Thunder and Ashes: Chapter 1

Out of the West

March 03, 2007

East of Aspen, Colorado

1456 hrs_

A STRANGE-LOOKING CONVOY ROUNDED a bend on the narrow mountain road, engines roaring. In the lead was a utility truck, white panels painted over in flat greens and browns, a mottled, homemade camouflage. Barbed wire had been bolted to the sides and front of the truck, giving it a bristly, uneven look.

Next came a sedan, a battered, twenty-year-old Mercury that had been painted over in a fashion similar to the truck. Splashes of the paint had gotten on the windows, and the vehicle was filled to the brim with passengers and backpacks. A luggage rack had been strapped to the roof, and it, too, was filled to capacity with odds and ends, from tents to red plastic gas cans. The latter would have blown away if they hadn’t been roped down; the cans jostled one another as the wind whistled past and rang hollow when they struck.

Third in the line was a Ford pickup truck. It had gotten the least amount of effort, it seemed, paint-wise, having only received a coat of flat green, but the tires had been replaced with heavy-duty off-road numbers, and the front grill had been reinforced with steel rebar. The bed had received work as well. More rebar had been added, making a vertical fence that ran along the outside of the truck. Barbed wire had been strung between the steel bars, wound tightly enough that it was hard to see through. Narrow slits cut through the wire on either side provided the occupants with a way of both seeing and shooting anything hostile that tried to approach.

The convoy was making good time. They’d come almost a thousand miles in almost two weeks, which was much faster than they’d thought they’d be able to maintain. They wouldn’t be able to keep it up for much longer, though.

In the lead vehicle, the utility truck, Command Sergeant Major Thomas sat at the wheel, deftly negotiating the treacherous curves and dips of the mountain roads. He was clean-shaven, as was his passenger, having made it a point to maintain his appearance despite the end of the world. Old soldiers had standards. His graying hair, once kept close-cropped, was beginning to grow out, and Thomas had tucked it up under a rapidly fading cap.

Next to him sat Frank Sherman, formerly Lieutenant General in command of the coalition forces at the Suez canal quarantine zone. He no longer considered himself an officer, but some of the survivors in the ragtag group that followed him still addressed him as one, including Thomas. He was dressed in civilian hunting clothes and dinged-up combat boots, swearing at a map he had held up in front of his face.

“This is ridiculous,” Sherman said, trying to smooth out a crease in the map. “This road was supposed to intersect with an interstate a good twenty miles back. Are you sure we didn’t miss it?”

“Yes, sir,” Thomas said. “Didn’t see no signs. No entry ramps. Nothing. We just haven’t gotten to it yet, sir.”

“Yeah, maybe,” Sherman said, disgruntled. He looked out the window into the sideview mirror at the vehicles following behind them. “We’re going to have to do something soon. How much fuel is left?”

“Quarter tank, sir,” Thomas said.

“That’s not much,” Sherman sighed. “Gives us just under a hundred miles’ range to find another gas station with something left in the pumps or we’ll be walking the rest of the way to Omaha.”

“Airports, sir,” Thomas suggested.

“What?”

“Check on that map of yours for airports. Most of the gas stations we’ve passed have been picked clean by civvies running out of the towns and into the country. They’re convenient and they’re easy. Airports, on the other hand—”

“—most people won’t even think to check those. Good idea, Thomas,” Sherman said, peering closer at the map. “Yeah, perfect, looks like there’s a regional field a little bit north of us. Maybe thirty miles. Have you seen any signs? What’s the next road we’ll be coming to?”

“Should be Route 13,” Thomas said.

Sherman chuckled. “That’s lucky.”

“No disrespect intended, sir, but since when do you give a crap about superstition?”

“I don’t, Thomas. It just struck me funny. Take 13 North.”

“Yes, sir. And it could be worse, sir,” Thomas said.

“How so?”

“Could be Route 666.”

Sherman chuckled again. “Didn’t know you had a sense of humor.”

“Sometimes I feel generous, sir.”

Thomas pointed out the windshield at an approaching sign that said the junction with Route 13 was a mile ahead. Sherman nodded.

“How were the food supplies looking this morning?” Sherman asked after a moment had passed in silence.

“On the low side, sir,” Thomas said. “We have enough to keep us going another few days. We could stretch it to a week if we cut back on rations, but we’re already on diets as it is.”

“I don’t think more rationing would go over very well either,” Sherman agreed. “That’s something else we’ll have to remedy soon. Too bad airlines aren’t known for their food.”

“Oh, you’re a riot today, sir,” Thomas drawled.

Sherman grinned. “Still, let’s set a detail to look for anything edible when we get to the field. You never know.”

Thomas nodded and flicked on his left turn signal. The junction with Route 13 was coming up fast, and he wanted to make sure the drivers behind him followed when he took the turn.

Behind the utility truck, in the cab of the pickup, sat Ewan Brewster, riding shotgun. He tapped his foot against the floorboard in time to the beat of the country ballad playing through the speakers, and turned up the cassette player in the dash. He hung his head out the passenger window and narrowed his eyes at the utility truck ahead of them with its blinking turn signal, then turned to Mbutu Ngasy, who was sitting at the wheel.

“Looks like Thomas found the road he was looking for,” Brewster said over the music. “Left turn coming up.”

“Very good,” Mbutu said. He knocked his hand against the rear window, alerting the passengers in the back that something was up.

A moment later, the window was pulled open, and Denton stuck his head in, looking left and right at the two occupants.

“What’s up?” he asked. The Canadian photographer looked the most at home on the road out of anyone in the group; he’d gotten used to roughing it on assignments that had taken him around the world several times over before the pandemic had struck. He seemed relaxed and composed compared to the rest.

“Hold on. We’re turning,” Mbutu said.

“Gotcha,” Denton replied. He pulled himself free and turned to the other passengers to pass the message along. “Sit down, we’re turning.”

“Does this mean we’re not lost anymore?” Ron asked, sitting with his back to the tailgate.

“I don’t know,” Denton shrugged. “I hope not. We put the last of the fuel into the tanks this morning. If we don’t find a station soon to get a refill we’ll be hitching.”

“Hell, that wasn’t safe before the pandemic,” said Rebecca Hall, fixing Denton with a stare. “It’s probably murder now. Count me out. I’ll just walk the rest of the way to Omaha.”

Denton grinned at the medic. “Then we’ll see you in six months, because it’s going to take you that long to get there on foot.”

“Better than being carrier chow,” she shot back.

“Given,” Denton said, shrugging.

Jack, a civilian contractor who’d proved his worth in Hyattsburg weeks earlier, was sitting along one side of the bed next to Mitsui, another contractor, trying to get the gist of the conversation across to the slight Japanese man via simple words and hand signs. He managed to communicate Rebecca’s desire to walk if worse came to worst by pointing at her and then “walking” a pair of fingers across his palm. Mitsui looked at Rebecca and grinned.

“What the hell are you looking it?” she snapped.

“Don’t let them bother you,” Katie Dawson said, leaning on Rebecca’s shoulder. “Construction workers are all the same around the world, I guess.”

“Hey, I’m not a construction worker. I’m a government contractor,” Jack protested.

The pickup truck slowed and went into a tight turn, following the utility truck in the lead. A bright white sign with the number 13 centered on it flashed past, and the convoy straightened out on its new course, northward bound.

