An excerpt of Juggernaut, a zombie military thriller by Adam Baker (available April 2, 2013).
Iraq 2005. Seven mercenaries hear an enticing rumor: somewhere, abandoned in the swirling desert sands, lies a Republican Guard convoy containing millions of pounds of Saddam's gold. They form an unlikely crew of battle-scarred privateers, killers and thieves, veterans of a dozen war zones, each of them anxious to make one last score before their luck runs out. After liberating the sole suriving Guard member from US capture, the team makes their way to the ancient ruins where the convoy was last seen. Although all seems eerily quiet and deserted when they arrive, they soon find themselves caught in a desperate battle for their lives, confronted by greed, betrayal, and an army that won't stay dead.
The Western Desert: The Contamination Zone
The locomotive roared headlong through a rippling, caramel sandscape. A dust-streaked behemoth jetting black diesel fumes. A plow welded to the forward buffer bar scoured the dune-choked rails in a series of sandbursts, like a speedboat smacking through chop.
The engine looked like it tore out of hell. A shattered cyclopean nose lamp. Bodywork pitted, scarred, scorched black. Maintenance panels ripped away. Cables trailed and sparked.
The windshield was smashed. The cab was empty. The throttle was jammed at full power and lashed with rope. Rev needles at max. A tool box wedged the trip-brake pedal open. Every surface dusted in sand: the console, the driver’s bar-stool seat, the plate floor.
The track ahead was blocked by a high fence half submerged in sand. Rusted chain-link propped up by metal stakes. The barrier stretched to vanishing point north and south.
Corroded stencil signs. Alternate English/Arabic. A warning to coalition troops and camel-driving Bedouin:
TOXIC HAZARD KEEP OUT
USE OF DEADLY FORCE AUTHORISED
IN ACCORDANCE WITH PA DIRECTIVE 84-4643
The locomotive punched through the barrier. It wrenched fence stakes from the sand. The plow blade sheering through chain-link like it was paper.
The Blackhawk flew low over dunes, chasing its shadow. It drew parallel with the locomotive.
Captain Flores held the chopper steady. She lifted her visor and surveyed the cab. Smashed windows. An empty driver’s chair. She adjusted her helmet mike.
“The bridge at Anah is out. That thing is going to drop into the fucking ravine.”
Sergeant Tate sat in the cargo compartment. He had a goatee, and a big tattoo on his forearm: the Pegasus insignia of the 160th SOAR. Night Stalkers Don’t Quit.
He tossed his rifle to Frost, the combat medic. He unbuckled his harness. He pulled on sand goggles and adjusted the earpiece of his radio.
“Put me down on the roof.”
The Blackhawk banked and hovered over the five-hundred-ton juggernaut. Flores adjusted airspeed, lowered the collective and nudged the cyclic forward.
The starboard tire of the chopper gently touched down on the locomotive roof. Tate stepped onto the blackened, wind-scoured metal and the chopper pulled back. He crouched, lashed by downwash.
Tate crawled on his hands and knees along the cambered cowling. He climbed over louvered intake grilles and belching exhaust stacks.
He reached the roof of the cab. He climbed down onto the nose, holding the smashed air horn for support. He spat sand, crouched and peered through the broken windshield.
He swung his legs through the windshield. He slid across the engineer console into the cab.
Suede desert boots crunched on broken glass. He crouched and inspected debris that littered the floor. He examined Glock pistol clips and US STANAG magazines. He scooped up a handful of brass cartridge cases and let them spill through gloved fingers.
“Spent rounds. Plenty of them. AK. Nine mil. Muzzle burn round each window. Fucking war zone.”
“Better cut the power. Few more miles you are going to run out of track.” Tate pulled off his goggles. He examined the lashed controls. He reached for the combat knife strapped to his webbing. Then he noticed the door ajar at the back of the cab. An access hatch with a big voltage zag. The engine compartment. He drew the Sig from his quick-release chest holster. He flicked the safety and chambered the pistol.
He kicked open the metal hatch. Deafening machine-howl from the cramped engine bay. A huge turbo-charged twelve-cylinder generator. Massive alternators and rectifiers. Pounding motive power.
He let his eyes adjust to the gloom. Sunlight shafted through roof vents. Fan blades projected swirling cartwheel shadows.
“Hold on. I’ve found something.”
A dusty boot protruding from behind the power plant. Tate edged along the wall of the tight engine compartment. A crouched shuffle.
Two figures in combat fatigues slumped in the corner, positioned beneath the down-draft of an overhead vent.
