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A NEW WORLD:

RETURN

A Novel by John O’Brien

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Dedicated to my mother, June O’Brien. Thank you for all of your help, all that you do, and for making this book and series possible. 

Author’s Notice

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The New World series is a fictional work. While some of the locations in the series describe actual locations, this is intended only to lend an authentic theme. Any resemblance to actual events or persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.

Prologue

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The sound of feet running behind him was constant as he ran through the darkened streets. On this clear, summer night, the moon was out and almost full causing his skin to tingle only slightly from the reflected light. It wasn’t as bad as when the other bright light, which caused immediate and intense pain, was in the sky.

He and his pack of seven behind him were out searching for something to eat as they did most every night. He became leader of this pack because of his greater strength and ability to locate food. There was food to be had in plenty, it was just a matter of finding it before the other packs did or had a chance to get away. There was the two-legged and four-legged kind — that was how he thought of them. They had found and chased down one of the four-legged ones last night; large enough for the whole pack to feed. The two-legged ones were his favorite but were becoming hard to find. Plus, they had to be cautious as he had lost several of his pack to them. They were smart and crafty and had to be taken with care. That was another reason he was the pack leader, most of the other of his kind would rush blindly at them in a persistent manner. Sometimes this worked and sometimes they paid for their rashness.

His thoughts did not come to him in the form of words but more in images and smells. He was cunning and could think through situations, finding ways to get food and other things they needed, but it was not a familiar thinking pattern. The pattern consisted of images that were similar to complete pictures that tell a story; both simple and complex in nature. He hunted primarily by means of smell and had become adept at picking up the faint smells of food, sometimes up to a couple hundred yards away if the wind was right. The scent was different somehow than the smell of everything else. It was more like a warm scent, if a smell could have a sense about it, along with a certain sweet mustiness. The smell from the others of his kind was not appealing in a food sense. No, there would not be any form of cannibalism there.

Not that he thought along those exact lines as he ran through the streets. Up ahead, he saw the flash of another, smaller pack quickly cross his path several streets up; vanishing quickly into a side street as he listened to their echoing footfalls diminish. Along with his heightened sense of smell, his vision at night was adequate as he was able to pick out the varying shades of gray relatively well and it seemed to improve almost nightly. The moon certainly helped.

Buildings continued to pass by as he ran through various streets in a search pattern trying to pick up the scent or sight of food. One large building he passed by had two circles around a central dot on it. For some reason this triggered something inside his mind; almost like he knew what that symbol meant. The flash of a memory passed through, the meaning hanging there just out of reach but tantalizingly close; like the name of a song remembered from long ago but forgotten and keeping just outside the grasp of knowing or comprehension. His mind was actually remembering and, for a brief moment, he thought he knew he had been someone or something else before. Then, the brief opening of the mind closed, shutting the memory or even the memory of having a memory off.

The pack stopped behind him as he stopped and were searching the area for the reason. Food was plentiful so there wasn’t any danger of being attacked by competing packs but there were other dangers. Packs of four-legged ones sometimes attacked the smaller packs of his kind so they kept a watch out for them. On occasion, some of the two-legged ones were out hunting and those were the dangerous ones. There was something compelling about the other two-legged ones that caused something inside the pack to want to attack them on sight.

Forgetting why he stopped in the first place, he started his jog once again and, after a short distance, caught the warm scent of life and food. Coming to another stop, he sought to ascertain its direction. The scents in this area swirled around the streets and buildings making it hard to accurately tell exactly where the food was located. This smell was of the two-legged kind and the light intensity of it indicated that there was only one or two of them. He stood sniffing the air and, suddenly knowing exactly where the scent was coming from, started in that direction.

Rounding a building, he saw one of the other two-legged crouching outside of one of its lairs, trying to sneak through the night. Sometimes they seemed so stupid that he could not fathom how they were a danger. Did that one not know he could see him crouching there in the open?

Signaling his pack to spread out with grunts and signaling with his hands, he turned in mid stride toward the two-legged one. Letting out a scream to let the other packs in the area know they had found food - an instinctive reaction he could not help - he launched himself toward the crouched one in ever-quickening strides. The two-legged one turned toward him and let out its own scream and tried to run but it was too late. To his left, one of his pack members launched itself over a fence and tackled the two-legged one in mid air just as the food turned the corner into the yard of one of its lairs. It was over in seconds and the rending of flesh began.

Out of the corner of his eye, the pack leader saw another of the two-legged ones leap a fence several yards away. Giving a signal to several of his pack, they launched themselves after the one fleeing. Several minutes later, he heard one of his give a shriek of finding. It was followed by a couple of the loud bangs that sometimes accompanied the ones who ran on two legs. Those bangs were the danger and were what caused him to lose some of his pack earlier on. The ones he had sent out returned a short time later with another food. He had sent out four but only two returned. He had lost more of his pack but they ate well that night.

They weren’t quite finished with the second one when the glow in the sky indicated the return of the bright light. It wasn’t so much of an actual glow but more of a hint of the sky lightening. The small lights in the sky in that direction started to fade so it was time to leave and head back to their shelter. With this, there was no hesitation with any of them or the other packs. They had all felt the intense burning and heat of the bright light. Those who were caught in even a glimpse or hint of that bright light for more than a couple of seconds died.

And so it was with haste that they retreated to the building where they stayed accompanied by the sound of many packs heading to their own lairs. The night filled with the sound of feet slapping on the pavement; not the paced jogging of the hunt but an all-out run. The streets quickly emptied. The time of the other two-legged ones was coming. They lost two this night but others would come to fill the gap. There were still single ones or in twos or threes running around just waiting for a pack to scoop them up.

Stepping into the broken door to the building where they holed up during the day, he trekked up the stairs and into the darkened room where they slept. He chose this room because it had no place to the outside where the light could shine through. He was tired and laid down with his pack, nestled together for warmth; some nights closer together and others spread out depending on the heat of the day. He kept closest to the entry because he was the strongest, their leader, and that was his place.

As he lay there, a certain musky scent came to his nostrils; a scent that aroused an even more animalistic nature inside of him and one he could not resist. He rolled over to find one of his already trying to couple with the female in his pack. He pushed the one aside with a warning grunt and mated falling asleep shortly thereafter. He felt content but in a slightly different way than we would know or understand.

Island Paradise

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Leveling the aircraft off at flight level 200, I set a course back to the Azores and turn on the autopilot. I am exhausted from the complete lack of sleep getting over to Kuwait but exhilarated at the same time. Against all odds, Lynn was alive; we had found and rescued her along with a small group of surviving military soldiers. We have enough personnel and weapons to be able to defend ourselves against most chance encounters with the things — we will definitely have to come up with a name for them as they don’t seem to be going away like disco or some other bad fad; I also plan to see that we don’t go away either — however, when they locate us and we are close to a populated zone, we can be overwhelmed easily if we are not properly prepared as Lynn and her group almost found out. Even with a secure location, their numbers and tenacity will eventually overcome us unless we can prepare some form of impregnable fortress.

I am worried about what our arrival back in the Azores will be like seeing how we left it. There is one very irritated general we will have to deal with, but I did say we would head back and will feel guilty if I bypass them over a little unease. Leaving them stranded on the island with no hope of leaving and without supplies would not be cool. Especially after they did help us out with fuel, and Colonel Wilson did stick his neck out for us. No, I will go back for that alone.

But first it is time to compare notes with those we found in Kuwait and let them know what may be in store for us on our arrival into Lajes. I also feel that Bannerman and I need to have a little conversation about the leadership aspect. I do know where he is coming from with regards to rank and all of them being soldiers, but frankly, I am not feeling a tremendous amount of confidence in his leadership ability. Not that I truly have anything to base it on; it is really more of a feeling. Perhaps it was him trying to force his rank the way he did. Maybe we just started off on the wrong foot and he is really a pretty good guy. He may be a great leader — after all, they did get out of there alive against a tremendous horde besieging them. I think I need a little more information and will talk it over with Lynn first. I cannot tell you just how happy and relieved I am to see her and that she is, well, alive.

“You have it for a little bit. Are you okay with that?” I ask Robert looking in his direction.

He startles out of whatever reverie he was in, perhaps just him being as tired as I am, and looks over. “Yeah, I’m good.”

Disconnecting my shoulder restraints and lap belt, Brianna pipes in before I unhook from the intercom, “Dad, do you really think that’s a good idea?”

I look back at her, seeing her eyes a touch wider than normal and glancing between Robert, the instrument panels, and me. “Shut up Bri! I said I got it,” Robert chimes in before I can answer.

“Easy now,” I say running a last check on the instruments. “It’s on autopilot Bri and I’ll be up quickly if anything happens. Besides, Robert’s a pretty good stick and he’s just monitoring the systems. Michelle, come get me if anything goes wrong.”

“Okay, Jack,” Michelle answers. Bri remains silent in her engineer seat, obviously a little perturbed over being told to shut up by Robert.

“Bri, make sure you watch the fuel tanks and switch them to prevent an imbalance,” she responds with a thumbs up.

I cover what instrument readings to watch for with Robert, disconnect from the intercom, and set my helmet in the seat. With a last look at the Mediterranean flowing along underneath the nose, I rise, stretch the small of my back to work out the kinks, and walk down the stairs to the cargo compartment. I think of how strange it is that I just left the cockpit in complete charge of my kids and feel completely comfortable with that. How far we have come in the last few days , I think stepping into the cargo area. It’s amazing how our thinking and comfort levels change in response to a crisis .

The soldiers are all strapped in and sitting on the red nylon, pull-down seats along the fuselage; most have their heads down and rifles pointed upward between their legs. I catch Lynn’s eye and motion her over. Seeing her walk over, I realize just how lucky I am. Her short blond hair hangs limply down from being under her helmet for so long and her tired, blue eyes look up at me as she comes to stand before me. I reach out and give her a hug. Her initial response is to stiffen in my embrace because of the professionalism she carries in front of other soldiers but then she succumbs and relaxes, returning my hug and nestling her head on my shoulder.

The drone and vibrations of the engines are louder and stronger here making it difficult to talk without yelling. On the other hand, it also makes it more difficult for others to hear — and that’s a good thing considering the thoughts that come up feeling her pressed against me. We just stand there hugging each other for a moment as time stands still.

“It’s too bad we can’t find a private place for a moment or two. It’s, well, uh, been a while,” I whisper into her ear.

She chuckles in my ear before whispering back, “I know!”

“Perhaps when we land, we can go find a shipping container or something to duck around behind. I’m pretty sure we won’t need more than a couple of minutes. At least, I know I won’t.” It has been almost a year since we have seen each other in person and we have been faithful to each other in the interim.

“I may just tackle you the moment everyone is out of sight,” Lynn whispers.

“I could just kick everyone out of the cockpit and close the curtains. Although that may be a bit too obvious eh?”

She just answers with a soft sigh and nestles closer into my shoulder.

“Come sit with me a moment if you don’t mind. I want to talk a few things over with you before we bring the group together,” I say.

“God, it is so good to see you, babe! I really missed you!” I say once we are seated on the bunk and I am still thinking some alone time would be nice.

“You too! I’m so glad you made it and are okay. You have no idea just how worried I was and how much I missed you.”

“So tell me about Bannerman. I have a feeling there’s going to be some dissension about the ‘who’s in charge’ thing. Can he handle himself and lead this group?” I ask.

“Well, he doesn’t have any real combat experience. I’ve been leading for the most part. I think he’s okay with the logistics end of things, but I’m not sure about his ability to lead troops in combat.”

“Do you think he’ll do the ‘I’m in charge and outrank you’ thing? I mean, I’ll follow anyone who knows what they’re doing and I have confidence in, but I have my kids to think about. And, well, you.”

Lynn flashes me a quick look. “I know you can handle yourself and very well,” I say before she can carry that look into words. “I just want to make sure we all have our best chance at survival.”

“I know, hon,” she replies. “And he may try to remain in charge. In his mind, he thinks we’re still a government military force. How are things back in the states? For real.”

“It’s not pretty. Most everything and everyone are gone. We had our own run-ins with those things on the way here everywhere we went. Not in the numbers it looked like you had to deal with, but enough to know that this is everywhere.”

Lynn nods and I see her fold inward to her own thoughts. I imagine her thoughts are leading her to think about her friends and family.

“Oh, dang, I almost forgot,” I say watching her eyes track back to mine. “I actually spoke with Craig and your mom.”

“What!? You’re kidding! When?” She asks, suddenly sitting more erect and alert.

“A couple of days ago. It was the weirdest thing. We were just past Chicago calling on the radio when out of the blue, we get a response. He was flying with your mom from Florida heading to, let me try and remember, somewhere in Ohio if I remember correctly.”

“He must be heading to my dad and sister,” she says with tears beginning to well in her eyes.

“Oh, and your cats were okay and with them. He’s going to try and meet us at McChord,” I say watching a single tear leak out and run down her cheek.

Lynn wipes the tear with the back of her hand, gives me a big smile, and kisses me on the cheek, “You have no idea how happy you’ve made me.”

I rub her cheek with my thumb and smile back. Her smile, and seeing her smile at me, always gives me butterflies. “You know, babe, back to this leadership thing, I think you should take charge.”

Giving a quick chuckle, she says, “Right! We both know you have more experience. Not much mind you, but a little more. And don’t let it go to your head. I can still take you down.”

I laugh, completely enjoying the familiar exchange we have with each other and thinking once again just how lucky I am.

“I don’t want to put you into a bad spot with Bannerman though. I won’t ask you for support in whatever goes down,” I say.

“Don’t worry about me. And the soldiers will follow whoever gives them the best chance at survival.”

“Alright, I’ll just play it by ear then.”

“That’s what you do best Jack.”

“What do you mean by….? Oh, never mind. If you’ll gather everyone up, I’m going up to make sure Robert and Bri haven’t annihilated each other. And to make sure the sun is still in the right part of the sky and we aren’t screaming toward the ocean. It would also be nice if the sky was still above us and not off to the side or below.”

“Are they fighting?”

“No. They’re just tired like everyone else,” I answer.

I lean over and give her a kiss on the lips. “I love you!”

“I love you too!”

Walking into the cockpit, I see that all of the parts of the world, mainly the sky and ocean, are in their correct locations and Robert and Bri are still alive. Michelle glances over from her seat at the navigator table on my arrival and says something into the mic. That apparent something is that I am back as Robert and Bri glance back at me. I hold my thumb up and shrug my shoulder to give the indication that it’s a question. They both give a thumbs up in return. I give the instruments and fuel panel a quick look to ensure everything is in order and that we have a chance of staying airborne a bit longer. The world passes slowly by the windows as we drone ever westward.

With a quick nod, I turn back, and walk once again down the stairs. The soldiers are gathering in a semi-circle as I return. I join in completing a circle with Bannerman on my left and Lynn to the right. We begin by sharing stories, filling each other in on the details of our experiences and what we have learned.

“So basically what we know is this: They prefer the dark due to some adverse reaction to light and seemingly only sunlight as far as we can tell. Light from flashlights and such don’t seem to bother them. So, that gives us the daylight hours of relative safety although we don’t really know what that margin is or how cloud cover affects them. Of course, darkened buildings are to be treated with care,” I yell over the droning engines, summing up our conversations. “I am guessing that they don’t seem to remember who they were or have any cognizance in that regard because of how they behave by attacking on sight. They also seem to strike without provocation and in packs so they’re to be treated as hostile. Their bite seems to cause some sort of infection that is deadly so close-in combat is to be avoided if at all possible. Lastly, this is wide-spread and there are a lot of them. Does anyone else have anything to add?”

Everyone glances around to see if there is anything else but no one speaks up.

“Okay then, we should talk about where to go from here.”

“I’ll take it from here, Captain,” Bannerman says taking a step into the circle.

“Hmmm… You know, I think this is as good a time to talk about leadership as there’s going to be,” I add causing Bannerman to look over his shoulder at me.

“How is that, Captain? I’m the senior ranking member here. You may be in command of the aircraft, but I’m in command of the personnel.”

“I’m thinking time and circumstances have changed that strict hierarchy of command somewhat. We’re obviously dealing with a completely new situation and I think we need to have the one with the most combat experience to lead us. Someone who will give us the best chance at surviving this.”

“And you think that’s you, Captain?” Bannerman asks turning to face me.

“I’m completely open to any ideas on the subject,” I reply.

“Captain Walker, I’m a Major and the highest ranking military member here. Being in the military and an officer, you should understand that. You are also bordering on insubordination and mutiny!”

“Yeah, well, here’s the deal with that. In the sake of honesty, I should tell everyone that I’m not in the military anymore and left some time ago.”

“You’re kidding me!” Bannerman say in an incredulous voice. “Impersonating an officer as well!?”

“I did what I had to do to get over here to find Lynn and if I hadn’t arrived, you’d be in pretty desperate straits right now.”

“Be that as it may Mr. Walker, I am in charge of these soldiers. You may do as you wish once we land.”

“Bannerman, which country and military do you belong to?” I ask.

“The United States of America of course.”

“You do understand that doesn’t exist anymore right? You were listening as I told you that I flew half way across the world without a response from anyone. No responses from any military or civilian frequencies. Nothing!”

“I did. But that doesn’t change anything here. As long as there’s a viable force together, the government and military exists.”

The problem is that I completely understand what he is talking about and relate to what he is saying. He is right. We need that type of cohesiveness if we are to survive. We can’t break down into separate camps and need to build a safe community that works together if we have any chance in the long run. But we also need a leader who can get us there.

“I get that. I truly do. But we need to stick together and also have a leader who can carry us through and, as I said before, someone who will give us the best chance of surviving,” I say, taking a moment to gather my thoughts. “Call it more of a functional versus hierarchal leadership. That is very much a part of military leadership. I trust you do understand those aspects of leadership right?”

“I do,” Bannerman says with a pause.

“I am completely open to whoever that may be. That can be myself, Sergeant Connell here, you, or my fourteen year old daughter Brianna for all that I care. Just as long as it gives us the best chance.”

I glance around the group and notice that most of them have taken a deep interest in their boots. I guess this is an uncomfortable situation for everyone .

“What do you say we all talk about our experience, then put it to a vote and let everyone decide?” I ask, noting several heads and eyebrows rise in interest.

I speak about my experience in Bosnia, Iraq, Korea, and various parts of Africa. Lynn outlines her experience in Afghanistan and Iraq. Bannerman doesn’t have any combat leadership so outlines the schools and training he has. After everyone has had the chance to say something, I find some paper to tear up for everyone to write their votes on and grab my helmet from the cockpit to put them in.

The mood is tense as I hand the helmet to Lynn to count the votes. She takes a piece of paper out and makes a tally mark on a notepad. Necks strain to see the marks and where the vote is leaning. After all, with everything that we have all gone through in the past few days, there is a lot of interest in where the next few days will head, and who will lead them.

Finishing with the last scrap, Lynn stands from the bunk she had been sitting at. “Okay, listen up everyone. Jack has 12 votes, I have 9, Major Bannerman has 4 and,” she pauses momentarily and a smile forms, “Brianna has 2.”

Several chuckles develop throughout the group as some of the tension ebbs. She has always had a knack for breaking unease like that , I think smiling.

“Okay, everyone comfortable with that?” I ask.

Heads nod in the group and, glancing over at Bannerman, I see a slight relaxation in him as if relieved of a burden. “Oh, and I’m a little worried about the other one who voted for Brianna. Stay away from my daughter,” I add only half joking.

More smiles beam out. “Sergeant Connell, you’ll be the First Sergeant. Break everyone down into teams of six and determine your team leaders. Major Bannerman, I want you to help with the logistics end if you don’t mind. There’s going to be a lot we need to get done.”

“That’s fine with me but what will we call you?” Bannerman asks. “I mean, we can’t very well call you Captain and have you leading if I’m a Major reporting to you.”

“How about Jack for now and we’ll sort it out later.”

“Are you going to lead one of the teams, sir?” Lynn asks.

I see right away this is going to be tricky at times. We’ll just have to keep the professionalism when dealing with group and team matters. Hopefully I can remember to do this and not give her a big hug and kiss in front of formation. The image of this in my mind brings first a smile and then a chuckle.

“Yes, First Sergeant, give me one of the teams. Leave my kids off. If they go out, they’ll go with me. I’m going to head back up and see if I can guide this thing to Lajes.”

“Okay, sir.”

“Okay folks, the overall plan is to get back to McChord and find a place to fortify as a sanctuary. We’ll stop for fuel in the Azores and then head to the CDC in Atlanta. I want to find out whatever information we can about the creatures we are dealing with. From there, it’s a straight hop back home. We’ll brief more on the ground. Any questions or concerns?” I ask.

“Okay, carry on,” I say seeing no one respond.

“Yes, sir,” the group responds in chorus.

I grab a headset with an extended cord and show Lynn the multiple locations to plug into the intercom before turning to the cockpit. “Oh, one more thing,” I add addressing her. “There may be a very upset General at Lajes when we arrive there.”

“What in the world did you do?” Lynn asks.

“You seem to have a knack for that,” Bannerman, having overheard, chimes in drily.

See, I kind of left off the final dialogue with General Collins while we were sharing stories. “I’ll, uh, fill you in later.”

Lynn gives me one of her looks. A look that says she knows basically what took place by my adding that terse statement at the end and walking away while giving a vague response back. It is one of those “You did it again, didn’t you?” looks. See, she knows my capacity and ability to have very wide boundaries while still keeping to a moral structure. She told me once she thought it was from my time with the ground teams when I had to be flexible and think quickly on my feet while still conforming to the mission and its guidelines. I told her I thought it was from the ever-decreasing number of active brain cells in my head. That they were no longer a cohesive unit functioning as one but rather a bunch of isolated pockets that bumped into each other once in a while and formed a thought. The resulting thought was not always a sane or coherent one. Or a safe one for that matter.

Strapping into my seat once again, I take a moment to look the instruments over before plugging into the intercom. I glance over at Robert and Bri. The guilty look on their faces says it all. “Hi Lynn,” I say into the mic.

“How’d you know I was on the intercom?” She responds.

“The guilty looks I’m getting up here pretty much told me. Plus, the absolute silence. You know, the silence like when you enter a room where everyone was talking about you. I also figured you’d be on wanting to know w


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hat happened.”

“You didn’t tell them did you?” Robert asks, referring to our Lajes departure conversation.

“No, I kind of left that part out,” I answer and fill Lynn in on the details adding that it ended well but the general may be mighty upset about having been disobeyed. Generals tend to get that way.

We continue to chase the sun, both of us on our westward journey but to different destinations. It is moving a little faster than us and will set down on its journey to the horizon much sooner than when we will set down on our journey to the Azores. I double check our fuel and make sure we are set at our best range cruise speed. The one that will give us the best bang for the buck. Or, put in better terms, will give us the most distance for the fuel burned. I’m exhausted and my mind ventures over to fuel and how things were not that long ago. Not only will the trees and air have a chance at recovering from our influence on them, but gas prices have plummeted. Way down from the four dollars per gallon they had just climbed to. The experts claimed that crises across the world caused the dramatic increases in cost. I guess they were right up to a point. This crisis drove the price substantially down. Although really, the price of free gas was a costly one , I think refocusing my mind on the flight.

The shores of North Africa and Europe are coming together ahead, signaling the end of the Mediterranean and the beginning of the vast Atlantic. The sun begins its descent below the horizon, filling the sky with oranges, reds, and pinks, delivering its goodbye in splendor. Silence has claimed the aircraft as we all rest wrapped in our own thoughts, trying to grasp the reality of what has happened and what the future holds.

“Lynn, are you still on?” I ask over the intercom.

“Yeah, I’m still here,” she answers in a tired voice. “Just laying here.”

“Just letting you know we should be in Lajes in about three hours if you could let everyone know. And get some rest. I’m not sure what kind of reception to expect. We’ll get everyone together and brief in two hours.”

“Sounds good. How did you ever manage to stay sane on these long flights?” She asks.

“Nintendo and a good selection of games,” I reply. “Oh, and books. Now you know why insanity and I get along so well. There’s a bunk up here that may be a bit quieter if you want to use it instead.”

“Normally I’d send someone else up to use it but I’m flat out beat,” Lynn says before I hear the click of her disconnecting the intercom.

I look back to see her climb the stairs and give her a smile as the last glow of the setting sun reflects off her. She flops down on the lower bunk and pulls the thin, flimsy cover over her. She tries to adjust the too small pillow for comfort before giving up entirely.

“I thought you were going to beat that pillow into submission for a sec,” I shout over to her.

“Very funny, Jack,” she shouts tiredly back.

Everyone is tired, Michelle has slumped over and is asleep in her jump seat while Nic has put her head on her arms at the nav table. Robert is staring off, but from his slumped posture, I can tell he is exhausted. Bri, with her boundless energy, is constantly checking the fuel gauges. I unstrap and tell Robert, Michelle, and Nic to go get some rest in the remaining bunks. I’ll wake them for the brief and approach but I’ll need them to have a couple hours rest at least. We may need another night approach without lights and having them misread an instrument close to the ground could end in a very unfavorable result. It comes highly recommended to not impact the ground at high speed as the ground will always win such a contest.

“You go get some rest Bri. I’ve got the fuel.”

“Are you sure, Dad?”

“Yeah, babe, go rest. Oh, and Bri, thanks. You’ve been a tremendous help.”

She smiles and gives me ‘ol thumbs up. “You bet, Dad.”

We are about 300 miles out when I wake everyone. The cargo bay is filled with soldiers laying down wherever they could find room; doubling up on the cots or just on the cold, hard floor. Their weapons are by their side but they are finally able to get some sense of safety for a short while and are taking advantage of it. After introducing them, I send Robert and Bri back to the cockpit to monitor our flight. Everyone gathers once again in a circle.

“Okay, here’s the deal. We’ll be landing at Lajes in about an hour. Well, hopefully anyway. If no one is home, it’ll be a search for the field at night. Our GPS should be right on but if it’s not, well, let’s just hope it is. We won’t have a lot of gas to play ‘find the field’,” I say opening the brief.

“I’m not sure of what kind of reception we’ll receive given, um, the last conversation I had with the base commander. I assume you’ve been told I’m not exactly on his best friends list. I can tell you that I don’t expect to get the other half of a best friend’s forever bracelet from him,” I add evoking more than a couple of smiles.

The smiles tell me I may have been elevated to a god-like status by pissing off a general. This has always been the way in the military, well, at least in the circles I ran with. Where conformity and cohesion is the need and the way, individualism in that regard has always been revered.

“At any rate, we’ll know soon enough. I’ll be radioing as soon as we finish here. At no time will we engage or threaten unless it’s against any of the creatures. When I was here last, they had taken care of that problem so I don’t anticipate any problems in that regard. However, we need to be ready for any possibility. We’ll conform to whatever their instructions are. My plan is to continue along with the charade that I was sent on a mission to bring you back to McChord and my mission isn’t over until I arrive back. Are there any questions?”

“Sergeant Connell, have the teams been assigned?” I ask after no one responds.

“Yes, sir. Sergeant Drescoll, Corporal Horace, you and I are the team leaders,” Lynn says and I shake their hands. “Do you want to meet your team?”

“Yeah but let’s do that and talk more when we get on the ground. Busy time is starting up front. Plug in and you can follow along on the radio and keep everyone informed as we go,” I say gathering up Nic and Michelle and turn for the cockpit.

“Yes, sir,” Lynn responds.

I sigh thinking we are going to have to change that. Well, maybe not right away as we will need to introduce some changes gradually. Besides, I may be able to use that to my advantage later and smile at the thought. Hmmmm, maybe not , I think as the story in my head continues. The story that continues ends with a loud growl and a knee to a very tender place.

“Oh,” I add. Everyone turns their head back in my direction. “This is off limits,” I say pointing to Nic and Michelle. This, of course, invites a punch in the arm from Nic and a, “Dad!”

Back in the cockpit, we start our checks and begin a slow descent into Lajes. I call on the approach frequency we used previously but without a response back. That’s odd , I think. It’s only been two days . They should still be there . I switch over to the guard frequency and call again.

“Lajes approach, this is Otter 39 on guard.”

There is a pause before my headset fills with, “Otter 39, this is Lajes approach on guard. Welcome back.”

That’s reassuring , I think. “Otter 39, altimeter is 29.96. contact approach on 385.40.

The altimeter has fallen substantially since we left. Hope bad weather isn’t on the way , I think switching frequencies.

“Lajes approach, Otter 39, 150 miles east descending through 17,000.”

“Roger. Winds are 190 at 15. Lajes landing runway 15. Squawk 0371 and ident.”

I reach over to switch the IFF code, flip the switch momentarily to ident and hear shortly after, “Otter 39, radar contact. Fly heading 290, vectors for the ILS Runway 15. Descend and maintain 5,000.”

“Roger that Lajes. 290, passing through 16 for 5. Are the lights on?” I ask.

“Lights are on, however, standby,” answers Lajes approach.

What is that about ? I think setting up the approach and coordinating the flight with Robert.

A few moments pass. “Otter 39, standby for Colonel Wilson,” I hear in my headset.

Oh boy, here we go. This can’t be good .

“I assume I am speaking with Captain Walker,” a voice I know comes over the radio.

“Yes, sir,” I answer.

“Captain, be advised our circumstances have changed since you were here.”

“Go ahead, sir.”

“General Collins left yesterday with most of the base personnel. We only have a skeleton crew here and our containment measures failed in the meantime.”

“What do you mean he left, sir?”

“He found a pilot and they took off in a KC-10 for the states in order to get some help.”

“And the containment?” I ask.

“Apparently we missed some of the infected from the city and they showed up after he left. We are holed up in the tower during the night and won’t be able to meet you. Be aware that the creatures are out there and may be attracted by the runway lighting,” Colonel Wilson answers.

“Are you getting this, Lynn?” I ask into the intercom.

“Yeah, Jack. I hear it.” I notice she is calling me by my name when we are private like this even though I am quite sure there are soldiers around her.

“Make sure everyone knows.”

“I will.”

Back on the radio, “Roger that, sir. We’ll land, shutdown and hold up for the night. Can you see if the runway is clear, sir?” I ask.

“From what we can see from here, it’s clear.”

“Let us know if you happen to spot anything out there. That could sure ruin our night if we happen to hit anything at the wrong time.”

“We’ll keep an eye out for you.”

We make several heading and altitude changes and line up for the approach. The runway lights are visible in the distance as we start on the approach but are surrounded by an inky blackness that makes it difficult to judge distance and height. A momentary sense of vertigo comes over me. I must be more tired than I thought , I think doubling my attention on the instruments and the approaching lights.

“Help me watch the airspeed Robert. If I get too far off 155 knots, tell me.”

“Will do, Dad,” Robert replies.

“Bri, make a final check that we are on the main tanks.”

“We are, Dad,” she says. I would double check but I don’t want to be moving my head around much given the feeling of vertigo I just experienced.

“Gear down and verify three green for me Robert.”

I see his hand appear in my range of vision and move the gear handle down. A vibration rumbles through the aircraft as the gear are released and forced into the slipstream.

“Three green,” Robert says as the rumbling comes to a stop.

“Lynn, make sure everyone is strapped in please.”

“Already done, Jack.”

“Thanks,” I say to her. “Robert, flaps at 50 if you please.”

The aircraft starts to rise up as the configuration is changed. I compensate by pulling the throttles back a touch and push the nose down, retrimming the aircraft as I do. We continue down the flight path with only a few bumps of turbulence, the ILS needles perfectly centered. I’m tired and things that were normally done by rote become almost a chore. The lights come ever closer. Why did this have to happen? I could be home right now playing Xbox , the momentary stray thought runs through my mind. Focus, focus .

“Full flaps.”

I again change the throttle and pitch as the aircraft responds to its configuration change. “We’re looking for 135 knots,” I say to Robert.

Into the radio, I say, “Lajes approach, Otter 39 on short final.”

“Roger Otter 39, cleared to land. Remain on this frequency. Runway looks clear.”

“Roger that Lajes. See you on the ground,” I say pressing the transmit button.

The tendency at night is to flare high so I hold the nose down a moment longer than what would normally seem right after we pass the threshold lights and our landing lights pick up the runway markings. I pull the throttle back while raising the nose. Low and slow like this is the moment I hope to God that we don’t hit something. Even something small will throw us off our flight path enough so that we would become a flaming wreck and a memory. Something to talk about for a week and then forgotten. The right wheel contacts the runway first, then the left as we rock slightly and the aircraft settles to the runway. The nose comes down as I apply reverse thrust, slowing the aircraft rapidly. Approaching taxi speed, I ask Robert to bring the flaps up.

“Lajes, we’re clear of the active and taxiing to the ramp.”

“Roger Otter 39, taxi to parking.”

It is amazing how some things like proper radio communication remain when everything else is gone. Just a product of nature I guess or maybe we are just trying to hold on to something. There was no need for us to carry on like that. Those radio communications were introduced for brevity and to control vast amounts of aircraft in a short period of time. As far as I can tell, we are the only ones, possibly in the world, flying. Yet here we are practicing standard radio communication when we could have just been talking normally. Go figure.

Just as these thoughts are crossing my mind and we are taxiing in, a shadow runs across the taxi way in our lights.

“Is that what I think it was?” Michelle asks.

“I think so,” Robert answers her.

“Lajes, be aware that we may have visitors. I just saw one cross in front of us,” I say into the radio.

“Roger Otter 39, we see several of them heading your way across the ramp from the base.”

“Okay, we should be fine in here as long as they can’t figure out how to open the doors,” I reply as we come to a stop on the ramp. “We’ll shut down here. Once we shut down, be aware that we won’t have our radios on so we can conserve our battery.”

“Copy that.”

“See you in the morning Lajes,” I say and begin shutting down the engines.

“Did you catch that we might have company, Lynn?”

“I did.”

“Okay, I’ll be back there when I finish up here.”

“See you the..” That’s all I catch as the engines wind down and the cockpit plunges into darkness.

Damn, I forgot to switch to DC power , I think reaching up to turn the switch. I’m too tired to think .

The internal lights come back on the moment I click the switch over. “Let’s head into the back,” I say to everyone in the cockpit after removing my helmet. I get no response. The only indication I have that they heard me is their movement out of their seats and down the stairs.

“Robert, put the blackout covers on the windows,” I say once we are in the cargo compartment. The blackout covers will prevent any light from escaping outside and therefore drawing more attention to ourselves.

“There are creatures around and they’re most likely heading our way. We should be safe inside here unless they’ve figured out the secret of opening the doors,” I say gathering the group around.

Noticing some startled and worried looks, I add, “Not to worry, I don’t think they’ve progressed to that point yet. We’ll settle in for the night keeping a watch, meet up with the folks stationed here in the morning and go from there. Silence is our best friend so limit movement and keep talking down to whispers. We need to become a deep, dark, black hole. Let’s settle in and lights out in five minutes. Sergeant Connell, will you see to the watch schedule?”

“Already handled, sir,” Lynn responds.

“Any questions or comments,” I ask.

“How about calling them night runners?” Corporal Horace asks.

“That’s as good a name as any,” I answer. “Anyone have any problems with that?”

“Night runners it is,” I say seeing most everyone shake their head.

SLAM! The first of the anticipated bangs against the side of the aircraft echoes inside startling everyone. This is quickly followed by another under the right side window as the night runners close in and try to gain entry. Muffled howls and shrieks of frustration and calling reach inside as soldiers scramble to get their rifles. Lynn walks to each one and quietly tells them to stand down and be at ease knowing that silence is our best weapon at this point.

“Sir, why don’t we take off and fly around until morning like we did last night?” Sergeant Drescoll asks as everyone settles back down.

“We don’t have enough fuel for that. We’re down to about an hour at best,” I answer thinking I have really screwed up my planned times for landing. Not once have we landed during the day time like I wanted. That’ll have to change , I think. It puts us with too few options and increased risk .

The howls and shrieks continue outside as I step into the cockpit to turn off the battery plunging the aircraft into darkness. Putting on the night vision goggles and looking out of the windows, I see approximately twenty of the night runners gathered around the aircraft moving in an agitated state. Several disappear out of view as they take runs at the aircraft and slam into the side. Further out, I can make out others heading our way across the ramp. At the base of the tower, I barely make out other night runners gathered there. There should be enough of us to handle them if need be , I think removing the goggles.

I settle into the lower bunk in the cockpit and pull the thin blanket over me amidst the frequent slams and the vibrations they cause on the aircraft. I am exhausted and begin to drift off. I feel a coma coming on. The kind of deep sleep that only being on fire will wake you from and maybe not even then. Just as I’m about to fall into that darkness, I hear feet shuffling up the stairs and the blanket is pulled aside. A dark shape settles in next to me.

“I really hope you are Lynn,” I whisper into the ear of the person next to me. “If you’re not, you’re terribly lost.”

“Mmmmm, yeah, it’s me,” I hear her whisper with her back to me.

She reaches back and I feel the zipper of my flight suit zip down. “I guess we’re not waiting for a shipping container eh?” I ask chuckling quietly and pleased that we are not.

“Nope.”

It’s then that I notice that she isn’t entirely clothed either. The sounds of the night runners outside vanish from my mind as we make love on the tiny bunk. Trying to be quiet but the passion of being apart for almost a year makes that difficult. And, as promised, it doesn’t take that long for either of us. Afterwards, we lay quietly in each other’s arms enjoying being close. I fall into a deep, contented slumber with Lynn in my arms.

The night runners continue to try and gain entrance throughout the night but the noises outside taper off toward morning. On waking, I notice that Lynn slipped away from the bunk sometime during the night. I guess to give some aspect of decency or professionalism although I am pretty sure everyone knows we are together. If they don’t by now, then they must be blind. I wish she had not slipped away because, well, I just wish she hadn’t.

The faint light of the sun about to rise shows through the cockpit windows. I rise, stretch my tired and achy bones, and look out of the windows. The ramp is clear of any movement. Down in the cargo area, soldiers are just beginning to rise and move about. Most stretching as I had; sore from sleeping on the cold, steel cargo floor. I peel away the window covers letting light stream in so we don’t trip over everything. Everyone is about in the same shape as me and that shape is in dire need of a bath and clean clothing. A well-used locker room smell abounds. And I mean the high school locker room where clothing is only taken home on Fridays; taken home never to be the same again.

“Good morning everyone,” I say to the mass moving about. Mumbles, groans and a few ‘good morning, sir’ greet me.

Robert raises his head from one of the upper bunks and peers sleepily in my direction. I can tell he is thinking about rolling back over to continue sleeping before thinking better of it and swings his legs over the side. It is then that I see Michelle raise her head from behind him. I merely sigh not really sure what to think or say about that. Probably shouldn’t say anything , I think. He sees me looking at him with my perplexed look and smiles. I nod back in greeting not trusting myself to say anything. Anything I say would probably be wrong. That is something I have a knack for.

Lynn approaches and stands next to me. I turn, give her a hug and feel her stiffen as I do. “You’re just going to have to get used to it,” I say into her ear.

She smiles, relaxes, and hugs me back. “Not until you change your clothes flyboy.”

“What would you like me to change them into?” I ask with a poor attempt at humor.

Seeing Lynn smile up at me in that way, having everyone look in my direction looking for guidance and the “what’s next,” Robert standing with his arm around Michelle, and with Bri and Nic just emerging from their bunks with tired eyes, I am suddenly filled with the overwhelming fact of what has happened in the world; with the fact that we are in a world of hurt — so to speak. The weight of responsibility comes crashing down. What are we going to do?  I think looking around at the eyes staring back at me. Are we just playing games here and heading for an inevitable conclusion that we are all going to vanish like the others?  I look over at my kids thinking, How am I going to keep them safe in this environment? How can any one of us be safe?  I have led teams into dangerous situations before, but this is different. Sure I cared about the guys I was with and didn’t want anything to happen to them. I tried to make the right decisions to give us the best chance, but, well, this is just different. I think subconsciously there was the comfort that the world would go on regardless of what happened to us. Just keep going on day by day and moment by moment . I shake my head and the overwhelming feeling vanishes as if thrown out of my head by the shake. But something else remains — determination.

Lynn, knowing me as she does, senses something going on inside me. “Is everything okay?” She asks.

“Yeah, it’s all good.”

“Uh huh,” she says in a low voice.

I know that ‘uh huh.’ It’s her ‘we’ll talk about it later’ uh huh. I feel once again how lucky I am. She has a way that keeps me grounded and real. It is this that makes me feel that things will be okay. A Led Zeppelin song starts playing in my head and the line ‘and the forest will echo with laughter’ keeps rolling through. It gives me the feeling that something else is out there, just beyond the point of vision that is observing. Not exactly helping per se, but just watching to see what will happen. Like looking through a one-way mirror. Is this a test? Is any of this real?  I think and shake out of my reverie. Whew! What was that about?  I must be tired but know it is also a continuation of my thoughts about quantum physics and reality.

I know I have to get some fresh air. Plus, there is, again, the distinct locker room aroma that would be nice to get out of. “Do you want to meet your team now?” Lynn asks, looking at me questioningly and draws me further out of my second day dreaming episode.

“Huh, oh yeah, please,” I answer pulling completely back into the reality of the moment. Much like being pulled quickly through a dark tunnel to where the light shines brightly.

“Henderson, Denton, Gonzalez, Rogers, McCafferty, Bartel!” She barks and starts moving away from me. Six heads turn in her direction and Lynn points to me. The four young men and two young women that were called gather their weapons and start in my direction.

With my team around me, I can’t help but notice just how young they look. Were we all that young?  I think going back to the time long ago when my buddies and I were flying around the world with our hair on fire. I catch Robert’s eyes and wave him over. He starts over with Michelle in tow. Sigh . Introductions are made.

“Okay, we’ll make this quick and gather for a longer talk later. First, I want you to pair up. Find your battle buddy.” Eyes look around at each other and the two young women, McCafferty and Gonzalez, pair up first. Then Henderson and Denton followed by Rogers and Bartel.

“Now, you are not to go anywhere without each other. When I see one, I should see the other like a shadow. And I mean everywhere. I’m not saying you have to be in the same stall, but you’ll be by the door. If, for some reason, you do have to be apart, then the other will know exactly where you are and when you’ll return. Any questions?”

“No, sir!” They say in unison.

“I would have buddied up here with Robert but I see he has already found his battle buddy,” I say looking at Robert by my side and Michelle by his. He turns a deeper shade of red as the group chuckles. I’m going to like this group , I think as I look around Robert to see Michelle is the same interesting shade of red. I think it’s also nice to hear those chuckles. There’s a sense of normalcy that comes from that and shows that we haven’t loss our sense of humanity in spite of all that’s happened.

“You’ve both have inspired me,” I say looking at Robert and Michelle. “We’ll be Red Team.” This brings more chuckles and an even deeper red in the both of them. “Okay Red Team, we’re heading outside. Gonzalez and McCafferty, you two cover the rear ramp door as it opens. You others, set up a small perimeter outside once they’re open.”

“Hooah!” They say quietly but with emphasis.

“Okay, that’ll be enough of that. Roger?”

“Hooah, sir!”

“Oh dear God,” I say in a whispering sigh but loud enough to be heard and rolling my eyes. They all grin and begin moving to the back ramp door.

“Robert, stay with me a sec,” I say. Michelle backs up a step knowing I want a private word.

“Yeah, Dad.”

“I understand you’re with Michelle but don’t you do anything stupid trying to impress her. And don’t think you can handle a situation by yourself feeling you’ll be diminished in her eyes. You call out the moment something doesn’t seem right.”

“I will, Dad.”

“I’m serious Robert. I know how the young mind in love works.”

“Okay, Dad,” he responds. “Am I part of Red Team?”

“’We’ll have to see about that. I’ll have you go with from time to time but you’ll be with me when you do.”

“You know I can handle myself,” he says referring to our airsofting days. We always prowled the woods together as a team. We were very good together and he was very good at sneaking around. Better than me if truth be known. We were definitely a force to be reckoned with. In fact, there is no one I would want with me more. We could communicate and work together without the need for explanation. We would just know what each was doing. But I also know from experience that it is the reaction and simultaneous knowledge of what to do immediately that counted more than the ability to be sneaky.

“I know you can but this is different Robert. This is for real. You’ll train with us, well, and then we’ll see.” The disappointment on his face is breaking my heart. I am so torn because of the desire to protect yet he needs to learn as well. I wonder if every parent goes through this moment in one way or another. I guess so. I suddenly realize that the other soldiers are not that much older than he is. He is actually among his peers to an extent.

“Okay Robert, but you stay with me.”

“Of course, Dad,” he says with joy in his eyes. I get the feeling that he somehow thought I was disappointed in him or didn’t think he was worthy enough to be a man. “Just like old times eh?”

“Yeah, just like old times,” I say with a smile and pat him on his shoulder. We of course are referring to the invincible team we were in the world when no lives were at stake.

“Do you have a weapon for Robert?” I ask Lynn walking over to her.

“Are you sure?” She asks looking up from where she is checking on supplies with Bannerman.

“Yeah, I’m sure,” I answer.

“You’re the boss,” she says. I know those words and they indicate that she is not in agreement with my decision.

She gets up and walks over to where the spare M-16s are strapped down, picking up several magazines as well - we had raided the armory back in her camp prior to leaving loading up with weapons and ammunition. She hands them to Robert gives me one of those looks. Yeah, we’re going to have an interesting talk later .

“We’re going to open up the back and head outside. I assume the base personnel will be along shortly,” I say to Lynn.

“Okay,” she says.

That is the only answer I get from her as she kneels once more to the ground pretending to go over the inventory. I notice the distinct lack of ‘sir’ or similar from her. I know she is angry with me but I also know that it stems from worry. She is a lot like me in that respect. When she gets worried or scared, she gets angry.

“If it’s all the same with you, I would like to give the teams color codings. We’ll take Red Team.”

Lynn looks up to me over her shoulder. I look down at her with an apologetic look letting her know that I know where she is coming from. It’s one of those


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many looks we share. With a sigh, she stands, gives me a hug and whispers in my ear, “This isn’t a fucking game Jack!”

“I kno..” I start to say but don’t get it all out before she goes on.

“Hush! You take care of him Jack! I’m going to hold you personally responsible if anything happens to him.”

“I will, babe. He needs to learn though” I say.

“I know and he’s in good hands but know that I’ll personally kick your ass if he gets hurt.”

“I love you!” I say chuckling in her ear.

“I love you too! Now go away and let me finish here!”

We release our hug. Robert and I start to the back with him stuffing the extra magazines in his pockets as best he can. At the back, Red Team has gathered around the ramp. “Everyone ready,” I say putting my hand to the ramp button.

“Yes, sir.”

“Lock and load,” I say followed by a rapid succession of clicks as rounds are chambered.

Gonzalez and McCafferty take positions along each side of the ramp door with their weapons pointed outward. Hydraulics kick in gear and the door slowly opens as I push the button. Light from the morning slowly fills the cargo compartment as the door pushes ever slowly open. A clang signals the ramp contacting the pavement outside followed immediately by the ringing of boots pounding down the ramp. Red Team immediately takes positions just outside of the aircraft covering different sectors, alert and ready as Robert and I step outside and look around.

“All clear, sir,” Gonzalez calls after they are assured nothing hostile awaits us.

“Roger that. Henderson and Denton, take position at the nose. Rogers, Bartel, stay here and cover the right and rear. Gonzalez and McCafferty, you have the left and rear.”

“Hooah, sir,” Henderson and Denton call out as they stand and trot toward the front of the aircraft. The propellers are turning slowly in the breeze as we didn’t have a chance to strap them down last night.

“Watch out for those,” I yell out to them and, once I get their attention, point to the big props.

The morning breeze flows across my body bringing a fresh sensation as if blowing away the staleness and bathing me. I want to just stand here and take it in. Pretend the world is nothing more than me resting here in the breeze as it refreshes me. Unfortunately, that is not to be. I notice a vehicle is approaching from the far side of the ramp.

“Sergeant Connell, company on the way,” I yell back into the aircraft. “Have everyone fall out in formation at the rear of the aircraft.”

