Hellbound Express Chapter 6

For your reading pleasure, here is the third installment of Mel Odom’s Hellbound Express. If you haven’t yet read the first 5. chapters, here (1, 2 , 3 , 4 , 5 ) are the links for them. Enjoy.
Chapter 6
By Mel Odom

A zombie in the ragged remains of a gray mechanic’s uniform rushed Gant with its mouth open and black ichor gleaming on its teeth. It moaned without emotion. In life, the dead man had been big, taller than Gant and heavier, but death had stripped away the excess weight.

Raising his left arm, Gant blocked the zombie’s right arm with his forearm and brought the ASP down in a hard arc with his right. The matte black baton slammed into the zombie’s forehead with a liquid crunch, breaking through bone. Its rheumy eyes exploded. Bloody black goo leaked down its withered cheeks as its head came apart.

Setting himself, Gant caught the zombie’s collapsing weight against his left arm and shoved forward, driving the corpse back into the one dressed in shorts and a t-shirt behind it. The two things toppled back and down, then hit the ground hard. The one with the crushed forehead lay still, but the one underneath fought to get free. For the moment, the dead weight on top of it kept it pinned.

A few feet away, Jenni knocked her closest attacker’s feet from under it with a leg sweep and side-stepped the falling body as she slid toward the second zombie facing her.

In life, the fallen zombie had probably been a thirty-something year old mom. Now the PTA t-shirt and stretch pants hung in tatters. Before the virus spread, the woman had been someone’s mom and wife. Gant remembered his own lost family and the cinnamon smell that had pervaded his childhood home on holidays.

He forced that memory out of his mind.

As the dead thing tried to get up and reach for Jenni, Gant crossed over, leaned down, and swung the tomahawk into its temple. Desiccated flesh ripped and bone shattered as the blade drove into its brain and stilled it.

Jenni drove her broad-bladed hunting knife up under the zombie’s jaw, putting enough force into the effort to shove the tip up into its brain. It went still and slack and dropped to the ground.

Gant turned, intending to get to the zombie he’d left behind, when something smashed into him and drove him backward. Unable to keep his feet under him, he stumbled and went down, putting out his left hand to keep him from falling facefirst to the ground.

“Aaaaahhhhhhhh.” The zombie clung to Gant’s shoulder and moaned into his ear. The cry deafened Gant even through the helmet.

In life, the zombie had been big and strong. Faded tattoos ran the length of the dead thing’s forearms. One of them showed a nude woman in a cowboy hat and boots riding a dolphin leaping up from the ocean. Frayed, braided cord bracelets had sunk into the undead flesh at its wrists. Long, scraggly hair and an unkempt beard scratched at the thin line of Gant’s neck that lay exposed between his helmet and body armor.

The thing’s rancid stink so close to Gant almost made him violently ill. Its breath was strong enough to blister paint. Gant tried to roll to dislodge the corpse, but it gripped him solidly. Its large head came forward, jaws wide, and yellowed teeth snapped and gnawed at his Kevlar-covered shoulder.

Fear rose inside Gant even though he’d faced zombies dozens of times. They were bad enough at a distance, and even killing them in hand-to-hand combat still jarred him, but having one at his throat again brought up all those old memories of being trapped with no place to run.

For a moment, he panicked and tried pushing it off him even though he didn’t have the leverage he needed. The thing was godawful strong and—even a husk of its former self—was heavier and taller than Gant. Before he could shift and try to counter the thing’s hold, a gloved hand closed in the hair at its forehead and yanked back. Then a knife plunged into the zombie’s right eye to the hilt.

Instantly, the dead thing went slack and the sudden surge of its weight almost knocked Gant over. He twisted aside and let the body fall as Jenni yanked it to the side using the fistful of hair she still clung to. She had one knee in the thing’s back as she guided it away from Gant.

“Don’t leave one of these things operational behind you in close quarters.” Jenni ripped her blade free as she spoke in a harsh, angry tone. “Isn’t that one of the rules you taught me?”

Gant didn’t answer because he’d taught her exactly that.
“Take out what’s in front of you.” Jenni breathed raggedly. “Keep moving in the direction you’re headed. Break free, then assess your situation. Trust your partner to cover your back. I remember that one too.”

“I thought you needed help.” Even as he said that, Gant knew it was weak. He hadn’t trusted Jenni to handle the things she’d faced. She was still new to scavenging, which was why he’d paired her with him. He’d felt the need to watch over her.
She drove her knife through the temple of the zombie still working its way from beneath the mechanic.

“Wrong! You know that’s wrong.” Jenni knelt to wipe the ichor from her knife. “You thought I couldn’t deal with those two. So you decided to go all macho and save me.” She stood and sheathed her knife. “Never save someone who can’t save himself or herself. You look for allies. You don’t throw your life away for someone who’s gonna die. Didn’t you tell me that?”

“I did.” Gant knelt and wiped off his weapons as well.

“Well?”

“I screwed up.”

