I left the whole mess in Colonel Crawford’s capable hands and went down the hall to check in on Scott. He was propped up in bed, arm in a fresh plaster cast, a thick, white bandage wrapped around his head. He was sleeping, and not wanting to disturb him I turned and started out the door, pausing when I spied a black, felt tip marker clipped to a chart. Grabbing the marker, I crept to the edge of the bed and left a calling card on the pristine surface of the white cast.
Back in the hall I held back when an Air Force Brigadier General, with half a dozen aides in tow, stepped out of the elevator and looked around.
“That way, sir.” I pointed down the hall where Crawford stood talking on a satellite phone.
The General nodded and strode off. Captain Blanchard spotted me and trotted up before I could board the elevator.
“Your Black Hawk is ready.” He said. “Waiting where you landed this morning.”
“Thanks. What’s he going to do?” I asked, nodding towards the Colonel. The General was standing looking at him as he continued his phone conversation.
“He’s talking to Admiral Packard right now. Recommending we immediately start producing and administering the vaccine. If that woman turned last night, there’s surely others that have turned as well, we just haven’t found them yet. And there may be more that are about to turn.” I nodded, thanked him again for arranging the helicopter and stepped into the elevator.
When I walked out the front doors of the hospital there were three Hummers angled into the curb, obviously parked in a hurry. They all had Security Forces markings on them. Looking around I didn’t see any other transportation, so said the hell with it and got behind the wheel of the closest one. I was sure someone would be pissed off when they came out and found it missing, but annoying an Air Force cop was at the bottom of my list of concerns at the moment.
It only took a few minutes to drive to the waiting helo, the pilot leaning against it when I pulled up. I recognized him as the pilot that had plucked me out of the Mississippi and participated in the dogfight with the Russian helicopters. He was twenty years older than me, if he was a day, but still looked in good shape. Tall and thin with a full head of iron grey hair; he was dressed in cowboy boots, jeans and a white T-shirt, wearing mirrored aviator sunglasses. If the guy hadn’t been on a recruiting poster when he was younger, he should have been.
“Major,” he stepped forward and stuck his hand out. “Tom LaPaige.”
I shook his hand and followed him around to the far side of the Black Hawk. He introduced me to an Air Force Staff Sergeant who would be coming along to man the door mounted minigun. Meet and greet out of the way, we all climbed on board. There wasn’t a co-pilot available so I settled into the right hand seat, strapping in as Tom hit the starters for the two engines. They spooled up quickly and as I got my helmet and settled in place he scanned the instrument panel to make sure everything looked good. A minute later, satisfied with what he was seeing, we lifted off.
Tom was a retired Army CWO4, or Chief Warrant Officer 4. A warrant officer is the typical rank for Army pilots. The Army wants them to be officers, but doesn’t want them burdened with the administrative duties of say a Captain or Major who commands a lot of soldiers. A warrant officer is typically only in command of his aircraft and whatever crew is assigned to it. Actually, a pretty sweet deal. The pay and benefits of officer rank with only a fraction of the crap that comes along with management.
He had learned to fly his father’s helicopter in the oil fields of west Texas when he was growing up, volunteering for the Army as the US was just starting to escalate its involvement in Viet Nam. By the time the war was in full swing in the late 60s, he was flying 20 medevac missions a day. He did that for two years before rotating back home and training new pilots. I wasn’t surprised at the amount of combat flights he’d made. The way he’d flown when we fought the Russians had told me this was a guy who had been there and done that.
We talked for the first hour of the flight, then ran out of things to say as we kept making our way east. Tom followed Interstate 40 and we flew at 1,500 feet. High enough to let us have a great view for miles in every direction, low enough to see details that we might want to investigate. We flew slow, cruising at about 100 knots, and I had too much time to think.
Captain Blanchard had told me that Jackson, Rachel and Dog had gone to help with loading evacuees onto the train when they had to move because of approaching storms. They had then gone into town, West Memphis, for reasons he didn’t know. The last communication he’d had with them was when Jackson called to say he was coming back with a total of three souls and was ten minutes away.
They hadn’t been able to wait. A massive storm was bearing down directly on the area and they had to get the civilians and all the aircraft out of its path. Jackson was supposed to drive to Little Rock where the Colonel had ordered a Black Hawk to wait for them at Little Rock Air Force Base, but they never showed up. That was all that was known about their fate.