“Yes, sir,” I hear her respond. This is followed by more yelling and sounds from inside.

“Nic, get Michelle and hook up the ground power unit but don’t start it,” I say seeing her standing on the edge of ramp.

“Okay, Dad,” she says and disappears into the aircraft.

I stroll a few steps further out onto the ramp to await the vehicle that is rapidly closing in. I am taking it as another good sign that there is only a single vehicle approaching as opposed to an armada of MP vehicles with flashing lights on. From the way I left, I wouldn’t be surprised to see the sky and ground filled with weaponry to insure I didn’t leave again. I had thoughts of seeing the end of my days in a darkened room somewhere. Of course, I am not entirely sure that doesn’t await me now. I continue to eye the vehicle amidst the clatter of boots on the pavement further behind me. A shadow falls over Robert and I and I turn to see Major Bannerman step up next to us. I give a mental shrug and look back to the vehicle.

The front doors of the Air Force blue staff car open as it comes to a stop a short distance away. I come to attention as Colonel Wilson and Sergeant Watkins step out and walk over. I hear Lynn call the formation to attention behind me. Yeah, I kind of forgot to do that or, more specifically, forgot that I should have done that. In all my years with the military, I had only been involved with one formation. I and those I played with tended to avoid those if at all possible. I remember having to see if I even had all of the bits and pieces that went with the dress uniform and the scramble to the uniform shop to buy those that I had lost or otherwise forgotten. Lynn has my back and I am ever grateful for that.

“Good morning, sir,” I say and salute as Colonel Wilson draws closer.

“Oh sure, he salutes him and calls him sir,” I hear Bannerman mumble under his breath behind me as he salutes as well.

“Good morning, Captain Walker,” Wilson says returning my salute. “Major. At ease, gentlemen.” I see a little hesitation by Colonel Wilson wondering why I was there in front rather than Major Bannerman. Okay, I didn’t think this all of the way through perhaps .

I relax and turn toward Lynn, giving her a nod once I catch her eye. Seeing her standing in front of the formation, as the soldiers stand at attention in formation according to their teams, I realize just how much she has her shit together and how much I truly need her in so many ways. That aspect of professionalism just comes so naturally to her that it just happens. If it were left to me, it would look like a bunch of one-legged emus in a wind storm. Lynn calls the formation to parade rest as I direct my attention back at Colonel Wilson, noticing that Red Team is still holding its cover positions.

“Glad to see you back, Captain,” Wilson says extending his hand. “I see your mission was a success. At least I am assuming these are the troops you were sent to get.”

“Yes, sir. More successful than I anticipated,” I say shaking his hand. He then shakes Major Bannerman’s hand.

“Your troops Major?” Wilson asks with a sidelong glance at me.

Oh boy, this should be interesting , I think. “Sir, if we can have a word in private?” I ask.

“I asked the Major a question, Captain. Please let him answer,” Wilson says holding a hand up to forestall me.

“Yes, they were, sir,” Bannerman answers.

“They were Major? Something doesn’t seem quite right here. If I didn’t know better, I would say Captain Walker here is in charge.”

“He is, sir,” Bannerman responds.

Colonel Wilson tilts his head, looks at me, and says, “Now, Captain, you can have that word.”

Before heading off with Wilson, I ask Bannerman to have Lynn release the troops. Standing in formation is not a pleasant thing let alone for extended periods of time. I remember the one formation I had to stand in for an afternoon. I thought I was going to pass out. It took days for me to get any feeling back. People just are not meant to stand straight up for that long.

Colonel Wilson and I step a few paces away. I look back toward the aircraft. It’s another of those scenes that imprints on the mind. The large olive drab HC-130 squats on the ramp in the rays of the morning sun. Behind it, the formation of troops are lined up neatly on the ramp, Nic and Michelle stand next to the ground unit and stare in our direction, and Red Team is squatting in their positions at the front and rear. The old Chinese curse comes to mind — may you live in interesting times. I guess we have been mightily cursed as these are interesting times indeed , I think as I turn to face Wilson.

“Troops! At ease!” I hear Lynn bark. I chuckle softly. She has no intention of releasing the troops but at least she is letting them relax some. She really has my back and I wonder who is really in charge.

“Sir, you mentioned General Collins left yesterday,” I say opening the conversation.

“That’s right, Captain. The General found an old time pilot but hadn’t flown in years. He didn’t figure you’d make it back. With our low supplies, he thought he needed to take the risk to get into contact with the mainland and find supplies. He loaded up what was left of the base personnel and took off yesterday. I was left here with a skeleton crew until they get back and we lost containment. I think my staying here was punishment for letting you go without letting him know.”

“So how many are left here, sir?”

“We’ll talk about that later, Captain. Would you mind telling me how and why you are in charge of an Army unit?”

“Well, sir, I’m the best qualified,” I answer.

“What exactly does that mean?” He asks.

“I wasn’t absolutely truthful with you on my previous visit, sir. I was involved with special operations for quite a few years.”

“I’m aware that you are in special operations, Captain. Your patch says it loud and clear.”

“No, sir, not just flying. I was involved with the actual ground teams.”

“I see. Go on.”

I give him a brief synopsis of my experience from the flying to the control of Special Forces ground teams including the areas in which I was involved. “And here’s the part you aren’t going to like, sir.”

“I figured there was one of those parts coming, Captain.”

“In the sake of being honest, I have to tell you that your verb tense was incorrect.”

“Explain.”

The sun rising in the sky increasing the temperature isn’t the only reason I am suddenly a touch warmer. “Well, sir, when you said that you aware that I am in special operations. That verb tense was incorrect. I was in special operations.”

I see the gist of what I am saying glue together in his mind. His lips thin and color rises in his cheeks. Again, not due to the increasing air temperature. In a low voice, he says, “Are you telling me, Captain, that you are NOT currently an Air Force officer? That you are not even in the military?”

“Yes, sir.”

A moment passes as the steam gathers before it has to blow somewhere. “GOD DAMMIT, CAPTAIN! I stuck my neck out for you and you’re now telling me all you said was a lie!” I see Robert take a step in our direction but hold my hand out stopping him. I also notice Sergeant Watkins head toward us before being stopped by Colonel Wilson’s.

“I am sorry, sir, but with regards to the mission, yes.” I go on to explain the actual happenings and events of the past few days to include the conversation and vote that led to my leading our motley crew. I finish up with where we stand now.

Several additional moments pass as he digests this multitude of information. “Tell me you were at least an officer. Tell me you weren’t lying about that as well.”

“I was an officer, sir. And my background is the truth as well.”

“Did you find her at least?” Wilson asks

“I did, sir. She is the Sergeant in charge of the formation,” I say nodding in Lynn’s direction.

“And the others?” He asks nodding at the formation of soldiers.

“They came attached to her. She asked if she could keep them.” Wilson’s lips ease a bit as he tries not to smile but then fails miserably.

“I don’t see that I have much of a choice really. What’s your plan then, um, Captain?”

“Well, sir, if I could borrow some more gas, we plan to head to Brunswick Naval Air Station for more fuel. It’s then off to the CDC to see if we can find some information on these night runners. We figure if there is any info on what we’re dealing with, it’s there. After that, it’s back to McChord to build a safe place in that area.”

“Night runners huh?”

“Yes, sir. Had to call them something.”

“I’m still not terribly pleased about being misled like that, Captain.”

“I understand Colonel. You should come with us. Join our merry band of travelers.”

“I can’t, um, you know, I can’t call you Captain. What’s your first name?” Wilson asks.

“Jack, sir.”

“The name’s Frank,” he said sticking out his hand for a second time. “You must care for her a lot. That took some balls doing what you did.”

“I do indeed, sir, Frank. Care for her that is. Not sure about how big they are,” I say with a smile.

“Anyway Jack, I have my orders and can’t leave. General Collins will be back tomorrow.”

“Sir, what if he doesn’t come back? You’ll be stuck here. You should really come with us.”

“What do you mean ‘if he doesn’t come back’? He’s only making a quick trip for supplies and to make contact with someone on the mainland.”

“Frank, this here,” I say sweeping my hand around and inferring the danger from the night runners, “is only a very small taste of what it’s like everywhere else. If General Collins and his group go in unprepared, they’ll get swept away. They didn’t even see the small taste you are seeing here. How many of the personnel he took are combat trained?”

His eyes narrow as he absorbs this information and the meaning of it. “Is it that bad Jack?” Frank asks.

“Yeah. It’s pretty bad alright,” I respond.

“And if he does come back and we’re not here?”

“We’ll call all of the way across the pond. If they’re out there, they’ll hear us. We’ll let them know what happened.”

Frank turns to Sergeant Watkins. “Sergeant Watkins,” he yells.

“Sir,” Sergeant Watkins yells back.

“Get on the radio and get everyone else out here. Leave one in the tower to monitor the radios.”

“Yes, sir,” Watkins answers and ducks his head in the staff car.

I look over to Lynn and, with a quick nod of my head, I indicate that everything is okay and to truly release everyone. She calls the formation to attention and, from across the ramp, I hear her release the troops. With a last look in my direction, she heads back into the aircraft. Troops head inside only to reappear moments later with food and water, congregating in small groups on the ramp to sit and eat. Red Team is squatting at their appointed locations eyeing the area as another vehicle departs the base of the tower driving toward our location.

“Jack,” Colonel Wilson begins, “I want to talk it over with the rest of our detail before saying anything else.”

“Of course, sir, um, Frank. Sorry, old habits seem to die quickly,” I say as the light blue crew bus comes to a stop. Eight people emerge from the vehicle toting M-4 carbines and gather around Sergeant Watkins. Frank walks over to their small group and they are soon immersed in conversation.

With the warming breeze blowing across my face, I look out over the area once again. I cannot help but notice that some of the soldiers from our outfit, still enjoying their meager breakfast, glance curiously over at the other group locked in conversation. The sun has climbed higher into the morning sky warming the air rising from the ramp surface.

I look across the ramp towards the once lively base. It’s so quiet . I think. Just like being out in the country . The quiet that was so peaceful out in the country seems so alien here. The brain carries the association of man-made objects with the noise that went along with them. People scurrying on errands, the sounds of vehicles passing, construction, doors opening and closing, everything that made sound within that environment combine into one solid noise that defined any congregation of people. The silence is what makes the quiet here so alien. There is a disjointed feeling in the mind between what the eyes see, what the ears hear and what the brain is used to. It’s as if the brain is trying to reconcile the difference and leaves behind a sad, almost lonely feeling.

Nature reclaiming what was taken from it. We take and so we must give . The thought passes through my mind as I look over the tranquil setting. And we must have taken a lot as we surely gave a lot . The natural order of things seeking its balance. Not a balance in one particular moment in time but a balance spread over time. And here we thought it would be something like global warming. Mankind knew something was coming. There was just that feeling in the air yet we did nothing as if we were powerless to stop it . We weren’t though. We just decided to do nothing about it. The further along we went on our path of control and seeking to make it easier for us, the harder it became to stop and correct the path. We were always leaving it up to others to correct . How do we know when we have been deflected and are diverting from the right path? Is it a feeling inside that something feels wrong? Or is it when our industrial thought wends its way towards a purely service-oriented society feeding our selfish whims? Perhaps a bit of both. We became a society where a majority of our thought and industry was geared around being pampered rather than fostering goodwill and helping others; rather than helping us to become more harmonious with our little home in space or to improve as human beings. Our base needs were obviously taken care of just by the pure nature of becoming service-oriented . We’ll just have to do better this time around. If there is another time around .

The bubble of reverie in which I wrapped myself diminishes with the sound of footsteps approaching behind. I turn and see Lynn approaching. “Well?” She says stepping in front of me.

“I told him everything and I guess they’re discussing whether to come with us or not. Or maybe whether to shoot me. Apparently, they were ordered to stay here while the others headed to the states to find supplies and information.”

“How’d he take it?” Lynn asks meaning about my pretending to still be an officer and on a mission.

“Not all that well initially. He doesn’t really seem to enjoy being hoodwinked like that,” I reply chuckling. “But he came to understand the why given our circumstances.”

“Jack, you could talk a noodle into believing it was a tree.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” I ask but Lynn merely gives me that look of innocence.

“How are our supplies?” I ask after realizing I am not going to get a response.

“We’re going to need water. Especially if we add more to our herd. Food is okay for a few days but we could always use more. We have plenty of ammo for the time being.”

“We’ll see if they still have running water and fill up here. If not, we’ll have to go to the BX and see if there’s more bottled water. We need to keep our empty water bottles and caps and fill them when we can.”

“You mean the PX, right flyboy?”

“We don’t speak ‘hooah’ here so it’s a BX,” I say smiling at our always present and friendly Army-Air Force rivalry only to get another of her looks. The look that says ‘you’re going to owe me for that one’ which, in times past, meant that I was going to have to go first when the lights were turned off. Not that I minded that at all!

“As for ammo, you can never have enough right? If they decide to head out with us, we’ll pay a visit to the armory here,” I continue.

Frank breaks away from their group and walks our way with Sergeant Watkins in tow. Lynn salutes as they come to stand with us. Introductions are made and Frank says, “Jack, we talked about it and we’ve agreed to come along with you if you’ll have us. Frankly, given the state of things, I can’t afford to take the risk and have my men and women stranded here.”

I must have been wearing a look of worry or consternation as he continued on, “And, Jack, we’ve also talked about you staying in charge and to fold in under your command.”

“Glad to have you aboard Frank, Sergeant Watkins,” I say shaking their hands. “Sergeant Connell here is the First Sergeant and will organize your men and women into fire teams. Are they all trained?”

“They are all part of the base security team, sir,” Sergeant Watkins responds.

“Are they already organized into squads?” Lynn asks.

“They are. Alpha and Bravo teams,” Watkins answers.

“Okay, we’ll keep them that way for now. I’ll want to talk with your team leaders afterwards,” Lynn says.

“I’m one of them,” Watkins says.

“Frank, are the generators still online?” I ask.

“The tower generator is still functioning but it looks like the base generators went out this morning,” he answers.

“So, no running water then?”

“Not as of this morning,” Frank responds.

“Looks like a trip to the BX then. We’re going to need whatever water we can scrounge up. Lynn, why don’t you have that talk with their team leaders now and let’s have a team leader meeting in thirty minutes. I’ll take two teams to the BX and you take two to the armory. We’ll need vehicles for both to haul the stuff back.”

“Yes, sir,” Lynn answers. I notice she has not dropped the sir. Well, we need to keep that kind of discipline if we’re to make it through , I think.

“I can have my men get crew vehicles if you want,” Sergeant Watkins says to Lynn as they walk away.

I catch Robert’s and Bannerman’s eyes and wave them over. “Robert, we need to fuel up. Take Red Team, find a fuel truck and top off our tanks. Make sure it says ‘JP4’ on it. I’m not interested in finding out how far a 130 will glide.”

“Okay, Dad,” he answers and heads off leaving just Frank, Bannerman and myself gathered.

“If you don’t mind, I would like to use you two in a planning and logistics role. Frank, if you don’t mind taking on planning and Intel and Bannerman, you handle the logistics end.”

“I don’t mind at all,” Frank says.

“Fine by me,” Bannerman responds.

“There’s not much to do in that regards now, but when we get back, you’ll be more than busy organizing and creating a safe haven for us. I plan to use a large outdoor store as the base when we get back. It’s set a little out of town so start thinking about what we’re going to need to secure it. Communications, maintenance, power, heat, fuel, stuff like that. I have some ideas but the more minds on it, the better. We also need to start thinking about how we’re going to handle the rampant disease that’s going to be prevalent very soon.” I say.

“We’ll start putting our minds on that now,” Frank says and the two of them head toward the aircraft. I see Robert, with Michelle by his side, start across the ramp with Red Team. I sure wish for different times and that they didn’t have to go through something like this,  I think watching them walk across the ramp. Maybe it’s that I wish I didn’t have to go through this with them as it seems to be an adventure for them. I know I’d probably see it that way if I were in their shoes .

I really seem to be floating in this reverie state of mind today. Maybe because it is one of the first times in the past few days that I have actually had time to think and feel a sense of security for everyone. The mind has its own defense mechanisms and ways of dealing with it. It filters out quite a bit and then feeds it in a little at a time to the extent that it can handle it. I would have thought that I would have pretty much handled a lot of that with the stressful times in special ops. But then again, those were not so broad and far reaching. I always came back to beer and pretty good food afterwards. There is no afterwards here.

There I go again , I think heading towards the back of the aircraft. Lynn and the other team leaders - Sergeant Drescoll, Corporal Horace, Sergeant Watkins, Sergeant Cressman and Lynn — join me there and introductions are made. The sound of four crew vehicles arriving reaches us and I see Robert pulling the fuel truck alongside the aircraft.

“Okay everyone,” I say opening the team briefing, “we’ll leave tonight so that we can have a daytime landing at Brunswick but we need to gather supplies while we’re here. Two teams, led by Sergeant Connell, will head over to the armory to gather all the weapons and ammunition we can get. I will lead my team and one other to the BX to gather water and any non-perishable food. Sergeant Connell, can you assign the other teams?”

“Yes, sir. I’ll be taking Sergeant Drescoll and my team. Corporal Horace will be with you and your team.”

“Sounds like a plan. We need team call signs. My team is Red. Sergeant Drescoll, you’ll be Green. Corporal Horace is Blue. Sergeant Connell, Black. Sergeant Watkins will be Alpha and Sergeant Cressman will take Bravo.”

“How come I get black?” Lynn asks.

“Fits your personality,” I say in response. Uh oh, the look I get in return says that I’ll be going first for a long time to come.

“Sergeant Watkins, do you have keys to the armory?” I say quickly to avoid any response that look will bring.

“Yes, sir,” Watkins answers amid small chuckles from the group.

“Okay, Sergeant Watkins will escort you to the armory,” I say addressing Lynn. “Sergeant Cressman, you’ll take your team and the remainder of Alpha to provide security here. Any questions or comments to this point.”

“No, sir,” the group answers.

“Sergeant Watkins, we’ll need to distribute the radios your team has. Each team leader gets one and I also want Bannerman, Wilson, and Robert to get one. I don’t suppose there’s a Special Forces armory on base?”

“No, sir.”

“Okay, the overall plan is to load up on supplies, fly out of here tonight arriving at Brunswick in the morning, do a quick refueling stop there and head down to the CDC. That should give us enough time to get in and out of there during the day. Rest up in the aircraft that night and head to McChord in the morning reaching there in the afternoon. Questions?”

“No, sir,” the group responds.

“Very well, brief your teams and let’s do this. We leave in twenty.”

A Shopping Spree

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The team leaders stand, gather their teams and begin briefing them. The morning breeze picks up bringing the tang of the ocean reminding me of the days in the country when the onshore flow brought the smell of the sea with it. Seagulls are floating in the air around us, squawking when they find something interesting and warn others away from their find. I join with Red Team and give them a synopsis of the brief. Robert finishes fueling and stands next to me as we finish up the brief.

“We’re heading to the BX for supplies,” I tell him.

“Am I going with?” He asks.

“Well, thirteen isn’t the luckiest number so you can go. But you stay right with me and do exactly what I tell you. No hesitation,” I say noticing Lynn glance in our direction and shake her head in resignation.

“Let’s load up,” I yell across the ramp to the teams gathered in groups.

The teams check ammo and load into the crew buses. I check with Sergeant Watkins to get directions to the BX and step into the crew bus with Robert right behind me. Red Team is already seated on the padded benches with their M-16s resting on the floor between their legs.

“Everyone good to go?” I say and am met with thumbs up from everyone.

“Park yourself there,” I say to Robert.

He has stuffed his pockets with magazines and has to pull the ones in his back pockets out in order to sit. He reaches up to scratch his head. He’s nervous , I think watching him. I could have almost choreographed that move as it is one of his signs that he doesn’t feel comfortable. I know I did that exact same thing when I was his age. Funny how DNA can cause similar actions like that.

I climb into the driver seat and see Lynn’s two crew buses pull out heading across the ramp into the base. Starting up the crew bus, I follow across the ramp and, in my rear view, see Corporal Horace following. Once in the base proper, we drive down several streets reminiscent of the drive through McChord except without the bodies in the road. Where did everyone go?  I wonder to myself. Did they evacuate or did they truly exterminate all of the sick? Well, if they did, then that means less of the night runners around .

The drive to the BX is almost peaceful. The setting close to one of tranquility. The sun is out and it’s a nice summer day. We pass parks where there should be children playing and picnics enjoyed. Dogs chasing Frisbees. All are empty. The buildings stare out at us as we pass by them slowly. The tranquility does have an underlying tension that doesn’t go unnoticed. I find myself wondering if those buildings are harboring night runners. The serenity depicted gives a false front to the very real danger lurking behind, just waiting for night to fall. The only sound of mankind existing is the engines of our vehicles and the whirring of the tires on the road.

Pulling into the BX parking lot, we stop a short distance from the front doors. The lot is empty with the exception of a couple of parked cars scattered haphazardly. The building itself is your standard concrete block, warehouse style store, painted in the brown color the Air Force has taken to. Both the BX and Commissary are combined and have quadruple glass entrance doors. We step out onto a pavement warmed by the sun and are met with silence. Small scraps of paper blow across the mostly empty lot propelled by the light sea breeze. A ghost town only the buildings are modern. Across the lot sits the base movie theatre still advertising the latest blockbusters as if expecting the usual evening crowd of movie goers.

“Corporal Horace,” I call out softly. For some reason, the atmosphere dictates silence as if the very air desires stillness. Perhaps nature itself is confused by the sudden change.

“Sir,” she says back. I guess it’s only me that feels the weight.

“Take Blue Team and set up a small perimeter here. I don’t want any surprises. Remember, keep in pairs and we don’t need to go far. Just keep an eye on the surroundings. Call me with any movement or if anything looks odd,” I say realizing at once jus


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t how ridiculous that sounds. Everything is odd now. “We’re going to check out the entrance.”

“Yes, sir,” Horace responds and sets about putting Blue Team in position in the parking lot.

“Robert, you stay close by me,” I say as we walk towards the BX entrance with Red Team on my heels. I look back and see them constantly checking the surroundings. With what all of us have been through the past few days, tension and alertness are constant factors.

“Right with you,” Robert says.

Drawing closer to the entrance, I notice one of the glass doors has been broken. I slow my pace bringing my M-4 up ready to use. The metallic sound of rifles being raised sound behind me. Inching toward the broken glass door, I motion for Henderson and Denton to cover the sides and I squat down in front with Robert. Several glass shards are just inside the door with a few lying about outside near the bottom. The entire glass portion of the door has been broken out with the exception of several jagged bits of glass still in the door frame. A large rock sits just inside the door resting on the tiled linoleum floor amid the broken glass.

The hair on the back of my neck stands up as I notice the blood streaks on the pavement leading to the broken door and the dried blood covering the shards in its door frame. Squatting there looking at the mess, a closer look at the edges of the glass in the door reveals hanging bits of torn cloth along with what appears to be pieces of dried flesh. The faint, bloody drag marks continue on the linoleum inside.

“What do you think, sir?” Henderson asks.

“Looks like someone threw the rock to break in and cut themselves in the process,” Robert responds.

“Possible but I don’t think so,” I say. “Judging from the looks of things, I would say someone smashed the glass with the rock to get in. The fact that the rock is so close to the door tells me that whoever it was held it in their hand. If the rock were thrown, it would be further inside, closer to the outer edge of where the glass is on the floor inside. Unless it was kicked I guess.”

I also note very faint, bloody and partial foot imprints on the concrete outside leading into the building and on the linoleum inside.

“Given that the blood smears are faint and the remains on the glass shards are mostly flesh and clothing, I would also say that something was dragged in through the broken door and that they were already dead. The smears are most likely from the blood-soaked clothing. If they were still alive, there would be more blood prevalent and drips of it down the glass still in the door. The foot prints leading in and the fact that the torn clothing and flesh is on the outside of the shards indicates that whatever was dragged across here was dragged in.”

All of this has chilling ramifications to me. If the night runners have adapted to the point of being able to use tools to gain entrance, then our security of being dependent on just using closed doors is seriously threatened. We may not be safe even just staying locked up in the aircraft. Even if they couldn’t bash their way in, they could cause crippling damage stranding us wherever we happen to find ourselves. I sincerely hope they have not been able to adapt or progress their capabilities to this point. I’ll have to take this into consideration , I think. We can’t afford to ever underestimate them or their capabilities . I radio Lynn with our findings. She responds back with an affirmative and that they are arriving at the armory.

“All of this indicates that something was or is inside and I’m guessing there are night runners in there. We can’t afford to ever think otherwise. The last thing I want us to do is saunter in like we’re on a beer run only to run into a hornets nest without at least being prepared for it. There’s nothing worse than expecting beer and being stung instead.”

I call Corporal Horace over and bring her up to speed on our findings. “I want you to post two outside here to cover the parking lot. When we go in, position the other four inside the door. When we get into a position to cover the store, I want you to then begin hauling goods out. Stack them outside the door without blocking it and stay in twos,” I say.

“Yes, sir,” she responds.

“I’ll tell you when to start gathering things. And have someone go into the crew vans and gather all of the flashlights. There’s also a roll of duct tape in front.” I noticed the flashlights mounted on the wall of the crew bus. These were for use by crews or other personnel if needed. The duct tape was a nice surprise.

“Will do, sir,” Horace says detailing two of her team to pick up the items.

Looking inside, the sunlight extends about twenty feet into the building before fading into darkness. I continue to squat there listening intently for anything inside or out of the ordinary. Complete silence. I continue to have the sense that the silence and darkness is holding back and biding its time; waiting. It has the feel that something is lurking inside. It’s a feeling I have had on many other occasions and one that I have come to trust. It has never led me astray and has saved me and my team several times. It is the feeling of something watching.

One of the things I learned from the field is that eye contact or the focus of watching something keys in a response and a feeling. We all put forth energy and that energy we put forth is felt by others. The more intense the focus and concentration, the more it is felt. It’s the feeling we have when we feel something is watching. So, we never looked directly at targets when observing them but just off to the side. We definitely avoided looking into their eyes for the reason that this would trigger an even more intense feeling of being watched. Early on, I found that looking at targets caused them to turn and look directly at you as if they knew exactly where that energy was coming from. I can’t pinpoint any certain direction now but it is emanating from the darkness inside.

“Red Team, we’re heading inside. Don’t go any further than where the light fades into shadow and we’ll analyze it more from there,” I say as the flashlights arrive and are passed out. I can’t see very far inside but we should be able to make out more once we are in. The flashlights will definitely help. I can tell that the interior stretches both ahead and to the right as the entrance doors are on the left hand side of the building. Using the tape, we secure the flashlights to the front rails.

“Henderson, Denton, cover the right. Gonzalez and McCafferty, directly ahead. Rogers and Bartel, you’ll cover the right forward flank. I’ll be with Robert just behind,” I instruct the team.

“Hooah, sir,” they respond quietly.

“Lights on. Lock and load ladies and gents. The curtain is rising and the show is about to begin,” I say to the sound of selector switches being flicked from safe to burst.

“Go,” I whisper.

Henderson, followed quickly by Denton, slips in the door and moves quickly the right, both of them panning their lights around the interior. Gonzalez and McCafferty enter on their heels followed by Rogers and Bartel. They all come to stop kneeling right at the light/dark demarcation line shining their lights into the interior. Robert and I follow in with our guns up and ready to throw down a curtain of steel. The hush of the dark greets us. The only sound is the faint shuffling of boots and knees on the ground as everyone shifts positions. As everyone settles into their station, the silence is such that we can hear each other breathing.

The lights reveal a layout similar to any warehouse style store; a large open area similar in size to a medium Wal-Mart or Fred Meyer. The food is fortunately situated on our side of the store with the merchandise on the other side. Our lights can’t penetrate the full length of the interior so half of the store remains shrouded in darkness. I would call out to see if anyone is there but I do not want to overtly alert any night runners. I am sure they must sleep during the day, if they sleep at all, and I definitely do not want to disturb their slumber. Besides, any person staying here would already have found the others or would be outside during the day. Our lights in the store will alert anyone we were there. Unfortunately, that also means night runners. I find myself really wishing we all had night vision goggles. Radios for everyone, with throat mics, wouldn’t hurt either.

The aisles line up from front to back so our lights don’t really give us a clear view of everything. The lights from Henderson and Denton flash over a large aisle in the front of the store and the bank of cashier stands. The ones from Gonzalez and McCafferty show the first aisle clear but only penetrate a little way down the next aisle. The aisles seem to continue to the other end without a break which makes it easier for us and the goods on the shelves appear relatively undisturbed and fairly well stocked. Some items have definitely been taken but from the look of things, it was probably by the remainder of the personnel stationed here to sustain themselves. The strong odor of decaying food I remember from previous stores is absent. Most likely because the generators worked until this morning keeping the food items fresh. There is a hint of mustiness in the air that triggers unpleasant memories. The spots of light from our flashlights constantly move about the area around checking for movement. I wave Horace and the other three inside. Our hemisphere of sunlight becomes very crowded.

“Okay, here’s the deal. Teams of two will cover the end of each aisle and we’ll move forward one by one until we reach the aisle with the water. At that point, Horace, you four will proceed to the aisle and start carting the water out. Silence is key. If we aren’t disturbed by then, we’ll go after other non-perishables. It’s essential that the cover teams stay abreast. Maintain your situational awareness so we don’t have friendly fire in case things turn ugly. A round is no longer friendly once it leaves the barrel,” I say in a whisper only loud enough for all to hear.

“Gonzalez, McCafferty, you have the far end of the aisle. Henderson and Denton, the near end. Robert and I will cover the rear and the flank for Gonzalez and McCafferty. Rogers and Bartel, do the same for Henderson and Denton on this end,” I continue.

I would normally place myself in front but I find myself making slightly different decisions as Robert is with me. Having him with me is more than dipping a toe in the water but it isn’t quite jumping in yet.

“Folks, there are night runners in here. Let’s do our best not to disturb them and let them get their beauty rest.”

“How do you know they’re in here, sir?” Denton asks.

“Smell that faint musty odor?” I ask in return.

“Yes, sir,” he responds.

“Remind you of anything?”

“A little like a locker room,” Denton says.

“Exactly. That is the smell of unwashed bodies and sweaty clothes. They’re in here so everyone keep on their toes. Gonzalez, McCafferty, move out,” I say quietly.

The two rise and begin moving down the closest aisle. Their lights pan out ahead and around as they step into the darkness. Henderson and Denton move behind them and take position at the near end focusing to our right. As Gonzalez and McCafferty reach a point half way down the aisle, I reach out and grab Robert’s shoulder.

“Okay, stay close by me and do what I tell you. Understand?”

“Yeah, Dad,” he answers.

We step across the linoleum floor and the darkness surrounds us. It feels like a cloak suddenly drapes around us. The farther in we get, the more the cloak envelops, a weight pressing in. The only vision we have are the lights from Gonzalez and McCafferty ahead and where ours shine. There is a feeling in the air. That calm, quiet feeling with an underlying tension that says something is about to happen. I am very acquainted with that tension and adrenaline and know this feeling well. It’s like a coiled spring just before it releases. I have the feeling our presence is known. I glance back at Robert about to send him back to the door but something inside makes me hesitates.

“What?” He asks.

“Uh, nothing,” I respond.

Gonzalez and McCafferty reach the end of the aisle and focus their lights down the far end to our right. Robert and I continue quietly up behind them. I tap Gonzalez on the shoulder and she moves up to the next aisle with McCafferty. Looking back towards the entrance, I see the lights from Henderson and Denton disappear as they move forward as well. I have a good team here , I think watching Rogers and Bartel take their place.

The combined lights on our end reveal a cooler section against the wall to our immediate left and what seems to be a small deli counter just past that. The lane in front of us is broken only by the aisles branching off to our right and what appears to be a hallway or entrance to our left just past the deli counter ahead. I move up with Robert behind and shoulder tap Gonzalez again. They move up another aisle. This process repeated as I check down each aisle until we are four aisles down. At that point my light reveals beverages located on the shelves. The pickings are slim on these shelves as there had been down some of the other aisles.

“Horace, this is Jack, how do you copy?” I ask quietly on the radio.

“Loud and clear, sir,” she responds.

“The water is in the fourth aisle. Start gathering quietly.”

“Yes, sir.”

I see other lights pan about the store as Blue Team begins heading our direction. I focus back towards the far side of the store hoping nothing is back there or at least does not get stirred up. I think about the sheer number of times we are going to have to do this in order to get supplies before we are able to be self-sufficient. We are going to have to plant crops, hunt, fish, develop adequate water supplies and such, but until then, non-perishables and bottled water are our friend. Of course we’ll have natural water and it should be easy to find back home in the Northwest but we’ll have to be careful of anything close to cities. Maybe we can cut holes in the roofs and install skylights , I think pondering an easier way to do this. My mind goes through various scenarios including just blowing the roofs off. I immediately eliminate that one as we may need access into the store again and the simple fact that the roof caving in will destroy the very thing we want to get. The skylights or a portable generator with lights seem the best options in my mind right now.

Lights illuminates us as Blue Team turns down our aisle. The thoughts in my head vanish as if the lights banished them. Horace and her group begin removing the cases and gallon jugs of water from the shelves. From the looks of things and the scarcity of them, it should only take them about two trips. It should be enough to keep us for a few days. As they start back up the aisle for their second trip, the startling sound of something metallic hitting the ground sounds out from the inky dark in the back in the store. It sounds like a pan hitting the floor and skittering across it. The sudden noise causes an adrenaline release. With the adrenaline hitting, the pounding of my heart feels like a bass drum being hit.

Lights converge in the direction of the sound and all movement stops as our alertness meter climbs to the top. The shelves block most of our vision toward the back. More sounds of items falling from shelves echoes throughout. It is hard to tell in here if it is getting closer but the noise is becoming constant. Gonzalez edges to the far right of the lane with McCafferty on the left. All of our weapons are pointed down the open lane. Gonzalez looks back at me over her shoulder asking for direction.

“Keep alert and focused. We’re the rear guard. We’re going to cover and pull back once Blue is clear. As you know, they come suddenly,” I whisper to her turning to Horace and her crew.

“Horace, get out of here. We’re covering. Tell Henderson to remain in place until we get to the entrance. Go,” I say down the aisle where they have become as still as statues. Alert, tense, and focused toward the continued noise of items falling.

The sound is coming rapidly closer. Amongst the clatter, I make out the faint slap of feet on the floor, although muted in some way. Our lights are focused in the middle of the store where the majority of the noise is rapidly drawing near, but without picking up a sight of anything. Horace and her team begin withdrawing backward down the aisle toward the entrance, still facing in the direction of whatever is coming toward them. I can tell that they aren’t going to make it to the end of the aisle before whatever is making the sound is upon them. I see by their faces that they know it too.

I stand to get a better angle over the shelves. My light immediately catches sight of a night runner leaping across the top of the shelves; the gray-skinned creature gathers itself before leaping to the next shelf, with other night runners adjacent to it and more following. I immediately open fire on the closest one. The solid thuds of high speed steel impacting flesh and bone are subdued beneath the echoing crack of the rounds being fired. I catch the one in mid-leap across the chest causing it to somersault in mid-air, crashing heavily into the shelf in front of it from its forward momentum. Strobes flash behind me as Robert opens up on others. I flinch as his barrel fires close to my ears causing them to ring loudly.

“They’re on the shelves!” I yell out.

The night runners are converging on Horace’s group in the aisle who are quickly making their way to the entrance end but the night runners are going to be on them before they make it. Out of the corner of my eye, I see movement down the lane towards the back of the store coming into the cones of light from Gonzalez and McCafferty. More emerge from the hallway entrance on the left side, crossing the lane and light quickly before heading down the aisle across. More shots ring out as both women engage an increasing number of emerging night runners. Temporal distortion sets in.

Gonzalez and McCafferty kneel on the floor on opposite sides of the lane. Night runners fall as they run into the light painted towards them but more replace those fallen. Rounds strike some of those coming out of the hallway entrance and they pitch forward headlong, disappearing down the aisle behind the shelves. Some fall there with only their feet extending into the lane. I notice some continue to move slowly, crawling down the aisle, signifying they are only injured. The sound of gunfire is continuous as we fight back the sudden rush of the horde. Robert and I are concentrating on the ones leaping across the shelves, Gonzalez and McCafferty focus on the ones on the ground.

Steel fills the air as we attempt to hold them back. Gray bodies seem a solid mass as our light picks them up. Blood sprays from many and they fall or are driven backwards but they are quickly over-trodden by many more behind them. As we reload, magazines clatter across the linoleum where once only shopping carts rolled. The rapid and constant sound of spent cartridge rounds clink as the floor quickly fills with brass. Strobes fill the air, momentarily outshining the light from our flashlights. My hearing is now completely gone on the left side but I don’t notice the ringing. Adrenaline and focus have taken over.

The night runners quickly close the gap on Horace’s team and on us because of their numbers and how close they were to us when they started. Blue Team is running with their rifles pointed left, unable to see anything over the shelf beside them. Anxious and knowing they are about to be beset upon yet unable to do anything about it. I know that feeling. It is a feeling that makes you sick at heart; a very desperate, lonely and out of control feeling. The first night runner leaps on the shelf next to them and slams into the trailing member.

With the strong smell of gunpowder hanging in the air, I see a night runner leap from the shelf and hit a Blue Team member from behind, both of them falling to the ground. He lets out a surprised shout as he falls face forward with the night runner on his back. The light from his flashlight spins as his rifle hits the ground with a clatter, coming to rest ahead of him against the shelf. My light illuminates the night runner’s back as it bends forward and its hands flail wildly as it begins clawing at the fallen soldier. I would take the shot but I don’t want to risk hitting the team member, and other members of Corporal Horace’s team are in my line of fire should a bullet go all of the way through. The Blue member screams again as fingernails and teeth begin to find their mark. He twists and turns in an attempt to throw the night runner off his back but the creature is too well situated for him to gain any leverage.

“Cover me and keep them off my back!” I yell over my shoulder to Robert and take off down the aisle without waiting for a response.

My ear is ringing so bad that I don’t think I would hear one even if it is given. Continued flashes from Robert’s M-16, and seeing night runners vanish from on top of the shelves as his rounds find their mark, tells me he either heard or is just continuing on with what he was doing before. Either way, my back is clear for the moment. My vision is blocked by a shelf as I enter the aisle bringing my visual perspective down substantially.

I tear off down the aisle feeling helpless by my being unable to shoot the night runner off our member who is down and hearing his continued screams. Just as I arrive behind the night runner, the remaining upright soldiers from Horace’s group round the corner of the aisle, apparently not realizing that one of them is down. The night runner raises its head just as I arrive in an apparent attempt to find another place to bite. I bring the butt of my M-4 against the base of its skull, hitting it with a resounding crack and sending it sprawling forward. Reversing my carbine, I fire a short burst into it before it has a chance to hit the floor. Blood sprays from between its shoulder blades, neck and the back of its head in rapid succession as my rounds find their mark. The top of its head explodes outward in a thick mist, sending blood, bone, and brain onto the floor in front of it. It spasms twice and then falls limply to the linoleum, its head coming to lie in an ever widening pool of blood and tissue.

Additional flashes of light strobe ahead like a disco dance floor. Corporal Horace and the others have joined in the fight and are helping Henderson, Denton, Rogers, and Bartel in their battle to keep the area to the front clear. The noise coming to what is left of my hearing indicates a full-fledged firefight in progress all around. The continuous pop, pop, pop of steel leaving the chambers of a multitude of rifles makes up a majority of the noise with shouts of communication sometime rising above the cacophony. Fleshy thuds of steel-jacketed bullets finding their marks, solid thumps from those that miss; hitting cans, shelves, floor and walls, ferocious howls of pain, shrieks born from desire and excitement, the crash of bodies hitting the ground and shelves, knocking assorted good from where they sit all add to the din echoing in the building. Within it, I hear moaning coming from the Blue member at my feet.

I begin to turn to my left when I’m hit solidly from above knocking me backwards. Maintaining that turn forcefully so as to end up on my back, I sweep my left hand out and bring my M-4 around with my right as I continue to fall, hitting the floor on my back adjacent to the member already down. Something heavy lies across my body. I expect the growling and tearing to begin but the night runner on top of me doesn’t move. I push the inert body off and sit up. The blaring light from Robert’s flashlight stares into my eyes from the end of the aisle, blinding me and not allowing me to make out anything behind it. The light pauses momentarily before flashing back to the area on top of the shelves. That was a close one. Thanks bud .

A warning signals inside of me. The kind of sixth sense like when you have your back to the ocean and a large wave is about to break over you. You look back over your shoulder just in time to see it crash down. I shine my light upward to catch a night runner leaping in mid-air above me. The M-4 in my right hand barks and kicks slightly as I fire at the night runner descending swiftly toward me. It is coming downward like a receiver going airborne and diving to catch a pass; head down and arms spread outward. It is shrieking with its pale mouth wide open and its eyes are locked on mine. The slow motion scene allows my mind to register and record minute details; the bloody and torn blue short sleeve shirt with ribbons and name tag still attached but mostly hidden by the dark blood stains, the NCO stripes sewn on the sleeves, the wild look in its eyes, the silver watch and gold wedding band. They apparently didn’t get them all , I think as my first round strikes the left side of its chest, my second hitting it in the mouth and my third impacting immediately after on the right cheek just under the eyes. The force of the rounds hit like sledge hammers causing its trajectory to alter in midair. A pinkish mist fills my sight as the back of its head vanishes into the air behind it. The shriek stops immediately and it slams onto top of the shelf above me, knocking off the items sitting there, and it hits the floor beside me with a loud thump.

I shove the first night runner off of my legs and stand quickly shining my light into the rafters of the open ceiling above me. There is movement in them as more night runners move along the steel beams high above. I fire at one centered in my beam almost directly above me and see blood blossom on its torso as my bullets fly true. It releases its grip on the beam and begins its long fall to the floor with an agonized shriek.

“Watch out above! They’re in the rafters!” I yell running back down the aisle where Robert, Gonzalez, and McCafferty continue to battle the seemingly endless horde.

“Horace, keep the front covered with the others,” I say into the radio. “We’ll be withdrawing back to you down the last aisle.”

“Roger that, sir,” I hear her reply.

“Make sure you cover the shelves and rafters as we pull back. We also have a man down in the aisle,” I add into the radio reaching the end of the aisle.

“Will do, sir,” she responds.

“Gonzalez, McCafferty, we’re pulling back to the front down the end aisle. Gonzalez, when I say so, pull back through us. You’re point. Quickly but carefully!” I yell above the gunfire still erupting.

“Hooah, sir!” Gonzalez responds.

I reload and add my rounds to an atmosphere thick with steel and the smell of gunpowder. The rafters are full of night runners leaping their way towards us. Bodies fall from the heights as fire is shifted from Horace’s group and from Robert’s and mine. The top of the shelves are clear. They’ve shifted strategy , I think feeling my M-4 kick back slightly into my shoulder. Wow! They’re able to shift strategy as a group. That’s something to throw into the bag of knowledge .

The lane ahead is littered with bodies. Live ones scramble across the pile only to fall to the ferocious firing of Gonzalez and McCafferty, adding to the growing number lying on the floor, drawing ever closer. “Robert,” I say grabbing his shoulder to get his attention. “You’ll follow Gonzalez.”

“Okay,” he responds quickly with the wide eyes of intense adrenaline that is coursing through his body.

“McCafferty, fall back to me and we’ll cover the rear!” I yell. “Gonzalez, go now!”

They both stand and walk backward firing into the night runners as they go. I continue to put bursts of fire into the rafters, picking out night runners there and see them fall as the steel impacts their flesh. The light from our flashlights cannot reach far back so we are only able to take out the ones that leap into our range. Multiple lights probe the ceiling and rafters above. Sparks fly from the steel beams as near misses ricochet into the darkness. Red tracers streak upward from the store front and our position.

As she reaches my position, Gonzalez turns and catches my eye. Giving a head nod, she proceeds past to lead our retreat out of here. The night runners still rush our position on the floor. There must be hundreds here , I think. I shift my fire to the ones on the ground ahead taking one out just twenty feet away. Blood sprays from its chest and neck as multiple rounds from my carbine strike it. Its head, almost severed by the force of the rounds, falls sideways as blood gushes and squirts from the severed arteries. Its body kicks out to the side spinning to the ground. I feel part of the spray splash against my cheek and forehead.

“Robert, Go!” I yell and notice only the decrease of fire that signals his departure.

“McCafferty, you have the top rafters and shelves as we move. I have the ground,” I shout across to where she has taken up position.

“You got it sir,” she yells back.

“Horace, we’re on our way. Did you get the wounded?” I ask pressing the radio transmit button.

“We have him, sir, but we have another one down,” she responds.

“Get them outside and be ready to go,” I say quickly.

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I hear her answer on the radio but cannot make out her reply.

There’s no time to ask for it to be repeated. I drop two more to the floor, the last one falling almost at my feet and reload. I pull a mag out of my vest taking notice that it is the last one. Uh oh, that’s not good , I think sliding it in and releasing the bolt. More night runners pound the floor behind the two still in their death throes at my feet. I flip to semi and light flashes from the end of my barrel taking the nearest one in the head. Its head snaps backwards and its feet leave the ground, the body hitting the linoleum on its back with a thud.

“I’m on my last mag. We’ll have to make this quick. Let’s go!” I shout to McCafferty.

“Me too! I’m right with you,” she responds.

We stand and begin walking quickly backwards, McCafferty taking down night runners that have come above us in the rafters, the sound of their bodies slamming into the shelves and floor evidence of her deadly aim. I keep the ones in front at bay. Head shots are easy at this distance but I am quickly running out of ammo. Pop! Pop! Pop! I am rapidly moving my aim from head to head as we retreat but more replace them. We pass the next aisle behind us, with the central mass still only twenty feet away, neither gaining nor losing distance between us. The speed at which they are running at us causes them to drop literally at my feet and they will quickly be upon us when I run out of ammo. I glance around to mark our progress and see the lights from Gonzalez and Robert round the corner of the end aisle.

“We’re going to have to make a run for it,” I yell to McCafferty across the lane. “Now go!”

I see her turn and begin running down the lane and turn the corner. Focusing back to my front, I pick up the pace of my backward steps. Not quite running but close. Tripping and falling would not be in my best interest right now and not because of some labor and industries injury claim. It would be a bit worse than that. I wonder if I can sue the store for harboring dangerous creatures. Pop! Pop! My rounds meet and intersect two more heads splashing blood and brain matter on those behind as I round the corner and enter the aisle.

Glancing over my shoulder, keeping my direction and most of my attention on those about to round the corner, I see Gonzalez and Robert running for the front door silhouetted by the light streaming in from outside. McCafferty is following close behind them concentrating on the ceiling above. Almost home , I think. I refocus on where the night runners are just rounding the corner. Our gunfire seems to have had little effect on their numbers although I do notice they are now only concentrated in certain areas as opposed to seemingly spread across the entire interior. Still backing toward the entrance, I hear the click of a bolt running dry behind me. That click registers immediately and seems louder than all of the other sounds filling the store.

“I’m out!” McCafferty yells in my direction.

“Make a run for the door, I’ll cover,” I shout still focused on the horde closing in.

I feel the kick against my shoulder three more times sending three additional night runners skidding on the floor amidst sprays of blood and brain before the same, heart sickening click emits from my M-4. I have exhausted my ammo. Why can’t this be like the hero books or comics where the last round kills the last enemy inches from the hero? Well, this definitely isn’t the happy, ride off into the sunset ending I would have liked . The horde is still coming and closing the distance and I am now carrying a paper weight. I’m looking for the white-horsed hero to ride in and sweep away the battlefield, the enemy cowering in terror. Instead, it is my heart that is sinking and the uh oh factor has invaded my senses. The adrenaline increases and time slows even more.

