They started dropping out around mile twenty. The hills were short, but steep, and once the sun had come up, the humidity set in with a vengeance.
The first to go was a civilian, a tough looking young man who started sweating profusely; as he marched, he got redder and redder. O’Neill walked next to him, and several times asked him if he wanted to drop. He ignored he, just kept up with the grueling pace that Yasser was setting in the lead. When they reached the top of a tall hill, he was so out of it, leaning into the slope, that he continued bending down when they crested the rise, and crashed forward onto the ground. Rolling over, he struggled to get up with the pack on his back, but fell again, and lay there prostrate on the melting pavement.
“MEDIC!” was shouted up the line, and Doc Swan came jogging back. Together, she and the reporter dragged the man into the shade, and the medic called over the radio for the pickup HUMVEE. The line of men and women kept marching on, dwindling into the distance, disappearing around a bend.
“Hey Colonel,” said the civilian, Jonas. “You said that we were going north of Glens Falls, We kinda seem to be moving a bit east, up into these hills.”
“We’re avoiding a known concentration of undead,” answered Agostine, with a grin in his face.
“My ass, but OK. I guess we just keep walking.” By this time, most of the marchers had figured out that they were on little more than a gut check. Cahill, especially, occasionally looked back at Agostine with a scowl, but he kept on walking at the front of the group.
Around mile twenty three, another two had dropped out, one leaving bloody footprints on the road before he called it quits, the other just sitting down on a log and chugging what little water he had left. At this point, they had all just about drained their camel backs and canteens, and most had wolfed down the one MRE they had been given on their ten minute break at noon.
Rounding a bend, down to sixteen now, they came to a place where a bridge had once stood. It had obviously been demolished by explosives in the initial fight against the undead. The river, rushing down from the Green Mountains of Vermont, looked like a good trout stream, and packed up against the bank, milling around, were several dozen undead.
It had been ten years since the first plague, and three years since the second. How they survived, no one knew; it was just accepted. Research wasn’t exactly a priority anymore; survival was. Still, these were in pretty rough shape. Muscles rotted, eyes abraded, clothing falling off.
Their ears worked, though. As the marchers crested the hill towards the bridge, the undead turned as one, and they howled that bone chilling, screeching, piercing wail, launching themselves at the patrol.
“FIRE!” yelled Zivcovic, and most of them did, taking a knee and opening up. The undead started to drop, one, two, three, a half dozen, coming closer and closer, the howl getting louder. The gunfire also grew louder, as well as the curses, then tapered off as magazines were changed; the curses and yells didn’t. At twenty meters, two people turned and fled; one soldier and one civilian. There were still about dozen of the undead left, and still none of the regular scouts had fired, though some of the group risked a quick glance backward at them. O’Neill stood with her arms crossed, and Agostine was digging at some dirt under his nails.
“JESUS FUCKING CHRIST, HELP US!” yelled Master Sergeant Cahill, but to his credit, he never stopped firing. Then he stood up and ordered, “SMASHERS!”
The soldiers instantly obeyed, drilled by long habit, and dropped their weapons in sling, pulling out whatever blunt object they had armed themselves with. Most carried an aluminum handled, steel headed mace, designated the M-13 Personal Combat Weapon. They instinctively formed a line, side by side, but the civilians milled about behind them, unsure what to do. That’s when another broke and ran.
The undead got within ten meters, and then a steel cable lifted up off the ground in front of them, spilling the foremost onto the ground. Cagle and Johnson appeared on either side of the road, firing into the struggling mass with their modified M-4’s, and the veteran soldiers slung their maces, picked up their rifles, and joined them. It was over in less than a minute.
“How many ran, Brit?” asked Agostine.
“Um, one military and two civilians.”
“YOU HAVE FIVE MINUTES TO DO WHATEVER YOU NEED TO DO!” yelled Zivcovic, and he flipped his ruck over his shoulders and onto his back, waiting impatiently.
Sergeant Yasser spoke quietly in his reserved way, but in protest. “Colonel, I do not think that was a fair test of the civilians. Their instinct is to run, to hide.”
