I woke up to tires screeching and my body jolting forward, only stopping because of the seatbelt. It is something about those first few waking moments when things seems to be moving in slow motion. It takes a while for your brain to catch up to going from sleep state to fully alert. I could hear the music from the speakers, another of DeepOnion’s later hits, I could see the lead SUV around the bend, halfway off the road with the driver door open and a zombie hoard heading straight for us. I took in all of it but my body moved as if in slow motion as my brain tried to process the combined meaning of what was happening.
“Damn” I heard Izzy swear as she was turning the van around back in the other direction. Nebu was had his hand out the window trying to pick off the zombies that were getting too close for comfort, but it is hard to be accurate in a moving vehicle, shooting from a cramped space at running targets (it’s not like in the movies). Figuring this was not the time for questions I instead grabbed the walkie to warn Blade who was coming up from behind us in the SUV with the supplies.
“Blade, turn around now. There’s a zombie horde ahead and we need to regroup” I shouted into the walkie. Izzy had managed to get the van turned around but I could hear some zombies had caught up and were banging on the rear door and side walls. One managed to crush the car window on Izzy’s side making her veer away. That maneuver almost had us in the ditch but Izzy managed to stay on the road and the zombie lost its grip on the door. She was bleeding from a few cuts caused by the broken window pieces, but nothing that seemed overly serious.
I grabbed the walkie again and thumbed down on the speaker button “Blade, head back a few clicks, find a good spot and we will join you on the road side. We might have to go back for the other SUV”.
My pulse was beating a mile a minute and my head was spinning. I could see that Izzy was tense, from the line of her mouth and how she was strangling the wheel. I couldn’t read anything on nebu’s face but he was reloading and not saying anything. I held my questions since with my brain back in action I could pretty much image what had happened. Better to wait and go over everything once we rendezvoused with Blade.
Blade was waiting in a rest stop area a five minute drive from where we turned around which should give us some breathing room between us and the horde.
“What happened? And where the hell is Wiley?!” were the first words out of his mouth as soon as he joined us in the van.
“Zombie horde came out of the woods on the right and drove Wiley off the road. Saw him jumping out of the SUV and sprinting into the woods with half the horde chasing”. It was Nebu that answered and I could see the reason for that by looking at Izzy. She was still gripping the wheel struggling to calm herself down. Izzy is great in a tight spot and normally has everything under control. But she and Wiley were like brother and sister and had kept each other safe even before we brought them back to the Sanctuary. She was stopping herself form immediately going after Wiley, she knew we needed a plan and was counting on me to provide it.
In the movies you see teams go after a lost member and get half the team killed in the process. At those times I was always thinking how stupid it was to risk the entire team, and the mission, for just one person. But you never know what you will do until you actually face that situation. I could tell myself that we had no choice, this was different. We needed to go after Wiley since if we didn’t, Izzy would try to do it herself. And we couldn’t afford to lose two members and still have a shot at saving the people trapped in New York. I could tell myself all that as being valid reasons but the real one would always be: After going through what we have together you don’t leave someone behind without a fight.
“Since he hasn’t contacted us I assume he dropped or damaged his cellphone while taking his swan dive out of the vehicle. Even if he was running he should be able to send a text or something to let us know he is alive.” I didn’t mention the other reason why he might not have contacted us yet.
“First I need to know where we are so we can try to figure out where he is headed and how we go about getting the SUV back. We will need it for New York”. I wanted to make it clear that this didn’t change anything; we are getting Wiley back and we are still going to New York to save these people.
“We veered of road 7 a few clicks back starting to head south towards the US border. We should be on road 14 heading south”. It was Izzy this time that answered, she had calmed down (somewhat) and seemed ready to set to the task at hand. Izzy was good at compartmentalizing and with a task or problem ahead of her she could set her worries aside.
I accessed my neural chip to view the remotely stored mental map of our route. Well, not before verifying the file against the DeepOnion DeepVault first of course. Even remotely stored on a server a file can be hacked or infected with malware and I needed to be sure of its accuracy (and safety to use). This is something that has become something of a habit (a good one). I never access a file using my chip that can’t be verified against a clean DeepVault fingerprint. This reduces the risk of “The Phage” infecting me and turning me into a zombie myself.
After the verification I got a mental overview of our route and I was able to concentrate on our current location looking for indicators where Wiley might be headed. I could see the bend in the road where we had been ambushed. The zombie horde must roam the surrounding forest picking out stray targets that avoid the main roads around Ottowa. I tried to imagine being Wiley, running from the horde, hoping that we would somehow find him and pick him up. I figured it best to voice my thought process directly to get the teams view on the matter.
