Recovery: V Plague Book 8 (6 page)

BOOK: Recovery: V Plague Book 8
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11

 

Rachel
shivered, scooting a couple of inches closer to the fire.  Across from her sat
the Navy pilot, Lieutenant Commander William Smith who was also pushed as close
to the flames as he could get without risking burns.  It was dark and a strong
wind was blowing out of the north, sighing through the tops of the pine trees
surrounding them.

The wind
brought the smell of damp and cold, and it cut through the flight suits the
pair wore.  Rachel guessed the temperature was in the upper 40s at best but the
wind-chill was almost certainly in the low 30s.  Her toes, fingers and nose
were numb and she wished for the hot weather that had nearly killed her in
Oklahoma.

The pilot
knew they were in Idaho but beyond that he was as lost as she was.  There had
been five terrifying minutes as he had made every effort to evade a flight of
six Russian fighter jets then a klaxon in the cockpit had begun screaming. 

“Missile!” 
He had shouted over the intercom.  A moment later the world around Rachel had
exploded.

First, the
clear canopy over her head had been blasted free from the airframe.  An instant
later, without warning, her seat rocketed straight up with an ear splitting
roar.  Only a moment behind the pilot’s seat had also shot out of the doomed
jet, trailing a plume of flames and smoke.  As they were still accelerating
upwards the Russian missile slammed into the rear of their jet, detonating with
a force that knocked both of them over onto their backs.

Then she was
falling, still strapped to the seat.  She had no idea how far they’d dropped,
but after what seemed an eternity she heard a flapping in the air over her head
and looked up to see a small drogue chute at the end of a long tether.  There
was a loud thump from her seat and the straps holding her fell away.

Rachel
screamed as she started to fall, but as her body separated from the ejection
seat the parachute on her back was triggered.  The canopy fluttered out above
her then a hard jerk took most of her breath as it filled with air and slowed
her descent.  She still wanted to scream but got her fear under control and
looked for the pilot.

After
twisting her head around she finally spotted him hanging in the air above and
behind her.  He was gripping a handle with each hand.  A line ran up to the
parachute from each and she assumed that allowed him to control his fall.  She
saw the same handles flapping around on either side of her, but with no idea
how to use them decided it was best to leave them alone.

Looking down
between her feet she couldn’t begin to estimate how far above the ground she
was.  It could have been a hundred feet or a thousand.  Or much more.  She felt
a thrill of fear looking at the rugged and unforgiving terrain she was steadily
falling towards.  Tall peaks were to her right and she was just now coming
level with the highest summit.  A thick forest blanketed the mountains and
there wasn’t a sign of civilization anywhere.

The ground
approached faster than she thought it could have.  She was now low enough to
make out individual tree tops and started to panic at the thought of crashing
into one and getting tangled in its branches, left dangling a hundred feet in
the air.  Thinking she was imagining it at first, Rachel looked up when she
heard a faint voice again.

“Pull the
toggles to slow down!”  It was the pilot, shouting instructions to her.

What the
hell were toggles?  The handles!  It had to be.  Rachel grabbed and pulled,
surprised how easily they moved.  She immediately began to slow, then started
to move in a broad spiral.  Frightened, she let go of the toggles and the
circling stopped but her speed increased dramatically.

Reaching up
and pulling on them again she was relieved when her rate of descent slowed, but
she started into a slow spiral again.  This time she realized that she was
pulling one toggle farther than the other and backed off slightly on the one
side.  The turn stopped as soon as her hands came level with each other.

Watching
between her feet, Rachel spotted a small clearing to her left.  The wind was
from her right, pushing her towards it, but it looked like it would push her
too far.  Beyond the clearing was a thick stand of trees, then a sheer rock
face dropped for what appeared to be hundreds of feet.

Taking a
chance, Rachel played with the position of the toggles trying to guide herself
to the clearing.  It looked small but was growing in size as she fell.  Her
rate of descent increased as she adjusted. 

The spiral
started again, the radius of each orbit increasing as she spun faster and
faster.  As the spin rate increased she started to swing out from beneath the
canopy like a pendulum.  Her motion tilted the parachute off horizontal,
spilling air out and letting her fall faster, which increased her spin speed
even more.

