Thunder and Ashes: Chapter 8

The Fast Lane

I-74 West

March 08, 2007

1452 hrs_

“SAWYER?” MATT ASKED, A quizzical expression crossing his face. “Who the hell is Sawyer?”

“I told you we should have told them,” Mason said, shooting a recriminating glance in Anna’s direction.

“I didn’t think they’d catch up to us this fast!” Anna protested. “We just left a day ago! How the hell could they have figured out where we’d be so quickly?”

“That’s not the point—” Mason started, then shook his head. It was no use arguing about it now.

The black Land Rover that was tailing them had picked up speed quickly once Mason had spotted it. Whoever was sitting in the passenger seat must have also had a pair of binoculars focused on the truck, and seen Mason scope them out. With their cover blown, the occupants of the SUV were going for broke. They had closed half the distance with the truck already, and were still gaining.

Mason slapped a hand on the window that led to the truck’s cab. A moment later, Juni pushed it open, eyebrows raised.

“Tell Trev we’ve got company—the bad kind. He might want to step on it,” Mason said, pulling his MP-5 from around his shoulders and checking the chamber. He’d reholstered his pistol. Something told him he might need both in the upcoming tiff.

“I heard you,” came Trev’s voice through the open window. “And I’ve been looking for an excuse to do just that for a while now. Hold on to your butts.”

The pickup accelerated sharply, throwing Mason and Julie off-balance. They stumbled, but recovered quickly. The distance between the truck and Land Rover grew for only a moment. The hostile driver picked up on the difference and slammed on his own accelerator. The more-powerful SUV once more began to close. It was around two hundred yards away, and gaining quickly.

“Step on it, Trev!” Mason yelled over his shoulder.

“I am stepping on it!” came back the irate reply. “This is about as fast as this bucket can go without adding some damn jet fuel to the tank!”

“Then we’re in for a clusterfuck,” Mason murmured, locking and loading the MP-5. “They won’t try anything too rash, though.”

“Doesn’t look that way to me,” said an anxious Matt, peering over the edge of the tailgate with his rifle next to him. “Looks like they’re planning on running us down!”

“Not as long as we have Doctor Demilio with us,” Mason said, allowing himself a quick grin. “They won’t try and wreck us. They’ll want her alive. They’ll try and stop us so they can take her.”

“Who the hell are these people?” Junko asked, sticking her head out the back window of the cab.

“I’ll explain later!” Mason shouted over his shoulder. “Get back in there and buckle up!”

The Land Rover was close enough now that Mason could see through the windshield to the occupants within. Neither of the men sitting in the front seat was Sawyer; that was enough for him to breathe a mental sigh of relief. Sawyer wouldn’t have stopped at anything, but maybe, if they put up enough of a fight, these cronies would.

Even as he spoke, red and blue flashing lights lit up in the grille of the Land Rover and the passenger side window rolled down.

“What are they, cops?” Matt asked, eyes widening at the sight of the lights.

“Not cops,” Mason said, shouldering his sub-machinegun. “NSA, probably, or FBI or CIA, depending on who’s left.”

“And what, do they think we’re going to pull over for them?” Matt pressed. Even as he spoke, the Land Rover activated a wailing siren, pulling in directly behind the beat-up pickup truck.

“Well, we are speeding,” Anna said wryly.

The passenger in the Land Rover leaned out the open window, buffeted by the wind. His eyes squinted against the gale as he grimaced and gestured at the occupants of the pickup, forcefully pointing to the side of the road.

“Hot damn,” Mason said, chuckling. “They really do want us to pull over. Well, it’s not going to be that easy, guys.”

Mason raised himself up to a kneeling position, tucked the MP-5 in close to his shoulder, and took aim at the road between the two vehicles. He squeezed the trigger over and over, sending rounds skipping off the pavement mere inches from the Land Rover’s front tires. The response from the men in the vehicle was immediate. The SUV lurched to the side and braked, throwing off Mason’s aim. The man in the passenger seat disappeared inside, reappearing a moment later with a sub-machinegun of his own.

“Down, down!” Mason shouted.

His voice was nearly drowned out by the rapid fire of the enemy agent’s weapon. Bullets skittered off the back of the pickup truck, and the occupants dove for cover. Only Mason remained upright, kneeling at the rear of the bed. He had been trying to disable their vehicle so they could put some distance between themselves and their pursuers, but if they wanted to play hard, Mason was willing to oblige them. He shifted his aim up from the road to the windshield, flicked the selector to three round burst, and pulled the trigger.

