Under the weak leadership of General Bob Harrow, the Pendragon Corporation is crumbling. Torn by internal strife, its resources dwindling, its men openly mutinous, the once mighty Corporation is no longer the bastion against the zombie hordes that it once was.
And its demise could not have come at a worse time.
A massive army of the undead is surging north out of El Centro, the brutal half-Z, John Messenger, at its head. His mission? To destroy every human settlement in his path.
The equation is simple.
If Messenger breaks through every human in California is at risk.
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We, The Dead
Jojo Collins looked across the prison yard to the eight camouflage-clad figures facing him. The soldiers were just twenty feet away, at ease, rifles at order arms. The detachment commander stood slightly to the left, pistol drawn, ready to deliver the coup de grace should Jojo somehow survive the volley of bullets that was going to be directed at him. Jojo wasn’t at all surprised to see that Litherland had chosen Colin Buckland to command the firing squad. Colin had come through Ranger training with Jojo, and Jojo considered him a friend. It would no doubt give Litherland some perverse pleasure to know that it was Buckland who would give the command to end Jojo’s life.
“Carry on, Captain Buckland,” Litherland said. He was standing to the right, arms folded, a smirk playing on his lips. The blindfold that Jojo had refused, dangled between his fingers. Behind Litherland, Jojo could see the redbrick perimeter wall of the prison, the guards leaning on the rail in front of their lookout post, watching the drama unfold. Beyond the wall the sky was a familiar shade of California morning blue, but rendered hazy with smoke. To the right, from the area of the shantytown, pillars of oily black residue towered into the atmosphere like hellish twisters. A slight breeze carried on it the sickening barbeque stench of seared flesh. There was sporadic rifle fire in the distance, and the sound of heavy diesel engines being geared down. The battle was all but over. It didn’t take a genius to figure out who had won.
“Captain Buckland,” Litherland said, his voice now carrying an edge of irritation. “I said carry on. Let’s get this shit bird shot and body bagged so that I can get on with my day.”
Jojo looked across at Buckland, who appeared bewildered. Jojo gave him a reassuring nod. Buckland returned a glazed look.
“Is there a problem, Captain Buckland? Because if there is, I –”
“No sir, there’s no problem,” Buckland cut in.
“Then get it done, goddamn it!”
Buckland turned slowly towards the firing squad, brought them to attention in a voice that wavered only slightly. A second command, delivered more firmly, brought their rifles into a firing position. From beyond the wall came a sudden flurry of gunfire, an explosion, isolated screams. One of the guards strolled casually towards the open side of the lookout post and shielded his eyes as he scanned south.
Jojo diverted his attention back to the eight riflemen facing him, all of them wearing the tan beret of the 1st Ranger Regiment. In keeping with military protocol, he was to be put to death by members of his own unit.
In the face of his imminent death he felt remarkably calm. He’d heard it said that in the moments before you die your life flashes before your eyes. His experience wasn’t that exactly. Instead his brain relayed fleeting images of the people closest to him – his parents, Ferret, Sam, Charlie, Uncle Joe. Hard as he tried to hold onto them, them flittered away, like autumn leaves before a stiff breeze. He felt numb. It was as though the bullets had already been fired and he was already dead.
Why were they waiting?
They were waiting on the command, he realized, one that Buckland seemed disinclined to give. Even now he was looking across at Litherland, his mouth working itself into formless shapes, his complexion pallid.
Seconds ticked torturously by. From outside came another rattle of gunfire, this one more protracted. Now it was joined by the clack-clack-clack of a bulldozer. Atop the wall, the guards were scurrying around to get a better look. Whatever was going on out there was evidently more interesting than watching a man being put to death.
“Well?” Litherland demanded of Buckland. “What’s the hold up?”
Buckland looked nervously from Jojo to the firing squad, to Litherland.
“Just give the goddamn order, Captain.”
“Colonel…I…” Buckland said again.
“What? You what, Buckland? You’ve forgotten how to say “fire”? You need to use the bathroom? What?”
“I can’t do it sir,” Buckland blurted, simultaneously bringing himself to attention.
“The fuck you can’t,” Litherland snapped. “Give the order, soldier, before you find yourself next to Collins in the shooting gallery.”
Buckland remained at attention, eyes front in a thousand yard stare. “I request that I be relieved of this duty sir.”
“Request denied. Now nut up and get the job done.”
“I can’t sir. I won’t.”
“You won’t Buckland?” Litherland allowed the blindfold to slip from his fingers, placed his hands on his hips, jutted his jaw. “You won’t? Say that again so everyone here can bear witness to your act of treason.”
“I said I won’t do it,” Buckland said, his tone resolute.
Litherland stared back at him as though astounded by this act of insubordination.
“Goddamn it!” he exploded. “I knew I should have used proper soldiers on this rather than you Ranger pussies! Okay Buckland, you’re relieved of duty. Step aside. I’m running this show now. I’ll deal with you later.” He strode across the square, hand working at the holster of his revolver.
