The Dead at Destitute Mountain

Zombie or Post Apocalyptic themed fiction/stories.

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Re: The Dead at Destitute Mountain

Post by Tinderbox » Sat May 25, 2013 5:27 pm

Having first settled Kat and Hyacinth in the living room in front of the DVD player they’d salvaged from the vehicle at the Forest Service station, Hitomi caught his attention and drew him to the side of the kitchen while the others were still discussing the day’s events at the table.

“What’s showing tonight?” Michael asked, amused at how rapt the two girls were in front of the tiny glowing screen.

“Something with dolphins and a big Rated G on the front cover,” she answered. “I just wanted to return this.” She handed him a bundle of denim fabric with something heavy inside. “I made it from the leg of an old pair of jeans.” It was a shoulder holster custom fitted for the .22 revolver. “It won’t stand up to much wear and tear…”

“Nice work,” Michael said, inspecting it. “Nice snug fit.”

“I just folded the fabric over and sewed around it. You’ll also notice that I ran the generator for an hour today to do a load of laundry, including the bed sheets. We decided to take you up on your offer for the upstairs bedroom. Eric said he can put together something like one of those Japanese shoji screens for Kat’s side of the room.”

“Good,” he replied, genuinely pleased. “I have one bag of stuff to move.”

“I already moved it,” she said. She leaned a little closer and added, “I hope you don’t mind. It’s just, I don’t want to attract a lot of attention to the whole thing. People can get resentful.”

He put a finger to his lips and smiled. “It’s the other sleeping arrangements that might get a little…complicated.”

“Mundy and Lucas in the garage,” Hitomi said without hesitation, “and Nadia and Heath in the living room. I don’t know about you but I don’t sense anything between those two.”

“No,” he agreed, “nothing between them.” But, he thought, if Nadia’s soft brown eyes and warm smiles were any indication, she might offer Mundy her place in the living room for his place in the garage.

“That Lucas is a handsome boy,” Hitomi commented before returning to the kitchen table, “but he seems…I don’t know… hollow inside.”

***

The house had grown quiet, its inhabitants gone to their designated bedding areas. In the guttering light from the last of the kitchen table candles, Michael didn’t think anyone had even noticed that he’d changed bedrooms. Not that he believed anyone would resent the arrangements. Like Perko had said only that morning, “Anyplace dry is a palace.”

He fell into a fitful sleep filled with jarring dreams of swirling snow and rotting faces.

Hours later, the thin film of sleep slipped from him. In the total darkness, someone was opening the bedroom door. Someone was doing it slowly and quietly. Someone was closing it behind them with painstaking care not to make a sound and treading barefoot on the carpet with slow motion steps that led right up to the side of the bed. As the blankets and sheets were lifted from him, that someone spoke.

“Hello, princess,” a man’s voice whispered.

Michael, still only half aware of the implications of the situation, cleared his throat and replied.

“Wow, no one’s ever called me princess before.”

In the complete darkness, he heard the person stumble back and utter a startled “Fu…” before fumbling for the doorknob and escaping the room. Michael almost called out, almost raised the alarm in classic Stop! Thief! fashion, but there was no need. Even in the dark, he knew who it was.

A small LED flashlight in hand, he was already in the kitchen when he heard Nadia’s sleepy complaint from the darkness of the living room.

“Shit, Weyland. What the piss?” The weak light from Michael’s flashlight showed Heath Weyland struggling back into his sleeping bag on the living room floor. From the couch across the room, Nadia’s head was raised, a small v-shaped furrow between her eyes showing her confusion. “What’s going on?” she asked with a frown.

Michael stood at the foot of Heath’s sleeping bag, his flashlight pointed at the man’s face and the guilty expression it wore.

“You wanna answer that question, Heath?” he asked, his voice tight around the words. Anger was rising in him, like heat in a volcano. “What is going on?”

“Nothing,” Heath replied weakly. “There’s nothing going on.”

“But only because Katrina isn’t in that room tonight. Right, Heath? If I hadn’t switched rooms tonight, there would have been something very, very bad going on. Right, Heath?”

“I’m tired,” said the man, turning his head into the chair cushion he was using as a pillow. “Why don’t you all let me get some sleep?”

“No,” Michael said, shaking his head and thinking about the revolver on the nightstand beside his bed. “No, you don’t sleep in here. There’s a shed out back – “

“Man, it’s freezing out there!” Heath whined.

“Heath,” Nadia said, fully awake now and standing, “what did you do?”

“It may be cold out there,” Michael growled, “but if you’re not out in one minute, you have no idea how hot it’s going to get for you in here!”

“Look,” Heath said, lowering his voice to a harsh whisper, “I’m sorry if I trespassed into your territory. It won’t happen again.”

Michael took a step toward the man. “You either walk out that garage door now or I will throw you off the balcony!”

“Weyland,” Nadia said, her hand rubbing her forehead, “you idiot.” Her tone said she had connected the dots and pieced together the story. “Get out.” Her hand flew outward in a dismissive gesture. “Go on. We will talk in the morning when things have cooled down. Be glad you don’t have a bullet in your ass.”

“What is going on down here?” asked Eric, stepping from the stairs just as Heath hurried past, his sleeping bag, clothes, and backpack bundled in his arms. On his way down the basement steps, he paused to grab his shotgun from where it leaned against the wall.

“Problem,” Michael said, watching Heath go and preparing to lock the rear garage door behind him. “We have a problem.”

***

Michael doubted he would be getting any more sleep that night. He sat at the kitchen table and gratefully accepted the mug of instant cocoa from Nadia, inhaling the chocolate aroma of it before being disappointed by the watery thin taste of it.

’Hello, princess’?” Eric repeated upon hearing the story recounted. “That is pretty creepy.”

“But what do we do about it?” Nadia asked, staring at the table top. “I mean, he came here with me and Perko. I can easily see you telling me to go and to take him along with me.”

“You’re welcome here,” Michael told her bluntly. “But what do we do about a guy who would sneak into what he thinks is a defenseless girl’s bedroom in the middle of the night? He saw that she’s only barely aware of what’s going on around her. He saw that she doesn’t talk. Hell, he was counting on that!” Michael massaged his temples. “In normal times, you wouldn’t execute a rapist, you’d put him in jail.”

“And if you don’t have a jail?” Eric asked.

“I hate to waste the fuel,” Nadia said, “but tomorrow I’ll drive him down to the highway in the humvee. He takes all of his stuff plus food for three days.” They were quiet for a time, then she continued. “We only hooked up with him about a month ago and he’s always been kind of a distant kind of guy. But I swear, this is the first time I’ve seen him cross the line.”

“We traveled for a week with this bunch,” Eric remembered, “before they turned on us. They seemed perfectly okay all that time. If it hadn’t been for twenty zeroes charging out of a drainage ditch, we wouldn’t have gotten away from them. They would’ve killed me and…then done worse. Saved from the bad guys by a bunch of puss-filled corpses who came an inch away from eating my face off.” He sighed. “People suck.”

“Not all of them,” Nadia countered. “Custer was a good man. You’re a good man. Michael’s got a whole house full of decent people, including him. In a way, it makes things a lot tougher.

“Tearing through what’s left of the world like an evil asshole with a group of equally worthless assholes; it must be easy. They’re not worth a thing. No one around them is worth a thing. Nothing worth protecting. Nothing worth keeping safe. It must be really easy.

“Now, being a good person in a very bad world,” she said, waving her finger between the two men, “and having to protect innocents like Hyacinth and Kat, that’s hard.”


**********************


Despite his doubts, Michael did manage two hour’s worth of sleep toward dawn. When he woke, it was to the sounds and smells of breakfast from the kitchen. He pulled on his jeans and as he did so, he heard the rise and fall of the conversation at the breakfast table and listened for the sound of Heath’s voice among the others. The discussion only became intelligible when he opened the bedroom door.

“Whose bright idea was that?” Mundy was asking, his voice high pitched with exasperation.

“It’s done,” replied Nadia, sounding tired. “There’s no sense in – “ She and the others fell silent as Michael stepped into view.

“Morning,” Michael said, his uncertainty evident in his tone. Heath Weyland was not at the table, though everyone else was. “What’s the story?”

“Michael,” Nadia said to him, “Heath’s gone.”

“So’s the three gallons of gasoline you had in the shed for that little 1100 watt generator,” Mundy reported in a sour voice.

“His tracks lead away through the trees,” Nadia added, “and then up the road.”

“We’re thinking Lucas here might be out one Kia Soul,” Eric said.

“No biggie,” Lucas said around a mouthful of dry Captain Crunch. He was still all in black, still wearing the Limberjack t-shirt. “Even if he gets it out of the ditch, I give it twenty miles before the transmission goes.”

“Well,” Michael said with a long pause, “if he’s gone for good, it suits me.”

“Yeah,” Nadia agreed, “I mean, that was pretty much the plan anyway, right?”

Mundy made a sound of disgust and left the table, spilling his coffee down his shirt as he crossed the living room. Nadia’s eyes followed him, a look of chagrin on her face.

Michael caught up with him on the balcony outside the living room windows. Mundy was busying himself by kicking snow from the walkway.

“The weather’s warming up,” Michael said. “This snow will be gone by tomorrow.”

“We can talk about the weather,” Mundy said, his voice stretched thin, “or we can talk about how the world has changed.” Still without looking at him, he kicked another pile of snow to the ground below and then stared off into the pines. “I heard you tell the story about how you got those skinned knuckles. You said you felt stupid because even a scrape can turn fatal these days.”

“Yeah.”

“But you find a rapist among us and you let him go. That’s an awful lot like finding an infection and not treating it.”

“The man’s gone, Mundy.”

“Is he?” he said tersely, turning to look Michael in the eye. “Nadia saw tracks in the snow leading up the road. How far do they go? Did the guy’s feet get cold after a few hundred yards? Did he start cursing your name and circle back? Guys like that never blame themselves for their troubles. Is he up in those trees with his cheek resting against that taped up shotgun stock, aiming at you right now?

“Now,” he continued, “we could call the cops. Maybe get a bunch of rangers up here, maybe with a K-9 unit to flush him out. Except that the world has changed and no one stands between us and the bad guys anymore.”

“And what do you think we should have done?”

“Deal with the problem,” Mundy said. “Remove the risk. Kill the infection before it kills you.”

“Kill Heath, you mean.” Michael blurted the words without thinking and was instantly ready to apologize to Mundy for them. The steady look on Mundy’s face stopped him. “You’re not suggesting that, are you?” Michael recalled how swiftly Mundy had euthanized Perko and paired it with what he now saw on the man’s face. “Okay, so we’re supposed to execute attempted rapists because they’re a potential future threat. What about people who seem to find killing way too easy? What kind of threat are they?”

Easy,” he replied quietly, “and necessary are not the same thing.”

***

The events with Heath Weyland had disrupted the early start they had planned. By the time they had assembled outside the garage, the sun had risen over their destination of Grayling Lake and the temperature had started to climb. The snow was already melting and letting go in fat clumps from the pines around the house.

“It’s probably already occurred to you all,” Nadia said, “but a plane means pilots and maybe passengers: a plane that size, who knows how many. A crashed plane might mean dead pilots and dead passengers: again, who knows how many.”

“Great,” Eric muttered. “If that was one of those big military transports, how many passengers could we be talking about?”

“Eighty?” Mundy said, shrugging. “Ninety?”

“You are definitely taking this,” Hitomi said forcefully, handing Eric the short barreled shotgun. Michael had given it to her to keep while they were away. After what happened at the Forest Service cabin, he thought he preferred the .22 LR revolver with its nine shots.

“And leave you here with nothing?” Eric responded with a chuckle. “No, no, no.”

“Not nothing,” she argued. In addition to the shotgun, Michael had also reminded her of the Remington Model 722. In return, though, she had reminded him that the rifle and its four .300 Savage cartridges were their best hope for a venison dinner.

“Why are you going, anyway?” Mundy asked. “We don’t really know where Weyland went and you’ve got family to watch over.”

“I have to go,” Eric answered, still refusing the shotgun. “I need to do my part to help out. If I had been with you guys yesterday…” He didn’t finish the sentence, but it was clear he thought things might have gone differently at the Forest Service station if he had been there to help. “You’re going farther on when we reach the road to the lake?” he said, referring to Mundy’s plan to track Heath’s footprints before all of the snow melted.

“For a little while,” Mundy nodded. “For my own peace of mind, if nothing else.”

“Then I should be there to help Nadia, Michael, and Lucas in case we find something. As long as I know Hitomi has some protection here.”

“I’ve got the house,” she said, pressing the coach gun into his arms. “Zeroes don’t use ladders.”

“But bad guys do,” he rejoined.

“Hold on,” Lucas said. He had been standing to the side impassively watching the exchange, again dressed totally in black. He had his revolver holstered at his side, a bandolier of .357 magnum ammunition across his chest, his rifle cradled in the crook of his arm, and his makeshift spear across his back on its nylon strap sling. Now he turned and walked back into the garage, emerging a few seconds later with the smaller of his two duffle bags. He dug into it and removed three small pistols, each in a separate plastic zip-lock bag. “You can borrow these two. This one,” he said holding up the second largest one, “is a Glock chambered for .40 S&W. I found it on a head stone in a cemetery, of all places. There are only three rounds in the magazine.” He picked up the smallest one. “I got this one off a headless body outside a Denny’s. It’s a .380 caliber pocket pistol. It’s got two rounds in the magazine.” He handed her the two pistols. “The third one’s a .45 ACP Springfield 1911; three magazines but no bullets.”

“Thank you, Lucas.” She turned to her husband, holding out the coach gun. “Okay? Now I’ve got two guns and you’ve only got one.”

“You’ve got five shots,” Eric warned her. He relented though, accepting the shotgun. “Keep an eye out,” he added before kissing her goodbye.

***

Michael hid a grin as he watched Mundy smoothly herd Eric into place inside the humvee. He also caught the satisfied look on the man’s face as he succeeded in separating Lucas from Nadia for the ride to the lake. Lucas, riding with Michael in the F150, didn’t seem to notice and didn’t seem to care.

“Generous of you to let Hitomi use those guns,” he said as they bounced up the rutted road.

“Five bullets isn’t so generous,” he replied, staring out the side window. “All that other ammunition I picked up here and there and none of it is of any use.”

Michael and the others had gone through Lucas’ stock of ammunition. 10mm, .460 S&W Magnum, .327 Federal Magnum, .45-70 Government: none of it of any use in the guns they had. Michael had been hoping for a box of .300 Savage, but was left disappointed.

“Still, I wouldn’t blame you for being a little wary of the situation you landed in, given what happened last night.”

Lucas turned to him. He didn’t speak for a moment, but when he did, it was with a mild bewilderment in his voice. “I’ve seen dead people eating babies. What’s some old guy trying to slip into bed with a hot cheerleader compared to that?”

For a moment, the mental image of dead people eating babies kept Michael’s tongue glued to the roof of his mouth.

“Point taken,” he finally replied. “I just thought the whole thing might conflict with what Mundy told you on the road yesterday.”

