“Sir, that’s your best option,” Jessica said over the sat phone several minutes later.
She had called with an update on the Russian helos. There was no doubt they were in pursuit as they were changing direction to stay on an intercept course as I continued north.
“How much farther and how far behind me will they be when I get there?” I asked.
“Forty miles to the edge of town. You’ll arrive in about eighteen minutes at your current speed. They’ll be half an hour behind you.” She said after a few moments of furious typing.
“What’s the target’s status?” I asked.
“Heavy weather, sir. I can’t get visual and thermal can’t penetrate the cloud layer.” She answered without having to look.
Damn it! I had no doubt Rachel was in dire straights, if she hadn’t already succumbed to the weather or wildlife. And now I was going to have to run and hide from the fucking Russians. I could keep pushing on, but I’d have to stop for fuel soon and they had the speed advantage. There was no doubt they would eventually catch me and I had much better odds of survival if that didn’t happen on the open road.
I had asked Jessica to run several scenarios for me and there was only one that didn’t end with Katie, Dog and I being in the middle of nowhere when the Russians caught up. If that happened I could either keep driving while they hovered overhead and shot us to pieces, or pull over and give up. Either option was unacceptable.
So I’d picked door number three. A slight detour to Dodge City. It wasn’t much of a town, not very large, but plenty large for Katie and I to find a hiding place. Maybe the Russians wouldn’t look too hard. Maybe. Regardless, if I had to fight it gave us a chance we didn’t have on the open road.
“Jessica, how far behind me is the Bradley,” I asked, hoping I might get a break and it wouldn’t be that far back.
“Hours, sir. They’re cutting cross country, saving a lot of miles by not following the road, but they’re barely making forty miles an hour.” I could hear her keyboard clicking again. “Currently I put their earliest arrival in Dodge City at eight hours from now.”
“Not good enough,” I said, thinking. “Can you tell if the Russians have eyes on me from a satellite? How are they tracking me?”
There was quiet for a few moments then a male voice I hadn’t heard before blared over the Dodge’s speakers.
“Major Chase, this is Lieutenant Hunt. I’m Petty Officer Simmons CO. She’s read me in on what’s going on and I’ve been working on the problem you just asked about. The Russians have three LEO satellites still in operation despite the EMP. We have identified these as the source of the transmission that is attracting the infected, but none of them have optics on board. At this time I’m working on the assumption that somehow the Russians are piggybacking on our signal, but haven’t yet been able to identify how they’re doing it.” A LEO satellite is one that is in Low Earth Orbit, which is between 100 and 1,200 miles above the surface.
“Have you checked CIA access into our bird?” I asked, thinking about Steve.
“CIA? No, but they wouldn’t necessarily be accessing the satellite unless they were trying to re-task it. We broke the encryption so the feed is open to anyone that can get onto the Echelon network. Do you know something?”
Echelon is a fully hardened and redundant, self-supporting fiber optic network that is shared by all of the US military and intelligence agencies. It was designed to survive any attack, up to and including nuclear war. Put into operation in the post 9/11 world, where the sharing of data was paramount, it was the most expensive communications and data sharing system ever built.
“Can you isolate the feed from the satellite so only you can see it? I think there’s a problem in Australia, but I’ve already got someone working on it.”
“Petty Officer Simmons says she can’t stop the stream from going into Echelon. That’s how we’re getting to it and if she shuts it down we go blind. But, we may be able to encrypt the data so we’re the only ones that can use it. Regardless, it won’t be fast. Not fast enough.” He said after a long pause to consult with Jessica.
“Tell the Petty Officer I have faith in her and my ass is in her hands, Lieutenant.”
“Yes, sir. Good luck to you.” With a click and a beep the connection dropped.
“Dodge City,” Katie said. “That was one hell of a rough town in the 1800s. Hope you don’t have visions of some high noon style showdown with the Russians.”
“I was actually thinking I’d be a tad more subtle than that,” I said, slowing to negotiate a gentle curve in the road before resuming our full speed pace.
The time to the edge of Dodge City went by quickly. We had been driving through miles upon miles of monotonous grasslands and suddenly crested a gentle rise and saw the outskirts of town. A couple of gas stations and the ubiquitous McDonald’s were the first things we flashed past.
I stepped on the brakes and lowered our speed as we progressed. A “Welcome to Dodge City” sign was on the right edge of the pavement and it said the population was 27,541. Not a lot of people and not a lot of city to support them.
There were no high rises, no large parking garages, nothing like I would have preferred to be able to use to hide. Everything was single or two stories, except for one six story building that not surprisingly was a bank. Everything looked old, but then I supposed it should.
“Ideas?” Katie asked, looking around as I drove towards the downtown area.
The change in noise and motion from the lower speed had roused Dog from his slumber and he sneezed twice, getting me squarely on the side of the face with his second one. I wiped his snot off with a grimace and rubbed it onto my pants.
“Not any good ones,” I said. “If they’re watching us on satellite they’ll see wherever we stop and will be able to direct the helos right to us. That, and it’s the middle of the fucking day. I’d much rather have the cover of night.”
“Quit whining,” Katie grinned at me. “You’re worrying about the problems and not thinking about the solutions.”
Bitch! But she was right.
“Call Jessica,” I said a moment later, turning onto the street that ran in front of the bank building. It was marked as Second Avenue.
“Yes, sir?” Jessica answered on the second ring.
“Please tell me you’re close to locking the Russians out. It’s hard to play hide and seek when they’re peeking.” I said.
“Close, sir. Hold on,” she said.
I could hear her working, breathing heavily into the phone, which I pictured mashed between her ear and shoulder while she pounded on the keyboard. This went on for some time and I drove past the bank without slowing and kept going. Ahead a sign pointed towards a state highway and I took the turn and accelerated.
“What are you doing?” Katie asked, surprised as I continued to pick up speed.
“Leaving a false trail,” I said. “When they lose imagery I don’t want us to have been leisurely driving around town. That’s where they’ll start looking for us. If we’re driving like hell out of town when the feed scrambles, they’ll think we’re still going in that direction.”
“You’re smarter than you look,” Katie said, patting me on the leg.
We were passing a sign that thanked us for visiting Dodge City, our speed approaching 100 when Jessica came back on the line.
“Got it, sir!” She shouted.
I slammed on the brakes and as the car slowed, spun the wheel and skidded through a 180-degree turn. Flooring the accelerator, I roared back into town heading for the bank building. As we’d passed through I’d noted a lot of cars in the area. Some neatly parked and others crashed into each other or into the buildings that lined the street. It shouldn’t be hard to hide the Dodge amongst them. Driving fast, we were back on Second Avenue in minutes.
“How long do I have, Jessica?”
“Fifteen minutes until they’re overhead, sir. And just so you’re aware, I don’t know how long it will take them to break the encryption I just put on the stream. It could be half an hour or days.” She said.
“Will you know when they break in and be able to give me a heads up?”
“Yes, sir.” She said.
“Thanks. Gotta run now.” I said, steering the Charger into the midst of a three-vehicle crash that involved a city bus and two pickups. Pushing in, I stopped when the front bumper nudged the side of the bus.
“Good luck, sir. I’ll be watching if you need me.”