Chapter 1 Jack
They had barely made it out of DC alive. Cygan might well be dead. The CDC was a bust and there was no way to stop the zombie horde. With no more ability to launch a nuclear weapon, and no one stockpiling Zolpidem, the one and only drug known to effectively counter the effects of the zombie virus, there really was no way out in sight. If Jack hadn’t been such a damn good pilot, they would have died there in the city.
‘Get your damn seatbelt off!’ Logan screamed over the blaring sirens as air rushed into the cabin faster than he could lunge for his ailing Desert Eagles. They fell to the floor in a clutter.
They could barely hear over the roaring turbulence. In one fit of super human power, he reached for the cord that kept Lizzie latched to the cold and unforgiving metal of the plane’s bland cabin and snapped it in two with the aid of his blunted hunting knife. ‘Get down!’ He yelled as articles from the cabin spilled about the floor as the plane banked hard. Logan had been asleep, rattled awake by something he at first thought to be a dream.
‘What’s happening?’ Lizzie half whimpered as she nearly choked on her unfastened raven black hair. Logan, in another show of patriarchal superiority took her tightly by the arm and stumbled to the back of the plane. He was Air Force through and through. He knew what those lights and sirens meant. She didn’t.
‘Jack, what the hell are you doing up there?’ Logan ignored her and took to yelling through his earpiece instead. Jack, their friend, was the best pilot probably left anywhere on Earth. Despite his ill advised love of Jack Daniels and near constant inebriation, he was the most precise, most mechanically sympathetic and capable pilot Logan had ever served with.
‘Could have used air traffic control, that’s what!’ Lizzie could hear his rushed and crackling voice blare through her own earpiece but had no way to talk to him. Logan had the only microphone headset.
‘You hit something?’ Logan asked with marked fear and stumbled further to the enormous cargo doors at the far end of the military transport plane. He pushed Lizzie down in the most affectionately brutal way he could and began rummaging through an overhead compartment for something. His powerful legs played a constant battle with the shifting plane and jostling turbulence. At least the cabin had pressurized and they could just about breathe with ease again.
Lizzie slowly brought herself around and shook off the after-effects of her long sleep. A world without coffee, or in her case often substituted for energy drink, was indeed a bleak one. She scrambled back to the other side of the plane and made a plunge for the Desert Eagle handguns Logan had dropped. They had no ammo left, apart from whatever was left in those ancient things. The fight for DC was a hard one. And a hard loss too.
‘Get back here!’ Logan yelled at her. It wasn’t fatherly command, or even frustrated authority in his voice. It was panic. And for Logan that was rare.
‘Don’t worry!’ Lizzie pleaded and hunched the handguns into the side of her belt assembly. ‘He can get it back.’ She was confident in that. So blindly confident that she hadn’t seen what had been staring at her the whole time.
That siren. The one that flooded the hollowed out plane’s cabin with belching, ear splitting resonating sounds. It was located atop the cargo door which had only now begun to open. The rush of cold air was both refreshing and terrifying at the same time.
‘What the hell?’ She said under her breath and cast a pleading, almost childlike look for help, to her friend, retired Brigadier General James Logan. He had found what he had been looking for, and instantly it clarified her darkest fear. Her tongue swelled inside her throat and the beating of her heart both raced with adrenaline, and near stopped in anticipation of something she knew she wasn’t ready to face.
‘I’m sorry General.’ That was Jack in her earpiece. ‘Lizzie.’ Jack was as solid as a rock. Bar one outburst, when he had drunkenly told General Logan that he firmly believed him to be the savior of all mankind, he didn’t show a drop of emotion. When challenged on his inability to cry, he would say he lost his tear ducts in the war. Never did he saw which war and Lizzie put it down to one of his many adorable personality traits, or flaws, depending on how he was viewed. But he was crying in the earpiece.
‘I didn’t see him coming. Civilian aircraft. How was I to know someone else was flying around up here?’ He blabbered a little but it was totally understandable. Logan had held out his hand. There was only one parachute but there was plenty of cord in the extra fixings of the harness to lash Lizzie in one with him. The landing would be harder, and his nature demanded that he take it off and give it to her and chance the crash himself, but his intelligence told him he had the strength to hold onto her despite the cold blasts of air as they fell from near space and they would both survive.
‘Clipped his damn wing boss.’ Jack kept explaining simply for the sake of it. ‘I hope there weren’t many people on board.’ Logan instantly calmed. Just like he would out in the field. He had seen men die more than enough to last him more than one lifetime. But at least he knew how to talk them through it.
‘Jack?’ He said calmly and simultaneously began wrapping every spare cord he could around Lizzie’s ever thinning frame. The silence beckoned him to continue. ‘We’re all alive because of you. The pleasure was all mine son.’ Lizzie erupted in tears, both paralyzed by her fear of death if she stayed, and by the loss she was about to endure. No detective skills were needed to see she loved him.
‘Get the hell off my plane. I’m going to try something.’ A sharp blast of static confirmed he had thrown his mouthpiece off something hard at some great force. He might as well have shot himself. Lizzie, overcome with immediate grief froze to the spot. Logan jerked her hand harshly and wrapped his arm around hers in as many snake like motions that the length of his arms and size of his muscles would allow.