“What do you mean?”

“Mundy told me how he convinced you to come with us. How he told you about Hitomi and Hyacinth and Kat and how they weren’t being mistreated.”

“That’s not what he said.”

“What?”

“That’s not what he told me. He told me I had five seconds to decide if I was a bad guy or a good guy before he pulled his gun and put a hole in my head. He told me he had found a few remaining good people and that he wouldn’t hesitate to kill me if he thought I was going to be a threat to them.”

“He said that?”

“In a really calm and serious voice.”

The going was slow. Forty-five minutes later, where the road to the lake broke off from the main road, the humvee squeaked to a halt. The rear passenger side door swung open and Mundy stepped out. He adjusted his holsters, tested his gloved grip on the green painted steel fencing post he’d selected from the material they’d salvaged the day before, and began trudging up the mountain road, following the tracks in the melting snow Heath had made earlier that morning. Michael felt the urge to lower the window of the truck and say something to the man, but he couldn’t think of anything. On the other hand, if he could have somehow communicated with Heath Weyland, he knew exactly what he would have said: Run.
"...the Dog returns to his Vomit and the Sow returns to her Mire,
And the burnt Fool's bandaged finger goes wabbling back to the Fire..."

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URBAN ASSAULT
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Re: The Dead at Destitute Mountain

Post by URBAN ASSAULT » Sat May 25, 2013 8:47 pm

Tinderbox wrote:
URBAN ASSAULT wrote:Liking this story A LOT... have sad-frowny face right now because there is no more story.

Moar story soon would be best.

-urban
Let's turn that sad-frowny face upside down then.

Thanks to all. Your comments are greatly appreciated!
Thank you, thank you!!!!

(big smile)

-urban
"When under imminent Predator attack, try to act all Thalidomide-y till they go away".-me
3%

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Re: The Dead at Destitute Mountain

Post by Qasim » Sat May 25, 2013 10:21 pm

Impressed,

Not a general fan of this genre and came to the site just for the prepping info. But I had some time to kill tonight, saw this in the new post section, and read a couple chapters. Saving the rest for later.

Enjoying the story and writing on many levels. Good job,

-Qasim

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Re: The Dead at Destitute Mountain

Post by Sheriff McClelland » Sat May 25, 2013 10:24 pm

Maybe the folks in the downed plane googled "most remote cabin" ? :wink:

I love this story !
"Yeah, they're dead. They're all messed up. "

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Re: The Dead at Destitute Mountain

Post by Jsimmonsgr » Sun May 26, 2013 12:58 pm

I love reading this! Honestly I look to see if there is a new post every time I log in. :clap: That said, Moar please? :D
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Re: The Dead at Destitute Mountain

Post by Qasim » Sun May 26, 2013 9:25 pm

“I don’t know who it is,” Nadia said, still staring though the binoculars, “but fashion-wise, this guy is rockin’ the apocalypse.
Not totally caught up. But think I'll leave it hear tonight. Very cool. Still enjoying it.

-Q

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Tinderbox
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Re: The Dead at Destitute Mountain

Post by Tinderbox » Sun May 26, 2013 10:28 pm

Michael had thought the mountain road was bumpy, but it was nothing compared to the eroded state of the lake road.

“Just…be glad…” he said to Lucas as they bounced roughly down the steep grade,”…that you’re not…in the hum…vee.” Every once in a while, the bouncing would make the tires lose traction and the truck would slip sideways a few feet in the now slushy snow. A glance at his passenger showed Lucas turning a little green, but doing his best to appear unconcerned.

Eventually, the road leveled out and the lake began to come into view through the trees. A smooth white shelf of ice still clung to the shore, extending out about fifteen feet, but the rest of the lake was clear, its waters dark and deep. When they came to a stretch of road nearer the shore, the humvee braked to a stop and Eric opened the passenger side door. He lifted a pair of binoculars to his eyes, then looked back at Michael and pointed. What Michael had first taken for rocks protruding from the water beyond the ice became something else through his own binoculars.

“What?” Lucas asked. “What is it?”

“Wreckage, looks like,” Michael replied.

After his turn with the binoculars, Lucas said, “They’re all the same size. They look like boxes. Maybe cargo containers.”

“But where’s the plane?” Nadia said, walking up to the driver side window. “At the bottom of the lake?”

“Let’s drive a little farther,” Michael suggested. It was about a quarter mile down the road that Nadia’s question was answered. Rounding a bend and clearing a thick stand of pines, they came upon the sight of an aircraft’s high-mounted tail end sticking out of the lake about sixty yards out. The color and the size of it was enough to confirm their suspicions.

“Yup,” Eric said, coming around to the Ford, the coach gun cradled in his arm, “that’s a military cargo plane. Or was.”

“I think I see more of it over there,” Lucas added. He pointed to a long shape rising just inches above the water line. “Must’ve broken up when it hit the water.”

“Look at all the boxes,” said Nadia. A few floated freely but most now lined the ice bordering the shore. “And that,” she added, pointing to a round yellow life raft that had worked its way into a snag of dead trees just beyond the ice.

“Don’t those things deploy automatically when they crash?”

“Maybe. I don’t know,” Michael said, scanning the lake through the binoculars. “Lucas, there’s some paracord in the back of the truck. How about tying a piece of a wood to the end of it and seeing if you can pull that raft in? If we’re going to check out the wreckage, we’re going to need something that floats.”

“Why would we want to check out the wreckage?” Eric asked.

“One of the first things you ever told me,” Michael said to him, “was that when it comes to scavenging, you should take everything you can carry.”

“When it doesn’t involve drowning or hypothermia, sure,” he answered warily.

“Eric,” said Nadia, patting the truck bed, “you’re on watch. Don’t let anything sneak up on us.”

Michael and Nadia made their way down to where the ice began and started to search along the gravelly shore.

“You think anybody made it out of that crash alive?” she asked him as they went. His response was to point to a spot at the outer border of the ice where it had been broken and hacked at by something. Every foot or so, the ice bore small marks, like something sharp had dug into it. On the beach, the sand and gravel showed signs that something had been dragged over it and up into the bushes. Michael reached inside his coat and pulled the .22 revolver from the shoulder holster that Hitomi had made for him. Nadia disengaged the safety on her carbine and took the lead. They didn’t have to search far. Under bushes with budding green leaves, wrapped up in what Michael guessed was the orange canopy from the life raft, was a body. Nadia crouched low and inched her way toward it until she was close enough to see. She reached out and took the large knife that was stuck in the ground beside the man.

“He’s breathing,” she said in a whisper.

“Cold,” the man croaked through his split and bruised lips. “Very cold.” His eyes opened and focused on Nadia’s face. “Rescatado por un ángel. ¡Qué suerte!” Both of his eyes were blackened and the bridge of his nose was badly gashed. The rest of him was hidden by the vinyl canopy.

“No idea what that means,” she said to him with a gentle smile.

“He says you look like an angel,” Michael told her.

“Yeah, we stopped speaking Spanish in my family a hundred years ago. But thank you.”

“Corporal Aurelio Pelayo,” the man said with a slight accent. “I’d get up, but I think my back is broken.” He grimaced. “My legs are definitely not working...at the moment.”

“Stay still,” she told him. “Did anyone else make it?”

“No one I saw,” Pelayo answered, “but I’ve been in and out of consciousness. At least no RCTs have lunched up on me yet.”

“What’s RCT stand for?”

“Uh, Reanimated Casualty Threats,” the man explained through gritted teeth. “Zeroes. Dead fucks. If everyone’s dead, they’ve probably turned by now.”

“He’s in pain,” she said to Michael. “What do we have?” He just shook his head in response.

“Listen,” the corporal explained, “you have a whole lake full of medical supplies. One hundred and twenty-five crates.” He laughed weakly and bitterly. “That’s what killed my guys: medical supplies. When the fuel runs out and you’re gonna ditch, you’re supposed to dump the cargo. But medical supplies are more valuable than gold. The pallet broke loose on impact and the stuff shot forward like one hundred and twenty-five cannon balls. You find me one crate with some morphine in it and you can have the rest.”

“How many others were on board?”

“Forty-six others, including crew. We were heading for Idaho Haven Three. Our refueling site was compromised and we had to redirect. Navigation trouble, blind in the weather, fuel gone…” Pelayo closed his eyes and his body shook within the vinyl canopy. “I am so cold.”

“We’ll get a fire going,” Nadia told him. “You expecting a rescue mission, corporal?”

He laughed and winced. “The NAS is all broken down. GPS is still up, but who knows if the plane had one: so much has been cannibalized. No one gets a special rescue mission these days.”

“Forty-six possible dead,” Michael said. “Do zeroes drown?” Nadia shrugged.

“No,” Corporal Pelayo answered weakly, his eyes still closed, “they definitely don’t drown. They just…keep coming. We…really…shouldn’t stay here…long.”

***

With the help of a lot of dry tinder from deep in the trees, the fire was finally catching in the pile of damp wood and making great plumes of white smoke. They had used a plastic tarp from the humvee to make a lean-to on one side of the wounded man to reflect as much heat as possible. Moving him only a few feet into a dry sleeping bag had resulted in screams of pain.

“He’s asleep,” Nadia told Michael. “I don’t know how we’re going to move him. Every time we try, it’s torture. Ibuprofen isn’t gonna cut it.”

“We need something rigid, like a wide board or maybe something out of the plane wreck. Anything we can duct tape him to and immobilize him.”

“Even then,” she replied, “that road is nothing but ruts and rocks. He says he can’t feel his legs at all. It’s a miracle he made it to shore.”

“We need to fish out the rest of those crates,” Michael said, looking out over the lake. The containers Lucas had pulled in so far had been packed with various bandages, tourniquets, tape, antiseptic, IV fluids and tubing, hand powered water filtration pumps, and lots and lots of masks and multicolored nitrile rubber gloves. Most important were the antibiotics: both Nadia and Lucas assured him that the antibiotics alone had made the trip to the lake worthwhile. “We might eventually find one with morphine.” He turned to look at her. “If we do, can we give it to him without killing him?”

“Unless it comes packaged with instructions, I guess we’ll just have to start out with a light dose. I can handle needles. My dad was a diabetic.”

When they had collected every dark green plastic crate within easy reach of the shore, the time came to trust the life raft over the lake’s cold, deep waters. Every rope and paracord they had on hand had been tied together and coiled in the bottom of the raft along with eighteen carabiner clips found in the humvee. The other end of the line had been secured to a tree on shore. Lucas found two old wooden signs that had once displayed fishing regulations to use as paddles.

Nadia put her carbine in the back of the humvee. “If I don’t make it back,” she said to Lucas with a smile and a wink, “don’t touch my gun.”

If it hadn’t been for the threat of danger all around, the scene of the two of them kneeling at opposite sides of the round raft, trying frantically to paddle forward instead of in clumsy circles would have been comical. When they would come within reach of a floating crate, they would hook it with a carabiner clip to the line reeling out from shore.

The closer they got, the clearer it became that the submerged front end of the aircraft was a complete loss to them. There was no way they could dive into the icy water to check it out. They had to content themselves with checking out the half submerged aft end. One wing had been sheared completely off and the other was twisted upward with its tip gone. Despite the crash, the giant rear cargo door was still sealed. The left side troop door, now standing just above the water line, was their only alternative.

“What exactly do you hope to find in there?” Nadia asked him. She was doing what she could to hold the raft steady against the fuselage while he attempted to reach the door handle. It wasn’t easy; the door handle itself was really the only thing there was to hold onto. When he finally managed to grab it, it was all he could do to keep his balance as he pressed his nose against the small round window and peered in.

“I don’t know,” he grunted with effort of holding the raft still. “More crates? Guns? A map to all of these safe havens I keep hearing about?”

“Okay,” she said, “but don’t get your hopes up. Remember that the underwater part of the plane has a bit of a hole in it?”

“Yeah.” He tried turning the handle and the raft shifted. He repositioned himself and tried again. The door popped open and slid up about six inches. “Whew,” he breathed. “That is not easy to – “ An arm clad in the same camouflage uniform worn by Corporal Pelayo immediately shot through the gap, grasping wildly, the bone of one finger broken and protruding through the blue-gray skin. The hand clawed wildly at the raft, nails scraping at the yellow material as the rest of the body splashed around inside the wreckage.

“Close it!” Nadia yelled. “Close it!” He tried, but only succeeded in pushing the raft away from the fuselage.

“Can’t,” he answered, breathing hard. “I can’t.” As the raft slowly drifted away, he glimpsed a pale white face at the opening and one clouded eye looking at him.
“Leave it then,” she said, starting to paddle and sending the raft into a spin. “Shit! We have enough freaking crates. I think we should go now.”

Michael began paddling to counteract the spin and managed one backward glance at the troop door. He was relieved to see that the face was gone from the opening, but Nadia’s words echoed in his head: ‘…the underwater part has a bit of a hole in it.’

***

Michael, breathing hard and with a metallic taste in his mouth, looked up from the task of dragging the raft up onto the shelf of ice and saw Mundy looking down at them from the pickup.

“Well now,” he shouted, “that did look like fun.”

“Found us, huh?” Nadia called, sounding irritated. She was still rattled by the experience of the corpse in the aircraft and it had brought a brittle edge to her voice.

“Wasn’t hard. You’re making enough smoke with that fire for anyone to see.”

“You find…what you were…looking for?” Michael managed to shout back.

“I went far enough to see that the Kia is gone,” he reported, coming down to the lake shore. “Eric says we’ve got one survivor here.”

Michael nodded. “And a lot of medical supplies.” To the side, Lucas was reeling in the line with all the crates clipped to it. They floated in slowly like a nearly submerged, green plastic sea serpent. “We need to look through them until we find morphine.”

“Right,” Mundy replied. “Let’s do it before we start losing daylight.”

***

By the time they had decided to quit hunting them, they had amassed a total of forty-two crates.

“Pay dirt,” Nadia announced upon opening her fourth container. They were packaged in shrink wrapped boxes of one hundred. “Auto-injector,” she said, reading the green and orange label on one. “Morphine sulfate injection, ten milligrams. Remove cap, press against thigh, and push.”

While they had been in the raft, Lucas and Eric had cut a number of saplings with trunks straight enough to serve as a makeshift stretcher. Held together by cross pieces and a lot of duct tape, they placed their lopsided but serviceable creation on the ground beside Pelayo.

“Don’t worry,” Nadia told the semi-conscious man as she cut a hole in the leg of his uniform, “we won’t move you until this stuff starts to take effect.” The man didn’t speak, but merely sighed and shut his eyes.

“What is this?” Mundy wondered aloud from a few yards away. He was inspecting the contents of another crate when he found something other than medical supplies. “Close Area Penetration Indicator,” he said, reading the package. It held long lengths of coiled wires, fiberglass rods, a battery pack, and a small touch screen computer pad. After a moment he said, “It’s like a high tech bear alarm, like for when you’re camping in bear country. When the bear trips the wire, the alarm goes off. Except this one is touch sensitive and has a screen to show you which side of your camp is being penetrated by dead people.”

