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Bag Men: Siege (Book 8)

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The year 2070: the final showdown between the nominally democratic Republic of Sacramento and the feudalistic Kingdom of Yuma; a saga told by the soldiers bleeding on both sides.

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Episode 20: Jacqueline Eliot

Davis, California

11:15 a.m., October 31st, 2027

Corporal Jacqueline Eliot froze in her tracks, standing in the middle of the plumbing aisle, holding a piece of white PVC pipe in her hand. She listened hard — a metallic crashing sound somewhere across the dark expanse of the abandoned Ace Hardware store had broken the stifling silence. It was a short-lived burst of sound, shrill, without any echo in the dampening acoustics of the messy, looted building. Holding her breath and waiting for any sound that was to follow — the shuffle of feet against the concrete floor, the rustle of groping hands brushing along the cluttered shelves; any indication of what was trundling towards her in the near-dark — but the only sound in Eliot’s ears was her own thudding heartbeat.

Then, a muffled, hissing whisper: “Goddamn it, sorry.” It was Private Howard. He had knocked something over in one of the other darkened aisles, searching through the cluttered store along with Eliot and Staff Sergeant Don Bailey for anything useful that had been left behind by the previous waves of looters. Eliot chuckled — Howard was an idiot for making so much noise, but she was too relieved to be angry with him just then. They were still alone in the store. It was still safe to linger a little longer.

She rounded the corner at the end of the aisle and stepped into the wide concourse towards the front of the store, near a display of propane torches. Most of them had been grabbed by looters, but there were still several left — stacked in boxes against the wall, along with a few scattered propane tanks. She saw Bailey there, holding a red plastic basket in one hand. He looked like a casual shopper running everyday errands, except for the scruffy unshaven stubble covering his lantern jaw, and the layer of grime over his face, beige desert-camo pants and black tactical vest.

The looters hadn’t left much in the store. But Eliot and Bailey were smarter than the panicked crowds that had stampeded through grabbing anything that they could carry. The two soldiers knew how to make good use of the odds and ends that others had skipped right over.

Bailey nodded at Eliot as she stepped into view. “I found these,” he said. “They’ll make good shotgun slugs.” He reached into his shopping basket, and pulled out a box of red crayons.

Eliot raised her eyebrows. “Are you fucking kidding me with this?”

Bailey smirked. “I’m fucking not,” he said.

Eliot, Bailey and Howard had run out of ammunition two days before, blasting their way through a rabble of zombies that burst suddenly from a boarded-up doorway in a narrow, dead-end alley, cutting off the disbanded soldiers’ retreat back towards the street. They emptied their guns to cut a narrow path in the middle of the teeming pack of corpses, until they had access to the fire escape ladder and could climb for their lives — Private Howard using up their remaining few shots firing behind as the went, keeping the gnashing, dead-eyed things back until they were out of reach of their gnarled, bloodied hands. And now, two days later, they knew they desperately needed more ammo on hand — but every gun store, sporting goods store and shooting range on the West Coast had already been looted bare weeks ago. They had no choice but to improvise.

The soldiers had already found plenty of material to make dozens of DIY shotgun rounds in the skeletal remains of the hardware store, along with some other materials from a convenience store across the street. All they needed was uninterrupted time to work — which was a commodity they couldn’t be sure they had, so they scrambled to get as many rounds made as they could while they were alone and relatively safe. Eliot and Bailey sat down crossed-legged in the concourse at the front of the store, took a camping lantern out of its box and switched it on, and began unloading their shopping baskets in the space between them. Ripping the plastic wrap off a roll of plain brown packing paper, Eliot took a pair of scissors, with the tag still hanging from the handle, and cut several long rectangular strips. She rolled each strip up into a tube, and shoved each into the barrel of her shotgun, letting it expand slightly until it was a perfect loose fit for the smooth-bore 12-gauge. Next, she dipped a small foam paint brush with a bar-code sticker in a bowl of white glue, diluted with water. Brushing along the edge of the paper tubes, she glued them all closed. Meanwhile, Bailey was cutting down the sides of a few empty aluminum soda cans with a pair of metal shears, unrolling them and laying them flat on the floor. Taking the end of a socket wrench he had found that was just slightly smaller in diameter than the barrels of their shotguns, he placed the socket on the aluminum and pounded it with a rubber mallet — creating a row of circles in the aluminum, which he cut out one by one, leaving a small extra fringe around each perfect circle. Cutting slits all along the fringe of each circle, he rolled those tiny metal fins up to create a metal cap for the primer end of each shotgun round. Next he cut steel disks from the ends of steel cans, using his socket wrench to ensure each one was the perfect size, and pounded holes in the center of each one with an awl.

While the glue was drying on her paper tubes, Eliot began grinding the ends off of some matches and matchbox striker-pads with a pair of pliers, and pouring tiny bits of the resulting powder into little scraps of aluminum foil. Balling each piece of foil up tightly, she had a pile of primers for each round of ammunition. Taking Bailey’s steel disks, she placed a primer in the center-holes of the disks, and slipped the disks into the aluminum caps. Using a piece of schedule-40 half-inch PVC pipe, she pressed each cap totally flat. Next, she began cutting half-inch slits in one end of each of the paper tubes, opening them out like flower petals, and coated the rim of the tube with super glue. Placing the primer caps on the end of each tube, she folded in the paper strips and glued them down, creating a hardened metal primer end on the rounds. It was time to fill them.

Eliot and Bailey had come into the hardware store in the first place for one primary reason: black powder. All the guns and ammo had been taken everywhere else, but they hoped that there were still powder-blanks for powder-actuated nail guns which they could use in their own ammunition. And there were — few of the looters who passed through before had thought to take them. Eliot and Bailey had found boxes upon boxes of blanks, which they could cut open with shears, pouring the black powder out and repurposing it in their shotgun shells.

First she stuffed wadding, made from toilet paper, into a paper tube — using the eraser end of a pencil to press it down firmly against the primer cap. Then Eliot poured one of the pre-measured heaps of black powder into the round. Next, she shoved in a second piece of wadding meant to hold the small nuts, bolts and faucet washers they where intending to use as shot, but Bailey stopped her before she loaded the loose metal bits into the round.

