<-- Earlier | Cursed Earth | Later -->
The light of the morning sun, streaming in through the windshield finally roused me from my slumber. I sat up, cranked the seat forward and looked around, half-amazed that I was actually still alive. I'd been taking a big chance, letting both of us sleep like this, but after the last three weeks, we didn't have much option. So I switched on the alarm, and crossed my fingers. Looks like it worked.
Jess was asleep in the other seat still. She almost looked angelic, lying there like that bathed in sunlight. So pretty, with her soft curves and golden hair, her still-innocent face. It almost felt wrong, thinking of her that way, but that didn't make it any less true. In better times, we might have been something else to each other, I mused silently. In better times...
I shook away the stray thought and focused myself, zeroing in on the day ahead. We were still stranded here without fuel, and Chicago was still a long way off. And the spiders were still around, somewhere - coexisting with the demons. I pulled the atlas out of the center console and flipped it open, looking at our path; there was at least three hundred miles of demon-infested highway ahead. One way or another, we had to cross that, and doing it on foot was not the most intelligent of options.
"Hey Jess, wake up," I said, poking her shoulder gently. "It's a new day."
She came to with a start, her hand halfway to her hatchet before she realized what was actually going on. "Oh, John... you startled me." She peered around outside, then relaxed. "Did you sleep well?"
I grinned slightly. "Best night in weeks," I said without a trace of irony. "But we've gotta get moving."
She chuckled slightly and looked up at me. "Here we go again."
She opened the door, swinging a leg out and pulling the Beretta out of its holster. She scanned the terrain quickly but thoroughly, then vaulted to her feet. I popped out the other door, my Glock at the ready. We made a quick circuit around the car until our positions had reversed. I nervously glanced back and forth, then up. "Clear," I announced, and snapped the gun back into its holster.
"Clear," she echoed. She flipped the safety back on and tucked the Beretta back into its sling, then reached in through the open door and popped the trunk.
We had a quick breakfast of fresh apples and venison jerky, took care of the morning essentials, gathered our gear and headed out on the one road we hadn't explored yet, the western road leading out of the city.
We'd been walking for about an hour when we happened upon a fairly badly damaged section of pavement. Crumbling and deterioration were pretty common, but something about this looked odd.
"Hey John, what do you make of this?" Jess called out from the other side of the road. She was kneeling on the shoulder, near a broken patch of asphalt, inspecting something closely. Curious, I headed over.
She was studying some kind of hole in the ground. It took me a moment to realize what I was looking at, but it became clear that this was some kind of blast crater. I furrowed my brow and looked more closely. Just then a cloud moved and the sun shone more brightly, and a glint of metal at the bottom of the crater caught my eye. I fished the little hunk of brass out and turned it over in my fingers. "Grenades?" I wondered aloud.
"That's what I thought, too, but look over there." She pointed further into the rocky scrap along the roadside, at another metal object.
I regarded the object from a distance. It looked like nothing less than a giant brass bullet, maybe two inches across. "The hell is that? Artillery shell?"
"Who the hell would have artillery out here? But yeah, it's a shell. And it's not tarnished." She stood up, looking thoroughly confused now. "There's no Army base near here, at least, not on the map, and everything I've heard says the last of the US forces retreated to San Diego, and that was years ago. Could Canada have anything left?"
"Even if they do, what the fuck are they doing this far south?"
"That's a good question..." She trailed off, looking out across the rocky area and into the burnt-down meadow beyond. "Oh shit."
That caught me slightly off guard. "What is it?" I asked as I looked up, across the field, looking for whatever she had seen. Just then I saw it, the two hulking shapes in the distance, ambling toward us. "Oh, shit."
Neither of us needed any further instructions. We turned and ran, but it was too late. The two demons had noticed us, and immediately accelerated in pursuit.
We'd only been running for a minute, maybe a little more, but I knew there was no way we'd be able to get to the safety of any of the city's buildings before they caught up. Even in a car it'd be a close thing. On foot, we were doomed. "We can't run!" I called, breathing hard. "Gotta fight!"
I didn't have time to argue. I spun on my heels, raising my FAL to my shoulder as I did so. My heart was pounding, and my shaking hands were doing my aim no favors. The demons were getting closer, less than four hundred feet now, I guessed. I flipped off the safety, and letting my instinct take over, squeezed the trigger four times in rapid succession.
Bang! Bang! Bang! Bang! BOOM!
I scarcely had time to register the fact that I'd heard five shots before a blinding flash of light went off somewhere ahead of me, together with a sharp crack that left me almost deaf. I fell to the ground, reflexively covering my ears, half-expecting the demons to be on top of me any second. I was still trying to sort out just what the hell had happened when I felt a hand grab me by the shoulder and haul me up onto some kind of platform.
As my vision returned, I could see that I was in the bed of a truck of some kind, and Jess was beside me. I sat up and looked out over the gate. The betas were still in pursuit even though we were speeding away.
"What the hell?" I mumbled. About now Jess was shaking off the stars and looking around. We glanced at each other, still trying to figure out what had just happened, when we heard a voice from behind.
"The name's Mark!" it said. "Surprised to find anyone else alive out here. You might want to duck!"
I still wasn't sure, but I went with it anyway, pulling Jess down with me. Not a second later, two muffled phoonk noises came from behind me. I traced the two mortar shells as they wobbled through the air, then exploded above the demons, showering them with flechettes. Both demons pulled up short, shrieking and skidding across the pavement as the little steel darts pierced their shells. They clearly weren't dead, but they didn't seem interested in chasing us anymore.
Mark piped up again from the cab of the truck. "Hopefully that'll keep those betas off us for a while. Best I can do without using the fifty-seven again! Make yourselves comfortable back there, we've got a ways to go."
I kicked back and went along with it. With the truck barreling down the highway at no less than fifty miles per hour, and two angry beta demons behind me, it's not like I had much choice, anyway.