While the Pendragon Corporation, depleted of supplies and torn by internal strife, struggles to cope with this renewed onslaught, Lt. Charlie Collins is in trouble again.
Hauled before a disciplinary committee for his latest breach of military discipline, Charlie's punishment is not quite what he expected.
Little does he know that it is a virtual death sentence, placing him directly in the path of a deadly force, rising just a hundred miles to the east, a force led by the most terrifying adversary he's ever faced.
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The Never Dead
Clearing a town, especially a pissant, little burg like this one, was a simple matter. You got out your I-Pod, set it to “DISCO,” and got the dead dancing. Then, when the creatures came shambling out of their nooks and crannies and hidey-holes, you spun the dial again. “MOSH PIT” would get them ripping and tearing at each other until all that remained was a steaming pile of rotting flesh and putrid, black blood. “MIGRAINE” was even simpler. That particular frequency built up a vibration in a Z’s brain, a small seismic tremor that grew in intensity until the head exploded in a splat of black gunk. Charlie wasn’t going to use either of those methods today. Today, he was killing Zs the old-fashioned way.
They’d reached the small town of North Shore in late afternoon. Town was perhaps an exaggeration. The former resort consisted of a square mile of scrawny scrub grass, dissected by five dusty roads. A few desiccated palm trees rustled along the thoroughfares, backdropped by the bottle green waters of the Salton Sea and the hazy ridge of mountains beyond.
“Wackjob! JC! Normal!” Charlie shouted, dispatching his men to positions between the Humvees. The three vehicles were pulled into a loose circle in the town’s main intersection, the fading sun glinting off their windshields. There was a dilapidated two-storey apartment block in front of them, one of only four standing buildings in town. If there were Zs, this is where they’d be.
“K-Mart!” Charlie yelled, catching Corporal Martin Kingston’s attention and dispatching him to the right flank. The sun was just about touching the mountains on the far side of the lake. Twilight would come soon and darkness quickly. It was time to get this little jamboree started.
He did a final scan of his position – Wackjob and JC to the fore, K-Mart and Andy Siebert flanking, Normal and Ryan “Juice” Newton covering the rear. He’d put Greg Mons on top of one of the Humvees with a sniper rifle, even though he didn’t think they’d find quick Zs here. Quicks would have heard them coming, would have sniffed them out the moment they disembarked from the vehicles. Still it was better to be safe than sorry.
A faint breeze came off the water, rustling through the scrawny palms and bringing with it the sickly stench of rotting algae. Charlie unsheathed his trench knife, jogged to a position between JC and Wackjob.
“Heads up, Rangers!” he said and pressed play on the I-Pod.
A barely perceptible hum issued from the headphones. Charlie felt a rash of gooseflesh erupt under the armguards he was wearing, felt that familiar ache in his back teeth. Lots of field commanders he knew, wore earplugs to cut out the discordant jangle. Charlie wasn’t one of them. He’d rather tolerate the jarring hum than deprive himself of his hearing. Besides, in the heat of battle, you usually cut out everything but the need to stay alive.
Somewhere a door slammed, a shutter rattled in the breeze. At the corner of his view Charlie caught JC’s determined face. Beads of sweat, rendered blood red by the fading sun, glistened on the sergeant’s forehead. JC twirled the baseball bat he was holding, turning it into a blur of movement. He wanted this, they all did. After three months confined to base, Charlie’s men were in a killing mood.
Charlie spun in Wackjob’s direction. A single Z, pitifully emaciated, had staggered from the building. It slunk forward in that club-footed shuffle they all use, head cocked quizzically to one side. The thing drew back its rotted lips in a snarl that was about as menacing as the cowardly lion in the Wizard of Oz.
Wackjob stepped forward to meet it, skipping out of reach as the zombie made a clumsy lurch for him. “What da matter, diddums?” he baby talked. “You is hungry?”
The Z lunged, flailing its arms like an off-kilter propeller. Wackjob easily avoided it.
“Wackjob!” Charlie shouted. “Quit fucking around! Finish it off!”
“Ah boss,” Wackjob said. “I’m just having a bit of…” – he ducked under the zombie’s latest lunge – “… fun.”
“Finish it off I say.”
A second Z emerged from the building, now a third. To his right K-Mart shouted out a warning that was followed immediately by the sound of breaking glass from the marina. Now a door burst open in the apartment block and three more of the creatures spilled out. Charlie turned his attention back towards the marina, where a black sludge seemed to be oozing from the clubhouse, out onto the patio.
“Looks like someone just called last round down at the boat club,” K-Mart said.
A table, still sporting a tattered beach umbrella, was swatted aside with a screech of metal on stone. The lead Z stopped and sampled the air, then stumbled forth in the direction of the soldiers. It became entangled with the legs of the table, went down and was crushed underfoot by its brethren.
The last sliver of sun slunk behind the mountains, turning the sky from azure to indigo. For a second, it was as though a light switch had been thrown. Then the headlights of the Humvees came on, and the scene suddenly took on the appearance of a floodlit sports arena.