Before Agostine could answer, O’Neill spoke. “That may be, but when I first joined the team, I had to break that habit too. Matter of fact, Jonesy dragged my ass back over his shoulder when I walked off a range. It took me a long time to get past the lone survivor bullshit, but we don’t HAVE that time.”
The reporter was furiously taking notes, and O’Neill leaned over, whispered “J-O-N-E-S-Y.”
“She’s right,” said Agostine. “With the war finally winding down against the Mountain Republic, there are going to be a lot of areas of the world to explore, and they’re going to need the teams more than ever.”
Hildeband was intrigued, and asked, “Where, exactly?”
“Anywhere. Bringing civilians back to the settled states, recovering National Assets, probing for military action, whatever some General or politician gets a hair up his ass about.”
“You seem a bit bitter, Colonel,” said the reporter. In answer, Agostine just hiked up his pack and walked away.
“Wouldn’t you be,” answered O’Neill for him, “if you walked through the valley of death, and left almost everyone and everything you ever loved there, emerging unscathed?”
The reporter jogged forward to catch up with the line of marchers, asking several of them questions about the action they had just participated in. Were they scared? Why hadn’t they run? Did they fear the undead?
“Shit yeah, I fear them,” answered one young man with an 82nd Airborne patch on his shoulder. He also had another scroll velcroed over the “AIRBORNE”, a simple number written out, “THE TEN THOUSAND”.
“You’re one of them, aren’t you?” asked Hildebrand, “one of the ones who marched back from the Mexican oil fields?”
“Damn straight, and if that crazy sumbitch Zivcovic thinks he’s going to walk me into the ground, he’s got another thing coming,” answered the soldier, and spit a long stream of tobacco juice on the ground. “Wouldn’t want to go fight him, though.”
“I’d love to interview sometime about the march, Sergeant … Badger.”
Another stream of juice, and he said, “Johnny Badger.”
“Liar! His name is Honey Badger, and he don’t give a shit!” said Velasquez.
“Hey Velasquez,” shot back Badger, “you ever been mistaken for a man?”
“Nope, have you?” she said, scraping undead blood and goo off her boots with a stick.
“QUIT BULLSHITTING, YOU STUPID AMERICAN FAT ASSES, WE MARCH!” barked Zivcovic, but he actually sort of smiled.
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 in their faces.
“Get that damned light out of our faces!” shouted Cahill. “UNITED STATES ARMY! OPEN YOUR GATES!”
“Uh oh,” said Brit, as she and Nick ran forward, “I want to see this one!”
They got with fifty feet, but hung back to watch. Cahill again shouted at the wall, and violently shrugged off Jonas when he tried to put a calming hand on him. The rest of the group sat back and took the opportunity to rest sore feet, sitting on their packs.
“HEY! OPEN THE EFFING GATE! FEDERAL TROOPS!” yelled Cahill again, and Jonas shook his head in disgust.
He was answered by a woman with a bullhorn, her New England accent played up. “We don’t recognize federal authority in the Kingdom of Vermont!” Her pronouncement was accompanied by laughter from others behind the lights. There was also a suppressed round of laughs from the resting troops.
Brit said, “Fifty bucks he takes a shot!” and Doc Swan took her bet.
“You have too much faith in human nature, Bella,” said Brit to the older woman.
She smiled and answered, “Nature of my job.”
They could see the Master Sergeant pacing back and forth, obviously frustrated with the situation. Agostine could almost sympathize with him; the urge to solve a problem with violence came natural to a combat veteran.
Cahill stopped his pacing and turned to face the lights again. “THE SEVENTH AMENDMENT WAS SUSPENDED BY –“ and he was interrupted again by the woman on the wall.
“TAKES A TWO THIRDS MAJORITY OF STATES TO REPEAL AN AMENDMENT!” she shouted back. There was more laughter from behind the lights.
“Why you, goddamnit!” and he raised his rifle, stopping when he saw a red laser dot dancing across his chest.
