Thunder and Ashes: Chapter 4

The Lion's Den

Ten miles north of Abraham, Kansas

March 07, 2007

2100 hrs_

BREWSTER, KRUEGER, AND THOMAS crawled on their stomachs to the top of a gently rolling hill overlooking a sprawling distribution complex. The place was simply massive, with multiple storehouses and dozens of bays for tractor-trailers to load and unload their cargo. Apparently, the residents of the complex had a generator set up, because spotlights lit the exterior of the buildings in a warm yellow light. The three soldiers were still a good two hundred yards from the outer perimeter, well out of view of the guards that roamed the fenceline.

“All right, boys, we’re on recon now,” Thomas said, nodding in the direction of the complex. “Keep an eye on any guards you see and get me a good, solid count. I don’t want any surprises when we go in there.”

Krueger fished around on his webgear for a small pair of binoculars and held them up to his face.

“Looks like two towers near the main entrance. There’s one guard in each. Armed. Can’t tell with what, but they’re longarms. Probably hunting rifles. Got to figure they’ll be the best shots,” Krueger said.

“We’ll give them a wide berth,” Thomas said.

“Look down there,” Brewster said, bereft of binoculars but blessed with excellent eyesight. “Is that a roving guard by the fence, near the corner?”

Krueger shifted his binoculars to the right and then shook his head. “No, just looks like one of the raiders needed a spot to take a piss. Yep, there goes the fly. And there he goes back inside.”

The distant figure vanished into one of the warehouse buildings, letting the door slam behind him with enough force that the three soldiers on the hill could hear it.

“Keep looking, Krueger,” Thomas murmured.

“On it, Sarge—holy shit!” Krueger exclaimed. “Sergeant, I think you may want to have a look at this. Near the main entrance, far side, ground level.”

Krueger handed the binoculars over to Thomas, who accepted them and looked in the direction Krueger had indicated.

“Well, if that don’t beat all, I don’t know what does,” Thomas said, grimacing behind the binoculars.

“What is it?” Brewster asked, craning his neck to see.

“Looks like our raider boys haven’t been bothering to exterminate their infected company. They’ve got the main gates reinforced and lined on either side with more fencing. Looks like they have, what, thirty, maybe forty carriers caged up down there,” Thomas said.

“What the hell would they be keeping them alive for?” Brewster wondered out loud.

“Security, I’m betting,” Thomas said, scowling. “Anyone approaching would see a horde of the pusfucks at the main gates and turn right around without even bothering to try to take the place.”

“Not a bad idea, actually,” Krueger said, shrugging.

“Doesn’t matter anyway,” Thomas said, cutting off the banter. “We’re not going in the main entrance. We’re coming in from behind. Weapons check.”

The two soldiers with Thomas turned over on their backs and began a thorough inspection of their gear. Sheriff Wallace had provided them with semiautomatic pistols as backups. Krueger had retrieved his bolt-action rifle and the Sheriff had been kind enough to loan him a night-vision scope to attach to the rails on top of the weapon, giving him an added edge in the darkness. Brewster had been handed his double-barreled shotgun back, but he’d managed to beg it off, saying that he’d rather have something that he wouldn’t have to stop and reload after every two shots. After some deliberation, he traded the weapon off for a 12-gauge pump-action Remington that held seven shells.

The soldiers checked their magazines, racked rounds into chambers and re-holstered their sidearms. The rifles were similarly checked, cleared, re-loaded and held at the ready.

“Check masks,” Thomas ordered.

The two men with him opened the bags that hung from their belts and donned the close-fitting black rubber masks, checking to make certain the seals were intact. Thomas joined them in this step, donning his own mask and checking its functionality. Satisfied that they held working equipment, the men replaced the gear in their pouches, bags, and holsters, and returned their attention to the facility across the field from them.

“Remember, we don’t make a move until Sherman provides us with our distraction,” Thomas said.

The small group had gone over several versions of a battle plan before finally settling on one they all felt (more or less) had a chance of success. The raiders would likely be settling in for the night, which aided them in their attempt to take them by surprise. Brewster had tried to argue once more that they should just tow the utility truck and avoid the danger, but Sherman had been adamant about having all their vehicles functional in case anything else came up down the road.

Thomas hadn’t said anything, but he suspected Sherman’s interest in this excursion amounted to more than just fixing vehicles. The general had a tender streak, and the mechanic’s story compounded with the tales of hostility by the raiders they’d heard from Keaton was probably Sherman’s main motivation in going forward. To strike a blow for the good guys, as it were. Sherman probably couldn’t resist, no matter what he said or showed on the outside.

The plan they had finally settled on was almost elegant in its simplicity. They figured they had a miniscule chance of rescuing the mechanic’s daughter. The facility before them was simply too large to clear before the raiders would locate them and cut them down. Instead, their orders were to get inside, wreak as much of the place as possible, and get back out. If they did sufficient damage to the raiders who had caused the mechanic and the town of Abraham so much grief, maybe they would be able to get the help they were after. Sherman would provide them the key they needed to get in without being spotted and shot.

Even as the three lay in the cool grass, Sherman was busy half a mile away. He’d accepted the Sheriff’s offer of equipment but selected only one item for himself: a large-bore flaregun, the kind rescuers or victims used to signal for help in the wilderness, as well as a small box of flares. The idea was to launch the flares in rapid succession, hopefully drawing the attention of the raiders in his direction. They might not sally forth from their fortress, but they would certainly be curious, and that might just be enough to allow Thomas and the others to slip in unnoticed

The one big worry Sherman had was the other attention he might draw: that of nearby infected. Therefore, the older General had spent the last twenty minutes heaving himself upward, branch by branch, into the middle of an ancient pine tree. As far as he knew, the infected couldn’t climb. He’d fire the flares and wait to hear whether the mission was a success over his radio.

Leaning comfortably back in the crook of a branch and the tree’s trunk, Sherman popped open the box of flares and calmly loaded one of the shells into the gun. He took aim at the night sky and let fly with the first of the flares.

It popped with the sound of a shotgun being discharged, arced into the sky, and burst into color, a bright orange that must have lit up a square mile of the countryside.

“Godspeed, soldiers,” Sherman whispered to himself, and watched as the flare sizzled and died in the darkness. He reached down and began to load the second.

On the hillside, Thomas spotted the flare with ease. It cast a dim glow over the entire field.

“There’s the signal,” Thomas said, pointing. Brewster jumped up, ready to run for the fenceline, but Thomas stopped him short. “Wait. Wait for them to notice.”

Krueger was busy studying the guard posts through the binoculars. He grinned behind them, nodding in approval.

“The bastards are looking mighty intrigued,” Krueger said, still grinning. “They’re all pointing at the flare and talking. One of them’s on a radio. Brewster, scan your channels, let’s see if we can pick them up.”

Brewster reached down to the radio on his webgear and began cycling through channels. Most of them were picking up nothing but static. Once he hit channel 14, however, voices came through loud and clear.

