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Authors: James N. Cook

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The Darkest Place: A Surviving the Dead Novel

BOOK: The Darkest Place: A Surviving the Dead Novel
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The Darkest Place: A Surviving the Dead Novel

 

By:

 

James N. Cook

 

 

I had a dream, which was not all a dream.

The bright sun was extinguished,

and the stars did wander darkling in the eternal space,

rayless and pathless, and the icy earth swung blind

and blackening in the moonless air.

Morn came and went and came, and brought no day.

And men forgot their passions in the dread of this,

their desolation.

And all hearts were chilled into a selfish prayer for light,

and they did live by watchfires,

and the thrones, the palaces of crowned kings, the huts,

the habitations of all things which dwell,

were burnt for beacons.

Cities were consumed,

and the men gathered round their blazing homes,

to look once more into each other’s face.

 

-Lord Byron

Darkness

 

 

 

ONE

 

 

Hollow Rock, Tennessee

 

Caleb Hicks awoke to the sound of bells ringing.

This is getting to be a habit
, he thought as he sat up and reached for his gear. Everything was exactly where he had left it the night before, which was the same place he always left it. If an alarm started ringing in the middle of the night, there was no fumbling around trying to locate his MOLLE vest, rifle, assault pack, helmet, and spear. It was always in the same spot, ready to go.

“For Christ’s sake, what the hell is it this time?” Specialist Derrick Holland moaned as he tugged on his boots.

“Probably more walkers,” Sergeant Isaac Cole said groggily. “Been getting a lot of those lately.”

Staff Sergeant Ethan Thompson, Caleb’s squad leader, stood up and addressed his men. “Whatever it is, it’s our job to deal with it. Let’s get moving, ladies. Time to go to work.”

The other men in Hicks’ squad quickly dressed and armed themselves. He looked across the VFW hall that had served as his platoon’s quarters for the last few months and saw forty-eight soldiers lining up for inspection. As usual, the platoon’s commanding officer, First Lieutenant Clay Jonas, a forty-something former master sergeant given a field commission after the Outbreak, was the first to be ready. His men stood at respectful attention as he looked them over.

“All right,” he said, satisfied with what he saw. “Squad leaders, form your men up and get ready to move out.”

The four staff sergeants of First Platoon answered with a chorus of yes sirs and turned to their men, barking out orders. Thompson took a few extra moments to make sure his squad’s gear and weapons were squared away, then had them form up with the rest of the platoon. Jonas took his place at the head of the formation and nodded to his platoon sergeant.

Master Sergeant Damian Ashman—all six-foot-six, two-hundred-seventy pounds of him—towered over the men behind him as he turned and addressed his troops, the hilt of his massive broadsword protruding over his right shoulder. If they had been back home at Fort Bragg, he would have given a crisp
FORwaaaard, MARCH
. But Ashman had been in the Army long enough to know that out in the field such things weren’t necessary. Instead, he simply tilted his helmet toward the door and said, “Let’s go.”

Hicks adjusted the tactical sling on his rifle as he emerged into the chilly morning. The sun was just beginning to burnish the eastern sky in shades of crimson and copper, a clatter of birdsong echoing through blooming tree-lined streets. If not for the urgent bronze cacophony rattling from the south side of town, the morning would have been idyllic.

Caleb felt an elbow nudge his side and looked to his right. “How much you wanna bet it’s walkers again?” Holland asked.

Hicks shook his head. Holland would bet on anything.

“I’ll take that bet,” Private Fuller said from behind them. He was almost as much of a gambling addict as Holland, and that was saying something. Hicks had a theory the two of them never actually gained anything over one another in their constant wagering, but instead simply traded their personal fortunes back and forth two or three times a month.

“I’ll put up two mini-bottles of Bacardi,” Fuller said. “How about you?”

Holland thought about it for a moment, then said, “Three MRE packs of instant coffee.”

“Make it four.”

Holland spun around and marched backward while he shook hands with Fuller. “You’re on.”

As his platoon marched closer, Hicks looked up at the towers on the south wall. The guards in the towers and along the walls did not look more agitated than usual, which was a good sign. Their attention was focused toward something on the ground below, outside the palisade of telephone poles and tree trunks. They gestured, and pointed, and spoke into handheld radios. Hicks recognized the shapely silhouette of Deputy Sarah Glover as she walked back and forth organizing the response to whatever crisis was occurring.

