Thunder and Ashes: Chapter 3

Skirmish

Northwestern Kansas

March 07, 2007

1423 hrs_

DENTON LOUNGED IN THE REAR of the Ford pickup, legs stretched across the bed and crossed at the ankles. He held a chipped, battered Nikon in his hands and was carefully cleaning the lens as the vehicle rumbled along a stretch of swiftly-straightening road. The group was emerging from the Rockies and making their way onto the Midwestern plains. Denton was glad of it; despite being acclimated to cold weather due to his nationality, he had no love for it. He had even less love for the curving, unpredictable mountain roads that made land travel a veritable roller-coaster ride.

“What’s that you’re doing?” Krueger asked, sitting across the bed from Denton. The soldier had his rifle laid out across his lap and had was wearing a faded boonie cap on his head, strap looped around his neck.

“Keeping my gear in shape,” Denton replied, holding the camera up to catch the light. He caught a stray bit of dust on the lens and puffed out a breath, sending the mote flying.

“Well, yeah,” Krueger replied, “but why? Didn’t you run out of film?”

“Not all of it,” Denton said. “I have a couple of rolls left.”

“What I don’t get is why anyone would want to take a picture anymore,” Brewster said, sitting cross-legged near the front of the truck bed, looking downcast. “Who’d want to remember this shitty little period of time in human history, huh?”

Brewster’s attitude had been on the antagonistic side for the few days since Wilson’s death. Months of traveling together could make anyone friends, and Brewster and Wilson had been no exception. Nor, for that matter, had Denton and Krueger. All of them still felt as if Wilson should still be riding in the truck bed with them, ready to interject with a witty comment or carefully timed smirk.

“Anyone who survives, my friend,” Denton said, answering Brewster’s question. “Think about it. Who’d want to remember the Hindenburg? Hiroshima? The Holocaust?”

“No sane person,” Brewster grumbled.

“No, no,” Denton disagreed, “Every sane person. Pictures are a moment in time—just one little moment—but it’s truth, Brewster, pure truth—you don’t get a lot of absolutes in this world. A photo is a little slice of solid, absolute truth. That’s why I want to keep taking pictures. If any of us survive this and the good old human race pulls through, a hundred years down the line someone’s going to ask the question, ‘I wonder what the truth of it was, back then?’ And then they’ll break out my pictures and there it’ll be in all it’s shitty glory. The truth.”

The truck hit a small pothole in the road and bounced the occupants of the bed. Brewster re-adjusted himself and sighed.

“Guess I see what you’re saying,” Brewster said. “It’s just getting harder and harder to find a reason to care about the future, you know?”

Denton couldn’t blame the soldier. At Suez, the coalition force numbered in the thousands. Brewster’s attitude then had been that of a cynical, jaded, couldn’t-care-less jokester. By the time Sharm el-Sheikh had rolled around, the number of soldiers had been pared down to just over fifty. During the journey on the USS Ramage, their numbers had been reduced even more. A further dozen were lost in Hyattsburg, Oregon. Others had been killed in their eastward-bound flight since then, and now, including Sherman and Thomas, only four soldiers remained.

“Doc Holliday syndrome,” Krueger said, still lounging comfortably. He had been just as upset over the loss of Wilson as Brewster had, but he had somehow managed to bury it.

“What?” Brewster asked.

“What you’re feeling,” Krueger explained. “Feeling about the future. What’s the point, and all. It’s called Doc Holliday syndrome.”

“The gunslinger?”

“The same,” Krueger said. “I used to read about him. Not just him, I mean, but cowboys in general. I was a big wild west fan as a kid. Holliday had tuberculosis. I think it’s pretty rare these days, but it was a lot more common back then. Anyway, it’s fatal. So, here’s Doc Holliday, and he knows he going to die from this disease sooner or later, and so he starts to take all kinds of crazy risks. He figured he was dead anyway, so why bother worrying?”

“So what happened?” Brewster asked.

“He died of tuberculosis,” Krueger said with a grin. “Managed to make all those risks pay off.”

“All right,” Brewster said, nodding slowly. “So what are you saying? That I can take a ton of risks but in the end I’m going to end up a carrier?”

Krueger raised his eyebrows, considered the question, and shrugged. “Just saying that maybe you feel like you don’t care because you figure you’re going to end up a carrier.”

“Hey, man, I see a really old version of myself when I think about the future,” Brewster protested. “I’m just wondering what that old version of me’s going to be doing. What’ll be worth doing, you know?”

“Rebuilding,” Krueger said. “I guess—and we’re talking a couple of decades down the line at least, right?—we’ll all be rebuilding. Working on putting what’s left back together. It’s all we can do. This is a big thing we’re living through, man—when people open up a history book a few hundred years from now the big event, the one recurring theme will be this pandemic and its effects, just mark my words.”

“I’m surprised,” Denton said with raised eyebrows.

“What, that I’m a far-thinker?” Krueger asked. “I’m a far-shooter, too. Maybe it’s a genetic thing.”

“No, not that,” Denton said, waving a hand in dismissal. “I’m surprised you think there’ll still be history books being written in a few hundred years.”

“I take it you don’t have quite the same vision of the future in mind?” Krueger asked, wincing as the truck hit another pothole.

“Call me a pessimist if you want,” Denton explained, “but I just can’t see what’s left of humanity banding together to rise like some kind of a phoenix from the ashes out of this disaster. It’s not in our nature. We’ve got a good thing going right now with our little group. We help each other out. We look out for one another. I’m betting that’s not how things are working out in the rest of the world. I’m betting that most of the places that haven’t been overrun with carriers by now are tearing themselves apart from inside. Remember Cairo.”

“That was panic,” Krueger said, shaking his head. “People have had more time to cool down and think straight now.”

Cairo had been a disaster among disasters in the early days of the pandemic. The civilian populace was already on edge. Their city sat just a few hundred miles from the nearest cases of Morningstar and the virus was creeping closer every day. It only took a spark—literally—for Cairo to destroy itself. A fire had started, spread, and burned out of control. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, had burned to death, and thousands more were killed in rioting and panicked flights from the city.

“If you want to know about Cairo, ask Rebecca,” Denton said. “She was there. Yeah, there was panic, but people had just—what’s the word I’m looking for here—shifted their perspective from being members of a community to being lone wolves, looking out for number one. You can’t blame them, but it’s no way to build or maintain a society when the surviving human race is stuck in survival mode.”

————————

The three men in the back of the truck hadn’t the foggiest idea of how relevant their conversation was to the little convoy’s situation, cut off as they were from a view of the road ahead. In the cab of the utility truck, the lead vehicle of the convoy, Sherman and Thomas grimaced simultaneously as they rounded a bend and saw what lay ahead of them. Three vehicles were parked across both lanes of the blacktop road at the edge of a bridge that spanned a two-hundred-foot wide gulley and stream. There was no way to circle around them and continue on their way without tumbling into the gulley and trapping themselves.

“Tell me that’s just the leftovers from an accident,” Sherman said. In his heart, however, he knew the answer.

“That’s a roadblock, sir,” Thomas said, shaking his head and applying the brake. The utility truck slowed to a halt, still a good distance from the vehicles.

Sherman heard the familiar snick-snack of a round being chambered and looked over to see Thomas holding his Beretta close to his lap, thumbing the safety off. The General frowned inwardly. Two of his dwindling group of survivors had an uncanny knack for spotting danger before anyone else noticed the threat. Mbutu Ngasy was unsettlingly accurate when it came to the infected. He could spot an ambush before the group was even in a position to be attacked. Sergeant Major Thomas, on the other hand, was unsettlingly accurate when it came to people in general. The middle-aged NCO had been in Vietnam and Iraq and had no trouble knowing when he was being set up.

If he was going for his weapon already, the situation couldn’t be good.

“Might just be a town’s first line of deterrence,” Sherman speculated.

“Might be,” Thomas grumbled, then slid out of the driver’s side door and walked around the front of the truck, eyeing the vehicles ahead of him. Sherman joined him after a moment.

Behind them, Ron and Mbutu jumped out of the front seats of the sedan and came walking up, narrowing their eyes at the roadblock.

“Seems abandoned,” Ron said, looking sideways at Sherman.

“That’s why I don’t like it,” Thomas growled. The vehicles blocking the road were dirty, but otherwise seemed to be in good condition. You just didn’t leave a good truck sitting out as a roadblock; you used cement barriers or junkers. And if you were going to use a decent truck as one, you wouldn’t simply abandon it there.

In the back of the pickup, Denton, Krueger and Brewster were straining to see what was going on through the narrow firing slits in the barbed wire.

“Looks like we’ve got trouble,” Brewster said, peering out at the trucks blocking the road ahead of them.

“Carriers?” Krueger asked.

“Negative,” drawled Brewster.

Suddenly there came the roaring of an engine gunning behind them. Sherman and the others spun around, hands going to weapons. Thomas already had his pistol raised and ready to fire. A good fifty yards behind the little convoy, another pair of trucks had appeared, pulling out of the brush that lined the road near the gulley and creek. They screamed to a halt on the road, rocking slightly, and the doors opened as men spilled out, taking cover behind their trucks. The glint of sunlight on steel gave away their shouldered rifles and pistols.

“Worse than carriers,” Brewster said in the back of the pickup. “Bandits.”

“They’re blocking off our retreat, sir,” Thomas said, gritting his teeth. “This is an ambush, sir. We don’t control this situation. Recommend we bug out.”

“I’d be inclined to agree with you,” Sherman said, “but there’s nowhere for us to go.”

Sherman was right. The creek bed was impassable except across the bridge, which was sealed off by the first roadblock. The new additions had blocked off the road to their rear, and the thick stands of brush and pine trees that grew close to the road prevented an off-road escape.

