Been lying low in the trenches as of late, but managed to churn out the final part of THESE DEAD LANDS: IMMOLATION to the tune of over 180,000 words, which is one fat book. Scott Wolf is interested in halving it, which would keep print production costs down. I’m considering it, but we haven’t made a final determination yet.
As of now, the product has been proofed by the erstwhile Dianna Cox, and it’s currently in the able hands of Lynn McNamee, who is my editor of choice, since she’s ex-Army and isn’t put off by acronyms and military maneuvers in general. She’s also direct and to the point, which is something I like. For those of you who have read the works of Keith Blackmore, she has done many of his titles as well. I anticipate the product being returned to me within a week’s time, after which we’ll import the corrections. Scott and I will gather around and do a final salience review and whatever rewrites are indicated, and then it will go back to Lynn for a second once-over and final proof. Without having seen the first edits yet, I don’t know how much work lies in store for us, but I remain optimistic for an April release. The tremendously talented Marc Lee continues to work out the cover, and I present his latest work for your perusal here.
That’s all for now, other than to mention I’ll have a flurry of releases coming up, along with IMMOLATION: THE LAST TOWN #3, DEAD IN THE CITY OF ANGELS, with Jarret Liotta, and the post-EMP adventure story CHARGES, which will eventually pave the way for its sequel, RAVAGERS. And near the end of the year, EARTHFALL 2 should trundle across the post-nuclear landscape, bringing Andrews, Mulligan, Leona, Laird, Jordello, and some new SCEV team members into contact with one of the last bastions of human society. Don’t worry–Rachel Andrews gets left in Harmony this time.
And, of course, THE RETREAT series is in motion again, with Joe McKinney doing his magic as I write this, and Craig DiLouie has already plotted release #4.
Custom cover art this time to kick off a new series. Hastings and the troops from 10th Mountain catch a ride out of hell. This is just a mock-up, not nearly finished, but you should get the general idea. +1 for having CH-47F Chinooks!
Usual caveats apply–first draft material, unedited, no guarantee what you read here will appear in the finished product.
While it had all the makings of a great morning, Guerra, Reader, and Stilley were sweating their balls off. Despite the chirping birds in the trees surrounding them and the expanse of the Swatara Creek flowing past practically at their feet, the summer morning was already a steamer—hot, humid, and miserable. To make matters worse, the close proximity to the creek was exposing the soldiers to a horde of hungry mosquitos. Guerra hadn’t thought to put on any bug spray, a vexing oversight that was probably going to cost him a pint of blood before the day was over. He was also concerned about the virus that reanimated the dead—could it be transferred by mosquitos? As far as he knew, mosquitos didn’t try and feed off the dead, but what if one had fed on an infected person who hadn’t died yet, and then landed on him to top off its tank?
Fuck. You’d think after yesterday’s op, I’d have the day off, or at least light duty. But nooooo, I have to unass from the Gap and come out here to block a freaking one-lane bridge.
The day’s operation involved blocking the far end of the antique bridge that crossed the Swatara Creek. The span was part of the fabled Appalachian Trail, and the placard at the top of the bridge’s iron trestle proclaimed the structure had been erected by the Berlin Iron Bridge Company, out of East Berlin, Connecticut. Guerra thought that was a little funny, a place in Connecticut called East Berlin. A lot of former Stasi probably had vacation homes there.
Usually, it was preferable to block a bridge on the far side. But since the Swatara Bridge was so narrow, there was no chance of getting a container across it to serve as a barricade. So they would set up on the near side, and finish it off with HESCO barriers and razor wire. More containers would be set up on the roadway behind the bridge—Pennsylvania Route 72 was definitely a fast approach corridor, though it was quite minor compared to the huge expanse of Interstate 78 that Ballantine and the One-Oh-Worst were securing. Guerra, Reader, and Stilley were hanging out with a group of Pennsylvania Army National Guard guys, who would be securing the bridge approach, Route 72, and another bridge a mile or so downrange, called simply the Iron Bridge. Whereas the Swatara Bridge was more or less a pedestrian crossing, the Iron Bridge actually allowed for vehicular traffic. Guerra doubted they would be able to secure all the crossings before nightfall, but the Guard guys seemed ready to give it a try.
So let them, he said to himself.
“Boy, this heat sure does suck, Staff Sergeant,” Stilley brayed.
“Yeah,” was all Guerra said. The heat bothered him too, but the mosquitoes bothered him more. He slapped another one on his neck, and stared at the speck of blood in the center of his palm. He sighed, shook his head, and looked up at the National Guard captain in charge of the element hurried over. He was a wide-eyed sort, older than Guerra had expected given his rank, but that was to be expected in the Guard.
“Staff Sergeant Guerra, how are you doing?” the captain asked.
“Hanging in there, sir,” Guerra said. “You guys sure have a lot of mosquitoes around here, huh?”
The captain didn’t smile. “I was wondering if you wouldn’t mind overseeing the wire placements on the banks of the creek,” he said.
“No problem, sir,” Guerra replied, fighting hard to keep the acid out of his voice. “Happy to do it. Uh, one question—how deep is the water?”
The captain seemed confused by the question. “The Swattie? Uh, it’s about three to four feet in places, but there are others where it’s only a foot or so. Why?”