“Handy thing to have around your hospital tent,” Eric commented. Then another light dawned. “Handy thing for us to have surrounding the house.”

Mundy nodded and resealed the crate. “This plus the fencing wire we got from the Forest Service station will make us a nice little perimeter.”

“Would’ve been nice to find a crate of guns and ammunition,” Nadia groused as she re-zipped the sleeping bag around her patient.

“I bet they went to the bottom,” Eric ventured, “along with their owners.”

In the heavy silence that followed, Michael thought about the arm that had tried to grab him through the troop door of the plane. The thought was followed by the nightmare vision of forty-six battered corpses all moving in a slow motion dance toward shore through the icy cold, dark water of the lake.

“Let’s load what we can and get out of here,” Michael said grimly. The other four seemed to silently agree. “We’ll come back for the rest tomorrow.”

***

Because of the need to transport Corporal Pelayo in the truck and the lack of room in the humvee, they found they could only load fourteen crates.

“We’ll bring both trucks tomorrow,” Nadia said, busily securing Pelayo’s makeshift stretcher in the bed of the Ford. “Finish up quick and be done with this shit hole place.”

The shadows had begun to dip down from the dark pines with the approach of night and small areas of thin mist had started to form near the water. A sense of unease hung over them. Michael could see it in their haste to depart the area.

As before, the humvee led the way, slowly and gracelessly making it over every obstacle on the ruined road. The Ford was having a worse time of it. At a bend in the road where tall pines blocked the lake from view, a strap on one of the four crates in the truck bed came loose and the load suddenly shifted. Mundy and Eric, bundled up against the chill in the back of the truck, both shouted in alarm and Michael instinctively turned his head, taking his attention from the road.

He felt the dirt and rock giving way under the tires even before he could turn his head back. He frantically turned the wheel and gave the engine more gas, but it was too late. With tires spinning, the truck slipped from the road and skidded six yards down the slope, the truck gate coming to rest against the pines.

“Son of a bitch,” he heard Eric mutter above Pelayo’s cries of pain.

***

No tow chains!?” The situation had set Nadia off and her words whipped around like a hot wire.

“They’re back in the garage,” Michael admitted. “You don’t have any?”

“No, I don’t,” she said acidly. “The humvee was picked clean when we found it.”

“The ropes we have on hand aren’t strong enough to pull us out,” Michael said, stating the obvious.

“Perfect!” she spat. “Just…just perfect! Bunch of freaking geniuses!”

“Okay,” Eric said. He and Mundy had removed Pelayo from the sloping truck bed and set him down in his stretcher in the road. The injured man moaned from within his sleeping bag cocoon, despite the morphine. “Take Pelayo in the humvee and bring back the chains.”

“Where do we put him? On the roof?” Nadia sighed with exasperation. “You made the stretcher too wide. It won’t fit in the back.”

“We’ll cut it down a little...somehow…” Eric replied, sounding doubtful at his own words, “…before it gets dark.”

“And,” she continued, sounding tense and exhausted, “the humvee rides over rough terrain like it has square wheels. I’m afraid it would kill him. I was counting on the truck’s lighter suspension to get him back to the house in one piece.” They were all quiet for a moment.

“Go,” said Mundy. “Get back as soon as you can. I’ll stay here and show these guys how a real outdoorsman makes a campfire.”

“What, with gasoline?” she said with a lifted eyebrow. Mundy’s only reply was a smirk.

The humvee was already in motion when Lucas asked, “Shouldn’t one of us have gone with her?”

“My dad could only quote one passage from the Bible,” Mundy muttered, “but it was a good one: It is better to dwell in the wilderness, than with an angry woman.”

***

The humvee had barely disappeared up the road before the world turned to dusk. With a few splashes from a red plastic gas can, the damp wood they had gathered began to burn with loud hisses and pops. Still duct taped to his stretcher at the edge of the road, Pelayo seemed asleep, but with the morphine it was hard to tell. Michael felt on edge and squinted past the fire light out into the encroaching darkness. As if on cue, the coyotes started up their hysterical singing in the far distance.

“Okay, Lucas,” Mundy said, dragging up another dead branch for the fire, “it’s been bugging me, what you said last night.”

“What part?” Lucas asked, looking up from the crate he was sitting on and the task of taping a small black flashlight underneath the barrel of his rifle.

Michael expected Mundy to bring up the part that had been bothering him: The part where Lucas had repeatedly speared the reanimated corpse through the heart. That part had bothered him, too. Maybe, he thought, because it reminded him of his own first run in with a walking corpse. Maybe it was because of the clinical detachment with which Lucas Locke had told the tale.

“The part,” Mundy went on, “where you said that it was weird that Nadia should mention models. What did you mean?”

“Oh,” Lucas said, “I meant the three weeks I spent at a resort last November with fifty-two fashion models…”

In the shifting fire light, Mundy looked like he was going to break in two.

“…and some old rich guys,” Lucas finished.

“Uh-huh,” said Eric, sitting down on another crate they’d unloaded from the back of the Ford. “I have got to hear this.”

“Let’s see,” Lucas recalled, “I had just ditched a Mazda 5 with no windshield for a Toyota FJ Cruiser. It was kind of a medium blue, by the way,” he said to Mundy pointedly.

“Not jealous,” Mundy answered, hands up in truthfulness.

“The car smelled so much like marijuana smoke, I half expected a contact high. I mean, there was even a half empty bag of M&Ms in the cup holder. My theory is that whoever abandoned it with a two thirds-full tank of gas and a rifle in the back seat got themselves so high that they decided to park and take a little walk on a nice November day.”

“The models, please,” Eric reminded him. Michael hid a grin as he noticed Eric’s furtive glance around the lakeside, as if to make sure that his wife was not somehow present.

“A couple hours later I was swerving in and around wrecked cars and making very little headway when I glanced up the highway and saw a girl on top of a truck waving a red scarf at me. I stopped which, I admit, was just about the dumbest thing to do. I stopped because…because of the way she looked.”

“How’d she look?” Eric urged. “C’mon.”

“She was…all put together. It was almost surreal. I mean, she was not frayed. She was not disheveled. She was wearing a blue-gray pea coat that fit her like an hourglass and skinny blue jeans. The colors of her clothes were bright, the kind of brightness that disappears after you’ve been on the road for a week or two. All that plus her hair made her look like something straight out of a J. Crew catalog. Except, of course, for the thirty dead bodies trying to climb up the sides of the Brinks armored truck she was on.”

“And,” Mundy said with an exaggerated nod and a chafed tone of voice, “you saved her.”

“I’d stopped,” Lucas replied in the way of an explanation. “I’d made eye contact. The mistake had been made. So I checked the rifle, honked the horn to get the zeroes moving away from the armored car, and drove right over top of as many as I could, fast enough so that they couldn’t climb up on the hood or grab hold of the back but slow enough so that the front of the Toyota wasn’t smashed to bits. After about six passes, there were only five left standing, which was good because the Ruger rifle I found in the car only holds five at a time, plus one in the chamber. They were the first ones I shot. I’d clubbed a few, ran over a few, speared a few through the eye, but I’ll never forget the way the back of their heads exploded when those .357 magnums went zipping through. Like little clouds of red mist puffing out – “

“The models, please,” Eric said again.

“Okay. Most of the zeroes I had run over were broken but not KT’d. They were crawling toward me, reaching out for my ankle while the girl climbed down from the armored truck and ran straight to the Toyota’s passenger side door. She even ran pretty, like a deer.”

“Wait,” Michael said, “’KT’d’’?”

“Oh,” said Lucas. “Killed twice. I picked it up later in the story.”

“I like it,” Eric said impatiently. “Please, continue.”

“She said her name was Kaylee and that Rick was in the armored truck, either dead or dying. I started to ask how we were going to get him out and she told me that he’d been bitten on the back of the head while trying to fix the engine. She said he’d practically kidnapped her anyway and she was not interested in anything but getting back to Persephone Springs. She said her friends were there and that it wasn’t far and that it was safe and that if I would take her back there Barry would thank me and would probably even let me stay. I told her I would, but she just kept talking about how great the place was, how there was plenty of food and security and a great gym and movies every other night and how they dressed up for dinner.”

“Crap,” Mundy interjected, “what are you doing here?” Then turning his head toward Michael, he added, “Not that your place isn’t cozy.”

“It was two and a half hours away,” Lucas continued, “during which Kaylee told me about how Rick had convinced her that she wasn’t safe and that they had to get away while they still could. The fact that she had only lasted a few hours on the road before getting herself cornered by zeroes told me somebody had been keeping her safe and sound, not to mention clueless, since the beginning of the Fall. She was…well, you know that kind of girl.”

“Sure,” Mundy said without any attempt at sincerity. “Sure I do.”

“Her kind of pretty was like the air in that Toyota when I found it: you breathe it in long enough and you start feeling a contact high.”

“What about the other fifty-one models?” asked Eric.

“The place was pretty far up in the foothills. Fortunately, there hadn’t been much in the way of snow yet. Persephone Springs Resort and Spa; hidden from every direction except above. In fact, when, we got close we came across four private jets parked in a field beside a long, flat stretch of road. Kaylee said she was a little disappointed that she had arrived by car and not in one of the planes or the helicopter.

“Then I discovered what she meant about security. One second I was looking at one paramilitary-looking guy at the gatehouse and the next second, four more had appeared out of the trees with their AR carbines locked on my head. A few seconds later, they had me out on the ground and were stripping me down to my skin looking for bite wounds and checking me for Gwailo Fever. I heard Kaylee say, “Be nice to him, okay? He saved my life.” Then as they drove her away in a golf cart she yelled back to me, “Don’t worry, Lucas. I’ll see you at dinner.”

“So,” Michael said, “how was dinner?”

“Sumptuous,” he replied. “Prepared food. Cooked, not just dumped from a can and heated up. And the girls were…well, they were all like Kaylee. But before that I was introduced to Mr. Barry Fields, the man in charge.

“Everything about him screamed money, lots of money, and the smarts to have turned that money into real, valuable things before the Fall turned money into so much green toilet paper. He thanked me for saving Kaylee and bringing her back. He told me how dear she was to everyone there. He was smooth and not overtly pig-like at all, but underneath, it seemed like he was thanking me for finding and returning his lost dog. He asked me for my story and then he started greasing me up, telling me how clever and resourceful I must be to have survived for so long. He talked about how he was an old man and how he wouldn’t last five minutes ‘out there.’ That, he said, was why he valued young men like me so much. And that, he said, was why he wanted me to consider staying there and helping to keep the place safe and secure.

“It was total bovine excrement, of course. He couldn’t let me leave knowing what they had there. So he was really saying I could stay and work for him – under close supervision – or I could be quietly killed and Kaylee and her friends would be told I’d chosen to leave.

“So I told him I’d be a fool not to take him up on his generous offer and he gave me back the Ruger rifle I’d found in the Toyota. Then he opened a drawer in his desk and pulled this out and gave it to me.” Lucas drew the revolver at his hip and held it up in the fire light. “He said it was always good to have a sidearm that took the same ammo as your rifle.”

“That’s a twelve hundred dollar gun,” Mundy stated flatly.

Lucas re-holstered the Smith and Wesson Model 327 TRR8. “I’ll say it again, he was smooth.”

“I’m still waiting to hear why you left,” Mundy said.

“I’m still waiting to hear about the other fifty-one models,” mumbled Eric.

“They were wonders of human breeding:” Lucas said to satisfy Eric’s interest, “healthy, unblemished, and perfectly symmetrical to the last. They were like a fresh spring breeze through an open window. Looking at them smile made you glad you were alive and heterosexual. And though they weren’t branded like cattle, they belonged all the same to Mr. Barry Fields and the nine other rich old men who sat in that ballroom and ate Chicken Marsala that night. That dinner was the last time I was allowed anywhere close to them, except for Kaylee, and that wasn’t until the day before I left. After dessert, Mr. Barry Fields introduced me to Jeremiah Stover, head of a twenty-five man detachment hired from the private security firm Grimsley-Pride Operations. ‘Mr. Stover will show you around,’ Fields said, and that was the last time I was ever in his presence.

“The first thing Stover said to me was, ‘The world’s gone tits up, Mr. Locke. I don’t know how much time any of us here have, but I am interested in maximizing whatever time is left. We can always use another survivor with a good set of eyes to watch the perimeter, but in the interest of maintaining a smooth running operation, I’m going to make you an offer that Mr. Fields need not know about.’ He said, if at any point I found that I wasn’t interested in staying there, he would outfit me with provisions, a vehicle, and ammunition for my weapons. He said he would escort me away from the compound and, with the understanding that I wasn’t to divulge the existence of Persephone Springs to anyone I might encounter, he would expect to never see me again. He said, ‘Is that clear?’ I told him it was clear. ‘Then,’ he said, ‘I will show you to your room so you can sleep off that fine dinner. Tomorrow,’ he said, I could start proving myself useful.

“It was another bucket of male bovine excreta, of course,” said Lucas. “Stover might escort me away from the compound, but I’d be dead as soon as we got to where the sound of the gunshot wouldn’t disturb Mr. Fields’ spa treatment. So I got up the next morning at five a.m., ate oatmeal and powdered eggs and stood sentry for six hours at some totally non-critical spot on the golf course, right where they could keep an eye on me. In the afternoon I ate a peanut butter sandwich and then unloaded cases of food from one of thirty-eight semi trailers with the names of grocery stores on the sides. I was told, with the freezing weather coming, they couldn’t leave it in the trucks any longer. They had entire conference rooms packed floor to ceiling with boxes of food. In the evening I ate some sort of canned meat, some green beans, and some fruit cocktail and then ran a machine that split little pieces of firewood into even smaller pieces of firewood. I did that kind of stuff for two weeks. The only thing that changed was that they started having me walk a little dirt road toward the back of the property for sentry duty.”

“Your story has developed a distinct and troubling lack of fashion model content,” Eric said, “and I find myself growing bored.”

“Thirty-eight semi trailers full of food?” Michael mumbled to himself.

“I know about a billion people,” Mundy put in, “ – if there are that many left – who would kill for a sweet setup like the one you’re describing.”

“It was only sweet on the surface. The beginning of the third week seemed to mark a change. I’d proven myself, I guess. I’d done what I was told to do, I hadn’t complained about it, and I hadn’t made anyone’s life any harder. That’s when the rest of them let down their guard a bit and started talking with me in the room.

“It wasn’t hard to read the collective mind of the Grimsley-Pride Ops guys; they hated the old men up at the resort hotel.

"‘I don’t blame them,’ one guy said. ‘If I owned a modeling agency, I would have collected up my girls and hid them away for the duration, too.’ They would joke about how soon they were going to have to make run into the nearest city for a fresh truckload of Viagra. But it was clear that the idea of wasting all those young women on those old men disgusted them. After our Thanksgiving canned ham dinner, Stover produced two bottles of whiskey; just enough to loosen up a few tongues. ‘You just wait it out, new kid,’ one big square-headed guy said to me. ‘Walk the perimeter, KT a zero or two – if any ever show up – eat your Spam, and be patient. Our time will come.’ Then, on cue, like they did it regularly, they all joined in singing ‘Two girls for every boy’ in a really bad Beach Boys falsetto.

