Slight spoiler warning ahead. This resolves one of the plot threads left at the end of “A Place Outside The Wild.” So if you haven’t finished (or started) yet, may want to avoid clicking the “read more” button.
A Place Called Hope – Chapter 1
March 11, 2026
Z-Day + 3,066
The owners of the cabin survived the apocalypse by sheer luck of location. If their realtor had known beforehand, it would have made a great selling point.
The two-story building was nestled in the inner curve of a kidney-shaped lake at the bottom of a shallow valley. The sole vehicular access point was by way of a graveled drive that crested a low spot in the surrounding ridges. Even then, the downward angle of the road would make for a nerve-wracking experience in bad weather. Short of blasting a hole through the high ground, it was the only place to put it. The interior of the bowl-shaped valley descended in a nearly uniform fashion, but the drops on the outer edges edged close to vertical in some spots.
The occupants of the cabin had opted for defense in depth at the road’s crest. Rusting cars and trucks with the wheels removed bristled with sharpened wooden stakes, and plenty of time and effort had gone into digging a six-foot trench in front of the vehicles. Stakes lined the outer edge of that, as well, though there was a large portion missing from the center where the occupants could install a primitive bridge platform.
Infected could never take the ridges, and they would have found the walk up the driveway to be difficult even without the obstacles at top. Of course, no place was entirely impregnable, but this one was better than most.
For Master Sergeant Ainsley McFarlane and the rest of his Marines, gaining access to the valley was a walk in the park. He and his men had inserted a few miles away the morning before. They’d scaled the ridges and set up several camouflaged observation posts in time for lunch. Twenty hours later, the senior NCO and his men had completed their period of observation and were prepared to swoop down on the oblivious camp.
McFarlane doubted that the current occupants were the same folks who’d ridden out the initial spread of the infection. For one, the group was too motley in both appearance and behavior. More critically, every member the Marines had noted during their surveillance had been an adult male. McFarlane was also quite certain that none of them had interest in the swing-set or faded play shed in the backyard. The overgrowth that choked both pieces testified to the lack of recent use.
Eight plus years of survival in the post-apocalyptic world had burned away most of his desire to wonder after the fate of the children.
Most — but not all.
Jaw clenched with slow-simmering anger, McFarlane eyed the moonless sky and pulled the sleeve of his uniform jacket up to take a peek at his watch. Just shy of 0300. The occupants of the cabin had dimmed the interior lanterns nearly five hours before. The Marines had been dozing in alternate shifts throughout the day in preparation for this moment. The Master Sergeant suppressed a wicked grin and tapped the transmit button on his MBITR — multi-band inter/intra team radio — twice.
It was go time.
McFarlane had divided his unit into a trio of four-man fire teams. The observation posts formed a rough triangle with the lake at the bottom. At his command, his men moved out of their places of concealment and began to pick their way down the slope. The crucible of the nearly decade-long fight for survival had been Darwinian, and the loud Marines hadn’t lived long against the infected. The handful of former civilians who’d made it through the same crucible and joined up with the cause were almost as good. And, of course, the hardware tipped the scales — the night-vision goggles each Marine wore helped guide them down the hill and avoid fallen branches.
In the depths of the night, McFarlane’s squad were as ghosts.
Since making landfall nearly two weeks ago, the Marines had secured a base of operations and fought an hours-long pitched battle against swarms of infected. This mission was a return to their roots as special operations soldiers — swift, silent, deadly.
Drone searches and examination of the site of an atrocity had traced a blindingly obvious route back to this cabin. The occupants seemed normal enough as they went about their business during the observation period, but the evidence was crystal clear. The men inside the cabin were highwaymen — pillaging their way through the countryside and surviving off the efforts of their betters.
The scene of their most recent raid had chilled even McFarlane’s hardened heart. The infected could be forgiven to some extent — they weren’t human after all, not any more. This was different, and the fact that the elderly man the cabin-dwellers had butchered had gotten his grandchildren to safety made the entire effort a bit on the personal side.
While the primary mission objective was capture and intelligence gathering, it had been emphasized to McFarlane that if the raiders resisted, they were to be terminated with extreme prejudice.
The Master Sergeant doubted that would be an issue.
He reached the bottom of the hill and went prone. He trained his suppressed rifle on the cabin and waited for the rest of the fire teams to acknowledge they’d reached their first way-point. A pair of clicks in his ear later told him the other teams were in place. McFarlane hit the transmit button on his own MBITR and sub-vocalized in a soft Jamaican patois that was the only thing he had left of his maternal grandmother save for fond memories. “Mebane, go.”
