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Strands of Sorrow

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Strands of Sorrow

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Author: John Ringo
Publisher: Baen, 2015
Series: Black Tide Rising: Book 4
Book Type: Novel
Genre: Fantasy
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With the world consumed by a devastating plague that drives humans violently insane, what was once a band of desperate survivors bobbing on a dark Atlantic ocean has now become Wolf Squadron, the only hope for the salvation of the human race. Banding together with what remains of the U.S. Navy, Wolf Squadron, and its leader Steve Smith, not only plans to survive--he plans to retake the mainland from the infected, starting with North America.

Smith's teenage daughters have become zombie hunters of unparalleled skill, both at land and on the sea, and they may hold the key to the rebirth of civilization on a devastated planet.



"This is so wrong," Lieutenant Lyons said. "I'm trying to count the ways this is wrong."

Commodore Carmen J. Montana, AKA Lieutenant General Montana, AKA "Mr. Walker" AKA so many other AKAs even his redoubtable memory couldn't remember them all, Commander in Chief, Pacific Forces, had decades before come to the philosophical conclusion that anyone who said "I have never failed a mission" rarely got the sort of missions that were his forte.

The first mission of his career in special operations was called Operation Eagle Claw and was a spectacular and very public failure. He wasn't in charge or anything, but it was still a failed mission. It was also where he had earned his first award for heroism while pulling air-crew out of a burning chopper. Operation Urgent Fury, a cake-walk for most, had been for his team another high-body-count failure that resulted in his first Distinguished Service Cross. Mogadishu: another spectacular, and public, failure had earned him his second DSC. He had, personally, failed to stop Osama Bin Laden from escaping from Tora Bora. But let anyone guess which of two thousand, mined, trails the bastard was going to use. Trying to get that Soviet physicist out of the middle of Siberia, those two days in Shanghai, that thing in Berlin... and, oh God, if he never saw Beirut again it would be too soon...

But Navy Base San Diego was starting to get right up there in his personal best of utterly fucked up missions.

There were various military bases scattered all over the San Diego valley. Miramar, playground of the Airedales. Pendleton up the road, playground of the Hollywood Marines. NAVSEA based deep in the heart of Dago. Then there were the three main attractions: Point Loma, North Island and Navy Base San Diego.

NBSD was out of the question. It was on the city side of San Diego Bay. You might as well try to clear New York City. Given enough time, Subedey bots and helos... Well, they'd do it eventually. Heck, some working Abrams could do it. But it was never on the original game plan.

Point Loma, home to most of the submarines, was equally out of the question. It was a peninsula that was backed by a sprawl of suburbs and really didn't have much of interest.

North Island, on the other hand... had looked doable. Bad points. It was attached to the mainland by both a bridge and a narrow causeway. It had a vast sprawl of housing. Good points. It was only attached to the mainland by the bridge and a narrow causeway. And the causeway was both long and went to a, relatively, uninhabited area. Relatively because this was, after all, southern California and nowhere was exactly "uninhabited." There was limited water. By all that was holy, they should have only had to deal with the infected that were the survivors of the base personnel. Those that hadn't already died of thirst. Couple, few, thousand. Close the bridges and the causeway, get some of the survivors oriented, get some of the landing craft up and going, go clear Pendleton and he'd be CINCPAC in more than name.

Should have. Probably. If only.

They'd been informed there was "a light." Satellites had detected "heavy infected density." He'd noted the same thing before he'd left from the Atlantic. But... Sigh.

It was worse than Mog. Every freaking street was packed. It looked like naked Mardi Gras. Half the population of San Diego and Tijuana seemed to have moved to North Island. Because, well, there was "a light."

Specifically, the Seawolf-class submarine, USS Jimmy Carter, SSN-23, was alongside North Island. And under power. And shining a very powerful spotlight almost straight to the heavens.

Which light had drawn every freaking infected in the San Diego region.

"As I recall, all the Seawolfs are supposed to be based in Bangor," Montana said, looking over at Lieutenant Commander Halvorson.

"Yes, sir," the commander of the Michigan said. "That is where it should be."

In the Nineties, with the nation facing "multiaccess threats" that often required more finesse than destroying cities with nuclear weapons and new strategic arms agreements limiting the number of nukes subs could carry, four of the older Ohio-class ballistic missile submarines, notably and hilariously, the Ohio, Michigan, Florida and Georgia, were reclassed and repurposed for "littoral insertion" of special operations and "cruise missile" support by converting some of their missile space into housing for SEAL teams, with special lock-out arrangements, and modifying the rest to hold an absolute slew of Tomahawk cruise missiles on rotating launchers.

