BOOK 1 CHAPTER 1 “NO EXITS

Its face appeared through the mist, the mouth torn and the left side of its skull shattered. Ragged and bloodstained shreds of clothing, hanging from the gaunt frame, grew visible as it advanced. Congealed black fluid leaked out of sores that burned red with infection, and its bones cracked in defiance with every movement as it staggered into sight.

And there was no hiding from it. Poor visibility meant nothing to the wretched creature that now lumbered forward, slowly closing the gap between them. Handon raised his rifle and sighted in, quietly waiting and hoping that he wouldn’t have to take the shot. The noise of gunfire was all that was needed to bring the whole neighborhood down on them.

“Contact, my twelve,” he whispered into the chin mic curling around from his lightweight tactical helmet. Even as he spoke he could see more dark shadows stirring behind the first. There was no mistaking their direction – straight toward his team – but they were yet to latch on, to spot them en masse, and the wave of moaning had yet to begin. But Handon knew that it would soon. And then every poor dead bastard within a mile would be shambling mindlessly in their direction. And that was if they were lucky, and it was only shamblers out there, and not the fast ones. Come on, he thought. Just a little more time was all they needed.

It didn’t matter how many of these creatures Handon had seen, each one still made his heart lurch. And every time he fired and one of them fell, he wondered who that person had once been. Unlike the men and women on his team, he had not developed the ability to switch off, to put the dead and the living in firewalled mental boxes. He had yet to accept that the creatures had no souls. Medical science was divided on how much was actually going on in there, whether there was even anyone home. It was known that the creatures lived for just one purpose – to devour the living – but little else was understood as to what drove them, what motivated something that should be rotting away quietly under six feet of soil to haul its ass up from the ground and seek out the nearest anything with a pulse.

He had questioned every theory he’d heard in the last two years, but Command Sergeant Major Handon’s doubts on the subject didn’t really matter, and he sure as hell didn’t voice them openly. It was best if his guys had only need-to-know access to what was going on in his head. He could shelve his own doubts, put them to the back of his mind, for now. But for those who depended on him, well, his resolve had to be unquestionable.

Unfriendlies, nine o’clock,” came the call on the team’s radio. “Multiple Zulus.” This time it was Predator, their enormous and seemingly unkillable assaulter and combat medic – everyone did double duty these days – who would now be standing fifty meters to Handon’s right, holding the north side of their landing zone at the edge of the target structure. Handon didn’t need to glance in that direction to know this, and even if he had he wouldn’t be able to see the man, or most of his team for that matter. The mist that had descended in the last hour was so thick you could almost drink it.

Yeah, ditto on our three.” This was Pope, a seasoned paramilitary with what used to be the Central Intelligence Agency’s Special Activities Division. That was in what used to be the United States. African American, soft-spoken, keen on knives, he was also rumored to have killed more people than smallpox, back in America’s counter-terror wars. That was before virtually everyone was dead already.

And now the dead were surrounding them. Again.

On the other hand, they were always surrounded, even at the best of times, holed up as they were in Fortress Britain. But right now, the four of them, Handon’s detached half of Alpha team – and for all he knew a significant fraction of the Tier-One special operators still left alive anywhere in the world – simply needed to hold this one building entrance. The large plain lettering on the front of the warehouse-like structure read “Merck KGaA.” The top of the letter M had fallen off and the final A was cracked and barely legible. Handon wondered how in just two years everything could go so quickly and completely to shit.

His team was raiding the research labs of what used to be Germany’s largest pharmaceutical company – from back when there were things like companies, and Germany. This also meant they were way too deep into fallen Europe for anybody’s safety or comfort – so deep that one screw-up could mean disaster for the whole team. But there was nothing for it. It was, if anything, an understatement to say that any hope of survival humanity still had hinged on operations like this one, even if the remaining population would never know about it. Most of the time it was best that way.

Handon blinked, but maintained target lock as he heard Pope switch smoothly to the command net. “Hotel X, this is Alpha-Two, requesting ETA on extraction. We’re pretty much ready to hit the road here.” Speaking of understatement, the first thing about Tier-One operators is that they are not prone to panic. Even when panic was fully justified – especially then. Unconsciously, Handon cocked his head into his earpiece, willing the channel to perk up. But it stayed silent as the grave. Maybe they were in a radio skip zone, in addition to being neck deep in zombie soup. A dead zone.