1701 hrs_

The regional airfield looked at first glance to be deserted, but the survivors had long ago learned to be immediately suspicious of anything that looked like a free lunch. The vehicles pulled up to the main gate and stopped. Doors opened and people dismounted, wandering to the front of the small convoy to survey what lay in front of them.

Sherman stood with his arms folded, looking through the chain link gate that stood in their way across the field to the airport itself. It was small as far as airports went: a single story, around two hundred feet long, with a control tower that jutted up from one end and a pair of modest hangars just across a narrow runway. It was built out of poured concrete, with wide, floor-to-ceiling glass panels all along the front. The doors were shut tightly. No lights lit the runway or structures in the quickly dimming evening. No noises disturbed the calm except for a few birds in the treeline off in the distance. Their calls seemed muted and reluctant.

Sherman sighed, then turned to face Thomas, who was standing just behind him, arms akimbo.

“How much fuel is left now?”

“Eighth of a tank, sir. Forty mile range, tops,” Thomas said.

“Looks like we don’t have a choice. Krueger! Brewster! Up front!” Sherman called out.

The two soldiers appeared immediately. Krueger saluted. Brewster waved.

“Sir?” Krueger asked.

“Get this gate open, then follow us in. We’ll be staying here tonight, after we clear the buildings,” Sherman said.

“Yes, sir,” Krueger replied.

“You got it,” Brewster said.

The two grabbed hold of the gate and pulled it open, grunting with the strain, as the rest of the group piled back into the vehicles.

“Come on, come on, put your back into it,” Brewster chuckled.

“I am,” Krueger said, gritting his teeth. “Heavier than I thought it would be.”

“Just a little farther,” Brewster said, putting in one final burst of effort. The gate slid back and caught in the open position. “There! Got it!”

The convoy roared to life, headlights came on, and the vehicles rolled forward through the breach. Krueger and Brewster snapped up their weapons, having leaned them against the fence to free up their hands, and followed them through. They stopped on the other side of the fence and grabbed the gate once more, this time pulling it shut behind themselves. The two trucks and the sedan continued on down the concrete road, eventually pulling to a complete stop in front of the main building’s entrance. They angled themselves so the headlights were facing into the building, cutting a wide swath through the darkness.

By the time Brewster and Krueger had caught up, the remainder of the survivors had disembarked and armed themselves.

“Gate’s shut, sir,” Krueger said to Sherman.

“Excellent. The fence around the edge of this place makes for a good line of defense, but we’ll still have to make sure we’re alone before we can relax,” Sherman said. He turned away from the group, let his eyes play over the structures in front of him, and formulated a quick plan. “All right, let’s divide into three groups. One group clears the tower, one clears the terminal, and the third will clear the hangars down there, hooah?”

The survivors nodded their assent and began to break off into groups. It was an inevitable part of any group dynamic that cliques had begun to form on the road between Hyattsburg and their current location, and it was into those cliques that the survivors broke.

“We’ve got the tower,” Ron said, pointing up at the structure with his free hand. His other gripped his weapon of choice, a dented, stained machete. Following close behind him were Katie and Rebecca.

Mbutu trailed after the trio, shouldering a rifle. He called back over his shoulder, “I will go with them.”

“I suppose we’ll take the hangars,” Brewster said, cracking open his double-barreled shotgun and checking to make certain it was loaded. “Coming, guys?”

“Right behind you, man,” Krueger said, working the bolt on his .30–06.

“Time to go play tag with Death again, eh?” Denton said, following after them.

A third soldier, Wilson, jogged after them as well.

“I guess that leaves us the terminal,” Sherman said, checking his pistol and glancing sideways at Thomas, who was eyeing the building with suspicion.

“We’re right behind you, General,” Jack said. Mitsui needed no translation for that, and nodded in agreement.

“No time like the present,” Thomas said. He pushed open the terminal doors and entered, weapon at the ready.

————————

The tower’s entrance was a pair of steel double doors at ground level. They looked sturdy enough to stand up to a car running full bore into them, but luckily, they were unlocked.

Ron pulled both of them open, allowing what little natural light remained to flood the interior of the structure. The ground floor, at least, was devoid of occupants, living or dead. A wide spiral staircase led straight up to the tower itself.

“This reminds me of home,” Mbutu said, poking his head in the doorway and looking up.

“That’s right, you were an air traffic controller, weren’t you?” Katie asked.

“Yes,” Mbutu said, “In Mombasa.”

“It was one of the first cities to be overwhelmed,” Rebecca added, stepping past the others and entering the tower first. “He was lucky to make it out alive.”

“Let’s hope that luck is sticking around,” Ron said. “Let’s go.”

The group made their way up the spiral staircase, taking their time, using their ears more than their eyes in the dimness. No sounds could be heard ahead of them, but they weren’t about to let their guard down. The stairs wound around twice before they arrived at the top.

The tower was empty. Chairs had been tucked in under consoles and screens had been covered with clear plastic sheeting to protect them against dust and time. A coffee pot sat on a folding table near the top of the stairs, clean as the day it was purchased. All the power indicators were off.

“Well, whoever was here last sure didn’t leave in a hurry,” Rebecca said, looking around the tower.

Mbutu nodded in agreement. “They even took the time to cover the monitors.”

“Too bad there’s no power,” Ron said.

“There’s a great view up here,” Katie said, walking across the tower floor to stand next to a console. She leaned over the machine, peering out the wide glass windows. “Just the one runway. Frank wasn’t kidding when he said this was just a little regional airport, was he?”

Mbutu and Ron were busy pawing through the drawers, hoping to find anything useful. Ron pocketed a lighter, but other than that, the pair came up empty.

“Hey,” Katie said, still looking out the window. The others ignored her at first, content to continue searching. She glanced over her shoulder at them, frowned, and repeated herself. “Hey!”

Rebecca looked over. “What?”

“Someone’s out there,” Katie said, pointing.

“It’s just Brewster and the others headed for the hangar,” Ron said, waving a hand in dismissal.

“Really? Since when does Brewster wear overalls?” Katie asked, arching an eyebrow at Ron.

Ron frowned, shoved the drawer he’d been searching through shut, and moved to stand next to Katie. He looked in the direction she was pointing. It was tough to see in the twilight, but there was definitely a figure across the runway, walking beside one of the hangars. Brewster, Denton, and the others were nowhere in sight.

“Shambler,” Ron said, narrowing his eyes. “Gotta be.”

Rebecca pulled a radio from the cargo pocket of her pants and clicked it on. “Brewster.”

A moment passed, and no reply issued forth from the radio.

Rebecca tried again. “Brewster. Pick up your damn radio.”

Again, silence. She raised the radio to her lips to give it a third try when a static hiss cut the air and Brewster’s voice came through, slightly distorted.

“What is it, over?”

“Where are you? Are you in the hangars, yet?” Rebecca asked.

A long moment passed without Brewster’s reply. Finally, the soldier’s voice came through again.

“Say ‘over’ when you’re done, for fuck’s sake!” Brewster said. “And yes, we’re in the first hangar. Civvies left a plane here; we’re checking the tank, over.”

“Brewster, you’ve got company outside the hangar. We see one—walking—could be a shambler. Could also be a friendly for all we can tell; it’s tough to make out from this far away, over,” Rebecca said, stressing the last word.

“Well, all right, it’s about time we got a little action,” Brewster said. “We’ll deal with it. Out.”

