Sixteen long months had come and gone since the outbreak. Colin had quickly learned to sleep light and to keep most of his gear in his pack. Until the Command Group had been organized enough to setup perimeters and watches, he had not remembered what a full eight hours of sleep felt like.
People had come and gone from the main group. Some had decided to go it on their own, but no one had ever been intentionally left behind. As a result, the number of people that Command Group had taken charge of protecting had steadily increased since the group was forced from Gatlinburg six months ago. The Command Group’s standing mission was to save as many as possible regardless of their ability and get them to safety.
So, when a signal came across the camp that afternoon, Colin’s ears perked up.
The signal was not the blaring revelry one would expect at boot camp since the group had long ago discovered that giving away your position to the Diseased was a sure-fire way to be found and tracked for days on end in some cases.
The signal was a whistle. This particular signal resembled the mating call of toucans in the South American rainforests; at least, that is what the hippie that came up with the idea for the Command Group’s signals had said. Colin did not remember the man’s name and he did not care that the man was gone. The people with the tree-hugger mentality had not lasted long since the Disease had hit.
“Shit,” grumbled Colin as he threw open his sleeping bag and fished out a fresh pair of socks from his pack. His boots were still damp with sweat from his watch shift that ended less than an hour ago.
Regardless of how long his shift was Colin had always changed his socks every five hours – usually two pairs a shift. But since a scout team had gone missing, the Command Group had decided to double the men on watch and Colin had been going through a lot of socks in the past day or two. He took a lot of flak from the other Scout Leaders for his obsession with clean, dry socks, but he was not about to risk blisters or infection.
Colin understood that mobility was the key to survival. Unfortunately, he and the other Scout Leaders also started to realize that the more Civies the group took charge of the less mobile the group became as a whole.
Colin stopped moving after he finished lacing his boots in order to listen for the signal again. The smell of cooked Spam from a nearby fire permeated his canvas lean-to and Colin could hear some Civies complain about having to wait in line behind a couple of Scouts who were about to head out for the afternoon watch.
As Colin heard the signal sweep through the camp once more, he slowed his pace to gather his thoughts. The signal was for a returning scout team, not a Diseased sighting.
Only there were not any active teams expected back. The only scout team that was not in camp or on watch had failed to report in two days ago.
Despite his aching muscles screaming at him to lie back down, Colin turned over on his stomach and did two dozen pushups to get his blood pumping. Afterwards, he buttoned up his coat, grabbed a few stale coffee beans from his pack, and left the relative warmth of his canvas lean-to for the crisp December air.
Colin had given up on the comfort of a hot cup of coffee on a cold morning, but the coffee beans still contained caffeine and that was all he needed at the moment. As he walked towards the center of the camp towards the command tent, he was stopped by a couple of his scouts with whom he had just finished the morning watch.
“Did I hear that signal right, boss?” Johnny said. “Me and Harry didn’t think there was any teams out. Did y’all send any last night?”
Johnny was a short man and kept himself in good shape. He was not overly bulky, but his muscles were still visible under his layers of clothing. Colin wondered where Johnny was able to find protein enough to maintain his mass.
Harry stood in stark contrast to Johnny. He was tall and skinny with hawkish features and without a trace of muscle on his sinewy body. However, despite the lack of apparent muscle, Harry was never one to complain and always kept up during long hikes in full gear with a heavy pack. He also served as Colin’s second in command.
“No. None yesterday, at least,” Colin replied. “Let me go see. I’ll check back with you in a bit. Tell the guys to be ready to move out. We may get called up.”
Colin continued towards the command tent to join the other Scout Leaders that would already be gathered in the group’s largest tent. The command tent belonged to the group’s leader, Allen, and doubled as a planning room for the Scout Leaders and Allen’s personal tent. This arrangement had not afforded him much privacy, Colin had noticed, but wanting to never miss any important information Allen had insisted on the arrangement.
“What’s going on?” Colin asked Sid as he approached the command tent. He could hear muffled and agitated voices behind the tent flap over Sid’s shoulder that indicated a debriefing was already in progress.
Sid had been Colin’s friend since the men were in grade school. Never one for details, Sid had apparently stepped outside to finish off one of his cigarettes. Like almost everything else in the supply bags, cigarettes were quickly becoming a rare commodity. It had been a couple months since their caravan entered the mountains and the houses they had been able to find on scouting parties were yielding less and less supplies and more and more mouths to feed.
Colin and Sid had often mused about which staple crop was more important once they got to where they were going – tobacco or coffee. Potatoes were certainly in the running for their potential to produce vodka. However, barley and hops remained on top of the two men’s priority for cultivated crops once they were established in a settlement.
