The flight back to Tinker was uneventful. I had chatted with Martinez for a few minutes, then exhaustion hit me. Using my pack for a pillow I had stretched out on the hard deck of the Stealth Hawk. Rachel snuggled in next to me, head pillowed on my shoulder and her arm and leg draped over me. Dog curled up on the other side, his back against my hip so I couldn’t move without him knowing it. He didn’t need to worry. I was out moments after Rachel wrapped around me and didn’t know anything until the door gunner woke me by tossing shells from the minigun at me.
At first I thought there was something seriously wrong with him, but he explained that he had started to reach out to shake my shoulder and Dog had given him a look and growl that scared the crap out of him. Grinning, I extricated myself from Rachel, rubbed Dog’s head and moved up to the cockpit. Martinez was flying solo and I slipped into the empty right hand seat, stifling a groan.
“Where are we?” I asked after slipping on the co-pilot’s helmet.
“About five minutes out.” I looked forward, the image in the helmet’s visor showing a brightly lit area a few miles ahead. “They’ve got all the security lights on. Infected at the perimeter fence. Air didn’t know specifics, just that there was a problem.”
I watched the base as we approached. We were still too far away to see details without using the helicopter’s image enhancers, but the whole area inside the fence was brightly lit, standing out against the mostly dark city it bordered.
“Make a slow orbit of the base before we land.” I said. “I’d like to see what’s going on before we drop in.”
“Yes, sir.” Martinez was all business now, cutting our speed and contacting Air to let them know what she intended to do.
A couple of minutes later we flew over the main gate at 1,000 feet of altitude. I fiddled with the imaging controls, zooming slightly on the ground below. Several hundred bodies were piled around the gate, hundreds more infected climbing over them in their attempt to reach the people inside the base. Several Hummers with machine guns were clustered inside the gate, keeping the small herd at bay. There were also plenty of armed Air Force personnel on the ground, milling around behind and beside the Hummers. For my taste, they didn’t appear to be taking this seriously enough.
If the size of the herd of infected suddenly swelled, they might be in real trouble. Obviously people in Oklahoma City were turning. Why hadn’t the Air Force put up a couple of helicopters and hosed down the infected? They could take out the entire herd in less than five minutes with a couple of door mounted miniguns.
Martinez followed the fence line as she made the orbit. There were a couple more places where infected had piled up in their attempt to get through the chain link, and there were only two Humvees at each of these locations keeping them from breaching. A few other vehicles and Airmen on foot patrolled the rest of the perimeter, but this was a lackluster response to the threat. It was either someone that didn’t know what they were doing, or it was someone that refused to acknowledge the severity of the situation and was putting peoples’ lives at risk unnecessarily. Where the hell was Colonel Crawford?
Orbit finished, Martinez brought us down in front of the same hangar we had landed at less than 24 hours ago when we’d arrived from Kirtland AFB. Three Hummers waited for us. Two of them were stuffed full of Rangers dressed in full battle rattle, the third driven by Captain Blanchard. Thanking Martinez for the ride, I collected Dog and Rachel and jumped down to the tarmac when the door gunner opened the side door.
“Welcome back, Ma’am.” Blanchard had gotten out of the Hummer and walked over to greet us. He looked beyond us, wondering where Jackson was. Not seeing him, he looked at me and I shook my head. His face fell and he nodded.
“How?” He asked.
“Turned.” I said. No further explanation was necessary. “Where’s the Colonel? The response to the infected at the gate looks like amateur hour.”
“Agreed,” he said, turning and escorting us to his vehicle. “The Colonel is in a meeting with the base commander and the Security Forces CO at the moment. I’m sure he’ll explain their error to them. I’ve got three platoons of Rangers ready to go as soon as the meeting is over so we can get the threat neutralized before something bad happens.”
I nodded, holding the rear door open for Dog and Rachel before climbing into the front with Captain Blanchard. He started the Hummer and pulled out, the two vehicles full of Rangers staying close behind.
“Captain Martinez said there was an all out effort to find me and get me back here, but she didn’t know why. Care to fill me in?” I said.
“We heard from the Russian woman you made the deal with in Los Alamos,” he started, proceeding to tell me about the call from Irina. When he was finished we were pulling into the parking lot for the base commander’s offices. “I’m sure you’ve got lots of questions, but if you don’t mind holding them for the Colonel I’d appreciate it.”
I nodded, stepping out when he parked. There was a platoon of Rangers forming a defensive perimeter around the large building, and the ones that had escorted us from the hangar jumped out and joined them to strengthen the line.
Blanchard escorted us into the building, stopping before turning down a hall that led to several large conference rooms. “Ma’am, I took the liberty of having the Air Force assign temporary housing to the Major. Can I escort you there so you can get some rest?”
“Thank you, Captain, but not a chance in hell. I saw those infected at the fence, and I don’t want to be off on my own if they break through. From now on, where he goes, I go.” Rachel tilted her head in my direction and put her hands on her hips, facing Blanchard down. He started to open his mouth, thought better of saying anything and looked at me. I just shrugged my shoulders and smiled.
“Yes, ma’am.” Was all he said, quickly turning and leading us down the hallway.
We reached a conference room and I excused myself to go to the latrine, Rachel and Dog continuing on into the plushly appointed room. In the latrine I took care of what I had to do, then stepped to the sink to wash my hands. Looking in the mirror I was surprised at how haggard I appeared. My eyes were hollow, face and head covered with several days of stubble with grime ground into every wrinkle of my skin. There was also a fair amount of gore from the fighting in Los Alamos that I hadn’t taken the time to wash off before going out to search for Rachel.
