Courtesy of one rather excellent composer named Sean Beeson, let your ears feast on this “audition” for the score of The Gathering Dead! It’s just mind-blowing! Hugh Howey only got a main title for his WOOL, but I got a suite! BOOYAH! (Though the title music for WOOL is pretty damned good too, I must say.)
Sidebar, Yer Honor: Earthfall has been doing some great business. Thanks for all of you who helped make it such a success. I’m very happy that I’m able to move into a new genre and pick up a passel of readers who have never seen my stuff before, but without you guys piling on for the initial buys, it wouldn’t have climbed so far up the charts in such a short time. You’re all good folks, even if you are a bit deranged to think I write good stuff. (And if you’ve read it, please leave a review!)
Still looking to push The Farm out next week, but with tax season upon me, it might be delayed until the following week. Not to worry, though. It’ll be along quite soon!
On the rack now is another zombie action-adventure, but it’s not more of The Gathering Dead. This is a new, different series, co-penned between myself and Scott Wolf, an author who just so happens to be a real Green Beret (albeit recently retired). Scott’s going to be amping the military side of the game quite a bit, and has more than a few ideas of how humanity might fare against raging hordes of the walking dead…and the less altruistic survivors who might also be among the survivors, waiting for their time to take control. And as you might remember, as it was told in The Rising Horde, the folks in that universe might have a handle on things, what with Safire’s vaccine and all. Not so, here.
And that’s when shiznit gets bad.
That said, what follows is all mine–Scott hasn’t yet provided any rewrites, though I suspect it’s coming. And the usual caveat appears here: this is first draft stuff, changes are likely.
Through the binoculars, Hastings watched as the three soldiers hurried toward the abandoned semi-truck on the highway. It was surrounded by a sea of dead vehicles of all shapes and sizes, from tiny Smart cars to luxurious motor homes. The Jersey Turnpike had always been a traffic nightmare even in the best of times, and Hastings was disappointed to find the end of the world hadn’t improved things. He scanned from left to right, taking his time, always keeping track of the soldiers in battle dress as they jogged toward the choked interstate, making their way across the debris-laden field that separated them from the still river of steel and fiberglass. In the distance, huge clouds of black smoke rose into the air. Philadelphia was on fire, and had been for days.
The clutter made for a complex background, and it was difficult for Hastings to see any deadheads which might be lurking in the area. He probably wouldn’t see any until they moved, and then it might be too late for Tharinger, Reader, and Ballantine. Losing the soldiers to the horde would be bad, but the fact that the two M114 Humvees parked on the reverse side of the hill Hastings lay on were almost out of fuel made the risk acceptable. Without reliable transportation, the squad was going to be totally out of luck.
“You see anything?” Hastings said, his voice low.
“Negative.” Beside him, Staff Sergeant Hector Guerra looked through the scope of the M24 sniper rifle he’d pulled off the dismembered corpse of a Special Forces soldier they’d found after pulling out of New York. The Green Berets had been tasked to blow up the George Washington Bridge to contain the walking corpses streaming out of the Big Apple, but they’d been overrun before they could accomplish that particular mission. Which was a good thing for Hastings and the others. If the bridge had gone down, they would have been trapped in Manhattan with the rest of Task Force New York. Which meant they would have been dead already.
“If you see something, tell me. Don’t shoot first,” Hastings said.
“I get it, Captain. You’ve told me that five times already.”
“No need to get testy, Hector.”
Guerra grunted. Hastings continued his scan. Both men were lying prone at the top of the hill to minimize their silhouettes. Behind and below, Stilley and Hartman guarded the Humvees and watched the back door. If any reekers approached them from behind, they would radio warning. No one was to shoot unless it was absolutely unavoidable. Gunfire drew the reekers like flies to shit, almost as surely as they homed in on a blood trail. And no one wanted that; there were thousands of them in the area, and they just didn’t have enough ammunition to go around.
Ahead, the three soldiers slowed as they climbed up the embankment that led to the highway. Moving cautiously, they crossed over the guardrail and made their way to the semi-truck. Each man carried a plastic five gallon gas can which they would fill with diesel fuel for the Humvees. Fifteen gallons of diesel wasn’t a hell of a lot, but if they were able to make a couple of trips, it would be worth it. One of the Humvees was almost dry, and the other had maybe an eighth of a tank left. They’d be lucky to make it another five miles before they lost one of the hardy four-wheel drive vehicles.
Hastings found he had focused on the soldiers, and he snapped out of it and resumed his scan. Panning left to right and back again, as smoothly as he could, sweating beneath his helmet and the heavy ballistic armor he wore. The impulse to watch the soldiers make their way to the truck and begin siphoning fuel from its saddle tanks was almost overpowering, and he struggled with himself to remain focused on his job: watch for zombies, and give the soldiers enough warning to either take cover or retreat.
“Got one,” Guerra said. “To the right of the guys, about two hundred meters to the north.”
Hastings swung the binoculars in that direction, but he couldn’t see anything but abandoned cars and trucks, most with their doors wide open, some splattered with dried blood. Crows picked it human remains that lay on the hot asphalt.
“Can’t see anything,” he said.
“By the red Ferrari, on our side of the highway.”
Hastings found the red car. It was a Lambourghini, not a Ferrari, but he didn’t bother correcting Guerra. He still didn’t see anything, then a flash of movement caught his eye. There. A little Asian girl wearing a bloodstained Dora the Explorer t-shirt and nothing else. A huge wound marred the otherwise perfect flesh of her left thigh, and Hastings could see bone peeking through the tattered flesh. The girl was a reeker.
