10 Chapter 10 Vehicular Construction
The biggest is generally the most powerful, and from the Spartan motor pool, the most powerful vehicle was the Western Star 6900XD military grade truck with its two attendant twenty foot long trailers, affectionately known as "the rig." Natalie was upfront on the roof of the cab, and glanced over her shoulder at Cameron and Steven, both perched atop the first trailer. Jaira and the sole surviving Spartan medic Anastasia rode the second.
The powerful 625 horsepower engine growled for a moment as Cross floored the accelerator as they smashed through the barricaded door of the parking garage like a battering ram. Gate parts and barricade components swirled through the air, knocking the dead to the ground even as the ponderous weight of the vehicle crushed or battered them aside. The five riding the vehicle regained their footing as gunfire erupted, the remaining Spartans laying down a sheet of fire as they followed the rig.
The vehicle fleet was bumper to bumper as they ploughed through the ranks of the dead, their sudden assault leaving the dead reeling, their simple minds unable to cope with the motorized stampede through their ranks.
When the rig reached the gates, Robert skillfully brought them in as close as he could to the heavy chains that held the counterweights in place. Craters appeared amongst the ranks of the horde as homemade explosives blew them apart, providing cover as Natalie leapt to the chain, wrapping her legs around it to hold herself in place as she secured the explosives with a pre cut length of duct tape, that she tore off her vest, "Charges set!"
She pushed off the wall and let go of the chain, flailing through the air and she wondered for a moment whether she had overestimated the distance. She breathed a sigh of relief as she landed back on the roof. A pistol in each hand, she rose and started shooting.
The number of dead was stacked against all of them as they closed in on several vehicles, swarming over two of the vehicles at the tail of the desperate convoy, "Fire in the hole!" roared Natalie and in that instant, there was silence apart from the continual moaning of the monsters. Like firecrackers enclosed in a steel drum, their charges exploded and not so much cutting as destroying a two feet of heavy chain. The multi-ton counterweights shrieked as they slid down against the wall, whipping the gate open faster than had ever been intended.
Robert grinned from his fairly protected place inside the driver's cab and floored the accelerator, even as his palm slapped down on the vehicles air horn, the prearranged signal. The six of them had done it, opening the way for everyone to take the road and escape the ruins of Sparta.
Lighter, smaller vehicles tore past them as the convoy broke up, like a flight of disturbed bats fleeing down any open street they could find. The bulk of the truck and its trailers forced Robert to keep them along the more regularly travelled and cleared streets for the moment. Even with the massive engine beneath the hood, they still had to build up sufficient speed before they would be able to employ the vehicle as a battering ram against the wreckage that clogged the less travelled streets.
A few vehicles blew their horns as they overtook the rig and its defenders, busy culling the gathered dead. But the escape was not without casualties as a minivan skidded uncontrollably for a moment before catching the curb to plow in to the front of a building, a certain death sentence for those aboard. Nobody could save them, and whoever was onboard thought the same thing perhaps. A fireball engulfed the inverted vehicle and blew it apart. Cameron snarled in to the face of a moaning zombie and bludgeoned it with the butt of his shotgun. Gray blue fingers gained a momentarily hold before Jaira amputating the scrabbling appendages.
The streets of the city were completely abandoned, and clogged with cars, trucks and vans, especially down streets that the Spartans had never ventured before. Their passage stirred up the local undead population. A snarling hiss grabbed the attention of the duo atop the rearmost container. Four of the undead had closed in at full speed, running without a care as they threw themselves on to the rear of the container, their fingers scrabbling and finding a momentary purchase upon the edge of the trailer.
Anastasia had been shopping at the mall and stayed behind to meet a guy who had never made it. At twenty, she was one of Sparta's youngest inhabitants but the youngest woman to work a salvage crew. The hunting knife left its sheath at her hip to slash across the knuckles of a zombie trying desperately to claw its way up the side of the container – not that it would have much success. From her kneeling position on the roof, she sheathed the blade, reloaded her Colt .45 and fired at one of the zombies still hanging on to the rig's chassis.
