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Hurricane/Tropical Storm Blues

August 30, 2011 2 comments

Like a lot of folks in the northeast, I suffered the ravages of Hurrican Irene (though she was downgraded to a tropical storm by the time she arrived in the NYC area). She reminded me a lot of a girl named Irene I dated in Singapore–all bluster and didn’t do a lot other than mess up the place and knock out my broadband.

Hope everyone else who was affected by her tender ministrations came through it as well as I did!

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Categories: Writing

THE RISING HORDE: It Sucks To Be Summit 6

August 24, 2011 4 comments

Some quick background: in the novella Left With The Dead, First Sergeant David Gartrell is alone and fighting the stenches in Manhattan. He makes radio contact with a unit of the 10th Mountain Division (Light Infantry), and speaks direct to the battalion commander, Summit 6. In this slice from the upcoming sequel to the novella (itself a brief continuation of the novel The Gathering Dead), we find out what happens to Summit 6 and his unit of lightfighters.

All first draft stuff, folks–typos are highly likely, and there’s no guarantee that what you read here will be retained in the final draft.

Things were not going well for the lightfighters of the 10th Mountain Division.

The zeds had pushed the entire division—or what remained of it—out of the south Bronx and all the way through the borough until it was ordered to reassemble in Yonkers. By that time, the division had been in contact with the zombies for almost 24 hours continuous, and the tide of walking dead showed no sign of abating. Despite the heavy barrage the division’s artillery batteries had thrown at the advancing zombie elements, even the punishing neutralization fire—a virtual storm of steel rain that would have reduced a heavy armor division to nothing—failed to do much more than delay the zeds. The first bombardment on Harlem had lasted throughout the majority of the previous night, starting at 11:30pm and raging on until dawn at half past five the next morning. The division’s small detachment of unmanned aerial surveillance systems weren’t up yet—there was some sort of engineering glitch that kept the remote-controlled Shadow spy planes on the deck—so the word came down from the commanding general to mount up several infantry squads for movement-to-contact operations. The general just couldn’t wait to discover how bad off the enemy forces were after weathering such an attack. Dozens of soldiers from the 1st of the 87th Infantry battalion had entered Harlem, both on foot and mounted on Humvees. And at first, things didn’t go too badly. Fires were everywhere; the arty bombardment had perforated several gas mains, and entire buildings had gone up in furious explosions that left nothing behind but charred wreckage and thick clouds of black and gray smoke. And the streets were cratered from the shelling; some had even collapsed into the subway tunnels beneath. As they made their advance, the light infantry troops found the remains of first dozens, then hundreds of stenches on the streets of Harlem. Most of them were still moving, even the ones that had massive deboning injuries that should have left them deader than doorposts. But this type of dead didn’t quite work that way, and the soldiers were horrified to find even ghouls whose limbs had been amputated would come for them at a slow chin-crawl. Only shots to the head could make them stop moving.

And then, as the smoke cleared and the sun shone brightly, the first elements of the zombie advance caught them out in the open. At first, the lightfighters acquitted themselves well, but as the numbers of the stenches increased and the soldiers’ ammunition began to run out, discipline eroded. Several of the squads fell off the tactical radio net, never be heard from again.

They were lost to a man.

Others found some relative safety in the subway tunnels, where they could use their night vision goggles to their advantage. That had been suggested by a single Army Special Forces soldier who had been trapped behind the lines, a first sergeant named Gartrell who had been successfully evacuated the previous evening. And the recommendation had been a good one; it had not only saved Gartrell’s life, but the lives of several lightfighters as well.

For the next few hours, anyway.

The dead had figured it out as well, and they finally took to the tunnels in force. Perhaps not by design; there were just so damned many of the stenches on the streets that perhaps they had no choice. When that had happened, the 10th Mountain Division’s tactical plan had to be changed. Subway tunnels were demolished to prevent the dead from using them, but at a great cost; every demolitions team was lost, and one subway line through Manhattan’s Upper West Side was not completely closed. But by the time that had been discovered, the 10th’s forces were withdrawing.

One of those redeploying units was the 1st Battalion, 87th Infantry (Light), commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Kent Royko, call-sign Summit 6. Royko’s unit had been the one to rescue the Special Forces NCO and pull him out from behind the lines. Upon recovering him, Royko had put him to work transferring his knowledge of fighting stenches to the 1/87th’s operations team. Gartrell had gone in over 24 hours before, as part of the large-scale evacuation of high-value individuals from New York City, an operation that ended in total disaster when the helicopter assembly area at Central Park had been overrun by the zombies. Gartrell and his mission’s survivors had found refuge in a skyscraper, but that hadn’t lasted for long. Even though Gartrell’s Special Forces team had taken all possible precautions, Royko was told that the zeds had managed to penetrate their defenses and take the building from them—because reanimated members of the Special Forces Operational Detachment had retained their military skill sets. Royko was from a steel-belt town in Ohio, and he considered himself a tough and hardy sort even before joining the U.S. Army. But when he found that the dead could actually fight smart, he felt the bottom start to drop out. The stenches already had tremendous numbers on their side. If even a small percentage of them were able to interact with their environment in a meaningful manner—which meant acting against his troops in a measured, willful way—how the hell could the Army hope to bottle them up on Manhattan island?

The answer was simple. They couldn’t.

More reports came back from the field, reports of not only reanimated soldiers using weapons against their former teammates, but of civilian stenches ambushing patrols and mounted elements. There were reports of vehicles being used to ram armored Humvees to pin them in place so the dead could swarm over the mounted troops and consume them in minutes. And there were other reports of the dead literally jumping out of buildings, piling up on foot patrols, where they were ripped limb from limb. And the most sinister: reanimated children were used to lure troops into areas where their egress was cut off, and swarming stenches rolled in, overwhelming the troops’ defenses. It was madness, utter madness. There was just no way to stop the zeds, not with a divisional element. On paper, it certainly looked like it was possible—after all, the stenches had no real ability to conserve their forces, had no ability to reliably project force toward the division itself, but they were winning, through sheer numbers if nothing else.

Royko reported all of this to Mountaineer 6, the major general in charge of the 10th. His orders were to gather his remaining forces and retreat to an assembly area located at Yonkers Raceway and await further instructions. The order sounded so easy, but the fact of the matter was, almost all of Royko’s forces were in contact, and pulling them back was no easy affair. It was chaos on the radio net, but when the orders to fall back were finally acknowledged, the soldiers standing between Royko’s small tactical operations center and the zeds didn’t just retreat. They ran.

Not that it mattered. The exodus of civilians out of the Bronx was far from orderly. Most of Royko’s troops were pinned between the retreating civilians and the advancing stenches. He received reports that his own troops were gunning down American citizens so they could get past, in turn spawning more zeds. That was when Royko knew he had been lied to; the Army had said only those who were bitten by the dead reanimated. Gartrell had already confirmed that, that if a person was infected with the whatever-it-was-called virus and they died, they would reanimate whether they were bitten or not. The Army had passed it down that such was not the case; the infection was spread by contact with the dead, and that was that. It was a lie. Those who died without any contact with the stenches were reanimating.

Which means we’re all infected already.

