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THESE DEAD LANDS DESOLATION: Derail

August 14, 2019 2 comments

 

The road–or rails–to Colorado Springs are fraught with peril. As Hastings and the rest of the regular Army heads for Fort Bragg, Sergeant First Class Ballantine and his lightfighters are tasked to get their dependents and the rest of the civilians to the fortress city of Colorado Springs.

As always…shit happens.

Also as always…what follows is unedited and may or may not appear in the final version. If interested, click the graphic above to pre-order your copy of These Dead Lands: Desolation today!

It took twenty minutes to offload the trucks, MRAPs, and the tankers. Both of the HEMTs were full of diesel. Bellara instructed Ballantine and his team to take four MRAPs and two five-tons forward to the passenger coaches and assigned one extra soldier for each vehicle, including Robinson. Together, the lightfighters and the Guardsmen would load up as many civilians as possible while Bellara and the remainder of his company oversaw the rest of the unloading operations. With the remnants of Paulick’s unit under his control, the captain had more manpower to throw around, so it wouldn’t take terribly long to free up the remaining vehicles. Ballantine himself drove one of the HEMTs, more out of curiosity than need. He’d never horsed around one of the big tactical trucks before, and while its mass ensured it wouldn’t move quickly, it was reasonably surefooted on the grass strip next to the train tracks. Like most modern Army vehicles, it was dumbed down enough to where anyone with training or just common sense could handle it, complete with an automatic transmission and power-assisted steering. Its Detroit Diesel engine wouldn’t win any stealth awards and the big, eight-wheeled tactical truck lacked air conditioning, but that wasn’t a problem for the moment. A cold front had settled in over the Chicagoland area, bringing with it ambient temperatures in the high sixties.

If not for the fucking zombies and all the wounded, be a nice night to kick back with a beer.

Hartman had the lead MRAP, and the rest of the column formed up on his as he drove to the passenger coaches. There were plenty of dismounted military surrounding them. Whenever the C-RAM ripped a salvo through the night, the individual soldiers’ shadows grew long and tall in the light given off by the weapon’s six-barreled gun. One of the locomotives was fully involved with fire now, emitting a huge greasy plume of smoke that roiled as it climbed into the still air.

“Devil Dog, Crusader One Seven,” he said over his radio. Beside him, Lieutenant Robinson sat cradling her rifle, her face turned toward the distant fires of Chicago and the much closer columns of the dead. Individual corpses were visible now, heading toward the wrecked train. Several had deviated course, drawn toward the C-RAM’s explosive plume. They were inside the gun’s effective range.

“Send it, Crusader.” In the background of Everson’s transmission, Ballantine heard an array of startled voices, cries, and shouted orders. Clearly, the old man had made it back to the passenger coaches.

“We’re rolling up to your pos now. Four MRAPs, two five-tons, two HEMT tankers. I want you to start staging the dependents and get them collocated in the lead MRAP. Help transfer Sergeant Martin. We have enough bodies to drive, but that’s about it. Have the medics start picking out the injured they can save. Good copy on that?”

“Roger all,” Everson replied immediately. “I think I see your vehicles approaching. Drop the ramps on those MRAPs. We’re coming out now.”

The column ground to a halt beside the derailed cars. Ballantine set the parking brake but left the engine running. “How do you want to do this, LT?” he asked. When Robinson didn’t turn away from looking out the window in the HEMT’s passenger door, Ballantine leaned across the wide cab and shook her shoulder. “Hey, Lieutenant! You with me?”

She turned back to him then, and the NVGs hid her eyes from view. Just the same, Ballantine was certain he’d see nothing but mounting terror in them. The dead were coming, and they had to stop.

“With you, Sergeant,” she said, and her voice was strong.

“We have to load up. How do you want us to do this? I’d like to put as many civilians in the MRAPs as possible, and shooters in the five-tons. We can carry some on the tankers, too—none of the reekers are going to be shooting back, and we might need guys cleaning the dead off if they manage to get a hold of us.”

“I’ll ensure some of the troops make sure the dead don’t make it close enough for us to worry about,” Robinson said. “I agree, try and get as many of the civvies in the MRAPs. We’re going to have to lash everything we can carry to the trucks and tankers. Make sure we have enough food and water and everything else we might need. No telling how long we’ll be on the road.”

“Roger that. So you’ll oversee security, then?”

“I’m on it, Sergeant Ballantine.”

“Hooah.”

With that, Ballantine bailed out of the HEMT and slammed the door closed as soon as his boots were on the ground. He made his way toward the passenger coach as the C-RAM hurled more hate toward the horizon, blasting a long, arcing stream of large-caliber rounds through the air. It looked almost like a pulsing laser beam, and the intensity of its illumination was so strong it threatened to overwhelm his goggles.

The rest of the guys dismounted and headed for the coach. Guerra was among them, not allowing his tweaked leg to slow him down for an instant as he hobbled along. Ballantine caught up to him and grabbed his shoulder.

“Guerra, stay out here,” he said, raising his voice over the mounting gunfire. “You’re fucked up, I think you should stay with the vehicles.”

“I’m good,” Guerra replied.

“The fuck you are! Get back to the lead MRAP, make sure no one fucks with it! Get off that leg!”

“It ain’t the leg, it’s the ankle,” Guerra said. “Carl, I’m good. Really.”

“Then prove it by doing what I told you to do, man.” Even over the noise of combat and his earphones, he heard Kenny shrieking away. He saw him a moment later, wrapped around Diana like a cheap coat, screaming his head off. Diana struggled with him as Everson appeared in the coach’s door. The older man supported Martin as he slowly eased his way down the boarding stairs, where one of Bellara’s medics waited for him.

“Martin will drive,” Ballantine told Guerra.

“What? The man’s got a busted leg, for God’s sake!”

