8 Chapter 8 The March of the Dead
The days following the Safeway debacle should have been quiet and peaceful but what peace there had been was about to be shattered. Cameron had been spending a lot of time in his apartment putting the finishing touches on a pet project that had consumed a fair amount of whatever free time he had.
Steven had for the past week, been sentenced to nightshifts of guard duty, under the watchful eye of the other on duty guards who took a delight in making his shifts as uncomfortable and taxing as possible. Generally, one had a single overnight shift every week whether it was on guard duty or in the radio room. Steven however, was on his seventh consecutive night shift thus far, with another twenty five shifts awaiting him. The crime had been gross negligence regarding both the vehicle and the radio room with the cost his ineptitude standing at three injured and one destroyed humvee.
Cameron had demanded that Steven be punished, and Natalie had demanded that Steven be thrown out to the undead. Jaira had argued for punishment and she'd managed to bring both of her comrades round on the point that the banishment of anyone - even Steven - would set an ugly precedent. Steven had refused to accept that he had failed in any of his assigned duties and responsibilities but had listened to his own self preservation instincts accepting the punishment.
He yawned and then wrinkled his nose in disgust at the smell that wafted towards him upon a gentle breeze, as he turned to the closest man standing upon the wall with him, "Excuse me, but what is that disgusting emanation?"
"Just shut your hole and keep your eyes on that road. After your last screw up…" somebody shushed the speaker, pulling him farther down the wall. Steven had stood his ground, but then his courage was fortified due to the presence of the shotgun in his hands
Beyond the sight lines of anyone atop the wall cold and rancid decaying corpses that had once been scattered throughout the city had converged. The kilometer long undead serpent moved forward with relentless endurance, deadly intent and an unsteady gait. Each creature within the serpentine horde had once been an individual life with hopes, dreams and reasons to exist. Now they were an emotionless husk of tattered clothing encasing greasy flesh of withered muscle and brittle bone. They had been stripped of their individuality, and along with it, their humanity as they continued onwards, driven by chaotic thoughts of unknown origin.
Steven panned the light farther out and shadows jumped away in fear, punching through nearly fifty feet of darkness. A gentle breeze stirred and carried with it the same damning stench from before. As a human survivor, one got used to that smell as it was the scent of the undead that left their taint on any place they visited.
It was a sudden thump, a heavy foot landing upon a step behind him that caused Steven to jump like a scalded cat twisting around and overbalancing. His hand slid along the edge of the wall looking for something to help him regain his balance, but the wall proved to be of the less than supporting variety as he landed on his prosperous posterior. He found himself staring up at Brennan's outstretched hand, which he took. Brennan had continued to treat him with politeness and civility, even if it was of the "white kid gloves" variety. Steven knew better than to comment on it, as the majority treated him as if he was one of the diseased living outside the walls. Brennan hoisted Steven back to his feet, scanning out across the gloom in the no man's land beyond the walls, "How's it going?"
"It's been quiet, like it has been quiet for the past five nights." Steven replied cordially as the same foul smell wafted along, borne on the wind to catch Brennan full in the face as Steven wrinkled his nose in disgust again. Brennan scratched his chin, irritated that the stubble upon his face was beginning to grow out in to a full beard. The sad fact of life was that he could only shave once a week with the shortage of razor blades and shaving cream, and he was not yet desperate enough to start shaving with a combat knife unlike some.
"What do you make of that smell?" he asked. The smell had Brennan concerned because it was the same kind of smell from the beginning, when the undead had begun their global takeover just after the walls of Sparta were raised. The undead had beaten themselves against those very walls until they had massacred and burned dozens of bodies in mass funeral pyres that had stained the sky with inky black smoke and the smell of burning flesh and fat for days if not even weeks afterwards. Brennan gesticulated, searching for the right phrasing as Steven panned the searchlight out in to the darkness again, "It's that smell that only the walking dead possess... like that smell just after we raised the walls and finished the gates and we had a few of the banging on the wall every morning and during the night.
Steven shook his head, the spotlight stopped in the middle of the wreckage strewn street, "I still dream, on occasion, about those men, women and children. Their moans and groans, the sounds they made. They way they pounded their fists against these walls until they bled and their bones shattered… and then how they continued pounding on the wall, their only care and concern being getting to us."
Brennan was about to reply when something flared brightly in the darkness of the night sky, something that made Brennan hand snap to the radio on his hip, "Warning Flare! Sound internal alarm!"
