Caine stopped, followed seconds later by Abel. Both turned their noses to the almost impalpable breeze. Maddy slid to a stop on the mucky soil, gratefully taking deep breaths. Checking her watch, she was impressed: 26 hours. They were approaching record territory. Jimmy John Donaldson had gone 38 hours straight, necessitating 2 teams working in tandem, but he had been a brain damaged clinical psychopath known to stay awake for 72 hour stretches. The kid she was tracking now was smart but scared and running on adrenaline. The chemical fire on your bones only lasted so long. Once it was gone it left only ash and despair.
Speaking of chemical fire… Maddy jammed the boys’ rein spikes deep into the soil and pulled a small, familiar bottle out of one of her belt pouches. Tapping a small robins egg blue pill out onto her palm, she tossed it back and chewed it dry so that it would hit her bloodstream faster. She could remember a time when the taste of doing so would have made her sick to her stomach. Times change. The Dex’ was illegal, but whenever a handler was headed out after a con who might give them a run for their money, there would be a little bottle of blues sitting on the prison M.D.’s desk. Doc Hanshaw ran the pool on the apprehension time and wanted to make sure the cons actually went down. Warden Lyle didn’t care as long as he looked good afterward.
Kyle scrambled through the shallow canal,determinedly NOT thinking about alligators.’Gators were not exactly common yet, having been mostly eaten during the Z War, but it would be just his luck to step on one of the few there were. He had been on the move for over a day straight and had been on a road gang for 8 hours before that, all on l short, nightmare haunted nap and was starting to hallucinate. They were back there, somewhere. THEY didn’t have to worry about the local wildlife, and neither did their handler. Too close. Within that bubble that told any animal, from squirrels, to Tyrannosaurs (he had seen one waltzing by earlier) to get the fuck out of dodge…Kyle shook himself awake.
He had been in a pleasant haze, calculating the exact odds for a Zombie on Tyrannosaur brawl, and coincidentally dozing standing up, giving up more of what had to be a slim lead. He went from a pleasant daze to near panic and frantic motion. After a minute or two, calm started to re-assert itself. His bug eyed, spastic dash turned into a moderate walk. He could remember watching Zombie flicks with his brother Richie, back, before. “Oh, noez!”, they would shout,”it’s a ZOMBIE!! Lets saunter for our LIVEZ’s!!!” It had been funny then, before 80% of the worlds population had disappeared down the gullet of a shambled clutching, moaning, virus. Richie hadn’t risen, Kyle made sure of that. He made sure his baby brother had peace wherever he was and now he, Kyle, was scrambling through a swamp a very short distance ahead of a pair of tame Zs and the she demon bitch running them. He had spent the run trying to figure out ways of escaping, without much luck. He wasn’t the first con to disappear into the black water swamps, he probably wasn’t the hundredth. He couldn’t just get so far ahead that they lost the scent, a series of swamp roads were now home to a set of Floridas’ finest, bored and ITCHING to pop a slug into his convict ass. He couldn’t turn on the hound and handler. Granted, the hounds had been pretty effectively neutered, but the handlers were armed to the teeth with the iron of their choice and knew how to use it. Prison lore said that no con had ever escaped hounds. Tough, he was going to be the first. Shaking his head to clear the black blobs of exhaustion from the corners of his vision he kept moving, deeper into the swamp.
The boys were getting restless, losing interest in the scent. What she had thought was them picking up the scent over the air was more than likely them scenting some kind of small, swamp dwelling animal. They needed to be fed, and they needed to be fed now. They were close, she could feel it. Everyone at the guard shack had laugh when she had laid $500 down on the 28-30 hour slot on the betting pool, but she had had a hunch. The kid was young, evidently smart, and had a LARGE set of testicles on him to just walk away from a road gang, depending on the diversion he had set up to carry the guards attention for that first critical minute or so (from what she had heard the gigantic but harmless cane spider had made the bull con into whose jumpsuit he had dropped it dance like a ballerina and scream like a narc at a biker rally).
Shrugging off her pack, she dug into it until she came upon several anonymous pink cubes of vacuum packed meat the size of her fist. Each had a label: PROVENDER, POST-HUMANOID XX/XX/XX with the X’s being the freshness date. Thinking about the freshness date on human meat always made her a bit queasy. The meat came from several sources. Lethal injection recipients were held at a state of deep coma while their limbs were harvested (Doc Hanshaw was known to whistle while he worked). Organ donors’ organs sometimes went to places WILDLY divergent from where they thought they would be going. And finally, there was the sentence reduction program. You could volunteer a limb, or limbs, for a reduction in your sentence. You could gain as much as a 20 year reduction in your time. True, you’d leave the yard on a stretcher looking like a human Frisbee, but you’d be a FREE human Frisbee.
