Thunder and Ashes: Epilogue

Hyattsburg, Oregon

March 17, 2007

1354 hrs_

COMMANDER HARRIS HALTED HIS MEN at the edge of town after passing a sign warning them that trespassers would be shot on sight. The sign looked faded and hung loosely, one of the nails holding it to its post having worked its way free. He proceeded cautiously, having his men scan the buildings from afar with their binoculars and spread out into a skirmish line, looking for any sign of activity, either human or infected.

After twenty minutes of silent observation, Harris and his men hadn’t seen so much as a rat in a gutter. The town looked utterly deserted.

“What do you think?” Harris asked, standing next to the crooked sign.

“Don’t know,” Hal replied. He’d walked up behind the commander and was surveying the town with a look of suspicion on his face. “Sherman told me about a place out in the desert called Sharm something-or-other that looked just as deserted. He said that they jumped by infected once they were in.”

“Sharm el-Sheikh,” Harris said, nodding. “Heard the same story once he came onboard.”

“So should we circle it?” Hal asked, raising his eyebrows. “Might be the same kind of situation.”

Harris looked conflicted for a moment. His men were running dangerously low on food and potable water, and the town offered them a shot at finding something new to fill out their packs with. At the same time, what good is food if you’re dead?

Harris sighed and made his decision. He turned to a Chief Petty Officer standing nearby and began to issue his orders.

“All right, we’ll go through. Our sub-machinegunners will be on the flanks—tell them to keep a close eye on the doors and windows of the houses we pass. We’ll go right down main street and through to the other side of town. Tell everyone to keep an eye out for any store or warehouse that might have food or bottled water we can take.”

“Aye, sir,” came the reply. The CPO jogged off to relay the orders, and the sailors assembled in short order, checking their weapons.

“I don’t know about this,” Hal murmured, but otherwise kept his mouth shut.

The sailors, Harris and Hal moved into Hyattsburg at a slow pace. They took their time, checking corners and darkened doorways. They made it three blocks before they came upon the first of the bodies.

“Sir,” called out the CPO to Harris, “I’ve got a body in U.S. Army gear, here.”

Harris jogged over to the sailor and knelt down next to the body to take a look. It was as the man had said: a corpse lay on the street, long dead. Its flesh was dessicated and drawn, but even months of decomposition couldn’t hide the man’s death wound: a self-inflicted gunshot to the chest. Torn, dried skin on the man’s arms and face hinted at an attack by infected. The man had likely shot himself before the infection could take hold.

Harris’ CPO reached down and gently retrieved the pistol from the dead man’s grasp, the fingers cracking as he bent them out of shape. He reached around his back and jammed the weapon into the top of his pack.

Harris noted the unit patch on the man’s arm, a silhouetted black bird with flames in the background, and grimaced. This had indeed been one of Sherman’s men.

“Let’s keep moving,” Harris said, groaning as he stood up. “Whatever caught this poor bastard I don’t want to catch us.”

As the group continued through the town, they began to come upon more bodies. Most looked civilian, and had been put down with multiple shots. Those, Hal guessed, would have been the infected bearing down on Sherman’s group. Others wore the uniforms of U.S. Army soldiers. In a few places, Hal spotted the dark, nearly black stains of long-dried blood on the ground, but no body to accompany them.

“Harris,” Hal said, beckoning over the naval officer and pointing down at the bloodstains. “Looks like we’ll have a couple shamblers in the area.”

Harris nodded by way of agreement. The pools of blood had come from victims of the infected, most likely, and since the infected had never been known to carry off their victims, Harris and Hal concluded that whoever had been dropped on that spot had gotten back up a while later and ambled off.

The group continued on in silence. They passed a used car lot where several more bodies lay, all grouped around the outside of the chainlink fence that surrounded the lot. The main gates had been burst outward, with bodies and twisted steel scattered across the road.

“What the hell happened here?” Harris murmured, looking over at the lot as they passed it by.

“Looks like a pitched battle,” Hal said, nodding in the direction of the corpses. “Whoever it was probably got a couple of cars from the lot and busted their way out. Look down at your feet.”

