Next Up: THESE DEAD LANDS: IMMOLATION
On the rack now is another zombie action-adventure, but it’s not more of The Gathering Dead. This is a new, different series, co-penned between myself and Scott Wolf, an author who just so happens to be a real Green Beret (albeit recently retired). Scott’s going to be amping the military side of the game quite a bit, and has more than a few ideas of how humanity might fare against raging hordes of the walking dead…and the less altruistic survivors who might also be among the survivors, waiting for their time to take control. And as you might remember, as it was told in The Rising Horde, the folks in that universe might have a handle on things, what with Safire’s vaccine and all. Not so, here.
And that’s when shiznit gets bad.
That said, what follows is all mine–Scott hasn’t yet provided any rewrites, though I suspect it’s coming. And the usual caveat appears here: this is first draft stuff, changes are likely.
Through the binoculars, Hastings watched as the three soldiers hurried toward the abandoned semi-truck on the highway. It was surrounded by a sea of dead vehicles of all shapes and sizes, from tiny Smart cars to luxurious motor homes. The Jersey Turnpike had always been a traffic nightmare even in the best of times, and Hastings was disappointed to find the end of the world hadn’t improved things. He scanned from left to right, taking his time, always keeping track of the soldiers in battle dress as they jogged toward the choked interstate, making their way across the debris-laden field that separated them from the still river of steel and fiberglass. In the distance, huge clouds of black smoke rose into the air. Philadelphia was on fire, and had been for days.
The clutter made for a complex background, and it was difficult for Hastings to see any deadheads which might be lurking in the area. He probably wouldn’t see any until they moved, and then it might be too late for Tharinger, Reader, and Ballantine. Losing the soldiers to the horde would be bad, but the fact that the two M114 Humvees parked on the reverse side of the hill Hastings lay on were almost out of fuel made the risk acceptable. Without reliable transportation, the squad was going to be totally out of luck.
“You see anything?” Hastings said, his voice low.
“Negative.” Beside him, Staff Sergeant Hector Guerra looked through the scope of the M24 sniper rifle he’d pulled off the dismembered corpse of a Special Forces soldier they’d found after pulling out of New York. The Green Berets had been tasked to blow up the George Washington Bridge to contain the walking corpses streaming out of the Big Apple, but they’d been overrun before they could accomplish that particular mission. Which was a good thing for Hastings and the others. If the bridge had gone down, they would have been trapped in Manhattan with the rest of Task Force New York. Which meant they would have been dead already.
“If you see something, tell me. Don’t shoot first,” Hastings said.
“I get it, Captain. You’ve told me that five times already.”
“No need to get testy, Hector.”
Guerra grunted. Hastings continued his scan. Both men were lying prone at the top of the hill to minimize their silhouettes. Behind and below, Stilley and Hartman guarded the Humvees and watched the back door. If any reekers approached them from behind, they would radio warning. No one was to shoot unless it was absolutely unavoidable. Gunfire drew the reekers like flies to shit, almost as surely as they homed in on a blood trail. And no one wanted that; there were thousands of them in the area, and they just didn’t have enough ammunition to go around.
Ahead, the three soldiers slowed as they climbed up the embankment that led to the highway. Moving cautiously, they crossed over the guardrail and made their way to the semi-truck. Each man carried a plastic five gallon gas can which they would fill with diesel fuel for the Humvees. Fifteen gallons of diesel wasn’t a hell of a lot, but if they were able to make a couple of trips, it would be worth it. One of the Humvees was almost dry, and the other had maybe an eighth of a tank left. They’d be lucky to make it another five miles before they lost one of the hardy four-wheel drive vehicles.
Hastings found he had focused on the soldiers, and he snapped out of it and resumed his scan. Panning left to right and back again, as smoothly as he could, sweating beneath his helmet and the heavy ballistic armor he wore. The impulse to watch the soldiers make their way to the truck and begin siphoning fuel from its saddle tanks was almost overpowering, and he struggled with himself to remain focused on his job: watch for zombies, and give the soldiers enough warning to either take cover or retreat.
“Got one,” Guerra said. “To the right of the guys, about two hundred meters to the north.”
Hastings swung the binoculars in that direction, but he couldn’t see anything but abandoned cars and trucks, most with their doors wide open, some splattered with dried blood. Crows picked it human remains that lay on the hot asphalt.
“Can’t see anything,” he said.
“By the red Ferrari, on our side of the highway.”
