“Zombie on the viaduct.” Javier said, indicating the intersection ahead of them.
The highway they were on had been fairly clear, it was supposed to bypass most of Knoxville and then merge back into highway 75.
“First one we’ve seen since this morning.” Bill said, “Watch the exit, let me know if you see any more of them or if we can just drive on.”
At that moment, their radio crackled to life, “Bill? Stewart?” It was Max’s voice.
Javier answered immediately, “Max? Where are you?”
The figure on the viaduct waved as he spoke into the radio, “Here! I can see you driving towards me.”
Bill let out a whoop of joy and honked his horn. After that exclamation he reached over and pounded Javier on the back, which almost resulted in a car accident as the vehicle hit the shoulder of the road. A moment later he had wrestled the truck back onto the road and hit the gas to merge onto the highway.
“Slow down there Bill!” Came Ruben’s voice, “Watch for an ambush.”
The truck slowed as Bill hit the brakes, it would be just the sort of thing the zombies would do too, use their friend as bait.
“Anything Javier?” Bill asked.
“Nothing, looks clear to me.”
Bill reached the highway and turned the truck around to drive back to the overpass where Max was standing.
“Damn it Bill! You should let him come to us!” Ruben said. Stewart stopped her truck in the break down lane of the highway.
Bill wasn’t listening; he jumped out of his truck and threw himself towards his friend. “Max! Are you alright? What did they want?”
“I’m fine, maybe a little bruised, but mostly that’s my pride.”
“Why? Why did they take you?” Bill asked.
The radio cackled to life and Stewart’s voice said, “Bill I know you aren’t up there debriefing him without us. Max you keep your cake hole shut and get in the damned truck. Let’s put a few miles between here and where we stop before you tell us what happened. Unless you want to tell the story twice?”
“Shit. She’s right you know.” Max said.
“Of course she is. What happened?”
“Can’t we at least head towards the truck before she yells at us again?”
As if on cue, the radio burst into life again, “So help me God if you don’t get moving now I am driving up to get you!”
Max and Bill quickly jogged back to the truck and hopped in. Bill backed the truck around until he was once again going the way they intended and drove off down the highway. Once he was in the lead they travelled for less than a mile before he pulled over on a clear stretch of the highway.
Stewart popped out of the cab and ran to the back of Bill’s truck to gather Max into a fierce hug as he came out. She then held him back from her at arm’s length and looked him over. “Did they infect you?”
“No. Like I told Bill, they only really bruised my ego.”
Stewart gave him a reproachful look, “I told you not to start until we were all together. What did they want?”
“An…an alliance. Against Sentry.”
“And they couldn’t just come up and say so?”
“Well, I think we were moving too fast, the people who grabbed me were just doing a favor for the person who wanted to talk to me. She caught up to us, I think, while they were taking me through the woods.”
“Where’d they take you?”
“To the highway, a little further down than we went.”
“That’s all? Damn. So how are they keeping tabs on us?”
“Wait, Stewart, how about I tell you the story and then you all ask questions?” The others agreed and after Stewart gave a curt nod, Max filled them in on his morning.
His statement that it was Aubrey who had arranged his abduction was met with disbelief.
“I saw her; she got shot and wasn’t moving. Then the bombardment started.” Bill said.
“It was her. Apparently she was the head honcho. And the building did come down, she told me she was buried in the rubble. Let me finish up then we can discuss it, okay?”
It was not to be, however, as he told the story he was interrupted several times by comments from his friends. By the time he finished at least fifteen minutes had gone by and the questions hadn’t stopped. He ended his story by speculating that they were not the only two teams the military had sent out to deal with Sentry.
“But you don’t know that for sure?” asked Stewart when he finally finished.
“No. But I know what she said. She said, ‘helicopters’, plural. She said ‘other teams’, plural.” Max shook his head, “I don’t think she is the type to make mistakes like that.”
“So she wanted you to know too, but didn’t come right out and say it?” Bill said.
“What did she do before this happened?” Ruben asked.
“I don’t know, it didn’t come up.” Max said.
“It’s hard to imagine a typical housewife leading the zombie revolution. Did she look like she was military? Or former military?” Ruben pressed.
“Geez, Ruben! How would I know? Is there a secret sign I haven’t learned yet to identify ex-military people?”
“I guess you wouldn’t know. Don’t worry about it.”
