The train came to a shuddering, violent halt. The three men in train car rolled to their hands and knees. The floor was sloped at a steep angle, which made it almost impossible to stand. They crawled to the door and rolled to the ground.
The men drove Nyko and his crew to the warehouse they’d designated as their train station and left immediately leaving the six men in the parking lot. Jonas started to the warehouse, and Nyko called, “Hang on a sec, J.”
Jonas came walking back. “What’s up, boss?”
“We’ve been gone for a while. They’ve had all that time to work the building and our train over. No talking about anything until we’ve had a chance to go over that train with a fine-tooth comb and make sure it’s not bugged. Check the warehouse first then work the train. We have twenty-four hours to get her ready, make sure no one’s listening.”
Charlotte flipped the fire selector from auto to semi, and swept side-to side, firing every few seconds. When the bolt clicked forward, she calmly ejected the magazine, pulled a full one from the back of her shiny black panties and slapped it into the rifle. She charged the handle and repeated the process, firing fairly indiscriminately into the house across the street from the barn. Empty magazines and shell casings covered the ground in front of her.
“Tay!” she shouted. “Push for the truck. Stay low!”
Jonas fired both magazines dry. By the time his twenty second hail of lead ended, Nyko and his men rushed the wounded guards on the floor and removed their masks and weapons.
“Where is a med-kit!” Nyko shouted at one barely conscious man.
Sometime around the sixteen hour mark, in the desolate white room, Nyko realized he had to pee. In an attempt to take his mind off of the urgency, he started planning.
“What do we have for assets,” he said, breaking the long silence in the room.
“My skills,” said Jonas.
“We’re a strong force,” Said Derrick.
Nyko laughed. “My brains, your strength and his skill versus sixty men. If only I had a holocaust cloak.”
The men stared at him blankly as Nyko laughed out loud. “Come on,” he said, wiping tears from his eyes. “The Princess Bride?” More blank stares. “Fuck all of you, that shit was funny.”
The truck stopped outside a two story warehouse. The second floor was entirely glass, while the first floor was made of cinderblock. Nyko looked around as he was shoved out of the truck, and roughly shoved in the door. The lights came up on a stark white room, with a single desk at the far side, covered in Plexiglas.
The door closed behind Nyko and Andy, leaving them alone in the room. There were no chairs and no place to sit. Where the door had been was now the tiniest crack. Both men felt their ears pop when the door closed.
Andy shifted his weight nervously from foot to foot, but Nyko didn’t move, and Andy wasn’t going to break the silence. After several minutes, a woman clad in what looked like white military fatigues stepped into the booth at the back of the room and beckoned them forward. Nyko walked up to the window and stood with his feet spread and his hands clasped behind his back.
“Disrobe. Leave your clothes on the floor, and place your hands in the blue circles.”
“What blue circles?” Nyko asked.
She nodded over his shoulder, as two neon blue circles lit up on the wall.
“We’re not staying,” he said. “We’ll just make our way out.”
“Unauthorized personnel must be decontaminated before being sent to quarantine.”
“Whoa, whoa. There’s been some kind of fucking mistake here. We’re not going to god damn quarantine, we’re not fucking staying here. Just open that fucking door back there and we’ll leave.” Nyko paused for a moment, and then, as if it had just occurred to him, added, “Peacefully.”
“Violence will not be tolerated. Disrobe for decontamination.” Her face never changed. She showed almost no hint of emotion, outside of a small tick of her upper lip in frustration.
Nyko put his hands on the plexiglass. “Listen honey. We’re getting the fuck out of here. Open the god damn door.”
She leaned in slightly closer. “Disrobe. You have thirty seconds to start. She looked down at a button on the desk, and grinned ever so slightly as she moved her hand over it.
“Fuck you,” Nyko said.
“Your choice,” she said. Perhaps the only time she broke from the script. She pushed the red button. Nyko’s ears popped again as gas began to flood the room. In seconds, his vision began to blur, and then narrowed down, like he was looking through a long tunnel. Less than a minute later, he felt like he was falling.
“Hey y’all, I think he’s wakin’ up.”
The room slowly stopped spinning around Nyko, who realized his eyes were closed. His head felt like someone was hammering railroad spikes into his temples. Nyko opened his eyes. Soft white light came from everywhere. The ceiling and walls seemed to glow, driving icepicks into his head.
His crew was all sitting on the floor around him. He turned his head slightly to see Andy, dressed in white fatigues just like everyone else. He patted his side, his gun was missing. He patted his chest, the knife that hung from a lanyard under his shirt was gone.
He croaked, “Did they leave us anything?”
Brian held his hands up with his fingers splayed. “Even cut my nails off, Boss.”
“Fuck. Did they gas you too?”
“We think they shot us with darts at the station. Jonas found the spot on his arm where they got him,” said Terrell. I was carrying a bunch of iron tubing to help Jonas. Then I woke up here. Tubes must have fallen on me, my arm is pretty beat, and I think I have a broken rib.
Andy groaned and rolled over on his side. “Derrick, see to Andy. Jonas, what do you know?”
“I saw some spaceman looking guy in the parking lot. I turned to call out to the boys and went down.”
Nyko looked at his friend. He was wearing the same white fatigues as the rest. On closer inspection, there was a slight grey digital pattern in the fabric. “How long have you been here?”
“Maybe ten minutes before they dumped you in here. They came from the middle of that wall. Door appeared, they dumped you and Andy, and closed. We were all pretty disoriented still, but they were in and out before we had a chance to even move.”
