SINGLE TREE: Scrubbed!

November 26, 2022 Leave a comment

So I ran very late in getting the changes made to the novel, and as such, have not received the necessary corrections. I can’t release an unproofed/unedited document, so I’ll be scrubbing the release. This is all on me, as I knew that running into a national holiday was going to be problematic…and gleefully did it anyway. It shouldn’t be too much longer, but for those of you who pre-ordered the work, you’ll be refunded your cash. It is possible I might get everything back and still release on November 30, but I can’t leave the unproofed document in the Amazon queue, otherwise it will get locked for publishing tonight. So sorry!

But…here’s some more. Thanks for your patience, and if you’re super-annoyed, the only person who deserves the blame is yours truly.

“Okay, we’re up!” Gianetti said over the intercom. “One’s clear, we’re going in!”

Everyone on the aircraft knew their roles, and Corbett leaned out the emergency exit with his rifle in both hands. Smoke roiled into the sky, courtesy of the grenades they’d tossed into the street while making their final approach. He clearly saw the throngs of zombies surrounding the building, and had watched as their first mound had fallen apart when Larouche blasted them with his rotor wash. It was reforming now, though as Stork Two glided past to the other side of the building, he caught a glimpse of stenches breaking away as they attempted to follow the helicopter’s path.

“What a shot!” Sinclair crowed. He stood in one of the emergency exits, phone taking in everything that had happened.

“Clear right!” the crew chief said.

The S-92 vibrated as it passed through its rotor wash while transitioning into a hover. Corbett couldn’t see much, since he was positioned on the left side of the aircraft, but he heard Danielle open up almost immediately from the rear. Stork Two had settled into a similar position as One had moments before, albeit pointed in the opposite direction.

“Tons of stenches coming around the corner of the building,” she said. “They’re following us.”

“Yeah, these things obviously like big visual cues…like really fat-ass helicopters,” Gianetti said from the cockpit. “Let me guess, our rotor wash is blowing all the smoke away?”

“You got that,” Danielle replied.

Corbett turned and looked toward the aircraft’s tail. Sure enough, the screen being generated by the smokers was being torn apart by the helicopter’s thrust. “She’s not lying, Rich. We have any more? I can toss another up the street a ways and see if that helps.”

“We’re facing into the wind, it’ll just come back and blind us,” Gianetti said. “Let’s get these people aboard!”

Corbett fired at shamblers to the rear of the aircraft, taking care to ensure his shots cleared the left sponson. The big obstruction, which housed both fuel and landing gear, consumed a large amount of his sighting picture. It made defending the helicopter and the fire station itself harder than it should have been.

Now I know why one of the crew on One bailed out to shoot.

“Rich, we’re not going to have much time here,” he said. “Can’t really get a bead on what zed’s doing.”

“Not much we can do about that. Mr. Corbett, can you see the police department building from where you are?”

Corbett glanced to the northeast. The police building was two blocks away. He saw another S-92 approach it and flare into a hover. “Got it—looks like they’re starting the exfil operation over there already.”

“They’re in the clear, so Lennon ordered them in. Be careful if you have to shoot in that direction. Can’t wind up shooting down our own birds.”

“Copy that,” Corbett said. “Sinclair, put down your fucking phone and help with the onboarding. Load them into the rear.” He leaned farther out the emergency exit, squinting against the gale-force winds that tore at his clothing. Directly below, slack-jawed zombies reached toward him even though he was a good thirty feet above them. Corbett brought his rifle around and rewarded them for making such good targets. With several shots, he returned the corpses to death’s everlasting embrace.

“Well, if that’s what you want…” The English broadcaster’s voice was singularly surly.

He sensed movement behind him and glanced back as the first evacuees came aboard. Sinclair did as Corbett had asked, and he pointed to the rear of the aircraft with a knife hand, perhaps imitating the gesture after watching Lennon use it so many times in the past.

“This way!” Sinclair said. “We need to keep the entry clear!”

“They can’t hear you, Jock,” Corbett said.

“Oh, for the love of God!” Sinclair pulled the first evacuee after him and pointed her toward the rear of the helicopter’s cabin.

  Corbett locked eyes with one of the embarking townspeople, a pot-bellied man wearing coveralls. The stitched name tag read MIGUEL, and Corbett knew it was the son of the Jose Olivera, who ran a body shop in town. Corbett clapped him on the shoulder, then pushed him along. Miguel smiled and grabbed his hand for a moment, then threaded his way past the row of seats and Sinclair to the open cabin beyond. Behind him, more people were brought aboard the helicopter, but Corbett turned away. He didn’t need to watch his fellow townspeople; he needed to watch the zombies swarming below.

And they were massing. Even though he couldn’t see the side of the fire station due to the helicopter’s position, he had no problem watching the stenches as they staggered toward the building. They were collecting right below the aircraft, doubtless standing on top of one another as they forward a grotesque, undulating pyramid of dead flesh. He shot as many as he could in an attempt to thin out their numbers, but it was a fool’s errand. The zombies were literally coming out of the woodwork now, heading for the stationhouse from all directions. From the air, it had appeared their numbers were widely dispersed. But now that they had something to orient on, they were approaching en masse.

“Rich, we have maybe two minutes before those things start to come onto the roof,” he reported. “I don’t have too many shots I can take.”

“We’re getting some fire support now,” Gianetti replied. “Look to the left.”

Corbett glanced upward. The two Sikorskys that had been standing overwatch had moved closer, hovering over the buildings across the street. Corbett had no problem catching the bright muzzle flashes as the aircrew slanted rifle fire into the building mass of stenches beneath Stork Two. All the aircraft were in shadow now; the sun had finally slipped behind the mountains.

“It’s not going to be enough,” he said.

Gianetti didn’t respond. From the rear of the aircraft, he heard Danielle’s rate of fire increase. Corbett glanced back, and saw she was surrounded by evacuees, all of whom held their hands to their ears in an attempt to ward off the roar of the engines and the cracks of her rifle.

“They’re on the roof! They’re on the roof!” Danielle cried over the intercom.

“I see them, too!” Sinclair cried.

“Get those people inside now!” Gianetti snapped.

Corbett pushed through the throng of people who were still coming aboard the aircraft, their faces exquisite portraits of fear. He shoved Sinclair out of the way and made it to the open emergency exit on the right side of the cabin, where he shouldered his rifle. With mounting horror, he watched as several zeds clambered onto the fire station’s flat roof. They’d still been mounding on the other side, and now they had enough mass to press the attack. Without hesitation, he raised his rifle and fired, drilling each corpse through the face as rapidly as he could. The two operators who had been assisting evacuees into the aircraft turned and added their own weaponfire to the effort, muzzle flashes strobing in the growing gloom as they fired, again and again. Bodies fell to the roof, and for an instant, Corbett thought they had it in hand.

Then the middle-aged woman climbing into the helicopter was suddenly yanked out of the doorway as more stenches boiled out from beneath the hovering aircraft. The zombies had mounded in two places at once.

“They’re beneath us! They’re beneath us!” screamed the crew chief as he grabbed onto the woman, struggling to pull her in. She shrieked, but Corbett couldn’t hear it over the noise and his headphones. The crowd that had gathered next to the helicopter broke up then, running back for the open hatchway that led back into the fire station. Many didn’t make it, as they were taken down when a stench runner bolted into them, body slamming them to the roof as it flailed at them, mouth open, hands grasping.

One of the two operators on the roof turned and sprinted toward the hatch, firing on the move. He slid to a halt beside it and took a knee, blasting away at the corpses that stumbled out from beneath the hovering Sikorsky. The geometry was bad; the panicked townspeople had to cross in front of him to get back down to safety, so he couldn’t maintain a significant volume of fire. More people went down as the zombies crept up on the them.

The crew chief hollered something inarticulate as he continued trying to haul in the woman outside the door. Corbett leaned out and fired at the three zombies that were attacking her. She wore a long dress, and it was already stained red with blood. The corpses had torn great gouges out of her bare legs, and their pallid faces were dappled with crimson.

“Let her go!” he shouted to the crew chief. “She’s been bitten, don’t bring her—”

The crew chief fell out of the aircraft then and slammed against its underside as his safety line pulled tight and broke his fall. The zombies yanked the struggling woman from his grasp and fell down across her body, teeth slashing at her skin as she screamed and fought to no avail.

“I’m off aircraft!” the crew chief screamed over the intercom.

“Dear sweet God!” Sinclair lurched toward the door to help the man, but tripped over one of the evacuees. He fell gracelessly to the cabin floor with a curse.

“Gianetti, climb! Climb!” Corbett said. He fired a round through one of the zombies that was feasting on the stricken woman, blasting a furrow through its shoulder that didn’t hinder it in the slightest. From the corner of his eye, he saw the second operator on the other side of the roof begin falling back, reloading his rifle as four stenches pulled themselves onto the roof. One was a runner, and it slammed into the man like a linebacker before he could take a shot.

The helicopter’s engines spooled up and the aircraft began to pull away from the rooftop. The crew chief swung below it, writhing and kicking as zombies grabbed and tore at his Nomex flight suit. One of them latched onto him, a small child with long, flowing brown hair that rippled in the wind. The crew chief grabbed its hair and yanked its head away from him as the pair wrestled in midair while the S-92 climbed upward. Corbett waited, rifle shouldered, but there was no way he could possibly take a shot without hitting the crew chief. He could only watch as the pair wrestled about, spinning at the end of the man’s safety line.

“Barry, pull him in!” Danielle shouted. She was essentially trapped in the back of the helicopter as the townspeople who managed to get aboard crouched there in fear. Corbett pulled himself back into the aircraft and stepped over several people as he threw himself toward the door and seized a hold of the man’s safety line. He tried to pull him up, but he wasn’t strong enough, not with the combined weight of the man and the zombie. Sinclair joined him a moment later, wrapping his fingers around the taut line.

“On three!” he shouted. “One! Two! Three—”

The two men heaved backward, and the battling pair rose until they were just outside the door. Sinclair leaned backward and put his foot against the cabin wall, pulling on the line with all his strength.

“Get him! I’ve got it, get him!” he shouted.

As soon as Corbett released the line, the weight proved to be too much for Sinclair to manage. The crew chief and his zombie combatant continued to struggle on the line, making it far too heavy for one man to handle. Corbett had to grab Sinclair to prevent him from being hurled from the aircraft as well.

“Fuck!” he shouted.

“The winch!” Gianetti shouted. “Feed out some line! Robby, grab the hook when it comes down!”

Corbett seized the control unit for the rescue hoist and activated it, paying out some line. He had to start and stop the line several times due to his unfamiliarity with the equipment. Even though it had been demonstrated to him aboard the Pride, he hadn’t actually thought he would need to use the system under stress. He remembered to use his left hand to hold onto the cable as it unspooled, to try and keep it as straight as possible, especially since the helicopter was actively maneuvering. While the pilots weren’t doing anything dramatic—they only needed to elevate twenty or thirty feet to get the aircraft out of danger—the crew chief and the small stench clinging to him were starting to spin at the end of the safety tether.

“Grab the hook!” Corbett said. “It’s right above you! Grab the fucking hook!”

It was then that he saw a spray of blood explode away from the crew chief. The diminutive corpse had managed to sink its teeth into his forearm and rip away a chunk of flesh. Corbett watched in helpless horror as the creature threw back its head and swallowed in a convulsive spasm, then went back for another despite the crew chief holding its hair in one hand. It tore its hair right out of its scalp as it attacked once again. The crew chief grappled with it, pummeling it with his fists as the small grotesquerie leaned in, bloodstained teeth clearly visible in the intermittent flashing of the helicopter’s anti-collision lights. The young aviator looked up at Corbett, and for a moment, their eyes met.

“Grab the hook,” Corbett said again.

The crew chief hit his safety line’s quick release instead, and Corbett gasped as both he and the small stench fell away from the aircraft. Oh my God…

“What happened? Is he aboard?” Gianetti asked.

Corbett watched as the pair fell over fifty feet to the street below. They hit hard, and finally the two bodies came apart. The crew chief lay motionless on the pavement, but the zombie slowly crawled toward him, trailing shattered legs behind it. Corbett thumbed the button on the hoist control and retrieved the cable that had been paid out. “No. He’s on the deck. He hit his release. He’d been bitten,” he explained.

“Holy fuck.” Gianetti’s voice was small and tight over the intercom. He paused for a long moment, then asked, “How many did we get?”

