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.
Another excerpt from the first book of a new zombie apocalypse series written by Yours Truly and the globe-trotting retired Army Special Forces guy and all-around security expert, Scott Wolf. As always, this advance peek is unedited, and while dropping it in here, I already see things that need to change–so be aware there are changes afoot.
Fifteen miles later, they found several abandoned vehicles in the parking lot of a diner that had obviously been overrun by the dead. Hastings didn’t quite get what had gone down—it seemed that a dozen souls had tried to barricade themselves inside the establishment, but a fire had broken out, which put an end to their apparent siege. Pools of dried blood lay scattered throughout the parking lot, along with dried, tacky bones. The driver’s door to one Ford pickup truck was open, and as Hartman slowly eased the Humvee past it, Hastings saw the vehicle’s interior was splattered with blood and gore. Just the same, he noticed the PowerStroke insignia on the side of the driver’s door. It was a diesel.
“We’ll need to check out that Ford,” he said. “And it looks like there’s a produce truck or something near the back of the lot. Might be a diesel, too.”
“Roger that, sir,” Hartman said.
The three vehicles slowly drove around the parking lot. A flock of crows sprang into the air when the first Humvee drew near; they had been feasting on the remains of a human rib cage. Hastings suddenly became aware of the two young boys behind him, and he glanced back at them. Their mother had them wrapped up in her arms, and she met his eyes with an inscrutable gaze. Since she was taking the time to shield her boys from the sights beyond the Humvee’s windows, Hastings presumed she was finally coming out of her deep shock.
“All right, the area looks pretty secure for the moment. Let’s dismount and see what we can get. Stilley, take your Humvee back to the entrance and sit there—Tharinger, keep the fifty manned and ready. Ballantine, you might want to keep your truck close to one of the Humvees, so we can provide protective fires if required. Over.” To Hartman: “Pull over next to that produce truck, okay?”
“You got it, sir.”
“Six, roger that. I’ll stick with you guys. Over,” Ballantine transmitted.
Hastings double-clicked his radio. Pssht. Pssht. Message acknowledged.
“Missus Ballantine, stay with the Humvee,” he said when Hartman braked the vehicle to a halt.
“My boys need to use the restroom,” she said. “And frankly, so do I.”
Hastings grunted. “Very well. Guerra, stand guard in the cupola. Hartman, you check out that truck, and I’ll back up Ballantine as he stands guard over his family. I’ll keep you in sight at all times.”
“Sounds good to me, sir.” Hartman shut off the Humvee and scanned the area outside the driver’s door. Once satisfied that there were no immediate threats awaiting him, he eased the door open and stepped out into the sweltering day. Hastings did the same as Guerra took position in the Humvee’s gunnery cupola. Once he was convinced they were secure, he opened the rear door and waved the Ballantines out.
“Let’s go, folks. Slow and easy, all right?” He didn’t look at them; instead, he scanned the area, his M4A3 at the ready. In his peripheral vision, he saw Ballantine climb down from his truck and hurry over, his assault rifle indexed and ready.
Ballantine hurried to his side. “What’s the procedure, sir?” he asked, eyes on his family as they emerged from the Humvee.
“Your family needs to use the latrine,” Hastings explained. “You’ll stand guard, and I’ll back up you and Hartman. Hooah?”
Kay Ballantine kept her boys close to her, and looked from her husband to Hastings, then back again. “I’ll need some toilet paper,” she said after a long moment.
“Me too,” said the younger boy. “I have to poo-poo.”
Hastings smiled at that, despite the fact that there was ample evidence that indicated the zombies zeroed in on the smells of human habitation, especially those scents made by biological wastes.
“I’ll get you some from my pack. Ballantine, make sure they bury their business, okay?”
“You know it, Captain.”
Hastings reached back into the Humvee for his loaded backpack and opened it. He removed one of the sealed packs of toilet paper and handed it to Kay Ballantine, then pulled his weapon back into a low-ready position.
“There you go,” he said, scanning the area again and taking the time to ensure that Hartman was secure. He was already at the produce truck and was opening the fuel cap.
