“So, Max, can you see anything yet?” Stewart asked. She sounded a little irritated to Max, something that made him chose his response a little more carefully.
“Nothing. I mean no beacon in the sky or anything like that, I know we have to head to the south from here and as close to the coast as we can get.”
Bill nodded and pointed on the map he had liberated from a gas station the day before, “Well, you can’t get much closer to the coast than highway 1A, or do you think getting on highway 95 would do it? Both are pretty dang close to the ocean.”
“I don’t know which ones Aubrey said would be clear. Maybe we should go with highway 1?” answered Max.
“Fair enough we don’t want to miss the guy. If we end up in Key West we can double back this way on highway 95 to make up for lost time.” Bill closed the atlas and continued, “Okay this should be an easy trip, we’ll drive east a bit until we hit highway 95, then it crosses over highway 1 just south of Jacksonville, we’ll turn onto that road and keep heading south until Max says otherwise. Everybody clear on that?”
A round of ‘yeses’ and nods answered his question. It was eight fifteen in the morning and the sky was clear to the west, but dark and ominous to the east, there was definitely a storm coming in. The five of them were finishing up breakfast and were planning on doing a weapons and ammunition check before they left.
“So, when Max spots the guy we are going to run in as close as we can get, drop the backpack and bug out fast. That’s the plan?” Ruben asked.
“Yeah, I can’t think of any way to make it simpler. I don’t want any heroics and if we never have to even see him, that’s okay with me.” said Bill.
“Any back up plans?” Ruben was looking closely at Bill again.
“What do you suggest, Ruben?”
“Well, nothing ever goes like we want it to. I think we should at least have a rendezvous, a fall back location that we agree to meet at if everything hits the fan. I think it should be here first, but if we end up driving another hundred miles we should choose another location closer to the target. Just in case.”
“That makes sense, if we get separated we come back to this rest area and wait, say three days? After that we could meet at the campground we were at yesterday, then the airfield they dropped us off at. How about this we scratch our names into the bathroom stall doors along with a date? The last stall in the bathroom should do, then we’ll at least be able to know if anyone was there before us or not.”
“I like that. Three day layovers at each place and even if no one shows, we are all least making our way back to Iowa.” said Stewart.
“Okay, let’s check guns and ammo and get this done. We could be heading home by the end of today, wouldn’t that be something? To have this over with?” Bill asked.
“Yeah, but I won’t be happy until we are back in Iowa with the kids.” Max said.
“I’d drink to that.” said Ruben.
“Guns first, then zombies, then drinking.” laughed Bill.
They laid their guns out on the hood of the cars and went through their available ammo for each of them. Everyone except Ruben still had military rifles and Ruben’s shotgun was still in good working order too. Again, everyone except Ruben had pistols as backup weapons, Ruben had his combat knife and Stewart was carrying a second back up pistol and the machete she had taken from the state patrol headquarters. Ammunition was still plentiful. They had been given ten magazines with each rifle along with two cases of extra bullets when they had been dropped off by the military. Unfortunately they had burned through most of the extra ammo along the way, they still had eight magazines of military grade ammunition for each gun, plus two loaded with the less accurate .223 ammo they had found. Ruben was drowning in shells for the shotgun, he had well over a hundred left after taking the shells Max had started with. He made sure his gun was fully loaded and he stashed twenty five shells in various pockets in his fatigues before he stowed the rest in his pack. The others divvied up the loose .223 rounds and put them in their packs as well. Stewart and Ruben looked over all the guns and gave them a quick clean up before they were reloaded and handed back to the owners.
“I’ll lead off with Max. You three follow behind us.” Stewart said.
Bill started to say something, but Max glanced at him and shook his head slightly until he just said, “Okay.”
They were all ensconced into their vehicles and driving eastward a few minutes later. Stewart was very quiet, too quiet for Max.
“Stewart? What’s up?”
Max expected her to say “Nothing”, in fact he had his response all lined up and ready to go, to cajole her into telling him what was bothering her.