“Watch your asses,” Rebecca said. She didn’t bother with ‘over’, and clicked the radio off instead, dropping it back in her pocket.

“Look, there they are!” Katie said from the window, pointing across the runway once more, only this time she was focused on a doorway in the side of the hangar that had just swung open. A pair of figures materialized out of the gloom, and even in the twilight the group in the tower could see they were holding weapons.

They moved along the front of the hangar slowly, sidestepping, frosty and alert. The walking figure continued to meander along the side of the structure, coming closer to the front with every step it took.

“They’re going to run right into one another,” Katie said, grimacing.

“No way,” Ron said, shaking his head. “They’ll hear it before it’s on them. Won’t they?”

Rebecca didn’t look so sure.

Out in the cold, far below the group in the tower, maneuvered Krueger and Brewster, completely unaware that they were moving ever closer to the unidentified figure, just out of sight around the corner.

Brewster blew out a slow breath, watched it swirl away into the night air, and moved a couple of steps closer to the corner of the hangar. His boots marked each step with a steady crunch-crunch-crunch on the still-frozen grass. Beside him was Krueger, scanning their sides and glancing over his shoulder every few steps to make sure they weren’t being approached from behind.

“Where is this guy?” Krueger whispered.

“Becky just said he was outside the hangar,” Brewster replied, shrugging.

“Well, that’s real goddamn helpful,” Krueger said. “If it was a sprinter it could have come at us from any direction.”

“We don’t even know it’s infected for sure yet,” Brewster reminded him. “Let’s check our target before we fire.”

“Right,” Krueger said, scoffing. “When was the last time we met someone new who didn’t try to eat us, huh?”

“Hyattsburg,” Brewster said, approaching the corner with his rifle at the ready.

“Yeah, and look what happened there,” Krueger grinned. “Damn near didn’t make it out alive—”

“Shit!” Brewster shouted, backpedaling. Right in front of him, rounding the corner, came the shambler. Brewster’s feet got tangled up together and he stumbled, falling hard on his back and whoofing as his breath was knocked out of him.

One thing the survivors had learned was that the infected came in widely varied packaging. Some of them were more or less in mint condition, having been infected ‘the old-fashioned way,’ through fluid exchanges, a badly-timed sneeze, and so on. Others were in less than ideal shape, having been infected via bites, scratches, blood spatter—these all bore their wounds even on through death. The truly horrifying ones wielded as powerful a psychological weapon as they did a biological one. More than once members of the group hadn’t been able to stand their ground against mobs of shamblers that were missing body parts, or were far enough along in decay to turn even the most hardened stomach.

This shambler had definitely seen better days. Both of its eyes were missing. It didn’t appear to have lost them in a fight; instead, claw marks and stringy bits of ocular nerve still hanging from the sockets hinted at carrion birds having had a small feast at the shambler’s expense. Its death wound was a deep gash running along the top of its chest. Whatever had caused the wound had cut right through the infected’s mechanic’s coveralls. A bloodied bit of bandage wrapped around the shambler’s left forearm hinted at the wound that had infected him in the first place.

Only a brace of feet from Brewster, and seemingly unhindered by its lack of eyes, the shambler reached out a hand to grab the soldier’s jacket.

Krueger leapt forward and gave the shambler a buttstroke across the temple. The infected grunted. Its knees buckled, and it collapsed next to Brewster in the cold grass. The soldier rolled away from the shambler and came up with his back against the steel wall of the hangar.

Krueger took a couple of steps back. The shambler was already slowly pulling itself up. Krueger flicked the safety of his rifle off, took aim, and put a round through the back of its skull. The shot echoed off the terminal and tower. The shambler collapsed face first in the grass, and didn’t move anymore.

“Jesus H. Christ on a motherfucking cracker,” Brewster said, staring wide-eyed at the corpse. “That thing came right around the corner—it was right on me. Good thing I have cat-like reflexes.”

Krueger smirked. “You tripped backwards over your own feet, dumbass.”

“Yeah, well, I’m still alive,” Brewster said, waving a chastising finger in Krueger’s face. “And that’s what counts.”

“Brewster, you there, over?” the radio hissed.

“That Sherman?” Krueger asked.

“Shhh,” Brewster said, yanking his radio free from a pocket. “Yeah, Frank, we’re here, over.”

“We heard a shot, over.”

“Oh, yeah, yes, sir—came upon a shambler out here. No injuries, over.”

“And the shambler?”

“Dispatched, sir, with extreme prejudice, over,” Krueger interjected, grinning.

“How do the hangars look, over?”

“Well, we were just taking care of that when the infected came a-knockin’,” Brewster said. “But we might have some fuel out here, over.”

“Excellent. Keep us posted. We’re just breaking into the terminal now, over.”

“Roger. Good luck over there. Out.”

Across the runway, Jack and Mitsui were finishing up their unconventional method of unlocking the front doors. Too solid and too thick to break down, and with no key in their possession, the two contractors had decided to get creative. They’d attached a chain to the door handles, and looped the other end through the trailer hitch on the back of the group’s pickup truck.

“All right,” Jack said, testing the chain one final time to make certain it was secure. “Feels good. Okay, go! Go!”

Mitsui, looking over his shoulder from the driver’s seat of the pickup, grinned and flashed Jack a thumb’s-up sign, then gunned the motor. The chain pulled taut and the doors shuddered, but held.

“Damn,” Jack frowned. He motioned for Mitsui to ease off the gas. “Back her up, back her up. We’ll try again.”

Sherman and Thomas stood off to one side, watching. Sherman had just finished his radio conversation with Brewster and now folded his arms across his chest, arching an eyebrow at the contractor’s efforts.

“This isn’t exactly going to leave us with a secure place to sack out tonight,” Sherman said out of the side of his mouth to Thomas.

“We still have the tower, sir. Probably our best bet, anyway. Good three-sixty-degree view up top, only one staircase—that’s where I’d want to bunk,” Thomas said.

Sherman nodded silently by way of reply as Mitsui gunned the pickup’s motor a second time.

This time, when the chain went taut the doors groaned and surrendered, popping free of their hinges.

“That’s more like it!” Jack said, pumping an arm in the air.

“Shh,” Sherman reminded him, resting a hand on the butt of his pistol. “We’ve already run up against one shambler here. Gotta assume there are more.”

Jack grimaced, then nodded. “Sorry.”

“Don’t apologize,” Sherman waved him off. “Let’s just see what we can see.”

The group entered the terminal, looking left and right. There was a small gift shop, sporting advertisements for liquor and t-shirts on gaudy posters plastered to the windows, and a customer service desk butting up against the far wall. A message board hung on the same wall, covered in tacked-on pieces of paper and cardboard. There looked to be hundreds of them, written on whatever material the writers had been able to find. Some were scrawled on newspaper, others on sticky pads, and one or two were written directly on the puce-colored walls in thick permanent marker. Sherman wandered over and read some of the messages as the rest of the group spread out behind him and searched the area.

Julie—waited until they were outside the gates and the rest of the planes had taken off. I am getting on the last one out. The pilot says we are going to Montana. Love you.

Brian O’Daly was here 1/12/07, bound for Canada. Good luck and godspeed!

Everyone else back home is dead but me. Hopefully I can find a way to get on one of these planes. If anyone who knows me reads this, I’m still alive as of January ninth.—D. Pulaski

Sherman sighed, turned his back on the board, and headed over to the gift shop. Jack had already forced the door open with a crowbar and was busy sifting through the contents of the shelves inside, his flashlight casting just enough light to see by.