“Where can we go?” she asked, looking at her husband.
He pointed toward the nearby trees standing watch just past the parking lot. There was still a good amount of vegetation everywhere, so Hastings figured privacy shouldn’t be that much of a problem.
“Follow me,” Ballantine said.
“Ballantine, stay in my line of sight,” Hastings said.
“Will do, sir.” With that, Ballantine led his family away from the parking lot. Hastings looked back at Hartman, then up at Guerra. The stocky soldier had the grips of the Mk19 in both hands, and he looked at the remains of the diner for a long moment. He then turned and looked down at Hastings.
“Sir, the diner might be worth checking out,” he said. “Only half of it seemed to go down. The other half actually seems pretty remarkably preserved.”
“If we have the time,” Hastings said. “Hartman, how’re we doing?”
“Looking pretty good here, sir,” Hartman said. He was already preparing to siphon the produce truck. “Definitely diesel, and it’s a good quarter-tank’s worth.”
“Outstanding.” Hastings spoke into his headset microphone. “Reader, this is Six. You checking out that pickup? Over.”
“Six, roger that. Thing’s got two tanks, and both are almost full—we almost might be able to fill both Humvees from this vehicle. Over.”
“Understood. Break. Tharinger, anything from the road? Over.”
“Negative, Six. We’re good on the road. No signs of movement or activity of any kind. Over.”
“Roger.” Hastings continued his scans. He looked at Ballantine, who was standing at the end of the parking lot; apparently, there was a ditch on the other side of where he stood, and he was able to keep watch over his family and still scan the surrounding area from a slightly elevated vantage point. Several birds called to each other amongst the trees, and Ballantine turned in their direction. Hastings watched Ballantine from the corner of his eye, taking in his body language, ready to respond to any situation that might arise from his direction. When Ballantine went back to his scans, Hastings relaxed again. Minutely, anyway.
The siphoning went off without any issues. Reader had been right—both Humvees were nearly completely filled with the fuel from the Ford pickup, which meant Hartman just had to top them off with what he could pull from the produce truck. And when they were done, they still have a good twelve or thirteen gallons of excess diesel they could bring with them.
The Ballantines finished with their latrine mission and returned to the first Humvee. Once they were secure inside the armored vehicle, Ballantine and Reader set about securing more fuel for his pickup. He had two five gallon gas cans in its bed, and he emptied them into his pickup’s fuel tank before refilling them from other vehicles in the parking lot. Hastings told Hartman to stand overwatch while he cased the diner.
“You sure it’s a good idea to go in there, sir?” he asked, a worried frown darkening his features.
“I won’t be going far,” Hastings assured him. “I’ll stay in sight.”
“Okay, sir.” The skinny soldier didn’t sound very convinced, and his big eyes flicked this way and that. He wasn’t comfortable being the only soldier on overwatch, despite Guerra and Tharinger manning the cupola weapons.
“You’ll be fine, Hartman,” Hasting said. “All right? Just keep scanning and watch your lane. Ballantine and Reader aren’t so involved in what they’re doing that they can’t go to guns on a threat in just a second. Okay?”
“Okay, sir,” Hartman repeated.
Hastings nodded and started toward the remains of the diner. As he crossed the parking lot, he buttoned up his facial armor and took a moment to crack his knuckles, then flex his gloved fingers. His uniform stuck to his sweaty body, and not for the first time, he reflected on just how welcome an event a hot shower would be. As he drew nearer to the half-burned diner, he slowed and checked out the scene. He surveyed where he might step, where he might need a hand hold, and where he could simply step up into the diner itself. He tested a pile of blackened debris and found it would hold his weight, and he slowly scaled it until he could step into the diner proper.
The fire had ripped through more of the structure than he had initially thought, and the floor creaked and groaned beneath his weight. Hastings halted just inside the diner and waited, realizing he was almost perfectly silhouetted against the bright day behind him. Should there be any ghouls inside the building’s remnants, they would have a fantastic target to home in on. He stared into the diner’s fire damaged interior for a good thirty seconds, but nothing happened. There was no movement, there were no sounds he couldn’t immediately categorize, and above the smell of ashes and fried plastics and fabrics, he couldn’t detect even a whiff of a reeker. As far as he was concerned, Hastings was alone.