The first of the Zs had by now made it to the outer reaches of the circle. They were quickly dispatched. The Rangers knew better than to let them build up mass. More were already spilling from the second and third apartment buildings.
Charlie called Mons into the fray and jogged to the right flank where K-Mart was swinging a nail-studded club to deadly effect. One of the things, a large male with maggots boiling in its chest, broke from the melee. Charlie let it come, then thrust up a forearm and allowed the Z to chomp down on his guard. A roundhouse swing drove the trench knife through the Z’s rotten skull. Charlie quickly withdrew the knife and pushed the Z from him, clattering it into the three coming behind. Before the things had time to regain their footing, he dispatched two of them with thrusts to their heads. These were old Zs and the trench knife slid in with little resistance. The third zombie had just hauled itself onto its knees when Charlie delivered the sole of his combat boot to its chest and then stomped its dead brain into putty.
But still they came, a filthy horde of rotting corpses, more than Charlie had expected. He took down another of the creatures, arcing the knife upwards, entering under the chin, driving into the brain. Beside him, K-Mart, six-foot-four of muscle and aggression, swung the club, grunting as it found its mark.
The moon was out now, casting its benevolent gaze on the brutal scene below. The night air reverberated with grunts and curses, was made redolent with the stench of rotting meat, of shit, of the chemical stench from the lake.
It was time, Charlie decided, as the roads left and right filled with even more of the creatures. Time to call in the cavalry. He stepped back out of the fray, pulled the I-Pod from his pocket and spun the dial, selecting track four.
“Mosh Pit!” he called out to his men and then hit the play button. “Fall back!”
The effect on the zombies was instant. They stopped in place, rooted to the spot, heads titled in that robotic bird-like posture they so often adopted. Then the Z closest to Charlie, a shriveled, one-armed old hag, emitted a low growl. A ribbon of dishwater-colored saliva slewed from her jowls and she lurched forward and made a grab for another of the creatures, a skeletal male wearing a tattered dressing gown. The male staggered away from her lunge, arced out a clawed hand and lacerated her throat. A torrent of black blood cascaded from the wound and the male moved in to finish the job, grabbing the woman by her scraggly hair, burying his face in hers and crunching down on her jaw. It sounded like a piece of china being crushed underfoot.
Suddenly the entire throng was in motion, ripping, biting and tearing. Charlie had seen this before, but still the brutality of it astounded him. Heads were split open, appendages ripped from bodies, steaming piles of guts and blackened organs pulled from gaping abdomens. Before long the pavement was thick with dead and dying Zs, the ground drenched in blood the color of an oil slick. It was time to apply the coup de grace. Charlie spun the dial to “MIGRANE” and pressed play. Thirty seconds later the head on every surviving zombie imploded in a wet splat.
“Jesus, Charlie, tell me you’re not that stupid.”
“Is this the official dressing down or the concerned brother speech?” Charlie allowed his gaze to wander the room, deliberately avoiding Jojo’s glare. The last time he’d been summoned to General Harrow’s office he’d been bumped back down from Captain to Lieutenant and confined to base for three months. This time he was probably going to end up a private and thrown out of the Rangers altogether. The last thing he needed was another of Jojo’s lectures.
“Why would you do something like that?” Jojo said.
Charlie ignored him, shot a glance at Harrow’s secretary, Sergeant Leanne Poole, and gave her a wink. Leanne blushed.
“Why?” Jojo persisted.
Charlie met his brother’s eye. Jojo’s face was drawn and pale, his lip quivering. When Jojo was this mad Charlie had found, the best course of action was to appease him. He wasn’t in the mood for appeasement today.
“You wouldn’t understand.”
“Wouldn’t understand?” Jojo’s face flushed red in an instant. “Wouldn’t understand? Why is that exactly?”
“It’s different out in the field.”
“Oh, and I’ve never been out in the field, is that what you’re saying?”
“Not in a while.”
The comment was designed to rile Jojo and it found its mark. He exploded from his chair and closed the gap between them in two quick strides. For a moment Charlie was sure that his brother was going to throw a punch at him, but Jojo slid in next to him and spoke in an urgent, conspiratorial tone.
“You know Harrow’s gunning for you. You know he’s just waiting for an opportunity, the hint of a chance, to get you out. Why would you deliberately disobey his orders? Why would you –?”
“My men needed some action.”
Jojo looked at him as though stung. His mouth opened and closed as though trying to form a word outside his everyday vocabulary.
“That’s it?” he said eventually. “Your men needed some action?”
“After being cooped up here the last three months, they needed to blow off some steam. What’s the biggie? No one got hurt and the Zs got dead. Everyone walks away a winner.”
“The biggie,” Jojo said, emphasizing the word, “is that standing orders require the use of auditory weapons to eliminate Zs. You put your men at risk Charlie. Somebody could have been bitten.”
“Somebody could have been. As section leader it’s your responsibility –”
“Ah, the R word. I was wondering when you’d roll that out.”
The phone jangled on Leanne Poole’s desk. She picked it up, listened briefly, then said, “Yes sir,” and replaced the receiver.
She turned towards Charlie and Jojo. “Major Collins, Lieutenant Collins. The general will see you now.”
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