Ripped, ragged clothes. Blood spatters and sweat salt. “What can you see?”
“Couple of bodies.”
Tate leaned forward. He pulled aside the lapel of a prairie coat and examined dog tags.
S93 4 6 4 4 8
NONAFFO PO S
He brushed black hair aside.
Lucy opened her eyes. Blue, like ice chips.
“You all right?” asked Tate. She snatched the knife from his chest rig. He caught her hand as she slammed the blade at his throat.
The locomotive at a standstill. Tate carried Lucy in his arms. He kicked open the slide door and jumped from the cab.
The Blackhawk performed a steep combat landing and set down among the dunes. Tires settled in soft sand. Lucy and Tate were engulfed in a cyclone of rotor-wash.
Lucy turned her head. She wondered if the helicopter was a vivid hallucination. A vision of deliverance. Earlier that day, as temperatures peaked and she took shelter in the fan-blasted cool of the engine compartment, she succumbed to a lucid dream in which she explored the paths and arbors of a perfumed garden. She picked invisible flowers and wore them in her hair.
The main rotor slowed to a standstill. The sandstorm began to subside.
The side door of the chopper slid open. Three Delta jumped out, faces masked by sand goggles and scarves.
“There’s another girl in the engine compartment,” said Tate. “I think she’s alive.”
He laid Lucy on the ground. A medic crouched beside her. He checked her pupils, checked the pulse in her neck.
“Severe dehydration. Bad heatstroke. Let’s get her on a drip.”
He unfolded a litter. They lifted Lucy onto the stretcher and laid her in the cramped cabin of the Blackhawk.
They brought a second girl from the locomotive. Blonde. Unconscious. They strapped her to a litter and laid her next to Lucy.
Tate checked dog tags. “Amanda Greenwald.”
The medic examined Amanda’s bandaged leg. He pulled away crusted dressings.
“Shot in the thigh. Looks infected. Crack me some gauze and a suture kit.”
The Delta guys climbed aboard and sat looking down at the women. Dust-off. Escalating engine whine. Rotor spinning up to full speed. A tornado of sand.
Lucy turned her head. A doorman in a full-face visor. She looked beyond the long barrel-drum of his Dillon Gatling gun, the fuel pods and Hellfire rockets. She watched the dunes fall away beneath her, the locomotive lost in a desert so vast she could almost see the curvature of the Earth.
The medic pulled a trauma trunk from beneath a canvas bench. IV equipment packed in Ziploc backs. He drove a large-bore fourteen-gauge needle into the back of Lucy’s hand and taped it down. He uncoiled tube and plugged a bag of saline solution into her hand. He hooked the bag to overhead webbing.
The medic shouted to be heard above wind noise and rotor roar. “Drink.”
He held a bottle to her mouth. She gulped and coughed. He poured water on her face and washed away grime.
“Look at me. Can you talk? How many fingers am I holding up?”
She tried to speak. Her cracked lips formed words but she couldn’t make a sound.
She tried to reach out to the stretcher beside her and take Amanda’s hand, but her arm was blocked by the center stanchion.
“Don’t worry. She’s alive. You’ll both be in Baghdad in no time.”
He gave Lucy more water. She gripped the bottle like it was life itself.
IBN Sina Hospital, Baghdad.
Lucy lay on a gurney. She was in some kind of triage room.
She struggled to focus. Cracked ceiling plaster. A broken light socket. She turned her head. A smashed window. Glass on the floor. Streaks of arterial spray across the white-tiled wall, blood dried black.
A couple of Iraqi guys walked into the room. White coats, stethoscopes hung round their necks. Cheap sneakers crunched on grit and glass. They murmured in Arabic. They checked her pulse. They checked her eyes. One of them leaned into her field of vision, and switched to English. His voice was clear, educated, like he studied abroad.
“Lucy?” said the doctor. He looked like he hadn’t slept for a week. “Lucy, can you hear me?”
She wanted to reply, but she couldn’t turn thought to speech. “You’re in hospital. We’ll look after you, Lucy. You’re safe now.” He helped her sip water from a china cup. He helped her lie back.
They cut off her clothes. They sliced her laces with a knife and peeled off her boots. They released the press-studs of her Osprey body armor. They cut off her knee pads. They cut through her trousers and belt with trauma shears. They cut through her Union flag T-shirt. They let her keep her Nike sports bra and briefs.
They tried to remove her watch and pull the gold band from her wedding finger but she snatched her hand away.
They draped her with a sheet. “Get some sleep.”
Lucy lay on a hospital bed halfway between life and death. A bare room. Iron bed-frame. Iron chair.
