“You’re relieving me of command?” Mavis Spanner’s gut clenched. No. This couldn’t be happening. She been working when her son was killed inAfghanistan. She’d gone to the office to file a report when her husband died. Now, when her stupid job had a chance to save the life of someone she loved, this jar-head threatened to take it away.
“I have to consider it.” Across the bench seat of the Humvee, General Lister tapped on the screen of his laptop. The blue light of the screen tarnished the United States Marine Corps insignia on his collar.
“Why? She’d worked despite being infected with anthrax. She’d stared at reports until her eyes burned and the information blurred. She coughed into the crook of her arm. With each spasm, her diaphragm shrink-wrapped her gut around her ribs, squeezing air out of her lungs with a high-pitched whistle. God, it hurt to breathe, to blink, to think. What more could they want from her?
What more did she have to give?
“You’re obviously sick.”
Ending her coughing jag on a wheeze, she stuck her hands into her pockets. Empty throat lozenge wrappers rained like confetti on the dark upholstery. She raked her fingers through the garbage. Surely, there would be one left. Please God, let there be one left. “Practically everyone is sick.”
Billions of anthrax spores swirled in the air, clung to people’s clothes and stuck to people’s shoes.
“What makes me so special that I get relieved of duty?” If she knew, then she could find a solution to stay in her position. Her niece needed her to stay in her position. She skimmed a hard knot in her pocket, stopped and delved deeper in the detritus then came up with a foil wrapped wad of gum. Damn it! A tickle skimmed her throat before she started coughing again. The graphics on her tablet computer swam as her eyes teared up. Hacking up a lung would be so much easier.
General Lister glanced at her over the top of his wire-rimmed reading glasses. The slim silver earpieces pointed directly to his graying temples. “The Sergeant-Major and his handful of Army flunkies tell me you haven’t gotten more than a couple of hours sleep in the last two days.”
Sighing, Mavis collapsed against the seat. Her attention darted to the driver’s seat of the Humvee. Sergeant-Major David Dawson winked at her in the rear view mirror. Her Sergeant-Major as the general damn well knew. She straightened. Wait just a New York minute. “You’ve had my… men spy on me?”
Her lover spied on her? She rubbed her sternum, hoping to ease the ache building under the bone. Where was his loyalty?
“In case you haven’t noticed, Doc, the shit has already hit the fan.” Lister ripped off his glasses and chewed on the earpiece. “And now we’re being sucked into the downdraft, ready to be chopped into bits by the blades.”
And how exactly did that justify David’s betrayal? Her gaze shifted to the floor. “And the Sergeant-Major and his men are now the judges of good health and competency?”
Sure, David and his men were practically the only ones healthy since their commanding officer hadn’t shared the anthrax tainted toys. Not that the asshole had known of the biological attack at the time. The CO had been too busy lining his own pockets by selling the meals and toys Burgers in a Basket had churned out to thank the military, government officials, police, fire and healthcare workers.
And all those toy baggies had spilled their grams of anthrax masquerading as desiccant into the air, exposing everyone who breathed to the disease. She and her niece had been at one of several thousands of ground zeroes around the world. Now, she was infected and her niece, her sole remaining relative, was dying.
“Hell, the Army is competent to judge their assholes.” Lister snorted before coughing into his handkerchief. Moments passed before he wiped his mouth and tucked the square of embroidered linen in his uniform pocket. “Putting the Army in charge of anything explains why we’ve gone barely ten miles in two hours. Isn’t that right, Sergeant-Major?”
“Yes, Sir.” The vehicle swayed side-to-side as David maneuvered it out of the wash and onto hard packed dirt running next to it. The Humvee slowed to a crawl as they approached the paved road.
Men. She resisted the urge to throw up her hands and smack some sense into him. As the jar head knew, the moved slowly to pick up survivors along the evacuation route. His nonsense wouldn’t distract her from his earlier threat.
“Why are you threatening to remove me from office?” Kill my niece? And using my lover to spy on me?
“In case you hadn’t noticed, Doc.” Lister set his glasses back on his nose. “You are the only one who seems to have an bird’s eye view of the big picture. Right now, the wheels up here are spinning.” He tapped his silver temple. “But if you don’t take care of yourself, the motor will run out of oil, seize up and stop working altogether. I’m not planning on dying because your being self-centered.”