He moved deeper into the diner, stepping carefully, his rifle at the ready. Tables had been overturned, and their plastic tablecloths had melted to the floor. Along the rear of the diner, a long bar stretched from the far wall to the opening that faced the parking lot. Behind it, Hastings could see a blackened doorway that led to the establishment’s former kitchen. It was too dark for him to see anything inside the kitchen, but in order for him to inspect it, he would have to leave Hartman’s field of view. That would be unwise.
He slowly circumnavigated the diner. He saw a shape in one of the booths, and he snapped into a defensive posture immediately, his M4 trained on the human-shaped mass sitting there in the semi-darkness. It didn’t stir, so after a long moment, Hastings crept closer.
As he drew nearer, he saw there were more shapes on the floor. Zombies. Four of them, each down with fatal wounds to their heads. It looked like a big caliber weapon had done them in, a .45 or something similar.
There were actually four shapes in the booth. A woman and two children—a girl and a bog—were crammed into one corner, all of whom had been shot through their heads at close range, the skin on their faces dappled and fried by powder burns. They all had straw-blond hair, a color that even now shimmered in the wan light… despite the dark blood that matted it flat in places. Sitting across from the three corpses was another, a large man with dark hair and a dark beard, his head thrown back against the booth’s cushioned bench seat. His right arm was outstretched across the bare table. A pistol was still clutched in his hand, the slide locked back, the weapon empty. He had taken down some of the zombies that had broken into the diner, but there must have been more. Hastings imagined the man had killed his family after he’d realized he’d never be able to stop the horde himself. And he’d committed suicide after enduring the nightmare of shooting his family.
In a way, Hastings envied him. He knew how his family had died, and even though their last moments must have been full of sheer terror, he had been there. He had acted, and he had acted honorably.
Across from him, a puff of humid air entered the shell of the diner. The windows opposite had been shattered, and dense shards of glass lay across the floor. Another zombie lay stretched out on the floor, its mouth open, its lips drawn back, exposing bloodied teeth. The body of an elderly woman lay next to it, its head separated from the rest. The zombie had fed with such ferocity that it had torn the head right off the body.
As Hastings watched, the severed head’s mouth moved, and the rheumy eyes in the skull looked toward him with silent hunger. He grunted. He had seen this before, where a decapitated head had reanimated. The called them rollers, because that was the only way it could possibly pursue it prey.
Hastings walked up to it, pulled his brain bar from his belt, and swung at it mightily.
“Captain, we got something out here. Over.” Ballantine’s voice was somehow excited and sanguine at the same time.
“More reekers, Ballantine? Over.”
And then Hastings heard it—the sound a motorcycle would make when the throttle was wide open. He turned and ran for the demolished section of the diner and quickly picked his way down the debris, looking for his men. They were clustered behind Stilley’s Humvee, weapons at the ready, leaving Guerra alone to guard the other side of the formation. Hastings ran toward them just as a blue Suzuki sport bike shot around a bend in the street and rocketed past the diner. As the bike zipped past, its helmeted rider looked in their direction. Hastings was out in the open so the biker must’ve seen him, but the sight of Tharinger sitting in the Humvee’s cupola and training the .50 caliber machinegun on the newcomer did little to invite the biker to stop. He just kept going.
Hastings had no doubt what the biker was running from.
“Okay, do we have enough fuel for the vehicles?” he asked Ballantine as he pounded up.
“Yes, sir. We have all the fuel we can carry right now,” Ballantine reported. “Anything in the diner?”
“It’s a write off. Let’s mount up, that bike’s noise is going to lead the reekers right to us.”
“Hooah.” Ballantine turned to the rest of the soldiers. “You heard the man, let’s pull out of here!”
“Hey, that bike’s coming back,” Tharinger reported. He slewed the .50 around, and sure enough, Hastings heard the nasal roar of the crotch rocket approaching. He stepped around the rear bumper of Stilley’s Humvee and nodded to the black soldier who knelt nearby, his M4 at his shoulder.