“Maybe twenty or so,” Corbett said, looking into the cabin. He turned back to gaze at the fire station as the helicopter slowly drifted away from it. There were several groups of feeding stenches on top of the building. As he watched, more poured into the structure through the still-open hatch on the roof. Zed had compromised another hide site. “Contact Lennon. Tell him to get a hold of the fire station. The roof hatch is still open…zed’s able to get inside.” Once the hoist cable was retracted, he reached over and pulled in the crew chief’s abandoned safety line, which was still attached to the D-ring by the door.

“On that,” Gianetti replied.

Corbett leaned toward the door and looked at the police station. Stenches were rushing toward it, pulling back from the fire house. They were assembling around the building, but it was too late for them. The last helicopter was almost finished loading up, and the roof was clear. As the town began to recede into the distance, he watched as the hovering machine finally lifted into the sky.

“Hey, Barry…check the landing gear.” Danielle’s voice came over his helmet headset. Corbett turned away from the town and looked to the rear of the helicopter. A zombie clung to the right main landing gear, struggling to hold on as it pawed at the tires with one hand while the other grabbed the strut the wheels were mounted on. It was almost comical to watch the ghoul floundering about in the helicopter’s slipstream, its eyelids blasted open by the wind and its cheeks puffing out as it struggled, as if it might be able to haul itself upward and over the large, overhanging sponson that lay only a few feet overhead. The creature glared back at Corbett hungrily as its rotting shirt suddenly tore open, exposing a round, distended belly that was almost the color of slate. Corbett watched it curiously, wondering if it was finally starting to rot after all this time in the desert.

Suddenly, the stench lost its grip. It gazed upward at the helicopter as it descended, unable to comprehend what had just happened. Again, under different circumstances, it might have been comical. Corbett watched mirthlessly as the zombie cartwheeled into the desert floor almost five hundred feet below, where it seemed to explode into a fountain of ichor-laden dust.

“We’re clear now,” he said, leaning back into the aircraft. “I guess, uh, I guess I’m your new crew chief, Rich.”

“Yes, sir.” Gianetti’s voice was flat and hollow. “We’re on our way back to the FARP. We’ll tank up and then head back for the boats. You don’t have to worry about anything. We’ll check out the aircraft before we leave.”

“I appreciate that, Rich. And…I’m sorry,” Corbett said. He swung around and looked at the townspeople huddling in the back of the helicopter. It was cold in the cabin now that the sun had gone down and the aircraft was turning back for the mountains, and they were shivering. But no one seemed unhappy to be here, despite the conditions. He did a quick count: twenty-one. That meant they’d lost perhaps seven or eight, including his operators.

That hurt. A lot.

SINGLE TREE: Delayed Pickup

November 10, 2022 Leave a comment

Yeah, yeah…while rereading the document prior to its release next week, I’m still not happy with it. There’s a bit of a logic fail right in the middle that I’d been aware of but hadn’t really corrected, and now that I have that out of the way…other parts of the book seem too dry and unexciting. So I’m working on those now (and in fact, one of those passages appears below—kind of odd that I would choose to show off something that I think needs more work, but I’m feeling like it’s time to take a risk).

See you on 11/30.

“Okay, they’re ready to come out and the LZ remains clear,” Larouche said over the intercom. “Some additional movement both north and south, but we’re good to go. Four and Five will touch down in the street in front of the church. As soon as both units are on the ground, then we’ll go for the field.” It had been decided that Stork One would land last, to avoid the other helicopters having to delay their touchdowns due to the anticipated dust signature that would be generated by the S-92 landing in the scrub field across from the church. “Jimmo, you’ll be on the deck keeping an eye out. Norton and Bates, remain inside the aircraft and keep us covered through the emergency exits. One front, one rear. We don’t have much to worry about from the left side of the aircraft, because that’s where the wall will be—Barty and I will keep an eye out. If we need you, we’ll call one of you over.”

“Roger that,” Bates said, the notes of boredom in his voice undiluted by the current turn of events.

“Gotcha,” Norton said. “But maybe I should go outside, instead of Jimmo? I know a lot of these people.”

“It’s not a social hour, Mr. Norton. You might know the people, but Jimmo knows the aircraft.”

“Oh. Yeah, tough to argue with that, I guess.”

“We could be on the ground for a few minutes,” Larouche continued, “so I’d like you to help with the loading, if that’s all right. These are your people, so get them squared away as quickly as you can. Non-ambulatory cases are going to Four and Five, and we’ll pick up the overflow. Should have all able-bodied people on this aircraft.”

“Any particular way you want me to arrange them?” Norton asked.

“Elderly or people with small kids should go in the seats for as long as they’re available. We have enough power available that I’m not worried about weight distribution at the moment, but if we find ourselves confronted with a six hundred pound dude, we might want to consider asking him to hang onto the sling hook.”

Norton laughed at that. “Well, you never know. That could happen.”

“I’m not going to discount anything at this point,” Larouche said. “Bates, anything to add?”

“Got any Dramamine? A lot of these people are going to get pretty airsick.”

“Jesus, Bates,” Norton said. It was a disgusting thought, but he had to admit, the big city cop was pretty much on point with that one.

“We’re out of luck. Please direct any projectile pukers to the open exits…and stand the fuck back when they hurl.” The S-92 stepped down, descending after turning away from Stork Two. It made a wide circle around the area as Storks Four and Five began their approaches. Larouche slowed the helicopter to a crawl at about two hundred feet. Norton was standing in the doorway next to Jimmo, and he had a great view of the two Sikorskys as they swooped in and flared to land. Dust bolted across the tar-stripped black top in concentric circles, washing across the church’s dry front lawn and the houses that faced the street. There was no other movement below, aside from stray pieces of trash being blown through the air. Someone had a plastic greenhouse in a backyard, and it rippled and shivered beneath the force of Larouche’s helicopter’s rotor wash. And then, the two aircraft were down, settling onto their landing gear.

“Okay, we’re up.” Larouche accelerated forward and entered a right pedal turn, lining up the aircraft’s nose on the patch of open field next to the wall. The ensuing descent was rapid and turbulent, and Norton firmed his grip on his handhold as he watched the ground rush up to meet them. At the last moment, Larouche added positive collective, and the landing in the scrub brush was actually as smooth as silk.

“Going out,” Jimmo announced, before disconnecting from the intercom. He unclipped his safety line from its D-ring and tucked in his rifle, then hopped out of the aircraft. Norton had the doorway to himself, and he hopped out onto the ground behind the crew chief, tucking in his rifle as he did so.

“I’m right outside the door,” he told Larouche and Bartlett.

“Glad you can follow instructions,” Larouche said. “You were told to remain inside the aircraft, Norton.”

“I’m at the right rear window exit, looking toward the rear of the aircraft,” Bates said. “All clear so far.”

Norton saw the fire door on the side of the church pop open, and two men in multicam uniforms stepped out, rifles held low and ready. “Okay, here they come!”

Jimmo pointed to the front of the church, where the other helicopters waited. Norton looked up as Stork Two whirled past, orbiting at three hundred feet.

“Norton, plug into your radio,” Larouche said over the intercom. “Corbett wants to talk to you direct about conditions on the ground.”

“All right. One second.” Norton cast another look around. Some townspeople were running directly to the idling helicopter in the field, despite Jimmo’s wild gesticulations to go to the front of the church where the other helicopters sat. He fumbled with inserting his headset’s jack into the MBTR clipped to his vest, then heard the crackle of static as he made the connect. “Norton…radio check.”

“Roger radio check,” Larouche said. “Corbett, Norton is on the net.”

“About time.” There was no mistaking Corbett’s harsh tone over the radio. “Norton. We have about five hundred stenches moving up Main Street. Of course, when they hear the helicopters sitting on the deck on East Post, they’re going to turn in that direction. You need to be ready, because if they hit, Storks Four and Five are wheels up and getting out of Dodge. We’ll give them as much warning as possible, but you’ll have maybe a minute to take on as many as you can before you have to pull out.”

“Yeah, hey, that’s awesome news. Maybe you could start thinning out the herd from the air?” Norton replied. “Just kill zeds at the front of the column…slow them up?”

“On that, once we finish our last turn,” Corbett replied. “Thing is, we’re supposed to stay eyes out and monitor the entire area, not get bogged down doing suppressive fires.”

“So, uh…are you asking me to do something?” Norton asked.

“I want you to disembark from your aircraft and head back to Main Street,” Corbett said. “I want you to go to Main Street and start shooting at the fuckers, then drag them over to Gene Autry Way. I want you to give them something to chase. You understand what I’m looking for here?”

Norton laughed out loud. “Yeah, you’re asking for me to give them something to chow on while you pull everyone out of the church. You should’ve tried out for the host slot on Let’s Make a Deal.”

“Hollywood, we’ll be waiting for you at the end of Gene Autry,” Corbett replied. “I mean, if nothing else, you can run another few blocks to your house…right?”

“Uh, you kidding me?” Norton looked to his left. Past the small desert meadow Stork One sat in lay a currently quiet neighborhood. He would have to run about three hundred feet down to East Muir Street, then hook left and run another three hundred or so to Main Street. Then he’d have to run into the street, begin firing at the advancing element of stenches, and bait them into following him. “There could be more than a few runners in that bunch, chief.”

“I’ve got Dani. You think she’s going to let something happen to you?”

“I’ve, uh, been married twice. You’re going to have to cut me some slack, the best part of the zombie apocalypse is that I now have an excuse not to pay alimony,” Norton replied.

“Get going,” Corbett said. “We don’t have a lot of time to waste here, Hollywood.”

“Yeah, okay…uh, Larouche?”

“Go ahead, Norton.”

“I’m apparently going to go running. You guys going to be able to respond if things go sideways for me?”

“I’m going to say no to that, Norton. You’re going to be on your own. I’ll leave the lifesaving stuff to Stork Two.”

“Wow, that’s awesomely encouraging,” Norton said. He reached around and unclipped his safety line from the helicopter, then tied it up and connected it to his belt. “I guess I’ll remember that, at least for the next six or seven minutes.”

“Good luck, Mr. Norton.”

“Thanks, but what I’ll really need is a helicopter when I’m in the shit, guy,” Norton replied. “Corbett, I’m off here.”

“Good to hear,” Corbett replied. “Now stop giving Larouche crap and get going. We’ve got you covered. You can trust me on that.”

In that moment, Norton recalled the moment he had seen Corbett’s fleet through the sweeps of the Argosy’s radar array. The old man had thought ahead then. He could probably be counted on to do the same now. “Here’s hoping.”

Norton slapped Jimmo on the shoulder and started off, tucking his expensive rifle into his armpit. From the corner of his eye, he watched as the people who had been trapped in the church essentially boiled out of the structure, splitting away as they headed for the idling helicopters in the street, their heels kicking up dried grass. For his part, Norton bolted through the desert shrubbery, keeping to a nice, low intensity lope that he hoped would not only sustain him for the next one thousand yards or so, but would keep him away from the zombies that lurked in the background. He headed down the street as rapidly as he could without breaking the bank, which meant he simply maintained a relatively fast trot. Since danger could present itself from all points on the compass, Norton kept his head on a swivel, looking from side to side. All he saw were midcentury desert homes that had been erected before he had been born, their surfaces covered with the usual amount of desert dust and grime. The farther he ran from the helicopters, the louder his footfalls seemed to become; every sound he made seemed magnified to him, despite the helmet and radio headset underneath. While Stork Two arced past only a few hundred feet overhead, he fully understood that if he stepped in the shit, there was nothing anyone would be able to do for him. Even if Danielle leaped out of the helicopter, firing two rifles in each hand, he was as good as zombie meal. There was no salvation to be had.

He made it to the next street, which was partially blocked by a retaining wall that Corbett’s engineers had built to channelize the stenches into a kill zone. He stopped at the wall—essentially a long line of jersey barriers—and looked up and down the street. Someone had tried to make a stand here. The street on the other side of the barrier was littered with bodies, and the desert hadn’t been kind to them. While he understood that nature’s way of disposing of dead organic matter—birds, insects, bacteria—didn’t attack the animated dead, once their brains were destroyed and they ceased to exist, the pendulum was free to swing once again. The majority of the dead lying in the street were severely decomposed, and the smell wasn’t pleasant. Norton was suddenly happy he was in the California high desert. Standing in the same circumstances in a small Georgia town where heat coupled with high humidity would doubtless be intolerable with regards to the smell of decay and rot.

He lifted his leg and crawled over the barrier, then commenced threading his way through the avenue full of ruined corpses. The stench was utterly revolting, and now that he was in the thick of it, his stomach roiled and churned. He pressed on, unsure of whether to breathe through his nose or his mouth. He was suddenly overwhelmed with worry about infection. Being this close to the rotting remains of zombies couldn’t be healthy, despite the presence of black carrion birds poking at them with their bills. The birds regarded him with obsidian eyes and took wing when he approached them, cawing in dismay.

