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River of Night: Chapter One

       Last updated: Wednesday, March 27, 2019 20:42 EDT



October 17th
Upper Chippokes Creek, The Chesapeake

    “When are we going to LEAVE this FUCKING house!”, screamed Dina Bua, startling everyone around here.

    Bua, a young and well adjusted drama teacher at an expensive private boarding school, had started the trip south in a condition of shock. After her last minute attempt to escape New York City with some of her students had ended in a cannibalistic welter of blood, she’d nearly been run over by some speeding SUVs and then had been caught up in a second zombie attack and then a terrifying gun battle.

    She had, understandably, nearly frozen in panic.

    Huddled with one other teacher and their remaining three students, she’d obeyed the directions of their rather scary rescuers. The soldiers or mercenaries or whoever were clearly accustomed to working together. Despite her apprehensions about her saviors, the long boat ride had been a ticket out of a nightmare that had erased the only home she’d known. Arriving at the little house tucked into a tributary on the James River, the pressure of the emergency had been reduced and she’d appeared to recover somewhat. She’d repeatedly thanked the tall, handsome Bank of the Americas official who’d appeared to be in charge of original group of eight from the boat docks. She’d pledged to do anything to help.

    Yet, Bua began to incrementally exhibit different symptoms of the strain she was under.

    Long after everyone else had accepted the loss of the cell network and either turned their phones off, or left them on airplane mode in order preserve battery life while using them as music players, she would periodically stalk through the interior of the small house, her iPhone at arms length over her head, hoping to see a single bar’s worth of reception. After the water utilities failed, complicating the task of daily depilation, she’d tried mightily to use treated river water to complete her toilet and shave her legs. Through a quirk of oversight, a supply of artificial sweetener in their hideout had been overlooked so while others added ‘unhealthy refined white sugar’ to their coffee, she’d complained about not being able to enjoy one of the few bright spots in an otherwise endless succession of identical days. Still, she’d complained quietly, mimicking the low profile that her fellow survivors practiced in order to avoid attracting the attention of hunting zombies or predatory survivors.

    That is, she’d been quiet until now, when she just couldn’t take it one more day and started screaming. And screaming.


    So far their party had survived not due to firepower but from exercising absolute discretion. Anything else put the entire group at risk and everyone knew it.

    Emily Bloome, the second school teacher, reached the screamer first. Driven to her knees by Bloome’s tackle, Bua fought and bit like a woman possessed. Bloome rolled away clutching her face, but she had very competent back-up. Kaplan, the former spec-ops trooper turned bank security specialist and Risky, the unexpectedly capable gangsters’ moll, fell on Bua as though they’d rehearsed it many times, which in fact, they had. 

    A panicked school teacher was a new opponent for them, but just not in the same league as their previous wrestling matches wrangling hyper-aggressive, zombified humans infected with the man-made plague virus called H7D3. A vicious arm bar that painfully threatened to dislocate Bua’s elbow kept the panicking woman from bolting outside, and some duct tape and a belt sufficed to restrain the unhinged survivor while they fished some hemp rope out of a nearby gym bag.

    “Is she infected?” Risky said, sweeping her dark bangs out of her eyes. “She went wild so fast!”

    Oldryskya ‘Risky’ Khabayeva was an athletic five foot ten inches tall, and appeared to be in her late twenties. Years ago, her youth and sex had been enough reason for the traffickers to keep her alive, but the super-model good looks that prompted their efforts to sell her to an Italian-American gangster had led to their deaths.

    It turned out that the Frank Matricardi, the Jersey mobster who ran the Cosa Nova, had a real thing about human trafficking on his patch. So these particular traffickers had, in the words of the head of the Family, been assigned to an involuntary business merger with Cosa Nova’s waste management brand. Ultimately, that led to joining the ceaseless pre-Fall stream of garbage that flowed from New York City towards landfills in other states. Risky had been part of Matricardi’s crew, first as an ornament, and later as a partner. They hadn’t loved each other, but there’d been mutual respect, especially at the end.

    And she’d had the pleasure of killing his murderer herself.

