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Chapter 4

- 05/10/2017

It had been an unusual month for Zachary Gilbert. A week in the woods quickly taught him how ill prepared he was for travel. After nearly breaking his ankle climbing downhill it was only through dumb luck that he stumbled across a small cabin. The place was already looted save for a few sparse cans of food, but it gave him shelter and some time to make a plan.

He wasn't cut out for the life of a wilderness explorer, but if he could find a car, or friendly town, Zachary was sure he could prove his worth in other ways. So he traveled west. Slowly and carefully, taking no unnecessary risks until he had finally reached his destination: Fort Derringer.

"I think we've got enough space to pack a movie or two, if you want. Rec room had a few good ones."

Zachary turned his attention to a nearby screen. Maybe once it had been a source of information for soldiers and military personnel passing through the halls. Now it was just a blank canvas. Pitch back, save for white letters that would crackle to life in the center.

No thanks.

"Suit yourself." he chuckled, hauling a tightly-packed bag over his shoulder with a grunt.

A part of him still wondered if he was going crazy. It wasn't the first time he had seen something he couldn't explain, but unless he had stumbled into the world's most elaborate prank show Zachary was pretty well convinced he had made friends with a ghost. Or, at the very least, they were on relatively friendly terms.

The two made an unusual pair, but after weeks of travelling alone Zachary was glad to have someone to talk to. He never brought up the ghost's history, or how it may have died. It seemed like that would have been a rude question to ask. Not like he really wanted to talk about his past either. Instead he just took to calling the ghost a more suitable name. Bee. Because it always made this annoying buzzing sound before taking control of an electronic.

It had taken a while to figure out a way for Bee to travel with him. At first they thought Bee could power a car and drive, but it proved to be a little too difficult for the spirit to manage. They considered everything from a generator to batteries, but nothing really seemed to fit. Sure, Bee could literally fit inside any of those things. It just wasn't right. There was an agreement that the pair would be travelling companions. Companions needed a way to talk.

That's when they stumbled upon their solution.

Zachary stepped out into the daylight, bag in tow. Loading the stuffed duffel into an equally packed jeep he took one last moment to appreciate his surroundings. Fort Derringer wasn't quite home, but it had been damn close over the last week. He was certainly going to miss it.

He heard the crackle of electricity nearby as Bee found its way from an outdoor electrical socket to a nearby scrolling electronic sign. Ready any time. The letters scrolled from right to left across the information board, looping from one side to the other.

Thick clouds had begun to roll in overhead. Sooner than either expected. They had debated waiting for any potential storm to pass but decided against it. There would be a dozen reasons to postpone their trip. Better to start the journey now than spend another day waiting for the perfect time to travel.

"Well then, let's get going." Zachary said, fondly patting the jeep before taking out a cell phone from his jacket pocket.

Their solution seemed perfect. Something portable that could show text, with a camera to boot. Federation-assigned phones were durable, held a charge for days, and were relatively water resistant. The phone couldn't run any games or third party apps, so hardly anyone had one for personal use. It was no surprise when they uncovered an entire stockpile unopened. Unexpected good fortune in the dark of an abandoned place.

Zachary could feel the tug of static in the air. It was startling at first; watching Bee make a leap into a physical object. A flash of light, sometimes even the sizzle or pop of loose wiring. Like witnessing a miniature lightning strike. Zachary turned to look away, not wanting to be blinded by the light, but looked back when the familiar flash never came.

Instead he heard an unfamiliar rumble in the distance, from beyond the southern gate. It sounded like cars at first. Maybe a group of trucks, or something bigger. A loud clanking noise, like metal scraping against concrete, until it all came to a sudden halt. The solid metal barricades of the southern gate made it impossible to see beyond, but it was no doubt they had visitors.

Confused, Zachary turned back to the scrolling sign to see a new message scroll across the board.

DriveDriveDriveDriveDriveDrive

There was yelling outside. He couldn't really understand about what, and was straining hard to hear when a loud scraping bang began to ring against the gate. Four feet of reinforced steel began to buckle inward. Large, noticeable dents that slowly began to twist and push the gate inward with each violent pounding.