Fifteen seconds passed, several lifetimes in a combat situation. All around the team, the mist shifted with movement. And with that, and no other preamble, the lead creature, the one with only half a head, was upon him. Handon placed the red target reticule of his EOTech holographic sight on the zombie’s chin point. Directly behind that would be the brainstem. He applied a quarter-pound of pressure to the trigger, then hesitated. The creature, almost instantly driven to frenzy by the scent of living flesh, wheezed out a guttural roar, accelerated to its top speed of about 7mph, and lunged forwards.

Handon let his rifle – a heavily customized HK416, one of the last in the universe and thus nearly priceless – swing down on its single-point tactical sling, and switched in a blur to his secondary weapon. In this new, fallen, deeply strange world, that was no longer his .45 autoloading handgun. It was a wakizashi, a samurai short sword, worn in side-draw configuration above his duty belt in the small of his back.

In the same motion as the draw he whirled the razor-sharp blade around in a tight arc – the curved blade was designed precisely for drawing and striking at once – and separated what was left of the creature’s head from what was left of its body. The fragile, torn abomination lost its animation and fell forward at Handon’s assault boots, its knees cracking as the weak bones splintered with the impact of the hard pavement. The body fell sideways, hitting the pavement with a rich, wet sound. Decapitation wouldn’t actually kill the head – only destruction of the brainstem could do that – but it would stop it getting to him. It would be a few weeks or so before the head dried up and whatever constituted the zombie inside it finally died. Until then it would lie in the same spot, gnashing its jaw at the open air.

And then he heard it, just a split second before it came thrumming into view – the indistinct electric whir of suppressed rotor blades cutting through the muffling mists. It was the unit’s Stealth Black Hawk, inbound on short final. You didn’t hear these things until they were practically on top of you. And, especially in poor visibility, you couldn’t locate the origin of the sound with any accuracy. All of which was intentional. Sound drew zombies. Any sound. In a world shut down by the dead, almost anything audible was the sound of a survivor.

Handon’s thoughts of their dead world suddenly became less abstract, as the Stealth Hawk flared, nearly instantly blowing away the mist for a hundred meters in every direction. And in every direction, Handon could now see the soulless… hundreds upon hundreds of them, back up to the tree line, oozing forward like a mass of maggots, searching for healthy flesh. He had no idea where this many had come from that damned quickly. Aerial recon hadn’t given any indication of this kind of density. Blame the thick mist. Plus, in the Zulu Alpha, sometimes you just got swarmed out of a blue sky. Pretty damned often, actually, Handon thought with resignation. Surveying the incoming horde, he saw there were too many for his sword, and many more than he had rounds for his rifle or pistols. The team’s priority now had to be to exfil, RFN – “right fucking now.”

The helo rocked on its four wheels as it touched down dead center in the diamond described by the three operators and the building entrance. As Handon got a boot on the lip of the open side door and heaved his heavily loaded frame inside, he heard the first suppressed shots being fired by Pope and Predator. If they were shooting, things weren’t good. The ammo situation had gone from tight to catastrophic in the last few months. But the helo had landed facing south, which meant Handon could still cover his sector, the east, from inside the cabin. The other two would have to hold their positions, until their entry team, and their haul from the target site, got out and got onboard.

Handon spared a look over his shoulder and saw their PO (“Procurement Officer,” a fancy term for a scavenger with heavy IT skills and biotech experience) and his security escort emerge from the front door in a hurry. The “escort” was the fourth member of their detachment, Juice – a large, puffy, heavily bearded man in a ballcap, and former operator with what was sometimes called The Intelligence Support Activity. (AKA the Field Operations Group, Gray Fox, Sentra Spike, and a host of other opaque names – but usually just referred to as “The Activity.”) Juice now served as the team’s comms operator and all-round tech badass. Also a completely lethal commando, he was the perfect choice to keep the PO alive. And as an IT genius, he was also uniquely suited to help him do his job.

Which it looked like he had done – the fifth man, more lightly armed and armored, had a full rucksack, sagging with weight, slung over one shoulder. He held one hand in front of his face against the swirling dust and rotor wash. The pair emerged from the entryway and pivoted left and right, the PO with a handgun, Juice with his SIG SG 553 assault rifle at his shoulder. Handon could see their mouths going wide in response to the Zulu Dusk that had risen up on all sides of them. The mouth shapes for “FUCK me” were familiar enough at this point.

Ordinarily they’d be doing this extraction up on a nice safe rooftop. Zulus – what the military had designated the regular, slow moving zombies that were the early stage victims of the disease – climbed poorly when they climbed at all, and rooftops were the preferred ways in and out of buildings. However, drone footage had indicated this building had likely taken fire and looting damage in the weeks after the fall. A couple of winters of heavy snow on the rooftop, with no maintenance, hadn’t helped the world’s structures any either. It was too unstable to be trusted. This intel flashed through Handon’s memory as he now watched the front of the building collapse – disastrously, and without warning.

