This blog is mostly directed toward the readership—specifically, my readership, as nascent as it is. Today thought, I’m going to stab the right pedal, throw in a little right cyclic, and while keeping the power pegged at around 85%, exit the pattern to do something a little different.
Truth be told, I’ve always been a little pissed with authors who are always hocking their work. Back at the turn of this century, I made contact with one David Brin, the scribe who presented us with the Uplift War series, a truly fantastic science fiction serial that set the (SF literary) world on fire back in 1983 with his second entry, Startide Rising. (I’d bought his first entry, Sundiver, back in maybe 1980 but actually read it after the second book.) I’d thought back then that maybe, possibly, I’d be able to foster something of a relationship between us, author to author. Instead, I got the standard “buy my stuff!” with breakdowns of all the past works and upcoming works, and a quick “And hey, you’re from my home town!” just to ensure there was a bit of a personal connection. (At the time, I was in Los Angeles, California. I recall LA fondly, which is why I’m overjoyed to see it laid low in my series The Last Town.)
It was a turn-off, obviously. That a Big Name Author™ would respond to one of his readers in such a mercenary way kind of pissed me off. But of course, the fault is my own. What was I expecting, really? To a lot of authors, readers are just a means to an end. To this day, whenever I see an author hocking his wares on FB, or just posing holding his book out front, it sends a subliminal signal that at the end of the day, his/her target audience is just a series of dollar signs that need to be cultivated.
Lesson one: don’t do that shit.
Just kidding. We all have to mix in sales with our correspondence, because that’s part of doing business. Especially when you’re selling the fantasy of fiction; you need to lean forward in the foxhole and push yourself, otherwise you’ll be lost in the jumble. That was all Brin was doing back in 2002, trying to maintain some degree of awareness with his readership with the status of his work. While it pissed me off then, it doesn’t now.
Lesson two: Ignore Lesson One, but you need to be cool about it.
I get approached by incubating authors quite often. Taking time to read the work of others is a dicey thing; they invariably think they’re professional caliber, and you invariably think they’re not. This is an exercise in skipping across Occam’s Razor. You want to help, but in doing so you delay your own work. Sometimes, this is a gesture you should freely offer. Other times, it isn’t. Which is which I’ll leave to you to decide, but I’ll offer some tips—if the requestor’s Facebook posts are frequently misspelled, beg off. If the requestor is a fanboi who you suspect is going to offer a tired pastiche of other genres with Star Trek technology thrown in…pass. If the author is offering work that seems replicated from your own—oh sweet Jesus, find a way out of it. Legal reasons aside, you do not want to start reading stuff that’s like your own, because you never know what your wetware is going to recall years down the road, and the last thing you want is for someone to come after you for “ripping them off”. (By the way, plagiarism is only a real thing when you do what Stephen Ambrose did, and present another author’s work word-for-word as your own. Ripping off someone else’s intellectual property, such as retelling another story with different words and with different details, is a dicier proposition, but still capable of summoning legal injunction. Avoid this.)
Sidebar, yer Honor: I have about four point zillion story ideas already, yet people always approach me with “an idea” that could be a big hit if I were to write it. Sometimes, that works out, such as when Craig DiLouie came up with the idea for The Retreat series. In the most cunning of ways, he pitched the premise to me at Spark’s Steak House in New York City one summer evening, and waited to get to the pulse of the matter until after I’d consumed several glasses of wine while miserly sipping from his glass of home-brew rosé. Obviously, when a writer of Craig’s distinction comes to you with a request for a meeting, you should take it seriously. Regrettably, most of the folks vying for your attention don’t have his marquee value. So unless someone like Shawn Chesser or Hugh Howey or Scott Wolf (?) approaches you, go shields up and wait it out. Maybe they’re not nutters just looking to hitch their wagon to whatever star you might be in possession of, but be tough and analytical. This is a business. Be a businessperson, not just a glorified typist.
Continuing the sidebar, and this leads to some deep waters: I honestly write maybe nine hours a week. If I’m dedicated to it, that nine hours a week translates to six figures in writing income. In my normal daytime life, I work 40 hours a week and still make six figures, which sounds like a lot until you become familiar with New York City economics, and then you discover that makes you a near-transient member of the middle class (something New York politicians are desperately trying to stamp out; they envision a city populated by both the ultra-rich and the ultra-poor, so they can lobby the former for funds to support the latter). Now listen kids, nine hours a week isn’t a lot of time to spend on something so profitable. If my personal life didn’t include a foreign-born wife who can’t really integrate into American society and a child who wasn’t scoring a ten-point-zero on the special needs scale, I could so do that in my sleep. At my best, when I know where a story is going and I know what I need to do to get there, I crank 2,000 words an hour. In nine hours, that’s 18,000 words. In two months, that’s a long book. In theory, I should be able to pump out a minimum of six really fat books a year.
Damn me, but life just doesn’t work that way.
The boss needs you to go all in on a three million dollar project, and surprise, you’re the only smart guy on the team. The wife can’t get up before two in the afternoon for weeks on end. The kid gets sick. The truck throws a rod even though you change the oil religiously, and your mom goes into the hospital. The dog needs its shots, and the kid needs someone to drive him to therapy, and you’re the only one with a driver’s license. Then you get sick, because you’re exhausted from running full throttle for weeks at end. But sleep eludes you, because your bank has just encountered a severity one emergency, and remember, you’re the only smart guy. Your father dies, and he was penniless but somehow managed to amass a mountain of debt. The second car, the troop carrier you use for shopping and daily family errands, gets a critical recall but the dealership doesn’t have the parts in stock, and won’t for the next three weeks—so you can’t really drive it with your kid, and remember, the truck is getting repaired. You don’t own a bicycle, so it’s time to break out the Mark 1 running shoes and get busy in this thankfully pedestrian-oriented place you live.
Suddenly, that time-intensive thing called writing needs to be deferred.
