The train reached the Illinois border at sunrise, the railroad bridge was held by the national guard and barricaded with a bus they had simply driven over the tracks and shored up with sandbags and pieces of wood. The troops had word by radio when to expect the train and waited as long as they could to move the barricades because the zombies were actively trying to cross the bridge. When the zombies saw the barricade had been driven aside, they rushed forward, led by several faster 'super' zombies. The bridge was shrouded in a light fog that lifted and fell on the river breeze. As they approached the bridge, the train didn't slow. Max was in the cab and watched as they plowed into the mob on the bridge that were trying to cross into Iowa. Most of the zombies did not jump out of the way and the train engineer had to be told to keep moving and not to slow down, which went against his instincts.
The crowd of zombies consisted of all races, sizes and sexes, they didn't seem to be actively moving forward anywhere except on the railroad bridge. The train burrowed through the mass leaving writhing pieces of zombies behind it soaked in their foul black blood. One huge fat zombie was bisected and managed to pull his torso up onto the train and almost reach the guardrail before he was shot multiple times by one of Bill's men. More zombies piled onto the tracks, their sheer numbers thrust them to a height halfway up in front of the engine, most were crushed sideways, with a few getting ran over and torn apart under the moving train. As the engine made its way off of the bridge, the congestion got only worse. Zombies were tossed up into the air to both sides of the tracks, like a wake left by a speedboat churning through a pond. Max saw one head, sans body, go flying by with its mouth still opening and closing. The pressure of the train was creating a bubbly wave ahead of itself as the tightly packed zombies were pressed backwards.
“Are we going to be able to get through them?” Max asked, breaking off his conversation with Stewart, which was a debate on whether she should wear her bullet proof vest or not.
Colonel Draper looked questioningly to the engineer, who was sweating despite the cool air, “Well, yeah as long as they didn't put anything big on the tracks. A body can't stop the train. A hundred bodies can't stop it. There is too much mass in this baby.”
“Could a thousand?” asked Max concentrating.
“A thousand?” laughed the engineer, “You must be joke...” his voice choked off as the wispy fog on the river lifted enough for them to see clearly to the far bank. “Oh God!”
Draper leaned close and said, “Go faster.”
The engineer made some adjustments, but the train did not seem to move any faster to Max. “How many do you feel up ahead Max?” asked Draper.
“Thousands. But only about a quarter mile deep, after that it seems to clear out.”
“Anyone we should be concerned about?”
Max just looked at him for a moment and then said, “Probably. I think there are a lot of super zombies mixed in with them. I am worried.”
“If you are worried, I am too,” said Draper, pulling his radio out of his pocket he moved to the other side of the cab and began issuing orders to the troops. He ended his call by speaking with one of his superiors about air support.
Stewart was closer to Draper than to Max and the commotion had awakened her from where she had been dozing near one of the windows. “Air support? That is good, we've seen what they can do.”
Draper frowned, “Don't get your hopes up, the army sent a bunch of helicopters into Chicago yesterday morning and nine of the ten didn't come back, three managed to report that they were coming under anti-aircraft missile fire from the batteries around Chicago before they were shot down. The one lucky guy who made it only saw the smoke from the wrecks. I don't think we can count on much air support for this mission.”
“I'm kind of surprised the army didn't send in special forces to take out the anti-air battery,” said Stewart, to which Draper just smiled and looked out the window.
“Oh,” she said.
“Your boy Max,” Draper spoke in a low voice, close in to Stewart's ear, “he isn't much use really, is he?”
Stewart's temper rose, but she forced herself to evaluate the question from Draper's perspective, “What do you mean?”
“He can tell there are groups of undead around, but not what they are carrying or what their intent is.”
“He can fucking well see them through walls, that is mighty goddamned useful if you ask me.”
Draper held up one large ebony hand in a placating manner, “Simmer down mama bear, that is a useful ability, I did not say he was useless. Look at it like this, I would love to have him, and you, covering my back in any fight with the infected. As a small unit asset, you are both worth having around. But we are going to try and pick a single entity out of an entire city. One guy out of a huge city and your Max can only see about a mile away and can't tell us whether any of them are real threats. Do you know how many square miles Chicago is?”
“I get that, yes, but I thought you people had intelligence that indicated their leader was there?”
