Chapter 1: Road Trip (Doomsday + 215 days)
Centuries ago, gunpowder rendered the fortress obsolete. The structure lingered on for a time until modern weaponry turned the concept into a pathetic joke. Now, long after its demise, the fortress returned to prominence.
All it took was Armageddon.
Paige Hart reflected on that unpleasant fact as her convoy rolled out of the underground tunnel which reached into the bowels of the mountain and Castellan Vitae. She glanced back at the lines of concrete walls and barricades that protected the mountaintop resort. Wrecked vehicles and throngs of monsters that had once been human beings obscured the front entrance. The faint, sickly-sweet smell of decay reached her nostrils. The miasma never strayed far from the background, but the intensity of close contact could stun an unprepared person.
“Watch it, Paige!” Crispin “Crispy” Heath said from the front of the modified Humvee. “We’re about to hit the fence! Keep focused!”
Paige tore her gaze from the vista behind her and looked ahead of the convoy. Trees on either side of the private road parted to reveal a reinforced, double-layered, chain-link fence. The vehicles slowed down and stopped as the barrier came into view. On the far side dozens of curious zombies sought a way inside. They perked up when they caught sight of the movement. The stench rolled over the convoy like a wave.
Paige shivered. “Shouldn’t there be more of them?”
Crispy spat tobacco juice out the window. Paige never figured out how he kept the vile fluid off his walrus moustache, but it was always immaculate.
“Nah. Remember, we hardly ever have any personnel on this side of the mountain. That’s why the fences hold. Otherwise, the chompers would push the fence over by weight of numbers.” He turned around and looked Paige in the face. “You’re lookin’ a little pale. Are you reconsidering?”
Her throat was thick with fear but she forced it down.
“Damn. I was hoping you might. Have I mentioned what a bad idea this is?”
“Only about ten thousand times.” She sighed.
He spit again. “Let’s make it ten thousand and one, then. You’re too valuable to go off on one of these clusterfucks.”
“Horseshit. We’ve got people way more valuable than me back inside. I’m a glorified administrator.”
Crispy hacked and spat the wad of chewing tobacco out of his mouth into the dirt. “And that’s what I think of that. You’re a lot more than that, kiddo, you...”
She made a slashing gesture. “Save it. I’m going.”
Crispy sighed. He could tell from the defiant tilt of her jaw that the 28-year-old wasn’t going to budge. He’d been her bodyguard for long enough that he knew her better than her father ever had. The only way she’d stay put was if Crispy tied her up and deposited her inside the tunnel door. He wasn’t ready to do that. He’d tied her up a couple of times and it always ended badly. He still carried a scar from the second time.
“Fine, but you’ll do what I goddamn tell you to do when we’re out there, do you understand?” Crispy said. “If not, I’ll risk another stab wound and hog-tie you.”
She pointed at the fence. “How do we get through them?”
Crispy grinned and jabbed his thumb at the zombies. “Those chompers? Not a big problem. Things only get dicey when there’s a lot of ’em.”
“That takes too long and wastes bullets. We use homemade Claymores for this kind of thing. We’ve got a lot of C-3, C-4 and TNT so we use it whenever we can,” he whistled and made a gesture. Two mercs ran over to the fence with backpacks. They pulled several small bundles out and pitched them over the barbed-wire-topped barriers. It took more than one try as the fences were over twenty feet high. Paige flinched when the first fist-sized bundle of explosives ricocheted off the fence and fell down next to the merc. Intellectually she knew the plastic explosives could only be set off with a blasting cap but she felt so tense that it didn’t matter.
“Nervous?” Crispy asked.
“Good. If you weren’t scared I’d be twice as worried.”
After half a dozen of the bombs were scattered around the zombies, the two mercs gave a ‘thumbs-up’ and retreated to their vehicles.
“Fire in the hole!” shouted a combat engineer a second before the explosives detonated.
Paige jumped from the explosions. They were louder than she’d expected. All but three of the zombies collapsed from the shrapnel. The remaining three were finished off with precise rifle fire. Once it was clear, the gates were opened and the convoy passed through, making sure it closed behind the last vehicle before they continued. A few abandoned vehicles lay on the sides of the forest road but nothing blocked their progress.
“Why don’t the explosives damage the fence?” Paige asked after a few minutes of listening to the well-tuned engines of the convoy.
“They’re anti-personnel. Not enough explosive to damage something like a chain-link fence much. We just wrap ball bearings or cut-up concertina wire around a little C-3 or C-4. Works like a charm, so long as the shrapnel nails ’em in the head or upper spine, but without enough punch to do dick to armor. Very handy for use around armored vehicles.”
Paige listened with half an ear as she saw the world outside the fortress walls for the first time since the nightmare began. It had been only eight months but it felt like eight years. How can one measure time when the world descends into Hell?