Hastings spoke into his radio headset’s boom microphone. “Ballantine…you have a reeker headed your way. About two hundred meters to your north, walking between the cars on the other side of that truck you’re at. It’s a kid. Over.”
As he spoke, he heard a shrill, pealing scream. Sometimes, the reekers moaned as they shambled along. Most times, they were silent until they saw something that captured their interest, like a living human being. But the kids, they almost always screamed or cried. It was horrifying in and of itself, as if the animated corpses that had once been children could remember their lives, and grieved at their passing.
“Yeah, we hear it, sir. Does it have a visual on us? Over.” Sergeant First Class Mike Ballantine was a seasoned combat vet who had seen multiple tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, and had spent more time in Indian Country than anyone else in the squad. Just the same, there was a strong undercurrent of tension in his voice.
“Negative, it does not see you yet. Over.”
“Roger that. Let us know if it crosses over into our lane, and let us know when it closes to within a hundred meters. Over.”
“You’ve got some time, Ballantine. It’s a shambler, has a bum leg. Over.”
“I’ll consider that a point in our favor. Over.”
The radio fell silent. “Keep an eye on that reeker,” Hastings said, then went back to his scan. As he panned past the soldiers, he saw they were at the truck. They were already filling one of the gas cans. Good.
More shrieks from the highway. Different from the first.
“Fuck. More of the little pricks,” Guerra said. “What the fuck, did a preschool get turned into a bunch of deadheads? I count four—no five more reekers. All kids.”
Hastings continued his scan. “Same range?”
“Roger, right behind the first one. All walking in a neat little line.”
Hastings passed that on to Ballantine. “You guys might want to take cover for the time being,” he advised.
“On it.” Hastings saw the soldiers climbing into the semi-truck’s cab when he panned the binoculars past their position. They moved slowly, cautiously, making as little noise as possible. Hastings held the binoculars on them for a moment, and he watched as Ballantine crawled in after Reader and Tharinger and slowly pulled the door closed after him. Hastings shook his head slightly. It was well in the 80s already, with high humidity; the truck’s cab would probably be as hot as a sauna.
“We’re buttoned up. Let us know when we’re clear,” Ballantine transmitted.
“Roger that. Chill out for a few, I’ll let you know when you’re good to go. Break. Hartman, SITREP from you. Over.”
“We’re good down here, Six. Stilley has finally stopped talking. Over.”
“That loudmouthed fucker’s going to get us killed,” Guerra said. He meant Stilley, the other soldier guarding the back door. A native New Yorker, he had no idea what a whisper was, even under the direst of circumstances. Hastings figured Guerra might be right, but there was nothing anyone could do about that right now. He would speak to Stilley again later. He had to figure out how he was going to get the soldier squared away before someone did something drastic like put a bullet in whatever passed for his brain.
“I’ll take care of it,” he told Guerra.
“Fair warning, sir. You don’t, I will.”
“Keep your pants on, Guerra. You do your job, I’ll do mine.” Hastings didn’t feel anger or irritation at the sniper’s challenge, but he filed it away as something else he would have to attend to. Later, when they didn’t have troops in imminent danger.
The two men watched as the gaggle of undead children crept past the semi truck’s cab. They did not slow, though one of them did look at the abandoned gas cans for a moment as it staggered by. That was it. Nothing else, no indication they knew living flesh was so near.
Hastings scanned the area thoroughly, looking for any more reekers. He saw nothing, but he knew they were around.
“Ballantine, you guys seem to be good now. We can’t see anything from our side, but you might want to check your right before you climb out. Over.”
“Roger that.” A brief pause. “Ah, we can’t see any activity from here. We still good to dismount? Over.”
“Roger, you’re still good. Over.”
The driver’s door on the truck’s cab slowly opened. Hastings watched through the binoculars as Ballantine stepped out on the rig’s running board and looked in both directions. Cautiously, he lowered himself to the asphalt, the pistol grip of his M4A3 assault rifle clenched in his right hand. Hastings couldn’t see the man’s face behind the MTek blast visor and facial armor all the soldiers wore, but he was certain even a steadfast trooper like Carl Ballantine was sweating bullets. If nothing else, the heat and humidity would ensure that would be the case, should fear fail to inspire perspiration. Ballantine moved toward the open saddle tank and took a guard position as the rest of the soldiers climbed down from the truck. They resume their siphoning mission immediately.
As Hastings went back to his scan, he asked, “Ballantine, how are you guys holding up? Over.”
“Hot as hell, Six, but still living. Over.”
Hasting’s view wandered over a beverage truck that lay on its side several hundred feet from where the soldiers stood. The vehicle had apparently been involved in a multi-vehicle pile up that halted traffic on this stretch of the highway. It was surrounded by a myriad of plastic bottles which lay on the ground like so many expended cartridges, gleaming in the sun.
“Guerra, when you get the chance, take a look at the water truck downrange. Are those bottles full or empty?”
“Hold one.” Guerra slowly panned his rifle to the right. After a moment, he said, “Looks like most of them are empty. I guess the motorists raided when the traffic got stopped. Might still be some in the truck, though.”
Hastings considered that for a moment. They would need water soon too. It was going to be a long drive upstate, and they would need every consumable they could put their hands on. Especially water. Water would be a big concern.