“Anything?” Sherman called in the open door.

“Eh?” Jack asked, his head poking up from behind a shelf. “Not really. Looks pretty well picked through. Whole rack of old magazines, though. I’m grabbing a few—been a while since I’ve had anything decent to read.”

“Knock yourself out,” Sherman said. “No food at all?”

“Well, there’s a few packs of chips and some crackers, but no, not really,” Jack said, holding up the items for Sherman to see.

“Take ‘em. Food’s food. Never know, we might need it,” Sherman said.

“You got it.”

Jack unzipped his backpack, and Sherman heard the sound of crumpling packaging as the contractor stuffed it full of snack food.

“Sir!”

Thomas’s voice. Sherman turned and squinted into the darkness of the terminal. A flashlight clicked on several meters away, illuminating the old sergeant’s face. He’d been scouring the drawers and countertops at the customer service desk.

“Flightplans and passenger manifests,” Thomas said, holding up a clipboard. “Out of date, but it gives us a tally on the number of planes that were here before the bugout.”

“Brewster said on the radio that there was at least one plane left in the hangars. You showing that?” Sherman asked, walking over to look at the manifest.

Thomas frowned, let his eyes play over the papers, then shook his head. “If it’s out there, it was supposed to have left.”

Sherman dug his radio out again and called for Brewster. It took a moment, but the soldier responded.

“Brewster, you said there was a plane in the hangars?” Sherman asked. “Over.”

“That’s right, Sherm, dual prop, over.”

“What’s the ID number on the side, over?”

There was a moment of silence as the soldier looked for the markings.

“Charlie-oscar-four-zero-seven-gulf, over,” Brewster read.

Thomas looked back down at the sheet, scanned line-by-line with his index finger, and halted at the matching number.

“Says here it was outbound to Montana, nine passengers and two crew,” Thomas read.

“Brewster,” Sherman said, holding the radio up in front of his face, “be advised you may have an additional ten hostiles in the vicinity. Stay frosty, over.”

“Ten?”

“That’s what I said. Look, this terminal is empty. We’re coming over to back you up, out,” Sherman said.

“Roger that, sir—out.”

In the hangars, Brewster clipped his radio to his belt and grimaced.

“Hey guys,” he called. “Guys!”

“What?” Denton replied, coming around the front of the plane. “What did Sherman say?”

“Where’s Krueger and Wilson?” Brewster asked, pushing past Denton and scanning the interior of the building for the other two soldiers. He shouldered his shotgun. “We could have company.”

“Oh, damn, I hate it when we have company,” Denton said, jogging to catch up with Brewster. “They’re on the other side of the hangar sorting through the tool lockers, trying to find a hose to siphon the gas out of the plane with.”

“Krueger! Wilson!” Brewster called out as Denton explained.

“Yeah?” The reply came floating through the hangar, echoing slightly.

“Get back over here! We need to sweep this place again,” Brewster said, shotgun at the ready. He looked left and right, but didn’t see anything moving.

“Why? We already cleared it!” Wilson’s voice shouted back.

“Sherman says he’s got ten civvies that should’ve been here unaccounted for!” Brewster yelled.

“Oh, for shit’s sake, if there were infected in here, we’d’ve run across ‘em already!” Wilson replied.

“Yeah? What about the one we capped outside?”

“All right, all right, don’t get your panties all bunched up, we’re coming,” Wilson said. “Ooh, a hose!”

Brewster sighed. Next to him, Denton rolled his eyes.

“Just grab it and get over here,” Denton said.

“Coming!”

Krueger and Wilson rounded a line of luggage carriers, walking briskly. Wilson had a length of hose looped over his shoulder, and held up a battery-powered spotlight with his left hand, illuminating a wide swath of hangar floor in front of him. Krueger kept him covered with his .30–06.

“All right, we’re here. What’s the trouble?” Wilson asked, shrugging at Brewster.

“We don’t even know for sure there is any,” Brewster said, looking over his shoulder. “Sherman just said there might be a few more infected around, that’s all. Man’s never lied to us before. Figured we better double-check things.”

“Okay. Fair enough,” Wilson said. “Well, the tool locker and workshop area is totally clear, that’s for sure. We just came from there.”

“I was just looking through the luggage in the back before you called,” Denton said, pointing to the rear of the hangar. “Nothing and no one there, either.”

“Well, I was over by the plane. No one there, too,” Brewster said, jerking a thumb over his shoulder at the silhouette of the plane behind the group.

“Maybe it was just the one guy outside,” Krueger said, frowning. “He was wearing mechanic’s clothes. Seemed like he belonged here. In life, I mean.”

“So, false alarm, then?” Brewster asked.

“Guess so,” Wilson replied. He held his spotlight up to his shoulder and panned it around the hangar. The beam passed over half-empty steel shelving units, more luggage carts, spare parts. He directed the beam up slightly. “Did anyone go in there?”

Brewster, Krueger, and Denton turned to look at Wilson’s target.

The beam was hovering over the airplane’s single hatch.

For a moment, the small group was silent. Brewster looked left at Denton and right at Krueger, but both of them shook their heads.

“Oh, goddammit,” Brewster said. “No, I guess not.”

“Well, don’t you think we should check?” Wilson asked.

“Fuck no,” Brewster protested. “First of all, there’s nothing in that plane that we can’t find lying around out here. Secondly, we don’t need to go into it to get to the fuel tanks. And thirdly, if it is full of fuckin’ infected, I’ll be damned if I’m going to be the one to climb up there and open the hatch. Any one of you sad motherfuckers volunteering?”

Denton inched away from the soldier. Krueger and Wilson exchanged a glance, then fixed Brewster with a reluctant look.

“Yeah, that’s what I thought,” Brewster said. “Let’s just leave ‘em in peace, what do you say?”

“I say we should at least look in the windows, Private,” came a new voice.

Brewster and the others turned to see Sherman and Thomas standing in the doorway to the hangar.

“Well, just as long as I don’t have to go opening any doors,” Brewster said, sighing. “Someone help me push these stairs over.”

Brewster and Denton laid their rifles on a luggage crate and grabbed hold of a set of rolling stairs. Denton kicked the locks loose and the two pushed and pulled the heavy steel construct up against the side of the dual-prop plane. Another set of kicks locked the stairs in place once more and Brewster grabbed the handrail, climbing slowly.

“Brewster,” Wilson said, whistling for the soldier’s attention.

When Brewster looked down, Wilson held up the spotlight, then tossed it in the air. Brewster reached out and caught it with his free hand.

Brewster took a deep breath as he approached the top of the stairs and held it in unconsciously, clicking the spotlight back on. He raised it slowly until it was level with one of the windows, and peered inside.

Almost immediately, a pale hand plastered itself against the inside of the window. Brewster jumped, but kept a solid grip on the handrail.

A low moan, faint and distorted, filled the air inside the hangar. Slowly, other hands appeared in the plane’s windows, followed by sunken faces.

“Well, there they are,” Krueger said from the hangar floor, arms folded across his chest. “Guess we can stop wondering about that, now.”

“How many can you see, Brewster?” Sherman called up.

“Uh, hang on, sir,” Brewster said, trying to track the various infected on the other side of the windows. “Six . . . seven . . . eight . . .”

