Authors: David Bernstein
Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #Genre Fiction, #Horror, #Science Fiction & Fantasy, #Science Fiction, #Post-Apocalyptic
Machines of the Dead 3
Copyright 2015 by David Bernstein
Maria pinned the snowmobile’s throttle to the handlebar grip and raced up the highway. Zaun was holding on tight, squeezing her abdomen and making it difficult for her to breathe.
Someone was shooting at them.
Jill was dead.
Jack had been shot.
Everything had been going so smoothly, and then in seconds everything was going terribly wrong.
She’d been on the battlefield, performed dangerous and covert operations, and been involved in gunfights where she was pinned down and under heavy fire. But it had never become easy to deal with. There was no getting used to life-threatening situations.
Staring ahead, all she concentrated on was reaching the overpass. A ramp veered off to the right—the Galleria Mall’s exit—and traveled around and over the highway.
Moving at such a speed, Maria knew it would be difficult for the shooter to hit her or Zaun, but not impossible. Based on how Jack and Jill had been shot, she knew the shooter was a damn good shot and was somewhere off to the right, positioned on the hill. Having glanced over a few times, she’d seen a strip mall about 200 feet away. There were no other structures in the area—only open terrain and thick woods behind them.
Of course, there could be more than one shooter, but she didn’t think so. Single shots had been taken. They were spaced apart—measured and deliberate.
The snowmobile dipped and Maria had the breath expelled from her lungs as Zaun squeezed harder. He was yelling something to her, but the roar of the engine and the whipping of wind made his words indecipherable. She only hoped he’d be able to hold on until they reached safety.
A minute later, they made it to the overpass. The sled zoomed right under and passed it. But she’d gotten them out of the sniper’s sights. The overpass was a large blockade ensuring them plenty of room to maneuver safely. She turned the snowmobile around and headed back under the overpass and killed the engine.
“We have to get Jack,” Zaun said.
Maria hopped off the sled. “We’ll be dead before we get off the sled to grab him,” she said, and pulled the Browning 300 from the back of the vehicle. She pointed it back down the snow-covered highway and peered through the scope. Jack was alive. She watched as he shot a few undead. There were a number of bot-controlled corpses in the area and more coming from the mall-side. A few were crouched around Jill’s corpse, tearing it to pieces. Good, she thought. That should buy Jack some time.
Maria may not have liked the girl, but she hadn't deserved to go out the way she did.
“We have to do something,” Zaun pressed, removing his helmet.
“Jack’s okay for now,” she lied, hoping to calm Zaun down. She needed him focused. He was injured and there wasn’t much he could do but hobble around. “I’m going to check if I can see the shooter. Wait here.”
Maria crept to the edge of the overpass wall. There was an incline of snow-covered earth that impaired her view. Moving farther out could prove deadly.
She turned around, headed to the other end of the overpass and climbed up the bank of snow to the road overhead. She crawled, staying low to the guardrail. Higher up, she had a better view of the strip mall while remaining hidden. Peering through her rifle’s scope, she scanned the roof of the building and nearly lost her breath at seeing Cable.
Maria’s surprise quickly turned to rage. She’d been there when they had a chance to kill him after Zaun bested him in hand-to-hand combat. She could take a chance and try a shot, but at her current distance, along with the gun most likely not calibrated as well as it could be, she’d probably miss. His body was partially blocked by something too. The best tool in her arsenal right now was the element of surprise.
Maria crawled backward and slid down the hill.
Zaun was still sitting on the sled.
“It’s Cable,” she said.
“What . . .” Zaun smacked the seat. “Damn. I should’ve killed that son of a bitch. I never thought we’d see him again.”
“Yeah, well, we won’t make that mistake again.”
“See anyone else?”
“No, but that doesn’t mean he’s alone.”
“So what’s the plan?”
