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Page 87

Shaun took my assumption of the driver’s seat with just as little surprise and didn’t bother fastening his belt as I slammed the gas pedal down, sending the van racing across the hard-packed ground between us and the still-smoking equipment truck. The truck wasn’t likely to burst into flames; that only happens in the movies, which is almost a pity, given the number of zombies that arise from automotive accidents every year. Buffy and Chuck could die from smoke inhalation if we dawdled assuming they weren’t dead already.

Rick braced himself against the seat. “Has there been any word from Buffy?”

“Not since the truck went down,” Shaun said.

“Why the hell didn’t you go for her first?”

“Simple,” I said, steering around a chunk of rubber torn from the truck’s tires. “We knew you were alive, and we might need the backup.”

Rick didn’t say anything after that until we pulled up alongside the equipment truck. Shaun reached between the seats and pulled out a double-barreled shotgun which he passed to Rick. “What am I supposed to do with this?” Rick demanded.

“You see anything moving that isn’t us, Chuck, or Buffy, you shoot,” Shaun said. “Don’t bother checking to see if it’s dead. It’ll be dead after you hit it.”

“And if I hit emergency personnel?”

“We’re stranded, and we’ve been the victims of a malicious attack in possible zombie territory,” I said, stopping the engine and opening my door. “Cite Johnston’s, and you’ll get a medal instead of a manslaughter conviction.” Manuel Johnston was a truck driver with several DUIs on his record, but when he gunned down a dozen zombies in highway patrolmen’s uniforms outside Birmingham, Alabama, he became a national hero. Since Johnston, it’s been legal to shoot people for no crime more defined than existing in rural hazard zones. We usually curse his name, since the precedent he set has gotten a lot of good journalists killed. Under the circumstances, he was a savior. “Shaun and I have the truck. You’ve got point.”

“Got it,” said Rick, grimly, and climbed out the van’s side door as Shaun and I got out and moved toward the still-smoking truck.

It was obvious that the equipment truck had taken the worst of the beatings. Lacking the maneuverability of my bike, the armor of Rick’s car, or the paranoia-fueled unstoppability of our van, it had taken two bullets to the front left tire and completely lost control. The cabin was half-smashed when the truck went over. The smoke had thinned without clearing, and that lowered visibility as we started toward the cab.

“Buffy?” I called. “Buffy, are you there?”

A piercing scream was the only answer, followed by a pause, a second scream, and silence. Zombies can scream. They just generally don’t.

“Buffy? Answer me!” I ran the rest of the way to the truck and grabbed the handle of the nearer door, wrenching it as hard as I could. I barely noticed removing a layer of skin from my palms in the process. It didn’t matter; the door was mashed in when the truck fell, and it wasn’t budging. I tried again, yanking even harder, and felt it shudder on its hinges. “Shaun! Help me over here!”

“George, we have to make sure we’re covering the area in case of—”

“Rick can do the goddamn covering! Help me while there’s still a chance that she’s alive!”

Shaun lowered his pistol, cramming it into the waistband of his pants and moving to put his hands over mine. Together, we counted, “One, two, three,” and yanked. My shoulders strained until it felt like I would dislocate something. The door groaned and swung open, creaking along the groove of the broken frame. Buffy tumbled out onto the glass-sprinkled pavement, coughing hard.

That cough was reassuring. Zombies breathe, but they don’t cough; the tissue of their throats is already so irritated by infection that they ignore little things like smoke inhalation and caustic chemical burns, right up until they render the body unable to function.

“Buffy!” I dropped to my knees next to her, feeling glass crunch through the reinforced denim of my jeans; I’d have to check for slivers before I put them on again. I put my hand against her back, trying to reassure her. “Honey, it’s okay, you’re okay. Just breathe, sweetheart, and we’ll get you away from here. Come on, honey, breathe.”

“Georgia ”

Shaun’s voice was strained enough that he sounded almost sick. I looked up, my hand still flat against Buffy’s back. “What—”

Shaun gestured for silence, attention fixed on the interior of the truck’s cab. His right hand was moving with glacial slowness to the gun shoved into the belt of his jeans. Whatever he was looking at was outside my range of vision, and so I stood, leaving Buffy coughing on the ground as I reached up to remove my sunglasses. The smoke wouldn’t irritate my eyes more than they already were, and I’d see better without them.

At first there seemed to be nothing but motion inside the cab of the truck. It was slow and irregular, like someone trying to swim through hardening cement. Then my pupils dilated that extra quarter-centimeter, my virus-enhanced vision compensating for the sudden change in light levels, and I realized what I was looking at.

“Oh,” I said, softly. “Crap.”

“Yeah,” Shaun agreed. “Crap.”

Buffy fell out of the cab when we opened the door; Buffy hadn’t been wearing her seat belt. Buffy never wore her seat belt. She liked to ride cross-legged in her seat, and seat belts prevented that. Chuck, on the other hand, was a law-abiding citizen who obeyed traffic regulations. He fastened his seat belt every time he got into a moving vehicle. He’d fastened it before the convoy pulled out that morning. He was still wearing it now that he was too far gone to remember how to work the clasp, or even what a clasp was. His hands moved against the air in useless clawing motions as his mouth chomped mindlessly, stimulated by the presence of fresh meat.

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