Thunder and Ashes: Chapter 10

Showdown

I-80 West

March 13, 2007

1543 hrs_

ONCE TREV HAD GOTTEN BACK in the driver’s seat and pulled the group off the main roads, the journey actually began to go smoothly for a change. For a matter of days they hadn’t caught wind of Sawyer or any of his cohorts, sticking to side roads that ran parallel (mostly) to the Interstate that would take them directly to Omaha, Nebraska.

They’d covered hundreds of miles in less than a week, and the goal of Omaha was literally within sight. The terrain was flat and ahead in the distance, across a glistening river, was the city of Omaha.

Anna had briefed them all on what to expect, and the forecast hadn’t been pretty.

“Omaha is a relatively major city,” Anna had said. “Bearing that in mind, we’re probably looking at an overrun, infected dead zone. The bad news is that the Deucalion facility is on the far side of the city. The good news is that we can circle around pretty easily.”

“Good to hear,” Matt had said. “That keeps us from having to take out half the city on our way through.”

“And it keeps the infected from following us to the front door of the facility,” Anna agreed.

“What about the facility itself?” Trev asked. “What are we looking at there?”

“Well, one of two possibilities,” Anna admitted. “First, there’s a chance that Frank and his friends—that’s the General I told you about who I asked to meet me here—have already arrived and secured the facility. The other possibility is that they haven’t arrived yet and we’ll have to clear it out ourselves.”

“Do we know if it’s overrun or not?” Junko asked.

“No idea,” Anna said. “We lost all communication early on in the pandemic. The facility closed its doors and buttoned up.”

“So that’s good news,” Matt said. “Maybe they survived. Maybe we’ll arrive and the place will still be running.”

“There’s a chance that’s the case,” Anna said tentatively. “But we’re going to have to assume that it’s not. There are only five of us here and we aren’t the best armed group out there, so if it’s infected, we have quite a chore ahead of us.”

“What about Sawyer?” Trev asked. “If it’s true he knew where you all were headed, won’t he be right behind us, too?”

Mason stepped up to answer that one.

“I’d say there’s an excellent chance that we’re going to run across him sooner or later, especially now that we’re getting so close. He knows exactly where we’re headed, he’s determined to stop us, and he has more resources behind him than we can muster. We’re just going to have to hope he isn’t here yet.”

“Hope’s a pretty flimsy thing to hang our lives on,” Matt said, frowning.

“Just be glad we’ve got that much,” Mason replied. “All right, if we’re going to do this, we’re going to do it right. Like Anna said, we’ll circle around the city.”

“Then we all go on foot to the facility,” Matt said, nodding. “Got it.”

“No, no,” Mason said, shaking his head. “Once we’re on foot, you’re all coming with me. I’ve done this before. Listen close to anything I say. If I stop, you stop. If I go, you go. Pay close attention to me and don’t fall behind. Got that?”

“Yeah, sure,” Matt said, shrugging. “Got it.”

Mason leaned in closer to Matt, narrowing his eyes. “I said, ‘got that?’ ”

Matt frowned at Mason. “Yeah, I said. I got it.”

Mason sighed, then continued. “Once we reach the facility, we’ll have to clear it room by room. That means we’ll have to set up a safe zone from which we can operate. That’ll be the main entryway, most likely, since it’ll afford us a quick retreat if we need it. We’ll reinforce the main doors, get situated, and then get the facility back up and running. If Sherman and his people are already there, then happy fucking day—we’re in for a picnic. Anyway, that’s about it. Trev, can you get us around the city?”

Trev looked over his shoulder from the driver’s seat of the pickup and flashed a thumbs-up at Mason. “Not a problem. I’ve been reading this map while you’ve been talking. I see a route that should be clear.”

“Great. All right, gang, here we go,” Mason said, sitting down and holding on to the siderail of the pickup’s bed.

Trev turned his head once more to address the passengers in the bed as the truck picked up speed, turning onto a narrow two-lane side road. “Attention all passengers: thank you for riding Westscott Roadways. We are now beginning our final approach into Omaha, Nebraska. Please keep your hands, feet, and all loose articles secured within the vehicle until it comes to a full and complete stop. In the event of an infected attack, fire at will and hope to hell you don’t fall out. Once again, thank you, and have a pleasant trip.”

“Now there’s a morale-boosting speech,” Junko chuckled.

“Mama always said I should’ve been a pilot,” Trev said.

The truck puttered on, turning from side street to side street. They passed through suburbs, and more than once Trev had to gun the engine to outrun a sprinter that caught on their tail. Once the sprinter lost sight of the truck, it would keep heading in the last direction it had seen its prey go, allowing Trev to throw them off with relative ease.

What had once been life-filled suburbs were now silent and eerie. Vehicles sat abandoned on the curb or in driveways, and children’s toys lay out gathering mildew in untended yards. Here and there were signs of violence. A burned-out car sat at one intersection, having collided with a telephone pole. Spent brass littered the asphalt in another location, and smears of blood led away from the spot, hinting at a last stand by a surrounded survivor.

The charred and gutted remains of a suburban house still smoldered off to their right. The fire hadn’t spread to any of the nearby homes, but had burned the leaves from the yard’s only tree, leaving behind a skeletal, haunting sight. Junko wasn’t sure but she thought she saw the outline of a human body, blackened from the intense heat, leaned up against one of the posts.

There wasn’t much conversation as Trev artfully dodged the obstacles left in the roadway and brought them ever closer to the side of the city where the facility was supposed to be located. Every occupant of the truck was busy in their own way; mostly, they worried over the possibility of imminent death, but others, like Mason, were once again running on autopilot, training taking precedence over normal emotion.

“We’re close,” Trev warned after taking a right turn onto a street running north. “Two minutes, maybe.”

Mason shoved the MP-5 he’d taken from Julie’s killer toward Anna, loaded and ready to fire. The other he looped over his shoulder. He checked his magazines, making certain they were topped off, and secured his sidearm in its holster. By the time he was finished running down his mental checklist, Trev had arrived at the spot he’d picked to ditch the truck.

The vehicle slowed to a stop and idled on a street corner. Trev looked over his shoulder to address his passengers.

“This is about as close as we can get without getting into the more-developed areas of the city,” he said. “Anna, if your information’s right, we only have about a six block walk from here.”

“Six blocks,” Anna repeated, nodding.

“That’s actually a lot, when you think about the number of infected that could be out there,” Junko mused, staring off in the direction Trev had pointed. “We’ll have to be very careful.”

“And that’s why I meant what I said back there,” Mason said, standing in the bed of the truck and flicking the safety to his MP-5 off. “Stay on me and do what I do. No talking. Don’t do anything—anything—unless I O.K. it first. Are you all ready for this?”

“Ready as I’ll ever be,” Matt said, jumping over the side of the truck and coming up on his feet, rifle at the ready.

“Let’s get to it,” Trev said, climbing out of the cab. Junko followed suit. Neither shut their doors; instead, they left them barely hanging open. They made no more noise than was absolutely necessary.

Mason silently signaled for the group to file in behind him and led them down the street in the direction Trev and Anna had indicated. Here were mostly industrial complexes: large, spawling acres of factory floors, warehouses and smoke stacks. Lining one side of the road, however, was a long line of rowhouses and storefronts. Mason focused in on those buildings: if there were infected about, those would be the buildings where they’d elect to hide and wait.

They made it past the first two blocks without incident, but when they reached the third, Mason inexplicably stopped in his tracks. Anna, used to him, stopped immediately as well. Trev, Juni and Matt were less accustomed to Mason’s modus operandi and bumped into Anna’s back when she halted in place. Trev was tempted to ask in a whisper what had Mason spooked, but he remembered the ex-NSA agent’s warning to make no noise unless absolutely necessary. He kept his mouth shut.

Mason stared off down the block, eyes focusing in on shattered glass that lay scattered across the sidewalk. The storefront the glass belonged to was wide open. The rest of the doors and windows seemed secure.

Mason turned his head to look at the group. He pointed down the street, as if to say, “Proceed,” and then turned on his heel and marched briskly at a half-crouch down an alleyway, leaving behind his comrades.

“Where’s he going?” Matt whispered in an urgent tone.

“Shh!” Anna reprimanded him with a sharp glare. “We keep going. He knows what he’s doing.”