“Let’s get the fuel first,” he said finally.
“My opinion exactly.”
Below, Tharinger continued siphoning the saddle tank while Reader knelt nearby, weapon at ready. Ballantine had walked toward the rear of the rig’s trailer, his assault rifle shouldered, barrel down. Hastings saw his finger was on the weapon’s trigger guard. The NCO was indexed and ready to go.
“Okay, I have more movement on the highway,” Guerra said, and there was a quality to his voice which made Hastings’s ears perk up. “Check about sixty degrees uprange, heading toward our guys.”
Hastings swung the binoculars toward the north. It took him a long moment to figure our exactly what it was he saw, but he finally pulled himself together and figured it out. Heads and shoulders were swaying from side to side between the cars. Thousands of heads and shoulders. There was a veritable army of the dead marching down the highway, threading through the traffic.
Jesus… they followed us all the way from New York City.
“You know, I see some reekers in there that look to be in pretty good shape,” Guerra said. “Might be runners. You, uh, might want to pass that on to Ballantine, Captain.”
Hastings spoke into his headset microphone urgently. “Ballantine, we have a major contact headed your way from the north. Finish up what you’re doing and get ready to run like hell. There may be some runners in the group, but we’ll do our damnedest to service them from here. Break. Hartmann, get the vehicles ready to move out. Over.”
“Roger,” was Hartmann’s brusque reply.
Below, the three soldiers started packing up, moving quickly and efficiently. Ballantine pressed himself against the trailer and raised his rifle, peering through his scope. While his rifle’s optics weren’t anywhere as good as Guerra’s, he could see the writing on the wall pretty clearly even through 4x magnification. He turned and motioned for Reader and Tharinger to hurry it up. They had filled maybe two cans at the most, so each soldier grabbed one five gallon can and hurried to the highway shoulder. Keeping as low as possible, they crawled over the guardrail and pulled the cans after them. Ballantine glanced over his shoulder and checked their progress; when he saw they were over the guardrail, he dropped back, grabbed the empty fuel canister, and hurried after them.
One of the reekers saw him.
Oh, fuck me, Hastings thought acidly when he saw the reeker change direction and stumble toward Ballantine. Its arms were outstretched as if it intended to give the soldier a hug, even though he was well over a hundred feet away. The reeker was a shambler, which meant it moved about as fast as a toddler could walk, but its actions caught the attention of the zombies closest to it.
And some of those were runners, as Guerra had guessed.
Hastings watched as one, then two, then three zombies left the pack, running toward the guardrail Ballantine had just crossed over. If the tall, stocky NCO had noticed them, he gave no indication. He charged after Reader and Tharinger as they themselves bolted across the gently undulating field, leaving vague paths through the tall grass. Hastings watched as two more runners detached themselves from the zombie herd, sprinting after the others.
“Okay guys, you have runners on your trail. Move some ass,” he said over the radio.
“You want me to shoot?” Guerra asked.
“Take ‘em out,” Hastings said. He dropped his field glasses and pulled his M4A3 into position and looked through its scope. Beside him, Guerra worked the sniper rifle. BANG! One runner went down. BANG! A second stumbled and flailed for a moment as the 7.62 millimeter round tore through the left side of its head, just above the eyebrow, and pelted the reeker behind it with a splatter of gore. The runner fell onto its side and lay still. BANG! The third zombie jerked as Guerra’s next shot took it right between the eyes, blasting out the back of its skull as if it had been made from Papier-mâché. Hastings was impressed. The three shots had rung out in less than three seconds, by his estimation. Guerra certainly knew his stuff.
He sighted on one of the remaining runners and squeezed the assault rifle’s trigger. The M4A3 cracked and spat its smaller, but no less lethal, 5.56 millimeter round downrange. He wasn’t as good as Guerra at that range; the round hit the runner in the right side of its skull, but the angle was off. The zombie fell into the tall grass but continued thrashing about, its blackened hands slapping at the sky in erratic convulsions.
Guerra brought down the remaining runner as it bolted across the grassy field, reaching for Ballantine. It slammed to the deck and lay unmoving only ten feet behind the tall sergeant first class. That had been a fast one.
The rest of the zombie horde made it to the guardrail. The zombies piled up there, without even trying to climb over the metal restraint. Instead, they just fell over it and collapsed to the ground on the other side, cresting the guardrail like some fetid tsunami of rotting flesh washing ashore. A cloud of black flies darkened the air around the herd as the insects orbited the stinking mass. It wouldn’t be long until the reekers were not only dead and smelly, but maggot-ridden as well. Hastings wondered if that would be beneficial. Didn’t maggots only eat dead flesh? And if the zombies were dead, didn’t that mean the fly larvae would have a constant bounty upon with to feed, until all the zombies were gone?
Below, the three soldiers ran up the hill as fast as they could. Hasting pushed himself to his feet, his assault rifle still at his shoulder. Guerra remained prone, and fired on another runner that detached itself from the mass of necrotic flesh crossing the highway. Hastings held his fire. Shooting anything but a runner at this stage would just be wasting ammunition.
“Hartmann, how’re we doing back there? Over.”
“Six, we’re ready to roll when you are. No reekers here yet, but I imagine they’re coming, now that you guys have started shooting. Over.” There was no recrimination in Hartmann’s voice, just cold truth. The gunfire could be heard for miles in each direction, and every reeker in range would zero in on the noise and attempt to follow it to its source. Like sharks following a bloody ribbon through a dark sea.
