Scrambling away, Blakely heard the rapid explosions of Roland's pistol fire and a loud crash, wood splintering. Then silence.

Advertisement

In a heartbeat, Roland was beside him again, hooking an arm around Blakely so they could travel faster. "I knocked it down, but it's getting back up-

A trumpeting of red anger buffeted them from behind.

"In here," Blakely said between gasps for air, indicating the dormitory.

"It could break in. We'd be trapped again."

-- Advertisement --

"No, follow me." Blakely led the way into the dormitory, empty and silent except for a radio rasping an old show tune. "This way." Limping across the recreation room, he waved them to follow.

A pool table with torn green felt sat empty, a cue leaning against it as if the player had stepped out for a smoke. A pinball machine pinged and blinked in a corner.

"Where are we going?" Roland asked.

"Motor pool… get transportation." He nodded toward the hall that exited the room.

His assistant nodded. "C'mon."

A window exploded behind them, shards of glass spraying everywhere. The pursuing beast, bleeding from several wounds, landed with a thud. The worn pool table blocked its path, diverting its attention, buying them the seconds needed to escape into the hall. The creature attacked the table like wounded prey, stripping it apart with tooth and claw.

"Through here," Blakely whispered, pushing open a side door. The garage reeked of burned oil and spilled gasoline. His tiny light scanned nothing but open space. Then he spied a single Ford Bronco in the last stall. One of the few regular trucks still remaining since the arrival of the electric Mules. Thank god. They might still have a chance.

Roland hustled him forward through the darkness.

Looking down, Blakely felt a stab of fear. No tire! The front left wheel rim was empty. No wonder it was still here. He tried to protest to Roland, but his assistant nearly threw him into the vehicle. Resigned, he leaned back into the seat as Jason flew into the back seat. The keys, thankfully, were still in the ignition.

"It's going to be a bumpy ride," Roland said as he tapped the remote opener. "Buckle in." The metal-paneled garage door rattled upward-much too slowly. They all held their breaths as the door trundled higher, revealing the outer lamps. The way forward appeared clear.

"The engine noise," Roland said as he revved the motor, "is gonna attract them like cats after a mouse." Slipping into first gear, he slammed the accelerator, sending the Bronco careening forward. The empty wheel rim spat blue sparks as metal chewed stone.

Just as they cleared the dormitory, the beast crashed through a door, and with a keening cry, it leaped toward the truck. Even injured, it flew at them.

Jason leaned away from his window as jagged teeth snapped at him. Claws scraped paint from the door. "Move!" the boy screamed.

Roland popped the car into second gear and ground his heel on the accelerator. The Bronco seemed to pause mid-shift, allowing the creature to strike the window, creating a spiderweb of thin fractures. As if spurred by the damage, the truck leaped forward and away.

A howl of rage could be heard above the engine noise but soon faded behind them.

The Bronco bounced between buildings, tents, and huts. Here and there, from a distance, an ashen face would pop into view, some panicked straggler peeking from a hiding place.

Roland fiddled with the radio, trying to raise someone. but only static answered. Just as they trundled across the bridge to the north side, a barrage of grenades exploded farther in front of them, near the base periphery.

"Sounds like the troops have regrouped," Roland said, a hopeful edge to his voice. "Making a concerted effort now. Perhaps they can win back the base."

"Maybe," Blakely said, his chest aching. "But we can't risk it. Water's still our safest bet."

Roland pointed ahead. "We're gonna pass damned close to that fighting. Maybe we should lay low in the truck. It'll offer some secur-"

The Bronco rumbled around a corner, almost sideswiping a vehicle that lay on its side in the road. The doors had been torn off, the roof ripped open in curled strips. A severed arm lay on the ground next to the vehicle, a pistol still in its grip.

"Never mind," said Roland.

Blakely clenched his jaw as they slowly edged around the wreckage. As if it were some gory traffic accident, he couldn't take his eyes from it. Through the shredded metal, the interior was spattered with splashes of tissue. He twisted his head forward, away from carnage, his teeth aching.

As he focused on the headlight beams, a beast pounced directly in front of them, cutting off their way forward. Huge, the size of a bull elephant, this one was twice as big as any of the others seen so far, legs like tree trunks, ending in sicklelike claws, jaws that could swallow a calf in one bite.

Roland's neck wrenched around, checking behind them as he searched for reverse with the stick shift.

Jason sat in the back seat, eyes fixed forward. "Go, go, go,…" he mumbled.

