6 Chapter 6 Shopping in Hell
It had been just over a month since the destruction of the other group of survivors in Portland, and just over seven months since the fall of civilization. Sparta was now the only sign of life in the city. The largest salvage operation in Sparta's short history was about to set out, determined to clean out the contents of a semi-forgotten Safeway Grocery Store that sat on the outskirts of Portland State University Campus, commonly known as "The Sketchy Safeway" due to the shoplifting that had plagued it. Cameron's salvager team had been returning from a successful raid of the Campus Medical Center and had stumbled across the store when they were forced to stop due to a flat tire. He had spoken to Natalie, and somehow forged an agreement that allowed Cameron to lead both teams, with her as the acting second in command for the duration of the mission.
There had been something akin to a briefing session for all of those who would be coming, especially since roughly half of those involved with the mission had never worked with Cameron before, "I'll say this only once. If you are going to work with me, then you do things my way. That is rule number one. Rule number two is that nobody is to be a hero so that everyone comes home. If we are clear on that, we can get down to business." Cameron's brisk almost abrupt style was a reflection of himself: He got the job done but at the expense of minor details and anyones feelings. Everyone had a specific part to play, and he made sure that everyone knew what to do. Satisfied that they were ready, he ordered that the final checks be made, throwing the clipboard at Steven who just happened to be passing through – in the wrong place at the wrong time – to check the status of the vehicles one last time as a form of controlled chaos engulfed the ground floor of the parking garage that made up the south east corner of Sparta.
An hour later, the convoy departed, savoring the warmer than usual late spring weather. The irony was not lost on Cameron, as if the world had been given its last hurrah in a peaceful Christmas and New Years before everything went to hell in a handcart. What remained of the city of Portland was the husk of its former glory as burned out cars and despoiled buildings tainted the landscape, some covered in the remnants of their Christmas decorations, never taken down. It was as familiar a sight as the few straggling zombies that wandered in to the streets from whatever holes they had been hiding in. The dull unseeing eyes tracked their movements and several shuffled after them trying to catch one of the vehicles. Those that showed too much initiative were suitably rewarded with bullets to the head. The stench of decomposition from decaying flesh and dried blood had begun to fade and the void created by humanity's near total extinction was filled by Mother Nature, plants, birds, rodents and other small animals now beginning to reclaim the city.
Less than ten minutes by road and their destination came in to view, the tall white building turning gray from mildew and fungus that was steadily eating through the layers of paint. They circled to the rear and the loading docks, backing the massive truck in to place. Properly parked, engines fell silent as they settled in to wait, for the inevitable. Their passage had stirred up numerous members of the local deceased population who were dispatched with suppressed gunfire. They sat and waited like hawks for almost an hour before Cameron finally signaled that it was time to move. Two covered their escape route, as the rest began to work on getting through the rear doors.
It was an arduous process as an oxyacetylene torch burned through the lock on the door. The power in this part of Portland had gone out several weeks ago but Sparta still had the luxury of electricity, and none complained about their good fortune. They stormed the doors, with military precision, the first through had already snapped their glow sticks and tossed them inwards, as weapon mounted torches threw pools of light, chasing away the shadows that very likely had claws and teeth in their midst. The silence was oppressive but the smell was a debilitating mix of wet damp and rotting food. The stench acted like smelling salts for Natalie, reminded of the nightmare from the first days of the outbreak. She shook her head and swept forward, weapon at the ready. Everyone knew that there would be at least a few zombies somewhere inside.
When they came across a section of cleaned out shelves, with crude barricades and fresh footprints in the dusty floor, both Cameron and Natalie stopped short: They were raiding another community's supply stockpile… or breaking in to somebody's home. But the men and women of Sparta were concerned with the needs of two hundred fellow Spartans, "Stinks, doesn't it?" muttered Cameron to the fifteen people spread out behind him. The air was heavy with the sickening stench of food and flesh in decay, hanging heavy in the air.
It almost possessing a physical strength as it coated his throat and dirtied his clothes and hair. It was making Jaira retch and heave – she'd never smelt anything as disgusting in her entire life as she swallowed for a third time to keep the rising bile in her stomach, "You know the drill. Sweep the aisles and clear the store. Suppressed weapons only! Once it's clear we start bagging and tagging," a dull moan echoed out of the darkness ahead as a woman, in the guise of a shop assistant staggered forward. Her left arm had been reduced to a stump and the rest of her was covered in both blood and bites. A single 5.56mm bullet exploded out the back of her skull and they watched as she toppled over that exploded out the back of her skull.