I was heartened by the news that Rachel and Dog had been found both alive and well. Part of me had been preparing for them never being found, or worse, being found dead. In the last calm moment we’d had together, Rachel had professed her love to me, asking if I felt the same. My head started going down the path of exploring my feelings for her, but I quickly shut that down. The last thing I needed right now was emotions clouding my decision-making. I just wanted her and Dog safe, then I’d worry about what I was or wasn’t feeling.
It’s about 300 air miles from Oklahoma City to Little Rock, and we covered that in just over four hours. There had been numerous vehicles we’d slowed to check out. Vehicles that were either moving along the freeway or showing some indication of life. Whenever we’d see one, Tom would swing wide to the side, drop to 100 feet and roar past to give us a good look.
We saw frightened families crammed into cars and trucks, couples ranging from teenagers to elderly, and the occasional single traveler. All were heading west to the supposed safety of Oklahoma. None of them were a large, black soldier traveling with a pretty woman and a dog. Lacking a photo, that was the description of our search target I’d given to Tom and the door gunner.
When we reached Little Rock, Tom contacted the base on the radio and received permission to approach and land. We were carrying external fuel tanks, but he wanted to top us off to maximize our time in the air. Our expectation was that if Jackson, Rachel and Dog were alive, we’d find them somewhere between Little Rock and the Mississippi River. We knew they hadn’t made it as far west as Little Rock. If they had, there was no doubt Jackson would have gone straight to the base and from there would have found a way to contact the Colonel. And that call had never been made.
While Tom oversaw the refueling, I wandered off in search of a latrine. That’s the Army term for a restroom. Right off I couldn’t remember if the Air Force had felt it necessary to change that as well. Regardless, when I found it, I must say it was the nicest, cleanest, shiniest latrine I’ve ever been in. One thing about the Air Force, they live in luxury compared to the rest of the services. I still harbor resentment for time I spent in Panama.
My entire company was housed in tents at the bottom of a large hill. Being at the bottom of a hill means you damn near get washed away every afternoon when it rains. You live in mud, mosquitoes and whatever shit trickles down from above. At the top of the hill sat a large, modern brick building, complete with running water and air conditioning. This was where the Air Force was housed. Every night we’d go to sleep hearing their AC units humming away and boom boxes blasting. If one of them had been dumb enough to wander down the hill I doubt he would ever have been seen again.
Needs taken care of, I headed back to the Black Hawk and kept an eye on the ground crew while Tom and the door gunner took their turn. While I waited, I spread out a map of the area. West Memphis was 133 air miles east of us. The terrain was so flat and the freeway so straight it was only 142 road miles. There were two other helos out searching, one to the north of I-40, the other south. I didn’t see Jackson leaving the Interstate without a compelling reason, but I was still trying to figure out why the hell they’d gone into town in the first place.
“That is the fucking cleanest, fanciest, five-star shitter I’ve ever had the pleasure of smelling up.” Tom said when he walked up. “Knew I joined the wrong goddamn service.”
“Hell, I hear they have some openings. Maybe you should re-up and try life as a wing wiper.” I said with a grin, not looking away from the map.
“Fuck that. I can’t drink tea with my little bitty pinkie sticking out.” He said, moving in next to me to see the map. “So, what’s the plan?”
“We know they went into West Memphis. First stop is town. A couple of days ago there were still three cops left alive and working. I want to find them and see if they know anything. We’ll follow the Interstate and keep checking vehicles. After that… let’s see what we find out when we get there.”
By now our door gunner was back and we mounted up. Tom had us in the air a few minutes later and we picked up I-40 and resumed our eastward path. A few miles to the north a blot of greasy, black smoke stained the sky and I asked Tom to take us closer. As we flew over I could see heavy equipment carving deep trenches out of the ground. A few hundred yards to the west was another, larger excavation which was where the smoke was coming from.
Tom went into a hover, positioning us in clear air with an unobstructed view into the pit. At first it looked like deep piles of tree limbs were being burned and I couldn’t understand why they were doing that. Then I made out more of the flaming shapes and realized it was human bodies. Thousands of human bodies.
“Christ on a cross!” Tom breathed. “What the hell are they doing?”
“Infected.” I answered. “Probably the best thing to do with the bodies.”
A small group of figures dressed head to toe in white, bio-hazard suits was standing at the edge of the pit watching the fire consume the dead. One of them held what had to be a bible and looked to be praying over the departed.
“Let’s go.” I said, snapping Tom back to the mission at hand. He nodded and spun us around to head back to I-40.