Sometimes she was alone. Sometimes Sergeant Miller sat on the chair beside her.
Come on, Sergeant Miller would tell her. Keep fighting. You’re not done yet.
But Miller died two years ago in Afghanistan. He got fragged by a mortar round as his patrol entered a Helmand village on a meet-and-greet. Bled out from a gut wound as he lay in a ditch waiting for a medevac Chinook that took six hours to show up. Clutching his belly, panting and screaming. His coffin offloaded at RAF Lyneham, walked down the cargo ramp of a Hercules with a Union flag draped over the lid, then a slow cortège through Wootton Bassett. The battalion held a service at Camp Bastion. They laid a poppy wreath in front of the memorial wall. The padre led prayers in his sash and fatigues, until a rocket alert sent everyone running for the bunker.
“What’s it like? Being dead?”
“It’s not so bad.” Miller squeezed her hand. “It’s peaceful. A long sleep.”
“No wife. No kids. I had nothing to leave behind. How about you? Do you have a reason to live?”
She woke. She sat up. She sat on the edge of the bed. An old mattress mottled with piss and bloodstains.
The ceiling fan revolved, gently stirring the air. Must be one of the brief periods each day when Baghdad enjoyed electrical power.
There was a needle taped to the back of her hand. A clear tube ran to an empty bag of saline hung from a rusted drip stand.
She peeled tape and pulled the wide-bore needle from her hand. “Hey. Anyone?”
Street noise from an open window. Car horns, the heavy throb of twinrotor Chinooks.
Distant gunfire. Might be fire-fight. Sunni militia and the Mahdi
Army duking it out. Or it might be a wedding party.
Crackling speakers. The noonday call to prayer. Muedhin summoned the faithful.
“Allahu Akbar . . . Allahu Akbar . . .” Mournful. Alien.
There was an insectocutor on the wall. Two glowing ultraviolet bars. Lucy watched bugs spit and crackle as they were drawn into the lethal light.
A washstand. The faucet gulped and spat. She scooped water in cupped hands and drank.
A sliver of broken mirror screwed to the wall. Cracked lips. Sunken eyes. Peeling, sun-blasted skin. A living corpse. A thirty-three-year-old woman reduced to a desiccated hag.
She pulled shredded mosquito netting aside and looked out the window. Bullet-pocked houses. Minarets. Saddam mural with his face scratched out. Everything the color of dust.
Donkey carts. Fucked-up scooters. Diesel rickshaws.
She was outside the Green Zone. A Western security contractor lying in an unguarded hospital bed. She and Amanda could be snatched any moment. Sold out by medical staff, held for ransom by Ba’ath Fedayeen gangsters.
A Czech TV crew had been carjacked the previous month. Two guys shot by the roadside. Two women gang-raped and beheaded, star attraction in the latest al-Qaeda VHS sold in the souk.
She had to make it back to the Western sector.
Lucy bit down hard on her thumb, let a shot of pain and adrenalin shock her fully awake.
She stepped into the corridor. “Hello? Anyone speak English?”
A distant doorway. A boy lay on a rusted, blood-streaked trolley. His right leg had been amputated above the knee. His neck was held rigid in a C-collar. Bandage like a blindfold. He counted prayer beads and whispered verses from the Koran.
She could hear a woman crying nearby. Deep grief. Shuddering sobs and babbling despair, rising and falling like waves breaking against the shore.
“Hello?” Her voice echoed down the passageway. “Mandy?”
The distant corridor junction was suddenly blocked by two figures in white biohazard suits.
The figures advanced toward her.
She turned and ran. Her legs failed and she fell against the corridor wall. Gloved hands took her arms and carried her back to the room. They pushed her onto the bed.
The suited figures stood over her. She could hear the electric hum of backpack respirators. Air sucked through charcoal virus filters. Their gauntlet and boot cuffs were secured with gasket locks, and sealed with silver tape. Tyvek suit fabric creaked and squeaked.
White hoods. She could see faces behind Lexan visors. A lean, gray-haired guy. He looked military. And a young man. He looked well groomed, collegiate.
“Give her a shot,” said the kid. “Chill her out.”
The older guy laid a case on a side table. He flipped latches. He loaded a hypo, slow and clumsy with rubber-gloved fingers. Amytal. He flicked bubbles from the syringe. He held her wrist. She was too weak to resist. She watched the needle prick her skin.
The college kid leaned into her field of vision. “Hi, Lucy.” “You won’t get anything out of her for a while, Koell.”
“They didn’t change her drip?”