The turn was hard and the rig swayed like a disturbed behemoth as they powered down a broad avenue. Robert Cross knew he'd take an escape route or a sanctuary - whichever came first for the total of seven men and women, bound together by the will to survive as the rig slammed a ruined car aside as they powered through a lifeless residential suburb when a billboard pointed the way to "Wacky Willy's Auto Surplus & Junkyard." It screamed out to Robert who turned the vehicle towards the junkyard, circling around it until they came to the heavily gated fence, topped with razor wire – the only weakness in what appeared to be fairly solid walls, ten feet high. "Open that gate!"
Cameron was the first to leap down from the roof of the trailer, followed moments later by Steven, "Everyone else, stay back and defend the rig!" the two men charge forward, weapons at the ready as Cameron pumped the action on his shotgun and fired, racking the action again and again until the lock submitted to its punishment. The gate creaked and groaned on rusty hinges from months of inactivity, rust flaking from links in the gate as the rig pulled through the opening.
Steven leaned heavily against the fence, and had it half closed, when he realized that he was on the wrong side of it. He sought to correct that mistake when he heard the moan, his only warning. He spun round and in his haste let fly a poorly aimed blast from his shotgun that took the creature high in the chest, staggering it back, annoying it more than injuring it. He would have shouted a warning or cried for help but the creature was upon him before he could draw breath, tackling him and then piling its weight atop him.
Steven held the dead woman off his as her clawed hands ripped in to his already bandaged arm, tearing through the bandages and the existing wounds. Blood streamed from his arms to the road. From a distance of nearly fifty feet, Natalie took careful aim, lying flat upon the trailer with her Desert Eagle. The shot was was nothing less than perfection and precision as it bored through the woman's forehead and then exploded out the back of the zombie's skull.
Lifeless, the corpse went limp, and Steven was barely able to roll it off him. He struggled for a moment and managed to sit up, reach for the shotgun and rack the action, slotting a fresh shell in to the breech. He never had the chance to use it as six Spartans suddenly swarmed around him protectively, three of them half carrying, half dragging him in to the junkyard.
He trembled in spite of the warm weather, arms bleeding from the gouges in his arms, fresh bite marks decorating his wrist and his left collarbone marring his shirt with a splotch of red. Blood trickled from his left eye as he blinked, his once clear eyes going bloodshot in the space of several seconds as they gathered around him in silence. His hands latched on to those closest to him, "I don't want to die."
Silence greeted the pathetic lament, but none mocked him because they'd all seen what was happening to Steven happen to someone else that they knew and cared about. Cameron looked round at what was left of the community and shook his head. All that was left was five people, a truck and two twenty foot containers. He sighed, swallowed and took a breath as he took a knee beside the rapidly fading Steven, "Nobody wants to die, but you know that everything will be alright," Cameron told him.
Steven shook, and tears fell shamelessly from his dimming eyes. "I will be with family and friends?" He murmured, like a little child questioning an elder who wanted the peace of knowing about what lay beyond. His eyes began drooping, and his hands became slack, "Cameron? Cameron?" Steven's eyesight had failed him. Cameron didn't say anything, but took the dying man's hand. Steven turned his eyes, now wide, white and sightless, whispering something, "I will remember..." Steven began, only to have his voice silenced forever as his breath left him and he failed to draw another. What was he trying to say, those gathered around him would never know as his chest heaved and went still.
Natalie reached down and closed his eyes, saying nothing. Cameron drew his sidearm, and realized something as he lined up the shot: Pulling the trigger was a binary choice. You either did it, or you didn't. But the second and third order consequences of such a decision, would break and change you the moment a decision, not which decision, but the moment a decision was made. It changed you, broke you and remade made you. Whether it made you stronger or weaker was left up to why a decision had been made. He placed the barrel against his forehead and pulled the trigger cold and fast, not letting emotion dictate what had to be done. Steven had his final peace, to never know the hunger, to never be doomed to forever walk the face of the earth a monster with a tormented soul, as his body stalked and ate the living.