“Yeah, his left leg. His right is fine, so he can work the pedals,” Ballantine said. “Just long enough for us to get out of here. That way we can have shooters on their guns.”

“You’re pairing me up with him?”

“Damn straight—call your ride the Gimp Express.”

Guerra shook his head. “Cold, Carl. Cold.”

“Get to it.” Ballantine stepped away from Guerra and hurried toward Kenny and Diana. Diana watched him approach, her expression uncertain. Ballantine understood why. She didn’t have any night vision gear, and to her he probably looked like a Terminator coming to take her down. Clearly, Kenny felt that way. As soon as he became aware of Ballantine’s approach, his cries grew even louder. Ballantine hadn’t thought that was possible.

“Diana, it’s Ballantine,” he told her.

“Nice get up,” Diana responded. “Must remember that look for the next Comic Con show, because it certainly scares the shit out of Kenny.”

“Let’s get you guys loaded up,” Ballantine told her. He pointed to the first MRAP. “Can you see that vehicle over there with the lowered rear ramp? We’re going to put you guys in that one.”

The C-RAM fired again, sending a hail tracers outbound as the bright plume of yellow flame from its muzzles seared the night. The weapon was firing rapidly now, sweeping from side to side. Troops horsed around ammunition magazines, staging them for loading. The C-RAM was a thirsty beast, and it depleted the loaded ammo drum in almost a single pass now. Rifle fire was barking more consistently now, and one of the M249 machineguns mounted in one of the five-ton’s gunnery rings chattered as the Guardsman there sighted on targets. Up range from Ballantine’s position, a GAU-19 howled. He looked in that direction and saw a couple of gun trucks rolling down the derailed train’s length, their .50-caliber weapons lighting up targets inside eight hundred meters.

Kenny screamed again, severely stressed by all the commotion. Diana firmed her grip on him but he almost wrenched her off her feet as he suddenly bolted, attempting to run off into the night. Diana kept a hold of him, but he was so frightened he managed to drag her along for a few feet. For a little guy, Kenny was a powerhouse when adrenaline was factored in.

“Kenny, stop!” she yelled.

“Here, I’ve got him!” Ballantine hitched up his rifle and swept Kenny up into his arms and held him tight. Kenny responded by trying to head butt him, but Ballantine turned away from the attack. While the boy couldn’t seriously hurt him, he could definitely damage his goggles, and Ballantine needed to preserve those. He hugged Kenny tight, wrapping him up in his big arms as he did his best to immobilize him. Kenny fought back, shrieking and thrashing and kicking and biting. The boy was a handful, and Ballantine was seriously glad he had so much ballistic armor to take the punishment.

“Got some jalapeño cheese for you, Kenny!” Ballantine said, yelling over the thundering gun and the increasing rifle fire. “Got some hot cheese for you!”

None of this mattered to Kenny at the moment, and he continued to rage and cry, struggling against Ballantine like a wild animal. Ballantine hurried toward the first MRAP and climbed up its ramp with Diana right behind. He shoved Kenny into one of the taupe-colored seats and pinned him in place.

“Strap him in, then sit on him if you have to,” Ballantine told Diana as she mounted the vehicle behind him. “Come on, hurry it up—we’ve got to get everyone aboard and seal the ramp on this fucker.”

“You do it. I’ve got him.” Diana pulled the little rifle around until it hung behind her then grabbed Kenny’s shoulders and pushed him into the seat. She grunted as he kicked her savagely, still screaming his head off. “Fuck! Do it quick, the little bastard’s going to break my ribs!”

Ballantine grabbed the harness and pulled it around Kenny’s body. Tightening the straps as much as he could, he buckled him in. The system hadn’t been designed to restrain a child, but it would have to do. Kenny continued to thrash and howl, tears pouring down his face. Ballantine put a hand on his head as he reached into one of his cargo pockets and pulled out a package of jalapeño cheese spread and handed it to Diana.

“Here, give this a shot,” he said. As he spoke, the MRAP’s driver door opened. Ballantine turned toward it, instinctively raising his rifle even though a thick metal bulkhead partially obscured the operator’s compartment from the passenger area. He watched as Sergeant Trevor Martin laboriously climbed aboard, assisted by Everson and Guerra. The cavalryman slid behind the MRAP’s steering wheel and set his rifle down between the front seats before he gingerly positioned his injured leg in the foot well. He wore his NVGs and he full facial armor, like the kind the aviators wore. All the gear conspired to make him look like a cyborg warrior from the future.

“Martin, you good?” Ballantine asked.

“As many pills as I popped? I’m fucking flying, man,” Martin replied.

“Seriously? You fucked up?”

Martin half turned in the MRAP’s driver’s seat and shot him a thumbs up. “I’m good, Ballantine. Don’t get a flop sweat around your ball sack, okay?”

“Can you drive this pig in your condition?”

“Trust me.” Martin reached over and pulled the door closed and secured it before setting about buckling himself in. “If I have to, I can fly this thing out of here.”

Movement to the rear caught Ballantine’s attention and he spun, shouldering his rifle. He saw Everson shepherding Kay and kids forward while Guerra stood in the background. As Ballantine watched, Guerra shouldered his rifle and capped off two shots to the north.

Are they that close? Ballantine wondered, and a shard of dread pierced his heart.

“Dad!” Curtis launched himself at Ballantine and grabbed onto him, and Ballantine had to raise his rifle so the kid didn’t blunder into it. It was plenty dark inside the MRAP, with the only illumination coming from the dashboard lights, so chances were good Curtis hadn’t even seen the weapon. Ballantine wasted no time in shoving him into the seat across from Diana.

“Sit there!” he snapped. “Kay, I need you across from Kenny! Diana’s going to need your help!”

“Coming,” Kay said, pushing Josh before her.

“No, come now! Everson, take Josh!” As he spoke, Ballantine stepped forward and knelt on the seat beside Diana, making enough room for Kay to pass by him.