The four Humvees which made up the 1/87th’s tactical operations center slowly moved northward through the night, followed by three M939 tactical trucks. The trucks should have been full of troops. Instead, they were mostly empty, each carrying only a few soldiers and several wounded. Royko had tried to ascertain exactly how the wounded had sustained their injuries, and it appeared none had been bitten. He was thankful for that, for it meant he wouldn’t have to deal with a zombie uprising in what was left of his battalion.

After almost two hours of creeping north in bumper to bumper traffic, it was obvious the headquarters detachment would not be able to make it to the assembly area. The NYPD had not been able to close off Route 9A despite assurances the roadway would be reserved for military-only traffic. And the reason for that was obvious: the NYPD was being broken down by resource constraints from having too much to do with suddenly too-few personnel. Royko knew the department was around 35,000 strong a few days ago, twice the size of the entire 10th Mountain Division. Now it was struggling to secure its home turf and provide enough stability for the lightfighters to do their job. He ordered the headquarters element to pull off into a baseball field in Van Cortlandt Park. Until the traffic situation got straightened out, Royko would operate wherever he could. He notified the division command, and requested a helicopter be dispatched to take his wounded. He was told that a Chinook had just become available and would make it to the park in less than ten minutes. Royko was impressed. The Army was running short on aircraft, but the decision had been made to extract the wounded whenever possible, and that was a good thing.

When the Humvees stopped at the designated setup point, Royko bounded out of his and personally surveyed the area through his night vision goggles. It was hardly secure; the Saw Mill Parkway was nearby, and it was a virtual parking lot. Through the trees, he saw cars and trucks sat bumper to bumper amidst a frenzy of blaring horns and flashing lights. Nearby McLean Avenue was no better, and the pedestrian traffic was even more worrisome. Any one of those people could be a zed, and Royko wouldn’t know it until one of them walked up and practically bit him on the ass. Then, to the lieutenant colonel’s surprise, a National Guard CH-47F was suddenly overhead, its blades slashing through the air. Before he could order any of his men to assist in securing the landing zone, the helicopter touched down in the park only a few hundred feet away. Royko watched as the twin-rotored behemoth settled to earth in a clearing amidst a cloud of fallen leaves, twigs, and branches. Crewmen wearing night vision goggles leaned out of the aircraft on both sides and from its open tail, no doubt giving the pilots the necessary information to avoid taking the tops off any trees.

Royko turned to one of his soldiers and motioned toward the M939 trucks that slowly rolled up. “Get our wounded onto that Chinook! I want ‘em out of here immediately!”

“Hooah, colonel!”

Royko ran back to the Humvees as they pulled into a diamond formation, with the rear of each vehicle pointing at the diamond’s center. Tailgates were opened, radios and infrared lights were mounted, and maps were unrolled. It was time to get back into the fight, and Royko pushed his way into the center of the activity, his eyes on the maps.

“Major Fisch, where are the rest of our troops?” he asked his S-3, the battalion operations officer.

“Still trying to sort that out, sir,” the S-3 reported. “Lots of fragmented reports, but most of our guys are MIA. I haven’t been able to raise a single full-strength unit, and those troops I’ve been in contact with are either on foot and trying to make it to us, or they’re trapped in traffic.”

“That’s bullshit—if they can’t move with their vehicles, tell them to bail out and pound the pavement! We can get the machinery later, let’s get the troops! Pass that down right now!”

“Roger that, sir.” The S-3 reached for one of the field radios and relayed the order himself right then and there. Royko pulled one of the maps toward him and studied the graphics written all over it in wax pencil that reflected the infrared light so the icons could be seen through his night vision goggles. To the uninitiated, it would look like a two-year-old’s errant scribbling. To Royko, it was anything but. The 1/87th’s disposition was written right there for him to see, and he didn’t like the picture one bit.

“Are these graphics correct?” he asked.

“They are, sir,” answered an operations NCO who probably had more time in the service than Royko himself. “I’ve tried to keep them updated as carefully as possible, but it’s been a bitch. A lot of our guys no longer have reliable commo, so I will admit to writing down some guesswork.” The NCO was a master sergeant, and if he had any fear of invoking the ire of Summit 6, he did not show it.

Even though he’d been in the TOC for well over a day and hadn’t even had time to take a piss, Royko only had eyes for the maps. And what they showed was that out of his entire battalion, only around thirty-six troops could be accounted for, beyond the headquarters staff.

“How many troops have you been able to account for, master sergeant?” he asked, even though it was written right in front of him.

“Thirty-six positive, sir.”

“I see no number here for killed in action. Explain that.”

“I haven’t received a KIA status in over seven hours, sir. We presume the rest of the battalion is just NORDO, but the reality is, a fair number of them are probably zombie chow.” The master sergeant’s voice was cold and mechanical, and Royko saw he displayed no discernable emotion on his face behind his NVGs when Royko glared at him. Royko had thought it was because the man was a hard-core professional, but that wasn’t it. The senior NCO was shocked silly, and he just couldn’t respond in any other way.

“Colonel, dismount orders are out, all units who can’t maneuver are abandoning their vehicles,” Major Fisch said.

“Master sergeant, send them a pulse to get a headcount,” Royko said. “I need to know how many we have. It just can’t be thirty-six!” He tapped the map taped to the Humvee’s tailgate with his finger.

“Roger that, sir.” The master sergeant turned to the radio, and the major handed him the handset.

Royko looked back at the operations officer. “Major, that man’s got the thousand yard stare. I’m not sure he’s very reliable right now. If he isn’t, I want you to replace him with someone who is. Are you with me?”

“Yes, sir. One hundred percent. But who would I replace him with, sir?”

The question pissed Royko off, but he took a moment to rein in his emotions. He elected to ignore it. “I want you to redouble your efforts to gain situational awareness at the operational level. If this battalion has been rendered completely combat ineffective, I need to know that right away. I can’t be standing around playing games of pocket pilot when division is tasking me with orders I can’t possibly commit resources to, you understand?”

“Yes, sir.” The major’s response was barely audible as the Chinook powered up. Royko glanced over at it and watched for a moment as the big helicopter climbed into the sky. His remaining soldiers hurried back toward the 1/87th’s vehicles, their M4 carbines slung but close at hand.

Royko turned back to the waiting major and started to ask him to look into what other units were in the area when the honking horns from the Saw Mill suddenly reached a crescendo. He heard shouts, then screams of fear and pain. Engines revved, and the sounds of crunching metal and cracking fiberglass cut through the air. Royko looked off in the direction of the parkway, but it was on the other side of Van Cortlandt Park, and as such he could not directly see what was going on. Several popping noises cracked through the air from beyond the trees. Gunfire.

“Colonel!” one of the soldiers said. His voice was almost a shriek. Royko turned and saw the soldier standing beside one of the Humvees. His attention was not oriented toward the commotion from the Saw Mill, which was to their east; he looked southerly, across the dark baseball field. Royko’s view was blocked by one of the Humvees, so he hurried forward and looked over the soldier’s shoulder.