“Almost got yourself killed, you mean.” Jenni’s helmet shook from side to side. She nodded to where three more zombies loped toward them. “Might have got me killed too.” She moved into a fighting stance, loose and ready, just like Gant had taught her.

“I thought about leaving you.”

“Maybe you should have.”

“After the example you set? Not likely.”

Gant stood and moved a couple feet away from here. “We’ll talk about this later.”
“Bet your ass we will,” Jenni promised.

Settled now, Gant stepped to the side and dropped to a crouch, long enough to brace himself to put a shoulder into a dead woman’s chest. The thing stumbled to the side and he swung the tomahawk to catch it at the base of the skull. He yanked the tomahawk free as Jenni drove her knife through the temple of a dead man in the remnants of a cheap business suit. He stayed back, out of the way, while she dealt with the remaining zombie by offering it her armored forearm and then smashing the knife down into its skull when it took the bait.

“See what you can find.” Jenni took up a position a few feet away and faced away from Gant. “I’ll keep watch.”

Gant knelt and placed his weapons nearby on the ground. He went through the dead things’ pockets quickly, taking out keyrings from the three that had them. He took all of the wallets he could find.

Working quickly, Gant sorted through the wallets, looking at the driver’s licenses and other cards he found. Excitement filled him when he found cards that interested him.
“What did you find?” Jenni asked.

“Federal Firearms License.” Gant paired it with the keyring that had come from the mechanic’s pocket.

“Cool. Thinking he might have some guns?”

“Hope so. Unless somebody knew about them. Or he carried them out of the house while trying to get out of town.”

“Maybe he wandered back home after he died.”
“Maybe.”

Sometimes the zombies returned back to where they’d lived and stayed in the vicinity. There was no way of knowing how much of the person remained in the walking corpse.

“I saw you take another card,” Jenni prompted.

“This one was a doctor.” Gant held up hospital identification and pointed to a woman in a sports halter and shorts. She’d carried a small wallet with her keys, cards, and a little cash. The money was no good to anyone.

“Local?”

“Yes.”

Her driver’s license had indicated she’d also lived in one of the nearby houses.
“If she kept meds at the house,” Jenni said, “this will be a good run.”

Pharmaceuticals remained hard to come by so long after the initial outbreak. That was why they didn’t search drug stores or pharmacies as a general rule. Those areas often held groups of the dead and the space got too easily blocked to get back out again.

Plus, any kind of encounter within a store usually ended up with broken glass and maybe alarms going off. Those noises drew the dead immediately.
“Let’s go.” Gant gathered his weapons and headed for the nearest house. “We’ll hit the doc’s place first.”

Hellbound Express Chapter 5

For your reading pleasure, here is fourth installment of Mel Odom’s Hellbound Express. If you haven’t yet read the first two chapters, here (chapter 1, chapter 2, chapter 3, and chapter 4) are the links for them. Enjoy

Chapter 5
By Mel Odom

Gant ignored Northland Pioneer College and the Falcon Restaurant & Lounge. Scavengers would have hit those places hard and picked them clean.
He wasn’t certain how long the living residents of Winslow might have held out against the virus and the dead. Some places had held up for a time, but eventually metropolitan areas died. If Yeomra didn’t get them, if they didn’t get infected, then hopelessness, fear, famine, or thirst did.

It had taken time for survivors to know what they were up against and how best to guard themselves against those dangers. Outbreak and infection had racked up the most kills in the second wave. People had tried too hard to save other people. Survivors had learned to police themselves, to stay in small groups so they could move fast and live off the land, and no one wanted to trust a stranger.
Strangers brought potential outbreaks, and too often they were raiders who only wanted to get inside a group and get into position to take everything their would-be saviors had.

Gant had learned that lesson in Afghanistan. He’d learned it again after surviving the initial attrition Yeomra caused. He still bore scars from an attack by three teenaged kids who had taken his supplies, food, and water, then left him for dead.
The people who had thirsted to death bothered Gant the most. He passed an SUV that held a man whose features had ballooned up and turned black from thirst. He wore an Arizona State sweatshirt. His thick, black tongue protruded from his mouth.
Beside him, a corpse in a bright yellow blouse flecked with dried blood leaned against the passenger door. She’d been shot in the back of the head and the bullet had passed through the passenger window. Dried blood and other matter smeared the starred bullet hole.

As Gant drove by, the dead thing behind the wheel turned its head and moaned at him. It closed its jaws hungrily and its teeth severed its tongue, dropped and disappeared.

“There’s a lot of them in the cars,” Jenni said when she pulled up alongside Gant. They turned together and rode north on North Williamson Street. “That’s a good sign, yeah?”

“Maybe.” In other cities they’d scavenged, the dead had been cleared out by people who’d survived the virus. Mostly, though, there’d been no escape. Someone died and the virus flared up again.
“The trucks aren’t going to be able to drive down these streets,” Jenni said.
Gant watched the street and threaded through the cars, which were packed too tightly to allow the big Fords to drive through.

