Thunder and Ashes: Prologue


Prologue

Hyattsburg, Oregon

January 22, 2007

2213 hrs_

THE TOWN WAS DEAD—MOSTLY.

Vehicles lay abandoned and silent in the streets, and loose trash fluttered about in the cold winter breeze. Electricity still ran through the wires overhead, and most of the street lights still worked, cutting swaths through the gloom. A lone figure came hobbling into one of the circles of light, casting quick glances over his shoulder and leaning heavily on a Winchester repeating rifle. His leg was wrapped in a tight bandage, and dark red blood was beginning to soak through.

“Over here! Come on, you rat-eating pieces of half-decayed shit! This way! Hop to it! Let’s go! Let’s go!”

Private Mark Stiles breathed heavily, gasping. He’d kept up a steady run for several blocks, putting plenty of distance between himself and his pursuers, but he was running out of steam, and his wounded leg wasn’t helping matters either.

Stiles cast about, left and right, looking for a way out of his predicament. He settled on a narrow alleyway on the side of the street, and limped toward it, gritting his teeth against the pain. The morphine injection the group’s medic Rebecca had given him was wearing off. Behind him, in the darkness, rasping moans filled the air, mixed in randomly with full-bodied roars of fury. He risked another look back at his pursuers.

In the darkness, Stiles could make out a line of silhouettes that stretched from one curb to the other. All were in constant motion, though some were clearly faster than others. He estimated a good forty, maybe fifty infected were close on his tail. It was the third-largest mob he’d laid eyes upon, with numbers one and two being at Suez and Sharm el-Sheikh, respectively.

The first of the infected tore into the circle of illumination, swinging its arms in an exaggerated parody of Stiles moments earlier. It sniffed at the air, pulled its face back into a grimace, and turned to face the alleyway. It growled, a low, rumbling sound deep in its throat.

A moment later its head snapped back and a loud report sounded, echoing off the brick buildings. It slumped to the ground, blood pooling around its skull. In the alley, Stiles levered a spent cartridge free and racked in another. A wisp of smoke blew away from the barrel of his weapon.

“Come on, you bastards!” Stiles yelled again. He reached out with his free hand and tipped over a set of metal trash cans that stood in the alley’s entrance. They clattered to the ground, spilling month-old refuse on the pavement. Stiles backed deeper into the alley and wrinkled his nose against the stench.

Three more sprinters appeared in the mouth of the alley, faces drenched in sweat and spatters of blood from earlier victims.

“Shit, shit, shit,” Stiles mumbled. He looked over his shoulder, trying to find a doorway or even a manhole he could escape through. Only brick wall and solid pavement met his gaze. He grimaced, raised the Winchester to his shoulder, and let his weight rest on his injured leg. It shuddered under the strain, but held him up. He let his eyes flick down to his wounded limb. “Only have to work a little while longer, baby, then it’ll all be over.”

He sighted in on one of the sprinters and fired, catching it a little low, in the torso. The infected looked down at the bloody hole in its chest, pawed at it, then sank to its knees and collapsed face-first on the pavement, dead—but not for long. Stiles knew it would be back up again within minutes. The virus that had been coursing through its bloodstream would reanimate it as a slow, doddering carrier, still hard-wired to prowl for victims. The Morningstar strain didn’t let go of its victims easily.

The shot gave his position away to the remaining sprinters, and they spun to face him, uttering low growls of challenge.

“Come and get it, fuckers, I ain’t going anywhere,” Stiles said. He backed up another step, fired again, and then continued to fall back as the pair charged him.

One of the sprinters caught its leg on the fallen trash cans and tripped, slamming into the pavement. It grunted in pain. The other nimbly hopped the cans and came straight for Stiles, arms reaching out to grab hold of him.

Stiles waited until it was nearly on top of him, then fired. The round entered through the carrier’s mouth, traveled straight through and blew out the back of its skull. Stiles sidestepped as the body collapsed past him, its forward momentum expended. He felt his mouth twitch upward into a grin. That one wouldn’t be getting up again. Head shots put the infected down for good.

The last carrier was pulling itself to its feet. Stiles worked the rifle’s lever again, but the infected closed the distance before he could bring the barrel to bear.

Stiles fell heavily onto his back as the infected tackled him, and the rifle went flying from his grip, clattering to the pavement behind him.