“No. From what I know, which might not be everything, we just believe in what your friend says, taking it on faith. We do know that two huge groups and several smaller ones are taking up position around the state. We know that some groups have arrived on the edge of the line and are just sitting there. That means someone or something is coordinating them. I think they are waiting for the rest of their friends to close in, specifically those to the west.”
“So why did the military send you to do this?”
“There are too many of them and if they all attack at the same time, we won't survive, even if my single platoon of men were there to help. This is a small risk for possibly a big gain.”
“You know, I have another question.”
“Shoot,” prompted Draper.
“Why don't you just nuke the place? You nuked Denver, why not Chicago?”
Draper looked out the window for a long time, then back to Stewart, “Those assets are no longer available.”
“Really? The zombies got to our entire nuclear supply that quickly?” Stewart's voice carried a bit of mocking sarcasm with it.
“Why do you think they would tell me?”
“I think you know something.”
He looked at her and nodded his head slightly, “Only rumor.”
“You know Draper, Leroy if I may, I have been out in this for a few days now. I have an idea of what we are going into, I've spent the better part of the last two weeks getting out of it. You and me are realists, even Max is, if push came to shove. We three, of everyone here, probably know this is a one way mission. So is it really going to kill you to give me the reason why we are going instead of dropping bombs on Chicago until it glows?”
He hesitated only a moment, then answered, “All right, I won't make you fish for information anymore. We lost Norad. One minute we are talking to them, the next, nothing. That is what I heard.”
“They held the key to communicating with our nuclear weapons.”
Stewart shook her head in disbelief, “No, I don't buy it, there has to be another way to coordinate an attack.”
“There is. I mean there are, in Washington at the pentagon. And outside of Washington, to the southwest. We lost contact with those areas three days after the outbreak.”
“You have got be fucking kidding me. So what do the people sitting on the nukes do?”
“They keep sitting on them, waiting for communication. We do have access to our nuclear subs, they are coming home, but they wouldn't make it in time to help with this. The one-sub close by was undergoing retrofit and was overrun when the shipyard was lost. The bombs on that one had been offloaded anyway.”
“Jeezus we really are fucked.”
“I couldn't say for sure.” Draper said.
“I can. How come we weren't told any of this?”
“Need to know basis. Technically I didn't need to know, but I found out part of the story, I know I don't have all the information. The only part that is official is that nuclear bombs are off the table for use in this operation. The rest is scuttlebutt.”
“But you think it is true?”
Draper nodded again. “Yes. We do have assets in Chicago, those helicopters I mentioned? They were dropping sniper and forward observer teams in to call down fire on targets of opportunity.”
“Are any of them still alive?” asked Stewart.
Stewart laughed and said dryly, “That will be a huge help, I am sure.”
“Don't count them out, they can call down artillery and missiles if they can work their way into a position to help us. And, before you ask, they are close to the train station we are supposed to arrive at.”
The pounding on the train grew louder and Stewart and Draper looked out the side window at the massed bodies being tossed aside like rag dolls. With a concerned look on her face, Stewart turned towards the front to see a tight pressed mob of zombies extending the length of a football field ahead of them. Small arms fire rang out and she stared with disbelief at the holes that seemed to appear by magic in the front window of the train. Even as she watched the line of bullet holes working their way towards her she threw herself down to the floor. Draper made it there the same time as her and reached over to pull the feet out of the engineer who was closest to him. Max dropped to the floor only a microsecond after Stewart, but the engineer who was controlling the train was not so fortunate, he screamed as he was thrown backwards by a bullet to his chest. The bullet did not appear to be from a mere handgun or even a rifle, it was a heavy machine gun round that flew through the safety glass and the man behind it with so little effort that it continued through the metal wall at the rear of the cab. The wounded man screamed and leaked blood next to Max, who propped himself up enough to hold his hand over the wounded man's chest. Draper crawled forward and looked at the man on the ground, who had his eyes shut tight against the pain and was flailing around with his hands and legs.
“We need bandages!” Max said.
Draper looked at Max until the other man met his gaze, then he slowly shook his head from side to side. Max seemed to take in the greater picture then, pulling back slightly to look at the injured man as he watched the engineer's flailing arms and legs stopped moving, then he pulled in one last gasp of breath before going still.
“A man doesn't get minor wounds with a gun that size. A lucky shot would take off an arm or a leg, anywhere else and you are just dead.”