“They don’t have to drive down the streets,” Gant said. “That’s why we brought off-road vehicles. We’ll just scout up the houses, see if there’s anything worth having.”
The trucks waited a half-mile outside town. The other motorcycle team followed behind Gant and Jenni. As planned, they’d come in five minutes afterward and go north on North Berry Avenue.

Their recon the day before had settled on a twelve-block square of residences between Williamson and Berry on the east and west, and Maple and Mulberry to the north and south. The area was away from Winslow Junior High School to the east and Winslow Public Library to the north. Both of those places would have been hotbeds for survivors in the early days of the virus, and they’d have been active sites for scavengers searching for supplies.

The residential area would be quieter, hopefully, and was far enough away to be a little isolated. Also, the streets there ran in straight lines, leaving the view clear except for the trees, bushes, and overgrown yards. Dead or living, potential threats would stand out for blocks along the streets.
The dead that remained inside the houses were the greatest threat. The scouts entered those premises searching for food, medicine, shoes, and clothing.
Reaching the corner of Williamson and Maple, Gant brought the motorcycle to a halt and put out a leg to keep balanced. He slipped the transmission into neutral, released the clutch and brake, and took his helmet off to scan the neighborhood. The motorcycle engines throbbed in his ears.

Modest brick and wood houses, many of them with front yards behind picket fences and straight wire fences, line the street. Sidewalks led up to generous porches and trees stood in overgrown yards.

It reminded Gant of the neighborhood where he’d grown up in Tyler. He put those feelings away before they could take root. He had a job to do.
Four living dead, three men and one woman, shambled from behind the houses to his left. Gant relaxed a little. At least they were adults. He hated dealing with dead children.

“Well?” Jenni asked. “We doing this?”

The dead closed in almost at a run. The way they stutter-stepped sometimes, it was easy to forget how quickly they could move.

“Yeah.” Gant pulled his helmet back on, pulled the chinstrap tight, killed the motorcycle engine, and threw his leg over. He left his pistols in the double shoulder rig, didn’t touch the cut down double-barreled shotguns holstered along his thighs, and pulled the ASP tactical baton from his right boot and the Browning Black Label Shock N’Awe Tomahawk from his left boot.

As a kid, Gant had played videogames where avatars carried multiple weapons. As a Marine, he’d carried an assault rifle, a 9mm pistol, and the tomahawk in lieu of a fighting knife. In war, he’d believed in staying stripped down to those weapons.
But out here in apocryphal lands, he carried everything he could because he never knew what would be needed.

Jenni shook out her own ASP to its full twenty-two inch length as Gant did.

“Ready?” Gant asked.

“Yeah.”

Gant stepped into the confrontation as he bladed his body and reduced his profile.

Hellbound Express Chapter 4

For your reading pleasure, here is fourth installment of Mel Odom’s Hellbound Express. If you haven’t yet read the first two chapters, here (chapter 1, chapter 2, and chapter 3) are the links for them. Enjoy.

 

Chapter 4

BY Mel Odom


These days, the silence of the cities Gant visited bothered him more than anything. He’d grown up in Tyler, Texas, which boasted a population of nearly a hundred thousand. He’d also visited Dallas and other major metro areas.

The thing he remembered most was the traffic noise on the streets, the chatter of jackhammers, the warning beeping of construction vehicles on the move, the hiss of airbrakes, and the conversations that had filled restaurants and shopping centers.

Now the steady growl of the motorcycles’ engines beat into his ears, muffled only slightly by his combat helmet. He kept his head on a swivel as he entered the city. The team had come into Winslow along Highway 87 and skirted the stalled and wrecked vehicles that had dotted the two-lane road. When the highway had split and become East Second Street and East Third Street, he’d stayed with his original plan and gone down East Third Street.
He’d watched Homolovi State Park as they’d rolled by, thinking that if anyone had stayed close to the city, they’d have hold up there. However, the RVs and fifth wheels there looked forgotten and unused. Some of them had open doors and it was probable they’d already been searched for salvage.

Despite the solitary and still look of the vehicles, he couldn’t help thinking about the things probably still trapped inside those vehicles, people who’d died inside them and become undead before escaping. Now they were predators just waiting for the chance to feed.
A normal corpse would have rotted and fallen apart, but the things turned by the virus somehow clung to life for years even when they didn’t feed. Peress had formed a theory that whoever had designed the killer plague had also designed it to lie dormant, and somehow that RNA resequencing had changed the overall organism so that it could draw hydrocarbons from the environment and subsist. Now they were like the moth larva inside Mexican jumping beans, able to subsist more or less on nothing.

Till they hunted. Then they expended energy until they lapsed into comas till they regained enough strength to hunt again.

The thought, even though it wasn’t a new one and Gant had faced the animated corpses on several occasions, caused a chill to thread across his shoulders. He shivered a little.

“Something wrong?” Jenni yelled as she rode ten feet away from him.

