Halfway between the north pole and the equator
Jasper had only been in bed for an hour when Naomi shook him awake. Breakfast was first, then Robert wanted to address the group. Apparently, Jasper, Naomi, and Mona were the third group to get to eat. The food was identical to supper, but there was a lot of it and no rationing. After they had finished Robert cleared his throat and started speaking. His voice carried through the room, even though he was barely talking above a whisper.
“Okay, we’ve taken as much as we can from Upper Musquodoboit. The place is pretty overrun and we can’t risk moving in. It’s time to get going. I know travel is a bitch these days, but it’s time to pack up and hit the road. Work details are posted on the main board at the back of this tent. Eat up, then get to work.”
He walked out, not pausing to see the reaction to his announcement. A bunch of the men groaned, but Jasper was happy, every delay made him panic a little bit inside. His main concern with joining Robert’s band was that it would slow him down too much. If it kept him alive though, arriving was better than not.
The teardown of the camp was quick and efficient. By ten in the morning, they were ready to get on the road. Jasper was assigned to tearing down the mess hall with Naomi, while Mona was excused for the day. Nobody seemed to begrudge her. Most people didn’t realize that she had looked that thin before the zombies appeared and assumed it was evidence she was frail and failing.
Life with the group was vastly different from the nomadic life that the trio had suffered prior to meeting the group. Everything was structured. Breaks came at regular intervals, with watches set. As Naomi was working with Jasper she got to chatting with one of the other women in the camp. “You look familiar, where have I seen you before?” the woman said.
“You ever eat at the Caribbean place in the north end?”
“Yeah, that’s it. You worked behind the counter right?”
“Yep. That me. Didn’t think anything would make me miss the work, but yeah... I’d go back in a minute.”
“You do any of the cooking there or just serve?”
“Auntie was teaching me to make it all. I always helped.”
“We have to get you in the kitchen, maybe you can make some of this slop taste like actual food.”
The woman dragged Naomi away to talk to the cook, leaving Jasper with most of the manual labour.
The next day Jasper got assigned scouting duty. He took Snow with him, both of them eager to be useful, and in Jasper’s case especially to be moving the group ahead faster. They took off each morning, running quietly. Jasper could run far more than five kilometres these days. Any fat he had had on his body had melted away on the journey, and his stride, developed over months of running, was longer, surer. His skin was dark from weeks spent in the open. He looked like a pre-apocalypse homeless man, hair dirty and tousled, clothing ragged, layered. They bathed as often as they could, but even in the camp, it wasn’t often. Despite the amount of water in the area they had to carry what they used.
Snow would range ahead and to each side, sniffing the air for signs of zombies. If he found them he would come back to Jasper, silently letting his master know something dangerous was ahead. The two of them were the most effective scouting party in the group, the dog’s sense of smell put them ahead of any of the exclusively human groups.
At night Jasper would come back to camp, hang out with Mona and Naomi if they were available. Mona was given nothing but light duty, so she was always available. Naomi was in the mess tent most of the time, and the food was better. She always hung out with Jasper and Mona after shift though.
“Why don’t you ever hang with the soldiers?”
“They grab my ass too much. These boys got no manners. You look at my tits, I notice it, but I don’t mind. You never grab me or nothing. I like you.”
“Alright, duly noted. I’ll be more careful with my gaze in the future.” Jasper was thrown by Naomi’s very frank manner.
“Nah, it’s all good. Not like I don’t look at pretty boys. You feel free to look.”
Things were easier. Robert kept paying special attention to the three of them. He made excuses to visit their tent every evening, made sure his meals corresponded with theirs. Then one night Mona spent the night in the command tent and the reason clear. From that point on Robert and Mona were together.
Jasper felt his frustration with the pace mounting. They were moving as fast as possible, but a group that size with gear and no vehicles doesn’t move fast. He needed to stay alive to reach Charlottetown, and his odds were much better if he was with the group, so he managed to put it aside, day after slowly moving day.
Jasper was heading back from scouting duty and found the camp, except the active duty watches, clustered around the wooden platform. Robert was standing in the centre of the platform, another piece of wood was slotted into a groove, forming a pillar. One of the men was handcuffed to the pillar, naked to the waist.
“This man slept on watch, endangering all of us,” Robert said, “I will not tolerate chaos and disorder in this camp. You have jobs to do, and when one of you doesn’t do it we are all at risk. Imagine if his negligence had caused a breach, imagine if you, or your wife, or your child, had been killed because of him.”
He took out a heavy leather whip and laid into the man. The whole thing was done in silence. The soldier had a gag in his mouth, preventing him from screaming or crying out. His body jerked with every stroke. He tried to scream around the gag, but it rendered him mute. After a half dozen precise strokes Robert stopped.