Grabbing two of the cubes, she walked over to the boys. They sensed her and began ‘hunting’ her. True, they were eyeless, toothless, their inner ears had been destroyed, and their arms had been disarticulated at the humeral head. That didn’t stop them from approaching her and moaning. The instant the moaning began, the swamp became absolutely silent. Even the small things knew death when they heard it.
Abel approached obliquely from her left, Caine from her right. Many people touted behavior such as this as proof of intelligence, however small. Maddy knew differently. She had been a Ranger sniper during the war, and had had plenty of chances to study her enemy. Put X Z’s in a confined area, and they would spread so as to provide maximum possible space for each Z. This behavior continued through to hunting, which was why the news continued to occasionally show gruesome footage of some poor soul with a six shot revolver surrounded by 20 Zombies and not enough sense to save the last round for himself. Surrounding the victim wasn’t a tactic, it was a mindless response to available space. Zombies were stimulus:response engines. Given stimulus:X a Z would ALWAYS reply with response:Y.
Caine was a step or so ahead of Abel so she dealt with him first. She waited until he was just outside what would have been arms reach (har har har) then V stepped to her right and kicked his feet out from under him. He hit the ground with a solid thud and began an earthworm squirm, trying to sit up while armless. She knelt with her shin on Caines neck and opened the PROVENDER, POST-HUMANOID. Caine started to squirm vigorously, and Abel shuffled towards her faster. Once Abel got within arms reach, she grabbed his lead and simply pulled him down. The hounds had neither much balance nor a whole lot of strength, truth be told. Carefully, she opened the muzzle flap on his hood and dropped the cube into his gummy maw. The odor that wafted forth would have blistered paint off a car, had one been available. She closed his muzzle flap, double checking it, and repeated the procedure with with Abel.
All zipped up, the boys looked like the twin Queens at a BDS&M parade. They were dressed not too differently then she was, in a form fitting heavy duty nylon jump suits to keep them from damaging themselves needlessly. The difference was the hood, which was also formfitting with a zippable muzzle flap and an opening for the nostrils. It had been discovered during the war that Z’s were pan-sensory hunters, that they used all senses equally well to hunt. They could hunt in the dark, under water, in the Hellish conditions of a working industrial foundry, (although the union guys at the foundry had organized up, and hunted them BACK). It turns out that Z’s are not scared of 2500ｰF molten steel. It also turns out that they still burn like birthday candles, just fine.
The State of Florida, more specifically the Bureau of Prisons, had taken advantage of a Z’s sooper dooper senses. The more senses you removed, the more they depended on the others. By removing sight, and hearing, the only ranged sense left was scent, plus that spooky voodoo thing everyone knew was there and no one could prove. At first BuPris had removed the entire jaws of the the hounds. It was discovered that this caused the Z in question to become apathetic, and to do something that looked suspiciously like starving to death. This was at first hailed by the state government as a new weapon in the war on Z’s. Most of the professional Z hunters pointed out that A) the war as an organized undertaking was over B)They were getting $2500 a head for Z’s, were heavily armed, and would REALLY appreciate it if the state didn’t mess up their gig and C) If you could take a Z’s jaw off, why not just aim 6 inches higher and blow the damn things head off? The Z starvation project was quietly canceled. Instead, all of the dentition was removed from the Z in question (enter Doc Hanshaw carrying pliers and a grin). As long as you didn’t have any open wounds, the worst that could happen was an attempt to gum you to death, and the Z’s could still be fed.
Having been fed, the boys were much more perky. Maddy pulled a large zip lock bag out of her pack, put on a pair of gloves, and opened it. Inside was a pillow case from Kellys cell. It reeked of bleach. Smart boy had doused his cell with industrial cleaner during morning cleaning rounds. Had she been running a pair of actual hounds, it might have worked. She wasn’t running hounds. She called them the boys, they weren’t. What she was running was a pair of humanoids either evolved or genetically engineered or voodoo spelled. Take your pick, but what they were,were tailor made to do, was locate, approach, contact and eat human beings. They reason she was relatively safe, other than the surgery, was they fact that their storage boxes in the garage constantly had a cotton swab with her blood on it hanging inside. Just like humans, after a long enough exposure, Z’s become scent blind. The bleach on the pillow probably reduced the usable scent molecules on it by a large factor, but her boys didn’t need much. They also had that voodoo thing. There had been spots where Kelly had crossed a canal or stream where Caine and Abel had stopped, heads cocked as if listening to far off music, both heads then shambled upstream a good distance and crossed, immediately picking up scent and print trails. Maddy head learned not to outguess a Z when tracking a long time ago. The problem was the bleach thing had kind of SEMI worked. She was having to reintroduce the scent to the boys more and more often…
Kyle was approaching the edge. He was getting to the point were what little sleep he had had in the last couple of days plus the tiny morsel of crystal he had been able to buy inside just weren’t working any more. You could push the human body an astonishing distance, but there was a wall, and he had just hit it. He slid to the ground, back to a log, and just sat. What were his options? Giving up? Not going to happen. Not now, not ever. Suicide by cop? It had possibilities, file that one under maybe. Play fox to the states Hounds? He had been trying that the whole time he was on the run.
