I made another slow scan of the perimeter of the array then carefully surveyed the field of solar panels itself. Nothing was moving and I didn’t see anything to concern me. We were standing at almost the center of the long edge of the giant rectangle defining the area, so there was no distance advantage to going either right or left.
Going to the right brought us to the far edge of the property and nothing but open prairie. To the left took us closer to the main building of the casino and kept us on asphalt. I opted for the easier path on a smooth surface and signed to Colonel Crawford that we were moving left. Stepping off, I glanced over my shoulder and noted him falling in when I’d opened up about five yards of space.
I’m not one to get easily spooked, but something about this whole situation was making me nervous. Maybe it was the spectral feel to the area, brought about by the faint light of the moon penetrating the broken cloud cover and reflecting off the rain-washed panels in a pale, bluish hue. Maybe it was the thought of all that open, hidden space underneath the panels.
There could literally be thousands of infected hiding under there. It didn’t help my nerves that it was raining. Rain does a great job of creating white noise that will mask a lot of environmental sounds. Sounds such as a female infected sneaking up behind you.
But that was ridiculous. The infected didn’t hide. They attacked. But what about the females? They had shown a level of cunning that I hadn’t seen before when they took Katie and the others. Posting sentries. Cooperating and coordinating their efforts. Why couldn’t they be smart enough to hide and attack at a vulnerable moment?
I’d made the mistake of letting my mind wander too far afield and managed to come up with scenarios that weren’t reality. Or were they? Oh, fuck it! Holding up a clenched fist I signaled for a stop. Carefully I squatted, rifle at my shoulder and eye to the night vision scope. Looking under the closest edge of the panels I began a slow scan.
Trash blowing in a night breeze nearly caused me to pull the trigger, but I stopped myself in time. Continuing to sweep and look, I saw nothing that shouldn’t have been there. Of course there could be some females hiding on the far side and it was too far away for me to see, but there weren’t any imminent threats. Letting out a deep breath I stood up, glanced at Crawford and got us moving again.
It took us most of ten minutes to reach the end of the long side of the rectangle and I adjusted my estimate of the overall size of the array. It was closer to twenty acres. Sure, that’s really not that large, but we were moving slow and careful. It would have been easy, and perhaps satisfying, to stride right along and cover the distance in a couple of minutes. But why not just go ahead and put on a cowbell to announce our presence while we were at it?
At the turn I called another halt to stoop and check under the panels. More of the same, or more nothing to be accurate. Moving again, I checked the open lot to our left then turned back to keep an eye on the front. I froze and whipped my rifle to the right when I thought I detected movement out amongst the panels in my peripheral vision. But after a full minute of watching I didn’t see anything.
Squatting, I checked the underside but it was still clear. At least I hoped it was clear. In all fairness there was a veritable forest of iron brackets supporting the panels. I didn’t think I could see more than a hundred feet into the array before the view became too jumbled to identify any individual shape. Unless something was brightly lit or moving fast I wouldn’t be able to see it.
Shaking my head I stood and took a step, detecting movement again out of the corner of my eye. Frozen, I didn’t look in that direction, just tried to focus the edge of my vision on whatever was out there. The human eye’s night vision has a blind spot directly in the center. It has something to do with the way the rods, what allows us to see in low light, are aligned. Anyway, the ability to see after dark is much better when you use the periphery of your eye.
So that’s what I did. Of course I could have swung the rifle in that direction and looked through the night vision scope, but that hadn’t worked last time. If we were being stalked then it was by something or someone that could recognize I was looking in their direction and would take shelter beneath the solar panels.
At first nothing moved, then I saw it again. Three figures moving amongst the maze created by the panels. But they were only visible for a quick moment, then disappeared. Without turning my head I signaled for Crawford to move up next to me.
“We’ve got company out in the array,” I said in a low mumble when he was standing beside me.
“Can’t tell. We’re being stalked for sure, but I can’t get a good enough look.” I answered.
“Go back or continue?” I was glad he was deferring to my judgment in the field.
“Continue,” I said, and started moving again.
I intentionally picked up the pace, hoping to force the hand of whatever was tracking us. We reached the back edge in a couple of minutes and I made the turn without slowing. I was dividing my focus between what was in front of us and trying to catch another glimpse of movement in the array, but whatever it was wasn’t showing itself any longer.
Good or bad? Had they realized where we were going and stayed hidden below the panels, moving to arrive at the building first and set up an ambush? As we drew closer to the building I slowed, pausing to squat and look under the panels. Nothing. Where the hell were they? And what were they?
