He hasn’t changed at all. Max thought looking at Draper from the shadows. Max was in the dark, near an old veteran’s hospital that had been given new life by the current crisis. Finding Draper hadn’t been difficult at all; he asked a guy in uniform at the base where he and Stewart had been. As luck would have it the man had seen Draper leave for the hospital only minutes before. He offered to let Max wait, practically begged him to. When Max had insisted he had to go the man had snapped a selfie with him and told him if he needed anything, anything at all, he just had to ask. I knew Iowan’s were polite, but the guy was obviously a second stringer with mental issues. Too damn friendly to be working as a gate guard.
Draper was talking to someone on the phone and would soon pass Max, unless Max came out of the shadows, which he did.
“Shelby. Somethings come up. I’m going to have to call you back.” Draper hung up the phone. “You.”
“Me.” Max said.
“I heard you were dead.”
Max shook his head, “How have things been, Draper?”
“No, really, I heard you were dead, you can’t just dismiss it with the shake of your head.”
“I’m not sure what happened.” Max shrugged, “I am pretty sure I died, at some point. By the time I recovered, you were long gone.”
“Recovered?” Draper asked, crouching slightly, with one hand moving to the butt of his 1911 pistol.
Max laughed, “Oh, that’s good! You think I’m a threat? Hah. No. At ease soldier or whatever you tell your troops. I’m not here to kill you and you’ll find you have no reason to kill me. I just want information.”
“Did you go and get Sarah?”
“My wife. Did you go collect her from Arvada?”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about. I have never been to Arvada. Made it to Loveland once, it really didn’t live up to its name. Since the fall I haven’t made it there, but I know some of our goods came from Denver and the surroundings. The place was practically abandoned overnight, so there was some good looting there for years. Why do you think I would have an interest in your wife?”
Max shook his head, “She’s missing. I left her in our home, she’d been bitten, turned. I couldn’t bring myself to putting her down.”
“That’s irresponsible.” Draper said, “You just left her for someone else to deal with, or worse she killed other living people.”
“I don’t think so. I left her in a secured area.”
“Yeah? A jail? A crawlspace? Anyplace you left her would have been investigated for goods.”
“I had no idea this was going to go on forever. I left her in the attic. Locked in. When I went back she was gone, no corpse, nothing.”
“I am sorry, Max. I really am. However, you’re barking up the wrong tree if you think I had anything to do with it. I thought you were dead, Lord knows I would have been if I had been closer to that detonation. Bill was beside himself when he came to. Your death changed him and I’m afraid it wasn’t for the better.”
“Where is he?”
“Officially missing in action. You might now know it, but a lot has been happening here lately. People from California are sitting on our western border, wanting us to rejoin the Union.”
“That’s a good thing, isn’t it? Getting the country back?”
“They deal with zombies, half of them are zeds, if not more. You know how anti-zed we are. There is zero percent chance that we’ll be working with them. They seem to think they need us. Our politicians are considering their options. There has been fighting; people have died.”
“I’m sure you, of all people, can handle it.” Max told him, “You always seem to know how to make the tough decisions. Did Bill go missing when these people form the West coast showed up?”
“About then, right at the start. He was out there anyway. We lost track of him, then the Californians dropped a bomb on some enclave out there in Wyoming. Things have been fluid since then.”
“Not a positronic?” Max asked.
“No, just a regular old nuclear bomb, actually it was probably a hydrogen bomb from the size of it. The radioactive particles drifted over a lot of our territory. Pissed a lot of people off. Nebraska was being resettled, just when we had enough food to go around again.”
“Shit happens. Did the Californians go through Denver?”
“I can’t say that they did not for certain. I know they hit us through Wyoming, so I assumed they came east along the old I-90 corridor.”
“Hmm.” Max thought about this for a minute.
“I’m glad you’re back, Max. We can sure use you.”
“No. I did my time. I have bigger fish to fry right now.”
“More important than helping us? I get the impression you can do remarkable things, Max. You’re like a super-super human, aren’t you?”
“All my energies are being spent to keep the entire world safe. I don’t have much to spare on petty problems between warring factions. Besides, what could I do?”
“Go negotiate on our behalf. Say you back us, make them think twice before they press their attack.”
“You make it sound so easy, Draper, just step in and take over.” Max said.
“Can you ride with me? I need to talk to you, but I’m feeling like we need more privacy.”
Max reached out and took Draper’s arm. They were no longer in Iowa. It was pitch black, but they were on a street somewhere. “What did you do that for, Max? Where are we?”
“Why? I told you I didn’t have anything to do with your wife disappearing, not directly, not indirectly and I’ve never heard of anyone asking after her either.”
“I believe you. You said you wanted privacy. There is no one around for at least ten kilometers, alive or dead.”
