Posts Tagged ‘zombies’

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

June 13, 2019 2 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?”


“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.


“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.”


The Retreat 5: Mission Essentials

Things are heating up for the 1/55th. As I post this, I wonder if Craig and Joe are gyrating in fury, as they haven’t seen this stuff before the rest of you?

As always, I offer the below unproofed and unedited, with no guarantee it will appear in the final product.


Inveigle was a two-platoon element numbering almost eighty soldiers led by Captain Hank Caruthers, who was new to the battalion and had just finished his mountaineer training before the unit was rotated into Boston. First Sergeant Weide Zhu had grown to know him during the evolution of that engagement and found him to be generally unflappable and trustworthy. But he was a closed-off sort, not the kind of leader to give inspirational speeches or react to pressure by barking out orders and getting shit done. He was the sort who studied a situation and responded accordingly—essentially the kind of officer the Army liked. In fact, he reminded Zhu of his own father, an immigrant from mainland China who was slow to act and always measured in his response. Zhu was quite certain his father was dead now, or among the laughing throngs sweeping through Alhambra, California. Zhu viewed that philosophically. Yes, his father was possibly a murderous klown, but at least he was finally having a good time.

The problem with serving under Caruthers, filial similarities aside, was that engaging the klowns always resulted in shit flying off the rails. Caruthers would really need to step outside of himself to get things done and preserve as much of Inveigle as possible. As insurance this happened, Zhu had been detailed to Inveigle by Turner to ensure that when the shit hit the fan, the lightfighters had a steady advocate who had seen his share of shit. While Zhu’s public reputation was that of being a steady hand—he was a favorite of the troops—Turner was well aware the Chinese NCO could turn on the heat when things started to pop at the seams. Zhu and Turner had come up together. As entry-level grunts, they’d faced the heat, sand storms, and camel spiders in Desert Storm, but weren’t finally blooded until Restore Hope in Somalia. Between the two of them, they embodied half a century of military experience. Turner was chained to Colonel Lee’s side, but he knew full well that an extremely senior NCO could make all the difference during an operation like Inveigle. And it wasn’t like Turner had to beg. Zhu was ready for doing more than checking up on the troops and acting as a chauffeur/bodyguard for the extraordinarily lame Major Walker.

Of course, meeting the klowns head on wasn’t something he looked forward to. Or did he? Zhu had inherited a great deal of his father’s caution, and while the life of a professional soldier wasn’t without bucket loads of risk from time to time, he had managed those risks fairly adroitly over his career. While he had been exposed to explosive, frenetic combat in the past, it wasn’t something he had courted in some years. But here he was, at what might very well be the end of the world, leaning forward in the foxhole and getting ready to spray hate at his enemies all day long. It wasn’t a hundred percent atypical for him, given his occupation, but that he found himself longing for it made Weide Zhu wonder just how much he had changed since getting the orders to deploy to Boston. The Chinese had a saying: Life is short and bitter. The phrase popped into his mind suddenly as he examined his rifle for the hundredth time. Despite his preparations, he had a sense of dread in the back of his mind. The adage might prove more correct than he had previously thought.

You’re fifty-one years old. For you, life might be bitter, but you cannot complain it was too short.

The plan called for Inveigle to attack a small assembly area at the southern edge of the base and hammer the shit out of it, then fade back and draw in more klowns to pursue them. Using battlefield deception tactics Inveigle would essentially make a lot of noise and do a token amount of damage, enough to keep the inflowing klown masses interested but the lightfighters would not close and destroy. They were to avoid becoming decisively engaged, and instead filter to the southwest. Once they’d shaken the klowns, they would push overland back to where Desperado would hit the post, near where Eyes had gone in. The general assumption was the klowns would be easy to pull off target, and while they were combing the pine barrens to the south searching for Inveigle, the unit would instead go to ground and provide covering fires for Desperado’s retreat. Backed by Thunder’s mortar tubes—and he hoped, some of the bigger guns he’d heard hammering away at the klowns from somewhere inside Fort Stewart proper—Zhu felt that Caruthers’s command might be successful in its mission.

But shit always blew up when the klowns entered the fray. They were fearless, still intelligent despite their disease, and as unpredictable as any foe in the history of combat.

Yes, life might be bitter, indeed.