It was either the heavy rotor wash, or the press of dead bodies surging around the corners, that kicked it off. Maybe a bit of both. Either way, it happened in one second of shuddering crash, a whole lot of dust, and the shouts of the men in the doorway. By sheer luck it didn’t extend to the helo, which was parked nuts-to-butts with the building for security. Juice was knocked clear, but lay prone and still. The PO was face down on the pavement, the lower half of his body crushed by hundreds of pounds of concrete and rebar.

Handon didn’t spare the time to curse fate. Turning to face out to the east again, he spun up the door-mounted GAU-17 minigun and burnt through hundreds of irreplaceable rounds of linked 7.62mm, the weapon whining and buzzing and spilling piles of casings as it spat 4,000 rounds per minute. On any other mission, with any other team, the rounds might actually be worth more than the men. But not on this one. Firing in an arc from extreme left to extreme right, a bit below neck height, Handon watched the first dozen ranks of amassed undead collapse into a rancid meat pile. Many of them were effectively turned off, with nerve connections severed between their bodies and the unholy infections raging in their brainstems. Others simply got too dismembered to locomote. With this precious breathing room, Pope and Pred could hold the flanks for the few seconds Handon needed here.

As he hurled himself back out of the door facing the building, he drew his sword with his right hand and his custom Kimber .45 with his left. By the time he hit the ground, a handful of leakers had already slipped through the perimeter and were rampaging in their rear, going straight for the incapacitated men on the ground. Wheeling and flashing, Handon took off two heads and sent single .45 ACP slugs whumping into three other brainstems. Back in the world, he had been trained always to fire doubletaps. Now they were a luxury.

He came to rest and kneeled at the side of their PO. The man was obviously in unendurable agony. But everyone here already knew that this pain was almost certainly the best thing he had left to look forward to. Just to try it on, Handon threw his weight into the largest piece of rebar pinning the man on the ground. It didn’t budge.

Falling back by sectors.” That was Pope, speaking levelly in Handon’s earpiece. “Hate to rush you, man…” And that was Pred. “But just about all out of room to back up here. Ten seconds tops.” Handon looked down into the agonized eyes of the half-crushed man, whose earpiece was tuned to the same squad net. And, anyway, the man could see perfectly well what was happening around them. They were being overrun.

With his ebbing strength, he wiggled out of the ruck and pushed it across the dust and debris. He tried to speak, but couldn’t draw enough breath. Handon laid his palm across the man’s forehead. Another soul winking out. But at least this one would never rise up. Nor would his last experience be that of becoming a one-man live banquet. Handon used the .45. This man was worth the bullet. He’d only been posted to Handon’s team for a few weeks – POs tended to have a short half-life – but he was obviously a brave man.

Straightening up, Handon stuck his sword in the face of a zombie breaking through on his left. Its skull burst in two, spewing the blackened contents of its head backwards in an arcing spray. Before the body had even hit the floor he had scooped up the ruck with his right hand, and with a powerful motion tossed it into the helo. Firing spaced single shots with his left hand, dead bodies falling deader around him, he pulled Juice up and into a fireman’s carry, yanked his sword free from the dead face on the ground, then heaved himself forward and into the collapsing pinhole of their escape.

As he lurched into the cabin, throwing the unconscious operator ahead of him, he could see Pred backing in the opposite door, alternately firing and jabbing the barrel of his assault rifle through the heads of those that were nearly on top of him. Pope appeared from nowhere, proceeding to do basically the same routine behind him at the other door. Gore was splashing close and thick all around, but they all wore their face shields, as well as bite-proof assault suits. The powerful twin engines of the heavily modified UH-60 Black Hawk whined and surged and the bird rocked off the ground, climbing and accelerating. Pope and Pred hacked off a few clinging arms on the door edge and the fixed landing gear, while Handon stuck his head into the flight deck to confer with the pilots.

In less than a minute, they would be flaring in over their secondary target site – where the other half of Alpha team was heavily engaged on the rooftop.

* * *

Captain Connor Ainsley, formerly of the SAS’s ultra-elite Increment unit, burst onto the building’s flat roof, with his left hand on his PO’s shoulder. They’d got the goods, and they’d gotten out alive. Now – where the bloody hell was their air? The SOF pilots that flew these Black Hawks were American, and Ainsley couldn’t shake the feeling they flew just that bit faster to extract other Americans.

Dusk was still an hour away, but an oppressive overcast sky blotted out the low sun, and of course there was all that damned mist, lying low and thick on the ground. Any cursed thing could be out there. He hailed the American sniper chick, emplaced out on the edge of the roof for surveillance and security. But he spotted her before she answered so he just trotted over.

