River of night, p.35

River of Night, page 35

 part  #7 of  Black Tide Rising Series


River of Night

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  He had considered a number of synonyms for perturbed.




  Fucking pissed didn’t really convey it.

  After far too long to consider, he had decided the perfect word was: Wrathful.

  It felt well on his tongue. Wrathful. Full of wrath. It just needed the right weapon to accompany it.

  Tom reflected on his inventory as he reached the bit of cliff that looked climbable. He might not have pitons or cams, but…

  Tomahawks had many uses. In fact, the basic design of the tomahawk had not changed in millennia, created and recreated by civilizations founded from Oceania to Asia, from Africa to Europe. Chopping, cutting, fighting and digging, ’hawks were the original multitool. The example that he’d recovered from the devastated grocery represented the pinnacle of the art. He drew the tomahawk, reversed it and hooked the lanyard over his wrist. With a single overarm lunge he drove the weapon into the crumbly rock over his head. The tempered spike of the RMJ buried itself deeply into the decomposed granite that made up this particular shelf.

  He pulled on the nonslip grip, performing a sort of one-armed pull-up while his off hand scrabbled along the sharp-edged rock until he found good, solid hand- and footholds. He squeezed his fingers on the stone shelf, looked at the cliff overhead and repeated the procedure.

  Some people just needed killing. By good fortune, he was in a wrathful mood…

  * * *

  “Which team are we?” Jeff Paquet asked, trying to see who was shooting at them as he hid behind a tree.

  Jeff had been a forklift operator in a home fittings manufacturing plant before the plague. It wasn’t much of a job but Jeff wasn’t really Harvard material. If he had enough money for food, booze and dope, he was happy. The rent would get paid eventually.

  Then the Plague came and his comfortable life went sideways. The Gleaners just seemed like the best of many bad choices. As someone who knew which end of rifle the bullet came out of, and had enough training to not accidentally shoot teammates on a regular basis, he’d been promoted to the “special operations” part of the Gleaners.

  That he was not Harvard material nor operator material was proved by his current position crouched with his back to the enemy behind a tree and just as willing to stay there, thank you.

  “Uh,” his team lead replied, crouched behind the bare cover of some sort of house foundation.

  Marcus Clemons had been a theater manager before the Plague. He’d never really seen himself as someone who would get into “rape, loot, pillage and burn” but there were benefits and it was better than trying to survive on his own.

  As someone who not only knew which end the bullet came out but also had management experience, he’d been appointed team lead. After a brief, blissful moment of shooting at their enemy, he’d used all the ammo in his gun and he’d gotten a little confused.

  But combat has a tendency to make all thoughts other than “I need to LIVE” go out of your head. One forgets one’s name, personal history, loved ones and even what country or state you happen to be in, much less which scratch team you’d been put in charge of.

  With shots now peppering his position, he was just trying to remember the answer to the question.

  “Uh…” Clemons ordered, while fumbling to reload. “We need to maneuver on them! Move left!”

  It sounded like the right thing to do. Maneuver, right?

  “Fuck you!” Jeff shouted. “I’m fine where I am. You maneuver!”

  It was possible that Jeff was smarter than his team lead.

  * * *

  “Reload, Katrin!” Paul shouted, looking over at the teen. “You’re pulling a dry trigger.”

  The teen continued to look carefully through her scope, clearly aiming at what she thought were targets. The problem was, she’d shot through her magazine and wouldn’t seem to respond no matter how much he yelled.

  “Katrin!” Paul yelled. “Katrin…” He tried like hell to remember the girl’s last name. “Katrin!”

  No response. It was like the girl didn’t even hear him.

  Paul took the risk, and dove from cover to cross to the girl. It took shaking her shoulder violently to get her attention.

  * * *

  “What?” Katrin yelled. Or thought she did. She actually was still whispering.

  In combat the simplest things also become massively complicated. The brain goes to very strange places. Displacement activity becomes common. Believing you’re in some other place, maybe playing a video game. A feeling of absolute unreality. Victims of violent crime often report similar experiences.