As the main group continued to proceed tentatively down the street, Mason crept along the alleyway behind the rowhouses, eyeing each rear doorway as he passed it. He finally reached the one on the far end. Instead of passing it by, he tested the doorknob and found it to be unlocked. A small smile creased his features as he disappeared into the store.

On the street, Anna felt less and less sure of herself. Whatever had spooked Mason was now spooking her, though she had no idea what it could have been. She aimed left and right with the MP-5, checking every nook and cranny the group came across, but found nothing. As they approached the far end of the block, she finally noticed the shattered glass.

Anna grimaced and stepped off the sidewalk, intent on walking around the glass to keep from crunching it under her feet and possibly alerting any nearby infected. Unfortunately, Matt didn’t notice her maneuver and proceeded straight ahead. His booted foot came down on the glass and crunched loudly.

The group froze. The sound of shuffling feet came from the direction of the storefront, and they swiveled their heads in its direction. There, silhouetted in the broken window, was the bloodied figure of a sprinter, staring at the group with wrathful, bloodshot eyes and wild, unkempt hair. It sucked in a quick breath.

Anna’s eyes went wide. She knew what was coming next—the growl. The thing would roar, and every sprinter and shambler within earshot would come down on their heads.

Before the roar could come out, however, Mason appeared behind the sprinter. He’d slung his MP-5 and drawn his combat knife. In one swift motion he slit the sprinter’s throat, and it gasped as blood burbled out through the cut. It slumped forward to its knees and collapsed face-first in the storefront, head and shoulders hanging out over the edge of the broken window. Mason stepped out of the storefront and knelt next to the dead sprinter, cleaning his knife on the corpse’s clothing before resheathing it.

“Holy shit,” Matt stage-whispered. “You knew he was there?”

“I suspected,” Mason said. “Let’s keep going.”

The group crossed a four-way intersection. A heavy traffic collision had occurred there at some point. Empty cars were backed up half a block in each direction, and five vehicles were all piled into the center of the intersection, frames bent and windows shattered from running full-speed into one another. Mason glanced up at the dark traffic lights and wondered if the power had gone out and caused the accidents.

When they reached the next block, Anna grew visibly excited. She pointed down the street, tapping Mason on the shoulder.

“There it is!” she said. Her finger pointed out a squat brick structure that blended in perfectly with the industrial facilities around it. It stood only one story high and had few windows on the ground level. The front of the building was similarly spartan in its design: a pair of windows allowed a view of the street from within, and a pair of glass-faced double doors led the way in.

As Mason turned his head to look at the building, he could have sworn he saw a flutter of movement on the rooftop. He narrowed his eyes and stared, standing in place. The rest of the group silently waited behind him for news.

A pair of pigeons suddenly took off from the roof of the building, winging it deeper into the ruined city. Mason huffed a sigh. Nothing but birds. He waved the group onward. Only two more blocks to go.

Trev was taking note of the buildings they passed. He was the last in the line of survivors, the rear guard, and he felt a combined sense of duty to keep an eye on their asses and a sense of curiosity about the environment they were embedding themselves in. The storefronts that ran opposite the industrial zones were widely varied in their offerings and many of them were dusty and boarded up. Trev wasn’t sure whether they’d closed their doors before the pandemic or after, only that they held nothing that would be of use. Two of the stores were consignment shops; Trev marked them down in his head as possibilities. After all, a person could only wear the same clothes so many times before they started to fall apart.

When they reached the final block, Mason halted the party and waved his finger in a circle, beckoning them closer. He knelt on the pavement and the others followed suit, casting glances over their shoulders every now and then.

“All right, listen up,” Mason said. “We don’t know what’s in that building now, but we’re going to assume it’s full of infected, so lock and load. When we get up from this huddle, we move straight for that building and we don’t stop for anything. We get inside, we clear the first room, and we lock it down. Once we’re safe in that room, we plan our next move. Roger?”

“Got it,” Matt said.

“I’m with you,” Trev replied.

“All right,” Mason said, double-checking the safety on his MP-5 to make certain it was off. “Let’s roll.”

The group sprung up from their huddle and darted out into the intersection—this one blessedly clear of traffic accidents and abandoned cars—and made a beeline for the building Anna had pointed out.

They made it about halfway.

A gutteral roar interrupted their run, and Mason and Trev cast about for the source of the noise. It could only have come from an infected. When they looked down the side street they were passing by, they spotted the source.

A sprinter had been lounging in the shade provided by a shop’s stoop, and upon sighting the group of survivors, it had pulled itself to its feet and growled. When Mason and Trev spotted it, it was still standing in its shady spot, but it was staring directly at them, arms held out to its sides, fingers extended as though ready to claw its way through them.

“Shit,” Mason murmured. He raised his MP-5, drawing a bead on the infected’s skull. He knew the gunshots would bring more infected running, but he didn’t see any other choice. Before he could fire, a hand reached out and lowered the barrel of the weapon. Mason looked over to see Trev.

“I’ve got this,” Trev said, reaching down to his belt. He pulled free a simple baton, snapped it open, and waved the rest of the group on.

“Whoa, whoa, you’re kidding me—” Mason started, eyes widening at the sight of Trev’s choice of weapons. Melee combat with the infected was, in essence, suicide—if one got blood on oneself or was so much as scratched in the fighting, that would spell the end of the combatant. Junko stopped Mason’s protests by placing herself between Mason and Trev.

“Let him,” Juni said. “He’s done it this way before. He knows what he’s doing.”

Even as Juni spoke, two more sprinters appeared in the roadway, jumping out of darkened doorways and running up out of cellars. Now Trev faced three infected, and still Juni kept Mason from involving himself.

Trev looked over his shoulder at Mason.

“Let me go, man,” he said. “I can take three demons. Hell, I can take five of the fuckers. Get everyone inside—I’ll do this my way. No noise, no more company.”

Mason knew Trev was right: a single gunshot could have several city blocks’ worth of infected bearing down on them, ironically a much louder and better-suited call to dinner than the roar of the infected. Trev’s baton, on the other hand, was soundless. Secretly, he felt Trev was going to die in the process of letting the rest of the group get away.

But if that’s how he wants to go out, Mason said to himself, who am I to stop him?

“Move out!” Mason said, shoving Anna in the direction of the research facility. “Go, go, go!”

“But we can’t just—” Anna protested, pointing in Trev’s direction.

“Yes, we can!” Mason growled. “Go! Now!”

The remaining four survivors ran straight for the facility doors, leaving Trev alone in the middle of the intersection, baton in one hand, the other balled into a white-knuckled fist at his side. He tapped the baton against his leg steadily, staring down the three infected.

Trev glanced up at the sun. It had already begun to slide down toward the horizon. He’d missed high noon.

Oh, well, Trev thought. Any time’s a good time for a showdown.

“Well,” Trev said after a moment, raising his voice just loud enough for the infected to hear, “are you three just going to stand there, or are we going to dance?”

It may have been Trev’s voice that jolted the infected into action, or perhaps it was some unspoken agreement between the three, but all of them broke out into a flat-out run toward Trev at that moment, arms flailing wildly. The distance between Trev and the infected closed rapidly.

The entire time the infected were running at him Trev remained motionless, save for the metronome-like tapping of the baton against his leg.

Then they were upon him, and the battle was joined.

————————

Mason and Matt were the first two to reach the main doors of the research facility. Mason fired off a quick prayer that they weren’t locked, and found his prayer answered when he pulled on the left-hand door and it swung open easily. Matt pulled open the right, ushering in Juni and Anna, who both entered with weapons at the ready.

Mason and Matt followed suit, allowing the doors to shut behind them.

Mason readied his MP-5 and took in the room they found themselves in. It was a wide, open space; a reception area. A receptionist’s desk stood across the room, protected by thick safety glass, and a pair of steel doors directly in front of them led to the rest of the facility. These were the first things Mason noticed.

The second thing Mason noticed was the furniture in the room, which had been dragged to either side of the main entrance and piled high to form a mish-mash pair of walls, hemming in the little group in the center of the room. Mason’s stomach did a flip-flop. It didn’t feel right.

Anna didn’t seem to notice anything out of the ordinary. She was focused on the steel double doors and the tiny black card reader embedded in their center. The red light on the reader was out, as were the overhead lights. That was good. Security was down, which meant they’d be able to access the entire facility. She began to walk toward the double doors.

