Authors: Norman Christof
"I suppose the good doctor wanted old-school manual backups of everything, just in case," commented Alex.
The case was set up like a binder, where each section swung open to reveal the next. Chaz turned to the second section, which revealed a number of electronic instruments. One device looked like a communication computer, but more sophisticated, with a screen, input slots and a small keyboard. A second device was smaller and sized to be handheld. It had long hollow sections on each side that could hold liquids or other samples. A small screen occupied the middle of the device. There were also a number of media storage units that fit into the communication computer slots.
"This last section is the important one," Alex commented as he flipped past the digital devices.
The last compartment had extra padding, and just three sealed vials. Two of the vials were almost empty, but the last was half full of a hazy gray gas.
"Shit!" snarled Alex as he reached for the two empty vials. "These were all full just a few days ago. Something's wrong here. These held the drug that Fort Knox needs. They need these for comparison testing. Damn! This third one was full too. I don't see any cracking or breaking of the seals. There must be something wrong with the way the doctor stored them. I know he put this together in a hurry when he left the CDC. The vials must not be airtight."
Alex quickly closed up the case. "Colonel, this is important. It needs to get to Fort Knox. My chances are so much better with you. What do you say? Partners?"
Chaz stepped back, and started pacing. Alex watched, while placing the case back into his pack. Chaz came back to Alex.
"What the hell, kid. It would seem I have nothing left to live for these days, so why not. One condition though."
"What's that?" Alex said, smiling.
"Don't ever refer to us as partners. I'm Colonel Chaz Sheperd. Your commanding officer."
"Yes, sir," replied a saluting Alex.
In spite of Chaz's decision to help Alex get to the fort, Abby and the kids still filled his thoughts. He thought back to when the kids were still little, and how much they meant to him. They were such a big part of his life, not only in the time he spent with them, but the space they occupied in his heart. He remembered during those days thinking how unimaginable it would be to go a whole day and not see his kids. The thoughts of them someday growing up and moving away never occurred. Every parent thinks of those moments, even just in passing, but no one ever gives them much credence. It seems so distant. But eventually those days come, and in Chaz's case, it had come sooner than he expected.
Chaz said, "Now's as good a time as ever to take a water break. I'll go first, you keep watch."
"Are you sure, Colonel? We haven't made it that far since the last break."
"Remember our last conversation? Do you remember who I am to you?"
"Yes, sir, my commanding officer. That's who you are. I'll just keep an eye out while you take a water break."
Chaz had already stopped listening as he moved to a shaded section of the road. He swung off his pack, and eased himself down, sitting cross-legged. Rummaging through his pack, he found the laptop he had taken from Abby's house. He hadn't looked at it since shooting up her old home. He opened it up, and waited for it to boot. He watched Alex's back as he paced up and down, keeping his weapon at the ready.
The kid's got potential
, Chaz thought, but he didn't have the patience or desire to take on training new recruits. And that's exactly what Alex was. He may have done some time in this army, but he still had a lot to learn.
The laptop beeped a few times, and Chaz looked down at the screen, avoiding eye contact just as Alex turned. Chaz started flipping through the emails again, for anything that could give him more clues. Nothing was helping. There were a bunch of emails from the old boyfriend after their breakup. Quite a few emails. It looked like she was the one who broke it off, and he really didn't want it to end. One of Abby's emails said she just wasn't ready for a serious relationship. Apparently he was.
That could be a bit of a problem,
Chaz thought. There were a few other emails from her parents over in North Carolina, but nothing helpful. Mostly just stuff from her mom with pictures of cats and crazy lose-weight scams.
Chaz started flipping through the photo albums, and found quite a few recent pictures.
Why would she leave this behind,
All her email stuff, and all these photos. Wouldn't she want to take this stuff with her? She left in a hurry, but the laptop was just sitting out in the open. She couldn't have forgotten it. Maybe she wanted someone to find it? Maybe she hoped I would come looking for it? Naah! Just wishful thinking on my part.
