Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Dark Winter: Chapter Twenty Four

The snow was falling gently on the warm red brick buildings of North Neighborhood.  The old dorms were beautiful in winter.  There was an air of a Dickensian Christmas about them.  A promise of the scents of roasting chestnuts and fresh cut pine trees that had been dragged indoors.  A promise of refuge from a cold that was not unbearably cold, yet.  A promise of easy intimacy with the first really close friends you had ever had in your life.

But not this morning.  There were no lights.  The soft, comfortable buildings with the high arched roofs that had sheltered generations of students were clearly empty.  The heart had gone out of them.

At the corner of the now heartless Yakeley Hall, two men were just behind a corner of the building.  One was in Army battle rattle the other was wearing a black and expensive skiing outfit.  Neither wanted the other to be there.  

“Shit!” Captain Lucas Kadner Michigan National Guard, snapped up his night vision goggles.  “Eye of Sauron. We can’t go in that way.”  He had been observing the Kalamazoo street bridge.  At the southern end of it, a rusty old flatbed trailer had been turned over on it’s side, blocking the road.  There was an empty Kenworth behind it and nudged up against it.  As a field expedient barricade, it was hardly an insurmountable problem.  The real worry was the huge round patch of bare asphalt right in front of it.  There was snow all around that patch but the snow on top of it melted as soon it touched that spot.  It was why Kadner had broken out the NVGs.  He had looked and there it was.  A huge, round, glowing, menacing blob of light.

“What the hell are talking about?”  Garrison Wheaton snapped.  He couldn’t believe it had come this.  His ass was really on the line.  This was disastrously bad.  Nobody was even bothering to threaten his job as acting President of MSU anymore.  Why threaten a dead man?  And it wouldn't just be President of the University.  He was convinced that they were planning to strip him of his tenure and fire him outright.

But if he went in with these troops, then he could get favorable coverage from the press.  Everything might be saved.  He had pulled strings with Jennifer Kent to make it happen and he still had some friendly journalists on his speed dial.  He could make this work.  He knew he could.  It never even occurred to him that the reason no one was talking to him was that it was the end of the world and he was just another useless mouth to feed.

“What do mean Eye of Sauron?  Why are we talking about some fantasy writer?  Have you found Charlotte, yet?”  Wheaton chittered angrily at Kadner.

Kadner was both happy and angry.  As a U of M graduate, burning down Little Brother had been a  secret dream of his for years.  Putting up with this stupid cuckhold was the down side.  Your bitch ran off on you.  She has a history of doing that.  Sluts gonna slut, so shut the hell up about it, Sad One.  “It means sir that there is huge blotch of fresh asphalt in that road. Do you have any ongoing road repairs?”

“No, of course not!  Don’t be stupid!  Not this time of year,” Wheaton was trying to yell in a whisper.  He knew they were supposed to be approaching in secret.

“I didn’t think so and that is the problem,” Kadner said with professional calmness.  “We call a patch of fresh asphalt like that, an Eye of Sauron because that’s what it looks like on thermal imaging. The flatbed is no real obstacle but I can’t move it with a Hummer.  The Eye of Sauron is an obstacle because I have to assume that there is a horking, big-ass IED underneath it.”

Gary gasped, “He wouldn’t do that!”

“Are you positive, sir?”  Kadner asked.  “I mean, really positive?  So absolutely sure, you are willing to bet my men’s lives on it...”

Gary opened his mouth, while he began to nod his head.

“And take the blame for it if my men get blown up.”

Gary’s mouth clamped shut and stopped nodding.

Kadner jerked his chin at that, grateful for a moment of silence.  And then he keyed his mike.  Dickhead Wagoner was going to have to cough up an MRAP.

“What’s that?” Jessika asked as she heard rumbling from about the tunnel.

“Road traffic, I’m betting,” Naisbett replied.  “Heavy vehicles.”

“At this time of night?” Jessika asked.

Naisbett shrugged.  A pity she was keeping her wits about her. He hadn’t wanted to explain that they were probably under attack.

There was plenty of sound up ahead in the steam tunnel.  Also plenty of steam.  The pipes were leaking.  They weren't being properly looked after, just now.  Not with the world falling apart and everything.  

They were all holding hands.  Sweat was soaking them through.  Naisbett wasn’t happy about that.  They would all be too wet when they got outside.  The temperature out there was in the twenties.

Also, this fog of steam was thick enough to make flashlights all but useless.  The NVG goggles doubly so.

He had his rifle slung.  His CZ-75 P-09 with it’s nice big nineteen round magazine was in his strong hand.  A pistol was better for this kind of work. And the concussion from a  nine mil wouldn’t leave him deaf for life if one of those things found it’s way down here.

It also left his left hand free.  Jessika was holding it as they were groping their way through the dark.  Her hand was soft.  He liked that.

“Negative on the MRAP. Standby,” Wagoner said over the radio. He was staring at Google Maps on his iPad, flicking over a map of MSU.  Pinching and unpinching picture at various points.

Wagoner had scouting reports coming in now.

He had blockaded the fuck out of the highway entrance at Trowbidge road.  That was where he had his MRAPs and that was where they were staying.  Castillo might be able to just plow his way through almost anything else using one of his semi-trucks as rams.

Wagoner knew where those were on campus.  They were his first objective.  Without them, Castillo was pretty much trapped unless he dropped everyone and tried to save his own ass.

The roads to the south were blockaded as well, but that was tying down a lot of his own heaviest gear.   Wagoner was leaving south Hagadorn Road open as Castillo’s only very thin and narrow line of retreat. It was well covered.  And it would be like shooting fish in a barrel.

Wagoner had only brought armored Hummers for this part of the operation because he hadn’t thought he’d need anything else.

The were more LAVs in Detroit and Flint but it would take a few hours to get them here and General Ciotti wanted this job done yesterday. It was hardly Wagoner’s fault if his men got shot up because some overly aggressive Delta operator ordered a head on frontal assault.

Except now Wagoner couldn’t even use the Hummers.

The Red Cedar River was proving to be a bigger obstacle than he had anticipated.   Both of the Kalamazoo Avenue bridges were blocked with field expedient barricades.  I.E. the overturned flatbeds in  conjunction with possible IEDs.  As well as the bridges at Hagadorn, Bogue Street and Farm Lane.  

