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The Remaining: Refugees
By D.J. Molles
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But the enemies never stop coming, and the race has no finish line.
It has been three months since Captain Lee Harden found the survivors at Camp Ryder. With winter looming, Lee is on the verge of establishing Camp Ryder as a hub of safety and stability in the region. But not everyone agrees with Lee’s mission. . .or his methods. Growing tensions between camp leadership are coming to a head, and as Lee struggles amid the dissention and controversy, new revelations about the infected threaten to destroy everything he has worked for.
Table of Contents
A Preview of The Remaining: Fractured
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THE TWO MEN WORKED QUIETLY.
In the cold morning light, diffused through a thin veil of clouds, their breath came out of them in bone-white plumes. Thick beards covered both of their faces. The shorter, balding man crouched over a single-burner camp stove and attached the small green propane tank. As the shorter man worked, the taller man held his tan-coated M4 rifle at a low-ready and scanned the derelict streets around them.
The concrete surrounding them sparkled with a thin sheen of frost. Squat buildings stared down over them like empty and plundered tombs. Their windows were either boarded up with graying plywood or smashed through, leaving only jagged glass teeth protruding from the window frames. Directly behind where the two men worked stood a two-story brick building, and as the tall man scanned, he could see dark figures atop the roof, silhouetted against the sky. The figures peered over the side and watched intensely.
The two men worked in the center of a four-lane street. Along the edges, trash had gathered at the base of the buildings and the gutters, where wind and rain had swept them. All of it was old and sun-bleached and melded into anonymous heaps. From these mounds of trash, hastily disguised, small green rectangles poked up. Wires ran off of them and trailed up the side of the building to where they dangled from the rooftop.
A lighter clicked.
Lee looked down to see Harper setting the lighter's tiny butane flame to the gas grill and slowly turning on the propane. There was a shallow hiss, and then blue flames jumped from the burner, sending up a wave of heat that felt pleasant on Lee's face. Harper adjusted the flames so they quivered low and then set a grungy-looking aluminum pan atop the grill.
"Your turn." Harper stood, his knees popping.
Lee took one last look at his surroundings and bent to the ground, where he had laid a small canvas satchel. He opened the top and retrieved the only item it contained: a gallon bag full of deer guts, the pale coils of intestines steeping in a marinade of blackening blood. His nose wrinkled as he bent over the grill and dumped the bag into the heating pan. The air smelled immediately of a stagnant slaughterhouse.
Harper growled low in his throat and shook his head. "Disgusting."
Lee nodded in agreement and gingerly zipped the plastic bag closed, stuffing it back into the canvas satchel. Letting his rifle rest on its sling, Lee pointed to the building where all the thin black wires trailed up to the roof. "Let's go."
Harper snatched his own M4 off the ground and they headed for the open door at the base of the building. Lee matched his pace, just barely showing the limp in his left leg. The ankle had never healed properly from his fall down the elevator shaft three months ago. His back hadn't been the same either, and it had become quite a process to get mobile in the morning.
They picked their way through the ransacked interior of the building—an old mom-and-pop pharmacy. The shelves had been tipped over, everything emptied and looted. Refugees and scavengers had taken what they needed, leaving behind the pill bottles and packages. At the back of the pharmacy, where a sign that read COLD REMEDIES hung over empty white shelves, a door opened into a stairwell that led up to the second level, and from there to the roof. The door was in splinters from when Lee had kicked it in earlier that night. The place still smelled of death. They had not moved the bodies of the pharmacist and his wife. They remained huddled in the dark corner of this shit-stained storage area.
The only light in the upstairs area came from an open skylight with a pull-down ladder to provide roof access and from the three glow sticks lying on the dark floor like a strewn-out constellation leading to the ladder and creating an eerie green glow across the floor.
Harper went up first and Lee followed.
On the roof, he found the other eight members of his team with their backs against the brick abutment of the roof and their rifles lying across their laps. Seven men and Julia, Marie's sister from Smithfield. She had insisted on being a part of the team and working as their medic. After she had explained her background as an EMT, Lee welcomed her to the team.
He crossed the tar-paper roof and sidled down between Julia and LaRouche. The sergeant's old tactical vest was worn and grimed to a grayish tan, and some of the edges were frayed from the constant hard use. His light brown hair was about as overgrown as Lee's, but he kept his reddish beard hacked shorter with his knife. As Lee sat down next to him, LaRouche dug a packet of Red Man out of his cargo pocket and stuffed his cheek with a giant chaw. He'd found a box of the stuff squirreled away in a house earlier that week and had been so overjoyed that Lee thought he might shed a tear.
LaRouche offered Lee the pouch, but he declined.
