Book two in this bestselling self-published series, now released through Orbit: when a devastating and vicious plague turns most of the population into frenzied killers, a lone soldier is on a mission to rebuild his ruined world.
A SOLDIER'S MISSION IN A WORLD GONE TO HELL: SURVIVE, RESCUE, REBUILD
Who are the real victims in all of this?
The infected or the survivors?
Gunshots perforated the darkness of Lee’s dreams, yanking him violently out of sleep.
He sat upright on a cot in almost complete darkness, his sleep-blind eyes struggling to focus and make sense of what was going on around him. Half in and half out of sleep, Lee’s mind conjured up the nearest memory of darkness and gunfire: the dim stairwell in the Petersons’ house, the haze of cordite hanging in the air, the stench of the infected.
His breath caught in his chest. Dread hammered at the back of his mind. Something horrible had happened in the Petersons’ house. Something terrible and irreversible . . .
Jack had just been bitten!
But no. That didn’t make sense.
Because wasn’t Jack already dead?
He had to shake his head to clear the images of the Petersons’ house and Jack in the bedroom, covered in blood. He knew they were false. This wasn’t the Petersons’ house. It was . . . someplace else. Someplace safe, he thought. But maybe not so safe anymore, because there’s screaming and gunfire coming from outside.
Another gunshot rang out, this time very close to him.
Adrenaline pumped like a piston in his guts. His heart rate quickened.
Slow down. Evaluate your situation. Try to remember.
Try to remember what the fuck you’re doing here.
He took a moment to look around and work through what he was seeing.
He was not in complete darkness, as he’d first thought: A single gas lantern glowed dimly against dull corrugated-steel walls. He was completely naked, save for a thin white bedsheet that had been spread over him from the waist down. He lay on a cot in what looked like a shipping container and his back was in excruciating pain, though he couldn’t remember why. His tongue felt thick and pasty. And he had no weapons.
Where’s my damn rifle?
From somewhere outside he heard Tango howl.
Tango! he thought, almost jumping off of the cot, but stopping himself as the sound of it reverberated and echoed. That’s not right. That doesn’t sound like Tango. The howl tapered off into a throaty snarl that didn’t sound much like a dog anymore. It was human.
It couldn’t be Tango, anyway.
Because he was dead too.
And with that thought, the rest came back with sudden and overpowering force. Tango was dead. Jack was dead. He’d lost his rifle at Timber Creek. Someone named Milo had ambushed them. He remembered crawling through a boarded window, nails carving through the flesh of his back. Red and Blue saving their asses with Molotov cocktails. Angela and Abby and Sam just barely making it to Camp Ryder . . .
The survivors. Camp Ryder. Wasn’t there a ten-foot-high fence around the compound? How the hell did the infected get inside? It was an infected he’d just heard; he was sure of it. But who was shooting at them? The questions all struck his brain in rapid succession.
I can’t just lie here, he thought. I’ve got to move.
He ripped the white sheets off of himself and stood, staggering through a flash of lightheadedness. The questions still rolled around in his head, but he couldn’t answer them now. Most of his thoughts were still muddled, but two things were coming through with piercing clarity: He needed a weapon—anything would do better than his bare hands—and he needed to get out of the shipping container. Running on instinct, these desires became a white-hot need, as real to him as his need to breathe.
That howl again, this time just outside the shipping container.
A shotgun boomed and the pellets struck the steel walls.
Flashlights from outside played across the wall, casting the wavering shadow of a man running straight for Lee. The movements were unmistakably wild and animalistic.
A short, sinewy form lurched around the corner of the shipping container just in time for another blast of buckshot to scoop its legs out from under it like a rug had been pulled. The infected hit the ground hard on its back and attempted to stand again without any regard to its injuries. Its wide eyes glistened feverishly in the lamplight as its shredded right leg twitched about, pulled in different directions by rearranged muscle fibers. It collapsed with a hissing sound and began to drag itself toward Lee, leaving a thick trail of blood behind.