When he advanced through the pine barrens with Caruthers and the advance team to reconnoiter their intended target—what appeared to be a rear area encampment where the klowns could rest and reconstitute after attacking the defenses around Fort Stewart—Zhu had his first inkling he might have misjudged the twenty-eight year old captain he was supporting.

It wasn’t a bivouac they were targeting.

It was a center of torture.

For fifteen minutes, Zhu and the rest of the advance team watch as klowns, decorated with everything from freshly-hewn bone adornments, feathery scalps, and tribal tattoos to hundred thousand dollar diamonds, bespoke tailor-made suits, and Rolex watches slowly turned captured civilians and military officers and soldiers into klowns. They did it in a variety of ways. They did it by pissing in their faces, by stabbing them with infected lances, by hurling offal into open wounds.

And most horrifyingly, they did it by rape.

First Sergeant Weide Zhu considered himself to be a very reasonable, well-ordered senior soldier of the United States Army. And so did everyone who had ever profiled him over the course of his career; one of the adjectives that usually came up was “unflappable.” While he had an emotional range just like any other man, Zhu had been able to tamp it down, secure it, and leave it tied up while he dealt with whatever crises had to be attended to. He would release the emotions later, usually alone or in the company of close friends and colleagues, where they could be reviewed when lives were no longer on the line and decisions had already been made. Four times in his past, Zhu had openly wept in front of men for whom he had nothing but the greatest of respect. And they had wept with him, for some of the things a man had to do in uniformed service was absolutely soul-crushing, and they could not withstand that final report out, where the actual human cost was accounted for.

Every man, woman, and child who was raped was savaged first, so that whatever canal was to receive their unholy seed was already torn and bleeding. Then the klowns would line up and fuck the hell out of their target, delivering payload after payload of infected semen. Some pleaded for their lives, but most fought, even the children. Neither tactic worked. Once the right viral density was arrived at, the laughter would commence. It would start as giggles at first, then outright, uproarious laughter, along with exhortations for the rapists to redouble their efforts and give their best.

I will never survive this, Zhu told himself.

“Mortars.” Caruthers was stone-faced as he watched these goings-on from the hide site the twelve man advance team had carved out in the pine barrens. “We can use the mortars, neutralize all of them.”

“Fuck that, Captain,” said another soldier. “Call Wizard and have him put arty on target here. Wipe ‘em all out. Fucking end this shit, right here, right now.”

“Yeah,” Caruthers said.

“Not…not our mission,” Zhu said. He had to struggle to get the words out.

“What?” Caruthers didn’t look at Zhu, but his tone told the NCO everything he needed to know. The company grade officer was scandalized by the dissent. “How can this not be our mission?”

“It’s the right thing to do,” Zhu said, as a screaming preteen girl was brought into the zone and her clothes were ripped from her. Knives glittered in the Georgia sunlight as the klowns below set about their work, flaying, cutting, chipping at her most private of parts. “But it’s not the mission. We wipe them out, we accomplish nothing. We have to enrage them, bait them, bring them out of here to chase us.” He paused then to swallow what little spit was in his mouth. “We have to pull them away from here and give life to the rest of the plan, not try to save those we could never help anyway.”

“Are you fucking telling me we should turn away from this?” Caruthers snapped.

“I’m telling you we have a plan to put in motion, Captain,” Zhu responded. To his ears, his voice was rational, calm, completely controlled. It was in no way a mirror of what he felt. The desire to attack, to kill, to savage was so overwhelming he marveled at how well he was able to hide it. He looked over the klown breeding ground, and he found he was full of a despair so deep and so dark that he feared there was no way back. His sanity had been fractured, and while he might be able to tape it all back together later, there was no chance he would go back to who he had been only fifteen minutes ago. He was damaged goods now. Section Eight Express all the way.

“The fuck you say,” Caruthers said. Zhu tore his eyes away from the blood-curdling vista below and looked at the officer. Caruthers’s own eyes were wide and full of fury, terror, and madness. He’d gone right off the deep end, and there was no coming back.

“Captain, you have a mission,” Zhu reminded him, and he called forth the voice of a senior non-commissioned officer of the United States Army, the voice that fully indicated you did not fuck with an institution that had hundreds of years of heritage of service behind it. “If you fail here, you fail the men who depend on you, the men of the battalion, and the nation that expects you to defend it against all enemies.”