They stayed well apart so a single flesh-and-blood attacker couldn’t easily take them both out. Gangs were a different threat.

“I’m good,” Gant replied.

“You looked like something was wrong.”

“Hey, I’m not going to kill you,” Gant growled. “Don’t watch me. Keep your eyes on the streets.”

Jenni drifted a couple more feet away in response. Gant ignored that. He’d hurt her feelings, but she’d get over that. If they made it back to the train—when they made it back, he amended—she could yell at him then for being a jerk. In the meantime, his sharp words might save her life.

 

Noise attracted the living dead, pulled them from wherever they laid up, or from whatever compass point drew them across vast distances to wherever they ended up, and they searched for food.

Stalled vehicles filled the street. Gant passed a minivan that had wrecked into a building. A small group of young teenagers in baseball uniforms lay broken and dead.

They’d been on their way to a game that would never be played, or one that was already in the books. In the end, everybody had lost.

As he passed the minivan, a thump from within the vehicle startled him. He closed his left hand around the Taurus PT 92 9mm holstered under his right arm and pulled it free. He kept the motorcycle rolling and leaned away from the vehicle as he brought the pistol up.

The pallid gray face of an undead teenager pressed against one of the side windows. The corpse beat at the glass with clenched fists as its mouth opened wide. The eyes looked like glacial ice chips, cold and colorless and alien.

For a moment, Gant considered putting a round through the thing’s head and releasing it. Then he remembered that whoever had dwelled in that body was long gone. He pushed out a tense breath and holstered his weapon.

Self-consciously, he glanced at Jenni. She stared at him.
“I’m fine,” he said. “Keep your eyes on the streets.”
Gant twisted the throttle and shot ahead, forcing her to follow him as they rolled on into the dead city.

Hellbound Express; Chapter 3

For your reading pleasure, here is the third installment of Mel Odom’s Hellbound Express. If you haven’t yet read the first two chapters, here (chapter 1 and chapter 2) are the links for them. Enjoy.

Hellbound Express; Chapter 3

Wickham and the rest of Gant’s salvage crew moved around the vehicles strapped into place on the bi-level autorack. The railcar stank of gas fumes, burned oil, chemicals, and blood. Gasoline for the motorcycles, ATVs, and 4×4 pickup trucks was kept in all of the storage railcars, spread out so that not all supplies were lost at once. Solar-powered lanterns bounced against the car’s walls and lit up the interior.
No one talked as they performed the pre-drive checkups. Gant had trained them to focus. Conversations got in the way of noticing things that needed to be noticed, and soldiers—in this case, scavengers—died as a result.
After climbing to the second tier, Gant stayed low to keep from banging his head on the autorack’s ceiling and checked the motorcycle he rode while on salvage runs. The Hayes Diversified Technologies M1030M1 built on a modified Kawasaki KLR650 frame for the United States Marine Corps. Gant had ridden them on missions in Afghanistan, and when he’d gotten back stateside after his tour with special operations teams assigned to take down Taliban strongholds, he’d bought one like it in the civilian market.
This one came from the Fort Bliss marine corps detachment in El Paso, Texas. In the early days of the Yeomra devastation, Gant had traveled to the camp hoping he would find some sort of order in the chaos opening up around him. By the time he’d reached El Paso, though, it was evident no law or military command remained. He’d taken the Hayes motorcycle because it could get almost a hundred miles to the gallon on diesel or any other trash fuel he could find or make.
When he was finished ensuring the motorcycle was road-ready, Gant tapped the red, white, and blue diamond shape that contained a chief in profile on a white star background.
“Semper Fi,” he said softly to himself, but it was for all those he’d lost in the sandbox and at home. It was his promise to always remember, and some days he thought it was the only thing that kept him from feeling completely hollow. He stood and looked around the railcar.
All of the men and women he’d picked for his team stood ready and waiting.
Gant pulled on his helmet, wired the comm to the radio in his vest, and switched on the unit. A high-pitched shriek vibrated in his skull till he adjusted the squelch.
“Radio check,” Gant announced. “Zebra Leader, check-check.”
The confirmations came in as the train noticeably slowed. Tension showed on the faces of some of the men and women in the autorack. Gant checked to make sure his M4A1 was snug in its scabbard beside the front tire.
*
Astride the motorcycle and facing down the ramp that extended to the ground, Gant released the brake and sped down the narrow steel support to the ground. Instead of engaging the electric starter, he released the clutch and let the gears engage to start the engine. By the time he rolled off onto the railroad track behind the train, the engine purred smoothly.
Gant stood on the pegs and throttled up to power the knobby off-road tires over the track railing onto the dry, baked landscape that fell gently away on either side of the train. He brought the motorcycle around and studied the rolling stock.
The big engine growled and panted like some half-starved beast in restraints. Thin wisps of smoke eased out of the boiler area and slid away on the light breeze. It and the cars were all painted deep blue that stood out against the landscape pretty much anywhere. If riders came back in hot, with hostile forces in tow, the train had to be easily seen. And there was no hiding the train. It was going to be seen—and heard—by anyone that came into the vicinity.
Pop-up hatches on all the railcars’ rooftops were open to allow the .50-caliber machine gunners a 360-degree field of fire. Walking sentries strode alongside the railcars and performed visual inspections while also being watchful.
Peress’s train salvage operation hadn’t been so thorough before Gant’s arrival. He took a little pride in his additions. Over the last few months rolling through the ruins of what used to be metro areas, that training and those precautions had saved lives and allowed them to return with more scavenged goods.
Gant and three other members of the team armed with handguns and assault rifles rode motorcycles and acted as scouts for the rest of the team. Four other members rode the ATVs, which were used for hauling loads through narrow alleys or out of buildings. The remaining six members of the scavenging team rode in the two lifted, 4×4 Ford king cab F-150s that were used to haul large cargos. The trucks were equipped with two 7.62mm machine guns mounted fore and aft in the spacious beds.
All of the vehicles were painted the same deep blue as the train for easy visual identification. The guards were trained to check for faces too, and no outrider returned without comm clearance.
“All right,” Gant said over the comm, “move out.” He dropped the motorcycle into first gear and released the clutch to take the lead. Beside him, Jenni Driscoll, the team’s newest recruit, matched his pace.
She was young, Latina, in her early twenties, and athletic. Before Yeomra, she had been an Olympic soccer player. They’d found her outside San Diego on the last run. She’d been living on her own and she hadn’t been quick to join up. Gant had understood and respected that. Now she wore road leathers and Kevlar like she’d been born in them. She’d hacked her black hair off, leaving it only a couple inches long so she couldn’t easily be grabbed.
He marshaled his thoughts and summoned up the details of the street maps he’d studied over the last couple days while preparing for the run today. The plan was to go in as quiet as possible, and gather whatever supplies they could find as quickly as they could.
Then they had to stay alive long enough to rendezvous with the train where it crossed East Second Street at the appropriate time.
Lumberjack crews from the train normally poured out on ATVs as well. They packed assault rifles and chainsaws. They’d take what timber they could, haul it back to the train with the ATVs, and split the wood there under the protection of the heavy machine gunners. But no trees grew in the barren landscape where the train sat waiting.
Gant lost himself to the feel of the motorcycle zipping across the rough country. Winslow lay five miles ahead, distant enough that the noise of the approaching engines and the train wouldn’t reach the ears of the living.
Or of the dead.
END CHAPTER 3.

