We were about halfway from the hogan when the helicopter appeared. My ears picked it up first, the wupwupwupwup of rotorblades drawing near. My first reaction was to freeze. Joan and Pink were up ahead and I was awaiting the blaze-orange signal for me to do my leg before the next point took off. I hadn't seen the flag yet, which meant Pink had not yet gotten to Joan.
“Get down! Chopper coming,” I shouted and dropped to the ground. I heard Pink's distant “What?” answered immediately by Joan's sharp “Get on the ground and lie still!” By then the copter was close enough that I felt its thundering concussive beat on air grown heavy with humidity. The deadly mechanical bird was swooping in from the direction we were heading. It was moving so fast that before I saw anything I knew it was directly overhead. Its powerful blades whipped the tops of the trees as it passed, and, rotating my head to one side, I caught a flash of sunlight strobing off the tail rotor. The black bird was gone as suddenly as it had arrived, but I remained frozen, my ear pressed into the trail, hands clutching some kind of bushes as if to keep me from being sucked into the sky.
“Stay down!” I shouted, knowing the rule was to send at least two birds on missions, each serving as backup in case the other went down. But this wasn't hostile country. No reason to expect groundfire from these woods. I took several deep breaths and released them slowly, calming my nerves and making up for the oxygen deficit I'd incurred unconsciously holding my breath. Hearing nothing but the rapidly diminishing sound of the copter that had buzzed us, no new mechanical sound to suggest the approach of another, I struggled to my feet. I brushed off a reconnaissance patrol of ants, the advance units having reached nearly to my throat.
“Hello!” I shouted down the trail. “You guys OK?” It took two hails before I saw a flash of blaze orange, and then Joan appeared. She was walking toward me. I headed toward her as fast I as could move my sore stiffened legs. She covered more ground than I did before we met.
“We need to rest. Pink is exhausted,” she said. She wobbled then and swayed as if about to fall. I grabbed her and pulled her against me, then arched back so I could look at her. She pushed lightly but firmly with both hands and I released her. She took a backward step, a glint of annoyance flitting across her face. “Sorry. Ankle fell asleep back there.”
It was about 2:30 and I wanted to get to the road before sundown, which was when the storm was supposed to hit. The billowing, darkening front had reached up to cover about a third of the sky, about to swallow the sun. Knowing the margin of error allowed by meteorologists, I figured the storm could be upon us a good two hours ahead of the last forecast we'd seen before leaving the hogan – well before we reached the road. And once the sun slipped behind the cloud bank our progress would be slowed by diminished visibility. I could tell Joan wanted a rest break for Pink but she, too, knew the downside of too long a delay.
Before we could share our thoughts, the earth shook in synchronization with a powerful, sickening WHUMP that triggered my reflexes to grab Joan, who was already moving toward me. I wrapped my arms around her and cringed, expecting another blast like the first, but after a wait of fifteen seconds or so without another violent sound, I relaxed my grip on her. She was turned toward the way we'd come, face tilted upward and looking over my shoulder. I saw her expression change from thoughtful to wide-eyed alarm before her voice erupted.
“Al!” she said and raised an arm, finger pointed skyward. I pivoted in time to see a ball of angry black smoke with a dark red fiery center lift above the tree line and boil into the sky atop a trailing plume. It was several miles away but its location touched off a fireball of horror in my intestines that I could see reflected in Joan, in her face and in the coiled tension of her body. We uttered the same word almost simultaneously: “Newgate.” It came out of both our mouths sounding like a prayer.
“We can't go back there. We need to get to the road,” I said without thinking. I figured Newgate was dead and that the helicopter might have been manned and might have landed to make sure. If it was a drone it surely would hover awhile and scour the immediate area. No sense making it easy for them by walking into camp.
“I'll go back, Al. He might have found out who hired this zombie squad. We need to know. You go ahead with Pink. We'll figure out a way to link up later.”
“You're right. But I should go. You need to stay with Pink. If you get to the road and have to wait for Doc Bot, or if he doesn't show, a man and a woman look more natural together.”
She thought for moment, then nodded abruptly. “Good. Be careful. You have that revolver?” I nodded. She turned to go, then turned back, took a quick step forward, raised up on her toes and gave me a quick peck on the cheek. She was smiling. “Be careful,” she said again, more gently. She turned and trotted back toward where Pink was waiting. In less than half a minute I saw the flash of blaze orange, saw it wave back and forth twice, and knew she'd found Pink. I took a deep breath and started up the trail toward the hogan.
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