He stood and watched the remains of a gaunt, mousy-haired shop-assistant for a moment... she had definitely been turned, but she had been killed a second time, recently. He gave the corpse a savage kick to the face, "There are going to be more of them," meaning freshly killed zombies, "Watch yourselves," he ordered.
They encountered a further five ragged cadavers trapped inside the store: The clumsy remains of two shop employees, a delivery driver and two customers all moaning in their hunger, skeletal thin and emancipated as if they had not eaten since they were turned. One of the undead reached out with a bony hand and they opened up, the bullets tearing through paper thin flesh to shatter bones and drop the foul creatures where they were standing. It took them another twenty minutes to sweep the store and pronounce it clear. And also to find that they had hit the veritable mother-load. Everything that could possibly be needed was stacked neatly upon the shelves of the store with the only exceptions being firearms, ammunition and fresh food.
Natalie and Denniken walked past everyone, their soft rubber soles boots making no noise along the polished floor as they moved towards the front of the store, the glass windows were still intact, no sight of the undead close at hand, but the doors were locked, and there was no dust, or anything beyond bare shelves. It didn't look right and definitely did not feel right, "Cameron – Natalie here; looks like we've barged right in to the middle of somebody else salvage operation. Looks like the first dozen or so isles of things have been cleared out. We're setting up to keep an eye on the street. They've been using the front door so they'll probably use the same way in again. We'll keep you posted."
Cameron silently agreed with Natalie's ideas, double clicking his radio to let her know that he'd heard her before passing word on to the guards at the loading dock just in case. He didn't worry too much about the others as they were busy and there was no sense in burdening them with information that would only worry them without letting them do anything about it. He glanced at his watch and wrestled with the dial on the hand held radio. The range was limited to several dozen kilometres, but it was more than enough for their purposes. Thus far, they were not in the habit of venturing too far from Sparta, "Sparta this is Salvage. Do you copy?"
"I read you loud and clear Salvage," replied Steven. Cameron winced when he heard that particular voice. The man was useless at almost everything that he did and Cameron asked himself yet again why he had bothered to save the pompous political science professor who did little more than sit around on his prosperous ass, "What is your situation?"
"Arrived safely and beginning operations. We've hit the mother-lode out here: Canned food to medical supplies, pharmaceuticals, and hygiene products. Be advised that we have trace contact with other survivors. No actual but we believe they are close. Will keep you posted."
"I will pass word on to Brennan regarding your findings and possible contact," Steven sounded almost bored but then most of the time, he considered his standing as a Harvard professor should have been respected, placing him at the top, amongst the men and women who made up the council. It grated on his nerves constantly, especially the fact that he was forced to complete such menial tasks and assignments. Steven turned and Brennan nodded. He had been sitting there the whole time, the second man on the radio room, just to keep an eye on him. After what had happened last month in Westmoreland, Brenan didn't trust him either.
Cameron killed the radio connection and turned his attention back to the business at hand. From his backpack, he pulled half a dozen neatly folded duffel bags. Opening the first one, he swept his arm along the aisle, simply knocking everything in to the bag. Everyone did the same, whether it was canned food, dried sundries to hygiene products and pharmaceuticals, knowing that they would sort everything out once they get home. They worked fast but without compromising the silence, their most powerful asset against any zombies wandering around, inside and outside. Each filled bag was pilled against their entryway, where a team of three would lift and load them in to the two twenty foot containers attached to the eighteen wheeled truck that opened up like the mouth of a prehistoric sea monster. The truck was nearly only two thirds full when the first piece of worrying news reached him, "Contact! Harley Davidson motorcycles, several cars and jeeps. They're cutting across the campus… heading straight for us and they do not look friendly."
"Weapons?" he snapped
"Some emblem on the vehicles and jackets… a white something. Armed with small arms and shotguns…shit!" she was cut off as a multitude of cracks and the deeper booms of shotguns ruined the silence. It stilled everyone for a second, "Contact!!" Natalie's shout was punctuated the heavy bass roar of her British L96A Accuracy International sniper rifle unleashing a .300 Winchester Magnum bullet.