    “Well, we’ve got all those patch kits just sitting there…” said Jim Kaplan, ‘Kapman’ to his close friends. “Let’s draw a little blood, shall we?”

    The former Ranger – Green Beret – ‘unit name redacted – no such record exists’ trooper had been a security specialist inside Bank of the America’s pandemic survival plan. Now he was one of the trusted enforcers living in the safe house along the Charles River, just west of Newport News. He stretched towards a kit bag, but stopped when his boss waved him off. Kaplan rubbed his sore leg instead. Three months on, and the gunshot wound he’d picked up on the way out of the maelstrom that had been the fall of New York remained only partially healed.

    Risky had been teaching him yoga, of all things, so his flexibility was coming back, but he walked with a limp.




    Tom Smith, the leader of this cheerful little band, squatted to look over the wild-eyed school teacher. She glared back silently, red-rimmed eyes perched above a duct tape smile.

    “We’ve only got so many of the test kits,” Tom said, shaking his head ruefully. “She doesn’t have any secondary symptoms, so I think that she’s just crackers for a bit.”

    Risky looked over from trussing the teacher around the knees. Tom noted that she was a dab hand with the rope.

    His plan, the plan, Plan Zeus, had not included schoolteachers, or their students. His team was already supposed to be at one of Bank of the America’s carefully sited and prepared long term recovery centers. In his plan, they were supposed to be coordinating with surviving national authorities and re-establishing the economic framework that would keep their country alive. In his plan, there were supplies, communications, doctors, security, everything that that a well funded investment bank could lay hands on.

    That plan… wasn’t.

    Instead, the former Managing Director for Security and Emergency Response for BotA was here, stranded with a motley collection of survivors, most of whom had never worked together, lacked formal training and, as they’d just experienced, were still dealing with the emotional shock and isolation of being trapped while all about them the United States, indeed the world, writhed in the final death throes of the deadly global plague.

    “Let’s see if I’m right,” Tom said, visually inspecting Bua’s hands and face. They’d learned the hard way about the dangers of a member of their party succumbing to the deadly symptoms of the zombie virus. He kept watching Bua, who’d closed her eyes and started breathing in a more controlled manner. “If she starts itching like crazy, or foaming at the mouth we’ll try a test kit. Otherwise, we conserve what we have. We may need them soon enough and there’s no way to get more.”

    He turned to survey the rest of his little band.

    “You’re going to have a black eye,” Kaplan was saying as he looked at the other school teacher. He activated a pen light and shone it across his patient’s face. “She tagged you pretty good. Let’s see.”

    Emily Bloome might have been an educator too, but that was nearly all that she had in common with her shell-shocked fellow. Bua, Bloome and some of their students had been nearly run over by Tom’s convoy as it had barreled to safety through rogue NYC cops, turncoat mobsters and thickening crowds of infected. Tom had watched her master her fear, keeping her focus on her three young charges. Even during the bad nights in their hideaway, she’d been an emotional stalwart, comforting the kids and organizing quiet activities.

    She lowered her hand from her reddened eye, brushed a wing of dark hair back over one ear and glared at the bug-eyed woman next to her on the carpet.

    “What the hell, Dina!” Bloome exclaimed, exhaling sharply. Then she looked at her kids, cowering in the opposite corner of the room.  She tried to reassure them, saying, “It’s okay guys, Miss Dina is just scared.”

    The kids didn’t relax. They’d seen people turn before and had a perfectly rational fear of being close to a possibly incipient cannibal.

    “She’s a fucking nutter,” flatly stated Astroga. Cathe Astroga was one of the three National Guardmen who’d joined Smith’s rag-tag band at the last concert in New York City on the night that the lights went out for the last time. The Army Specialist casually slipped a taser back into her cargo pocket. “Damn, I wanted to see if these things still worked. Battery operated, you know.”

    Astro, lay off, and go inventory,” said Sergeant Copley wearily, too tired to muster the usual NCO discipline needed to corral his irrepressible subordinate. “I’ll help.”