“—like a flare out over the woods to the south,” came a voice. “Might be someone in distress.”

“Easy pickings,” came another voice. “Should we get the crew ready?”

“No, no, stand down!” came a third, a strong, authoritative voice that must have been the gang’s leader. “It’s night and that flare will have infected running from miles away. We’ve already lost some good men today, let’s not lose any more.”

The second flare burst then, filling the sky with more of the orange brilliance.

“Sure is pretty—like the Fourth of July,” came the first voice again.

“Knock off the chatter, Yoder, keep the channels clear,” came the leader’s voice.

“All right, all right. I’m off.”

“He might be off the radio, but he’s sure not taking his eyes off those flares,” Krueger reported. “Sergeant, I think we’ve achieved distraction.”

“Roger that,” Thomas said with a half-grin. “Let’s go.”

The three soldiers were up and on their feet in a moment, sprinting across the field toward the fenceline. Off to their left in the distance were the guard towers and the fencework swarming with infected. Even the victims of the virus seemed entranced by the bright lights of the flares, and were jostling one another, pushing against the fence as if they wanted nothing more than to run to the source of the flares and investigate it themselves.

Once the soldiers reached the fence, they went straight to work, silent as ghosts except for the clink and clatter of various bits of gear. Krueger unclipped the wire cutters from his belt and quickly snipped a straight line upwards through the fence until it was large enough for the soldiers to fit through. He pulled the fence sections apart and let Thomas through, followed closely by Brewster.

The pair came up on the other side of the fence with weapons drawn and at the ready. Brewster held his shotgun out in front of him and Thomas scanned the dark corners of the buildings and containers with a keen eye and primed pistol.

Krueger came through after them, his rifle catching momentarily on the fence and jingling the steel. The motion earned him a quick “Ssh!” from Thomas, and Krueger nodded in acknowledgement. The trio moved straight for the nearest entrance. It was a heavy steel door with a solid-looking lock on it, and none of them had any keys. Brewster, however, had his shotgun.

“Did the Sheriff get you any breaching rounds for that thing?” Thomas asked Brewster, pointing hurriedly at the soldier’s shotgun.

Brewster nodded once. “Frangible slugs. The guy thinks ahead.”

“Roger that. Take aim at that lock. Krueger, get your pistol out. We might need some rapid fire if the room on the other side of this door is occupied. Brewster, wait for the next flare to pop and use the noise to cover your shot,” Thomas ordered.

Krueger slung his rifle and drew his pistol as Brewster stepped back from the door, cocked his shotgun, and took careful aim. The trio waited. They weren’t stuck out in the open long. Sherman’s third flare popped, and the moment the sound reached Brewster’s ears, he fired. The slug tore into the locked door, shooting sparks and shrapnel in all directions. When the smoke cleared, the lock had been reduced to scrap metal.

“Breach it! Go, go, go!” Thomas stage-whispered.

Brewster drew back a leg and gave the door a heavy kick, sending it crashing open, and the three soldiers barreled into the room, weapons at the ready. They panned their weapons left and right, scanning for targets and finding none. They’d entered a storeroom filled to the ceiling with cardboard boxes sealed in plastic and stacked nearly to the ceiling.

“Someone will have heard that door getting kicked in,” Thomas said. “Spread out and find cover. Clear the room.”

“Roger,” Krueger said.

Brewster nodded and slid off to the right, vanishing between stacks of boxes. Krueger kept his back to one wall, inching along. Thomas moved at a crouch, covering Krueger’s other side.

Krueger let out a low whistle, catching Thomas’ attention. The old sergeant looked over at the soldier.

Krueger gestured straight up. Thomas followed the gesture with his eyes and spotted a ladder hanging down from a catwalk that overlooked the entire room. The catwalk itself sported a second ladder, one that ran up to the roof of the warehouse itself. Thomas dropped his gaze back to Krueger, who was patting the rifle on his back and pointing again at the catwalk.

Thomas nodded. Krueger wanted to move to a better sniping position and cover the movements of Thomas and Brewster below. That was a strategically sound move, and Thomas approved.

Krueger nodded, swung up onto the ladder, and began to swiftly climb.

Brewster, meanwhile, was nearing the far end of the large room before he finally heard any noise other than his own breathing. Footsteps, sounding like a pair, were moving quickly toward the room from a wide hallway that branched off of the warehouse. The soldier froze in place, shotgun at the ready. After a moment, he heard voices as well.

“I’m telling you, man, I heard something in here,” said the first.

“You’re always hearing things in this place at night,” said the second. “This ain’t a haunted complex, you know. There ain’t nothing here at night that ain’t here in the day.”

“That’s not what I’m talking about, Dan. I’m saying I heard something loud, like thunder.”

“Oh, Jesus. That’s the flares outside. Didn’t you hear on the radio? Someone’s out in the woods popping off flares. Poor bastard. Won’t be long before the infected get him. Though, on the upside, tomorrow we’ll get to have our pick of whatever he was carrying, once we find his body.”

“Maybe you’re right,” said the first voice. The footsteps slowed, then stopped. “Probably nothing.”

Brewster relaxed somewhat. The two might not enter the warehouse room after all.

“Better safe than sorry, though,” said Dan. “Come on, let’s check it out.”

Well, shit, Brewster thought. Here goes our element of surprise.

The two men came ambling into the warehouse, obviously at ease. Each was wielding a rifle, but neither held them at the ready. They were slung over their shoulders, and from the look of them, they weren’t expecting trouble.

Whether or not they were expecting it, they got it.

When they were ten feet from Brewster’s hiding place, the soldier swung out from behind the stack of boxes, leveled his shotgun, and fired.

The blast caught one of the men square in the chest, lofting him backwards several feet to land in a ragged heap. What was left of his ribcage poked out at odd angles, bits of bone and blood sticking up through his ripped clothing.

“Holy shit—” began the other, reaching up to swing his rifle into a firing position.

Brewster pumped his shotgun, but the spent round caught in the chamber, jamming the weapon. He cursed, re-cocked the weapon, and managed to eject the spent shell and shove in a new one. By that time, however, the surviving raider had brought his weapon to bear. Brewster looked up and found himself staring down the bore of a weapon.

A blast sounded, and Brewster cringed, expecting to feel the warm sensation of blood flowing out of his new wound. Instead, he felt nothing, and after a moment he opened one eye. The raider lay several feet away on his side, a pool of blood forming around a fresh head wound. The man’s rifle had clattered to the cement floor. Brewster checked himself for bullet holes and breathed a sigh of relief when he couldn’t find a single one.

“You owe me,” came Krueger’s voice.

Brewster looked up to see Krueger laying flat on one of the catwalks high above, waving from behind the scope of his .30–06.

“I’ll get you a beer at Eileen’s if we make it back to town,” Brewster promised.

“I’m holding you to that,” was Krueger’s reply.

