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The sound of the frayed rope parting has me rolling out of my sleeping bag, grabbing my Blade, and pointed at the door in a crouch before my eyes come all the way open.  There should be a residue of light from the red security lanterns hanging around the station, but Zel’s massive physique blocks everything out.

“Raid, in 20,” he whispers and I nod, laying my Blade aside as I pull my boots on and shrug back into my vest and belt.  After securing the many (superfluous, but nice) straps, I step out of the train and bind it shut, this time securing it with a six-foot length of plastic covered, multi-strand wire and a padlock that can take a sledgehammer without breaking.  Neither Zel nor I want some lucky raider who manages to get over the wall to go hog-wild in our supplies, let him victimize someone who’s sloppy with their security or their gear.

Zel leads me to the western wall and as I survey the scene I can feel more than see the restless flitting out over the fields.  They’re skilled…they time their movements with the wind and keep very low to the scrubby hillocks.

“String it,” Zel whispers, his hot, excited breath curling into my ear and down my neck.  This is why Zel is my partner, and not some equally burly lout.  Zel wanted the best marksman with bow, rifle, pistol and knives, and that meant he got me.  It doesn’t take long to string my compound bow in the darkness, but it is an old, familiar friend and its parts are well-worn.  I have shitty night vision, but Zel is well aware of that and I hear the sliding sound the batteries make as he slips free his night-vision monocle and powers it up.  One dry-pull later, I’m ready, pulling an arrow from the quiver strapped to my right thigh and waiting for his call.

The walls start to fill with others—mostly security guards, half of them sleepy and grousing deep within their chests—but no one fires.  There is a slight sliver of light along the mountain range but the intruders are coming from the inky darkness of the west and the light acts as our enemy, silhouetting us against the growing dawn.  Zel stations himself behind me, leaning down so that his head is on the same height as mine as I focus down on the fiberoptic dots of my sights, waiting for the call to loose.

“Green, two o’clock,” he rumbles and I fire.  The strum of the bowstring is followed by a gargled whimper and Zel adds, “thigh.”  I place another arrow in the rest without changing position and Zel mumbles, “yellow, down 5 degrees.”  I loose, the arrow flies true and the solid thump of a body confirms it: 1 raider down.

We continue, nock, aim, fire, until I can almost chose the targets myself, but once it’s light enough for that the raiders are retreating.

“Holy crap,” one of the sentries—a boy with no hint of peach fuzz across his cheeks—whispers and I feel Zel move away from my back to stare the child down.  The sudden loss of heat is enough to make me shiver, but I say nothing.

“Practice,” Zel growls at the youth and the boy nods, stepping carefully backward before turning to his companions, “let’s go,” he says to me in the same breath and I nod, carefully cradling my bow in my arms as we make our way down the ramp.  We stalk past the guards on the gate, not needing to hear their muttered,

“You’re clear,” to know it’s safe to leave the station.  Following the curve of the wall for my sake, Zel takes the outer, rougher track so I can walk on the smooth concrete barricade instead.  Reclaiming arrows is dirty work, but Zel always cleans them carefully before he returns them to my quiver.  It doesn’t take long, between the two of us we manage to gather our equipment before the sun crests the mountains, but I am grateful that this is a manned station and we don’t have to dig the graves ourselves.  In fact, the burial detail detaches itself from the station as we return: 2 men with shovels and one with a digging bar who sets to work upon the body he comes across.  I stop, halted for a moment by the matter-of-fact brutality of that guy’s job; he moves from one corpse to the next, jams his tool into the head three times (left eye, right eye, mouth) and moves on in a fluid dance from one body to another, until all have been rendered inert.

“Let’s go,” Zel says, bumping me with his side and forcing me to move or fall over.  Once past the gate we head directly to the decontamination area and wash all the blood off our hands and gloves with scalding hot water and harsh, granular soap that I hate even though it’s wildly effective.  “Let’s go,” Zel growls again, this time stripping my wet gloves from my hands and leading me back to our train car.  “Gear up,” he says, and I know he’s just making noise to distract me from my memories.