“There is no possibility that we will chance upon him in the forest but Wiley knows that we will be looking so he will continue through the forest until he hits a road. He will stay close to the road in the hope that we will pick him up. Failing that he most probably will look for other means of transport. Our best bet will be to turn around, head back and go around in a circle. That will take us to the road on the other side of the forest where, hopefully, we can pick up Wiley. That will also take us around the zombie horde”.
Again I left the things unsaid that if we didn’t manage to find Wiley on that road we would have to leave him behind. As I mentioned we weren’t going to give up on him without a fight but going into that forest against a zombie horde, looking for a single person without any leads, there wasn’t any hope in that.
I still had no idea how we were going to get back to the SUV and without it, it was going to be a tight squeeze in only two vehicles. But one thing at a time, first worry about Wiley then take on the next impossible task. Prioritization is the key to success.
“How far to the road on the other side of the forest?” Izzy inquires, starting to analyze the situation and figuring out the best way to attack it. In that way she is somewhat similar to myself, logical and detached, taking in the facts and looking for the best way to move forward. I kind of thought that it was a byproduct of my former occupation but it might be more of a personality trait.
“About a click going as the bird flies, but there is no guarantee that Wiley will head in the direction of the road and even if he does it won’t be in a straight line with the zombie horde hunting him.”
“Allowing for rough terrain and considering Wiley is a lucky bastard he could hit the road about 10-15 minutes after we left him, that is 5-10 minutes from now. How long to drive around?” Izzy continues with the dissemination of the facts.
“We’re almost halfway there already so it shouldn’t take more than another 5 minutes if we step on it.”
“Then we should head out immediately. If Wiley has managed to shake the zombies he will try to find a road or a high ground to get some overview. When we get there we should start a fire, letting the smoke lead Wiley in the right direction and fire off a few shots for good measure.” Izzy finishes, already thinking ahead for the best course of action.
“Let’s go then. Blade and Nebu, you take the SUV and stay back a bit, you cover us with the rifles. And be ready to leave in a hurry. Remember that if Wiley can see the smoke and hear the gun shots so can the Walkers and they will come running. We have a limited window where we can pick Wiley up before the horde is on us.”
Blade and Nebu jumps out of the van and Izzy takes off before they even has time to get in to the SUV. I don’t say anything but despite her calm analysis her demeanor reveals how stressed and worried she is. I will have to keep an eye to make sure she doesn’t do anything rash.
Less than five minutes later we are on the opposite side of the forest starting the fire. Izzy fires off a few shots into the air waiting/hoping for a response somewhere in the forest. She keeps firing two shots off every minute to hopefully help guide Wiley in the right direction.
After only five minutes we get our first company in the form of a company of zombies hurtling out of the woods. I quickly empty my clip on the first two zombies, no point trying to go for any fancy headshots on fast moving targets. Pounding 5-10 rounds into the body will stop almost any zombie which is all that we were after right now. While I reload Izzy takes care of another two and reaches for her machete. That still leaves six more heading straight for us with not much time to react. I manage to take down another one while two rifle shot takes down another, Nebu and Blade covering us from back down the road. After that it is close combat with two on three. Two headed straight for me and I dived around the truck to try and put some distance between us. I managed to get a seconds lead and it was enough to raise my gun and got out a lucky shot straight into the closest zombies head which just crumpled to the ground. That didn’t stop the second one which threw itself at me and drew me to the ground. My gun skidded from my hand and I had to keep my covered arm between me and the zombie, preventing it from taking a bit out of my face. It reminded me of the situation in the warehouse just a few days ago so I did the same thing. Gathered my legs to my stomach and pushed off with all my strength. The zombie staggered back but this time I didn’t have a gun to finish the job. While I crawled backwards, the Walker was readying for another lounge. But before it could take a step another rifle shot rang out and it dropped to the ground. Glad that I had left them to cover our backs, I quickly picked up my gun to check on Izzy. She was covered in blood having hacked off a few pieces of the zombie, which now lay on the ground with its head caved in. She was breathing heavy, staring down at the zombie looking a bit dazed.
Thinking it was time to go I called out. “Izzy, get in the van, we need to leave!” She startles at that and looks to me and then to the forest.
“But Wiley is still out there!” pointing with the machete towards to woods.
“If he were then he would have answered our gunshots. This was just an advanced party, soon the horde will come streaming out of the woods and then we are all screwed. Get in the van, NOW!” I shout.