Harris glanced down at the asphalt and saw skid marks leading away from the lot, deeper into the town. He heard a rustling coming from an alleyway behind him and spun, pistol upheld, but relaxed when he saw it was nothing more than a sheet of yellowed newspaper being blown up against a wall. The headline, which read MORNINGSTAR CASES CONFIRMED IN NEW YORK, was visible for a moment before the paper fluttered away. Hyattsburg was beginning to wear on Harris’ nerves.

“Let’s get a move on,” Harris said. “The less time we spend in this place, the better. It’s like walking through a damn tomb.”

The men seemed to concur, and the entire group picked up its pace. They passed several more blocks without incident. Harris’s comparison to a tomb seemed more than accurate. The buildings were stark and silent, and the streets were just as desolate. If it weren’t for the bodies and the occasional sign of violence, it would be easy to imagine that the people of the town had simply picked up and left.

One of the sailors was walking near the storefronts, peering into the windows with an upheld Maglite. Hal narrowed his eyes at the man and let out a sharp, quick whistle. The sailor turned to face him.

“What’re you doing, you jackass?” Hal asked, throwing his arms wide. “You want to stir up a nest of those things?”

“Sorry, Hal, it’s just that—”

“Hal’s right, Seaman, stick to the center of the road. Less chance you’ll be spotted by one of those things that way,” chimed in Harris.

“But it’s just that—”

“No ‘Buts,’ sailor, just do it,” Harris said in an exasperated tone.

“Yes, sir,” said the sailor, looking over his shoulder at the store with a dejected and curious expression on his face.

“Wait a minute,” Hal said, beckoning the sailor over. “What were you looking at?”

“It was probably nothing,” said the seaman, shaking his head as the group continued down the street.

“No, I’d like to know,” Hal pressed. “What was it? A body?”

The sailor shook his head in the negative. “It’s just that the store back there had this pile of shelves near the back that looked like a fort. I was thinking maybe someone managed to survive, but it’s probably just a leftover—I mean, no one could have survived all of this.”

No one? Hal thought. I didn’t see Sherman’s body anywhere with those Army corpses. Or Thomas’. Or Denton’s.

Hal stopped in his tracks and looked back at the store the sailor had been peering in to. A glance up at the sign showed a poorly drawn superhero punching through a comic book; it was a hobby shop or comic book store. A nagging feeling tugged at the back of his brain.

“Commander,” Hal said out loud, causing the entire column to stop and look in his direction.

“What is it?” Harris asked, keeping his voice lower.

“Maybe we should check out that place,” Hal said, pointing toward the storefront. “Your sailor’s got a good point—if someone did manage to hole up, maybe we can pull them out and bring ’em with us.”

“Yeah,” Harris agreed, “and then again, maybe we pull down those blockades and get jumped by a roomful of shamblers, or, worse, sprinters. Maybe someone sealed up the dead in there.”

The column of sailors picked up their pace again, moving off down the street.

Hal grimaced, turned away from the shop, and prepared to rejoin the column of sailors. He stopped after taking a few steps.

“Goddammit,” he murmured, drawing his pistol. “I’m supposed to be retired. Harris!”

Once more the Commander stopped and turned. “What now?”

“I’m checking out the store,” Hal said.

“That’s a very bad idea, Hal,” Harris said. “Let’s stick to the streets.”

“You stick to the streets, Harris,” Hal said, waving off the sailors. “I have to be sure.”

“Damn it all,” Harris murmured under his breath. He watched Hal take a few tentative steps toward the storefront, then sighed. “Hillyard! Rico! Wendell! Go with him!”

“Sir?” asked the incredulous seaman next to him.

“You heard me,” Harris said. “Back him up. We’re right behind you.”

The three sailors, swallowing down their own fear, jogged over to walk parallel to Hal as he approached the store. All four had drawn weapons. Behind them, the column of sailors fanned out, covering both sides of the street as the little squad prepared to enter the store.