It was what he wanted, in a sense it was what they all wanted should they die. Ideally, the bodies of the fallen would be recovered and buried, so that they could be honored, remembered, loved and cherished by those who knew them - only that there was no place left for them to call home. Cameron was the first to regain his feet, as he reloaded the weapon and drew its mate from his other thigh holster, "Come on people, we've got to sweep and clear this place before we can even consider doing what we're going to do next."
The junkyard was a massive complex, taking up more space than it should have realistically occupied, but still it was quick and easy to check. The Spartans were finally able to catch a break as there was no sign or trace of there ever having been a human, or even better an undead within the confines of the 'yard. As they finished their sweep and regrouped in the junkyard office, they found themselves wondering what they should be doing next.
Cameron, having already commanded one defense and knew exactly what to do as he gave the orders, and had the team set up rotating guard shifts through the night, concentrating the defense around its only weakness at the chain linked gate. But the night was quiet and still, which gave Anastasia Sokolov and the former Police Sergeant Cross the opportunity to hammer out a few ideas.
The group had little to worry about in terms of supplies since those Cameron had ordered to load vehicles with supplies had packed both twenty foot long trailers with anything and nearly everything imaginable. That already gave the two some ideas about what they could do with the rig but it took a further two days to hammer out their ideas, and sketch something that looked like what they wanted. Cameron, had been in something of a funk, preferring his own company to that of anyone else, as he found himself taking advantage of the time to sort and learn to cope with the avalanche of unpleasant memories he was burdened with, and to accept those that he knew, from experience would be giving him nightmares for years to come –feeling the blood of over a hundred men and women on your hands is not something that goes away over night.
The duo were smart about the presentation of their idea and practiced their sales pitch on both Jaira and Natalie before approaching Cameron to make the hard sell, "The rig has lots of space on the inside, and a lot of the supplies we have we can't or won't ever need. Right now, what we need is some kind of home that could double as a mobile fortress. I'm thinking," and she played her ace in the hole, "and everyone else agrees with me that we can convert that truck and its two trailers in to exactly that: A mobile armored fortress. We've got an entire junkyard at our disposal so I'm sure we can find just about everything we could possibly need to do the job."
"She's got a good idea, and if something is going to be done with it, we should do it now, while we still have electrical power or the necessary generators and fuel," added Robert. It was strange that so long after everything had ended that the power had continued to stay on. Through the storms and the rest of Mother Nature's fury, the power to the city had never truly died. Granted, there were some sections of the city without power, but the downtown area still had electrical power for some bizarre reason. Sooner or later the power would die but until then life was just that little bit easier. Cameron saw no reason to disagree with the idea, as the next day, work began on the truck. It was clear from the get go that the majority of them were nothing more than dumb labor, as it turned out that Robert and Anastasia were not only the idea people, but also those with skills of relevance.
The first thing they did was empty the contents of the two twenty foot long containers, and stack that neatly out of the way. Then the real work began as they hit the salvage yard, searching for various items and parts on a near mile long list. It took them the better part of a week to find everything they needed. Metal tubing was welded around the vehicle as a support to begin with. A pair of seventy-five gallon fuel tanks, from a broken down truck were scavenged and mounted behind the original tanks and welded together creating two gargantuan fuel tanks. Robert had taken Jaira aside and they'd cut open the tanks and welded mesh inside them to prevent the tanks from exploding should a stray bullet somehow catch them. It turned out that Nastia's father had been a plumber and electrician and general handyman, meaning that she had some knowledge and skills in all those areas.
Suspension was an issue unto itself, especially with the added weight from the additional fuel tanks and support frame. Shock absorbers and springs to handle the additional weight along with another pair of stripped out axles from the 'yard. Robert's parents had been a pair of vehicle mechanics and "engineers" - when they were not out joy riding or stealing cars. Anastasia and Cameron worked together to weld the salvage axles for additional tires, and supports on to the suspension and mounting points of both the truck and its attendant trailers. It provided the necessary support and some measure of comfort, preventing the ride from being the most uncomfortable in the world so long as they limited their off road antics.