Caruthers turned and looked at Zhu then. He glared at him with wild eyes, then barked a short laugh. “Chinamen…always able to serve up lo mien, but never guts.” He reached over to the RTO lying beside him and snatched up the handset to the field radio. “Wizard, Inveigle Six. Fire mission for Thunder, unless you can get us access to bigger guns. Over.”

“Coward.” Zhu spat out the word like a curse. Without waiting for a response, he pushed himself to his knees and shouldered his M4. Before anyone in the advance team could do anything to stop him, his finger worked the trigger. He blasted three rounds into the klown that was currently victimizing the young girl, then lowered the barrel slightly and fired another three into the girl herself. He raised it then and capped off another three into the klown who had been supervising the insemination, blasting off his jaw and hopefully separating his C1 and C2 vertebrae, leaving him at best a paraplegic for life. All three lay motionless on the ground within three seconds, courtesy of 5.56-millimeter ball ammunition delivered from a weapon that had been chosen first for its low production cost, and secondly for its ability to shoot and hit a target reliably over five hundred meters distant.

“What the fuck are you doing, First Sergeant?” Caruthers bellowed.

“Fulfilling mission requirements…you white piece of shit,” Zhu replied. “You are in charge of a military operation—complete it, Captain, and do it now!”

From the target area, a wave of laughter cascaded like a thundering waterfall. It was followed an instant later by a fusillade of bullets ripping through the pine trees. Zhu ripped off another three rounds and sent two infected to meet their maker.

Inveigle had executed phase one of their tasking. They had the klowns’s attention.

Now, they just had to survive it.

The Retreat 5: Getting Into The Game

“Divisional artillery?” Lee echoed after getting Cassidy’s report.

“Fuckin’ A,” Turner said.


“It’s a great spot, sir. Stewart used to house nuclear arty rounds. DIVARTY’s ASP is more secure than Fort Knox and the Federal Reserve put together. And the best part is, Eyes is essentially right next to it.” Turner stood over the map of Fort Stewart and pointed at it. “Right here. Cassidy has to cross about six hundred meters of open space to get there.”

“Walker, get us imagery please,” Lee said. “Also, verify the frequencies Cassidy sent, and get additional verification that friendlies are still on those channels. I’m not going to contact Stewart in the blind, I want a warm handoff.”

“On it.” Walker turned back to one of the radio operators who was in contact with Reynolds’s command in Florida. The Merlin was still under Florida control, so the request for specific imagery would have to be relayed south down to MacDill or Eglin or wherever the Merlin’s operators were before the system could slew its recce gear onto the point of interest.

“Sarmajor, if they used to store nuclear weapons in this supply point, can we be reasonably assured that it’s the next best thing to impregnable?” Lee asked.

“Yes, sir. It would take a hell of a lot of firepower to gain access. And that much firepower is going to do only one thing—destroy the structure entirely,” Turner said. “If the President wants this woman alive, then the klowns can’t logically attack and expect to deliver her.”

“Logic isn’t exactly a klown strong suit, Sarmajor.”

Turner shrugged. “Understood, sir. But they’re not stupid. If they’ve followed President Gray’s orders this far, they can continue to roll out the line. They can’t hammer the shit out of the ASP and expect to get what Gray wants.”

Lee nodded and looked at the map again. He needed real-time graphics, not something that a cartographer had drawn up years ago. He pushed the map toward Turner.
“Any changes here that you might be aware of?”

Turner nodded. “Yes, sir. But nothing that’s of any tactical significance. A DFAC moved here, the AAFES moved there, that kind of stuff. The ASP is still where it’s marked on the map. We can roll with what we have.”

“No,” Lee said. “Not good enough. We can get better data than this.”

“Clock’s running out, Colonel,” Turner said. It didn’t take a lot for Lee to see the old warfighter was starting to rise in the older man. Turner was done running away from the klowns. He wanted to get his pound of flesh.

“Almost there, Doug. Almost there,” he said. “Just a little longer, then the gloves come off.”

Turner nodded. “Yes, sir.”

“Colonel, the Merlin is being retasked,” Walker announced. “New imagery in two minutes or so, I’m told.”

“Verification of the freqs and the respondents?” Lee asked.