"Man, we've got to go! Come on, come on!" Zachary held his phone out to the scrolling screen again only to find it blank, lifeless.

All across the southern wall of Fort Derringer things began to move. Automated weapons Zachary had never even given a second thought sprung to life, twisting and uncoiling like serpents. There was another bang at the gate, men shouting, then the overwhelming hum of weapons fire filled the air with a single, mighty roar.

As the fort's defenses sprung to life above, something behind the southern gate redoubled its efforts to break into their makeshift sanctum. The banging intensified not just in tempo, but also with force. Huge panels of the gate had already begun to twist away. Something large was working hard to widen the growing breach, warping and manipulating the metal from the other side. For a moment Zachary could have sworn he saw someone dressed as a firefighter try to crawl through the hole.

Something beyond the southern gate violently exploded, spouting a gout of flame through the breach that caused Zachary to stumble back in fear. Screams of agony burst from the hole, clear as day. Within a cloud of smoke and flame the invaders began to move. Another slam and the hole grew wider. Another, and the hydraulics holding the metal in place began to buckle.

Covering his ears to block out the turret's deafening assault, Zachary sprinted for the driver's side of the jeep. Bee was buying him precious time to escape whatever was beyond the wall. He couldn't waste it.

It was impossible to hear the car start over the roar of weapons fire. Zachary prayed this would be to his advantage as he slammed down on the accelerator, making his way for the northern gate. As if expecting his escape the gate immediately began to open, thick steel reinforced doors slowly swinging outward. A sigh of relief escaped his lips the moment he passed through, speeding into open road.

Tearing through Fort Derringer's unmanned checkpoint he risked slowing down for a moment to look behind him. The gate doors were already starting to close. A tremendous boom sounded off in the distance. Black smoke, then suddenly the sound of automated whirr of weapons fire became more pronounced as the northern wall's weapons sprung to life.

"Come on Bee...come on..." Zachary slowed the jeep more, swerving around abandoned cars while keeping a close eye on his rear view mirror. "We can go. Just go!"

A flash of light and the high-pitched whistle were the only warnings given before a series of explosions rocked the top of the northern wall. Chunks of concrete and metal were flung far in every direction. A second round of explosions rocked weapon emplacements, creating thick black pillars of smoke.

Crawling from the blend of dust and debris was an arachnid shape, heavily armored in metal plating. Clamps at the base of each leg acted as stabilizers to keep the machine balanced; gripping hard into Fort Derringer's walls as it scaled down the northern gate. Flat-backed like a tarantula, the armaments laid across the walking tank seemed to bristle at a distance. Weapons designed to cut through flesh or pulp apart metal with relentless precision.

It turned, body swaying to track Zachary's jeep as it rolled down the highway.

He hit the gas hard, focusing his attention on getting as far away from the fort as quickly as the loaded jeep would take him. Amid the cloud of dust and debris in his rear view mirror the walking tank was just beginning to make its way down the wall. Ahead, miles of clear highway stretched toward the Canadian border. If the tank was planning on crawling its way in pursuit, Zachary hoped that was as fast as it could go.

A loud KA-CHOON was the only warning given before an explosion nearly tossed the jeep into a headlong spin. It was through sheer luck that the momentum of the blast tossed the vehicle into a steel lane divider. Metal ground loudly against metal as Zachary fought to regain control, mind racing with what to do next. Dark storm clouds above thundered ominously. Or at least, Zachary prayed that's what he heard.

He looked at the road signs ahead, searching for one that would guide him to safety. Water had already begun to fall. Hard drops ringing on the roof. Slowly turning the highway's flat grey into patches of slick wetness.

Floodlights in front of an upcoming exit suddenly sprung to life. Faith's Highway. Bold white reflective letters suddenly tossed into illumination. The sudden flood of light startled Zachary, who nearly swerved off road the moment they flashed on. Highway lights ahead began to flicker, pulsing one after another in a rhythmic pattern.

"Bee! Hell yeah, where ya been?" Zachary shouted while steering around scattered debris, following the trail of lights to the exit sign.

