by Jeff Dosser
“What the hell?” Blake woke up and rubbed a painful bump on the side of his head. The truck must have jolted and thrown him against the passenger-side window.
“Sorry.” Jim shot Blake a worried glance. “The road’s been pretty rough the last couple miles.”
Blake noted Jim’s white-knuckled grip on the wheel as the familiar rumble of the road sang through the truck’s frame. “You look pretty worn. You wanna let me or Sadie drive?”
Jim tore his gaze from the road long enough to give Blake a tense smile before he returned his attention to driving. “Thanks. I’m good. We’ve only got a couple hours left. Besides, I couldn’t sleep anyway.”
Blake pulled a water bottle from his pack on the floor and took a drink, stared absentmindedly out the window. They were passing a corridor of abandoned vehicles while, on the horizon, skeletal trees stood sentry over a dead landscape.
Here and there, dust devils whirled towards the dry heavens, but nowhere else was there any sign of movement or life. No colors tinted the world beyond the window, just shades of brown darkening from the dusty tan of the sky to the dark browns of the earth.
The truck they rode in was a modified army issue 1952 Deuce and a Half. It had rolled off the factory floor the same year everything went to hell. Now, five years later, it had been modified for trips through the Badlands. It was equipped with oversized tires and a dozer blade welded to the front bumper. The entire cab could be pressurized for over an hour in case they encountered a swarm.
In the center of the dashboard, just above the radio, was a circular glass screen the size of a dinner plate. Inside, a dark arm spun in slow revolutions, painting a green glow with each pass. It was state-of-the-art radar and gave them a twenty-mile view of the sky.
Blake watched the black arm swing around the gauge before he reached over to brush away a dark spot at the edge of the screen.
“That’s not dust.” Jim glanced over. “I noticed it creeping in about an hour ago.”
“Maybe it’s a sandstorm,” Sadie suggested. But the unspoken certainty was that it wasn’t a sandstorm. It was a swarm.
* * *
Five years earlier, before swarms and death and misery had swallowed his life, Blake had been part of an insect virology team working out of Los Alamos labs. They’d been doing research on a viral-based pesticide to kill off crop infestations in South America.
He’d found out later a group of entomologists with the Defense Department was attempting to weaponize insects native to countries controlled by the Commies. This group had gotten hold of his mutated baculoviruses and modified them with radiated isotopes.
When the test sprays had been deployed, the initial results were beyond anything Blake’s team hoped for. There was a ninety-nine percent fatality rate of the target insects. But then the results got weird. The radiated poisons had mutated and were killing roaches all through the target zone.
Blake thought maybe they’d stumbled onto the perfect pesticide; then things got weirder. The roaches that died from the virus didn’t stay dead. Within twenty-four hours they reanimated. Only they were hungrier dead than they ever had been alive.
Inside of a month, he was getting panicked calls from Washington. The virus was spreading. In areas of infection, every roach that died came back... hungrier than before. To make matters worse, there was something about the virus that made the dead insects not only unpalatable to predators but also slowed any decay that might eventually destroy them.
The normal breeding rate of roaches, already high, combined with the spread of undead insects to create a population explosion beyond comprehension. Soon, most of South America was literally choking on the creatures. They ate everything: crops, grass, forests, and any living creature, including people, that didn’t keep moving long enough to keep from being devoured.
There were riots over the remaining food supplies. These regional squabbles grew into border wars and eventually into a world war. It didn’t take long before the nukes were falling, and civilization was dragged to its knees.
Blake heard there were regions where life still thrived beyond the reach of the zombie roaches and radiation storms, but the stories were probably rumors. If non-zombie roach life stood a chance, it was in the packages the team was carrying.
Blake and Sadie’s team worked from the beginning to find a solution to the zombie roach outbreak. Then, last month, they had made a breakthrough. A microbe that feasted on the unique polysaccharides of the roach’s exoskeleton had been exposed to various levels of radiation, and the latest mutations proved ravenous, hardy and prolific. They were the perfect solution to the zombie plague picking at the world’s bones.
Their goal was simple. Reach the nuclear missile silo outside of Emporia, Kansas, load the modified ballistic missiles with the microbial packages and disperse them across the hardest-hit areas of the world.
* * *
Blake picked up his pack and examined the green metal canister inside. The arm of the pressure gauge was pinned to the left, in the red. Blake flicked the glass with his finger, and the fine metal arm rebounded into the green.
“I hope they loaded this right,” he said, setting down the pack. “My pressure gauge keeps dropping to zero.”
“I’m sure they’re fine,“ Sadie said, bending over and checking her own canister. “They threw the gauges on as an afterthought. You must have gotten a bad one.”
“We better hope so,” Blake added. “The microbes will survive in the container for forty-eight hours, but only if the pressure is steady.”
They rode in silence, each casting glances to the spinning screen on the dash. They all saw the growing bulge pushing in from the top of the screen.