“Get behind the wheel, Stilley. Hartman, get back to the other Humvee,” he said over his shoulder. The two soldiers complied as the blue Suzuki returned. The driver was clad in black leather, and his face was invisible behind the smoked visor set in the black helmet. Hastings saw a machete on the rider’s belt, and there was a bulge inside the riding jacket… right beneath the gentle swell of the rider’s chest.
A woman, he thought idly.
The Suzuki braked to a stop twenty feet away, and the rider’s feet dropped down to the ground. With the bike still rumbling, the biker undid the helmet’s strap and pulled it off her head. She was an Asian woman, with severe features that indicated she didn’t spend a lot of time laughing. Or maybe the events of the past few months had just conspired to rob her of any humor she might have once had.
“You still the good guys?” she asked over the rumble of the bike’s engine.
“I don’t know what you mean,” Hastings responded.
“I’ll make it easy for you. Down that street, there are two pickups full of rednecks who set up a road block and trapped the family I was traveling with. They killed the father, and they’re in the process of raping the woman and the little boy. Are you going to do anything about it?”
Hastings felt Ballantine ease up on him from behind. “How many men?”
“I didn’t have time to do a count, General. Five, six, maybe more.”
“How are they armed?” Ballantine asked.
“Guns. Shotguns. Nothing like that,” the woman said, inclining her head toward the .50 caliber machinegun Tharinger held on her.
“How far back are they?” Hastings motioned for Stilley to start up the Humvee, and a moment later its diesel engine clattered to life.
“A mile or so…” The woman looked down the road, and her eyes widened. “Well, maybe a little less than that—here comes some of them,” she said, and then she popped the helmet back on her head and spun the bike around.
“Hold on!” Hastings shouted, just as a late model black over tan Dodge dually pickup rounded the bend in the road. There were two men in the bed, both with beards and wearing old woodland camouflage battle dress and grimy baseball caps that were reversed so the bills pointed backwards, lest they be blown off by the wind. At least two more men sat inside the truck’s club cab. They had been hooting until they came around the bend and saw Stilley’s Humvee. Tharinger dutifully slewed the .50 around until he had it leveled on the big Dodge 3500.
“Captain, let me know what you want me to do!” Tharinger said.
“If they start shooting, you’re clear to fire,” Hastings said. “Ballantine, call Hartman and Guerra forward. Reader, back me up!” He hurried toward the road, M4 at his shoulder, and motioned for the truck to stop. It didn’t look like the driver was going to comply, so he fired a single round through the truck’s enormous chrome grille. That got everyone’s attention, and the big pickup slowed so abruptly that the two men in the back yelled as they nearly catapulted over the cab. Over his radio, he heard Ballantine call the second Humvee forward, and from the corner of his eye, he saw Reader trot toward the rear of the truck, covering the two men there with his assault rifle.
“Do not fucking move!” he yelled.
“What the fuck is this?” hollered on of the men in the back. His nose was bleeding, and he must have dropped his rifle. Just the same, he kept his hands up where Reader could see them. His companion still had his weapon, a mean-looking tactical shotgun… but he hadn’t pointed it anyone. Yet.
“United States Army. Dismount from your vehicle immediately, or you will be fired upon!” Hastings shouted, staring at the men inside the truck. The driver’s eyes were wide, and he held his hands up in the air above the steering wheel. The man sitting in the passenger seat didn’t look nearly as surprised; in fact, he practically glared at Hastings through the glass. While the driver appeared to be overweight and sported an ill-groomed goatee and mustache, his cherubic face framed by a virtual waterfall of greasy brown hair, the man beside him was slender and blond. His hair was in a long ponytail, and he appeared to have retained some general sense of what hygiene was. His pale eyes locked onto Hastings and didn’t move.
“There ain’t no Army any more, motherfucker!” yelled the man with the shotgun in the back of the truck. “Why the fuck are you stopping us?”