“Soldiers! We’ve got incoming!” Thomas said, pointing at the wide hall from which the two raiders had appeared. The sound of harried voices and the stomp of running feet echoed throughout the complex. “They heard those shots!”

“I’ve got the hallway covered,” Krueger said, staring through his scope. “Brewster, give me backup with that scattergun of yours.”

“I’m on it,” Brewster said, kicking a small pile of boxes over to serve as a makeshift bunker. He hunkered down behind them and took aim. “Thomas! What’re you doing?”

“Completing the mission,” Thomas said. He’d backed away from the hall and was trying the other doors that led out of the warehouse. Most were locked, but when he found one that opened for him, he turned to face the two soldiers guarding the hall. “I’m going to see what kind of damage I can do. As far as they know, you’re the only intruders. Hold them off until I get back or until I call you to join me. Hoo-ah?”

“Hoo-ah!” Krueger chimed.

“Sure,” Brewster said in a much less enthusiastic tone. “Happy to hold off the horde for you, Sarge.”

The first of the raiders appeared in the hall, clutching an AK-47 to his chest and shouting orders to the men that were, no doubt, closely behind him. He made it three steps before Krueger’s rifle round caught him in the chest and dropped him to the floor.

“Too easy,” Krueger boasted, grinning as he locked and loaded another round.

“Don’t worry, brother,” Brewster called up, pointing into the hall. “There are more!”

Raiders began pouring into the hallway, wielding all kinds of weapons, from rifles to shotguns to machetes and even a heavy machine gun that made Brewster wonder just where the men had been picking up their hardware.

Bullets began to fly into the warehouse as the raiders knelt and took cover in the hall, exchanging fire with the two defenders within.

Brewster fired another slug, watching with satisfaction as it knocked over a rifle-wielding raider. His death rattle echoed as loudly as the gunshots being exchanged. Krueger’s next shot was at the man setting up the heavy machine gun, but the shot went wide, catching another raider in the shoulder and spinning him in place before he fell to the floor, clutching at the wound and groaning in pain.

The machine-gunner finished setting up his weapon and let loose a fusillade of bullets. Brewster abandoned his cover and dove to the side as the rounds ripped through the cardboard boxes and whatever it was inside that was being stored, ricocheting off of the cement flooring and tearing up the warehouse. Brewster clapped his hands over his ears to block out some of the deafening noise.

Krueger fired again, winging the machine-gunner and causing the man to drop his weapon with a curse. The momentary distraction allowed Brewster to swing back into action, firing another pair of shells down the hall. The fragmenting slugs wreacked havoc among the tightly-gathered raiders at the end of the hallway. Several grabbed at wounds and shouted taunts and curses reached the ears of the soldiers.

“What was that?” Brewster yelled back, firing a third slug down the hall.

“I said once I get done with you, I’m gonna find and fuck your mother, you piece of shit!” came the reply.

“And thank you very much for letting me know where you are,” Krueger murmured from the catwalk above. He fired, and the taunter doubled over, clutching at a stomach wound.

“I’ll let her know you’re interested!” Brewster yelled back, firing another shell.

The soldier swung away from the hall, plastered his back against the wall and fished around in his pockets for some more shells. He began to reload his shotgun. “Krueger, cover me while I reload!”

“On it, bro,” Krueger replied, firing again. Brewster couldn’t see the results of the shot, but he guessed it had been a hit. Krueger’s accuracy was only getting better as he had opportunity after opportunity to practice.

“Thomas better hurry the hell up!” Brewster yelled up to Krueger. “I don’t have infinite ammo down here!”

————————

Thomas was, indeed, hurrying the hell up. He’d run flat out down the side hall he’d discovered, trying doors and listening for the sounds of company. He guessed he’d taken a turn that led him away from the main body of raiders, and that was just as well with him. The lights overhead gave him plenty of illumination to see by. He guessed the raiders had a generator set up somewhere.

Thomas slowed to a fast walk, considering the idea. If the raiders did indeed have a generator, they’d have to have fuel for it.

He ran over his mission objectives in his head, almost hearing Sherman’s voice repeating them.

Get inside, wreak as much of the place as possible, and get back out.

Thomas allowed himself a rare grin. If he could find the generator room, he’d be able to do a substantial amount of damage. The only question was which way to go.

The sergeant major came to a T-intersection and looked left and right. The halls were empty. He had to make a fast decision, and went with his gut, heading left. There were only three doors in this section of hallway. He tried the first two and found them locked. The third was open. He eased the door open slowly, then moved in, pistol at the ready.

What he saw before him made the bile in his throat rise. Before him were a number of makeshift cells, all made from chain-link fence. Within each of the cells was a narrow, dirty cot and a pile of discarded clothes. Each cell also held a woman. Some were in better shape than others. Seeing Thomas, they all recoiled to the rear of their cells, whimpering. Whatever the raiders had been doing to them, it had been enough to traumatize them.

“Relax,” Thomas growled. “I’m not here to hurt any of you.”

His disgust for the raiders quickly grew into a festering hatred. This was a harem. They’d kidnapped women and kept them around just to have their way with them at their leisure. They were scum. Thomas’ plan of wrecking the facility was put on momentary hold. He holstered his pistol.

“My name is Command Sergeant Major Thomas, United States Army,” he said, striding forward. “And I’m going to get you out of here.”

One by one, the women began to realize that this man was not one of their captors, and he had not come to avail himself of their presence. They pressed forward against the front of their cells, reaching out toward Thomas as he walked by. Many looked skinny and underfed, and more than one had bruises or cuts on their faces and bodies. Most were underclothed, wearing only thin robes or tattered shirts and underwear. Their treatment had obviously been horrible.

“Keys,” he said, looking left and right at the women. “Where can I find the keys?”

“The wall,” said one of the women, pointing at the far end of the room. “They keep them hanging over there, on the wall.”

Thomas jogged over and retrieved the keyring. It had several keys on it, one for each of the locks on the makeshift cells. He released the woman who’d spoken up first, then handed her the keyring.

“Go around and unlock the rest of these cells, then meet me at the door. I’m going to watch the hall. I have two men engaged in a firefight, and I need to get back to them as fast as possible.”

The woman nodded, swallowed, and accepted the keys, running from cell door to cell door, releasing the other captives. Once the last had been freed, they crowded around Thomas, who was standing in the doorway keeping a careful eye on the hall.

“Do any of you know your way around this place?” Thomas asked, glancing back at the women.

“I do,” said the one who had directed Thomas to the keys. “I used to work here before the virus hit. My name is Marie.”

“Marie, I noticed this building still has power. I’m guessing there’s a generator in here somewhere.”

“That’s right,” Marie said, nodding. “It’s in the basement. I can show you.”

“Do they store the fuel for it there, too?” Thomas asked.

“I think so,” she said, unsure of where he was going with his train of thought. “Unless they’ve moved it.”

“Good enough,” he said. “You’re with me. The rest of you, I want you to head to the main warehouse. Head down the hall, make your first right, then go straight. There’s a firefight going on in there. Stay behind cover and pray to whatever god you believe in that my men can hold off the raiders until I get back.”

