Highway to Hell

Rhine was sitting on another rooftop just outside a town called Rawlins, Wyoming. While taking a deep yawn, he adjusted the cheap plastic beach chair beneath him. Everywhere they went it was the same story over and over. Direct refugees and then fall back once Zack showed up. Every single time, just as he thought they were going to be allowed to give Zack a taste of his own medicine, the order came down to pack up and run away. It was frustrating as hell and he wondered if ever they would ever make a serious stand.

Rhine listened to reports from his small teams of Rangers who had established checkpoints along I-80. They were supposed to prevent infected civilians from penetrating the secure zone the government was establishing West of the Rockies. With him sat a new squad of National Guardsmen fresh out of basic training. They had been attached to his unit to help fill the gaps in his ranks but he would rather have left the gaps empty. These kids had been pushed through “basic” and put into service whether they had passed or not. Combat operations took their toll; a broken ankle here, a Zach victim there, every casualty degrading the platoon’s combat strength. Unfortunately while he would have been given fresh Ranger replacements before the war had broken out, now the best he was going to get were snot nosed kids who pissed themselves every time the wind kicked up. One of these kids was his new radio operator; a fresh faced 19 year old girl who should have been rushing a sorority, not carrying an assault rifle.

The radio crackled with a report from one of the roadblocks. “Reaper 6 this is check point 3… a civilian vehicle just blew through our position… red suburban…be advised…women and children in the vehicle as well as a possible infected.”

“CP3 this is Reaper 6, can you confirm infected in the vehicle?” Rhine asked.

“Can’t be sure….. there was a teenage male in the back of the suburban who looked like he had the bug. When we asked them to step out of the vehicle they took off……almost ran me over! It also looks like they had a CB antenna on the vehicle” the Ranger responded.

He grabbed a CB radio that they had on the rooftop and made sure it was turned to channel  9, the FCC designated emergency channel and spoke, hoping the suburban was also on the same channel.

“Attention…. red suburban that just ran the checkpoint on I-80… this is the United States Army. You have entered a quarantined zone… stop your vehicle immediately or we will fire on you!”

The response he received was exactly what he had feared it would be. “Not gonna happen, I have women and children that need medical attention!”

Rhine tried one more time to reason with the man, “Red suburban this is your last warning….. stop immediately or you will be fired upon!”

The man’s next remark ended the discussion permanently with “Fuck you army”.

Rhine’s anger flashed and he felt the control over his temper slip away. He hadn’t seen his family or girlfriend since he had had arrived in the states and his parents were reported missing and probably dead. All this because he didn’t go home and take care of his family but remained out here trying to fight Zach and save lives. That this guy had the nerve to say that to him after everything he had sacrificed and also blatantly risk bringing infected into a secure area and endanger everyone else was too much.

Rhine turned to the nineteen year old radio operator and barked at her “Get me Excalibur on the line NOW!”

“Excalibur” was the call sign for a battery of 155mm howitzer artillery pieces positioned a couple miles to their rear to give fire support if needed. The girl sat frozen and stared back at Rhine as if she realized the decision he was about to make. He reached over and ripped the radio handset out of her hand and glared at her while contacting Excalibur.

“Excalibur, this is Reaper 6, requesting a fire mission at grid 3B, fire one round HE” Rhine said into the handset.

One of the Guardsmen stepped forward and pleaded with him, “They might not be infected, Sir. Shouldn’t we try to verify before we fire?”

Rhine ignored him and watched as seconds later a massive 155mm high explosive artillery shell detonated on the highway, throwing chunks of asphalt into the air.  He could see the Suburban rapidly approaching; undeterred by the single shell’s explosion.

“Excalibur you are on target, request one barrage of HE… fire for effect!”  The suburban was just entering the blast radius of where the first shell had landed when four more landed in a span of seconds. The vehicle was caught in the blast from an exploding shell and tossed to the side like a toy car, flipping on its side over and over until finally coming to rest on its roof. The silence that followed was eerily quiet until a Humvee slowly approached the shredded suburban. Rhine watched through his binoculars as four of his Rangers slowly exited the Humvee and moved toward the vehicle. They halted immediately as a loud moan escaped the vehicle followed by a succession of others.

“Oh my god someone is alive! You fired on civilians” exclaimed on the Guardsmen to Rhine’s rear.

“Wrong” he said as he watched the driver and two boys, one a teenager and one who couldn’t have been more than ten years old, slowly drag themselves from the shattered wreck. They pulled themselves to their feet; oblivious to the horrific wounds they had suffered as they began to walk towards the Rangers and their Humvee. Since they were freshly reanimated they moved with a quickness not often seen in a Z. They took full strides forward and closed the distance between themselves and the soldiers at the pace of a brisk walk. A ranger standing in the turret of the Humvee opened fire with its mounted M-240 machine gun. Rhine smiled as he watched his boys go to work using techniques they had trained on over and over. Unlike some undisciplined grunt, the Ranger manning the machine gun adjusted his sights for such close range and aimed for the area between the upper lip and hairline of the first Z. He fired short and controlled bursts of only a few rounds each and walked his fire down the line of targets. Three quick bursts put all three of the ghouls down and the gunner began to traverse his M-240 to look for other targets to the sides and rear. The other four Rangers on foot moved in slowly toward the fallen corpses. Once without arms reach, they gave an “insurance round” to each of the three zombies as well as the vehicle’s sole uninfected dead passenger which turned out to be the mother. With the area cleared the men climbed back into the Humvee and made their way back to their position at the main defensive line.

Once he was sure his men had cleared the scene and were away safe he stood up, threw the radio handset at the crying girl and let loose with a scalding verbal lecture they would never forget. His uncomfortable lawn chair found itself tossed across the rooftop as he brought himself into the recruit’s faces.

“Apparently you all have had a collective brain fart and came to the assumption that your opinion means a goddamn thing. That vehicle you all were so eager to let through our lines was a rolling Zach factory. The next time one of you little shits question my orders publicly you will be facing a court martial if you are lucky and my fucking sidearm if you aren’t. I have served with real Guardsmen and you are an embarrassment to their name. Go see Sgt. Rhodes and see if he can find something for you to do; I’m done with you.

The recruits stood straight as a board and gave the best salute Rhine has seen since they had been dropped off at his position. He returned to them the sarcastic half ass salute that he felt they deserved and shook his head as they ran to the roofs edge and descended its ladder.

Rhine rubbed his eyes and ran his fingers over the short stubble atop his head.  He thought about the oath he had taken to become an enlisted soldier and then an officer. What good is an oath to a government that has all but given up? Were a bunch of words worth the lives of his men? For the first time in his life, Rhine questioned his service to his country. Maybe it was time to choose a different path? Maybe it was time to go their own way?

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