Lesson three: Take care of life. The writing can and should wait.
Okay, okay. All of this should make common sense, at least to most people. If you’re already lost, you’re not one of the “most people”, so the following might be difficult for you. But if you’re made it this far, by all means–press on! The primer is over! (Warning: Mucho Foul Lingo approaches!)
THE REAL DEAL: WHAT IT TAKES TO WRITE SUCCESSFULLY (and if you disagree, blow me)
Ah, the business of writing! So much to say, so much experience to impart! These are where the real nuggets of knowledge exist, or at least those which I can present. Take note, class. Quiz later!
Listen, let me make it really, really simple. Pay attention, lads and lasses…this is a 54-year-old son of a bitch telling you what he knows. If you’re older than me, piss off, and let me know how your 401(K) is doing, because mine never included tending to a special needs kid who will outlive me by 50 years. So you think YOU have problems?
Bullet list, in my personal pecking order:
Write a fucking book. Sounds easy, but isn’t. Takes weeks, months, years. Be dedicated. Be thorough. Be able to push on past the fallacy of “writer’s block”, which is the code name assigned to your circumstances when you think you want to write, but instead want to watch America’s Got Talent or maybe check out PornHub and see what’s new. Nothing autobiographical in that last example, I guarantee. And if that isn’t sufficient, I plead the Fifth. I never knew about that rogue porn server, honest!
Get your work edited. Seriously, if you can afford to hire an editor but don’t, you’re fist-fucking yourself in the ass without lube. I learned this the hard way with The Gathering Dead, where I depended on my own editorial skills to see me through. I got very, very lucky here—the story I told was apparently strong enough to make most folks see through the maze of typos, illogic, and general asshattery that went on in the early drafts. Yes, a full-on edit of this morass of gonzo wordology cost me a thousand or so dollars, but in the end…it was worth it. Now recall, I make six figures at the outset. This means I can afford to piss away money on editorial expenses. For those who can’t, don’t release your work right away. Have it read. Not by your mother or your boy/girlfriend, but by people you trust to give you honest-to-God feedback. In the days of CompuServe, which my dear friend and occasional co-author Derek Paterson will recall most fondly, these were called “That’s Nice Dear” critiques. Meaning, these were offered by people who were afraid of offending you. Avoid these, they only prolong the agony.
And keep in mind that just because D.J. Molles managed to put out works that were ridden with typos, inaccuracies, and a Special Forces Hero™ who always got his ass beat and made the worst calls in history but still managed to score big sales, doesn’t mean that you will. More likely than not, you’ll be wondering why you make $3.42 every month.
Just ask my pal Jarret Liotta. Even my name on the cover of Dead in the City of Angels wasn’t enough. Sometimes, the story sucks, and you need to know about that before you release it. Personal experience here, folks…personal experience.
Get a real cover. Listen, I pay over a thousand bucks for most of my covers. My wife shrieks at that, but this is the first thing that people will see. Make an impression. And that impression doesn’t include whipping something up in PowerPoint using some image from the web and calling it a day. Sometimes, you have to pay it forward, and with covers? Dudes…pay it forward. Please. Because while no surveys have been conducted about home-brew covers, I’m operating under the presumption that they’re about as well received as Hillary Clinton’s home-brew email server. Which was probably running Exchange Server 5.5 in plain vanilla format, without even the benefit of ESMTP/TLS. (Though due to Bryan Pagliano’s limited immunity to prosecution, we’ll never know which best practices table was followed.)
When you think it’s ready for release…it isn’t. I came into this with a backlog of stories. City of the Damned was accepted and paid for by two publishers before ranks changed, new editors and marketing people came on board, and it was eventually tossed from the slots. I got to keep the advance money (Oh, an amazing 5,000 bucks!) because I wasn’t the defaulting party, but it still left me high and dry. My agent(s) got to keep their commissions, and after taxes, I was about $3,000 ahead per sale. But the book wasn’t published, meaning my champagne dreams and caviar wishes were once again deferred. But COTD had already been edited, so it truly was ready to do. The Gathering Dead? Not so much. I uncaged that one early, and have the poor reviews for it. Don’t be a dick like I was. Sit on your multimillion dollar, sure-fire best seller for a month or so and go over it with a fine-tooth comb. You’ll be amazed at what shakes out after a couple of rereads. “What, you don’t like that Hansel and Gretel go down on each other? You think there’s a problem there?”
Yeah, things like that.
Writer’s Block Doesn’t Really Exist. This is, like, the biggest whiny-bitch excuse to get around writing. Yeah, as I type this, I should be finishing up These Dead Lands: Desolation. Or Earthfall 2. Or the prequel to The Gathering Dead, titled Whispers of the Dead. But I’m not, so is this writer’s block at work? No, writer’s block is actually the sissy millennial’s way of getting out of work. But here I am, actually writing something as opposed to watching Magnum P.I. on NetFlix. Writing is a solitary profession, and it involves periods of the long, hard slog through your own mind and the desolate landscapes it presents. This is part and parcel of the job. Just do it, and save the excuses for another time.
Sometimes the story you came up with sucks/isn’t that awesome. Listen, this happens to all of us. I’d hoped for a major career change with Charges, a story about a guy with no special skills who manages to survive a mass EMP event. I happen to think it’s a damn fine story, because it’s one that average folks might be able to relate to…if they happened to be emerging from a skyscraper on Billionaire’s Row after the lights went out forever. While I still have enough hope for Charges to continue on with the series (next book is called Marauders and the third is called Ravagers), I’m smart enough to correct past mistakes going forward. (Look for an emphasis on action, and less on Navel Gazing, which I cover below.) And the fact of the matter is, I shot myself in the ass the moment I decided on the storyline. As someone who’s read his fair share of post-apoc stories, I know instinctively what the readers want to see: the maligned survivalist who’s at long last proven right when the hammer falls, and has to lead/defend/establish his new community in the next age of mankind. It doesn’t matter if the hero is a sixteen year old who suddenly, inexplicably, has all the depth and experience of a Marine with 35 years of service as a senior NCO or if he’s just a Joe with a bunch of guns and a gut full of fortitude down Fort Sam Houston way—at the end of the day, people don’t want to read about some New York City liberal who manages to get lucky, even if his back story is well-rounded and plausible. They want a hero who’s prepared to take on the new America.
