The hunter sat with his back against the thick loblolly pine and felt his shoulders dig into the wet bark. The gnat hat, a screen of camouflage mesh, covered his face and neck, but still the little bastards made their way in and attacked his sweaty skin. As they took their blood meal, his only reaction was to blink and will them to hurry it up. He absolutely refused to move. Movement gave you away.
Through the brush behind, he heard the snap of a twig. He remained silent and still, controlling his blinking and the surge of adrenaline that he felt. The rustling in the brush told him that it was the game he was looking for. Time to call it in.
On the top of his left thigh, just above his knee he had sewn one side of a velcro patch. The other side of the patch was glued to the back of his phone and held it in place. His left hand barely extended its index finger and touched the ’send’button.
Taped to a tree about 40 feet in front of the hunter, a cell phone lit up and started playing the Benny Hill chase music on max volume. After about twenty seconds, the hunter pressed the ‘end’ button on the cell phone on his thigh and the ring tone stopped. The strains of Benny Hill ceased and the cell phone went quiet and dark against the tree.
He craned his ear for any sound that would confirm his call was heard. The sound of an animal crashing through the brush towards the tree came to him. As it grew closer, he could hear the grunts and pants of the charging beast. Just feet away from the tree that held the decoy phone, the zombie stopped dead in its tracks.
Zombie of course, was not politically or even factually correct. They called them Reanimated Human Cadavers or RHC (pronounced Rick) for short. The product of an oddball virus that was fought by an equally odd anti-virus that mutated, Ricks almost took over the world ten years ago. Now, they were extinct except for a few hunting preserves like this one. Despite the wishes of many, the government had decided to keep a few thousand alive and isolated for observation and experimentation. It was only when one was declared a nuisance or posed an escape risk that hunters were allowed to buy tags to hunt them, at their own risk.
This Rick was dressed in the tattered remains of a suit coat, slacks, shirt, and tie. His shoes had years ago been discarded. The hunter could not remember the last time he saw a Rick that was not barefoot. He had seen photos of the same one. He knew the sound and sight of the cell phone would lure him in.
Once more, the hunter gingerly tapped a button on the thigh-mounted cell phone. As soon as the strains of Benny Hill cranked back up, the Rick lost its shit and ran headlong for it. Arms akimbo and outstretched it clawed at the tree that held its obsession.
The hunter, with the camouflaged Ruger 77/22 rifle propped on his right knee, adjusted his aim through the weapon’s Leupold scope. Breathe in, then half out, he steadied himself. Carefully, he aligned the cross hairs on the brainpan of the business-Rick. Taking the slack from the trigger, he listened for the sound of the round firing.
With a soft ‘pip’ the 60-grain Aguila subsonic sniper round left the barrel, traveled through the suppressor attached to the end of the muzzle, and sped towards the Rick at 950-feet per second. Even before the hunter’s shoulder could register the gentle recoil of the rifle, his eyes were watching the round impact his target. The solid lead bullet zipped into the point of aim just behind the Rick’s ear, delivering 150-foot pounds of energy right to the creature’s medulla. The hunter visualized the round expanding from the size of a pencil erasure to a Lima bean as it careened through the fetid flesh. A smear of grey matter and thick black blood spattered the ringing cell phone and the Rick slumped to its knees, and then fell over.
The hunter sat motionless and waited for the decoy phone to stop ringing. Once he did, he closed his eyes and forced every atom in his body to listen to the sounds of the forest. He craned his ears, titling his head first to the left, then to the right, listening for the sounds of any more Ricks. After a solid minute of silence, he opened his eyes. Placing the safety on his rifle, he stood and slung it over his shoulder. He walked to the harvest and inspected his kill. With his phone, he snapped a few pictures of the Rick’s face, embedded the GPS coordinates and time stamp, and emailed them to the DRM (Department of RHC Management’s) permit desk. Thirty seconds later he was emailed back a confirmation with a harvest tag number. A second email confirmed that his bank account was auto-drafted for the tag fee. These damn things are getting more expensive every year.
He pulled the casualty bag from his pack and unfolded it. Hopefully there would be enough meat on this thing to make it worthwhile.
The extraction boat was waiting for the hunter on the beach. The fact that the preserve was located on an island had isolated the Ricks there during the great wars.