Her mouth fell open. She was being selfish? Who did he think she was working day and night to save? Her niece, yes, but them too. They were in this together.
“You start getting some sleep or I’ll remove you from duty.” He slid her tablet off her lap. “It’s as simple as that.”
“Fine.” She turned toward the window and yawned. No need to let the moosejawed bully know she was tired. He’s gloating alone would keep her awake. Slouching in her seat, she closed her eyes. They popped back open. Come on. She needed to clear her head, needed to keep her job.
Outside the window, the world was decorated in apocalypse chic. Smoke writhed over the smoldering neighborhoods. Carbonized studs and charred tile marked the remains of affluent homes. Ash flaked off skeletal branches of trees and shrubs. The air reeked of burnt hair and roasting meat. Singed rats scavenged in the decay.
At the top of the embankment, ash-coated survivors shivered next to their meager pile of belongings. White eyes blinked in chalked faces. A Bible-black sky roiled behind them, while flashes of lightning illuminated the mountains behind the suburb of Cave Creek, still miles in the distance. Trails of red climbed the dark hills as fire serpents crawled across the ground, devouring everything in its path.
“Tell them we’re full up.” Lister barked as David shifted the vehicle to the side, parked it and killed the engine.
Mavis rolled her eyes. “The Sergeant-Major knows the drill. I’m sure he had it down the second time you said it.”
The twentieth was a bit overkill.
“He’s Army and enlisted. They need the repetition.” Lister groped along the floor before he found his half-empty water bottle. Deviltry glinted in his pale blue eyes. “Aren’t you supposed to be sleeping?”
David set his helmet on his head and wrapped his hand around the barrel of his M-4. “Which of the trucks still have room, Sir?”
Room. The trucks had so little room. Yet they couldn’t leave the sick and take only the healthy. Anthrax could take up to a month and a half to present symptoms. Everyone needed to climb on board and pray they weren’t already the walking dead. A chill slipped down her spine. Great, the fever was back and her throat hurt. If she hoped to get any rest, she needed another dose of aspirin. She reached for her purse by her feet.
The general tapped his keyboard. “Put them in seven and twenty-three.”
Her fingers wrapped around the medicine bottle and her nails bent under her grip. “Twenty-three?”
That truck housed her niece Sunnie. Glancing over her shoulder, she peered into the dust and smoke clogging the dirt road and rising from the wash. Where in the convoy was she? The trucks had leap-frogged each other so many times, it had been turned into a shell game. Sure, she’d started in the same vehicle as her niece but there’d been so many decisions that she’d been forced to move to the Humvee with General Lister. David had accompanied her, filling in when the original driver had nearly hit a tree before fever had rolled his eyes back in his head.
He’d be dead by morning. As would half the soldiers. Instead of protecting them, the anthrax vaccine had supercharged their immune system, drowning them with their own antibodies. She thumped her chest, temporarily dislodging the congestion. Hopefully, her older, slower-to-respond system would prevent her from meeting the same fate.
“Trucks twenty-three and seven have room.” Lister twisted the cap off his water bottle before tossing back his head and draining the contents.
She rubbed her burning eyes. At least, anthrax wasn’t contagious. But given the amount blowing around, it didn’t need to be.
The general eyed her. “You going to change my orders?”
Yes. She squeezed her eyes closed. Please, please, please, let her recover. She bartered her soul for her niece’s life. “No.”
“You know Johnson will have other patients to attend.”
“I know.” The words were razor blades in her throat. She’d been lucky to have the medic just on Sunnie for as long as she had. Everything her niece needed to beat the infection had already been dispensed. All that remained was one-on-one mortal combat.
Please, God, let her niece win.
“Maybe if we had more leaders like you, we wouldn’t be in this mess.” Lister turned back to his computer.
Don’t bet on it. She’d sacrifice them all to keep her niece alive. She’d promised her sister to look after Sunnie and she’d be damned if she broke that promise.
Speaking into his headset, David notified the numbered vehicles of the impending visitors then opened his door. Smoke tainted air drifted inside. “Try the walkie. She might be awake.”
