After several dead ends that forced us to backtrack we finally found a gate that would allow us to exit the base. The gate was a rolling section of chain link fencing about 12 feet high and there were probably close to 100 infected pushing up against it. None were in military clothing so I suspected they were civilians from the small town next to the base. There was a good mix of males and females and as we approached the gate they all went in to a frenzy, fighting with each other to get closer to the gate.
“Now that’s new,” I commented, watching a large male club smaller infected out of his way so he could press up against the chain link.
“I wish they’d just fight each other and leave us the hell alone.” Rachel said.
“Yeah, well, I wish I was hung like John Holmes, but I don’t think either of us are going to get our wish.” I put the Humvee into park as Rachel laughed. It was the first spark of life out of her since the Globemaster and Pave Hawk had crashed at the flight line. Glancing around to make sure we were in the clear I climbed into the back of the vehicle, Dog protesting my invasion of his space with a series of grunts, and told Rachel to join me. After a moment she climbed into the back too. Standing up I unlocked and pushed open the hatch in the roof that allowed a gunner access to the machine gun.
“You need to learn how to use this,” I said, gesturing for Rachel to stand up in the gunner’s position. When she was in place I opened the rear door and stood on the edge of the vehicle floor to be up at her height. I gave her a quick tutorial on how to load and change ammo belts and charge the weapon. After she had removed the belt and reloaded the weapon a few times I felt she had that part of it down.
“The most important thing, other than not shooting me is to not melt your barrel,” I said. Rachel looked at me like I was speaking Martian. “Machine guns get very hot, very quickly, and under continuous firing the barrel will overheat and warp. If that happens you might as well throw the gun at them for all the good it will do you.”
“So how do I keep that from happening,” she asked with a note of trepidation in her voice.
“Short, controlled bursts. Don’t fire continuously for more than five seconds. This weapon fires 900 rounds a minute. That’s 15 rounds per second, so in a five second burst you’ve gone through 75 rounds. Get in your mind that you will fire for five seconds, not fire for 3 seconds, then fire for up to five more. There’s a red tracer every tenth round so you’ll see one tracer a second to help you direct your fire. A green tracer is at the mid-point of the belt and again three rounds from the end of the belt with two reds together as the last two rounds to let you know you’re out. The mount will absorb and control the recoil, but the gun will hammer your arms.”
Rachel was looking at me like I was crazy to be trusting her with this, but she was also paying attention.
“OK, ready?” I asked.
“Clear those infected out so we can open the gate and get out of here,” I replied, pointing at the mass of bodies fifty yards to our front. Stepping back down into the Humvee I closed the door and sat in the rear seat next to Rachel’s right leg. After a moment I heard her click the safety off then the gun hammered out a short two second burst.
Watching out of the windshield I saw a few infected drop then the second tracer round flew over their heads as Rachel let the gun climb off target. A couple of seconds later the hammering started again, lasting almost five full seconds and mowing down a dozen infected before a tracer flew high. Three seconds later she cut loose again, this time keeping all the rounds on target, shredding infected and also doing a number on the gate. Soon she was controlling the weapon and walking the stream of bullets across the ranks of bodies which were rapidly thinning. Two more bursts and there were only half a dozen infected still standing and I tapped Rachel’s leg to let her know I would clean up the rest with my rifle.
Checking the area I saw a large group of infected males approaching from the rear, most certainly attracted by the horrendous noise the machine gun makes. I pointed them out to Rachel and she swung the gun around and cut them down with two quick bursts. Damn, she caught on quick. Popping the door open I walked to the gate, raising my rifle, and in short order dispatched the remaining infected with head shots. The stench from the unwashed bodies, blood, bowels and bladders was almost overpowering and even though it was night flies were already descending on the nauseating banquet. Breathing through my mouth I found the latch for the gate near the guard shack, released it and forced the gate open on its track.
Back in the Humvee I checked to make sure Rachel had locked the access hatch to the roof, shifted into drive and slowly made our crunching and squishing way over the shattered bodies. Rachel held her hand over her nose and mouth when the smell hit her, trying to roll down her window when we were clear. She quickly discovered the tradeoff for having an up-armored vehicle with ballistic glass. The windows are fixed in place and don’t roll down. She settled for cracking the door open a few inches and holding it there while we drove, the smell quickly venting out of the vehicle.