That was all of the bridges that could support vehicles.

The big question now was, had Castillo really planted IEDs or not?  Wagoner’s instinct said, probably not.   But it was possible.  Castillo had broken every other rule of war at this point.  He was fighting as an insurgent, so why wouldn’t he fight like an insurgent?

Castillo had the know-how to make IEDs.  Since he was at a university, he sure as hell had the materials. If he had made them, it was an even money bet that those bombs would pack way more of punch than anything the hadjis had ever used on them.

Wagoner decided he couldn’t risk it.

He stared at the map. There were a few foot bridges across the Red Cedar River.  The ones to west had been broken already.  Some the students they had caught fleeing the campus had told them that the Marines had used an end loader to do that.

But the foot bridges to the east were just fine.  It was possible that Castillo had simply run out of time.

Wagoner switched the Google Map to Google Earth and zoomed in until he was at eye level.  

He could picture it perfectly in his mind.

The squad is close to the ground and creeping up on the bridge.  They can hear the water flowing as they approach the bridgehead.  He can just see the other side.  They would go one at a time, to limit the losses.  His turn. He gets up and rushes the bridges.  His feet pounding harder then his heart.  He zigs and zags randomly, twisting hard on his ankles the enemy snipers would have to be leading him.  They would have to guess where to aim but the bridge was so narrow, he couldn’t jink that much.  A cracking and a chunk of wood blows off where he had just been, then he hears the distant rifle report; the shooter was so far away the bullet was arriving way before the sound.  That was good.  Then two more chunks of wood. Bullets snapping past him like tiny lightning bolts. He’s almost at the end.  Hope soaring in his chest.  He’s made it HE’S MADE... Wham!  He feels like he’s been punched with a thousand-pound hammer.  He hits the ground  because his legs don’t work right at any more.  He feels another electric shock as the enemy sniper shoots him again.  And then again...

Wagoner shook his head.  That brought back the memories.  Sending troops in large numbers would be even worse.  He knew Castillo had M-240’s and probably one fifty cal.  Wagoner would be shoving men into a sausage press if he used the footbridges.  Castillo was offering him a snakepath ambush.

He considered long and hard.

“Nothing else for it,” he muttered and then called Kadner.  “Ask Wheaton where the river runs shallowest?”

“Fascinating!  Utterly fascinating!”  Oksana Cahn was watching the Stage IV zombies shamble across the campus like kitten that was in love with a ball of yarn.  A pity he was never going to have a chance to really get to know her, Shocker thought to himself.  My wife is fascinating, in her own right

Shocker was beginning to adore his new wife.  She had scrambled up to the roof like cat up a tree when she had heard about the Stage IVs.

“How do they hunt? How do they track?” She asked excitedly.  “They can’t use their eyes.  Some of them don’t even have eyes, so sight is out.  Scent is tied to directly to the brain but their brains are rotted mush.  Some possible residual nervous system activity, but it wouldn’t be that useful for anything more than being in constant pain and, frankly, it shouldn’t even be good for that.  A dead body is pretty much only good for fertilizer.  There isn’t any part of it that is still working.”

I need to get ahold of one.”

“Uh, not tonight.,”  Shocker said.

“No, of course not,” she waved her hands,  “I’m not suited up and those things are insanely virulent”

“So I understood.”  It was time say goodbye to his wife.  He could at least do it properly this time.  And this was such a better way to go down.  Guns blazing, back to back with his Marines.  Not everyone's ideal way to go but I can hang my hat on it.  

I wish I had had a chance to actually have sex with her, Shocker thought rather wistfully.  That would have been nice.

“That’s the other thing I need to look at.  The transmutation rate to Stage III is ridiculously fast as well.  There is no mucking about with Flashing when these things infect you.”

Shocker waited for a moment.  He knew about the infection rate from Stage IVs but this was the first time he had heard anything about... “How fast?” Shocker asked Aux.

“Under a minute.  It shouldn’t be possible unless the transmission vector is also...”

“Direwolf 3 to Direwolf 6.  Be advised, we may have a way out of this after all...”

“Acknowledged, will implement.” John bolted over to the other side of the roof and to the surprise of the mortar crew.  Snatched up their 80mm tube.  “Follow me to the other side and bring the Wiley Peter rounds!”

“Marines, hip shoot mission,”  John ordered. “That cluster there.”  He indicated the shambling horror that had began to head inexorably their way.  “Put the first round in front of them.”

The football shaped shell was dropped into the tube and Staff Sergeant Cunningham yelled, “Fire.”

There was a big concussive WHUMP as the White Phosphorus round horked out of the tube.  Moments later the high trajectory projectile landed in front of the zombies with a huge, cracking boom.

John heard a few distant screams. Probably some students that had stayed behind to watch a real live battle from the dorms, like this was the Battle of Bullrun.

The light from the phosphorus fire was unearthly white.  There was ton of smoke, as well.  He could just make out the cluster of Stage IVs or, as John now thought of them, the real  zombies.  The rotting greyish-green horde of ghouls shakily creeping, crawling and dripping as they moved. They seemed to be writhing away from the alien heat of the phosphorus fire now in hissing in front of them.  Their slack expressions were almost devoid of all emotions.  Somehow, the faces of the crawling dead were, through some residual agency within their bodies, able to convey absolute misery.

Maxim was right, they didn’t seem to like fire all that much.

The cluster was close to splitting into two, and Castillo couldn’t have that.  He called out a correction that landed the next round on the starboard wing of the rapidly bifurcating glob of former humanity.   

Another dazzlingly white blast that was painful to look at in the night crashed down next to them,  fountaining an agonizing shower of thick, blinding sparks over them.  The zombies stumbled back together.  

John put the next round between the first two viciously hissing fires.   The now-reunited splotch of zombies were being herded in the right direction.

“Correction,”  John called out again and fed the mortar team new coordinates.  Another shot and they continued to stumble backward and then another, portside of that round.  It was working.  This was a fundamentally bad plan due to it’s complexity, but it was starting off well enough.