“You get em?” Asked the boatman, a darkly tanned old man with a permanent squint. The Hunter wasn’t even sure the man had eyes.
He nodded, “Got the steaks from the biceps, calves, and thighs, left the rest,” the Hunter said as he plopped down the sealed plastic and canvas bag on the deck at his feet.
“Are you kidding? The Japanese are paying $500 a pound for sweet meats!”
“And they are paying $1000 for good fillets and there is at least 30 pounds there. That Rick must have worked out.”
The market was non-existent in the Reformed United States and what was left of Europe, the resale of Rick meat being deemed illegal. By twist of fate the meat itself, if prepared properly, was not contagious– just forbidden. However, on the Asian black market and parts of the Middle East, it was a delicacy. The black, slimy meat that was incapable of drawing flies was seen as having curative capabilities. It was touted as a solution for everything from impotence to cancer. Of course, you had to deal with shady third party internet meat brokers and fourth party Pay Pal laundry mats who all kept a piece of the pie, but you still made out rather well.
“Still, that’s a lot of money to leave out there for the worms,” argued the boatman as he looked off towards the tree line at the beach from whence the hunter had emerged.
“You know the worms won’t eat that crap.”
“Still…lots of money.”
The hunter sighed and waved his arm dismissively towards the beach as he took his seat and popped the top on an energy drink. “Then grab a knife and go get em. He is about a mile down the trail. You have my blessing.”
The boatman looked off to the trees and mulled it over for a long minute. “Were there any more out there?”
“There’s always more.”
The boatman swallowed then returned to his seat behind the wheel of the watercraft and triggered the engine to life. “Maybe next time. I gotta get back home. I’ve been sitting out here waiting for you long enough.”
“Sure thing,” said the hunter as he passed a handful of folded hundreds across the deck to the old fisherman.
“Man that guy is fast…” said the Hunter aloud as he sat behind his desk at work. He clicked on the video on the Department of RHC Management’s website again to replay it. It showed a thick, heavyset Rick blaze past a game camera set up in downtown Springfield, deep in the Wake Preserve. The Rick had a dirty football jersey and a pair of sweat pants stretched over his massive frame. The beast must have gone 6/6 tall and over 300 pounds, even emaciated. He had legs like tree trunks.
That is a lot of black steak.
The problem is, it was in an urban area. Springfield had been an inner city just outside of the major hub. When the major hub had fallen to the Ricks during the outbreak, they had firebombed it with white phosphorus and napalm for a week to incinerate most of the million Ricks there. Springfield, surrounded by a river on all sides like a moat was isolated once the Air Force blew the bridges. Bypassed and forgotten during the war, it was now the most populated preserve left.
The Department of RHC Management had just opened it for ‘at your own risk’ hunting to permit holders yesterday.
By the end of the day, after watching the video a dozen more times, he had put in his time off request from work and applied for the permit to hunt the football Rick. With a score that big, and the money he already had saved, he could afford to quit his drone job and retire to hunt full time. It was just too much to pass up.
The tiny homebuilt helicopter was dubbed the Tiger Moth, according to the airbrushed graphic on the side of its fuselage. Its owner and pilot, an eccentric who the hunter simply knew as Rotorwing74 from a reply to his Craigslist ad, assured him that the homebuilt whirly bird was safe but he had his doubts. Since Springfield was a no fly-zone, he could not find any real pilots that wanted to risk their chopper or their license, so he took what he could find. With no roads leading in and sea mines rigged in the river around the city, the only way into town was by air.
While he had the permit to hunt for the football Rick inside Springfield itself, the no-fly zone was a catch-22. It had set him back five large but he should make up for it ten-fold.
By bringing in the jury-rigged flying machine just before sunset low and slow, the hobbyist ‘pilot’ was pretty sure he could get in and drop the hunter off. From the overhead satellite imagery available online, they had picked out a small open field away from the urban sprawl of the city. Best of all it was only a mile from where the DRM’s game camera had filmed the football Rick.
As the rattletrap flying machine stumbled into the air over the field, the hunter scanned the horizon for signs of the undead. With the DRM dropping so many new game cameras into the city maybe the sound of a helicopter would not be that big of a draw. To help mask their approach the pilot had fitted a long muffler can wrapped with a wet towel to the craft. Whatever the reason for it, the hunter was glad to see they had not attracted a welcoming committee.