The raiders were confident in their security and stupid in its execution. They rotated a two-man watch outside every couple of hours, but the sentries all exhibited rookie mistakes that would soon prove to be their undoing. The sentry on McFarlane’s side leaned against the side of the cabin. The glowing ember of his cigarette danced in the night, ruining any chance he had at retaining natural night vision.
The sentry on the opposite side at least got up and walked around every once in a while. On a team full of stealthy, hard-core killers, Sergeant Aidan Mebane was one of the best of the best. The other sentry was out of the game — he just didn’t know it yet.
McFarlane kept his eyes on the dancing ember of the cigarette. He didn’t have the right angle to take the shot without risking his bullet hitting the side of the cabin, but he wasn’t letting his guard down, either. The Master Sergeant led the fire team closest to the access road. Mebane led the team at the tip of the pyramid, and their angle meant that any wayward shots would go out over the lake rather than into the cabin.
“Sergeant, call the ball. We move on your shots. Del Arroz, you ready?”
“Roger,” acknowledged the man leading the third and final fire team. Del Arroz was the squad’s only other Sergeant. Promotions had slowed during the long slog of the war, and the remnants of the Corps were bottom-heavy with enlisted personnel. The senior NCOs who showed any sort of capability tended to get their own squads to run. As for the rest? Well, ‘terminal lance’ had taken on an even greater meaning since the beginning of the outbreak.
McFarlane didn’t realize he was holding his breath until the subsonic thumps broke the stillness of the night. The two shots were so close together that they blurred together into one extended sound. The suppressors weren’t perfect, but they did their job well enough that it would have been difficult to identify the sound from inside the thick, timber walls of the cabin. “Targets down,” Mebane murmured.
The dancing ember of the cigarette tumbled to the ground. McFarlane was on his feet and running before it landed in the grass. He made a cursory check of the guard — dead and down — and snuffed the burning ember out under his boot.
“Down,” he reported. “Nice shooting. Cover our six and provide backup. Del Arroz, you’ve got the back.”
The others confirmed over the MBITR. McFarlane turned to his own fire team and said, “Stack up,” but as soon as the words were out of his mouth he realized it was a redundant order. His men were already taking up position beside the entryway. Lance Corporal Fetu Ropati tested the doorknob and gave him a thumbs-up.
A grin flashed across McFarlane’s face as he switched channels on his radio and keyed the transmit button. It’s so nice, having competent subordinates. Considering that Ropati had been a sun-burnt and starving refugee on a boat in the Pacific Ocean five years ago, he’d made longer strides than most.
“Eagle Eye, this Witch Doctor. Status report, over.”
The drone operator sat in a command trailer forty miles away, but her reply was prompt and crystal clear. “Ground activity still minimal in your immediate area.” The infected weren’t much warmer than the ambient air, rendering them almost invisible on thermal. The high-definition cameras in the Avenger drone orbiting above them were good enough to pick out some semblance of movement, though the necessity for night ops made it more challenging to do so.
“Going loud. Keep an eye out.”
“Roger that, Witch Doctor.”
The cabin was in the middle of the woods, but as the crow flew, those woods were less than twenty miles from one of the largest cities in the state of Indiana. Before the end, the city of Bloomington had boasted a population of nearly 90,000. Given that the outbreak had kicked off in October — in the middle of the fall semester — the total population had probably been well over a hundred thousand. Who knew how many of those were well and truly dead and how many still walked, but the drone reconnaissance had shown an alarming number of shambling infected. More than a few wore the faded and tattered remnants of Indiana University logo wear.
The helicopters that had dropped them off had flown in convoluted serpentine routes intended to slow up any attention their nose garnered, and to give them plenty of time to get clear from the LZ and reach their observation posts. The pickup choppers were orbiting a bit further away from their initial insertion point, which would require close coordination. Show up too soon, and they took the chance of alerting the raiders in the cabin. Show up too late, and every infected around would be piling up to get them.
If the infected were slow, the Marines had plenty of time. If they were the evolved ones that had been showing up as of late, well, things were liable to get a bit sporty.
McFarlane keyed his radio one last time, “Extraction, go. Breach, go.”
Ropati was first on entry by sheer benefit of size. With his bulk emphasized even more by his body armor, he formed an effective barricade the rest of the Marines in the stack could shoot around until they finished breaching.
