Even Zombie Killers Get The Blues
"You know what sucks about the zombie Apocalypse?" Brit rolled her eyes again, Another profound thought from our fearless leader. She humored me, though.
"What sucks, oh fearless leader whom I have seen piss his pants from fear?" Sometimes, her sarcasm annoys the crap out of me. She sat picking at a piece of MRE cracker in her teeth.
"Toilet paper, or the lack of it. That's what sucks most about the Zombie Apocalypse. All those books we used to read, and movies, and never once did any of them mention that mice and bugs would eat all the toilet paper, and that the survivors would have to make due with rags and whatnot."
"And whatnot? What the F are you now, Shakespeare?" Again, with the sarcasm, when I'm trying to hold forth on a serious subject. The firelight played across the smart-alecky grin on her face, the shadows mixing with the dirt we all had on us from today's patrol.
She turned to Jacob, who sat with his back to the fire, watching the stars through the hole in the roof of the old farmhouse. "Jake, in this dream you're having, why don't we have toilet paper?"
He ignored her, knowing better than to engage Brit when she was in one of her moods, and kept staring at the stars. I knew what he was watching for. The Space Station, passing overhead, beautiful and dead.
"Leave him alone, Brit. He's pulled his weight so far on this patrol."
"It just creeps me out. I mean, why does HE get to hide in unreality and I am stuck dealing with reality?"
"You creep me out. A vegetarian zombie slayer. Disgusting. Jake can't help what's going on in his head; you being retarded and not eating meat is a sick lifestyle choice.By the way, that MRE cracker you just ate is made from used animal byproducts." To emphasize it, I took a big bite out of the squirrel roasting on the fire. She shot me a disgusted look and continued to wolf down her hummus.
Jake turned back to the fire. "How can I explain what goes on in my dream? Someday, I'm going to wake up, and who knows if I'll even remember this? I think I'm in a coma, and I'm not going to ever wake up. In which case, you're stuck with me, Brit"
Brit stared at him for a minute. Jake had joined the patrol yesterday in Waterford, dumped on us by the FEMA idiots. He seemed OK, had been on the ball so far, but every now and then he just got a spacey look.
"Jake, you really believe this is just a dream."
"Really? I have to sit here and watch some grubby pig gnaw on a squirrel because you're dreaming it? How about you dream me back to college or something, where I can be getting laid by some football player on nice clean sheets?"
Jake sighed. "It's like this, Britnay. People don't rise from the dead. It's impossible. Can't happen. Once you are dead, you're dead. So I'm dreaming this. Or more like, I'm having a nightmare. Maybe I was in a car accident or something. I dunno. Hopefully I wake up soon, and my wife will be snoring next to me in bed and my kids will be fighting downstairs over the TV. This is just a really long ass nightmare."
People lost everything. I lost my family. My wife, my daughter. Hell, I had to beat my wife's head in with a baseball bat when she came after me, trying to bite my head off. Millions have died, and now we're living in some Mad Max kinda freaky world. This is just Jacob's way of dealing with it, without going totally insane. He really thinks he's dreaming this whole thing. What I'm worried about is that, at some crucial moment, he's going to realize that this ISN'T a dream, and lose it right then and there. I might have to put a bullet in him then, because this is not the world I would want to wake up to.
"I got yer reality right here, Jacob." With that, Brit leaned to one side and let one rip.
"Careful doing that close to the fire. You'll get burned."
"Ok, Jacob. You're on the next watch, 2 hours with Brit relieving Jonesy one hour from now. You know the Z's might come. If they do, you know the rules. Wake one other person, and try to knock 'em silently. We don't need to have some howling screaming shit waking up every Z in the neighborhood. Come on, Brit, I know this is a safe house, but let's check the basement one more time before lights out."
Jacob went through the routine of checking his gear. As a scout, you gear stays next to you, or on you, at all times, even in a "safe" house. We stand guard with our packs on our backs, because you never, ever know when things are going to go to shit and you will have to run for it. Then your ass is out in the wilderness, with help dozens of miles away, zombies and wild animals roaming the woods and deserted towns, and nothing to save you except what you have on you. I've been there, alone in the dark, and it's damned scary.
Brit ran the crank on her light, and I flicked the safety off my shotgun. Her job, behind me, was to keep the light where I needed it. She might be a vegetarian smartass with a sex drive like a Mack truck, but she was my partner. We headed down the stairs to the basement.
I had called this a "safe house" and hopefully it was. To us a safe house was usually an old stone farmhouse that we had used before. Whenever we got a chance, we pulled stone from the second floor and bricked up the windows. The front door was barricaded by our kevlar shields, pinned in place overlapping. Upstairs, there were two coiled ropes for making a quick getaway. We could hold out here for as long as our water lasted, but once a Z showed up, they started screaming and more and more would come from miles around. The Army actually ran missions where they would fort up in a place like this and bring in pallets of ammo, and spend days shooting everything that showed up, then clear out by helo. They did that when they wanted to clear an area for "resettlement" or needed to salvage something from a nearby site.
Not for us Scouts. We walked by day to objectives that we were told to check out. We lived outside the wire, in our own fortresses. Ours was in Stillwater, on an island in the Hudson River. We had blown the two bridges, and lived in the house on the island between. Z's can swim, but we've built a 10' wall around the house. Nothing like the Fobbits that lived in the Army base downriver, or the pogs that lived (existed?) in the FEMA camps outside Buffalo, working the fields.
Last time were we were in this particular house was about two months ago, scouting up river to see what remained of the hydroelectric plant in Glens Falls. Our mission this time was to check the locks on the canal system and report back to the Army Engineers on them. We had cleared this place, taking it in a quick rush through the door just before sunset, when the Z's were least active. I had killed two with my shotgun on the second floor, and was just relaxing and shoving shells into the magazine, when one had jumped on me from the hole in the roof. That was when I pissed my pants, and Brit would never let me forget it. She about knocked both our heads off with the baseball bat, and had kept a gun on me for more than an hour, to see if I had been infected.
The stairs creaked as we walked down. In the movies, this is the time when they would build up suspense, and let me tell you, they were spot on right. I had that twist in my gut that made me feel like I wanted to puke, and I was sweating my ass off. It didn't go away until we had cased out the whole basement and found nothing there except two old skeletons. The real dead held no terror for me anymore.
Brit shook me awake at 2 AM for my watch. "Get up, squirrel breath" she whispered in my ear, then stuck her tongue in it. I almost jumped out of the sleeping bag. It was frigging cold as shit, and I jumped around for a bit to get warm. There ain't nothing like having to get out of a warm sleeping bag on a cold night. I grabbed my boots out of the bottom of the bag and pulled them on.
"Goddamn I frakin hate you sometimes. I really, really do." She gave me the finger and crawled into my sleeping bag. I grabbed my gear and headed up the stairs, joining Ahmed on watch. He filled me in with a mumbled "Not much." and handed over the NVG's. Then he leaned over and picked up the sniper rifle, turned the scope back on, and settled down on the bipod.
I scanned the area from the rooftop. The Infrared sensor picked up a few hot spots, way in the distance. I called spotting out to Ahmed. 3 O'clock, 800 meters or so. We had the ranges pretty well sited from the last time we were up here, but I didn't expect much. We had cleared out quite a few the last time, but you could still smell the stench lingering. They give off heat, too. Not as much as a live body, but whatever it is that animates them, it makes the muscles work, and that generates heat. Another thing the movies got wrong.
Ahmed shifted his scope over to the right, then started muttering under his breath. Allllaaaaahhhhhhhaakkkkbaarrrrrrrr allllaaaaaahhhhhaaakkkkkbaaaarrrr. Shit just freaked me out, and I had told him time and again to not do that around me. Reminded me of all those Haji terrorist videos you used to see of them shooting at us over in the desert. I asked him about it once.
"Nick, yes you were the Great Satan. Infidels. I fought you in Afghanistan. Then this happened, the demons from hell. Allah has sent me here to America to kill demons, instead of infidels. God is great, and it is as he wills it." Great, I have a muj sniper on my team who might slit my throat one night. I never asked him exactly WHAT he had been doing in America when the plague hit, but water under the bridge. There weren't any sides anymore, other than living vs. dead. We had been on more than a dozen scouts together, and he was a damn good shot with the rifle. He pretends that he wasn't trying to kill me ten years ago, I pretend that I wasn't chasing his ass all over the mountains of the 'stan ten years ago. We both agreed that THAT was all bullshit now.
POP! Suppressed, of course. A shot on a night like tonight would bring the Z's running. Ahmed worked the bolt, and slipped the empty brass in his pocket when it cooled. In the NVG's I watched the hot spot burst into a glowing mist, and the figure dropped.
"So what's your view on taking down Z's like this in the middle of the night? Allah OK with that? I bothers me sometimes, you know? They once were someone's mother, kid, whatever. At night, through the scope, they look like people. "
"Nick, they are dead. I am only releasing their souls to go to Heaven. It is Allah's work." With that, there was another POP! A figure I hadn't seen, off to the left, tumbled up and backwards from behind a bush where it had been hiding for the night. I watched as it started to get back up, and waited for the Z scream to start. Another muted POP and the figure fell down, with the hot splash through the head.
"I had to rustle that one out. Hiding in the brush."
Another thing the movies got wrong. Z's are smart. Not people smart, but maybe like, monkey smart. Apparently the infection destroyed their higher order brain functions, and having no heartbeat, they can't process things all that fast, but they have an animal instinct. They go to ground, hide out, wait in ambush. Territorial, too. 90% of Z's will stay within 2 miles or so of where they died, unless another one starts screaming. That's why towns and cities are such a bad idea. You can find yourself facing a horde within 5 minutes, cause those suckers can RUN when they get pumped up. One on one, I can out run any zombie, but holy shit, you do NOT want to trip and twist your ankle. The other 10% wander around like lost souls, always moaning.
We waited the rest of Ahmed' hour shift, but nothing else showed up. Just a pack of wild dogs that was thankfully south of our position. We watched them plow into a herd of deer, taking one down and then fighting over the kill. Stray dogs scare me almost as much as Z's do. What's that you say? Call me a puss to be scared by a dog? Fuck yes. These aren't your friendly Golden Retrievers or yappy little shits that you want to kick like a football. This is the Rottweiler or pit-bull that fought its way to the top of the pack when its trailer park owner turned into a Z and it got loose in the wild. I love dogs, and Rocket slept by the front door of the house, always half awake, listening for Z's. A pack of strays though, nuh uh.
Jones came up for the last hour of the watch of my watch, letting Ahmed get another hour of sleep. Then we conducted Stand-to, everyone 100% up, waiting for the sun to rise. It's a hard, hard world we live in, if you can call it living.
"So, the night before we left the FOB, I hooked up with this zoomie guy from that C-130 that came in..."
"You is a female manwhore, you know that, right Brit?"
We were walking slowly down the East side of the Hudson River, on our way to Fort Edward . The west side of the river was a no-go, fallout from the Knolls Atomic Power lab meltdown. It was probably safe, but the river made a good line not cross. Our objective for the day was the south end of the Champlain Canal and the railroad bridge over the Hudson. The Army Corps of Engineers weenie huffed and puffed behind me, carrying too much gear. His problem, not ours. It made for a slow march, though.
"I'm just living life cause I'm alive, Jonesy. So anyways ... Remember how China was saying that it was the West's plague, and they were going to shut their borders? Punishment for our decadent lifestyle and all that shit?"
When the plague started, and things in America were going to shit, China was crowing about how they had sealed their borders and were sitting pretty, with not a single case, and how the world was going to quarantine North America. They had nuked London, Moscow, and any other government that might stand in their way, and were rampaging through central Asia. They had actually started building a wall across Panama. Then the plague broke out in Europe after a refugee ship from NY crashed ashore in France, Europe went to hell, and China was slaughtering ANYONE who came near their borders. Then, all of the sudden, a few weeks after that China fell off the air.
"So check it out. This guy, he's a C-130 pilot now, but before, he flew B-2 bombers. No shit, they loaded up a whole crate of zombies on like a dozen B-2, stealth their way through Chinese radar, and just air dropped them over the biggest cities. He said he almost got shot down cause he had to go low and slow, bay doors open while the Z's went dropping out of the bomb racks. They dropped 'em right in the rivers, with water soluble ropes around them. One, two days later, a Z's drags himself out of the river and starts biting the shit out of little yellow fuckers, and instant chaos! Recon flights say the whole place is a massive battleground now."
