Is anybody out there?
After a long winter spent hunkering down in Wyoming, Bree, Nate, and the gang are back on the road. The harsh temperatures up in the northern regions might have decimated the undead scourge somewhat, but soon they have to face reality: it’s not just zombies that are out there to hunt people down and kill them. For humanity to have a fighting chance to rebuild a semblance of civilization, everyone will have to work together—and resources are scarce. Someone will have to go out there and face the danger—and maybe find out what happened to the undead that were smart enough to flee the cold. Only the strong and smart have survived, making everyday life just a little more deadly for everyone.
“Do you see them? North of that rock, five hundred yards out,” I whispered, breathing out slowly to steady the scope of my M24.
Nate gave a grunt that could have meant anything.
“Six hundred and twenty.”
“What?” I asked, tempted to turn my head and look at him, but refraining—he’d just snap at me.
“The distance to your target. You were more than a hundred yards off.”
At least the scope hid my eye roll. Ever the stickler for details, Nate.
“Whatever,” I grumbled, but diligently adjusted for the change in distance.
“With that attitude, you’ll never get a kill on the first shot,” he provided, scorn dripping from his voice.
“I can live with not being a bona fide sniper,” I shot back—and took the shot. The recoil was strong enough that it took me a moment to see where it had landed. Short, but not by much. A small puff of snow still hung in the air above where I’d sent the round into the drift.
“Case in point,” he commented dryly, eyes glued to his scope.
Grumbling, I ejected the shell casing and chambered the next round before adjusting the rifle again and forcing my mind to return to a focused state that was centered on something other than grabbing the rifle at the barrel and clubbing my less-than-forgiving spotter to death with it. Would have been a waste of good gear, really.
A light twinge of pain started up in my right hip, making me shimmy over onto my left with soft movements. I’d been lying on this snow drift for the better part of half an hour, and even with the heavy winter gear and the overwhites, I could feel the cold seeping in slowly. It was about time that I hit my mark so we could move on to the next position.
Exhaling slowly, I zeroed in on my target, and when I pulled the trigger this time, the head of the left-most zombie disappeared in a satisfying haze of red. It took another two steps before it fell to the ground, becoming just another heap that the snow drifts would cover up within the next few hours. Like at my previous three shots, the other zombies jerked around, trying to pinpoint the source of the shot, but they were too far away—and too sluggish from the cold—to even look straight at the drift we were lying on. Within the next three minutes, I dispatched the other two—a second headshot, the other a little lower in the chest cavity, severing the spine through the fist-sized hole of impact. Grinning, I reloaded, raising my brows at Nate.
“You want a cookie or something?” he jeered, but was unable to hide the ghost of a smile.
“How about some jerky? We’ve been out and about for, what? Four hours?”
Shrugging, he put his super scope away and reached for the side pocket of his pants. Chewing meditatively, we shared the small bag of dehydrated beef strips, savoring the rich flavor.
“That’s twelve today,” I summed up my kills. “Four more than last week.”
“They’re on the move again,” Nate agreed, coming to his feet in one lithe motion. It took me somewhat longer to force life back into my own limbs, and I spent another few seconds brushing the snow from my front. The winds were strong again today—one reason for why that first shot had gone wide—carrying enough snow around that my calves had already been partly submerged before I got up. I was so over this winter thing.
Before we left, I gathered up the empty shell casings and stuffed them in my pocket, while Nate used a pine bough to rough up the snow where it had become hard-packed from our weight lying on it for fucking forever.
Looking up at the setting sun, I tried to estimate how late it was. Four, maybe four-fifteen. About time for us to hit the deer trails again.
Nate took point, leaving me to trudge after him. About halfway to the zombies our track veered west, and there was no sense in checking on them. They would just look like the last ones—half-frozen, skin grayish from lack of food and the cold, any substance that had been on their bodies when they died long gone now. Some resembled little more than a moving skin bag with bone and cartilage inside. The smart ones weren’t those that ended up in a snow drift in west Wyoming when elsewhere spring had already arrived. Presumably. With no real way of global communication, it stood to reason that in California or Florida, the weather was balmier than here, close to the Rocky Mountains.
Our trail continued uphill until we reached another stone formation, suspiciously free of the fluffy white stuff that crept into everything else. Looking closer, the reason became apparent as my gaze fell on the few yellow marks in the surrounding snow. And because Andrej and Burns pissing on our boundary marker this morning wasn’t enough, Nate had to add to that now, of course.
