It’s 1979 and filmmaker Stefan Roland’s career needs a transfusion, a new film to restore him to his former glory.
As the Soviets invade Afghanistan, Stefan gets word that dead things are being used in the conflict.
Risking everything, Stefan and his crew brave the desert conflict to capture the footage for their latest and most daring film yet.
Stefan Roland squinted into the blowing dust and sand, trying to see the source of the distant sounds of gunfire without luck. His cheeks above the handkerchief tied around his face had turned red and peeling from sunburn. His white suit was wrinkled and stained after the long trip to Afghanistan. Hardly the stuff of legends but he knew it’d all look good on the camera and he needed film to relaunch his faltering career.
Nearby his team huddled together in the blowing sand, their shapes and details obscured. Craig Marshal, carrying the new camera that had nearly emptied Stefan’s bank account, was a tall figure wearing dark payraan tumbaan and even a turban, like a local. But his height and lack of a beard gave away his American origins. Using him as a wind-break was their new sound wizard, the petite Roan Collins, with her spiky blond hair, clearly out of place in this country with her blue jeans and t-shirt that she insisted on wearing.
“If they don’t like it,” she had told Stefan. “They can kiss my ass.”
With more muscles than either Stefan or Craig, he pitied any man that gave her a hard time.
Again the sound of gunfire, muted by distance and the wind. Most likely the Soviets, but unlike the other journalists, Roland wasn’t here to cover the Soviet invasion. He and his team had come because his tip line had finally produced reliable information that someone here was waking dead things. Some warlord was apparently planning a surprise for the Soviets and Stefan planned on getting to him before the Inquisition swooped in and took over. In every other incident in the past five years, since he had released Mall of the Dead Things, the Inquisition had gotten to the witch first. If his career or his bank account had any hope of surviving he needed this trip to pay off.
“How far away is that?” Stefan asked of the other member of their group.
Nabeh Sesay their guide, was a thin man with dark eyes and quick smile standing beside a worn sand-colored jeep. He flashed white teeth at Stefan. “Many miles distant, no worries.”
“Is it where we are going?”
“Maybe, maybe not. Hard to say,” Nabeh shrugged. “En shaalaa!”
“We’re supposed to meet an United States Army group stationed here.”
“Yes, yes, of course,” Nabeh said. “The CIA. We know all about them. They bring many weapons to the mujahidin.”
“Not CIA, army. I’m sure they are army observers.”
“Yes, yes. CIA, we know.” Nabeh laughed. “Wink, wink. Right?”
“Sure, sure,” Stefan said, letting it go. He’d been told Army observers, but as far as he knew Nabeh could be right. The word he got was certainly that the CIA was backing the rebels, supplying them with weapons and training. “Let’s get going.”
“Right away,” Nabeh said. He climbed into the driver’s side of the jeep and again flashed his bright smile. “Come, come. Let us be on our way.”
Stefan turned and faced the camera, giving Craig a chance to catch a shot of him before he climbed into the jeep. His people were good and all set with the gear. Stefan smiled and spread his arms.
“This sun-drenched desert might not look it, but it is home to dead things. It was on this ground that many armies have fallen to their enemies and the inhospitable terrain, where even now Soviet forces press inward against the forces of democracy. We’ve been told that in the midst of this conflict is a witch, a necromancer, one who wakes dead things to fight the invaders and their supporters. And we’re here to document the truth of those rumors, here in the heart of Afghanistan.” Stefan paused and looked at Nabeh in the jeep. “Our guide has promised to show us where these dead things walk. Come with us into the desert of the dead things.”
He turned and walked over to the jeep and climbed in. A second later Craig gave him a thumbs up and lowered the camera. “That’s great, man.”
She came over to the jeep and climbed easily into the back with her gear. “Sounded great. There’s quite a bit of wind noise but I picked you up fine. We can clean up some of the wind when we get back to the studio.”
“I don’t want it all gone,” Stefan said. “The audience is going to want to hear that.”
She started at him until he raised his hands in surrender. “Sorry. Sorry, I know I can trust you to take care of it.”
Craig climbed in the other side of the jeep and then repositioned his camera so that he could shoot footage on the drive. Stefan clapped Nabeh on the shoulder. “Alright then, let’s go find us some dead things.”
“Many dead things in Afghanistan.” Nabeh laughed. “Many, many. En shaalaa, we will find them.”
The jeep started up with a loud rattling and a couple backfiring coughs. A cloud of exhaust fumes blew past Stefan reeking of the dirty diesel fueling the jeep. Nabeh gunned it and the jeep roared forward, kicking up a dust cloud behind. He spun the wheel and they slid around a large rock that had blocked their path, then skidded onto a pitted road leading off into the hills. Stefan looked for a seat belt but saw nothing. He clung to the door instead as the wind blasted his face. Nabeh drove like he was on an interstate, flooring the gas pedal. Stefan looked in the back but the others seemed fine. Craig had the camera up, filming the landscape as they tore through it. Roan had closed her eyes, her head back, impossibly looking like she was going to fall to sleep despite the shaking and the noise. Stefan held on and tried not to look panicked. Just then Nabeh slid into another skid to miss a large crater in the dirt road.
Stefan clung to the side of the jeep and tried very hard not to get sick.
The road went on up higher into the rugged, scrub-covered mountains. It twisted in and out of gullies with sharp, crumbling corners. That Nabeh managed to keep the jeep on the road seemed nothing less than a miracle. Stefan was just glad that the cliff was on Nabeh’s side. Bad enough that he couldn’t see anything except air and a long fall past Nabeh. He didn’t need to see the wheels running right on the side of a steep drop off. Sometimes the road dropped out from beneath them so suddenly that Stefan felt a moment of free fall before they crashed back down onto the rocky road with a metal crashing sound. Each time it happened he was sure that the axles on the jeep would break, or the whole thing would simply break apart.
Nabeh looked at him and laughed each time it happened. “Much fun, yes?”
“As long as we don’t get killed!” Stefan shouted to make himself heard.
Nabeh laughed hard at that, hardly looking like he was paying attention to the road. They skidded around a sharp corner in a cloud of dust. God help anyone that got in the man’s way. Nabeh snapped the jeep out of the skid.
“En shaalaa, my friend. En shaalaa!”
Right. Stefan clutched the door hard enough he thought he might dent the already battered metal. A hole in the door caught his eye, the metal peeling out away from it. A bullet hole? His stomach lurched as the jeep rattled across a series of washboard bumps. Maybe coming to Afghanistan to film dead things wasn’t the best decision he had made.
The ride went on and on. An hour in the terrain didn’t looked significantly different than what they’d already seen. So far there hadn’t been many signs of people at all. They passed few buildings, none in great condition, with people that stared at the speeding jeep. So did their goats. If the buildings represented farms he couldn’t see what they were farming.
Finally Stefan couldn’t resist. He had to know. “How much further is it?”
“Not far,” Nabeh said loudly. He gestured at the peaks ahead of them. “Up there, not far now.”
There was no other choice but to hang on and hope that he survived the trip. Unbelievably, Roan was still sleeping in the back. While he was looking the jeep hit a large bump, but Roan’s head rolled with it and she stayed asleep. Incredible.
It took another hour of bone-rattling road before Nabeh spun the jeep around a sharp corner and a large military truck blocked the road ahead. Brakes screamed and their own dust cloud caught up with them, enveloped them and hid the truck from view. Stefan’s heart pounded. Before the dust made it impossible to see he was sure he had seen turbaned men with automatic weapons. Nabeh killed the jeep’s engine and stuck his hands up in the air.
Stefan copied him just as dark shapes ran at them through the dust. Men shouted in Pashto. Nabeh answered back. The exchange sounded tense and hostile but the guns pointed at Stefan could shade the meaning.
Nabeh gestured at Stefan several times and each time the looks he got weren’t very friendly.
