“24 hours.” Colonel Crawford sat across from us in the Officer’s Mess, steaming cup of coffee gripped between his large hands. Rachel and I had just finished a late breakfast when he joined us, scratching Dog between the ears when he sat down.
“What?” I asked, not sure I had heard him right.
“So here’s what I can do for you. There’s an Air Force C-40 leaving tomorrow morning for DM – Davis Monthan Air Force Base – in Tucson. I can get you on that flight. There’s a C-130 departing from DM 24 hours after you land in Tucson, heading to New Mexico. There will be a five man Green Beret A-Team on that plane and I need you to lead them on a recovery mission to pick up two scientists. I’m told these two specialize in nerve and biological agent weapons. We need them at Fort Campbell. Give me your word that you’ll be on that return flight and I’ll give you 24 hours to find your wife. After that I need you back in harness and ready to lead a team.”
Crawford held my eyes with his, waiting for my answer.
“You have my word,” I said, holding my hand out to him. He shook it, my not so small hand nearly disappearing in his giant paw. “Thank you, Colonel.”
“Oh, I almost forgot,” he said, sliding a large manila envelope across the table to me. I opened it and dumped a gold oak leaf into my hand. A thick sheaf of papers remained in the envelope. “Your reinstatement papers, which need to be signed and dropped off at the JAG’s office here on base. They’ll take care of forwarding to BUPERS – Army Bureau of Personnel.”
I wasn’t interested in the papers, I was wondering what the hell a Major’s rank insignia was doing in my hand. Crawford continued, “You were reinstated at your old rank, Master Sergeant, but completion of a college degree qualified you for officer rank and you were bumped to Captain automatically. I exercised a field commander’s prerogative in time of war and promoted you to Major. I got the clearance to read most of your file last night and I need your leadership as much as I need your combat skills.”
The Colonel reached out, took the insignia out of my hand and pinned it onto my uniform blouse in the center of my chest.
“Now you need to know the situation on the ground in Arizona as well as the details of the recovery operation,” he said. “I’ve set you up for a briefing with one of the Air Force intel guys at 1300. He’ll bring you up to speed on what you need to know, then deliver you to the Quartermaster so you can draw the equipment you need.” He started to stand but I held up my hand.
“Not that I don’t appreciate what you’re doing, but I’ve got to ask. Why?”
Crawford stood the rest of the way with a long sigh and stared down into his coffee cup. After a long, uncomfortable silence he started speaking. “My wife and two daughters were visiting her sister in Los Angeles when the attacks happened. If I thought there was even the slightest chance that they were alive I’d be doing what you’re going to do. Besides, I need you, and if you’re head’s not on straight you won’t do me much good.”
I stood, moved around the table and held out my hand again. Crawford shook it as I thanked him for everything he was doing then moved aside as Rachel stepped in and wrapped him up in a big hug. This took him by surprise and embarrassed him, but she didn’t let go until he returned the hug. When she stepped back he turned and walked quickly away, but not before I saw the moisture in his eyes. We watched him exit the mess area then Rachel turned to me and smiled as she squeezed my hand.
It was over an hour until the intel briefing started so I sat back down and pulled the paperwork out of the envelope. I didn’t bother to read the reams of legalese, what did it really matter anyway? All of the places for signature were marked with little red stick-on flags and I quickly signed my life away and tucked the paper back into the envelope. Finishing our coffee, Rachel and I set out in search of the JAG office. Walking around the busy Air Force base it took me by surprise the first time a group of airmen saluted me as they approached. I returned their salutes, but it wasn’t as much fun as I had thought it was going to be. Kind of a pain in the ass to tell the truth.
“What’s your wife going to say when you show up with me?” Rachel asked as we walked down a long street shaded by massive oak trees.
“There won’t be a problem. We’ve been married a long time and she knows that I’m too afraid of her to mess around.” I answered with a grin. “Besides, you aren’t going. You aren’t trained for this and I’m going to have to move fast once I hit the ground in Arizona.”
Rachel grabbed my arm and pulled me to a stop, yanking me around to face her. “Hey, Asshole! I’m coming with you whether you like it or not. I’ve saved your ass from infected, patched you up when you got shot… you need me.” Rachel’s eyes grew damp as she stepped forward and shoved her face into mine. “We’ve saved each other and like it or not we kind of belong to each other now. Get it through your head. You’re not going anywhere without me.”