"Stover cut through the laughter and said, ‘Let’s not give our young noob here the wrong impression. We’re very glad to be working for Mr. Fields and his friends. If not for all of their money, we’d probably be caught out in the open in this shit storm without an umbrella. But if the world situation shows no sign of improving, the time may come when changes have to be implemented in order to maximize our odds of survival.’ Then the big, square-headed guy said something about not be able to survive without that Vondra chick and maybe one other.”

“So you lit out before the revolution began,” Mundy said.

“I couldn’t imagine it going well,” Lucas replied. “How many armed uprisings ever do? I had to get out fast and clean. Walking out through the front gate was out of the question. That left the forest at the rear of the place. But there were sentries posted at the points where I would have had to go to descend the slope. I could have climbed down into the ravine that ran downhill for a good two or three miles but it would have been slow going and I was sure they’d catch up with me before too long. Then it occurred to me that Rick had taken Kaylee out somehow. I just had to ask her how.”

“What?” Eric gasped in mock horror. “A lowly servant boy talk to one of the princesses?”

“I know, right? But the ladies did emerge from the spa every once in a while to stroll about the grounds. When I caught Kaylee’s attention and motioned her into the trees, she had this little smile on her face, like a pretty prairie flower dealing with just another smitten suitor. I told her what I’d heard, that bad things were going to happen sooner or later and that maybe Rick had been right to try to get her away.

“She said she knew. She said ‘I’m not stupid. I know. The Ops guys are going to try to take over one of these days. Maybe they’ll succeed, maybe they won’t.’ Then she said, ‘Barry’s not stupid, either, you know. He might have a surprise or two for them.’ Then – I remember her exact words – she said, ‘One thing I do know, guy-who-saved-my-life: you shouldn’t be here when it happens.’ And she told me how Rick had sneaked her out through the front gate while pretending to go on a salvaging run in the Brinks truck. But she said he’d had a plan B. After she explained it to me, I felt obligated to ask her about coming along but she said she was staying.

“She said ‘It’s fucking bad out there,’ and she didn’t look quite so young and pretty when she said it. She said she was going to stay and play it smart. She said whoever winds up in charge there, she’d rather stay than become lunch for a bunch of dead guys. Then she gave me this.” Lucas pulled the black, oddly shaped, Chiappa Rhino with its two inch barrel out of a holster at the small of his back. “She said Rick had given it to her when he’d been bitten and she didn’t want it, that it wasn’t her style.”

“Holy crap, kid, you are armed to the teeth!” Eric laughed. “All in, what, .357 magnum?”

“Or .38 Special,” said Lucas, “though I’ve never found any of those.” He re-holstered the snub-nosed revolver. “The rifle’s good. The blast from the revolvers is a little harsh. But the spear is best, when there’s only one or two of them.

“Anyway, the last thing Kaylee said before heading back to the main building was ‘Before you go, do yourself a favor and undo the handle thingy on the gun Barry gave you.’ That night I removed the grips from the Smith and Wesson and, sure enough, wrapped around the mainspring was this flexible black package a little smaller than a credit card: a GPS tracking device, I guess.”

“Huh,” Michael commented softly, “very James Bond. You did say Barry was a smooth one.”

“The next morning at five a.m. I ate my oatmeal and powdered eggs and went straight out to my sentry position on the dirt road. Once I got there I stuck the tracking device into the bark of a tree and went about two hundred yards through the forest to the zip line platform Kaylee had told me about. I wasn’t sure if anyone had used it since the Fall, but I hoped that since it was built to give big, fat resort guests a nice, safe thrill ride, it would be okay for me. I couldn’t take along anything extra, just my guns and my daypack, but I zipped across the quarter mile-wide ravine at the back of the compound in no time. Once I got to the other side, I cut the trolley return line. I guessed I had at least a five hour head start on anyone who might come after me. Where the hills started to level out, I found a rusty mountain bike in the yard of a burnt out house and made it to a fenced in equipment rental yard before it got dark. The weather turned bad that night with sleet and snow covering up my tracks, if they even bothered to track me, that is. The truck I slept in smelled like skunk.”

When Lucas had finished they were quiet for a few seconds.

“The end of the world,” Mundy grumbled. “The end of the world and you fall ass first into a harem of beautiful young models.”

“I don’t like the way your story ended,” Eric said with downcast eyes and a sad shake of his head. “A story involving fifty-two beautiful young women should have a happy ending.”

“Yeah,” Mundy snorted, “fifty-two happy endings.”
"...the Dog returns to his Vomit and the Sow returns to her Mire,
And the burnt Fool's bandaged finger goes wabbling back to the Fire..."

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Re: The Dead at Destitute Mountain

Post by Tinderbox » Mon May 27, 2013 12:19 am

Soon the only sound came from the hiss and crack of the fire and the subdued exchange between Eric and Mundy as they discussed future scavenging strategies in low voices. Lucas, his black leather jacket zipped up to his neck, seemed transfixed by the flames and Pelayo, except for uttering a barely discernable moan from time to time, seemed asleep. Michael, his face hot from the fire and his back cold from the night air, was listening intently for the sound of the humvee descending the lake road and Nadia’s return.

“Okay,” Lucas suddenly said, breaking his own trance, “what is that sound?” Mundy and Eric fell silent and, as if on cue, the noise came again; a creaking, cracking noise accompanied by sloshing water.

“I…think it’s just…the lake ice breaking up,” Mundy said, but his tone made it sound almost like a question. “But if it will make you feel better… Michael, can I borrow your flashlight?”

“I’m feeling a little cooked,” Michael said, rubbing his face. “I’ll come with you.”

Walking quietly over the rough road, it didn’t take long for them to reach the gravel of the lakeside. The weak light from a waxing crescent moon was lighting up the mist over the water; just the suggestion of light, not enough to really see by. Michael swept the area with the flashlight, the beam spearing through the mist, showing nothing. Then the noise came again, this time right in front of them. By the light of the flashlight, they watched the white shelf of ice at the water’s edge lift up a few inches, then fall back, slapping the cold, black water.

“What the hell…” breathed Mundy. The ice heaved again and split in two as it rose, revealing the ash white face of a corpse. Water poured from the dead man’s uniform as it rose to its full height in the shallows and immediately fixed its gaze upon the source of the light. Its mouth opened and icy water gargled out. Mundy drew one of his revolvers just as another nearby portion of ice began to lift.

“Let’s go,” Michael said in a hushed voice. To their left came the sound of gravel crunching under heavy, lumbering footfalls. When the light fell upon them, Michael counted six pale phantoms moving toward them. Their wet uniforms blended into the dark and only their ashen faces and hands stood out, moving through the mist with an unnatural swaying rhythm.

“Turn off the light,” Mundy whispered. “We need to get back.”

Michael switched off the flashlight and stumbled along as quietly as he could, following the sound of Mundy’s boots on the river road. Behind them came the sound of more breaking ice and splashing water. When they got within sight of the camp fire, they both broke into a run.

“Put the fire out,” Mundy ordered. “Put it out!” Lucas and Eric didn’t stop to question and immediately began dropping handfuls of damp earth on the flames until the light died and the smell of smoke and wet ashes filled the cold air. A moment later, Michael’s eyes began adjusting again to the faint light of the moon.

“What?” came Pelayo’s voice from the makeshift stretcher. “What is it?”

Of all the times for the man to come out of his morphine haze, Michael thought…

“They’re coming,” Mundy said in a harsh whisper. “They’re coming out of the water.”

“Shit!” Pelayo said, his voice too loud. “Get me out…ahhhh…” Still too injured to move, Pelayo’s cries of pain cut through the night.

“Shhh!” Mundy ordered. “Not another sound. It’s dark.” Without the light from the fire, the strength of the moonlight seemed to have increased tenfold. “It’s dark and there are a million ways for them to go. If we stay still and quiet, they might go right by us.”

Mundy knelt on the sand and river rocks, watching down the road. Eric and Michael retreated down the slope a few feet to where Lucas stood with his short spear in his hands. For the first time it occurred to Michael to unzip his coat and pull his own weapon. When he did, it was no comfort to him: the sound of a gunshot would bring them – maybe all forty-six of them.

They stood still and silent for minutes before the sound of footsteps scuffing up the road was heard.

“Get me outta the road,” Pelayo hissed.

“Quiet,” said Mundy, his voice barely audible.

“C’mon, get me outta the road! C’mon! They’re coming! Move me! I can’t do it myself!” It was Michael and Eric, desperate to silence the man, who made the move. Eric hastily placed the double barreled shotgun on the sloping ground and crawled toward the man in his stretcher. Michael tucked his revolver away again and followed as the panicked Pelayo continued to make too much noise. “C’mon, man, get me out of the open!”

Eric had grabbed hold of one end of the roughly made stretcher and Michael was preparing to take the other end when the first corpse appeared in the moonlit mist, moving with stiff-legged, labored steps. Lucas moved fast and with little noise. In the space of five seconds he had left his place beside the road, glided up to the shuffling figure until only a few feet separated them and plunged the metal spike through the dead man’s eye socket, withdrawing it again almost immediately. He did it without hesitation, before the corpse could react and raise its arms to potentially block the thrust of the spear. There was a brief glottal clicking noise from its throat before it fell, making a dull, hollow sound as it struck the road. Lucas retreated to his former position, breathing hard. How many times before, Michael wondered, had the nineteen year-old done the same thing?

Before he and Eric could resume lifting the injured man, three more of the dead appeared.

“Move me, man! Move me!” Pelayo wasn’t whispering anymore, he was shouting. In answer to the sound, the approaching corpses expelled the lake water from their lungs with synchronized guttural belches and closed in.

“No shooting!” Mundy said in a low voice. “Not yet.” He moved forward, the green steel fencing post in his hand. Lucas moved forward with him. Mundy used the fencing post like a baseball bat, striking the reanimated dead in the face with quick, repeated, ferocious blows until they stumbled and fell. Then he stabbed one end of the post at their eyes, not killing but blinding them, making them something less of an immediate threat. When Lucas had pierced the brain of another of the approaching dead, he went back and finished off the one that Mundy had blinded. Finally, they doubled up on the third one, Mundy holding the body to the ground with the post while Lucas positioned his spear point for the killing thrust.

KT’d, thought Michael: killed twice.

Mundy knelt in the road and gasped for breath while Lucas leaned on his spear. Still grasping one end of the stretcher, Eric stepped backward and lost his footing on the rounded stones at the edge of the road. He fell hard, dropping the stretcher and sliding down the slope on his stomach. Pelayo cried out in pain, cursing in either English or Spanish; the words were so slurred, Michael couldn’t tell. In response, more guttural sounds erupted from the moonlit mist.

Two, five, ten, then fourteen: they came out of the night from the road and from the bank above it. They moved out of the mist at a fast shuffle and were on them in only a few seconds.

“Okay,” Mundy wheezed, retreating from the road toward the truck, the revolver in his hand glinting in the moonlight, “so much for not being noticed. If you got ‘em, use ‘em.”

Lucas had already climbed into the tilted bed of the truck, his short spear put aside in favor of his rifle. He poked a finger at the little flashlight he had taped under the barrel but nothing happened. “Batteries,” Michael heard him mutter. “Anyone have any spare batteries?” But he was aiming his rifle as he said it and a moment later his first shot cracked through the night. He worked the bolt and shot again. He had to shoot a third time before the first dead body fell.

“Somebody please shine a flashlight on them,” Lucas said in a louder-than-normal but otherwise calm voice.

More and more corpses toppled over the bank above the road, thudding to the ground and rolling to a stop in a shower of loose stones before lifting themselves and continuing their advance. The hammer on Mundy’s revolver clicked back, followed by the solid POW! of his first shot. A corpse reeled backward from the impact of the .45 caliber slug, but didn’t fall. The muzzle flash revealed the nearest of them and left Michael with the afterimage: eyes vacant and wide, mouths gaping, arms reaching. They hadn’t been dead long. Except for their pallor, they might have been mistaken for the living.

“I can’t see to aim,” Mundy said, speaking through gritted teeth. “We really could use that flashlight.”

Beside him, Pelayo was screaming in Spanish. The only word Michael could catch was muerto. He grabbed one end of the stretcher and began to move the injured man off the road. But just as he began to pull, Eric rose up from where he had fallen, the coach gun in hand. Michael had one shadowy glimpse of both cavernous black muzzles swinging right past his eyes before Eric, his face wide-eyed and streaked with blood from his fall, pulled the trigger. The load of twelve gauge 00 buckshot missed Michael’s head by less than a foot. The flash and concussion put him face down in the road, stunned and half deafened.

More shots. More screaming. Michael breathed in the dirt from the edge of the road, his brain in neutral.

Finally, after what seemed like a very long time, he turned his head to the side, a warbling, whistling sound in his ears. Eric’s shots seemed to have taken the legs out from under two of the corpses, but they were now busily crawling toward him. He watched them come, his mind floating in midair like the moonlight, as though he was watching it happen on TV.

“Move me!” screamed Pelayo. “Cut me loose! I don’t wanna be eaten!”

Michael rolled into a sitting position and, for a few remaining seconds of stunned detachment, watched Eric playing a game of tug of war with the two dead men he’d crippled with the coach gun. They were pulling one way on the stretcher and Eric was pulling the other way. In between was Pelayo, securely duct taped in the sleeping bag so as not to aggravate his injuries.

“Don’t let them get me!” he screamed hoarsely. “Don’t you let them!” Staring wild-eyed as the empty faces of his attackers got closer, he began to recognize them. “Oh God. Ayers! Rossi!” His screams pitched higher. “Don’t let them get me!”

Something told Michael to draw his .22 revolver. There were so many gunshots, he thought through the white noise in his head, a few more will be okay. He aimed at the two corpses pulling at the stretcher. He shot one through the eye and the other through the temple. Both of them slumped face down in the dirt and stopped moving.

That must be how it’s done, he thought. Don’t think about it. Just do it. Think about it later, or never. But just act, as though the gun in your hand is a million miles away, as though it belongs to someone else, someone who isn’t horrified.

“If you want me to hit anything,” Lucas said, his voice loud but still eerily calm, “then somebody better find that flashlight.” With no time to reload his rifle, he was firing his twelve hundred dollar revolver. The muzzle flash was blinding and the thump of the eight .357 magnum shells was like a hammer to Michael’s skull. Likewise, the fire and spark from Mundy’s cowboy gun lit the rocky slope. After making his sixth shot, Mundy took the empty gun in his left hand and drew the other revolver from the cross draw holster with his right.

Michael slid down the slope toward the Ford. With the truck resting at an angle, it was difficult getting the passenger side door open but when he did, he fell into the passenger seat and let gravity slam the door shut behind him. Once inside, he thought about the need for light and turned the key in the ignition. He tumbled into the driver seat and turned on the headlights. To his surprise, he even thought to put the Ford in reverse gear, lighting up the area behind the truck as well. His work done, he turned to watch the scene through the passenger side window. The light from the front and back of the truck wasn’t much, but it was enough to make the dead more than just shadowy forms. Mundy’s shots were now finding their targets. Eric had managed to reload the shotgun and, his back against the truck, he fired again. His first shot removed the top of a dead man’s skull as it slipped down the slope. His second shot blasted a hole in the chest of another and knocked it backward.