In the end, the basics of armor plating, fuel tanks and suspension had taken close to three weeks but the results were definitely beginning to show. Wire mesh was mounted outside the glass windshield of the cab, and a gun port cut through the glass on the passenger side, as the doors were welded shut. The back of the cab was cut out and a flexible tunnel was built between the cab and the front of the first trailer, and the same was done to connect the two trailers together.
Cameron wandered through what would become their living quarters of the first trailer, armed with a tape measure, a pad of paper and pen, taking measurements before disappearing with Jaira, Natalie, in a refueled and hotwired pickup truck for several hours. They returned with a mix of things they would have never found in the 'yard, much to the delight of everyone else. Cameron had considered the big picture, and taken lockers, bunk beds, mattresses and their accompanying soft furnishings amongst other things collected for different stores to give their lives on the road a measure of comfort. His degree in hospitality management that had taken him eight years to get had finally been put to some good use.
Within the confines of the trailer, everyone now had a place to sleep with space for a total of six with curtains for a measure of privacy and lockers and shelves for personal belongings for each bed. Robert and Nastia took a break after their month of sweat and hard labor as the rest cut the first set of gun ports in to the armored wall. The rear portion of the first trailer was partitioned in halves and then quarters. Cameron brought in and mounted wooden brackets and frames, creating a bathroom and a small armory. Salvaged from a local sporting goods store, gun racks and padded hooks were installed in the armory as was a collection of lockers to store magazines and munitions. Furniture for the fortress living room was composed off a pair of small two seat sofas and a "dining table" bolted to the floor. The chairs were left loose with window locks mounted so that the chairs could be locked in to place when the vehicle was in motion.
Cameron worked closely with his two technically minded team members to install water cisterns to catch rainwater, and also a pair of water tanks for their plumbing needs. He left the actual plumbing to somebody with the relevant skills and knowledge. The last of the space in the first trailer was converted in to a living room of sorts with propane stoves and heavy pantry storage cabinets to act as a kitchen. Anastasia, or "Nastia" as everyone had taken to calling her, managed to wire up a collection of solar panels and batteries on the roof meaning that most of the internal electrical systems would run without draining the fuel reserves of their fortress. On the roof of the trailer, the fashioned a hatch that lead in to a dome made of steel mesh on a revolving collar. For the moment, they cut a small gun port uncertain what kind of weapon they would ultimately mount there.
They had been living in the junkyard for just over two months, as they set to work on the second trailer, adding armor plating and cutting gun ports in to its flanks and a hatch that would lead up to the roof. They added metal lockers beneath the chassis for spare tires and the tools needed to change them. As an afterthought, Natalie and Jaira welded together the same steel plate and mounted it to protect the twenty-two wheels of their fortress to protect from gunfire. Nastia started laying out the rough sketches of how she wanted to build up the interior of the second trailer
The rear half of this trailer was left empty, giving them ample room to store supplies and either large heavy or bulky items. The front half was divided into large bins for sorting and storing supplies for extended periods of time. A deep freezer and a fridge were hard wired in to the front half of this trailer for fresh foods, produce and anything that might possibly need to be kept in cold storage.
With the construction approaching completion, they sat around over a meal of tinned meats and vegetables and came to the conclusion that while well protected from gunfire, they were not protected from the undead, if they should swamp the vehicle like they had already done. The solution was conceptualized by Robert, the design conceived by Cameron and ultimately constructed and installed by Nastia and Jaira. Boxlike shotguns were created, each primed with six shotgun shells to fire simultaneously. Sixteen such boxes built and installed all around the massive vehicle that had been somewhere along the way, been nicknamed "Fortress." A spring-loaded plate fired the entire box at once and the entire contraption was hinged mounted so that it could be swung out and reloaded. Two were mounted forward , another two mounted towards the rear with a half dozen mounted along each side of the fortress, ensuring that they could clear out the undead in a single volley of leg shattering buckshot.
