"We just seared them closed with a hot rifle barrel."
"Oh." Lee took a step so he was standing over Wilson, and extended his hand. "Come on, man. We gotta get mobile again."
Still grimacing, Wilson took the offered hand.
Lee hauled the man to his feet, then turned to the rest of the group and pointed for the vehicles. "We need to get the f.u.c.k out of here."
LaRouche pulled up beside him as they headed for the vehicles. "What about the Humvee?"
"We'll come back for it later," Lee said. "For now, just grab our supplies and the radios and put them in the other Humvee and let's get going."
"Hey," LaRouche touched the captain's shoulder. "Who the f.u.c.k was that shooting at us?"
Lee looked at him, and something strange pa.s.sed over his eyes.
"Just some guys," he said, and left it at that.
Moving quickly, they dismantled the M2 on the now-defunct Humvee and pulled the SINCGARS radio off its bracket, stowing both of them in the other Humvee. Then they pulled Zack's body out of the cab of the LMTV and put it in the back cargo area. They would take it back to Camp Ryder and bury it with Jake.
Bury it with the others.
The winds.h.i.+eld in that LMTV was still useable, despite the gaping hole on the pa.s.senger's side. Lee hurriedly took a cloth from Zack's pack and wiped down the seats. His face remained stolid, and he gave no more reaction to this grisly task than if he were simply cleaning a dirty window, even when he found a long tendril of flesh hanging on to the rough hole in the seat back. He eyed the thing and then picked it up with his thumb and forefinger, and flicked it out the door behind him.
All the while his eyes kept tracking back to the woods.
With only a few seconds to spare, Deuce reappeared. He was quiet, but clearly concerned with something in the woods, as his golden eyes remained locked, and his ears perked in that direction. Lee was not the only one that took note of the dog's attentions-the rest of the group quickly piled into their vehicles.
LaRouche took the driver's seat and watched the captain warily. He saw how Lee's eyes seemed unfocused as they began to drive, staring straight ahead through the rain-dappled winds.h.i.+eld, blinking in time with the winds.h.i.+eld wipers. His eyes only became sharp again when he glanced down at his GPS to monitor their progress.
An error message popped up on the screen of the GPS unit and Lee's eyes narrowed. He held the device up, then off to the left, then off to the right, up against the window. Finally, the error message went away. Lee held the device in the air and muttered something under his breath.
"Something wrong with it?" LaRouche asked.
Lee turned to face him like he had forgotten the sergeant was sitting there next to him. That same weird look again, but it quickly disappeared. "Maybe the satellite orbits are starting to decay." He looked back to the screen. "That's the second time it's happened this week."
They were silent for a while.
After a time, Lee pointed out the winds.h.i.+eld. "There, to the right. That's our road."
LaRouche cranked the wheel to the right and they pulled onto the unpaved road. It was just plain dirt-turned-to-mud, and mostly overgrown. Lee consulted his GPS again, but the screen was frozen with the error message again.
"Son of a b.i.t.c.h..." Lee shook the device as though maybe a wire was loose. Finally he gave up. "Just go straight down. We'll find the d.a.m.n thing."
It took five minutes to find the bunker-a big cement lump protruding from the forest floor with an iron door that looked as formidable and secure as a bank vault. A large tree branch, still adorned with wilted and crinkled brown leaves, had fallen over the door, partially obscuring it from view.
After finding the bunker, it took over two hours to load everything into the trucks. The first LMTV-the one with the .50 caliber bullet hole in the winds.h.i.+eld-was crammed full of 1000 pounds of C4, fuses, blasting caps, and detcord. There was another 1000 pounds from Bunker #4 back at Camp Ryder. It sounded like a lot, but cutting bridges took a lot of explosives.
P is for "Plenty", Lee thought absently.
The other LMTV held crates of Claymores, grenades, and ammunition that only took up about half of the cargo bed, so they filled in the cracks with M4s, boxes of magazines, and a jumble of the six-magazine shoulder bags, haphazardly thrown on top of everything else. There was room in the Humvee and in the cab of the HEMTT, so Julia hauled up as many medical supplies as she could fit in those s.p.a.ces.
By then it was early afternoon and it had stopped raining.
Lee closed and secured the bunker and convened with his team. Strapping back into his rifle and gear which he'd doffed to carry supplies back and forth, his eyes traveled from person to person. Tired faces, but hard as well. Hard with violence and loss.
"I know it's been a rough couple of days," He said. "Sanford didn't take as much time as we thought, but we paid the price for it. I know you guys want to get back to Camp Ryder, and I don't blame you, so I'll leave it up to you guys." He situated his sling around his neck. "Eventually, we're going to need to scavenge whatever vehicles the National Guard left for us at the airport outside of Sanford. We can do it now, on the way back to Camp Ryder, or we can go straight home and make another trip tomorrow." He shrugged. "I'll leave it up to you."