HellBound Express Chapter 2

Hellbound Express
By Mel Odom

Did you love chapter one of HellBound Express? Get ready for the second installment. If you haven’t read chapter one click the link here to read it first.

 

 

Home was the Peress Express. The train was pulled by a 1952 Baldwin Locomotive steam engine that Peress, Senior, had purchased during his mid-life crisis in Middletown, Iowa, ten years ago. He’d made a fortune in designer medicine, which was ironic considering the virus that had all but destroyed the world. He’d even toyed with working on a cure for the virus, but it had been beyond him. Whoever the North Koreans had hired to design the virus had done their work well.

During Peress’s mid-life crisis, the man had also built a track around his considerable estates to drive the train on. He’d told anyone who rode the train that the locomotive had been a hit at parties, and signed photographs of movie and television stars who had represented some of the “miracle” drugs he’d created hung in the pulling engine.

Peress sat in the narrow seat on the right side of the engine’s control station and gazed out the narrow window at his side. In the original Baldwin Locomotives, the seat had been metal and wood and uncomfortable. Peress’s seat was custom-fitted and padded to the point of luxury.

In his early sixties, Peress had iron-gray hair that hung over his ears and over his collar in the back, and was vain enough to have it cut every two weeks so that it looked like it never grew. He wore tailored gray striped bib overalls, a gray striped engineer hat, and a red scarf. The overalls hung a little loose these days because Peress had lost weight since the virus event. A lot of people had.

“Good morning, Peter.” Peress adjusted the regulator, the engine noises changed, and the train careened a little faster across the tracks as it gained speed. “We’re starting up that last grade before the stop outside Winslow. I want us at the top of that grade so continuing in either direction will be easier.”

Still carrying his helmet by its chinstrap, Gant nodded and glanced at the gauges and valves that took up most of the headspace in the engine cockpit. Over the last year, he’d learned what they were and how they operated. Gant made it a habit never to be too dependent on anyone else. The days of having a team that watched his back had disappeared back in Afghanistan.

“Coffee?” Peress offered. His blue eyes looked inflamed from the wind and the smoke that drifted up from the fire box below the gauges. The heavy steel door was eighteen inches wide and twelve inches tall. The fireman who handled the firewood in the coalporter car running behind the engine fed split logs into the fire box as needed to keep the boiler stoked.

Gant took the covered cup Peress handed him. Gingerly, Gant sniffed the contents and thought it smelled okay. He’d gotten unpleasantly surprised a few times by Peress’s concoctions over the months spent on the train.

