Pulling out my full gloves, I wince as the kidskin abrades my raw fingertips but make no sound. The sickening stench is waning, but that doesn’t mean that the zombies have all gone, that just means the juicy (i.e. fast, mobile ones) have passed. It could be days before this train of lumbering flesh is out of sight, but since neither one of us want to poke out heads over the relatively unstable lip of this outcropping, it could also be only a few hours.
So we wait. I pull out a ration pack, tear a notch open in the top, activate it by spitting a mouthful of water into the outer pouch, and then use it as a hand warmer as the chemical reaction boils the ever-loving hell out of my food. The warming element and the food are actually two separate pouches, so it’s not as awful as you might have envisioned. After it’s heated, I hand the food compartment over to Zel and he tears it open and squeezes the food directly into his mouth like I imagine astronauts had to.
“That was chicken and dumplings,” I mutter, upset at his apparent lack of appreciation.
“’s good,” he replies before scraping the container clean and burying it in the hillside. We can’t reuse the plastic and every ounce counts, though sometimes I wish we weren’t littering everywhere we went. I heat myself some indeterminate noodle soup—probably chicken, but who knows—because it’s easier for me to eat without utensils and dispose of the empty pouches the same way.
Full night has fallen before we decide it’s safe enough to get moving; Zel hands me his night vision monocle and I nod my gratitude. I may be using the gear, but he’s the one who will lead us across the ridge with his uncanny vision. Even though I’ve drank a full day’s ration of water and eaten, my pack doesn’t feel one ounce lighter and I have to muffle a groan as I strap it back on. I guess I didn’t stretch enough after my climb to work all the kinks out, or I’m getting old.
“This ridge will take us to the tower, but we’re in for a long night,” Zel murmurs and I nod. We start out at a brisk pace but soon we have to slow as the ridge narrows, threatening to send stones rumbling down the slope to alert who or whatever may be below. We planned the beginning of this trip to coincide with the new moon and again I am glad for Zel’s foresight and planning. I would have chosen the Full moon so I could see better, and then I would have to crawl along the ridge to keep from being spotted. We still detour whenever there’s a reasonable path within body’s length of the top, and I am pleased to see evidence of wildlife in both track and leavings (though I’m super happy I have the goggles, so I can avoid the little piles of dung).
Suddenly Zel halts and, tired as I am, I almost slam into him but an arm around my waist stops me and pulls me tightly across his back. Three taps, pause, three taps, pause, three taps. Something BIG is crossing the trail in front of us and I peer under his arm with the night vision to get a better luck. Not a zombie horde, but a mountain lion, calmly stalking toward us. Zel gives me the three, two, one sequence and I step backward, giving him just enough room to stand sideways on the ridge, which makes him look smaller to the big cat but also makes him less vulnerable.
“Blade,” he growls and I drop to my knees and unsling my own Blade. A foot long on it’s own, it’s mounted on another two feet of solid wood and I hold it out in front of myself like a pike. If the mountain lion charges, it will impale itself, and if it tries to leap over us, I will still have enough time to catch it with a swing. Zel shakes his right arm and his own blade slides down his arm, before he angles it up and thrusts at the cat.
It’s over in a moment, the big cat turns and pads back the way it came, obviously it was hunting easier game and from the gentle swell of its belly (not babies, it was too obviously male) it’s been eating too well to bother with the likes of us. Sighing softly, I stand back up and scan the area before running lightly to catch up with him. The night insects sing softly for the rest of our trip, and I feel the cold come as we make the base of the tower. Instead of ascending to rest on the platform, we make camp within the struts. After I relieve myself in the bushes on the steep side of the ridge, I unwind the rope I carry across my chest and wrap the base of the tower with it from three inches off the ground to about four feet. Then I pull out a small, tightly packed velvet pouch and shake free a handful of tiny, tinkling bells. These I hook into the rope so that any decent vibration (nothing as innocuous as the wind or an insect, but more substantial, like a bird or a being) will trigger them and alert us. Even though one of us will remain away while the other rests, every little bit helps and these former prayer bells have saved my life more than once.
“You first,” Zel grunts as he settles back against the only sheltered side of the tower. I nod and finish stacking my gear before I slide into the sleeping bag and curl up beside him. The heat of him is like backing up against a furnace and if the weather was any mellower I would distance myself from him; the thermal inversion has occurred, we made it to this place so late, and it’s colder than an early fall morning has any right to be.
“Smoke,” Zel whispers in my ear as he shakes me away and I uncurl my fist from my K-bar. From the prevalence of the light around us I know it’s mid-morning and I frown at Zel before he mutters, “you needed it, after that climb,” turning away from my chastisement and starting to unhook the bells. It will take some time for him to break camp and since he’s (obviously) not interested in getting any sleep himself I leave him to it and start my stretches.
Necessity is the mother of invention, but when my Yoga teacher taught us to move within the confines of the mat I think she was thinking more about packing as many people into her studio as she could, rather than considering that in a changed world, space would be at a premium. Again I’m raining sweat before I finish and when I straighten out to change Zel dashes into the bushes as if he just remembered that he really needs to relieve himself.
