It’s almost 600 air miles from Oklahoma City to El Paso. We were more than an hour into the flight and I hadn’t been able to fall asleep. Damn, air travel is boring when you can’t sleep. I sat in the back of the Stealth Hawk, Martinez once again at the controls. She had a young Lieutenant flying co-pilot, so I couldn’t even go up front and trade barbs with her to alleviate the boredom.
Brent Cummings, the President’s COS sat in a web sling at the rear of the aircraft. He was trying very hard to not make eye contact with me, alternately feigning sleeping or reading from a thick file. After the briefing and conversation with Irina I had seen him wandering around outside the admin building, satellite phone pressed to his ear. Probably complaining to the new president about the thuggish military. Fuck him. If he wants to see thuggish…
The remaining three SADMs were tightly secured at the back of the space, close to Cummings. Rachel was crashed out on the deck, head pillowed on Dog as they both slept soundly. I sat looking at them, wishing we were on a beach somewhere, drinking margaritas and throwing a Frisbee into the surf for Dog to chase.
I was sitting there, enjoying the day dream, picturing Rachel in a tiny little bikini when the co-pilot tapped my shoulder. Looking up, still lost in my fantasy, I didn’t understand at first what he wanted. Finally I got the message and stuck my headphone plug into a jack on the bulkhead.
“What’s up, Captain?” I asked, talking to Martinez.
“Tinker on the radio for you, sir. Captain Blanchard.” She answered.
“Thanks.” I said. There were a couple of clicks then I could hear an open circuit. “Dog two six here.”
“Major, I’m watching a large herd of infected moving across the desert, and they’re on a track to pass very close to your RP.” He meant rendezvous point. “Current speed and distance will put the leading edge in your area at about 2230 local.”
“How large?” I asked, sitting up straight and paying attention.
“Herd’s about four miles long and half a mile wide. Best guess is close to three million.” I was quiet for a long moment.
“That’s most of El Paso and Juarez, or close enough to not matter. What the hell is going on?” I asked.
“Wish I could tell you, sir. They entered the edge of detection for the Predator about half an hour ago and we’re doing flyovers to try and figure that out. I’m trying to get some satellite images from the past few days to see if I can determine what caused it.”
“If you draw a straight line along their track, where are they headed?” I asked.
“Stand by.” I could hear some clattering as he typed away on his laptop. After a few minutes he came back on the radio.
“Straight line leads them here to Oklahoma City.” He said, sounding a little shaken.
That’s OK. I felt a little shaken, too. What the hell was going on? What could possibly entice a herd of three million infected to set out on a several hundred mile journey? I had wondered what was driving the herds that had collapsed in on Tennessee from the north, east and south, but hadn’t given it that much thought. Maybe it was time for someone smarter than me to figure this out before millions of hungry mouths showed up looking for the buffet in Oklahoma.
“Anything else I need to know?” I asked. I was confident Colonel Crawford already knew about the herd and didn’t feel it necessary to instruct Blanchard to tell him.
“No, sir. I’ll update you in a couple of hours.” He disconnected and the circuit went quiet.
I sat there looking at Rachel and Dog, trying to return to my earlier fantasies, but all I could think about was the infected. Why the hell had they converged on Tennessee like that? And now, why were they marching on the largest remaining concentration of survivors in North America? It was almost like there was an intelligence directing them. But how?
Was it possible the smart females were able to control the others? I didn’t see how. Besides, even if they could, how the hell would they know to head for Oklahoma? Ridiculous ideas from a lifetime of watching bad science fiction movies went through my head. The females were psychic and knew the location of a large concentration of survivors. Some alien being was directing their actions. Several other stupid thoughts floated around my mind, then I fell asleep and dreamt of that sandy beach, but the only bikinis were being worn by a pack of infected females.
Nearly three hours later the co-pilot shook me awake to tell me Blanchard was on the radio again. I had been dreaming I was treading water half a mile off a beach full of infected and a shark had just shown up. I was glad to leave that world behind, even though the one I was in wasn’t any better.
“The herd hasn’t changed direction or speed.” He said as soon as I turned my headset on. “You’re going to have half an hour at the most once you’re on the ground.”
“Can you slow them down with the Predator?” I asked, stretching my back and groaning internally as muscles protested.
“We had to pull the Predator out of the area. The Russians spotted it and tried to shoot it down. We were able to evade, but if I send it back in they’re going to get curious about why we’re so interested in that area of the desert.” He said.
“Understood.” I answered. “What about the back up we discussed?”
“On the way. There were some mechanical issues due to delayed maintenance. They’re a little more than two hours behind you.”
“Well, hell, Captain. I don’t call that back up. Do you?” I asked, sarcastically.
“No, sir. I don’t. But it’s the best we can do.” He answered, sounding impervious to my tone. He was a Colonel’s aide. Of course he was impervious to sarcasm.
“Sorry, Captain. Just tired of operating without anyone watching my ass. Anything else?”