"Damn, man, that some dirty shit." said Jonesy, then laughed so hard his gold teeth showed. Frigging gangbanger WOULD laugh at something like that.
"That just doesn't seem right. I mean, that's a crime against humanity." The Engineer dude spoke up through his heavy breathing.
"Man, that ain't no different shit than them chinks droping nukes on all them cities just because America was down and out, and not watchin over everyone else no mo. Just like back in the hood, you get a chance to kick your enemy, you go do it."
" I don't know. It just doesn't seem, right."
"She-it, Socrates, it's just the way of the world."
Conversations like this took up most of the march. We broke for lunch at noon, out in the middle of a field with good observation. 3 on watch, 3 eating. The Engineer didn't count. He was there for a job only, and knew it. The six of us were a team, and he wasn't on it. The smoke from MRE heaters soon rose above the circle, and I sat back on a rock to enjoy the spring sunshine, and to casually assess everyone in the group.
Brit, eyeing the Engineer like he was a piece of fresh meat, wondering if he was worth anything in the sack. She stood guard, but would glance back at him every now and then. Ahmed, cleaning his weapons, like he did every stop. Legacy of living in that dust ridden shithole they called the Middle East. Jonesy, picking his nose and flinging it at Ahmed, trying , and failing, to piss him off. Doc Hamilton, that big bald ex-biker who was our medic, stood with his back to me, watching towards the river. Syzmanski, the newest guy, who had showed up at the river fort one day a month on the run from the FEMA camp. We didn't ask what he did to get him on the run, and he never told us.
After 20 minutes, the guards switched out, and I stood to take my turn. After a few minutes of watching the road, I heard a blood curdling shriek erupt from INSIDE the perimeter. As I turned back toward the sound, the Engineer dude came tearing past me, pants hanging low, with a half of a zombie kid holding on for dear life, trying to chew a chunk out of his ass. I stood, open mouthed as he ran past. He was trying to knock the thing off him with an unfolded E-tool, probably the one he had been using to take a crap. Jonesy stepped forward, faster than me, and swung that big steel rod he carries, right at the guys' legs. Down he went, and then Jonesy was beating the brains out of the Z before it got a chance to scream.
"Everybody up! Weapons Hot! Doc, check him out! AND SHUT HIM THE F UP!"
The team was up already, in a 360 perimeter. Doc Hamilton ran over to the Engineer, who lay on the ground yelling "I'm a stupid fuckin noob!" over and over. The Doc took one look at his wound, stood up, pulled his suppressed .45, and shot him in the head. The guy flopped once more then lay still. I stood in shock for a few seconds at the speed of the whole thing, then snapped out of it.
"Doc, take his tags, any personal effects; Jonesy, you and Syzmanski bury him. Then split his equipment up around the squad."
I had screwed up. I hadn't assigned anyone to keep watch over him, and now the guy was dead, killed by a stupid mistake. He had probably just dug a cat hole and not checked the brush or tall grass around him. Like I said, Z's are animal smart. Damn, just goddamned. I hung my head down and watched them dig a quick, shallow hole and roll his body in.
Brit, as my second, walked over to me, wanting to know what to do next.
"Hey Chief, it could have happened to anyone. Are we Charlie Mike?" She meant continuing the mission.
"Yeah, I suppose we have to. Just a sucky way to go."
"I know, Nick" she said, then punched me as hard as she could in the shoulder. "Now suck it up and let's go. You know it's a hard world we're living in...."
"Yeah, I know ... if you can call it living."
"Empire, Empire, this is Lost Boys, over." I let go of the handmike and waited 30 seconds. Stupid radio watch was probably stuffing his face.
"Empire, Empire, this is Lost Boys, Over."
"Kilo 39, this is Gulf 38, use proper radio procedure, over."
"Yes, because the Zombies are listening over the secure net, over."
There was a long silence. I pictured the fat Fobbit running to his commander. Sir, those stupid civilian scouts are on the radio again, they are being mean to me.
"Lost Boys 6, this is Empire 6, SITREP, over."
Great, the Task Force Commander, LTC MacDonald, aka Jackass. We love each other. Actually, we frakin hate each other. Mutual disrespect.
"Well, Empire 6, we lost our Engineer asset, over."
"What do you mean lost, over."
"Lost, gone, finished, dead, over."
"Dead how, over?"
"Cessation of heartbeat due to interdiction of cranial matter by copper lead alloys, over."
"Don't be such a fucking smartass, Agostine."
"Empire 6, please use proper radio procedure, over."
The line was quite for a full minute. I pictured Jackass smashing things in the TOC. He was notorious for throwing things at subordinates. I couldn't help messing with him, and I knew that the fact that he needed me and my people, and couldn't do anything about me, sent him ballistic. I was actually trying to get him to have a stroke.
"Lost Boys 6, this is Empire 6. What happened to your engineer, over."
"Bitten by a zombie, so we had to neutralize him, over."
"Way to fail on the job, Lost Boys 6. I'll make sure you write his wife, over." God that man was a prick.
"Can do, Empire 6. Are we going to get another asset? Over."
"Negative, no air assets available. Continue Mission, Lost Boys. Out."
Had to get the last word in. Jerk. I stuffed the handmike back in Syzmanskis' rucksack, and turned off the SINCGARS radio.
"I think you two should kiss when next time you meet. Just give him a big wet sloppy kiss." Called Brit over her shoulder as she moved to take up point. "Give him a reach around."
"Such a pig." I muttered.
"OINK! OINK!" she called back. We moved out down the broken road.
We stood over the Route 4 bridge and watched the water flow underneath. It was clear, clearer than I had ever seen it before. Clear and toxic. Not as bad as downstream, but there was a sheen of oil slick across the top. Millions of gallons of heating oil, industrial chemicals, toxins released by houses decaying. The engineers testing the water figured it would be close to a hundred years before it was drinkable. The streams draining into the Hudson were almost as bad. Who would have thought that clean water would have been an issue after the Zombie Apocalypse? Another thing the movies got wrong. We knew of one good well on the east side of the river, a mile south of here. A hand pump into a deep well, but in a few years the ground water would be contaminated by rusting gas tanks and underground oil tanks. From here on out, we would have to hump our water, which is heavy as shit. On a hot summer day in Upstate NY, humid as hell, humping 70 pounds in a pack, you wind up soaked to the bone in about 10 minutes with sweat.
Jonesy and Hamilton stood pissing into the river.
"Damn, Jonesy, This water is cold."
"Deep, too. You can't play jokes like that on a brother, Doc!"
I took point, walking down the west side to the lock. We ran into two Z's, stumbling down the main road. The first went down from a head shot from my rifle, a silenced semi-auto .22. The second was walking away, upwind from us. Brit took her out with a shot to the back of the head, and we stepped around the still twitching corpse. Doc flipped the first over and took a picture of her face for the National Database. It would going in the missing file, where the software would try to match her face. Not much, but it sometimes answered survivors questions. Maybe a one in a hundred got photographed, and one in 10 of those got ID'ed. Better than nothing, I guess.
We heard the howling long before we got there. It grew slowly with each step we took. It seemed to sink right down through our teeth into our bones. The Zombie Moan.
Jonesy stepped up to the edge first., and looked over.
"Hollllllyyyyyy sheet, Nick, come get a look at this."
I tapped Ahmed on the shoulder, and he took my sector, looking back down the road. I walked over to the edge of the canal lock, and looked into the water 10 feet below. It was filled with Z's, floating, standing on top of each other, clawing at the concrete wall. The doors of the lock were closed, and they had wandered in there from the town. Hundreds of them. Packed in, rotting, bloating. They saw us and started in a surge towards us, piling on top of each other, pushing each other down into the water. Jonesy started popping them in the head with his .22, but I told him to stop and not waste ammo.
"Damn, Nick, this shit creeps me out. What are going to do about this?" I noticed his gangster homie accent had dropped off, like it always did when we were being serious.
"Leave it. Take pictures of the canal doors, check out the pump house and the electric machinery, get pics of everything, spray the crap out of the electrical system with the silicon. We gotta keep the stuff in working order, but the Z's are going to be Lieutenant Colonel Jackass's problem."
"Do you want to open the doors? Let this shit drift into the river?"
"Fuck no. Do that, and when we get back to the COP in Stillwater, they're going to be crawling all over the wall."
He shook his head and spit on the Z's trying to climb at us. "Didn't think of that. This here city boy can't get directions straight, you know me."
I walked back to the guys, picking my ruck up off the ground and rummaged for my Nikon.
"Hey Nick, check it out!" Brit pointed, and we caught sight of Bald Eagle soaring high overhead. The wildlife was coming back strong.
"No doubt, the plague was a good thing and bad thing. Make the best and drive on."
Brit bumped fists with me. "Make the best and drive on."
"Know what I'm pissed about?"
I sighed as we walked along the river road. Here is comes, I thought.
"I'm pissed that we're never, ever going to go to the stars. This killed it. Right here." Brit gestured to the potholes in the road, the ruined house we were walking slowly passed, eye's peeled for Z's.
"Why Brit, I didn't even know you had such ambitions."
"Well, Nick, you don't know shit about me. For example, what did I do before the plague?"
"I dunno. College girl who banged football players?"
She stopped in midstride and smacked me as hard as she could upside my Kevlar. "DAMN, BRIT, OW!"
"You're right, but you deserved that anyway. I was an astrophysics major. I was going to go to the STARS. Do you understand me? I was going to be an astronaut. I WAS GOING TO GO TO THE STARS!" She started crying, tears rolling down her cheeks, and lengthened her stride. Then she sat down in the road and screamed as loud as she could, and started pounding on the pavement in front of her with her war hammer. The guys walked around her, ignoring her screams and frustrated pounding. After a few minutes, she stopped, slung the hammer over her back, picked up her weapon, and resumed the march.
PTSD. Crazy. Traumatized. We all are. How can you watch the death of almost everyone you loved? OK, for most of us, EVERYONE you loved? How can you watch civilization, or most of it, crumple around you in a month and NOT go crazy? The Snap, we called it. For a minute, for half an hour, whatever it took, sometimes you just grew so goddamned bitter and angry and felt such a deep sense of loss that you broke down and screamed at the world. For some, they broke, and never came back. Walked off and were never seen again. Someone like Jacob, he went off into his own world of denial. Thinking this whole thing was a dream. Others, like Jonesy, growing up in the ghetto, life honestly wasn't much different now. Maybe better. He could shoot who he needed to shoot without repercussion, and for the most part, no one cared what color your skin was anymore. Just that you were alive, vs. dead.
On point, Jacob held up his fist, and dropped to one knee, cutting his hand sideways, then pointed forward. People, not Z's. We all dropped down and took up firing positions, a quick hasty ambush set up along the road.
We heard them long before we saw them. Horses. HORSES. At least two, coming along at a trot. No one had horses anymore, or more like, no one used them for transportation. If a horse got within a hundred meters of a Z, it bolted. Flat out took off running like its' ass was on fire, regardless of who or what was on his back, and often ran until they burst their hearts from exhaustion. Back in the secured zone, I heard, they still used them for farming, but out here they ran in wild herds that were impossible to come near.
"Ok, time to earn my leaders paycheck." I stood up out of the grass and stepped into the road, weapon pointed down but safety off.
"HALT." I spoke forcefully, but the two enormous horses just kept plodding towards me, till their riders could get a good look at me. Then they reigned them in. Two men sat astride them, shotguns pointed but not pointed at me, if you get my drift. They looked like just about any post plague refugee, second hand clothes, heavy leather jackets to keep off Zombie bites, chaps. These gusy were cleaner than most, though. Damn they smelled, though. Something I hadn't smelled in a while. Yep, these guys were farmers. Manure clung to their heavy rubber boots.
"Mighty presumptuous of you to be telling us to halt on our own road. We've got no tolerance for scavengers here. Though from the looks of you..." He eyed my black leather jacket with the American Flag and "Z" patch on my right shoulder and the Task Force Liberty patch on my left shoulder. I saw his eyes read the "US ARMY" stenciled on the front.
"Your road? I thought this was a County road."
The older one, a grey haired dude with a scarred face, laughed out loud. "Ha! A scavenger with a sense of humor!"
"We're not scavengers." I lowered my weapon and put it back on safe. "Nick Agostine, United States Army Irregular Scouts."
"Yessir. We work for the Army, but we aren't IN the Army."
"Funny line of business. So, I suppose you're just scouting out here all by your lonesome? Good way to get killed."