Instead she said, “I think we’re getting fucked up the ass by these guys.”
“Your friend, Bill and his two soldiers. By Draper, by Aubrey, by everyone involved in this so called mission.”
“Whoa, just whoa, slow down for a minute. Draper, sure. Aubrey, maybe; you weren’t there. But Bill? No way, uh-uh, never in a million years.”
“A million years is a long time. It might not be on purpose on Bill’s part, he could have been fed bad information and is just acting on it to the best of his ability.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Why aren’t the military guys going in here? Why didn’t Draper come south instead of heading East? Why level with us about the bomb after we parted ways? I mean hell, why level with us about it at all?”
“One at a time please. I’ll argue with you about things all day long if you like, but I can’t answer everything in such a quick succession. What is bothering you most?”
“Everything!” Stewart yelled.
“Fuck. I know Max, I know you can’t help me out of this. Could you listen to me and give your perspective though? I need to know how fucked we are.”
“I can do that, talk.”
“Okay, first thing’s first. Why do you suppose Draper leveled with us about the bomb?”
Max shrugged, “I’ve been thinking of that too, there wasn’t any point. Except one; Draper wanted us to know that it would blow up and take out more than we had been told. He wanted to give us a chance to get away. When they told us about the bomb they gave us a safety distance, which we had to be at to avoid dying when it went off. If we would have hidden at the minimum safe distance for a nuclear bomb we would have died when this animatronic one went off.”
“Postitronic. You think Draper told us that, just so we would have a chance to live?”
“I do and I think he wasn’t supposed to either.”
“What makes you say that?”
“Here is what I figure. If you are giving a group of idiots…well, that might be harsh. If you are giving a group that doesn’t stand much of a chance for completing the mission, the tools to complete that mission, you want to give them the best chance of taking out the target.”
“So far, Max, you are not helping much.”
“Let me finish. Most people want to live. A bomb like this comes with an inherent risk to blowing the user up if they are not careful, along with the target. In order to be used properly the bomb has to be placed where the target is.” Max held up his hand in a placating manner to keep Stewart from interrupting, “I said let me finish. So newbies like us need to set the bomb off as close to the target as possible, but that conflicts with us wanting to survive too. We might set the bomb too soon; this doctor guy might leave the area if we set it too far away. So they tell us it has a short range and we should be able to hunker down close to it and survive. Makes sense, are you with me so far?”
“Go on, but get to the point.”
“What would we do if we knew the bomb was more devastating? We would feel comfortable setting it off further away from the target, giving him a better chance to get out of range. We would be hunkered down too far away to reposition it too, making it even less likely to try. That equals more of a chance for us to fail. Do you see?”
Stewart nodded, “I can see that is one argument. I am not saying that I agree completely with it.”
“Well Draper, he is a tough guy, hard to trust and difficult to work with. I didn’t ever get the feeling he wanted us dead. I think he went against orders to put that message on the bomb. I don’t think it was a planned ‘after you separate’ thing by the top brass at all. I think he disobeyed orders.”
“That’s giving him a lot of credit. And your argument makes no sense at all. They could have just left it as it was and not told us anything.”
“Well, that’s all I got, whether it makes any sense or not. Next question.” said Max.
“No, I don’t think…”
“Next question. You asked my opinion and I gave it, you said you had a lot of questions, let’s go through those first and if you still want to poke holes in my argument after that we can revisit this.”
“Oh, we’re playing that way are we? Fine. I’ll do a two for one then. Why didn’t the military send more soldiers or send Draper directly?” asked Stewart.
“Me. That is the long and short of it. I can pinpoint this asshole. I’ve been thinking back to my conversation with Aubrey and I am not sure we were the only group they inserted either. She said something to me before we parted ways, something about how was I sure she hadn’t contacted the other teams? She used plural, when she was talking to me. From my perspective there is only one ‘other team’ out there, Drapers.”
Stewart mulled this over, “You aren’t really saying anything I haven’t already figured out myself here. Somehow when you say it, things sound better. Are we on a suicide mission?”
