!'” and I did it… It’s also the first short story where I had that writer’s moment of curling up in the coffee shop while working on a scene with tears pouring down my face saying, “I swear, it’s the scene! I’m fine–I promise!” Feel free to guess which scene that was.
by Trisha J. Wooldridge
I only got here and our camp’s on light discipline, which means that a shambler horde is close. Most of us can’t sleep and are up writing and sharing these tiny LED headlamps.
Dave’s company is at this camp, too. We saw each other at mess, and he looked like crap. Worse when he saw me. No one told him I’d been drafted. He never expected it with my bum leg. He said no one was talking about the front lines, but if they drafted someone like me, things must be really bad.
I told him I was here for more… political reasons. I don’t want him doing something stupid to your dad when we get back because he would. He didn’t think it was possible they could mess with medical records or pay off enough people to get me drafted, but here I am. Both of us are worried about Mom. You’re still checking in on her, right? Are you able to without causing any problems with your dad? I really hope so. Give her our love. She must be a wreck.
I know your performance is coming up, and I wish I were watching you dance rather than being here. But, I don’t regret our kiss. No matter what your dad thinks he can do, I’ll return to you for another. Thinking of that and thinking I am maybe keeping these horrors from getting to you, help me get through.
God, I miss you and pray for you every morning and night! I will not forgive my Dad. You belong here, going to college, becoming the famous screenwriter of your dreams. Being at all my rehearsals and performances, writing in the corner while I’m doing my barre exercises. Trying to hide the fact that you’re watching every pas, arabesque, and pirouette and getting absolutely no writing done. (You knew I always knew, right?)
Our next performance is the Nutcracker for Christmas. I’m trying for the Sugar Plum Fairy, if that helps you picture me dancing. You’ve seen me practice that part before, so you can imagine me better.
We haven’t gotten any news about what’s going on over there. They’re not releasing how many aren’t coming home. There are a lot of people posting YouTube videos about protests because they’re not giving casualty information. The CDC won’t allow any bodies to touch U.S. soil, so people are asking what’s going to happen when (I won’t say if!) you all start coming home? Will they keep everyone there until all the infected people are dead or contained?
I don’t want to think of that!
Are you seeing anything of China? I don’t even know what you would see, even if I knew where you were. I only have the air-mail drop information. If you’re in a “light discipline,” have you actually seen the things? Do they look like they do in the movies and groan?
You know, I hope you haven’t. I don’t want you anywhere near them. Be safe! I love you!
At this point, I’m not sure where we are in China, even if it’s still China. Your letter arrived the day we lost the camp. They broke through, so many of them. Some in our uniforms.
A bunch of us escaped in helicopters, but not all of us. And I haven’t seen David. One of the guys on our copter was barely eighteen and scared shitless. He’d got bitten, but was hiding it. It wasn’t like the movies. It’s more like when I would go to see Grandad in the nursing home. All of a sudden, the one bitten just forgets who they are and who you are. Then they start getting angry. It killed the pilot before we contained and shot it. We crashed. Two more died from that. The rest of us took care of the bodies, took what weapons and ammo we could carry, and tried to find shelter. God help me, I am afraid of slowing them all down with my leg.
We made it to the river and sold some guns and ammo for passage with a family. The grandfather, the one who looked the oldest, made us strip down naked. When he saw none of us were currently injured (he paused at the scar on my leg, it’s obvious it’s that old), he let us on the boat with him and his family. Those things, we call them shamblers because zombie sounds so damn ridiculous, they can’t swim and sink in water over their heads. But the water level is pretty low so we have to stay in the very middle of this long, muddy river. In some parts, it’s shallow enough where they can reach up from the water. One civilian who’d shared our boat got pulled overboard the night after we left. We started 24-hour guard shifts after that.
There are fourteen of us on this homemade pontoon now, including the old man and his family. I don’t know where we’re going except mostly south. The old man uses gestures to tell us he believes we’re going somewhere safe.