Andy was up, sitting with his head tucked between his knees. “What the fuck was that shit?”
“We know there are at least two of them. They’re going to come for us eventually. They have gas that knocked us out immediately, and based on the feeling of delousing powder on my balls and the fact that my fingernails are not only trimmed but filed smooth means we were out for a while. Jonas’ boots are tailored for him. Look how they built the platform up.”
“Best pair of boots I’ve owned in a while. Even when I had a cobbler he took a couple days to fix up my boots.” Jonas walked across the room, showing off his new boots.
Brian spoke up. “They took good fuckin’ care of us. Why would they give us new duds, make J-man some new boots and clean us up if they were just gonna kill us?”
“I hope you’re right, brother,” replied Nyko. “All we can fucking do now is wait the sons of bitches out.”
As if on command, the door opened. Four men walked in, and stopped standing in a tight group. Nyko stood quickly. His five men lined up behind him.
All four were wearing full helmets, a larger version of the mask Andy tried on. Solid white face masks, with a blacked out visor. A single crease in the facemask ran vertically from forehead to chin. “The leader of this group will step forward,” one of them said.
Nyko stepped up. “The fuck do you want with us?”
“You are from Las Vegas?”
“Yes,” Nyko said. He’d told them that much.
“How many survivors live in Las Vegas?”
“I don’t fucking know the answer to that,” said Nyko.
“Maybe a hundred? Hundred and fucking fifty?” Nyko said.
“The temperature of your face just rose three degrees. It is imperative that you are truthful.”
“I run a god damn bar. I don’t get out much. I have about a hundred fifty fucking regulars. I have no way to estimate the population of god damn Las Vegas.”
“Then you are no use. A meal will be delivered in an hour. Quarantine will be complete in twenty hours.”
The four men spun and walked out. The sliding door sealed behind them.
They sat in a circle, idly chatting, killing time until the door opened from the bottom and six trays were slipped under the door. The food came in a bowl and tasted like some kind of grain mixed with water. “We have twenty hours. Get some sleep,” Nyko ordered. “We all feel like shit. Gonna need the crew in top form if we’re going to get out of this fucking mess.”
Nyko stretched out on his back, hands under his head and closed his eyes. He didn’t sleep, but he laid there trying to look like he was. Instead he spent the next twenty hours thinking about Charlotte and wondering how his bar was. For the moment the urge to travel was gone, he just wanted to be home in his bar.
The time passed agonizingly slow. Most of the crew slept for several hours on the cool, hard floor, but even though it was relatively warm in the room, it got cold very quickly. Nearly everyone got up to do jumping jacks, pushups, or some other sort of exercise to increase their core temperatures at some point during what Nyko assumed was the night.
There was no way to know the passage of time. Andy tapped the music in his head out on his thigh, making no noise. Jonas paced, breaking in his new boots. Derrick lost himself in daydreams, thinking about anything other than where they were.
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Andy and Nyko roared off towards the walled section of the city, weaving down the empty streets between wrecked and abandoned cars. There weren’t many infected, singles and pairs occasionally in view. Nyko was paying specific attention to their surroundings, looking for anything to give him the lay of the land.
The closer they got to the city, the fewer houses they came across that had been ransacked. Half a mile from the wall, there were a few desiccated corpses here and there, sprawled out in the street, rotting where they fell.
A quarter mile from the wall, there were none. He’d expected animals to have moved back into the area. Arizona was home to coyotes, wolves and bears, in addition to the smaller animals that were food to the apex predators. There was no sign of wildlife at all, and given that Phoenix was between two major rivers, that was very odd.
Out near the new Phoenix Station, every single door and window was broken. In closer to the city, there were still locked homes and buildings, left untouched as they had the last time their owners locked the door on their way to work two years ago.
Andy drove them to the base of the wall, and stopped. There was wreckage at various points along the perfect wall, like the builders had run bulldozers in a perfect circle around some important central location. Buildings were cut in half by the wall builders. The sections that would have been on the inside were pushed out in a pile. Roads were dug up where the shining white barricade intersected them. The builders left piles of asphalt in the middle of the street, just feet away from the glimmering wall.
Nyko slapped the bars, signaling Andy to stop. They were cruising along some four lane road that paralleled this section. Andy pulled into a gas station parking lot and stopped the buggy. He didn’t even think about it, habit made him pull off the road.
“What’s up, boss?” He asked, turning the motor off.
“I want to get a closer look at it,” Nyko replied unbuckling his harness and hopping down out of the buggy.
The two men walked down a deserted side street. At the edge of the wall, a fast food joint was torn in half. It ended two feet from the wall, the inside of the store plainly visible as Nyko leaned in close. The wall itself seemed to be made of plastic. It was seamless as far as he could tell, one massive sheet of plastic running a hundred feet in the air and a mile or more in either direction before it curved out of sight.
“What the fuck is this,” Nyko said, putting his hand out.
“I don’t know if I’d do that, boss. No idea what it’s made of, but look at the trench. Nothing is touching it.”
Nyko looked along the wall where it met the ground. As far as his eyes could make out, Andy was correct. Grass, shrubbery, everything grew away from the wall, nothing grew towards it.
“Guess we need to find out of this thing has a gate. Maybe we just came up on it from behind.”
“Maybe. The fact that none of this stuff is looted makes me worried though,” said Nyko. “Houses with the doors and windows still secure. Probably tons of food, weapons, clothing and everything else still in them. Why wouldn’t the marauders have taken it?”
The pair started walking back towards the buggy. Andy asked, “What if there aren’t any marauders?”