“Get out of the truck, or you will be fired on!” Hastings repeated. “Five seconds! Tharinger, stand ready to fire into the cab on my count! Five! Four! Three! Two—”
The two men in the back of the truck jumped out of the bed. Reader took a few steps back, keeping them both lined up in his targeting picture. The driver’s door slowly opened, and the fat driver half fell out of the lifted truck. He wore a stained black T-shirt, worn black jeans, and battered cowboy boots. A white Stetson fell to the road at his feet, and he looked down at it as if contemplating whether or not to pick it up. He had a chrome-finished pistol tucked into his waistband. The smaller man in the passenger seat kept his eyes locked on Hastings, and he slowly opened the door on his side. Something about the furtiveness of his movements bothered Hastings.
“Passenger! Remain where you are!” he said, and he reinforced the command by sighting on the man’s head through the red dot scope on top of his rifle.
The passenger sneered at him but got the message.
“What the fuck is this?” shouted the man with the shotgun.
“Reader, if that man does not put down his shotgun in three seconds, kill both of them,” Hasting said.
“Roger that,” Reader replied. “Boys, dump whatever weapons you have right now, or I’ll kill you. Three. Two. One.”
“Fuck you!” shouted the man with the shotgun, and he raised the weapon. Reader fired three rounds into his chest, driving him back against the truck. The man with the bloody nose held up his hands and shrieked, then got to his knees as the crotch of his jeans turned dark as he pissed himself.
“No, no!” he cried to Reader. “No, don’t shoot me!”
“Reader, if you need to shoot that man, do it,” Hastings said. “Your call.”
“Tharinger, keep that truck covered,” Ballantine said behind him. “I don’t trust that fucker in the passenger seat.”
“Hooah, Sarge. Got him lined up nicely here,” Tharinger said.
“Driver, disarm yourself right now,” Hastings said. “When you’re done, move over to the other guy and get on your knees with your hands on your head. Passenger! Remain where you are!”
“Yeah, whatever,” the blond haired man said.
“Guerra, keep your eyes open for any other threats,” Hastings said over the radio. “Over.”
“Roger that, Six. We’re good for the moment. Over.”
When the driver had complied with Hastings’s instructions and had joined the other man kneeling near the rear of the pickup, Hastings shouted to the passenger once again.
“Passenger! Slide across the seat and come out through the driver’s door. Keep your hands in our sight. If you do anything we think is stupid, you’re dead. Only warning.”
“Fine. When do you want me to come out?”
“Right now would be plain awesome with us.”
The man sneered at Hastings again. Keeping his hands above the dashboard, he slowly slid across the truck’s bench seat.
“He’s armed,” Tharinger said from his position atop the Humvee. “Looks like a little Heckler and Koch rifle slung off his right side. Also saw a pistol on his belt. And FYI, the guy’s got blood all over his jeans.”
“There’s supposed to be more of them,” Ballantine said, his voice low.
“Stay sharp,” Hastings said.
The passenger finally alighted from the truck, his hands still held high. He wore a denim vest over a black T-shirt, and his faded jeans and surprisingly clean white running shoes were in fact dappled with blood. And it looked fresh.
“Weapons,” Hastings said. “This is—”
“My only warning, or you’ll shoot me,” the man interrupted. “Yeah, yeah, tin soldier. I heard you first three times you said it.”
“Dude, you are not exactly approaching this situation in the best way,” Ballantine said. “Do as you’re told without further comment, or I will shoot you in the right kneecap.”
From the cab of the Dodge, a voice crackled over a speaker. “Jerry, what’s going on up there? Did you catch the slope bitch, or what?”
“So which one of you is Jerry?” Hastings asked.
“That’d be me,” said the blond man.
“What’s with all the blood, Jerry?”
He jerked his chin toward the woman astride the motorcycle. “She and her friends set up an ambush. Thing is, they didn’t realize how many of us there were, so they got their butts waxed. We were chasing her down to exercise justice.”
“Justice, is it? Okay. Who’s on the other side of the radio? What is that, a CB?”
Jerry said nothing.