“Trust me, these will be devastating,” he said, gesturing to his box of crayons. Walking an aisle down to a display of workbenches and workshop clamps, Bailey carried over one of the propane torches and rigged up a sort of makeshift stovetop, clamping a shovel in place over the flame of the propane torch like a frying pan over a burner. Emptying the box of crayons on the workbench, he peeled off the paper labels and placed the plain wax on the hot shovel to melt.

As the crayons turned to a soup of melted red wax, he dumped a handful of tiny steel nuts in and stirred it with a pencil.

“The wax will only be strong enough to hold our projectiles together in flight…” he explained as he worked, grabbing one of the paper rounds and using a garden trowel to scoop out enough of the hot steel and wax to fill the tube. “It will explode on impact with the target. It’s a much more efficient energy transfer into the target than a rifle round or a solid slug, which punch right through solid objects. These wax slugs will explode inside the target, with the force expanding out to rip apart its insides.”

Eliot nodded admiringly. “All right, sounds legit. Let’s do it.” They melted the rest of the crayons, and filled round after round, rolling the ends of each paper tube shut after the wax solidified to create the finished shells. Fifteen minutes later, they were out of rounds and nearly out of tiny nuts and washers to fill them with.

“Wax shotgun slugs…” Eliot said as they finished the work. “Where did you learn this?”

“I was a teenager in Texas,” Bailey said, as if it was explanation enough.

“Well, it looks good,” Eliot said, glancing over the rows of cartridges standing on end on the workbench. “What did we just make, about forty shots?

“Something like that,” Bailey said, picking up handfuls of shells and putting them in the pockets of his tactical vest. “We’ll have to be sparing in how we use them, but it will be enough to keep you and me and…” He paused mid-action. “Howard. Where the fuck is Howard?”

Eliot stiffened and looked around the dark store, again listening as hard as she could for any sound anywhere across the cluttered aisles. “Shit,” she said. “We’ve been caught up doing this for so long, I haven’t thought about him. Where the hell did he go?”

There was no sound in the empty store. For a moment of indecision, Eliot weighed the danger of calling out for Howard, giving away their location to anyone else who was moving through the shadows between cluttered aisles. But the batteries in their radios were dead, and she didn’t have any other choice.

“Howard!” she called. There was no echo — the sound died in the stagnant air. Waiting for a reply or any indication of movement anywhere, Eliot and Bailey became more unsettled by the second.

Howard wouldn’t just wander off. And if he could hear Eliot, he would have responded if he was able to.

Eliot loaded three of their wax shotgun slugs into her tactical 12-gauge, bracing the black synthetic stock against her shoulder and switching on the flashlight mounted under the barrel.

“Let’s go,” she said, twitching her head towards the nearest aisle.

Bailey nodded, narrowed his eyes and stared down the darkness.

Working through the rows of shelves systematically, they split up and proceeded down aisles parallel to each other. In the debris-filled, looted store it would be easy to miss signs of a struggle, but it would not be easy to miss signs of a zombie kill. Eliot’s nervous system felt taut to the breaking point as she went, sweeping the circle of her flashlight over the mess of dirty tiles and torn cardboard boxes; but she clenched her jaw and kept going, forcing herself to breathe evenly and quietly. At the end of her aisle, she waited a beat and saw Bailey emerge from the aisle next to her. They shook their heads, and headed into their next rows of shelves.

But at the far end of the shelves, Eliot immediately saw a rectangular aperture of bright light. An emergency exit, she thought. There’s no power, so there was no alarm when it was opened.

“Bailey!” Eliot called, bringing the grizzled man sprinting to her side, gun at the ready. He froze when he saw the open door, blinking at the natural light after over an hour in the twilight store.

“What the hell?” Bailey said. “Could Howard have gone that way? Why the fuck would he leave, alone, without telling us?”

“Maybe he didn’t want to give his location away,” Eliot thought aloud. “He could have been following someone.” As they approached the outward-opening emergency door, they saw that a piece of rebar had been stuck under the bottom edge, jamming it open.

“He must have propped the door so we’d know he went this way,” Eliot surmised, looking both directions down the wide, featureless alleyway behind the building that the door opened into.

“To the right,” Bailey said, gesturing down the alley. “He went to the right.” Eliot followed Bailey’s gaze and saw a clear trail through some scattered garbage that seemed to have been made deliberately, probably by Howard kicking debris as he went so that his companions could easily follow him when they came. Without a word, the two broke off at a jog, shotguns braced, looking over the sights and scanning their surroundings. In one hundred feet the alley ended at the far side of the hardware store building, and rounding the corner Eliot and Bailey looked over the grassy, brambly expanse of a large empty lot riddled with boulders, probably left behind when digging the foundations of surrounding buildings. There, beside a chunk of granite, they saw Howard lying facedown in the dirt.

Oh god,” Eliot breathed, the impulse to run towards their fallen companion instantly being wrestled down by her training. The two soldiers closed in slowly, cautiously, looking around the boulder field and the nearby alleyways for any threat. Unless Howard had tripped and hit his head, something had put him down there; and whatever it was could still be in the area.

Dropping to one knee beside Howard with her shotgun still at her shoulder, Bailey standing over them both providing cover, Eliot checked the prone body for a pulse. There wasn’t one.

Shit, shit, shit!” Eliot spat, noticing a red hole in Howard’s camouflage shirt. Reaching down and ripping the shirt open, she saw his chest was matted with blood-soaked hair. He had been shot in the heart.

Zombies don’t use fucking guns,” Eliot snapped at Bailey. “Humans did this. Survivors.”

Bailey locked her in a slow, quizzical look. Eliot tried to read his thoughts, but it was impossible to guess what was behind those brown, sad, patient eyes. Then he lowered his shotgun and stood up straight.

“Wait, what — ” Eliot began, but she was cut off.

“Where are you?” Bailey screamed into the boulder field. “We know you’re here. Show yourself.”

