The males stood there for what seemed like forever, but couldn’t have really been more than a couple of minutes. Try lying perfectly still and silent with a corpse on top of you and blood pooling in your ear. One minute feels like an hour. Eventually they started moving away, but I couldn’t relax. More males were falling into the wash as they moved across the desert.
There was now a nearly constant parade of infected moving through the wash and I hoped everyone in the cave would stay absolutely quiet. Of all of them, I was the most worried about Irina. When I’d first met her in Los Alamos she had not seemed to be used to seeing or dealing with the infected. I was concerned she would panic and make a sound that would draw the attention of the passing bodies.
I was lying there, concealed by the dead female, worrying about the group compromising their position when a male stepped off the edge of the wash directly above me and crashed down on top of the corpse that was on top of me. Shit, that hurt, and the son of a bitch wasn’t in any hurry to get up.
He finally started moving, reaching down to push himself up. His hand pressed on my left arm and he paused for a moment. Then he actually squeezed my arm. What the hell? I’m not a goddamn roll of Charmin! What was he doing? Could he tell by feel that I wasn’t dead and wasn’t another infected?
His squeeze became a grip that tightened enough to hurt and a gurgling snarl burbled up out of his throat. Somehow he knew that he had his hand on an un-infected arm. Or perhaps he wasn’t sure, but would just react to anything that felt like a meal. He started pulling, trying to drag me towards him, his snarling growing louder.
It was time to do something before his agitation drew the attention of other infected. Working my right arm through the sand and out from under the corpse, I stabbed with the Ka-Bar at where I thought his head was. I felt the tip of the blade penetrate flesh, then skitter across bone without hitting anything vital. His only response was to grip my arm even tighter and crawl fully on top of the female.
She was lying across my body at a slight angle, shoulder at my chin, and in his squirming he wound up with his face directly over mine. For once I wasn’t thankful for the night vision that let me clearly see. He had apparently turned some time ago. His lips and most of his nose were missing; exposing teeth and cartilage that made him look like something out of a macabre nightmare. My stab with the blade had torn a long gash in his cheek and left a flap of skin hanging down, blood from the wound dripping onto my face and beginning to cover the NVG’s lenses.
Pinned under the weight of the two bodies, all I could do was stab with the knife again. This time I could partially see my target, and aimed for his ear. The razor sharp steel met some resistance, but I put every ounce of force I could into the strike and it pushed through, the hilt coming to a stop against the side of his head as the blade sliced into his brain. He went limp and I cursed as more blood dripped out of the new head wound and completely covered the NVGs. Now I had two corpses on top of me and was blind as a bat.
I had some limited movement with my right arm, but other than that I was stuck. I couldn’t reach my head to remove the goggles, but maybe that was best. There was still an occasional drop of blood splattering onto them from the dead male, and they were all that was protecting my eyes. Sure, I’d had the vaccine against the Voodoo Plague, but there were any number of other nasty viruses that could be transmitted by body fluids.
Forcing myself not to think about HIV or Ebola or Hepatitis, I concentrated on listening to the feet of the infected moving in and near the wash. It was easy to tell the males from the females. The males constantly dragged one or both feet, routinely stumbling on the uneven footing. The females sounded just like a normal, uninfected person. Their steps were quick and steady. And what the hell was that sound?
At first I thought I was just imaging it, or it had something to do with over 350 pounds of corpses piled on top of me. But soon I realized it was coming from each of the infected. It was a low pitched humming. Not constant. They would stop making the sound to snarl and gurgle, and several times I heard one stop humming to sniff the air. Why were they doing that, and why hadn’t I noticed it before?
With nothing but time to think, I realized that I’d never been close to them with my ears as my primary source of sensory input. Maybe they’d been doing it all along. I didn’t know, and didn’t know if it meant a damn thing. It just seemed odd. I kept listening and noticed something else. All of them were humming almost exactly the same note. I’m not a musician and couldn’t begin to guess what that note was nor what key it was in, but it struck me as very odd that all of them would choose the same note. I suspected the probability of that was less than I had the patience or ability to calculate.