The women stood still a moment, looking back and forth at one another, unsure of themselves.

“Go! Now!” Thomas shouted, jolting them into action. They took off, some running, others limping from injuries sustained during their captivity.

“Sergeant, the basement stairs are this way,” Marie said, taking Thomas by the arm and guiding him down the hall. She took him down the opposite direction of the intersection he’d come to before, leading him to an unmarked door about halfway down the hall. “This is it.”

Thomas tried the door handle. It was unlocked. He swung it open, pistol aimed, but only empty stairs, leading downward, met his eyes.

“The generator’s in the other room,” Marie said, and started down the stairs. Thomas grabbed her by the shoulder, holding her in place. “What is it?”

“Me first,” Thomas growled, passing her by. He took the steps slowly, checking his corners carefully for signs of hostiles. The basement was finished, painted in bright white, and kept quite clean and clear of debris. Janitorial supplies lined one wall, stacked high on shelves that reached to the ceiling. In another corner, water heaters and plumbing access points jutted out of the walls and an employee laundry was set up in another corner. Farthest from the entrance was another heavy door.

“It’ll be behind there,” Marie whispered from behind Thomas. She extended a thin hand and pointed at the door.

Thomas strode boldly over to the door and pulled it open. The hinges creaked and hinted at a lack of oiling over recent years. As the door opened, the noise from the generator increased until it filled the basement with a dull roar. Exposed in front of Thomas was the generator room. Off to his left stood the large machine, taking up most of a section of whitewashed, cement-block wall, and to his right was a cage stacked with steel drums, all sealed and marked with sticky signs that read ‘flammable.’ Thomas almost grinned; the room was exactly as he had hoped it would be.

Directly in front of Thomas, however, was an unexpected occupant of the room. Sitting with his back to the door was a raider, lounging in a simple wooden chair with his feet propped up on a desk, smoking a cigarette despite the hundreds of gallons of gasoline in the room with him. He was apparently the man assigned to keep the generator running at night, feeding it with fuel when needed and taking care of any problems that might arise.

The man was also apparently a slacker, because he had hooked up a VCR and a small television set directly to the generator and was chuckling to himself as he watched reruns of M*A*S*H* on the little screen. The noise from the generator had covered Thomas and Marie’s entrance, and the man was none the wiser as the older sergeant walked into the room. Thomas let his eyes wander downwards. The man had a Kalashnikov assault rifle propped up against the desk.

Thomas looked back at Marie, over at the generator, right to the fuel, and then back at the man lounging in front of him. Without any further hesitation, Thomas raised his pistol and fired a single shot into the back of the man’s head. Blood sprayed the television screen, interrupting Hawkeye’s speech about never carrying a gun.

Marie stood behind Thomas with the back of her hand held over her mouth, staring at the dead man slumped over the desk.

“Get used to it,” Thomas growled. “Brave new world out there. Now give me a hand.”

Marie recovered from her shock quickly enough—quicker, in fact, than Thomas had expected, raising his opinion of her a notch. Thomas busied himself by removing the protective plastic sheeting that covered the barrels upon barrels of fuel. Marie tried to help him roll the barrels to space them around the room, but had less luck in that department: the barrels were heavy and even Thomas struggled to move them.

Over the course of several minutes they had managed to uncover, open, and reposition the barrels in the miniature fuel depot; nearly fifty in all. Thomas unscrewed the cap of one of the barrels and began furiously searching the room.

“What are you looking for?” Marie asked, coming up behind him and casting curious glances over his shoulder as he looked through moldy cardboard boxes in the corner.

“Fuse,” Thomas grumbled. He turned, set his hands on his hips and puffed out a short breath of annoyance. All that work and no fu—

Suddenly Thomas’ eyes fell on the slumped form of the man he’d killed. The man had been wearing a t-shirt, overshirt, and a pair of dirty, oilstained camouflage pants. Thomas strode over to him and yanked at the overshirt, pulling it off of the corpse and holding it up to inspect it. Beside him, the jostled body slumped to the side and fell out of its chair, crumpling to the ground. Marie swallowed and averted her eyes as blood pooled from the man’s gory head wound onto the concrete. Thomas didn’t even seem to notice.

“This will do,” Thomas announced, nodding at the shirt.

“Do for what?” Marie asked.

“Like I said,” Thomas replied, sounding annoyed, “I needed a fuse.”

Marie looked around the room at all the barrels, watched Thomas knotting and braiding the large shirt into a three-foot cloth fuse, and finally made the connection.

“You’re going to blow this place up!” she said, watching wide-eyed as Thomas stuffed one knotted end of the shirt into the nearest barrel of fuel.

“No,” Thomas growled. “I’m not.”

“Then what the hell are you doing?” Marie asked, gesturing wildly at the shirt, the barrels, and Thomas himself.

“Setting the place on fire,” Thomas said, glancing in her direction. It was a minor correction, but Thomas was a stickler for details. “Not enough explosive power here to level the place. But there is enough to set it to burning—and burning fast and hard, too. First blast ought to cover our escape.”

“Uh—look, I’ve seen a lot and I’m not stupid, but will that shirt give us enough time to get out of here before—”

“Before it blows?” Thomas asked. He shrugged. “Yes and no. I’m going for a delayed detonation here. See that gas can there?”

Thomas pointed behind himself, toward the generator. A three-gallon fuel jug sat next to the generator’s tank.

“Yes,” Marie said. “What do you want me to do with it?”

“Fill it out of one of these barrels. Get ready—we’ll be running out of here in a minute.”

Marie did as she was asked, re-filling the jug with gasoline from one of the barrels with some difficulty, then set it at Thomas’s side.

“All right,” Thomas said, making certain his makeshift fuse reached from the top of the barrel to the cold concrete ground. “Now it’s time to get down to business. Marie, here’s what I want you to do. I’ll go first, and cover us. You follow right behind me with that fuel jug. Keep pouring, just a little at a time. I want you to leave a trail of gas behind us, get me?”

Marie nodded. She saw what he was getting at.

“If anyone tries to get in our way, I’ll worry about them. You just worry about that line of gas.”

“Okay, Thomas. I’m behind you,” Marie said, nodding once more.

“Good,” Thomas grumbled. “Let’s get to work.”

Thomas scooped up the dead guard’s AK-47, checked to make sure there was a round in the chamber, and made for the door. He signaled an all clear to Marie, and the woman began her slow retreat, splashing little bits of gasoline behind her as she went, leading from the tail end of the cloth fuse along the floor.

Thomas led the way up and out of the basement. They didn’t encounter a single guard until they reached the main hall above. Apparently, one of the raiders had gone to check on the harem and hadn’t liked what he’d seen. He was standing at the far end of the hall, scratching his head at the sight of the empty cells when Thomas and Marie came into view.

“Hey!” yelled the raider. “Stop right there!”