Although Peress had been a stickler for authenticity when it came to the steam engine, he’d wired in a Keurig coffeemaker as his one concession. K-Cups were always at the top of the salvage lists when the teams traveled out from the train.
“That’s just Folgers.” Peress grinned and sipped from his cup. “Now this, this is hazelnut. You don’t know what you’re missing.”

“Smells like that elephant dung coffee you tried to get me to drink.”

Although Junior was a proper ass, Gant liked Peress, Senior. The man knew how to get along with others and work within a team. He was pleasant and hopeful even though he had no reason to be in the world they’d inherited.

A smile split Peress’s round face. In the early dawn light, he looked older and a little grayer. The miles were wearing on him. “No, that’s Black Ivory Coffee. That’s pure nectar and it’s hard to come by. I save it for special occasions. And it’s on the salvage list.”

Gant tapped his pocket under his Kevlar vest, letting Peress know he had the list because the man would ask.

“Winslow was known for its artistic flair before the Event,” Peress said, “so if you get a spare moment to be particular about what you grab for salvage…”
Spare moments were hard to come by on a salvage run. The living dead still shambled around, and there were other salvagers who were out for whatever they could get too.

“I’ll keep an eye out for it,” Gant said.

“I’d be most grateful, Mr. Gant. Not that I’m not already grateful for all that you do. All of us are.”

Gant ignored that. He still wasn’t comfortable around Peress’s operation. With everything that had happened in the world, small numbers would have fared better. But Peress was determined to build a city out of the rubble.

To Gant’s mind, the risk of being around a large population was too great. If people got packed in tight, they couldn’t live off the land and it got harder to feed them. It also marked them for stronger predator groups that waited until the hunter/gatherers among them were off getting goods.

And all it would take to destroy everything was one Yeomra Outbreak in the midst of them. One unattended death and dozens would follow like falling dominoes.

Every day Gant spent there, he knew the risk was greater, and he thought often of leaving before he had to watch it all come apart. Still, he stayed, and in staying, his service there answered some unexplainable need within him.

Peress reached into his bib pocket and took out his Waltham Railroad Pocket Watch and flipped the lid open. The device sat like a small, golden onion in the palm of Peress’s soft palm. The large, Arabic numbers and the minute lines between stood out in black against the white face.

“We’re twenty-three minutes out from our scheduled stop, Peter.” Peress flicked the watch closed and put it away. “Time to get your troops rallied.”

Gant nodded, finished the dregs of his coffee, and handed the cup back to Peress. “Thanks for the coffee.”

“Be careful out there,” Peress admonished.

Turning from the engine, Gant hauled himself up into the coalporter car and passed Adriana Rose, the train’s fireman, who was sitting on a high seat built into the car’s wall. Her booted feet rested on a neatly stacked rick cord of split oak that had yellowed after drying.

Gaunt almost to the point of emaciation and always taciturn, Rose had served as Peress’s chief finance officer in the pharmaceutical business. Her scraggly shoulder-length hair held splinters from the firewood and soot from the fire box left stains in it and around the goggles that protected her eyes. A red scarf hung around her neck. Like her boss, Rose also wore traditional engineer overalls.

“Good luck,” Rose said. “Bring back some chocolate if you can. It might not be high on Mr. Peress’s list, but I like it.”

“I will, Ms. Rose.” Gant gently squeezed the older woman’s thin shoulder as he stepped up onto a rick of wood and walked to the rear of the coalporter. He adjusted to the train’s sway automatically after all this time, and his footing was sure. Once he was clear of the coalporter, the wind caught him and shoved him back along the train.

Peress’s rolling stock consisted of the engine, the coalporter, two railcars that served as bunkhouses for the teams, six railcars for storing salvaged goods when they were on a long haul as they were now, a railcar that housed a machinist’s shop, a caboose that was a fort on iron wheels, and the final railcar that contained the salvage crew’s vehicles.

Sunlight splintered from the long, rectangular solar panels on both sides of the railcars. They charged batteries on the train that the crew used to run security equipment, drones, and comms at night.

As Gant made his way along the narrow path between the solar panel, he made an inventory of the three that weren’t working. Witt, the train’s electrical engineer, would probably catch them on his rounds, but the military had made redundancy part of Gant’s life. An extra pair of eyes always helped. He noted the cars/units on the small notepad he carried.

The final railcar was a covered autorack, designed and built to carry vehicles.
Gant peered over the caboose and called down to the man standing guard there with an M4A1 assault rifle. “Hey, Ponce.”

Manuel Ponce de Leon, once a border patrol agent between California and Mexico, looked up at Gant. In his late thirties, Ponce had weathered the cartel storms as a DEA agent. He was dark and swarthy and wore a long-billed California Angels ball cap that was frayed and stained. His grizzled jowls split in a smile.
“Hey, Peter.”

Gant clambered down the ladder, bumped fists with Ponce for good luck, and opened the door to the autorack.

