We ran for another 20 minutes. There were a lot of males moving slowly across the desert, and rather than try to dodge around them I opted for putting them down. I shot the first half dozen we encountered, then decided it might not be a bad idea to conserve my ammo. Switching to the Kukri I slashed and stabbed as I ran past them.
The two bombs were now far enough behind us that I was cautiously optimistic any fallout would drop to the ground behind us. It helped that the wind had shifted and was now blowing directly in my face, then I started worrying that it would carry our scent to the herd. Males weren’t a concern. As long as we could keep moving, they couldn’t catch us. But the females were another story. I called a halt and turned to look back to the west.
Other than males we had passed that had turned to pursue, I didn’t see any movement, but that didn’t comfort me. Night vision is not designed or intended to help you see long distances. It amplifies the available light to a level useful to the human eye. Typically, don’t expect it to benefit you at any range greater than 100 yards unless you’re looking at a large object or there’s a decent amount of moonlight to help out. A useful reminder is that if you couldn’t see something at noon, you won’t see it with night vision.
Glad there wasn’t a whole scrimmage line of females about to pounce on us, I turned back to the front and started running again. Dog was at my side, where he’d been the whole run, and he suddenly came to a stop. I pulled up a couple of steps past him, raising my fist to tell the group behind me to freeze in place. The fur along Dog’s back was standing straight up as he lifted his nose and tested the breeze.
Turning my head back to the front I made a slow scan of the area, seeing nothing other than a few males at least 75 yards away. He wouldn’t have stopped for them. We’d been running by males for a while, and they hadn’t interested him as he knew I would take care of them. Something else had caught his attention, and he didn’t like what he smelled.
A shout from behind snapped my head around, and I froze for half a second when I didn’t understand what I was seeing. The Stealth Hawk co-pilot was frantically trying to walk backwards. It looked like his right foot was caught by something on the desert floor. He yelled again and fell backwards as a male that had an iron grip on his ankle emerged from the sand and started crawling up his body. Igor was closer and stepped forward to kill the infected, tripping and falling to his face when another buried male grabbed his foot.
“They’re under the sand!” I yelled to the group, dashing in to help.
I reached the male attacking the co-pilot first, hearing Martinez start cursing in Spanish as I shot the infected in the head. Spinning to help Igor, I moved on when I saw the dead infected and a bloody knife in his hand. Two of them had come up on either side of Martinez and she had already killed one of them when I looked in her direction. The second one fell quickly when she stabbed into his eye with her dagger.
For the moment, no more infected were reaching up from under the ground to pull us down. Dog still stood where he’d stopped, looking to our front and growling. I made another scan of the area and didn’t see anything, but then I wouldn’t if there were more that had buried themselves. Why the hell did they do that? I could understand females being that smart, but males? Another thing to think about when I had time.
Dog hadn’t detected the handful that we had just killed. That bothered me a little. But he was detecting something that had him spooked, and that bothered me a lot. I didn’t know if we were facing a much larger concentration of infected, or if there was some new threat ahead that I couldn’t see.
“That’s new.” Rachel spoke quietly. She had moved up to stand next to me and look at Dog. “What do you think’s ahead that’s got him upset? More razorbacks?”
“Not in this part of the state. Too dry. I don’t know, he didn’t even twitch at these.” I said, gesturing at the bodies lying on the ground behind us. “Maybe there’s a whole bunch of them buried in the sand and this is just the outer edge. Or maybe there are females ahead. I’m trying to remember if he’s ever reacted differently to males or females. I don’t think so.”
Rachel thought about that for a moment. “Not that I can remember, but maybe. Maybe we weren’t paying close enough attention to notice. What are we going to do?”
I looked at my watch. The Marines were still an hour out. Ideally I’d have liked to find a defensible position to set up in and wait for them, but there weren’t any close. We had moved into an area that I didn’t know. Maybe there were some hills or rocks ahead that we could use. Maybe not. All I was certain of was that there was something ahead that wasn’t to the liking of a bad ass, 100 pound German Shepherd.
That final thought convinced me we needed to change direction. Looking around I still didn’t see any females in pursuit. That was good. We’d turn and go due north, unless Dog warned of something in that direction as well. Calling him I started walking that way. He fell in beside me, Rachel moving to walk on my left. As we continued on, Dog kept looking to his right and growling, but no matter how many times I checked I couldn’t see anything.
We walked for about half a mile, Dog still growling at what I was starting to think were phantoms, when Rachel touched my arm and pointed off to our left. Several large rocks sat on the flat desert, looking like some giant had been playing with them and just tossed them there when he was done. There was a little light from the moon to help the NVGs and I guessed they were about 300 yards away.
As we were looking at the rocks, Dog came to a stop again. Looking in our direction of travel, he growled loud and deep, then took a step back. Since I’d know Dog, I’d never seen him take a step back from anything. Looking to our front I had my rifle up, scanning, but still couldn’t see what had him worried. I couldn’t imagine him responding to infected like this. He hadn’t been afraid to meet a razorback head on. What the hell could actually scare him?
Deciding discretion was the better part of valor, which means if Dog was scared I was smart enough to pay attention, I motioned to my left and got the group moving towards the rocks. Signing for Igor to take point, I held my ground with Dog and Rachel at my side. When they had moved a dozen yards I sent Rachel after them, Dog and I following.
