THESE DEAD LANDS: IMMOLATION–Holing Up
And I hope everyone had a Merry Christmas!
In this excerpt, Captain Hastings, Sergeant First Class Ballantine, and the rest of the lightfighters find an abandoned farm house in rural New York State. Setting up the civilians they have with them, the troops bed down for the night while Hastings tries to keep himself from coming unglued.
There wasn’t much that could be done to harden the old farm house beyond blocking the windows and barricading the doors. They tossed the dead dog out into one of the fields—they didn’t want to take the time to bury it, even though its stench could serve to lure the dead onto the premises—but Hastings and Ballantine both felt that if they kept all signs the property was inhabited to a minimum, then the reekers would move on. They didn’t exhibit a remarkable ability to determine exactly where their prey might be, beyond sight and sound and, it was logical to presume, smell. Even though the reekers were clinically dead, it was obvious they still respired to a degree, as they could make various vocalizations. Whether this meant they could smell or not, Hastings didn’t know for sure, but he thought it was safe to presume they did.
Kay Ballantine and her kids set about cleaning the kitchen as well as they could in the fading light. Diana and the autistic boy (“His name is Kenny,” she had informed Hastings) stayed in the living room. The boy wore only a pull-up diaper, and his narrow chest and arms gleamed with a pale luminescence in the dwindling light that managed to penetrate the dingy curtains. He was beginning to exhibit some signs of stress, muttering to himself in a sing-song voice while he stared at his right hand and flexed his fingers. Hastings worried about that. They had inspected the boy’s injuries as well as they could, and he had definitely been sodomized—something that left Hastings feeling a useless kind of fury, even though he had left the boy’s attackers to a miserable fate. His injuries did not appear to be very severe, but they would cause him discomfort for the next few days. He was reasonably certain Kenny would get good medical care at Fort Indiantown Gap. If the National Guard post was still there, of course.
But now, he was becoming concerned that the boy might start acting out. He had no real experience dealing with children afflicted with autism, but he was aware that they could be incredibly uncooperative, and that could be problematic, in the extreme. While he didn’t want to reduce the boy to a tactical inconvenience, the thing was, remaining covert and not attracting attention was one of the keys to the group’s continued survival. If the boy started screaming and crying, things could fly right off the rails.
Hastings knelt by the pair was they sat on the couch. The boy leaned against Diana, his eyes big as he stared at his hand in the growing gloom. Diana ran her fingers through Kenny’s dark hair, and looked over his head at Hastings as he squatted down before them.
“His mother did this to keep him calm,” she said.
Hastings nodded. “How active is he?”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, how much noise does he make?”
Diana frowned. “He cries,” she said. “Why?”
“Noise isn’t our friend right now.”
Her eyes narrowed. “So what do you suggest, General? We take him out back and plug him?”
Hastings felt his temper click upward a notch. “Don’t be an asshole, lady. We need to figure out how to keep him occupied, and quiet. You going to help with that?”
Diana sighed. “What did you have in mind?”
“There’s a cellar. We could move him down there. He seems to like you, you could go down with him.”
The color seemed to drain from her face suddenly. “A cellar,” she said.
“Yeah. What’s the problem?”
“Small, tight, dark, right?”
“I’m afraid so. What, you’re claustrophobic?”
She nodded slowly. “Yeah. I don’t do places like that very well. Sorry.”
“Okay. Maybe Ballantine’s wife and kids—”
“But I’ll do it, if I need to,” she continued. “But if something happens, you guys aren’t going to leave us down there, are you?”
Hastings shook his head. “No way. No one gets left behind. We’re a team.”
Diana nodded slowly. Kenny stopped staring at his hand and looked at Hastings for a long moment, his eyes dark and somewhat mournful. Hastings looked back and smiled as best as he could under the circumstances. He and the kid had something in common. Their families were only memories now, though Hastings hoped the kid didn’t have much facility to remember such things. For himself, the pain of losing his wife and son left a huge crevasse in Hastings’s soul that he didn’t think he could ever fill.
“So…when do you want us to move down?” Diana asked, and at the sound of her voice, the boy went back to regarding his slowly-wagging fingers again.
“In a bit. We need to move a mattress or something down there, and do another vulnerability assessment. We might move Missus Ballantine and the rest of the kids down there, as well. Maybe that would help?”
“Maybe,” Diana said, her voice noncommittal. “However you want to play it, General.”
Hastings rose. “I’m not a general. I’m a captain. But if it makes you feel better, I’m MacArthur and Patton all rolled up into one.”
“Who are they?”
Hasting shook his head. “Never mind. Sit tight, we’ll come for you in a bit.”
He found Ballantine standing watch over his wife and kids in the kitchen. That pissed him off a little bit. As the senior NCO, Ballantine should have been directly overseeing the fortification process, even though Hartman, Reader, Tharinger, and Stilley had it well in hand. If nothing else, he should have been standing overwatch on the second floor, keeping an eye out for inbound reekers and ensuring they had a line of retreat. Instead, he was hanging around his family. Hastings understood the desire to do so, but giving in to it was enough to make him more than slightly angry.
“Sergeant Ballantine, got some time?” he asked.
Ballantine looked over at Hastings, his M4 slung but right where he could get to it quickly. “What’s up, sir?”
“We’ll need to relocate the boy and Diana to the cellar. I think the kid’s going to fly off the handle sometime soon, and we’ll need to put him somewhere where he can yell and scream and not bring fifty thousand reekers down on us.”
Kay Ballantine looked up from scrubbing the floor with some cleanser, trying to get rid of the smells of decay and shit. “He’s autistic,” she said. “He’s going to have a lot of problems, Captain. We need to take care of him.”