The admiral in charge of the program, rather clueless on modern acronyms, initially dubbed this the "O-M-F-G Program" for "Ohio-Michigan-Florida-Georgia" until it was pointed out that the initials were probably not the best choice and the program name was changed. Nobody, however, could remember the new program name: The acronym stuck. Given they could fire up to 154 Tomahawk cruise missiles in less than five minutes, it was entirely appropriate. The absolute barrage of cruise missiles that broke the back of the Libyan Army's response to the "pro-democracy" uprising came from one OMFG.

"So that's one thing," Montana said. "And isn't the sub base at Point Loma?"

"Yes, sir," Lieutenant Lyons said. "So I would suppose the next question is why is it snuggled up to the Ronald Reagan?"

"Those two never got along, I'll tell you that," Montana said with a snort. "In fact, if there was any rationale to the universe either the Gipper would have crushed the Jimmy by now or they'd be forced apart by mutual loathing."

The conversation was taking place on the sail of the guided missile-class submarine. So the commodore had to look up, then look up again, to see the open hangar deck of the Ronald Reagan and the flight deck above. Both of which were packed tight with infected. Occasionally one would slip over the side from the crowding. Looking down, it was apparent that the sharks were enjoying a regular bounty. Not only sharks.

"Lieutenant Lyons," the commodore said. "I have a very extensive, most people would describe it as exhaustive, knowledge of just about, well, anything."

"I've played you at Trivial Pursuit, sir," Lyons said.

"But you are from this area and used to occasionally play in these waters."

"Yes, sir."

"So what the fuck are those?" Montana said, pointing at the boiling water's surface where large, hooked, tentacles occasionally flailed.

"That is something you don't usually see in San Diego harbor, General," Lyons said. "Those are Humboldt squid. I didn't think they could or would come in here. Generally they're only found in deep pelagic areas. Deep. They normally only come up to the last couple of hundred feet at night. About ten feet long including tentacles and nasty as they come. Frankly, I'd rather fight a shark."

"If you used to swim within a thousand miles of those things you are a braver man than I," Montana said. "And that's saying something. Commander Halvorson. Refresh my memory again. If that light has been burning for better than nine months, the boat has got to be under power. Correct?"

"Yes, sir," Halvorson said.

"And the Topeka already went active trying to wake up the reactor watch."

"Yes, sir."

"Which means no reactor watch."

"Yes, sir."

"Is there any reliable data on how long a reactor can continue to run, safely, without someone at the controls?" Montana asked.

"I think the answer is 'somewhere around nine or less months or possibly more depending on when the reactor watch died and when this reactor finally goes critical,' sir," Halvorson said. "In other words..."

"This is the test case," Montana said. "This is probably as long as any reactor has ever gone without someone manning it."

"Yes, sir. And the generators, sir. Rather... amazing, sir. I'd have said impossible for more than a few hours. And terrifying. 'Active reactor' and 'no reactor watch' are two phrases no one in their right mind wants to hear."

"Duly noted," Montana said. "Go Navy. A real credit to your nuclear reactor designs and SOPs. But unfortunately it has made North Island a bit of a pickle. Right. Let's find a good spot to open fire and have Leuschen rig The Beast. We certainly have enough targets."

"Aye, aye, Commodore."

"Frankly, I'd say just hammer it with your payload but even with this swarm there might be survivors," Montana said. "And we need the personnel, gear and materials. Not to mention a full reload on one of these boats is a major Congressional line item. Eventually we shall have a Congress again and I do not want to explain firing off four hundred million dollars worth of cruise missiles. So... Rig The Beast!"

"COB," the skipper said over the 1MC. "Tell Leuschen to rig The Beast."

* * *

The Beast was the sort of weapon you'd only get in a zombie apocalypse.

It looked a bit like a large machine gun. A bit. Or possibly a large paintball gun, which was closer to its actual form and function. There was a long, fairly flimsy looking barrel that had obviously been hand-machined from some sort of tube. There was a breech. There was a butterfly trigger. There was even a bit of a sight. So far so good. Pintle mount that hooked into a lock on the deck. Even the most modern submarines in the U.S. fleet retained provisions for a deck gun, which in this case was to the good.