“Well, sir, if it’s that shallow, then it’s not really going to be much of a barrier,” Guerra said. “Maybe we should layer the defenses a bit more. Maybe with something more active, like a few lines of claymores daisy-chained together.” Before jumping out, he and Ballantine had discussed mounting claymores on the containers themselves, elevated up at head height to increase the chances they would actually kill any approaching hordes. While the weapons worked great at reducing the force of usual attackers, zombies wouldn’t care much about limb or body damage. Unless their brains were destroyed, they would just keep coming, and Ballantine had theorized the mines might be more effective if elevated. Of course, that would mean they’d need to be mounted on sandbagged revetments—even the heavy CONEX units wouldn’t be able to absorb the back-blast of an M18 Claymore Antipersonnel Mine going off without being dinged up something bad.
“Claymores,” the captain said.
“Yes, sir. Claymores,” Guerra said. “And I see that we have a lot of SAWs and the like for gunning down the dead when they get into range, but we might want to amp that up a bit, too. We have any sniper weapons? Any fifty cals we could use?”
“You mean like the anti-material weapons?” the captain asked.
“Yes, sir. Anything that can reach out over long distances, and put the zap on the reekers before they get in range of the rest of our weapons. Trust me, sir, you don’t want these things walking up on you in a mass attack. It’s not pretty.”
The captain waved at the CONEX container, still on the lowboy trailer behind them. “We’ll have those to protect us,” he said.
Reader snorted from nearby. “Yeah, that’s going to do a lot, sir.”
The captain turned to Reader. “What do you mean by that, soldier?”
Reader looked at the Guard officer with a dull expression. Guerra sighed again. The soldier still hadn’t bounced back from nailing that woman out on the road, and he wondered just what the hell Reader’s problem was. He’d made a mistake, and while Guerra didn’t diminish its horrible importance, it had been just that: a mistake. Reader would have to find his way past it, or he was going to wind up being more trouble than he was worth.
“What he means is, sir, we shouldn’t be depending on static defenses entirely,” Guerra said. “The things we’re used to deploying during normal combat operations aren’t really very effective against the dead. We should all be reading from the same page at this point. Yes, the containers are going to give us elevation and provide a barrier that the dead are unlikely to be able to get around, but once an entire horde walks up to it, it’s not like they’ll just be standing there waiting to get shot. They’ll eventually break down the wires, and when that happens, the guys on top of the containers will be trapped. They might not get eaten, but they could starve to death.” He slapped another mosquito. “Or drained of all their blood by the God damn bugs,” he added.
“Okay,” the captain said.
Guerra could see the guy still didn’t get it. “So we’d want weapons that can reach out and start diminishing their numbers before they get to us, sir. Anything we can do to reduce the threat before it’s standing right on our front doorstep would be great. Hell, I’d even put mortars up on a container—mortars won’t kill all of them, they’ll kill some, and reduce their overall effectiveness.”
“So you want mortars and anti-material weapons,” the captain said.
Guerra nodded. “And claymores. And while SAWs are nice and all, I’d rather see M2s up there, as well.”
The captain looked over Guerra’s shoulder, where the rest of the troops were setting about offloading the first container and the rest of the materials they would be putting out over the course of the day. The guy looked overwhelmed, which bugged Guerra to no end. The world hadn’t just ended yesterday; it had been in a power skid for months. In his mind, the Pennsylvania Army National Guard captain shouldn’t be surprised by anything Guerra had just said. Then it hit him: the captain was thinking they were going to be able to hold out. Guerra had to chuckle at that. This guy had no idea what was headed their way.
The captain’s eyes snapped back to Guerra, and he stiffened. “What’s so funny, Staff Sergeant?”
Guerra hadn’t realized he’d quietly laughed aloud. “Sorry, sir. Was just thinking of something that had happened last night with one of the civilians staying with us,” he said quickly. “Nothing related to what’s going on here.”
“Hook up with the soldiers handling the wire, and take over that detail,” the captain said, a snappish quality in his voice. “We’ll need wire on both sides of the bridge.”
“Yes, sir,” Guerra said.
The captain spun on his heel and walked away. Guerra grunted to himself and shifted the set of his M4 while looking over at Reader and Stilley.
“Hey, you didn’t really handle him all that well, Sergeant G,” Stilley observed.
“We’re working for the truly clueless out here,” Reader said.
“Hey, Mike. You need to get yourself under control,” Guerra said. “Move past what happened, okay? Stay with us, man. We need you.”
Reader looked at Guerra, the irritation plain on his face. “You think I’m not hauling my weight, Sergeant Guerra?”
“That’s not what I mean, but you’re letting what happened out on the road eat you up inside, man,” Guerra said. “You have to work that out. That’s all I’m saying.”
Reader didn’t respond.
Guerra took the opportunity to spin toward Stilley. “But you, you’re still a douche bag, you lazy piece of shit. I want you out in that creek getting wet when we’re placing the wire, and I want you to try and refrain from splashing any water under your arms. We might wind up having to drink from the creek one day, and the last thing I want is for your rancid pits to make the water poisonous, you understand?”
“Hey, I can’t help it if I sweat, Sergeant,” Stilley said. “It’s hot as a Turkish bathhouse out here!”
“I won’t ask how you know anything about Turkish bathhouses, Stilley. But if you get any riper, you’re going to be classified as a biological hazard. I just wish the dead were put off by your pits—then I’d hang you at the end of this bridge and watch the reekers try to run all the way back to New York.”
“You know, Sergeant G, this is making for a very hostile work environment,” Stilley said.
Guerra grunted. “Tell me about it. Okay, guys, let’s get to work.”
