I meet the interviewee, ‘John’, in an interstate diner. John had tracked me down a week previous, after hearing about my report ‘from some friends’, and requested to be interviewed.
John’s a lean, rangy man and he’s wearing mirrored aviators. He drinks his coffee and explains his request for confidentiality.
The stuff I’m about to tell you, you won’t find any other way, but it’s our story and I think it needs told. Most of is still technically classified. Not that it matters much now… the government, hell, even the army who set our mission, aren’t around anymore. But I survived ten years of hell, I’m not gonna risk jail just because some bureaucrat’s following the letter. Besides which… we did some stuff in the early days which I’m not proud of.
I’d been in Delta for three years when they selected me to join the new unit. 5th Special Forces Operational Detachment-Alpha.I’d seen the tail end of Gulf Two and Afghanistan, and when they told me it was a covert homeland security gig, I jumped at the chance. Nothing in America could be as bad as hunting insurgents in crowded streets and stinking caves, in countries where even the people you’re supposed to be helping don’t want you. I know, I know, but this was way before everything kicked off, and this new rabies was just the next swine flu.
The 5th were based at Fort Campbell, Kentucky. There we had access to the 160th ‘Nightstalkers’ SOAR and rapid transport across the continent. We also bunkered with the 101st Airborne, so I knew a few of the guys who fought in the battle of Portsmouth. Brave guys, they knew what they were getting themselves into.
We didn’t, but that changed fast. My first day at Fort Campbell, I met the rest of my team. Our teams were four man units, for speed, stealth and flexibility. The guys on my first team, ‘Mike’, ‘Jack’ and ‘Joe’, were a mix of SEALS and Green Berets. I’d worked with Mike, in Afghanistan, and knew him to be a solid fighter. It was also good to have a familiar face. There were about twenty other Delta or ex-Delta in the twenty five teams that made up the 5th initial field elements, but none that I knew too well.
They sat us down, me, my team and about fifty other new arrivals in a briefing room and told us the score. To their credit, no one cried bullshit. I had the sneaking suspicion this was some PsyOps evaluation nonsense. I’d seen worse. The suspicion was still there when they showed us the images, the police reports, the details of the skirmishes in border towns and local hospitals. All covered up, of course, wouldn’t do to panic the American public, not with the economy the way it was.
I was still sceptical right up until the moment the took us through to the holding cells in the warehouse next door and put several large calibre rounds through a zed, and it kept on trying to get at us. Never forget your first Z, right? This one had been a cop, and was missing a crescent shaped chunk of flesh from its forearm. Apart from the five large holes in its chest, and the five massive exit wounds in its back, that was the only injury we could see. It just kept on reaching through the bars of its holding cell, even whilst missing a good portion of its torso. The officer who had given us the briefing put a final round through its head. They had our attention.
That was it; that was our selection process. I guess we’d already proved ourselves in a regular fight, so they just wanted to know if we could take what we were going up against. Still, none of this ‘locking us overnight in a room with a bunch of biting heads’, like I keep hearing. Thank Christ for that! The later recruits had it different, but with us, the first wave, no one really knew what they were doing.
We got to work training to put down the dead. A lot of that training was focussed on headshots. All the Alpha operators had seen action in one arena or another, but fighting armed, fast human opponents encourages that centre-of-mass aiming that does absolutely no good against a walking corpse. We took time to ensure that habit didn’t crop up in high-stress combat situations, and time to get acquainted with the range of weapons and tactics the programme was proposing. It wasn’t the dark ages, but it wasn’t quite the New Model Army either.
They kitted us out over the course of the first week. We carried lightweight recce body armour, little more than advanced skating protection, but enough to stop some bites and bullet ricochets. We had access to pretty much any weapon we could ask for, but generally stuck to MP5 ‘shorts’ for covert actions, and FN SCARs for anything heavier. Sidearms were a matter of preference, I kept the .45 M1911 that I’d brought from Fort Bragg. Some of the teams were specialised into heavy or exotic weaponry: Barretts, flamethrowers, SAWs, M60s, foam guns and slip guns. We’d use these teams as support if things started to go south. Talking of which, do you have any idea what I’m saying? I could just call big guns and small guns, if you’d prefer?
Things were pretty quiet in the states for that first month. There were isolated incidents across the country, but they were all met by local law enforcement and put down before they got out of control. Our ready teams would scramble and comb the area, just to be sure, whilst the spooks took care of the publicity.
