For today’s blog entry, I’m rather proud to give my proverbial podium to a guest author for the Summer of Zombies Blog Tour. That would be James N. Cook, whose pic is below, followed by a brief introduction from James and a free excerpt from the new zombie novel which he co-wrote with another esteemed fellow horror author, Joshua Guess. Take it away, dude!
Hello everyone, and thanks for having me. For this post, I decided not to bore you to death with a bunch of anecdotes, un-funny jokes, and observations that no one cares to hear. I am not here to tell you all about how awesome of a writer I am, and why you should buy my books, and how hard I’ve struggled, and blah, blah, blah. Rather, I’d like to simply show you. This is an actual chapter from an upcoming novel I am co-authoring with Living With the Dead creator Joshua Guess. Its title is The Passenger, and we expect to publish it sometime in mid-to-late July. I hope you like it. Enjoy!
Excerpt from the upcoming novel The Passenger, by James N. Cook and Joshua Guess.
The trouble started, as it usually did, with the crack of a rifle.
A high-powered one by the sound of it, Ethan thought. The bullet smashed into the operator’s compartment on the u-trac, and if not for the four inches of ballistic glass between Gus and the rest of the world, his head would have burst like a melon. As it was, the grizzled engineer barely flinched.
“Looks like we got company.”
Ethan looked at Jones to find him grinning broadly. The handsome man’s smile faltered, however, when more rifles fired and nearly a dozen rounds broke themselves against the armor of their passenger car. Ethan snatched up his rifle and leapt to his feet.
“Backs to the wall!” he shouted.
Delta squad surged up from the bench and fanned out against the two-inch thick steel walls standing between them and whoever it was firing on the u-trac. Ethan peered out the narrow window and looked across the tall grass separating the tracks from the treeline less than a hundred yards away. As he watched, the branches parted and swirled, and over a dozen horsemen broke cover and began driving their mounts hard toward the slow-moving transport. The riders stood up in their saddles, knees bent with boots locked into stirrups, leveled their mismatched rifles, and began firing.
“Goddamn, how’d they know we were coming?”
Ethan turned his head to look at Jones who stood pressed against the wall beside him. “You see they have horses, right? Probably a patrol spotted us and then rode back to get his friends. This shit-heap we’re riding only goes about ten miles an hour.”
Jones nodded understanding just as another volley of gunfire peppered the wall.
“Fuck,” Ethan swore. It was only a matter of time until one of those rounds found its way through a firing port, and when that happened, the ricochet would rip them to pieces. Gotta make these assholes back off.
“Jones, get that SAW up the ladder,” Ethan said. “Schmidt, Holland, Cormier, lay down cover fire until he can get the hatch open. Fuller, Page, Hicks, cover the other side. Shoot anything that fucking moves. Smith, make sure Jones doesn’t run out of ammo.”
Private Smith stood ashen-faced against the wall, sweating bullets in spite of the cold and clutching his rifle with trembling hands. Looking at him, Ethan remembered his own first taste of combat. The lurching in his stomach, the pounding of his heart, the rasp of his own rapid, panicky breath grating in his ears. There was only one cure for that ailment, and that was to get into the fight.
“Smith! You fucking deaf?”
He jerked and looked at Ethan, the whites of his eyes round and bulging. “Yeah. I mean no. I mean … I hear you, sergeant. I got it.” He shuffled over to dull metal case mounted against the wall, flipped the latch, opened it, and took out a green box of belted 5.56mm NATO ammunition. As he did so, Jones hefted his M-240 Squad Automatic Weapon—or just SAW, as it was more commonly known—and stepped up the short ladder that led to the roof of the passenger car. He turned the handle to unlock it, but stayed bent beneath the hatch.
“All right, open fire!” Ethan shouted. He leveled his rifle through the narrow firing port and began squeezing off rounds. The riders were approaching fast and firing as quickly as they could. Try as he might, Ethan couldn’t get a good shot at any of them. Behind him, he heard Justin, Cormier, and Holland open fire as well.
“Got one!” Holland shouted. As Ethan watched, one of their pursuers slumped over and fell from his saddle. His boot remained lodged in the stirrup, and his horse continued to gallop along, dragging his limp, flailing body along with it. The riders behind the dead man saw what happened to him, and began to back off. The ones in front, oblivious to their cohort’s fate, continued their pursuit. One of them came level with the rear car, reached into a saddlebag behind him, and produced some kind of improvised explosive. A very large one. Where the hell did he get that? Ethan couldn’t get the man in his sights, so he shifted his aim lower and squeezed off a short burst. The man’s mount screamed as several rounds tore into its lower chest and the thick muscles of its legs. The animal pitched forward, rolling and thrashing and crushing his hapless rider. As he fell, the explosive went flying through the air and detonated several yards behind the u-trac’s rear wheels.