“That scares me even more. There’s no way they got everyone inside the city. Look how hard Vegas tried, and still you fuckers didn’t make it in time. Someone had to be left outside the walls. And some of those fucks had to be crafty enough to survive, and yet a few more of them would be desperate enough to try to eat the infected, when they got hungry enough.”
Andy slid into the driver’s seat, and when Nyko was secured, he took off. For the next two hours they circumnavigated the wall, stopping at their original spot. There wasn’t any kind of gate or even any roads leading into or out of the city they could find. Phoenix was sealed off.
“Now, we go back to Phoenix Station, load up some supplies to pay for the trip, and head home. I’m going to start selling pleasure cruises to see The Great Wall of Phoenix.”
Nyko was glib about the whole thing, but Andy could tell he was sorely disappointed. The sun was setting by the time they started back to the warehouse. They’d spent so much time driving around everything started to look familiar.
“The first street sign I remember seeing was West Glendale, and we just passed that, so we’re pretty close,” Nyko said. “You remember this gas station?”
“I think.” Andy didn’t seem sure.
“Swing in. We’ll grab a fucking map and find the train tracks. Worst case, once we find the tracks we can follow them away from that fucking wall and get back.”
Andy pulled the buggy right up to the door and turned on the headlights and the auxiliary lights mounted above the bumper and along the roll cage.
The pair approached the store side by side, pulled the door open and stepped in. The windows were covered in two years of grime and dust, casting a dim yellow hue around the room. Andy pulled down a map and Nyko grabbed a couple packs of peanuts and stuffed them in his pocket, and tossed a few back to Andy.
“Wanna risk opening the fridge? Bunch of waters in there, and some skunked-to-shit beer.”
“Dude, fuck yeah! Brian will go nuts when we show up with a case of bud.”
“You do it. I’ll go outside and figure out where we are.”
Andy took a deep breath, opened the fridge door and pulled out two cases of Budweiser, then thought for a second, opened it again and grabbed two more. He was carrying the beer out to the car when he heard Nyko’s shotgun. He dropped the beer. Cans rolled in every direction. Andy vaulted the mess, hit the door with his shoulder and rolled out, getting to his knees behind the buggy. Nyko was standing out in the lot, shotgun in one hand and pistol in the other.
Two men dressed in white were laid out on the concrete in front of him, face down. A white car was parked in the lot. Andy pulled his gun and advanced on the corpses. One had a giant hole in his back, the other had no visible wound, but was lying in a spreading pool of blood. A bullpup assault rifle was on the ground beside each of them. Andy pushed the second man over with his boot. He was wearing a solid white face mask with a large black visor. The mask was cracked and broken; one eye was visible with a bullet hole just above it.
“Good shooting, boss. Where did they come from?”
“Fuckers just flew up in that car. They jumped out as I was coming out of the god damned store and advanced on me, guns drawn. I drew. They yelled something, I yelled for them to lower their weapons. The cocksuckers did not follow simple directions.”
“You think we ought to get out of here before more of them show up?”
“No. I think we get in their fucking car and see if they have a god damned radio. I didn’t start that fight, and I’ll be fucked if I’m going to run from it. Search these fucks and see if they have anything useful.” Nyko walked over to the car as Andy picked up their rifles and stowed them in the buggy.
He heard his boss from the car. “Is anyone listening? My name is Nyko. I’m the owner of the train. I’ve come to trade, carrying fuel, and other valuable goods. Two of your men are dead, because they approached in a hostile fashion.”
The gut-shot man’s mask was in good shape, Andy pulled it off and looked at it. He recognized the basic form from Afghanistan; it was a chemical weapons mask, filtration down to one micron with ports for supplemental air. The visor was unlike anything Andy had seen.
Wires ran to four different points on the inside of the glass. Andy held it up to his head, and was greeted with a heads up display. He looked around at the corners of the mask, causing the screen to flicker rapidly.
“What the fuck!” He called out. He kept his eyes forward and used his peripheral vision to read the edges of the screen. The top left corner said IR inside a square box. Andy flicked his eyes over to the box, and suddenly everything went to shades of green. Andy spun in a circle. There were people all around, using the darkness to conceal them. They stood out as if it were high noon in the night vision.
“Nyko! We got company brother!”
“Lots!” Andy picked up one of the short rifles. Instantly, a crosshair appeared on his visor, down along the bottom. He moved the barrel around, and watched the crosshair move across the screen.”
“Holy shit, they have mad tech, Nyko.”
Suddenly, seemingly from everywhere, including the earpiece in Andy’s mask, a loud voice boomed. “Unauthorized personnel, stand down. You have ten seconds to comply.”
Andy heard Nyko yelling into the radio. “We’re not your personnel. Do not fire.”
“You have five seconds to comply.”
“Nyko, I think we should consider it. We’re not going to get out of this fight. Say the word, brother.”
“Stand down,” Nyko yelled back. He climbed out of the car and held his hands above his head.
Andy put the rifle down. He’d been willing to fight with the boss, but he was glad to be surrendering. There wasn’t any way they could win this fight. He laid the rifle down, took the mask off and held his hands up.
The pair heard an engine in the darkness. A white Humvee pulled up and three men got out, dressed in the same uniform as the men on the ground. They zip-tied Nyko first, then Andy, and pushed them into the truck.
The truck sped off into the night. They drove for about an hour, before the truck turned straight for the wall. The driver didn’t slow at all. The truck’s headlights reflected off the gleaming white surface until the second they passed directly through to the other side.
