Frantically pulling on a headset I shouted into the mic the moment it was on my head.
“Martinez, talk to me.”
“Tail rotor damage.” She answered, strain apparent in her voice. “I’m barely keeping us in the air. We don’t have long.”
“Get a call out while we’re airborne.” I said. “The Marines should be getting close to Midland. They can come get us if you can get some space from this herd.”
She didn’t answer, but I was confident she was on top of things. I also had no doubt that she needed every bit of concentration to keep us in the air. Checking on the infected, I looked back out the door and was dismayed to see we were still flying over the herd. Leaning out I made sure Igor and Irina were still hanging on. They were, and I didn’t worry too much about them. Igor seemed very protective of his Captain, and I suspected he would hold on as long as there was an ounce of life in his body.
We cleared the edge of the herd a minute later, but it seemed like we were losing altitude. The shaking was growing worse and a high pitched roar from the tail section had started up. Leaning back out the door I looked behind and estimated we were about two miles from them. Not nearly far enough with the speed and endurance of the females. They’d run us down within an hour, even with a two mile head start.
Another few minutes of flying and it felt like the helicopter was going to shake itself apart and us with it. Rachel had squeezed herself into a corner, Dog wrapped in her arms and sitting in her lap. A quick check to verify our Russians were still with us and I spoke to Martinez.
“Did you reach the Marines? I asked.
“Two and a half hours away, best case.” She said through clenched teeth.
“How much longer can you keep us in the air?”
“You want to land, we’re out of time. Crash, maybe two minutes if we’re lucky.” She gasped.
“Put us down.” I ordered. “And don’t forget our passengers hanging around below us.”
We immediately began losing altitude, faster than I liked, but I was sure Martinez was doing everything she could. Our speed came off until we were barely moving as we descended. Realizing what she was doing I leaned out the door and watched. As we continued down, the end of the line brushed the ground, more of it quickly coming into contact with the desert floor and being dragged through the sand.
I could see Igor tighten his big arm around Irina and lift her out of the loop she was standing in. Damn that guy was strong. Timing it just right, he dropped her when they were only a couple of feet off the ground. She hit and tumbled across the ground, Igor jumping a moment later and rolling to a stop next to her.
“Clear!” I shouted on the headset and Martinez brought us the rest of the way down to the ground.
To say it was a good landing would be kind. But then I’ve always heard pilots say that any landing you walk away from was a good landing. I guess I can’t really argue with that, but we hit hard. Bone jarring, teeth clacking, spine compressing hard. Disconnecting my tether I grabbed Dog from Rachel and pushed him out the door. Unhooking her I pushed her too before sticking my head into the cockpit to make sure Martinez and the co-pilot were OK.
They had already shut down the engines and had their doors open, ready to get out. I didn’t waste another moment, following Rachel and Dog out the side door. Irina and Igor ran up and I turned as the two pilots joined us.
“How far from the herd?” I asked Martinez.
“Just over four miles. You think they’ll follow?”
“Some of them are. I was watching. There’s a lot of them going on to the battle site, but the whole edge on this side started peeling off and following when we flew over. We were loud as a washing machine and really got their attention.” I checked my watch. “The first females can be here in way less than an hour. We’ve got to move and hope the Marines don’t stop for a beer.”
We spent two minutes gathering supplies and equipment from the helicopter and distributing it so that everyone was equally loaded. Then I squatted down over the backpack that Igor had rescued from the windmill. Pulling the flap open I checked the serial number and pulled out the correct key. Energizing the unit I paused.
How long did I set it for? How soon would the leading edge of infected be here? And how many of them? I didn’t want it going off too soon and only killing a handful of the fastest females. On the other hand I didn’t want it going off too late with thousands of them already past it and hot on our trail. For that matter, I wasn’t even sure we had anything to worry about.
By the time the infected arrived we should be at least a couple of miles away. Why was I worrying about them following us when we had enough space between us that they couldn’t possibly know where we went? “Because you plan for the worst and hope for the best, dumb ass.” Was the answer that went through my head.
Making my decision, I set the yield to max, or one kiloton, and the timer to 45 minutes. I had also debated what yield to use, racking my brain to remember the training I’d received. A 1 KT, or one kiloton, nuclear detonation is equivalent in force to 1,000 tons of TNT. A ground level blast would create a lethal shockwave out to a radius of 500 meters. The fireball, which burns at one million degrees Fahrenheit, is lethal up to six tenths of a mile. Then there’s the initial pulse of radiation as well as secondary fallout.
The initial pulse would be lethal at a radius of half a mile, even though it would take a few agonizing hours for you to die. Secondary fallout at three and a half miles, but this time several painful days of skin, hair and teeth falling off your body as your organs shut down before you finally succumbed. Bearing in mind that all of these were minimums, and hoping that I was remembering accurately, it was time to haul ass. I wanted to be at least four miles away when the damn thing detonated. Nuke ready to go I lifted it up and set it inside the Stealth Hawk. Then we ran.