Cameron turned to the Spartans around him, "Hostile contact! Evac!" Nobody said a word but grabbed the last few items within arm's reach, and then sealed their bags and hightailing it towards the loading dock, Cameron repeated his orders through the radio as the comforting dull roar of engines coming to life drowned out another shot from Natalie's rifle. Jaira emerged from the swirling mass of Spartans, tossing her half full duffel to someone else as she brought the Mossberg Combat Shotgun to bear, eyeing the front of the store, "Denniken, Natalie! Get the hell out of there!" barked Jaira.
Cameron blinked, considering that she was stepping on his toes but didn't bother to disagree. He reached for his own radio and barked the same thing only to have static fill the channel. The saurian roar erupted again, temporarily drowning out the sound of everything else, until Natalie spoke, racked with pain and grief, "Denniken's dead!" another roar echoed towards them, "I'll cover your withdrawal!" she snarled "And take them to hell with me!" she said to herself as she pulled the trigger again.
Natalie shed no tears, holding them back as bullets ricocheted all around her. Denniken had risen to paint a target with the tracer rounds when the bullet had caught him in the center of his face, killing him instantly. A small consolation as his blood sprayed across Natalie's face. She'd paused only long enough to clear her eyes. Lining up her sights, her finger gave the trigger a smooth caress and sent a bullet in to the open mouth of one of their attackers.
Natalie's news made Cameron hesitate as Jaira continued forward a few steps before turning to him, and grabbing his arm, "No heroics. Nobody gets left behind!"
He shook his head, "We're going to need to make a fast exit once we pick her up." She followed him towards their entryway in to the store, "Listen up! We've got two pinned down at the front of the store," His orders were sharp as they cleared out one of the few humvees, "Inform Sparta we have Broken Arrow," he ordered, "The rest of you get going! Me and Jaira," he paused knowing he was violating rule number two, "We'll get them out."
He found himself staring for a moment as Jaira racked the bolt on a Colt Carbine which she slung before mounting the pintel mounted .50 caliber machine gun. She caught his eye and grinned, "We've got a thousand rounds for this baby," she worked the cocking lever, "Gonna make em count the shells!" he almost smiled at her enthusiasm in the face of suicide.
"This is Salvage to Sparta! Broken Arrow!" Steven was still the man on duty in the radio room. Brenan had been sitting next to him for the past two hours. But he had left to go to the bathroom minutes before the call had come in, static ate most of the message with only a few words coming through. "Salvage this is Sparta, please repeat your last transmission."
Whoever it was, practically screamed, "Broken arrow you dumb bastard! Broken Arrow! Salvage returning under siege, need immediate reinforcements! Repeat: Broken Arrow!"
In his defense, Steven would later say all he heard was "… convoy returning…" and paid no further attention to the message, turning his attention back to the outdated copy of Time magazine he'd been perusing for the past few hours. The radio was silent when Brenan returned and since Steven had not moved, he thought nothing of it when Steven said, "Salvage is on its way home."
In the comparative safety of the loading dock, Cameron gunned the engine they were off, "We'll circle round front, and lay down cover fire. Get them on and get out of here!"
"Sounds good," she replied as they raced through the open parking lot swung the corner hard, barreling down the street as they flanked their attackers. From the turret, the rattling of the humvee made it comparative difficult to aim, but nobody was expecting them, least of all their enemies. Jaira held the trigger down and erased three men from existence as Cameron adjusted his heading slightly, the edge of the front bumper catching another on the hip, sending him airborne.
Now aware that they had been outflanked, with easily a fifth of their number dead, the rest ducked in to cover behind whatever they could find as Jaira made liberal use of the machine gun to convince them. They came to a stop and Cameron clambered across the front seats bringing him out on the right side of the vehicle towards Natalie, "Natalie move!" he shouted.
The harsh edge in Cameron's voice snapped her back to reality as she grabbed her rifle with her left hand and the headless corpse with her right and started to drag. Cameron added his own meager firepower to the bullet screen as the seconds turned to hours, Natalie finally bundled them both in to the vehicle, "Clear! Clear!"
Clambering in Cameron slammed his foot down on the accelerator and they were off once again, like a bat out of hell The heavy gun spat bullet out like a tree chipper, forcing the enemy to keep a respectable distance when it suddenly gave a dull, click. Jaira blinked uncertain if it was more surprise or confusion, it wasn't jammed, its ammo was spent. The bullet caught her full in the chest as she snapped back like a broken twig, as she collapsed through the hatch, cradling her left side as pain radiated both up and down.
