“We shouldn’t stay here long. Secondary fire sign is too likely.” Leonid kicks the left tread. “The first storm was too small for complete burn.”
Pyotr grunts. “Not to mention the twitchers that set the explosives. Damn if they aren’t learning my tricks.”
“Papa, your legs.” Mykola gestures with his eyes until the rest of us look down. The backs of my legs are blistered and red. I shrug.
“They’re fine for now. I’ll treat for infection when we get home. Leo’s right. We should keep moving.” I take a moment to inspect Leviathan. “How’s she look?”
Leonid stoops to inspect the transmission box and then swings underneath to check the axle and universals. While Pyotr and Mykola lower me into my chair I praise the three of them. I feel every word of it, struggling to hold back tears. “I’m proud of all of you, the Founder sons. You’ve outdone your old man in almost every way.”
“Almost?” Pyotr grins.
“Your Papa still has a few tricks up his sleeve yet, you whelp.”
Leonid reports, “Solid. The blast might have blown debris into the gear box, but nothing significant. Pete’s blast plate diverted most of it.”
Pyotr swells with pride. “Who’s the dillweed now?”
“You are, dillweed.” Leonid turns toward the truck.
“Load up, boys. With this much twitcher attention in the fringes, I’m worried about Bertie’s. We may have more trouble before sun fall.”
Ten minutes later we roll up to Bertie’s and instantly know something is wrong. Bertha isn’t sitting on the roof to welcome us with her rifle. I stop in front of the place and indicate for the boys to drive the loop around, but quietly. Pyotr eases off the main road and starts around the perimeter fence of Bertie’s junk and swap yard. If this place has been overrun, it’ll be a nightmare of the living dead.
Information is often the hair’s breadth between life and death in the isolation of the dust zone, and no one has more information than Bertha—if she’s still breathing to gather it. I need to think. I try to rest my head and find the padding stripped by the counter measure taken minutes earlier to keep my lungs from melting.
Lifting my goggles onto my forehead, I rub the creases left around my eyes. The ruddy coloring of the skin on the back of my hands, combined with the spiderweb of wrinkles, unsettles me. I secure the goggles and scan the horizon before looking more closely at my immediate surroundings. First rule of the dust zone: What’s over the horizon can put you under the ground. Eye’s up before looking down.
This time looking down pays off first. Twitcher tracks. Dozen’s of them. Hundred’s of them. I clutch my chest and slough a chill. The hunt.
Bertha. Only a few uninfected have been known to survive a hunt. I zip fifty yards down the road westward, toward Amarillo. Most of the tracks kick into a lope moving in that direction, but others scatter northward at top speed, lumbering footfalls landing every several feet.
Back at Bertie’s the tracks grow muddled, but at least a hundred twitchers converged here within the hour. Tracks in the dust zone never last longer. But if Bertha had been the target of a hunt they would have burned the place to the ground. They moved on too fast. They were hitting every known human stronghold in the area, but on the way to what?
Revving the engine, the boys careen around the opposite side of the junk loop and jolt across the road ditch before slamming on the breaks a few yards short of Leviathan. “News?”
All three jump out of the truck, but only Leonid speaks. “Fire sign east of Amarillo. Lots of it. More than I’ve ever seen, multiple storms at once.”
“Something strange, Papa.” Mykola speaks.
“Dust.” Pyotr and Leonid look down as Mykola continues, “hundreds of trailing clouds of dust.”
A tense silence passes, as we pay respects for the soon to be dead. “The hunt.”