The big Samoan twisted the doorknob and heaved the door open. He moved with a speed and smoothness that was surprising in such a large man, shouting out as he stepped inside and swept the interior of the cabin with his M1014 shotgun.
“United States Marines! Hands in the air!”
A similar cry echoed from the rear of the cabin as Del Arroz’s team breached the back door. McFarlane spun inside behind the point man, and then things got chaotic.
With the assistance of his NVGs McFarlane could see that the bottom floor of the cabin had been stripped of furniture. Stacks of supplies ranging from bottled water to canned food lined the walls. The low embers of the fireplace cast conflicting shadows as the men who’d been sleeping in front of it lurched to their feet in confusion.
“Hands in the air!” Ropati bellowed again, and one of the cabin-dwellers lurched to the side. He snatched something from the floor, and the M1014 boomed as the Marine got a bead on the man before he could bring a bolt-action rifle into line.
Idiots, McFarlane raged as the man crumpled to the floor in a heap. Outnumbered and outgunned, they should have given up. The fact that they didn’t was an even greater indication that they were up to no good. The Master Sergeant pivoted and stroked the trigger of his MK18. Something fast and hard whizzed by his ear, but the NCO’s shots were true. The second cabin-dweller clutched his chest, dropped the revolver he’d aimed at McFarlane, and fell backward into the fireplace. The fire flared up and embers rolled out from under the dying man. Where Ropati’s shotgun hadn’t been authoritative enough to cow the other two men sleeping on the floor, that seemed to do the trick. They cowered and reached toward the ceiling.
McFarlane sensed rather than saw the movement above and to his right, and he ducked out of pure instinct. His move was unnecessary — the other two men in the stack, Osborne and Ewald, were inside and had the stairs and landing above covered. A pair of closely-spaced shots later and the fifth attacker slid down the staircase face-first.
With the two outside, that made seven. They’d identified eight — where was the last one?
A feminine shriek filled the suddenly still cabin. “Del Arroz, on me,” McFarlane snapped, and bounded up the stairs. He hopped over the body of the fallen raider without bothering to stop to check it. He knew the men behind him would secure him, dead or alive.
The rooms upstairs were packed to overflowing with goods of all description. A post-apocalyptic cornucopia overflowed with weapons, food, clothing, and ammunition. He gritted his teeth and tried to push down his anger at the sight. Maybe most of the stuff was looted from long-abandoned businesses. Only God knew how much of it had been paid for in blood and pain.
He caught movement in the room at the end of the landing, at the back of the house, and he led Del Arroz forward. The beginnings of another scream started but cut off.
The final raider was dark-haired and wiry with muscle. Barefoot, clad only in a pair of patched blue jeans, he stood at the side of a four-poster bed. He leaned over and held the blade of an absurdly overlarge Bowie knife to the neck of the half-naked woman handcuffed to the bed.
McFarlane’s eyes scanned the woman quickly and returned to the raider with the knife. The tapestry of fresh and faded bruises told him all that he needed to know. The woman had been a prisoner for a long time.
“I’ll cut the bitch,” the raider snapped. “Turn around and get to steppin’, or she dies.”
McFarlane studied the raider. Despite the standoff, he was outwardly calm. His shaved head gleamed in the light from a lantern near the bed. With that light and the amplification of his goggles, the Master Sergeant identified the three parallel lines trailing down his right cheek. “Nice scars,” Ainsley observed. If anything his voice was bored.
“Got ‘em on day one,” the raider sneered. “You got any scars, soldier boy?”
McFarlane ignored the jibe. He waited a moment to ensure that the raider was done speaking, then said, “Little girl told us about your scars. She said you were the one that gutted her grandfather.”
The raider’s eyes widened and he opened his mouth to speak, but his final words were lost to the ages as McFarlane fired a single shot through his open mouth. A decade of war against the infected had made that sort of accuracy de rigeur.
The scarred man fell backward and away from the bed. The Master Sergeant watched him crumple with dispassionate interest, then turned to his counterpart. “Jon, get the girl loose and get her some clothes to wear. I’m checking in.”
As the other Marine moved into the room, McFarlane winced slightly and reached back to touch his neck. His gloved fingers came back stained with blood. Must have caught a splinter from that near miss. He shook his head and keyed his MBITR. “Eagle Eye, this is Witch Doctor. Objective is secure. No friendly casualties.”
“Roger that, Witch Doctor. Significant movement all around. Evac is ten minutes out — leading edge of the infected is two minutes after that.”