Suddenly, the room became a flurry of activity. On either side of the group, from behind the furniture-walls, appeared men in urban camouflage, wearing balaclavas and wielding assault rifles. Four had popped up on either side of the group, and for a moment, all was chaos as threats, surprised curses and orders were shouted back and forth.

“Drop the weapons!”

“You’re surrounded and outgunned! Lay down arms!”

“Where the fuck did these guys come from?” Matt blurted.

“Weapons down! Down! Now!”

The room slowly silented. The four survivors stood back-to-back in the center of the room, surrounded by the well-armed men. Mason calculated their odds of survival and swallowed. This was a perfectly executed ambush—these men had known they were coming.

That meant Sawyer, which in turn meant laying down his weapon was as good as killing himself. Sawyer would see him executed if he was caught. At the same time, though, opening fire on these men in their current situation was as good as killing himself as well.

“Mason?” came Anna’s voice from over Mason’s shoulder. “What are we doing?”

Fingers tightened on triggers around the room, and for a moment the only sound was the clink and clatter of gear rustling on pistol belts.

Mason frowned, feeling slightly sick to his stomach. All that traveling—only to be caught the moment they arrived.

“Lay ’em down,” Mason softly said, lowering the barrel of his MP-5. He dropped it to the floor, and slowly unholstered his pistol, tossing it to the floor as well. Around him, his companions did the same, disarming themselves.

“Hands up!” came a command from one of the masked, uniformed men.

Three of the ambushers came out from behind their cover, approaching the survivors carefully, weapons still trained on their targets. They kicked the weapons away from the survivors, back toward the main entrance, and once they were satisfied, they backed away, lowering their own weapons.

The steel double doors that led deeper into the facility burst open, and the small group of survivors spun around, half-expecting a new threat of some kind. Instead, framed in the doorway was a single man, dressed in nearly-identical fatigues as the ambushers. Instead of a balaclava, however, this man went bareheaded, and instead of wielding a rifle, he merely carried a pistol in a low-slung hip holster. He walked forward slowly, fixing Mason with a stare.

“Well, I’ll be damned,” Mason said, eyeing the newcomer. “I didn’t think you’d stick with Sawyer after all this, Derrick.”

Special Agent Derrick, NSA, quirked a grin at his former partner.

“Sawyer’s working for the good of the country, buddy,” Derrick said. “He’s out to find a cure. That’s what we should all be after.”

Mason chuckled. “That is what I’m after, Derrick. That’s why we’re here. To try to find a vaccine.”

“Vaccine?” Derrick said, raising his eyebrows. “No, Mason, we want a cure. There are millions of people out there we can save. Think about it—no more of this killing, no more innocents dead—just hit them with a dart gun and inject them with a cure. Think of the lives we could save.”

“You’re not going to find a cure,” Anna said, looking down at the floor.

“The prodigal doctor speaks,” Derrick said, still grinning. He shifted his attention from Mason to Anna. “We’ve been after you a long, long time, doc. You know how many people have died trying to find you? You should have stayed put. We might’ve already had the cure if we’d had you working on our side all this time.”

Anna shook her head. “You didn’t hear me. I said you’re not going to find a cure. You almost never find a cure for a virus. The best you can do is vaccinate the remaining population—”

“Shut up,” Derrick said, his face reddening. “There is a cure. There has to be a cure. And you’re going to find it—once we get you back east. We haven’t just been bumbling around these past few months. We’ve got an entire hospital staff rounded up and ready to help you, Doctor.”

“There isn’t a cure,” Anna said, dejected. “I don’t know how to convince you.”

“You can’t, because you’re lying,” Derrick growled between clenched teeth. “I’ve heard it straight from other doctors, straight from our leaders—there’s a cure, and you’re a piece of the puzzle. You’re going back east with us, Doc.”

“You’re the man with the gun,” Anna said, shaking her head.

“That’s right, I am,” Derrick said, quirking another grin. “Foster!”

One of the uniformed men snapped to attention. “Sir!”

“Get Sawyer on SatCom.”

The man nodded and jogged over to one of the piles of furniture, dragging out a large black duffel bag. He unzipped it, revealing a menagerie of odds and ends, the largest of which was a satellite phone. He pulled it free, set it on one of the room’s couches, and worked on establishing a line directly to Sawyer.

“One minute, sir,” Foster said, fiddling with the phone.

“Secure the prisoners,” Derrick said, nodding in the direction of Mason and the others.

Two more uniformed men approached the group from behind, pulled zipties from their pistol belts and firmly tied the group’s hands behind their backs. The plastic zipties dug into Mason’s skin and hurt, but he pushed the pain to the back of his mind. If Derrick was calling Sawyer on a satellite phone, that meant that he still had a chance to get out of his current situation before he was shot as a traitor. He began wracking his brain for just such a way out.

Next to him stood Matt, eyes silently roving from one guard to the next. The young man didn’t say a word and hadn’t protested when the men had ziptied his hands behind his back. Now that the guards had backed off, Matt moved his hands slowly, pulling free a tiny pocketknife that had been clipped to the back of his belt. He clicked it open and began to saw away at the ziptie. It was slow going, as he had next to no leverage, but he kept going, a steady back-and-forth.

“Sawyer on line, sir,” Foster said, standing up from the satellite phone and handing the receiver to Derrick. The NSA agent stepped forward and accepted the receiver, holding it up to his ear.

“Derrick here,” he said.

The other end of the conversation was inaudible to the group, but Mason could guess what was being said.

“Yes, sir,” Derrick said. “Flawless. They walked right into us.”

A pause.

“Give me a second, Sawyer,” Derrick said into the mouthpiece. He held the receiver down against his chest and surveyed the four captives. “Let’s see, now. You I know, Mason. And Doc, I recognize you, too. I don’t know these other two. Where’s Ortiz?”

Mason scowled at Derrick and looked away.

“You shot her,” Anna said, staring Derrick down. “Back on the highway a few days ago.”

Derrick shook his head twice. “I didn’t shoot anyone.”

“One of your men did.”

“Ah,” Derrick said, nodding. “That explains it.”

He picked the receiver back up.

“Sawyer, I have Mason and Demilio here. They have two unknowns with them. Ortiz is dead; she didn’t make the journey,” Derrick said. He paused, listening to Sawyer’s response, and eyed Mason. “Well, at least he finished him off. One moment.”

Derrick lowered the receiver again.

“Mason, I have to tell you, Sawyer’s mighty pissed off about what you did to those men on the interstate, especially the one you worked over. He told me to tell you he’s going to take it out on your hide.”

“Tell Sawyer I said ‘fuck you’ for me, Derrick,” Mason said, looking away.

Derrick raised the receiver once more.

“He said exactly what you said he’d say,” Derrick reported, then chuckled. “Roger. ETA?”

A long pause as Derrick waited for his response. Mason was busily trying to piece together the conversation using just Derrick’s end of it with little success; as close as he could figure, Derrick was merely reporting the captures and setting up a meeting to pass them off.

“That’s a hell of a long time, Sawyer,” Derrick said suddenly. “No, no, we can hold until then. We brought enough with us to last two weeks. The prisoners might not get much in the way of eats in that time, though.”

Derrick grinned at something Sawyer said on the other end.

“Not a problem at all. Half rations it is. As long as they’re in working order, right?” Derrick asked. “Roger that. Derrick out.”

The NSA agent dropped the receiver into Foster’s hands and faced the captives.

“All right, folks, listen up,” Derrick said. Everyone including the uniformed men perked up. “We’re going to dig in here for a little while and wait for Sawyer to come and take the Doc back east. We’ve got a nice set of windowless offices in the back we can use as cells in the meantime. Foster, Hurley, David—bring the prisoners with me. Jackson and Smith, stay here and guard the main entrance. You other three, get up on the roof and resume surveillance.”

Mason could have kicked himself upon hearing that last part. He knew he’d seen something on the roof of the building, and had let the pigeons throw his instinct off-track. He should’ve spotted the ambush before they’d walked into it, and now it was too late, he thought, as they were led deeper into the facility, hands bound tightly, destined for their temporary holding cells.

————————

The first of the infected that reached Trev had been a police officer. It still wore its uniform, and still sported an ugly, festering wound on its arm. Trev ducked under the infected’s tackle and came up behind it, allowing it to fall forward onto the pavement, carried there by its own inertia.

The remaining two sprinters were right behind the first.