Twenty feet away becomes ten as I continue back pedaling away. I can’t take the time to turn and run as I know they would be upon me immediately. They have the momentum of already running and will be upon me in the time it will take me to turn leaving me with my back to them and defenseless. I reverse my M-4 as the first one closes to within five feet, thrusting the butt forward into its face, connecting with the bridge of its nose, snapping its head backwards and bringing it to a standstill. The others behind plow into the now stopped night runner sending it crashing to the floor, slowing their rapid advance momentarily and giving me a touch of breathing space. As long as that breath is a short one that is.

They continue, running over and around the body on the floor. A sense of eagerness emits from the group as they close in on their prey. That prey being me. I can remember several times being chased by folks who were not too keen on my being in their back yard, but that feeling of uh-oh has never been this intense. Mostly because they weren’t five feet away from me and I had ammo to keep them at a friendly distance. The thought of lowering my shoulder and charging into them vanishes as quickly as it arrived. I would be overwhelmed in a moment. Were these “normal people,” that thought would have stuck around longer.

I step to my left and thrust the butt end of my carbine once again, the shoulder plate striking the temple of a creature with a crack snapping its head to the side and back. The night runner loses its balance and it sprawls to its left across the path of the others. My mind registers the absence of gunfire that was so prevalent inside moments ago. I have no time to figure out the why of it but can only assume that the others are safely outside or the night runners in the other directions have been eliminated. Or, everyone has run out of ammo. I log the ammo consumption away to be dealt with later and hopefully not as I am contemplating my mistakes while sitting on a cloud strumming a harp. Not that I would necessarily be a candidate for that anyway.

Night runners grab and push aside the one that had crashed into them blocking their path momentarily allowing me to gain a few precious feet towards the front door. The shelves to my right, containing a few sundry items, are illuminated by the splash of light from my flashlight but also begin to lighten from the light coming through the front door. Faint yet, but still lighter letting me know that the salvation of light is drawing closer. I’ve managed to keep them slightly off balance and away so far but they are so close and the action is quick. If time was not slowed, they would sweep over me like a tidal wave.

I repeatedly thrust into their heads with the butt of my rifle, feeling it connect with each thrust; each time rapidly withdrawing my M-4 only enough to switch to a different target and hit it with sufficient force. Not wanting to kill at this point but to keep them at bay as I continue inching backward toward the light amidst the shrieks emitting from horde of night runners to my front. Shrieks of frustration, pain, anger and excitement fill my ears. I hear someone shouting behind me but the words are drowned out by the din. Hands from the night runners try to fend off my repeated thrusts. They reach towards me, wanting to take hold and pull me to the ground. Wanting to rend my flesh.

I notice the linoleum below my feet is partially lit from the light streaming in from the front doors. One of the creatures knocks my gun away from its trajectory which throws my attack off target. A night runner gets inside of my M-4 that was keeping them that uncomfortable five feet away and launches itself at me. Seeing it get past and leave the ground, I brace myself mentally for the inevitable impact. Dropping my carbine, I bring my arms in close in order to keep some semblance of distance between us after the collision. Timing it right, I grab the front if its torn and ragged shirt, lean back slightly to absorb some of the impact, pivot on my left foot the moment it hits, and launch myself and it in the direction of the front door. The force and ferocity of the impact, even at such a close range, surprises me. The strength and agility of these things continues to amaze me. I am going to have to keep this in forefront of my mind at all times.

“Come on you little shit! You wanna play!” I yell as we launch through the air.

I continue the roll to my left as we sail through the air using its momentum to assist me, my hands locked on its shirt, its shrieking, gray face inches away from mine, my roar of effort and intense adrenaline combine with its shriek. I feel rage building within as we land on the floor with a grunt, with it beneath me, and we slide along the linoleum upon impact.

The night runner begins to thrash and shriek with an increased intensity. I release my grip with my right hand bringing it back to smash back down on its throat for a killing stroke, intent on punching through the throat to its spinal column, obliterating the cartilage airway. I pause when I notice the thrashing is not an attempt at defense or to get at me. Its face is turning a bright red before my eyes. It is then that I notice our flight through the air and subsequent slide has brought us into the direct light radiating from outside. A rifle butt enters into my range of vision and impacts the night runner square on the temple, rendering it unconscious and silencing the shrieks. I look up to see Horace standing by my side as she withdraws her carbine from the impact.

“Thanks,” I say jumping off of the night runner and turning quickly towards where the horde was moments before, expecting them to be right on my heels.

“No problem, sir,” she responds turning her weapon on the horde standing on the edge of the shadows where they shriek wildly in frustration.

Only the faint outlines of their heads are visible and appear to be thrusting forward, wanting desperately to get at us. Then, as if a switch were thrown, the shrieks stop and the heads vanish instantly into the dark depths of the store leaving behind only the slapping sound of shoes and bare feet on the linoleum echoing in the BX, growing dimmer before silence descends upon us once again.

We all stand momentarily shocked by the suddenness of both the onslaught and retreat. Only moments before the air was filled with the sound of gunfire, shrieks, and shouting, now only the lingering smell of gunpowder remains.

“Well, that was fun and interesting,” I say heading back to retrieve my M-4, still wary and alert for any attack.

Gathering my now almost useless rifle off of the floor, I return to the group, checking the stock and gun for any damage. The wounded soldier is lying by the entrance; the once loud moans have subsided to an occasional whimper. Kneeling by his side, I can feel heat radiating from him and notice beads of sweat form on his brow and run down his temple forming small pools on the floor by his head. The gouges on his neck and shoulder area from the night runner have stopped bleeding and are now merely leaking plasma mixed with blood.

“How’s the other one?” I ask looking up at Horace.

“He’s dead. Bled out before we could get to him.” She replies.

“Let’s get everyone outside. Have your team put them in the van. We’ll bandage him up when we get to the aircraft”

“Yes, sir.”

“How many supplies did we manage to get out?” I ask looking at the carts, full of bottled water and various cans of food, sitting just outside of the doors.

“We managed to get most of the water and a few cans of food before they hit,” Horace answers.

“Ammo check,” I call out to everyone. A quick check reveals we are down to thirty six rounds between all of us. That’s cutting it rather close , I think and make a mental note to increase the basic load out for all teams.

“Red Team, gather the supplies and load them into the van,” I call out as we step through the front doors and out into the morning. The front of the BX is still shaded from the sun. I get no reply but see them walk over to the carts to begin loading.

I turn back to see Horace’s team emerge through the broken glass door carrying the wounded solder by the arms and legs. Watching the team with their load, I see the unconscious soldier begin to thrash wildly to the point that they have to set him back on the pavement where his thrashing continues. Stepping closer, I see his exposed skin begin to turn the same bright red as had the other night runners when exposed to the sun. The flailing continues to increase along with the moaning. His eyes flash open and the pain within them is apparent to all who are watching. He begins a shrieking scream and sits up quickly causing all of us standing around to jump back a step. The shrieking builds quickly only to suddenly subside into silence as he slumps over to the side, his head hitting the concrete sidewalk with a crack. He lays there still and utterly silent, his once pallid skin now looks like he stayed by the pool in the sun too long.

“Hmmmm, that’s different,” I say, mostly to myself but heard by those around.

“Anyone know if he had the vaccination?” I ask the assembled group.

The only responses are shrugs and a shaking of heads. Looking around at their faces, I see the implication has already set in for most. The disease can be transmitted and has to be treated as a pathogen , I think. And the onset is measured in minutes instead of hours and days for those that are not immune. The virus carried in the night runners must be more potent than the original vaccine .

“Okay, we leave them both here. We can’t risk getting blood on us or anyone else,” I continue noticing the others have already dropped the second body and are backing away from it.

Everyone begins checking themselves over for any contamination. I hear the sighs of relief from each one as they find themselves clean. This changes my thinking and assumption that anyone left alive is/was immune. Those that had the vaccination, yes. Those that did not, well, that is a toss-up. Me included.  Luckily, I know that my kids had the vaccine and are immune, so, it is more than likely that I am as well, using the process of elimination as to which parent carried the immunity.

I feel the adrenaline winding down leaving the past few moments inside the store feeling like a surreal event. Standing here in the breeze with the sun continuing its climb into the clear, blue sky only adds to that feeling. The seemingly normalness of the day, well, if anything can completely seem normal anymore, creates a gulf between the now and the intense firefight only moments ago. The firefight, such as I have never seen before in its intensity and ferocity, seemed to last an eternity but the passage of time out here was only a few moments. The two bodies on the ground are the only physical reminders of what occurred and a message that our tactics will have to change. Our advantage of fire power is only as good as our tactics. We certainly cannot afford to be in a battle of attrition or we are just not going to be around for that much longer. I sense the others around are also coming down to a feeling of normalcy, the events still clear, but being put away in the back of their minds.

“Okay, let’s get these supplies loaded and head back,” I say clearing my thoughts and returning to the present.

“Are you doing okay?” I ask Robert as I stand next to him gathering water bottles and see a tremor run through his hands.

“Yeah,” he replies.

“You did a good job in there,” I say.

“I was scared shitless,” he says in response.

“Yeah, well, we all were kiddo. But you didn’t let it affect you and stood in there.”

“But you and the others didn’t seem like it,” he says looking up from his gathering.

“I was fucking terrified,” I say. “As I am quite sure the others were. But you stayed in there when most anyone else would’ve run. And I have to tell you that was one of the most intense firefights I have ever seen.”

“But you and everyone seemed so calm. You were giving orders and coordinating like you were organizing a dinner party or something.”

“Did you notice that your fear was more intense before anything happened and that once it started, you stopped feeling that way and just reacted?”

“Well, yeah, to an extent I guess.”

“That’s normal and something you’ll kind of get used to. That transition from feeling anxious to reacting happens more quickly each time. Did you notice that everything seemed to slow down?” I ask.

“Yeah, I did notice that. There were times when everything seemed like it was happening in slow motion,” Robert answers.

“That’s something to use when it happens but be aware it is happening. Everything around you is still operating in real time. Thoughts and reactions come through with lightning speed and that’s an advantage you have to use with a sense of calm. You can think and react faster so use that to your advantage. But be aware that the reaction of things around you will seem slow. For instance, you move the throttle up. It will actually move up quickly because of your action, however, other indications outside of that won’t make it seem to you that it is. For example, the gauge you are staring will appear to move slowly and maybe give you the feeling that your action was not effective. The outside things reacting to your action will not appear to register immediately or react. You have to be aware of this and allow for it. Does that make any sense?” I ask.

“Yeah, it does,” he replies.

My memory tracks back to a time when temporal distortion, the slowing of time in an extreme situation, killed a good friend of mine. He was doing a touch and go in a T-38 with a student who was on his first flight. My friend let the student try to land — the T-38 is one tricky aircraft to land. It has short wings built for speed and the second highest landing airspeed of any aircraft in the world. At any rate, he let the student go too far and did not take corrective action until too late. The aircraft hit the runway hard and bounced high back into the air. My friend attempted save the situation by initiating a go around and rammed the throttles into what he thought was afterburner. The resulting bounce had angled the aircraft off to the side a little so they were not flying parallel to the runway. The wings wobbled a little — not a good sign in the T-38 — but it finally looked like he might make it.

There were two problems though. One, they were headed straight for the tall control tower that directed transient and civilian aircraft, and two, they were not in afterburner. Still, it looked like they were going to make it but the jet, in an attempt to avoid the tower, suddenly pitched up, rolled onto its back, plummeted to the ground, and slid across it in a fireball. The crash investigation revealed that the throttles were only set at about 70% power and concluded that temporal distortion was the cause. My friend was putting the throttles into afterburner but was not seeing the corresponding results on the instruments. It was thought that he did not think he was getting the afterburner to light and was cycling the throttles in an attempt to get them lit when all he was really doing was moving the throttles very rapidly back and forth. The temporal distortion made him think he was moving the throttles up smoothly but not getting the afterburner to light, when, in actuality, he was not giving the instruments time to respond. Yes, temporal distortion can be a life saver most of the time, but it can also have disastrous consequences if you are not aware it is happening.

“Anyway, you did well. Oh and thanks.”

“For what?” He asks with a hint of confusion crossing his face. The gears of his mind cycling through events trying to figure out what I am referring to.

“That night runner would’ve had me cold in the aisle if you hadn’t shot him,” I say with a small smile.

“Oh, I forgot about that,” he says with a trace of pride flashing through his eyes.

“Let’s get these loaded,” I finish our conversation with a nod.

It is a silent drive back to the airfield and ramp. Everyone is lost in their thoughts. Having been there in the post adrenaline combat moment a few times, I know that some are thinking about and reliving the events while other thoughts move towards the future and the odds of survival. Seeing Horace’s van behind us in the rear view, I know the same silence must be riding along with them, especially with the loss of two of their team. Any loss of that nature brings second guessing. I know it is affecting me and wondering two things. What could I, or we, have done differently? What do we need to change in future endeavors to prevent or minimize any losses? And, do I still have the confidence of the team?  Okay, that is three things.

“Sir,” I hear McCafferty say behind me.

I turn in my seat to see Red Team sitting on the bench seats with their weapons propped between their legs and looking from McCafferty to me.

“Yes,” I respond back.

“I know I speak for the rest of us when I say thank you for getting us out of there,” she says.

“It wasn’t me. It was our teamwork and working together that got us out of there,” I say feeling relieved, realizing that my worry about their confidence in me has been answered.

She merely nods at my response along with the rest of the team and they fold back to their private thoughts.

“We’ll debrief with everyone else after we get back and unload this stuff,” I say and turn around to stare outside at the passing buildings.

As the buildings pass by, they take on an even more foreboding aspect. I wonder how many night runners lurk behind each darkened window. In my mind, I imagine a horde of night runners hiding behind each of the windows. Watching and waiting. Ready to pounce on any intruder into their domain. Ready to take advantage of any mistake we make. It is like riding through a ghost town where tragedy overtook and the ghosts of the past watch from their rooms as the living pass by. Jealous. Vengeful. Eagerly waiting and beckoning for the living to enter.

The foreboding passes but leaves other thoughts in its wake. Were all of the night runners gathered at the BX because there sure were enough of them there? Or are there others gathered in the darkened recesses of the other buildings around? Are they going to gather in larger and larger groups like they were in the BX here or in smaller groups like at the McChord hospital? I can’t see a discernible pattern emerge. Will one emerge or take hold? After all, this is a new world to them as well?  I start to think about our tactics but realize that will need to be a discussion with the group.

We arrive back to the airfield proper. Small heat waves rise from the pavement as the day begins to warm up only to be blown sideways and disappear momentarily with the passing of each light breeze. Heads turn towards us from those milling about the aircraft, following our progress across the ramp. Pulling to a stop near the rear of the aircraft, I realize just how exhausted I feel. I don’t want to get out of the seat but just want to sit here and veg. The exhaustion comes from the post adrenaline, the lack of proper rest and sleep over the past few days, and from the stress thinking about the days to come. The stress comes from thinking about the days to come, getting back and the overwhelming aspect of setting up our long-term survival once we do get back. As I continue to sit and contemplate the future, the others in both our crew bus and Horace’s get out and begin to unload the supplies into the C-130.

Thoughts of our long-term survival surface — food, water, shelter. We can live for a while on scavenged food and water but need to work on building a protective sanctuary soon. We need a place of safety where we can relax and plan. A place that is not under the threat of constant attack at night. We have the day but need a place at night that is secure so exhaustion does not overwhelm us. Thoughts of Cheyenne Mountain and NORAD surface. There’s really not a place that can be more secure , I think. Stocked supplies, away from civilization and therefore numerous night runners, and secure. The only reservation I have for this option is that I do not know about a constant water supply nor do I have knowledge of the area. Without electricity, the water supply for the facility will be unavailable and getting fuel supplies there to keep the generators going will be a challenge. Plus, I just don’t know the status of facility. Knowing an area like I do the Northwest will be an important element for any long-term survival. I know where food and water can be obtained and it will be easier to keep us supplied. I think finding a place in the Northwest is a better solution but keep Cheyenne Mountain in the back of my mind.

With a partial plan formed, I step out from the van to see the last of the supplies being loaded onboard. Great timing as usual. Always ready to help when the job is done . The sound of vehicles nearing drifts across the ramp. I turn and see the two vans from Lynn’s escapade driving in our direction. Well, I hope it’s Lynn and her group and the night runners have not picked up the ability to drive. Let alone during the day. That would totally suck! The vehicles pull to a stop close by and the teams exit. Lynn walks over with Watkins in tow as the other soldiers begin offloading crates and weapons.

“I take it all was successful?” I ask as she draws near.

“Yep! Although not the mother lode, we did find a few things,” she answers. “And yours?”

“It was, well, an interesting excursion although I don’t think I would qualify it as a success. We lost two,” I respond.

“What!? What happened?” She asks startled.

As I relate our morning experience, I notice Wilson, Bannerman, and the other team leaders have joined us making it easier to tell the story once without having to either wait or share it multiple times. It is not something I really want to talk about over and over.

“So, it seems from our various engagements with the night runners that they have the ability to change their tactics on a rudimentary level, that they are more agile, faster, and stronger, and that they can communicate and coordinate with each other in some fashion. I don’t know if that communication is through their shrieks or some other means,” I say summarizing.

“I also don’t know how their senses are affected, either better or worse, but we’ll have to assume that all of them are increased until we positively know different. We do know that they have the ability to see in the dark so we have to assume they can smell and hear better as well,” I continue.

“What about the soldier who became infected?” Lynn asks.

“Well, we can’t assume immunity from the virus or whatever except for those who have had the vaccination. And, judging from the sudden transition, minutes instead of hours or days, it appears that the fluids from the night runners are more potent. We’re obviously going to have to avoid close combat when possible until we know more and protect ourselves from contamination better. That means covering any open sores and removing any clothing that becomes contaminated as soon as possible. And, not handling anything that has become contaminated,” I answer.

“Jesus! What hope can we possibly have?” Bannerman blurts out.

“As long as we’re alive, we have hope,” I say irritated both from being tired and from the pessimism.

“Anyway, we’re going to have to define better tactics because we’re going to have to occasionally enter into buildings for supplies. That means that no less than two squads will enter any building and the building cleared before initiating any retrieval. Or at least very strong defensive positions taken first. They seem to be able to come at us from any direction. I mean, the ceiling rafters was a big surprise. A quick retreat route must be defined and that initiated at the first sign of a large attack. No bottle of water or can of food is vital enough to risk losing anyone. One big clue to a place being habituated seems to be some sort of forced entry. Are there any question or ideas?” I ask after finishing my thoughts and look around at the group.

They all shake their heads in response.

“Alrighty then, let’s make sure the supplies are secured and then we need to get some rest before heading out tonight. Team leaders, brief your teams and see to them. Make sure your team’s weapons are cleaned. Bannerman, get a good inventory of our supplies and list anything that’s vital and we’re short of. One thing to start your list off with is night vision gear,” I say in conclusion.

“I have a surprise that may be able to help with that,” Lynn chimes in with a smile. “Follow me.”

“Right behind ya,” I say.

The group disburses and I follow Lynn to the rear of the aircraft and up the ramp. There, crammed and secured in every available clear space is our food, a good supply of weapons, crates, and assorted cases. Lynn leads me to a cache of black cases similar to a hardened brief case. With dramatic flair, she flings the top up.

“Voila,” she says.

There, nestled in gray rubber foam, is a set of night vision goggles. They look like generation 2 NVG’s to me but capable of being donned on a helmet clip or with a head strap. And, as luck would hold, there is said strap in the case along with it.

“You are truly a godsend,” I say marveling at our good fortune


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. I wasn’t planning to have these beauties until we raided the special ops armory back in Fort Lewis.

“This will truly improve our odds and capabilities. How many do we have?” I ask.

“Twelve,” Lynn answers with a smile on her face.

“That’s perfect!” I say giving her a big hug. “Oh, and transfer Bartel and Rogers to Horace to replace her losses.”

“Is there anything wrong with them?” She asks looking up with concern.

“No, not at all. Everyone performed extremely well. She’s just short on people and I have the most,” I reply. She nods and turns to help Bannerman start the inventory. The other items of interest that Lynn and her group picked up from the armory are radios and a collection of M-4’s for everyone with plenty left over as spares. These are distributed to the group.

I give my weapon some attention after making sure everyone else has checked theirs. We settle in where we can to rest before beginning the next leg of our merry adventure. I lay down on the lower cockpit bunk with Lynn at my side. My last thought before succumbing to my coma is the hope that tomorrow will bring answers and enlightenment as to exactly what we are facing; that we can find some clue at the CDC that brings us a greater measure of hope for survival in the coming days. Information that we can use that will allow us to properly prepare ourselves for the long-term.

Burial at Sea

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I awake with a start. With the feeling that I have overslept and am late for something, my muddled dreams fade quickly. The late afternoon, westering sun is casting its glow through the cockpit windows, bathing the side instruments and panels in orange. The panic subsides to an extent but not the sense of urgency. We need to be off the ground soon. There is also the dawning feeling that I left us unguarded. I feel like a fool for not setting an alarm or having set a watch. Exhaustion has driven the basics from my mind. We could easily have slept on into the night and been entirely at the mercy of the night runners emerging. Completely in the open.

Lynn stirs beside me and snaps alert. She likely has the same sense; both the urgency and the fact that we were completely unguarded. I roll off the bunk and stretch my tired and sore muscles. This would be a lot easier if I were younger , I think bending backward to ease a kink from my back.

“This must never happen again. We have to keep a watch at all times,” I say looking down into her beautiful blue eyes.

“Yeah, no kidding! I can’t believe I allowed this to happen,” Lynn says sitting up.

“We allowed it. We can never relax our vigilance. But what’s done is done. Get everyone up and ready. Make sure all of our stuff is stowed and secured. I’ll get us ready up here,” I say looking at the instrument panels that have rested along with us.

I get one of those looks of ‘who the fuck are you’ which quickly fades. Our tiredness is making our tempers and therefore our communication short.

“Sorry, I should have asked ‘would you mind’,” I say as she rises.

“No worries. It’s just hard separating the relationship from the command aspect. You have a perfect right to tell me what to do with regards to the unit. Just don’t let it go to your head or I’ll flatten you,” Lynn says with a tired smile.

“I love you,” I say laughing for the first time in a while and leaning over to give her a kiss.

“I love you too, Jack,” she says after we separate.

I head down the stairs with the thought and wondering if we are just going through the motions. Is it really just a matter of time before we all come to an end? Wow! I sure can be a pessimist at times. No, if we can survive and get our sanctuary built, we’ll have a fighting chance . We just have to maintain our vigilance, be smart, and not make any more mistakes. We were lucky this time .

The metallic sound of boots ringing on steel lets me know that Lynn is coming down the stairs behind me as I head over to wake Robert and Michelle, stepping over soldiers scattered haphazardly on the deck. That is an easy process as they are both lying together on the top bunk by the window, the soft glow of the sun caressing their faces as they sleep peacefully. I am pierced by an intense feeling of love for my kids and feel a protective nature sweep through me. It is mingled with a feeling of sorrow for the situation we are in. They do not deserve to be thrust into this. I must continue to be strong for them . But I also realize there is a tremendous strength that lies within them.

“Robert, wake up,” I say gently nudging his shoulder. His eyes open with that tired sleepy aspect that only teens know. I see Michelle’s eyes open with the same sleepy look.

“We have to get ready. Go wake Bri and Nic and get strapped in. I’m going to do a walk around,” I say when I know he is awake enough to comprehend my words and will not just fall asleep again.

“Okay, Dad,” he says sitting up and jumping to the cargo floor.

Lynn has started waking the soldiers inside. I head outside to do a walk around of the aircraft. The breeze has died down and the shadows from the vehicles parked near stretch long as the day begins to come to a close. Some soldiers are lying on the ramp while others sleep in the seats of the vans. Some begin to sit up, perhaps feeling the energy of others waking. Or perhaps it’s Lynn’s yell of “everyone up” echoing across the pavement.

Her voice startles me and I turn to see her standing part way down the ramp with a look of determination. I certainly wouldn’t have liked to have been one of her troops when she was a drill sergeant , I think seeing her stand there with her hands on her hips. But I also know deep down she really cares for the people under her. Her yell causes a stir among the soldiers and they all begin to do the ‘just got up’ stretches and gather their stuff.

“We’ll need to move the vehicles away,” I call up to her.

She walks over to Drescoll as I begin to walk around the aircraft checking for any obvious damage. I have a touch of worry about the maintenance and our long journey over the water. Aircraft of this nature requires continual maintenance to maintain its ability to stay airborne. Luckily, the 130 is a tough old bird. One of the best around in that regard. I hear the vans start up as I walk around the wing and see the streaks of blood that once dominated the side by the props from our previous excursion to Brunswick have mostly vanished. Some small stains remain that blend in with the olive drab paint.

Walking around the nose, I see Robert’s face in the cockpit window, with his helmet on, sitting in my seat and looking over to his left. I round the rear and start up the other side and see Michelle and Nic by the ground power unit. They have taken their station without asking. We almost have this down to a routine , I think. I see Nic’s mouth move and she starts the cart up. She is obviously in contact with Robert. He has started the pre-start checks on his own. Pride swells up inside. They really seem to have adjusted to this new world. Perhaps it’s me who needs to adjust to their adjustment and that all is well with them. Wow! I’m losing it . I also see the vehicles have been moved off to the side. The sun is lowering to the horizon, turning the sky around it to deeper oranges and yellows. The color will soon change to reds giving the day its last glorious look before disappearing until another time. The next time it sets, we will hopefully have some answers or at least a bigger clue. But for now, it is time we leave.

Lynn is standing at the top of the ramp as I walk back in. The interior is filled with the noise and movement of shuffling soldiers. I quickly glance at the supplies stacked about with red cargo netting over them and lashed to the deck, making sure they will not shift in flight.

“Everything ready to go?” I ask Lynn.

“Yeah, we should be good to go,” she replies.

“Okay, can you make sure everyone gets strapped in and detail a couple to help Michelle and Bri with the cart when they come in?”

“Will do,” she says in return.

I notice her strict military demeanor is relaxing somewhat in the conversation between us as we both strive to find that balance between the necessary military bearing, which I never really had, and our relationship. She grabs the headset by the rear and plugs into the intercom system.

I head up the walkway to the cockpit. Robert’s head turns my way from the pilot’s seat, says something in the mic, and moves over to his seat making way for me. Bri is sitting in her engineer seat setting switches on the electrical panel. I move past her to strap and plug in.

“Where are we on the checklist?” I ask hearing the click of my coming on the intercom.

“We’re ready for startup,” Robert answers.

I do a quick check over the system panels and settings assuring myself we are indeed ready. It’s not that I don’t trust them, I just have to make sure myself. They have done a great job getting ready and all seems to be in order. The electrics, fuel system, and switches are set correctly. I keep thinking how far we have come in the past few days. In one way, it seems like it has been a long time since sitting in this seat, in another, it seems like I never left.

“Clear right?” I ask.

“Clear,” Robert responds.

We go through the startup with no problems, Michelle and Nic joining us in the cockpit after securing the start cart and closing the ramp door, effectively shutting us off from the outside. The aircraft settles into its usual vibration and roar with the large props spinning in synch outside, their blades blending in a circular blur. All of the instruments check out okay giving me a modicum of security for our hop across the rest of the pond.

I set the intercom selector over to the overhead intercom, “Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for flying Apocalypse Air. Your Captain today is Captain Crash and we are delighted to have you aboard. We ask that you stay inside for the duration of the flight as it tends to get a bit breezy outside and walking on the wing disrupts our flight pattern. We are pleased to have the best flight attendants in the industry; however, none of them were able to make today’s flight. In the event of a water landing, paddle to shore and feel free to take the floatation devices with our compliments. Should we experience a loss of cabin pressure, please stop your screaming and put the mask over your face. Now buckle in as we found that saved over half of our passengers on our last take off attempt. Relax and be comfortable while I try to remember how to make this thing go forward.”

I push the throttles forward, feeling more than hearing the engines respond and we begin to move forward. The sun has descended half way below the horizon as our wheels roll across the ramp and toward the runway. The wind sock sits still by the runway as we taxi past, as if everything is holding its breath, waiting for the change from night to day, from the time of mankind to the time of the night runners. Hiding and waiting for the sun to rise majestically again signaling safety. I hear the steady and comforting roar of the engines faintly through my helmet; feel the throb and pulse of the engines through the throttles. I double check the fuel, cabin pressure, and electrical settings as we pull up to the runway checking for anything out on a possible final. Habit pattern I guess but also, well, the one time I don’t check, there will be something there. That is the way my karma works.

I pull out onto the runway and gently run the throttles forward feeling the aircraft leap to my command as if thankful to depart this island. I know I am. We are leaving two of us behind, lying on the pavement in an obscure parking lot. Will we all meet that same small fate, lying in some remote and soon to be forgotten place along with all of the other debris left over from mankind’s time as ruler ? The horizon moves as the nose wheel lifts off followed shortly by the mains. We are airborne and each turn of the propellers brings us closer to home, well, what I think of as home. A destination if nothing else. First things first though.

Calling for gear and flaps, we claw for altitude. I split my concentration between the instruments, which seem to be behaving, and the land disappearing beneath us. The base and housing vanish behind our wings giving me a melancholy feeling. I look down thinking there are trials and hardships for those alive below us; that they have their own life going on without regard for those overhead. I used to get that feeling every once in a while during other flights. I would think about each light below me and that it signified a story; that each would have love and fears and joys and hardships attached to it. That people might be having dinner at that very moment or watching a movie with loved ones; wrapped in their own little bubble of their life and completely oblivious to the life passing by overhead.

Trees and hills now pass underneath, wrapped in the twilight shadow of the end of the day. We climb higher and out over the now darkened water, yet we are still bathed in the last of the sun’s rays. The dark blue sky overhead is clear and promises a beautiful starlit flight; for the next little while at least.

“Nic, warm up and turn on the weather radar if you would please,” I ask making sure the cabin pressure is working as our altimeter climbs through 12,000.

I check the flight plan in the nav computer to ensure I had input it in correctly and validate it with our charts. Heading over open water doesn’t allow for landmark updates and heading in some random direction for hours over the endless ocean does not make for the ‘white horse and sunset’ ending. If we were to make a mistake in our route and coding into the nav computer, we would just be slowly traveling to the scene of our own accident. We continue our uphill journey until leveling off at flight level 200 — 20,000 feet. Bri is switching our fuel tanks as I flip on the autopilot, unbuckle and wait for either the sound of sputtering and silence or the continued drone of a constant fuel supply to the engines. She has her stuff down cold and the engines continue their uninterrupted speech.

“You have it,” I tell Robert. “I’m going back to check on things and to the little boys room. We’re on auto pilot.” He merely nods. In the darkened cockpit, his face is lit by the glow of the instruments with the sun having already said its goodbye in its usual, splendid fashion ahead of us.

I step down into the cargo compartment feeling the vibration of the engines through the soles of my boots. The aircraft is lurching to the side slightly as we pass through some mild turbulence. One of the bonus features of the 130; it tends to shake a bit but there is not a more rugged aircraft built. The cargo area is lit by interior red lighting making it easier to see but giving it a cave-like aspect. Lynn is sitting on the lower bunk talking with Drescoll, Bannerman, and Wilson. The rest of the soldiers are sitting on the red nylon troop seats against the fuselage talking quietly in small groups. Well, talking quietly being relative above the constant roar of the engines. Another bonus feature of the aircraft.

“How are the supplies?” I ask walking over to Lynn and the small group around her.

“We have enough water for several days and food to last us a couple of weeks. Plenty of ammo even considering the expenditure today. Water’s going to be our most critical but we have enough with our current consumption to get back and last for a bit,” Bannerman responds.

“Good. We’ll be in Brunswick in a few hours. Again, it’s just for a quick refueling stop and then to Atlanta, hopefully getting there in the afternoon sometime. That should give us enough time to get into the facility and find some information. We’ll have to assume that the building will be occupied in some capacity and take it slow. My guess is that the best place to find something will be in the director’s office. No clue where that will be but I’m hoping it’s on the main level and not on one of the upper floors or down below,” I say remembering the lovely time I had in a much smaller medical facility at McChord.

“According to the charts, there’s a small airport just to the northwest of the CDC so we’ll have to find ground transportation in order to get to the facility. We’ll do a flyby along the route to give us an indication where we need to go and what we’re looking at,” I continue.

“You’ve never been there before?” Bannerman chimes in shaking his head slightly.

“No, there’s never been a reason for me to visit there,” I respond back furrowing my brows and tilting my head slightly to give a hint of confusion with his question.

“Oh, I guess I was just assuming you’ve been there given that we’re going there,” he says back.

“No, I just figure that’s where any hard evidence will be, especially considering how quick everything came down. The government would’ve quickly passed this off to them. It would’ve also been passed on to the Army’s medical research facility but I would think they would have been working alongside the CDC. I also figure it would be easier to get into the CDC. I wouldn’t bother with the risk if we didn’t need to know what we’re up against and perhaps find some strategy to use against it,” I say. I feel a tap on my shoulder and turn to see Michelle standing behind me.

“Jack, Robert asked me to come get you. He says there’s something coming over the radios,” she says.

I am incredulous and hope for some additional contact. I quickly climb back up the stairs to the cockpit with Lynn and the group right behind. I settle into my seat, plug back in and hear a faint but perpetual beeping coming through the radios.

“That’s not good,” I say listening to the high-pitched beeping.

“What is it?” Robert asks.

“It’s an ELT. An emergency location transmitter. And it wasn’t there when we crossed before,” I answer.

“What do you think it’s coming from?” He asks turning his head towards me.

“I don’t know but it can’t be a good thing being this far out in the ocean,” I answer. Looking back at him, I also see Lynn standing by my shoulder looking on quizzically.

I reach over and turn the radio and intercom over to the cockpit speakers. The faint beeping is now echoing it distress signal throughout the darkened cockpit, growing louder and more intense as we progress further to the west. Lynn shrugs her shoulders indicating she doesn’t know what she is listening to.

“That’s an emergency beacon transmission. The kind of signal from a downed aircraft or survival radio. It’s being transmitted over the emergency channel,” I shout to make myself heard over the droning of the engines and the beeping.

“Oh,” I see her mouth move but cannot hear the word.

“Well, let’s see where it’s coming from,” I mutter but my voice comes over the intercom and cockpit speakers as well.

Reaching down, I dial in the emergency frequency to the NDB — a non-directional navigation instrument that can locate radio signals. The needle points almost straight ahead. I then couple the autopilot to the NDB and feel the nose swing a couple of degrees to the right. The aircraft will now fly to the source of the transmitter. We’ll only have to wait until the needle swings around 180 degrees, pointing behind us, to get an exact fix. There is not really much we can do for anyone in trouble at this point as we are out over the ocean. Wave perhaps but that is really about it. We might have some emergency drop equipment complete with small rafts and supplies provided it was loaded onboard.

“Will you have someone go back and find red bags with numbers on them? They should say “life raft”, “ASRK”, or “air sea rescue kit” on them. We may need them if we find someone out here in trouble. They should be in the rear of the aircraft. Just set them by the ramp door if they find them,” I shout back to Lynn. She nods and I see her speaking with Drescoll, who then heads back into the cargo area.

The cockpit lights are turned down low and the visibility is phenomenal outside. I look out of the cockpit window to see the stars shining brightly in the sky above. An almost full moon is out casting its brilliant, silver light on the ocean below, lighting the wave crests in a fluorescent glow. The waves far beneath us look like silver veins stretching in lines across a blue, velvet background. Anyone that has ever been out over the deep ocean at night with a cloudless sky knows of the sky’s intensity and brilliance. Living out in the country has almost the same effect. We’ll be able to see pretty well if we descend , I think putting my mindset into an air-sea rescue mode. Drescoll returns after a bit to verify we do have the red air-sea rescue bags on board.

“This is Otter 39 on guard. Anyone copy?” I call over the radio periodically as we drone ever westward. No response. Our progress is marked only by the increasing volume and intensity of the emergency signal.

The visibility increases as the moon reaches its zenith on its own trek across the sky; its brilliance turning the night almost into day. Everything is bathed in a silver glow. I can sense tedium within the small group as we continue on our flight path but with a certain underlying tension due to the signal. That tension increases the louder the signal becomes and therefore the closer we get. I cross check with the navigation equipment still set to our original flight plan programmed into the nav computer to ensure we don’t stray too far off of our intended path. Whatever is emitting the signal seems to be along our original course. We can’t be too far from it but the signal can carry farther over the ocean because there is a direct, and thus farther, line of sight; meaning there is nothing out here over the ocean to interfere with the signal.

Time passes. The waves below us have calmed and there is no longer the white-lined veins streaking along the ocean surface. Ahead, I see a different kind of sheen on the surface spreading out in all directions over a large area. It shines back to us in rainbow-like colors. Reaching over, I pull the throttles back and begin a shallow descent. The change in the pitch and droning of the engines brings everyone out of whatever reverie they were in.

“What are we doing?” Robert asks and I sense Lynn behind my right shoulder. I merely point to the sheen on the water ahead.

“What is that?” Both Lynn and Robert ask at the same time. Lynn shouting and Robert through the intercom.

“My initial guess is fuel on the surface,” I answer through the intercom first and then shout to Lynn covering the mic. I wouldn’t want to blast Robert and the rest who are on the intercom out of their seats by my yelling.

I turn and get Frank’s attention, motioning him up and pointing ahead. We continue our descent down to 10,000 feet. I want to make a pass over the area at altitude to get an idea of what it may be and the extent of it. I have an idea of what it could be but don’t want to say anything until I’m sure.

“Do you think that’s them?” Frank asks leaning over and yelling by the side of my helmet. Well, there goes not saying anything , I think.

“Don’t know,” I answer, shrugging my shoulders. “Could be I guess.”

“Would you post people at the windows in back?” I yell to Lynn. “Be on the lookout for life rafts or debris.” She disappears from my side to pass the word.

The edge of the slick begins to pass under the nose but I cannot see anything within it. I continue radio calls but am only met by silence on the other end. The sheen from the slick stretches for several miles in all directions but does not appear to be a solid mass indicating it may have happened a little while ago. As in the last few days. Close to the middle, the navigation needle on the NDB sways from side to side and then slides around to the other side of the dial; pointing behind us. We have just passed over the source of the signal.

I make a note of the GPS coordinates, once again thankful the satellites are still functioning. Passing the opposite end of the slick, I uncouple the autopilot and bring us around for another pass, this time descending to 1,500 feet. I’ll program a search pattern in the nav computer and we will conduct an ever-widening search if we don’t find anything on this pass. We have enough fuel on board to spend two hours here with plenty remaining in case we run into weather or have to divert. Passing over at this lower altitude, some debris can be seen scattered throughout the area. The moon is allowing for great visibility, though, of course, not as good as it would be during the day. Some can only be identified as something floating in the water and unidentifiable but others can be readily seen. They are definitely fuselage parts. I descend over some of the unidentifiable ones until we begin to pick up empty life jackets and other miscellaneous items.

A search of the entire area yields nothing living that we can see but the debris and slick definitely points to an aircraft meeting the ocean. I am not a specialist in determining causes but that really does not matter in this case. If anyone was alive and had access to survival gear, we would have seen a flare or some other indication. The silent ocean and wreckage below is all we see and it looks like it will keep the secret of what happened here for all of eternity.

After getting Lynn’s attention from the side window, I tell her, “There should be some parachute flares in the back. Tie them to the rescue kits it you will.”

I climb the aircraft back up to 5,000 feet. I want to give anyone we may have missed the best shot at seeing the packages drift downward. It is all I can think to do. I look to see Frank mesmerized by the scenes floating below.

“It may not be them,” I say to him.

“True, but you and I know it most likely is,” he responds. I nod agreeing with him.

I set the autopilot once again and head into the back where I find Drescoll tying off the last of the flares. The bags themselves have parachutes so I make sure the flares aren’t too high up. Not that it will harm anything but it will definitely limit the bags’ time in the air if the parachute catches on fire. Although, it will attract more attention to anyone seeing it. I show him how to use the vest that crew chiefs used for drops with the back ramp open in flight. This allows one to be tied off and prevents them falling out and coming to an unfortunate impact with the ground. Or ocean in this case. Apparently, being smacked repeatedly into the aircraft is a better option. Okay, kidding, the line should not be long enough for anyone to actually fall outside. With that done, showing him the ramp operation and to watch for the green light, I walk back up into the cockpit and strap in.

Adjusting the aircraft pressurization down to our present altitude and setting up for a run, I call back for Drescoll to open the ramp door. The aircraft shakes and generally lets us know up front it is not happy. The night sky opens up behind us. The night outside is brighter than the inside with the moon lighting the night time air. Drescoll is partially silhouetted by the open ramp. When the needle once again flips to the rear, I have Robert throw the switch for the green jump light to come on.

“All bags are out,” Drescoll calls over the intercom after a moment.

“Brace yourself for a left hand turn,” I say back.

The aircraft banks into a gentle, shallow turn to the left as I move the control wheel. Slowly, a long line of gently descending flares enters into my line of sight out of the side window, drifting along our previous flight path, my hope going along with them that, if there are survivors, then they can find these and that it helps. Really not giving anyone out there a chance of living much longer given how far we are out at sea and with no rescue boats or helicopters available. If anyone is still out there, we may only have prolonged the inevitable.

“Close the ramp,” I say as we continue our wide circle around the red flares. “If anyone would like to say a silent prayer in whatever fashion is fitting for you, now would be the time.”

The ramp door light extinguishes and I move the throttles up to begin our climb back into the night. This little moment of our trek back home over. There’s really not much to say and the aircraft remains silent. Minds trying to wrap around all that has come about and does not ever seem to cease. There will be other tragedies like this one. Our job is to make sure we are not written into that same book. Survive. That is and should be our single focus.

The mental aspect of survival and comprehension will be our greatest difficulty. The ability to last in any survival situation depends primarily on the will to survive. Knowledge is important but the mental remains the single greatest contributing factor to surviving or not. A lot of people end up dying when faced with a survival situation because they simply give up. They reach the end of what they can mentally handle. We have to stick together and watch each other. Console at the right


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times and be harsh in others. It is just knowing which the more effective method is given the mindset of another.

A Potty Break

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The remaining flight over the pond is conducted mostly in silence. Time is spent with more in-depth aircraft systems knowledge for anyone wanting to listen to me and letting folks try their hand at flying. The flying time is primarily spent with Robert until he feels comfortable maneuvering to an extent. We also go through various emergencies but with our limited time, I keep those to the most important ones. I would like to take the time to do some takeoffs and landings when we get to Brunswick to round off his flying skills and then we will have someone else on board who can get everyone home in the event of my untimely demise, but we just will not have the time. We need to get down to Atlanta with a lot of daylight left. We also take turns resting so we can feel somewhat refreshed with the long day ahead of us.

Nothing spectacular on the rest of the ride over; the weather behaves and gives us a clear flight; the aircraft also behaves itself and performs beautifully. The sky behind us begins to lighten with the approach of a new day. A dark line appears on the horizon, land ho! We have journeyed back to what used to be the United States. It seems so long ago since we watched those shores disappear behind us but the sun has only risen and set a couple of times since. We begin the arrival checklists and I let Lynn know to get everyone belted in as the dark smudge ahead begins to take on a more defined shape and details begin to emerge.

I start our descent into the airfield, eventually turning onto final with the gray runway stretching out ahead of us, doing a low flyby to check the runway for condition and obstructions. My goal is to not get stuck somewhere, especially if it can be prevented. The wind sock, hanging limply on the pole, passes by the left window, its long shadow stretching to the west. The runway looks clear as I bring the aircraft up and around for a landing. The landing is another marvel of perfection. Okay, not so much. I rather thump it in. I turn the intercom to the overhead speakers as we slow down on the runway.

“Please remain seated as our pilot taxis what’s left of our aircraft to the ramp. Then feel free to make your way through the wreckage and onto the tarmac,” I say. They are oldies but goodies.

As I taxi by midfield making my way to the end of the runway, I can still see some evidence of our previous visit. There are some articles and pieces of clothing spread on the ramp where wind has not carried them away. Some are strewn in the grass field to our right, caught by the blades of grass. Others yet seem to be attached to what is left of the bodies, the bones visible where birds and other wildlife feasted. I still wonder if this affects any other creatures; whether they can become infected by the blood or secretions of the night runners. I also notice paper and other material scattered across the ramp, some being picked up and blown slightly along in the light morning breeze. Evidence of mankind’s demise and the earth perhaps cleansing itself. Seeing this, I still feel like I am caught up in a dream. The sudden change in the world around us; our mind filtering the surreal aspect.

I taxi onto the ramp and park out from the buildings, letting the engines idle, pausing for a few minutes. Waiting for any indication of life or what to expect when we exit. I leave the engines running in case of trouble. We would at least have some head start on getting away. The buildings and area around remain still. The dream continues on.

Shutting the engines down and opening the ramp, we all exit and stretch our legs. Lynn and I stand together looking out over to the building ahead, the climbing sun warm on our shoulders, our fingers finding each other and clasping. She turns her head around toward the partial corpses lying on the ramp.

“Your work?” She asks nodding toward them.

“Yeah, a moment of frustration you might say,” I answer. “Probably not the wisest move but what’s a person to do?”

“Hmmm, looks like you took care of the situation though.”

“Well, we had ‘em running but we could’ve also found ourselves stuck.”

The conversation dies away and I see Robert and Michelle standing a short distance away, standing in much the same manner as Lynn and I. Holding hands and staring off into the distance.

“Robert,” I call out. His answer is to turn toward me.

“Go get the fuel truck and start fueling up,” I say. “Take Red Team with you.”

“Okay,” he says, absently adjusting the M-4 slung over his shoulder.

We have taken to carrying our weapons on us at all times; becoming second nature. Michelle ventures off to the back of the aircraft only to emerge a minute later with Nic; both of them wheeling the start-up cart into position and hooking it up. The routine we are developing into is a comfort of sorts. But I also know that our routine will change shortly. I plan to be back at McChord by tomorrow. I would love to explore around, well, explore outside, but we just don’t have time. We need to be off as soon as we fuel up. Daylight is our friend.

“Let’s gather everyone around and talk about what we’re going to do when we get back,” I say to Lynn, breaking our morning reverie and bringing our thoughts back to the moment.

“Shouldn’t we talk about this amongst the team leaders first?” She asks.

“With some things, yes, but I think in this case we should talk about it with all of us together. We’re all in this together and I think everyone should have a say or hear it right off. I don’t want anyone to feel like they are just a cog. We need to all work as equals with regards to our overall survival,” I answer.

“Okay, you’re the boss,” she says turning to gather everyone. Yep, there is that ‘I don’t agree with you’ statement. My payments are adding up by the minute, although I cannot wait to be able to pay up.

“Everyone on me,” she yells out. A circle forms with the sound of weapons shifting and boots on the pavement interrupting the still air.

The sound of a truck starting in the distance and coming our way adds to the noise. Everyone stands, kneels, or sits in a semi-circle around Lynn and me as we wait for the fuel truck to approach and hook up. Red Team approaches from the distance and joins in.

“Someone grab the others,” I say nodding toward Robert, Michelle, and Nic. “I think Brianna is in the cockpit if you would be so kind as to get her as well.”

Two soldiers rise and head off bringing back the rest of our merry band. The sun climbs higher into the bright blue sky shining its warmth down on us. The morning breeze has settled down bringing even more stillness to an already still area. The only movement is that of the occasional bird swooping over the grass field across the runway from us. The flags hang limply from their poles on the buildings we can see, imitating the way I feel. The calm before the storm. As if what we are about to venture forth on this day is still far away but coming toward us at a tremendous pace.