“Did you trust her?” Javier asked.
“It’s hard to say…” Max began.
“You do!” Stewart accused, “You think she is playing straight with us! I can see it in your eyes!”
“Yeah, well, she made a good argument. I don’t know about the other half of it, though, what the leftover zombies are going to do if Sentry dies. I get the impression that things will be a little chaotic.”
“Just a little?” asked Stewart. “I bet, but would it be better for us? For the living?”
“What do you think? At least the attack on Iowa would be over.” Max said. “Maybe we could start over there.”
“I don’t see why she would help us after we do this.” Stewart said, “But I can see that we get something out of taking this guy out too. So we take him out. If she makes it easier, great.”
“So let’s load up and test what she said about the highway being cleared.” Bill said.
The other’s looked at him for a moment and burst out laughing.
“Alright, alright. I understand we’ve all had a rough day already. But the sooner we are done here, the faster we get home. So do you want to lay low for a few hours and then travel for a few? Either that or we travel now, then knock off a little early. Hopefully without the drama of the hotel.”
“Fine. You’re a real hard ass Bill. I can’t see what Max sees in you.” said Stewart with a light tone. Bill couldn’t tell if she was joking and what she said made him feel oddly proud.
“We should go on, at least four or five hours, if the roads are clear we could get two hundred miles in that time. That should get us well into Georgia.” said Max.
“Sounds good. Georgia or bust. Stewart why don’t you drive Ruben and I’ll ride with Javier and Max in the….”
Stewart cut him off, “Nope, you separated me from him before and look what happened.”
Max ended up in the lead truck with both Bill and Stewart. Ruben didn’t grumble too much to be in the beat up vehicle, but demanded that they stop at the first sign of a better car so they could all ride in comfort.
Two hours later they were pulled off at an interchange, eyeing a gas station that appeared deserted but had a good looking Ford Escape parked in back. The five of them had stopped at the top of the off ramp and Max was getting a feel for what was around them.
“There are zombies in the store. I think four. Maybe five. But there’s a human there too.”
“You can’t tell for sure?” asked Ruben.
Max shook his head, “They are really close together, like on top of the human.”
“Are they eating him?”
“I…well I can’t say for sure, but it looks that way to me.”
“Then we’ll do a mop up, kill them all, get their keys and take their car.” said Stewart, “We’ll make it an old school car-jacking.”
“Sounds good. They are super zombies, right Max? Can you tell how, er, super they are?” Bill asked.
“Lips super?” asked Bill referring to the zombie from the evening before at the hotel.
“Yeah. Maybe a little more than ‘Einstein’ on our scale, but not quite superman.”
“But they don’t have anyone with them and they don’t know we are here yet.” said Stewart. “I’ll punt this one to our C.O. to decide.”
“C.O.?” asked Max.
Ruben hooked a thumb at Bill and said, “Him. ‘Commanding Officer’.”
“Oh, I see how it is, you don’t want me to make any decisions, unless they are to decide potentially dangerous stuff.” Bill said.
“Welcome to command.” Ruben said gruffly, “Don’t you know that grunts run the Army? You officers are only around to get in our way.”
“Seriously though,” began Stewart, “Is it worth the risk, four or five supers could fuck us up. Just for a nice, shiny vehicle.”
Ruben and Javier stared at Stewart for a moment, then Ruben took off his helmet, revealing his hair which was windswept back into a duck tail. Stewart started laughing, followed quickly by everyone else.
“I am tired of riding in a shit car. Hell we could have, should have, stopped for that other F-150 back there on the highway. Why didn’t we again?” Ruben asked.
“It had front end damage.” Bill said.
“We could’ve checked it out at least. I mean, for Christ sakes, it had a windshield! If we go on I think Javier and I get to take the good truck.”
“Okay, fine, we have plenty of fuel and we don’t need the fight. We’ll swap trucks and go on. Screw fighting super zombies. Ruben the very next good vehicle you see you stop and we’ll take it. Okay?”
Ruben muttered something under his breath.
“What?” Bill asked.
“I’ll stop after your hair looks like mine. Sir.” Ruben said sullenly.
Bill laughed. “Fine, we probably deserve some ‘air time’ too.”
“It’s not the air.” said Javier, “It’s the gawdammned bugs.” This last bit was said in an almost perfect imitation of Ruben’s voice which made everyone except him laugh again.
