Slightly inclining her head, Petra affirmed what he suspected. “I have been in contact with a few people I know. They’re scrambling for information as well. There are rumors of a covert operation being implemented by the SWD, but there are no specifics about what that operation may be.”

“I hate being in the dark,” Dwayne complained.

“I will attempt to remedy that,” Petra vowed.

“You really are a tenacious creature,” Dwayne mused.

“I would have made a fantastic investigative reporter before humanity fell,” she conceded. “Of course, there will only be so far I can go before the information I secure for you will be considered top secret.”

“That has never stopped you before,” Dwayne said wryly. “You know how the Constabulary works.”

“Unfortunately, yes.”

“If I’m going to be efficient in my role as the Castellan, then I need to know what my dear Commandant is up to and she’s not going to tell me herself.” Dwayne folded his arms over his chest, feeling grim and uncertain.

“Understood. I’ll report back as soon as I have something.” Petra slid out of her chair and moved toward the doorway. “Will you need anything else?”

Dwayne shook his head, staring at the empty slots in the calendar glowing on his screen.

Petra shut the door behind her as Dwayne twisted his chair about and stared out the narrow window toward the capital building.

Chapter 3

As she hurried up the narrow cement staircase toward the heavy steel door at the top, Maria dragged in deep breaths of stale, humid air, preparing herself mentally. It was always hard to face what lay beyond the high walls of The Bastion. No matter how many times she patrolled the walls, her heart always sped up during the first few seconds on duty.

Her body armor was heavy and slightly claustrophobic. She hooked the strap of her weapon onto her armor, and it settled against her chest, a comforting, familiar weight. Her breath reverberated in her helmet as she swung around a landing and headed up the next flight of stairs. Above her, the door to the outside slid open and dark shapes blotted out her brief glimpse of the low-hanging, gray sky. The shapes morphed into soldiers descending the stairs after a long shift on the walls. They wore somber expressions inside their helmets as the hurried past her. Maria fiddled with the strap on her weapon one last time, then took the last few stairs in a rush.

Walking out onto the platform, her breath caught in her throat. The sky spread out in a panorama of dark clouds. Lightning flashed deep within the storm, and thunder echoed through the valley seconds later. Before her, the endless sea of the Scourge filled the wide expanse of the valley all the way to the foothills of the mountains towering above The Bastion. The creatures of her nightmare howled into the storm winds, their voices rising up to greet her. The sound of the Scourge crying out sent chills flowing down her back, her muscles seizing, and she forced a deep breath into her lungs. It was difficult to see them and not remember the terrible day that she had lost Ryan and almost her own life.

The virus that had brought back the dead also did a superb job of preserving them. Though many of the Scourge wore the grievous injuries that had killed them, they still retained a startlingly-fresh appearance. Wounds still wept blood and their flesh was remarkably free of decay. They looked disgusting, smelled rank, but were not rotting. They were dead, feral corpses that could survive the extreme heat of the summer and the terrible cold of the winter. The ISPV was potent and horrible in its power over the dead.

Swallowing hard, Maria hurried past the silent Maelstrom Platforms toward her post.

“Fucking goddamn Scrags,” Special Constable Kurt Jameson grumbled next to her as they took up their positions.

“Same old, same old. Never changes,” Maria answered, understanding his frustration all too well. It felt fruitless to stand on the walls day after day and stare down at the monsters humanity had become.

Jameson made a big show of hocking up a wad of phlegm, leaning over the rail, and spitting at the upturned faces far below. The action disgusted Maria and she averted her gaze. Beneath her, the Scourge howled and raged.

“Man, I wish we could just unload on them. Just fire away, watch their fuckin’ heads explode. Instead, we gotta just stand here so the civvies feel we’re doing something to protect them. It’s all show, Vanguard. I signed up to kill me some goddamn zombies,” Jameson said, resorting to outdated slang to describe the Scourge. He was bitter that right after he had joined the armed forces the brass had clamped down on ammunition expenditures. The stores were running low with no way of replenishment.

