Night shoved against red flames making a jagged edge on the horizon as David’s truck pulled into Mavis’s neighborhood. Parked military vehicles tilted drunkenly from the curb. Black ghosts shuffled along the sidewalks and streets while yellow flashlights punched holes in darkness. The headlamps cut across the face of a donkey. The animal shied away before the handler got it under control. Slowly a cart trundled by. Limbs protruded from the bodies in the back and flopped about as the cart bumped over a pot hole.
“It had taken us the whole day, Big D, but I think we did great finding Wheelchair Henry, Manny, and all. Plus, those animals are gonna come in real handy feeding everyone.” Robertson nosed the personnel carrier into an empty spot and killed the engine.
“The Doc will be pleased.” About the people. Who knew if she’d planned for more animals. He scanned the crowd. Where was Mavis? Had she gotten worse? He checked his cellphone. No message. But that didn’t mean one hadn’t been sent. Around the burning valley, cell towers had been destroyed, rendering coverage spotty at best. He pushed open the door and jumped to the asphalt.
General Lister spied him from the opening of Mavis’ cul-de-sac and marched over. “Bout time you showed up. The Doc was getting worried. That we don’t need, Sergeant-Major.”
“Yes, Sir.” He gestured to the wagons being herded deeper into the neighborhood. “We found some survivors.”
“Good.” Lister rubbed the stubble on his chin. “How many sick?”
“More than half.” He didn’t bother counting actual numbers. There wasn’t much point. “We’re told many passed in the night.”
Metal screeched as the trucks’ gates dropped. Soldiers, Airmen and Marines formed queues nearby, personally sorting the arrivals and leading them to different locations. Fatigue and helpless bowed many square shoulders at the number of sick children. So many sick children.
“Death is going to be our constant companion for the next couple months.” Lister sighed as a trio of coughing toddlers were carried by. “This is a hell of an enemy to fight.”
“Almost makes me miss Al Qaida.”
Lister grunted. “I’ll brief you on the walk to the chow line.”
“Yes, sir.” He swung his M4 over his shoulder and fell into step beside the general, walking down the center of the street. Around them service men and women packed the trucks, emptied survivors from others and shuffled people to and from the houses. “We preparing to bug out tomorrow?”
“Some have already left. And the evac route has been modified a bit. Rain’s turning the washes into quicksand.” He glanced up at the smoke-filled sky. “Cold front is supposed to move in tomorrow so we’ll be hitting snow once we reach the Mogollon Rim.”
David shook his head. Bad weather. Just what they needed. “We need a break.”
“We need a miracle. This jaunt is turning into a Hail Mary effort with every passing second.”
“Sergeant Major!” Manny sprinted from the group gathered in the center of the road.
Walking with the general, David headed toward the kid.
“That your group.”
“Yes, Sir.” He eyed the assembly of twenty or so people. None of them coughed or wheezed for breath.
“They look healthy. You have the damnedest luck, Sergeant Major.”
Luck had nothing to do with it. Wheelchair Henry, Manny and his group hadn’t gone to the Burgers in a Basket. But their long walk here might have exposed them. In two months, none of them might be alive.
Drawing up short, Manny sucked air into his lungs before setting his hand on his knee and craned his head to look up at them. “Wheelchair Henry wants to talk to you.”
He held out a yellow and black child’s walkie-talkie.
Lister eyed it like it was a hand grenade. “Now, see here, young man. The sergeant major and I have work to do.”
David set his hand on Manny’s shoulder. Bones pushed back against his palm. The kid needed some meat on his bones. “Wheelchair Henry is retired Colonel Henry Dobbins, General. Nearly a dozen vets left the VA hospital to find the old man when he didn’t show up for free burgers and shakes on Monday.”
The day the Veteran’s Affairs had distributed anthrax-laden toys to the sick and injured. Silence drifted on the smoke as Lister made the connection.
“I’d like to meet a man that inspires such loyalty.”
“He’s a good man.” Manny’s eyes narrowed when he stared at the general.
“That he is Manny, and we could use his advice on a few things.” David reached for the walkie-talkie.
At the last minute, Manny clutched the toy to his chest. “He’s in the park with the animals.”
So the kid wasn’t going to give up the walkie. David didn’t blame him. The boy had been through hell. At least he had his brother, sister, and friends. That was more than many other people. “We’ll find him.”
“In the meantime, you take your friends and get some food.” Lister gestured to the group of children staring at them. “We’ll send the Colonel to you after we speak to him.”
Manny set his jaw but his gaze stuck to the children.
Poor kid. His loyalties were being tested for no reason. “Robertson!”
The private materialized from the dark. “Here Sergeant Major.”
“Take Manny and the others to get something to eat.” David jerked his head toward the group. “Manny, if we don’t return Wheelchair Henry to you, you have my permission to shot PFC Robertson here.”
