Fresler counts down the miles that will at last bring them to the front doors of the CDC. But with seven still to go, he spots what looks like a pair of cars blocking the road ahead. Fresler pulls over, and John follows suit, backing up to talk to Fresler through the windows.
“What do you think?” asks Fresler.
“Gotta be SOD,” says John, flashing his teeth like an angered bear. “They’re probably contacting the other members in their group right now. I’m sure reinforcements will be here soon.”
“What should we do?” Fresler pulls his best stony frown, but inside, his guts are doing somersaults.
“We have to assume they have all the roads between here and the CDC blocked. We’ll need to continue on foot. Stay off the streets if we can.”
“I know the best way to get to the CDC,” volunteers Charles from Fresler’s backseat. “But we’ll need to drive to the point where we can walk.”
“We need to leave now, before their backup gets here. Let’s take one car. I’ll drive.” John stares into his rearview mirror as Fresler, Sharon, and Charles grab their packs and swap cars. Fresler turns around on the street as Sharon climbs in, half expecting to see a horde of vehicles pulling up behind them already, the way John’s acting.
Jennifer, Tina, and Benjamin have been shunted to the foldout seat, while Charles, Sharon, and Jackie take the back seat. Sharon leans into Jackie, eyelids heavy with exhaustion. As Fresler gets situated in the front passenger seat, John wonders if he’s watching Fresler’s blood fight the infection inside Sharon in real time. Jennifer slept for hours while she healed. Sharon doesn’t have the luxury of a comfortable bed in a quiet house.
“Seat belts on?” John waits until everyone nods in agreement. “Hold on tight!”
John swerves into a hard turn, the SUV skidding for a moment before it screeches oﬀ in the opposite direction. He checks in his rear-view mirror and sees one of the cars following.
Luckily, it’s still far enough behind them that John’s certain he can lose them. The back roads are not very wide and have lots of turns, and the surrounding forest offers lots of coverage.
Fresler takes one look at the speedometer and braces himself against the door and the dashboard as they fly toward a sharp right turn. John checks the rearview to ensure the others are doing the same. Jackie is wide-eyed, holding the seat in front of her with a white-knuckle grip. Sharon’s eyes are shut, but her jaw is tight with tension. Charles, meanwhile, is smiling and laughing like a kid on a grand theme park adventure.
John whips them around the bend, his feet finessing the pedals. The wheels screech but remain firmly on the pavement.
“Up here!” Charles shouts, tapping his window.
John whips right down a dirt road and speeds up. The foliage is thicker here, and John spots a great hiding place for their SUV.
“Are we close enough, Charles?” he asks, foot hovering over the brake.
“I think so,” the older man says.
John slows before making a left turn into a clearing and bounces over the grass to park behind a group of shrubs. If the SOD car follows their tracks down the dirt road, the thick vegetation should entirely obscure the car from view.
“Everyone, grab your backpacks and follow me!” he barks as he kicks open his door. Gun pointed at the ground, he directs them down a small hill to a ditch well covered by trees and underbrush.
“Stay here and stay low,” he says. “I need to make sure that no one followed us. I should be back in less than thirty minutes.”
When John hikes back up the hill toward the SUV, Charles whispers, “Wow, John is amazing. If I didn’t know any better, I would think that he is a trained FBI agent.”
“John worked for the Louisville Metro Police Department,” says Jackie with pride, “and before that he was in the Seventy-fifth Ranger Regiment, special forces unit.”
Charles nods. “It all makes sense now.”
By the SUV, John crouches behind one of the larger shrubs, where he will have a good vantage point of the road. He suspects his hard turns kicked up lasting dust clouds and created deep divots, easy for the SOD to follow.
Sure enough, two minutes later the distant outline of the SOD car barrels into view. John readies his gun, making sure he’ll have a clear shot at the driver if they continue down the road—although he hopes they decide to turn around and he won’t have to fire at all. If he were to miss, it could put everyone’s life in jeopardy.