Inside was, in every sense, an oasis. Nyko was familiar with Phoenix. This looked nothing like the city he knew. Inside the wall the adobe houses and stuccoed buildings were all gone, replaced by a massive green stretch of farm. The truck passed through the farm, Nyko judged it was two or three miles, before they crossed a river. On the opposite side of the river, massive skyscrapers rose, all glass and steel. Lights everywhere made it almost like daytime.
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Less than two miles from the glimmering white wall surrounding Phoenix, Jonas slowed the train. They’d been passing through abandoned suburbs for the last thirty minutes. Everyone on board was anxious, the infected were here in some force, clearly visible inside their houses or stuck in the concrete walls surrounding their back yards.
Nyko saw one woman standing in her pool. Her skin was so sun darkened, and bloated from years in the water, she reminded him of a reconstituted raisin.
Jonas pulled the throttle back a bit and asked, “How do we approach? The wall blocks the tracks.”
“There has to be a gate somewhere, right?”
“I guess,” replied Jonas. “If they planned on no one ever going in or out again, I supposed there doesn’t have to be.”
“Who builds a wall without a gate? That’s fucking dumb.”
“Maybe it’s on the other side.”
“Bring her to a stop. I think it’s time we officially announced ourselves to the cock suckers behind the pearly gates.” Nyko said.
“Do you see a gate?”
“No I don’t see a fucking gate. But ‘Cock suckers behind the pearly walls’ didn’t have the same fucking ring to it. We came all this god damned way and since we’re already way behind fucking schedule, might as well spend the day getting to know the locals. Suss out whether or not we’re going to be welcome to bring passengers and trade.”
Jonas deftly brought the train to a smooth stop, about a mile and a half from the massive wall surrounding most of downtown Phoenix. They were in the old abandoned part of the city now, surrounded by warehouses, short one and two story buildings, and the occasional apartment. Most of the buildings were ransacked. Almost every door and window was broken. To the west, remnants of a massive fire were dwindling, few columns of smoke rose here and there, but nothing compared to the inferno that must have raged for days.
“Keep an eye out for a big fucking warehouse to serve as our station here too,” said Nyko, side-stepping around Jonas. He reached up to the air-horn chain and pulled, long and low three times.
“You don’t think that’s going to bring out the infected?”
“No, dumbass. I just thought it would be fucking fun to pull the god damned chain.” Nyko stepped out onto the ledge to let the wind cool him off a bit. From out there he yelled, “If we’re going to set up a fucking station here, we need to thin the herd of pus covered marauder meat. Pull us to within a quarter mile of that massive penis compensation they call a fucking wall. Keep her slow, we don’t want them cocksuckers getting the wrong idea, thinking we mean to ram the wall or do something crazy.”
They’d gone about half a mile when Jonas pointed out the window. “That warehouse looks pretty good.”
Nyko followed Jonas line to a two story unit with a loading dock that extended right to the tracks. Passengers could easily step out of the train. Loading and unloading cargo would be easily accomplished.
“Stop the fucking train.” Jonas pulled the accelerator back quickly and applied the brake lever in notched increments, bringing it to an even stop, the locomotive just past the loading dock.
Nyko stepped out of the locomotive and walked back to the loading dock, which was now equal with the bar car, just behind the fuel tanker. Brian crawled down off the tanker as Andy parked the buggy and climbed up the far side of the dock. There was a narrow walkway next to steel roll up doors that were locked closed.
“Get these doors fucking doors up. Secure the station. We may be dragging a number of infected behind us, so watch our six. Be ready for anything coming out of the doors. Terrell, you’re with me. We’re going in the front door,” said Nyko, looking up at his men on the dock. “Jonas, stay with the train. Keep an eye out for a welcome wagon.”
“Yes Sir.” All five of the men said in unison, and set to work. Brian walked back a couple of cars, headed for bolt cutters while Nyko and Terrell moved around to the front of the building.
The front consisted of a parking lot with a smattering of derelict cars, mostly older, small pickup trucks. One car stood out, a small hatchback sitting almost entirely on the ground. Its bright green paint slashed with orange and yellow was dulled by a thick layer of dust.
The building itself had two tractor trailer loading docks on one end and a small metal stair that led five feet up to the door. The door was closed, but the handle was removed, and it was well dented all around the handle. Nyko stuck his finger in the hole and pushed the door open, scraping along the concrete with a horrible screech.
“Anything in here would have heard that,” said Terrell, stepping into the dim warehouse. It was a warm day outside, but in the sealed warehouse it was easily a hundred and thirty degrees. Terrell holstered his weapon, put on a pair of thin leather gloves and then drew it again. “Good to go, boss.”
Nyko pulled his short double-barrel and started forward. “Be thorough. You’re staying here while we run back to fucking Vegas.”
“What? You didn’t tell me that.” The pair walked forward into the warehouse. Rows of shelving lined the floor, and a hundred year old, hand-painted sign hanging on the wall proclaimed this warehouse had belonged to R.I. Stine and his sons.
“Just now fucking figured it. I’m not sure we’re going to get into Phoenix itself, sons of bitches seem to have that shit locked up tighter than a whore’s pussy in church. If that’s the case, we need a fucking manned position here so we can exploit the resources the dumb fucks inside the city have left lying around out here.” Nyko kicked an empty box out of the aisle, and watched as it skidded across the dusty concrete between shelves. “And, if there is a gate and we go inside it, I need you and Derrick here, to keep this position secure and watch the fucking train.”
