Things would have been a lot worse if not for the helicopters.
To the north, the steady phoom, phoom, phoom, of artillery thundered through the morning air, while to the south, shells exploded in flashes of fire and black smoke. Hollow Rock—my town, my home—was in flames. I was too far away to hear the screams and shouted orders and desperate calls of people yelling for loved ones. Too far away to hear the cries of the dying, of parents trying to find their children, of those same children sobbing in fearful, choked voices.
I wish I could say it was for them I wept, but it was not. It was for Allison, my wife, the mother of my unborn child, the only woman I had ever loved. She was down there somewhere, probably running for her life the same as everyone else.
If she’s not already dead.
I tried to surge up from the ground, but Hicks grabbed me across the shoulders.
“Don’t,” he said. “You’ll just get yourself killed.”
Ignoring him, I struggled to get my feet underneath me. Hicks rose up and snaked an arm through one of mine in a wrestler’s wrist tie-up. Unable to use the arm he controlled, I tried to sit through and twist out with my unencumbered arm. He stopped me by putting his full weight across my back. Hicks weighed much more than his lanky appearance suggested; he probably had me by thirty pounds.
“Stop, Eric,” he said into my ear. “You can’t do anything for her right now.”
Still, I struggled. If I’d had my wits about me, I could have gotten out from underneath him. Even pinned as I was there were still techniques I could have used to wrestle my way free. But I was not thinking straight. So instead I bucked and thrashed and called Hicks names I knew I would later regret. All the while, he kept talking to me, telling me help was on the way, it was going to be all right, Allison would get to safety. Finally, he grabbed me by the hair, jerked my head up so I was looking him in the eye, and said, “Listen!”
I stopped fighting. Hicks pointed to my old friend, Staff Sergeant Ethan Thompson. Above the din of explosions and the increasing volume of rotors spinning overhead, I heard Ethan speaking into his radio.
“Copy,” he said, “Apache engaging, maintain position and stand by for orders.” He turned his head toward his squad.
“Did you hear that? For now, we hold position. Be ready to move.”
“Let the chopper do its job,” Hicks said.
I went limp and nodded. “Okay, okay. Get off me.”
His weight left my back and I could breathe easier.
I lay with my face close to the dirt, pine needles shifting beneath me, pulse thumping in my ears. The Apache flew directly overhead, gaining altitude and banking northward until it went out of sight.
A few moments later, Thompson said something I did not quite hear as the hiss-BANG of a Hellfire missile sounded from less than half a mile away. Seconds later, the chatter of a 30mm cannon reached my ears, firing in bursts. After the eighth or ninth burst, the cannon stopped and the Apache flew back in our direction. The artillery was silent.
“Roger that,” Thompson said into his radio. “Will approach from the south and spread out to envelope the target area. Second Platoon will approach from the east and advise when in position. Over.” He turned his head and said to his squad, “Check your weapons and follow me.”
Out of habit, I looked to my carbine. Tugged back on the charging handle. Round in the chamber, magazine seated firmly, safety off, trigger finger pointing straight down the lower receiver. I pulled my Kel-Tec from its holster and checked it as well. Ready to go.
Thompson led the way as Delta Squad emerged from the treeline. The other three squads from First Platoon emerged at other points, one north of us, two others to the south. We had split up when fleeing our transport truck to make ourselves a harder target in case the enemy artillery had zeroed our position. Evidently, they had not. I would ordinarily have considered this a good thing, except all the rounds they fired had hit Hollow Rock. A glance over my shoulder showed me a breach in the north gate wide enough to drive a tank through. Black smoke rose from the buildings behind. I hoped none of them was the clinic. Or my house.
Shoving thoughts of Allison aside for the moment, I followed Thompson as we met up with the rest of First Platoon.
There was not much for us to do.
Burned bodies lay in death poses near three smallish artillery cannons twenty yards apart. To my left, less than twenty feet away, a charred corpse lay on its back, the skin and clothing burned so badly as to be unrecognizable. Its legs were crossed as though it were lounging on a bed, one hand reaching skyward, the arm bent at the elbow. I wondered if it would fall off if I went over and kicked it.
The cannon in the middle lay on its side, burned and blackened and misshapen from the impact of the Hellfire. Made sense. As close together as the cannons were, hitting the middle gun would do the most damage to the men operating them. An artillery piece is just a big ugly paperweight with no one to shoot it.
The 30mm cannon on the Apache Longbow had taken care of the enemy troops, save for a handful who ran away. The recon team from First Platoon, along with a few scouts from the Ninth Tennessee Volunteer Militia, had gone after them. Hicks and Holland went along.
After reporting to Echo Company’s commanding officer, Captain Harlow, we searched the bodies for identification. As expected, we found none. Chinese AK-47s, side arms I did not recognize, and Russian hand grenades. No hand weapons. Plain black uniforms with no body armor, black tactical vests with no manufacturers tag, flashlights, spare ammo, and an array of tools common to Outbreak survivors. Bolt cutters, crowbars, flat pry-bars, machetes, entrenching tools, that sort of thing. No food, though. Must have cached it nearby.
The bodies recognizable as human all shared the same ethnicity: Asian. They were short, wiry, and save for the fact they were dead, in supreme physical condition.
“What do you think?” Sergeant Isaac Cole said standing next to me. “KPA?”
“Could be,” I replied. “Although technically we should call them ROC.”