    A seasoned veteran of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, Copley had led the patrol that fought alongside the bank team. He’d been glad of the help of Smith’s specialists as well as the extended Smith clan.

    “C’mon,” he added, standing to go into the other room. “Let’s go.”

    The stocky sergeant chivvied the Specialist out the door in front of him. She paused at the doorway to give Bua a long meaningful look while patting her pocket.

    Tom ignored the byplay, which he’d learned was the safest course when dealing with Astroga, who was the junior surviving representative of the U.S. Army and self-proclaimed ‘Global Leader of the E-4 Mafia’. After they filed out, Tom remained squatting on his haunches. He looked at Bua.

    “Dina,” he said, getting her attention. “Hey!”

    She opened her eyes and looked at him.

    “Will you behave if I pull that tape off?” he asked, striving for nonthreatening sincerity. “I’ll listen to everything you say, promise. I’ll even untie enough rope to make you comfortable while we wait to see if this is just nerves. But you have to talk normally, no yelling. What do you say?”

    “Mmmmmpf! Mwwwwwwwp – hmmmhmmmmmn! Rumpfh Huuu! Rumpfh Huuu!”

    “Yeah, that doesn’t sound like a simple yes,” Tom replied, glancing around. “Kap, give me a hand and we can drag her to the dining room where she can relax and we can still keep an eye on her. Check on her in a half an hour so.”

    “Sure thing, Boss,” Kaplan replied, but caught his eye and shot a glance at the back door. “After, let’s talk”


    “Now we’re talking!” exclaimed the bearded scavenger as he pulled open a family room cupboard.

    “Whatcha got, Ricky?” his companion said, sticking his head into the formerly well appointed kitchen. Both ignored the drying corpse which sprawled in the breakfast nook, partially eaten. From the look of things, it was mostly smaller animals that had been at it. Experience had taught them it was usually the family dog.

    “Top shelf! Some sealed bottles of whiskey, rum and some other stuff,” Ricky said, and laid his pump shotgun on the brown swirls of the granite countertop, scratching the smooth finish. “Here, hold this open, wouldja, Freddo?”

    “Dunno man,” the second man replied, itching his own patchy facial hair. “Boss was pretty clear. First sweep is still going on for live ones and any zombies.”

    “Just one for a nip later then,” Ricky said, selecting an engraved bottle. “I’ll just grab a-“

    “Wouldn’t do that. He’ll know,” Freddo said confidently. “You saw what he did to the other guy.”

    “He didn’t do anything. He didn’t have to. That fucking ogre did it,” Ricky said darkly.

    “Same thing,” came the reply. “You break the rules, I ain’t gonna cover for you.”

    “Okay, okay,” said the taller man, conceding the point. He shoved a few bottles back in the cabinet, leaving the others on the counter. “I’ll come back for these when we do a proper gleaning. Let’s clear the upstairs.”

    As they moved to the landing they heard a quiet rustle. Ricky put a hand up, and paused. Then he dashed upstairs to find a small dog bristling at him.

    “Shit, just a dog,” he said, casually raising his weapon and shooting the animal. Ricky didn’t have formal training. Unlike the Hollywood fiction that perpetuated shotguns’ reputations as “street sweepers”, the weapons still required careful aim. His was bad enough that the shot didn’t kill the pet outright. Instead, he nearly missed and only a single pellet struck home, severing the animal’s spine. The resulting squealing from the mortally injured pet was piercing. Before he could shoot again a small form blurred out of a doorway and bounced off his knee.

    “Don’t you hurt Muffie!”

    Ricky screamed, and short-stroked the shotgun, so that when he tried to shoot, he was treated to the loudest sound in any gunfight.

    A resounding click.

    Freddo made a long arm and plucked the child off his friend’s leg. Despite being outmassed by a factor of five, the little red headed boy made a creditable attempt to defend his pet. The kicking and gouging persisted even as the older man pinned him to the wall with one gloved hand.



    “Settle down!” ordered Freddo, giving the little boy a quick shake. “Shut that dog up, will you?!”

