"It's not negotiable." Mortimer reached for the Stop button.
Mortimer felt sudden fire explode against his ribs. His limbs stiffened, then went loose, his brain going to fuzz, little lights in front of his eyes.
Mortimer tried to talk. "You f-fuckers...what...the...?" Drool down his chin. His eyes lifted, barely registered the buzzing stun gun in Ted's hand. Again? Those fucking things hurt.
"Sorry," Ted said. "But your pals said you might be stubborn."
The door opened, and they half-dragged, half-carried Mortimer across the roof.
Mortimer's fried brain registered night. He'd been hanging in the dungeon longer than he'd guessed. The second thing he noticed was the Blowfish on the far side of the roof, bobbing in the gentle breeze.
As they lifted him into the gondola, Sheila appeared, looking horrified.
"What did you do to him?"
"He made a fuss," Ted said. "Don't worry. He'll be fine."
Mortimer lay flat on his back in the gondola. "Where's...B-Bill?"
"Too much weight," Ted said. "He was mighty pissed about being left behind. We needed somebody to guard the blimp while me and the reverend came for you, and your little girl here don't weigh a thing."
Frantic movement, men pulling lines, tossing over sandbags. Mortimer felt the Blowfish lift. Subtle movement. They were letting the Blowfish drift on the wind, probably didn't want to risk the angry whine of the little engine.
Sometime later, Mortimer heard Ted say, "Okay, we're out far enough."
He heard the engine crank, and they pointed the Blowfish north.
Mortimer got to his feet, leaned over the side of the gondola, felt the cold air on his face. His whole body throbbed.
"Are you going to be okay?" Sheila asked.
"When you feel better, remind me to kick your ass."
Mortimer nodded. "Right."
They'd replaced the blimp's ham radio, and Reverend Jake turned knobs and shouted into the microphone. "Blowfish to Joey One. Come in, Joey One."
Through the static came, "Joey One here. Go ahead, Blowfish."
"Black Bart plans to stampede the cattle in the morning. Repeat, it's on for tomorrow morning. You've got to mobilize right now."
"We hear you, Blowfish."
Mortimer watched the dark, dead city slide by beneath them. Somewhere down there, he'd abandoned his wife.
They eventually put down in a secure field north of Kennesaw just before dawn. Ted's underground comrades were there to light the landing zone and provide food. Mortimer sat in a big tent, a blanket around his shoulders, spooning pea soup into his face. He felt like a disaster victim getting Red Cross relief.
Ted perched on the picnic bench next to him, slurped soup. "Beats the hell out of rat jerky."
"All these people to land a blimp?" Mortimer said. "You've set up a whole camp."
"This is rendezvous point Alpha," Ted told him. "We've been gathering and stockpiling supplies and keeping them hidden for months. That way Armageddon's forces can mobilize quickly. We'll supply them when they breeze through here right before hitting the Czar."
Good, thought Mortimer. Because if they're heading back to Atlanta, I'm hitching a ride.
"Well, well, well, if it isn't the son-of-a-bitch, one-man-army superhero."
Mortimer looked up, saw Bill scowling down at him, the Union officer's hat back on his head.
"I know, I know," Mortimer said. "I already got an earful from Sheila."
"This partnership isn't going to work if you keep running off all by yourself and hogging all the fun."
Mortimer lifted his right hand. "It won't happen again."
"Okay, then. Follow me. I'll show you something."
Mortimer followed Bill out of the camp. He still clutched the blanket around him. They'd taken his jacket back at the CNN Center. Bill led him up a steep embankment, and they found themselves overlooking Interstate 75, twelve empty lanes that had often been bumper-to-bumper back in the day.
Bill pointed south toward Atlanta. "Watch for it."
Nothing at first, then Mortimer saw it, a flash of light, then another, a rapid-fire series of orange-white bursts. Every fourth or fifth flash, a faint pop reached them.
"Ted's underground folks," Bill said. "They're trying to fuck things up a little, maybe throw off the Czar's timetable. Ted said a team was going to try for the gasoline, maybe blow up their supply, but he doesn't think it'll work. Too well guarded. There's a lot of people dying tonight."
"It's a real live war, isn't it?" Mortimer said. "Not like a rumble between two street gangs. It's a war."
Bill nodded. "Yup. And I don't think we can sit this one out. He's the bad guy, and he needs to be stopped. It's that simple."
"Yeah." Mortimer wasn't so sure it was that simple, but Anne was back there, and that was enough. Whatever his wife-former wife-might have said, Mortimer simply wasn't going to leave her to rot.