Zombies.  Yes, zombies.  Honest to god, shambling (sometimes hyperactively aggressive) walking dead whose only goal in life is to devour you.  Not that it does them any good; a zombie will never heal, never regain their mental capacity, and never stop craving human flesh.  I make that distinction on purpose, some misguided idiots have tried to get zombies to eat something other than people and it hasn’t worked.  In fact, it failed, hideously, as sloppy dealings with the undead always do.

I secure my bow to my pack, store the string in one of the many pouches I’ve sewn onto my rig (if you run out of bow strings, who cares how many arrows you still have?), tighten the straps up and set to securing my clothes.  Since I was rousted quickly I got fully dressed, but I wasn’t outfitted to go on our trip.  I slide knives into my boots, my multi-tool into my back pocket, check the number of arrows I’m carrying once again (I did manage to reclaim all of them from the raiders, but lately I’ve been losing one or two of them per 20 shots and the attrition rate is yet another of the things that I have to keep in mind) before tightening all the assorted straps and bands to a comfortable walking tightness ( one that doesn’t bind but won’t allow anything to flop against me, either) and finally heft my sack over my shoulders. 

“Ready,” I murmur, and Zel grunts an affirmative.  Even though he’s hauling the greater weight of gear, Zel’s faster than anyone expects and I follow the solid shadow of his back as we leave the train car with no hint of our presence.  Walking up to the gate, I note the grave team is still hard at work in the field beyond as we duck in for the last time to get our 3 minute safety briefing.

“You’re to head up into the mountains, past the high desert and into Julian.  If you see any signs of likely habitation, drop an Envoy and leave.  Do not—I REPEAT—do NOT enter any structures you believe to be inhabited.  As you saw this morning, the natives are restless and while there might be something salvageable out in the farther reaches you can’t trust anyone within twenty miles of this place that hasn’t already been recovered.

“Lovely,” Zel growls and I feel my own teeth bared in a silent snarl before I manage to clear my features.  “What’s so important about this goddamn hick town that we’re being sent on this fool errand?”

“Radio signal,” our briefer says and that makes me blink.  Yes, granted, radios aren’t TOO terribly complicated, once you get to know a little about them, but most of the infrastructure between here and Julian has been destroyed in the years since the plague.  To receive a land-based signal means that someone (or some group) has the technology, time and security to repair enough repeater towers to get their message to the sea…and that deserves a LOT of interest.”

“Huh,” I mutter, “does that mean we’ll be receiving a radio for our own use?”  The briefer looks at me like I’ve gone mad before saying,

“No.  We need you to scout the operation and drop an Envoy.  We don’t want you to initiate communication—we don’t want ANYONE to initiate communication—with these people until we better understand what we’re dealing with.”

“You want us to take only 6 Envoys for this?” my tone is incredulous, and laced with disdain, and the briefer bristles before Zel casually stands just enough straighter to remind the smaller man that he might not want to take offense.

“Up until the 2nd range it’s been cleared out by the fires,” I remember; wildfires had been plaguing this region on a bi-yearly basis and with no crews to put them out…well, nature will have its due.

“Shit,” Zel says and I nod.  Fire blackened terrain is not only hard to traverse quietly, but doesn’t provide a lot of cover if we encounter a group more mobile than our own.  This is the low-desert back country we’re planning to tromp through, people out here had herds and horses and dogs that were trained to defend against coyotes, both the four and two-legged varieties.  “At least tell me you’ve got some good maps for me, man,” my companion growls and the briefer nods.

“Yeah, after we reclaimed Delton we got some birds up in the air and they took some good recon photos for us.  Hard stuff—paper photography—and not that digital, printed shit that comes apart at the first sign of weather,” the briefer hands over the packets, one set for each of us, and smiles as if he’s just delivered the location of an unmolested warehouse packed full of clean water, medical supplies, and unspoiled foodstuffs.  He’s not far off the mark, the maps and photos will do a lot to keep us safe.