One of the figures lying in his path stirred suddenly, pushing itself up on spindly arms. It turned white, rheumy eyes toward him as its mouth opened. The stench had no legs; everything below its sternum was essentially gone, having been blown away perhaps by interlinked gunfire. As Norton moved toward it, the stench released a small groan as it elbow-crawled forward. It didn’t come close to intercepting him, but it did distract him long enough for another ghoul to stir. This one was in similar condition as the first, its body shattered and torn. When its hand closed around his ankle, Norton frantically kicked at it until he broke its grip and jumped away from it. He continued forward, ignoring the two corpses as they crawled after him, emitting dry moans of hunger. But finding two surviving stenches in this kill zone forced him to consider that there were potentially even more lying in his path, and the thought forced him to proceed more carefully. Sure enough, every now and then, he saw a corpse twitch and stir as Stork Two rumbled past again.

“Norton, you need to move faster,” Corbett said over the radio. “You’ve still got over five hundred feet to go, and the herd we’re tracking will already be at the end of the street by the time you get there.”

Norton waved his left arm in the air in acknowledgement and picked up the pace, weaving around the corpses as he pressed on down East Muir Street. More bodies moved as he approached, but they were buried beneath the motionless figures of actual dead. They moaned and reached for him, but they were trapped beneath mounds of rot and ruin. As he ran past, Norton caught the sight of a Single Tree police officer’s uniform. The female officer glared at him with hungry eyes, pinned beneath three other cadavers as it squirmed and hissed.

By the time he made it to Main Street, he found he could already hear the approaching zombie herd as it shuffled up the wide thoroughfare. Another channel wall presented itself as an obstacle to climb over—more jersey barriers, of course—something Norton found difficult to do so while trying to keep his rifle shouldered. Nevertheless, he made it across…but it was a genuinely graceless, almost comic affair full of lots of flailing.

Dani should be laughing her ass off watching my sterling athleticism in action…

As soon as his boots hit the pavement, he turned to his left. The zombies were there, picking their way toward him, walking through the debris of combat and evacuation as they stepped over other dead bodies that lay in the street. The eyes of those ghouls at the head of the herd widened when they caught sight of him, and they instantly picked up their pace, breaking into a shambling charge. They were perhaps two hundred feet away, and as Norton began to scuttle up the street, one stench detached itself from the group. A runner. It bore down on him at full speed, bouncing off slower members of the group in its zeal to catch him. It ignored the damage it was likely doing to its bare feet as it bolted across shattered glass and other debris. Norton had no choice, he had to stop and engage before it tackled him like a linebacker. He flicked off the safety and fired. The round shattered its jaw and passed its neck, likely fracturing several vertebra its neck. The stench went down hard, tumbling and flailing. The blow seemed to had left it disabled, but still very much animated. Norton hung around just long enough to pop another round into it, then turned and sprinted up the street. Something moved in and a car that was parked on the side of the street, and he saw an elderly zombie strapped into the driver’s seat. It clawed at the glass, trying to reach him as he bolted past. In the back seat, a dead infant’s eyes glittered as they tracked his course.

“How far do you want me to take them again?” he asked over the radio. He was already breathing hard.

“Right down Gene Autry,” Corbett replied immediately. “Slow down, you’re leaving them too far behind.”

“Are you fucking kidding me? You want me to slow down?”

“Not asking you to commit suicide here, Hollywood. Just slow down a bit. Make them think they have a chance.”

Norton risked a glance back over his shoulder. Sure enough, he was outdistancing the shambling mass of dead flesh that pursued him. They had lost ground, but certainly not interest. He slowed, taking a moment to scan the area around him. He was right next to the high school, and a clutch of stenches crossed its front lawn. They ignored the slab-sided building, apparently unaware that hundreds of living people were inside the structure’s walls. They had certainly heard his gunshots however, and were already ambling toward him. Norton paused and examined them for a moment, waiting for more runners to emerge. He saw none. Across the street was the town’s only McDonalds, now abandoned. Shattered glass glittered in the sunlight where a few of its windows had been broken. Ahead sat the car wash at the corner of Main and Gene Autry Lane. Norton trotted toward it, sweeping the area with his rifle’s scope, making sure he was clear to approach. Single zombies tottered toward him. More lay damaged in the street, and they crawled for him, leaving thick trails of green-black ichor. It took some care to step around them, but they were easy enough to avoid.

Overhead, Corbett’s S-92 pounded through the air. It was barely moving, essentially pacing him now. The zombies ignored the disturbance, their beady eyes focused squarely on Norton as he pressed forward. As he made it to the corner, a zombie trotted toward him from the car wash, its tattered jeans flapping in the breeze as it reached for him, jaws spread wide. Norton tucked in his rifle and drilled it right through the forehead, sending it toppling to the car wash’s paved parking lot. The crack of the rifle seemed to galvanize the zed herd even further, and they shuffled forward as fast as they could, as if sensing their quarry might be able to escape. Dust swirled around them as the helicopter’s rotors stirred the air, but if the maelstrom didn’t appear to pose any inconvenience. Norton raised his rifle and shot one of the stenches in the lead. It collapsed to the ground, a small black fountain of ichor shooting through the rent the bullet left in its skull. The rest of the herd just walked over it, uncaring that their number had just been reduced by one in an instant.

Norton hit the transmit button on his radio. “Am I good to keep going?”

“Good to go. Try and stay visible—they need to be able to see you. Four and Five are still loading, but they should be ready to lift out in just a minute. It’s pretty important you turn those fuckers down Gene Autry,” Corbett replied. “Otherwise, they’ll make it to the next block, and it’s going to be pretty hard to avoid noticing helicopters with a couple dozen people climbing into them.”

“Got it.” To make sure the stenches maintained their advance, Norton waved his arms and yelled at them. “Come on, motherfuckers! Follow me, you stupid shits!” He moved at a brisk walk toward Gene Autry Lane, cutting through the car wash’s parking lot. He checked over his shoulder continually to ensure the stenches still padded after him. He certainly heard the whining roar of idling helicopters one block over. Unfortunately, the zombies could hear them as well. While most of the stenches turned to pursue Norton, a few lurched on down Main Street. Attracted by the turbine song of the grounded S-92s. Norton yelled at them, but with all the noise coming from the idling helicopters and that of Stork Two overhead, he doubted the corpses heard him. He glanced up at the Sikorsky as it overflew his position, but Corbett issued no further guidance over the radio. Norton sighed and raised his rifle again. Pow. Pow. Pow. He shot each deviating zombie, dropping them in their tracks. The rest of the herd ignored the bodies hitting the deck; they remained fixated on the warm human they could see, so tantalizingly so close it must have been driving them wild. Norton presumed they hadn’t fed in weeks, and they weren’t going to give up now.

Norton resumed his advance. Ahead, a couple of stenches emerged from between the few houses in the area. Another runner charged at him, and Norton took it out. He had to hit it twice. His first shot was just a graze that left a deep furrow in its cheek, but the second was right on the money. He continued advancing, swinging around in a general circle, trying to cover all the possible avenues of attack. Corbett’s aircraft had drifted downrange now. It slowly pirouetted over the street and settled into a hover about fifty feet over the pavement. A zombie staggered about in the swirling rotor wash, doubtless blinded by the swirling dust and deafened by the thunderous pounding of big rotor blades.

“Norton, listen…big movement headed this way from the west. They’re turning away from the breach and zeroing in on us. Four and Five are coming out now—One is still loading.”

Norton continued his scan while slowly walking toward the hovering helicopter. He saw the two Sikorskys rise into the sky. Their noses lowered as they accelerated toward the east, big main rotors clawing at the air as they continued to climb. “Yeah, I see them. What about this other group?”

“We’ll have to make this kind of quick, Hollywood. I can see them now, they’re closing in on you. Should be visible to you in about a minute or so. Coming down Washington. Not a lot of barriers in that stretch, so they’ll make good time.”

“Well, this is outstanding. How long am I going to hang out down here?” Washington Street was just beyond the hovering helicopter. The lone zombie there stood almost encased in the cyclonic storm of rotor wash, its face titled upward as it stared up at the aircraft. Completely enthralled, it appeared to not even have noticed him. If what Corbett said was true, then he was quickly going to find himself caught between two waves of stenches.

“Just a little longer. Need to get One in the air, then we’ll extract you. Hey, while you’re waiting? Shoot our admirer, will you?”

Norton sighed and sighted on the lone zombie and took it out. He then spun around and scanned the wave of hundreds of stenches rolling down Gene Autry from Main Street. They had already flooded the car wash’s parking lot and stumbled through its stalls as they pressed on to the smaller side street. Eyes never leaving him.

In the background, he saw Stork One rise into the sky.

“Okay, I see One is up. Get me out of here,” Norton said.

“Yeah, you’d better start running, Hollywood. New crew just pulled up.”

Norton spun around, looking toward Washington Street. The leading edge of the group Corbett had spotted came around the small, dilapidated house at the end of the road. At first, their attention was focused on the hovering helicopter. But once Norton started running, they zeroed in on him immediately. Several runners broke loose from the crowd, sprinting toward him with open mouths and lolling black tongues.

“You know what, stay right there. Maybe we should come to you.” Corbett’s voice was barely audible as the helicopter’s engines suddenly spooled up to a shrieking roar. A front of warm air rushed across the street as the aircraft suddenly super-elevated, its main rotor disk coning upward as it climbed. The rotor wash was so extreme that the zombies staggered and fell, and some were even blown right off their feet. The helicopter aborted its climb a moment later, then sank toward the street while gliding forward to Norton’s position.

“Jesus, what the hell are you guys doing?”

“Wondering if white men really can’t jump,” Corbett replied.

The helicopter’s descent stopped when its wheels were barely a foot off the street. The open cargo door was ten feet away, and the crew chief in the aircraft frantically waved him aboard. From the rear, Norton heard sharp pops as Danielle leaned out of the opened emergency exit, hosing the stenches behind the helicopter with her rifle. Norton ran for the hovering aircraft with every ounce of speed he could muster. Ten feet had never seemed so far. To make things even more interesting, the door itself was still at least five or six feet above street level. Norton leaped toward it with all his might, releasing his rifle so he could use both hands to haul himself inside. His fingers clamped onto the bottom of the door frame, and he held onto it for dear life. He kicked off the street once again as he pulled himself upward. The crew chief reached down and grabbed his wrists, pulling him as he shouted into his helmet’s boom microphone. The helicopter shuddered as it began to rise.

A hand closed around Norton’s right ankle. He kicked and swore, then screamed that a zombie had him. No one could hear him, of course. As the helicopter continued to climb, Corbett appeared beside the crew chief. His expression was completely unconcerned as he leaned out of the open door, assessed the situation, then raised his .45 pistol in his right hand. He tracked the weapon left and right for a moment, then fired. Norton screamed as he felt the hot propellant spray across him, stinging the lower half of his face that wasn’t protected by his helmet visor. The hand still gripped him, and now he felt a second hand grabbing at his calf. Corbett fired again, and Norton gasped when he felt the hands fall away. Corbett let him wait long enough to holster his weapon, then reached down and helped the crew chief haul Norton inside the S-92 as it continued its climb.

“Motherfuck!” Norton shouted as he practically sprawled across the helicopter’s deck. “God damn motherfuck!” He rolled over onto his back and stared at Corbett. “You stupid old fuck, you could have killed me!”

SINGLE TREE: Bombs Away

October 26, 2022 1 comment

This is supposed to drop on Halloween, but I lost a week for making revisions due to my son falling ill. So I’m postponing the release for two weeks to ensure I have a clean document where everything is tidied up. Seems like I’m always running late these days, but hey…a guy has to do what a guy has to do. Forgive me or not, this is how it’s going to work out.

In the meantime, in this excerpt, the liberation of Single Tree gets underway. And on the wrong foot, at that.

“Okay, we’re approaching the target. Jimmo, you might want to wake up our engineer,” Larouche said over the intercom.

“I got that,” Norton said. He reached across the small aisle and shook Bates’s shoulder. The cop had been asleep the entire trip, not even stirring as turbulence rocked the aircraft when it transitioned to the higher altitudes. He might as well have been dead. “Bates? Hey, Bates, wake up, man!”

Bates slowly raised his helmeted head. “We’re there already?” He checked his watch. “Wow, holy shit. Engine noise always did put me to sleep.”