“They’re behind us, too,” Lucas called, his voice quieter now that he could see the attackers. Michael turned to look out the rear window and, sure enough, three corpses were there on the lake side, squeezing through the bushes and trees, reaching out with clawed fingers. In the glow of the tail lights, he saw Lucas aim the stubby Chiappa Rhino and fire three carefully aimed shots.

“Michael,” Mundy called, banging hard on the roof of the truck, “we need your twenty-two out here.”

Michael complied. Just act, he reminded himself, as though the gun in your hand is a million miles away, as though it belongs to someone else. He opened the driver side door and slipped out, his revolver in hand.

It was too quiet; both Mundy and Lucas were reloading at the same time. Eric swore and dug frantically through the pockets of his coat for more twelve gauge shells. There was also something else missing, another component of the quiet that Michael couldn’t quite put his finger on.

As calmly as he could, Michael met the corpses as they approached and aimed for their eyes. Some came at him with steady steps; they were relatively easy to hit. Others came lurching from broken legs or spinal injuries. It was harder to find his aiming point with them. He fired seven shots and put three reanimated corpses out of their misery. One was the corpse of a tall man that looked down at him with a tormented face. The second had been a woman, her black hair a wet tangled mop over her eyes. The third had been a fragile looking youth, his face drained of life, his teeth bared.

He opened the break top revolver and dumped the spent shells and the light around him seemed to suddenly flare. The dead bodies moving toward them were illuminated from a strange angle by a new source of light. A second later, Michael recognized the sound of the humvee returning. It pulled up quick and braked rapidly. Nadia honked the weak sounding horn, drawing the attention of a few of the corpses. By then, Mundy and Lucas were both back in the fight and, with light coming from both vehicles, they could now easily see their targets.

Up the road, Nadia’s carbine snapped three times and the three dead men silhouetted in her headlights dropped to the ground.

After that, there was more quiet than noise. Mundy left the truck bed and met the remaining corpses in the road, firing into their heads from a few feet away and sending them flying forcefully backward.

Michael, feeling faintly dizzy and nauseous, suddenly realized what was missing, why the quiet was so ominous: Pelayo’s screaming had stopped.

“Oh,” Mundy said with mild interest, reaching down to a spot beside where the fire had been, “here’s the flashlight.”

***

They were exhausted and sickened by the smell of so much death. Only two dead stragglers had staggered out of the misty night since Nadia’s arrival. They were put down using Lucas’ spear.

They found the stretcher still on the road, a KT’d corpse lying across the dirty green sleeping bag. Pelayo had been shot, not bitten. No one knew whose bullet had entered at the base of the man’s neck and crossed through his chest cavity, only that the small amount of blood meant he must have died immediately.
Nadia knelt in the dirt beside the man’s body. “Michael,” she said, her voice soft and steady, “I need to use your twenty-two.”

He handed it to her, saying, “He wasn’t infected. He died from a bullet.”

“We can’t wait around to be sure,” she answered in a dry, lifeless voice. “He’s dead. He won’t mind if we just make sure.”

Even though he was ready for it, the pop of the round being fired into the dead man’s skull made Michael jump.

The decision was made to cram everyone into the humvee and to leave the area.

“Whatever we need to do here,” Mundy said, gulping from a water bottle, “we’ll do it tomorrow.” As they collected their things, Michael watched as Mundy slowly walked up to Lucas and jabbed a finger at his chest. “You,” he said quietly to the blank look on the young man’s face, “are a warrior of the wasteland.” Then without further praise, he turned and walked to the humvee.

***

A black mood hung over them on the way back to Goodnight House. Eric sat behind Nadia, his head bowed. Lucas was fitted between the two back seats, nearly folded in half, staring at his hands with a slack expression. In the front passenger seat, Mundy quietly recounted to Nadia what had happened, tactfully leaving out Pelayo’s return to consciousness and his terrified screams. Eventually he came to the part where Michael had entered the truck.

“Fortunately,” he said to her, “Michael thought of hitting the truck’s headlights. After that, we could finally see where to aim.”

Michael almost spoke up to tell them that what had really motivated him to get in the truck wasn’t a plan to turn on the lights, it was his desire to find a place to hide.
"...the Dog returns to his Vomit and the Sow returns to her Mire,
And the burnt Fool's bandaged finger goes wabbling back to the Fire..."

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URBAN ASSAULT
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Re: The Dead at Destitute Mountain

Post by URBAN ASSAULT » Mon May 27, 2013 12:36 am

Thanks for the posts, it is appreciated.

-urban
"When under imminent Predator attack, try to act all Thalidomide-y till they go away".-me
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Re: The Dead at Destitute Mountain

Post by dustycanuck » Mon May 27, 2013 10:07 am

Zombie coming ashore to spawn - yeech!

Keep 'em coming, and thanks!
"Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not ... Genius will not ... Education will not ... Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent."
Calvin Coolidge

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Re: The Dead at Destitute Mountain

Post by jeepinbandtrider » Mon May 27, 2013 10:39 pm

Awesome. I jsut sat here and read the whole thing up to this point. Kept me glued to the screen.
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Re: The Dead at Destitute Mountain

Post by Nancy1340 » Mon May 27, 2013 11:18 pm

Thank you. It's a very good story.

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Re: The Dead at Destitute Mountain

Post by WendyPlains » Tue May 28, 2013 4:54 am

Oh my, looks like our hero Michael is not such a "hero" after all, lol! Great story, I'm really looking forward to more. Thanks for this.

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Re: The Dead at Destitute Mountain

Post by Tinderbox » Tue May 28, 2013 10:02 pm

Thanks to all for sticking with the story. We're about 1/2 of the way through what I already have written. Your kind comments have encouraged me to try and figure out the ending.

But endings are HAAAAARRRRD! :gonk:
"...the Dog returns to his Vomit and the Sow returns to her Mire,
And the burnt Fool's bandaged finger goes wabbling back to the Fire..."

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Re: The Dead at Destitute Mountain

Post by Sheriff McClelland » Tue May 28, 2013 10:34 pm

We're stickin' with ya brother :wink:
"Yeah, they're dead. They're all messed up. "

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Re: The Dead at Destitute Mountain

Post by Tinderbox » Tue May 28, 2013 10:56 pm

The moon had set behind the mountains and the darkness in the bedroom off the kitchen was nearly absolute. Michael woke from a shallow sleep filled with nightmares to the same sound as the night before, the opening of the bedroom door. Half in and half out of a dream filled with dead people vomiting up lake water, his first instinct was to get his hand around the revolver he’d positioned on the nightstand. Instead, his fingers found the LED flashlight and he clicked it on to see Katrina closing the bedroom door behind her, wearing her blankets like a bulky hooded robe. She squinted, staring directly into the sudden light and shuffled into the room, her blankets trailing behind her.

“Kat,” he said in a sharp whisper, redirecting the flashlight to the ceiling, “we switched rooms. Go back upstairs.” But the girl simply looked at him with a kind of sleepy, irked expression around her eyes and began to make a bed for herself on the floor with the blankets. “Kat, did you hear me? Go on.” She ignored him. He got out of bed, feeling every sore muscle and aching joint in his body. “Hey,” he said, taking hold of her upper arm, “listen to me, you’ve got to go back upstairs and – ” She snapped her face up at him and fixed him with a fierce look that stopped him cold. The expression she wore teetered on the edge of both anger and tears. Michael let go of her arm and she returned to her nest on the floor, burying her head beneath the blankets. At a loss as to what to do, he settled for opening the bedroom door as wide as it would go and went back to his bed muttering, “Just for tonight, Kat. I’m too tired to argue about it.”


***********************


Michael!” Hitomi stood in the open doorway of the bedroom with her arms crossed.

“It’s not my doing,” he replied sleepily to her disapproving tone. “I tried to get her to go back upstairs and all she did was give me the stink eye.”

“What did she give you?” asked Mundy, moving into the doorway behind Hitomi, a cup of coffee at his mouth.

“Who gave what to who?” Nadia asked from behind Mundy.

“Would everyone please leave the room?” Michael said, pulling his blankets up over his face.

“Come on everyone,” Mundy said playfully. “Michael wants to be alone with Katrina.” In response, Nadia gave him a soft backhanded slap to his head and pulled him back to the kitchen.

“Come on, Katrina,” Hitomi said. “Breakfast.”

When the door closed and he was finally alone, he pulled the covers off his head, lay still and stared at the ceiling. He didn’t want to get up. He knew getting up would mean interacting with the others and having to wear his normal face like a mask over top of how he really felt. In reality, he wanted to lock the door and hide from everyone. He didn’t want to have to pretend that all would be well, that the pain would end. That, he realized, was why he had fled to the mountain house in the first place, to hide from reality. But reality had mutated into something much more horrible and had found him anyway.

***

He took a seat at the breakfast table beside Mundy who was blowing on a spoonful of oatmeal. Mundy looked at him out of the corner of his eye and fought to suppress a smile.

“She just came in and slept on the floor,” Michael said in a low voice. “I don’t know why. And I sure as hell didn’t try anything. I wouldn’t try anything.”

“I know,” Mundy replied, the smile growing. “If a teenage girl who looked like Kat tiptoed into my room in the middle of the night, I might try something, but I know you wouldn’t. That’s why I’m smiling.”

Michael stared at the man for a few seconds trying to figure out what he meant. Finally, he gave up and turned to Nadia.

“We’re going back to the lake again?” It came out sounding like a question, though he hadn’t meant it to be one. Of course, they had to go back. There were forty-two crates of medical supplies still waiting to be loaded and brought to the house. But to his confusion, she only glanced at him quickly and shrugged, as though she had noticed something he hadn’t. From the end of the table, Eric’s fork dropped loudly to his plate and in the ensuing silence, Michael looked at him.

“What are we even doing here?” Eric asked in an emotional voice. “This is not a long-term survival strategy.” He looked like he hadn’t slept well, or at all. His eyes were red-rimmed and moist. “We’ve got, what, two weeks of food left? Even if we found more today, that food would eventually run out, too.” He heaved a quavering sigh. “We need a sustainable food source. We need a place to farm. We need chickens, at least; other livestock would be good. We need to start thinking long-term.”

“Unless you know of a nice, fertile forty acres with a nice twelve-foot fence all around it,” Nadia countered evenly, “then we need to deal with short-term survival a little while longer while we plan for the long-term. Today, that means going back to the lake and getting the rest of those medical supplies. Once we have them, we might even be able to find someone to do business with and trade them for food.”

“Trade them with who?” Eric’s voice shook. “The bad guys emptied all the food warehouses and they’re not businessmen. They don’t trade. They just kill.”

“Lucas,” Michael intervened, “how far away is that place where you spent Thanksgiving?”

“What, Persephone Springs?” Lucas answered from across the table. He was still wearing all black, still wearing the Limberjack t-shirt. “Now that the roads aren’t a foot deep in snow, about a day, I suppose. That’s barring any car trouble, like I had. And if you don’t try making the last hundred miles by the mountain roads, like I did. And if you don’t get trapped inside the Haggard City Chamber of Commerce building for a month by a whole rescue shelter full of dead little kids, like I did.”

“And how many trailers full of food did you say they had there?”

“Thirty-eight when I was there five months ago, all being unloaded into every spare room and hallway in one wing of the resort. The Grimsley-Pride guys told me they hijacked them from all over the state just as things started falling apart. There were a total of one hundred and eighty people, so I suppose there might be…um…a lot left.”

“A whole wing of a resort filled with food,” Michael said. “What do you think? Is this Mr. Fields a businessman? Would he be interested in trading some of that food for medical supplies?”

“It’s possible, maybe. If he’s still calling the shots there. And only if you’re smart about it, if you make it so they can’t just kill you and take them.”

“That is the idea,” Michael said. “But first, like Nadia said, we have to get the rest of those supplies.”

“Plus, they had chickens there, too,” Lucas said, directing his words to Eric. “And at least a few cows.”

“You said you ate powdered eggs,” Mundy pointed out.

“We did,” Lucas replied. “The fresh ones were for Mr. Fields and his friends.”

“And his fashion models,” Mundy made a point of adding.

“Fashion models?” Nadia said, looking from face to face. “What fashion models?”

“I’ll tell you all about it,” Mundy said to her, keeping the smile from his mouth, but not from his eyes.

***

In the end, Eric opted out of returning to the lake. With muttered explanations and nervous, darting eyes, he chose instead to stay at the house and begin cutting and driving the wooden stakes needed to set up the Close Area Penetration Indicator they had found in one of the crates. Michael noticed Hitomi keeping a watchful eye on her husband, but also noted how enthusiastic she was at the prospect of having an alarm-sounding wire fence surrounding the house.

“Do animals eat them?” Lucas asked out of the blue on the trip back to the lake. “I mean, with all those KT’d zeroes, are we going to have to deal with coyotes or wolves or bears when we get there?”

“I’ve seen plenty of feral dogs since the Fall,” Nadia said as she stared out the side window, “and I’ve never seen one feeding on a zero.”

“I think it’s that smell they give off,” Mundy guessed. “That faint chemical smell.”

They were all together in the Forest Service truck which Mundy had declared fit for use after checking it over and replacing fluids, filters and whatever else could be spared from their small stock of automotive supplies. Nadia figured it would be able to get Michael’s Ford back on the road as well as haul the most crates. There had been some discussion about hooking Michael’s trailer to the humvee and bringing it along but Nadia thought the trailer might be more trouble on the rough lake road than it would be worth.

When they arrived, the sun was trying hard to break through the overcast sky and the breeze was casting ripples around the wreckage of the plane and across the lake. Mundy noted the direction of the wind.

“Any crates we might have missed will be on the other side of the lake by now.”

“Let’s just get what we already have and get out of here,” Nadia insisted.

They positioned the Forest Service truck where it was needed to pull the Ford back on the road, but before beginning the task, they fanned out to search the area for walking corpses. Though none were found, they each made a count of those KT’d and after a few recounts were made, they all agreed on the final tally: 39 KT’d zeroes.

Michael noted Lucas’ interest in studying the corpses. He knelt beside them and, using a twig or some other handy disposable item, probed their gory wounds with a fully engrossed look on his face.

“Something interesting?” Michael asked him.

“You mean apart from the fact that they were alive, then died, then reanimated?” The body on the ground in front of him was of a large man, his BDUs still wet, his left ear pierced by a bullet hole and the right side of his shaved head destroyed by the exit wound.

“Come on, Lucas,” Mundy called as he walked by. “We can use your help. He can’t.”

