The car was ready. Hank, Juan and Nick got back in, causing it to creak ominously, but once Juan gripped the steering wheel, the things felt more secure and reliable. It fired up when Juan turned the key.
“Lucky this thing doesn’t use a push button.” Hank said as they waved goodby to Dorothy and the others.
“Why?” Nick asked, “You guys couldn’t make it work?”
“I probably could.” Juan said, “Hank, maybe not so much. I would have to do all the driving.” He shrugged as if that were not a big deal.
“Couldn’t you just leave it running and have him drive?” Nick asked.
“Maybe if we had the fob.” Hank said. “Juan’s always been better with the electrical stuff, it’s why he usually starts these heaps when we find them, he can get the battery strong, so long as there is at least some charge left. I’m better with fuel and I can do that with only a finger on the vehicle.”
The night spent at Hollywood beach had been an enjoyable time for all of them. The locals had a house fixed up for visitors, or potential new settlers. A young woman, Jamie, had followed Nick home and wanted to spend the night with him, that had been awkward because Nick wanted her to spend the night too. Hank had only made things worse by saying, “Sure, darlin’ that’s fine. Nick, you have any condoms? I know you don’t want to be leaving any little bastards behind…”
Juan had frowned and made some talk about it being late and they all needed their sleep and Nick just became embarrassed and went out on the front porch with Jamie. He had come in a long while later, alone.
Now he was paying for the lack of sleep. He yawned and wedged his head between the frame of the car and the head-rest.
“What? Sleepy?” Hank asked with a grin, “Didn’t you get any sleep last night?”
“I didn’t sleep too well, it was hot.”
“I bet. Jamie ain’t going to be showing up in 9 months with your kid, is she?” Hank asked.
“Hank!” Juan protested, “Leave him be.”
“Thanks, Juan.” Nick said, “If she shows up with a kid, it isn’t mine.”
“Thank God.” Juan said.
“Missed opportunity.” Hank added, “But probably for the best. She’d probably want to come along with us and that could get awkward. Does Jamie have any family there?”
“Just friends. Couple of people acting like her older sister and brother, they took care of her these last eight years is all, but they aren’t family.”
“Chosen family is still family. Better, probably.” Hank said, “Because you know they stuck with you when they didn’t have to.”
“What is this?” Juan asked pointed up ahead of them. They had only been driving a few minutes and there was a makeshift barricade blocking the road ahead, a lamp post was down, leaned across the trunk of a car on one side and a flat, upright tire on the other. A spray-painted sign was on a piece of plywood and leaning up against the barricade, it said, “Toll Road.”
“What’s a Toll Road?” Nick asked.
“There used to be roads that were paid for by collecting a toll from each person who drove on them.” Juan answered.
“I don’t think this one is official.” Hank said, “Hah! There’s our bandit!”
Gus sat up from the hood of a car parked down the street a few meters. He yawned and waved before picking up a ruck sack, a carbine and a huge canteen.
“Can I hitch a ride?” He asked as he knocked the lamp post off of the tired, then dragged it out of the way.
“Drive, Juan! Drive fast!” Hank said.
Juan looked at his friend, “Really?”
“Just kidding.” He yelled at Guy, “What do you really want?”
“To come with you.”
“Because I told Max I would.” Gus shook his head, “No, scratch that. Because I engineered it, to be here, sent by Max so he wouldn’t interfere with you. Now I need to come with you.”
Nick pushed open the door behind Hank, Hank looked back at him. “What? He can see the future, he knows he’s coming with us. Plus, he can see the future and keep us out of trouble.”
“Good points, both.” Gus said climbing into the car.
“We were planning on going through, you know.” Nick told Gus.
“I am planning to come with you.”
“My dad wouldn’t like it.” Nick said, “Me going to see the other side.”
“I know. He is going to be furious at me.”
“But you survive it?”
“Probably. Assuming I live through the other side.” Gus said.
“Will we get there today? In this heap, I mean?” Hank asked Gus.
“Depends on how we go up the coast. Highway 1 has a lot of bridges out, but you two already know that. Just go the same way as you did before, and we should make it by sunset.”
“Yup. Alright. I kinda figured that. I hope you have some alternate routes to avoid any trouble we might run into.”
Gus sighed heavily and elbowed Nick, “See? They want me along too. Not polite enough to ask in Miami, but I’m good enough to pick up on the side of the road.”
“Well, we’re still getting to know you.” Hank said, “We didn’t want to impose.”