And I hope everyone had a Merry Christmas!
In this excerpt, Captain Hastings, Sergeant First Class Ballantine, and the rest of the lightfighters find an abandoned farm house in rural New York State. Setting up the civilians they have with them, the troops bed down for the night while Hastings tries to keep himself from coming unglued.
There wasn’t much that could be done to harden the old farm house beyond blocking the windows and barricading the doors. They tossed the dead dog out into one of the fields—they didn’t want to take the time to bury it, even though its stench could serve to lure the dead onto the premises—but Hastings and Ballantine both felt that if they kept all signs the property was inhabited to a minimum, then the reekers would move on. They didn’t exhibit a remarkable ability to determine exactly where their prey might be, beyond sight and sound and, it was logical to presume, smell. Even though the reekers were clinically dead, it was obvious they still respired to a degree, as they could make various vocalizations. Whether this meant they could smell or not, Hastings didn’t know for sure, but he thought it was safe to presume they did.
Kay Ballantine and her kids set about cleaning the kitchen as well as they could in the fading light. Diana and the autistic boy (“His name is Kenny,” she had informed Hastings) stayed in the living room. The boy wore only a pull-up diaper, and his narrow chest and arms gleamed with a pale luminescence in the dwindling light that managed to penetrate the dingy curtains. He was beginning to exhibit some signs of stress, muttering to himself in a sing-song voice while he stared at his right hand and flexed his fingers. Hastings worried about that. They had inspected the boy’s injuries as well as they could, and he had definitely been sodomized—something that left Hastings feeling a useless kind of fury, even though he had left the boy’s attackers to a miserable fate. His injuries did not appear to be very severe, but they would cause him discomfort for the next few days. He was reasonably certain Kenny would get good medical care at Fort Indiantown Gap. If the National Guard post was still there, of course.
But now, he was becoming concerned that the boy might start acting out. He had no real experience dealing with children afflicted with autism, but he was aware that they could be incredibly uncooperative, and that could be problematic, in the extreme. While he didn’t want to reduce the boy to a tactical inconvenience, the thing was, remaining covert and not attracting attention was one of the keys to the group’s continued survival. If the boy started screaming and crying, things could fly right off the rails.
Hastings knelt by the pair was they sat on the couch. The boy leaned against Diana, his eyes big as he stared at his hand in the growing gloom. Diana ran her fingers through Kenny’s dark hair, and looked over his head at Hastings as he squatted down before them.
“His mother did this to keep him calm,” she said.
Hastings nodded. “How active is he?”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, how much noise does he make?”
Diana frowned. “He cries,” she said. “Why?”
“Noise isn’t our friend right now.”
Her eyes narrowed. “So what do you suggest, General? We take him out back and plug him?”
Hastings felt his temper click upward a notch. “Don’t be an asshole, lady. We need to figure out how to keep him occupied, and quiet. You going to help with that?”
Diana sighed. “What did you have in mind?”
“There’s a cellar. We could move him down there. He seems to like you, you could go down with him.”
The color seemed to drain from her face suddenly. “A cellar,” she said.
“Yeah. What’s the problem?”
“Small, tight, dark, right?”
“I’m afraid so. What, you’re claustrophobic?”
She nodded slowly. “Yeah. I don’t do places like that very well. Sorry.”
“Okay. Maybe Ballantine’s wife and kids—”
“But I’ll do it, if I need to,” she continued. “But if something happens, you guys aren’t going to leave us down there, are you?”
Hastings shook his head. “No way. No one gets left behind. We’re a team.”
Diana nodded slowly. Kenny stopped staring at his hand and looked at Hastings for a long moment, his eyes dark and somewhat mournful. Hastings looked back and smiled as best as he could under the circumstances. He and the kid had something in common. Their families were only memories now, though Hastings hoped the kid didn’t have much facility to remember such things. For himself, the pain of losing his wife and son left a huge crevasse in Hastings’s soul that he didn’t think he could ever fill.
“So…when do you want us to move down?” Diana asked, and at the sound of her voice, the boy went back to regarding his slowly-wagging fingers again.
“In a bit. We need to move a mattress or something down there, and do another vulnerability assessment. We might move Missus Ballantine and the rest of the kids down there, as well. Maybe that would help?”
“Maybe,” Diana said, her voice noncommittal. “However you want to play it, General.”
Hastings rose. “I’m not a general. I’m a captain. But if it makes you feel better, I’m MacArthur and Patton all rolled up into one.”
“Who are they?”
Hasting shook his head. “Never mind. Sit tight, we’ll come for you in a bit.”
He found Ballantine standing watch over his wife and kids in the kitchen. That pissed him off a little bit. As the senior NCO, Ballantine should have been directly overseeing the fortification process, even though Hartman, Reader, Tharinger, and Stilley had it well in hand. If nothing else, he should have been standing overwatch on the second floor, keeping an eye out for inbound reekers and ensuring they had a line of retreat. Instead, he was hanging around his family. Hastings understood the desire to do so, but giving in to it was enough to make him more than slightly angry.
“Sergeant Ballantine, got some time?” he asked.
Ballantine looked over at Hastings, his M4 slung but right where he could get to it quickly. “What’s up, sir?”
“We’ll need to relocate the boy and Diana to the cellar. I think the kid’s going to fly off the handle sometime soon, and we’ll need to put him somewhere where he can yell and scream and not bring fifty thousand reekers down on us.”