Hastings watched as Ballantine caught up to Reader and Tharinger and urged them on. He finally stopped and turned to check and make sure they were clear from behind. When he saw the closest zombie was almost two hundred feet away, he continued slogging up the hill. Reader and Tharinger huffed and puffed their way toward Hastings and Guerra, taking great care to stay out of the latter’s lane of fire. Hastings heard them gasping for breath behind their armor, and he motioned them past.
“Keep going, guys. Get to the Humvees,” he ordered.
Both men mumbled something and pushed past him, still holding the gas cans. Ballantine crested the hill next, almost sauntering his way toward Hastings and Guerra. He looked down at the prone sniper, then back at the mob of zombies advancing toward the hill.
“You know, this probably isn’t the best time to take a siesta, Guerra,” he said.
“Blow me,” Guerra said.
“I don’t have time to organize a search party.”
“Come on, Ballantine. I saved your ass, man.”
Ballantine shook his head, then looked over at Hastings. He was taller than the captain by a good three or four inches, and Hastings himself stood an inch over six feet in height.
“Less than ten gallons of diesel, Captain.” Ballantine hefted the gas can he carried. “This one’s empty.”
“Let’s do what we can with what we have,” Hastings said. He pointed toward the growing horde that advanced toward the hill at a slow shamble. “We have to bug out before they get too thick.”
“Sergeant Guerra, any more runners down there?”
“Affirmative, but they can’t get through the crowd just yet,” Guerra said. Hastings looked down the hill. The mass of rotting former humanity was still mostly confused by the guardrail; while over a hundred reekers had fallen over it, almost a thousand more stood bunched up behind it.
“Then let’s get the hell out of here,” Hastings said. He saw movement from the corner of his eye, and he turned to the left. Ballantine did as well, raising his M4. Three reekers stumbled down an opposing hillside, their dead faces turned toward the men as they lurched along.
Guerra got to his feet wordlessly and turned away from the zombies. He glanced at the others coming down the other hill to the left of their position, but didn’t comment on them. That more zombies would be arriving was a given.
Hastings led them down the hill at a trot, heading back for the Humvees.
Today, I present you with a little something different: an interview with two crusty, surly Sergeants Major. One you know, from his role in The Gathering Dead series of books. The other makes his debut in the upcoming post-apocalyptic science fiction advenure, Earthfall.
In the left corner: Sergeant Major David Gartrell, still bloody and stinky from taking down untold numbers of stenches with everything from his AA-12 to an acetylene bomb. For those who might be interested, Gartrell is on the blond side, about five foot nine to five foot ten, and hardly an iron pumper…unless the heavy iron happens to be an M2 .50 caliber, in which case, he’s all over it. He’s a lifetime member of the NRA, and he subscribes to Guns & Ammo magazine under three different names, just in case he misses an issue.
In the right corner: Command Sergeant Major Scott Mulligan, also still bloody and stinky from his struggles against a pack of demented, cannibalistic survivalists in the shattered remains of San Jose, California. It should be noted that Mulligan is sporting the additional dimension of “battered.” Where Gartrell exudes a quiet sense of confidence and ability, Mulligan exudes a “I’m going to twist your head off and play some basketball with it” vibe that is made even more compelling due to his six-foot-six-inch height.
Stephen Knight: Hey, guys. Thanks for dropping by my mind.
Gartrell: It wasn’t voluntary.
Mulligan: Yeah, you really get off pulling the God strings, don’t you?
SK: Let’s, uh, let’s not make it too combative, okay?
Mulligan: Is “fuck you” being too combative? I got things to do.
Gartrell: What, another toenail painting session in your calendar?
Mulligan: Look, kid—you made it into print before I did, but I was thought up in 1983. Show your elders some respect.
Gartrell: Dude, we’re both in our early fifties.
Mulligan: Knight, can you make him sixty?
SK: I’ll make that a takeaway. All right, let’s get to it. Gartrell, what’s the worst thing about being in The Gathering Dead universe?
Gartrell: Gee, let’s think about that. [Pauses] Yeah, I’d have to say it’s the whole my-family-turned-into-zombie-things-after-I-wrestle-with-my-innermost-feelings-for-shooting-an-autistic-kid story arc you put me through. Thanks for that, by the way. You’re a sweetheart. If I were real, I’d pin you to a wooden chair by driving a sixteen penny nail through that tiny little bag that passes for your scrotum and light you on fire.
SK: Ah…ah, Mulligan? What’s the worst thing about the post-apocalypse world of Earthfall?
Mulligan: A distinct lack of tiki bars.
SK: Come again?
Mulligan: [Points to Gartrell] Listen, pal, you didn’t like it when he told you the truth, what makes you think my response is going to be happily received?
SK: Come on, Mulligan—
Mulligan: All right. Okay. Let’s see, I think I can work with this. You saddled me with a past that I have nightmares about. I’m trapped in an underground base with around three hundred and seventy five pinheads who are afraid of me, and the only person who really talks to me is a two-star general. Other than the expected lack of witty repartee such a relationship usually engenders—I mean, I’m sure all my off-camera scenes with Benchley consist of me smiling and saying such things like, “Oh, you really loved In-N-Out Burger? That’s great, sir,” and “You preferred the golf course at Fort Bliss as opposed to the one at Fort Knox, and gosh damn, you’re upset that the nukes came between you and your improving handicap?”—it’s a pretty morose existence you gave me. +1 for you being a dick, but -10 for blowing me up.