The raider went for his pistol, drew it and fired three shots before Thomas was able to react. The old sergeant cursed as he flattened his back to the wall, listened as the rounds ricocheted in the corridor outside, then swung around the corner and returned fire. The raider wasn’t stupid. He’d also taken cover inside the harem room, firing from around the edge of the doorframe. Thomas let two more rounds fly in his foe’s direction before ducking back into the stairwell. Marie had halted beside him, a glistening trail of gasoline leading down the stairs behind her and off across the basement floor.

“We’re in trouble,” Thomas said. “He’s got a good position. Listen close, girl, we’re going to take a risk. This rifle can fire on automatic. I’m going to switch it over, and then we’re both going to run for the T-junction. I’ll be firing full-auto to make that man keep his head down. You stay right the hell behind me and for God’s sake don’t leave a gap in that line of gas you’re leaving behind.”

“Right,” Marie nodded. “I’m ready.”

Spunky, Thomas thought. Might’ve made a good soldier.

Three more pistol shots echoed in the corridor as the raider returned Thomas’ fire. Thomas flicked the selector on the rifle over to auto, held up three fingers, and silently counted down. When he got to zero, he swung out from his cover and depressed the trigger.

The AK-47 belched forth round after round in full auto, and Thomas charged down the hallway. The bullets peppered the harem doorway, leaving pockmarks and smoking craters all around it. The raider inside dove for cover.

Thomas made it to the junction and ducked into it. Marie was right behind him, still carrying the fuel jug.

“How much left?” Thomas asked, breathing heavy and nodding at the jug.

“Maybe half,” Marie said.

“Gotta keep moving,” Thomas said. Now that they were closer to the warehouse, Thomas could hear Brewster and Krueger, still firing away. The pair hadn’t been taken out yet, and were, from the sound of things, holding their position in the warehouse as ordered.

The pair moved down the hall at a steady jog. Thomas skipped backwards, watching the intersection for signs of the raider who had been taking cover in the harem room. Once, the man dared poke his head around the corner. Thomas sent a pair of bullets his way that missed by a very narrow margin. Thomas winced as he fired, praying that the sparks wouldn’t set off the gasoline trail prematurely.

Thomas and Marie burst into the cavernous warehouse and the sound of gunfire increased immediately.

“Do you know how to use this?” Thomas asked, unholstering his pistol and handing it, butt-first, to Marie.

“I’ve fired them before, years ago,” Marie answered, unsteadily accepting the weapon.

“You’ll pick it up again fast. Point and shoot. No one comes down this corridor.”

“All right,” Marie answered, setting down the gasoline jug and taking up her position as rear guard.

Thomas turned and sprinted toward where he’d left Brewster and Krueger. He found the pair had been busy holding off their company. Krueger was still on the catwalk above, sniping away, and Brewster kicked heavy boxes into the entrance to the corridor the raiders were coming from, providing obstacles for them. A fine grayish-green mist was seeping out of the hall, and both Brewster and Krueger wore their gas masks. Even as Thomas noticed this, he sniffed the air and picked up on the familiar scent of a far-off campfire as the first tendrils of fog reached his nostrils.

Brewster and Krueger had remembered the CS tear gas.

Thomas fumbled at his belt and donned his own mask before proceeding to the front line, where Brewster was hunkered down behind a thick stack of boxes busily reloading weapons.

“Where the fuck have you been?!” Brewster shouted over the gunfire at Thomas, his voice muffled behind his gas mask.

Thomas decided to save the dressing-down about showing respect for later.

“Finishing the mission,” Thomas shot back. “Report!”

“Report is half the goddamn raider army is trying to get into this room! Krueger picked off a couple that tried to circle around back! I ran out of shotgun shells a while back and had to pull these off of a couple of guys who got too close! Take your pick, Sarge, we’ve got a hell of a fight on our hands!” Brewster gestured at a small selection of rifles and pistols he’d accumulated.

“Not necessary!” Thomas yelled back. “We’re ready to bug out! Did you see the girls?”

“Girls?” Brewster asked, firing a pair of shots down the fog-enshrouded hallway, gratified to hear an accompanying scream of pain. “Oh, you mean the skin-and-bones ones! Yeah, they came through about five minutes ago! We gave ‘em a couple pistols and told them to run for the ridge south of here, where we were scouting!”

“Goddammit!” Thomas cursed. “Those raiders could be picking them back up right now, or worse, you idiot! What if some infected come along!”

“Pardon me, Sarge, but fuck you!” Brewster yelled. “I’ve got a lot on my hands here right now and I can’t be playing nursemaid!”

As if to enunciate his point, an enemy shotgun blast obliterated the corner of one of the boxes he hid behind, showering the pair with scraps of cardboard and plastic, reduced to little more than confetti.

“Come on!” Thomas said, grabbing Brewster by the collar and hoisting him to his feet. “We’re out of here! Krueger!”

“Sergeant!” Krueger replied from the catwalk above, still firing.

“Get down and bug out! Move back to the rendezvous—the hill where we did the scouting! Protect the women if they’re still there! Brewster, that goes for you, too.”

“Happy to oblige, Sarge,” Brewster said, following Krueger out the rear entrance. The pair were sending rounds down the hostile corridor all the way. Thomas retreated to where he’d left Marie. The woman was kneeling, and her pistol was slightly smoking.

“One tried to come down,” she explained. “I fired at him. I don’t think I hit him, but I—”

“No time to talk,” Thomas growled. “See that open door across the way?”

Thomas pointed at the kicked-in door where the trio had originally breached the facility.

“Yes.”

“Get out through there. Straight across from it is a hole in the fence. Go through it and meet up with the other women and my soldiers. You’ll see them.”

“But what about—” Marie started, pointing toward the gasoline trail, but Thomas cut her off.

“Leave it to me,” Thomas said. “Now go! Go!”

Marie turned and bolted for the exit. Thomas watched her until she made it through the door, then turned back to the gas can. He dropped the AK-47, picked up the can, and began to backpedal towards the exit, spilling what remained of the fuel behind himself. Bullets whizzed around him from the tear-gas filled corridor, and the sounds of retching and coughing reached his ears. If it hadn’t been for the CS tear gas he’d probably already have been dead.

The gasoline ran out about halfway through the warehouse, and Thomas threw the can aside, kneeling next to the pool of fluid.

Kidnap women, murder travelers, steal from them—that’s not a very nice occupation, Thomas thought. You people don’t deserve a place like this.

Thomas reached into his pocket, pulled free a tarnished old Zippo lighter, sparked it, and held it near the pool of gasoline.

Almost immediately the fuel caught, sending a blast of hot air washing over Thomas’ face. The fire took off, following the trail left along the floor, and Thomas did likewise—only in the opposite direction. He ran straight through the warehouse, was vaguely aware of something that felt like a tug at his arm, and dove through the kicked-in door. He came up in a roll and headed for the cut fence.