Kay Ballantine looked up from scrubbing the floor with some cleanser, trying to get rid of the smells of decay and shit. “He’s autistic,” she said. “He’s going to have a lot of problems, Captain. We need to take care of him.”
“I’m aware.” Hastings resented her intrusion, so he fixed her with a withering glare and held it until she looked away. The two boys kept cleaning down the counters, looking from their mom to their dad.
“So what do you need me to do, sir?” Ballantine said, stepping in between Hastings and his wife. His eyes were flat and expressionless.
“I want you to check on the rest of the guys and ensure we’re as fortified as we can be. Then grab a mattress or two and bring them down to the cellar. I’ll head down and start clearing out a sleeping space. We’ll be running out of light soon, so we need to get on this stuff. Once we’re done with that, we’ll need to establish an OP on the roof, and get down to some weapon maintenance.”
“Go ahead and get on that, then,” Hastings said. He turned on his heel and headed for the cellar door, located across from the ancient, avocado green refrigerator that had probably looked fantastic back in 1977. As he walked down the old, wooden slat steps that creaked and groaned beneath his weight, he switched on his flashlight. The cellar was dark, but surprisingly dry. Old boxes were neatly stacked along one wall, opposite the small, ground-level window that allowed a tepid glow to sneak inside. The cement floor was somewhat uneven, forming a series of humps that made walking only slightly difficult. Three metal storage racks stood against another wall, filled with mason jars of home-canned goods. He took a moment to review the masking tape labels. Peaches. Apples. Flour. Beets. Pears. Tomatoes. Green beans. Even smoked fish. Enough food to support a single person for at least a month. It was a cornucopia of goods, and one that they had been incredibly fortunate to discover. Upstairs, the soldiers had also found several hunting-style weapons, including a nice bolt-action Marlin .308 that could certainly drop more than a few deer. Whomever had owned the farm house had planned ahead, and Hastings thought it was almost criminal that the man—or woman—hadn’t been allowed to reap the benefits of that preparation.
That aside, the cellar was fairly small, not a full-size basement. Big enough for only a few people, at best. Hastings envisioned Diana and Kenny, and maybe Ballantine’s family. It would be tight, but they might be safer down here than upstairs. That way, the soldiers could concentrate fully on defending the house through the night, and not have to worry about a stray round taking out one of the civilians, should the reekers manage to get inside. On the other hand, if things went really bad, the civilians would be trapped in the cellar, up until the reekers managed to break down the door and get to them. It was a choice of two potential evils, but the long and short of it was, if Kenny started acting out, there was a better chance his cries would go unheard in the cellar, versus one of the bedrooms on the second floor.
He was surprised to feel the sting of tears in his eyes. Images of his family popped into his mind, riding a tsunami of grief that crashed through him. Hastings slapped a hand across his mouth as he suddenly sobbed. He found he couldn’t hold it back anymore, and he fell to his knees as he wept. The feeling of loss was overwhelming, and it took every ounce of emotional strength he had left not to scream in misery-fueled rage. His wife and son had died at Fort Drum, consumed by legions of the carnivorous dead, while he was trying to help keep New York City bottled up, so the infection couldn’t spread into the countryside. He felt damned. He should have been at their side, fighting to keep them safe, instead of putting it on the line for the citizens of the Big Apple, who hadn’t even uttered a thank you for his efforts.
“Hey…hey, Captain. You all right, man?”
Hastings wiped the tears from his eyes, and he glanced toward the stairs. He saw Reader standing there, his M4 slung, one gloved hand on the wooden handrail. The soldier looked at him with concerned blue eyes, and Hastings felt an acute sense of embarrassment that one of the men had come across him while he was so weak.
“I’m good,” Hastings said, the words tough to get out past the lump in his throat. “What’s up?”
“Uh…Ballantine sent me to find you. We’re all secure up top, and he wanted to know how many mattresses you wanted to bring down here.” Reader hesitated for a moment, then cleared his throat. “Listen, sir, we can have this discussion later.”
“No. I’m good, Reader. Tell Ballantine we’ll park all of the civilians down here for the night. That way, we’ll have the rest of the house clear, in case things go tits up.” Hastings wiped his eyes again and rose to his feet. He looked at the cellar’s single window. Tepid light filtered into the darkened cellar. Twilight was fast approaching, and they needed to make sure the house was completely blacked out. It would be best to get the civilians in place and set them up with a lantern or something, just so the kids wouldn’t have to go through the night in total darkness.
“Yes, sir. Sir, there’s still running water here—looks like there’s a well on the property, and the pump still has power. No lights or anything, but the pump still works, so we can flush toilets and stuff like that. You want me to have everyone go before we move them down here?”
“Yeah, that’d be great,” Hastings said. He was surprised that water was still available. “Hey, do the showers still work?”
“As far as I know. Water’s going to be cold as hell, though. No power for the water heater.”
“Don’t care about that,” Hastings said. “Might be good to wash up where we can, we don’t know when the next opportunity will present itself.”
“Roger that, sir.” Reader hesitated again. “Hey, Captain. Take some time, man. I’ll go back to Ballantine, and we’ll start bringing down some mattresses in a bit.”
“I’m cool, Reader. But thanks,” Hastings added, wiping his eyes again. They were dry. Mostly.
“Okay, sir. See you upstairs, then.” With that, Reader turned and walked back up the cellar stairs. Hastings was surprised he hadn’t heard him come down, considering how much the stairs creaked beneath his weight.