They looked between each other and murmured.
A consensus was quickly reached.
LaRouche nodded. "Let's do it now. Get it out of the way."
"Alright," Lee gestured for the trucks. "Then let's not burn any more daylight."
The unpaved road dead-ended in a slight clearing with a few sapling trees trying to push up out of the shadows of their brethren, their growth frozen for the time being as they stood dormant for the winter. It was tight, but with some maneuvering and some spinning of the tires through the muck and mud, they were able to get the trucks turned around and on the move.
They moved on, kept turning through bends in the road, and Lee expected to see a roadblock with rifles pointed at him, but there were none. They had not seen any sign of roadblocks in over a month. Bandits, Lee had heard them referred to. Such an old word, for such a seemingly new problem.
But it wasn't really new, was it?
It was the same old humanity, suffering from the same old problems.
These problems didn't stem from a fallen government. They lay within humanity's base instincts, and the collapse of society only made it easier for it to manifest itself. Perhaps Julia was right. Perhaps there truly was no difference between the infected and the uninfected. They all had the same problem lurking inside of them. One simply had the ability to cover it up, and the other did not.
Because society is just a mask that we wear, constructed to look like something else, something better, something we wish we could be. If you live in that society long enough, if you wear the mask long enough, then you eventually forget that you're only a few generations removed from savagery, and you let yourself believe that it's no longer a part of who you are.
You're better than that now.
But it's an inescapable part of you, just as it's a part of a dog, and the infected hordes, and the packs of hunters. It's the rabid selfishness of an animal that knows no morals or laws. It's a common bond between humans and everything else that lives and breathes. The only thing that sets humans apart is their often-errant desire to distance themselves from it. To be greater than that small creature inside of them.
Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn't.
But if humanity is anything, it is stubborn.
And self-deceiving in the extreme.
So we rebuild Lee thought to himself. For better or worse, we're gonna try again.
He sighed and rubbed his face. I'm just tired. Just f.u.c.king tired.
The twists and turns of the empty roads led them on for nearly an hour before they finally reached the narrow two-lane road that led into the regional airport.
Lee could see what it had been before, and also what it had become. To either side of the road stood old farmhouses. These had been walled off with hastily-erected chain-link fencing, staked into the shoulder of the road with metal poles. Lee could remember the monumental amount of trash his unit had left behind them everywhere they went during the invasion of Iraq, and here was no different. Even simply transporting the refugees from the High School in Sanford to the airport for evacuation had resulted in such a trash clog, that the edges of the fence were cluttered with it up to about knee-height. Water bottles, MRE wrappers, diapers, cigarette b.u.t.ts, and even bits of clothing, sneakers, and electronic accessories like iPods and cell phones littered the side of the road. It was like everyone had simply started shedding dead weight at this point in the road, throwing whatever they didn't need over the side and into the road.
The houses and the chain-link fencing stopped as they crossed over a bridge with a single set of railroad tracks underneath. On the rails, a freight train sat stalled, its lengthy bulk trundling motionless off into the distance in either direction, its cargo of coal and cedar chips and whatever else it carried stuck in limbo forever.
After the bridge, the trees to either side of the road disappeared and the land opened up into a sprawl of white hangars and a squat brick building right in the center of it all. The munic.i.p.al airport had no security measures to speak of. No gates to block their progress either into the airport or onto the tarmac. The road led to a parking lot in front of the brick building, and there was a cl.u.s.ter of military vehicles there, spread out onto the tarmac. Immediately, Lee could see a couple of "gun truck" Humvees, as well a few more LMTVs and a HEMTT with a wrecker attachment.
Jim pulled the truck up over the curb, the other two vehicles following in a slow parade as they circled the compound at a steady twenty miles-per-hour. As they did, Lee counted the vehicles, including several that he had not seen, parked hurriedly beside and behind some hangar buildings as though the operators had abandoned them in a rush and caught the last flight out of town.
There were no aircraft left on the field save for a few civilian propeller planes, now just abandoned chunks of fibergla.s.s and metal. All the helicopters were gone, and if anything like a C-130 had been here, Lee saw no evidence of it now.
The vehicles that remained were three Humvees, two of them with guns, and the other just an old two-seater cargo truck; two more LMTVs identical to the two they had; and two more HEMTTs, one with a wrecker attachment and the other with a tanker on the back.
After taking a long, cautious loop around the perimeter of the airport, they saw nothing to make them believe there were any infected in the area. Lee directed LaRouche onto the tarmac, and they parked it there, about fifty yards from the cl.u.s.ter of abandoned military vehicles.
Lee pushed open his door. "Sit tight for a second."
He jumped down, scanning around him carefully as he jogged back to the other Humvee. Lucky was driving, and Wilson sat in the pa.s.senger seat, his jaw clenched and sweating profusely. Tough kid to lose two fingers and have them seared shut with no pain medication.
"How you holdin' up?" Lee asked.
