Beach Road, Part Three
And here’s my part three:
The battle was farther away than it seemed. She walked over the pockmarked roads and muddy fields that were the mark of this new world. As the sun started to wane on her right, she was finally able to see some of the carnage in front of her.
If the sun was setting, how far had she walked? Distance was hard to judge without GPS on cellphones. Or road signs, for that matter. Was she in National City now? Chula Vista? Hell, Tijuana? She felt like she was definitely south of San Diego, but shouldn’t she have passed through some wrecked out urban landscape to get here? It was disease that had wiped out the world, not nuclear war. Other cities she had seen were abandoned, not missing.
But Southern California geography left her mind as she passed the first smoldering bush, indicating the outskirts of the helicopter’s reign of fire. Heat still swept across her path, although not as unbearable as it must have been an hour earlier.
For not the first time, she thought back to her initial goal. The Coronado Bridge. Get across it, and the land would be easier to defend. What was she doing, being diverted by a helicopter attacking the ground? Curiosity and the cat, she reminded herself, and this cat should be safely digging in her well-defended island litterbox.
Tomorrow, she promised herself. Tonight, she would investigate then find a secure place to spend the night. By midday tomorrow, she’d be playing her own version of Crossy Road.
A hint of azure caught her eye from the road beneath her. Unnatural colors stuck out in this post-world. Dirt, sky, ocean, and mostly-dead grass – these were the hues of the Plague. A powder blue halfway between a Caribbean lagoon and a Vail slope jumped out, even in the failing light of dusk.
The pattern inside the blue was even more unnatural, and downright frightening. A yellow lightning bolt haloed in white. The mark of the San Diego Chargers, a virulent bands of marauders. She had heard terrified whispers of hapless wanderers being hacked to pieces for roaming into the wrong territory of town, unable to respond to the scathing screams of, “Show us your lightning bolt!”
At least it verified her location. The Chargers and had gone on the defensive in recent years, so any road markings would have to be in San Diego proper.
So perhaps the entire conflagration was nothing more than a simple turf war. Even better, since the remnants of the blue-and-gold had clearly lost this engagement, there must still be some swag to scavenge. She breathed a sigh of relief at both the turn of events and the confirmation that she wasn’t losing her instinct.
She continued to climb over divots and pockmarks, made even craggier by the helicopter attack. With the sun finally set and the only light source coming from dwindling fires, she came upon the focal point of the damage. On the precipice of a giant crater, she was faced with yet another decision. Climb in and scavenge or wait until morning? Whoever was behind the attack would surely be here by morning. There might even be some Chargers under shelter right now, waiting to counterattack. She needed to get in and out before any group materialized. The way an individual made it this far was by avoiding groups. Any groups, but particularly groups as strong as the Chargers. A group able to rout the Chargers? She shuddered.
So over the lip of the crater she crept, leaving the amber glow of the surface behind. Waiting for her eyes to adjust to the starlight twinkling down, she remembered the night the lights didn’t come on. Before that night, every town she entered still had people trying to make do, convinced that they would persevere through dwindling numbers, believing that society would overcome the obstacles, that humanity’s progress would triumph. Even if the population of each town was halved by the time she left.
The lights going out ended that underlying hope. Yet, looking up at the sky as her ancestors once had, as she was doing again right now, gave a new sense of the future. The stars and the moon illuminated just enough to get by. All it took was adjusting to the new world. By scavenging, by defending, and, for some people, by joining gangs like the Chargers.
Like most nights, she looked up at the first stars of night, and thought back on the before and the after. The things that were unnoticed and background before, but so desperately vital now.
An unnatural sound broke her out of her reverie. A click. One she knew too well. Then another. And another.
A bright white, a color she might once have called fluorescent, spread out over her section of the Earth. The first shadows she saw in the floodlight were the muzzles of AK-47s trained over the lip of the crater. She was blinded, disoriented, and they had the high ground.
Shit, shit, shit!
“Hands up!” came a booming voice through a sound system.
She looked for a way out through squinting eyes. No cover at the bottom of the crater. Guns pointing down from eight directions, covering every spot on the compass. These guys were good.
“We knew the helicopter would get you here,” the voice came from the southern lip. She turned back to him, finally seeing beyond the muzzle. He, and his companions, were not wearing Charger gear. They were all in black, body armor from the look of it, with faces covered by a modernized World War I gasmask.
“This doesn’t have to end badly,” he changed tact. “We just want to talk to you. Study you. Just put your hands in the air, Typhoid Mary.”
One more decision. Fight or flight? Reluctantly, she let the tension leave her body and followed his instructions. Hands in the air.
“Sir,” the man turned to report behind him. “The mission is a success. We have Patient Zero in custody.”