Inside the facility, the trail of fire reached the stairwell. It hesitated a moment, then jumped down the first stair, fumes catching the fuel. It jumped from step to step until it reached the bottom, and raced away once more toward the generator room.

Outside, Thomas wriggled his way through the cut fence, aware that the entire facility had now been alerted to their presence. Searchlights sought him out. He pulled himself free and began the long sprint toward the hilltop where he hoped the rescued women and his soldiers were waiting for him. He made it ten meters before a spotlight landed directly on him.

Shouts filled the night and were followed up immediately by the sound of rapid gunfire. Chunks of grass and dirt kicked up all around Thomas as he ran, hunched over, toward his goal.

Inside the complex, the trail of fire met the wool fuse, caught, and slowly began to climb toward the top of the barrel.

Outside, Thomas continued his run, knowing that sooner or later one of the dozens of rounds that were seeking him would find him, and that would end him. Ahead of him came the crack of a rifle, and the spotlight that was framing Thomas went out. That would have to have been Krueger and the night-vision scope the Sheriff had loaned him. Bullets still poured around the old sergeant, and within a moment, a second searchlight had snapped on and had framed him in a circle of illumination.

Inside, the flame reached the top of the barrel, flickered for a moment, and then caught a fume leaking out of the top of the drum. The dozens of other drums nearby sat silently, waiting with patience for just that moment.

The entire basement of the complex went up in a white blast of heat and light. The facility seemed to shudder, and roiling explosions of black smoke and red fire burst forth from the center of the complex, rising high into the night sky. The searchlights snapped off all at once, as did the interior lighting and security lamps outside.

The fire from the raiders halted almost immediately as they cast about in confusion for what had caused the sudden catastrophe. An entire section of their compound had been reduced to flaming debris in an instant. One or two of them shouted about warplanes and another said something about terrorists.

In the meantime, Thomas made it to the hilltop. He was gratified to see that not only had both Krueger and Brewster survived their escape, but so had Marie and most of the other women.

“Most?” Thomas asked Marie when she had told him not all of her friends were present.

“Some were taken again before they got out of the facility,” Marie said, her voice stone cold. “But most of us made it. That’s something.”

“And no carriers to speak of,” Krueger threw in, scanning the horizon through his night-vision scope. “Two approached the gates, but they haven’t noticed us.”

Thomas nodded, hands on his hips. He turned to survey the distribution facility. Black smoke, visible even in the night, rose up in a solid plume. He judged his handiwork acceptable.

“Damn fine job keeping the back door open, soldiers,” Thomas said, glancing over his shoulder at Krueger and Thomas.

“Thanks, Thomas,” Krueger said, then narrowed his eyes. “Sergeant, your arm. You’re bleeding.”

Thomas looked down at his right arm to find that he’d been hit in the crossfire. Dark red blood coated the sleeve of his shirt, and as he became conscious of the wound and the adrenaline of the firefight wore down, he began to feel pain. He pushed the sensation to the back of his mind and forced himself to shrug.

“It’s not bad,” he said. “Not bleeding too much. I’ll get it fixed up later.”

“Uh, Sarge?” Brewster asked, raising a hand. “Two questions now that we’re out of here.”

Thomas only grunted by way of reply.

“Firstly, what about these women? We didn’t come out here with a vehicle because we thought the raiders would hear it. We walking them all the way back?”

“That’s right.”

“Secondly, Sarge, I know this was a slapdash plan and all, and I can appreciate that, given the circumstances—but what about Sherman? Shouldn’t we check and make sure he can make it back?”

Aw, shit, Thomas thought. And this was Sherman’s plan to begin with. Leave it to him to forget himself in all his planning.

“Damn it,” Thomas said out loud. “All right, new plan. Marie, you can handle yourself. Do you know the town of Abraham?”

The woman walked over to Thomas and nodded. “I’ve only ever visited, never lived there.”

“Any of you other women know Abraham?”

Three of the remaining women raised their hands.

“Okay, here’s the deal,” Thomas said. “Those of you who know it, lead the way. Get all of yourselves there in one piece. When you get to the main gates, tell ‘em Thomas sent you and that you’re from the raider’s base. Got it? They’ll take care of you.”

The women nodded slowly, looking back and forth at one another.

“Krueger, Brewster, on me,” Thomas said. “We’re going to go get the general.”

————————

Over a quarter of a mile away, Francis Sherman felt as if his time was running out. The flares hadn’t brought any of the raiders running, but they had certainly attracted the infected. He’d been worried about as much and was glad he’d taken the time to climb up into the tall pine in which he sat. So far, his theory about the infected not being able to climb was holding out.

The problem was they had no compunctions about using the bodies of their own comrades as a kind of macabre ladder.

The first few had shown up just a brace of minutes after he’d fired the first of the flares. They were sprinters, looking every which way as they tore through the forest trying to locate their prey. When Sherman had fired another flare, they had zeroed in on him and within moments were scratching and pawing at the trunk of the tree he was in, growling up at him with a look of unabashed hatred in their bloodshot eyes.

Sherman had fired one more flare, then drew his pistol and dispatched the infected. The shots had been easy: the infected were directly below him. The bullets had entered the top of the infected skulls, exited through the bottom, and sent the carriers slumping to the ground against the tree trunk, silenced forever.

Then more had begun to show up.

They came as singles, or in small groups of two or three, always seeming to prefer to stick together when possible. Most were sprinters. The shamblers just couldn’t cover the distance from wherever they had been lurking to the source of the flares as fast as their living cousins. When Sherman had exhausted his supply of flares, there were nearly twenty of them gathered around the base of the tree. Sherman had killed as many as he could with his first magazine, then stopped to reload and consider his situation.

The infected he’d killed were trod upon by their brethren as if they were nothing more than cobblestones. Each body added a few inches of height to the pile, and by the time he’d racked a round into the chamber of his weapon for a second go, the infected could reach the lowest ring of branches.

One grabbed hold of a branch and nearly managed to pull itself up, making Sherman hold his breath for a moment. If they figured out how to climb, he was royally screwed. Luckily for him, the sprinter lost its balance and tumbled off the other side of the branch, crashing to the ground below. He breathed a mental sigh of relief.

The sprinters were growling and jostling one another, and every now and then they would let up a wailing, bone-chilling howl, all staring at Sherman with those piercing, bloody eyes.

Sherman had grown very familiar with that howl over the past several months. Every time he’d heard it, another group of infected hadn’t been far behind. The survivors referred to it simply as “The Growl.” It was an alarm, a beacon, a signal for every infected in the area that here was prey—come and get it. Sherman cursed himself for not taking more time to properly plan the assault—even if the men attacking the raiders’ base got out without a hitch, he was stuck in a tree and surrounded by infected.

One of the infected took a running start and launched itself up the tree trunk toward Sherman. The infected’s hand came close enough to brush the general’s boot. Sherman felt a look of disgust cross his face as he fired, sending the sprinter tumbling back down the tree to land in a jumble on top of the pile at the base.