Shapes emerged from the park’s tree line and moved into the baseball field. At first, it was only a few figures; then, as Royko watched, dozens—no, hundreds!—more came forward, leaving the comparative cover of the trees behind them. Most shambled, some trotted, and a few even bolted across the baseball field, heading directly for the Army vehicles as if they were guided missiles, their lifeless eyes fixated on Royko and his troops.

“Mount up!” Royko shouted to his soldiers. “Pack it up, we’ve got to get the fuck out of here right now!” As he spoke, he unslung his M4 while the soldiers behind him exploded into a flurry of activity. The Humvee parked with its grille pointed into the baseball field was outfitted with an M2 .50 caliber machinegun. A soldier climbed into the vehicle and emerged from the cupola. He grabbed the .50 and yanked back on its cocking lever, leaned into the weapon, and fired. The .50 cal thundered as it spat its heavy projectiles downrange, and the bullets glowed white-hot in Royko’s NVGs. The first few rounds hit nothing more than the field itself and kicked up great gouts of sod in front of the advancing zombies. The gunner got his weapon under control and walked the next flurry of rounds through the runners that sprinted toward the TOC. The big bullets blew off legs and arms and blasted bodies into just so much putrid wreckage…but the ghouls kept coming. Another .50 opened up, and Royko frantically put his yellow foam hearing protectors in his ears, then shouldered his M4 and cracked off three rounds at an advancing zombie. The first two missed, the third hit it in the breastbone, driving it back a few steps. It started forward again, but went down as a .50 caliber round blasted through its head, exploding it like a melon that had been filled with gray-black oatmeal.

Royko glanced behind him and saw the radios had been secured and the tailgates of the Humvees were being slammed shut. Overhead, the CH-47 returned, thundering through the air as passed by off to Royko’s right. The aircraft was fitted with its own .50 calibers, and it added its firepower to the fray as it peppered with field with rounds, striking the approaching zeds from the side. Several went down, but not for the count; even missing arms and with great, gaping holes torn through their abdomens, they slogged back to their feet and continued their advance.

Unreal…simply unreal. Royko couldn’t rationalize what he saw, and as he watched the ghouls surge forward against the withering firepower, he realized why his troops’ discipline had been sorely tested. The stenches were relentless.

“Sir, we gotta go!” Major Fisch shouted from behind him.

Several other soldiers joined the fray with their personal weapons, firing at the advancing horde as Humvee engines started up and came to life. But they were shooting as they’d been trained, aiming for the center mass of the approaching enemy; their rounds did nothing to stop them. Royko shouted for the soldiers to mount up and move out. When they fell back to the Humvees, Royko did the same. As he sprinted for his vehicle, he saw the traffic on Route 9 was thick and heavy.

Jesus, are we even going to be able to get out of here?

He leaped inside the Humvee’s front passenger seat and slammed the heavy, up-armored door shut. The staff sergeant behind the wheel put the vehicle in gear as another soldier took charge of the Mk 119 grenade launcher mounted atop of the Humvee. Royko heard it open up almost immediately.

“Get us out of here!” Royko told the driver. “However you can, just get it done!”

“Yes sir!”

The Humvee surged forward as fast as its weight would allow, its tires spinning on the grassy field. He didn’t bother to go around the black chain link fence that surrounded the baseball diamond—he just drove right through it, and the Humvee didn’t even slow down as it knocked the barrier flat. But the traffic on the street was another matter entirely. As the rest of the Humvees piled up behind Royko’s, the infantry commander knew there wasn’t a chance in hell they would get very far at anything other than a slow crawl. Civilian vehicles were all over the place, and he suddenly understood how some of his soldiers had been able to open up on them, just to get past in a frantic bid to escape the zeds.

“What do you want me to do, sir?” the driver asked as the Humvee accelerated toward the street.

“Hard right, up the sidewalk!” Royko said.

The driver cut the wheel to the right. The sturdy vehicle bounced along the sidewalk, sending those civilians who had tried to flee on foot scattering in all directions. Royko checked the side view mirror and saw the rest of the Humvee-mounted TOC element was coming up behind him; he also saw the big M949 trucks was being swarmed by the dead. He knew the soldiers manning the trucks were gone, experiencing a death worse than any Royko had ever dreamed of. The Humvee bounced up and down subtly on its suspension, and the driver released a keening sigh. Royko faced forward and watched in horror as the armored vehicle literally drove over a woman and a baby stroller as they tried to run away. The Humvee began to slow as it bore down on yet even more people, and the crowd shrieked as they tried to peel away. But with the stalled traffic to their left and the approaching walls of several buildings to their right, there was no place for them to go. The Humvee began to slow, and Royko put a hand on the driver’s arm.

“Stop here, son.” To the rest of the soldiers in the Humvee: “All right, dismount! Let’s give these fuckers what-for!”

Without waiting for any affirmation that the order was received, Royko threw open his door and leaped out of the Humvee. He pulled his M4 into position as the rest of the element braked to a halt. The Humvee immediately behind his was splattered with blood, having driven right over the poor people the first had mowed down. Even though his hearing protectors, Royko could hear the screams of the living, and the never-ending moans of the dead as they closed upon the detail. But the chatter of the .50 calibers and the thump-thump-thump of the Mk 119 grenade launcher broke their advance. Royko was jostled by terrified civilians as they fled from the melee, but he ignored the contact as the rest of the soldiers emerged from the Humvees. He saw the master sergeant with the thousand yard stare had shaken it off; he was in combat now, and his training had kicked in. He barked orders at the rest of the enlisted men, organizing them into a fighting team as quickly as he could. Major Fisch ran around his Humvee and took a position on the other side, covering the team from the street. He started firing almost immediately. Royko hurried forward, his M4’s stock pressed against his right shoulder. He stopped behind the troops the master sergeant had organized into a skirmish line. They fired, some from a standing position, some while kneeling, sniping away at the stragglers that managed to get through the .50 cal and grenade fire. One troop ripped off on full auto; Royko smacked him on the helmet and shouted into his ear over the din of gunfire.

“Semi-auto! Everyone, semi-auto only! Conserve your ammunition, and shoot them in the head!

The Chinook thundered past again, so low that its rotor wash tore through the area like a hurricane, its own .50 caliber pounding down on the zeds from above. Several ghouls fell to the ground, flopping about, suffering incredible damage that would absolutely have killed any normal soldier. But the dead weren’t at all normal, and if they could, they rose up again to press on with the hunt. Royko opened fire himself, sighting on his targets through his rifle’s scope, popping off round after round. He hit his targets in the head more often than not.

So many of them, he thought idly. So many of them, so few of us…

The rearmost Humvee’s .50 caliber machinegun ran dry right then, and the soldier manning it frantically wrestled a new box of ammo in place as he tried to reload. Royko ordered the other soldiers to give him cover, but there was nothing they could do; the dead swarmed over the back of the Humvee and engulfed it beneath a tsunami of rotting flesh.