SK: Hey, you lived! And you didn’t even lose any limbs!
Mulligan: Yeah, but I was fucking unconscious when the girls in the SCEV were giving me sponge baths! What the hell is wrong with you? I mean, you give Mike Andrews a hot wife, and then you make her hate me for killing her parents, and then you force us serve on the same mission together. Thanks for that. You’re as much fun as a limp pecker at an orgy.
SK: All right, point taken. Sorry, guys, but making you suffer is what draws in the audience. Gartrell, would you agree with that?
Gartrell: What? Sorry, I fell asleep–is Mulligan done talking? For someone who’s supposed to be tall, dark, and silent, he sure does bitch and moan a lot, doesn’t he?
Mulligan: What’s the matter, Gartrell? Are you still upset that I was patterned after Charlton Heston, and you were inspired by a landscaper Knight worked for in 1981?
Gartrell: [To SK] Is this true?
SK: Well…physically, yes. You do look a lot like a guy I worked for back when I—
Gartrell: Wow. I guess any chance this interview might be therapeutic just went out the window. Really, Knight, how far under the water are you going to push me?
Mulligan: You want some advice? Put on some swim trunks.
Gartrell: Charlton Heston wore a hair piece. Do you?
Mulligan: You can try and pull my hair, but it’s gonna cost you.
Gartrell: What, you’re going to keep talking? I killed like eleventy-million carnivorous corpses, butt-wipe. You think you can intimidate me?
Mulligan: Gartrell, you couldn’t even figure out what to do if you suddenly found yourself trapped under a sleeping Armenian. Of course, I hear that kind of thing happens to you often. My tactical assessment: You need to stay out the Turkish bath houses.
Gartrell: Oh, yeah. Says the guy who took a multimillion dollar rig outside and drove it right into a freaking nuclear explosion. You’re a fucking rocket scientist, Mulligan. And you probably kept on talking as the shock wave rolled over you.
SK: Guys, guys! Time out! Look, let’s try this. Gartrell, are you ready for a sequel to The Rising Horde?
Gartrell: Screw that. Put me in a prequel to The Gathering Dead, where I’m still something like a human being. Give me some righteous snappy dialog with McDaniels, and explain just how the hell he and I got mixed up together again. I mean, I hated the guy. And you teamed us up? To repeat my esteemed colleague’s question, what in the hell is wrong with you?
SK: So, uh…a prequel, huh?
Gartrell: It would make some sense there, Copernicus. Call it something like The Day Before the Dead. Or even better, just make me the headline act: Dave Gartrell: Porn Star.
Muligan: There we go. Let him do the horizontal bop with a bunch of zombies. That’ll sell real well. We can give you a new nickname: “franchise killer.”
Gartrell: Y’know, I’m beginning to think you weren’t modeled after Heston, after all. I’m thinking you’re more like Piers Morgan, only in this instance, that left-wing douche bag lobsterback is eminently more entertaining to listen to.
Mulligan: Now, you listen to me, you sack of—
SK: Mulligan! Interested in appearing in a sequel to Earthfall?
Mulligan: Huh…you have me poised to get it on with a girl who’s half my age, and whose IQ is about four times higher than Gartrell’s. And she’s smoking hot. So unless I took a couple of rounds to my nuts in San Jose, what the hell do you think? Hell yes, I’m ready for a sequel!
Gartrell: Whoa, whoa…wait a second, here. This idiot’s going to get romantically involved…with something other than a blow-up doll? Are you kidding me, Knight? I mean, he practically has to pour alcoholic drinks into his right hand for two hours before he can get lucky solo, and now he’s going to get to have a relationship? Please tell me you modeled his future romantic partner after someone in keeping with his decade…Bea Arthur?
SK: I was thinking more along the lines of Jessica Alba, actually—
Mulligan: [Laughs] Yes! Hear that? Read it and weep, Smelly Gartrelly—the book comes out around February 15th. Though I’m sure reading isn’t high on your list of skills, so in your case, maybe you should wait for the audio book. I’ll try and get Knight to crack open the coffers so he can hire Jessica Alba to say my name all breathy and hot and stuff during the recording sessions. You’ll love it, trust me.
Gartrell: Knight…this ain’t right.
Mulligan: Oh, now he’s a poet. Here’s one you might like, tiny. It’s called “Fleas,” and it goes like this: “Adam had ‘em.” Impressed?
Gartrell: [Points at Mulligan] This guy is gonna get laid in the next book he’s in?
SK: Well…I haven’t decided it yet, I really only have a thumbnail of a plotline—
Mulligan: If I don’t get laid, I’m going to kill you. And everyone else inside of Harmony Base.
SK: But…but you’re not real, Mulligan.
Mulligan: I’ve haunted your dreams since 1983, pal. Think again.
Gartrell: Two can play that game, Knight. All I’ve gotten out of this duty is a quip to give a Ranger O-6 a lap-dance, and that ain’t cuttin’ it.
Mulligan: A lap-dance? Are you sure you’re not a Marine?
Gartrell: I don’t get laid in the next book, we’re done, pal. I’ll give you a case of writer’s block you wouldn’t believe. You won’t be able to write a fucking email by the time I’m done. [To Mulligan] And just to set the record straight, “Chuck Heston,” the books I’m in have sold over fifty thousand editions, print and ebook. Beat that.
