"I thought you said you filled up on gas before we left," Daniel sighed, stretching his legs as far as they would go in the truck's passenger-side wheelwell.
"I did. Almost a thousand miles ago. You've been asleep for nine hours," Bryce said, shooting a smile at Daniel without taking his eyes off the road ahead.
"Damn. Felt like I'd been out for maybe fifteen minutes. You should've woken me. I could have done some of the driving."
"No bother. Besides, you drive like my grandma, God rest her soul."
Daniel smiled and pulled a pack of cigarettes from the front pocket of his dark green canvas jacket. He cracked the window and lit one.
"Thought you were gonna quit those, finally," Bryce teased.
"Yeah, so did I."
"Well, long as you're doing it," Bryce said, grabbing the pack from Daniel's jacket and lighting his own. "Just keep an eye out for the police. Wouldn't want to get popped for something stupid like smoking. Where'd you get these, anyway?"
"Chris. Andrey sent him a couple of cartons from Russia. He sent 'em to Mike, Mike gave 'em to us," Daniel told him, exhaling smoke. "Nine hours, huh? We should almost be there by now."
Bryce nodded and glanced at the GPS screen in the center of the truck's dashboard.
"About two hours. Next chance for gas is Dothan, about ten minutes ahead. Looks like a ghost town, but the Web says there was a gas station open there as early as yesterday."
"Fuck. I hate Alabama. Anything across the state line?"
"Nothing as definite. And we sure won't make it to Panama City on what we've got."
"And we're not even sure what the fuel situation in Panama City's gonna look like," Daniel said, sighing and nodding. "Well, shit. Alabama it is, then."
"We'll make it quick, I promise. I'll fuel up the truck while you go in and see what you can requisition in the way of food and speed, yeah?"
"Yeah. You hear from Mike and Pete while I was out?"
"Yep. They're about an hour behind us. Got held up a bit in New Orleans."
"Think we should wait on 'em?"
"I asked. They said they're cool. They'll meet us at the LZ."
Daniel nodded and dropped the smoldering butt of his cigarette into a mostly-empty can of Rockstar in the cupholder in front of him. He idly scratched at his left wrist, just below the spot where a barcode was tattooed in black. Above the barcode, "47E1313" was tattooed in red, flowing script.
Bryce reached up and pulled off his sunglasses with his left hand, and his sleeve rolled up to reveal a barcode tattoo very similar to Daniel's. The coding itself was a little different, and "47E210" was tattooed above it in the same red script.
"Here we are," Bryce said after a minute, nodding down the road ahead of them at an ancient gas station at the side of Highway 231. "Be nice and charming. You know how these country folk can be."
"Hey, easy there, Bryce. I'm from the country, remember."
"Yeah, but you're adorable. Some of the people in this part of the world are just fucking scary."
The truck -- an older but pristine Dodge Ram -- coasted to a stop in front of the gas station, and the two front doors opened as one. Daniel shot a grin at Bryce as he headed into the gas station. There was a woman behind the counter, perhaps 30, decked out in a "Hardison in '24" T-shirt and beat-up jeans.
Shame, Daniel thought. She might be pretty if she took some effort. And didn't wear a shirt for that fucking Nazi asshole who lost the election.
Apart from the girl behind the counter and Daniel, there was only one other person in the store, a rough-looking man in his mid-50s. Daniel could tell by looking at him that he'd once been in shape -- a football player, probably -- but his love for beer had given him enough of a pot belly that he looked pregnant. His arms were still huge, though, and Daniel kept an eye on the man without really meaning to.
He grabbed a few bags of chips that didn't look expired, as they were the most attractive dining options in the nearly empty store. The drink coolers were stocked with beer and liquor, but only a few energy drinks and sodas. Daniel grabbed all six cans of Rockstar that they had and walked up to the counter. He shot a smile at the girl behind the counter as she started to ring up his items.
"Even 30," she said to him, smiling back. "Where you folks headed?"
"Oh, just south of here," Daniel said, opening his wallet and pulling out five twenty dollar bills. "Put the rest of it on the pump my man's at out there."
"Hope you're not heading to Panama City Beach. That place is a war zone," she said, taking the cash from his hand and putting it into the register.
"That's what I hear," Daniel said, smiling.
"How long you been married?" she asked. Daniel realized she'd been looking at his wedding ring the entire time.
"About five years now. Time flies," he said, smiling at her.
"And how'd y'all meet?"
What is this? Get to know every fucking guy who stops in for gas? Daniel thought, but he remembered Bryce's request for him to be charming.
"We served together in the war. Just kinda stayed together after that, you know?"
"Well, I sure wouldn't want my husband heading down Panama City way, if I had one," she shook her head. "It's not safe down there."
"Hey, I was in the war. What were you, kid? Air Force?" the guy in his 50s piped up.
The gas station went suddenly silent, and no one spoke for at least a full minute. Daniel did his best not to smirk -- he'd expected that reaction. That one word was a showstopper, every time.
"I thought. . . I thought most of the Mechoes didn't make it out of the war," the girl behind the counter stammered.
"Yeah, and those that did went back to jail. You're full of shit, kid," the guy growled.
"If you say so, Chief," Daniel said, smiling sweetly at the guy, watching his chest for any sign he was about to take a swing.
