All but one of the men broke west toward the ridgeline, firing indiscriminately. One figure knelt by a tree near the fence, and Siobhan settled the reticule of her scope on him. She aimed at his sternum, and squeezed off a round. Her rifle was a bit quieter than Carthage’s, but the shot still deadened her ears. Her target collapsed behind the tree, so she opened her left eye and shifted her attention to the left side of the glade.
Carthage had already stopped shooting, and he rose to a crouch. He gestured for Siobhan to move up the right side, and the pair cautiously advanced. Aside from the groaning of a wounded man, the glade had returned to silence. The entire fight had lasted less than six seconds. Siobhan approached as far as the man she had hit, and moved a rifle away from his motionless body before waiting. She breathlessly scanned the far side of the glade, but saw nothing until Carthage emerged into the moonlight. She swung her rifle in his direction, catching herself before the muzzle crossed his body. He looked at the man she’d shot before speaking, his voice sounding far away.
“Make sure he’s down. I took out the other six.”
She nodded, and reluctantly examined her victim more closely. She’d shot him right below the solar plexus, the man dying so quickly he collapsed like a ragdoll.
“He’s definitely dead,” she almost whispered.
“Good shooting,” he replied, taking out his binoculars. “I need you to go to the fence and watch the plant to see if they send reinforcements. We’ve got one survivor, I’m going to interrogate him before he bleeds out. Holler if you see anything.”
She took the binoculars. “Okay.”
Though she wanted to hear what the surviving man had to say, she knew Carthage was right. After the racket they had made, another squad might be forthcoming. She approached the fence that overlooked the quarry, and discovered she still had a good vantage point for the entire facility. She raised the binoculars to her face, but as her adrenaline faded, her hands began to shake almost uncontrollably. She lowered herself into a prone position so she could brace her arms with her elbows.
There was no initial sign of activity at the plant. Siobhan took deep breaths and thought about what had just happened. She was surprised that Carthage had killed six men in such a short amount of time, even though the squad was at a significant disadvantage from the beginning. She didn’t know how many rounds he had fired, but knowing his background, he probably hadn’t missed.
Searching the buildings for signs of life, it gnawed at her that she didn’t know anything about the man she had killed. She found herself hoping she would find out he and his companions were marauding criminals, and the same people who had ambushed the convoy on the road. If they weren’t, however, why didn’t they want to talk? Did they assume they were dead anyway, and the only option was to fight? Out in the wilderness, she was relying on Carthage to provide guidance and direction, but he was a single-minded soldier, not a diplomat. Siobhan wished that she’d never departed Romanby, the twisted knot in her stomach finally overcoming any curiosity of exploration she had left. If she hadn’t been eating like a monk the last two days, she was sure she would vomit.
After what seemed like half of an eternity, and several wobbly scans of the plant, Carthage returned to her side.
“Nothing?” he asked.
“Not a peep.”
“If they left anyone behind, I’m sure they lost radio contact with these guys. If they’re not going to investigate, my bet is there aren’t too many people remaining.”
Siobhan stood up. “Either that, or they’re guarding something more valuable than their own men. Did you get any info out of the survivor?”
“Some. I don’t know how reliable it is. He was gut shot, a goner without a skilled surgeon, but I told him I’d save him if he came across with some intel.”
“That seems cruel.”
“You can’t dabble in moral equivalency in this line of work, NicKennon. If I could have helped him, I would have. Better to get information out of him while we still had the chance.”
Handing back the binoculars, she gave him a hard look. “Okay, then. What did he tell you?”
Carthage sighed. “He claims his group is part of a remote outpost for the Knights of Aberdeen, tasked with securing Perth from threats. He said they stopped the convoy because they couldn’t risk those people from contaminating Perth. He was fading fast, so instead of pushing for him to elaborate, I asked him how many of his people were left at the plant. He said dozens. After that, he lost consciousness. I take what he said as somewhere between zero and fifty percent accurate.”
Siobhan contemplated this before replying. “I can’t confirm or refute any of that; Romanby has been isolated for too long. Most of it is awfully fishy, though. If they were worried about some sort of contamination, they wouldn’t have picked the convoy clean of all valuables. The only thing I can think of is that they captured one or more of those monsters, and were bringing them along for research purposes, but that’s pretty far-fetched considering what we read about the evacuation of Abernathy. And the supposed alliance with the Knights seems like nothing more than an attempt at intimidation, anybody can claim to be part of the reigning faction for their own purposes.”
“I agree. Let’s search the bodies for more intel. At least we can take some of their supplies. After that I want to investigate the facility, I doubt there are more than a handful of men remaining.”
She wiped her face on her sleeve. “Maybe they’ll be more open to negotiation. At this point I’d sell my soul for a safe place to sleep.”
Carthage smirked. “It may come to that.”
Carthage clearly knew what he was doing with the bodies of the fallen men, methodically stripping them of weapons and ammo, and anything that looked like information. He had instructed Siobhan to go through the pile of former, while he scoured the latter for useful intel. Fighting exhaustion, she found herself overwhelmed with choices, as there were several serviceable rifles, shotguns, and pistols available, most of which were appealing if they weren’t limited by what they could carry.
There was one other rifle in the same caliber as Carthage’s FN, a lightweight bolt-action of local manufacture, so she took the ammo for it. She also found a Makarov pistol that shared calibers with her CZ, though the weapon itself was in poor condition. She set aside two shotguns and a 9x19mm pistol for consideration, as ammo was plentiful for them. Soon, Carthage joined her, holding an armful of food.
“What do we have?” he asked.
“I got you forty rounds of seven-six-two, and twenty-four rounds for my pistol. Since weight is a concern, I thought we could grab this SMP nine-mil, and these two SMP twelve-gauges.”
“Skye Metal Printing, the local heavy machining company. They built everything from aircraft to zippers. The pistol is a licensed copy of the Smith and Wesson NMC, the shotguns are both…”
“Remington copies, I see. Yeah, good choices, I don’t think one more pistol and a shotgun each are going to break our backs. How much ammo did you find for them?”
“Fifty-two rounds for the Smith, forty-eight rounds of double-aught buckshot for the shotguns. How about you?”
Carthage plopped his haul onto the ground. “Each man had a package of hard tack, so we have seven pieces. I also found a protein bar, a can of corned beef, and some containers of homemade game that I don’t trust. As you can see there’s also most of a bottle of vodka, we can use that to clean wounds.”
“Any more monsters and I’m going to drink that bottle. As for the game meat, I don’t think we’re desperate enough to take a chance on it just yet. What about intel?”
“Check this out.”
Carthage unfolded a piece of paper. It had a grid drawn on it, with days of the week across the top and blocks of time down the side. Each grid square had a name written on it; some were crossed out and replaced.
“That looks like a duty roster,” she said.
“Exactly. Probably for guard duty. The dates are for this week. What it tells us is that at least ten men were stationed here, until our skirmish, anyway. Unfortunately this roster may only reflect one squad, so it doesn’t really tell us how many might be left inside.”
“So what’s our next move?”
“Divvy up the goods, and sneak inside.”
Siobhan groaned. “I’m exhausted, Carthage. I can’t handle another fight right now. That guy didn’t say anything about recent attacks by monsters, did he?”
“He only said contamination from Abernathy, he could have been referring to something else. Radiation, disease, I don’t know. But do you really want to take a chance on being out here after daybreak? Either way, we can’t stay here, they might send more men.”
Opening her rucksack, she began loading up some of the supplies. “Fuck these guys and their stupid cement plant.”
“That wasn’t really an answer.”
“I’m trying to think!” she snapped.
He knelt down next to her. “Okay, I hear you. I’m willing to compromise. There’s a smaller outbuilding on the west side of the complex, it’s probably unoccupied. If we can get in there undetected, we can get some rest. If those creatures return in the morning, it’s a short sprint to the main structures. It’s far from ideal, but if you’re completely smoked…”
“I don’t have enhanced genes like you. I’m just a normal, tired, hungry human that just blew a baseball-sized hole through the spine of another human. The only thing I want right now is to be unconscious for a few hours.”
He grabbed a shotgun. “Then we’ll move out, secure the outbuilding, and rest.”
The pair divided up the buckshot, and Carthage put the spare pistol and the rest of the food in his ruck. Siobhan unsteadily rose to her feet, slung her rifle on her shoulder, and reloaded the other Remington. She nodded, and he led the way out of the glade to the north.
It only took about ten minutes to reach the building they wanted, a square, two-story brick structure on the edge of the quarry. Pipes emerged from one side and snaked down to the bottom of the pit, identifying the building as a pump house. There was only one entrance, a feckless padlock hanging open on the door, so they swiftly moved inside and cleared it. The interior was never meant to provide anything other than shelter for the pumping equipment, and was devoid of furniture. Upstairs, they found a workshop, which offered nothing but a dusty bench, a single chair, rusty tools, and blueprints for the pumps.
There was a window on each side of the second floor, so it was easy for them to confirm that they hadn’t been spotted, and no one was coming to investigate. After an interminable fifteen minutes, Carthage was satisfied.
“Okay,” he said, eyes still on the complex. “It’s about five hours until dawn, it’s all yours. After that, if we don’t get attacked by blurry octopi, I’ll ask you to keep watch while I get some rest. I’m not too concerned about staying here during daylight hours, this building doesn’t appear to have been accessed in years.”
“Fine by me,” Siobhan replied, shedding her gear.
He grabbed the chair and moved it to the eastern window. She opened her rucksack, unrolled her ground pad, and took a swig of vodka. She gasped, cleared her throat, and positioned her ruck for use as a pillow. She wiped her face off with a towel and flopped down on the pad.
“You did well out there tonight, Siobhan. Don’t beat yourself up about killing that man. They didn’t leave us much choice. I’m always open to dialogue, but if they want a fight, they’ll get it.”
If she was upset about the ambush, it didn’t stop her from falling asleep instantly. Carthage sighed, pushed his own fatigue to the back of his mind, and watched the moonlit complex in silence.