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Stephen Knight

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The Gathering Dead
by Stephen Knight   

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Books by Stephen Knight
· City of the Damned
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Category: 

Horror

Publisher:  Ronin LLC ISBN-10:  1458025306
Pages: 

258

Copyright:  March 11, 2011 ISBN-13:  9781458025302

The Horde is Always Hungry


The zombie apocalypse has begun, and Major Cordell McDaniels is given the most important mission of his career: lead a Special Forces team into New York City to rescue the one man who can stop the ghastly virus that reanimates the dead.

But as a growing army of flesh-eating corpses takes over the streets and a violent storm renders airborne extraction impossible, McDaniels struggles to find a way out of the Big Apple. The odds of anyone getting out alive plummet further when slaughtered members of his own Special Forces team join the ranks of the gathering dead... with their military skills intact!


Excerpt

CHAPTER 1

The dead had risen.

McDaniels heard the fragmented reports over the radio, and he could glimpse the reality of it through the Humvee’s thick, bullet-resistant windows. The dead had risen, and they swarmed through New York City like a plague of locusts, consuming every person they could find. The gates of Hell had opened, and the dead were the vanguard of Satan’s army. Every now and then, the .50 caliber mounted in the Humvee’s cupola would bark, and red-hot cartridges would roll into the vehicle’s passenger compartment, tinkling to the floor between McDaniels and the slightly stooped man cowering in the armored seat beside him. Whenever the soldier manning the .50 fired, the gray-haired man flinched. His pale face grew even more pallid.

“Shooting them really doesn’t help,” he said to McDaniels. “It takes a head shot to make them fully dead again. And the noise is just giving us away.”

McDaniels shifted the M4 carbine in his lap. “A few rounds from a fifty don’t really leave all that much, doctor. I’d rather deal with a couple of stiffs that are blasted into several different pieces than a couple that are still whole and able to give chase.”
“But the noise...”

McDaniels shrugged. “The city’s falling apart. A little gunfire isn’t going to make any difference, sir.”
From the front right seat, First Sergeant David Gartrell glanced back at McDaniels. “Zeds in the street ahead. Looks like they busted through the NYPD cordon. We have a choice of deviating or going through ‘em. For what it’s worth, top cover says we’re on the most direct route.” The grizzled senior noncommissioned officer hesitated for just a moment before dropping the bomb. “There are lots of civilians still in the area, so it’s going to get messy no matter where we go.”

“Keep on going,” McDaniels said. “Doctor, you’d better prepare yourself—this won’t be pleasant.”

Doctor Wolf Safire shrunk even further into the seat’s hard contours. His big blue eyes brimmed with terror, but there was a defiant set to his jaw.

“My daughter,” was all he could get out. His voice was barely a choked whisper above the roar of the Humvee’s diesel engine and the sporadic chatter of the .50 caliber overhead.

“She’s right behind us. We won’t leave her behind, doctor. I promise.”

Safire nodded and ran a hand through his thick gray hair. He started to say something more, but the Humvee bounced on its suspension as it drove over something. The bouncing continued, and McDaniels knew the vehicle had rolled over several somethings. He looked up as a distorted face flitted past the window to his right, then another. A smear of blood splashed across the window. Above, the .50 caliber opened up again, this time with a vengeance as the trooper manning it let loose salvo after salvo. McDaniels leaned past the trooper’s legs and looked at Safire again. The thin scientist had his hands clenched into fists and pressed them against his eyes.

“Holy shit, is it thick out here!” the gunner said over the din of his weapon.

He wasn’t kidding. Through the windshield, McDaniels saw dozens—maybe hundreds!—of the walking dead surging onto West 58th Street as they overwhelmed the hasty barricades set up by the NYPD and New York Army National Guard. The barricades weren’t totally ineffective; constructed from garbage trucks, fire engines, squad cars, and every other vehicle that could be driven into position, they still held a mass of stinking dead at bay. But the dead just piled up on each other, trampling each other as they formed great writhing dunes of bodies that loomed over the barricades. That was how they crashed through. Undeterred by the firepower arrayed against them, they closed upon the barricade defenders and slammed into them like a tidal wave. Their single-minded desire to feed was what drove the legion of the dead to swarm out of lower Manhattan like a vicious, malignant cancer. No matter what they had been in life, in death—or the new death—all that was left for them was incessant, never-ending hunger. And all the food was pulling away from them, headed to the north. Out of the city.