The terror began quietly. A series of minor plagues swept the planet from one side of civilization to the other. None of them claimed many lives and the symptoms were different enough that no one thought it could be the same disease. The vectors changed as well. One was airborne while another was fluid transmission. Some were bacterial, viral and even fungal. There was no common thread and no reason to think the spate of illnesses was anything more than coincidence. Some of the symptoms were alarming, true, but not widespread enough to be anything other than medical curiosities and fodder for tabloid journalism. Things quieted down for a few months after the plagues seemingly subsided. When the second wave of plagues came, no one truly understood what was happening. Rumors flew and wild stories were heard, but few people in a position to react to the reports reacted with much distress.
Not until it was far too late.
Paige pointed up the road towards an intersection on their left.
“That’ll get us there a lot faster,” she said.
Crispy snorted. “No it won’t.” He jabbed his thumb to the right. “That’s the way we need to go.”
“Crispy, I’ve lived in this county most of my life. I think I know how to navigate,”
“No, you knew how to navigate. We can’t take any of the main roads, especially ones that cut through town. They’re either choked with wrecked traffic, chompers or both. We have to take back roads. They’re a lot longer but way safer.” He turned to look her in the face. “Unless you want to meet your old pals a lot more intimately than you’d prefer.” He made biting motions with his teeth.
Her eyes widened fractionally. “Let’s go right.”
“I thought you’d see it my way.” Crispy ordered the convoy to turn right.
Zombies were scarce during the road march, but occasionally a handful would stalk into view. They weren’t fast but most could maintain a shambling jog. Some were slower and some were much faster. Runners were usually identifiable from the condition of the body but a fraction of the more decrepit-seeming ones could fool you with a frightening burst of speed. Crispy had explained as much to Paige, but it was a wholly different concept when seen in the decaying flesh. She’d seen plenty outside the gates of the fortress, but they spent their time clawing futilely at the door or walls. There was little movement otherwise. Outside, several of the decaying horrors ran suddenly towards the convoy at a near-sprint. She let out a yelp and froze up the first time it happened, but no one on the convoy reacted except to avoid, sideswipe or shoot the offending zombie.
“A lot different outside, ain’t it?” Crispy grinned as he stuffed a new wad of tobacco into his mouth.
Paige’s mouth firmed. “Exactly. I need this experience if I’m going to make informed decisions in the future. I can’t expect to lead these people if I don’t know what the hell they’ve gone through or are going through. If I do that I’ll be another one of those ‘hypocritical eggheads’ you’ve always bitched endlessly to me about.”
Crispy stopped masticating his tobacco and stared. “Hmph!”
Paige crossed her arms and smiled.
“Score one for you, smart-ass,” Crispy said. “But you won’t take any more chances than I decide are necessary when you’re out here—and whenever possible, you stay with the vehicles.”
“I’m in charge out here! Remember?”
“But I’m a really good shot!”
“You think I don’t know that? That’s not the point. I have to prioritize personnel according to risk and you’re the most important person here.”
“Shaddup! If I say you stay in the vehicles, you stay. If I tell you to drive off and leave us, you drive. If I tell you to strip naked and dance the ‘Macarena’, you dance.”
“What’s the Macarena?”
Crispy rolled his eyes. “Never mind! You take my point?”
“Yes, but why the hell would I have to drive off and leave you?”
Crispy shrugged. “It’s a dangerous new world.”
Nobody knew for certain where the first outbreak started. The situation devolved so rapidly that it was virtually impossible to say, but the first news stories came out of South America. Local authorities did their best to contain the sudden rash of violence and murders that spread across the landscape. Militia forces were called up to quell strange, savage mobs but were notably unsuccessful. Shortly thereafter, cellphone footage of carnage flooded out that horrified half the globe. The most memorable viral video was the one of the CNN reporter devoured in front of his petrified cameraman. The fate of the cameraman was documented by his off-camera screams as the cannibalistic mob descended on him. Smaller snippets of the nightmarish situation flooded YouTube and other video sites before authorities could stop it. Nobody knew what was going on, but they knew it was bad.
The second stage happened simultaneously in the U.S. and Europe. Everyone was so fascinated and horrified by the rash of berserk cannibalism in South America that no one paid much attention to the growing civil unrest in their own backyards. It was thought to be a frightened populace rioting from fear and the unnerving footage, mixed with identity politics. It wasn’t until an unfortunate kid in Ohio got eaten by her parents during a livestream that it became clear the madness from South America had metastasized. Similar scenes in Britain and France signaled the beginning of true panic by the population at large.
Things went downhill rapidly after that.
“I thought you said we weren’t going into towns,” Paige said as she downed a tablet of Dramamine. The twisting back roads began to take their toll on her stomach. She wasn’t prone to carsickness, but the route curved like a snake.
“Paige babe, this ain’t much of a town.” He tapped the map. “It’s more like a couple of blocks of stores surrounded by a rural neighborhood and a Wal-Mart. There ought to be enough of a population base to give us a chance at finding survivors, but not enough to risk being overwhelmed by chompers. And pretty much any farmer you run into has got a gun. Odds are good that a few of them barricaded themselves in their houses to wait this out.”
“I’ve been to Langford before, Crispy. What about food?”
“They’re farmers, Paige. That means they’re a lot more self-sufficient than us when it comes to food.”
