Hank was shouting at Gus, “You could have just said! I swear to God, why is everything a game of shadows and half-truths with you?”
“We were having a decent time last night, what with the cigars and drinks. We were bonding.” The trio were back at the table in the bar. Hank and Juan were standing, and Gus was at his usual seat in the booth. The place was sparsely inhabited, which meant there were only about a dozen people in it. Stewart was behind the bar, Max was coming in and out with supplies to replenish the bar’s stocks, assisted by one of the waitresses and a sleepy looking bouncer.
Gus didn’t ask who told the boys he was the only survivor to come back out through the portal, he knew they had been going to ask around, he knew Jane would tell them if they asked her and last night he was about a hundred percent sure they would.
“It’s like he said, Hank.” Juan said, “You’re shouting at him today.”
“Juan, now, we’ve seen so many different things, lived through them, teleporting, invisible zombies, sharp shooters, people with faster reflexes and who take twenty bullets to put down. I don’t need proof he can see into the future.”
“You’re looking better, Juan.” Gus said.
With a look of irritation Hank said, “He spent some time with Nick this morning. That always helps.”
Jane brought over two coffees and pointed at the booth, “You gonna drink these standing up or sitting down?”
With a shrug Hank sat down and Juan slid in beside him. They drank their sweet coffee in silence before Jan put a couple of plates of food down in front of them. Plantains, some sort of waffle creation with syrup over it and half an orange.
“This is good.” Juan said, before tucking into the breakfast.
“I miss cream and butter.” Gus said.
Juan pointed at the bowl on the table, which was filled with a congealed greasy substance.
“That just isnt’ the same, I mean, sure, it’s greasy, but it lacks the flavor. It’s just margarine. And what about cream for the coffee?” Gus shook his head, “Man, remember coffee shops on every corner? Lattes, expresso shots…”
“We worked for a living, could hardly afford the price of a fancy coffee.” Hank said.
“Cream would be good. Cheese too.” Juan said.
“The Cubans trade some with us, especially cheese and coffee. There is always enough coffee, but hardly ever enough cheese.” Gus said.
“You should trade for a couple of cows.”
“There are a few around, they are trying, us and the Cubans, to get a new herd set up. I’m not the only one missing cream.”
“If there are a few around why isn’t there any cream here?” Hank asked.
Max’s voice cut in, “I hate to break up this absorbing conversation about local economics and agricultural breeding programs. Still I think we need to talk some business.”
Jane came up beside Max, swinging a stool around from the bar to sit on. Gus sighed and slid further over in the booth and Max sat own next to him.
“Finally.” Hank said around a mouthful of food. “What have you decided?”
“Stewart and I have been talking it over,” Max said, nodding to Jane, “Waiting things out, waiting for the next zombie God to come through the portal is making less and less sense now. We have a couple of ideas on how to change things.”
“Killing more of them?”
“Maybe all of them.” Max said, “We’ll need Perry’s help and we have some alternative plans to talk over too.”
“Hit us with the best one.” Hank said.
“I spoke to Gus and he mentioned your idea about going into that world to raid or maybe carve out our own territory. The more I think of it, the more it grows on me. However, we have to eliminate the powers there.”
“I am not in favor of this plan.” Gus said, “Just putting that out there.”
“We killed one of them already.” Max said.
“We barely killed one of them and it came at a high cost. Sorry to interrupt, tell us how you want to deal with the others.”
“We draw them all to one place. You said they all gathered around when your group went through, Gus, how close were they?”
“That’s what I thought you told us. And if we can do that again, get them all in one place, then we set off another bomb and take them out.” Max said.
“Wouldn’t that kill or own people?” Hank asked.
“The plan isn’t without risk.”
“The bomb didn’t eliminate you.” Gus pointed out, “It just made you more powerful.”
“They are not like us. I think it would work.” Max said.
Gus snorted, “I’m suddenly not worried at all. Perry isn’t going to cut loose one of his positronics for something that might work and which would probably draw their attention right to us. What about Nick?”
“What about him?” Stewart asked.
“Have you thought about seeing if his ability would affect them? It might, some of the things our super zeds and humans did were hurting Jared. From what you learned, Gus, they are more similar than different, in terms of powers.”
“Yeah.” Gus said with a lopsided grin, “The same as in they could manifest anything they could think of. And I don’t think Jared was the cream of the crop as far as intelligence or imagination goes. You know what he did before he was turned? Before their outbreak?”
“It’s never come up…” Max said.
“He worked at video game store. He sold games and made just enough money to keep himself in games, eat and get high every so often. He was a slacker, an underachiever.”
“Yet he became one of the last twenty-four…” Stewart said.
“Maybe his video game playing experience taught him how to make crucial decisions quickly.” Gus said.
“I like your plan. I can be bait.” Hank said. The others looked at him, “I’m dying anyway. I’ve already lived longer than any of you thought I would. Longer than anyone I know.”
“I don’t think one person is enough to bring them all together.” Gus said.
“How many were in your group?” Hank asked.
Juan whistled, “That is a lot of people to ask to commit suicide.”
“Well it was a mix.” Max said “About twenty were zombies, so maybe we could draw their attention with forty living people. They were not attacked right away either, they had been wandering around for a few weeks.”
“A few weeks?” Hank asked, “I thought you were attacked right away?”
Gus shook his head, but didn’t say anything.
“We could easily trick forty people into going on another expedition.” Stewart said, “Give Hank there a positronic backpack and when the zeds close in around them…Boom!”