The weapon belched rapid fire and three craters appeared in the Land Rover’s windshield, spiderlike cracks running away from each in every direction. The Land Rover bucked and lurched once more, but righted itself after a moment. Mason didn’t give the men inside any more time to recover. He pulled the trigger again, and another spray of shattered glass and hot lead flew up from the Land Rover’s windshield. He was trying for the driver.

Return fire came at them then, this time full-auto. Mason heard one of the women cry out behind him, but didn’t allow it to distract him. He was in combat mode now. Nothing could shift his attention from his target. He squeezed the trigger twice more, and this time, the results were immediate. Two of the six rounds kicked up paint and steel from the Land Rover’s hood, and the remaining four stitched upward across the driver’s side of the windshield. Mason could see blood spattering the splintered glass from the inside. He’d scored a hit.

The Land Rover shuddered, lost speed, and careened off the side of the road, hitting the shoulder doing sixty miles per hour. It tipped up on its side with the passenger still firing his weapon full-auto at the truck, and, much to the surprise of Mason, continued to move on its two left wheels, balanced precariously on the edge of the road.

Then someone inside must have shifted—perhaps the wounded driver—because the vehicle suddenly lost its center of balance, tipping the remainder of the way over. It crashed into the median upside-down, glass shattering out of all the windows, and rolled several times before coming to a shaky stop on its side, smoke drifting up from the damaged engine block.

“That got him!” Mason said, pumping a fist in the air in triumph. “Wasn’t Sawyer, though—it was just a couple of his buddies. We’ll have to figure on them having radioed our position, so we’ll—”

His voice drifted off as he turned away from the Land Rover and saw the scene in the truckbed. Matt and Anna were on either side of Julie, expressions of panic and horror on their faces.

“Keep pressure here,” Anna said, grabbing Matt’s hand and pressing it down firmly on Julie’s shoulder. “We need to stop the bleeding!”

“What happened?” Mason asked, dropping the MP-5 and moving over next to the rest. When he saw Julie’s condition, he sucked in a sudden breath.

The journalist lay on her back in the truckbed, eyes wide with fear and pain. Sweat ran down her face as she gritted her teeth. Dark red blood soaked through her shirt in two places: one wound in the shoulder, the other high on her abdomen, just on her right side. Anna was working furiously, trying to call back the lessons she’d learned in practical medicine before she’d delved into her specialties.

“Jesus Christ,” she cursed, voice trembling. “I don’t know what to do!”

Mason eyed the wounds. The shoulder wasn’t bad. From the amount of blood pooling on the truckbed, he knew it had been a clean in-and-out shot—a survivable hit. The other, however, caused him to swallow hard.

Anna cut away the bottom half of Julie’s shirt, exposing the bullet wound in her abdomen. Dark blood ran out of the wound in a steady stream, flowing down Julie’s side and dripping onto the bed of the truck.

“Oh, Jesus,” Anna repeated, wiping a hand across her forehead. “I think she’s been hit in the liver. Don’t just stand there, help me!”

“What do you want me to do?” Mason asked.

“I don’t have any tools, I don’t have any supplies, I don’t know!” Anna yelled, clasping her hands behind her head. She clenched her eyes shut and ground her teeth together. “I just don’t know.”

“It’s—it’s—nothing to worry about,” Julie said, gasping for breath. She managed a half-smile. “I’ve—I’ve never been—shot before.”

Matt, still holding his hand down hard on Julie’s shoulder wound, tried to grin, but failed. “I’ve never been shot before, either.”

“Just keep her talking,” Mason whispered in Anna’s ear. “I’ve seen these kinds of wounds before. You’d need a hospital and a surgeon to treat them.”

Anna looked back at Mason with a horrified expression on her face. She dropped her voice to a whisper and leaned over to him.

“What are you saying, that we do nothing? Just wait and hope she gets better?”

Mason stared hard at the doctor, then shook his head slowly. “No, Doc. I’m saying that Julie is dying.”

“Well, fuck that!” Anna shouted, startling everyone, including Julie. “There has to be something I can do, some kind of—maybe I have some drugs in my bag from the safe-house or maybe we can sterilize one of your knives, Mason—we can get this fixed and—”

“Don’t—don’t bother,” Julie said, looking up at Anna. “It’s funny—it doesn’t even hurt. Don’t bother.”

“Don’t goddamn tell me not to bother,” Anna said, still dumping her bags and furiously rooting through the contents for anything that might help. “I can’t just sit back and watch you—”

Anna cut herself off with a shake of her head.

Julie managed her weak half-smile again and held out a bloody hand toward Anna. “What—watch me—what? Die? Like I—like I said, don’t bother. Doesn’t even hurt.”

Mason laid a hand on Julie’s unharmed shoulder. “Just relax, Julie, we’re going to do what we can for you.”