 

Come Back Next Sunday for Chapter Three of HELLBOUND EXPRESS.

“Coffee?” Peress offered. His blue eyes looked inflamed from the wind and the smoke that drifted up from the fire box below the gauges. The heavy steel door was eighteen inches wide and twelve inches tall. The fireman who handled the firewood in the coalporter car running behind the engine fed split logs into the fire box as needed to keep the boiler stoked.

Gant took the covered cup Peress handed him. Gingerly, Gant sniffed the contents and thought it smelled okay. He’d gotten unpleasantly surprised a few times by Peress’s concoctions over the months spent on the train.

Although Peress had been a stickler for authenticity when it came to the steam engine, he’d wired in a Keurig coffeemaker as his one concession. K-Cups were always at the top of the salvage lists when the teams traveled out from the train.
“That’s just Folgers.” Peress grinned and sipped from his cup. “Now this, this is hazelnut. You don’t know what you’re missing.”

“Smells like that elephant dung coffee you tried to get me to drink.”

Although Junior was a proper ass, Gant liked Peress, Senior. The man knew how to get along with others and work within a team. He was pleasant and hopeful even though he had no reason to be in the world they’d inherited.

A smile split Peress’s round face. In the early dawn light, he looked older and a little grayer. The miles were wearing on him. “No, that’s Black Ivory Coffee. That’s pure nectar and it’s hard to come by. I save it for special occasions. And it’s on the salvage list.”

Gant tapped his pocket under his Kevlar vest, letting Peress know he had the list because the man would ask.

“Winslow was known for its artistic flair before the Event,” Peress said, “so if you get a spare moment to be particular about what you grab for salvage…”
Spare moments were hard to come by on a salvage run. The living dead still shambled around, and there were other salvagers who were out for whatever they could get too.

“I’ll keep an eye out for it,” Gant said.

“I’d be most grateful, Mr. Gant. Not that I’m not already grateful for all that you do. All of us are.”

Gant ignored that. He still wasn’t comfortable around Peress’s operation. With everything that had happened in the world, small numbers would have fared better. But Peress was determined to build a city out of the rubble.

To Gant’s mind, the risk of being around a large population was too great. If people got packed in tight, they couldn’t live off the land and it got harder to feed them. It also marked them for stronger predator groups that waited until the hunter/gatherers among them were off getting goods.

And all it would take to destroy everything was one Yeomra Outbreak in the midst of them. One unattended death and dozens would follow like falling dominoes.

Every day Gant spent there, he knew the risk was greater, and he thought often of leaving before he had to watch it all come apart. Still, he stayed, and in staying, his service there answered some unexplainable need within him.

Peress reached into his bib pocket and took out his Waltham Railroad Pocket Watch and flipped the lid open. The device sat like a small, golden onion in the palm of Peress’s soft palm. The large, Arabic numbers and the minute lines between stood out in black against the white face.

“We’re twenty-three minutes out from our scheduled stop, Peter.” Peress flicked the watch closed and put it away. “Time to get your troops rallied.”

Gant nodded, finished the dregs of his coffee, and handed the cup back to Peress. “Thanks for the coffee.”

“Be careful out there,” Peress admonished.

Turning from the engine, Gant hauled himself up into the coalporter car and passed Adriana Rose, the train’s fireman, who was sitting on a high seat built into the car’s wall. Her booted feet rested on a neatly stacked rick cord of split oak that had yellowed after drying.

Gaunt almost to the point of emaciation and always taciturn, Rose had served as Peress’s chief finance officer in the pharmaceutical business. Her scraggly shoulder-length hair held splinters from the firewood and soot from the fire box left stains in it and around the goggles that protected her eyes. A red scarf hung around her neck. Like her boss, Rose also wore traditional engineer overalls.

“Good luck,” Rose said. “Bring back some chocolate if you can. It might not be high on Mr. Peress’s list, but I like it.”

“I will, Ms. Rose.” Gant gently squeezed the older woman’s thin shoulder as he stepped up onto a rick of wood and walked to the rear of the coalporter. He adjusted to the train’s sway automatically after all this time, and his footing was sure. Once he was clear of the coalporter, the wind caught him and shoved him back along the train.

Peress’s rolling stock consisted of the engine, the coalporter, two railcars that served as bunkhouses for the teams, six railcars for storing salvaged goods when they were on a long haul as they were now, a railcar that housed a machinist’s shop, a caboose that was a fort on iron wheels, and the final railcar that contained the salvage crew’s vehicles.

Sunlight splintered from the long, rectangular solar panels on both sides of the railcars. They charged batteries on the train that the crew used to run security equipment, drones, and comms at night.

As Gant made his way along the narrow path between the solar panel, he made an inventory of the three that weren’t working. Witt, the train’s electrical engineer, would probably catch them on his rounds, but the military had made redundancy part of Gant’s life. An extra pair of eyes always helped. He noted the cars/units on the small notepad he carried.