Our prime objective was to prevent the spread of infection. We would go into an area, sweep through and report. If it was an after action assay, we’d generally wear civvies. No need to scare the populace more by having a town crawling with ninjas in the wake of a shooting incident. In the beginning, we had spooks to accompany us and determine the vector, interviewing the local police and civilians. When we’d declared the area clear, we might move onto the next town, backtracking a patient zero, say, or investigating suspicious police reports. We didn’t find much that first month, a lot of the P zeros had just gone to sleep and woke up dead. That was worrying, no obvious vector. It took a couple of weeks for the spooks to work out lots of them had received infected organ donations from abroad. Some of our teams were deployed to bring in suspected cases, but by that time things had started to heat up, both at home and in the rest of the world.
Our first major incident came a month and a half after I started. Our team had come together well, especially for guys picked up and thrown in at the deep end of a war. I guess the small team numbers and prior experience were to thank for that, it minimised selection and training time.
We were one of the ready teams that day. The call came to haul ass to the flight hangers and we’d be briefed when airborne. The Nightstalkers busted us across the country double time and took us in by Blackhawks for the final stage. Details were sketchy, but it seemed like a an escalating outbreak centred around the local hospital. The town was small and spread out, about five thousand people, but the hospital served a larger area and was five stories tall. The outbreak had spread overnight through the wards, and the small police force hadn’t been able to handle it. Our intel guys had caught the radio chatter and is sounded bad.
We got there six hours after the scramble order. Six active teams, with two heavy weapon teams in reserve, a squadron of attack helicopters, and a pair of F22s over the horizon. The spooks had cut the landlines and an airforce bird was jamming all civilian radio traffic across that part of the state. We made a pass over the hospital at dawn, but couldn’t see anything obvious apart from the abandoned emergency vehicles in the lot. The lights were still on but we couldn’t see movement in the corridors. The hospital lay in its own open campus, set away from the town proper, so three of our teams landed at road entrances and swept the grounds towards the main building whilst we rappelled onto its roof.
The roof access was locked, so team 3 made a forced entry with breaching charges. The moment the door popped, the dead were on us. We figured later that they must have followed some poor soul who’d been trying to escape to the roof, and got them when they couldn’t make it through the door. Whatever, there were about sixty of them in the stairwell, all freshly dead with little rigor, against our twelve guns and a hundred square feet of fighting roof space. Team 3 went under straight off, just ripped apart. That, and the logjam in the stairwell, saved us. We opened up with everything we had six magazines of 9mm each, grenades, swearing. All that stuff I said about the finest soldiers in the world drilling for headshots? That went out the window when we suddenly found ourselves ten feet from all that blood and snapping teeth. We fired until there was nothing moving in the doorway, and then threw a few more frag grenades in for luck.
The rest of the hospital was pretty much a clean sweep, though I was scared shitless the whole time. We resupplied from the helo and went in through the top story windows: there was no way I was going down that stairwell. The vector turned out to be a woman who had recently returned from South Africa. Hers was the only room in the place without any blood in it.
That was our first real action, our first casualties. We blew the hospital. Gas explosion. Those excuses became common as time went on.
After that, things got busy. We got another two hundred operators. Two incidents a week, then six, then ten. Hospitals were always the worst for me, and there were far too many of them. Apartment blocks, airfields, goddamn funeral homes, small towns…
When I said we did stuff I not proud of, one particular incident sticks in my mind. It was just our team, doing a routine clean sweep of small outbreak. The town’s sheriff had shot a vagrant who had ‘tried to eat’ him and a few of the townsfolk. Our intel system was sensitive to reports like that.
We were dropped at the nearest airfield and picked up a federal vehicle. Prevent infection, avoid exposure. We got to the town at sunset, nearly half a day after the sheriff filed his report, but like I said, it was a routine sweep, we even wore civvies. It was a small town in forest country. Two thousand, three hundred and sixty five people in new builds, a few shops, a police station and a mini-mall. No hospital, but a clinic. It lay on an island, mid river, with a road bridge at either side.
Things began to go wrong shortly before we got there. First, control radioed us to say that the police frequencies had gone dead. Next, we noticed flickering lights silhouetting the forested rise that separated us from the road down towards the town. I had Mike gun the car and we crested the rise a minute later.
The situation was all fucked up. From our position, we could see both sides of the town. Most of the lights were off, but the fires from burning cars and houses gave us enough illumination. The town crawled. From a distance, we couldn’t tell infected from uninfected, but there were a lot of them. Gunfire was concentrated in the main street, semi-automatic but uncontrolled, filling streets with lead but mostly not hitting anything important. Both roads out across the river were blocked, three to four car pile ups. The bridge on the far side burned, but the one on our side still held, and some of the townsfolk were trying to get across the wreckage. A horde was following them.
I radioed this into Command and while we awaited their response we broke out the weapons. We were only carrying MP5s for this mission, Quiet but relatively short ranged. If we were to sweep the town we’d have to go over the bridge and get up close and personal. No pleasant at the best of times but we’d also be contending with the wild fire of the town’s defenders. And there were only four of us.