I whistled once, low, and the rest of the team stood and stepped out onto the road. 5 of them stayed on guard, weapons pointing out, or back down the road. Jonesy stood next to me, M-4 looking like a toy in his massive hands. Though what good that would do if the frigging huge horses decided to trample his ass, I don't know. The two horses were gigantic, and stood rock still. The riders seemed more taken aback than the horses, but they recovered quickly.
"I see." Said the older man, who introduced himself as Dave. "Well, maybe the rest of the world is catching up with us. Knew it would happen eventually. Hang tight while we dismount and talk for a spell."
Dave (and his brother Alan, and their families) lived on a fortified farm a mile inland from the river. We had come across people like him before. Tough farmers who had busted their ass to wall off a couple of acres, fortified their houses, and generally held their own. Farms that were a combination of small fortress and house stood off in the fields, usually farther from town than closer. What was unique about these guys were the horses. They didn't even flinch when we came near them.
"So what's with the horses? How come they aren't running screaming, actually letting you ride them? How do they handle being around Z's?"
"They hate 'em, but not like normal horses. These two were bread for war. I had a hobby horse farm, imported these guys from Belgium. They were bread to carry a man in full armor, and they make a hell of a plow horse. You can ride them into a crowd of Z's and they will stomp flat anything in their way."
I eyed them enviously. To ride instead of walk!
"Are they for sale?"
"Not on your life, sonny." Alan leaned a little closer to his shotgun, and kept a wary eye on the rest of the team.
"OK, but can they breed? Do you have foals?"
"Ah yup. Got 4 foals on the farm, and another two on the way. Maybe we can do some horse trading, eh sonny?" Dave seemed to find this uproariously funny.
Brit stood stroking their noses while I called in to LTC Jackass. His immediate response was for us to "seize the horses" when I explained to them that they were Belgian war horses, specifically bred for battle, and definitely WEREN'T afraid of Zombies. I told him to piss off, and suggested that maybe we could buy them. After his usual temper tantrum bullshit, we finally got him to agree to look into the Army contracting to buy horses from the farm as they bred them. I could imagine the Colonel pissing all over himself with happiness. The man who brought mobility to the army again! It would get him promoted, for sure. I bet he was already walking around in his stupid Stetson hat and spurs like some demented Vietnam Cavalryman.
"Sounds like a real winner you got for a boss, there." Dave spit some tobacco juice out on the road and climbed back in the saddle.
"You have no idea. When time comes to actually trade with him, make sure you have people watching your back. It's all about HIM, if you catch my drift."
"It always is with people like that, isn't it?"
I was hungry again, but I'm always hungry. Most people left alive in America are always hungry. We have been for years. Even when I get enough food, which is usually, I'm still haunted by the ghost of hungry. That first two years, when there was NO food anywhere. Stores looted, farms trampled and torched, refrigeration gone, no food distribution system, animals hunted almost to extinction. The Z's were just an added burden. How many people got eaten by zombies because they were looking for food, and had to leave their safe hideout? Thousands. Millions, maybe. Hunger will drive a man to do just about anything.
The animals were coming back, at least in our neck of the woods. Having the Army around, or what was left of it, pushing their way back up the Mohawk Valley, gave us regular access to MRE's when we went on mission, and we always took more than we would ever need, to stock up. The Restored US Government was a fragile thing, and we all hedged our bets. I'm never going to starve again, if I can help it. Even now, everyone's diet sucks. We don't get enough of the things we need, like fresh vegetables and vitamins. Another thing they got wrong in the movies. Maybe on the way back we would stop at Dave's farm and trade for some food stuffs. I stopped and marked out their location in the battered Delorme Atlas of New York that I carried in my ruck. It joined a host of other marks on that page; safe houses, weapons caches, clean water, heavy Zombie infestations. This had become my Bible.
We approached Fort Edward the next morning, after spending the night in some trees, slung in hammocks. Not a fun way to sleep, but it kept the Z's away. Hopefully tonight we could sleep in a farmhouse that I remembered from before the plague. We would have to put some miles on us, though, because I did NOT want to linger in the Glens Falls area. As it was, getting a good look at the rail bridge was not going to be fun.
We crept slowly forward, weapons at the ready, towards the lock. I expected something similar to what we had seen in Schuylerville. The lock at Fort Miller had been a wreck, doors torn open by some violent flood of the Hudson over the past few years. We had photographed it and moved on.
The southern lock to the Champlain Canal was an important one. From here, we could sail up to Lake Champlain, open up the mines in the Adirondacks again, farm the fertile lands of Vermont. It was all about reclaiming the country, one little slice at a time. Sure, the canals were old school, but they worked, or were easy to make work again.
There were Zombies there. Wandering around the lock area, scavenging through the bush for small animals. About a dozen. More than we could reliably take down before the howling started. Time to think a way to get them away from there.
"We're going to have to do a runner."
"Oh Hell no."
"Oh Hell yes. Ahmed, your turn." The only person exempted from the roster was Doc Hamilton. Our medic stayed with us at all times.
A runner was just that. One of us stripped down of all their gear except a silenced .22 pistol, then took off like a bat out of hell through the Zombies, firing as he went, and then hauled ass AWAY from the rest of the team; or some variation thereof. The idea was to get the Zombies to chase you, then lead them into a blind alley or something, then cut back to the team. It was dangerous, insane, and a huge frigging rush.
Ahmed took a minute to consult the map, told me where to meet him if he wasn't back in an hour, divided up his gear among the others, kissed his rifle and handed it to Brit.
"Take this, you godless American whore, and guard it with your life."
"I will, you son of a motherless camel turd." she replied.
Ahmed gave her a hug, then knelt and said a quick prayer to Mecca, or to the radiation filled crater that used to be Mecca. Then he took off running, straight through the crowd of Zombies, yelling "Allah Akbar" at the top of his lungs and taking pot shots at them. We joined in with our silenced rifles after they had turned to run after him, but stopped firing as soon as they blocked him from view. They disappeared down the road, moving at a fast jog, the ones that had functioning legs. Like I said, Zombies can move quick when they have to.
Jacob and Jonesy quickly dispatched the two immobile Z's that were crawling off in the direction Ahmed had taken. We broke out the cameras and started photographing the canal lock doors, which were open, allowing a flow of water to come pouring out. That was good, because it meant the canal was still a through route. The machinery was trashed, but mainly we were looking for structural damage.
We had been at it for 20 minutes when Ahmed came tearing ass around the corner, yelling at the top of his lungs, followed by several hundred Zombies. We immediately hit dirt, getting as out of site as we could, while the river of Z's hurtled by. We could smell the awful stench that always accompanied the dead. Next to me, Brit started to vomit, but I clasped a hand over her mouth. I would let her choke before I let her make a sound. She struggled a bit but then swallowed it back down.
The last Z passed, and we ran in the opposite direction. Time to put some distance between us and the crowd and fort up, if we could. Ahmed was on his own, and we would see him again, or not. He knew where to meet us.
We ran. Uphill, away from the canal, heading for the woods and overgrown farmland. You can outrun a Zombie horde, but we had full packs on and the day was hot. We needed to get to a place to go to ground and wait for Ahmed. He had picked out a ruined house that we could see on top of a hill, about a mile away. Z's don't like to go uphill, and I was pretty sure every zombie in Fort Edward was chasing Ahmed south down River Road.
We made it into the doorway of the house, stacking and clearing it. Jonesy kicked in the ruined door with his huge boot, or tried to. He rebounded off the steel door and started hopping up and down, cursing under his breath. I reached over and turned the knob on the door. Unlocked. I shot him a shit eating grin and he gave me the finger.
We lined up, and Brit went in first, followed by Jacob, me, then Ski. Doc Hamilton and Jonesy stayed outside, covering our backs. We each piled in and swept our sectors, scanning the living room. Brit, the first one in, fired two quick shots into the figure sitting on the couch, and the skeletons' head exploded into a cloud of dust.
"Whoops!" she muttered under her breath, and then broke right with Jacob to continue to clear the ground floor. Ski and I went up the stairs checking each of the bedrooms. We didn't need to surprise each other coming around a corner.
"CLEAR!" I yelled downstairs. "CLEAR" came back up to me. "Checking basement!" I heard the basement door kick open, then after a minute "ALL CLEAR".
"FORT UP!" I yelled, and Jonesy and Doc came in through the door. We grounded our rucks upstairs, and each of us tossed out our kevlar panels. Doc took a screw gun and started putting them up on the front door. He started laughing as he did it.
"What the hell is so funny?"
He laughed again. "It's just like playing Black Ops, fighting zombies!" I laughed too, stupid idiots. I loved these guys.
Jonesy and Ski were hammering the stairs down, each wailing away with a sledge hammer, knocking out steps. If the doors or windows were breached, we would climb up a rope ladder to the upstairs. Trapped, but safe, and it always gave us time to think of something else.
When we had forted up as best we could, we settled down to wait for Ahmed or the Z's, whichever came first. Brit walked to the skeleton she had popped as we came in through the front door. She pushed the rusty shotgun away from the couch where it had fallen out of the skeleton's dead hands, then sat down next to it.
"Sorry about that, Skeletor, but I couldn't take any chances. It was either you or me, and I was faster. Better luck next time." Then she put her feet up on the coffee table, closed her eyes, and went to sleep.
I went upstairs and built myself a snipers perch, looking downhill towards the lock. I figured it was about maybe 800 meters. I started picking off random Z's who were wandering around, excited by the noise of the chase. While doing so, I thought back to the wild, panicked nights of the plague. My Guard unit falling apart at the barricades, getting overwhelmed by the civilians trying to get out of the city, the Z's already mixing in with them. Me rushing back to my house to get my family and run. My wife coming at me in the kitchen, a hunk of our kid's arm in her mouth, hands ripping at me like claws. I swung the butt of my rifle so hard that I broke the plastic, and I kept swinging till the thing that had been my wife lay on the floor, a bloody pulp, then I ran. I don't know how I made it through the following months, but here I was, years later, letting thoughts of that night ruin my aim. I wiped away the tears and kept shooting, a steady fire that knocked down a good dozen before I got tired. Remembering did no good for anyone.
Around dusk, Ahmed showed up, dripping wet. We had watched him through binos, pulling himself up out of the water at the edge of the river. Dangerous shit, that. You never knew what, exactly, was swimming or floating around there anymore. He immediately gave me a SITREP,changed into dry clothes, then passed out on an upstairs bed. I typed up a report for Task Force Empire, attached the pictures from today, hooked my iPhone to the SINCGARS, and did that magic shit the commo guys had come up with. No cell towers? No problem! Don't ask me how they did it, but it worked.
I called the guys around. "Ahmed is done in, so we have to stay here tonight. You know the drill. Two men on watch, staggered hours. Weapons loaded, on safe. I have the 1 to 3 watch, divide up the rest, Brit. Light and noise discipline." They all answered in the affirmative.
Brit stayed behind while the others went to get something to eat out of their packs.
"Nick, I'm sorry about today, the vomiting. I've never had that happen before."
"It happens. Get past it, or you're going to be off the scouts. I almost had to choke you to keep you quiet today. Understand? If you can't hold it together around Z's, then you are a risk to the whole team."
"I got it. I know what you gotta do what you gotta do. I'll handle it."
"You did a great job nailing Skeletor today, even if he already was dead. You're a part of this team, Brit. Now go get some more sleep. I'm sure you're beat. Before you do that, though, remind everyone that Ahmed gets to sleep the night through."
"Can do, Nick." Then she leaned over and kissed me full on the lips. I wiped my face with my sleeve and muttered "UGH, GIRL GERMS!" loud enough for her to hear me as she walked away.
We settled in for the short June night.
I heard it drifting over the wind. Way off in the distance, I heard the pop pop pop of a firefight going on. It seemed to be coming from the north, just a faint echo of gunfire. The rounds were sparing, like someone was trying to take head shots, but then they rose in a crescendo, followed by fully automatic fire. Then it stopped dead. If the wind hadn't been blowing from the north, I doubt I would have even heard it.
Doc was sitting next to me on watch. "Somebody just got overrun."
""Ya think?" He had heard it too, and knew what the final burst of fully automatic fire meant. You don't use automatic weapons on zombies. It was a panic burst, because they were so close that you didn't have time to aim and their hands were almost on you.
"Where do you think?"
"I dunno. Not Glens Falls, the city is too close. Maybe Lake George. The mountains do some funny things with sound, carry it down through the valleys. Tells us one thing, though. There's people out there."
"There's always people out there, Nick. No matter how bad things get, there are always survivors somewhere. Hell, you know we've been monitoring radio traffic from the north end of Lake Champlain. Apparently the frogs from Quebec are still around, and organized."