Very few of them were found with guns or equipment. Most wouldn’t have been wearing them on the plane, Mundy supposed, or didn’t have time to equip themselves before going down. Two M4 carbines had been found slung tightly against the bodies of dead soldiers. One had an M9 Beretta and another had been wearing a Glock 17 in a cross-draw holster. Together with six combat knives – each a different make and model – they amassed a pile of eight MOLLE vests with pouches and equipment still attached, including eight fully loaded magazines of 5.56mm.

“It’s going to take a good cleaning,” Mundy told them as he inspected the firearms, “but after, I think we might wind up being significantly more dangerous.”

“Thirty-nine zeroes,” Nadia said, “out of forty-six.”

“The rest might’ve died in the crash,” Michael suggested. “Of head injuries, I mean, and stayed dead. Or maybe some of them weren’t infected.”

“Or they could still be roaming around,” said Mundy. “There’s just no way to know.”

“Like I said, let’s just get the supplies and go.”

Once the Ford was hauled back onto the road, it took them a little over an hour to collect the crates and tie them down in the back of the two trucks. It was during the final tie down that Mundy cut his hand on the edge of a nylon strap.

F-f-f-frickity-frack!” he shouted loudly, cradling his injury and hopping up and down once or twice.

The mild exclamation from a man who seemed to dip so frequently into the darker side of human nature was an incongruity that Michael just had to laugh at.

“Woah!” Nadia said with a short laugh of her own. “Put a lid on the salty language, sailor.”

“Really,” Michael added, “Mr. Potty Mouth.”

Mundy smiled almost shyly. “Yeah, well, when you’ve got a five and a six year-old running around the house, you – ” The way he suddenly froze in mid sentence was jarring. His words had battered open a locked room and the specters that haunted it came spilling out. He eased himself down on the gate of the truck and stared into the distance.

“Hey, I’m sorry,” said Michael, searching for something to say. “I know how – “

“Stop,” Mundy said with a pleading edge to his voice. “Please, don’t tell me you know how it is. You lost your wife; that’s what Hitomi said. You lost her before the Fall, to a natural death – “

“A car crash.”

Natural, compared to the post-pandemic world. You don’t know how it is. I wouldn’t want you to know how it is, to know that you weren’t there for your two little boys, to know that when you most needed to be a dad, that you weren’t there for them. To…know that they…might have…”

“Garret,” Nadia began, but seemed to struggle to find words to follow.

“No,” Mundy replied firmly. He filled his lungs with the fresh mountain air and exhaled. “No, it’s nothing. There’s nothing there.” He looked up and grinned unevenly. “Hey, I’m okay.” He clenched his fists, drummed a brief rhythm on his knees and smiled his most unconvincing smile yet. “Look at me. I’m doing good.” He gestured at Nadia and Michael. “I’m out and meeting new people.” He patted his stomach. “I’m well on my way to losing that fifty pounds I’ve been meaning to lose for the past…ten years.” His nervous fingers raked his hair. “I’m good. I’m…good.”

***

When they pulled off the mountain road at the GOODNIGHT sign and up to the house, Eric was there leaning on the shovel he was using to dig post holes. He gave them a ragged look that told them he was still wrapped in a bleak mood. When both trucks had stopped next to the garage door, he turned back to his digging.

“No more sleeping in the garage for you two,” Nadia said to Lucas and Mundy as she rounded the Forest Service truck, though her eyes were on Lucas as she said it. She looked up at the stacks of dark green plastic containers. “There’s only going to be enough room for this stuff and Michael’s Ford.” It was important, she had said on the way back from the lake, to have a vehicle in the garage so they could load up under cover if necessary. The garage door lifted as she spoke.

“Okay,” Hitomi said, ducking out from under the door with a handful of cardboard squares to use in place of scarce paper, “the sooner we get everything inventoried and put away, the sooner we can have lunch. It’s tuna noodle casserole.”

***

Among the more interesting medical supplies they found while going through the forty-two containers were one hundred heart monitors, each the size of a cell phone, designed to sound an alarm when a patient’s heart stopped beating. They found two separate tools serving the same purpose – a battery powered instrument like a rotary tool designed specifically to penetrate the skulls of dead soldiers and scramble their brains and another much like the morphine auto-injectors but made to fire a small, frangible projectile when pressed up against a dead soldier’s skull. There were also three cases of condoms.

“Now there’s a trade item,” Nadia said of the condoms.

“Only three cases for a resort filled with fifty-two young fashion models?” Mundy joked.

Lucas inspected one of the five hundred T-shaped projectile tubes. “I’d disable the safety and mount a few of these on the end of some short poles,” he suggested, “like a shark stick. They might be nice to have if things ever get up close and personal again like they did last night.”

They were near the end of the task of inventorying, labeling, and storing the crates when Hitomi nudged Michael with an elbow.

“The morphine gets locked up,” she said almost under her breath. “Just to be safe.”

“Okay,” he answered. It wasn’t something he’d considered but it seemed only prudent. He thought about the cage that held the propane tanks out back. “I think we can do that.”

From the vast store of medical supplies they stocked the upstairs with more than enough to serve themselves well past the expiration dates printed on the various tubes, vials, boxes and bags. In addition, they packed half a dozen backpacks and duffel bags with emergency medical supplies in case they had to move out quickly. After that, they put together two trade packages. Each consisted of six plastic crates: enough to fit in a single layer in the back of one of the trucks with some room left over.

“This trade mission of yours,” Nadia said on their way upstairs for lunch, “it’s going to take a lot of planning.”

“It’s going to take all of us thinking it through from half a dozen different angles to come up with every conceivable way the idea can get us killed.”

“And ways to keep that from happening,” she added. “Since we need the time to plan, let’s let everyone know we won’t be going anywhere for a full week. We came so far to get here, Michael, and it’s so nice and isolated.”

“You should have been here over the winter,” he said, “when cargo planes weren’t falling from the sky.”

“We need the time to rest and maybe let down our guard a little. It really wears away at you, having to be on alert all the time. Some people we saw along the way got so worn down that they gave up trying and walked themselves right into death traps. Sometimes it even seemed like it was on purpose. Some rest and relaxation would give us time to brainstorm our next move. There’s plenty to do around here anyway.”

“Like the fence,” Michael said with a nod.

“I wouldn’t mind having it up and running.”

***

The plan, sketched out on a piece of cardboard using a few of Hyacinth’s crayons, called for a two-layer fence all around the house with a front gate wide enough for the vehicles and a smaller one in back.

“The outer fence is the Close Area Penetration Indicator;” Nadia explained, “two wires, one at eight inches, the other at thirty-six inches. That’s not to keep anything out, it’s just there to sound the alarm if something tries to get in.”

“A zero won’t think to duck between the wires,” Mundy added. “It’ll just blunder right into them.”

“But it’s not an electric fence?” Hitomi asked.

“Nope,” Mundy told her. “It doesn’t give a shock. It uses a very low voltage and if something touches it, the system notices the small change in the electric current and sounds the alarm. It even shows you on a little screen which side of the fence has been touched. It comes with a battery but it will run off the house electricity, too.”

“How does rain affect it?” Michael asked.

“It’s not supposed to,” he shrugged. “I guess we’ll see.”

“The second fence will be just inside the first; four feet tall with three strands of the barbed wire. Again, it’s not going to keep out any zeroes. It’ll just slow them down until we can get out there to deal with them.”

The gates in the inner fence would be simple frames using spare PVC piping and rebar found behind one of the sheds and the two-by-fours they brought back from Lost Horse Spring Station. The openings in the outer fence would be made by simply drawing back the wire sections and reconnecting them using the quick-attach connectors supplied in the kits.

“We’ll be using the alarm wire mostly at night,” Nadia told them, “or when we’re all inside for lunch and no one’s on watch. The house is already pretty secure. This will just let us relax that much more.”

***

That evening after dinner, Michael and Nadia paid a visit to Mundy’s van parked out behind the garage. With the rear doors wide open to the fading light of dusk, he was working by the glow from six solar powered LED lights, the kind with a plastic spiked end, made to be stuck in the ground along walkways and garden paths.

“That’s as clean as I can get them,” he announced, rubbing his eyes and inadvertently leaving behind sooty black marks. “M4s run a little on the dirty side and need regular TLC. If you get mud or sand in them they can fail on you, most likely just at the worst time. But if you can baby them, they can be slick shooters.”

“Here,” Nadia said. She wet one of the unused cleaning patches he’d been using on the guns with a tip from Mundy’s water bottle and proceeded to wipe around his eyes. “You look like a raccoon.” With a barely noticeable tic of hesitation, he submitted to the attention and continued with a slight unease in his voice.

“Recoil is…very manageable…and that lets you…stay on target with a second or third shot. But if you have to use them against the living, remember…that they can…lack knockdown power over…longer distances.”

Nadia handed him the cloth patch, took one of the carbines and tested it against her shoulder. “When were you in the military?” she asked him.

“Never,” Mundy replied without looking up. “I might have joined, but I don’t like people yelling at me.”

“Custer had himself an M16A2,” she told them as she checked over the rifle in her hands, “before a guy in our group took off with it one night. He showed us the basics but I never shot it. We never had the ammunition to spare.”

“Okay, you two can decide who gets the guns,” Michael said. “But make sure everyone gets a lesson in how to use them.”

“I’m keeping my Hi-Point,” Nadia said. “At least until the ammunition is gone.”

“Here,” Mundy said to Nadia, handing her the holstered M9 pistol and belt. “It’s 9mm, just like your carbine. Three mags; one in the pistol and two in the pouch.”

“Wow,” she said with a crooked grin, “just like Christmas morning.”

Mundy turned his attention back to the gear laid out on the floor of the van. “Eight magazines for the M4s. They’ll hold thirty rounds but they’re only loaded with twenty-eight each. That’s supposed to make sure the magazines seat right.”

“I have no idea what that means,” Michael said.

“It means we have one hundred and twelve rounds of 5.56 ammo for each M4,” he replied. “That’s not much. Whoever carries these better be stingy with the shots. I strongly suggest never switching them off semi-auto. Here.” Mundy tried to hand him the Glock 17 in its holster. Michael shook his head and waved it away. “No? How come?”

“I still have fifteen hundred rounds for the twenty-two revolver.”

“Which is fine if you’re hunting squirrels,” Mundy countered, but Michael still shook his head. “Well, I don’t want it. Anna and Betty’ll get jealous. And Lucas is already carrying his own weight in guns, the skinny little turd.”

“Give it to Eric and I’ll take back my shotgun.”

“I don’t know,” Mundy said, lowering his voice confidentially. “The man still seems a little…frazzled.”

“Give it to Hitomi, then,” Michael suggested. “When it comes to more weapons, I’d be more interested in having a spear like Lucas has. It’s quiet and it doesn’t run out of bullets.”

“After last night, I was thinking the same thing,” Mundy admitted.


**************************


During the week that followed, it finally seemed as though spring had taken over from winter and Michael watched a group of people working very hard to relax. Apart from their painfully self-conscious attempts to act normally, nothing horrendous occurred. No hordes of dead bodies came slouching up the muddy mountain road and no bad guy barbarians came screaming out of the tree line. It was just six people nervously trying hard to not be nervous. Only Hyacinth and Kat seemed immune from the syndrome, though Michael wasn’t so sure about Kat.

Her practice of nesting on the floor outside his locked bedroom door was on its way to becoming a habit, so much so that Hitomi began to set roadblocks for her at bedtime. But in the morning, Hitomi would find her couch cushion wall disassembled and set aside or the string of rattle-ready soup cans deftly untied and removed from the doorway. After giving the girl half a dozen talks on the subject and nearly tripping over her in the dark a few times, Michael had given in and left his bedroom door wide open at night.

“It’s just easier on my nerves than waking every night to the sound of her trying the doorknob,” he yawned one morning. “No matter how many times I hear it, I still wake up reaching for the revolver.”

Near the end of the week, Hitomi drew him away from the breakfast table to the kitchen counter. Though her words were quiet, the tone of them quickly drew a hush from the others at the table.

“Michael,” she began, her brow wrinkled but her gaze penetrating, “you took us in and shared your home and your food with us. I don’t want you to think for a moment that I don’t appreciate that. But I feel like I’ve got to come right out and ask you if you’re having any kind of inappropriate relationship with Katrina?”

The silence from the breakfast table was total. Though he didn’t look away from Hitomi’s hard stare, he could feel all eyes upon him.

“No,” he said immediately. “The answer is no.”

“The world has ended, Michael. I know that. And I know a lot of people have thrown out the rules of behavior, thinking that they don’t apply anymore. Maybe some of them don’t. Maybe a man who’s otherwise a perfectly decent man might start thinking that a pretty girl like Katrina, especially one who is under his protection, is too rare to pass up these days. Maybe – ”

“The answer,” he repeated, speaking slowly and more loudly, “isstillno.”

“Okay,” Hitomi relented. “I’m sorry, Michael, but why does she keep winding up in your room in the morning?”

“I know why,” Hyacinth piped up from the table where she had been coloring and, apparently, listening. “It’s because the Princess is supposed to go to the Good Knight. He’s the one who rescued her from the ogres.”

“Hya,” Hitomi said in a tired voice, “mommy is having a grownup conversation with Michael and you’re not to eavesdrop.”

“But the Princess is only really safe with the Good Knight,” Hyacinth insisted. “And since he saved her life, she has to save his and then they can save the whole kingdom together.”

“Hyacinth,” sighed Hitomi, “go find Kat.”

“Wait a second,” Nadia said, a mug of tea stalled halfway to her mouth. “Hyacinth, is that the game you’re always playing with Kat: the Princess and the Good Knight?” The little girl nodded. “And is Kat the Princess and is Michael the Good Knight?” Hyacinth nodded again.

“Daddy said this was the Good Knight’s house.”

Nadia laughed, slapping her hand hard on the table and spilling her tea. “Goodnight House,” she said. “The Good Knight’s house.”

“Hya,” said Hitomi, her fingertips rubbing her forehead, “is that why Kat keeps moving around at night?” Hyacinth nodded again.

“Her arrows fly fast and true. She has to guard the Good Knight from the ogres and he guards her. Together they’re safe.”

Mundy’s laughter joined with Nadia’s. Lucas merely raised an eyebrow and looked slightly amused. Eric shook his head wearily and resumed eating. Hitomi was caught halfway between amusement and embarrassment. Michael crossed his arms and leaned back against the kitchen counter, not meeting anyone’s eyes. He was left feeling embarrassed, but there was also relief at having the issue explained, if not solved.

Still, for the rest of the day he had to put up with Mundy calling him Sir Michael and Nadia affecting a bad English accent and addressing him like a flirtatious
chambermaid as m’lord.


**************************


“Really?” Eric said harshly. “After thinking it over for five days, the plan you come up with consists of just driving up and ringing the doorbell?” Since the night they were attacked at the lake, Eric’s behavior had become increasingly withdrawn. He looked like he hadn’t slept in days and would frequently zone out of conversations. He insisted on keeping the first watch of the night and dismissed any suggestion that he take a night off from the duty.

“The Grimsley-Pride guys were jerks,” Lucas told him, “but they knew their stuff. Plus, they did have some areas covered by motion sensors and trip wires. That’s what they told me. There’s no way to know how they might’ve beefed up security since I left.”