After a few seconds of tense silence, Eliot caught a hint of movement in her peripheral vision and jerked her head to look into overgrown empty lot, snapping her shotgun into firing position on reflex.

“Please don’t shoot me!” a female voice shrieked. Among the litter of boulders about 200 yards away, a tall, pasty-skinned woman with short, tightly curling brown hair stood, shaking like a leaf, looking almost hysterical. There was a little tack-driver .22 rifle in her hand, with a cheap hunting scope mounted on it. She could have been going after squirrels.

“I thought he was a zombie,” she screamed. “He was following me, and I thought…I just thought…I’m so sorry!” She broke down in paroxysmal tears.

For a few seconds that dragged on and on, the pale woman kept weeping, Bailey watched her silently, and Eliot looked back and forth between them both, her weapon still trained on the stranger who had murdered their friend.

“Drop your gun and come out here,” Bailey called, startling the woman. She stopped sniffling and stared at the soldiers.

“Why? What do you want?” she answered. “It was an accident. I didn’t mean it…I didn’t mean to kill your — ”

Bailey interrupted her: “We’re not going to hurt you,” he said, in as soft a voice as he could while still being audible at her distance. “We want to understand what happened here.” Damn, Eliot thought. He sounds like a crisis negotiator. I didn’t know he had that in him.

The woman kept hemming and hawing. “There’s nothing more I can tell you,” she called. “He was fallowing me, and — ”

“Get the fuck over here,” Eliot roared. “You shot Howard, and you’re going to give us more details about how he ended up out here and why.” Eliot rattled her shotgun menacingly — despite knowing she was probably too far away to hit her target (unless Bailey’s wax slugs somehow flew unbelievably well for 200 yards without tumbling.) But Eliot doubted this stranger knew anything about supersonic aerodynamics. As far as this woman knew, Eliot might as well be holding a sniper rifle and was primed to easily pick her off with a head shot.

The woman held her .22 rifle like she was just a panicked retail worker or waitress who had never touched a gun in her life before shit hit the fan, and she lucked out by finding one somewhere.

The woman set down her .22 and started to walk out of the boulder field with her hands up, visibly shaking. “Don’t shoot,” she stammered, almost losing her breath. Her heart must have been pounding like she was running a marathon she hadn’t trained for.

“Why was Howard following you?” Eliot asked, as the woman came closer. “How did he even see you? Were you also in that hardware store just now?”

The woman nodded, swallowing hard. “I was in there when you came in. I heard footsteps, and people scrounging around in the dark. I was so flustered, I tried to hide in one of the display ovens, listening. When I thought you where all far away across the store, I jumped out and headed for the nearest exit. He must have seen me go and came after me…” the woman glanced at Howard’s body and quickly looked away, wincing. “He wasn’t moving fast, so I managed to get ahead of him and hide in the empty lot before he came around the corner…”

“And that didn’t clue you in that he wasn’t hostile?” Eliot snapped. Bailey put a hand on her shoulder. Eliot chewed her lip and took herself in hand, lowering her gun. She understood Bailey’s gesture. He was upset, too, but the woman was already so scared she could barely speak. Eliot wasn’t helping.

“He was moving slowly, coming after me, so I just figured…I just figured he must be a zombie.” Howard, you idiot, Eliot thought. She understood why he had followed the woman: he, more than any of them, was desperate to believe there were more living people somewhere. There were other survivors, holed up, waiting to be found. He thought the woman would lead him to more people.

“When he got close to me, I jumped up from behind a boulder and pulled the trigger…” the woman was saying. “And he saw me. He yelled, hey, wait! But I was already pulling the trigger…” The woman broke down in tears, again. “I knew he wasn’t a zombie, then, when I heard him speak. But it was too late. And I knew more people would come looking for him. So I stayed nearby. God, how I wanted to run, but I stayed. I had to explain that it wasn’t my fault.”

The woman broke down in tears again, doubling over, burying her face in her hands and rocking back and forth on her feet. Eliot and Bailey listened to her in silence, staring down at the dead body of their friend. We have to bury him, Eliot thought. Then considered the unsentimental reality of their situation: Before we do, we’ll have to thoroughly search his body for anything useful. The woman kept weeping until the soldiers could hear the strain in her voice — like she was forcing the deep sobs out, an ostentatious child making a show of her horror. It hit Eliot that maybe the woman was trying to flip the situation and make herself appear to be the victim, so torn apart by what she had accidentally done that it would be unthinkable for the soldiers to hold her accountable.

“What is your name?” Eliot asked firmly, startling the woman silent a second time. She looked up from her hands, both palms damp with tears.

“Amy Smith,” the woman said. “I’m a yoga instructor from San Francisco.” Her voice was shaking and she still seemed out of breath. For an instant, Eliot wondered how she had made it, alive, from San Francisco to Davis — about seventy five miles, an hour and a half trip by car. Judging from what they had seen so far, Amy Smith was a flustered, useless mess. She had probably had companions with her originally. But now she was alone. There must have been a story there.

“Where are you going?” Bailey asked Amy. He figured she must have been traveling northeast for a reason. To get where she was from San Francisco, she would have had to cross the Oakland Bay Bridge, and she wouldn’t have done that unless she had a good reason. It didn’t take a tactician to know she was in a worse position on this side of the San Francisco Bay, without the natural buffer the water would provide to keep the ever-advancing undead horde back.

Before Amy answered, Bailey realized what must have driven her across the bridge, and amended his question: “What’s happening in San Fran that made you evacuate?”

Amy looked pained. “The city was evacuated,” she said. “It’s a wasteland. Everyone who tried to stay there is dead.”

Bailey winced. “What the hell happened?”

“When there were still newscasts, they said it started in Japan,” Amy began, her voice suddenly swinging from near-hysteria into a dull, inflectionless monotone. “After Japan was overrun and collapsed, an unattended nuclear power plant went into full meltdown. There was no one to try to stop it or contain the disaster.” Amy was staring blankly ahead, wringing her tear-soaked hands. She was breathing slowly and evenly now, like she was asleep. Holy shit, she’s a mess, Eliot thought, not without compassion. She understood it. She recognized the state she was in, and felt deep sympathy for the trauma she had gone through and was still going through.