“Let go!” 
The pilot screamed from somewhere above her.  Rachel was terrified.  With every
spin she pulled harder, her brain focused on the only things her hands could grasp.

“Let go or
you’re dead!”  He screamed out again.

This time his
words broke through the fear and she released the toggles like they were
burning hot.  She continued to spin but immediately the rate began to slow. 
Her descent also slowed slightly as the parachute came back level and its
entire surface filled with air once again.  Then she flashed by the tops of
some trees.

“Pull hard now!” 
The pilot screamed.

Rachel
pulled hard on the toggles and felt herself begin to slow and turn, then she
slammed into the ground only feet from the trunk of a massive pine tree.  Her
legs went out from under her, unable to absorb the impact, and she fell on her
right side.  Fortunately she landed on a thick carpet of dead pine needles,
which significantly cushioned her impact otherwise she would likely have broken
one or both of her legs.

Lying on the
ground, panting, Rachel was facing the clearing and watched as the pilot controlled
his descent and lightly landed on both feet.  Quickly he shrugged out of the
parachute and raced over to where she was lying.

“Ma’am, are
you hurt?”  He asked, skidding to a stop on his knees next to her when he saw
her eyes open.

“If you call
me ma’am one more time I’m going to kick your ass,” Rachel gasped.

“Yes ma’am,”
the pilot grinned, helping her sit up and remove the parachute.

After
catching her breath, Rachel stood and looked around.  She had come down at the
very edge of the clearing, missing the closest tree by mere feet.  The sky was
cloudy and the wind was gusting, cold air causing her to start shivering.

“What do we
do?”  She asked the pilot who was busy checking the pistol that had been
holstered at his hip.

“We wait,”
he said, holstering his weapon.  “My wingman made it, or at least I think he
did, but either way there’ll be a SAR flight along as soon as it can be
organized.  So we stay put and wait for rescue.”

While he was
talking he led the way back to where he’d discarded his parachute.  A small,
cushioned pack was attached to a long tether and he picked it up and
disconnected the line holding it. 

“What do you
have in there?”  Rachel asked.

“First aid
kit, sunblock, water ration, a couple of MREs, a compass, waterproof matches,
flare gun and water purification tablets.”  He said, looking into the pouch as
he spoke.

“No more
weapons?”  Rachel asked.  He just shook his head.

As the day
wore on the wind grew stronger and the temperature continued to drop.  They
talked little, exchanging names and not much more.  Neither was in the mood to
socialize.

Shortly
before the last of the daylight faded, Bill gathered fallen tree branches and
piled them in an area that was somewhat sheltered from the biting wind.  Rachel
stood and began helping.  Soon they had a respectable pile and he spent a few
minutes clearing pine needles until he had a large spot of bare earth exposed. 
Stacking twigs and smaller branches, a few of the open spots were filled in
with dry pine needles.  He was digging through his pack for a match when a
bone-chilling howl sounded on the wind.

Both of them
leapt to their feet, looking around.  Bill already had the pistol in his hand. 
The howl sounded again, loud in the dark forest, sending gooseflesh creeping up
and down Rachel’s entire body.  She shifted position until her back was pressed
against Bill’s so that together they could watch in all directions.

“Is that
what I think it is?”  Rachel hissed.

“If you’re
thinking wolf, then that’s what I think too.”  He answered in a not so steady
voice.

“Will they
attack humans?”  She asked.

“They’ll
attack anything except maybe a bear,” he said.

“I’m going
to get the fire going,” Rachel said.  “You keep an eye out.”

He didn’t
say anything and a moment later she struck one of the fat matches and held it
to a tuft of pine needles.  They were dry and caught easily, Rachel hunching
over the small flame to shield it from the wind until the larger sticks and
branches began burning. 

Once it was
crackling away, Rachel reached back into the pouch and pulled out the flare
gun.  She looked at it a moment to figure it out, then pressed the release
lever and broke it open.  She could see brass in the chamber and satisfied it
was loaded, snapped it closed.  Three more flares were in a small plastic case that
she stuffed it in her pocket.

“What are
you going to do with that?”  Bill asked when she stood up and he saw it in her
hand.

“Maybe I’m
wrong, but…” she was interrupted by another howl, this one sounding like it was
no farther away than the far side of the clearing.