Why the dead needed to eat live human flesh was beyond McDaniels.

He slapped the trooper’s right leg. “Ritt, button it up! Secure your weapon, now!”

“Hooah.” As the Humvee plowed into the first of the walking dead, Rittenour dropped back into the Humvee’s passenger cabin and closed the cupola’s hatch. Just in time; the vehicle was jarred by a sudden impact.

“Looks like we got some jumpers,” Gartrell said from the front right seat. “I don’t believe this... the damn stiffs are actually jumping off the buildings to try and get at us.” He adjusted his helmet’s strap slightly as the Humvee slammed through two other shambling corpses, sending them flying. McDaniels watched as a New York City Police officer ran toward the convoy, a pack of the dead on his heels. He stumbled, and that was all it took; some of the faster ghouls fell upon him, nails slashing, teeth tearing. McDaniels turned away from the sight.
Gartrell glanced at the driver as the armored vehicle drove over another clutch of the dead, its big, knobbed tires spinning momentarily as they crushed bone and pulped desiccated flesh.

“No need to try and go around them or anything, Leary.”

The driver kept his eyes riveted on the chaos before them. “First Sergeant, you can kiss my—oh God!”

The Humvee skidded to a sudden halt, throwing everyone against their harnesses before they could brace themselves. Sergeant Rittenour flew into the back of Gartrell’s seat and rebounded pretty much right into McDaniels’ lap before McDaniels could restrain him. He hadn’t had the time to buckle up.

“Leary, what the fuck?” Rittenour yelled.

And then McDaniels saw what had prompted Leary to stand on the brakes. Standing next to the Humvee’s left fender was a slender woman with curly red hair. She wore a white terry cloth bathrobe, and clutched asmall toddler to her breast. The toddler’s eyes were big, blue, and beautiful, much like her mother’s would have been had they not been so full of terror.

“Please! Please help me!” the woman screamed. She pounded on the driver’s window with one well-manicured hand.

“Oh God,” Safire whimpered.

“Major,” Leary said.

“Drive, Leary!” McDaniels said.

Leary twisted in his seat and looked back at McDaniels. He compressed his lips into a thin, bloodless line.

“Major,” he said again, his voice soft but the plea was unmistakable. Please major, don’t make me leave this woman and her kid to these things.

“God damn it, troop!” Gartrell reached across the wide vehicle and rapped his knuckles across Leary’s Kevlar helmet. “Drive!”

Leary glanced back at the woman, and she must have seen it in his eyes. She pounded on the bullet-resistant glass as the dead swarmed toward her, some at a slow run, others at a limp.

“My daughter, take my daughter!” she screamed. Leary finally stomped on the accelerator, and the Humvee’s diesel engine roared as the vehicle pulled away just as the first of the ghouls slammed into the woman and ripped the child from her arms.

“Oh fuck,” Rittenour said.

“God forgive me,” Leary muttered. There was no mistaking the sob in his voice, and McDaniels’ heart went out to him. None of them had ever thought they would be abandoning defenseless American citizens to the ravages of a brutal and uncaring enemy like this. If they had, McDaniels knew none of them would have signed up to wear the uniform of the United States Army.

“God’s not here today,” Gartrell said. “But I am. Just do what you’re told to do, troop—drive. Straight down 58th until we’re told to turn. Got it?”

“Got it,” Leary said. He got a semblance of his game face on and sped up, weaving around the odd abandoned vehicle here and there. But when the dead shambled into view, he drifted toward them and let the Humvee’s reinforced bumper and brush guards deal with them. The heavy vehicle swayed as it crashed through them.