“Last thing we heard, before even the news stopped broadcasting,” Amy went on, “was that the National Guard was conducting mass evacuations of the cities and towns directly along the West coast, before the radioactive cloud got to us across the Pacific…It took days to empty San Fran, funneling people across the Oakland Bay Bridge towards the Valley…hundreds of people died on the way. There just wasn’t time to move that many human beings safely. I saw a man fall into the highway and get run over — nobody would stop their cars to get the body, so they just kept driving on him. He was a smear on the asphalt after a while. Traffic was slow, so I could watch it happening for a long time before he was out of sight…” She was rambling.

“I don’t know what happened, but eventually the National Guard just left us. There weren’t soldiers directing traffic anymore, there were no more checkpoints; there was nobody to stamp out conflicts when terrified people blew up on each other. I don’t know why they all left us, but they did.” Eliot bit her lip. She knew what had happened — the National Guard must have left at the same time she and the others on the Army base in Colorado got the news about the Federal Government…That they were packing it in. They were giving up. There was nothing left the Fed could do to stop the advance of the horde across the North American continent. It had been reduced to a nugatory body impotently watching the apocalypse marching on, far beyond its power to halt. Federal disaster relief efforts had been spread so thin that they flaked apart and dissolved. The military had been pounded to rubble. Local governments had been ripped apart at the seams in a pandemonium of riots, starvation and disease.

The last remnants of Congress and the Senate called it quits and finally disbanded the survivors of the military, letting them try their best to escape from the crumbing nation in whatever way they could. No one was in charge anymore. It was every man for himself in a world beyond civilization. That was why Amy had seen the National Guard suddenly leave the evacuees of San Francisco to their fate.

Amy’s story wasn’t done. “I was traveling with my husband and daughter,” she explained. “But we were separated. Traffic had been at a dead stop on the highway for over two hours when someone snapped, several cars down the line…” Amy crossed her arms and started rocking back and forth again. “He was shooting people. There was so much screaming. All three of us got out of our Jeep and started running; it was like a stampede. People all around were abandoning their cars and running down the congested highway to get away from the gunman. I thought we were going to get trampled. So I screamed that we had to get off the road, and barreled over the guardrail. I lost my footing in the loose sand on the other side and rolled down the hill. When I stood up at the bottom, I couldn’t see my husband and daughter anymore…They had been swept away in the crowd. They couldn’t hear me calling them. They must have been so scared. They didn’t know what happened to me.”

“I’m sorry,” Eliot said, locking eyes with Amy and placing a hand on her shoulder softly.

“I’m going to find them,” Amy said. “I’m going to find them here in the Valley.”

Eliot nodded. “Yes, you are,” she said. She didn’t know what to feel, anymore, about this tragic person in front of her who had just shot her friend.

They doubled back to the hardware store to pick up three shovels. With Amy’s help, it took the soldiers less than an hour to dig Howard a shallow grave in the empty lot. They marked his resting place with a plain cross nailed together from two-by-fours, hastily given a single coat of white paint. No one there remembered much of anything from the Bible, so they didn’t speak. Instead, they inclined their brows and gave Howard a moment of silence.

With her gaze downcast, eyes on the dirt, Eliot saw a small shadow flit across the ground in front of her feet. Jerking her head up to look, she saw a quadcopter drone, metal frame and blades glistening in the sunlight.

“What the fuck?” she snapped, punching Bailey in the arm and pointing towards the drone, hovering above them. “Can you see that, too? Am I hallucinating?”

“No, you’re not,” Bailey said, taking a step forward and squinting up at the little aircraft. It was obviously watching them, hanging in the air directly above, only thirty feet or so off the ground.

As quickly as it had come, the drone flew off over the empty lot and disappeared from view between nearby buildings.

“Oh, hell no,” Bailey said, breaking into a jog towards the empty lot and the piles of shattered boulders. “You are not getting away from us, drone.” He glanced back at Eliot and Amy, waving for them to follow, shouting, “That thing means people! Come on!”

They crossed the empty lot, passed through a break in the chain link fence on the other side and moved into a deserted shopping center. Most of the retail spaces ahead of them had windows smashed and debris visibly scattered around the floor inside. A few abandoned cars dotted the parking lot, and, prominently set in the middle of the asphalt, a city bus had been overturned somehow. Lying on its side, the undercarriage was towards them, the slashed tires all hanging in shreds from the rims.

“Okay, where now? We have no idea which direction the drone went,” Eliot said, walking slowly towards the middle of the parking area, in the direction of the overturned bus.

“Well—” Bailey started, but he was cut off by a scream from Amy.

“No!” she shrieked, clapping her hands over her mouth and staggering backwards as if she had been punched in the stomach. Her pale face was contorted in an ashen rictus of dread; Eliot followed her gaze, and saw shapes moving in the darkened storefronts across the parking lot.

Fuck. Eliot forced herself to move steadily, checking the rounds in her shotgun. Zombies. This is just what we need.

The shambling group of zombies lurched out of the dark buildings into the crisp sunlight, falling over each other as they rushed onto the pavement. There were forty or more, coming out of every storefront in the shopping center. Probably, days or weeks before, people had hidden in those stores — the windows were smashed because the zombies had smashed them getting in. After they had killed every last person inside the buildings, the undead, for whatever reason, hunkered down and went dormant, lying in the blood-soaked stores until something came along to stimulated them to move again.

That stimulus had come when Eliot, Bailey and Amy noisily ran into the middle of the place.

“We’re losing our retreat fast,” Bailey screamed, pointing his shotgun towards the break in the chain link fence they had just come through; there were several zombies coming between the soldiers and the way back into the empty lot. It would be risky to go that way. But the undead were moving just slowly enough across the parking lot that the soldiers had a moment to try to decide which way was best to go. Amy, meanwhile, clapped her .22 rifle to her shoulder and started firing wildly towards the advancing zombies; at just over fifty yards away, she missed half her shots, but even the ones that landed had no effect. The bullets bit through the decomposing bodies without eliciting the slightest twitch or flinch.