Gus laughed, “You’re a right nice fellow, Hank. Where are you from? Somewhere close by, right?”
“Haven’t I already answered that question?”
“Yes. True. Sorry to hear about what happened with your early life. It sounds like Colorado was good for you. You were just getting set up out there when the outbreak happened. At least you met Juan and his friends before…who knows where you’d be now if that weren’t the case.”
Hank looked over at Juan, “I never told him about my past…”
Gus laughed again, “We future talked about it. Don’t let it twist you up too much. I just told you, so you would know we are going to become very close.”
“Well future me and you might be, but I’m not there yet.” Hank said. Juan smiled, and Hank turned to him, “What are you so happy about?”
“Gus, he said, future you, that means you won’t be dying any time soon.”
“I told you it doesn’t work like that.” Gus complained, “It only means in one of the possible futures, we became close enough for Hank to tell me his story. If you slam the car into this upcoming pylon that future never happens.”
“Yet, you still got to know me.” Hank said.
“Yeah, like I said, don’t get all twisted up about it.”
The day passed with Gus pointing out the best routes to go by, making the trip far easier than it was the first time Hank and Juan had driven up a couple weeks ago.
“Is this why you come up here for Max?” Hank asked Gus when they had finally stopped the car at the edge of a sandy beach. There were others on the beach, zombies, who moved away from the group that had driven up.
“I come up for myself, mostly. Max and Stewart, they are in tune with Sentry. He’s the watcher on the other side, if something happens to him you can bet he will be calling for Stewart and Max quickly.”
“And they will come?” Nick asked. He had taken off his boots and socks and was wadingn into water of the near perfect circle of a bay in front of the car.
“They will.” Gus said, “They are all too scared not to. If they don’t come one of them could get through and if that happens…well it would be bad.”
“But they would come no matter where they were? It’d be like instantaneous?”
“I get what you’re angling for, Nick. It wouldn’t be in an instant, it would be fast, but there are limits. Max and Stewart set up camp as far away as they could.” Gus gestured toward the center of the lake where there was flat barge floating, tied to a pier. On top of the barge was a 5-meter-high, square tower with a flat base, approximately half a meter above that the air shimmered, showing a discolored section of sky as it wavered. “If they were farther away from that it would take more time to get here, split seconds really. I assure you those split seconds would count. If your father was in, say Iowa he might arrive too late. The fighting that goes on is so very fast that everything could be over just that fast.”
“Can’t you tell them when an attack is going to happen?”
Gus nodded and shrugged, “I think I can, the problem is, as I’ve stressed so many times with you already, the future is not a road that you walk down and rubber neck at everything. It’s closer to an ocean, where a hurricane picks you up and tosses you about. The big three don’t trust my precognition.”
“But you trust it?”
“It hasn’t let me down yet.”
“Are you sure about that?” Hank asked. “You went through, to the other side here, didn’t you?”
“Yes.” Gus said, tilting his head to the side.
“With a bunch of people. Only you came out. They all died.”
“I never said they all died. Yes, though, only I came back.”
“Some of them are alive?”
“I don’t know. I like to think so. Things were difficult for me over there. I had a bad transition, like I was living in another life that wasn’t mine.”
“This time it will be different?” Juan asked, “Because we mean to go through.”
“I know what you mean to do and I’m going with you. It may be different.”
“Wait a second, you can’t see that it will be different?” Nick asked.
“I can see up to the portal, when I get through the future will lay itself out before me.” Gus shrugged again, “It’s like I have to attune to the other plane. Believe me it’s a thrill for me, the thought of passing through, it’s a brief moment of excitement, not knowing.
“Yeah, the excitement we all feel just living here.” Hank said.
“Indeed. Well gentlemen the tide is high, the barge is floating as close to the portal as it normally gets, we’ve probably got half an hour to get out there and go through, unless you want to wait for the next high tide?”
“No, let’s get this done.” Nick said, he started disrobing. Soon the others did too, there were no boats to take out to the barge, they would have to swim the distance. More accurately they had to walk most of it, the bay was shallow, having been filled with sand the last eight years by the constant motion of the sea. They did have to swim the last five hundred meters of it, tugging their equipment wrapped in plastic bags behind them. Gus had just filled his bags with air and used them as floatation device which he paddled toward the barge.