We were within thirty yards of the corner of the structure and I could see a heavy, steel door when I caught the movement again. I’ve never been one to fire at something that I wasn’t absolutely certain posed a threat, but I didn’t hesitate. Spinning I fired four fast bursts at the area where I’d detected them. As far as I could tell I didn’t hit anything and decided it was time to put on some speed.
Breaking into a sprint I dashed for the building, Crawford running lightly behind me. Reaching the door, I grasped the knob and turned but it was locked up tight. Stepping back I fired a burst into the knob, raised the muzzle slightly and blew out the deadbolt. I kicked hard and it slammed open, a pitch-black opening in front of me.
When we had scavenged at the Osprey crash I’d found a working, high intensity flashlight, and I clicked it on to illuminate the interior. I could see banks and racks of equipment, but the building was large and there could have been a hundred infected out of the reach of my light. Crawford was right behind me, facing out across the array, so I stepped through the opening to start clearing the space.
A quick sweep revealed nothing more than dark racks full of switches, miles and miles of thick electrical cabling connecting everything. Moving deeper, I kept scanning and picked up the smell of burnt wiring. Shit. This was probably going to turn out to be an exercise in futility.
“Clear,” I called over my shoulder.
No, the entire building wasn’t clear, but the immediate area was and I wanted to get both of us inside and that door secured before whatever was outside decided it was a good time to attack. I heard Crawford’s foot scrape on the threshold at the same time I heard the screams from outside. Not just one or two, but a whole fucking chorus of voices tore through the night.
“Shit!” The Colonel said.
I turned just before he slammed the door and braced his shoulder against it. In that brief instant I saw what had to be at least a hundred females charging directly at us. They were popping up from within the array and flowing out from underneath the closest edge. Damn it. I had felt something was wrong before we even started around the solar panels, but I’d ignored the warning and now we were trapped.
“Find something to block this door!” Crawford shouted as thumps began sounding against the steel.
He had turned and wedged his back against the door, feet braced on the floor and was pushing against it as hard as he could. It rattled from the female’s assault, pushing in an inch before he was able to overcome the pressure and force it closed again.
The door was set in a smooth concrete wall and there was no equipment or racks within fifteen feet of it. Nothing that could be used as a barricade. Shining the light around I spotted several giant spools with wire as thick as my wrist wrapped around them. They must have been there in case any repairs were needed and probably weighed a thousand pounds each.
They wouldn’t have something on hand that large and heavy unless they had someway to move it. Running farther along the wall the spools were stacked against, I saw a small, electric powered forklift next to a charger. Hoping and praying it was charged, I jumped into the seat and couldn’t believe my luck when I saw a key in the switch.
Turning it to on I slapped the lever that raised the hooks, shifted into reverse and mashed down the throttle. Forks going up, back up alarm beeping, the tires spun on the smooth concrete for a second then grabbed and I shot away from the wall. Forcing myself to slow, I got the machine under control and came to a stop, spinning the wheel to head for the closest spool.
Not really getting the hang of the forklift, I kept at it until I got one of the giant spools raised a few inches off the ground. Maneuvering, I looked down and noticed the switch on the dash marked “lights”. Flipping it up, bright headlamps came on and now I was able to better see how badly I was handling the machine. It wasn’t pretty, but I was getting the job done.
Turned and moving forward, I headed for where Colonel Crawford still struggled to keep the door closed. He was losing the battle, the door pushing open slightly farther every few seconds until he could force it closed again.
“Get clear!” I shouted as I roared straight at him.
At the last moment he leapt aside, the door coming partially open and females starting to press in. Then I arrived, the giant spool ramming into the door and crashing it closed. Two females lost limbs as the steel door slammed into its frame with several thousand pounds of force behind it.
The forklift came to a hard stop and I was nearly thrown out of my seat and into the windshield. I had braced but was still a little stunned by the impact. Shaking my head to clear it, I released the load so it would sink to the floor. There was a horrible screech of metal on metal as the forks were ground along the surface of the door by the weight of the spool.
Shutting the machine off, I set the parking brake and stepped out to look at my handiwork. At least a couple of tons were now wedged tightly against the door. There was no way the infected were getting through. But for that matter there was also no way, with them outside, we were getting through either.
“I’m starting to think coming out here wasn’t one of your better ideas, Major.” Colonel Crawford sat on the floor where he’d landed after jumping out of my way.
“I’m just getting warmed up, sir.” I grinned. “Just wait until you hear how I plan to get us back to the casino.”