“If we try to sneak in and get caught, any deal we might have reached with them is dead on arrival,” Nadia said. “It’s better to just stash the stuff somewhere nearby, position ourselves as best we can to deal with a bad turn of events, and send one person to the front gate.”

“No, no,” Eric said, shaking his head emphatically, “bad, bad, bad. That person gets taken hostage and the bad guys demand you come out with all the goodies and then everyone dies. All in all, I’d say it’s a pretty flimsy plan to waste a whole barrel of diesel on.” He rubbed his eyes hard with his knuckles. “’Tomi, Hya, and I were lucky to find this place. The rest of you spent the whole winter trying to get here. Isn’t it kind of…kind of insane to keep going out to face the same dangers we barely survived the first time? I mean, you went to the Forest Service place and someone died. We went to the lake and someone died…”

“His back was broken,” Mundy said quietly. “He probably would have died anyway. You know that.”

“We can’t just sit here and wait for the food to run out,” Michael said to Eric. “Like you said, we need a long-term survival strategy.”

“Just scavenging more food isn’t it,” the man replied, his hands cupped loosely over his mouth. “Whatever food you might get will run out.”

“But it will buy us time,” Nadia emphasized. “And we need time to find your long-term survival strategy.”

“Well,” Eric said, shaking his head, “count me out. I’m sorry but this is just too…” He left the sentence unfinished and merely let loose a miserable sigh.

“Okay, you stay here then,” said Mundy who, citing Eric’s behavior since the night at the lake, had argued in secret for the very thing. “You have family to protect anyway.”

“You keep the house secure,” Michael said to him. His stomach clenched when he recalled Eric sweeping the shotgun muzzle across his face and firing it only inches from his head that night. He himself was no ‘warrior of the wasteland,’ as Mundy had deemed Lucas, but Eric had panicked and almost taken off his head. A world of cannibal corpses was dangerous enough without adding the threat of friendly fire into the mix. “Make sure we have somewhere safe to come back to. It’ll be one less thing for us to worry about.”

“Going back out on the road,” Eric said, burying his face in his hands, “you’ll have enough worries. You’ve never been out there, Michael. But the rest of you…the rest of you should know better.”

***

Later that day Michael stepped from the back door of the garage into cool air and bright sunshine. He stood with his face skyward, eyes closed to the sun, and soaked in its warmth. The meadow below the house had started to show a few green patches of spring growth but the air still held a cold, sterile smell. He felt an age-old sense of satisfaction and gratitude, the kind that his ancestors must have felt at finding they’d survived another winter.

The fence had been finished. The line of wood and metal posts and thin strands of wire didn’t look like much at a glance, but they added something to the security of the house. Michael started walking the inside of the barbed wire and soon met Kat coming toward him.

It occurred to him that he’d never seen her in the bright sunshine before. He didn’t think he’d ever seen someone with so fair a complexion. She was dressed in some of the clothes that he had salvaged from the RV – a pair of rolled up canvas pants with bulky cargo pockets, a white long sleeve t-shirt and a blue and white stripped sweater. Her short blond hair blew in the breeze and brushed over her cheek.

She fixed him with a steady gaze as she approached, then passed him and continued on her way, walking the inside of the wire.

“She’s been doing that for half an hour.”

Michael looked up to see Mundy on the deck above, leaning on the railing.

“Just keeps going around and around,” he continued. “Like a cat at the zoo.”

“You’ve been watching for half an hour?” Michael asked, squinting in the sunlight.

“Watching a pretty girl like Katrina walk past isn’t the worst way to spend an afternoon,” he said with a mellow smile, “though I’d prefer a white sand beach and a red bikini.”

“You’d look ridiculous in a red bikini,” Michael said to him, earning a short raspy laugh from the man. He continued to squint up at him. “Seriously, are we going to have to have a talk?”

“Me? I’m harmless…mostly,” Mundy replied easily. “I’m no Heath Weyland. But…one does like to be reminded of the nicer things in life from time to time.”

Wondering about Mundy’s desire for the ‘nicer things,’ Michael set off on his own walk around the inside of the fence and stopped at a corner to gaze down into the meadow. It would be nice, he thought, to watch it turn green and come alive with the warmer weather. He imagined birds and dragonflies and a carpet of wildflowers. Still lost in the images, he heard Kat’s footsteps coming around again and was surprised to see her stop next to him. He gave a quick look to see her in profile staring out over the meadow like he was.

“We’re going to be heading out on a little shopping trip,” he said quietly, still looking out over the mountain scenery. “Anything special you want us to pick up for you? That new fashion accessory that all the other girls are wearing? A high capacity firearm? A normal life?”

She looked at him, her head tilted slightly, her mouth turned up on one side: the same flippant expression a billion teenagers once gave their parents on any given day.

“Hey,” he said, “you are in there.” The tiny response he’d gotten from her made him feel as though spring was already in full bloom.


**********************************


The feeling he had when he woke was strangely out of time and extremely out of place. It was the feeling he’d had on the Saturday mornings of his childhood when he would rise early to get a weekly fix of his favorite cartoons, eat a bowl or two of sugar-laden cereal and race outside to play. He woke with that same sense that there was an action-packed day ahead of him and that there was no time to waste. As he rose, however, the aches in his fingers and feet, in his knees and his neck taught him that the feeling he remembered from his childhood was only complete when a body still possessed that lighter-than-air quality of youth.

And there was also the fact that the day’s activities involved heading out into a world where death walked the earth and destruction was mankind’s only remaining industry.

“Still,” he grunted out loud to himself as he stretched and his joints popped, “road trip.”

He shuffled his way into the kitchen and found coffee and breakfast still warm on the stove. He heard the sounds of Hitomi upstairs with Hyacinth and supposed Nadia was already downstairs preparing for departure. Eric was nowhere to be seen. Katrina sat at the end of the table, intently watching and listening as Mundy took good natured issue with Lucas’ appearance.

“Look at you,” Mundy was saying through a mouthful of white rice and instant gravy. “You wear the same t-shirt every day. You’re like a cartoon character.”

“It’s not the same t-shirt,” Lucas answered, glancing down at his own chest. “I have seven of these.”

“Seven identical Limberjack t-shirts?”

“I got them from a store in a mall,” said Lucas. “Someone had crashed a big military helicopter through the roof of the food court and most everything had either been burnt or looted. Plus, some fresh nasties were coming in the far end so I didn’t have time to do more than grab a stack of whatever was closest. Fortunately, Limberjack wasn’t the worst band, just a little too commercial for me.”

“Meaning someone besides you and three other college students had heard of them,” Mundy charged.

“Basically, yeah,” said Lucas.

“Morning,” Michael said with a yawn, interrupting the exchange. “Is today still the day?”

“Today we go,” Mundy affirmed. “The mountain roads have had time to dry out and we are as ready as we’re going to get.”

Michael, Nadia, Mundy and Lucas would be taking the humvee and the Forest Service truck with the medical supplies, food and water for six days, and enough diesel for twice their expected journey. Along with their personal weapons – including the short spears that Mundy, Nadia and Michael had each fashioned for themselves out of wooden poles and sharpened rebar – they would also be taking one of the M4 carbines, leaving the other at the house. Mundy’s training session on the rifle and the Glock 17 had taken place the day before. When Michael had told him he wanted Kat there as well, Mundy was puzzled.

“Katrina, too?” he’d asked. “You think that’s wise?”

“I just want her there,” Michael had answered. “You don’t need to try and reach her. Whatever she picks up, she picks up.” He didn’t want to explain why he thought the girl wasn’t quite as withdrawn as she seemed most of the time. The clues were too tiny and fleeting.

***

Once again, Mundy was able to subtly engineer things so that the seat in the humvee beside Nadia was his. They had gone for miles over the rough mountain road with only the truck noise breaking the silence before Lucas spoke.

“Eric was right,” he said suddenly as he gazed out through the passenger side window. “You haven’t been out in the thick of it since the Fall.”

“True enough,” Michael replied. He supposed his quick visit to Crags or his short trip down the road to Smickson’s pharmacy wouldn’t really count as ‘the thick of it’ in Lucas’ opinion.

“Just keep looking,” Lucas advised. “Never let more than a few seconds pass without taking a good look around. Never take chances. Don’t make noise if you can help it. Keep an eye out for traps. If it looks the least bit dangerous, it’s probably really dangerous. Always have an escape route. Never go into a house without knocking first – the zeroes will hear it and show themselves. If you see any live people, assume they’re murderers who want to rape your dead body because they probably are.”

“That’s…a lot to remember,” Michael said after a pause.

“Just watch the rest of us and do what we do,” Lucas concluded.

“Got it.”

The route they chose would take them around the other side of the mountain and down to the highway that ran through Garnet Bend, the town that Lucas had reported as ‘burned to the ground.’ From there, they would travel a meandering scenic byway in hopes of avoiding the worst that heavily populated areas might put in their way.

Three hours into their journey, just as the Forest Service maps showed them nearing the highway, Nadia stopped the humvee ahead of the truck and called for a short rest before continuing. They milled aimlessly about, stretching their legs. They took turns using the forest as a toilet, ate a quick snack and double checked the maps. Finally, they topped off the fuel tanks in each vehicle and silently braced themselves for the next part of their journey.

“Say goodbye to the sacred high places,” Mundy called out before returning to the humvee, “and hello to the damned low ones.”
"...the Dog returns to his Vomit and the Sow returns to her Mire,
And the burnt Fool's bandaged finger goes wabbling back to the Fire..."

Nancy1340
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Joined: Sun Jan 31, 2010 12:03 am

Re: The Dead at Destitute Mountain

Post by Nancy1340 » Tue May 28, 2013 11:23 pm

Very good. Glad to see Kat coming around. Me thinks she's gonna surprise everyone....soon. Thank you.

Manliest
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Joined: Thu Dec 23, 2010 9:35 pm
Favorite Zombie Movies: Zombieland.

Re: The Dead at Destitute Mountain

Post by Manliest » Wed May 29, 2013 12:33 am

Can we get one more tonight? I can't go to sleep til 3, and another bit would make my night...

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Tinderbox
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Re: The Dead at Destitute Mountain

Post by Tinderbox » Wed May 29, 2013 1:23 am

As Lucas had said, Garnet Bend had burned to the ground. Sometime during the fall or winter the wind had rushed up the valley and had driven the fire over every tangle of dead, overgrown vegetation and into every building and trailer home. Only foundations and shells were left.

They kept to two lane blacktop roads for as long as they could, the interstate being, by consensus, a death trap. Gradually, the thick stands of pines were joined by deciduous trees, now wearing a green haze of budding spring leaves. For miles there was nothing at the roadside but gravel pull offs and scenic overlooks. But when they’d descended far enough, past countless small rock falls and fallen branches, they came to stretches of road dotted with mailboxes marking the beginning of gravel driveways that disappeared into the trees. Many were blocked by jumbled scrap wood barricades and spray painted plywood signs stating that looters would be shot. Others had faded orange tags hanging from the mailboxes that, according to Lucas, indicated that the homes hidden behind the trees had been searched and cleared of corpses.

“Sometimes they have been and sometimes they haven’t,” Lucas muttered as the truck slowly bounced up and over a fallen branch. “Sometimes the search teams just wanted to get back to their camp without dying.”

Road signs and telephone poles were plastered with peeling red and white flyers that announced the pandemic and stated the emergency measures being taken.

Beside the road, the valley started to broaden and the river began to meander in and out of sight. To their relief, they found that the winter rain and snowfall had been mild enough so that none of the bridges they had to cross were washed out.

A quarter mile after a green sign reading NOW ENTERING GRAVEL PIT they passed a few very empty looking ranch houses at the edge of the road and then the gravel pit with its conveyor belts and corrugated metal buildings for which the tiny town was so imaginatively named. But it was the sight just ahead that made Nadia brake and come to a stop in the middle of the road.

In the large lot between the highway and a lumber mill, the people of Gravel Pit had built a scaled-up version of an Old West frontier fort. Using heavy logging industry machinery and an entire lumber yard of materials, they had dug trenches and planted hundreds of raw timber logs upright, forming a wall that stretched thirty feet high and hundreds of feet around. In the middle of the wall was a large gate sealed by a huge, sturdy looking door. Michael noticed that the surface of the door was pockmarked with bullet holes and blackened here and there by teardrop-shaped scorch marks. He also noticed the cement blocks littering the ground at the base of the wall and realized what a good job a well-aimed block dropped from thirty feet would do on the head of a walking corpse.

At the top of the wall above the gate, barely visible through the spaces between the logs, a shape moved. A second later, a sign was flipped over the wall and hung there from ropes at its corners, swaying slightly.

KEEP MOVING, it read. Then another sign was flipped over to hang in front of the first. OR DIE, the second one finished.

Michael wondered how many different signs they had behind the top of their palisade and how many different situations they covered. To his relief, the brake lights on the humvee disappeared and they moved a few hundred yards down the road before stopping again and pulling side by side. Michael rolled down his window and Mundy opened the passenger side door, saying, “Whaddya know, civilization endures.”

“Not too friendly, are they?” Michael commented.

“Probably with good reason,” Mundy said. He pointed across the road and Michael noticed the graveyard in a vacant lot. Of the three dozen graves, each marked by a two-by-four cross, none looked more than six months old. On the other side of the road were the remains of hundreds of zeroes left to rot in the open air.

“They can’t have much,” Nadia called from the driver seat. “Nothing to trade, anyway. Let’s go before they start shooting.”

They passed a ranger station, more ranch homes, and then a white wooden church surrounded by cars parked front bumper to rear bumper in a poor attempt at a barricade. Behind the cars, Michael could see the double doors to the church hanging wide open and two gray-faced, slump-shouldered figures standing in the shadows within.

A burger joint, a gas station, a mechanic’s garage, a fire station: they passed them all without slowing, knowing that each building had certainly been scavenged to the bones. In the parking lot of a hardware and feed store with a collapsed roof stood two dirty corpses, one a child, the other a man dressed in red and black plaid. Both did a stiff-legged spin at sound of their vehicles, the child’s arms fluttering excitedly in bird-like fashion. In the middle of a four-way intersection stood a dead naked woman, her breasts long and flat against her, her gray skin hanging in folds over her body. She turned slowly as they passed close by her, only reaching out her arm to them after she was in the rearview mirror.

Before long they had left Gravel Pit behind and the highway was once again at the bottom of a steep-sided canyon of tall trees. Every so often, a house would blur by, sometimes new and well-kept, sometimes a patchwork construction with a ramshackle collection of rusty outbuildings. None looked lived-in and some had a red spray painted X symbol on the outside to tell their sad stories to passers-by.

“So far so good,” Nadia said with a nervous smile after they had churned their way over the broken asphalt of a quarter mile-long washout. As they walked around the vehicles and stretched, they each kept a watchful eye around them. “We’re about a mile from the next highway. It’s going to be a bigger road and the junction is right in the middle of Mettle Falls.” She said it all calmly enough, but there was worry behind the words. “Fifty miles or so of highway driving, then we can return to the back roads.”