With their vehicle ready, its massive fuel tanks filled, the survivor cleaned out as many of the local stores, focusing on pharmacies, groceries and several gun stores, filling the supply bins to the full and with that, their preparations were complete. The final day within their sanctuary and those that could spent the day cooking, as Jaira pulled several classic board games to help pass the time as they talked and laughed, sheltered from the ruins of human civilization.
It was arguably the best meal any of them had eaten in months: Cream of mushroom soup was followed by rice fried with a selection of smoked and dried meats and tinned vegetables and finally desert in the form of a warm coconut pudding. Water, tea and beer were the beverages on offer as everyone ate and talked, and for just a short while the horror that the world had become was pushed aside. Within the junkyard's offices, each of them had staked out a personal space of their own but most had already moved their gear and were already sleeping in the vehicle where it was definitely safer, the sole exception being Cameron. HE valued his privacy and knew once they were on the road he would not get any for a long time.
Jaira walked on tiptoe towards the sofa where Cameron had slept for the past weeks, only to find Cameron twitching in his sleep, deep in the throes of yet another nightmare – one of many that they had all seen. More than once he had awaken to draw a weapon from beneath his pillow at a foe only his eyes could see. And history repeated itself as Jaira woke him. She blinked, and he lowered the weapon, trading firearm for the offered bottle of beer, with a quiet words of thanks. She down beside him, not asking or prying, just sipping the lukewarm beer, thankful of the silence and the lack of questions, unlike the first night when they had woken him out of concern and peppered him with a thousand questions.
Neither would know who was responsible for kissing who first, but it was sudden and unexpected. Perhaps they turned towards each other at the same moment, or something… something would be the truth that they would stick by, but for the moment, they were wrapped in each other's arms, entangled in a kiss, then a second, which blended in to a third and a fourth. It was only minutes before they were both naked, somehow balanced precariously on the sofa. He didn't resist when she pushed him onto his back and straddled him. It was nearly an hour later before they fell exhausted in to each other arms, as she snuggled and fell asleep against him, he could feel the taut muscle on her slender frame, as he traced the tattoo on her shoulder unable to sleep, whether it was just both of them looking for comfort, or celebrating that they were alive, or whether it meant something more. He couldn't decide… he couldn't be sure… and he left it to time, to sort the situation out.
The next day dawned bright and there was a sense of inevitability that the place they had called home for some time, was going to be left behind as they set out and moved on to hopefully greener pastures somewhere. They boarded, double and triple checking to make sure that they had taken everything that they needed and wanted. Weapons ready, Robert pulled himself through the tunnel that linked the trailer to the driving cab and collapsed in to the driver's seat. A drum roll would have been appropriate as he slid the key home. The massive engine coughed once and then roared as it came to life. The battering ram bumper had given the entire vehicle a bullet shaped nose and it punched through the chain link gate with ease as they steered towards the closest highway.
Cameron occupied the front passenger seat, and glanced down at the map he had resting on his lap, "Where we going?" asked Robert. The sun was rising, and its warmth shone down upon the rolling fortress. Soemthing somewhere beeped and it was a good sign: the solar panels, mounted on the roof beneath thick sheets of plastic were charging the batteries that would power most of the fortresses internal electrical systems.
"Out of state. There's nobody and nothing left here… to compel us to stay…" suggested Jaira. Cameron nodded his agreement at the idea. There would be other people out there, other communities of survivors, both large and small, some in the countryside, some in the cities and towns that were now mere shadows of their former selves. Civilization had nearly completely devoured by the dead, but humankind had endured.
"Should we try for San Francisco? I've always wanted to visit," suggested Nastia, "I could work on my tan when we get there!" the childish sweetness with which she said that last had them all – even Cameron – laughing. The future was far from certain, but it lay on the open road, where the sun shone, and the skies were blue, and there was hope.
"No matter what happens now, we're home," said Cameron.