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THESE DEAD LANDS: IMMOLATION–A Very Hostile Work Environment

Usual caveats apply–first draft material, unedited, no guarantee what you read here will appear in the finished product.

Immolation

While it had all the makings of a great morning, Guerra, Reader, and Stilley were sweating their balls off. Despite the chirping birds in the trees surrounding them and the expanse of the Swatara Creek flowing past practically at their feet, the summer morning was already a steamer—hot, humid, and miserable. To make matters worse, the close proximity to the creek was exposing the soldiers to a horde of hungry mosquitos. Guerra hadn’t thought to put on any bug spray, a vexing oversight that was probably going to cost him a pint of blood before the day was over. He was also concerned about the virus that reanimated the dead—could it be transferred by mosquitos? As far as he knew, mosquitos didn’t try and feed off the dead, but what if one had fed on an infected person who hadn’t died yet, and then landed on him to top off its tank?

Fuck. You’d think after yesterday’s op, I’d have the day off, or at least light duty. But nooooo, I have to unass from the Gap and come out here to block a freaking one-lane bridge.

The day’s operation involved blocking the far end of the antique bridge that crossed the Swatara Creek. The span was part of the fabled Appalachian Trail, and the placard at the top of the bridge’s iron trestle proclaimed the structure had been erected by the Berlin Iron Bridge Company, out of East Berlin, Connecticut. Guerra thought that was a little funny, a place in Connecticut called East Berlin. A lot of former Stasi probably had vacation homes there.

Usually, it was preferable to block a bridge on the far side. But since the Swatara Bridge was so narrow, there was no chance of getting a container across it to serve as a barricade. So they would set up on the near side, and finish it off with HESCO barriers and razor wire. More containers would be set up on the roadway behind the bridge—Pennsylvania Route 72 was definitely a fast approach corridor, though it was quite minor compared to the huge expanse of Interstate 78 that Ballantine and the One-Oh-Worst were securing. Guerra, Reader, and Stilley were hanging out with a group of Pennsylvania Army National Guard guys, who would be securing the bridge approach, Route 72, and another bridge a mile or so downrange, called simply the Iron Bridge. Whereas the Swatara Bridge was more or less a pedestrian crossing, the Iron Bridge actually allowed for vehicular traffic. Guerra doubted they would be able to secure all the crossings before nightfall, but the Guard guys seemed ready to give it a try.

So let them, he said to himself.

“Boy, this heat sure does suck, Staff Sergeant,” Stilley brayed.

“Yeah,” was all Guerra said. The heat bothered him too, but the mosquitoes bothered him more. He slapped another one on his neck, and stared at the speck of blood in the center of his palm. He sighed, shook his head, and looked up at the National Guard captain in charge of the element hurried over. He was a wide-eyed sort, older than Guerra had expected given his rank, but that was to be expected in the Guard.

“Staff Sergeant Guerra, how are you doing?” the captain asked.

“Hanging in there, sir,” Guerra said. “You guys sure have a lot of mosquitoes around here, huh?”

The captain didn’t smile. “I was wondering if you wouldn’t mind overseeing the wire placements on the banks of the creek,” he said.

“No problem, sir,” Guerra replied, fighting hard to keep the acid out of his voice. “Happy to do it. Uh, one question—how deep is the water?”

The captain seemed confused by the question. “The Swattie? Uh, it’s about three to four feet in places, but there are others where it’s only a foot or so. Why?”

“Well, sir, if it’s that shallow, then it’s not really going to be much of a barrier,” Guerra said. “Maybe we should layer the defenses a bit more. Maybe with something more active, like a few lines of claymores daisy-chained together.” Before jumping out, he and Ballantine had discussed mounting claymores on the containers themselves, elevated up at head height to increase the chances they would actually kill any approaching hordes. While the weapons worked great at reducing the force of usual attackers, zombies wouldn’t care much about limb or body damage. Unless their brains were destroyed, they would just keep coming, and Ballantine had theorized the mines might be more effective if elevated. Of course, that would mean they’d need to be mounted on sandbagged revetments—even the heavy CONEX units wouldn’t be able to absorb the back-blast of an M18 Claymore Antipersonnel Mine going off without being dinged up something bad.

“Claymores,” the captain said.

“Yes, sir. Claymores,” Guerra said. “And I see that we have a lot of SAWs and the like for gunning down the dead when they get into range, but we might want to amp that up a bit, too. We have any sniper weapons? Any fifty cals we could use?”

“You mean like the anti-material weapons?” the captain asked.