Making a disgusted sound, I turned away, glaring down the hill toward the low prairies beyond.
“Seriously? And there you complain that we can’t sink as low as animals just because the world has gone to shit.”
Nate chuckled as he put his equipment away, gifting me with a bright grin.
“That coming from the woman who keeps complaining that she would have looted some adult diapers from the pharmacy in Cody if she’d known how many hours she’d spend on sniper duty.”
Reminding me of that—and my bladder, too—so did not improve my mood.
“I can’t just roll over and point my weiner at the next available target. Which is a truly disgusting habit, just saying.”
“Did I tell you that story about my second tour in Afghanistan when I spent four days in that ditch, where Bucky and I started building a tower out of the ziplock bag cubes we put our fecal matter into?”
I just gave him the deadpan stare that deserved. “You told me. Repeatedly. And the story doesn’t get better with each new round.”
“Always the critic,” he griped, still smiling.
We moved on, farther uphill, then cut to the left sharply, trudging along the very edge of the hill shoulder. Someone trained in reconnaissance might have picked out our silhouettes against the background, but with the dirt patches breaking up the white of our outer layer, we’d probably disappear right into the mountain. Within minutes, I felt hot underneath the billions of layers, a nice contrast to freezing my ass off before. Muscles burned and my breath came out in small, white puffs, but even carrying both the sniper rifle now strapped to my pack and my shotgun slung across my chest, the slope didn’t force me to slow down anymore. The first few weeks had been tough—particularly as I’d completely underestimated the impact of the elevation here—but months into this, everything was just routine.
About ten minutes later, we reached the plateau that held the next boundary mark, a larch tree this time. We walked right past it—thankfully—and over to the other side. A solitary figure clothed in muted browns and greens was already waiting for us there, a thermos in one hand, the steaming, unscrewed cap of it in the other.
Grinning at Dave, Nate raised his right hand in greeting, while I divested him of the coffee immediately. While I took a first sip—closing my eyes and trying not to moan in bliss too loudly—Nate got out a gallon-sized container from his pack, handing it to Dave in exchange.
“Rabbit stew, with the last of our turnips and onions. From here on out it’s just meat and rice, I’m afraid.”
Dave didn’t seem to mind.
“Beats only eating canned food all the time. If I have to eat another can of tuna, I’ll get an anaphylactic shock for real.”
I couldn’t help but snort at his exaggeration, but shared his sentiment all too well. Although tuna still beat cat food. Except for the red one, pork with beans.
“Any news?” I asked, trying to steer the conversation away from things I didn’t want to think about.
“Some,” Dave reported. “Simone lured in a third cat. The guys over in Reno said they were considering hitting one of the casinos next, mostly to see if they can liberate any gear from the security force. Haven’t heard anything from Holly and Ben for two weeks, but they said they were hunkering down for a winter storm; might just have killed their generator until the solar panels are free again.” I could commiserate with the last; we’d spent way too many hours this winter in the dark because the snow drifts had covered the panels on our bunker, too, and during the storms it had been too dangerous to get up onto the roof. And with inches of snow coming down each hour, making a run for diesel for the generator had been out of the question, too.
“Any idea if the roads have cleared up already?” Nate asked. For whatever reason, he and Andrej kept debating when the routes through the mountains would free up again—as if there wasn’t enough lowland around that hadn’t disappeared under yards and yards of ice and snow.
“Nope, but I doubt that will happen for another month,” Dave offered. “We’ve had a pretty mild winter down here, but the folks up in Montana said they haven’t seen anything like this in decades.”
Nate nodded, looking in the general direction of the mountains as if that was helping any. If getting buried under heaps of snow several times over the last months qualified as “mild,” I wondered if we could maybe relocate to Florida for the next cold season. Maybe the gators would help with zombie population control, too?
We chatted a while longer, watching the sun sink toward the horizon—which was to say, drop away behind the summits way before the orange glow was dissipating over the plains to the east. The moment we were standing in the shade, the wind whipping across my face, it got a hundred degrees colder. Shivering, I pulled up the neoprene face mask until my chin, mouth, and nose were covered. About time to head home.
I was about to mention that to Nate when a rather distinct growling sound made us both whip around, weapons at the ready. I didn’t need to get the rifle with its scope to make out the group of maybe fifteen—no, make that twenty—zombies barging out of the trees, coming straight for us. Unlike the ones I’d shot further down the slope, these ones moved fast, apparently still at full strength underneath their barely torn-up winter gear. The only reason why they were running spread-out was because what used to be women and children simply had shorter legs that didn’t carry them as fast as the others. Likely a caravan that had chosen the wrong food source, or else the smaller ones would never have survived long enough to actually turn.