"Yeah, I know, I've heard it. People like those farmers we met today. They were pretty friendly, but I worry about some of the hard cases we might meet. Makes sure from here on out everyone is on their toes in regards to Z's and Mad Maxes." "Mad Maxes" was our term for people who had turned to looting and killing of anything that got in their way in order to survive. Not really fair to the original Road Warrior, but that's pop culture for you. The worst thing was to get caught by one of those groups that had gone cannibal. Think to yourself, oh no, not in America! Cannibals! I don't care where you are. Get people hungry enough, and some of them will start eating whatever they can find. In the years after the plague, there was hunger enough. If we caught them, we shot them on sight.
Then I heard another sound, much closer, that made me sit bolt upright, wide awake. Coming back up River Road , just starting to be visible in the NVG's, were the horde that Ahmed had led away this afternoon. They had started back to their territories, but the must have smelled us when the wind shifted to the north.
"Go wake everyone up, bring everything upstairs. It's going to be a turkey shoot, but it might get tight. There's a lot of them."
Doc climbed down the rope ladder, and I settled down with the sniper rifle. Ahmed was better than me at this, and when he got up here, I would let him take over. I started a slow, steady round of shooting. By the time Ahmed put his hand on my back, my shoulder was sore and my eye hurt from straining at the night scope. There were a good twenty Z's cooling on the ground in a trail. That trail, though, pointed directly to us.
"Do we run?" asked Brit.
"Not at night. Too big of a chance of us getting separated, or someone twisting an ankle or breaking a leg. Nope, it's fight night."
We all settled down to our firing positions, knocking glass out of the upstairs windows. Knockers, whatever was each person's preference, stood stacked at the top of the ruined stairs. The danger was twofold.
First, that this was just the start of a swarm. Glens Falls was a city of around 20,000 people before the plague. Figure around 50% of the Zombies from that population were still ambulatory. That means we might be facing 10k zombies, rather than the hundred or so coming at us now.
The second was that enough of them would get into the house, and swarm what was left of the stairs, to form a pile that could reach up to the second floor. That's what the knockers were for, hopefully.
"Suppressors?" asked Ski. Suppressors wore out, another thing they never showed in the movies. The heat of the rounds being fired off wore out the metal fibers inside that absorbed the sounds. We had to choose quiet now vs. quiet later. However, they did reduce the range and accuracy of our shots. The rifles we carried were military issued M-4 carbines, re-chambered for a hot copper jacketed .22 Long round. Thing is, with Z's, you don't necessarily need firepower. Accuracy was the word of the day, and the more ammo you could carry, the better.
"For now. We don't need half the Z population of the Glens Falls metro area coming down on us."
We waited while Ahmed kept firing. In a few minutes, the horde came in range of the rest of us, and we opened up. The Z's finally got worked up and started running toward the house. The scream started. That Zombie scream that ran right through your teeth and made your gut tense up. Coming from a hundred mutilated throats we all started to sweat.
"Keep it steady, guys. You've all done this before. Aim, Fire. Aim, Fire."
Zombies were dropping, but not fast enough. It's hard enough to shoot them in the head. At night, while they were moving, very tough. About every 5th shot went home, maybe less as they got closer and started running uphill at us.
They crashed into the front of the house, and we started firing down into their heads. They were going down, but I heard one of the windows smash open and they poured into the house. Behind me I heard Doc open up with my shotgun. Noise wasn't an issue anymore with the screams.
"Hey, I can use a little help here!" he yelled. Jacob ran back from his window and started firing down into the crowd of Z's that were trying to claw their way up the remains of the staircase. Most fell into the basement, but they were starting to pile up.
Outside, there was no movement, but inside, they were piling higher and higher. The rest of the team grabber their knockers and started smashing downward on the ones who were trying to climb the pile. One arm reached up and grabbed Ski around the ankle, and pulled him down into the mess. I dropped my bat and grabbed his arm and pulled as hard as I could. Jacob grabbed his other arm, and the two of us lifted him clear of the pile and back up onto the floor. Next to us, Brit fired a full magazine of 50 rounds into the crawling mass.
Silence, except for our ragged breathing. I heard weapons being reloaded, and stood up.
"Give me an OK!" In turn, each of the team members called out their last name, followed by an "OK!" except for Ski.
He sat there, looking at a rip in the leg of his jeans. Under the rip, teeth marks were outlined, with a small welter of blood rising up.
"Oh Fuck My Life." He whispered.
"Doc, check him out! Do something for him! Will a tourniquet work?"
Doc whipped out a quick tourney and tied it off around Ski's leg, then pulled his big machete off his back, and hacked down hard on the leg, just below the knee. It took another two strokes to get through. Ski had fainted after the first one. Doc lit his torch and cauterized the leg to stop him from bleeding out. Just after he finished, Ski woke up and grabbed at Doc, then started pulling at the wounded stump, causing the blood to flow again.
"Let it go, Doc. Just let me go. Payback is a bitch. I gave in once, just once when I was so damn hungry I couldn't take it anymore, and ate part of man that I had killed in a fight. I couldn't help it, I was starving. Just let me go, brother." His voice sank, and we all shrank back away from him, horrified by what he had just admitted to, that thing that we were all scared of doing when we were starving. Ski had never told us what he was on the run from, just always had that haunted look in his eyes.
Doc stepped forward and stuck a needle in Ski. His eyes rolled back and his breath let out.
Just like that.
"Empire Hammer, Empire Hammer, this is Lost Boys, Fire Mission, over."
"Lost Boys, this is Hammer, Fire Mission, out."
"Grid, Kilo November seven niner eight three, niner four two zero, over"
"Grid, Kilo November seven niner eight three, niner two four zero, out."
"I say again, Grid seven niner eight three, niner four two zero, over."
"Grid seven niner eight three, niner four two zero, out."
"Time on target 0920 hours, over."
"Time on target 0920 hours, out."
"Hammer, this is Lost Boys. Understand we want suppression along a 500 meter line on either side of that grid, 5920 mils map north. Hammer everything east of the river, over."
"Understood, Lost Boys. You want to perforate every Z east of the river along that line. We'll get back to you if we can range that. Hammer out."
Damn but I loved professional artillerymen. We had given them an hour to work out their solutions, pre-fuse the BB rounds, and rehearse. "Suppression", in this case, meant a ton of rounds fired along an azimuth, in this case running roughly along the route we needed to take to get to the railroad bridge. The rounds themselves were based on the old claymore rounds. High explosive packed with thousands of ball bearings that detonated about 30' up in the air. They were directional, meaning that the ball bearings would scatter in an arc downwards and out. Any Z's standing out in the open would catch a high velocity BB in the brain, hopefully, and it would clear our path. I wished we could have used this last night, but arty rounds were at a premium, and I had coordinated this with the Battery Commander at Firebase Horse last week through e-mail.
"Lost Boys, this is Hammer. We can range that, but after this you are on your own. Mike Tango Oscar, Suppression, linear target, 4 guns 2 volleys, 5 iterations along line. Stand by for shot, over."
"Mike Tango Oscar, Suppression, linear target, 4 guns 2 volleys, 5 iterations along line. Standing by for shot, out."
The Message To Observer told us how many guns would be firing what, and enabled me to confirm that they were shooting what I needed. Firebase Horse sat in the parking lot of the old Saratoga Mall, or what was left of it. The wide open parking lots gave the Battery open, clear fields of fire, and a solid base for their 155 M-777 howitzers to sit on. It also provided a place to run patrols out of, clean out Saratoga of anything useful, and provide fire support to anywhere between Glens Falls and Albany. The sucky part was that it sat on the edge of the fallout from the reactor at the Navy Power School in Milton. It hadn't had a total melt down, but the area west of Saratoga, and southeast across Saratoga Lake up to the river, had taken some fallout. Most was washed away, which is why we were OK in Stillwater, but I trusted the Army NBC guys as far as I could throw them while wearing a MOPP suit.
At 0918, Hammer came back in the radio.
"Shot, out." I answered. Meaning that the Battery had fired.
"Let's go!" I told the team, and we shouldered our packs. Behind us stood the farm house where we had lost Ski. A trail of really dead Zombie corpses led from the river to the house, and inside stank to high heaven. We had waited all night for more to come from the city, but with the break of dawn, nothing showed. We buried Ski in the back yard, with a rough cross over his grave. While I was digging his grave with Jacob, the others took turns cranking the handheld generators that charged our radio and other electronic devices.
We started jogging downhill to where the Route 4 bridge crossed over the canal.
I motioned for the team to hit the ground. I trusted the artillery guys, but I've seen too many rounds stray off target. A mistake on the gun line transposing numbers. A mislaid gun. The wrong charge. Plus those BB's came out of the rounds at a tremendous velocity, and I didn't need a ricochet wounding anyone.
The air just above the river erupted in sharp flashes of light, and then a second later an ear splitting CRACK CRACK CRACK CRACK. One platoon of four howitzers, two volleys, then they shift fire, walking it up the line that I had given them.
After a minute Hammer came back on the radio.
"Rounds Complete, over."
"Rounds Complete, OUT." And I stuffed the mike back into Jacob's ruck.
I waited till the rounds stopped cracking, and then an additional 30 seconds.
"GO GO GO" I yelled, and we ran, straight across the bridge and into the clouds of dust raised by the impact of thousands of high velocity steel balls into brick buildings.
We ran in bounding overwatch, one team walking, weapons at the ready, while the other rushed 50 meters. Then we switched. The walking team was the shooters, charged with hitting any Z's that we still standing, or had been sheltered in houses during the bombardment.
Route 4 ran through the center of the village. At one time, it had held shops and houses. Now, like so much of the rest of America, it was a ruin. You could tell a lot about a village by what kind of ruins were there. The older small towns held up the best, except where they had had natural gas utilities. Broken lines, storms bringing down still live electrical lines, lightning, all combined to start massive fires that raged through whole towns and even cities. The older towns in the Northeast, built before the advent of modern firefighting systems, had fared better. Brick walls, slate roofs, but still, better was a relative term. Most of the cities and larger towns in America had burnt to a crisp, with fires raging out of control for weeks.
Everyone wore gloves and kneepads, and had reinforced the knees of their jeans, because everywhere you went there was smashed and broken glass. I don't know why, but when the plague hit, it seemed like everyone must have gone on a rampage. Correction, everyone DID go on a rampage. Looting and riots everywhere. To walk down any street in America was to listen to the sound of glass crunching underfoot. Most of had scars all over our hands from putting them down somewhere with broken plate glass. We had to be careful, because even a small cut left untreated could lead to blood poisoning or tetanus. Two Missions ago we had lost a guy who had tried to tough it out when he stepped on a nail. He died in the base hospital a few weeks later.
We almost made it to the first rail bridge before we came across any Z's. There had been a few in the street, mowed down by the artillery. In the center of town had been one big mass. They had been in the middle of tearing apart what remained of a person. What idiot had been dumb enough to walk through the middle of a town in broad daylight? Maybe it had something to do with the firefight we heard last night. A shattered AR-15 lay on the ground next to the bloody mess. The Z's were all down, perforated with dozens of holes. Bad for this guy, good for us. He had drawn the locals into the kill zone.
We turned left onto the bridge. Once there, Brit broke out a 4 point rappelling harness and snapped into a 30' length of climbing rope. Doc and Jonesy, the biggest guys, launched her over the edge of the bridge, furiously snapping pictures, while the rest of us pulled security. She swung back and forth, trying to catch every angle, then yelled for them to pull her up. We repeated the process on the second bridge abutment, then started running back towards the canal lock.
On the middle of Rt. 4. Several Z's had stumbled out of houses, wandering in that hesitant way when they smelled a living person but weren't sure we were close. Each team took it's time to shoot them in the head, aimed steady shots, while the other team ran their 50 meters. We knocked down three before I stopped and pulled out a thumper. I set the timer for 20 minutes, then kept running.
Thumpers were little speaker boxes hooked up to cheap MP-3 players. Start it running, and depending on what track you picked, you got either an instant or set delay before it started playing an obnoxious, loud rock, rap, or some other tune that had a heavy base rhythm to it. They were called "Thumpers" after the way the worm riders had called the sandworms in that old Sci-Fi book "Dune". Point is, the Z's would come running, and stand around while the song played out, looking for the source of this evidence of living beings. Each of us carried two in our packs, and they had saved my life more than once.