    Ricky quickly stepped on the small dog’s head with one heavy boot, cutting off the noise.

    “Damn, he scared the shit out of me,” Ricky panted, bent over, one hand on the wall.

    “I could tell, from the manly war cry you let out,” Freddo said chuckling. “Nah, this kid’s just scared. Maybe not as scared as you.”

    “Fuck you, Freddo,” the scavenger replied, still panting. “Thought he was a zombie!”

    “And if he was, you’d be dead now,” Freddo said crossly, even as his arm shook with the continuing struggle of the child. He turned his attention to the captive. “Come on now, quiet!”

    “Take him outside to the truck. He’s a keeper,” Ricky said “I’ll wait here for you to come back and we can finish the house.”

    Before Freddo could get all the way downstairs with his screaming, fighting captive, the front door swung open with a squeal. A very tall, very broad man entered, ducking his head under the frame. Freddo wasn’t an Army guy, so he didn’t know the names of all the guns that the newcomer wore, but he could count, and there were at least four.

    The black submachine gun which the man carried was dwarfed in his grip. His bulk was augmented by a very modern black plate-carrier from which hung an assortment of professionally appropriate equipment. Two large pistols were chest mounted in kydex holsters. A handle for a long, wide bladed knife, nearly the length of a machete, was balanced by the stock of a pistol grip shotgun that rose above the opposite shoulder. A matte black cranial helmet framed a pair of eyes so dark that they matched the black utilities that were the uniform of the uppermost tier of guards in their outfit.

    He briefly locked eyes with Freddo. The big man’s racial heritage wasn’t obvious, apart from clearly being descended from mountain trolls. He considered the two irregulars and their squirming captive before scanning the rest of the room.

    Noting an absence of any immediate threat, he stood to one side to make room for the next man.

    Behind him strode a figure who looked small only in comparison to monster that preceded him. He wore mud colored body armor over khaki trousers and a blue windbreaker. He bore a shoulder slung submachine gun and holstered pistol, but his hands were filled with a notebook and pen. Freddo knew the man only as Mr. Green. Green had captured him, recruited him, and given him a job.

    Mr. Green also made the rules.

    Freddo could tell that Mr. Green was an educated man. The fancy words, the organization, the regulations, all of it, were things that Freddo could never duplicate, but he also knew that every pack needed a leader. He couldn’t easily articulate his reasoning but he was bright enough to know that his best chance in the current world of shit was to join the best pack under the smartest alpha-dog that he could find.

    Green was smart enough for all of them. But he wasn’t merely intelligent. The dispassionate look on Green’s face as he glanced at Freddo, Ricky and their captive reminded the looter of a term his granddaddy had used to describe the local sheriff, renowned for his skill at catching – or dispatching – criminals.

    A killing man.

    “What was the shot?” demanded Green.

    “Just a dog, sir,” replied Freddo. “This kid’s pet.”

    “Ah, very good,” said Green, spying the new captive. “Give him to Loki here and continue the sweep.”

    “Uh, sir?” Ricky asked from the top of the staircase while Freddo gladly passed his struggling captive to the much taller bodyguard. “Why do we want kids? I mean, he’s too young for the recreation hall, even for thems as like boys. And he’s too small for useful work.”

    “Did I ask for questions?” replied Green. “Negative. When I want your questions, you’ll hear me ask for them. Got that Fred?”

    “Uh, yessir.” Freddo said carefully. “I didn’t mean nuthin’ by it.”

    “I guess you didn’t, Fred,” Green replied. “But I’m in a good mood, so I’ll let you have your explanation. Your job’s to clear houses. My job is to do the thinking. Do a good enough job and you get vaccine. Eventually. Continue to deliver and you get additional rewards. Don’t… well, Mr. Loki or one of the Guard will do for you. Do I need to make an example to help you remember?”

    The giant’s eyes glinted when he heard his own name and he looked directly at Freddo.

    Freddo gulped and backed up the stairs, something preventing him from willingly turning his back to Loki.

    “No sir, definitely not!”

