“Shelby, what do you mean ‘F’ Company is already deployed?” Draper asked one of his aides.
“Sir, they never left the field. When commander Wade took over he kept them active. Sure, they moved north, out of your line of sight, but they’ve been there all along.”
“I’m not getting them back, am I?” Draper asked the frustrated young woman.
“I wouldn’t know.”
“How far north?”
“They took care of the Righteous Brotherhood. They are just south of Winnipeg, sir.” Shelby told him. She winced after she said it, knowing he would not be pleased.
“Winnipeg! Fucking Winnipeg? Like Canada? Even if we had…there is no way I could pull them out of whatever they are into and get them back here, not without a weeks’ worth of time and considerable effort. Who told Major Wade to move them that far north?”
“Uh, General Snider.”
Draper didn’t say anything, he just turned, walked down the short hallway to his office and slammed the door shut behind him.
A young lieutenant approached the aide and said, “Go remind him we still have company little ‘f’, they’ve been quite effective and have been standing down for three days, so they are ready to go.”
Shelby looked at the man, “When he’s like this sir?”
“It will show him that his moods don’t bother you.”
“Or he’ll kill me!”
He looked around at the otherwise empty foyer and leaned in, giving her a quick kiss, which she returned after a moment of surprise. “You really think I should, Chuck?”
“Hey, we’re on duty! That’s Lieutenant Moore!”
“My! Really? Well, then I suppose I do have to brave Draper’s wrath to report that a Lieutenant, who clearly outranks me, is fraternizing with a subordinate!”
“Whoa, whoa!” Chuck held up both hands, “You win! Do bring him coffee in about 2 minutes and tell him what I told you. He doesn’t like aides who won’t deal with his outbursts.”
“He’s, uh, special too, isn’t he? I’ve heard rumors. He’s been all the way to Florida and Texas after the fall.”
“I can’t say, but I wouldn’t want to cross him. I think he is in charge out here for a reason, he’s never been one to shy away from a fight, that’s for sure.”
Shelby moved to fill one of Draper’s many coffee mugs with a fresh cup, she put I ample sugar and a dash of cream, following her boss’s instructions to make the coffee’s color as close his own skin tone as possible. “Okay, I’m going in. If you don’t hear from me again, tell my family I loved them. And that cute Sergeant Moore of 2nd platoon that I yearned for him in my heart.”
“You’re terrible! See ya at the movie tonight.”
“If I live.”
Shelby debated knocking on Draper’s door and waiting to be told she could come in, at the last second she decided on a more forceful approach; she knocked and let herself in. Draper’s back was to the door and he turned and looked at her as she came in and handed him a cup of coffee.
“What?” He said, taking the coffee despite his gruff bark.
“Am I sending for ‘F’ company, Sir? Or will little ‘f’ company work? They have been on their laurels for the last few days and, from what I hear, they are ready and willing to go.”
“To whatever hell you send them, sir.”
He laughed and told her to go get herself a cup of coffee and her notebook. At the end of their somewhat protracted conversation about resources and troops he said, “You’ve seen combat?”
“Yes, sir. Down south, to the west. Just a brush with these Californians, nothing more.”
“Good. Little ‘f’ is ten minutes away, the front line is a half hour beyond that and you’re coming with me as I go for a little walk about. I am growing to like you, Shelby, let’s hope tonight cements that opinion.”
Shelby nodded, wondering if her last words to her boyfriend were going to prove prophetic.
“That’s Shit-Finger, over there.” Said the gruff sergeant Shelby had been buddie up with. She was pointing out other people in the mixed platoon as they moved forward in the darkness. They group was marching to the outskirts of Freemont, toward an old school of some sort, where the enemy was dug in.
“For shit’s sake! I told you not to call me that, Lopez.” Shit-finger called back.
“He has good hearing.” Lopez said, “Good hearing, but not much in the way of comprehending what he hears. If he ever says a sentence without ‘shit’ in it, you know he’s been replaced with a zombie double. I suggest, if that happens, you pull the trigger first and ask questions later. That’s Loomis, buddied up with him. He was all up in Theresa’s life until about a week ago. Now they are ‘just friends’, try to stay out from between them, just in case one of them decides to end the relationship more permanently.”
“Jesus, Lopez, do you ever wonder why you don’t have any friends?” Came a soft voice out of the darkness.
Lopez shrugged, “I got friends.” She turned to Shelby, “What are you here for? Never seen you around before.”
