ERIK LARSSON GRIPPED THE M-ATV’s steering wheel and sat in silence as a cold October rain drummed on the roof of the armored vehicle. They had been sitting there in the dark for over 45 minutes, waiting for Ted’s return. The marine wanted to scout ahead and see if there would be any problems at the border. Since it was a bridge, he wanted to make sure there were no surprises.
He glanced at Brin as she slept in the passenger seat, her head tucked against a folded blanket. They had come close to losing everything in Gainesville. The college town had seen a lot of troop movement before they’d arrived and when one more M-ATV showed up, chaos ensued. People swarmed them, begging for food and when supplies didn’t appear, the violence started. More than one divot and ding on the M-ATV’s armor came from frustrated civilians taking potshots at the big truck.
They’d even gone so far as to try to erect a barricade on the way out of town to trap Erik and his group. Only Ted’s quick thinking and lead foot kept them from being stopped and robbed, or worse.
Erik wanted no more surprises after the disaster. They’d kept a low profile since, stopping for supplies or fuel only at night. Florida’s cities had largely succumbed to total anarchy in the months since the collapse. Erik and Ted had known this—they’d heard reports while working with the Guard—but seeing it first hand was something else.
They followed I-75 north toward Georgia rather than risk the ruins of Jacksonville. From the first days of the collapse, word had spread that Jacksonville was owned by the gangs.
Erik looked at Brin and smiled as she slept. She’d had been quiet for most of the trip, but she’d immediately spoken up when it came time to make decisions based on what was best for the children. No matter what, she’d argued, if the kids starved to death, there would be no point in any of them going any further.
He sighed and focused on the rain cascading down the windshield. He didn’t envy Ted at all, slinking around out there in the mud. It was just the kind of rain he found most irritating—not nearly cold enough for snow, but too cold to be enjoyable.
Erik wished they had more containers to set on the roof and capture the precious water. So far they had survived on stale buckets of water they’d filled whenever they stopped to hunt for supplies.
Now they were within spitting distance of Georgia. The border lay just around the bend where State Highway 31 crossed the Withlacoochee River. Erik stopped drumming his fingers on the steering wheel. The last thing he wanted to do was wake Brin in the middle of the night for no good reason.
So far, she had done most of the night watches, claiming to have been unable to sleep. After what she endured at the prison camp—after what Erik assumed she endured—he and Ted had agreed to keep watch during the day.
Erik stared at the rain. They were nearly into Georgia.
One state down, seven to go.
He couldn’t help but shake the feeling once they made it safely to his parents’ place in Upstate New York, everything would be right with the world. They could forget about the riots in the cities and the diseases making the rounds in urban centers. They could forget about shortages of food and water—his father had been growing vegetable gardens for as long as Erik could remember and the lake was an incredible source of fresh water. There were plenty of animals in the forest to hunt, not to mention all the fish in the lake…
If only they could cross the next thousand miles in safety. He turned and glanced in the back. The barely noticeable light from outside illuminated the sleeping forms of Lindsay and Teddy.
Erik looked back out the windshield and sighed. How long would it take Ted to determine if the way forward was safe? He didn’t like being parked, surrounded by trees in an area he didn’t know. He squinted at the pine trees closest to the M-ATV. There could be anyone out there, watching them right now.
Erik suddenly relaxed. There could be anyone out there, true. But they weren’t sitting in a minivan, either. They were four feet off the ground in an armored vehicle designed to withstand improvised explosive devices and mines on the battlefield, weighing nearly 20,000 pounds. Erik smiled.
It also had a turret-mounted M2 .50-caliber machine gun. They had two canisters of ammo which would not, admittedly, last long in a protracted firefight. However, Ted assured him with short controlled bursts they could persuade all but the most determined of enemies from attacking their vehicle.
Erik thought he saw movement between two trees about 15 feet in front of the vehicle. Adrenaline rushed through his system and suddenly all his senses came to life in stark contrast to the mind-numbing sound of the rain. He slowly pulled his M4 into his lap.