Ruben just shook his head, “What? It is the gawdamned bugs. They hurt at fifty miles an hour… Shit!”
The others looked around and saw what he Ruben did; the zombies were leaving the gas station and piling into the Escape.
“Stay still, maybe they won’t see us.” Max said.
The super zombies were laughing and pointing at each other as they climbed into their vehicle. They were all armed with rifles of some sort and it was only the driver who spotted Max’s group by the road just before he got in. The zombie quickly looked away and got into the car and started it up.
“Think he saw us?” asked Bill. They watched the other vehicle back up and go barreling out of the station where it turned into the intersection accelerating as it went. The Escape turned towards them onto the road.
“Yep. They saw us.” Said Ruben reaching into the truck to pull out his rifle, “Damn it, I wanted that car.”
Ruben rolled down the ditch into the tall grass and took a knee, everyone else was watching him as he fired a three round burst into the side of the vehicle. The gunshots seemed to act as a catalyst for the rest of them and they sprang into motion. Stewart was the fastest, she had her door open and her rifle propped up on it before the others even moved.
Max and Bill unslung their rifles and mimicked Ruben only on the opposite side of the truck. Javier scrambled into the bed of the pick-up and fired over the cab. Ruben’s steady fire had knocked out all the windows in the side of the car facing them and some inaccurate shots came back at them from the Escape. The driver didn’t wait to turn at the intersection, he took the vehicle right into the ditch and bounded through it with enough speed to get off of the ground as he raced the Escape straight towards them.
Stewart, braced as she was, fired a one shot, two shot pattern. The first bullet sent spider webs through the windshield and her next two struck the driver square in the face, putting the zombie to rest forever. The Escape didn’t stop, it barreled into the pickup head on. Stewart attempted to dodge out of the way, but was clipped by the door and sent rolling down the off ramp towards the highway. Javier was thrown into the windshield of the Escape as it impacted; he disappeared in a cloud of debris and dust. Ruben and Max stared at each other as the truck disappeared from between them, shoved out of the way by the force of the Escape.
“Fuck. Help, Max!” Bill called. He had rolled out of the way, thinking the Escape might slide sideways. The slope he was on was steep and still damp and Bill could not stop himself from going all the way to the bottom. “Gimme a hand here, this grass is slicker than chicken shit.”
“Stay there!” Max yelled, running to the back of the Escape. His hand was on the rear door handle, just about to try and open it, when it was kicked open forcefully from within.
A tall, thin zombie in a black trench coat pushed his way out of the door and slapped Max’s gun aside. One of the thing’s arms was hanging loosely at its side and it stumbled and fell to the pavement after trying to walk on its shattered legs.
When it hit the ground Max jumped it, attempting to stomp its head flat. The zombie’s good hand blurred through the air and knocked Max’s feet out from under him. This landed Max with his thigh on the zombie’s face. He rolled quickly to prevent a bite and tried to bring his rifle around again for a quick shot. Ruben was faster, the old man had come around the back of the Escape and fired a double shot, startling Max.
Ruben’s shot didn’t stop the zombie, only after the other body fell across the man on the ground did Max realize the old man hadn’t been firing at the one on the ground. A third zombie leaped out of the back door to tackle Max. The broken legged zombie on the ground thrust itself up into Ruben while the old man was trying to get a bead on the zombie who jumped Max.
Both men were tossed like rag dolls into the side of the Escape, Max’s rifle barrel was bent at a ninety degree angle, Ruben had lost his entirely. The other zombie, a woman dressed in a halter top and sporting short spikey blond hair was struggling with it, trying to figure out how to cock it and fire.
Without hesitation Ruben drew his long combat knife and stabbed her. His training came back to haunt him though and he stabbed for her heart, landing what would normally be a killing blow. They were pressed together for an instance and she belched forth a thick, black goo that splattered Ruben’s face and caused him to pull back. However, he retained enough sense to take his knife with him
The trench coat zombie was up on two legs again, wobbling, but standing. He sneered at Max and pulled out a knife of his own. Max reached for his combat knife, only to remember he had taken it off his belt when they were in the truck, it had been digging into him all morning on the ride. His hand came up with his canteen instead.