“What are they saying?” he asked, still holding up his hands. He didn’t dare look back and see what Roan and Marshal were doing.
“They are official toll collectors for the government. I am negotiating the amount.”
The exchange went on. Stefan wondered just how official these men were, but their guns rendered that question pointless. If they wanted they could shoot everyone in the jeep, dump the bodies, take their belongings and the jeep. He couldn’t help but wonder if some of them were thinking those same thoughts.
Nabeh laughed at something the man he’d been talking too said and lowered his hands. He looked at Stefan. “Fifty thousand Afghani. You pay and we go.”
Fifty thousand? It sounded like a lot until Stefan did the conversion in his head. Then it didn’t sound like so much, especially not compared to their lives. Feeling self-conscious with the men still around them, he took out the Afghani he carried and peeled off fifty, one-thousand Afghani notes. It felt like a lot but he handed it over to Nabeh.
Nabeh took the money, handed it over. “Another note, gratuity for negotiating.”
Stefan peeled off another and gave it to Nabeh, who immediately pocketed it in his own pocket. He and the man he had talked to laughed and exchanged a few more words. Then the men with guns all fell back away from the jeep. The dust had drifted enough that Stefan could see the truck. Its engine fired to life, black smoke blowing out of the exhaust pipes. The drive sounded a loud horn and immediately started backing up. Men scrambled out of the way as the truck backed up and straightened out. It only left a narrow strip on the cliff side of the road.
Nabeh didn’t hesitate. He started the jeep and gunned it for the gap. Stefan squeezed the door. It wasn’t possible that the jeep could fit in that gap. This was where his career and his life was going to end. They’d tumble right down that cliff into the ravine. He opened his mouth to protest but there wasn’t even time. The jeep shot into the gap. The truck was right there beside the jeep so close that Stefan snatched his fingers off the door for fear they’d get scraped off. He heard dirt crumbling and rocks cracking against one another. The jeep tilted toward the cliff and Nabeh gunned the engine. They kicked up dirt and rocks as the engine revved and they shot around the truck back onto the road.
Stefan twisted around, saw Marshal doing the same thing with the camera, and saw rocks and dirt sliding down the ravine from the side of the cliff. They’d started a mini rock slide and taken out a chunk of the road at the same time. He slid down in his seat, bracing his feet and held on to stop himself from covering his eyes. After a couple more bends in the road it dropped down into a valley that opened up in front of them. A small lake or large pond sat at one end of the valley behind a rock dam. Nearby was a walled fortress with armed men on the walls. Outside the fortress was an assemblage of buildings made of available materials without any building plans. Shacks, for the most part. It looked like paradise after the ordeal of riding in the jeep up that road. Stefan wondered if there was any way to get a helicopter in here to fly them out. Anything not to find themselves on that road again.
Nabeh drove the jeep like a missile at the fortress walls. Men with guns ran across the walls and dropped down, aiming their weapons at the jeep. Stefan tensed, expecting gunfire any second. The gates opened a crack and several men ran out with weapons ready. He glanced back and saw that both Roan and Marshal had their equipment running.
Well, if he was about to die at least it’d be caught on film. Stefan hung on as Nabeh brought the jeep to a skidding, dusty stop. He looked over at their driver, wondering if the man had double-crossed them somehow.
Nabeh’s teeth flashed as he smiled. “Here we are, see? No problem. Very safe road.”
“What is this place?” Stefan asked.
“We rest here, meet the CIA observers. Inside.” Nabeh climbed out of the jeep and walked toward the men with the guns. He called out, speaking loudly with many gestures back at Stefan.
The men lowered their guns. Nabeh turned around and came back to the jeep, beckoning with both arms. “Come, come. These are friends. We rest here, meet your CIA, yes?”
Hardly believing it possible, Stefan opened the jeep door and got out. Everything hurt. He stifled the groan that threatened to escape and shut the door. The air felt hotter here, but dusty still from the cloud that the jeep had kicked up. Marshal climbed out of the back while managing to keep the camera balanced. Roan jumped out the other side. Stefan noticed some of the men muttering to one another as she walked up around the jeep. She ignored them and came around to Stefan.
“Quite the ride, right boss? What now?”
“Come, come,” Nabeh urged.
Stefan raised a hand. “Yes, one moment. We need a shot, okay?”
Nabeh beamed. “Of course, yes!”
Marshal had the camera up and filming. Roan got her equipment going and joined Marshal. Stefan used a handkerchief to wipe the worst of the dust from his face. He looked at his team. “How do I look?”
Nabeh appeared at his elbow. “Very handsome!”
“Fine, boss,” Roan said. “Let’s shoot this and get a drink.”
“Okay. Let’s do it.”
Marshal raised three fingers and counted down.
Stefan smiled at the camera when Marshal pointed. “We’ve reached this unbelievable location deep in the mountains. In the fortress behind me we are supposed to meet the army observers assigned to the region who have offered to take us deeper into this ancient and war-torn country.”
Nabeh stood a couple feet away grinning at the camera. Behind him many of the men had also started grinning and aping about. Stefan hurried to wrap up before they ruined the shot.
“It is a land of much mystery and secrets. A place where the dead may walk.” He paused for the break. “Okay. Get a shot of the men as we go in. Let’s see what we have here.”
Stefan turned to Nabeh. “Thank you, we’re ready.”
Nabeh bowed and headed toward the fortress doors. On the way he passed the jeep’s keys to another man who immediately ran to jump in the driver’s side. As they walked up to the massive wood gates to the fortress the man spun the jeep in a circle, kicking up dirt and rocks, and then shot off into the village.
Stefan picked up his steps to catch up with Nabeh as they reached the doors. “Where’s he going with the jeep?”
“He will use it while we rest. No worries,” Nabeh said. “We shall have the jeep back when it is needed for our return.”
“Okay.” Stefan followed Nabeh through the doors, motioning for the others to hurry up and follow.
On the other side of the doors they entered a wide courtyard that was unlike anything Stefan had seen outside. A fountain shaped like a large urn bubbled cheerfully at the center of the courtyard in the center of an oval pool of water. Green plants abounded in planters around the courtyard. A group of men in desert-colored fatigues were waiting for them beside the fountain. These men clearly weren’t locals. They looked like the Army observers that Nabeh claimed were actually CIA operatives. Stefan fell back beside Marshal.
“Film everything. Unless they stop you, I want it all.”
“No problem, man.” Marshal hoisted the camera up to his shoulder.
Stefan glanced at Roan and didn’t even bother saying anything when he saw the look that she gave him. He turned his attention back to the men. Nabeh stood between them, smiling broadly, looking back and forth. Men from the fortress moved around the edges of the courtyard, holding their guns and watching the group. Stefan walked forward.
“I’m Stefan Roland. This is my cameraman Craig Marshal and sound wiz Roan Collins. Are you Colonel Anders?”
The guy in the center, not tall, he probably wasn’t over five seven or so, moved forward. He wore a dark, scruffy beard and had his sleeves rolled up. There was a rifle slung across his back and a gun on his hip. His broad shoulders strained the fabric of his shirt. A hand-twisted cigarette dangled from his mouth, the thin trail of smoke rising up into clear blue sky. He didn’t offer his hand.
“Right. The film guy. I’ve seen your work. Thought you might have some advice to help us with a situation here.”
“What’s the situation?”
Anders looked past Stefan at Marshal. He took out his cigarette and pointed it at Marshal. “He gonna film everything?”
“That’s why we came,” Stefan said. “That’s the deal.”
Anders squinted at Stefan. For a couple of seconds they stared at one another. Just when Stefan started to wonder what he’d gotten himself in for the colonel nodded. “Fine. You can film, unless I say otherwise. I tell him to stop and that camera goes off or it becomes scrap. Got it?”
Stefan shook his head. “No deal. We film what we decide to film. We don’t need to do this, Nabeh can take us back to the airport if you don’t like it.”
Nabeh’s smile broadened. “Yes, of course. Anytime.”