Castillo decided that that was enough to get them moving in the right direction.  Now he needed the ghouls to have motivation to stay where he wanted to them stay.  

“Correction,” John began the formula again.  This next attack would be right in the middle of their nest.  “Four rounds.”

Behind him he heard the familiar chorus of a mortar team. “Fire.” *WHUMP* “Let’s go! Let’s go!” *WHUMP* “Come on! Come! Let’s go” *WHUMP*  “Lets go! Last one! Let’s go!”  *shump* *clank* “SHIT!”

John didn’t bother to look behind him.  He took off for the edge of the roof at a dead run.  He damn good and well knew the hollow sound of a dud mortar round hitting the deck even before his Marines started screaming, “Misfire! Misfire!”

He left the ladder to his Marines.  When he reached the ledge, he stepped off,  flipped around, grabbed it and hung on from the side of the building.  He saw his Marines doing a fireman slide down the ladder.  Luckily, no one was following his bad example.  

Hopefully the round would be a dud. The snow drift beneath him looked nice and thick but two stories was a long way to make a PLF.  Jump school landings only went so far.

*KRANG* The roof erupted and John was blown off the edge.  Time seemed to slow for him as he fell. He had just enough time to think.  I’ve sure been doing this a lot lately,  just a bit sourly.

Castillo flexed his knees, pointed the balls of his feet, brought his fists up to his face and tucked in.  Counting on muscle memory to do the rest.



Naisbett heard something ahead.  It was not a good something.  He instinctively held up his hand in a fist.  The Universal military signal for halt.  

The girls all piled into him.  He stumbled trippingly forward and hit the floor of tunnel. He then heard something almost as unwelcome as the growl he had listened to moments before.  And that was the sound of his CZ-P09, clattering away into the fog ahead of him.  He’d lost his gone gun.  Just like some freaking damn new boot at MCT, he’d lost his damn gun.

“What was that for?” He heard an unidentified voice saying behind him.

“Shut the fuck up!” Naisbett rasped as quietly and as menacingly as he could.  His hands shot out in front of him as he frantically began a tactile search pattern in front of him.  He felt rather then heard Jessika searching beside him just as desperately.

The murderous scream of the Howler in the tunnel made his ears ring.  It was close; maybe thirty yards.  It was hard to tell because if things weren’t echoing in this tunnel, they were hissing.

Keep calm and think.  Keep calm and think.  Keep calm and think.  Naisbett repeated that life sustaining mantra to himself.

The girls were screaming now, which was not a help,  “Don’t run!”  His hands were more frantic as he patted the ground in front of him.  Now he was hearing the slaps of hands and feet in front of him.  The Howler was charging him.  If he didn’t find his pistol in less then a second he’d need to switch to his rifle and that was going to leave them all deaf...maybe permanently...when most he would need his hearing.  

Emerging out of the dark fog could see the hunched shape of the Howler charging him.  Fuck it! Better deaf than dead.  He started unsling the M-1 as he felt a small hand grip his shoulder.

“Here!” He heard Jessika shout as she slapped something heavy and gun shaped into the center his chest.

Naisbett rocked back onto his heels in a kneeling position bringing up his Czech,  just as the Howler emerged from the fog it’s red eyes blazing.

Naisbett’s pistol burst into life.

Castillo’s barfing woke him up.  Fortunately, he was bent over someone’s shoulder in a firearm’s carry.  Unfortunately, he was bobbing up and down as his rescuer ran. His head felt like it was about to explode.

“Stop! Damn it!” He ordered.  The Marine came to a stop and John took another moment to retch some more.  Getting knocked out looks so easy in the movies.  Those guys just shake their heads and they are instantly good.  They never seem to vomit at all for some reason.

John swallowed hard, then forced out the question, “How long was I out.”

“Less than a minute, sir,”  He heard Timmons reply.

Good call getting him back in uniform John thought to himself. “Anyone hurt?”

“Cunningham is gone, sir,” Timmons reported a little sadly.  “The blast took him off the ladder. His neck is broken.”

There went my only trained Mortar man, John thought sourly.

He made a mental note to have all of his Marines cross trained on every piece of weaponry that was organic to the unit.  He was going to turn his command into real light infantry, if it killed him...Assuming nothing else did first.

“Direwolf 3 to Direwolf 6, do you copy?”  The radio crackled.  Cahn’s voice had the metallic quality to it that it always had whenever Shocker felt the need to lock his emotions down completely.

The radio repeat it again just as emotionlessly.

John finished pulling himself together and answered, “Copy. Over”

A moment passed and a slightly relieved and thankfully more emotional voice asked, “Orders?”

Castillo's every instinct was to move up to Shocker’s position and direct the fight from there.  “I’m falling back to the evac site. You’re in command of forward.  Over.”

“Good,” Cahn knew him well enough to have read his mind on that point.  “Did it work?”

“Unknown,”  John answered. “I was out before I could see the results.  You’ll know in a few, one way or another.  Direwolf 6, out.”

It was like a scene out of a World War II movie.  Early morning fog was being heavily augmented by steam that was pouring off of a train engine that was pressuring up to make an all or nothing flight into the night.  

Desperate refugees were gushing out of the ground and rushing towards a train that promised a temporary sanctuary and their only hope of escape.  Uniformed men were shouting a constant stream of orders and curses for them to hurry up and get aboard.  They were leaving within minutes. This was the last stage out of Dodge.

Mrs. Anguiano was the last one out of the tunnel.  Sweating heavily and shivering, although whether from the sudden shift from the sultry wet heat of the tunnels to the cold night air, or just good old fashioned fear was anyone’s guess, including hers.

Top Anguiano stole a few precious seconds like a thief to to wrap his arms tightly around her and murmur a few words to each other.  They briefly and fiercely kissed before Top hustled her towards the train, just as Colonel Castillo came running up looking white faced and sick.

He spared Mrs Anguiano a quick nod and turned to Top, “Status?”

“My wife was the last of the civilians out of the North dorms,”  Top smiled, “she made sure she was the last one out.”  Like any good woman married to the Corps.

“Okay,” John sighed in some relief.  “No one left in the tunnels then, lets get....”