Eliot pulled the trigger on her shotgun; the slug flew straight more or less directly where she wanted it to, catching the closest zombie in the center of the chest. A few of the metal nuts the projectile was loaded with sprayed out the back of the body, but most of them bounced off of each other in a reverse granular impact inside the zombie’s chest, exploding outward and scattering in every direction. The whole rotten torso burst like a watermelon; a soupy spray of congealed blood and minced organs splattered over the surrounding asphalt, and, the whole spine blown to shit, the dead body collapsed like a demolished building with the support columns blasted out.

“Holy shit,” Eliot breathed, glancing at Bailey. “These work. But we don’t have enough of them.” There were still a few straggling zombies lumbering out of the storefronts. Fifty of them moved across the pavement now, easily. Their retreat route towards the break in the fence was getting more blocked by the second. Eliot and Bailey both began firing, shot after shot. One after another, zombies burst — some hit in the chest, abdomen or head, dropping to the asphalt destroyed, or at least immobilized. Some had their legs blown off, toppling to the ground and dragging themselves forward with their hands. But there was no clearing the way. They had to run.

The soldiers turned to dash towards the street at the opposite end of the parking lot; they froze in their tracks and stared. Probably drawn by the sound of the gunshots, or possibly just by terrible luck, more zombies were ambling down the road, cutting off the soldiers’ escape.

“Get onto the bus,” Bailey screamed, rushing towards the overturned city bus as fast as he could, pulling Eliot behind him by the arm. Amy followed after them. Reaching the bus, they hurled themselves at the undercarriage and began to scramble up, using whatever hand- and footholds they could find in the exposed chassis. The nearest zombies, from the first group to move out of the storefronts, was closing in on the bus — and Amy was struggling to find another step up, both her feet planted on the compressor air tank, straining to pull herself by the rim of a tire above her.

“Help me!” she shrieked; Eliot and Bailey, already on top of the bus, slid on their stomachs towards the edge and reached over, taking hold of Amy’s hands; but the zombies grabbed her from behind at the same moment.

“No, no, no, don’t let go of me, don’t let — argh!” Amy’s desperate words trailed off into inarticulate screams as the zombies started biting into her legs, buttocks and back, pulling her down into the thickening crowd of gruesome, scuttling bodies collecting around the bus.

Eliot had no words to describe the high, animal sounds of agony and panic that came out of Amy as she realized the soldiers couldn’t hold onto her. There were too many sets of hands pulling her away; her wrists were too slick with sweat, so Bailey and Eliot felt as though they had been greased. Amy’s hands slipped away. She pitched backwards into the blackened, rotting horde, for an instant riding the raised hands as though she were crowd-surfing, before they pulled her in and she vanished under dozens of stooping heads and slumped shoulders. Her screams echoed through the parking lot; the zombies were totally silent, and there was nothing to mask the sounds of Amy dying, her skin sloppily ripping and tendons popping as joints were pulled apart.

For a moment at least, the undead were occupied. Eliot and Bailey scooted back from the edge, breathing hard, thinking hard.

“What do we do? How the hell do we get out of this?” Eliot snarled, looking at the second group of zombies, maybe twenty more, approaching from the opposite direction. Though they were now surrounded, there wasn’t much danger of the zombies climbing the smooth metal roof of the overturned bus. But the undercarriage was another story; the fuel and exhaust lines, the axils, the chassis, offered plenty of possibilities for the undead to swarm up. The soldiers needed to focus their defense on that side. Reloading their shotguns, Eliot and Bailey waited.

The first hand appeared over the edge of the bus. Eliot waited until the head came into view, and shot it off. The body was hurled back, and knocked a few of the others backwards off the undercarriage. The soldiers could hear the popping and crushing sounds of them landing badly on the asphalt — injured, hopefully, badly enough that they would be mechanically unable to climb again. But there were others crawling straight over them, like ants marching over the backs of their dead.

“We can’t shoot them all,” Eliot said, bracing her shotgun to pick off the next one. “We don’t have enough ammo.” Bailey unslung his war-hammer from his shoulder — made from a sledge hammer, K-bar knives welded to the back — the one he had wielded during their escape from the army base in Colorado. He had carried it since then, though he hadn’t used it since that night.

“We’ll shoot them until we can’t anymore, and then we will fight them in whatever way we can,” Bailey said flatly. He didn’t say, we are probably going die, but, goddamn it, fight until you are dead — but that was clearly what he meant. Eliot nodded and narrowed her eyes, aiming at the zombie head that was just coming into view. It burst like a ream of wet newspaper, and the body flew backwards from the force of her shot at such close range. But there were more behind that one.

Round after round, the soldiers shot off the rotten heads as they bobbed into view — until, after several minutes and several waves of climbers, there was no ammo left. Pumping the action of her shotgun, the final empty paper shell ejected from the chamber and Eliot shot Bailey a pained look. He nodded to her and grimaced. She watched him slide towards the edge of the bus, clutch his war-hammer, and brace himself to pound back the undead as long as he could.

And then they heard the screech of car tires on the road.

Up on the bus, they had a clear vantage point of the entire parking lot. Flying down the street and turning the corner past the surrounding buildings, a pair of black SUVs launched across the asphalt towards them. Behind the SUVs, a black van rocked as it took the sharp turn and flew towards the overturned bus at the same breakneck speed.

Pulling up tight on either side of the clamoring swarm of zombies, still forty-five or fifty strong, the passenger side doors of the SUVs flew open. Before Eliot or Bailey could get a good look at the people who leapt out, hatches also opened on the top of each SUV, like modified sun-roofs. A huge spotlight rose out of the hatch atop each vehicle, aiming at the zombies below. Eliot glimpsed circuit-boards and colored cords attached to the lights — they had been hurriedly modified, and, within seconds, she saw exactly what they had been modified to do.

