We were following I-40 again, nobody in a talkative mood after witnessing the communal funeral pyre outside Little Rock. Each of us was lost in our own thoughts as we flew. I was scanning through 180 degrees to our front, my head on a constant swivel. Other than a very occasional car fleeing to the west, nothing moved. There weren’t even any birds flying below us.
The thought occurred to me that maybe the virus had jumped from humans to birds. Why couldn’t it? How many times had there been bird flu scares over the past several years? Obviously that virus could mutate and infect humans. I wasn’t a scientist but I was pretty sure the eggheads that were working on this had already thought to check. Even so, I made a mental note to ask the question. All I needed was a bunch of enraged ravens attacking when I least expected it. And I wasn’t talking about the football team from Baltimore.
I dismissed the thought, not sure whether to chuckle or get really concerned. Maintaining my scan, I let my mind drift, and it went right where I didn’t want it to go. Rachel. OK, fuck it. Time to deal with this. I missed her. Very much. With a start, I realized that maybe it was more than just missing her. Something was missing without her around. The same thing that was missing when Katie wasn’t around. Then why was I out looking for Rachel instead of heading for Arizona?
Because I didn’t have a clue where to start looking for Katie when I got there. The only shred of evidence I even had that she might still be alive was my truck missing out of the garage of our burned out house. But, so what? It could be missing for a hundred reasons. If one of those happened to be that she had taken it and escaped, then where had she gone? It had been over a month since the attacks by the Chinese. In that amount of time, she could be anywhere.
A thousand miles to the south, safe on a white, sandy beach in Mexico. She could be holed up in a cabin somewhere in the Arizona mountains, or could have headed north into Montana or Canada. Hell, enough time had gone by that she could be almost anywhere in the world by now. And as I thought about it, I remembered that three doors down the street lived a retired airline pilot that had his own twin-engine plane. If Katie had gone with him, she could truly be anywhere in the world.
Was I making excuses? Justifying my decisions? No. I was just trying to analyze what I knew. If she was even alive, my wife could be anywhere on the planet and I didn’t have the first clue where to even start looking for her. On the other hand, Rachel had been alive less than 24 hours ago, and I had a very good idea where to start looking for her. That didn’t mean Rachel meant more to me than Katie. It just meant I had a reasonable chance of finding and saving one of them.
Sitting there, looking out the Black Hawk’s windshield, my heart ached. It ached deep and hard. For Katie, and for Rachel. I made a conscious effort to not hit something in my frustration, clenching my fists tightly in my lap. Hitting things inside the cockpit of an aircraft in flight is generally not a good idea.
“You OK?” Tom asked over the intercom. I glanced over and noticed him looking at my fists.
“Fine.” I answered, forcing my hands to relax and making myself think about anything other than the two women I cared about.
“Good. Don’t need you losing it up here.” He said, then pointed out the windshield to the east. “Another car coming.”
Spotting it, I nodded. Tom followed his normal pattern and swung us off to the side and descended. Turning when we reached 100 feet he flew by the car that was speeding west. It was an old Oldsmobile station wagon, originally blue but now mostly rust. Three small, white ovals stared out of the back windows. Children looking up at us. A man and woman were in the front seat. He wasn’t Jackson and she wasn’t Rachel. Tom didn’t need to be told the vehicle was a negative. He climbed back to our previous altitude and got us back on our heading.
We had only been flying for another few minutes when an alarm started sounding, accompanied by two red lights on the instrument panel. Tom reached forward and silenced the alarm and cycled the power to the warning lights. They blinked out, were dark for a couple of moments, then one after the other started flashing red again. He thumped an analog gauge a couple of times, but the needle was in the red and didn’t move.
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
“Over temp warning from the rotor shaft. Lots of false alarms in these things. We’ll just see what happens.” He answered, but didn’t sound as confident as I would have liked.
When Rachel and I were fleeing from Atlanta we’d encountered a downed Air Force flight crew and their crashed Pave Hawk helicopter. I was almost sure they’d told me that there had been an over temp warning from their rotor shaft that the pilot had ignored. Then they’d crashed.