“Sitrep.”

“Unchanged,” she said, not taking her eye from her scope. “Romeos in ones and twos. Manageable.” Romeo was the designation for the other ones – the runners, the ones who moved fast. Her scope sat on an enormous rifle, an Accuracy International Arctic Warfare in .338 Lapua Magnum. It would take the head off anything with a head, out to over 1,000 yards. It was also fitted with an internal suppressor and subsonic ammunition to keep the noise down when necessary – very necessary in bandit country – though that dinged her range.

As Ainsley nodded and turned, she took a shot on a runner, at about 350 yards, as it broke from the tree line. This one, like the others, had been drawn by the noise of the original helo insertion. The Delta sniper, Aaliyah, or Ali, had been keeping them off the building for the last twenty-two minutes. The Romeos were a hell of a lot more dangerous than the bog-standard Zulus – not least because they could open doors. It wasn’t through a form of developed coordination that they managed it, just blind, fast fury. Where a slow zombie would bang the door down over time, a fast one would usually open it by accident much quicker.

And with that thought, the other two members of their four-man detachment, Homer and Henno, burst onto the rooftop. Both brandished short swords and handguns, their assault rifles hanging on their slings. This meant they’d been in close contact. They also glistened with gore.

“Henno, talk to me,” Ainsley said into his throat mic.

No drama, boss,” he said, backing away from the stairwell entrance, while Homer produced a hammer and nailed three eight-inch spikes diagonally into the door frame, sealing it. Henno trotted up to the captain, flipping up his face mask. “Heaving Romeos down there now, and this building’s right Swiss cheese at this point. Danger Girl there can only shoot in so many directions.”

As Homer pounded the last nail home, a tumult, including a variety of gurgling roars, erupted from the opposite side of the rooftop. Ainsley belatedly noted a large maintenance structure – and also quickly deduced it must have additional stairwell access – around which Romeos in platoon strength were pouring. The ghouls put their shoulders down and sprinted.

The three operators and the PO hunkered down in all-around defense and started putting out rounds. Ainsley had the presence of mind to think of the girl. Swiveling his head and sparing a look, he saw that she was tightly wired and switched on as usual – flipped on her back, firing her sidearm through her raised knees. Ainsley breathed evenly and made his shots count. Romeos were dangerous, but the team knew their capabilities, and they had enough open space to work with here.

And, thank God, that’s when the Stealth Hawk roared in low and fast and from out of nowhere. The men onboard the bird also started putting out rounds, and the rooftop started to clear as a SPIE rope (Special Patrol Insertion/Extraction), with D-rings at three-meter intervals, dropped out the side. The team on the roof executed the drill, covering, withdrawing and clipping in. The captain went last, and the bird began to climb instantly, pulling the men off the ground in sequence.

And that’s when it appeared.

From out of fucking nowhere.

Ainsley actually froze – not good. He’d never seen anything, never mind anything dead, move that fast. For a second he thought it was coming right at his face, but it wasn’t. With an ungodly shriek and an inhuman leap it launched itself into the air, over Ainsley’s head, and straight at Homer in the number four position on the rope. The eyes of the utterly unflappable former Team Six SEAL went wide, and he pulled the only evasive maneuver open to him: he unclipped in a blur and slid down the rope right onto Ainsley’s head.

Everyone had trouble following exactly what happened from there, but piecing it together later, they couldn’t avoid the conclusion that the ghoul had grabbed onto the rope – and then scampered up far enough to maul the PO, who was in the three position. And the attack was the strangest thing of all: instead of going for the man’s flesh, either a bite or a ripped-out handful, as they’d all seen happen too many times, it instead raked its splintered nails across the man’s face, leaving deep furrows amid a smear of mixed blood and viscera.

It then leapt away, disappearing into the gloom and mists on the ground as the helo buzzed away. Somebody thought they saw it running flat out, away from them, like it was fleeing.

And it did that after a twenty-meter fall that should have broken half of the weakened, rotten and infested bones in its body.

Unseen hands above pulled the stunned and bleeding PO into the cabin. Ainsley simply clung to the rope where he was, twisting gently in the aircraft’s slipstream. A voice came over his earpiece, from the air mission net. “Raptor One-Zero to Alpha Actual. Uh… what the fuck was that, over.

Ainsley blinked once, heavily, before remembering that he was being pulled up, and needed to get a leg over and into the cabin.

Whatever the hell it was, he wasn’t hallucinating.

The pilot had seen it, too.

This was something new.