Colin tossed Sid a coffee bean and held out a hand to wait for a drag from the cigarette. Colin did not used to smoke, but he did not used to do a lot of things he had found himself doing since the Disease hit. Having to shoot former friends and family in the head was on the top of that list.
“Marshall’s team is back from their scout,” Sid replied as he slowly exhaled the smoke and reluctantly handed his cigarette to Colin. The temperature of the air was just cool enough to cause his breath to condense in the air and Colin could not tell when the smoke ended and Sid’s actual breath began. “Doesn’t sound good. He’s short at least two men.”
The last time Colin saw Marshall was when he had left with his scout team on a foraging mission a couple of nights ago. The team had been missing for around thirty-six hours. In Colin’s experience, scouts that were overdue more than eight hours did not come back. The Command Group had already started looking into forming another scout team. Colin’s second in command, Harry, was the frontrunner to lead that team.
“Shit,” Colin replied as he handed the stale cigarette back to Sid and began to scan the surrounding area for any signs of Diseased. The two men let the word hang in the air for what felt like a full minute as their eyes wandered along the two ridges on either side of the camp. “Let’s head back in.”
Sid eyed the cherry on the end of his cigarette, took another long drag and passed the cigarette to Colin. He could feel the warmth of the lit tobacco as he took the final drag that caused the filter to begin to burn. He stamped it out on the cold ground, blew out the smoke, and pulled back the tent flap for Sid.
“…or more on either side of the road. All of them were camouflaged or hiding on either side of the road waiting for us to get past a choke point they had created,” Marshall reported. “If the slow ones in the back hadn’t gotten too excited when our two leads entered, my whole team would have been caught in the mix.”
“What’s going on?” Colin asked.
Marshall seemed taller and skinner than he used to be. All of the men in the Command Group seemed taller and skinner than they had been in their previous life, but Marshall’s facial features had become more sunken than the rest in recent weeks. Colin suddenly realized why and felt for his friend. However, it was not exactly sorrow that Colin felt as sorrow implied a certain level grief or regret.
He had come to realize that dwelling on loss, whether it was a personal loss or close friend’s personal loss, tended to slow people down. Colin did not like to be slowed. So while he felt for Marshall’s recent loss, Colin refused to feel sorry for the man.
Marshall looked annoyed at having to repeat himself and quickly summarized the report he had just finished: “A few Diseased packs worked together to spring a trap on my team. Luckily, we didn’t…”
“…it’s cold and they were too far gone,” Allen interrupted. “They were too slow to spring their trap effectively. Luck had nothing to do with it, god damn it! It was sloppy execution on their part and poor planning on our part.” A long and awkward pause followed.
The fact that Allen was not there with Marshall when it happened did not matter. A former infantry Captain in the Army, Allen was the sort of leader that took responsibility for his troops. He had several deployments under his belt and had proven that he knew what he was doing since he had taken over the Command Group.
The group had established that a Scout Leader was at fault for his team’s failures, even if he was not present when the mistake was made. Colin knew it was a leader’s responsibility to own up to his team’s mistake. All of the Scout Leaders knew this. It took a lot of the he-said she-said bullshit out of screw-ups and allowed the group to get on with what they needed to get done at the end of the day – survive.
“Why were your leads in the center of the road?” Allen continued, “And how do you know you weren’t tracked back to the camp?”
Marshall started to rebut, but Allen shot him a glance and gave a reprimanding shake of his head – his way asking Marshall not to argue. Usually, Allen was not this harsh on the Scout Leaders, but he had just gotten off the same watch as Colin and was too tired to show restraint or understanding.
When the group was first being formed, Allen was hesitant to take the lead. Even if he had, Colin and the rest of his former high school buddies that now made up the Scout Leaders would have been hesitant to follow him. It was not until the men realized that this was not your run-of-the-mill apocalypse that Colin urged Allen to step-up. Military training and tactics proved far more effective than any of the collective plans they cooked up together.
Colin’s personal favorite and the first one the men had tried was to live on an island in the middle of a lake, but they did not anticipate that the Diseased could still swim.
Before coming north, Sid wanted to try an abandoned prison turned museum. However, the Diseased seem to know the men were there and they were constantly under attack from hordes of Diseased.
It was then that Allen suggested Gatlinburg, Tennessee.
At first all of the Scout Leaders thought Allen was kidding, but after weeks of listening to him ramble on about the tactical strategies of mountains and using the river for resources they finally caved. Sid and Colby were just excited they would get a damned samurai sword from the bazaar shops that littered the tourist town.
Colby was Colin’s brother. Actual brother. The Command Group had always considered themselves brothers in only the way that fully grown men could ever understand, but Colin and Colby were actual blood relatives. Though, nothing about the two men, from their physical features to their personalities, would suggest a familial relationship, they remained the only two actual brothers among a group of men that all thought of themselves as family.