He took another survey of the cellar, then stuffed a box in front of the single window in a bid to black it out. It wasn’t much, but it should do the trick.
And at this point, I have 125,000+ words being proofread as I finish up the remaining 20,000-30,000. Those should hopefully come to completion in the next week or so, and then they’ll be proofed as well, giving me a polished copy for Wolf and I to review and make adjustments as necessary. After that, it goes to the editor. I’m pretty confident that we should be able to release in mid-January at the latest. :)
In this excerpt from the upcoming THESE DEAD LANDS: IMMOLATION by myself and some flying squirrel named Scott Wolf, Captain Philip Hastings and his merry band of lightfighters manage to escape the zombie hordes that overran Task Force Manhattan and find their way back to Fort Drum, New York. What they find there isn’t exactly what they’d been hoping for.
Usual disclaimers apply: first draft stuff, unedited, no guarantee that what you see here will be in the finished product.
It had taken two days for the soldiers to cut across to Pennsylvania and then trek north to the Army fort that lay practically a stone’s throw from the border that separated the United States from Canada. And it had been mostly anticlimactic; sticking to the back roads, the two Humvees made poor time but didn’t encounter any zombie infestations they either couldn’t go around or just blast right through. While suppression weapons like the Mk 19 and the M2 .50 caliber weapons in the Humvee turrets weren’t as capable against the reekers as the soldiers would have liked, they could still slow them down and cause some serious confusion among their stinking ranks—especially the grenade launcher. It blasted reekers apart, and even though some of those parts still retained enough instinct to want to kill and feed, separating the zombies’s heads from the rest of their anatomy made that an unlikely prospect. Any zombies that survived the attack were thrown aside by the speeding Humvees, or crushed beneath their knobbed tires.
Just the same, they had to stop and refuel once, after they had crossed over into New York. Despite being home to New York City, the Empire State’s western half wasn’t so densely populated. In fact, outside of the small cities, it was absolutely rural. It made finding fuel a little problematic, but eventually they came across a cargo truck that had rolled over in a ditch. The vehicle’s grille and bumper were covered with a thick layer of gore, and judging by the several smears of crusted black liquid and the remains of several zombies—some of which were still trying to move despite severe damage to their limbs—the vehicle’s driver had been smashing his way through a dense crowd of reekers before finally losing control and crashing into the ditch on the side other side of the road.
The blood-flecked interior of the truck’s cab told the rest of the story.
The truck’s left saddle tank was about a third full, and Tharinger bled it dry. They transferred the fuel to the Humvees, and Tharinger intended to poke a hole in the underside of the right tank and drain it, but it was already empty. It had likely been torn open once the vehicle left the road, and the precious diesel had bled out.
Curiously, the truck’s fiberglass cargo box had been torn asunder during the rollover, and the soldiers were able to see what lay inside: the battered remains of a Lambourghini Reventón. Hastings had to shake his head at that. If he recalled correctly, only twenty-seven had been made, at a price of almost $900,000 per copy. Whoever had been driving the truck was either a car thief who had thought it was his lucky day, or a serious collector who just couldn’t part with his pride and joy.
They moved on, leaving the destroyed relic of a world that had once been behind them.
They spent the night off the road, huddled inside their armored Humvees, secure that the carnivorous corpses couldn’t get to them even if they were discovered. Throughout the night, one man in each Humvee stood watch, examining the forested nightscape outside through night vision goggles. Reekers did stumble past the Humvees, their eyes wide and staring in the darkness. The soldiers remained still inside their vehicles, and the corpses paid them no mind. Even those that physically walked into the Humvees simply picked their way past and disappeared into the night, continuing to hunt prey which already lay so very near.
Just the same, Hastings thought the reekers seemed more active at night, more purposeful. Even though they still didn’t have enough sense to further investigate the presence of two armored vehicles, they didn’t seem to stumble as often as they did during the day. He had noticed the same in New York City, but none of his fellow officers could make any sense of it either.
Day came, and the area was still thick with zombies. The soldiers had no choice. Tnhey fired up the Humvees, and drove right through the small horde that surrounded the tiny clearing the vehicles had used as a laager area. They made it back to the rural road the haphazardly paralleled Interstate 81 and weaved their way around individual ghouls that shambled across the blacktop. Several of the grotesqueries turned at the sound of the Humvees’s engines, and a few runners even charged at them. But their attacks were turned by each Humvee’s thick bumper, and in the end, shattered remnants of humanity were left sprawled across the road, writhing in fetid pools of black ichor.
By midafternoon of the second day, the two vehicles picked their away around Watertown, the town just outside Fort Drum. Parts of the town had burned, but other parts looked untouched, almost pristine. Several trailers emblazoned with the acronym FEMA were visible, and Hastings figured Watertown had been evacuated. He had no idea if everyone had made it out.
Fort Drum hadn’t been so lucky.
The majority of the post had been razed almost to the ground, just as Master Sergeant Slater had said. Smoking remains of aircraft were scattered across the airfield, and the housing communities that surrounded the center of the post itself had been consumed by a conflagration that was so huge it must have been visible even from Earth orbit. And surrounding the installation were piles and piles and piles of bodies, more than Hastings could count, more than he had ever seen in one place at one time, outside of that final desperate night in New York City. Many of them were burned, but most were not; some of them still stirred, flopping about restlessly, their moans carried across the slight breeze that, thankfully, kept the full force of the stench from reaching them.
