The little F-ers had fallen back out of North Bend in good order, they managed to catch up to Lopez and compare notes on what they had seen about two kilometers east of town.
“They ain’t zombies, sarge.” Bandana said.
“No shit? Well, what the hell are they Bandana?” Lopez asked her, “Listen I know you’re all rattled, but let’s try and keep the comments to things that we all don’t l know, okay?”
“Bullets went right through them, made them pause, made ‘em step back.” Shelby said, “The grenades were more effective, but I didn’t get the impression that it bothered the other ones that much to see one of their own blown up.”
“Fire was effective.” Shitfinger said. “On our end the fuel-air bomb took out a huge swath of the enemy, but they kept coming and dispersed more, making it harder for me to take out more than one or two at a time. If we all had flame throwers like yours, Sarg, we could have made some good progress.”
Lopez nodded, “Anything else?”
“Scent.” Shelby said. “They came after Wilkes after they tagged his helmet, I’m not even sure they can see.”
“Interesting.” Lopez said, “Hey, Wilkes, any sign of movement?”
“Why can’t we use the radios, sarg?”
“Quiet, Loomis. Vander, did you get anything out of our guest?”
The sergeant of four shook his head, “Too emotionally broken up. All I got was what we saw; his companions, super zed and human alike, were torn limb from limb by these things. Said the ground got wet first, then the melted men were all around them.”
“So, keep an eye out for wet patches.” Lopez said, “As for the radios, they reacted to their use. We have to consider that they might be keyed into our communications, even if they can’t understand us, maybe just using them is noticeable to these guys, which is why I said to turn the damn things off.”
Around her the men and women shuffled around, turning off their electronics gear, Lopez rolled her eyes at this, but didn’t say anything.
“Between us we have Shitfinger’s farts and my flamer. Any other ideas on how to contain these things?”
“They move much slower than us. We should fall back to Freemont, pick up some fuel reserves and make some molotovs or other bombs. Unless you want to risk radioing back?” Vander asked.
“I think I better. The melty-men must have an idea we are here, and I’ll keep the convo short and sweet. I know they are going to want your prisoner, Vander, so you might as well set out to Freemont now. Maybe you’ll find support troops in Ames, if so send up a vehicle for us too.”
Vander nodded and called out, “You heard the woman, let’s move. Smith, Roberts, you keep Dell in hand, but treat him like your favorite little sister, we need what he has in his head, so, kid gloves, got it?”
A couple of ‘affirmatives’ answered him, and his men moved off down highway 30 while Lopez called for the long-range radio to be brought over to her.
“Look at this shit.” She lamented, “You’d think it would be the size of a deck of cards by now.”
“Yeah, where’s my flying car?” Loomis asked, bringing a chuckle from some of the others.
“Radio, don’t turn this on until I say. The rest of you, form a line along the trees and watch the town. If any of you think you can get up into a tree for a better vantage point, do it. But for Max’s sake don’t fucking fall down and break a leg! We’ve got no injuries this time around and I’ll be mad if one of you cocksuckers needs to be carried back.”
“Right, sarg.” Came the answer as roughly thirty men and women spread out along the trees to the west. They had regrouped at a large farmhouse to the east of North Bend and long ago the owners had planted trees to form a wind break. Several soldiers climbed into the lower branches of the trees, Shelby climbed up into the tree nearest to highway 30 and had a great vantage point to see the still smoldering town.
It was just after down and the sun was at their backs, with the cover they had Shelby felt reasonably secure that they would be difficult, if not impossible to see. Loomis was at the base of her tree and called up to her after the soldier next to her said something. “Hey, sarge, Lopez says to pop a ‘wake me’, check your time, she’s gonna wait five to trigger the radio. Wants us in position at full alert so we can see anything that happens.”
“Thanks, got it.” Shelby was sitting on a broad walnut tree limb and fumbled in her fatigues for a sealed pouch of nutrients, which as a blend of protein and chemicals. The ‘wake me’ was more than just caffeine, it tended to make some people manic when they ingested it, so each pouch came in various strengths marked 1 through 10 based on what the doctors ordered for each person. Shelby didn’t even know such thing existed before she joined the little f-ers. Hers was marked ‘3’. She bit off the waxy end and squeezed the beefy tasting mix into her mouth, it was perhaps 30 milliliters of sustenance and within three minutes Shelby felt like she could single handedly take back North Bend with fists and toothpick. She looked down at Loomis, who nodded and smiled a broad grin at her, mouthing, “Good shit”, to which Shelby responded with a thumb up.
She could go higher, get a better view, she was sure of it. Part of her said, not to bother, but her chemical laced mind overrode the rational side of things and soon she was standing on a limb near the top of the tree, far out from the main trunk and far higher up than she had been.
Loomis moved under where Shelby was standing and asked, “Got the count? Three, two, one…”
Whatever Shelby had been expecting, it wasn’t what she got. “Come on, motherfuckers. Come on.” Nothing, there was no visible movement from North Bend. “Damnit.”
