The Chase: Hour One
Custer was manning the turret as we hurtled south toward the highway. The man was with us, but couldn’t be said to be among us, his conditions clear: he would help us reach our destination so long as it paralleled his own, but each man’s showdown with fate was his own—neither maelstrom nor nuclear winter could divert him now. And now, indeed, all his senses were tuned on his mission, his face thrust out, snuffing up the air like a police dog drawing nigh to a skulking drug mule. He shouted down to those of us in the cab that a horde was near—its tang so wafted—and we all looked out the windows, up the suburban streets flashing by, until we finally saw them up ahead and to our right, a swarm of some hundred or more congregated around a long-ransacked strip mall with its pink and green frozen yogurt icon and posters for videogames and red signs indicating the best deals on cellphones, constituent heads turning to behold us rocketing toward them, wheeling around and shuffling out to meet us in the road when the first of the trucks—the plow truck miraculously still adorned with that gleaming gold coin—crashed through a disorganized phalanx of staggering retirees, bursting decrepit flesh against the great prow of our convoy, leaving a path for us through their midst, a great red wake that seemed to curl up on either side like breakers of wildly-flailing arms and kicking legs and chest cavities heaving out great bloody blobs of flesh and curds of yellowed fat.
We made our way around the cloverleaf onto I-5, the plow truck pushing long-dead cars out of the way, and then we were heading south, fleeing the depot, fleeing the base, fleeing those mercenaries who had been too distracted fighting off the horde at the fence to bother with our escape. There had been some effort to clear this stretch of road and the vehicles of our old world were lined up along the median divider and the shoulder through Tukwila and for miles until we hit another snag and the plow truck and the remaining transport truck worked to push the vehicles aside and make room and all the while Custer had us all on alert, looking back over our shoulders, waiting, anticipating ZombX, but then we were moving again and transferring to another highway and building up speed.
We were rolling with five Humvees now, the plow truck, and one transport, and I was sitting in the passenger seat up front, more than fifty men of Plymouth split into two bands, perhaps twenty-five men and one woman, each of us looking out the window, sinking into our private reveries, iZhmael in one of his philosophical modes, gazing out at the vehicles we were passing and thinking about how we used to spend so much of our time on these freeways, locked in our own little metal and plastic bubbles, each person listening to sounds of their own choosing, news, music, talk radio, blocking out all else, as if the world were our own and every car around us without its own driver, mere set pieces in our own private stories, home to work and back home again, day after day, year after year, until the end, and I turned my head forward again to see what else I could see and that’s when the transport truck in front of us bucked into the air over a burst of gray smoke and dust and debris and skidded sideways and then careened over onto its side, skidding to a stop against a lamppost that keeled over a few feet, hung there for a moment, and then fell clear of its moorings.
We skidded to a stop and here we backed up and looked off to one side to see several trucks coming up the side roads and mercenaries firing at us from cover in a used car lot. A man dropped something into a tube that another man was kneeling to hold, and stepped back, and I heard the hollow thoomp of a mortar and we sped forward around the truck as a few men clambered out of the back onto the road, bloodied, broken. I can still see Lancelot rising beside the truck, his greasy bowl-cut cowlicked with blood, watching us drive past, then looking up to something above—a bird, a bee? I looked away, but heard the second explosion, and knew the few men from the truck were gone, or would be soon enough.
Custer was firing the machine gun now as we pursued the others. The Humvee in front of us, a tan one, simply stopped moving, coasted to a stop off to our left. The men flew out the doors and made as if to get into our vehicle, but even as they reached out their arms, were gunned down from behind; and even further ahead two Humvees with turrets manned by mercenaries were bearing down on us from another side road, firing their heavy guns so that the bullets clanged against our fender and, as we raced past, the rear quarter panel, but we continued on, and Custer continued to fire the M240, seemingly without any concern for how exposed he was up there, fairing-shield or no fairing-shield, as though this crusade were divinely decreed, intention his armor. Some of the mercenaries raced out on foot, firing at those of our men who were still alive and forsaken, so that I saw one of our skinny young men in the side mirror—I’m not even sure who, since all I saw was his back—crawling through the weeds along the broken asphalt, get shot between the shoulder blades, and again in the back of the head, and then several of the ZombX vehicles pull out onto the main road behind us to give chase, the first one breaking what remained of the young man’s body, the second likely grinding him to paste.
We were in the back of our own line and starting up a hill now, and their two lead trucks were gaining on us. Someone hailed us on the radio.
“Custer?” a familiar voice said. “Have a second for an old friend? Over.”
“Captain,” Chucho called up. “Pennywise’s reaching out.”
Custer dropped down into the cab, leaned forward between the seats, and grabbed the handset.
