TABLE OF CONTENTS:
The Darkest Place: A Surviving the Dead Novel
James N. Cook
I had a dream, which was not all a dream.
The bright sun was extinguished,
and the stars did wander darkling in the eternal space,
rayless and pathless, and the icy earth swung blind
and blackening in the moonless air.
Morn came and went and came, and brought no day.
And men forgot their passions in the dread of this,
And all hearts were chilled into a selfish prayer for light,
and they did live by watchfires,
and the thrones, the palaces of crowned kings, the huts,
the habitations of all things which dwell,
were burnt for beacons.
Cities were consumed,
and the men gathered round their blazing homes,
to look once more into each other’s face.
Hollow Rock, Tennessee
Caleb Hicks awoke to the sound of bells ringing.
This is getting to be a habit, he thought as he sat up and reached for his gear. Everything was exactly where he had left it the night before, which was the same place he always left it. If an alarm started ringing in the middle of the night, there was no fumbling around trying to locate his MOLLE vest, rifle, assault pack, helmet, and spear. It was always in the same spot, ready to go.
“For Christ’s sake, what the hell is it this time?” Specialist Derrick Holland moaned as he tugged on his boots.
“Probably more walkers,” Sergeant Isaac Cole said groggily. “Been getting a lot of those lately.”
Staff Sergeant Ethan Thompson, Caleb’s squad leader, stood up and addressed his men. “Whatever it is, it’s our job to deal with it. Let’s get moving, ladies. Time to go to work.”
The other men in Hicks’ squad quickly dressed and armed themselves. He looked across the VFW hall that had served as his platoon’s quarters for the last few months and saw forty-eight soldiers lining up for inspection. As usual, the platoon’s commanding officer, First Lieutenant Clay Jonas, a forty-something former master sergeant given a field commission after the Outbreak, was the first to be ready. His men stood at respectful attention as he looked them over.
“All right,” he said, satisfied with what he saw. “Squad leaders, form your men up and get ready to move out.”
The four staff sergeants of First Platoon answered with a chorus of yes sirs and turned to their men, barking out orders. Thompson took a few extra moments to make sure his squad’s gear and weapons were squared away, then had them form up with the rest of the platoon. Jonas took his place at the head of the formation and nodded to his platoon sergeant.
Master Sergeant Damian Ashman—all six-foot-six, two-hundred-seventy pounds of him—towered over the men behind him as he turned and addressed his troops, the hilt of his massive broadsword protruding over his right shoulder. If they had been back home at Fort Bragg, he would have given a crisp FORwaaaard, MARCH. But Ashman had been in the Army long enough to know that out in the field such things weren’t necessary. Instead, he simply tilted his helmet toward the door and said, “Let’s go.”
Hicks adjusted the tactical sling on his rifle as he emerged into the chilly morning. The sun was just beginning to burnish the eastern sky in shades of crimson and copper, a clatter of birdsong echoing through blooming tree-lined streets. If not for the urgent bronze cacophony rattling from the south side of town, the morning would have been idyllic.
Caleb felt an elbow nudge his side and looked to his right. “How much you wanna bet it’s walkers again?” Holland asked.
Hicks shook his head. Holland would bet on anything.
“I’ll take that bet,” Private Fuller said from behind them. He was almost as much of a gambling addict as Holland, and that was saying something. Hicks had a theory the two of them never actually gained anything over one another in their constant wagering, but instead simply traded their personal fortunes back and forth two or three times a month.
“I’ll put up two mini-bottles of Bacardi,” Fuller said. “How about you?”
Holland thought about it for a moment, then said, “Three MRE packs of instant coffee.”
“Make it four.”
Holland spun around and marched backward while he shook hands with Fuller. “You’re on.”
As his platoon marched closer, Hicks looked up at the towers on the south wall. The guards in the towers and along the walls did not look more agitated than usual, which was a good sign. Their attention was focused toward something on the ground below, outside the palisade of telephone poles and tree trunks. They gestured, and pointed, and spoke into handheld radios. Hicks recognized the shapely silhouette of Deputy Sarah Glover as she walked back and forth organizing the response to whatever crisis was occurring.
“That cop is a sweet-looking piece of ass,” Holland said, eliciting a few chuckles from the men around him. “Kinda MILF-y, but I’d still hit it.”
Hicks felt heat rise in his face, and before he realized what he was doing, he had seized two of Holland’s fingers and twisted them together, grinding nerves between bones. Holland gave a surprised squeak and stumbled to keep up as Hicks kept walking. The tall young soldier leaned over and said, “Her name is Sarah Glover, and she is a good, kind-hearted woman. So I don’t ever want to hear you talk about her like that again. Understood?”
Holland nodded quickly, unable to draw a breath against the pain. Hicks released his hand.
“Jesus Christ, man,” Holland complained, trying to work feeling back into his fingers. “Half my arm is numb. What the fuck did you do to my hand?”
“Don’t worry,” Caleb said. “It’s not permanent. This time.”
Sergeant Ashman brought the platoon to a halt while Lieutenant Jonas proceeded ahead to speak with Deputy Glover. The soldiers around Hicks shifted restlessly, grumbling quiet complaints as they awaited orders. After conferring with Sarah and the watch captain, Jonas turned on his heel and walked back to his platoon.
“We’ve got another horde on our hands,” he announced. Fuller groaned. “We’re headed for the north gate to meet up with the Ninth TVM and Second Platoon outside Fort McCray. Then we’ll proceed south and encircle the horde at company strength. Same drill as last time. You men know what to do.” He nodded at Master Sergeant Ashman.
“You heard the man,” Ashman bellowed. “About face, let’s go.”