Julie tried to chuckle, but ended up coughing instead. Matt swallowed and looked away, hand still clamped firmly over Julie’s shoulder wound. Anna came up with a syringe and a bottle of narcotics, and worked feverishly to load a dose.

Julie’s bloodied arm tapped weakly at Anna’s leg. “Give it—give it a rest, Doc.”

“Shut up,” Anna snapped, testing the needle’s flow and quickly injecting the contents into Julie’s outstretched arm. Within moments, Julie’s panicked, pained expression eased somewhat as the painkillers took hold. She looked dreamy and almost content.

“I was—I was wrong,” she said, still smiling. “I—I guess it did hurt before, but now—now it doesn’t. Guess I shouldn’t—shouldn’t have tried to stop you, Doc.”

Julie laid her head back and let out a long sigh, staring up at the sky.

“Damn straight,” Anna said, rooting through Mason’s pack for any medical supplies he might be carrying. She came up with gauze bandages and some surgical tape. “Next we’re going to get this bleeding stopped, and once I find a couple proper tools we’re going to get you all fixed up.”

“Doc,” Mason said, trying to interrupt Anna. The doctor was having none of it.

“Then we’ll pull over and do a little surgery. I hope you trust me to try it, Julie, because the last surgery I did was in medical school,” Anna rambled, pulling together her meager pile of supplies. “But it can’t be too tricky. I’ll get that bullet out, and we’ll hole up for a bit while you heal—”

“Doc,” Mason repeated, this time louder.

Anna glared at him.

“Doc, she’s gone,” Mason said gently, looking down at Julie.

The journalist lay still, eyes open, rocking gently from side to side with the motion of the truck.

Julie Ortiz was dead.

Anna stopped her frantic search, stared for a moment at Julie’s peaceful expression, and fell back against the side of the truck, dropping her face into her hands. Matt slowly released his hold on Julie’s shoulder. The blood had stopped flowing. The young man looked at his hands, covered in the journalist’s blood, and swallowed hard. Mason turned away from the scene entirely, facing the tailgate, knees pulled up against his chest. He managed to hold himself in check for a few seconds before he lost his control.

“God damn it!” he screamed, reeling back and throwing a powerful punch at the steel tailgate. The whole back end of the truck vibrated with the impact, and when Mason withdrew his arm, his knuckles were scored and bleeding.

He didn’t even notice.

1734 hrs_

Trev had pulled the truck off the interstate two exits past the site of their engagement with the Land Rover. He’d chosen that particular exit because it connected the interstate with a rural road, without a town in either direction for miles. He drove until he found a wide gravel shoulder next to an open field and pulled off. Dust billowed up around the truck’s wheels as he braked to a stop, shifting into park and turning off the engine.

The occupants of the vehicle were unnaturally silent. Even Matt and Junko, whom Trev knew loved to argue back and forth, were subdued and withdrawn. They had all seen friends and acquaintances killed in the pandemic, but those people had been felled by the Morningstar strain.

This was the first time any of them, save Mason, had actually seen a person killed by another uninfected person.

Julie lay in the truckbed, covered in a thin woolen blanket, the one she had been using as her bedroll on the long trek west. When Trev offered to help carry her, Mason and Anna glared at him, silently refusing the offer. They lifted the journalist’s body between them and carried her over to the field, laying her down gently in the grass.

For a moment, the remaining five were silent, looking down at the blanket-covered body. Trev removed his baseball cap and held it over his heart.

Mason broke the silence after a full minute. “Do we have a shovel?”

Trev shook his head. “No. No, we don’t. There might be a spade in the toolbox in the back, and that’s about it.”

Mason nodded silently, turned on his heels and strode back to the pickup truck. He rooted around in the bed, and came up with a small, handheld garden spade. Without saying a word, he fell to his knees next to Julie’s body and began to dig, one tiny spadeful at a time.

Trev opened his mouth, intending to say that they would waste too much time trying to dig a grave without proper tools, then decided against it, snapping his mouth shut again. Instead, he reached down to his boot and pulled free a long hunting knife that he’d sharpened to a razor’s edge, knelt beside Mason, and began stabbing at the dirt, loosening it and scooping it out with his free hand.

Mason looked over at Trev and managed an emotionless smile, a silent thank-you.

It wasn’t long before the rest of them had joined in, using whatever tool they could find. Anna dug with her bare hands, still wearing an expression of frustration and anguish on her face. She felt horrible over not having been able to do anything for Julie when she needed it most.

It took two hours, but the group finally finished the grave. It wasn’t six feet deep, but it was close. Trev and Mason stood in the hole while Matt and Anna handed down Julie’s body. They laid her gently to rest, head supported on a small cushion of loose dirt. The pair climbed out of the hole and brushed themselves off, looking down at the body beneath them.