“How many?” Thomas repeated.

“I’m counting, I’m counting!” Brewster protested, waving a hand at Thomas. “Uh, eight. I see eight. All shamblers.”

“Eight?” Sherman asked. He pressed his lips together and furrowed his brow. “How many were there total again, Thomas?”

“Eleven, sir. Nine passengers, two crew.”

“We killed one outside,” volunteered Brewster from the top of the stairs, still peering intently into the windows. “He was dressed like crew.”

“That still leaves two,” Thomas said.

The group members looked at one another uneasily, hands falling to rest on weapons. They turned to face the darkness of the hangar, standing almost back-to-back. Brewster flipped the spotlight around in his hand, using his elevation to get a good angle on the hangar floor. The wide beam of light darted around the interior of the structure.

“Bastards could be anywhere,” Wilson said. “Could be sprinters, could be shamblers. Maybe they wandered off—”

“Quiet!” Sherman barked, drawing his pistol. “Listen!”

Silence.

“I don’t hear anything, Frank,” Denton said after a moment.

“I know. Shut up,” Sherman said.

More silence. Then—

A single footstep. More of a scrape than a footstep, really. It may as well have been a gunshot. Every living set of ears in the building turned toward it immediately. It had come from the direction of the lines of luggage containers. Brewster shone the flashlight toward the containers, panning it slowly left and right.

“There,” Krueger said softly, thumbing the safety of his rifle off. “In the middle of all that junk. The shamblers’ noises must’ve stirred it up.”

The barrel was trained on the floor. Krueger had picked out a single white tennis shoe, nearly invisible between the containers. The shoe moved forward, scraping along the cement floor with just the barest of noises. Brewster shifted the spotlight up a degree and lit the break in the containers where the infected would appear. A moment later, a hand groped around the corner, grabbing the edge of the container with white knuckles, and slowly pulled the rest of itself into view.

This had been the pilot. A sunken face, swollen tongue and rolled-back eyes attested to a slow death by dehydration. Not the most pleasant way to go for an uninfected human. It had probably taken weeks for the infected to die that way. Sherman remembered some of Dr. Demilio’s briefings on the virus. It slowed the host’s metabolism and bodily functions, stretching out life as long as it could. This one had probably been a sprinter until recently, same as the rest in the plane.

Brewster mentally kicked himself for not having looked in the narrow spaces between the bins. The thing must have been laying in there, dormant, until the moans of the shamblers in the plane had alerted it to prey.

“Sir?” Krueger asked. He was holding his rifle steady, having drawn a bead on the infected’s forehead.

Sherman nodded, then realized Krueger couldn’t see the motion with his eye pressed up to the scope. “Drop him.”

Krueger fired a single shot, and the infected’s head snapped back. It vanished, falling back in between the luggage containers. A muted thud echoed through the hangar as the body hit. The white-shoe clad feet were still visible, the left twitching a few times before settling into death.

“One more down,” Brewster said from the top of the staircase, still fixing the corpse with the beam of the spotlight. “That leaves us one unaccounted for, right?”

“Right,” Denton said, releasing a breath he hadn’t realized he’d been holding. “And it won’t be a crewman.”

“Better get the gas while the gettin’s good, sir,” Thomas said, gesturing at the plane.

“Good idea, Thomas. Wilson, Brewster, Krueger, get the fuel,” Sherman said. “Denton, Thomas, let’s get back to the terminal, move everyone over to the tower, and button it up. If there’s another shambler wandering around this place I want a defensible perimeter.”

“Yes, sir,” Krueger said, grabbing the loop of hose from Wilson’s shoulder and jogging over to the plane. “Wilson, grab a couple of those empty cans on top of that dolly and bring ‘em over here!”

Brewster slid down the staircase and ran over to join Krueger by the plane’s fuel tank, holding up the spotlight to give the soldier some light to work by.

Behind the trio, Sherman, Thomas, and Denton ducked out of the hangar, jogging across the runway toward the tower.

“How many gallons do you think this plane holds?” Wilson asked, dropping off a pair of empty five-gallon fuel cans and running back for more.

“I don’t know,” Krueger replied, feeding one end of the hose into the open tank. “It sure ain’t a Geo, that’s for sure. Gotta be a hundred gallons or more.”

“Damn,” Brewster whistled. “If we’re catching this fucker at full cap, it’ll get us most of the rest of the way to Omaha.”

“Keep an eye out, Wilson,” Krueger said, pointing over Wilson’s shoulder at the rest of the hangar. “Don’t want to get snuck up on.”

“Right,” Wilson replied, turning his back on Brewster and Krueger and scanning the darkness with narrowed eyes.

Krueger sucked on the end of the hose until he got a mouthful of fuel, spat it out with a grimace, and fed the tube into the first gas can. The soldiers could hear the sound of sloshing as the can filled up. For a few moments, the gasoline and hushed breaths were the only sounds in the hangar. Then Krueger nudged the can with his boot to check its fullness, crimped the hose, and shoved the can across the floor to Brewster.

“What do you want me to do with this?” Brewster asked, hefting the heavy can in his arms.

“Find something to put it in,” Krueger stage-whispered back.

“Like fucking what?” Brewster asked, gesturing around himself.

“Get a luggage cart, dipshit,” Krueger said, pointing over Brewster’s shoulder. “We’ll run ‘em across five or six at a time until this tank’s empty. Wilson. Wilson!”

“Huh?” the soldier started, dropping his gaze from the windows of the plane. He’d been staring at the infected, still pounding away slowly from inside.

“You want to pay attention?” Krueger admonished. “You’re going to get us turned into carrier chow.”

“Sorry.”

————————

A pounding on the metal staircase alerted Rebecca, Mbutu and the others that Sherman’s group had arrived in the tower.

“Ahoy the tower!” came Denton’s voice. “How’re things looking up there?”

Rebecca leaned out over the railing far above and shouted down, “Desolate!”

“Wish we had some lights in this place,” Ron added, poking his head out next to Rebecca’s.

“What, and advertise a free buffet to any infected nearby?” Sherman said, grabbing hold of the handrail and taking the stairs two at a time. “Hope you lot enjoyed your break. Time to get back to work. We’re going to camp up here for the night. That means we need to set a guard down below and figure a way to lock those doors.”

“That will not be a problem,” Mbutu said from the other side of the tower floor. Sherman looked over to see the tall man spinning a keyring on one finger and grinning. “These places, they are the same the world over. The supervisor had these in his desk. They should take care of the doors.”

“Outstanding,” Sherman nodded. “Don’t lock up yet; we’re still waiting on Brewster, Wilson, and Krueger to get back from the hangars.”

“They did find gas, right?” Katie asked.

“Yes,” Sherman replied. “And a plane full of infected.”

Mbutu frowned. “Is it safe to stay here if . . . ?”

“Oh, yes,” Sherman went on. “They’re locked up tight. And even if they did manage to break free—which I doubt, seeing as they’ve been in there a good month—they wouldn’t know where we’d gone to.”

“I’d sleep a lot better if they were dead,” Ron said. “Why don’t we go in there and wipe ‘em out?”

“Unnecessary risk,” Sherman replied, shaking his head in a negative. Behind him, Thomas nodded slowly in agreement.

“Here comes Krueger and the others,” Katie said, leaning over a console and pointing out the tower window.