“We’ve got what we assume is Captain Vostov’s helicopter on satellite, in transit to the RP. Satellite thermal scans show two pilots and three passengers. They should be arriving right on schedule.” He said. “Other than that, the Colonel wanted me to pass on his wishes for a safe and successful mission.”
“Thank him for me, Captain. And thanks for the update. I’ll check in once the transfer is complete.” I said, shutting down the connection.
Removing the headset, I stood and stretched. Dog opened his eyes and looked up at me, tail lazily brushing across the steel deck. He didn’t get up and Rachel continued to sleep, head pillowed on his belly. “She’s going to smell like a dog.” I thought to myself, and barely suppressed a snort of laughter. Bending over, I rubbed Dog’s neck, his eyes closing when I touched him.
Cummings was asleep when I checked on him. He was really asleep this time, held into a small jump seat by a harness, head hanging down and swaying with the motion of the helicopter. For a moment I thought about sneaking back and dipping his hand in warm water so he’d piss his pants, then I told the teenage boy part of my brain to shut up and headed for the cockpit.
“Where are we, Martinez?” I asked, sticking my head between the two seats.
“About 45 minutes out, sir. Had to swing a little to the southeast to stay out of the Russian’s CAP. We flew over Midland – Odessa about fifteen minutes ago.” She said, raising her helmet’s visor and turning to look at me.
“Any signs of life?” I asked.
“A few pockets of light, including a large refinery and a couple of oil rigs lit up like Christmas trees. Was able to zoom in on a couple of them and they’re pumping oil. The refinery looked like it was in operation.” That was great news. Fuel stores would start running out soon, and if there was still an oil field and refinery in operation, we might just be able to put planes in the air a few months from now when the reserves ran dry.
“Did you call it in?” I asked.
“I called it in to Air, but they didn’t sound terribly excited.”
“Get me Captain Blanchard on the radio again.” I said without hesitation.
Close to a minute later the co-pilot gestured and I grabbed my headset and filled him in on what Martinez had just told me.
“Are you sure you want to do that?” He asked. Before I could answer there was a click and Crawford joined the conversation.
“I was listening in, Major, and I concur we need to secure that oil field and refinery, but we can do that after you drop off the packages.” Crawford said.
My backup was 100 Marines from the MEU on board a flight of four V22 Ospreys. The Osprey is a tilt rotor aircraft that can takeoff, hover and land like a helicopter. Once it’s in the air the engine nacelles tilt and it transitions into forward flight like a propeller driven plane. Many think it’s a big improvement over helicopters. Maybe it is if you like the ability to carry more troops, and carry them twice as fast and five times farther than a helicopter. The Marines love them. I’ll still take a Huey or Black Hawk to get my ass into a combat zone.
“Sir, the Jarheads are far enough behind me that it won’t make any difference if they divert to secure the oil production. And it might make a difference if they get there sooner. We both know how quickly things go to shit when the infected show up in numbers.” I said.
Crawford was silent for a moment. “OK, Major. I’ll re-task them. Just watch your ass out there. I’m tired of having to come find you.”
“No worries, sir. The only river around here is less than five feet deep.” I cut the connection and grinned to myself.
“With a mouth like that, I see why you weren’t an officer before the attacks. Sir.” Martinez quipped.
“Not all of us make it on affirmative action, Captain.” I shot back.
“Sir, I’ll have you know I happen to have a great pair of tits and killer legs. Nothing impresses a promotion board like tits and legs.” She laughed. The co-pilot had turned in his seat and was staring at us like we had just suggested committing treason or something else equally horrifying.
“Relax, Lieutenant.” Martinez said to him. “The way people are dying you may be a Colonel by this time next month. Laugh when you can. There may not be a tomorrow.”
She was joking, but it was also a sad truth. The fastest way to get promoted in the military has always been in time of war. Officers and senior NCOs get killed, they need to be replaced. While it could take years during peacetime to get promoted, it can happen very quickly when people start dying. It’s not the way I ever wanted to get promoted, but it’s part of being in the military. At the end of the day, without officers to make decisions and NCOs to make sure those decisions are carried out, the military would grind to a halt.
“We’ve got about half an hour, sir. We’re approaching the edge of the Russian CAP and I’m going to take us down onto the deck for the rest of the flight. You might want to strap in and make sure everyone else back there is too.” Martinez said, serious again.
“Thanks, Jennifer.” I said, using her given name for the first time. It wasn’t disrespectful. It was letting her know I trusted her and she was part of the team. She’d earned it in spades when we were in Los Alamos. The woman had more guts and grit than most men I’ve ever known.
In the back I woke Rachel. She stretched and sat up, Dog gratefully standing and shaking to loosen the knots I’m sure he had to have. From the moment Rachel had laid her head on him, he hadn’t moved. Somehow he knew she needed the rest, and was willing to give up his comfort for her.
With Rachel strapped in, I seated myself and pulled a harness over my shoulders and chest. Clicking the locks into place I looked up at Cummings and thought about waking him, but dismissed the idea. He was strapped in, and if he got a little surprise the first time Martinez made a hard turn at speed, well, that would probably be good for him.