I don’t know when I will be able to mail these to you, but I need to keep writing, keep thinking of you. Everything is so unreal. You’re all I can think of left that’s good in the world. I love you, and stay safe! I pray this mess never makes it out of Asia.
My father was nominated as the Republican candidate. He’s so happy, and there are all sorts of parties – people are going at this election like mad dogs. Most haven’t brought up the fact our troops are still over in Asia and more are going to Thailand, Laos, Burma and even India and the Middle East! The politicians and news people talk about other crap that just doesn’t matter.
They haven’t stopped the Internet, though. And a lot of us are still getting news from there. Someone filmed a horde in India, I think, and there were a lot of people running – and a lot of cell phone videos. News stations over here are saying it’s a hoax, but I don’t believe them. And I think – or, at least I hope – more and more people don’t believe the news stations.
I dance because I don’t know what else to do. Battement tendu. Pointe tendu. Pas de Basque. I have to move. Something.
It’s like half this globe is going to hell, literally, and people in this country are trying to ignore that. I don’t know what they’re doing in Europe or anywhere else, but I have heard they are all sending troops too. The whole country of China has gone offline. The whole country! No one is getting in and out, and no information is going in and out. India and Thailand are still sending stuff, but we’re not getting a lot of it. There are reports from Middle East countries, too, but you can only get those online.
People are worried that the Chinese will use nuclear bombs on their own soil to “neutralize the threat,” but nothing “official” can confirm anything.
And I haven’t heard from you in months and months. No one has heard from any of our soldiers, except some of the generals who say they “are in communication” and “everything is stable” and “our men and women are safe,” which sounds like bullshit, but I have to believe it, because I have to believe you’re all right and you’ll come home to me.
It’s like a ghost town here, and people on the web are posting pictures and videos of their home towns looking the same. Dead. Empty. More people are getting drafted – they might all be getting secretly yanked out windows or something – and while there are protests, nothing is happening.
I don’t know what to think, except I just don’t want you over there. I want you home, with me, your ballerina who loves you.
I haven’t come across anywhere to send you letters, and I don’t even know how I’d get yours, but I have to keep writing you.
Every village we’ve come across has been destroyed. Four times our little crew has had confrontations. The old man, his daughter, her three children, and five of my company are all that’s left. Her husband was lost in our last attempt to find a town and refresh our supplies, along with MacP, one of ours. They came running from the jungle, threw bags of food and cans and water bottles and fuel onto the pontoon, then kicked us toward the middle while they both stayed, firing at the shamblers so they wouldn’t follow. The water was really shallow with no current to hold them back.
I’m in charge of the motor when we’re deep enough to use it. It was like hell having to crank it up when Leiderman and Grandfather paddled us deep enough. All we could do is watch them firing, making sure the things didn’t get any ideas of testing the water. It’s not like our boat can move that fast. We just had to get where it was too deep for them to reach us.
The man’s wife started screaming as soon as the motor started, then the children. Grandfather, and Saunders, one of my company, both had to hold her back. Leiderman and Gregson held the children. Neilson, our sergeant, stood away from them, gun aimed at the shore.
I knew he wanted to fire. I wanted to fire. Give them the only gift we could. Gift of mercy. But we’re low on ammunition. We just watched, he and I, being with them in their last moments.
When they were tiny figures on a faraway shore, and the shambler horde was upon them, the two men fired upon each other.
Neilson lowered the muzzle of his gun and crossed himself. I prayed they were brain dead before the infection could change them.
I don’t think I’ll send this letter to you, Suze. I don’t know if I will ever find a place where I can send mail. I just need to record what’s happening over here.
I pray we can stop this, so no one else has to go through this. God keep you safe, Suze. I love you, always.
I hope you’ll forgive me for this, but I’ve enlisted. My dad refuses to speak to me or even acknowledge my existence, but I don’t give a damn. I’m nineteen, I’m more fit than half the men and women who are getting drafted. I can make a difference.
I know you want me safe, and you want to think of me as your beautiful ballerina waiting to pirouette for you, but I cannot simply dance through this. I must do something.