“I came with Draper. I’m his aide, Sergeant.”
“No need for formalities among sergeants here, though I do outrank you, so remember that. You seen much combat against these guys?”
Shelby shook her head. Lopez wasn’t physically intimidating, but she wore nonstandard equipment, no long gun for one thing. Her main weapon seemed to be a bulky pistol like device strapped to one hand. That weapon was attached to a tank the woman wore low on her back. Shelby figured it was a flame thrower of some sort, which made it next to useless in her mind. This was little ‘f’ company though, maybe the woman was augmented in some way and the weapon was specialize to her ability.
“Well, you’re in for a treat then.” Lopez said, breaking Shelby out of her thoughts.
“Never? Shit.” Shelby could guess who had made that comment.
“Ten to one.” Called out a voice.
“Bullshit, Draper brought her, I give her three to one. Any takers?”
Numbers were called back and forth quietly, going beyond the squad, “What are they doing?” Shelby asked Lopez.
“Settling the odds, making bets.”
“On me?” Shelby asked, then nodded, “Yeah, on me. That’s against me living, isn’t it?”
“Yeah, if you live it sounds like winners are going to get about four dollars for every dollar they bet.”
“Hell, I got twenty on me.” Shelby called out.
“Nope. You can’t bet.” Lopez explained, “I mean look at it from our side, if you live you just took all our money. If you die, well, then we have to rifle through your pockets looking for the cash. At best we find it, worse, we don’t and at the very worst some officer sees us going through your pockets.”
“Bullshit.” Shelby said, “Someone could hold my bet for me.”
“Rules is rules.” Lopez said. The odds came down to three dollars and fifty cents to one and the squaddies more or less paired up their bets to keep things simple.
Shelby stared daggers at Shitfinger, “A hundred bucks? Really? I’m going to keep an eye on you, to make sure you don’t shoot me in the back.”
“Don’t get your shit-panties in a twist, it ain’t personal. I could make a cool three hundred fifty, that’s more than a week’s pay!”
Draper had attached her to the 3rd squad and was travelling with the headquarters group, where Shelby had expected to be.
“He do this a lot? Draper, I mean.” she asked.
“Yeah, a lot.”
“A shit ton.”
“Must be why he hasn’t been promoted up and out of here yet.” Shelby shrugged.
“He is well respected by his less super friends. I think he thinks he can do more good here than higher up. He gets away with murder in any event. The troops love to hate him and when he yells, ‘Over the top!’ we all scramble up and charge.”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about.” Shelby said.
“World War One? Trench warfare? They used to use whistles or some such to coordinate, when blown entire armies would scramble out of their trenches into the bombed out no man’s land to charge the enemy. They had machine guns back then, so you can imagine how well that went.” Lopez said.
“When blown…” called out a male voice, to soft laughs, “I’d charge into a machine gun if blown.”
“She fancies herself a military historian.” Theresa said, “All that old stuff, it doesn’t matter now.”
“It helps to know history, so we can figure out how the world as we know it came about.” Lopez said.
“Yeah, real helpful knowing old dudes were stupid enough to fight that way. I think we might win this fight against the Valley Zombies, just knowing that.” Theresa said.
There was a distinct triple beep over the headphones and everyone went quiet. So quiet, so fast that Shelby thought something had happened to the others. Slowly her ears adapted and she hear the soft footfall of one of her companions or, more rarely, the brush of fabric against some vegetation that let her know her companions had not completely disappeared.
She felt Lopez lean into her, “Stop.” Shelby did, “Lake here. See that structure?”
Selby nodded, it stood around seven meters high, but didn’t look like a building to her.
“Clocktower. We go up there then head straight west. There is a lake, but it narrows there, supposed to be over our heads, so I hope you can swim, but it narrows to about ten meters at that point. Usually there is a guard dug in between those posts. Over there, is a shitter, Shitfinger and Loomis are securing that. You just stay on me and we’ll figure out what’s next once we get to the posts. This is knives and clubs first, until we hear one of the other squads let loose.”
“Won’t they have guns?”
“Might. We do things quiet when we can. Ready?” without waiting for an answer Lopez said, “Follow me.”
Shelby moved forward, she was not carrying a rifle, one had not been issued and, after all, she had been expecting to be with the HQ. She loped after the other sergeant and pulled out a long thin knife. She looked at it in the darkness, wondering about the wisdom of having it in her hand as she ran. Remembering that she was probably going to be swimming she opted to just put it away. Rounding the tower, she stuck by Lopez, who disappeared down a rocky embankment, then leaped well out over the ten-meter gap of blackness that Shelby realized moments too late was water. She mistimed her jump and stumbled into the water with the coordination of a brick.
