River Of Night – Snippet 34
“Oh, I am so going to taze you now!” the short Army private said, stumping forward. “I told you to wait with us back here, and I turn my back for one… Hey hey, nice belt fed! Not as big as mine, but you know…” She regarded the first machine gun team with a bright smile.
“What?” stammered Junior.
“I’ve gotta take care of this person for a sec…” she added as she grabbed Bua by the elbow, ignoring a squawk of protest. “Maybe later you can let me shoot that? Say, do you have any hot showers?”
“If my dad says so,” replied Junior in a doubtful tone. “And, duh.”
“Oooh, you’re my new best friend!” Astroga said over her shoulder as she towed Bua back to the truck.
“Right. Every one move up to the main house,” Junior’s father said. “First stop is the barn for clean up. We’ll get some coffee and snacks going in a second and you…” he indicated Tom “… can brief me. Then I’ll show you around, give you a feel for the place.”
“‘Preciate it, Rob,” Tom replied, rubbing a hand across his face. “Really. Everyone’s farking stuffed just now. We could all use a shower and a lie down.”
“You’re all tired and you could use some sleep, check,” Robbins answered, clapping one hand on his friend’s shoulder. “That we can do.”
“After the debrief, Robbie. I’ve got to fill you in.”
The Gleaner vehicles covered nearly eighty miles in the two hours of driving.
“How do you keep the roads so clear?” Jason said while looking out the windows of the diesel six pack Ford. He hadn’t been in a powered vehicle in months. “The easy going makes a huge difference.”
“Our Mr. Green is a student of history,” Eva O’Shannesy replied from the front passenger seat. “He understands that clear roads give us a big advantage. It can take us weeks to clear a road outwards, but once we have it cleaned up, we can return almost as fast as you could in the old days- you know, before zombies. Anyway, we use labor gangs from the survivors that we pick up. We try to save the families intact if we can. Doesn’t always happen.”
“Why not? Who wouldn’t want to be rescued?”
“Well, that’s a good question.” O’Shannesy said, flashing him a grin over her shoulder. “See, we don’t exactly give them the option. If the adults fight, we kill them. Most of the healthy orphans under twelve or so go to the farm. Moderate labor and so on, but their real purpose is to give the women something to do, someone to care for. The dear children are easy to like and so the women who bond with them are less likely to run or make trouble. In a few years, the best of them will grow up as Gleaners.”
“That’s…” Jason said before pausing to consider the least negative thing that he could say. “…efficient.”
“You can say the rest,” O’Shannesy replied while keeping her eyes to the front this time. “It’s brutal. It’s logical. It advances our plan. And really, I’ve got to give Green props – he understands human nature very well. But, anyhow – the men we rescue have options. If they’re family men, then they’re highly motivated to get with the program. Their families might even be allowed to stay intact. Their kids get protection and light work. The teens perform harder labor, but nothing brutal. Their women don’t work in the Rec Hall.”
“Rec Hall?” asked Jason. “What’s that?”
“Short for recreation hall,” she said, pointing out a turn to the driver, then continued. “Use your imagination. Single men on higher risk duty, or any of the Guard, have access to the recreation hall.”
The vehicle leaned into the turn and then pulled over to allow the next six vehicles past. As the converted wrecker with a five hundred gallon diesel tank on the bed rumbled by they joined the end of the procession.
“We rotate the lead car duty,” O’Shannesy commented in answer to Jason’s raised eyebrow. “Sometimes the locals leave presents for us, caltrops mostly, after we pass through. Too much land to comprehensively sweep. This way the lead vehicle crew is more likely to be fresh and paying attention, plus we each have an equal shot at getting wrecked. Lost a few trucks that way.”
“So Mr. Green meets with resistance,” the ex-cop said. “How does he deal with it?”
“This area is clear,” the Gleaner officer said as she tried to unfold a map. “Has been for a fair bit. Back in the day though, he would find kids that lived in the immediate area and strap them to the hood of the lead car. Any wreck and pow, they catch it first. Cut back on incidents and random sniping by a factor of four.”