“I don’t think we should trick anyone into going to their deaths.” Juan said.
“Me either.” Gus added.
“None of us do. We could call for volunteers.” Max said.
“I bet you would get some, if you asked, Max.” Gus said.
Max looked away.
“What you two haven’t quite figured out yet, as you’re new here and have been off to crater lake for most of that time, is that Max and Jane…and even Sentry have a, what would you call it, Max?”
“A following, yes. A group of fanatics who worship the ground they walk on. A surprising number of Cubans…after that ass kicking you gave them, they think you’re God.”
“Asking for volunteers would be out.” Hank said, “We’d get them and for the wrong reasons.”
“No, it is not out. You baulk at killing forty people to save a hundred thousand? Killing forty people who want to do it?”
“They think he is God. That’s blasphemy.” Juan said.
“I am no God.” Hank said.
“Nor am I a Goddess, but I’ll gladly give forty of them up to save the rest of them. And I’ll carry the damn bomb myself.”
“That’s not much of a sacrifice seeing as you’ve already lived through one explosion.” Hank pointed out.
“Past success is not an indication of future performance.” Stewart said.
“What does that mean?”
“It means,” Max said, “That we didn’t survive a blast alone, the three of us, Sentry, Stewart and I, came through it together and I think we only made it because the three of us were there. That’s why I think a bomb will work on them.”
“There will be twenty of them there!” Gus said, “You’ll make them stronger!”
“We don’t need to feed. The bomb burned that out of us.” Max said, “We would at least change them.”
“Maybe. You’re plan is full of ‘ifs’ and ‘maybes’ and hopes and dreams. Can people pay for alcohol here with hopes and dreams? No? Well I don’t think we can pay for salvation with them either.”
“I think we need Perry’s opinion on this. We can’t do anything without his say so. He has the bombs.” Max said.
“What are your alternative plans?” Hank asked.
“The second one is luring the others through one by one. Sentry moves away from his territory, disappears for a bit and it won’t take long for another zed to start poking around his space. We put someone, maybe you Hank, to act as bait and lure them through the portal and jump them when they come through.” Max said.
“I like this plan only a little better than the first one.” Gus told him. “Finish them off one by one. It still risky, considering what the last one cost us, but we do have some experience fighting them. My vote would still be no, though, on account of the risk.”
“Plan three?” Hank pressed.
“We bomb the portal.”
“Because he thinks a second bomb will collapse the portal the first one made.” Gus said. “I am marginally behind this plan. My only thought is it could open a second portal next to the first one. Maybe this one would contain something worse.”
“Here is the twist on that.” Max said, “We do it from their side. There would be less risk then, if it didn’t close the first one, it would open the second one in their world, not ours.”
“Well, it would tear a rift into their world to the new one right next to the one leading to us, so that is hardly much better.” Gus said.
“Gus, I appreciate that you are playing devil’s advocate. I know it’s a role you cherish. Do you have any plans we can shoot down?”
Gus shook his head, “Not yet.”
“Don’t mind him.” Hank said, “It’s not like you need him anyway. Just this Perry guy.”
Stewart looked at Hank with a half-smile on her face, “Don’t need him? Of course, we need him! He may shoot down everything we mention, but he is the only one who can actually make the plan we decide on work, especially if he is involved in it.”
“Thanks, Jane.” Gus said, “I knew you liked me.”
“Like? No. But need, yes. I like Max. I like Nick. Maggie is okay and some of the bouncers too, but don’t get that confused with me needing them. I need you. To like you would be an interference and might influence my rational thinking.”
“Just wanted to be clear with you.” She said.
“Where is Nick?” Gus asked.
“Max kept him out late, they had a heart to heart.”
“Over what happened last night?”
“That and other things. So far as I know he is still sleeping.” Max said.
“You don’t know?” Stewart asked.
“He had a few things to say to me too. One of them was that he doesn’t need to be coddled or protected.”
“He lied to you?” Stewart asked.
“He isn’t 11 anymore. He and Hank and Juan made it here, through all the wild territory in one piece. When I was his age nothing could hurt me, and I would not have wanted my father over protecting me.”
“That’s the job description.” Hank said.
“Don’t worry about Nick, he can take care of himself.” Juan said.
“Hey, focus people! This is the first real conversation we’ve had about planning in years! Let’s decide on what to do now and leave Nick out of it. He’s been taking care of himself for ages, he’ll continue to do so. Which plan are we going to bring to Perry. And by ‘we’ I mean Max and Stewart, though I’ll be there.” He pointed his chin across the table at Hank and Juan, “You two don’t carry any water around here, despite your good intentions.”
“Si.” Juan said as Hank nodded. “That makes sense. We have some other things we could be doing.”
“Yeah? Like what?” Max asked.
“Focus!” Gus implored.
Ignoring him Hank said, “I think we should go back to Iowa, tell them what’s going on. We’ve made the trip once and it shouldn’t take us too long to make it again.”
Stewart scoffed and said, “Don’t be stupid.”
“It really wasn’t that difficult of a trip.” Juan said.
“No.” Stewart said, “and I’ll tell you why.” She held up a finger for each point she made, “First, you’re dying, infected. You might not make the trip. Second,” She pointed at Juan, “He is power sick, it’s obvious that the inject he was given to counteract the effects either hasn’t worked yet or more likely isn’t going to work at all. Third…we can just call them.”