Nyko scrubbed his hands through his sweat-soaked hair, sweeping it back out of his eyes.
Terrell, changing the subject, pointed up to the sign on the wall and asked, “What do you think R.I. Stine did here”
“This shelf has plumbing parts. What do you have,” Nyko asked.
“Same. Whole god damned warehouse full of plumbing parts. What kinda plumbers need a warehouse this big?”
Passing a row of pipe wrenches, Nyko picked one up, a two foot hunk of steel topped with a massive iron jaw at the top. He holstered the shotgun and rested the head of the wrench on his shoulder. “The fuck do I know about how many parts a plumber needs. Maybe they owned a plumbing store.”
At the end of the warehouse, a pair of rickety wooden stairs led in either direction to a balcony that ran on either side of the main warehouse, twelve feet overhead. Nyko turned around, at the far end was another set. “You take the left, I’ll get the right. Double time, it’s too fucking hot in here to be dicking around looking at shit.”
Terrell sped up the stairs and searched the entire balcony on the railroad side. Nyko took the parking lot side. When they met at the far end, they finished the sweep, soaked with sweat, just as Brian managed to pop the lock on the first roll up door and raised it.
A blast of much cooler air blew through, slamming the parking lot door shut with a loud bang. “Thank fucking god,” Nyko said. “I thought my fucking balls were going to melt and run down the inside of my fucking legs before you got that fucking door open.”
“That motherfuckin’ lock must have been made of god damned titanium or something. Son of a bitch broke the first set of bolt cutters, took me forever to find the backup set,” Brian said, looking at a pair of three foot bolt cutters, broken at the hinge.
“I found these keys on a desk upstairs. See if one of them fits the other padlocks and get the doors up. Let’s blow this fucking place out.” Nyko stepped out to the loading dock and looked to his right towards the locomotive. Jonas held a thumbs up. Nyko looked left towards Andy at the rear of the train, who also held a thumbs up.
“Terrell, Derrick. There’s a roll up door under the stairs over there, go see what’s in it. I have a feeling it’s a fucking forklift. If it’s a propane job, get it fired up and start clearing these fucking shelves. Load them all up against the far wall to clear out a big space in here.”
Terrell and Derrick trotted over to the rollup door, half the size of the outside ones, and lifted it. Brian rolled up the second train door, and then Terrell was back.
“Battery’s dead. I think we can get it started if we can replace it. Looks like it was a pretty new forklift.”
Nyko grinned, “Small fucking miracle. I’d hate to have to listen to all your bellyaching all fucking night if you had to move those shelves by hand.”
“Jonas!” Nyko called.
He walked along the edge of the train and jumped over to the landing platform. “Yeah, Boss?”
“I have a special project for you.” Nyko took the keys from Brian who had the third massive roll-up door open and led Jonas across the warehouse to the semi-dock. He unlocked the padlock and rolled it up, delighting in the cross breeze. “I want a way to drive a truck up this loading dock. I want it hinged, so we can raise and lower it like a fucking drawbridge, but that comes second. When Andy and I get back, I want to be able to drive the buggy up into the warehouse.”
“You want me to make a ramp, sturdy enough to drive on in an hour? What the fuck am I going to use for materials?”
Nyko pointed back at the warehouse to the pipe racks. “There’s ten thousand feet of iron pipe here. Fucking figure it out.”
“You got it.”
Nyko stepped a few feet into the warehouse and whistled. “Andy and I are going for a ride. Jonas is in charge. When I get back, I want this area cleared. When that’s done, help Jonas. Work with fucking purpose people. We have four hours to dark. I want defenses ready by sundown.”
Andy pulled the buggy around and Nyko climbed up onto the gunner’s deck and strapped in. “Let’s go. Put the fucking pedal down man, show me what this motherfucker will do.”
“She’s better on the dirt, be careful she hops the turns on pavement,” Andy said, then put the hammer down. The tires smoked and the buggy spun around in place and rocketed off down the street.
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Brian and Andy shared the contents of Brian’s flask, grimacing at the rot-gut moonshine with every sip. Just after midnight, Brian locked the doors of the train and crawled into a hammock strung up in the caboose.
Less than an hour later, long enough to fall completely asleep, the first thunk sounded against the train car. A few minutes later, there was another. It was another half an hour before Brian’s consciousness returned enough, hastened by the need to pee, to hear the constant thump, thump, thump from all four sides of the caboose.
“Fuckin shit, Andy. Wake the fuck up man.”
“What?” Andy said sleepily. Then sat up in his hammock so quickly, the entire thing spun around dumping him on his head. His gun skittered across the metal floor. The noise seemed to have an effect on the banging on the outside of the car; it increased in tempo and fervor.
“Sounds like infected,” whispered Brian. His voice low and raspy.
Andy crawled slowly towards his rifle. “Get up the ladder. Open the hatch. We gotta get eyes on.”
“Wish I had me some fuckin’ night vision goggles.”
“Just take a flashlight. I don’t think we’re getting out of this without some killing. If a cure hasn’t come by now, I don’t think it’s going to, buddy.”
“I know all that. I still hate killing them. I wouldn’t want someone killin’ my Mama. My Daddy’s been dead, thankfully. He ain’t have to live through this shit. But I’m sure Momma’s been infected. She couldn’t get ‘round too good.” Brian uttered his entire monolog in a hushed whisper as he climbed the ladder to the roof hatch.
Andy gathered his rifle, and still in his socks and green plaid boxer shorts, climbed the ladder behind his friend.
“Hooooleeeeeeeey fuck.” Brian whistled.