She continued to scan the town, seeing no movement of any kind for a couple of minutes, then, almost obscured from her sight, she saw what appeared to be a truck of some kind bounce over the rail road tracks. “I see a truck! It passed over the rail road tracks, heading south!” she shouted. Movement closer to the farm caught her eye, “Wait! Along the road…I see them, the melty-men! They are coming up out of the ground. Shit, they are in the field! They are coming! Shut the radio down, shut it down!” The presence of the enemy seemed to do wonders for sobering Shelby up and she no longer had the desire to rush forward and engage the enemy.
Wet patches of earth were spreading like a pointing finger toward the farm at a pace midway between a fast walk and a jog. “Shit, shit, shit!” Shelby said, before jumping to the limb below her. Loomis on the ground let out a low whistle and moved out of the way of where Shelby might fall. However, Shelby didn’t lack confidence or dexterity and hopped limb to limb down the tree before using the last limb to swing to the ground, dropping the meter to land on her feet. “We gotta go, Loomis! They are coming! Fall back.”
“Radio silence, all radios off, they are turned to them and follow our signals.” Lopez said.
“Fuck I guess we’re back to smoke signals.” Loomis said.
“Yeah, or, you know, talking to each other face to face.” Shelby said. The cold grip of fear held her in its grasp. “We gotta go, Loomis.”
The troopers fell back as a unit, heading east at a trot. They were strung out along highway 30 until Lopez, who had been leading them, stopped at another farmhouse and asked for a volunteer to pop up onto the roof of a tractor shed to see if the things were still following them.
Shelby volunteered, which caused half the platoon to look at her with a shake of her head and the other half to look relieved. Up she went. The building was coated with thin metal and the roof was steep. Bandana had thrown a cord over it from the opposite side, enabling Shelby to climb up without too much effort.
She stared west, trying to discern any movement. Her eyes caught sight of the same truck she has seen cross the tracks back in North Bend. As it drove east at a walking pace, the fields and plowed land darkened up parallel to the road.
“Truck coming our way, slowly. The ground is following it, that crazy fucker is going slow enough that the melty men can keep up.”
“Do we take him out, Sarge?” Shitfinger asked Lopez.
“Is it one of ours?” Lopez called up to Shelby.
“The truck? Yeah, definitely.”
“Can you see anything about it, unit insignia? Use the Goddamn binocs, FF!”
Shelby’s face turned red as she had forgotten to even pull the small binoculars out of her pocket. The binoculars were only a four times power, but compact and lightweight, she pulled the cover off with one hand and brought them to her eyes. “I can’t read shit, they guy is coming right at us, I can’t read the side numbers and it looks like he’s dinged up the front numbers by hitting something. Wait…I know this guy!”
“What?” Lopez called, there were tens of thousands of soldiers, recognizing one at all was unlikely and from this distance it was highly improbable. “Are you sure?”
“It’s Colonel Carson’s adjunct…I met him when Draper and Carson talked. He’s a warrant officer…Damn, can’t think of his name…Jaun, something Hispanic.”
“Javier?” Shelby called “Javier’s been missing for months, disappeared with the Colonel before the big dust up out in Wyoming. Is Colonel Carsen with him?”
Colonel Carsen’s disappearance had been a going concern, the Iowan’s thought he had been taken by the Californian’s and were worried about him giving them intelligence. Draper had always told everyone within hearing distance that Bill would never break and that if he were gone for this long, he was dead.
“That’s it, it’s Javier, he’s married to the Colonel’s daughter!” Shelby said.
Loomis asked, “What do we do, Sarg?”
“What do we do? He’s leading the melty men right toward our lines. We have to stop him.”
“He’s one of us.” Loomis said.
“So we contact him and ask real nice what the fuck he thinks he is doing.” Lopez said. “Shitfinger, me and you will take point on the road, radios stay off people. They know we’re here, but maybe they will have a hard time pinning us down without our radios providing a beacon for us. The rest of you take up position on the south side of thirty, except for you Radio; today you get to be a hero. If fighting starts you turn your radio on and blast a message back to HQ about what’s going on.”
Radio nodded with some reluctance.
“I’ll stay here with you, Radio.” Shelby said, “I can call out to the rest of you where they move around to.” Shelby said.
“I hate getting two of you killed…” Lopez said.
“Killed? Fuck that! Radio and I know how to run.” Shelby said. “We’ll head north and broadcast a little to draw them off, if we need to. Don’t you worry about us.”
“Worry? No, no, I just don’t want to fill out the paperwork. Pain in the ass. Let’s get set up people. The rest of you, be prepped to move out, not fight. We’ve seen how ineffective our weapons are, so there’s no point in wasting ammunition.”
The three squads moved out as instructed, leaving Shelby to watch the road and Radio down below her nervously watching to the west.
“Thanks, Sargent.” Radio said when everyone had cleared out.
“Don’t worry about it. You know some other little fucker was going to stay with you; I figured it might as well be me as I’m already in a good position. Hopefully Bandana secured this rope good and I won’t come tumbling down when I climb off this damned roof.”
She glanced to the road again. “He’ll be here in about ten. Wanna go double check the rope for me?”