Although we managed to escape our attackers, the truck that I currently drove was in bad condition. The rattling coming from the underbody had increased to the point where conversation inside the cabin was nearly impossible, and I didn’t dare turn the wheel more than a half point in either direction for fear that I’d completely snap the axle.
“We need to get a new vehicle,” I said, slowing down with careful little taps on the brakes so that I could speak into the short-wave radio without being drowned out. “This one’s nearly dead.”
Jaspers replied, although I wasn’t expecting his comment. “Sierra’s in there, yes?” he asked.
It took me a moment to catch the meaning of this question. Sierra was the phonetic alphabet for S, referring to Sara. “Affirmative. Why?”
“When we peeled out of the trap, we grabbed a party favor,” he answered, still carefully choosing his words. “Tossed it into the back. Probably bears some careful examination, but not with Sierra around. Yes?”
I pieced apart the meaning to these words. They’d managed to grab one of the hostiles on their way out, presumably capture him alive. They wanted to interrogate him – but not with Sara around. She probably wouldn’t understand why we needed answers, and I didn’t want to resort to any… more graphic methods in front of her.
“Roger that,” I answered, thinking. “Corinne, you listening in?”
“Turned the volume down to try and ignore your truck’s death rattle,” she answered dryly. “What’s up?”
I glanced around the damaged truck. It had some supplies in the back, but they wouldn’t be hard to transfer over to the others. “Mind picking up a couple of passengers? This vehicle’s pretty much had it.”
She slowed down, drove back in closer to us as I eased the truck to a grinding stop. Feng and Sara both headed over to Corinne’s truck, while I threw some of the supplies out of the back of the injured machine and into Corinne’s bay. Once I’d stripped out everything useful, I sent them off to scout ahead to the next town, see about getting us some alternative wheels.
And once they’d left, I waited for Jaspers and Sergei to pick me up.
They hadn’t been lying over the radio. As their truck pulled to a stop in front of me, I glanced in the back bay and saw a man, bound and gagged, his eyes staring up at me. They looked almost absurdly wide with fear.
He and his compatriots had tried to kill us. They’d tried to take Sara. I didn’t feel a single drop of sympathy towards him.
I smiled down at him, saw him shudder at the blankness lurking behind my gaze.
Sergei opened the door, looked out at me. The man still looked a little pale and uncomfortable from the wound in his shoulder, but he still seemed to have full control of his uninjured arm, and he opened the back door for me without issue.
“How’d you grab him?” I asked, climbing in as Jaspers gunned the truck again – not following after Corinne and the others, but instead heading off the main highway onto a smaller road, off towards the trees.
Jaspers turned and grinned back at me. Like my smile at the captive, there wasn’t a single drop of mirth in the expression. “Bloody idiot tried to rush me. I decked him, then figured that maybe he’d come in handy. One toss landed him in the back of the truck.”
“That’s fortunate,” I agreed. Jaspers twisted the wheel and drove the truck off onto first a two-lane road, then onto a one-lane dirt path that was little more than a walking trail. We rattled and bumped for a couple hundred feet before he slowed the truck to a stop.
“That should have shaken him up a bit,” he said, turning off the truck and climbing out. I joined him, but Sergei stayed in the car.
“I think I will rest a bit, get back strength,” he said to me as I slipped out of the truck.
I reached out to pat him on the shoulder, making sure not to hit the injured one. “Sounds like a good idea. We’ll take a closer look at that shoulder once we catch back up with the others.”
He nodded and settled back against the seat, closing his eyes and focusing on just breathing steadily.
Stalking around to the rear of the truck, Jaspers dropped the tailgate and, with one arm, hauled the unresisting captive out from the truck’s bed and onto the ground. He frog-marched the man across the road and over to a tree about a foot in diameter. He undid the man’s bindings, redoing them so that his arms secured him to the tree, his back to the trunk.
As Jaspers stepped back, I examined our captive. He looked… well, my first impression of him still felt correct. He looked like a hillbilly, right out of some comedy sketch show.
He glared back at me, one of his eyes already starting to darken from where he’d taken a hit. A small cut on his forehead stood out, and he looked like he’d sustained quite a few more bruises from the bumpy ride out here. Other than those minor injuries, however, he appeared relatively healthy. He scowled at me, pulling back lips under a scraggly beard to reveal crooked, ill-kept teeth.
I stepped up to stand directly in front of him. His eyes flicked towards mine, but wouldn’t linger on my face. I waited, patiently, until he finally, reluctantly, gave me his full attention.
“My name,” I said in a calm and open tone, “is Brian Richards. I grew up in Texas, went through training at Fort Hood. I’m a red-blooded American, although I was stationed overseas for the last six months.”
The man grunted, but didn’t say anything.
“We’re here,” I continued, still holding his eyes with my own, “to figure out what happened. A couple of days ago, the entire continent went dark. Do you know what happened?”
For a long minute, the man didn’t say anything. I saw his lip start to curl up, but he apparently decided against more bravado. Maybe it was my openness. Maybe it was Jaspers, leaning against a tree behind me and picking at his nails with a Ka-Bar knife tip.
“‘pocalypse,” he muttered out. “Priest said so.”
“Really?” Jaspers grunted behind me. “And here I thought all those stupid bloody American evangelist stereotypes were false.”
I ignored the Brit. “A priest in your town?”
“Tryin’ to convert us,” the man grunted. “Called us ‘hill folk, said we ain’t acceptin’ o’ God.” For a moment, his lips tugged up in a devious grin. “‘Cept God sure left ‘im, too.”
The man’s thick accent clouded his words, but I managed to sort them out. “So why did you attack us?”
He looked back at me as if I was the crazy one. “‘Cause ‘s just sinners left, yeah? Gotta pr’tect the clan. Ain’t no gettin’ to Heaven no more, priest said. We sent ‘im up anyway, but ‘s all sinners now. Gotta grab what’s needed t’survive.” He winked at me. “Y’ve got th’ same idea, yeah? Get ’em while they’re young, soft?” His hands jerked as he tried to make some sort of gesture, reaching towards his chest.
I got it an instant before Jaspers, and I threw out an arm to keep him from burying the knife in the prisoner’s chest. “No!” I commanded, struggling against the Brit’s mass.
“He’s talking about the goddamn little girl!” Jaspers roared through gritted teeth. “Let’s see him act so bloody smug without any fucking balls!”
A part of me wanted to let Jaspers go. Hell, the prisoner had confessed to killing the priest, I was pretty sure, and he’d attacked us without mercy, trying to steal Sara. For what… I didn’t want to imagine.
I fought down my own red haze. “He doesn’t know anything,” I finally said. “Let’s go.”
“I know’t was the ‘pocalypse!” the man said, shouting at us from the tree. “Felt ‘im, reachin’ into my brain! Touch o’ God, felt ‘im!”
He kept shouting after us, but after another few steps, the tone of his voice changed. “Hey! You gonna leave me ‘ere? Come back, lemme go!”
His shouts got fainter and fainter as we walked back to the truck and drove away.
To be continued…