To the barrens super pul.., p.1
To the Barrens (Super Pulse Book 2), page 1
2: To the Barrens
Copyright © 2017 by Dave Conifer
Cover Art and Design
by Laura Moyer of thebookcovermachine.com
Also by Dave Conifer:
Snodgrass Vacation (2009)
Primary Justice (2011)
Hard Lines (2012)
Cold Cases: Man of Steel (2008)
Cold Cases: Zodiac Rogue (2013)
Cold Cases: Money Down (2014)
Super Pulse: The Grid Goes Black (2016)
Nick Mercator wasn’t sure how long he’d been asleep when the bus slammed into a pothole and jarred him back to consciousness. It didn’t take long, after noting where they were, to realize that it hadn’t been more than a few minutes. The bus, one in a line of many, was cruising slowly along a two-lane blacktop road, one that he recognized and knew was close to the abandoned industrial site they’d just departed from. He was glad for the pothole. As exhausted as he was, he knew he should stay awake for the ride.
Next to him was Dewey Bishop, who’d apparently fallen asleep as well, and who hadn’t been disturbed by the rough ride. Good, Nick thought. Let him rest. Dewey had been shot in the thigh a day earlier. Nick could still see the blood on Dewey’s shredded jeans, which he was still wearing because he had no other clothing to speak of. Under normal circumstances he’d be recuperating in a hospital bed instead of being part of a mass exodus of a suburban New Jersey neighborhood.
Instinctively, Nick turned to survey the rest of the passengers seated behind him. Nearly every passenger on the bus was part of the “Outhouse Coalition,” his group from Crestview who had named themselves after their first project, a community latrine erected in the yards between their houses. All the way in the back were Matt and Ellie Shardlake, sharing a single bench seat with their twin boys. Matt was among the most thoughtful of the group, but had recently shown unexpected prowess as a fighter. Across from them were Tom and Penny Hellikson, who, along with their four young children, occupied two rows. Like Dewey, Tom had been shot during the recent battle. He’d endured a painful surgery to remove three slugs from his shoulder, and was not very mobile and clearly in pain.
In front of the Shardlakes, just two seats behind Nick and Dewey, were Sarah McElligott-Cohen and her two daughters, Jenny and Ashley. Sarah, who had demonstrated a strong aversion to guns during most of the short time Nick had known her, was the surprise heroine of yesterday’s battle, when she showed how skilled she was with them. Although she spoke little of it, Nick knew that despair over being away from her husband was never far from her mind, or her heart. Her daughters likely felt the same way. The girls reminded Nick of his own daughter, Jules, now living several states away with her mother, who’d divorced Nick and since re-married. He wondered if Jules missed him. Probably not very much, he admitted to himself. The separation had been ugly.
He was jolted back to the here and now in mid-thought as something, probably a rock, slammed into the side of the bus. It was a reminder that there were others out there in this shattered world, although whoever threw it wasn’t visible. As bad off as those on that bus thought they were, there were people out there who had it much worse. There was a lot more hope on that bus than off of it.
They were traveling on a full-sized school bus, but the seats had been removed from the back half. That section was jammed floor to ceiling with equipment and supplies, stowed under plastic tarps. Nick and his group were a last-minute addition to the sizable band of people leaving Crestview. Perhaps this bus, the last in the caravan, was originally purposed for supplies only. Nick felt fortunate that they were part of this at all. It almost hadn’t worked out that way.
A white van appeared out of nowhere from behind. It dropped speed to match that of the bus for a half a minute before suddenly speeding away. As Nick watched, it caught up to the next bus, where the pattern was repeated. That can’t be good, he thought. What’s going on here? He looked around, afraid that nobody else was paying attention.