They were trapped.

Brewster and Denton kicked open the tailgate of the truck and scrambled out. Brewster knelt by the rear of the vehicle and held his double-barreled shotgun to his shoulder, aiming at the trucks that had blocked their retreat. The knowledge that the distance between him and his targets was enough to render the double-ought buckshot mostly ineffective didn’t comfort him much. Next to him, Denton raised his pistol. The pair felt horrendously under-armed as they stared down the a barrels of scoped hunting rifles.

Krueger was still in the back of the pickup, mostly hidden from view by the thickly strung barbed wire. He calmly and carefully loaded his .30–06, racked a round into the chamber, and lowered his eyes to peer through the scope. He relaxed his breathing, felt his chest rise and fall in carefully measured breaths. In the scope, he watched as the crosshairs danced, then slowed, and finally settled on a burly looking man with a large-bore rifle taking cover behind one of the enemy trucks. Krueger felt his finger brush the trigger, but he halted himself, waiting for a proper moment.

A voice from the direction of the bridge drew the attention of Sherman and the others near the front of the convoy.

“Well, what have we here?”

The voice belonged to a tall man with a medium build who had the look of a farmer, but moved with the swagger of a man who was used to getting what he wanted. He walked out from behind the trio of vehicles blockading the bridge, a pump-action shotgun in his hands.

“Just a group of honest travelers looking to get back East,” Sherman cautiously said.

“Didn’t anyone tell you?” the man asked, grinning. “This is a toll road now.”

Another five men appeared out of hiding, using their vehicles as cover and aiming weapons at Sherman and the group.

“This isn’t good, sir,” Thomas whispered out of the side of his mouth.

“I know. Just stay calm. Maybe they’ll be rational,” Sherman whispered back, then raised his voice to address their accoster. “Last I heard the interstate highway system was toll-free. What’s your price?”

“What’ve you got?” the man asked, earning a few laughs from the bandits behind him. “We’re not picky.”

“Little we can spare,” Sherman said. “Look, friend, we’re not after trouble. We’re just looking to pass through. If giving you some of our food or ammunition can get us going on our way without a firefight, I’m all for it. So name your price, and we’ll see if we can meet it.”

“Come on, George, let’s get this done!” called out one of the bandits from behind his cover, addressing the man who was negotiating with Sherman.

George held up a hand in the direction of his men, forestalling any further protest. He looked Sherman over and quirked a grin.

“I like you,” he said after a moment. “You sound reasonable. We don’t get a lot of reasonable people through these parts these days. But here’s the thing. We don’t normally just take a bit and go home satisfied. I’ve got eleven men with me here, and another couple of dozen back home, and they’ve all got to eat. So I’m afraid when I said ‘What’ve you got?’ I meant it. Unload your vehicles and we’ll clear the road for you. No one’ll get hurt.”

Sherman’s expression darkened and George took a quick step forward, lowering his voice somewhat. Thomas kept his pistol pointed downward, but didn’t take his eyes off of the man. He didn’t even blink.

“Listen, guy, I just made a very reasonable offer to you given the circumstances. You’re at our mercy. Usually we kill people who give us lip or get in our way, and as I said, I like you, so I’m giving you the chance to drive out of here with your lives and your vehicles—just not your food or your ammunition.”

“You might as well be killing us,” Sherman said. “Sending us out there without food or weapons is a death sentence.”

George frowned and stepped back. “We can do this easy or we can do this hard, friend.”

The bandits glowered from behind their cover and the sound of safeties being flicked off and the distinctive clack-clack of shells being racked into chambers echoed across the road. Sherman and his group of survivors bristled, backing closer to their own vehicles. Rebecca aimed her pistol through a half-open window on the sedan, sweat breaking out on her forehead. She’d shot carriers before, but had never faced down living, uninfected humans. She wondered for a moment if she’d be able to handle a fight in which her targets were actually shooting back.

George began to raise his shotgun. “Just a heads-up: the hard way ends with you all dead.”

“Then there’s no way we can do this peacefully?” Sherman asked one last time.

“ ’Fraid not,” George said, shaking his head. His bandits laughed mirthlessly.

“Well, that’s too bad,” Sherman said.

A single shot rang out loud and clear, startling everyone on the scene, most of all George himself, who had suddenly sprouted a miniature crater in the middle of his chest. Dark red blood quickly soaked through his shirt and ran down his side. George looked down at the wound with a bewildered expression on his face, reached up a hand to touch it, and looked back at Sherman and his group.

“Where?” was the only word he managed before pitching, face-first, onto the pavement.

In the back of the pickup truck, still half-hidden by the barbed wire, Krueger grinned to himself and racked another round into the chamber of his .30–06.

A moment passed in stunned silence. Then the bandits recovered their senses, and gunshots began to ring out in an accelerating staccato. Sherman, Ron, and Mbutu ducked down and ran around to the back of the utility truck as rounds skittered off the pavement and ricocheted off of the grille of the vehicle, shooting sparks. Thomas fell back into a shooter’s stance and began returning fire with his pistol, presenting as small a target as he could manage.

Brewster and Denton found themselves hard-pressed at the rear of the convoy, facing down the five bandits who had cut off their escape.

Brewster fired both shells in his double-barreled shotgun, cracked the weapon to reload, and suddenly found himself the target of a fusillade of rounds. He heard what sounded like a hornet fly past his right ear and realized it had been as near a miss as any he’d ever experienced. Momentarily panicked, he dropped the shotgun and dove for cover behind the rear tires of the pickup.

Denton fell back, hoping to take cover behind the open passenger door, firing his pistol one-handed as he moved.

Another loud report sounded from within the back of the pickup, and a bandit at the rear of the convoy screamed out in pain, clutching at his throat and falling out of sight behind his cover. His rifle clattered to the ground. Krueger was in his element, sniping away.

Beneath the pickup, Brewster recovered his senses, grimaced, and reached out a hand from behind the wheel to retrieve his shotgun. Almost immediately, a bullet ricocheted off the pavement inches from his hand, kicking up tiny bits of asphalt shrapnel that tore into Brewster’s hand. He grunted, pulled his hand back, and gritted his teeth. Blood seeped out from between his fingers.

“Goddammit,” Brewster growled.

The soldier was angry now. He shot out his other arm, ignoring the sound of bullets whizzing by, and grabbed his shotgun, pulling it in close and yanking free the two spent shells with his wounded hand. He slammed in a fresh pair, snapped the weapon up, and sent more buckshot downrange. The shot shattered the side window of a bandit vehicle and the raiders firing from behind it reflexively ducked.

Ron went down with a yell of pain, dropping his pistol and clutching at a bloodied leg as Katie screamed out his name. He crawled backwards, trying to roll behind the utility truck and remove himself from the line of fire. His pistol lay forgotten in the middle of the road.

In the back of the pickup, Krueger let his crosshairs settle on the face of a moustached bandit wielding a semiautomatic carbine and fired a third time. Through the scope, he saw the man’s head snap back as the round slammed home. His target slumped forward over the bed of his truck.

“Keep up the fire!” Sherman yelled over the gunfire. “Keep their heads down!”

Rebecca had been firing slowly, a shot every third or fourth second, trying to take careful aim in the direction of the assailants. At Sherman’s command, however, she picked up the pace, squeezing off rounds with less care as to whether they hit or not.

Thomas ran his second magazine dry and skipped backwards to where the General was taking cover behind one of the utility truck’s open doors. He knelt beside Sherman, dug a fresh clip free from an ammo pouch on his belt, reloaded, and resumed firing.

Jack and Mitsui had been in the front of the pickup, still inside, when the shooting had first started. Jack felt woefully under-armed with his small-caliber pistol and Mitsui was still a shaky shot with his hunting rifle, but the two jumped into the fray nonetheless. Mitsui’s shots went wide, skittering off the pavement or flying harmlessly through the air above the bandit’s heads. One of his shots flattened a tire on a bandit truck.

Under the pickup, Brewster found himself the bandits’ favored target. His shotgun blasts had nearly taken the head off of one of the raiders and had peppered the entire side of one of their vehicles with shot. Three of them focused their fire on Brewster’s position.

The soldier jumped as rounds flew anew in his direction, spanging off of the pickup’s bumper, popping the tire and digging chunks out of the asphalt all around him. Brewster curled up as small as he could manage and did his best to stay hidden behind the rear wheel.

“Krueger!” Brewster yelled as another round impacted the road near him. A sliver of street embedded itself in his cheek, and blood tricked down his face. “Krueger! Little help!”

Directly above Brewster in the bed of the pickup, Krueger heard the cries and spun in a circle, trying to locate the soldier. “Brewster! Where are you?!”

“Right below you, numbnuts! Come on, put some fire on these trucks behind us! They’re tearing me up down here!”

Krueger looked in the direction of the trucks and spotted three of the four remaining bandits aiming in Brewster’s direction. He nodded to himself, worked the bolt on his rifle to chamber a fresh round, and took careful aim. He let his breathing calm, waited for the crosshairs to settle, and—

“Krueger! Krueger! Come on, man!” Brewster’s sudden exclamation caused the crosshairs to jump.

“Shit,” Krueger muttered, then raised his voice somewhat. “Brewster, don’t interrupt the artist-at-work.”

Beneath the truck, Brewster grimaced and rolled his eyes. “Leave it to Krueger to go all primadonna in the middle of a firefight.”

Krueger’s shot rang out a moment later—and missed, his first errant round of the day. It impacted the outer edge of the left-hand truck’s cab, inches from a bandit’s head. Paint chips and metal shards sprayed the side of the bandit’s face, and the man yelled out in pain, dropping his rifle and clutching his cheek.