“Silence isn’t going to work out here, Jer. Tell you what, let’s see you place your weapons on the ground in front of you, then you move over to your friends down there. Remember, my man on the fifty will chop you in half the second you do anything he even thinks might be stupid.”
Jerry looked up past Hastings’s shoulder and smiled. Probably trying to pass on to Tharinger that he wasn’t worried at all about the fifty cal.
The guy’s nuts, he told himself. But he didn’t know for sure if the woman on the motorcycle who still stood straddling the bike down the road was telling the truth. And one man was already dead—for certain, he had been trying to draw on Reader, and Reader had no choice but to fire.
“Movement in the trees on the other side of the truck,” Tharinger said. “Reekers. Probably drawn in by Reader’s shots. Smooth move, Ex-Lax.”
“Blow me, bra.”
“Sorry, no time to organize a search party.”
“Distance, Tharinger?” Hastings asked. He kept his eyes on Jerry. “Hey, Jer? Want to comply with my order, please?”
Jerry kept his eyes on Tharinger. “With those things moving in? Are you out of your fucking tin soldier mind?”
“Reekers are about a hundred meters out, still moving among the trees. They haven’t spotted us yet. Can’t get a count, but it’s got to be more than a few,” Tharinger reported. Then to Jerry: “And if I were you, jackass, I’d do as the captain orders. The only thing that’s keeping you alive right now is the fact that I haven’t applied another few ounces on the trigger, but I feel a sneeze coming on, so get ready for things to change.”
Down the road, Hastings heard the woman put her bike in gear. She slowly turned back and trundled to where the soldiers had the truck covered. She stopped her bike beside Hastings and flipped up her visor.
“Kill him,” she said. “He’s a rapist and a murderer.”
“That’s a lie, bitch,” Jerry said. He was still looking at Tharinger.
“Six, movement across the parking lot,” Guerra said over the radio. “I count over seventeen reekers heading our way. You want me to engage, or should we fall back? Over.”
“Roger that, Guerra. Break. Hartman, pull up here. We’re moving out in just a minute. Over.”
“On our way, Six. Over.”
“Jerry, your weapons,” Hastings said.
“Okay. Okay.” Jerry finally looked away from Tharinger and reached around behind him. Slowly, very slowly, he brought a SIG516 short barreled rifle. It was similar to Hastings’s M4, but much smaller, a personal defense weapon that was more easily concealable. As Hastings kept his sights on the man, Jerry slowly pulled the weapon’s strap over his head.
Then he snapped it up and pointed it right at Tharinger.
Hastings’s two shots were lost to the sudden staccato crackle of the .50 caliber. Jerry was blown virtually in half as the big rounds slammed through his chest, pulverizing flesh and bone and muscle in an instant, turning connective tissue and supportive biologic infrastructure into a jellified mass. The man collapsed to the road in a spreading pool of scarlet. His mouth moved as he tried to breath with lungs that weren’t there; and even if they had been, they were no longer attached to his diaphragm.
“Fuck! Oh fuck!” cried the driver.
Hastings turned on him immediately. “How many of you are there? Tell me!”
“Don’t say anything, Lenny,” the man with the bloody nose said.
Hastings shot him through the head at close range. The man called Lenny squeaked and gagged. Hastings took a step back just in case the guy started puking. He didn’t want some redneck upchucking all over his boots.
“Six more!” Lenny said. “We got a road block up the road—”
“Are they still alive, fucker?” the girl on the motorcycle asked. She kicked the bike closer, glaring down at the pudgy man.
“I don’t know! I didn’t have nothin’ to do with it!” The pudgy man looked up at Hastings with imploring eyes. “I wasn’t me! It was Jerry and the others, I didn’t have nothin’ to do with it!”
“You are so full of shit,” the woman said. She turned to Hastings. “Are you the commander here?”
“Yes.” Hastings held his rifle’s sights on the man. As the driver began blubbering, incoherently pleading for his life, Hastings felt nothing but mounting loathing for the man. He wondered about that. The world was ending, and he was only moments away from taking another man’s life, an American’s life, over charges that hadn’t even been proven yet.
The woman ignored the blubbering man kneeling on the ground. “Are you going to help me?”