The presidential debates are all about whether or not to bring any soldiers home. The CDC says they can’t ensure anyone brought home won’t be a carrier because some people come in contact with the disease, have sustained wounds, and don’t get infected. But they can infect others.
If you may never come home, then maybe I can find you. I know it’s next to impossible, but right now, staying here and hoping they even let you come home seems even more impossible.
I love you, always, Peter, and I want to make a difference. I hope you understand.
Another letter added to my pile that I pray will get mailed someday – or, I hope and pray – hand to you in person if we can contain this threat.
But I’m afraid we won’t. And things are getting harder for our little group.
The woman killed herself three days after we left her husband. She fucking killed herself. Suze, by God and all that is holy, swear to me if something happens you won’t do that! I know she was hurting. Hell, I can’t even imagine how I’d feel if I heard the infected came to U.S. soil – and I can imagine how you feel with me over here, but swear to me you would never do this!
You won’t, I know. You’re too strong. But I’ve seen what heartbreak does.
The woman, after she stopped crying just shut down. She wouldn’t eat or drink or even look at her children. Her own children! Grandfather and Gregson take care of them. Gregson makes cartoon voices and faces and does magic tricks. But they should never have had to go through this.
It was the middle of the night and we’d turned the motor off because we were in a shallow part again. Neilson and Saunders were paddling and keeping watch when the woman “fell” off the side. We didn’t see the blood in her corner until later. Neilson and Saunders woke us up, and we hauled her back on the boat, but she was dead. She’d taken one of our knives and sliced her own femoral, bleeding out while she was in the water. Most people don’t think of the femoral artery. She knew what she was doing. It wasn’t a cry for help; it was a decision. A selfish one.
We all took turns trying to comfort the children, get them to eat. I don’t remember much else except that I was relieved to take over steering and paddling so I wouldn’t have to think of anything else.
Please, Suze, even if I don’t make it back, keep living. Keep dancing.
I just got back from basic and checked on your mom. She told me David is coming home!
I hadn’t heard they were letting anyone back. God, I don’t know if you’ll get this letter, but I know you’d want to know. There’s no word about any of your other brothers or your dad, but David will be home safe.
I think he got lucky on a few levels because when I talked to my mom (after Dad had left, because we’re still not speaking), I heard my cousin, Henry, is coming home on the same boat. They’re landing in California and then the soldiers – I heard there are about 100. Only 100? – are all flying home.
Supposedly, this is the first group and more are coming. They voted in some decision to start bringing some people back. It’s been almost two years since you left, longer for some of the others.
Some people are saying it’s a dangerous choice and the vote was to get the Republicans to look good in the upcoming election. They say, “Are we sure no one’s bringing the virus back to the U.S.?” And the answer they get is that everyone will go through a quarantine process in California, but anyone coming home is supposedly clean of being a carrier of what they say is a mutated virus the Chinese were experimenting with.
I believe it’s good they’re coming home. I only wish you were, too, even if I’m about to be deployed.
I love you always.
I’ve got almost two dozen letters I’ve collected if we ever get to civilization. Yesterday, we made it to the ocean. The fucking ocean, Suze!
We had less than a week’s worth of provisions, but we could see shamblers every time we looked to land. So, we rode out to the ocean. We had a compass, and Grandfather – who knows some English now, and we’ve picked up some Mandarin – Grandfather said we might find an island where we’d be safe since the things don’t easily cross water. The thing is, we didn’t know if we’d survive that long on what food and fresh water we had.
But we didn’t have to find out.
The Japanese have been secretly observing the waters in submarines all the way down to the Philippines. They’re capturing everyone they find leaving the shores of infected countries.
And there are a lot of infected countries. They said things have spread almost to Europe. They’re talking serious about bombing, and that terrifies me, Suze.
Like Grandfather, the submarine crew made us all strip naked to ensure none of us had any cuts. They were in full hazmat suits when they inspected us.
