THESE DEAD LANDS: IMMOLATION–Farewell to Drum
In this excerpt from the upcoming THESE DEAD LANDS: IMMOLATION by myself and some flying squirrel named Scott Wolf, Captain Philip Hastings and his merry band of lightfighters manage to escape the zombie hordes that overran Task Force Manhattan and find their way back to Fort Drum, New York. What they find there isn’t exactly what they’d been hoping for.
Usual disclaimers apply: first draft stuff, unedited, no guarantee that what you see here will be in the finished product.
It had taken two days for the soldiers to cut across to Pennsylvania and then trek north to the Army fort that lay practically a stone’s throw from the border that separated the United States from Canada. And it had been mostly anticlimactic; sticking to the back roads, the two Humvees made poor time but didn’t encounter any zombie infestations they either couldn’t go around or just blast right through. While suppression weapons like the Mk 19 and the M2 .50 caliber weapons in the Humvee turrets weren’t as capable against the reekers as the soldiers would have liked, they could still slow them down and cause some serious confusion among their stinking ranks—especially the grenade launcher. It blasted reekers apart, and even though some of those parts still retained enough instinct to want to kill and feed, separating the zombies’s heads from the rest of their anatomy made that an unlikely prospect. Any zombies that survived the attack were thrown aside by the speeding Humvees, or crushed beneath their knobbed tires.
Just the same, they had to stop and refuel once, after they had crossed over into New York. Despite being home to New York City, the Empire State’s western half wasn’t so densely populated. In fact, outside of the small cities, it was absolutely rural. It made finding fuel a little problematic, but eventually they came across a cargo truck that had rolled over in a ditch. The vehicle’s grille and bumper were covered with a thick layer of gore, and judging by the several smears of crusted black liquid and the remains of several zombies—some of which were still trying to move despite severe damage to their limbs—the vehicle’s driver had been smashing his way through a dense crowd of reekers before finally losing control and crashing into the ditch on the side other side of the road.
The blood-flecked interior of the truck’s cab told the rest of the story.
The truck’s left saddle tank was about a third full, and Tharinger bled it dry. They transferred the fuel to the Humvees, and Tharinger intended to poke a hole in the underside of the right tank and drain it, but it was already empty. It had likely been torn open once the vehicle left the road, and the precious diesel had bled out.
Curiously, the truck’s fiberglass cargo box had been torn asunder during the rollover, and the soldiers were able to see what lay inside: the battered remains of a Lambourghini Reventón. Hastings had to shake his head at that. If he recalled correctly, only twenty-seven had been made, at a price of almost $900,000 per copy. Whoever had been driving the truck was either a car thief who had thought it was his lucky day, or a serious collector who just couldn’t part with his pride and joy.
They moved on, leaving the destroyed relic of a world that had once been behind them.
They spent the night off the road, huddled inside their armored Humvees, secure that the carnivorous corpses couldn’t get to them even if they were discovered. Throughout the night, one man in each Humvee stood watch, examining the forested nightscape outside through night vision goggles. Reekers did stumble past the Humvees, their eyes wide and staring in the darkness. The soldiers remained still inside their vehicles, and the corpses paid them no mind. Even those that physically walked into the Humvees simply picked their way past and disappeared into the night, continuing to hunt prey which already lay so very near.
Just the same, Hastings thought the reekers seemed more active at night, more purposeful. Even though they still didn’t have enough sense to further investigate the presence of two armored vehicles, they didn’t seem to stumble as often as they did during the day. He had noticed the same in New York City, but none of his fellow officers could make any sense of it either.
Day came, and the area was still thick with zombies. The soldiers had no choice. Tnhey fired up the Humvees, and drove right through the small horde that surrounded the tiny clearing the vehicles had used as a laager area. They made it back to the rural road the haphazardly paralleled Interstate 81 and weaved their way around individual ghouls that shambled across the blacktop. Several of the grotesqueries turned at the sound of the Humvees’s engines, and a few runners even charged at them. But their attacks were turned by each Humvee’s thick bumper, and in the end, shattered remnants of humanity were left sprawled across the road, writhing in fetid pools of black ichor.
