Authors: Stephen Knight,Scott Wolf
Tags: #Military, #Adventure, #Zombie, #Thriller, #Apocalypse
They watched the small hybrid zoom down the street, sending brass cartridges tinkling across the half-melted asphalt.
“Man, that was one fucked-up cat,” Reader said.
Hastings’s radio came to life. “Captain, it’s Hartman. We’re good to go back here, sir. Both vehicles are tanked up, and we have spare diesel to bring with us. Over.”
Hastings regarded the brick buildings of the residential oil company. They looked vacant and unmolested, despite everything that had happened across the street. He wondered if there was enough time to take a longer look around. There might be more items worth taking with them, like the contents of a vending machine or two.
“Movement,” Ballantine said dully. “I count about, uh, twelve reekers heading up the street.”
Hastings spun and saw the gaggle of walking corpses stumbling toward their position. They were still a good two hundred meters away and didn’t appear to have seen them yet, but that wouldn’t last for long. In the distance, more figures came into view, their shapes distorted by the heat rising off the road.
“Okay, let’s roll,” Hastings said.
The remainder of
Task Force Manhattan cut across to Pennsylvania and then trekked north to the Army fort that lay a stone’s throw from the Canadian border. Sticking to the back roads, the two Humvees made poor time but didn’t encounter any zombie infestations they couldn’t either go around or just blast right through. While suppression weapons like the MK19 and the M2 .50 caliber heavy machinegun weren’t as capable against the reekers as the soldiers would have liked, they could still slow the zombies down and cause some serious confusion among their stinking ranks—especially the grenade launcher. It blasted reekers apart, and even though some of those parts still retained enough instinct to want to kill and feed, separating the zombies’ heads from the rest of their anatomy made that an unlikely prospect. Any zombies that survived the attack were thrown aside by the speeding Humvees or crushed beneath their knobbed tires.
They had to stop and refuel once, after they had crossed over into New York. Despite being home to New York City, the Empire State’s western half wasn’t densely populated. In fact, outside of the small cities, it was absolutely rural. That made finding fuel a little problematic, but they eventually came across a cargo truck that had rolled over into a ditch. The vehicle’s grille and bumper were covered with a thick layer of gore, and judging by the smears of crusted black liquid and the remains of several zombies—some of which were still trying to move despite severe damage to their limbs—the vehicle’s driver had been smashing his way through a dense crowd of reekers before finally losing control and crashing into the drainage ditch. The blood-flecked interior of the cab told the rest of the story.
The truck’s left saddle tank was about a third full, and Tharinger bled it dry. After they transferred the fuel to the Humvees, Tharinger poked a hole in the underside of the right tank, intending to drain it, but nothing was left. The side they couldn’t see had likely been torn open once the vehicle left the road, and the precious diesel had bled out.
Oddly, the truck’s fiberglass cargo box had been torn asunder during the rollover, revealing the battered remains of a Lamborghini Reventón. Hastings shook his head. If he recalled correctly, only twenty-seven had been made, at a price of almost nine hundred thousand dollars each. Whoever had been driving the truck was either a car thief who had thought it was his lucky day, or a serious collector who just couldn’t part with his pride and joy.
They moved on, leaving the destroyed relic of a world that had once been behind them.
That night, they huddled inside their armored Humvees, secure in the knowledge that the carnivorous corpses couldn’t get to them even if they were discovered. The men took turns on watch, examining the forested nightscape outside through night vision goggles. Reekers did stumble past the Humvees, their eyes wide and staring in the darkness. The soldiers remained still inside their vehicles, and the corpses paid them no mind. Even the zombies that stumbled onto the vehicles simply picked their way past and disappeared into the night.
Hastings had the idea that the reekers were more active at night. Even though they didn’t have enough sense to further investigate the presence of two armored vehicles, their strides seemed more purposeful, and they didn’t seem to stumble as often as they did during the day. He had noticed the same in New York City, but when he mentioned it to his fellow officers, they couldn’t make any more sense of it than he could.
Day came, and the area was still thick with zombies. The task force had no choice. They fired up the Humvees and drove right through the small horde surrounding the tiny clearing. They made it back to the rural road that haphazardly paralleled Interstate 81 and weaved their way around individual ghouls that shambled across the blacktop. Several of the grotesqueries turned at the sound of the engines, and a few runners even charged at them. But their attacks were thwarted by the Humvees’ thick bumpers, and in the end, shattered remnants of humanity were left sprawled across the road, writhing in fetid pools of black ichor.
By midafternoon of the second day, they had picked their away around Watertown, just outside of Fort Drum. Parts of the town had burned, but other areas looked untouched, almost pristine. Several trailers emblazoned with the acronym FEMA were visible, and Hastings figured Watertown had been evacuated. He had no idea if everyone had made it out.
Fort Drum hadn’t been so lucky.
The majority of the post had been razed almost to the ground, just as Master Sergeant Slater had said. Smoking remains of aircraft were scattered across the airfield, and the housing communities that surrounded the center of the post had been consumed by a conflagration that had been so huge it must have been visible even from orbit. Surrounding the installation were piles and piles and piles of bodies, more than Hastings could count, more than he had ever seen in one place at one time, outside of that final desperate night in New York City. Many of them were burned, but most were not. Some of them still stirred, flopping about restlessly. Their moans were carried by the slight breeze that, fortunately, kept the full force of the stench from reaching them.
“Fuck, man,” Guerra said, standing in the cupola of the Humvee behind Hastings. “Fuck, that crazy bastard was
. Drum’s …
Hastings stared through his binoculars, looking at where he believed his house would have been located. Only smoking rubble was left; his home had been obliterated by the firestorm, converted to ash and charred wood and blackened brick.
He couldn’t catch his breath, and the vision of the destruction he saw through his field glasses swam and broke up.