As Trev came up out of his duck, he was already attacking, bringing his baton upward in a parody of a golfer’s stroke. The end of the baton caught one of the infected under the chin, and its head snapped back, spraying blood from its mouth. It staggered backwards a moment, off-balance.

Trev wheeled around, using his own momentum to maximize the striking power of the baton, and brought his weapon slamming into the side of the head of the third infected. The thing’s skull cracked under the impact, splattering blood on Trev’s weapon. The infected fell flat on the pavement with wide, surprised eyes, dispatched for good. Blood pooled around its skull.

Trev turned his attention to the ex-cop infected. It had regained its balance and spun to face him once more. The rage in its eyes had grown; frustration at being evaded had upped its adrenaline. Trev recognized the look, and was ready when the ex-cop sprung at him.

Trev jumped nimbly to one side, again dodging the infected’s attack. He used the momentary opportunity to wheel on the bloodied infected he’d uppercutted, bringing his baton down hard on the top of its skull. Unlike the one he’d put down, this one withstood the blow, but went down to the pavement, unconscious. Trev filed that little bit of tactical knowledge away in the back of his mind—he’d have to finish it off when he got a chance.

The ex-cop turned from its second foiled attack and glared at Trev. It leaned its head back and roared once more, then charged a third time.

Trev was tiring of dodging the infected. This time, as it reached him, he simply sidestepped, held out one foot, and tripped the infected.

The ex-cop fell hard onto the street, and Trev could hear the breath get knocked out of the infected’s lungs. He didn’t care. He didn’t give it a chance to draw another breath, much less climb back on its feet. Trev was on it before it could move again, swinging the baton overhanded and bringing it down on the infected’s skull over and over until little remained but a pulpy mess.

Trev rose from the cop’s body, took a deep, shuddering breath, and steadied himself. Three attackers, three victories.

Oh, wait, Trev thought. Two victories.

He took two steps back, eyed the unconscious sprinter, and stomped hard on the back of its neck. A quick, loud snap reached his ears.

That one won’t be getting back up, Trev thought. Now there are three victories.

Trev straightened himself out, cracking his neck and shaking the baton free of gore. He was just about to reach down and clean it off on the clothing of one of the dead sprinters when he heard a raspy, gutteral moan echo across the street. Trev froze in place and raised his head, looking off in the direction of the noise.

Half a dozen shamblers, drawn by the roar of the sprinters, had stumbled into the roadway and were heading straight for Trev. He judged the distance between them and himself, and figured he had a good thirty seconds to kill—then he heard a second moan, and turned his attention to his left, down another street.

This road, too, was swiftly filling with shamblers. Trev’s eyes went wide and he looked to his right. Even more shamblers were approaching from that direction. Trev rose to his feet and began backing toward the research facility. He had every confidence in his own abilities when it came to fighting the infected, but he knew a losing proposition when he saw one, and a losing proposition was heading toward him right then, numbering several dozen.

Trev turned, intent on jogging the rest of the way to the research facility and warning the others of the incoming threat. The street leading to the facility had likewise become infested with shamblers. Four of them were already between him and the facility.

“Well, shit,” Trev murmured under his breath.

The roar had drawn all of the infected in a one-block radius from the intersection where he’d fought the sprinters.

“Now or never,” Trev said to himself. He shook out the baton once more and broke into a run, clubbing the first of the shamblers out of the way and dodging between the second and third. The fourth he repeated his wind-up golfer’s swing on, snapping its head back. It tipped backwards on its feet and fell motionless to the street. The way to the facility was clear.

Trev ran toward the glass double-doors, a hand outstretched to yank them open.

Several events transpired at that precise moment. Above Trev, the three rooftop guards emerged into the sunlight at the same time Trev disappeared from view below. All that greeted them upon their arrival was a view of the streets and the shamblers working their way, bit by bit, toward the research facility. Below, in the entryway, Jackson and Smith, the two guards Derrick had left behind, were just beginning to relax. Jackson was in the middle of passing a cigarette to Smith when Trev’s hand gripped the door handle.

As Trev burst into the entryway, Jackson and Smith turned to look at him, surprise etched on their features. A lit cigarette dangled from Jackson’s lips. For a long moment, the men stared at one another—then burst into motion.

Trev’s mind, still racing at a mile-a-minute from his encounter with the infected, first guessed that these were the soldiers that Mason and Anna had kept speaking of, the ones they were trying to meet up with.

That thought was dashed when Jackson and Smith went for their pistols.

Trev dove sideways and skidded to a stop half-behind one of the piles of furniture, fumbling for his own weapon. He freed it from its holster, flicked the safety off, and took aim.

————————

“It wasn’t easy tracking you down along the way,” Derrick was saying as he led the small group through the twisting, disorienting corridors of the research facility. “All those side roads we had to cover. We figured you’d use the interstate at some point, and that hunch paid off—I guess. Depends on your point of view.”

Mason wasn’t listening much. He was paying attention to their surroundings. They’d passed a number of offices and some storage rooms but nothing much that looked like any kind of laboratory. He guessed they were on another level—in a basement, perhaps. The facility was only one story, after all. He also paid close attention to the men escorting them. The three uniformed men and Derrick formed a diamond around their prisoners, with Derrick in the lead. Mason was right behind his former partner, with Matt off to one side and Juni to his other. Anna brought up the rear, looking rather dejected at having been caught.

Matt, meanwhile, was still sawing away at the ziptie that bound his hands together. As Derrick rambled on about their search for Doctor Demilio, he suddenly felt the plastic snap and part. His wrists were free. Matt was careful to keep his expression neutral as he palmed the knife and shifted his grip on it. He kept his wrists held tightly together behind his back to create the illusion of them being bound, and waited for his moment.

Mason, too, was waiting for his moment. Even with his hands tied, he knew he could take at least one of the guards, given an opportunity. He just hoped his companions would back him up.

————————

In the entryway, Trev and the two guards opened fire on each other. Bullets ripped into the stacked couches and chairs and buried themselves in walls. One put a spiderweb of cracks in the receptionist’s window. All three parties scrambled for better cover.

————————

In the hall, the sound of shooting suddenly reached the ears of the guards and their prisoners.

“What the hell?” asked one, turning to look back in the direction of the entryway—and providing Matt and Mason with their respective opportunities.

Mason lashed out immediately at Derrick from behind, kicking the back of the man’s leg and buckling it. Derrick went down with a grunt, and Mason followed up his attack with a snap-kick to the back of Derrick’s head. The man fell forward, stunned.

Matt slammed his shoulder into the chest of the guard to his right at the same moment, and the pair ran up against the concrete wall. The guard’s head snapped back and hit the wall with a sickening crack. He slid down the concrete and slumped against the wall, unmoving.

“Mason!” Matt called.

Mason turned in time to see Matt, hands free, tossing him the small pocket knife. Mason half-turned just enough to catch the blade in his bound hands. He immediately began to saw away at his restraints.

Juni had thrown herself against her guard as well, but her results weren’t as dramatic. The guard pushed her off of himself and backpedaled, drawing his weapon. The fourth guard, upon seeing the prisoners’ sudden revolt, grabbed Anna and drew his own weapon, holding it up to the side of the doctor’s head. He pulled Anna backwards, putting a few feet between himself and the fight. The guard Juni had bodyslammed fell back alongside his companion, and both guards pointed their weapons at the prisoners.

“Don’t move, don’t move!” they warned. “We’ll wax her!”

Matt leaned down and grabbed the assault rifle off of the shoulder of the guard he’d bodyslammed and held it up, aiming at the head of the guard who held Anna. The man noticed and ducked back behind her, barely presenting a target. Matt eased his finger off the trigger, unwilling to take the shot and possibly hit Anna.

“Wax her and you wax the cure you’re after,” Mason said calmly, holding up his newly freed hands and passing the knife off to Juni to free herself.

Gunfire still echoed through the corridor, hinting at conflicts yet unresolved in the rest of the facility.

“Take off!” came a grunted order from behind Mason. He turned to see Derrick pulling himself to his feet, a look of rage on his face. “I said take off! Get the doctor away from here, put her in a room, lock it, and guard it. The rest of these piss-ants are expendable.”

Mason turned to face Derrick. The NSA agent was the deadliest threat in the hallway, and Mason knew it. He wasn’t about to leave his back turned on the man. Over his shoulder he addressed Juni and Matt.

“Get the doc,” he said. “I’ll handle Derrick.”