“You’re not hurting them,” Safire said.

“Sir?”

“You’re not hurting them, soldier! They can’t feel pain! They can’t reason, they can’t feel fear, all they know is hunger! Going out of your way to run over them isn’t hurting them at all!” Safire said, his voice nearly a high-pitched shriek.

Leary kept his eyes riveted on the street before him. “That may be, sir. But it sure is fun.”

McDaniels’ radio headset came alive. “Terminator Six, this is Two-Six, over.”

“Terminator Two-Six, this is Terminator Six, go ahead.”

“Six, keep on 58th. Don’t turn toward Columbus Circle. That area was a mess before the quarantine, and it was being used as a staging area for the fire department before they were stood down. A lot of the tankers and ladder trucks were abandoned, I saw it on the flight in,” said Chief Warrant Officer 3 Walter Keith. He was the real commander of the Special Forces Operational Detachment, not McDaniels. McDaniels didn’t know Keith well, but he had immediately impressed upon the major and First Sergeant David Gartrell that he was a hard charger who wasn’t about to shrug off a mission.

“Roger Two-Six, good copy.” To Gartrell: “Verify that with top cover.”

Gartrell spoke into his headset’s boom microphone, talking directly to the pilots of the MH-6 Little Bird that paced the convoy from overhead. He listened to the response.

“Keith’s right. The Night Stalkers verify what he said, but it’s not their intention to send us that way. We’ll drive through the intersection of 58th and Eighth Avenue, then across Broadway. We turn north at Seventh Avenue and enter the park there.”

“Got that, Staff Sergeant Leary?” McDaniels asked.

“Hooah,” Leary said.

McDaniels relayed the information to CW3 Keith, who rode in the Humvee behind them. “If we get separated, take that route. Over.”
“Roger, Terminator Six. We’ll be with you, over.”

The convoy broke through the infested area and charged past a manned barricade. McDaniels was surprised to see two M2 Bradley Infantry Fighting Vehicles mixed in amidst the M1114 Humvees. Army National Guard soldiers wearing full MOPP IV gear—the accoutrements a soldier would don in the event of a nuclear, biological, or chemical attack—stared down at the three Humvees from atop their own vehicles.

“Poor bastards,” Gartrell said. “They feel safe because of the hardware, but it’s not going to help them.”

“Maybe we ought to tell ‘em,” Rittenour said.

“Maybe you ought to sit back and enjoy the ride, troop. This vehicle is not stopping,” Gartrell said.

Ahead, a fire raged unabated as a fashionable Midtown West apartment building burned, filling the street with pungent, thick smoke the color of coal. Unarmed civilians stared at the Humvees as they tore past, but the dead hadn’t made it this far yet. Despite the uncontrolled fires, the uniformed soldiers manning the corners, the perpetual songs of sirens mixed with the throbbing basso beats of helicopter rotor blades, the residents of this part of New York City thought they were safe for the moment.

McDaniels shook his head. A moment was about all they had.

###

The dead hadn’t made it to Central Park yet, at least not in sufficient force. Still, the fair citizens of New York City had heard the helicopters, and they knew the jig was up. As the three Humvees roared through the park, armed soldiers and NYPD were using all the tools at their disposal to keep the citizens at bay. They were using non-lethal force, McDaniels saw. No one wanted a rising to occur here, not in the middle of an evacuation. Just a few members of the walking dead could spawn dozens of fellow walking corpses.

A television news van was off to one side of the intersection of the 72nd Street Transverse and East Drive. The Humvees were a mess, having driven over and through pretty much everything the dead could throw at them, and judging by the viscera smeared across the windows, McDaniels was certain the convoy was not a pretty sight. The TV cameras immediately swung in their direction, broadcasting the image out to millions.
The Humvees accelerated through the intersection and past the news crew without slowing down. They wound their way through the vast park that sat at the heart of one of Man’s greatest cities, a city that was slowly being consumed by a kind of nearly untreatable cancer.