“Does anyone want to say anything?” Trev asked after a moment.

No one responded.

“Someone should say something,” Trev pressed.

Still, no takers. Matt and Junko looked at one another, then down at the ground. Anna’s face was still playing a range of regret and frustration, and Mason—burning in Mason’s eyes was hatred and resolve. None of them looked up for presenting a eulogy.

Trev cleared his throat.

“Well,” he said, once more sweeping his cap off his head to hold it over his heart, “If none of you want to say anything, I guess I will. There are two kinds of people in this world, at least in my experience: those that are generally good, and those that are generally bad. I didn’t know Julie Ortiz very well. In fact, I’d only just met her, but in that short time I realized that she was one of those people who was generally good. She didn’t deserve to die this way, just like all the good folks who have died since these bloody-eyed demons first appeared.”

Junko glanced at Trev out of the corner of her eye, but none of the other survivors reacted to his slip, and she let it go as Trev continued.

“We’re not just burying a woman. We’re burying a friend, an ally, a trustworthy companion—and that is something that is all too rare in today’s world. Julie, I didn’t know you well, but I can honestly say I will miss you. Godspeed.”

With that, Trev pulled his hat back down over his head, nodded once to himself, and folded his arms behind his back. The others seemed to feel that Trev’s eulogy was appropriate, and knelt down next to the piles of dirt, scooping handfuls back into the grave. When they had filled in the hole, they piled rough limestone over the freshly dug earth to make certain no roaming animals would disturb Julie’s rest by digging her up, and piled more stones at the head of the grave to serve as a marker. There was no way for them to inscribe her name. Julie Ortiz would rest in an anonymous grave.

When they had finished, Trev spoke up again.

“Look, guys, I hate to be the pragmatic bastard, but it’s going to be dark soon. We should get back on the road, keep heading west.”

Mason looked up from the cairn then and fixed Trev with a stare.

“That’s a good idea,” Mason said, “but that’s not where we’re going. We’re going east—at least for a few miles.”

“What?” Junko asked, incredulous. “Backtrack? But we got ambushed back there. You want to repeat—”

“Don’t think for a second I don’t know what I’m doing,” Mason said, spinning on the young woman with a look on his face that dared anyone to disagree with him. The look in his eyes was murderous. “Those shooters will have radioed back our location, which means Sawyer will be mobilizing to come after us. That’ll probably take him several hours. We have enough time to go back to that Land Rover and still get away clean.”

“Why?” Juni asked, pressing the issue.

“Why?” Mason repeated. “You’ll see when we get there. Come on. Get in the truck. Everyone, get in the goddamn truck. Trev, are you with me? Will you take me back there?”

Trev, with eyebrows raised, was intrigued by Mason’s determination. Though he didn’t feel particularly threatened by the ex-NSA agent, he did feel compelled to comply.

“I’ll drive you back, top speed,” Trev said, nodding.

“Good. Let’s get to it, then,” Mason growled through clenched teeth. “I have some unfinished business to take care of there.”

The survivors loaded back up. Matt sat in the bed as far as he could from the bloodstains Julie had left behind. Anna sat right next to them, staring at the blood and hanging her head. Junko and Trev climbed into the cab together, and Trev started the engine. It sputtered for a moment, churned, and caught, and he quickly put the vehicle in gear and swung it around on the road, heading back the way they’d come a few hours previous. Junko stared out the passenger side window at the cairn of stones that marked Julie’s grave until it disappeared behind a bend.

In the bed of the truck, Mason was working singlemindedly on his equipment. He was reloading his pistol’s magazine round by round, each bullet making a loud click as it settled into place. His eyes were unfocused, staring through the truckbed, reloading by reflex. Anna studied his face as the truck pulled back onto the interstate. She’d seen that expression twice before: once when Mason had to hold off an attack by NSA agents at the safe-house in Washington, and once more when he’d fought Sawyer in the catacombs beneath the city.

Mason was running on autopilot, and so far, every time she’d seen him in that mode, people had died.

————————

It didn’t take long for the truck to reach the spot where the Land Rover had crashed. Even though it was twilight, Mason told Trev to leave the headlights off so any survivors of the wreck wouldn’t be alerted to their presence. When they were half a mile away and the tipped-over Land Rover was visible in the distance, Mason had Trev pull over and stop.

Mason jumped out of the bed, carrying with him only his equipment belt and pistol. Anna watched him as he walked toward the crash site. Trev opened the driver’s side door to accompany him, but Mason spun around upon hearing the sound and pointed—simply pointed—at the truck. Trev nodded slowly and sank back into his seat, content to allow Mason to run this one solo.

