River Of Night – Snippet 32
Beside him, Risky swayed slightly, belted into the front passenger seat.
Though his NODs painted a bright green and black picture, he knew from experience that judging relative distances through the device was tricky, at best. The decision to purchase the very expensive, top of the line military night vision devices that he now wore had been a good one. However, it felt as though it had been made by a different person a lifetime ago.
Thankfully, the road was mostly clear and the two Suburbans were able to stay on the blacktop most of the time, easing the task of driving.
It also allowed Tom time to reflect.
Outwardly he gave no sign about the turmoil and grief that ate at his conscience. Tom knew that he had been utterly responsible for Durante’s death. He wanted to rewind the day, to return to the decision to stop at that stupid town.
He replayed every decision. Every possible inflection point. The endless balancing of time and resources against risk.
Tom suppressed a sigh. Fuck melodrama.
It was no use feeling sorry for himself. It didn’t matter that he hadn’t thought through the worst case scenario back when he was the cock of the walk. He took the deal with the bank and his word was his life. Maybe he could relax a bit once they gained the security of Site Blue.
Occasionally an obstacle or route detail would interrupt his silent self-recriminations. They occasioned short radio alerts to Kaplan, driving the trail vehicle, and punctuated Tom’s long watch. Without either routine vehicle traffic or anyone actively working to keep the road clear, a surprising amount of debris was accumulating on the roadbed. Rather than risk damage or a puncture, Tom slowed down to a walking pace in order to navigate the road when it wasn’t certain that the way was clear. In the brief stretches that were completely open, he could maintain a slightly higher speed and return to thinking.
There was no calculus where Tom could find an answer other than his own culpability for their losses.
There was no scenario, short of dying, where he didn’t have to continue to shoulder the responsibility.
The long night wore on.
Near morning the radio, turned down to preserve battery life, broke squelch.
“Thunder, dawn is coming up,” Kaplan said. “Let’s start looking for a spot to lay up.”
Risky woke as the Suburban subsided, coming fully to rest. The vehicle was still dark and quiet, but a lightening of the eastern sky signaled the start of another day of survival. Behind her, the kids began to stir.
She turned her head, watching Tom scan the area through the four-barreled night vision rig that was clipped to his cranial. It gave him a slightly insectoid appearance, as the green phosphor glow from the image intensifiers scattered light against his face.
She felt, rather than saw, his fingers double check the position of the lighting switch. In addition to blinding himself if the interior lit when then doors open, a sudden flash of artificial light would betray their exact location to any observers, sentient or otherwise.
“Everyone stay put until I check the area,” Smith ordered. “Back in a moment.”
He didn’t ask Risky to back him up, so presumably he intended to collect Kaplan and give their stopping place a once over for infected or other survivors. She couldn’t make out their surroundings yet.
“Miss Risky?” asked Elf. “Can we get out? I have to go.”
“Hold on a few minutes. Mr. Smith is checking to make sure that it is safe, first. When you get out stay with Katrin.”
The newest survivor much preferred the company of the younger members of the party. Katrin and Eric had taken her under their wing, but Elf also tried to stay close to Risky.
Risky reached between her legs and double checked the position of the safety on her muzzle-down M4. She flexed her feet to work out the tightness in her calves.
“Damn, it stinks in here,” said Dina Bua from the rear bench seat.
The confined space of the car actually wasn’t too bad, compared to some of the places that the survivors had encountered. The sour redolence of body odor clashed with the chemical fragrance of baby wipes. Eric’s unfortunate “tummy trouble” hadn’t helped either.
It didn’t really bother Risky overmuch since she was preoccupied thinking about her pending chat with Smith. The sky continued to lighten as the rest of the occupants fidgeted uncomfortably. Nearly twenty minutes passed during which the fidgeting grew into near panic as the passengers waited for the all clear and a chance to race for the nearest bush.
Tom loomed into view and tapped the passenger’s side window. When she looked up he gave her the thumbs up and turned away again.
“Alright, you can get out now,” she announced to the rest of the passengers.
Outside, she noted that either Tom or Kaplan had set a sentry facing the way they came. The needful rotated through the designated latrine area while others prepared a makeshift meal on the tailgate of the second Suburban. The sun was coming up like thunder, and Risky could now make out that they were on some sort of scenic overlook. Below them another valley through which a large interstate ran. A small town clustered around the visible off-ramp.
Kaplan and Tom were looking at a map as Risky approached.
“I’m pretty sure we’re in the right spot,” Kaplan said, agreeing with something Tom said. “That should be a town called Smyth, but I am not anxious to go into the valley and look for a name, if you catch my meaning. Still, this is a different map than the one Gravy showed me. The scale is off. The ranch might be another five miles or another ten. It isn’t marked as clearly on this one so I can’t tell.”
“Okay,” Tom replied. “I’ll wait and you get the other map out. I’m planning on talking to Risky anyhow and everyone is glad for a break out of the trucks.”
“It was Gravy’s map,” Kaplan said. “I. Don’t. Have it. I thought you…”
The two men stared at each other for a moment.
Risky realized that they were talking about a map that had been in the wrecked Dodge.
“We got the kids’ bags, and some other stuff–” She started to say.
“Gravy had a map case, about so big,” Kaplan said, holding his hands apart in the shape of a paperback book. “Plastic cover. You’d know it if you had seen it. The SAFE was just circled. But it had everything else on it, labeled. Site Blue, the different dams, our route, National Guard armories, everything.”
They looked at each other again and without a word began searching first one truck and then the other. A quarter hour later, the ransacking was complete.
No map case.
“So the map and everything on it is at the wreck,” Tom said meditatively. “That’s… not good.”
“Was at the wreck,” Kaplan said, correcting his boss. “Yeah, everything. Figures. We weren’t thinking about sanitizing our gear. This hasn’t ever been an op. We have been in bugout boogie mode but without worrying about any OPFOR.”
Kaplan’s voice was calm but he betrayed his concern by lapsing into milspeak.
OPFOR referred to Opposition Forces. If fighting the infected wasn’t enough, now they had to account for the existence and motivations of an organized hostile force as they continued their trek to Site Blue.
“So, who is OPFOR?” Risky asked. “Apart from kidnappers of children, that is?”
“The next thing is to get to the ranch,” Tom said, ignoring the question. “Once we get there, we refit and resupply. Two-Ton and the gang might have intel on conditions around here.”
He looked at Risky directly.
“Is the girl okay?”
“Her name is Elf,” she replied tartly. “She is physically okay. A little shaken, I think. She’s staying close to me or the other kids for now.”
Tom looked over her shoulder at the group. Some were still eating. Astroga, who had the watch, was demonstrating malfunction drills for Fat Ralph. Smith looked back down at the town below.
“Right, then we get a move on,” He said, rolling his shoulder and cracking his neck. “With a little luck, we get there by lunch.” He strode back towards the lead car.
Risky had remained poised to continue talking. Kaplan carefully declined to notice and walked towards Astroga.
Risky watched Tom’s receding back and refrained from gritting her teeth.