Walkie. Where’d she put the darn thing? Forgetting the medicine, Mavis patted down her chest before thumping the plastic walkie. Sighing she plucked it off her belt and pressed the talk button. “Sunnie? Are you there?”
She released the button. Static crackled in the air for a moment.
“She’s asleep, ma’am.”
Mavis curled against the seat back as the medic’s deep voice drifted through the line. Sleep was good. She’d like to be sleeping right now. “How’s she doing?”
“No better or worse than fifteen minutes ago. Respiration is shallow and she’s still whistling Dixie, but her temperature is stable and she’s keeping down the Cipro.”
Good signs, all of them but it was a long way from healthy.
“Thank God.” Mavis closed her eyes. “Let me know when she wakes up.”
When, not if. She needed to keep a positive attitude. She yawned. Eighty winks sounded pretty good right about now.
“Before you drift off to theLandofNod, Doc.” Lister flicked the walkie which jostled her hand. “With all these delays, we’re going to need to revise our plans.”
Opening one eye, she glared at him. Sleep, don’t sleep. The man had more ups and downs than a yo-yo. “I could shoot you right now.”
He grinned, revealing white teeth, but fatigue hung heavy under his eyes. “That’s why I moved all the guns and knives out of your reach.”
She opened her other eye and shifted in the seat. Did they put the lumps in them on purpose? “I don’t need a gun or knife to kill.”
Her training had taught her that those things could easily be taken away and used against her. Instead, she’d learned to improvise. A pen made an effective weapon under some circumstances. So did a bed spring. Unfortunately, neither were particularly handy.
And the brass toting fat head keeping her awake probably had the same training.
“That’s why you’re in charge.”
No, she was in charge because she’d been second-in-command to the Surgeon General. Now she was all that remained of the US government besides the rapidly dwindling numbers of servicemen and women. And they were determined to maintain a chain of command with her being the ‘it’ girl.
Outside the Humvee, David guided the sleep-walking survivors to the right side of the vehicle while the convoy lumbered by. Pebbles pinged the metal body and dust coated the windows like brown powdered sugar. A truck filled the review mirror. She twisted on her seat. Was Sunnie in that truck?
“Now, about our evac plans. We need to revise our ETA.”
“No need.” Guess, she’d find out later. After hooking the walkie back on her belt loop, she fished in her purse for the bottle of aspirin. Since she was up for a while longer…. Gripping the bottle, her shaking fingers fumbled to line up the raised arrows. The plastic top slipped against her palm but didn’t open. Child-proof, her behind. Adult proof is more like it.
“Because, I’ve already accounted for these delays.”
Lister held his hand out for the bottle.
Mavis glared at it then bit down on the top and pulled. Pain flared in her jaw before the cap popped off. The pills rattled against plastic. She spit the cap onto the seat near Lister’s open palm.
“You knew this was going to happen?”
“Basic rule of planning, consider how long something should take then multiply it by the human factor, also known as four, and then pray everything works out.” She dumped eight pills into her palm then popped one into her mouth. Bitterness and saliva flooded her mouth but soon the fire in her throat was doused. Blessed relief. Thank God the corpsmen had known that little trick. She scraped the residue off with her tongue. The rest she’d take with water.
Lister took the bottle from her hand and measured out his own dose then capped it. “The human factor is four?”
He tossed them in his mouth and chewed.
Yuck! She shivered. Either the guy needed more hair on his chest or he was trying to prove something. Like she had a penis. She take hers with water and be damn proud of it. She scanned the seat before leaning forward and checking the floor. Now to find her water bottle. There. By the door. Dumping the pills into a pile on her tongue, she retrieved her drink, opened it and took a gulp. Warm water washed down the tiny tablets.
“Most doom-and-gloom predictors prefer eight, but I like being optimistic.”
The Palo Verde nuclear power plant lying eighty miles to the west was days away from melting down and spewing radioactive waste. With a storm heading for them, they would be directly in the fallout’s path. And that was only three of the thousand on the planet.
They had a thirty-percent chance of surviving the Anthrax.
None of them would escape cancer if they didn’t find a place to duck and cover within the timetable.
And God help them if they received a lethal dose.
