The road the GPS directed us down was barely more than a dirt path winding into the trees. Tires had worn deep ruts into the earth, and the van shuddered and jumped as we jounced along. Becks dropped into her seat, grabbing hold of the oh-shit handle with one hand and bracing the other against the dashboard.
“Are you sure this is the right way?” she demanded.
“Destination in one hundred yards,” said the GPS.
“According to the creepy computer lady, yeah, it’s the right way.” I eased off on the gas. No sense in killing our shocks over a road that didn’t even come with any zombies.
“I hate this road.”
“It clearly hates us, too.”
“Destination in twenty yards,” said the GPS.
I frowned. All I could see ahead of us was more dirt road… at least until a pair of men stepped out of the trees, each holding a shotgun large and impractical enough to be essentially useless. Sure, you could shoot a zombie with one of those things, and sure, it would go down, but the kick from a shotgun that size would probably knock you down at the same time. Not to mention the weight of the ammunition. If you wanted to carry something like that and have the option to run for your life when the need inevitably arose, you’d be carrying less than two dozen rounds.
“It’s cool, Becks,” I said, turning off the engine. The men with the shotguns trained them on our windshield. I responded by blowing them a kiss and waving cheerfully. “They’re not planning to shoot us. Those guns wouldn’t make sense if they were planning to shoot us.”
“So what are they planning to do? Please, enlighten me.” Becks scowled.
I undid my seat belt. “They’re trying to scare us,” I said, and opened the van door. I kept my hands in view as I slid out of the driver’s seat. The men with the guns shifted to train them squarely on me. I smiled ingratiatingly at them, stepping far enough from the van that they could see for themselves that I wasn’t hiding anything. “We come in peace,” I called. More quietly, I added, for Becks’s benefit, “I have always wanted to say that.”
Sometimes you are an enormous dork, said George.
“True,” I agreed. The men were still pointing their guns in my direction. I sighed and raised my voice, trying another approach: “Dr. Abbey sent us. We just need gas, and then we’ll be on our way.”
The man to my left lowered his gun. The one to my right did not. Eyes narrowed with suspicion, he asked, “How do we know you’re telling the truth?”
“You don’t, although I suppose you could make us stand out here while you try to find someone who has the current number for Dr. Abbey’s lab and get her to give us her okay. But I really am telling the truth. I’m Shaun Mason. The lady in the car is Rebecca Atherton. We’re from After the End Times, we’re hiding from the CDC, and Dr. Abbey sent us.”
Most of that would qualify as “too much information” if I were talking to anyone else. But these were men who had chosen, for whatever reason, to remove themselves from the grid of modern existence—no small task, with government surveillance and public health tracking becoming more invasive with every year that passed. Telling them we were hiding wouldn’t give them a lever to use against us; it would give us a point of commonality with them. We were all hiding from the world together.
The second man lowered his gun. “How’s that damn dog of hers doing?” he asked. I could barely see his mouth through the bushy red thicket of his beard. He was wearing denim overalls and a plaid lumberjack shirt with the cuffs pegged up around his elbows. It was like being questioned by Paul Bunyan’s much, much shorter brother.
“Still the size of a small tank,” I said.
“She tell you we don’t take plastic?” asked the first man, apparently unwilling to let his companion do all the talking. If the second man was Paul Bunyan’s midget cousin, the first man would have made a decent stand-in for Ichabod Crane, even down to the prominent Adam’s apple and impressively oversized nose.
I wish we were filming this, said George.
I swallowed my automatic “Me, too,” focusing instead on looking as harmless and sincere as possible. It wasn’t easy. Most of my training had focused on looking daring and oblivious, which probably wasn’t going to fly here. “She told us our money wouldn’t be any good,” I said, still smiling. “She also said you might be willing to consider blood test units that wouldn’t give you tetanus as a fair trade for some gas and a couple of sandwiches.”
Paul Bunyan frowned for a moment—long enough that I was starting to wonder whether Becks would be able to move into the driver’s seat and hit the gas before we both got shot. Then he grinned, showing the gaps where his front teeth had presumably been, once upon a time. “Well, hell, boy, why didn’t you open with that?”
“We’re still new at this,” I replied. “Does that mean we can come in?”
“Sure does,” said Ichabod. He and Paul started toward the van, leaning their guns against their shoulders in an almost synchronized motion. “Hope you’re not averse to giving us a lift.”
This had all the hallmarks of a test. “Sure,” I said, motioning for them to follow me as I moved to climb back into the van. As expected, Becks had her pistol out, and was holding it just out of view behind the dashboard. I gestured for her to put it away before one of our new “friends” saw it.
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