Men poised behind each of the spotlights, like a gunner at a mini-gun, switched the lights on; they had been rigged-up to flash like strobes. It was blinding, disorienting; the parking lot turned into a washed-out, almost black-and-white field of surreal animation. The zombies, in that light, moved like they were printed in the pages of a flip-book or torn from old newsreel footage. They moved choppily, jostling each other, staggering about like drunken dancers in a night club. But something was happening to them. They weren’t a coordinated swarm anymore. Before, they had moved, had attacked, almost like one organism; but they were losing their cohesion as a group and staggering about under the blinding, pounding flash of the light. It was overwhelming their crude senses. Like epileptics, it seemed it was throwing them into something close to a seizure. They couldn’t focus, couldn’t pick their targets, couldn’t see where they were going.

The black van parked. The rear doors clanged loudly as they were thrown open, and men in riot-gear and gas-masks leapt out into the parking lot. Eliot hastily counted six; moving in tandem, synchronized, acting as a team. The two men on point at the head of the column of six carried long sticks in their hands — dog-catching poles with snares on the end, dangling down like nooses. They closed in on the ambling, drunken zombies at the edge of the group, and snared two of them around the throats. Levering them to the ground, they pinned them against the asphalt with the poles. From behind, the next pair of men in riot-gear stepped out, brandishing their own long poles — with chainsaws mounted on the end. Limb-saws used by tree-workers to cut high branches from the ground. Standing well back from the snared zombies pinned to the ground, the men with the pole-saws made businesslike work of them, hacking the heads off while they thrashed and kicked. The dogcatchers were free to move on to two other stragglers on the periphery of the group; they snared them and pinned them to the ground — while the tree workers moved into position to finish them off. It was astonishingly brutal, cold and efficient; Eliot watched with her heart in her throat, unable to speak or breathe. The people in black riot gear moved on the zombies like it was a job. They weren’t fighting them: they were slaughtering them.

The last pair of men from the column of six, penetrating into the zombie horde like a Roman phalanx, fanned out and raised guns to their shoulders. They teamed up with the dogcatchers; as the two with the catch poles wrested zombies to the ground, the two with the guns began blasting their heads off, coolly and efficiently, one after the other, never missing what amounted to stationary targets on the ground at their feet, like they were walking through a pumpkin patch shooting all the gourds. The numbers of zombies dwindled, fast; and the pair with the pole saws pressed ahead, swinging the saws in wide arcs through the undead, low, cutting through thighs and hamstrings, dropping them to the ground in wide swaths.

Seen from above, from Eliot’s vantage point atop the bus, she thought they looked like men with scythes harvesting wheat. Moving through the group, they swung their saws side to side, mowing down the stalks of the undead, clearing rows, leaving the struggling bodies behind to be finished off by the men with the snares and guns.

The strobe lights switched off. The surreal, washed out animation ended; Eliot and Bailey were looking at real, flesh-and-blood human beings, decked out head to toe in black tactical riot armor, gas-masks covering their faces, behind a polymer visor, providing an additional layer of protection. None of them seemed to have sustained the slightest injury in the fray — Eliot doubted any of the zombies had even landed a bite on those operatives’s armor, given how quickly and smoothly they moved through the herd; containing, controlling and destroying every creature. Two or three zombies still staggered through the parking lot, regaining their senses now that the pounding light was off of them; but the operatives handled them almost casually. The men with the shotguns lowered their weapons, and watched calmly as their companions ensnared and dispatched the zombies with their catch poles and saws.

More people climbed out of the van and SUVs. Watching them walk towards the operatives in the riot gear, Eliot counted four people who looked like hospital nurses, dressed in scrubs, wearing white latex gloves. The nurses started carefully removing the operatives’ blood splattered riot gear, dropping each item into heavy duty trash bags as they went. Tying the bags shut and carrying them to the SUVs to stow them in the back, the nurses next pulled aerosol cans of some kind of chemical cleaner out of the vehicles and started spraying down the blood-soaked saws and snares. Apparently still not satisfied they were clean enough, they carefully wrapped plastic bags over the business-end of each item and stowed them in the SUVs as well. Finally, they removed their latex gloves like surgeons, pulling them from the edge towards their wrists and fully reversing them as they pulled them off, so they never needed to touch the outside surface with their bare skin. All of them throwing the gloves into one plastic baggie and sealing it, a nurse carried the baggie away and tossed it into the ditch.

“What are your names…?” One of the operatives who had worked through the swarm of zombies finally addressed Eliot and Bailey, walking towards the bus and looking up at them. He was a tall, broad shouldered man with graying hair, a clean shaven face, and blue-green eyes.

“Corporal Jacqueline Eliot, sir,” Eliot said. Even if she hadn’t witnessed what he and his team just did, the man had an aura that would have made anyone call him “sir.”

“Don Bailey, sir,” Bailey said. “Was that your drone?”

“It was,” the man said, almost smiling. “That’s how we found you. Though I wish you had stayed put and let us pick you up where you were.” The little half-smile died from his face. If it was their drone, they had seen three people. And he could see that there were now only two on top of that bus. “My name is Doctor Joshua Dominus,” the man said. “I’m from Sacramento.”

Josh Dominus, flanked by two of his men, came closer and stood below the bus. They reached up to steady Eliot as she began climbing down.

“I’m sorry about your friend,” Dominus said, when the soldiers were back on solid ground, surrounded by the sprawling remains of slaughtered zombies. Somewhere in that festering heap of blasted husks, Amy’s mangled body was buried. But it wasn’t visible, and Eliot didn’t have the heart to look for it.

“If you had only been here ten minutes earlier…” Eliot murmured. Shaking herself, she pushed the thought out of her mind. She asked the obvious question that was foremost in both the soldiers’ minds: “Who are you people?”

Dominus cleared his throat. “We’re a rescue team,” he said. “And you’re lucky we happened to cross you on our way back into Sacramento, because this is our last tour before we close the city off. My squadron has been out of the capital for three days searching for survivors in surrounding counties.”

Eliot nodded, eyes wide in amazement. Rescuers from the capital? Was there still some segment of the local government keeping it together and carrying out operations, ignoring the fact that the Fed had dissolved?