Scrambling for the cell phone in his pocket he slowed the Jeep just enough to make the sharp right turn off the main highway. The road curved back around and into a tunnel that cut underneath the main road. As the jeep rolled into the pitch darkness of the underpass, another KA-CHOON sounded off in the distance. An explosion shook the earth from somewhere above just as the Federation-issued cell phone sprung to life.

You have to keep going.

Words scrolled into the device's notepad app. Zachary couldn't help but smile. He was far from safe, but at the very least he was in good company.

"Can you hear me? I'm not supposed to text and drive." he said, trying hard to keep the jeep steady while navigating the underpass.

Get to the bridge. The tank is too heavy to cross.

"Roger that!"

Speeding out of the underpass into a sheet of rain the pair tried to ignore the thumping slam of heavy metal somewhere behind them. Thunder rumbled in the distance. Neither could tell if it were lightning or an explosion sounding off in response to the tank's main gun. Zachary was too busy trying to swerve around parked cars and loose debris to give it much thought either way.

Faith's Highway was a tourist trap, and true to the title many of those who had come to visit the wondrous glass bridge never left. Cars were abandoned along the main road, while others had become stuck in the grass trying to find an alternate route to their destination. At some point a plow must have come to cut through the traffic, flipping smaller vehicles while pushing aside others to form a clear path. A plow, or something as strong as one.

Whatever had cleared the main road had mercifully cleared Faith's Highway as well. Streaks of damage marred the floor of the glass bridge, ruining the illusion of its travelers floating effortlessly on air. Some cracks across the large panes made Zachary feel a little nervous, and he took extra care to guide the jeep's weight around any pane of glass that could give way.

KA-CHOON. Zachary's eyes settled in the rear view mirror at the sound of the noise. There was barely time to register the spider-tank looming in the distance before his attention was suddenly torn in half.

Ahead, the ground detonated in front of him. Thick shards of reinforced glass were thrown in every direction. A gaping hole quickly surrounded by a spiderweb of cracks was left in the aftermath. Zachary gripped hard on the steering wheel, cutting wide to avoid the growing chasm, only to find the jeep's tires had tore free of the ground. With no grip to purchase on the glass road, momentum and gravity easily tossed the vehicle onto its side and into a roll.

Zachary tried hard not to panic. He fought to keep his bearings as his world spun wildly. Loose baggage in the back of the jeep danced freely through the cabin, and something struck him in the arm with enough force he was afraid a bone had broken. Somewhere in the back of his mind he could picture that damn tank, crawling forward, spitting superheated death wherever it roamed.

The cell phone began to ring. A spark activated its alarm timer. GET UP GET UP scrolled across the screen alongside a pair of tiny bells, dancing back and forth.

Bee. Zachary undid his seatbelt. Every inch of his body hurt, but something inside him screamed that he was in danger. Danger that was getting closer. Bee knew what was best. He dragged himself out of the shattered front window and into the pouring rain, trying hard to avoid cutting himself on jagged glass or twisted metal.

Pulling himself from the wreckage he could see just how close he was to the end of the bridge. Fifty yards at the very least. A loud crack behind the wrecked jeep reminded him of the growing web of glass beneath his feet. In the distance, the spider. It was shockingly fast, maneuvering over uneven terrain and abandoned cars with the crushing force of its metal legs.

KA-CHOON. Zachary was just gathering his courage when the sound made him freeze in terror. He waited agonizing seconds, expecting to die at any moment when the mainland exploded into a cloud of dust and fire. It was trying to seal off his escape.

Risking a glance back at the tank he was just in time to see it reach the bridge, gently testing the weight of a metal leg against the first reinforce glass pane. It seemed to hesitate. The rain made it hard to see, which only grew worse with each passing second. Thunder rolled overhead, causing Zachary's heart to reflexively seize with fear.

The cell phone's alarm went off again, buzzing as its vibrate feature hummed to life.

Get to land.

"I don't think I can make it. That thing's waiting for me."

Zachary turned to look again. It moved, but seemed to be searching for something. Three figures were approaching. It was difficult to see through the thick curtain of rain, but their flashlights clearly marked them as three dangerous blips on the road.

You've got to run. I can't help if you stay on the glass.