‘Do not let go!’ He barked one last sharp order to her and she nodded before thrusting her body as close to his as she could. The cargo doors slowly slid open and the plane leveled for just a second. Long enough for Logan to start a mini sprint at full pelt, Jack really was the best damn pilot there was. His timing was split second accurate. The General darted to the inclined ramp and leapt into the darkness with all of the force he could muster. Lizzie followed as a rag doll in his wake. She was in no way submissive and was as hard as nails in her own right, but she was smart. Logan probably had a million and one combat jumps under his belt. Against her flat zero, that would make him the more experienced in this kind of thing. All she could do was ball up close to him and try to endure the ride.
At least the cold air was sharp, refreshing and pleasant. It hit them like a cold swimming pool on a summers day. The shock of the jump was enough to make Lizzie yelp out loud but she stayed mindful of her need to fall as lightly as possible. Logan was already maneuvering them into the most efficient pose to fall as gracefully as possible into the unknown below. A terrifying thought hit her immediately, even though there would be nothing she could do about it if it was true, but what if they were falling over water? They had been crossing the Atlantic after all.
The mission was Russia. It had been their last point of contact in DC. Funny how things play out. Logan had seen the zombies ravage the earth from his sheltered lab in Alaska. They had both since experienced the outbreak in New York and its subsequent fall at the hands of megalomaniac rogue General John Cygan. But rumor had it, among those still informed, that the Russians were handling it the best of all. They had, by all fanciful accounts, bunkered down in their Kremlins and adopted a siege mentality. They were hard assess after all.
She relaxed, probably for longer than she should have, and felt safe, just like she always had done, nested in Logan’s arms. He kept glancing around, unable to calculate their rate of fall with few points of reference beyond the cascading stars around him. The plane had spun off into the distance, perhaps only once over the horizon. And predictably, yet heart wrenchingly, exploded on impact with the land.
Lizzie wept again, even though she thought her heart as hardened as possible. At least they had a landing light now. Logan immediately wrenched at the red colored cord on his harness for the parachute to open. It did, in less than a heartbeat, and tugged Lizzie all but free of her makeshift harness. She screamed out of her relaxed mindset and tensed every muscle she had.
‘Don’t worry.’ There was somberness in his voice. ‘I’ve got you.’ He grasped her hand tightly as she peered into the rising flames. They warmed her cold and damp face even from the ground. She could make out the vaguest outline of a tree line and forested area. A few rising and rolling hills with jagged tops too. At least they were going to land on solid earth.
The area looked rural enough too. No major towns in sight, even though all they had to go by was the flickering, dull but cresting orange flames and fading stars. Of all hellish circumstances they could fear, at least this was the best of them.
Before long, not more than thirty seconds by her count, the ground was in clear view. Logan pulled hard on a strap and jostled the parachute into submission on a rising up draught of air. They had moved far enough away from the flickering flames of the doomed flight to not be able to see more than a dim orange hue atop the horizon. It looked like a premature and intense sunrise.
Logan had aimed, and at the very last second too, for a thin stream in the middle of what looked like a simple enough sheep pasture. They splashed down in what sounded in the deathly, graveyard silence, like a rushing waterfall. Logan dropped her immediately, leaving her to stumble through the current, which was far stronger than first appearances would have suggested, and wrestled the parachute down and out of the grasping hands of the powerful wind.
Lizzie eventually found her feet and pulled herself to them by the use of a slippery wet rock that only just protruded through the icy water’s edge. She took the largest cord of the parachute she could and helped Logan to tame the chute. With some exertion they pulled it to the ground and anchored it by levying a few rocks from the river over its corners.
Logan was too smart to just leave it. If anyone alive had heard the commotion, they would be looking through the area and there was no guarantee they would be friendly. Beyond any of that, it would also come in use in any number of survival situations.
Lizzie waded out of the stream come river first and reached down to help Logan to mount the wet and slippery grassy bank at its side. She hugged him tight, but not unlike him, he didn’t reciprocate. He just took his Desert Eagles from her belt, without asking, and held back the latch on each of them to check for a bullet in each chamber. Old habits are the hardest to die.
‘Stay close.’ And that was how she knew he wasn’t a monster, even if sometimes he liked to act like one. He had a coldness to him. No one could go through what he had and not. But there was care in his voice. In the way he looked into her dark eyes, and the thinnest curve of a smile in his lips’ corner every time he looked at her. ‘I’m sorry about Jack.’ He whispered, not expecting her to reply.
Their eyes adjusted slowly to the darkness and bleakness of the night. Logan moved slowly and listened intently. The curves of the valley sides came slowly into view. To their rear the valley stretched on, that was where the flames were coming from. Jack will have put the plane down as safely as he could. Logan would find the wreckage in the morning. That left one way in and one way out of the Valley, and that was encased in darkness and serviced by little more than the stream and a farm track that ran alongside it.
There was a sign. One not covered in blood or snapped and broken. A rare sight indeed. The place looked, for want of a batter word, normal.
Stonethwaite Camping it read. The gate was closed and locked. The bolts weren’t tampered with, the stream was clear, and the sun was rising. Not a bad location at all and defendable too. He holstered his guns at last, after what felt like a lifetime of looking, listening and ultimately guessing. He moved closer to the gate, to find the lock rusted shut. No one had been here in a while. Without the benefit of light, they were as sure as sure could ever be anymore, that they were safe for the time being.