Manny paled and his jaw dropped open. “I–”
“Relax, Little Man.” Robertson draped his arm around the boy’s shoulders and dragged him forward. “Big D’s just pulling your whiskers. He won’t let anything happen to ol’ Henry or to me. We sent you the computer so you could find us, didn’t we?”
“I guess so.”
“Of course, we did.” Robertson glanced back over his shoulder and winked at David. “Now, tell me which one of those little chicas is your girlfriend.”
“What!” The rumbled of an engine swallowed the rest of Manny’s reply.
David smiled. Robertson certainly had his uses. Then again, he wasn’t much older than Manny. A pale horse pulled a rickety wagon out of the neighborhood. A gust of wind carried the scent of decay and death. He watched it pass before heading in the opposite direction. “How many have we lost?”
“Lost track at twenty-six hundred and that was four hours ago.” Lister clasped his hands behind his back. “Almost everyone is sick, except your group and a handful of others.”
They passed Mavis’s block. David glanced at the second house from the corner. Lights blazed in every window and people tromped in and out of the ranch house-uniform and civilian dress, clean and soot stained. His attention bounced off one person then another. Where was she? Had she gotten another call from the Surgeon General? Was anyone alive on the East coast?
“The Doc is getting you chow.”
His attention whipped back to the general. “Sir?”
“That’s who you’re craning your neck to see, isn’t it? Once word came down on the horn you were a mile out, she left HQ. I’m sure she need the break. This has turned into a logistical nightmare and everyone wants their say, from nurses to reverends.” Lister’s eyebrows met over his nose and a muscle ticked in his jaw.
Had something more than a break in the chain of command pissed off the officer? He followed his gaze to a tall man wearing a flannel jacket with a bible in his hand. A knit cap covered his head and ash streaked his profile. There was something familiar about that face.
He wracked him memory but came up empty. It’ll come to him later. Probably wake him up from a sound sleep.
A coughing woman jostled his elbow before stumbling across the street.
Right, he had other things to think about at the moment. “At least, they’re not freaked about the imminent melt down.”
“Haven’t told everyone.” Lister flicked at the ash on his uniform, smearing the gray into the khaki. “Just a select few. Hell, most folks are in too much of a shock to understand the alphabet.”
David nodded to the line of civilians snaking out of the registration tent. Most had sandwiches in their hands. His stomach growled. Where was Mavis and his food? “But they know we’re leaving in the morning.”
“Most think it’s because of the fire and rats. Others think it’s on account of the sickness. And then there are the wackos. Wish we could leaves some of those nut jobs behind but there just isn’t enough of us.”
Hot air blew from the air conditioners plastering his pants against his legs and shoving ash into drifts against the curb. People staggered out of the way as an empty wagon clomped by. Others stood in clumps on the side of the road staring blindly ahead. Gray spotted their white bread.
“Are we going to tell everyone?”
“According to the Doc, we have to.”
Turning sideways, Mavis slipped between a couple of cinder covered fellows and joined them in the street. “Did I hear my name?”
“Just telling the Sergeant Major that you plan to tell everyone about the anthrax attack on tomorrow’s emergency alert broadcast.”
Mavis nodded but her focus was on him. “Hand.”
He held out his hand to her. It was nice to have someone to come home to.
Rolling her eyes, she flipped it palm side up and slapped two capsules against his skin. “Take your meds.”
Automatically, he tossed them in his mouth. They stuck to his tongue.
She popped the top on a can of soda. “Here. It’s more than a spoonful of sugar.”
Water sweated from the cold can and dripped from his fingers. He tossed his head back and drained the contents in a few gulps. God, it felt like forever since he’d had a cold drink. He crushed the can and looked about for a recycling pile. “Thanks.”
She patted down her pockets before pulling out a bundle in a thick napkin. “This should tide you over until we can get back to HQ.”
Lister rolled his eyes. “The soldier is more than capable of hunting down his own rations.”
Jealous? Smiling, David peeled away the paper and bit into his dinner. The salt from the ham made his mouth water. “Thanks, Mavis.”
He deliberately used her given name.
A vein ticked at Lister’s temple.
“What have you two discussed?” She reached into her pocket. After sifting through a handful of wrappers, she pulled a throat lozenge from the bunch and popped it into her mouth.
“Just the revised evac routes.”
David swallowed his bite of ham sandwich. “And that you planned to tell everyone about the germ attack.”
She crumpled the empty papers in her fist. “So many people want to stay here and rebuild, it seems the best way to get them to leave. Besides, most of them will cooperate if they think we’re being up front with them.”
“Lots of folks are angry.” Lister clenched his fists. “I won’t have them taking that anger out on my men, especially when there’s so many sick.”
“We can keep the wolves at bay, at least for now.” Mavis chucked her wad of papers into an overflowing bin. “I’ll tell them about the fallout once we get to Colorado.”
David’s crushed can joined the wrapper on the ground. Guess littering wasn’t a big issue at the moment. “Not many will want to live in the mine shaft without a good reason.”
“Let’s head back to my house to check the forecast and the maps. Beside, I’ve got soup.”