He grimaced. It would take them a few minutes to build up enough mass to cross the ditch, but not many. Going to be tight. “Marines, we are lea-ving! Secure the prisoners and prep for dust-off.”
There was enough stockpiled in the cabin that the Marines were practically tripping over the supplies as they led the zip-cuffed prisoners outside. Those were supplies that they could use, at Perry as well as Hope, but time had grown too short to collect them.
No worry. Canned goods and ammo held little interest for the ravenous undead. The stuff would hold until the area cleared enough for them to return. With the infected around, they certainly wouldn’t have to worry about other raiders or scavengers taking advantage of the stockpile. Their mission was largely accomplished. Just need to get home safe, McFarlane mused. He stepped outside after Ropati and replaced the partial magazine in his MK18.
The air was beginning to thump with the sound of rotors from the south. “Get some flares out,” McFarlane barked. The bottom of the valley flattened out to one side of the lake, and they’d sketched out the outline of a landing zone during mission prep. The need to conduct the operation at night made things more difficult for the pilots, but there was no other alternative. The night attack had been loud enough — a daytime gunfight with the cabin’s occupants would have attracted that much more attention.
The first chopper came in at treetop level, and the second was mere moments behind. “How we looking, Eagle Eye?”
“Lead elements are at the ditch. Suspect enhanced infected. They outpaced the rest of the mass.”
McFarlane raised his voice over the thunder of the helicopters. “Eyes out, Marines! We got fast movers inbound.” The passage of time and exposure to the elements had worn most of the infected to the bone. As of late a disturbing number were stronger, faster, and most worrisome, smarter than the rest of their cohorts. The ‘enhanced’ infected were known to run, jump and climb over obstacles. McFarlane hadn’t seen it, but some of the Marines who’d fought at the battle of Hope had spread the word that they’d even carried crude spears tipped with infected bone.
The thought of being chased down and eaten alive was bad enough. The worry that the enemy could induct you into his ranks at long range was even worse.
The first Black Hawk settled to the ground near the cabin. McFarlane waved Del Arroz and Mebane forward. His own fire team, the liberated hostage, and the prisoners had a ticket on the second chopper, which settled out a bit closer to the road. “Move it!” he shouted, and double-timed in that direction.
Ropati, Osborne, and Ewald wrestled the prisoners up into the helicopter with the assistance of one of the crew chiefs. The other crew chief had a firm grip on the M240B machine gun on the weapons station closest to the road. While the rest of his fire team focused on securing the uncooperative raiders into the back of the helicopter, McFarlane took a knee at back of the fuselage. He kept his MK18 shouldered and slowly scanned the top of the ridge.
A gray blur of movement drew his attention and he pivoted his point of aim. “Contact right!”
The starboard crew chief barked out a reply, but his words were obscured by the abrupt thumping of the 240 Bravo as he stitched the top of the ridge with fire.
At least one of the big 7.62mm rounds took the enhanced infected in the thigh, and it flopped to the ground. Even with a severed leg, it still pulled itself unerringly toward the landing zone. McFarlane lowered his aim slightly and pulled the trigger. The head of the infected jerked, but the lighter round of the Master Sergeant’s carbine hadn’t gone through. It kept crawling.
McFarlane fired again, and this time his shot was true. The infernal machinery no longer drove the corpse toward them, but more blurs of movement appeared at the top of the road. The crew chief went to continuous fire, sweeping the ridge.
He stood and looked left. The rest of the fire team was helping the former hostage up into the Black Hawk, leaving him as the last man on the ground. McFarlane jogged up to the crew compartment and hauled himself inside.
The pitch of the engines on the first chopper rose as the pilot increased torque to lift off. McFarlane heard and felt the boom as one of the engines went. The smooth sound of purring machinery transitioned to the rumbling grind of metal on metal. He turned, and the crew chief on his side of the second chopper reached out and grabbed him by the shoulder. “They blew an oil line! They’re down!”
No kidding, McFarlane thought. Rather than vocalize that sentiment, he barked over his shoulder. “Light up that ridge!” He turned to the first Black Hawk and yelled over the sudden outbreak of noise while gesturing wildly, “Pack it in! Drop everything except weapons and ammo!” If the second chopper crashed or couldn’t take off, it would be sucky but survivable. Without anything to defend themselves, they’d be dead meat.