Brian spun around as Andy climbed out onto the roof. Surrounding them, as far as the beam of his flashlight would go, the infected were packed shoulder to shoulder. They swayed back and forth in a synchronized movement, like the crowd during a ballad at a concert only they could hear.
“Yeah, man. The fuck they come from? I ain’t never seen so god damn many. We ain’t got enough bullets, and it’s too many to do hand to hand.”
Andy started back down the ladder. “Nothing to do now. Maybe they’ll be gone in the morning.”
“You think we’re gonna be okay? That many; might be able to push over the car.”
“Nah. Come on. Can’t do shit. Get some sleep brother. It’ll look better in the morning.”
Brian pulled the hatch closed behind him, and flipped the lever to lock it. “Everything looks worse at two in the morning,” he said.
The pair of men slept fitfully for the next few hours. “What do we have in the cabinets in here,” Andy said finally.
“I dunno man. Some shit. Food n shit, I guess. It’s gonna get powerful hot in this metal box today.”
“Where’s the reloading kit?”
Brian stopped for a minute. “Might be in here. But I think it’s up in the storage that went with the boss.” He resumed his pacing, timing his foot-falls with the rhythmic thumping on the sides of the train. “Fuck!” He yelled. “I can’t fucking hear my goddamn self think! Shut the fuck up out there!” He banged on the doors with his fist.
“Stay chill, man. The cavalry will be back any time. We just gotta hold out in here. We got plenty of water, it’s gonna get hot, but at least we can open the roof hatch.”
“What if they’re gonna be a week? How are they gonna save us? They can’t spend that many bullets either. Can’t fucking push us cause the tracks are blocked and the locomotive ain’t got no hookup on the front to pull us back.”
They sat in the train car for most of the morning, until the temperature inside was too much to bear. Brian climbed the ladder and unlatched the hatch. “Andy. You gotta come see this man.”
Andy climbed out onto the roof of the train, and sat down. Surrounding their two cars for three hundred yards in every direction, the infected swayed back and forth. Hands outstretched towards the men.
“You think we could jump to the buggy?”
“Then what? They’d be on us before we could get it started.”
Brian’s voice cracked as he spoke. Andy could tell he was nearing panic. “What if we blew our ammo clearing around it; then jumped for it? We might be able to buy some time. Then I could clear the path with the gun.”
Andy put his hand on Brian’s shoulder. “We’re fine, Brian. They can’t get in. We have enough food and water to get us through the next bunch of days. Let’s get out of sight, be as quiet as possible, and hope that the noise of the locomotive coming back draws them off. For now, we just need to keep calm. You got that, soldier? We just keep our heads down, maintain absolute silence and they’ll go away on their own.
Both men laid in their hammocks and tried to be as still as possible. For two days. On the morning of the third day of sitting in the sweltering metal box, Andy couldn’t take the smell anymore. He rummaged through the cabinets on the train, looking for anything to help. Finally he pulled out a tub of bleach soaked kitchen wipes and started scrubbing himself down.
When he was finished, he tossed the can to Brian. “Feels pretty good man, cooled me off a little bit. Just don’t get it in your eyes or mouth.”
Brian did the same, then the pair sat back and prepared to spend another day being quiet. They napped for a while in the morning, and woke to nothingness. It took Andy a moment to figure out what was gone.
“Brian,” he whispered.
“Shut up. This is the first decent sleep I’ve had in three days.”
“Brian. I think they’re gone, man.”
Brian sat up in his hammock and waved dismissively at the ladder up the rear wall. “Guess you better go check then.”
Andy snuck up the ladder and poked his head out of the hatch. “Holy shit! They’re gone! And the train’s coming back!”
“Whoo hoo! All of em?”
“Every one. What the fuck?”
Brian unlatched the back door of the caboose and stepped out onto the platform. The locomotive was several miles away and chugging towards them. Andy swung down over the edge and flipped down onto the platform with Brian.
The train stopped twenty five or so feet from the caboose. Nyko and Jonas climbed down out of the cab.
“You boys been on fucking vacation? I left you here to clear that shit off the god damned tracks. What the fuck have you been doing?” Nyko looked furious. “One god damn thing to do.”
“It ain’t like that at all,” said Brian
“So, what the fuck is it like?”
Brian relayed the story. Andy added in a few missed details, and some color commentary, specifically in the area of how bad Brian smelled.
“That doesn’t make any sense at all,” said Jonas. “We haven’t seen that many infected in more than a year. And why would they spend two days banging on your train car and then just leave you alone?”
“No idea. Look around. Follow the tracks. They were here,” said Andy. “And then something drew them off. That’s all there is. The question is where did they go. I’d like permission to follow the tracks. They can’t be more than half an hour away by buggy.”
“So you can draw them back? They’re gone. Let them stay gone. Get that fucking track cleared. I have rails and ties. Jonas has the welding equipment. I want to cross the patch before sunrise,” Nyko said.
The blockage on the track was made up of several junked cars buried under a pile of concrete, rocks, and dirt. It took the men four hours to clear the wrecks, before Brian and Andy dragged them away with the buggy.
The rest of the day, they worked at filling in the hole behind the blockage and setting the ties. The sun was setting as the men heaved the rails into place and checked the levels. Three of the ties were out of alignment.
Brian complained loudly as he heaved the rail off into the sand. “I fuckin told you that shit was slaunchwise man. You wouldn’t fuckin’ listen.”
“Just shut up and lift this fucking thing,” grunted Terrel.