“Fuck, man,” Guerra said finally, standing in the cupola of the Humvee behind Hastings. “Fuck, that crazy bastard was right. Drum’s… gone, man.”
Hastings stared through his binoculars, looking at where he believed his house would have been located. Only smoking rubble was left now; his home had been obliterated by the firestorm, converted to ash and charred wood and blackened brick.
He couldn’t catch his breath for a long moment, and the vision of the destruction he saw through his field glasses swam and broke up.
Scotty was only three years old, a tow-headed little ruffian with a devil-may-care grin and bright blue eyes that always twinkled, eyes that came from his mother, not him. He had her hair too, but he had Hastings’s nose and chiseled chin, and Hastings had known that as he approached manhood, Scotty would be one hell of a heartbreaker.
Terry was thirty-four, tall with a slender frame, a natural athlete who had been a track star in high school and a state champion swimmer in college. She’d dreamed of competing in the Olympics and had tried out once, only to be weeded out in the selection process. She swore she’d go back and try again, but then she had met Hastings, and then they had gotten married, and then she was pregnant with Scotty…
“I see the field house.” Ballantine was right beside him, looking through his own binoculars. “It’s surrounded by FEMA trailers. Looks like a tent city had been set up around it… must’ve been where they relocated all the dependents and other civilians after they shrank the perimeter.”
Hastings cleared his throat and blinked away the tears as well as he could. It was no easy feat, since he felt like his heart had just been skewered by a freezing ice pick, but he managed to get past the grief for a moment. He swung his glasses over to where Ballantine was looking, and he saw the bulky outline of the field house. It wasn’t burned, but its windows were shattered. And as he watched, Hastings could see the handful of zombies picking their way through the debris. Just like the six light infantrymen standing on the hill overlooking the post, the zombies were searching for any sign of human life.
“There’s no one left in there,” Hastings said after a long moment. “Half of the reekers down there are in uniform. Troops that were taken down and reanimated.”
“I know,” Ballantine said, and his voice was very small. “There weren’t enough troops left up here to keep the fort secure, anyway. Most of the Tenth was down in the city.”
“So what are we going to do now?” If he felt anything, it wasn’t reflected in Guerra’s voice. “We have to figure out what we’re going to do.”
Hastings wrestled with the question. He continued to peer through his binoculars so the rest of the soldiers couldn’t—might not—see just how emotionally unhinged he was. Even though all of them must have felt it, felt that the rug had been yanked right out from under their feet, he was the one who was supposed to keep his head. Calm, cool, and collected.
There aren’t any things like that in the zombie apocalypse, he thought.
“We could try for Bragg,” Reader said. “Follow that crazy fucker Slater—”
“Man, what the fuck makes you think that Bragg is going to be in any better shape than Drum? The entire Eighty-Second was sent to Washington,, man! There isn’t anyone there to defend the place!” Hartman’s voice was high and tight as he stood guard nearby, his M4 shouldered and ready.
Stilley manned the .50 caliber in the other Humvee, and for once, he didn’t seem to have much to say.
“What about Denver, then? If what the master sergeant said was true, then it sounds like the mountain states are where we need to go,” Tharinger said. He stood guard near the first Humvee’s front fender, M4 also at the ready.
“Yeah, that’s only about a thousand plus miles from here,” Guerra said. “We can do that, easy.”
“Captain, can I borrow one of the Humvees?” Ballantine asked suddenly.
That made Hastings lower his binoculars. He turned and looked at the older NCO, and he was shocked by the haunted, desperate expression on his face. Is that how I look? he wondered. How will the men follow me if I look like that?
He turned and looked at the rest of the soldiers. They all had the same look. That blended expression made from equal parts fear, grief, mourning, and defeat.
“Why do you need a Humvee, Sergeant?” Hastings asked, turning back to Ballantine.
“My family was holed up in a cabin on the Black River,” he said. “A small place off of Woodard Hill, down towards Watertown.” When Hastings only stared at him, he pressed on quickly, looking over his shoulder at the rest of the soldiers, as if seeking support. “They’re smart, you know. Mary and the boys, they know to keep quiet. And they had guns, in case something went wrong. Supplies, too. If they kept to the cellar, none of those stinking stiffs would know they were there—”
“Do you really think your family is still alive, Ballantine?” Hastings asked, as gently as he could under the circumstances.
“Yes, sir, I do. I’ll ask you again, can I borrow one of the Humvees?” As he spoke, Ballantine let his field glasses hang around his neck by their strap. His right hand closed on the pistol grip of his rifle, and his left slowly closed around the weapon’s fore grip.
“Going to shoot me if I say no, Sergeant Ballantine?”
“Yes, sir. I will.” There was no emotion in Ballantine’s voice, nothing in his eyes other than fear and worry. Hastings could see that to Ballantine, he was just another obstacle now.
“Let’s do that,” Stilley said.
“What?” Hastings asked. He kept his eyes on Ballantine, who hadn’t moved. Yet.
“Let’s go see if the sergeant’s people are still alive,” Stilley said. “We gotta do something, and we can’t stay here. Reekers are starting to take notice. They’re heading our way, guys.”
Hastings heard Guerra move about in the other Humvee. “Roger, he’s right about that, Captain. We’d better take the debate on the road. Drum’s wasted, and if we don’t want to end up the same way, we’d better beat feet.”
Hastings nodded slowly. “All right. All right, Ballantine… we’ll see if we can locate your family. But if we can’t, what do you want to do?”
