It took all of Maria’s willpower not to stare at the dead soldier’s torn body.
“We fucked up,” Mikado grumbled, hooking a dead child through the eye. With an angry tug, he hauled it onto the top of the stack. It flopped there like a doll, its dead face staring at the rising sun.
Maria snagged another one by the shoulder and dragged it over. Guilt tore at her and she wondered why they had never even considered the confusion their armor and helmets might cause. “No one ever really knew how Scrags could recognize their own from the living. Hell, some people thought they had a supernatural ability.”
Mikado rolled his shoulders after dropping another Scourge on the growing pile of dead bodies. “Yeah, so now we know they visually ID us. What good does that do us now? Coleman is dead.”
Glancing at the carrier and the discarded helmets, Maria sighed. “We won’t make the same mistakes.”
Mikado kicked at the stack of the dead. “Fuckin’ Scrags. Coleman was a good guy.”
Together they returned to the main killing area to gather more bodies. Mikado gruffly shoved over a few Scourge and dispatched them with his weapon.
“Just keep focused, Mikado,” Maria said. She wished she felt something other than despair. Anger would serve her well right now, but the day had just begun and already things had gone awry.
Mikado hooked another corpse, this one a large man, and dragged it away.
Turning, Maria saw Omondi and Denman gently placing the pieces of Coleman’s body in the body bag. Once the seal was activated, the body would keep until it was returned to the city. At least Coleman would get a decent burial, unlike the poor people turned Inferi Scourge.
Snagging another corpse with her hook, Maria towed it along behind her. It was heavier than it looked and its limbs caught on the ground a few times. Looking down, Maria saw it was a woman dressed in the tattered remains of a dress. Her shoes were long gone and her head was a mass of dirty red hair. It was terrifying how well-preserved the ISPV kept its victims. They looked fresh and newly-dead, yet Maria knew that this creature was older than she was.
“Check this out,” Jameson called out. He was kneeling over one of the dead bodies. “It’s wearing a diamond necklace. Can we, like, take it?”
“We don’t rob the dead,” Omondi answered in a grim voice. “Our orders are to salvage only what is useful.”
With a slight shrug, Jameson hooked the creature and hauled it to another growing pile.
Omondi and Denman deposited the bag with Coleman’s remains into one of the outer storage compartments of the vehicle. The sun was higher in the sky, hovering over the mountain range. It was growing warmer now, but sweat was a thing of the past. Maria felt like she always did since the procedure: cold and disconnected from the world around her. Glancing at the Scourge, Maria wondered if they felt that way, too.
“What do we do now?” Maria asked, observing the cleared area around the carrier.
“We move on to the gate,” Omondi responded. “But first I need to report in. While I’m doing that, chart our way through this horde. It’s going to be slow going if we have to kill everything in our path.”
Maria saluted and slung herself up into the carrier. Cormier was already in the driver’s seat running a diagnostic on the carrier. Activating her console, Maria quickly scanned the crowded valley. The Inferi Scourge that had been swarming the carrier no longer sensed prey and had slipped into torpor, but there were still Inferi Scourge traveling toward the carrier. Believing that the carrier held prey, the oncoming herd was marching through the Inferi Scourge that had entered torpor. It was likely that the new arrivals would attack the carrier.
Omondi leaned over her, staring at her readouts. “More are coming.”
“The carrier is drawing them.”
“The ones out there stopped when they saw our faces,” Omondi pointed out.
“Yes, but the ones surrounding the vehicle identified us as the occupants of the carrier. The new ones will just see the carrier as the transport of potential prey. They’ll surround us and attack,” Maria answered. She watched the shifting mass approaching on her screen. “We can’t use the carrier to go to the gate or we’ll end up in the same position as before.”
“We’ll be constantly attacked by Scrags wherever we go. That will slow us down significantly,” Omondi observed, his voice heavy with his frustration. “What do you advise?”