Sensing the tension Dog trotted over and pushed between us then sat down. Without thinking I put my hand on top of his head and started scratching his ears. I wanted to argue with Rachel but I had gotten to know her well enough to realize that it wouldn’t do any good. I’d have to lock her up to keep her from boarding that plane, and if I were to admit the truth I wanted her along. We had made a good team as we fought our way out of Georgia and I would be lying if I didn’t admit how fond and protective of her I had become.
“OK, you win.” I said after a few moments of eye contact with her. Damn, she was like Katie in so many ways. Why did I always manage to wind up with such damn head strong women?
Rachel looked into my eyes to satisfy herself that I wasn’t patronizing her. Happy with what she saw, she wiped her eyes before circling her arm through mine and starting us walking down the street again. She was at least gracious enough to not gloat over her victory. Much.
We found the JAG office after asking for directions and getting lost twice. I dropped off the paperwork, then with Dog and Rachel in tow headed for the intel building we’d been in when we first arrived at Arnold the night before. Every 30 to 40 yards we had to pause so Dog could sniff up and pee on bushes, sign posts, trees, you name it and it got marked, but we eventually made it to the building. The two enlisted Security Forces guards at the entrance snapped to attention and saluted when they saw me, opening and holding the door for us. OK, so maybe this officer thing wasn’t so bad after all. Inside we made our way to the same door Crawford had led us through the previous night. I knocked and a moment later an Air Force Master Sergeant opened the door.
“Major. I was expecting you. The lady…” He stopped when I cut him off.
“The lady is with me,” I said, pushing through the door.
He stepped back out of our way, looking at me, Rachel then Dog. After a moment he shrugged and let the spring loaded hinges slam the door shut.
“Yes, Sir. Please follow me.” He grabbed a flash drive off his desk and led us down a brightly lit hallway to a small conference room, flipping over a plate on the door that indicated a classified briefing was in progress before leading us into the room and locking the door behind us. Rachel and I settled into chairs at the side of the table, Dog choosing to curl up at our feet. He rested his chin on my boot and tail on Rachel’s, closed his eyes and promptly went to sleep.
Inserting the flash drive into a PC sitting in the front corner of the room the Sergeant turned on a ceiling mounted projector and dimmed the lights. The projector warmed up quickly and displayed a map of the continental United States. The east and west coasts were covered in blotches of red as was most of the gulf coast and the upper Midwest. New York, DC and LA also had radiological symbols superimposed over the red. Large circles of red covered most of the major cities across the country as well.
“Fourteen days ago beginning at 2333 hours Eastern Time, the United States was attacked by the People’s Republic of China, the PRC. We have since determined that the opening attack was the detonation of eight nuclear warheads timed to detonate simultaneously in the New York City area, two warheads in Washington, DC and three warheads in Los Angeles. Our best estimates are that each of these warheads were in the 40 Kiloton range and intelligence suggests that they had been smuggled into the country and hidden in place well in advance in preparation for the attacks. Additionally, nerve gas attacks on multiple cities were carried out by aerosol sprayers flown over cities by small civilian aircraft. The cities in red on the map behind me represent the known disbursement areas of the nerve agent. There are a handful of large cities where no nerve agent was released, but we don’t know why. Best guess at this point is some sort of problem with the Chinese agents assigned to them, but that’s just a guess.
“Current casualty estimates are as follows; 18 million dead from the initial nuclear strikes, 5 million dead within the past two weeks from radiation, 175 million infected by the nerve agent, 25 million dead as a result of attacks by those infected.”
I was stunned as the Sergeant read the casualty estimates from a small note card he held in his hand. He paused to give the gravity of the death blow dealt to the US a chance to sink in. The numbers he quoted were staggering. So large in fact that I couldn’t really grasp the scope. It’s easy to comprehend single deaths, or even multiples of ten or twenty, but when the numbers start getting into the millions it seems abstract, like just a paper statistic and not real life. Tucking the note card away he continued.