Matt and Juni faced off with the two armed guards. Anna kicked and struggled against the one that held her, but her attempts at escape were futile. The man had his arm wrapped securely around her throat; the more she struggled against him, the more she choked herself.

“Back off,” ordered the guard holding Anna. He stared down Matt and Juni.

“Not going to happen,” Matt said, staring down the barrel of the assault rifle.

Juni felt somewhat helpless next to him, unarmed as she was, but she brandished the pocketknife and tried her best to plaster a feral expression on her face.

————————

Mason and Derrick faced one another a few meters away. Derrick had finished clambering back up to his feet and was dusting himself off, looking none the worse for wear despite the heavy kick to the back of the head Mason had given him.

“Shouldn’t have let you stay behind me,” Derrick mused. “Learn something new every day.”

“Here’s another lesson for you,” Mason said. “Don’t fuck with us.”

Derrick chuckled, shaking his head. “And who is ‘us,’ exactly, Mason? You’re a lone rogue. You’re nothing.”

“You’re wrong,” Mason replied. “I’ve been trying my damndest to get Demilio here so she could work toward a vaccine—and now you’re going to just ship her back east. Can’t let that happen, Derrick. We’ve come to far and we’ve lost too much. I’m no lone rogue. It’s you and the rest of your little breakaway faction that’s gone rogue.”

Derrick’s eyebrows raised a fraction of an inch for a split second only, but Mason caught the microexpression and grinned.

“Didn’t think I was keeping up-to-date on national politics, did you? Sawyer tell you about the shooter I worked over out on the interstate? He told me some real interesting things,” Mason said.

Mason and Derrick were now slowly circling one another in the hallway, each looking for an opening in their opponent’s defense and finding none.

“Oh, yeah?” Derrick asked. “And what did he tell you?”

“Enough to know that you and Sawyer broke off with half of Congress and formed your own little plan to ‘stabilize’ the country,” Mason said. “From what I heard it’s bullshit. There is no cure. Hell, there isn’t even a vaccine—yet. And you’re getting in the way of us finding even that much.”

“A vaccine won’t help my infected wife,” Derrick snarled, and suddenly burst into motion. His hand slipped behind his back for a moment and came up less than a second later with a compact automatic pistol.

Mason was nearly caught off-guard, but he leaned back just far and fast enough to allow Derrick’s first shot to miss. Mason used his momentum to swing around and snap off a side-kick, connecting solidly with Derrick’s arm. The compact pistol went skittering down the hall, ricocheted off of a doorway, and spun into an office. The two combatants fell back from one another, now both unarmed, and dropped into combat stances, hands held out in front of them and legs spread, their centers of gravity low.

“Last time I got this kind of workout I put Sawyer under,” Mason muttered, referring to a hand-to-hand match he’d had with Sawyer when he, Anna and Julie had been trying to escape from Washington.

“Sawyer didn’t hit the gym six times a week,” Derrick countered, and attacked.

Derrick launched a flurry of punches in Mason’s direction. Mason held his arms in close, absorbing the blows and keeping an eye on Derrick’s legs. He’d sparred with the agent before and knew a thing or two about his style—throw off his opponent with lots of high attacks, and then leg-sweep him.

Sure enough, after the last punch had been deflected, Derrick’s left leg lashed out in an attempt to trip up Mason and put him on the ground.

Mason was ready for it. He blocked the kick and followed up with a quick one-two combination to Derrick’s stomach.

Derrick recoiled, the breath knocked out of him, and narrowed his eyes at Mason. The ex-NSA agent was in his combat stance, resting on the tips of his feet, ready to spring in any direction. Mason simply held out a hand and beckoned Derrick forward.

“Come on, asshole,” Mason said. “You wanted a fight, you’ve got one.”

Mason wasn’t prepared for Derrick’s next move. The agency had taught them a touch of jiu-jitsu, but had mainly focused on simple boxing and basic martial arts. The agency didn’t make ninjas out of its agents—it made artful brawlers out of them. The one thing it definitely didn’t make them was wrestlers, and that was why Mason was surprised when Derrick launched a tackle in his direction.

Mason, balanced nimbly on his feet, tried to jump out of the way in time and failed. Derrick hit Mason full-force in the chest, grabbing him in a bear hug and bringing him down hard on his back.

Mason felt his head crack off the floor and his vision burst into bright lights and twinkling stars, then swam drunkenly. The ceiling tiles zoomed in and out of focus. Derrick, straddling Mason’s chest, didn’t let him off so easily. He reared back and struck Mason over and over in the face with balled-up fists, bringing Mason closer to the brink of unconsciousness.

Derrick’s attacks fell off just before Mason dropped off into the darkness. He stood, eyeing Mason’s bloodied face, and grinned.

“Looks like this round goes to me,” Derrick said, wiping blood from his knuckles.

He turned his back on Mason and looked down the hallway. Now, which office did that pistol skid in to?

Derrick spotted the open doorway and headed toward it. He swung into the doorway and looked around on the floor inside. There, just a few feet away from him, lay the pistol, half under a desk. He took one step toward it before a roar of frustration and rage rose up behind him and Mason appeared, full-body tackling Derrick. The two agents crashed into the office, upsetting a coat rack and the pair of chairs that sat in front of the desk.

“Jesus, you just don’t give up!” Derrick cursed.

“I get that a lot,” Mason replied, using his opportunity to throw a couple of kidney punches into Derrick’s back.

The agent arched his back and grunted, gritting his teeth against the pain, and reached out a hand toward the desk. His index finger just barely brushed the grip of the pistol. He felt the blows of another pair of kidney punches and pushed the pain to the back of his mind, focusing on the pistol. He managed to slide it an inch closer to himself and he grabbed it up, blindly aiming it over his shoulder and firing twice.

Mason saw the pistol appear in Derrick’s hand and rolled backwards off of the agent. The two shots embedded themselves in the ceiling tiles, and bits of dust rained down on the combatants.

Mason jumped to his feet as Derrick began to rise. He knew he couldn’t let his opponent get in another aimed shot—it was a miracle he hadn’t already been hit.

Mason tried for another snap-kick, but Derrick pulled his arm out of the way in time. The kick landed on Derrick’s side, and Mason heard a muffled crack. He’d broken a rib or two with that one.

Derrick rolled over onto his back, pistol held out in both hands as he took aim at Mason. Mason had no real time to react: he simply dove across the room, praying that none of Derrick’s shots would hit him. The first shot took a chunk out of the concrete wall. The second shattered the office’s only window, sending shards of glass flying and leaving a few jagged edges in the windowframe.

The third skipped off the top of the desk and embedded itself in Mason’s shoulder just as he came in for his landing. He grunted as he felt the round strike home, and clasped a hand to the wound. Blood oozed out from between his fingers.

Derrick pulled himself to his feet and raised his pistol, moving around the desk to get a better view of his target—but Mason was gone. For a split second, Derrick wondered where his opponent had vanished to, then got his answer as Mason appeared on the opposite end of the desk. He’d rolled underneath it and come up on the other side.

The two combatants froze in place a moment. Derrick had his pistol pointed directly at Mason’s chest, with his back to the shattered window. Mason, unarmed, stood a brace of feet from Derrick, one hand still clasped over his bullet wound.

“Round one went to me,” Derrick said, “and it looks like round two is going to be a K.O.”

Derrick tightened his finger’s grip on the trigger.

At the same moment Mason lashed out with a desperate kick, shoving Derrick backwards. Derrick’s shot went off just as Mason’s boot connected with his chest.

Both agents fell backwards. Mason had felt the punch of the second bullet striking home, and he wondered for a moment if it was a fatal hit. He lay on the office floor, staring up at the ceiling. He tried to draw breath and found it hard, as if something heavy were standing on his chest. He figured the bullet had pierced a lung.

Then Mason heard wry chuckling coming from the other side of the office, and he managed to raise his head just enough to see Derrick.

The NSA agent was still standing, but it wasn’t because he chose to. Mason’s kick had driven him back against the windowframe, and Derrick was now looking down at a large shard of glass protruding from his chest. He was pinned to the window.

“I’m sure . . . it’s not as bad . . . as it looks,” Mason wheezed, coughing. He felt a bit of froth and blood on his lips and knew then for certain that he had a punctured lung on his hands.

Derrick didn’t respond. His free hand reached up and touched the large glass shard, coated in his own blood.

“Didn’t think . . . I’d go like this,” Derrick said, letting out a long sigh. His eyes slowly closed, and his head slumped down to rest on his chest.

