When I woke up my head felt like a field artillery unit had set up shop right behind my eyes and was determined to fire off every single shell in their possession. I was lying on my back and started to sit up, but a strong hand pushed on my chest and kept me horizontal. A weak, red lensed flashlight came on and I was relieved to see Igor’s ugly mug looking down at me. Rachel leaned in, gave me a smile, brushed my cheek with the back of her hand and the light turned off.
“How are you feeling?” She asked from the darkness.
“Like shit.” I said. “How do I look?”
“Worse.” She quipped. “Just lay still for a bit. At the moment we’re OK. Martinez just talked to the Marines on the radio and they’re a little less than half an hour away.”
“The infected?” I asked.
“All dead. We finished off the females without you.” I heard a snuffling and a second later a wet nose rubbed across my face. Dog gave me a thorough sniffing before lying down with his muzzle inches from the side of my face.
“He hasn’t left your side.” Rachel said. I slowly raised a hand and rubbed Dog’s head, then let it fall. That had been all the energy I had.
“What happened?” I asked.
“Irina shot you.” I heard Martinez’ voice. Shot? A surge of adrenaline hit and I tried to sit up again, this time Igor helping instead of stopping me.
“What the…” That was as far as I got before the dizziness and nausea struck like a Mack truck. I fought it as long as I could, but finally gave up and pitched to the side and threw up. I hadn’t eaten in a while, so it was a little bit of water, then the dry heaves. My body didn’t care that there wasn’t anything in my stomach to purge, it was determined to try.
When the worst of it passed, I straightened back up and Rachel placed a cool hand on my forehead. My head pounded bad enough that it felt like it was going to split open, but I’d experienced the worst of the sickness. Other than a splitting headache I seemed to feel OK. At least I was moving and talking.
“What the hell happened?” I asked, again, checking myself over for bullet holes and happily not finding any.
“A female was on top of you and Irina shot it in the head trying to help you. The bullet went through the infected’s head and creased your temple. Knocked you out. You’ve got a nice, deep crease along the side of your head. An inch to the side and you wouldn’t be here.” Rachel said. That bullet had really rung my bell. I couldn’t remember anything that Rachel was telling me.
I reached up to my pounding skull and my fingers touched a thick gauze pad taped to the right side of my face. Now that I knew where the worst injury was, I could feel the burning pain from the furrow the bullet had carved in my flesh. I looked up when Irina knelt down in front of me.
“I’m so sorry,” She said. “I thought I’d killed you.” Even in the weak moonlight I could see a large swelling around her left eye.
“What happened to you?” I asked. She glanced around, not answering at first.
“I might have hit her.” Rachel finally spoke up. She didn’t sound one bit sorry.
I looked at Rachel, then back at Irina. The whole side of Irina’s face was swollen, and the skin was already changing color. It looked black in the night, but I’d had a few of those bruises and knew it would be an angry shade of purple in the light. Neither woman said anything else and I met Igor’s eyes. He shrugged his shoulders and turned away with a grin on his face.
“Sorry I missed that,” I mumbled to myself, raising a canteen and taking a cautious sip of water. The water was tepid, but I could feel coolness all the way to my stomach as I swallowed.
“Want some aspirin?” Rachel asked, digging through the med kit in her pack then holding out a small, clear plastic bottle. I took it, popped the lid and dumped several into my hand. Washing them down with some more water I hoped my stomach wouldn’t rebel when the pills started dissolving.
“What happened to the people the infected were attacking?” I was starting to think a little clearer, suddenly remembering why we had left the safety of the rocks to fight the females.
“All dead.” Martinez answered. “They ran out of ammo before all the females were put down. And, don’t know if it matters, but they were part of a drug cartel from Juarez. I recognized their tattoos.”
I thought about that for a couple of moments. On reflection, it didn’t really surprise me that cartel soldiers had survived this long. They would have been heavily armed and had access to fortified locations in which to hide. There was no doubt they knew how to shoot. But what the hell were they doing out here in the middle of the desert?
“Movement to the south.” This was Evans, the co-pilot, who had been keeping an eye out with a pair of NVGs. My pair, I realized when I reached up and they weren’t on my head.
Irina said something to Igor and he rose up on his knees and looked. He adjusted something that I assumed was a magnification setting on his Russian made goggles and grunted a reply that Irina translated.
“Four vehicles approaching.” Irina translated. “About a kilometer away.”