“Guess that’s my clue to beat it,” Dave said, his cold-reddened face paling visibly. “You guys got this?”
Nate nodded. “See you next week.”
“And thanks for the coffee!” I called after him, not caring to pitch my voice low now. Considering that Dave mostly carried that hunting rifle because it made him feel protected rather than actually did a good job doing so, it made sense to draw the attention of the zombies away from him. I just would have preferred not to use myself as bait.
“How are we doing this?” I asked, hoping that—for once—Nate wouldn’t turn this around and make a training exercise of it. Hungry and cold, I could think of a much better way to spend my time.
“We can’t pull back east. That would just lead them closer to the bunker.” Which was the last place we wanted them. The whole point of establishing and keeping a perimeter was to not have to worry about zombies on our porch.
That left us with two choices: farther into the mountains, or through the forest that hugged the slopes, but lay ultimately in the opposite direction of home—a good idea in general, but not if that meant a fifteen-mile trek home through territory that we didn’t stake out regularly.
“Woods,” Nate decided. “I’m not sure if they wouldn’t hunt us down eventually up in the snow. We have a small depot over in the forest, and there’s a cliff that we can scale if nothing else helps.”
I so didn’t look forward to climbing in the dark, but maybe we’d be in luck and it wouldn’t come to that. Yeah, right.
I didn’t need any further incentive to take off, aiming for the pine trees and firs that lay beyond the stretch of stony plateau we were standing on right now. Dave had already ducked out of sight, using one of the small mountain trails to retreat toward the bunker he shared with Kevin. A real bunker, not like our cabin with the extended basement. I hadn’t had the chance to get there—and doubted that I would, unless a state of emergency broke out that went way beyond the zombie apocalypse. The guys were like that. But at least they brought coffee to our weekly meetups. That counted for something. And it wasn’t like we needed a second bunker, even if Burns and Andrej had some kind of project going there that I wasn’t supposed to know anything about.
The zombies were faster than I’d given them credit for, the first two almost catching up with me before I hit the woods. Two quick, successive shots ringing out behind me took care of the fastest ones, making me realize that Nate was hanging back, his AR switched for his sniper rifle now. I didn’t protest, and didn’t hesitate—we might have each other’s back, but out here it was each for his or her own.
A howl went up from the third zombie, hot on my heels still, not distracted by the potential meal the two dead bodies on the ground might pose. It clearly wasn’t hungry enough to consider that opinion. Or it simply loved giving chase too much. Just my luck.
I didn’t know the terrain well here, but spending the entire winter out and about had taught me a thing or two, like not tripping over each and every root. I still managed to stumble, catching myself before I could pitch toward the floor, but that killed what little distance I’d been able to keep between me and the shambler. Not waiting for it to tackle me, I whipped around and shot it point-blank in the face, the shotgun recoil hitting my shoulder hard. Gore and semi-coagulated blood sprayed everywhere, while the rest of the body sagged down onto the frozen ground.
Three down, way too many still to go.
My shot might have taken care of this one, but it also served as the perfect beacon for the others. Their enthusiastic howls and screams went up where I’d come from, and the five that I could already see sped up, hurtling toward me. I could have made a stand and downed them for good, but instead I ran on, hoping to spread out the mob a little more again.
Nate seemed to have a similar idea, judging from the barrage of shots coming from somewhere to my right, forcing the zombies to choose which of us to follow. They weren’t stupid enough to come to a halt and consider, but instead those closest to me just kept going, while some of the others veered off in the new direction after the couple that had already been on Nate’s trail. I really didn’t like that tactic, but it sounded like the best idea.
With the sun gone, shadows deepened, making running all the harder. My breath came in fast pants, but I ignored the burning in my lungs and legs. Ahead of me, the forest lightened again and I aimed for that meadow, running out a full ten steps before I turned, ready to shoot at anything that followed.
The first shambler was stupid enough to come straight at me, and got exactly what it deserved. The second’s momentum carried it straight into the dropping body, making aiming for me just as easy. The third and fourth, though, were smarter, splitting up to the left and right, and when the fifth and sixth followed, that left me with four targets that were all running at me in curving paths.