They seemed to be able to find him no matter what he did, they could track him across streams, through double backs, through just about anything he tried. Kyle had spent hours in the infirmary comforting a dying old con by the name of Haden Clarke. Except he wasn’t comforting him, he was pumping him for information on escape and evasion techniques, Haden had made a ridiculous number of escape attempts when younger, something on the order of 26. The only reason he was in Tapahatchee State Confinement Facility and not one of the big Federal pens was that he was currently doing his business into bags, being fed by an I.V. into his neck, and looked like something Death had scraped off his shoe with a look of disgust. Haden knew that Kyle hadn’t been talking to him out of the goodness of his heart. In the Jug, everyone was working an angle on something all the time. Kyle got the info he needed, Haden got someone to take his mind off the fact that he was going to be buried in a plywood box under a plywood cross, and that if it rained hard right after his “funeral” there was a good chance his coffin would come bubbling up and float away to become gator snacks somewhere. They had talked about the different escape techniques one could use, and the mind set needed to use them. When it came right down to it, was he willing to do whatever it took to get the job done? At this point, when it felt like he was wearing a concrete suit, the answer was yes.
Kyle stripped down, naked as a Jaybird, butt nekkid, as nude as the day his ticket to ride the ride of life was punched. Inside his bright orange jumpsuit was a ziplock bag. Inside the zip lock bag was about a half a cup of industrial bleach and a pair of the cheap, piece of crap shower shoes you could buy at the prison store for 50 cents. Kyle took the shower shoes out of the bag and put then on, steeling himself for what came next. The bleach used in the prison wasn’t some pine scented flower water you could buy at Target, this stuff was industrial strength. You get this shit on your hands you best be heading for a sink. Kyle looked around, not seeing a sink. Hell with it. He poured the remainder of the bleach in the bag over his head, and making sure to keep his eyes closed, he vigorously spread it all over, or as much all over as half a cup would go. Almost immediately, it felt like he had fallen asleep at the beach for 3 or 4 hours and gotten himself a whopper of a sunburn.
So…one butt nekkid, shaven headed, sunburned convict wearing shower shoes wandering through the northern Everglades. Suspicious? Naaaah! He began a staggering run, barely keeping upright, scanning the ‘glade around him for anything that could be put to use in his favor. Then he saw it. Fortune favors the bold. What the Hell, the worst he could do was die. A smile crossed his face that would have made Girl Scouts weep…
The boys were moving as fast as they ever did, but with that sense of implacability that freaked people out and caused them to make stupid mistakes. They were pulling on their rein straps hard enough that Maddy had to sheath them in the holsters on her belt so that she could lean back into the pull. If it were possible, she would say they were getting excited. It wasn’t possible, so she didn’t. Around the prison, she was known as Thick As A Brick (but not where she could hear it). Not because she was stupid, she was far from it. It was because she had an almost pathological lack of imagination, where other people got spooked and saw a haunted, Z infested forest. Maddy saw a forest at night with small critters moving through the detritus just off the trail. If she had been a tad more egotistical, she would have had an “I love me wall” at her home with several medals on it. Once 6th Ranger Btn command had heard about Maddy’s “disability” she became the go-to gal for dicey rescue scenarios, mostly involving downed pilots and air crews. She had made several solo drops into red zones for SAR work, with a success rate over 90%.
They were leaning into the traces hard, which generally indicated the target was close. The boys rounded a Cypress tree revealing their target, puzzling Maddy. Was Kelly hiding behind it, in a last ditch attempt to avoid capture? Both of the Z’s were doing the only aggressive move they had left, which was to head butt the target: a mound of mud and grass about 3 feet high and 6 feet in diameter. Maddy realized what it was at the last second and had time to yell “NO!”, as if it would have had any effect on her boys. It was early summer, and there were few Alligators in the ‘Glades of breeding size yet. The Mud and grass mound indicated there was one around, it was a nest. 7 1/2 feet of enraged mother alligator erupted from the tannic water answering the only instinct more powerful than the one causing avoidance of a Z: protection of her young. Her jaws closed with literal bone shattering force on Abels left femur, making a dry stick craaaack. The two disappeared into the dark waters of the slough. Maddy looked, realizing she had about three seconds to act or she was going to be taking an Everglades ski ride. Acting calmly but with haste she unsheathed the cane knife on her left hip. The pull was becoming irresistible as the end of the rein sawed around on the surface of the water and she skidded towards the shore. If she went in, she was not likely to come out, the gator would shred Abel quickly then look for something that actually bled. Aiming as if she had all the time in the world, she parted the heavy leather rein as if it were tissue paper, then pull the Kel-Tec KSG shotgun in it’s tactical sling around just in case mama handbag decided to go ashore for her meal.