He waited, listening to the rain, and waited for whoever it was to emerge on the other side of a slim pine tree. So close to the border…things will get easier the further we get from Orlando. They have to.
They’d been driving at night for what seemed like a week. It was a slow, making short trips up I-75—and tedious—but doing so ensured they had met little resistance outside of Gainesville. They’d seen groups of armed people roaming the area they traveled but didn’t bother to check if they were friend or foe. Yet they’d seen no other military units since leaving Orlando.
It was like the entire army had dispersed into the swamps and vanished.
As they’d approached Gainesville, the smoke reminded them all too much of Orlando. The devastation was not nearly as complete though since the Russians never made it so far north. Riots and fires started in protest at the onset of the collapse had done enough to make Gainesville uninhabitable for a long time that much was certain.
Erik slowly relaxed as he realized whatever he’d seen must’ve been a figment of his imagination. He lowered the rifle gently to the floor and leaned it against the dash. Brin mumbled in her sleep.
The right suicide door suddenly opened and Erik cursed as he fumbled for the rifle, knocking it to the floor. The clatter woke Brin as Ted climbed into the back and shut the door, blocking out the rain’s noise.
“Holy crap, you scared the shit out of me,” Erik hissed.
“Hey, try to keep it down…” Brin mumbled, without opening her eyes.
Erik reached out and patted her on the shoulder, then winced as she flinched. “Sorry…”
He frowned as she snuggled into the blanket that cushioned her head and shied away from his touch. It was the third time she’d done that. Granted, it usually happened when she was asleep or trying to sleep, but it left Erik feeling guilty. She seemed to grow more distant each day—every time she flinched at his touch, it made things a little worse.
“There’s definitely a roadblock up there across the bridge,” Ted announced. He crouched behind the driver’s seat—Erik heard the water drip off of his poncho.
“What are we looking at?” whispered Erik.
“I got as close as I could to the riverbank. It’s an exposed two-lane bridge that crosses the Withlacoochee. There’s no getting around it—they’ll see us at least a quarter mile off.”
“Any buildings or anything?” asked Erik, staring out the windshield.
“There’s some kind of visitor’s center or something on the other side. Looks like a small house, but I spotted official-looking signs by the road. I counted four cars parked—two more had dome lights turn on as somebody got in or out.”
Erik sucked air in between his teeth. “Six cars…there could be a lot of people…”
Brin stirred next to them. “Maybe we should go back?” she asked quietly. “Find another way north?”
Ted shook his head. “We’ll eat up too much gas. As it is, we’re going to have to find some pretty quick when we get across the border.”
Erik nodded. “Agreed. So that leaves one option: we go forward.”
Ted sighed and pushed the hood of the poncho back across his head, his hair soaked with sweat. “I’m not a big fan of that option, either, but I don’t think we have much of a choice.” Ted took a deep breath. He pointed to the windshield.
“Two things concern me: First, I saw at least four people standing behind the barricade on the far side of the bridge. Looks like they got a couple cars parked together with some branches or a tree limb or something in front of it. That’s the least of my concerns.”
“That seems like a pretty big concern,” said Brin.
“Normally, I’d agree. But we gotta remember, this thing we’re driving is a real pig.”
Erik rolled his neck. “Hey, you think 20,000 pounds exceeds the weight limit on that bridge?”
Ted shrugged. “I honestly don’t know, it’s only two-lanes, but it’s big… How much does the average semi weigh?”
“No idea…” muttered Erik.
“How deep is the river?” asked Brin.
Ted tapped his fingers against the dashboard. “I don’t know. That thing could easily be ten or fifteen feet deep I guess, judging on how wide it is.”
“Do we wait for dawn and try to find a place to ford?” asked Erik.
Ted scratched his chin, making a sound like sandpaper. “I don’t know,” he sighed. “Part of me says we floor it and get across right now. It’s dark, it’s raining, the guys on guard duty have been there at least as long as I was watching them. They’ve got to be cold, tired, and wet. This could be the perfect time to make our run—”
“And if the bridge collapses?” asked Brin.