Lee turned his attention to his right, where Julia sat. Her skin was pale to the point of looking green and her lips were seized down to a short, flat line across her face. She avoided eye contact with Lee.
"You gonna be all right?" he asked.
She nodded but didn't speak.
He leaned back and stared up at the granite skies. "It has to be done."
She closed her eyes and shook her head. "I just can't find a way to make it right, Lee. I'm sorry, but I don't think I'm ever going to be comfortable with it like you are."
Lee didn't respond for a moment, just watched his breath drift up into the air. It's going to be a cold winter, he thought. Not usually this cold by November. He moistened his lips. "Just because I do it doesn't mean I'm comfortable with it."
"I don't know."
"They're people," she repeated.
Lee looked at her again, and this time she met his gaze.
He nodded. "Okay."
The smell of burning innards began to drift up to them from where the bloody mass boiled and smoked on the pan below them. He turned to his left where LaRouche, Harper, Father Jim, and the rest of the group were lined up, their hands resting on the grips of their rifles.
"Everybody locked and loaded?"
Thumbs-up from everybody.
Silence and grim faces.
Lee rose to his knees and peered over the abutment to the street below.
The downtown area of Lillington was spread out over a few small blocks. The building they were perched on stood at the southwest corner of Main Street and Front Street, where they had set up the small burner, letting the smells of dreadful cooking waft across the small town. Opposite them was a collection of small businesses: a barbershop, a diner, the Lillington Chamber of Commerce, and a few boutiques. Everything stood gray and dead and falling apart.
Still, there could be some salvage there.
Lee rested his bearded chin on his hand as he knelt. He watched and waited and remained silent along with his group as the minutes dragged themselves by like wounded animals, slow and painful. One of the group checked the chamber of his rifle, and then snicked the bolt back into place. LaRouche spit out a stream of tobacco juice that hit the tar paper with a sharp splat. Somewhere the lilting voice of a winter bird called out from a barren tree.
"Cap," someone whispered.
Lee looked over and saw Jeriah Wilson, the stocky black kid fresh out of the Air Force academy. He'd been a running back throughout high school, and his build showed it. His face bore only patchy wisps of hair across his chin, but his once-regulation crew cut had now become shaggy.
He tapped his ear and pointed out to the east toward Main Street.
Lee strained to hear, and for a brief moment as the steady cold breeze lulled, he could hear the patter of numerous feet coming from the streets below them. He looked at Jeriah again and nodded, then leaned up slightly over the abutment so he could see Main Street. Everything looked empty and devoid of life, and yet Lee could hear their soft footfalls just around the corner.
They were coming.
He shifted slightly and his hand came down slowly to touch the comforting grip of his rifle. His eyes stayed locked on the intersection.
The footfalls were louder now and interspersed with short, breathy snorts that could have been mistaken for some other noise from nature, if Lee were not so familiar with it. It was the noise they made when they were tracking something. Especially when they were tracking by smell.
The first one came around the corner quickly and then slowed.
Seeing it made every muscle in Lee's body stiffen.
Staring at it from his concealed vantage point, Lee thought it was a young boy, dark-haired and short of stature. He wore a stained pair of jeans and what had once been a white T-shirt, now tattered and darkened with gore. Steam rolled off the boy's shoulders, his body still hot from whatever wretched hovel he and his hundreds of den mates had packed themselves into for warmth. They liked low places, like basements and cellars, and they all huddled together during the night in one giant, twitching mass.
The thought of it made Lee's skin crawl.
"Eyes on," Lee whispered.
"Eyes on," LaRouche repeated down the line.
In the street below, the boy trotted out cautiously, now hunching down, now standing erect. His squinted eyes surveyed the scene but always came back to what had drawn him to this intersection: the scent of the deer guts, steaming atop that single-burner grill.
Marie had been right. The smell of cooking drew them in quickly. It tickled some tiny memories in their violently rearranged brains that promised food. It worked better than anything else.
The boy sniffed the air and eyed the grill again, then began to move closer. Behind him, his den mates appeared, a bedraggled horde of them. They began to chitter back and forth to each other excitedly. As they drew closer, their calling got louder, and they began to bark and screech and growl. They worked their hands reflexively and snapped at the air with their jaws. Lee counted as they moved onto Front Street, measuring them in segments of twenty-five, up until he reached approximately a hundred and fifty. The old and the weak and the nearly dead straggled in, taking up the rear of the column.
Lee crouched there on the abutment and breathed very slowly so that the fog of his breath would not give him away. His pulse was strong and quick, and he could feel the tightness in his stomach and in his throat.