The pilot came in hot and pulled in at low hover just inches from the high weeds and grass of the field. The hunter grabbed his bag and his rifle and rolled off into the grass. As he lay there, he saw the pilot increase power and zip away in the same direction they came. The hunter pulled his camouflaged poncho over his body, as he lay very flat and still on the ground.
The field had not been mowed in years and the thick weeds enveloped him. They towered nearly a half foot over his head, hiding him almost totally. He lay on his stomach in a prone position and waited for night. As he did so he listened for any movement around him once the sound of the helicopter drifted away. His hand on his rifle, he bided his time.
Darkness fell across the field with the setting sun and left the hunter in the land of the undead. Overnight hunts are always a pucker factor. You could not set up camp in Rick territory. Sleeping bags and tents were suicide. You could not go to sleep at all. He hunter had spent the past two days in a dreamlike trance, never really awake so that he would have a reserve of energy. Hopped up on slow digesting carbs and with a pack full of energy drinks and powerbars, he figured he could make it 2-3 days before he needed to sleep. To make matters worse, the homebuilt Tiger Moth could not fly at night, which meant no matter what happened he was stuck until dawn.
As the night deepened and his eyes became accustomed to the darkness, the hunter powered up his night vision goggles and attached them to the harness strapped on his forehead. Through the green-glow of the intensifier tubes, he saw the abandoned city spread out before him. No movement. No Ricks.
He stood slowly and gathered his pack and rifle, stowing his poncho away with quiet and deliberate movements. He tested the IR laser illuminator on the side of his Bushmaster AR-15 semiautomatic gas-powered tactical rifle and saw it shine silently on the letter ‘T’ of a stop sign ahead. The illuminator produced a bright green pencil sized laser that was invisible to anyone and anything not using night vision. With it, all he had to do was place the laser beam on his target and pull the trigger. Dead Rick. Or Dead again however you wanted to look at it.
On foot patrol, he walked smoothly across the overgrown field and into town. As he walked, he constantly swiveled his head from shoulder to shoulder, scanning for Ricks. He craned his ears for any sounds other than his own. He deliberately sniffed the air for that familiar sweetly fetid smell. Every 100 feet or so he would stop and crouch to reexamine the area ahead and behind for anything he may have missed. Stalking Ricks in the middle of the night was dangerous business.
Moving down the street the hunter watched the apartment buildings and strip malls. He caught sight of a few feral cats and roosting pigeons, but nothing else stirred. At the end of the street, he noted a five-story office building and ventured towards it. It was the tallest structure in that part of town. After watching each window for several seconds and evaluating the open front door, he made his move. He set down his decoy system in the middle of the deserted street and went to set up his hide.
Cautiously and with exacting measures, he made his way into the lobby. A few long-decayed bodies littered the entryway. Most likely, they were victims of the war that did not reanimate. The preserves were littered with them. Rule of thumb was, if it was not moving then it was not a Rick. Those damned things were like Great White sharks. Always awake, always on the search for food, never stopping, never sleeping, and always hungry.
Up the emergency stairs, he walked in the dark, cocooned in his world of green night vision and his own fears mindfucking him. Up ten flights until he came to the roof access. The hatch was already open and dried bloody handprints decorated the cinder block walls there. Across the roof, he walked until he could peer over the sides at the city below. From 70+ feet in the air he could command the streets below him and with the 77-grain boat-tailed soft points that he stoked his rifle with, if he could see it, he could hit it.
He perched on top of a huge and long dormant air conditioning unit, popped open an energy drink, and became a giant set of eyeballs.
After watching for half the night with no results, the hunter decided to try calling his game in. He pulled out his phone and dropped a dime to the decoy package he rigged up in the street below. In seconds, he saw a light emit from the decoy phone and heard the sound of John Madden’s voice echoing across the derelict roadway. The ring tone would last for a solid minute and consisted of archival super bowl audio announcing, snippets from Sports center, and the old Monday Night Football theme music from before the war. Better yet, it was taped to a fresh, beautiful Wilson leather football.
