The approaching infected were maybe a thousand yards in front of us, or a little more than half a mile. I wasn’t worried about the herd behind at the moment. The closest ones had to have been at least a couple of miles behind when the nuke detonated, most likely more. Unless there were some freakishly fast females that had somehow managed to track us, I didn’t think there was any way there could have been any infected make it far enough beyond the disabled helicopter to escape the blast. And with that hellish inferno in front of them, I wasn’t worried any longer about being tracked by the slower ones.
But I was worried about the approaching herd. I wanted a better look, wanted to stand up so I could see, but there was still a lot of light from the mushroom cloud behind me and I had no doubt there were females that would see me if I stood up and silhouetted myself like an idiot. I settled for getting up on my hands and knees, hoping my shape would blend into the surrounding terrain and I’d look like nothing more than a rock.
The herd was still coming directly at us, and it was larger than I had first thought. I was facing directly east, the herd stretched out like a snake in its direction of travel, which had been north, and there were infected across the entire horizon. I couldn’t see an end to the mass of bodies either to the north or south. The only good news was that there weren’t any females sprinting out ahead. Yet. That was no small amount of good fortune as a sprinting female could cover 500 yards in about a minute. Way faster than we could.
We couldn’t go back. Even as I kneeled there in indecision, the wind was pushing fallout from not just one, but two nuclear bombs in our direction. It wasn’t a strong breeze, but it would be no more than an hour before this entire area was irradiated. The only positive was the sheer number of infected that would receive a fatal dose of radiation, and that we probably weren’t going to die from radiation poisoning. The bad news – we were probably going to get ripped apart and eaten before the fallout arrived.
Two options were all I could come up with. Run north, or run south. Which direction would get us around the end of the herd faster? North would get us closer to the Marines that were coming to get us, so that’s the way I decided to go. Scrabbling around in the sand I gave the rest of my group a fifteen second dump of what we were doing and why. Nods and frightened expressions answered me.
Getting to my feet, I began running north. I ran in a crouch, bent at the waist, hopefully changing my profile enough that the infected’s brains wouldn’t identify me as a human. The others followed suit, bunching up tightly behind me. Irina had recovered somewhat while we’d been stopped and ran on her own. This was good, as I didn’t think Igor could have carried her very far like this.
We ran for what seemed like hours, but was probably closer to ten minutes. Running bent over with your knees flexed is not a natural position, and my legs and lower back had started burning before we had gone a couple of hundred yards. I was also trying to keep my head up to watch for danger to our front as well as constantly looking to my right to check on the approaching infected.
Another ten minutes and we had covered no more than a mile. Looking ahead I still couldn’t see an end to the herd and for a moment was pissed that I hadn’t been warned about this second threat. I’d been told there was one herd. Had they split apart at some point, or was this a completely different group that no one had seen? Dismissing my questions and anger until there was time to actually worry about anything other than survival, I started looking for a place to hide.
I had angled us towards the west, away from the infected, as we ran. My hope had been to buy time before they reached us, enough time to clear the front edge of the throng. But we weren’t going to make it. They were within 100 yards of us now, the length of a football field, and it was only dumb luck that had kept us from being spotted.
50 yards ahead I could see a shallow, dry wash cutting across the desert floor. The two or three times a year it rained, the wash would fill with a raging torrent of muddy water, but I knew it would be dry at the moment. Glancing behind I was glad to see everyone staying close. Irina was still running on her own, but Igor had moved next to her and had a firm grip on her upper arm as he helped her keep moving without standing up straight.
As we approached the wash I got a better look at it. It was only about five feet deep, the edges having been cut to a near vertical angle by rushing water. Maybe twenty feet wide, it wound across the terrain, following the lowest ground which was where the water drained. Would there be infected in the wash? Only one way to find out.
Putting on as much speed as I could, I dashed ahead, Dog at my side. I slowed enough when I reached the edge of the drop off to make sure I wasn’t about to jump onto anything that would end my night, then leapt when all was clear. My boots came down in deep, soft sand that had been deposited by eons of rain storms, Dog jumping down next to me and sinking in nearly to his belly.
As the rest of my group made the small drop into the wash I started looking for shelter. I’d been in a lot of these washes as a kid, using them to stalk the coyotes I liked to hunt. I remembered those days well, and knew that every time the wash made a sharp bend the water would carve out the wall on the outside curve. Most of the time there was rock that couldn’t be carved out, but occasionally there was a soft spot and a nice, deep cave would form.
Feeling the pressure of the approaching herd, I looked in both directions, seeing two sharp bends, but neither of them had the shelter I was looking for. Making a decision that was solely based on not wanting to move closer to the infected, I headed southwest in the wash. Dog was growling almost constantly now, and I realized he smelled the herd. Had the wind shifted, or were there infected ahead of us? At the moment all I had time to worry about was getting someplace where we could hide.
Movement in the wash was just as difficult as I remembered. With every step my boots sank several inches into the loose sand. With every change in body position the sand under my boots shifted. It was like trying to walk on the dry sand on a beach. Moving around a gentle curve we came to a sharp bend and there was what I was looking for. A deep undercut in the outside wall of the wash.