“That cop is a sweet-looking piece of ass,” Holland said, eliciting a few chuckles from the men around him. “Kinda MILF-y, but I’d still hit it.”

Hicks felt heat rise in his face, and before he realized what he was doing, he had seized two of Holland’s fingers and twisted them together, grinding nerves between bones. Holland gave a surprised squeak and stumbled to keep up as Hicks kept walking. The tall young soldier leaned over and said, “Her name is Sarah Glover, and she is a good, kind-hearted woman. So I don’t
ever
want to hear you talk about her like that again. Understood?”

Holland nodded quickly, unable to draw a breath against the pain. Hicks released his hand.

“Jesus Christ, man,” Holland complained, trying to work feeling back into his fingers. “Half my arm is numb. What the fuck did you do to my hand?”

“Don’t worry,” Caleb said. “It’s not permanent. This time.”

Sergeant Ashman brought the platoon to a halt while Lieutenant Jonas proceeded ahead to speak with Deputy Glover. The soldiers around Hicks shifted restlessly, grumbling quiet complaints as they awaited orders. After conferring with Sarah and the watch captain, Jonas turned on his heel and walked back to his platoon.

“We’ve got another horde on our hands,” he announced. Fuller groaned. “We’re headed for the north gate to meet up with the Ninth TVM and Second Platoon outside Fort McCray. Then we’ll proceed south and encircle the horde at company strength. Same drill as last time. You men know what to do.” He nodded at Master Sergeant Ashman.

“You heard the man,” Ashman bellowed. “About face, let’s go.”

Holland muttered, “I sure am glad we marched all the way down here.”

Caleb ignored him. He had long ago given up expecting life in the Army to make sense. Everything was hurry up and wait, and contradicting orders, and marching for miles to take position on a hill, wait there for days, and then get orders to march to another hill and wait a few more days for an enemy that never showed up. Hicks no longer complained. It was pointless, and changed nothing. He simply accepted.

The platoon crossed town, emerged from the north gate, and turned eastward. When the wall surrounding the town of Hollow Rock passed behind them, there was a subtle shift in the soldiers’ demeanor. Behind the wall, they had been poised and confident, marching with casual ease, hefting their weapons with the surety of long practice. Now, without the wall separating them from the wasteland of horrors their country had become, they grew tense, eyes shifting, hands tightening on weapons, helmets turning as they scanned the fields around them and the treeline in the distance. The designated marksmen in each squad raised their sniper carbines and peered through scopes, searching the landscape for walkers or signs of an ambush.

Raiders, marauders, and insurgents were fond of using hordes as a distraction while they launched an attack. The soldiers of First Platoon had long ago learned how devastating such tactics could be, so they watched, and fidgeted, and worried.

Except Hicks.

He observed his surroundings closely, dark-blue eyes constantly on the move, searching for signs of living people having disturbed the tall grass around him. He did not allow himself to worry. One of the first lessons he had been taught, so long ago the memory was dim and hazy around the edges, was to master his emotions. To not let worry and anxiety dictate his actions.
A panicked man makes mistakes,
his father had said.
Mistakes get you killed.

Furthermore, on long marches, when faced with an unknown number of walkers and the very real possibility of an ambush, tension burned energy best used for fighting. By staying loose and relaxed, he could stave off exhaustion far longer than someone with less self-control.

Master Sergeant Ashman called the platoon to a halt at the rendezvous point, a Y-shaped intersection between Hollow Rock’s main gate and Highway 114. The men and women of the Ninth Tennessee Volunteer Militia were already waiting for them.

The militia was a stark contrast to the regular Army troops. Where Hicks and his fellow soldiers packed nearly sixty pounds of gear each time they ventured into the field, the militiamen carried hardly any equipment at all. Just a rifle, sidearm, melee weapon, MOLLE vest, spare ammunition, and a light assault pack. They even eschewed helmets in favor of ball caps, boonie hats, and in most cases, headscarves.