Cole snorted. He sounded like an angry bull and stood almost as big as one. “Call ‘em whatever you want, they North Korean. Buncha brainwashed-ass motherfuckers.”
“Goddamn suicide troops,” Private Fuller said behind me. “Gotta be. No other explanation. They couldn’t have expected to get out of here alive.”
I said, “Tell that to the ones who ran away.”
For a while, nothing happened. My eyes strayed anxiously toward home while I stood with the rest of Delta Squad waiting for Ethan Thompson to tell us what to do. On a salvage run, it would have been the other way around. But this was official military high-up muckety-muck business, so I deferred to the federal types. Ethan looked relieved when his earpiece finally buzzed to life. He pressed two fingers to his right ear and listened. A moment passed before he clicked transmit and muttered, “Roger that.”
Turning our way, he said “We’re moving out. Walkers closing in from the north and east. We’re moving east to intercept. Second will maneuver north. Let’s move.”
“What about the rest of First?” Cole asked. He was the second most senior man in Delta Squad, so the question begged an answer.
“They’ll catch up. Captain Harlow still has Charlie and Alpha patrolling the perimeter. Not sure where Bravo is.”
“Right here,” Staff Sergeant Kelly called out behind us. His squad followed behind him. Once again, Thompson looked relieved. Kelly had more experience than almost everyone else in First Platoon, and was next in line to be platoon sergeant. Like him, his squad mates were all seasoned veterans. Good men to have around in a fight.
“You with us?” Thompson asked.
“Yup,” Kelly replied. “Horde’s moving in fast. We need to get going.”
“You heard him,” Thompson called. “Double-time.”
It was nearly a mile to where the Chinook’s spotters directed us to intercept the incoming horde. At the top of the rise, I could see there was not just one, but three hordes coming in. One directly in front of us to the east, one descending from the north, and another closing in southward. Both the eastern and southern walls were still standing, but the north gate was a wreck. I watched the Chinook and the Apache turn in that direction to render air support.
“Okay, men,” Kelly said. “Let them pack in against the wall, then we surround in standard crescent formation from behind. Stay low and quiet. The last thing we want is to lure them toward us before we’re ready.”
The soldiers nodded, most holding their arms above their heads to catch their breath. They were in good physical condition, but running a mile in full combat gear is a strain. Kelly gave them ninety seconds to rest, and to their credit, all were fresh and ready to go when he gave the order to move out.
As they departed, I took a moment to dial my VCOG scope up to its highest magnification and look over the horde. Watching them, I got the sense something was not right. I had seen hundreds, maybe even over a thousand hordes of varying sizes over the years, and something about the way this one moved puzzled me. So I perched my rifle on my Y-stand to steady the image and slowly scanned the mass of walking dead.
And nearly had a heart attack.
“Shit, shit, shit.”
In a low scramble, I scurried up to Ethan, stage whispering the whole way for him to stop. When he finally heard me, he radioed up to Kelly to halt the column and waited for me.
“What is it?” he asked irritably.
I handed him my rifle. “Look carefully,” I said. “Pay close attention to their midsections.”
He did as I asked. His brow furrowed as he looked through the scope, then a moment later he paled and pulled the rifle away.
“Holy shit.” He keyed his radio, voice shaky. “Kelly, we got a problem. Those walkers are rigged with explosives.”
A moment of silence. Thompson’s earpiece was loud enough I could hear Kelly’s reply. “You’re shitting me.”
“Afraid not. You want to call it in?”
“Yeah, I got it.”
While we waited, I said, “Those bombs must be on remote detonators. No way a timer would work, the infected’s movements are too unpredictable.”
“Yeah, I figured that.”
“So what are we going to do about it?”
Thompson looked at me sternly. “Wait for orders.”
I hissed in frustration and sat down, checked my rifle for the fifth or sixth time, made sure my grenades were securely in their pouches (the deadly little things had always made me nervous), and verified all my P-mags were in the proper position for combat reloads. Same for my pistol. All ready to go.
Just as I was about to say to hell with it and volunteer to lead the horde away, Kelly’s voice sounded in Thompson’s earpiece. I stood up and leaned in to listen.
“Good news and bad news. Bad news, all three hordes are rigged. Looks like every ninth or tenth walker has dynamite or something strapped to it. Probably on remote detonators. If they reach those walls, they’re coming down.”
“Perfect,” Thompson replied. “What’s the good news?”
“Howitzer en route to our position. Bradleys and Abrams deploying north and south respectively.”
“Any chance the Chinook can air drop some mortars?”
“No time. Right now, we’re to flank the horde, whittle their numbers, and try to lead them away from the wall. Have all designated marksmen concentrate fire on the Rot rigged with bombs and have SAW gunners aim for the legs. And tell your grenadier not to be shy with the ordnance. We wanna disable as many of these things as possible. We can always pick off the survivors later.”
“What about the detonators? There have to be spotters watching from somewhere.”
“Recon team and the Chinook are searching for them. They’ll have to be somewhere relatively close. There’s no cell connectivity around here, so they’re probably using a portable RF transmitter to send the detonation signal. But right now, that’s not our concern. Our concern is diverting that horde and killing as many as we can.”
“Roger, wilco.” Thompson turned and explained the orders to Delta Squad. After a brief conference among fire teams, we followed Kelly’s squad in the direction of the horde.
On the way, Cole said, “Ghouls rigged with IEDs, man. What will these assholes think up next?”