“Let’s talk about what we need to do when we get back. We know we need to find and build a sanctuary. Some place where we can be safe and plan. Some place where we have the supplies and the environment we need to survive. I’m thinking close to McChord and Lewis. As a matter of fact, I have a place in mind. The Cabela store. It has what we need for survival, it’s close to supplies, it has very few entrances, and is large enough to house us. It’s also far enough away from the city that we shouldn’t be overwhelmed from the very start,” I say starting off the conversation and ticking the points off on my fingers.

“What about just staying at Lewis and finding a place there?” A voice asks from the group.

“Well, my thinking is that there’s no security around the perimeter. At least nothing that can keep the night runners away from where we’d be housed. We need a solid barrier. And there’s nothing as large there as what Cabela’s would offer. We have to think of room and accommodations for us. There are also a lot of night runners on the bases based on my last experience through there. Lastly, we need to think about disease control. There are a lot of bodies around, and I mean a lot! Disease in the form of Cholera and a host of others will be rampant shortly. This will have to be close to the top of our priority and thinking,” I answer.

“Won’t the place you’re talking about be just as open as any place on base?” Another voice asks.

“Initially, yes, but I’m thinking about building a concrete wall around the entire area with the materials they place alongside highways to keep noise and people out. I want to enclose a complete area, preferably with grassy fields, to be able to bring livestock and such in. Horses, cows, chickens, and anything else we can find alive. This will be our long-term solution. Plus, the concrete block building with only a couple of entrances will make it easier to secure,” I answer.

I see several heads nodding at this but others seem lost in their own thoughts. Not sure if they accept this reasoning or whether they are merely taking it in and formulating their own ideas about where we should go.

“Look, there are most likely hundreds of places we could go and build a safe place. I just know the area around there very well. I know where the cattle are, where horses can be found, where water and other supplies are, the good hunting, and my way around a hundred other things I can think of. Plus, I know it has large generator for our use, a kitchen, food storage, and bathrooms,” I say.

“Well, that does sound like a good place but what about the NORAD facility? They have all of that and more. It’s also away from civilization,” Frank asks.

“I thought about that as well and I can’t think of a more secure place. However, for the doors or anything else to work, we need the generators, meaning fuel. I know they have a large supply to last for a long time in the event of catastrophe, but getting supplies there will be difficult at best and more than likely impossible in the winter months. Plus, we don’t know what condition it’s in. It could be completely overrun inside. But those are just my humble thoughts on the subject,” I respond.

I look around and am met by silence. Finally a hand goes up asking for recognition.

“Yes,” I say pointing.

“How would we get this wall built? Seems like you are thinking of a large enclosure and that it would take a long time to get built. Almost to the point of being impossible,” Horace says.

“Well, that’s why it will have to be a priority. We’d have to get it built by the end of summer. It shouldn’t take that long if we focus on it. The materials are close by and it’s just a matter of transporting them and getting them in place. We’ll need heavy machinery but I think we can get it done in time,” I answer her.

“I’m not saying it’ll be easy, but..” I continue on by am interrupted by another voice.

“Where are we going to get the fuel and such for the generator and equipment? We won’t be able to scavenge a lot and it will eventually run out and soon.”

“True but there’s plenty of fuel to be found. We tote a portable generator to hook up to the electrical systems at gas stations and such. We pull the fuel from places like that and then store it. Most of what we’ll need will be diesel and that doesn’t evaporate quickly,” I answer.

“It actually sounds like a good plan to me,” yet another voice chimes in. I see who it is that is talking and asking questions but I don’t know their names as yet.

“Yeah, me too. Sounds as good as any other,” someone else says.

“Anyone else have any ideas on where to go or what to do?” I ask.

“I suppose any one place is good as another considering and this one sounds good enough considering what we’ll be facing,” Bannerman says much to my surprise. Everyone else remains silent although I do see more heads nod in agreement.

“Is everyone good with this?” I ask after giving it a few moments to soak in.

“Hooah, sir,” one voice shouts out followed by others.

I am about to make my usual sarcastic Army comment when the air is split by a shrill scream startling everyone; like an unexpected moment in a horror movie. The scream of terror and fear rises on the still air and echoes off the buildings. It is coming from within the base. The buildings and echoes make it difficult to determine just how far away it is or where it is coming from. Split seconds after the scream, there is the sound of guns being unslung and rounds being chambered from the team. Everyone rises to their feet and looks around for the danger.

“Radios on! Red Team on me!” I call switching my radio on. “Lynn, get Black Team. You and I are the maneuver teams. Everyone else, in teams, take defensive positions away from the aircraft,” I call out.

The scramble of feet on the pavement follows as soldiers establish a defensive line focusing on the buildings, waiting for something to emerge. I do not want a firefight to take place that endangers or has rounds hitting the aircraft.

“Michelle, Bri, Nic, in the aircraft now!” I shout looking over at them.

I move Red Team off to the right side of the defensive line and see Lynn take Black Team to the left. The echoes die away leaving us in the still of the bright morning once again. Robert is standing by my side; I look for any movement and see none.

“Do you want me with you?” He asks.

“No, I want you in the aircraft guarding Michelle, Nic, and Bri. You are their defense,” I respond. I see him trot off and run up the ramp, disappearing into the 130.

“Lynn, you see anything?” I ask.

“Nothing here Jack,” she responds.

A gunshot rings out from within the base and is followed by another scream. Both echo throughout the area with the scream carrying that same fear-filled nature.

“Lynn, Black Team with me,” I say into the radio. “We don’t really have time for this. But what else can we do. Everyone else maintain defensive lines.”

“Roger that,” Lynn’s voice sounds in my ear piece.

“Will do, sir,” the other team leaders say.

“Robert, make sure the aircraft is refueled and topped off,” I say into the mic.

“Okay, Dad.”

Both Red and Black Team move across the ramp, weapons out and ready, the teams alert and with good spacing between each other, eyes looking outward for any signs of trouble or movement. We join up close to the buildings between which are roads leading further into the base. Lynn and I come together with the rest of our teams facing outward in a semi-circle.

“It’s obviously coming from further in but I’m not sure if whatever is going on is moving or not. We have to be alert and ready. Urban rules here. I’ll take the right side of the street, you take the left. Eyes up and watching windows. Watch the corners and building entryways. Cover and maneuver, a half block at a time. No running as I don’t want sound to alert anyone. They must have heard the aircraft but I don’t want them to pinpoint our location,” I say whispering into her ear.

“You got it,” she whispers back. We quickly brief our teams on maneuver and coverage before stepping from the ramp and out into the first street.

Walking onto the first street that crosses in front of the building, I notice that the base here is a lot more open than I was expecting. The base seems composed more of open fields and parking lots than building-lined streets. This gives us a greater distance visibility, but of course that means we can be seen as well.

“Disregard the urban rules scenario,” I say into the mic to Lynn. “We’ll go in a staggered formation with Red Team in the lead covering ahead and left. Black covers ahead and to the right.”

“Roger that,” I hear Lynn say through the radio.

We start down a street leading further into the base. Large parking lots spread out from the road to small buildings with large, grassy fields between them, brown from a summer without much water. All is still except for us moving down the sides of the two-lane road stretching out ahead of us. The climbing sun shines down; heating the pavement beneath our feet and making us feel warm beneath the tactical vests we donned on exiting the aircraft. I pat the full magazines in their respective pouches, seeking some assurance from them and remembering the stress and fear of running out just a day before. Was it really only that long ago? It feels like a distant memory , I think scanning the road ahead and the buildings to the side.

Coming up on the first intersection, another two-lane road branches off to the right. Once again, the roads and areas are not reminiscent of apocalyptic scenes from the movies. Cars are not piled up on the road or in ditches. Bodies are not scattered about. Smoke is not billowing from every structure or vehicle. It is very much like an early Sunday morning. Very few cars or people to be seen. Well, in our case, no people. With the exception of the scream. Riding on the still air, I make out a murmur of a voice coming from ahead and to the left. Still seeming a distance away, but heard nonetheless.

“We have voices ahead and right,” I whisper in the radio. “Unknown number.”

“Copy that,” Lynn replies.

“Let’s cut down this road to the left. Red Team switching to the right side,” I add.

“Copy.”

We cross the road as Black Team takes up position on our left and slightly behind. A small building, the standard military prefab type, blocks my view of anything further in to the right. It is a small building so I will be able to see around it shortly. We continue our cautious advance. Passing the building, a parking lot opens up beside it; lined with trees on the two farther sides. The voices, now distinguished as a distant shouting, can be heard coming from either in the trees or on the other side of them.

“Lynn, on me,” I say.

Black Team crosses to our position where we are kneeling in a line along the road, concentrating on the area to our front but without neglecting our sides and rear.

“If I would hazard a guess, I would say that the voices are coming from the other side of those,” I whisper to Lynn and point to trees about 500 feet away. Oh for an ACOG scope , I think as I would love to be able to see a little better what lies in those trees.

“Skirmish line across the lot and halt just inside the trees if we don’t encounter anything,” I say. “If we take fire, provide cover and we’ll leap frog quickly back behind that building.”

“Got it,” she says with a nod.

We spread out in a skirmish line and start across the lot, weapons at the ready and safeties off, ready to pour steel downrange with a moment’s notice. The only sound is the increasing volume of yelling to our front. I cannot make out the words but it is definitely human and, from the sound of it, there is a little tension going on or else, why would anyone be yelling. And, it is getting pretty easy to tell it is part of a conversation. It will not be too long before we can figure out what is going on as we near the trees ahead. So far though, nothing has come out to greet us and I am thankful to this point that there are not angry bees buzzing about and striking us. Who knows what reaction someone would have seeing a line of armed personnel coming at them alert and ready? Most likely shoot first. 

We reach the trees safely and take up defensive positions within them. Upon entering, it becomes pretty apparent that this grouping of trees is not that wide. They do stretch away to our right some but we are not going to have cover for long. Just visible through the trees is a parking lot and the voices are now becoming faintly distinguishable; however, the trees prevent us from hearing and understanding the actual words. A small paved walkway makes its way through the trees from our left to right marking what, at another time, would have been a pleasurable walk under the trees.

“Let’s move forward to get a better look but don’t leave the tree line. Set up just inside,” I say into the mic.

“Roger.”

We all stand and begin moving quietly and slowly forward in our skirmish line, still alert for anything around us. Crossing the walkway and reaching the other side, we settle into covered positions. Before us, a large parking lot leads to a brown, two-story building across from us. Only seven cars are parked in a row on the left side but we have a clear line of sight to the building. There, in the lot close to the building, eighteen men stand in a semi-circle before the main building door. It is from this group that the shouting is coming from. Standing by the door is what appears to be a woman with her arm wrapped around a child by her side, pressing him close to her in an obvious protective nature. She is holding her other arm out toward the men standing there, giving me the impression that she is holding a pistol although I cannot tell for sure from this distance.

“Lady, drop the gun and we won’t hurt the child,” I hear one voice call out from the group of men.

Well, that’s enough for me , I think noticing they didn’t include her in the offer of protection. Maybe I have watched too many movies but I have also witnessed this type of scene far too many times. Bosnia and the horrors there come to mind. I can remember the many times we would be up in the hills overlooking and observing towns being taken over and wiped out. Seeing genocide happen through a 20x scope. The ugliness that people can do to one another is amazing. Yes, evil does walk the world. And watching the poor women, well, I would rather not describe the atrocities there and shove those memories from my mind.

If we had a clear shot, we would ask for clearance and were given it most of the time. The offender centered in the scope and the feel of a light trigger pull. The kick letting me know that another evil creature will shortly get to tell his story about why he has suddenly been delivered to his own personal hell. The scope centered once again to see the woman scramble off. Hopefully to live and forget the horror of what she has momentarily lived through. I would always hope they escaped and were not found moments later only to go through it again. Yes, my mind is tainted with that evil and thus I have heard enough to know what is going on with this current situation. I feel anger and a sickness rising but keep it under control.

“Lynn, take Black Team back to the path and down to the right flank. Don’t expose yourself but get into position on the right. If we start trading steel, I don’t want the woman or kid to be in the line of fire,” I say without taking my eyes from the situation ahead of us.

“Will do,” I hear her say.

“Red Team will branch off to the left and get a flanking position there by the cars,” I add giving her our plans.

“Roger,” she responds.

Black Team passes behind us on their way to the path. We, Red Team, rise and begin to slowly move along the tree line to our left, keeping the situation in sight at all times but without exposing ourselves. I do not want some gumbah to turn around and see us. Our advantage lies in stealth at this point. They may be likely to shoot the woman and child first if they see a threat approaching. Something I would like to avoid. At the end of the parking lot, the tree line ends at another street running perpendicular to us. We turn right and start down the side of the parking lot towards the parked cars. Crouching and moving slowly so as to not attract any undue attention. The group seems pretty concentrated on the woman and child but it only takes one to turn and see a group of armed soldiers making their way towards them.

“Stay away from me. I’ll shoot,” the woman yells out.

“Lady, just put the gun away and the child can go free. You want your child safe don’t you?” A voice from the group calls out.

“You killed my husband,” I hear her shout back.

It is then that I notice the body lying face down on the short concrete path leading from the parking lot to the door. Its arms are stretched out over its head and blood is pooling below the head. The conversation between the woman and men continue in this fashion as we approach the row of parked cars. Reaching them unobserved, I motion for the team to take positions behind them but maintain clear lines of fire into the group of men. If a firefight develops, our fire should carry away from the woman, her child, and Black Team across from us.

“We’re in position,” I hear Lynn say over the radio.

I look across to the tree line across the lot. Not a soul to be seen. Damn, they’re good , I think trying to see any sign of a face, gun, or clothing.

“You’re good,” I say back.

“Of course we are. What do you think? That you’re the only one who can sneak,” she says back.

“Thought I was but apparently not,” I shoot back. “Stand by. I’m going to initiate verbal contact shortly. Do not engage unless I do.”

“Copy that Ranger Rob,” she replies. She’s enjoying this far too much .

“Well look who came across a sense of humor in the woods. Did you find it or steal it from someone?” I say.

“Must have taken yours because you’ve obviously lost it,” I hear her say through the radio.

“Um, copy that,” I reply knowing when to say when. “You’re out of our firing line right?”

“We’re good,” she answers.

Peering over the trunk of the last car in line, I observe closer that the woman is in great distress. The hand that is indeed wielding a revolver is shaking, observable even at this distance. Her dark, straight hair hangs down to her shoulders like the flags and wind sock. Tears stream down her pale, fear-filled face but she also carries a look of determination. She is going to protect her child at all costs. The young boy, who looks to be about six, is clutching both of his arms around her waist, his eyes wide with fright and not knowing what to do. His dad is lying in a pool of blood on the concrete a short distance away from him and armed men are threatening his mom. Overwhelming fear and shock must be gripping his insides at his situation, regardless of what they must have gone through the past few days.

The banter continues between the woman and the men. From their conversation, it becomes quite apparent that the men want the woman and that want is not for her own good. They are obviously a marauding band, taking what they want and feeling powerful doing so. Great! Now we’re going to throw marauding bands into the mix. Oh yay! Can it get any better?  I think determining the best approach here. We can open fire and take them down before they know what happened or we can try and defuse the situation and gather more for our group. I really do not want them included considering how they are acting, but with there not being many of us left, more may be better. On the other hand, they may introduce more trouble than it is worth.

I look on to see if any of them feel uncomfortable bullying the woman and the situation. They all appear to be comfortable with what they are doing with the exception of one younger man standing off to the side. His eyes dart around everywhere else but the situation in front of him, shifting his stance from side to side in apparent discomfort.

“Drop your weapons and move on assholes,” I say aloud standing from behind the car and aiming my M-4 into the central mass.

Well, I guess that decision is made . Defuse and get them out of here. Bullets flying through the air introduce a random variable to the equation that I would rather not bring about. One of the variables is ricochets; their random changes in direction of flight after impact cannot be adequately accounted for. Bullets are no longer friendly once they leave the barrel.

The startle amongst them is an amazing thing to see. I have never grown tired of watching people react to someone close by when they had no idea that someone was there. The shock is close to paralyzing for them. The trick is to keep them that way and not to let them recover; keep them off balance.

“Drop them or die, your choice but make it quick or I’ll decide for you,” I say seeing the group turn their gaze to one man in the middle; seeking an answer as to what they should do.

The one in question is a tall, lanky man in jeans and a blue t-shirt with a rip in the front. He’s sporting a red hat with a New England Patriot’s logo on the front; his longish, brown hair curling out from under it in a tangled mess. He has bully and coward written all over him judging from his cornering this family and exerting his control over them with seventeen others behind him. I have seen his type before. Seems strong with his buddies and superior numbers behind him, but take that away and he’ll cower and whimper in the corner. The uncertainty of what to do is written all over his pinched face, a face dominated by a rather large nose. He feels the need to be strong or lose the respect of the men with him, but his cowardice is coming to the surface. The quick change from dominating the scene to being faced with someone strong causes a conflict inside. He cannot yield nor


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can he bully. He is at a loss. A short time passes with his indecision.

“Everyone hold your fire but be ready, I’m taking one out,” I say into the radio.

I line my red dot up on the head of the apparent leader and flip my selector switch to semi. A small pull on the trigger and the M-4 jars slightly against my shoulder. The crack of the round firing and going supersonic, sending its deadly payload outward, startles the group further. The steel round connects with his head with a solid thunk, rocking his head backward and tossing the cap into the air. Blood sprays outward and to the rear, a brilliant pink mist lit by the sun. Bits of bone and clumps of brain matter add mass to the mist. His body stiffens and both the lever-action rifle he was carrying and his body falls straight to the ground, the rifle clattering on the pavement and his body hitting it with a fleshy thump.

“Last chance shitheads. Who’s next?” I call out moving my red dot to the man standing next to their fallen leader.

Every man stands with shocked expressions. See, most people expect the banter to continue and the one with the wittiest line wins. They think the war of words is the actual battle. They watch way too much TV. Or did. This is the last thing they expect or want. The realization that I am not kidding around, or that banter and talk will even be a part of this, dawns brightly upon them. They expected something like they were engaged in with the family to ensue. Nope, not going to happen. You cannot fuck around with mentalities like these. Especially when they are confused as to which choice they should make. You make it very clear what the right choice is and do it right from the start.

“Lynn, bring your team out into the open but ready to open up,” I speak into the radio.

Black Team emerges from the tree line, lining up along the parking lot on the other side. Spaced apart but ready to deliver immense amounts of firepower should they need. The men notice the movement to one side of them and see Red Team positioned behind the cars with their weapons trained on them on the other. Most drop their weapons before being told to. They outnumber us by a fair margin but also know the odds of them living long enough to make that count, should it come down to a fight, are slim. They know when to say when. Hmmm, must be going around , I think. An assortment of guns falls to the ground in a continuous clatter lasting a few seconds.

“Move over there slowly,” I say pointing to a spot in the parking lot to my right with the barrel of my carbine. “In the middle and sit down with your hands on your head. Move in any way we don’t like and you’ll not appreciate the result.”

“Lynn, move up and cover them,” I say as the group of men shamble over and sit down on the warming pavement. I direct Red Team to set up a small perimeter, shoulder my weapon and move over to the woman with my hands open.

“It’s okay, ma’am, you won’t be hurt,” I call out towards her.

She is still holding the revolver out in front of her but she has lowered it down at an angle. I can sense she feels conflicted; feeling both saved, or at least hoping so, and unsure if she should relax. The young boy is still clutching her waist with his eyes now darting from her and to the man, his dad apparently, lying on the walkway.

“Lynn, can you come over here?” I ask into the radio holding my position.

“Can you talk with her? I think she may still be in a little shock and need a woman to assure her she is safe,” I say to her once she arrives.

Lynn shoulders her rifle and walks over to her, hands spread in a reassuring manner. The woman does not raise her gun up but she does not lower it either. A little sense of relief flows from her to see a woman and she lets Lynn approach, the boy sliding around behind his mom as Lynn draws near. Lynn comes to a stop in front of her and slowly puts her hand out to the pistol in the woman’s hand, pushing it gently down to the side. I cannot hear exactly what the conversation is but I can tell there is one by the woman’s mouth moving. She abruptly erupts into tears and, dropping the gun on the ground, throws her arms out and gives Lynn a hug, enfolding her and sobbing on her shoulder. Lynn puts her arms around the grief and shock-stricken woman.

After a few moments, the woman recovers and draws back. Unwrapping her son’s arms from around her, she bends down to say something to him. Standing after she has a word with her son, she walks over to where her husband lies on the ground, the pooled blood around him drying in the warming air. She crouches down and I observe her remove the wedding band from his hand and deliver a kiss with her fingers to his cheek. Standing once again, she gathers her son and walks with Lynn back towards me, the woman stopping a few feet away as if uncertain of her position or safety.

“She says they were trying to find food and water when they were waylaid by these guys,” Lynn says with a measure of disgust nodding towards the group of men sitting on the pavement, bunched together with Black Team forming a semi-circle around them. “They shot her husband when they became cornered here and he tried to defend them.”

“That’s kind of what I thought,” I reply. I wave the woman over and she approaches in a hesitant manner, automatically sweeping her son behind her in a protective manner as she nears.

Dark circles around her brown eyes tells of the horror and sleeplessness she must have faced over the past few days; as does the grime and dirt spotting her face. Her diminutive stature belies the look of determination in her eyes she had just a few moments before as she stood off the group of men looking to harm her and possibly her son.

“I’m very sorry for your loss ma’am. You’re safe with us and be assured no harm will come to you or your boy,” I say.

A look of relief passes through her eyes on hearing my words and eyeing the armed men around her; her body language showing a measure of the tension inside releasing.

“Do you know of or heard of anyone else alive?” I ask.

Looking back at me, she shakes her head “no” evidently not trusting to talk at this time.

“You and your son are welcome to come with us. But just so you know, we’re not staying here. We have an aircraft and are heading to the Northwest. It’s your choice but I would feel very remiss leaving you here,” I tell her.

She looks to Lynn as if looking for an answer. She appears to be somewhere in her twenties and at a loss as to what to do. Lynn looks back at her and nods her head; both in reassurance and that she should indeed come along with us.

“Okay, sir, thank you,” she says in a shy voice after a moment’s pause and glances over at her late husband lying in the sun.

“Don’t worry, we’ll take care of him and give him decent honors,” I say but with a feeling that our time line is slipping away. More time spent here is less time we’ll have today down south. “What’s your name miss?”

“Kathy,” she responds.

“And what’s your name young man?” I ask directing my question at the boy anxiously clutching his mom but peering out around her waist.

“Robert,” he answers.

“Well, I have a son named Robert as well. He’s back at the airfield waiting for us,” I say with a smile. He smiles timidly back.

“What do you think we should do with them?” I say turning my attention back to Lynn and nodding at the captive men.

“Shoot ‘em,” she says with passion and anger in her voice. I would have expected that answer from Lynn. She experienced a similar horrific incident in her past. As a matter of fact, I would expect that answer from any woman having had to face such ugliness. That kind of anger just does not dissipate. I give her the sideways look of ‘really!?’

“Okay, just the left testicle,” she adds after seeing my look and knowing inside the both of us that we cannot outright shoot anyone we’ve captured.

Well, I would make an exception for the night runners but, although anyone may think differently, it is awfully hard to actually coldly shoot anyone unarmed that you have captured. I do feel a sickness inside that makes me want to, for a moment, take her up on her suggestion.

“We’ll see,” I say stepping over, with Lynn walking just behind my right shoulder, to the men whose future manhood is in serious question.

“Anything to say for yourselves?” I ask the group with disgust, gazing at each of them. Each of their eyes turns downward as my eyes focus on them. Yeah, you should feel ashamed .

“We didn’t mean anything,” one of them finally says although his eyes remain glued to the gray pavement in front of him. “We weren’t going to hurt them.”

“Explain why she was trembling in fear with a handgun then! Explain how her husband is laying on the ground over there! Go ahead, tell this young lad why his dad isn’t going to be there for him! Didn’t mean anything my ass!” I say quietly yet with emphasis and hear Kathy begin sobbing quietly behind me. Sometimes I just don’t think about what I’m saying , I think regretting those words were said within her hearing.

“Any of you have knives? Raise your hand higher if you do.” I ask the humbled group. Most raise their hands.

“Good. You four,” I say picking out four of the strongest looking, “go pick up that man and follow us. Lynn, detail two to cover them.”

“Yes, sir,” she says lapsing back into her professional form as the four pick themselves up and walk to the dead man with two members of Black Team to the rear and side covering them.

“Would it be a fitting place under those trees?” I ask Kathy. She blinks her tears away, looks over to the trees indicated, and nods. It does seem a peaceful place sheltered by the trees.

“The rest of you over to those trees and start digging,” I say eyeing them carefully, not expecting them to bolt due mainly to my outright shooting of their leader. I see the abject obedience and low esteem written across their faces and in their eyes. “One grave and make it snappy!”

“What about Joe?” One of them asks looking over to where their former leader lies by the evaporating pool of blood circling his head and running in lines along the uneven pavement.

“He stays where he lies,” I say. I don’t have the stomach or time.

“What about us? Are you going to shoot us?” The same man asks with fear in his voice.

“I haven’t decided yet. Compliance will certainly be in your favor,” I say trying to keep the balance of uncertainty and hope in each of them. Knowing their fate, whether for good or bad, will cause a reaction of some sort on their part. Knowing they will die for sure will cause them to find a way to flee or attack knowing they have nothing to lose. Letting them know they may live and giving them a semblance of hope will keep them docile and doing what you want. Off balance and indecisive, that is what I want them to feel.

“Red Team, keep a moving perimeter about us as we move over to the trees and notify the others at the airfield that all is in hand and well,” I say in the radio.

“Roger sir,” I hear McCafferty respond.

The group of men, and I use the term loosely, are sweating furiously by the time they finish digging a large enough hole in the ground. The temperature is climbing as the morning progresses and the sun makes its way higher into the clear, blue sky. The trees here provide some shelter but it becomes warm nonetheless, the lack of a breeze is stifling. The smell of freshly dug up earth fills the air as Robert’s dad is lowered into the five foot hole, seventeen men can dig a hole pretty quick, even in this hard packed earth. I am not really a good one for words for these times so I ask everyone to say a prayer in their own fashion with a moment of silence.

Red Team is still keeping a small perimeter and I ask them to recover the guns dropped by the marauders — a much better word for them than men. They return carrying a variety of weapons with them, mostly hunting rifles, shotguns, and handguns. I have the marauders stand and searched without finding any additional guns; they only have their now dulled knives with them.

“Are we going to get those back?” Asks the one man questioning earlier, referring to the guns and now fairly sure we are not going to annihilate them. At least he could think; I mean, who would search someone a while after being captured if we were just going to shoot them down. Why not just do it?

“Nope,” I answer.

“Are you going to shoot us?” He asks.

“Most likely not.”

“You’re just going to leave us here defenseless?”

“Should’ve thought about that before,” I say not having the least ounce of remorse for them. This new world, if we ourselves live long enough to keep mankind going, does not need these types around to foster or bring about their kind of thinking. The kind that thinks bullying women or forcing them is okay. And that goes for a large variety of actions. We really need to foster morality and, not only the ability to know right from wrong, but to act in that manner. Harmony with our environment and peace with those around us. Hopefully this new age, which will be a while in the making considering how few of us there are left, will have that facet to it. This time, we can hopefully do it right.

“You there,” I say pointing to the one I thought I saw some uneasiness in with prior our intervention.

He is a strong looking young man with a medium build either in his late teens or just out of them with short black, tightly curled hair. His dark eyes and face turn towards me with a look of fear and dread.

“How do you feel about what happened?” I ask sweeping my hand in the general direction of where they had Kathy and her son cornered.

“I didn’t like it at all, sir,” he answers lowering his head and then looking back into my eyes. I perceive no deception in them or with him.

“Why didn’t you do anything?” I ask further.

“Well, I really didn’t know what to do. I was worried they’d turn on me,” he answers. The other marauders direct quick, dark looks in his direction.

“What’s your name?”

“Kenneth. And I’m really sorry ma’am,” he says directing this last to Kathy.

“Can we go with you? Will you take us with you? We’re really sorry too lady,” the other man with all of the questions pipes up and asks.

“Not a chance in hell. Now all of you get the fuck out of here before I change my mind about everything. If I see you again, you die!” I give him my answer in no uncertain terms. “Kenneth, you can stay and go with us if you’d like.”

The remaining marauders, seeing their chance at living to see another sunrise, take to their heels, vanishing off through the trees. Kenneth looks after them in a moment of uncertainty and then remains.

“Let’s get out of these trees and back,” I say to the group. “Black Team in the lead, Red Team following. Keep an eye out to where they went.”

“Hooah, sir.”

“All other teams, this is Jack, we’re heading back with three civilians in tow,” I say into the radio letting the others at the aircraft know. “Robert, is the aircraft refueled?”

“Just finished, Dad,” he answers.

“Okay everyone, let’s be ready to go on our arrival. We’ll be there in about fifteen minutes,” I say pressing the mic button again.

“We’ll be ready, sir,” I hear Drescoll respond.

Following our path back through the silent base, we make our way through the warm, humid morning back towards the aircraft with our three new passengers tagging along with us. We keep the same staggered formation with Kathy, Kenneth, and Little Robert, that’s how I think of him now, in the middle of our formation. We are going to be way crowded in the aircraft now. I mean, a regular C-130 would start to feel crowded, but this one was not meant to handle a lot of people. It was meant to handle a lot of fuel. But we will manage. We may have to figure something else out though if we run across another large group.

This last little escapade did answer one question, or at least prove a nagging thought that was in my head — there are others. I hope that a majority, and there have to be others, are not like this last band and just out marauding or out for themselves; treating others with impunity. I mean, why would you do something like that when it’s obvious we are on the brink? Doing harm to others instead of helping?  To me, that is truly evil and I just don’t get it.

I catch movement out of the corner of my eye, turn my head, and see a dog paralleling us. It has been out there since we started back. Trotting or walking along; keeping the same distance away but definitely intrigued by us. I keep alert for any sign of others remembering back to the pack we saw by the side of the road when we were heading up to McChord. Thinking they may develop into packs as dogs are wont to do. But from all indications, this one is alone. I cannot really tell just what kind of dog it is from the distance it is keeping away from us, but I can tell it is a larger breed and mostly black.

“Sir,” Henderson says nodding toward the dog.

“Yeah, I see it,” I respond back. “I just think it’s curious. And alone.”

We are about to take the short road back onto the ramp, to disappear between the building and leave the base proper. I turn back and see the dog has stopped as if seeing us off and not wanting to follow us. Probably because it would have to draw closer in proximity to us to do so . In order to follow us, it has to come closer to some extent, but it seems to want to keep its distance. I can sense a longing in the way it stands to follow but then sits right back down.

“Everyone hold up a minute,” I say out loud. The clatter of boots on the hard top ceases and everyone turns, setting up a small perimeter automatically.

I turn and walk back out towards the dog a few feet. It takes a couple of running steps away as I advance but then stops and looks back. I squat down and call out to it holding my hand out in front of me; showing it the ‘I don’t mean any harm’ signal that seemingly all animals, humans included, know and understand. Its ears perk up at my call.

“Really!? You’re halting us because you want to pet a dog,” Lynn says close by my shoulder. She has a point but something is calling me to this dog.

“Five minutes. If it hasn’t come by then, we’re on our way,” I say to her but keep facing the dog that is doing the low slink and wait as it edges closer. I can tell it wants to come but is quite hesitant. I do not blame it considering what it must have seen and been through with the night runners and perhaps not being able to distinguish between the two.

The dog edges ever closer and I can make out that it is a Rottweiler. A young one but the features are distinct. I call softly as he creeps ever closer, until he is only a few feet away. I see a wound on his left shoulder that is in the early stages of healing. I am guessing from another dog or night runner. Judging from the size of this one, another dog would be very wary about attacking it, unless it was a pack of dogs. I continue holding my hand out, keeping it steady and not making any sudden movements, until his nose touches the end of my fingers, and sniffs. I move them up slowly and start rubbing the top of his nose. He, yes, it is evident that is what it is, gives my fingers a tentative lick and I move my fingers to his ears and start scratching. Then, as if released, he comes in to me and begins to lick my face; happy we are not going to hurt him and that he may have found a home. Or at least some attention.

“Mom, can I keep it?” I ask teasingly turning back to Lynn who is standing there with a small smile on her face.

“You have to clean up after it,” she replies.

“I will, Mom. Promise.”

The aircraft is ready to go as promised as we emerge onto the ramp with our now fourth additional passenger who is trotting along at my side. The start cart is ready with Michelle and Nic by its side. Drescoll’s team is the only team out providing cover and security. I direct Red Team to stay with Drescoll to provide additional security while we start up. I leave instructions to enter after we crank up the starboard engines and not to walk behind them. I am leaving the security out as I am not sure what those marauders will do once they get out of sight and feel safe. Those types often feel their “manhood” rise and try to do something to restore their lowered self-esteem. I do not want to deal with their insecurities right now, and, frankly, they could take the lot of us down if they were to do something while we are taking off or still low to the ground. I am feeling a touch nervous about that.

I walk inside with the Rottie in tow. He seems quite content to follow me and stays right at my heels. I will be interested to see how well he is trained as he seems to have had some. I ask Kathy if Little Robert would like to come up into the cockpit. She asks him and his eyes light up. Up the stairs and into the cockpit we all go. Bri turns and nearly comes out of her seat, even though she’s strapped in, when she sees my new companion. The new companion being the Rottweiler and not the young lad.

“Jesus, Dad!” She says in a loud, startled voice. “Where’d you get him?” Everyone else in the cockpit turns and has the same reaction.

“Found him along the way,” I say getting myself settled.

The Rottie, I’m going to have to think of name for him soon, sits down on the cockpit deck next to Bri. I introduce Little Robert around and set him on the bunk. I am not all that comfortable with him not being strapped in somewhere but there is going to be a bit of that going around now. I see Kathy standing at the bottom of the stairs and motion her in. Our little cockpit has become quite the hangout. She sits on the bunk alongside her son. This truly has the makings of either an airline disaster or some Mary Poppins type of movie — you know, the family all together on a trip. The family dog sitting by the throttle quadrant with the kids singing happily along. Okay, we need to get going before I truly lose the rest of my marbles.

“Would you like to take care of the dog for me as well?” I ask Little Robert.

His eyes shine brightly and soon he is busy petting the grateful canine; both becoming enthused with each other. I see the shock of the day disappearing from Little Robert’s eyes. Kids are amazingly resilient. Too bad we lose that capability somewhere along the way.

The startup goes without a hitch. I am really watching the instruments closely. We have travelled quite a distance without any maintenance and I do not know when the last maintenance was accomplished on this aircraft. I could check the maintenance logs but that was always Greek to me and I would not have much of an idea what they were saying. At least we will be over land if something happens. Much easier to find a field and put it down as opposed to trying to land in an ocean. The swells are the kicker. Oh, and one interesting point to the ‘ol Hercules, there is an almost zero chance of living through a water landing. Thus one of the little aspects I was nervous about with the crossing.

It is before noon when we take off, angling away from the base and airfield in case those “men” left on the ground try to do something to us in flight. We should still have enough time to get to the CDC, find what we need, and get back to the aircraft before dark. Climbing out and turning to the southwest, I see small cumulus clouds building in the distance ahead of us; a possible precursor to developing storms. At the very least, a different air mass and frontal system. Luckily we are in the summer months but scattered afternoon thunderstorms do develop in the south on occasion. I am hoping for a worry-free flight. Our flight should only take about four hours to get down there and, with summer upon us, should give us about five plus hours of daylight to get our stuff done. Whether we take off again tonight to head home will depend on whether we can find what we want and our state of mind. I have flown exhausted before and know the dangers inherent with it. It is all good if nothing goes wrong but the chance of catching something amiss diminishes considerable. And if something does happen, reaction times are slowed by a large degree.

Staying near the eastern seaboard, the ride down is calm for the most part with just a little skirting of some weather. Our path takes us directly over New York City but I fly around it as the city is covered with a thick haze from the smoke of fires that rise out of the embattled city. Large plumes of dark, oily smoke rise from many parts of the city, filling the air with its toxic content. Many of those dark plumes billow out from the windows of the high-rise towers that dominate the skyline. That city is going to look even dirtier when all of this settles , I think staring out at the tall buildings rising from the thick haze. The ash from those fires will coat everything giving it a very gray, dingy look. This is more like what I pictured the end of the world would look like . The city looks exactly like what a post-apocalyptic city should look like according to the movies. It also gives rise to the thought that many areas of the used-to-be Eastern United States will become uninhabitable due to the numerous nuclear power plants that supplied power. There is not going to be anything to stop the meltdowns when the power supplying those facilities runs out. Are they in the process of that due to the power being out now?  The very thought makes me subconsciously steer the lumbering 130 further to the west. We’ll need to acquire a Geiger counter as well , I think as the city eventually passes off to our left and behind us, leaving the taint of what we witnessed impressed in our minds.

Washington D.C. speaks of the same story but not with the same intense statement. We steer around in the same manner, seeing the White House, Congressional buildings, and the Washington monument off in the distance; silent testimonies of a time past. The fires are not as prevalent here but it still has the same empty look of a city where the inhabitants have disappeared. I have flown into these places before and there was always movement. Cars and aircraft and people; all moving with an intended personal agenda, caught up in the errand at hand. Now, there is not a thing in sight moving. It is completely giving forth a sad and melancholy feeling. There is a vast and deep loneliness present. I feel like an intruder encroaching into the serenity of the city. But there is a tension prevalent as well. Something horrible lurking underneath the serene picture. Waiting. Watching.

The other cities we pass, Richmond, Greensboro, Charlotte, are the same and give the same feeling. Each passing city brings to mind the possibility of survivors. Are they still in the city or have they moved out into the countryside ? I think on what they must be facing down there. What must be going through their minds as the sun begins its downward path to the western horizon. The fear that must grip them as they watch the unrelenting approach of the night and are unable to stop it. I do notice fewer fires within the cities as we pass further south. I search my mind for a plausible reason but can’t come up with anything. There shouldn’t be power so it can’t be started from anything electrical. Could it be survivors burning buildings to remove the night runners from within them? I just don’t know,  I think as my mind wonders what Atlanta will be like.

I do not have that long to find out as the city comes into view ahead through the windshield. There is a distinct lack of the smoke plumes compared to the other cities we saw on our way down. Sure, there are small columns of smoke rising in the afternoon air but the dark, oily plumes that existed in all of the other grand cities is absent. I don’t know the reason why but I’ll take it , I think setting the aircraft up for descent.

We descend over the outlying suburbs surrounding the actual city of Atlanta. Tree-lined roads and neighborhoods fill the areas in between, shadows filling the paved streets. The sun, lighting the tops of the trees and rooftops below us, sits halfway through the western sky. Browns, grays, and reds show through the green foliage with ribbons of gray outlining these colors and encircling them. Below us are not the usual box patterns found in developments but swirls, curves, and meanderings that are pleasing to the eye. With exception of the lack of movement and the brownish smoke ascending in several places, you would not think anything is out of the ordinary. It certainly presents a different picture than those cities further north.

Completing the descent checks, I descend down to 500 feet, calling the team leaders into the cockpit making it one very crowded place indeed. Standing room only. The airport we are shooting for is actually a little to the northeast of the city with the CDC to the south and east. It is only a little less than ten miles travel time on the ground from the airfield to the CDC. I hope we can find some vehicles to use close to the airfield for transportation.

“I’ll do a flyby over the airport and then we’ll look for a route to CDC so we can get an idea of what we’re looking at. We’ll also do some flybys of the campus itself,” I say to those assembled, yelling to be heard.

The airport parking lot shows


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a few cars and pickups sitting in the afternoon sun, the tops of their colored roofs and a sparkle from their windshields glare back. I have the coordinates of the CDC set as a waypoint in the navigation system and dial it up, flying directly to it. Being so close, it immediately comes into view just off our nose. Well, at least the area does. It appears to be set up in a campus-like fashion. I have never been here so this is all new to me, but I have had to determine locations and routes like this many times in the past.

“Wow! This is going to be more difficult than I imagined,” I say looking at the multitude of buildings passing by below.

The enormity of it with our limited manpower almost makes me want to just try somewhere else, but we are here so we will try what we can with what we have.

“Yeah,” I hear Lynn shout over my shoulder.

“Okay, let’s head back and find the best route to get there,” I shout back.

We climb up, picking our way back to the airfield close by, analyzing the roads to find the best route. Finding one, we memorize the landmarks and turns. Looking at the same picture on the ground is so much different than what it looks like from the air. You can fly over a piece of ground a hundred times and think you have it down, but then easily get turned around when you get your boots on the ground. The mind lends itself to doubt when traversing something new. ‘Is this right?’ is a common question. But we are all trained for this type of situation so it should not be too difficult; especially with the short distance involved.

“Get everyone buckled in if you would,” I yell to Lynn. “We’ll do a team leader brief immediately after landing.”

The cockpit empties somewhat as I circle around to line up on a final approach, our before landing checklist is completed in record time. I push the nose down slightly keeping the runway threshold glued in the windshield. One of the keys to landing is to put the aim point right on the threshold, so that if you did not flare the aircraft, that is where you would hit. Another important key is to not hit the ground, well, without your tires touching first.

“Gear down,” I call over the intercom.

Robert reaches over to the gear handle and pushes it in the down position causing an immediate rumble through the aircraft from the gear and gear doors disrupting the airflow. The rumble stops and three green lights illuminate by the handle indicating success.

“Flaps to 10,” I say liking the fact that we have three safe gear indications as the medium-sized, light gray runway grows larger in the screen.

The number ‘2R’ appears on the runway near the threshold through our windshield. The nose of the aircraft tries to rise up as the flaps come down due to the change of the airflow over the wing. I anticipate that with a small, quick movement down on the control wheel and flick the trim button to correct the aircraft’s behavior to our aerodynamic change.

“Flaps at 50,” I call out as we continue our descent into the airfield. Once again experiencing the rise and correcting.

I finally call for full flaps and, in my peripheral, watch Robert move the flap lever all of the way down. The slowing and pitch change is noticed dramatically as the flaps, which are basically barn doors, extend down from the wing and out into the slipstream. The runway begins to fill our field of view, my attention divided between the approaching ground and airspeed indicator, adjusting the throttles in small increments accordingly. Just as it seems impact with the ground is imminent, I raise the nose as the threshold passes underneath, bringing the throttles back smoothly as we transition from a descent to level flight just above the runway. As the airspeed bleeds off, I raise the nose higher trying to keep the aircraft aloft for as long as possible yet allowing it to descend slowly to the runway.

A very small bump is felt throughout the 130 as the wheels come into contact with the paved surface and begin rolling along. The aircraft settles as if sitting down in its favorite chair after a long day, both relieved and sorry to be out of its natural environment. Lowering the nose wheel to the runway, I bring the props into reverse thrust, causing the forward momentum to drop off rapidly, the g-force causing our bodies to thrust forward against our straps. Applying slight pressure on the brakes forces us to press even harder against the belts holding us in our seats. Settling down to taxi speed, I bring the props back into their normal rotation angle and we pull off of the runway, taxiing into what looks like main terminal area.

Going through the normal shutdown procedure, the props slowly wind down to a stop and we open up the back. Alpha and Bravo teams emerge first establishing a quick perimeter around us. The heat and humidity that is so prevalent in the south during the summer months sweeps into the aircraft, making it feel like you need gills to survive and breathe. Once again, only that lonely silence accompanies our arrival. The dream-like ambience prevails. The total lack of movement and sounds that should be customary just does not seem right. So out of place. I wonder if I will ever get used to this?  I ask myself as I gaze around the area.

The afternoon sun bathes us, the humidity in the air adds to the brightness of the day, blinding in its intensity. Sweat immediately forms on my brow and runs down my spine, dark spots appear under my arms on my ‘needing to be changed soon’ flight suit. I breathe a heavy sigh in the still, humid air thinking about the enormity of what we are about to undertake. The numerous buildings that need to be searched. The very real possibility of not being able to find what we are looking for. And, not knowing exactly what that may look like. I have in my mind that it would be a report of some kind stored in a large file. The risks of entering so many buildings that could be housing a large number of night runners. This is a very real possibility as I assume there were many of the infected that were quarantined for study as the search for a cure became a priority, especially considering the magnitude and speed at which this all came down.

“Let’s get the team leaders together,” I tell Lynn as she steps out onto the ramp next to me. “We’ll have to make this quick as our time is short.”

Once again her command voice can be heard echoing across the area, the stillness of our surroundings magnifies the loudness. It bounces off the buildings a short distance away; reverberating across the parking lot close by and down the adjacent streets.

“Team leaders on me,” she calls out.

They gather around, each one affected by the heat and moisture, rings of sweat showing on their fatigues; Lynn, Drescoll, and Horace and others, to a lesser extent, are accustomed to the heat of the desert but not the humidity. Kuwait can be humid with the shores of the gulf nearby, but not like this. I sit down on the hot surface of the ramp, feeling the heat sear immediately through my thin flight suit, wanting to stand up right away in order to not catch on fire. The feeling dissipates after a few short moments. The others follow suit and sit in a gaggle around me.

“Well, we have a huge task ahead of us given the large amount of structures. I’m thinking the report or information we’re looking for should be in the director’s office but I have no clue where that is. My guess is we start in the main building close to the entrance. I’m sure the reception desk, or whatever they have in lieu of that, will have some sort of directory. That should be the first place we look,” I say opening the briefing.

“And by us, do you mean you plan on going?” Lynn asks sitting to my right.

“I was planning on it,” I say answering.

“I think you should stay here,” she adds with a sideways look.

“And why is that?” I ask.

“Because you’re the only one who can fly this beast,” she answers nodding toward the 130 behind us. “Something happens to you and we’re stuck.”

I must admit I have thought about this a little as we were passing over the CDC campus. I mean, I feel that Robert could get it started and airborne. He is able to configure the nav system to a degree as I spent some time with him on that while we were droning through the endless skies. It is the critical getting down part — meaning landing - that we still have to work on. A smooth take off and flawless flight are meaningless if you rip the wings and gear off on landing. Really turns a good flight into a bad one in a hurry. Impacting the ground and exploding tends to really ruin a good day.

“Okay, point taken. I’ll stay here,” I say after a moment’s pause and feeling reluctant to stay.

“Lynn, take Black, Green, and Blue Teams with you. My suggestion is to assign one team per building to quicken the search but you make that call on arriving. You may want to take the entire group in and do it one at a time. You have until 21:00 to be back. And I mean back here by then regardless of what you find or where you are,” I continue.

“Hooah, sir,” she says, her old ways returning.

“There are a few cars in the parking lot so we’ll have to use those for transportation. Anyone know how to hotwire?” I inquire.

“I think there’s a guy on my team who was in maintenance,” Horace says answering. “I’ll see.”

“Okay, if not we’ll have to figure something out. I don’t want to spend a lot of time here so are there any questions?” I ask. No one speaks up.

“I’m going to take Robert up to practice takeoffs and landings so you’ll hear us overhead. I’ll keep the secondary radio on our freq so let me know if you run into anything. I can also provide overhead directions if you get lost and guide you in. So, seeing there aren’t any questions, let’s get a move on,” I continue and finish the briefing.

The team leaders head to gather their teams and equipment for the trip out. Horace finds out that her maintenance guy should be able to start the vehicles in the event we can’t find keys readily available. They head toward the parking lot as I gather Robert and Bri and head into the aircraft; sealing it shut and settling into our ‘far too familiar’ seats.

We start the engines as the away teams head to the parking to see to their transportation. I give Robert some additional guidance and instruction and let him taxi out to the runway. If you have ever given your child driving lessons, you will know exactly how I am feeling right now; only imagine that in an aircraft. I was an instructor pilot for many years and I feel myself slipping into that mode. Any worry disappears as I concentrate and think about instructing. The aircraft veers on the taxi way as he gets accustomed to taxiing with the wheel, eventually straightening out and keeping the nose wheel on the center line. He has a few hours under his belt so he is used to it, just not in something this large. The sweat marks growing under his arms show his nervousness.

