River Of Night – Snippet 12
“Let’s get settled and then we can have a group meeting tonight before we turn in,” Tom said and then faced the teens. “Hey, kids, can I give you a hand?”
Camp chores had to be completed before nightfall in order to avoid creating any light that would betray their presence to any hunting packs of infected.
Prior to last light, Smith called in the entire party.
“Okay everyone, we’re having a quick briefing on how things went today and what to expect tomorrow,” he stated. “After today’s sniper, it’s obvious we need to be ready for additional incidents. I asked Gravy and Kapman to put their heads together and come up with a balance of simplicity and efficiency. Both of them have worked extensively in the field and we’ll all have a role to play.”
He paused and looked at Durante.
“Things we did right,” Durante said. “We didn’t stop in the danger area and we got off the X when the sniper took his shots.”
“What X do you speaking of?” Risky asked. “Like intersection?”
“The X is the spot where the enemy tries to pin you,” Durante replied. “Special operations types, shooters in general, use the term to refer to the focal point of any ambush or attack.”
“So get off the X means be anywhere but where enemy wants you?” Risky said. “And maybe the place where you want enemy to be?”
“Right, but you want to do it on purpose,” Durante answered. “Today we got lucky, and while I’ll take lucky over good any day, freaky stuff can happen in a fight. Luck always plays a role. Guns jam, engines stall on a bit of bad fuel or someone loses their mind and charges into the middle of the action. This time, luck means that the bullets didn’t disable the Suburban or one of us. However, you can’t always count on luck, so teams usually practice, a lot, to remove random change from the equation as much as possible.”
“Like RN-Jesus?” offered Eric, wrinkling his nose.
“Who- what?” replied Durante, looking at the formerly chubby teen.
“He means ‘Random Number Generator â€“ Jesus’,” Astroga said, translating for Eric. “Kids and gamers use it to describe random weird stuff that happens in video games. The RNG part of the game creates a gotcha factor, and when it happens in your favor, it means video game Jesus, RN-Jesus, was looking out for you. Man, who doesn’t know that?”
For the benefit of the kids, she silently mouthed “Old Dude” while pointing at Durante.
“Um, riggght. Moving on, we don’t have the time or a place to practice,” the tall security specialist said. “So the focus will be on having quick attach and release tow points rigged to drag a truck if we need to, spread loading both our weapon types and shooters and ensuring that we fill the driver spots with the most qualified people.”
“What does that mean for us?” asked Emily “I mean Dina, the kids and I don’t shoot and we don’t drive.”
“Everyone’s a spotter,” Durante replied. “The kids have great eyes and during the morning drive, the drivers will explain how to call out directions from the trucks. Tom, Kap, Worf and I will rotate through the left seat. Risky, Astroga, Ralph and Sacks â€“ sorry – Vinnie, will rotate at shotgun. We’ll spread the remaining people among the trucks.”
“That’s it?” asked Vinnie. “I mean, no disrespect an’ all, but we used’ta do more coordination that that just to drive into da’ city, back with Matricardi.”
“Like I said,” Durante said, exasperated. “No. Time. To. Practice. The goal is to get to the next safe place as safely as we can. On a good day, we could be there in a few hours. With this mess…” He tossed his head to one side, indicating the world in general. “we’re going to keep having to backtrack. It’s worse than I expected, and so it’s going to take longer. That means more gas. More clean water. And we need to keep our eyes open for maps because this digital crap isn’t giving us any useful detail.”
“We’ll be considering a scavenging stop tomorrow,” Tom said, punctuating Durante’s comment. “If we see anything worth the delay.”
Then he looked to Sacks. “Everyone is going to pull their weight,” Tom said.
The swarthy Sicilian held his hands up, deprecatingly.
“Anything to add, Kap?” Tom said, looking back over to Kaplan.
“Nothing special,” the shorter man said, shifting a toothpick to the other side of his mouth. “Everybody use the honey hole first thing in the morning. Last person fills it in. Keep your eyes open. Less useless yapping. Sing out if you see something.”
Tom looked around the circle but no one signaled a desire to speak.
“Okay, then,” he said, tapping Durante again. “Gravy has the watch schedule. Two awake at all times. Keep noise to a minimum. No unshielded white light. Everyone should get some rest while they can. No way to predict how much you’ll get during the day.”
Jason Young ignored the faint, ever present waft of rot. Ditto, biting insects. Hard won practice also allowed him to ignore the physical discomfort of perching immobile in a tree for hours. The hunger was harder to suppress and threatened his focus. He’d learned that of all the difficulties of the Fall could be navigated if you had clean water and a full stomach. Almost everything else was a luxury. Thirst and hunger drove hasty decisions and clouded judgment.