By midafternoon of the second day, the two vehicles picked their away around Watertown, the town just outside Fort Drum. Parts of the town had burned, but other parts looked untouched, almost pristine. Several trailers emblazoned with the acronym FEMA were visible, and Hastings figured Watertown had been evacuated. He had no idea if everyone had made it out.
Fort Drum hadn’t been so lucky.
The majority of the post had been razed almost to the ground, just as Master Sergeant Slater had said. Smoking remains of aircraft were scattered across the airfield, and the housing communities that surrounded the center of the post itself had been consumed by a conflagration that was so huge it must have been visible even from Earth orbit. And surrounding the installation were piles and piles and piles of bodies, more than Hastings could count, more than he had ever seen in one place at one time, outside of that final desperate night in New York City. Many of them were burned, but most were not; some of them still stirred, flopping about restlessly, their moans carried across the slight breeze that, thankfully, kept the full force of the stench from reaching them.
“Fuck, man,” Guerra said finally, standing in the cupola of the Humvee behind Hastings. “Fuck, that crazy bastard was right. Drum’s… gone, man.”
Hastings stared through his binoculars, looking at where he believed his house would have been located. Only smoking rubble was left now; his home had been obliterated by the firestorm, converted to ash and charred wood and blackened brick.
He couldn’t catch his breath for a long moment, and the vision of the destruction he saw through his field glasses swam and broke up.
Scotty was only three years old, a tow-headed little ruffian with a devil-may-care grin and bright blue eyes that always twinkled, eyes that came from his mother, not him. He had her hair too, but he had Hastings’s nose and chiseled chin, and Hastings had known that as he approached manhood, Scotty would be one hell of a heartbreaker.
Terry was thirty-four, tall with a slender frame, a natural athlete who had been a track star in high school and a state champion swimmer in college. She’d dreamed of competing in the Olympics and had tried out once, only to be weeded out in the selection process. She swore she’d go back and try again, but then she had met Hastings, and then they had gotten married, and then she was pregnant with Scotty…
“I see the field house.” Ballantine was right beside him, looking through his own binoculars. “It’s surrounded by FEMA trailers. Looks like a tent city had been set up around it… must’ve been where they relocated all the dependents and other civilians after they shrank the perimeter.”
Hastings cleared his throat and blinked away the tears as well as he could. It was no easy feat, since he felt like his heart had just been skewered by a freezing ice pick, but he managed to get past the grief for a moment. He swung his glasses over to where Ballantine was looking, and he saw the bulky outline of the field house. It wasn’t burned, but its windows were shattered. And as he watched, Hastings could see the handful of zombies picking their way through the debris. Just like the six light infantrymen standing on the hill overlooking the post, the zombies were searching for any sign of human life.
“There’s no one left in there,” Hastings said after a long moment. “Half of the reekers down there are in uniform. Troops that were taken down and reanimated.”
“I know,” Ballantine said, and his voice was very small. “There weren’t enough troops left up here to keep the fort secure, anyway. Most of the Tenth was down in the city.”
“So what are we going to do now?” If he felt anything, it wasn’t reflected in Guerra’s voice. “We have to figure out what we’re going to do.”
Hastings wrestled with the question. He continued to peer through his binoculars so the rest of the soldiers couldn’t—might not—see just how emotionally unhinged he was. Even though all of them must have felt it, felt that the rug had been yanked right out from under their feet, he was the one who was supposed to keep his head. Calm, cool, and collected.
There aren’t any things like that in the zombie apocalypse, he thought.
“We could try for Bragg,” Reader said. “Follow that crazy fucker Slater—”
“Man, what the fuck makes you think that Bragg is going to be in any better shape than Drum? The entire Eighty-Second was sent to Washington,, man! There isn’t anyone there to defend the place!” Hartman’s voice was high and tight as he stood guard nearby, his M4 shouldered and ready.
Stilley manned the .50 caliber in the other Humvee, and for once, he didn’t seem to have much to say.