At least one person was, however. Watching the van carefully was a young woman with a pistol in a shoulder holster. She was seated in the front, directly behind the man driving the bus. Nick hadn’t seen her before, and was certain that she wasn’t from Crestview. She looked to be about thirty. Her dark hair was short, as though it had been recently chopped. Her features were sharp. He wondered if that was because she wasn’t getting enough to eat. That seemed unlikely; feeding its members didn’t seem to be a problem for these folks.
He turned back to the window, careful not to rouse Dewey, who was now slumped against him and snoring with vigor. The desolation hit him like a ton of bricks. He’d traveled this way countless times and was familiar with most of the homes and businesses along the way. The once neat and tidy road was now replete with partially-burned buildings, all of which had obviously been ransacked, and abandoned hulks of looted cars.
Nick remembered Grover telling him how they systematically sucked the gas out of such cars, building their own hefty gasoline depot. It was an unmistakable opportunity, one Nick wasn’t sure he’d have thought of himself. The people he’d signed on with were well-led and knew exactly what they were doing.
Debris and trash were everywhere. That was nothing new in these times. Every once in a while he caught sight of small groups of bedraggled, passive people who seemed amazed at the sight of a moving bus. And why not? Nick hadn’t seen anything moving recently either. He was just glad they weren’t doing anything but staring. Somehow he was sure it wouldn’t always be that easy.
Within a mile he’d seen the first body. Bloated and black, contorted and disfigured outside the door of what looked to have been a bakery, he knew that person had died violently. Five minutes later, after seeing a steady stream of destruction, not to mention a slew of bodies in similar condition, he understood that the situation had already become far more dire than it had appeared back in Crestview.
As if she’d been waiting for the chance, the woman from the front made eye contact and then wandered back to slide into the seat in front of Nick. On closer inspection, he saw that her dark hair was actually jet black, an obvious dye job. Blots of black dye stained her scalp.
“You’re Nick, right?” she asked. She reached a hand over the back of the seat. "I’m Linda Brown. Every bus has a monitor, and on this one, I’m it.”
“Glad to meet you, Linda. Yeah, I’m Nick." He nodded toward Dewey, still on his shoulder. “And this is Dewey.”
“I see you’re just wild about my hairstyle,” she said wryly.
“Um, sure,” Nick said. “I like it all right.”
“Sure you do,” she said. “Don't worry. I'm used to it. You like it about as much as I do, I’d guess. A month ago I was a bleach blonde. It just got to be too much maintenance. This works better.”
“Makes sense,” Nick allowed.
“And looking like a woman isn’t always a good thing these days,” she continued. “It’s better to look like just another guy, especially from a distance. And if you haven't learned by now, distance is good in its own right.”
“Yeah, who needs the attention?” Nick agreed.
She snorted. “Attention. Nice word. You don’t get out much, do you? It’s dangerous if the men see you coming. There’s a lot of disposable females out there. Better known as corpses.”
“No, I get what you’re saying,” Nick told her.
“The Committee is talking about making this hair cut mandatory for all our women,” she said.
"Sure, as long as everybody buys into it," Linda said. "And so far, they do. You might have to lose that mop of hair you're wearing, too. They're talking about crew cuts for the men, to help prevent head lice."
Nick didn't like the sound of mandatory hairstyles, but he held his tongue. “Things went bad faster than I expected,” Nick admitted. “I’ve never seen anything like this. Then again, this is the first time I’ve set foot out of my own development since this all began.”
“We’ve been on patrol there in your neighborhood for a while, keeping the peace,” Linda said. “We were there from the beginning. We kept a low profile. Guards in the trees at all the entrance points. We had more and more armed vehicles as time went on. We kept the crazies out. It was a completely artificial safety bubble. If you stepped out of the neighborhood, well, just look out the window and you’ll know what I mean. We chucked out anybody who caused any problems, too."
Nick remembered all the sudden disappearances. Now it made more sense. Too bad they didn't get Ryne Cronin. He was probably too powerful for that. "But why go to all the trouble?" Nick asked.
"Well, for starters, we were there, too," she answered. "We weren't ready to leave, so we did what we had to do to keep it safe."
