Let's go hunting

The heavy fabric of my gear on my shoulders and back. The weight of my shotgun in my hand. The light restriction of my thigh holsters. The scent of sweat, weapon oil, exhaust. The low murmur of voices.

This is home.

Staring at the dying light of the sky, I exhaled, and for the first time in what felt like forever truly relaxed.

Then I caught a whiff of wood smoke and barbecue, lightly scratching the back of my throat, and the tension returned to my shoulders. Fuck, but I really needed to get away from this damn hellhole.

Judging from the way the guys loitered between the cars, Santos the only one doing anything useful where he was kicking dust over the dying embers of the pyre, I wasn’t alone in thinking that. It was getting too dark to travel the roads safely, but I didn’t suggest staying here. I’d had enough of this bunker for the next hundred lifetimes. The sooner we were out of sight of that damn trapdoor, the better.

Only a tiny detail was keeping us here.

I glanced over to where Nate was fiddling with the radio, the resulting bursts of static doing their own to contribute to my general state of unrest. “Why don’t we just head north for a couple miles and camp there?” I suggested. “Even if it’s the wrong direction, we can easily catch up on that tomorrow morning.”

All I got was a sidelong glance as my protest went ignored. Sighing, I shook my head and pulled off my sunglasses, blinking into the darkness to the east to acclimate my shot-up eyes to the only light they were still any good in—perpetual gloom. They were puffy but already less swollen after spending some quality time with my glacier-proof shades on. From the corner of my eye I noticed Burns hovering there, ready to come over, but when he saw me turn away, he aborted what I assumed was not just an attempt at socializing. They’d all seen that video—except for our guards—but he was the only one who’d had the dubious pleasure of dealing with that son of a bitch Taggard before. I knew that was one conversation I couldn’t avoid indefinitely, but for now it was nice to delude myself with pretending that I could.

Another squawk from the radio made me jump, but this time it came with the familiar cadence of a somewhat distorted voice.

“This is Silo actual, copy,” it acknowledged, followed by another burst of static. “Your signal is patchy at best.”

“Tell me something new,” Nate grumbled, then said louder, “Can you open me a secure line to Commander Wilkes or Petty Officer Stanton? I don’t want this blaring all over your command center.”

The operator didn’t ask who we were. Apparently the fact that we were sending without a transponder code was enough.

“Give me five,” the operator replied. “If you can find a better position—“

“Land’s as flat as it gets,” Nate offered. “This will have to do.” I figured that was Nebraska for you.

While the operator did his best to get the commander and his aide on the line, I dropped into my seat behind the wheel of the Rover, keeping my shotgun casually across my thighs. Nate glanced down at it. “Are you planning on snuggling with that tonight?”

“Don’t see why not,” I snarked back. “Hot as it is, I don’t need anything else to keep me warm.”

The humor of my remark was lost on him, the way he kept staring at my face making me uneasy. Oh, someone was going to have to do her fair share of talking later, but for now I hoped that the blank look I returned his attention with was enough. My brief outburst after leaving the complex had drained me more than I wanted to acknowledge. And what good would talking do? So far it had never gotten me anywhere.

“This is Wilkes,” a gruff voice coming from the radio interrupted our staring match. “I’m on the private line in my office. Who is this?”

Nate seemed borderline reluctant as he glanced away from me, but his voice was smooth as ever as he replied.

“Nate Miller here. I have a favor to call in.” That was my husband for you—straight to the point. Considering that it was late and Wilkes hadn’t struck me as the kind who enjoyed engaging in small talk, that was just as well.

“What do you need?”

“I need access to the satellite data that you’re collecting,” Nate replied. “Or rather, someone to sift through it for me. I need to find a caravan that passed through a specific stretch of land.”

A noticeable pause followed, making me frown. The light on the radio indicated that the signal was still going as strong as it would, so that couldn’t be it.

Wilkes's response, when it came, just deepened my feeling that something was wrong. “Have you found your wife?”

Nate hesitated, but didn’t hold back. “Yes. Now I need to find the people responsible for us needing to search for her in the first place. I can give you the coordinates. Even with patchy satellite imagery the convoy they must have used to evacuate the installation should be easy to spot—“

Wilkes clearing his throat made Nate stop mid-sentence.