I hit the third in the shoulder and managed to neutralize the fourth by shooting off its left leg, but then it was high time for running, the zombies close enough that I could smell them—and they weren’t that ripe yet to begin with. One almost managed to grab hold of my pack but I wrenched myself free, taking off again. More shots rang out from my right, giving me a good guess where Nate was right now. He was keeping parallel with me but was a little behind, likely because he was trying to draw the zombies to him. Or he’d faceplanted and I hadn’t seen it, and that’s why he lagged behind. Damn.
Reloading while I was running for my life was less funny than it probably sounded, but by the time I was back in the thickening forest, there were eight rounds in my gun again. I would never have admitted so out loud, but I was glad for all the running drills Pia had forced me to do. That shit actually helped when you needed it.
I shot three more zombies over the course of the next five minutes, but by then it became clear that our problem was a lot bigger than I’d thought at first. Even with a few misses, we should have decimated the mob to just the slow ones, which shouldn’t have been fast enough to keep up with us in the first place. But so far I hadn’t shot more than one zombie that had been female in its glory days, and no children, either, and there were still more fast, strong ones coming. What we’d seen out on the slope must have been just the tip of the iceberg—leaving us with unknown numbers and a huge problem. Nate had been right—if we’d gone for the mountains, they might have easily run us down by now. Fighting opponents that felt no pain and never got tired simply wasn’t fair—but that was life nowadays.
Nate emptied another six or seven shots into the undead horde, and I used the sound to hone in on his location. Ten zombies each we could have maybe taken care of on our own. But this? This was a little beyond what I was comfortable with.
The howls and growls helped me map my route, and after another few harrowing minutes, I saw a white shape lope through the woods to my side, the winter camouflage not very concealing here as long as we were up and running. Nate noticed me and hailed me over with a gesture, glancing back briefly to get an estimate of how bad it was behind us.
“We can’t swing back to the bunker with that after us,” he huffed, barely waiting for my nod of acknowledgement. “About five miles from here, there’s that cliff, with some caves in it where we can hold out until daybreak.”
I really didn’t like that idea, but with the zombies now actually gaining on us as they didn’t need to split their attention, it sounded like a good last resort.
“What about that depot?”
“Heading right toward it,” Nate replied, nodding slightly to the right. “About another mile or two this way.”
“Why did you even set up something like that out here? This is, what, ten miles out from the bunker?”
His grin had a certain roguish touch to it. “Because I was hoping that I’d never need it. But it’s kind of our forward bug-out location.”
“I thought the bunker was our bug-out location?”
“For when we have to bug out from our bug-out location.”
I might have sighed with annoyance at that if I hadn’t been busy huffing and puffing along. I didn’t doubt that he’d planted caches all over the area, so why was I even surprised about this?
Two more times we sprinted ahead, turned around, and tried to get the zombies off our backs, but as soon as the dead started piling up, the undead just kept coming. As frightening as that was, what really got the low-simmering panic going in the back of my mind was that, only hours ago, we’d thought we were pretty safe out here, with months of quiet and peace where the latent zombie population would likely have taken care of itself, and hunting them down was more target practice than required culling. There’d even been few enough of them that we’d had good luck supplementing our stocks with hunting. But now that I thought about it, Bates had mentioned that he hadn’t seen a buck in weeks, and today all of the hare snares had been empty.
Maybe those glances Nate had cast toward the mountains were something different than wistful yearning to go off-roading in Yellowstone?
But if this really was a stream of zombies, heading somewhere—like we’d seen on the first few days after the outbreak—where did they come from? And why head to Wyoming, where there hadn’t really been much game to start with even before the virus had turned entire states into desolate wastelands? It was kind of ridiculous that we’d passed by the Chicago metro area and hadn’t gotten accosted by the undead, and out here in the middle of nowhere we were suddenly swarmed?
“How much farther?” I asked, weariness spreading in my muscles.
“Hundred yards, maybe two,” Nate offered, casting another look behind us. “You want to go first or shall I?”
“I have no clue where—“
“Up in the trees, on a small platform,” he helpfully provided.
Shit. I hated climbing trees, particularly the pines that just got me all sticky and never had any good boughs to hold on to.
“You first. I’ll hold them off until you can clear the way for me.”
Yet more running, until Nate suddenly swerved to the left, pointing at a pine tree between three firs that looked just like all the others. “That one. Cover me!”
He sprinted ahead, leaving me to stumble to a halt, my Remington ready. I might have gotten faster with the pump-action shotgun, but still preferred the semi-auto in a tight spot. Getting surprised by way too many zombies sounded like the definition of that.