The volume of infected moving across the desert continued to increase until it sounded like I was submerged in a sea of them. Males were constantly bumping into and tripping over the bodies on top of me. Fortunately I was covered well enough that they didn’t notice me. The occasional female walked by, but they were rare. I assumed they were avoiding the wash that was mostly full of the uncoordinated males.
Then as quickly as the volume had grown, it began diminishing. This made sense. The herd had been traveling in a direction 90 degrees opposite their current movement, and had spread out into a long, relatively thin line. When they made a left turn to head for the location of the nuclear detonation there was only the narrow width of the mass to pass by, even though the length most likely stretched for miles to the north and south.
Close to 15 minutes later I listened as the last footsteps within range of my ears slowly shuffled away to the west. I lay there, breathing as shallowly as I could, listening. Five minutes went by and I still hadn’t heard anything, so I decided it was as good a time as any to move.
First I had to get the corpses off of me. I tried pushing up, but nearly half an hour of dead weight resting on me had caused one of my arms and both legs to fall asleep. I was reaching for the male’s body with my free arm when I heard a bush rustling. Was it Igor, moving a branch to peer out? My NVGs were covered with congealed blood and I couldn’t see a damn thing. Soon the bush rattled again and I heard the faint scrape of someone or something moving through the sand on the floor of the wash.
“Viyebnutsa.” I recognized the big Russian’s voice, but didn’t understand what he’d said. At the moment I didn’t care, as I felt the weight on my chest lessen when he hauled the male off of me. A moment later he lifted the female and I was able to take the first deep breath I’d had since killing her.
Ripping the NVGs off my head I looked up at his smiling face, his hand extended to help me to my feet. I gratefully accepted the assistance, nodding my thanks to Igor and raising my rifle to scan the area. Nothing moving other than the people crawling out of the cave.
“That was horrible!” Irina said softly when she stood up between Igor and me.
“It could have been worse.” I said.
“No. I don’t mean the infected. That damn dog of yours has gas. Bad gas. I thought I was going to be sick.” She said, waving a hand in front of her face to emphasize her point.
I watched Martinez reach fresh air and take a big breath, then Dog came running out, happy to be back in the open. He looked around, ran down the wash with his nose to the ground until he found the right spot and squatted.
“What the hell did you feed him when I wasn’t looking?” Rachel asked in an accusatory tone when she got to her feet. “I was almost wishing the infected would find us just so we could get out of there.”
I tried not to laugh. I really did. But I couldn’t help myself. The teenage boy part of my brain still finds fart jokes hilarious, and the thought of all of them jammed underground with Dog ripping one after another for half an hour just about put me back on the ground.
When I regained a degree of composure I looked up to see Irina walking away, shaking her head. Igor was scanning with his rifle, but I could see a huge grin on his face. He could smile. He’d been right at the entrance and able to get fresh air. Rachel stood staring at me, hands on her hips. Dog had finished his urgent business and was back by my side looking at Rachel with his version of an innocent expression. I glanced down at him, up at the look on Rachel’s face and had to turn away before I lost it again.
“OK, we need to get moving.” I said, trying to be serious again.
At the edge of the wash I started walking until I found a spot where the bank had collapsed and a couple of small boulders were half covered in sand. Cleaning my NVGs with some water from a canteen, I pulled them on and stuck my head above the lip of the wash. The good news was there weren’t any infected in the immediate area, immediate being defined as within 50 yards of us. The bad news was that even though the bulk of the herd had passed us, there were still what appeared to be several hundred stragglers coming towards us.
But they were moving slower than the majority of the herd and, while I was concerned about them, I wasn’t too worried about being able to fight our way through. Climbing out of the wash I turned and helped Dog scramble up, Igor pushing from below, then helped Irina. Everyone else climbed up without much effort and as soon as we were all clear of the wash that had saved our lives, I started us running to the northeast.