No more machine gun bullets were hitting the cab and even with the noise of the engine they could not hear any more guns firing.
Draper turned to the other engineer and said “Check it, see if anything is not working.”
The man seemed hesitant to get up, crouching only enough to see the instrument panel and the video feeds from cameras mounted around the train.
“It looks like we got lucky, everything is running okay. We lost the front track camera, but probably that was from when we hit all the zombies.”
Draper stood up and looked around, the train was still plowing down zombies on the tracks, but the crowd had lessened significantly. He spoke into his radio, “Who took out that gun?”
A series of negatives came back from the soldiers on the cars behind them, until Max heard Bill's voice on the line, “Uh, I think I might have gotten it. Was it the one on the right?”
Draper turned to stare out of one of the smaller windows looking backwards at Bill, who was less than fifteen feet away on the armored tanker. Bill saw him and when Draper waved he waved back.
“Thanks sergeant 'Lucky,' that was good work. Any causalities?”
A series of negatives came back to Draper and he ended the conversation with a warning to watch for zombies that might have crawled onto the train.
The men on each train car responded back to Draper that there were no zombies on board. Max could tell that the area ahead was clear of zombies and Draper gave a slight nod, however he still kept his eyes on the rails in front of them.
“We have four more hours at our present rate of speed.” Draper commented to the people in the cab. There were five of them left there now, the backup engineer, Draper, Max, Stewart and a soldier that seemed to be some sort of assistant to the Colonel.
“Help me with this Tim.” Draper said, indicating the body on the floor.
The other soldier nodded and picked up the feet of the body. Draper grinned and lifted the body by the shoulders, “Next time I will be more specific.” he muttered as he picked up the heavy, bloody part of the body, which his subordinate handled the cleaner, lighter part.
Stewart moved to the door of the cab and slid it open.
“Wait! You're going to just toss him out?” asked Max.
“Yes.” Draper answered.
Draper didn't answer, he just maneuvered the body outside to the railing and he and Tim tossed the engineer off the side of the train. When they came back in Draper said, “Tim, see if you can get something to soak up this blood, will you?” The backup engineer mentioned they had some stuff for soaking up oil spills in one of the tiny cabinets. Draper turned back to Max and said, “The body was in the way here, we could have kept it on the train or tried to pass it back to another car, but I felt that doing so could put one of my men at risk of injury. If you have a problem with how I am doing things, be sure to report them to my superiors when we get back.”
“No. It isn't that.” Max appeared frustrated, “Wait a minute, maybe it is that. If we start acting less than human are we really winning anything?”
“I can tell you that everything I am doing and going to do will be done with the one single goal of saving those humans who still live. I will take any edge I can get, no matter if it is tossing bodies from trains, wiping up blood or even blowing up the fuel we have to get home if I think it is in the best interest of completing our mission. They sent me on this mission Max because I get things done. Sometimes getting things done requires doing things you would rather not think about. I do have lines I will not cross, but keeping a corpse in the cab with us is a distraction and could impede our ability to succeed.”
“Really, just okay?” asked Stewart.
“I get it. We all want to get in, get out and make things safer for everyone. I have to think differently. I wouldn't want to ride all the way to Chicago looking at the body the whole way anyway.”
“Good. Now I have to get on the horn and see if I can find our Chicago assets and get them into a position where they can help us.”
Stewart went back to debating with Max about wearing the bullet proof vest the army had given her in the heat once they arrived.
“It won't be effective against the high powered bullets from the military rifles, but should shrug off most civilian ammunition.”
Max looked at her with raised eyebrows, then at the floor of the train, still coated with blood from the engineer.
“That is different Max! They had a machine gun, chances are we might run into some turned police or just good old boys with shotguns and pistols. A vest might make a difference, but is it worth the weight and constraint in this heat?”
“Yes. That poor sucker should have had one on. I thought this train was armored?”
“No, just the fuel car.” Draper said, breaking away from his radio for a moment.
“Still, a vest might come in handy, I say wear it. I'll even wear the helmet they gave me.”
“Maybe.” Stewart answered, still thinking it over to herself.
The train rolled on through the grassy hills of western Illinois, the sun rose in a smoky, humid haze to cast its fiery light upon early August corn and bean fields that would never be harvested.