Normally, Maria would want to scout the area and make sure Cable was unaccompanied. Decide the best course of action. But time was of the essence. Jack was injured, probably dying, or would be dead soon if they didn’t get him out of there.
“I’m going to sneak over to the building and kill him along with anyone else in my way," Maria said.”
going over to that building,” Zaun said, correcting her.
Maria shook her head. “You’re injured.
don’t need you opening that wound. And besides, you’ll only slow me down and get yourself shot.”
Zaun climbed off the sled and stood. “I’m going.”
Maria shoved him, and Zaun tumbled backward to the ground.
“What the hell?” he said, wincing in pain. “Are you crazy?”
“I’m making a point. I know you want to help, and you can, but not by coming with me. Did you see how easily I knocked you down?”
She held out a hand and helped him up.
“I get it,” he said, “but I can still help.”
“Don’t make me knock your ass out,” Maria threatened.
“I can’t just sit here when Jack’s life is in danger, and you’re going out there against who knows how many people, including Cable. He’s not just a psycho, but a well-trained psycho.”
Maria shoved the Browning into Zaun’s arms. “You’re going to cover me and keep Jack safe, and you’re going to do it all from here.” Zaun was no marksman, but more than capable of helping out.
Maria pointed to where the snow-covered incline met the cement wall of the overpass. “Creep out a little farther than there. You’ll be out of Cable’s view. Keep an eye on Jack. Take out any zombies that get near him if he passes out.”
“What about you?”
“I’ll be fine,” Maria said. “If Jack seems okay, check on me once in a while.” She smiled and winked. “Just stay out of view of the strip mall. Cable’s going to know we’re here. He knows we won’t leave Jack.”
Zaun stared at the weapon in his hands, looking perplexed.
“Zaun?” Maria asked.
“Are you with me?”
“Yeah,” he said, nodding. “Of course. It’s just so screwed up. This all happened so fast.”
“I need you. Jack needs you.”
Maria went over to the snowmobile and removed her M4 rifle. She slung it over her shoulder and then placed two extra magazines for the weapon in her pockets. With her Glock 21 strapped to her hip, she was ready to go.
“Stay safe, and don’t try to be a hero,” she told Zaun. “I’ll be back soon.”
Maria left the underpass from the backside. She trudged through the snow across the open field, still below the exit ramp’s height. The snow was deep in places, making her work. Sweat quickly built up along her skin—not all of it from exertion.
She was out in the open now; exposed like a wart along smooth flesh. The few trees that dotted the open terrain served as waypoints for her to catch her breath and feel somewhat safe. Keeping an eye on the building—only able to see a view of the side now—she hadn’t seen any movement since leaving the overpass.
Pushing on, she made it to a guardrail just short of the woods beyond, realizing she’d run into another road. Leaping over the steel barricade, she hurried across the snow-covered street and into the forest. She doubted anyone from the strip mall would be able to make out her tracks, but it did little to make her feel better.
She worked her way through the woods, staying far enough from the tree line so she couldn’t be spotted. Many of the trees were bare leaving only the evergreens as cover. She hadn’t heard a gunshot since Jack had fired his weapon. Whether that was a good thing, she did not know. The lack of any shooting meant Cable wasn’t using his weapon. No one else had died. Unless Jack
dead, hence the reason he wasn’t firing his weapon. Or maybe there simply weren’t any undead near him yet.
Regardless, Maria couldn’t worry about any of that now. She needed to stay on mission using getting back to her daughter and saving her friends as the ultimate motivators.
As she made her way to the tree line, she was grateful it wasn’t snowing, wanting a clear line of sight. But the wind was picking up, and the gusts were biting and chilling her sweat-lined body. She tightened the strings on her coat, helping to seal off the cold. Jack could be dying. She didn’t want to think like that, but it was the truth. Taking a few deep breaths, pumping herself up, she unslung the M4, and bolted from the skeletal forest.
