“Jesus Christ. What a fucking dump.”
Slater and Meaker were sitting on top of an overheated M113. It was dripping something yellow from underneath its shell. The men inside had already found another ride. Like them it would sit there until it rusted. The trip from Albany had been quick but loud. The guys up front had plowed an awful lot of cars off the road to allow the army west. Like the steaming Abrams, they both knew this was the end of the line for them.
“This is a Marine Corps base? And Air National Guard? Maybe those guys aren’t such pussies after all…”
“Whereinhell are we again?”
“Oh shut up. Here comes Baines.”
If Baines had been in the corporate world, he would have been the deputy assistant to the assistant deputy of whatever and lorded it over all four of his underlings, but somehow he’d made it through OCS without making it past second lieutenant. Even the brass seemed to know his ego couldn’t handle a second bar. He walked stiff-legged through the puddles around the Abrams and managed to salute Slater and expect to be saluted by Meaker all in one single, stiff motion.
“Sir. By the power invested in my by the Secretary of Defense…”
“Cut the crap, Baines. If you ever saw the Secretary of Defense, you’d piss yourself.”
“…through General Sorkin, commander of the Third Infantry Division, you are promoted to Colonel for the duration of hostilities. And you…” he turned to glance down at Meaker, even though he was looking up at Meaker, a nearly impossible feat, made possible only through a lifetime of being a condescending ass, “have been promoted to lieutenant. You will both be responsible for the protection of the citizenry around Central New York.”
“You mean, we’ll be responsible for covering your asses while you retreat.”
“And acting like bait for the Z’s until you decide to come back.”
“The general extends his congratulations and appreciation to you both.”
“…but he’s halfway to Cleveland.”
“All right, John.” Slater took a last drag on his cigar and threw the butt toward the tarmac where the F-16’s once sat. “Let’s get this over with.”
He stood straight in front of Baines and accepted his insignia and a letter, and returned his salute. Meaker did the same. Baines spun on his heel and cut away at double-time into a Jeep that had been waiting twenty yards away.
“We’d better get started. Zack’ll be here soon. The city’s not too far off.”
“Just one thing first. Did you ever get training on one of these?”
“It’s a fifty caliber machine gun. Didn’t they have these when you were at West Point?”
“When I was at West Point, we were still using cannons. I think I’ll aim it that way till I run out of ammo. Think you can conduct basic training in fifteen minutes for a bunch of untrained civilians?”
“For an orderly retreat? The hardest maneuver in all of military history? I can do it in ten.”
“Okay. You’ve got point.” Slater walked around to the front of the M113 and dropped the bright gold eagles down the barrel of the gun. Meaker caught his eye. Slater shrugged. “No one around here will give a damn that I just made colonel. Maybe the gold will knock one of these sons of bitches across the River Styx.”
Meaker nodded and shoved his gold bar down the barrel as well, saluted, turned, and trotted thirty yards southwest to the nearest cluster of twenty civilians. All were carrying some form of club, and all looked like they would be mown down with the first wave of Z’s.
“Okay. Your job today is not to die. You do that by never turning your back. The longer you fight, the more people live. You’re in front. You turn your back, you get bitten. The people behind you will take you down like you’re one of them. Hold the line on Molloy Road. I’m going to bring them to you. You evacuate on my orders only. You clear?” He did not wait for a reply as he moved on to the next group.
Four people started to walk away. A woman from the group called after them. “Where the hell do you think you’re going?”
“We’re going west. No point sticking around here to be zombie bait.”
“You leave, we die. So I figure I got nothing left to lose. You leave over my dead body. I figure I can get an eye and a testicle before you knock me out, but I’d rather take it from you than from a zombie. So decide among you who wants to look like a cyclops and who gets a ball caved in.”
The tallest of the four looked at her and blinked. “Who died and put you in charge?”
She just spit in reply. A tall man with glasses, carrying an aluminum Louisville Slugger said, “Damn, Brooksie. I want to stand next to you.”
“I’ll watch your back if you watch mine.”
They lined up across Molloy Road. A guy named Chuck held his crowbar in the air and said, “The way I see it, if we’re going to be bait, we might as well give them the hook.”
Brooks looked at him. She held her plumber’s wrench in the air. He touched the crowbar to it. The rest of them joined in. “No bites,” she said as they looked south down Townline Road, waiting for Meaker to return, leading the zombies toward them in the slow-but-steady assault that would begin the Battle of Mattydale.
They stood with clubs raised as fifty-caliber bullets flew over their heads and into the oncoming tide of Z’s, swooping like eagles, slamming like crowbars, and carrying the last promotions that Slater and Meaker would ever receive into the skulls of unnamed and already forgotten zombies.