“Lucky she got a single bag. Looters stripped this place bare a couple of years back. They even took doorknobs. I brought an interpreter here last month. Got in a fire-fight. Lost his thumb. They tore his shirt and used it for bandage. Then they gave him aspirin. Charged me fifty bucks. Said they were running low on aspirin.”
The kid waved his gloved hand in front of Lucy’s face and tried to click rubber fingers. “Can you hear me, Lucy?”
Lucy decided to hide behind the drug and act stupefied. She ignored the men and stared into the cold blue glow of the insectocutor. She didn’t blink.
“What’s that on her wrist?” asked Koell. “A Rolex?”
“An orderly tried to steal it while she slept. He got his eye gouged.” Koell pulled back Lucy’s eyelid. He flagged a penlight in front of her face and monitored dilation. “She’s weak, sedated. I don’t think she can hear us. Where’s the other girl?”
“Next door. Shot in the leg.”
“Pity. We’ll collect tissue samples anyway.”
The colonel kicked a pile of ripped clothes in the corner. “Didn’t have much equipment. Couple of radios. Binoculars. Empty canteen. The blonde had a machete tucked in her belt. Looked like it had plenty of use.”
“Nothing in their pockets?”
The colonel pointed to a crumpled photograph on the table next to the bed. “Just a sorry-ass gang photo.”
Five soldiers. Lucy and her crew in a bar, laughing, toasting the camera. Koell looked around. A sprig of cable where a light switch used to be.
A tattered Koran.
“Not exactly Walter Reed.”
“Maybe we should take her back to The Zone,” said the colonel. “This place is a shithole.”
“I was down at the twenty-eighth CASH this morning. They were overrun. Some Sunni fuck blew himself to pieces in the Al-Shorja Market. A flatbed with a bunch of artillery shells hidden under potatoes. Fucker lit them up and took out a foot patrol. Hell of a mess. Three KIA, two more expectant. Bunch of T-1 evacs with shrapnel, third degree burns. Fuck this bitch.”
“Let’s keep this shit compartmentalized. Let’s keep them outside the wire. Every mercenary the world over has converged on this city. Ex-cons. Transients. Some of these creeps were running Salvadorian death squads. Most of them are hiding behind fake ID. Nobody will give a damn if a couple of privateers drop off the map. Nobody will notice they’ve gone.”
The colonel checked a clipboard. “Lucy White. Thirty-three. British citizen. Fourteen Intelligence Company. Target reconnaissance. Honorable discharge.”
“She’s nothing special. My driver is ex-Delta.” The colonel flipped pages.
“No listed next of kin, no home address. Runs her own crew. ‘Vanguard Risk Consultants’. Dummy corporation registered out of Uruguay. Plays mother hen to a bunch of Tier Two operators. Quality trigger-time. Three US citizens and a guy from Pretoria.”
“Good for them.”
“Seems a pretty low-rent outfit. Nickel-and-dime. Did some stuff in Honduras. They aren’t connected. They’re out of the loop. No State Department deals. Losing work to the big contractors. Mostly been pulling taxi runs. Hauled kitchen equipment for the new Halliburton chow halls. Shipped foreign currency to the Interior Ministry. Provided close protection for a couple of Exxon engineers.”
“Then she’ll be just another KIA. Both of them. No need to complicate matters. They won’t be missed. Let’s tie up loose ends. Triple shot of phenol. Quick and painless. Finish them both, and get the fuck out of here.” Koell took a pneumatic injector gun from the case and loaded a vial of clear liquid.
“Hold on,” said the colonel. “This was your call. You found these guys. You sent them out to the valley. What the fuck happened out there? Don’t you want to know?”
The colonel crouched beside Lucy. He waved a hand in front of her unfocused eyes.
“Can you hear me, Lucy? I want you to concentrate. I want you to tell me what happened.”
He sat in the chair next to the bed. He took Lucy’s hand.
“Can you hear me? Can you understand what I’m saying? We’ve got a little something to help you sleep. But first I need to know. What did you find out there in the desert?”
The colonel examined the gang photo. The faded, smiling faces. He held the picture so Lucy could see.
“You have to tell me, Lucy. What happened to you? What happened to your team?”
Copyright © 2013 by Adam Baker.
Learn more about or order Adam Baker's Juggernaut:
Adam Baker has worked as a gravedigger, a mortuary attendant, a short order cook in a New York diner, and fixed slot machines in an Atlantic City casino. He was also a close neighbour of the notorious British serial killer Fred West. He is currently employed as a cinema projectionist in England.