The SOD car keeps coming but slows to ten miles an hour, windows down. John can’t be certain thanks to the respirator mask, but he thinks Thomas is in the passenger seat. The driver is an unknown. In the back of his mind, John wishes their seats were reversed.
Both men are leaning partially out of their windows, looking around for signs of the SUV. John takes careful aim at the driver’s forehead, tracking him as the car pulls perpendicular with his hiding place. He releases his breath in a long exhale to steady the gun and squeezes the trigger.
The driver’s bleeding head strikes the wheel, honking the horn in one, incessant blare. The car revs, shooting forward and veering to the right. The airbags deploy with a loud pop when the hood smashes against a large oak.
John’s already on the move, sprinting across the road to conceal himself behind another tree ten yards from the passenger door. John recognizes the passenger’s forearm tattoo as the man shoves down the airbag—it is Thomas. Dazed from the impact, Thomas falls to the ground the moment he opens his door.
John tosses a rock at the other side of the car. Thomas pops up and faces the sound, drawing his gun. He fires three shots into the grass, his aim wild. John uses the noise to rush Thomas from behind, but a branch snaps beneath his feet four steps away.
Thomas whips around, but John cracks his forearm with the butt of his gun, making Thomas’ pistol fly from his hand. Thomas swings, but John jukes the punch and retaliates with a pistol whip that puts Thomas on his ass beside the open car door. Thomas lunges for his fallen gun, but John kicks it away and aims his own at Thomas’ forehead.
“Take your mask oﬀ,” orders John.
Before Thomas can comply, a footstep on John’s left makes him whirl, expecting a second assailant. Instead, he sees Fresler approaching from the side of the vehicle.
“Fresler, I told you to stay with the group!” John yells.
Fresler is out of breath, a hand to his chest as he pants. “I heard a gunshot. I wanted to help.”
John let’s out an annoyed scoff and turns on Thomas. “Take your mask oﬀ!”
John fires a bullet between Thomas’s legs, kicking up a clod of dirt centimeters from his nuts. With a curse, Thomas yanks oﬀ his mask.
Crazed blue eyes bulge from Thomas’ sallow face, and he flashes a snarl of smoke-yellowed teeth.
“Your friend Nick took my daughter’s mask oﬀ, and she contracted the virus,” John growls.
“Good.” Thomas spits at John’s shoe. “You’re all going to die anyway. It’s God’s will!”
“What would you know about God’s will?” says John, finger itching to pull the trigger.
“I know he created this virus to cleanse the earth of all sinners,” says Thomas through a tight jaw.
“Well, I guess that means you’re going to die too.”
“No. I’m one of God’s soldiers. I’m fulfilling his destiny. This virus won’t kill me.”
“Well you’re right about that. It won’t be the virus that kills you.” John cocks his gun.
Fresler’s hand squeezes John’s arm. “John, he’s not worth it. If you shoot him, you’ll have to live with another death on your conscience.”
John scowls at Thomas as if Fresler hadn’t spoken. “You’re wrong about God’s destiny, too. My friend Fresler here is immune. His blood saved my daughter; she no longer has the virus. His girlfriend is recovering now too. We’re going to make sure a vaccine is developed so no one else dies.”
“Bullshit!” yells Thomas, fingers digging into the soil.
“Why is it we’re not wearing our masks?” John waves his free hand at his and Fresler’s uncovered faces. The hand holding his gun doesn’t waver.
Fresler has his eye on the muzzle of John’s gun. “John, he’s unarmed,” he says. “We can tie him up and get far away from here before his friends arrive.”
“Yeah, John,” Thomas echoes, his tone mocking. “I’m unarmed. You wouldn’t shoot an unarmed man, would you?”
John kicks Thomas’ gun back within his reach. “Go ahead and pick it up.”
Thomas eyes it, licking sweat off his upper lip. His fingers twitch, but he shakes his head no. “I’m not stupid. I’m not going to give you an excuse to shoot me.”