“What about Denver, then? If what the master sergeant said was true, then it sounds like the mountain states are where we need to go,” Tharinger said. He stood guard near the first Humvee’s front fender, M4 also at the ready.
“Yeah, that’s only about a thousand plus miles from here,” Guerra said. “We can do that, easy.”
“Captain, can I borrow one of the Humvees?” Ballantine asked suddenly.
That made Hastings lower his binoculars. He turned and looked at the older NCO, and he was shocked by the haunted, desperate expression on his face. Is that how I look? he wondered. How will the men follow me if I look like that?
He turned and looked at the rest of the soldiers. They all had the same look. That blended expression made from equal parts fear, grief, mourning, and defeat.
“Why do you need a Humvee, Sergeant?” Hastings asked, turning back to Ballantine.
“My family was holed up in a cabin on the Black River,” he said. “A small place off of Woodard Hill, down towards Watertown.” When Hastings only stared at him, he pressed on quickly, looking over his shoulder at the rest of the soldiers, as if seeking support. “They’re smart, you know. Mary and the boys, they know to keep quiet. And they had guns, in case something went wrong. Supplies, too. If they kept to the cellar, none of those stinking stiffs would know they were there—”
“Do you really think your family is still alive, Ballantine?” Hastings asked, as gently as he could under the circumstances.
“Yes, sir, I do. I’ll ask you again, can I borrow one of the Humvees?” As he spoke, Ballantine let his field glasses hang around his neck by their strap. His right hand closed on the pistol grip of his rifle, and his left slowly closed around the weapon’s fore grip.
“Going to shoot me if I say no, Sergeant Ballantine?”
“Yes, sir. I will.” There was no emotion in Ballantine’s voice, nothing in his eyes other than fear and worry. Hastings could see that to Ballantine, he was just another obstacle now.
“Let’s do that,” Stilley said.
“What?” Hastings asked. He kept his eyes on Ballantine, who hadn’t moved. Yet.
“Let’s go see if the sergeant’s people are still alive,” Stilley said. “We gotta do something, and we can’t stay here. Reekers are starting to take notice. They’re heading our way, guys.”
Hastings heard Guerra move about in the other Humvee. “Roger, he’s right about that, Captain. We’d better take the debate on the road. Drum’s wasted, and if we don’t want to end up the same way, we’d better beat feet.”
Hastings nodded slowly. “All right. All right, Ballantine… we’ll see if we can locate your family. But if we can’t, what do you want to do?”
“If they’re not there, Captain, I won’t give two shits what we do.”
From nearby, a creaking moan sounded. Hastings turned and saw a blackened zombie step out from the ragged brush that lined the road behind them. Its eyes were hollow and blank, but when it saw the group of soldiers, it bared its teeth and stumbled toward them with outstretched arms. Like Boris Karloff when he played Frankenstein’s Monster in the original movies. Hartman stepped back and sighted on the thing with his rifle.
“Don’t fire,” Hastings said. “The sound’ll bring them all this way. Let’s mount up, troops. Ballantine, you’re with me in the lead vehicle.”
There was a quick chorus of “hooahs” as the soldiers went into action. Hastings watched them for a moment, then reached down to his belt and pulled his brain bar from its sheath. He advanced toward the single zombie that shambled toward them, and damned if the thing didn’t seem to smile when it saw him approaching.
Hastings smashed its skull in with three quick blows, and the ghoul crumpled to the ground with a weary sigh, its head dimpled inward from the strikes. Hastings gave it another whack for good measure, then turned and walked back to the waiting Humvee.
Quick note about this project: even though the 10th Mountain Division figures prominently in another work I’m participating in, The Retreat, These Dead Lands was started long before that venture. I briefly entertained the notion of changing up the unit, as the 10th has found itself captured in The Gathering Dead series and The Farm. I have no previous affiliation or specific allegiance to the mountaineers of the 10th, or lightfighting in general, but I decided to scrub the changes. As such, Master Sergeant Wolf (who is also an alumnus of the 82nd Airborne Division) and elected to press on, despite the similarities.