It’s silly, and completely uncharacteristic of the huge man, and I appreciate him for it. Many would simply stare, but Zel’s not the type to blur the lines. He’s like me; we both appreciate knowing where we stand at all times. I manage to towel down in less than a minute and am in clean underthings before he returns. It doesn’t take long to pull my outer garments on and by the time Zel’s finished wiping our traces from the camp, I’m geared up and ready to go.
According to our maps, it shouldn’t take us long to make it to our destination if we go back to the road, and since that horde of zombies is well past us we carefully make our way down the crumbly slope. After the third surprisingly prickly branch I grab I’m glad that I’m wearing my full gloves, since my fingers would be bleeding anyway from these damn, arid shrubs that dare to call themselves trees.
“Careful,” Zel mutters right before he disappears from sight. A whumpf of displaced air and a thrump of a large mass landing tell me he’s jumped down a ledge. I’m not built like him (I would have fucked up my ankles six ways from Sunday if I’d tried that maneuver with a full pack) and I have to wait for him to reach back and brace against the hill before I can (unceremoniously) climb down him and continue.
“Thanks,” I murmur and he nods. Even though most of the early-morning chill has burned off, shaded pockets in the washes and gullies still linger in the cold and I shiver slightly when we get turned around in one canyon. “Distance?” I ask as Zel consults his map.
“Lunch,” he grunts, and I tag his bicep with my elbow, saying, no, really, how long in time? “Three, maybe four hours.” Nodding, I tighten the straps of my bag again—by the end of the day they’ll practically be cutting off my circulation, but it’s easier to carry a heavy load for a long time when your bones do most of the work—and resume following my partner’s lumbering bulk.
A rabbit darts out in front of us, pauses, and then tears off into the scrub. Before I know what I’m doing, I drop, hugging a boulder in a wash that was sixteen feet to my left just a few moments before. Zel’s pressed tightly against me, sheltering me as we both try—desperately—not to breathe. It’s not a zombie that howls in the distance, it’s a pack of dogs.
Dogs. Dogs not wolves. Dogs that means men that means patrols that means danger. My animal brain knew it before my human mind could comprehend it, and now I hear the distinctive snuffle, whulf of a dog with his nose in the dirt. Peering around the rock, I come nose to nose with a great, shaggy old hound and I have just enough time to wonder, Is this my end? Will meeting this mutt be the end of me? before he licks my face with a jolly, lolling tongue and chases off down the wash, following the rabbit’s scent.
Zel’s hand clamps down on the left side of my waist, we have to move, it means, and I lean back into him in acknowledgement. There’s some scrub brush in the direction we want to go, and an evergreen copse about one hundred yards to the north-northwest. I know when Zel locks on to it, I feel a tap…taptap, on my left shoulder and I nod.
We dash. Forget stealth, forget tracks, we dig in to the dirt and propel ourselves forward as if linebackering into the trees will take them down in one blow. My legs scream and my ankles cry, my lungs burn with fire and ice and I ignore it all. All there is right now is running; running next to the freight-train of a man who is my partner, my companion, and my only friend in the world at this moment is all I care about in the seconds it takes us to eat up the distance from where we cower to where we might find respite.
Throwing ourselves under the canopy we scrabble, crawling at a frantic pace, to the place where the youngest branches have died off and fallen to the ground. Pushing to our feet, six buckles—three on each of us—click open and our packs whumplf to the ground. Dust dances in the sunlight slanting through the branches and makes my eyes water but I cannot cough. I sling my rifle around to my back as Zel slams into a tree hard enough to make a raven CAW! at the top of its lungs, and race toward him as he cups his hands and flings me up into the tree, past the first set of branches.
I don’t have to worry about my grip as I haul myself upward along the trunk; the tree is old and strong and the branches are thick around as my arms. When I find a natural opening in the canopy I stop, wedge myself into the tangle of limbs, uncover my optics and sight out across the terrain we’d just fled. A glance downward reveals Zel flattened to the forest floor, pine needles sticking to him crazily and turning him into some combination of soldier and scarecrow, with his own weapon pointed in the direction opposite mine as he scouts the unknown terrain.
I used to hate it when people in movies would say, “It’s too quiet,” because that’s a red-flag that something is about to go ape-shit wrong and usually because the leads were too stupid to avoid it. “Hey, the lights are out! Let’s wander around in an unfamiliar darkness with no weapons because there’s no WAY a serial murderer could be plotting our gruesome demise!” kind of shit. But, cliché as it is, when it gets quiet it’s because even the insects know there’s something out there that can find them and kill them.