Walker held up a hand as he listened to the voices coming over his headset. After a moment, he motioned for patience as he continued listening to the exchange. Lee nodded and checked the transmission notes taken during Cassidy’s report. The overall site commander was the garrison commander, a Colonel Barker, designation Raptor. A colonel was pretty far down the food chain to be the primary point of contact for tactical matters at the installation level, but Lee had seen what the klowns had done to Fort Drum. That Stewart had fared even worse was no surprise. Lee’s plan was to contact Raptor, get the details of their current situation, and arrange for a coordinated movement to transfer Moreau to his control. After that, he planned on having the remaining forces at Stewart fall back and form up on the battalion. They would march as one unit to Florida.

Lee wasn’t going to leave the remains of the Third Infantry to face the meat grinder by themselves. He would do whatever he could to get them out of Stewart and on the road with whatever they could carry. From what little he knew, dependents were still on post; it would take a lot of last-minute action to get them all in a column heading south, but certain death was a powerful motivator. It would happen, and it would happen quickly.

Or it wouldn’t happen at all.

“New imagery coming in,” Walker said. “Merlin is scanning the target now.”

Lee looked at the single display that framed the results of the UAV operators’ work. At first, nothing changed. The imagery was being processed aboard the MQ-4 Merlin before being transmitted over the secure link to the TOC, and it took some time. But when the first images arrived, Lee was surprised by what he saw.

The artillery ASP was almost completely unguarded, save for a squad of soldiers in two sandbag revetments positioned on either side of the feeder road leading to it.
“How the fuck could they leave it open like that?” Turner wondered aloud. “I mean, it’s inviting attack—the main door is still open!”

That was true, Lee saw. The gigantic door that led to the ASP’s interior was wide open. There were signs of ongoing activity; a score of tactical trucks were arranged around the structure, which was essentially a bunker buried into a hillside. Lee knew the trucks were transports that would rush artillery ammunition to the field arty batteries that were still functional. In fact, one of those trucks was in the process of being loaded, which told him that the forces in control of Stewart were preparing to shell enemy formations with concentration fire. Stewart had a sizeable artillery presence, and those elements hadn’t been deployed to the cities in their sector of responsibility. He recalled that Drum’s hadn’t either.

And that they hadn’t been enough to hold back the klowns. Artillery, the so-called King of Battle, had its limitations. It could only kill what it hit. And as he watched the troops around the ASP preparing to roll out more stock, he suddenly became worried his own elements could be collateral damage.

“We’re going to need to tell them we’re here, sir,” Turner said, as if reading his mind. “If one of our teams gets caught up in a concentration fire barrage—”

“I know, Sarmajor. I know.” He looked back at the video. “Open doors…it’s almost like they’re trying to convince the klowns there’s nothing other to hide but a bunch of artillery shells. You ever been inside there, Turner?”

“No, sir. I haven’t.” Turner paused for a long moment, considering the scene. “But…I’d imagine they kept the nukes separate from the usual high explosive rounds. Probably not just logically, but physically, as well.”

“A vault inside a vault,” Lee said.

“My guess also, sir. Seems to me that if the klowns were to knock over the place, they wouldn’t be too curious about what’s really inside.”

Lee stroked the bristles that were forming on his chin. The constant movement had certainly eroded the Army’s usual grooming standards, if what he felt was any indication. “Nice ruse, acting like the ASP is just another ammo dump. But a big ass risk.”

“We do need to get in there, sir,” Turner said with a nod. “If Moreau is there, we need to extract her ASAP. But a daylight raid worries me.”

“What, isn’t that what you guys did in Vietnam?”

Turner frowned and gave Lee a scandalized glare. “Sir, how old do you think I am?”

Lee smiled. “Not a day over forty-five thousand years, Sarmajor.”

Turner harrumphed. “Insolent whelp.”

Lee snorted and turned to Walker. “Any day now, Major. Unless you need me to do the talking?”

Walker turned back to him. If he was irritated by the needling, it didn’t show. Lee figured Walker had suffered a lot more under Colonel Prince. “Freqs and POCs are good to go, sir.”

“Then light up the airwaves, lightfighter. Have Florida let the Third Infantry know that Tenth Mountain is about to get into the game, then hand me off to them.”

“Roger that, sir.”