“Got him,” Everson said, and he reached out and grabbed Josh’s left arm and pulled him aside. “Go ahead, Mrs. Ballantine.”

Kay made an angry sound and crept forward, groping in the pitch black. Ballantine saw everything courtesy of his NVGs, and he reached out and grabbed her hand. Without pausing to be dainty, he pulled her forward and forced her into the seat across from Kenny.

“Carl!” she snapped, doubtless upset at the way he manhandled her into position.

“We’re in a fucked up situation, Kay,” he snapped back. “Do as I tell you when I tell you!”

“I’m not one of your soldiers, I’m your wife!”

Guerra cracked off another two rounds. “I tried telling him the same shit once, Kay. Didn’t work for me.”

Kenny continued to scream, rejecting the cheese spread Diana offered him. Ballantine grabbed one of Kay’s hands and guided it toward Kenny.

“Kay, I need you to help Diana with Kenny,” he said. “We can’t close the ramp until we get this vehicle loaded up, so I’ve got to leave.”

“Where are you going?”

“I’m not staying here, babe,” he told her. “I’ve got things to do. You guys will be secure. Martin and Guerra and Bill will be traveling with you, and you’ve all got weapons.” As he spoke, Everson shoved Guerra’s sniper rifle into the MRAP. He disappeared from view for a few moments, then returned lugging two heavy rucksacks. He dumped them into the back of the vehicle with a huff as Josh picked his way forward through the darkness.

“Joshie, right there,” Ballantine said. “You’re right across from Diana and next to your brother. Sit down.” He guided his oldest son toward the seat he wanted him in. “We’ll turn on the lights after the tail gate is closed, okay?”

“Won’t they see it?” Josh asked.

“It won’t matter, kid. This vehicle weighs over fifteen tons. They’ll never be able to get in. Trust me.”

“Carl, where are you going to go?” Kay repeated.

“I have to make sure the column is secure, Kay,” he told her. “I can’t stay here.”

“Carl, we’re your family!” Kay’s voice was loud in the narrow confines of the MRAP, even with Kenny’s howling and Guerra’s firing. A louder report made them all wince as Everson let off a single shot.

“See, Guerra? That’s how you do this kind of shit,” Everson said.

“Pretty good, old man—took that runner out nicely.” There was true respect in Guerra’s voice.

“Mr. Everson, we have three empty seats not including yours and space for a couple more people,” Ballantine said, shouting as the C-RAM fired off again. And in the background, there was a mechanical howl. Someone had started one of the excavator mulchers that had been loaded onto the forward flat bed rail cars. That meant the reekers were now danger close, only a hundred or so meters away. As if to confirm this, the rifle fire increased almost exponentially. The rhythmic thump-thump-thump of a Mark 19 grenade launcher added weight to the presumption. In the midst of it all, he heard Lieutenant Robinson shouting orders, orienting the warfighters onto their targets.

“I’ll round up some more souls, Sergeant,” Everson said. “You want civilian, or military?”

“Civilian, please,” Ballantine said. “Military will ride in the five tons. And Everson… only those who’re going to live. If they’re too badly injured—”

“Oorah.” With that, the old man with the long gray hair was gone, fading away into the night.

Ballantine reached out and touched Kay’s face. “All right. Leaving now. Help Diana with Kenny.” Before she could say anything, he pushed himself to his feet. Crouched over inside the MRAP, he put a hand on each of his boys’s shoulders. “Look after your mom for me. I’ll be on the radio, so if you need me, just call. Your mom knows how to do it, and so does Mr. Everson. Listen to him and Sergeant Guerra and Sergeant Martin. Okay?”

“Daddy, don’t go!” Curtis said, and his voice was suddenly small and scared.

“Josh will help take care of you, Curty,” Ballantine said. He put his hand on Josh’s head. “Right?”

“I will,” Josh said, but his voice was small and fearful as well.

“Good boy. Help Diana and your mom with Kenny, all right? He’s helpless. He needs you guys.”

“Okay,” Josh said, and there was little resolve in his voice. Ballantine felt terrible. His boys were scared to death, and they needed him near. But Hastings’s words came back to him, and in that moment they carried tremendous weight.

Get in the fight, God damn you!

“You’ll all be fine,” he told them. “I have to be outside, but I’ll be doing everything I can. You’re all golden.”

“No we’re not,” Diana hissed. “Not until someone gets me that box of diapers!”

These Dead Lands: Desolation drops on October 22, 2019.

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THESE DEAD LANDS DESOLATION: Filling In The Center

He moved forward into the field, capping off reekers as he advanced. The screamers and runners had already met their fate—now he was just taking down shamblers and walkers. Just the same, it was stressful. Advancing upon an enemy that knew no fear and would never back down took a pair of brass ones, and knowing his family was only a few hundred feet away made that even harder. But he’d disgraced himself when he’d hesitated to jump in and save Kenny. So here in the darkness of night, where no one who wasn’t wearing night vision goggles would notice, Sergeant First Class Carl Ballantine set about making himself whole again.

 

THESE DEAD LANDS: DESOLATION on Pre-Sale

July 27, 2019 1 comment

It’s far enough along now that Wolf and I elected to go ahead and alert the general public. These Dead Lands: Desolation is available for pre-sale and will be officially released on October 22, 2019. After that, the ball keeps rolling with These Dead Lands: Desperation, but more on that one after this guy flies. 🙂  R.C. Bray is on the hook for a 2020 audiobook release as well, so I’m sure some of you will enjoy that!

THESE DEAD LANDS: DESOLATION–FAITH

As the surviving members of the 10th Mountain Division shoots the rails on a gigantic train, Stilley has a conflict. But all he needs is a little faith.

“Not necessary. Get some rest.” Ballantine turned to Stilley. “What I said about your people is the real deal. If they can hold out long enough, we’ll get to them.”