From the truck, the CB radio blared again. “Jerry, this is Frank… what’s with all the gun fire? Are you guys all right? Kick it back, man!”
“Who’s Frank?” Hastings asked the fat man.
“Jerry’s brother,” he replied. Snot dribbled from his nose and ran through his mustache. “He’s like you, a Marine.”
“An active duty Marine?” Ballantine asked.
“I dunno,” the man said. “Maybe. I dunno. He came back to town about a year ago, could that mean he’s still in the Marines?”
“Guys, those reekers are starting to get close,” Tharinger said from behind the .50 caliber. As soon as he said it, Hastings heard a moan, echoed by another. He took his eyes off the sobbing fat man and looked over the hood of the Dodge Ram. Sure enough, ragged-looking corpses were tottering out from the treeline. There were no runners among them… yet.
“Sergeant Reader, gather up the weapons and toss them into the Humvee. Ballantine, go get your truck and get ready to move out.” Hastings glanced at the woman on the idling motorcycle. “Lady, what’s your name?”
“Diana,” she said.
“Hi, Diana. Get off your bike, dump your weapons, and get in that truck.” Hastings pointed to the big Dodge.
She looked at him through narrowed eyes. “Why?”
“We’re going to pay Frank and his pals a visit, and if things aren’t what you say they are, I’ll want you where I can get you.”
“What about my bike?”
“We’ll come back for it. The deadheads aren’t interested in it.”
After a moment’s pause, the woman killed the motorcycle’s engine and pushed down the kickstand. She slid off the bike and regarded the approaching zombies, flexing her fingers beneath her black leather gloves. She unzipped her black leather jacket and pulled out a small caliber pistol and put it on the ground beside her feet, then unstrapped the machete and dropped it as well.
“The gun’s empty,” she said. “I don’t have any more bullets.” She watched as Reader gathered up the weapons, then looked down at Jerry’s remains. His eyes were half-closed, and a thin thread of bloody drool had seeped past his lips. Hastings didn’t think the guy was alive any longer.
“Front seat or back seat?” she asked finally.
Diana pulled the helmet off her head and ran a hand through her medium-length black hair. Her skin was dark, and her eyes were bright. She appeared to be nervous, not frightened. Hastings didn’t know what to make of that. She stepped over the bodies without any trace of remorse and pulled open the left rear door and climbed onto the bench seat in the truck’s cab.
Reader finished gathering the weapons and dropped them into Stilley’s Humvee. While he stood guard, Hastings told the chubby driver to get into the driver’s seat. He then walked around the pickup and climbed into the passenger seat beside him, the barrel of his M4 sticking into his ribs.
“Try not to hit any bumps,” he said to the driver.
“Where we goin’?”
“To meet your friends.” Into his radio headset, he said, “Stilley, stay at least a hundred yards behind us. Tharinger, stay on the fifty. Reader, ride shotgun with Stilley. Ballantine, your call if you want to take your truck or mount up with Hartman. Hartman, I want you playing rear guard. Guerra, don’t be afraid to use the Mk19 if things get hot and you have a shot. Questions? Over.”
There were none.
“Let’s roll,” he said to the fat driver.
And there you have it. I’d hoped to have CHARGES released before this, but this book’s within spitting distance of being complete, so I had to push CHARGES back and move this one into its editorial slot. I’m due to hand it off around December 20th, which means Wolf and I should be in a position to release it within the first week of January. That’s not a hard release date–the editor might be late, and then the product will have to be proofed one more time, as well as under go a final review by us, so that date could slip a week or two. I’m relatively confident that it can see the light of day sometime in January 2015. We’ll probably start work on the second book in the series one or two months afterwards.
Unless no one buys the first book, that is. :)
By the way, this series is going to be very military-heavy, more along the lines of The Rising Horde. It didn’t start out that way–as a matter of fact, I took the original story I was going to write and used that for The Last Town series. With Wolf stepping into the mix, this is now a big, sprawling story about how the US manages to continue during the apocalypse. This means it’ll be a series chock full of guns, action, and acronyms. You heard it here first, folks!