“We need to move. Now.” I said, climbing to my feet and bringing my rifle around to check on it. As soon as I stood up the pounding in my head increased tenfold and my knees nearly buckled. I stood there a moment, swaying slightly, and Rachel quickly got up and steadied me.
“Have you checked the vehicles?” I asked, referring to the ones that belonged to the dead drug runners.
“Out of fuel. Probably why they were stopped here.” Martinez answered.
“OK. Let’s get back to the rocks before those vehicles arrive. If they’ve got night vision they’ll probably see us, but at least we’ll be fairly secure until the Marines show up.” I said.
I started to run towards the rocks, but only made it a couple of steps before my head reminded me that I wasn’t one hundred percent. Or even fifty percent for that matter. I stumbled and would have gone down if Martinez hadn’t grabbed my arm. Nodding my thanks I settled for a fast walk, but was apparently still weaving around as Rachel stepped beside me and circled her arm through mine.
“You’ve most likely got one hell of a concussion.” She said.
“Most likely.” I agreed. “I’ll try not to let any more bullets bounce off my skull.”
“No worries there. You’re head’s so thick I don’t think they could do anything except bounce off. But just in case, try to avoid that. Now that I’ve got you, I don’t want to lose you.” Rachel squeezed my arm and I tried to put on some more speed.
“They’ve seen us.” Evans said a couple of minutes later. “The lead truck just changed directions and is coming directly at us.” I looked at the rocks ahead and guessed we were still about two minutes away from the shelter they afforded.
“How far are they?” I asked, pushing myself into a trot.
“Maybe a minute.” He answered. Shit. We weren’t going to make it before they arrived. Not without me able to run.
“Martinez, get everyone in the rocks. Now. Run.” I ordered, trying to push myself faster and nearly falling.
“We’re not leaving you behind.” She said without turning around.
“That’s an order, Captain!” I said as firmly as I could.
Martinez looked over her shoulder at me, and then shook her head. “Sorry, sir. But under the UCMJ, an officer that has sustained an injury or wound to the head and is deemed to be mentally impaired as the result of said wound cannot issue a lawful order.”
“Goddamn it, Martinez…” I started to say, but Rachel leaned her head towards my ear and told me to shut up.
Well, if they weren’t going to listen, then I had to make sure they were safe. Pushing myself into a run I almost collapsed. The pounding in my head returned, a pulse of pain coordinated with each time one of my feet hit the ground. The desert in front of me was undulating, the horizon warping as I struggled forward. I would surely have fallen flat on my face if not for Rachel’s assistance.
I could hear the sound of the engines behind us now, and Igor moved in on the opposite side of me from Rachel and grabbed that arm. Together, they propelled me along at a speed greater than I could achieve at the moment. Dog ran a few yards in front of me, and I just focused on following his bushy tail.
My world had compressed to a dark tunnel. Peripheral vision was gone, and all I could see was Dog’s ass as he led the way. The sound of the approaching vehicles was replaced with a roar that reminded me of the ocean, and my stomach was threatening to spasm and force the water and aspirin back up. I was only vaguely aware of the sound of gunfire from our rear, almost like when you’re dreaming and something is happening that you’re aware of but not involved in.
But, I guess I was involved because Igor released my arm, turned and fired a long burst from his rifle. I was aware that Martinez was also firing to our rear and I thought I should stop and do the same, but the thought didn’t translate to action. I kept running with only Rachel’s support. We were moving slower, but I managed to stay on my feet, and following Dog I somehow managed to maintain a straight line. I think.
Before I knew it we were at the shorter rock that guarded the entrance to the gap, and Rachel scrambled on top of it. I stood looking at her for a moment, then realized she was yelling at me to get Dog. Stooping over, I leaned a shoulder on the rock to keep from falling down, wrapped my arms around Dog’s body and lifted until Rachel could grab his front shoulders and pull him up with her.
I climbed onto the rock, feeling like I was moving through molasses, then Rachel was dragging me and we wound up tumbling off the backside of the boulder and collapsing on the sand. Moving out of the way, I pulled Dog to me as first Irina, then Martinez and finally Igor joined us. Igor immediately rested his rifle across the top of the boulder and began firing at the newly arrived vehicles.
“Where’s Evans?” Rachel asked. Irina turned and shook her head. She didn’t need to say anything else to get the message across.