“No, Colonel,” Salma Anguiano interrupted.  “I didn’t say that.  I said, ‘I was the last one out of the Dorms,” she reported.  “We heard gunfire in the tunnels right before we left.  Also, there was at the very least one Howler down there.”

John winced, then mastered himself and nodded.  “Thank you, Salma,” he afforded her a soldier's gently sentimental  voice.  “Now please get aboard.”

He turned to Top.  “Get everyone else aboard. Except our Marines.  They stay outside and on watch until the train starts to actually move.  Once it starts moving it doesn’t stop. We are out of here in ten minutes flat.”

He was wondering who the hell was in the tunnels when the shockingly blond form of Doctor Kerensky appeared out of the fog her hair billowing behind her and her giant dog excitedly at her heels.

This does seem to be the night for that kind of thing he thought to himself, muzzily.

“Colonel,” Aux said gravely.  “My team from the library is still missing.”

He nodded coolly while thinking, damn it!  Those biotech girls will be impossible to replace.  

What else can go wrong in the next ten minutes? He asked himself and then he saw the ashen face of Charlotte hustling up to him.

“John, it’s the boys...”

Shocker had eyes on the National Guard's  infiltratration.  It was proceeding decently enough, which was starting to get worrying.  His brilliant plan was not going to work, after all.  They had about half of their number through the river and working their way along the tree line.  Call it fifty effectives.

Wagoner was remaining predictable.  Deprived of freight carrying bridges (and it was good thing he hadn’t checked to see if there were IEDs there because there weren’t).  He had then chosen to avoid the picture perfect and warfighting manual obvious ambush points that were the foot bridges.  

Cahn watched with cold compassion as Wagoner’s violently shivering troops trudged their way through water so cold it was clenching the air out of their lungs, slipping their way onto a shore  that was beginning to cake itself with ice.

Naturally, Wagoner chosen to ford the river at its shallowest point near the Hannah building, and through a river that would bring on hypothermia in moments at this time of year.  Assuming they didn’t catch the plague.  Red Cedar River being so notoriously foul that when the MSU band would annually drop its old instruments into it, everyone just assumed they dissolved.

Wagner, himself, had taken up position almost on top of the last Field Expedient Dirty Trick Shocker had set up.  Shocker had a Boost burner cell phone next him, ready to set that one off.

His battle plan was, so far, going to plan.  Which was a shame, since a big part of that plan involved he and his men fighting until they were dead or too bullet riddled to keep fighting.
A pity Field Expedient Dirty Trick II hadn’t worked out.  Well, no point in waiting for the rest of Wagoner’s company to find it’s way through the river.

Shocker was about to order his men to open up when some movement in the water suddenly changed his mind.

Oksana was going quietly nuts. She was rocking back and forth on the balls of her feet trying to keep it together.  She couldn’t go to Castillo for help. He was suddenly crippled because his sons were missing.   She couldn’t bother her husband because she had a good chance of becoming a widow tonight if she took to hanging on Shocker’s sword arm when most he needed it free.

The night was echoing to the small, pocking, distant thunder of automatic fire.  It was being answered this time, which meant they were fighting the Army.  But the fire seemed sporadic to her inexperienced ears. Was that good news?  Was her side doing better than it was supposed to?

A bunch of her friends were about to die horribly underground and she was the one that was responsible.  It had been her call to send them back a fourth time.

Conan nudged hopefully at her thigh.  

Oksana dropped to her knees and hugged him hard around the neck.  Conan liked that rather a lot. He sat down and pounded his tail, whining approvingly.  

Aux thought she might have a treat for him, she could at least accomplish that.  She wiped a few tears away and dug into purse.  She found something silky in it that nearly made her lose it.  The silky thing was Stacia’s bra. In all of the disasters of the past week she had never had a chance to return it.  She looked at it feeling real tears getting ready to pour down her cheeks.

Conan stuck his nose in Stacia’s bra. Sniffed it thoroughly, then looked up at Aux and gave an inquiring woof.  

His Aux hugged Conan around the neck and scratched behind his ears.  Conan winced with pleasure but something was wrong with his Aux.  She smelled sacred. All the humans did tonight.  It was making him jumpy.  Aux was now leading Conan down into a dark place with dusty and musty wet smells.  They were new smells and that was always fun.  

She made Conan sniff the thing that smelled like the Stacia person.  The Stacia gave good scratchings too but she was no Aux

“Find!”  Aux commanded him.  

Conan’s Aux wanted him to find the Stacia person.  Excellent!  

The huge dog took off at a lope down the black tunnel barking happily as he set off on a grand new adventure.

“This should count for something,” Garrison Wheaton told himself as his feet were brutally assaulted by the stabbing cold of the Red Cedar River.  He gritted his teeth and loudly hissed as he sucked air into his lungs.  He had agreed to go in with the troops to act as a guide to the campus. Maps only go so far.  The soldiers surrounding him scowled at him for making that much noise during an infiltration.  

Screw them! Garrison thought to himself.  They decided to do this for living, so they don’t have a right to complain, but I sure as hell do!  I did not sign up for this when I became the acting President of Michigan State University.  He was already feeling stinging and biting from the frigid river as he waded deeper into it. His boots were flooding; he could feel the snow pants he was wearing sucking in the frigid water, wrapping the icy water around his legs.  

He was thigh deep when he changed his mind.  His testicles, in an effort to save themselves, were trying to climb up next to his kidneys.  I’m not going any farther, Wheaton said to himself.  No job is worth this.  No woman is worth this.  Who gives a damn if Charlotte is impressed?

That made Garrion Wheaton pause for second.  He did want to impress Charlotte.  He wanted to impress her, badly.  He knew her first husband wouldn’t have thought twice about swimming this river. There was no doubt in his mind that Charlotte would have been impressed and...excited by that.  Excited in a way she never had been with him.

That gave him enough pause that the soldier in back of him ran into sending him headfirst into the river.

There was fictitious quote from a show that Wheaton loved that went, "Live with a man 40 years. Share his house, his meals. Speak on every subject. And you will not know him. Then tie him up, and hold him over the volcano's edge. And on that day, you will finally meet the man."