“Huh.” Jason replied. “That’s…”
“Efficient.” O’Shannesy said laconically. “Yeah, we covered that already.”
Tom blearily sipped his coffee as his old friend finished talking.
“We’re pretty well set here, as you can see,” Robbins said, finishing the short version of the ranch orientation brief and was understandably proud of their achievements. “Even with your extra dozen or so, we can maintain here through the winter. The infected have never crossed the fenceline and we don’t give them any reasons to be curious about what lies uphill. Once winter is over, and we’re past the frost line, I figure the number of zombies will be dramatically lower.”
He folded his arms across his chest while the newcomers sipped hot coffee, stretching their legs out from the simple picnic style bench tables that lined one all of a surprising large barn.
“Maybe,” replied Tom. “Maybe not. We can guess about the resilience of infected, but we don’t really know. We’re still trying to get a feel for behaviors. However, we weren’t planning on here staying very long. Now I don’t know if you should stay either.”
“What possible reason could there be to leave here, now?” Robbins said, puzzled. “Great sightlines, decent sensors, plenty of supplies, safe haven from the infected through the winter?”
“I was planning on pushing through to the refuge that Bank of the Americas built before the Fall,” Tom said by way of explanation. “Site Blue. But we got hit on the way here. Lost two people. Lost some gear. Lost the maps that mark our route and plans.”
“You marked our ranch on a map and then… lost it,” Robbins said, his voice gaining volume as he spoke each word. “Tell me you are making this shit up, Smith.”
“Was not his fault.” Risky said, stepping up next to Tom. “The first group of people we see in months are chasing little girl. Want to take her. We rescue, then they fight. We shoot and run, but Durante died. Another one too.”
“Gravy Durante bought it?” exclaimed Pascoe. “Oh man, he was one hard snake. How’d he go?”
“Meeting engagement…” Tom said, shrugging. He tried for a matter-of-fact tone, but his voice caught as he explained further. “Tried for a parley, but it dropped in the dunny. Gravy caught a round under his armor on the exfil, wrecked his ride. Couldn’t get him out, his leg was wound into the wreckage. Left him to delay pursuit while we ran. His choice.”
“Correlation of force?” Robbins demanded.
“Adverse.” Tom replied. “And our training level was poor. Is poor. No unit articulation.”
“Ground?” Pascoe said, speaking up.
“Channeled terrain,” Tom said flatly. “One way out, one way in. They had mixed small arms, heavy on shotties. OPFOR was four, maybe five times our strength. And now we’ve got to assume that whoever they’re working for has the information on the map. All of it. Even the important stuff.”
“That was pretty, uh,” Pascoe said, searching for a diplomatic phrase. “Uh-“
“Fucking careless, is what!” Robbins shouted, his face reddening. “What else could they have gotten that is as important as this place? Our families are here!”
“They might or might not have the location of this place, but they definitely have the location of the bank refuge,” Tom said as he ticked off the details. “They have the some details on the inventory that I expect to find there. They know that I was thinking long term about restoring a source of power generation somewhere in the Tennessee Valley. They got the location of a couple possible military supply points for the National Guard. I think that is enough, don’t you?”
“The guy I shot didn’t seem all that bright, boss,” Kaplan said. “I can’t see someone like him developing useful intel from our rubbish.”
“Thanks for that, Kap,” Tom said. “It isn’t the meathead we shot, it’s his boss that I’m thinking of. Rob is right.”
“You’re fucked,” Robbins said, standing up. “And now you have probably fucked us.”
“I know,” Tom replied. He considered attempting a sincerely apology but he was just too tired. He settled for trying to hide the exhaustion in his voice. “But we have a few advantages. I didn’t write everything down.”
Debby Robbins was a professional homemaker, presiding over a household of four active kids, two of them grown to adult size. Peacemaking was her middle name.
“He’s practically dead on his feet, Rob,” she said, laying a cool hand on her husband’s arm. “Everyone needs some rest. We can hear him out tonight, dear heart.” Debby said, scanning the new group, stopping at Tom. Her eyes grew stony. “And if he doesn’t have some good answers, then you can shoot him.”