Cold! The water was freezing, she hit bottom, almost horizontally and pushed herself out of the deep muck and struggled for the opposite shore. Shelby was flailing around for it when a hand latched onto her wrist and pulled her up onto the rocks.
“Holy fuck you’re loud!” Lopez whispered, “Keep down!”
A smell of sewage washed over them. Shelby coughed into her soaking wet jacket, muffling it, but still bringing a sharp squeeze on her wrist from Lopez.
The smell was getting stronger and Lopez said, “Breathe through your mouth.” In the distance a gunshot went off, followed immediately by what sounded like the grand finale of a patriotic fireworks display. Lopez let go of Shelby’s wrist to mess with the gun latched to her wrist.
“It won’t fire up.” Shelby said, “The water.”
A split second later, the gun flamed to life, arcing out in a twenty-meter burst that hit square in the middle of the poles which was there destination. The very air around the target caught fire, creating a huge fireball, that blossom fifteen meters up in the air and in circle easily that wide. One end of the fire seemed to spread more to the north, toward the small, ruined structure located there.
“I am hot, hot, hot!” Lopez yelled, “Move!” and she darted forward following the fire as it retreated.
Shelby stayed as close as she could, though she did fall behind, her sodden gear was making it difficult for her to move as quickly as she liked. There was a pit dug in between the posts and one of them was burning, casting off flickering shadows.
“Get in here!” Lopez yelled as Shelby closed in. Several bullets spat out around her and she jumped forward and slid face first into the pit, right on top of its former owner. It looked like the man had been alive, a human. He probably hadn’t been killed by the fire, but by the concussion of the explosion.
Shelby twisted over, pulling her legs into the pit and squirming around so she could stand up.
“You hit?” Lopez asked.
“No.” risking a look Shelby saw tell-tale winks of light coming from a distance of about three hundred meters and fifteen meters above the ground.
“Looks like they are in the old school, alright. On the roof too.”
“I don’t have anything to hit them from here.” Shelby said.
“Good, I’d hate to draw their attention. Hey, why don’t you have a rifle?”
“I thought I would be with HQ, not running with a squad on the sharp end of the stick.”
“Oh, honey!” Lopez reached out and patted Shelby on the head, “Draper is on the sharp end. We’re just a distraction and a reserve. Plus, we’re supposed to hold here so everyone else can pull back if we’re repulsed.”
“We’re last squad out? Over the lake?” Lopez grinned and nodded, “Mother-fucker!” She rolled the body of the man over and checked his gear, he had a rifle and a long knife that looked better than her own. She took both weapons, as well as the six extra magazine she found in ruck sack at the bottom of the pit. “What’s this?” She fingered a small, half melted plastic badge hanging from the man’s chest.
“That’s not for you.” Lopez ripped it off the guy’s uniform and tossed it back toward the lake, “It’s a zombie maker.”
“Are you sure you’re with Draper?” Lopez shook her head, “All the living over there carry them, if they get mortally wounded or just badly wounded, they inject the virus into themselves.”
“Why?” Shelby asked, the horror on her face was readily apparent and highlighted by the flickering fire.
“They use zombies, not just supers, they keep whole corrals of them in reserve to throw at us. When one of them dies, they just get up and keep fighting. Speaking of which, check your nine.”
Shelby looked that direction, south west, and saw a mass of shadowy figures heading their way. “Are those zeds?” Two rounds embedded themselves in the dirt near her head and she pulled down.
“Their tactics go like this. They will have a couple guys plugging away at us, to keep our heads down and allow their zeds to get close. It’s pretty good, really. I admire them for it. Wish this guy had been babysitting a light machine gun though. Then we’d have some trench warfare.” Lopez fished a short trench shovel out from under the dead man and started digging a firing slit that would let them see the zombies. “Make yourself useful and toss the valley boy up between us and the school.”
Shelby did as instructed and felt the man’s body absorb at least one round as she tossed his corpse into position. Taking up the rifle she got a bead on the crowd and took a single shot, to get a feel for the gun. Three shots fired from the magazine and one of the zombies was knocked over, whether they were out of commission for good or not was another matter. Shelby looked for a selector switch on the gun, Lopez pointed it out to her, “One is full auto, though most of the rifles we have collected so far have that disabled. Two is three round bursts and three is single shot. Bassackwards if you ask me.”