Sherman walked over to join her, followed closely by Thomas. Far below, they could see the three soldiers moving quickly across the runway, pushing a loaded luggage cart in front of them. It was filled nearly to the brim with red plastic gas cans. They seemed to be having a bit of trouble keeping the cart on an even keel. It wobbled slightly and continually pulled to the right. Wilson was having to throw his entire body weight into the side of the cart to keep it headed in a straight line toward the terminal and tower.

“Looks like we’ve got enough fuel in that thing to get us out of these damn mountains,” Denton said, grinning.

“You’re Canadian,” Rebecca ribbed. “Thought you were used to mountains.”

“I’m used to lakes,” Denton corrected. “Lakes and snow.”

“And maple syrup and bad beer and hockey,” Ron added, chuckling.

“Hey, hey, hey,” Denton said, glaring. “Watch it with the beer commentary, eh?”

The soldiers vanished from sight below as they drew nearer the tower. Sight was replaced by sound; the group in the tower could hear the rumbling of the cart’s wheels and the curses of the soldiers as they rounded the structure and made a beeline for the vehicles parked behind the terminal.

“Thomas, do me a favor—run down there and tell them not to bother fueling the vehicles tonight. Just get ‘em in the tower. We’ll button up and settle in for the night, get some rest. We’ll take care of the rest of the work tomorrow morning,” Sherman said.

“Yes, sir,” Thomas grumbled. He took off down the stairs at a run, glad to have an order to follow—even if it was phrased as a suggestion.

Sherman turned to the remaining group members. “Well, pick a spot and sack out, folks. We did pretty well for ourselves tonight. No fatalities, and we’re coming out ahead in fuel and food.”

“If you can call it food,” Denton said, pulling bags of potato chips from his pack and tossing them around the tower.

Ron caught one of the bags and tore it open with his teeth. “Hey, food’s food. I’ll take what I can get.”

“It ain’t the Atkins diet,” Katie said, frowning at the label on her bag. “But I agree, I’ll take what I can get.”

Rebecca waved off Denton and unstrapped her sleeping bag from the top of her pack, throwing it out in a corner of the tower. “I’m fine.”

“You sure?” Denton asked, waving the food in her direction.

“Yeah, I’m sure,” she replied.

“Suit yourself,” Denton said, opening the bag and digging in.

The sound of feet on metal from below meant the soldiers had entered the tower. The structure reverberated slightly as the doors were slammed shut.

“Mbutu,” Sherman said. He held up his hands. “Keys.”

Mbutu tossed the keys to Sherman underhanded. He caught them, turned, whistled to get Thomas’ attention, and dropped them over the side of the railing. Below, Thomas grabbed them as they fell, then turned and sorted through them one-by-one until he found the one that matched the tower doors. He locked them, pulled on them to double check they were secure, then turned to face Brewster. He shoved the keyring into Brewster’s chest and grinned.

“First watch, Private,” Thomas said, then gestured for Wilson and Krueger to follow him upstairs.

“Oh, that’s fucking bullshit,” Brewster said, looking up after the Sergeant Major. “I ain’t in the Army anymore, Sarge!”

Despite his bluster, Brewster lowered himself onto the stairs, sighed, and settled in for a guard shift, scratching at an itch on the back of his neck.

————————

Rebecca awoke suddenly, sitting bolt upright and clutching her sleeping bag to her chest. She took a deep, shuddering breath and let it out slowly.

“Must’ve been a bad dream,” she whispered to herself.

She looked around the darkened tower. The group’s flashlights had been turned off to save battery power and the only light came from the waxing moon, half-full in a cloudless sky. The group lay sleeping around her, some in bags, others stretched out between blankets.

She slowly laid herself back on the floor and closed her eyes, determined to fall back asleep.

Her eyes shot back open a moment later. Something was wrong.

She sat up again and studied the scene in front of her. Everyone was accounted for. Nothing was out of place. Must have just been her imagination.

Then it hit her—Ron wasn’t snoring. The man was notorious for it. Nearly every night someone had to wake him up or kick him to get him to roll over, and those were on the nights when he didn’t wake himself up with his racket. Once she noticed that, she began to notice other things that were awry. No one was moving, not even those subtle, tiny sleep movements—a twitch of a finger, a reflexive swallow, a mumble. More than that, though. No one was breathing.

Rebecca felt fear solidify in the pit of her stomach, but she had long since learned to deal with fear. She rationalized it, shoved it into a corner of her brain and made it work for her instead of against her. Fear just let a person know they were still alive. She narrowed her eyes and rooted around in her sleeping bag until she came up with her flashlight, but didn’t click it on immediately. She reached behind her back, feeling around in the darkness until her fingers bumped into the leather of her holster and pistol belt. She dragged it closer, grabbed for her weapon, and froze.

Her pistol was gone.

Now the fear threatened to overwhelm her. She hadn’t been without a weapon since she’d shot Decker on the USS Ramage, and she realized she felt completely naked without one.

“Okay, okay, stay calm—everyone up here has a weapon. Get one of theirs. No problem,” Rebecca whispered to herself.

She pushed herself to her feet, held the flashlight out in front of her and clicked it on, playing the beam over the floor in front of her. Her eyes went wide.

The beam had landed on Thomas’ face first. His eyes were sunken, half open, and rolled back into his head. He looked long dead. Rebecca blanched, swallowed, and let the beam play over Thomas’ gear, searching for his weapon. She located his holster, but it, too, was empty.

Krueger was at Thomas’ head, stretched out in his sleeping bag. His face was just as pale and unmoving as Thomas’, eyes open and pupils fixed and dilated. Rebecca knew Krueger never let his rifle out of arm’s reach. He lived with his rifle, loved his rifle, took better care of his rifle than he would a wife, most likely—yet it was nowhere to be found.

Rebecca felt her breath coming in short gasps, realized she was on the verge of hyperventilating, and worked on slowing herself down, taking deeper, longer breaths.

One by one, she checked the members of the group. All dead. No weapons. Not a mark on them.

“The food,” she said to herself. “I was the only one who didn’t eat the food.”

She stopped, struck by a thought. What about Brewster?

She stepped gingerly between the bodies, moved over to the railing, and leaned over, shining the flashlight down into the darkness.

“Brewster?” she called out. “Brewster, are you down there?”

There was no reply.

“Oh, no,” she said, crumpling to the floor and holding onto the railing with a white-knuckled grip. “Am I the only one left? Am I—”

Booted footsteps rang out on metal from below, clear, slow, and steady.

Rebecca’s face was a mask of apprehension as she shifted the flashlight in her hand, playing the beam along the stairs.

“Brewster?” she called out once more.

The beam fell on Brewster’s face, halfway up the staircase.

“Oh, shit,” Rebecca breathed.

Brewster was just as dead as the rest of the group. His jaw hung open, his tongue lolled out the side, skin pale as the moonlight outside. Well, perhaps not just as dead—he was shambling up the stairs, stumbling a bit but making steady progress.

“Oh shit, oh shit, oh shit,” Rebecca chanted like a panicked mantra. She dropped the flashlight and began desperately tearing through blankets and sleeping bags, not caring if she disturbed the bodies within. She needed a weapon, any weapon. She’d settle for a knife. The sound of booted footsteps grew ever nearer.

“Come on!” she screamed, upending a backpack and sending odds and ends skittering across the floor. “Where are the guns? Where are all the fucking guns?”

A sound behind Rebecca attracted her attention. She froze, eyes wide, and slowly turned her head to look.

