The briefing lasted for another hour. The Sergeant expanding on what the researchers had discovered, and then covering why the two scientists in New Mexico were so critical to the research efforts. He handed me a packet with large head shot photos of each scientist and a short biography on each. The packet also contained details on their location in New Mexico and how I would find and extract them. I glanced through it then closed the file and gave him my full attention as he talked about the tactical situation in Arizona.
Phoenix and Tucson, the two largest cities in Arizona, had quickly devolved into chaos after the attacks. Thousands had died very early on in rioting and looting as grocery stores were stripped bare within hours of the attacks. Then came the fighting between first neighborhoods, then neighbors, over food, fuel and water. Civilian law enforcement had evaporated and less than 20 percent of the National Guard had reported when the call up orders were issued. The two cities had only Air Force bases in or adjacent to them and both bases were on high alert and locked down with no personnel to spare to try and quell the unrest. The other two large military installations in the state were a Marine Air Station 200 miles to the west of Phoenix in Yuma, and Fort Huachuca which was 90 miles to the south of Tucson near the Mexico border. Neither had the manpower to help and were also locked down and using every available resource for their own security.
Reports were filtering out of the state that local gang leaders had set themselves up as warlords, their ranks swelling with people who were hungry and scared and looking for the protection the gangs offered. Battles raged in both Tucson and Phoenix between rival warlords looking to either maintain or seize control of food, water and fuel stocks. There had been a mass exodus of people trying to get to safety in the mountains of eastern and northern Arizona, but many had run out of fuel and were on foot. Adding to the misery it was summer and the temperatures in the Arizona desert were in the triple digits. Satellite imagery and drones flown out of Luke and Davis Monthan Air Force Bases showed thousands of bodies lying in the desert where refugees had succumbed to the heat, collapsed and died. This wasn’t going to be a walk in the park. I asked the Sergeant about the use of a helicopter to get me from Tucson to Phoenix, which is about 110 miles across open desert. He flipped through his notes before telling me that he had no information about availability of rotor wing aircraft and it would be at the base commander’s discretion.
I asked some more questions, as did Rachel, and when they were all answered I thanked him for the briefing. Rachel, Dog and I followed him out of the conference room and he escorted us across the air base to a massive building where the Quartermaster was located. We spent close to an hour getting outfitted with food in the form of MREs – Meal Ready to Eat - uniforms, gloves, boots, body armor, new weapons with military grade sound suppressors and tactical vests, ammunition, comm equipment, night vision gear, first aid kits and a medic pack for Rachel, combat packs and even a ballistic vest for Dog. Working military dogs had been a high value target for snipers in Afghanistan and Iraq and had needed body armor just as much as their handlers.
With everything stowed away I shouldered my pack and slung my weapons and stepped onto the scale sitting by the Quartermaster’s desk. 348 pounds. I subtracted my 230 pound body weight and wasn’t pleased that I had 118 pounds of gear on my body. I had packed Rachel lighter then myself, but she refused to get on the scale. Women. Like it mattered if I knew what she weighed. Taking the pack off her back I piled it and her weapons on the scale which registered 73 pounds. Lighter than my load, but by no means light when she couldn’t have weighed more than 150, despite being nearly six feet tall. After I signed for everything we exited the building into the humid afternoon.
“So what’s the plan?” Rachel asked, struggling to adjust her pack to a more comfortable position. I stepped behind her and took the weight of the pack in my arms so she could adjust the straps.
“First I’m taking you by the firing range to spend some time with an instructor, then I’m going by flight operations,” I answered, still supporting her pack. “Need to know exactly what time our flight to Arizona leaves tomorrow morning. I also want to check and see if they’re running any SAR – Search and Rescue – operations. I can’t stop thinking about those kids we left behind in Atlanta.”
When Rachel and I were fighting our way out of the Atlanta suburbs we had encountered three teenagers that were holed up in their house, waiting for their parents to come home. This was a couple of days after the attacks and we hadn’t been able to convince them to come with us. We’d left them enough food for a week or two if they were careful with it, then when it became clear that we could only get them to come with us by force we had driven off without them. I wasn’t regretting our decision, there was no other option at the time, but if they were still there and alive I wanted to see if I could get them some help.
I didn’t know where either the range or flight operations were, but it didn’t take long for a Security Force Humvee to drive by and I flagged it down. The young Airman driving the vehicle was happy to give us a ride when he saw the Oak Leaf on my chest. Rachel and Dog piled into the back seat and after dropping my pack in the cargo area I climbed in next to the driver. He drove aggressively, probably in a hurry to get an officer out of his vehicle, and in only a few minutes we arrived at the base’s small arms training facility. A squat cinder block building fronted the parking lot, several dozen 300 yard shooting lanes carved into the terrain stretching out behind it. Every 100 feet a tall tower looked down on the firing line. These were where the Range Masters observed and controlled all activity on the range. I told the Airman to wait and motioned for Rachel to follow me. Dog stayed behind, pushing his head forward to get a neck scratch from the driver.