Thing is, Gregson did have a cut on his leg. It wasn’t a bad one, but it was getting infected. We all knew it was just an abrasion from when we were trying to catch fish and he dropped the makeshift spear we’d made. We kept it as clean as possible, but it festered. The Japanese wouldn’t let him leave our boat, though. They held him at gunpoint. Saunders – she and Gregson had gotten close while we were on the boat – refused to leave him. They asked to keep the compass and the food, and they’d just leave. None of us spoke Japanese, but one of the submarine men spoke English, and he said the rest of us could board their submarine and they would take us somewhere safe. The poor kids were terrified and didn’t want to leave Gregson and Saunders behind, but we got them on the submarine.
I was last. Having been on the boat with hardly enough water to keep us alive and long out of pain meds, I was barely moving. Two of the Japanese helped me get to their sub. I was only a few rungs down the ladder when I heard the shots.
Two shots. Two thuds.
I tried to scramble back up the ladder, but my bad leg got tangled in the rungs and I fell right on my tailbone. Pain burned all the way up my backbone and I couldn’t feel my legs for a few minutes. I knew the soldier had killed Gregson and Saunders just like that, in cold blood, after promising to let them go. I should have been more outraged. Furious. But that would come later. I was in fucking pain.
Neilson just about climbed over me to go up the ladder, but three of the Japanese detained him, and one detained me – though I wasn’t going anywhere. I could hardly breathe.
When I woke back up, I was in the infirmary, on my side. I managed to break my tailbone. Fuck. Sorry I have taken up more cursing, but that’s how I feel. Two of my friends were gunned down and I couldn’t do anything – and now I had the most dumb-assed injury anyone could get: a broken ass.
The English speaking Japanese guy came and tried to explain things to me, still in his hazmat suit. He tried to tell me they couldn’t take any chance of the disease spreading. The two could have gotten to one of the islands, which had zero instances of the viruses, and continued the spread.
Saunders and Gregson almost made it. A lot of people are almost making it. The next stop on this journey could end with the rest of us almost making it.
The others are able to visit me, always under the watch of more Japanese in their suits. We’re limited to where we can go, but getting enough food and water. And pain medicine.
At least that’s some comfort. It makes it easier to dream of you, Suzanne. Dancing around me in my cot. I know you’re more beautiful than I can remember, but just remembering you helps.
Maybe we won’t be almost safe. Maybe I’ll get home and get back to you.
The first incursion happened in California. But it also happened at home, with David. He’d cleared quarantine. Supposedly, all the soldiers did.
I wasn’t there. I was already en route to Sacramento. Well, outside of Sacramento. We’re trying to contain Sacramento.
It was on the news, and there are riots all about it. Greenscranton was destroyed. Not cordoned, not contained, not shit. Destroyed.
My family, unsurprisingly, happened to be out of the state when the decision was made. I don’t know how much weight my dad had in that decision. Supposedly, he’s still ahead on polls despite his hometown being leveled by the National Guard. I can’t even begin to process this.
I’m so sorry, Peter. God, I’m sorry! I don’t know what else to say. I don’t even know if you’ll get this letter. We’ve got a hot drop in California. Hardly a chance to stop for mail. I’ll keep this safe for you for when we meet again.
Because I have to believe we will meet again. I have to believe in something good.
When everyone’s asleep, I do my movements. I stretch. I dance for you.
Suzanne, your ballerina
I dreamed you were dancing for me last night, at the studio, like you always did after class when I was doing homework or writing something. You were doing that spin thing with your leg all the way up your side. And then you stopped, like that one time you noticed me watching you, and you just kind of balanced on one leg, hugging the other. And then you winked. It was so beautiful.
We were taken to a floating quarantine. It’s the size of an aircraft carrier, and we’re at the very bottom of it. I feel like Jonah in the belly of the whale. Except there’s a few hundred soldiers down here with me. American, Australian, British, German, French, Japanese, Taiwanese, Chinese. They keep us together. From what I hear, there’s a failsafe where this whole cordon can be released and let sink to the bottom of the ocean if there’s any sign of infection. All three quarantine levels can be released. Just sunk and forgotten.