“I’m afraid I cannot help you with that request,” the Silo’s commander replied, making us glance at each other—me scowling while the relaxed look on Nate’s face froze.

“Why not?” he asked, his voice losing that jovial tone from before.

Wilkes hesitated, his silence speaking volumes. I felt my stomach compact into a ball of lead, making me taste bile at the back of my throat. So much for counting on our allies.

“I understand that this is of importance to you, son, but I have responsibilities to my people,” Wilkes explained, telling us a lot more with what he left out than what he actually said. “I cannot waste resources on some foolish witch hunt.”

I’d fully expected Nate to just take that as it was, but I was surprised to see that he needed a full five seconds to stop trying to shatter the mic in his hand before he responded.

“I understand,” he said, his voice so flat it was almost toneless.

“If you need anything else—“ Wilkes suggested, but Nate cut him off before he got any further.

“That will not be necessary,” he replied, then slammed his hand down on the radio to turn the damn thing off. I raised my brows at him but he didn’t reply, just stared out of the windshield. Exhaling slowly, I pried the mic out of his grasp and switched the radio back on to stand-by.

“You know that there’s a chance that he just can’t talk because the channel’s not secure?” I offered, not quite believing that myself.

Nate shook his head. “Not doubting that, but he would have dropped a hint if that was the case.” At my surprised look he snorted. “You missed out on some first-rate hinting last week while we were scrambling to get any information at all about what had happened to you. Your call to Dispatch was downright amateurish compared to what we had going on.”

That deserved the scoff it got. “Yeah, because you would have been at your intellectual peak after not sleeping for a week and literally running yourself into the ground. Did I mention that I was about this close to dropping dead on the spot?” I harped, holding out my thumb and index finger to him with barely any distance between them.

Nate didn’t reply—another surprise—but instead got out of the car to turn to the others. “We’re heading north until we find a good spot for the night. Tomorrow we come back and check for tracks that they’ve left and we haven’t completely destroyed yet.”

No one objected, and five minutes later I angled the Rover back onto the gravel road that went by the trap door to the underground complex. I doubted that there would be any useful traces left—they’d been thorough, and the dry, dusty ground didn’t hold tracks for long as it was. The other cars fell in behind me, leaving just enough room not to rear-end me in case of a hard brake. In the rearview mirror I caught a glimpse of Burns behind the wheel, half of his face obscured by night-vision goggles. There were likely not many zombies around so we could have switched on the lights, but I didn’t mention that to Nate. I saw better without them, and he seemed happy enough to use the scope of his sniper rifle to glare into the night.

We were barely a mile down the road when a light on the radio started blinking, indicating that someone was trying to hail us. Nate stared at it for a second before he reached for the mic, barking a “Yes?” that didn’t sound very friendly.

The voice that answered spoke in hushed tones, and it took me a few moments to realize that it belonged to Stanton, Wilkes’s aide.

“Thank fuck you didn’t turn your radio off yet. Alec had a hard enough time getting the connection up and running again. The line’s not encrypted but we only use the equipment once before we trash it.” She paused, going on when neither of us spoke up. “I can take a guess that neither of you is happy that the commander gave you a blank rejection. He had to.”

A hint of a frown passed Nate’s features as he responded. “Does he know that you’re talking to us?”

Stanton hesitated for a moment. “I don’t think that he suddenly turned into a nitwit, so I presume, yes. But I’m not acting under his orders. In fact, I’ll likely get court-martialed if I’m caught.”

“Then why—“ Nate began, but cut himself off there. “Let me guess. You got a mole?”

Her answering laugh was harsh, and not just because of the static in the line. “I’d be surprised if it was just one. That I could deal with. Problem is, we got a couple of visits over the last few days, and none of that bodes well for us. We may be relatively safe inside if we close our blast doors, but there’s a time to fight, and a time when you know that you shut up and nod. Get my drift?”

I was tempted to answer that but Nate didn’t make a move to let me.

“So why are you calling us?”

“Because it’s the right thing to do,” she professed, her voice hard with vehemence. “I’m done cowering in here, watching on as the real battle gets fought out there. I’d join you if I thought I could make much of a difference, but—“

“You’re in a much better position sitting right underneath their noses,” Nate finished the thought for her. “We need some intel. If I give you the coordinates, can you check for a caravan that must have spent some time there in the past five days?”