Bill handed something wrapped in cloth to Mortimer. "Here, take this while I'm thinking of it. Managed to scrounge it up. Wouldn't want you running around naked."
Mortimer unfolded the cloth. A.38-caliber revolver, very similar to the police special he'd been so fond of. And a clip-on holster for his belt. "Thanks."
"Can't have you guarding my back with nothing but witty rejoinders," Bill said.
Mortimer checked the load, clipped the revolver to his belt. "I guess we're committed to fighting for Armageddon. If he loses the war, we don't get our twenty thousand dollars."
They waited, the flashes above the city fading and finally stopping altogether. Dawn erupted red over the horizon like a bloody prophecy. The morning was damp, and a thick fog rolled in, gathered around Mortimer and Bill, sucked them in, cutting visibility to fifty feet in every direction.
"Does this help us or hurt us?" Mortimer asked.
"Hell if I know," Bill said.
A long way off, Bill heard it first. "You hear that?"
"No...wait. Yes," Mortimer said. "Engines?"
"I think so."
"Damn, which direction? Is it coming from the city?" If the Red Stripes were coming, Mortimer needed to warn Ted and his men.
"I can't tell," Bill said. "Damn fog's too thick."
"It's getting louder."
Bill drew his six-shooters. "Get ready to haul ass."
From the north, Mortimer saw them, like bright demon eyes in the fog, a single pair at first, then another, then ten, then a wall of headlights coming down the interstate. Vague blurs emerged from the fog, took shape. Cars.
Mortimer spotted a familiar figure in the lead car. The roof had been cut from the vehicle, a machine gun mounted in the backseat. The man stood in the passenger seat, head and shoulders above the windshield, resplendent in a crisp uniform and pink beret.
"General Malcolm!" Mortimer shouted.
The black man's head yanked around, spotted Mortimer. He picked up a headset, shouted something into the microphone, and all the cars slowed to a halt.
"Is that you, Tate?"
Mortimer and Bill climbed the guardrail, jogged to the general's car. "What is this?"
"It's a Toyota Prius," Malcolm said. "We knew fuel would be an issue, so we only scavenged automobiles that would make the gasoline stretch. We have sixty-one total cars in the attack group. Fifty-one hybrids and ten MINI Coopers. We're the most eco-friendly assault force in history. Are you here with the underground?"
"Yeah. We've been waiting for you."
Even as Mortimer spoke to General Malcolm, members of the underground emerged from the fog with gas cans, ammunition and food, beginning the resupply of the attack force.
Ted appeared at Mortimer's side. "It's all going just like you wanted, General."
"Many thanks," Malcolm said. "Tell your people to hurry. The closer we can get under cover of this fog the better."
"Right." Ted rushed away to orchestrate the resupply.
Malcolm turned his hard gaze on Mortimer. "You'd better be right about the Czar's attack today, Tate. We've committed all our forces. It might be crippling to us if you're wrong."
"Can you use a couple more hands?" Bill asked.
"The MINI Coopers are short on gunners. They're in the rear. But you'd better hurry. I'm not waiting one more second as soon as we're gassed up and ready to go."
They jogged toward the rear of the column. The sight of fifty-one hybrids in a row with heavy machine guns mounted in the backseats was not something Mortimer had ever expected to see. It was nice to know he could still be surprised.
"You dickheads!" screamed a voice behind them.
Mortimer looked over his shoulder, saw Sheila running to catch up.
"Were you just going to leave me?" she yelled.
"Hey, you got to go on the blimp rescue instead of me," Bill shot back over his shoulder.
They found the Coopers bunched at the back of the attack force, looking tiny and ridiculous. But they were functioning automobiles. As far as Mortimer was concerned, they might as well have been Cadillacs.
"Who's in charge here?" Mortimer shouted at the first line of Coopers.
A square-jawed man stuck his head out of the driver's side of the lead car. Three-day stubble, a cigar smoldering in his kisser. "I'm in charge of Yellow Group. What do you want?"
"Malcolm said you guys might have a job opportunity."
"Not us. Try Blue Group."
They went to the next line of MINI Coopers and yelled for the leader.
The driver's door of a glossy blue Cooper opened, and a lithe woman stepped out. She wore leather, hair standing up in wild burgundy spikes, a black patch over one eye. "Well, you just never know who you're going to meet along a sorry stretch of highway."
It took Mortimer a split second to recognize her. "Tyler!"
Bill whooped, and they rushed forward, shaking her hand and patting her on the back. She held up her hands, fended off a flurry of confused questions.
"One at a time."