Coughing for air, she righted herself and gasped through the pain of at least a cracked rib, "Gun's empty! Gun is fucking empty!" Cameron kept the accelerator floored as he suppressed his disbelief. There should have been a belt of a thousand rounds of disintegrating chain link ammo, per the checklist he had thrown to Steven. Cameron cursed the single word explanation of their major malfunction.
Jaira ran her hand carefully over her vest and extracted the flattened bullet, relieved that the vest had done its job. Grabbing a spare rifle she joined Natalie at the rear hatch, firing single shots and controlled bursts that allowed them to put a little more distance between them and their pursuers. Natalie snapped off half a clip of rapid single shots and blew one motorbike and its rider in to a building.
Cameron did his best to keep his attention off the firefight behind him, and gave his full attention to the fast approaching T junction, and glanced down at the speedometer. There was no way he could take the corner at their present speed. He didn't have the luxury of slowing down either. But whatever he had been about to do, the decision was suddenly taken out of his hands: A bullet whipped through the open hatch, and Jaira swore she felt the heat from the shot as it sheared past the tip of Cameron's ear. The best drivers might have been able to keep their focus on the road, and not end in an accident but Cameron was far from the best of drivers.
He winced as the bullet whipped by and punched through the glass windscreen. They swerved one way, and as Cameron over compensated, jerking too hard on the steering while. The vehicle jerked and then left the road to begin a spectacular forward flip, "Shit!" was the last thought that Cameron had as the vehicle spun through the air with the grace of a one winged angel, an impressive seven hundred and twenty degree flip before it crashed through the haphazardly arrayed chairs and tables and then ploughed through the floor to ceiling glass windows of a Starbucks.
Cameron was an atheist and now felt that he had proof that God, if he existed had created humans for his own entertainment. Cameron hoped that surviving "Satan's personal car accident" would be amusement enough. The minute or two following the crash were a blur of tunnel vision with stairs and static swimming before everyone eyes. Somehow, they managed to pull themselves from the tangle wreck and find suitable cover behind it, haphazardly return fire, enough to convince their attackers that the threesome were far from out of the fight.
Return fire slammed in to the metal and plastic logo behind the counter, as Natalie pulled her mauled long barreled harbinger of doom from the ruined vehicle. The barrel still straight, she slapped home a fresh ten round clip and chambered a round. Using the flipped wreck as cover, she set the rifle level on its bipod. Another near miss hissed by her head but she held firm, and zeroed in upon the shooter. Her shot was slightly off target tearing through the right lung instead of the man's heart, but it was enough to push their heads down.
Cameron regained some of his orientation, wishing for a couple of aspirins for his headache that as definitely going to get worse as he fell prone next to the sniper, "What've we got?"
"About a dozen of them with handguns and shotguns, a couple of semi-autos and two," she paused as she made a correction to the count, "…one with a rifle."
For the moment the Spartans held a strong defensive advantage as the running gun battle turned in to a pitched street fight. Looking over her shoulder, she noted the stairwell behind the counter that lead upstairs, a plan forming in her mind, Huddled behind the wreckage, Jaira shouted to her comrades, "Back up on the way! ETA seven minutes!"
Cameron stuck his head up to steal a split second glance and pulled his head back twice as quick, bullets and buckshot raining down upon their over, "They've got two strong points out there, and its only a matter of time before they leapfrog and overrun us!"
Natalie stared at the stairwell for a moment, "I can't get a clear shot from down here. I'm taking the high ground." She called, slinging her rifle.
Cameron tossed her one of his quartet of handguns, "On your mark."
She snapped off the safety, "Covering fire!" bullets flew from the few weapons the Spartans had as Natalie dashed for the stairwell, enemy fire chasing her until she vanished from sight. Bullets continued to rip through the stairs even after she was clear, the thunk of round after round impacting on the stairs echoed to her. Napoleon had said it best that "quantity had a quality all of its own," and their motorcycle riding foes seemed to have adopted that maxim as their own.
Clambering the stairs, she swung back and lashed out, the strength of the door's lock unable to compensate for the flimsy nature of the door itself as the door disintegrated beneath her kick. The apartment was more of a storeroom than an actual apartment and the layer of dust, inches thick in places when coupled with the dangling cobwebs made it clear that the apartment had been abandoned, probably since before Armageddon. Gunfire echoed from below as she moved from window to window until she found one that overlooked the street and gave a decent field of fire. Opening the window she braced her rifle upon the windowsill and began to hunt.
A target presented himself as he stood, shouting and urging his comrades to close the distance between them and the ruined coffee shop. It was easy to spit his head between the cross hairs, especially since he was less than fifty feet away. Her sights set she inhaled a slow breath, waiting until she heard her own heartbeat. Her finger curled around the trigger and she gave it an affectionate squeeze that tightened smoothly in to a pull. There was an audible crack followed a nanosecond later by the saurian roar as her bullet left the barrel and ripped through the man's shoulder, separating his arm from the rest of him like a discarded cigarette butt. Smirking in satisfaction, she dropped from her window and slid along the floor to another and began hunting again.
Behind the wreckage, Cameron dropped his own carbine, a look of disgust marring his features. The rifle had jammed on the last clip of 5.56mm ammunition. From the motley assortment of weapons in the humvee, he pulled a shotgun and sprayed a cloud of death in to the street, hoping that the bikers would stay at a distance as long as the Spartans continued to shoot back. He shook his head to clear his eyes of the blood that trickled in from his temple.
The cut on Cameron's face continued to bleed, probably from the scalpel sharp glass of the humvee's view screen when they crashed. It looked as if he was weeping blood from one eye as hot brass and steel pinged off the tiled floor, making the ground underfoot treacherous territory. Two or three of the bikers had fallen prey to Natalie's sharp shooting but it would be a matter of time before the bikers made a decisive push and ended it all. The radio crackled with a message, lost over the orchestra of battle – Cameron just hoped it was good news.
A bullet sparked off a windowsill and Natalie dove to the floor. She'd felt the heat of that particular bullet. But her strategy had worked, wave after wave of gunfire pounding the brick wall and wooden window frames, fragments of shattered glass raining down on her. She found her radio, "Archangel pinned down! I'm done here!"
Cameron growled as their cover began to disintegrate beneath the hail of bullets, "Let's hope they don't have any grenades with them," he thought darkly. To think that once upon a time he needed a Caramel Macchiato to start his day. One of the bullets hissed by, causing him to duck as it nearly punched through his ear. He patted his ear to make sure it was still there and gave off a hiccup of laughter.
There was somebody out there with an Uzi or compact machine pistol that defied the concept of having of a "limited ammo capacity" as whoever held it had yet to pause to reload. Cameron tried to stand, wobbled and fell back to one knee: Blood loss was taking its toll and tunnel vision had set in, the edges of what he could see black and grey around the edges. Blood sprayed as he shook his, braced himself and jerked his head forward with surprising suddenness to head butt the ruined humvee.
Fresh pain lanced through his already throbbing skull, but it did the trick, as color flooded back in to his vision. He blinked. Somewhere during that few moments, Natalie had made it downstairs, crawling until she was back behind the ruined humvee, "Two groups: Three or four behind the minivan on the left and five behind the car on the right." Turning to face him, she gasped. Blood had soaked most of the left side of his face, neck and also the shirt and vest, "What the hell happened?"
Cameron edged round the side of their cover and drew back as a hailstorm of bullets flew towards him, "The biker idiots shooting at us happened." Cameron was being Cameron, playing the hard-ass and ignoring anyone's concern with his wellbeing. He edged round again, taking advantage of a lull in the gunfire to send a few rounds of his own back at them, "We need to end this," he growled; as Jaira tore open the mostly intact medical kit from the humvee's interior. He hissed as Jaira slapped on the bandages, but it would do no good to complain when Jaira's irritation and maternal instinct surfaced together, "Ideas anybody?"
"Wait for the cavalry and keep you from bleeding to death," she snapped, "especially since you're going to bleed to death before they kill us!" He chuckled as he reloaded the shotgun and she slapped him on the back of the head, "You have a death wish or something? No heroics!"
He ignored the not so subtle reminder of his own rules, as he had the habit of doing when the lives of others were at stake, "When I give the word, give me suppressing fire," he pumped the shotgun, slotting the first shell in to the chamber, "You two ready?"
"No," came the reply, "But your not giving us much of a choice," replied Jaira.
Natalie was certain that something stupid, or borderline insane was about to happen. The question in her mind was what "What happened to rule number two?" she asked.
"Rule number three: I make the rules, so I can break the rules," he replied, "Covering fire!" As he dashed in to the street, the bikers blinked for a moment, and then ducked as a wave of gunfire punished both of the enemy strong points, forcing them in to cover.