Stefan’s heart beat faster. His throat felt dry and choked with dust. Going back with nothing would ruin him. He couldn’t afford to go back but he also couldn’t let Anders direct what they shot. That had the potential to kill any film too.
“Is that so?” Anders asked.
Anders chuckled and then took a long drag on his cigarette. Finally he gave Stefan a small nod. “Got to respect a man that stands his ground. Okay. Film whatever in the hell you want. What do I give a fuck? Let’s get out of the sun and we’ll talk about what’s going on.”
Without waiting for another word from Stefan, Anders turned and headed across the courtyard toward a shady entrance on the other side. Stefan followed him and Nabeh, Marshal and Roan all fell in behind him. The other soldiers fell in around and behind them. Stefan felt less protected than herded as they went under the balcony overhead and through another pair of dark wood doors into the building itself.
The interior was much cooler than the courtyard. Electric lights lit the entrance and the hallway beyond. The floor was polished marble. A staircase leading upstairs had a gleaming brass railing. In an alcove beneath the stairs was an ancient-looking clay vase. Their footsteps echoed as Stefan and the rest followed Anders deeper into the building. After passing several closed doors Anders turned into an open doorway on his left. They walked through a small sitting room across a carpet that looked like some expensive Persian weave, through another set of doors into a large library. Bookshelves lined the walls and rose up at least fourteen feet all around the room. Two other sets of doors, both closed led out of the room. A shuttered window on one side of the room blocked out the harsh sunlight, but a few sunbeams made it through to illuminate the dust motes floating in the air. The furniture all looked old, expensive and well-preserved. Ornate carved wood, stained dark, with deep red fabric covering the cushions. Anders went straight to a thick table on the side of the room near the window. A large map had been unrolled across the table. As Anders went around the far side Stefan joined him at the table. The other soldiers drifted in around Anders. Nabeh dropped into a big chair on the other side of the room and picked up a book. Marshal and Roan took up positions to record the meeting.
Anders stabbed a finger down on the map. “This is where we are right now.”
The map was printed on thin paper and was essentially a big topographic map covered with many, many squiggly lines and notations in Naskh script that Stefan couldn’t read. He had no idea if the spot on the map was actually the location of this fortress or not. None of it made any sense to him. “Okay.”
Anders ran his fingers along a squiggly line. A road? “The last sighting was here, not more than a mile away. A small village reported their graveyard disturbed. We’ve been waiting for you to take a look.”
“What other reports have you gotten?”
Anders touched three other points on the map. “Intel points to dead things moving around in these spots. Villagers say that their graveyards have been ransacked, whole graveyards have been emptied. They claim that the bodies have been possessed by unholy forces.”
Anders shook his head. “None. In each case the dead were taken during the night. Anyone seeing them ran away rather than confront the walking dead.”
“Do the people have any idea who is behind this?”
Anders shook his head. “No specifics but the locals are blaming the Soviets. They believe that this is another strategy on the part of the Soviets. If they can control the dead it will drive these guys bat-shit.”
One of the soldiers, a sun-burned tall guy with reddish hair spoke up. “Local leaders take this desecration of their dead very seriously. If they find out who is behind it they will take up arms to stop them.”
Anders nodded to the guy. “This is lieutenant Bassett. He’s our cultural guide. I guess I should introduce you to the others.” Anders clapped a hand down on the shoulder of the man his left. The guy had a dark complexion, with a pink scar cutting across his forehead above his left eye. “Kane. And the other lump over there,” Anders gestured at the guy standing on the other side of Bassett, a broad-faced young man with a curly blond beard and hair. “That’s McIntosh.”
“And you’re all Army observers?” Stefan asked. “Someone suggested that you worked for the CIA.”
Anders grinned. “Doesn’t matter who we work for, Roland. What matters is that we’re the only help you’re going to get over here. Any other questions?”
“Yes, I’d like a chance to sit down and interview each of your about your experiences here.”
Anders laughed. He took a long drag on his cigarette and then stubbed it out in the crystal ash tray that held down one corner of the map. “Why don’t you all get comfortable? I’ll see that someone brings you some water, shows you the facilities. We’ve got some things to get ready before we can move out. We’ll come get you when we’re ready. I wouldn’t wander. We’re walking a fine line with these guys already. Wouldn’t want you upsetting anyone by poking your nose in where it isn’t welcome.”
At his gesture Anders’ people followed him on out of the room. Marshal filmed their departure. When McIntosh passed through the doors he turned and pulled them shut behind them.
Roan looked at him. “Shutting off to save the batteries.”
“Good.” Stefan nodded to Marshal. “I guess we get a break.”
“Very nice!” Nabeh said, slapping the chair.
Anders proved good to his word. A man dressed in a pure white payraan tumbaan and turban came in carrying a tray loaded with a glass pitcher of water with ice and glasses for all of them. He placed the tray on the table between the chairs and left without a word, not even acknowledging their presence.
“Friendly,” Stefan said as the door closed behind the man. He picked up the pitcher and filled the glasses. “What do you think about Ander’s story?”
“I don’t know, man, but what else are we going to do?”
“Very bad, the desecration of the dead,” Nabeh said, still sitting in the same chair. He picked up a glass of water, took a sip and grinned. “Ice! Very cold!”
When Stefan had hired Nabeh to guide them he hadn’t expected the man to hang around after they got here but so far Nabeh didn’t show any signs of leaving. He seemed like he considered himself a part of their group.
Stefan handed a glass to Roan and settled back on the leather couch. “Very bad. We’ve seen this sort of thing before.”
Nabeh nodded enthusiastically. “Yes, very famous, mister Roland. Even here I have seen your films.”
“What about the Inquisition?” Stefan asked. “Has there been any sign of them investigating these reports?”
Nabeh looked grave as he shook his head. “No, no Inquisition. But who knows when they show up. One day they are simply here.”
“That’s true,” Marshal said.
“Yeah.” Stefan sipped the water. It tasted very cold and full of minerals. He put the glass down. “We need to get the footage before they show up and take over the situation. And before the Soviets move in this direction.”
Roan scooted forward on the couch. “Shouldn’t we be looking around? I mean, what is this place? There’s a lot of money in all of this.”
“No.” Stefan shook his head. “We’re not here to get involved with whatever the various factions or warlords have going on. We’re here to get footage of the use of zombies in warfare. That’s what’s going to sell tickets back home. The rest of it doesn’t matter.”
“Doesn’t matter?” Roan’s voice rose. “I can’t believe that you just said that. You do realize that there are people here fighting against communism?”
“Hey,” Marshal objected. “Communism gets a bad rap because of the people in power. They’re the real problem.”
“Right, comrade,” Roan snapped.
Nabeh had gone back to his book, ignoring the exchange. Stefan shook his head. “Enough. We’re here to do the job, get the footage and make it back home in one piece. That’s it. We can’t document everything that’s going on. We’ll include what we can where it doesn’t get in the way of the movie.”
“Right now that’s all we’ve got, man.” Marshal rested his hand on the camera. “We’ve yet to see anything worthwhile to shoot. Maybe that’s why the Inquisition isn’t around. Maybe there’s nothing going on here.”
Stefan shook his head. “I don’t believe that. I’m sure they’ll show up soon. We’ve just —”
The big double doors to the room opened. Anders strolled in as if he owned the entire place. He put his hands on his hips. “Well, you all want to sit around gabbing or are we going to go find out what’s going on?”
Stefan got up. “We’re ready.”
“Actually,” Roan raised her hand. “I’d still like to visit the facilities.”
Anders grinned. “I’ll be happy to show you, miss. Why don’t you just follow me?”
Since she’d brought it up and the pressure on his own bladder was beginning to get uncomfortable, they all ended up trailing Anders down a couple hallways to a bathroom bigger than many of the shacks outside. They each took turns taking care of business and then the whole parade turned around and Anders led them back out into the sun and heat.