Bryce walked in at that moment, nodding at Daniel, then stopping in his tracks as he picked up on the mood in the room.
"Dammit, Daniel," he sighed. "I told you to be nice."
"Hey, I was being nice," Daniel shot back, smirking. "These good folks asked a question, and I answered it. Not my fault they didn't like what they heard."
"I apologize for him," Bryce said, looking back and forth between the girl and the older guy. "He's a young one, y'know? Sometimes his mouth gets the best of his brain. We all paid up here, miss?"
"Yeah, you're all set."
"Then I think it's time to go," Bryce said, shooting a look at Daniel.
"Yeah. That's probably smart," the older guy growled.
Bryce nodded Daniel towards the door, but before Daniel could take a step towards it, the door's glass shattered out of the frame. Instinctively, Daniel and Bryce both dove for cover behind one of the empty shelving units. Daniel reached into his coat for his sidearm, but it wasn't there.
Daniel and Bryce watched as bullets tore into the counter. The big guy was crawling on his ample belly over to hide with them behind the shelves, but the girl was frozen in place by the register. Daniel nodded to Bryce, then took a flying leap over the counter, tackling her to the ground.
"What the hell is going on?" Daniel heard Bryce yell over the gunfire.
"Scavenger gang! Probably saw you pull in, figure they can take your truck and anything worth salvaging in the store!" he heard the big guy yell back.
The gunfire stopped for a second, and Daniel dragged the still-stunned girl back over to the shelves where Bryce and the big guy were crouched.
"You know these guys?" Daniel asked the big guy.
"Reputation only. They're some bad dudes."
"Yeah. So are we," Bryce smiled. "What's your name, Chief?"
"And you?" Bryce asked the girl.
"Kelly," she stammered.
"Right. Kelly, you got a gun in this place?"
"Behind the counter."
"I'm on it," Daniel said, diving behind the counter once again as the gunfire started up. He looked under the register and pulled out an old Remington 552 Speedmaster.
"You find that gun?" Bryce hollered over the gunfire.
"I wouldn't really call this a gun!" Daniel yelled back. There was a box of .22 ammo on the shelf next to the rifle -- there were only five rounds inside, and Daniel loaded them all.
"We're gonna need the bitch," Bryce said as the gunfire stopped again. He poked his head out from behind the shelves and saw at least seven men converging on foot toward the gas station, all of them carrying weapons. They were only about five hundred feet off.
"She's still tied up behind the seat in the truck," Daniel told him.
"You cover me while I go and fetch her?" Bryce said.
Daniel shook his head.
"And you're also the only one of us with a chance in hell of hitting anything with that damned toy they call a gun," Bryce told him. "Keep them off my ass for ten seconds. I'll be all right."
"You'd damn well better be. Go!" Daniel said, popping up from behind the counter and letting the first round fly out the shattered window. One of the scavengers dropped to the ground a half-second later.
The other men saw this and opened fire, some of them aiming at Bryce (who was almost to the truck), some aiming at where the shot had come from. Daniel was already on the move, though, crouching next to the open door and squeezing off another round. Another of the scavengers jerked and fell as Bryce threw open the Ram's passenger door and grabbed a large green duffel bag from the back seat.
Bullets bounced off the truck's armor plating. One bounced off the ground next to Bryce's foot, but if he was worried, he didn't show it -- he simply threw the duffel over his shoulder and crouched, ready to run back to the station as soon as the gunfire let up again. Several seconds later, it did, and Bryce was on the move.
Daniel could see one of the scavengers drop to one knee and take aim at his running partner. He raised the Remington, took a quick breath, and squeezed the trigger. Even without the scope, the scavenger was close enough that Daniel could see his right eye simply vanish in a flood of red before the guy hit the ground.
Bryce scooted back into the store and slid back behind the shelving unit. He unzipped the duffel bag and pulled out a custom M4A1 carbine with a shotgun mounted on the accessory rail. The rear grip had been wrapped in white tape, and the word "Bitch" was scrawled on it in black Sharpie. Bryce loaded the M4, then reached inside the bag and pulled out two Beretta M9 pistols. He handed one to Jordan.
"You said you were in the war, right?"
"Yeah. I was in the motor pool, though."
"They still taught you how to fire one of these in basic. We wait until those guys make for the door, then we take them out. Clear?" Bryce told him.
"Daniel, your gun's still in the truck."
"'s OK. I kinda like this thing," Daniel said, nodding to the Remington. "It's cute."
Still, Daniel picked up the other M9 and tucked it into his belt.
"Damn. Mecho or not, your wife is a lucky woman," Kelly mumbled from the floor.
"Hear that, Bryce? I always told you people thought you were the bitch," Daniel smirked.
"Not the time, Daniel," Bryce said, but he smiled anyway.
"You mean the two of you are. . ." Kelly trailed off.
"Yep. A couple of queers just saved your asses," Bryce said, popping up from behind the shelves and opening fire. The M4 filled the room with noise for less than five seconds. Daniel fired one last round and set the Remington back on the counter.
"That's the last of 'em. I'll take that back, Jordan," Daniel said, nodding to the M9 the older man hadn't even fired.
Jordan handed the pistol to Daniel without a word, and Daniel tossed it to Bryce, who put it back into the bag with his M4.
"You folks have a nice day, now," Daniel smiled at them as they walked back out to the Ram and drove away.