The carrier grappled with Stiles, and the soldier found himself hard-pressed to keep the gnashing teeth and fingernails at bay. The two struggled for a short while, neither gaining an edge. The infected, frustrated with its prey, leaned in close and roared point-blank in Stiles’ face.

Stiles dropped a hand to his side, fumbled with his pistol belt for a moment, and then grinned, holding up his bayonet between their two faces.

“Yeah, well, fuck you, too!”

Stiles slammed the blade up under the carrier’s chin, pinning its upper and lower jaw together and spitting its brain like a shish-kabob. The carrier’s arms went limp and its eyes rolled back up into its head. Stiles grunted as he heaved the body off, then rolled to his feet, gritting his teeth as he put weight on his leg. He retrieved the Winchester, and hobbled down to the end of the alleyway, still brandishing the bayonet.

The alley opened up into another street, just as debris-strewn and uninviting as the last—but here, at least, there was no mob of infected.

Stiles spared a glimpse over his shoulder to check on the progress of the horde that had been following him. The first shambler was just rounding the corner of the alley. He grinned, and limped around the corner. Here were more stores—these few blocks made up all of downtown Hyattsburg. None looked to be as useful as the sporting goods store he’d raided hours earlier. He spotted a bridal boutique, an ATV dealership, and a comic book shop. The rest were too shrouded in darkness to make out.

Stiles tried the first door he came to, but found it locked. It looked as if it led up to apartments. He frowned, and limped down the sidewalk to the bridal boutique. He rattled the doorknob, but it, too, was secured fast, with bars bolted in the windowframes. Groans drifted out of the alleyway, and he redoubled his efforts.

The next store was the comic book shop. He hobbled to a halt in front of it, narrowing his eyes. The front door hung ajar.

Stiles glanced over his shoulder once more to make certain he didn’t have any infected barreling down on his six, raised the Winchester to the ready position, and nudged the door open the rest of the way with the barrel.

“Beggars can’t be choosers,” he said to himself, edging into the store. He used his wounded leg to kick the door shut behind him. Still keeping his eyes fixed on the dark interior of the store, he reached behind his back, feeling around for the deadbolt. He found it, gave it a twist, then yanked on the door again to test it. It didn’t budge. He was locked in. More importantly, the carriers were locked out.

“All right, Stiles, stay frosty, you’re not out of the shit yet,” he mumbled, reaching up to his webgear for a flashlight, recently liberated from the sporting goods store a few blocks away. He clicked it on and let the narrow beam play over the interior of the store.

A counter stocked with collectible cards and snacks stood at the far side of the floor. Between Stiles and the counter were several double-sided shelves all lined with comics and game books. Stiles let the light shine on the floors, checking for any carriers that might have been incapacitated before they’d turned. The floor was clear—clean, even. The sporting goods store he’d been in earlier had been completely trashed, with shelves overturned and boxes ransacked, but whatever riot had hit the sporting goods store had spared this humble comic shop.

“That’s not surprising,” Stiles said to himself. “It’s not like anyone would have much use for—” he let his eyes play over some of the titles. “—Weapon X in this brave new world.”

A faint moan drifted through the air, and Stiles snapped back to attentiveness, peering out the shop’s front windows. He was lucky in that regard. The windows were half-covered in thick black paint to block out sunlight. He backed away from the front of the store and made his way to the register counter in the rear. He leaned over, checked the narrow space behind the counter, and levered himself up and over, swinging his legs across with a hiss of pain. He dropped down behind the counter and grimaced.

Stiles let the Winchester rest on his shoulder and sighed, stretching out his wounded leg in front of him. He fished around in the front pocket of his BDU’s for a crumpled pack of cigarettes. He’d been saving the last one for almost a week, and now seemed as good a time as any to light it up.

He pulled a lighter from the same pocket, thumbed it open, and gave it a flick. It sparked, but no flame. He flicked it again, and a third time, but the flame refused to catch. Stiles frowned, held the lighter up next to his ear, and gave it a shake.

“Damn,” he mumbled, around the cigarette. Empty. He tossed the lighter to the floor. “Well, at least I won’t go hungry.”

Stiles spat the cigarette onto the floor and reached up to retrieve a candy bar from the display case, then ripped the packaging open with his teeth. He took a bite, chewed, and swallowed, barely tasting the chocolate. His eyes were fixed on his wounded leg.