My walking is even worse now; I need crutches.
At least they are feeding us well and we have plenty of water, working showers, and toilets. I don’t feel like a prisoner. Much. I just am stuck in the belly of a quarantine whale floating somewhere in the Pacific.
I hope you are safe and this disease hasn’t made it to U.S. shores yet. Keep dancing, my Suzanne.
There are outbreaks in San Jose and San Francisco now. There were outbreaks in Kentucky and Louisiana, where other soldiers went home…those were rural communities. While they haven’t razed anything, like they did in Greenscranton, they’re under strict quarantine. Any city one of the returned soldiers visited or went home to is under strict quarantine. Anything leaving the containment area is to be eliminated. There are riots all over the place.
Sacramento is contained right now, but some soldiers went home to highly urbanized civilian zones: San Jose, San Francisco, San Diego out here in California, but New York, Atlanta, Boston, and Miami, too. Those of us on domestic deployment and the National Guard are mobilizing there now, all hospitals are on high alert to contact military regarding any possible infection victims.
Which means it’s fucking insane. Every single hospital is calling us, terrified. My squad is deploying to support the National Guard in San Francisco. It’s a mess between the riots and the panic. No one trusts the military. I can’t say I blame them.
None of the news stations showed footage of what happened in Greenscranton, but some of the people in my company still have smartphones. Videos from some of the soldiers were all over YouTube. They started getting taken down, but they can’t erase our brains – yet – and there are other places on the Internet where people have copied the videos.
I haven’t done a single pas, movement, or even a stretch, but when I go to bed, I dance in my head. And we’re back in high school, hiding in the back booth of Missy’s diner, giggling. And then you ask if you can kiss me, and I say yes. It’s the most beautiful feeling ever.
I know you don’t want me fighting in this war, but keep sending your love and prayers, and I’ll send mine to you. It’s all we’ve got now.
I don’t know how it happened, but we’re coming home.
It started with a feverish German. That put the rest of us in the bottom quarantine level into a panic. None of us went near him. And then he turned.
And we somehow stormed our way upward.
I wish I could tell you who did what, or hell, what happened. I don’t know. All I remember was everyone running. Neilson and Leiderman each grabbed one of my arms and hauled my ass with them. They weren’t going to leave me, no matter how many times I said I was slowing them down. God bless them!
The quarantine levels should have been released when the German turned, but we think the infection actually started topside, because there were already shamblers there. Inside hazmat suits. It was already a battle zone when we got up there. The three of us headed to the control room with another contingent and took it over.
We dumped all the quarantine levels and all the infected into the Pacific.
After it was over, there were less than a hundred of us left to run this medical ship the size of an aircraft carrier. I’d never been on anything so big.
And so empty.
Because we had to do exactly what those submarine officers did.
After the battle, we killed every single man and woman who had any injury. We collected their IDs and dog tags.
Their families would at least know their loved ones weren’t monsters or suffering. They deserved that; their families deserved that. To know.
But we killed them.
Leiderman got bit. He handed us his tags and pulled his own trigger right on the side so he’d fall overboard.
Not two days later, the U.S. Air Force intercepted us. More hazmat suits, more tests. Now, they’re transferring us onto U.S. transport. We’ll be landing in San Jose, California in a few days. That’s all they told us. That’s all I think we can process right now. We’re coming home.
I’m still numb. Even my broken tailbone and my leg are numb. I don’t think humans were meant for this kind of pain, Suze. I hope you never have to face this. I dream of you at home dancing, still. And then I feel guilty because how could I ask you to love someone who’s killed people in cold blood? Some of them begging to be given a chance to prove they aren’t infected?
But picturing you as the Sugar Plum Fairy, like you described in the last letter of yours I received, keeps me going.
I’ll be a monster if it keeps you safe.
We’re moving to San Jose to support one of the Veteran’s hospitals. It’s a dark op because any more outbreaks on U.S. soil might just destroy this country’s soul. Especially at a VA hospital.