Unslinging my rifle, I laid it on the counter and turned the water on. Leaning over the sink I started trying to wash my face, neck and head as best I could. I didn’t really care if I sat in a meeting covered in filth and stinking to high heaven. I just wanted to clean up and wake up a little bit. While I was bent over the sink splashing water on my head, the door to the latrine opened and I heard footsteps on the hard tile floor.
Looking up in the mirror I was mildly surprised to see a nattily dressed man heading for one of the urinals. He was in his mid to late 30s with blonde hair that had been stylishly cut and left to hang across his forehead in a sweep. He was wearing jeans, but not the kind of jeans I’ve ever owned. These were designed by someone with an unpronounceable name and had probably cost more than my first car. His shirt fit him beautifully, having been tailored to show off a narrow waist and broad shoulders. Ignoring him, I continued to wash.
“How’s it going, sport?” He had finished at the urinal and slapped me on the back as he spoke.
I resisted the urge to pull his arm out of its socket and beat him to death with it, settling for a grunt as I grabbed a handful of paper towels out of the chrome dispenser. He stepped up to the counter to use another sink and I moved my rifle out of his reach. Meeting his eyes in the mirror I immediately disliked him even more.
Under his blonde hair he had big, blue eyes and a deep and even tan on a face that was recently shaved smooth. I could smell a subtle aftershave hanging in the air. He had the chiseled features that should be modeling something in a men’s magazine, and the biggest, whitest teeth I’d ever seen in person. He looked like someone I’d seen or known before, but I couldn’t remember who. And if there weren’t already enough strikes against the guy, he was chewing gum with his lips parted so that there was a perpetual smile on his face. Not a warm, friendly smile. More of an “I’m better than everyone else here” smile.
“Bet he owns a Porsche.” I said silently to myself, trying not to smile but failing miserably. He took my smile as an invitation to talk.
“Did you see that smokin’ hot piece of ass that just walked in with the dog?” He asked in a voice intended to draw me into the ‘we’re both men of the world’ fraternity. “That’s one tasty looking little biscuit, even if she is dressed like GI Jane. Bet she’s hell on wheels once that uniform comes off. Tits and ass like that, and a mouth that’s made for…”
He never finished the sentence. Without taking my eyes off the mirror I reached out with my left hand, grabbed the front of his expensive shirt and yanked him off his feet. Twisting, I slammed his back against the tiled wall and jammed my right forearm across his throat. His eyes were as big as dinner plates as I put my face in his, applying enough pressure with my forearm to prevent him from drawing a breath, but not quite enough to damage his larynx. Before I could say anything the door opened again.
“Stand down, Major!” Colonel Crawford said in a loud, commanding voice. He had stopped half way through the door when he saw what was happening.
I took a deep breath and released the man, taking a step back as he bent forward and coughed, trying to gulp air. When he was able to breathe he stood up and glared at me, the fury in his eyes almost a palpable force.
“Colonel, I want this man arrested!” He said, massaging his bruised throat with a manicured hand, not taking his eyes off of me.
“That’s not going to happen, Mr. Cummings. I’m sure the Major regrets his actions and will apologize.”
“I don’t want a fucking apology. I want him in irons. Don’t make me go over your head, Colonel.” He turned and glared at Crawford.
The Colonel frowned and stepped the rest of the way into the latrine, letting the door close softly behind him. He kept going until he was inside the man’s personal space, looking down at him.
“Let’s get something straight right now,” Crawford said in a low, dangerous voice. “I will decide when and if one of my people gets arrested. Not you. And all I saw was the Major helping you to your feet after you slipped on a wet tile. You should be thanking him.”
The man was pompous, but he apparently was smart enough to recognize when he wasn’t going to win a battle. After a moment he straightened his shoulders, smoothed the front of his shirt and smiled at the Colonel.
“Of course. You’re right, Colonel. My mistake. Thank you for your assistance, Major. Now, please excuse me.” He side stepped to get around Crawford and exited the latrine.
“What the fuck was that about?” Colonel Crawford whirled on me. “Do you know who that was? That was the fucking Chief of Staff for our new president, here to second guess everything we do.”
“Sorry, sir.” I said. And I was sorry. Sorry I’d put Crawford in a bad position, again. I wasn’t the least bit sorry I’d body slammed the little prick against the wall.
He stood there, staring into my eyes. “I notice you didn’t say you won’t do it again.”
“No, sir. I guess I didn’t say that, did I?”
Crawford glared at me for a couple more minutes before sighing and dismissing me. “Get the fuck out of here so I can take a piss in peace.”
“Yes, sir.” I said, grabbing my rifle and heading for the door.
“Oh, and Major? Try to not hurt anyone else before I get to the conference room.” He said, turning to face a urinal.
“Yes, sir. I’ll do my best.” I said and left the latrine.
Walking down the hall, I slung my rifle and out of old habit shoved my hand into my pocket to make sure I hadn’t lost my keys while in a rest room. But I didn’t carry car keys any longer, and all I felt was Jackson’s dog tag. Shit. The Colonel didn’t know. I came to a stop in the hall, debating returning to the latrine and telling him, but finally opting to wait for him in the hall. He and Jackson went back a long ways. This was going to suck.