“Yeah, rise and shine, sleeping beauty.” Norton pointed toward the open door that Jimmo was half leaning out of. “I’m thinking it’s time to get to work.”

“I’ll say. I need to piss like a racehorse.” Bates leaned forward and pulled his ruck out from beneath the seat. He opened the container and pulled out a plastic bag. Norton frowned. Without a word to anyone, Bates pulled the bag open, then yanked up on his flight suit’s lower zipper and reached inside. Norton let out a surprised laugh as Bates pulled out his penis and pissed directly into the bag.

“You know, we do have relief hoses for this,” Norton said. He reached over to the fuselage wall beside him and pulled out the hose. It had a cone-shaped receiver on the end. Bates looked over with complete disinterest and made an unimpressed noise.

“Yeah, I’m old school,” he said as he filled the bag almost half full.

Norton shook his head incredulously. “Well…thank God you didn’t have to take a shit?”

“Don’t get your hopes up. I haven’t been eating MREs the entire time,” Bates replied as he sealed up the bag and set it on the floor before him.

“Dude, do not spill your piss all over the aircraft!” Norton snapped.

“I’d never do such a thing.” Bates replaced himself, zipped up, then unfastened his harness. Leaning forward to pick up the newly created piss bag, he ambled over to the open cargo door and unceremoniously pitched it out.

“Dude!” Jimmo shouted. “There’s another aircraft in trail formation! You can’t just throw stuff out the door!”

“They have windshield wipers, right?”

“What happened back there?” Larouche asked over the intercom.

“This dude just hurled a bag full of piss out the door,” Jimmo said.

Larouche made a disgusted sound over the intercom. “Well. He was Army, after all.”

Jimmo shook his head in no little revulsion and motioned toward the door. “Hook up and lean out, man. You’re going to want to see this.”

Norton watched as Bates clipped his harness to a nearby safety line and did as Jimmo instructed. He reached out and grabbed onto the rescue hoist’s frame and peered out into the bright, desert day. For his part, Norton turned and peered out the window to his left. Ahead, he saw the tall walls surrounding Single Tree.

“Hey, are those gun towers?” Bates asked.

“I have no idea,” Jimmo said.

“They are,” Norton said. “Equipped with M134 miniguns.”

“No shit. Are they still operational?”

Norton shrugged even though Bates couldn’t see him. “I don’t know. I think they ran dry. Why?”

“We can cause some mischief with those. Nice, loud, and deadly. I mean, even a stench can’t attack when its arms and legs are blown off.”

“Sergeant, maybe we should just consider accomplishing the mission we’re on first, before we start going full-on Rambo here,” Larouche said. “You want us to make a fly-by so you can get a lay of the land?”

“No. I’ve already looked at all the maps and the videos you guys shot last time,” Bates said. “I want to place all three bombs against the wall at the end of Fairbanks Street, where it meets West Bush Street.”

“Yeah, all right…but why there? I thought the plan was to deploy to the south,” Larouche said. From the tone of his voice, it was clear he wasn’t happy at the last-minute alteration.

“Two clear approaches to the gap, which ought to be helpful in getting the stenches out of the town,” Bates responded. “I mean…you do want them to get out pretty easily, right?”

Norton knew the streets well. “But the stenches aren’t concentrated there,” he said.

“Once these things go off…they will be,” Bates replied.

“Mr. Norton? Any opinion on this?” Larouche asked.

“I actually want to do a fly-by so I can see for myself,” Norton said. “Bates is right, when we last buzzed by, that area was pretty desolate…only a few homes there, and they’re all empty. But Bates, I have to give you a big huzzah, guy. You picked Barry Corbett’s neighborhood.”

“I do so love sticking it to the man,” Bates replied.

“So we’re agreed?” Larouche asked. “We only have about an hour of station time, gentlemen. I personally don’t care where we drop these things, only that it’s effective. Mr. Norton, you need to talk to Mr. Corbett about this?”

“Corbett’s already deferred to Bates,” Norton said. “I say we give him a little surprise by placing the bombs two blocks from his swanky pad. In other words, Mr. Larouche…I’m all in. A little ‘fuck you’ to the man, like Bates said.”

“You guys are being very disrespectful to the man who pays me, but I’m good with that,” Larouche responded. “We’ll make a low-speed pass so everyone can read the territory. Mr. Norton, you should be on the door, sir. Bates, fall back.”

“But I’m the guy who’s going to place the weapons,” Bates said.

“They’re going down no matter what, Sergeant. Let Norton put eyes out, please.”

Bates harrumphed over the intercom. “You know, maybe I will shit in a bag. And drop it on the deck.”

“You’d best be certain you can fly better than my helicopter if that were to occur, Sergeant,” Larouche replied.

“Sounds like someone’s a spoil sport,” Bates said.

“This job is tough enough as it is, Sergeant Bates. Mr. Norton, make your way to the door. Jimmo, clear Bates.”

As Norton unfastened his belt, he saw Jimmo toss his thumb over his shoulder. “You heard the pilot. Let’s go.”

Bates released his safety clip and stepped back. He grabbed onto the back of his seat and leaned forward, peering through the window in the side of the aircraft. At the same time, Norton moved forward and clipped up to the safety line before joining Jimmo at the open door. The air that cycled through the opening wasn’t boiling hot, but it wasn’t exactly warm and luxurious, either. Winter was coming.

“In place here,” Norton said.

“All right. Here we go.” Larouche altered the S-92’s flight path slightly, turning the aircraft onto a northerly heading. Below, cast against the sun-parched earth of the high desert, Norton saw the helicopter’s shadow quite clearly. It looked ungainly with the dangling sling load slowly swaying back and forth. While he couldn’t exactly feel the motion translated to the helicopter, Norton studied the big bomb’s transit as it meandered from left to right and back again. It was quite disconcerting, being so comparatively close to a weapon of substantial destruction.

“Hey, Bates…how are you going to detonate this thing?” he asked as the helicopter drew nearer to the wall.

“Remote det, using my phone,” the LAPD sergeant said. “Your boss actually has a pretty sophisticated method for using these things. I guess we’re using the usual method for this when lighting off a demolition charge in his industry.”

“Okay…is that something different than what you’re used to?”

Bates snorted. “Norton, everything is different now. So long as it works, I’m cool with it.”

Norton didn’t respond. He watched as the walls of the town drew near and was surprised to see a pair of stenches on the catwalks up top, literally reaching for the helicopter even though it was five hundred feet above them. On the interior side, there lay a smattering of houses. They were clearly deserted, emanating no impressions of life inside. He studied their appearances. No broken windows, no open doors. They’d been abandoned, and the few mindless ghouls which cavorted about in the streets outside didn’t pay them any special mind. It was as if the structures simply didn’t exist to them.

“Okay, there is a house right at the bend there,” Norton pointed out. “I’m not concerned about anyone being inside it, but is it a concern for us, Bates?”

“Not at all,” Bates said. “The structure will actually reflect some of the explosive blast outward. It helps.”

“Cool. And the aqueduct? Right below us, Whitney runs right across the aqueduct.”

“Again, no problem. Why would it be?”

“Because the dead could mound up inside it, and prevent them from spreading out into the desert.”

“Is that an issue? They’ll be bottlenecked.”

Norton considered that for a long moment. “Yeah. Okay.”

“Don’t sound convinced, Norton.”

“Pal, I’m not convinced that anything is enough to stop these things from fucking us up.”

“Good point.”

“Gentlemen, do we have a consensus here? Time is money, and every hour this helo is in the air means three hours of maintenance on the ground,” Larouche said.

“I’m good,” Norton said.

“I’m always good,” Bates replied.

“So I understand we are good to deploy,” Larouche said. “Is this correct?”

Norton turned away from the doorway and looked at Bates. The LAPD cop smirked and shrugged, as if to transition the weight of the decision from his shoulders. Norton sighed and turned back, looking out over the town he had been raised in. Now the lair of the dead.

“We’re good. Let’s get it done,” he said with a heavy sigh.

“All right. We’ll coordinate with the rest of the flight. Give us a bit.”

The S-92 continued flying on, whirling rotors decimating air as it paralleled the wall. Below, zombies looked stupidly upward. They shambled after the aircraft as it motored past, arms outstretched. They sensed prey, even though there was likely no chance they recognized the helicopter for what it was. All they likely knew, Norton thought, was that it was a disturbance. And a disturbance might mean food. They were literally that stupid.

The helicopter entered into an easy bank to the left when Larouche spoke again. “Okay…I hear King Barry isn’t happy that the bombs are going off in his hood, but we are good to go. Bates, replace Norton at the door. I’ll want you to supervise the placement…communicate with Jimmo directly when it comes time to release the hook.”

“Got that. Norton, get out of there.”

Norton fell back and unclipped his harness as Bates advanced. The cop shouldered past him and clipped up, then leaned out the open doorway next to Jimmo. Norton took the opportunity to peer into the cockpit as Larouche and Bartlett completed their turn, coming around 180 degrees to fly back in the direction they had come from. He saw Corbett’s helicopter—Stork Two—buzz past off to their left, followed a moment later by the third helicopter. Both aircraft were laden with bombs dangling from their cargo hooks.

“So did Corbett like start whimpering over the radio when you told him where we were planting the bombs?” Norton asked.

“Can’t say I heard a peep from him direct,” Larouche said, “but it was relayed to us that he was encountering some substantial dismay.”

“Good—because his house is fucking ugly. If I do say so myself,” Norton said.

Larouche chortled at that. “Well. It’s not every day that a king’s castle is sacked.”

“Here’s to more of that.”

Bates added, “Like I said…sticking it to the man.”

The S-92 continued flying to the southern part of the town before it gently banked to the right. Norton leaned into the turn, hearing the pitch of the rotors and engines change in correspondence with Larouche’s control inputs. He watched with idle interest as the pilot manipulated the controls, including the trim switches on the cyclic pitch stick between his feet. It made him recall Jess Simpkiss, who had flown an old King Air up into Idaho or somewhere after dropping him off at the airport in his JetRanger. He hoped the old Vietnam vet had survived.

“Okay, we’re lining up for approach,” Larouche announced as the aircraft arced over the empty desert. All that lay below was dun-colored earth and scraggly scrub. “Bates, we’ll fly inside the wall on this approach. I’m going to rely on you to tell us where to drop the load. We have a fifty-five-foot sling, and the walls are thirty feet high. We don’t have a huge amount of altitude to play with, so if you can call the mark quickly, we can lower down and make the drop without a lot of spin.”

“Got that,” Bates replied.

“Four minutes. No reason to hurry,” Larouche said. “Unless you need to fill another piss bag.”

“I’m cool on that,” Bates said.

Larouche grunted and then fell silent. Norton leaned into the cockpit and watched the two pilots work. While Larouche flew, Bartlett managed the engine power and slewed the forward-looking infrared around, taking in as many sights as possible. The big helicopter’s approach was catching some attention. Dozens of stenches shambled toward it, especially as it began to slow preparatory to making its drop. Despite the swirling dust that was caught between the helicopter’s blades and the tall, metal wall to the left of the aircraft, they still bumbled forward. Mindless, but fixated. They knew what was above them.

“Okay, call the drop zone,” Larouche said.

“Another twenty-five feet forward,” Bates replied. “See that return in the wall? I’d like to tuck the weapon right there. Can you do it?”

“Believe so. Stand by.” The helicopter was essentially hovering right now, trundling forward at only a few miles per hour. Norton studied the airspeed tape on one of the displays, and was surprised to find only five knots of forward motion were being registered. He shook his head. Five knots…he taxied his dear departed jet faster than that.

“Okay, you’re about on target,” Bates announced. “You can go ahead and lower the load now.”

“Hey, we have zombies in the zone,” Bartlett said. The copilot looked out through the right side of the canopy.

“Don’t worry about that,” Bates told him. “The more the merrier. They can’t hurt the weapon.”

“Roger. Understand we are good to place the load.” Larouche manipulated the controls. “Gene, check my work here, you’ve got a better view than I do.” Seated on the left side of the aircraft, Larouche was essentially facing the interior side of the wall surrounding Single Tree.

“My airplane?” Bartlett asked.

“Your airplane,” Larouche replied.

Bartlett put his hands on the controls and his feet on the anti-torque pedals. “I have control. Call the distance to the wall.”

“Twenty feet,” Larouche said.

Bartlett depressed the collective, and Norton felt the helicopter begin to vibrate as it passed through its own rotor wash. Dropping at an extremely slow rate, it took more than two minutes for the machine to descend through the remaining one hundred feet of altitude that separated it from the ground. During the descent, Larouche continued to call out separation between the machine’s main rotors and the towering wall.