The small town outside the gate, I never learned its name, wasn’t much more than one long street that looked like streets near every military base I’ve ever been on. Bars, tattoo parlors, liquor stores, strip clubs and a couple of low rent motels that advertised hourly rates. Brought back memories. The power was still on and every building had some sort of gaudy neon sign, almost all of them in red that washed the whole street with light that made the place look like one of Dante’s levels of hell. More infected were moving, coming out of the businesses, out of alleys and side streets, all drawn by the machine gun fire and the sound of the Humvee.
Accelerating slightly I pushed our speed to over 30. The long street resembled a gauntlet and the infected were quickly spilling onto the asphalt and closing ranks ahead of us. Moments later I slowed back to 20 as we started smashing through the bodies. The herd thickened and I slowed to just over 10 MPH for fear of damaging the vehicle – you can only ram 150 to 200 pound bodies for so long before something gives – but we finally reached the far end of the street which was clear of infected. Ahead the road disappeared around a curve as the heavy forest in the area closed in.
Rounding the curve found us in a dark tunnel, trees pressing right to the edge of the pavement on both sides as their upper branches tried to meet in the middle. The Humvee’s headlights were not very bright but it had been outfitted with a set of high intensity off road lights that I switched on after groping around the dash for the switch. The night turned to day inside the tree canopy but we couldn’t see anything to the side beyond the first row of trees. I momentarily thought about cutting all the lights and using the NVGs but discarded the idea. Infected would find us from sound, not light, so we really had little to gain by running dark.
“Do you know where we’re going?” Rachel asked.
“That way,” I answered, pointing at the windshield.
“Funny. I’m serious. What are we heading into?”
“Right now the idea is to get north into Kentucky a ways then cut to the west. I want to stay well clear of any population centers. Whatever is going on with more people suddenly becoming infected can’t be isolated.” Rachel fell silent, not particularly satisfied with my answer but it was the best I could do at the moment. We had a very capable vehicle, were well armed and reasonably well provisioned with a week’s worth of MREs in our packs. Things could be worse.
We both fell silent as I drove, the hum of the hard rubber all terrain tires on the pavement almost hypnotizing. I kept our speed down, never getting over 45. Too many times I had seen infected suddenly lurch in front of us and I wanted to be going slow enough to not damage the Humvee in a collision, or worse try to avoid the collision and wind up crashing. The vehicle was our life boat and I didn’t want to have to find out how long we’d last without it.
After an hour we rounded a curve and I slowed to a stop as we reached an intersection. This was the first real side road we had encountered since leaving Arnold. There had been several muddy tracks cut into the forest, but even though this road wasn’t marked it headed west and would hopefully stay south of Nashville. There were no other signs and I had no idea what or where the next town was going to be. Tossing a mental coin I decided to take the new road and start heading west, turning the wheel and slowly accelerating.
Rachel had fallen asleep in the dark and Dog was snoring like a saw mill in the back seat. I was tired, reminding myself that I had already flown to Atlanta, fought infected, flown back to Arnold and fought some more since the last time I slept. We were in the middle of nowhere, or at least seemed to be, and I was considering pulling into the next muddy track I saw and getting some sleep myself when I saw the first stake. Gawking at it as we drove past I took my foot off the accelerator and let the vehicle slow as several more came into view.
The stakes were thick wooden poles driven into the ground and atop each one a severed human head had been impaled, facing the direction we were coming from. Idling past I could see a small forest of them in the reach of the lights before the road disappeared over a small rise. I couldn’t tell if the heads had come from infected or survivors when they were driven onto the stakes. It didn’t matter. Someone was one sick fucking puppy and was using them to warn away travelers, or mark their territory, or something else I couldn’t even comprehend. It didn’t matter, I wasn’t about to go any further and find out what the deal was. Reaching over I shook Rachel awake as I braked the Humvee to a stop on the top of the rise.
“Oh, fucking hell,” she said, waking up and looking out the windshield at the couple of dozen staked heads I pointed to in front of us.
“Fucking hell is right,” I said, shifting into reverse and turning us sideways in the road to turn and head back where we’d come from.
I hadn’t completed the turn when bright lights from my left, the direction we had come from, suddenly lit up the night and pinned us like a spotlighted coyote. Shit, shit, shit. The good news was we were in a military vehicle that could withstand any civilian weapons they might have. The bad news came a second later when more light came on to my right, neatly boxing us in. We’d driven right into a trap.
“Get ready to drive,” I barked, scrambling over the seat and unlatching the gunner’s port in the roof.
