April 18, 2022 – 1400 Hours – Near Bluefield, Virginia
“Rocky top…you’ll always be…home sweet home to me…”
“Rocky Top is Tennessee, Curtis. I thought you ‘Bama boys knew the difference between West Virginia and Tennessee?” Keith grumbled as he trudged along behind Curtis.
“Just taking a look at our beautiful surroundings, buddy. I thought you Kentucky boys were more polite than that.”
“Fucker…” Keith growled under his breath. He may have been from Kentucky and spent the last six months living in an abandoned UPS building, but that didn’t mean he was impolite. On the other hand, maybe it did, he wasn’t sure. All he did know was that volunteering to go with Curtis seemed like a better idea when he was back in town. Curtis had come to him a few days ago, asking if he would mind assisting him with some of the communications work to be done. Keith had quickly agreed to assist, and now wished he hadn’t. The ridgeline they were on seemed to go on forever and they were still several miles away from their intended destination. The lush, green scenery was beautiful when he got a chance to pause and admire it, but Curtis wasn’t much for stopping.
Keith was beginning to wish that he had taken some of the other training made available to him. There were several teams working on room clearing and medical training, something that he had plenty of experience with. Keith had been a police investigator in a former life, so the day-to-day tasks of learning how to clear a building or bandage a wound were very familiar to him. It had never dawned on him that volunteering to help with communications would be such a taxing job. He and Curtis had climbed at a nearly twenty-five degree angle for the better part of a day, and now were making their way along the ridge towards their intended destination. For the last several hours, Keith had felt like a pack mule.
The light fog that had settled earlier in the morning had now gave way and was completely gone. Even though they were going an additional thousand feet up, the temperature had only dropped about five to ten degrees. For a spring day, it was already beginning to get unsettlingly hot.
Curtis had consulted with Joe about trying to get one of the radio towers on the East River Mountain repeater system to work. The SINCGARS radio would work with damn near any tower, and Curtis was determined to get a signal out with it, one way or another. It was a high-risk proposition, but if it paid off, they would be able to get in touch with ZBRA headquarters, or at least another ZBRA unit. In addition, it beat the alternative of getting more diesel and making the two-hour drive to Blacksburg. Seeing as how Jamie and Cornbread had used quite a bit of diesel to get to Hazard, Kentucky the week prior, they were left with less than ten gallons, not enough to make it to Blacksburg. There was no guarantee the Blacksburg unit would be there, either. Too much risk involved and not enough supplies had forced the two men to come up with an alternate plan. That plan involved getting hold of ZBRA units elsewhere and reestablishing contact with their higher-ups. It wouldn’t be a guaranteed fix, but they didn’t have much to run on.
Curtis knew that Joe wasn’t happy about Jamie and Cornbread’s trek into Kentucky, but the dividends were already paying off for the displaced citizens. Keith, although somewhat complacent, had been a police investigator before the end of the world and was well-versed in the radio repeater systems they were now after.
Keith hitched up the pack he carried. Along with several bottles of water and some deer jerky – their limited food supply – he carried a deep-cell battery and some distilled water. Praying the battery would work, it was more of a burden than a help at the moment. Curtis carried a similarly heavy load – the SINCGARS radio. With the battery, a stout antenna, and a little luck, they would get the SINCGARS working and attempt to make contact with someone, anyone.
“How much longer to this damn antenna, Curtis? This fucking battery is a pain in the ass to carry,” Keith complained.
Curtis ignored his cohort’s bellyaching. He could see the antenna about a hundred yards up the ridgeline, but didn’t want to give his newfound mule a reason to rest.
“Seriously, Curtis. What gives? How much longer?”
Curtis stopped. He turned to his partner, mildly perturbed. “If you knew this was going to be such a long hike, then why did you volunteer to go with me?”
“Seemed like a good idea at the time,” Keith laughed humorlessly.
Curtis got a good laugh and continued up the slope.