Mulligan: Fight’s on, sweet cheeks.
Gartrell: Bring it, but it looks like I’ll have the tactical advantage: three novels and one novella. You’re just cutting your teeth on the first book, and there aren’t even any zombies in it. Well, except for yourself—I hear your emotional range is somewhere between “dead” and “comatose.”
Mulligan: I have a twenty-three year old who wants to jump me—all you have is an Atchisson AA-12. And as impressive a weapon as that is, I get to go out on missions with this girl…in a high-tech rig that has beds in the back. Beat that.
Gartrell: I fucking hate you.
Mulligan: Back atcha, champ.
SK: Oh, look at the time! Thanks for stopping by, guys. This’ll teach me to drink Suntory outside of Japan…
Gartrell: Oh, we’re done? Good. My pleasure to drop by. Kill yourself.
Mulligan: For the first time since this interview started, he actually said something I agree with. I’d only like to add the word, “soon.”
SK: You know, maybe I’ll do a Gathering Dead/Earthfall crossover. I’ll make you guys lovers. You can spend chapter after chapter taking steamy showers together. What do you say?
[Gartrell and Mulligan exchange disgusted looks.]
Gartrell: I get to be the top.
Here’s the first chapter:
I wasn’t born a cripple. That’s something I did to myself two days shy of my sixteenth birthday. Drunk diving, I tell people when they ask, although technically speaking there was no real diving involved. Just a lot of drunk. I remember the day like it happened last week, even though it’s been twenty-one years.
July in Mississippi is a godawful thing. The day starts heating up before seven in the morning, and by early afternoon the temperature is kissing-close to a hundred degrees. Humidity stays above eighty percent more often than not, and the still, hot air feels like a damp blanket draped over you. The pale blue sky is empty save the almost-white sun, glaring down like the eye of an angry god. The day I broke my back was one of those days.
Just a couple of miles outside of Starkville, where I grew up, the Old South Quarry cuts into the red clay cotton fields like an old battle scar. During the Great Depression the quarry did a booming business, harvesting limestone out of the bedrock to be crushed into gravel and powder for the concrete used by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the construction of structures all across the south. My grandfather was a down-on-his-luck welder and part-time farmer in those days, and spent two years building bridges for the Corps. It seemed like every time I went to church with them on a summer Sunday morning as a child, riding high in the front seat between them in their old green and white farm truck but still barely able to see over the dash, he had a new story to share about someone losing a finger or toe, hand or foot, during the construction of whatever bridge we happened to be crossing. Once he told me about a man buried alive in cement who, as far as he knew, was still encased down there at the base of the pylon holding up the bridge. He would’ve told me more, I think, but my grandmother shushed him up.
When the Depression ended and most people—my grandfather included—found permanent work, business fell off for the Old South Quarry. Limestone was cheaper coming out of Georgia, Alabama, and Tennessee, and even though demand was up because of all the post-war construction, the supply from the more mountainous states far exceeded need. By the time I was tugged from my mother’s womb, red-faced and screaming from the gross insult of birth, the quarry had been closed for nearly eighteen years and Starkville teenagers had been swimming there for ten.
On that sunny July day there were four of us piled into Kenny Wilcott’s piece of shit Chevy Nova, roaring down the dirt road that circled around to the back of the quarry where the hole in the security fence was. Trigger Foster—his given name was Jonathan but he’d been Trigger to us ever since he shot himself in the foot on a duck hunt with his older brother when he was twelve—had filched a case of Milwaukee’s Best from the stash his old man kept in the garage, and we were ready for a party. As much of a party four guys can have with twenty-four piss-warm beers and no girls, anyway.
Russ Howard pulled the first beer out of the plastic ring and handed it over to me. It felt like a mug of the Russian tea my mom made for me whenever I was sick. Even with the windows down, the car was an oven, but that didn’t matter. We’d be cool soon enough.
The car hit a pothole and the four of us bounced as one.
“Goddammit, man, watch the road!” Trigger cried. He was sitting up front with Kenny, gripping the dash with both hands. Not long after the duck hunting incident, his older brother had been killed when he thought he could pass an eighteen-wheeler on a two-lane road and lost control of his Trans-Am. The car rolled six times, throwing Trigger’s brother some thirty feet headfirst into a sweet gum tree. Trigger told us later that his head had been split in half right down the middle and most of his brain ended up in the crook of two branches, almost fifteen feet off the ground. He’d been jumpy in cars ever since, not that anyone could blame him.
“Relax, princess,” Kenny said, but he eased up on the gas a little. He rubbed at the top of his head, which had banged into the roof when the car dipped. Kenny was on the junior varsity basketball team with me, and played center because he was so tall. Being several inches shorter—but not short, mind you—I played shooting guard. Between the two of us, we helped the team make it to the quarter-finals the previous year.
Ahead, I could see the rusted chain-link fence surrounding the quarry, and beyond it, the emerald lake sparkling in the summer sun, its color undiluted by the heat haze clinging to the ground. Limestone dust in the water gave it the unique color, reminiscent of exotic Caribbean locations. As we drew closer, I saw schools of bream and sunfish swimming lazily around the shallow edge. The quarry had been carved into the side of a small hillock, and toward the far end where the deep water darkened to near-black, a white stone cliff towered almost fifty feet above the surface. All that was visible of the old office at the top was a glint of glass through the kudzu overgrowth.