It took all of four steps to erase the relief provided by the interior of the fortress. If anything the heat had gotten even worse. Stefan felt his clothes sticking to his skin, gritty with dust. The air smelled smoky, but it was a sour-smelling smoke that billowed in black clouds from several chimneys in shacks around the fortress. Their jeep was back in front of the main gates. Nabeh climbed happily into the driver’s seat. Anders pointed at a bigger jeep parked in front of theirs.
“Keep up, we don’t want you to get lost out here. These back country roads can turn into a maze before you know it.” Anders chuckled and strolled off to his jeep.
Stefan got into the jeep next to Nabeh. The guide smiled brightly. “No worries, en shaalaa!”
Roan and Marshal got into the back and settled their equipment. Anders’ jeep started up and took off, kicking dust up in their face. Nabeh followed but stayed back far enough that the dust only obscured their vision rather than blinding them entirely. It’d be hard to lose sight of them with that dust cloud leading the way.
It didn’t take long to leave behind the relatively smooth dirt road through the village before they headed off onto another pitted mountain road. Fortunately Ander’s driver wasn’t as crazy as Nabeh, who took pleasure in pointing it out.
“Look at that! So slow! Are all Americans so timid?”
Stefan shook his head. “If I had to drive this road I’d get out and walk.”
Nabeh laughed hard at that, slapping his leg for emphasis while he slid around a corner, steering with one hand.
Stefan resisted the urge to bury his head and instead looked at the scenery. It was easier now. It helped that he was looking up at the hillside instead of off a cliff this time as the road descended down a valley between peaks on either side. The mountains were high enough to even provide some shade as they followed the twisting course.
When the road split Anders’ team didn’t hesitate on taking the right-hand fork. There weren’t any signs, Stefan doubt if the roads out here even had names of any sort. The drive went on for well over an hour to reach the first of the spots Anders had indicated were “nearby”.
As villages went this one was more substantial than the shacks around the fortress. The buildings were mostly of stone and mud construction. They looked old, but Stefan also realized he wasn’t necessarily the best judge of their age. What was missing were the people. The town was a ghost town with the doors closed and no one in the streets. Anders’ jeep stopped near the center of town. As the dust blew around the vehicle the doors opened and the soldiers jumped out, weapons ready, as they scanned the village. Nabeh brought their jeep to stop behind the soldiers. He shut it off and folded his hands across his middle.
“I will wait here,” he announced. “A curse is on this place.”
“A curse?” Stefan asked. He popped open his door. “We can only hope?”
Nabeh shook his head and closed his eyes. His lips moved as he recited a prayer. Stefan got out of the jeep and headed around front toward Anders. Marshal and Roan followed him, equipment already going to capture the moment.
“Colonel, is this the place?”
Anders scowled but walked over to meet Stefan. “It doesn’t look good. A week ago this place was crawling with people. I don’t see anyone now. And I don’t hear anything. They’re either hiding, gone or dead. I don’t suppose there’s any point in telling you to stay put?”
“At least stay out of our line of fire, okay?”
Stefan swallowed. “We can do that.”
Anders motioned to his people. The spread out in a formation around the film crew. Anders took point, Bassett and McIntosh took up positions on either side while Kane brought up the rear. Stefan turned to face the camera and gave a short intro.
“We’ve come to this village, I’m sorry we don’t have a name yet, looking into reports that graves have been disturbed. Right now it looks like a ghost town. We haven’t seen anyone on the streets. They may have fled because of the Soviet invasion. We’re going to check it out.”
Anders moved out. As a group they followed him. Past the big military jeep, and quickly across the street to the nearest building. Anders motioned them all up against the wall. Stefan felt somewhat silly huddling against the stone and mud front of the building but he wasn’t about to make himself a target. Anders reached out and knocked hard on the wooden door. No one answered. Stefan didn’t hear anything. He eased back and looked at Roan.
“Are you picking up any sounds that we’re not getting?”
Roan held up a finger.
“Come on,” Anders said.
Stefan shook his head. “Wait.”
Anders came up and grabbed Stefan’s arm just above the elbow. He squeezed hard. Stefan refused to let anything show on his face but he was sure that there’d be a bruise later. “What are you doing?”
Stefan leaned closed, whispering. “She’s got sensitive sound equipment. I thought she might pick up something if there’s someone in town.”
Anders released his arm. Stefan rubbed the spot.
“Fine,” Anders said. “Is she getting anything?”
Roan pulled off her headphones and smiled sweetly at Anders. “As a matter of fact, yes. There’s someone crying, over there.”
She pointed at a building across the street, a couple buildings up. “I couldn’t make out much, but there’s definitely at least one person in there.”
Anders grinned back. “Okay then. Let’s check it out.” He looked at his men. “Watch your targets. I don’t want to go shooting civilians because they surprise us.”
“Right, sir,” Bassett said. The big red-head spit into the sand. “Wouldn’t want that.”
As a group they hurried across the street. Stefan ran after Anders tasting dust in his mouth and he wondered yet again if it had been wise to sink everything into this trip. What if it all ended up like this? Nothing but dirt and empty streets on film? They hadn’t even gotten any footage of the Soviets yet, something that they could sell to news groups back home.
They reached the building. Anders motioned them behind him and Bassett while Kane and McIntosh moved around to the other side of the door. Anders reached out and knocked on the door. “Hey in there!”
“They’re moving,” Roan said. “Running, I think.”
“We’re going in,” Anders said. “On three.”
Stefan licked his lips and tensed.
“One.” Anders lunged forward and kicked the door. The flimsy wood sprang open with a rain of splinters around the latch. Kane and McIntosh went in after him. Stefan followed them in, his shoulders clenching at the idea of shots being fired, but the guns stayed silent. He saw Anders sling his weapon around his back and spread his arms.
“Shhh,” Anders said. “We’re not here to hurt anyone.”
Stefan moved to the side and could finally see something besides Anders’ backside. A boy cowered on the far side of the room. There wasn’t much in the room, a wood table with a couple chairs, a bed on one side. A small iron cook stove near the wall. The boy had his knees up to his chest. Tear streaks marked his face.
Anders looked at Kane. “Tell him. Ask what happened to his parents.”
Kane moved forward and spoke to the boy in Pashto. The boy sniffled, wiped his nose against his arm and answered, short and clipped. Kane looked back at them. His scar looked redder than normal.
“He says his name is Hamal and that soldiers killed his parents and marched them away.”
Marshal had already moved around to get a better shot. Stefan asked Kane, “You’re sure about that sequence? They died and then marched?”
Anders nodded at Kane.
Kane looked back at Hamal and spoke again. This time the interchange went on a little longer. Finally Kane turned back to the group.
“Yes. He’s sure they died. Many died. The soldiers went through the village killing anyone they found. But after the people died they got back up and marched away. Hamal hid from the soldiers and the dead. He’s been hiding since then.”
“If they marched the dead away why is he still hiding?” Stefan asked.
Kane asked Hamal. The boy answered with several shakes of his head.
“They didn’t take everyone,” Kane said.
Anders turned and snapped his fingers at Bassett and McIntosh. “Make sure we’re secure here. Take a look outside. Let’s see if we’ve attracted any unwanted attention.”
Hamal spoke more.
Kane scowled as he translated. “You’ve made too much noise. They’re coming.”
Stefan went over to one of the shuttered windows. The wood was nothing but scraps cut and nailed together into a square that fit the window. It wasn’t hinged, just wedged into place.
“Got something,” McIntosh announced from the doorway.
Stefan peeked through the cracks in the shutter. A man with blood down his front and his turban partially unwound had just staggered around the front of the military jeep. His face looked pale, eyes clouded.
“Marshal.” Stefan stepped back as the cameraman moved up to the window to get the shot.
Stefan went over to the door with Anders. They all looked out. From the wider view at the door Stefan saw that the dead thing by the truck wasn’t alone. Others now moved out on the street. As he watched a section of the street moved. A hand came up out of the ground, sand pouring from grasping fingers.