Wilson just grunted and nodded.
Lee patted him on the shoulder. "Hand me that radio."
Lucky reached forward for Wilson and plucked the handset from the console and leaned across Wilson's body to give it to the captain. Lee nodded in thanks and keyed the radio. He called for Harper twice before garnering a response.
"Yeah, go ahead, Captain. This is Harper."
Lee turned and faced away from the Humvee as he talked, scanning the area behind him. He could still hear Deuce complaining from the back of the LMTV, but he had quieted some. "Harper, you still in Lillington, or have you headed out?"
"We're still here, but we were about to hit the road." A pause. "Jacob has his...thing."
"Copy. Switch over to private channel," Lee said quickly.
After a moment and a few adjustments, Harper was the first to transmit. "Are you sure about this?"
Lee rubbed his eyebrows. "No. How's it look? Is it secured?"
"Yeah, it's secure." There was a level of resignation in his voice. "It makes a lot of noise, but it doesn't seem to want to attack us. It just kind of lashes out if you get too close."
Natural instinct, Lee thought. Lot of posturing, but a pregnant female won't go for a fight unless it absolutely has to. Too much risk to the fetus.
Aloud, he said, "What about the others?"
"There were no others." Harper's voice was flat. "This was the only one left. The others were dead and this one was eating them to stay alive."
Lee made a face. "Has anyone from Lillington seen you guys?"
"No, we're a couple blocks from the outpost, and we're outta sight."
"Good. How many do you have with you?"
"I've got five, besides myself."
"Count Jacob out," Lee said. "He needs to stay with his...subject. Send one other person with him to help if the thing gets out of hand, then let him take your pickup straight to Smithfield, and don't let anyone see them. You and the other three beg, borrow, or steal a vehicle from Lillington-I'm sure Old Man Hughes will loan you one-and get up to this airport."
"Okay. What do you have up there?"
"I've got some vehicles that need to be appropriated."
"We'll be on the way in ten."
They signed off and Lee had those present with him get out and begin sweeping the compound on foot. The ride through had not revealed anything, but they still proceeded with caution. They left their small convoy in the center of the small airstrip and gradually made their way between the hangars towards the other vehicles.
As they pa.s.sed by a particularly large hangar, Lee noticed Deuce giving the building a wide birth, his head hung low, and his tail tucked in. He growled almost a constant stream of uncomfortable noises and kept his eyes fixed on that hangar.
Lee sniffed the air, and it may have only been his imagination, but he thought there was a tinge of that rank, unwashed odor, tainting the smell of fresh rainfall. At one point, while the others continued on, Lee hung back and inclined his ear towards the hangar, standing perhaps twenty feet from it. He could not be certain, but he thought he heard something sc.r.a.pe and slide against the corrugated walls of the hangar.
He did a visual check of the doors and found them padlocked.
He thought perhaps there was good reason for that, and decided not to go near it again.
The small white pickup truck pulled into the parking deck of the Johnston Memorial Hospital in Smithfield, and began working its way up to the top level. It drove quickly, and bore with it two occupants and an interesting piece of cargo.
Jacob drove, while in the pa.s.senger seat Devon sat askew in his seat, clutching a rifle and staring uncomfortably out the back gla.s.s and the blanket-wrapped and rope-tied bundle laying secure in the bed of the pickup truck. Every time it moved, whether under its own power or the movement of the truck taking the turns, Devon tensed.
They'd restrained it with Jacob's homemade dog-catcher's pole and then fallen upon it with the thick blanket, terrified and hoping that its teeth would not be able to bite through. Then they tied it about the waist and ankles with rope, pinning its arms to its torso and rendering it the squirming form in the back that now set Devon's pulse racing.
When they reached the top level of the parking deck, Doc Hamilton was already exiting the stairwell doors that accessed the main wing of the hospital. He was a small-framed man in his late forties, with a ring of black hair growing wild around a spotlessly blank dome of scalp. He had a sort of permanently paternal expression engraved in his face, and even now it only showed concern, and perhaps a bit of confusion.
Jacob put the pickup truck in park and stepped out, immediately making his way to the truck bed. Devon followed after a moment's hesitation and a pained look that spoke of his desire to be anywhere else. Doc Hamilton watched the two men go to the rear of the pickup bed and lower the tailgate, craning his neck to see what was inside.
"What can I help you with, gentlemen?"
Inside the truck bed, the brown-bundled form suddenly thrashed and growled.
Doc Hamilton took an involuntary step back. "What the h.e.l.l is that?"
Jacob looked quickly around to make sure there was no one else watching. He took three large steps and seized Doc Hamilton in a firm handshake. "I'm Doctor Jacob Weber, microbiologist with the CDC."
Recognition showed through in Doc Hamilton's features. "Oh, you're the guy from Virginia."
"Yes," Jacob nodded curtly. "And I'm going to need a bed and as many soft restraints as you can find."
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