“They’d better still be there!” Ronan said again. It was a mantra he’d been repeating since they left Bex. They were heading back to where they had left his motorcycle and Mathias’ Forrell’s police car when they were forced to flee in a hurry several days earlier.
They’d been part of a strike force that their nomad convoy had sent to destroy a patch of spore-balls that had been spewing poisonous spores into the atmosphere. They had found the fungi, and managed to destroy it, but the spore-balls hadn’t been the only things from the Other-Verse out there that night. The gunfire had drawn a hunting pack of Fangoats. Giant, carnivorous monsters with a taste for flesh. The strike team barely escaped by running pell-mell down the hillside and back to their vehicles with the things in pursuit. With no margin for error they had all leapt into the open topped jeep with its engine running and roared off into the night. Racing after the rest of the caravan which had already taken the spore-infected to Bex, and the closest known hospital that might have anti-fungal medications. In their haste to get away they had been forced to leave the bike and the police car behind and to use the only vehicle they could get into without having to stop to open doors or start engines. Ronan had cursed his lack of foresight in having turned the motorcycle engine off, a decision that forced him to leave it behind in their hurried escape.
It had taken some effort to convince Knut, the nomads informal leader, to agree to the mission to recover the two vehicles. With the caravan temporarily holding up at the deserted hospital in the equally desolate ghost town of Bex, and with the position fortified, Ronan and Mathias Farrell, the former police officer, had finally convinced Knut that it was worth the risk of going back to salvage the vehicles. The police car still held a substantial amount of ammunition, mostly shotgun shells and 9mm rounds. With the ammunition the nomads had been forced to expend clearing the alien ‘Chiterlings’ – deadly insectoid predators, out of the hospital basement, the lure of recovering some was strong indeed. Added to that, Ember, the groups mechanic, threw her weight behind Ronan and Mathias’s cause, pointing out that there were tools on the vehicles as well, and that she could also see if there was anything else worth salvaging from the burned out UNCAIF convoy they’d passed on the way into Bex. The convoy was about half way between the hospital and where they had been forced to ditch the two vehicles. They had scavenged one or two things the first time, but they had been in quite a hurry and it had been dark. It was a safe bet, she’d argued, that they had overlooked one or two useful items. Not least the diesel they might be able to syphon out of what was left of the APCs and MRAPs in the column.
Sure enough, on the way here they’d been able to fill all the fuel cans they had hastily packed into the back of Ember’s small wagon, and they had been able to top up the wagons own fuel reserve.
Now the three of them, and Esther, the enigmatic Israeli woman who had insisted on coming with them, were bearing down on where they had left the vehicles.
“They’d better still be there!” Ronan repeated, his left leg bouncing up and down with nervous tension.
“We heard this the first time!” Esther tutted as she shot him an irritated look.
“Oh, I’m sorry, is my anxiety annoying you?” the big Irishman snapped back.
“Yes.” Esther answered in a matter-of-fact tone that took the wind out of Ronan’s sails.
“Fine, I’ll shut up then,” he huffed.
“Good.” Esther nodded, oblivious, as far as anyone else could tell, to the Irishman’s tone.
Ember shook her head,
“So much unresolved sexual tension,” she grinned as both Esther and Ronan looked horrified at the suggestion. The idea was ludicrous but it had done what Ember hoped and lightened the atmosphere. The cab of the wagon was cramped with the four of them crammed into a space designed for three. Although the journey hadn’t been a long one, the conditions and the lack of sleep they had all had to contend with had everyone a little more on edge than usual.
“I think we have a problem!” Mathias Forrell’s voice interjected. He was pointing up the road to where the police car and Ronan’s motorcycle had just come into view by the side of the road. Only now, there were two more cars there as well, a little further back and formed into an inverted V formation. Three armed silhouettes were cautiously sweeping the area.
Ember pulled the truck over to the side of the road and let Esther, Mathias and Ronan out.
“Stay here, keep the engine running - we aren’t making that mistake again,” Ronan said to Ember as he hopped down from the cab.