Trying to force my breathing pattern into more even paths, I exhaled, squinting into the perpetual twilight. It was getting dark quickly now, and while the zombies were good at hunting by sound, I wasn’t. The first few had never lost sight of us, so they were on me rather quickly. I emptied the entire eight rounds into them in under a minute. The deafening racket was too loud for me to keep track of Nate’s progress, but I figured he must have gotten up there by then. Reaching into my pocket, I grabbed the last remaining rounds—four of them—and reloaded as quickly as possible. The zombie coming right at me—hurtling over the downed ones as if they weren’t there—growled in triumph, and I barely got the shotgun up in time to bash it into its face. Staggering back, it screamed, but the sound cut off as soon as I shoved the barrel of the shotgun in its mouth and pulled the trigger.
Then it was three more shots and two downed shamblers, and I was officially out of ammo—at least for the Remington.
“Any moment now would be nice!” I shouted, hoping that Nate was ready to cover me now, if not replying. I wasted a precious five seconds to sling the shotgun over my shoulder, getting my Beretta ready instead. As soon as I had the sights aligned, I fired, hitting the next zombie squarely in the chest, straying upward. The fourth shot got its neck to explode, but that wasn’t enough to decapitate. Only when the fifth hit it in the forehead did it drop dead. But five shots was more than I could allow myself.
“Nate!” Still no reply, and no staccato from his assault rifle, so I did the next best thing. “I’m falling back!”
Continuing to fire at the zombies, I started backing away from the pine, casting around for a tree that would be easier to climb than this one. There were firs and spruces around everywhere, too thick to be of any use except to hide the mob that was still streaming into the forest. I needed something better, and quick. If I hadn’t already started to back away from the pine with the depot, I might have chanced that one.
“Run!” Nate called down to me, making me do so without questioning. Yet instead of the rifle fire I was expecting, I heard a few dull thuds as something hit the frozen ground—and before my mind got a chance to catch up, the first of the three grenades exploded, quickly followed by the other two. I was well out of the blast range by now, but the zombies surging after me got hit hard. Entire body parts flew through the air, irritating yet more others, and gave me the window I needed to get away.
Maybe thirty yards over I saw another tall pine, with no boughs until the upper third of the tree. Cursing under my breath, I ran for it, holstering my gun. Unlike Nate’s, it wasn’t that thick, and I discovered that the bark was rather knobby, giving me more purchase than I’d expected as I started pulling myself up. A few more shots followed—semi-auto assault rifle fire—until I was well out of reach, at which point I allowed myself to relax a little. Up here, the pine was still thick enough that I couldn’t have closed my hands around it, but it was thinning out toward the top, and already moving to and fro in the wind.
I really didn’t like this.
Trying to get as good a grip as possible, I looked down, immediately regretting the decision. It was dark enough to make it almost impossible to really see, but that didn’t help the immediate sense of vertigo that hit me. Yeah, me and heights—never going to become fast friends.
Looking over to Nate’s pine, I saw that he had somehow attached himself to the tree with some kind of harness—the likely reason for the long delay—and was still busy shooting down at the zombies. A few had followed me, but while they seemed to have no issues whatsoever identifying me up here as food, they eventually all turned and lumbered back to their fellows, waiting to get shot one after the other. Turning back to the tree, I rested my forehead against the rough bark, and waited. What for, I couldn’t exactly say, but I hoped that it came before I lost my grip and plummeted to my certain death.
Endless minutes passed—hours, really, but I knew that if I’d checked my watch, it would have told me just mere minutes—and the zombies still didn’t quiet down. There must have been thirty or forty dead ones down there already, and still more kept coming. And judging from the wet, disgusting sounds, some of them had started to go for the easy pickings rather than more prickly food.
“Bree? Are you still out there?” Nate called, his voice disembodied in the darkness. Loath to lead the zombies back to me, I just gave a chuffing sound, hopeful that they wouldn’t hear it over the din of their own… meal. Whether Nate heard it was a different thing entirely, but one could hope.
“Gotcha,” he said, somewhat less loudly, but considering that the zombies were all around his tree, there wasn’t really any sense in keeping quiet for him. “I say we stay here for another hour or two, then we move out.”
“Are you fucking kidding me?” I ground out, caring less about the noise now. “I’ll be lucky if I manage to stay up here for the next fifteen minutes!”
Silence answered me—nicely interrupted by growling, chewing, and other general munching sounds—until Nate replied.