In that volcano of cold, Garrison Wheaton got to know himself.  He was inadequate as a man.  He tried to present himself as strong and whenever he was proved to be a weak man, he pretended that being weak was some kind of strength.  That not being the better man somehow made him the greater man.  He wasn’t the man his father was.  He wasn’t as tough.  He wasn’t as determined.  He wasn’t as driven.

When he was in high school, his father had brought home a Marine Recruiter for him to talk to.  His Dad had wanted him to go ROTC.  Gary had recoiled in horror at the very idea and it had nothing to do with ideology.  He’d picked the easy way every single time.  He was soft.

Gary’s head popped out of the water as the cold crushed the air out of his lungs.  The river sucked the life sustaining heat out his body like an industrial vacuum.  The current washed even minor insulating effects near his body downstream, letting fresh cold water attack him.  Blood rushed to the core of his body and his muscles began to violently shiver in a pointless attempt to raise his temperature even a half degree.  A cloud of pleasant warmth around his pants let him know that he had just pissed himself.

Gary turned and started violently thrashing his way through the water to get to the north side.  He was glad he was wet.  No one would be able to tell he was crying.

“Knock it off, man! They’ll hear you,” one of the soldiers angrily whispered to him.

Wheaton rounded angrily on him, a cutting remark on his chattering teeth when something cut into him.  

Some bit junk had caught his hand.  An old band instrument maybe?  He half wondered as he tried to tug it loose.  Then he tried to shove it away with his free hand as he stumbled toward the shoreline.  

The pressure got worse and worse.   Whatever it was felt round.  So it wasn’t any band instrument he could think of.

“Ow!”  He snapped as the pressure turned into pain and then real pain, “AHH!”  It was digging into his hand now.  When one of small bones in his hand broke, he screamed and lurched sideways dragging whatever was biting him to the surface.

The phosphorus that was imbedded in the zombie’s skin burst into life.  Sizzling, smoking and hissing in the decayed flesh, violating the night with its unnatural light.  

What warmth was left in the core of his body slipped away.  Garrison Wheaton screamed now in abject terrified, heart-bursting panic.  

Half its face had been burned off by the phosphorus attack.  Its eyes were glowing and burning holes in its head.

“Shut the FUUUUUUUCK!”  Soldier next to him’s hissing whisper turned into a scream as dead hands lashed out of the water to grip his body armor.  The soldier's zombie hauled itself out of the water and slammed it’s teeth into his face.  Then it bit in.

The sickly sweet stench of rot was suddenly everywhere overlain by what smelled like burning pork fat.  

All of the soldiers in the water were screaming and thrashing as a scene from Dante’s Hell came to life with themselves as the damned.  Smoke and steam covered the river as its waters writhed with the panic of terrified men.  There were slapping sounds, as the decaying palms of Crawlers hauled themselves out of the water on both banks of the river towards the soldiers on both sides.  Drawing racking gasps of breath and then coughing out their plague they advanced, with bits of phosphorus still clinging to them, spitting back into life.

Someone on the far shore started yelling, Permission to engage!  Permission to engage!”  Over and over again.  Begging someone to make a sane decision in a mad world.

Wheaton’s screams went high as he felt his finger being bitten away.  But with them gone he was free and at a dead run up to the shore line.  The men on both sides were now yelling for permission to fight for their lives.

Wheaton dredged his panic stricken mind for with the magic words necessary.to make these uniformed animals save him.  And found it, “FIRE!” He screamed.  “Fire! Fire! Fire!”

It wasn’t a legal order, but you couldn’t really tell who had said it first.  

The night exploded with gunfire.  Rounds of 5.56 snarled and chopped away at putrid and infected flesh, spraying micro-particles of plague everywhere.

Garrison stumbled onto the shore, clutching his ruined hand and cursing the day he had met Charlotte Castillo.  Abruptly every muscle in his abdomen seized his guts as if they were in a giant fist. He heaved and hit the ground shaking violently.  Unable to control his limbs at all.

He heard Wagoner screaming close by, “Cease fire! Cease fire! Do not engage the Afflicted! The ROE hasn’t changed yet!  Cease fire! Cease fire!”

But he only heard Wagoner distantly in his mind.  While his body convulsed, memories that weren’t his own flashed through his mind.  Working in the copper mines. Firing black powder weapons.  The acrid smell of charcoal smoke everywhere.  He was rather startled by one memory; I’d never expected to see Mom like that.

Garrison Wheaton knew what was happening to him, although he thought it wasn’t supposed to happen this fast, but he half-welcomed it.  The fears that had dogged him all his life were fading away from him as a ball of rage began to grow in his heart.  He knew that in just a few more moments he would never be frightened again, for the rest of his life.

Okay, Field Expedient Dirty Trick II, had worked out after all Cahn thought to himself, rather pleased with the initial result.

From his perch he watched as the National Guard was engaging the stage IVs with small arms at close quarters.  Which was as going to make for a very complicated situation in couple of minutes, when they turned.  

Wagoner ran towards the water in a panic.  Shocker could easily guess what the cheese dick was bitching about. The ROEs hadn’t been rescinded yet.  They needed to let the Marines shoot up the Howlers.  It wasn’t legal for them to kill zombies yet!

Shocker distantly heard Wagoner’s panicked screeches, “Cease fire! Cease fire! Do not engage the Afflicted! Do not engage the Afflicted.”

“Direwolf 3 to Direwolf 6. I have eyes on Wagoner. Over.”

“Direwolf 6 to Direwolf 3.  Your call, bro,” John said.

Wagoner came screeching to a halt.  What in the name of God was he seeing?  These things aren’t...

What the hell was he looking at?

Suddenly, it felt like he had been hit in the thigh by a rocket-driven boulder.  The sound of leaves crunching underfoot was conducted by bone all through his body as his femur was shattered.

Wagoner collapsed to the ground screaming even before the pain hit.

Cahn pulled his cheek away from the stock of his rifle.  I would have liked to have killed the little shit, but he is so predictably stupid that he is invaluable as a future enemy.  He’ll cause more of fuss now that he’s hurt.  Personal indulgence is a pointless waste in combat, his father had told him that.  Cahn fought down rage.  Any memory of that man always did that to him.

“Sir, is this it?” MacKay asked quietly.