“And what if we do make contact?” I ask.  I have to know, if the higher ups are playing a deeper game I want to make sure I know the rules.  “Inadvertently, of course,” a wicked light gleams in Zel’s eyes and I know he’s thinking the same thing as I am: do we kill them all or not?

“Play nice,” the briefer huffs, looking at us like we are barely a step above the raiders we slaughtered this morning, “we need to bring in some new Tech’s, and if this group and get radio systems up and keep them running we want them on our side.”

“Got it,” I say, slanting a glance at Zel under my brow that says, we won’t kill anyone we don’t have to, then.  Because almost invariably, we will have to kill someone, and not a zombie, but an actual, living, breathing, thinking human being.  It might be over something stupid; the person thinks we’re an easy mark.  Or someone’s gods said that we’d arrive and try to take what they have.  Or just because they’re greedy.  Or because they think they can break the other of us and make us betray the secrets of New Bethlehem.  Even though we won’t, some do, and that weakness forces all the scouting parties to keep on their toes.

“So calm down, do your job, and come back safe,” our briefer mutters as an afterthought and we nod our heads as we duck out of the hut.

“We’ve lost light,” Zel whispers as we pass the gates and I nod, unslinging my rifle and cradling it against my chest as we start to jog.  You don’t run, not while carrying a fully laden pack, unless you want your knees to go to crap in a fantastic and debilitating way.  Our slow jog-shuffle eats away at the miles, though, and when we pause for our first scheduled rest the station has long since fallen behind us.

I personally am glad that we’re following a road into the interior.  This is probably the last time we’ll get away from the coast until Spring clears the road again, and the bracing wind does much for my spirits.

“Move again in twenty?” I ask, smiling as I turn my back to Zel.

“Ten,” he says and my smile breaks into a grin.  He always halves whatever time I say I want to take, so I just double what I need to recover.  It’s a game we play, and when I turn back to face him the same silly grin is spread across his features.

“Right back,” I say as I throw down my gear (except for my rifle) and step off the road.  There’s a small wash alongside the road and it will help camouflage our passage by redirecting the stream of urine I gratefully release well back down the mountain.  Also, the scrubby little flowers littering the landscape will soak up whatever water they can, so within about ten minutes (just enough time for Zel and me to get out of visual range of this place) the only sign of our passing will be our boot prints in the dust.

“Better?” he asks and I nod.  Zel takes his turn and I guard his back, uncapping my optics and scanning the terrain all around us for the tell-tale flash of a lens.  People don’t know, but it’s the stupidest things that get you spotted; that cigarette that you just can’t do without, leaving your optics unmeshed so the light catches them like a mirror, or the rattle of a small shower of rocks displaced by a careless foot.

Luckily, zombies don’t care about any of these things.  The shambling bastards will just take the most direct route toward anyone they spot and they’ll continue in that direction even if they lose sight of their prey.  The worst are the highly agile ones; freshly turned zombies act like goddamn free runners and have taken down more than one patrol since I’ve been scouting with New Bethlehem.  But as the decay rots them they become less coordinated, slower, and threatening only in herds.

“Move,” Zel says and I don’t hesitate.  According to our maps and recon, there’s a burned out fire-watch tower within the day’s journey and the platform is still intact.  While scaling the girders might pose a small challenge, as long as we get there with light in the sky we’ll have a safe(ish—nothing in the Outlands is ever really “safe” anymore) place to sleep.

The blackened remains of the trees look like someone lazily tried to draw grass against a blue field with a single stick of charcoal and would make me sad, if there wasn’t a hazy hint of green bleeding from every gnarled limb, twisted trunk, or ruined grove.  “Nice,” I murmur and Zel grunts his agreement.  We crest a rise and stop dead—before us a herd of zombies run through the valley like a grey, winding tide of broken flesh.