“I can’t climb down until they’ve fed and shambled off to sleep somewhere.” Not that we were sure they were actually sleeping, but they seemed to zone out sometimes. Or maybe that had just been malnutrition and the cold. “But I can try to hop to one of the firs and use that as an escape route.”
That sounded like a recipe for disaster, but unlike me, he wouldn’t join the undead hordes just because he got scratched or bitten. I still couldn’t fathom that he looked forward to almost breaking his neck, and needing thorough wound cleaning and stitches afterward.
“We could split up,” I proposed.
“I’m not keen on spending the next week looking for you, particularly if our outer perimeter has turned into a hot zone now.”
That made me roll my eyes, which didn’t help with the vertigo, either. “I’m not that bad with directions. You know that.”
“In the dark, in uncommon terrain, with zombies chasing you? Yeah, you’ll get lost. You’re also out of shotgun ammo, and if they catch up to you where you can’t shoot them with the sniper rifle, you’re toast. Did I forget anything? Oh, right, you don’t even have a sleeping bag in your pack.”
“And who’s fault is that?” I griped back, hating that he made so much sense. “You told me that I didn’t need it.”
“I told you that you didn’t need it for other things besides sleeping,” he offered, and I didn’t need to see his face in the dark to know that he was smirking.
“So not helping right now!” I pressed out, then fell silent when I heard something move in the grass and needles underneath my tree. Counting to ten, I forced my eyes to open so I could look. Yup, one of the shamblers had decided that it was very curious about this tree. And I couldn’t even free a hand to shoot at it—or likely just drop my gun, which wouldn’t be very impressive, I figured. I really should have tried the other pine.
“How many do you have below your tree?” Nate asked, sounding less concerned than I felt.
“At least one, but probably ten by the time we’re done talking,” I pressed out.
“I have an idea, but I can already tell that you won’t like it.”
“Why, does it entail my sudden but inevitable death?” I hedged.
“Possibly,” he replied, quite conversationally. “If you drop down now, you’ll only have to fend off one or two. And if you run, hopefully enough of them will follow you so that I can clear the ground and come after you.”
Definitely not what I would have chosen for myself, but—
“You think they won’t overwhelm me? There seemed to be quite a bunch of them before,” I objected.
“I think we just scared up some squatters from the trees,” he said. “They’ve stopped now. And the last from the mob that we saw outside on the plain have caught up, I think.”
Oh, great—kid zombies. Theoretically, that should have been good news—smaller bodies meant less strength—but while I had fewer reservations about bashing faces in than, say, a year ago, it was still so much harder with the kids. And their bites were just as infectious as with the adult ones.
But with my arms and thighs screaming from the strain of keeping myself up in the tree, and my fingers getting weaker and weaker by the minute, there wasn’t really much of an alternative.
“As soon as you’re ready,” Nate replied, chuckling. “I think I’ll notice when they start making a fuss again, and you probably won’t miss the blasts of a few more grenades going off behind you.”
Breathing out forcefully, I just hoped that this wasn’t the last bad decision of my life.
“Okay, then let’s do this.”
And with that, I started easing myself back down the trunk.
At first, things went according to plan, but the closer I got to the ground, the more my arms started to shake. It was dark enough that I couldn’t make out the terrain at the roots of the tree, but I could see the shape crouching there, munching on something—maybe a leg that it had torn off? It was less bulky than most of the zombies that had been chasing us, but still normal sized, so I figured it had been a woman before.
My decision whether to drop down on it or try to shimmy around to the other side of the trunk was suddenly taken from me when I lost my hold with my right foot, and gravity did the rest. Unable to cut off the scream that tore itself from my throat, I fell, my impact somewhat cushioned by the thing I came down on.
I scrambled up as soon as I regained my balance, dancing out of reach of the also rearing zombie. Like most of the others, it was wearing full winter gear, although the once-light parka was torn in places and streaked with what I presumed was blood and dirt. It snapped its jaws, reaching for me, but instead of engaging, I stepped away, bringing more distance between us. That made me trip over something on the ground, but when I realized that it was an old bough, I immediately picked it up. Now armed with my makeshift club, it was easier to fend off the zombie, but it was making enough noise that I could already hear others come closer. Gritting my teeth, I aimed for its head, putting my entire weight into the swing. With uncanny dexterity, it managed to evade me—but not the kick that I aimed at its knee. They might not feel pain, but it still screamed as the leg gave out under its weight, making it fall.