“Strip it down, activate its defense system, and leave it until we’ve cleared more of the valley.” The dread that filled her was unexpected. Despite her transformation into an Inferi Boon, she was still unnerved by the massive horde. To not have shelter from them made her uneasy even though she had already walked among them without harm. Yet, it was hard to forget that some of them had torn apart Coleman.
“Agreed. Let’s get what we need and move on. Cormier, shut it down and get ready to walk.”
Cormier scowled at him, then shrugged. “Figures. I finally get a sweet ride to cruise around in and end up walking.
Omondi flashed the driver a sardonic smile. He climbed out of the carrier and soon his rich baritone was barking out orders.
Tracing over the screen with her fingertips, Maria marked a path through the Inferi Scourge in torpor. If the soldiers moved rapidly, they could avoid the larger horde about to descend on the carrier. There were snarls of Scourge all the way to the gate that would have to be destroyed. That would slow the squad, but then again part of their job was to destroy the Scourge.
Once she was done plotting their course, Maria transferred the information to a pad and secured her work station. Hopefully, the Scourge wouldn’t tear the vehicle apart. Shoving the pad into a big pocket in her armor, she joined the others in collecting extra weapons and equipment.
Jameson snagged one of the toolkits for the gate and glanced toward Maria as she gathered up the backup bolts for the weapons. “It’s not like I thought it would be,” he said.
“What do you mean?” Maria attached the bag of bolts to the bottom of her backpack, snapping the clasps together.
“I thought it would be...different.” Jameson shrugged slightly. “I thought they wouldn’t look so...”
“Human,” Cormier offered. “They look human under all the dirt and blood.”
“That’s why they fooled people in the beginning,” Cruz reminded them. “They looked wounded and scared, not...what they are.”
Scrunching up his face, Jameson shrugged his shoulders. “Up close it’s just different.”
“I can kill them,” Holm said from nearby. “I don’t care what they look like.”
Jameson bristled. “I just meant it’s not like in the vids, sir. It’s different. They’re different. I thought it would be more...”
“Fun,” Denman finished. “You thought it would be like the action vids.”
Holm chuckled, hoisting an extra gun over one broad shoulder. “At least they aren’t howling for our flesh. I like them docile. It makes them easier to kill.”
“Like shooting fish in a barrel,” Jameson grunted.
“We have the upper hand. They always used to have it before, but now the rules have changed.” Maria secured the lockers and motioned the rest of the soldiers out.
“I like these new rules,” Mikado said, leaping from the carrier.
“So do I.” Cruz followed.
Maria, too, felt uneasy with their circumstances, but they had to make the best of it. There were many unknown variables and no matter how meticulous they had been in their plans, something could always go awry. Coleman’s death had certainly brought that reality home to all of them.
Once everyone had exited the vehicle, Cormier activated the defense system as she disembarked. It would sporadically unleash a high-voltage pulse that would fry any Scourge touching it. The driver sighed, heaved her pack onto her back, and sauntered after Maria.
“We need to hurry before that big group heading our way arrives. It’ll be hell pushing through them,” Maria called out as she joined the squad gathered around Omondi.
“How does it look?” Omondi asked.
Maria pulled out her pad and handed it over to her commanding officer. As he studied it, she swept her gaze over the Scourge encircling the squad. The howls of the approaching horde roused them from their torpor state. Their eyes were darting around, seeking out human prey.
“We need to move. They’re getting stirred up,” Maria said.
With a grim nod of his head, Omondi started off, gesturing for the squad to follow. Falling in behind him, Maria matched his stride. The Chief Defender deftly wove his way through the swaying forms. It was disconcerting how the Scourge’s cloudy eyes shifted to watch him pass. Somewhere in the reanimated brains of the Scourge he registered as one of their own. Instead of attacking, they swayed and moaned.
Behind her Maria could hear the others shoving the Scourge out of their way. Agitated laughter and low conversation mingled with the growing howl of the approaching mob. The dead forest of flesh around her was constantly shifting, growing increasingly animated as the howling coaxed them out of their malaise.