“In all seriousness, it’s because I miss being normal. I figure if I help do something useful then maybe, just maybe, that will help get things back to normal around here. I miss the old days. I miss having an iPod, I miss having fun with my family that doesn’t involve running for my life. Hell, I even miss rush-hour traffic.”
Curtis glanced over his shoulder and smiled. “Look, things around here are about as normal as it is going to get. We live in a walled-in town surrounded by the undead. I think the ‘normal’ ship sailed a long time ago, brother.”
“Like I have anything better to do right now. It beats fixing the wall or shoveling up horseshit in the stables. I’d like to think that I would be of better use than that.”
The repairs to the wall around Tazewell were going well, in spite of Keith’s lack of enthusiasm for fixing. The truck-sized hole had already been taken care of, replaced by a large moveable door. The door was considered the best idea for patch-up due to the inability of the town to be accessed from the east side. The town now possessed two main entry points; one at the west side near the jail, and the newly constructed east gate.
“Hey, brother, everyone’s got a job nowadays. Even if you are shoveling shit out of the stables, at least you are contributing to our small community,” Curtis continued.
“Speaking of small community, I thought we were going to extend the wall out some more. Give us a little more space,” Keith said.
Curtis motioned for his tired cohort to follow, and turned back toward his intended direction of travel. “Shit, son. It took Larry and his people over two years to get the wall where it is now, and even at that, we only have four square miles or so.”
Keith trudged forth, panting and sweating profusely. Curtis was no spring chicken, but he was kicking his ass in the mountain climbing department. Keith was about the same age as Curtis, but a sedentary existence combined with a poor diet had doomed him nearly to muscle atrophy. Keith was a shade under six feet tall capped with brown hair that was starting to show a bit of gray here and there. He felt much older than his forty-six year old frame, but his strength was quickly returning. He tried his best to keep up, but Curtis was a man on a mission.
“What’s your point, Curtis?” Keith asked.
“My point is that change is likely to be pretty damn slow, brother. Moving the wall could take weeks, even months.”
“I still think it would be in our best interest to move the damn thing.”
Curtis chuckled and spread his arms out, motioning to the forest around him. “Do you know how many square miles are in this great country of ours?”
“Um…no,” Keith managed out.
“Three-point-seven million square miles.”
Keith shook his head. “How do you know so much useless shit like that?”
“I used to spend quite a bit of time behind a desk. I did a lot of searching on Wikipedia.”
Keith scoffed and shook his head again.
“Now, since it took Larry and his people two years to do four square miles, how long will it take to do the whole country?”
Keith hung his head. He knew that he’d been had. “A fucking long-ass time.”
“A fucking long-ass time, correct,” Curtis repeated.
After a few more minutes of loathing, Keith eyed the tower. The derelict radio antenna sat atop a ridgeline that had evidently been a well-used area. A half-dozen metal structures stood atop the mountain. Cell phone towers, radio antennae, and a small maintenance shack were all within a hundred yards of one another.
“Here we go. Let’s hope this wasn’t a total crapshoot. You ready to drop that pack, Keith?” Curtis asked, removing his own bag.
“Damn straight I am. I say we start with the maintenance shack. Might find something of use in there,” Keith said.
As if to punctuate his comment, an unintelligible sound emanated from the radio shack. Curtis slowed for a moment, and then drew his well-used Ka-Bar from the sheath on his vest.
Keith stopped. “Shouldn’t we be using sidearms for this, Curtis?”
“You want to run all the way back to the horses? It’s a hell of a jog from here, all downhill at a pace that would probably end with one of us breaking our neck. We keep quiet as long as humanly possible to avoid any uninvited assholes.”
Keith waved off Curtis’ advice. “All right, all right,” he replied. Keith drew a timeworn WWI trench knife from a sheath on his hip. The old knife had seen better days, but a better zombie-killing weapon did not exist. The handle of the knife was essentially a set of brass knuckles. The bottom of the knife had a pointed tip, known as a “skull crusher.” The blade of the knife was roughly six inches long, completing the tool. It was a mean-looking piece of work.