Like a car with a faulty transmission, Lee’s mind finally dropped into gear. He lunged for the table with the medical equipment. He wasn’t sure what he was looking for, but if anything was to be a weapon, it would be something on the table. He swept his hands back and forth like a blind man feeling in the dark, knocking over a metal tray with a few scalpels and forceps soaking in alcohol. The tray clattered to the ground and sent the instruments skittering across the floor. He thought about diving for one of the scalpels, but it wouldn’t bite deep, and given infected people’s pension for not even registering flesh wounds, he decided he needed something with a little more stopping power.
Lee grabbed the heaviest object he could find—a big microscope that felt like it was solid metal. He spun toward the infected and found it nearly close enough to grasp his legs. Lee shouted in surprise and jumped back, grabbing the microscope by the eyepiece with one hand and smashing it down as hard as he could on the head of the infected. The heavy base of the microscope made a wet cracking noise as it dented the skull.
The crazed man on the floor thrashed and drew in a loud, gasping breath. His eyes turned skyward and he began to convulse violently. The sight of it soured Lee’s stomach almost instantly. He stared, frozen, for several of his rapid heartbeats before swinging again. The bludgeon struck his attacker in the temple. His eyeballs bulged and the top of the skull mashed into a strange, cone-like shape.
Lee swallowed hard against gorge in the back of his throat. He dropped the microscope and took a faltering step back, trying to catch his breath while his pulse ran away from him. The pain in his back, all but forgotten for those brief few seconds, suddenly spread over his body like he was soaked in kerosene and playing with matches.
He staggered toward his cot but didn’t make it. He lost his feet and planted his hands and knees on the floor as he felt his stomach suddenly reject whatever was inside of it. He felt the splatter on his arms and then hung his head, breathing hard and spitting.
Pounding footsteps behind him.
Still keyed up, Lee turned toward the sound and lashed out with both fists.
Lee focused on the face, kneeling down next to him.
A broad face with a wild man’s beard. A Colt 1911 in one hand, the other gripping Lee by the shoulder and shaking him gently. “Can you stand up?”
Lee wiped vomit from his lips and searched his mind for this man’s name. “Uh . . . Bus?”
Lee became suddenly aware that he still had no clothes on. He stood up shakily, with Bus supporting him. “Can I get some pants?”
The big man pointed toward the foot of the cot where a pile of clothing was folded neatly beside Lee’s old Bates M6 boots. “It was all we could rustle up for now.”
Lee nodded and stepped to the cot, straddling his puddle of vomit—rice and beans, he remembered. It was a pair of athletic shorts and a green T-shirt with a yellow smiley face on the chest. It was a far cry from his trusted MultiCam pants and combat shirt, but at least he had his boots back. The harsh reality of his last four days had only strengthened his opinion that these were the best boots ever made.
Inside one of the boots, he noticed someone had stashed his GPS device. Before Doc and Jenny had begun to operate they had tried to take it from his hands, and Lee had refused to give it up. It appeared either that they had succeeded in removing it when he’d fallen asleep or perhaps that Lee had dropped it and they had been kind enough to put it back for him. Either way, finding it snug in his boot immediately increased his trust for these strangers. He’d made clear one simple wish and they’d abided by it.
At the entrance to the cargo container, a younger man appeared holding a big hunting shotgun. He was skinny, but he had a round, childlike face and a patch of blond hair that stood off of his head like a halo. Despite his cherubic features, Lee guessed him to be about twenty years old. As he entered, he looked first at Lee, then to Bus, then to the mess of what once was a human being on the floor.
“Holy shit . . .”
Lee pulled on the athletic shorts and spoke to Bus. “How’d they get in?”
“I guess they found a hole in the fence. Or made one somehow; that’s the only thing I can think of.” Turning to the young man, Bus said, “Josh, give Captain Harden your pistol.”