Reread the above paragraph and learn from it, my erstwhile padawans. Sometimes, genre determines the outcome, not the author. You might actually be adroit enough to spin a tall tale that runs counter to consumer expectation, but unless your name is Cormac McCarthy not only will you be spurned, people will hate the fact you forgot what an apostrophe is.
Enough with the navel-gazing—get on with it! Sometimes, we as authors find ourselves confronted with a set of circumstances that require a lot of back story. Back story that, in the end, never becomes meaningful in the context of the story we want to tell. This results in boring text. And boring text has been typified by the oracle of writing, Elmore Leonard, thusly:
“Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.”
Yes. This. If you’ve written something long and convoluted and oh so priceless to your character’s development which he/she doesn’t actually do but only recalls in reverie, get rid of it. Then go see your doctor for a shot of antibiotics to ensure you aren’t carrying boredomitis with you for the rest of your life.
Now, if this can be sketched in a paragraph or two, then drop it in. A couple of paragraphs becomes motivation. If it waxes on for page after page—my personal standard is two, unless it’s a gritty flashback like the Afghanistan scene in The Gathering Dead, which illustrates the gulf between McDaniels and Gartell—then cut it out, or figure a way to distill it down to its bare essence. This is one of two areas where legacy publishing beats the tar out of self-publishing. The legacy guys know how to get a story moving. Well, mostly. Unless they’re editing a story by already-mentioned literary lion Cormac McCarthy, then they have to wrestle with the whole apostrophe-versus-Chicago-Style-Guide checklist maelstrom, which I’m sure had a lot of heads hitting desks over at Knopf-Doubleday.
This item ties in neatly with the following one, which is:
Get to the fucking point. You have a lean, mean story to tell, but you keep slowing it down because you’ve been infected by that disorder known as Purple Prose. Listen, really…who gives a good God damn that the draperies in the New York City penthouse apartment are wrought with actual gold filament? Who lives here, Hugh Hefner? And if so, what the hell is that crusty old fossil doing in New York City anyway, do they allow 8,000 year old Viagra patients to travel? Here’s a great example of what not to do:
It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents—except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.
That’s, like, one fucking sentence. Even Roger Zelazny wouldn’t have churned that out (or would he?). Become close friends with Our Pal The Period and his slutty sister, The Comma. And at least check in every now and then with their dumb cousins, The Ellipsis and The Em-Dash. You never know, they might actually prevent someone from returning your book and cursing your name in their final epitaph.
Research is fun, but it’s not writing. This actually ties in to #1, but I’ve been drinking and didn’t think to add it up there. However, in a last-ditch bid to put off going to Alcoholics Anonymous, it’s also important enough to call out on its own. While I know and follow this rule, others don’t. There’s a guy I know, smart fellow, very up on what’s happening in the world, who wants to write a book. He keeps sending me fiery bon mots about what this character backgrounds are, what this plot point would be, how awesome that scene could play out. And mostly, he’s right—he’s got some solid stuff going on, stuff that I’d be writing right now. Literally, everything is laid out except for some bargain-basement mechanics that could be straightened out in twenty-four hours.
But instead of writing it, he keeps sending me more little tidbits about the book that still hasn’t happened. “Hey, did you know that X in this circumstance could result in Y? I should put that in my book!”
Why, yes. Yes, you should, you fucking jerkoff, except you’re apparently too lazy to get to writing that book you’re talking about.
In this instance, I transcribed one of his scenes to my Blackberry (My Blackberry! Oh, the humanity!) and showed it to him. He read it and said, “Hey, that’s my stuff! I mean, it’s written pretty well and the words are all different, but that’s like, my stuff! Right?”
My response: “Yeah, it was six months ago. Guess what, it goes in my next book, and you don’t get shit. I figured since it’s been all talk up to now, that it’s free for the taking. So, really man, thanks for giving me $25,000 in first-month royalties for free. Love you, bye.”
Now listen, I’m actually not going to do this. Like I said, I have roughly eleventy-billion ideas already—I don’t really need to crib from someone else. But my aside had the desired effect. The dude is now writing, as opposed to researching and playing a bunch of “what-if” games. And I wish him well, he has some dynamite scenes out there in his head, I hope he can distill them down to a linear format that eventually finds its way to one kick-ass post-apocalypse book.
Don’t do this, people. Don’t sit around thinking about something and never making it happen—this obviously has a larger context in life than writing a damn novel. Know a hot girl/guy you want to ask out? Plan the approach, then execute. Have a few grand in a bank account but are waiting for just the right moment to enter the equities market? Listen, Brexit was your cue, so if you missed it, get in now anyway. Saw a job opening but your resume isn’t fresh enough to make an impression? Get that stuff squared away RIGHT NOW, and that means stop reading this page.
Because really…research, plotting, contemplating? None of that is writing, and writing is where the money is.
Oh my God, this book sucks—I can’t release this!
Ah, the bane of every writer. At least, every writer who has managed to progress past #4.
So you’ve written 30,000 40,000 100,000 130,000 words over many months and many revisions. It’s been read, reread, proofed, edited, and proofed again. The prose is tight, the story is dynamite, and the characters and their motivations are solid. But you’re ridden by fear. What if it tanks? What if no one likes it? What if I get bad reviews? What if it charts at #4,389,000 like that shitty zombie novel Dead in the City of Angels by Stephen Knight and Jarret Liotta?