“They dead, Sergeant,” Stilley said, and for once his voice was soft and barely audible.

“You can’t think like that, man.” Tharinger was the one who spoke. “You have to hold onto that shit. It gives you life, dude.”

Stilley looked at him, and his eyes were white against his dark skin. “You want me to lie to myself for a while, right?”

“Want you to have faith, bro,” Tharinger said. “Faith, man. We all need it now.”

THESE DEAD LANDS: DESOLATION: Stilley + Flash-Bang = Dumbness

June 13, 2019 4 comments

In every unit, there’s always one dogface who just doesn’t get it. And his name is usually Stilley. As in, Craig T. Stilley.

 

“Man, that shit’s gonna wake up Kenny,” Hartman said.

“Yeah. World’s gone to hell, and all we have to worry about is a kid getting enough sleep,” Tharinger said from the back.

Guerra turned to look at him, irritated by the comment even though he had kind of been thinking the same thing himself. “You’re all heart, Tha—”

He was cut off by a piece of metal that bounced off his helmet. Stilley, Tharinger, and Guerra all stared at the flash bang grenade in Stilley’s hand, dumbfounded. Somehow, Stilley had pulled the pin and managed to let go of the safety lever at the same time.

Stilley’s eyes were as wide as silver dollars. “Yeah, like I didn’t mean to do that…”

Drop it, you idiot!” Guerra thundered. Stilley dropped it to the floorboard and pulled his knees to his chest. At the same time, Hartman wrenched the wheel to the right and stood on the brakes without being told. Guerra threw open the Humvee’s heavy door with all his strength and managed to get it ajar about halfway before the grenade went off like a thunderclap right behind his seat.

THESE DEAD LANDS DESOLATION: Stilley, Stop Staring at My Tits

February 2, 2019 8 comments

Now that Earthfall 2 is mostly in the can–mostly!–I’m reorienting fires onto this…

 

As the train roared down the tracks, Diana Li looked over at Kenny. He had initially been excited when the train took off from Fort Indiantown Gap, chugging away as its diesel engines began moving the load along the rails. The soldiers on the flat cargo cars continued shooting at zombies as they drew closer to the long consist, and Kenny flinched at every report. But as the National Guard training facility and the thousands of zombies that had overrun it fell behind, the firing tapered off. Soon, the only noises that entered the passenger coach were those of a long train hurtling down steel rails. The sound and repetitive rhythm of the train’s progress apparently agreed with the slight boy. His eyelids grew heavy, and he slowly leaned into Diana and fell asleep. He snored gently every now and then, his breathing heavy and deep.

For her part, Diana relaxed bit by bit and sank against the seat cushions as the tension slowly drained out of her. The little Sig-Sauer rifle she’d taken possession of was still slung across her chest and she shifted it away from him. Even though the safety was on, Kenny was generally unpredictable, and it was just common sense to keep control of a loaded firearm while he was nearby. She was thrilled that the boy had drifted off to sleep. Even he had limits, though it had taken him going bat-shit crazy during the zombie attack on the barracks she and the rest of the civilians had been housed in to finally run his battery out.

It just means he’s not going to sleep later, she told herself. The guy’s going to be up all night.

Diana sighed at the thought. The little autistic boy had latched onto her something fierce, and she couldn’t go anywhere without him glomming onto her like some sort of symbiotic life form. She understood that she was the only person he’d known before his parents had been killed—not by zombies, but by lawless men who had used the rise of the zombie apocalypse to crawl out of whatever survivalist cave they lived in to perpetuate crimes against their fellow survivors—and that to him, there was great comfort in her presence. The kid didn’t care that she was a former stripper who’d balled men for money and drugs. All he knew was that she was a calming presence, and he couldn’t get along without her in sight.

That was, as the saying went, a total drag.

Reaching over him, she checked the status of Kenny’s diaper. Despite all of the activity of the past few hours, it was amazingly still dry. That was a switch. She’d almost shit herself when she’d had to chase after the boy when he panicked and ran right into the midst of a zombie horde. The sudden onslaught of maternal instincts left her puzzled and a bit depressed. Did it really take the end of the world to get her to understand the value in other people, especially defenseless children? Was God or whomever/whatever higher power conducting this hell house orchestra they were in spending a lot of time and energy to teach her a lesson she really hadn’t needed to learn before?

Oh, fuck this.

She leaned back in the seat and tried to get some rest. It had been a killer of a day, and it wasn’t over yet. She gently rocked from side to side as the train rolled down the rails, surrounded by the murmurs of dozens of other people in the cramped coach car. She heard the idiot soldier Stilley talking at the far end of the car. Even in a moving train, the guy’s voice carried.

Try as she might, sleep eluded her.

She opened her eyes and looked around the coach. Bill Everson, the old Marine who had taught them to shoot, sat across the aisle from her, his eyes directed toward the scenery out the window. His M4 rifle leaned against the coach’s sidewall, in easy reach if he needed it. Sitting next to him was another man, a younger fellow Diana hadn’t met before. He had longer blond hair that reached his shoulders and a scruffy pale beard that hadn’t really filled in yet. Wearing jeans and what looked to be a vintage Star Wars T-shirt, Diana could tell he clearly wasn’t a member of the military set. Pounding away at the laptop on his lap, the man’s brow was furrowed in either consternation or concentration. She moved her head, trying to catch a glimpse of what he was working on. A game? She couldn’t tell, there was a privacy screen over the laptop’s display.

“You need something?” the man asked sharply, without looking up from the laptop.

“Just wondering what you’re doing. Hopefully playing Left 4 Dead so you can get some experience fighting zombies.”

“Coding,” the man said.

“Coding? Coding what?”

The man sighed. “I’m writing code for a radar system. I’m trying to change it from tracking aircraft to softer targets.”

“Really,” Diana said, losing interest in the conversation almost immediately.