Hastings found the red car. It was a Lambourghini, not a Ferrari, but he didn’t bother correcting Guerra. He still didn’t see anything, then a flash of movement caught his eye. There. A little Asian girl wearing a bloodstained Dora the Explorer t-shirt and nothing else. A huge wound marred the otherwise perfect flesh of her left thigh, and Hastings could see bone peeking through the tattered flesh. The girl was a reeker.
Hastings spoke into his radio headset’s boom microphone. “Ballantine…you have a reeker headed your way. About two hundred meters to your north, walking between the cars on the other side of that truck you’re at. It’s a kid. Over.”
As he spoke, he heard a shrill, pealing scream. Sometimes, the reekers moaned as they shambled along. Most times, they were silent until they saw something that captured their interest, like a living human being. But the kids, they almost always screamed or cried. It was horrifying in and of itself, as if the animated corpses that had once been children could remember their lives, and grieved at their passing.
“Yeah, we hear it, sir. Does it have a visual on us? Over.” Sergeant First Class Mike Ballantine was a seasoned combat vet who had seen multiple tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, and had spent more time in Indian Country than anyone else in the squad. Just the same, there was a strong undercurrent of tension in his voice.
“Negative, it does not see you yet. Over.”
“Roger that. Let us know if it crosses over into our lane, and let us know when it closes to within a hundred meters. Over.”
“You’ve got some time, Ballantine. It’s a shambler, has a bum leg. Over.”
“I’ll consider that a point in our favor. Over.”
The radio fell silent. “Keep an eye on that reeker,” Hastings said, then went back to his scan. As he panned past the soldiers, he saw they were at the truck. They were already filling one of the gas cans. Good.
More shrieks from the highway. Different from the first.
“Fuck. More of the little pricks,” Guerra said. “What the fuck, did a preschool get turned into a bunch of deadheads? I count four—no five more reekers. All kids.”
Hastings continued his scan. “Same range?”
“Roger, right behind the first one. All walking in a neat little line.”
Hastings passed that on to Ballantine. “You guys might want to take cover for the time being,” he advised.
“On it.” Hastings saw the soldiers climbing into the semi-truck’s cab when he panned the binoculars past their position. They moved slowly, cautiously, making as little noise as possible. Hastings held the binoculars on them for a moment, and he watched as Ballantine crawled in after Reader and Tharinger and slowly pulled the door closed after him. Hastings shook his head slightly. It was well in the 80s already, with high humidity; the truck’s cab would probably be as hot as a sauna.
“We’re buttoned up. Let us know when we’re clear,” Ballantine transmitted.
“Roger that. Chill out for a few, I’ll let you know when you’re good to go. Break. Hartman, SITREP from you. Over.”
“We’re good down here, Six. Stilley has finally stopped talking. Over.”
“That loudmouthed fucker’s going to get us killed,” Guerra said. He meant Stilley, the other soldier guarding the back door. A native New Yorker, he had no idea what a whisper was, even under the direst of circumstances. Hastings figured Guerra might be right, but there was nothing anyone could do about that right now. He would speak to Stilley again later. He had to figure out how he was going to get the soldier squared away before someone did something drastic like put a bullet in whatever passed for his brain.
“I’ll take care of it,” he told Guerra.
“Fair warning, sir. You don’t, I will.”
“Keep your pants on, Guerra. You do your job, I’ll do mine.” Hastings didn’t feel anger or irritation at the sniper’s challenge, but he filed it away as something else he would have to attend to. Later, when they didn’t have troops in imminent danger.
The two men watched as the gaggle of undead children crept past the semi truck’s cab. They did not slow, though one of them did look at the abandoned gas cans for a moment as it staggered by. That was it. Nothing else, no indication they knew living flesh was so near.
Hastings scanned the area thoroughly, looking for any more reekers. He saw nothing, but he knew they were around.
“Ballantine, you guys seem to be good now. We can’t see anything from our side, but you might want to check your right before you climb out. Over.”
“Roger that.” A brief pause. “Ah, we can’t see any activity from here. We still good to dismount? Over.”
“Roger, you’re still good. Over.”