  This can’t really be happening.

  In addition, strange things happen to the senses. Sometimes noises fade away to the point that you cannot hear your own rounds going off and yet you’d hear a pin drop behind you. Your vision often zooms—“tunnel vision” is one of the greatest dangers in combat. This last is one of the reasons that flanking attacks are so deadly: people under fire or firing rarely look to their left or right, up or down.

  Military training, particularly for infantry, is mostly about preparing soldiers for the experience of combat. By placing people under the most extreme stress allowable, it partially inoculates them against the stress of combat. By requiring repetition of tasks to the point of utter boredom, preferably under stress conditions, it teaches the military person, male, female, soldier, Marine, sailor, how to just keep doing their job even when everything is going to hell around them.

  Just a few months before, Katrin Jonsdottir had been a twelve-year-old student at an elite NYC prep school. Guns, per se, were anathema. Guns were icky, evil, bad. They were only good for school shootings and should be banned.

  There were police to keep the bad people away. Sure, there was the occasional jerk on the subway. There were random muggings. Girls sometimes got raped. But if you knew when and where to go and not go, bad things happened to other, generally bad, people.

  She’d never in her entire life expected to be in a position where bad people were shooting at her and she was supposed to shoot back. Yes, she’d taken the firearms training from the adults at the ranch, including the hunky but scary Mr. Smith and the funny but cool Cathe Astroga. But since then they’d barely had time or opportunity to practice and she was still somewhat afraid of her own gun much less that there might be actual bullets coming at her.

  And she was scared so spitless, she hadn’t even heard Rune yelling her name. Or could remember it.

  * * *

  When Mr. Rune grabbed her by the shoulder she jumped in fear and started to swing the barrel around.

  “KATRIN!” the man shouted at her, blocking the swing of Katrin’s weapon. “KATRIN! RELOAD!”

  “Who?” Katrin whispered as she was shaken. She wasn’t even sure where she was. She didn’t know who was shaking her.

  “KATRIN!” Paul shouted, leaning down and screaming in her ear. “KATRIN…SOMEBODY DAUGHTER? YOU! YOU’RE KATRIN! DO YOU HEAR ME?”

  I’m Katrin, Katrin thought, dreamily. Katrin Jonsdottir.

  * * *

  “SHOOT THE BAD PEOPLE!” Paul shouted, actually pulling the trigger once for Katrin.

  * * *

  The initial fusillade from both sides had died off and now there was an intermittent crackle of shots. For his part, Luke Conner was trying to remember all his drills that he’d learned from his Special Forces dad and later practiced at the ranch.

  Acquire the target, front sight focus, squeeze the trigger to a surprise break, maintain your sight picture and service the target again as needed.

  His optic didn’t have night vision, but the bright red dot in the Aimpoint was clear. Place the red dot on the target and squeeze…

  Lather-rinse-repeat. And again. Again.

  The enemy had gone to ground and wasn’t even laying down much of a base of fire. Didn’t mean they couldn’t kill you.

  He carefully targeted a shoulder that was sticking out from
behind a too-small pine tree.

  There was a yelp and the shoulder jerked out of sight.

  * * *

  “I’M SHOT!” Jeff screamed, landing on his side and dropping his shotgun. “SOMEBODY HELP ME!”

  He whimpered from the pain. The bullet had entered his side and it burned like fire. He could feel the blood pumping out of the wound, exactly like you’d think a super-soaker would feel like if it was inside you and pointed outwards. Pump! Pump! Pump!

  “I’M SHOT!” he repeated. “HELP! I NEED HELP!”

  * * *

  Paul reloaded and targeted the guy writhing around on the ground. It took four rounds to get him to lie still and be a good Gleaner, but it was worth it. It sounded like he and maybe one other person on his team were actually shooting.

  * * *

  None of the remaining Gleaner soldiers in Green’s little task force were as well trained as the late Officer Jason Young. One of the teams constituted Green’s reserve. It was led by one Timothy McFadden, one of Green’s prison recruits, five years, armed robbery, rape and assault with a deadly weapon. Team one was as close to elite as Green had left.