He paused at a couple of photos of Shax with some other school kids. She had gotten so much bigger and prettier. All that baby fat was gone, and she was looking more and more like her mom.
Then, a video call window popped up. Someone was calling Abby's account on the computer.
"What the hell?" he whispered aloud.
Alex looked to Chaz. "What is it, sir? Things OK?"
Chaz glanced quickly up then back to the screen, waving Alex off. "Don't worry about it, it's nothing. Keep an eye on what you're supposed to be doing."
Chaz clicked on the "accept call" button. Abby's face filled the video screen. Behind her was a mud-brown wall, with an old painting of mountains. For a moment, they both froze. No one said anything, and the look of surprise on Abby's face was obvious. Chaz didn't know what to say.
Abby spoke first. "I'm sorry, I didn't expect ..." She looked down, and fumbled around with her keyboard and mouse.
Thinking she was trying to disconnect, Chaz spoke up. "Wait ... please ... don't go. I really need to ..."
"It's too late for any of this, Chaz. I thought there'd be someone else there. I really need to go. I can't do this today."
Chaz struggled, and just said the first thing that popped into his head. "I quit. I quit to find you and the kids."
"You quit? Quit what?"
"The military. I quit the military."
Abby's face shifted from surprise to skepticism. "You wouldn't quit. You couldn't. They wouldn't let you. I know how bad things are there."
"Nobody let me, Abby, I just left … it's really good to see you."
Abby looked down. "Chaz, we're not doing this. Not today of all days. Things aren't going very well. Maybe another time."
Ignoring her, Chaz continued. "Where are the kids? Are they there? I need to talk to them."
Abby look off screen, then looked down before turning back to Chaz. "That would just be too confusing. I can't do that to them right now."
"Abby, I'm really sorry, I just wanted a chance to say goodbye. I know you've all moved on, and that any hope for reconciliation is long past. I just wanted to see everyone one last time, before ..."
Abby moved in closer to the screen. "Before what? Has something happened? I've been trying to contact my mom, with no luck. She's not answering her phone or emails. It's been weeks, and that's totally unlike her. Do you know something?"
Chaz paused for a moment, then started to speak, but hesitated.
Frantically, Abby said, "If something happened to my parents, I need to know … Chaz?"
"There was an incident up in Washington this last week. The White House and the Pentagon were attacked. To be honest, I haven't been following it. As far as I know, nothing happened near your parents. But I have been out of the loop for a few days."
Abby leaned back, her shoulders slouching. "I'm really worried about them. I could see my laptop account online, and I was hoping it was them. That's why I started this call. I thought maybe they went to my old place and had the computer on."
Chaz smirked and scratched under his chin.
So much for my theory as to why she left the
Abby narrowed her eyes. "You think that's funny? My parents missing is funny?"
"No, no, no," he replied. "Something else just came to mind. I can likely go look for them in a few days, right after finishing up this one mission."
"Thought you said you quit."
"Just some loose ends that need cleaning up. Nothing important."
"And once the loose ends are taken care of, then what?"
"I haven't really planned much further than that."
"That's not like you, Chaz. What's going on?"
"I just need a change, I suppose. The whole world is changing, and not always for the better. I just need to look for a better way to fit in to whatever's left of it."
Abby crossed her arms. "How bad is it up there now? You guys, the military, I mean … you're winning again this time, aren't you?"
Chaz looked up to Alex, who was motioning it was time to go. "Where are you now, Abby? In Peru?"
"I'd really rather not say. We came here for good reasons. You could say that we needed a change too, especially Shax."
"Shax? Why? Is she OK?"
"She's alright, just the usual teenage girl stuff. When you combine that with all the unrest up there, it was getting difficult for her. Cai thinks it's great being here; he acts like it's just one big adventure. Sometimes, she seems the older of the two."
"Is there any way I could just talk to them ..."
"Not this time, Chaz. They're not prepared for that. Give me a call back when you find out about my parents. I'll talk to the kids and let them know what's going on, then go from there. I'll let them decide if they want to talk."
