V Plague (Book 11): Merciless, page 15
Rachel and the two Rangers nodded. A moment later, we had formed up in a diamond formation with me at point and were moving towards the buildings. The ground was flat, covered with a thick carpet of rough bladed grass that was browned out for the coming winter.
A stiff breeze was blowing from the west, making a mournful sound as it wrapped around the large hangars we were approaching. Other than the soft falls of our feet on the dry grass, it was the only thing to be heard. And it sounded too much like the wailing of millions of people who had died violent deaths.
It took over five minutes to reach the back wall of the closest building. We made it without drawing the attention of either any infected, or the Russians. The sun was approaching the horizon, the temperature dropping, as we moved to a corner.
Peeking around, I could see two of the Hinds. Both were turned so that I didn’t have a view into their cockpits, and the troop compartment doors were closed. The aircraft were still and silent, and I couldn’t tell if the pilots were aboard. My guess was they were. Sitting there, ready for the soldiers they’d ferried in to return.
That made matters worse. They were in the open and anyone at the controls would have a great view of the area. If they spotted us, there would almost certainly be an immediate radio call to the troops on the ground. Wherever they were.
Pulling my head back, I turned to face the rest of my group.
“Either of you ever been here?” I asked Long and Johnson.
Both shook their heads. I didn’t really expect a different answer. There wouldn’t have been a reason for a Ranger to ever visit this base. I took a couple of minutes to fill them in on what I’d seen, and what I suspected.
“What do we do?” Rachel asked.
“Wait for dark,” I said. “There’s a whole bunch of equipment on the flight line, but it’s past the Hinds. I saw a couple of trucks that might be fuelers, but they’re a long way off. And if there are pilots in those helos, they have a clear view of the area. We’ve either gotta wait for them to leave, or wait for dark.”
“What about infected?” Johnson asked.
“Some males stumbling around,” I answered. “Didn’t see a lot, but I could only see two of the aircraft.”
“No females? That’s odd,” Rachel said.
I nodded, thinking about her comment. She was right. Why were there males hanging around without females? And if there were pilots on board, shouldn’t there be females trying to get to them? Then it hit me.
The males had arrived after the Hinds had landed and unloaded their passengers. They’d been drawn to the spot by the noise. Not finding anything, they were just hanging around. Waiting. But there had probably been females who had greeted, then followed the Russians to whatever had brought them here.
Moving to the corner again, I stuck my head back around the edge for a closer inspection of the flight line. Bodies on the ground. Mostly female, but a few males as well. Not a lot, but some. Now the picture was taking shape.
“We find the females, we find the Russians.”
I mumbled to Rachel who was tucked tightly against my side. I faintly heard her repeat what I’d said to the Rangers.
But we had a problem. There was no way to start searching without breaking cover and exposing ourselves to view from the waiting helicopters. I glanced over my shoulder to the west, guessing there was about an hour until sunset. With no other options, we were going to have to wait.
Maybe the Russian troops would return before it got dark. If they did, we’d be left trying to figure out where they had been and what they were doing. If they didn’t, we could go hunting under the cover of night.
I heard Johnson’s voice a moment before the sound of a suppressed rifle. Turning, I saw a male on the ground near the far corner of the hangar we were hiding behind.
“Good shot,” I said, earning a smile from Rachel.
“We’re sitting tight until dark,” I said after a long pause to make sure the infected hadn’t brought any of his buddies along. “If the Russians aren’t back by then, we go hunting.”
“You really think there’re pilots in those Hinds, sir?” Long asked.
“Think so, but not positive,” I shook my head. “Haven’t seen any, but can’t think of a reason they wouldn’t stay behind.”
He nodded, thinking, turning to scan the area around us.
“This was SAC headquarters during the Cold War. Right?”
He was referring to the Strategic Air Command, the organization that expanded and became USSTRATCOM.
“Been in a few Cold War era installations,” he continued. “Every single one was a subterranean beehive. Deep underground to survive a Soviet nuke. Tunnels everywhere. Tunnels we could move through to get around the base, unseen.”
“Not a bad idea, but they’re not going to be easy to get into,” I said.
“Few years ago we started encountering modern, high-security doors and locks in Iraq. New breed of Tango was moving in. Well financed and much more sophisticated than what we’d been dealing with up until then. They’d set up a bunker or command center in a tunnel, pour some concrete and put a door on it that took some serious time and munitions to breach. Word was, they were gifts from a couple of Saudi princes that were sympathetic.
“Johnson here spent three months in rural Virginia with some government contractors. Learned how to get past the locks quickly, without making a bunch of racket in the process. We find a door, I’m betting he can open it. And I’m also betting that right there is an airshaft, and there’s a door at the bottom.”
I looked where he was pointing, seeing a low hump in the ground created by a short, concrete wall. The top was covered with a thick layer of turf, rendering it all but invisible from the air. Or orbit. A three-foot-square iron hatch was set deep in the side. I’d noted it before, but passed it off as an ammo or fuel bunker. But maybe I’d been mistaken.