The pistol slid from Derrick’s lifeless hand and clattered to the floor.

Mason stared at the corpse of his former partner for a moment, and then remembered his own predicament. He coughed again, and more blood trickled out of his mouth. He knew he had a matter of minutes to get help—otherwise, he’d be joining Derrick in death.

Slowly, inch by inch, he began to drag himself toward the hallway.

————————

Juni and Matt faced off with the two guards who held Anna. They were in a kind of stalemate. The guards were backing up, heading deeper into the facility, and Matt and Juni were following cautiously. Matt still had his rifle trained on the man holding Anna, but the guards were loathe to open fire. Both sides were worried about hitting Anna in a crossfire.

“Just let her go, man,” Matt said. “We don’t have a fight with you. You’re free to go. Just leave us the doc.”

“Can’t do that,” responded one of the guards. “We have our orders.”

“Yeah, ‘I had orders,’ I’ve heard that before,” Matt said, narrowing his eyes.

“Let’s just all calm down, and try to be reasonable about this,” Juni said, holding up her hands in a placating manner. “I’m sure there’s a way we can work this out without—”

Suddenly a gunshot rang out in the hallway. Both guards jumped, but the shot hadn’t come from Matt.

It had come from the guard Matt had knocked out and left for dead in the corridor. The man had recovered, drawn his backup weapon, and fired.

Matt blinked, suddenly feeling lightheaded. He wavered on his feet and looked down at his chest. Blood ran down the outside of his clothing, soaking it and dripping to the floor. The bullet had hit him center mass.

“Shit,” he murmured.

The assault rifle fell from Matt’s nerveless hands and clattered to the floor. Matt was right behind it: he dropped to his knees, looked up at Juni with surprise and regret etched on his face, and then pitched forward, laying motionless.

“Matt!” Juni yelled, dropping to his side. She turned him over, but his eyes were already glazed over and lifeless. The shot had pierced his heart. Juni nearly sobbed. Matt had been part of her group since nearly the beginning of the pandemic.

Suddenly the sound of rounds being chambered drew her attention, and she looked up. The guard that had shot Matt had recovered his assault rifle, and all three of the uniformed men were pointing their weapons at her.

“Up,” said the one holding Anna. He gestured with his pistol to enunciate his words. “Up. Get up.”

Juni slowly rose to her feet, hands held in the air.

“Re-tie her,” said the one holding Anna.

The guard that had shot Matt pulled Juni’s arms behind her back and secured her with another zip-tie. The three guards and their two prisoners picked up the pace, hustling Juni and Anna off to a deeper section of the facility.

————————

Up on the rooftop, the three guards Derrick had sent were busily setting up their rifles on the edge of the roof, taking aim at the shamblers below. They’d heard the gunshots coming from the entryway beneath them, and had guessed those had been the beacon for the infected now making their way closer and closer.

“There weren’t this many to deal with when we came through,” muttered one of the guards as he opened fire on the shamblers below, dropping one with a neat head shot.

“Yeah, well, we were a lot more quiet about it,” said the second.

“Jackson and Smith must have a lot of company at the front door to be firing like that,” said the third, referring to the two guards in the entryway. “Derrick said no unnecessary shots.”

“I’d call these shots necessary,” said the first, firing again and dropping another shambler.

“No argument here, buddy. If those things get inside . . .”

Suddenly the three uniformed men heard the sound of an engine revving. They looked up, startled, and saw in the distance a camouflage-painted vehicle heading toward the facility, moving straight down the center of the street.

“What the hell?” asked one.

“Looks like Army,” said the second, grinning. “We got that backup we called for after all!”

Behind the large assault vehicle came a second, similarly painted truck, this one armor-reinforced. Gunfire was erupting from both of the vehicles, and they left behind a trail of shambler corpses in their wake as they approached.

The first man narrowed his eyes, squinting at the vehicles. The lead truck had just popped open a rooftop hatch, and a man wearing a BDU top but a civilian cover appeared, grasping the handgrip of an M-249 on a tripod.

“Wait a minute,” he said, studying them intently. “Those aren’t Army!”

He swung his rifle around, taking aim at the man on the turret.

“What if they’re friendlies?” asked the second.

“You remember what Derrick said: shoot first, questions later,” said the first, and took a shot at the turret operator.

The bullet spanged off the top of the vehicle, leaving a nasty dent, and immediately drew the attention of the man on the machine gun. He swiveled the barrel in their direction.

The three rooftop guards dove for cover as a virtual hailstorm of bullets rained down around them, kicking up chunks of rooftop and zipping past their ears. After a moment, the gunfire shifted, and one of the guards had the tenacity to raise his head above the roof’s ledge. The turret gunner had shifted his attention to the shamblers, and was busy mowing them down.

Automatic fire tore into the infected, and brackish blood sprayed across the street as the stumbling corpses jerked and spasmed before falling. The truck was clearing a path to the research facility.

The first of the guards on the rooftop decided to try his luck one more time. He rose up from behind the ledge and took careful aim at the gunner on the turret. He didn’t pay any attention to the pickup following closely behind it, and didn’t notice the barrel of a rifle pointed out of a firing slit in his direction.

Before the guard could squeeze the trigger, a single shot rang out and he fell back onto the roof. A bullet had caught him just above the eye. The two remaining guards had the good sense to stay down as the vehicles neared the entrance, crushing the bodies of infected beneath their tires as they rumbled along.

————————

In the entryway, Trev felt like he was swiftly running out of time. The two guards he’d surprised had opened fire on him, and he’d returned the favor. The problem was both parties were behind good cover and Trev didn’t have infinite ammunition: in fact, all he’d carried with him were two spare magazines for the pistol, plus the one in the pistol itself, and his rifle. His rifle was already empty, and he was down to his last magazine for his pistol. He had no intention of engaging the guards with his baton; that would be suicide.

As he traded a few more rounds with the guards, he heard the sound of the vehicles outside. He wondered for a moment whether he was about to be flanked, gunned down by enemy reinforcements. He dismissed the thought. If that were the case, he was done for and there wasn’t a thing he could do about it.

Trev risked a glance outside and saw a large utility truck, running full-bore, slam into a group of shamblers that were closing in on the facility’s entrance. A cow-catcher, welded onto the front of the vehicle, threw most of them out of the way. A pair were caught up underneath the catcher, and even inside Trev could hear the crunch of bone and flesh as the truck’s tires ran them over. Their mangled bodies tumbled out from beneath the vehicle’s rear and rolled to a stop in bloodied heaps in the middle of the road.

The truck slammed on its brakes and squealed to a stop. Trev heard more than saw the vehicle shift gears into reverse.

Jackson and Smith, Trev’s two foes, seemed as surprised by the arrival of the vehicle as he was, but they quickly recovered and opened up on Trev’s makeshift bunker with their rifles, sending couch stuffing and plastic shards flying. Trev ducked down lower and hoped one of the rounds wouldn’t find him.

The truck’s tires squealed again as it backed up straight into the entryway, effectively blocking the main doors. Another vehicle, a pickup truck, came screaming by on the road, shots ringing out from the bed as it passed. What few shamblers remained on the streets were being dropped one after the other. Whoever the new arrivals were, they knew how to deal with the demons.

The back doors of the utility truck were flung open and several men in mixed civilian and military garb jumped out, throwing open the facility’s doors and entering with weapons at the ready. Jackson and Smith turned their attention from Trev to the newcomers, opening fire on them as they entered the room.

The response from the newcomers was immediate. Two dropped to the ground into a prone position, returning fire. The other two moved to either side, firing shots from upheld pistols.

Jackson and Smith, caught by surprise and in the open, were cut down in the hail of gunfire. Smith took a round to the chest and was flung backwards onto the floor. Jackson was stitched by several rounds, and he crumpled against a wall, sliding slowly down to the floor and leaving a trail of smeared blood behind himself.

In the ensuing silence, the four newcomers held their position, watching the bodies of Jackson and Smith for any movement.

Trev decided to take that moment to stand up from behind his bunker.

Instantly, the four newcomers swiveled in his direction, weapons leveled.

“Whoa, whoa, whoa!” Trev yelled, holding his hands and pistol up above his head. “Friendly! I think! Who the hell are you guys?”

“Who the hell are you?” came the reply.

“Trevor Westscott. I’m here with Mason and Demilio—and you are . . . ?”