Sherman checked his supply situation and found it grim. He had two full magazines and four rounds left in his current one. That wasn’t a lot. He had no armor of any kind and no way out of the tree.

He had just begun to work through possible plans to get himself out of the tight situation when gunfire erupted from across the darkened forest meadow. Below him, the sprinters jerked and spasmed as rounds passed through them, spattering blood on the tree trunk and remaining carriers. After the thunder of the first barrage faded, leaving a slight ringing in Sherman’s ears, only five of the sprinters remained on their feet. All five had shifted their attention from Sherman to whomever it was doing the firing.

They looked out into the darkness, growled deep in their throats, let fly with the loudest roar Sherman had heard so far that night, and charged across the meadow.

They made it less than halfway before being cut down.

In the ensuing silence, Sherman sat in his crook in the tree, breathing a heavy sigh of relief. He kept silent. His rescuers might be raiders, after all, and he still didn’t feel right giving up his position until he heard a familiar voice.

“General! The way is clear!”

It was Thomas.

“Thomas! Holy hell, am I glad to hear you!” Sherman shouted back. He holstered his pistol and swiftly descended the tree, carefully avoiding any smears of infected blood he came across. He dropped to the pine-needle coated ground and ran toward the source of Thomas’ voice. He came upon Brewster, Krueger, and Thomas, all looking on edge and scanning the darkness with their weapons for further threats.

“Good to see you three,” Sherman said, breathing heavily after the run. He glanced over the group, taking in their state. “Thomas, you’ve got red on you.”

Thomas held up his wounded arm, shrugged, and went back to scanning the darkness.

“How did the mission go?” Sherman asked.

“With all due respect, sir, I think we should save that for when we’re safe back in town,” Thomas said.

As if to enunciate his point, the thrashing sound of vegetation being trampled reached the group’s ears, and a moment later Krueger fired a shot into the darkness. A heavy thud followed a moment later, signaling a hit.

“They’ll be coming from all angles,” Brewster said, sounding anxious. “We should move. We should move now. They’ll be coming!”

“Keep it calm, private,” Thomas said. “All right, doubletime, back to Abraham—can’t be more than a few miles. We can make it.”

The group moved off at a dogtrot. Krueger brought up the rear, constantly scanning the darkness with his night-vision scope for any hostiles. Occasionally he would halt, kneel, fire, and then run to catch back up with the group.

It was nearly pitch-black in the forest, and though the group knew which way to go, it was hard to make out their surroundings.

Sound became their worst enemy, moreso than any of the infected. Sprinters and shamblers from all parts had responded to the rattle of gunfire and the brightness of the flares, and many, especially the shamblers, were wandering aimlessly through the underbrush, looking for their prey. Sounds of snapping twigs, thrashing shrubs, and the rustle of leaves left all four feeling frazzled and nervous before they’d gone half a mile.

A crashing noise off to their left drew Brewster’s attention, and he swung his weapon—a purloined carbine he’d picked up from one of the dead raiders—and fired three shots in rapid succession. His timing had been perfect.

Out of the darkness loomed a sprinter, jaws wide and arms outstretched, no more than ten feet from the group. At least one of Brewster’s rounds struck home. Blood blossomed out of the infected’s back and it fell, skidding to a halt nearly at Brewster’s feet. The soldier stepped back from the body, put a second round through the infected’s skull, and spat on the remains.

“Missed me, fucker,” Brewster taunted.

Behind him, Krueger knelt and fired again. “I hate to rush things, but we’re getting more and more company on our tails.”

“All right, keep a move on! Let’s go!” Sherman said, waving on the small group. They continued in more or less the same fashion, moving as fast as they dared while still trying to keep an eye on all four angles of approach. Three more times a carrier loomed up out of the night to attack, only to be gunned down before it could reach them.

The group reached the bottom of a small hill that Sherman remembered.

“This is it,” he said, hands on his knees as he tried to catch his breath. He was in great shape for a man of his age, but a multi-mile run in the dark, with full gear and while under attack was enough to exhaust anyone. “I remember this hill.”

“Tell me the town’s on the other side,” Brewster gasped, leaning on the butt of his carbine.

“Not quite,” Sherman huffed, “but it opens up into a field—then we get to the town.”

“Better than . . . all these trees,” Krueger said, also out of breath. “Can’t see . . . the fuckers coming.”

A loud snapping drew their attention, and Krueger brought up his rifle again, scanning the undergrowth. After a moment, he lowered the weapon. “Nothing. Let’s keep moving.”

The four began to climb the hill, which was rocky and supported dozens of thick vines that curled up and around the trash trees that had managed to take root there. About halfway up, Krueger snagged his foot on the root of a vine and sprawled flat on his face with an oomph of pain. His rifle clattered to the rocks.

“Come on, pal, come on,” Brewster said, turning to help Krueger up. He froze, staring down the hill.

At the bottom of the rise were three shamblers. They’d come out of the brush at an angle Krueger hadn’t scrutinized, and were now working their way up the hill toward them, foot by foot. One of the shamblers leaned its head back and moaned, a loud, mournful tone. In the distance, they could hear the howls of sprinters responding to the call. They would have even more company soon. Brewster redoubled his efforts to get Krueger up.

“Come on!” Brewster shouted. “We’re out of time!”

“My fucking foot is stuck!” Krueger said, pulling at his leg. His foot had lodged in the roots of the vine and become mired. “Help!”

Thomas and Sherman had nearly reached the top of the hill when they heard Brewster and Krueger’s exchange. They stopped, turned, and made their way back down to where the soldier lay stuck.

Sherman opened fire on the shamblers. His first shot struck one in the side of the chest. The creature recoiled, but remained on its feet. Slowly, it righted itself, staring at Sherman with its decaying mouth pulled back in a rictus of a grin, almost taunting him.

Sherman’s second shot took the thing right between the eyes.

The first of the sprinters caught up with the group, bursting through the foliage at the base of the hill and snarling. Its head looked up, saw the four on the hillside, and it widened its eyes. It growled, showing teeth, and began to charge up the hill. Thomas dropped Krueger’s arm and grabbed for his pistol. He managed to pull it and fire as the thing approached, dropping it with a pair of shots to the chest. It would be up again as a shambler, but not before the survivors made it out of there.

“Come on, pull it out!” Brewster said, grabbing at Krueger’s foot.

“The boot! The boot!” Krueger said, fumbling with his laces. “Help me take the boot off!”

Sherman fired twice more, killing another shambler. Two sprinters appeared out of the darkness, roared up at the group, and began their climb. Thomas winged one in the shoulder, and it spun with the impact of the round, rolling back down to the bottom of the hill. It jumped back up to its feet, roared again in defiance, and began its climb anew.

The second was struck in the stomach by Sherman, and it doubled over, faceplanting in the dirt. For a moment, Sherman had thought he’d killed it, but then he saw it raise its head and stare at him. It still moved forward, dragging itself up root by root, rock by rock, snarling all the way. The bullet had severed its spinal cord, disabling its legs. The rest of it still worked fine, however, and it wasn’t giving up.

