"How did you get away from the cannibals?" Bill asked.
"Same as you two," Tyler said. "I ran my ass off and didn't look back."
Mortimer grinned. "So you decided to sign on with Armageddon, eh?"
"I've always worked for Armageddon," Tyler said. "Who do you think owned the Muscle Express?"
A man popped his head through the sunroof of another Cooper, holding a set of headphones to one ear. "They're starting engines, boss. We'd better crank 'em up."
"Good seeing you're alive," Tyler said. "Got to go."
"Wait," Mortimer said. "Malcolm said you might have room for us."
Tyler nodded. "I have room in my car. Jimmy needs a gunner too." She pointed to the Cooper all the way at the end of the line.
Sheila elbowed her way into the conversation. "Me too."
"Don't need anyone else," Tyler said.
"I'm not being left behind."
"You can sit in the passenger side of my car," Tyler said. "But if you get in the way of my driving, I'll pull over and dump your ass on the side of the road."
Bill laughed. "That's the charm school dropout I remember."
THE ROAD WARRIORS
The semithunderous whine of fifty-one Toyota hybrids and ten MINI Coopers flying south on I-75 was surprisingly impressive. Mortimer had not traveled this fast in years. Even the Muscle Express hadn't topped more than forty miles per hour. The MINI Cooper, with the steely-eyed Tyler behind the wheel, ate up the highway at seventy.
"Isn't this a little fast for this fog?" Mortimer asked.
"Advance scouting reports the road clear of debris," Tyler said. "General Malcolm is hoping those underground people really threw off the Czar's schedule. If we swoop in fast enough we might catch them before they're set. Here, you're going to need this if you want to follow the play-by-play." She handed a set of headphones back over her shoulder.
Mortimer put them on, adjusted the microphone in front of his mouth.
Tyler's voice crackled in his ear. "The radio has been rigged with a few different settings. Right now we're just talking to each other. I can flip a switch to talk to the five Coopers in Blue Group, or I flip another switch and get the whole attack force, or hear Malcolm's orders or whatever. It's all plugged into the car's electrical system."
"What do you want me to do back here when the trouble starts?" Mortimer asked.
"The MINI is too small to mount a heavy machine gun," Tyler told him. "But there's an H &K full-auto 9 mm back there and a shitload of ammo. They extended the moonroof to the backseat, so you can pop up and give them hell, especially if some joker gets on my tail. Just don't fly out if I take a sharp turn." To Sheila she said, "You can reload for him, make sure he's always got a fresh magazine."
Sheila gave the thumbs-up. "Okay."
"I'll need you to cut the chatter while I tune in the ball game. Maybe we can get the score." Tyler flipped to the main channel.
"-and get that first group in tight when you see them," came Malcolm's hard-edged voice through the headphones. "If we catch them in camp, then rip through and turn around for another pass as soon as possible. Don't let them mount up, whatever you do. If they've already hit the road, then we'll have to do it toe to toe, in which case keep your radios clear because I'm going to be issuing orders on the fly."
Mortimer slapped a fresh magazine into the H &K, stuck two more into his belt so he could grab them quickly. He reached into his shirt pocket for the cigar Bill had given him, bit the end and stuck it in his mouth. He tapped Sheila on the shoulder, gestured to the cigarette lighter. She pressed it in, waited, and it popped out a few seconds later. She handed it back to Mortimer, who puffed the cigar to life, then handed the lighter back to her.
Tyler smelled the smoke, wrinkled her nose and glanced in the rearview mirror. She put a hand over her microphone and said, "Those things will kill you."
Mortimer cocked the H &K. "Gee, and I'm usually such a careful guy."
A grin flickered at the corners of Tyler's mouth. Just for a second.
Mortimer stuck his head up through the moonroof, the wind ripping at him. He looked around to get his bearings. The Blue Group of MINI Coopers held together in a tight formation, Tyler's in the middle, one on either side, one in the front and one in the back. Mortimer looked at the MINI behind them, saw Bill's head sticking up through the moonroof, his Union hat tied on with a strip of rawhide under his chin. They traded thumbs-ups and Mortimer ducked back into the car.
The headphones crackled. "Big Duck, this is Silverfish, we have movement on the overpass just ahead, now we've passed it, looking back. Can't get a count, Big Duck."
Suddenly a flurry of voices on the radio. Mortimer could barely follow it.
¨C "I read you, Silverfish. Bullfrog, stay in formation. Slow it down, Dragonfly."
¨C "Big Duck, this is Dragonfly. I'm way in the back. Already going pretty slow."
¨C Malcolm cursed. "Well who the hell is this on my left?"
¨C "Willow Switch, sir."
¨C "I thought I was Willow Switch," came another voice.
¨C "We traded, remember? You wanted to be Iron Man."
¨C "Big Duck, this is Starfish. What about me? I can't see if I'm in formation or not."
¨C "This is Big Duck. I thought you were on point, Starfish."
¨C "No, that's Silverfish."
¨C "Babble Fish, here. Did you just radio to me? I was getting some apple juice."
¨C "Goddamn it, everyone shut the hell up!" Malcolm shouted. "I knew I shouldn't have let you pick your own call signs. Silverfish, stay on point."
¨C "Multiple sightings, multiple sightings, Big Duck. We have Red Stripes on the next two overpasses. I count at least a dozen, maybe-"
¨C "Everyone, tighten up," Malcolm ordered. "Keep sharp."
Far ahead, Mortimer saw a section of the fog glow bright orange with the sound of an explosion. Two more quick explosions followed.