That and two more sandwiches might make a dent in his appetite. “I’ve gotta meet Wheelchair Henry first.”
He jerked his head down the road, away from her house.
“The Sergeant Major found a few vets on his way over here.” Lister shook his head. “And they’re healthy.”
“You lead a charmed life, David.” Shivering, Mavis pulled another sandwich from her jacket pocket before tucking her arm through his. Her fever flared along his side.
Her plan to burn the disease illness out of her body didn’t seem to be working. Still, she didn’t seem more sick.
“Yeah, he’s a really lucky charm,” Lister growled.
David grinned. He certainly was and he planned to keep it that way. “You doing okay?”
“As well as can be expected.” She coughed before shaking her head. “I’ve had all my shots, remember?”
He wasn’t bound to forget. After patting her hot hand, he freed his new sandwich and took a bite. Peanut butter and jelly. His favorite. “And you’re taking your meds, right?”
Lister snorted. “If you two are finished playing footsie over there, we have things to discuss.”
Mavis crunched the cough drop. “The fire has made it impossible for us to activate all the valley’s points in the emergency alert system. But we think there might be enough public address capabilities in fire stations and churches that we can reach almost everyone.”
“My men will be finished stripping batteries out of abandoned cars to power them in a few hours.” Lister nodded. “Your recording is good to go. I’d activate it now, but with the electricity out, folks are bound to get hurt if they try to leave in the dark.”
The crowd thinned as they reached the end of the street. David eyed the driver pulling his empty wagon in front of a house at the end. Two men in full biohazard gear stood in the entryway. He stuffed the last two bites of sandwich in his mouth and returned his face mask to its intended position.
“My main concern is the delay caused by using the roads.” Mavis’s last word dissolved in a coughing fit.
He caught the concern in Lister’s eye. Yeah, they couldn’t afford to lose her. “Maybe you should go inside. This ash can’t be good for your lungs.”
She pounded on her chest as she stopped coughing. “We both know that isn’t my problem. We need to find a way to delay the meltdown.”
Wheelchair Henry rolled into the cone of light cast by the portable lights. “Did someone say meltdown?”
Three men flanked him. From their lose yet ready stance, David knew them to be former soldiers. Probably not out of the service long.
Mavis clamped her jaw shut.
Lister thrust his hand forward. “General Lister, USMC. You must be Henry Dobbins.”
Wheelchair Henry held out his hand. “Honor to meet you, sir. These are Falcon, Brianiac and Papa Rose.”
David nodded to the men. Definitely not out long if they still answered to their military handles.
“Nice to see you’re healthy.”
“Heard that’s a rarity.” Henry offered his hand to David. “Now what’s this about a meltdown. That the reason why we’re leaving the city?”
David clasped the calloused hand but didn’t answer the question. Lister stared at Mavis.
Her gaze shifted from the general to him. He nodded once. “Partly. We were attacked by Anthrax. The region won’t be habitable for years, hundreds of years.”
Henry folded his hands on his lap. “So it’s not the Redaction, huh? But what’s the problem with the power plant going kabluey, if we’re not going to be here?”
Mavis blinked. “Radiation isn’t going to stay in one location, Mr. Dobbins. And Palo Verde isn’t the only one going. It’s evert operating reactor in the United States. That’s over one hundred four. Add in the rest of the worlds’ reactors plus all the lovely spent fuel rods that have been piled up over the years and the most of the Earth’s surface is going to be sterilized.”
Henry held up his hand before scraping it down his face. “Guess that’s why you’re the woman in charge.”
“Yeah, guess so.” Clearing her throat, Mavis jerked another cough drop out of her pocket. “Do you or any of the vets with you know anything about nuclear reactors?”
The man on the right stepped forward. Small and wiry, he shivered inside his Navy peacoat. “I served about aboard the USS Alaska, ma’am. She’s nuclear powered.”
Mavis bit her bottom lip.
Lister rocked back on his heels. “How different is a power plant than a sub?”
“I don’t know.”
The African American man on Wheelchair Henry’s other side stepped up. “Brainiac is super-smart, ma’am. He’ll know what to do or he can figure it out.”
Henry swiped at the ash on his cheeks. “How much time does he have to buy?”
Time ticked off in heartbeats. David clenched in his fists. This was her first real test at command. Was she willing to send men she’d looked in the face to their deaths? Or was she best in theories and on paper. He felt tension roll of Lister, no doubt the man was deciding her fitness. If she couldn’t make the hard decisions…
Raising her chin, she inhaled a shaky breath and stared directly at Brainiac. “As much as he can.”
David’s stomach threatened to return his sandwiches. She’d done it. God help them, she’d done it.
The third man stepped forward and set his hand on Brainiac’s shoulder. Light shone on his bald head and highlighted the roses tattooed on his forearm. “Roger that, ma’am. We just need a way in.”
Lister offered his side arm and a handful of clips. “This should get you passed the front gate.” The African American man took them and began inspecting the gun. “Follow me and I get you some plastique keys.”
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