“Up,” Zel hisses and we turn toward the slope we’d hoped to go around.  At the base of the cliff side I drop my pack and start unwinding rope.  When I have a good fifty feet of slack coiled, Zel clips it to my pack, hands me my weapons, and heaves me by the ass 8 feet up the cliff.  I thrust my right hand into a crack, make a fist, and rest my weight on the long bones of my arm while finding a place to carefully put my feet.  Moving slowly and—more importantly—quietly, I start the long ascent up the cliff as Zel hunkers down in the ditch beside the road and feeds me more rope as I make the journey upward.  A small outcropping gives me a moment of rest just over halfway up, and after five minutes I feel two quick tugs on the rope.

Get moving, Zel is saying, followed by three waggles that mean, I don’t have much longer before they’re here.  I recap my water, stuff the protein and salt supplement into the back of my jaws, and thrust upward again.  My legs ache, my arms burn, but it doesn’t matter; all that matters is making the top of the rise and tying this rope off so that Zel can follow me up and away from the horde.  I’m panting by the time I make the top of the rise, but before I lever myself over the lip I pull my pistol out and ready to fire.  Hauling myself over the lip, gaining my feet and sweeping the area only take a moment, and I am relieved to find the ridge unpopulated.  Unfortunately, the only trees remaining are charred hulks and I am forced to pull up over twenty extra feet of rope before I can coil a length around a steady boulder that can bear the weight of both Zel and our packs.  Once secured, I pull a section of leather from one of my side pockets and wrap it around where the rope will rest against the cliff’s edge so that the line won’t fray, then I unclip my optics and use the fading light to flash down to Zel, Ready.

The pull on the line is almost immediate and all I can do now is wait.  The fetid stench of rotting flesh assaults my nose for the first time and still, I almost retch at the stink.  I used to think that visiting countries that didn’t have sewage systems produced the most putrid, wet odor one could ever be assaulted by, but I was wrong.  Visits to landfills to clean out apartments, or the smell of a decaying whale on the beach where I used to jog are nothing compared to the almost living filthy stench of a herd of zombies.  In far less time than it took me, Zel is up the side of the cliff and together we make short work of hauling up the bundle of our gear.

“That was stupid,” Zel growls under his breath and I fire back,

“No time,”

“Would have taken longer, if you’d fallen,”

“Wouldn’t have mattered, if I’d fallen,” I grouse and he grits his teeth, but says nothing more.  The ridge leads semi-directly toward the lookout tower we’d seen earlier, but running along the top of the ridge is not only longer, but more dangerous, as we’ll be clearly visible to anyone in the valleys on either side.  “Dark?” I ask and Zel nods, pulling the packs over the lip, removing the leather protection from around the rope and sitting down for the first time since we’d left the outpost.  Coiling the rope around his beefy forearm, he slants a glance at my hands and I notice I’ve torn a couple of nails down to the quick in my haste to ascend.

Pulling my kit free, I pare the rest of the nails down and curse under my breath that I allowed myself to leave the island without having taken care of that small item of personal grooming.  Nails are nice to have, but they get in my way more often than not in the Outlands, and any open wound is a potential hazard in the future.  Now I’ll have to ensure that my hands stay extra clean which means I’ll use more drinking water NOT for drinking, and they’ll be stiff as all hell until they’re healed, which won’t improve my speed or dexterity one bit.

“Sorry,” I murmur and Zel grunts acknowledgement and I sit down, finally cooled off enough so that my muscles won’t freeze if I go immobile for a while.  I doctor my hand and watch Zel in the dying light, coiling, unfastening, storing, and coiling each line until every item is back where it belongs, including the one crossing my torso.  I used to carry carabineers with me each time I went out on scout, but now I only have a few attached to micro-cams in case we come up against some really awful terrain.


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