Anna, on the other hand, wasn’t as willing. She jumped out of the truckbed and ran to catch up to Mason.

“What are you doing?” she asked as she came up alongside him.

Mason didn’t answer for a moment. He simply frowned, swatted at a mosquito that was buzzing near his face, and continued his steady walk.

“What are you going to do?” Anna asked again, this time with more force.

“I’m going to do what I’m supposed to do in this kind of a situation,” Mason said. “I’m going to interrogate my enemy.”

“Not like this, you’re not,” Anna said, shaking her head. “You’re in a bad place. You’re going to overreact, you might—”

Mason moved like lightning.

He pulled his combat knife free from its sheath, grabbed Anna by the throat, and held the point of the blade less than an inch from her eye. She froze, stiffening up, and felt fear uncoil itself in her gut like an unwelcome alien presence.

“I am going to interrogate my enemy,” Mason repeated. He said it slowly, word by word, still holding the knife to Anna’s eye. “And you are not going to interfere.”

Anna watched the point of the knife dance in front of her eyes for a moment, swallowed, and nodded slightly. “All right, Mason. Have it your way.”

Mason let go of the doctor without another word, sheathed his knife, and continued his walk. Instead of retreating to the truck, Anna found herself following behind him. When Mason glanced over his shoulder at her, she was quick to explain herself.

“I won’t get in the way,” she said. “But I do want to be there. You need backup. Just in case.”

Mason turned away from the doctor and lengthened his strides, boots crunching on the gravel shoulder. Though Anna couldn’t see it, he quirked a smile.

“All right, Doc,” he said. He heaved a sigh as he walked. After a moment, he spoke to Anna over his shoulder. “Look, I’m sorry about the knife thing. It’s just that I—”

“I know,” Anna interrupted. “It’s been a bad day, and for you, it’s probably reflex at this point. It’s all right. No harm done.”

Mason nodded, hanging his head a bit.

The pair made it to the crashed Land Rover. It still lay on its side, and the engine was still sputtering smoke. The driver’s body was still strapped into its seat. Anna knelt in the grass and looked through the shattered windshield at the body.

“Looks like your shots killed this one,” she said, staring at the bullet wounds in the man’s chest.

“Yeah,” Mason said, standing behind Anna with his pistol drawn. “But where’s the gunner?”

The former NSA agent walked a slow circle of the vehicle, his head cocked slightly to the side, and studied the ground in the dwindling light. He found what he was looking for on his second revolution: a bit of blood staining a blade of grass a rust brown. He picked up another bloodspot a few feet away, and began to follow the trail, moving at a slow, measured pace, eyes fixated on the grass for clues.

The blood spatters were far enough apart from one another to convince Mason that the shooter—the man who had killed Julie—was in good enough shape to have walked away from the crash, but the blood also told Mason that the man was injured. He wouldn’t have gone far.

The blood led up to the interstate, and Mason walked halfway across the pavement, following the trail, before he froze in place. He stared off at the thicket of trees and bushes that grew up on the far side of the interstate. Anna, who was watching from the side of the Land Rover, sucked in her breath.

Whenever Mason froze in place, Anna heard an old rhyme play in her head:‘By the pricking of my thumbs, something wicked this way comes.’ The ex-NSA agent was uncanny about spotting threats—not that it was any surprise when one considered his background.

Mason had spotted the shooter. The man lay against a tree on the far side of the interstate, a radio laying in the grass next to his left hand and an MP-5 laying next to his right. For the briefest of moments, Mason thought the man was already dead, but then he saw the man’s head shift, lolling in place.

“Perfect,” Mason whispered to himself. The shooter was dozing, waiting for a pickup. That meant that Mason had the jump on him—but it also meant he needed to hurry, if reinforcements were truly on the way. He picked up his pace, keeping his pistol aimed at the dozing man. His footfalls were careful heel-to-toe steps, making next to no noise. Anna followed as far as the edge of the interstate, close enough to see what was happening while still being far enough away to allow Mason to do his work uninterrupted.

Mason made it to within ten feet of the shooter before the man woke. Whether Mason had made some noise to alert him or if the man had just happened to wake up then was unclear, but Mason’s reaction was immediate.

As the shooter reached for his weapon, Mason closed the distance in three long, swift strides, and kicked the weapon away from the man’s hand. The shooter’s other arm reached up toward his pistol belt, and Mason brought the same leg he’d used to kick away the weapon straight down on the shooter’s forearm. Even from her vantage point several meters away, Anna could hear the snap of the man’s wrist.

