River Of Night – Snippet 39
“That’s more than I had expected.” Tom said, passing the binoculars to Pascoe.
“Mmm,” the grizzled vet hummed a bit while he counted. “Eight vehicles. Figure maybe forty shooters. Fifty tops. That’s bad odds.”
“Vehicle ambush takes care of that,” Junior said with a snort. “Two machine guns and we torch the entire group.”
In addition to the RPK and all its remaining ammunition, Tom had sweet talked Robbins Sr. into the grudging loan of one of the heavy World War Two relics.
“I like it!” enthused Fat Ralph.
“They’re armed and mobile,” Pascoe said, reminding them. “We might get them to deploy, and then they pin us long enough to allow half the survivors to pick a flank and shoot us to shit. No thanks.”
The young teenager looked angrily at the two older men but didn’t say anything else.
“We’re buying time, Junior,” Tom said as he borrowed the glasses back. “We don’t want to try to wipe them out, just delay them. They’re going to have to cross that bridge we came over a few miles back. What we do is…”
“Boss, this is lead.” O’Shannesy’s radio startled Jason who has been zoning out, watching the monotonous view of unreaped corn fields sweep past.
“Go ahead.” she replied.
“Got a bridge coming up. Blow across or prepare for deliberate crossing?”
“Wait one,” O’Shannesy said, consulting her map. “We’re well outside the cleared zone. Pick a spot and deploy.”
As the convoy slowed and stopped, she studied the crossing, only a hundred meters away. It looked… clean. Usually choke points like crossings were blocked with vehicles and wreckage. This two lane bridge spanned a dirty brown stream and it was clear, though she could see a car in the stream bed and a few more pushed off to one side.
“What’s up boss?” her deputy said, walking up to check on the delay. He ignored Jason.
“Doesn’t feel right.” O’Shannesy said musingly. “Bridge is too clean and we didn’t clean it. We’ll set up here and you take a team across on foot to check the bridge and the intersection. If you see single zombies just shoot them. If you get a bunch, run back while we advance and we’ll take them from a distance.”
“Got it, boss,” the deputy said without hesitation.
“Problem?” asked Jason.
“Don’t know.” O’Shannesy said frankly. “We’ve done a bunch of these. I get a feeling sometimes. We aren’t on a schedule – so no need to plunge forward. All I want to do is localize whoever we ran into at the town, scout some spots that Green highlighted and then get back. We can probably make our radio window tonight, if we find a high point on the far side. So that means getting across.”
Jason looked around the valley they were in. Surrounded by gray limestone escarpments, the team’s hand held radios weren’t much good for other than short distances. The longer range of their one HF radio should reach camp, but it took a while to set up and needed good elevation.
He cast his eyes about for a route upwards while the foot team moved forward.
“Hold the wall!” Paul yelled in order to be heard over the din of the pack of infected that surged from the hospital’s lower floors. “Brace yourself and just stab. Between shields, like we practiced!”
A few semi-dry runs had made short shrift of the small numbers of infected remaining in the mostly cleared crossroad hamlets and small towns within a short distance of Site Blue. Overall, the ammunition preservation strategy had borne fruit. As a result, the Executive Committee had approved his concept and directed that they continue the previously agreed salvage schedule.
The still missing components needed for vaccine production were doubtless a big part of the reason. With a little luck, itself a rare commodity, he hoped to complete their search for a functioning high velocity centrifuge as well as filtration media. His team had successfully infiltrated the regional medical center. A key advantage was the relative silence of the shield-and-pike method of clearance.
Once inside, his picked squad of a dozen had managed to dispatch the smaller clusters of infected by blocking the broad hallways of the medical facility and piling corpses up in front of them. However, the number of infected had steadily climbed until the Site Blue team was forced backwards. The remaining Bank staff seemed steady, but the new recruits were visibly wavering. To this point, they hadn’t attracted the attention of more than a few infected at a time.
But that had changed.
“Second rank, aimed fire, now!” Paul ordered. They’d attracted far more infected than forecast. As a result, he’d resorted to using firearms in order to control the flood of zombies. The bright white splashes of light from the tactical flashlights intermittently lit a sea of bobbing heads as even more infected packed the corridor. Shooting past the heads of the shielded men, the team briefly relieved some of the pressure, until the infected started to clamber over their own dead.
“Where they all coming from?” screamed his squad leader, barely making himself heard over the crashing gunfire and the howling mob. Paul yelled his reply, trying to estimate the number of infected in view. It far exceeded the most pessimistic estimates in his worst-case scenario.