"I should have known you were there in the background," Nick said. "Every once in a while one of us saw the signs. We heard shots. We saw moving vehicles. And of course, every time I walked by your place it was humming."
"Yeah, a lot of that was us," Linda said. "No offense, but you all would have been eaten alive in a month if not for us."
"None taken, and I don't doubt it," Nick told her.
"But being there was a losing game. It was time to get out.”
“Sure was,” Nick agreed as he surveyed the landscape they were passing through. “Why are there so many burned buildings around here? I don’t see the point. Who would do that?”
“Accidental, most likely,” she said. “All of a sudden people who don’t know how to control a fire are starting them for cooking, or whatever. As soon as it got out of hand, they just bolted to the next house. Or died. That’s what I think anyway.”
“Makes sense,” Nick said. “So where exactly are we going right now?”
“Temporary headquarters,” Linda said. “Southampton Middle School, up Route 206 in the Pine Barrens.”
“Oh, okay. I know where that is, pretty much,” Nick said. He remembered Grover telling him that the Pine Barrens was plan B, if they were unable to get across the Delaware River into Pennsylvania. So Plan B it was. “What about this committee? Sounds like they rule with an iron fist. How does it work?”
“I’ll let them explain it,” Linda said. “It won’t be long.”
“Holy smokes!” Tom exclaimed from behind. “Look at the library! We were just there the day before this started!”
The library, a two story concrete structure that hadn’t been beautiful to begin with, was now severely damaged. Every window had been shattered, with twisted blinds hanging out of some. Abandoned cars, all with windows broken and trunks hanging open, dotted the parking lot, which was also littered with books and debris. The main double-doors had obviously been kicked in, although one still hung precariously from a hinge.
Nick shook his head. “Times are tough. Who loots a library?”
“We did this, actually,” Linda said.
“What?” Nick asked, his face showing confusion.
“From what I hear, we’ve hit at least twenty libraries,” she said. “Maybe a few more, maybe a few less. I’m not on that subcommittee. It’s all about information, Nick. We need to know how to build things back up. Things we need to survive. Just in case you hadn’t noticed, Google is down right now.”
“So, like, we’re stealing books?” Dewey asked, shaking himself awake and diving into the conversation.
“We’re building a store of information,” Linda said. “You can call it whatever you want. That's your problem.”
“Sounds pretty smart,” Nick said, now that he’d had a chance to think on it. “By the way, have you noticed the van that keeps buzzing around us?” Nick asked. “I’ve been keeping an eye on them. They’re making me nervous.”
“Relax. They’re ours,” Linda said. “Security. Nine buses and six heavily-armed escorts. And the trucks had their own shooters with them, since they’re going someplace else. C'mon, man? You don’t think a convoy like this would go out unprotected, do you?”
Before he could answer, the bus driver yelled and waved her forward. “Got to go,” she said, making her exit.
Dewey was awake now, but instead of making him move, Nick climbed over the seat and walked down the aisle back to the rest of the group. “I have news,” he told them. “We’re going to a school. Southampton Middle School, to be exact. Ever heard of it? That’s going to be home for us, at least for a little while.”
“Southampton?” Sarah said excitedly. “That’s right near home! That’s near Medford!”
“Yeah, it seemed like we were heading out your way,” Nick said.
“Do you think they’d make a detour?” Sarah asked. “What if Eli’s there waiting for us?”
“No, Sarah, I don’t think that’s gonna’ fly,” Nick said. “It’s not just this bus. We’re part of a caravan.”
“It can’t hurt to ask,” Sarah said. “I’m going up to talk to the bus driver.” She was already on her feet when they heard Linda's voice. “Everybody stay in your seats!” They heard the gears grinding. The bus was already slowing. “Stay calm! We got problems here.”