The shooter screamed out loud in pain, clutching at his left hand, now hanging limply from his wrist. Mason wasn’t yet satisfied, and knelt, pinning the man’s legs with his own and shoving the barrel of his pistol into the man’s right eye, pressing in hard. The threat of violence went unspoken. If the shooter tried anything, all Mason would have to do was squeeze the trigger. The man stiffened up, froze in place, and for a moment, only the sound of the shooter’s labored breathing and the distant calls of birds roosting for the night could be heard.

Then Mason went to work on the man, patting him down and reaching into pouches and pockets, tossing the contents over his shoulder, away from the man. He never took his eyes off of the shooter’s face. Anna watched as the shooter’s gear went flying over Mason’s shoulder. A knife, a backup pistol, magazines, a compass, a map, a PDA not unlike her own—all of these things wound up in the grass a good distance from Mason and the shooter.

Only then did Mason speak to the shooter.

“My name is Gregory Mason,” he growled, leaning in close to the shooter’s face and tilting his head to one side. “Do you know me?”

The man didn’t answer, and instead gritted his teeth and tried to ignore Mason and the pistol barrel being rammed into his eye socket.

“I asked you a question,” Mason said. Now his voice was deadly calm. “Are you going to answer me? Do you know my name?”

The man still refused to say a word, looking off to the side.

Mason’s free hand snaked out and grabbed the shooter’s broken wrist. He squeezed hard, and the shooter screamed aloud in pain again.

“I don’t like repeating myself,” Mason said. “Do you know my name?”

“Yes, yes,” the shooter said, gasping for breath. Sweat had beaded up on his forehead and ran down the sides of his face. “Gregory Mason. U.S. Marines. National Security Agency. Wanted for murder and treason. We were assigned to pick you up.”

“And the woman standing behind me?” Mason pressed. “Do you know her?”

The man looked up at Anna, swallowed hard, and looked as if he was trying to decide whether or not to answer. He chose the latter, clamping his lips shut and looking away from Mason and Anna once more.

“Look,” Mason whispered, leaning in close to the shooter’s face. “You can answer all my questions and just ruin my evening—or you can play the hero and make my goddamn day, because by the time I’m through with you, your compadres won’t even recognize you when they come to pick you up. And if they do, they’ll need several little boxes to put all the pieces in—I shit you not. And you remember that little firefight we had earlier? You killed one of my friends in that fight. I’m out looking for blood and you’re the only one around that I can bleed some. So one final time: do you recognize the woman standing behind me?”

This time the man turned his head to face Mason directly, and spoke in monotone, meeting Mason’s gaze with a stony-eyed stare. “Waters, Desmond, agent with the FBI, 945–23–9199. And that’s all you’re going to get out of me, asshole.”

Mason grinned. The grand old standard reply to interrogation: name, rank and organization, and Social Security number. It was as good as a “fuck you” to the person asking the questions.

“All right,” he said, drawing the word out. “What did they teach you about interrogation in the FBI, Desmond?”

“Enough,” spat Waters, nursing his broken wrist.

Mason, still grinning, slowly pulled free his combat knife and held it up in front of Waters’ eyes so he could see it.

“I’m pretty sure they didn’t show you these tricks at Quantico. Now, pay attention, Desmond, because this is going to hurt—a lot.”

Mason leaned in over the shooter.

Anna had to look away as the FBI agent’s anguished screams echoed across the interstate.

1947 hrs_

Anna had long ago left Mason and the shooter alone, and had wandered back across the interstate to sit in the grass and watch the last crescent of sun disappear over the horizon. Every now and then, a wail of pain drifted to her ears, and she did her best to ignore what was going on across the road from her.

Finally, the screams stopped, and a few moments later Mason appeared on the other side of the interstate, wiping his hands clean with a handkerchief. He tossed the bloodied cloth away and called out for Anna.

She pulled herself to her feet and walked over to stand with him. The shooter still lay against the tree, but he wasn’t moving. His head hung limply against his chest and his shirt had been cut to pieces. Even from a distance Anna could make out the thin lines of cuts made by Mason’s razor-sharp combat knife. He’d flayed the man alive, and done God knows what else to him while Anna had been out of their line of sight.

“I hope you’re not going to give me a lecture,” Mason grumbled.

“No,” Anna said, furrowing her brow. “No lecture. I understand why you needed to do that.”

“Thanks,” Mason said. “I want you to know—it’s not exactly what I call fun. But sometimes—sometimes that’s the only way to get them to tell you what you need to know.”

“What did he say?” Anna asked, staring at the shooter.

“Not too much, but enough to give us an edge,” Mason replied. He seemed drained, spent. The rage in his eyes had faded, and he once again seemed to be his rational self. “He admitted he knew you, and that you were his primary target. You were supposed to be taken alive, just like we thought. Then I went into him about Sawyer, the state of things—got some interesting tidbits there.”