“Then we swim for it.”
Erik stared out the windshield. He didn’t like the idea of storming across the bridge just to have it collapse under them any more than the others, but the urge to get north—to safety—grew stronger every day. “We all swore to let nothing stop us.”
“I remember,” said Ted in little more than a whisper. “I didn’t want to push it…”
“This thing is basically a tank with wheels. Maybe it’s time we use it?” asked Erik.
Brin shifted her focus from Erik to the children in the back. Her seatbelt snapped with a click that seemed loud in the darkness. “Let’s do it.”
Erik looked over his shoulder at Ted and arched an eyebrow. Ted shrugged. “Better now than in the day when there could be reinforcements.”
Erik reached for the ignition button. His hand froze in the air just a few inches away. “You think we should try to talk to them first? See if they’ll just let us go through?”
Ted sighed again and looked down. “A few months ago I would’ve said yes, without a doubt. Now? After all the shit we’ve been through at the apartment and now with the Russians…I don’t think so.”
Erik clenched his jaw. “They’re probably just a bunch of people—like we were back at the Freehold—trying to stem the tide of looters and rebels pouring out of Florida…”
“This is one of the only roads around,” said Brin.
“Maybe they have those covered to? Maybe instead of hunkering down and hiding, like we did, these people are just taking a more active approach to keeping the riffraff out…”
“It all depends on how they define riffraff,” said Brin jerking her chin towards the windshield. She turned and looked at Erik, the soft light from outside gave the barest hint of illumination to her face. Erik cringed inwardly at how stern she looked—another side effect of her experience at the prison camp. He couldn’t remember seeing her smile since he’d rescued her.
Is she mad because I hesitated and she’s the one who killed Stepanovich?
“We’re not getting any further north just sitting here…” mumbled Ted.
Erik turned away from Brin and gripped the steering wheel. “You’re right. The time for talking and asking questions is over. We are going north come hell or high water. There’s high water out there right now, so let’s see we can’t bring a little hell.”
“Now that’s the spirit!” Ted moved back between them so he could secure his children.
Erik punched the ignition button and felt the vehicle rumble to life with a throaty roar. He shifted into drive and they crept forward on pine needles until they found the road again. Erik paused and looked both ways. Other than rain and trees, there was nothing in either direction. The road was deserted—just like all the others they’d been driving.
He turned the M-ATV north and accelerated. They had to go around one more bend and then it was a straight shot to the bridge.
As they approached the final turn, Ted woke his children and quickly explained what was about to happen. Without warning, Brin reached out and put a hand on Erik’s shoulder. He turned and looked at her in time to see her smile. It wasn’t much, but it meant the world to him and suddenly he was filled with energy and optimism. For a brief second there in the darkness his wife, the Brin he fell in love with and married, was back.
Erik turned and faced the windshield again. Somewhere up ahead there was a group of men determined to keep him from reaching his goal of getting his wife, Ted, and the kids to safety. That made them enemies. He didn’t care about the situation, he didn’t care about the reasoning. They stood between him and his objective.
End of story.
The road straightened out again and lights appeared as glowing orbs in the watery distance. “Those lights are on the far side of the river,” Ted warned. “They’re just behind the roadblock. Idiots set up some portable floodlights—they probably can’t see across the bridge without night vision now.”
A loud ping startled everyone in the M-ATV. “Someone shot at us!” Brin said.
“Looks like somebody has night vision after all…” said Ted. “Drop the hammer, man. They know were coming. May as well hit the lights. It might scare them a little,” he chuckled.
Erik turned on the headlights and the road illuminated before them. Abandoned cars lined either side—muzzle flashes popped all around them.
“That’s a lot more than four cars!” Erik shouted over the noise.
“What do we do?” asked Brin, placing one foot on the dashboard as if it would prevent her from getting shot.
Ted chuckled. “Nothing! Ignore them—whatever they got, I guarantee you it ain’t enough to put a hole in this thing.”