Kenny brought the car to a stop just outside the fence and shut it down. Drifts of red dust swirled around us, stirred up by our jostling drive. The air smelled of honeysuckle and the pesticide farmers soaked their cotton plants in to keep the boll weevils down to manageable levels. Out in the open green field, a symphony of grasshoppers crackled and rattled. Trigger relaxed visibly and held his hand over the seat for a beer.
I popped the tab on my own and got it to my mouth before it foamed all over the car, then gulped it down as fast as possible. We didn’t bring it to sit around and sip it like the people in beer ads, after all. Pitching the can through the window into the tall grass, I opened the door to get out, but before I could, I let loose a massive belch. The sound rolled across the water like the crack of gunfire.
“Danny Mac sounds off!” Russ cawed, and pitched me another beer.
Danny Mac. It’s been years since anyone called me that, except for my old buddy Jake Conrad—more on him in a bit—who did it occasionally when he was worked up about something. Usually the government. Maybe the nickname was kind of lame, no pun intended, but hell, who isn’t lame at that age? No matter how pitiful it sounds now, it was far better than my given name of Daniel Edward Mackenzie. Doesn’t that sound stuffy and pretentious? Even now, as forty looms not too far around the corner, I’ll take being called Danny over Daniel any day, though I prefer Dan. Nice, short, and simple.
But then? Then I was Danny Mac.
I drained the second beer almost as quickly as the first, and by the time we scrambled through the hole in the fence and down to the water’s edge, my third was half empty. I was already starting to feel light-headed. We’d been down at the mall all morning, feeding quarters into games in the arcade and hanging out at Camelot Music, and hadn’t bothered with lunch.
The dirt road we drove in on ended at a chained and padlocked gate, and turned to gravel inside the fence. It was the same one the loaded trucks used back when the quarry was in business, and it led right down into the water. Standing at the lake’s edge, you could see the road continuing under the surface as it descended into the depths. To be honest, it always creeped me out a little to float over it and look down through my mask. It seemed so out of place down there, stretching into the murky darkness. A path to nowhere.
The pulverized gravel at the edge of the lake formed something of a beach, and that’s where we spread out our towels. Trigger tied the remaining six-packs together with a piece of old clothesline from the trunk of the Nova and lowered them into the cool green water. We waded out four abreast, hissing reflexively first when the water touched our balls, then our armpits.
An hour later, snorkeling in the middle of the lake, I was as far from sober as I was from the shore. Through my mask I watched the fish and turtles glide far below me, dim dark shapes against the midnight green. From time to time I drifted over underwater meadows of some tall grass, gently swaying in the convection created by the sun’s rays. Pale lime-colored tendrils reached for me out of the darkness like questing fingers, and I thought of dead things slowly rotting down there, just out of sight.
A scream yanked me from my quiet and morbid reflection, and I looked up in time to see Trigger twisting through the air halfway down the cliff. Though he grinned like a fool, his eyes were wide with terror. At the last second, he pulled his legs up and wrapped his arms around them, hitting the water butt-first in a perfect cannonball. The plume must have shot thirty feet.
Even as the displaced water rained back to the lake Kenny sailed over the edge. He jackknifed and greased in with barely any disturbance at all. Behind me, Russ hooted, and I turned to see him swimming back toward the beach in an awkward stroke somewhere between a dog paddle and a butterfly.
“Wait up!” I called, and started after him.
Trigger surfaced in the distance, sputtering and flailing and bellowing, “My ass! I broke my ass!”
Kenny’s peal of laughter bounced off the vertical walls and doubled, then tripled, until it sounded like a mocking crowd. At the shore, Russ veered over and pulled two beers from the last six-pack, and we drank them as we picked and stumbled our way around the lake to the upper end. From the top of the hill we could see for miles, nothing but verdant green cotton plants against the carmine soil stretching out in every direction. I set my snorkel and mask on a chunk of limestone the size of a suitcase near the precipice. M.C. Hammer’s “U Can’t Touch This” thundered from the boombox sitting with our towels, the sound surprisingly clear outside the enclosing rock sides. A gentle breeze blew in our faces, cooled by the water below. It carried a slightly metallic, clean smell. I gave Russ a dopey smile that was part indescribable happiness, part cheap beer.
“Last one in is queer,” he shouted, and ran for the edge with me hot on his heels.
He sprung away from the drop, twisting around to look at me as he fell, a look of triumph on his face, an image frozen in my memory as the pure essence of summer and youth. I jumped after him, but just as I pushed off, my foot slid in the loose gravel, kicking out behind me like some kind of satirical ballet move, and I tumbled gracelessly over the edge.
The fall is imprinted in the archives of my mind as a series of snapshots taken as I somersaulted toward the water. White rock, speckled with black, far too close. The sky, impossibly blue. The lake, stretching off in the distance. Russ looking up at me, his mouth opening in a scream, Kenny and Trigger blurry smudges in the water beyond him. White rock. Blue sky.
When the workers carved away the hillside to harvest all that stone, they cut it away into a giant series of steps so that each one made a simple path across the face of the rock for them to use. One of those steps jutted out of the face of the cliff two feet below the waterline, forming a shelf six or seven feet wide. It’s pure luck I didn’t plunge headfirst into it and chum up the water with my fool brain. Instead, I hit the water on my back, part of me over the shelf and part over the abyss. Even through the roar in my ears I heard the brittle crack! of my spine as I impacted the edge just below my shoulder blades.
