If you need some zombies killed, who do you call? The Lucky Thirteen.
A few weeks have passed since the events in Aurora, and Bree, Nate, and the gang are back on the road. The odd mall to raid, cattle to herd, provisions to deliver—all no match for our trusty group of scavengers. The world is yours for the taking when killing zombies becomes routine. Yet with temperatures rising in late spring, a new menace appears on the post-apocalyptic theater of war. Roving bands, thousands of zombies strong are scouring the country, and already the first settlements are going dark. In a world where every human life is valuable, losing hundreds at once is not an option. What makes the zombies band together like that—and, more importantly, why are the tough ones even harder to kill than mere months ago? Bree may wish that she’s just paranoid, but she can’t shake the suspicion that finding a cure may not be the only cause the government is pouring resources into. But to what end?
“Do you know anything about cattle herding?”
Staring out of the Rover’s windshield at the cows grazing in the field across from us, I thought it was a valid question. Nate didn’t reply, so I looked from our precious bounty-to-be to him and raised my brows. He continued to give me one of those flat stares that so often drove me insane—now not an exception.
“Why should I know anything about cattle, or herding it?” he asked, exasperation heavy in his voice.
“Well, I certainly don’t,” I yipped back. “I don’t even know the difference between a cow and a heifer. What would you say that one over by that tree is?”
Nate glanced at the indicated animal. “A bull.”
So much for that. “Why—“
“Because of the testicles dangling underneath its ass.”
Squinting, I tried to make out what he was talking about. Yup, those were some massive balls—and not the only thing hanging there. It seemed to be a very happy bull. Great. Now I was waxing poetic over bovine reproductive organs. And I couldn’t even blame sunstroke, although it was certainly hot enough for that in the car without the AC running. Oh, the sacrifices we all made for fuel efficiency.
“Still doesn’t explain the difference between a heifer and a cow,” I replied, not ready to accede that point to him. He was right too many times for his own good, albeit mostly because ninety percent of our topics ranged around his expertise rather than mine.
“Age,” Nate offered. Damn.
Sighing, I accepted the binoculars from him to scan the herd once more. True enough, the bull testes looked no less impressive up close. But that shouldn’t have been my focus, for so many reasons.
“You know, it’s situations like this where I miss the internet most. Before, we could have just looked it up.”
Nate’s silence made me glance at him once more. I really didn’t care for his condescending smile. “It’s so like you to want to look up cattle terms rather than how to catch them,” he replied.
“Oh, shut up. I would have searched for that next.” His silence let me know what he thought of that. I didn’t reward that with another pissy reply. “So, how do we catch them?” I asked instead.
A few seconds passed before Nate grunted and reached for the car com unit. “Anyone got a clue how to catch us some cows? And no, driving right over them is not an option, Burns.”
As was to be expected, Burns answered with a chuckle. “No clue, boss, if that’s off the table.”
A chorus of similar replies chimed in, until Pia, usually the voice of reason, ended it with a succinct, “You should have bargained for beef rather than live cattle.”
Leaning over to Nate so the mic would catch my voice, I proposed, “How about we try to split some off the main herd?”
“And then what?” Nate questioned. “Ask them nicely to put on a lead rope and follow us?”
“It’s only five miles back to New Town,” I pointed out. “Even if most of Iowa is flat as a board, they don’t have anywhere else to go if we coordinate right.”
Fully expecting him to laugh in my face, I was surprised when he shrugged. “I’ve heard worse. Anyone got any objections?” No one spoke up. Nate gave a curt nod. “Done.” He followed that up with a few formation ideas, but it was obvious that with no precedence whatsoever, planning was impossible. This wasn’t your random mall raid where it was all about sneaking in, disposing of all the shamblers, and being done with it. These were herd animals who, if we were really unlucky, possessed a lot more coordination and brain power than a horde of zombies.