    Green glanced about the room again. The damned alcohol bottles that Ricky had lined up on the counter stood out like a sore thumb.

    Green favored both of his looters with a final knowing look and stepped back outside, followed by his hulking shadow.

    The boy was fighting more feebly now, suspended at arms length from one of Loki’s ham sized fist.


    Risky watched Smith and Kaplan ease outside before she looked in on her wrestling partner. Bua was laying quietly on her side, still secured at the wrists, elbows, knees and ankles with sturdy rope. The teens pointedly ignoring the tied-up teacher in the next room, and instead were clustered around Bloome, playing some card game on the beige carpet.

    Risky stretched, easing the residual strain of wrestling with a potential infected. Her experience in the bank’s Biological Emergency Response Teams had taught her that she could expect soreness once the adrenaline wore off.  Until the pandemic struck, she’d been limited to a mostly decorative role as the “girlfriend” of the head of the Jersey-based Cosa Nova. However, thank to her old boss’ keen eye, she’d been seconded to the bank as part of a complicated four-way deal that saw BotA, city government, cops and the mob cooperate in an attempt to keep the lights on in New York City. Matricardi had spotted an opportunity to get closer to the head of the bank’s head of security and sent her to do it.

    Risky had immediately known that Tom Smith was no fool. The man hadn’t required instructions and simple diagrams to understand why the Cosa Nova boss had sent Risky as his liaison. The obvious chemistry between them that neither dared to acknowledge was just, how-you-say, icing on the cakes.

    Risky knew that Smith’s world was now upside down. She also knew that she was a piece that didn’t fit perfectly into his post-apocalyptic scenario. He’d made ruthless decisions in an instant when he had to, in order to save as much as he could for his own employer.

    She snorted.

    Bank of the Americas was – had been – as dangerous as any gang. They’d been the ones who’d started the unsanctioned harvesting of spinal tissue from infected humans. The resulting vaccine was just another part of Smith’s plan.

    She’d also seen Smith behave with grace, when he could afford to. The kids next door were one example. The fact that Bua was still breathing was another. Speaking of which, her shoulder was getting tight now. She stretched again, moving both shoulders deliberately, loosening her muscles while straining her T-shirt.

     Across the room, she noticed Vinnie “Mouse Sacks” Dingatelli, one of the two surviving goons from Cosa Nova, glance away from her tightened clothing, guilty as hell.

    Even though they’d worked for the same man before, she wasn’t going to fully trust him anytime soon. To be fair he hadn’t had a hand in the murder of the last boss of the Cosa Nova. As long as he followed Smith’s lead, same as everyone else, she’d let him live.



    However, Risky had kept the RPK that had done for Matricardi’s traitorous second-in-command, and made sure that everyone knew it.

    Bua moaned slightly, arresting the moll’s attention.

    She was pretty sure by now that the teacher wasn’t infected. What she was, was scared. Lost. Without any foundation. Lonely.

    Human things.

    As good as Smith was at plans, he could lose sight of the human problems that were at the heart of everything. Not everyone was a soldier, corporate or otherwise.

    She grabbed a windbreaker from the peg next door and headed outside to join the first two.



    After a companionable silence, Tom got to the point.

    “Okay,” he said, facing his companion squarely. “What’s on your mind, Kap?”

    “Weather’s turning, getting cooler,” Kaplan replied. After a glance around the property, Kaplan returned his boss’ look. “People are getting cooler too.”

    “We’ve had this conversation, Kap,” Tom said, suppressing his obvious irritation.

    “Tom, it’s me, okay?” Kaplan replied earnestly. “You pay me for my opinions and I’m telling you that we can’t stay here. It’s not a smart play.”

    “What am I paying you with, again?” replied the taller man, flashing a wry grin. “I’ll double it!”

    No one had gotten paid since the Fall.

    “The finest scavenged, room temperature Red Bull in all the land,” Kaplan said, sharing the joke. Then he stepped closer, directly in front of his boss, and kept his voice low. “You know what I mean. Stop evading.”