“What?” he said.
“Didn’t you see me waving?” Pennywise said. “Over.”
“I saw. But you weren’t waving a white flag. Do you wish to surrender?”
“Could you please say—nevermind. Look, we don’t like what went down at R1. But you brought it upon yourself, and we can’t call this off. But I want you to know we still like you. Despite ourselves. But we can only offer you a tiny bit of time. And some information. Over.”
Here, the truck beside Pennywise’s and Bollywood’s surged ahead and opened fire so that bullets pocked the back of the truck and thunk-thunk-thunked against the window molding.
“Damnit. We gotta keep up appearances here, so don’t hold this against us. Over.”
More bullets raked the back of the truck and then Pennywise was back on the line.
“Anyway: comms are down between ZombX and DeComp,” he said. “It’ll be a while before they figure this one out. Did you know Bollywood’s a fucking whiz kid with technology? Use this gift wisely. Over.”
The trucks were firing again and Chucho was swerving to avoid direct hits.
“Pennywise and Bollywood in breach of contract?” Custer said.
“Funny, huh? Looks like all three of us are getting sentimental and reckless in our old age. Anyway, get back up on that pony, shoot a few rounds our way. And don’t say we never did anything for you. Over.”
Custer mounted the turret again and I looked back and saw the old Plymouth operators once again surging ahead of the other truck; Bollywood was operating the SAW gun but here he did not attack, only grinned and showed Custer his middle finger; Custer fired low so that a cluster of bullets skipped off the ground under the undercarriage of their truck and here Pennywise jerked the wheel hard to the left, cutting across the other’s path, a feint; and yet he must have cut a little farther than intended, and the other truck must have veered to its right just fast enough that its front fender now struck the back corner of Pennywise’s and Bollywood’s Humvee so that it skidded sideways before its tires caught, the whole rig jerking up onto its passenger side, rolling over Bollywood, and continued to roll, and roll—the whole rig disappearing into its own cloud of dust.
The other truck didn’t emerge from the cloud as I expected; the wreck must have been blocking the road—simultaneously as planned and not as planned.
Chucho slowed to a stop and grabbed up the handset.
“You guys okay? Pennywise? Pennywise?”
Custer lowered himself down into the cab, slumped between two men in the back seat, waved his hand toward the road ahead.
“Shouldn’t we at least—?”
“They’re dead or good as dead. If we don’t go now, we’ll be joining them.”
Our rig started to roll and soon we were gaining on our other vehicles, racing through the suburbs out to the outskirts and beyond, leaving the rest behind as we flashed past a forest, or rather through a forest, because the conifers and ferns had been so busy reclaiming the shoulders and now the cracks and splits in the road were sprouting knee-high saplings that flicked along the metal underbelly like the claws of the dead reaching up and trying to pry us from the false security of our war rigs.
As we left behind the suburbs and drove deeper and deeper into the country, Custer had returned to the seclusion of his turret and inside the cab we rode in silence listening to him up there, singing a song, a sad tune we couldn’t place, the words of which dispersed on the rushing wind, so fitting, to think that we were all ever on the brink of slipping away into the elements like so many unrequited melodies.
The radio punctured our strange atmospheric bubble.
“Slow down over the next rise,” Starbucks warned. “We’ve got a … situation. Over.”
We started up a rise in the road and, when we reached the top, we saw out across a broad expanse, a straight strip of country road flanked on either side by a terrifically green and unending rainforest the seedlings of which had completely overtaken the lowest spot, and then the road rose again, curving to disappear into the forest at the top of next rise some 800 or 900 yards away, where three tan Humvees were parked and waiting. Below us, the rest of our convoy was stopped, to assess, to plan.
We braked some distance behind the others and Custer reached down into the cab, demanding binoculars, and then glassing the awaiting vehicles. They were making no move and did not hail us for parlay. It was immediately obvious that they intended to block us, that we would have to engage in order to pass. The others were already out of their trucks, and we piled out after them, using the fore sides as shields in case they had a sniper, hastily forming plans.
“Two parties on foot,” Jason said. “We outflank them while—”
“There he is!” the captain screamed.
This cold cry cut the air like the haunting call of a loon; it was so out of place that every man flinched, and Starbucks clutched at his chest, as though someone had just jabbed him with an icicle.
“White as a cue-ball!” the captain cried out. “Moby-Dork!”
We all turned to look where he was pointing—as if we could really expect to see so far with eyes unaided—but a moment later, as he was abusing us to load up, to charge, charge, charge, another sound rose in the valley above, slowly drowning out Custer, if not yet by volume, then by the pulse of dread throbbing louder and louder in our ears by the second: the rhythmic patter of an approaching war machine.