Chapter 33: Penri’s tale
Susan and Anthony sat by the fire, eating. I sat down and nodded toward Penri. “Meet Mr. Humvee.”
Susan choked. “Excuse me?”
“From the golf course. That’s him.”
“Ohhh. Does Klara know?”
“She seems to have taken it in stride.”
“Hmm, yeah, she’s like that.” Her eyes turned toward the loft. “A real trouper our Klara. Right up to the day she--” fork in mouth, she made a snapping motion with her hands.
Mom sat on a bench by herself. She stared at the fire. I left Susan, walked over, and put my arm around her.
“Mom,” I whispered, “I read Nana’s book and I understand.”
“Do you?” She snorted.
“Nana wasn’t insane. She tried to warn us. And I understand at the time it would have been impossible to believe her.”
“Her daughter should have.”
We sat in silence. She put her hand on my knee, closed her eyes, and wept. I stared into the fire and listened to Penri.
“Our orders were simple enough. We were to conduct sweeps, collect the dead and sick and turn them over to the CDC.”
“What did you do with the sick?” I asked, afraid I knew the answer.
“We turned them over to the medics.” Penri avoided my gaze. “It kept getting worse. Every time we went back through a cleansed area there were more undead, more sick. After the exodus, the Feds declared martial law and took over.
“In July, our orders shifted. General Willert got sacked and was replaced by Colonel Cho. I transferred to the 110th and was tasked to carry out our part of Operation Eden. It didn’t take long to figure that out. Supply drops and evacuations ceased. Plenty of traffic still left the airport, but it was all materials deemed necessary for the war effort.
“Colonel Cho figured it out, too. He began to give me hand-written orders to lose certain supplies. Anything not in our vital interests we still passed on.
“They caught on to Colonel Cho in the end. Minutes before the bombs fell, I received notification of his execution for treason. I was now in charge of Eastern Command.
“By this time, the only way in or out of the airport was by chopper. We were at a landing zone four or five klicks south of the airport. The boys in the Knighthawks must have received orders because they lifted off and headed west.”
Dad asked, “They just left you?”
“Yes. We were low on fuel and ammunition. There were thirty of us. I decided we would lay low for a couple days and then head out to a community that still survived.
“I knew about the place for a while and had supplied them with food, ammunition, medicine. Hell, I even found them a water purification system. This place had more than enough supplies to hold out for two, maybe three years.”
Penri chuckled. “Their own bit of Eden.”
“These guys sealed the sewers and used them to get out from the compound so we could scavenge. One of the sewers ran for over a mile.
“On one of these raids things turned sour for us. Some of my men went to a grocery store. My men made it into the building okay. But moaners spotted them and they were stuck for the night. The next day we rescued them. It wasn’t pretty.
“Four soldiers had committed suicide. The other eight were; well, changed. We found them huddled in a meat locker. They were broken. One of the men whimpered for his mother.
“I don’t know what happened that night, but none of them got over the experience. They spoke of a banshee and refused to go near the store.
“The story spread like wildfire. There was talk of wails coming from the store. Well, Derrick, the compound leader, had enough.”
“Wailing?” I asked. “What did it sound like?”
“I don’t know. Here’s the thing; only some people heard it. Good men though, it was all very confused. I trusted these men and women with my life. Yet a banshee? Come on.”
“You must have heard something,” I insisted. “Something like a wail can’t go unnoticed.”
Penri shook his head. I looked down at the sleeping Theo. He would want to hear about this.
“It became obvious, for these men at least, the time to leave had come. These were men of my command, and I wasn’t about to abandon them. I realized I could take care of two problems at once. My men who were being expelled and how to eliminate the moaners encircling the compound. Damn things showed up faster than we could end them.
“I guess that’s when I realized how traumatized my men were. This was a suicide mission, period. Yet these soldiers couldn’t wait to be away. You can pretty much guess the rest. In the end I lost all eight men. They went down like soldiers.”
“So that’s it, it’s over?” Dad asked. “The United States is gone?”
“I can’t answer. I haven’t heard anything for months. Last I heard, the Governor stabilized an area down south in the mountains. As far as the Feds go, I don’t know.”
“I see contrails from time to time,” I said.
“Yes, so have I. Somewhere there’s organized resistance.”
“Has anyone figured out what this is, how it all started?” Dad asked.
“All I know is, it starts in the gut. Somehow it fires part of the brain back up. An extraordinary amount of electrical activity is how I heard one esteemed doctor describe it.”
“But what is it, how does it spread?” Dad asked.
“Beats me. A bite will infect you for sure. Maybe by now some smart scientist has figured it out.
“One thing I know is, once a population is infected it spreads like wildfire. There was talk of places of relative immunity. Ethiopia and the Czech Republic were in good shape last I heard anything. There’s even a rumor Vatican City is safe, protected by fifty thousand cross wielding priests and nuns.”
I jerked to attention. “Bohemia fared well during the black death of the fourteenth century. Maybe they know something.”
“What, you mean like rats and fleas? No, that got checked out. The scientists could never establish an external link. Much more likely it’s their mountains protected them, completely surrounded like they are.”
“You didn’t have to be bitten by a flea to get the plague. There was a nasty pneumatic strain at the same time. If someone infected coughed in your face, well it--” I stopped. A phrase from Nana’s book came to mind. “I’ll be right back.” I jumped from the bench and ran to the wrecker.