We check for traffic as I conduct a successful radio check with Lynn on the secondary radio. Pulling out onto the runway, he aligns the aircraft and pushes up the throttles with my hands on top of his guiding. The nose swings slightly from side to side as the aircraft accelerates down the runway, smoothing out as he transitions to the rudder pedals for direction. The take-off is a success but he immediately becomes overwhelmed with having to get the gear and flaps up in quick succession in addition to leveling off quickly at pattern altitude. But we manage, turning to a crosswind and then downwind pattern, the landing checks done quickly. His first landing is more of an arrival but that is to be expected.

“This isn’t anything like flying a 152,” he says after trying to plant the 130, and mostly succeeding, onto the runway for the first time. “I feel lost.”

“You’ll get it. It’s the ‘any landing you can walk away from is a good one’ concept,” I say.

We try two more touch-and-go’s with him catching slowly up to the aircraft with each one; improving with each attempt.

“Let’s do a fly by and see how the teams are progressing,” I say and have him maneuver out of the landing pattern and down the route the team is to take.

We see them travelling along a tree-lined, two-lane road as we pass over; three pickups heading toward the CDC. Seeing they are proceeding and apparently not lost, we head back to the airfield, spending a large part of the afternoon practicing his landings until he becomes quite proficient and capable of getting it down safely on his own.


* * *

Lynn gathers her team along with Drescoll’s and Horace’s and proceeds across the hot, black-tarred ramp toward the parking lot; her boots stick slightly to the pavement with each step. The heat has risen to the point that the tar in the pavement is seeping to the top. Her thoughts center on her route and a game plan on arriving at the CDC. Wanting to come up with a plan now but knowing it will have to wait until she actually sees the campus and structures.

Arriving at the parking lot, thankful for the open gate in the chain-link fence that separates the ramp area from the rest of the world, she sees several vehicles parked about. The ones they observed from the air. The vehicles vary in their size and type but the ones that catch her attention are the three pickups, standing out like beacons in the dark. These will be perfect , she thinks pointing them out to the others. She hears the first engine starting from the aircraft on the ramp behind her, the roar filling the still air.

“Let’s do a quick check for keys in those,” she says to Drescoll and Horace standing beside her, her finger pointing to the trucks.

They do not locate any keys hidden under the seat, in the glove box, on the visor, or any place else. At least the doors are unlocked , she thinks. Not that it would actually have been much of a hindrance . A short time later, with three steering columns pried apart and wires joined, the three pickups head out of the parking lot, the beds filled with soldiers, each team to a truck. The whirring of the rubber tires on the hot pavement accompanies the teams along the road with the sun streaming in the windshield turning the cabins into ovens. A check in her rearview shows the two other trucks following behind in intervals.

The buildings and trees lining the road pass by slowly as she makes her way to the first turn towards their destination. The heat inside the truck dulls some of the adrenaline starting to key up inside her as she draws closer to the campus. The turn takes her into a residential district, the trees lining the road on both sides, giving some shade from the swelter of the day and providing a scenic drive. With the windows down, a scent pervades the otherwise pristine area; a hint of rot and decay. Smelling like the side of a stream following a salmon run where fish lie on the banks rotting in the sun. But here, it is the smell of hundreds and thousands of bodies in the houses around that is drifting into the streets. This is just the beginning , Lynn thinks wrinkling her nose at the assault on her senses.

The sound of the aircraft that was droning faintly in the background from time to time grows louder. The deep-throated rumble soon overrides the sound of the truck engine as they progress through the decay-filled neighborhood. Looking out of from the open window as she rides in the passenger seat, she sees the olive drab 130 pass overhead, rocking its wings slightly before making a gentle turn back towards the airfield. The sight of it brings her mind from the stench permeating the area to the mission ahead.

The three soldier-filled trucks make their way through the neighborhood, the road transitioning from a neighborhood street to that of a five-lane road, the middle lane for turns in either direction. A large, blue, curved CDC sign to the right identifies the main entrance into the campus. Taking the turn, a large number of multi-storied buildings come into view giving evidence to the absolute enormity of their venture. The picture on the ground is completely different from that in the air. So much larger in scope than I imagined , Lynn thinks as the trucks proceed slowly down the entrance road.

A checkpoint appears shortly after making the turn; two lanes leading up to the now, empty check-in facility. An exit road circumvents the checkpoint to the left.

“Take that road around,” she says to the soldier driving.

They pass around the checkpoint and come to a T intersection. Turning left, a large glass building looms over them stretching high into the blue sky behind. This must be the main facility building , she thinks as the trucks come to a stop in front and park alongside the curb. Lynn opens the door and steps out into the heat, shielding her eyes with her hand from the glare of the afternoon sun bouncing off the glass front of the building. She checks her watch as the other teams disembark and gather around her.

Lynn looks at the size, immediately knowing it will take all of the teams to cover this one building alone. She hopes for an ounce of luck that what they seek is within this structure of steel and glass. The broken glass littering the pavement in front of the main entrance doors, glittering as the sun strikes the various angles of the shards, gives her warning that night runners may lurk within. Having faced them many times before and hearing the stories emerge from the encounter inside the BX the previous day, she makes up her mind that if they encounter any large force of night runners, they will retreat back outside. She is in agreement with Jack that they cannot engage in a battle of attrition. That battle will be easily lost and lost quickly.

“Okay everyone, here’s the skinny. We’re all going in together. That broken glass by the door indicates that there may be visitors inside; of the ugly kind. Our first task is to find a reception desk of some kind and locate a directory. If we find the director’s office location, we’ll then proceed there. The interior will dictate what formation we’ll use and what order we’ll go in so listen up on the radio,” Lynn says turning to the team members. “Everyone understand?”

“Hooah, First Sergeant,” they respond as one.

Walking in the lead, Lynn steps up to the shattered front doors and peers inside. A wide, tile-floor lobby opens up immediately inside the doors with lush, cherry wood walls stretching up the entire height of the two-story lobby. The tiled floor, once buffed to a high sheen, now shows a lack of tender care as a fine layer of dust fans out from the open door. Dried, bloody footprints show for a short distance both on the tiled floor inside and the concrete sidewalk beside them. The indications of which are very clear; there are definitely night runners within.

Nestled against the far wall sits a large, wooden reception desk and security station fashioned of the same wood and color as those lining the walls all around. Large, broken glass doors, situated in the middle of the far wall, open up into a hallway leading further into the building. The lobby is flooded with the light from outside thanks to the glass window front, darkening quickly in the hallway across from them. That should help us on the higher levels as well depending upon the floor layout , Lynn thinks hoping they won’t have to go too far into the structure.

“Everyone lock and load. Drescoll, take your team and cover the hallway,” Lynn says.

The metallic sound of multiple charging handles being drawn back and released reaches her ears. The scrunch of boots on glass echoes in the once silent building as Drescoll and the rest of Green Team enter inside, taking up position in a line facing down the hallway.

“Horace, take the doorway here and watch for anyone approaching the building. Keep an eye on the other buildings for movement in the windows,” Lynn says watching Green Team cross the lobby. “Black Team on me.”

Stepping inside and crossing the lobby, Lynn walks to and around the reception desk. Several monitors are embedded within a panel spanning the desk, their screens dark. Two reception phones lay on a surface void of clutter; their usually lit buttons forever out. No blinking lights with a multitude of calls on hold that must have once dominated this work space. No calls to forward to the various individuals that once inhabited this building, biding their time and doing their job until retirement. Retirement came early for all of them but without the gold watch or plaque. The only thing left is the forgetting phase that begins shortly after walking out of the retirement party; the retirement party coming in the form of the Cape Town virus and subsequent vaccine.

A thin, blue book lies beside each phone with the words “CDC Directory” embossed in gold on the front. That’s fortunate , the thought crosses through Lynn’s mind as she opens up the directory. Pages tucked inside clear plastic denote names and numbers by department, and, further back alphabetically. Looking under ‘Administration’ on the first page, she sees Director, CDC. Room 500, Crap , she thinks. There goes our luck. We’re going to have to climb to the fifth floor. Hopefully the office in question is in one of the lit areas of the building .

“Looks like we’re going to the fifth floor,” she says over the radio. “Drescoll, what do you have?”

“A bank of elevators to the left and right in the hallway as far as I can see. It gets dark in there pretty quick,” Drescoll answers.

“Alright then. Must be a stairwell nearby. We’ll use that. We only have 12 NVG’s so it’ll be Black and Green Team in the interior. Horace, you take and cover the lobby,” she says into the mic once more.

“I’m with you,” Drescoll’s voice sounds in her ear piece.

“Roger that, First Sergeant,” Horace responds.

Stepping out from behind the reception area, Lynn walks between the shattered glass doors, their remnants on the floor scrunching under her well-worn boots with the rest of Black Team following along behind her. Once again, as at the front door, a multitude of dried, bloody footprints leads in and out of the hallway, testimony to night runners cutting their feet on the glass spread on the linoleum tile as they transit in and out of the building. The hallway quickly fades into darkness with two banks of elevators to the left and right still bathed in a partial glow from the outside light. Their doors tightly shut and the elevator cabs stuck at unknown floors, sitting there until the cable holding them up rusts and sends them plummeting down.

Donning her night vision goggles in the dark and adjusting the strap, she lowers the goggles down; feeling and hearing them click into place, she turns the switch on. The darkened hallway immediately shows up with a sharp, greenish glow. The fuzzy image of the old styles replaced by a sharper image but still with the green glow everyone associates with what NVG’s normally look like. The later versions provide even more clarity and literally turn night into day.

Three more dual sets of elevators come into her vision in the glow of her goggles along with a door set between them on the right with a “stairs” sign above it. The emergency lighting that should have been there long ago extinguished. Turning to the rest of the group behind her, she asks if everyone is good. Meaning, all goggles are working and ready. Thumbs up and nods give answer to her that everyone is prepared.

“Okay, let’s do this,” she says on the radio, stationing team members to cover the entrance and interior. She opens the stairway door and swings it into the hallway.

A rush of cool air envelops her but that is all that emerges from the large stairwell. To the right, stairs lead upwards in the normal emergency stairwell fashion; the stairs leading to an intermediate landing before reversing to continue up to the next floor. Another door leads outward across from the one she is holding open.

“Horace, send over two to cover this bottom stair landing,” Lynn says in her radio after analyzing the situation.

“Roger, First Sergeant, they’re on their way,” Horace replies. Two soldiers quickly head her way, their boots clicking on the tile floor announces their approach.

“You two cover these doors and keep the stairwell clear,” she tells the arriving soldiers.

“Drescoll, detail two at each landing on the way up to cover the doors if they end up being double doors,” Lynn continues. “I’ll detail two on the fifth floor.”

“Copy that,” Drescoll responds.

“Anyone hears or notices anything, no matter how slight, report it right away. We have to keep this route open at all costs. If we get into an engagement, we withdraw through this stairway, the covering force on each stairwell landing folding in behind and covering the withdrawal. Any questions?” Lynn asks expecting none.

“Hooah, First Sergeant,” they all say in hushed tones.

“Okay, let’s move out,” she says and steps into the cooler darkness of the stairwell.

The faint creak of her boot marks her first step upward; weapon trained aloft to what can be seen of the stairs leading in the reverse direction to the landing above. Quietly step by step. Advancing slowly but knowing they are in a little time crunch. Not a rapidly approaching deadline but one nonetheless.

“Horace, keep watch on the time and notify us when we reach 20:15. That’s our cut off point,” she says pressing the mic button at her collar.

“Copy that, First Sergeant,” Horace responds through the radio.

Looking at her watch glowing through her NVG’s, Lynn sees they have about three hours before it is time to go. Maybe enough if they find it right away, maybe not. But that is not going to make her rush any faster. There is a time and place for that and this is definitely not one of those. She arrives at the first landing and begins climbing the next series of steps. Black Team is following several steps back. Keeping a good interval, knowing that huddling up too close in a confined space such as this will increase the odds of friendly-fire casualties in case they have to engage.

The second floor landing is clear and identical to the first floor with the exception of the concrete flooring. Well, and the fact that there is a sign saying ‘2nd Floor.’ Big clue there. There is no need to call the landing clear on the radio as that is readily apparent. She hopes there is not a need to reverse and get out quickly while they are all confined in the stairs together. They will bunch up quickly trying to reverse and get out making the one in front, her, an easy target with nowhere to go.

The stairwell is deathly quiet. So quiet that she can hear the quickened breaths being taken both by her and the soldiers behind, fueled by adrenaline and the fear that accompanies the unknown. Her heart pounds in her chest from the adrenals kicking into high gear. The enclosed concrete block stairwell seems to close in and Lynn is thankful it is not the pitch black that it must be outside of her NVG’s. This is so much better than having just a flashlight , she thinks as she resumes her climb. The darkness outside of a flashlight’s illumination being even darker and the light ruins any night vision.

Reaching the third floor landing, she notices there is not any light coming from under the stairwell door giving a clue that light from the glass front of the building is not reaching the stairwell door on this floor. She noticed the same on the second landing but that was to be expected from the fact that the lobby is two stories tall. Not good , she thinks heading even further up into the building. As she places her foot on the first step toward her ascent to the fourth floor, Drescoll informs her that Green Team is starting its way upward meaning Black Team is stretched out behind her for two floors, each member occupying a half flight of stairs, intermediate landing or landing.

Anxiety begins to grip her as she makes her way upwards, each step taking her farther away from the safety of the daylight. Lynn tells herself not to get trapped by the false notion that if things go terribly wrong, the rooms or offices with windows outside will offer any sanctuary. Sure, for the moment they will but the setting of the sun will cause that safety to disappear. No, if something happens, this stairway and the entrance door leads to the only true sanctuary.

Alert and ready for anything, Lynn fingers the selector switch, reassuring herself that burst mode is selected. She thinks momentarily of her and Jack’s discussion on the M-4. Him telling her that the ones he used were fully automatic and her insisting that is not the case. Well, he was in a little while before her and that could be the case for the early models. He still insisted and insists that the ones he used in special ops were automatic. Those thoughts slip quickly from her mind as she reaches the fourth floor landing. Only one more to go , she thinks in the dark quiet with only the rustle of clothes, the creak of boots stepping quietly on the concrete steps, and the occasional light metal clinks sounding in the stairwell as soldiers climb behind her.

There is only the same as she ascends to the fifth floor and reaches the landing. She stops as Black Team slowly ascends and joins her there. Drescoll informs her that they are all secu


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re on the landings beneath her, each guarded by two soldiers, one covering each door. As her team gathers near her, a hush descends on the landing. Only the muffled sound of shuffling boots is heard. The sound of soldiers climbing vanishing as each takes their positions and waits. Detailing two of her team to stay and guard the fifth floor here, she puts her ear to the door to her left leading out of the stairway and into the building.

Hearing nothing outside, she asks one of her teammates to check the other door, reporting back that there is nothing to be heard. Lynn pushes on the door bar and opens it just a crack. A slight, metallic squeak is all that is heard as she peeks through the crack into what seems like a darkened hallway. Silence greets her as she pushes the door wider and ducks her head in the opening, glancing to her left and right before quickly pulling it back in letting her brain analyze the quick view her eyes sent to it. Realizing she did not see anything amiss, Lynn pushes the door open slowly to the soft, metallic sound of a fire door opening and steps quickly into the hallway; the soldier behind catching and holding the door as she moves out.

Lynn quickly takes a kneeling position in the hallway facing down the hall to her right. The next team member takes a position behind her and faces the opposite direction. Two more quickly enter the hall, one joining her and the second joining the one behind. The door closes with a soft click, one of the soldiers left guarding the landing easing it shut. The tension threatens to engulf them as they there waiting for something to happen. The very air breathes of tension.

“We’re in,” she whispers into the radio mic.

Two clicks on the radio followed by two additional clicks announce that Drescoll and Horace heard her and are acknowledging. Lynn continues to survey the area to her front. The hallway stretches out ahead to the limit that the night vision goggles will allow. Many doors line both sides of the quiet hall, some shut with others open. Picture frames line the walls at intervals. Plaques on the wall next to each door show an individual name, conference room, or the standard bathroom sign. All have room numbers on top and, giving them a look from her position, she can tell that the numbers increase the further away from her the rooms are. The director’s office must be behind me , she thinks hoping it is not on the other side of the stairwell.

“What do you have on your side?” Lynn asks the teammates behind her.

“Hallway ends and opens into some kind of foyer or larger open area,” her teammate responds.

Lynn stands quietly and turns around, tapping one of her team behind her and signaling for them to switch positions. The exchange is completed in almost total silence. The swish of cloth rubbing together is the only indication of movement. Looking at the hallway in the other direction from her new vantage point, she sees that the hallway does end after short distance, opening up into what appears to be some kind of reception room. The tiled hallway gives way to carpeting and the room ahead opens up to the sides. Two desks sit on the carpeting looking out in her direction with a large, shut door in the far wall between them.

Something just does not seem right. There are the words ‘CDC Director’ but they seem to be placed oddly. At first they seem to be on the wooden walls directly above the desks but placed too high. Then they seem to be floating in the air. The light bulb hits. The reception room is fronted by a glass wall with double glass doors leading inside. The writing is on the glass in front. Lynn also sees a thin beam of light peeking out from under the large door set in the far wall. So, that office must have a view of the outside. That will be convenient for searching , she thinks wondering if those glass doors are locked.

“Sergeant Drescoll, this is Jordan on the third floor. I have sound and movement coming from the other side of my door,” a voice whispers in the radio, startling Lynn and sending her adrenaline into overdrive.

“Can you identify what it is?” Lynn hears Drescoll respond to the call.

“Do not open that door,” Lynn quickly whispers into her mic.

“Copy that, First Sergeant. Break. I don’t know what it is but it sounds like something shuffling on the other side,” Jordan answers.

Lynn rises and stares over her shoulder at the stair door. What they came looking for, well, at least the location it should be in, is tantalizingly close. They are not really discovered yet but it is only a matter of time if one or more of the night runners are prowling around. She stands wondering if she should continue and head to the director’s office or pull them back. Her competitive and ‘can do’ mindset compels her to continue; get the files and get out of there. The hackles on the back of her neck rise as she suddenly hears a low growl and a faint sniffing from down the hallway in the direction she is facing. The green glow of her night vision goggles picks out the faint outline of a nose poking out from one of the open doors close by.

Oh shit , she thinks looking at the nose apparently sniffing the air. She stays absolutely motionless. Don’t make a sound . A soft grunt emits from the direction of the night runner at the room’s entrance, followed by a very low, deep growl that fills the otherwise silent hall. Tension fills the air. The soldiers kneel in the darkened hallway like stone statues, poised and ready. Not knowing if they have been found out or not. Waiting for the shriek that will signify their presence is known and alert other night runners.

Lynn sees the soldiers kneeling before her looking from the room, to her, and then slowly back again, waiting for her call to action. She waits hoping the night runner will not smell or hear anything and retire. Regardless, we’re done here , she thinks waiting for the balance to shift one way or the other. Not knowing how many are in here but thinking along the worst case scenario of many. The knowledge they seek is not worth the life of a single soldier in her mind. Or is it?  The question runs through her head. If we can gather knowledge that will save others down the road, well….  That line of thinking leaves as the night runner by the door emits a loud shriek, echoing loudly in the in the hall. The team’s scent has apparently reached its nose and it has determined something was indeed here.

“They’re onto us,” Lynn says into her mic. “Hold the doors! We’re on our way out.”

The suddenness of the shriek startles the other soldiers into a form of paralysis. They hold there as the night runner quickly emerges from the opening and out into the hallway, turning in their direction with its first step. Lynn, having slowly raised her M-4 to her shoulder, fires a burst at the night runner. Rounds follow the sharp popping and slight bucking of her rifle out of the barrel, streaking toward its intended target and impacting its skin and bone with solid thumps. The steel collides with its chest, neck and just below the nose, flipping it over backward with a flowering blood spot marking the entry into its chest and a spray of blood from its neck and head covers its face. Shrieks ring out from within the room as more night runners begin pouring out into the hallway.

The explosion of her weapon firing startles the soldiers out of their paralysis and they begin introducing steel into the air down the hallway, dropping the first two night runners that emerge into the hallway, their bodies hitting the linoleum floor hard, sending tremors through the floor and felt beneath the soldier’s boots.

“Move! Now!” Lynn calls out. “I’ll cover.”

The soldiers quickly rise and rush the very short distance to the door, throwing it open and yelling “friendlies” as they do. Lynn reaches down and taps the one kneeling beside her on the shoulder, signaling for him to exit as well. The night runners come out of the same door and her vision picks up more coming from doors further down the hallway. This is going to get ugly quick , she thinks squeezing the trigger lightly and feeling the confident buck against her shoulder. The familiar smell of gunpowder fills her nose but goes unnoticed in the quickly building, furious battle. One more night runner is flung backwards and to the side as her rounds hit the mark, the ones behind slow to side-step around it. She begins side-stepping toward the fire door being held open by one of the soldiers guarding it. Fire, step, fire. Each of her bursts sending a night runner to the floor. Blood splashes against the walls and tile, creating psychedelic spray patterns, quickly making the footing treacherous in the hallway beyond. A couple night runners slip in the forming pools, causing them to lose their balance, but barely noticed as they catch their footing and charge on.

The flash of rounds being fired and the tinkling of empty shells on the ground add to the general uproar and violence. Strobes begin to emit from the open stairwell door, evidence that someone is firing back from within into the growing horde. Shrieks, howls of pain, gunfire, a growing haze of smoke, and alternating flashes of strobe light fill the hallway to excess. That, combined with the now frantic radio calls coming through her ear piece, forces Lynn to concentrate on getting them out of here and getting them out now.

“I’ve got movement on the fourth floor,” Drescoll’s voice comes through.

“They’re trying to get through the door on the third,” Jordan calls out. “Don’t know if I can hold this shut much longer.”

“Sounds and movement by the second floor doors,” another voice calls out over the radio.

This whole place has come alive , Lynn thinks. We’ve stirred up a hornet’s nest . She makes the door with a multitude of night runners lying dead on the hallway floor but more are coming. Many more. She did not think it could get any louder but the shrieks fill even more of the hallway as a horde of them charges her way. To the point where she thinks her head will come apart from the noise.

“Close the door!” She yells above the din to the soldier that was holding it open for her and firing one-handed down the hallway.

The door swings ever slowly closed, the pneumatic swing arm above slowing the process. Lynn fires two more bursts into the hallway, hearing the rounds strike without seeing where or what. How could I miss though?  She thinks. They practically fill the hallway . She yells for the teammate to head down as she covers the now shut door. The soldier on the other side of the landing holds the other door closed with all of his might.

“Go, I’ve got it covered,” she yells to him.

He releases his grip and turns for the stairs behind her. The door immediately swings open and she sends rounds into the opening, her rifle barking and echoing loudly in the enclosed space. The door opposite swings back closed. Lynn realizes there is gunfire further down the stairs from the other landings.

“They’re trying to come in,” Jordan’s voice yells in the radio. “Better hurry if you’re going to make it.”

“Hold tight, we’re on the way down. Drescoll, you good?” Lynn asks in the radio and starts down the stairs covering the doors on the landing above.

“They’re trying to get through but we’re holding ‘em for now,” he responds.

The sound of footsteps coming from above Lynn rises momentarily above the sound of gunfire and the struggle within the confined space. She looks upward to the stairs and landings above, seeing movement rapidly descending her way. Looking down, lights flash off of the walls from the battles on the landings below. If we’re not careful and quick, we’ll be trapped in the stairwell between floors , she thinks side-stepping down the stairs, keeping the night runners momentarily at bay as they try to come in through the doors on the fifth floor.


* * *

Descending down for the seeming hundredth landing, with Robert flying us on a competent final, voices suddenly interrupt our thoughts and instruction, coming through on the our helmets from our secondary radio.

“Sergeant Drescoll, this is Jordan on the third floor. I have sound and movement coming from the other side of my door,” a whispering voice calls out.

The threshold of the runway begins to fill our screen as Robert adjusts the throttles to keep our airspeed up. He is doing a great job of monitoring his airspeed on short final now. The tendency is to begin to concentrate primarily on the runway as it begins to draw near. Especially if you are feeling a little behind the aircraft and intent on getting it down. My attention is focused primarily on his flying, guiding and giving instruction where need, but a part of my mind is directed to listening to the radios for any further information that might come over them. The radios of the teams are affected by distance and line of sight. Not that they have to be in a line of sight to work, but the line of sight affects the distance they can carry and receive.

He manages to set it in without my wondering if my spine will be permanently affected and I nod my approval.

“Nice job,” I say as he applies the throttles for a touch and go.

Airborne once again, he calls for the gear and shortly thereafter, the flaps. I move the appropriate handles and levers at his call, careful of the airspeeds so we don’t overspeed any of the structural limitations. The aircraft cleans up nicely and he levels off at pattern altitude, ready to turn his crosswind leg.

“They’re onto us,” I hear Lynn say over the radio. “Hold the doors! We’re on our way out.”

“I have the aircraft,” I say over the intercom taking control and switching the radio to the secondary.

“Red Team, this is Jack, over,” I say pressing the transmit button.

“This is Gonzalez,” I hear in return.

“Get yourself, along with Alpha and Bravo Teams, ready to board once we taxi in.”

“Copy that, sir,” Gonzalez says replying. “What about the civilians?”

“Bring ‘em,” I answer.

Bringing the aircraft around, I set up for a combat assault landing, basically the quickest way to get this lumbering beast to the ground. It is an overhead turning maneuver designed to roll out on a very short final, landing quickly. My plan is to load up the rest of our teams and find a field or road near the CDC campus to deploy and aid Lynn rapidly if needed. The chatter on the radio sounds like the proverbial shit has hit the fan.

I land without the sweet kiss of the tires rolling on the pavement but deposit the aircraft on the runway with authority sending a jolt through our seats. Slowing the aircraft down quickly with a firm application of brakes and reverse thrust, I take the center taxiway back to the ramp where I see the other teams lined up and waiting.

“Drop the ramp down to its level position,” I tell Robert as I set the aircraft up for takeoff configuration. The ramp has various settings for a variety of applications.

We taxi in and I then have Robert drop the ramp door down all of the way leaving the engines running. I can feel the aircraft shift as the teams clamber aboard. Gonzalez hops up the stairs to inform us that all are onboard and I brief her quickly on the radio chatter I had been hearing as Robert raises the ramp to its closed position. Quickly taxing to the closest runway, I move the throttles up and we are airborne in a rush, cleaning up the gear and flaps, and turning toward the CDC campus only a short distance away.


* * *

Now racing down the stairs to the fourth floor landing, Lynn sees Drescoll and another Green Team member firing through openings in both doors leading to the interior; the doors held partially open by bodies lying in the openings. Lynn exchanges magazines, her now mostly empty one clattering to the landing under her feet as she quickly replaces it with a fully loaded one from her tactical vest. The stench of dead bodies, their insides ripped open by steel-jacketed rounds and bowels emptied mingles with the sharp smell of gunpowder. The near continuous firing is deafening in this small space, amplified by the concrete walls echoing the noise.

“They’re coming down the stairs from above,” Lynn shouts in Drescoll’s ears. “We’ve got to move out now.”

Drescoll merely nods his acknowledgement as he continues to concentrate and focus his attention on keeping the night runners at bay and out of the stairwell, their only route out of here. The rest of Black Team has passed and are on their way down to the lower landings as Lynn passes behind Drescoll and continues her way down. Drescoll and the other Green Team member folding in behind her, delivering their rounds through the open doors as long as possible on their trek down to the third level close on Lynn’s heels.

The overall plan is to fold back in sequence as each landing is passed. The ones guarding those landings and entryways folding in behind those who have passed, becoming the next rear guard. In this fashion, the rear is still protected without the team members bunching up on the stairs slowing the entire retreat and making them more vulnerable. Reaching the third floor landing, Lynn sees the same scene being repeated here as at the fourth level, Jordan and another soldier holding fast as the night runners try to force their way in. The bodies of those slain blocking the doors open. Strobes from their weapons firing bounce off of the walls. Luckily, this version of the night vision goggles have a quick, automatic response to lighting changes or they would all have been blinded by the first rounds sent outward from their M-4’s.

“Follow Drescoll down,” Lynn shouts to Jordan on her passing behind him.

“Roger that, First Sergeant,” he replies without taking his eyes or rifle from the open door on his side. “Hurry though. We won’t be able to hold here much longer.”

“Lynn, this is Jack. I’m overhead with three teams. Need any help? I think I can set down on the main road,” Lynn hears over the din prevalent in the stairwell.

“I think we have it but standby,” she responds to Jack.

Lynn looks back up the stairs quickly to see Drescoll and the other soldier fast behind her, still covering the stairs to prevent the night runners from blind siding them. Looking back down the stairs, she notices an absence of gunfire. The area below is void of the strobe affect. A panic sets in. Have they already broken through there? I may have spoken too soon.  She thinks stepping quickly but cautiously down the stairs.

Rounding the intermediate landing, she notices the two soldiers still guarding their posts. Relief immediately settles in her. We’re almost there . She holds up on the second floor landing with the two other soldiers and waits for the others. Drescoll and his teammate immediately appear on the stairs descending quickly.

“Keep going,” she yells as he draws near and slows.

They both pick up their pace once again and descend toward the first floor. The two soldiers guarding the third floor landing appear, traversing backwards and delivering rounds upwards before turning suddenly and running down the stairs toward her. They pass quickly by her following in Drescoll’s path.

“There’s movement and sound on the other side of the door but they haven’t tried to come in as yet,” one of the soldiers guarding the second levels says.

“Okay, you two, go!” She tells the two still with her. “I’ll cover.”

They immediately begin descending downward. The sound of gunfire has vanished and Lynn can now only hear the shrieks and roar of the approaching night runners, a multitude of feet on the stairs as they descend quickly toward her. Lynn starts down as the first of the night runners appears on the intermediate landing above her, shrieking even louder upon discovering her there.

Lynn fires a burst into the crowd, three bullets leaving the barrel of her gun and striking the lead night runner across the chest. Blood spots blossom on the front of its torn, dirty white t-shirt with a large bright yellow smiley face as it tumbles, first backwards, and then forwards due to the push of the night runners behind it. Night runners behind trip on the body tumbling down the stairs, sprawling face first and sliding down the remaining stairs. Lynn rushes down the stairs two at a time, a few feet of separation gained.

Yelling down the stairs for anyone remaining in the stairwell to get into the lobby, she rounds the corner of the intermediate landing. The horde tramples over the bodies in their desperation to get to her. One of them is down for good, its chest riddled, and the others that tripped are out for the count. The first floor landing is empty with the exception of two soldiers in the hallway waiting for her; one holding the doorway and the other on his knees, weapon pointed at an angle down in front of him but in a position ready to raise it should he need.

Tearing out of the door with the mass of night runners closing, Lynn darts to the left heading for the safety of the sunlit lobby. She sees a line of soldiers facing her and the hallway she is heading down. Running across the glass shards littered on the ground, scattering some across the tiles, she raises the goggles and turns to face the night runners she imagines are fast on her heels. Jack’s right, they’re fast , she thinks in mid turn.

She spins around dropping to her knees, ready to both fire and retreat further if necessary. The door to the stairwell is closing slowly, slowed by the pneumatic lever. Nothing enters the hallway. The door is about to shut when a massive shriek sounds out, muffled by the closing door but reverberates down the hallway. Click. The door closes. The last tinkling of glass kicked across the lobby from their quick exit comes to a halt. Silence ensues. The only noise is her heavy breathing and that of the soldiers lined up next to her. Breathing hard from the adrenaline and fast run down the stairs. Adrenaline though still courses through her but slows as her body and senses recognize the danger receding. She checks her watch — 18:27. They were in for a little over an hour. The time seeming both longer and shorter.

“Everyone alright?” Lynn asks glancing from one soldier to another. Each one does the quick pat down and nods that they are fine.

“Let’s head outside and head back to the airfield,” she says in a deflated tone and feeling bad that they did not find what they came for.

Walking out of the open entrance door, Lynn hears the drone of an aircraft overhead. Looking up, she sees the 130 in a shallow left turn a short distance to the west, passing over the sun sinking close to treetop level.

“We’re out, Jack,” she calls over the radio.

“You okay?” She hears him ask.

“Yeah, we’re good,” she answers knowing he is asking about her personally and the group. “We’ll meet you back at the airfield.”

“Okay, see you there,” he says.

She watches the aircraft reverse its bank and heads back north towards the airfield, its gear dropping shortly thereafter as it begins a slow descent. Walking slowly to the lead pickup, the sweat not drying from her fatigues due to the still humid air, she sighs with both frustration and exhaustion. The tension slowly leaves her body and she wants nothing more than to lay down in peace.


* * *

The CDC campus appears promptly off our nose, the buildings rising high into the air. I do a quick flyby looking for a spot to land if needed. I only need a little distance but the problem will be width. It is certainly not going to help anyone if I manage to clip the wings off. That would make it very difficult to get aloft again. Well, plus the massive explosion that would most likely ensue. Confident that I can set it down on the main road, I bring the aircraft around to circle the campus area in a shallow bank, not sure of which building they are in.

Several vehicles are parked here and there but I don’t see the pickups Lynn and her group were riding in earlier. Perhaps in that large parking structure near one of the buildings closest to the entrance . Circling around to the west, I finally make out the three pickups parked in front of a large, multi-storied glass building. I circle the building a distance out, keeping it in sight at all times and aware that the radios have been silent for some time.

“Lynn, this is Jack. I’m overhead with three teams. Need any help? I think I can set down on the main road,” I say keying the mic.

“I think we have it but standby,” I hear Lynn respond.

I continue my slow circle, anxious with not knowing what is going on inside but knowing something big is going down from the previous calls over the radio. Worried that my plan to gather information may result in casualties or, the spirits forbid, something happening to Lynn. I know how she cares for the troops under her and the risks she will take for their well-being. Knowing she will be in the thick of whatever is going on.

“Dad,” Bri calls over the intercom.

“Yeah,” I say looking back over my shoulder at her.

She is leaning upward tapping the fuel indicator, the tap asking if we have enough fuel to get back to McChord. She is a quick learner and knows how much fuel we burn over time. Our total fuel weight indicator is almost down to the half way mark. Our flight down from Brunswick and the subsequent flight training has taken its toll on our fuel. I knew we would burn a bit of fuel doing the touch and go’s but felt it important to have someone else able to get everyone home in case something happened to me. Sure would hate to go to that big sleep at the end knowing I left people stranded.

“Thanks Bri. We’ll do a flight plan check when we get back to the airfield,” I say acknowledging her tapping finger. She is doing her job well and flawlessly.

I want to ask for a situation report but know that I would only be interfering. The lack of radio calls increases my anxiety and I want to set it down to disembark and help. There is not much room width-wise on the road so the risk is great, really only something to do in an emergency and if requested. We are here if Lynn needs us but that does not ease my anxious feeling. She can handle it and will call for assistance if she needs, her not being one to do the ‘I can handle it on my own’ business if it truly gets messy and help is needed. Flying to the west once again, I start to see soldiers exiting the building to my left and below. I count them as they exit and the numbers equal the amount that went in.

“We’re out Jack,” I hear Lynn call over the radio, seeing her on the ground with her hand to her shoulder pressing the transmit button.

“You okay?” I ask.

“Yeah, we’re good,” she answers. “We’ll meet you back at the airfield.”

“Okay, see you there,” I say turning the aircraft around and heading back.

The turn places us almost on a direct, long final with the runway. We are already to set up for a landing, my having gone through the pre-landing checks ready to plop it down on the road with a moment’s notice.

“You take this one in,” I say to Robert and pass control of the aircraft to him. Nothing like giving someone the aircraft on final and saying ‘go’ to see if they have a handle on landing.

He starts a little behind the aircraft but quickly catches up and we touch down just a little long but still one of his better ones. We taxi in and shut down, letting the others out while I sit and go through the charts with Bri and Robert, figuring our fuel requirements for the flight back. We will need some but herein lays my quandary. This is a civilian field with only civilian aviation fuel. The fuel differs slightly in content with military fuels in that the civilian ones have additives to prevent fires and explosions. We can use it but only for a one-flight scenario. The civilian fuels tend to burn hotter in military jet engines requiring maintenance at the end of the flight. Adding that into our fuel tanks will effectively ground our aircraft on arrival. Not a big deal given that this will be our last hop but it sure is handy having this aircraft available due to its range.

I sit thinking about our alternatives. We could fly to a nearby military base to fuel up, fly back to Brunswick, which I almost immediately discard as I do not want to run into the marauders we let loose, or fuel up here. Pulling out the charts, I find Dobbins Air Force Base a scant fifteen miles to the east.

“Okay, that’s our plan then,” I say absentmindedly.

“What is?” Both Robert and Bri ask in at the same time.

“Dobbins Air Force Base is about fifteen miles east of here. We’ll do a quick hop over there for fuel and come back. We should have enough daylight left for that,” I answer looking out the side cockpit window at the sun sitting lower in the sky, early evening setting in.

“What do you mean come back?” Bri asks. “Aren’t we supposed to leave tonight?”

“Let’s wait until Lynn and the others get back before making any decisions,” I say getting up and walking outside to wait for Lynn’s arrival.

The wait is not long. I just step outside in the cooling air of the coming evening when I hear vehicles along the road adjacent to the airport. The pickups come into view shortly thereafter and make their way through the gate and onto the ramp, stopping


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a short distance away from the aircraft. The day is cooling down with the lowering of the sun. It is still humid, but cooler. Eighteen weary souls emerge from the cabs and beds of the trucks, step onto the ramp, and walk slowly towards me, their slouch evidence of their exhaustion. Firefights and the intense adrenaline rush will do that to you.

Lynn walks over and gives me the rundown on what transpired inside the building; the discovery within and the fact that they were apparently “smelled out.” That little tidbit, along with the news that they can apparently open doors now, does not bode well.

“We were basically shot out of there,” she says finishing. I stand for a moment in silence taking in all she said.

“Do you remember if the doors were latched or not?” I ask.

“I don’t believe they were,” she answers.

“So they can open doors but perhaps not operate the handle.”

“Maybe,” she says looking on questioning as to why I am focused on that. For that matter, I am not sure either but I lock that away for future reference.

“Well, you did a great job getting everyone out and back,” I continue closing this particular conversation.

“We need fuel for the last leg. There’s an Air Force base about fifteen miles east of here. I’d like to get over there, fuel up, and get back before dark,” I say after a pause.

“What do you mean come back? Why don’t we just leave from there?” Lynn asks mimicking Bri with her questions.

I just look at her and her eyes widen with dawning realization of what I mean and intend to do.

“You mean to go back in there, don’t you?” She asks accusingly.

“I was thinking about it,” I respond and back up anticipating the onslaught.

“Haven’t you heard a thing I’ve been saying?” She asks loudly causing many on the ramp around us to look our way.

“We can’t go back! We were lucky to get out of there in one piece!” She continues on, her voice and anger rising.

The looks from the soldiers change from wonder to amazement on hearing her and wondering if they made the right choice in following me. That I would consider something like that after what they had been through is most likely making them think I have gone off of my rocker. The air could not have been more still and I am pretty sure time has stopped in this particular moment.

“I didn’t say we,” I say in a low voice.

“What!? You can’t possibly think you’re going in there alone! What are you thinking, a small team?” She asks with her eyes narrowing.

I know that narrowing of the eyes. That is a danger signal. When she does that, it is time to shovel the dirt back into whatever hole I have dug. I see her heels almost literally dig in.

“No, just me,” I say bringing more dirt out of the hole rather than shoveling it back in. “You know one person can get in sometimes where a host can’t.”

“That’s just plain nuts,” she says but her voice lowers in both volume and intensity. “And what happens if you get caught in there?”

“I’ll be fine and Robert can fly the plane if something does. He’s become quite proficient at it,” I say trying to alleviate some of her anxiety.

“I don’t give a rat’s ass. You’re not going in there alone!” She retorts. “If you’re going on with this fool scheme, I’m going with you.”

“Yes, I am. And no, you’re not. If it’s there, we need that info so we can better prepare for our survival,” I answer back.

“We don’t need a fucking report. We know what they’re capable of without it,” she says knowing me and that I am not likely to back down but trying every avenue nonetheless.

“What we need is to get over to the base to refuel. Will you see to it that everyone is loaded up please,” I say knowing we will be standing here long after dark with this conversation. She continues to stare, no, glare at me for a very long moment before stomping off toward the aircraft.

“Fool of a man,” I hear her say while she is still within earshot, fully intending for me to hear.

“Everyone, load up!” Lynn hollers across the ramp. “We’ve just been enrolled in Jack’s fantasy camp.” Several chuckles, some nervous and others genuine, come from the soldiers as they grab their gear and start up the ramp, disappearing inside.

We get started and taxi out with Robert at the controls. Close to the horizon, the sun has settled behind the tall trees across the ramp and road, shining through the gaps, the beams of light catching dust particles and insects in its rays, giving an announcement that we are about to close out another day. Another intense one and I do not think the intensity will be settling down anytime soon. I am sure Lynn is gearing up for round two and I am not looking forward to that. Robert conducts a stellar takeoff and I take the controls after cleanup for the quick hop over to Dobbins. The sun is directly ahead of us, glaring through the windshield, reminding us that our time needs to be short. We will be once again spending the night at an airport like a family vacation gone awry.

The runway for the base is aligned directly with our line of flight so we are already on a final when we level off. It is one of those gear up and then gear down immediately flights. The base is rather small with the airfield and ramps taking up just under half of the base itself. Ahead, I see several C-130’s on the ramps to either side of us. A quick glance to the ones on the left, with a large maintenance hangar behind them, tells me that fuel will not be found there. I am really hoping there is a fuel truck parked near the ones by the right. Most facilities have underground fuel lines leading directly to the aircraft parking allowing for refueling without the use of trucks.

The engines approach idle as the wheels gently bump onto the runway. Slowing and taxiing off close to midfield, I ease over to and pull up next to the other 130’s parked silently on the ramp. Shutting down, we join in their silent vigil.

“Robert, take Red Team and see if you can find a fuel truck,” I say as the large props come to a standstill.

“Okay, Dad,” he says, opening the ramp, getting out of his seat and walking to the rear.

“You know this isn’t over,” Lynn says behind me, poking her head into the cockpit and then disappearing just as quickly so as to not hear any argument or comeback I might have.

“What isn’t over, Dad?” Nic asks looking in the direction Lynn disappeared to as if seeing her through the bulkhead and really wanting her answer.

“Never mind,” I say climbing wearily out of my seat with a heavy sigh.

I know what I am proposing is the right thing to do. I know that Lynn is worried but I have done similar things in the past. Sneaking through guarded buildings in search of information, documents, or various other articles. I feel confident I can make it there or, at minimum, know when my route is being closed off behind me and get out before I am discovered. But I have not faced anything that can detect by scent or apparently see in the dark. At least I can match them for seeing in the dark , I think heading to the back of the aircraft.

Walking outside to the light, gray concrete that covers the large area on which we are parked, I look for Robert and group, seeing them as they near a large hangar next to what appears to be a squadron or base operations building. They disappear around the corner. I see Lynn occupying herself by looking through our supplies but know that it is just busy work and she is merely biding her time for the right moment to continue our “conversation.”

“I don’t see a fuel truck anywhere,” Robert’s voice calls in the radio I donned on exiting the aircraft.

Our habit is to don our vests and radios anytime we venture outside, charging the radios off the aircraft electrical system when enroute. The Hercules has many nifty aspects to it like that. I turn to see Lynn now refilling and checking her mags along with the rest of the team members who accompanied her just a short time ago.

“Okay, come on back. We’ll figure it out tomorrow,” I say to Robert before walking over to Lynn.

“I heard,” she says in a brisk manner.

“Want to talk,” I say looking down at her as she kneels at the back of the aircraft thumbing shells into an empty magazine.

“Don’t you have an airplane to fly?” She asks looking up to the soft click of a shell being deposited.

“We can stay here for the night,” I respond.

“Okay,” Lynn says standing and putting the now full mag in one of the mag pouches on her tac vest.

We inform the others that we are staying here for the night and for them to eat before darkness sets in. We then walk in silence a ways out onto the ramp so as to not be overheard. I glance quickly back over my shoulder to make sure everything is in order before devoting my attention to the conversation about to happen. Robert and the rest of Red Team are walking back across the ramp. The other soldiers grab items from our supplies before sitting in small groups on the ramp and enjoy a little conversation of their own with their meal.

“You start,” I say leading off the conversation.

“You know it’s not a good idea to go back in there. There are too many of them,” Lynn says looking into my eyes.

“Look, I wouldn’t risk it if I didn’t think we could get some vital information. And you know that right?” I say.

“That I do know but I don’t agree that the information is vital enough to warrant the risk,” she says countering.

Here is the cusp of the matter. We are in disagreement with the importance of what information we may glean. Having seen what is in there, she thinks that any information we might gather there is not worth the risk, regardless of whether the risk is to me or someone else. I think that the information we can gather will give us an edge on what we are facing so we can plan better and counter the seeming advantage the night runners have over us. The simple fact is that they are around in great numbers and we will have to face them and defend ourselves if we are to survive. We are going to have to go into darkened buildings for supplies, at least in the immediate future, and we are going to have to be able to defend ourselves at night when the night runners are around. I relay how we are seeing this differently and the aspects from my point of view.

“I understand what you’re saying but to go in there alone is ridiculous,” Lynn says with a stubbornness starting to edge into her voice.

“You realize I used to do this all of the time,” I say trying to ease her mind and remind her that I wasn’t some newbie at this game.

“Yes, dammit! And I know you were good at it too! But that was against people and not something that can smell you half a mile away. And, they responded on all floors at once. That you haven’t faced!” She responds adamantly.

“Then I’ll just have to make sure I’m extra sneaky,” I say half smiling.

“If you are truly going to do this, then I’m going with to watch your back,” Lynn says.

“No, you also know I work better alone,” I say not wanting to have the worry of someone else.

Not that she would need me to babysit her in the least, but I know part of my mind would be on her. For the most part, I did work with six-person teams and we did quite well. But I also know myself and will need to have my entire focus on getting through without worrying about maneuver, especially considering what Lynn and her group encountered. It would be nice to have someone to watch my backside but it has been my experience that I do better alone.

“Dammit Jack! I don’t want you to do this,” she says with a tear forming in her eye.

“I know, hon, but I feel I have to. I feel in my bones that there is something there of value to us. I wouldn’t feel right if I didn’t make the attempt and might as well seeing we’re here. We may not be able to ever get back here,” I say holding my arms open, inviting a hug.

“If something happens to you, I’m going to be very pissed off at you,” she says folding into my arms and we hug each other tightly.

“I’ll be careful,” I say kissing her as we release. “Let’s go get something to eat.”

The shadows stretch long to the east from the aircraft and the soldiers sitting on the ramp. The sun bathes the horizon in reds, oranges, and purples, giving this day a magnificent send off. Birds dart through the late evening sky catching a last meal before retiring and finding a place to hide from the oncoming horror and violence of the night. I notice Lynn giving the soldiers quick nods of assurance as we approach, a light tension leaving them and feeling as assured as they can considering our circumstances.

With the meals finished and the onset of night on our heels, we all head inside and seal the aircraft. Within our confined interior, the group attempts to find comfort among the large fuel tanks and other articles that fills a majority of the cargo compartment. Another uncomfortable night on the cargo floor for many of them.

I head to the cockpit to do a last check, making sure the battery and other switches are set into the off position, after securing the blackout curtains over the interior windows,. I am in the pilot seat as Robert comes up and sits next to me in his usual position. We watch in silence as the tip of the sun vanishes below the horizon, hanging there for a moment before disappearing abruptly. The land around is cast wholly in shadows.

Robert continues to stare after the now departed ball of fire, seeming lost in his thoughts. He is looking away from me and I detect a melancholy feeling emanating from him.