He lowered himself very slowly and touched LaRouche on the shoulder. The sergeant looked up and Lee whispered, "You ready?"
LaRouche moved his chaw around in his mouth and nodded, his lips stained brown. He reached down to his side and held up a little green box with a wire running off of it.
Looking out onto the street again, Lee watched as the horde gathered around the boy. Now others were on the scent, and they were less cautious and quicker to move in on a possible source of food. This was a herd, not a pack. There was no leader, only the instinct to stay together, to move together. The stink of the burning entrails began to mix with the pungent living odor of the infected and it lifted up on the breeze and made bile rise in the back of Lee's throat.
"Little closer," he whispered to no one in particular, his lips barely moving.
Now the tip of the crowd had reached the bubbling pan of guts. They stood back perhaps three feet away or so and circled around, wary of the heat but certain there was food there. They were all on the verge of starvation, their skin stretched taut over their bones and their ribs standing out like the rungs on a ladder. The rest of the horde bunched up behind them, fanning out and filling the street.
Almost there, he thought.
The sweat on his palms chilled in the air.
The first of the infected leaned forward and took a swipe at the pan, knocking it off the grill and spilling the hot, bloody contents into the street. They screeched and jumped forward, their clawlike fingers rasping across the concrete as they grabbed chunks of organs and long strings of intestines. The horde pressed in, compacted, became one blob of flailing, grasping limbs, and the screeches became desperate as the feeding frenzy began.
"Now," Lee said.
LaRouche counted out the three clicks from the detonator: "One, two, away."
Lee watched as the four daisy-chained claymore mines exploded from where they were hidden in the piles of trash, scattering tatters of white paper that billowed out into the crowd like some violent confetti cannon.
The outside of the horde appeared to wilt as the hundreds of steel balls shooting out of the four simultaneous detonations cut them down. With the dust and smoke still hanging in the air and the horde of infected still unsteady on their feet, as their eardrums bled and their animal minds attempted to comprehend this thunder that had struck down their den mates, the rest of Lee's team crested the abutment with their rifles at the ready and barrages of withering fire erupted along the rooftop.
The creatures below howled in rage and pain. They turned in mad circles, striking out at each other in the smoke, biting and slashing at anything before them. They began to scatter, but then they bunched up again as their instinct took over, and they ran this way and that as the rifle fire echoed off the storefronts and confused them.
Their screeching began to lessen as more and more of them fell. The horde became a few stragglers trying to cling to life, and then only a dozen or so wounded that crawled and moaned and growled. The rifle fire became sporadic until there was only one infected left.
It was the same small boy who had come around the corner. His left arm was sheared off at the shoulder and he clutched his belly with the hand he had left and made a hideous noise.
Calmly, LaRouche raised his rifle while all the others ported theirs, smoke rising from the barrels. The boy writhed and moaned as LaRouche squinted through his sight and fired. Then there was silence.
LaRouche spat. "That's the last one."
The group looked down at their handiwork.
In the street lay the sprawled remains of what was left of Lillington's populace. Some of them stared up into the sky with glassy eyes while others lay facedown in their own muck. The spaces between their bodies glistened darkly as thin streams of red meandered away from the road and toward the trash-clogged drains.
LaRouche slapped Harper's shoulder and pointed. "Shit, Harper. I think your grill is still going."
Harper nodded slowly and looked slightly nauseated. "Yeah."
LaRouche was clearly impressed. "Damn thing's indestructible."
Lee grabbed his pack up from the floor and slung his arms into it. "Everyone refresh your mags."
Those who had not done so already put fresh magazines in their rifles and stowed the half-full ones in the pockets of their field jackets. They stooped and gathered their empty magazines and put them in a different pocket.
Julia remained still during this.
She hadn't fired a shot.
"Wilson." Lee pointed to the Air Force cadet. "Get your guys and pull the Humvees around. Let's start setting up shop."
Wilson nodded and headed for the ladder down, his three companions falling in behind him.
The two Humvees that Lee had repossessed from Milo were parked around the corner. The block of buildings that they stood in created a perfect square around an empty parking lot. With some measures to fortify the doors and windows of these buildings, the interior parking lot could be used as a base and the buildings as a wall. A little concertina wire and some barricades, and Outpost Lillington would be secure.
Wilson and his team slid quickly down the ladder and disappeared into the empty pharmacy below. Lee thought about telling them to be cautious—there would be others lurking in the city. But it was unnecessary. Everyone was already cautious. They all jumped at shadows and slept lightly, always anticipating the next round of misfortune.
"Let's go down there and check it out." Lee put a hand on LaRouche's shoulder. "You mind keeping overwatch again?"
The sergeant shook his head. "Nope. I got it."