"They have guns Bee. If they start shooting--" Zachary was interrupted by the phone's sudden vibration. He could feel Bee's electric impatience tickling through the device.

I won't let them get you. I can do this. Trust me.

Zachary only had a moment to read before the screen flashed a bright white, then suddenly cut to black. He knew Bee had left him. There was no time to argue. He was afraid to look around the corner and see how close the figures were now. So he didn't. Instead, he ran.

Pushing away from the jeep's wreckage Zachary tried his best to keep hidden in the shadow of the overturned vehicle. He felt his boots struggle to find traction against the surface of the bridge. It was hard to walk, harder to run, but somewhere between he found a balance.

Thirty yards. Light flickered from behind, focused on him. Men were yelling, but he couldn't understand what they were saying over the roar of his heart pounding in his ears. Each wet slap of his boot against the ground felt more unsteady than the last.

Twenty yards. Gunfire. Someone behind him was firing single rounds. A bullet ricocheted nearby. Another struck the glass floor with a wet tink. After the third he felt his leg give way suddenly, as though it couldn't hold the weight of his body any longer. Zachary hit the ground hard, sliding forward across a slick pane of glass.

Ten yards. Looking down through the glass bridge he could see the lake below, calm and untouched by rainfall. It was dark blue and seemed so pure. Unlike the rainwater that pooled around him, clouded in blood. He tried to crawl but could find no grip. His right leg could move, but the hole just above the ankle told a primal part of his brain that he wouldn't be running anywhere. Somewhere in the distance, a tremendous boom cracked through the sky.

The sky flashed brilliantly. Zachary had never seen anything like it before. Streaks of white jetting through the clouds. It reminded him of those science shows he used to watch before everything had become so damn hard. The synapses of a mind, lighting up. Memories. Motion. The human will at work.

Stubbornly, he forced himself to his hands and knees. The pain was immense. He could hear footsteps splashing nearby in the water. Three men, their attire an ironic mix of weapons and Federation EMT attire. Ammunition bandoleers slung over the protective cross that once signified help. First responders of violence.

"You think you're pretty fuckin clever, don't ya?" said one, stepping ahead of the others with machete in hand. "Where's the rest of your group?"

Zachary was about to answer when he felt it. The pull of static across his arm. The others must have noticed the feeling as well, as they paused to turn to each other in confusion.

A single white bolt of lightning tore from the sky. The first man was struck with enough force to rip him from the bridge. Ammunition kept across his body violently exploded into bursts of shrapnel, pulping his corpse into a cloud of red. Then, like a wave, the light ripped across the bridge.

Jagged arcs of lightning sunk into the other two raiders like the teeth of a predator, scorching their bodies while fusing their flesh and cloth into a blackened coal. Glass panels cracked or shattered as strands of light streaked across the bridge, rising like a chorus into a single crackling scream.

The bolt of lightning ricocheted across Faith's Highway until reaching its destination. At the far end of the bridge the tank twitched for a moment, metal plated armor turning white with heat before sinking to the ground unceremoniously.

Zachary blinked. It had only taken a second. It felt like an eternity had passed.

Using the knife at his side he cut a strip of cloth from his jacket, tying a hard knot around his leg wound. He crawled to the edge of the bridge. Slow agonizing movements that made him want to cry.

"Bee! Coulda used some warning there, buddy!"

He called out into the dark. Ears ringing, eyes still trying to blink away the white glare of light that had undoubtedly saved his life, his hand finally found a grip on pavement. The glass floor came to a sudden end.

"Bee. You did it." Zachary didn't try hold back the relief in his voice. "That's it. It's over."

The town ahead was dark, and no doubt looted. But maybe something had been left behind. He had been lucky in the past. There was a long crawl ahead, but it was one he didn't have to make alone. Already the rainstorm had begun to subside. Clouds above had slowly begun to disperse.

Zachary checked his phone. The black screen stared back at him quietly. Raindrops ran across its surface. Unpredictable streams of water, flowing down into his hand.

"Bee?"

He held the phone up to the night sky as long as he could. Cold and shivering in the dark, Zachary began the slow crawl into the abandoned town, stopping only to check his phone for a sign of his friend.