“OK, saying it is what you think, and there’s a door at the bottom. It’s not going to be electronic. Not something exposed like that, at risk for being damaged by the EMP of a nuke. It’s going to be several feet of steel with an old school lock of some sort.”
Johnson looked at me and nodded.
“Yes, sir. You’re probably right. And last year I got a door just like that open on a bet.”
“On a bet? Where the hell was the door?”
“Well…ummm…it might have been to the special weapons storage vault on a certain Navy base.”
Johnson’s eyes slid away and I looked at Long. He was grinning from ear to ear, nodding his head.
“I don’t want to know,” I said, shaking mine. “OK. Let’s give it a try. Nothing else to do until it’s dark.”
Fortunately, the top of the air shaft was at a point that was concealed by a large hangar. We were able to move to it without risk of detection by a Russian pilot sitting in one of the Hinds. The added benefit was we were also screened from the infected who were milling around the helicopters. Not that the males could have seen us, but it’s still nice to be hidden from view.
Rachel and I each took a knee, keeping watch as Long and Johnson worked on opening the hatch. The door was heavy iron, several ventilation ports penetrating the concrete all around it. They began mumbling curses within moments of setting to work. Apparently the door hadn’t been opened in a long time. Probably since Reagan was president. It was frozen in place by a thick layer of rust.
They kept working, finally swinging it partially open with a horrible screech. The sound had lasted for maybe a second and I looked over to see Long digging through his pack. Finally finding what he was searching for, he held up a small bottle no larger than a container of eye drops. Lightweight gun oil.
Carefully, he used the tip of his knife to break large flakes of rust off the hinges. Once he had created an opening, he pressed the tip of the bottle as deeply as possible and gently squeezed.
I turned and saw half a dozen males slowly approaching through a gap between two of the hangars. Didn’t surprise me. The squeal of rusty hinges had been loud enough to wake the dead.
“Wait for them to get closer,” I said as I scanned through a full 360-degree circle.
“I can hit them,” Rachel said, slightly defensive.
“Not questioning your accuracy,” I said, more patiently than I felt. “Don’t want them to suddenly start dropping in the open area where the Russians can see them.”
“Un huh,” she said, not sounding convinced.
I kept an eye on the slowly advancing males in between scans of the entire area. The sun was almost brushing the horizon and it would soon start getting dark. As we sat there, waiting for the oil to penetrate and do its job, I questioned whether or not it was worth going into the tunnels. If there really were tunnels beneath us.
By the time we could move the hatch without alerting every infected in Nebraska, it would be close enough to dark that we could chance moving down the flight line. I had decided to abandon our current endeavor when Rachel spoke again.
“Females,” she said, her voice tight.
I snapped my head around to see a small group of no more than ten. They weren’t sprinting, having just rounded the back of a hangar a few hundred yards away. We hadn’t been seen. Yet.
“How long?” I asked.
“Not even been five minutes,” Long answered. “It takes a while if you want to do this quietly.”
“Not sure we’ve got much choice,” I said. “Try it.”
My attention was focused on the females, who still weren’t aware of our presence. Every few seconds I’d look away to make sure there wasn’t something about to attack from a different direction. So far, only the stumbling males and the group of females was visible.
Then the iron hatch groaned in protest as Long and Johnson began pulling it farther open. I was watching the females when they made the noise, seeing every head immediately snap around to look in our direction. After a short pause, they broke into a sprint directly at us.
“Get that fucking thing open,” I said, sparing a glance at the males.
They were inside a hundred yards, but with the difference in speed, the females would be on us well before the males. Unless we wanted to engage in a noisy battle, we needed to get inside that damn shaft.
The hatch continued to groan as they forced it farther open. The females reached the two-hundred-yard mark, coming fast.
“Rachel, give me your rifle,” I said.
“I got this,” she said, firing her first round.
One of the females stumbled slightly, but didn’t go down. Rachel’s shot had hit her somewhere in the body, but hadn’t stopped her.
Rachel hissed the single word, then ripped the rifle sling over her head and thrust the weapon at me. I snatched it out of her hands and pulled it tight to my shoulder, sighting on the lead female and firing.
She stumbled, but didn’t go down. The fucking scope was off. I knew where I’d been aiming and had seen the impact on her shoulder. Adjusting for the discrepancy, I fired again and the female tumbled to the ground, half her head missing.
The group was now at one hundred yards, still charging. I knew I had ten seconds at the most. Acquiring my next target, I fired and immediately shifted aim. There wasn’t time to wait and see the results of each shot. They were coming too damn fast.
By the time they’d reached fifty yards, five bodies were on the ground. But there were still too many and time was almost up. Flipping the fire selector to burst, I lowered my aim point and quickly chopped the legs out from beneath the rest. They flopped to the ground, not deterred in the least.