The wounded bandit grabbed for his fallen weapon, snatched it up and wavered in place a moment, seemingly undecided as to whether he should press the attack or break and run. Self-preservation won out over profit and the bloodied raider turned on his heels, running full-tilt into the thick underbrush lining the roadside. His fellow bandits yelled after him, one shouting for him to return to the firing line and another cursing him for cowardice.

The man’s panicked flight coupled with the three men Krueger had already killed seemed to be enough to break the remaining morale of the highway bandits blocking the convoy’s rear, and one by one they backed away from their cover, still firing, then turned and ran full-tilt into the pines, following in the footsteps of the wounded man.

Only four bandits remained now, and all four were situated at the front of the convoy, behind the vehicles blocking the bridge over the wide creekbed. Thomas managed to wing one of the men in the arm, drawing a shouted curse from the enemy line. Mbutu had run out of ammunition, and knelt behind the utility truck to check on Ron.

As bullets whizzed around them, Mbutu pried Ron’s white-knuckled grip away from his bleeding leg and looked at the wound. He grimaced at the sight, but nodded to himself. It wasn’t a fatal hit. It could have been if it had hit closer to the center of Ron’s thigh, but the bullet hole was off-center and the blood was not the bright red it would have been if the femoral artery had been hit.

“You will live,” Mbutu said, slapping Ron on the shoulder.

“Doesn’t fucking feel like it,” Ron said through gritted teeth. “My whole leg is on fire.”

“Rebecca will bandage you,” Mbutu assured him. “And give you a shot to dull the pain.”

“Looking forward to that,” Ron said, managing a half-grin.

An errant round shattered the left headlight of the utility truck, and Sherman ducked reflexively. “We have to finish this!”

“Right there with you, sir,” Thomas said. “Wish we had more long arms right about now.

“Krueger!” Sherman yelled over his shoulder. “Krueger, up front if you’re not pinned!”

Back in the pickup, Krueger shook his head and sighed as he worked at reloading his rifle. “No rest for the weary. On my way, sir!”

Denton and Brewster had extricated themselves from the truck and were moving briskly toward the vehicles the bandits had abandoned, weapons at the ready. They rounded the side of a black Ford and swept left and right. No sign was left of the opposition save for the body of one of the men Krueger had sniped. The soldier’s bullet had torn a hole through the man’s throat, and he lay in a wide pool of his own blood, hand still clutching his death wound. His eyes were wide open and his face wore an expression that spoke of surprise and fear. Near him lay a bolt-action hunting rifle.

Denton holstered his pistol and scooped up the rifle, checked to make certain there was a round in the chamber, and jogged to catch up with Brewster. The private was standing near the edge of the underbrush, in a half-kneel, squinting into the trees to see if he could spot any of the bandits.

“See anything?” Denton asked as he moved to stand alongside Brewster.

“Nada,” Brewster replied. “I guess they really did bug out. I was worried for a second they’d regroup and come back for another go.”

“Same here. Got some new hardware,” Denton said, hefting the rifle.

Brewster looked back in the direction of the bridge, where gunshots were still ringing out. “Let’s put it to use.”

“I’m with you.”

The pair turned and ran toward the lead utility truck, feet slapping on the pavement. As they passed the pickup, they heard the familiar sound of Krueger’s rifle firing and the now equally familiar sound of a yell of pain from the bandit’s firing line. The soldier had scored another hit, but it hadn’t been a fatal one from the sound of things. The yell of pain had quickly turned into a string of shouted curses.

Brewster and Denton arrived at the utility truck, sharing Sherman’s cover.

“The guys that came up behind are taken care of,” Brewster said. “They had enough of Krueger’s sniping and took off into the woods.”

Thomas grunted, firing another pair of rounds in the direction of the bandits. “First good news all day.”

Jack and Mitsui had also shifted their attention from the rear of the convoy to the front, but neither was scoring much in the way of hits. Mitsui was quickly running out of ammunition and Jack’s pistol just wasn’t accurate enough at the distance between his targets and himself.

Sherman spared a moment to look around and take in the situation. Things had started out looking grim for the group; now the tide had turned.

“Cease fire! Cease fire! Cease fire!” Sherman yelled out, waving his arm in a “cut-off ” motion.

One by one, the survivors’ weapons fell silent. The raiders continued to send rounds raining down on the convoy for a few more moments, but then they, too, realized that they were not taking anymore fire and slackened off. For the first time in several minutes, silence fell over the miniature battlefield.

“Hello out there!” Sherman called, still crouched behind the open door of the utility truck. When he got no response, he tried again, raising the volume of his voice. Finally, someone shouted back.

“What do you want?” came the reply.

“Look around you,” Sherman yelled. “Your buddies behind us have been run off. Your leader’s dead. You’ve got wounded. We outnumber you now.”

“What’s your point?” was the terse reply.

“My point is take your men and get out of here!” Sherman shouted back. “Just turn around and go on your way!”

“Fuck you, cockbreath!” came the shouted reply, and a renewed volley of bullets rained down on the convoy. Sherman ducked lower as the window above him was shattered out. Thomas cursed as a round skipped off the pavement and grazed his boot.

“Cease fire, goddammit!” Sherman yelled from behind his cover. One by one, the bandits complied, almost sulking as they laid off their barrage. “Look around! You’re not going anywhere! Your backup’s gone! Your leader’s down! Just take your lives and go!”

For a long moment, there was only silence. Sherman imagined the bandits were talking it over. Hopefully, they’d take the deal and go on their way.

“What do you say, guys?” Sherman shouted over his shoulder. There was no response. He waited a moment longer, then repeated his query. Still, nothing.

Thomas risked raising his head above the level of the door, peering through the shattered window in the direction of the bandits’ roadblock.

“Sir,” Thomas grumbled, “looks like it worked.”

“What worked?” Sherman asked.

“They’re gone, sir,” Thomas said, pointing at the bridge.

Sherman slowly pulled himself to his feet and surveyed the roadblock. The bandits had indeed used the momentary lapse in combat to turn tail and beat it across the bridge. Sherman could just barely make out a roadside shrub still waving where a bandit must have grazed it in his flight.

“Jesus.” Sherman breathed a sigh of relief. “That could have gone a lot worse for us.”

“Went worse for some of us than others,” came a pained interjection. Ron was still laid up behind the utility truck. Rebecca had abandoned her cover and run over to him, and was even now busily cutting away Ron’s pants leg to get a better view of the bullet wound he’d suffered.

Brewster sat down heavily on the roof of the sedan, nursing his bloodied hand and daubing at the slice on his cheek with an old sock he’d pulled from his rucksack.

“This is not my best day ever,” Ron groaned, clutching at his leg. Blood oozed from the bullet wound.

“Relax,” Rebecca said. “It’s not that bad. I’ve got an exit wound here, so the bullet didn’t lodge in your leg anywhere. That’s a good thing. Straight in and straight out. You could probably use a couple of stitches. I’ll get you some antibiotics just in case—want something for the pain?”

Ron fixed her with a sideways glance. “Hell yes, I want something for the pain. Feels like my entire leg is on fire.”

Thomas and Sherman came strolling back over from their inspection of the bandit’s line and took in the sight of their wounded comrades. Thomas knelt next to Ron.

“First time being shot, eh?” Thomas said, quirking a grin.

“First time,” Ron said, nodding. “Hurts like a bitch.”

“Doesn’t hurt any less the second and third time, either,” Thomas said, still grinning, then straightened himself out, clasped his hands behind his back, and strolled off to inspect the rest of the convoy.

“That guy,” Ron said through gritted teeth, “doesn’t have a goddamn idea how to inspire confidence, does he?”

“He’s just having a bit of fun with you,” Sherman said, arms folded across his chest and a soft smile planted on his face. “It’s his way.”

Jack and Mitsui had both run to the front of the convoy, where a pair of corpses (courtesy of Krueger) lay. They occupied themselves with grabbing up the weapons left behind by the dead men and searching the raiders’ pockets for anything useful. Jack scored a pocketknife and a box of ammunition, as well as a short-barreled carbine to replace his small-caliber pistol. Mitsui struggled with removing a gear harness from another bandit and grinned as he tried it on, marveling in the plethora of pockets and pouches it afforded him. He grinned and gave Jack a thumbs-up. Jack responded by raising his new carbine and grinning in return.

Mbutu watched the looting with a carefully neutral expression on his face. He’d barely said a thing during the entire engagement. Sherman had noticed, and ambled over to the tall man, standing by himself on the edge of the road, staring into the trees.

“What’s on your mind?” Sherman asked, clasping Mbutu’s shoulder.

“I am thinking of these raiders,” Mbutu said after a moment. “They said they had more men to feed. I wonder where those men are.”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean, General, that they are most likely living nearby,” Mbutu explained. “They would not want to go too far from their home. I worry they will be back, and with greater numbers. We should leave. Now.”

Sherman grimaced. Mbutu was right, naturally. The man had definitely shown his farsightedness to be useful in the past and Sherman was more than willing to trust his opinion.

“All right, gentlemen and ladies,” Sherman said, spinning on his heel and heading back toward the convoy. “Let’s pack it up and get moving again. Denton, Jack, Mitsui—get those vehicles out of our way. Let’s put some miles between us and these bandits before they decide to come back and try again. And where the hell is Krueger?”

“Here, sir!” Krueger replied, jumping out of the back of the pickup and shouldering his rifle. Sherman fixed him with a stare.

“Damn fine shooting, son. You probably saved our asses back there,” Sherman said, nodding.