"I'm their father, Abby; why wouldn't they want to talk to me?"
"It's been a while, Chaz, and they've changed. Kids grow up fast, and they're hard to read sometimes. I promise I'll talk to them, but I need to go."
"Just a few more minutes; there's still more I want to talk about."
Chaz's words echoed against a blank screen as Abby signed off.
, Chaz thought.
That didn't help. I was better off not knowing what was going on than hearing all that. They sound worse off than when we were all together. I need to find a way back to them.
Alex chimed in, "We should get going, Colonel. It's getting later."
Chaz shut up the laptop and placed it into his backpack. "You need some downtime; maybe close your eyes for a few minutes? I'll stand watch."
"I'd rather just get going, Colonel. The sooner we get there the better."
Chaz nodded in agreement. "You're right. Next time, you can take the first break. Let's get moving."
Chaz and Alex trucked on at a good clip for the rest of the evening. Close to dusk, they could see the skyline of the city a few miles off. Not making it before dark would be a bad thing. Chances were, most of the power was out, so the city would be pretty hard to navigate. The darkness gave zombies and other undesirables places to hide.
Alex wiped sweat off his brow, and squinted as he stared down the road. "I see something reflecting in the distance. Something big."
Chaz stopped and reached for his binoculars. Peering through the glasses, he said, "It's a school bus in the middle of the road. One of those half-sized buses. And a smaller car. A Volkswagen, maybe. I can't see anyone in the car. Someone's moving in the bus. Actually, at least a couple of people. They're small, kids I think. No sign of the bus driver though. Let's get closer."
They moved a bit more cautiously up the side of the road now, walking single file to make it look like one person from a distance. As they got within a half mile, Chaz took out the binoculars, and focused on the vehicles. After surveying the scene, Chaz remarked, "Looks like just a bunch of elementary-school kids. Some are eating, the others are just talking. No sign of zombies around. I still don't see a driver, or any other adults."
"I wonder how long they've been there?" asked Alex.
"Hard to say; they don't look like they're suffering, and they have food and water. Hang on a sec. I see something off the side of the road. It's got a tarp over it. Could be a body; it's adult size. I wonder if that's the driver."
"Something's not right there. Maybe they could use our help. There has to be an adult around somewhere."
"Well, no one is getting off the bus, so they're safe for the moment. That bus is awfully tempting. Especially if it's got fuel, and it probably does if it's loaded up with kids. Let's get a closer look."
Chaz and Alex both picked up their pace to a slow jog. There wasn't much point in being all stealthy given they were so close. The situation seemed odd, but relatively harmless. Nothing they couldn't handle. As they got nearer, the kids spotted them. A dozen or so stared out the windows, watching them. They were talking excitedly amongst themselves, and didn't look scared as they pointed to Alex and Chaz.
Chaz and Alex approached the bus and walked to the driver's side. The kids all shifted to the same side. Everyone was sort of checking each other out. Alex said to Chaz, "They seem OK. Let's see if they'll let us in."
"That's what I was thinking," replied Chaz. "You stay here where they can see you and I'll see if I can open the door."
Chaz walked around the bus. Most of the kids kept their eyes on Alex, but a couple moved up to the driver's seat. Chaz reached the door, and tried pushing the door to see if it would open. It didn't. It was loose, but locked. He didn't force it. Two kids, a couple of the older boys just watched him. Chaz said "Hey guys, how about opening the doors so we can talk?" The kids looked at each other. One of them said something, but Chaz couldn't make it out. The other just shook his head back and forth.
Around the side of the bus, one of the girls popped open the window just a crack. The girl just opened it enough to talk through. She had red hair tied back in a single ponytail with a yellow bungee. The other kids on the bus stayed close enough to her to hear. "What do you want?" she asked Alex.
"We just want to talk. To make sure you guys are OK. You seem to be all alone."
"We're doing OK, just waiting for the parents to come back."