Jasper was sickened. He understood the purpose, he just didn’t think it was effective. If it kept this sort of incident from occurring maybe it was justified, but Jasper was pretty sure it didn’t - the man fell asleep because he was run to the edge of his endurance, not because he was lazy or shiftless. Jasper had seen this sort of thing from Robert when they were on course together. Robert was a bully. He was larger than most people and used his size to intimidate. It was often subtle, standing too close to someone, invading their space. On the course, he had lost his temper once, and only once, but it had been with a smaller woman who was having a hard time starting a fire. He screamed at her until she broke down in tears, then he walked away. Everyone had attributed it to the stress at the time, however, Jasper was seeing a pattern emerge.
They started to run low on supplies after a few weeks, right when they were reaching Middle Stewiacke, a small town with a few restaurants and a co-op grocery store. The plan was simple. Move in under cover of darkness in small teams, most of them assigned to draw the zombies, two other teams to raid the grocery store. Jasper and Snow pulled decoy duty. Naomi and Mona were sitting this one out. Robert deemed Naomi’s other duties too important to risk her, and Mona was never required to work anymore.
The walk into town was tense. They were part of a team of five, Snow made six, but only Jasper counted him. The rest of the team was mixed. There were two women, Candice and Sasha, and two men, Matt and Jordan. Sasha was an older woman with grey hair and a permanent scowl. Candice was young and fit. Jasper pegged her as white trash. Matt was a young private, and Jordan might have been Matt’s twin. The six of them moved into town, splitting from the other groups right away. They wandered for a few minutes, making noise, yelling, hitting things. They started to attract a lot of attention, groups of zombies forming up behind them.
After about fifteen minutes the primary groups sent off two flares, the signal that they had reached their target. Jasper and company took a prearranged route out of town. The way had been prepped in advance, they studied all the possible routes to their destination.
They started moving faster. So far they’d been keeping pace with the zombies, making sure to stay close, to get as many following as possible. Now they needed to be a bit ahead of them, to give themselves a tiny bit of breathing room, while not losing the horde.
Ahead of them the mouth of the alleyway yawned, dark and foreboding. Even in the light of day, it was dark and hard to see, a narrow gap between low buildings. They ran for it, a couple of hundred zombies behind them. There was the ramp, as promised, leading up a short wall - only about eight feet. The group ran up the ramp, Jasper in the lead. The zombies followed, close behind. Matt kicked the ramp down as he went over. Snow wasn’t all the way up yet, front paws still inches from safety. He jumped as the board fell, barely clearing the wall. The rest of them climbed up a fire escape that almost touched the short wall. They dropped the iron stairs, giving Snow an opportunity to climb up. As soon as he was sure Snow was safe, Jasper punched Matt in the jaw. He knocked the soldier down with one shot, then lifted him up and held him over the edge of the fire escape. “You don’t risk his life. Got it? You don’t fucking risk his life.”
Matt was crying, bawling with fear. If Jasper dropped him he would fall into the horde below, and from the look on his face, he knew it “please, please, I’m sorry. Please, let me up.”
Jasper didn’t care about Matt’s tears. Snow was visibly limping, he’d hurt his leg in the leap. Jasper was pretty sure it wasn’t broken, but not one hundred percent. He was seeing red, wanting to drop the soldier into waiting horde. Jordan and Candice were trying to pull Matt back up, grabbing the fabric of his pants, keeping him steady. Sasha, on the other hand, didn’t seem to care. She pulled a crumpled pack of cigarettes from her jacket and lit one, taking a long drag. Finally, Jasper pulled Matt up and let him drop to the landing. He kneed the soldier in the face. Matt dropped prone, nose broken.
“Alright, time to get to it. We have a schedule to keep.”
He started up the fire escape. It was a set of steel stairs. This time he made sure Snow was right behind him. Matt was moving slowly behind the group, hanging back. He was silent. They made it up to the roof and dropped the gate on the other side of the alley. They had several hundred zombies trapped in the narrow space.
They headed out. Matt trailing slowly. There were still a few zombies on the street, only small numbers, easily dealt with. Snow was still favouring his right front leg. Once they got out of town Matt called out. “Jasper, wait.”
Jasper stopped to wait. He knew he could take Matt, especially now that the man was injured.
“Look, I’m sorry. I didn’t think,” Matt said, “I was panicked. I understand why you went after me. You were right. My nose fucking hurts, but I earned it.”
“Alright. Apology accepted.”
“Yeah. We’re good. Don’t let it happen again.”
They caught up to the group, Matt moving at full speed now.
“Look, guys, let me deal with the nose thing. It was my fuckup, I don’t want Robert knowing the details. Just let me take my lumps. Anyone asks, I fell jumping to the fire escape, banged my face. It’s a dangerous job right?” he said with a pained wink.
Jasper was surprised. He found he had gained respect for the soldier, his willingness to accept fault, his understanding of what Jasper had done. They headed back to camp.
The run was a success. They did lose two but managed to get enough food for several weeks. Robert was in a dark mood, however, as a result of the death of the two men.