Paige nodded. The stockpiles of food inside Castellan Vitae were getting thin. Despite vast stores of preserved and freeze-dried foodstuffs, it had been eight months since the final collapse and their stores had been stretched to provide for additional refugees. What should have lasted for years would be gone in a few more months without resupply. They’d converted a lot of the arable ground on the mountain to farmland but it wasn’t the best area for that activity. It was cold and cutting down too many of the trees would create an erosion hazard. There was a plan for terracing a lot of the ground for crops but it wouldn’t be finished for some time. They needed supplies in the meantime.
“There’s a decent-sized farm supply store in Langford. It’ll be handy to pick up seeds and supplies we’re going to need.” Crispy pointed at the map. “There’s also the Wal-Mart to the north of the town. It’s a little riskier since it’s closer to a larger population base, but if it’s viable, we can load up on canned and dried foods.”
“Wouldn’t it have been looted?”
Crispy shrugged. “I’m sure it has, but it all went down so quickly that the looters didn’t get a fraction of what most of these stores contain. They mostly went after firearms and other weapons and grabbed preserved foods as an afterthought. It was such a crazy time that nobody had any long-term plans. Even the few who put together a plan were overwhelmed. Nobody could have predicted this crazy shit.”
“So you think we’ll find a lot?”
“Probably. We’ve always found plenty of stockpiles in the big box stores. Of course we’ve also found plenty of other things in them.” Crispy spit out the window.
“Chompers. Lots of ’em. It meant we could only grab a small fraction of what was available before we had to boogie. Too risky to linger.”
“And you think this Wal-Mart is zombie-packed?”
“Mmm…not necessarily.” He spit again. “That’s one of the reasons we wanted to try this area. This is the first big box store we’re trying that’s not in the middle of a city or suburb. It might have a shitload of chompers…or it might not.” He looked at her with one bushy, raised eyebrow. “We’ll find out.”
“Wonderful.” Paige flinched again as a zombie leapt over a guard rail to the left of the convoy and ran at them until a rifle shot dropped it. It wore the filthy remains of a State Police uniform. “Do they ever stop?”
“Not so far. You’d think they’d be less spry after being dead for eight months.”
Panic swept the globe after the scenes of cannibalistic horror overflowed out of the internet and into back yards. A great outcry came from the citizenry for the governments of the world to do something. Unfortunately the governments of the world were every bit as clueless as the citizenry. But as politicians are wont to do, they took action so as to appear to know how to handle the crisis.
The U.S. Government mobilized the Military and the National Guard to quell the cannibalistic riots. They donned bio-hazard gear to protect them against what was perceived as some bizarre plague. For a brief period the displays of force appeared to be working. It wasn’t until the unbelievable truth of the disaster was unveiled that the cracks appeared on the façade of control. When it was revealed that the recently dead were somehow being reanimated into a grim semblance of life, the flames of panic roared to new heights. Churches announced the incipient Armageddon and the press acted like gasoline on a brushfire.
About that time the ‘contained’ areas suffered breakouts from the secondary victims who’d risen from their deaths and acted as reinforcements for the first wave. The outnumbered and demoralized military forces couldn’t contain the ghoulish mobs, especially in the cities. This began the exodus from urban areas to the perceived haven of rural areas. But everyone had the same idea at the same time. Clogged roadways became deathtraps for everyone caught on them. Only a trickle made it out of the cities.
Civilization frayed and came apart at the seams.
“That’s it.” Crispy pointed at the deserted Wal-Mart. Dozens of cars sat in the parking lot in a haphazard fashion. A handful of zombies shambled around the lot. A small suburban neighborhood sat next to the store. The convoy perched on a road above the scene as they took careful note of the pertinent details. “I can see six…no, seven chompers in the lot,” he said as he panned his binoculars over the parking lot.
“That’s all?” Paige asked. She hadn’t realized how truly nervous she was until they’d stopped. The undead that had attacked during the road trip had been unnerving, but they’d never had a chance to get near her. Now that they were stopped, she found herself looking around constantly. She expected a zombie to burst out from behind a tree or bush at any second. Crispy noticed her pivoting head but refrained from commenting. “Shouldn’t there be more? Look at the number of cars.”
“You’ll note I said I only saw seven of them in the lot. No telling how many might be inside.” Crispy looked at her and grinned.
“Which is why you’re staying up here.”
Crispy stopped her with a curt gesture. “Absolutely not! I’m taking the veterans down with the five-tons to load up supplies and clear it out. We’ve done this before so they know what to expect. You’re going to stay up on this road with two of the Hummers.”
“So I’m fucking useless, then? Why don’t I take a nap?”
“Calm down. You’ll be doing something.” He opened up a case in the rear of the vehicle and held up an M110 Sniper Rifle. “You’ll be playing sniper for us. If we run out of there in a hurry, we’ll need some fire support.” He tossed her the rifle. “I can’t think of anyone else I’d rather have covering my back.”
Paige grinned and caressed the weapon, nodding in satisfaction.
“Now,” he addressed the rest of the mercs, “it’s time to go shopping!”