One of the other kids, a smaller boy with dark hair and freckles, grabbed her by the arm and shook his head disapprovingly. Alex could hear them through the window.
The boy said, "Don't tell them anything, Christa. We don't know them. Mr. and Mrs. Castle said not to talk to anyone, and to stay in the bus till they got back."
"Billy, stop being such a scaredy cat. They're not going to hurt us, they're not zombies. Just look at them."
All the kids turned their attention from their argument and looked out the windows. Chaz had made his way back to Alex.
"You're not zombies ... right?" Christa directed her question at Alex.
"No, we're definitely not zombies," Alex responded, smiling.
"What about him?" she said, motioning towards Chaz. "He looks pretty scary. He's not a zombie, is he? He's not, like, mind-controlling you and making you talk to us so we'll let you in, then eat us?"
Alex did his best not to laugh, but couldn't hold back the smirk. He tried hiding it by looking at the ground. "No, he's just old and beat up. He's no zombie. Chaz, tell them you're not a zombie."
Shaking his head, Chaz replied, "I'm not a zombie. This is just what you look like when you've killed as many zombies as I have. It's very hard work."
Pushing Christa back, Billy reached up and opened the window all the way. "You've killed zombies, mister? That's so cool! How many? Did you kill any today?"
"Well, I haven't killed any today, at least not yet. Have you kids seen any?"
Christa tried pulling Billy back, but he was not budging.
"Yeah, I've seen lots of zombies, tons of them actually." Billy puffed out his chest and took a big breath. "They don't scare me at all. Lots of the other kids are scared. Totally terrified actually." Billy cracked a big smile, showing a few lost teeth. "They don't bother me all that much. I mean, sure they could kill me and all, but I'm too fast. And smart too. My mom and dad say I'm really clever. They do ... they say it all the time. They tell me I'm a clever boy. So, even if I did see a zombie I'd know what to do. You can just smash them in the face first, because you see, then all their teeth would fall out. Then they couldn't bite me or anything. Makes them pretty harmless actually. Unless, I suppose, if they slobbered all over me, then that would be gross, and it might infect me. I think that's what happens. But it doesn't matter, because, then I'd just kick them right in their private parts. You know what parts those are, right? I know another word for it, but I'm not allowed to say it, or my mom and dad get mad. And yeah, I know it won't kill them or anything, because they're zombies and all. But my buddy Bubba at school told me that it still hurts them ... a lot. My dad says that's nonsense, that the zombies can't feel anything. I really want to hurt them because of what they did to my grandma and grandpa. So, maybe if it hurts them at least a little, then I figure it's worth a try. And ... "
Alex threw his hands in the air, surrendering "Whoa, whoa there, big fella, that's plenty of information. Thanks for that. I'm sure that'll come in handy the next time we run into some zombies. But what my friend Chaz here was really interested in is whether you have seen any zombies recently. Have you seen any on your trip?"
Christa grabbed Billy by the back of his shirt, yanked him hard from the window, and directed him to the seat across the aisle. He started to object, but Christa held a finger to her lips and stared him down. Billy plunked himself into the seat, dropped his chin to his chest, and crossed his arms. Silence.
"Sorry about that; he gets pretty excited about zombies, and everything else. We've been going a little stir crazy since being stuck here. I seem to be the only one that can calm him down."
"That's OK, Christa, we understand. Chaz and I, we're just wondering though, why are you guys alone and stuck here in the first place?"
"We weren't alone when we started out, we were on a school field trip."
"A school field trip? What were your parents and teachers thinking?" Don't they realize this place is infested with zombies? That there's a war going on? It's no time for field trips!"
"Well, actually, this was a pretty safe place when we started out. The man from the army said they got rid of the zombies. Our teacher Mrs. White said there hadn't been a zombie spotted on this road for over six months now. Plus the army was using the road every day. They keep it clear for supplies to the city. My mom was a bit nervous, but my dad said it would be OK."
