"Permission to use the Whale Gun, sir," Lieutenant Greyson said. She balled her fists. The leather gloves that she wore made her hands squeak like a robot with unoiled finger joints.
"Permission denied," General Radcliffe said. He stood in the back of a jeep and peered through a pair of binoculars at a horde of zombies strolling down the lane. They stumbled into trees and tripped over lawn decorations. A forgotten sprinkler hydrated patches of them with a faint thup-thup-thup interrupting the monotony of their undead moans. One of the zombies was caught on a tree swing. It walked in circles and tangled up another bunch of zombies in the yellow plastic cord that hung from a low branch.
"Sir, that is one enormous wad of zombies," Lieutenant Greyson said. "I don't need any binoculars to see that. And they're coming right for us."
"Noted," General Radcliffe said, letting his cigar bounced around in his mouth as he considered the situation. The stubby brown bundle of leaves had served too many tours of duty around his mouth.
"Sir, I respectfully-"
"If you actually respect me, spit it out; if you think that I am a moron, keep talking around your point!" General Radcliffe interrupted, beginning to chow down on his cigar.
"We need to neutralize the threat by turning them into red clouds!"
"Negative! You ever seen what a Whale Gun can do? It will turn half of this block into a smoking crater, and the only thing that might survive are the sparking ends of the buried electric cable! There will be no survivors, no houses, no anything to speak of!"
"Who are you trying to save?" Lieutenant Grayson asked.
General Radcliffe lowered his binoculars but didn't answer the question.
"Use the Firehogs, burn those maggot-bitten flat-lining bastards down to bones. Straight and easy down the street, not at an angle. We don't want to set the houses ablaze, but I do want this asphalt gummier than the bottom of a schoolboy's desk."
"Roger," Lieutenant Greyson said, sliding out of the back of the jeep. General Radcliffe heard the rumble of the Firehogs moving into position before they rolled into view in front of and on either side of the jeep. He imagined that he could hear the gasoline sloshing in their bellies. The nozzles on each of the two Firehogs appeared to feel the air like the antennae of the beetles that they resembled as the gunner adjusted the angle of the flame projection.
Then they waited.
For several moments the Firehogs sat face-to-face with their opponents, breathing oxygen into their engines and expiring the round tang of diesel exhaust, resting before they attacked their prey.
And then all hell broke lose. With a series of clangs as valves flew open and pumps kicked on, two lances of flame rocketed from the nozzles of the Firehogs. From the moment the lances touched the zombies, they enveloped and began to consume their targets. In between cyclones of hellish black smoke that rolled from the zombies, General Radcliffe could see the vague shapes of the zombies become shorter and shorter as the zombies collapsed. The flames missed the houses and barely touched the lawns.
After only a few seconds, the Firehogs sheathed their lances and looked upon their handiwork. A hole had been carved into the ranks of the zombies. Many of them continued to walk forward until the flame had destroyed their tendons and they collapsed. The fire had caught the clothes of the other zombies and created a much larger path of destruction than General Radcliffe had anticipated. He saw several zombies stumble towards the bushes of a house.
"Take down those zombies before they set the houses on fire!" General Radcliffe yelled.
His soldiers ran forward as much as they dared and dropped the zombies with the staccato rhythm of small-arms fire.
"Whew," General Radcliffe said.
Beyond the black smoke, General Radcliffe saw more zombies shambling in the shimmering waves of heat. They came towards him and his soldiers.
Lieutenant Greyson's voice came from the ground nearby.
"We can't stay here forever. The whole city's worth of zombies will come for us with all the noise. And we're probably the biggest buffet left."
"Our mission is to protect the citizens of Constantinople," General Radcliffe said.
"But we can't save everyone."
Footsteps pounded onto the asphalt behind them. General Radcliffe and Lieutanant Greyson turned at once. It was one of the radio operators that General Radcliffe had tasked on monitoring the short-wave bands.
"Did you pick up a signal from survivors, Corporal Dhariwal?" General Radcliffe asked.
"No," Corporal Dhariwal replied, not bothering to salute. "But I did receive a signal from command, encrypted orders."
He shoved the piece of paper at General Radcliffe. It ordered all remaining personnel to retreat from their positions.
"Did this just come in?" General Radcliffe asked.
"Yes," Corporal Dhariwal replied.
"When they close enough again, toast 'em," General Radcliffe said to Lieutenant Greyson as he hopped out of the back of the jeep. He followed Corporal Dhariwal to the truck containing their radio equipment and punched in a series of commands. It was an official channel to somebody that could give him the unofficial reasons behind the retreat.
A voice came on the other end of the line.
"Hello, who is this? How did you get this line?"
"Bert," said General Radcliffe, "this is ol' Mucky. One of my radio operators just handed me a piece of paper that said that we are to retreat. And that just sounded like the kind of hogwash that comes off of a very dirty hog. The kind of hog that abandons civilians in need."
"Mucky!" said Bert, his voice so full of relief that the low fidelity of the radio connection couldn't hid it. "Am I glad to hear from you, I thought for sure that you and your team were goners down in that FUBAR zone. We have not heard from anybody else, and it was only on my insistence that we sent out any communication at all."
General Radcliffe's blood ran so cold that he could've taken a shower in front of one of the Firehogs.
"All of them? Sharon? Vanderhoosenbanks? You haven't heard anything?"
"Nothing," Bert said, his voice gruff. "It's a miracle you survived. Look, I'm glad that you contacted me, because I need to emphasize that you need to get out. Now. A few minutes ago. In fact, get off the radio and start driving. Where are you now?"
General Radcliffe raised an eyebrow to Corporal Dhariwal, who leaned out of the back of the truck and read the street intersection.
"South 32nd Street and Blackhawk Avenue," General Radcliffe said.
"What?!" Bert yelled, causing the speaker to crackle. "Good god, you have to get out of there! Why would you go in? The orders were to maintain a perimeter!"
"The orders were to protect the citizens of Constantinople," General Radcliffe said.
"You have to leave!"
"There are still people here that need our help!"
"Listen," Bert said, his voice growing louder and more distorted as if he was holding his mouth closer to the microphone. "You have to leave. And here's why - jesus, Mucky, the best that I could get if anybody found out that I told you this is jail time. More likely I'd have my bags packed for me and shoved out of an airplane over Constantinople."
Corporal Dhariwal motioned to ask whether he should leave. General Radcliffe shook his head.
"You have to leave because the Joint Chiefs of Staff has authorized the use of nuclear force against the outbreak of zombies in Constantinople."
General Radcliffe's cigar rolled out of his mouth, bounced off of his twill-covered knee, and settled on the floor of the truck.
"Mucky, are you still there?"
"It's not official. None of this goddamned operation has been official. I hate all this cloak and dagger business, but that's the way that the Joint Chiefs wanted it. Your deployment was officially to provide disaster relief after the flooding all summer. This nuclear detonation will be the result of a meltdown of the Constantinople nuclear reactor. That's the official cause. The real cause will be one of our great big nuclear missiles burying itself balls-deep into the Trihammer Building in downtown Constantinople. Oh jesus, Mucky, you have got to stick your principles up your ass and your ass in the back of a truck and haul it out of there. You didn't hear any of this from me. Contact me when you're safe."
The light on the radio blinked off.
Lieutenant Grayson stuck her head around the edge of the truck from where she'd been listening in. Her face had less blood in it than a zombie's and her voice shook.
"So the Whale Gun won't make much of a difference, in the scheme of things," Lieutenant Greyson said.