“Excuse me, Marshall?” She ALMOST made it. Smoothly up onto the balls of both feet, swivelling on both at the same time, gun headed for her shoulder, almost finding its’ own spotweld. Then he hit her with the bees nest in the face. Instantaneous agony. The whole nest was probably on the order of 20-30000 bees, but of that, only several hundred were outside the nest, stinging anything moving. Did we mention that these were Africanized bees and had been Apiary little bad asses since 1965 or so? Agony or no, she was Thick As A Brick, decisions were being made. She made a dash for the tarn, hoping Ms. Gator was still dismembering Abel, and making sure she also still had the KSG. She hit the water with a mighty spash and sank as fast as she could, staying down as long as she could. As she looked up, she could see, as if through badly distorted window glass, her prey leading her sole remaining hound away by his leash. She couldn’t help it, she began to grin, then to laugh, then to guffaw. None of this prim little tittering or giggling for her, when she thought something was funny, you know it. “Well played Kyle Kelly,” she thought ,” well played indeed.”
Sheriffs Deputy Jimbob ‘Corndog’ MacAllan (he had missed winning the State Fair ‘dawg eating contest by 3 corndogs to some dude from Miami whose shadow weighed 42 pounds.) was bored. Extra duty was just that: extra. Extra money, but also extra hours. Here he was sitting in a cruiser with flaky air conditioning in the middle of nowhere on some state road on the one in 10,000 chance that some escapee from Tapahatchee could make it this far. From what Jimbob know of the local area, by this point the con would either want to be captured or dead, whichever came first. Jimbob wasn’t in any hurray to capture him…After fiddling with the A.C. for approximately the 35th time he looked around, and finally saw something. It was a Hound. One of those creepy ass mutilated Zeke’s the Bureau of Corrections used to hunt these poor bastards. It looked like some kind of crazy S&M vampire shuffling across the road. It was dressed head to toe in forest service green nylon and was trailing a 40 or 50′ leash. Jimbob wondered if he should contact someone about the thing, but it didn’t seem dangerous, it was just shuffling across the road into the swamps on the other side. Hell with it, he would provide information to his brothers and sisters in the Bureau of Prisons if directly queried. He bent over again and started fiddling with the A.C. Again…
For several minutes, Kyle didn’t think he was going to be able to get the zipper down from inside the jumpsuit. In order to maintain the correct silhouette, he had had to zip everything except the front zipper, then do up the front zipper from inside and worm his hands down to the small of his back. For that first five minutes trying to extricate himself, he thought he was going to go up like a peanut butter cookie in an easy bake oven. Once he finally oozed out of the jumpsuit like a particularly odd mother giving birth, he laid there, panting. One of the Z’s was lethal alligator chow (one drop of swallowed Z blood was it, you were dead), the other had followed him like a baby goat, head butting him occasionally. Kyle had solved that with a large rock. Weirdly cute or not, it was not THAT cute. He had gotten the idea to switch clothes with it and it had worked so far, but he couldn’t do it anymore. The Z smelled like a particularly virulent strain of ass rot. The spike at the end of the rein attached to the harness around the suit had a relatively sharp edge. He would be able to pick open holes for his arms (actual Ecological and Forestry Management Service Rangers were known to do pretty much as they liked with their gear. No one else would live for weeks at a time in 90ｰdegree temperatures with 100% humidity, so they were treated leniently). Given just a LITTLE more luck, he’d be able to swipe a coaster with a full tank of gas and disappear into the mists of Florida convict legend.
Maddy lay on the cot in the infirmary at Tapahatchee. She wasn’t allergic to bee stings, but 90+ stings on your face and upper torso meant ANYONE was at least mildly allergic. She had been lucky not to drop into full blown anaphylactic shock before help had arrived. Her radio had crapped out after being dunked, but the emergency GPS locator was a brick of solid state circuitry that had saved her life. Close call or no close call, thinking of Kelly’s politeness still made her grin. She probably would have done the same. Someone gloved, masked, and gowned sat beside her with a sting removal tray. They looked distinctly green around the gills, and Maddy recognized the eyes above the mask (rumor had it that treating real live, living people, the kind with pulses, made Doc Hanshaw squeamish).