The order from command came through, and it took us a few moments to process it. We deployed to the end of the bridge and took up a firing arc around it. Then we shot everything that came into range. Everything. We kept the fire slow and steady. We used headshots on infected and uninfected alike, because if you can’t tell who’s been bitten, there’s no point wasting ammo once they’ve turned. Our targets were backlit by the fires in the town, and it was all far too easy. Man, woman, child, corpse, all just paper cut-outs; silhouettes.
The civvies soon stopped trying the bridge, and a few tried to swim for it. We put them down, too.. We must’ve killed a couple of hundred targets before the wave stopped. The advantage of the MP5 is that it’s integrally suppressed, and so much quieter than the civilian rifles which were tearing up the middle of the town. With their fleeing human prey exhausted, the zeds were all attracted to the gunfire along the main street.
The two minute warning came through, and we pulled back to the drainage ditch along the treeline, putting the road between us and the bridge but still within weapon range for anything that came over it. Nothing did.
When the bombs hit, the town just ceased to exist. The buildings blew apart, the bridge shattered and fell into the river, and then the napalm munitions hit and incinerated anything still moving. We were picked up and smashed into the muddy water at the bottom of the ditch, but otherwise we got off lightly.
Two thousand, three hundred and sixty five people. All dead because we were too late and too few. I don’t know how many had been turned by the time we got there, but we weren’t just shooting the walking dead on that bridge. It’s not something you think about at the time… it’s not something I thought about, but afterwards it weighs deep.
A collapsed dam was the explanation for that one.
I remembered wondering at the time how the public could keep buying these excuses: forest fire, flash flood, earthquake, gas explosion, serial killer, armed gangs, terrorists. It says something when natural disasters and major terrorist attacks are considered less destabilising to society than the truth. But the truth was that we were under attack from walking corpses, and even for a public coming to terms with the global spread of African rabies, that was not an easy truth to accept.
The winter wore on with more and more separate outbreaks, but the cold up North kept them slow whilst we piled operators into the Southern ones. The 5th received reinforcements, and eventually reached regiment strength with a thousand field teams; four thousand operators all in. Even then were stretched thin, taking casualties every single day. After our near-miss, there was no such thing as a ‘routine sweep’. That meant supersonic transport and either airdrop or stealth helo infiltration into outbreaks. We’d be on the ground no more than two hours after receiving a call. There were far fewer false alarms than we’d hoped for.
Joe once compared our situation to the Spitfire pilots fighting the Battle of Britain. “Never in the field of human conflict”, and all that. Except I’ll bet those ‘few’ were never forced to gun down unarmed civilians.
Things like that happened more often towards spring. The teams were never triggerhappy, but there’s only so much a four man team or even a platoon could do. It was never a case of shooting people to keep things quiet, but sometimes we were outnumbered and there was no way to police civilians to screen for bites. In those cases, where one infected slipping the net could bring devastation to a much larger area, the rules of engagement were clear.
Then spring came and the net just… broke. Suddenly there were class 2 and 3 outbreaks everywhere. All those zeds that we’d missed, one that had wandered off and frozen in rivers and forests, just woke up and started tearing up everything in their path. Now every incident required at least three teams and maybe aerial drone support. Covert went out the window. We were fighting in small towns and big cities, coast to coast.
And then the story broke. The new rabies wasn’t rabies at all, and the vaccine was a piece of shit. The dead were coming to eat you.
For us, it was actually a relief. Battling monsters isn’t easy on your own. We were allowed to work with the national guard units that up until then had just been background support in our bigger operations. We still did most of the wetwork, but at least we had help cleaning up. We were still stretched though. Teams were screwing up through sheer exhaustion after dropping into five or six outbreaks a week. We’d been fighting solidly for nearly a year at this point, and things were not getting better.
Then New York happened. We’d fought in large cities before, but the high population densities actually worked for us and we’d be able to react quickly. A lot of people screaming is easy to here. But when the Osaka Express came aground at Manhattan, it created an instant class 3 outbreak, spilling ten thousand zeds onto the West Side. I think I read later that some billionaire philanthropist had chartered the cargo ship to help take refugees from Cape Town. Asshole.
The terminal was lost within minutes, and the surrounding area was crawling by the time we arrived. An airforce strike had turned the Express into a flaming hulk, and thick clouds of smoke rolled through the New York streets. We overshot the planned landing area because it was stinking with the dead, and defaulted to Central Park. There were nine hundred operators on the ground before the local guys at Fort Hamilton had even managed to muster. It was the largest operation the 5th had undertaken up to this point in the war. It also nearly got us all killed.
We deployed in a defensive perimeter around the LZ, then the helos that brought us in took off to provide air support. The Colonel in charge left a dozen teams to secure the LZ, and split the rest of us into detachments to sweep the hostile streets, West 46th through 60th. We took about a companies worth of men down each street, with enough firepower to end a war.