Royko sensed movement to his right, and he took a step back and looked at the Humvee beside him. The ghouls were on the other side of the vehicle, and the soldier manning the Mk 119 couldn’t see them. Even worse: the Humvee’s doors stood ajar, and one of the ghouls shoved itself through the vehicle’s open left rear door. Royko shouted warning and fired at the stench, striking it in the shoulder. Its left arm flopped and hung limp, but the zed ignored the damage and latched onto one of the soldier’s legs with its right hand. As the soldier shouted and kicked, the zombie bit into his calf. The soldier screamed and, for a moment, allowed the still-firing Mk 119’s barrel to depress. He fired three grenades into the hood of the Humvee right behind him, and the triplet of explosions tore it open and ripped through the idling engine beneath. Diesel fuel caught on fire as shrapnel pelted the rest of the soldiers, bringing them to their knees. Royko fired at the zed in the Humvee twice more, and finally killed it with a headshot. The soldier manning the Mk 119 let out a tortured cry—he’d been bitten, and he knew what lay in store for him—but he recovered his command of his weapon and resumed firing at the wall of the gathering dead that swelled behind the Humvees.

“Keep firing!” Royko told the rest of the men. His voice sounded shrill and loud even to himself. “Get up, keep firing!” He ran toward the Humvee and jumped inside as another ghoul appeared. He shot it through the face and shoved the now stilled corpse away from the vehicle and slammed the rear passenger door shut. He reached around the front seat and pulled the driver’s door closed.

“Keep firing!” he repeated, both to the trooper manning the Mk 119 and the others outside. But the firing had become erratic, unfocused. Royko pulled himself out of the Humvee and as he slammed the door shut, he saw why. Two of the soldiers were down, bleeding badly from shrapnel wounds, and the others had pulled away from the burning Humvee. The flames burned so hot and bright that they overwhelmed Royko’s night vision goggles. One of the downed soldiers was the master sergeant, and as the lieutenant colonel watched, he slowly rolled over onto his side. He still held onto his weapon, and his gaze fell upon Royko.

“Colonel, get that man out of here!” he shouted, pointing to the other soldier who lay beside him. He pulled himself into a sitting position and gunned down a stench that charged forward, a dark shape silhouetted against the billowing yellow flame rising from the stricken Humvee. Royko did as the senior NCO said and darted forward. He grabbed the back of the soldier’s body armor and pulled him away from the burning wreck.

“Troops, fall back! Fall back!” he shouted. As he spoke, he saw the Mk 119 gunner start to haul himself out of the Humvee. He never made it—several shapes mounted the vehicle and pulled him toward the street. He screamed and disappeared from view.

Then the burning Humvee exploded.

Royko came to a moment later, ears ringing, uniform and body armor smoldering. His M4 was trapped beneath him, and he rolled to one side, freeing it. The flaming wreck of the M1114 HMMWV generated an amazing amount of heat, and now the vehicles behind and in front of the destroyed M1114 were aflame as well. Royko reached for his night vision goggles, but they had been shorn from their plastic mount, and were nowhere to be found. The soldier he had been dragging away from the maelstrom groaned and slowly rolled onto his back. Royko knelt beside him and zeroed two stenches that staggered toward him. On the other side of the wall of flames, Royko heard screaming, and full automatic gunfire.

“Soldier, get on your feet! Sergeant Wilkins, get on your feet!” he screamed at the wounded soldier beside him. Behind him, the last remaining .50 caliber machinegun suddenly fell silent, and Royko turned to see the Humvee was literally covered with the walking dead as they fought to get to the lone soldier there.

God, where did they all come from?

Wilkins reached up and grabbed Royko’s arm; his grip was slack and weak. Royko dropped another zed that came around one of the burning Humvees, then reached down with his left hand and grabbed Wilkins’ wrist. He hauled the sergeant to his feet.

“Come on—”

Wilkins screeched and grabbed Royko in a bear hug, his dead eyes gleaming in the firelight. He hugged the lieutenant colonel to him and tried to bite him in the neck, but Royko shifted at the last moment and the ghoul sank its teeth into the fabric covering his body armor. Royko yelled and tried to break the zombie’s grip, but something crashed into him from behind, driving him to the ground. Royko screamed this time and fired his M4 into Wilkins’ legs, but the zombie didn’t even notice. As another zombie landed on him, followed by another and another, Royko reached for one of the fragmentation grenades clipped to his body armor. But then, the Wilkins zombie found the soft flesh of his neck, and Summit Six’s last thoughts were that he had never felt anything so painful in his life.

____

I’d always heard it was tough being in the light infantry. Seems like things aren’t any different here. Hope you liked the extract, folks…

My Kindle Author Interview

The brave and daring David Wisehart has published an interview with me at his ultra-cool site called Kindle Author. Check out my rampant witticisms and tactics, techiniques, and procedures for writing fiction that, on some occasion, does sell.

For a change of pace, the literary focus wasn’t on The Gathering Dead…it was on City of the Damned, which was pretty damned nifty.

July Numbers

Well, Amazon has released the sales figures for July 2011…and they weren’t nearly as bad as I’d feared. Yes, I experienced sagging sales, but I wasn’t off from June as much as I’d thought. Still a great payday, and a nice supplement to the salary. See the screenshot of the Excel spreadsheet below.

I’m expecting August’s numbers to be about a grand less, but hey…I’ll wait until I get the spreadsheet before weeping.

Happy Monday.

Categories: Writing Tags: , , ,

WHITE TIGER Review

White Tiger Final

Gotta love it when you get not only a five-star review, but one that actually goes into some nice detail! Check this out…

Bu Zhan Bu He.
 
These chinese words written on a hotel room wall represent the only evidence left behind at the scene of a particular gruesome murder which opens the thriller ‘White Tiger.’ With action that begins in the Asian underworld, and ends on the streets of San Francisco, White Tiger follows Sargeant Detective Hal Ryker and security specialist (and former special forces operative) Jerome Manning as they both search for a killer who moves like a ghost, and hasn’t yet stopped killing.
 
Manning’s character is developed early in the novel against the backdrop of Tokyo, and reminded me of with the Deckard character from Blade Runner: lost, world-weary, cynical. Having lost his family in a car accident while deployed abroad in special forces several years earlier, Manning lives in Tokyo, works for the Chinese mob, and speaks Japanese & Mandarin fluently. Contracted to clean up some mob business, collateral damage haunts Manning, further damning him. Redemption isn’t an option.
 

Having earned the titular nickname due to his effectiveness while remaining anonymous and discrete, Manning’s mob contacts are ordered by the Godfather of the Shanghai underworld to send the White Tiger to San Francisco to find and kill whoever murdered his (less favored) son.

Meanwhile, Detective Ryker responds to the opening murder, hoping only to solve the case quickly. He has a history with the murder victim and his powerful father, James Lin – the man who hired Manning. Partnered with the inexperienced Chee Wei, a chatty younger detective whose chinese ethnicity helps the case move along (but also ultimately dooms him), the two chase down leads and introduce a number of supporting characters to the story.

Much like DeNiro and Pacino’s characters in the movie Heat, Manning and Ryker have very few interactions with each other, but find a common ground of respect for each other.

There is plenty of action, lots of steamy sex, and great set pieces. Stephen Knight is a very cinematic writer, but layers his visual action with a lacquer of impressionism which coats this reader’s mind with the feel of the places about which he writes.

The ending is satisfying, and leaves wiggle room for a potential sequel, with plenty of plausible motivation for both main characters to continue the story. I highly recommend this book!