Josh pulled a Ruger LCP out of his back pocket and held it out toward Lee. It was a tiny pocket pistol that could fit in the palm of his hand, and essentially worthless on a moving target past a range of about twenty feet. Just as Lee was about to take it, Josh jerked his hand back and looked at him suspiciously, an expression that didn’t quite fit on his face. “I’m gonna get this back, right?”
Lee honestly didn’t know, so he just looked to Bus for clarification.
Bus shrugged back at him. “I’ll get you something better when we have time.”
“Then I guess you’ll get this back,” Lee said to Josh and accepted the gun. He pulled the magazine out of the well. It was a .380 caliber with only four rounds left in the magazine, plus one in the chamber. He would have to get in close to use the thing effectively. Still, it was better than a microscope. He shoved the magazine back into the gun and stomped his feet into his boots. The GPS device he slipped into the pocket of his athletic shorts.
Josh pointed out to the darkness of Camp Ryder. “I think we got most of ’em.”
Bus just shook his head. “We don’t know that. Get everyone in the square.”
“A’ight.” Josh spun on his heel and ran off into the night.
Bus looked Lee over. “You okay? Didn’t get bit?”
Lee gave himself a quick once-over before answering. “Think I’m good.”
“Let’s get moving.”
Lee followed the big man out of the cargo container at a jog. “What’s ‘the square’ and why is everyone going there?”
“This ain’t the first time we’ve been attacked,” Bus said cryptically.
Lee found himself just rolling with it, the way you roll with the nonsensical facts in a strange dream, simply accepting the unacceptable because there are no other options. Lee felt like he was about to understand, anyway. He was about to get a crash course in how Camp Ryder dealt with attacks.
In a way, Lee felt strangely at ease being the follower. Over the course of the four days, it hadn’t just been about his own survival but the survival of everyone in his little group. Angela, Abby, Sam, and until recently, Jack and Tango, had all depended on him to survive. Now it appeared that Bus was the head honcho, the man with a plan, and the absence of responsibility was like dropping an eighty-pound rucksack off his shoulders. And Lee had to admit, while he didn’t know Bus well enough to say he trusted him completely, the man had a rock-steady attitude about him. There was something hard and unbreakable inside of him, and Lee could respect that.
Outside of the shipping container, he could see the stretch of gravel and dirt that made up the center of Camp Ryder, like some Main Street in an old western movie but much narrower. To either side of the gravel stretch, the survivors had used anything and everything they could find to construct small shelters for themselves and their families. It reminded Lee of the shantytowns he’d seen in third-world countries.
Who am I kidding? Lee thought numbly. This is a shantytown. And America is a third-world country now.
Lee noticed that the shantytown was beginning to churn with bodies, like an anthill after you scuff the top layer off. People in raggedy clothes were emerging out of cars and shacks and tents. Everyone carried flashlights or lanterns in one hand and a weapon in the other. A few had firearms, but mostly it was axes, shovels, crowbars, and baseball bats. It felt like a lynch mob. The townspeople heading out to find Frankenstein’s monster.
They ran past Lee and Bus, toward the center of Camp Ryder where a large but shallow pit had been dug and lined with bricks and stones. A fire pit, perhaps? It appeared to be full of ash. Lee guessed correctly that this was “the square.”
Suddenly remembering something, Lee stopped and began craning his neck around, trying to see through the jostling crowd and the darkness. To Bus, he spoke with a measure of urgency: “Where’re Angela and the kids?”
Bus motioned for him to keep walking. “Josh is telling everyone to gather in the square. They’ll be there.”
As they walked, Bus snatched an ax handle from where it was leaning up against a tent. It was thinner toward the base of the handle and thicker at the top where the metal ax-head was missing, which made it perfectly weighted for a striking weapon.
“Harris!” Bus yelled.
A man in the growing crowd of people looked up.
“Captain Harden is borrowing your ax handle.”
The man nodded and gave a thumbs-up.
The ax handle was pushed into Lee’s arms. He noticed that someone had written on the handle in Magic Marker: BRAIN BUSTER.