The flares lit up the sky a hundred meters away, throwing pools of light that cast half shadows across the ominously silent cityscape. The light streamed down and in the distance, something was wrong. Both men scrambled for the one set of binoculars. Steven was fractionally quicker and could only stare in shock as his took a deep breath, "Those undead you mentioned…." Stevens' hands shook as he lowered the field glasses from his eyes. A look of fear was etched across his features as he struggled to keep his voice even and level, without wetting his pants at the same time, "There are hundreds of them out there, coming this way."
Inside the towering building behind them, the man on duty in the radio room acted. The system had been built and now came the acid test of reality. His hand reached out and turned a dial to its first setting, the farthest on its left labeled "Internal" before lifting the plastic cover off the top of a large red switch that had been built in to the console and slammed the button. Throughout the corridors of the shopping mall and the adjacent parking garage Christmas lights began to flicker and flash to a machine gun beat, as those on duty moved outwards towards their walls.
It was assumed that the undead would scatter and fan out, something akin to the inkblot effect. Given enough time, ink spilt on blotting paper would spread out across the paper until it had soaked the page evenly. The undead, having nothing to drive them beyond the sounds of life, should have followed the same pattern. Instead they had come together in a horde so large that any sound made by one member of the horde was echoed by others creating a sustaining organism. The prospect of Sparta actually coming under siege had once been discussed and determined to be a less than realistic possibility.
They were wrong.
Cameron was sitting in what passed for the recreation center, smoking, or rather just holding his third lit cigarette of the night when the alarms went off. He looked over the other players, but nobody left the card table. They were all off duty and the cards were dealt, the decision unspoken and unanimous that they would finish the hand.
Cameron returned his concentration to his hole cards where he had a pair of sixes. Considering that that a third six had been dealt in the initial flop and the river had given him yet another six, he had little to worry about. His betting was a sharp contrast to the strength of his cards as he strung the other players along.
In terms of competition, he wasn't too worried as Natalie had been losing since the first hand of the night had been dealt but the fact that she was still in was a miracle in itself. The Russia medical student, who was arguably Sparta's best doctor, had folded during the previous round, cursing the weakness of her cards. Cameron was pretty sure that Jaira was his only source of competition, as she was betting as if she had nothing to lose. But then she had the king and seven of diamonds showing with no pair up. Cameron was morally certain however that Natalie had the worst hand out of everyone, even with a pair of tens showing and it was upon her to make the first bet, "Check."
Jaira smirked and threw in a half dozen pieces of chocolate and an equal number of cigarettes in to the small mountain in the center of the table. Cameron matched Jaira's smirk and threw in a dozen cigarettes, before following it up with another dozen pieces of chocolate, "See you and raise."
"Damn! I'm out," growled Natalie as she threw her cards face down on to the table and sat back. Cameron retaliated, raising the pot by a further seven pieces of chocolate and five cigarettes.
Not hesitating either, she matched his raise and went all in. That put another packet of cigarettes and half dozen chocolates in to the pool. Now Cameron hesitated. There was better than a box of chocolates and almost two packs of cigarettes in the pool, in addition to what was there before the betting had gone high stakes. Whoever won this hand would be the big winner of the game and the night. Finally, he met her and it came down to the wire, revealing her hole card to reveal a full house of sevens over kings.
Cameron grinned as he flipped over his own hole cards and matched it with the two sixes already showing, "Four of a kind beat a full house any day!" He returned the cigarettes to their packet, tucking one behind his ear as he was doing so. The chocolates on the other hand, he pocketed a few pieces before pushing them back in to the middle, unwilling to indulge his sweet tooth too much. The others were scrabbling for the chocolates when the silent alarm suddenly turned audible, the converted fire alarm system's ringing drowning out all other noise as it shocked people out of their sleep as it rang in short controlled bursts.
Controlled chaos gripped the inhabitants of Sparta, those former members of the National Guard quicker on the ball as those of a more civilian background moving slower but still moving as they should. Amazingly enough, the Portland City power grid had survived the fall of mankind and it powered much of Sparta's needs. Light snapped on throughout the complex, driving away the darkness and shadows that had blanketed the corridors. Floodlights spread dazzling light on to the inner streets, making it easy for people to move around as the Spartans prepared themselves as they had done during their semi regular drills, and it took only minutes before a full complement manned the walls of Sparta, rifles ready to face the oncoming horde. But the truth of it was that all they had were plans and no plan ever survives contact with reality: The undead were far too numerous and only a few hundred meters away.
Cameron turned and made his way back to his room, stopping long enough to grab the shotgun and the belts of shotgun shells and the spare clips for his every present quartet. He would have preferred something with a little more ammo capacity but like everyone else he made do with what he could get.