And I highly recommend this reviewer! Thanks man, glad you dug the book.

More Sales Info

August 7, 2011 4 comments

Well, it seems like a lot of folks are interested in the dynamics behind sales, at least how they relate to the Kindle. I still don’t have the final figures for July, but I know they’re not as good as June was…which of course, makes me want to weep. But in order to retain my status among my peers as a manly man, I’ll soon elect a designate to do my weeping for me, a la Subotai in Conan the Barbarian.

So with that in mind, here are the last two weeks of sales, the first showing the final week of July, the second this past week which just closed out:

Final Week of July

Sales Figures, Last Week of July (Kindle)

First Week of August:

Sale for First Week of August (Kindle)

In the screenshots above, you can see the two titles that most directly affect my, ah, wealth have gone through a decline. (Though City of the Damned has kicked up a bit here and there.) I expected sales to roll back once I raised the prices from .99 to $2.99–it was just too much to hope for that sales would continue to be as robust by making the product “less accessible”, though in truth I’m still charging $5.00 less on average than what the traditional publishers demand for similar product. I think that what’s happening here is a confluence of things, to wit:

  1. It’s summer. People are out doing things with their families, their significant others, their pets, waxing their muscle cars, whatever. This could be a usual seasonal decline, which is what I’ve heard elsewhere.
  2. Raising the prices were guaranteed to cause a rollback in sales. This was not unexpected by me.
  3. The economy. It sucks, and now that S&P has elected to pay more attention to politics as opposed to financial data and reduce the U.S.A’s sovereign credit rating–a little something they apparently overlook when it comes to grading nations like, oh, China–I’m expecting consumers to be less apt to spring on nonessential impulse purchases like this. I mean, really–if your credit card finance charges are going through the roof, chances are good that you’ll be less interested in reading about Special Forces troops going to guns on zombies in Manhattan’s Upper East Side. I get that.

Of course, there’s not a remarkable wealth of datasets to back these theories up. As far as I know, the only guy out there who’s free and open with his numbers is Konrath, and he’s clearly in a league by himself. He was among the very first to jump into this fight, and he continues to lean forward in the foxhole every day. His sales are, of course, what the rest of us envy. But while trolling the web looking for contrasts, I’m not finding a great many self-pub folks who are willing to discuss their sales in such a fashion. I get that, too; I’m a very private guy in real life, and broadcasting my financial foibiles is actually tough for me to do. (But I do it for you guys–I believe this is known generically as “taking one for the team”.)

Regardless, I do very much buy into the axiom that if you want more sales, you need more product. I think this is true, as I have folks pestering me to release more work. Now, it’s blindingly obvious that White Tiger is as bouyant as a boat anchor right now, and this tells me that my readers will take a risk on my horror titles, but not so much on more commercial fare. I do have another horror work underway, the sequel to The Gathering Dead, so that should make at least two or three folks happy (especially if I pull it off and hit all the marks again). But what about my next title, which is a science fiction adventure called Tribes? I honestly don’t have a clue. Maybe the economy will improve by the time it hits the market, and since it will be late fall or early winter when I release it, more folks will be hunkering down and staying at home to read as opposed to hitting the beaches with the rest of the Polar Bear Club.

Or maybe, it will sell as well as White Tiger, which means my boat will have two set anchors instead of one. From a business perspective, it’s a very interesting challenge.

But again, I’m not bitching about it. My sales have been generally pretty damned good; even my short stories sell better than some “real” author titles, even their novels. So in that regard, I’m very lucky. Don’t think I don’t fall to my knees and thank God every chance I get (though I suspect I’m only bugging Him when I do that). But the trick to it all is to make the success repeatable, sustainable, and dependable. That’s the big friction point right there.

Would love to hear more from you folks about your own sales, if you don’t mind sharing. Hit me up with a comment, and if you want to keep it private, I’ll ensure the comment isn’t revealed to the world (I still approve them).

And now…back to writing. The Rising Horde isn’t going to finish itself, and I’m only about 30,000 words in, with another 100,000 to go. Catch all of you on the rebound.

Out here.

THE RISING HORDE Preview

August 6, 2011 14 comments

Just a little taste of what’s to come, for those who might be interested in the follow-up novel to The Gathering Dead and Left With The Dead

I make no promises that what you read here will be in the final release, as I still have quite some time to go before it’s ready.

 

The dead overran Europe in less than a month.

Despite the technological advancement of most European societies, and despite the ever-vigilant police forces in several of the continent’s nations, the dead spread through the European Union like unchecked wildfire. By the time the EU’s leaders had determined that the carnivorous hordes were a threat of significant consequence, it was too late. NATO was generally powerless to operate in the beginnings of the conflict, shackled beneath a command and control structure that was both burdensome and lackluster. The Europeans didn’t want to face the problem head-on, and the Americans were in no rush to help them.

That was all the time the dead needed.

 

1

McDaniels watched Boston Harbor grow closer as the Coast Guard cutter cruised down the channel at a steady six knots, her bow knifing through the polluted water. He had never been much of a fan of Boston, but he was happy to see it after what he had been through in New York. But as the Escanaba drew closer to the shore, he could see that not all was well in Beantown. Too many sirens, too many flashing strobe lights, scores of helicopters in the air, smoke on the horizon. Just off to the ship’s starboard side, Logan International Airport should have been a beehive of activity. Instead, the airport had been shut down, and the only aircraft using it were military planes which landed and took off in great synchronicity. McDaniels leaned against the deck railing and hung his head.

The dead were already in Boston.

Shipboard announcements were made. The crew was to remain aboard while the ship was reprovisioned. McDaniels already knew there was a car waiting for him at the Escanaba’s dock, in place to spirit him and the precious Iron Key thumb drive sitting in the ship’s safe to a safe location. If such a thing existed, of course. The dead had a funny way of being able to turn even a fortress into a tomb.

As a tugboat linked up with the Coast Guard cutter, rifle fire crackled somewhere on the shore. McDaniels recognized the likely caliber, 5.56 millimeter, the same caliber an Army M4 would fire. And the regular beat of the shots indicated it was one weapon firing on full automatic. So either the military or a law enforcement SWAT team had just gone to guns on something. McDaniels was certain he knew what that something was, and looking at the Coast Guardsmen who tended to their duties on either side of him, he saw they knew what it was too.

“Major?”

McDaniels turned. Regina Safire stood beside him, her green eyes turned toward the approaching shoreline. It was dusk; it had taken the Escanaba almost eighteen hours to make it from New York to Boston, and it seemed that her engines were running full-out the entire time. She regarded the curtain of smoke rising into the air. Her expression was haunted.

“They’re here, aren’t they?” she asked.

McDaniels nodded. “I think pretty soon, they’ll be everywhere.”

“Where are you going? After we get…what do they call it? Put ashore?”

