THE RISING HORDE: It Sucks To Be Summit 6
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!”
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!”
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.
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…