“No,” Cahn decided.  “They will pull back from the stage IVs.  In a few minutes, those infected  among them will turn and the others will shoot them in turn.  I have zero doubts Wagoner will order them shot when it’s his own ass on the line.  Then they will try for us again.  We can’t let that happen.  It doesn’t take a lot to put a steam engine out of action.  Just put enough holes in it and you let out the steam.”

“We have to  keep them pinned down,” Shocker concluded.  

“Okay Marines, this is the real hard part.  I know the men below us are wearing our uniforms. Have our flag sewn on the shoulders. Some of them have probably fought with us in Iraq and Afghanistan.  I know how difficult this next order is going to be for you but..”

“Sir, with all due respect,” MacKay said shaking his head tiredly. “ All of us have been on Recruiting Duty for at least six months.    We are used to the Army being the enemy.  This isn’t going to be that hard.”

Cahn smiled with fatherly approval. “Open fire!”

Naisbett gave two sharp jerks on the Tug Line.  This time the group came to an abrupt halt.  He had heard something else ahead.  He felt Jessika press a worried hand against the small of his back for reassurance.

So far they had only run into the one Howler.  But that didn’t mean there weren’t more.  They had fashioned the tug-line out of their belts to keep track of each other and to maintain a line-of-communication (literally).

This next zombie was scrambling up to them, fast.  Nasibett assumed a two handed Marine Corps Approved Weaver Stance, just like you never did in combat.  

It was very close now, the steam kept the visibility to less than a foot ahead of his gun’s muzzle.  It would be right on top of him again before he could aim in.  He’d have to fire blind again, and he was getting low on ammo.  He heard the frantic scrambling of it’s nails as it charged towards them.

He would only get a couple shots off before it had him on the floor.

Here could hear it’s panting breath, now.  Almost here.

“WOOF,” the zombie said.

“What the fuck are you idiots doing!” Josh yelled at his brothers.  “We have to be on the damn train,” He swore at them with adolescent importance.

Shut-up,” Garrett’s body ordered him with unnatural confidence.

Josh was creeped out by that voice again.  It hadn’t spoken to him much and when it did was as dismissive as it was casually cruel.  His grandfather General Aron Sertorio had vanished long before he was born.  He had asked his mother and grandmother about the man from time to time.  When he was younger, they would mention his triumphs and awards but nothing really personal about the man himself.  

When he was a bit older he had expressed regret about never having known the great man.  And he had been told, “Some things happen for the best.”  He understood that now.

Aron Sertorio found his eldest grandson disappointing.  He could be useful as a line officer someday soon.  Cannons needed cannon-fodder, after all.  But, sadly, he would be good for little else.  The younger one, this Brett, showed real potential.  More so even then his uncle Richard.  He appeared to be a born psychopath, for one thing.  Aron wouldn’t need have to go through all of the tedious business required to turn him into a sociopath like he had had to with Dickie.

He shook his head thinking about his son.  Such a pointless waste of such prime material, he sighed to himself.  I had worked so hard on him, too.  

He had resolved to look on the bright side.  There was now young Brett to work with and, for that matter, he himself did have a new, if immature, body.

Josh grabbed his shoulder and spun him around.  “I said we have to go.”

Aron had stolen his “Father's” M & P Shield.  A nice little pocket gun, he rather liked it.  However, he projected, murdering Brett’s older brother right in front of him would set up an unnecessarily adversarial relationship with the younger boy.  

He would have to explain things, which he hated doing.

“I have enough inteligence to surmise your uncle Richard's plan.  He is expecting to die tonight holding off a third wave attack.  With a slight augmentation to his plan, I will get him out of this alive,” Aron told him. He then turned back to feeding the wires of a gutted out cell phone into what looked like some grayish playdough.  The “playdough” that had been inserted into the large military grade padlock chaining the doors shut.

“Are you blowing that lock?” his dim grandson asked.


“Jesus H. Christ, do you know what’s in that building?”

“Of course.” He answered as he stood up straight. He also knew how the contents of Dem Hall would react when they smelled the Stage IVs.  

Aron Sertorio knew that better than anyone else on Earth.  

“Time to go!” He ordered.  Running would be good.  It was so nice to have young legs again.

Moments later, the doors blew off Dem Hall with boom.

“Oh God, it’s Conan!”  Jessika shrieked.

Conan came bounding up to her and wagging his entire butt in happiness. He was rewarded by all the girls grabbing and petting and scratching him.  They all tried to hug him.

This night was going exceptionally well so far as Conan was concerned.

Jessika quickly tied the tug-line to his collar.  “Conan find Oksana,”  She half ordered and half pleaded. “ Find Aux!  Go, boy, find Aux,” Jessika begged.

Conan cocked his huge black head.   Blinked his blue eyes in apparent comprehension.  If this was the next part of the game he was cool with that.  He rocketed off down the tunnel dragging his rescuees with him.

The M-1 punched into his shoulder again and again.  He was picking his targets with some care. As the M-240 near him barked away at their opposition, the other riflemen near him nailed targets of opportunity. The men on the river were falling like flies.

Cahn was hunting down and eliminating any locus of organization; anyone who was obviously trying to tamp down panic and get things organized.

The acrid smell of burnt power and the metallic hammering of automatic gunfire was intimately familiar to Shocker.  He was home.

They had plenty of ammo. At least enough for the next half hour.

There was a mortar tube on the ground near the Army’s farther position that some of the soldiers occasionally made dashes for.  The bodies were starting to pile up around it.

His own position was drawing fire but it wasn’t too organized yet.  Normally it would be, but the National Guard had other problems.

Aside from the crawling dead, they were now having to deal with the  newly minted Stage IIIs in uniform popping up amongst them.  Former comrades attacking them at their sides, while the Marines shot at them from the rooftops.

At least the real zombies had never been on their side in the first place.  That was something.

The panic couldn’t be held back.  The general rout was on and Shocker needed to keep it on, at least until the train made a clean getaway.  Which meant he and his team would probably be dying up here, after all.

I suspect they won’t be in a mood to take traitors prisoner, Shocker thought to himself..

*GRRRRONK* A shattering animal bellow thundered through the night.