“Are you really going back there?” He asks keeping his head turned.

“Yeah, I think so,” I reply.

“Why alone?” He asks.

“Because that’s the best way to do it. You know a single person can get into some places a team can’t,” I say referring once again to our airsofting days.

“Yeah, but what about two?” He asks, both in the same airsoft reference and wanting to go as well.

“Well, this is different. If we were outdoors, I would definitely agree, but indoors, not so much,” I say answering his question.

“How are you going to do it?” He asks still looking out of the window at the coming night.

“Quietly,” I respond with a chuckle. He chuckles back but without the usual enthusiasm we usually have with that type of exchange.

“Dad, you’ll be okay won’t you?” Bri asks. I hadn’t realized she had come up into the cockpit.

“Yeah, babe, I’ll be fine,” I answer.

Silence once again descends, falling into our own thoughts, partially from letting thoughts settle in our mind and partially from the necessity to be quiet with the darkness upon us. My own thoughts center on tomorrow, running through various scenarios and the actions to take with each one. Planning my route based on the information from Lynn, thinking about potential alternate routes in case I get trapped.

Rope , I think pondering one alternate route. I need about 60 feet of rope . In case they come up behind me while I am on an upper floor. I will head for the closest room adjacent to the outside glass, break said glass and rappel down the exterior. I put that into my bag of tricks. Silence is going to be the key although that will not be enough. I will have to build a wood fire and smoke myself and my clothes before going in. I wish I had some of the scent maskers to rub on myself but the cover of smoke should do the trick. That should hide my scent, especially with so many small fires in the area. They should be used to that scent and not be alarmed by it , I think feeling suddenly foolish for not suggesting that for the teams that went in today.

I will load up on as much ammo as I can carry silently. Too much and there is the chance that the mags will clink together at an inopportune moment. They will shift slightly if I bend over and there is the chance of them rubbing together if they are placed doubled up in their pouches. Tape my M-4 up so the sling attachments won’t rattle, in addition to the Velcro adjustment straps on my flight suit. Those have a tendency to make noise if they are stretched in any way — which I have been known to do at various times in my life. The rope will be tricky to manage but I can tape that up as well. If I do need that exit route, then I should have plenty of time to get it out and ready. Well, if the sun doesn’t sink down on me while still I’m in the building that is. I plan on venturing out early tomorrow morning so that should not be an issue.

A distant shriek faintly reaches the interior where we sit, intruding on our silent reveries and interrupting my thoughts. The call drifts faintly through the night air, the direction is vague and I am not able to pinpoint its exact location but it seems to be coming from back towards the interior of the base. The night runners are out and hunting.

“It’s that time,” I say quietly. “Let’s get ourselves set.”

Shuffling around quietly, everyone settles down and finds a place to rest. There is not a need to tell everyone to be quiet. Everyone knows what the shadows descending upon our patch of earth means. Everyone heard the far off shriek seeming to signal a cry of discovery. Lying on the lower cockpit bunk, with a thin blanket pulled over me, I wonder if that cry signaled a discovery of another person or of an animal. Or, if it was a cry of discovery at all. It could have been one of them stubbing its toe for all I know but my mind thinks of them only as hunters and killing machines. I hear faint footsteps on flight of stairs coming up followed shortly thereafter by Lynn lifting the cover and sliding in next to me.

“Watch schedules set?” I ask.

“Yeah, we’re good,” she answers.

“Goodnight, hon. I love you,” I say in a tired whisper.

“I love you too,” she says quietly.

My thoughts drift dreamily toward tomorrow, shifting randomly from thought to thought without any sticking around for any length of time. Outside, faint shrieks drift into the cockpit from time to time from night runners on the prowl. Some close and others farther away; echoing forlornly in the night. Moonlight is filtering into the cockpit bathing the pilot seats, instrument panel and center console with a silver glow and casting the rest of the interior in darker shadows. This scene is the last to filter into my semi-conscious mind before I fall into the oblivion of sleep.

I wake with a start in the morning from a deep, dream-filled sleep. Early morning sunlight replaces the moonlight from the night before. The dreams of the night, of being chased while seeking desperately for something intangible, fade quickly from my mind. The images clear on first awakening but become muddled and indistinct as I try to relive them, finally fading into the distant recesses of my mind. The shadow of a bird flying close to one of the cockpit windows flits rapidly across the interior giving me a start before the bird materializes in the windshield, darting from side to side as it flies away from us on its mission to catch its breakfast and no doubt glad to have survived the night. The glow from the sun, just rising above the horizon, catches its back and wings with each turn.

Lynn stirs beside, sensing either my waking or the sun rising as we adjust to the cycle of the sun. Perhaps this is the way it’s supposed to be , I think lying here wrapped in my thoughts. We are creatures of the day so our normal body rhythms should be in synch with the sun’s cycle .

“Morning, babe,” I say lazily not wanting to get up.

“Morning, hon,” Lynn says stretching and rolling over to give me a kiss. “You’ve got to do something about your new four-legged friend. He woke me up twice licking my face.”

“Lucky dog,” I respond.

Lynn gets up slowly, sitting on the edge of the bunk as she puts on her boots. She rises with a sigh to go wake everyone else. I feel like I could just lay here and sleep the day away. Feeling both exhausted and not wanting to really face another tension-filled day. Wishing I could just laze the day away reading or putting my kayak out on the waters as in the days before this virus hit. Well, the virus and vaccine that is. Wanting a day of rest from the constant tension, strain, and lack of sleep that the past days have brought. Knowing there will be no sanctuary from the constant peril until we get home and build one. Then, maybe, a little reprieve can be had. But that is a long ways away , I think rising in the same slow manner as Lynn. Robert appears in the cockpit shortly thereafter, followed by Bri, Michelle and Nic, all looking disheveled and tired.

“Good morning,” I say as they enter, looking up at them wearily and wondering if my eyes show the same tiredness they seem to feel and that they each present.

I am greeted by either a tired ‘good morning’ or a grunt from each. Rising from the bunk and doing my own stretching to align my sore muscles, I amble over to the pilot seat. My rear end is sore and rebelling against the idea of sitting down there once again. The one good thing is that my head has stopped feeling the slight ache inside and has adjusted to the lack of its morning caffeine fix. Sitting, well, rather more of a slumping, down into the seat, I see Nic and Michelle start to head towards the stairs.

“We’ll just start on battery with this one,” I say knowing they were heading to get the start cart out and ready. They turn and settle into their seats without a word.

Letting everyone know we are ready to go and giving them a chance to settle in as best they can, considering the crowded nature of the aircraft, we start up and take off into the morning sky, climbing into the morning and leveling off at a low altitude. The sun is glaring directly in front of us, having only just crested above the horizon. We make our way across the short distance to the other airfield in the east. Landing on the now familiar runway, and taxiing in to a stop adjacent to the pickup trucks we left parked there the evening prior, I shut down the aircraft.

Passing through the aircraft, I ask Lynn to send a detail out to find dry wood in varying thicknesses in order to be able to build a fire. I also ask them to bring back live wood with lots of green leaves and such still attached. They head out on foot, venturing through the open gate and into the neighborhood beyond.

I notice the ripe aroma emanating from my flight suit offending not only myself but I am sure those around. I reach into my bag to remove a fresh one, noticing my cell phone lying within. Hmmmm , I think retrieving it and wondering if it still works but knowing the likelihood and odds of that are slim to none. Nonetheless, I bring it with me, sticking it in one of my upper pockets after changing into a fresh flight suit and contemplate burning the one I just changed out of; completely amazed it doesn’t stand on its own, run away or start beating me for the way I treated it.

I see Kathy, Little Robert, and Kenneth standing off to one side looking a little lost. I feel a little lost as to what to do with them as well. Not in regards as what to do with them overall as they are a part of us now, but more of how to incorporate them. We are basically integrated into fire teams and our business lately has largely been fighting to survive. They are the first of hopefully many we will find alive. I am sure they will find it easier to integrate once we get back.

I find a similar circumstance and feeling with Frank and Bannerman. Although ‘former’ military men, they are not involved tremendously in any of the operations. Bannerman has the logistics end so is keeping moderately busy with our supplies and formulating plans for when we arrive back. Frank will be busy as well once we arrive back as he will be working alongside Bannerman in the Intel role. Plus, if we do find any information today, he will be busy pouring through them to help formulate our tactics. They are all basically passengers, as we all really are, until we arrive back at McChord. These feelings and thoughts occupy my mind for a moment as I pass through the cargo compartment.

Out on the tarmac, the day promises to be another warm, humid day even at this early morning hour. I begin to gather my tools of trade together with my new canine friend quietly following me around or at my side. The others leave me to myself, sensing my want and need to be alone to focus on my adventure to come. I want this time in order to settle into a frame of mind. Each mag I insert into my tac vest puts me deeper into my ‘business’ mindset, reminiscent of so many other pre-mission moments of gearing up, both physically and mentally. Setting my mind into the single focus of the mission yet opening at the same time. Expanding my senses of awareness but filtering and refining that awareness down to intercept signals of danger. Becoming more aware of my actions and the sounds, smells, and movement around me.

As the last mag is inserted and checked for rounds, I begin the process of taping loose items down, hopping intermittently to test for any slight sound coming from me; finding items that make the slightest noise and taping them into quietness. The rope I coil and also tape down, looping it over my head and under one arm, ensuring it doesn’t interfere with the ability to freely move. Ensuring also that it doesn’t interfere with my ability to grab magazines or get to the radio transmit button. I also gather lengths of 550 cord. A very thin, lightweight cord that has incredible strength. The same kind as is used for parachute cords. Stepping away from the aircraft and making sure no one is in my line of fire, I test fire my M-4, both on semi and burst, emptying the chamber to ensure it will work properly in the event I need it, and refill the spent rounds. There is nothing worse than having something that should function automatically fail at a moment when you need it most. It tends to drastically reduce your options in that moment. Basically reducing them to run and run fast.

Lastly, I insert the radio earpiece, feeling myself slip into total awareness and calm. Confidence solidifying inside. Emotion has taken a back seat. The only sound on the ramp is from a few others getting something to eat from our supplies. A small morning breeze springs up, gently blowing across the ramp, moving a few scraps of paper in fits and starts along with it. Instead of the fresh morning breeze and scent of summer it should be carrying, it brings a hint of something rotting in its midst, souring the otherwise peaceful morning with the scent of human decay. That smell jostles me momentarily out of my frame of mind, worrying me about what else may be carried on that slight movement of air. The diseases that will be rampant with the decaying of so many bodies. Wondering, with a little bit of hope, if disease will affect the night runners as well. Will they know it from an instinctual aspect and move out of the cities and the once dense population centers? Will it kill some of them off? I imagine they’ll eventually move as their food source dictates . These meanderings come and go in an instant, my thoughts once again centering. The detail returns with armloads of wood and limbs with leaves attached. I motion for them to put their gatherings in the bed of one of the trucks.

“I want you to go along with Green, Blue and Black Teams. As a reaction force should I need,” I say to Lynn and feeling it is time to be off.

I sense a little of the tension leave her body knowing that she will at least be close at hand. I have the sense that she thought I would be travelling alone. I do want the teams close by and to drive me there so I can remain in my current frame of mind without worrying about which turn to take or hitting parked cars. I also want the teams that were there the day before because they are most acquainted with the interior.

“Do you mind if he stays with you?” I ask Little Robert referring to the dog. “Maybe you can come up with a name for him when while I’m gone.” Little Robert’s answer is to smile widely.

We get the trucks started and head out with the teams loaded into the rear beds. The journey there is a quick one. Old hat to the teams riding along with but new to me. The smell in the neighborhoods is strong as we pass by the seemingly empty houses. The front yards that were once pristine, now with grass growing long. Flowers in assortments of yellows, oranges, reds, whites, and purples bloom in flower beds that were once the pride and joy of those who lived here, now only silent memorials. Their colors brighten the landscape in pretty assortments, creating an illusion of peace and contentment. Their beauty is a stark contrast to the smell emanating. With summer fully underway, the streets should have been alive with the sounds of children playing, balls rolling out into the streets from sloped driveways, lawnmowers buzzing in the morning sun bathing the neighborhoods with the sweet aroma of freshly cut grass. Perhaps even the sound of an ice cream truck meandering slowly through the streets to the sounds and movements of kids running after it waving dollar bills recently begged from their parents. Now, it is just surreal, as if those things are here but hidden from sight and sound. Darkened windows, or those with drapes pulled, stare at us with longing and contempt as we make our way through.

We pull into the CDC facility following the same route as before. I have us pull over and stop a distance


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away from the building, not wanting any noise of our arrival to reach the interior and hence alert the night runners within. The soldiers exit quietly.

“I want you to stay here and wait,” I say gathering everyone around. “Don’t go close to the building unless I say so as I don’t want any breeze that may be swirling around the building to carry any of your scent inside. No noise. That means no talking or opening and shutting truck doors. No getting into the pickup beds.”

A small fire is built on the road away from the trucks. I add the dry wood and get a nice bed of coals glowing on the dark gray pavement of the street. Adding the greenery on top, smoke thickens and drifts upward, pushed slightly by the breeze. I step into the smoke on the downwind side, letting my clothing and body bathe in it; rubbing the smoke into my clothing and gear; letting it become saturated; covering my scent.

I shield my eyes from the glare of the morning sun peeking around the side of the building as I look towards it. It looms before me; the image from the blue sky above is mirrored on its glass front as if it is made of water. A still pond stretched vertical. The building takes on a sinister aspect as if it is trying to shield something behind the beauty of its structure. I get a chill thinking about all of the viruses locked in the depths of this campus. All sitting there without power to keep them chilled if they needed to be kept dormant in that way. Without power to keep the clean rooms clean and without the pressure differential set so the various germs can’t leak out. All there waiting for some night runner to knock them over, freeing them and allowing them to grow and spread. Maybe it’ll wipe them out in this area , I think watching the skies reflection. The quick thought of being able to use them fades as the realization dawns that I have no idea of how to safely keep a virus.

“Well, let’s do this,” I say quietly to myself chambering a round and flipping the selector switch to burst with my thumb.

I walk into the building’s shadow, cross a street and step up on the curb to the sidewalk in front. My image, mirrored on the glass panels, does not reflect the tightness within as I walk in front of pane after large pane towards the entrance door; the panels conveying my image like a constant rerun. I can smell the faint aroma of the smoke rising to my nostrils as I near the entrance door still littered with shards of glass on the concrete outside.

I step to the entrance avoiding the glass, the sidewalk shows faint outlines of the dried, bloody footprints Lynn mentioned leading outside before vanishing a short distance away. Peering inside, I see the tiled floor lobby; the boot prints from the teams in the dust gathered by the door, bare foot prints appear on top, smearing some. Scuff marks appear in places across the large foyer, made yesterday by the boots of the teams, in either their entrance or, more than likely, their exit. Close to the door, several fresher bare foot prints, some of them outlined in recently dried blood, lead toward the hallway across from me.

I step into the lobby, toeing bits of glass out of my way quietly before stepping; making sure I don’t step on any of the pieces before setting the weight of my foot firmly on the linoleum. I have plenty of time so caution, stealth, and quiet is the name of the game. Edging past the fan of glass by the front door, I walk silently to the hallway, making sure not to silhouette myself against the light behind me, coming to rest against the wall to the side of the broken glass doors. Kneeling, I listen for any movement.

The complete absence of noise within is just a little disarming. There is always, well, used to be always, some type of noise within a building whether that is even the tiny sound of wind being expelled or drawn in by the air conditioning system. It is completely silent. I mark this, knowing there will not be the slightest cover to conceal any noise I might be making whether that comes from the creak of a boot bending or the soft swish of cloth rubbing. I rise slowly and enter into the hallway, again silently moving the glass from under any place my boot will set down. Once inside the hallway, with its elevator banks lining the walls to either side, I lower the night vision goggles into place and turn them on, having already donned them on my walk over to the building.

The hallway comes to life in the glow of the goggles, the description given by Lynn becoming a reality rather than pictures developed in my head. Walking to the stairwell entrance, I put my ear against the cool, steel door, listening for any hint that something awaits me on the other side. I am not a big fan of having to return here so quickly after the others, liking instead to wait until things and events have settled. I don’t know if the night runners have a memory per se but in times past, alertness among those residing in the places I have been to is substantially higher after an intrusion. It slowly returns back to the normal steady state only after time has passed.

There is nothing I can hear nor feel. I should be feeling some small vibration with my ear against the door. Again, the usual small hum and vibration of a building alive is missing. What I would do for a fiber optic viewer right now?  I think reaching for the door handle. Pulling only a touch, the door slides backwards from the jamb an inch letting me know the doors are not latched. If the door was latched, then I would know for sure that the night runners were capable of operating a door handle. The question of whether they can or not still remains unanswered. I pull a touch more hearing a soft metallic sound emitting from the hinges as they rub together. Well, it isn’t like I’m going to oil them , I think pulling upward on the door handle to lessen the weight riding on the hinges.

The door slides silently open a crack. I peer in, looking from side to side and startle seeing two night runner bodies lying motionless on the stairs. I should have anticipated this , I think seeing nothing else within the line of sight that the slightly open door will allow. Slowly pulling the steel fire door open, I slip quietly inside once it is open enough to allow me to enter without rubbing any of my gear against it. Practice and keeping the fact that you have gear on in a small part of the conscious mind is important. The body knows its limits and where it ends so worming your way in somewhere without touching anything is easy if it is just you. But the body does not automatically take into account anything you might be wearing so it is easy to rub against or get caught on something if you don’t keep this awareness close.

Catching the back side of the door, I ease it closed behind me, keeping a slight amount of pressure against it as it automatically shuts. Looking around and listening, I observe that the stairwell is your pretty standard building stairwell, just as Lynn described. Concrete steps and concrete brick walls with metal rails leading up both sides of the stairs. Sound here will carry a great distance with nothing soft to absorb it. A few shell casings from yesterday’s firefight lie on the floor at my feet. I will have to be careful not to disturb or kick them as the metallic sound may alert the night runners. If they are not in here, at least the fire doors will keep most of the sound from entering into the interior but I cannot assume anything, including how sensitive or insensitive night runner hearing is.

Stepping carefully around the bodies, I start my trek. I have my M-4 pointed up covering the stairs, being able to see more and more of the next flight as I slowly move up. Taking each step one at a time, balancing my concentration between looking at each foot placement and the area up the stairs, I move slowly and quietly upward. Another night runner lies on the first intermediate landing. The tension inside builds with each step. The adrenaline begins to flow through me, heightening my senses.

I reach the second floor landing without incident. The fire doors have a metal bar running the width of the door; one of those you press on the bar to open. Looking down behind, I see a narrow gap between the metal of the fire door and the metal of the push bar. This is great , I think taking one of the long strands of 550 cord from my thigh pocket. I slide one end of the cord down into the narrow gap, watching it dangle from the other side below the push bar. Grabbing the end, I tie it around the cord going through the top making sure not to depress the bar or touch the door in any way. I uncoil the cord and do the same on the opposite door, cutting the cord off with my knife after tying the knot. The doors are now tied together effectively sealing the second floor landing from the interior, meaning that nothing can now gain access to the stairwell from the second floor. The one drawback to this plan though is that I will not be able to access the stairwell from the other side of the door. Should an unfortunate series of events occur and I need to gain entrance back to the stairwell from the interior, well, that is now no longer an option. This is a risk I am willing to take in order to have my backside clear.

I proceed upward to the third floor landing in the same fashion; alertly and quietly. Seeing the bodies on the stairs and first floor and recalling the very detailed briefing by Lynn, I expected the doors here to be blocked by the multitude of night runners they killed and that blocked the doors open. The bodies have apparently been moved as the doors here are shut. The previous day’s firefight and the intensity of it is apparent here as the concrete floor and stairs are littered with brass shell casings and empty magazines; littered to the point of not being able to walk without disturbing them. I cannot just toe them out of the way as I could the glass shards as the casings are round and will continue rolling if I move them in that manner. The last thing I want is to have one roll off of the landing and fall down the stairs. The jig would be up if that were to happen. I bend over and carefully make a path through, picking up the individual expended shells one at a time and moving them to the side; making sure each one stays in place before picking up the next.

Before long, well, long being relevant here, I have a path cleared on the landing. I tie off the doors in the same manner as the second floor being extra careful here as it is evident this floor is inhabited. Or at least was. With that finished, I pick my way through the shell casings on the stairs up to the fourth floor. My adrenals are in high gear as I carefully step upward. I pay attention to keep my breathing even in order not to facilitate the normal body reaction to stress and adrenaline; that one being the sweat glands trying to keep in tune with the adrenal glands. I do not want to render the smoke scent moot. I do feel a touch more comfortable knowing I have the rear secured as long as they don’t decide they want to take a late morning stroll through the first floor fire doors.

I am once again reminded of the instances of having to penetrate buildings in search of documents, equipment, or other items of interest. I hate going into buildings and much prefer the outdoors. I like my line of sight and it is much easier to hear something outside. Much easier to hide. Most inside work is to gather information such as I am doing now. Rare was the case when we were actually after someone. Buildings are actually tougher to nab someone in, especially if they own the building. They are usually well protected and really tend to make a lot of noise as you try to get them out. For some reason, they seem very reluctant to accompany you. Unless they are drugged of course but it’s rather hard to sneak around lugging a limp body. If you are after someone in a building, it is usually not to kidnap them but that does happens occasionally. The tension I felt inside then is multiplied exponentially now.

I manage to make my way to the fourth floor with my gut tight and senses on high alert. Again, signs of an intense firefight litter the ground forcing me to slowly clear a path. I begin to wonder if the bodies, which apparently blocked the doors previously according to Lynn’s brief, were moved on purpose and why. There are times when I wish I could just call a time out and ask the opposing side a question when something puzzling like this occurs. I am just curious like that — always wanting to learn. On the other hand, I also like to try and figure things out on my own but I cannot for the life of me figure this one out. Were they eating their own and this was just food to them? Were they cannibalistic? Did they have a sense of family about them that they didn’t want their fallen to just lie there? Was it as simple as they were blocking the pathway and were moved?  These questions lie in my mind as I secure the doors here on the fourth floor. There is just so much we don’t know about them .

Climbing up to the fifth and final floor, the final one for me at any rate as the stairs continue upward to a fair number of floors above, I notice the door on the left is open. I stop and become just another part of the stairwell. What’s holding the door open?  I think listening to and feeling the area around me. Was I heard or smelled? Did one of the night runners sense me and is waiting for me?  I don’t hear or sense anything and am pretty sure from previous experiences that it, or they, would be immediately after me, giving one of their shrieks in the process verifying I had been found.

I continue to hold deathly still. What most of us, well, when there was a most of us, do not know is that we have a highly sensitive feeling for anyone or anything around and would notice it more if we did not have so many filters or other bombardments of information flowing in. Especially if that something or someone is directing energy at us. Ever have that feeling that you are being watched? When the hackles rise on the back of your neck signaling some type of danger? That is an energy being directed specifically at you and you are detecting it. It is your subconscious picking out clues that your conscious mind missed. Standing here, I don’t have the sense that I have been found.

Step by step, I gradually make my way upward until I can see over the last stair. Two night runner bodies lie on the floor blocking the door open. Huh? Just when I thought there might be a constant here, the universe throws me a curve. Just what in the fuck is going on here? Is it some floor competition for neatness and the ones here just don’t care? Well, it isn’t like I need to tie the doors off here anyway , I think taking another step toward the open door and hallway beyond.

I check the hall from inside the stairwell for movement or sound. Fully expecting a rush at any moment and am reminded of my similar experience back in the McChord hospital. I did not like that one bit and would rather not have a repeat. I see shells scattered on the tiled hallway floor close by the door, picturing the entire firefight and retreat in my mind by where the spent cartridges lie. How it must have felt being here on the fifth floor with firefights being waged on the floors below; feeling like you could be cut off in a moment. I use the term firefight loosely here as it was really only one side firing and the other using speed and numbers to overwhelm. Much like the cold war scenarios; technology versus masses. Quality versus quantity.

“I’m on the fifth floor,” I whisper ever so quietly into my mic.

“Copy that. Anything?” I hear Lynn ask.

“Not as yet. Out,” I answer.

A chill runs up my spine and I immediately sink to a kneeling position, bringing my M-4 up to a firing position. It’s not like it was far from being ready to begin with though. Did I miss something that my mind did not alert my conscious mind to? Why the chill? There wasn’t a temperature change?  I kneel and wait for something to emerge into my line of fire. Nothing comes and the darkened hallway, lit only in the green of my goggles, remains void of sound or movement.

I rise and step over the bodies with my rifle still in a firing position as I move slowly into the hallway checking to my right and left as I do so. Bodies litter the floor down the hallway to my right, lying where they fell from steel coming into contact with vitals the day before. The one thing missing here is the smell of decay like I would have expected. True, there weren’t many cars parked around but there were some indicating that people had to have been here when this happened. There should have been some smell of them if they died here and surely not all of them could have been changed. Is it that the night runners ate them early on or cleaned up their lair knowing that the smell that must have emanated from the dead bodies, especially in this heat and humidity, was bad? Did they clean up to make their lair more habitable? Those are answers I will probably never know , I think checking again to make sure the hallway was clear. There is, however, a faint ammonia smell within.

To my left, there is the glass wall with ‘CDC Director’ emblazoned on it. Just as advertised . I step slowly and silently down the hallway in that direction checking over my shoulder occasionally to make sure nothing enters the hall behind me. There are about twelve doors lining each side of the hall between myself and the director’s office; some closed and others open. It is the open ones that I am cautious of; there being no reason for night runners to close a door behind them that I can possibly think of even if they do know how. But that doesn’t mean they don’t either .

I edge near the wall and start down, passing two closed doors. As I draw near the first open door on my left, a soft sound escapes from within getting my immediate and full attention. The sound of feet padding on a floor and, by the sound of it, coming closer to the door. I freeze. A head appears in the doorway a mere fifteen feet away from me. The night runner walks into the hallway ahead of me and pads across the hall without knowing that my red dot, centered on its head, is accompanying its progress. The long hair, hanging down past its shoulders, leads me to believe it is a female. I do not dare to breathe or make the slightest sound. The adrenaline within me kicks up a notch or two. Or three. This is not so dissimilar than having a guard pass by me while hidden, becoming a part of whatever I am near, and, I am here to tell you, it never gets easy or comfortable. A slight head turn or something catching the corner of the eye can spell disaster. And spell it with capital letters.

The night runner crosses the hall and I make sure to both follow it with my M-4 but do so out of the corner of my eye making sure to not look directly at it. A habit pattern. As it reaches the opposite wall, it pulls its pants down and squats. Well, that verifies the female portion for me , I think hoping it turns in the other direction to head back once it is finished with its business. If it turns my way, its eyes will sweep directly over me. The splashing sound of urine being emptied on the tile floor fills the hall. I hear a grunt at the opening of the door. I turn my head slowly but cannot see anything within. Whatever is there must be just inside the room . The night runner in the hall turns and looks over her left shoulder, thankfully away from me, and back towards the door, giving a hiss at whatever is there before focusing once again on the wall to its front.

Finishing with its business, she stands and pulls ups her pants, doing up the snap and zipper. Well, that’s interesting , I think watching this. They have the mechanical skills to undo and do up their clothing.  I wonder momentarily if that is from a habit pattern that stayed with them or they are consciously aware of what they are doing. If they are conscious of it, that means they may be able to learn how to use other tools. All of this passes in the blink of an eye. My body is literally vibrating from the loose tension and adrenaline flowing within, waiting for the moment of knowing when to act.

The night runner turns in my direction. Of course , I think. Most creatures will habitually turn in their strong direction and that is to the right for most humans as we are mostly right handed. I suppose that applies to the night runners as well. It begins to head back toward the room from which it came but stops suddenly and turns its head in my direction. Not sharply but turns it nonetheless. As if something it saw a few seconds ago is only now registering in its mind and it is unsure of what it is. Just something that may have been a little out of the ordinary.

The female night runner is looking directly at me but in a quizzical way, tilting its head to the side to perhaps get a different perspective. Like it sees something but cannot define of what it is. I know it is now only a matter of time before I am discovered yet hesitate as there is the slightest chance that it will think that nothing is amiss and go back into where it was bedded down. Another grunt comes from whatever is inside the room and is answered by a similar grunt from the one standing in the hallway staring at me.

I see a sudden recognition flash across the night runner’s face; the widening of the eyes and a startled look. Really!? After all of that, I was found by a night runner going to the bathroom! That so figures!  My M-4 barks out in the hallway before it can scream, lights flashing against the walls as three rounds streak outward, seeking a target and finding one a split second later. The night runner’s head rocks back as steel meets flesh and bone, winning the engagement. Its face is torn apart and suddenly unrecognizable. The night runner flips into the air, landing on its back and slides a short distance along the floor, finally coming to rest next to the puddle of urine it had just left.

I side step to the right anticipating the emergence of the night runner that was hidden within the room, aiming my weapon and to the room’s entrance. I am not disappointed as a night runner immediately charges out of the door. The faint smell of gunpowder mixes with the hint of ammonia as three more rounds exit catching the emerging night runner in the neck and head. Blood sprays outward from the neck wound, splashing the doorway and running down the jamb in small streams. The bullets lift it from its feet, propelling it into the darkness of the room and out of my sight.


* * *

Lynn stands amidst the other team members, staring at the glass building with her hand shading her eyes. The others stand in the same fashion and have been since watching Jack step slowly into the building. The only word was his brief radio call moments before letting them know he had reached the fifth floor. Lynn follows his anticipated path in her mind, following the path she took yesterday only with Jack in her and the other team’s place. Her anxiety grows with the fifth floor call. She tenses as a faint sound reaches her ears. Really just a hint of sound but coming from the building.

“Were those gunshots?” She asks quietly but allowing her voice to carry. Half to herself and half to the group around her.

“I’m not sure, First Sergeant,” Horace answers in the same whispering voice. “Sounded like it.”

The others edge toward the building having heard both the sounds and the conversation. Their instinct towards wanting to help and the reason they were there — to cover and provide help if needed — causes them to subconsciously step closer to the CDC building.

“No, stay here,” Lynn says putting her arm out as if to block the advance. “He’ll call if he needs us.” A second faint sound, exactly like the first, follows.

“Those are definitely gunshots,” Lynn says joining the group as they edge closer. “Okay, we’ll halve the distance. Everyone on me but step quietly and be ready to go.”

The sound of charging handles being pulled and released is heard as they walk toward the building in the rising heat of the day.


* * *

Shrieks cry out from seemingly every room at once. They fill the fifth floor with a volume that can only be matched in contrast to the absolute silence a moment before. And I am totally fucked , I think looking back at the night runners pouring into the hallway behind me. There is no way I can even think about making it back to the fire door even though it is only a scant three doors away. They have emerged that quick and that close. Only one way to go and that is forward , I think with my feet suddenly having a mind of their own and heading quickly towards the glass wall and door ahead of me.

Night runners begin to emerge in front of me and to the side as I set land speed records heading for the glass, hoping the door to the office is unlocked. As I speed past an open door on the right, a night runner emerges directly to my side. I bring my carbine around and ram the stock just under the tip of its nose in an upward stroke. A wet, solid smack, like a sack of hamburger being dropped on pavement from a height, issues from the collision and blood splatters downward, coating its upper lip and chin. The thrust breaks and then pushes the bone from its nose into its brain. Its head rocks backward and it drops straight to the ground.

More enter the hallway ahead of me, issuing from open doorways. I hear bare feet running on tile and the roars of a multitude of night runners behind me but I don’t dare take the time to look over my shoulder. I know they are faster and I cannot spare a bit of my momentum to verify what my ears already tell me. I’m in deep shit!  I wish I had brought a grenade to dump on the floor behind me and park that thought for future use. Assuming of course that there will be a future time for me. I put a burst into the closest one in the hall to my front, stitching it from chest to neck with three rounds, the first hitting on the right side of its sternum and spinning it around in mid step. Its feet fly out in front as it falls, rotating to hit the floor face first. The thump of its body but a miniscule sound amidst the mighty roaring in the hall. My own roars mix in with the night runner’s as I charge forward.

I turn to the next closest one before the one I just shot has a chance to hit the floor, sending it crashing against the wall as strobe light bounces off of the walls signaling the departure of three more bullets on their mission. My adrenaline is at its high point and temporal distortion kicks in. Everything moves in slow motion and my eyes and brain register details I would have missed, allowing my reaction times to increase. There are several between me and the glass wall, nearer now but it might as well be a mile away as the dark shapes of night runners fill the once open gap in front. A night runner to my left front, dressed in the jumpsuit of a maintenance man, leads the charge against me, hurtling in slow motion down the hallway.

Another light kick from my M-4 and burst of fire rocks it backward, my last round entering its right eye. Motion is slowed to the point where I can almost see the rounds enter. The back and side of its head explode outward, bathing the night runners behind with blood, brains, bone and bits of scalp with the hair still attached. The maintenance night runner hits the floor on its back, its momentum causing it to slide towards me. I hear the ones behind me closing in quickly. I am going to have to blast a hole in the ones ahead and dart through. And, it is going to have to be done surgically as I have expended just over half of the rounds in my mag.

I cannot reload, okay, I may not have a choice, but the time it will take will enable them to completely engulf me. That would really suck!  Flipping to semi, I pick the ones closest to the middle of the hall and hence, from what I can see, the thinnest, easiest and fastest way through. I would like to fire bursts into their chests in order to deliver the maximum impact and hurl them backwards into the night runners behind. The reload time and remaining ammo in my current mag will not allow that. Head shots it is , I think lining up the first one as I continue propelling myself towards them and the glass beyond.

I line up my first shot and send its head rocketing back, the bullet entering its head just below the eye. The side of its face disappears in a gory mess of flesh and blood as the round strikes the hard bone and veers off the side, tumbling and taking skin and bone with it on its journey. Only barely registering this hit, enough to ensure that this one is taken care of, I am onto the next target. Night runners are going down quickly in front of me. Pop, pop. pop. One after the other they fall to the floor as my red dot centers on head after head with only slight movements of my hand on the bottom rail holding the M-4 steady.

My onward charge and onslaught causes them to slow down in a confused manner. Sometimes, when things seem hopeless, it is better to charge quickly and violently causing fear to surface in the opposing forces. This can cause them to become momentarily paralyzed and not be able to react or to react with haste without a thought or focus on what they


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are doing. The night runners have never seen their prey act like this and charge toward them in such a violent manner. Some have actually stopped and are beginning to retreat backwards into the rooms from which they came. A few others however continue coming only to be brought down with their heads absorbing rounds and exploding in some manner or another. The floor below me is slippery with blood and gore.


* * *

Closer to the building now, the sound emanating can be heard only slightly better but with a definite clarity to them. They are definitely gunshots and are coming in a near continuous fashion. A firefight is being waged inside. Not the deafening roar of yesterday in the stairwell but one regardless.

“Okay everyone, to the entrance door but no further,” Lynn says realizing that, with the sounds of gunfire coming from within, their own quietness is now a moot factor.

She wants to be as close as they can get in case Jack calls for them. She also knows not to enter unless called for as it can get very messy if Jack does not know they are coming. That is how friendly fire accidents happen. He’ll call if he needs , she thinks crossing the street and hastens to the entrance with the others behind.

“If we’re called, Black Team will lead followed by Green. Horace, you bring up the rear and keep our six clear. Same as before, we’ll drop off two at each landing to cover our withdrawal. Questions?” Lynn adds as they draw near the broken entrance doors.

“Hooah, First Sergeant,” they all respond.


* * *

The hall in front of me clears momentarily. I see the glass wall close ahead. A gap has been created. A small one but big enough. I dart through, not having given up on my momentum. The night runners behind me are closing in like a rush toward a concert stage. My little area of the world is about to become a mosh pit. I see a flash of darkness off to the side as a night runner launches out of one of the rooms, coming close in behind me. I feel its fingers grab the upper shoulder strap of my tac vest, almost causing me to lose my footing on the slippery floor; slowing my momentum. I turn the M-4 behind me flipping to the selector switch to burst, sense where the night runner must be by how its fingers are grabbing my vest, and fire. The kick is a bit stronger from the one-handed over the shoulder shot and the barrel moves quite a bit. Blood splashes on my neck and cheek. Oh great!  I think hearing a howl of pain and a tug on my shoulder as the night runner falls to the floor. I am thankful its fingers didn’t lock on and drag me down with it. That was the last of my rounds.

I swing the carbine back, thumbing the mag release with my right hand and grab a full mag with my left. The glass wall and door are now only a few feet in front of me. Just a few steps away. I jam the fresh mag in the receiver and flip the bolt release, chambering a round. Bringing the gun up, I fire a burst into the glass pane to the right of the double doors. My thought is that the larger pane of glass there will shatter easier than the smaller panes that make up the doors. My bullets hit the glass and go through, cracks spreading outward from each hole. I sure wish this was fully auto , I think sending another burst close to the first but letting it track upward slightly. The glass remains in place. A third burst a little more to the side and then a fourth away from that one. Twelve holes now fill the glass pane in a box-like pattern with cracks radiating out from each hole.

I duck my right shoulder, with my M-4 out in front, just before I impact the glass at a full run; tucking my head in and down at the last moment, my left hand coming up to my temple and left arm covering my throat and eyes. The impact is jarring and the sound of breaking glass fills my ears, drowning out the shrieks of the oncoming horde. Stumbling through the glass pane, which is now coming down and raining glass on the tile and carpeting, I continue into the room and toward the door between the two large desks. The strap holding my goggles is surprisingly still in place. Below the large wooden door, a thin strip of light shows from underneath. I fire three quick bursts into the jamb by the door handle. I just don’t have time to knock. Nor do I have time to check to see if it is locked. I realize this is using up ammo that I may need should the door not open, but honestly, at this point, I could have one of the endless mags from the movies and it still would not do that much good. I would only be prolonging the inevitable and the ending would still be the same. Building my speed back up, I hit the door, once again with my shoulder. The door latch and jamb gives way and the door flies open.

I do not think I have ever been greeted by a more pleasant sight. Sunlight is pouring into the room from large glass window panes that make up the outside of the building, bathing the room in light. And blinding the shit out of me! I turn off and flip the NVG’s up, my eyes adjusting to the brilliant light.

Down the Rabbit Hole

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My heart is pounding in my chest, both from the sprint down the hallway and from adrenaline coursing through my body. I turn towards the open office door, thinking I am safe but wanting my eyes to verify it. The large wooden door remains open spilling light into the reception area and across the blue carpeting in a fan-like pattern. The door jamb is splintered where I both shot and forced it open. Small pieces of wood on the carpet below look like a box of matches has been spilled. The edge of the light/dark demarcation glitters faintly from the glass on the floor, evidence of my grand entrance. Next time I’ll try the door , I think looking at the shattered glass and then further into the hall.

The hall remains filled with shrieking although not like the tremendous roar that filled it moments before. An occasional ghost-like shape or face materializes for moments in the reflected light before disappearing in the darkness. Not a single one tries to enter into the light cast by the open door or enter into my momentary sanctuary. I walk over and ease the door closed, trying to diminish both the volume of noise and shut out the last few moments of my life — which quite literally almost became the last few moments of my life.

“I’m here in the director’s office,” I say pressing down on the radio transmit button.

“Was that gunfire we heard?” I hear Lynn respond.

“Yeah, it was a little sporty getting here,” I answer.

“Can you get out okay?” She asks.

“I think so.”

“How?”

“Well, I’ll let you know in a little bit,” I say feeling the adrenaline begin to fade.

“Okay Jack. Glad you’re safe,” Lynn says with relief in her voice.

“You and me both. I’ll let you know what I find here,” I say beginning to take in the office surroundings.

The deep, rich blue carpeting of this large office gives it a feeling of luxury as it mixes with the dark, highly polished executive desk sitting close to the window. The same rich paneling found in the lobby covers the walls with luxurious bookshelves lining one wall adding to this ambience. Two brown leather chairs, the kind you never want to get out of once you sit in them, sit parked on the carpet facing the desk. A large polished table meant for gatherings sits across the room from the bookshelves. The view outside is not all that it could be, but it sure is a sight better than I have ever had the privilege of calling my own. It is also a sight for my sore eyes after what they witnessed moments before.

Papers and folders are spread across the large desk giving evidence to the haste and chaos of the pandemic. The otherwise tidy office gives an indication that it once was kept in a very neat and orderly fashion. It is to these papers and folders lying on the desk that I am drawn; figuring what else could be of such a priority than the Cape Town virus and the genetic-altering vaccine. Walking around to the other side of the desk, I quickly glance at the papers spread across it. Most of the single sheets seem to be printed emails and reports. Removing the coiled rope and shouldering my weapon with a wince, my shoulder reminding me of my attempts to be super human and walk through walls and doors, as if the continued shrieking on the other side of the door is not reminder enough, I lean over the desk and begin shifting through papers.

I quickly realize I am not going to be able to learn anything now as I scan through them. They are a bit disjointed reading through them in this haphazard fashion. I turn to the folders stacked on the corner of the desk. Each one of them has a title referencing the virus, vaccine or lab testing. This is what we came for , I think briefly looking through the reports within. I head over to a decorative filing cabinet set against the wall by the door, through which it still sounds like some rave party is happening on the other side. Opening several drawers, I discover an empty section where the files on the desk must have come from. Rifling through the other folders in the cabinet, I do not find any titles that refer even closely to our world-changing event.

I want to make sure I find and have everything I want to pull out of here as there is not the slightest chance I will or could ever get back here. Aha!  I think as a light bulb goes off in my head. Pulling the computer out from its cubby hole built into the desk, I spin the screws from the back and remove the side cover. Taking my multi-tool out, yes, I do always carry one, I unscrew and remove two hard drives seated within. If we can get power, which we will, I can put these in another computer and hopefully get to the files that are stored within; wishing I could get to the server hard drives as I am sure most of the files are there, or were, stored on the network. But you never know what may be stored locally and I am here.

Tucking those in my left side thigh pocket, I gather the loose papers and stuff them in the folders. I then remove the tape from the rope and walk to the windows. The shadows have shortened tremendously as the day has moved on toward the noon hour which is only about two hours away. Looking down out of the glass window, I see one of the team members standing close to the street by the entrance doors directly below. I imagine the rest are by the doors themselves but they are blocked from my view by the downward angle. Why are they at the door?  I wonder. I told them to stay put. Unless they moved up if they heard my gunfire. That actually makes sense,  I think.

“Lynn, this is Jack,” I say into the radio.

“Go ahead Jack,” she answers.

“You might want to move your teams away from the building. And I mean a ways away,” I say.

“Why?” She asks and I see her emerge into my view from the doorway looking up.

“You’ll see,” I answer.

“Are you planning on rappelling down?” She asks still looking up close to my actual location.

“It’s either that or sprout wings as I still have company up here who are inviting me to their party but I’m not sure I want to attend,” I say in answer to her question.

“Good luck with that,” she says.


* * *

“Good luck with that,” Lynn says as she attempts to see Jack standing in one of the large window panes.

“Okay, you all heard. Let’s pull back and off to the side,” she says to the group.

They all cross the street and head off the side of the entrance doors, having a sense of what is coming and not wanting to miss the show. They all feel a little more relaxed knowing that one of theirs is okay and gather in a tight group once again. Completely forgetting their surroundings, they focus on the glass a few stories up from the entrance. From where they are standing, they have a perfect vantage point.

First, they see a small bit of glass shoot outward from one of the large panes, the sound of a gunshot follows a millisecond later. There is a pause, and then suddenly, the pane erupts in an explosion of glass; an explosion that continues unabated for several seconds. The shards begin falling to the earth in a shower of glass, looking like still photographs of a waterfall; a picture where each individual drop is captured; these pictures then rapidly running together creating the illusion of movement; and illusion of the water falling. The tinkling of glass as it hits the pavement is a constant noise as the showers lands. And then, with the last of the glass hitting the ground and bouncing, silence.

“That was pretty cool,” one of the soldiers says breaking the silence.

“Yeah, just wait until you see an old man try to rappel,” Lynn chuckles to herself causing the others to laugh along with her.

The sound of shrieks rises from the opening just created in the side of the building followed by continuous gunfire; followed by silence once more.


* * *

Chuckling at her ‘good luck with that’ comment and knowing it was her feeling a little more comfortable, I continue to look out of the window; watching them as they move out and away. They stop a short distance away and off to the side. I want them to move further and think about getting on the radio, my hand moving to the transmit button, but they are perhaps far enough away. With that, I step away from the window, withdrawing further into the office.

I remove the partially empty mag and replace it with a fresh one and contemplate the window. I fire a round at a slight angle to the plane of the pane — yeah, I know, ha ha, had to say it. The bullet goes through causing fractures that radiate out from the bullet hole. Again, this is when I wish this M-4 was an auto rather than being limited to burst fire. I can understand the reasoning behind making the gun a burst weapon but your finger should be your fire control rather than have a limiting factor on the gun.

Aiming at the window, I repeatedly pull the trigger as fast as I can, my bullets covering the entire window. The glass explodes and sprays outward, the mighty crash of the disintegrating window combine with the rapid barking of the M-4 firing, filling the office with a cacophony of noise overriding the still shrieking night runners in the hallway outside. I continue to shift my aim so that the entirety of the window to my front is blown out. The bolt clicks back in the open position indicating that the mag is empty. I hear the faint tinkling of glass falling, hitting the street and sidewalk below.

Reloading, I then start towards the door leading to the hallway to give the night runners a departing gift. Opening the door, I am met with a din of shrieks and roars from within the darkened recesses of the hall. I bring my M-4 up and begin delivering my farewell present of steel, firing into the middle of the hall and at the fleeting shapes I see either milling or running about. Screams of pain join in the general uproar letting me know that my gift is being received. The shapes in my field of view dissolve and the shrieking instantly goes silent. I fire until my mag runs dry. Only a few soft slaps of feet on tile remain and then nothing. An eerie silence settles.

“Are you okay?” I hear Lynn call on the radio.

“Yeah, just saying goodbye,” I respond.

With the office now silent, I gather the rope and begin looking for a place to tie off. There are not any good places that are immediately obvious. Yeah, the desk or conference table might hold but I would also just as likely be pulling them down on top of me. Hitting the ground from fifty or sixty feet up only to have a heavy desk fall on me is not on my top ten list. The only thing that I see that will work is the steel beam on the outside of the building that was previously holding the sheet of glass. Ideally, a tie off should be slightly inset from the drop off point to allow one to stabilize with the rope in front. Oh well, you do what you have to sometimes . I scrape the remaining glass attached to the steel beam with the butt end of my knife assuring that there is not anything left that will be able to cut through the rope, again with the intent of trying to avoid that sudden drop.

I tie the rope off and lean back in the office testing the strength of the beam. Assured that the beam will not follow me out of the building, I remove the tape and clamp a sturdy D-ring onto my vest. Feeding the rope through the D-ring in a double loop, I toss the rope out of the window opening, peering over to ensure that the end reaches the ground. The suck factor would be getting to the end of the rope while still in the air. The flight gloves I am wearing are a bit thin for this type of operation so I will have to take it a bit slow on the way down. Rope burns are a bitch!

I stuff the folders inside my vest, making sure that they are tightly bound and not likely to slip out. I then put my M-4 over my head with the strap under my opposite arm and tighten the strap; effectively securing it to my back. Over by the window again, I grab the long end of the rope in my right hand in a reverse grip putting that hand in the middle of my back. That will be my braking mechanism. My left hand will be my guiding hand. Turning backwards to the window, I edge out to the ledge adjacent to the tie off point. Setting the toes of my feet on the ledge, I lean backwards and feel the after effects in my shoulder from my wall and door crashing. I set my right foot out against the building so that I am centered on the tie off point; letting the rope slide between my hands and gripping with firmly with my right hand when I am leaning back at the correct angle.