The opening was only about three feet tall, another two to three feet of hard packed sand and rock above it. Rushing to the opening I peered inside, thankful for the NVGs. These undercuts make great dens for wild animals, and nothing would have surprised me. Rattle snake. Coyote. Bobcat. Javelina. Mercifully, there weren’t any occupants. Just a smooth, sandy floor stretching to the back of the small space where the ceiling tapered down to meet the ground.
Moving out of the way I waved the group inside. Rachel was the first one in and I told Dog to go with her. He stood his ground staring at me, not wanting to hide when he knew there was a fight coming. I gave him a quick hug, then shoved him through the opening just ahead of Martinez and her co-pilot. I really needed to learn his name. Next came Irina, panting with sweat dripping from her face. Once she was in it was obvious there wasn’t room for both Igor and me. Not hesitating I motioned him inside.
He shook his big head, but we were running out of time. I shook mine and pointed into the cave emphatically, eyes locked on his. After a moment he nodded and dropped to his knees and scrambled inside. It took him a moment to get all the way in and twist around to face the opening with his rifle across his knees. I kicked sand up in front of the entrance, then ripped a creosote bush out of the ground and stuck it in the loose earth. The entrance was completely concealed.
Taking another few seconds I raked the ground at the cave mouth with my foot, erasing the tracks leading inside. No, I didn’t think the infected could follow tracks, but there was no reason to chance it. Basic camouflage completed, I moved to the center of the wash and used my rifle’s stock to begin digging. The sand was deep and soft and it moved easily. That was good, because I could hear the approaching herd.
The scrape of feet on the desert floor. The low, guttural snarls from the males. The frequent sound of a body falling as a male tripped on something. I happened to glance up and 20 yards away a pair of males bumped their way around the closest bend in the wash. While I was looking up, three more fell over the edge, landing with dull thuds on the sand. Within moments they were getting back to their feet and resuming their march in my direction.
The hole wasn’t even three feet deep, but I was out of time. I had scraped it out in the shape of a shallow grave and threw myself into it, hoping I wasn’t tempting fate. Wiggling around I got on my back and pulled as much sand over my body as I could before having to go absolutely still and silent. I lay on my back, rifle on the front of my body. The Kukri was in my left hand and Ka-Bar fighting knife in my right.
The males approached, dragging their feet through the loose sand, constantly stumbling in the difficult footing. I watched the first one approach, dragging his shoulder on the far wall as he moved. It seemed to take forever, but he passed me without pausing. The second one followed in his footsteps. Number three was also using the wall as a guide, but was on the same side as the cave. I was watching him approach when the sound of a pair of feet landing in the wash drew my attention.
A female had jumped down from the edge and was stalking along with her head lifted and slightly tilted to the side. From ten yards away I could here her sniffing the air, and she was moving directly for the cave. The male had continued, rubbing the sandy wall as he moved. When he reached the cave he tripped over the bush I had stuck into the ground, falling face first to the ground right next to me. I gripped my weapons tighter and held my breath.
It seemed to take him forever, but he finally pushed off the ground and slowly clambered back to his feet. He started moving away from me and I silently exhaled, then drew and held another breath as the female approached. She was moving stealthily, her actions and body language reminding me of a cat stalking its prey.
The male kept moving, and I shifted my eyes to check for the other two I’d seen fall into the wash. They had stopped a short distance from me and stood in the dark, swaying back and forth. Something had to have alerted them and I suspected they were listening and smelling for any prey in the immediate area. The female kept moving closer, finally coming to a stop directly between the mouth of the cave and me. I could see her looking around and hear her sampling the air. She knew we were close.
Suddenly she snapped her head to the side and looked directly at the bush hiding my group. I had heard nothing, but perhaps someone had made the faintest of sounds that had alerted her to their presence. She turned to fully face the wall of the wash, back to me, and reached out to touch the bush. As her fingers started to wrap around a branch I moved.
One of the things that I’d been taught most of my life, first in football, then later in the Army, is that when it’s time to go, you GO. Fast. Hard. Explosive. And that’s what I did, coming out of the hole and shedding sand like some kind of subterranean monster. At least that’s what I was going for. Truthfully, I was probably a tad bit slower than I used to be, but I was still fast.
As I came up I released the Kukri, leaving it lying on the sand and reached out with my free hand. Grabbing a fistful of the female’s hair I pulled with all my strength. Her head wrenched back as she started to fall backwards onto me. Before she could scream I stabbed into the side of her throat with the Ka-Bar, slashing out and severing her trachea and both carotids.
Letting the momentum take us, I fell back into the hole and pulled her on top of me where she thrashed and twitched. I scooped the Kukri out of the sand so I had a weapon in each hand again. Blood fountained out of her neck and rained back down on both of us. Soon I was soaked, but she spasmed one final time and lay still. When her heart stopped the twin geysers of blood stopped, then the smell of her voided bowels and bladder hit me.
My kill had been quiet, and I was sure it hadn’t drawn attention from the passing herd, but the two males that had been hanging back listening had heard us and were stumbling forward in the sand. I lay perfectly still in my shallow hole with the dead female on top of me. Blood covered my face and had run down and pooled in one of my ears, but I didn’t dare move or make a sound as the males approached.
I wasn’t worried about being able to defend myself against them. I had two blades, a pistol and a rifle. What I was worried about was having to defend myself, and in the process draw the attention of the whole herd, which would come flooding into the wash and overwhelm all of us in seconds. The males came to a stop next to the dead female, sniffing the air as they stood swaying.