Then there were the odd bits. Instead of a belt feed, there was a large vaguely conical hopper on top. There was an air hose running from a fitting on the deck to a similar fitting on the breech.

There was the seaman first class pouring two-inch steel ball bearings into the hopper.

"Loaded, sir!" Petty Officer Second Class Leuschen said, beaming for all he was worth. As inventor, designer and creator of The Beast, it was universally judged that he should have first crack. There were others onboard crazy enough to try it out but they mostly spent their time these days trying to chew through the straps. "Permission to open fire?"

"Commodore?" Commander Halvorson asked.

"Oh, why not?" Montana said. "Fire at will, Commander."

"Open fire!"

The chosen target area was the northeast corner of Quay Drive on North Island. Maneuvering the Michigan in close quarters, without tugs, was no picnic but the XO had managed to get it right in position. And The Beast had plenty of customers. The infected were as dense there as they were everywhere on the God-forsaken island. And shore side. And Point Loma. Normal humans would have mostly succumbed to dehydration and starvation at this point. But not the infected. Oh, no, not the infected.

At least some were about to succumb to The Beast.

The sound was surprisingly muted. Accustomed as he was to gunfire, Commodore Montana was unsure at first if it was even firing. The sound was an odd whip, whip, whip...

But then the ball bearings reached their targets.

The concept of The Beast was simple. It was, at heart, nothing but an oversized, insanely overpowered paintball gun. As Leuschen had pointed out, the one thing a nuclear submarine has in near infinite supply is compressed air. Replace paintballs with steel ball bearings and what you got was a brutal and extremely efficient slaughter-machine.

The infected were moving more or less randomly on Quay Drive. Generally the densities they were looking at would only have occurred with a true alpha swarm. They weren't shoulder to shoulder but they were often bumping each other. Which occasionally erupted into fights and even small riots; infected did not get along with each other much better than with the rest of the world.

There was no clear view down Quay Drive from their position, which meant "aiming" was sort of moot. And the ball bearings could hardly miss.

Infected started to drop and Leuschen didn't even bother to walk his aim from side to side. There was always another target straight ahead. And infected were going down. Nine times out of ten, an infected hit by a two-inch ball of steel going not much under the speed of sound is going to die. Though far less spectacular than the water-cooled fifty-cals used by Wolf Squadron, The Beast was at least as effective.

"Now if we just had a hundred of them," Commander Halvorson said. "I can get to work on more, sir."

"The choke point isn't weapons, Commander," Montana said. "The choke point is bullets. We have only ten thousand ball bearings. And while I suspect that Leuschen's concept of using small cylinders made from machine steel is sound, at a certain point we'll have to either cannibalize your submarine or run out of steel. Nonetheless, with a successful test, do start making more. But quit when The Beast has used up seventy percent of its ammo. We're sure to need it somewhere else."

"I'd suggest we need to find more ball bearings, sir," Halvorson said.

"I'll put it on the agenda," Montana told him. "We first need to get that damned light turned off. Preferably with extreme prejudice. Lieutenant Lyons."

"Take a boarding team and get the light turned off, aye, sir," Lyons said.

"Anyone onboard familiar with the Seawolf class, Commander?"

"The COB served on them, sir," Halvorson said. "And Petty Officer Gomez."

"Take them and a security team," Montana said. "And put that light out. Take a hammer. Break it if you have to."

"That would be tricky, sir," Halvorson said. "It's recessed and extremely robust to withstand pressure. I would suggest the lieutenant take a small explosives charge, instead."

"Already on my list, sir," Lyons said.

"Betraying my lack of knowledge of all things sub-nautical," Montana said. "What in the hell do you use something like that light for?"

"Hull shots," Halvorson and Lyons said simultaneously.

"And helping lost SEALs find their way back to a submerged boat, sir," Halvorson added.

"Quite quite helpful in that regard," Lyons said. "If somewhat untactical."

"Technically it's a standard navigation light," Halvorson added. "That's how it's listed in the white papers, anyway."

"Love to have seen that line item," Montana said. "'And we need a navigation light that can light up the moon!'"

* * *

A RHIB was duly deployed; the boarding team boarded, carefully, given the reception committee in the water, and headed over to the Jimmy Carter.

However, before they even began to board, they came to the furious attention of the infected crowding the hangar deck hatches and the flight deck.

"This might not be good," Commodore Montana muttered as the first few infected dropped from the flight deck.