There’s a line in a famous novel that I like to quote in circumstances like this:
“I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.”
Written by Frank Herbert in his science fiction masterpiece, Dune.
Alternately, I could offer up this sage advice from Scott Wolf, who in Army Special Forces was given one of Herbert’s honorifics from the same novel—Muad’Dib:
“Stop being a fucking pussy.”
It should be noted for those unaware, that Muad’Dib was described by Herbert thusly:
“Muad’Dib is wise in the ways of the desert. Muad’Dib creates his own water. Muad’Dib hides from the sun and travels in the cool night. Muad’Dib is fruitful and multiplies over the land. Muad’Dib we call ‘instructor-of-boys.’ That is a powerful base on which to build your life, Paul Muad’Dib, who is Usul among us.”
(The above should be read in the terse, husky voice of Stilgar.)
Both quotes basically take you to the same place. You’ve done the work, now let it run free. If it loves you, it will come back. If you’re lucky, it will come back towing a huge duffel bag full of money and the admiration of thousands, including pictures of nubile Tennessee girls flaunting their wares delivered directly to your email account. More possibly, it will just come back smelling really shitty like it’s rolled around in an open sewer outside of Shenzhen, China, and you should examine it for used condoms clinging to its matted fur before allowing it in the house. But either way, you’ll have to own up to it. Writing has never come with a warranty or a guarantee of any kind. If it did, we’d all be making millions.
And we’re not.
Keep the faith, brothers and sisters. Write, and keep writing. Success may not find you, but if it does, it will have done so only if you provide the world with the gift of your words. If not, if you only think about writing but never do it, then I can only offer the following (paraphrased from Sydney Poitier in the flick A Piece of the Action which I saw in 1977 in a theater in a black neighborhood of Akron, Ohio):
“What you’re talking about here is masturbation. It feels good, but generates nothing.”
So at least keep your happy sock handy. And use far less parentheticals than I did in this missive.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to get back to SFC Ballantine trying to figure out how he’s going to handle Diana Li in These Dead Lands: Desolation.
…it’s The Retreat 4: Alamo!
This just went live on Amazon, folks. So if you’d like to get your crazy, demented Klown on…you know what to do!
Heading your way around the third week in June: The Retreat 4: Alamo. The battalion is rolling hot once again as it leads a mass of evacuees, dependents, and fragmented military units toward the rumored reconstituted safe zone of Florida. Craig DiLouie is back at the helm, and he’s in fine form this time, let me tell you!
As always, the below excerpt is offered without any guarantee that what you read here will be in the released product, etc., etc.
Route 180 cut through trees and farmland. As it topped a rise, Corporal Sandra Rawlings saw the convoy strung out ahead of her through a brown haze of dust. Dozens of vehicles and trailers, hundreds of soldiers, thousands of civilians. A farmhouse burned in the distance, surrounded by fields trodden into mud. From here, the retreat looked more like a rout.
The Humvees and trucks crawled along the road, overloaded with wounded and children and gear. The Trailblazers scout platoon and Alpha Company, Captain Hayes’s hard chargers, formed the vanguard. Then Headquarters under Jane, with Echo, the logistics company, under Johnston, and the mortar and medic platoons. Charlie under Sommers, Delta under Perez. Marsh’s Bravo Company, which had gotten decimated during the kamikaze attacks in Philly, had been placed in the rear with the civilians and what was left of the Pennsylvania Guard’s 56th. Later, they’d be integrated. If there was a later.
Everywhere, people coughed on the dust in the afternoon heat of this, the last dregs of summer. Babies cried. Gear clattered. The vehicles snarled and coughed exhaust. Otherwise, it was a subdued march. They’d come nearly two hundred kilometers out of Philly, through Gettysburg. They felt sickened and numb, even the hard cases, even the big hairy Sergeant Muldoon, who seemed born for a war like this.
Rawlings remembered first meeting her squad, these lightfighters of Company B. Before that, at Harvard Stadium, she’d been a leader; the boys there had been so shell shocked, they’d all but given up, but rallied to her mothering. These 10th Mountain guys, however, had seen her as a leaf eater. She’d proven herself—not by any single heroic act, but simply by covering her sector and shooting straight—and when they looked at her now, they often forgot she was NG, a Nasty Girl.
They’d changed since that first time she’d met them and they’d tried to intimidate and impress her with their barracks routine. Gone was the grab-ass, the macho posturing, the dumb jokes, the bitching. They were starting to look like the lost boys of Harvard Stadium, which worried her. They didn’t talk about how they missed KFC and beer and PS3 and going to football games, the comforts of home. They were home, what they called the Home Front, and it was filled with blood. They missed everything. They missed the ones they loved. The world didn’t make sense anymore. They were supposed to do the fighting and dying while their loved ones stayed safe. Now here they were, safe for the moment, while so many people they knew were probably dead or cowering in some government stronghold.
Rawlings felt the same guilt. She remembered getting called up in Beantown and reporting to the Muleskinners, a logistics unit with the 164th Transportation Battalion, Massachusetts National Guard. Boston was falling apart from the horrifying epidemic. Everybody thought once the civilian governments had pulled their heads out of their collective ass and unleashed the military, things would get back under control. The Army held the line for a while, but only a while. Every day, the gunfire got a little louder, a little closer. Every day, things got worse.
Boston’s major arteries had been closed off to civilian traffic and used as super lanes for troop movements and logistics. Day and night, the Muleskinners hauled supplies all over the crumbling city. Then one day, a five-ton broke down on the Massachusetts Turnpike, near the Big Dig. The convoy pulled over. Lieutenant Spaulding set up a security perimeter while the gearheads got to work. The Muleskinners shared cigarettes and sweated in their combat uniforms. Rawlings popped a fresh stick of gum in her mouth and chewed like she wanted to kill it.