“Load’s down!” Jimmo said suddenly. “Jesus, we planted it right on top of like five zeds!”

“Is that a problem?” Larouche asked.

“No, it’s not a problem,” Bates replied. “Unless they’re all power lifters, they can stay right where they are.”

“So are we good to release the load?”

“Mr. Larouche, you are good to release the load.”

“Jimmo, do it,” Larouche said.

Norton pulled out of the cockpit long enough to watch Jimmo key the release he held in his right hand. “Load released! Good drop from the hook!”

“Okay, we’re out of here,” Bartlett said. The helicopter vibrated intensely as it climbed straight up, clearing the wall. Once away from the obstruction, the nose dipped slightly and the aircraft began accelerating forward. “Clear of the wall.”

“My airplane,” Larouche said, and Norton watched as he reclaimed the controls. As soon as he had the helicopter under control, Bartlett released his set of controls.

“Now that was textbook,” Bartlett said.

“It sure was. Great flying, Gene,” Larouche replied. “I was getting a little worried, being that close to the wall.”

“Guys, you’re making me want to get a rotary wing ticket,” Norton said.

Bartlett laughed. “Might want to wait on that until we can find a training helicopter that comes in at a lower hourly rate.”

The helicopter climbed out under Larouche’s control. “Sergeant Bates, you want the next one dropped behind or alongside?”

“Alongside, so they’re positioned end to end,” Bates said. “Then we’ll drop the third one on top of them. That way, even if one detonator fails, it’ll still go up as a product of the other explosions.”

“Sympathetic detonations, right?” Norton asked.

“Correct. How did you know that?”

“From a movie I did once, about troops in Iraq,” Norton replied. “It was called Our Time in Babylon. Ever see it?”

“Huh. I did, and it was okay. Fancy that, me watching your movie and actually admitting I enjoyed it.”

Norton shrugged. “Critics hated it. Too violent, they said.”

“Don’t sweat it, Mr. Norton. I’m pretty sure most of your critics are dead.”

“Sorry to rain on the love parade, but we still have a job to do,” Larouche said. “Bates, we’ll hover over the town so we can give you a good view of the bomb placement. We’ll have to keep the nose of the aircraft pointed toward the drop zone, otherwise we’ll cause turbulence from our rotor wash. You’ll need to lean out the cargo door to put eyes on. Are you good with that?”

“Not a problem.”

“Okay. Let’s get set up.” Larouche coordinated his movements with the other two helicopters, and two minutes later, the big Sikorsky was hovering a hundred feet over the town while maintaining a decent five hundred feet of separation from the drop zone. Below, Norton could see as the zombies began to gather, shuffling toward the din of the hovering helicopters.

Finally getting that fan club I always wanted, he thought idly.

“All right, Two…we’re set. Go ahead and try and lay the second weapon right next to the first, end to end.”

“On that.”

Looking through the canopy windows, Norton watched as Stork Two—Corbett’s aircraft—slowly eased forward, its sling load swaying in the rotor wash. It took longer for the aircraft to position the tightly wrapped bomb, and there were a few nervous moments when the weapon swung into the wall.

“Bates, is that going to be a problem?” Norton asked.

“It’s not nitroglycerin…at least, not yet. It can take a little punishment, but let’s not thrash the thing,” Bates replied as he leaned out the open cargo door next to Jimmo.

It took several minutes to get the load properly positioned, and even when the bomb was finally grounded, there was still a gap of four feet between the two weapons. But both were snug against the wall, and Bates indicated that was about as good as it would likely get. Larouche gave Stork Two the order to open their cargo hook, and Norton watched as the heavy ropes that attached the load to the helicopter fell away. Bartlett chortled when the thick lines slammed into the small number of zombies that were shuffling toward the bombs. A few of them were taken to the deck by the impact.

“Oh, tell me you have that on camera,” Larouche said with a chuckle.

“Hell, yeah. There’s gotta be some money in that!” he laughed.

“I’ll pass that on to Corbett.” A crosswind caught the helicopter, and Larouche adjusted the controls to compensate. “Two, you’re clear. Go ahead and pull it out of there. Three, hold up for a bit, let the rotor wash vortex dissipate before you bring your load in.”

“Roger that, Larouche.”

Norton watched as the second S-92 executed an accelerating climb, its nose dipping a bit as it developed forward motion. As it soared up and over the wall, it continued its climb, rising to well over a thousand feet as it entered an orbit over the area. The third helicopter maintained its hover several hundred yards downrange at an altitude Norton judged to be about five hundred feet. After two minutes had passed, Larouche pressed the transmit button on the cyclic pitch stick in his right hand.

“All right, Three. You’re up. The subject matter expert says layer your bomb directly on top of the other two. Go ahead and come in when you’re ready.”

“Yeah, we’re ready now.” No sooner had the words come across the radio, the third helicopter began easing forward. It stepped down from its current altitude, slowly descending inside the perimeter of the wall. Norton and the two pilots watched the trussed bomb sway on its pallet. It began to spin slightly, from right to left.

“That load’s in vortex,” Bartlett said.

“Three, this is One. Your load’s starting to spin. Better get a move on if you can,” Larouche said. He released the microphone button and asked over the intercom, “Bates, if that bomb’s rotating when it’s set down, will it damage the others when it lands?”

“Don’t think so. Shouldn’t matter,” Bates said. “But obviously, bombs aren’t normally things you want to throw around, right?”

“One, are we good to go?” the pilot of the third helicopter asked. The aircraft was still descending toward the drop zone. More zombies had arrived now, and they watched the incoming aircraft with gaping mouths.

“We think so, Three…uh, the wind’s changed, and it’s channeling your rotor wash around the load. Try and get it down before the spin gets too intense, all right?”

“Doing that,” was the terse response.

“Maybe he should just hold off for a minute,” Norton suggested.

“If it gets much worse, I’m pulling him out of there,” Larouche said.

Norton looked over his shoulder at Bates, but the cop was leaning well outside the helicopter, watching the drop from behind his lowered visor. “Bates, you sure this is cool?”

“Time will tell,” was the laconic response.

Norton shook his head. “Boy, you guys sure know how to make a guy sweat.”

“Imagine how we are with the girls,” Larouche said. “Three, your load’s still spinning…your call to continue.”

The third S-92 was now in a hover almost directly over the two emplaced weapons. Its sling load rotated beneath it, with the net effect being that the cables connecting it to the helicopter’s cargo hook were twisting together. This in turn caused the load to rise closer to the aircraft itself.

“One, Three…this is Lennon. Corbett and I advise you to break off and try again.” Lennon’s tone of voice conveyed that he wasn’t asking.

“One more second,” Three’s pilot replied. The helicopter was descending faster now, trying to get the load down while they still had the time.

Bartlett stirred in the copilot’s seat, then suddenly pointed. “He’s losing a strap!” As he spoke, Norton saw the spinning pallet beneath the helicopter suddenly dip downward as one of the straps that held the trussed bomb to its pallet failed. The pallet’s spin suddenly increased. The change in attitude also altered the rotation as well; the bomb was no longer flat, and was now swinging back and forth beneath the helicopter like a deranged pendulum. The weight coupled with mounting centrifugal force caused the Sikorsky to sway beneath its rotor disk.

“I see it!” Larouche pulled up on the collective, bringing the helicopter into a climb. “Oh, fuck—Three, release, release, release!”

“Hook’s not releasing! It’s jammed up!” came the response.

The stricken S-92 dipped to the left, pulled in that direction by the gyrating load. Norton sucked in a deep breath, watching the situation unfold as Larouche toed the pedals and began to execute a climbing turn. Stork Three was too low for the pilots to correct quickly enough; the unbalanced load coupled with the helicopter’s weight conspired to overwhelm them. As Stork One climbed into the sky, Norton saw Three’s main rotors shatter as they struck the top of the wall. The stricken helicopter slewed about, completely out of control now as the carbon fiber vanes disintegrated, robbing the aircraft of lift. It spun around as it suddenly fell, slamming its tail boom into the thick wall as it went down, trailing a wake of twisted metal, aluminum, plastic, and rubber along with a shower of sparks and smoke. The zombies below continued to approach, moving faster now despite the thunderous fracas, as if sensing food was being delivered.

The bomb crashed down onto the two emplaced devices…and the S-92 joined it a split-second later, slamming into the drop zone in an explosion of dust and black smoke as its turboshaft engines, still running at full output, destroyed themselves in cataclysmic explosions of fire and fury.

“Three’s down! Three’s down!” Larouche yelled over the radio.

“Get us the fuck out of here!” Bates snapped over the intercom. “Come on, get us out!”

“I have a downed aircrew to rescue!” Larouche shouted back.

“Larouche…listen to me!” Norton was yanked away from the cockpit as Bates walked up behind him. Norton stepped back, still stunned by what he had just witnessed, as Bates shoved his body through the doorway. “Your helicopter’s on fire! There’s no one to save, man!”

“How the fuck do you know that?” Bartlett said.

“Because the fire will set off the bombs,” Bates said, his voice calm. “Now you need to get us about a mile away. Now.”

Norton turned and lurched toward the cargo door. Jimmo still leaned out it, holding onto the rescue hoist, staring at the wrecked helicopter below. Norton joined him. The S-92 had come to a rest on its back, splayed belly-up across the three bombs. Black smoke boiled up from its destroyed engines, a smoke so dark that Norton knew it wasn’t just oil evaporating against hot metal. The impact had been substantial enough to perforate the aircraft’s supposedly self-sealing fuel tanks. As he watched, he saw licks of fire reaching up into the sky from inside the helicopter’s crushed cargo compartment.

And the zombies were beginning to swarm. Dozens of them were already hauling themselves over the Sikorsky’s carcass, reaching in through the shattered canopy for the pilots and crew.

“Get us out, Larouche,” he said, surprised at how even his voice sounded. “Three’s on fire. Get us out of here.”

“God damn you, Holstein!” Larouche raged as he worked the controls. “You never knew when to quit, man!” He continued coaxing the big helicopter into a full-power climb while accelerating forward. “All aircraft, Stork Three is down and on fire. Clear the area! Detonation is imminent—”

As the Sikorsky sped across the wall while climbing, a huge flash of fire ripped through the crash site. Norton didn’t even have time to gasp before he saw a great section of the wall ripped asunder amidst a cloud of dust that seemed to expand at the speed of sound. It was a shock wave, leaving a wake of falling debris behind it. As Jimmo pushed himself back into the helicopter, he grabbed onto Norton, dragging him away from the open door as the shock wave slammed into the helicopter. The aircraft yawed to the right while simultaneously rolling to the left. Norton was flung into one of the seats while Jimmo bounced off Bates. The impact hurled the police officer across the compartment, and he crashed against the inner wall on the left side of the fuselage. Over the cacophony of the event, Norton heard a series of ticks and snaps as debris, driven by the explosion, pelted the helicopter as it yawed and rolled about in the sky. He grabbed onto the armrests of the seat he had been thrown into, trying to decide if he should try and strap in or just curl up into a ball and wait for the crash that would end his life in a matter of seconds.

The helicopter bucked and shook, then suddenly rolled wings level. Norton looked around the compartment and saw nothing terribly amiss, aside from Bates and Jimmo lying sprawled about. The young crew chief was already getting to his feet, hauling himself up by the safety line still clipped to the D ring on his harness. Bates was stirring as well, and as Norton watched, the cop looked over at him and shot him an inquisitive thumbs-up.

“Good to go here,” Norton gasped. “Larouche, how are we doing?”

“I think we’re good,” the pilot replied. “Got thrown around a bit, but I’ve gone through turbulence worse than that.”

“Yeah, well…I’m pretty sure I shit myself,” Bartlett gasped. “Oh man…take a look at that…”

The wonder in the man’s voice caused Norton to push himself out of his seat and cross over to the windows on the right side of the cabin. He saw a gigantic mushroom cloud of dust crawling into the sky, shedding off flaming pieces of debris which plummeted back to the sun-bleached desert floor like some sort of metallic rain. Downrange, Stork Two still flew on, circling back toward the blast site. Looking down, Norton saw at least three sections of the wall had been ripped away. They had been thrown dozens of yards into the desert, where they lay twisted and blackened. More sections of the wall were bowed outward. The homes closest to the blast site were awash with flames. Their roofs had been ripped away, and a parabola of debris filled the streets inside the town. A bombing run from a B-52 wouldn’t have looked much different.

Holy crap…

“Wow…you did some mighty good work there, Mr. Bates,” Jimmo muttered over the intercom.