“We can tie him up,” Fresler repeats. “Leave him here. When we get to the CDC, we’ll send someone back to take him into custody. Don’t you think there’s been enough death, these past few months?”
John blinks at that, and Fresler breathes an audible sigh of relief.
John turns away from Fresler, already resolved, and steps closer to Thomas, face grim. “I don’t need an excuse to kill you,” he says, voice calm and detached. “You’re a threat to my family. If you keep us from getting Fresler to the CDC, you’re a threat to the entire world.”
POP! Blood seeps from a hole in Thomas’ forehead, and his jaw goes slack as his body slumps sideways into the grass.
Fresler’s lets out a choked sound of dismay, rooted to the spot, but John stands over the body and fires two more into the temple.
Fresler’s ears are ringing with the shot, and his stomach is trying to reacquaint him with his breakfast. He gawks at John in horror and dismay. He knew the two of them held different beliefs and ideals. He knew that in times like these, hard decisions had to be made. But he would never have guessed he’d watch John shoot a disarmed opponent at point-blank range. Especially not when they’re so close to the end of their journey.
The blank, casual look on John’s face as he retrieves Thomas’s gun and stuffs it in his jacket pocket gives Fresler a chill. John lifts Thomas’s dead body and puts it in the front seat of the crashed vehicle. He walks over to the driver’s side and pushes the driver over the middle console, swatting the airbag away from the steering wheel. He tries to start the car, but the engine won’t turn over.
John searches the front seat for the ham radio and finds it on the passenger side floor. He turns to Fresler with it under his arm and says, “Let’s go.”
As they walk back, John feels disappointment and frustration coming off Fresler in waves. He heaves a sigh that’s more like a scoff. “As long as Thomas was alive, our safety was at risk.”
“I know,” says Fresler with a scowl. “But I wouldn’t be able to live with that on my conscience.”
“I can’t explain it to you in a way that you would understand,” John says. “You and I have lived diﬀerent lives. I see things much diﬀerently than you do.”
“You were a police officer,” Fresler argues. “You must understand the need for taking someone into custody, and for giving people a fair trial. Innocent until proven guilty, right?”
John scoffs openly this time. “Spoken like someone who’s never been judged before he even opened his mouth.”
Fresler raises his eyebrows.
“Okay, yes,” John groans. “I did that to you. But I’m talking about the authorities. I’m talking about society. Which has broken down, by the way. There are no judges or juries right now.”
“But there is still right and wrong,” Fresler says.
John stops and blocks Fresler’s way. “Look… I never want to take another person’s life. But at the same time, I know when I have no choice. The safety of Jackie and Jennifer and everyone else in this group is much more important than Thomas’s life. If I had let him live, he was going to keep hunting us. He had to be taken out of the equation, for the greater good. End of story.”
Fresler sucks in his cheeks but nods slowly. “I could never shoot someone… not even in self-defense. I’m just not wired that way.” John starts to interrupt, but Fresler holds up a hand and continues, “It’s not the decision I would have made, but I understand why you did it. I agree that Thomas was going to keep after us… that he would always be a threat. I also understand that because of you… we are alive.” Fresler shrugs. “It’s the world we live in now. I don’t have to like it, but I have to accept it. What you did had to be done.”
“It did,” John says firmly. Then he softens his stance with a calming exhale. “But I can see your point as well. And if your blood can be used to make a vaccine, or even a cure—well, hopefully I won’t have to make many more calls like that one.”
This time, when John looks Fresler in his eye, there is no doubt or disapproval, but a respect John hopes is mirrored on his own face.
The ditch materializes a head, and Jackie and Jennifer come running over the top. They hug him tight, nearly knocking him over.
“What happened? We heard gunshots,” murmurs Jackie, dampening his neck with tears.
“The SOD followed us down the dirt road, so John took care of them,” says Fresler.
No one says anything about it, instead exchanging sideways glances.
“We should get going,” Charles says. “The CDC is only a few miles away. We’ll have to hurry if we want to get there by nightfall.”