“Cease fire!” Cahn called.  He needed to find out where this new threat was and his hearing was now impaired for a bit due to the gunfire.

Another call of “GRRRRRONK*  Then a beautifully murderous shape was crashing it’s way through the Army intent on the Stage IVs.  

I wonder how the tigers got out of Dem Hall?  Cahn asked himself.

The National Guardsmen screamed and shot at the tigers.  5.56 rounds were good enough to stop a man but it would take a lot of them to kill these hills of muscle.  The tigers screamed back and jumped at the soldiers.  Massive claws swiping and giant jaws biting and crunching when they bit.

Cahn smiled as he made  out Wagoner’s voice screaming, “Abort!  Abort mission!  Pull back! Pull back!”

“Aw! Fuck this!” MacKay seemed exasperated by this latest turn of the evening.

Cahn thought about it for moment.  It will take at least an hour for anyone to organize a new assault.  The train will be long gone by then.  No point at all in us sticking around anymore.

“Yeah, fuck this.  We’ve got a train catch. Mission complete.  Head to the evac.”

His finger stabbed down on send button on the cell phone, sending the go code to Field Expedient Dirty Trick I.  Just as a special little good-bye treat for Wagoner.

Wagoner was in literal shock.  His leg was broken but at least the round missed the femoral artery. He needed to be medevaced out, but if he could hang on until General Ciotti arrived he would look pretty good for the...

He would look good, surely?  He was being a wounded commander.  Commanding wounded troops.  Ciotti would have to be impressed by that, right?

He had lost better than thirty five men.  Standard doctrine dictated that his force was now combat ineffective.  Castillo was still bottled up. He couldn’t use his trucks.  And now he was officially a traitor.  Wagoner was sure that he himself would be coming out of this all right.

And then a mammoth deafening roar went off next him.  It was the blood curdling summons of a Howler.  But no howler could possibly be this loud.  It wasn’t biologically possible for anything with lungs to be blasting out this much sound.  

A few of his brighter men were looking around frantically.  Finally one them found the camouflaged loudspeaker in a tree and started shooting at it.  The speaker screamed it’s feedback-driven death cry and went silent..

Wagoner hoped against hope that...

There was an answering Howler’s cry in the distant night.  Then another and then another.

His remaining men gathered in a cluster around the vehicles.  Guns at the ready.   Waiting.

Colonel Castillo was running for Dem Hall in a heart crushing panic. He had tracked “Garret’s” cell phone via GPS but that had disappeared a few seconds ago.  

He fought off an insane need to scream out his son’s names at the top of his lungs, in a father’s barely controlled hysterical need to find them.  He was also being tortured by his own guilt in giving in to his own needs.  He had given his Marines a mission.  They had their orders, but there were no other officers  to oversee the mission.  He was the only officer on deck and he had abandoned his command to run off in the night because he had gotten a wild hare up his ass and suddenly, for the first time in his life he had decided that his needs came first.

Shocker, MacKay and the rest of the forward detail were about to die to make certain that he could do his job, and he wasn’t going to do his job.

If it was anyone else under his command he wouldn’t hesitate to have that man shot for this kind of abject dereliction of duty when that duty needed him the most.

He knew what he was supposed to do but he just couldn’t.  Not this time.

John glanced at his watch.  Four minutes and counting.

If he couldn’t get back to train in time, could he find the boys and then make his way to Beaver Island?  Could he?

John rounded a corner and felt relief wash over him.  Three boy shaped shapes were running in his direction. Now that he knew they were alive he could kill them later.  He ran towards them.

Movement caught his eye.  He unslung his rifle and turned ready to engage.  

“We’re fine, get the fuck back to the train, damn it!”  Shocker was clearly exasperated with him.

Well, I wasn’t looking for you asshole, John thought to himself, ruefully.

Shocker was then startled by the sight of his nephews running through the night.  He waived to Mac and the rest of the squad. “Get back to the train.  I got this!”

“Aye, sir!” Willie MacKay answered and sped off in the night with his Marines in tow.

John was on top of his boys an instant later.  He could steal five more seconds before he was back on the clock.  He promised himself he would make himself pay for this one moment of complete selfishness later.  He wrapped his arms around all three of them crushing them tight to his chest and shaking with relief.

Garrett snapped in a biting flat staccato voice.  “Colonel!  You will unhand me at once, if you please.”

A warrior’s sense is what it is.  There is no explaining it.  Not really.  An instinct is honed by a life spent on the edge of reality.  You know when something has just gone deadly wrong.  You just know it.

John threat scanned and found the threat immediately.  The gigantic form of Shocker Cahn was charging like a bull rhino, his boots were nearly tearing holes in the grass.  Nostrils flaring and teeth bared.  Arms chopping the air with his fists clenched as he ran. Shocker had been triggered into his berserkergang rage.   He was on top of them in an instant and there was no doubt in John’s mind that he had targetted Garrett.

Castillo launched from a kneel and tackled Shocker around the knees. Shocker hooked an arm under Castillo and  somersaulted over taking him with him.  Shocker’s knee rocketed into John’s chest.  The body armor was the only thing that saved him from broken ribs. John shot a fist with a thumb on top of it into the underside of Cahn’s jaw.  It should have been agonizing, but Cahn barely felt it as he fired an elbow strike in John’s unarmored thigh. John rolled just enough to miss the worst of that.

John has been sparring with Cahn for eighteen years.  He knew the man’s hardwired tactics and his responses were just as reflexive.  But he had never fought his friend when Shocker was lost in his blood lust.  Cahn would be just a little too much faster in a few moments.  He wouldn’t be able to keep up

Feints would do no good.  Shocker’s response to those would be just as instinctive.  John blocked a strike to his neck that could have ruptured his carotid.  He’d seen Cahn kill a man like that before.  That upped the stakes quite a bit.  

John found just a bit more adrenaline as now was certain that he was fighting for his very life.

He tried for an arm lock and almost had it.  Shocker felt the arm bar slipping into place and slammed his skulled into John’s.

John head felt like it was exploding into stars. He heard a distant ringing in his ears as his vision blurred.  He fatally lost his grip on Cahn.  A writhing shift a moment later and Shocker was on his back.  His right arm around John’s neck, locking it into a vice.  In another second his neck would be broken and then he would kill Garrett.