There wasn’t enough cyanide to spike everyone’s punch.
Mavis pushed aside the thoughts and blinked until the screen of her tablet came into focus. A map had replaced her earlier graph. Blips of light arched across the green matrix. “What’s this?”
“Wide view radar.” Lister held his screen next to hers. “It looks like we’re being invaded.”
She glanced at her water bottle before sniffing it. It smelled like water not vodka. “I really need some sleep. I thought you just said invaded.”
“I did.” He set a finger on her screen, shifted the view then tapped it. The image zoomed in on one glowing circle until silver wings appeared.
“That’s a plane.” Please, God, don’t let China have followed up their biological attack with a more conventional one. She tilted the tablet to get a side view of the plane’s logo. Doh! Embarrassment heated her cheeks. Maybe he hadn’t noticed.
“It’s a commercial airliner.” Chuckling, he tapped the screen again and it backed off. Hundreds of dots studded Japanese air space until they merged into one giant splotch as America’s west coast appeared.
The Japanese were invading the US? “What can they be thinking?”
“They’re directly in China and India’s fallout path. The Japs know better than anyone, except the Reds, the shit sandwich they’re about to be served.”
She scrubbed her hands down her face. Why hadn’t she considered this? She’d only gotten sick a couple of days ago. Good Lord, what’s going on in Europe?
Lister shoved his face in hers and breathed staled coffee on her. “Now’s the time to get that big brain of yours working, Doc.”
“You do. And you can.” Lister eased away. “What did you do before the war?”
The war. Her brain slipped gears before finding a groove and turning. Funny how she didn’t think of either the influenza pandemic or the germ attack byChinaas war. Yet it was.
Humanity teetered on the precipice of extinction.
The nuclear meltdown threatened to push them over the edge.
And she’d been on the front lines serving in the Weapons of Mass Destruction program, trying to prevent selfish nations and self-serving despots and tyrants from bringing humanity here in the first place.
She reached into her jacket pocket, searching for another cough drop. “I worked for the United Nations.”
“Exactly. You were a known spy. You know what these things can do, you understand their tactics. But more than that, you’ve been behind enemy lines, had guns shoved in your face, and been taken hostage by rogue governments.”
Shot, stabbed, nearly raped. All those things and more. Sweat misted her skin. But she hadn’t been alone. Others had her back.
“You, Doc, are the epitome of cool. You talk about bugging out, nuclear meltdown and extinction level events without so much as batting an eyelash.”
Her teeth clicked together. She wasn’t cool. She’d washed plenty of crabgrass out of her undies. Still…knowing her enemies meant she knew their weaknesses and how to thread the needle just right so humanity could come out the other side.
“What’s the answer? I know you have it.” Hope blazed in his eyes. “It’s people like you that’ll give us the edge.”
He needed to believe she had the answers just like his men needed to believe the officers knew what needed to be done. Just like the citizens needed to believe in the soldiers. So why did she picture herself as the nail keeping the kingdom from being lost?
On the other side of the window, David winked at her as he helped an elderly woman into the waiting arms of a soldier.
Well, hell, if everyone around her was delusional, didn’t that make crazy the new sane? She picked up her tablet and refocused. She could solve this problem. It was just one problem. The satellite zeroed in on the flock of silver birds. “Not all of them are heading this way. Some look like they’re heading toward Australia.”
He picked up a head set and adjusted the mouthpiece. “Give me a status on the Rising Sun Birds.”
White caught her eye. She shifted the screen and tightened the image on the slash under the plane’s wings. For a moment, blue waves filled her screen then the familiar bow-shape appeared. “There are ships under the planes.”
Lister eyed her screen. “That one’s a sail boat.”
The Japanese citizens hadn’t been thinking; they’d been following an primitive instinct to flee as if they’re lives depended on it. And they did. Unfortunately, they couldn’t outrun the radiation. In months, the American west coast would be awash in ghost ships ferrying corpses.
She set her hand over her mouth to stifle a scream. Every problem had several solutions. She just needed to find the solution. Find it. “Where are our boys?”
“Australia is mum on accepting the birds.”