I raised two fingers from the wheel, indicating to him to hand over the mic.

“Twice, actually,” I offered up. “Once about a week earlier, a few hours after I disappeared. Likely just two vehicles or so.” Glancing at Nate, I asked, “How far over from Yuma?”

“Make that eleven days ago, and five for a larger convoy,” he clarified. “They emptied out their entire compound, so I’d guess at least ten vehicles, remaining in the same spot for a good stretch of time.” He followed that up with the GPS coordinates, adding a few landmarks as he rattled that off, ending with the pyre that had scorched the earth beyond what the one we’d built for Gussy had done.

“Copy,” Stanton acknowledged. “Might take me half of the night to look through our data, but I’ll get back to you once I find something. Our CIC is usually quiet just after sunrise when the night shift is trudging for a last round of coffee and the early risers are getting their laps done.” She paused, but added one last thing before she signed off. “If you don’t hear from me by the morning after tomorrow, don’t trust any intel you receive.”

The following silence wasn’t the most comfortable one, and I didn’t miss the weary sigh Nate uttered as he turned off the radio for good.

“Guess we can scratch the Silo off our list of possible recreational destinations?” I suggested, trying for levity but failing by a mile.

“It was only a matter of time,” Nate said, snorting when I raised my brows at him. “We know that someone’s out there, gathering resources. It wasn't just coincidence that we didn’t find anything to eat, or encountered those traders at random.”

“You think they lied about coming down from Canada?” I vaguely remembered that this had been the excuse that they’d given for getting lost in the no-man’s land of the northern prairies.

“Not necessarily,” Nate said. “But there’s a chance they didn’t tell us everything. There are equally deserted, much shorter routes down to Dispatch from where we met them. If I had to guess, they were counting on finding a place to rest for a couple of days around there.” It made sense—to a certain point.

“Then why attack them out there, and not just do it inside their base?” I asked.

“Beats me. Unless they wanted to make it look like one of our groups slaughtered them, out in the open.”

Sowing dissent between the already loose ranks of scavengers, traders, and other freedom-loving folks? After what Gussy had told me, and what I’d seen firsthand, that didn’t sound that fantastical anymore.

“Think they’re recruiting?” I proposed, then realized that Nate was missing some vital details I hadn’t had time to relay to him yet. “Most of the soldiers that were with Taggard didn’t strike me as seasoned. Their key personnel might know a thing or two, but the others were barely more coordinated than the guards at that damn settlement where you picked me up. Enough to handle weapons and follow orders, but you should have seen how the zombies tore into them.”

Nate mulled that over for a while. “Makes sense if they only started recruiting this spring. The settlers and most of the traders are complacent fuckers. Don’t know how to handle themselves.” The last he said with a lopsided smile in my direction.

“Unlike yours truly, you mean?” I quipped back, showing my teeth in a bad approximation of a smile. “Is this because of the skirt? I swear, hunkering down and playing possum is a million times harder than doing some grandstanding. And you’re one to talk with that poncho.” It was so like him to find the exact thing to get under my skin in seconds. So much for missing him.

“I didn’t say anything—“ he started to protest, but his smile gave him away.

“Yes, you did,” I insisted. “Besides, there’s a flaw in your plan. The soldiers at the factory knew what they were doing. Your dear friend Bucky had enough of them to senselessly burn them up as cannon fodder. So why the incompetence now?” No protest came from beside me, making me guess that he’d already reached that conclusion himself. “This is much more complicated than it looks, right?” I asked, frustration leaking into my voice.

“We don’t know squat,” Nate agreed. “And I don’t like that one fucking bit.”

That made two of us.

“Let’s see if Stanton finds us something,” I offered. “Tomorrow, after we’ve had some time to rest and think, maybe we’ll realize what we’ve been missing.”

Nate nodded, but didn’t look very hopeful. Once again we were flying blind—and considering our recent track record, that scared the fucking shit right out of me. So much for hoping that just because I wasn’t running for my life, or waiting for someone to do unthinkable shit to me, I could feel safe again. Welcome to the story of my life.