The driver’s door on the truck’s cab slowly opened. Hastings watched through the binoculars as Ballantine stepped out on the rig’s running board and looked in both directions. Cautiously, he lowered himself to the asphalt, the pistol grip of his M4A3 assault rifle clenched in his right hand. Hastings couldn’t see the man’s face behind the MTek blast visor and facial armor all the soldiers wore, but he was certain even a steadfast trooper like Carl Ballantine was sweating bullets. If nothing else, the heat and humidity would ensure that would be the case, should fear fail to inspire perspiration. Ballantine moved toward the open saddle tank and took a guard position as the rest of the soldiers climbed down from the truck. They resume their siphoning mission immediately.
As Hastings went back to his scan, he asked, “Ballantine, how are you guys holding up? Over.”
“Hot as hell, Six, but still living. Over.”
Hasting’s view wandered over a beverage truck that lay on its side several hundred feet from where the soldiers stood. The vehicle had apparently been involved in a multi-vehicle pile up that halted traffic on this stretch of the highway. It was surrounded by a myriad of plastic bottles which lay on the ground like so many expended cartridges, gleaming in the sun.
“Guerra, when you get the chance, take a look at the water truck downrange. Are those bottles full or empty?”
“Hold one.” Guerra slowly panned his rifle to the right. After a moment, he said, “Looks like most of them are empty. I guess the motorists raided when the traffic got stopped. Might still be some in the truck, though.”
Hastings considered that for a moment. They would need water soon too. It was going to be a long drive upstate, and they would need every consumable they could put their hands on. Especially water. Water would be a big concern.
“Let’s get the fuel first,” he said finally.
“My opinion exactly.”
Below, Tharinger continued siphoning the saddle tank while Reader knelt nearby, weapon at ready. Ballantine had walked toward the rear of the rig’s trailer, his assault rifle shouldered, barrel down. Hastings saw his finger was on the weapon’s trigger guard. The NCO was indexed and ready to go.
“Okay, I have more movement on the highway,” Guerra said, and there was a quality to his voice which made Hastings’s ears perk up. “Check about sixty degrees uprange, heading toward our guys.”
Hastings swung the binoculars toward the north. It took him a long moment to figure our exactly what it was he saw, but he finally pulled himself together and figured it out. Heads and shoulders were swaying from side to side between the cars. Thousands of heads and shoulders. There was a veritable army of the dead marching down the highway, threading through the traffic.
Jesus… they followed us all the way from New York City.
“You know, I see some reekers in there that look to be in pretty good shape,” Guerra said. “Might be runners. You, uh, might want to pass that on to Ballantine, Captain.”
Hastings spoke into his headset microphone urgently. “Ballantine, we have a major contact headed your way from the north. Finish up what you’re doing and get ready to run like hell. There may be some runners in the group, but we’ll do our damnedest to service them from here. Break. Hartmann, get the vehicles ready to move out. Over.”
“Roger,” was Hartmann’s brusque reply.
Below, the three soldiers started packing up, moving quickly and efficiently. Ballantine pressed himself against the trailer and raised his rifle, peering through his scope. While his rifle’s optics weren’t anywhere as good as Guerra’s, he could see the writing on the wall pretty clearly even through 4x magnification. He turned and motioned for Reader and Tharinger to hurry it up. They had filled maybe two cans at the most, so each soldier grabbed one five gallon can and hurried to the highway shoulder. Keeping as low as possible, they crawled over the guardrail and pulled the cans after them. Ballantine glanced over his shoulder and checked their progress; when he saw they were over the guardrail, he dropped back, grabbed the empty fuel canister, and hurried after them.
One of the reekers saw him.
Oh, fuck me, Hastings thought acidly when he saw the reeker change direction and stumble toward Ballantine. Its arms were outstretched as if it intended to give the soldier a hug, even though he was well over a hundred feet away. The reeker was a shambler, which meant it moved about as fast as a toddler could walk, but its actions caught the attention of the zombies closest to it.
And some of those were runners, as Guerra had guessed.
Hastings watched as one, then two, then three zombies left the pack, running toward the guardrail Ballantine had just crossed over. If the tall, stocky NCO had noticed them, he gave no indication. He charged after Reader and Tharinger as they themselves bolted across the gently undulating field, leaving vague paths through the tall grass. Hastings watched as two more runners detached themselves from the zombie herd, sprinting after the others.
“Okay guys, you have runners on your trail. Move some ass,” he said over the radio.
“You want me to shoot?” Guerra asked.