On the far right, the muzzle blast of a rifle fired right next to the shield wall caused the man anchoring the flank to flinch. His stance only faltered for a moment. It was enough for his shield to dip and an infected grabbed the upper edge, yanking down and out of line. That pikeman instinctively drove his weapon into the target, but managed to get the broad leaf blade hung up on rib cage of the violently jerking infected. The matted, filthy beard parted in an unheard scream of pain. Spittle flew from the reeking maw and the faltering shield man bashed the zombie’s face again. The shield boss splintered yellowed teeth and the infected disappeared into the bloody tangle of offal that delimited the forward line of defense.
“Shields up, close ranks!” Paul yelled. He knew that if they lost the wall it would come down to hand-to-hand and, despite the defenders’ protective clothing, the sheer mass of the infected would be deadly. “One step back, hut! And hut, and hut!”
Still too many infected.
Paul knew that he had to drop the pressure right away. The shield bearers simply weren’t in the physical condition to melee for so long.
“Pistols!” Paul yelled hoarsely.
It was a desperation move. The pikemen maintained their shield wall, dropped their polearms and drew their sidearms. Paul needed to reestablish enough space to allow his fumbling right side to reset. However, they only had as long as their ammunition lasted. Pistol fire from the shield line lashed out, dropping many infected, but the rate of fire was very rapid.
Too rapid to be efficient.
The spearman who’d almost lost his shield tried to do too many things at once. He fumbled his mag change, began to reach for his dropped magazine, then changed his mind and holstered. As he braced to raise his shield again, an injured infected tripped him up and he went down in a clump.
Immediately three infected piled on, tearing at his equipment and heavy clothing. Paul watched helplessly as even more infected joined, drawn by the man’s frantic struggles to escape.
Given the level of team’s training, there was no way to reverse the direction of the shield line. Recovering him was out of the question, but perhaps they could shoot the zombies off him. Paul drew his own pistol. In concert with others in the second line, he tried to carefully shoot the infected mobbing his downed man. The stricken shieldman fought, his knife flashing over and over but suddenly the plastic bicycle helmet that he wore flew off as a “friendly” pistol round cratered the plastic.
“Withdraw!” Paul didn’t waste time mourning. There would be time later.
As they backed through the doorway at the end of the hall, men peeled off and reformed. Unfortunately, this meant that fewer were holding back the same number of infected. The pressure was enormous and the team was being forced through the door like toothpaste from a tube.
“Still too many!” his assistant yelled. “We have to pull out!”
“We’ll retreat back to the front entrance!” Paul yelled back. “We got to delay the mob long enough to break contact and get on the trucks.” Hundreds of infected were hammering at the remaining handful of men holding the shieldwall. The white-faced men had reholstered their clocked out pistols and now grunted with effort as they pushed back against a wall of screaming, growling predators.
Paul and the squad leader stepped forward to begin a rapid series of single shots. As he did so, Paul activated his weapon light and was able to steady it long enough to really scan the corridor. For a moment, his heart seized. The number of infected had grown beyond his worst nightmare. Behind the depleted group of infected blocked by Paul’s shieldwall, a fresh mob numbering more than a thousand surged forward, filling the length and breadth of the long corridor. Holding back those kinds of numbers with gun fire would be like trying to restrain the incoming tide by throwing rocks at the surf.
The men already through the chokepoint, like Paul, could probably make it to safety. The men in the shieldwall would be doomed if he waited any longer.
“Everyone back! NOW!”
The remaining shield wall disintegrated as the new wave of infected struck and Paul screamed his last command.
Tom had watched as the adversary foot patrol approach the bridge on foot. Cautiously, they probed forward.
“Well, that tears it,” Tom said conversationally. “Wasted our best demo and we’re not even going to get a single vehicle. Let’s mount back up and use some of the ANFO from the ranch to collapse that cut.”
He referred to a narrow cut in a rocky hillside which they had passed even earlier. Junior’s dad had pre-prepared modestly sized ammonium nitrate charges, packaged in the bright orange plastic buckets from the local hardware superstore. One or two of these, fused with old fashioned slow match, would suffice for what Tom had in mind. Covering the road with rocky debris would compel the Gleaners to backtrack and allow his party to keep their distance. They would continue to draw the Gleaners away from the families’ camp.
“Junior, Dave, get back to the truck,” Tom said without taking eyes off the developing scene. “I’ll initiate electrically from here. They’ll have to ford downstream or go all the way to the next bridge. Either way, plenty of time to rig the pass.”
Despite the beginnings of a protest, Pascoe towed the younger, if bigger, young man downslope towards their truck.
A few hundred meters in the other direction, well below Tom, a small party stumbled across the stream and started pointing at the underside of the bridge.