He’d been bitten by a shambler a few hours prior. It was as undignified a way to go as any, he felt. Shamblers were slow and uncoordinated—stupid, even. They were little more than the reanimated husks of the people they had once been, stiff, decayed, and stinking. Worse, a bite was a guaranteed way to contract the disease. No one he’d ever seen get bitten had survived.

“How long do I have?” he wondered out loud. He knew he was finished. Morningstar didn’t let you go once it grabbed you. He knew the virus was circulating in his bloodstream, replicating, multiplying. Pretty soon he’d join the ranks of the infected outside, just another sprinter like the ones he’d just finished dispatching. Just another lousy sprinter, a moving target for some other survivor, or maybe that same survivor’s doom.

He probably had four or five days, he figured. The infected soldiers on the USS Ramage had taken that long to turn, and they’d all had minimal exposure to the virus.

What a way to go, Stiles thought. Slowly turning over the course of a week. First’ll be the fever. Then, delirium. Next I’ll get the shakes, won’t be able to keep anything down, and finally, I’ll snap, lose my mind—become one of them.

Suddenly there came the sound of feet scraping against wooden floorboards.

Stiles froze, candy bar half-in, half-out of his mouth, and slowly leaned his head back to stare up at the ceiling. The noise had come from upstairs. No mistaking that.

He reached up a hand to the countertop and pulled himself to a standing position. There was a narrow doorway in the rear of the shop. Stiles had assumed it led to a stockroom and nothing more, then flinched at his own train of thought.

“What’s that they say about assumptions being the mother of all fuckups?” he whispered to himself. “All right, Stiles, if you’ve got company in here, let’s evict the bastard already.”

He grabbed up his Winchester, holding it at the ready, and limped slowly out from behind the counter. The doorway in the back of the store was half covered with a ratty old blanket, attached to the doorframe with tacks. Stiles reached out a hand and ripped the blanket free, sending what could have been years’ worth of accumulated dirt and dust flying. He choked back a cough and pulled the neck of his t-shirt up over his face. It wasn’t just the dust that made him put on the mask. A powerful, nearly overwhelming stench came flowing out of the back room, sickening and sweet at the same time. Stiles knew that smell. It was death. Old death.

He inched his way into the small back room and let his flashlight illuminate the interior. It was a stockroom after all; unopened cardboard boxes filled the shelves and a forgotten dolly lay on its side at his feet. A Sports Illustrated calendar adorned the wall above a tiny clerk’s desk. Whoever had owned the store had faithfully marked off each day with a thick X in permanent marker all the way up to January 3rd, almost three weeks previous. Whatever had happened in Hyattsburg must have begun then.

The sound of feet scraping on wood came again, and Stiles jumped, swinging the Winchester around. He found himself staring down a wooden door, tucked away in a corner of the stockroom. The sound came a third time, and Stiles zeroed in on it. It was definitely coming from above him, in the direction of the door.

He made his way over to it and knelt, ignoring the pain in his leg. He pressed an eye to the old-fashioned keyhole and tried to see through, but it was pitch black on the other side. Stiles sighed, looked over his shoulder, and grimaced. He couldn’t very well go to sleep down here if there was an infected upstairs. Sure, he knew he was going to join their ranks in less than a week, but, by God, he wanted that last week. It was his. He sure as hell didn’t want to spend it as a quick snack for a sprinter.

Stiles checked his weapon, taking a moment to reload the rifle to full capacity. He tentatively grasped the doorknob and gave it an experimental turn.

It was unlocked.

“That’s more like it,” he murmured, turning the knob the rest of the way. He slowly pulled, opening the door inch by inch, and cringing every time the frame or floor creaked or the hinges squeaked. Finally, he finished, and exposed before him was a narrow staircase leading up to the second floor of the building. He clicked on his flashlight, still clipped to his webgear, and adjusted it so it pointed straight ahead. He’d need both hands to wield the rifle. Indoors wasn’t the best place for a long arm, but he didn’t have a pistol anymore. Sherman and the rest had taken them all.

Stiles made his way up the stairs one at a time, listening carefully for any clues as to the location of his unwanted guest. Whatever had made the noise was staying quiet for the time being. It felt like it took hours, but Stiles arrived at the top of the staircase in just a few minutes.

A hallway ran off in either direction. Framed photos hung on the walls and posters had been slapped onto doors, held down with copious amounts of clear tape. This was where the owner of the store below must have lived.