Nick arrived first and had a challenging time clambering on board; there were no ladder or any other contrivances to help him climb aboard. He was able to fling his gear up with one hand and then swam around to the anchoring chain and pulled himself up after three attempts. He then helped the others up and they sat on the stairs that went up one side of the platform. From the barge they could see all the surrounding beaches more clearly in the fading light. There were hundreds, if not thousands of zombies around them. They kept to the sand, with none venturing into the water at all. The zombies had a much heavier presence on the north shore than the south or west. To the east the bay opened into the ocean.
“There are thousands of them.” Nick said.
“Yeah, they like being close to it, but not too close, just like your dad and Stewart.” Gus said.
“Is it wet on the other side?” Hank asked, “Should we get dressed or will there be a swim involved on that side too?”
Gus shook his head, “No need, it’s solid ground there, inside a warehouse. Max and Stewart tell me it looks rather like it did here before the bomb went off.”
“Will that guy, Sentry, know we’re there?” Nick asked.
“Yeah. Whether he bothers with us is another matter. He’d close this damned thing if he knew how and used to blame Max and Stewart for it being here. I think he has mellowed out a little about that. He’s nothing if not an intellectual and very good at rationalizing behaviors, if he has the time to think about it.”
“Sounds good. Hopefully he’ll leave us alone.” Hank said.
“He is not good. We should probably get that out in front of us.” Gus said, “He made all of this happen.” He waved his hand around, as if encompassing the entire world.
“Does he feel bad about it?” Juan asked.
Gus shrugged, “I think he would do it all over again, if he could. Never doubt that he is a monster.”
“Could he kill us?” Nick asked.
“I think so. We’re no lightweights, I’ll grant you that and you, Nick, as unassuming as you appear to be, are pretty fucking powerful. Let’s hope your ability has some affect on the creatures through this portal. If something comes at us and they will, don’t try to talk to it. Don’t try to surrender, don’t try to run. The only option is a strong offense. I doubt we’ll kill anything, but if we make ourselves appear to be a big enough threat to an attacker they will be forced to consider how weak they will become by trying to kill us. That’s what we have going for us; if we can convince them that they will be weakened by attacking us they will fear being taken out by something bigger because they are hurt.”
“Wow. Great pep talk.” Hank said.
“Oh, sorry. We’ll be find. Anyone have a cigarette?” Gus asked.
Hank looked around to the others, “What? Why? Do we need it for something on the other side?”
“No.” Gus said, “I was just going to light it up, have you bend over and then blow smoke up your ass too. Look, this isn’t a game, things are deadly here and deadly there. I think…and I emphasize the word, that we’ll be okay. But I’m not going to give you false advice or sugar coat it; if you see something over there go at it all out.”
“No exceptions?” Juan asked.
Gus hesitated, “If we come upon something, like we find something we might try talking. There may be people there. Very clever people.”
“Supers like Juan and me?”
“Only if they came from our side. Their virus didn’t help normal humans at all. Any people we find we must treat with caution. We got sold out last time, trusted someone who was working with a ‘master’ zombie, gathering up humans for him to devour.”
“Got it. Shoot anything that finds us. Defer to you if we see anything not charging us like a bull.”
“There may be some of our super zeds over there too, probably are, in fact. I told you that their zombies get nothing from killing ours, no power increase, remember?”
“Yeah, so there is no incentive for them to wipe our guys out. How would there be any zeds over there?”
“Some came with us, some passed through on their own. The rift, it acts as sort of a food source for our zeds. Some of them pass through out of curiosity. I hardly think anyone could say they accidently went through it.” Gus pointed at the bay and stairs, “I mean, that’s like accidently having sex with someone, isn’t it?”
Hank laughed, “Well? Shall we go?”
“Yeah, let’s get this thing started.” Nick said.
Gus just looked at him for a moment before carefully untying his plastic bags of gear. He removed a couple of strips of dense foam, which he placed under the stairs, “For when I get back, no sense in carrying it with me on the other side.” He said to Nick’s questioning look.
They dressed, checked their weapons and stood at the foot of the stairs looking at the darker patch of sky at the top of the platform. “You leading?” Hank asked Gus.
“I’d rather not.”
“Hah! Okay, I’ll go first, I’m least likely to draw any attention, being half zombie myself.” Hank walked up the stairs, followed closely by Juan, then Nick. Each man disappeared through the portal, stepping through the invisible plane like going from one room in a mansion into another. In moments Gus was alone at the top of the platform. He stood there looking at the opening, eyes closed behind his dark sunglasses.
“I swore I wouldn’t do this again. Unfortunately, I was wrong, so I must go on.” He muttered to himself. “Poetry at time like this.” He made a mock salute to the distant zombies on the north shore and stepped through to oblivion.