Five minutes later we were all set, and I ambled the Rover across the field, straight toward the edge of the herd. There were around fifty cows—including the odd young bull; I wouldn’t have mistaken a full-grown one for a female—most of them grazing, with the odd one lying down to chew their cud. We’d been watching them long enough that they had started to ignore us, but as soon as they picked up our movement, heads turned and low mooing sounds alerted the few sedentary ones.
“Shouldn’t they be moving?” I asked Nate when I was about twenty yards away from the first animal. “Stampede? Or at least trot away because we’re annoying?”
“Beats me,” he offered. “Honk once. That shouldn’t be too conspicuous.”
I paused, but then dutifully reached for the center control and engaged what used to be the central heating button. In a world where road maintenance was a thing of the past and any loud noise could rain down terror and destruction upon you, accidentally blaring the horn when you knocked yourself stupid on the steering wheel? So not a great idea. A muted horn blare rang out, but the cows barely flicked their ears at us. Eyeing the surrounding countryside wearily, I allowed myself to relax again when no shamblers poured out of any conceivable—or inconceivable—hiding space. I was tempted to drive forward until I could nudge one of the cows in the hamstrings, or wrench my window open and pet it.
“Remind me again why we want to catch them alive?” I asked, unable to keep my fingers from drumming on the wheel.
Nate grunted. “Because that’s the deal you made.”
“I just snagged up the standing order. Technically, we don’t even know if New Town is still operating.” Which, in hindsight, we maybe should have cleared up beforehand. Then again, I figured Tamara would have let me know if she thought we were out on a foolish quest. Just thinking that made me grin.
Nate let that pass uncommented on and got out of the car. Reaching for a stone from the ground, he threw it in the approximate direction of the animals, but short enough not to hit one of them. The closest cow gave a low grunt, but that was about it.
“How did they get through the last year if they’re that recalcitrant?” I shouted at him, making no move to disengage my belt harness.
“How did you?” he called back—and that finally did the trick. Two of the cows and the young bull started forward, not exactly running, but giving us a berth. The others followed, eyeing us with those gentle, huge eyes. If I hadn’t been afraid they’d trample me to death, I might have tried petting one for real. Nate let out a whoop that got the cattle trotting further away from him. He got back into the car with a triumphant grin on his face.
Before he could say anything, I brought the car forward. “If you claim now that what works with me works with cows, too, I’ll punch you.”
He left it at a grin, but that was answer enough.
Burns and Clark driving by us, all six men in the two cars screaming loudly, put an end to our argument. What had been a sedate trot before became a full-out run, and within thirty seconds they had the entire herd moving. I fell in left of Burns, leaving him the lead to flank any cows that might decide to veer off in our direction. There was a rise to our left—northeast to north—with a wooded area ahead. If they’d gone in that direction, we wouldn’t have had a chance in hell to run them down, but Pia speeding the Jeep along that way got them veering west instead.
The pasture ended, and what used to be a cornfield continued beyond an unpaved access road. Nothing but weeds was growing between the brown husks of the former stems, trodden down by the very cows now racing through them. A few trees ahead made a group of maybe twelve cows split further west. I didn’t need Nate’s comment to follow them, Burns and Clark ahead of me. The main herd continued on, but with the remaining two cars now spreading out between that and our prey, the smaller group of cattle had no choice but to range further from the others. Two of the faster cows in the lead split off, rejoining the main herd, but the others remained on track. We only needed a handful, so that didn’t matter.
The cornfield led into another pasture, the easier going making the cows race ahead. I could see a couple of barns, a silo, and some abandoned heavy machinery beyond that—not where we wanted our cattle to go. At my comment, Nate reached for the mic again and told the others to slow down and try to bring the cows further west. It took the cows a little time to realize that they weren’t chased that closely anymore, and a little coaxing had them change direction again.
This wasn’t actually that hard. At this pace, even if we didn’t manage to lasso a couple of them, we could likely just drive them toward the settlement and let the people there deal with them. There were probably a couple farmers there that actually knew how to handle cattle.