“Someone’s coming.” Shouted Jonas as the last of the light faded.
“What is it,” yelled Nyko.
“They’re coming back,” yelled Andy. “Get to the train.”
All the men ran for the train, except Nyko, who walked backwards, looking at the oncoming herd of infected. The moon was not yet up, and the sun had passed the horizon. In the fading light, all he could see was the dust trail they were leaving. It had to be thousands.
An hour later, the train was surrounded, and the rhythmic thumping began. This time, there were windows. The infected stared at the men in the train through the window. When one of them would move, their hands would stretch for a few minutes, reaching towards the movement inside.
After a while, they would lower again, and the swaying would continue. Over the next five days, the men sat in the train. Every hour, Nyko got up, checked the train and then sat back down. Andy and Brian passed their time playing cards and drinking.
At the evening meal on day six, Nyko asked again, “They just fucking left? Six days we’ve been sitting here. Delayed ten days by a bunch of fucking infected. If they aren’t gone by tomorrow, I’m gonna shoot ‘em all just to get moving. Can’t stand the fucking stink of you sons of bitches.”
“Holy shit! That’s it. Boss, Me and Andy wiped down with them bleach rags and went to sleep. When we woke up, they were gone.”
Nyko slammed his hands down on the table. “Six fucking days and you just now mentioned this shit?”
“Well man, ain’t really think about it. Ain’t no one would have thought a few bleach towels would run off a whole herd of ‘em.”
Everyone on the train wiped themselves down with a can of bleach wipes and waited. By midnight, the infected had all gone, continuing their direction of travel. Nyko dismissed the crew to get some sleep.
The repairs started at dawn. They reset the ties, making sure they were level, plumb, and straight. Jonas was like a kid with a new comic book reading the manual that came with the welding rig, and bounced with joy as he lit the thermite. Within seconds, molten steel ran through the form, welding the replacement rail.
At ten minutes after six, they hooked the caboose and boxcar to the buggy, and slowly Andy dragged it back up the track to the siding, so they could get the locomotive back in front of it. The sun was fully down by the time the exhausted crew finished reconnecting the train. Nyko didn’t want to show up in Phoenix in the middle of the night, so he sent everyone to bed after making sure they wiped down with bleach once again.
On the fifteenth morning of the trip, a trip Nyko had expected to take a couple days, they started on the final leg. In three hours, they covered the last twenty eight miles.
The train topped a small rise, heading between two massive sandstone buttes, the gleaming white-walled city of Phoenix came into view.
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Nyko watched the scenery unfold in front of him. In the course of half a day, the landscape went from rocky canyons to tall mesas, then to scrubby desert. The first saguaro cactus appeared, standing nearly ten feet tall; it hadn’t sprouted any arms yet.
He was admiring the cactus, a plant that thrived in the harshest conditions when he was thrown forward in his seat. He stood up and moved hand-to-seat up the aisle. The train was moving slow in an attempt to conserve fuel as well as check out the integrity of the tracks. By the time Nyko made it to the end of the car, they were at a dead stop.
The boss stepped out to the platform between cars and looked towards the front of the train. In the distance through the low, scrubby brush he could see something the tracks. Jonas was waving frantically. Nyko stepped down to the ground and walked up towards the locomotive.
Nyko heard the sound of roar of Andy’s buggy flying across the desert, coming towards them, but he was on the other side of the train, out of sight.
He finally got close enough to hear Jonas over the roar of the diesel engines. “Boss! Marauders!”
“Fuck,” Nyko said to himself and broke into a trot up towards the locomotive. He reached the steps and heard the first shots ring out from the crow’s nest on top of the tanker. It wasn’t the machine gun, but a steady staccato of rifle shots, half a second apart. He bounded up into the engine and winced at the pain in his side. “How many?”
“Lots. Fifty maybe?”
Nyko stuck his head out the window. Andy was heading for the train, followed by six trucks about three hundred yards away. Behind them, men were running. Another shot from the crow’s nest sent a dark shape tumbling out of the bed of one of the trucks.
“Is that Terrell in the Crow’s nest? Damn that fucker can shoot.” He bent over the bench in the locomotive, opened the seat and pulled out two rifles. Jonas’ rifle started off as a police issue Sig-Saur MPX, a small pistol-like sub machine gun. Brian added a modified, shortened folding stock, a red-dot scope, and a flashlight under the short, six and a half inch barrel. Brian called it the T-Rex gun; It was so short even a Tyrannosaurus Rex could shoot it. It fit Jonas perfectly. A curved thirty round magazine arced out of the receiver.
The second was a stock version of the same gun. Inside the bench were half a dozen magazines, and ten boxes of .40 caliber Smith and Wesson ammunition. They had enough bullets in the locomotive to kill a small army, if they made them count.
Andy pulled up beside the locomotive and stopped. “More than a hundred. Coming this way. Four trucks and two big armored trucks in the rear.”
Brian vaulted over the back of the rail buggy into the gunner’s position. “Let’s go wreck them motherfucker brother!” He shouted, strapping in.
“Be careful. Let them come to us. Swing wide and come at them from the back. If you can, take out the two armored trucks first. That’s probably the leader. This is what we built this train for. Heat this son of a bitch up.”
Jonas idled the engines up to the eighty percent mark. “Generators at one hundred percent, captain.”
“Dude. Was that supposed to be a Scottish accent?”
“Aye Captain. I don’t know how much more she can take. Dilithium crystals are almost at maximum capacity.”
“Damnit, Jonas! I need more power!”