“Put us down, now. Let’s check it.” I said. Tom looked over at me to protest, but saw something in my eyes that made him bite back his words and start descending.
He landed on the eastbound lanes of I-40 a minute later, the big rotor spinning down as we unbuckled and got out. The door gunner was still strapped in and I told him to grab a rifle and get out to keep watch while we were on the ground. Tom was already climbing up the outside of the helicopter to reach the rotor shaft maintenance access panel. While he worked, I circled the area, making sure there weren’t any infected about to crash our party.
“Told you!” Tom shouted a moment later. I looked over my shoulder to see him holding up a part of the helicopter that was connected to a thin electrical cable.
“You could show me that all day and I still wouldn’t know what it is.” I shouted back.
“It’s the primary temperature sensor for the shaft housing. It came lose and was lying next to where the exhaust pipe is routed. It was reading the heat from the exhaust, not a hot rotor shaft.” He said, turning back to presumably return the sensor to its correct location.
He never completed the turn. The smooth, leather soles of the cowboy boots he was wearing slipped as he shifted his weight. A Black Hawk has shallow foot and handholds made into its surface, but they weren’t intended for maintenance crews wearing shoes with slick soles. When Tom’s foot slipped his hands weren’t gripping anything other than the temperature sensor, and he fell, his other foot’s purchase causing his body to rotate. He hit the pavement head first, and from 40 feet away I heard his neck break. I rushed to him, but knew he was dead before I touched the body.
The door gunner ran up behind me and looked down. “Oh my God! Please tell me you know how to fly this thing, sir.”
“No such luck.” I replied. “Keep an eye out. I’ll see if I can raise anyone on the radio.”
Leaving Tom where he lay, I climbed into the Black Hawk’s cockpit and slipped on a headset. The radio was still set to the frequency that had been dialed in when he contacted the Little Rock air controller, and I wasn’t surprised when I couldn’t get a response. The radio antennae in aircraft are designed and located to optimize the ability to reach other radios at a lower altitude, or at best, the same altitude. With the helicopter sitting on the ground, I didn’t expect our signal was getting out very far.
Switching to the guard channel, reserved for military emergencies, I tried again. I hoped I would have success in reaching one of the other Black Hawks that was searching for my missing friends, but again I only received silence in response to my hails. Checking to make sure the Sergeant was watching the surrounding terrain for any approaching threats, I powered up the internal navigation systems to find out where we were.
It only took a few seconds for the system to lock onto enough GPS satellites to accurately pinpoint the spot where I was sitting. Being an aviation system it didn’t show roads and cities, but did show major geographic features as well as both military and civilian airports. Little Rock Air Force Base was 115 miles to the west. West Memphis airport was 18 miles to the east. Powering the Black Hawk completely down, I climbed out and buttoned up the aircraft as tightly as possible.
“Looks like we’re walking.” I said to the Sergeant as I moved to stand next to him. I couldn’t remember his name and took the opportunity to glance at the tape on his uniform. Gabbert.
“Where are we going, sir?” He looked and sounded frightened. I reminded myself that he was just a regular Air Force Staff Sergeant. His world had been inside aircraft up to this point, and being on foot in hostile territory was probably terrifying for him. I’d give him a little latitude so I didn’t wind up with a basket case on my hands.
“West Memphis.” I said, pointing east down the perfectly straight blacktop. “Little Rock is 115 miles behind us. There’s still a few civilians in West Memphis, plus there will be plenty of abandoned vehicles for us to choose from.”
“How far is it?” He asked, swallowing nervously.
“A little over 10 miles. Not far. We should be there well before dark.” I smiled, trying to exhibit some confidence for the man to pick up on, but I didn’t think it worked.
We started walking, leaving Tom’s body where it was. There wasn’t anything else I could do with it. Putting it inside the helicopter would have prevented scavengers from feeding on it, but would also have made a hell of a mess as it started decomposing. I didn’t have an entrenching tool – small folding shovel – with me, so digging a grave wasn’t an option either. So I regretfully decided to leave him where he was and try to get to West Memphis so I could do something to help those of us that were still alive.