Compared to Crags and Gravel Pit, Mettle Falls was the big city. Though it couldn’t have been home to more than four thousand people before the pandemic, it was big enough to pose problems, the first of which appeared at the first four-way intersection they came to. Each side of the intersection had been barricaded and in the very middle of the intersection was a sandbagged Bradley Fighting Vehicle with its turret and 25 mm chain gun pointing in the direction that they needed to go. On two sides of the intersection, ruined and burned out cars and trucks had been pushed to the side. A sign on the barricade read STATE OF EMERGENCY followed by TRAVEL RESITRICTED and NO VEHICLES MAY PASS THIS POINT.

“It looks like a few tried,” Mundy commented from the humvee’s open door.

“The Guard’s long gone,” Nadia said over Mundy’s shoulder. “There’s no one left. I wonder why they didn’t take the tank with them?”

“Guys,” Lucas said from the truck’s passenger seat, “we need to keep moving.” Corpses were moving toward them down each of the intersection’s four streets; not many – they came in twos and threes – but it was enough to remind them of the dangers they faced.

“We still have a lot of town to get through,” Nadia said. “Follow me and do not get a flat tire.”

There were signs that the population of Mettle Falls had swelled in the early days of the pandemic. The parking lot at the town’s only motel was packed full. The city park was crammed with cars, RVs and flattened tents. The adjacent high school was similarly surrounded. As had happened to Eric and Hitomi, the people of the town probably grew to regret their new neighbors.

It might have been a nice place to live, Michael thought as they drove the main street. There weren’t many cars to swerve around and he could look left and right. Signs for espresso and ice cream, a grocery store and a post office with its tattered and faded American flag still waving, a drive-in restaurant and the ubiquitous golden arches. Nice little town, he thought idly as he swerved to avoid the reaching, black-streaked corpse of a shirtless beer-bellied man who stepped out from behind a parked van. From the other side came a wet sounding thump as another dead body launched itself at them and collided with the back of the truck. Lucas glanced back with an irritated look to see the corpse rolling in the street behind them.

“If one latches on,” he said in a flat, disinterested voice, “it won’t let go, not even if its legs drag and it gets all ground up.”

As they found the highway junction and accelerated out of town, Michael looked in the rearview mirror to see the main street of Mettle Falls filling up with the dead.

***

Along an embankment bordered by thick brush and trees, just at the point where the highway turned from two lanes to four, they came to another roadblock. This one had been built on a grander scale using stacks of three foot square cubes made of metal mesh reinforced plastic fabric. Once in place, they’d been filled with dirt and rock and had been made into a formidable looking bunker with a space on one side for vehicles to pass.

“Looks like we snuck up on the back of this one,” said Mundy, referring to the fact that all the TRAVEL RESTRICTED signs were pointed away, facing their direction of travel. On the other side of the barricade, the cars were backed up as far as the eye could see. Abandoned where they had run out of gas, many had missing rear or front end panels, smashed windows and other scars telling of their escape from the cities. The jumbled lines of them receded into the distance, swelling to take up all four lanes. They all faced the same way; north toward Mettle Falls.

They got out of the vehicles but left them idling and walked forward over thousands of empty 7.62mm casings. On the lowest tier of the barricade lay the rotted remains of a soldier, his uniform stiff with tar-like filth, his skull nearly void of flesh, a hole through his forehead and a shattered exit wound behind.

“Freakin’ roadblocks,” Mundy grumbled as he began to climb past the soldier’s remains. “They didn’t do anyone any good in the end. When things started coming apart, you had self-appointed screeners setting them up all over, checking people for Gwailo or for bites and scratches. Inevitably, someone waiting in line with a wounded loved one would open fire on them. Carnage would ensue.” He reached the top of the wall and scanned the road beyond with the binoculars. “It’s packed too tight. The cars are off the road, right up into the trees.”

“So where are the people who drove all of these cars?” Michael wondered aloud.

“We’re going to have to backtrack a little bit,” Nadia said, reading the map on the hood of the humvee, “and take some really twisty side roads for a couple miles before we can meet up with another highway.”

“Hey,” Lucas said from the shoulder of the road, “where do those tracks go?” After a winter’s worth of snow and rain, the tire tracks weren’t easy to see. They were only still visible at all because they sunk so deep into the ground and had torn up so much grass on the way down the steep embankment. “You think there’s a way around this mess?”

“Through that?” Mundy replied from his elevated position, aiming the binoculars into the thick brush at the roadside. “I doubt it. It looks like there’s a pond or something just beyond the trees.”

“You think they ditched something good down there before they took off?” asked Nadia.

It took a moment of silence before Mundy bowed to the inevitable. He climbed down from the top of the barricade, saying, “Well, I can’t think of any reason why we shouldn’t ignore all danger and dive blindly into the bushes in an attempt to find out.” Before jumping back to the pavement, he paused beside the soldier’s skeletal remains. “Can you?” he asked the grimacing skull.

With Lucas positioned on the barricade with the binoculars, Mundy, Nadia and Michael went carefully down the slope. Whatever had entered the brush, it had made a wide entry, pushing down the plants and small trees. Over the winter, the foliage had mostly rebounded.

“No broken ankles, please,” said Mundy. He held the M4 carbine in front of him and chambered a round when they reached the bottom. About twenty yards into the brush, under a canopy of scraggly pines there was a large vehicle. “Nadia, go around the other side.”

The color of the National Guard two-and-a-half ton cargo truck blended well with the native vegetation and Michael thought that if Lucas hadn’t spotted the tracks it would have soon been swallowed by spring and summer growth.

“Aaaaaannnd,” Mundy said quietly as he inspected the truck bed, “nothing.”

“Nothing up here, either,” Nadia reported, peering through the cracked driver side window. “Just…”

“What?” Michael asked, pushing his way through the bushes to see inside the cab. He was relieved to see no bodies in the truck. Nadia had opened the driver side door and Michael did the same on the passenger side. She handed him something across the seat that looked kind of like an exhaust pipe, except for the trigger at one end. He handed the thing to Mundy, saying, “Part of a gun, looks like.” The bemused look on the man’s face lasted only a second before it turned into a short, cackled laugh.

“M203,” Mundy said with a mile-wide smile. When that didn’t serve to enlighten his companions, he slid the pipe-like part of it forward and snapped it back in place as though working a pump-action shotgun. “Grenade launcher,” he added. “They gave them grenade launchers. That’s funny.”

“A real lack of situational awareness,” Nadia agreed, coming around to them. “You know what grenades do to zeroes?”

“Unless you ping ‘em in the forehead with it, not much.” Mundy handed her the M4 and ducked into the cab of the truck, digging into the accumulation of empty MRE packaging, loose plastic laminated procedure lists, and other trash on the floor. He was rewarded with three fat green and gold rounds. “Three of them; we have three grenades.”

“You’re taking it?”

“It’s made to fit on guns like our M4. If it works, it might help close a loophole in our plan,” he explained as they walked back through the brush. “Like Eric said, all those security guys have to do is grab one of us and threaten an execution if the rest of us don’t surrender. But if that happens, we can claim to have a hundred grenades to lob one at a time into their compound. That gives us some leverage.”

“Even though we only have three grenades?”

“Yes, that’s called a bluff,” Mundy said. “Once the first one goes bang, I’m hoping we won’t need the other two.”

“Hope is never a good thing to bank on,” she muttered in return. “It almost always means you don’t have a chance in hell.”

***

Michael knew they were getting close when Lucas started calling out landmarks.

“That’s where I slept one night,” he mentioned casually. “It had been cleaned out by scavengers, like all the other places. Some guy had committed suicide in the back bedroom and at some point the rope had cut through and decapitated him. His head was still active so I put it on the window sill before I left.”

“So…it could…enjoy the view?” Michael asked hesitantly.

“Yeah.”

Once again, Michael felt a little uneasy with Lucas’ manner. Sometimes he wondered if the young man still had the capacity to feel horror. Being able to turn it off was surely a survival trait in a post-apocalyptic world, but shutting it down for good might leave a person with a permanent coldness inside.

More buildings started appearing along the roadside. Many were homes with attached businesses such as a tack shop, a shuttered produce stand, and a small engine repair shop with broken windows and the rusting shell of a car out front. In the yard of one home there were four graves marked with white crosses; two large ones and two small ones. The dirt over one of the small graves had been disturbed, the flat stones that had been placed over the mound scattered, like something had crawled back out. Another house had been boarded up using the wood from a fence that had once encircled the yard. A light blue bed sheet had been hung from the rain gutter but now sagged limply from one corner, only one word of its spray painted plea visible as they drove past: …FOOD.

On the outskirts of a town called Whitewater they pulled into the semicircular driveway of a place that looked like it had once been a 1950s-era gas station but had been turned into a café and gift shop. In the oval concrete island out front where the pumps had once been, faded whirlygigs still caught the wind and chopped wood or watered plywood flowers.

“Two small towns – ,” Nadia said to them through the open passenger door of the humvee, “hardly even worth calling towns, really – one before the river, one right after. Once we get through, we…whew! That smell.” The breeze had swirled its way along the length of the parking area, bringing with it the smell of human rot. At the far end of the roadside clearing a logging truck was parked against a row of poplar trees, its trailer stacked with the seeping remains of bodies, some shrouded, some not. The ground beneath the trailer was stained dark with dripping decay. At that moment, the door to the café opened with the happy tinkling of a small brass bell.

It was only barely possible to tell that it had once been a woman. How the corpse still had enough muscle left to walk was beyond Michael. It reminded him of something from a doctor’s office anatomical poster, only instead of exposed muscles and arteries in red and veins in blue, the corpse was gray where flesh still hung and black where its insides showed, with bits of yellowed cartilage, bone, and teeth. Standing all of five feet tall, the thing moved toward the truck with tiny, hesitating steps.

“We should move,” Lucas said, his eyes fixed on the corpse. “Even the ones that look like skeletons can get you. They move all slow, then they lunge at the last second.” But Nadia had already left her vehicle and was removing her spear from the humvee’s brush guard. She went around the front of the truck, planting herself in front of the slowly moving corpse. She lined up the sharpened rebar point with its eye socket and, with only a slight hesitation, thrust forward. But in the second that she waited, the dead woman’s arms reached out for Nadia and her body shifted. The spear point dug into the side of its head, but missed the eye. Now the corpse’s hands were wrapped around the spear while its yellowed teeth gnashed at her. With a disgusted look, Nadia threw the frail, undead thing to the ground like a bundle of dry sticks and muttered an angry string of words.

“…sick of this…everywhere you look…tired of it…” was about all Michael could hear.

Once more, Nadia lined up the point of her short spear with the corpse’s eye socket and this time, drove it straight through until it struck the back of the skull. Without further word, she reattached the spear to the brush guard and, wearing a furious expression, stomped back to the driver seat.

“Let’s move,” she yelled, sounding both angry and sad.

A mile down the road, Whitewater emerged from the trees. Trailer homes gave way to convenience stores, a bar and grill, and an RV park. Though cluttered with haphazardly parked cars, it turned out to be a litter-strewn ghost town, leaving Michael to wonder if the entire population was back in the trees beside the café, stacked on the trailer of the logging truck.

The gray-painted and graffitied trestle bridge on the other side of Whitewater spanned a beautiful blue-green rushing river. Nadia braked as they came up on it and it only took a few seconds to recognize that it was impassable. Piecing together exactly how it came to be so took a longer look.

“Would someone tell me what the frick we’re looking at?” Mundy asked as everyone got out and stared at the bridge. For a moment or two the blockage was an amorphous dull colored mush before their eyes started making sense of it.

“They blocked off both ends of the bridge,” Nadia intoned. “Sandbags, scrap wood, sheet metal.”

“I guess out there on the bridge they only had to worry about them attacking from two directions,” Michael said.

“Didn’t help,” Mundy observed, “though they did put up a fight.”

“A last stand,” Lucas said.

“There were so many of them,” Nadia added. “They killed so many that the bodies stacked up in front of the barricade and made a nice ramp for the ones behind.”
They gazed at the scene, imagining what it must have been like. The barricade materials were stained a blackish green from spattered bodily fluids. The winter had compacted the pile of KT’d corpses into a black mass and none of them even considered undertaking the task of clearing the way.

“So we backtrack again,” Nadia said, her face blank, her voice lifeless.
"...the Dog returns to his Vomit and the Sow returns to her Mire,
And the burnt Fool's bandaged finger goes wabbling back to the Fire..."

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URBAN ASSAULT
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Re: The Dead at Destitute Mountain

Post by URBAN ASSAULT » Wed May 29, 2013 1:48 am

Something tells me that they should have a bullet reserved especially for Lucas when he finally takes the offramp to batshit crazytown, 'cause that boy... well, he jus' plain empty inside.

-urban
"When under imminent Predator attack, try to act all Thalidomide-y till they go away".-me
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Manliest
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Favorite Zombie Movies: Zombieland.

Re: The Dead at Destitute Mountain

Post by Manliest » Wed May 29, 2013 1:50 am

Amazazing!

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Re: The Dead at Destitute Mountain

Post by WendyPlains » Wed May 29, 2013 6:45 am

More great updates. I really appreciate how we'll written this is with no misspellings and great editing, I recently gave up reading another serial story because I couldn't stomach the mistakes in it. You're doing a fantastic job.

This trading venture is a massive gamble; what's to stop the other party from just stealing your stuff and killing you especially if they are stronger than you? Looking forward to seeing how this will be resolved. Also curious to see how things now stand at the Spa, surely the "rich, old guys" would have realized they would be at the mercy of their young, strong and well-armed "guards" once civilization broke down?

Great story!

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Tinderbox
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Re: The Dead at Destitute Mountain

Post by Tinderbox » Wed May 29, 2013 8:34 am

WendyPlains wrote:More great updates. I really appreciate how we'll written this is with no misspellings and great editing, I recently gave up reading another serial story because I couldn't stomach the mistakes in it. You're doing a fantastic job.

This trading venture is a massive gamble; what's to stop the other party from just stealing your stuff and killing you especially if they are stronger than you? Looking forward to seeing how this will be resolved. Also curious to see how things now stand at the Spa, surely the "rich, old guys" would have realized they would be at the mercy of their young, strong and well-armed "guards" once civilization broke down?

Great story!

Thanks so much, WendyPlains. If it wasn't for the software on my laptop putting little red and green squiggly lines underneath the questionable words and grammar, there would be a heck of a lot more errors!

Don't count out the "rich, old guys" just yet. They didn't get old and rich by doing nothing! :wink:
"...the Dog returns to his Vomit and the Sow returns to her Mire,
And the burnt Fool's bandaged finger goes wabbling back to the Fire..."

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Redsky
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Re: The Dead at Destitute Mountain

Post by Redsky » Thu May 30, 2013 9:15 am

Really like the story thus far.
“Next time go faster! Fulton who the fuck told you that you could choke out a stenchie? Jesus!

Do I have to do everything?” he yelled at the squad staggering to his feet again.

“Oh he’s fine. He’s back in asshole mode.” Erica said

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