“I’ll see what I can do, but I’m already givin’ ya all she’s got. Maybe if I could adjust the fuel injection I could give you another twenty percent.”
Jonas grinned as he turned the dial the rest of the way up. The engines hummed, vibrating the entire train. “Captain, I don’t know how much more she can…” Jonas quote was cut off by the sound of bullets pinging off the metal exterior.
“Sound the horn,” Nyko ordered, stepping up onto the wooden platform inside the locomotive.
Jonas sounded four blasts, long, short, long, short. “Now we wait.”
The marauders in the trucks stopped, and seconds behind them the running group passed, swarming the train. Nyko flicked up a little red switch cover, revealing two plastic toggles underneath.
Nyko flipped the first switch. “Charging.”
Jonas looked out the window. “Wait for it. Ten more seconds.”
Nyko counted down to three in his head, then said “Three. Two. One. Now!” He flipped the second switch, sending five hundred thousand watts of power generated by the train’s diesel electric generators along massive cables to the external plating of the train.
Small arcs of lightning lept from the train to anything nearby electrocuting the attacking marauders instantly.
Nyko flipped both switches off and stepped down off the train and walked back to the first passenger car. When he stepped up, a marauder lept through the doorway at him. Nyko fired two shots from his sub machine gun and kept moving forward, stepping on the corpse in the aisle. He crouched and moved his way back through the cars, killing two more marauders as he went.
Both the crow’s nest and one of the two rear miniguns spun up, the sound of ten thousand angry hornets amplified a hundred times. The sound was the sort that rumbled in the chest and reverberated throughout the entire train.
Nyko cringed at the amount of ammunition being used. Each minigun fired four thousand rounds per minute from its six rotating barrels. Every thirtieth round was a bright phosphorus streak, a tracer round that helped the gunner aim the storm of lead.
Nyko stopped between the last sleeper car and the caboose to watch. This wasn’t a fair fight, it was carnage. Dead marauders carpeted the ground beside the train, three of the four trucks were burning, ignited by the two thousand degree trader rounds. From the top of the train, Derrick was pouring rounds into the second armored truck. Nyko watched him walk the bullets from the rear tire to the front, and then concentrate several thousand rounds in the engine compartment before the truck started smoking and stopped. Brian and Andy spun sideways beside the truck, coming to a rest facing the driver’s side door.
Brian held something to his mouth, then tossed a small bundle under the truck. Andy reversed the buggy quickly, and seconds later a huge explosion lifted the truck off the ground, flipping it onto its side. Andy deftly brought the buggy around facing the back doors, and parked.
Both miniguns stopped firing. Nothing moved on the field. Jonas sounded a quick wah wah on the massive locomotive’s air horns, indicating the all clear. On that signal, Andy and Brian returned to the train. Nyko could hear Brian as he made his way through the caboose.
“Shit man, you see that motherfucker! Whoom! BLAM! Blew that motherfucking truck right on its god damn side! I swear to god I thought that shit was going to knock me off the buggy! Shit!”
Nyko hopped off the end of the train.
“Boss, you see that? Holy shit!” The word holy came out as four or five syllables.
“Yeah. What the fuck was that?”
“Me an’ Andy made up a whole rack of pipe bombs outta some old plumbing shit we had layin’ around. Them sumbitches got some serious power!”
Nyko shook his head. “You two are gonna get yourselves killed. What’s that on the tracks?”
“The tracks are done, Boss. They’re going to have to be replaced. Looks like they blew them up, then piled a couple old train cars and trash on them. The whole thing’s a setup to try and derail anyone coming down the track.”
“How far ahead is Phoenix?”
“I think I saw it in the distance from a bluff about five miles up. Wait until you get a glimpse of it. If that was Phoenix, it looks a lot different than it used to.”
“The whole place is surrounded by a huge white wall. Practically glows in the sunlight. I’d guess I can see about fifteen miles out here, so maybe twenty miles away?”
“Any chance of repairing the tracks?”
“We’ll have to dig up and replace the ties, weld the new rails in place, and grind the track smooth.”
Jonas reached the end of the train as Andy was answering. “We found all the stuff to do that in the barn, but I don’t have any experience welding like that. We’ll have to creep across the welds the first few times, to make sure they can support the load.”
“I don’t suppose you found a manual?”
“Well, yeah. Everything had its documentation, but welding is an art,” Jonas replied. “We can do ‘er, but it’s going to take some time, and we’re sitting ducks out here.
“Here’s what we’ll do. There was siding about an hour back. We’ll run back there, and drop the last two cars in the siding, then pull behind them and push them back here. Two men stay here and get to work on clearing the damaged sections.”
The look on the men’s faces was one of dread. They had to have known they were going to come up on stretches of damaged track.
Nyko continued, “The rest of us will run back to a pile of ties and load a dozen or so. I haven’t seen any since the bridge, but I haven’t been looking. There’s got to be a stack somewhere between here and there. We’ll pull up a siding if we have to and use that rail. Who wants to stay?”
Brian and Andy looked at each other. “We’ll stay. We can use the buggy to pull most of that shit off the tracks.”
“Good men. Let’s get to work. I want to be on the other side of this mess in three days.”
Dropping and repositioning the two cars took less than half a day. It was late evening by the time Andy and Brian parked the buggy beside the caboose and freight car and watched the rest of the train disappear back the way they’d come.
“Wonder how long until them sons of bitches get back.”
“Which?” asked Andy
“Which what,” said Brian, pulling a flask out of his thigh pocket.
“Which sons of bitches?”
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