Two of them were inside twenty yards, scrambling forward with their elbows, useless legs dragging behind them. Switching back to single shot, I put a round in each of their heads. Raising up slightly to take out the rest, I cursed when more appeared from around a different hangar.
This time, there were two groups. At least thirty females between them. I spared a glance to my right, seeing the males much closer than I had expected. Swiveling, I quickly put them down before turning back to face the females.
I heard Johnson’s voice and snapped a look over my shoulder. Rachel and Long were gone, presumably already through the hatch. Johnson was inside, peering at me through the opening. A glance at the two groups sprinting directly towards me and I scrambled across the ground to the opening.
Johnson disappeared and I slung Rachel’s rifle over my shoulder before sticking a leg through the open hatch. It was pitch black inside, but after a moment of flailing around, my boot came down on the rung of a ladder. Quickly, I twisted and put my other leg in, coming to an abrupt stop when my vest and weapons snagged on the edge of the opening.
Looking up as I struggled, the sight of several females nearly on me sent a massive surge of adrenaline through my system. They were close, and I was in about the worst position I could be in to fend off an attack. Trying to avoid panic, I twisted and tore at the items that had me hung up. My efforts succeeded in freeing my upper body, but as it came loose, my feet slipped off the rung I was standing on.
Starting to fall, I arrested the drop at the last second with a death grip on the lip of the hatch opening. Feet kicking in the air, I was trying to find a rung when a female thrust her head through the opening and screamed. Her voice was loud in the enclosed space, echoing off hard, concrete walls.
She reached for me as I got one foot onto the ladder. Her hands locked onto my arm and she leaned farther into the opening, trying to reach my face. Releasing the hold with my right hand, I grasped a fistful of her hair and pulled. The female came easily, slipping through the hatch. She released my arm and slashed at my face as I kept pulling.
Then she was overbalanced. Gravity took over and she slammed into my body when I released the grip on her hair. She was turned away, falling headfirst, and there was nothing for her to grab to break her fall. Then she was gone and I held my breath, hoping she didn’t crash into one of the others and knock them off the ladder.
It seemed to take forever before I heard the sickening impact of a human body on concrete from far below. Fortunately, I only heard one.
Pulling myself up, I looked out the opening and saw three more females nearly at the hatch. They saw me and screamed, leaping forward with hands extended. Grabbing a small handle on the inside of the iron door, I tugged hard and slammed it shut an instant before the infected arrived.
I was in complete darkness, clinging to metal rungs set into the concrete walls of the shaft. The iron door was right in front of my face and I could hear the muted blows of the raging females as they tried to batter their way through.
A chorus of “good” answered me and I breathed a quiet sigh of relief when I heard Rachel’s voice from somewhere below. A moment later a light came on and I looked past my boots to see it waving around. Long or Johnson using their weapon light. I caught a glimpse of Rachel, then the light shifted focus as whoever was using it aimed directly down.
The shaft was deep. So deep it appeared to narrow as it descended beneath the ground. I could see that the ladder rungs I was standing on continued all the way to the bottom.
“Who has the light?” I asked.
“Long,” he answered, swinging it back up and momentarily blinding me.
“Let’s start moving down,” I said. “And I sure as hell hope there’s a door down there Johnson can open.”
He didn’t answer. A moment later the light swung crazily for a few seconds as he adjusted the rifle on its sling so it was pointing down. Then it began moving deeper, jerking slightly from the motion of his body on the rungs. Johnson clicked his light on and shifted his rifle until it was horizontal across his back. This gave us enough illumination to see the ladder as we descended.
The bad thing was the flakes of rust that broke free occasionally and caused me to slip. Not so much that I couldn’t maintain my footing or grip, but enough to cause my butt to pucker with fear of a long plunge to my death. From the occasional muttered curses below, I suspected the others were having the same concerns.
It took several minutes of steady climbing before Long called that he had reached the bottom. Glancing down, I saw him shoving the female’s shattered corpse out of the way before he helped Rachel step off the lowest rung. She looked around, but couldn’t find any place to step that wasn’t covered by a pool of blood.
“You should hold up, sir,” he called a moment later. “It’s kind of tight down here and Johnson and I need to switch places.”
Johnson grunted and I didn’t feel the need to say anything. Just stopped and hooked an arm through a rung to hold myself in place and give my hands a break.
Looking down, I watched them swap positions, then Johnson began examining what looked like a large slab of steel. Rachel was pressed against the far wall of the shaft, giving him room. He checked over the door for several minutes, taking his time to carefully inspect several locations on its surface.
“What’s the verdict? Can you open it?” I asked as he began a fresh scrutiny of the portal.
“Maybe,” he said in a distracted voice. “It’s not like anything I’ve ever seen before.”
“Thought you’d been trained for this,” I grumbled.
“Trained for modern, high security doors, sir,” he said. “This thing is ancient. There’s a small, manufacturer stamp in the steel, near the bottom. 1958.”
“So it’s old. Is there a way to open it or not?”
DIRK PATTON SERIES:
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