And the only thing that kept it from being completely untreatable sat in a Humvee not more than three feet from one Cordell McDaniels, Major, United States Army Special Forces. Doctor Wolf Safire, the brilliant biochemist that had started the renowned pharmaceutical company InTerGen over two decades ago. McDaniels’ bosses said that Safire might have a cure, or a vaccine against whatever it was that caused those bitten by the dead from turning into one of them. And that was why he had been pulled out of his normal work at Army Special Operations Command and dispatched with First Sergeant David Gartrell to link up with Operational Detachment Alpha OMEN in New York City. He would oversee the rescue of the scientist and his thirty-something daughter, and ensure they were placed on a dedicated transport that waited for them in one small portion of Central Park’s Great Lawn. McDaniels hadn’t even thought to ask why him. Not only was it against the heritage of service he embraced—one did not question lawful orders, especially in the special operations community. And if there was a man who said he might be able to stop the rising tide of the dead, then McDaniels would run through an erupting volcano naked if that’s what it took to get him to deliver. And McDaniels had his own family to worry about. Though the Big Apple was the general nexus point in the United States, there were catastrophic infestations in Europe. No one knew exactly where it had started, but all indications seemed to point to somewhere inside Russia. McDaniels had been on the task force assigned to discover the outbreaks etiology. It seemed that someone had come across some long-forgotten relic of the Cold War and tampered with it. True or not, what had been released was first reported in Russia, and within weeks, Russia went dark. Satellites showed the legions of the dead moving across the nation, heading for both Europe and China. It was the double attack on capitalism the old Soviet guard might have dreamed of, but the soldiers had an entirely different perspective. They weren’t in it to destroy capitalism. They were in it to eat people, and it didn’t matter if those people were Russian, German, French, Polish, or Chinese.

The sky overhead was dark with smoke from gigantic fires. South of 14th Street, New York was an inferno, an intentional blaze started by the military in hopes that it would contain the army of the dead and prevent it from advancing north. And in a small measure, it was a successful gamble; even the dead couldn’t soldier on when all their flesh had been burned to a crisp and tendons and ligaments could no longer move muscle and bone. But there were gaps between the fires, gaps filled with soldiers and policemen that were being overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of the walking dead. There were tens of thousands of them in lower Manhattan, and they avoided the flames by using the subway tunnels, by massing at roadblocks in such numbers that they overwhelmed the defenders, and in some instances, by walking into the East and Hudson Rivers and walking upstream. McDaniels had heard reports on his way in that a group of the walking dead had emerged from the East River and was headed for the United Nations building. He had chuckled at that. Finally, something would devour the United Nations before it could envelop the world in leftist glory.

But the fires had also blackened the skies with thick smoke, smoke that was driven northward by the prevailing winds. This had curtailed aviation operations. Even though McDaniels’ convoy had a helicopter escort, it was by sheer chance that the proper flight crew from the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment had been in the area and was open to tasking. The pilots flew their small MH-6 Little Bird without doors and usually operated at an altitude of 40 feet above the deck, at night, in all weather, so flying in smoke wasn’t a show stopper for them. For the rest of the aviation community, however, the smoke was thick enough to hamper general aviation missions. That was why the assembly area at Central Park had been set up. VIPs and their dependents were to make it to the Park and, upon identity verification, they would board a helicopter or tiltrotor bound for greener pastures.

That was the idea, anyway. McDaniels looked out the window at the smoke-tinged afternoon and wondered just how many aircraft would wind up burying their noses in the dirt because their pilots couldn’t fly by instruments.

Shapes moved amidst the trees as the Humvee sped up East Drive. McDaniels straightened in his seat and looked out the gore-smudged window, trying to make sense of what he saw. Were those people, or...?

“Holy mother of God,” Gartrell said. “Freaking stiffs in Army BDUs!”

McDaniels felt a deep chill envelop him. “Call it in as a black flag actual. Leary, step on it. We’re out of time.”

“You got it, major.”




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