The final railcar was a covered autorack, designed and built to carry vehicles.
Gant peered over the caboose and called down to the man standing guard there with an M4A1 assault rifle. “Hey, Ponce.”

Manuel Ponce de Leon, once a border patrol agent between California and Mexico, looked up at Gant. In his late thirties, Ponce had weathered the cartel storms as a DEA agent. He was dark and swarthy and wore a long-billed California Angels ball cap that was frayed and stained. His grizzled jowls split in a smile.
“Hey, Peter.”

Gant clambered down the ladder, bumped fists with Ponce for good luck, and opened the door to the autorack.

Come Back Next Sunday for Chapter Three of HELLBOUND EXPRESS.

Hellbound express

For the final entry in Zombies Tales the Astounding Outpost proudly presents the first chapter in Mel Odom’s latest novel, Hellbound Express. As an Outpost exclusive he has given us permission to serialize the first part of his novel. Check back every Sunday for the latest installment of Hellbound Express.
HELLBOUND EXPRESS
Chapter 1
A painful yelp woke Gant and he opened an eye to take stock of the situation. Around him, the swaying of the train car and the clickety-clack of the steels wheels grinding along the rails comforted him. He knew where he was and that he was safe.
He hadn’t been safe in his dreams. In those he’d been trapped again, and he’d been breathing in the stink of the dead trying to get at him with shattered teeth and broken fingernails. The gray light invading the car from the barred windows told him it was early morning.
On the other side of the train car, Wickham, who had once been a producer in Hollywood, slept in a hammock like Gant. Wickham was now a scavenger/scout aboard Mitchell Peress, Senior’s train. For Wickham, dinners with movie stars had ended four years ago when the Yeomra Virus was launched from Wonsan, North Korea, and landed in Tokyo. From there, the virus had spread across the world in days before international borders could be closed.
By then it was too late.
Douglas Peress, Junior, stood at Wickham’s side and prepared to kick the sleeping man in the side again. Junior, as most of the train crew called him even though he insisted on Major Peress, was in his early thirties and enjoyed throwing his weight around. Junior stood six feet five inches tall and was built like a football linebacker. He kept his head shaved but wore a dark brown goatee.
“I’m awake,” Wickham protested. He shifted in the hammock and threw off his blanket. His breath grayed in the chill that filled the train car. In the beginning, he’d been a little heavy, but living rough—even on the train—had stripped the excess weight off him. He ran a hand through his shaggy blond hair as he sat up.
“About time,” Junior grunted. He turned and headed to over to Gant, then drew his foot back when he arrived.
Casually, Gant reached down for the sawed-off double-barreled shotgun at his side, rolled the twin hammers back with his thumb, and lifted the weapon just enough to point the abbreviated snout at Junior. From that angle, the open bores looked humungous.
“Try it,” Gant said in a raspy voice.
Junior put his foot back on the ground and stepped back. His face had paled. “I was just waking you scouts up. The General says we’re about twenty minutes from the stopover outside of Winslow.” His voice was a whine.
“We’ll be ready,” Gant said. “Go find someone else to bother.”
Scowling, acting for just a minute like he was going to say something, Junior finally gave up the pretense and walked through the door at the back of the car that led to the other cars.
Wickham looked at Gant. “Junior needs to get his head thumped.”
Gant lowered the hammers on the sawed-off and laid it beside him once more. He didn’t comment. The other man needed to stand up for himself. Gant had told Wickham that once.
Wickham eyed Gant speculatively. “Would you have shot him?”
Ignoring the question, Gant shifted out of the hammock and hated the cold that bit into him. The railcar offered a lot of comforts, but heat wasn’t one of them and winter was coming. Douglas Peress, Senior, said he had some plans for helping heat the cars, something about running flexible vents back from the steam engines, but he first had to figure out how to deal with the carbon monoxide issues that raised.
“You would have shot him, wouldn’t you?” Wickham persisted.
Gant picked up his neatly folded jeans from where he’d put them at the foot of his hammock last night. He stepped into them, noting the wear and tear and old blood stains, and thought he might try to pick up a new pair when they drove into Winslow, Arizona.
He added a thermal undershirt, a flannel shirt, and the body armor he’d brought with him out of Afghanistan. He’d purchased his own before leaving Tyler, Texas, when he first signed up to serve in the Army. He’d made sergeant in the Rangers before the virus raced around the globe. By then, he’d been back home, and he’d watched his family and neighbors die.
He’d killed some of them again after they’d died the first time.
Seeing that Wickham hadn’t moved, Gant said, “Gear up and stop asking questions.”
“Roger that.” Wickham fired off a sloppy salute that would have never cut muster in the Rangers.
Gant picked up his helmet and held it by its chinstrap, then reached for his combat rig and slid it on. He looked at the thirteen other men and women in his unit. All of them were awake and sitting in their hammocks.
“The rest of you suit up too and check out the rides. It’s gonna be a long day. If we’re lucky, all of us will make it home when we’re done.”

END CHAPTER 1.
By Mel Odom