I haven’t mailed a single letter since I enlisted, so I’m not leaking anything. When China went black, I had nowhere to mail anything anyway, so I’ve saved them all. Thinking that maybe just writing them would send the message to the universe and you’d know.
I know it sounds crazy, but I’m not the only one. Some of the others are also writing and saving. They’ve taken our phones and we’re on disciplined communication
If – no, when, I must hold onto when – you see me again, will you even recognize me? I feel so different. Much different than that sweet ballerina who had plans for Julliard with her boyfriend who was going to write movies.
I killed my dad. My own dad. He was in San Francisco for some press conference or another, and he’d been bitten at a small outbreak. The outbreak was contained. Orders were all bitten subjects were to be eliminated, no quarter.
I expected my dad to ask for an exception, and he didn’t. He just stood there. And nodded. And I had to pull the trigger. Marks, my partner, offered to take the shot. But I needed to be the one to do it.
You know, he loved seeing me dance, too, like you. After I…eliminated the threat…I told myself I had no right to dance again.
Tomorrow, before dawn, we’ll arrive at the VA hospital. They say there’s a chance one of the soldiers, or a few of them, have brought back the virus. A bunch were rescued from a quarantine ship out in the Pacific. And I’m desperately afraid of what we’ll have to do. I’m more scared of that, Peter, than if I do get bit. I might be able to take my own life before I change, but when someone’s begging you…and you know they’re going to change into a monster? God, it’s hell. How can anyone dance?
But when we stopped for tonight, I couldn’t sleep. My feet were itching, twitching. So, I snuck out of my bed. At first I just put my feet into the positions, did a few basic stretches. Then plié. Rélevé. Arabesque. I couldn’t stop. I couldn’t help myself. I kept moving. Just next to my bed. I had to. I don’t know why, but I did. I’m dancing because somewhere I imagine you wanting to see me dance. I guess I can’t change that much. I hope?
If you’ll still have me, I’ll always be your ballerina.
The Air Force brought us to San Jose yesterday. To a veteran’s hospital they say is prepared for returning military with proper quarantines. That floating quarantine was supposedly prepared. We went through the usual tests.
We were still numb. Even Neilson. We just did as told, handing over our personal items, our letters, and the dog tags and IDs we collected from the floating quarantine. Trusting our compatriots to return them to the families.
We watched them put it all in a lock box that they say is going out tomorrow. Forgive me if some of the letters are horrific. I sealed them all and now I don’t remember which ones I never planned to send.
But you need to know the truth.
When I see you, Suzanne, I will ask you to marry me. But I want you to know the person who wants to marry you.
We haven’t seen any news programs. They don’t even have TVs on anywhere. It’s a little spooky, but none of us question. We just need to rest.
Then we can find out what’s going on in the world. If we’re winning. If it’s getting contained.
I am dreaming of you dancing, my Suze.
This is last letter I write.
I was called back from the front lines. The VA hospital was hot, and I’m part of the contingent plan.
I don’t even want to talk about it.
I’m not coming home, Peter. They told us that and collected our personal items and put them in a lock box. I scribbled this and sealed it just before. I put your old Greenscranton address on it. No one even noticed. It doesn’t matter, though. I just needed to write this. Maybe God will deliver it to you himself.
I love you, Peter. I’ll dance for you in Heaven. Be safe!
Suzanne, Your Ballerina
On Display at the Los Angelvegas Monument for the Soldiers and Civilians of The War of the Virus:
High resolution digital reproduction of photo records of fused soldier remains washed up on the Nevada shore. Dog tags (items 14A and 14B) identify remains as Private First Class Peter Baker and Private First Class Suzanne Miller. This particular image was the most circulated upon its discovery ten years ago, dubbed “The Lovers,” because the two bodies appeared to be fused together in a final embrace at ground zero of the San Jose detonation that began the sinking of California. In a locked fire box that washed up around the same time (item 15) was a collection of letters from hundreds of soldiers, among them the love letters of a “Suzanne” and “Peter,” which are digitally displayed (items 15a1-15a16).
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