“I’ll take the tree line, cover you from there and make sure they don’t have anyone on our flank,” Esther pointed at the woodlands to the right of the road.
“Be careful!” Mathias warned "this is near where we left those things if they are still here...”
“then it would be best if someone was able to see them coming before they got right up to the road, yes?” Esther cut off his objection and, drawing her pistol, slipped silently into the undergrowth. In a moment, she was gone, blending seamlessly into the surrounding forest.
“Don’t worry” Ronan advised Mathias, “If there is anything in there with any sense it should be a damn side more frightened of her than she is of it.”
Mathis seemed about to say something else, but Ronan headed him off, “Shall we?” he pointed up the road towards the parked vehicles and the strangers with his shotgun. Reluctantly, Mathias nodded, raising his shotgun to the ready position and making his way up the road.
The two men were careful to keep a distance of some two to three metres from one another as they approached. There was no point in presenting whoever was sniffing around the vehicles with an easy target.
Up ahead, whoever had discovered their vehicles spotted them, and swung their weapons around to point directly at them. A voice rang out in Swiss-accented German,
“We have you covered, stay where you are and drop your weapons!”
“Uh hu,” Ronan muttered, “What now, boss?” he asked Mathias.
Esther crept cautiously, each footfall touching the ground carefully, to snap no twig, make no sound, and give no one the faintest hint she was there. Her nerves were aflame with every step, her ears straining for the faintest of sounds – or absence thereof. She was aware there were no birds singing in the trees, nor any other animal sounds. The unnatural stillness made her nervous, but it might be the mere presence of humans in the tree line that was frightening them off.
She doubted it though. Her heart hammered as she remembered the huge predators that had run them out of this area the last time. She had a dreadful feeling they were still here, somewhere. Probably stalking through the same treeline she was. All of a sudden this seemed like a terrible idea, and she regretted her choice. For a moment she considered returning to the road and trying to watch the trees from there. What had she been thinking? Coming into the forest, arrogantly assuming she was a match for those things?
Then she heard the shouting.
A male voice, calling out in German. Heavily accented. Not Mathias then, nor Ronan who didn’t speak more than about a dozen words of German, to begin with, and when he tried those, his Irish accent made it almost impossible to understand, anyway.
Silently she cursed, she was rather committed now. She would try to get a bit closer to the road, make it round on the flanks of the strangers if she could, to provide cover if it turned sour. That’s when she heard a twig snap.
She froze, and scanned the area, spotting a man in a tattered Parker and armed with a hunting rifle about half a dozen metres from her. He seemed to be trying to do much the same thing she was, only the people he was trying to outflank where her companions. Dropping to one knee she took aim at the centre of the man’s chest with her pistol. It was several seconds before he spotted her, fumbling he tried to raise his rifle.
“Don’t!” she called in German, just loud enough for him to hear. He froze.
“You might find this hard to believe, but I think I know that voice,” Mathias whisper back to Ronan. Raising his voice to be heard by the man that had challenged them he yelled back in German,
“Felix? Felix Leutzinger, is that you?”
There was silence for a long moment which seemed to hang heavily in the air, artificially drawn out by the tension of the situation.
“Who is that?” The male voice called back in Swiss-accented German. Before Mathias could answer a second voice, a woman this time, called out,
“Oh, you have got to be kidding me!” Ronan sputtered as the absurdity of the situation struck him, “You know these people? In all the world, with what? Two-thirds of the population dead you run into old buddies out of the blue? Seriously, if this was a novel only a two Euro hack would write this shit?” He hadn’t understood most of the conversation, but he could recognise names being yelled backwards and forwards when he heard them.
“Sophia Reitnauer!” Mathias’s face lit up, “You as well?”
“I hate to break up the happy reunion people, but I don’t speak German and I’m feeling really fucking exposed out here!” Ronan called in English.
“Sorry! We will speak English, yes?” The first voice called out, “We will lower our weapons, you do the same and we...” he was cut short by the sound of gunfire and screaming from the woods.