“They’ve got some kind of fucking grenades!” Ethan shouted. “Isaac, time to earn your paycheck!”
Jones’ teeth stood out sharp and white as he smiled. “Hell to the yeah, baby.”
He pushed the hatch open with one meaty hand, surged up through the opening, and leveled his SAW.
“WHOOOOO YEAH MOTHERFUCKER!”
Short, staccato bursts of fire poured from the heavy weapon, tearing into the approaching riders and sending them tumbling to the ground in screaming, bloody heaps. Some of the rounds went low and caught the horses, but there wasn’t much Jones could do about that. The SAW wasn’t the most accurate weapon in the world.
At the same time, the squads riding in the other passenger cars finally got it together and began adding their rifles to the fray. Whatever the raiders had been expecting when they set out to pursue the u-trac, it hadn’t been hardened soldiers cutting them to ribbons with a withering hail of hot lead. Panicked, the ones still alive veered their mounts around and pounded away back toward the cover of the trees.
“Aw, come on now. Get back here bitches, you know you LOOOOOVE this shit!”
The big gunner fired a final burst at the retreating marauders before stepping down and closing the hatch behind him. Jones’ face glowed with excitement. Ethan shook his head.
“Nice work, gentlemen. You too, Smith.”
The young private was still standing by the ladder clutching his box of ammo. “Me? I didn’t even do anything.”
Ethan stepped forward and clapped him on the arm. “Sure you did. I gave you an order and you followed it. You didn’t freeze up, or panic.” He leaned forward with a conspiratorial whisper. “You didn’t shit yourself, did you?”
Smith let out a nervous laugh. “No, I didn’t.”
Ethan stood up straight and grinned at the younger man. “Then you did just fine. Maybe next time I’ll even let you do some of the fighting.”
Smith’s smile grew sickly, then disappeared altogether.
The door at the far end of the car opened, and Lieutenant Jonas stepped through the narrow opening, careful not to step into the short length of empty space separating the command car from Delta’s passenger carriage. “Everyone all right in here? Anybody hurt?”
“No sir,” Ethan replied. “We’re all good.” He turned to Smith. “Check the other cars for me, private. Find out if there are any casualties.”
Smith nodded. “I’m on it.”
As the private hustled to the next adjoining car, Jonas stepped closer to Ethan. “Did my eyes deceive me, or were those raiders on horseback?”
“Yes sir, they were.”
The lieutenant ran a hand over the back of his neck, his mouth forming a thin, hard line. “Well ain’t that just fucking wonderful. How much you want to bet those sons of bitches are from Hamlet?”
“I’m not a betting man sir, but I’d say your odds are pretty good.”
“And now they have bombs.” Jonas shuffled over to a window and planted a hand against the wall as he stared out. “We’re the first u-trac to come out this way, Thompson. And now they’ve seen us. I guaran-damn-tee you that by tomorrow these tracks are going to be lousy with IED’s. Fucking Hamlet. Place is a goddamn den of thieves, and slavers, and insurgent scum. I’ve got half a mind to radio for permission to go root those fuckers out.”
Ethan watched the older man move to the bench and sit down, back straight. He looked incongruous with just a single bar on his collar. Most of the officers his age had oak leaves or eagles with wings spread wide. It was easy to forget that Jonas had spent most of his career in the Army as an enlisted man, working his way up the through the ranks the hard way. He’d seen more than his share of combat, and wasn’t afraid to take up arms and get in the thick of things when the situation required it. Because of this, and his deep understanding of the needs and concerns of his soldiers, the trust and respect he got from his men was absolute. Nevertheless, the idea of walking blindly into hostile territory—and going off-mission to do it—struck Ethan as not being the best of ideas.
“What about Pope? Maybe they could send out a drone to recon the place, find out what we’re up against. I’m not afraid of a fight sir, but I don’t like the idea of going in blind. Not if we can help it, at least. There’s no sense in getting ourselves killed needlessly.”
A less experienced officer may have bristled at Ethan’s suggestion, if not his tone. Jonas, however, nodded calmly. He knew good advice when he heard it, and he wasn’t arrogant enough to think that his experience precluded him from making mistakes. The Army had NCO’s for a reason, after all.
“You’re right sergeant, as usual. Still, knowing those fuckers are out there…”
Holland spoke up, “If you want LT, I can take a couple of guys and go scout it out. See what I can find. Maybe make some trouble for ‘em.”
Jonas thought about it for a moment, but shook his head. “No. I appreciate your courage Holland, but I can’t spare you. Besides, we’re behind schedule as it is, we can’t afford the delay.”
The door to the car opened, and Private Smith stepped back through. “No casualties, sir. Everybody’s okay.”
Jonas stood up. “Good, good. Any fight you survive is a good one, right men?”