Bates rose and joined him at the open door. “Just a shame more zombies weren’t in the zone. I would’ve loved a much bigger body count.”

SINGLE TREE: That ZOMPOC Peyton Place Moment

September 14, 2022 Leave a comment

Despite the end of the world, even crusty Barry Corbett has some unfinished personal drama to wind down. As always, this is offered unproofed/edited with no guarantee it will make it into the finished product, etc., etc.

Corbett asked Norton to hang back while the pilots left the conference room, but only after they completely annihilated the food service set out by the mess crew. Corbett expected nothing less; put out something for free, it was going to get wiped out in this day and age.

“So who is she?” Norton asked, the second the door to the conference room closed.

“What, just like that?”

“I saw you, old man. You looked like you’d seen a ghost.”

Corbett snorted at the comment. “I know I didn’t.”

“Uh huh.” Norton’s tone conveyed he felt otherwise.

“Her name is Irene Bannock. Or at least, it was.”

Norton waited for him to continue. When he didn’t, Norton spread his hands and hiked up his brows. “Yeah? And?”

“We were friends before I went to Vietnam,” Corbett said, feeling suddenly old and stupid at having been maneuvered into a conversation he really didn’t want to have. “I didn’t know she was back in Single Tree. While I was overseas, she got involved with the American Indian Movement. AIM. Ever hear of it?”

“Vaguely…indigenous peoples’ movement from the 60s? 70s?”

“It was the 1960s, Hollywood. You don’t remember any of that?”

“Dude, I wasn’t even born until 1975. So you were in Nam, she was with AIM. I’m guessing there’s a lot more to this.”

“She was arrested in 1970, and spent two years in federal prison along with the rest of the knuckleheads she was running with. She was with the group that occupied Mount Rushmore, took over the Mayflower in Boston, even occupied the Bureau of Indian Affairs in DC. That one earned her a fed pen card.” Corbett pantomimed holding up a card and posing for a mug shot.

Norton snickered. “That’s a good one…from the old American Express commercials, right? ‘Do you know me? That’s why I carry the Fed Pen card.’ Mind if I borrow that? If so, consider it stolen.”

“Steal away.”

Norton clasped his hands in front of him and waited. “If this is a long story, Corbett, I need to remind you that while I might have some decades left, you don’t.”

“She’s a couple of years older than me. We were having a clandestine affair back in the 60s. Back then, Anglos and Indians didn’t really intermingle all that much. But we were both a couple of hellions, and we both went off and fought for our people. I know she was a great inspiration to Victor, and she’s also one of the people who got him to cool his jets in the 70s so he didn’t get his own fed pen card. Her word carried a lot of weight with that family.”

Norton’s eyes widened. “She’s related to Victor?”

Corbett nodded. “First cousins. Obviously related to Suzy as well, though they didn’t interact very much. Seems Irene just wanted to be left alone when she came back to Single Tree a few years ago. She laid low.”

“Why?”

Corbett sighed. “Why do you think, Hollywood?”

Norton laughed suddenly and threw himself back in his chair, clapping his hands together. “God damn, we are having a Peyton Place moment!”

Corbett glared at him, trying to control the embarrassment that was now transforming into anger. “No need to be so jubilant here, Norton.”

Norton got himself under control, thinking about the exchange. “So, when you were in Vietnam, she left Single Tree and joined up with AIM?”

“She did.”

“So the two of you lost contact?”

“We did. She also got married to some fellow from the Choctaw. That didn’t seem to last for all that long, but I was never really able to catch up with her again by the time I got back. I had some other things to keep me busy.” Corbett waved his hand around the room, indicating the supertanker at large and, by extension, his empire. “It was pretty clear to me she wouldn’t be interested in getting things back on track between us. Kind of a bad look, an Indian battle priestess hooking up with the true enemy of the people: a white capitalist.”

“You know, we call them Native Americans now.”

“I know that, dumb ass. I also know that you call men who wear dresses women.”

“Well, not me personally—”

“It was a bad joke, Norton. Don’t get all angsty on me.”

Norton shrugged and nodded. “Yeah, okay. So…this lady came back to Single Tree, and no one told you?”

“Norton, no one knew to tell me. I don’t think even Victor knew about us, and for certain, Suzy didn’t.” Corbett sank back in his chair a bit. “I see she still has the stuff to get by. Surrounded by zombies, and she’s growing crops in her family’s old house behind those stone and clay walls. Simply, absolutely amazing to me.”

“But once the walls went up, she must have known you were in town,” Norton pressed.

Corbett stared at him for a long moment. “We didn’t exactly have a fairy-tale ending, Norton. We both went our separate ways and that was that. I’m guessing she knew I was around, even if I didn’t know about her. She stayed away. So that’s that.”

“Well. Everyone’s in luck. A reunion’s about to happen, right? Don’t sweat it, old man. I’ll make sure she gets picked up, even if I have to rappel in myself wearing a Lone Ranger mask to get her out.”

“You?” Corbett turned his chair toward Norton and laughed. “Like I’d send you to do it?”

Norton sobered suddenly. “You know Walt’s not going to let you go, Barry.”

“Walt works for me, not the other way around.”

“I’m sure he knows that, but he also knows that he enjoys his relative largesse through you. You biting the big burrito trying to save an old flame probably isn’t a situation he’s going to welcome with open arms,” Norton said.

“That’s why I’m telling you all this, Norton,” Corbett said. “You’re the snake oil salesman. Sell Lennon on this, so we can all live happily ever after.”

Norton shook his head. “You’re crazy. Lennon barely tolerates me. He’s never going to listen to me, and even if he did? There’s no way I’d be able to sell him on this. I mean, I don’t want you to go, either.”

“Just make sure he understands that I’m going on the mission,” Corbett told him, “and that no isn’t the answer I want to hear.”

SINGLE TREE: Recon

Gary Norton leaves Corbett’s fleet to make an aerial reconnaissance of Single Tree ahead of the rescue operation. Seems the town is in a bit of a mess, and those big expensive walls? They’re part of the problem.

As always, offered unedited and barely proofed, text may or may not appear in the final version.

The helicopters flew down a wide trough, anchored on the high end by Walt’s Point. Hangliders used to launch from here, and ride the thermals down the wide channel. If the conditions were right, they had on occasion made it as far as the highway. Norton knew the local elevation was over three thousand feet, and by the time the helicopters made it to the end of the pass they were now flying straight and level. The highway was dead ahead now, and Norton leaned out into the airstream to examine it. The air was getting warmer, and he estimated the temperature on the ground to be in the low 90s. Highway 395 was a mass of abandoned steel and chrome and fiberglass, all of it coated now with a chalky pall of dust that gleamed weakly in the bright sunlight. The helicopter gently banked to the left, and Norton ducked back inside, hanging on to his handhold. Once the aircraft was paralleling the highway, it leveled out and continued on.

“Okay, we’ll take it nice and slow. About sixty knots or so,” Larouche said. “Single Tree’s dead ahead. Man, Norton…you guys really did put up walls all around the town!”

Norton leaned out the doorway again and faced forward. Sure enough, he saw the tall, metal walls surrounding the town. There was movement on the highway below. Several stenches, clad in only tattered clothing, stood baking in the sun. They turned with the passing helicopters and began shambling after them, joining a race they could never win as they bumbled through the mass of stalled cars and trucks. Norton ignored them and focused on the town.

“Yeah, we sure did,” he said absently, staring at the walls as the helicopters flew closer. From around two thousand feet above the ground, he had a great view of the settlement of Single Tree. There were hundreds if not thousands of zombies still milling about outside the walls, which despite everything still stood tall and secure. As far as he could see at this point, there had been no structural failures. The walls were solid.

For what they were worth…

The S-92s continued on. Norton was shocked to see that weeks later, the stenches were still inside the town. They roamed in slow, sluggish herds that became more active when the helicopters approached. Many of them seemed to be standing about in a trance, doing nothing, as motionless as statues until they sensed the change in the zombies around them. Then they roused, turning their gray-black faces toward the sky, dead, milky eyes tracking the helicopters as they buzzed past. Norton reached into one of the pockets on his flightsuit and pulled out a folded piece of paper. It was a map of the town, where every fortified building was duly noted. Using the map as a reference, he scouted each structure as the helicopters made their slow orbit. The high school was easy to spot, as was the Bi-Mart, which had been overrun in the early hours of the zombies’ mounding attacks. The police and fire stations were surrounded by ghouls, but they didn’t appear to be trying to get inside. From the helicopter, he saw the fans on the roof-mounted air conditioning systems were turning, surrounded by veritable gardens of glass and metal—solar panels, that had been erected prior to the invasion. A good forty or fifty tall poles had been placed throughout the town as well, each wearing a crown of solar panels. Those panels were connected to large battery banks stored in temporary enclosures that served no purpose other than to keep the major effects of the dry, desert weather at bay. The Single Tree municipal building, which had housed the town government, was likewise surrounded by a huge phalanx of zombies that milled about torpidly. Norton knew there were over a hundred people inside, mostly on the building’s second floor. He remembered that night he and Corbett had talked with Victor Kuruk outside the building, after he and Corbett had made their initial pitch to try and save the town. Victor, dressed in his leathers and riding his Harley Davidson, as  regally resplendent as always. Norton felt a lump forming in his throat as he looked down at the twisted remains of his childhood home. He was glad the sun visor hid his eyes from easy inspection. He didn’t want Jimmo to see his rising emotions.

Ah, Victor…

The dog park at the northern end of the town was brown and full of dust, not to mention zombies. The walls had been extended here, to encompass the RV park, where tourists from Los Angeles and Las Vegas would flock during the cooler months to take in the annual town film festival, among other events. There were several recreational vehicles parked there, all lifeless and abandoned. A clutch of ghouls lurking about between the forgotten machines stalked toward Main Street, drawn into action by the sound of whirling rotors slashing at the dry desert air. Some of them were in good shape. They sprinted away from the slower members of the group, eager to hunt, knowing that warm prey was so tantalizingly close, yet so irrecoverably far.

The helicopters banked right and circled toward the eastern side of the town. The crossed over where the two lanes of Main Street fed back into Highway 395. Norton could see his house from this position, its skylights gleaming in the bright daylight. On the other side of town, he spied Corbett’s Santa Fe-style mansion standing behind its low-slung, faux adobe walls. He saw there had been a fire in his neighborhood, where a house had burned down to the ground, blackened timbers reaching for the sky like a demon’s claws. He thought that was Hector Aguilar’s house, which if he recalled correctly had caught on fire. A propane explosion, actually, the sound of which had galvanized the attention of the thousands upon thousands of stenches outside the walls. The noise and smoke and the commotion the two had caused had led to the mounding attacks, where the zombies piled up against the tall defensive walls. Even now, Norton could see the crushed remains of those ghouls who had been unlucky enough to be at the bottom of the piles. They lay, twitching, in great pools of dried black ichor. Still dead, but still moving despite their grievous injuries, where they would lie for eternity.

The Southern Inyo Hospital, which was Single Tree’s lone medical facility, was vacant of anyone living. The dead had claimed it long ago, despite the fortifications. While Norton had lost track of what had actually happened there, he presumed the sick and injured had turned and attacked the shelter from the inside out. He was aware there had been no communications with the anchor team there since just after the stenches came over the wall, but he paid close attention to the structure anyway. The small lawn surrounding the low-slung buildings had long ago turned brown, and the dead staggered across it, tracking the helicopters as they rotored past. The air conditioning intake fans on top of the building were still, moving only with the dry breeze as it whispered past.

As the flight continued on, Norton looked down on the more populated portion of town on the eastern side. This was where the settlement of Single Tree had originated, not far from the boundaries of the Indian reservation that sat between the town and the airport. Mostly houses, but also home to the small California Highway Patrol office, which had been fortified along with the lumber and hardware store, which butted up against the reservation’s territory. Both enclaves were occupied, and their AC units were running amidst the solar panels set up on their roofs.

“Hey, I see something interesting.” Jimmo pointed past Norton. “Look, down there…someone build another set of walls?”

Norton turned and looked in the direction indicated. Not far from the airport fence, he saw a small, rather run down dwelling near the corner where a street…Zucco?…intersected with Teya Road, the boundary road outside the airport. It was surrounded by low-slung walls, maybe eight feet or so tall. Inside the fence, stalks of corn grew. Other vegetables as well. Norton stared at the building, wondering who the hell could still be down there, tending to crops. This was the reservation side, and he wasn’t particularly familiar with it.