Rachel and
Bill both faced that direction with their weapon at arm’s length, pointed at
where the howl originated.  They stood that way for a minute, then Rachel began
to worry that while they were distracted they were being stalked from behind. 
Turning, she started to move so her back was against Bill’s but froze when she
saw a pair of yellow eyes watching her from the edge of the forest.

“Oh, fuck,”
she breathed as the eyes began approaching.

The fire
wasn’t large, what light it cast creating shadows in the forest that danced as
the wind fanned the flames.  But there was one large shadow that approached
slowly, not wavering.  The eyes were bright, reflecting the firelight and
Rachel didn’t think the animal was more than thirty feet away.  It was
considerably larger than Dog.

Rachel was
shaking with fear, her heart pounding as she tried to steady the flare gun. 
The eyes were mesmerizing.  Unblinking.  Focused.  A fear as primal and
instinctual as any she’d ever experienced washed over her.  Forcing herself to
hold steady, Rachel aimed and pulled the trigger.

There was a
loud pop as the flare was triggered, a burning trail marking its passage
through the air as it raced across the open space between her and the wolf.  It
struck the ground a foot in front of the animal, ricocheting up and impacting
its chest as the second stage ignited, exploding into an intense ball of fire. 

The wolf
yelped, stumbling backwards into the forest, its fur burning from the compounds
in the flare.  It raced away, screaming like Rachel had never imagined any
canine could.  She was able to track its progress for a few moments as it
disappeared into the night.

“Holy shit,”
Bill said softly.

Rachel was
shaking but forced herself to open the flare gun, discard the used shell and
load in a fresh one.  They stood back to back, only taking their attention off
the forest long enough to stack more wood on the fire.  After close to three
hours they hadn’t heard or seen any further sign of the wolves.  Shivering from
the cold and exhausted after the fear induced adrenaline surge they finally
huddled around the fire and tried to stay warm enough to survive the night.

12

 

I paced
while the Huey was being fueled.  Up and down the roof, then when the thought
struck me I headed down the stairs and out into the casino.  Dog trotted with
me but Katie headed for our suite to finish dressing.  That was her excuse but
she knows me well and I’m sure she was letting me stew and work out the
frustration I was feeling.

Making a
beeline to the gift shop I pushed in and looked around until I found what I
wanted.  Besides gambling, Indian nations have discovered that they can sell
cigarettes without having to charge state sales tax, at least in some states. 
As a result they usually have a very large stockpile of cartons of smokes on
hand and this place was no different.

There was a
locked wire cage, stuffed full of brightly colored cartons.  A couple of rounds
blew the lock off the door and I yanked it open.  Taking some of the cheap,
cloth bags embroidered with the casino’s logo I stuffed them full of my brand
of choice.  I also scooped a few dozen disposable lighters into one of the bags
then took the time to open a pack and light a cigarette.

I know, not
good for me in any way.  But now wasn’t the time to think about quitting. 
Inhaling, my racing mind slowed and I calmed.  With an armload of plunder I
headed back to the VIP area, walking slowly and thinking.  Dog gave each bag a
through sniff, seemingly dejected when there weren’t any treats to be found.

Katie was
just coming out of the kitchen with a heaping platter of food when I walked
in.  She looked at what I was carrying, smiled as she shook her head and headed
for the stairs.  I fell in behind her, appreciating the view as she climbed
ahead of me in the skintight jeans.

Exiting onto
the roof I paused to crush out the cigarette, well away from the fueling
process, then followed Katie to the Pave Hawk.  The side door was open and she
set the food down, telling Martinez to help herself.  Dog took up a seated
position about three feet from the platter, eyes locked onto our meal.

“So, we’re
going to go find your friends and go to Idaho in a Bradley?”  Katie asked as
she picked up some food and started eating.

I sat down
in the open door after Martinez grabbed something to eat and returned to
monitor the fueling.  Tossing Dog a treat I shook my head as I started eating. 
I could see Colonel Crawford across the roof, pacing as he talked on the
satellite phone.

“No,” I
said.  “That will take too long.  If there’s weather coming in, like the
Colonel said, they could freeze to death before we were even half way there.”

“Then what? 
We can’t fly.”  Katie said.