Lee cinched the drawstring of his shorts up tight and stuck the little Ruger LCP in his waistband. Bus stepped in front of the crowd and looked like he was hurriedly counting heads. Lee estimated about fifty, which was close to the number Bus had given him last night. As he looked out over the crowd, he could see a tangled mess of blond hair on the other side of the crowd. In the glimmering lamplight, he could see Angela’s face, etched in worry. As the crowd shifted, he glimpsed the two children, standing to either side of her.
A fear he hadn’t realized he’d been harboring released its vise-grip on his stomach. He thought about calling to them but decided against it. They were here with the group. They were relatively safe. For now.
Josh ran up beside him and stopped to catch his breath for a brief second. “That’s everyone.”
“Hopefully,” Bus murmured.
“So . . .” Lee looked around at the gathered mass of people. He noticed that everyone had their backs to the fire pit and had placed their flashlights at their feet, creating a bright, noisy gathering. Lee was about to ask what the plan was but suddenly managed to figure it out on his own. He turned so his back was also to the fire pit and got a solid grip on the ax-handle.
He looked at Bus and shook his head. “I can’t say I like this idea.”
Bus only shrugged and then shouted to the crowd. “Alright, folks, call ’em when you see ’em!”
Lee saw stony faces, all etched in harsh light and deep shadows. Glimmering and fearful eyes stared out into the darkness.
Weathered hands twisted tighter and tighter grips on an assortment of opportunistic weapons. Those with firearms were at the front, pointing their hunting shotguns and deer rifles out at the suspicious stillness.
Circling the wagons.
The quiet of the night felt forced. Like a breath taken and held for fear of someone hearing. Even the night birds and chirping crickets were conspicuously absent.
Lee shifted his weight and tried to focus on anything that lay beyond the ring of light created by the dozens of flashlights.
The silence stretched uncomfortably.
Someone whispered, “Why aren’t they attacking?”
And another: “This is weird.”
And still another: “Are you sure there are more?”
Someone’s dog began barking.
Then a shout: “I see movement!”
The group collectively tensed.
“Over by the trash bins!”
Heads turned, everyone simultaneously spinning in the same direction. Lee followed suit because he didn’t know where the “trash bins” were. He saw a collection of old steel shipping containers, identical to the one that held Doc’s medical station. The tops of the containers had been removed so that they looked like big, open sardine cans. Several of them were filled with the monumental amount of trash that came from refugees all jam-packed in and living together.
In the murky shadows of the trash bins, Lee strained to see the movement.
A couple of the stronger flashlights probed the darkness, but didn’t reveal anything. The darkness was becoming disorienting. He realized he still wasn’t thinking clearly, wasn’t operating like normal. The injury and the lack of food and water had taken more of a toll on his body than he’d thought, and he was only just beginning to recover. He kept repeating in his mind, It’s time to do work. It’s time to do work. Because that was what he used to tell his squad when they had to focus on completing a mission.
It’s time to do work.
“There!” someone shouted.
A flash of movement between two trash bins.
“I see it!” A man with a deer rifle stepped forward a bit, but then hesitated. “Why isn’t it coming at us?”
A chunk of trash suddenly shifted and that strange, unearthly screeching sound echoed out at the band of survivors. Lee couldn’t see any details of the figure, but it ran straight at them. Just as it was within twenty-five yards of them it suddenly stopped and veered off. For a moment, it trotted along the edge of their lights, like a wolf probing a herd for weaknesses.
The entire crowd seemed frozen and perplexed, like everyone was trying to figure out what the hell this one was doing.
“Shoot it!” Bus shouted at the man with the deer rifle.
The rifle barked.
Lee watched the dirt at the infected’s feet explode. Sympathetic gunfire followed the rifle shot as the tension became too much for some trigger fingers to handle. The night was abruptly engulfed in a volley of shotgun blasts and rifle fire. A scattershot of rounds caught its legs, then ripped into its shoulder, pummeled its chest, and finally split its head open.