“Shit,” Anders said. “They planted them like mines. The whole place was a trap. We’ve got to move. This location isn’t defensible. We get to the jeeps and get going?”
Stefan was looking out at the street. “Where’s Nabeh?”
Nabeh wasn’t in the jeep. It still sat behind the military jeep but was empty.
“He sold us out,” McIntosh growled. “He’s probably why these things are moving now!”
Anders looked at Stefan.
Stefan shrugged. “I don’t know. I wouldn’t have thought so, but we just hired him.”
“Doesn’t matter,” Anders said. “We’ve got to move. Kane, get the kid. We’re getting out of here. Everybody, on my signal move to the jeep. We take one vehicle. It’ll be cramped but we can fit.”
Without waiting for an answer Anders and McIntosh moved out of the building. The zombie by the front of the jeep groaned and moved toward them. Anders’ weapon snapped up. The crack of the shot rang out in the clear air as the top of the zombie’s head disintegrated into a bloody pulp, the body twisting around and flopping back into the dirt.
As the echoes of the shot died down Stefan heard a new sound. A loud moaning, groaning sound coming from many directions and many voices. A chorus of the dead raising their voices. He’d heard the sound before, in the Glenda Barker incident when he witnesses an entire graveyard of dead things rise, and again when Tomas Dias brought another flock of dead things through a suburban neighborhood to the local mall. Here it sounded worse as the cries echoed off the steep valley walls. More zombies were pulling themselves out of the sand between the buildings. So many that there was hardly any space remaining where there weren’t hands reaching out of the sand, dirt and rock crumbling from hungry mouths, and some already climbing up onto their feet.
“Here! Here!” Nabeh’s voice shouting but Stefan didn’t see him.
Bassett pointed. “There he is!”
At the far end of the street, a big house surrounded by a high wall. Nabeh stood on top of the wall waving his arms in the air. At the bottom of the wall two zombies already scrambled at the mud-covered bricks.
“We go for the jeep!” Anders said. “Come on!”
Anders slapped Bassett on the shoulder and the man moved. He started shooting at the closest zombies, head shots every time. Zombies pitched around and fell to the dirt. Bassett shot a man only sitting up in the dirt, dropping him back into his newly disturbed grave. Stefan spared a glance back to see that Marshal and Roan were following. Kane had the boy, his arm around the boy’s shoulders as he urged him to leave the building. McIntosh fell in beside them, joining Anders and Bassett in shooting the zombies.
A harsh cry split the air, even over the shots, and something dark swooped down at Stefan’s head. He felt wind, smelled a dry, rot smell, and ducked. A vulture flew past his head. It crashed right into Anders’ back. He yelled. The vulture hung onto his vest with its claws as it pecked and beat its wings at him. More dark shadows approached.
“Get down!” Stefan cried.
Anders’ threw the vulture off into the dirt and fired several shots into the bird. It flopped, bones broken but kept struggling to reach the soldier. Anders fired another shot and the vulture’s head disintegrated.
Not before several others fell on the team. Anders and Bassett started shooting into the air. One fell to the ground, a wing torn away but it screamed and flopped across the sand toward the soldier. More dead vultures fell on the team and were shot by the authors. Stefan ducked lower as more came. Marshal and Roan also crouched but both kept doing their jobs, filming and recording the scene. Black feathers drifted through the air around Stefan. All the gunfire had his ears ringing but he could still hear the sound of all of the zombies staggering across the sands, and pulling themselves from the dirt. The team was surrounded, pinned down by the dead vultures and the zombies themselves, and all Stefan could think was that he really, really hoped that Roan could capture that deafening racket. That sound, slowed down and played against a slow motion shot of the team’s dire circumstances — it’d sell the picture.
Through it all he looked for Nabeh but their driver was no longer on the wall above the big house. The vultures circling above probably had something to do with that. The zombies dragged themselves closer, forcing the soldiers to alternate between picking off the attacking birds and shooting the zombies.
“We’ve got to move!” Anders shouted. “Everyone to the jeep! Bassett! Take point!”
Bassett moved forward in even, methodical steps. He’d step, shoot a zombie in the head, and take another step. It happened faster than Stefan would have thought possible and Bassett mowed a path to the jeep. He’d nearly reached it when a blazing streak came out of a building on Stefan’s left, behind the jeeps. It barely registered in his mind before there was an enormous noise and the jeep exploded.
Stefan saw miraculous and horrible things. Vultures burning in the air, still flying. Zombies flying through the air on fire. One of the dead things was Bassett. Unrecognizable, except for his boots as his charred remains hit the ground near dead things knocked over by the blast. Sand stung Stefan’s eyes. He felt deaf. The noise had been so loud that for a few seconds it seemed like the entire world had been silence. Roan was down, on the ground holding her head. Marshal crouched over her, the camera on his shoulder but who knew what it was pointing at. He was looking at Roan.
Stefan picked himself up. He didn’t remember falling, and scrambled over to Marshal and Roan. He slid in the sand beside them like a baseball player sliding into home.
“What happened?” he shouted.
Marshal shook his head. “I don’t know!”
It sounded like the volume on his voice had been turned down and muffled. Stefan looked at Roan, searching for an injury and saw blood on the sand in front of her. He put a hand behind her head and eased her over. Her eyes fluttered. Her face looked pale. A big black piece of smoking metal stuck out of her left shoulder.
Marshal reached for the shrapnel.
“No!” Stefan tried to stop him but Marshal grabbed the metal.
He yelled and jerked his hand back without pulling out the shrapnel. He shook his hand in the air.
“We need to leave it in any way!”
Anders and McIntosh were already back on their feet. Anders came over, his face dark. He looked down at Roan. “She alive?”
“Yes,” Stefan said. “But hurt.”
Stefan saw Kane at the door to the building he pointed inside. “The boy won’t come!”
“Leave him,” Anders snapped. “This whole town is a trap. We need to get under cover.”
Anders brought his gun up to his shoulder and fired three times, taking down three more zombies that had gotten to their feet. The shots drew Stefan’s attention out and he looked down the street. It was clogged with dead things. An army of the dead had been lying here in the blistering hot sand. Waiting for them, the Soviets or the rebels, he had no way to know which. Anders pointed at Roan.
“We can’t shoot and carry her. Either you bring her or leave her but we’re leaving!”
“We’ll get her, man,” Marshal said.
Stefan shook his head. “You take the gear. I’ll get her.”
Marshal looked like he was about to protest, but Stefan didn’t give him a chance. He lifted the shoulder strap for the recording gear over Roan’s head. Then he slid his arm beneath her neck, feeling the hot wet slick of her blood, and his other arm beneath her legs. He stood, grunting with the effort. She was heavier than he had expected. He got to his feet and readjusted Roan, hoping he wasn’t hurting her by picking her up.
While he was getting her Marshal had the gear and was still shooting film. Anders and McIntosh had drawn in closer. Kane had left the building to join them.
Stefan heard a whistling noise and Anders shouted, “Get down!”
They all crouched. The dead things didn’t. More and more were getting closer, working their way around the burning wreck of the military jeep. Stefan didn’t see it this time but his jeep exploded with another deafening roar. Burning zombies flew through the air or were knocked off their feet.
“Where did it come from?” McIntosh screamed.
“Who the fuck cares?” Kane asked. “Let’s get out of here.”
Zombies were rising from the sands. Stefan stood, readjusted Roan and discovered her looking up at him.
“Roan, don’t move, you’ve got shrapnel in your shoulder. I’ve got you.”
“Gee, thanks boss.” Her eyes flicked to the shrapnel and back to his face. “What’s the plan?”
Stefan moved up next to Anders. The zombies were closing in again. A couple staggering toward them were burning, sizzling and sending up thick clouds of black smoke. His nose and eyes burned from the fumes.