A single bad call could mean death, especially to a man traveling alone.
Jason, formerly a cop with the Williamsburg PD, had been traveling alone for a long time. He’d thought that the absence of human contact would bring peace, would allow him to forget some of his choices. But lately he’d begun to detach from reality a bit too much. Questioning why he was bothering to survive was one symptom.
Taking chances was another.
He willed the distractions away and focused, watching the end of the hunt.
They’d been at it for almost an hour.
Not far from his tree, two zombies continued to growl and snap at each other as they circled a third, which was crawling very slowly across the dry, crunchy grass in what previously had been a nicely groomed tot lot. The good news was that since no other infected had come to see what the fuss was about, these two were probably alone. The bad news was that they were between him and the buildings he intended to scout. Smaller towns were safer than larger cities, offering much easier routes in and if need be, out. However, zombies liked being indoors too. A few times, he’d stumbled across singletons and small groups and very quietly snuck away. During periods of quiet, they seemed to lapse into torpor unless roused, making them hard to detect until it was almost too late. Jason had stopped looking through ruins at night as a result.
Scouting the darkened interior of a building and waiting to see if you surprised a nest was… contrary to survival.
So far, the best way to check empty buildings seemed to be to watch them at daybreak. Generally, infected stirred at first light, some instinct tying their hunt to an older rhythm. Usually no movement meant no active zombies.
These foragers were unusually lively. One would charge a few steps, often earning a swipe from the prey, and then retreat. The second would ape the first. Lather, rinse and repeat. If one infected stopped to dispatch the weakening cripple, it would be vulnerable to the third.
The cycle had persisted longer than Jason expected.
“Way too much energy for anyone to have before coffee.” He thought to himself. “I dub you hyper-gits Thing One and Thing Two.” It was a rare bit of post Fall humor for the lone man.
A few times Jason had wondered why he kept pushing in this God forsaken land. He turned his back on duty, everyone had, why keep fighting? It would be easy to let go. He still had some ammunition. He even had some rat poison that he used to salt the occasional fresh corpse, reducing the zombie population by a little more. He didn’t have to eke out this life for… what? He couldn’t say.
Yet he couldn’t help pushing, every step taking him farther away from D.C. and the crawling suburbs which spread all around it. Every day further away from the horror. At first, he had tried to help, here and there. Early on he had joined a missionary caravan as a guard. He narrowly escaped when it disintegrated in the middle of the night. He’d watched families turn, brother killing brother, like Cain murdering Abel. After that, he avoided other survivors. Mostly, he walked or cycled. In suburbs, there were plenty of bikes.
His calf throbbed. He ignored that too. Salvage from big hospitals was a no-go. He sampled smaller hospitals and clinics, eventually giving up. He told himself it was because the infected density was too high. Still, he tried not to think of the gruesome scenes where zombies had made kills in rooms with bed-ridden patients.
On the playground, the two hale zombies had decided to share the rations, but skipped the nicety of waiting for their prey to fully expire. He shut his ears to the sounds of the feast. Usually zombies were quiet, but when provoked they grunted, howled or roared inarticulately. They were still human animals. They could still scream. Especially when they were in pain.
He considered his options. Use two of his remaining rounds and risk drawing zombies from further away? Wait these two out and hope that they didn’t lie up nearby? His stomach growled.
One of the big changes of the Fall was how quiet everything was. No motors, no air conditioning hum, no car stereo, no aircraft overhead, no muted freeway rushing in the distance, no TV droning through an open window.
Just the silence of a dead civilization. And the screams of the zombies’ prey.
As the screaming tapered, Jason was startled by the sound of a car engine. Though it sounded surprising close, habit prevented him from jerking his head around. Sudden motion drew attention. Carefully, he used his eyes to scan for movement, but the foliage obstructed his view. The vehicle drew close enough that he could hear tires licking pavement. A car door opened.
“Just these two?” A man’s voice, clear as a bell.
Below, Thing One lifted a blood stained muzzle, growling over its meal.
“Gimme a sec. I’m looking.” Another man. “Yeah, all I see are these two.”
“Dump them, and we can scan for survivors from those trees up the hill.”
Two muted bangs, and Thing Two looked up angrily as its erstwhile partner slumped across the eating area. Moments later, its head flew apart messily.
“Who’s a good zombie?” cooed a new voice. A woman.
Jason held very still as cars doors slammed and the vehicle moved a short distance away before shutting down.
He considered his options.
These three seemed… competent.