It wasn’t until that moment when Lee watched the miserable thing collapse to the ground that a small, familiar voice cut into his brain, dissipating the fog of disorientation and reminding him of who he was, and how he had been trained.
Watch your lane.
When learning to operate in a squad, each member would have a designated “lane of fire” to watch for enemies. If you were constantly checking to make sure that your buddy wasn’t missing things in his lane, then you were probably missing things in your own lane. In other words: Stop worrying about everyone else and do what you know you’re supposed to be doing.
Squad Tactics 101.
Watch your lane.
Lee spun around just in time to see two clawlike hands latch onto a young teenage girl and yank her backward. Lee watched the girl’s dark hair fly up like it was suddenly in zero gravity as she was pulled to the ground. Her eyes locked onto Lee, and he saw a scared indignation, as though she were thinking, This isn’t supposed to happen to me.
The infected was an older female. It hunched over the younger girl and lunged for the neck. The girl let out a small cry and her hands came up, trying to block the infected’s mouth from reaching her jugular. The old woman bit down hard on the girl’s wrist and Lee heard tendons snap.
He managed to yell, “Behind us!” and then swung for the fences. The ax-handle connected just behind the ear and left a deep hollow in the old woman’s skull.
It was only then that Lee realized there was a second infected. It lunged out of the darkness and seized hold of the teenage girl and began to backpedal, trying to drag her away from the crowd, looking at the other survivors and hissing aggressively. It pulled her by the shirt collar with one hand and hammered the girl’s face with the other, knocking her unconscious after two or three blows.
Lee jumped forward and wound up for the swing. A gun went off just to the right side of his head. The infected’s throat exploded and it collapsed into a writhing ball. Lee instinctively recoiled from the noise of the gunshot so close to him. As Lee clenched his jaw against the ringing in his ears, the crowd swarmed around him, yanking the girl away from the infected and then bludgeoning it to death.
He looked to his right, where the gunshot had just come from, and saw a man drop a small revolver to the ground. His face was ashen. He rushed past Lee and slid to his knees next to the girl and began to wail.
The gathering erupted in confusion.
Everyone was yelling and pressing forward to hover over the girl. A younger man in the crowd turned and looked at Lee with accusatory eyes, as though Lee had done something wrong, as though it was his fault that the girl had been attacked. In a flash of anger, Lee thought about using the ax-handle on him too. But in the back of his mind he thought, Isn’t it your fault? Shouldn’t you have been paying attention? You’re the professional here . . .
Over it all he heard Bus yelling, “Steve! Steve!” and the man who had fired the revolver wailing: “Oh Jesus! Oh fuck! Come on, baby! Wake up! I’m so sorry, baby!”
The girl’s father?
Bus tried to push past with the rest of them, but Lee was thinking a little bit more clearly now, thinking about how those infected had hid from them and flanked them. There could be more. And if they didn’t find where the intruders had come through, there would be more. He reached out and caught Bus with a firm hand to his chest. “Are there any others?”
Seeming to ignore him, the big bearded man craned his neck to see the girl on the ground, then abruptly realized that Lee was speaking to him. “What?”
Lee pulled the man closer, speaking low so as not to be overheard and start a panic. “Are there any other infected?”
“Uh . . .” He tapped his Colt 1911 against his thigh and wiped his sweaty brow. “Shit. God. I don’t know.”
The group was already scattering to the wind. Doc and Jenny were pushing people out of the way and Doc’s skinny voice was needling at the crowd: “Everyone get the fuck outta the way! Someone help me lift her!”
More people than necessary to carry a 120-pound girl stepped in. Everyone was trying to get a hand in to help and becoming more of a hindrance. The girl’s father cradled her head in his arms as they moved her quickly toward the medical trailer.
Bus was staring at the girl again, so Lee shook him gently to get his attention. “Grab a couple guys. We need to close whatever hole those fuckers came through and then do a perimeter sweep.”