I had hoped that as we moved in the new direction whatever was concerning Dog would lessen, but as he walked he kept looking over his shoulder and growling. Were we being pursued? Not by anything I could see, and I was looking as hard as I could. Part of me hoped I’d spot the threat, another part was perfectly happy to stay ignorant of whatever could spook Dog.
We’d covered about half the distance to the rocks when Dog came to a stop and turned to face behind us. His legs were spread, head below shoulder level with teeth showing as he growled. My rifle was up, scanning for anything, but for as far as my NVGs could see there was nothing moving. I flashed back to one of my favorite, campy monster movies, Tremors, and almost laughed at myself for thinking there were monsters tunneling through the sand to come eat us.
Then my NVGs started having problems. I reached up and slapped them, but the distortion across the horizon didn’t go away. Powering them off and on, I wasn’t happy to see the problem was still there. The sky was slightly lighter than the ground, and whatever was wrong with them made the night sky along the horizon ripple and shimmer.
“What the hell is that?” Rachel asked. She had stopped and come back to join Dog and I when we’d stopped.
“You see it too?” I asked, suddenly very concerned. It wasn’t the NVGs malfunctioning. “I thought my goggles were damaged.”
“If you’re talking about what looks like the sky warping, yes I see it. What the hell is it?” Rachel sounded frightened. I didn’t blame her.
“I got no idea, but I think we’d better get to those rocks as fast as we can.” I said, grabbing Rachel’s arm and sprinting after the group. Dog fell in beside us and soon we caught the rest of the group. I urged them to a sprint, and no one bothered to question why. They just ran.
We reached the first rock in what had to be record time. Rachel and I were spooked and had run like the minions of hell were at our heels. That had gotten everyone else running as hard as they could. There were actually quite a few large rocks, some as short as a couple of feet, other soaring thirty or more feet into the air. I glanced over my shoulder and still saw the odd distortion. And it looked like it was getting closer.
I clambered up onto the smallest rock, careful not to slip and fall onto the small stones that littered the ground at its base. The rock I stood on was butted up against one of the very tall ones, and as I peered around its curve I could just make out a narrow gap between it and two other very large monoliths. Another glance at whatever was approaching and my mind was made up.
I called Dog and he leapt onto the rock, paws slipping until I reached out and grabbed him by the scruff of his neck and hauled him the rest of the way up. Pointing where I wanted him to go, I turned back to help Irina as he jumped down into the gap. It took almost a minute to get everyone over the smaller rock and into the gap, Igor and I backing in behind them with our rifles to our shoulders. I checked on the group and was glad to see Rachel and Martinez with rifles aimed up at the top of the opening to defend against anything attacking from above.
“What fuck?” Igor mumbled in my ear in his guttural Russian accent.
I shrugged my shoulders. I didn’t have a clue what the hell it was, and trying to explain to him that I was deferring to Dog’s warning would be about impossible unless I called on Irina to translate. Right now we didn’t need the distraction. We needed to be focused on defending against whatever was coming.
Standing very still, I listened, expecting to hear running feat and snarls any moment. I had about convinced myself that the distortion I’d seen was a dust cloud thrown up by the running feet of thousands of females. If that was the case, and they saw us hide in the rocks, we were screwed. There was no way we could hold off that many. They’d just keep attacking and piling into the opening until we ran out of ammo, then the feast would begin.
Rachel came up behind me and placed her hand on my shoulder. I turned my head and she leaned in and kissed me on the cheek, as if saying goodbye. The kiss lingered a moment, then she went back to stand next to Martinez and resume her watch of the tops of the rocks. OK, so I wasn’t the only one having grim thoughts.
The first indication of their approach was a low thrum coupled with a leathery scraping sound. At first it was just at the threshold of hearing, but quickly grew louder. Dog was growling steadily and I heard Irina call him. A moment later he went quiet and I glanced back to see her on her knees with her arms circled around his neck and face buried in his fur.
The noise steadily increased, never to a level one could say was loud, but certainly of sufficient volume to draw your attention. A few seconds later the sky above us, even with the NVGs, went dark as it was blotted out. What the hell? I stared through my goggles, but couldn’t tell what was over our heads. I started to reach for the flashlight mounted on my rifle, but Igor’s big hand covered mine before I could turn it on.
I looked at him and he shook his head, mouthing something in Russian that I didn’t stand a chance in hell of understanding. Regardless, I had been about to make a foolish mistake and was glad he had stopped me. Looking back up I could see that the cloud had lowered. I was able to tell that it was made of what had to be tens of thousands of bodies, suddenly realizing it must be birds. Then some of the bodies broke away momentarily and flew around the top edges of the rocks. Bats.
Millions of small bats. This whole area of the country is riddled with small caves and massive caverns, and it’s about impossible to find one that isn’t hosting at least a few thousand bats. But this many together at once? I’d never seen nor heard of that. Had the virus jumped to them too?
Bats navigate and hunt using echolocation. They produce a very high pitched sound, above the range of human hearing but within range for a dog, that bounces off of all the objects around them and lets them paint a mental picture of their surroundings. Hopefully, we just appeared to be some smaller rocks to them. Thankfully, Igor had stopped me from turning on my flashlight. Bats may not have great vision, but they would certainly have seen the light.
It was a very long five minutes before the last of them passed over us, the sound slowly fading as they flew farther and farther away. When I could no longer hear them I eased out a breath. Everyone else was looking around, a mix of frightened and shocked expressions on their faces.