Everson stirred, pushing his glasses back on his narrow nose. “Jacob’s working to try and reset the C-RAM so it can engage the zombies,” he said. “If we can get that system operational, we can kill hundreds of them in one sweep.”

“Ah, sea ram?”

Everson pointed toward the front of the coach, and Diana guessed he was indicating the freight cars ahead. “You see that big gun on one of the cargo cars? The one that looks like a giant R2D2 with a hard-on?”

Diana snorted at the description. She knew exactly what he was talking about. “Yeah, I saw it. What about it?”

“It’s an anti-aircraft weapon,” the man with the laptop, Jacob, said. “I’m trying to recode the radar array so it can lock on and engage ground targets, like a mob of reekers.”

“We’ve got, like, a thousand soldiers who can do that,” Diana said.

Everson chuckled. “The C-RAM spits out twenty millimeter rounds that’ll tear right through a dozen of those things and not leave much left,” the old man said. “Doesn’t matter if it’s a head shot or not—precision won’t be the name of the game. That gun can take out a couple hundred reekers in one sweep in about three seconds.”

“Sounds impressive,” Diana said.

Everson nodded. “And if Jacob here can get it to work, it will be. It’s a fine piece of machinery. We’ll be able to keep at least two avenues of attack clear, so long as we can keep feeding the gizmo ammunition.”

“Sounds like R2D2 out there isn’t the only thing with a woody for weaponry.”

Everson snorted. “At my age, I pop wood over almost everything.”

“Guys, this conversation’s pretty gross,” Jacob the coder said.

“I prefer the term ‘earthy’,” Diana said.

Jacob shook his head. “And I wish I still had my Bose headphones.”

“Life in the zombie apocalypse is a tough one, guy,” Diana said. “Now might be a good time to man up a bit.”

Jacob looked up at her, an expression of consternation embedded on his face. Diana laughed inwardly. Okay, this guy takes things women say a bit too seriously.

“Do you have something else to do?” he asked, a whiny-bitch kind of snarl in his voice.

“You don’t want to get this one’s back up, Jacob,” Everson said mildly. “She really will punch you right in the face, and even though she’s got tiny lunch-grabbers, I’ll bet it’ll still smart.”

Diana nodded toward Everson. “Yeah, the old man speaks the truth.”

“Leave me alone,” Jacob said, turning back to his laptop. “I’m busy.”

Everson looked over his shoulder at Kenny, who was still sleeping soundly in the seat. “I see the young one’s checked out for the moment,” he said. “Poor kid—going through this hell has got to be especially tough on him.”

“Thank God it’s been so easy on the rest of us,” Diana replied.

Everson looked back at her. “Tell you what. Let me sit with the boy for a while. You go do something else for a bit. Playing mother hen isn’t exactly your gig.”

Diana was perplexed to find she actually took offense at the old Marine’s words. “What the fuck does that mean?”

Everson looked at her for a long moment, his eyes unblinking behind his glasses. For a second, Diana thought the old man was going to tear her a new one. Instead, when he spoke, his voice was surprisingly mild.

“It means take a break,” he said. “I’ve got Kenny for the moment. If something comes up that I can’t handle, I’ll be sure to let you know.” He motioned to the front of the car. “Go hit the head. Or hang out and shoot the shit with your lightfighter pals. They’re all fifth wheels right now, until someone can give them a mission.”

Diana sniffed. It was odd; only a couple of days ago, she would have been thrilled to hand off Kenny’s care to someone, anyone, even an old former Marine who looked like he should be starring in one of those Discovery Channel shows about rebuilding vintage motorcycles. A few days ago, she didn’t want the responsibility, felt it had been foisted onto her because she was a woman and the kid had a soft spot for her. She realized she’d undergone a sea change when the kid had run right out into a group of hungry zombies, and she’d followed him in.

“He’ll be fine,” Everson said, as if reading her thoughts.

“Yeah. Okay. Something goes down, let me know. I’ll be up front, I guess.”

Everson nodded and stood up, crouching beneath the luggage rack over his head. “Coming out, Jacob. Watch your laptop.”

Jacob shifted in his seat, easing his legs out into the aisle as Everson climbed over. His eyes never left the computer’s screen, and Diana figured it was because he was engrossed in his work. Or she had pissed him off so much that he didn’t want to look up and meet her gaze. Which was actually fine by her. Despite whatever had changed between her and Kenny, she didn’t have time for men who couldn’t do something for her, like offer her lots of money. Or in the current circumstances, lots of protection.

Like Phil, she thought. She smiled to herself about that, mentally referring to him by his first name instead of Hastings or General, as she’d called him in her more usual derogatory way. Damn girl, you are going soft.

“Okay, get gone while you can,” Everson said, stepping into the aisle. “I’m pretty sure he’s going to want to see you when he wakes up, so do whatever you want to do until then.”

“Thanks, Mr. Everson,” Diana said.

Everson scowled. “You can call me Bill. Or just Everson. I may be old, but honorifics were never my thing.”

“Okay, old man. That better?”

Everson snorted. “Much. That I can definitely deal with.”

Diana nodded and stepped away from him, heading toward the front of the car. She swayed as the train bumped its way down the tracks, gently undulating from side to side. If the coach’s occupants were dirty, bruised, and generally looking terrified, the scene could have been one of a suburban commute, or a cross-country Amtrak ride. The thought reminded her that such a thing had been on her bucket list—taking a train ride cross country in a sleeper car on the Southwest Chief, like John Belushi and Blair Brown had done in that old movie Continental Divide. Maybe this trip would have to serve, because it didn’t look like things were about to improve.

The coach’s rest room was up front, and it was currently unoccupied. Diana took the opportunity to use the facilities and freshened up as much as she could with the weak stream of tepid water that poured into the stainless steel sink. So far, the room wasn’t a total mess, but that would happen soon enough. Too many people, and not enough places to take on new water and empty the shit tank.