“Colonel Agostine,” said the civilian Jonas, “can you stop this before it gets out of hand?”
Jonas sighed, and went over to where Cahill stood, undecided what to do next. This was way outside his experience zone. “Sarge,” said the farmer, “You gave it a shot, let me try. We got nothing to lose except a night out in the woods, and I’m kinda tired.”
Cahill stormed off in frustration, and Jonas ignored the red dot on his own chest. “Hey, new negotiator here!” he said loudly, but not harshly.
“Speak your piece, stranger!” said the woman.
Jonas paused, and said, “My names’ Jonas, and what’s yours, Ma’am? I’m a civilian, not a soldier.”
He answer came back much more lighthearted, “Doctor Jane McCall, mayor of the fine town of Dorset. Now put up or shut up, Mr. Jonas!”
What followed was ten minutes of negotiations. In return for two hundred rounds of .223 ammo, the group would be allowed to sleep in the town hall and use shower facilities, and all long arms must be stacked under guard in the town hall, though they could keep pistols.
“And you tell Colonel Agostine that he and his wife have to come have breakfast with me in the morning. YES, YOU, I SEE YOU STANDING BACK THERE, GIMP!” she said, raising her voice at the end as the gate creaked open. The lights were flicked off, and they could see an armored tractor sitting behind it, diesel engine slowly ticking over. Sergeant Cahill stood back as the group filed into the town, and asked Agostine to give him a minute before he left.
He hesitated before speaking, then said, “That tractor would have eaten our lunch if I kept things up.” His voice was subdued, as if he was having a hard time getting the words out.
“Not your lunch. You would have been dead long before the gate opened to let it out; that laser pointer was just to scare you. I’m pretty sure there’s a snipers’ post about five hundred meters up that hill, with a really good shot looking at the side of your head through a night vision scope.”
Cahill glanced upward towards the darkness, finally realizing how exposed he had been. “I guess … I guess I’m a bit out of my element.”
“Bet your stuck up Regular Army ass you are!” exclaimed O’Neill.
“Ah, can you give us a minute, Brit?” asked Agostine. She raised her right hand and the mechanical middle finger slowly raised itself in Cahills’ direction, then laughed and headed for their truck. “Gotta settle up my bet with Doc,” she called over her shoulder.
“I can’t imagine if I really pissed her off,” said Cahill.
“Trust me, you don’t want to see it. She actually almost likes you, believe it or not. She thinks we’re very alike, stubborn asses.”
They both laughed at that, then Cahill said, “Listen, I’m man enough to admit when I’m wrong. This,” and he made a waving motion with his hand, indicating everything around them, “this scouting stuff is a lot different than what I’m used to. In fact, I think that Badger or Velasquez would probably make better team leaders than me.”
“Those two are shooters. You point them in the right direction, take their leash off, and let them go.”
“Um, no,” said Agostine, “Ziv is his own man. There’s no leash on him, except his crush on Brit.”
“I’m not going to ask,” said the younger man.
“Good, don’t. Point is, you’re a leader, and you wouldn’t have those stripes if you weren’t. You just have to understand there’s a way to do one thing, and another way to do another thing.”
Cahill let out a deep breath, seeming to let some of the tension out of his body. “I’ll be on the next barge out of here, though I’ve never quit anything in my life.”
“Good, saves me from writing your transfer orders to command IST-13,” answered Agostine. “I hate paperwork.”
It took a minute for that to sink into Cahill’s mind, and then he grinned in the torch light. “Guess I better see to my people, Colonel!”
“Don’t thank me, up until two minutes ago I was trying to decide whether to send you home or have you shot before you got anyone killed. If you hadn’t done some self-reflection, you would have been on that barge.”
Cahill stuck out his hand, and Agostine shook it, hard. “I’ll let you pick your team from whomever is left. Seven is the best number, and I’d recommend Velasquez, Badger, Jonas and Sister Jane as a minimum.”
“She’s a weirdo,” answered Cahill.
“She’s a survivor. You can learn a lot from her. From both of them.”