Scotty was only three years old, a tow-headed little ruffian with a devil-may-care grin and bright blue eyes that always twinkled, his mother’s eyes. He had her hair too, but he had Hastings’s nose and chiseled chin, and Hastings had known that Scotty would someday be one hell of a heartbreaker.
His thirty-four-year-old wife, Terry, was tall with a slender frame, a natural athlete who had been a track star in high school and a state champion swimmer in college. She’d dreamed of competing in the Olympics and had even tried out once, only to be weeded out in the selection process. She swore she’d go back and try again, but then she met Hastings, and then they got married, and then she was pregnant with Scotty, and then…
“I see the field house.” Ballantine was right beside him, looking through his own binoculars. “It’s surrounded by FEMA trailers. Looks like a tent city had been set up around it. That must’ve been where they relocated all the dependents and other civilians after they shrank the perimeter.”
Hastings cleared his throat and blinked away the tears, which was no easy feat since he felt as if his heart had just been skewered by a freezing icepick. He swung his glasses over to where Ballantine was looking and saw the bulky outline of the field house. It hadn’t been burned, but the windows were shattered. A handful of zombies were picking their way through the debris. Just like Hastings and his men, the reekers were searching for any sign of human life.
“There’s no one left in there,” Hastings said. “Half of the reekers down there are in uniform, troops that were taken down and reanimated.”
“I know,” Ballantine said in a small voice. “There weren’t enough troops left up here to keep the fort secure, anyway. Most of the Tenth was down in the city.”
“So what are we going to do now?” If Guerra felt anything, it wasn’t reflected in his voice. “We have to figure out what we’re going to do.”
Hastings wrestled with the question. He continued to peer through his binoculars so the rest of the soldiers wouldn’t see just how emotionally unhinged he was. Even though all of them must have felt that the rug had been yanked right out from under their feet, he was the one who was supposed to keep his head. Calm, cool, and collected.
There aren’t any things like that in the zombie apocalypse
“We could try for Bragg,” Reader said. “Follow that crazy fucker Slater—”
“Man, what the fuck makes you think that Bragg is going to be in any better shape than Drum?” Hartman’s voice was high and tight as he stood guard nearby, his M4 shouldered and ready. “The entire Eighty-Second Airborne was sent to
, man! There isn’t anyone at Bragg to defend the place!”
Stilley was manning the .50 caliber in the other Humvee, and for once, he didn’t seem to have much to say.
“What about Denver, then?” Tharinger asked. He stood guard near the first Humvee’s front fender, M4 also at the ready. “If what the master sergeant said was true, then it sounds like the mountain states are where we need to go.”
“Yeah, that’s only about a thousand-plus miles from here,” Guerra said. “We can do that, easy.”
“Captain, can I borrow one of the Humvees?” Ballantine asked.
Hastings lowered his binoculars and looked at the older NCO. He was shocked by the haunted, desperate expression on the man’s face.
Is that how I look?
How will the men follow me if I look like that?
He checked out the rest of the soldiers. They all wore similar expressions, a blend of equal parts fear, grief, mourning, and defeat.
“Why do you need a Humvee, Sergeant?” Hastings asked.
“My family was holed up in a cabin on the Black River,” Ballantine said. “A small place off of Woodard Hill, down towards Watertown.” When Hastings only stared at him, he pressed on quickly, looking over his shoulder at the rest of the soldiers, as if seeking support. “They’re smart, you know. Kay and the boys, they know to keep quiet. And they had guns, in case something went wrong. Supplies, too. If they kept to the cellar, none of those stinking stiffs would know—”
“Do you really think your family is still alive, Ballantine?” Hastings asked as gently as he could.
“Yes, sir, I do. I’ll ask you again. Can I borrow one of the Humvees?” Ballantine let his field glasses hang around his neck by the strap. His right hand closed on the pistol grip of his rifle, and his left slowly curled around the weapon’s foregrip.
“Going to shoot me if I say no, Sergeant Ballantine?”
“Yes, sir. I will.” Ballantine’s voice held no emotion, nothing in his eyes other than fear and worry. To Ballantine, Hastings was just another obstacle.
“Let’s do that,” Stilley blurted.
“What?” Hastings asked. He kept his eyes on Ballantine, who hadn’t moved.
“Let’s go see if the sergeant’s people are still alive,” Stilley said. “We gotta do something, and we can’t stay here. Reekers are starting to take notice. They’re heading our way, guys.”
“Roger that,” Guerra said. “He’s right, Captain. We’d better take the debate on the road. Drum’s wasted, and if we don’t want to end up the same way, we need to beat feet.”
Hastings nodded slowly. “All right. All right, Ballantine, we’ll see if we can locate your family. But if we can’t, what do you want to do?”
“If they’re not there, Captain, I won’t give two shits what we do.”
From nearby, a creaking moan sounded. Hastings turned and saw a blackened zombie step out from behind a ragged bush. Its eyes were hollow and blank, but when it saw the group of soldiers, it bared its teeth and stumbled toward them with outstretched arms, reminding Hastings of Boris Karloff playing Frankenstein’s monster in the original movie. Hartman stepped back and sighted on the thing with his rifle.
“Don’t fire,” Hastings said. “The sound’ll bring them all this way. Let’s mount up, troops. Ballantine, you’re with me in the lead vehicle.”
There was a quick chorus of “hooahs” as the soldiers went into action. Hastings reached down to his belt and pulled his brain bar from its sheath. He advanced on the single zombie, and damned if the thing didn’t seem to
when it saw him approaching.
Hastings smashed its skull in with three quick blows, and the ghoul crumpled to the ground with a weary sigh, its head dimpled from the strikes. Hastings gave it another whack for good measure then turned and walked back to the waiting Humvee.