Igor and I may not have spoken the same language, but we were both soldiers and understood the concept of fast movement with a small group. I took point and set the pace, Igor taking rear guard. Dog ran next to me, though to be fair he trotted. I can’t move fast enough to make Dog actually run. Rachel tucked in behind us with Irina, Martinez and her co-pilot filling in the middle.
It was my job to make sure we were moving fast enough to reach all of the minimum safe distances when the SADM detonated. It was Igor’s job to make sure no one fell behind. He would poke, prod or kick ass as needed. Oh, and we also had to keep our heads on a swivel for any infected. Assuming that the only infected in the area were in the herd would be foolish and potentially suicidal.
I started us off fast. Before the attacks I spent a lot of time in the gym, lifting weights and running on a treadmill. Normally I’d start out with my first two miles at six miles an hour, then play with the speed after that to break up the monotony. My body was still familiar with that routine and I settled into what I was confident was a six mile per hour pace. After five minutes I checked over my shoulder. Irina and the co-pilot were already showing signs of distress. Martinez looked as relaxed as always and Rachel gave me a smile.
Turning back to the front, I scanned our surroundings as I ran. Sand, rocks and cactus were all I saw other than an occasional coyote. Dog either saw or smelled his four legged cousins, growling as he trotted along at my heels. I was glad he didn’t decide it was a good idea to engage the animals. The last thing I needed was to have to go chasing after him.
15 minutes, or a mile and a half, into our run I stopped when there was the sound of a body falling behind me. Irina had tripped and gone down. Not seeing anything other than smooth, hard sand, I imagined she was already at the limit of her endurance. Igor stepped forward and helped her to her feet. I raised the NVGs and looked at her face. She had already reached her limit.
I met Igor’s eyes and he nodded, shrugging his pack off and handing it to me. My pack was still at the site of the ambush where I’d dropped it to set up Martinez’ attack, so I slipped his over my shoulders. Igor stooped, pressed his back against Irina and grabbed her legs before straightening up with her in a piggyback carry. He bounced her a couple of times to make sure he had a solid grip then nodded he was ready to start running again.
I was starting to turn back to run when there was a brilliant flash of light on the horizon behind us. It was the SADM Igor had armed and left at the site of the ambush. Hopefully several hundred thousand infected had pushed into the area looking for the source of the noise and had just been atomized by the blast. We stood rooted in place, watching for a few moments as the incredibly hot fireball boiled skyward and created a mushroom cloud. Rachel came to stand next to me and took my hand in hers.
“It’s getting old watching nukes go off with you.” She whispered, eyes glued to the specter in the distance.
I squeezed her hand, but didn’t know what to say. Settling for putting more distance between the second bomb, and us, I got everyone running again. This time I moderated the pace a bit in deference to Igor’s burden, and moved Martinez to run with him to make sure there was a sharp set of eyes watching our rear that didn’t have a 110 pound woman as cargo.
Another twenty minutes of running and I brought us to a halt with a raised hand. Ahead, at the limit of the NVGs range, I could see movement. It was too far away for the goggles to resolve what it was, but I didn’t expect anything moving in the desert tonight to be friendly.
We were now three miles from the second bomb, and other than secondary radiation we were clear of any danger it presented. There was a breeze blowing, as there always is in west Texas, and it was at our backs. That meant the fallout from the first bomb, as well as the one yet to detonate, was coming towards us. Signaling everyone to take a rest, I moved to the back of the group and whispered to Irina what was going on so she could fill in Igor. We needed to move, to keep opening the distance.
Getting us moving again, I kept us at a walking pace this time. We needed to run, to get farther away from the bombs, but we also needed to maintain some sound discipline so we didn’t alert whatever was moving ahead of us in the dark to our presence. Our scent would most likely do that as the breeze was blowing directly across us in that direction.
I was keeping half an eye on my watch as we walked and at the right time stopped and had everyone lie down, cautioning them not to look to our rear until after the detonation. Lying down didn’t have anything to do with direct danger posed by the bomb. When it went off it would light up the entire horizon, drawing the attention of everything for miles around. We were between the movement I’d seen and the bomb, and I didn’t want us silhouetted by the fireball when whatever was out there looked in that direction.
30 seconds after I got everyone on the ground, the bomb detonated. This one was much closer than the last one, and I felt and heard the explosion. The flash lit up the desert like noon, and the fireball cast a glow like the fires of hell across the landscape as it climbed into the night sky. The extra light was compensated for and utilized by the NVGs and I was finally able to clearly see what the movement was. More infected. Thousands of them, perhaps tens of thousands. And when the bomb went off they all turned and started coming in our direction.