“Nothing’s changed. I’m still going to the Rid.” McDaniels had been charged with delivering Doctor Wolf Safire and his valuable research from New York City to the U.S. Army’s Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases, also known simply as “the Rid”. The fact that Safire himself was dead was largely unimportant—McDaniels was the appointed custodian of Safire’s final research, and that was good enough for the government. He had been in contact with his commanders over his satellite telephone, and they had told him he would be met when the Escanaba made landfall. The only major change was that McDaniels had been instructed to bring Regina Safire with him, just in case the researchers at the Rid might encounter difficulty with her father’s formulations. She might be able to assist in deciphering some of her father’s processes.

“You’re coming with me,” he added. “Big Army wants you in Virginia.”

She nodded slowly, then turned away from the lights of Boston and looked at him. “What about Earl and Zoe?”

McDaniels sighed. “They’re…they’re not persons of interest. They’re free to go anywhere they want once we dock.”

“I’ve been talking with Earl. He doesn’t know anyone in Boston. He doesn’t have any resources. Kicking them to the curb now is kind of cruel, don’t you think?”

McDaniels nodded. “I do. But there’s not a lot I can do about it. I can maybe get him a room somewhere, but I don’t have any credit cards or anything. Not even an ATM card, so I can’t get him any cash—”

“I’ll take care of that. But Earl’s lost his wife and oldest daughter almost back-to-back. And he has Zoe to look after. With everything that’s going on, dumping him onto the street and wishing him luck just isn’t good enough.”

“I’ll talk to the Coasties. Maybe they can help out. In the meantime, you should get ready to disembark. Once we’re at the pier, we’re gone.”

She nodded again. “All right.”

McDaniels made his way to the Escanaba’s bridge and entered it without obtaining any sort of permission. None of the Coast Guardsmen on the deck challenged him, but the ship’s captain, Commander Hassle, didn’t look very happy to see him. Not surprising, since McDaniels had basically called him a coward in front of his crew for not taking a risk and going back into New York City to rescue one of McDaniels’ men who had acted as a decoy so McDaniels could get the civilians—and the Iron Key thumb drive—onto the Coast Guard cutter safely. Once aboard the Escanaba, McDaniels had made radio contact with First Sergeant Gartrell. At the time, Gartrell was on the run from the zombie horde and still very much alive, but McDaniels knew his ammunition had to be almost depleted. A single soldier, even an accomplished thirty year veteran with decades of special operations experience like David Gartrell, was simply no match for thousands of hungry stenches. Alone in the city, Gartrell was fast approaching his “best by” date, and the only thing that might save him would be McDaniels and a handful of Coast Guardsmen. But Hassle had denied McDaniels the men, had denied him the use of one of the Escanaba’s small boats, and had finally stripped the major of his weapons. McDaniels had been incensed at what he perceived to be cowardice on the part of the ship’s captain, but over the time it took for the Escanaba to return to sea and journey to Boston, he had slowly come to understand Hassle’s position. While McDaniels had been operating under a surge of emotion, Hassle still had a crew to preserve and a ship to oversee. Those were his primary mission essentials. Launching what would almost certainly be a suicidal rescue effort for one soldier who was danger close in zombie central just didn’t offer enough returns for sacrificing several of his men. And, when McDaniels had time to get it together, he knew the Coasties would be literally chewed up if they went ashore. Their training and experience simply had not prepared them for protracted overland operations in urban terrain.

Besides, Hassle had taken a big enough risk by sending a detachment out into the waters of the East River for McDaniels and the others. Even if the Coast Guard commander didn’t know it for himself, McDaniels was frankly surprised anyone had made it out of New York alive. Even with the Escanaba’s firepower backing them up, the horde had almost taken them down. The entire Special Forces operational detachment that had gone in with McDaniels and Gartrell had been killed, along with the aviation soldiers from the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment who had been trapped in the city with them. The horde had peeled them off, one by one, until only McDaniels and three civilians remained.

Given what he had narrowly survived, McDaniels wondered how he could have even thought of going back. The Special Forces code required that no one be left behind, but it didn’t specifically state that everyone had to die to retrieve one of their fallen. And that would have been the case had Hassle allowed it to happen.

Just the same, McDaniels approached Hassle on the bridge and saluted him. Even though he wasn’t in the Army and wasn’t anywhere near McDaniels’ chain of command, Hassle was still a superior officer. And it wouldn’t hurt if McDaniels willingly showed him some respect and possibly restore some of the face he’d taken the day before.

Hassle returned the salute perfunctorily. “Major McDaniels. We’ll have you ashore in about fifteen minutes,” he said.

“Thank you, sir. I was wondering if I could speak to you about Mr. Brown and his daughter. It seems they have nowhere to go in Boston and…well, it seems that maybe Boston might not be much safer than New York.” McDaniels nodded to the obvious commotion in the city.

“I thought they were your problem,” Hassle said.

“The Army tells me that only Miss Safire is going to accompany me. The Browns are basically shut out. And I figure since this is your town…”

“You figured that the Coast Guard would be able to look after them, major? I don’t think there’s anything I can do to help. Once you’re off and we’ve been reprovisioned, the Nob heads back to sea.”

“I see. So there’s nothing any of the Coasties ashore can do?”

“You called it when you said Boston has some issues right now, major. Those Guardsmen ashore have other things to worry about right now than finding the Browns a hot and a cot. Again, I’m sorry, but…” Hassle shrugged and spread his hands.

“I understand, commander. I’ll figure something out. Thanks for everything. And I’d like to apologize for the things I said to you before, that was not in keeping with the traditions of my service, and it was just plain rude. You have your own mission to worry about, and I was wrong to try and press you to the mat over my first sergeant.”

Hassle took the apology well, and some of his tension seemed to ebb. “I totally understand, major. You guys were under the hammer the entire time, and losing another man at the end…well. I wouldn’t want to stand in your shoes. I wish there was more we could have done, but you saw the size of the crowd at the shoreline. Even with the fifty and seventy-six, we couldn’t keep them back long enough to get your man. We’d lose the entire party if we tried.”

“I know that now, sir.”

Hassle nodded. “After we dock, I’ll hand off that thumb drive to you. I’m told a government vehicle is already at the pier waiting for you, to take you to…to wherever it is you’re going.”

“Very well, sir.”

“Good luck, major. I hope that whatever that man came up with, it can help us straighten all of this out.” Hassle jerked his chin toward Boston. “And I hope it happens soon, because whatever bug can reanimate the dead and then spread itself through bite wounds is probably something real, real bad.”

“I’m with you on that, commander. Trust me.”

###

McDaniels found Earl and Zoe sitting with Regina in the Escanaba’s cramped crew galley. Zoe leaned against her father listlessly, her gaze fixed on the tabletop before her. She didn’t look up when McDaniels stopped next to the table and asked her how she was doing. McDaniels frowned. She was totally shut down. The things she had witnessed in New York City had completely overwhelmed her ability to cope. But she was still young, and McDaniels hoped she would be able to recover.

Earl wasn’t in much better shape. His eyes were flat and glassy behind his glasses as he looked up at McDaniels. The toll of seeing his wife become one of the walking dead and the death of his eldest daughter as she fell down a dark elevator shaft had taken an awful toll. Despite the fact he had no military or survival training beyond what he might have picked up on the streets of Harlem, Earl had managed to get his daughters to a place of relative safety amidst the carnage that had descended upon New York City. If McDaniels and the others hadn’t arrived, perhaps the zeds would have overlooked the Brown’s enclave completely. But reanimated members of Operational Detachment OMEN—the Special Forces team that had been chopped to McDaniels for the rescue mission—had come hunting for the surviving special operators. And they had found them, and in doing so, the Browns paid yet another terrible price.