Delta Squad nodded in agreement, their faces grim as they remembered fights that not all of them had walked away from. Fights where they had lost friends, men who were so familiar, who had shared so much terror and hardship, that they were like family. Brothers, all of them. Private Smith shuffled his feet and remained silent. He had been assigned to Delta after his predecessor was killed in the line of duty. He didn’t know the circumstances of the man’s death, but he knew the other soldiers of First Platoon had taken the loss hard. And none harder than the men around him.
“You all did well today,” Jonas said. “That was a good, fast response. Especially you, Jones, you’re a goddamn nightmare with that SAW.”
The gunner grinned. “You know what they say, sir. Do what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life.”
Jonas barked a short laugh. “Damn right. All right then, looks like we’re squared away.” He gestured at Ethan. “Staff sergeant, round up the other squad leaders and get reports from them. Command is going to want to know what we just expended valuable ammunition on.”
“The rest of you keep your eyes peeled for trouble. Holland, put that scope of yours to use and watch our back trail. Those raiders might find their spines and decide to pay us another visit. If they do, I want warning well ahead of time.”
Holland nodded. “Want me to get the other DM’s to do the same, sir?”
“No, just you and Sergeant Kelly for now. Rotate out with the other two in a couple of hours.”
Ethan watched the Lieutenant open the door and step back into the command car. He caught a glimpse of the cot along the wall, and the chair bolted to the floor in front of a small desk. It would have been mean accommodations under other circumstances, but standing there in the bare passenger car, he felt like some character from a Dickens novel wandering through the cold and staring through a window at Christmas dinner. The door shut, and the room was lost to view. He sighed, his shoulders slumping.
Time to round up the other squad leaders. Time to write a report.
Goddamn I hate paperwork.
Hamlet passed by to the north of the u-trac much the same as any other town.
Ethan watched the outlines of buildings in the distance as they slowly drifted from left to right, little more than grey and brown husks against the blue morning haze. Even from this far away, he could see the empty, yawning holes staring out from behind shattered windows, the black scorch marks left behind by long ago fires, and the sharp, stabbing fingers of I-beams, support struts, and shattered concrete pillars where office complexes and government buildings had once stood — all collapsed now. All reduced to great, mountainous heaps of forgotten rubble.
Across the depressing expanse between the town and the tracks, littered like corpses on a battlefield, lay houses, businesses, long-dead industrial facilities, and sagging structures that seemed to have no identifiable purpose at all. Every visible wall was crowded with vines and creepers that swarmed over rooftops in choking, skeletal tangles. Autumn’s chill had turned everything brown and dead, and blanketed the landscape in an ocean of endless beige beneath a cloudy, pewter-colored sky. All seemed still out there. Abandoned. Quiet.
Ethan knew better.
There were eyes out there. Many eyes, and none of them friendly. They watched the tracks, he knew. They watched, and they would remember. He would not have been surprised if word of the brief, bloody firefight had already reached the ears of the other marauders holed up in that shattered ruin of a town. Nor would it have surprised him to learn that their plans for retaliation were already in motion. That was what they did, these marauder bands. They fought. They killed. They took from others. And if they were attacked, their response was never proportional, never just an eye for an eye. They were vicious, savage people, with no regard for anyone’s lives other than their own. Often, they even fought amongst each other, robbing, raping and stealing.
It was a well-known fact in the Army that you didn’t go after marauders with half measures. You didn’t just hit them and hope they would learn their lesson. These were people who didn’t back down from a fight. Didn’t run away. Didn’t get intimidated by the occasional strafing run or mortar bombardment. If a platoon was sent to take down known marauders, it wasn’t just a police action. It wasn’t just an effort to bring them to heel.
It was total annihilation.
Kill them all, root and branch, or die in the attempt. And dying wasn’t outside the realm of possibility. More than once, entire platoons had limped back to Fort Bragg decimated and in shambles, most of their men dead or dying of wounds or infection. Contrary to what all the strategists had predicted, the marauders were becoming increasingly well-armed. Unexplainably, alarmingly so. They were determined, these insurgents and raiders, and they were getting better at their craft. And out there, across that cracked veneer of dead civilization, was an unknown number of them.
Ethan stood near the wall, his face close to the chill, gently blowing air outside, and stared out the narrow window as the u-trac slowly rattled along. He searched rooftops for movement, eyes narrowed, jaw constantly working. He searched the tall grass for the telltale streaks of lighter brown that would indicate someone having passed through recently. He breathed in deeply through his nose, trying to catch the acrid odor of wood smoke born on the wind. He listened for the crack of distant rifles echoing across the low, gently rolling hills. But mostly he simply watched, gaze unfocused, never letting his eyes rest on one spot for too long, determined to spot trouble if it was out there. He rested his head against one thick forearm, and for long into the morning, he watched.
He watched, and he worried.
I sincerely hope that you liked this excerpt, and if you want to check out more of my work, or Josh’s, just click the links below: