And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
– Dylan Thomas, “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night”
The dead were coming for her.
Katie stood where the snowmobile should have been, but in its place was only rutted snow and torn up shards of ice and grass. Where was it? Who might have taken it and how? She stood there, rooted to the spot. The impossibility of it, the unfairness of it, made her hesitate. That hesitation nearly cost Katie her life.
Something cold grabbed her from behind. Stiff fingers clutched at her jacket, dragging her backwards while another clutched at her arm. A hiss slid across her ear, the infected’s breath a fetid wind of blood and decay. It leaned towards her, teeth snapping for her flesh. If she didn’t move, if she didn’t fight, she’d die. Right here in the dark and the cold.
Fight, Katie! Fight! She could almost hear her father say the words, just like he’d said them so many years ago.
Screaming, it was like something broke within her. Her fear melted, replaced by a sudden urge to fight, to live. Her blood burned hot, her muscles suddenly alive with adrenaline. Twisting her body, the infected’s teeth clamped down on her mask instead of her skin. The jaw snapped shut so hard that its teeth broke on the plastic. Her mask’s filter cracked and a spray of dark blood hit the faceplate.
She brought her arm up and slammed her elbow into the thing’s neck. It staggered just enough for her to draw a knee up between them and kick outward, driving the heel of her boot into the infected’s knee. Something snapped and the thing — it was a thing, not a person anymore, she told herself — fell forward. Twisting out of the way, she grabbed one of her spare magazines with one hand and pushed the slider to release her spent one with the other. Clicking the new magazine into place, she charged the bolt and fired into the back of the thing’s head just as it started to rise again.
More slipped through the trees, staggering in on all sides, boxing her in. The only open path was straight behind her and she turned to run, bringing the rifle to bear as she did so. Infected moaned and hissed, reaching out with hands and teeth. With a few trigger pulls, she brought down the closest in front of her.
She’d just burst through the group when one caught her ponytail. Nearly losing her footing, Katie reached out a hand and grabbed hold of a low hanging branch to keep her balance and struggled to free herself. The dead hands were strong, pulling her head back painfully. She felt her hair giving way, ripping out at the roots. The mask dislodged, twisting to the side and obscuring her vision.
She knew she only had seconds before the thing was close enough to bite her. Letting go of her rifle and letting it hang by the sling, she pulled off her mask and drew the knife sheathed against her left shoulder. Her dad taught her how to sheath it there and how to draw it. Those lessons were fun and Katie had felt powerful then, just like when she shot the rifles and pistols. Now, terrified and nearly blinded with pain, she let muscle memory do its thankless work.
The knife came free and she could turn just enough to stab backward. Too low, the knife caught the infected’s shoulder and nearly caused her to lose her grip on it. She turned again, harder. Her hair tore out and fire trailed up her scalp, followed by the warm wetness of blood. The infected’s face was inches from her own, mouth open wide and yellow teeth closing in. She was too close to bring the knife up and threw up her left arm in front of the thing’s snapping maw.
The infected’s mouth closed around her forearm as she freed her right hand enough to thrust the knife upward. The blade sank deep beneath its jaw, passing through the soft palate and up into the brain. The infected immediately went slack and fell, dragging Katie with it. Though the body had gone limp, the hand and jaw was still clamped on her hair and forearm.
The other infected were nearly on top of her as she fought to free herself. Withdrawing her knife from the infected’s head, she sawed and hacked until the ponytail was severed, then jabbed the knife into its jaw and pried it open. Teeth snapped, bones cracked, and her jacket tore but she managed to pull free just as another infected reached down for her.
A loud whirr resounded through the woods a split second before something heavy and metal crashed into the infected around her. The snowmobile struck the dead man reaching for her in the side and sent it crashing into a nearby tree. Then it too struck a tree and slid sideways, her dad’s figure rolling away from it.
“Dad?” she said, dumbfounded.
“Run!” he shouted as he stood and began firing at the infected turning towards him. Several dropped under the sudden explosion of gunfire. The muzzle flashes were so bright that Katie saw spots.
Shaking herself from her momentary stupor, Katie got to her feet and raised her rifle again, once more thankful for the tactical sling it was still attached to. The cold air was brisk and biting against her now-bare face, but it woke her fully as well. She sighted and dropped two infected that approached her dad from the side.
“Dad, come on!”
“Be right behind you! Run for the bunker!”
She fired again, dropping another infected before turning around and running. If one thing Katie was good at, it was knowing her direction. It was something she’d learned as a kid from playing a heck of a lot of hunting and tracking games with her dad in the woods. Back then, she dreamed of being a Ranger like him, but time dimmed a lot of things and her teenage years inflamed new passions.
Katie ran as fast as she could through the dense underbrush and clawing fir tree limbs. She could hear the hisses and moans of the infected behind her but she no longer heard the bark of gunfire. Glancing over her shoulder, she saw no sign of her dad either.
He’s fine, she told herself. Run. Follow orders.
After running for nearly five minutes, the ache in her legs and lungs finally made her slow her pace. She paused for a brief moment and held her breath, listening for any sound. The infected made a hell of a racket as they crashed through the woods and their moaning carried far on the wind.
They were still close, but she’d managed to put some distance between them. She used that time to settle her nerves, catch her breath and listen for anything that might mean her dad was still alive. To this end, she heard nothing.
She turned her gaze on her left forearm, where the infected had bit her. Swallowing a sudden lump of fear, she pulled back her jacket’s sleeve. Underneath, a bracer of heavy wrapped leather showed dents and small tearing but had held. She sighed with relief. The armor had been her idea and they’d torn apart a leather quiver to make them. If she found the time, she’d see about making some for her neck and shoulders. But now it was time to move.
Keep going. That’s what he’d want.
Starting off again, she kept her pace brisk but not an all-out run. Every few hundred yards she’d stop and listen for sounds of infected. She thanked every god in the universe for the light of the moon to see by, even if the snow clouded out the stars. Otherwise, she’d never find the bunker in the dark. Its general location was no problem, but actually spotting the entrance? It was very well hidden.
A shot rang out north of her. Then another and another. The growling and hissing of the infected became a low rumble in the distance. It was moving north and away from her.
Dad, no, she thought, tightening her grip on her rifle. Another shot. Another. They were coming in more rapid succession now and Katie surmised he was either leading them or was cornered. Either way, she yearned to run towards the sound. She wanted to help, to save him.
You did this to protect your family, she thought, remembering her own words in the bunker. He’d done all this to protect her and running off to get herself killed would only destroy what he’d done. She couldn’t do that to him either.
“I love you, dad,” she whispered into the night air and turned to run for the bunker again, feeling tears freeze on her lashes.
It took nearly an hour of running and resting to get back to the location of the bunker. She almost ran right past it until she spotted the solar panels glinting in the moonlight. Then, with a little bit of searching, found the door again and opened it. She dropped into the stairwell and kept her rifle trained back the way she’d come for several long minutes.
He’d come. He would. She’d just wait until he did and cover him. The shots had long since died out and the last location was far north of her. As the minutes dragged on, she knew, deep in her heart, that her dad was not coming back. Not tonight.
Maybe, never again.