When we had gotten a good distance away, but could still see where I had dropped the Thumper, we all grounded our packs for a rest. Right on time, 20 minutes, "In da Club" by 50 cent started blaring out. Heavy beat ringing out form the cheap speakers. They came swarming, milling around in a mass, trying to locate the source of the sound. Had to be more than a hundred by the time the song lopped back and started playing again.
I grabbed the mic from Jacob's ruck. "Hammer, this Lost Boys, execute Fire Plan Bravo, over."
"Lost Boys, this is Hammer, Fire Plan Bravo, out."
I waited for shot and splash, and we watched BB rounds crack overhead, right on the spot I had planted the Thumper. 3 volleys, landing on a pre-plotted grid. My GPS had told me where to drop the thumper.
We watched the Z's get cut down. Fighting Z's is easy, you just have to be smart about it. It's when you fight stupid that you die.
I yelled "I love it when a plan comes together!" and mimicked lighting a cigar.
"Old Balls! You would remember that show. " shouted Brit at me, over the crump of the distant artillery.
It wasn't an ambush. More like what the Army calls a "meeting engagement". Basically, we bumped into each other.
We were humping through the woods, avoiding Fort Ann, traveling on the east side of the river. We had our eyes peeled for Zombies, not for people. I think the sight of armed living people froze Jacob for a split second, but that was all it took. They open fire, we opened fire, and we attempted to break contact, hauling ass backwards the way we came. Rounds were flying through the brush, as each of us let off a magazine in the direction of our attackers and then peeled back 10 meters. When the last person had burned a full mag, we tore off across an open field till we got to the next tree line, then grounded.
"OK, give me a SITREP, everyone sound off."
"Jacob, I'm OK. I got zinged in the arm." He was looking at a slight trace of blood where a round had scratched him. Doc was already checking him over.
"Ahmed, I got two on the way back, while you were all peeling back." Ahmed had been at the rear of the column, and had taken the time, as we rushed past him, each in turn, to drill two of the attackers.
"I saw at least a dozen."
Jonesy spoke up. "Where the F is Brit?"
Then we heard her scream. Loud screams, cut off in mid screech. I tore off across the field, just as Doc wrapped me in a bear hug. A shot zinged overhead, right where I had been running a second before. We both dropped to the ground.
"Nick, NO! We are outnumbered and right now that will get you killed!" He held me tight despite all my struggles to get free, until I had calmed down. Meanwhile, Ahmed had boosted himself up into a huge oak tree, and was sighting with his binos, looking back the way we had come.
"I see her. She's being carried ... damn, they have disappeared into the woods on the far side of the next field."
We moved cautiously to the sight of the firefight. Three bodies lay there. One was dead, another was bleeding out, clutching his groin as his life drained out of a severed artery. He shuddered, then lay still. The last sat against a tree, a little further back, wheezing from a punctured lung, blood pooling in his lap as it ran out from under his dirty T-shirt.
I approached the one up against the tree, slowly, my rifle pointed at his chest. I could hear him wheezing, and he was getting paler by the second. A rusty revolver was held limply in his hand. I kicked it way, and he gave no protest. He was fat, had a double chin. I knew what that meant. He was a cannibal. No one had that kind of access to fresh, fatty meat anymore in the wilds. No one except those who had crossed the line.
"Doc, we need to question him. Help me." I pushed the man over onto his side, the wounded side. Immediately his breathing increased, and he groaned. Doc waited for him to exhale, then slapped a piece of MRE bag onto the wound and taped it up.
I poked him in the head with my gun barrel until he showed some signs of consciousness. I wasn't in the mood for being nice.
"OK, wake up. Where are they taking her?"
"Huh what. hurts" I nodded to Doc, and he gave him a shot of morphine. The mans' face relaxed and he came back around a bit.
"Your buddies. They captured one of our people. Carried her off. Where are they taking her?"
"Fuck you. A female? I bet she's going to taste good in the cooking pot when they're done raping her." he rasped.
My eyes blazed over red, and I kicked him in the wounded lung as hard as I could, heard a rib snap. The man screamed in pain over the morphine.
"You're going to die, and you can do it hard or easy. Tell me, and it's easy. Don't, and it will be hard. Your choice."
The man tried to catch his breath. Doc grabbed my arm and pulled me aside.
"Nick, chill out. You're going to kill this guy."
"Doc, he's an F'ing cannibal. I AM going to kill him. We don't have time to play games here. If we can catch them before they get wherever they are going, we have a good chance of getting her back. Otherwise, she's dead, if she isn't already. His life isn't worth hers."
The man was coughing up blood now. I walked over and whacked the butt of my rifle across his nose. He cried out in pain and started cursing me again.
"AHMED, COME OVER HERE!"
"Listen, shitbag. Ahmed was a torturer for the Taliban." Standing behind the man, Ahmed's eyes shot up. He had been no such thing. I ignored him. "He is going to fuck your last hours on earth up so bad you will beg me for death. Tell me, and it's quick and easy, I MIGHT even let you live. Don't and he goes to work."
"OK, the p-prison. They are going to take her to the pen."
He nodded his head.
Damn. Great Meadows was a few miles north of here, a State Maximum Security Prison. We had to get to her before them, or we would never see her again.
"Let's go!" and I ran. Ahmed passed me, on point.
We left the wounded man on the ground. I let him live. The Zombies wouldn't.
"Nick, hold up. Wait a minute, let's think this through." Ahmed had stopped in front of me and was pulling out a google map printout of the area.
"Let me show you a trick we pulled on you Americans time and again in my country. We know where they are going, and they are carrying a prisoner, probably have wounded with them. Judging by the shape those others were in, they are overfed, malnourished and out of shape. They are also probably following the main road back to the prison. We can get ahead of them here ..." and he pointed to a spot just south of the prison, where a road crossed over the canal "and ambush them. If we continue to chase them down, we will run into an ambush ourselves."
"OK, Ahmed, you're a better strategist than I am. Let's go for it. If we haul ass up through the woods on this azimuth, we can get behind them. But we have to RUN."
And run we did. Weapons at the low ready, we shuffled along, maintaining a steady pace that ate up the ground. The woods were free from undergrowth, but we still took a chance. Out here in the countryside, the Zombie presence shouldn't be that much. What I was worried about were others from this cannibal group who heard the sound of gunfire, and who might be heading this way. Chance we had to take. We rotated taking point, going by compass bearing in a straight line across overgrown fields and stands of trees.
At one point, we saw them, moving up the road. We stopped to count and get a better estimate of their numbers. There were 7 left. Two were carrying Brit slung up on a pole. One had fallen behind, obviously wounded. As we watched, the tail man turned and shot the one lagging behind.
"Well, I guess they're going to be moving faster now."
We got into position just a few minutes before they got there. We went to ground on the north side of the road junction, just inside the treeline. Doc scanned for Zombies in our back area, pulling security.
"Ahmed, this is going to be on you, mostly. Our Z guns aren't going to have much range, and we can't risk hitting Brit, so it's up to you with the sniper rifle. Let them get close so that Jacob and I can get some too. Drop the two carrying Brit, Jacob will work in from the left, me from the right."
They came up in a gaggle. No security, just moving quickly down the road. I figured they felt safe, being only a few miles from their home ground. We waited until they had turned toward the bridge, and were strung out in a line in front of us.
I heard Ahmed's rifle utter a loud "cough" next to me, and the lead guy carrying Brit fell to the pavement. The other one carrying her dropped a second later, still staring at his partner. I fired two rounds into the lead man, and Jacob opened up on the rear. My target went down firing wildly into the ground, emptying his rifle into the dirt. Jacob shifted aim to his next target, but rounds started coming back at us, zipping overhead. Firing high in panic. Ahmed shot one more, The last man stood and aimed a pistol at Brit, lying trussed on the ground.
"Let me go or the bitch gets it!" He cocked back the hammer. It was quiet for a moment.
"Fuck it, I know you ain't going to let me go! I'm damned anyway!" he yelled and shot Brit from 5 feet away. All three of us hit him just as he fired, spinning him around.
"BRIT!" I yelled, "DOC GET UP HERE!" and before anyone could stop me, I was up across the road and running to her. As I ran up I put a three round burst into each of the figures lying on the ground. I dropped onto the ground next to Brit and ripped open her jacket, searching for a wound.
Above her knee was a bloody hole, where she had been hit in our initial firefight. It had clotted over, but blood was seeping from under her shirt, high up on her abdomen. She was breathing really fast through her nose, Duct tape was slapped across her mouth. I ripped it off so she could breathe better, but her face was white. She was going into shock.
Doc shoved me aside hard and got to work, ripping open his aide bag and cutting away her shirt.
"Anything else?" he asked me as he rolled her onto her side to look for an exit wound. Nothing. He stuck a tampon in the entry wound, and pressed my hand against it to hold it there.
"I'm going to work on her, but she has some internal bleeding. We gotta get her back to the CASH at Fort Orange." He meant the Combat Support Hospital at Task Force Empires' main base, down by Albany.
"I got it, Doc. Just keep her stable while I get them on the horn."
"Valkerie, Valkerie, this is Lost Boys, 9 Line Follows, over."
I called two more times before the RTO called back, asking for the MEDEVAC info. Behind me I heard Brit moaning and Doc trying to reassure her. "It fucking hurts, Doc. Gimme some morphine. Oh my god this fucking hurts so damn bad."
Jacob handed me a piece of paper with the 9 line info written out.
"Line One: Grid X-ray November 7834-9873"
"Line Two: Frequency 2200, Lost Boys 6"
"Line Three: One Bravo" Urgent Surgical, told the surgery team to be standing by.
"Line Four: Alpha, none" meant no special medical equipment
"Line Five: Alpha, one" One litter patient
"Line Six: Papa" - Possible enemy troops in area (approach with caution)
"Line Seven: Orange Smoke" marked the pickup area
"Line Eight: US Military"
"Line Nine: Open flat ground."
The RTO repeated it back to me, confirming what I had sent. Then he asked me who it was. I knew the guy, a kid who was a pretty good medsurge nurse.
"It's Brit, and she's pretty bad, Kingston."
"Roger that, Nick. I'll rush it. Out."
I sat holding Brit's hand while waiting for the call back. It came almost 2 minutes later, but it seemed to be eternity. She was mumbling something as Doc pushed an IV into her.
"Lost Boys, this is Empire 6. Mission denied, over."
"WHAT THE FUCK! WHAT DO YOU MEAN MISSION DENIED, YOU FUCKING ASSHOLE!"
"You heard me, Lost Boys. We don't; have the air assets to pick up your soldier. Recommend you find alternative Evac. Over."
"WE ARE IN THE MIDDLE OF NOWHERE AND SHE IS DYING YOU PRICK." I was screaming into the microphone now.
"I'm not risking a valuable air asset to pick up your little whore, Agostine. Empire 6, out."
I slammed the mic into the ground and screamed my frustration at the sky.
I sat and held Brit's head in my lap. She was moaning softly. Doc had shot her with some morphine, but being gutshot, the pain was intense. He couldn't give her anymore, or else her blood pressure would drop.
"Nick, what are going to do? We can't stay here. There's going to be Z's and those guys friends are going to come looking. " Ahmed and Jacob stood guard, watching the tree line and down the road. Doc stood over me.
I stared dully up at him. Brit was dying. I could feel it. I had seen it far too many times. The only thing I was thinking now was whether to make it quick for her, and if we would have time to bury her. I wasn't going to leave her for the animals, human or otherwise.
"Come on, Nick, we gotta move."
I took my pistol and put it over her heart. She was unconscious. I sat for a second, completely undecided and denying what was happening. Then the radio crackled into life.
"Lost Boys, Lost Boys, Valkerie 6, over."
I grabbed the handmic from Jacob.
"Valkerie 6, this is Lost Boys, over!" Valkerie 6 was Major McHale, the Air Ambulance Company Commander.
"Lost Boys, we are 10 mikes from your position. Pop Smoke when you have us in sight."
"DOC! MEDEVAC INBOUND, 5 Mikes!"
"Nick, we have other problems. Coming down the road." I looked up to see Ahmed firing at a group coming down Route 4 on the other side of the canal. They scattered and started returning fire.
"Valkerie, be advised, we are under fire. Hostiles are on the other side of the canal, across the bridge, about 300 meters west of my position."
Another voice came over the radio. "Lost Boys, this is Foe Hammer 9. Keep your heads down, boys." Then I heard that wonderful ripping sound of a 30mm cannon, and the road across the bridge erupted in a cloud of dust and explosive rounds going off. The firing stopped.
"Foehammer, good effects. LZ cleared. Thanks, over!"