“Take ‘em out,” Hastings said. He dropped his field glasses and pulled his M4A3 into position and looked through its scope. Beside him, Guerra worked the sniper rifle. BANG! One runner went down. BANG! A second stumbled and flailed for a moment as the 7.62 millimeter round tore through the left side of its head, just above the eyebrow, and pelted the reeker behind it with a splatter of gore. The runner fell onto its side and lay still. BANG! The third zombie jerked as Guerra’s next shot took it right between the eyes, blasting out the back of its skull as if it had been made from Papier-mâché. Hastings was impressed. The three shots had rung out in less than three seconds, by his estimation. Guerra certainly knew his stuff.
He sighted on one of the remaining runners and squeezed the assault rifle’s trigger. The M4A3 cracked and spat its smaller, but no less lethal, 5.56 millimeter round downrange. He wasn’t as good as Guerra at that range; the round hit the runner in the right side of its skull, but the angle was off. The zombie fell into the tall grass but continued thrashing about, its blackened hands slapping at the sky in erratic convulsions.
Guerra brought down the remaining runner as it bolted across the grassy field, reaching for Ballantine. It slammed to the deck and lay unmoving only ten feet behind the tall sergeant first class. That had been a fast one.
The rest of the zombie horde made it to the guardrail. The zombies piled up there, without even trying to climb over the metal restraint. Instead, they just fell over it and collapsed to the ground on the other side, cresting the guardrail like some fetid tsunami of rotting flesh washing ashore. A cloud of black flies darkened the air around the herd as the insects orbited the stinking mass. It wouldn’t be long until the reekers were not only dead and smelly, but maggot-ridden as well. Hastings wondered if that would be beneficial. Didn’t maggots only eat dead flesh? And if the zombies were dead, didn’t that mean the fly larvae would have a constant bounty upon with to feed, until all the zombies were gone?
Below, the three soldiers ran up the hill as fast as they could. Hasting pushed himself to his feet, his assault rifle still at his shoulder. Guerra remained prone, and fired on another runner that detached itself from the mass of necrotic flesh crossing the highway. Hastings held his fire. Shooting anything but a runner at this stage would just be wasting ammunition.
“Hartmann, how’re we doing back there? Over.”
“Six, we’re ready to roll when you are. No reekers here yet, but I imagine they’re coming, now that you guys have started shooting. Over.” There was no recrimination in Hartmann’s voice, just cold truth. The gunfire could be heard for miles in each direction, and every reeker in range would zero in on the noise and attempt to follow it to its source. Like sharks following a bloody ribbon through a dark sea.
Hastings watched as Ballantine caught up to Reader and Tharinger and urged them on. He finally stopped and turned to check and make sure they were clear from behind. When he saw the closest zombie was almost two hundred feet away, he continued slogging up the hill. Reader and Tharinger huffed and puffed their way toward Hastings and Guerra, taking great care to stay out of the latter’s lane of fire. Hastings heard them gasping for breath behind their armor, and he motioned them past.
“Keep going, guys. Get to the Humvees,” he ordered.
Both men mumbled something and pushed past him, still holding the gas cans. Ballantine crested the hill next, almost sauntering his way toward Hastings and Guerra. He looked down at the prone sniper, then back at the mob of zombies advancing toward the hill.
“You know, this probably isn’t the best time to take a siesta, Guerra,” he said.
“Blow me,” Guerra said.
“I don’t have time to organize a search party.”
“Come on, Ballantine. I saved your ass, man.”
Ballantine shook his head, then looked over at Hastings. He was taller than the captain by a good three or four inches, and Hastings himself stood an inch over six feet in height.
“Less than ten gallons of diesel, Captain.” Ballantine hefted the gas can he carried. “This one’s empty.”
“Let’s do what we can with what we have,” Hastings said. He pointed toward the growing horde that advanced toward the hill at a slow shamble. “We have to bug out before they get too thick.”
“Sergeant Guerra, any more runners down there?”
“Affirmative, but they can’t get through the crowd just yet,” Guerra said. Hastings looked down the hill. The mass of rotting former humanity was still mostly confused by the guardrail; while over a hundred reekers had fallen over it, almost a thousand more stood bunched up behind it.
“Then let’s get the hell out of here,” Hastings said. He saw movement from the corner of his eye, and he turned to the left. Ballantine did as well, raising his M4. Three reekers stumbled down an opposing hillside, their dead faces turned toward the men as they lurched along.
Guerra got to his feet wordlessly and turned away from the zombies. He glanced at the others coming down the other hill to the left of their position, but didn’t comment on them. That more zombies would be arriving was a given.
Hastings led them down the hill at a trot, heading back for the Humvees.