Standing up in the position I swung the machine gun to my left and didn’t hesitate to open fire, walking the bullets across the spotlights and knocking all of them out. I could hear shouts from the men who had been behind the lights but I ignored them and swung to my right, pumping a few hundred rounds into the lights and vehicles they were mounted on. More shouts and bullets started pinging off the armored side of the Humvee.
“Drive!” I shouted at Rachel as I swung the gun back to the group I’d fired on first. Bracing against the motion as Rachel floored the vehicle I lined up as best I could and started hammering away.
I thought we’d make it. Felt confident that with the armored Humvee and machine gun we could fight our way clear of the ambush. And we might have if not for their sniper. I saw the muzzle flash before I heard the boom and half a second later the Humvee’s diesel engine went quiet and we rolled to a stop. The report of the rifle was distinctive and I knew someone had a .50 caliber sniper rifle, probably with API - armor piercing incendiary - ammo since they had disabled our engine with one shot. The .50 cal rifle fires one hell of a slug, about the size of your thumb, and it fires it with tremendous velocity. I’ve personally seen experienced snipers take out targets at 1,500 yards with a .50. I’ve read of accounts of targets being effectively engaged as far out as nearly two miles. At 100 yards that slug penetrated our armored grill and shattered the engine block without much effort.
The only mistake the sniper had made was firing from somewhere that allowed me to see the muzzle flash. Swinging the machine gun to that point I opened up and hammered out burst after burst until I had run through the belt. No more .50 cal fire came our way, no fire at all from the direction I had targeted, but high velocity rounds from what were probably deer rifles were slamming into the back of the vehicle. Slapping a new belt in and swiveling around I walked fire across the vehicles blocking the road in that direction. The firing stopped, but started up from the area where I had taken out the sniper.
“Get your pack on,” I shouted down into the vehicle to Rachel. “Grab two of those empty canvas bags and fill one up with grenades and the other with rifle magazines. Let me know when you’re ready.”
Not waiting for an answer I pulled the trigger on the machine gun again, walking fire alternately across both road blocks. To discourage anybody that was showing some initiative I swept bursts across the forest to each side of us, then went back to hosing down our attacker’s vehicles. I had to stop firing to load in a new belt and had an idea.
“What?” She yelled back, not stopping filling the bag with grenades.
“Open up several ammo cans for the machine gun. I want you to link all the belts together. You’ll see how to do it when you get them open. Then find the duct tape in my pack and tear me off an eight inch strip.” I had said all this during pauses in firing, not wanting to give the assholes that had ambushed us a break.
Less than a minute later I felt Rachel smack me on the leg and I glanced down to see her handing me the strip of tape. In her other hand was the end of an ammo belt and I could see half a dozen ammo cans sitting in a row, lids open and belts connecting the contents to each other. Taking the tape from her I leaned into the opening and also grabbed the end of the ammo belt she held.
“Out the door and straight into the woods,” I told her. “Take Dog with you. Keep going when you get into the bush. I’ll catch up.”
I ducked as a rifle round pinged off the armor right next to my head, swung to the direction the shot had come from and sent a hundred rounds downrange.
“We’ll wait for…”
“Goddamn it,” I cut her off. “Move your ass now! I’ll be right behind you.”
Not waiting to see if she was doing what I told her I kept the firing going until the gun ran dry, then inserted the end of the very long belt that Rachel had clipped together for me. Most of the rifle fire was coming from my front so I sent a couple of bursts their way then dove into the Humvee to shrug into my pack. The ten second lull in firing gave them a chance to bring more rifles to bear and rounds were splattering off the Humvee’s armor fairly rapidly when I poked my body back through the roof. I fired a couple of long bursts which stopped the rifle fire, locked the machine gun into place on its mount, threaded the duct tape through the trigger guard and used it to pull and hold the trigger. The machine gun started firing, held tightly on target by its mount, and I wrapped the tape around the back of the guard to hold the trigger down and dropped into the Humvee.
The machine gun was still firing and would continue to fire until it either ran out of ammo or overheated and malfunctioned. I hoped for the former as there were 2,500 rounds linked together, enough to last for three minutes if the gun didn’t melt. Grabbing another canvas bag I spent 15 precious seconds filling it with grenades before bailing out of the side of the vehicle. I had kept two grenades in my hand and pulled the first pin and threw it hard in the direction the machine gun was still firing. Turning I pulled the second pin and threw that one then ran into the forest, lowering my NVGs into place. Seconds later the two explosions sounded but I was already ten yards into the heavy brush and moving as fast as I could.