“Can we pick up the base radio station from here?” Sadie asked, clicking the knob on the radio. Sudden static rolled through the cab as she dialed through the frequencies.
“No, we lost Tinker not long after you fellas drifted off,” Jim said. “Why don’t you try 1330 on the AM dial. There’s someone alive around Wichita who plays reruns of baseball games.”
Sadie bent over, eye to the dial, and twisted the red arrow to 1330. Immediately the cab was filled with crowd noise and the excited voice of the announcer, “There’s a liner, just over Robinson’s head, dropping into right center for a base hit. Carl Furilo throws it back in to Robinson—”
“Hey, this is game six of the Yankees versus Dodgers in the 1952 World Series,” Jim said, a smile cracking his leathered face.
They listened until the Dodgers came to bat, and Sadie said, “No, this is game seven. I remember Barry and I were at a picnic listening on the radio. We had chicken salad.”
Blake stared unseeing into the distance while the game played and the wind howled. He thought about his wife Jane and their two children, Bobby and Cindy. He remembered this game as well. It had been a chilly October, Wednesday, and he’d taken off to help Jane shop for his sister’s upcoming wedding. He’d listened to the game on the car radio while Jane tried on dresses. Now, just four years later, they were all dead.
“Blake! Snap out of it,” Jim said, breaking his reverie.
“Yeah, yeah, what is it?”
The sky behind them had grown dark and the wind had picked up, whipping curtains of dust across the road. On the radar screen, the dark blob had worked its way to the spinning center but, outside the truck, Blake didn’t see any immediate danger.
Jim had slowed to a crawl and pointed ahead. In the distance, Blake saw an overpass, and the typical rows of cars pushed off the highway by army engineers.
“There’s a car blocking the road about a mile up,” Jim said. “The road teams cleared this for us last week, which means it’s probably an ambush.”
Blake leaned forward, gripping the dusty dash and squinting into the gloom. Jim’s eyes were obviously better than his, but he could make out a dark shape blocking the road.
“So what’s your plan?” Blake asked.
“When we get about a quarter mile away, you and I jump out. We’ll stay to the sides but follow behind the truck. When whoever they are show themselves, we waste ’em.”
Sadie gasped and looked at Jim. “Isn’t that a little harsh?”
Jim ran a hand through his crew-cut hair. “The fate of humanity itself is riding in this truck. To ensure our species carries on justifies any actions.”
“I guess you’re right,” Sadie agreed, gnawing at her lip.
As they approached, Blake saw a big, blue Plymouth sitting across the road. The hulk’s wheels had been removed. It was squatting on its frame, the doors and trunk open.
Blake reached behind the seat and pulled out two environmental helmets, handing one to Jim. He dropped the helmet over his head and clicked home the latches that snapped the helmet to his suit.
They were all wearing the same gray, formless environmental suits. With the helmets attached, they looked like high-altitude fighter pilots.
Blake clicked the dial on his belt, activating the suit’s power; a soft whish of air blew along his neck as the fan started up. Over the helmet’s speaker, he heard Jim’s voice.
“Okay, let’s go,” Jim called. He grabbed an M-1 carbine and opening the door. “Good luck,” he said before jumping out and disappearing from sight.
Sadie scooted into the driver’s seat and yanked the door shut. Blake opened the glove box, took out a 1911 pistol and tucked it into his belt. He opened the door, stared at the concrete creeping past, then turned back to Sadie.
“Be careful.” Her lips curled into a worried smile and she held out her hand.
“I will,” he said. His voice sounded as hollow as he felt. He reached over and took her hand, giving her a reassuring squeeze.
Blake slammed the door before he jumped from the running board and dashed to an overturned Ford Crestliner. Blake’s breath echoed inside the helmet as he jogged along the side of the highway, using the abandoned wrecks as cover.
As Sadie eased up to the blockade, three men jumped atop the grounded Plymouth. They each wore a bandana covering their face, dusty goggles beneath green army helmets and coveralls. The center man leveled a bazooka at the truck, while the other two raised rifles. Blake could see movement among the nearby cars on either side.
“Drop your weapons and get out of the truck,” one of the men yelled.
“Wait for my signal, then open up,” Jim said over the radio.
Blake crept to the roadblock and ducked beside a burnt-out Chevy. The only sound was the rumble of the truck’s diesel engine and the windblown grit chittering off the sheet metal door.
Blake peered through the Chevy’s broken windshield and saw the men on the Plymouth, heads together discussing what to do. Then the center man raised the bazooka to his shoulder.
Blake took it that Jim’s signal must be blowing the guy’s head off. A spray of red mist exploded from the bazooka man’s head. He tumbled backwards, out of view. Two more rifle cracks and Blake heard bullets zing off the Plymouth. Another of the men pitched to the dirt, while the third dove behind the Plymouth and came up firing.
Copyright © 2017 by Jeff Dosser