“The big house! Come on!” He hurried forward and trusted the others to come, to follow him.
Anders did follow, both he and McIntosh fell in beside him. Kane and Marshal brought up the rear. Their guns fired and fired into any of the zombies that came close. It was loud enough for him to hear despite his ringing ears. The smell of smoke was making him cough which also made it hard to hold onto Roan, but he did. She stayed away, watching as he walked as fast as he could toward the house. Still no sign of Nabeh, but the man must be inside waiting for them. With each step Stefan expected a bullet to come out of nowhere and hit him. His shoulder-blades itched with the anticipation. Someone shot the jeeps with some sort of bazooka or something, which meant someone was watching them to make sure they couldn’t escape this trap. Obviously playing with them. Or testing the trap to see how it worked.
The soldiers were mowing down the dead things. Already they’d cut down the number of zombies considerably. Anders and McIntosh kept shooting methodically. They didn’t waste shots. One or two per zombie to take out the head and then they moved on to the next. Bodies littered the street by the time they reached the other side and, for the moment, it seemed safe. Anders lowered his gun as they stopped at the door in the thick wall around the house. He hit the door with the gun’s stock. Once, twice, three times without an answer.
“Nabeh!” Stefan shouted. “Open the door!”
It didn’t open. Stefan looked back. Marshal had the camera on them, balanced on one shoulder. He held the microphone in his other hand, somehow trying to do both jobs. Two zombies staggered around the corner of the building. One had the side of his face ripped open, showing a ghastly one-sided smile. Both had been shot in the chest recently. Their faces looked pale as they moaned and staggered towards the cameraman. Kane turned, gun to his shoulder. Two quick retorts and the zombies flipped back into the sand with holes in their head.
“Open it,” Anders commanded.
Stefan turned back. McIntosh went up to the door, pulling a long knife from his belt. He inserted it into the crack between the doors and forced it down. Something gave and the door popped open.
“Inside!” Anders shouted. “Now, move it!”
Stefan didn’t hesitate to follow McIntosh inside. Like the place they had stopped earlier, there was a courtyard inside the doors. Blood was splashed across the bricks that lined the courtyard. This place lacked the fountain and plants of the other house, much more utilitarian. A covered porch ran around the courtyard. Steep, shallow stairs climbed up the wall on either side of the door to the top of the wall. There wasn’t any sign of Nabeh, not unless the blood splashed liberally across the bricks was his.
Across the courtyard, on the right, was a bench beneath the overhang that stuck out from the wall. Stefan carried Roan over to the bench. Stepping from the sunlight to the shade he was amazed how much cooler it felt. He shivered when he put her down on the bench. Roan gritted her teeth but stayed away.
“Thanks,” she said, her voice strained. “Thanks for not leaving me back there.”
“Of course not,” Stefan said.
Marshal brought over the recording gear into the shelter beneath the porch and sat it down. He took a moment to unsnap and extend the legs of the tripod for the microphone and set it up facing the courtyard.
“There,” Marshal announced when he finished. “Now we can catch whatever happens.”
“Lower,” Roan said. “Tip it lower, you’ve got it angled too high.”
“No problem.” Marshal did what she asked. “How about that?”
Roan gave him a thumbs up.
Anders and his surviving men were talking in lowered voices at the center of the courtyard. The door was shut and, Stefan hoped, locked. He wanted to know what Anders was saying but he also didn’t want to leave Roan alone. Marshal had the camera and was filming the soldiers and the scene. Stefan looked down at Roan’s pale, vulnerable face. He hadn’t ever seen her look vulnerable before. She gave him a weak smile.
“Go. Find out what the plan is, or call for help, but do something. I need a doctor. We can’t stay here.”
She was so matter-of-fact, so practical that it brought tears to his eyes. He squeezed her hand. “I won’t be long. Hang in there. We’ll get you home.”
Stefan stood up feeling like he had lied. He thought his face must be burning but Roan didn’t see it. She had closed her eyes. Only the steady rise and fall of her chest convinced him that she was still breathing. The only thing he could do was hope that she hadn’t lost too much blood. The piece of shrapnel was in her shoulder. Maybe it hadn’t hit anything vital.
He crossed out from under the porch, checking skyward for any signs of more dead vultures, and went over to Anders and the other soldiers. Marshals trailed after him with the camera. Anders pushed in front of the other two men. His bushy eyebrows drew together as he scowled at Stefan.
“What did you know about this?” He pointed at the door. “Did you know that there was a whole fucking town of dead things here?”
Stefan shook his head. “I came over here looking for them, but I didn’t have details.”
“If you withheld information — I lost a man out there!”
“I know that. I’m sorry. And my sound tech is unconscious over there with a six inch piece of your jeep sticking out of her shoulder. She might not live either. What are we going to do to get out of here?”
“I guess that depends on who gets to us first.” Anders rubbed his jaw. “Someone out there has the firepower necessary to blow that wall to smithereens, so we can’t count on it. I wouldn’t stand too close. We’re low on ammunition. Enough of those dead things come in we’ll have trouble holding them off. Same problem if the Soviets show up. Our best hope is the mujahidin, they owe us. If they get in here we might have a chance.”
“What about the Inquisition?”
Anders shrugged. “Beats me. They always have their own agenda. I doubt they’d be all that interested in us unless they thought we had information that they needed.”
Stefan gestured to the camera. “We have the footage we’ve shot. There might be something there that the Inquisition wants.”
Kane chuckled. “What’s to stop them from taking it and leaving us behind?”
“I’ve worked around them before without that happening. My films have helped their image.”
“Doesn’t matter,” McIntosh said. “We don’t have any way of contacting them.”
Marshal pointed up at the big house. “Yes we do?”
They all looked where the camera man pointed. A thin radio tower extended out of the top of the house, behind the roofline.
“Fantastic,” Anders said. “McIntosh, you stay here with the civilians. Kane and I will go see about the radio. Back in fifteen if we don’t have any luck.”
“We’re going with you,” Stefan said.
“No.” Anders shook his head. “Not this time.”
“That’s not the deal,” Stefan said. “We can’t do anything for Roan, sitting here isn’t going to help anyone. We’ll come along.”
For several seconds they stared at one another. Stefan felt the sweat dripping down his forehead. He wished he didn’t look like crap, but it’d probably come out good in the film. There might not be anything in the house, but he wanted to check it out and he wanted to find out what had happened to Nabeh.
“Plus I want to find my driver,” Stefan said. “He was in here. Where did he go?”
McIntosh and Anders both looked at the blood spilled across the bricks.
“We don’t know that’s his,” Stefan said.
“Maybe not,” Anders agreed. “But it’s reasonable to assume that there’s some of those dead things around here. Stay behind us. Move when we say and don’t get in the way.”
Anders motioned to Kane. “Come on. Let’s do a sweep. We’re looking for a radio room. We might find noncoms inside, let’s watch our targets.”
Stefan crossed back over to the balcony where Marshal had set up the audio equipment. He picked it up himself, collapsing the tripod and returning it to the bag. It wouldn’t look as good with him carrying it, but that’s the case. He took one last look at Roan’s pale face and turned to McIntosh who had followed them over.
“I’ll watch out for her,” McIntosh said.
“Come on, director!” Anders shouted.
Stefan took a breath and walked back out into the courtyard. Marshal followed him at two strides back.
Anders led, Stefan behind him, then Marshal and Kane brought up the rear. Stefan followed Anders across the courtyard beneath the balcony at the far end. Double doors led into the house. Anders tried the handles, which opened turned easily. He shoved them open and walked in on a tiled floor. His boots sounded loud. Otherwise the place was as quiet as a tomb and only lit by light streaming through the high, small windows. They were in a big foyer with several different exits around the space. A large grand staircase went up to the second floor on each side of the room in enormous sweeping arcs. The place was elegant but Spartan at the same time. A few expensive hangings on the walls in vibrant color, but little else.