"Lost Boys, this is Foe Hammer, anytime. Foe Hammer out."
I heard the rotor blades of the MEDEVAC thumping their way up the valley, and threw an Orange Smoke grenade.
"Roger, I copy Orange smoke."
A battered UH-60 came thundering up the canal, flared, and set down to the right of the smoke. I grabbed the IV bag and we lifted Brit up and hustled her over to the bird, and the Flight Medics met us with a litter. As they strapped her in, I ran over to the pilot' side, and Major McHale slid open the window. I reached in my hand and grabbed his. He yelled to me over the rotor wash.
"Your team saved my life, Nick, when we went down over in Pittsfield. I repay my debts."
"What about Colonel MacDonald?"
"Screw that shithead. He needs me more than I need him." He looked down, listening over his headset, gave me a thumbs up, and shut the window. I ducked down and ran away to the side as he powered up. They thundered up into the sky, and I watched them tip over and head back down the canal, the rotor wash throwing up spray. The Apache providing top cover led the way. I followed them with my eyes until they disappeared around a bend.
"Is she going to make it, Doc?"
"I don't know, Nick. She has internal bleeding, so she is going to have to go straight into surgery. Fortunately it was a small caliber bullet, .25 I think and I don't think it hit any bone and shattered. I give her a fighting chance."
"That's all she would ask for, Doc, a fighting chance. It's all any of us have ever got."
We shouldered our packs and moved on out across the bridge.
I opened up my iPhone and downloaded all my messages. Nothing on Brit's condition yet, but I knew that as soon as she was out of surgery, they would call us on the radio. At the top of the list, with a HIGH PRIORITY and REQUEST RECEIPT, was the FRAGO that I had been expecting.
TO: LOSTBOYS6@ TFEMPIRE.MIDATLCOM.MIL
CC: S3@ TFEMPIRE.MIDATLCOM.MIL; J3@MIDATLCOM.MIL; JFOPS@NAVY.MIDATLCOM.MIL
SUBJ: FRAGO 16 OPORDER 17-034 OPERATION HAWKEYE
REFERENCE: ENEMY ACTIVITY
TASK ORGANIZATION: IRREGULAR SCOUTS / TF EMPIRE / U.S. ARMY / MIDATLANTIC COMMAND
1. SITUATION: Concentration of Anti-American Forces vicinity Grid NF 4523-8734
2. MISSION: Determine Strength, Activity, Location of suspected Anti- American Forces in and around NY State Correctional Facility Great Meadows vicinity Grid NF 4523-8734
3. EXECUTION: NLT 201707130300 unit will provide information to higher command to facilitate neutralization of Anti-American Forces at designated location.
4. SUSTAINMENT: None
5. COMMAND / SIGNAL: PER OPERATIONS ORDER 17-034 ANNEX 5
Our original mission had been diverted, of course. LTC Jackass saw a chance for action and glory. For once, however, we agreed. I hate cannibals. I had to laugh at his "Anti- American Forces". Someone was still stuck in the desert fighting hajis.
We were already sitting in a hide site, across the canal from the prison, waiting for daylight. Doc and Ahmed and Jonesy were sleeping while Jacob and I kept watch. As the light slowly filtered into the east, we all woke for stand too, making sure no one had snuck up on us in the night, or no Z's had stumbled into our area. We hadn't seen one since the day before; apparently our friends across the canal had been doing a pretty good job of clearing them out.
Every half hour I called Valkyrie to check on Brit. Late in the morning Major McHale came on the horn.
"Lost Boys 6, this is Valkyrie 6, your 5 element is out of surgery. Doing OK, sedated. Will fill you in tomorrow, over."
I said a silent prayer of relief and tapped my head with the hand mike while letting out my breath. Then I gave a thumbs up to the rest of team. They all grinned back at me.
Feeling like I had just went 10 rounds with Mike Tyson, I went back to watching the prison.
"Are you crying, Nick?"
"Fuck you, Jonesy."
As I watched through my bino's, I saw a truck, which had been parked across the front gate of the prison, rumble to life and roll back across. An army LMTV, the cab chopped off and armor plate welded across the front, pulled out and drove off down the road to the County Prison. In the back were a group of women, dressed in orange prison jumpsuits. They stopped midway and the women, about a dozen, climbed off the back. One man with a shotgun jumped down from the remains of the cab. They headed to a field that was showing some corn sprouting up through the rows and started pulling weeds. The truck continued down to the county prison and returned with two dozen more men and women. They looked like concentration camp survivors, all skin and bones. The original group of women looked almost healthy in comparison. I counted a total of 6 guards, armed with shotguns, rifles, and M-16's. As I watched, one of them occasionally whipped one of the workers. The truck returned to the County jail and started making trips to the backside of the prison. I counted 5 trips before the truck returned to the Prison.
I handed the binos to Doc. He studied the scene for several minutes.
"Tell me what you think, Doc."
"OK, the first group of women you saw are the party girls. Either voluntary or not. Fed better, not whipped so often. The others are slaves and meat."
"Agreed. I counted 3 dozen civilians in the close field, and 5 truckloads to the back fields. Make that a total of around a hundred thirty or so. Figure they have a back entrance to let the guards out to the back fields. Same number of guards per civilians, makes it around 30 guards out back. No idea how many are in the prison itself, but you have to figure at least double that number. So, figure maybe a hundred cannibals."
"Whatever. Time to settle in and watch for a few hours. Later today we can head over and check out the County Jail. Obviously being used as a slave pen."
We took turns watching and noting routines. The only break in the boredom was when a zombie stumbled from the treeline next to the field. I watched it run at the workers, who kept right on working. I wondered why they didn't break and run, or why the guard didn't shoot it. The Zombie grabbed the nearest worker, who started to fight. I watched the guards gather around the fight. The man finally went down under the zombie. I could faintly hear him screaming. One of the guards finally clubbed the zombie on the back of its head when it started to stand up from chewing on its victim.
As I watched this drama, I caught some movement at the edge of the field. One of the healthier women was running for the woods. The guards turned at yell from another prisoner, and shot her down as she ran. Then they started whipping the other prisoners.
"Nice people." I commented to Doc. He took his turn at the binos while I ate some lunch.
In the evening, we moved across the bridge and got as close as we could to the County Prison. Unlike the State Prison, with 30 foot high concrete walls, the County jail was surrounded by chain link and razor wire. Two guards sat in towers, and around the fence were piles of skeletons. It looked like a Z swarm had broken itself on the fence a while ago. I wondered who had won that one.
The State Prison was surrounded by concrete walls. Guards stood in each of the towers. As I watched in the night vision scope, the guard in the closest tower was joined by another figure, and the two of them started having sex right there in the tower. I'll give him credit for enthusiasm, but it meant that their security was shit.
I wrote all this up, with pictures, and shot it back to TF Empire.
TO: LOSTBOYS6@ TFEMPIRE.MIDATLCOM.MIL
RE: FRAGO 16 OPORDER 17-034 OPERATION HAWKEYE
Nick, move back and find a place to watch the fireworks. Stand by to provide observed corrections to fire support if necessary. Hope you enjoy the show.
MAJOR JOHN FLYNN
S-3, TF EMPIRE
"Nick, Empire Six is on the horn. He wants a prisoner to interrogate."
"Tell him I said to piss off."
"Empire Six, this is Last Boys Three, our six element says to piss off, over."
I grabbed the handmike from Doc. "You asshole". He laughed and told me he hadn't keyed the handmike. Everybody is a frigging joker.
Turns out that before he launched this op, Colonel Jackass wanted us to interrogate a prisoner. We had given him a pretty good write up of the situation, but he didn't want to "launch on unconfirmed intel". His words. My words were "You big puss" but I wasn't stupid. I was going to deal with him in my own time. I gave him the "Roger that" and started to plan.
We still had 2 hours of darkness left. I didn't like the idea of snatching a prisoner. It was dangerous, and I couldn't how we were going to do it. Everyone was locked up tight in the jails, or guarded in the fields. We had already seen that the guards didn't go anywhere alone, even when taking a dump. Getting one alive would be next to impossible. At the least, it would involve some kind of fight, which would draw attention from even more guards. As far as just "taking someone down" It's not like the movies at all. You don't just sneak up on someone and tap them on the head, drag them away, and then wake them up with a gentle slap on the face. More likely than not, hit someone hard enough to knock them out, you are going to fracture their skull or at least cause a major concussion. Which, all and all, makes for a useless prisoner. Since they never travelled alone outside the prison, we would have to kill one to snatch the other. That would blow the element of surprise for any attack tonight.
Jonsey ambled over, after exchanging watch with Ahmed. "Nick, this isn't going to work. Ain't no way we is gonna get prisoners to question. They might screw off up in the towers, but outside the wire, them bastards got their shit wired tight."
I shook my head. "Gotta agree with you, brother from another mother. Ain't going to happen."
We had already had two killed and one wounded on this mission, so I did what any good subordinate does when confronted with impossible orders from above that have no relevance to the situation on the ground. I ignored him.
We waited until daylight, then I called into Empire Six.
"Empire Six, this is Lost Boys, Over."
I told him we had captured a prisoner, and before he expired, he told us that yes, they were cannibals, and yes, they were in the prison, and no, he didn't know how many of them they were.
"What do you mean he didn't know how many of them there were?"
"Well, he died."
"Did you get to question him first?"
"For a bit. He pretty much confirmed what we knew already."
"How did you get the information out of him?"
No way I was going to let that pinhead fulfill his dark fantasies by giving him torture tales.
"Better you don't know, if you get my meaning, over."
"Roger that, Empire Six, out."
God, he was an insufferable prick. Another FRAGO came in from the S-3. They wanted us to, if possible, secure the County Jail. I calculated up the odds. We had only seen guards in two of the towers there, and at the gate to the jail. That we could do. H Hour was at 0300. We moved out to a better observation position, so we could keep an eye on the jail and the prison. It wouldn't do for whoever was coming for the prison to get a surprise if we could avoid it.
"Jonesy, quit that shit. Just kill it." We had settled down on the edge of the tree line. A Zombie with no legs was pulling its way toward us, through the forest. Its lower jaw was missing, probably a survivor of the Z wave that had broken over the jail. Jonesy was baiting it, letting it get close then low crawling to a different position.
"I'm just doing PT with my battle buddy here, Nick." I could see his grin in the moon light.
"Just kill it already. Have a little bit of compassion. That was someone's mom, once."
"OK. You is just one big bad teddy bear, Nick." With that he pulled his .22 pistol and popped two rounds into its head. The Z sank to the ground, the weird red light in its eyes slowly fading.
At 0259, H -1, Ahmed lined his rifle up on the guard in the tower at the Jail. I lay next to him, watching through my NVG's and counting down quietly. 3, 2, 1.
At 0, all hell broke loose. Ahmed's first shot dropped the guard in the tower. At the same instant, a bolt of light shot into the truck parked in front of the Prison. It exploded with a dull CRUMP, lifting off its axles and landing a dozen feet away, burning brightly. A Hellfire missile fired from an Apache miles way had impacted at exactly 0300. From behind another hill, another Apache rose up from where it had been waiting and started pumping 30mm chain gun rounds into each of the towers in turn.
The Hellfire explosion had washed out my night vision goggles for a second, and Ahmed's also, spoiling his shot at the second guard. I flipped off my NVG's but the jail itself was still in darkness. I flipped them back down again, and saw the other guard sprinting for the building where the slaves were. Ahmed's second shot splintered the doorway next to him as he dove in. From the guard shack at the gate, three figures rushed out to stare at the fireworks at the Prison. The five of us rose, and in a steady walk, advanced across the field towards the jail, shooting as we went. All three fell before we were halfway there. As the last one went down, we heard automatic gunfire and screams erupt from the slave barracks, and the inside was lit up with a strobe light of gunfire.
We broke into a run, even as three CH-47's from the NY Army National Guard thundered overhead. Two stopped over the prison courtyard, and started spilling troops from the back, fast roping into the courtyard. The third touched tail on front of the prison gate, and a heavily armed squad ran out the back. As soon as the last man was clear, they powered up and lifted to the back side of the prison, probably to drop off another squad to cover the back exits.