On their way to Gatlinburg, Allen established the Command Group. Allen gave the people he trusted eight-man squads and led them to save and protect as many Civies as they could find. And as it turned out, the only people Allen still trusted with this task were his five high school buddies that were with him during a football game during the initial outbreak.
Under orders issued by Allen, Colin and Sid were the two primary team leaders followed by Marshall, Colby, and Jackson in that order.
Colin knew that the ranking did not necessarily mean that Jackson or Colby’s teams were the worst by any stretch. Jackson remained the only Scout Leader to know an assortment martial arts. And Colby had some of the hardest Scouts on any of the teams, but Colin knew that hard did not necessarily mean tactical. Jackson and Colby’s men acted as a hammer when necessary with Colin, Sid, and Marshall serving as the group’s scalpel while Allen coordinated everyone’s efforts.
The six men made up the Command Group proper. However, the Scout Leaders’ second or even third in command were often invited to the command meetings because the life expectancy of a typical scout was relatively low compared to civilians in the camp that the group protected. So, it was always good to have a knowledgeable group of scouts in the event someone did not make it back to the camp.
The Command Group led the five scout teams that were armed with hand guns, cross bows, rifles, Bowie knives, and an assortment of other weaponry that included two samurai swords. And they were all that stood between the eighty or so civilians in their camp and the constant annoyance of starvation or random Diseased attacks. The scouts were what brought a semblance of order to a world full of chaos and protected the civilians from the Diseased that wanted to convert them.
Under the direction of the Civilian Liaison, Judd, the civilians helped the Command Group by foraging around the camps for food and supplies while the scout teams conducted organized expeditions to nearby neighborhoods. The Command Group had decided to steer clear of metropolitan areas as they often contained either too many Diseased or too few civilized people. Only in the more rural areas did the scouts find survivors whose humanity were still intact. These were the ones that added their supplies to the group and helped out where they could.
The civilians cooked, cleaned, and built out the camps while the scouts setup and patrolled the perimeters and found enough supplies for the group’s next march. It was not perfect, but it worked for a mismatched group of one hundred or so.
After a long silence, Allen managed his orders: “We need to start packing up camp and preparing for an attack.” Before he finished, complaining groans started to spread throughout the command tent.
And there it was.
This had been their life ever since the Gatlinburg Incident six months ago. Camps usually lasted about a week or two. Just enough time for the scout teams to plot the next ten to fifteen mile route and check a one to two mile perimeter around the route for signs of the Diseased or other survivors.
The group would build out the camp’s defenses and send scouting parties to check for incoming hordes of Diseased. A dozen or so made up a horde with about a fourth of that making a pack. The numbers varied from time to time, but were not too important. The distinguishing factor between a horde and a random pack was their notable organization. Almost as though they had a singular purpose.
If a horde was spotted close to the group’s camp, the Command Group would have everyone move to a predetermined rendezvous camp that was a bit closer than the next camp site, but far enough away to get the group more time to prep for the upcoming ten-hour hike to the next full camp site.
The group was not certain why or when the Diseased began organizing in hordes, but they were finding them with more frequency these days. Scout teams disposed of any unorganized Diseased within a two-mile radius of the camp. They were the easy ones to take out. Hordes meant organization and organization usually meant battles.
The group kept within a half mile of either side of the river they had been following since Gatlinburg to keep their supply of water fresh. The Civies were even able to catch some fish from time to time.
Shortly after the Gatlinburg Incident, the Command Group started picking up radio signals directing survivors towards safety. As a result, the group was slowly moving north towards Kentucky and had recently came within striking distance of their objective.
From the information they had been able to discern from the daily radio transmissions, Fort Knox was supposedly the last organized military stronghold in the southeast.
They checked the radio every day for the Emergency Broadcast System’s message that was repeated every three hours. The message instructed any able bodied persons to get to Fort Knox for protection. According to the message, the Federal and State governments no longer existed. Regional governments had formed in their absence and Fort Knox was now the capitol of the Southeastern United States. The message was followed by what seemed to be encoded information that they had yet to decipher although everyone in the group assumed it was information for military teams that were out in the field.
Allen interrupted the complaints and continued his orders: “Colin, get your team together and head out to the rendezvous camp. If you get made by any Diseased on the way, fall back to the camp and we will head down river and backtrack to the last camp. I don’t want to take any chances. If it’s clear, start the perimeter at the southwest corner and work back to the cliff face. Sid, take your squad with Colin and help out. I want your men to hold the southwest corner once Colin gets to work on the perimeter. We’ll need it secured. Marshall, take Colby and Jackson. Start mobilizing the Civies. Get the extra weapons to the ones that know how to use them. Judd, how are we on ammo?”
