James drove the tank at a nice pace towards the northwest desert. The region was host to more rocks than vegetation. The only sign of life was brittle white trees that had died years ago. The mechanic looked to his left inside the cockpit. Tsara had been glancing back and forth between the horizon and the tank’s controls and monitors.
The pair hadn’t been talking to each other like they used to. Long conversations about nothing had been replaced with brief “Good mornings” or, “How was work?”
I thought this mission would win her back somehow. Then he thought about his steamy bargain with Natti. Does Tsara know about that somehow? James watched the three buggies and two trucks bouncing ahead with their small, constant dust trails.
The tank’s cockpit was high enough that the combined cloud was light enough to see through without an issue. Its treads also evened out the terrain better than any shock absorber James had ever worked with. Driving through the short dunes only made him and Tsara casually lean left or right.
Tsara broke the silence with a quiet question, “So, the Red Bones know we’re coming, right?”
“Oh, no. Originally, this tech was set up so that only the people at home base could track the tank. I think it’s an old military tactic to not let it work the other way around. Just in case the enemy got ahold of this tank and, didn’t know how to do what I did.”
“So whoever drove this tank had to know how to get home on their own.”
“Yep.” Is this making her think of Deb?
James thought back to the morning he had woken up, and Deborah wasn’t in the cockpit with him. She had left the shotgun, the only weapon she could still kill herself with. James had spent hours waiting for her to return from a brief scout or something. Hours wondering which way she had went. The sandstorm had obliterated any chance to pick up a trail the night before.
He swallowed a lump in his throat. James hadn’t realized how pissed he was with Deborah. He was still processing how he felt about killing the vamps and the Red Bones. Tate. I didn’t kill him, but I left him for dead. Kid didn’t even have peach fuzz, and he was ready to shoot Deborah in the face.
James looked down at his white knuckles on the control levers. He had nearly died with and for Deborah for days. She had left without a word. Breathe.
He rubbed his eyes, “Yeah. Just wish I had sunglasses or something.” She knows I’m lying.
A scout yelled through the radio, “Coming up on a canyon. Gonna change course in a second.”
James only saw more dunes, lifeless trees and rock columns ahead. They group had studied a map beforehand, but now James was sure that was more Tsara and his benefit than the other volunteers.
Tsara sounded like she was talking to herself. “They all spend a lot of time out here.”
“Yeah.” Where are you Deb? God, let me find her. The young man was suddenly aware that he hadn’t prayed in almost a week. Please forgive me.
There wasn’t much more conversation for the remainder of the ride. Once the convoy had driven around a canyon and a series of massive rock pillars, James was starting to remember his ride with Deborah. She had told him that passing the canyon officially put them in Red Bones territory.
Following the reversed signal of the tank took some maneuvering on the scouts’ side of things. James had been told this area was primarily Ryback and Reese’s area to keep tabs on. Whatever happened to those guys? He remembered finding Ryback’s tattooed arm under his truck. Breathe.
James felt Tsara’s eyes on him once in a while, usually when he forced himself to breathe. She had been trying to talk to him for days, and he constantly deflected her. I’d give up on me too. Will finding Deb change anything? I want her alive just so I can punch her. What will Tsara do?
The monitor that James had attached from his garage caught his attention. After hours of driving, the white dot on the dark green background was slowly moving. Judging by the speed of the dot moving from the top frame towards the center of the screen, they would be there soon.
James grabbed the radio handle from the central monitor, “Attention James Gang,” he hadn’t picked the name, but James did like the ring of it, “Target location is closing in. Estimated…” James let go to eyeball the equation.
Before he could answer, Linda’s voice interrupted, “Gotcha Mechanic, don’t need details over the waves. Just follow suit. Over.”
“Copy. Over.” James noticed the five vehicles slow down, so he matched their pace. He kept an eye on the rear view cameras until the tank stopped throwing a dust trail into the sky.
Tsara was looking at him like a hungry puppy begging for a scrap of food. James pointed to the monitor, “Looks a little over fifteen kilometers.”
“At this pace?”
“Maybe another hour or less.”
Tsara scoffed, “I know we want to be stealthy… I just wish we could ram this tank through the whole tribe until only Debbie was left.”
James faintly chuckled, “You two are sisters alright.”
Tsara’s eyes watered up, and she reached up to James’ forearm. Without hesitating, James reached out and held her hand. Maybe there’s some hope for us yet.
The small caravan from Anthill crawled their vehicles forward. They kept their radio talk to a minimum. James wondered when or where the Red Bones would ambush them. He had informed the party there was a small chance the rival tribe could still track the tank, so he was sure he wasn’t the only one on high alert.
The terrain had transitioned into more rocks and boulders than sand. Stone pillars towered in every direction, green weeds and shrubbery became more and more common. The scouts signaled to each other with hand motions, but James could only guess specifics. It seemed all routes were leading to a narrow valley of smooth orange rock.