“Hoo-ah, sir.”

Denton and Mitsui were busy trying the ignitions of the trucks left behind as roadblocks. The first truck didn’t even sputter; it flatly refused to start. The second chugged and chugged but refused to catch. The third sputtered, coughed, and caught.

“Well, all right, looks like we’re up another pickup,” Denton said from the driver’s seat. “Clear behind; I’m going to pull this truck onto the bridge.”

Jack backed away from the vehicle as Denton spun the wheel and ran the truck forward onto the bridge, pulling it alongside the cement barrier and shifting it into park.

“What about these other two?” Jack yelled, pointing at the pair of trucks that refused to start.

“Must’ve damaged them in the firefight,” Denton called back as he slid out of the driver’s side door and jogged back over to what remained of the roadblock. “Shift ’em to neutral. We’ll push ‘em off the road.”

As Denton, Mitsui and Jack went to work, Rebecca put the finishing touches on Ron’s leg. She’d injected him with a local anesthetic, having run out of the morphine she’d managed to purloin from the USS Ramage months earlier, and closed the wounds with stitches. A clean gauze bandage put the finishing touches on her work. A bit of blood seeped through the white cloth, but other than that, the wound seemed stabilized.

“Don’t try to walk on it for a little while,” Rebecca said. “You’ll re-open the wound. We’ll have to find you something to use as a crutch in the meantime.”

“Thanks, Becky,” Ron said, nodding at her. “Feels a lot better now.”

“That’s the anesthetic. It’ll start to wear off in a few hours. When it does, let me know and I’ll give you another dose.”

“Hey, hey,” came a call from behind them. It was Brewster, waving his bloodied hand. “How about patient number two? No love for Brewster?”

“None at all,” Rebecca quipped. “Besides, I’m running triage. Ron got the worst of it, so you’ll just have to wait.”

“I’ve been waiting,” Brewster whined. “Is it my turn yet?”

“All right, all right,” Rebecca sighed, shouldering her bag of medical supplies and moving to where Brewster sat on the hood of the sedan. “Let’s see what you’ve got.”

Brewster held out his hand toward her, and Rebecca carefully turned it in hers, inspecting the wounds.

“Looks like three bits of shrapnel,” she said. “Move your fingers for me.”

Brewster flexed all five of his fingers, grimacing at the pain it caused him.

“Well, that’s good,” Rebecca said. “Didn’t sever any tendons, and from the amount of blood you’ve got here it doesn’t look like you’re in any real danger. Give me a moment.”

Rebecca dug around in her bag and came up with a pair of long, thin tweezers. Brewster eyed them with trepidation.

“What’re those for?” he asked.

“Well,” Rebecca said, “I can’t bandage this hand while you’ve still got pieces of bullet in there, can I?”

“Can’t you give me some of that anesthetic you gave Ron first?”

“Oh, don’t be such a baby,” Rebecca replied, frowning at him. She grasped Brewster’s hand firmly, took the tweezers in her other hand, and jabbed them into one of his wounds. Brewster hissed through his teeth at the pain and grimaced. After a moment, Rebecca yanked the tweezers free, displaying a chunk of bent metal that had embedded itself in Brewster’s hand. “There’s one of the culprits.”

“Let’s just hurry up and get the rest of them out so this can be over with,” Brewster groaned.

A crash sounded from the direction of the bridge, causing the group to look over their shoulders. Mitsui and Denton had succeeded in pushing one of the disabled trucks off the road. It careened down the ledge and crashed into the gulley below, rolling over onto its top. Jack was right behind them, struggling to push the second vehicle over in the same spot. Mitsui and Denton joined in the effort, and the second truck came crashing down on top of the first. The roadway ahead was clear.

“All right, ladies and gentlemen, let’s get saddled up and move on,” Sherman said. “Don’t want to be here if those bandits decide that they’re going to try again.”

Thomas slid into the driver’s seat of the utility truck and turned the key. The engine whined, sputtered, coughed, and died. Frowning, the Sergeant Major tried again, with the same result. “Sir.”

“Yes?” Sherman asked, turning to face Thomas.

“Problem here. The truck’s dead.”

“Pop the hood. Let’s have a look,” Sherman said. “Anyone here know much about engines?”

“I’ve got you covered, Sherm,” Jack said, still brushing dust from his hands after pushing the dead vehicles over the embankment. “Did a stint as a mechanic before I took up my welding.”

“Come and have a look at this, then,” Sherman asked, beckoning Jack over. Thomas popped the hood of the utility truck and Sherman raised the hood, latching it open.

Jack leaned on the front grille, peered in at the engine and frowned. “Oh, damn.”

“Damn?” Sherman asked.

“This thing’s been torn up something bad, General,” Jack said. “Looks like it took a lot of rounds in that firefight. Look, here—one of them sliced clean through the fanbelt. Hell of a shot. Here’s two more holes in the radiator. And it looks like one of the cylinders took a shot, too.”

“So what’s the verdict?” Sherman asked.

“Uh, off the top of my head, this thing isn’t going anywhere, at least not without some replacement parts. We’d need a new belt—which shouldn’t be hard to find. Might even be able to pull one off one of those dead trucks we pushed over the edge. The radiator and the cylinder will be harder.”

“Can you get it running again?” Sherman asked.

“With the parts I have here, and the tools we’ve got, barring any other problems that I just can’t see with my naked eye—”

“Can you get it running again?” Sherman repeated.

“Uh, no,” Jack admitted. “She’s a goner.”

“Damn it all,” Sherman said. “What about the other vehicles?”

Katie had already taken some initiative and jumped into the sedan. She gave the ignition a try. The engine caught almost immediately and purred contentedly. “This one works, Frank!”

The pickup was in worse shape. When Mbutu tried the engine, it started, but both of the rear tires had been popped during the firefight and the underside of the vehicle was pockmarked with bullets that had ricocheted off the road.

“So we’re down to two vehicles,” Sherman said. “We’ve got that truck the raiders left and the sedan. That’s no good; we can’t all fit in both of those unless we pack ourselves in like sardines—and if we did that I’m not sure where we’d put our gear. No, we’ll have to get one of these trucks repaired.”

Mitsui, who couldn’t understand much of what was being said but had a pretty solid grasp of the situation by looking over folks’ shoulders, suddenly became a whirlwind of action, slapping Jack on the back and gesturing wildly at the raider’s black pickup Denton had pulled onto the bridge, then pointing back at the utility truck.

“What?” Jack asked, throwing up his arms. “Slow down, man, slow down. What?”

Mitsui spoke in rapid-fire Japanese, pointing at the black truck once more and then pantomiming pulling the utility truck with an invisible rope.

“You want to . . . pull the truck?” Jack guessed. Mitsui shook his head rapidly and jogged over to the working, undamaged pickup. He leaned down and tapped his hand against the towing stud attached to the truck’s rear bumper, then ran back to the utility truck and slapped his hand against the two towhooks there. He straightened himself out, folded his arms across his chest, and looked victorious.

“Oh, I get it! I get it!” Jack said. “He’s saying we should tow the utility truck with the raider’s truck until we figure a way to repair it.”

Mitsui nodded, despite not having understood a word Jack had said. “Tow,” he said, still nodding.

“Good idea,” Sherman said. “That way we should be good, space-wise. As long as we don’t lose another vehicle we should be fine.”

“All right, people, we’ve got a plan. Let’s get to work,” Thomas growled.

1534 hrs_

There had been a moment of uncertainty as the group attempted to hitch the utility truck to the working pickup when they realized they didn’t have any chains. Denton had solved the problem by rooting around in the beds of the disabled raider vehicles and came up with a heavy chain that served the purpose beautifully.

The convoy had crossed the bridge and put several miles between them and the raiders when they came upon another obstacle in the middle of the road. This one, however, had less of a look of a roadblock and more of a checkpoint air about it. A pair of hastily constructed guard towers flanked the road and a heavy wooden bar blocked the road.

Beyond the checkpoint lay a small town, completely cordoned off by chain-link fences topped with barbed wire. It was a survivor’s encampment.

Thomas voiced concern that they might have come upon the bandit’s home base, in which case Sherman expected them to be fired upon at any moment, but no rifle reports sounded and the only activity was a flurry of movement between the guard towers as the small convoy, truck in tow, rolled up to the gate and stopped short of it by a good two hundred feet.

A sign next to the side of the road proclaimed that this was the town of Abraham, Kansas, population 900. Someone had come out with red spray paint and put a large X through the “900” and replaced it with “830.” A further addendum reduced the population to “621.” Below that was yet another addition, this one claiming the population of the town to be at “363.” The town might have survived, but not without paying a price, it seemed.

Sherman dismounted from the black pickup and walked around to the front of the vehicle, hands on his hips.

“Stand where you are!” came a commanding shout from one of the guard towers. Sherman froze in place. He knew better than to set an armed guard on edge by disobeying commands. “Hands in the air!”

Sherman slowly raised his hands above his head.

“Turn in a circle!” commanded the voice. It belonged to a man bent over the edge of the tower, eye to the scope of a rifle he had trained on Sherman’s chest. “Slowly!”

Sherman obeyed, turning around so the man could see what he was carrying and whether or not he was a threat.

“Disarm!” came a third command.

Sherman reached a hand down slowly to his hip holster, unbuttoned it and pulled free his pistol. Just as slowly, he leaned forward and deposited the weapon on the ground.

“All right,” shouted the guard. “Move on up closer.”

Thomas started to get out of the truck to follow Sherman, but the general waved a hand at the sergeant major, telling him to remain where he was. Thomas sank back into his seat with a clearly displeased expression on his face. Sherman approached the guard towers alone. As he got closer, he let his eyes take in the sights.