No one said anything. Anders pointed at the hallway that went straight ahead beneath the stairs, then moved in that direction. They all followed him into the dark opening. Marshal turned on his camera light and it lit the hall, casting Anders’ and Stefan’s shadows out ahead of them. Stefan stayed close to Anders, but listened carefully with the headphones for any sounds. So far he only heard their own breath, footsteps and the sounds of their clothes. Nothing else. The air tasted flat and stale, but cooler than outside. He smelled decay and rot but couldn’t decide if it came from the house or from bits of exploded zombies embedded in their clothing.
They reached the first set of doors leading off the hallway, one on either side. Stefan waited while Anders quickly opened the first. Nothing but a closet, neatly arranged with shelves and supplies. The door across from the closet opened into a bright tiled bathroom with gleaming fixtures.
“At least we know where to go when the shit hits the fan,” Kane said.
Stefan saw irritation flash across Anders’ face but the colonel kept moving down the hall. They didn’t have to go far before reaching the next set of doors. Stefan licked his lips, feeling the dry, chapped skin. Why did they have to close all the doors? It didn’t make much sense.
Anders opened the door. “Well, hell.”
“What is it?” Stefan moved over so that he could see into the room and still give Marshal the shot.
The room must have been used for security at one time. Stefan saw shattered computer monitors and other equipment scattered on the floor of the room. Not only that but it looked like someone had splashed blood everywhere and walked in it. Piled in the center of the room was a stack of corpses. Nabeh lay sprawled across the top of the stack with his chest ripped open. His head and fallen back and blank eyes looked upside down at them crowding the doorway.
“That’s sick,” Kane said. “Sir, I suggest we fall the hell back.”
“Radio equipment is smashed.” Anders shook his head. “And we don’t know who left this for us. I don’t like this one little bit. Let’s head out.”
Everyone jumped. Stefan bumped into Marshal. Anders brought up his weapon. More noises came from the pile. Hands clenched open and closed. Someone groaned. Nabeh’s eyes moved and fixed on Stefan. He moaned and his arms flailed about as if he was trying to grab onto something, anything. One of the bodies beneath him grabbed his bicep and pulled. Nabeh rolled, tumbling down the pile to land face down on the floor with a loud thud. Stefan moved back beside Marshal. Somehow the cameraman kept filming, how Marshal remained so focused all the time he’d never understood but he appreciated it. Nabeh clawed at the floor, groaning as he dragged himself forward. Shots like this would make the film, as horrible as it was to witness. Stefan’s gut clenched as Nabeh lifted his head up and looked right at Stefan. Almost as if he knew what Stefan had been thinking. Ridiculous, but that’s how it felt even though there wasn’t anyone behind those eyes. At least no one still living.
“En shaalaa, my friend,” Stefan said quietly.
Anders fired the first shot. It took off the top of Nabeh’s head, but an instant later Kane’s hit from the right side and Nabeh’s head disappeared into a shower of gore. Stefan looked away and saw that Marshal had the camera on him.
“Did you film that?” he asked.
“Of course, man. I film everything.”
The other bodies on the pile were untangling themselves. A broad-chested man in a turban pushed himself up out of the pile. He would have been handsome once, with a strong jaw and a close-trimmed beard. Except for the fact that his throat had been slit he looked almost normal. Stefan didn’t know which bullet hit between his eyes, staggered him back until he hit one of the chairs sitting in front of the ruined computer stations. The man fell and didn’t move again.
Gun smoke filled the air. Stefan covered his mouth as Kane and Anders shot the remaining dead things in the room. Stefan only knew that they’d stopped shooting when they lowered their guns. His ears kept ringing as if they were still shooting.
“We’ve got to go,” Anders said. “I don’t think any place in this town is safe.”
“What is the plan?” Stefan asked.
Anders looked at the camera, and back to him. “We hike out. Get away from these things before we run out of ammunition. “
“Hike out where?”
“We’ll retrace our steps. Head back the way we came.”
“What about snipers?” Stefan asked. “I think shooting the jeeps showed that they weren’t letting us leave easily.”
“Yeah, I think he has a point, man,” Marshal said.
Anders started back down the hallway toward the front of the building. “I’d rather shoot things that can shoot back.
Stefan hesitated. Kane gestured with his gun. You’d better do what the colonel says if you want to get out of this alive.”
“We’re going,” Stefan said.
He fell in behind Anders with Marshal following him and Kane at the rear. When they came outside Stefan blinked in the bright light. He couldn’t see McIntosh anywhere but Anders called out. Then McIntosh appeared from behind a pillar on their left. He lowered the weapon.
“Didn’t know if it was you. I heard shots and —”
A red hole appeared in the middle of McIntosh’s chest. A loud crack of a rifle echoed through the air.
“Sniper!” Kane shouted.
Another shot rang out and hit the pillar near Anders’ head. Would have hit him but he was already moving, diving down behind the pillar. Stefan scrambled back to the wall beside the door and pressed his back against the cool stone. Marshal was next to him, Kane on the other side of the doorway. Anders was facing them, his back to the pillar at the edge of the covered porch. McIntosh’s body lay half in the shade and half in the sun.
Anders shook his hand, pointing to his left, clearly indicating they should go around that way. It made sense. McIntosh had come out on the other side of the courtyard. Unless whoever was shooting had snipers on both sides they should have cover going around the other way. The only problem? Roan was under the porch on the other side of the courtyard. Stefan took off the sound equipment and dropped it at his feet.
“Ditch the gear,” he told Marshal.
“No way, man!”
“Is it worth your life?”
Marshal’s face broke into a wide grin. “Hell man, this is it you know? What else is anybody gonna remember me for?”
“Roland!” Anders hissed.
Stefan nodded. “You’re right, but I can’t carry that and get Roan. If you can get out of here, take the chance. Show people the film. Hell, they might even remember me.”
He couldn’t wait any longer. He took off running along the wall, staying as far beneath the overhang as he could.
“Roland!” Anders bellowed after him.
Stefan ignored the colonel. It was crazy, reckless, but he had to take the chance. He couldn’t leave Roan here by herself.
He reached the corner where McIntosh had hidden and skidded around the corner. At the far end of the porch he could see Roan still lying on the bench. A shot pinged off the stone right in front of him. Would have hit him had he not hesitated. Stefan plunged ahead, running as hard as he could. Several more loud rifle cracks split the air. One shot grazed the back of his head. The pain was like a brand and he stumbled, his fingers touching the gritty stone. The third hit one of the support pillars. Stefan reached Roan.
She was breathing still, asleep. He scooped her up, feeling the heat of her body, as he turned and walked quickly along the porch. On the other side of the courtyard he saw the guys running around the courtyard beneath the overhang. Stefan reached the corner and headed toward the door leading out of the house. It was still closed. He carried Roan into the doorway and leaned against the stone wall. Anders, Marshal and Kane arrived a second later. Marshal actually had the recording equipment hanging off his other shoulder.
Anders grinned at him and shook his head. “You’re crazy man.”
“Let’s get out of here,” Stefan said.
Marshal laughed. “I got it all, man! Might be a bit unsteady, but it’s fantastic!”
“Let’s hope someone gets to see it,” Stefan said.
Kane opened the door, leaned out. “Clear. Come on.”
They moved out of the big house. The jeeps and blown apart zombies were still smoking at the center of town.
“Stay close to the wall,” Anders said. “And stay close.”
They moved in a line along the wall, falling back into their usual order with Anders in the lead, then Stefan, Marshal and Kane bringing up the rear. A blackened zombie missing his bottom half dragged himself toward them across the sands. Kane spit at it and they kept moving, leaving the zombie behind clawing at the sand.
Any second Stefan expected to get shot but the sniper seemed to have given up. The entire area was littered with zombie remains, and craters in the road where the zombies had been buried until the trap was sprung. Stefan thought about the boy that they’d found. Could he have been the necromancer? It seemed unlikely, a survivor maybe. Someone set this up and watched what was happening. Whoever it was destroyed their jeeps, shot McIntosh and shot at him.