A group of police officers appeared at the fence and looked down at her. Some wore riot gear. About thirty in all. They’d come out of the Mass Pike Towers, a low-income housing project. One raised his hands and waved frantically over his head, making Rawlings stiffen. While she stared back at them, they began climbing the chain-link fence and loping down onto the highway. They glanced over their shoulders. Wherever they’d come from, something bad had happened.
“Sergeant,” Rawlings said. “We got company. Some kind of trouble.”
Lieutenant Spaulding was already jogging toward them. Sergeant Nance sighed at the sight. “Look at her go. Wonder Woman to the rescue. Like we need this shit. We got a schedule to keep.”
Rawlings heard Spaulding ask, “What do you guys need?”
“Christmas,” a cop said and cut her in half with his shotgun.
Rawlings swallowed her gum. “They’re crazies!”
“Shit!” Nance said. “LT! Shit! Loonies!”
The cops tore into their outfit with a joyous cheer. The officer who’d killed the Lieutenant grinned at Rawlings, sweeping his finger across his throat. She raised her M16 and fired a three-round burst, missed, and fired again. The man fell to his knees laughing, smoking pouring out of his chest.
They’re cops, she remembered thinking. This wasn’t supposed to happen. It couldn’t be happening. But it was.
Nance dropped without a sound, half her face gone. One moment, she was a human being shouting orders, the next, a falling sack of lifeless meat. Everywhere, people screamed, others laughed. Rifles popped. Rawlings fired again at a charging figure. Something blurred in the corner of her eye; her mouth exploded in pain. She reeled, spitting blood and splinters of teeth, as a gorilla in a bulletproof vest swung his baton again with savage glee, ringing her helmet like a gong.
She fired on reflex. The bullet entered his right eye, bounced around, and shot the mess out the back of his skull. Then she blacked out.
She awoke in Harvard Stadium, her friends dead, her unit destroyed. Two weeks later, she’d been forced to kill another friend, Private Scott Wade. Six weeks after that, she watched another good man, Jeff Carter, die.
So much horror and death, yet she lived.
Rawlings often wondered why.
In the distance, bodies dangled from a dead power line. The battalion hadn’t seen a Klown—short for Killer Clown, the nickname the lightfighters gave the laughing infected—in days. She wondered where they all went. The fields here had been trampled flat. A massive army had passed through this place.
Marching next to her, Muldoon nudged her shoulder. “You okay?”
Rawlings stared at him. Was anybody okay?
“You’re okay,” he told her.
Unlike the other Bushmasters marching with their heads down and their shoulders clenched, the big NCO walked easily. He’d shrugged off the horrors of Philly days ago and was back to his old insufferable self. He was doing okay. He was doing just fine. The sergeant seemed at home with all this. A true survivor.
Despite all the affection Rawlings felt for the man, she hated him right then.
“Our earnest and intrepid Colonel Lee has gotten us this far,” Muldoon said, loud enough to be heard by the whole squad. “We’ll reach Mount Weather soon. Corporate Nutter will grab his balls and tell the President he didn’t vote for her.”
Nutter said, “Is that an order, Duke?”
“Ramirez will drink his Mexican ass stupid. Donegal will bitch about something. Make that everything. Garza will somehow get the clap.”
“And Cline will look for the nearest gay bar.”
The squad burst into laughter, earning them worried glares from the people around them.
Sparta 3-1, this is Sparta, over, Muldoon’s radio buzzed.
“Go for 3-1, over.”
Knock off the laughing. Now. Over.
Now Rawlings joined in. Laughing felt dangerous but good.
Muldoon said, “Just boosting morale, Lieutenant.”
You’re killing everybody else’s. Gonna give somebody a heart—
“Negative contact, Sparta. Say again, over.”
What the—? Wait, one.
“Train!” somebody cried.
Rawlings stiffened as a flurry of panicked screams rippled through the civilians. She looked across the helmeted heads of Bravo and saw a civilian with a scoped hunting rifle standing on an RV.
“Train,” the man repeated. “There’s a train coming!”
First hack at the cover for the upcoming The Retreat 4: Alamo by none other than the luminaire of all things graphic, Jeroen ten Berge! This is just the initial pass, and it’s still awaiting comments from Craig and Joe, but it’s looking pretty hot to me!
And for fun, a little 3D popper as well, even though this won’t be released in print as a standalone:
Can’t really go into the details of the plot as of yet as this is Craig’s secret to reveal, but the battered and bloodied battalion finds itself in yet another tight spot!
New Year’s celebrations can come a bit early, Joe McKinney’s addition to The Retreat series is out and about! Join the adventure today!
And here’s a quick little gallop through The Retreat #3: Die Laughing, by none other than the inestimable Joe McKinney!
Corporal Sandra Rawlings jumped from the Humvee just as another Molotov cocktail hit the windshield and splashed fire and broken glass across the hood.
She landed out in the open, no cover, but she kept moving, her carbine held tight, the blood pounding in her ears. They were still taking fire from the Klowns at the end of the street, but it was sporadic and poorly aimed. Bullets whistled overhead and slapped into the sides of wrecked cars abandoned in the street with muffled, metallic plunks.
They weren’t her main problem, though.
The Klowns rushing across the Dunkin Donuts parking lot to her left were closer.
They were the real threat.
They were the ones throwing the Molotov cocktails.
A bullet zinged over her head. Close enough she could almost feel it. She ducked down to a crouch and ran for the cover of a burned out car. The doors were missing and she could see the blackened cinders of a man still sitting behind the wheel, holding what might have once been a gas can. The entire interior had melted and turned black from the heat. He looked like those bodies from the excavated ruins of Pompeii, frozen by fire in the midst of his last action.
Whatever that might have been.
Andy Muldoon came up beside her, his hulking frame barely fitting behind the vehicle’s fender.
“What are you smiling at?” she said.
“Didn’t I tell you I’d show you a good time?”
