THE RISING HORDE Preview
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.
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.
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?”
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.
“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.”
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!