In the case of the increasing shower of infected from the flight deck, it was, as it were, hit or miss. The flight deck loomed out and over the smaller submarine. Thus the infected who were not so much jumping off as being pushed trying to get to the RHIB were aiming at water. It was sixty-six feet, as any Naval aviator knows, from the flight deck to the water line on a Nimitz-class carrier. Sixty-six feet is survivable under some conditions. It is approximately the same height as a twenty meter diving board in the Olympics. However, surviving the impact is one thing. Surviving it conscious is another. Absent careful entry, water at that speed tends to feel somewhat like landing on concrete. Thus the "miss." The waters of San Diego Bay were home to not just the Humboldt squid but the great white as was immediately apparent. Conscious or not, there were not going to be many infected surviving the fall.

Some, however, were aimed more or less at the RHIB. Thus the "hit."

"Back up!" Lyons said as the first infected landed on Petty Officer Gomez. The infected didn't survive, not to mention it wasn't all that great for Gomez. And the impact very nearly tore the bottom out of the RHIB. Which would have made it, very briefly, an "IB."

The COB threw the outboard into reverse and backed up as fast as the boat could manage as the water around it started to churn with impacting infected.

"Zombilanche!" the Michigan's chief of boat shouted, then cackled madly. There was essentially a wall of infected falling off the flight deck.

"Just get us out of here, COB!" Lyons shouted, then, "Incoming!"

The remaining crew dove to the side as an infected impacted square in the center of the RHIB.

"I don't know how many more of those we can take," Lyons said. "Jefferson, Garcia, toss those over the side."

"Aye, aye, sir," Seaman Jefferson said, grabbing the legs of the infected. Who, as it turned out, was sufficiently cushioned by Gomez and the previously impacted infected to survive. Albeit with two broken legs. "Sir!"

"Got it," Lyons said, drawing and giving the infected a "Mozambique tap" to the chest and head. "Now toss it."

"Aye, sir," Jefferson said, gulping. He and Garcia tipped the dead body over the side, then reared back. "JESUS!"

A particularly greedy great white had not even waited for the body to fully hit the water. Its teeth sunk into the body and ripped it out of Jefferson's hands.

"Think we need a bigger boat, sir!" Garcia shouted nervously.

"It's like feeding the dolphins at Sea World," Jefferson's voice quavered. "But way, way, way grosser."

"Which is probably how the fish feel," Garcia said.

"Just toss the next one," Lyons said. "Carefully."

Fortunately, the COB had backed the RHIB out of the "zombilanche" and slowed it as the shower continued.

"Oh, that's just wrong," the chief of boat said, shaking his head. "Look at the Jimmy."

The hangar deck openings were lower and more in line with the Jimmy Carter. Most of the infected being shoved out as the mass tried to reach the RHIB were landing on the deck of the submarine. Or the sail. Or the fairwater planes. All of which were very hard steel. Most of them were surviving but only with severe orthopedic trauma. Which was exacerbated when another infected would land on top of them.

The top deck of the Jimmy was also curved, somewhat slippery and seemed to be the primary territory of the Humboldts. As the writhing mass of screaming, broken infected would discharge a member, the giant squids would reach up out of the water and pull them in with claw-covered tentacles.

"That is a behavior never before witnessed," Lyons said. "And it just put paid to swimming off the Southern California coast for my lifetime at the very least. These things have been proven to be smart, adaptable and to have very good memories. There are some indications they even learn socially. Which means this behavior might just be passed down generations. Okay." He keyed his handheld. "Commodore?"

"Just come back to the boat," Montana replied. "Back to the drawing board..."

"Are we there yet?" Gomez asked, groaning.

* * *

"The positive aspect to this latest debacle is that Lieutenant Lyons found an easy way to kill zombies in job lots," Montana said.

"Pull a boat up and let them avalanche?" Lyons said.

"Got it in one," Montana replied. "The tricky part is making sure the boat crew survives."

"I'd prefer not to bring this boat in any closer, sir," Commander Halvorson said.

"They wouldn't recognize it as a target, anyway," Montana said. "But using the RHIB again is out of the question. We need a better boat."

"This is San Diego Harbor, sir," Lyons said. "Even with people punching out due to the plague there are plenty of boats available."

"However, this is an untenable objective at the moment," Montana said. "We're going to drop back and punt. We need a base and to start building personnel. Let's fall back to the NALF for now. See about clearing that first."

"Aye, aye, sir," Halvorson said.