“Just a little of the old in and out,” she said, sneering at him. “It’ll be painless, you said.”
Muldoon gave her a wink. “I thought a Nasty Girl like you would get a kick out of the old in and out.”
“You’re already a jerk,” she said. “Don’t be a pig.”
“It’s what I do, babe.”
“Don’t be an ass,” she said. “And don’t call me babe.”
Rawlings rose over the hood and fired a three round burst at a Klown rushing toward them with another Molotov cocktail, cutting his legs out from under him. He landed face down in the weeds and broken cement at the edge of the street. He looked up at Rawlings, his face speckled with blood, and laughed through broken teeth.
Rawlings killed him with another three round burst.
The Klowns down the street started firing again, forcing her back down next to Muldoon. Her face was thick with dust and grime, and when she smiled her teeth flashed in the morning light.
A few of hers were broken too.
Rawlings looked around, trying to get a handle on their situation.
Clouds of dust and smoke drifted heavy in the air. They were in an intersection in the middle of what, to Rawlings anyway, looked to be the shittiest part of Philadelphia.
Of course, she’d thought that about every part of Philadelphia she’d seen so far, but who was counting.
Every building on the block was a tumbledown, three story, red brick townhome. Most of the windows looked to have been boarded up long before the Bug hit, three months ago. The scar of urban decay, the soul-sucking bleakness of poverty and neglect, was staggering. Tangled, overgrown fields next to long abandoned buildings. Wrecked, windowless cars, sitting like shipwrecks up on blocks. And everywhere she turned, bullet holes and rust and weeds growing through cracks in the streets.
What had the Klowns painted on the sign outside the city? Welcome to Philadelphia, the Shitty of Love.
It made her sad.
The Klowns were insane, but they weren’t wrong.
# # #
Two days earlier, the battered remnants of the 10th Mountain Division, under the command of Lt. Colonel Harry Lee, had rolled up to the rubble that had once been the Divine Lorraine Hotel and got their first glimpse of Philadelphia.
For Rawlings, it had been a moment of hope and relief.
From their retreat out of Boston to the punishing battle at Ft. Drum, they’d taken heavy losses. They were down to around three hundred soldiers. They had restocked on ammunition and fuel and food after their victory at Drum, but that hadn’t counted for much.
Their air cover had been destroyed at Drum.
The trucks they had left were battered and limping along.
They’d been forced to leave so many assets on the side of the road, and with the Klowns at their back there hadn’t even been time to cannibalize the broken down stuff. They had to keep moving.
And, as if that wasn’t enough, they had a caravan of about a thousand civilian survivors towing along for the ride.
The constant fighting and moving had flushed everybody down the toilet, as far as morale went.
Rawlings was exhausted.
She’d seen the lights of Philadelphia blazing in the darkness like something out of a John Winthrop sermon and, for the thinnest scrap of a moment, she’d allowed herself to think they were marching into the welcoming arms of safety.
Into a city on the hill.
But then Lee had ordered them to set camp in West Fairmont Park, well outside of the city, and everything ground to a halt. For the first time since the retreat out of Boston began, the surviving members of the 10th Mountain Division had time to look around and take stock.
They had time to lick their wounds.
And think about all they’d lost.
It wasn’t what she wanted. Sitting around doing nothing gave her time to think about Harvard Stadium and the horrors she’d endured there.
And of Scott Wade, the young man she’d almost, almost, come to love.
Thinking of him was like having an icy fist squeeze her guts.
The Klowns were easy to take in, easy to wrap your head around, while you were looking at them through the scope of a rifle. But they were a whole different beast when you watched a man you thought of as a friend, and even as a potential lover, slip into their laughing pool of madness.
Rawlings was still looking for a comfy chair for that thought to sit in.
So far, she’d managed to keep those thoughts at a distance. The moving and fighting had helped with that.
And now that they were at the gates of Philadelphia, she’d hoped they’d march right into town and join up with the survivors there.
Instead, they sat around and waited.
They tended to their wounded and broken equipment.
For most of the day, nothing happened.
Nothing but memories and a lot of self reflection that did little more than piss her off and leave her feeling like a complete bitch every time somebody tried to talk with her.
So, hiding in the shade of a truck, she sat in angry, resentful silence and watched Philadelphia take to the day. The city lights dimmed as the morning sun took over, and from her spot in camp, Rawlings caught a view of what had become of the City of Brotherly Love.
The northern half of the city was in ruins, and crawling with Klowns. Very few buildings were left intact. Most were burned and blasted, little more than facades. She’d seen plenty of pictures of cities destroyed by war, and Northern Philadelphia looked like all the rest of them.
The southern half seemed relatively undamaged though. There were walls of flattened and stacked cars blocking off multiple streets, and those walls were topped with scrolls of razor wire; but other than the barricades, she saw few examples of the ravages of war.
And that had confused her.
Why weren’t they going in? Why weren’t they reaching out to the survivors there?
From the rumors spreading through the civilian caravan, she’d heard that the 28th Infantry Division, under the command of Major General Anthony Bell, had managed to take and hold Philadelphia.
It was supposed to be free of Klowns.
It was supposed to be a port in the storm.
She was looking forward to a break from the meatheads she’d been fighting next to since barely escaping the shithole that had been Harvard Stadium. She loved those guys, the Bushmasters, there was no doubt about that.
She had even, kind of, taken a shine to him. But after fighting next to him for more than a month, she needed a break.
And a shower.
And a decent meal.
MREs cooked in the stovepipe of a five-ton MRAP were all well and good when you were constantly fighting and marching, but they were miles away from a real meal.
She wanted a steak.
A bone-in rib eye.
With a side of baked sweet potato, slathered in butter and brown sugar and maybe topped with some fresh grated cheddar cheese.
She loved partially melted marshmallows, butter and caramelized brown sugar on sweet potatoes.
Oh yeah, and while she was wishing, a bottle of Jim Beam and a bucket of ice would be nice.