The towers were made from the trailers of 18-wheelers, turned upright and supported with steel rebar. Platforms and a makeshift roof had been welded onto each one, providing some protection from the elements for whomever was on duty within. Beyond the barred checkpoint Sherman found he had a better view of the town. A main street ran straight through the little burg, lined with shops and apartments. Farther out were several blocks of small, single-family homes, interspersed with trees and power lines. Sherman spotted an armed man with a leashed dog walking the perimeter of the chain-link fence.

“All right, stranger,” came the voice from the guard tower. “Why don’t you explain who you are and why you’ve come here?”

“Francis Sherman,” Sherman said, looking up at the man. “Formerly of the U.S. Army. As for why we’ve come here—well, we didn’t mean to. Just looking to pass through. We’re on our way to Omaha. May I ask who I’m speaking to?”

“Sherman,” said the guard thoughtfully, rubbing his stubbled chin. “I knew a Sherman before this shit jumped continents. He was in charge of some operation around Suez.”

“That was me,” Sherman said. “Lieutenant General Francis Sherman, at your service.”

The guard chuckled. “Pleased to meet you. And I’m Emperor Hirohito.”

Sherman shook his head and grinned. “If you say so, Emperor. Look, we’re not here to cause any trouble. We just want to head through.”

“I’d love to let you, Francis, but we’ve been having some problems of our own recently. I think you’re familiar with them.”

“Bandits,” Sherman said.

“Exactly. Mind telling me where you got a hold of one of their trucks?” the guard asked, pointing at the black pickup that now led the makeshift convoy. “Because my gut’s telling me I’m looking at a Trojan horse. What if I let you in and you start tearing up our town?”

“No tricks,” Sherman assured him. “We had a run-in with your raiders a few miles back at a bridge crossing. We took a couple of them out. The rest ran. They dinged up our vehicles and wounded a couple of our people. The truck’s what you might call a spoil of war.”

The guard looked back and forth between Sherman and the convoy, where the other survivors were milling about, watching the exchange intently. He seemed undecided for a moment, then snapped up his rifle and shouldered it.

“Name’s Keaton Wallace. Acting Sheriff of Abraham. You and your people can enter—but you’ll have to surrender your weapons at the station before you’ll be allowed access to the rest of the town.”

“Sounds fine, Keaton,” Sherman said. “You wouldn’t happen to have any mechanics in town, would you?”

“Might,” Keaton said. “Whether or not he’ll be willing to work for you is another thing. He lost his wife to Morningstar. Lost his daughter to the raiders. He’s a little on edge, if you follow.”

“I follow,” Sherman said, nodding slowly. “We’ll have a talk with him.”

“Good luck,” Keaton said, scoffing. “In the meantime, welcome to Abraham.”

Keaton signaled a fellow guard to raise the bar that crossed the road. Sherman stepped back and waved the convoy onward. The vehicles rolled slowly past the towers and into the security of the chain-link fence that surrounded the small town. Guards directed them to park alongside a squat concrete structure just within the town limits that was marked clearly as the Sheriff’s office and dispatch center. Grass had already begun to grow up in the springtime air, and had gone uncut. No doubt the townsfolk thought gasoline was better spent on vehicles and generators than lawnmowers.

The survivors dismounted as Sherman caught up with them. Denton jumped out of the rear of the pickup and pulled a pair of sunglasses from his wide eyes, taking a moment to survey the town they found themselves in.

“This is incredible,” Denton said, shaking his head. “I can’t believe this is an actual town—a living town. How did Morningstar miss this place?”

“It didn’t,” came the answer. Sheriff Keaton was following closely behind Sherman and had heard the photographer’s comment. “We got hit, just like everyone else.”

“How did you survive?” Rebecca asked, shutting the door to the sedan behind her.

“We contained the infection,” Keaton said, a hard look crossing his face. The survivors grimaced. “Contained” could only mean they had executed anyone who had become infected and, most likely, burned the bodies.

“I like your defenses,” Sherman commented, pointing over his shoulder at the towers and fencing.

“Thank you,” Keaton grinned, loosening up somewhat. “Took half the town the better part of a month to put up, but they’ve been worth it. Guard towers at each road in or out of town, fencing running along the entire town’s perimeter. We have guards on rotating shifts. All volunteers.”

“What do you do for food?” Brewster asked, helping Ron down from the back of the utility truck. “Not a lot of fields in town, looks like.”

“No, but there are acres and acres of arable land just outside of town. That’s one of our problems, actually. Story for another time,” Keaton said. “In the meantime, let’s get you settled in. We don’t get a lot of visitors around here, and, frankly, we’re suspicious of any we do get. It’s nothing personal,” he rushed to assure the group, “but we’ll have to have your weapons. Follow me, please.”

Keaton led the group into the sheriff’s office. It was a modest affair. The front desk butted up nearly against the main entrance and Keaton led them through a locked door and down a narrow hallway to a door marked “Weapons Locker.”

“I promise you,” Keaton said as he unlocked the door and swung it open, “No harm will come to your gear while it’s in here. My deputies and I have the only keys, and most of the population here is privately armed. There’s no reason anyone would want to mess with your weapons.”

“I don’t know, man, it’s been months since I haven’t had a weapon on me,” Krueger said, shifting from foot to foot.

“Krueger,” Sherman said, eyeing the soldier. “Do as the sheriff says. We’re guests in his town right now.”

Krueger made a sour face, but nodded and acquiesced, handing over his rifle to Keaton. The process continued as pistols found their way into lockers, rifles were placed onto racks, and ammunition was locked away and stored. The survivors disarmed themselves completely. The last of the group to surrender his weapons was Jack. He handed over the semi-automatic carbine and his ammo pouches to Keaton, then turned and joined the rest of the group in the hall outside.

“Well,” Keaton said as he re-entered the hallway and locked the door to the weapons room behind him. “Now that that’s taken care of, you’re all free to move about the town. Just remember, you’re not here to stay. If you can get your vehicles fixed and move on, great. If not, well, I hear walking’s good for the heart.”

“What’s there to do in a burg like this?” Brewster asked, grinning.

“We’re not New York,” Keaton started.

“. . . which is good, because New York’s probably a dead zone,” Rebecca interjected.

“We’re not New York,” Keaton continued, glancing at the medic, “but we’ve got our share of entertainment. Eileen’s down the street is where most of us go. Her husband ran a microbrewery just a few blocks away. Still does, when we can get him what he needs. There’s no power, so the beer’s warm, but it still packs a punch. Hope you like lager.”

Krueger and Brewster glanced at one another and grinned. It had been quite a while since either had gotten their hands on something alcoholic.

“That’s where we’ll be,” Brewster said, jerking a thumb over his shoulder. “If you need us, just call. I’ve got my radio on.”

“Whoa, whoa, wait for me,” Denton said, jogging after the pair. “It might not be Canadian beer, but I’ll take what I can get.”

“Canadian beer sucks ass,” Brewster taunted, voice fading in the distance. Just before their voices were lost Sherman could hear Denton tossing a snappy comeback Brewster’s way.

“And that leaves the rest of us,” Sherman said, surveying the remainder of his group. “Sheriff, if you don’t have anything pressing to take care of, I’d love to take a tour of your little town here. I’m amazed at how well you’ve done so far.”

“Be happy to oblige you, Sherman,” Keaton said. “We don’t much use cars anymore—guzzle what’s left of our gas—but we have a couple golf and lawn carts that serve the purpose just as well. Meet me around front. I’ll pull one around.”

“I’ll go with you, sir,” Thomas said.

Keaton stopped mid-stride and turned to face Thomas. “Ah. Don’t believe we’ve properly met, yet. Keaton Wallace, Sheriff.”

Keaton extended a hand in Thomas’ direction. The old sergeant pretended he didn’t see it. Sherman coughed and performed the introductions himself.

“Keaton, this is Command Sergeant Major Thomas, US Army. He’s been with me for years. Pardon his demeanor,” Sherman said, casting a sidelong glance at Thomas. “His bark’s worse than his bite.”

“My bite’s pretty bad, too,” Thomas growled.

“Ah, yes, well,” Keaton stammered, dropping his hand. “Pleased to meet you, anyway. If you two would like to meet me out front . . . ?”

“We’ll be there. Where are the rest of you going?” Sherman asked the remainder of the group.

“I’m going to find a bench somewhere and sit down,” Ron said through gritted teeth. He was using a warped branch as a crutch to support his wounded leg, and it was extremely uncomfortable.

“I’m with Ron,” Katie said, shrugging and smiling.

“What about the rest of you?” Sherman asked, gesturing at Jack, Mitsui, Rebecca, and Mbutu.

“Well, I can’t speak for all of them, but I’m going to go exploring,” Jack said. “Been a while since I’ve had a chance to meet anyone new.”

“I’m up for that,” Rebecca said. “Let’s go.”

1623 hrs_

The golf cart tour had turned out to be a grand idea. The little vehicle’s top speed was a modest ten miles per hour, and Sherman lounged in the passenger seat, listening to Keaton ramble on about the history of the town and its current state.

“We were founded in 1905, so that puts us just over a hundred years old,” Keaton said. “Pretty young in the scheme of things, but we’ve built a lot of history in the time we’ve had. That over there is the city hall and courthouse,” he said, pointing.

The large, two-story brick and stone structure dominated the other, single-story buildings of downtown Abraham and featured a clocktower and steeple. Wide stone steps led down to a grassy park area, which had been plowed through in places to allow vegetables to be grown. A few townsfolk, wearing dirtied clothing, worked the half-acre, sowing seed for the upcoming growing season.

