Might as well not bother calling it Nano anymore…
Back in the 1117, the ride was slightly smoother – that vehicle was designed to bear the weight of armor, unlike the rickety Humvee up ahead – but Holland was regretting his decision to drive the vehicle nonetheless. The driver’s seat was hard and had been jammed at a weird upright angle, forcing him to sit almost hunched forward. The windshield was tiny and its surface was liberally sprinkled with scratches (probably left facing into the wind during a sandstorm), making Holland feel like he was in some kind of mini-submarine, plowing across the sandy bottom of some imaginary ocean.
The 1117 – or more properly, M1117 Armored Security Vehicle (ASV) – sat higher off the ground than the Humvee and looked more like a real armored vehicle, with a sloped underside, angular sides, and narrow slits for viewing. A sleek turret sat on top, with a 40mm automatic grenade launcher and a hole where a .50 caliber machinegun used to be (having long since been cannibalized for some other vehicle). The whole vehicle was a sand-brown color where rust wasn’t showing through.
Holland glanced over at the soldier in the passenger seat, a tall black guy named Washington that seemed ridiculously large for the cramped seat, with his knees almost to his chin and his broad shoulders dwarfing the narrow steel seat. He was a mortarman from the 10th Mountain Division’s X-YYth infantry – though of course he left his mortar back at FOB Rhino, replacing it with an FN SCAR-L rifle. The man seemed stereotypically loud – having arrived last at the motor pool, he swaggered in, announcing that the “party could start up in he-ah” with a flash of his white-toothed grin. Holland found him amusing enough, but he hoped that he didn’t prove too annoying.
As if to test his hope, Washington spoke. “Where you from, big sarge?” His voice was loud, even in the roaring cabin of the vehicle.
“Oh yeah? Where at in Virginia?”
“Around Langley. You?”
“Baltimore, man.” Washington fell silent, looking away.
Holland sighed. “Sorry, man.” Baltimore, where the first Z-virus case hit the United States – now, mostly a smoking ruin.
“Nah, ain’t nothin’ you can do about it now.”
The ASV rolled on, and the men stayed silent, staring ahead at the tan Humvee bouncing along the sandy road and leaving a rooster tail of brown dust. The mountains rolled away to the east yielding to the sandy flats that stretched as far as they could see.
X X X
Karl was crouched next to the Humvee, which had heeled into a rocky ditch alongside the road, its left front tire reduced to shredded strips of black rubber. Atara was kneeling on the other side of the truck, scanning the far side of the road for threats. The wind was howling over the flats, whirling in little vortices, rattling the tin roof of a lone shack squatting just off the road, looking strangely out of place in an otherwise abandoned world. Karl wondered what it had been – a roadside hot dog stand, perhaps? Then again, he thought, probably not.
“This tire’s shot and our spare is flat. What the hell are we gonna do now?” The voice was the medic’s – Dartagnan was his name and Karl couldn’t help but think of the Three Musketeers which then led to imagining the whiny medic wearing a giant hat decorated with a white feather. Dartagnan was perched on the rear passenger seat, legs dangling out of the grounded Humvee, Kevlar helmet cockeyed on his head.
Karl looked up. “Let’s get this truck jacked up and put the spare on. It’s got a run-flat on there so it’ll get us to the border, at least. We’ll just have to drive slow.” Dartagnan rolled his eyes and hopped down, mumbling some kind of complaint. He tossed the portable jack casually under the truck and started working on it, while Karl stood up, looking around.
Holland and the ASV was stopped behind them, about a hundred meters back; three of the four passengers from that vehicle were dismounted, looking for threats. Not much chance of getting sneaked up on around here, anyway, he thought.
“Where’s Jensmore?,” he asked, spinning around.
“Went to take a piss.” Dartagnan was making good progress on the jack – he seemed pretty handy, despite his bad attitude.
“Yeah, I know. That was ten minutes ago.” Karl grabbed his rifle from the driver’s seat and started off toward the lonely roadside shack. “I’m going to check this shack. Hey LT! Give Dartagnan a hand with the tire – I’ll be right back.”
Christ, he thought, just what I needed. Some troop wandering off in the middle of a mission. Am I here to babysit or what? It’s going to be a slow enough drive to the border with a flat tire – maybe three more hours. The sun was already turning from the piercing white point of day to the melty orange blob of dusk on the horizon – night wouldn’t be far behind.
Karl approached the shack carefully, his rifle low but still ready. The shack was clattering in the wind, its rusted steel roof flapping against the crumbling red stone walls. It was small – maybe ten feet by twelve feet – and a pile of garbage was nestled up against one wall, a cluster of rusty tools, a rotten mattress, discarded clothes, and other detritus of civilization. Some Arabic writing was sloppily spraypainted on one of the walls, but Karl couldn’t make it out (his written Arabic was terrible).
“Jensmore!” He called out, stepping towards the door. The wind shifted and it was like icy fingers crawling up the back of his neck, a feeling of wicked foreboding. He tightened his grip on his rifle, flicking the safety off.