Outside, she saw Stilley standing near the vestibule. He was talking to the people sitting in the club seats there, so she wandered over to check it out. Stilley grinned at her like the lecherous buffoon he was, his uniform still filthy from fighting the dead.

“Well hey there, ma’am,” he said in his booming voice. If he was even attempting to be surreptitious when looking at her chest, he failed miserably. “How’re you doing?”

“Dial it down a bit, Stilley,” Diana said. “And for the love of God, stop staring at my tits. You look at your mother like that?”

“Oh, no ma’am!” Stilley said, appropriately chagrined by the question.

“So why are you looking at me like that?”

“Well, you’re not my—” Even Stilley was smart enough to realize this wasn’t a conversation he wanted to have, so he stopped in midsentence. He opened his mouth to say something, then closed it. Just as quickly though, he opened it again. “Hey, have you met Trevor?”

“Who?”

“He means me,” said one of the people sitting in the club seats. Diana looked over and saw another soldier sitting on the rearward-facing bench. The seat opposite his was empty, and his right leg rested in it. Diana noticed the air cast around his lower leg. He was a pretty good-looking guy, in his late twenties maybe. His uniform had different patches on it than Stilley’s, but that didn’t mean anything to her.

“You a celebrity or something, Trevor?” she asked, wondering why he was getting some VIP treatment. The coach was supposed to be for civilians; aside from the 10th Mountain guys, most of the troops were kicking it on flatbed rail cars.

“He’s with the Cavalry,” Stilley said, as if that was supposed to mean something.

“That so? You got a horse around here I don’t know about?” Diana asked the soldier with the bum leg. “If you do, keep an eye on it. Stilley might take a swing at it.”

“Yeah, somehow I can see that happening,” the man said, looking up at Stilley. He shook his head slightly and looked back at Diana. “No horse. I’m Trevor Martin. Just another dogface.”

“You a general or something, Trevor? Because I thought this car was for civilians only?”

Martin pointed at his leg. “Got special dispensation because of this. Compound fracture. Happened during the fight at the Gap. Wasn’t able to deploy with the rest of my Cav troop, so I got left behind with the rest of the Guard and these lightfighter scum.” He jerked his thumb at Stilley. “I guess I should consider that a win, but once this guy showed up I kind of wish I’d been killed.”

Stilley frowned. “Hey now, Sergeant, that’s not a very nice thing to say,” he said.

Martin winced when Stilley spoke. “Anyone ever tell you that you talk really, really loud? What are you, a cannon cocker or something?”

“Well no, I’m a light infantryman,” Stilley said. “You know that.”

“True. What I’m curious about is why your guys haven’t shot you.”

“They send him on ahead to call the dead,” Diana said. “Seems to work.”

Martin looked up at Stilley. “Yeah, stop doing that shit. All right?”

Stilley appeared indignant. “Man, I can’t believe I’m getting this. We were just having a nice, civil conversation earlier!”

“Well, you were certainly talking,” said a woman sitting next to Martin.

Stilley’s eyes almost goggled out of his head. “Damn,” was all he said.

Diana laughed. “Ignore him—he’s mostly harmless. Stilley, where are the rest of the guys?”

Stilley pointed to the closed door behind him that led to the vestibule between train coaches. “Standing security in there.”

“Okay. I’m going out. Try not to grope me.”

Stilley made a flustered noise and shook his head in apparent embarrassment. “Man, I’m getting no love here today!” Just the same, he stepped away from the door behind him. Diana pulled on the handle, sliding it into the wall recess. The vestibule was darker than the interior of the coach, but she still saw Guerra and Hartman standing off to either side, leaning against the bulkheads. They pushed off onto their feet when she stepped inside.

“Hey, dudes,” Diana said.

“Something wrong, ma’am?” Guerra said, looking at her with his dark eyes. He still wore full battle rattle, helmet, chest protector, ruck sack, rifle, and a plethora of spare magazines. So did Hartman, though the truth of the matter was he didn’t look nearly as impressive as Guerra.

“No, nothing’s wrong,” Diana said. “I mean, aside from the fact that we’re running away from thousands and thousands of walking corpses that just overran an entire military installation. Other than that, things are damned peachy, bud.”

Guerra didn’t blink. “Okay. Do you need anything, ma’am?”

“Well, now that you mention it, a mani and pedi would just about hit the spot right now.”

Guerra looked over at Hartman, then back at Diana. “Not so sure we can accommodate that, ma’am.”

“What is it with you guys and ‘ma’am’ and ‘sir’ all the time? Do you guys work for me, or something?” Diana asked.

“It’s a polite form of address,” Guerra said, his voice stiff over the rumble of the train.

“I’m Diana,” she said. “You guys know that by now. Skip the”—the term Everson had just used sprang to her mind—“honorifics and that stuff. I’ve even been known to answer to ‘kid’, ‘sweetie’, and in rare instances where the other party is extremely good looking or fantastically wealthy, ‘bitch’.”

Guerra did blink at that one. “I think ma’am should be fine, if that’s all right.”

“How about Diana?”

“Ma’am—Diana—is there something you need from us?” Guerra asked.

She shook her head. “No. I think you guys have done more than enough for me lately.” She looked over at Hartman, who looked away from her and toward Guerra. Diana turned back to Guerra, who seemed extremely weirded out by her presence.

“Dude, what’s wrong with you?” she asked.

“I’m just wondering what the angle is,” Guerra said.

“Huh?”

“You aren’t very likeable, ma’am. You strike me as the kind of lady who only talks to people when she wants something, and that makes me wonder why the hell you’re out here hanging with us,” Guerra said.

Diana thought about that for a moment. “Ah… right. I think I owe you an apology, Guerra.”

Guerra frowned. “Apology?”

“Yeah. Back at Indiantown Gap, when you were asking me what I needed, and I needed sanitary napkins. I rubbed that one in your face a bit, and I know that must’ve been embarrassing.”