“You already murdered him!” John yelled at Cahn.  He was guessing but it was damned good assumption.  It was one that he had made a long time ago.  “How long do you have to keep killing your father?” He bellowed with his hands futilely grasping at the V that was cinching around his neck.

“Forever! Forever! FOREVER!” Cahn’s  scream from the heart was that of wounded child.  “HE MADE ME INTO THIS!”

Aron Sertorio had been maneuvering around the two men since the fight started.  The Smith and Wesson M&P Shield now in his hand.  

He needed the Colonel much more than he needed his son.  Richard was clearly a mad dog at the moment and there was only one way to deal with mad dogs.

He was waiting for a clean shot.  In moment he would have it and then he would put two bullets in his son’s brain.  

The fight lasted long enough for him to make a few further considerations.  The Colonel was a strong enough strategic asset.  His son was really only a tactical one.  But he did have a lot of corporate knowledge that would be hard to replace.  And Richard was potentially a strategic asset.  An unstoppable one, if launched at the right target at the correct time.  Certainly, he would be impossible to replace at the moment.  He looked over at his youngest grandson Brett.

At least in the immediate future.

Aron Sertorio made up his mind.  This will hurt, he thought to himself before he said in a loud voice, “Dickie!”

His son’s red eyes snapped on his.

“Is this what you want, boy?”  And Sertorio stuck the pistol in his mouth and pulled the trigger.

The concussive snap of the 9mm bullet went off in the night.  “Garrett’s” small body collapsed to the ground.

Shocker went slack.  John threw him off, and scrambled desperately on his hands and knees.  He scooped up Garrett’s crumpled body. Hugging it to him.

There was gaping wound in his  son’s cheek.  It looked nasty but... it wasn’t anything that approached a fatal injury.

He was frightened back into life when Shocker suddenly grabbed the boy.  But Shocker said in his not insane voice.  “We have to go.  We are completely out of time.”

Shocker gently scooped up the unconscious form of Garrett and then they ran for the Train.

“All aboard!” Clancy Mcgrath sang out the Engineer’s call.

The Marines on watch outside the train cars repeated the the shout to each other and started scrambling up onto the cars.

Lauren gave a chuff of steam, her pistons fired and her drive wheels scrapped the tracks in a shower of sparks.

The train jerked forward, snapping all the cars into motion.  

“Top!  Wait!  MacKay shouted. “Where’s the Skipper! Where’s Cahn!”

Top looked around for moment frantically.  His orders had been crystal clear on that subject but that didn’t mean that he didn’t hate them.

“Don’t worry about that,” Top said with deep resignation in his voice.

“Got it,” MacKay sighed with relief. “There they are!”

Top turned his head just slowly enough and nodded with professional self mastery as the iron hand clenched around his heart eased its grip.  He casually watched as the Colonel Castillo and his family scrambled aboard the now-moving train.  Cahn bringing up the rear.

Conan frantically scampered and scratched his way up the steps to the steel door and started yapping and howling at it.  

They could hear the sound of the train starting to move on the other side of the door.  Hear the scrape of the metal wheels rolling on metal tracks a slow clack-clack beginning as their only hope escape slid away from them.

Naisbett hurtled up the basement steps and slammed into the door almost screaming as the lock on the other side was blasted off its hasp.

Instantly they were in the night air and the train was in front of them, not more that twenty yards away.

They scrambled out of the pit and ran for it with everything they had.  Some of the girls were screaming for the train to slow down but it kept speeding up.  Faster and faster the wheel lugs beginning to spin into a formless circular blur as they accelerated..

Hearts beating out of their chests. Lungs bursting.  Conan running around their legs happily, barking in delight at this fun new game.

Suddenly the side doors flew back open and hands reached out.  Jessika grabbed Top Anguiano’s hand and was hauled aboard to safety by the old master sergeant, as if she was as light as a kitten.  The other girls were getting scooped up left and right by the out stretched arms.  

Stacia made a grab for Colonel Castilo’s hand and missed.  She tripped, stumbled into a somersault.

“Oh god, I’m the slutgirl that always dies in these movies,” she had just enough time to moan to herself as Naisbett grabbed her and threw up against the side of the train.  The arms of the fraternity guys from Omega Kappa shot out of the open window and seized her, then hauled her up over the side.  “Oh, hey, it’s you! The one from the party,” was heard.

Naisbett was stumbling himself and nearly fell, when MacKay’s coal black arm grabbed the Alabaman by the shirt collar and with a roar, jerked him aboard.

Leaving only Conan outside with Aux frantically calling for him, as he fell farther and farther behind.  He was running with everything he had now, tongue lolling.  Barking worriedly as his Aux was taken farther and farther away from him and the bad smelling humans were running up behind him.

“Conan!” Aux cried with tears running down her cheeks.  It wasn’t fair, they had almost made a clean getaway.

Conan barked and barked trying to get her attention so that she could come get him.  He was really getting scared now.  Why wasn’t his Aux coming for him? The bad smells were really close now.

Aux would watch him for as long as she could.  She owed him that much.

She saw him frantically charging for all he was worth as the last car started to pass him by .  She clenched her eyes tight when she heard a whining yip.

She opened them knowing what she would see.

And promptly she didn’t see it.  

What she saw was huge young Conan being held by the scruff of his neck by massive form of Shocker Cahn, right before he was hauled aboard.

Less than a minute passed and she was hugging her giant dog as he licked at her tasty, salt-filled tears.   He was so big and stupid and adorable.  Just like her new husband.

A few moments later one voice, and she wasn’t sure whose, started singing. It was quickly joined by others.  

Then by her own.

MSU, we love thy shadows
When twilight silence falls,
Flushing deep and softly paling
O'er ivy covered halls;
Beneath the pines we'll gather
To give our faith so true,
Sing our love for Alma Mater
And thy praises, MSU.

When from these scenes we wander
And twilight shadows fade,
Our mem'ry still will linger
Where light and shadows played;
In the evening oft we'll gather
And pledge our faith anew,
Sing our love for Alma Mater
And thy praises MSU.

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