“We’re using whatever land we can find that’s safe to grow food,” Keaton explained, nodding in the direction of the townsfolk. “In the early days, right after Morningstar hit the area, we got together and raided a distribution center about ten miles north of here. We got away with a few truckloads, enough to feed the people for several months, but when we went back to get more we found it had been occupied.”

“Let me guess,” Sherman said. “The raiders?”

Keaton nodded slowly. “Not sure where they came from, originally. Must have been on the road a while and when they found the distribution center they decided to set up camp. Good spot, actually. Just as secure as our little burg. Fences all around, guard shack at the entrance—they boarded it up tight, made it their personal fortress. Enough supplies in there to last a year. Just the same, they’re not satisfied. We’ve run them off three times now, but they’re still harrassing our outlying farms.”

“Was that the trouble you were referring to earlier?” Sherman asked.

“Yes,” Keaton replied. “It’s dangerous to leave the perimeter we have set up here. And it’s not just the raiders we have to worry about, either. Some of the other nearby towns weren’t as lucky as us. There’s quite a few infected wandering around these parts. Occasionally a few will wander up to our fence. That’s what the roving guards and dogs are for. If they spot one, they take it out and then we send out a detail to burn the body. If you were to walk the fence you’d see a lot of burned-out spots on the ground outside—one for each carrier.”

Sherman let his eyes wander as the golf cart continued down the main street. “I see a lot of your businesses are still open.”

“Well, we’re trying to keep some semblance of civilization going here,” Keaton said. “Money’s worthless, of course, so we’re back to the old barter system. It’s been working well so far.”

“Damn fine work you’ve done here, Sheriff,” Sherman said, nodding in approval. “Much better than a lot of other places have managed.”

“Speaking of which,” Keaton said, “We’re kind of starved for news here. Like I said earlier, we don’t get a lot of visitors through these parts anymore. Hell, we didn’t get many visitors before the pandemic. What’s life like out there?”

“Hanging on by its fingernails,” Sherman replied. “We’ve been circling around most of the towns we approach. Yours is the first we’ve come across that seems to have survived. The roads are dangerous and cities are deathtraps. Basically, outside your fences, it’s no-man’s-land.”

“Any word from the major cities?”

“They were the first ones to go,” Thomas grumbled from the back of the golf cart. “Last we heard on the radio, San Francisco was under siege and Los Angeles was a lost cause. Not sure about the East Coast, but I’m guessing it was about the same there.”

“What about Denver?” Keaton asked.

“Dead,” Sherman replied, shaking his head. “We gave that town as wide a berth as we could.

“Damn,” Keaton said, gritting his teeth. “I was hoping we weren’t the only ones left.”

“You’re probably not,” Sherman assured him. “If Abraham made it, other towns might have made it. It’s just a question of finding them, and hoping that they’re still as accommodating as you all have been.”

“Then there are the raiders,” Keaton said. “People like them make travel next to impossible.”

“There will always be those who prefer to take rather than produce,” Sherman said. “Always someone out there who thinks it’s better to steal than to craft or to rob rather than build.”

“How about that mechanic, sir?” Thomas asked from the back seat. “Might want to pay him a visit and see if he can fix the utility truck.”

“Good idea,” Keaton said, pre-empting Sherman’s response. “I’ll take you by his shop. Now, remember, this guy has lost his wife and his daughter. He’s not exactly on an even keel, if you get my meaning.”

“We’ll see what we can do with him,” Sherman said, and then sighed. “Makes me wish we’d brought Hal along.”

“What, that old screw-up?” Thomas answered, scowling. “Better off without him.”

“If he could fix a destroyer’s engines, I’m sure he could fix a truck engine,” Sherman said in the man’s defense. Hal was a retired Master Sergeant who knew Sherman and Thomas from the days of the Gulf War. He’d been a tank mechanic then and had since retired and moved to the islands of the South Pacific, bought a patch of land on a remote isle overlooking the ocean and dubbed it ‘Hal’s Paradise.’ The man was a true eccentric, always working on this invention or that, and had a lasseiz-faire attitude toward just about everything. Sherman found the man entertaining and trustworthy. Thomas saw him as undisciplined and annoying, although worthy of respect due to his service. Hal had been recruited to fix a fuel pump on the USS Ramage during the survivors’ trans-Pacific journey months before.

The golf cart pulled into a narrow alleyway flanked by two poured concrete buildings that had cracks running through them in places. Keaton dodged a half-full dumpster and pulled the cart to a halt in front of a pair of garage doors built into the side of one of the buildings. A faded sign above the doors read, “Arctura’s Bodyshop.” Directly below that, in red spraypaint, was scrawled, “Closed until further notice.”

“Closed, eh?” Sherman asked. “We come at a bad time?”

“No,” Keaton reassured him. “He’s in there. Just not a lot of business these days, plus the guy likes to keep to himself.”

Keaton approached one of the garage doors and banged on it with a closed fist.

“Jose! Jose! It’s Keaton! Open up!”

A long moment passed without any sign of acknowledgement from the other side. Keaton repeated the pounding and raised his voice another level.

“Come on, Jose! Open the doors! You’ve got customers out here!”

From inside, muffled by the closed doors, the small group heard a response.

“Don’t have no customers. Don’t have nothing. Go away and leave me alone.”

Keaton frowned and looked over at Sherman. “See what I mean?”

Sherman stepped forward and leaned in close to the door. “Jose, is it? I’m Frank Sherman. Look, we ran into some raiders before we got here and they busted up our vehicles something awful. We sure could use your help getting them back on the road.”

“Raiders are everywhere,” Jose said from the other side of the door. “Raiders, raiders, bandits, raiders. Killing, looting, stealing, killing some more. Not my problem.”

“Well, we killed a couple of them, but they’ve pretty much stranded us unless we can get our utility truck running again. What do you say? Will you help us out? We’re desperate, here.”

There was a moment of silence on the other side of the garage doors, then came a quiet, curious question.

“Killed some, you did?”

“That’s right. Three or four. The rest ran. Anyway, look, we’ve got a busted radiator and a torn fan bel—”

Sherman’s sentence was cut off as the garage door suddenly rolled up with a clatter, revealing an oil-stained, ill-kempt mechanic wearing a pair of filthy overalls and sporting weeks’ worth of beard growth. He didn’t look as though he’d seen the sun in days.

“Killing raiders is a good thing,” Jose said, approaching Sherman slowly. The General didn’t back away, despite the man’s overripe smell. “Raiders took my girl.”

“That’s what the sheriff told me,” Sherman said, jerking his thumb in the direction of Keaton.

“Sheriff,” Jose said, nodding at Keaton. Keaton nodded back.

“I’m sorry they killed your girl, Jose, but we really need to get back on the road, and you’re the only man around who might be able to do that for us—” Sherman started.

Jose cut him off.

“Who said anything about them killing her?” Jose snapped, eyes suddenly full of fire. Then his shoulders sagged and a look of profound sadness crossed his face. “I said they took her. Took her to that place of theirs, and they’re doing god knows what to my little girl. She’s only seventeen, dios mio, how can this happen? I’m a good man, never did hurt anyone, and she—she is an angel, would never harm a fly. Why did this happen to us? Why?”

“I can’t answer that,” Sherman said quickly, putting a hand on Jose’s shoulder. “And I’m sorry for what’s happened to you.”

“Sir,” Thomas said softly, “the trucks?”

Jose looked over at Thomas with sudden interest, eyes taking in the man’s posture and the respectful way in which he addressed Sherman, but said nothing.

“Jose, we’d really like to hire you to fix our vehicles,” Sherman pressed on. “We have a good bit of supplies we can offer in trade—ammunition, clothing, food, weapons, whatever you—”

“Kill the raiders,” Jose said softly, still looking at Thomas. His eyes flicked back over to Sherman. “Kill the raiders. That’s my price. Kill the raiders.”

Sherman seemed taken aback for a moment. He glanced at Thomas, who seemed just as surprised at the request.

“What makes you think we—”

“I’m not a fool,” Jose said, eyeing Thomas once more. “You’re soldiers, aren’t you? I can tell.”

Thomas nodded curtly.

“Not all of us,” Sherman said. “Just a few of us, and certainly not enough of us to mount an attack on a raider fortress. We’d be cut down.”

“Then get me my daughter back,” Jose said. “If you can do either of those things, I’ll fix your trucks. No, wait—I’ll do one better. I’ll make your vehicles better. Better tires, better parts—you’ll get everything.”

“Jose, I can’t—” Sherman started to say, but Thomas cut him off.

“We’ll see what we can do, Jose,” Thomas said, nudging Sherman’s boot with his own.

Jose nodded slowly, looking down at the ground. “You come back when it’s finished. Don’t come back if it’s not.”

With that, the mechanic backed into his garage, reached up, and slammed the door down. They could hear the sound of a lock being turned inside. Just like that, they were dismissed.

“Charming fellow,” Sherman said.

“Can’t blame him,” Keaton replied. “He’s lost his entire family. That’s enough to drive anyone to the brink.”

“Thomas, what was the nudge for?” Sherman asked, turning to face his longtime companion.

“I think we can meet his price, sir,” Thomas said.

“Explain.”

Thomas turned to the sheriff first. “Keaton, how many times have you attacked the raider compound?”

“Attacked them?” Keaton asked, then laughed out loud. “Never. I’d lose too many of my people. There are about thirty of them in there, all armed.”

“And how many times that you know of have they been attacked in general?”

Keaton shrugged. “I’d say never. I mean, I’m sure they get shamblers and sprinters along their perimeter from time to time, just like we do, but they probably just put ‘em down and move on.”