Keith dropped the pack. The immediate relief of losing the extra fifteen or so pounds was evident on his face. He slumped his shoulders and let out a deep sigh.
“God I thought I would never get rid of that damn thing,” Keith quipped. He tugged at his shirt, the copious amount of sweat sticking to the gray material.
Curtis shook his head at Keith and eased toward the door. Nails scraping against the inside of the door gave away the position of the unfortunate soul trapped inside. A strangled, throaty growl came from the shed.
Keith eased closer to the shed. The flimsy aluminum door – which was no more than a large section of aluminum siding – bowed and flexed with the meager shoving of the zombie trapped inside. The door was secured by a rusted hasp and small lock. Keith reached the door and nodded to Curtis. Curtis returned the gesture.
Keith bashed the lock once, smacking it hard with the brass knuckles of his trench knife. An instant later, the lock was no more, as was the hasp. A decade of rust had not been kind to the mechanism, and it fell away. The resulting cacophony of noise gave newfound life – so to speak – to the undead intruder inside.
The radio shack zombie lunged forward, bursting the door open. The zombie came out of the doorway and spilled onto the ground. The unfortunate soul looked as if he had been tasked with working for the local power company, dressed in a disgusting pair of khakis and a shirt that – in its prime – had been red.
“Fucker! Dammit, I hate it when they do that!” Keith blurted out, startled for a moment.
Curtis casually stepped on the power company zombie’s back, pinning him down. He knelt down and ended the creature’s existence with a swift stab to the back of the skull with 1095 Cro-van steel. Curtis wiped the business end of the knife on the power company zombie’s khaki pants before putting it away in its sheath.
“Nasty bastards. I’m with you on the whole ‘getting back to normal’ thing, Keith. This shit used to be a challenge. Feels more like a job now.”
Keith forced open the flimsy door. “Yeah, well it is the shittiest job I believe I’ve ever had, and I worked for some uppity assholes before I became a cop.”
“Like what?” Curtis asked pushing the zombie aside with his foot.
“In college I worked landscaping for some rich fuckers in New York. Builds character, but I had to listen to more than my fair share of well-to-do assholes complain about how their hedges weren’t exactly the same height. I paid my way through college with a shitload of blood and sweat.”
“Fair enough.” Curtis removed the SINCGARS from his own pack and carried it into the radio shack. “Time to see if all this work has paid off. Let’s get this thing hooked up and…” Curtis trailed off, noting that Keith was no longer in his presence. He looked left and right swiftly, finally spotting his partner.
Keith had wandered away from the door and to a spot on the other side of the ridge. Since they were at one of the highest points in the area, a little recon was in order. Keith stood at the top of the ridge and peered through a set of binoculars. The magnification wasn’t the greatest on the old set, but he saw something that warranted another look. He pulled the binoculars away from his eyes and waved Curtis over.
“Curtis, you better take a look at this,” Keith said, his voice on the edge of cracking.
Curtis sat the SINCGARS down and joined Keith on the side of the hill. “What’s up, brother?”
Keith silently handed him the binoculars, never taking his eyes off what lay in front of him. Curtis frowned at him and pulled the binoculars to his own eyes. After a few seconds of scanning, he saw what had given Keith so much worry.
The main four-lane road stretched out a mile or so beneath them, travelling east/west. From their vantage point, they could see almost all the way to Bluefield, nearly five miles away. It was the same road that Joe and the rest of the team had taken a week or so ago in the mission to the East River tunnel. The road had been sparsely populated with undead, except for one notable exception – the tunnel itself. The East River tunnel had been packed with thousands of zombies a little over a week ago.Curtis lowered the binoculars. “Let’s get the radio up and running. We need to get on the horn with Joe and the rest of the boys. We’ve got a big fucking problem.”