Krueger managed to unlace his boot and pull his foot free. He grabbed for his rifle. “Come on, come on! I’m out! Let’s go!”

The four fell back, firing downhill at their pursuers, and finally burst free of the treeline at the top of the hill. Far in the distance, across several acres, were the guard towers of Abraham, Kansas.

“Looks like a little slice of heaven,” Brewster heaved, taking a moment to appreciate the sight of salvation.

“No time for discussion,” Thomas said, firing a shot back into the woods. “We’re still being hunted.”

Krueger took off first, shouldering his rifle and moving with an odd limp. Sherman wondered about it a moment, then realized the soldier was only wearing one boot. He would be the slowest of them.

“Thomas, don’t overtake Krueger,” Sherman ordered. “Keep his back covered.”

“Yes, sir,” came the monotone reply.

By the time the group had covered half the distance to the town’s main gates, the full force of sprinters on their tails was exposed, pouring out of the woods. By the look of it, they had stirred up enough infected to populate a crossroads village. Between the ones they had already shot and the ones running after them in the dark fields, Sherman estimated well over a hundred of them had crossed their paths tonight.

“Last magazine!” Sherman announced, shoving in his final clip.

Thomas had already thrown aside his own longarm, having run out of ammunition for it. He’d drawn his pistol again and was rapidly going through ammunition. Brewster had run out completely. Krueger was of little use in the firefight as the pace-setter for the group. He was busy running full-tilt.

Sherman fired three rounds in the direction of a nearby sprinter. One of the rounds must have hit, because the infected pitched into the tall grass of the field, thrashed about a bit, and was still. Thomas took another kill of his own, a female infected that loomed just a little too close. Thomas took his time lining up the shot and dropped the woman before she reached them.

“We’re going to run out of ammo before we run out of sprinters!” Brewster said, taking in the situation.

“Noticed!” Thomas grumbled back.

“Look there!” Krueger said, eyes widening as he ran toward the town. “The gates! Look there!”

Ahead of them at the town’s gates, a commotion was stirring. In the darkness it was hard to make out who was who, but Sherman guessed the women they’d saved had made it back and now the gate guards were expecting the soldiers’ arrival. Out of nowhere, small spotlights low to the ground lit up the night, swiveled in the group’s direction, and illuminated the fields. The sounds of engines being revved up met their ears.

“Don’t stop to think about it,” Sherman said, seeing Krueger’s stride shorten. “Keep running, keep running!”

The lights wavered as the engines in the distance picked up speed. Reinforcements were apparently on the way.

The infected were closing in. There were about twenty in full view of Abraham’s spotlights, and more along the treeline. Thomas and Sherman picked up their rate of fire. Sherman sent another sprinter sprawling to the ground before his pistol’s slide locked back. He had not a single bullet left.

“I’m out!” he shouted.

“Got you covered, sir!” Thomas said, taking over. He sent a barrage in the direction of a pair of sprinters that were coming up directly behind the retreating foursome, scoring hits on one but only grazing the other. His pistol clicked on empty and he cursed, pausing to eject the magazine and slam home his final clip.

Thomas brought his weapon back up just in time to get off a shot that impacted the carrier’s solar plexus, knocking it backward to slam hard on the ground as if punched by a giant, invisible fist.

A moment later, the revving of the engines reached a fever pitch and a pair of Jeeps pulled up alongside the winded survivors, outfitted with off-roading tires and spotlights along their tops.

Sheriff Keaton leaned out one of the driver’s side windows.

“Come on, come in, get in already! You’ve got half the damn state behind you! We have to get behind the fences!”

The survivors didn’t argue. They jumped and clambered into and on the vehicles as fast as they could manage. Deputies that had ridden out with the Sheriff fired parting shots with the sprinters as the Jeeps turned tail and gunned it back to the gates of the town.

They roared onto the road, scattering gravel and debris behind them, and squealed to a stop just past the guard towers. The deputies swiveled the spotlights to face the fields and guards in the towers raised their rifles.

“Defend!” Sheriff Keaton yelled up. Though no verbal response was given, the men seemed to understand. Sherman guessed they had done this before over the course of the preceding months.

The carriers that had been following grew closer and closer until the group of men and women near the town’s gates could hear their labored breathing. Only then did the men in the guard towers and along the edge of the fence open fire. Carriers dropped left and right as bullets tore through them.

It took less than five minutes for the citizens of Abraham, Kansas to kill the carriers that had been pursuing Sherman and the rest. When the last infected had died, silence fell over the little town. It was the first time in hours that Sherman, Thomas, Krueger, or Brewster had heard true silence. Their ears were ringing from the dozens of gunshots they’d fired and their lungs and legs burned from the long run. They met the silence as a leper meets a cure, whole-heartedly and with warm thoughts.

The battle was over.

The looked around at one another, nodding thanks or appreciation.

“All right,” Sherman said after they had caught their breath. “Now maybe it’s time you told me about the mission.”

Before Thomas could respond, an exultant cheer swept the silence away. Dozens of voices raised in praise and admiration. The four soldiers stood upright and looked around. Half the town, it seemed, had turned out to greet them upon their return. Off on one side, sitting on a sidewalk, were the rescued women, being tended to by townsfolk and Rebecca, who had quickly found her way to them with her medical kit.

Sherman recognized Jose Arctura as one of the men gathered around the women. He was embracing one of them with tears in his eyes, and Sherman could only guess that it was his daughter. He felt a surge of relief at the sight. There were few enough reasons to feel good in the brave new world, and he was more than happy to have provided one.

Such was the reason the town had turned out to greet the saviors of the women. Young, old, male, female, it seemed the citizenry would never stop cheering. They pressed around Sherman and his small group, patting them on the back and expressing their thanks or offering them homemade dinners from home-grown ingredients. By the fence near the guard towers, aloof from the group, stood Sheriff Keaton, shotgun over his shoulder and a small smile on his lips.

Keaton let the throng lead the soldiers down the street, then turned to one of his deputies, his smile fading.

“You saw the explosion?” he asked, nodding in the direction of the raiders’ complex.

“Sure did, Sheriff,” the deputy said. “They really did a number on that place.”

Keaton sighed heavily and gritted his teeth. The strangers from the west had done Abraham a great service in returning their captive women and dealing a blow to the raiders that had plagued them for so long, but the very same action may have doomed more lives.

“Double the guard along the fences,” Keaton said askance to the deputy, staring out into the darkened fields. “Twenty-four hours a day. Call in the reserves and have Grimes do an inventory and cleaning on our weapons.”

“Sheriff?” asked the deputy. “Problem?”

“Maybe,” Keaton said. “Maybe not. But let’s be prepared either way.”

They sure stirred up a hornet’s nest, Keaton thought. Let’s just hope these hornets have the good sense to stay and rebuild . . . and not come looking for vengeance.


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