¨C "Goddamn, Larry's on fire, I can't see-"
¨C "-mortars, I think. Where the hell did they get-"
¨C "Lost a tire, for Christ's sake, I can't steer this fucking thing-"
More explosions, almost on top of them now.
Tyler flipped the radio to the Blue Group setting. "Buckle up and spread out. Jimmy, I said spread out, but maintain speed, okay? You've got to keep up."
¨C "Sorry, boss."
Tyler switched back to the main channel.
¨C "-put some goddamn fire on those overpasses, make them duck their heads. The rest of you people spread out and keep going and we'll get through them as quickly as possible."
Another explosion to Mortimer's left. He winced at the flash. Two more mortar rounds chewing up highway to his right.
¨C "Silverfish here, I got headlights a hundred yards, a dozen pair easy, whoa! No, make that a lot more. Here they come, Big Duck."
¨C "Get back with the group, Silverfish. You can't do any more out there on point, and your ass is hanging in the wind."
A ball of fire erupted in front of them. Tyler yelled and swerved. A MINI Cooper from Yellow Group was tossed into the air, the flaming wreckage passing over Mortimer and obliterating the blue Cooper directly to Mortimer's left. The Cooper behind him swerved sharply, tires squealing, debris strewing fifty yards in a line of flame and smoke.
¨C "Jesus, that was Eddie."
¨C "Cut the chatter-"
¨C "Look out, they're already-"
¨C "This is Big Duck. Everyone shut the fuck up right now. I'm looking at trucks, V-8's, big stuff. Do not engage head-on, repeat, take 'em on the side streets if you can. You can't take these guys with speed or muscle, so it's going to have to be maneuverability. If you can-shit!"
Another series of explosions, machine-gun fire, flashes ahead in the fog. They passed a half-dozen demolished hybrids, still aflame. Mortimer's heart pounded in his throat. He saw Sheila sitting rigid in the passenger seat, Tyler's knuckles white on the steering wheel.
It came out of the fog like a charging bull, smashed through the left front quarter of a Yellow Group Cooper, sending it spinning off into the guardrail. A V-8 Mustang Mach 1. The engine roared. It had iron plates riveted across the front to guard the engine, more armor on the windshield, with only narrow slits for the driver to see through.
Tyler jerked the wheel, and the Mustang missed by an inch, passed them and immediately screeched the tires in a fishtail, coming back for them.
Tyler flipped to the channel for Blue Group. "Jimmy, you're with me. The rest of you stay with the attack force. You there, Jimmy?"
¨C "Right on your six, boss."
"This exit. Here we go."
She took three lanes sharply, barely making the off-ramp in time, scraping the curb as she took the turn at the bottom, flying past a defunct gas station and a doughnut shack. Mortimer looked behind. Jimmy was right there, the Mustang right behind him.
¨C "He's right on me, boss. Jesus, he's coming fast."
Mortimer saw Bill pop up through the moonroof. The machine pistol bucked in Bill's hand, a three-foot jet of fire pulsing from the barrel. The lead sparked off the Mustang's armor, doing it no damage, but apparently catching it by surprise. It swerved slightly, slowed its pursuit.
An arm came out the passenger window of the Mustang holding a weapon, rattled bullets at them. Mortimer ducked back into the car.
Tyler slammed on the brakes, fishtailed, turned suddenly down a residential street. Jimmy stayed right with her. The Mustang couldn't make the turn so sharply, went wide and chewed up a line of mailboxes before wrenching itself back onto the street.
"Split up, Jimmy!"
¨C "Bad idea, boss."
"We'll never get a good shot at the thing if we're both running away from it. Now go," Tyler ordered.
¨C "See you on the flip side."
Jimmy turned abruptly down a cross street. The Mustang never wavered, pushed the gas hard and came up behind Mortimer fast. Tyler turned, accelerated, turned again, zigzagging through what had once been a middle-class neighborhood. Malcolm had been right. The big bruisers had speed and muscle but couldn't maneuver so well, and every time Tyler took a sharp turn, the Mustang lost twenty yards.
But the muscle car made up for it on the straightaways, the big engine howling as the Mustang pulled within three feet of the Cooper's rear bumper, the faceless assailant in the passenger's seat shooting wildly.
Sheila had her hands over her eyes.
Tyler was a taut, wired mass of muscle and sinew. She jerked the wheel suddenly, and the Cooper whipped into a circular driveway. Tyler tapped the brakes, slowed the vehicle only slightly, and the Mustang shot past on the street. Tyler stomped the accelerator.
She shot out of the driveway, back onto the street, right behind the Mustang.
"Blast 'em," she shouted at Mortimer.
He popped out of the moonroof and unleashed the H &K, emptying a full clip in three seconds, ejecting it and slamming in a new one. He puffed the cigar like a lunatic locomotive. The Mustang had been modified for attack, not defense, and the exposed rear window presented an irresistible target. Mortimer fired, and the glass shattered. He fired again, and a neat row of holes appeared along the roof with metallic tunks.
The Mustang slammed on the brakes.
"Shit!" Tyler hit the brakes too.
Not fast enough. The MINI slammed hard, crunching the front end. Mortimer pitched forward, managed to hang on instead of flying over the MINI's hood. The cigar flew out of his mouth. Tyler threw the car into reverse, backed up at full speed, headlight glass and the front bumper on the ground in front of them.
By the time the Mustang made its slow turn, the Cooper was flying back the way it had come. Soon the muscle car was on the Cooper's bumper again. Tyler resumed the zigzag strategy, but finally made a wrong turn into a cul-de-sac.
"Oh, fuck," Sheila said.