When the minute was up the decoy fell silent and the hunter picked up his rifle to watch. After a quarter hour with no response, he triggered the phone again and waited. Midway through the ring tone the hunter could make out a blur of motion in his night vision goggles along the sidewalk below. He tracked the motion all the way to the decoy. It moved so fast he was worried that the Rick would snatch up the ball and disappear with it, looking for some eternally distant end zone.
As the laser on his rifle sight intersected with the Rick barreling across the road, the hunter squeezed off three fast rounds into the center mass of the beast. He knew it would not kill it, only headshots did that, but he could at least slow it down.
The Rick let out a grunt and dived headlong for the phone-football as Hank Williams Jr was yelling about his rowdy friends. Impacting the ground face-first, the hunter had a chance to line up the Rick’s head and make a kill shot. Three more silenced .223 rounds burped out and left the Rick’s skull a pile of smoking grey Jell-O.
The hunter waited several minutes for any other signs of life then packed up his equipment and headed back down the ten flights of stairs to the road. He snapped the Rick’s obligatory head shot photo and emailed it to the DRM’s permit desk then started his harvest before waiting for a reply. He had to field dress the Rick and fall back to the grassy field before dawn so that he could beat feat and put Springfield behind him. Once he carved away the best and most select pieces of the heavily muscled beast, the hunter strapped the casualty bag to his pack, shouldered it, picked up the decoy, and started to hike out of Springfield the same way he came. As he did he shot off an email to the Tiger moth pilot to come pick him up as close to dawn as possible at the earlier drop off point.
The pack was heavy; pushing what must have been a hundred pounds once the hunter added the meat to it. It weighed on his shoulders and dug its straps deep into his shoulders with every step. He walked as slow as possible to reduce the sound of his footfalls on the road he crept. Every few steps he turned and walked backwards to make sure nothing was following him.
He had never seen a Rick as fast as that one had moved. Considering he had taken almost a hundred of them in the past few years, the hunter saw himself as an aficionado. He had even written a few articles for American RHC Hunter magazine. All he wanted to do was get the hell out of town and catch his ride back to civilization.
Once he left the road and felt the comforting silence of the grassy field lapping around his knees his growing anxiety abated. In the grass, he would have a good field of fire in all directions. Nothing could jump out from a corner and cut him off. He could settle in and wait for dawn.
Once he reached the middle of the field, he slumped the heavy pack off, sat quietly on top of it, and propped the rifle across his lap for easy access. To conserve the batteries in his night vision he switched them off and flipped them up on his forehead harness. His eyes opened wide in the pitch-black darkness and soon he could define individual blades of grass and weeds silhouetted against the horizon in the moonlight. His phone vibrated and he looked at the screen, cupping it with his free hand to prevent the light from escaping to give him away.
He had lots of spam, some random emails from work, Facebook updates etc. that he scrolled trough. There was a reply from Rotorwing74 about the extraction in the morning. The pilot was good to go. There was also an email from the DRM’s permit desk marked Urgent. As he scanned it, his heart skipped a beat.
Your recent permit application number 2023445-J was to harvest the RHC designated as Springfield 21. After review of your photo tag, we have determined that you have taken an unknown RHC. As you know, the nuisance RHC removal program is limited to pre-identified and selected RHC. Any RHC taken without the proper permit is contraband and is not to be harmed. Your permit application is hereby suspended until a Conservation Board review can determine the necessary actions. It is hereby ordered that you leave the Preserve area as soon as safely possible without harvesting any items.”
Whatever. Some clerk somewhere had looked at a dark grainy picture of his Rick, compared it with another dark grainy picture, and got confused. He was no poacher and if they brought him in front of the board, he would simply have to bring up the time that…
The rustle in the grass at the edge of the filed snapped him out of his technology-induced trance. He shut the phone down, brought his rifle up to a ready position, and slid off his pack into the grass on his belly. Powering up his night vision he flipped them down over his eyes and scanned the horizon. As he settled into his prone shooting position, he concentrated on his surroundings. He could make out the buildings in the distance and the entire field but saw nothing alarming.
Another rustle to his left and he turned the muzzle of his rifle towards it. Nothing showed through his goggles but artificial green images of grass and weeds.