I look down, searching for any obstruction that will impede my progress, and immediately rethink my decision; thinking that maybe a dash to the fire door would not be so bad after all. Not a fan of heights! I kick outward releasing some of the tension on my braking hand allowing me to fall, making sure I keep my angle. I sure would hate to do a face plant on the side of the building with an audience watching. Well, anytime for that matter. Squeezing slightly with my braking hand, my descent slows and I am brought in toward the building. I bend my knees and kick off again just as soon as the soles of my boots contact the glass panes that form the outer building. I soon reach the ground with the rope burning my hands through my gloves.

“Not bad for an old man,” Lynn says as she and the rest of the group walk up as I try to undo myself from the rope.

“Very funny,” I say freeing the rope from the D-ring.

“Get what you came for?” She asks.

“Yep,” I answer withdrawing the folders from inside my vest.

I suddenly feel so exhausted. Completely drained. The downside to and the other side of an intense adrenaline rush. Coupled with the heat and humidity of the day, I feel like laying down on the cool sidewalk here in the shade. I gaze up overhead, the time spent inside already becoming surreal, my mind close to not believing it actually occurred. The broken window mars the otherwise perfect mirrored side of the building as if the secrets it had been hiding behind the perfect illusion of its facade have been revealed to the world. I shake my head trying to clear the memory of it from my mind.

“So are you going to tell us what happened in there?” Lynn asks looking at me, knowing what I had been through having been through a similar ordeal less than twenty four hours before.

“Well, we should be getting back but here’s the skinny,” I say giving them a rundown of what happened inside.

“Let’s get out of here and head back,” I say wearily after finishing with my story and stuffing the folders once again inside my vest.

I hear a faint murmuring among the troops as we walk out from the shadow of the building and into the sunlight on our way back to the trucks parked a distance away. The heat commences an immediate assault on us as the sun beats down on us, draining my energy even further. I can’t believe we have to fly all of the way back , I think stepping across the pavement, feeling the heat radiate through my soles. Perhaps I’ll let Robert fly while I look through these notes and rest .

Some of the murmured words find their way to my ears much to my embarrassment, “That was some bad ass shit he did,” one voice I do not recognize says.

“Yeah, no kidding. That was Spiderman and Superman put together. On crack,” another says.

Oh come on , I think trying to hide my embarrassment. Lynn is walking beside me and looks up at me from the side. She knows how I feel about this kind of talk and how embarrassed I get when I hear anything remotely like it, especially when it is applied to me.

Looking over and gazing up and down my back, she says out loud, “I don’t know, your cape looks a little tattered to me.”

This brings a smile to my face. She really knows how to make things better. The soldiers behind chuckle at her comment but I notice the murmurs stop. Well, at least along those lines. We climb into the trucks and retrace our route back to the airfield, eventually driving through the gate and stopping off to the side of the aircraft. I notice with pride that the start cart is positioned and set up.

The day has not yet passed the half way mark as we all trudge into the aircraft once again; the heat inside the metal-skinned giant is almost unbearable. Robert, Nic, and Bri are all in the cockpit, apparently running through the pre-start checks, as I climb wearily into the cockpit. Their heads turn in my direction as I reach the top step and walk into the cockpit proper; their faces lighting up seeing me arrive.

“How did it go?” Robert asks.

“Not too bad,” I say pulling the folders out once again and setting them on the nav table.

Nicole’s and Brianna’s eyes grow wide with disbelief. See, whereas Robert had an idea of what I did and what I could do, I did not share those parts of life much with the girls. I guess it is part of a father’s protection of having daughters. The thought that I could bring something back when a force could not is completely foreign to them. Not the concept, but that it I had those skills. They knew I was okay in the woods and knowledgeable about the outdoors but not in this way.

“What do you say we get this thing cranked up and get out of here?” I say.

“Sounds good to me,” Robert answers.

“I thought of a name,” Little Robert pipes up as he and his mother Kathy climb into the cockpit and take their seats on the bunk with our rather large canine friend in tow. Kenneth joins them on their perch.

“Oh yeah, what is it?” I ask looking back over my shoulder.

“Do you mind if we call him Mike? That was my dad’s name,” he answers with his eyes beginning to water up.

“I think that would be a great name,” I respond. Mike hops up into the cockpit and sits down on the steel cockpit floor next to Bri and behind me.

“Sir,” Kenneth says timidly getting my attention.

“Call me Jack,” I say turning to look at him over my shoulder.

“I feel out of place and want to help,” he says, alternating his looks between the floor and me.

“Don’t worry about it Kenneth, there will be plenty to do when we get back,” I say trying to alleviate some of his concern.

Bri reaches up and turns the various switches as we proceed through the startup checklist and sequence. Robert calls out that the inboard prop is turning on his side — the number three engine — as we begin our startup, the first signal of our impending departure from here and the beginning of our last leg home. It seems like months since we were there yet it has been less than a week. One more surge and then we’ll be home. Not to the comforts of home as we would have thought about a scant week ago but I am ready to be out of the aircraft and stop this constant moving about.

The outboard engine starts up successfully and I tell Nic and Michelle to wrap things up with the start cart, noting their entry back in the aircraft before starting the engines on my side. Everything looks good as the four engines roar and vibrate in synchronization. I think this will be our last visit to the south and east in a good long while as I am sure the nuclear power plants are in full scale melt down right now. Most of the plants are located in the eastern half of what used to be the United States beginning just about in the middle of the continent. A vast majority of them line the entire eastern seaboard. It is a lucky thing that the prevailing weather is west to east although I do wonder if it could spread across the entire world in sufficient quantities to be a danger to us on the west coast. Not much we really could do if it did except to try and find a safer location.

“You have the aircraft,” I say to Robert after completing the checks.

“What!?” He asks looking over from his seat.

“I said you have the aircraft. Take us to Dobbins. You are the pilot-in-command for this hop. I’m just your co-pilot so tell me what you want done,” I say answering his incredulous question.

We start rolling forward and out to the taxiway. I can tell he is nervous by the way he corrects with sharp, jerky motions.

“Easy and relax. Small corrections and anticipate,” I say in response to his control inputs.

He nods and I notice the corrections become much more fluid. Pulling up to the runway, he stops the aircraft and looks out checking for anything coming in. Pushing the throttles up, we start rolling and turn to align with the centerline. The engines roar louder as the throttles are advanced and we pick up speed. Robert’s corrections are right on as we rotate; first the nose wheel lifts off followed a short moment later by the mains. He goes through the clean-up and levels off quickly. I see his head moving side to side as he tries to pick up Dobbins and the runway. I have it in sight already but wait to say anything wanting him to be in complete control.

“Oh,” I hear him say to himself. Evidently he has found the runway.

“Hard to find sometimes aren’t they?” I ask knowing exactly what he is going through and feeling.

“Yeah,” he responds. His mind is on a thousand things and having a conversation is not on the top of his list.

He begins going through the checks and I can tell he is a little behind the aircraft, trying to maneuver for final, get the checks done, and get the aircraft configured for landing. This is evidenced by the fact that the runway is growing larger in our screen yet we are not close to being configured to land. I can tell he wants to begin descending but we are not ready for it. He does edge down a little lower though; more a subconscious action than from any conscious decision, knowing we need to descend in order to land. He gets further behind and frustrated as he tries to speed things up to get configured but only manages to actually slow down the process by his anxiousness.

The runway disappears under our nose and he looks to the side at me. I do not say a thing as I want him to figure this out and come up with a solution on his own. It’s not like I will let us get into an unsafe situation. I let that happen before and I will not do that again. The memory surfaces of one time I let a student go too far. We were doing a high angle, slow speed maneuver and I allowed the student to get too slow before reacting. The jet flipped over on its back and began spinning toward the ground. My shoulder harness did not latch and keep me in my seat as it should. I found myself pinned against the top of the canopy with the world spinning below me through the canopy’s top. The blue sky that was supposed to be seen through the top of the canopy was now on the wrong side of the aircraft. The student panicked and let go of the stick. That was the absolute worst thing he could have done. I looked down at the floorboard, which was now up, and noticed the control stick free-floating. Looking back outside, the world began to spin faster. We were now in an accelerated, inverted spin; a completely unrecoverable situation in that aircraft.

We started the maneuver at 25,000 feet and moments later, looking at the altimeter, I saw it rapidly wind through 10,000 feet. We were going down like a brick. 10,000 feet was the minimum safe altitude for bailout for that type of ejection seat in an uncontrolled maneuver and I began to issue the command to bailout. As the first word escaped my mouth, I realized there was no way I would make it out being pinned against the canopy. I would be obliterated with the canopy blowing off and then the seat smacking up against me at close to 35G’s. I thought about issuing the command anyway to let the student escape, but I also instantly realized that, with the way we were going down, the canopy wouldn’t clear the aircraft correctly. He would just end up smacking into it at a high rate of speed and at an awkward angle. I continued to look at the world below me spinning and coming up fast. I remember there was not a hint of fear inside but just trying to reason through the situation. Not a thought went through my mind of hitting the ground; and we would hit hard.

I reached down and hooked my ankle around the mid part of the control stick and pulled it sharply back with my leg. The a


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ircraft immediately righted itself, slamming me hard down into my seat. Not only that, but we also had flying airspeed. And, we were in level flight. At 2,000 feet. Yeah, WTF right!? I rammed the throttles into afterburner and stood the aircraft on its tail pointing skyward. It was then that I noticed the radios squawking loudly in my ear from the control center monitoring our practice area, telling me that I was off altitude. Really!? No kidding , I thought. I merely ‘rogered’ the call and told them I was on my way back up to altitude. The investigation teams did not believe me when they arrived. They kept asking me how I recovered and I kept telling them.

“Seriously, Captain,” they would say. “What maneuvering and inputs did you use to recover? In what order and steps?”

See, like I said, this was supposed to be a completely unrecoverable situation.

“I told you, I hooked my heel around the stick and pulled it back,” I kept replying. Yeah, something was looking out for me that day and, yeah, I will never allow myself to go too far again.

The runway continues to pass by below us. Robert carries on through the checklist but more hesitantly.

“What do I do?” He finally asks.

“I don’t know. I’m just along for the ride,” I respond.

There is a slight hesitation, partly from frustration and partly from trying to come up with a plan. The aircraft begins a shallow right, climbing turn.

“I think I’ll just enter a downwind and re-enter the final from there,” he says in a questioning voice.

“Whatever you think,” I say but inside feeling very proud as that is the right solution.

Or, the most right. There were several actions that would have been correct. As I always told my students, make a decision and take an action. It does not matter what the action is because at least you are taking one instead of plowing along doing nothing. That is the only real, wrong thing to do - nothing. We configure for landing and he brings us around, setting it down firmly but not one of the worst I have ever experienced. Some of those worst being my own.

“Never feel trapped into having to make it in on the first try, or the second for that matter, or forcing it. It’s not a one shot and over deal. If you don’t like the setup, take it around and set up for another. At least you’ll be alive to try again,” I say as he takes the props out of reverse thrust and we roll out on the runway.

I see him nod his response out of the corner of my eye, not answering verbally and concentrating on keeping the aircraft on the runway. I tell him to park over where we were yesterday. We taxi over to the same location and shut down.

“What about getting fuel? I didn’t find any fuel trucks yesterday.” Robert asks.

“We’ll have to manually pump it out of the other aircraft here,” I say looking over at the other C-130’s parked next to us.

“Bri, will you go over and see how much fuel is in the 130 next to us? Take Red Team and have the aircraft cleared before you go in. The panel should be the same as this one,” I ask rising from my seat.

“Sure, Dad,” she says.

“Nic, will you stay here and teach Michelle the nav panel?” I ask.

“You betcha,” she answers.

We all stroll out onto the tarmac, the outside better than staying in the oven that is the cargo compartment. Mike follows at my heels and sits when I stop. I notify Lynn of our intentions and have her detail soldiers to get the manual pump and hoses from its storage place. The 130 is designed to be self-sufficient in any environment and operational in every contingent imaginable. There are missions that take it to places where there are not electric pumps or fuel depots so it has to be able to pump fuel from any source.

“Won’t that take a while?” Lynn asks as I finish explaining.

“Yeah, but it will take longer getting home if we run out of fuel part way,” I say, still tired from the morning’s events.

I have Robert climb on top of the aircraft through the overhead hatch and out onto the wing. There are over the wing fuel caps and we will be refueling through those; stretching the hose between the aircraft and operating the hand pump to transfer. It is a lengthy process but I do not see any alternative. It will also throw our time schedule off, like what has not done that as yet, but I would rather not use civilian fuel if I can avoid it.

Bri comes back and reports that the aircraft parked next to us is almost full. I send her inside our aircraft to operate the fuel panel. McCafferty is on the wing of the other aircraft to open the over-wing caps there and operate the hose on that end. When all is in place, we start the lengthy process of transferring fuel with soldiers taking turns at the manual pump. The heat builds throughout the day, baking us all as we sit under the shade of the wings. This is the kind of heat that makes you feel like you are made of rubber and puts you into that drowsy state.

Soldiers rotate positions with Robert and McCafferty so they are not stuck in the heat rising from the metallic wings. Heat waves dance across the concrete ramp, making distant objects look like they are under water. We are all soon bathed in sweat in the humidity and lack of wind does not allow the water oozing from our pores to evaporate. Lynn makes sure everyone remembers to drink, cutting into our water supply. Bannerman reports that we still have enough for a few days even with this increased consumption rate for which I am thankful. I have been in enough darkened buildings for a while.

A couple of hours later, we finish refueling, stow the equipment, and seal the tanks back up. I climb up onto the wing to verify that the caps are put back correctly. Not that I don’t trust anyone, it is just that, as the pilot-in-command, I am the one responsible. It certainly would not do to have the caps open in mid-flight and start having fuel pour out, being sucked out by the flow of air over the wings. The only indication would be the rapidly dwindling dials on the fuel gauges. That would not be cool. If we defuel, I want it to be because we choose to.

The same dreary restart process begins after we all gather inside our metallic coffin; hoping it does not actually become one. I feel so drained from the heat and excitement of the day. The feeling also stems from the knowledge that we will soon be back in the Northwest where the real work will begin. I may be tired now but wait until then , I think as the engines come to life. I can feel a stupor filling all of us. How tired we all are with what we have all been through lately. My butt is so tired of sitting in this seat but I imagine the passengers in back have it worse. The 130 is not the most comfortable of airplanes to ride in. Nine more hours and home. And of course with a landing at night. These night runners are putting a huge crimp in my planning process.

The sun is half the way across the afternoon sky as we lift off, forever departing this part of the world. A place it may not be safe to return to even in the air. A Geiger counter is going to not only be handy but necessary if we ever have to venture forth. Those nuclear power plants will continue to leak radiation making this area and others uninhabitable for hundreds or thousands of years. We really tubed this one in the name of progress. We had to play with our new toys without thinking about the long-term ramifications. I guess the good thing is that the night runners will be affected as well. I think they will at least. However, that really does not mean much for us; or humanity if we end up on the extinct list. Right now, we are definitely an endangered species.

Climbing out, a line of weather appears on the distant horizon. The dry line usually sits along the northern Texas panhandle stretching north this time of the year and can spawn thunderstorms and squall lines. We will have to watch out for those as we will be transiting that area close to nightfall. The weather has been good to us so far and I am hoping that will remain. The nav is set for a direct shot to McChord and I set the autopilot after leveling off at flight level 200 — 20,000 feet. I let Robert take the controls and switch places with Nic at the nav table. I want to read through some of these reports before trying to grab some shut eye.

I open the first folder and begin leafing through some of the reports noting some of what they have to say. Some valuable, some not making any sense to me, and others filled with the formese that government or government-like institutions love. I mean why write a single word when a paragraph of big-worded jargon exists that means the same. It can be very tiring trying to make sense of what they are actually trying to say. I do note some things from the initial reports:

…initial studies indicate that the initial Cape Town virus and pandemic has caused an 11% fatality rate worldwide…..further statistics show that the Bauer vaccine has a 71.3% fatality rate. 27.7% percent of those taking the Bauer vaccine have undergone or are currently undergoing alterations within their genetic makeup according to the quick sampling and testing we have conducted to this date. The results and ramifications of this are unknown and merely speculative at this time. Test subjects will need to be located and studied to determine the exact nature of the genetic alterations. Studies indicate that approximately 1% of the population may have immunity to the vaccine and virus. The original….

A yellow sticky note is appended to the top of this report. Hand written on the note is “Humanity went out, not with a whimper, but a bang. God help us all!”

…Test results indicate that the genetic mutations caused by the Bauer vaccine are not transmutable by blood, feces, or any other fluid contact….the immunity exhibited in approximately 1% of the population may be familial, however, further testing is needed to establish…

What the hell ! I think reading this. What happened to the soldier at the BX that was bitten?  My guess is that it must have been an anomaly of some kind. Perhaps his ‘immunity’ was only a partial one or that the process took a longer time in him and that the bite or trauma kicked it into high gear. Maybe he could have been just a carrier like some can be with Hepatitis. I guess there can be lots of explanations that I cannot even think of. Reading this does give me a sense of relief in that those of us left alive will not turn into a night runner merely by being bitten. I really did not know how to handle that one if it was the case. This one sentence alone was worth the risk.

…The long-term ramifications of such a death toll cannot be fathomed even if governmental institutions survive. Removing the deceased will require more resources than what will be available not accounting for the drastic decrease if not complete fall of institutional services. This will lead to a wide-spread and unchecked rate of infectious diseases arising from the deceased. Keep in mind that, in the aftermath, there will be close to five billion dead worldwide; the diseases of cholera, plague, and typhoid will be prevalent in high density areas. These diseases will also be present in other populated areas but weather, local topology, and size of the population will dictate how prevalent the diseases will be and to what extent their timeline will be. The services….

We will definitely have to put a priority on removing the bodies. I have thought about this a lot but our highest priority will have to remain building and fortifying our sanctuary and supplies. The fact about having resources to move such a quantity of bodies is so true. But we will have to get rid of them in our local area and soon. We are lucky we still have the summer months which will allow us longer periods of daylight. We will have to watch our travels into any populated area and stay out of buildings that have a large number of dead within. That means hospitals for sure from what I have seen so far. We may have to set up a detail to burn down the neighborhood tracts in our area rather than try removing bodies one at a time. We just will not ever finish in that fashion.

I flip through other reports and find that they have ‘obtained’ fourteen test subjects. Wow!  I think. They had fourteen of these things down there . I do not think I will find too much given the little time they had before the world came crashing down but am still hopeful of finding, or at least verifying, some facts about the night runners.

I turn to an autopsy report. The top of the report is mainly blank. It says that they are looking at test subject number seven who is a female and approximately 26 years of age. The race type merely says “unknown.”

EXTERNAL EXAMINATION:

The autopsy is begun at 8:30 A.M. The body is presented in a black body bag. Test subject 7 is wearing a white sleeveless turtleneck shirt and navy blue sweatpants. Jewelry included two smooth-textured silver hoop pierced earrings, 1-inch diameter, one in each ear, and one 1-inch wide silver expandable wristband on left wrist.

The body is that of a normally developed white female measuring 67 inches and weighing 118 pounds, and appearing generally consistent with an approximated age of twenty-six years. The body is cold and unembalmed. Lividity is fixed in the distal portions of the limbs. The eyes are open. The irises are brown and corneas are cloudy. Petechial hemorrhaging is present in the conjuctival surfaces of the eyes. The pupils measure 0.3 cm. The hair is dark blonde with lighter blonde highlights, wavy, layered and approximately 11 inches in length at the longest point.

Following removal of the clothing, the entirety of the epidermis is a light gray with darker gray blotches spread haphazardly throughout. The darker gray areas are not consistent with any subdural hemorrhaging and appear to be part of the pigmentation of the epidermis.

The genitalia are that of an adult female and there is no evidence of injury. Pubic hair is present. Limbs are equal, symmetrically developed and show no evidence of injury. The fingernails are medium length and fingernail beds are blue. The padding on the soles of the feet are thickened but not associated with the formation of callouses. There are no residual scars, markings or tattoos.

INTERNAL EXAMINATION:

HEAD—CENTRAL NERVOUS SYSTEM: The brain weighs 1,303 grams and within normal limits.

SKELETAL SYSTEM: The skeletal system shows no abnormalities.

RESPIRATORY SYSTEM—THROAT STRUCTURES—NASAL STRUCTURES: The oral cavity shows no lesions. Petechial hemorrhaging is present in the mucosa of the lips and the interior of the mouth. Otherwise, the mucosa is intact and there are no injuries to the lips, teeth or gums.

There is no obstruction of the airway. The mucosa of the epiglottis, glottis, piriform sinuses, trachea and major bronchi are anatomic. No injuries are seen and there are no mucosal lesions.

The lungs weigh: right, 426 grams; left 434 grams. The lungs are unremarkable with the exception that they are 20% above normal size.

Nasal structure is intact. Tissues samples indicate a dramatic increase in olfactory epithelium of 90cm2.

OCULAR SYSTEM: The ocular structure is normal. Exception: An increase in the number of rods noted in the peripheral of the retinal with a subsequent decrease in the number of cones.

AUDITORY SYSTEM: The auditory structure is abnormal. The auditory canal is enlarged with a larger number of cochlea hair cells present.

CARDIOVASCULAR SYSTEM: The heart weighs 297 grams, which is approximately 20% above normal size. It has a normal configuration. No evidence of atherosclerosis is present.

MUSCULAR SYSTEM: The muscular system has a normal configuration. Tendons and ligaments have increased thickness. Study of the muscles tissue indicates an increase in quick twitch muscles.

GASTROINTESTINAL SYSTEM: The mucosa and wall of the esophagus are intact and gray-pink, without lesions or injuries. The gastric mucosa is intact and pink without injury. Approximately 125 ml of partially digested semisolid food is found in the stomach. The mucosa of the duodenum, jejunum, ileum, colon and rectum are intact.

URINARY SYSTEM: The kidneys weigh: left, 115 grams; right, 113 grams. The kidneys are anatomic in size, shape and location and are without lesions.

FEMALE GENITAL SYSTEM: The structures are within normal limits. Examination of the pelvic area indicates the victim had not given birth and was not pregnant at the time of death. There is no evidence of recent sexual activity. Vaginal fluid samples are removed for analysis.

TOXICOLOGY: Sample of right pleural blood and bile are submitted for toxicologic analysis. Stomach contents are saved.

SEROLOGY: A sample of right pleural blood is submitted in the EDTA tube. Routine toxicologic studies were ordered.

LABORATORY DATA

Cerebrospinal fluid culture and sensitivity:

Gram stain: Unremarkable Culture: No growth after 72 hours

Cerebrospinal fluid bacterial antigens:

Hemophilus influenza B: Negative

Streptococcus pneumoniae: Negative

N. Meningitidis: Negative

Neiserria meningitidis B/E. Coli K1: Negative

Drug Screen Results:

Urine screen {Immunoassay} was NEGATIVE. 

Ethanol: 0 gm/dl, Blood (Heart)

Ethanol: 0 gm/dl, Vitreous

EVIDENCE COLLECTED:

1. One (1) white turtleneck sleeveless shirt, size Small.

2. One (1) pair navy blue sweatpants, size Small.

3. Two (2) silver hoop earrings.

4. One (1) silver bracelet.

5. Samples of Blood (type O+), Bile, and Tissue (heart, lung, brain, kidney, liver, spleen).

6. Fifteen (15) swabs from various body locations, to be tested for presence of hypochlorite.

7. Eleven (11) autopsy photographs.

8. One postmortem CT scan.

9. One postmortem MRI.

OPINION

The 20 percent increase in the heart and lungs indicate this test subject has an increased VO2 max capability. Increases in the number of rods found in the ocular system indicate increased low light vision. Changes with the aural system, primarily the number of cochlea hairs present indicate an increase in the auditory range and perhaps distance. Dramatic increases within the olfactory sensors indicate sharp increases in odor detection. This is a 900% increase from normal putting this test subject between the sensory levels of a human and canine. Muscular system changes indicate a possibility of increased strength and speed. Epidermis tissue samples sent for further testing will indicate the changes in pigmentation and the ramifications thereof.

I cannot really understand most of this report with some exceptions and that fall in line with my current understanding of the night runners. I underline and highlight those areas that I can understand and find important. I feel like when I was back in college and would only highlight those items that looked like they could be made into test questions. The opinion section I can completely understand and is helpful but only verifies what I have already guessed from observation and experience. It is quite apparent that their main sense, apart from vision, is with their sense of smell. It is good to know just how much it has increased and we will have to take precautions.

I stand and stretch eyeing the instruments from this distance, really just checking that all of the engine instrument needles are in the same position. The drone of the engines can really get to you after a while and I feel the beginnings of a headache coming on. Reading these things I can barely comprehend, along with the constant noise and vibration, is taking its toll along with the lack of sleep. Plus, my flight suit doesn’t smell all that great either.

Reassured that everything seems to be running smoothly but still eyeing the scattered cumulonimbus clouds ahead, their tops just peeking over the horizon, I sit back down and begin looking through the Greek that is the reports lying on the nav table. I am not overly happy finding out that the genetic changes make them stronger, faster, better able to hear, and with a tremendous sense of smell. That is going to make it difficult so, with a sigh, I continue to search for weaknesses or something we can use. So far, all I have found is that we are outmatched on a physical level. We have survived through several encounters but that is mainly due to firepower, training, and a seemingly higher intelligence. And, we have the day.

This surely cannot be what the world and nature wanted; creating the night runners. I have a hard time believing they are the next step. Or, maybe that is just ego talking and they are the next dominant species. Sitting here cruising along three and a half miles above the surface of the earth, I wonder if this is what the Neanderthal thought with the emergence of Homo Sapiens. Only, in reverse as I am pretty sure our cognitive function is higher than the night runner’s. Sighing once again, I turn back to the reports finding one detailing the findings of a physical exam with one of the live test subjects; test subject 5.

…Test subject 5 is a male, race unknown, approximately 32 years of age. This test subject, as with all of the other test subjects, required a 50% increase in sedative as prescribed for a normal adult male of his weight. As with the other three test subjects tested to this date, test subject 5 demonstrates an elevated heart rate (prone — 82 bpm) and elevated body temperature (101.3). Lab results indicate increased levels of red bloods cells consistent with the other test subjects. Average breaths per minute are also consistent with previous test subjects and approximately 20% higher than a normal human male. The ratio….

…test results from saliva samples show a significant amount of an unknown bacterium. The bacteria tested demonstrate a rapid onset of infection within the human blood samples. It is unknown whether the human immune system can produce antibodies quick enough to combat the infection. Bites from those infected can, in theory, result in an immediate and a quick spreading infection. Further testing is required to see the immune system response….

Hmmmm, interesting , I think. Everything is elevated. That would mean they have to have a higher metabolism to sustain those rates. Meaning, more sustenance and maybe they tire quicker . The rest of this portion tails off into numbers and so forth that become meaningless to me. The fact regarding the bite from the night runners is important and I imagine anyone bitten will require immediate doses of antibiotics. We will have to be sure to carry some with us when we plan on entering buildings or there is a chance of encountering night runners.

…Lab results from epidermis tissue samples note changes in the pigmentation cell structure. These changes demonstrate quick responses to light, especially within the Ultra-violet spectrum. Ultra-violet light creates the quickest and most dramatic changes causing the epidermis to burn quickly and changing to a deep red like a sunburn. Changes within the cell structures are immediate with direct exposure to Ultra-violet lighting. Radiated lighting within this spectrum demonstrates the same effect but with a slower cycle time. Other testing… 

Okay, now this is something we can use , I think scrolling through and finding that the rest of this report only details other testing that has no effect. We may be able to hold them at bay with ultra-violet lights set up in a building interior. At least as long as we can find UV lights that is. I tuck this one in my bag of tricks, take a drink of water, and move on.

…of which the scan results and monitoring of the brain wave activity show dramatic decreases of activity within the cognitive areas of the brain. This impairs the ability to reason or create a link between two different ideas. This limited brain activity within these areas also indicates a possible decrease in a sense of self, perhaps even creating a pack-like mentality. Scans within the memory function show activity in certain areas of memory but with decreased activity in the memory storage areas of the brain. This may lead to not being able to access previous memories prior to the genetic alterations…… various stimuli created in one test subject shows interesting levels of brain activity in the other test subjects. This level of activity in other test subjects diminishes with distance from the test subject being given the stimuli indicating a possible link. While this is only a theory,…… The test subjects react to stimuli or problems without reason. The animalistic reactions give rise to a theory that the overall intelligence is low on the reasoning scale, but remain high when reacting to survival-based stimuli… reacting instinctively….

Okay, that answers the question of intelligence but I do not like the thing about the allusion to a link between them. If that is true, and I cannot afford to assume anything one way or the other, then they can communicate quicker although I am not sure on what level. So far, we have intelligence, fire power, daylight, and UV lighting — for as long as that lasts. Seems like it is coming down to brains versus brawn although they have a lot of it and, if the statistics are right, at least a thirty to one numerical superiority. And more than likely greater than that with people being eaten and such. I am quite sure there were probably a lot of suicides as well.

…The reproductive organs in both the female and male test subjects are normal. The ova and sperm samples taken demonstrate that normal breeding is possible. It is unknown as to how the genetic changes will affect the ovulation cycle for females who have undergone these genetic changes. Also unknown is whether a fetus created by two genetically altered or a single genetically altered parent will carry to term. Indications of normalcy within the productive organs indicate that this remains a possibility although the results are unknown. Will the child born of this union carry the genetically altered traits of one or both parents? The question also remains as to whether the genetically altered test subjects, and those outside of the laboratory, will have the same need and desire to propagate the species…

Great, they can breed! I think with my headache growing by the second. This just gets better and better. I am almost wishing that we didn’t find these files. Be careful of what you ask or wish for.

…All test subjects repeatedly sniff the air and appear to be able detect the approach of technicians by sense of smell. Locked in windowless rooms but with access to outside air, they sniff and react in a violent manner when the room is approached from outside. Further similar tests in rooms without access to outside air confirm this mode of detection. The test subjects in any room will gravitate towards the darkest areas. Furthermore, test subjects placed together will not act violently towards each other but begin to congregate in groups, seeking each other out…

Well, there it is in a nutshell , I think closing this folder. They basically behave in a wolf-pack manner with increased physical abilities but nature has offset that by downgrading their cognitive and intelligence abilities. Perhaps intelligence is not the right word.

I look out ahead and see the scattered storms off our nose have drawn closer but are still scattered as opposed to forming a squall line. We should be able to squeak our way through without too much difficulty. They are still some distance away. The sun is beginning its downward journey to its inevitable meeting with the horizon, casting its light on the individual storms. Hints of rainbows flare out from them and the edges show translucent oranges and yellows. The land below us is flat and towns are sparse. My thought goes out to those still left alive below and the fear they must be feeling with the coming of the night.

“Are you making radio calls out on guard?” I ask Robert through the intercom.

“Yeah, I made a couple,” he answers.

I have been so wrapped up in my own thoughts and reading that I was completely oblivious to hearing his radio calls. Another indication that I am thoroughly exhausted.

“You doing okay? Want me to take over?” I ask.

“No, I’m fine,” he responds.

I know he is probably having the time of his life. In control of the aircraft and feeling comfortable with it. Not wanting to give it up for a moment. He is going to need some rest as well but I want to lie down for a moment before we hit the weather up ahead.

“I’m going to lie down for a moment. Wake me for anything,” I say moving from my chair to the bunk to my side.

“Okay, Dad,” he says. I pull off my helmet and lie down on the thin mattress on the upper bunk.

I wake a short time later, the power nap leaving me feeling a touch refreshed. The day outside is winding to a close. The heating of the ground below during the day begins to cool and takes some of the energy away from the thunderstorms that we drawing close to. There are a few gaps in between the towering clouds. Large anvils spread across and fill those gaps on top. I turn on and warm up the weather radar taking my seat at the nav


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igator’s station once again. I would like to get a little more reading finished before nightfall. We are going to be busy enough when we return so I would like to finish going through the files as I may not have time later.

“Guide us between the cells. They are far enough apart that they shouldn’t be a worry,” I tell Robert. “The radar is warmed up and ready in case we need it.”

I see him give me a thumbs up over his seat. I stroll back into the cargo compartment with Mike in tow and let Lynn know to have everyone buckle up if they can or be near something they can hold onto. I inform her that we will be passing through a line of thunderstorms and that it should not be too bad. I let her know it just might get a little bumpy. Back at the nav table, I rub my temples and open the folders once again.

The aircraft jostles around a little as we hit the outskirts of the turbulence making the reading a little more difficult. A lot of the reports talk about the rise of the virus and the attempts to find patient zero — the first one to manifest the virus. Many others speak of vaccine reports and notices terminating the vaccinations. A sudden jolt makes me light in my seat only to slam immediately back down into it, spilling some of the reports on the steel decking. Well, I’m not going to accomplish much like this , I think picking them up and climbing out of my seat.

Walking across the shifting deck, which is threatening to knock me on my can with each step, I tap Nic on the shoulder and point to the nav station. We exchange seats and I buckle in. I do not want to take over for Robert but need to be there just in case. He is doing a pretty good job but flying in moderate turbulence can make the ride quite exciting and nerve-racking. I know I don’t really like it much. And, we are not yet within the line so it is bound to get a little worse. Luckily, we have the last dredges of the sun to guide us visually through. The sun is hitting the western edges of the thunderstorms which are giving us a little bit of a light show. Lightning flashes periodically to our sides in the gloomy and shadowed undersides of the storms with the purples and oranges showing on the sides of the towering cumulus clouds. If they were not trying to throw us out of the sky, it would be quite a gorgeous sight.

Robert continues to navigate us around the line of thunderstorms. Looking up at one of the anvils spread across us miles above, I hope we are not going to be pelted with large hail stones. Flying under anvils is not the best of ideas as it is basically formed as the top of the thunderstorm hits the higher winds aloft; those winds rip the top of the thunderstorm and cast its contents miles outward at high rates of speed. Better than being in it, I think as we are continually bounced from one altitude to another. Not nearly as bad as the line we passed coming over, but it is enough to make you want to check your dental work afterwards.

I look back at Michelle seeing her eyes a little wide but she is coping well. Bri is busy with her panels and so engaged that she is not really thinking about our bouncing around much. Nic is at her nav seat looking absently through the medical files I left there while, at the same time, trying to keep them from spreading throughout the cockpit. Kathy, Little Robert, and Kenneth are on the lower bunk gripping the side rails tightly, trying not to get launched out of their seat. Mike is still behind me but lying on the deck, or trying to. He is being tossed a little into the air on the big bounces only to come back into contact on the reverse side of the bump.

We transit the far side just as the last rays of the day disappear over the western horizon; a faint glow of what was still silhouettes the horizon and the peaks of the mountains ahead. The Continental Divide. The turbulence subsides and we enter relatively smooth air as the vast towers of clouds vanish behind our wingtips. Lightning flashes out from their underbellies in a symphony of light. I hear a click on the intercom as Lynn plugs into one of the stations in the cargo compartment.

“Where in the world did you learn to fly?” She asks both amused and not.

“Oh, are you under the mistaken impression that I ever did?” I ask back.

“Very funny,” she says.

“Everyone alright back there?” I ask.

“Yeah, a few bumps and bruises but you didn’t manage to actually toss anyone out,” she adds.

“And here I tried so hard,” I say unbuckling. “I’ll be back there in a sec.”

Carrying the CDC folders, I head to the cargo compartment leaving the aircraft in the hands of my kids once again. I don’t think the oddity of that will ever leave , I think stepping down the stairs. The next few minutes are spent bringing Lynn up to speed on what I have gathered so far from the reports we brought out of the CDC; having to shout over the continuous thrumming of the engines. In a way, I have come to appreciate the mobility and security of the aircraft even more but am also ready to be out of it. I hand the folders to Frank and ask Lynn to share the information with everyone as I head back up into the cockpit; also letting her know that we’ll be at McChord in a few short hours and will brief on the next day’s activities when we land.

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As I climb back up, Robert’s head turns toward me and he shouts. I cannot hear a thing he is saying so I step over to his side.

“What?” I shout into the left side of his helmet.

“You’re going to want to hear this,” he shouts back pointing at the radio. My heart rate elevates a little wondering what it can be. I buckle in and pull my helmet on.

“Anyone receiving this message, please respond,” a voice comes through the radio.

I check our frequencies and find we are on the UHF radio which means either military traffic or someone has found a military radio.

“If anyone can hear this, please respond,” I hear the voice come over again. I swear I heard the sound of gunfire in the background of the last transmission.

“Calling on UHF emergency, this is Otter 39. I read you loud and clear,” I answer the voice.

“Oh, thank god,” I hear in response.

“Calling on frequency, state your name and position,” I call back.

“This is Sergeant Mullins. We’re an Army unit inside the BX at Petersen Air Force Base,” he responds to my query.

“Okay, Sergeant. What’s your situation?” I ask further.

“We have those, um, things all around us. Holding out for now but ammo is running low,” he answers.

“How many are with you and how many of them are around you?” I ask.

“I have twelve including myself and I don’t have an accurate count of the things out there. I would say at least fifty to a hundred,” Sergeant Mullins responds.

“We are a C-130 with a contingent of soldiers aboard and about thirty minutes out from the base,” I say looking over our nav charts. “Can you hold out?”

“We’ll try but the sooner you get here, the better,” he answers.

“Copy that, standby,” I say.

“Michelle, go get Lynn and have her come up here please,” I say in the intercom.

She heads into the back as I pull the various nav and approach charts out of our flight bags. Robert has control of the aircraft as I begin plotting a flight path to the airfield into the navigation computer, further configuring an approach to the main runway. Lynn comes up behind me and begins to ask what is up. I hold up hand stalling her while I finish inputting all of the numbers. A mistake here could be disastrous and we could find ourselves attempting to fly half way across the world. I figure the predominant winds there would be from the north with the season so I plan to use runway 35L. With the inputs complete, I switch the nav system over to the new flight plan. The aircraft begins a gentle bank to the right as I turn to Lynn and shout the situation to her.

“Are we going after them at night or wait until daylight?” She asks not once thinking we would not be going to help the soldiers in trouble.

“I don’t think they’ll make it until daylight,” I answer.

“I’m not overly fond of going in at night. What’s the plan?” Lynn asks.

“We only have twelve NVG’s so two teams. I would say a very small team but I think we’ll need the firepower. We’ll do a flyby on night vision to pick our route and scout the situation,” I say answering.

“Roger that. I’ll brief Black and Green Teams,” she says.

“I’m going as well,” I say.

“Haven’t you done enough?” She shouts in an exasperated tone.

“Haven’t you?” I shout back.

“Okay, fine,” she says turning to head back.

“Am I going?” Robert asks once Lynn has left the cockpit.

“No, someone has to stay here and get the plane ready to go on a moment’s notice. Be setup for a battery start. Don’t worry, you’ll get your share with the state the world is in,” I add taking control of the aircraft, turning off autopilot, and beginning a descent to the base.

The area ahead of us should be lit up by the lights of Colorado Springs and the surrounding towns, forts, and bases with the glow of Denver further to the north. Only pitch blackness shows beneath our nose. It looks as if we are descending into a large, black hole.

“Sergeant Mullins, this is Otter 39,” I say pressing the push-to-talk switch.

“Otter 39, go ahead,” he says with definite gunfire in the background.

“Switch to semi if at all possible to conserve your ammo. We’re going to do a flyby so you’ll hear us overhead in about 15 minutes. We have to land at the airfield and make our way to you,” I say giving an outline of our plan.

“Copy that Otter 39,” Mullins responds.

“Robert, I want you to stay on our ground freq. You’ll be the radio relay to Mullins. Keep the aircraft on battery power but with the lights off,” I say as we continue down.

We don our NVG’s and do a low pass over the base, sighting the location of Sergeant Mullins and his group by the flashes of light from their gunfire. There is a main road from their location directly back to the airfield ramp that we locate on our pass over the area. Lynn is looking over my shoulder in the cockpit as we fly over.

“We’ll have to exit and seal the aircraft up quickly on arrival. We can’t be caught with the aircraft open. Everyone will have to exit through the side door. The ramp is too slow,” I yell to her.

“We’ll be ready,” she says and disappears once again as I fly the aircraft away from the base and set up for the approach.

We will not be using landing lights in this case as I do not want to attract more attention than we already are. Before, we left the aircraft sealed up so I was not overly worried about the attention. Here though, we will be very vulnerable so this one will be on NVG’s alone. Not the optimum solution but one I have done a few times before. And, I have a nice, long, paved runway. The few times this was necessary before was a remote patch of ground in the middle of nowhere. And when I say nowhere, I mean nowhere.

The approach goes well with the interior lights dimmed but I set it down rather hard on the runway. Depth perception is always tough with these stupid NVG’s. We slow down and pull off of the runway. I shut down the engines on the left side as we taxi in so the props will be stopped on that side and we will be able to exit the aircraft quickly. I leave Robert to taxi in as I head to the back and gear up. He also knows to give us the all clear if he does not see any night runners about. I tell both teams to load up on ammo and carry a couple grenades each, remembering my need, or want, of them back in the CDC building. I pack four of them myself, hanging them on my tac vest, making sure the pins are bent.

We all line up inside the cargo compartment, ready to exit the side crew door like a line of paratroopers ready for a drop. Waiting for the aircraft to stop and the all clear to sound. I am in the front with my hand on the door actuator. I will exit first and remain by the door to quickly close it back up. If we get caught outside, I briefed that we will open the door and rush back in but if it looks like the night runners are about to overwhelm us and get inside, the door is to get shut regardless of who is still out there. In this manner and with these thoughts, we wait.

The aircraft comes to stop with a slight forward lurch. Anticipation fills us all. Black and Green Teams will exit immediately behind me and set up a small perimeter. I will seal the door and then we will be silently off; quietly making our way through the base to the BX approximately three quarters to a mile away.

“All clear,” Robert shouts from inside the cockpit.

I lower the door, quickly exiting and turning. Both teams fluidly follow behind and set up around the aircraft. I push the door back up and seal it up. So far, so good. In the green light from our night vision goggles, the ramp looks clear of night runners to the extent of our vision. I hear the far side engines winding down as their fuel source is cut off.

“Robert, tell them we are on our way and to expect us in about thirty minutes,” I say into the radio.

“Roger that,” he replies picking up the lingo.

“Lynn, we’ll head out in staggered formation as before. You take the left, Drescoll, the right. I will be out ahead in the middle. Center on me,” I say.

“Copy that,” Lynn says.

“Yes, sir,” Drescoll responds.

We start off across the ramp, all eyes alert and ready; weapons loaded and ready to fire.

“Mullins just said there are a lot of night runners in the parking lot around them and they are low on ammo,” Robert relays.

“Okay, thanks and keep us informed if he has any more updates,” I reply.

“Okay Lynn, Drescoll, when we arrive, we’ll create a hole for Sergeant Mullins and his group to exit through. Then we’ll beat feet back here in a rapidly folding rear guard action, two soldiers firing half of a clip each on semi and retreating back on the run past the next two in line to take station at the rear. Ten meter intervals. Don’t forget to reload. And no firing except on my command. Questions?” I say and ask.

“Will do,” both Lynn and Drescoll respond.

We head across the ramp and pick up the main road on the other side. I am quite surprised we do not have any visitors at this point as we made quite the entry but am glad of it. The main road is split by a grass meridian between the two, one-way streets; each one with two lanes. Black is on the left behind me with Green staggered behind them on the right. The road passes what looks like a park to my left but I cannot really see that far into it to determine. Silence prevails in the night air; chilly at this high altitude and after spending time in the heat these past few days.

We cross a main intersection with the wide road stretching to our right. I cannot hear any gunshots at this point indicating either we are still a distance away from Mullins and his group or, for whatever reason, they are not firing. The bright stars overhead are the only witnesses to our quiet venture into the night. Tension remains high as we all know the danger of being out at night, especially with this small of a force when there are possibly hundreds of night runners around us. And with the fact that they can locate us quite easily. The one redeeming factor going our way is the slight but gentle breeze blowing from our left to right and away from where the night runners are massed by the BX.

We proceed further up the street and begin to pick out sounds of gunfire and shrieks drifting along the cool breeze. A small copse of trees lies ahead on my left. My nerves are on high alert expecting night runners to appear at any moment. My hope is that we will not have any materialize behind us, cutting us off from the aircraft; our only sanctuary.

I pick out a hint of movement within the trees as we draw silently closer to the BX. The popping sound of rounds being fired mix with howls, roars, and shrieks up ahead and to our left. Suddenly, two night runners break out of the trees and begin running for me, their feet pounding rapidly across the grass. It’s over , I think and am about ready to order our two teams to begin a retreat when I notice that these two are not shrieking their cry of discovery like all of the others had in the past.

“Hold your fire,” I say quietly in the radio as I set my M-4 down and pull out my knife.

I quickly check the area around me assuring myself that these are the only two in sight. If they shriek, then I’ll quickly pick up my carbine and we’re outta here , I think watching them rapidly close the distance. This is not a really smart plan on my part but I want to give us and Mullins the best chance possible at surviving this night. Gunshots will bring the horde upon us making it impossible to help those trapped. Mullins and his group would be in the same position they are in now so firing now would only make things worse as we wouldn’t be able to help them and will endanger our own position.

The two night runners come on staggered, one behind the other, which is extremely beneficial to me. The one in front is almost upon me with its arms stretching out in front of him, its gray skin almost glowing in the green light. I drop to one knee under its outstretched arms and rise quickly, plunging my knife under its sternum and grabbing its shirt with my left hand, using its forward momentum and my rising momentum to lift it up and over me with my knife in its heart. I feel warm blood spurt out, running down my knife haft and hand. All it makes is a grunt as my knife penetrates its shirt, skin and heart. That is its one, only and last sound.

Using my knife as leverage, I continue lifting the night runner over me, giving a slight twist to my knife to assure the kill; lifting it up and over onto its back, withdrawing my knife as it begins its downward journey and lands on its back with a thud. I pivot quickly on my right foot, turning to face the second one and bring my left arm around in a sweeping motion, catching the second night runner’s arms with my forearm, knocking them out of the way. Continuing my pivot, I drive my knife into its neck, cutting through the jugular, cartilage, and gristle of its airway. Blood squirts out from the severed artery coating my hand and splashes on my face and neck as the knife exits out the other side, slicing through the opposite jugular. With a sawing motion towards the front, I pull my knife free hearing the night runner gurgle as blood pours down its windpipe. Its knees give out and it slumps straight down, a small amount of its forward momentum remains causing it to hit the pavement face first with a crack next to its friend.

“You okay,” Lynn asks over the radio as I kneel to clean my blade on the night runner’s clothing.

“I’m good,” I say replacing my knife and picking my M-4 up.

I am still puzzled as to why they did not shriek like the others but will take fortune where it is found. I do a quick check of the area and find it clear. The soldiers behind me to the left and right are rising from their knees where they went down in a ready stance covering the area when the two night runners emerged.

We start up the road again, round a slight bend and the sound of the full fury of what Sergeant Mullins is dealing with comes to us. Shrieks sound out continuously with rapid fire gunshots overriding them occasionally. Howls of pain intrude upon the absolute din breaking over the night. We reach another main intersection and head to our left, across a large grassy lawn adjacent to a building which then opens up to the parking lot in front of the BX.

There must be hundreds , I think looking at the parking lot filled with night runners. Flashes of light appear to the left side, coming from within the building as the soldiers there defend themselves. The night runners are milling in the parking lot for the most part with groups suddenly launching forward with mighty waves of shrieks and roars to attack the building. A true madhouse scene if I have ever seen one.

“Drescoll, spread quietly and slowly out to the right. Lynn, spread out on me,” I whisper in the radio.

“Yes, sir,” they both respond. I can barely hear their replies over the noise.

“What’s the plan?” I hear Lynn ask.

“Not sure yet but we can’t linger long thinking about it. They’ll spot us soon enough,” I say responding.