"But still," Chaz chimed in, "letting a bunch of school kids out on a venture like this with just a teacher and a few chaperones is ridiculous. It's insane. They're jeopardizing the wellbeing of all these kids."
"Oh, we weren't alone. We had soldier escorts. They had one of those big fancy trucks in front of us. You know, the ones that look almost like a tank, but are more of a truck. And they had a Jeep behind us, watching."
"Still, where the heck did they think they were going to take you? There aren't any tourist attractions out here. At least not any that are safe anymore."
"Oh, we weren't really going anywhere special. We were just going for a ride. A lot of us have never actually been out of the city. The wars have been going on since before we were born. They said it wasn't safe. Our teachers thought it would be good for us to get out of the city and see some nature. We left this morning, and we'll be home for supper."
Alex just stared. "Yeah, well, I suppose that's not too crazy. Nature is nice. I used to like walking in the woods."
"I'd never seen a forest before, at least not a real one. I've seen pictures in books and on the internet. It seems different in person. It smells different. We saw birds too. Hawks. Billy says he saw eagles."
Billy perked up a bit and glanced towards Christa upon hearing his name. He started to open his mouth, but Christa tilted her head and glared back. Billy went back to pouting.
"I don't really think he saw eagles; he makes things up sometimes. That's how little kids are, you know." A smile formed on Christa's face as she brushed her hair back from her eyes.
Alex smiled back. "So, what happened? Why are you guys all sitting here, with no parents around?"
"Oh, they'll be back, they just needed to run a quick errand down the road."
Billy perked up. "Yeah, they'll be right back."
Chaz thought he heard Billy giggle. "What's so funny there, son? You think it's funny being out here all alone?"
"I'm just a bit scared, that's all. I laugh when I'm nervous."
Chaz left Alex and Christa talking, and headed towards the front of the bus. He veered towards the smaller vehicle about ten yards away. Approaching cautiously, he noticed the door was open, but couldn't see anyone inside. There appeared to be no damage, and the keys were still in the ignition. A half-eaten bag of beer nuts sat in the passenger seat. Looking around, he noticed the tarp he'd spotted through the binoculars off to the right. He walked around the car, checked underneath, then headed towards the tarp.
Alex continued talking with Christa. "I don't understand why the parents left you here for so long. How many of them were here?"
"Well, there was Mr. and Mrs. Castle. They're the chaperones for the trip. Then our teacher, Mrs. White. The bus driver, Jack, and Mrs. White's helper, Julie. They all went with the soldiers. The soldiers that were left. They said they'd be back in just a little while."
"What do you mean the soldiers that were left?"
"Oh, well we were just driving along when the truck in front stopped. One of the soldiers went and talked to the soldiers in the Jeep. Then, the soldier came back and talked to Mrs. White. She told us that the soldiers in the Jeep were checking out something in the forest. She said it was nothing to worry about, and they would be right back. The drove off in the Jeep through that dirt road over there between the trees. The big truck of soldiers waited here with us. They haven't come back yet."
"Well, OK, but what about all the other parents and soldiers?"
Chaz approached the tarp near the edge of the road. He looked back, and could see Alex talking with Christa. Alex looked back, but he was too far for Chaz to make out his expression. Always on the lookout for something to jump out, Chaz scanned the woods. The stench of acrid death filled his nose. He really didn't want to lift up the tarp, knowing it wouldn't be good news. The bumps underneath were too many to be just one body. He wondered why the kids hadn't mentioned it. Maybe the car blocked their view of the tarp. The tarp was downwind, so the kids couldn't smell what he was smelling.
Christa shuffled her feet, and looked behind her at the other kids. They were pretty quiet. "I don't really know. When the first group didn't come back, the other soldiers and adults went looking for them. I'm sure they'll be back soon. They wouldn't leave us here all alone."
"How long have they been gone?"
Christa just shrugged her shoulders.
Alex was interrupted by Chaz yanking on his backpack. He'd come up so quickly that Alex hadn't heard him approach.