Switching the gun to single shot Shelby moved to the firing slit and took aim again. “Hey, hey, Lopez.”
“What?” The other woman was sitting down in the pit fiddling with her flame thrower.
“These guys are all wearing helmets. You seen this before?”
“Oh, yeah, pretty standard, zeds don’t actually need their eyes, see? Get it? They have some sort of zombie radar that lets them find us, so the Valley boys have put bullet proof helmets on a lot of them. They go down to their top lips, so aim for the chins. They are heavy as fuck-all too and absolutely useless for living people, except maybe as scrap. I did say they are clever, didn’t I?”
“Aim for the chin.” Muttered Shelby, doing just that. Around her the rest of the squad was peppering the zombies with bullets as well. A heavy machine gun of some sort opened up, peppering the ground closest to the zeds, chewing through dirt and the lake embankment. The gun shifted, and Shelby ducked down a split second before the bullets peppered her position. The ground vibrated with each impact and bits of the enemy’s body fell over them like rain as it was disintegrated. It felt like the fusillade when on for hours, and when it left Shelby whooped for joy. The gun focused on the ruined building north of them before cutting out.
“Aim for the chin.” Shelby said, popping back up. A good chunk of the horde had been drawn to the lake, though enough were coming toward her to make her blood run cold. “There’s too many and they are too close!”
Lopez popped up by her for a second. “Well, the good news is, once they close the valley boys won’t be shooting that HMG our way anymore.”
“The bad news?” Shelby said, continuing to shoot methodically and not yet scoring a killing shot.
“Sunshine, there ain’t no bad news!”
The zeds continued to close and Shelby finally started putting them down. At 20 meter’s it’s hard to miss. And she missed her next shot, tagging the zombie in the upper shoulder. Her magazine ran dry and she cursed as she fumbled for catch to release it. Lopez leaned over and slid the release.
Lopez nodded, “In hand to hand with them, you let me lead, you just keep plugging away and if any super zeds jump in, you know, faster zombies, you empty your mag into them, head, torso, legs, just light ‘em up!”
“Wait! Hand to hand? Why aren’t we falling back?”
“No orders yet. No orders, no fall back. You think Loomis an Upchuck are happier than we are right now? They’re over there taking the brunt of things.” Lopez shouted over the continuous fire Shelby was laying down, “Rules is rules, orders is orders. Make me some money, oh fuck, HMG coming back ‘round!” She pulled Shelby back into the trench as the machine gun strafed their position again.
“My dude knows his stuff.” Lopez yelled as the HMG moved on and the first of the walking dead stumbled into their hole.
She surged up and shouldered the zombie away with a deft thrust into its head with her trench knife. Immediately she was mobbed on three sides, with more dead falling into the trench. Shelby rose to her knees and pulled the trigger as fast as she could to buy them some breathing room. A circle about a meter wide surrounded them before her magazine ran dry again.
Leaping out of the hole, Shelby slammed a new magazine home and started firing again. Lopez’s knife became stuck inside a zombie skull, when she used her considerable strength to pull it free, it broke off, leaving her with a stub eight centimeters long. “Damn it! Gimmie the spare blade!”
Shelby stopped firing long enough to grab her knife and toss it to Lopez. A zombie landed between them and the knife hit it hilt first in the back. This zed was moving fast, though it still wore a heavy helmet that from behind looked like all the others. In its hands was a twisted piece of rebar.
With a cry Shelby lurched forward, firing hitting the zombie in the center of her back and working up until the muzzle of the borrowed rifle was resting almost on the base of the thing’s skull. With a final click the gun went off and the bullet passed through the thing’s skull, bounced off the heavy helmet and flew back out in a ricochet.
Lopez, still grinning manically raised her hand flame thrower and fired at Shelby, who yelped and ducked. Behind her another fast zombie swung a baseball bat through the empty space where her head had been a second before and took the brunt of the flame in its face.
It didn’t burn so much as melt, clawing at its face as it fell backward. Three slow zombies latched onto Lopez from behind and pulled her over. Shelby rose to her knees and fired at the next row behind the ones that had grabbed Lopez, her gun went empty and she reversed it and swung without thinking, breaking it on the heavy helmet the zombie was equipped with.