Three of the younger animals tried to break off to the left, making me accelerate and go after them, trying to cut them off before they could get far. There was another road ahead with the next field slightly elevated beyond a ditch. That looked like the kind of natural border fleeing cows would avoid. I’d just have to reach the road before them and veer east, coming right at them, and that should drive them back toward the others.
My idea seemed to be working, at least until I slid onto the road in a dramatic right turn, only to see the lead cow come right at me. I wasn’t going that fast—maybe twenty-five miles an hour—but a head-on collision with seven hundred pounds of beef and bone didn’t sound too appealing. I revved the engine and blared the horn again, hoping that would startle the cow into stopping and turning.
“Right!” Nate shouted, making me wrench the steering wheel around hard, sending the car into another, much tighter, turn. The back wheels hit dirt and gravel, the momentum making the entire car spin, the heavily fortified left back corner slamming into the cow. The animal screamed, the impact hard enough to slam me into the harness.
I braked and eased the car to a halt, half across the road—just in time to see three zombies drag themselves out of the ditch, one already scrambling onto the hood of the car. For a second, I froze, my mind needing a moment to switch from “shit, I just killed a cow” to “shit, I need to get away from the steaming cadaver” mode. Forward wasn’t an option, the ditch too narrow and deep for the car to go through it, so as soon as my brain fired on the right cylinders again, I reversed—slamming right back into the screaming, kicking cow—until I had enough road before me to wrench the car around the cow and forward. The acceleration made the zombie slam right into the windshield, blinding me further. Cursing, I braked, sending it tumbling off the hood. Without a second thought, I sent the car over it, feeling the satisfying crunch of bones rather than hearing it.
The road was clear ahead, but in the side mirror I saw the cow carcass already swarming with movement, zombies coming at it from every direction. I didn’t stick around to see if any of them got a craving for canned food today and was stupid enough to come after us.
From the corner of my eye I saw Nate reach for his neck, turning on his throat mic. The car radios had better reach but required someone to have at least one hand free to operate them. Fumbling with my earpiece, I got it back where it belonged and switched my mic on, too. Burns’s voice hollered right into my brain, giving me a jump-scare that I so didn’t need.
“Fuckers are all over the ditches! Keep off the roads!”
Easier said than done, seeing as there were ditches left and right of me now, and yes, they were inhabited, too. Maybe twenty yards ahead another access road branched off, but instead of chancing it, I floored the gas pedal and sent the Rover charging ahead. Only a quarter mile and we’d be back in the flat, the rise the road was cutting through leveling out.
A particularly enterprising shambler thought he could just jump us, but I plowed right through it, the resulting jolt enough to almost wrench the wheel out of my hands, but not enough to make me slow down. The crunch of metal and glass made me guess that I’d just killed another front light, but except for a little swerving I managed to keep the car steady. Two more zombies I avoided by sending the car to the right-most part of the road. Then we were in the clear and I went straight into the next pasture, letting the grass slow me as I tried to get my bearings.
“Two, four, and ten,” Nate barked, letting me know that the rest of our team was spread out to our right mostly, with one car apparently making a run on the other side of the road.
“Cows are getting away south,” Pia grated into her throat mic, grumpy as she got. I was just glad to be free of decaying limbs reaching toward me.
Nate looked around us, then told me to follow Clark just streaking ahead of us. We quickly closed up to Taylor, with Burns angling after the Ice Queen, already giving purchase. As we crossed the road once more, I quickly looked back the way we had come. The entire road between the ditches was full of zombies, the cow carcass long out of sight, probably already picked clean.
Exhaling slowly, I forced my galloping pulse to slow back down. Fear still clogged my throat, but my muscles responded, easing up. I’d probably be on high alert for another hour, but not ready to climb the walls any time soon.
“Did anyone see any of them hiding before?” I asked. The zombies should have stirred when they heard us approach, or at the very latest when I’d honked.
“Negative,” Taylor reported.
Cho agreed with him. “Sneaky fuckers. Just what we need, them outsmarting us.”