“Sacramento is still…civilized?” Bailey asked, not sure how else to put it. Dominus chuckled, not unkindly. He knew exactly what Bailey meant.

“We’re the last ones who are, as far as we can tell,” the doctor said. “That’s why we’ve been conducting these comprehensive search and rescue operations. To get as many people as we possibly can back to the city. Sac has been transmitting a radio message 24/7 calling for scattered survivors all over California or beyond to make their way to us, but there is no way to reliably communicate with everyone who’s lost out here. Most people don’t have radios. And it’s not like we can buy primetime TV spots. So operatives like us, using forward-looking infrared radar and drone surveillance, have been canvassing the central valley for weeks picking people up and hustling them back to Sacramento.”

The doctor fell silent, leveling a steady gaze on Eliot, scrutinizing her for several seconds, before turning towards Bailey and looking him over the same way. Neither of the soldiers spoke; there could be little doubt that the physician was examining them visually for indications that they were sick or had been bitten or scratched by the undead. It made Eliot anxious to be vetted like that, but she knew the doctor would have been an idiot not to do it.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “I need you to take all your clothes off.”

Eliot and Bailey exchanged glances. “We haven’t been bitten, if that’s what you want to check—” Bailey started, but the doctor cut him off.

“No, no, I’m not worried that you were,” he said. “I can tell you’re both healthy. But there is blood all over your clothes. You’re biohazards like that.” The soldiers looked down at themselves. They hadn’t realized until then just how much blood splatter had blown back onto them as they gunned down the waves of the undead, scrambling up the side of the bus.

Dominus led them to a bare spot of pavement, beyond the blood-soaked killing field. He stepped back, looking away and giving them space to disrobe. Eliot shot Bailey another glance; he unzipped his tactical vest. Shrugging the heavy black vest off, he let it drop to the ground. Pulling his tee shirt over his head, he revealed a long, thick torso, muscles stretching and rippling like a leopard. Eliot turned away as he started to unbuckle his belt, shook her head, and pulled off her own shirt. She dropped her pants and stepped out of them, took a breath to steady herself, and slipped off her bra and panties. Turning back towards Bailey, she saw him standing naked, feet wide apart, arms akimbo.

“Might as well own it, right?” he said, with a smirk on his face. Eliot laughed loudly, shrugged and nodded.

“You know what?” she said, “Having the sun and breeze on my bare chest like this feels wonderful. I hate that you men have always been allowed to feel this whenever you want, and I haven’t.” Bailey grinned. Dominus didn’t comment, and beckoned some of his personnel in scrubs and fresh surgical gloves to come over.

Two nurses working on each soldier, they scrubbed them down with rough sponges, sparingly pouring bottled water over their heads and shoulders to rinse flecks of blood and grime away. Toweling them off when they were done, the nurses led the way towards the waiting vehicles, which had been moved in the meantime and parked much farther away from the slaughtered zombies — eliminating the risk of anyone stepping in splattered blood as they all climbed back in.

Eliot and Bailey were directed to climb into the back of one of the SUVs. The hulking vehicle had seat belts for seven. With nurses in the middle row ahead of them, Dominus behind the wheel and one of his other operatives in the passenger seat, the nude pair had the back row to themselves.

“It’s about an hour drive into Sacramento,” Dominus called back to them. “Get comfortable. Don’t catch a chill.”

The days that followed, brought into the fold of Sacramento, were the first real rest the soldiers had known since before the commanding officer of their base in Colorado shot himself — ringing in the end of all hope and the dissolution of the country they had sworn oaths to serve.

Things weren’t normal, inside Sac; there was nowhere left in the world that was normal. But it was civilized. Unlike the outside, it wasn’t every man for himself in Sacramento. There was government — more technocratic than democratic at that point, because the technical experts they were blessed to have there, peppered in among the droves of wandering humanity that steadily collected in the last oasis of civilization, were naturally suited to plan for the survival of the rest. The doom that came to the entire world was a great equalizer. The apocalypse left everyone — royalty, ministers, celebrities — without power or status. When civilization crumbled, humans became feral. When civilization crumbled, humans became animals.

In the aftermath, people were only as important as what they knew how to do. The thinkers, the organizers, the experts and the tacticians were the people who had managed — by the time Eliot and Bailey got there — to rein in Sacramento before it fell apart, plunging into chaos like every other city. They didn’t just keep the old government alive, they built a new one — cobbled together from experience and from new ideas, like a safety net into which the hard-bitten, disenfranchised wanderers could fall. In Sacramento, people were given access to food and safe water; they were given access to doctors and functional medical facilities — for most, the first treatment they’d received after months of scrounging through the rubble with injuries hastily field dressed or broken bones unset. Brought into Sacramento, diabetics had access to insulin, heart patients could get beta-blockers, and all sorts of other sufferers had renewed access to essential medications which had been cut off with the collapse of their own towns, cities, states and nation.

So Sacramento was a safety net, and they began frantically ushering in every lost, isolated, hopeless, shivering orphan of California. Like Eliot and Bailey, untold numbers of people had been rescued by search teams and carried back to the city. Thousands and thousands of others had traveled to the city themselves, drawn in by Sacramento’s constant radio broadcasts, or simply by rumors of a utopian place where survival was a real possibility, not just an idiotic hope that tortured the hopeful.

But it wasn’t pure altruism that drove Sacramento. Or at least, not pure altruism for the current generation. It was a vision — on the part of the architects who spun order out of nothing — a vision for another generation to come after; and another, and another. A new world, growing out of the ashes of the old world. They wanted to rebuild. But before they could rebuild and resettle the desolate wastes of the North American continent, there was a hard battle to fight. The horde was advancing West. The horde of the undead that had crashed through Eliot’s and Bailey’s army base in Colorado, hundreds of millions strong, growing steadily as it lumbered across the nation, consuming cities and towns and filling its ranks with its victims.