Probably because there, too, everyone in charge had been wiped out by China’s anthrax stuffed animals. Which made landing a squadron of planes a rather tricky maneuver. But desperate people did suicidal things. She switched screens to her list of military assets. “Give me locations on the pacific fleet.”
The ships too far out of port to be safely recalled had been ordered to set sail for Antarctica. Those in Europe, Asia and the Middle East had evacuated as many personnel and their families as they could handle and headed for the same destination.
Lister changed screens. Blips popped up with unreadable names.
Mavis resisted the urged to slap herself for her shortsightedness. Zeroing in on the Naval ships nearOkinawa, she tapped them. “These guys need to save the insane from suicide and escort the other ocean going vessels to Australia. I want all airplanes routed to San Francisco, San Diego and Seattle.”
After relaying the order, he glanced at her. “I thought radiation will cross the equator and sterilize Africa, South America and Australia.”
“It will, but it will take a lot longer to reach and the exposure will be reasonably low.” At least that was the theory. How it played out in real life was anyone’s guess. She eyed the swirling weather fronts over the India Ocean. Nothing like playing chicken with Mother Nature.
But she would have to tackle the Southern hemisphere’s problem in the future.
For now, she had to help as many people into the future. “These submarines, why are they dry docked?”
Lister’s display showed the planes rerouting toward American shores. “Are you expecting another attack?”
“Nope, just thinking outside the box.” She double checked the class of subs. All were nuclear. Hot damn. She’d just won the lottery. “Do we have enough people to staff them?”
“Not fully, but operationally probably. Why?”
“Nuclear subs have years of power and can provide unlimited oxygen and fresh water to their inhabitants. And as a bonus, they could hunker down under the water safe from the radiation.”
“How long will our people need to stay under?”
God only knew, and he wasn’t talking. “Three months minimum.”
Probably longer. She still had to research how long it took for the atmospheric radiation to normalize after Chernobyl and Fukishima. All she knew was that it took less than seven days to sweep around the globe multiple times.
Multiply that by a thousand and their future was so bright it practically glowed.
She pushed the thought aside. Now was not the time for pessimism.
He adjusted his glasses. “I’ll have the supplies loaded.”
“Good. And have the sailors with families take them too.”
“Uh, Doc, I don’t think that’s such a good idea. There could be knife fights in the sardine can.”
She pushed her bangs out of her eyes. “I know that under normal circumstances that is to be avoided at all cost. However, this is not normal. And Joe Squid might miss the reactor going from screwed to fucked because he’s worrying about his wife and kiddies somewhere on shore.”
His jaw thrust forward. “A phone call will set that straight.”
“Don’t count on phones or any technology working after the meltdown. Nothing but the green robots worked at Chernobyl. Nothing.” Men in uniform had saved the planet in the end. With only one tenth of one percent of the population predicted to survive, she couldn’t afford to throw anyone into the breach.
Doubt beetled his clipped eyebrows before he sighed. “Yes, ma’am.”
She smiled at his acquiescence. Sometimes it was good to be the nail holding the kingdom together. Hiding her gloating, she turned her attention back to her tablet. What other assets had she over looked?
The door opened ushering in a whiff of smoke. David set his weapon across his lap before closing it. He started the engine just as the passenger door opened next to Lister.
A Marine with Ladykiller stenciled on the side of his helmet leaned inside. “Everyone’s nipped and tucked, Sir. The menu is being prepared.”
Referring to the survivors as dishes to be served up was a little crass, but dark humor was a survival mechanism just like fight or flight. Mavis opened her email, waiting for the new data attachment. Maybe they’d get lucky and this bunch would have stayed home instead of visiting Burgers in a Basket, or living near one, or breathing anthrax laden air.
Lister glanced up from his laptop. “Excellent. I hope this one was a bumper crop.”
David started the engine.
The Marine stepped back then paused. “Sir, Meals-on-wheels are reporting hostiles East of our position. Or North, they’re a bit confused. Our chefs haven’t reported anything, but they’re–”
Bullets thunked against the side of the Humvee. One shattered the front passenger window with radiating fractures. LadyKiller’s forehead opened up with a splatter of an overripe melon.
Clasping her hands over her head, Mavis dove for the floorboards. Heat stretched across her back before warm blobs rained down on her.