My eyes were open. I could see the disc of the sun through churning water turned cloudy by the lime silt, white and brilliant and uncaring. Even though I must have been going into shock, my mind was preternaturally alert and screamed for me to get to the surface before I drowned. It felt like someone had cinched a nail-studded belt around my midsection and was pulling it ever tighter, but compared to the pain that came later, it was nothing. I had a dim awareness that I no longer felt anything below that fiery circle.
I teetered there on the edge of the shelf for a second, then slipped over, pulled down by the weight of my dead legs. I sank in a dreamy kind of slow motion, desperately trying to use my arms to swim upward, but they didn’t want to obey and merely flapped ineffectually. I grabbed at the rocky wall as it slid by, searching for purchase, but my fingers were twisted into claws and wouldn’t open. I succeeded only in pulling loose a thick rubbery sheet of the pinkish fungal growth we called quarry skin. That stuff seemed to coat everything under the water, soft and slick like the sodden flesh of a bloated corpse.
Pressure built in my ears and lungs as I descended. I fell through a deepening green haze, no longer able to see the sun. No longer able to see much of anything but that single color, slowly bleeding away and leaving only blackness behind. I knew I was dying, but despite it all I felt a calming sense of peace build within me. I don’t know if it was the beer, or God, or just my body starting to give up and shut down, but I found that I wasn’t so concerned about making the transition. Even though I was technically still a virgin.
I saw something gliding toward me through the gloom, one of God’s angels coming with open arms to lead me home to heaven. Hot joy rose in my heart. They told me later it was just Russ, swimming down to catch me by the hair and drag me back up to the shelf.
My recollection of what happened next is hazy. I remember bits and pieces, little snippets of memory spliced together like a movie trailer made with only the worst parts. Lying in the cold water on the shelf, cradled in Russ’s arms, shivering and telling him to stop crying like a little girl, then crying myself when the belt of pain twisted a little tighter. The sun as it slipped out of sight over the cliffs. The flat whupwhupwhup of the LifeFlight helicopter sent all the way from Jackson to get me after a pell-mell drive back to Starkville by Kenny and Trigger to find help. Dizziness from the rotation of the basket as they winched me up, and the feel of the warm rotor wash on my face, upper chest, and arms. Wonderment over why I couldn’t feel it anywhere else.
The next solid memory is of waking up in a recovery room in Jackson General Hospital with my parents on one side of the bed and a strange man dressed in white on the other. Mom’s eyes were red and watery, and Dad kept clearing his throat. That was the first time they ever looked old to me.
“Welcome back, Danny,” the stranger said. “My name is Dr. Feinbaum. Do you know where you are?”
My throat hurt like hell, dry and scratchy like someone took a steel wool pad to it, so I whispered, “Hospital.”
“That’s right, you’re down in Jackson, in the intensive care unit. Do you remember what happened?”
“Good,” he told me, and looked up at my parents. “Very good. Short term memory loss is always a concern in cases like this.”
Reaching into the breast pocket of his jacket, he plucked out a pen and held it in front of my face. “Follow this with your eyes, please.”
I tracked the movement of the pen and wondered why I wasn’t in more pain.
Especially below that spot near my shoulder blades, where I landed.
Good stuff here, folks. I hope you’ll check it out!
Things continue to percolate with this project, and here I’ll share with you some of the latest clips from the trailer. First off, a draft of the second scene, which shows the MH-60 McDaniels, Gartrell, and the others hope to use to escape New York City as it falls to the horde…
This is pretty good stuff, but it’s missing many elements: smoke, fire, general haze in the air from all the obscurants, important ground-level detail, and some necessary corrections (watch the guy at the bottom right run right through a car). Aviators, yes, I know–the rotors are spinning the wrong way. I’ve asked for corrections and enhancements, but I think all of you will agree, things are progressing a bit.
Here’s a low-resolution draft where some more dramatic elements are added:
For some reason, the color temperature is off when I upload it to Vimeo–it doesn’t pop as much as I’d hoped it would, but again, this is a very low res pass at a scene which has over fifty elements in it, so I’m willing to wait until I see a longer render.
All I have time for now, but do know that Earthfall is going through editorial now. Looking forward to a late January release, and I have a final cover to show soon.
Oh, one last thing…how would you guys feel about a prequel to The Gathering Dead? A book that captures the beginning of the zombie outbreak that culminates in McDaniels and Gartrell heading to NYC on their ill-fated rescue mission?
Will hopefully have some new stuff to talk about next week, folks. Stay tuned!
Wow, what a hoot it was to find this! I shoulda just hired this guy.
Heh… McDaniels, Gartrell, and a few million dudes named Zed are gaining some (small) notice internationally. After all, it’s not often that I would expect a German reviewer to proclaim the works are “Exciting, exciting, exciting.” (“Spannend, spannend, spannend.”)
Nice to see! Now all I need to do is sell the foreign rights.
Just a quick drive-by to let you folks know things are progressing. Here’s a roughed out animatic of the next sequence in the trailer for your hopeful enjoyment…
And here’s a shot of the city street the Black Hawk is flying over, without zombies, civilians, and stalled traffic…
Oh, and one last thing–I was interviewed by the super-cool folks over at Bricks of the Dead… check it out right here! And take a look at the opening photo, it’s of Major McDaniels going to guns on the zombies in the stairwell–Lego-style!
Hope everyone is doing well today.