I study the massed night runners. It should not be all that difficult creating a hole for Mullins and his group to escape through; it is the mass of night runners chasing us down afterwards that worries me. And, with them being faster, it will not be long before they catch up to us, certainly before we get to the aircraft.

“Everyone ready a grenade and toss it in their midst on my command. Break. Robert, tell Mullins we’re here. Have him get everyone up and be ready to run when our grenades go off and let me know when he says he’s ready. Tell him we are off to his right just back from the parking lot edge,” I say quietly into the radio.

“Will do, Dad,” Robert answers.

I do not pull any grenades out as I will need all of them later with what I have in mind. I plan leading as much of them away from the main group as I can after our introduction and announcement to the night runners that we are here. That, I think, will give the group the best fighting chance to get back safely.

“Lynn, get the rest back in the folding retreat we talked about. No firing or engaging here after the grenades go off, you’ll need your ammo. Unless it’s to keep them away from Mullins as they exit,” I whisper into the radio.

“What are you going to do Jack?” Lynn says with an edge to her voice.

“I’m going to lead them away,” I answer.

“The hell you are!” She whispers fiercely.

“Yes, I am, now get ready, Sergeant!” I whisper fiercely back.

“Dad, they say they’re ready,” Robert calls over the radio.

“Okay, Son. See you in a bit. Have the ramp doors ready to lower and raise them back up quickly. I love you!” I whisper back to him.

“I love you too, Dad,” I hear him say in a slightly trembling voice as if he did not understand exactly what was said but knowing it probably was not good. I slink a little way to the left of the lined up teams.

“Now!” I whisper into the radios.

My night vision goggles pick up the movement of arms along the firing line as they arc grenades into the parking lot and among the masses of night runners gathered there. Seconds later, the grenades go off in an almost simultaneous roar. The eleven grenades create one giant explosion of sound and light spreading their deadly payload of shrapnel across and through the horde. Bodies that were close to the grenades are lifted into the air, flailing as they rise, their expressions not yet exhibiting the surprise, shock, and pain that their bodies are undergoing. Severed limbs join the bodies. The greenish glow does not catch the splash of blood, bone and flesh that must cover an area so littered with flying body parts. Those not tossed into the air are thrown sideways from the force of the explosion and shrapnel.

With the loud explosions still ringing in our ears, I see the group we have come to help emerge from the front of the BX and run in our direction. The night runners still left standing, and yes, there are quite a few of them, stand still for a moment in a daze, confused by the sudden noise and the disappearance of so many of their group. Recovery is quick though and they shriek loudly as they spot Mullins’ group dashing across the parking lot to join up with the others.

“Lynn, start back now as planned! Hold your fire as long as you can. I’ll draw as many as I can. See you soon, hon,” I say loudly into the mic.

“You be careful Jack! I love you!” She responds.

I stand from my position and yell loudly, “Come on you ugly shits! I’m over here!”

I fire a few rounds on semi to get their attention, my weapon casting a strobe effect over the area with each round expelled. A few night runners, as they begin their chase towards Lynn and her now retreating teams, drop as my rounds find their mark. Many of the night runners change direction in mid-step and head towards me. I turn and run. The chase is on.


* * *

Lynn quickly briefs Sergeant Mullins on their exit strategy of falling back in teams of two. She directs the first team of two to hold as they reach the street. Looking quickly over to the side, she sees Jack run across an intersection and between two buildings with night runners close behind him and closing.

“Be safe,” she whispers into the night before falling back and detailing the next two, arranging the rest quickly into teams of two to provide the covering withdrawal back.

Not a few of the night runners continue after Lynn, deciding to continue after the larger group rather than chase after Jack. The first two team members kneel in the road and begin to fire on semi-automatic at the closest night runners. The soldiers attempt, and succeed for the most part, to keep the distance between themselves and the night runners. Each watches several night runners fall as the steel leaves their barrels in quick intervals and finds targets. Heads snap back and small spots blossom on the chests. Night runners spin, are launched backwards, or fall forward as the soldier’s rounds strike home. They are keeping count of their rounds as they fire rapidly; quickly shifting aim from one night runner to the next. The clink of individual shell casings is barely audible as they bounce across the hard top. Night runners behind quickly take the place of the fallen. Leaving over twenty on the ground, most not moving where they fell; some slowly crawling short distances, the soldier on the left yells “Go!” They stand and run to their rear passing the next two kneeling in line; passing all of the others getting set up and take a position ten meters to the rear of the group, ready to repeat their actions when their turn comes again.

Lynn takes station in the middle of the group with another team member to her right, waiting her turn to cover the retreat back to the aircraft. Drescoll is at the rear, separated so they will still have command in case one of them goes down. She sees the soldiers up front kneel and begin delivering rounds into the crowd of night runners chasing rapidly after them. The flashes of light from their barrels reach her a split second before the echo of their shots. The noise of the night runners and the ensuing rifle fire fills the air around, belying the quietness of the star-lit, night sky looking down. The two soldiers that were at the head of the line soon rush by her on their way to the rear, the action taken up by the next line of soldiers.

A large, muffled explosion comes from her left, carried with the breeze, followed by even more muffled sounds of gunfire being delivered in short, measured intervals, exactly like those now being delivered once again to her front; rapid fire rounds on semi-automatic. Jack’s still alive and fighting , she thinks with a moment of worry. The situation to her front draws her attention back to their fight.

The next two in line deliver their measured rounds in rapid fire fashion but the sheer numbers of night runners closes the distance dramatically. Lynn notices that the night runners are also attempting to run around and circumvent the group on the flanks. She moves up the line and orders the groups of two to fold into groups of four, the outside two to begin firing into the flanking hordes. The groups quickly reform and the volume of fire doubles dropping night runners in their tracks and keeping the distance between the oncoming mass and the retreating soldiers more or less constant.

Lynn does a quick calculation in her head measuring the distance travelled with their ammunition expenditure. She knows it will be close but calculates that they will have enough ammo to continue making the leap frog maneuvering back to the aircraft. Not a lot of room, but enough , she thinks kneeling with a soldier to her left and one to her right. They are next in line.

The line in front of her rises quickly, turns and sprints through the line Lynn is kneeling with. She brings her M-4 to her shoulder and begins sending out her special message-grams; delivered on the tip of her 5.56mm, steel-jacketed delivery system. Aiming for upper body shots, her first round catches one of the night runners in mid-stride, hitting its neck just above the chest. The round tears through the cartilage, hits the spine and the juncture of C5 and 6 with tremendous force, and explodes out of the back after splintering, taking large amounts of tissue and bone with it. The head flops to the side, almost severed, and comes to rest on the shoulder before it flops backwards as the night runner falls forward, hitting the ground. Its head then slings forward and separates from the body with the force of the impact.

Lynn only sees her target begin to drop before quickly aligning her sight with the next, that one spinning to its left as the bullet, fired almost immediately after the first, strikes it in the upper chest, the round splintering on impact with a rib and ripping th


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rough the lungs and heart; grabbing handfuls of tissue and severing veins and arteries on its passage through. Ten more fall, spin or are knocked backward from her rapid but carefully delivered fire before she yells “Go!” and runs through the line behind her. They are making progress and able to control the situation so far. Another muffled explosion reaches her ears off to the side; heard above the sound of her boots pounding on the pavement with the other three beside her, along with the sound of the opening rounds from the soldiers she just passed through.

“How are you doing Jack?” Lynn calls as she heads towards the rear.

“Little busy right now,” he responds after a pause.

They make their way back close to the tarmac thirty feet at a time. In what seems like hours, a roadway to the ramp opens behind them. They have dropped hundreds of night runners, the bodies littering the road and marking the path of their retreat. Many other night runners joined the initial mass on their march back but their numbers have dwindled substantially. Lynn passes through the line for the seemingly thousandth time, passing Drescoll along the way.

“Heard from Jack lately?” Drescoll yells above the tremendous noise from the volleys of gunfire surrounding them.

“Not a word for some time,” Lynn answers, slowing slightly with her lips tightened with worry.

“Robert, this is Lynn,” she calls on the radio after taking her station at the rear of the formation.

“This is Robert,” she hears after a slight pause.

“Open up the ramp, we’re coming in,” she says further.

“Okay, it’s opening now,” Robert says.

“Be ready to close it as soon as we’re in,” she says.

“We’re ready.”

“All those not on the line, ready a grenade and toss it in front of the night runners on my command. Run for the rear of the aircraft immediately after,” Lynn bellows, her voice heard above the deafening noise of gunfire and howls.

“Now!” She yells after a moment to give the soldiers nearby time to pluck grenades from their vests and pull the pins.

The last of their grenades arc through the air and land on the pavement in front of the oncoming mass of night runners. Lynn and the soldiers turn and run with everything they have left across the tarmac for the lowering ramp of the 130. The sound of their boots, the clink of slings banging against the stock and rails of their M-4’s, and the heavy breathing of those next to them reach their ears in their flight across the concrete. Seconds later, a series of explosions to their rear drowns all other noise momentarily. The sound of boots on concrete is replaced by the sound of boots on metal as they reach and run up the ramp into the interior.

Lynn runs past Nicole who is standing at the rear of the ramp near the controls. Nicole starts the ramp up as soon as the last of the soldiers have reached the bottom of it. Lynn turns at the top, seeing a much diminished horde of night runners rocketing across the ramp in their direction. The ramp begins its upward travel but is moving in slow motion as compared to the closure rate of the night runners.

“Teams, open fire!” She bellows, her shout heard above the shrieks of the closing mass.

Gunshots echo in the metallic interior and across the ramp as rounds are expelled outward, dropping more of the night runners in their tracks until the ramp raises to a level that they cannot fire anymore. The outside tarmac slowly disappears as the ramp continues upward. A sliver of the outside visible through the greenish glow of their NVG’s, almost there, as a set of hands grasp the outer edge; the fingers gripping the ramp as it rises ever upwards. A scream is heard outside as the ramp closes and seals. Fingers roll down to Lynn’s boots as they are severed by the hydraulically-actuated ramp closing.

Thumps against the side of the aircraft, accompanied by muted shrieks, demonstrate the frustration of the night runners outside. Howling at the closeness of their prey and the frustration of not being able to get at them. Lynn turns and races up to the cockpit. Climbing the stairs, confusion crosses her face as she enters and looks around. Robert is sitting in the co-pilot seat, his helmet sitting loosely on his head so he can hear both radios; Brianna is camped in her usual location in the engineer seat.

“Where’s Jack?” Lynn asks continuing to look around the cockpit as if he could be hiding behind any of the objects or panels. She almost looks under the bunk to see where he is hiding.

“What do you mean?” Robert asks.

“You mean he isn’t with you?” Bri asks worriedly.

“No, but he should have been here by now,” Lynn responds, her look now changing to worry.

“Jack, where are you?” Lynn says into her mic. Silence is the only return over the radio.

Robert looks out of the side window into the darkness that is the ramp around them. Thumps continue along the aircraft as the night runners attempt to find entrance. He lowers the night vision goggles and returns his look outside. Night runners surround the aircraft; some look up and jostle from position to position while others take runs at the aircraft, each run terminating with a thump against the 130.

“How is he going to get through that?” Robert asks in a worried and fearful tone as he continues to stare outside.

Lynn crosses the flight deck to look out the same window over Robert’s shoulder and then moves to look out the opposite window, seeing the same picture. Night runners surround the aircraft. Even if he makes it here, he won’t be able to get through , she thinks looking at the small multitude gathered around.

“Can we start the engines and do like we did in Kuwait? Blow them away from us?” Lynn asks looking at Robert over her shoulder.

“We could,” he says turning to look at her. “But he won’t be able to get in the side door with the engines running and the ramp is too slow considering how many are out there.”

“Good point. Then I don’t know. I’ll go brief the teams to rearm and be ready,” Lynn says disappearing down the stairs.

She heads down to get the teams ready. Ready to exit and take on all of the night runners if need be.


* * *

I turn and run, glancing back over my shoulder to verify that I have drawn off a large portion of the night runners as my feet obey my mind and pick up speed. The quick glance verifies that, yep, I indeed have. My feet respond to the sight, picking up even more speed. I exit the parking lot and cross a main road with the sound of shrieking behind me. My initial burst of speed was to gain a little distance as the night runners changed directions but I now settle into a ground eating pace. Sustainable so as to not wear me out instantly but quick enough that the night runners will not be on me immediately. That would kind of defeat the purpose of luring them away.

I head between two buildings, which are rather close together, not worrying about any fencing as there is very little of that on bases for some reason. It would be bad news indeed if I did happen to run up against something like that as the night runners can surmount that obstacle faster than I. Another quick glance behind and I see a mass of them closing. I pull a grenade from the hook on my tac vest, straighten and pull the pin with my teeth as I run, carrying my M-4 in my right hand, and drop it on the ground just before exiting out from between the buildings. I turn to the right down a side street, stopping and turning around just as the grenade goes off. The bright light flares against the side of the building I just ran by moments before the sound wave hits my ears.

Several night runners are thrown from the alleyway between the buildings, their bodies airborne before slamming into the grassy lawn; rolling and bouncing and not rising. The bodies are mixed with shredded arms, legs, and other assorted body parts that land on the grass along with them. Some of the decimated flesh and bone falls out onto the street to my front. A few night runners were ahead of the blast and have turned toward me, the shock and surprise of the explosion slowing them momentarily. I bring my M-4 up thumbing the selector switch to semi, sighting in on the one closest.

My carbine pushes back slightly against my shoulder as my finger tightens against the trigger, finding the trigger release point without jerking the weapon. The bark of the rifle indicating a bullet is on its way to a night runner fully in my sight. Its head snaps to the rear as it absorbs the steel in its left eye. The round cuts through the liquid orb, splattering the contents of its eye on its cheek and side of its nose, before slicing directly into the night runner’s brain. The bullet continues unmolested hitting the back of the night runner’s cranium and mushrooms before exiting out of the back, taking a large amount of skull bone and brain with it. The night runner falls to its knees, resting momentarily in a kneeling position as if in supplication before crashing forward to the ground on its face. The bone, brain matter, and hair-covered flesh cover its comrades behind.

This is only taken in subconsciously as I rapidly aim at the next, again firing as soon as the next round is chambered. The next steel bullet impacts before the first has fallen with the targeted night runner accepting the round in it shrieking mouth, hitting its upper teeth before racing to the back of its throat, deflected only slightly downward by the impact with the front teeth. Slamming into the back of its throat, the round continues through and smacks forcefully into the spine, severing it. Exploding out of the back of the neck, the round disintegrates taking as much of the tissue, flesh and bone as it can grab and take with it. The night runner’s head flops forward and it sinks straight down to the ground.

I continue delivering rapid single shots until all of the night runners, who were ahead of the grenade when it went off, lie unmoving on the grass, sidewalk and street. I turn and run once again, noting that I have half a clip left. I would normally reload wanting a full clip but I know I may possibly need every round and have to conserve. I hear firing in the background indicating that Lynn and her teams are engaged in their own firefight as my feet carry me away from the route that they should be taking on their way back. A glance over my shoulder shows night runners pouring from the narrow space between the buildings. I have gained a margin of space. I also notice that they have hesitated and begin glancing toward the distant firing. I raise my M-4 and fire twice into their midst.

“I’m over here dumbshits!” I yell.

This draws their attention and they start running after me once again. Their hesitation has granted me a few more feet of separation. I turn left through a parking lot feeling my wind catching up with me. I cannot afford to stop so I slow up. My adrenaline and fear are making me run faster than I want yet I still feel like I am slow. I focus my awareness and bring that back under control; feeling my speed and breathing in order to guide me back to that sustainable, ground eating pace.

Before, we would be able to distance ourselves from the opposing forces, losing ourselves in the brush or trees and rest up for a few minutes until taking off again as those forces closed in. The few minutes of breath allowing us to keep a fast pace for a sustained period of time before stopping to do it all over again. In this way, we could cover a lot of distance to an evacuation point and still keep our distance. However, the open areas of the base prevent me from being able to lose myself completely. I have to use changes of direction and the buildings to keep my separation. Plus, I do not want to lose them entirely yet.

I round the corner of the building that the parking lot served as the lead night runners enter into the lot behind me. They have closed the distance by a substantial margin. I am relying on the medical reports I read earlier and hoping that, although they may be faster, that they may tire quicker as well. That may not be the case with their enlarged hearts and lungs but I also cannot afford to wind myself. Once that happens, there is no return and the recovery is longer. There is a point of no return, or a point of a much longer return, with regards to becoming winded.

Ahead of me, two night runners emerge from the side of the building I just rounded. I raise my weapon and shoot twice at the first one; my first round missing but the second one taking it in the chest just below its left armpit. The bullet ricochets off of the rib, splitting the round into several pieces. A larger piece explodes out of its right shoulder after taking out most of the lung along the way with the other smaller pieces of the bullet lodging in the heart and slicing through the aorta. The night runner’s chest cavity quickly fills with blood spurting from the punctured heart and aorta, dropping it forward to the ground. My next two shots hit the side of the chest of the second one in much the same fashion. It falls to the ground close to the first. Hmmmm…Not bad for being on the run .

I continue on, passing the fallen night runners to the left, hearing a sporadic gurgling from the second one as it tries to force breath into its torn and blood-filled lungs. The shrieks behind me grow louder telling me the first of the night runners have rounded the building. I ready another grenade and dart across the street. My plan is to angle away from Lynn and the teams but ensure my route takes me ever closer to the ramp. I will need my last grenades to open up space behind me in order to get into the aircraft. That leaves me with this one to use. I want one for the last sprint to the aircraft and I would certainly like to have one spare just in case.

I turn left, cross another road, and head between two more buildings across the way. I know I am edging closer to the ramp and I want to create some space now in order to make a more direct approach. Plus, the ones behind me are getting a little too close for my comfort. I speed down the space between the buildings getting the grenade ready as before. My breath is coming a lot quicker now and I feel myself edging toward that heavy breathing stage where I will have no choice but to slow down.

The building sides end just a few feet before me. I toss the grenade casually behind me as I reach the corners, not wanting it to go too far but not wanting it to be on my heels either. The buildings shielded me before but this will not be the case this time. I turn to the right once again, keeping my pace up and angling across the street to buildings on the other side. I make it almost all of the way across the street before another explosion rips the night apart behind me. I do not stop to watch the aftereffects but keep going until I reach the side of the building. I then stop, turn, and lean my M-4 against it. There is only a few that made it ahead of the grenade before it went off. I take them down quickly with a few measured rounds. I turn and start running once again. I am really getting too old for this , I think heading down the side of the building in the direction of the ramp and feeling winded.

I do not bother stopping to get the attention of those behind me as I feel I have drawn them far enough away from the other group. It is now a matter of using my brains to gain some separation; even hopefully losing the crowd behind me. I know that is unlikely however as they can find me with their increased sense of sight, smell, and hearing. I run down a sidewalk leading by the side of the building.

“How are you doing Jack?” I hear Lynn call.

“Little busy right now,” I respond back after gaining a measure of breath with which to talk.

The cat and mouse game continues with me darting along buildings and across streets, sometimes doubling back in order to throw them off. They seem to have a hard time finding in which direction I go, perhaps due to the light breeze swirling around the buildings That gains me a little bit of separation each time, but the sound of my boots guides them in my direction every time. If it were not for their sense of smell, I would find a dark hole to climb in and wait the night out like I have done in the past; becoming a hole in the fabric of reality while guards search endlessly for me. I am also on the lookout for a ladder heading up the side of a building. It would have to be the right building without any other way of gaining admittance to the roof but I could hold them off from above if the right building presents itself. That is not the case so far and I cannot really slow down much to look. The sounds behind me let me know they are still on my trail.

I finally come up on the tarmac with the night runners closing in behind and break out onto it alongside a hangar. I pull up short. What the fuck!?  I think seeing night runners surrounding the 130 in the near distance. This is majorly fucked up!  I was planning on contacting Robert, dropping a grenade in my tracks, and racing to the aircraft. Easy, breezy right!? But that plan is now going to have to change with that major obstacle coming up just as I was about to hit the finish line.

I cannot take too long to decide what to do and I am spent. I could either find a building to break into and hold them off in some narrow hallway, or I can try and get the attention of the night runners around the aircraft, lead them away and circle back. I look quickly up at the starlit sky; Really!? After all of that, this is what I get?  I think staring up at the brilliant, twinkling sky above me. Yes, really , they seem to answer back.

I need to think of something quickly or I will be doubly screwed. There are now night runners in front of me with more coming up behind.

“Hey you! I’m over here you stupid assholes!” I yell across the tarmac almost without thinking, making my choice without really analyzing it. Well, I had to make a decision without really having a right decision to choose from , I think taking a deep breath and steeling myself for the next few moments.

The night runners around the aircraft halt in place, stopping immediately in whatever action they were in the middle of and look in my direction. As one, they yell and begin running quickly towards me. I begin running directly at them, the distance between us closing quickly. Running in front to the hangar and reaching the other side, I dart to my left, running down the side to the street and sidewalk in front of it. The chase continues.

*  *  * *  *  *

Robert sits in the co-pilot seat staring out across the ramp feeling worried. The night runners continue to surround the aircraft but he is not paying any attention to them. He stares off into the distance across the ramp hoping for some sign or indication that his dad is okay. Nic is looking out over his shoulder having donned her dad’s helmet and sliding the night vision goggles over her eyes. Bri quietly stares out of the same window into the darkness. Lynn is in the back briefing the teams and getting them ready to exit. She wants to go now and find Jack but knows that this would be futile. They would be in running battle from the very get go and put all of them in danger. Pacing up and down the cargo compartment is not easing her anxiety.

Time passes by but Robert is not aware of it as he continues staring into the night and hoping. Wanting to do something but not knowing what that something could possibly be. He is startled out of his thoughts, trying to come up with something, by the sudden, muffled but loud screams from the night runners around them. He looks down and sees them take off as one across the ramp, racing across the pavement away from them.

“Michelle, go get Lynn!” He turns and says quickly over his shoulder, turning his eyes immediately back to the ramp. He would have asked Bri or Nic to go but knows they are staring out and feeling the same worry and anxiety as him.

“What’s up?” Lynn says as she comes up behind Robert.

Robert answers by pointing outside of the aircraft, the dim light from the stars in the clear sky above illuminating the now empty ramp.

“They just left all at once,” Bri says after a brief pause.

Lynn looks out at the empty ramp and hope first swells and then falls. Hope that Jack now has a clear shot to the aircraft and fades because she thinks she knows what has caught the night runner’s attention and where they are headed.

“I’ll be in back with the teams ready to go. Notify me on our ground frequency if you see or hear anything else,” she says stepping out of the cockpit once again.

“Jack, are you out there? Answer me please,” Lynn says over her radio on re-entering the cargo area and notifying the teams to stand ready.


* * *

I hesitate before emerging completely from the side of the hangar. I see the street and sidewalk running perpendicular several feet in front of me, paralleling the ramp. My timing is going to be critical here if I can time this at all. I hear the sounds of the night runners coming up behind me on the ramp and know I have just a small amount of time before they close in. My concern is those that were initially following me. Emerging now will allow them to see me and put them far too close, allowing them to catch me before I can get remotely close to the aircraft and safety.

Peeking around the corner, I see the last of the night runners that were in trail behind me crossing the street to my left, following the path I took on the other side of the hangar. I want them all to cross before emerging and continuing on to my right. Plus, I want all of the night runners coming from the ramp side to enter into the route I just took alongside the hangar. If they venture down another path, I will run straight into them. That would not be a good thing and is the last thing I want right now.

The last of the night runners finally pass by and disappear down the far side of the hangar just as the night runners chasing me from the aircraft enter into the space behind me. I drop a prepared grenade by the corner and take off to my right. We are going to play a little loop-de-loop but I need a measure of distance. Plus, I need for those that were chasing me to follow along with the rules of the game; and those rules dictate that they are to stay behind and not try to circumvent me.

I run along the sidewalk lining the street, everything around me painted a yellow-green, well, more green than yellow. What I wouldn’t do for a set of generation 3 night vision goggles right now?  I think as my radio comes alive.

“Jack, are you out there? Answer me please,” I hear Lynn say in my ear piece.

“I’m here. Get the side door ready to open,” I say breathlessly into the mic.

“Okay, Jack. Good to hear you,” she replies. “How long?”

The grenade goes off.

“Depends,” I say not wanting to spare breath for talking. I know when I used to run with a group, the others running next to me wanted to have a conversation. It was all I could do just breathe; talking was out of the question. Running and talking just do not mix well with me.

“On what?” She asks.

“On whether these bastards are going to do what I want them to and let me through. Call you when I’m close,” I respond. This last little bit just about expended all of my breath.

I glance behind and see the remnant of the night runners turn the corner and, with a cry of discovery, begin their chase in earnest. More follow behind but I direct my attention to my front and side, hoping that none of them come out in front of me. This merry little chase we have had this evening will come to a quick close if that happens; with me not coming out in first place. I race along the front of the building next to the hangar, planning to cut in toward the ramp when I reach the corner, provided of course that the path is not barred by, say, a horde of night runners pounding down it heading my way.

I ready my last grenade as I reach the corner with the night runners on the concrete close behind me. Turning the corner, I see the route to the tarmac empty of any reception committee and toss the grenade behind me, hoping it will land around the corner a little. I turn my speed up a notch but do not really gain much as all of my notches have been used up. The grenade goes off, sending its deadly shrapnel out into the midst of the night runners chasing after me. My toss must have been true as I am not blown forward nor do I feel the prickling of shrapnel entering my backside.

“Jack, we’re having trouble with the door. We don’t know how to open it,” Lynn says through the radio with a tone of worry and frustration.

“Fuck me! You’re kidding right!? You’d better figure it out and figure it out quickly. I’m coming out onto the ramp now,” I say frustrated at so simple a thing. I would give directions on how but I just don’t have any more wind for it. This last took the final vestige of my reaching down deep away. I am out of grenades, ideas, and options.

I race across the ramp toward the aircraft outlined in green. My boots pound across its concrete surface. Safety is close but seems so far. I glance over my shoulder to see the night runners just now rounding the corner of the building. I have some room and time and distance. They must have had some wariness about turning the corner after receiving so many of my gifts in doing so all night long. I run across the rear of the aircraft and up the left side. The crew door is lowering. I guess they figured it out , I think as the side of the 130 races by, my feet being forced to take the next steps, my legs aching and sore, the lactic acid that has been building all night is now making its presence known.

Just as I get close to the door, a night runner runs around the side from the nose. I am spent and my reaction time is slow as it rapidly closes the distance and slams into me, knocking me backward and to the ground. Where the fuck did that one come from?  I think just before the impact.

I slam to the ground on my back, the impact nearly knocking the wind out of me. My M-4 is jarred from my grasp and clatters across the pavement. Using some of the momentum, I bring my knees up and roll over my left shoulder, reversing positions with the night runner. Ending up on its chest, I quickly jab sharply into its throat, feeling the cartilage break under my fist. I continue my stroke all of the way through, punching through its throat and mutilating all of the gristle and cartilage; destroying its capability of breathing.

I scramble to my feet, pick up my weapon lying on the tarmac nearby, and run up the stairs with a multitude of night runners close behind streaking toward me.

“Shut the door! Quick!” I say reaching the top and leaning over with my hands on my knees, panting heavily.

The door closes behind me, the shrieks and howls, once sharp in the night air, become muffled as the handle is turned, sealing the door and aircraft to the nighttime world outside. I try to catch my breath, bent over with my hands on my knees, marveling at the close calls of the night. I guess marveling is not the right word but amazed I made it through.

“Everyone make it back?” I ask once I gather a bit of breath.

“We did,” Lynn answers with her hand on my back.

“Good. What do you say we get ready and get this beast airborne?” I ask standing.

I turn off my NVG’s and take them off to find the cargo compartment darkened, lit only by the reflected glow of the stars illuminating the outside ramp. Sergeant Mullins stands in the gray gloom behind Lynn.

“Thank you both so much,” he says with a weary but relieved tone.

“Glad to help and have you aboard,” I say shaking hands with him.

“What’s an Army unit doing here on an Air Force base? How did you get here?” I ask.

“We’re part of the security detachment for NORAD facility. We headed down here when everything hit the fan figuring any help would arrive at an airfield. We’ve been holding out in the BX since arriving. We found a radio in the control tower yesterday and have been broadcasting on the hour ever since,” Mullins replies.

“And the NORAD facility?” I ask.

“Gone. Completely overrun with those things,” he answers sweeping his hand indicating the night runners outside.

“Why don’t you and Lynn here sit down and you can brief her? Lynn, will you catch him up to speed and brief him on our organization? Introduce them and organize them into squads as you see fit,” I say.

“Will do,” Lynn responds.

“In the meantime, let’s get this bucket of bolts off the ground and head home.”

I climb into the cockpit only to be immediately swept up as Bri and Nic throw their arms around me. Robert looks over from the right seat and nods in both welcome and relief.

“I’m so glad you’re safe,” Bri says with her face pressed against the left side of my chest.

“Glad you’re back, Dad,” Nic says looking up into my eyes in the gloomy shadows of the cockpit. “I was so scared and worried.”

I stand there hugging them close for a few moments longer before releasing them. Mike is sitting on the deck with what’s left of his tail swishing lightly across the steel. It looks more like he is trying to polish the floor with his rear end.

“Let’s be on our way shall we?” I say heading toward my dreaded left seat but also thankful


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for the ability to sit down; thankful for even having the chance to sit in that tiresome seat. I am feeling completely, and utterly exhausted.

“Are you okay?” Robert asks as I plug in.

“I’m good,” I say in response.

“Good,” he says. That is his way of saying he is thankful I am back safely and that he was worried.

The muffled thumps persist against the aircraft as we go through the checklists. Those thumps diminish substantially as the first inboard engine starts and the prop begins to turn, tailing off completely as we crank up the others. I verify our GPS coordinates in the nav computer and input the original coordinates for McChord, programming a route home. We taxi out as the moon rises from the east, bathing the vast areas of concrete, grass and dirt in its silvery glow.

The runway, lit by our powerful landing and taxi lights, rushes by in the night as we race down it with the twinkling stars above us, inviting us to join them and welcoming us as our wheels leave the ground, leaving this now desolate, high altitude base behind. We climb into the thin air, struggling for altitude, circling around until we reach flight level 250 (25,000 feet). I want the higher altitude for the mountain crossing. Our cargo compartment is now filled to almost standing room only and we are fortunate that our fuel weight is down somewhat from our trip across the country from Atlanta. Leveling off, we start our last leg home, hopefully. A little over four hours and we will land to begin the next phase of our survival.

We transit over the moonlit snowcaps of the Rocky Mountains stretching upward as if trying to reach out to us as we glide over their pristine wilderness. Each peak and subsequent valley slides below our wing and behind us as we drone to the west and north. Yellowstone passes by off our right wing, no longer inhabited by the summer crowds flocking to see its wonders. The bison and wildlife left to their own without the constant transit of cars and gawkers; the geysers erupting without anyone to marvel in their glory.

The westward side of the great mountain range falls off only to be replaced by the rocky and hilly wilderness of Idaho. The distinctness of the hills and forests lost and replaced by the silver light of the moon shining on the tops of trees and hillsides with the dark shadows of valleys gliding by far below us.

We are still about two hours away when I glance down at the instruments and notice that the turbine inlet temperature gauge on number three engine — the inboard one on the right side — has crept up. Still within limits but each time I look at it, which is about every four seconds, it has climbed slightly higher. Great! What next?  I think.

“See that,” I point out the instrument to Robert.

“Yeah,” he says with a bit of worry edging into his voice.

“It’s still within limits but creeping up. Open up your checklist to the turbine overheat section and mark the engine shutdown checklist for quick reference,” I say tapping on the gauge. This is an old aircraft and sometimes the needles can get stuck or move on their own. Rare but I have seen it happen before.

“Are we going to have to shut down the engine?” He asks turning up his map light and thumbing through the checklist strapped to his leg.

“I hope not,” I say opening my own checklist.

“Bri, be ready to shut off the fuel to number three engine when I say so,” I add looking at the fire/overheat indicators on the T-handles centered above us. The red lights within each of them remain dark and unlit.

“Okay, Dad,” she says turning her own light on the fuel system panel. I turn the instrument rheostat up so we can see the indications better.

The turbine inlet continues to rise, approaching the upper limit. I retard the throttle back slightly toward idle, watching the gauge needle fall back and feel the nose want to slide to the right as the thrust on that side is reduced, only to slide back as the autopilot makes its correction to bring the aircraft back to its course. I push the throttle for the outboard engine on that side up to compensate for the nose drift bringing the wings back to level. I reach over and switch the autopilot off to fly manually so I can feel the aircraft.

I descend down to flight level 200 in order to give the propellers more air to bite into. The temperature gauge continues to climb with me pulling the throttle back a little further each time the needle approaches the upper limit, additionally moving the number four engine throttle up an equal amount.

“Why don’t we just shut it down?” Robert asks watching my actions.

“Because I want to keep the engine operational as long as I can. The thrust will help us and every minute we can fly at a higher airspeed gets us closer to McChord. And, I don’t want to find a closer airfield to set it down as once we’re down, we’re stuck there,” I answer.

“Nic, will you go get Lynn please? Robert, go back and take a look out of the window at the engine to see if you can see anything. Look for anything streaming out,” I add turning on the wing light so he can see outside a little better.

“What’s up?” Lynn asks as she arrives behind me.

“It looks like we may be losing an engine,” I answer her. “It shouldn’t be anything to worry about.”

“We can still fly right? Will we have to set it down?” She asks yelling in my right ear through the helmet.

“We should be okay. We can fly on three engines without too much difficulty. I plan to continue on to McChord as we’ll be stuck wherever we land,” I respond.

She nods and sits on the lower bunk next to our other passengers already seated there. Robert returns a short time later, sits and plugs back in.

“Well?” I ask hearing the click of his connection coming live on the intercom.

“I can’t tell for sure but it looks like there might be smoke trailing behind,” he answers.

I nod and pull the throttle back a little further, the lever approaching the inflight idle position. The outboard engine is at full throttle but not compensating fully for the loss of thrust on the inboard engine. Luckily it is the inboard engine malfunctioning or the loss of thrust would be felt more. I have to crab the aircraft a little to compensate for the loss of thrust and subsequent loss of lift on our right side, lowering the left wing a touch in order to keep a straight line of flight. I also pull the throttles back slightly on the left side as another measure to compensate.

My last retardation of the throttle reaches the inflight idle position. Any further action if the inlet temperature climbs to the overheat condition will be to shut the engine down. Right now the engine is not providing any thrust but it is not increasing our drag either. It has become a neutral party to our flight. If I can keep it running in this manner, I will still have use of it in case we need to go around on a bad landing setup or for anything else that may arise.

I watch the needle slowly climb upward while continuing to keep an eye on the other instrumentation. If number four started acting up or the needles for the two engines on that side started going haywire, we would have a completely different emergency. I am concerned with our weight and once again thankful for our decreased fuel weight. I do not want to descend any further if I can at all avoid it as we still have the Cascade Mountain Range to cross. They are not as high as the Rockies by any stretch but there are some tall peaks around.

The needle hits the upper limit of the engine and crosses over it. A blinking red light startles me and begs for attention. I look up to see the number three engine fire handle blinking rapidly at me as the master fire light also illuminates on the instrument panel. It has come time to shut the engine down before it can cause any further trouble. We are only about 45 minutes out from McChord. I have been following along on our enroute charts for possible emergency airfields just in case we do need to set it down quickly but we should be able to make it if we do not encounter any further problems.

I rapidly accomplish the quick reaction checklist items for an emergency engine shutdown — called bold face procedures. I pull the engine condition lever back to its detent position bringing the propeller into its feather mode which means that it is perpendicular to our flight path reducing the drag on the aircraft. With the propellers spinning idly on their own without any thrust being applied to them, they become like a giant plate hanging off of our wing. The drag of that alone would be enough to pull the aircraft to the right with very little we could do about it. That is why we have to make sure the propeller is feathered, so the wind doesn’t catch it and allow it to spin freely. I then reach up and pull the T-handle aft, the one with the blinking red light, for the number three engine. This cuts the fuel off to the affected engine effectively shutting it down. All of the gauges for the engines immediately come down to their zero position or are winding quickly downward verifying that the engine is shut down. The red light vanishes from the T-handle. With the red light going out and the temperature gauge winding down, I do not have to discharge the flame retardant into the engine. I punch off the master fire light.

I direct Bri to turn the generator switch and the fuel pump to their off position for the affected engine. I also have her make sure the fuel cross feed switch is in the off position after verifying that the number four engine is drawing fuel off of the tanks on the right side. We continue going through the cleanup checklist items. I put the throttle into its full forward position and close the oil cooler flaps as the final steps in completing the emergency engine shutdown procedure. I also tell Bri to watch the fuel gauges as the tanks on the left side will drain faster as they are supporting two engines as opposed to one. We may have to cross feed if the imbalance gets to be too much.

“How about Olympia? It’s closer,” Robert asks as the situation stabilizes.

“I want to be at McChord. One for the transportation and two to raid the Special Forces and other armories there,” I answer. “We’ll be fine.”

The mountains of the Cascade Range begin to slide under our nose as we limp every closer to McChord and our destination. I ease us down a few thousand feet. Mount Rainier is off to our right, its snowfields on top glowing brightly, reflecting the moonlight from it icy surface. There is not much snow left but enough to radiate its beauty. Our altitude will give us enough clearance to pass over the hills even though the top of Rainier reaches above the horizon. It seems like a long time since we watched it pass by our wing as we started this journey. It is quite a welcoming sight and it seems to welcome us back too.

I think of this as a homecoming and think on how Mom is doing; hoping she is okay. She has not left my thoughts but events have seemed to come in rapid succession so my thoughts did not stay there long. I will try my cell phone and call when we land although I have little hope of it working. If we had all engines running, I would head over and do a flyby to take a look at the place and, if she is still at her house, let her know we have returned. I am anxious and worried about her as I am sure she is about us. I will head over first thing in the morning if my call doesn’t go through.

Mount Rainier passes off our right wing and behind us as I begin a descent into the Puget Sound area. The roads and highways that I know are there should be lit with the lights of cars and trucks transiting through but everything is dark below us. The moonlight reflects off of the waters of Puget Sound presenting a tranquil scene.

I turn north in a descent as the navigation needle centers on the approach I set up into McChord. I would like to do a flyby to verify a clear runway but a go-around is not an ideal procedure on three engines. I will just have to trust that there is not anything large enough on the runway to impede our landing. It would totally suck to go through all that we have been through and come all of this way only to pile it in on our arrival.

Setting up on the approach and finishing the checks, I bring the aircraft down final with the airspeed a touch higher to give us a margin in case we do have to go around for some reason. Our landing lights reach out into the darkness, searching for the runway. There are no visual references with which to judge our approach so I just have to trust the instruments. Robert is in the right seat reading off airspeeds and altitudes, transitioning to the radar altimeter which gives us our height above the ground. I cannot rely on the actual altimeter for accuracy as we do not have a correct atmospheric pressure to set into it. On down the glide slope we continue.

The runway threshold suddenly materializes out of the dark as the landing lights pick it up. We are coming in with a little crab due to our asymmetric thrust which will slowly vanish as I pull the throttles back. The end of the threshold disappears under us. I begin to pull the throttles back bringing the nose up, reducing the crab as the asymmetric thrust vanishes. The centerline stripes rush past the windshield as I continue to gently raise the nose. The main wheels thump on the runway and the aircraft settles. I lower the nose and let the aircraft slow on its own, not wanting to use reverse thrust as that will create a tremendous amount of reverse thrust differential due to our lost engine and possibly veer us off the runway. I could use just the outboard engines to reverse thrust with but we have a long runway and will be able to slow down without using them. Although the C-130 will do well as an off-road vehicle, I do not really want to experiment with that right now. The airspeed slows and I apply the brakes to slow us further.

We taxi in to the ramp where we started this whole trek across the world, our mission a success. Our landing lights pick up the lunch area outside of the base operations building where we began planning this crazy trip. The table still sits where we left it with a couple of the chairs knocked over on their sides. It all seems very surreal and eerie as if we experienced the flight planning just a few days ago in another life or dream. We have arrived a lot wiser to our situation but the expenditure of energy and lives has been high in acquiring that knowledge and getting Lynn. Too many close calls. Hopefully the west coast night runners are a little more laid back than the east coast ones as the ones out east really did not seem to like our presence. Well, come to think of it, the ones here did not especially seem to appreciate us either.

The drone and vibration of the our three remaining engines decreases as we shut the fuel off to them and the giant propellers begin to wind down in the night air. I turn off the taxi lights plunging the night outside into darkness. The moon is high overhead casting its light on the ramp outside and illuminates the cockpit, which has been our home for the past few days, in a silvery glow. This will be the final resting place for this aircraft which has experienced our journey with us and seen us through safely. I pat the dash lightly and tell it thank you.

I unbuckle and rise with a tired sigh, feeling a touch of melancholy now about having to leave the aircraft here but feeling an anxiety and nervousness about our new journey that will begin with the rising of the sun. I reach into my flight suit pocket and pull out my phone. Flipping it open, I press the start button powering it up. The screen lights up, illuminating my face with its glow. The main screen shows and, there on the top, four bars show. What?  I think seeing this. How is this possible?  I think along several avenues until I realize there has been a revolution around this area with putting solar panels on a lot of the cell towers and powering them using solar energy. I guess they must have done the same with some of the central offices and the servers so these links are still powered up. Lucky us, I think as my phone vibrates suddenly in my hand.

There, displayed on my screen is a text message. I stare in disbelief at the words printed on the screen:

“Are you still alive? I need help.”

Epilogue

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The bright light is out again this night, causing a slight tingle on his skin where it is exposed. Not enough to cause any discomfort or pain but like a small, barely felt itch on the back where you cannot reach it. Not close to the pain of the ball of light during the light hours but noticeable if thought about.

His pack is out again this night like all of the others, the sound of their feet striking the street behind him echoes off of the silent buildings as he runs searching for food. He has gained numbers over the last few nights making him the leader of a medium-sized pack. They have needed to range further from their lair each night to find food as it has become scarcer around the buildings and the lairs of the two-legged ones. The food lying freely about in the buildings has been taken and their meals now consist of having to chase down live prey. They will have to move their lair soon.

These ‘thoughts’ do not come as words in his mind but more as images and instinctual reactions and knowing. He hears distant shrieks throughout the night as other packs find a scent or food; too distant for him and his pack to respond in time. He stops and sniffs each passing breeze for a scent that will lead them to food. They have eaten some this night but there have been other nights when he and his pack have had to retire to their lair, with the failing night, hungry. He runs on, searching the area in patterns hoping for the elusive scent that food is near.

There have been moments, when running in this fashion, when objects appear on his search that trigger a sense of recognition, but the hint of recognition is forgotten almost immediately. His awareness of the other night runners around him fades when these triggers occur, leaving him confused as to why he cannot detect them or why they fade from his mind. But even that confusion is forgotten with the moment passing. He has remained the leader and added to his pack because of his ability to find food and keep the pack relatively safe.

He has only his instincts; keep fed, keep his pack whole and growing, and to mate with the females when they give off their irresistible scent. An image comes to his mind that he needs to add more females to his pack. That will prevent a rivalry with the males that are following him down the darkened street. He does not register the additional fact that his sight has improved in the night. What does register is the fact that the two-legged ones, that are favored for food and creates an anger within, do not show themselves in the night anymore. They keep to their lairs that are becoming increasingly hard to get into.

Some of the places where the two-legged ones live are still relatively easy to get into but are becoming harder to find. The boards are sometimes easily torn from the sides and the pack can eat. Sometimes though, they try for hours to get in before leaving to find other food or depart because the lightening in the sky forces them to retire back to their lair. Few of any other food roams at night or hides within the buildings; fewer each night and the competition for food between packs is building. They have not had to defend their food when they have found it as yet but he instinctually knows that they may have to.

A scent reaches his nose, carried on the night breeze as they pass a side street. A small scent but food nonetheless. The instinctual shriek rises from his throat mimicked a second later by the others running behind him. They all turn in mid-stride toward the scent hoping to fill their hungry bellies before the night is over. They run down two more streets before catching sight of a smaller, furry creature darting off the street and into a yard. The pack shrieks louder as they catch a glimpse of food. The striking of their feet on the road grows quicker as their legs pick up speed.

The chase is short as their prey has run up a tree and sits trembling on a limb. Many in the pack take running jumps at the lower limbs in order to get at their prey but find that the lower limbs are too high to reach. They start ramming into the tree trying to dislodge the creature. The tree does not have a thick trunk so each hit shakes the creature slightly but not enough to send it to the ground. Their shrieks turn to howls of frustration as they continue to jump up toward the lowest limb or ram the tree. Finally, he finds himself standing on the hood of a car parked underneath the tree and jumps, managing to grasp a limb overhead. He is now able to pull himself into the tree.

He pulls himself agilely onto the limb and starts toward the trunk. The creature darts further up the tree with him leaping from limb to limb behind it. The creature he is chasing is agile as well and he finds himself just not quite able to reach it. He climbs higher. The creature attempts to jump onto another limb to the side and he is able to snag it out of the air. The creature twists and snarls and turns in his grasp. He throws it down to the ground to his waiting pack and the hisses and screams of the creature are short-lived as his pack tears into it. The sound of flesh ripping is short but they have a little more food for the night. Not much, but some.

They finish their small meal and continue on their hunt. A rumbling sound comes from behind him in the sky. He stops in the middle of the street as this foreign noise grows louder. Uncertain of what to do or what it could be, he warily edges over to the side of the street and into the shadows of the building there. The tingling sensation on his skin leaves as he enters in total darkness. The sensation once again is not really felt and barely registers when it leaves. The sounds grows louder and he considers darting into the protection of a building if he can find one open but his curiosity, if that is even what it can be called, gets the better of him so he waits and watches.

The other members of his pack follow his lead and stand agitated and uncertain in the shadows next to him. His mind fills with their nervousness. He tells them, again with images, to settle down but this does little good. The noise overhead grows louder and suddenly, an object appears in the night sky overhead. It appears over the edge of a building and darts through the night sky in a thunder of noise before disappearing behind another building. Confusion reigns in his mind as his nose cannot pick up any scent of what was heard and seen. The noise diminishes as quickly as it began and then fades entirely. He waits a few moments, waiting to see if the sound or object returns; or if his mind picks up any idea as to what it was. It was something new and that is all he knows.

He cautiously creeps back out onto the street. Nothing happens. He turns and begins his nightly search for food once again.


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About the Author

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John is a former Air Force fighter instructor pilot who transitioned to Special Operations for the latter part of his career gathering his campaign ribbon for Desert Storm. Immediately following his military service, he became a firefighter/EMT with a local fire department. Along with becoming a firefighter, he began a career in the Information Technology industry starting two large casinos in Washington as the Information Technology Manager and becoming the Network Manager for the Washington State Legislature, the Northwest Information Technology Manager for the Federal Aviation Administration, and the Network Systems Manager for Hollywood Video. Currently, John is self-employed with his own Information Technology consulting company, consulting and managing various businesses with their information technology needs. He also volunteers for a local youth center managing their computer lab.

As a former marathon runner, John lives in the beautiful Pacific Northwest and can now be found kayaking out in the waters of Puget Sound, mountain biking in the Capital Forest, hiking in the Olympic Peninsula, or pedaling his road bike along the many scenic roads.


Connect with me online

Web site: https://anewworldseries.com

Facebook: https://facebook.com/JohnWBObrien

Twitter: https://twitter.com/A_NewWorld

Also by John O’Brien

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A New World Series

A NEW WORLD: CHAOS

A NEW WORLD: RETURN

A NEW WORLD: SANCTUARY

Copyright

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Copyright © 2011 John O’Brien

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form, except for the inclusion of brief quotations in review, without permission in writing from the author.

Cover art by: SM Reine

https://smreine.deviantart.com/


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