Thomas turned back to Sherman. “I’m thinking that they won’t be expecting us, sir. No one’s been stupid enough to attack them before. They’re probably feeling very safe and secure in their little makeshift fortress.”

“So you’re in favor of taking on thirty armed bandits with less than a dozen armed volunteers, one-third of which have had any kind of military training? It’d be suicide, Sergeant. Not going to happen,” Sherman said, folding his arms across his chest and shaking his head.

“No, sir,” Thomas said. “I’m in favor of going at night, maybe three of us total, getting in there and bringing this man back his daughter, if she’s still alive. I want to get these trucks fixed and get back on the way to Omaha, sir. I don’t fancy spending the rest of my days in Abraham, Kansas. No offense, Sheriff.”

“None taken,” Keaton shrugged. “We’re not everyone’s cup of tea.”

“Thomas, do you really think we could pull off that kind of an assault? I mean, assuming we did, for a moment. What do you think the bandits are going to do once they realize we’ve paid them a visit? They’ll come gunning straight for Abraham,” Sherman said. “They’ll be out for blood.”

“Now, that is a worry, isn’t it?” Keaton said with a laugh. “As long as they see you they’ll recognize you’re not from this burg. There’s probably a couple of dinged up survivors from your little road encounter embellishing the gunfight right now. I’m not too worried about an attack here yet. But don’t ask for our help on your little endeavor,” Keaton continued. “I can’t in good conscience send out our townsfolk to help you. You’re still strangers to us. Sorry.”

“Nothing to be sorry for,” Sherman replied. “I understand your position.”

1702 hrs_

“What this place needs is music,” Brewster slurred, slumped halfway over the bar in Eileen’s Pub. The electricity had been out for months, but large candles suspended in makeshift chandeliers gave the bar a dim, flickering light that added to the atmosphere. Denton and Krueger sat on either side of Brewster on their stools, nursing dark, malty brews.

A few locals populated the pub, sitting in darkened booths or at tables around the bar and discussing the day’s events in low, murmured tones. The bartender, presumably Eileen herself, was a stout, middle-aged woman whose service was quick but lacked a smile. The locals didn’t seem to mind as long as the alcohol kept flowing.

“I don’t care if it’s bitter, it’s beer,” Krueger said, taking another quick gulp from his mug and grimacing at the taste. “It’s been too long since I’ve had one of these.”

“Almost like old times,” Denton agreed. “We might as well be out on Saturday night. I’m telling you, guys, sometimes, despite all the shit outside, life’s good.”

“Music,” Brewster repeated, annoyed that his comment had been ignored. “This place needs music.”

“And right you are, compadre,” Krueger said, slapping Brewster on the back and causing him to slosh his lager on the bar. “Unfortunately, the jukebox went out with the power, so we’ll just have to do without.”

“You know what I miss?” Brewster asked, taking a sip of his lager. “I miss cold beer.”

“Don’t we all,” Denton said. “But, like the jukebox, the refrigeration is out. We’ve been over this.”

Brewster was too far gone to notice. His shoulders jerked in an exaggerated shrug.

“I never used to like beer,” he rambled on. “I used to like liquor. Whiskey. Figured you could drink less of it and get just as drunk. Nasty-tasting stuff, alcohol.”

“Unless you mix it right,” Krueger said around the rim of his glass mug.

“Then I started drinking beer, and I figure, hey, this stuff is like water compared to whiskey,” Brewster said, waving his mug in front of Denton’s face. “You have to drink more, but it’s not so bad.”

“That’s right, Brewster, it’s not so bad,” Denton said, humoring the private.

Brewster had gone to work the moment the three had entered the bar, drinking twice as much as Denton and Krueger in the same amount of time. He wasn’t quite plastered, but he’d passed the line from tipsy to drunk a while back.

“You know who liked beer? Wilson liked beer,” Brewster said, suddenly sober. He stared at his mug. Denton and Krueger also felt the mood go from jovial to mellow. “He’d have liked this place.”

For a moment, the trio was silent, reflecting on the loss of their friend. Suddenly, Krueger broke the reverie.

“A toast!” Krueger said, raising his mug. “This one’s for Wilson!”

“For Wilson!” Brewster shouted, raising his mug and clinking it against Krueger’s. Denton followed suit and the trio tipped back their glasses, draining what remained of the warm, dark beer within.

“Hey, hey, hey, Eileen,” Brewster slurred, holding up his empty mug. The bartender looked over at him lazily, hand on her hip. “Refill, please.”

“We don’t run tabs here, guy,” Eileen said, tilting her head at Brewster. “What’ve you got?”

“What’ve I got?” Brewster asked, laughing. Suddenly a puzzled look crossed his face and he looked side to side at his companions, serious in tone. “What’ve I got?”

“Check your pockets,” Denton said. “No, wait, actually, I’ve got the next round. Swiss Army knife.”

Denton pulled the blade from his pocket and dropped it on the bar. Eileen inspected it, decided it was good enough for another round of brews, scooped it up and went to fetch the beer.

“Maybe we’ll get lucky,” Brewster said. “Maybe we’ll get stuck here for a couple of weeks and—”

The door to the bar swung open and in strode General Sherman, a very official expression on his face. Brewster, Denton, and Krueger looked over at him. The two soldiers groaned at the sight, well-used to the look of an officer who needed ‘volunteers’ for something.

“There you are!” Sherman said, striding over to the bar. “We’ve got a small problem. Krueger, Brewster, I need both of you.”

“I knew it,” Brewster lamented. “I knew this was too good to last.”

Krueger sighed but nodded. “All right, sir. What can we do?”

“Well, to start with you can come with me. Let’s take a little walk.”

Krueger hopped off of his stool and lent a hand to Brewster, who was moving rather unsteadily on his feet. Sherman led the pair of soldiers out of the pub and into the darkening streets. A moment later, Eileen returned with three full beer mugs to find that two of her customers had flown the coop and only Denton remained. She looked at him and raised an eyebrow.

Denton caught the look.

“Leave ’em,” he said, gesturing at all three glasses. “No point in letting good beer go to waste, eh? God, my head is going to hate me in the morning.”

1735 hrs_

Brewster had a canteen upended in front of his face, rivulets of water running down his chin as he tried his best to chug the contents as fast as possible.

“Come on, come on, get hydrated, already,” Thomas growled, standing in front of Brewster at parade rest, staring down the private. “Drunk on duty. Typical.”

“Duty?” Brewster coughed up a bit of the water as he finished off the canteen. “I haven’t been on duty since Suez, sarge. Come on. Forgive me if I wanted to loosen up a little bit.”

“Well, you loosened up, all right—now it’s time to tighten back up. We’re going to need you at one hundred percent for tonight,” Thomas said.

“About that, Sergeant,” Krueger spoke up, sitting next to Brewster on the back of the black pickup they’d taken from the raiders. “What’s the score?”

“Once the general gets back from the sheriff’s office he’ll explain,” Thomas said, looking off in the direction Sherman had taken.

“Have anything to do with us getting the truck fixed?” Krueger asked.

“Might,” Thomas answered tersely, then glanced back at Brewster. “Come on, Brewster, drink up.”

“Aw, Thomas, I just finished an entire canteen. If I drink another I’ll puke,” Brewster protested.

“Yup,” Thomas nodded. “Now get to it.”

Brewster grumbled, unscrewed the top to another canteen and took a tentative sip. He grimaced. “There has got to be a better way to sober up than this. Maybe some coffee, or a Bloody Mary.”

“Nothing beats hydration,” Thomas said. “Good old water. Mmm-mm.”

“You know,” Krueger said, nudging Brewster with his elbow, “he’s right. You get hangovers because alcohol actually dehydrates your body, right? So water’s the best cure, really.”

“That’s right, private,” Thomas said, nodding at Krueger. “Ah, here comes the general.”

Sherman and Sheriff Wallace came walking toward the truck, each bearing a black tote bag over their shoulders.

“How’d it go, sir?” Thomas asked.

“Well,” Sherman replied, nodding in Keaton’s direction. “The sheriff was kind enough to return some of our hardware to get the job done, and even threw in a few extras just in case we need them.”

“What kind of extras?”

The sheriff set his tote bag on the tailgate of the truck and unzipped it, revealing a small cache of weapons. “Mostly small arms. I noticed you all were using different calibers and makes, and I figured a little standardization wouldn’t hurt, so I pulled a few pistols from our armory. They’re nine-millimeters. We’re too small of a town to have a S.W.A.T. team so I’m afraid I couldn’t get you anything with more punch, but we’ve got a couple of surprises up our sleeves.”

“Wait, wait, wait,” Brewster interrupted, still sipping on his canteen and rubbing his temples. “I still don’t even know what we got yanked out of the pub for. Anyone mind filling me in?”

“Sherman?” Keaton asked, yielding the floor to the General.

“Well, boys, as you know, the little firefight we had earlier today damaged our utility truck. We could tow it the rest of the way to Omaha if we had to, but that would put us in a bit of a pickle, having only two reliable vehicles instead of three—not to mention the extra strain it would put on the working truck, having to tow all that weight behind it.”

“Following so far, sir,” Krueger said.

“Well, we got lucky when we came across this town, and the people have been more than helpful—all except for one. That one happens to be the only qualified mechanic,” Sherman went on.

“Sounds like our luck,” Brewster commented.

“He wants us to do him a favor before he’ll do one for us,” Sherman said. “And that’s where these weapons come in.”

“What’re we, mercenaries now?” Krueger asked. “Who does he want us to kill?”

“Remember those raiders we ran into?”

Brewster held up his bandaged hand and pointed to the cut on his face by way of reply. “Sure do, General.”

“That’s who he wants us to kill.”