Despite that, McDaniels saw no hatred or malice in Earl’s eyes. Only loss, and hurt, and despair. But nothing else, not even blame.

“Any news?” Regina asked.

“Nothing good.” McDaniels looked down at Earl. “You don’t have any place in Boston where you could go, Earl? No friends, no family?”

Earl slowly shook his head. “Nothin’ that I can think of right now. Had an uncle who lived up this way, but he died years ago, and I wasn’t close with his family. You got some sort of plan for us, major?” There was a hint of life in his voice, and he looked up at McDaniels almost expectantly. After all, they were both men of color; Earl was probably hoping that McDaniels would help out another brother down on his luck.

And along with Regina, he and Zoe were the only people aside from McDaniels to make it out of the Big Apple alive. So of course, Earl would look to him for guidance.

“Miss Safire and I are going to be met by a car at the pier. We’ll be leaving the ship in a few minutes. You and Zoe will have to leave as well, and the Coast Guard says there’s nothing they can do for you right now.”

Earl grunted. “I saw the city from the deck. Same thing’s happening here that happened in New York. It’s just startin’, but it’s the same thing. Boston’s gonna go down the same way, and this time, I don’t have no building to hide out in.” He shook his head and squeezed Zoe, but she didn’t respond. “And what am I going to do with her,” he said, his voice barely more than a whisper.

“We can’t take them with us?” Regina asked McDaniels.

“I doubt it. We might be able to drop them somewhere along the way, but I very much doubt we’ll be able to take them all the way to Virginia with us.”

An arrival announcement was made as the Escanaba finally made it to the pier. “Attention all hands, attention all hands—ship secure portside. Major McDaniels, you and your party are requested to disembark at this time from the main deck. All crew, remain at your docking stations until further notice.”

Regina looked from Earl to McDaniels. “We need a plan,” she said.

“I know. Like I said, we might be able to drop them somewhere along the way, but I don’t know what’s going to be between us and wherever it is we’re headed.” McDaniels sighed and put a hand on Earl’s shoulder. “We’ll figure it out. The first thing to do is go topside and find out what transportation has been arranged for us, then find out where it’s headed. We’ll work on the next step after that. All right, Earl?”

“Yeah. Okay.”

McDaniels patted his shoulder as warmly as he could under the circumstances, then stepped back from the table. “Then let’s get to it.”

###

The air was chilly on the main deck of the Escanaba. A passerelle had been erected, connecting the cutter to the cement pier it was tied to. Several vehicles were parked on the pier, and McDaniels tried to identify the one that was waiting for him, but all were either nondescript sedans or trucks waiting to service the Escanaba.

Hassle met McDaniels and the others at the passerelle, and he held the Iron Key thumb drive in one hand. It was wrapped in plastic, just in case it went overboard. He handed the thumb drive to McDaniels.

“That’s something you probably want to take care of,” Hassle said.

“You got that right. Thanks.”

Hassle motioned to a crewman who stepped forth. He carried McDaniels’ MP5 and Mk 23 pistol. “I had the ship’s weapons officer service and clean your weapons, and we’ve filled the magazines. I’m hoping you won’t need them anytime soon, but here they are. You can take them with you off the ship.”

McDaniels accepted the weapons, checked them quickly, then secured them. He nodded to Hassle. “Gosh, hot food, hot showers, laundry service, flushing toilets…I’m not so sure I want to leave, commander.”

Hassle smiled at the comment and pointed down the passerelle. “I’m sorry to hear that, and I’m sorry to tell you to get the hell off my ship, Army.”

McDaniels and Hassle exchanged salutes, then handshakes. “Thanks for taking care of us,” McDaniels told the taller, thinner man. “You came through where even Marines failed.”

“I’ll remember you said that.”

“Take care, Coast Guard.”

“Stay alive, Army.”

McDaniels led the civilians down the passerelle. An enlisted Coast Guardsman waited for him at the end of the ramp, and he pointed out a dark Ford Crown Victoria with government plates sitting at the end of the line of parked vehicles. As he turned toward it, McDaniels heard its engine start. Its headlights popped on a moment later.

“You ride’s over there, sir,” the Coastie said.

“Thanks, son.” McDaniels signaled for the others to follow him, and he set off for the parked car. As he drew near it, the driver’s door opened and a tall kid in battle dress utilities climbed out from behind the steering wheel. He glanced at McDaniels, then took a longer look at the civilians following him. His features were tough to read beneath the shadow cast by the bill of his patrol cap, but McDaniels was certain he wasn’t thrilled to see more bodies than he had been told to expect.

“Major McDaniels?” the soldier asked, saluting McDaniels anyway.

McDaniels returned the salute. “You got it, private. What’s the drill?”

“I’m Private First Class Ernesto, sir. I’m to drive you to Logan, where they’re holding a plane for you and Miss Safire.” He looked past McDaniels’ shoulder at Earl and Zoe. He said nothing further.

“The other civilians are with us for the time being,” McDaniels explained, hoping that would be it.

It wasn’t going to be that easy. “Sorry, major. My orders are to take you and Miss Safire only.”

McDaniels stepped closer to the private. McDaniels stood at six feet flat; the kid before him could have been a forward on the UConn Huskies basketball team, as he towered over the major by a good four or five inches. McDaniels glanced at the patches on his shoulder; he didn’t recognize them.

“What unit are you with?”

“The Nine Seventy-Two Military Police Company, part of the Massachusetts Army National Guard. We should get going, sir.” To accentuate his point, the tall private pulled open the rear passenger door on the driver’s side. The interior dome light snapped on, revealing decidedly no-frills government-issue accommodations.

“Is Logan still open?” McDaniels asked.

“For military use only, sir.”

“Let me ask you this, are there car rental agencies still open?”

The private’s expression didn’t change, though he must have thought the question was odd as hell. “I don’t know, sir.”

McDaniels nodded and motioned everyone toward the car. “Okay, let’s mount up. Private, the Browns are coming with us, at least to Logan. You can tell your commanders you didn’t want a Special Forces troop landing on you with both boots. Hooah?”

The soldier didn’t like it, but McDaniels had him outranked by miles. He nodded curtly and muttered, “Yes, sir.”

“Pile in, guys.” McDaniels steered Regina toward the rear door, and Earl pushed Zoe in after her. McDaniels walked around to the front passenger door and slid inside the car; once he was inside, the private reclaimed the driver’s seat. He pulled the Crown Vic away from the pier, and McDaniels watched the Escanaba recede from view in the passenger door mirror.