With a bone-jangling grind, the Bronco popped into reverse, but another monstrous creature stepped behind them, pinning them where they were. Both creatures lowered their snouts and bellowed at the Bronco, tails thrashing, readying to attack.

"Goddamn it!" Roland swore as he slammed the vehicle back into first gear. Each creature looked like it could pick up the truck and juggle it like a Tonka toy. Roland pounded a fist into the steering wheel.

Blakely's panicked breathing tore at his chest.

Suddenly the Bronco jerked forward. It looked like Roland was trying to slip past the beast ahead, but Blakely knew it wouldn't work. The damn things were too fast and too big.

Jason let out a squeal as Roland aimed for the monster. But just before impact, he jerked the wheel to the right, grinding the empty wheel rim across the beast's toes, crushing the tissue between sharp metal and coarse stone.

The creature jerked upward, its neck stretched as taut as a bowstring, howling at the roof. It ripped its damaged claw from under the truck, almost flipping the Bronco. The truck teetered on two wheels for a second, then slammed to the ground.

Roland didn't wait; he edged past the injured beast. The pain of its crushed toes had inflamed the beast's rage. It charged the truck, ramming the Bronco a solid blow, jarring it two feet to the right, almost shoving them into a Quonset hut.

Roland wrestled with the wheel, trying to keep them moving forward. After a moment's struggle, the Bronco cleared the irate monster. The beast bellowed its protest, but its injury kept it from pursuing. Soon its pained roar faded behind them.

As they approached the lake, close to the fighting, Roland was forced to slow. The smoke was so thick from the fires and explosions that even the Bronco's lights could cut only a couple yards into the darkness.

"Are we heading in the right direction?" Roland asked.

"I think so." Blakely leaned forward, his nose almost touching the windshield. Between his blurred vision and the smoke, it was difficult to tell. "If we keep the big inferno to the left of us, we should head straight to the lake."

Blakely glanced in the rearview mirror. Jason still sat frozen in his seat belt. "How're you holding up, Jason?"

The boy remained quiet; only his eyes moved, making contact with Blakely's in the mirror. "This summer sucks," he said, shifting the gym bag in his lap.

That it does, Blakely thought. He nodded to the boy and again concentrated on the road ahead.

A sudden gust of cavern air cleared a narrow tunnel in the smoke. Blakely sat straighter. Just before the tunnel collapsed under the weight of the smoke again, he spotted it.

Lapping water. The lake! They had made it.

Roland had seen it too. A large bump tossed them all a few inches off their seats.

"I hope you can steer a boat better than this Bronco," Blakely said weakly.

The Bronco suddenly crashed to the left. The wheel spun under Roland's hands.

"Hang on!" Roland managed to yell just before the truck careened into the side of a building, knocking over a lamp pole.

Blakely's seat belt cut into his shoulder as the momentum slammed him to the side. Hitting the door, he groaned as he touched the welt on his head.

Roland unhitched his seat belt and reached for him. "Are you okay?"

"What did you run over?" Blakely asked.

Jason screamed behind them, "Watch out!" He already had his seat belt undone and was clambering over the front seat to join them.

The rear window of the Bronco shattered inward as a crocodilian head rammed through. The safety-glass coating kept the pane together, draping over the snout of the beast. The creature struggled to shake it loose.

"Out!" Roland commanded. "Run for the water."

Roland pulled Jason after him. Blakely clambered over to the driver's seat and dropped out of the Bronco.

Smoke enveloped them as they struck for the water. Blakely desperately hoped he was right and the dock was nearby. Glancing back, Blakely glimpsed the beast struggling to free its head of the Bronco, screeching its frustration. Once free, it would be upon them in seconds.

He stopped.

Roland turned to him. "What are you doing?"

"Keep going. Take the boy. I'll delay it."

"Are you insane? You're not in any shape." Roland shoved the boy toward him. "Take Jason. I can catch up. Leave me your shotgun."

Blakely hesitated. He could order him.

Roland snatched the shotgun from his grasp and pointed it at Blakely. "Move it!"

Blakely knew he wouldn't shoot, but they were losing time arguing. The timbre of the beast's bellow had changed. It was free. "We'll get the engine running."

Blakely ran stumbling after Jason. A shotgun blast tore the air behind him. He prayed for his friend.

Jason ran a few steps ahead. "I see it!"

The lights of the dock bloomed through the smoky air. Thank god. Within moments they were pounding across the wooden planks of the pier.

Shots rang out in the distance.

To the left, a green Zodiac pontoon boat was moored with two ropes.

-- Advertisement --