Book 5 of the Plagued States of America series
When unknown assailants destroy the Elevated Platform Station, the last safe harbor inside the zombie quarantine zone, Hank Opland finds himself abandoned with Senator Jefferson's youngest son and the half-breed zombie Penelope Hope. Together they must survive and find a way across the channel to safety, but returning to the Rurals is a bittersweet experience when Hank's past comes back to haunt him, and he must put his life on the line if he wants to save the very people he has been hunting out of existence for the past seven years.
It seemed like a good idea at the time, getting a zombie hunting permit. How many people could say they were authorized to hunt and capture other people, after all? Four hundred and sixty-two applicants per year was all the regulations allowed, though, and where they came up with an absurd number like that, God only knew. The one thing Hank Opland did know was that time was running out on the Reusability Law that authorized him to hunt. Pretty soon, things were going to change, which was fine by him. Things needed to change.
A knocking stirred him. Hank rolled on his side.
“Hank,” Tom said through the steel door of the apartment, his voice hollow and muffled. “You want to go out to the duck?”
“Yeah,” Hank replied. It sounded more like the reluctant groaning of a tired old man than how he really felt. “Yeah,” he called a little louder.
“Meet me downstairs in ten.”
“Okay.” Hank took a deep breath, nodding even though Tom couldn’t see him. “Be right down.”
He should have been up and raring to go, but after the station’s blaring alarm system startled him awake earlier this morning, he still didn’t feel right. He looked at the digital clock on the nightstand: 10:22. Another eight minutes and the alarm would have gone off anyway.
One of the luxuries of being in the Elevated Platform Station, what everyone called the EPS, instead of somewhere out in the Quarantine Zone was that he could sleep as long as he wanted, and not worry about zombies.
Well, except for today. Those goddamned horns wailing at the crack of dawn woke up the entire station. It meant zombies were roaming inside the fence, and after the last two safe zones that went up in a blaze of glory because some of the zombies got out, Hank didn’t even waste time putting on his pants when he jumped out of bed. He grabbed them and ran into the hall, passing stupid people leaning out their doors with looks of utter confusion. He slammed open the emergency door at a full run, felt the freezing cold air hit his bare legs, and rushed down the three flights of stairs to ground level before anyone else in the whole building.
Ground floor at the EPS was basically a covered parking area for about twenty hunting rigs—large trucks with plenty of cargo space and off-road capabilities built to survive in the Quarantine Zone for weeks, even months at a time. He used to own one himself. The Jubilee, named after the whiskey. He would have liked having her right about now, or a whiskey for that matter. Seeing five zombies in the parking area shambling after two of the soldiers who guarded the facility didn’t bode well for the station. At first, he wondered how they got in, or how they got out. The EPS kept several hundred zombies on premises, after all.
From inside the caged gate of the stairwell, Hank pulled on his pants, holding his pistol with his armpit as he jumped a couple times to get his legs all the way through.
“Get a noose off one of the rigs,” Hank called to the soldiers. They weren’t handlers—soldiers trained to manage biters. These were garden variety gate guards, giving ground to the zombies to keep them formed up, but not engaging, nor using their weapons to kill or incapacitate any of them. Stupid orders. Hank knew that if they opened fire it meant that the level of threat was automatically escalated to imminent, and that meant the whole facility could be labelled as compromised, and remotely destroyed.
It’s what happened at Biter’s Hill and Biter’s Island. Some off-site dipshit blew the sentry rings at the sites without even fully assessing the situation, but that was the rule. Back when zombies first appeared and law enforcement and the military didn’t act with swift and deadly force, the damned biters overran everything.
Hank checked his pistol’s safety and shoved the weapon into his holster. He didn’t want it going off and him being the reason that they blew up the EPS, too. Or, more importantly, he didn’t want to be blown up. He pushed the gate door open and winced as he walked barefoot across the gravel to the nearest hunting rig. He forgot his boots. Dumb ass.
The Velcro strap took a few tugs to rip away before releasing long poles with rope nooses on the end. He took one in each hand and hobbled toward the zombies as though walking on hot coals. Good nooses had good springs on the release. These were lousy, making him stop to prime one.
A group of four soldiers came thundering down the stairs. None of them were handlers either.
“Get nooses off the rigs,” Hank growled. He was angrier at not having boots than seeing reinforcements. If anything, he was glad they were here.
Two of the zombies turned toward Hank after hearing his voice. They groaned in unison and pushed against one another, jockeying for position out front. Typical biter response. Reduced to animal instinct. He’d seen it a hundred times, but it still bothered him. He pitied them, and every other zombie in the world.
Hank threw the primed noose pole beyond the other two soldiers so they could pick it up. The two zombies focusing on Hank continued their slow approach as he primed the other noose. As they got within striking distance, Hank lunged in with the noose, throwing it around the neck of the smaller of the two zombies. He made it look easy, but the truth was he had done it a thousand times, if not more. With a quick tug on the strap, the noose cinched around the zombie’s neck, effectively restraining it from moving closer, locked to the far end of the pole. It grabbed at the pole, struggling with it rather than continuing for Hank.
With a quick side-step, he forced his captive zombie into the other, pushing them both back and knocking the second to the ground. If the first had gone down, Hank knew to let go. It was one of umpteen rules about subduing a zombie you just had to know or your days as a hunter were numbered. Let the damned biter walk around with the pole. He wasn’t going to sneak up on anyone that way, and he certainly wasn’t going to figure out how to get the thing off on his own.
Hank looked over his shoulder. More soldiers were coming down the stairs, their footfalls echoing as their boots pounded on the steps. Boots. The bottom of his feet stung from the cold and sharp edges of the gravel.
The zombie on the ground crawled forward, reaching for Hank’s feet. He backed up to avoid the fallen biter’s reach. Never take your eyes off a fallen zombie.
Hank gave the captured zombie another shove to keep it off balance and started dragging it away from the group. Keep them isolated.
Too damned many rules. Too easy to make mistakes.
Thankfully, none were made during the morning roundup, and none of the soldiers were injured, or worse, bitten, but it had been one hell of a way to start the day.
Hank yawned and rubbed his face. He sat up in bed and threw his legs over the edge. His feet still felt cold, and bruised.
Maybe it was a good thing Tom wanted to go out and work on the duck, to get away from everyone while things settled down. There was going to be way too much drama and excitement in the EPS for Hank’s taste.
He reached a hand under the pillow and slid the pistol out, checking the safety before dropping it on the mattress at the foot of the bed. He had it loaded with slug ammo, just in case of zombies. After this morning, he wasn’t about to get caught without a gun within arm’s reach. Or his boots.