They went down and emerged from the pharmacy onto Front Street. It was Lee, Harper, Julia, and Father Jim. They were a good team, Lee had to admit. Though Julia refused to take part in the traps they set to clear the small towns of infected, she still did the training and pulled her weight along with everyone else. Plus, her medical knowledge made her invaluable. Lee had spent a lot of time training his team, and they were practiced and tested almost every day. They were still a far cry from professional soldiers, but they were fluid, most of them were decent shots, and they got the job done.
Standing on the sidewalk in front of the shop, they stared at the carnage in the streets.
"Jim, Harper…" Lee pointed to the front of the shop. "Post up here. We'll strip the pharmacy."
The two men nodded. Julia followed Lee back into the building. The interior already looked ransacked, but most things did these days. There wasn't much left, but they managed to pull a few large bottles of medications that Lee was unfamiliar with, along with some prescription pain relievers and some over-the-counter items such as antidiarrheal medicines, ibuprofen, acetaminophen, and antibacterial ointments. Julia piled these items into her pack just as the Humvees rumbled into the back parking lot.
Lee called out to Jim and Harper and they all headed for the back lot.
The two Humvees sat in the interior parking lot, one behind the other. The lead Humvee had been outfitted with a dozer blade that now sat angled up so as not to impede the vehicle's ground clearance—a bit of creative welding. Wilson and his three teammates were already offloading spools of barbed wire, some of which they had taken from the barricades in Smithfield and some they had found in various farm equipment stores.
The back lot was half paved and half dusty gravel. Two small sedans and a pickup truck sat abandoned, parked along the rear of the buildings. There were two entrances into the back lot, one from the south and one from the west. The western entrance was only wide enough for one vehicle to pass through at a time, while the southern entrance was much bigger. For this reason, Lee made the decision to block the southern entrance. The materials to barricade it would be harvested from the refuse around them, including the cars already parked in the back lot, Dumpsters, and any other heavy objects they could haul into place.
While the rest of the team finished offloading the Humvees, Lee sat in the passenger seat of the lead vehicle and grabbed the handset to the SINCGARS—Single Channel Ground and Airborne Radio System—mounted inside. He dispensed with proper radio protocols and used plain English when he spoke.
"Captain Harden to Camp Ryder. How do you copy me?"
A hiss of static.
A gravelly voice answered. "Yeah, I got you, Captain."
Lee smiled. "Morning, Bus. Haven't had your coffee?"
"Don't remind me. Haven't had coffee in months." Bus cleared his throat. "Did you get Lillington cleared?"
"Yeah, it's clear."
"Nope." Lee looked out at his team, now in the process of breaking into the abandoned cars in the back lot so they could be moved and used as barricades. "They're just getting everything set up right now."
"Sounds good. I know Old Man Hughes won't tell you, but everyone from Dunn really appreciates what you're doing out there. It's been cramped quarters over here."
Lee nodded. Old Man Hughes was the leader of nineteen other survivors from the town of Dunn to the southeast. He was a crotchety old bastard, but for some reason the Dunn survivors loved him. Due to overcrowding at Camp Ryder, the twenty from Dunn were slated to move to Lillington and establish an outpost there, along with another twelve from Fuquay-Varina.
"Not a problem," Lee said simply.
"I'll let Old Man Hughes know. They'll be on their way shortly. Any trouble on the roads?"
"No, the road was clear. Make sure they stick to the route we planned."
"Will do. What time should we expect you back?"
Lee thought out loud. "I think we'll leave most of the scavenging for the new residents. My guys need some sleep and I need to restock some of our ordnance. So we'll probably head out shortly after they get here." He clucked his tongue. "I'd say around noon at the latest."
"Sounds good. See you at noon."
"Roger. Out." Lee put the handset back on its cradle.
As he stood from the Humvee, he watched Harper exit the back door of the pharmacy. The older man's face was clouded, and he approached Lee with a purposeful walk, avoiding eye contact until he was standing right in front of him.
Lee felt that old familiar certainty of the worst-case scenario creeping up on him. "What's wrong?"
Harper squinted one eye. "Not really sure."
Lee stared at him blankly.
"Take a look at something." Harper began walking back toward the pharmacy, and Lee followed. "Jim just pointed it out to me. I hadn't noticed it before but… Well, just come look."
They made their way through the pharmacy to the open front door and out onto Front Street. In the middle of the road, mired by bodies lying two deep in places and surrounded by the overwhelming stench, Jim stood and looked around at the corpses, a finger pressed thoughtfully to his lips. Lee turned to catch a glimpse of the rooftop behind and above him and saw LaRouche resting his elbows there on the abutment. The sergeant met Lee's eyes and gave a minimal shrug, as though Father Jim's actions mystified him as well.