I saw all this out of the corner of my eye, but I stopped when I heard a .50 caliber open up. If you have ever shot a .50, or had one shot at you, you know immediately what it is. A stream of tracers hammered into one of the Chinooks dropping troops inside the prison yard, and it immediately hauled ass away from the courtyard, fire erupting from one engine and two guys dangling from the ropes in the back. I stopped and stared for a second watching it head south in a trail of smoke and flame before hitting the ground, hard. One guy had hung onto his rope, and I watched him bounce off the ground with a bone crunching thud. The second Chinook let lose a hose of fire from a side mounted minigun, and something in the courtyard blew up in a flash, hidden by the 30' walls. Gunfire started swelling in a rapid crescendo inside the walls as the guys from the 108th Infantry went to work, routing out cannibals. The squad in front of the gate hosed the opening with short bursts of suppressive fire from a 240B machine gun. I started to run towards the downed chopper, but Doc slapped me back to reality by hitting my shoulder as he ran past, towards the jail. The gun fire inside the slave barracks had changed to single shots, but the screams went on.
Ahmed threw a flashbang through the open doorway, and I looked away, opened my mouth and cupped my hands over my ears. A second after the grenade went off, my ears still slightly ringing, we piled through the door.
The scene before me was pure chaos. Pools of blood ran out of jail cells, and two thirds of the way down the corridor, a figure was turning towards us. I only caught a glimpse of him, as I turned to scan my sector, the right corner of the room. It was empty and I was coming back around, just as he fired. Doc fired from over my shoulder as an enormous hammer wacked me in my kevlar helmet. I fell to the floor, stars running crazy circles in my eyes, and everything going double for a second before snapping back into place. The rest of the team advanced down the corridor, scanning each cell for potential hidden bad guys. Then I blacked out.
I came too with Doc kneeling over me, shining a flashlight in my eyes. I immediately started to try to get back up, but he pushed me back down with a knee on my chest.
"Slow down there, Killer! Take a break and sit for a minute. You took a round upside your helmet, and got a pretty good wack. You've been unconscious for a few minutes, started to get worried about you. We need to go check out the slaves, see how many we can save. Here's a souvenier for you."
He handed me my helmet. On the top left side was a long, shattering groove. An inch downward and it would have blown the top of my skull off. I felt really weak for a good minute or two.
Jacob, standing guard at the door, waved in a figure dressed in US Army Multicam. It took me a few seconds for my eyes to focus in the glow of the chemlight he was carrying, but I recognized Captain Horatio David, from C Company of the 2-108th Infantry. I guessed that it was his guys who had raided the prison. Behind him, two medic hurried in, moving towards the sounds of screaming and moaning coming from the jail cells.
"Hey Nick, you doing OK?"
"Yeah, Horatio. Took a round to the Kevlar, I'm a bit jiggly right now. Don't move around so much. How's your boys?"
"Two dead, 7 injured, 1 critical. The helo going down was tough, but they managed to get out of the bird after it hit, before it went up. I'm going to have that jackass Colonel crawling up my ass about losing a helo, and he's going to be all over your shit for not telling him there was a heavy automatic weapon in there."
"Screw him. What were we supposed to do, crawl inside the jail? Sorry about your guys." I was pretty sure I would know them, but I would wait till later to find out their names. I didn't need any more grief right now.
"Such is war, Nick, such is war. I know you couldn't have gotten in there, and there should have been a predator overflight. Not that we can get them anymore. We've got one of the 47's sitting down outside to take off the refugees here, once we do a full count and assess their medical condition. Here, let me give you a hand up." He pulled me to my feet, where I stood a bit shakily for a second. Then I took a deep breathe and walked out into the night air, into a scene from hell.
A good quarter mile to the south of me was the burning wreckage of the CH-47. No one came close, because onboard ammunition was starting to cook off. To my left, the jail was burning in several places, including the shattered towers. The devastated truck at the front entrance had burned itself out except for the tires, but a cloud of acrid smoke drifted off into the night. As I watched, one of the CH-47's lifted from the courtyard and headed Southwest, back towards Albany, escorted by one of the Apaches. There went most of Charlie Company, along with their wounded. I hoped the wounded would make it.
Captain Davis came up next to me and watched it go, and in a minute, Doc was standing next to us.
"We have 14 dead, another 7 wounded, and 42 unwounded. Mostly women and children. Could have been worse, Nick."
I knew he meant that it could have been worse if we hadn't rushed the barracks, but he knew it would eat at me that we hadn't saved them all.
"OK, Horatio, can your platoon organize the Evac? My team has to be long gone from here before the Zombies come crawling towards the sound of the gunfire."
"I'll do you one better, Nick. It's going to take a few minutes to get organized. Have the bird give you a lift a couple miles north, say to a mountain top just outside Ft. Ann, where you can rest up for a while."
"Sounds good, brother." I followed Doc, Jonesy, Jacob and Ahmed into the back of the chopper while Cpt. David conferred with the pilot. Once I sat down on the canvas seat, I closed my eyes and immediately fell asleep.
We never got off the ground. The rotors spun up, then spun down. I woke up with a start, sensing the change in pitch. The crew chief lowered the tail deck and motioned for everyone to get out, so I unsnapped my harness, grabbed my ruck, and shuffled down the ramp.
Outside, a Blackhawk had just touched down. After the rotors stopped spinning, two figures climbed down. Here came LTC Jackass with his faithful sidekick Command Sergeant Major Peters, aka Pancho. They strode over with the Colonel holding his Cavalry Stetson firmly on his head, as if the motionless helo would blow it away. I'm surprised he didn't have his spurs jingle jangling. CSM Peters was carrying an M-14, with more scopes, flashlights, and targeting devices than an M-1 tank. He aimed it this way and that, starting at every sound coming out of the pre-dawn darkness. Twice he flagged me with his weapon, swinging it in a wide arc that pretty much covered my whole team. We cringed backwards, as we could see in the light of the burning chopper that his finger was on the trigger.
Colonel Jackass stepped up to me, and tried to stare me down. I put my finger alongside my nose and blew snot out onto the ground in front of him. He leaned forward and got two inches from my face.
"Sergeant Major, ARREST THIS MAN!" Peters started to sling his weapon and reach for me. I stepped back and got ready to deliver a full force punch to the Colonel's face. Or his throat. I couldn't decide which. My arm was stopped by Doc, who had come up behind me.
"Arrest me? For what?"
"It was YOUR negligence that got that helo shot down tonight. I ORDERED you to get information on the prison."
"What the F were we supposed to do, crawl over the 30 foot high walls? Keep trying to take prisoners until we were dead?"
"You were too busy worry about your little whore to do the job properly, Agostine!"
"Why you piece of shit!" I lunged for him, but Doc and Jacob grabbed both my arms and wrestled me back. Then Peters finally got around to unslinging his weapon. He had it halfway up before Ahmed had his pistol pointed at his face from a few feet away. Jonesy had his .45 pointed at the Colonel, in that stupid sideways gangbanger pose I had been trying to break him of.
Captain David stepped in between us all, and put his hands up, motioning for everyone to lower their weapons. CSM Peters didn't lower his rifle until Ahmed had put his pistol back into its holster. The man was sweating like the pig that he was. "Calm down, Gentlemen. We're all on the same side! Right, Nick? I'm sure the Colonel, once he gets eyes on the ground situation, will understand the risk assessment on that kind of recon. Isn't that right, Sir?"
Jackass stared at Jonesy, who had a big, evil grin on his face. Then he snapped out of it, and started backing off to his helo. "Yes, sure Captain. I'll just do a flyby of the Prison. Good job here. Get loaded up and get your men out of here."
"Piece of shit pissed his pants when I drew on him. Dumbass cracker." Jonesy laughed loud and hard.
"Nick, I suggest you and your team start humping it out of here before he finds his courage again and orders his crew chief to light you up with some machine gun fire for insubordination." David ordered his guys to give us up some ammunition for our rifles, and some more clean water. Then they climbed into the CH-47, along with the former slaves, and rose into the sky, silhouetted against the faint dawn.
We jogged down the road for 3 miles, a slow steady pace, even though we were all exhausted. I spotted a two story building on the side of the road. Around it were a ring of skeletons, where a zombie wave had fought to get into the building. We slow walked through the ground floor, clearing each room. When we got to the stairs, we found them hacked and shattered, which was a pretty standard way of keeping zombies out during the plague time, with more skeletons clustered around the bottom. Most had neat round holes in their skulls.
"Nice shooting" muttered Ahmed, picking up a skull and examining it. Long blonde hair still clung to it in patches. He put it back down gently.
Beside the stairs was a battered aluminum extension ladder. It looked like it had fallen over, rather than been placed down. Way I figured it, someone was looting, used the ladder to get to the second floor, and it fell. The noise from the ladder falling must have been like a dinner gong for the local Z population.
"Shall we?" motioned Doc, and he set the ladder back up. We climbed up, with Jonesy and Jacob standing guard below.
Lying on a couch in an office upstairs, we found another skeleton. This one was clad in expensive Gortex hunting camouflage. Around his neck hung the latest generation night vision goggles, and he had on a full set of top of the line body armor. Across his chest lay a fancy tricked out AR-15, the civilian version of the M-16. The top of the skull was missing, and blood stained the wall behind the couch. On the floor of the window next to the couch were a couple of hundred brass casings. The bolt of the weapon was locked to the rear on an empty magazine.
Saved one for himself. Better that than dying from thirst while the Zombies waited for you outside. "All that fancy smancy gear, and you died from being stupid, buddy. That's what you get for working alone."
The rest of the guys came upstairs, and we pulled the ladder up after us, and settled down to get some rest. I logged into Facebook on my iPhone after Ahmed got the radio set up, and went to our secret "Scouts" group. I posted a long rant about what an asswipe LTC Jackass was; then I showed the guys the picture Brit had posted. She was sitting up in a hospital bed, making a stupid duck face and flashing fake gang signs.
She was definitely going to be OK.
1200 hours. I flipped on the speaker of the SINCGARS and turned the volume up to be barely audible.
"Time for the news, boys." Each day at 1200 hours, the commo guys at Fort Orange rebroadcast the news, and we ate it up like candy.
"... istening to the BBC World Broadcast. The Royal Navy today intercepted a refugee fleet from the Northern Russia when they tried to run the guard and avoid quarantine. HMS Sheffield was damaged by a missile fired from a Russian destroyer. Casualties are unknown at this time. The fleet was destroyed by a low yield nuclear weapon. A statement issued by the King's spokesman affirmed England's commitment to safeguarding the United Kingdom from all threats.
Parliament today issued a challenge to the Royal Emergency Decree, bringing suit to the Supreme Court to declare it unconstitutional. The Office of the King responded by pointing to today's naval battle as an example of the continuing emergency. The court withheld judgment until further deliberation.
In North America, elements of the US 82nd Airborne seized control of the Bermudez oil field in southern Mexico in an airborne assault. Heavy fighting was reported by our embedded correspondent in a three way battle between US forces, Mexican cartels, and undead."
"YEAH, GIT SOME, AIRBORNE!" yelled Doc, a former 82nd paratrooper.
"Shut it, I'm trying to listen." I told him.
"Shut it yourself, you dirty nasty leg."
"... Japanese Defense Forces lost contact with their last garrison on the main island of Honshu, but have declared the island of Shikoku to be cleared. Japan and Singapore remain the only parts of Asia with a functioning government."
"This is the BBC World News."
I clicked off the radio and thought about how many billions dead, yet we still fought on. Stubborn humanity, I guess. I never thought of quitting, even at the worst of times. I guess the quitters were all dead by now.
We rested an entire day, cleaning weapons, taking care of minor wounds, getting as cleaned up as we could. My head was still a bit woozy after taking that round, and we were all starting to smell like ass after a week in the field. Captain David had dropped off several cases of ammo, both for the sniper rifle and our .22's. We had burned through more than I had wanted, and loading magazines was a pain in the ass, but it had to be done. Click, click, click.
Jacob sat down next to me later that evening. He had his pistol in his hand, and I assumed he had just finished cleaning it. I could tell by the look on his face that he wanted to talk.
"Nick, that shit yesterday. In the prison cell block."
"Yeah, what about it, Jake?" I wasn't sure where he was going with this, but if the guy needed to talk, he needed to talk.
"I can't get it out of my head. This is one hell of a nightmare I'm in. I wish I could wake up."
Talking with Jacob was tough, because, even though he performed well in the field, he really believed that he was in a dream. I asked him once what he did before the plague, and he laughed. He told me he was an accountant. Wife, two daughters, white picket fence around his house on Long Island. I couldn't square it with the dirty, unshaven gunslinger who sat next to me, but then again, I don't think he could square it with himself, either.
"I keep seeing all those women and kids, the ones we didn't get to in time. I close my eyes, and there they are, right there. I can smell the gun smoke from that guards' rifle."