Hal stopped in front of the main door and took in the state of the place. The windows were blacked out with paint, but the front door was still clear glass. He and the seaman named Rico stepped up to it and peered inside, the sailor shining through a light that he played over the interior of the store. The place was a mess. Most of the comics had been dumped off the shelves onto the floor, creating a haphazard carpet of superheros and villains. The shelves themselves had all been dragged to the rear of the store and rearranged to form a serviceable rampart. Hal could see cinderblocks weighting the shelves in place, and could barely make out the top of a doorframe behind the blockade.

“Whether or not anyone’s left,” Rico said, “they sure did make an effort to stay alive.”

“Amen to that,” Hal replied. “Let’s see if we can get in.”

Hal tried the door and found it to be locked—from the inside.

“Well, that’s a good sign,” said Hillyard from behind Rico and Hal. When they glanced over their shoulders at him, he went on with a shrug. “Only a living person could lock it up from inside, right?”

“Maybe we should knock?” joked Rico.

Hal snorted, shifted his grip on his pistol, and used the butt of it to smash out the glass in the lower half of the door. The resounding clatter set all the sailors on edge, and they shifted on their feet, looking nervously around the street for any sign of infected responding to the noise. Hal himself froze, waiting to see if his action would draw an attack.

Nothing came running out of any darkened doorway, nothing appeared out of any of the alleys or basement entrances. The only noise on the street was the sound of the sailors’ nervous footsteps and the distant chatter of birdcalls.

After several long moments, the sailors began to relax.

Hal reached through the broken glass and felt around on the inside of the door for the deadbolt. He found it, twisted the knob, and unlocked the door.

“We’re in,” he said to Rico with a half-grin.

“All right,” Rico replied, holding up his pistol. “Let’s do it.”

Hal swung the front door open and entered slowly, followed closely by Rico, Hillyard, and Wendell. Their footsteps crunched on comic book covers and paper crinkled underfoot as they spread out into the shop. They made it halfway across the floor before the tense silence was shattered by the sound of a gunshot from behind the shelves.

The sailors dove to the ground as a round shattered one of the blacked-out front windows. A second shot rang out a moment later, embedding itself in the floor next to Rico’s head. He rolled to the side, came up into a kneeling position, and fired three shots of his own into the barrier of shelves.

After that, there was silence. The sailors held their position, as did Hal, and waited to see if they would be fired on again. No further shots came from behind the barrier.

“Think I got him?” Rico whispered.

“I hope not,” Hal said. “Never heard of an infected using a gun before. I think we’ve got a survivor.”

Hal slowly stood up and raised his voice to a normal conversational level.

“Hello?” he called out. “Don’t shoot; we’re not infected!”

From behind the barrier of shelves came the sound of someone scrambling to their feet.

“Holy shit,” came a reply, floating over the walls of the makeshift fort. “I thought I was the only one left in this town that hadn’t turned.”

“Come on out,” Hal said. “We’re not here to cause any problems. Saw your fort from the street and figured there might be someone inside. Thought maybe you’d like to get out of this town, is all.”

“Would I?” came the voice. “I’ve been sitting in this goddamn store for two months living off of fucking candy and canned creamed fuckin’ corn. Hell yes, I’d like to get out of this town.”

The shelves shifted suddenly as the person behind them kicked them out of place. One unit tipped over, spilling its cinderblocks on the floor and revealing the man who had been holed up alone since January. He wore faded, stained and filthy BDU’s and wielded a beautiful, antique Winchester rifle that he was also using as a cane. His leg was wrapped in similarly filthy bandages, and across from the patch that read “U.S. Army” was a similar patch that said “Stiles.” He looked more the worse for wear, his face gaunt and eyes hollow. He seemed malnourished and nervous.

“Well, I’ll be god-damned,” Rico said, taking a closer look at Stiles. “I remember you from the Ramage. You were with Sherman’s group, weren’t you?”

Stiles nodded slowly, leaning heavily on his rifle. “I was.”

“What happened here? Where’s the rest of them? What happened to your leg?” Rico asked in rapid succession.

Stiles furrowed his brow before answering.

“I’m not sure where they are now. We got jumped by infected in this town and had to do some quick thinking to get most of the group out alive. They needed a way to distract the infected while they got clear. I was the way,” Stiles said, shrugged, and leaned against the countertop behind him with a sigh, rubbing his leg.