In order to survive, Sacramento needed to stop the horde. There was nowhere left to run — no westward retreat available. Beyond them, there was irradiated, deserted San Francisco and the other nuclear coastal cites, and then there was water. There was nowhere else to go, for them. Sacramento was all that was left. It was there that humanity would make its last stand.

Eliot and Bailey had been collected, like a million others, not just to be saved, but to be put in the defensive lines that would guard the last of humanity from utter annihilation when the horde finally reached Sacramento.

At first, it was odd for Eliot to be dropped into a new military — one patched together from former soldiers, Marines, police officers, and various paramilitary or security personnel whose jobs in the old world had given them the requisite skills and abilities to serve Sacramento in their new capacity. It was strange for her to have her old rank scrapped, and be rigorously evaluated on her knowledge and experience, given a new rank solely based on merit and what she was able to do. But she got used to it quickly. Very quickly — because she was deemed by her new superiors to be a top-notch soldier and made a captain, in charge of her own company. Bailey, meanwhile, was made platoon sergeant, and given command of an infantry regiment assigned to police the streets of the city.

Eliot’s company served a very specific purpose — patrolling and guarding a facility that had once been a health club, which had been repurposed into a weapons development center…

With a surgical mask wrapped around the lower half of her face, Eliot had looked over a row of Olympic-sized swimming pools full of rank, dark yellow liquid. Technicians in Tyvek coveralls had moved around the huge room, some moving in, dumping more amber-colored liquid into the pools from large tanks, others carting huge tubs of the stuff away on wheeled dollies, bringing it out of the room to process in another part of the facility…

The liquid had been human urine; thousands of gallons of it had been collected from people all over the city for weeks, filling the two pools in front of Eliot, and many others in other facilities throughout Sacramento. Eliot had been baffled by the sight, at first, but when it was explained to her by the chief scientist on staff in her facility what the supply was being used for, she was amazed by the cunning of the architects of the city, and the plan they were orchestrating to combat the horde. The urine, she was told, was being processed into a potent weapon — used to create thousands and thousands of pounds of white phosphorus. The phosphorus would be packed into the vacuum-sealed bays of cargo planes. When the planes were flown above the horde, the white phosphorus would be dropped in massive clouds, drifting down across miles of staggering undead. Once it was released from the vacuum-sealed cargo bay and exposed to the air, the unstable white phosphorus would ignite, and flaming clouds would envelope thousands of zombies, burning though skin, muscle, and bone; it would burn until there was nothing left, incinerating the undead and leaving only rolling snowdrifts of ashes. The people in Sacramento were isolated and alone; they didn’t have the endless stock of bombs and fighters it would take to break the incoming horde — but they had chemists, ingenuity and the will to fight until they were all dead. Everyone in the city hoped and prayed it would carry them through. And with constant drone surveillance to the East of the city, they watched the horde advance. They knew when it would hit them. On the last night before it came, the whole of Sacramento was a bustling murmur of prayers, in every house in the west, praying for their lives until their knees ached with stiff cold. Innumerable prayers inexorably rising, till the dark vault of midnight was so thronged and packed the wild geese could not arrow through the storm of terrible, ascendant prayers…

Banks of loudspeakers crackled at dawn, calling the defenders to rise and move towards the fields to the east of the city. Eliot, and other captains and leaders spread across a hundred circling camps, barked orders and organized fighters, marching them in columns and maneuvering them into the elastic lines that spread and snaked across the dewy grass for miles. For hours and hours the commanders commanded wide-eyed people into position, standing the ground that they would die to defend. Like the game-masters were arranging blocks across a map, the marching columns were moved and shifted by their leaders until the defensive line standing guard over the last human stronghold was 200 miles long and 90 miles deep, composed of nearly 3,000,000 terrified, resolute, courageous, craven, wounded, unbreakable human beings. Only a fraction of that number were professional soldiers — the bulk of the defenders were men and women of able body from the San Diego, Los Angeles, and all the other former bustling metropolises of California. Another sizable fraction was made up of refugees from the rest of the nation; people who had fled westward from all across America like seeds on the wind until they landed in Sacramento. Wherever the defenders had come from, they now stood their ground as one unified front against the approaching undead. A new Continental Army, lean, scrappy and enraged, with its back against the wall.

Just after eleven a.m., Eliot, standing stood on the top of a hill surveying the terrain with a pair of binoculars. She looked clear over the mass army of Sacramento, towards the undulating ridges and valleys to the east, waiting for the first glimpse of the horde as it came into sight. But a low, growing thrumming sound caught her attention and made her lower her binoculars, looking into the sky with naked eyes. The dull thrumming, like the beating wings of a swarm of bees, became a loud shriek as a fleet of planes passed over her, throwing huge shadows down across her and the other soldiers. They were coming from Sacramento, heading east — Eliot knew they were barreling towards the horde, which was then probably within a few miles of her position, just out of sight beyond the horizon. The planes moved off until they were small shapes in the distance, and she saw their cargo bays open. Huge, fluffy clouds spread out underneath them like drapes being unfurled, billowing in the wind and trailing whitely behind. Then those drapes bloomed silently, spreading out and descending like nets of shining fire. The phosphorus was being dropped. She knew, just beyond the horizon, the horde was closing in. The flaming nets were lowering onto them — but it would never be enough. They would burn in droves before they ever reached the defensive lines, but even if millions were destroyed there, millions more would trundle over their ashes and advance. The battle was coming.

Eliot picked her way down from the hill and walked back towards her waiting company. A few were sitting on rocks or their backpacks, busily cleaning their rifles or zeroing in their scopes to keep themselves busy while they waited — two of them were nervously smoking cigarettes to settle their nerves, but as Eliot approached they all snapped to attention, staring at her expectantly. They had heard the planes pass over. They had watched the distant glimmer as the curtains of fire descended. They knew the horde was about to break the horizon.

“I wouldn’t blame any of you if you’re thinking about running,” Eliot said after a pause, staring at the tight, pained faces of her company. “And I’m not going to lie to you: we’re probably going to die here.” Her voice sounded weaker than she liked, and she cleared her throat. “But someone is going to live,” she said. “That’s why we’re fighting today. So someone will live.”

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