I didn’t linger to finish it off or see how the other zombies might react, but ran off in the direction Nate had indicated for that cliff. Behind me, I heard several grenades go off, the incendiaries briefly painting the darkness bright as day. I screwed my eyes shut, trying to keep my night sight up as much as possible.
And then I was running through the dark forest, zombies howling behind me, the club in my hand the most reliable weapon. No gunshots followed so Nate’s plan must have worked so far—now they were all coming for me. My arms and fingers were so tired that I didn’t even dare change the half-empty magazine of my handgun. Fumbling in the dark and losing the weapon was one thing—shooting myself in the knee quite another. So I ran, less concerned with being silent than smacking into trees face-first.
I knew I was on the right track when the trees grew more scarce and the ground started sloping upward ever so slightly. Finally able to see something again was great. Looking back and realizing there were more then twenty shamblers chasing me, not so much. Fear closed down my throat, but I forced myself to go on. Sure, it had been months since the last time I’d seen this many at once, but that didn’t mean that I hadn’t learned a thing or two.
Finally out on the frozen prairie, I pushed myself harder, forcing my legs to pump at maximum capacity. In front of me I saw the cliff Nate had been talking about white in the moonlight. I only had another mile to cover, then I would be there—and should I make it up there somehow, I might even be safe.
Crashing in the frozen grass maybe twenty yards away from me made me look away from my destination, afraid that one of the shamblers had managed an uncanny burst of speed. It took me a moment to actually focus on Nate, his overwhites now working their magic on the snowy ground. There were maybe another twenty yards between him and the fastest of the zombies, the distance widening as we raced on.
A good minute away from the cliff, the ground sloped up toward the stark mountain face, making footing easier—for the lack of frozen grass—but I backslid a few times as I tried to scramble up as quickly as possible. The zombies seemed to have less problems with that, which didn’t seem fair to me.
“Give me your hand,” Nate urged, extending his arm back toward me. The moment my fingers wrapped around his, he pulled me forward, giving me a push as soon as we were on the same level. Dropping my club, I used both hands to scramble onward, and made it to the foot of the wall just as Nate emptied another magazine into the zombies. So much for hoping to make a clean getaway.
I’d never been good at climbing, but I still set to the task with fervor, quickly finding hand- and footholds to pull myself up. I was well out of reach by the time Nate hit the cliff wall next to me, scrambling up like a deranged monkey. The howls and shouts of the zombies dropped away underneath us, a continuing reason for me to move swiftly yet carefully.
“How far up until there’s a ledge or something?” I asked, pausing for a moment to gather my breath. Nate looked from me up the wall, and back.
“Maybe a hundred yards?”
“Why is it always a hundred yards with you?” I huffed, but dutifully continued to pull myself up. This was so not what I’d signed up for when I’d left the security of our compound at noon.
We continued on in silence, Nate staying with me although I was sure that he could have climbed the wall in half the time it took me. Tired and drained from the adventure with the tree already, I had to rest several times before I moved on—not just because I didn’t want to continue climbing, but because I was afraid I wouldn’t have the strength to if I didn’t take it one yard at a time.
And suddenly, Nate was gone, if only for a moment. Looking over, I realized that there was an opening in the rugged side of the mountain—a cave. Mobilizing the remainder of my strength, I pulled myself up, not protesting when Nate reached down to grab the straps of my backpack to help. I rolled over onto my side as soon as I felt horizontal ground underneath me again, panting from both relief and exertion.
“You always take me to the most romantic places,” I huffed as I finally found the will to roll over and look back down the cliff. Yup, the zombies were still there, trying to climb all over each other to reach us. A few even made it several feet up, but they lacked the coordination climbing required. Now if we’d just spend the remainder of our lifespans in caves…
“It’s not so bad,” Nate replied, looking out over the rolling hills that flattened into prairie that went on and on and on below, everything cast in darkness and silver moonlight. “And, look, I even brought dinner.” Reaching into his pack, he offered me a sealed tub of applesauce. Grimacing, I accepted it, not bothering with cutlery as I drank it straight from the plastic container. It was by far not as sweet as the stuff I’d been used to since childhood, but came with the added benefit that now that sugar was pretty much a no-go for us, there was still sweetness to the fruits. It didn’t hurt that Sadie had added a generous amount of rum to the mixture when she’d cooked it, insisting that it was required for conservation. The issue was, we’d spent a good three weeks picking fruit for her to preserve, and consequently, a huge chunk of our stocks was applesauce now. As great as that had been after two months on the road, relying on cat food—half a year later, it had gotten kind of old. But then so had pretty much everything else in our storage. In the end, it was all the same, because the only thing that still mattered was getting enough nutrients not to waste away and die.