The hunter lay on his stomach motionless and listened, breathing very shallow in a deliberate and calculated way to maximize his silence. Occasionally another rustle would waft towards his ears. Every time it did, he swung the rifle to meet it only to find nothing.
Rats, he thought, or maybe feral cats chasing rats. That was believable, the damn things were everywhere in town. He thought back to the old Egyptian mythology books he read as a kid. About how cats were the guardians of the cities of the dead and smiled at the metaphor.
The sun was just peeking under the horizon, turning the night sky into a pale purple and red where it met the earth. He flipped off the night vision and stowed them in his pack. It was light enough to see without them so why bother. Besides, the goggles lacked peripherals and made you feel like you were looking through a toilet paper tube. He was better off without them in a tactical situation if he could get away with it.
From far off behind him, he heard the high-pitched whine of a small motor revving. Like your neighbor, weedeating a block over, the motor’s sound traveled from a distance and got under your skin. The closer it came the more familiar it grew.
The Tiger Moth.
The hunter breathed deeply and exhaled with a sigh. A few more moments and this trip would be over. A few days from now and he would have the steaks sold and…
The rustles grew and the hunter turned towards them. He stood up, rifle in hand, and watched over the grassy field for the first time in hours. It took him a minute to understand what he was seeking.
Spread out in a loose formation between him and Springfield was a defensive line. Four Rick defensive linemen crouched low in the grass with one hand on the ground. The high grass and overgrowth hid them almost totally. Behind the linemen he could see three Rick linebackers standing up, preparing to read the play and react to the actions of the enemy team’s quarterback–him. They all wore the same uniform and judging from the paths in the grass had been running patterns on him all night.
The Tiger Moth sputtered over the field, directly behind the hunter. The pilot had a look of sheer horror on his face as he brought the chopper into a hover and gestured towards the undead linemen arrayed for kickoff.
“Bring it in!” Yelled the hunter waving the pilot to come closer so that he could get the hell out of there. On the other side of the 50-yard line, the Ricks changed positions, switching from a 4-3 defense to a 3-4. The hunter was not interested in sticking around to see who was calling the plays.
The Tiger Moth swayed and balanced in mid-air until its skids were only a few feet off the ground beside the hunter. The hunter, eyes glued to the Ricks down field, momentarily slung his rifle as he heaved his pack up and onto the floating helicopter. With the increase in weight, the machine sagged closer to the ground. This caused a chain reaction where the pilot of the craft increased power to the rotor to keep from setting down on the rough ground and instead shot twenty feet skyward like a kid’s bottle rocket.
The hunter stood on the ground below the chopper and stared up at the belly of the machine overhead. Instead of sinking back down towards him, the helicopter continued to rise before banking away and speeding off. In seconds, all that was left of the Tiger Moth in Springfield was the rapidly retreating sounds of the motor and rotor.
He looked down field. The defensive line now had changed to an all-up defense with all seven Rick linemen arrayed across the 50-yard line. The hunter felt the barrel of his rifle slung over his shoulder, reassuring himself in its heavy steel companionship. He reached down, picked up the decoy football with the cell phone taped to it, and dropkicked it over the line.
The effect on the Ricks was like a match to flame and as soon as his foot made contact with the football, they charged him. He brought his rifle up to his shoulder and aligned the iron sights on the closest lineman to him. Pip-Pip and two rounds through the forehead dropped him. The second and third he downed by the 35 yard line. The fourth and fifth by the 20. The sixth and final just feet away from him.
He ejected his magazine and checked it. Only eight rounds left. Of course, he had entered Springfield with more than 200 spare rounds, but the others were in his pack wherever Rotorwing74 was with the Tiger Moth.
The hunter sighed and rammed his magazine back into his rifle. The Springfield Spartan’s Offensive line was assembling down field and licking their lips as they looked at him. It was their ball now.
BIO- Christopher Eger is a military scholar and writer who has published more than 300 non-fiction articles on modern warfare in such magazines as Warship International, Military Historian, and Sea Classics. His nonfiction book-length work includes contributing to the Mississippi Encyclopedia by the University of Mississippi Press. He has published several short stories in previous anthologies. Last Stand on Zombie Island, Christopher’s first fiction novel, is set for release in the spring of 2012. You can follow his blog at www.laststandonzombieisland.com