    “There isn’t exactly a playbook for this situation, Kap,” the taller man said, folding his arms. “We were supposed to be at one of the refuge sites before everything went. We were supposed to have more and better situated refuges, for that matter. We weren’t supposed to be marooned three hundred miles from the nearest long term hide out, saddled with civilians and kids! Kids for chroissake!”

    Like his subordinate, Tom kept his voice low. His sharp gestures and a hint of the Australian accent communicated his keen frustration as clearly as though he had yelled aloud.

    “How soon can we move?” he continued. “Depends on the infected count and the road conditions. How far can we recce? Fuel’s limited. This is a pile of piss, Kaplan! Zeus was never supposed to devolve this far!”

    It wasn’t their first time through this discussion. Each knew his lines.

    “How far can we trust Fat Ralph and Sacks?” Kaplan said, naming the two former gangsters who Tom had elected to keep alive despite the treachery of their former boss. A boss who had succeeded Matricardi as the surviving head of the Cosa Nova.


    “How many supplies can we afford to use on scouting before we don’t have enough to make it to Blue? The questions are a nested set of unknowns, boss. I get it. I do. So does Gravy.” He said, referring to Dave “Gravy” Durante, the second Bank security specialist and the only other member of the team that Tom trusted implicitly.

    Kaplan turned so that they both faced the estuary, lowering his voice further.

    “But I don’t think that we can keep this entire group in this little house until first snowfall. That’s what you’re thinking, right?”

    “It’s still a solid idea, Kap,” Tom replied, raising one hand in a frustrated wave. “Zombies might be scary cannibals that swarm in big numbers, but they’re still just humans, most of them without clothes. Without tools and cooperative behaviors humans are remarkably fragile, slow, blind and easy to kill. Wait until winter and let the cold kill some and drive the rest into shelter. We’ll have the road to ourselves and we can be at Site Blue in two, maybe three days. Week at the outside.”

    “We don’t have that long,” Risky’s voice sounded behind them. Both men jumped.

    “God-dammit, don’t do that!” Kaplan said. Then he almost fumbled his first attempt to re-holster the pistol which had appeared in his hand.

    “We don’t have anything like that long,” Risky said, ignoring his comment and the gun. “And it’s not so much about what’s in cabin as what’s outside.”

    “I’m listening,” Tom said flatly. After the initial surprise, he hadn’t reacted to her quiet approach.

    Although he acknowledged Oldryskya’s role in saving their collective skins, he’d elected to keep her at an arms distance despite… everything. She’d run out on Tom’s team before, prior to the Fall. Later she’d fought her way free of a kidnapping as the Cosa Nova mob devolved into fratricide. A happy side benefit was that she’d been able to return their stolen escape boat, but she was still an outsider whose first allegiance wasn’t clear.

    “The reason that school teacher is losing mind is because she doesn’t see the point,” Risky said, choosing her words carefully. She was conversational in English, despite it being a third language for her, or four if one counted “Jersey mobster” as its own dialect. “If everyone’s dead, if it’s really all gone, then why stay inside, why bother to live? Simple survival not enough.”

    “Simple survival looks pretty good, considering the alternative,” Tom retorted. “We wait long enough to for the cooler temps to drive most of the infected indoors, then we get to the refuge, take stock and, well…”

    There was a brief silence.

    “That’s the point,” Kaplan said. Rhetoric and allegory wasn’t his strong suit, but he was trying. “You done good, Boss. Your plans, your vision got us out of a really bad spot. We’re here, we’re fed and safe, mostly. Out of sixty million people between Boston and Atlanta, how many can say that? Damn few. But being alive lets you think about what comes next. And what comes next is… well, suppose we get to the refuge. Then what?”

    “We do our jobs,” Tom said insistently, raising both hands in the air. “The mission is get to the Site, assess, protect and rebuild. That’s what we do. Mind you, just getting there is enough to occupy us. Travel at day or night? Scavenge along the way? Do we bring trade goods? Where will survivors have clustered? Do we dare approach anyone? There are plenty of problems to solve, Kap.”