Brewster stood at the top of the stairwell, blocking her only escape route. He seemed to grin.

“Brewster,” Rebecca started, holding up a hand to ward him off.

The soldier said nothing in reply. He merely opened his jaws and leaned in for the kill.

0921 hrs_

“Rebecca! Rebecca! Jesus, wake up, for fuck’s sake!” Krueger said, shaking Rebecca’s shoulder.

Rebecca shot awake, grabbing at Krueger’s arm. Her eyes were wide and her sleeping bag was half soaked-through with sweat. Krueger had a sympathetic look on his face.

“Another dream, huh?” he asked.

Rebecca didn’t answer right away. She looked around the tower. Morning sunlight was burning away the last vestiges of fog outside, and the group was already active. Only Wilson and Ron remained asleep. Everyone else was on their feet, stretching, sighing, and working out kinks developed from spending eight hours laying on concrete. Sherman, Thomas, and Denton were missing, probably outside already. She looked over her shoulder at her pistol belt. The weapon was right where it was supposed to be.

“Yeah,” she said, nodding. “Yeah, another dream.”

“Must’ve been a bad one,” Krueger said. “You were mumbling to yourself.”

She nodded again, taking a deep breath to steady herself. They’d all had dreams over the course of the past month or so, but that one had felt extremely real. It was unsettling. If she hadn’t had an appetite the night before, she sure didn’t have one now.

“Come on,” Krueger said, standing and offering her an arm. “We’re going to head down and get the vehicles fueled up and ready to go. Sherman said he wants to get on the road after we eat.”

The mention of eating sent Rebecca’s stomach to twisting again. She grimaced, but accepted the offered arm after buckling her pistol belt securely around her waist. Krueger snapped up his rifle and pack, having already strapped his sleeping bag across the top, and helped Rebecca do the same. He nudged the still-sleeping Wilson with his boot as they passed.

“Wake up, sleepyhead,” Krueger said. “Don’t waste the day.”

Wilson murmured something, still only half-conscious, and managed to flick Krueger off. Krueger chuckled and jogged down the tower stairs. They passed Brewster, leaning against the support column that held up the tower. He looked bleary-eyed and tired, having spent the night on watch. Rebecca clenched her jaw as she passed him, glancing at the soldier out of the corner of her eye.

Brewster caught her expression and arched an eyebrow. “The hell was that look for?”

Rebecca didn’t reply, and instead followed Krueger out into the sunlight.

“Well, good fuckin’ morning to you too, beautiful!” Brewster called out after her. He shook his head. “Some people.”

Denton was standing next to the pickup, upending a can of gasoline into the tank. Three empties lay in the grass next to him, and the cart of still-untouched cans was a few feet away. He waved as Krueger and Rebecca approached.

“This one’s just about full now,” he said. “And there are eleven more cans in that cart. Figure four to fill up the utility truck, three for the car, leaves us with twenty spare gallons to use on the road. Not a bad haul, eh?”

Krueger grinned. “Should last us a couple more full days of driving.”

“A good four hundred more miles, you bet,” Denton said. “ ’Course, we still have twice that to go.”

“So we raid one more airport along the way. Problem solved,” Krueger said, raising his arms in a victory sign.

Denton chuckled.

“Where are Sherman and Thomas?” Rebecca asked.

“In the terminal,” Denton replied, pointing. “They’re packing up what’s left of the food in that little souvenir store.”

Again with the food, Rebecca thought. “Anything we can do to help?”

“Oh, no, I’ve got this taken care of,” Denton said. “Though I bet Sherman and Thomas could find something to occupy you if you’re looking for something to do.”

“Thanks,” Rebecca said, turning and heading toward the terminal.

Krueger hung behind, leaning up against the back of the pickup and sighing. “Whaddaya say, Denton?”

“Eh?” Denton asked, looking up from the gas can.

“Just making smalltalk. Nice weather today, huh?” Krueger asked, grinning impishly.

Denton frowned at him. “Small talk doesn’t befit you.”

Krueger chuckled. “It’s been a while since we all had a regular morning. You know, wake up slowly, stretch, eat, chat. It’s good to pretend things are normal for a change.”

“I don’t know,” Denton said. “I’m not a huge fan of pretending. Makes me feel like an ostrich.”

“Ostrich?” Krueger asked.

“You know, head in the sand?” Denton replied. “Ostriches—actually, I’m not even sure if they really do this or not, but it’s common knowledge—when they feel threatened, they bury their heads in the sand and pretend like the danger isn’t really there, because they can’t see it anymore. Just because you can’t see the danger doesn’t mean it isn’t going to bite you in the ass.”

“Reminds me of something Sherman said,” Krueger said after a moment had passed in silence.

“Oh? What’s that?”

“Well, after we got out of Hyattsburg and got on the road, I heard him talking with Thomas,” Krueger went on. “Turns out this lady we’re trying to meet up with, what’s her name, uh, Demilio—she tried to warn people about Morningstar before the first outbreaks in Africa. No one listened.”

“Eh, that’s just politicians for you,” Denton said. “They don’t see problems in terms of potential. They can’t. If they spend a bunch of money preventing something, and that something never harms so much as a fly because of their farsightedness and caution, then they get accused of wasting resources. On the other hand, if they wait too long, they can be accused of being uncaring bastards. The trick is to find a happy medium.”

“Happy medium,” Krueger repeated, arching an eyebrow.

“Yeah,” Denton said. “You have to let a problem get in a bite or two, and then kick it’s ass. That way you can say, ‘Look, it was definitely a threat, and I definitely dealt with it before it got out of hand. Vote for me!’”

Krueger laughed out loud. “I’d say they fucked that one up pretty good, at least as far as Morningstar’s concerned.”

“Oh, yeah.” Denton nodded in agreement. “Majorly. I’m just saying, maybe people did listen when Demilio tried to warn them, but they chose not to do anything at first.”

“Guess we’ll never know,” Krueger said.

The doors to the control tower were pushed open, and Brewster, Wilson, Ron, and Katie came ambling out. Brewster blinked heavily, holding a hand up to block out the sunlight.

“Damn, man, don’t know how Thomas expects me to function with no sleep all the time,” he complained.

“Sleep on the road,” Ron suggested. “We’ll be riding all day again.”

“But I get motion sickness if I try to sleep in a car,” Brewster protested, holding a hand over his stomach.

“Then stay here and sleep while the rest of us go,” Ron said, throwing up his arms in exasperation.

“Hell no, I’m not staying at this creepy-ass airport,” Brewster said.

Ron rolled his eyes and kept walking.

In the terminal, Sherman and Thomas had kept themselves busy, rooting around the small storage room behind the counter in the souvenir store and coming up with another couple of boxes of snack food. Thomas wasn’t elated at the find (“I prefer a little more starch in my diet, sir.”), but Sherman shrugged and cut the tape on the boxes with a pocketknife, dumping the contents onto the countertop.

Rebecca wandered in, nodding to Thomas and waving at Sherman.

“Good morning,” she said, letting her eyes wander over a rack of postcards. “Sleep well?”

“Better than I have in the past couple of weeks,” Sherman replied. “It’s amazing what a set of locked doors can do to your sense of security.”

“I would’ve slept better if I’d left someone besides Brewster on guard duty,” Thomas said.