She reached the guardrail, vaulting it with ease, then ran down the road and up the entrance to the strip mall. Like in a dream, she worked hard but moved slow, the deep snow like mud. Her eyes watered from the wind. She was an easy target for Cable or anyone else he had with him. If a gunman had her in his sights, she was dead. But through teary eyes, she pushed on and scanned the back of the building. All the windows were intact, so she listened for the sound of glass being smashed out, and kept a keen eye on the roof where a sniper would most likely be.
When she made it to the building, she bent over and sucked in much needed air. Her chest heaved, and the cold air made her cough. Then the echo of gunshots sounded, chilling her more than the wicked winter weather. They were coming from around the building in the front. She knew it was Jack, the shots not from a rifle but a handgun. She smiled. Jack was still alive.
She inhaled a lungful of frigid air, slung the M4 over her shoulder and pulled out her sidearm. She unzipped her jacket and slid it off, then pulled off her flannel shirt and t-shirt. She rubbed a few handfuls of snow over her skin to remove the sweat. The cold was heart-stopping and caused her teeth to chatter, but the action was necessary. She needed the sweat gone, knowing it could kill her if hypothermia set in.
Finished, she quickly re-dressed and hugged herself, trying to warm up.
She inched to the corner of the building and peered around it. Seeing the way was clear, she hurried along the wall and came to a door about midway to the front. It was locked. She moved on to the front of the building and was able to see the overpass but not Zaun. Good, he was staying hidden.
Jack and the damaged snowmobile were about 200 feet away. Bodies were scattered around him—the undead that Jack had put down. A quick count showed there were ten undead heading his way with most coming from the Galleria’s parking lot and the adjacent woods. There had been a lot of noise earlier, and Jack’s continued firing would only attract more of the bot-controlled things. As long as he was conscious, he should have enough ammo to keep them at bay, unless of course a number too great came along. This would be a terrible time for a herd.
There had been a lot of blood loss, and Jack’s energy would be drained. Jill’s corpse would only last so long before the undead wanted newer meat. She had to get this over with quickly.
Maria poked her head out from around the corner of the building and came face to face with a zombie. Its putrid odor of rot and death hit her like an invisible wave. She staggered backward. The thing’s face was intact and appeared fresh, but the eyes had been burned out. Regardless of its blindness, it reached for her.
Ready to shoot, Maria thought better, and withdrew her hunting knife. She needed to be as silent as possible. She led the thing to the side of the building before stabbing it in the temple, ending its unnatural life. It stutter-stepped, then collapsed to the ground.
After wiping off the gore from the blade, she sheathed the weapon and proceeded around the corner to the front of the building. The storefronts were all glass, granting anyone inside a fine view of the outside. The first tenant was an insurance office. She tried the door and found it locked. She could have easily shot out the glass and made her way inside. But again, the noise would alert Cable to her presence.
She moved on to the next door, but it too was locked.
Coming to the halfway point of the building, she found a solid door that led to the second level where other businesses were located. Pulling on the handle, the door opened. A stairwell shrouded in gloom, save for light coming from behind her and a small window above, awaited.
Sidearm in hand, she slowly ascended the staircase and made it to the top without trouble. Opening another door, she found a hallway leading to the right and left, overhead skylights illuminating the way. She took a moment and listened. The place was as silent as a graveyard at midnight.
After giving her eyes a moment to adjust to the lower level of light, she went left, and passed by two offices with the doors closed before coming to one with the door wide open. Peering inside, she saw chairs around a coffee table littered with magazines. A reception counter was located along the back wall. She expected to see ceiling tiles hanging, chairs overturned, and everything in disarray. But things were normal-looking, as if no one had entered the area since the undead arrived. For a moment, she wanted to sit down and pretend she was somewhere else, simply waiting for an appointment. Something normal. Maybe a checkup for her daughter. She looked down at her right hand, the hand that would normally be holding her small child’s hand if they had come in for a doctor’s appointment. Her heart wrenched.