Lee stood at the edge of the bloodbath. "Jim?"
The man in the tortoiseshell glasses looked up and nodded by way of greeting.
Harper put his hands on his hips. "Tell him."
Jim looked around hesitantly, as though he were in the process of some complicated calculation, confident that his math was correct but somehow coming up with the wrong answer every time. Finally he gestured to the bodies around him. "There are no females."
Lee's brow narrowed.
He looked around as though he might prove Jim wrong. He stared down at the pale limbs covered in dried and fresh blood. Their clothing barely clung to them in tatters. It was difficult to determine gender by a glance—malnutrition robbed them of most of their distinctions so that all that remained were bony sacks of flesh. Lee had to look at their faces and see the grizzled, mangy beards, clumped together by clots of blood. Some of them were too young to have beards, but they were male as well. He searched and searched but could not find a single female to discount what Jim had said.
"That's weird." Lee spoke slowly. "But…"
"There were none in the last two traps we set in Smithfield either." Father Jim looked at him with fevered eyes. "Or at the university. Or at Dunn. In fact, when was the last time you saw an infected female, Captain?"
Lee didn't respond.
He had no answer.
"What do you think happened to them?" Harper asked quietly.
Jim began carefully stepping between the bodies, making his way toward Lee and Harper. "Not sure," he said simply. "Could be that they aren't as strong, so the male infected feed on them."
Lee thought back to the young girl, the first infected he'd encountered as he stepped out of his house and into this new reality so long ago. She had been a scrawny thing but shockingly powerful. "I don't know about strength being the issue," Lee said. "Besides, if that were the case, why not kill and eat the young ones too?"
Jim shrugged. "I have no idea. I'm just making an observation."
Lee stared down at the bodies for a moment more. He could find nothing further to say on the subject, so he nodded back toward the buildings. "Let's get rid of these bodies. I don't want to give the assholes from Fuquay-Varina anything else to bitch about."
They drove the Humvee with the dozer attachment out to Front Street and lowered the blade so that it was only an inch off the ground. Lee watched from the sidewalk as Harper moved the vehicle in slow, broad strokes, the blade gathering up a tumble of pale bodies and pushing them toward a vacant lot at the northeastern corner of the intersection. Then Harper put the vehicle in reverse and backed slowly through the thickening blood, the tires slinging droplets of it down the sides of the vehicle. The thought of all that infected blood still gave Lee cause to worry, but over the last few months, several survivors—including Lee—had come into contact with infected blood and had not contracted the plague. They'd determined that simple blood-on-skin contact didn't contribute to infection.
After nearly an hour of back and forth, Harper had managed to clear Front Street of most of the bodies. The ones he couldn't get to—the ones that were huddled behind trees and in the corners of buildings—were picked up by hand and placed in the path of the dozer so he could push them into the growing pile. They mixed in pallets and pieces of wood and doused it all with diesel fuel and set it on fire with a road flare. Lee stood back from the blaze and watched the acrid black smoke curl into the sky as Harper drove the Humvee-turned-dozer back into the parking lot behind the buildings.
The use of fuel was a shame, but they didn't have the equipment to dig mass graves, and leaving rotting bodies out in the open was not only offensive to the senses but a serious health hazard, even if they were uninfected. An expired human body became a petri dish for diseases of all types. On top of that, the rotting meat had been known to draw other infected into the area. It was best to dispose of them quickly.
Beside him, Father Jim looked down Main Street. "They'll see the smoke, you know."
Lee shrugged. "Nothing I can do about it, Jim."
"I know." He put a hand on Lee's shoulder. "But you know that asshole White is going to say something."
Lee smiled and looked shocked. "Father… such language."
Jim waved him off. "To call Professor White anything but an asshole would be to lie. And lying lips are an abomination to the Lord."
LaRouche joined them in the middle of the street, his cheek still bulging from tobacco.
Lee nodded to him. "How long you keep that shit in your mouth?"
LaRouche spat. "Gotta conserve."
Both Jim and Lee shrugged and nodded. It was a valid point.
From the north end of Main Street they could hear the rumble of a bus downshifting, muted by distance. Main Street dipped down into a slight grade and leveled out as it crossed over the Cape Fear River. Lee could see clearly in the winter air, and from the other side of the bridge, he watched the big white bus come into view, led by a blue sixteen-passenger van. Those two vehicles would contain all that was left of Dunn and Fuquay-Varina, along with all the worldly possessions they had managed to carry out with them. Which wasn't much.
- On Sale
- Jan 7, 2014
- Page Count
- 350 pages