The Retreat 5: Muldoon’s Small Step for Man

“Tenth Mountain!” Cassidy yelled again, just as a crackle of gunfire erupted to the south. That was where Fort Stewart proper lay, and Muldoon felt the little hairs on the back of his neck stand up. He stumbled then, tripping over one of the corpses. It was a still in rigor mortis, which meant it hadn’t been dead all that long. He tried to step around it, but his big boot landed on the bloated belly of another klown which had been dead for a while, and the pressure of his weight forced it to exhale a cloud of foul-smelling gas that erupted from the body’s mouth like one of Satan’s snores.

“God job there, Duke,” Nutter complained. “You’re killing us with klown farts!”

Muldoon was just forming a suitably saucy retort when another corpse in the field of the dead to his right suddenly stirred. With a hitching giggle, it reached toward him as flies erupted from it, their primitive nervous systems startled by the sudden movement. Maggots already crawled over the man; in fact, one ear was essentially overrun by a squirming white mass of larvae that were making a meal of the blood-encrusted appendage. Before Muldoon could do much of anything, the klown snatched a hold of his ankle. Blood oozed from its mouth as it released a gurgling cackle.

Campbell jostled him as she shouldered up to him and fired a single round into the klown’s face, stilling it for all eternity. The grotesquerie shuddered a few times, making a hacking noise before it fell silent.

“Shit, John Wayne. I thought you knew how to do this stuff,” Campbell said.

The Retreat 5: Fucking Art

The Bushmasters caught the klown element in a slanting engagement from their rear quarter. There were only twenty to thirty of the enemy in the woods firing on the Army revetments across the rail tracks, and they’d had absolutely no rear guards posted. When Cassidy gave the orders to roll up and start dispensing hot hate, the klowns had been caught totally off guard. A lot of that was due to the tenacity of the troops manning the fighting positions they were attacking. But a good deal of that was due to the fact the lightfighters knew how to do their job, and Muldoon made sure everyone was up and on a rifle before the bullets began to fly.

They cut through the klowns with a practiced efficiency that made even Muldoon proud. The newbies like the girl Campbell were as proficient as the most seasoned of the lightfighters, and that left the hulking sergeant with a case of the warm glows. His people were ready, they were experienced, they were fucking killers. When the enemy lay before them, they did not hesitate. They weren’t bound up by emotion or thought. It didn’t matter if the person they were snuffing out had been a gold star dad, a movie star, a renowned scientist who was within an eighth of an inch of discovering a cure for cancer, the first woman CEO to lead a Fortune 20 company, an activist who managed to capture the attention of the media for a nanosecond, a fucking Kardashian. They hosed them all, and did so with discipline and an economy of force that told Muldoon they weren’t just thinking about this engagement, they were thinking about the next one, and the one after that.

Warriors, all.

Muldoon was impressed.

Even the old fucker Boats was a juggernaut, slashing through the infected like a total force of nature. There was no holding him back. He stood and delivered, up to and including war howls that Muldoon was certain would have raised and hairs on the back of even the hardiest mujahedin’s neck. For an old guy—hell, even for a young guy—Boats gave hell like no other, cutting a deep swath into the enemy ranks through which the rest of the lightfighters poured, raining hell on anyone who opposed them. It was beautiful.

It was fucking art.

THE RETREAT 5: The Profound and the Profane

June 13, 2018 1 comment


“God damn it, why us?” Nutter said. “We’re always in the shit! This makes my balls retract, man!”

“Hadn’t noticed they’d dropped, sweetheart,” Campbell said.

“Campbell, shut the fuck up,” Nutter snapped as the rest of the troops climbed aboard the truck.

“Hey, take it easy there, Colonel,” Muldoon said. “You know you’re in the Army, right? We’re lightfighters, we always get the shit duty.”

Nutter looked across the truck bed at Muldoon. “It’s getting kinda old, Duke,” he said. His eyes looked hollow, and that worried Muldoon a bit.

“Can’t promise you nothing bad’s going to happen,” Muldoon said. “But I can’t promise you anything good is gonna go down either, so there’s that.”

Nutter slumped back against the truck’s side rail. “You’re a bright beam of sunlight in the darkness of my eternal night, Duke.”

“Damn. That sounded profound.”

“That’s because I forgot to add ‘motherfucker’ at the end to make it profane.”