We shared the tub until it was empty, listening to the growls of the zombies below. Yes, indeed, very romantic. Love in the time of zombies—not really what they write novels about.
“What do you think? How long until we can climb back down?”
I more felt than saw Nate shrug in the deeper darkness of the cave entrance.
“If we’re lucky, tomorrow. If we don’t turn up by midnight, they’ll send a search party out, and our tracks should be easy to follow. Either that will take care of the problem, or they’ll get hungry and search out the corpses.”
The problem was, by late October, just before we’d gotten snowed in for the first time and stopped ranging for more food, we’d still found zombies locked in houses that hadn’t had a thing to eat since they’d turned earlier that year in May. While they’d looked more decomposed than not, their instincts had been all about getting anything edible between their jaws, making them just as deadly as the well-fed ones. They easily made up for strength with craziness—and that was saying something, considering that the average zombie didn’t start out incredibly sane.
“So now we wait?” I guessed, not too enthusiastic. It wasn’t as cold in here as outside, but after spending the entire day out in the open, I wouldn’t have minded hunkering down inside—as in, inside a real house—rather than spending the night in a cave. My heart rate was still elevated from the chase, and it wasn’t even seven yet—this was set to become one long night.
That Nate had different ideas I realized when he not only moved closer, but brushed his hand up underneath my jacket at my lower back. Turning to him, I snorted as I caught the grin on his face.
“Seriously? We’re in a cave. And there are zombies down there, crying for our flesh and blood.”
“Not sure they’d know what to do with our blood,” he replied, leaning in to capture my lips in a kiss. I thought about shoving him away, but instead pushed against his shoulders, making him lie flat on the ground, with me now perched above him.
“Whatever,” I said, cutting his reply off before he could say something incredibly stupid. Turned out, we didn’t need sleeping bags to keep warm.
Undressing down to the important parts had been moderately feasible in the tight space of the cave. Putting everything back to where it belonged turned out to be much harder, particularly as I couldn’t get up to properly settle the pants around my ass. Nate, of course, had no such issues, but then he hadn’t needed to shove everything down to at least his knees—if not completely ditch it—to get it on. Ah, the eternal unfairness of clothing. I could go on and on…
“Are you bitching me out in your head again? You know, you get that look on your face sometimes—”
Glaring at him, I gave up, figuring that the pants were as well in place as they were going to get until I had sure ground under my feet again.
“I’m not,” I replied, maybe a little sharply, but who could fault me for that?
“But you are bitching about something.”
“Liar,” he teased. At that, I huffed, plucking on the much-too-loose overwhites. With only five sets between us, I should have been glad that one set fit me moderately well, but it was still annoying as hell to always have to adjust them everywhere. And that the pants underneath weren’t really fitting me anymore didn’t help.
“So what? It’s none of your business what I’m thinking.”
“True,” he admitted. “But I have a feeling that even if you weren’t bitching me out yet, you soon will.”
“Do I even want to know?” I asked, feeling like I was already admitting defeat.
“Probably,” he said, reaching for his pack—but not to get something out, but to pull it back on.
“Wait. We’re not going to continue climbing up that cliff now that it’s even colder and windier out there and I’ve spent my remaining stamina?”
“Of course not. I’m sure you can still mobilize some reserves,” he replied, still too nice for this not being something I would—indeed—bitch him out about any minute now.
“Then what’s with the pack?”
“Why, do you want to leave it here?” he asked. When I just kept staring at him, his grin spread. “The cave goes straight through the cliff and ends close to the bottom on the other side.”
“Why didn’t you tell me that already?”
Nate shrugged. “If you’d known, would you still have had sex with me in a cold mountain cave over an abyss brimming with zombies?”
Looking down the cliff, I couldn’t help but snort. “That’s not really an abyss, and thirty or so can’t really be considered ‘brimming.’”
“You’re avoiding the question,” he prodded.
“Because you don’t deserve an answer,” I grumbled, squinting when he switched on his flashlight. “Just how long is that cave, anyway?” Now, with light, I could see the narrow yet clear way leading deeper into the hill.
“Oh, not far. Just a hundred yards or so,” he offered, making me groan.
One of these days I was so going to make him suffer for all this. But today? Today wasn’t that day. Today was just another day that we did the only thing that was still left to us—survive.
Ready for more? Get Green Fields #3: Escalation now! Also available in paperback and audio.
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