“Yes, sir. Anything that can reach out over long distances, and put the zap on the reekers before they get in range of the rest of our weapons. Trust me, sir, you don’t want these things walking up on you in a mass attack. It’s not pretty.”

The captain waved at the CONEX container, still on the lowboy trailer behind them. “We’ll have those to protect us,” he said.

Reader snorted from nearby. “Yeah, that’s going to do a lot, sir.”

The captain turned to Reader. “What do you mean by that, soldier?”

Reader looked at the Guard officer with a dull expression. Guerra sighed again. The soldier still hadn’t bounced back from nailing that woman out on the road, and he wondered just what the hell Reader’s problem was. He’d made a mistake, and while Guerra didn’t diminish its horrible importance, it had been just that: a mistake. Reader would have to find his way past it, or he was going to wind up being more trouble than he was worth.

“What he means is, sir, we shouldn’t be depending on static defenses entirely,” Guerra said. “The things we’re used to deploying during normal combat operations aren’t really very effective against the dead. We should all be reading from the same page at this point. Yes, the containers are going to give us elevation and provide a barrier that the dead are unlikely to be able to get around, but once an entire horde walks up to it, it’s not like they’ll just be standing there waiting to get shot. They’ll eventually break down the wires, and when that happens, the guys on top of the containers will be trapped. They might not get eaten, but they could starve to death.” He slapped another mosquito. “Or drained of all their blood by the God damn bugs,” he added.

“Okay,” the captain said.

Guerra could see the guy still didn’t get it. “So we’d want weapons that can reach out and start diminishing their numbers before they get to us, sir. Anything we can do to reduce the threat before it’s standing right on our front doorstep would be great. Hell, I’d even put mortars up on a container—mortars won’t kill all of them, they’ll kill some, and reduce their overall effectiveness.”

“So you want mortars and anti-material weapons,” the captain said.

Guerra nodded. “And claymores. And while SAWs are nice and all, I’d rather see M2s up there, as well.”

The captain looked over Guerra’s shoulder, where the rest of the troops were setting about offloading the first container and the rest of the materials they would be putting out over the course of the day. The guy looked overwhelmed, which bugged Guerra to no end. The world hadn’t just ended yesterday; it had been in a power skid for months. In his mind, the Pennsylvania Army National Guard captain shouldn’t be surprised by anything Guerra had just said. Then it hit him: the captain was thinking they were going to be able to hold out. Guerra had to chuckle at that. This guy had no idea what was headed their way.

The captain’s eyes snapped back to Guerra, and he stiffened. “What’s so funny, Staff Sergeant?”

Guerra hadn’t realized he’d quietly laughed aloud. “Sorry, sir. Was just thinking of something that had happened last night with one of the civilians staying with us,” he said quickly. “Nothing related to what’s going on here.”

“Hook up with the soldiers handling the wire, and take over that detail,” the captain said, a snappish quality in his voice. “We’ll need wire on both sides of the bridge.”

“Yes, sir,” Guerra said.

The captain spun on his heel and walked away. Guerra grunted to himself and shifted the set of his M4 while looking over at Reader and Stilley.

“Hey, you didn’t really handle him all that well, Sergeant G,” Stilley observed.

“We’re working for the truly clueless out here,” Reader said.

“Hey, Mike. You need to get yourself under control,” Guerra said. “Move past what happened, okay? Stay with us, man. We need you.”

Reader looked at Guerra, the irritation plain on his face. “You think I’m not hauling my weight, Sergeant Guerra?”

“That’s not what I mean, but you’re letting what happened out on the road eat you up inside, man,” Guerra said. “You have to work that out. That’s all I’m saying.”

Reader didn’t respond.

Guerra took the opportunity to spin toward Stilley. “But you, you’re still a douche bag, you lazy piece of shit. I want you out in that creek getting wet when we’re placing the wire, and I want you to try and refrain from splashing any water under your arms. We might wind up having to drink from the creek one day, and the last thing I want is for your rancid pits to make the water poisonous, you understand?”

“Hey, I can’t help it if I sweat, Sergeant,” Stilley said. “It’s hot as a Turkish bathhouse out here!”

“I won’t ask how you know anything about Turkish bathhouses, Stilley. But if you get any riper, you’re going to be classified as a biological hazard. I just wish the dead were put off by your pits—then I’d hang you at the end of this bridge and watch the reekers try to run all the way back to New York.”

“You know, Sergeant G, this is making for a very hostile work environment,” Stilley said.

Guerra grunted. “Tell me about it. Okay, guys, let’s get to work.”

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