“I need to
talk to whoever is watching with the satellite,” I said, standing up and
heading for where Colonel Crawford was just beginning a new lap around the
roof.  Before I reached him he ended his call and turned, pausing when he saw
me approaching.

“Sir, can
you get me on the phone with whoever at Pearl is controlling the satellite?”

He didn’t
ask why, just thumbed through a couple of numbers he must have programmed in
and hit the “call” button.  When it was answered he identified himself and
explained he was handing the phone to me, holding it out a moment later.

“This is
Major Chase,” I said into the handset.

“Petty
Officer Simmons, sir.  How may I assist you?”  She sounded really young.

“You have
eyes on the two people that went down in Idaho, correct?”

“Yes, sir. 
That’s correct.  I’ve got them up on a monitor right now.  They’re huddled
around a camp fire and look like they’re really cold.” 

I took a
deep breath, worry for Rachel gnawing at me.

“Do you have
my current location?”  I asked.

“Yes, sir. 
Got you,” she said after a few moments.  “On the roof of a building with two
helos, correct?”

I looked up,
involuntarily, as if I could see the camera that was watching me from somewhere
in orbit.

“That’s me. 
Now, can you overlay a road map and plot a route from my location to where they
are?”

“Yes, sir. 
Give me a moment please.”  I could hear her typing furiously, muttering to
herself as she worked for close to a minute.  “OK, sir.  I have it.”

“Good. 
First, how many miles?”

“1,574 road
miles from your current location, sir.”

“Can you do
a quick scan of the roads on the route?  Are they open?  Clear of herds or
anything else?”  I asked.

“Stand by,
sir.”

Again I
could hear her working, but this time it was nearly five minutes before she
came back on.  Colonel Crawford had wandered over to get some food while I was
waiting.  Finding my stash, he hadn’t been shy about helping himself.  He
returned with an open pack, waving me farther away from the Huey so he could light
one.

“Sir, the
roads are mostly clear.  What I mean by that is in the Denver and Salt Lake
City areas there is a lot of congestion.  Abandoned vehicles.  Wrecks.  There
are also small groups of infected wandering around both cities, but I’ve
adjusted the route to bypass the worst areas.  It added twenty-three overall
miles but will probably save hours.”  She said.

“Excellent. 
Now what about the large herds coming out of Portland and Seattle?  Are they on
track to go through the area where our people are down?”

“Yes, sir. 
They are.”

“How long
until the leading edge is in their area?”  I asked.

“I’ll need a
few minutes to run the calculations, sir.  Please stand by.”  She didn’t wait
for me to say anything, just immediately set to work.

“What are
you thinking?”  Crawford asked while we waited.

“I’m
thinking I’m going to find a fast car and haul ass,” I said.  “The rest of you
pick up Scott, Irina and Igor, then Martinez flies you to the Bahamas.”

“Good idea,”
Katie said from behind me.  “But where are we going to find a car?”

Crawford
suppressed a grin and walked away.  With a sigh I turned to face my wife.

“Not we,” I
said.  “Me.”

“Unh uh,”
she shook her head.  “We.”

“Honey,” I
started to say but she stepped forward, grabbed the back of my neck and pulled
my head down to kiss me.

“We,” she
said with a smile, turning and heading back to the Pave Hawk.  I don’t think I
imagined that she put a little extra sway in her hips as she walked away.

“Sir, are
you still there?”

“I’m here.”

“Thirteen and
a half hours, sir.  That’s what the computer is coming up with.  In reality I
don’t think the infected will climb up into the mountains where they are, but
once they’re in the area the herd will cut off access.”

“Thank you,
Petty Officer.  One final thing.  Can you send the route you’ve mapped out to
this phone?  I don’t need a map, just text directions are fine.”

“I’ll send
both, sir.”

“Thank you,”
I said, ready to hang up but she stopped me.

“Sir, if you
call me when you get on the road and let me know what you’re driving I’ll track
you.  That way if anything changes I can call and give you a heads up.”

“Petty
Officer, why you’re not a Senior Chief already is beyond me.  Remind me to talk
to your CO when this is over.”  I said.

“Thank you,
sir!  And don’t forget to call.  I don’t sleep much anymore.  You can pretty
much always reach me.”

BOOK: Recovery: V Plague Book 8
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