Anna didn’t respond at first. She was still staring at the motionless FBI agent slumped against the tree. “You killed him?”

“Oh,” Mason said, raising his eyebrows. “Actually, no.”

The ex-NSA agent turned and walked briskly back toward the shooter. When he’d gone about halfway, he stopped, drew his pistol, and put three rounds into the man’s chest. Agent Desmond Waters jerked as the bullets struck home, then seemed to sigh as the life drained out of him. The corpse slumped down further against the tree trunk and slid off sideways into the grass.

Mason re-holstered his pistol and returned to Anna.

“Thanks for reminding me,” he said, as nonchalantly as if he’d just forgotten to put a quarter into a parking meter. “He was dying, anyway. We should be getting along, now. I picked up all of his useful stuff. Did you check the Land Rover while I was busy with him?”

Anna admitted she hadn’t.

“Doesn’t matter,” Mason said. “Probably not enough time to give it a search now. Let’s get back to the truck.”

As the pair walked, Anna cast a glance over her shoulder at the corpse of the shooter. “You said he was talking about the state of the world—what did he say?”

“We’ll save that for when we get back to the others,” Mason said, grimacing. “But I can tell you now that we were right about them wanting you. They’re after you with a vengeance, Doc. There’s a lot of RumInt floating around about you, apparently—”

“RumInt?” Anna interrupted.

“Rumor Intelligence,” Mason explained. “The word on the street, as it were. You’re becoming something of a post-pandemic urban legend.”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean that Desmond back there thought you were carrying a cure for Morningstar on you,” Mason said. “The guy actually thought that you were running off with the only cure to Morningstar.”

“But that doesn’t even exist,” Anna protested as the pair walked along the edge of the interstate. “That’s the dumbest thing I’ve heard since—”

“I know, I know, but if you look at it from his perspective—he thought he was going to save the world, and that you were some kind of villain out to make off with the cure and sell it to the highest bidder.”

“Then it’s twice as stupid,” Anna seethed. “What the hell use is money in this world?”

Mason looked frustrated as he tried to think of a way to explain the dead shooter’s motivations to Anna.

“He hasn’t been living in the same world we’ve been in for these past few months,” Mason said. “He’s been living on the grounds of an Army National Guard station along with about a hundred other government employees—fighting off carriers every day and working on orders, just like before the pandemic hit, at least according to him.”

“And those orders included finding me and bringing me back?” Anna pressed.

“Actually, according to Desmond back there, those are the only orders they have,” Mason admitted. “That and stay alive.”

The pair reached the pickup truck, where Matt, Juni, and Trev were waiting for them. The trio had spread out on the grass in the median, relaxing. Trev was smoking a cigarette, and Matt and Juni were sharing a can of Spam and crackers off to the side. When Trev spotted Mason and Anna approaching, he pulled himself to his feet and dusted off his hands.

“So what’s the news? Did you get done what you wanted to get done?” Trev asked, folding his arms across his chest.

“I did,” Mason said, nodding slowly. “I have some news for all of you, if you wouldn’t mind paying attention for a few minutes. I’ve already told Anna about half of it, but the rest of you should hear it, too.”

Matt and Juni looked up expectantly from their Spam, and Trev raised his eyebrows and leaned back against the pickup truck.

“Before you get into any of that,” Trev said, cutting off Mason, “I think you owe us another explanation.”

“About why we were attacked today,” Mason said, nodding his head in agreement. “I know. I wanted to tell you earlier, but I was vetoed.”

Mason glanced pointedly in Anna’s direction, but she studiously ignored him.

“We’re what you might call fugitives from the law,” Mason explained.

“There’s not much left of the law these days,” Trev said. “You must have really pissed someone off.”

“I did. I mean to say, we did,” Mason admitted. “You know about Anna’s background, her work on Morningstar, and the hope for a vaccine. We’ve told you all of that.”

“Right,” Trev said, nodding. “Heard it. Go on.”

“So you know why she’s a valuable commodity,” Mason said. “She’s one of maybe a handful of people on the planet with enough raw knowledge to be able to put together a vaccine. What’s left of the Feds want her back—badly. She’s not only one of their only hopes for a cure, she’s studied the habits of the infected, their strengths and weaknesses—in other words, she’s a human Morningstar strain Google. Just ask her any question.”

“What’s the incubation rate of Morningstar?” Matt shot out before Mason could continue. Mason was about to reprimand him and say that the last sentence hadn’t meant to actually be followed up on, but Anna interrupted.

