THE RISING HORDE: Last Shot
My final snippet from The Rising Horde, which is now with the editor who will be doing great things. Spoke to her about it last night, and she was taken aback by how long the book is. As such, her job will last through the first week in April, so the release will be pushed back a bit. There’s also some talk of breaking it into two and releasing it as two separate novels. I haven’t made up my mind on that yet, but we’ll see.
Anyway…to the Horde!
“Dudes, check this shit out,” Roberson said.
“What is it?” Kelly asked. The sun was just rising above the horizon, and the air was frigid. The breath of the four Special Forces soldiers was visible in the brightening air, and a thin layer of frost covered their Enduro motorcycles and the one ATV that was used as a mobile sniping platform. Kelly was the nominal leader of the element, and he pushed himself up on his elbows, looking to see whatever it was Roberson was glassing through the binoculars. There was slow movement behind him, and he knew it was Estrada easing his M24 to his shoulder to peer through its scope. Kelly felt like a rube for raising himself up on his elbows and trying to look downrange with the Mk 1 Eyeballs when he had a pair of binoculars sitting on the ground right beside him. He snatched them up and brought them to his eyes.
“Wow,” Estrada said.
“Where the hell did that come from?” Gogol said.
Kelly scanned the horizon with his binoculars until he found what it was that was causing all the commotion. There, silhouetted against the rising sun: one man-sized target, standing alone in the desert.
“Is that a zed?” Roberson asked, giving voice to Kelly’s unspoken question.
“Can’t tell, too much backlight washing it out,” Gogol said.
“Crazy Hank?” Kelly kept the binoculars to his eyes, squinting against the brightening dawn as he struggled to make out the figure’s features.
“I’m going to say yes to that,” Estrada said. “One stench, about eight hundred meters out, just standing there like a store mannequin.”
“But where did it come from?” Gogol asked again.
“If it came from your ass, you’d know,” Roberson said. “What’re we going to do about it, Kelly?”
“Hank, can you confirm with a hundred percent certainty that’s a zed out there?”
Estrada hesitated for a long moment before answering. “Not a hundred percent, no.”
Kelly scanned the rest of the area, but found nothing terribly remarkable. The landscape was pancake flat out here, so if there was anything else out there, they would have noticed it. At least now that the sun was rising…
“Can you make the shot from here?”
Estrada sounded offended. “What do you think, Kelly?”
“I think my eighty-nine year old grand momma could make the shot, but I’m not so sure about you.” Kelly got to his feet and dusted off his battle dress. “Okay, let’s notify Hercules. We’ll need to roll up on it to get a better ID. Roberson and I will head up, while Estrada and Gogol hold back. When we identify it as a stench, it’s all yours, Hank. Do try to hit it on the first shot this time?”
Estrada only snorted. He’d been servicing targets with one round for almost his entire military career as a Special Forces sniper. It was why he was called Crazy Hank; not because he was in any way insane, but because he was able to make the craziest shots in the world, and use only one round to make a kill.
Kelly called it in and briefed the operator sitting in the TOC of his intended plan. It seemed to be only one stench, so the threat to the Special Forces element was low. Just the same, Hercules advised him that an aviation asset would be uncaged and onsite in less than five minutes, and that the remainder of Special Forces Operational Detachment Alpha Zero-Three-Four would be linking up with the element as a backup force. Kelly thought it was all overkill, but everyone wanted to take a swing at the piñata—so long as the 160th didn’t send out a Chinook full of Rangers and SEALs to fastrope right onto the stench’s head, that was fine by him.
He and Roberson rode toward the figure on their motorcycles while Gogol and Estrada held back, the latter stretched out over his ATV, ready to punch the target’s ticket when the order was given. Kelly kept his eyes open behind his sunglasses, but didn’t see anything even remotely threatening as the two Special Forces soldiers brought their bikes to a halt about fifty yards from the target. And it was definitely a stench; Roberson made a face when he caught a whiff of it as the light desert breeze changed for a moment.
“Christ, that fucker’s ripe,” he said.
Kelly dismounted and gently leaned his bike on its kickstand—the dry desert soil was hard enough to support it. He walked toward the stench slowly, his modified M4 in both hands, ready to snap it up and fire at the first hint things were going to turn south. The zombie didn’t seem to notice him, and there was a fairly good reason for that. It had apparently caught fire at some point, and its eyes were gone, as were its ears and a good amount of flesh on its body. It reeked of cooked flesh and rot, a combination that Kelly found to be incredibly disgusting. It was obvious to him that the ghoul was so badly damaged that it couldn’t sense him, and had apparently hadn’t even heard them approach on their bikes.
“Tack Four-One, Tack Four-Six. Target is definitely a zed, you want to take it down? Over,” Kelly said into his radio boom-microphone.
Estrada’s answer was immediate. “Tack Four-Six, Tack Four-One. Roger that. Would be good if you were to halt your advance and hold your position. Over.”
Kelly stopped and waved his left hand. “Tack Four-One, roger. You’re cleared to engage—”
Before he had finished speaking, Kelly heard a slight zip as the rifle round sped past him and slammed into the ghoul’s right eye socket. The zombie collapsed to the ground immediately as the seven-six-two millimeter bullet fairly decimated its skull. He sighed and turned back to where Estrada and Gogol waited in the distance and gave them both the finger.