Beyond the walls, whatever it was that had caused all of this to happen, perhaps a disease, had dealt its victims unimaginable cruelty. All who had been infected had eventually died, with only the fortunate minority remaining motionless and inert to simply rot away where they had fallen. The majority however, had been sentenced to an unnaturally extended existence composed of relentless suffering. The brain of the deceased humans had been given a spark of primordial instinct that left the body physically dead but still compelled to be incessantly animated. The flesh that covered these stumbling, lurching creatures had rotted and decayed to varying degrees but most had a thin layer of flint like flesh covering near hollow, brittle bones. They don't know what or where they are. They don't know why they exist or want. They have no need for food, drink, shelter or sleep, all sentenced to spend every minute, shuffling forward, following sounds or movement that attracted their limited but deadly attention, their only hopes being time and decay that would end the torment… if such release would ever come.
The first flares had parachuted back to the ground and extinguished themselves as the horde advanced another few hundred meters before an orange flare lashed up against the black night sky. The horde continued its approach uncaring as the flare illuminated them in all their horrific glory. From the roof and the windows of the second and third floors, muzzles flashed as the Spartan Snipers unleashing a brand of justice to the visible dead marching towards them. Heads popped as blood and brain matter arched and splattered against other members of the horde as the defenses planned long in advance sprang to life. Upon the wall's parapet, Brennan's eyes swept down the length of the road, cursing the advancing dead for every step that brought them closer to the walls.
Cameron reached behind his ear for the cigarette he'd placed there and popped it in to his mouth, lighting it as he stepped on to the parapet, "What the hell is going on?" Brennan said nothing as he handed over the binoculars. Staring through the, Cameron whistled as the size of the horde, "So what are we going to do about the couple of thousand undead fuckers marching towards us?"
They looked at each other, uncertain as to what their next move would be. The problem was simple and Brennan was the first to state it, "We're already preparing our defenses, but I don't think that it is going to be enough… not against an assault like this. What it comes down to is siege warfare, and the dead don't need to do anything except wait us out, even if it takes a couple of months."
The council was a sound system of government, and had yet to make the wrong decision but any battle that was fought by committee was lost the moment it began. Not to mention that the defensive strategy already rolling: "kill them as they come and keep killing them until they're all dead." The plan had its merits but it would not work unless the Spartans had a leader that they could rally behind, be ready and willing to follow no matter what might happen. He said as much to Brenan who silently nodded in agreement, even as he studied the ranks of steadily advancing undead… something had them distracted for the moment, so if nothing else, they had a little time before the hammer's fall.
Months had gone by, months of fighting, training and killing, all for Sparta to fall now? How could the Council have overlooked something so simple and obvious? The possibility of an undead horde this size was one thing, but to not have a leader designated. Brennan had left Cameron to his morbid thoughts, calling together the council for a briefing, while Cameron moved amongst the swirling mass of humanity, doing what he could wherever he could to speed along their preparations.
As the council was briefed on the full extent of the coming storm as they completed the last of their preparations. Satisfied that everything that could be done had already been done, Cameron made his way through the now almost completely deserted shopping mall to the food court where he found Brennan, having just finished his address to the council, and he caught only the closing words, "...iterate that this is the single greatest threat that we have faced and he is the most suited, having been out and amongst the undead far more than many of us. He can think, adapt and has always led from the front, where the greatest danger is. I say again that there is no one more qualified to lead."
Someone from the Council pointed out that Brennan was one of the first, a founder of their community, "Why don't you lead instead of trying to hide from your responsibility?"
"I had the command of the National Guard Units as the highest ranking officer in the area to survive. I never received training on how to handle the big picture beyond what is printed on my objectives list. That is why the council was created and given all of the power and authority it has: To give that perspective, and guidance. That was and is the purpose of the council. I am trained to fight a mobile engagement, with support elements, artillery, airstrikes, and armor." he said, "But Cameron has fought and studied these zombies and killed them, rebuild our defenses and adapt to the threat." Cameron blinked at the mention of his name and then realized what the staring faces meant, even if Brennan had not yet realized his presence, "He is the best man, to lead our defense."
Cameron jumped in. If they were going to decide his future, then he knew that he wanted to be heard, "I'm not cut out to lead this." He strode forward, his heavy timberland boots echoing off the tiled marble floor, "You don't want me in charge of this. I don't want me in charge of this!" Cameron had survived so many salvage missions in to the wasteland of former human society because he noticed things, and what he was noticing was the council's full agreement with Brenan. His passionate arguments were no match for the fact and logic based arguments that Brennan had put forward.
Cameron spoke at length but realized quickly that no matter what he said nobody was listening. Someone called for the vote and it passed unanimously. Cameron's temper slipped its leash for an instant as he fought the urge to punch Brennan in the face, "If this is what you want," he stated through clenched teeth, "I will lead."