“By Presidential order our forces have retaliated on the PRC through the launching of both land and submarine based ICBMs. Casualty estimates to the Chinese are in excess of 300 million dead from the initial strikes or dying from radiation poisoning. The US strikes on China all occurred within the first eight hours of the crisis and there have not been any further attacks by us or them.
“Aid from the EU is flowing into the continental US via airlift, but the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) has effectively shut down all shipping traffic into the US. Multiple naval battles have occurred between UK and PLAN vessels in the north Atlantic and the UK has suffered heavy losses. Japanese, Korean, French and German naval units are currently assisting the Navy in engaging three PLAN carrier battle groups in the south Pacific. The Navy has intelligence that the PRC is planning to seize the Hawaiian Islands for use as a staging base to move into Alaska and take the oil fields.”
“Where’s Russia in all this?” I asked.
“Sir, Russia has so far remained neutral. They have condemned the PRC’s actions and their military is on high alert, but they are in a defensive posture only at this time. We had initially thought Russia was also involved and did launch missiles at that country, but they were aborted and brought down over the polar ice when we realized our mistake.”
“Any indication of a land invasion by the Chinese?”
“Yes, Sir. The Chinese have been massing troops on Guam, and there are 27 very large troop transport ships trailing their carrier groups. Satellite imagery shows another 400 converted troop transport ships being loaded and preparing to sail from multiple Chinese ports that survived our tactical strikes. Naval experts estimate each ship can carry 2,500 soldiers.”
Never good at doing math in my head I was a little behind the curve in figuring out we were looking at a potential invading army of over one million soldiers.
“The President has authorized the use of nuclear weapons by battlefield commanders to stop the PLAN from taking Hawaii or reaching the west coast. The latest reports are that we have exchanged nuclear strikes at sea, but I do not have a battle damage assessment yet.”
He paused, apparently waiting for questions but none were forthcoming. I was too stunned.
“To the immediate threat,” he continued, clicking his remote and changing the image on the display to another map of the US, this time with large, amorphous blobs of yellow covering massive swaths of the country.
“This is the current threat assessment of the infected population of the US. The areas in yellow are territory that has completely fallen to the infected, or is so infested as to be considered uninhabitable.”
Involuntarily I leaned forward in my seat to peer at the map. The entire eastern and southeastern United States was yellow all the way up to the southern border of Tennessee. North of Kentucky the yellow started again and stretched all the way to the Canadian border. To the west were large pockets of yellow infection covering almost all of the major cities. The west coast was yellow from Mexico to Canada. The inland west was mostly clear of infection other than Denver and Salt Lake City. Suddenly the casualty numbers from earlier started to sink in.
“Here is what we have learned about the infection. Our resources are limited as both USAMRID and the CDC were lost in the initial attacks, but we have been able to isolate the agent and are working with the French and the Swiss in an effort to find a cure or a vaccine. This is what we know so far. The nerve agent is called MX-489. It was developed during the cold war to destabilize the civilian population of a country as a precursor to invasion. Within minutes of exposure it causes a chemical change in the brain that results in the hyper aggression state. What had our researchers stumped at first is that MX-489 in its original form was lethal, typically killing an exposed subject after 24 to 36 hours of extremely aggressive behavior. The human body is unable to handle the massive amounts of adrenaline that are continually released into the system as a result of exposure and will die of either heart attack or stroke.
“Just this morning it was discovered that the Chinese have paired MX-489 with a virus. The effect of this is to significantly strengthen the body’s ability to continue to function despite all of the adrenaline. How long this will preserve the infected is unknown, and so far we have had no reports of infected beginning to die off. The only good news is that it is the nerve agent that causes the change, and the agent is only persistent for 48 hours post release before degrading in the environment. Also, the virus seems to have no detrimental impact on non-infected people. However, the researchers aren’t sure. They don’t know what else the virus may do.”
“Where did the MX-489 come from?” Rachel asked. The Sergeant shot me a look and I nodded my head for him to answer.
“It was originally developed by the US Government in the early 1960s. Half the missiles we had pointed at Russia during the cold war were armed with the nerve agent rather than nuclear warheads. During the Cuban Missile crisis there were four B-52s in the air at all times with tanks full of it, ready to spray the entire island of Cuba.”
He shuffled through some more note cards, found the one he was looking for and continued, “The researchers have started calling the Chinese version the Voodoo Plague.”