Nick ran to the front of the bus, grabbing the seat backs to hold himself steady. He could already see what Linda was worried about. Fifty yards ahead, some men were rolling vehicles across the road. The next bus in the caravan was already on the other side of the roadblock, and getting smaller as it moved further and further away. They were on their own.
“Where’s our security vans?” Nick demanded.
“Not sure,” Linda said. “And keep your voice down. I think we got separated from the rest of the convoy.”
“They told me to keep it at twenty,” the bus driver insisted, his tone defensive. “It’s not my fault. I can’t help it if the rest of them went too fast.”
Two men, one in a ragged t-shirt and the other in an orange jump suit, ran out from the side of the road and stood in the path of the already-slowing bus, which was still moving at about ten miles per hour. Twenty feet ahead, they held up their hands to signal the driver to stop.
“Don’t you dare!” Linda told the driver, who had taken his foot off the gas but hadn’t touched the brake pedal yet. The men finally realized that the bus was not going to yield, and tried to lunge out of the way. One was successful, springing to the side in time. The other tripped on some debris and disappeared from view. His screams, which started and ended abruptly, made it clear what his fate had been.
The barricade of cars across the roadway ahead was now finished. At least twenty men, some holding firearms but mostly wielding clubs and self-styled metal swords and spears, were scurrying around it. Linda instructed the driver to move within fifty feet of the barrier and then stop.
“Any guns they have are just for show,” Linda told Nick. “If they had ammo, they’d have used it. They’d never have let the whole convoy go by if they could have shot it up.”
“You know that for sure?”
“That’s how it’s been lately, so we’re going with it,” she said. As she spoke she squatted to retrieve two shotguns, one at a time, from beneath the first seat. “Who’s your best shooter?”
“Sarah, back there,” Nick answered without hesitation.
“Give her this,” she said, handing him the pistol. She fished out a couple of spare magazines from her pocket. “And these.” She shoved one of the shotguns at Nick. “This is for you. Ever shot one?”
“Yeah, a few times,” Nick said. “Is it loaded?”
“We’ve each got only six shells,” Linda an
"I hope you're right about the reinforcements," Nick told her.
Once the bus was stopped, more attackers swarmed from the sides of the road. One man systematically approached each tire and jabbed it with a spear. The jerk of the bus and the hiss of the slashed tires said it all. Even if the road were cleared of attackers and barricades, getting out of there was going to be a problem with no tires.
Nick walked back and passed the pistol to Sarah. The attackers were now smashing the windows, showering the inside of the bus with shards of glass. “Get everybody into the aisle and onto the floor!” Nick told Matt, shouting to be heard over the sudden din.
“Two shots!” Linda yelled, pointing at Nick from the front. “You take this side!” she added, pointing to the right. “Make ‘em count!” Nick understood. He approached one window, where two hands were working on clearing away the twisted remains of the window frame. He swung the shotgun like a baseball bat, crushing the hands with the stock. The assailant roared with pain and fell away. Nick stepped forward while flipping the gun into shooting position with the stock jammed into his shoulder.
Now all he needed were targets. Most of the attackers were right up against the bus, working on the windows. There was no way he could get a clear shot at them with a rifle. He picked out a man who was approaching the bus with a long, homemade metal pike, took aim, and blew him backwards off his feet with a single, bloody shot. Unfamiliar with this gun, it took him several seconds to pump it to eject the spent shell and load a fresh one. As he did this he heard two blasts from the front of the bus in rapid succession. Linda had said they needed to put on a show, and the show was on.
Nick’s next target was an easier choice. An attacker, wearing the same orange jump suit as the man who’d met his end under the wheels of the bus, had used the shredded tire as a step, and was attempting to wriggle inside through the remains of the window. Nick knew he had to act quickly; the man was already inside all the way up to his waist. He swiveled the barrel of his weapon in that direction, still in firing position, and pulled the trigger. The man’s neck exploded in a red spray, and he fell limp with his head coming to rest on the back of a seat.
by Dave Conifer have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes