Authors: M.E. Betts
Dead of Winter
Shari was crouched beside a very thick oak tree in her underwear, tank top and running shoes, gazing through her thermal goggles. The sound of the motors was very close, but she couldn't make out the headlights over the hill that lay about a half-mile to the south.
Probably about a minute 'til go time,
she thought, looking for the infrared images of the sadists who were headed her way.
Kandi snickered beside her. "And from the looks of those nips poking through your tank top, you can't
'til go-time. A bit excited, are we?"
Shari rolled her eyes.
it's just cold out here.
It was, in all honesty, a chilly night compared to the weather they'd had throughout the summer, dipping down to around sixty. Shari considered it to be a welcome relief from the heat wave they had endured for the past several months, since late spring. Even the nights had barely dipped down below seventy-five degrees. She wondered about the coming winter, and what would happen come spring, after most of the undead had frozen solid only to thaw again as rancid puddles. She was fairly certain that it would destroy their brains, thus rendering them fully dead, but she knew that it would, at the very least, take away their mobility.
They'll be nothing but landmines after that,
she thought with a smile.
Landmines, at best.
"I suppose they will," Kandi agreed. "We'd best watch where we step, then. That would be a dreadful way to go, wouldn't it? Being grazed with the immobilized teeth of a zombie puddle?"
Shari's gaze shifted about fifty feet away, to where Daphne was checking over the traps she had set up around a small clearing. Daphne was just as immodestly attired as Shari, wearing only her panties and a small fitted T-shirt. Even from fifty feet away, Shari could make out the rippling muscles of Daphne's lower arms. She was petite and skinny, but with forearms, wrists, and fingers that didn't match the rest of her body. The bulk came from her extensive use of knives, throwing sticks, and all things that required a death grip. Daphne was, in Shari's observation, a savant with such weapons.
Now if I could just get her using guns,
she'd be even more of a killing machine.
She saw Daphne slinking in her direction. The moonlight and the faint glow of the campfire 75 feet to the east, in the middle of the clearing, revealed a satisfied smile on the young woman's childlike face. It was a face one would expect to see on a Celtic goddess, glowing nearly white in the moonlight and sprinkled with freckles.
"All good?" Shari asked.
Daphne nodded. "Yeah, it's all set, so...I guess we'll see if it works." She nodded toward the fire. "Let's head back over to the campsite...follow me, but be careful."
"You're damn right, I'll be careful," Shari said. "I don't want to find out the hard way where one of your spring-traps is at." She grabbed Daphne's well-muscled lower arm as they walked. Daphne led her to the far east side of the camp, between two twisted apple trees laden with ripe fruit.
"This is the sweet spot," Daphne said, grinning. "Just remember to come back through here on our way out."
Shari nodded, giving her a thumbs-up. "Will do." She shivered, crossing her arms in front of her chest. "Well, it shouldn't be long now. They were almost here when I checked a minute ago."
Daphne frowned, sliding her goggles from the top of her head and down onto her face. "I hope they see us. I'd hate to think we went through all this for nothing." She rubbed her arms in an effort to warm them. "In our panties, at that."
Shari shook her head. "Don't worry, they'll see us. This campfire is the only light besides their headlights for God knows how many miles in any direction, and we're not that far off the road." She glanced to the northeast, in the direction of the small cabin where they had left the horse, the ATV, and most of their possessions. She saw the thermal equine form of her horse, Eva, as she stood sleeping near the cabin.
Shari turned her gaze back toward the road. The sadists had gotten so close, she could hear their voices, yelling back and forth to one another, over the sound of their motors. She and Daphne had been able to cut them off, knowing the route they would take. 24 was the only road with an accessible bridge to get across the Ohio River, crossing from northern Kentucky into Illinois. The only other bridge in the vicinity was the one on 45, which was jam-packed with wrecks. And so Shari and Daphne had gone ahead and set up their death traps while the sadists had camped out the previous night and following day at a motel further south on 24. Daphne was always sharpening sticks to use in various ways, such as throwing sticks and stars, punji pits and, in this case, spring traps. She had formed a circular perimeter around the campsite, about seventy-five feet in diameter, lined with spring-traps. The only sizeable, safe opening was between the two apple trees, the spot she had pointed out to Shari. That was where they would make their escape when the time came.
This was the third group of sadists that Shari and Daphne had hunted down in the two weeks since they had met. It had slowed their progress toward southern Illinois, where Shari's parents had lived, but they considered it to be well worth their time. Their prey was carefully chosen. In all three cases, Shari had heard radio reports from survivors of nearby settlements. The groups of sadists would pillage and murder their way through these population centers. Some of the survivors of these attacks were in possession of ham radios, and had transmitted warnings, urging listeners to be ready and on the defensive.
Although Shari and Daphne actively hunted the sadists down, it wasn't a task that they enjoyed. They felt, simply, that somebody had to do it. The victims of these sadists' conquests were invariably minding their own business, trying to live day by day in a world overrun by undead. Shari and Daphne were beginning to think of peacekeeping as their mission, their reason to get up in the morning. While they didn't feel entirely right killing, they felt that somebody had to instill fear in the hearts of the sadists one way or another.
It's not like we can just arrest them all,
Shari often reminded herself.
Due process is out of the question.
Kandi would generally reply to these thoughts by telling Shari that there was still due process.
"You, Princess. You and your ginger sidekick are judge, jury and executioner."
There was no longer any semblance of military or police force, and there hadn't been since the first day of the undead back in April. It had been April 22nd, the day before Easter. Nobody knew, even four months later, what exactly had happened to make the dead rise, or why no organized effort had been made to contain it. Shari figured that the rapid onset of the plague would have made it difficult for authorities to do much about it, even if they had really wanted to.
On the morning of April 22nd, the world had been running the same as it ever did. The stores and roads were bustling with people making their final grocery runs before Easter, and making their way to the homes of friends and relatives. By nightfall, as far as anyone could tell, the world was completely unraveled.
Shari couldn't be sure about the rest of the planet, but she was fairly certain, due to radio reports and word of mouth, that all of North America had been afflicted at once. No one held out much hope that the rest of the globe had fared any better.
She still wasn't clear about what had caused the situation, although it didn't appear that it had needed to spread, but rather started everywhere at roughly the same time. Because of that fact, Shari didn't suppose it was likely to be caused by a virus. She wondered if she would ever know what happened, or if anybody would. She remembered what Fauna had once said--that everywhere was now "the wild west." It was an accurate enough description of the post-apocalyptic world that Shari had become acquainted with since leaving Fauna's farm two weeks ago. She supposed that she had become a vigilante.
Somebody's gotta make things right,
Shari could make out the dappled light of the headlights shining through the foliage as the sadists approached from the south.
Here we go
. She and Daphne took off their goggles, hanging them from a branch on one of the apple trees.
"I told you, that's a campfire!" Shari heard one of the sadists yell over the roar of the motorcade. It was a woman's voice...the first female sadist that she and Daphne had encountered. The group came to a stop, their vehicles idling. "Somebody had to have built that."
"Then someone's out there," another sadist, a male this time, added.
"Can you peckersnots just be quiet for a second, please?" a second man snapped.
A round of laughter bubbled from the others around him, amused at the expense of their comrade. From the tone of his voice, Shari was guessing that he was the usual, cliche ringleader these groups always seemed to have. Each vehicle appeared to have only one passenger, but Shari couldn't be certain. It was hard to tell how many sets of headlights there were, but she estimated somewhere between two and three dozen, mostly ATVs from the sound of them. Dirtbikes, ATVs and other off-road vehicles were a hot commodity, due to the wrecks cluttering the majority of the roadways, and an item that the sadists went out of their way to acquire.
"Robbie and Pete, you guys lead the way," the alpha male said.
Good for them
"But we can't get our ATVs over these guardrails," Shari heard one of the men object.
"I know you can't, dingleberry," the alpha responded. Shari snorted along with the sadists this time, amused by the colorful insults he slung at his minions. "So leave 'em here, then get your asses over that railing and into the woods."
Shari heard Robbie and Pete turn off their ignitions. They left the highway and entered the woods as Shari and Daphne made their way toward the exit between the two apple trees, dousing the campfire with a bucket full of river water before they went. They lowered their thermal goggles down over their eyes and huddled together behind one of the trees, waiting for the beam of the mens' flashlights to reveal their location as they approached the opposite side of the circle, seventy-five feet away. Bright yellow light flooded the ground around Shari and Daphne as one of the men pointed their flashlight toward the tree behind which they were crouched. The two women left the cover of the tree in front of them and ran southeast until they were out of the flashlights' range, obscured by the densely treed wood.
"There's two girls down here!" Shari heard one of the men shout to the rest of the group waiting back on the road. "And they're in their panties!"
"They armed?" the leader shouted back after a momentary, surprised pause.
"Didn't appear to be," the sadist--Robbie or Pete--responded. He snorted and lowered his voice. "I guess a cavity search is in order!" The statement was followed by hearty round of laughter and agreement from the rest of the group, including the female.
Shari and Daphne gathered the weapons they had stashed before running further into the woods. Shari slung her AK-47 over her shoulder, then quickly buckled her holster around her waist, where she stowed the revolver she had taken before leaving Fauna's farm. Daphne had a messenger bag filled with sharpened throwing sticks. They crept back toward the road until they could make out the infrared forms of the sadists, both the ones on the road and the ones about to step into Daphne's traps. The larger of the two was the first to go. He set off the trigger, releasing a springy sapling whose branches had all been sharpened, turning it, in effect, into a mace. Shari heard an abrupt
as the sapling cut through the air. The sadist let out a small gasp as one of the spikes skewered his right temple, piercing through to the left side. He collapsed onto his left side, bending the sapling down, still connected to his skull, until it dislodged violently, sending bits of bone and brain matter flying through the air as it sprang back to its upright form.
"Pete?" the surviving sadist said in a loud whisper.
You're next, Robbie,
Shari thought. She watched him take two more steps forward before setting off the trap.
. The spikes on the sapling pierced Robbie's ribcage in two places.
"Robbie, Pete, what the hell is going on?" the leader called from the road. Robbie tried to call out in response, but he couldn't raise his voice enough for the other sadists to hear him. Shari supposed that at least one of his lungs were likely to be collapsed. She realized that more sadists were now headed in her direction.
"Daphne, can you finish him from here?" she whispered.
Daphne shrugged, taking a throwing stick from her bag. "I'll try." She squinted, peering through the crowd of black walnut saplings and overgrown pines. She launched the sharpened stick, which was deflected by a sapling. She shook her head, grimacing. "Too many trees and shit in the way, and there are more assholes coming."