“Whoa, hey, now,” Krueger said. “Correct me if I’m wrong, but I’m counting five of us here. More raiders than that bugged out of our little encounter earlier today, and I’m betting there’s three times as many wherever they’re holed up. Are we going to go basically commit suicide just to get a truck fixed? I vote we just tow the sucker.”

A loud report echoed across the street and the four gathered soldiers instinctively ducked their heads down just a little. Only Keaton remained at ease.

“Relax,” he told them. “That’s just one of our border patrols taking out a carrier that wandered a bit too close. Happens a few times a day.”

“And that’s another thing,” Brewster chimed in, “What about the infected?”

“That could be a problem,” Sherman admitted. “We’ll be doing this at night, when they’re more active, so we’ll have to keep our eyes open. Now, how about the rest of those surprises you were mentioning, Sheriff?”

“Right,” Keaton said, digging through his tote. “The raiders are holed up in a distribution center. It has a fence and guard posts running around it, just like we have here in Abraham. It’s about ten miles away, but getting in could be a problem. I thought maybe these would be handy.”

Keaton produced a pair of wire cutters from the bag.

“You can cut your way through the fence with these. Since you’ll be facing superior numbers, I thought you might also find these to be useful. We got hold of a few after 9/11. You have pork-barrel funding to thank for ‘em.”

Keaton dug out a few gas masks, followed by a pair of cylindrical canisters marked with blue paint. Krueger’s eyes widened a bit.

“Tear gas,” he said, picking up one of the canisters and studying it. “Could come in handy.”

“That’s what I was thinking,” Keaton said. “If you’re discovered, put on the masks and toss the grenades. It might give you enough cover to get back out without being shot.”

“Which is always a good thing,” Brewster quipped. “Sarge, can I stop drinking this water now?”

“Just as soon as you stop the goddamn slurring,” Thomas growled.

“One other thing,” Sherman said, and the other three soldiers turned to face him. “The mechanic said his daughter was taken by the raiders earlier on in the pandemic. We’re not sure if she’s alive or not, or what condition we might find her in, but if we do, our objective is to rescue her.”

“I’m confused,” Krueger said. “Are we killing raiders or rescuing damsels in distress?”

“Either-or,” Sherman said. “If we can’t find her, we drop however many raiders we can and get out. If we do find her, we shift from a hunt-and-kill to a rescue mission. Hoo-ah?”

“Hoo-ah,” Krueger echoed.

Brewster raised his canteen in a salute, then took another tentative gulp. Thomas simply nodded and fell back into parade rest.

“We leave in half an hour,” Sherman said. “Get geared up.”

1801 hrs_

Rebecca had broken off from the rest of the group to wander the town on her own. It was a marvel to her that the place had escaped the total destruction they’d seen in countless other towns and cities on their way toward Omaha. They had passed within a hundred miles of Denver, but it had been close enough to see the smoke hanging in a pall over the mountaintops, and they guessed the city had been leveled.

“Probably firebombs,” Sherman had figured. “Burn out the infection. Burn the city to the ground in the process, too, but if that’s the price that has to be paid to get rid of the infected, I suppose it’s worth it.”

Now, here in Abraham, Kansas, Rebecca felt as far removed from the destruction as she ever had. The place was still full of life. She wandered into a small, half-acre park near the town’s center and sank onto a bench, crossing her legs and leaning back with a sigh. Across the street, townsfolk were still busy hoeing troughs in the dirt for a crop of vegetables. They were all dressed in simple clothes, wearing simple shoes and speaking of simple things. It was quite a change from the way they would have been behaving months earlier, before the pandemic.

Rebecca closed her eyes and imagined the town before the plague. In her mind’s eye, the freshly plowed field filled in and grew over with grass and wildflowers. Streetlights lit up the evening. Cars tooled up and down the main street, honking at acquaintences on the sidewalk. Mothers and children filtered in an out of the storefronts, bringing with them bags for their purchases and all looking forward to a nice, home-cooked dinner.

She snapped her eyes open and looked out at reality. The streetlights were dark, the field was once more dug up and prepared for planting, and no cars rolled down the streets, no horns broke the quiet and stillness. The only sounds were those of distant conversation among the gardeners, cursing about weeds and stones.

Behind her, a pair of children played on a set of see-saws, looking vaguely bored. She could empathize. These were the children of the videogame generation, the television toddlers. Deprived of their usual entertainment, they were still adapting to their new way of life.

“Hello,” came a familiar voice from over Rebecca’s shoulder. She turned to see Mbutu grinning down at her, hands in his pockets.

She smiled back, but didn’t say anything.

“May I join you?” he asked, gesturing at the bench. Rebecca nodded, and the tall man slid into the seat next to her, surveying the landscape in front of him. “It is truly remarkable what people can accomplish when they work together.”

“I was just thinking that,” Rebecca said, smiling grimly. “I just wish more towns had survived.”

“I wanted to talk to you,” Mbutu began, “about the past few weeks.”

“What about them?”

“You have seemed more and more . . . what is the word? Reserved,” Mbutu said, nodding to himself. “We are becoming worried about you. We think you need to cheer up.”

“I’m as cheery as I can be, given the circumstances,” she snapped, then caught herself and shook her head. “Sorry. I know what you mean. I’m just having a tough time adapting, I suppose.”

“How are you sleeping?” Mbutu asked, an innocent expression on his face.

“Sleeping?” Rebecca repeated. “Fine.”

“Please,” Mbutu said. “You can confide in me. You’ve been having dreams. We all have. It is a natural response to what we have seen recently.”

“How did you know?” Rebecca asked, eyeing the man with a furrowed brow.

“You talk in your sleep,” Mbutu replied with a grin.

Rebecca flushed. She hadn’t been aware of that. “I do? So everyone knows? What have I been doing, waking everyone up every night? Why didn’t someone say something to me—”

“Relax,” Mbutu said. “I think I may be the only one who paid any attention. Brewster snores. He is surely waking up more people than you every night we sleep in the same room.”

Rebecca chuckled despite herself. “Well, at least I’m not the only one who’s putting undue pressure on the group.”

“The only pressure you’re putting is on yourself,” Mbutu said with a slow nod. “My mother used to tell me that nightmares are our mind’s way of telling us what not to do in life, or how to avoid a bad situation. Other times, nightmares force us to relive moments we are not proud of, so that we may better confront and understand them.”

Rebecca thought back to the moment on the Ramage when she’d been forced to shoot Decker. It had been necessary, and he had been a carrier of Morningstar, but she’d been carrying the burden of guilt ever since. She had felt a bit like a murderer. Then again, none of her dreams since had featured the dead sergeant or that defining moment.

Mbutu took her silence as a sign she was considering his words and pressed on.

“Would you like to tell me about them?” he asked. “Your dreams, I mean. Sometimes, getting another opinion can be a key to sorting out what they mean.”

“If they mean anything,” Rebecca scoffed. “More likely, they’re just products of an overactive imagination.”

“Perhaps,” Mbutu said. “Perhaps not.”

A long moment of silence passed between the pair. Finally, Rebecca couldn’t stand it any longer. She sighed and turned to the man, her lips pressed tightly together and look of embarrasment on her face.

“All right,” she said. “This is how it goes:

“Usually the dream starts normally. I’m with the group and everything’s just fine. But then something goes wrong. Everyone dies, everyone except for me and one other person. Whoever it is that doesn’t die changes from dream to dream—last time it was Brewster but it’s also been Sherman and you and Thomas and just about everyone else.

“Anyway, in the dream I’m looking for a weapon, but I can’t find one. And then I find the other survivor, only they aren’t alive anymore, they’re a shambler and they’re coming for me. I can’t get away, no matter how hard I try, and I can never find anything to fight back with. The dream always ends with me being bitten, and then I wake up.”

Mbutu leaned back on the bench, sighed, and considered Rebecca’s words. Rebecca sat patiently next to him, waiting to hear his thoughts. When the moment dragged on into minutes, she began to get impatient, and finally spoke up.

“Well?” she asked. “What’s it mean, Mr. Mystic?”

“There are several possibilities,” Mbutu said, shrugging. “One way of looking at it is that you fear the loss of your friends. Another way of looking at it is that you fear the possibility of becoming infected with Morningstar. Both of those are dreams that every one of us has had since this began, I assure you.”

“And that’s it?”

“I have one other idea,” Mbutu admitted. “You said in your dream you couldn’t find any weapons, and you couldn’t escape. Your mind may be telling you that no matter how badly you want to destroy the infected in your dream, you can’t bear the thought of having to shoot a friend.”

But I’ve already shot one, Rebecca thought, flashing back to Decker once more.

“You’re right,” she admitted after a moment. “I don’t know if I could. I joined the Red Cross so I could help people. I never thought I’d have to kill them. It wasn’t in me. I don’t like it.”

“No one truly does,” Mbutu said, clasping her shoulder. “Some of us can accept it, others cannot, but none of us enjoy it. Your dreams are just preparing you for the possibility, so that if the time does come, you will be able to accept it.”

Rebecca smiled up at him, nodding her head slowly. “I suppose that makes sense. Thanks, Mbutu.”

“I am glad I could be of assistance,” he said, rising to his feet. “Now, the rest of the group has gone to the pub to join Denton. Would you like to come?”

Rebecca looked out across the street to where the gardeners were wrapping up their evening chores.

“No,” she said, shaking her head. “I think I’d like to just sit a while longer.”

“As you wish,” Mbutu said, turning and heading in the direction of the pub. He waved a hand over his shoulder. “You know where to find us.”

“Always,” Rebecca murmured, eyes still fixed on the townsfolk across the way.


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