Buckland flashed a glance at Jojo, desperation in his eyes. His mouth worked again, forming those soundless words.
Jojo followed the sound of this new voice. A soldier was jogging across the prison yard.
Litherland turned towards the newcomer, a Ranger corporal who Jojo thought looked vaguely familiar. From beyond the walls came a sustained blast of heavy gunfire, a fifty Jojo reckoned. Both of the guards were staring into the distance now. One of them was pointing.
The corporal came to a halt in front of Litherland and delivered a smart salute, which Litherland failed to return. “What?” he demanded. “Can’t you see I’m busy here?”
“Begging your pardon, Colonel,” the corporal said. “I’ve got a message from General Harrow, sir.” He thrust forward a folded square of paper. Litherland made no move to take it.
“Can’t it wait?”
“I’m afraid not, sir.”
Litherland snatched the paper away, ripped through the seal and began reading. Whatever was in the note, it didn’t seem to be sitting too well with him.
“This is from General Harrow?” he said eventually.
“Yes sir,” the soldier replied.
Litherland read the note again, his face growing a deeper shade of red with each passing second.
“Farrrkkk!” he screamed suddenly, throwing his head back. “Farrrkkk this shit!”
He ripped the note in two, crumpled it into a ball, threw it on the ground, stomped on it for good measure. “Fucking asshole!” he screamed, directing his curse to the heavens.
Then, as suddenly as it had started, his outburst was over. He shrugged, brushed at the front of his shirt, straightened his collar. A smirk formed on his face, then morphed into a fully-fledged smile. Okay,” he said, looking directly at Jojo. “If that’s how the general wants to play it.”
“Can you quit singing that?”
“Sorry boss. Just figured, seen as we’re on Frank Sinatra Drive and all.”
“That may be. But I’m not sure I want to hear about the end being near and facing the final curtain right now. Sounds too much like tempting fate.”
“Never thought of it like that.”
Charlie stood in the center of the road. To his left lay open desert, to his right an overgrown embankment topped by a collapsed and tottering boundary wall. Just beyond the walls, an endless row of tall, evenly spaced palms followed the expanse of the road into the distance. There were houses set further back, Charlie knew, dilapidated mansions that had housed settlers the last time he’d been in this burg. Might there still be supplies in those houses? Maybe, but it wasn’t worth the risk to check out. Their destination lay half a mile down the road, on the corner with Bob Hope, a small warehouse that had once served as a distribution depot for the community. If there were supplies to be found, that’s where they’d be.
The morning was already hot, the mercury heading north even as the shadows shortened. The dusty air rasped at Charlie’s throat. He resisted the temptation to take a pull from his quarter-full canteen. Best to save what he had for when he really needed it. He’d left his spare water bottle with Skye. He’d also left her a note in case she woke up in the cab of the Toyota while they were gone. He and Wackjob had pushed the vehicle off the road and into a shallow arroyo. They’d camouflaged it with brush as best they could, hoping that the bushes would also provide a modicum of shade. But he didn’t like the idea of her alone out there. Anything might happen and even if nothing did, the cab of the truck was going to be an oven before long.
“Awful quiet,” Wackjob said, scanning his eye along the embankment.
Charlie had been thinking the same thing. The last time he’d been here, for the evacuation, the place had been overrun. They’d barely gotten out of town with their asses in tact. Now, it was a ghost town. They’d yet to see a single Z that was still walking. Charlie almost wished he had some juice left in the I-Pod so that he could send out the “PIED PIPER” and see if that would draw some of them from cover. Right now the MP3 device was nothing more than a useless lump of metal in his breast pocket.
“You think maybe the Zs have moved on? Gone looking for a new food source?” Wackjob asked.
“You ever seen a Z that was smart enough to do that?”
“Ain’t ever seen a Z that was smart enough to play dead,” Wackjob said.
“Oh they’re smart enough to do that, alright. Far as I know the Zs go into a kind of hibernation when there’s no ready food source. That’s likely what happened here. They’re probably all stacked up like cordwood in these houses just yonder. All it’s going to take is a whiff of our sweat to get them walking again. So I suggest we rock ‘n roll and be out of here before that happens.”
“Amen to that,” Wackjob said.
They walked for a while in silence, their boot heels tapping out a staccato on the blacktop. Presently, Charlie caught a glimpse of the warehouse. The chain link fence that had stood in front of the building had collapsed and a section of the roof looked like it had caved in. But the place was still standing which was a blessing. Why then did Charlie feel like every muscle in his body had just been racketed tighter? Why were his nerve ends jangling?
“You smell that?” Wackjob said from behind him.
Charlie didn’t at first, but then a faint stirring of the breeze brought the scent his way, the stench of kerosene applied to a garbage fire.