Max leaned backed, he hadn’t considered it. Given what he had already said about the bomb he was having a hard time stating ‘no’ outright. “I don’t know. I know I have two kids back in Iowa and I know I plan to get back to them. But Stewart, I guess my logic with Draper and the bomb sort of indicates this may be a one way trip.”
“I don’t want it to be.”
“Are you getting cold feet?”
Stewart shook her head, “No! No, this needs to be done, it just feels right somehow, but Max, you have to promise me something. Okay?”
“That depends on what it is.”
“If it comes down to me dying to make sure you get away, you get away. Can you promise me that? No lamenting about it, no rationalizing it. If push comes to shove, you shove and get back to your kids.”
“Stewart…I…I don’t know. I mean how will I know something like that?”
“And not just me, either. If it comes down to all of us dying so you can live, you let us die. Get back to your kids. Bill’s kids have Tricia, Ruben is old and Javier’s family will know their son died as a hero. But you have to live.”
“Why?” asked Max.
“I kinda like you Max and I want you to be happy and live to raise your kids the way you promised your wife you would.”
They sat in silence for a while, driving down the road at breakneck speed. Max was clearly agitated, fidgeting in his seat and fiddling with the pockets on his jacket. Finally he said, “Stewart, I don’t remember telling you about the promises I made to my wife.”
“Oh, you didn’t. But I know you Max, and I know you made her promises when she was dying to take care of the kids and I bet she gave you a list of how to do it too.”
Max laughed, “Oh thank God, I thought you were crawling around in my head!”
Stewart looked sideways at Max and asked, “How do you know I am not? It’s my job after all, to ferret out the truth. I’m a modern day Sherlock Holmes about this kind of thing.”
“Sure Stewart, and I am your Watson, no problem.”
“So what about Ruben? That guy is creeping me out lately.”
“What do you mean?”
“He has something, some other power and he doesn’t seem to want to talk about it.”
“Well, he hasn’t confided in me. Maybe I should ask Bill?” Max said.
“Yeah, if he has told anyone it would be Bill.”
“Hey Stewart slow down a bit, there are zombies up ahead.”
“On the road? I don’t see them.” said Stewart.
“No, I think they are away from the road, but about a mile ahead of us.” They drove by a sign stating that Jacksonville was two miles ahead.
“We are almost to the point where we turn off to get on highway 1 aren’t we?” Stewart asked.
“I think so, Bill said it was through Jacksonville though. Slow down, the zombies are close to the interstate up here, probably by this exit.” The highway slowly rose above the four lane street the exit led to.
“Well we should gun it then and get by them quickly.” Despite her words Stewart did slow down a little. Behind them Bill matched her pace, but stayed within ten car lengths.
“Ah, I guess you’re right, they aren’t close enough to reach us, even if they had cars. I don’t see...Shit!” Max screamed as he saw the yawning abyss in the road ahead. The bridge was missing completely from both lanes of the interstate ahead of them. Stewart swerved into the guardrail using it to slow herself down, but the heavy car bounced off of it and flew into the hole.
Behind them Bill cursed and hit his brakes as he saw Stewart swerve and hit the guardrail, the car fishtailed, with the passenger side door leading the way to the open hole in the road ahead. Ruben, sitting behind Bill, opened the back door, put his hand in the shoulder straps of the back pack bomb and jumped out onto the pavement. The old man grunted as he landed on his stomach hard and started sliding to the brink of the chasm where both of the patrol cars lay in smoking ruin. He stopped with both his legs hanging over the twenty foot drop; the tips of his boots were worn down to their steel toes.
Ruben stood up, dusted himself off and looked at the ragged hole worn through his fatigues by the slid, his body armor was a shambles, and there were holes and blood around both of his knees, but he would live. Grabbing the bomb he spared only a moment to look at the cars in the crushed rubble where the bridges had been before jogging back down the overpass towards some nearby woods.
“I hope you aren’t fucking with me.” He mumbled to the voices in his head as he scrambled for cover before the approaching zombies reached the wrecks where his friends were.