A little something to quiet the ghosts in her head.
At least for a little while.
Sandra Rawlings had some emotional baggage she needed to download.
But she’d sat instead, sober as a judge, in the shade of an ancient five ton, and waited to see what was going to happen. She’d waited the day through before Lt. Cassidy, the ranking officer presiding over the remains of the Bushmasters, came to them with news. Colonel Lee wanted to reconnoiter the city’s defenses. He wanted to know exactly what they were marching into. Cassidy had been tapped to lead a unit into the city. Their task was to scout out the walls and report back.
The way Cassidy described their mission briefing was simple. They would go in, stay invisible, take as many pictures as they could, and bring it all back to Lee.
In and out in less than twenty-four hours.
So, under cover of night, they’d crossed the Schuylkill River on the Greenland Drive Bridge. Even in the dark, it was some of the most beautiful country Rawlings had ever seen. Vast forests stretched off in every direction. A cool wind whispered through the trees, full of the musty smell of the river. It had all seemed so peaceful, so quiet. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d seen so many stars.
But of course the peace didn’t last. Once they put the river behind them, they entered the rundown streets of Strawberry Mansion, the heart of midtown Philadelphia. Every street was dotted with ruined cars and abandoned buildings. There was trash everywhere, piles and piles of it, and here and there amid the blank stares of windowless and empty houses, the bodies of dogs and men rotted in the waist-high weeds.
The ruin and poverty of it all depressed her to her core.
There wasn’t time to wallow in the misery of it, though.
Shortly after midnight, while they were taking video of the wall along the barricade wall, explosions rang out.
The night sky filled with fire.
Columns of smoke rose into the sky and melted into the clouds, blotting out the stars.
On the ground, it was chaos.
People ran screaming in every direction, fleeing the Klowns that poured through barricades, laughing, even as they heaped their atrocities on those unlucky enough to get caught up in their rush.
Cassidy ordered them to pull out.
They tried to get out the way they’d come in, but the Klowns were everywhere. The Bushmasters were forced first to the south, and then to the east. They’d taken heavy fire at the barricade, and they’d been forced to run through the gaps themselves.
It had been a rolling gun fight ever since.
Rawlings was spent. Beside her, Duke Muldoon calmly ejected an empty magazine from his rifle and slapped in a new one. After the last Molotov cocktail had lit their Humvee on fire, Corporal Nutter had belly crawled over to an abandoned car, where he was picking off every Klown that came running through the vacant lot to their left. On the far side of the Humvee, Lt. Cassidy and their company’s First Shirt, First Sergeant Antonio Urena, were arguing over a map.
“Looks like mom and dad are fighting,” Duke said.
“Which one’s which?” Rawlings said.
Urena stabbed the map with his finger. The young lieutenant shook his head and drew his finger across a different part of the map.
Urena stabbed the map again.
“Jesus,” she said. “They’re both idiots.”
“That’s what happens to you when you’re in charge,” Duke said.
More bullets whistled overhead. “How are we gonna get out of here, Duke?”
He turned his head just a little, and the look he gave her confused her. Like he was trying to be smolderingly hot or something, but didn’t know how to pull it off. Then he winked at her, rolled onto the hood, and started firing into the crowd down at the end of the street.
Boys, she thought. They made no sense.
Frowning, she glanced back at Urena and Cassidy. Cassidy said their plan was to push south, to Girard Avenue, and cross the Schuylkill River there. Rawlings didn’t know anything about Philly, and after watching Cassidy try to figure out the gas station map they’d been given, she guessed he didn’t either. What was it her dad had told her? The most dangerous weapon in the United States Army was a junior officer with a map.
From down the street, the Klowns suddenly let out a huge cheer.
She looked up at Duke. “What was that?”
“Damn,” he said. “Get back on the line, Rawlings. We got problems.”
Duke opened fire, burning through his whole magazine.
Rawlings glanced over the hood. There had been about a hundred Klowns at the end of the block, last time she’d looked. Now, there was three times that number. Where they’d come from, she had no idea, but they were there, and in between the laughter and the shooting, a few of them were obviously taking charge. They were pumping their fists in the air, and pointing toward the Bushmasters.
Another roaring cheer rose from their number, and the next instant, they were all charging as a mass on the Bushmasters.
“Oh shit,” Rawlings said.
She pointed her rifle down range and started shooting.
“Hey, Lieutenant,” Duke called over his shoulder. “If you guys have got the directions figured out, we got some problems up here.”
Cassidy and Urena looked up from the map, but it was Urena who took charge. “Ritchey,” he said, and pointed to the young private that had joined them for the mission. “Man that turret. Give us some suppression fire.”
“On it, First Sergeant,” Ritchey said.
The soldier wasn’t even nineteen, and he scrambled up to the turret with ease. Rawlings watched him drop in behind the big .50 and start firing.
Klowns scattered from the street, disappearing between the gaps in the houses.
He kept up a steady stream of fire, even as a fresh cheer rose up from the Klowns.
When Rawlings looked down the street again, she saw why. The huge flood of civilians she’d seen earlier now had a pack of armed soldiers and cops fighting alongside them. The soldiers and the cops were leapfrogging over each other, rushing from one spot of cover to the next, putting down a constant field of fire.
For the first time, they were facing organized return fire, and it momentarily rocked them back on their heels.
Three months earlier, back in Boston, a band of infected Boston cops had overrun her original unit. They’d caught her unit by surprise. They’d looked normal. They’d acted normal, like cops were supposed to act.
And then they’d opened fire.
She’d watched a hundred men and women she called friends get butchered by handguns and an assortment of AR-15s, shotguns and collapsible ASP batons.
Now, seeing infected cops again, her legs went weak.
A bullet zinged off the hood just inches from her head and Duke pulled her back down.
“What are you doing?” he barked at her. “Keep your head down.”
