Max arrived in Osceola the morning after the military men had come to collect him from Bill's house. Stewart was by his side and the two were now dressed in military fatigues. The military authorities had not given Max a choice, they had drafted him using the emergency legislation that the state of Iowa had enacted and taken him away from his crying children after giving him only a short opportunity to say goodbye.
The men were polite but firm in their insistence that Max go with them. It was only after Stewart had taken one of his handlers aside that they agreed to let her come with Max as a 'bodyguard', the man she had proven her skills on wasn't permanently damaged. It was four-thirty in the morning, according to Max's watch, and the train was already loaded up and almost ready to go. They were waiting for one more squad of men before they left, on board the train there were already two squads led by Colonel Leroy Draper, a tall, fit African American, who was not happy to have Max along, but he had been briefed on the plan and had even added a few details to it himself. It was Draper who waited with Max, Stewart, and another soldier outside the train. Draper was older than Max expected, the man had to be close to his own age. Despite the age difference, he looked much more fit than Max. 'He is built like a brick shit house,' Max thought, sizing the other man up. As near as Max could tell he was the highest ranking soldier he had met so far.
“No need to try the saluting and other bullshit with me,” came Draper's voice, it was soft, deep and full of southern twang, “You ain't a soldier, even drafted, without some training. You just say 'Hey Draper' or 'Hey Leroy,' don't bother with anything else.”
“Do we have a chance?” asked Max, the question he had wanted to ask the last twenty hours.
Draper turned on him and stared intently into Max's face. “You,” he said, sticking one beefy hand into Max's chest, “You are our chance. Don't fuck this up. We get in, we kill the bastard who needs killing, we get out. Don't kill me and my men Max.”
“When will this other squad get here?” asked Stewart to fill the void after Draper's short speech.
“I think this is them now,” said Draper pointed at the headlights of a truck that was heading their way. “A squad of volunteers, really dumb volunteers, which is why we have to bring them back. Their only job is to protect the train.”
Max had a sick feeling in his stomach as he watched an old army truck pulled up, his feeling was made worse when he saw the first man dismount. “No.” he whispered, then turned to Draper, “No. Not him, not his squad.”
“You know him?” Draper asked, surprise in his voice, “I thought you were from Colorado?”
“He is my buddy from way back, I should have known he would volunteer, but how did he know?”
“The sergeant?” asked Draper pointing at Bill, who was helping an older man from his squad off of the truck. “He volunteered, he said something to his officer about the train, it worked its way up the command line and when we were looking for someone to watch our transportation, they gave it to him. Ten guys with all the ammunition they need should be able to hold this train against anything.”
The train was down to the engine, a tanker to hold extra fuel, a single-passenger car and a flatbed loaded with two armored personnel carriers and a half dozen motorcycles. The flatbed was the last car in the line and the motorcycles were on the front of it. One squad was riding in the armored personnel carriers to man the vehicle weapons, one squad was split between the engine and the fuel tanker, which had two-machine gun emplacements embedded into it and the other two squads were to ride in the passenger compartment. Max had asked about the fuel tanker and Draper had said it was a relic left over from the cold war, the guns were even Vietnam era fifty-caliber monsters, but the thing had never been used before, not even to protect the rail lines in the countries the United States was involved with. When Max had asked about it, Draper had said, “Who would want to be on that car? I mean it is up-armored to carry fuel, but a rocket-propelled grenade would cut through it like a hot knife through butter and then ka-pow! That is fuel Max, explosive fuel. It was not a good design, but we have one and we are not expecting the natives to be firing rpgs at us. It should shrug off most small arms fire, just not military stuff.”
Bill had assembled his squad and approached Draper, where he executed a sloppy salute that brought a sigh to the officer's lips. “At ease. What is your name sergeant?”
“Bill Carson, sir.”
“I thought you'd have a full squad Bill?”
“We had some casualties but picked up a few other guys from one of the other squads from Sioux City.” There were only eight men, including Bill in front of the Lieutenant.
“Oh? I heard you were up there. I know you are more like a militia than a regular soldier, but the things I have heard about the fighting up that way...”
“It has been difficult at times.” Bill allowed.
“And you volunteered to go do this? Why sergeant? You don't strike me as having a death wish.”
“I know Max and I knew he would get stuck going. He has the worst luck.”
“So you wanted in on the bad luck?”
“No sir! I have good luck sir, so I should cancel him out and help us get through this in one piece.”