As he watched, someone shuffled out of the house. At first, Norton thought it was just another zombie and his heart sank. It was ridiculous, to think that someone might have survived this long without any real fortifications. But the majority of the zombies in this area were clustered around the airport, which made sense. They’d doubtless been drawn to it when Corbett’s big Gulfstream had lifted off, its engines louder than thunder.

The shuffling figure looked toward the passing helicopters. Stooped over, using a cane to walk, wearing what looked to be a long skirt and a faded denim shirt. White hair that was pulled back from her face, Norton could see it was an old woman. An old Indian woman.

She waved up at the helicopters, and Norton’s heart leaped. “Larouche, we have a live one!”

“Roger, I see,” the pilot replied.

“We need to pull her out. She doesn’t have any protection down there!”

“Negative on that, Norton,” the pilot replied. “The best thing we can do is get the hell away from her. See those stenches across the street from her house? They’ll crash those walls before we can hoist her out, and there’s not enough space to land to pick her up.”

Norton was jostled as Garcia wedged himself in between him and Jimmo. “Hey, I can rope out and grab her,” he said. “We can get Browning to provide cover fires from the other helicopter. If I can get her on top of that house, you can hover over it and we can hoist up at the same time. Right?”

“We’re not here to rescue anyone, guys,” Larouche said. “I’m sorry, but this is recon only. We start setting up on that house, we’ll blow the old lady’s cover right away. Best thing is for us to keep on going.”

Norton waved back at the woman frantically, motioning for her to get back into her house and get out of sight. He had no idea who she was, or how she had survived all this time. As she faded from view as the helicopter passed the house, he stared at his map. He found the corner. Teya Road and Pa Ha Vitch Road. He’d never been there as far as he could recall, but he was suddenly extremely interested in paying a visit.

“This sucks, man,” Garcia said. “It looks like an old lady, and she’s all alone.”

“I hear you, but there’s nothing we can do for her right now,” Larouche said. “I don’t like it either, but we can’t extract her right this second. Norton, you know who that might be?”

“No idea,” Norton said. “She’s on the reservation though, so she’s definitely Paiute-Shoshone. No Anglos or Latinos live there, it’s federal land. She might not know a single person in Single Tree.”

“Right. We’ll have to add this to the plan somehow. Coming up on the airport now. Pay attention guys, this is where most of our people are.”

The Single Tree airport had been modernized to large degree in the years leading up to the emergency, mostly at the behest of Corbett who wanted to drop in on his personal Gulfstream G650 jet. Part of the modifications had been the construction of new hangars, one of which was big enough to house Corbett’s aircraft. Norton had parked his own plane in the second hangar, next to the parking tie down area, so he knew the layout like the back of his hand. The problem was the approaches to the airport were literally clogged with zombies inside the walls—thousands upon thousands of them. They were pressed up tight against the hangars, not because they were trying to get inside but because the walls had channeled them in that direction. Once they surged in, lured by the sounds of jet aircraft powering up and getting out, they were too stupid to reverse course. So the majority of the zombie presence in Single Tree was now bottled up at the airport. This would complicate extracting the hundreds of people in the hangars; by the time the first helicopter was loaded up, the stenches would start their mounding attack.

“Sure is a lot of dead down there,” Jimmo said, shaking his head.

“We can’t start the operation down here,” Garcia said. “We’ll have to start up north, and move down. Maybe a lot of these things’ll clear out when they hear us coming in to the high school.”

“Which doesn’t sound like a great thing,” Larouche said. “Okay, we’ll make another orbit. I’m going to circle wider this time, to try and give the old lady some breathing room. I don’t want her coming out again and catch some stench’s attention.”

“Big of you,” Norton said.

“Kiss my ass, guy. I’m doing what I can do,” Larouche shot back. “It’s my decision. You’re just along for the ride.”

The flight of helicopters made another pass around the town, this time increasing their orbit by about a thousand feet. The zombies still reacted to the sounds of the aircraft, surging this way and that in an utterly ridiculous attempt to capture them—some even reached for the S-92s, as if they might somehow be able to pull them from the sky. Norton was unnerved by the sight. The stenches were truly mindless, but their dedication to feeding on human flesh was unparalleled.

“Okay, we’re done,” Larouche said after the second orbit. “If we’re going to make it back to the boat before nightfall, we have to boogie now. Norton, anything else you need to see?”

Norton regarded his map again, then pulled a pen from his pocket and circled the corner where he had seen the old woman. “I think I’m good.”

“Then get back to your seat. We’re light enough that we can climb and maintain twelve thousand five, which means we can make a straight shot over the mountains. Jimmo, make sure everyone gets back to their seat and straps in, then button us up. We’re out of here.”

Norton returned to his seat and after shedding his rifle and buckling up, raised his visor and stared at the map. He was mystified how an old Indian woman could have survived all that had transpired, and why she hadn’t moved to a shelter with the rest of the people. But he knew he had to look into this further when he got back to the Pride of South Texas, and the first person he’d look for would be none other than Suzy Kuruk.

Jimmo slid the entry door closed and pulled on it to ensure it was secure, then began making his rounds of the passenger compartment. The FARP team was still in their seats, as was Garcia. He was already starting to nod off, doubtless lulled to sleep by the drone of the turboshaft engines above them.

Norton reached for his bag beneath the seat and pulled it out. He unzipped it and removed the satellite phone from one pocket and switched it on. It took a while for it to negotiate with the satellite network, but after a minute or so it was connected.

“Hey, Larouche…any problem if I use my satphone? I want to send a text message back to the fleet.”

“Shouldn’t mess us up if it’s an approved device,” the pilot replied.

“It’s an Iridium 9575. That help?”

“If you can send data to the boat, you go right ahead, Mr. Norton.”

Norton quickly typed out a message, his thumbs flying across the handset’s keypad. The message would be delivered to the Argosy, where Danielle and Martin would be able to receive it.

Recon complete. Coming back now. Saw old woman on corner of Teya and Pa Ha Vitch. Still alive. Reach out to Suzy K or Barry to see if they know her. ETA four hours.

SINGLE TREE: Don’t Count On It

Things in the overrun town of Single Tree, California start to look up…Barry Corbett has a plan, and he’s still up for the challenge! (As always, the following text is in first draft condition, unedited, no guarantee of it appearing in the final release, yadda-yadda-yadda…)

So now on the eighth day of being trapped in the hangar, Victoria roused herself and slowly clambered to her feet. She wore new clothes—a more military look than she would have preferred, with baggy utilities hanging off her slender frame. Men and women stirred in the gloom, transitioning from fitful sleep to equally uncomfortable wakefulness. There was little to look forward to during the coming day, except to survive. The usual routines would follow: relieve themselves, eat, conduct maintenance, sanitation, and security checks, inventory supplies, those who were scheduled to bathe would do so at dusk. Victoria had showered the night before.

She helped with the food prep, working alongside Raoul Salcedo and Jason Donner. Raoul had been teaching her the ins and outs of cooking mass meals. While a great deal of the supplies on hand were of the freeze-dried variety, Corbett’s people also had a suitable stock of perishable goods that they were slowly plowing through. They’d even brought in a walk-in cooler, where the fruits and vegetables were stored. The cooler was at best half-full now. In another week, it would be empty. She didn’t contemplate that closely. There was already enough disappointment and despair to go around. Once the freeze-dried supplies ran out, then things would be taking a definite turn for the worse. There was no way to venture outside and search for additional supplies.

Because the zombies weren’t leaving.

She’d caught glimpses of them while checking the solar panels on the roof, keeping as low as she could to remain out of their sight. Even though they only surveyed the panel status at night, the moonlight was enough to reveal the hordes that lingered about. They knew their prey was close by, but even though several of them had watched the humans enter the structures and seal them up, the dead just milled about outside. The general consensus was the horde hunted primarily by sight and sound. As long as the townspeople and their protectors remained out of sight and refrained from making extraneous noise, the buildings would remain unmolested.

But no one forgot the multitudes of dead cresting over the town’s tall walls. None of the townspeople or their surviving Native American neighbors took their safety for granted any longer. Despite the small army of riflemen who supported them, in a full-on fight, the dead would win.

As the food prep got underway, the men with the guns—they were almost all former Marines, she’d learned—conducted their daily communications checks. Every shelter was equipped with radios, and the hangar was the nominal command post. Everyone reported their status to an older man named Rossi. He dutifully collected all the relevant information and would pass that on to the rest of his team during their morning meeting. This morning though, Rossi seemed more upbeat as he mumbled into his headset. From where she stood in the makeshift kitchen area, Victoria saw that he was actually almost smiling.

She nudged Jason in the side as he stirred up a big steel bowl of eggs. “Yeah, what?” he asked. His voice was raspy and his face was taciturn. He had run out of cigarettes some days ago, and he had been a general snap-ass ever since.

“Rossi looks like someone’s asking him out on a date,” Victoria told him.

Jason glanced over. From this distance, it was probably hard for him to tell what was going on, so he just shrugged. “Good for him.”

Victoria shrugged to herself and went back to chopping onions, peppers, and cold bacon as Raoul grated a big chunk of nearly-frozen cheese. She kept glancing over at the senior defender as he worked the radios, receiving and giving information. A few of his men drifted over to him, perhaps sensing his oddly upbeat mood. He waved them off until he was done with his task.

The armed defenders had their usual meeting while Victoria and the others finished up the food. Omelettes, French toast, breakfast burritos with salsa, cold cereal. The hot dishes went fast; everyone knew the fresh goods were disappearing, so they lined up for those and mostly ignored the boxes of cereal. When the defenders’ meeting broke up, most of them had a bounce to their step Victoria had never seen before. Certainly not since the town had fallen victim to the zombie hordes.

What the hell is going on? she asked herself. She asked several of the guards, but they just shook their heads and told her she’d know when Rossi decided.

She didn’t have long to wait. Right after breakfast, Rossi stood on his desk at the far side of the hangar and motioned everyone closer. He was a tall, bony kind of man with short hair the color of steel and blunt features that closely resembled a toad’s—wide-set eyes beneath a heavy brow, flat nose, broad mouth, and sloping chin.

“Okay, folks…we have some news to kick off the day,” he said, raising his hands as he motioned the crowd to silence. “We’ve all been through a lot, and we’ve all lost almost everything we ever had. But today? Today’s the day I can let you in on something. You see, for the past couple of weeks, Mister Corbett and a few of our guys have been getting plan B into shape. A couple of hundred miles offshore, Corbett has several ships at sea…tankers, freighters, what have you. They’ve been moved closer to the vicinity of Santa Rosa Island, off the coast of Los Angeles. Those ships are well-armed, well-stocked, and can survive for at least a year on the water. And I’m told there’s room for a couple of thousand people.”

“Sounds awesome, but what the hell does that have to do with us?” someone asked. “We’re in the Mojave Desert, man.”

Rossi appeared unperturbed by the interruption. “I’m getting to that. Also attached to this fleet are fourteen helicopters. Big helicopters, that can fly long range,” he said. “With those, they’ll be able to haul us out of here, building by building. It’ll be risky, but there’s no way around that. Starting in about four days, weather permitting, they’ll be coming for us. We’re getting out of here, ladies and gentlemen…and that’s the news of the day.”

Victoria’s heart leaped at the news. Jimmy had drifted over to her during Rossi’s rapid-fire delivery, and she grabbed him and held him tight. He didn’t react much, other than to pat her on the back. Ever since they’d made it to the hangar, he’d become a different boy. He was no longer the incubating jock goofball she’d grown up with. Now he was distant, almost aloof.

“We’re getting out,” she told him. “We’re going to make it.”

Jimmy shook his head slowly. His black hair was starting to grow out already, and his unkempt mop of dark tresses made him seem somehow older.

“Don’t count on it,” he said.

THE RETREAT 6: Warthogs

From The Retreat 6: Forlorn Hope, available now!

“Where are you taking me?” Courtney Moreau demanded. She couldn’t see anything, couldn’t hear anything, likely couldn’t smell anything beneath the facial armor she wore. But she was doubtless aware of the troops passing her from one to the other. No one was very gentle about it. They knew who she was, and they knew what she’d done.

“Shut the fuck up, you nasty bitch,” Campbell snarled, launching a swift kick into Moreau’s narrow ass as the FBI agents led her past.

“Dude, she can’t hear you,” Muldoon told her. “Save that shit for the Klowns.”

“That’s enough!” Rawlings was on her in an instant, slamming Campbell’s smaller frame against the bowed, cracked concrete wall that led into the bunker. “Stop that shit, Campbell! Just stop it!”

“What the fuck’s up with you?” Campbell snarled back. She tried to push back against Rawlings, but the taller woman responded immediately, shoving her back against the wall and then slamming her body against hers.