“Five to nine days if the initial contact is minimal. Incubation periods drop dramatically as the initial amount of virus introduced into the bodily system increases,” Anna said, speaking without hesitation, the words flowing out of her one after another in rapid, articulate succession. “A major bite to a vein or artery can bring down the period of incubation to a matter of hours.”

Matt looked over at Juni and shrugged. “All right, I’m sold on that point. Keep going, Mason.”

“Anyway, there’s one man in particular who wants her back. His name is Sawyer—he works for the NSA, like I did. In fact, he was on my team before the pandemic hit, along with one other agent—Derrick. He wasn’t so bad a guy, but Sawyer—Sawyer could be a sadistic bastard. He really enjoyed his work. Took it seriously. Too seriously. Almost lived at the office. So when I went AWOL and busted Anna and Julie out of their holding facility a few months ago, it pissed off Sawyer something fierce,” Mason said. “After all, they were both his cases.”

The others were paying close attention, engrossed in the tale.

“We managed to get out of Washington all right, but we had to fight our way free,” Mason said. “Sawyer was right on us the whole way. Once we got out of the city and into the country, it was easier to lose him, but he is one tenacious bastard. So far he’s managed to catch up with us several times on the road and tried to take us down. We’ve escaped each time, and until today, none of us were hurt or captured . . . or killed.”

“So we’ve banded up with a bunch of wanted fugitives,” Matt said, scowling. “That’s fucking great. Now we have what’s left of the Feds on our asses.”

“Wait, wait,” Mason said, holding up his hands. “That much is true, but we’ve got one thing on our side.”

“And what’s that?” Matt asked.

“Sawyer’s gone rogue, officially,” Mason said. “According to the shooter—the man I just ‘talked’ to back at the Land Rover—there’s been a break in the federal government. Most of what remains is out to restore order, bring relief to the civilians—they’re doing their job, in other words. Then there’s a rogue faction, a breakaway group who knows about Anna’s research as well as the studies done at the CDC and Deucalion Co-op in Omaha. They want a cure, and they’re perfectly willing to kill to get it. Here’s our big problem with them: most of their information is nothing but rumor. Some of them think Anna’s carrying a cure on her person, others think she has the blueprints for a cure on a disk she’s keeping, and still others think she could whip up a batch of cure if they just captured her and put her in a lab.”

“Which is ludicrous,” Anna interjected. “We’d only just begun to look into a vaccine at USAMRIID. Maybe—and I stress maybe—the Deucalion Co-op made some more progress than us. Of course we’ll have to wait until we get to Omaha to find that out.”

“So this is good news?” Matt asked sarcastically. “It’s good that we’ve got a rogue faction of the surviving government out to kill us and take the Doctor here back to some lab?”

“Yes and no,” Mason answered. “It’s bad that they’re after us, sure, but it’s great to find out that they’re a rogue faction.”

“And why is that?” Matt pressed.

“Because,” Mason said, “It means that they’re just as busy fighting a civil war as they are chasing us down.”

That quieted the group for a moment. The thought of what remained of the armed forces split down the middle, fighting one another instead of trying to clear cities and restore order was a sobering one.

“All right,” Trev said after a moment had passed. “So here’s an idea. Why don’t we try and get in touch with the other faction, the one that’s stayed legit? Maybe they could give us an escort, or some backup, or, hell, maybe just some information every now and then.”

Mason shook his head.

“No,” he said. “No, we’re not getting on a radio unless we absolutely have to. We’re running silent. Let the two halves figure it out on their own. Right now our best bet is to keep going forward with the plan—get to Omaha, hole up, and try to find that vaccine.”

In the distance, the group heard the faint growl of a car engine. Mason looked over his shoulder in the direction of the sound.

“That’s our cue to leave,” he said. “That’ll be the backup our friends in the Land Rover called before I sent them off the road.”

“They’ll find the crash,” Trev said.

“Yes, they will,” Mason agreed. “And they’ll find the shooter I interrogated a few yards away from that. I wouldn’t be surprised if Sawyer is with them.”

Trev looked over with raised eyebrows. “Sawyer, the tenacious one? Why run? Why don’t we head back that way and see about putting the fucker in the grave? That would solve a major problem of ours, wouldn’t it?”

“It would,” Mason agreed, “except Sawyer won’t be alone. He’s probably got a squad with him. I don’t think we could put up much of a fight if we went back again. No, let’s put some distance between us and him, and at top speed. We should probably take a couple of side roads for a while to throw him off, and avoid the Interstate.”

“Easily done,” Trev said, opening the driver’s side door to the truck and fishing out the folded map Junko had been using earlier. “We’ll plot ourselves out a nice backroad route. It’ll take longer, and we might have to worry about fuel, but if it keep us from being jumped again it’ll be worth it.”


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