    “Biggest problem of all you don’t mention,” Risky wasn’t going to be derailed. “Everyone needs a reason to live. Before, maybe it was money, or having family or making art. Those reasons don’t matter any more, not if everything is gone. Is all gone, yes?”

    The conditions of the Fall had been clearly visible during their escape. The failing TV and radio broadcasts were plain. After a week or two, and by general agreement, the survivors had agreed to avoid talking about their families or what lay outside.

    “Yeah,” Tom said. He rolled one shoulder, stretching it as much to relieve his stress as loosen an old injury. Then he looked towards the sluggish estuary that was slowly oozing by, ferrying the occasional bloated corpse to the Atlantic. “I think that it might be. Oh, there’ll be small groups of survivors in lots of places. But organized government? I doubt that there’s anything more than isolated military units, submarines for example. Probably military command centers like Cheyenne Mountain. Maybe even some science outposts, like McMurdo maybe.”

    “Nah,” Kaplan replied, shaking his head. “Last transmission on the ten meter from the Beeb said that infections were confirmed there.”

    McMurdo Station, far away in the Antarctic, had been one of the last scientific redoubts to go dark. Many hopes had been pinned on isolated groups of scientists who tried to produce a vaccine or a cure, laboring until the last lights were extinguished. How the disease had infiltrated a research station during the heart of Antarctic winter was just another mystery that would have to remain unsolved until the immediate challenge of survival was overcome.

    “Ten meters?” asked Risky.

    “A radio band, good for long distance,” Tom answered. “In the right conditions, you can communicate thousands of miles with good gear and a school-taught comms guy. Something else we planned for but don’t have. We have a couple of transceivers, but…”



    All three fell silent. Listening to the number of active radio stations dwindle had been hard. A few times they had caught a last sign off as journalists or amateurs bid an empty channel goodbye. And good luck.

    A long ululating howl sounded across the water.

    “Hunter,” Kap said, dryly. “Best we get out of sight.”

    Their little house was tucked into trees well back from the creek. Tom had foreseen the need for waystations for any bank stragglers on the way to the long term refuges. Tom had borrowed from his military training to find Selected Areas For Escape, or SAFEs. These were locations where the survivors could evade detection more easily, though they weren’t truly safe. Their current house in coastal Virginia was completely shielded from the nearest road and the drive was blocked by heavy brush and ditches. During the first few weeks, car engines and a few boats had been audible. Then, occasional screams.

    Tom had kept everyone inside until lately, and even now he sharply limited outside excursions. The competition for the external guard duty that rotated among the reliable members of their party was fierce.

    The last month had been quiet, except for the hunt. Warm weather, mosquitoes and hunger kept the infected in motion. Like schools of sharks, the bands would be composed of relatively healthy zombies of the same approximate size. They seemed to prey on livestock, humans, pets, and occasionally each other.

    “There’s got to be a better reason, Tom,” Risky said, motioning towards the dark water that oozed past. “Just being alive and leaving the world to that, it isn’t enough to keep us together.”

    “I’ll think about it,” replied Tom.

    “We’ll all think about it,” added Kaplan.



    Sergeant “Worf” Copley was in a strange place. Oh, the SAFE wasn’t bad as accommodations went. The actual immediate tactical environment wasn’t too unusual in his experience. 

    Unconventional chain of command complete with admin pogues in charge? Yep.

     Strap-hangers and civilians underfoot. Meh. You ever seen an embedded CNN camera crew?

    Bitched up supply situation. It happens.

    Living in cramped communal quarters for an extended period. The Army called that an ordinary Tuesday.

    It was how he and his sole remaining subordinate had arrived here that was some next level bullshit. You could call it a long, strange trip, but that would be a charming understatement.

    The experienced National Guard staff sergeant had been out of communication with higher since the harum-scarum withdrawal from Washington Square Park, shooting and meleeing infected all the way back to Bank of the America’s, where they found a no-shit for-real command post on Wall Street. Wall-fucking-Street! Then, marooned out of contact with higher, he’d directly negotiated a deal for vaccine with the civilian in charge – an action so far above his pay grade that he still had a nosebleed. Then he’d helped run a noncombatant evacuation from a twenty-million dollar Park Avenue property, while keeping Specialist “I mean – it’s a Faberge egg and it’s just sitting there, Sergeant!” Astroga from helping herself to the semi-abandoned baubles in the mansions. Then he got into a running gun fight with cops and the FBI.