I can see it tearing at her, the will to go chasing in the woods with the logic that it would do no good. Finally she turns away from the trees and steps into the passenger seat. I am already at the wheel having started the van. As soon as she is in I take off back towards where we first lost Wiley. One good thing about this is that it should have driven the horde away from the SUV and we should be able to pick it up without too much trouble.
I grab the radio “Blade, Nebu, we’re heading for the SUV. It should be clear now. But keep a look out on the woods, there is no telling if the horde might be storming out of there any moment”.
“Already on your tail” I hear Blade respond and can see them closing in from behind. As we are about to turn the corner I see, in my rear-view mirror, the horde streaming out of the woods just a few hundred meters behind us heading for the smoking ruin of our bonfire. I see Izzy looking back in her rear-view mirror, maybe still hoping to catch a glimpse of Wiley or maybe not really seeing anything, stuck in her own thoughts.
I feel like I should be saying something but nothing really comes to mind. I have been on other teams before, and I’ve seen members die or colleagues just never come back from a mission. But this is the first time someone from my own team, my responsibility, had been lost on a mission and it hurt. Logically I knew that you can’t predict everything and Wiley accepted the risks involved when he chose to join the mission. But the emotional part of me told me he was my responsibility and what happened to him was my fault. While I am trying to come to grips with this and what to do after we pick up the SUB I heard the radio spark to life.
“Hey guys, haven’t you forgotten something back here?!” Even though I recognize the voice immediately it takes a second or two before I understand that it is actually true and not just my imagination.
Izzy is faster than me and grabs the radio, “Wiley, you alright?! What happened?! Where are you?!”
“Wow, slow down Izzy, a question at a time here, you know it is not good talking on the phone at the same time. I guess this is a radio but the theory still applies!”
“Stop screwing around you cluts and let us know where you are and what happened!” Izzy says a bit angrily but I can hear the relief in her voice.
“I am heading down the road, a few hundred meters from where the horde drove me into the ditch. I am guessing you guys are around the origin of the smoke pillar on the other side of the forest. I would suggest you get a move on since I think you will be getting company fairly soon”
“We already left and were on our way back to you, we’ll wait at the next intersection for you to catch up. In the meantime if you wouldn’t mind letting us know what the hell happened I might not strangle you as soon as I see you.” Izzy might sound harsh but I could see her smiling now and felt myself join her.
“Well, nothing much to say really. Having a horde on your tail doesn’t really give many options. I headed into the forest with a bunch of them just a few steps behind and then it was just a matter of keeping my legs moving. I managed to drop my followers in the rough terrain but when I went to call in I noticed my cellphone had been damaged during the drop out of the vehicle… Sorry about that boss.”
The radio went quite for a while and I guessed he felt bad about it. “Don’t worry about the cellphone; we’ll get another one, just glad that you’re safe.” At that time I could see him closing up from the right so I continued “Let’s head down the road a few clicks and we can find a spot to cool down and you can tell us the rest of your adventure.”
“Sure thing boss” was the response while we turned in behind him, still heading toward New York and the school teacher.
Turns out that Wiley had figured that the best thing he could do was to circle his way back, the long way around, to the SUV. He was fairly sure that we would be headed there eventually and since it had the radio in it, it had seemed like a good choice. As he got closer he saw no way to actually get to the vehicle since it was still crawling with zombies. So he hunkered down to wait for us to show up. After a few minutes the Walkers suddenly looked to the sky and took off into the woods. He could see the smoke from your little bonfire on the other side and figured we had circled around looking to head him off. Not one to waste an opportunity he took the chance to sneak his way toward the SUV with most zombies gone or distracted by the smoke. He was forced to dispatch some hangers on but had managed to steel away the SUV without much trouble.
After a quick stop listening to Wiley’s side of the story and patching up our scrapes and bruises from the last half hour we, once again, went over the plan of approach for New York. Our goal was a small Rest-stop outside of Morristown which, supposedly, was the last “safe spot” left before heading into New York proper. Any information I had on the territory after that was based on rumors and hearsay, not enough to formulate any kind of plan. We were all agreed that we would have to do this mostly on the fly and trust our instincts.
Soon after we were off in the same order as we started; Wiley in the front, me, Izzy and Nebu in the middle and Blade bringing up the rear. We were all still a bit shaken up but time was of the essence and I wanted to get to New York with plenty of daylight to spare. Spending a night in New York, the zombie capital of the East Coast, was something all my instincts were screaming NOT to do.