 “Hey, you know we’re not supposed to use that word,” Maria chastised him. “And we do what we gotta for the people we serve. It makes them feel comfortable and safe to see us up here.”

Jameson shook his head with agitation. His face was young and handsome under his visor with strong cheekbones, a square jawline, and large brown eyes framed by thick, dark lashes. Fastening his intense gaze on her, he said, “You got to see action. You’re one of the lucky ones. You actually got to kill some of them.”

“The final campaign was a failure,” she said tersely.

“Yeah, but it was an all-out assault on the Scrags right outside the wall. The engineers almost got the perimeter up before you got swarmed.”

“And causalities were high,” Maria reminded him, trying not to lose her temper. “I was lucky to get airlifted. I still have nightmares.” Her voice sounded harsh, but she couldn’t help it. So many had died in the fruitless push against the Scrags.

“We should just open fire on them. Kill them all.” Jameson waved at the masses of Scourge reaching toward them. Sometimes they would push up against the walls, crushing the bodies of their undead comrades into pulp. “I don’t know why they keep holding us back.”

“The tiltrotors don’t fly anymore. We wouldn’t have air support. And you know how every bullet has to be accounted for. Ammunition is scarce. You know we can’t fire without due cause or we get reprimanded.”

“There has to be a way,” Jameson persisted. Though he was always too exuberant in his desire to kill, she had never seen him so agitated. The president’s speech had them all on edge.

“Orders are orders, Special Constable. We do our jobs,” she answered after a brief hesitation. Expressing her frustrations wouldn’t be conducive to their time on the wall. It was mindless work, but it had a purpose. The well-trained soldier inside her struggled with just being an object of display in order to give a sense of security to the populace of the city. Looking down at her weapon, it felt ineffectual in her hands. The clip was loaded, but she wouldn’t be firing it. She would unload her weapon at the end of her patrol and turn in the full clips.

“C’mon, Vanguard, the orders are shit.” Jameson shook his head, his helmet bobbing up and down on his dark hair.

“Keep your opinions to yourself. Don’t let the Section Officer hear you, or it will be your ass.”

Jameson grudgingly obeyed, but his sour look reflected her own mood.

With a sigh, Maria looked back over the throngs of the Inferi Scourge filling the valley. Standing on the massive steel wall, she felt insignificant and overwhelmed.

“You asked to see me, sir?”

Maria ducked through the narrow doorway and into the small sweltering office where the Section Officer could usually be found. Today she was nowhere to be seen. A stranger sat in her place.

The thin man behind the desk glanced up. “Vanguard Martinez?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Take a seat.” He gestured to a chair.

The military headquarters was a massive stone building built flush against the wall. It was heavily fortified with reinforced steel. The interior was claustrophobic with low ceilings, thick walls, and warm air. Sitting on the uncomfortable metal chair, she tried to concentrate on anything but the sweat trickling down between her shoulder blades. Her dark hair fell over her shoulder in a long braid and her uniform clung to her moist skin. The armor had coolers, but the building was stifling. A fan whirled in the corner, lightly ruffling the short blond hair of the man before her. He was dressed in a white civilian suit, but had the aura of a man with power. Intently studying the scrolling information on his notepad, he lightly tapped his stylus against the desk.

“I’m the assistant to Commandant Kitchens. Do you know who that is?”

“Head of the Science Warfare Division,” she answered. She didn’t want to add that that arm of the military hadn’t done jack shit for the Constabulary in decades.

“Correct. My name is Mr. Petersen. I am here because you were selected by your superiors. I have been told you have an excellent record, are in perfect health, and can be counted on to perform to the utmost of your abilities.”

“Thank you, sir,” was all she could think to say.

“You’re of Dominican descent, I see,” he continued, his index finger lightly brushing over one of his pale eyebrows as he read the pad.

Maria was uncertain what her ethnicity had to do with her performance as a soldier and tried not to bristle. Instead, she nodded. “And Puerto Rican. But my family was located in San Antonio in the Republic of Texas when the plague started.” Copyright 2016 - 2023