    The F-fucking-B-fucking-I. Who, as it turned out, had fucking Stinger anti-air missiles, because of course they did!

    Worf hadn’t had the time to worry about shooting cops, but at least the moral quandary was clear. They’d been making a very sincere effort to shoot Mrs. Copley’s little boy before he could return the favor. On that basis alone he just fought to keep himself and his little team alive. Finally, before he had time to process that fracas, there’d been another, rather one sided firefight at the docks, where Astroga had gotten shot. Her armor kept the rounds out, thank god.

    It was nearly as much combat time as he had from two OIF deployments, combined. And about as satisfying.

    About like a visit to the latrine on day six of an all MRE spreadable cheese diet– a lot of strain for very little output .

    The Russian girl, Khabayeva, had saved all their asses, though. Then off they had gone, hey diddle diddle on a long ass boat trip. During the all night over-water transit Copley had been too damn tired to think it all through. Once he had made certain that Astroga was as comfortable as she could be with her bruised ribs, he had deployed his woobie and chimped down for nearly the entire boat ride.

    Now they were in the bank’s hideout.

    At first, just the relief of being out of New York City was enough. Worf and the little band of bank survivors had lain up within a relatively short distance of a major naval base and listened the VHF harbor traffic as ship after ship punched out, the fleet surging seaward as though it could outrun the land based plague. Enough transmissions made it clear that the virus was already at sea.

    He tried to imagine how he would fight zombies in a big steel squid bin. Pity those bastards.

    Over in the corner, the tied up school teacher had quieted. It was a classic case of freakout, no H7D3 virus required.

    Astroga was chatting quietly with one of the schoolkids, and was kibbitzing their cards. Despite her unrecalcitrant pseudo-E4 attitude, Cathe Astroga had a surprisingly helpful manner with the young teens. Decent kids and their good attitudes had made it easy to like them.

    Worf walked over to the wall and re-applied himself to the map pinned there. Even after a good long stare, none of their routes away from the SAFE looked particularly good.

    “Whatcha doing?” Astroga said from his elbow, materializing suddenly. She called it one of her super powers.

    “You know, you’re gonna do that to some new NCO one day, and their gonna lose their shit,” he answered, entirely too used to her little ways. “But, what I’m doing is looking at routes west. Sooner or later we have to drive out of here and it’s going to be a mess.”

    “Big highway right there,” The young private said, helpfully stabbing a finger at the blue line representing I-64.” Should take us west, no?”

    “No,” Copley replied seriously. “Think, Astro. Hampton Roads used to have more than a million and a half people and the only highway out is a two-lane interstate. It’s going to be a parking lot of stopped cars. What we need are side roads. What we gotta do is stay away from anything but really small towns.”

    He tapped the indigo push pin almost three hundred miles west.

    “Figure a week plus to get to Site Blue, maybe more,” he said musingly, while considering another local road that was marked in a dashed line. “Maybe a lot more.”

    “Hey, Worf?” Astroga asked in a surprisingly small voice. “You figure that Gunner is gonna be there waiting, right?”

    The last thing they had seen of Sergeant “Gunner” Randall, the third member of their New York city “presence” patrol, he’d been boarding one of the last helos scheduled to leave from the top floor of the bank. One bird had been shot down by an FBI Stinger. The resulting fireball had crashed back onto the roof, destroying a second aircraft still spooling up on the pad. They’d hoped that Gunner was in the one that got away.

    They had to believe it.

    “Hundred percent,” Copley said, forcing a smile. “He made it, sure. He and that bank intel guy Rune are probably living the life of Riley in a camp full of high bred banker chicks, right?”

    Astroga carefully did not sniff.

    “Yeah, the lucky bastard.”


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