“You’ve got no one to blame but yourself for that one,” Sherman said, shrugging. “Besides, he’s not such a bad guy. Been pulling his weight just like everyone else.”

“He’s too damn distracted all the time,” Thomas frowned, then gestured straight ahead with a free hand. “Needs to focus.”

“Well, that’s your job, Sergeant,” Sherman grinned. “Keep the boys in line.”

“Don’t remind me, sir. I feel like a failure enough already. Krueger’s the only one of ‘em left worth half a damn,” Thomas grumbled.

“Hate to interrupt,” Rebecca said, clearing her throat. “Most of us are up and about out there. I was wondering if there was anything I could do to help move things along . . . ?”

“Oh. Sure,” Sherman said. “Here, grab one of these boxes and take it out to the vehicles.”

He lifted a large box and handed it over. Rebecca nearly lost it, surprised by the weight, but recovered. Sherman had hefted it like it was nothing. She reminded herself once again not to underestimate the older man’s athleticism. She passed by several others on their way in. Ron held the door open for her.

“More potato chips?” he asked, tilting his head to read the label on the side of the box. “Awesome.”

“All right, where’s the bathroom?” Katie asked, looking left and right as she entered the terminal. “There has to be one in here. I wonder if the water’s still on?”

“Probably,” Wilson said, pushing past her. “I remember reading somewhere that something like three-quarters of all the plumbing in the United States is gravity-fed, not pumped.”

“Well, I have no idea what that means, but cool,” Katie replied, shrugging.

Ron disagreed, shaking his head. “Yeah, but look where we are. Mountains, remember? They probably have to pump the stuff uphill. No electricity, no pumps, no water.”

“For once I’m hoping you’re wrong and Wilson’s right,” Katie said, poking Ron in the chest. “Aha! There they are!”

Katie made a beeline for the women’s room, shoving open the door and vanishing inside. A moment later, a loud squeal erupted from behind the closed door. Ron and Wilson’s hands went straight for their weapons, and they ran toward the restroom. Ron kicked the door open—and made Katie jump a foot in the air in surprise. She was standing in front of the sink, a grin plastered on her face. She gestured at the running faucet.

“Water,” she said, laughing. “What’s with the guns?”

Ron sighed and Wilson shook his head, holstering his pistol.

“You just about gave us a heart attack,” Ron admonished.

“Sorry,” Katie said, but she didn’t sound it.

“And on that note, I think I’ll repair to the men’s room myself,” Wilson said. “Wash up and change.”

“I’m with you,” Ron added.

They let the restroom door swing shut and walked away, shaking their heads. Sherman and Thomas came out of the souvenir store, each bearing a box of assorted food, and spotted Ron and Wilson walking toward the men’s room.

“Hey,” Sherman called out. The two men looked over. “When you’re done in there, would you mind heading into the store and grabbing a couple more of these boxes?”

“Sure,” Ron said, nodding. “We’ll meet you out by the cars in a couple of minutes.”

“Don’t take too long,” Sherman said. “Don’t want to waste the daylight.”

“Four, five minutes, tops,” Wilson said, holding up a hand.

He leaned his back on the men’s room door, pushing it open—and fell right back into the arms of an infected wearing civilian clothes. It roared in his face, grabbed at his shirt, and sank its teeth into the back of his neck, immediately drawing blood. Wilson didn’t even have time to react.

“Shit!” Ron yelled, throwing his bag to the ground and fumbling for his pistol.

Across the terminal, Sherman and Thomas dropped their boxes and came running toward the pair.

“Wilson! Wilson! Throw it off! Get it off!” Sherman yelled, gesturing wildly.

Wilson was screaming in pain now, grasping at the carrier, which had latched onto his back like a humanoid leech. This one was still alive—a sprinter, with all the strength and speed of a normal human. Moreso, even, allowing for its fevered strength. Wilson slammed his back against the wall over and over, trying to dislodge the infected. It barked short grunts of pain as it hit the wall, and its jaws came loose from Wilson’s neck, but its hands still grabbed at the soldier.

Ron ran forward, giving up on trying to find a clean shot, and drew his machete. He wound up, watched Wilson’s movements for a careful moment, and swung. The blade bit into the infected’s shoulder, spraying blood against the white tile of the bathroom wall. Ron wrenched the machete free, and the infected came loose, hitting the floor heavily. It twisted and spasmed, grasping at its shoulder with its uninjured arm, still roaring in defiance.

Sherman came up behind Ron, reached around him with a hand that held a locked and loaded pistol, and fired twice, sharp staccato bursts in the enclosed space. Both rounds took the carrier in the chest, and it spasmed once more, then settled into death.

Wilson stood in the bathroom, holding a hand to his neck and staring at the corpse on the floor. When he pulled his shaking hand away, it came free covered in blood. The soldier choked back a sob.

“That’s it, man,” he said after a moment. “I’m done. It got me. I’m infected.”

He looked up at Sherman, Thomas, and Ron in the doorway, but none of them offered any rebuttal. They just looked back at him with sad, sympathetic expressions on their faces. Wilson swallowed, slowly drew his pistol, and walked over to the corpse of the carrier on the bathroom floor.

“Fucker,” he said, and fired into the infected’s head. He fired again, and again, and again. The body jerked with the impact of the rounds and blood and brain matter splashed Wilson’s boots. The three men in the doorway backed away slowly, unwilling to get any of the infected blood on themselves. “Fucker.”

Wilson stopped firing before his pistol ran dry. He took a deep, shuddering breath, still holding onto his neck, and looked back up at Sherman.

“Guess this is good-bye, sir,” Wilson said. “I ain’t getting into a vehicle with you all if I’m infected.”

Again, no one offered any argument. Wilson wasn’t the first of their number to be bitten. It was a death sentence, plain and simple. Wilson might have a few days left to him, but eventually, he would turn, and when he did no one around him would be safe.

“Been a slice, Wilson,” Ron said after a moment, then extended his hand. Wilson shook it with his right, his left keeping pressure on the bite.

“Good huntin’,” Thomas said. He nodded, then turned and strode away. It was as tender a goodbye as any the old sergeant had offered before.

“Sorry, Wilson,” Sherman said, frowning. “Wish it didn’t have to be like this.”

“Me too, sir,” Wilson said, chuckling. “Me too.”

Ron collected Katie from the women’s restroom and retreated with Sherman to the terminal’s main entrance, sparing one final glance over his shoulder at Wilson. The soldier was standing in the doorway of the bathroom, waving with a hand that still grasped a pistol.

They pushed their way out of the front doors and into the sunlight.

Brewster and Denton had taken cover behind the bed of the pickup when the shots had rung out, and the small group exiting the terminal found themselves staring down the barrels of rifles.

“Hold up,” Brewster shouted out. “Friendlies.”

The survivors slowly appeared from behind the vehicles. The back of the utility truck opened up and Jack and Mitsui poked their heads out.

“Heard shots,” Denton yelled to Sherman. “What happened?”

“Remember that last carrier we couldn’t find last night?” Sherman said, grimacing. “Wilson found it.”

“Is he . . . ?” Brewster started.

Another shot rang out, this one muted but still loud enough to cause the group to cringe. It had come from inside the terminal.

“Yeah,” Sherman said after the sound had faded away.

Brewster scowled and looked down at the ground. “Goddammit.”

“There’s nothing more we can do here,” Sherman said, sighing. “Mount up, people. We have a lot of ground to cover before we get to Omaha.”


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