The Jeep was finally coming into my field of vision again, several of the cows running ahead. Just as I was about to ask what we were about to do next, Andrej leaned out of the passenger side window, rifle at his shoulder. Two of the cows jerked, then a third, all three animals going down by the time we caught up.
“You fucking suckers shot them? But we need them alive!” I shouted as I brought the car to a halt, cautiously looking around. No ditches, not even some underbrush anywhere in sight—we were smack in the middle of another pasture.
“Tranquilizer gun,” the Ice Queen drawled succinctly. “Enough to knock out an elephant, but not keep anything down for long.”
That made me pause. While I still debated with myself what to reply, I watched as Clark, Bailey, and Pia scrambled out of the cars, ropes at the ready. One of the cows looked out cold but the other two were still trying to rise, lowing softly, but none of the screaming that the dying cow I’d felled had done.
Glancing at Nate, I raised my brows. “We have tranq guns?”
He shrugged, as if that shouldn’t have been news to me. It probably shouldn’t have.
“Picked up some in that mall we raided three days ago,” Pia told me. “Putting that ketamine from the pharmacy hit to good use.”
I didn’t ask how they’d gotten the pills into a form useable to down cows.
“That was for human use only! For surgical operations, or as a heavy painkiller. Can you imagine how many people could have found relief for what you just shot up into those fucking animals?”
Looking up from where she was done tying the end of the lead rope of one cow to the Jeep, she gave me a dazzling grin.
“Zero. Would all have ended up on the black market for someone to get high on it. This way people eat. You can always tough out setting a broken bone without painkillers, but you can’t heal if you’re starving.”
She had a point there, but I was still miffed that no one had told me this was an option. I filed that away for later, likely when one of them had a sore tooth again and complained about it.
“So what’s the plan now?” I asked, staring at the cows lying between the cars. If the shamblers decided to come after us, we’d have to cut them loose, because dragging a tranqued-up cow would slow us down too much—besides killing the animal and subjecting it to needless torment. I was realistic enough that I wasn’t weeping for the animal that I’d killed—and without that carcass drawing the zombies’ attention, we likely wouldn’t have gotten away clean—but there was a difference between making a sacrifice and torture.
Rather than answer me, Nate unbuckled himself and got out to check the right front of the car. I hesitated, then did the same, if only after making sure that my jacket was properly zipped up. Shotgun in hand, I walked to the rear, grimacing at the new dent in our armor plates and blood smears, complete with little tufts of fur dangling from them. Someone would have to clean that up. That someone would likely be me.
“Light’s busted but nothing grave,” Nate declared as he came around the back to stand beside me.
“Cosmetic damage only,” I reported, nudging the plates with my foot. No give whatsoever. Everything was still firmly in place.
We looked at each other. I knew a sarcastic remark was coming, but interestingly enough, Nate swallowed it in favor of turning away to look in the direction that we’d come from. We were too far away to see the rise clearly, but that tree close to where the cow had found its end was still visible.
“We should go investigate,” he said—not a proposition, clearly. “Romanoff, take Cho, Martinez, Taylor, and Lewis with you. No need to rouse any more of the undead fuckers, but find out how many of them are hiding there. Swing by the farm house, too. Maybe we can find a couple of batteries and tools. If it’s crawling with zombies, ignore it and report back. You have two hours. By then, the cows should be up and running.” He paused. “If they come for us, we’ll take the cars to New Town. Meet us there.”
Glancing longingly at the cow blood, I sighed and ducked back into the car to get the rest of my gear—pack, more ammo, baseball bat for a more silent melee option. Last, I switched my beloved aviators for the wrap-around shooting glasses, leaving the others on the dashboard. I was already sweating under my baseball cap as it was, and on second thought decided that I didn’t need full-face protection. I had no intention whatsoever to get close enough to any of the shamblers for them to bleed into my mouth.