It was, smoke, gunshots and screams aside, a pleasant summer’s day. The roads were gridlocked, as normal, but no one was in the cars. Our detachment swept down West 54th street. Many people had barricaded themselves in the apartment and offices, and they called to us for help, but we had to ignore them and push on.
The smoke thickened as we closed on Dewitt Park. We could tell that the detachments on the others streets had already come into contact by the crackle of the comms and the sound of the military grade weaponry in play. The thick smoke cut our effective combat range down to less than six hundred feet. Infra red systems were useless against even the freshly turned, as the smoke and fires had raised the ambient temperature to above that of a cooling corpse. We dug in on the corner of 10th avenue and turned the street into a kill zone.
Our support helos buzzed overhead, churning up the smoke and throwing down grenades and streams of tracer fire into the horde. We could hear the moans even over the explosions and gunfire. There were panicked faces in the windows above us, shouting stuff we couldn’t hear and pointing frantically towards the smoke. A few teams had deployed to the roofs of the buildings, and their shooting was nearly as frantic. Contact reports were flooding the net.
When they came out of the smoke, we were only four hundred feet away. There were thousands of them. They packed the whole width of the street, flowing around abandoned cars like a river. We opened up at once, no orders needed. The front line wet down in a red mist, and then the next and the next. Tracer bullets found fuel tanks, and cars exploded. The horde kept coming, a fiery, blood soaked wave of carrion.
It was a numbers game. Our detachment could, theoretically, put down around a hundred and sixty enemy in a second, though the real number was probably closer to a hundred, what with duplicate fire and no chance to communicate targets. They would take two or three minutes to cross the kill zone, meaning, theoretically, we should’ve been able to hold off twelve to eighteen thousand of them. Magazine changes and jammed weapons reduced that number, but all things being equal, we should still have been able to perform a fighting withdrawal.
All things were not equal. Our left flank got hit whist we were concentrating on the horror approaching us from the front. The detachment holding 53rd street had made contact and withdrawn before us, and the corpses following them had spilled up 10th avenue. There were hundreds of them, and they tore the left flank to pieces.
My team were holding the right flank, so we were spared the brunt of the assault. We poured suppressing fire down 10th and tried to retreat down 54th street, but the smoke was now billowing down and both waves were on us. I had Joe blow the door of an apartment block and we held it whilst the survivors retreated in. The streets were crawling with zed, stumbling at us out of the smoke. Jack was taken as the last men got past. Mike and I bought Joe enough time to rig a demolition charge out of grenades, then we ran hell for leather up the stairs with a hundred of the bloodsoaked bastards on our heels.
The charge took out the first two flights of stairs and knocked us flat. When I looked down, the stairwell was a burning, blackened wreck, but the zeds were still pouring in, trying to reach us, climbing over shattered bodies and rubble. The stairs we were on were threatening to give as well, so we quickly decamped to the roof.
Sixty, seventy feet up, and all we could see was carnage. The ten thousand zeds from the cargo ship had already turned five or six times their number, and the streets were choked with the dead. The fighting receded away from us as the wave pushed the rest of the 5th back towards Central Park. Street fires burned out of control to the west of us, and several buildings were ablaze, too. Much of the Hudson river was obscured by a mile high pillar of smoke from the passenger terminal.
We sat the next four hours out on that roof, the thirty of us who’d made it. We took potshots when the smoke cleared enough for us to see, but there wasn’t much else we could do. Army units were being flown in to reinforce the LZ, but the heavy equipment couldn’t move through the streets because of all the fleeing traffic. Spectre gunships and attack helos poured down fire, but probably did more damage to the ground than to their targets.
Central Park was abandoned shortly before the horde reached it, dozens of helicopters lifting off in staggered waves. Another flight of helos came in shortly after that to extract us and the other survivors from the rooftops. The last I saw of New York was smoke and fire as the sun went down. We’d lost the city.
People say what happened outside of New York, a few weeks later, was the first major military engagement of the war. That’s not true, though it had much more publicity and far more casualties. Of the twelve hundred operators that went into New York that day, we lost five hundred and two. That seems trifling on the scale of the war, and of the thousands lost on that day, but it crippled us. And for no gain; we learned no lessons, saved no lives. We fought reactively, as we’d always done, but on a scale we not been part of before, and we died for it.
The 5th was disbanded shortly after. The teams were split and sent as advisors to different regiments, or to guard high value installations. I never saw Joe or Mike again, though I heard Joe was still at Fort Campbell when a megaswarm hit it.
As for myself, I spent the rest of the war firstly guarding VIPs in Hawaii, and then leading a Border company in the Rockies. I transferred back to the regular army for the Push, and spent the next few years slogging across the bible belt. You know the rest.
I still hate hospitals.