“If they’re not there, Captain, I won’t give two shits what we do.”
From nearby, a creaking moan sounded. Hastings turned and saw a blackened zombie step out from the ragged brush that lined the road behind them. Its eyes were hollow and blank, but when it saw the group of soldiers, it bared its teeth and stumbled toward them with outstretched arms. Like Boris Karloff when he played Frankenstein’s Monster in the original movies. Hartman stepped back and sighted on the thing with his rifle.
“Don’t fire,” Hastings said. “The sound’ll bring them all this way. Let’s mount up, troops. Ballantine, you’re with me in the lead vehicle.”
There was a quick chorus of “hooahs” as the soldiers went into action. Hastings watched them for a moment, then reached down to his belt and pulled his brain bar from its sheath. He advanced toward the single zombie that shambled toward them, and damned if the thing didn’t seem to smile when it saw him approaching.
Hastings smashed its skull in with three quick blows, and the ghoul crumpled to the ground with a weary sigh, its head dimpled inward from the strikes. Hastings gave it another whack for good measure, then turned and walked back to the waiting Humvee.
Quick note about this project: even though the 10th Mountain Division figures prominently in another work I’m participating in, The Retreat, These Dead Lands was started long before that venture. I briefly entertained the notion of changing up the unit, as the 10th has found itself captured in The Gathering Dead series and The Farm. I have no previous affiliation or specific allegiance to the mountaineers of the 10th, or lightfighting in general, but I decided to scrub the changes. As such, Master Sergeant Wolf (who is also an alumnus of the 82nd Airborne Division) and elected to press on, despite the similarities.
In this excerpt, über-producer Tony Vincenzo has elected to leave Manhattan as the entire New York City area threatens to crumble. Roving gangs are already threatening the citizens, raping and pillaging and burning their way across the city–even in Vincenzo’s neighborhood of Billionaire Row, running from east to west across the base of Central Park. The NYPD is becoming less capable of keeping a lid on things, and after unwittingly attending a full-on food riot the day before, Vincenzo has decided he needs to get out of the Big Apple while he still can.
Some general story notes. There are no zombies in this book, and the lead character isn’t a well-trained Special Forces troop. To that end, Vincenzo’s a different kind of lead character for me. He’s not a great guy–as a matter of fact, he’s a jerk, based off a pastiche of people I’ve interacted with in Los Angeles when I lived there in 2002-2003. (If you find you might need a suitable parallel, check out the leaked emails from Sony Pictures and think Scott Rudin.) Vincenzo’s very much into himself and his work and his money and his fame. Now, for the first time in his life, he has to think of others: namely, his wife and kid, trapped in Los Angeles while he was setting up their new home in New York. Two days prior, all they had to do was board a chartered jet to join him, but that’s no longer happening. A mass corona discharge from the sun has melted all the electrical power grids, plunging the entire world into the Dark Ages. Gone are the cheap, easy luxuries Vincenzo had grown accustomed to. No airplanes. No cars. No internet. No smartphones.
The only things Vincenzo has that might see him through across the darkened expanse of the United States are an illegal pistol, a backpack, his pissy attitude, and his hiking boots.
It’s going to be a very long, long walk.
Usual disclaimers apply: first draft stuff, unedited, no guarantee that what you read here will make it into the final product.
It took the better part of an hour-and-a-half to make it to the Joe DiMaggio. The roadway was clogged with cars and trucks that had been rendered inoperable from the electromagnetic pulse event. Bicyclists and pedestrians wended their way through the still river of sheet metal and fiberglass. Vincenzo crossed over Twelfth Avenue and moved over the northbound lanes, heading for the jersey barrier in the middle of the roadway that separated the northbound lanes from the southbound. His feeling was that he would make better time over there, and that the sight lines would be less restrictive. All during his journey down West 57th Street, he had felt bottled up, restrained and vulnerable. In the more open areas that lined the westernmost side of Manhattan Island, Vincenzo believed he might be a bit safer. Though certainly warmer—without the shadows cast by the skyscrapers of midtown, the sun’s rays beat down on him directly. The temperature was rising, as was the humidity, especially this close to the Hudson River. Vincenzo lifted his khaki Polo cap and ran a hand over his short hair. His palm came back saturated with sweat. He needed to halt his march for a few minutes and take down some water and apply some sunscreen.
Hiding in the leeward side of a dead tractor-trailer, he reached into his knapsack and pulled out one of his water bottles. Keeping alert, he popped the cap and drained it quickly, gulping the water down as fast as he could. People moved past on the highway, heading in either direction, but they kept their distance long enough for Vincenzo to quaff his water and catch his breath for a moment. He rubbed sunscreen across his face, arms, and the back of his neck, then took another moment to hit his ears and the bridge of his nose, as well. He replaced the sunscreen in the knapsack and considered the empty bottle. Normally, he would have just tossed it—plastic bottles probably weren’t going to be a rare commodity, at least in the short term. But not having it when he needed it might be troublesome. He placed it in the knapsack as well. Repositioning his backpack once again—his shoulders and lower back were beginning to ache—he pressed on.
He was walking past the back of the truck when movement to his right caught his eye. Vincenzo stepped back immediately, his hand going for the Beretta as a tall black man wearing faded jeans, a yellow T-shirt, and a huge, brightly-colored rastacap that either restrained several decades of dreadlocks or held a small immigrant family. He checked behind him, realizing that he could be flanked by someone who just rolled under the truck trailer. With that thought in mind, he ducked down quickly and checked. No one else was there.