Erik clenched his jaw and pushed his foot to the floor. The big Caterpillar diesel engine under the hood roared in response and sped up on the straightaway. The bridge itself looked to be about 30 or 40 yards long. Erik was relieved to see stout concrete railing paralleling the road. Hopefully the whole thing was made of reinforced concrete.
The M-ATV rumbled forward picking up speed as bullets bounced off its armor. Erik tightened his grip on the stirred wheel. “Almost there,” he announced.
“Steady as she goes,” advised Ted from the back seat. “Everybody brace for impact—when we hit those cars up there, just try to stay loose. Erik, keep your hands tight on the wheel, she’ll do the rest…”
“You sound like you’ve done this before,” said Erik as they approached the bridge.
Ted laughed. “Once or twice…”
“Everybody hang on!” Erik called out. The sound of the oversized armored tires on the asphalt changed to a distinctive rumble pattern as they hit the bridge. Erik ignored the speed limit posted for crossing the bridge. He flicked his eyes to the dash and saw they were doing 52. He grinned and tensed—the bridge seemed to hold.
They were halfway across the bridge when the men behind the barricade opened fire. Erik heard more than saw the bullets strike the ballistic-hardened windshield. His confidence grew the closer he got, as more bullets struck the vehicle and bounced harmlessly off into the night. The rain, pouring down in buckets, now sounded louder than bullets hitting the M-ATV’s armored hull.
“Here we go!” yelled Ted. “Hang on!”
Erik kept his jaw clenched tight as they smashed into the barricade. There was a tremendous crash, then his vision was obscured by leaves and branches that flew up in front of the windshield. A split second later, the M-ATV careened into the cars parked across the road, the impact like nothing Erik had ever felt before. The vehicle shuddered by did not stop and everyone was thrown forward in their harnesses.
When Erik’s vision cleared, he saw the speedometer had dropped to 35 after all, but the big truck was gaining speed again. They heard metal scrape the sides as they barreled through the makeshift barricade followed by screams and shouts as more gunfire targeted their ride.
The children screamed and Ted tried to soothe them, but Erik laughed. It was exhilarating. They had completely destroyed the barricade. Once free of the wreckage, the M-ATV picked up speed again. The road before them was a tunnel of light, surrounded by blurred trees on either side.
Neatly packed rows of cars—many of them riddled with bullet holes—lined the north side of the road as they passed the visitor’s center.
“Looks like they’ve got a pretty good racket here,” said Ted from the back seat. “They must have stopped anybody who came through here…”
“That’s a lot of cars. What happened to all the people?”
“Well,” answered Ted, “they might have confiscated the vehicles in exchange for safe passage…” His voice wasn’t as confident as his words.
“Not this one,” said Erik through clenched teeth. He eased up on the gas pedal when they went around the first bend in the road and the roadblock disappeared from sight. Erik heard Ted rustling around the back. He risked a quick glance over his shoulder and saw him stand up in the turret.
“What are you doing? We made it.”
Ted dropped behind him and shouted over the roar of the wind as it whistled through the armored turret, spraying everyone with a fine mist. “I guarantee you, we’re not free and clear yet—they have enough vehicles, they’re gonna send somebody after us. I’m just going to convince them to leave us alone.” Ted clapped Erik on the shoulder and stood back up into the turret.
“Just keep going!” urged Brin.
Ted screamed down into the vehicle over the noise of the wind. “We got two cars behind us! Kids, cover your ears, daddy’s going loud!”
Without further warning, Ted let loose with a brief salvo that sounded like a canon inside the vehicle. Erik gritted his teeth but kept their speed constant. A glance out his tiny side window showed one set of headlights wink out in the side mirror just before the trailing car exploded into a bright orange fireball. The brief explosion illuminated a pickup as it swerved around the flaming wreckage and parked sideways across the road.
Ted dropped inside the vehicle and sealed up the turret. He shook the water off his poncho and pulled the hood back, his face split in a smile. “Well, that was fun!”
Erik glanced at Brin. “Welcome to Georgia.”