Hartman snorted. “Sanitary napkins, Hector?”

Guerra glared at him. “You always make more sense when you’re not talking, Hartman.”

Hartman shook his head, and looked out the small window in the door beside him. Guerra looked back at Diana.

“You didn’t embarrass me, ma’am. I just didn’t know why you were being so difficult when all I was trying to do was find out what you needed.”

“It’s called menstrual cramps, Hector. Even nice girls who spend all day knitting cream-colored doilies get bitchy when they’re OTR.”

“OT—? No, never mind, I get it,” Guerra said. “All right, well. Nothing to apologize for, ma’am. I’m good with it.”

“Yeah, well. Thanks for helping.” Diana looked at Hartman. “You too, guy. All you men stuck it out for me and the others. And you saved Kenny, too. You guys are fucking hard core.”

Guerra and Hartman exchanged glances again. Diana looked from one to the other, amused by their sudden inability to know what to do. Wow, I must’ve really been tough on them.

“Well, thanks for that, ma’am,” Guerra said.

“Diana. You guys can call me Diana. I don’t care what anyone else calls me, but you guys are tops in my book.” She turned back to Hartman. “I know he’s Hector, but who are you? I only know you as Hartman.”

“Hartman’s fine, ma’am.” The younger NCO looked a little stricken. “Um… Diana.”

“Come on, guy. Throw me a bone, here.”

“Um… AP. It’s just AP.”

“AP? What the fuck? Your first name is Associated Press?”

Guerra snorted loudly, and Diana looked back to see the solid-looking NCO fighting back a smile. “What’s so funny?”

“Go ahead and tell her, AP,” Guerra said.

Diana turned back to Hartman. “Well?”

Hartman sighed. “Apollo. My first name’s Apollo.”

Diana laughed. “No shit?”

Hartman nodded slowly. “Yeah. No shit.”

“Dude, you must’ve been put through hell with a name like that,” Diana said. “Is your middle name Creed, at least?”

“No such luck,” Hartman said.

“Well… good to know I’m here with the Greek god of war,” Diana said.

“Yeah, that’s him to a tee,” Guerra said. “Total god of war, that guy. At least up until he steps out of a Humvee, then he’s just a step above Stilley.”

“Speaking of Stilley,” Diana said.

“His name’s Craig,” Hartman offered.

“Awesome—I was thinking he was going to be Athena,” Diana said, and both men laughed at that. “Seriously, though,” she continued, looking back at Guerra. “The guy’s a total perv. He isn’t able to even pretend he’s not looking at my tits. I mean, I know they’re great and all, but there are kids around.”

Guerra cleared his throat, suddenly staring at the wall. “Yeah, okay. I’ll talk to him about that. I apologize if he’s making you uncomfortable.”

“Uncomfortable? Guy, being lusted after by the village idiot isn’t something that makes me uncomfortable, it’s just that in the past most of them have been drunk or high. That guy’s just rock-solid stupid.”

Both men laughed again. “Yeah, I guess you called that right,” Guerra said.

The door to the forward coach opened, and Ballantine pushed his bulk through the narrow doorway. The big NCO’s helmet came perilously close to scraping across the overhead when he straightened up. He stopped short when he saw Diana.

“What’s the problem?” he said, more the Guerra and Hartman than her.

“Do I have to do this again?” Diana asked, looking at Guerra.

“Do what again?” Ballantine looked at the two soldiers, eyes narrowed.

Guerra waved him down. “Don’t get bent, Carl. She’s just talking with us. Nothing’s going sideways.”

Ballantine didn’t buy that. “Oh, really? And what were you guys talking about, exactly?”

“Aside from Stilley, Hector and AP and me were just getting around to introductions.” She extended her hand toward Ballantine. “Hi, Carl. I’m Diana. We’re in this together, so we might as well be pals.”

Ballantine looked at her hand, clearly caught off guard. “What?”

“You know how to shake hands, right?” When Ballantine didn’t move, she raised her hand and showed him her palm. “Look, it’s been washed and everything. No joy buzzer or anything like that, I promise.”

Ballantine narrowed his eyes again, then gave her a quirky, I’m-too-busy-for-this smile. “Joy buzzer… there’s something I haven’t thought about in a million years.”

“Then shake, bro,” Diana said.

Ballantine sighed and shook her hand gently. “Okay. Done.” He released her hand then looked at Hartman. “Hartman, go forward and join Reader and Tharinger. With those two guys standing security unsupervised, this train’s going to be designated the knucklehead express.”

“Hooah,” Hartman said, pushing off the bulkhead he’d been leaning against. “Any chance we might be able to sit down sometime soon?”

“Yeah, when you take a shit or when you’re dead,” Ballantine said. “Go on, man.”

“I’m going.” With that, Hartman squared up his ruck sack, ensured his rifle was secure, and stepped through the door leading to the next coach. Ballantine turned to Guerra, then looked down at Diana.

“So everything’s cool?” he asked.

“I’m cool. You cool?” Diana replied.

“Totally,” Ballantine said.

Diana looked up at him for a long speculative moment. The big NCO had been kind of hinky ever since she’d met him, but he’d obviously been wrapped around the axle trying to get his family squared away. That was understandable; if their roles had been reversed, and if Diana had somehow been born with a more nurturing soul, she was certain she’d be the same way. Actually, maybe even worse. She kind of suspected she’d be a little more on the bat shit crazy side of the spectrum than Ballantine was if she had to worry about a family in the middle of all of this, so maybe the big guy was holding it together pretty well.

She remembered Kenny suddenly, and even though she had no doubt Everson would be able to stand watch over him, the boy wasn’t really his responsibility. She needed to get back.

“Hector, you cool?” she asked.

“Born that way, Diana,” Guerra said. “You need more lady supplies, I’m your man.”