She nodded, but said nothing.
It took her a moment to notice that the .50 had gone silent. She looked over her shoulder in time to see Urena yelling up at the private.
“Ritchey, goddam it…”
But Ritchey was dead. You didn’t need to be a doctor to see that. There was a bullet hole square in the middle of his forehead. He had fallen backward against the rear of the turret, arms outstretched like he was greeting the sun in some ridiculous yoga pose, eyes wide open and full of blood from the still leaking wound.
A lucky shot.
“Rawlings,” Lt. Cassidy said. “Get up there! Man that turret!”
Beside her, Duke ducked back down behind the car. “Are you fucking kidding me?” he said. “We need to get out of here. There’s too many of them.”
Cassidy was on one knee, looking over the map like a second string quarterback studying a playbook, but he’d been in the thick of it long enough to harden under fire. His eyes narrowed at Muldoon.
He didn’t get a chance to put down the law on Muldoon, though.
The advancing Klowns were still firing, and a stray round caught Cassidy in the throat. Any orders he might have given turned into a choking cough. His eyes went wide with surprise and he put a hand to his throat. Instantly, there were trails of blood leaking from between his fingers.
The young lieutenant fell to his knees, a horrible look of shock and fear in his eyes as he struggled for breath. He rolled over onto his butt, his back against the rear tire of the now useless Humvee, and began to choke like a fish out of water.
“Shit,” Urena said. The First Sergeant ran to the lieutenant’s side and tried to staunch the bleeding with some gauze from his crash kit, but the blood soaked through the cloth as soon as he pressed it to the wound. Cassidy’s face turned pale and shiny with sweat. “Come on, Lieutenant,” Urena said, pressing even harder. “Fight this. Don’t you die on me! Come on, stay with me.”
At the far end of the street, the Klowns let out a whooping yell and charged. Rawlings started firing as fast as she could, but there were just too many of them. Every time she dropped one, more appeared.
Muldoon motioned to Urena. “We’re kinda fucked over here.”
“I know that, Sergeant!”
Rawlings chanced a look back.
Urena let the bandage fall.
It was a bloody wet mess in the lieutenant’s lap.
Cassidy was dead.
“Okay,” Urena said. He stood up and motioned for Nutter, Hawkins, Cline and Brandt to follow him. “Muldoon, you and Rawlings cover us.”
Rawlings glanced over at Duke.
He gave her a wink.
“Right behind you,” Muldoon said.
He turned to Rawlings. His face was all business, calm, yet serious. If he was worried at all about their situation, it didn’t show in his expression. She didn’t expect it to, though. Duke was in his element. He wasn’t the brightest bulb in the box, that was true, but he was calm as a rock under fire.
“You ready?” he asked her.
“Show me the way, you big stud.”
For a moment, his calm seemed to waver. A little smile tugged at one corner of his mouth. Despite the bullets whistling over her head, Rawlings found the crack in his veneer terribly funny.
She didn’t get a chance to laugh, though. Before she knew what was happening he stood up and started firing. He was all business again.
“Get moving,” he ordered.
She didn’t need to be told twice. She rose to her feet, fired three bursts down range, and then ran for the vacant lot that Urena, Nutter and the others had disappeared into.
By the time she reached the grass and started weaving through the broken concrete and other trash that crowded the lot, Duke had caught up with her.
Together they ran for the neighboring street.
Urena and the rest of the remaining Bushmasters had already crossed the street and were climbing over a six-foot high chain link fence that led into the fleet yard for some kind of construction company. The lot was filled with white trucks and vans parked in uneven rows.
Rawlings heard shrieks of laughter from her left and saw Klowns running around the corner, headed straight for them. Some of them carried guns. Others were armed with sticks and rocks and kitchen knives. But they all had murder in their eyes.
She reached the fence, stopped long enough to sling her rifle over her shoulder, and started up the fence. Duke put his hand under her ass and pushed so hard she nearly flew over the top. She hit hard on the other side, but didn’t let it slow her down. She jumped to her feet again and turned to cover Duke as he scaled the fence.
The Bushmasters were light infantry, though that had nothing to do with the amount of gear they carried. Between ammunition, medical gear, communications, tools and all the rest of it, the average light fighter carried a hundred pounds of gear on his back. They’d scaled down for this mission quite a bit, but Duke’s pack still weighed at least sixty pounds.
He made climbing the fence look easy, though. Big as he was, he could move with an animal like grace at times, and he was up and over the fence in seconds.
“What’s a girl like you doing in a place like this?” he said, dropping down beside her.
Two of the Klowns reached the fence and started up. Rawlings shot them both before they were halfway up.
She shook her head at Duke. “Waiting on my pet ox.”
More Klowns were filling the street. Most were civilians, but there were soldiers and cops mixed in with them too, and they were starting to fire. Bullets smacked into the side of the white van behind them and shattered the driver’s side window.
“Time to go,” Muldoon said.
They threaded their way through the parked trucks, staying low.
When they reached the far end of the lot they found Urena and the others about to scale another chain link fence. Beyond the fence Rawlings saw more burned out buildings, and she couldn’t keep the thought out of her head that they were just running in circles. They were never going to get out of here.
“Uh oh,” said Nutter. “Looks like we got some company.”
He was right. The Klowns were working their way through the lines of parked trucks. Sunlight gleamed on the windshields, casting the charging Klowns in silhouette, dark shapes laughing so loudly and so crazily it made Rawlings guts turn to water.
“They coming from over here too,” Urena said.
The streets on the far side of the fence had been quiet only moments before, but all the shooting and screaming and laughing was starting to draw a crowd. Klowns were appearing in every doorway, and filling the street.
“Damn,” Urena said.
Duke Muldoon ejected the empty magazine from his rifle and slapped in a new one. “Load up, boys and girls. The fun’s about to start.”
This goes live on December 30th, so consider this a Christmas tease!