James tried to give vague directions for where they needed to go. The scouts with buggies occasionally split up to check forks in the road. After twenty or so splits, one scout rallied the rest to their location.
The mechanic noticed Tsara constantly checking the clock on one of the monitors. They were past the one hour mark James had guessed earlier. They were both getting anxious, especially with the tone the last scout was using.
The tank exited the canyon maze to a wide area of smooth plains. James and the rest parked their vehicles with the leading scout and followed on foot. Rifle in hand, James followed suit with the other seven scouts and Tsara. Everyone quietly double checked their weapons as they walked in a single formation from left to right.
Heat waves ahead made the walk look like it would take a while. Then the ripples of heat gave way to something else. James brought the rifle to his shoulder as he realized they were walking up to a crater. The party of nine began crawling to the edge. James was actually afraid of how silent they were. How often do other scouts look at Anthill like this?
Ten or more stories below, James was surprised to find such an immaculate abode. Ivory and emerald buildings with gold trimming glistened in the afternoon sun. Next to a functioning water fountain was a gathering of dark green sludge. Dead vamps?
Linda nudged James’ left elbow and whispered, “That scope work?” James guessed she was in her fifties, but also guessed that she wasn’t slowing down anytime soon.
James nodded as he slid the rifle towards the edge and carefully rose its scope to his eye. A closer look at the slime made James think he saw vague formations of liquefied limbs and small traces of blood. Without looking away he whispered to Tsara on his right, “Looks like someone was baking vamps this morning.” No way Deb’s in that pile.
Linda replied, “I’ll agree with that. Looks like they put up a fight first though.”
James scanned the area and realized there were corpses scattered throughout the plaza. Each pale body was sprawled out, their heads decapitated nearby. Could Deb have done all this?
Linda tapped his elbow, “Some of us are going down. You two might want to stay up here.”
Tsara kept quiet, but with plenty of passion said, “If Debbie’s down there, I want to see her face to face.”
Linda smirked, “I imagine you’re a package deal?”
James grinned back, “Pretty much.”
Harris was still lying at the edge of the Red Bones’ home crater. James and Tsara had joined another scout in the back of Linda’s truck. Linda had followed one of the other buggies back into the rock maze.
Near twenty minutes later, the two vehicles were finally descending the only safe road into the pit. Glancing to the sun, Harris thought the ground team had a solid two hours of sunlight below.
Two snipers had stayed up top with Harris, who had volunteered to be their lookout on the surface. All the scouts had agreed the crater was a tactical nightmare. Trying to find a sniper from the bottom before they found you would be next to impossible.
Harris eyed the man and woman to either side of him. Everyone here had volunteered out of kindness or loyalty. Too late to bribe anyone. Harris knew he’d have to wait for just the right moment to kill James and Tsara without being caught. Be shame to kill the whole bunch.
Going into the Red Bones’ home beside his targets may have been convenient, but he ultimately was on lookout for any real threats as well. James said the Red Bones might know we’re coming. Damn good trap to lead all of us down there. The middle-aged man neglected to mention his thought to the rest. There was still a chance he could use a rival ambush to suit his own mission.
Tommy, the scruffy sniper to Harris’ left, kept his rifle aimed below while asking, “You alright Harris? You seem quieter than usual.”
“Just hard to believe Deb would bite the dust to a bunch of amateurs.”
“Oh yeah? I heard the Red Boners were pretty tough. Even without the tank.”
“I went a few rounds with one of their old chiefs. Big son of a bitch. He was tough, prepared, and unpredictable. Not sure if anyone could beat him one on one, not in his prime anyway.”
“So what do you think happened here?”
Harris pulled up his binoculars, watching James and Tsara stick close to each other as they scanned the plaza. “I might’ve guessed a nest of vamps cleared the place out. But see how they all died in one spot?”
“Yep. Might be Shadow Stalkers.”
Harris felt Tommy and the other sniper tense. The younger brunette to Harris’ right whispered, “If that’s what you think, why the fuck are we still here?”
Tommy forced an arid chuckle, “Come on. There ain’t no tribe of blue eyed vamps, old man. Just bedtime stories.”
I wish. Harris pointed below, “Who else would remove the heads of more than a dozen well-armed men and women, and leave all that water unguarded?”
Tommy quickly answered, “Maybe more vamps swooped in later, or maybe the last survivors got infected, and the ground team’s gonna find them all sleepin’ inside.”
“You young pups think you know it all.”
Harris wondered how long Daniel had had the blue eyes. Used to have pretty brown eyes.
The veteran hunter remembered clearing that nest with Daniel a decade and a half ago. There were too many vamps, and Harris had nearly died just to watch his lover be dragged away screaming. He’d never forget the blue eyed vamp that silenced Daniel’s cry for help.
Harris snapped his attention back to the mission. Anything to keep him from thinking about Daniel.