“Kelly!” Roberson shouted suddenly, and he raised his rifle. Kelly spun around and saw the desert floor was shifting up right beside him. A pallid hand reached out from beneath the dried earth and latched onto his ankle. Kelly half-jumped, half-stumbled away from the buried ghoul with a grunt and brought his rifle around. As the stench clawed its way out of the desert, he fired two rounds into its head. Behind him, Roberson opened up. Kelly turned and saw two more ghouls rise out of shallow graves. He sensed even more movement, and from the corner of his eye, three more stenches emerged from the desert. As he ran for his bike, he saw the variations in the soil here and there…at least a dozen stenches had buried themselves out here, and they were rising from their sandy hide sites with snarling moans.
It’s a fucking ambush!
“Let’s get the fuck out of here!” Kelly shouted to Roberson. He hopped onto his bike and fired it up, then yanked it around in a tight turn, kicking up a rooster-tail of dirt. Roberson did the same, and he accelerated away with Kelly close behind. But then the earth moved to Kelly’s right, and before he could do anything further, a spindly arm lashed out tangled itself in the aluminum spokes of his bike’s front wheel. Kelly only had time to pop the motorcycle into neutral before he went flying over its handlebars.
McDaniels had just finished shaving in the latrine when he heard one of the Little Birds suddenly crank to life to the north, which meant something was going down. He wiped the remainders of shaving cream from his face, pulled on his BDU blouse, grabbed his gear, and hit the door as the Little Bird—an MH-6, the unarmed variant—buzzed past, bolting to the southeast. Soldiers and civilians alike emerged from tents and trailers and buildings to look at the helicopter as it screamed toward the rising sun. McDaniels pulled on his headset and switched on the radio.
“Operations, this is Hercules Six. Is something going down? Over.” As he spoke, McDaniels struck out for the tactical operations center.
“Hercules Six, this is Operations. Sir, you’d better get over here, we have an engagement going down outside the wire. Over.”
“Ops, Hercules Six. On my way.”
It didn’t take more than two minutes for McDaniels to sprint to the trailer that housed the tactical operations center. He pushed open the door and rushed to his station. Gartrell was already there, as were Rawlings and Carmody. As he slid into his chair and pulled off his personal radio headset and donned a lighter version for use inside the TOC, Switchblade and Jaworski ran inside, followed by several other troopers.
“All right, talk to me,” McDaniels said, looking around the TOC. “Internal Security?”
A first lieutenant with the Ranger battalion shot him a thumbs-up. “We’re good, it’s happening outside the wire, sir.”
“One MH-6 has jumped out to provide recon for an ODA slice operating as ES, Colonel.”
“Got that. External Security, give it to me.”
It was Rawlings who spoke. “A slice from ODA Zero-Three-Four reported a single stench, but couldn’t establish complete VID. They rolled up on it to check it out, and something went south from there. We’re waiting to hear what it is, Six.”
“Somebody call the Green Berets and get it from them right now,” McDaniels ordered.
Kelly hit the ground on his back and cartwheeled onto his face before he could stop himself. When he came to a rest, he was halfway on his knees with his ass sticking in the air and his face in the dirt. He didn’t seem to be hurt, but he couldn’t find his rifle—he’d lost it during his brief flight, and he couldn’t see it in the scrub brush around him. Something cracked nearby, and Kelly shouted when a stench collapsed to the ground right next to him. He flipped over onto his back and pulled his Mk 24 SOCOM pistol. Just in time, for another stench advanced toward him at a fast run. Kelly fired at it twice and struck it in the chest both times, but even the heavy impacts of the .45 caliber rounds didn’t make it slow down. The zombie fell to the desert floor when its head exploded, and Kelly heard the report of Estrada’s M24 sniper rifle a moment later.
Roberson rode up and braked to a halt nearby. He shouldered his M4 SOPMOD rifle and took down two more zombies as they shambled toward Kelly.
“Dude, are you hurt?”
Kelly felt a twinge in his left ankle, but he wasn’t going to cry over it. “No, I’m good,” he said.
“Then get the fuck up and get on your bike—this is stench central, man!” Roberson fired three more shots, and Kelly flailed to his feet. He was totally disoriented. His bike gurgled away nearby, and an armless zed crawled toward him, moaning, still covered with dusty earth.
“You must be the fuck who flipped me over,” Kelly said. He put a round through its face, and the zombie fell motionless to the desert floor. He hobbled toward his idling motorcycle—yeah, the ankle was definitely messed up—and looked around for his rifle. He saw it lying nearby, and for a moment, he was torn between going for it or his bike.
“Come on, move your ass!” Roberson shouted. He fired several shots in rapid succession, and Kelly heard a snap! as a round from Estrada’s rifle flashed past. Adding to the confusion was the approaching MH-6. It made one high speed pass at forty feet, practically right over Kelly’s head. But the pass actually attracted the attention of the zeds, and they turned away from the two Green Berets and stared after the aircraft for a moment as it executed a hard tight turn. Kelly seized the opportunity to go for his bike. He muscled it upright, mounted it, kicked it into gear and twisted the throttle. Roberson spun his motorcycle around as well, and the two Special Forces soldiers accelerated away from the zombies that stumbled after them. He heard Hercules calling the unit for an update, and in the near distance, he saw two Humvees bounding across the desert in their direction—that would be the rest of the alpha detachment rolling in to back them up. Estrada continued to fire at the ghouls behind the two soldiers, with Gogol peering through his binoculars, spotting targets for him. Kelly risked a glance over his shoulder and saw the stenches were going down, one by one. Estrada was performing as expected—one shot, one kill, bang, dead. Kelly faced forward and steered the bike after Roberson’s.
How the hell did that happen?
Have a good day, folks.