Night took forever to fall, like it always did that far north in the summer. Fireflies, unconcerned with undead or apocalypses, started flashing, calling for mates, when Zivcovic called a stop. By his pace count, they had done thirty one miles through the hills, and were down to ten recruits, seven soldiers and three civilians. The mountain they had just walked over had been the final straw for the last three.
Agostine was glad to see that both Jonas and the woman who called herself Sister Jane were still with them. He loved the quiet determination that civilian survivors showed, having spent months by himself in the wild. To his irritation, though, Master Sergeant Cahill still stood, if not at the front of the line, certainly not at the back.
“I thought,” he told Zivcovic as the Serb lit a cigarette, “I told you to break him.” Ziv snorted and said nothing, just gazed up at the stars.
Brit laughed quietly, and said, “Cahill’s just like you, you know. A stubborn ass who is going to accomplish his mission if it kills him.”
“Well,” her husband answered, “there’s more to being a scout than walking.” He moved over to the group and called them around in a circle. Most took a knee to support the heavy packs; all were obviously exhausted.
“Listen up!” he started, “over the next rise is the town of Dorset. It has about a hundred survivors, and is the local trading hub around here. They are VERY leery of outsiders, but that’s where you’re going to spend the night. Or not. It all depends on how YOU act when you get to their gates.”
One man raised his hand, and Agostine said, “Yes, Sergeant Badger?”
“The Seventh Amendment was suspended nine years ago. Why can’t we just walk in? And aren’t you friends with these people?”
“Good questions,” the Colonel answered, glad it wasn’t Cahill who had asked. “Yes, we do know these people, but they don’t know you’re coming, and we’re not going in there. My team will be spending the night out in the woods. Try not to get yourselves shot, and if you kill any civilians, don’t bother coming back.”
Zivcovic flashed his light, and they started to get up. “One thing, before you move out. Mister Jonas is in charge. You OK with that, Dale?” he asked the man.
“As long as everyone follows-“ the farmer started to say, but was cut off by an angry Master Sergeant Cahill.
“This is BULLSHIT!” he bellowed. “We’re on a military op, and you’re putting a civilian in charge? Those survivors should be goddamned happy to see Federal Troops, and we have the right to commandeer housing!”
O’Neill answered before Agostine could lash out at the man. “Master Sergeant, we’re just giving the right man the right job. I admire your discipline in the face of battle, and fortitude, but let’s just say that diplomacy isn’t your forte.”
To Agostine’s surprise, the NCO shut up. What was it about Brit that everyone listened to? He shook his head and took up a position at the rear of the column as they made their way down the cracked pavement.
As they walked, the scout stepped carefully around objects glistening in the moonlight. Occasionally, he moved one aside with his boot, but Agostine tried hard to respect the dead. As the moon rose, he saw that a path had been cleared through the thousands of bones that lined the road.
“What the hell is this shit?” asked Hildebrand, the reporter snapping pictures with a low light camera.
“You don’t get out much, do you?” answered Brit.
“It’s the dead, Steve,” said Agostine. “Haven’t you ever seen a pile at a barricade?”
The reporter hesitated, then said, “No. I report on wars and combat, never the aftermath. Is it like this everywhere?”
“Well,” said Brit, “Yes and no. I’ll explain what happened here. When the apocalypse started, people’s instincts were to run for the hills. Right up this way is pretty much how far a lot of NYC civilians got to before they ran out of gas.”
“More like how far they could walk AFTER they ran out of gas,” interjected Agostine.
“Like I was saying,” said Brit, and her husband could almost hear her doing an eye roll, “how far they could get before they ran out of supplies. Then a bunch of unarmed New York urban dwellers came up against some very determined, and well-armed, Vermont farmers. No SAFE Act here in Vermont.”
She paused, as if remembering the things she had seen over the years, then continued, “It was a scene repeated all over the country. Disarmed city dwellers, unable to fight the undead, made their own hordes and, where they could, picked the countryside clean. More often than not, rural people defending their towns exhausted their ammo on the civilians, and were helpless against the undead. You were lucky in Seattle.”
“I was, and I’m the first to admit it,” answered the reporter. “Though I do know how shitty the world can be.”
All three walked in silence for a while as the lights grew closer, thinking about the immediate aftermath of the plague. Agostine trying to defend the bridges, O’Neill watching as her classmates died, Hilderband catching the last flight out of Afghanistan.
They were brought up short when there was a cry of “HALT!” from up on the walls surrounding the village. Bright spotlights replaced the soft torch light that had glowed inside, shining directly at them, hiding whoever had called out from the wall.
“Get that damned light out of our faces!” shouted Cahill. “UNITED STATES ARMY TROOPS! OPEN YOUR GATES!”
“Uh oh,” said Brit, and she and Nick ran forward, just as a shot rang out.