At an alley ahead Anders stopped, motioning them back against the wall. He held his fingers up to his lips.
Roan felt heavy and hot in Stefan’s arms. She mumbled something but he couldn’t understand a word of it. He didn’t know how long her could carry her. They needed a vehicle, or some place to hide out until help could come. If help ever came.
From around the corner he heard footsteps. Stefan braced his back to the wall and waited. Marshal had the camera pointed ahead. Kane had moved out from the wall and was on one knee, gun at his shoulder.
Three women came out of the alley, each covered in a blue chadri that completely covered them, even their faces were hidden behind a fine net. But these women walked unsteadily and there was blood on their chadri. They stopped and turned to face Anders.
“Kane,” Anders said quickly.
Kane spoke quickly in Pashto. Stefan didn’t understand what the soldier said, but he understood the tone. It was both a question and a command. For a second none of the women moved then their cried out and charged the group. Kane and Anders fired at the same time. Stefan flinched as two of the women flew back through the air and hit the sand. But the third was right there reaching for him. He turned Roan away to protect her from the bloody claws that emerged from the chadri. There wasn’t time to do anything else.
Roan shifted in his grip, slipping and he had an instant to see that she was awake before she reached up and ripped the six-inch piece of shrapnel from her shoulder. He lost his grip and she landed on her feet and as the dead thing grabbed at her Roan swung her fist around, slamming the pointed piece of metal shrapnel into the side of the dead thing’s head. With a moan the zombie slumped down at Roan’s feet, the shrapnel embedded deeply in her head.
“What’d I miss?” Roan asked.
Stefan reached for her but Roan waved him off with her good hand.
“Ugh, it feels good to get that thing out of my shoulder. Anyone got a Band-Aid I could use?”
Anders came over, already digging in his vest pocket. He pulled out some gauze pads and tape. Stefan staggered back and leaned against the wall. Now that he wasn’t holding her his arms ached. His head throbbed. He reached back, touched the spot where the bullet had grazed him. When he lowered his hand there was blood on his fingers.
Anders was checking Roan’s wound when she squinted at Stefan. “Boss, you don’t look too good.”
He managed a smile. “I’m fine. Your timing’s great. How’re you doing?”
“Bleeding has stopped,” Anders said. “I’ll tape it, I think she’ll be okay if we get her to a doctor.”
“I’ll be okay, boss.” Roan grinned. “Don’t worry.”
“We need to get moving,” Kane said. “It’s getting late. We need to find some place to hide out for tonight.”
Anders jerked his head at the alley. “Let’s check up here.”
After Anders finished with Roan’s shoulder Stefan took the recording equipment from Marshal and they set off again at a slower pace up the alley. After a couple hundred yards Anders led them through a door into one of the more solid-looking houses. There wasn’t much to it, a few rooms and the door. No hiding places, but it was comfortable enough. Roan agreed to lay down on the bed upstairs. Anders made sure the door was barred, it had a wood bar for that purpose, and they settled in at the table in the main room. Stefan was glad for the chance to sit down. Even Marshal took a break and changed the film on the camera, and the tapes in the recording gear.
Outside the sun was setting quickly and the house was getting dark. Anders refused any lights but Kane did find some cans in a cupboard. Cold beans, seasoned with something Stefan couldn’t identify, made up their dinner.
“Get some rest,” Anders said. “Tomorrow we’ll look for new transportation, find a way out of here.”
“Assuming we make it to tomorrow,” Kane said.
“We’ll make it,” Anders said.
Stefan was so tired that he found he didn’t care. Maybe they’d make it, maybe not. At that moment all he wanted was to sleep.
Morning came too soon. Stefan woke up with everything hurting. Every muscle felt stiff. Anders looked down at him. “Time to get moving.”
“What time is it?”
“Sun’s up.” Anders moved off.
Stefan rubbed his eyes and rolled off the chairs he had used as a bed last night. Marshal and Kane were already up. Marshal was checking over his camera and the big surprise was Roan sitting at the table with a fresh bandage on her shoulder and a can of beans in front of her. She shoveled a big spoonful into her mouth and chewed with relish.
“Guess I’m the last up,” Stefan said.
“Don’t sweat it, boss,” Roan said. “After saving my life you can sleep in any time you want.”
It took them a little longer to get everything together. Anders reported that they were extremely low on ammunition. After it was gone they’d have to fight any dead things off with knives or sticks.
The air was chilled. The town was silent and the smoke was gone. Anders led them back down the alley to the main road. The burned remains of the jeeps cast long shadows across the lumps of blackened flesh dotting the road. Before they had left the house Anders explained that they were going back to the big house to look for vehicles. He figured there had to be trucks and jeeps in some adjoining building. If they found transportation then they could get out of here. Hopefully before those responsible came back.
Stefan felt better than he expected once they got moving. Seeing Roan back on her feet with her gear, she had insisted on carrying it, helped his spirits. Nothing moved on the streets while they made their way back. They’d gotten all the way up to the doors when something on the other side hit the wood.
Kane moved up beside Anders. The two soldiers exchanged a look. Anders nodded to Kane, who moved forward and unlatched the door. He gave it hard shove. It hit something, then gave way. Stefan saw McIntosh on the other side of the door, catching his balance. In one hand he held his weapon and it came up, shots firing at nothing but Stefan still flinched and ducked down.
Anders fired once. The shot took McIntosh in between his eyes and dropped him onto his back.
Kane straightened up. “Damn. That sucks.”
That it did. Anders and Kane went in first, dragging their fallen comrade to the side. Anders took his dog tags and stuffed them into a pocket on his vest. Kane took what little ammunition McIntosh still carried.
No one said anything.
Then a loud thump, thump sound filled the air and sand blew in through the door.
“Chopper!” Kane shouted.
“Get back, against the walls!” Anders motioned them all back. Stefan and his team ran to one side of the door. Anders and Kane took the other. The sound of the helicopter or helicopters was very loud. Stefan pressed his back to the stone and waited. If they had helicopters Kane and Anders were going to be out-gunned and out-manned. Good guys or bad guys? That was the question.
Stefan looked at Marshal and Roan. “Let’s get this shot!”
Marshal moved out from the wall enough to get a good angle. Stefan stood in front of him, facing the doors. The noise of the helicopter died down outside. Stefan heard shouts. People were coming.
Anders motioned to Stefan. “Get back!”
“No! I’m going to cover this. I’m a journalist, this is my job!”
The doors swung open. The men that come through had their guns pointed at him. Most wore black military garb but the two in front were in sharp red suits with thin black ties and polished black shoes. Both also wore black sunglasses. The Inquisition had arrived.
Stefan raised his hands. “Don’t shoot!”
Both inquisitors lowered their weapons. One waved to the other men, who also lowered their guns.
Stefan stayed where he was but he lowered his hands. “I’m Stefan Roland, filmmaker. I have a few questions for you.”
One of the inquisitors stepped forward, taking off his sunglasses, and Stefan knew it was going to turn out. All of it. They’d get home. He’d get his movie. They weren’t done yet, but for the first time since he had arrived in this blasted desert he believed he was doing the right thing.
This story is the 20th weekly short story release and the third in the Filming Dead Things series. I’d originally published these as written by my pen name Tennessee Hicks along with the rest of the Dead Things series.
I’m releasing each of these stories, one per week, here on my website. Eventually I’ll do standard e-book releases when I am satisfied that I can create the cover art that I want for the books. In the meantime I’m enjoying these weekly releases. Stories will remain until I get up the new e-book versions and at that point I’ll take the story down.
If you’re interested in longer works, feel free to check out my novels through the links in the sidebar or on the Books page. Check back next week for another story. Next up is Trailer Park of the Dead Things, the final story in my Filming Dead Things collection.