“Fuck, fuck, fuck!” She pulled her pistol and put one of the zombies down. Laughing Lopez rolled over taking one of the zombies with her and causing the other to fall more fully upon the ground. Shelby stuck the muzzle of her pistol up under the helmet and fired two shots. She grabbed the other zombie by one boney ankle as it tried to crawl after Lopez. It’s so light! She pulled it back and dispatched it from behind with a single shot. Lopez scrambled to her feet and let loose with her flame thrower again, roasting the nearest zombies.
Shelby picked it up and tossed it to her again and this time she caught it. The twisted metal club the first super had been carrying was close by and Shelby took a step toward it and fell as pain lanced through her body.
Shelby used the club as a crutch and forced herself to her feet. “Where’s the shooter?” she yelled trying to assess the damage to her leg.
“Close, you idiot!” Lopez said, she pulled one of Shelby’s arms over her own shoulder and started duck walking back to the pond. “Gimme that!” she said as she stood Shelby up, taking the club from the other woman’s hand. “Reload your pistol. We’ll drive them back and dive in for the pond.”
Dumping the magazine, Shelby reloaded and started firing at the zombie who were again in arm’s reach of them. When Lopez screamed “Now!” Shelby turned and jumped for all she was worth toward the shore. Despite her leg wound this jump was better than her first, though the shock of the lake was just a bad as before. She made it to the far shore, but fumbled her pistol on the bank and lost it in the darkness. “Goddamn it!”
“What?” Lopez asked.
“I dropped my pistol!”
“You can take mine, I got my flamer and your club.” Lopez said, helping Shelby up the embankment. The rest of the squad was already around them, weapons pointed back over the pond. The heavy machine gun opened up again, but not in their direction. In lieu of handing over her pistol Lopez just assisted Shelby to the deep ditch between them and the road, they both collapsed and rolled to the bottom of it into the soft grass.
“Dropped my club, you’re bad luck, Shelby.”
Shelby grunted, “Should I risk a light?”
“Sure, we’re below the crest.” Lopez said, “Just keep it low and don’t point it up too high.”
With a flick a low light came on and she played it over Lopez, stopping to linger over the other woman’s wet uniform before quickly scanning the slope around them. Other squaddies came over the side at that moment.
“Kill that shit-eating light!” One of them yelled.
Shelby did, because she spotted the rebar club a meter above them. She retrieved it and handed it to Lopez, who grinned and grabbed Shelby’s arm to pull herself up with.
“You’re hit.” Shelby said.
“As Shitfinger would say, ‘No shit, sherlock.’ Caught one back there in the fighting, same one as got you.”
“You going to be okay?”
“What do we do now, Sarge?” Came Theresa’s voice.
“Call in.” Lopez said. One by one all the squaddies called off, no one was missing.
“Damn, maybe Shelby here is good luck, not bad. We just need to teach her how to hold onto her weapons.”
“Sarge? They’re still coming, what do we do?”
“Right. Okay, hump north in this ditch, toward that overpass five hundred meters up, we’ll use that for cover and go east from there. Plus, 2nd should be up there, maybe we’ll catch up with ‘em.”
“I’m out, sarge.” Shitfinger said.
“Me too.” Came a voice Shelby didn’t recognize.
“Share out a few mags.” Lopez said, “And if anyone has ammo and a hold-out gun, decided which one you love most and cough the other one up to Shelby here.”
“Fuck.” Called out one of the other women.
“This is a Lo-tatorship, Bandana, if you want equality hike north to socialist Canada.” The woman, a girl really, named Bandana handed Shelby a pistol, same make and model as the one she had dropped.
“I got that from…well a noncom…don’t lose it, it’s special to me.” Bandana said.
“It’s special, well, we’re all pretty special and if she kills one zed with that gun, I bet you ten you’ll be glad you gave it over.”
“Shall we pray, Sarge?”
“Loomis, we could use any help we could get, and it won’t hurt, will it? Max, may you watch over us and keep us from harm, protect us, your people from those who aren’t. Good enough?”
“In Max we hold faith.” Some of the squad said.
“Okay, let’s roll. Double time.”
“Lopez…” Shelby called, “My leg.” The moan of the approaching zombie horde drifted over the embankment.
“Nut up, Sargent, ain’t none of us going to be able to carry you home.” With that Lopez led the squad off into the darkness, with only Bandana lingering behind.
“If you’re not going to run, can I have my gun…”
“Fuck off!” Shelby said as she forced herself into a jog.