* * *

"More infected than I'd expected," Lyons said, looking at the shores of the barren island.

San Clemente Island was a twenty-one-mile-long brown, barren bit of rock sticking out of the Pacific Ocean about ten miles from the California coast. Part of it was an impact range but on the north end was a support facility and the Naval Air Landing Field. And there were infected. Not as many as North Island. New York didn't have as many as North Island. But quite a few. Most were clustered near a few of the large buildings on which, yes, there were clear survivors. Quite a few of those as well.

"If you start rhyming every statement I shall have to find a new aide, Lieutenant," Montana said.

"Noted, sir," Lyons said, looking through a stabilized scope on the sail. "And the relatively high number of survivors as well as infected is now explained."

"Oh?" Montana said. "Don't keep me hanging."

"I recognize people on the buildings, sir," Lyons said. "Looks as if NavSpecWar moved..."

* * *

"Damned right we moved."

Captain Owen Carter was the former commander of Navy Special Warfare, Basic Underwater Demolitions/SCUBA School, universally referred to as BUD/S. It was the West Coast's SEAL school normally based at Coronado on North Island.

The good part about the introductions was that Carter recognized him. There were no questions raised as to why a former Army lieutenant general was now a commodore and CINCPAC. Nobody in Special Operations questioned his competence. Now if he could just figure out a way to take anything on the land side...

"Holding Coronado was untenable, sir," Carter said. "Freaking infected were coming over the fences. Most of the teams were out trying to control the infected. I obtained orders to move the dependents, instructors and students to San Clemente. Various others joined as they had transport. Pretty much the entire Special Operations boat contingent moved over when it all came apart, along with some civilians and Team survivors. We moved sufficient supplies for a long siege, especially given the loss rate due to infection. What we did not bring is enough ammunition to deal with all the infected. I'm not sure there's enough in the world."

"And we, too, are about out," Montana said, trying not to sigh. The Beast had shot through the last of its ball bearings and all the subs in the area were about shot out on machine-gun rounds. But they had a land base and an infusion of fighters. "Commander Halvorson."


"Have the Hampton and Topeka do a run back to Gitmo or Blount, whichever Captain Smith prefers. Pick up more ammo. See about ball bearings. They might have found some on Blount. Vaccine. Medical supplies if they have spare. General supply run." For better or worse, most of the pregnant female dependents seemed to have already given birth so he wouldn't have to repeat the nightmare that had been Gitmo when the baby wave hit.

"Aye, aye, sir."

"Captain Carter," Montana said, looking at the small beach by the NALF. Drawn up on the sand or anchored in the tiny cove was an amazing cluster of just about every type of small boat imaginable. There were Special Operations Boats, yachts, off-shore inflatables and "hard" hulls; there was even one ten-foot inflatable dinghy that must have been a real joy to maneuver across the strait.


"Any of those SOCs still operational?"

The eighty-one-foot "Special Operations Craft Mark V.1" were just the ticket to handle a zombilanche. They should even be robust enough to handle the impact.

"Unsure, sir. They've been parked for the better part of a year."

"Well, time to get them operational," Montana said, humming "Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner." "The FAST boat guys have a new mission..."

* * *

"Ball bearings?" Isham said, looking at the video transmission.

Commander Halvorson gave a brief précis of The Beast.

"That makes so much sense I don't know why Steve didn't think of it first," Isham said. "Okay, I'll put the word in to Survey and Salvage to keep an eye out. There might be a container or so at Blount Island. There might be a container of the Holy Grail for that matter. But I'll add ball bearings to the list of critical items..."

* * *

There was more to do. Zombie bodies had to be dealt with since they needed the facilities. There were some backhoes. More boats were gotten operational and spread out to see about at-sea rescue. They'd used up most of their machine-gun ammo but husbanded their small-arms rounds. Clearance happened. The nice thing about finding a bunch of BUD/S instructors and students was the instructors were specialists at clearing boats and ships. All they needed was a bit of touch-up on the "Wolf-Way." On the other hand, it wasn't much different from normal SEAL clearance techniques. Although they occasionally trained to sneak aboard boats, once they were onboard they rarely bothered to keep quiet. It was all about fast and hard. The only thing they had to be retrained on was "bring the zombies into your killzone, don't go into theirs." And Lyons had spent enough time around the Wolf Marines to be able to hum the tune.

But the land. Oh, the land...

Copyright © 2015 by John Ringo


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