“Yeah, but I need to get to a staff meeting…”
“I’ll get you there. You wanted privacy, talk.”
“Okay, give me just a minute here, would you. Tonight has been quite a ride, very disappointing before you showed up and now I’m hoping to turn this around and end the day well. I don’t suppose you have a flash light?”
“You got your moment.” Max disappeared.
“Goddamn it.” Draper said looking around him. Truth be told he wasn’t having that hard of a time seeing I the dark. The house in front of him was dilapidated, the front door was off the hinges and he could see there was extensive damage inside. He moved in and started poking around. Some faded pictures of the kids were on the walls, he saw one and clapped his hand to his head, “Oh my fucking God. Nick.”
A light appeared on the street behind him, it was a lantern, an old-fashioned kind that burned kerosene and Max turned it up and came up to Draper. “Not much to look at now. Wasn’t much to look at back then either, but it was home.”
“Did Nick get to you? I know Ruben was helping him along. Please tell me that boy is okay?”
“He made it. So, Ruben is still working with you?”
“No. I haven’t seen him since he brought Bill back to us in Florida. But I’ve heard of him plenty. He has his own agenda. I hear he talks to God, so I figured he was talking to you.”
“How are you going to get a positive out of talking to me?”
“I’m not sure I can, I am just sure I would like to. Like I said, it’s been a rough day.”
“I had this super human, a crippled woman, burned really bad, her name was Ester. She worked under ‘F’ company, you heard of them?”
“How would I?”
“Just checking. They were called the ‘Freaks’, it’s where we put all of our super humans. The good ones.” Draper said.
“Let me guess you were their leader?”
“Me? No! Why would I be?”
Max looked the man up and down, “You’re coursing with power, I can see it. More than you should be and not be sick. Why aren’t you burning out?”
“I got the…shit.”
“The Maxson inoculation. Rumored to be made out of your blood.”
“Really? That would be a miracle, I don’t bleed anymore.”
“So you are dead.”
“I was, but go on about your day.”
“Ester, she was our top computer electronics expert, good at all things electrical and mechanical from lighting up an LED to making a working Artificial Intelligence, she specialized in making drones for us. I just found out the six she had coming up before she died aren’t useable. The only thing we have that might be able to fix them, the AI she built, hates us really bad.”
“For letting Ester get herself killed, near as I can guess. You’d think it would blame the Californians, but no, it feels we did it, so we get to pay the price if it gets out.”
“So turn it off and find another way.” Max said.
“Everything has a use, Max. You have to think bigger picture. I liked you a lot, back in the day, but you were always too small picture focused, which is good for a soldier, bad for a leader.”
“Thanks for the advice, I’ll try to see to take a broader view than keeping the entire world safe.”
“Why is the world in danger?” Draper asked.
“Positronics tear holes into other dimensions, the one in Florida led to another zombie world, only they all killed each other and became like Gods. They can’t grow by eating our zombies, but they can consume our humans. The twenty or so left over there, want to come over here. Me and a few others have been able to keep that from happening. It is a demanding job.”
“You got a night off tonight?”
“Something like that. It’s a calculated risk and I can go back in an instant if called.” Max told him, “I guess I should bring you back; you’re no good to me and I know I’m not going to help you with your problems.”
Draper raised a hand, “Small picture. Hold up a moment. Look over there will you?” Draper pointed to the base of the stairs near a pile of garbage that had accumulated there. “See that?”
“Yeah, trash, so looters got in here.”
“No.” Draper said, bending over he picked up a small plastic bag, it had brown residue left in it and a transparent plastic valve at the top, “Do you know what this is?”
“A blood bag. The thing is, it’s empty, what would it be doing in your house? Maybe a couple of zeds got ahold of it and had their version of a rave here? No. I’ve participated in some raids on the Californian’s positions, including their medical facilities set up for their living soldiers. This is one of theirs.”
“Bring me back to the hospital and you can compare it with ours side by side. If you can get me to the hospital, I know you can get behind their lines and find a donor bag of theirs too. I know you will. When you do, you’ll know. I found out who took your Sarah from you, Max. So much for me not being able to help you.” Draper tucked the bag into Max’s front pocket. “Now you should maybe rethink things a little, we might be able to help each other in more ways than just solving the case of the missing wife.”
Max touched Draper and they were back in Iowa, in the parking lot. “What do you want me to do?”
“Talk to the Californians.”
“I’ll be compromised before I even sit down with them, don’t you see? They are one step ahead of you, they nullified me before we even spoke.”
It took a lot to throw Draper off, he prided himself on processing data quickly and making fast and intelligent decisions, he shook his head and tossed back his head and laughed, “You’re right. Son of a bitch, but you are. Good God have I got problems.”
“What other problems?”
“Get in the car, I’ll tell you on the way. It’s just a small thing; a military coup.”