Stiles stepped out into the hallway—and immediately froze. His foot had come down on a loose board and the resulting creak seemed as loud as any rifle report in the silence of the night. He winced.

Sure enough, the response from his uninvited guest was immediate, though unfocused. Off to Stiles’ left, in one of the rooms, he heard a grunt and the creaking of feet on floorboards. They were quick, but didn’t seem to move any closer or farther away. It sounded almost like the infected was turning in a circle, looking for the source of the noise. Seeing nothing, the infected began to calm down, and the footsteps slowed, then ceased. The grunting, however, continued, and Stiles could hear the sound of snorting and sniffing thrown into the mix. He swallowed, took a deep breath, and sidestepped toward the door nearest the source of the noises. He could feel his heart pounding in his chest, and he willed it to slow to a manageable rate. No such luck.

The stench in the upstairs hall was nearly unbearable, even with Stiles’ shirt pulled up over his face. It made his eyes water and his stomach do somersaults. He felt like he had to vomit, but fought against the sensation. Part of him wanted to protect his location, and another part was simply telling him to avoid doing anything that added to the smell.

When Stiles was in front of the door, he froze again.

What was behind the door? It could have been just one sprinter, but the stench told him there was a corpse in there somewhere. Was the corpse a shambler, or was it truly dead? Or, perhaps, was there more than one sprinter behind the door, and he’d only heard the one?

Stiles’ hand hovered over the doorknob for a while, then pulled away. No, that was too risky. Better to fight them on his terms.

Stiles backed away, put a brace of meters between himself and the door, and knelt down on the floor. He took aim at the doorway, took another deep breath to steady himself, and then flat-palmed the wall repeatedly, making the hallway shudder. He whistled a piercing note, held it for as long as he could, and then started the litany of insults he’d used in the streets all over again:

“Hey, hey fucker! Yeah, you in the room! You ugly, mangy, infected bastard! How about a quick snack, huh? You want a Stiles steak? Well, you’re going to have to work for it, you rotten piece of god-da—”

The door blew off its hinges, hanging limply, and the infected came crashing into the hallway. It was large—at least two hundred pounds—and had the look of a linebacker, complete with a bloodstained, ripped sports jersey.

It swiveled its head in Stiles’s direction, fixed him with a baleful stare, and roared.

“Hi,” Stiles said.

The rifle was already leveled.

All he had to do was squeeze the trigger.

The round caught the infected in the side of its forehead, and its head snapped back. A look of confused frustration played across its face, then it wobbled on its feet and fell forward to the floor. The whole hallway shuddered with the impact.

Stiles levered another round into the chamber and rose to his feet, keeping the rifle trained on the body. He held his position for a few seconds, but the corpse didn’t move. Blood, black in the dimness, began to spread out in a pool under the infected’s head.

Stiles sidestepped the corpse and made his way to the room the infected had occupied. He peered around the corner, aimed his flashlight in, and gagged.

He wasn’t sure if he was looking at the infected’s wife, girlfriend, or acquaintance, but whoever she had been in life didn’t much matter now. The infected had torn her apart. The room was a bedroom, and the victim had been in bed, maybe even asleep, when she had been attacked. The sheets had once been white, but were now black and crusted with dried blood. The walls beside the bed were similarly marred. The only noise in the room was the sound of a pair of flies buzzing around the body in the darkness. One arm stuck up from the corpse, fingers curled and rigid in decay. The mouth hung open and a swollen tongue protruded from it, hanging over cracked lips. It looked like the corpse was pleading for some kind of release.

Stiles backpedaled and held a hand up to his mouth, then turned and bolted for the staircase leading back down to the stockroom. He made it as far as the clerk’s desk before surrendering to the urge. He fell to his knees and vomited up his candy bar into a trash bin. He remained there for a few minutes, heaving every now and then, and finally fell away from the bin, his back against the wall.

“Damn it,” he muttered, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand.

At that moment he comprehended that he was going to end up like the poor bastard he’d just shot upstairs, and it was only a slightly better fate than ending up like the woman in the bed. He looked down again at his leg and nearly sobbed, reminded once more of the fact that he’d be joining the ranks of the infected in a few days.

He wondered if he had the willpower to turn his rifle on himself.

He would just have to give it time and see how things turned out.

Private Mark Stiles sat alone in the darkness of Hyattsburg and waited.


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