Monday, December 27, 2010

Land of Shadows: Chapter XIX - The Uni

Dee found herself experiencing a sense of deja vu as they approached the small town where they would probably be spending the night. According to the map it was called St. James. It was about ninety miles southwest of St, Louis. They had been making good time, it was as if someone had gone before them and cleared their path of wrecked cars and such. It was not until she had bent down to pick up her father's journal after it had once again slid under the dash that she had realized that was exactly the case. Her father, along with many of their hometown's founders had done just that on their way up from Missouri years ago and there had been no traffic since then to clog things up again.

They had been unconsciously retracing their route since leaving Chicago. It was decided that the pursuit of James Nash's killer would be abandoned for now. They knew where he was going and it was hoped that they could beat him to it. She had read and re read the pertinent journal entries and hoped that her father was wrong. But she knew deep down that he was not. The catastrophe that had wiped out most of humanity had been man made.

The machines that had been used to work this horror had destroyed themselves in the process. But they were only prototypes. There was a secondary location in Houston that housed a bigger, more powerful machine. And it was just sitting there waiting to be used. Her father knew this because he had rescued a man that had helped build these machines. The man had been badly injured, but he had babbled about it constantly in his final delirious hours before dying. When he had been lucid he talked reluctantly about it, afraid that he would punish him for his role in the destruction of human civilization. But her father had learned enough enough to know how to go down there and shut things down. Or, for his killer to go down there and reactivate the machine. Neither her, nor her father knew if those that had been passed over once would be passed over again. Odds are they would, but no such guarantee existed for those born since. And even if they were not, would more wraiths, or worse, be visited upon them?

She shook her head and placed the journal safely in her pack and studied the road ahead.

They were coming to a bridge passing over the I-44. The wind was blowing something fierce and a sudden gust billowed snow from off the bridge and for a moment the road was lost. Dotty was at the wheel and slowed briefly. Then sped up again after the snow clear and a second later slammed on the brakes. A large bulky shape loomed in the road ahead. An ancient leftover from an era dead even before the disappearance. Dee recognised it at once. A Sherman tank. Its back was to them as they headed southward on the northbound lanes, but its turret could rotate three hundred and sixty degrees. And the Hummer was now skidding right towards it.

* * *

He sat in the passenger seat watching the miles fly by. The bleached blond jail bait sitting behind the steering wheel would not have been allowed to drive by the old laws. But things were a little less formal now and there were no police officers cruising about looking for underage drivers. Had one been around and foolish enough to pull her over, he would have been surprised by the hardware she had tucked away under the in various locations in the cab of the truck. A sawed off shotgun held to the door panel with Velcro straps, a revolver under the seat and a nine millimeter where the Delco stereo had once resided, not to mention the police issue Glock in the almost too large for her police issue gun belt strapped on under her parka.

The conversation was a bit one sided, but that seemed to be fine for both of them. All he had to do was nod from time to time and she just chattered away. He would be glad when the time to came to shut the bitch up. Unfortunately she was not compatible. But for now she was useful. She seemed smarter than his current host, she could read and was willing to take him most of the way to Texas. And he was sure that he would be able persuade her to accompany him further.

He had been making his way southwest across the overgrown parking lot of a big box store in Fond Du Lac, winding between battered old cars and rusting shopping carts. He literally stumbled into her. He had decided to climb over a flatbed truck blocking one of the aisles. He jumped down from the rusted diamond plate steel platform and knocked her down as she was carrying a bundle of liberated supplies from the box store. She had her gun out and pointed at him before he even knew what happened.

The two of them froze there for a few moments staring at one another. She smiled at his flustered expression completely misreading him. She put the gun away and said, "Well you look harmless enough."

* * *

Dotty managed to turn the wheel into the skid, take her foot off the brake and gas long enough for the big 37x12.5R17 Super Swamper off road tires to bite into the snow before gunning it again, just long enough to pull the Hummer off its collision course with the tank. Even so they clipped the forward edge of the tread with the right rear of the Hummer. Dotty tried to gun it again desperate to get away from the tank. Dee reached across and laid her hand on the older woman's shoulder.

"It's ok Dotty, it's dead."

"Dead ... are you sure?" She asked as she allowed the beast of a vehicle to coast to a stop.

"Positive. It's been dead for fifteen years now. Billy Parsons blew it up." She opened the door letting snow swirl into the cab for a moment. "I'll be right back," she told them before shutting the door leaving the other four human occupants to stare after her dumbly. Duke had quietly followed her out into the snow.

Aside from being almost buried in the snow the tank was as she had remembered it. Billy Parsons had stripped the fifty caliber machine guns and ammo before they left, but the tank was not what she was interested in. The big Unimog camper was just fifty yards away. Snow had drifted halfway up one side. There were holes in the windshield and it was sitting a little closer to the pavement than she remembered. Of course the tires were flat. She waded through the snow to the front of the vehicle. The steps leading up the door were not as far up as she remembered and it was not entirely due to the flat tires. She had after all only been five years old when she had stepped down out of this camper the last time.

The cab door was unlocked but the latch would not budge. That left the driver's side door which would have to be dug out or the main door into the camper section, which was slightly less buried. She opened it while Duke snuffled around the vehicle. It took some effort to push the door open past the snow. Stepping into the camper was like stepping into the past. It was all so perfectly preserved. Her father had been such a methodical man. Even while they were abandoning the Uni, he had take some time to neaten things up. His beloved old Smith Corona typewriter that had been fatally shot through the open cab door had been placed back on the writing desk. The platen and ribbon cover both bowed upward. There was a gaping hole in the back and the segment plate was broken in two. But as neatly as everything had been packed up and put away there had still been something left behind. Just inside the Uni's small bathroom was small pocket sized photo album. She picked it up and began flipping through the pages. She was unaware of the tears sliding down her cheeks. It had been so long, she had actually forgotten her mother's face.

She did not even have to turn around to know the light footstep on the stairs up into the camper were Allison's. She was the only one of their little group light enough to step up inside without making the weathered old springs creak and a stranger would have set Duke to barking.

"For a while, this was home. We had not yet found a safe place and we had to keep moving. It was small and cramped sometimes, but it was home. And Daddy was still alive. I helped kill a man to defend it. But it was already too late. He had shot everything up." She gestured towards the front of the camper and the tank beyond that, though the door between the cab and the living area was closed. There were bullet holes in the wall there. Many of the cabinet doors hung askew, having been knocked off their hinges. "I wanted so much for everything to just go back to the way it was before. Or at least to go back to our house back in Independence. Now I just want Daddy back." Allison did not know what to say, but her father had taught her that sometimes that was ok. She just climbed the rest of the way into the derelict camper and hugged her sister. Together they cried for all that had been lost.

* * *

Together Jewels and the boy Deek stared out the window at the girl. Jewels knew what the boy was thinking. It was dangerous, but it could work. Deek looked at Jewels and the old man nodded.

"Now we start fighting back." Deek said, smiling. But it was the smile of a stone cold predator.

© 2010 R. Keith McBride

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