Judd glanced at his notebook and studied the chicken-scratch. “Seven to eight thousand rounds give or take,” he replied. “I’d just started the munitions inventory this afternoon.”
“Shit… Alright, six rounds per Civie. No more than twenty Civies with weapons. And don’t forget my only standing order: don’t be a fucking hero.”
“We passed the last maker, what? About eight minutes ago?”
Colin checked his GPS watch that was surprisingly still functional thanks to the help of his solar USB charger. A few weeks into their trek north, Colin had the idea to place mile markers in between the camps after some scouts got lost and turned up a few days later as Diseased. He thought that it would help the advance teams find each other in the event of separation. He also liked the idea of knowing how much further he had to go in case he had to get the hell out of Dodge.
“Yep. About half a mile to go probably. I don’t get it,” Colin complained to Sid. “Why the hell would Marshall risk bringing those fuckers back to the camp? Did you hear anything else while you were smoking?”
Sid shrugged. “Hey, don’t ask me, man. I don’t know what the hell he’s been thinking about lately. His head hasn’t been on straight since what happened with Kim.”
Colin and Sid were leading their squads in two-by-two cover formation, each man’s team in line behind them. Sid started to continue when Colin heard a noise to their right. Both Colin and Sid snapped their heads to the direction of the sound and glanced down the hill towards the clearing near the river.
Three Diseased were communicating in what seemed to be their standardized system of grunts, twisted facial expressions, and flailing limbs. They did not have any neurosurgeons in their group, but the popular assumption was that the Diseased had lost most of their higher brain functions that controlled communication. All Colin knew for sure is that he had not heard of a Diseased talking.
The three Diseased were shuffling along parallel to the Scout’s path about thirty yards downhill. Sid gave a signal to the scouts behind him to get down as Colin crawled to the edge of the path to take a look.
Diseased packs outside of a horde going into winter were uncommon. The Diseased were not dead and still got cold. Most of the Diseased that were seen recently had clothing that had begun to rot or had been torn to shreds. Nowadays, it was not uncommon to see a stark naked Diseased with their frost bitten, gangrenous extremities flapping in the wind.
After the first winter, the Diseased often showed up missing a foot. Most of the ones with missing feet and hands began to disappear after the gangrene spread.
At first, some of the civilians had the idea to make jokes and taunt them, playing games even. A few days later a scout would report dispatching those same civilians along the trail.
Less and less of the Diseased had turned up with frostbite this year and it had been reported that they had been huddling together to share body warmth. Judd once told Colin they looked like penguins: “You know? Like when they pass their eggs around on their feet and shit.”
Colin crawled back to the scout teams. “I don’t know what the hell they’re doing. It looks like one keeps urging the other two up the valley and the others want to head back the way they came.”
“The one leading them, what’s it look like?” Sid asked. “I mean, how far along is it?”
“Not far. Skin’s still the right color and it’s moving a hell of a lot quicker than the others. She’s still got most of her clothes too.”
“Allen said to go back to camp if we saw any. What do you think?” asked Sid.
Colin scanned their surroundings. “Fuck that… I’ve had a bad feeling since I woke up. Send two back to camp. Pack light. Small arms only. We’ll keep an eye on these. If the scouts we send don’t see any more between here and there we’ll take these out.”
Colin looked at Sid’s team then back at his own team and asked: “You have any quick ones?”
“Nate, but he was up all night on watch.”
“Alright,” Colin said and looked back at his men. He signaled for Johnny and Al.
Johnny replied with a quick and quiet, “Yeah, boss.”
Colin knew Johnny from his college days. Johnny used to work for him and by chance, Colin and his friends ran into him on the highway trying to get out of town when the outbreak hit.
“Hey, man. How you feeling?” Colin asked in a hushed tone.
“A little tired, but you know me,” Johnny replied with a smile. “I’m good to go.”
“We got a pack down there. I need you and Al to drop your gear and double-time it back to camp. Check down the ravine along the way and make sure we didn’t miss any of these fuckers coming up here. I want to make sure we don’t get hit from behind if we take these things out. Get us a sit-rep on the camp too. Let us know how far out they are. You good?”
“Yeah, boss. Back in forty.” Johnny set his digital watch to its stopwatch function. He nimbly slung his pack off his back and set it against the hill next to the trail and helped Al do the same.
As Johnny and Al prepared for the two-and-a-half-mile jog back to camp, Colin looked over and studied the samurai sword strapped to Sid’s back.
Colin whispered “I’d rather do this quiet. I hope that thing is sharp. When’s the last time you look a whetstone to it?”
Colin and Sid looked back and watched Johnny start his stopwatch as he set his pace with Al in tow. Sid glanced over the edge of the ridge and loosened his sword from its scabbard.
“Every night, man. Every night…”