"We all have a tough time dealing with it, Jacob. It's what makes us human."
"What I can't get over, Nick, is how real it seemed. I know I'm in a dream. I HAVE to be in a dream. Otherwise, Jean and the girls are dead. Or even worse, undead."
We were treading on dangerous ground. I've seen guys lose it in the field before, both in Afghanistan and here. One minute they're fine, and then SNAP, they break. The toughest guys out there. Everyone has a breaking point. I think Jacob was approaching his.
He sat silently for a moment while I thought of how to answer him, but before I could, he stood up.
"One way or another, Nick, it's not a place I want to be. Either I come out of this nightmare, or the nightmare is real."
"Maybe you need to talk to Doc, see if he can give you something to help you sleep." I started to get up, but he shook his head no and walked over to the ruined stairway. Before I could stop him, Jacob had jumped down and run out the front door of the building. I called for the others and we grabbed out gear and climbed down after him, but by the time we got out the door, he was long gone. We heard his pistol go off just as the sun rose.
We found him just down the road. Leaning with his back against a tree, a picture of his wife and kids on his lap, with his pistol still smoking in his hand. He had waited till dawn so he could see them one more time. The four of us dug him a deep grave, shouldered our packs, and started walking.
"Hey Nick, you think Jacob is in a better place now?" Jonesy dropped back as Doc replaced him on point and walked beside me. He could tell I was in a foul mood. Three men killed, Brit wounded. This was a tough mission, and it was getting to me.
"I don't know, J. Maybe this IS a nightmare, and he managed to get out of it. Lord knows I wish the old world would come back."
"I don't. Old world, I got shit on by the man. 5 years in a state pen like that joint we just cracked, all because I beat the crap outta some dude that raped my sister. I LIKE this world, Nick. I am the right hand of justice, and I can serve it out like jelly on a cracker. Just not on YOU crackers. YEAH, I MEANT YOU, DOC, YOU CRACKER WHITE ASS BIKER!"
Doc flipped him the finger over his shoulder, not taking his eyes from where we were going. I actually smiled a little, and Jonesy dropped back to talk with Ahmed. I felt a little better.
Who knew, psychotherapy from an ex-con?
We headed out down the railroad tracks, both for survey and to keep off the roads. Walking down railroad tracks were a bitch, because the rail ties never seemed to land under your foot. It made for a more tiring walk, but on either side of the grade was swamp and mud. It was hard keeping on our toes, with the sun beating down on us. When you hump a rucksack, you sweat. I don't care how hardcore you are, humping a ruck is hard work, and we were soaked in sweat before we had gone a mile. So much for being clean.
As I walked slowly along the tracks, scanning my sector for movement, my mind wandered. Half paid attention to what was going on around me. It had to, or we would be dead. The other half thought back, remembered, dragged up conversations with people long dead, replayed events in my mind. I tried not to think about before the plague. Some things are too painful. Instead, my eyes, crossing over Jonesy's pack as I did a slow turn to walk backwards for a few meters, checking our six, I thought of how the team had come together.
It had been at the FEMA camp, on Grand Island, just west of Buffalo. The Feds and the Army were just gearing up for Task Force Empire, and Doc and I had reported into the base, reactivated under Presidential Executive order to our old ranks. Everyone who had ever served, up to age 65, was reactivated and automatically made part of their old branch of service. In theory, anyway. I had made contact with a small "clear and hold" unit that had airdropped into the high ground just west of Schenectady, and they had flown me, along with a dozen others, to Seneca Army Depot in the Finger Lakes. While waiting for assignment, and starting to chafe under the usual Army chickenshit rules, I had run into Doc, whom I knew from way back. Together we came up with the idea for the scouts, and pitched it to a Major we knew in the Infantry. Next thing we knew, we were on a UH-60, flying over the ruins of Buffalo on our way to the camp on Grand Isle.
I stood in front of the ragged group of civilians and looked them over. A sadistic looking little man wearing a drill sergeant hat was barking at them, trying to get them to stand in ranks, doing the usual "YOU'RE IN THE ARMY NOW MAGGOT" crap. Most of them looked at him with contempt. These people were the survivors. They had live through the plague and everything after, and volunteered to serve. Maybe some were there for three hots and a cot, but I doubted it. They had carried the other 90% milling around the FEMA camp, sitting in their tents, relieved the government had finally gotten there, and they could kick back. Deadweight. I had seen them as I walked through the camp, the vacant looks on their faces. The ones who had been carried through the plague by the fighters. The same fighters who stood before me in this group.
I stood for a minute, then whispered to Doc "Watch the big black dude." The sergeant had gotten in his face, or more like his chest, and was yelling obscenities up at him, ending with "DO YOU HEAR ME, BOY?" At which point, the black guy punched him as hard as he could in the face. The sergeant went down for the count. Out cold. The other around them laughed, until they heard the rattle of bolts being drawn back and rounds being chambered in the rifles of the MP team nearby.
"HOLD IT!" I yelled at the top of my lungs, and walked forward to address the crowd. Doc knelt down and checked out the sergeant, who was trying to sit up, holding his face. I told the Military Police team to stand down, which they did, staring angrily at the group.
"My name, for those who care, is Sergeant First Class Nicholas Agostine. Just so you know, the Army you just volunteered for isn't the kinder, gentler Army anymore. You, black guy, what's your name?"
He stepped forward. "Jones. LeShaun Jones."
"Well, Jonesy, you aren't back on the block anymore. Those guys" and I motioned to the three soldiers who were helping the Drill Sergeant sit down on a bench "will shoot you for something like that. Matter of fact, they probably ARE going to shoot you, just as soon as I leave here, to make an example out of you. I don't have to explain to you how cheap life is now days."
Most of them acknowledged what I had said. Jones just stood there and glared at me.
"Can you run? Or is that all just muscle?" I asked him, poking him in the chest.Holy crap, this dude was big.
"Yeah, I can run. Bet yer ass."
"Good, because I'm taking you with me." I turned my back to him and faced the crowd again.
"Like I said before, my name is SFC Agostine. This is SFC Hamilton, my team medic. I'm recruiting a few volunteers to serve on my scout team. Our job is to go out and be the eyes and ears of Task Force Empire, the Army's push back into New York State. It's going to be dangerous as hell, but we will be on our own, detached from the regular army bullshit, not even part of the command. Our actual overhead is Joint Special Operations Command, or JSOC. If you're interested, Doc and I will be over here for the next few minutes. Think about it." I pointed at Jones. "You, come with me if you want to live."
We walked away, Jones following, and sat down on the steps of ruined library building. A dozen people walked over to us, and we formed them in a line, interviewing each one. We had picked off six of them, all tough, competent survivors, when a vaguely familiar, dusky skinned man stepped up to me.
"If I told you, will you torture me again, Nick Agostine?"
I looked up from the laptop where I had been punching in people's names, and shielded the sun from my eyes. I recognized him at once. He had been on our capture list for months in Afghanistan, leading a band of independent tribesmen who fought us and the Taliban with equal ferocity whenever anyone trespassed into his valley. At one time, he had been a member of the Taliban, but had gone off on his own, disgusted by their attacks on children. He had hated America with equal vehemence for an airstrike which had killed two of his own children. We had him in custody once, but the last I heard, his followers had ambushed a convoy carrying him to prison and busted him out.
"Ahmed Yasir. What the F**K are you doing here?"
"I am signing up for your team."
I closed my eyes for a minute. Doc stood next to me, his pistol in hand. Ahmed stood calmly, arms folded. I opened my eyes and took the man in. He was dressed in ragged street clothes, clean shaven. Trying to blend in with the crowd. There were more than enough assholes who had let the plague be an excuse to take out their racial prejudice against whatever group they hated.
"I meant, what are you doing in America?"
"As for what I WAS doing in America, well, that is not anyone's business anymore. The great Satan has fallen far lower than anything that I could have hoped to have done, and I actually like it here. I am here, my country is gone, and Allah has given me an opportunity to slay demons. I will never be able to go back to Afghanistan, and there are plenty of demons to slay here."
I thought for a minute. Ahmed Yasir was one bad ass mofo, and my company had spent months chasing him. I hadn't really tortured him, just beat the crap out of him when we finally caught him. Payback for the men I had lost. Still I had a lot of respect for the bastard. He fought fair, as fair as anyone could fight in that dirty little war.
I held out my hand. "Welcome to the Zombie Killers, Ahmed. Screw me or any of us over, and we will cut your balls off." He looked me in the eye, nodded, and shook my hand.
That was two years ago, and at last count, we had had something like 500% casualties, dead, zombied, or wounded. Now, again, excepting Brit, we were down to the four of us who made the core of the team, and she was out of action for a while. I kinda laughed to myself as I walked, thinking of an old pop culture reference.
Jonesy heard me and asked what I was laughing at. "Time for some more Redshirts, Jonesy." I told him. Yeah, I felt every injury and death my team had suffered, but sometimes, screw it, you just gotta laugh. Civilians, they never understood.
The Z jumped me out of doorway. I was walking point as we made our way into Whitehall, and I had done a quick peek around the corner, seen that it was clear down the street, and moved forward. The doorway was on the edge of the building that I just looked around, set back in, and the Z had been huddling on the steps. It sprang up on me, immediately going for my throat, and knocking my rifle out of my hands. I hunched my neck up in my collar, jammed my forearm into its mouth, and swept the legs out from under it. I landed with a nasty, bone snapping crash on top of it, and started hammering the things' head into the pavement. It bit down even harder on the leather sleeve of my jacket, pushing the steel strip sewn into the sleeve into the flesh of my arm. All that kept running through my head was don't tear, don't tear, don't tear. My right hand was trying to reach for the hammer I wore slung on belt, and the weight of my pack was trying to tip me over, even as the zombies hands were clawing at my neck. I hunched down even further in my collar, and turned my face away from the clawed fingers. One scratch, and I was screwed. It might take an hour for the infection to get me, but Doc would have put a bullet in my head long before that. I gave up on the hammer and started scrabbling around for a rock or something on the street. I came up with a piece of broken asphalt, and hammered it into the things head over and over. It finally stopped moving, but its jaws stayed locked on my arm. I pulled out my K-bar knife and worked it into the jaw, cutting away, careful not to get any of the body fluids on my exposed skin. It finally let go when I cut the tendons to the jaw, and I rolled off, onto my pack, shaking like a frigging leaf.
A burning hot brass cartridge casing spun through the air and landed in my collar as a I sat there catching my breath, and I scrabbled to pull it out. I saw another fall to the ground in front of me and bounce off the pavement, and looked up to see Doc standing there.
"A little help!" He stood next to me, had been there the whole time, firing methodical shots into a crowd of Zombies that were advancing up the street, a milling, chaotic mass. Ahmed and Jonesy faced the other way, firing back down the way we had come.
I jumped up and joined Doc firing at the Z's, which were closing in quickly. More piled out of buildings on either side.
This was just the situation we tried to avoid. Being run down by a horde of Z's in a town where anything could pop out at you. We had made it most of the way through town and were just a few hundred meters short of the canal lock, and the end of our mission. That's the way it always happens.
"ACTION RIGHT, MAKE FOR THE CANAL!" I yelled, and we all turned and concentrated our fire on the Z's that were between us and the water. As we fired, we ran at them. 10 meters away from the first ones, we dropped our weapons in their slings and pulled out our personal weapons. Then we charged them, swinging our bats and steel rods and hammers as fast and as hard as we could. Then we were through them, dropping our Z knockers and hauling ass for the water, followed by a crowd of Z's hauling ass after us. We gained a few yards, and as we reached the edge of the canal, we dropped our packs, vaulted the low railing, and dove straight into the water.
It closed over my head, and I started to sink down. I reached the mud at the bottom and kicked upwards. My eyes were screwed shut. Deep water over my head terrifies the shit out of me. I broke the surface and tried to tread water before going down again. I crossed the canal in a series of bounds, pushing off the bottom to get air from the surface of the 6 foot deep water, gasping as much air as I could before sinking back down. I made it the hundred or so feet across the canal, getting more and more tired. I almost didn't make it, but a huge hand grabbed me as I sank the last time, just short of the edge, and pulled me out of the water. I lay there gasping for breath. Beside me, the guys were catching their breath too. Jonesy stood up and yelled across the water at the Zombies clustered at the edge of the canal.
"HEY YOU! SHITHEADS! THROW MY PACK OVER! I AINT FINISHED READING MY BOOK YET!"
We all burst out laughing. Jonesy looked hurt.
"What? I was reading World War Z. I wanted to know how that shit turned out."