“I’m aware.” Hastings resented her intrusion, so he fixed her with a withering glare and held it until she looked away. The two boys kept cleaning down the counters, looking from their mom to their dad.
“So what do you need me to do, sir?” Ballantine said, stepping in between Hastings and his wife. His eyes were flat and expressionless.
“I want you to check on the rest of the guys and ensure we’re as fortified as we can be. Then grab a mattress or two and bring them down to the cellar. I’ll head down and start clearing out a sleeping space. We’ll be running out of light soon, so we need to get on this stuff. Once we’re done with that, we’ll need to establish an OP on the roof, and get down to some weapon maintenance.”
“Go ahead and get on that, then,” Hastings said. He turned on his heel and headed for the cellar door, located across from the ancient, avocado green refrigerator that had probably looked fantastic back in 1977. As he walked down the old, wooden slat steps that creaked and groaned beneath his weight, he switched on his flashlight. The cellar was dark, but surprisingly dry. Old boxes were neatly stacked along one wall, opposite the small, ground-level window that allowed a tepid glow to sneak inside. The cement floor was somewhat uneven, forming a series of humps that made walking only slightly difficult. Three metal storage racks stood against another wall, filled with mason jars of home-canned goods. He took a moment to review the masking tape labels. Peaches. Apples. Flour. Beets. Pears. Tomatoes. Green beans. Even smoked fish. Enough food to support a single person for at least a month. It was a cornucopia of goods, and one that they had been incredibly fortunate to discover. Upstairs, the soldiers had also found several hunting-style weapons, including a nice bolt-action Marlin .308 that could certainly drop more than a few deer. Whomever had owned the farm house had planned ahead, and Hastings thought it was almost criminal that the man—or woman—hadn’t been allowed to reap the benefits of that preparation.
That aside, the cellar was fairly small, not a full-size basement. Big enough for only a few people, at best. Hastings envisioned Diana and Kenny, and maybe Ballantine’s family. It would be tight, but they might be safer down here than upstairs. That way, the soldiers could concentrate fully on defending the house through the night, and not have to worry about a stray round taking out one of the civilians, should the reekers manage to get inside. On the other hand, if things went really bad, the civilians would be trapped in the cellar, up until the reekers managed to break down the door and get to them. It was a choice of two potential evils, but the long and short of it was, if Kenny started acting out, there was a better chance his cries would go unheard in the cellar, versus one of the bedrooms on the second floor.
He was surprised to feel the sting of tears in his eyes. Images of his family popped into his mind, riding a tsunami of grief that crashed through him. Hastings slapped a hand across his mouth as he suddenly sobbed. He found he couldn’t hold it back anymore, and he fell to his knees as he wept. The feeling of loss was overwhelming, and it took every ounce of emotional strength he had left not to scream in misery-fueled rage. His wife and son had died at Fort Drum, consumed by legions of the carnivorous dead, while he was trying to help keep New York City bottled up, so the infection couldn’t spread into the countryside. He felt damned. He should have been at their side, fighting to keep them safe, instead of putting it on the line for the citizens of the Big Apple, who hadn’t even uttered a thank you for his efforts.
“Hey…hey, Captain. You all right, man?”
Hastings wiped the tears from his eyes, and he glanced toward the stairs. He saw Reader standing there, his M4 slung, one gloved hand on the wooden handrail. The soldier looked at him with concerned blue eyes, and Hastings felt an acute sense of embarrassment that one of the men had come across him while he was so weak.
“I’m good,” Hastings said, the words tough to get out past the lump in his throat. “What’s up?”
“Uh…Ballantine sent me to find you. We’re all secure up top, and he wanted to know how many mattresses you wanted to bring down here.” Reader hesitated for a moment, then cleared his throat. “Listen, sir, we can have this discussion later.”
“No. I’m good, Reader. Tell Ballantine we’ll park all of the civilians down here for the night. That way, we’ll have the rest of the house clear, in case things go tits up.” Hastings wiped his eyes again and rose to his feet. He looked at the cellar’s single window. Tepid light filtered into the darkened cellar. Twilight was fast approaching, and they needed to make sure the house was completely blacked out. It would be best to get the civilians in place and set them up with a lantern or something, just so the kids wouldn’t have to go through the night in total darkness.
“Yes, sir. Sir, there’s still running water here—looks like there’s a well on the property, and the pump still has power. No lights or anything, but the pump still works, so we can flush toilets and stuff like that. You want me to have everyone go before we move them down here?”
“Yeah, that’d be great,” Hastings said. He was surprised that water was still available. “Hey, do the showers still work?”
“As far as I know. Water’s going to be cold as hell, though. No power for the water heater.”
“Don’t care about that,” Hastings said. “Might be good to wash up where we can, we don’t know when the next opportunity will present itself.”
“Roger that, sir.” Reader hesitated again. “Hey, Captain. Take some time, man. I’ll go back to Ballantine, and we’ll start bringing down some mattresses in a bit.”
“I’m cool, Reader. But thanks,” Hastings added, wiping his eyes again. They were dry. Mostly.
“Okay, sir. See you upstairs, then.” With that, Reader turned and walked back up the cellar stairs. Hastings was surprised he hadn’t heard him come down, considering how much the stairs creaked beneath his weight.
He took another survey of the cellar, then stuffed a box in front of the single window in a bid to black it out. It wasn’t much, but it should do the trick.
And at this point, I have 125,000+ words being proofread as I finish up the remaining 20,000-30,000. Those should hopefully come to completion in the next week or so, and then they’ll be proofed as well, giving me a polished copy for Wolf and I to review and make adjustments as necessary. After that, it goes to the editor. I’m pretty confident that we should be able to release in mid-January at the latest. 🙂