Draper smiled at Bill and shook his head. “Well, all right Sergeant 'Lucky,' let's get your crew on board and get moving. Your squad has security once we get to Chicago so you are up in the engine and on the tanker. It looks like a couple of your guys might have been in Vietnam, they will love the weapons on the tanker.”
With only a brief nod to Max, Bill started forward and got his squad on the train. Max found that Draper had stationed him in the engine and was given a walking tour of the thing as the train started moving. Outside of the enclosed cab the train was loud. There was a very narrow walkway down each side of the engine that would allow them to move back to the other cars if they needed to while it was moving and the fuel tanker had a more secured walkway behind some quarter inch steel skirting that was supposed to detonate shaped charges before they hit the main armor of the tanker itself. The skirts enclosed the walkway and moving down them to the passenger car was easier than walking down along the engine, at least Max didn't feel like he was going to tumble off the vehicle with every step.
The men in the passenger car were either sleeping or on watch. Six men were spread evenly throughout the train with rifles at the ready while the other fourteen men slept in the seats, some snoring loudly. Draper only introduced Max to the sergeant on duty at the front of the car, before turning him around and moving him back to the cab on the engine.
“Getting to the flat bed is a little more difficult, there is a short jump and if you don't mind my saying you don't look too steady on your feet just walking along the engine. The train's engineer was explaining how to work the train to Stewart. The engineer had an assistant with him, both of whom had been unwillingly drafted to go as well. Stewart was taking the man seriously and taking notes on her cell phone. Looking backwards Max could just see Bill at the front of the car behind them, he had opted to sit in the forward gun emplacement on the tanker, two of his squad had been sent forward to crowd the engine. One of the men, Ruben, was following the instructions the engineer was giving Stewart with rapt attention. He was standing next to Max and said, “You know I always liked trains. You should see my basement, I have a whole setup down there. I haven't run them in years, not since my grandkids were ten or twelve. It is just collecting dust now.”
“I used to like trains too.”
“Used to? This is something you don't get over. I love the things, even now, but I guess playing with them lost its appeal after no one else took interest. And here I am, on one again.”
“You from Perry?” asked Max.
The older man nodded.
“How long have you known Bill.”
“You mean before?” Max nodded, “Well I can't say I really did, I mean I saw him around at the Memorial day festival and once a 'Trees Forever' meeting, but we didn't chum around if that is what you are asking. You?”
“Since seventh grade. He was in eighth.”
“So twenty years or so then?”
“Long time. I've known a few of these guys for longer than you've been alive. Dan and Larry there anyway.”
“Why'd you guys come?”
“I can sense the zombies and kind of have a feel for the more powerful ones.”
“Yeah, like they glow to me, the brighter they glow, the stronger they are. So they want me to go after the big guy in Chicago, the one we think is making this whole mess happen in Iowa.”
“Huh, like superman or something out of the comic books. That is pretty...unbelievable.”
Max looked at him sharply, “They tested me.”
“I don't doubt they had to. What is your range?”
“Maybe a mile or so. I can see humans too, through walls and everything.”
“Only a mile? You know how big Chicago is?”
“They” Max pointed at Colonel Draper, “think they might have an idea of where the bad guy is, I just have to pinpoint him, then they are going to drop a ton of explosives on him. After that, I make sure he is dead and we get the hell out.”
“I hope it works out like that.”
“You don't think it will?”
“You know, I may be old but I've seen war and the one thing that is always constant is that nothing goes exactly according to plan. What is your backup plan?”
Max's eyes opened slightly, “Well, really, I don't have one.”
Ruben laughed softly, “That sounds about right too. Don't worry though, I am sure our lieutenant has something up his sleeve. You see those badges on his chest?”
“They aren't for decoration. Or maybe they are, but they actually mean something. The man is special forces and the men he brought with him are too. That means they have a backup plan. If I were you though Max, I would be making a few plans of my own too, just in case.”
“Do you have any?”
“An old bird like me? Naw, I'll just trust in my L-T or Colonel as the case may be.”
This brought a loud laugh out of Max, drawing the attention of everyone in the cab. When he had settled down Ruben asked, “So, do you still want to know why we came?”
“No, I guess not.”
Max didn't know enough to question why a Colonel would be leading a short platoon of men into Chicago, behind him Ruben's eyes stared over Max's shoulder towards the front of the train.