  McFadden wasn’t elite, but he could do math. They’d started off with twenty-five men in five teams.

  One team had been taken out by the invisible electrocution trap.

  One had been taken out by that asshole ex-cop.

  That left fifteen.

  When Green had ordered team three to lay down fire and team five to move forward, it had been orders to his two front teams to engage. Instead they were all lying down behind any cover, such as hadn’t already been shot by the defenders, and firing more or less blind. McFadden’s opposite numbers were dug in, and firing back with accuracy and enthusiasm.

  Worse, they seemed to have plenty of ammunition, or at least it felt that way to McFadden, who had zero experience in actual combat.

  Tim McFadden liked the benefits of the Gleaners. A career criminal, the average Gleaner work day was basically what he’d done his whole life. All he had to do was threaten or hurt people and take their stuff, enjoy the occasional rape, and then he got paid, sort of. All that was required was not pissing off the guy in charge or one of his even crazier Guards.

  What he did not like was being under fire from what was obviously a real operator team. They were putting out more rounds than Charlotte PD SWAT.

  As soon as it was clear that Green’s plan had gone totally to shit, he jumped up from his own position behind a tree and took off into the wet, dark woods.

  McFadden wasn’t exactly sure where he was going next, but it was anywhere but here. Mrs. McFadden’s boy knew when to cut his losses. Worst case, he’d just claim that he got lost and rejoin Green after a victory, which in his opinion looked pretty unlikely at this point.

  He didn’t even tell the rest of his guys. They could take care of themselves. Or not. Fuck ’em.

  Then again, looking around, he didn’t see anybody else nearby. Those shitters had already bolted, the cowards! The irony of his indignation was completely lost on him.

  He’d just about made it to the road, trying to figure out how to get the hell out of these fucking woods without poking his eyes out on low tree branches, running into one of those invisible electric chairs, or a zombie or another Gleaner, when he felt a tug on his collar. It turned into a massive force that jerked him off his feet and nearly dropped McFadden to his ass. Before he could recover, a powerful vise around his throat levered his upper body upright.

  He tried to shout but the hold on his neck was choking him into silence. Whoever was holding his jacket was massive and the painful grip slowly forced his head to one side, affording him a brief view of another man, a Gleaner by his equipment, lying facedown at their feet. McFadden felt his weight leave his feet as he was lifted up into the air like that guy that Darth Vader choked and killed.

  But it wasn’t the Force that killed him. McFadden felt a burning hot line drawn across the side of his neck. A flood of heat spread across the skin of his right shoulder and arm, pulsing in time to his heart.

  In his last conscious moments he heard a new voice say, “That’s four.”

  * * *

  Emily Bloome hadn’t fired a shot.

  She understood the concept of bad people. She wasn’t in denial about the existence of evil or the reality of the new world, like her ex-girlfriend and fellow teacher. She knew history. But now that she was in a gunfight with people whom she’d never met and yet were trying to kill her, she was starting to mentally stutter. The noise was awful. The screams were awful. Her pants were soaking wet, whether from the rain saturated loam or from peeing herself, she didn’t know.

  She didn’t want to know.

  She wasn’t sure why she’d agreed to this. It was completely and totally insane. Especially after losing Smith. They should have turned back, then. But…they hadn’t. And now here she was, getting shot at, and being expected to shoot people she’d never even met because they were “bad” people. Which they were, but the reality of personally shooting, killing, was almost as shattering as the booms of the guns of the men trying to kill her, and cracks of their bullets as they passed by or crunched into her log shelter.

  A glance over her shoulder revealed Eric carefully aiming and shooting around the edge of another heavy log. Emily’s mind wandered, seeking traction. What did “bad” mean after all? How did you define it? Criminals could be rehabilitated. They should be trying to persuade them that their actions weren’t the right actions.