“And what happened to your leg?” Rico pressed.

“Bitten,” Stiles said.

Immediately, all four men in the room had their pistols pointed at the soldier.

Stiles eyed the barrels staring him down and broke into barking laughter.

“Don’t bother,” he said to them, still chuckling. “I was bitten in January.”

“That was months ago,” Rico said, narrowing his eyes. “Why haven’t you turned yet?”

“What am I, a doctor?” Stiles asked, shrugging. “All I know is, I got bit, and I’m still here. Fucking thing still hurts like a bitch, though, but I haven’t turned. Haven’t even gotten the fever yet.”

Hal lowered his pistol slowly, eyeing Stiles. “You were bitten but you’re not sick?”

“That’s what I said,” Stiles repeated, nodding.

Hal grinned widely, grabbing Rico’s shoulder. “Don’t you see?”

Rico looked over at Hal and frowned, shaking his head.

“None of you see? Don’t you ever read?”

Stiles didn’t say a word; he merely fished around in his pocket for a purloined pack of cigarettes and a new lighter.

“Stiles, you were bitten how long ago?” Hal asked, rounding on the soldier.

“About two months,” Stiles responded around the cigarette between his lips. “And it’s been shit living here ever since.”

“Right, but you didn’t get sick after a week,” Hal said.


“Oh, you’re definitely coming with us,” Hal said, still grinning.

“I’m up for it,” Stiles reassured him. “But why all the excitement?”

“Look, kid, every time any of us has ever seen anyone get bitten, they turned. You’re the first—hell, you’re the only—person I’ve ever even heard of who hasn’t. Stiles, I think you’re immune to Morningstar.”

That got the attention of the sailors in the room.

“If you’re immune,” Hal pressed, “That means you’ve got antibodies—oh, we need to get you to Omaha and find Sherman as fast as we goddamn well can.”

“Why?” Stiles asked, flicking ashes off the end of his cigarette.

“Stiles, if you’re immune to the Morningstar strain, that means your blood is a key to a vaccine,” Hal said.

That seemed to stun Stiles for a second, and he let the cigarette droop in his lips. “Key?”

“Don’t ask me how; I’m a damn retired mechanic,” Hal said. “But I do know they’ll be very happy to see you once we get there.”

“If they made it,” Rico said.

Hal turned to the sailor. “They made it. If Stiles made it two months in this dead town, Sherman and the others made it to Omaha. I know it. And now we have to get Stiles to Sherman.”

“Well, all right,” Stiles said, reaching behind the countertop and pulling a fully loaded pack from a cupboard. “I’ve been ready to move out for the past month—I’ve just been waiting for the right moment. Now’s as good as any, I’d say.”

Hal was suddenly very glad he’d followed up on his hunch and checked out the store. He’d hoped to find a survivor, and he’d found much more than that: a possible natural vaccine to the Morningstar strain.

“Let’s get moving,” Hal said, helping Stiles shoulder his pack and buckle it on. “We’ve got a long way to go, Mr. Immunity.”

“I’m with you,” Stiles said, “as long as you don’t take this immunity thing and use it as an excuse to have me go in any dark rooms first.”

“Oh, we wouldn’t do that,” Hal said, fixing Stiles with a serious stare. “I don’t know what Sherman would say, but in my opinion, you’re probably the most important person on this goddamn continent right now. You could stop the pandemic if we get you to Omaha in time! What do you say to that, Stiles?”

Stiles seemed slightly overwhelmed by Hal’s exuberant exclamations.

“Well . . . I’d say . . . bring it on?” Stiles said tentatively.

“There’s a quote for the history books from the savior of mankind,” Rico chuckled, emulating Stiles’ anxious tone. “‘Bring it . . . on?’”

“Hey, this is all new to me,” Stiles replied defensively. “And if I’m the savior of mankind, I’m worried for the future of the species.”

“Don’t worry,” Hal said, putting a reassuring hand on Stiles’ shoulder. “I’m sure you’ll figure it out on the way. Now let’s get moving. We should be out of this town before nightfall—then it’s on to Omaha.”


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