He left the Food Court via the permanent broken escalator that had been turned in to stairs months ago, keeping his face impassive, and his emotions under control until he reached the ground floor. Unconsciously, his hand reached in to the vest pocket, and pulled out the picture that he stared at for several long moments, looking over every detail, remembering everything in the photograph from a happier time, "Look's like I don't have to live another forty or fifty years."
Quickly, he rounded up the members of his salvage team, the men and women that he distrusted the least, "Grab food, water, medical supplies, and then get your asses over to the car park. Prep our salvage vehicles, and any other vehicle you can. If we need to get the hell out of here, no sense in us having to scramble for supplies. He looked each of them; two men and two women in the eye "Do this quietly and don't fuck it up. It's a last resort, and I don't want people panicking if it doesn't come to it," he said, "and leave the keys in the vehicle ignitions."
Cameron made his way down to the Spartan armory and helped distribute the last of their firearms and also the ammunition they had available. From far overhead, their defensive battle plan kicked in to high gear as the sniper corps unleashed their first line of defense against the undead, their precision gunfire shattering some of the undead soldiers advancing upon them, but the enemy's invulnerability to everything besides a headshot meant that there were just not enough snipers to do more than trim the tallest weeds in a neglected garden.
Cameron already knew that the outer gates and walls – chain link fencing – would last only minutes against the numbers that the dead were bringing to bear. But the inner walls were three feet of brick, stone and concrete, more than capable of withstanding the fists of the horde. The steel gates were the weaknesses in their otherwise solid perimeter, and it took him only a few minutes to get the majority of their firepower set upon the East and West walls, where the gates where. The dead were already within three hundred meters of the walls, and now pouring in from every direction So long as the dead had not learned to climb or jump they were safe as rats on sinking ship. Out on what was soon to be a killing field beyond the East wall, the last of the warning flares had tripped, meaning that the edge of the horde rested some two hundred meters away from the base of the walls, fifty meters from the outermost lines of the Spartan defensive perimeter composed of carefully constructed claymore mines and traps of all kinds, ranging from home made snares and bear traps to homemade omni-directional mines and explosives. Zombies were blasted, incinerated and butchered but the damage inflicted was inconsequential, the tide of death came onwards until it had swallowed and destroyed the entire perimeter.
The lines forming in Cameron forehead could have been compared to that of the trenches dug during the First World War as he watched through binoculars. eE had cheered, just like everyone else when the leading edge of the horde had been annihilated, and the entire horde stalled for a moment. Those cheers had died away as the dead had walked right through without a care in the world, leaving at least several hundred fallen behind them.
The population moved around him, and Cameron found himself standing alongside Jaira and Brennan. The three of them and two others wearing his pet projects, the shoulder straps cinched tight, the small pilot lights already lit. Cans of denatured alcohol and gasoline were close at hand for a refuel as the dead advanced forward. Sniper fire boomed behind them. In the distance the sun rose, almost blinding the defenders upon the wall as an angry red sun filled the sky. Cameron turned to the four around him, "Remember, you have a twenty meter range with these things. Make sure your target is blazing before you shift your focus to the next one."
Forty men and women stood atop the wall, waiting for the undead to cross the twenty meter mark. Anything beyond that was simply beyond the reach of most of the firearms at their disposal. Several of the more proficient marksmen began taking carefully aimed shots.
"One minute," he said to himself as he fit the small ear piece and microphone in to place. He scanned the advancing dead, then the men and women standing alongside him, "Status report!"
"North wall is clear!"
"South wall has dead in the perimeter, but no contact." "West wall has contact, approximately two minutes till they're in range!"
Cameron acknowledged the reports as he looked up and down the line of men and women alongside him, "Thirty seconds!" he shouted.
The ocean of undead glared ahead with their dull cow eyes, moaning their hunger drawn forward even faster by the sounds of life and the smell of rich food just ahead drove them in to a feeding frenzy. The length of the wall showed a mixture of firearms waiting for the word.
He clenched his jaw staring at the mob in the distance, mouth a firm line as he hefted the P-500 Mossberg Combat Shotgun and racked the action, "Spartans!" he shouted, "We shoot and we kill! We burn till ash remains! We! Hold! This! Line!" silence reigned as his shouted words echoed, both over the radio and to those around him. He raised the barrel on his shotgun, "this battle is for our lives! Our future! Our prosperity!" The first zombie crossed the line of no return. His lips curled in to a snarl as he lined up his first target, drawing a breath as he did so, "This is our home! We defend it to the last! Weapons free, fire at will!"
A flight of grey metal death leapt from handgun and shotgun, lancing from the wall in to the horde of undead. For an instant, one could have been forgiven for assuming that there was such a thing as horizontal rain.