  On the other hand, they were shooting at her and her students. Conversation didn’t really seem possible at the moment.

  But killing people?

  Maybe it wouldn’t count if she just shot towards them. To scare them. Make them leave. If she didn’t have to watch. Yes, she would shoot, but not at them. She wasn’t even looking, see? Emily crouched up enough that although her head was still well beneath the log top, her rifle was now more or less parallel to the ground and aiming, as far as she could tell, towards and over the “bad” guys. In their general direction, sure. But with no real intent of harm.

  She started squeezing her trigger rapidly, and flinched as the hot casings pattered on top of her hood and jacket. She didn’t stop though, letting the recoil of the weapon move the barrel at random between shots.

  * * *

  Marcus Clemons decided he had to do something. Most of his guys were down, he was pretty sure. Jeff sure as hell was dead. He was pretty sure Jeff was on his team.

  Clemons peered around the tree as he reloaded his Winchester Model 1100 shotgun. This wasn’t the right place for a shotgun, but at least his was a semi auto with rifle sights and not some fudd-gun. He’d wanted to tell Green they needed ARs but…you didn’t tell Green stuff. You just did what you were told and tried not to get killed.

  Maybe he could get close enough for a kill shot, like Call of Duty, and then get a better gun.

  Time to get bold!

  * * *

  Despite Emily’s nonlethal intent, resting an AR-15 style rifle on a fallen tree and firing blind, “over their heads,” wasn’t an actual aiming concept. One could point well up into the air, but if you just leaned around like Emily, and most of the Gleaners for that matter, had been doing, and tried to fire blind…well, you were firing blind. The tree log didn’t care about her intent and it was actually doing a good job of keeping her rounds traveling at the same height.

  As a result, her shots were consistently passing through the Gleaner area at about chest height to anyone who happened to be present and standing.

  Or someone choosing that moment to starting charging forward.

  One saying among experienced infantrymen is “It’s not the one with your name on it you’ve got to worry about. It’s all the ones that say ‘To whom it may concern.’”

  Emily had not, as Katrin had, put a name on her rounds. There was no particular target.

  Nonetheless, one of Emily’s bullets, intended to send as nonviolent a
message as it was possible for rounds from a combat rifle to do, cracked right through Marcus’s pistol-grade plate carrier, pierced his sternum and then severed his descending aorta before tumbling, as light rounds are wont to do, and broke his spine before embedding itself in the light backpack he wore.

  Good bye, Marcus.

  The Skirmish of Watts Bar Point would one day be described in a history book as “a small but decisive action that was one of the foundational battles of post-Plague civilization.” Many legends made it into a latter-day Alamo with a better ending.

  The reality was it was one shambolic clusterfuck of a battle featuring the seriously deficient versus utterly incompetent, with a merest edge going to the former.

  Thankfully, that would be enough.

  * * *


  Half the team had slowed, and then receded behind him so they were hidden in the darkness and barely firing. The other half was either lying low, or dead, like that idiot that had just charged across the clearing. Harlan wasn’t even sure how many were still there, but he was certain that no one replied to his yell. He hated being out of control! “YOU’RE ALL FUCKING USELESS!”

  The dark that surrounded him deigned not to answer.

  “Intolerable,” Green muttered to himself. “I’ve got to start recruiting a better class of thug…”

  He leaned around the tree, risking his own precious hide, and used his superior night optics to scan around. There was a figure prone behind a tree but enough of the figure was in view to target. He aimed carefully and squeezed off a single shot.

  * * *

  “Mr. Rune!” Luke yelled. “I’m hit!”

  Luke wasn’t sure how bad it was but it was bad. The round had punched into his side, hard.

  Another cracked near him and he tried to determine where they were coming from. But he couldn’t find any valid targets. Most of the Gleaners seemed to be down already.

  The wound was really starting to hurt, and he began to feel lightheaded, almost nauseated.

  “Help! I’m bleeding bad!”

  Luke felt himself slipping away, and the world grew even darker. He didn’t feel the weapon slip from his hands.

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