###

While McDaniels didn’t have any sort of personal credit cards on him, Regina did. At her insistence, McDaniels ordered the private to stop the car at a nearby bank ATM. The National Guardsman did as instructed without complaint, and stopped the car in a handicapped space. McDaniels got out of the car, mirrored by Regina. There was no one about, and the street was deserted. In the near distance, sirens wailed, and there was the faraway taint of smoke in the air. It all seemed familiar to McDaniels, and he didn’t like that they had stopped on an empty street—even though the streetlights were on and the avenue was well-illuminated, his night vision goggles were secure in the pack on his belt. He saw only what the street lamps could reveal, and after what he’d been through, that wasn’t really very much.

“Hurry,” he said to Regina. He put a hand on the butt of his Mk 23 pistol and escorted her to the bank’s locked door. She swiped her ATM card through the card reader there and the magnetic lock clicked open. McDaniels pulled open the door and let her inside. He kept the door open with his foot and stood sentry while she hurried to one of the ATM machines and did what she needed to do. After only a few moments, she joined him at the door.

“Ready,” she said. McDaniels stood aside and let her pass, then escorted her back to the waiting Ford. After she slid into the back seat, he sat up front. The driver wordlessly backed the car out of the handicapped parking space and accelerated into the night.

“Here, Earl. Take this,” Regina said. McDaniels turned in his seat and watched as Regina reached across Zoe and pushed a wad of cash into Earl’s hands. “I could only take out a thousand. I’ll see if I can get some more at the airport, but that might be all you’ll have for a while.”

Earl nodded meekly. “Thanks, miss.”

“Earl, you don’t have an ATM card?” McDaniels asked.

“My wife kept all that stuff. I didn’t need it.”

McDaniels nodded and faced forward as the car charged onto a larger street, this one containing a traffic flow that seemed almost normal. Brick residential buildings rose on either side of the street, and the driver steered the car toward a tunnel, obviously following the signs that read Logan Airport. The airport traffic was very, very light; traffic heading for the Mass Turnpike was much heavier, and McDaniels asked about that.

“A lot of people are leaving the city,” the driver said.

“Is it being evacuated?”

The driver shook his head. “No, sir. But after what happened to New York, no one’s really going to sit back and wait.”

“How large is the outbreak in Boston?” Regina asked.

“I don’t know, ma’am. Not very large right now, but the National Guard is being called in to augment the city police. The larger outbreaks are to the north.” The car emerged from the tunnel briefly and quickly charged into another one.

“To the north?” McDaniels said. “Isn’t that mostly residential neighborhoods?”

“Yes, sir. I’m not sure why the outbreak started there. Maybe you can find that out later.”

With that, the soldier’s body language seemed to indicate he’d had enough talk. McDaniels let it slide, and they rode the rest of the way in silence.

###

The military presence at Logan was sizeable, but it hadn’t entirely supplanted the civilian workforce. While there was a great deal of tension in the air, McDaniels forced the driver to pull the Crown Vic into one of the first car rental establishments they could find. Regina exited the car as soon as it came to a stop and ran for the rental agency’s brightly-lit office.

“Earl, you can drive, right?” McDaniels asked.

“Yeah, but where to?”

“To wherever you have someone. To someplace safe. Where are your nearest relatives?”

“Uh…got people in Long Island, and New Jersey—”

“No, no—you have to avoid the New York City area. Those things are all over there. Where else can you go, Earl?”

“I have a cousin in Ohio that I’m friendly with,” Earl said after a moment. “In Akron.”

“That sounds good.” McDaniels turned back to him and smiled. “You really saved our bacon back in New York, man. I know you’ve gone through a lot, but if it wasn’t for you, things would have had a different ending. And because of you, we might have a chance at stopping all of this. Thanks for everything.”

Earl seemed mostly unaffected by McDaniels’ praise and thanks. He sat there in the darkened car, clutching his daughter to his side. Her eyes were closed, and her breathing was deep and rhythmic in sleep. McDaniels was grateful that she’d been able to escape the terror for a few moments.

“You’re welcome,” Earl said finally. “And thank you for doing all this for me and Zoe.”

“Of course, Earl. Of course.”

A radio crackled in the car, and McDaniels looked over as the driver pulled a walkie-talkie from his belt. He reported their position and stated they would arrive at the assembly area as quickly as possible. Whoever was on the other end of the radio wasn’t thrilled with that, and he ordered the driver to leave for his target immediately.

McDaniels took the radio from the Guardsman and spoke into it. “This is Terminator Six. We’ll be on target as soon as possible. Expect us in approximately one-zero minutes. Terminator Six, out.” With that, he switched off the radio and placed it on the seat beside him. The driver looked at it, a slightly frantic expression on his face.

“Uh sir—”

“Don’t worry about it, private. I’m armed and you’re not. Make sure your commander knows that.”

“Uh…roger that, sir.”

Regina returned to the car a few minutes later, carrying an envelope, keys, and a rental agreement. “There was another ATM inside, and I was able to withdraw another thousand,” she told Earl as she handed him everything. “You’re all set—I rented a Nissan Pathfinder for you, since I figured it would be better to get a four wheel drive, in case you need it. It has a full tank of gas, they tell me.”

Earl regarded the items he’d been given and nodded to her. He even managed a faint ghost of a smile. “That’s wonderful, ma’am. I really thank you for this.”

“You’re welcome.”

Zoe woke up in the middle of the exchange, and she looked from her father to Regina to McDaniels and back to Earl again. “Where are we going?”

“Ohio, little miss. Ohio, to see your cousin Emma.”

Zoe only nodded.

“Major, we really need to go,” the driver said. “They’re holding a plane for you…”

“Understood, private.” McDaniels shook hands with Earl and touched Zoe’s face. She looked especially fragile right now, and his heart went out to her. He wished there was more he could do. “Goodbye, folks. And the very, very best of luck.”

Regina handed Earl a business card. “My personal cell is on there,” she told him. “Please call me and let me know you’re all right. Just leave a message if you can’t get me directly, and let us know where we can find you. All right?”

“All right, Miss Safire. I’ll do that.” Earl paused for a moment. “I’m sorry about your father.”

Regina froze for a moment, and McDaniels knew she’d been using all the frantic tasks of the past hour to keep memories of her own loss at bay. He hoped that Earl hadn’t just blown a hole through the dam she had built to hold back her emotions; he didn’t want Regina melting down right now.

She didn’t. “Thanks, Earl. And I’m really, really sorry about Kenisha and your wife, too.” As she said this, she reached out for Zoe. Zoe came to her willingly and threw herself into Regina’s arms. She wept softly. McDaniels reached around the seat and put his hand on Zoe’s back, feeling a surge of emotion himself. Chances were good he would never see these people again.

“Major,” the driver said.

“Yeah, okay boy, keep your pants on.” Earl threw open his door and climbed out of the Ford. He walked around to where Regina stood, embraced her quickly, then took Zoe’s hand. “Come on, baby. We got to let these people get goin’. Major, Miss Safire, thanks for everything. We appreciate it. And I’ll repay you, ma’am. You can count on that.”

“No need to do that, Earl.”

“I know. But I’ll do it anyway.” He looked at her and McDaniels for a moment, then reached down and brushed the tears from his young daughter’s face. “You ready, sugar pie?”

“Yes,” she said softly.

Earl straightened and nodded to them one more time. “Goodbye, folks.”

And with that, he led Zoe away, heading for the car rental office.

###

And that’s it for now!