 

We made camp about half an hour after leaving the compound behind, at the edge of a small copse of trees. Any other day I would have been happy for the shade they might be throwing in the morning, but I doubted that we’d still be around by the time the sun was up. Food was distributed and wolfed down mostly in silence, weariness hanging over the camp. It was still warm enough that even an hour after sundown I felt cozy as I shrugged off my jacket. Taylor busted out one of the camping lamps we carried with us, lending just enough light that we could see what we were shoveling down our gullets. In the—to me—harsh light, the track marks on the insides of my elbows stood out starkly, scabbed over next to the mottled bruises that were almost done fading. I caught Martinez glancing at them more than once, but he didn’t ask. Burns kept his trap shut as well, but seemed to be fighting an increasingly harder battle doing so. I would have said something but I was tired enough to fall asleep with the can of beans still in my hands.

Only that as soon as I stretched out on my sleeping bag, my mind was wide awake, making it impossible for me to doze off until the first watch shift was up. Even the lull of the sedate snoring all around me didn’t do its usual trick.

When I finally went under, my dreams were full of nightmares, making me startle awake with a scream what couldn’t have been more than an hour later.

Way to get everyone’s attention.

Rather than assure them that I was fine, I flopped over onto my other side, my back to the center of our group, listening to the guys settling back down. Shame made my cheeks heat up, and I would have welcomed the usual ribbing such actions used to draw. It had been a long time since I’d had to cry myself to sleep—although crying was the last thing on my mind.

Synthetic fabric rustled beside me, making me look up, just in time to catch Nate as he spread out his sleeping bag right next to mine. He dropped down and slung his arm across my hip, grabbing me so he could pull me flush against his body.

“What do you think you’re doing?” I whisper-hissed, trying—quite futilely—to wrestle his arms away from around me.

“Shut up and sleep,” he murmured into my hair. “Nobody’s gonna catch any rest if you keep tossing and turning like that.”

I was tempted to pinch him, but considering that might have called the ticklepocalypse down on me, I refrained from it. That still didn’t mean that I had to relax against him—even if it was so damn tempting.

“Since when are you into cuddling?” I asked.

“Since they screwed you up bad enough that your subconscious needs some plain-old physical comfort for you to let your guard down,” came his murmured reply. That made me tense, but the way he snuggled even closer to me felt almost like a silent apology.

“I’m not screwed up,” I retorted. “Just a little jumpy.”

I’d given up hope to get an answer when Nate finally replied. “It’s not a sign of weakness to admit that shit’s sticking when they keep flinging it at you in tons. No one’s expecting you to just pretend like nothing happened.” He paused, then added, “Whatever it is that happened.”

I felt like rolling my eyes at him but stomped down on that impulse. Not because he couldn’t see it, but because I knew him well enough to be sure he was aware of my reaction. “I told you what happened. Can we drop this now? Please?”

“It’s not healthy to keep it all in,” he pointed out.

“Says you, the master of disclosing what bothers him.”

“True,” he admitted. “But shouldn’t that be enough to make you realize how stupid that is?”

I didn’t reward that with a reply, and after about a minute I felt him relax further as he gave up waiting for one. Trying to find the perfect position to sleep—unused to a warm body wrapped around mine as I was, that wasn’t an easy feat—I couldn’t help but smile.

“If you keep rubbing your ass against me like that I’ll start thinking that sleeping really is the last thing on your mind,” Nate drawled into my ear, making me chuckle softly.

“Stop deluding yourself,” I whispered back. “We’re married now. I’m no longer obliged to put out. I’ve reached the highest goal any woman could aim for.”

“I know. I’m such a catch,” he teased.

“You have no idea.”

I was surprised that he was that easily deterred, but I really was dead tired—and if I wasn’t completely deluded, so was he.

“We’ll talk about that tomorrow,” he said, finality heavy in his tone.

I thought about objecting, but decided that my silence was as much agreement—or dissent—as was required. After all, being stuck in a car the entire day long could turn endless quickly. But I wouldn’t have wanted things to be any other way.

 

 

Ready for more? Get Green Fields #6: Unity now! Also available in paperback and audio (June 2017).

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Adrienne Lecter  |  2017 |  Impressum