He straightened as the black man came around the trailer, a huge grin on his face. He wore expensive designer sunglasses.
“Hey there, how ’bout sharing some of the water?” the man said, with a light patois. “I saw you, you got water in your bag, huh?”
“I don’t think so,” Vincenzo said. “Head for an aid station. They’re all over the city.”
“Ah, but you be much closer,” the man said, still smiling. He lifted up his shirt, revealing the butt of a black pistol. “Let’s not make it tough now, huh?”
A bolt of fear goaded Vincenzo into action. Without thinking, he charged forward and slammed into the taller man, driving him into the ground. The Rastafarian tried to pull his Glock from his belt, but Vincenzo trapped his arm beneath his knee, pinning it in place. He warded off the Rasta’s clumsy attempts to strike back with his free hand, then pummeled the man in the face, slamming his fists into it again and again.
“You fuck!” he screamed, with each blow, letting loose with left after left while he held the man’s free arm at the wrist with his right. He leaned forward, putting as much weight behind the punches as he could, and the Rasta writhed beneath him, blood pouring from his nose and lips.
“Stop, man! Stop!” he cried. Vincenzo wasn’t having any of that. He continued punching and swearing, looking down at the Rasta as his head bounced up and down on his thick cap full of dreads. He went slack as his eyes rolled up in his head. Vincenzo punched him four more times, then stopped, gasping and sweating. The Rastafarian gurgled a bit, but didn’t otherwise respond to the temporary cease fire. Vincenzo stayed where he was, trembling in fear.
Holy fuck, this guy was going to shoot me!
He realized that was probably an overstatement. More than likely, the man was just flashing the Glock in an attempt to cow Vincenzo into submission.
Or, maybe, he would have killed him after taking everything Vincenzo had.
Vincenzo shifted his position slightly and reached under his left leg. He pulled the man’s hand off the Glock, then removed the weapon from his waistband. Putting it aside, he looked around—no one was approaching him, though some people had to have seen the fight gone down, even behind the hulk of the trailer beside them. Vincenzo rolled the man over, and the Rastafarian moaned slightly. Vincenzo found another magazine in the man’s back pocket, full of thirteen rounds of nine millimeter. He took it, and shoved it into his knapsack, then picked up the Glock. No way in hell he was going to leave an armed man behind him. He patted the man down, but found no other weapons. He regarded the Glock for a moment. He was inexperienced with that type of pistol, but he’d shot them before, so he knew it was a single-action weapon with no safety. All he had to do was squeeze the trigger and it would fire.
He rose on shaking legs as the Rastafarian slowly drew himself into a fetal position. Vincenzo gave him a light kick, nothing major—he didn’t have the energy to wind one up, anyway. The Rastafarian grunted, and brought his hands up to cover his face. His bent sunglasses fell off his face and clattered to the asphalt beside his head.
“Please, man…no more! No more, please!”
“Stay the fuck down or I’ll kill you,” Vincenzo said. His voice was as unsteady as his legs.
“Not going nowhere, man,” the Rasta said, a whimper in his voice.
Vincenzo kicked him again, this time out of spite more than anything else, and the Rasta responded with a satisfying yelp. Vincenzo stepped over him cautiously, Glock in hand, ready to use it if he needed to. His heart was still hammering in his chest, and he could hear the roar of blood in his ears. He was almost too afraid to move, but he knew he needed to get the hell away from the Rasta before any of his friends showed up looking for him. Not only that, he’d been extremely lucky. He’d gotten the drop on the bigger man purely by chance, not by design. Vincenzo had been in about three fights in his life, including this one, and he hardly had a wealth of experience to draw upon. It could have gone sideways very quickly, and it wasn’t like he’d gotten out of it unscathed. His left hand was hurting like hell, but he didn’t take the time to inspect it. He could still wiggle the fingers, so nothing was broken, but it would likely be one big bruise before he made it to the GWB.
He crept away from the Rastafarian, who did as instructed and remained on the ground, leaking blood and moaning slightly between split lips. Vincenzo kept the Glock in his right hand as he scuttled away, trying to look everywhere at once. As soon as he felt it was safe, he turned his back on the Rasta and started running to the north. His pack slewed from side to side on his back, and he realized he was probably making a scene by running through the dead traffic while holding a pistol. Just the same, he kept it up until he had put a good five hundred feet between him and his fallen opponent. Chest heaving, he drew to a halt and leaned against a plumbing van. Another visual sweep of the area revealed no one nearby, but those in sight regarded him with cautious eyes. Vincenzo didn’t make eye contact with anyone, just took an inventory of who was where. Right now, everyone could be an enemy, from a street gang to a gaggle of housewives pushing baby strollers… and there was no shortage of either.
He looked down at the Glock. It was a model 19, which Vincenzo had fired before. It looked a bit old, but when he handled it a bit, he decided it was operational. He double checked the second magazine he had lifted off the Rasta, and as far as he could tell, it was in fine shape. The pistol used the same ammunition as he carried for his Beretta, so at least he now had a backup piece.
He looked south, and saw that three other people were making their way toward the Rastafarian he had beaten down. The man was on his feet, leaning against the concrete Jersey barrier, a hand held to his face as he tried to stanch the flow of blood from his nose. The three newcomers were blacks as well, and they wore the brightly colored knit hats Rastas favored. Vincenzo decided that it was time to put some more distance between them, so he turned to the north and set off.