With our mission being a run-of-the-mill recon job, we left the cars behind, silence more important than comfort. Andrej took off across the field in the direction of the farm at a moderate pace, meaning that I would have to flat-out run to keep up. A year ago, the very idea of running three miles, playing hide and seek with the undead, and returning the long way around would have been out of the question—and not just because it included zombies. Now I didn’t exactly look forward to doing my daily workout session in the noon heat, dressed for a climate easily thirty degrees below what was beating down on us, but it wasn’t an automatic death sentence from cardiac arrest anymore.
We made good ground, reaching the farm about thirty minutes later. From afar, it had looked abandoned, but the reek of shit and decay made it apparent that the ditches weren’t the only stretch of land that the zombies had claimed as their own. Using the scope of my sniper rifle, I scanned the buildings. There was movement—if not much—inside, making us abandon our plan to search the premises. Instead Andrej had us fan out to sneak around and check a few other hiding places—a small copse of trees to the south, a few more hollows, the large combine rusting away in the field. I got the trees, but didn’t need to go closer than half a mile to see that they were well-inhabited, too. Wherever there was shade to be found and some protection from the elements, shamblers seemed to be squatting. And if most of them had apparently been trudging toward the road, judging from the tracks in the dirt they had left, there were still plenty more around. More than there should have been in a stretch of land that had never had that many inhabitants when they’d still been alive.
With results the same everywhere, we beat it to find a good position to surveil what was happening at the road. Andrej and Taylor ended up climbing an oak tree that was standing at the border between a pasture and a wheat field, the two zombies squatting there quickly and silently dispatched. I waited in the shade, alert but allowing myself to relax a little. The stench was bad here as well, impossible to keep out of my nose even when I pulled up the scarf that doubled as a face mask for that very purpose. It was usually as much of a dead giveaway—pun intended—as picked-clean remains out in the open, but because we’d had the windows closed up after the cows took off, we’d missed it. I filed that info away for later, too.
About ten minutes later, Taylor dropped out of the tree, shaking his head at us when Martinez eyed him askance. “At least five hundred of them, maybe more. If we go any closer, we’ll just draw their attention.”
Andrej followed, brushing oak leaves from his gear. “We go around east, then cut around them to the north and return to the cars from there. That should let us avoid those that ran after you when you fled.”
I stared blankly back at him when he added the last, looking at me, but I didn’t respond. Making a run for it had been my only option, and I’d learned months ago that it never ended well if I tried to defend myself. Why I still couldn’t shut up when Nate was annoying me was a different thing entirely.
It took us about an hour to return to the cars, but we barely met any resistance on the way back. We did find out where all the zombies had come from, though—further east of the ditches, we crossed a patch of land that was churned earth only, not even grass surviving. The swath cut across pastures and fields, angling east and south as far as I could see. A massive horde of zombies must have been moving along to destroy so much previously fertile ground. Whether they’d wintered here or come along more recently—likely on the way north after migrating south last fall—I couldn’t tell, but it didn’t matter. We’d been damn lucky not to run into them head-on, or all of us would be toast now. Judging from the amount of damage, I didn’t doubt that there were more in the area that we hadn’t seen yet. Perfect.
Our mood was somewhat subdued on the way back, me clearly not the only one lost in gloomy thoughts. Seeing the cows up, if still staggering around, was good news. The sooner we got away from here, the better.
Andrej reported our findings, making frowns appear across faces, fingers curling around guns. I got behind the wheel without saying anything, after checking the car over once more. The light had been “fixed” with duct tape, and the gore was gone from both sides. Seeing my aviators on the dashboard, I hesitated for a moment but then put them away in the center console. As much as I loved to laugh in Nate’s face whenever he griped at me for defaulting to them when I didn’t have to shoot, I wasn’t stupid enough to push it when I didn’t have to. I also left the jacket zipped up to my throat, not bothering with taking off my gloves. With the windows cracked to check for stench, I’d survive baking in the car. And, with luck, I’d get a chance to clean up, maybe even soak in a tub, in an hour or so from now when we reached the settlement. After two weeks on the road, simple comforts like that sounded just as appealing as sitting safely behind a fence that someone else guarded—or maybe even more so.
Oh, what a great new world we were living in.
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