“Denton,” was the response. “You said Demilio? The doctor?”

“That’s the one,” Trev said, wiping sweat from his forehead as he surveyed the bodies of Jackson and Smith. “You are the guys she was trying to meet?”

“That’s us,” Denton replied. “What’s with the hostile fire? We figured we’d be coming into an infected zone but we weren’t counting on the bad guys with guns.”

“I honestly have no idea,” Trev admitted, shaking his head. “I stayed outside to deal with a few infected, and when I came in these two bastards were waiting for me. I don’t know where everyone else went. I guess they took them back through there.”

Trev pointed at the double doors that Jackson and Smith had been guarding.

“All right,” Denton said, nodding. “So we’re not out of the woods yet. We’ve got the main doors blocked. One moment.”

Denton plucked a radio from a pocket and clicked the handset.

“Ghost Three to Ghost Lead, come in, over,” he said.

“Ghost Lead to Ghost Three, go ahead, over,” came the response, crackling slightly.

“Sherman, we’ve got problems. There are hostiles in the facility; apparently, they’ve got your doctor friend held prisoner. Let’s get everyone in here and make sure this place is secured, over.”

“Roger,” came the reply. “We’re coming back. Out.”

The pickup truck squealed to a stop alongside the utility truck, blocking off a set of windows. The back of the pickup popped open and another small group of survivors jumped out, all armed. They made their way to the utility truck, entered it through the passenger door, and one by one appeared through the rear doors of the vehicle and entered the facility.

“Everyone,” Denton said, waving a hand in Trev’s direction. “This is Trevor. He’s on our side. Trevor, this is our group.”

A few waves and nods completed the ad hoc introductions.

“All right, what’s our situation?” said a late middle-aged man dropping out of the rear of the utility truck. “Give me a full SitRep.”

Another older man, dressed in full Army uniform save for a simple baseball cap on his head, turned toward the speaker.

“Sir, we’re all operational. Brewster’s still manning the .249 and covering the entrance. The trucks should keep out any unwanted visitors.”

“Trevor says that these shooters were sent by some guy named Sawyer,” Denton added, gesturing at the corpses of Jackson and Smith. “He says there are probably more, and that the doc we’re here to find is probably being held deeper in the facility.”

“There are definitely more,” chimed in another man.

“Explain, Krueger,” said the late-middle aged man.

“Well, General, I popped one of them on the rooftop after he tried to take a potshot at Brewster. There are probably a couple more still on the rooftop and I’d bet a few more in the facility somewhere—probably right with the doc, keeping an eye on her.”

“All right,” said the General, nodding and folding his arms. “Thomas, take Jack, Denton and Mitsui and secure the ground level. Find Anna and bring her back here safe and sound. If anyone fires on you, kill them. Get them to surrender if you can.”

“Yes, sir,” Thomas growled.

“Krueger!” said the General. Krueger snapped to attention.

“Sir!”

“Take Rebecca, Trev here, and Mbutu and head up to the roof. Get rid of those guards, then hook back up with Thomas and help him finish securing the facility. We’re finally here, gentlemen and ladies! Let’s make it ours!”

The men in the room moved out with a purpose, slamming open the double doors and heading deeper into the facility with the practiced ease of seasoned survivors. Their weapons were all held at the ready and they moved professionally, at a half-crouch, checking each corner before taking it and covering one another with overlapping lines of fire.

Thomas and Krueger’s groups split off from one another when Krueger located the stairwell that led to the roof. He nodded at Thomas—a quick gesture meant as a good-luck wish—and took off at a jog up the stairs, followed closely by Rebecca, Mbutu, and Trev.

After Krueger’s footsteps had faded, Thomas continued to lead his miniature squad deeper into the facility. He came to a four-way intersection and stopped, gesturing for everyone to take cover.

As Denton squatted with his back to a wall, Thomas advanced on the object of his attention: a corpse in the middle of the hallway.

Matt’s body had been left where it had fallen. Thomas checked it over, noted the civilian clothing and the lack of a weapon as well as the cut zipties lying near the young man’s body.

“We’ve got a dead prisoner here,” Thomas called over his shoulder. “Let’s get a move on—don’t want the same thing to happen to the doc.”

Luckily for Thomas, someone had gotten close to the corpse and had stepped in the pool of blood that had spread out from the young man’s torso. A few bloody footprints led off down a side corridor, telling Thomas exactly which direction the guards had taken their prisoners.

“This way,” Thomas ordered, pointing off down the hall. “Go slow. Check your targets and your corners. And from here on, silence.”

Denton and Jack nodded in reply. Jack turned to face Mitsui and passed the message along by holding a finger up to his lips. Mitsui nodded, a look of grim determination on his face.

The four turned down the side corridor and advanced, vanishing around a corner. They knew it was only a matter of time before they caught up with the prisoners—and their guards.

The moment they vanished around the corner, Mason’s hand appeared in the doorway of the office where he’d fought Derrick. He pulled himself forward another couple of feet, succeeding in getting his head and shoulders into the hallway. He saw Matt’s body and gritted his teeth, both against the pain of his wounds and the pain of seeing another comrade lost.

He thought he’d heard voices in the hall a moment before, but it was empty now, save for Matt’s corpse. Maybe he was starting to hallucinate or go into shock.

Can’t let either of those things happen or I’m a goner, Mason thought.

Mason coughed again, blood flecking his lips. He didn’t have much longer.

————————

The door that led to the roof burst open, propelled outward by a swift kick from Krueger. He and Trev were the first two through the breach, weapons at the ready. The roof was covered in obstacles, making it difficult to get a clear view of the area. Krueger noted in the back of his mind that the obstacles he was passing by were large solar panels covering most of the roof.

Trev ducked down, looking under the panels. He spotted the booted feet of the guards near the corner of the roof and let a quiet whistle escape his lips. Krueger looked over, and Trev pointed out the enemy guards. Rebecca and Mbutu came up behind the pair carefully, scoping out the opposition.

Both guards were facing away from the survivors. They were peering over the edge of the roof with their rifles. Next to them lay a dead comrade, blood pooling around a nasty head wound. Krueger allowed himself a quick sense of self-satisfaction. That had been his shot.

All four of the survivors advanced slowly on the rooftop guards, stepping heel-to-toe on the tarred surface. They moved silently. Once they were close enough, they looked back and forth at one another, and Krueger nodded.

All four sprung up, pointing their weapons at the two remaining guards.

“Freeze! Freeze! Weapons down!” Krueger screamed.

The two guards were caught completely unaware. They jumped, startled, and spun to face the sudden new threat. One of them immediately threw up his hands. The second went for his pistol, but froze the moment his hand rested on the grip when he realized he was staring down the barrel of Mbutu’s rifle. He slowly released his grip and raised his hands.

“Up! Get up!” Krueger screamed again.

The guards took their time complying, slowly raising themselves to their feet. Krueger grimaced, raised the barrel of his rifle slightly, and fired a shot over the heads of the two guards.

“I said get the fuck up!” Krueger yelled.

They picked up the pace, and stood before their captors with raised hands.

Still staring down the barrel of his rifle, Krueger tossed orders to his comrades.

“Trev, Mbutu, disarm them.”

The two men approached, pulled the pistols from the guard’s holsters and unbuckled their ammunition belts and webgear, tossing it a safe distance away.

“Hey, Krueger,” Trev said.

“Yeah?”

“Look what I found,” Trev said, holding up a small bundle of zip-ties. “Looks like we’ve got handcuffs.”

“The jailors become the jailed,” Krueger said, grinning. “Tie ’em up. Let’s take ’em down to Sherman. He can decide what we’re going to do with ‘em.”

————————

Thomas heard his targets before he saw them. As his group moved down the dimly lit hall he and the others began to hear growled commands and the sound of shuffling feet and shifting equipment. Thomas slowed as he approached the next intersection, peered around the corner, and spotted his objective.

About twenty feet down the hall stood three uniformed guards in front of an open door. They were busy shoving a pair of females into the room, not caring too much about whether their prisoners entered comfortably or not. As Thomas watched, one of the guards planted a booted foot on the lower back of a young woman and kicked her into the room.