Since the other two platoons in Echo Company—2
nd
Battalion of the 1
st
  Reconnaissance Expeditionary Brigade out of Fort Bragg, NC—had joined First Platoon, the Ninth TVM, who had once been the town’s primary defense force, had been repurposed as scouts and guides, working closely with the commanding officers of all three platoons to teach them the terrain, point out chokepoints and ambush sites, establish patrols along critical trade routes, and generally provide expertise and advice on how best to defend Hollow Rock and the surrounding area. The newly arrived soldiers had, at first, looked upon the militia as little more than civilians playing at being soldiers. This perception faded quickly when the militia demonstrated a level of training, discipline, and combat effectiveness rivaling that of Echo Company’s best soldiers.

Over the course of hundreds of patrols, dozens of skirmishes with marauders, and countless battles with the walking dead, the soldiers fighting side by side with the militia had found them to be tough, resourceful, stalwart allies. Gradually, the soldiers’ disdain faded to grudging respect, then acceptance as equals, and finally outright admiration.

At a gesture from Lieutenant Jonas, First Platoon broke ranks and walked out to greet their friends and allies. Sergeant Manuel Sanchez and his people made their way over to Caleb’s squad and exchanged a round of greetings.

“Man, I’m getting tired of all these attacks,” said Vincenzo, one of Sanchez’s men, as he bumped knuckles with Hicks. “It’s cutting into our salvage work.”

“It’s the weather,” Hicks replied. “The walkers trapped under ice during the winter have thawed out. With all the noise going on around here, we’re attracting them like flies to a pile of shit.”

Vincenzo looked toward the wall surrounding Hollow Rock. “Yeah, but life is loud, you know? What else are we supposed to do?”

“Aside from killing them? Nothing at all.” Hicks clapped Vincenzo on the shoulder and ambled away, casually stepping closer to the cluster of lieutenants and squad leaders near the edge of the clearing. He stopped a few yards away, back turned to them so as not to draw their attention, and listened in on their conversation.

“Where the hell is Second Platoon?” Lt. Jonas asked the Ninth TVM’s commanding officer, Lieutenant Marcus Cohen. Cohen was a former Marine infantryman who had been home on leave when the Outbreak hit. Rather than return to his unit, he had stayed in Hollow Rock to protect his family. There were a few soldiers in Echo Company who looked down on him for this decision, but they did so quietly. The last soldier to voice open criticism accepted a challenge from Cohen to disregard rank and settle things out behind the mess hall. Said soldier went to bed that night with two black eyes, bruised ribs, a missing tooth, and a broken nose. The rest of the company got the message.

“They’re on their way,” Cohen replied. “Lieutenant Chapman just radioed in. ETA five minutes.”

Jonas looked confused. “Well how the hell did you get here so fast?”

“We were already out on maneuvers,” Cohen said, grinning. “Unlike some people, my militia doesn’t hold banker’s hours.”

Jonas chuckled. “Keep it up, smart ass.”

“Sir,” Sergeant Ashman broke in. “Should I radio Lt. Chapman to catch up with us?”

There was a moment’s pause while Jonas thought it over. Ashman had a way of couching suggestions in the form of questions, a very effective technique when dealing with officers. “Yeah, go ahead,” Jonas replied. “We’ll assess the situation and instruct him where to set up.”

While Ashman got on the radio, Jonas shouted for the two platoons to shut their yaps and listen up.

“We’re moving out,” he shouted. “We’ll march south toward the railroad tracks and set up a perimeter around the southern wall. Standard crescent formation. SAW gunners and designated marksmen, grab one volunteer each and make your way to the woods past the tracks and conduct a thorough sweep. I don’t want any surprises while we’re dealing with the horde. Sergeant Kelly, turn your squad over to Sergeant Ashman. I want you to lead the recon detail. Any questions?”

Silence.

“All right then. Form up and move out.”

As they turned southward, Caleb felt Cole’s massive hand on his shoulder. “You ready to go huntin’?” the big gunner rumbled.

Hicks showed his teeth. “Always.”

The two men broke off from the platoon and headed to the edge of the woods where Sgt. Kelly was mustering the recon detail. They were joined by Holland, Fuller, and the other heavy gunners and designated marksmen from both First and Second Platoon. As for the the Ninth TVM, since they were not regular Army, it was standard procedure to remain with their federal counterparts during a walker attack.

“All right, men,” Kelly announced when everyone was assembled. “You all know the drill. Maintain five-yard intervals, radio silence, hand signals only. Move slow and quiet, and if shit gets real, stay in your lane. Questions?”

BOOK: The Darkest Place: A Surviving the Dead Novel
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