Dogs, though, I can’t get the thought out of my mind: dogs mean humans, dogs mean safety, and dogs certainly aren’t allowed to roam free where they could alert a wandering herd of zombies that their people are nearby and why don’t they just come eat up? Dogs chasing rabbits, hunting for people, I haven’t seen anything like it in years…we just recently allowed dogs onto the island, because before we were too scared that their barking would alert the lurkers in the city and the sprawl. These thoughts tumble through my head as I scan the arid landscape and eventually the wildlife housed in this little group of trees gets back to making their own distinctive music. Bugs scuttle about, birds give off an inquisitive cheep every now and again and I even have a squirrel run down the trunk of my tree and shriek at me in an attempt to scare me off. Instead I reach into my pocket, tear off tiny portion of my food bar, and jam it into the fork of some branches overhead. The squirrel takes his time investigating the sweet-smelling lump before he grabs it, stuffs it in his mouth (one cheek extends hugely and comically) and runs off.
Aside from an occasional bark or bray, I can’t see anything except the normal sight of the near-desert during day; a few dust dervishes kick up now and again, the grasses and weeds sway in the mellow breezes, and everything bakes in the sun without complaint. I feel, instead of hear, the solid thump of Zel’s flat hand impacting the trunk and I stretch myself out from my cramped position carefully before taking my time climbing back down the tree. As I stretch down, I feel large hands clamp around my hips and I let go before my arms have fully extended, Zel catching me up against his chest before sliding me the rest of the way to the ground.
“Nothing?” he asks and I nod.
“Same,” Zel replies and we lean against our packs while digging out our maps. Our route has been marked in green, with likely water spots circled in blue. Our first water stop was actually supposed to be a largish lake…a rarity around here…but now I’m not so sure. Unfortunately, the landscape doesn’t bode well for any fresh running water (unless we get a thunderstorm) and even if there IS an encampment we may have to risk it. And Zel will have to rest soon, even though I know he won’t manage it for hours after the scare that dog gave us.
“What are you thinking?” I whisper as the wind sets the boughs around us lashing. I close my eyes and tuck my head against my chest, but before I can dig my skull cap out of my pack the tumult is over and I can look back up.
“Water,” Zel says and I nod. It’s still half a day to the lake, and detouring to follow the patches of trees will cost us an hour, or more, but it’s still safer than traversing open ground, now that we know there are other people nearby. “Rest?” he asks and I shake my head, No. I’m still good, and I’m in the same boat he is—no matter how much I’d like to rest I can’t—not with adrenaline still racing through my veins and threatening to make me retch. I drink a little to try and calm my nerves but it doesn’t do anything. In fact, it makes me thirstier and I realize I’m hovering on the edge of dehydration. And not the dehydration you get when you forget to drink 8 glasses a day, but the dehydration that makes your brain malfunction and think stupid things like your partner is handsome and you’re really, really lonely.
“Eat,” Zel grunts, pushing an electrolyte gel pack into my hands. The expiration date is a good five years past, but that just means it’s a little more solid and a little less jelly. He forces the nib from his own water pack between my lips and I glare at him, but drink greedily until Zel nods, satisfied, and takes his water back. I stuff the rest of the gel into my mouth and hold it between where my wisdom teeth used to live and my cheeks. “Take care,” he says and what I know he means is, take better care of yourself, or I’ll do it for you. Zel’s not one to mince words and the defiance leaves my features as I acknowledge he’s right.
It’s been almost a year since I was out on a scouting mission more dangerous than a warehouse run and I’m getting sloppy. I used to scoff when the instructors said, “Use it or lose it,” and then made us do the same fire drill for the 212th time, but they were right. Another cliché verified, much to my chagrin.
We pack up and strike out, and just after the sun sets we come to the edge of a small, boomerang shaped lake. Across the water is a blaze of light and I stare, jaw agape, at the flickering light and short, sharp barks of noise that echo across the water. Are they insane? I wonder, remembering the massive herd that almost caught Zel and me unaware, but then I see the rhythmic flickering—a slight dulling of the light—and I realize they have sentries up and down the perimeter of their group.
“Sentries,” my companion says as he drops to a knee and cups water between his massive hands. Zel sniffs, dribbles, then sticks a tongue into the liquid, swishes it like a wine connoisseur before spitting onto the ground behind him. “It’ll do,” he grumbles, releasing his filter from the straps binding it to his bag. It only takes a few minutes for him to unhook the entry spout from his water bladder and assemble the two parts so that every pump pulls water from the lake, through the filter, and into his reservoir. I, in the meantime, kneel back to back with him and ensure that nothing creeps up from his blind spot. I feel him fumble slightly with the reservoir port of my own bladder, but soon a blessed coolness starts sinking through my clothes and I breathe a sigh of relief as my own water supply is replenished.
“Friends?” I ask as he lumbers to his feet and Zel nods.
“Might as well,” he growls, and I feel the same amount of trepidation but don’t allow any of it to show on my face. We don’t like meeting wild bands, but it’s safer to announce yourself (and run if necessary) than to sneak by and hope you’re not caught. People will let you leave, as long as they know you’re there; if they stumble across you they’re more likely to try hunting you down because of a perceived threat.
Zel takes the lead, and I follow. As we walk around the curve of the lake, the last of the light fades from the sky and we crack open tiny glow-sticks—no larger than my thumb—to attach to the back of our packs.
These unknown people will have to see us coming.