Ballantine frowned. “What?”

“Just an in joke between us,” Diana said. “Don’t sweat it, big guy. All right, I can see you two have soldier shit to discuss, so I’ll leave you to it.” She pulled the Sig’s strap tight around her shoulder, ensuring the little short-barreled rifle was secure. “If you hear gunfire, it’s because Stilley forgot to be polite.”

Ballantine started to say something, but Guerra held up his hand. “It’s being handled,” he said.

“Attaboy,” Diana said, before returning to the coach.

 

 

“What the fuck was that about?” Ballantine asked.

“Yeah, I can see how it might’ve looked like some crazy shit was going down, but she was really cool, actually,” Guerra said. “She just wanted to get to know us a bit. Thanked us for putting ourselves on the line for her and the kid.”

“Oh.” Ballantine shrugged. “Okay.”

“Also wants us to call her Diana, not ma’am or anything like that.”

“Shit, she gonna enlist?”

“I think she’s just realized the whole bitch on wheels routine wasn’t working out for her, and she’s making the necessary attitudinal adjustments appropriate for the situation,” Guerra said. “Whatever it is, I’m good with it. I was thinking I might have to rip the bags out of her chest and beat her to death with them.”

Ballantine grunted. “What’s this about the loudmouth?”

“I have to yank his coattails a bit. He’s doing the leering bit.”

“What, at her? What the fuck does she expect, she’s a fucking stripper,” Ballantine said.

Guerra looked up at Ballantine and let out a long sigh. “Yeah, well. Not that it matters. You trying to tell me you never had a stripper girlfriend, Carl?”

Ballantine glared down at him. “No, Hector. I never did.”

“Huh. Okay. So what’s the op? Everything cool with the train?”

Ballantine nodded. “Yeah. So far, everything’s running like it should. Train’s strong, no problems. I watched the thing roll over like twenty dead, didn’t even feel a thing.”

“Okay. So where’s the gotcha?”

“Lots of unknowns out there. Switching problems. Rail problems. Other train problems. Shit we can’t control.”

“But for now, we’re good to go, right?” Guerra asked.

“Yeah.” Ballantine looked toward the rear coach. “Yeah, for now.”

“Carl… man, I got to talk to you about something.”

Ballantine looked down at him. “What’s the problem?”

“You, man. You’re the problem,” Guerra said.

Ballantine cocked his head to one side. “Don’t get you, Hector.”

Guerra cleared his throat. He thought Ballantine knew exactly what he was trying to get at, but wasn’t going to play ball and make it easy. Which meant Guerra had to nut up and tell one of the toughest soldiers he knew that he’d been acting like a fucking pussy.

“Your family’s safe, man. They got you right here, and the rest of us, too. No one’s going to let anything happen to them. But you seriously need to get your head back in the game.”

“Guerra, just what the fuck are you talking about?” Ballantine asked, and his voice was hard and brittle.

Guerra steeled himself. No turning back now. “Okay, I’ll lay it all out. You were just gonna stand there and watch the reekers tear apart that kid and the girl. You got as far as climbing out of the truck, but it wasn’t until Hastings went all Rambo and actually had to call you out that you engaged.”

Ballantine’s eyes grew wide, but his voice didn’t change. “Just what is it you’re trying to say, Guerra?”

“I’m saying that’s not what we want to see, Ballantine. The entire Tenth Mountain is gone, man. We’re it, we’re all that’s left. We want to see the remaining senior NCO get balls deep fighting the dead, no matter what. We’re fucking light infantry, man. It’s what we do, close and destroy. We don’t let little American kids die, or women either, even if they are just fucking strippers.”

“So you’re saying I’m a coward?” Ballantine took a step toward Guerra, getting right into his personal space. Most men would have taken a step back—Ballantine was a good six foot four and built to match. Guerra was five-ten on a good day, but he was quick and strong and in great shape. If Ballantine thought he could intimidate him that way, Guerra would at least give it back as good as could.

“I’m saying,” Guerra said, keeping a reasonable tone to his voice, “that we all know you’re worried shitless about what happens to your family. But that doesn’t mean we’re going to let you get away with allowing a little autistic kid to get killed, just because you’re suddenly averse to taking a risk.”

Ballantine snorted. “You got balls, dude. I’ll give you that.”

“Brass ones,” Guerra agreed.

Ballantine glared down at Guerra for a long moment, his eyes filling with brewing fury. Despite his unwillingness to show weakness in the confrontation, Guerra felt sweat slowly rolling down his back. If Ballantine was going to take it all the way, it was going to hurt both of them.

The anger receded in Ballantine’s eyes, and he stepped back after a moment. He continued to stare down at Guerra, but he slowly nodded.

“All right. I hear you, Hector. I’ll do my part. You don’t have to worry about me turning into a Nancy boy. I’m still in the fight.”

Guerra nodded back. “That’s all I’m asking for, man. Nothing more. We know you got your family to think about, because they’re right here in the shit with the rest of us. I know it’s gotta drive you crazy, but listen—my people are in California, and I have no idea what’s going on with them. So I have to stay operational, otherwise I’ll go stir. You might want to keep that in mind. You have your problems, but we have ours, too.”

“I’m with you, Hector. I’m with you.”

“Okay, man. Cool,” Guerra said. “Why don’t you check in with the fam. And send that jerk-off Stilley back here. He’s next on my hit parade.”

Ballantine smiled thinly. “You gonna bust him up?”

“Nah. Just have a talk with him.”

“Use small words.”

“Trust me. He’ll understand where I’m coming from.”

 

Great Cover…

August 16, 2016 13 comments

…now if only there was a finished book to go along with it! With titles…

Dsolation LARGE Titles

…and without. Great work by Singapore’s finest, Marc Lee!

Desolation Large

But don’t despair! You can still join the adventure at These Dead Lands: Immolation and prepare for the next odyssey into the land of the dead!