Thomas didn’t need a written invitation. With both of the prisoners safely in their makeshift cell, the hall was free of friendly targets. He leaned out from the corner and opened fire with his rifle. His first three-round burst caught one of the guards full in the chest, tossing him backwards into his two comrades. The remaining two had enough sense to fall back, slamming the door to their makeshift prison shut in the process. Denton and Jack stepped out from behind their cover, pouring fire down the corridor. Bullets ricocheted off of the concrete walls in both directions as the guards returned fire.

The four survivors pelted the guards’ position with rounds, chipping away at the concrete walls. Return fire was brisk at first, causing Thomas and the others to take care, but as the firefight wore on, the guards’ fire slowed. They were beginning to run low on ammunition.

Even as Thomas watched, one of the enemy guards stuck his head out from behind his cover and eyed the corpse of his former companion, with its full ammunition belt and rifle. The corpse lay in the middle of the hallway, smack-dab in the center of no-man’s land.

He can’t be stupid enough to be thinking of going for that guy’s ammo, Thomas thought to himself.

Just as Thomas finished the thought, the man burst out from behind his cover, firing his last few rounds as he ran for his dead comrade’s body.

Well, I guess I was wrong, Thomas thought. He can be that stupid.

Thomas’ next three-round burst caught the guard before he made it halfway to the body of his comrade.

A silence fell over the corridor as the guard fell. The smell of cordite and a pall of smoke permeated the hall. The single remaining guard, still behind cover at the far end of the hall, made a judgment call.

“Hold your fire! Hold your fire!” he called out. His empty hands appeared around the corner, followed by his head and shoulders. “I surrender!”

“Step out and keep your hands up!” Thomas ordered. He gestured for his companions to join him in the hall, and they advanced on the surrendering man. Denton and Jack shoved the guard up against a wall, checked him for weapons, and kept him pinned while Thomas and Mitsui searched the bodies of the two dead men.

Thomas came up with a small keyring after a few moments and stepped up to the locked door in the middle of the hall. The first two keys didn’t fit in the lock, but the third did the trick, and he heard the deadbolt sliding back as he twisted the key. He pulled open the door.

Inside sat Anna Demilio and Juni Koji, hands bound with duct tape across their mouths. They looked up at Thomas with fear at first. Anna’s look of trepidation vanished almost immediately. She recognized the old Sergeant Major from her dealings with General Sherman, and she struggled to her feet, grinning behind the duct tape.

“Sorry it took so long to get here, Doc,” Thomas grumbled, stepping toward Anna. He reached up a hand and grapped the edge of the duct tape on her mouth. “This’ll hurt.”

Before she had a chance to protest, he ripped the tape off with one swift motion.

“Ow,” Anna managed, working her mouth to throw off the sticky feeling of the tape. “Good to see you, Thomas.”

“Likewise,” Thomas said. He plucked a knife from his belt and held it up. “Mind if I untie you?”

“Please do,” Anna said, turning around and allowing Thomas to cut through the zipties that held her.

Juni was likewise freed from her restraints by Mitsui.

With the prisoners freed and the one remaining guard under control, Thomas deemed his situation under control.

“What do we do with this guy?” Denton asked, still pinning the living guard to the wall.

“Same thing he did with the Doc,” growled Thomas, holding up a ziptie and the piece of duct tape he’d ripped from Anna’s mouth. “Bind him and throw him in the room. We’ll figure out a use for him later.”

————————

Mason heard the chatter of gunfire echoing throughout the facility as he did his best to drag himself toward the main corridor. He didn’t know who was doing the shooting—or the dying, for that matter—but he hoped it was someone who wasn’t going to finish him off when they stumbled upon him.

He could feel a numbness in his chest, and it was rapidly spreading. Each breath was getting harder and harder to draw. From what he knew about battlefield wounds, he knew that his chest cavity was filling with air from his punctured lung, putting pressure on both organs. Soon he wouldn’t be able to breathe at all.

One step at a time, Mason reminded himself, and stretched out a hand to pull himself another six inches closer to the main corridor. Behind him he left a trail of blood: some from his bruised and battered face, still more from his two gunshot wounds.

Even as he moved, he knew he wasn’t going to make it much further. His vision swam in and out of focus, and he fought to stay conscious. Elsewhere in the facility, the gunfire had died down. Mason wondered who had won the firefight.

At the far end of the corridor, a small group of blurry shapes took form. Mason knew they were people, but he couldn’t tell who they were or even if they had seen him.

He managed to croak the word “help” before he spiraled down into darkness.

————————

Mason opened his eyes slowly, carefully. Bright light shone down into them, and he squinted against it. He tried to swallow and found his throat bone-dry. Nearby he could hear the steady beep-beep-beep of a heart monitor, and with some effort he turned his head to the left and surveyed his surroundings.

Mason lay in a hospital room. It differed from the other rooms he’d been in before in that it lacked a window and anything in the way of aesthetics, but it was a hospital room nonetheless. Monitors were clipped to his chest and head and ran along narrow wires to banks of machinery, all working to ensure he remained alive.

For a moment, Mason wondered about his situation. His memory was foggy. What had happened? Where was he? Had the whole pandemic been nothing more than a dream? Perhaps he had been wounded on the job and had been in a coma for a few weeks.

That almost made sense; there was no power anymore, no more hospitals, and no way he could have survived the fight with Derrick that was, even then, coming back to him in bits and pieces. Nothing he saw around him seemed to make much sense.

Hell, he thought, there was even a vase of fake flowers next to his bed.

Suddenly the door to his room was pushed open and in came a young woman pushing a stainless steel tray before her. She looked to be in her early twenties and had dirty blond hair tied back in a ponytail. Mason thought if he was fifteen years younger he’d probably try to flirt with her. Before he could ask a single question, however, she noticed he was awake and launched into an explanation, using the same tone a doctor might use with a confused patient.

“Well, you’re finally awake,” said the girl, checking over the equipment on the tray she’d wheeled in. “My name’s Rebecca, and I’ll be your nurse while you stay here. You were in pretty sorry shape when we found you. You’re lucky Dr. Demilio was around.”

“The Doc lived?” Mason croaked around his throat. It felt like sandpaper.

“Yes,” Rebecca said. “And she managed to get you fixed up pretty well. If this had happened anywhere else you’d have been a goner. It’s lucky this building has medical facilities.”

“So what happened? Who are you? I mean, where did you come from?” Mason asked. “And can I please have a drink of water?”

“Sure,” Rebecca said, turning to a sink and filling a plastic cup halfway with cold water. “I came in with General Sherman’s group. We had really good timing—we showed up right as those uniformed shooters started to take the upper hand. We managed to take a few prisoners, killed the rest, and secured the facility.”

“Sherman? That’s the guy Anna wanted to meet up with,” Mason said, gratefully accepting the cup of water and draining it in one gulp.

“The same,” Rebecca said. “Anyway, I need to give you a couple of shots before I get back to work.”

“Work?” Mason asked.

Rebecca took a moment before answering, busy filling a syringe with antibiotics.

“Well, we’re here to stay, at least for a while,” she answered, jabbing the needle into Mason’s arm. He took the shot without so much as a grimace. “So we’ve been going around and buttoning up, you know, making sure the windows are covered, fortifying.”

“How do we have power?” Mason asked.

Again Rebecca took a moment to answer as she filled a second syringe from a new bottle.

“Solar panels on the roof. They pull in enough to keep this place running comfortably. We’ve even got air conditioning if we want it. Hell of a place, this research facility.”

“Sure is,” Mason said as Rebecca administered the second injection. Almost immediately, his head felt fuzzy and his body went slightly numb, dulling the pain in his chest. “What was that?”

“Demerol,” Rebecca said. “I gave you enough to put you back to sleep for a few hours. You need rest.”

“We all need rest,” Mason said, head swimming as the narcotic took effect.

Rebecca was already wheeling the cart back toward the door. She stopped, looked over her shoulder at Mason, and grinned.

“Mr. Mason, we’ve got this building sealed up as tight as Fort Knox. We can all rest for a while.”

With that, she pushed her way out the door and was gone. Mason lay back, resting his head on his pillow and enjoying the sensation of the painkiller. He closed his eyes and exhaled a long breath, feeling the stress of the past few weeks melting away as he drifted off to sleep.

“Just going to rest for a little while,” he whispered to himself in the last moments before consciousness escaped him.

Mason slept, safe and secure, in the research facility in Omaha, Nebraska. The two groups that had spent weeks—months—trying to reach one another had finally succeeded. Mission accomplished.

All that was left to do was find the vaccine.

If it even existed.


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