Spoiler alert: This story follows on from the events in the novel Journal of the Living. It is best if that story is read first.
Unacceptable Losses: Part Two
I formed my search-and-rescue team from a group of fit and well-rested volunteers. They included three good mates I’d known for months – Ravinder, Owen and Leroy. We’d trained together and fought the undead back-to-back. They had plenty of combat experience against zombies and the Pure Bloods. I trusted them with my life. The final two members of my team were a hard-as-nails Ukrainian girl called Natasha and my girlfriend, Pipa. I was uneasy about having Pipa volunteer because I didn’t want to ever put her in danger – but I could not turn her down easily.
“Last week you were a prisoner yourself,” I said. “Are you sure you want to come? There’s no shame in staying here with The Family.”
“I’m coming with you,” she insisted. “I’m strong enough and I need to feel like I’m doing something. Besides, I can’t let you go off without me. If you got killed, I’d … I’d have to find another boyfriend. Don’t make me do that.” She grinned. “I’d hate the inconvenience.”
“Well, I’d hate to inconvenience you,” I said. “Fine – you can be part of my team. Just don’t get bitten or killed, okay? I’d also hate the inconvenience of finding a new girlfriend. There aren’t many hot girls left.”
“You think I’m hot?”
“Burning hot,” I said. “Like a nuclear meltdown.”
We kissed until one of my mates interrupted.
“The bus is ready,” Leroy said.
“Great,” I said. “I’ll have a word with Lynchpin. See if he’s got a satellite working. I’d like some live images over our destination.”
Lynchpin was at the party taking a break from his computers. “You want sat images? I’m sorry. I lost the Russian sat after it passed over. I can give you a print-out of the area, though – like I did for Ben. It’s only a few hours old – so it’s almost as good.”
I followed him into the farmhouse. He printed some maps that he said might be useful – then I had a short conversation with Dex. He provided me with new frequencies to keep in contact on the radio. “Remember, Kris, we’re still engaged in combat with some Pure Blood patrols that were outside Oxford when it was taken out. If you encounter any of them, contact us for support immediately. Do not fight them on your own, Kris. We’re no longer a guerilla force. We don’t have to fight in small groups any more. While we’ve got the upper hand, we have to use it.”
“You got it, boss.”
I joined the rest of my team. Our primary transportation was known affectionately as The Battle Bus – an armoured National Travel coach with thirty-two seats and metal grilles over the windows. My mates had filled it with all the weapons and supplies they thought important for the mission, which I hoped would take under twenty-four hours. Ravinder was sitting in the driver’s seat waiting for me to board. Owen and Leroy were not riding on the bus. They would accompany the bus on motorcycles, keeping contact via radio. They would scout the area ahead once we were on the road.
The civilian, Alice, was sitting in the middle of the coach, looking around nervously. She didn’t want to be coming along and I felt sorry for her. Pipa sat down next to her, offering to share a big bag of crisps like they were going on a normal bus ride. Alice accepted some crisps and seemed to calm down a little as my girlfriend started chatting. I sat behind Ravinder. He was wearing a tanned leather jacket that creaked whenever he moved. In his former life he had been a footballer for a small club, hoping to make it into the Premier League. He had just received word from his agent about a transfer deal when the zombies ruined his career.
Ravinder nodded. He pressed a button to close the door, then he started the engine. We drove out of the camp. The journey across Oxfordshire was thankfully uneventful now that we didn’t have to carefully plan our route to avoid the Pure Bloods. We didn’t have to drive on the country roads and hide from helicopters – so we made good time. The only other people we encountered were on our side – units of our soldiers no longer in hiding. They waved to us as we drove by. It was weird not having to fear the Pure Bloods – but I didn’t relax completely. I knew there were plenty of zombies to deal in the area around Oxford, where the destruction of the Pure Blood base had released several thousand from a trench around the city.
We encountered a few groups of twenty or thirty as we neared our destination. In the Battle Bus they presented no problems. Ravinder increased his speed and splattered them if they were in our way. Alice jumped each time a zombie hit the bus. I had a word in Ravinder’s ear. “Uh – our passenger doesn’t like you smashing into every zombie. Try to avoid some.”