Inside the building I quickly found an Air Force Master Sergeant and Chief Master Sergeant in a cramped office. They were sitting with their feet up, cigarettes burning in an ashtray that was made from a cut down artillery shell. They both stood up quickly when I stepped into the door of the office, the Master Sergeant stubbing out the smokes before coming to attention. I waved them back into their chairs, pulled out my own cigarette, lit up and plopped into the visitor’s chair. The two Sergeants grinned and relit their smokes. They had heard about Rachel and me – any military installation is the biggest gossip exchange you will ever find – and I patiently answered their questions and gave them enough juicy details to make them feel like they were on the inside. Steering the conversation I explained to them that Rachel and I were hopping a flight into hostile territory in a few hours and she needed a crash course on the firing range. They took one look at Rachel who was beautiful even in all her combat gear and eagerly agreed. When I left Rachel was smiling, flirting and being fawned over by both of them. She certainly knew how to play the game.
Back in the Humvee I had the Airman drive me over to Flight Operations, again telling him to wait, and went into the large building that was immediately adjacent to the flight line. On the opposite side of the building a tall Control Tower soared into the air, commanding a view of the entire runway and taxiway system. The building itself was a hub of activity, Air Force enlisted personnel working on computers and walking from office to office in a quick and efficient manner. It didn’t take long for a young female Airman to stop and ask if she could assist me. I asked to speak with whoever was in charge of flight operations, then followed her down a long hall, up a flight of stairs and into a large room where she pointed at a small, Asian woman wearing an Air Force uniform with a Major’s oak leaf. Three walls of the room were covered with large flat panel displays that appeared to monitor everything from the weather to air traffic as well as several with constantly updating information that was Greek to me. The fourth wall was all windows that looked out onto the flight line.
I was surprised a Major was running flight operations as I would have expected this to be the job of a Colonel, but I wasn’t going to complain. I was a Major too and was happy to not have to deal with an Air Force officer that out ranked me. Not that this woman couldn’t just dismiss me out of hand, but it was less likely for her to ignore a brother officer of the same rank. I walked up and paused a few feet from her while she finished a conversation with one of her staff before introducing myself.
“Oh, yeah. You’re the guy that flew in last night, right?” She was tiny compared to me, five feet tall at the most, and had to crank her head way back to look up at me. The name tape on her uniform read Masuka.
“That’s me,” I answered with a grin.
“So what can I do for you?” She asked, picking up a clipboard and scanning through a couple of pages before finding what she was looking for. “Looks like we’ve got you on a flight to DM tomorrow at 0730.”
“You do, and the first thing I need to ask is are there two seats and room for a dog?” I grinned what I hoped was a charming grin, but either it wasn’t or she didn’t care. Brad Pitt I’m not.
“The aircraft has been reconfigured for this mission. No seats, just web slings.” She put the clipboard down and looked back up at me. “Why? Who are you taking with you?”
“The female team member that made it out of Georgia with me, and my K9.” I was stretching the truth here, making it sound more official than it really was. I was hoping she wouldn’t ask for specifics about Rachel and Dog and find out neither was military.
“There’s room,” she answered after a long pause. “I’ll note it for the load master. Was there anything else? I’m a bit busy here.”
She started to turn away to speak with one of the enlisted staff that was waiting in line for her, but I spoke up before I lost her attention.
“Yes, there is. What’s your SAR capability at the moment? I had to leave some civilians behind north of Atlanta and I’d like to get them evacuated.” For this request I figured the whole truth was the best approach. I gave her the story about the three teenagers Rachel and I had encountered, telling her about their refusal to come with us and that we’d left them enough food that they could still be alive if they’d stayed indoors and quiet.
“Show me on the map,” she said, stepping over to a computer terminal and clicking a mouse. I followed her line of sight and watched one of the flat panel displays show an image that looked at first like Google Earth. As she clicked and scrolled it became obvious we were looking at real time satellite imagery as you never see clouds when using Google. A couple more clicks and a street map was superimposed over the satellite image and she motioned for me to take control of the mouse.
“It’s just like Google,” she said. “Use the mouse to scroll around, double left click to zoom in, double right to zoom out.”
Using the mouse I navigated around the screen, zoomed in a few times then back out when I didn’t recognize the area. The third time I zoomed I was pretty certain I had the right location. As the screen refreshed I recognized the neighborhood with just the one street that fed in and out. Clicking to zoom further in I didn’t realize at first what I was looking at, then the screen did a final refresh into sharp HD clarity and I muttered a curse. Several blocks of the neighborhood were packed with infected standing shoulder to shoulder, all of them pushing forward towards a small two-story house.