McFarlane spun back around and resumed his position at the rear of the chopper. Tracers from the 240 brought a little more illumination to the mottled green display of his goggles, and he cringed at the growing number of gray blobs at the top of the ridge. With his team and the crew chief shooting there was just enough fire pressure to keep the infected at bay. If it waned at all as the rest of the crew and Marines moved over to the other Black Hawk, they stood to be overrun.
“Eagle Eye, Witch Doctor — need immediate fire support. What have you got?”
“Copy that, Witch Doctor — full rack of GBU-39s. Call your shots.”
High-tech ordnance wasn’t exactly growing on trees these days.
Then again, neither were Marines.
“Two shots on the ditch, Eagle Eye.” McFarlane considered a moment, then amended,
“Keep it away from the barricade if you can.”
The drone had been a silent overseer all along, and the delivery of the munitions didn’t change that. The GBU-39 SDBs – ‘small diameter bombs’ – were slim, aerodynamic, and incredibly accurate. As they fell off the Avenger’s racks, pop-out wings deployed and continuously altered the descent trajectory to align with the GPS coordinates the drone operator had marked.
The first bomb plunged into the defensive trench. The other, by some vagary of chance, went a bit long and hit the road. The shape and speed of the bombs allowed them to plow through the soft Indiana loam. A split-second after the bomb hit, the two-hundred pound warhead on each exploded.
A gravel driveway wasn’t much of an impediment to a weapon designed to punch into aircraft tarmac. A plume of dirt and debris shot into the sky, carrying infected with it and knocking still more down. The vehicle barricade took the brunt of the blast at that point in the road. The impact tore the defensive stakes off, but the majority of the blast had taken place below the fortification. The cars still stood.
The faster infected inside of the perimeter were thus unaffected by the impacts, but fire from the Marines and the crew took them down quickly. McFarlane didn’t know the numbers outside of the barricade, but the pressure had been temporarily relieved until their attackers could fill or scale the new craters and trench works.
He abandoned his heavy pack, keeping only an assault bag with ammunition, pogie bait, and his canteen. For a moment he considered ordering the men to hole up in the cabin until reinforcements could arrive, but he discarded that idea. He had no idea of the size of the swarm they’d attracted, and he wasn’t going to risk having the cabin torn out from under them while rest of the unit helplessly watched the drone feed.
“Let’s go, let’s go, let’s go!” He pushed one of the pilots from the downed Black Hawk into the crew compartment and pulled himself up after her. She turned and yanked on his load-bearing vest to help him get up inside.
“We’re over max capacity,” the pilot yelled, then turned toward the cockpit and bellowed, “Last man! Go! The name tape on her flight suit read ‘Brumley’ and she had a West Texas twang to her voice. She didn’t sound scared so much as angry at the situation.
“The hostage is scrawny and Del Arroz is short — we’ll make do!” Official spec for the Black Hawk was twenty personnel. They had that topped by three. For a moment he entertained ejecting the captives, but shook the consideration away. They needed any intel on this part of the state for the next stage of advance. McFarlane turned to the crew chiefs manning the chopper’s machine guns. “Dump your ammo cans! We’ll either come back for it, or we won’t be alive to care.”
The pitch of the Black Hawk’s engine rose, and for one heart-stopping moment McFarlane didn’t think it was going to lift off the ground. The troops on the right side of the aircraft shouted, and started firing again as a new wave of infected topped the barricades. This task was simplified by the destruction of most of the stakes.
“Witch Doctor, Eagle Eye, do you require further fire support?”
McFarlane opened his mouth to call out the target, but then the Black Hawk lurched and the wheels came clear of the ground. The roar of the engine intensified, and they were going up into the sky. The blurred shadows of the infected in his NVGs faded away as the deck of the helicopter lifted above the level of the surrounding ridge. He eased his way to the side of the vehicle and got a glimpse of the seething mass coming up the drive. It stretched back as far as he could make out, and even as the Black Hawk banked to return to base he could see the mass spreading wide from the pressure at the rear.
He’d made a lucky call, insisting on evac. The cabin wouldn’t have lasted for long under that sort of assault. With a sigh he withdrew and leaned against an empty section of bulkhead — the jump seats were already at double-occupancy, save for the one his men had put the lady hostage into. The former captors had become impromptu footrests for multiple Marines, and they shot McFarlane looks of hatred as he pulled out his canteen and took a long drink.
“Eagle Eye. Witch Doctor returning to base. Fine shooting. Out.”
“Roger that — Eagle Eye is RTB as well, over.”