“Aw – come on. I love killing them.”
“Get us to our destination in one piece, Rav.”
When we got within a mile of the place marked on my map, Ravinder slowed down. The road ahead was clear of zombies – but we didn’t want to rush into anything. Leroy and Owen speeded off and reported in nothing dangerous. I was happy. We arrived at our destination without any delays. Ravinder parked the Battle Bus on a country road between two fields. There were no nearby places for zombies or enemy soldiers to be hiding – but we took every sensible precaution before getting out. Owen and Leroy got off their bikes and set up sniper positions.
I spoke to them on the radio. “What do you see?”
“I’m not seeing anything,” Owen reported.
“Neither am I,” Leroy added. “The local area is zombie and people free. You’re clear to exit the vehicle. We’ve got you covered.”
I exited the bus armed with my best sword in my hands and a crossbow on my back – with a small handgun in my jacket as a backup. Natasha and Pipe followed me. They also carried crossbows. My girlfriend had a machete for close combat. Natasha’s weapon of choice was a baseball bat with nails in the end. Alice was the last one out. She stepped down onto the road looking in all directions. Ravinder stayed in the Battle Bus after everyone else had joined me at the front. My team stayed near the bus for a couple of minutes, keeping a watchful eye on the woods. We studied the map and orientated ourselves.
“Okay,” I said. “We know the missing people went that way last night. It leads to a small town in a valley with a river on the west side. The survivors were not in the best of health – so they could not have travelled too far unless they found working transport. If they did, we’ll never locate them. For now, we’ll assume they are all alive and hiding in the local area. Leroy and Owen, I want you to get to the other side of the valley and set up observation posts. I will start search of the area with Natasha and Pipa and our new friend Alice. We’ll try to find everyone while you guys keep watch.”
Leroy and Owen drove away in opposite directions.
“They’re just leaving us?” Alice said.
“No – they’ll be close by. They have to make sure nobody leaves the area or we could be wasting our time looking.”
“I know that – but I thought we should all stick together. It’s safer in a group.”
“We’ll be together,” I said.
“What about Ravinder? Is he staying in the bus?”
“Yes. He will stay in the bus until we come back. He’s got enough weaponry to keep the bus safe from any wandering zombies and Pure Bloods. Are you ready, Alice?”
“No,” she said. “But I want to get on with this before it gets dark. You haven’t given me any weapons. I’m not doing this unarmed. What weapons do I get? I’d like a gun or something powerful like some grenades.”
“We don’t have many guns to spare,” I said. And I wasn’t giving her any grenades. (I had some – but I didn’t want her blowing us up.) “However, we do have a choice of other weapons. Feel free to pick anything you like.”
I opened a luggage compartment filled with sharp weapons ranging from hammers to a chainsaw. Everyone wants to use a chainsaw like Bruce Campbell in the Evil Dead movies – but they are too impractical to carry for a long time. Lighter weapons are more practical. Alice selected a big fire axe. She hefted the axe with a grin, swinging it over her head until she was giddy and almost fell over backwards.
“This is good,” she said. “I like it. If I see any zombies, I’ve going to split their skulls in half. And if I see any Pure Bloods, I’ll chop them up into tiny pieces.”
I was happy to see her thinking about killing zombies because it meant she was regaining her confidence after her ordeal – but I didn’t want her waving the axe around and accidentally hurting someone.
“Are you sure you don’t want something easier to carry?”
“No. I like this. It’s heavy. It will do some real damage. I used to kill the zombies with an axe before the Pure Bloods captured me. It’s my favourite type of weapon. It’s useful for breaking down doors and making holes in walls. I’m keeping this. It’s mine now.”
Alice held onto the axe like it was her baby.
“Fine,” I said. “Just don’t swing it near any of us.”
“Yeah,” Pipa said. “I will knock you down if you swing that near me.”
“I will just shoot you,” Natasha said.
Alice lowered her axe. “I’ll be careful. I swear.”
I banged on the side of the bus. It was a signal for Ravinder to close the door.
I led the way across the field with Natasha, Pipa and Alice right behind me.
I was confident the mission would be over in a few hours.
I was an idiot.