“She is the fucking cure, you dumb bitch,” Rawlings snarled behind her mask. “Messing her up now only screws up everyone else!”

“Get the fuck off me!” Campbell raged.

“Yeah, yeah, get off her, Rawlings.” Muldoon reached out and grabbed a hold of Rawlings’s shoulder. He held her hard as Moreau was passed down the line, and he knew he was putting enough iron into the grip to make it hurt. Like GI Joe’s Kung Fu Grip on Malibu Barbie’s tit.

Rawlings shrugged him off after a moment, eyes glaring at him behind the lenses of her mask. Muldoon spread his hands.

“Can’t have the two of you going at it right now,” he said to her as well as Campbell. “Both of you cool your jets. We gotta protect this bitch until Big Army takes her off our hands, and then we’re done with her.” Muldoon dusted off his hands to make his point. “Any questions on the hows and the whys, ladies?”

Campbell shook her head, still glowering at Rawlings. Rawlings didn’t look at her, just kept her eyes locked on Muldoon. For his part, Muldoon sighed behind his mask and readjusted the lay of his rifle.

“Y’know, I want to ice her too,” he said. “But we can’t. She’s the key to whatever the fuck is going on, so she stays upright and vertical. Even if it means we get sacked, we gotta protect the nut job.”

“It’s a fuckin’ bag of dicks,” Campbell snapped.

“Two of ‘em,” Muldoon said.

“Fucking ton of them,” Rawlings added.

“Yeah. The more, the merrier, right?” Muldoon asked.

“So how long we gotta stay down here?” Campbell looked around the stairwell they were in. Powdered cement covered the floor, and the stairwell walls were cracked. The underground structure had been intentionally targeted; the building overhead was essentially a pile of rubble. That a small passageway had been dug through the debris at all was something of a minor miracle. Apparently, the door to the bunker had been discovered in a void inside the collapsed operations building. It had been half-torn from its hinges from what looked like a couple of two thousand pound bombs. It wasn’t a blast door, but just a metal fire door. Apparently, no one had decided to replace it with something more robust after the Cold War ended. It was a mixed blessing. If it had been replaced, getting into the bunker below might have required demolition work they weren’t really in a position to conduct. But with the original door being at least partially destroyed, it offered very little in the way of security and protection. They would have to live with that, and part of the survival process meant that lightfighters would have to stand guard in the stairway, which offered little in the way of sightlines and nothing by way of sanitary conveniences. Muldoon knew that when it was his turn to stand perimeter security, the Klowns would attack right as he tried to take a dump in a personal waste bag.

The rest of the bunker wasn’t in top shape, either. One of the exploding bombs had generated enough force to partially collapse the subterranean structure. While there was no chance an attacker could enter through the collapse, it had effectively rendered the bunker’s nuclear, biological, and chemical resistance to around zero. If the area was saturated with the new bug variant, it would be able to find its way inside the bunker. Everyone inside would either go full-on Klown, or would be killed by those who did. It was a sucker’s choice to use it, but the truth of the matter was it would keep Moreau out of sight and certainly more protected from combat. And everyone knew combat was on the menu. There was no way the Klowns would let the battalion pass through their lines without a fight, and once they determined they had Moreau? It would become a complete slaughter. Keeping her hidden was the only thing to do for the time being.

“You guys will be here for four hours,” Muldoon answered finally. “Afterwards, you’ll be relieved—probably by me and someone else.” He pointed down the stairway, where another door—this one a standard fire door as well—stood closed. “The FBI folks will stay with Moreau directly. You don’t have to look at her anymore, at least not until it’s time to pull out.”

“Or we get overrun,” Rawlings said.

Muldoon nodded. “Or until we get overrun. Right, keep up the happy thoughts, babe.”

Rawlings clucked her tongue and tossed her head. Muldoon smiled behind his mask. God, how she hated that…and how he loved it. He looked back at Campbell.

“Campbell, you cool?”

“What the fuck you think, man?”

“I think you’re my replacement for Nutter,” Muldoon said. “We need a new mascot, and you’re almost his size.”

“Also twice the man he was,” Campbell replied. “Don’t be saluting me from your crotch, now. Otherwise I’ll rip that little dingus out by the roots.”

Muldoon grabbed his crotch. “Well, that’s true. It’s only two inches…” He paused for dramatic effect. “From the floor.”

Campbell rolled her eyes. “Sure thing, Sergeant. I’ll be sure to pass that on to the next sharpie I see.” SHARP was the acronym for the Army’s Sexual Harassment/Assault Response and Prevention program, and those who implemented its mission were known as sharpies. Like most quality-of-life initiatives undertaken by the military, it was more of a joke than anything else.

“Well, then. I’ll be sure to wear a cup,” Muldoon said.

“Maybe a thimble’s enough for you,” Campbell countered. She grabbed at the apex of her own thighs, aping Muldoon’s vulgar motion. “Try not to get all bruised up while banging around in there.”

Muldoon snickered. Despite the fact she was a wild child, Campbell had it all going on. “Fuck, girl. All bullshit aside, I gotta say, I like your style.”

“Only cuz you got no style, white man. Trust me, I can tell a player when I see one.”

Muldoon pointed at her. “You? You and me, we’re gonna run hot shit in Valhalla, sis. Big Army missed out on you, letting you hang with the Guard.” He held out his left fist. “Bump me.”

Campbell looked at Muldoon as if he was an alien life form, then slowly extended her own left hand. One bump, right hand on her rifle. As it should have been.

“You don’t know shit about me,” she said.

Muldoon leaned in. “But I know enough.”

Campbell drew back a bit, but at the last moment, her fingers wrapped around his thick wrist. She didn’t say anything. Neither did Muldoon, though he felt the emotion rising in his chest. Campbell was a hundred and ten percent shit kicker. Didn’t need the National Action Network to campaign for her. She’d stack ’em tall and high, no matter what.

He reached up and pulled off his hood and mask and let them flop down beside him. He reached out and grabbed her shoulders and held her there, looking at her with his pale Anglo-Saxon eyes. “I get where you come from,” he said. “I get what you’ve been through. Sis, you’re one of us. You ride tall in that saddle, and shit’s going to work out for you. You might not be a lightfigher, but you’re a hundred percent warrior class. Hooah?”

Campbell raised her left hand. “Yeah. Whatever the fuck. You going Klown on me?”

Muldoon barked out a laugh and slapped her shoulder as he pulled away and reached for his mask. “You fucking wish, asswipe. I’m the guy who gets to give you orders.” He slipped on his hood and then the full face mask. As he tugged it tight, he looked from Campbell to Rawlings. “You two keep shit tight for the next four hours. And if everything works out…I’ll see you later. If not…” He shrugged. “Get ready to zero anyone who comes down these stairs, you bitches.”

Rawlings made to retort, but a rumble from outside caught Muldoon’s attention. He listened to it for a scant second before turning and charging up the stairs.

“Stay here!” he bellowed.

He emerged into the late afternoon day, rifle tucked in. Scanned left to right. Other lightfighters were suddenly making themselves small, slithering up to anything that could give them at least concealment cover as the rumble became a banshee-like roar. Muldoon recognized the furor immediately. A-10s. Warthogs, on the prowl. The question was, who were they hunting?

Through the clouds overhead he caught the glimpse of a flight of four venerable attack aircraft darting past, their pylon mounted engines literally screaming as the big turbofans sucked in a half ton of air every second, added fuel to the mix, then compressed it hard enough to detonate and power their second stage fans. Muldoon understood the principle behind jet-powered flight—suck, squeeze, bang, blow—and the aircraft that best exhibited this cycle sonically was the A-10 Thunderbolt II…better known as the Warthog, or more simply, the Hog or the Pig. Straight-winged iron crosses. A soldier’s best friend.

The attack jets sped past, and the cloud’s consumed them like some ethereal monster. Muldoon couldn’t see them, but he heard them easily enough. Listened to their engines throttle up as they pulled out of shallow dives, arcing up and away from their targets while transferring energy to the bombs under their wings. That sonic scream, which had been at a rumbling idle only a moment ago, raging into a full-on shriek that he knew so well. Hogs doing what they did best—turn enemy formations into nothing but their most basic components.

Fuck, they’re attacking targets—

A moment later, he felt more than heard the bombs go off. A dull rumble that hit him in the chest as if he was watching a movie in the old Sensurround format, causing him to be momentarily short of breath as the sound waves caressed him for a brief moment. And atop that, the sounds of harpies screaming as the Warthogs climbed out at full military power. He didn’t hear the telltale farting noise of the A-10’s GAU-8 thirty-millimeter cannons; they’d elected to use suppression weapons instead, likely five hundred or seven hundred and fifty pound high explosive bombs. That told him the Hogs had engaged troops in open territory. The thirty-millimeter was primarily for use against armored vehicles, not that it couldn’t turn ten or twenty dismounted foot soldiers into just so much bloody goo. But Muldoon figured the depleted uranium rounds were probably hard to come by, so they wouldn’t be used unless absolutely necessary.

“What the fuck was that?” Campbell asked.

“A-10s, sounds like,” Muldoon said. “Vacation’s over, girls. Time to get back to doing what we need to do.”

“Business as usual,” Rawlings said.

Muldoon nodded. “Yep. Stack ‘em high, stack ‘em deep.”

Join the adventure!

THE RETREAT 6: FORLORN HOPE Released!

May 19, 2022 1 comment

Happy to report that, at long…long…long last, The Retreat 6: Forlorn Hope is available for purchase on Amazon. It’s the last hurrah for the 1st Battalion, 55th Infantry (Light) as they valiantly plow on toward Florida while Marian Gray’s Klown forces pursue…and overtake.

Bound forward with Harry Lee, Major Walker, Sergeant Andy “Duke” Muldoon, Rawlings, and all the rest in the frantic, highly kinetic finale!

THE RETREAT 6: Damn Dirty Apes

March 7, 2022 1 comment

Over the racket of evacuating troops, Muldoon heard sounds from the engagement area before him. Shrieks. Guffaws. Cackles. He took a quick moment to look out past his fighting position. Every runway had been decimated, torn to shreds. Beyond that, the landscape had been thoroughly rearranged. Trees had been disintegrated, their shredded leaves still floating in the air, many of them trailing embers. No fewer than eight deep craters dotted the landscape. He’d seen similar impact points before, in Afghanistan. The Taliban had been stupid then, believing that bombs never landed in the same place. They’d used craters as attack points, only to be severely disappointed when more munitions landed right on their positions.

Muldoon let out his breath in a slow rush. He’d had—and somehow managed to survive—ringside streets to multiple attacks from two thousand pound bombs. Given the lack of visibility, they must have been JDAMs…satellite-guided munitions that could strike within three feet of the attack point. They’d landed between six hundred and eight hundred yards away. It was a miracle he was still alive.

Muldoon grunted as he was suddenly slapped across the face. Riggs was before him then, lips curled away from his teeth.

“Get your element back to Alpha! There’s really nothing to see here, Sergeant!” he bellowed, probably because he was half-deaf himself. “Go! Go!”

Muldoon internally disagreed. Seeing the landscape surrounding Moody Air Force Base so significantly remodeled seemed like something he should take a moment to contemplate, but he didn’t have time to debate that with Riggs. Instead, he rounded up the remains of his squad and ushered them out of the engagement area. He heard the approaching rumble of jet engines, and his bowels suddenly felt watery. The zoomies were launching again, and he knew for a fact they didn’t give a fuck that Army pukes were in the zone. The next engagement would be closer to the battalion’s forward line, which meant they needed to get the fuck out of Dodge—and right now.

“Come on, you fucking apes!” Muldoon shouted, perhaps more out of instinct and the emotion of the moment. There was no reason for him to hearken back to World War I, after all—no one knew they were going to live forever. These weren’t the trenchlines in France; this was Georgia, and at this point, all the lightfighters knew they were living on borrowed time.

Now it was time for the battalion to start paying interest on the loan.

THE RETREAT 6: Missed Deadline

August 26, 2021 8 comments

Well, this is monumentally embarrassing. Due to some rather odd circumstances in life, I’ve been stuck at the 80% mark on this book and have not been able to finish it. I did push back the release date and in normal times, would have been able to meet the revised date. Regrettably, that’s not how it’s going to work out this time.

So, at around 8:00PM EST today, the pre-sale for The Retreat 6: Forlorn Hope will be automatically canceled by Amazon.

This is entirely my fault, and has nothing to do with Craig DiLouie. I’m not going to forecast a release date at this time, but here’s hoping it’ll be sooner rather than later.

A thousand apologies, folks.

Categories: Writing