The zombie gave him a puzzled look of bemusement, then was hit from the side by a snarling Stewart. She grabbed his head and twisted as she flew over him, swinging the zombie over entirely. She ended up on her feet and the zombie’s body continued its movement while its head was held in her vise like grip. The resounding crack that split the air made Max wince, the zombie became a twitcher in her hands and she dropped it to assist Ruben.
The blond and Ruben had squared off, she was using the rifle as a club, held by the barrel, he still had his knife.
“I haven’t seen five humans outside of a camp for weeks.” said the blond. “Where’d you escape from?”
“We ain’t from around here, darling.” Ruben responded.
The blond swung the rifle at Ruben’s head, thinking that with the added reach it would be a quick take down move. Ruben ducked sideways, taking a blow that deflected off the side of his head in order to get in close and slash at the woman’s throat. His blade went deep, tearing a ragged furrow that exposed the inner workings of her esophagus to the world. Choking, she put her hand to the wound, a purely human reflex. Ruben followed up on by planting his combat knife into her left eye. The woman stayed up for a moment, held there by his knife, then he pushed her backward, where she slide off of his blade to crumple onto the ground, still clutching her throat.
Max approached the door of the Escape, trying to sense any other zombies that were still active. The only thing he sensed was Javier. The young man had been thrown through the windshield to land on both of the front passengers. His combat boot was embedded in the front passengers head. The foot on that side was also twisted around completely and dripping a steady stream of blood into the car. Javier was unconscious and Max resisted his first instinct to pull the young man out.
“Stewart.” Max said, “The zombies are all dead. Help me with Javier. Ruben, go see if Bill needs a hand out of the ditch, please.”
Stewart came to the open door and looked inside. She stepped back, pulling Max with her. “Shit, I don’t know what to do. He’s fucked up.”
“Do we move him?”
“Do we have a choice? We can’t leave him there.” Stewart said, “Better to move him now, while he is out, than to do it when he comes around.”
“I don’t think we’ll be able to get the front door open.” Max said.
“Fuck that, just drop the front seat back, that will let us pull him out through the back door. We really need a back board or something, in case his back or neck is broken.”
“We’ll have to risk it.”
“Javier?” Bill said, huffing as he came around the back of the Escape.
“Not good.” Stewart said, “We need to get him out of there.”
“You have a plan?” Bill asked.
Max and Stewart nodded.
“Let’s do it, quickly.” Bill said, “Ruben do you see any other cars? We just took it up the ass as far as vehicles go. See what you can find.”
Max hadn’t even noticed, but what Bill said was true, the ‘good’ truck, had been hit head on and was leaking fluids all over the ground beneath it, worse it had been pushed back into their other truck, which was also leaking green fluid, even though the damage from this latest assault didn’t look that bad.
Bill and Stewart had both of the front seats of the Escape lowered back as far as they could get them and had taken a hold of Javier by the shoulders.
“On three. One. Two. Three!” Bill said. They pulled Javier out of the truck, eliciting a groan from the young man.
Max grabbed his legs as he came out and helped lower him to the ground. After he was put down, Max twisted Javier’s foot around until it looked more or less how it should if it were not damaged.
“I don’t think you are supposed to do that Max.” Stewart said.
“We heal faster, he might too. I don’t want his foot healing up facing backward.”
“Ah, yeah, okay, gotcha.”
To one side of them Ruben was moving their limited gear from the more damaged truck to the windowless one behind it.
“We can still take this one, for a few miles. I don’t see anything leaking other than the radiator fluid. It will heat up and burn out soon, but we won’t have to walk while we look for a new vehicle. Load him up in the bed and let’s get out of here.”
Max pulled a shotgun and a rifle out of the Escape, to replace his damaged gun. He only found a few shells for the shotgun, all shot, and no extra bullets for the rifle. Bill and Stewart loaded Javier into the back quickly and then helped Ruben finish moving their equipment over. In a few moments Stewart was behind the wheel of the truck and she tentatively tried the ignition. It caught and sputtered to life. She drove it to the top of the exit ramp.
“Which way?” Bill asked, peering both directions, hoping to spy an auto dealership.
Stewart pointed at a sign with destinations and distances on it across the road, “I say we go right.”
Bill read the sign and nodded, “I hope it works out.”
The sign was simple, the arrows to the left indicated fast food and gas stations. The right arrow also indicated there were gas stations in that direction. However, it was the last line that Stewart had been referring to. The bottom line read “Highway Patrol Headquarters”.