DEVASTATION POINT

5 Years Post Viral Apocalypse

 

Paul Kirk

 

Published by Paul Kirk at Smashwords

 

Copyright 2014 Paul Kirk

 

Cover Art Design by Damonza.com

 

Discover other titles by Paul Kirk at www.devastationpoint.com

 

 

 

Devastation Point

 

SECTION 1: The Hunt for Connor Mac gets Complicated

 

CHAPTER 1.1-The Ambush

 

“It shouldn’t be a problem,” said Connor. His voice was surprisingly calm.

“No problem?” asked Dave incredulously.

“No.”

“How you figure that? I got nine armed guys backing me up.”

“Yeah, I see that you do—”

“We’ll eat you for fuckin’ lunch,” said Dave.

The menace in his tone was palpable. He took another step toward Connor.

“Well, I’ve killed six at one time, big guy. Ten isn't much different.”

“You think?”

“That is, depending on weapon use.”

“Weapons? You mean like this knife I’m gonna stick you with?”

“Nah…knives I can handle. It’s guns that’re more difficult.”

“That a fact?”

“You guys out of ammo? I see you and your men carry guns, but prefer knives.”

In disbelief, Dave turned toward his crew, an intimidating bunch. They were spread out, blocking any hopes of escape from the deer path into the deeper woods. Studying them, Dave realized most had guns on display, hanging by a shoulder strap or tucked in a belt, but knives were in their hands. He’d have to correct that. Good ammo was getting hard to come by since the Sickness set in.

“Can you believe the balls on this prick?” Dave yelled to the men.

“Fuck ‘im. Bastard’s unarmed and talking shit,” yelled a skinny man with several missing front teeth.

Dave spat on the ground at Connor’s feet.

“You know, I’m surprised you’re still alive,” said Connor.

“What?”

“You took your eyes off your primary combatant too long. That's reckless. It's the fourth major mistake you made since you attempted this piss-ass ambush.” Connor’s voice was conversational, holding no malice.

“What?” Dave stared, amazed at the fearlessness.

“Open your ears, you prick. I said I’m surprised you’re still alive.”

“Wow. Fuck you, ya little prick.”

Connor smiled, taking a slow step backward to gain space, glancing at the hostile crew around him.

“Granted, you made it passed H5N1 and the Sickness, so you have some luck and genetics on your side.”

“And you sure as hell don’t.”

“But, since our little chat began, I’ve had six chances to maim you, three of which would’ve likely proven fatal.”

“Who the hell is this guy?” asked Dave.

“Kill the shithead. Quit fuckin’ around,” a voice in the crowd shouted.

“Yeah,” said another.

Connor shifted, allowing the setting sun to highlight the eight-inch blade in Dave’s left hand. The shift gave him a better view of the muscular crewmember that had just spoken. Connor made one final attempt to leave unmolested. “Listen, gentlemen. I’m just passing through. Okay? On the road back to Pennsylvania.”

“Right. You do that,” said Dave.

“Let me be on my way. Huh? No one has to die.”

“He’s too calm, Dave. Something’s up,” said a squat, barrel-chested man.

“Yeah, the prick’s either crazy or up to something,” said a skinny man with an ugly scar across his forehead. “I mean, shit, he ain’t even got a knife. What kinda asshole ain’t got at least a knife?”

“Maybe it’s in his pack. Or maybe he’s got somebody with him...yeah, that’d explain it,” said a tall, black-haired man, hovering in the back of the bunch.

“We’ll just see about that, won’t we now, Buzzy,” said Dave. He let loose a shrill whistle followed by a sharp double tweet. He smiled at his crew.

Dave glared at Connor. Connor was content to wait. Finally, the silence was broken.

“I’m thinking he’s military, Davey. Fuck, over half the stragglers we’ve met since the Cuckoo flu are military. Look how he’s standing.”

“Shut up, Gizmo,” said Dave. His eyes never strayed from Connor.

“I’m serious. I slid next to this tree and the little bastard noticed right away. He’s had some training, probably some Special Forces shit by the looks of ‘im. Let me handle this.”

“Fuck you. Gizzy. He’s mine. And I got first dibs on whatever this asshole got in that big pack.”

Connor visibly tensed at a sound from the woods, unheard by Dave and the crew. He glanced sharply right and focused on the darker portion of the woods. He relaxed slightly and slowly adjusted his backpack straps for comfort, keeping an eye on Dave and his crew.

Several crewmembers noticed Connor's apparent interest in the nearby woods. A few seconds later, a tall man emerged onto the path, as if he’d simply materialized. The man carried a scoped rifle with an easy sense of familiarity. He cleared the treeline and stopped, glaring intently at Dave. He was not happy.

“There now. There’s something," said Connor. He studied the youthful face stained black beneath a green cap, which did little to hide his shoulder-length blond hair. Several small branches stuck haphazardly from an army jacket and various attachment points of the man’s fatigues. It was easy to sense the calm confidence of this new man. Connor realized the time for solid action had arrived.

“Looking at him, I’d say he’s probably the most proficient of your little ambush party, Davey.”

Connor split eye contact between Dave and the new guy, barely glancing at the rest.

“You knew I was coming out right here?” The man's voice was deeper than expected, intense.

“Of course, Sniper.”

“How?”

“Maximum stealth approach vector, sun position, elevation, foliage, and wind direction given known terrain and target. Excellent choices representing good training. Probably outta Fort Bragg.”

“Huh.”

“And, I might add, your stealth tactics and target acquisition were top-shelf during the past three hours. Took some effort to avoid it until now.”

“Huh, right.”

“And, I must say, I’m certainly glad to see you right now. This little bonus makes our discussions a bit more smooth.”

“Fuck, he’s definitely military, Dave! I’m tellin ya, kill the bastard and quit playing,” said Gizmo.

The Sniper held up his hand, stopping the rising grumble of the crew. He studied Connor before speaking. “Interesting. You Recon?”

“No. 82nd. You?”

“Death from above, huh? I'm Recon.”

“Fuckin’ bedwetters.”

“Funny, I heard that ‘bout the Airborne.”

 Connor smiled. Slowly, he pointed east. “Listen Recon, I’m not looking to cause trouble. Just let me be on my way.”

“Can’t do that. Need the supplies. That’s what Dave here says and he’s in command.”

“Is that right?”

“We need to know what you’re carrying in that big pack. Looks heavy. We want to know what’s in it.”

“What’s in it is mine,” said Connor, instinctively adjusting his feet, extensive training already preparing him for the impending altercation.

"It’s mine now,” said Dave, charging forward and swinging his blade in a brutal arc. Stepping sideways, Connor slipped from the wicked mid-section slash. He stripped the knife from Dave’s hand with a tendon-bashing chop, grabbed the blade handle, and smoothly sliced Dave’s throat, carefully easing up to keep death from coming too soon.  Connor lightly tossed the weapon at Dave’s feet, sliding out of range. Mesmerized, the crew watched, stunned.

“Didn’t your mother ever tell you not to play with knives?” said Connor, turning his grim smile toward the Sniper.

“Leave ‘im be, Dave,” said the Sniper. “Let’s just go." The sniper failed to hide a faint grin, but despite his amusement, he was noticeably more alert.

“Fuck you, Marty! I ain't leaving him. This bastard’s mine!” Dave touched his neck, incensed at the blood on his hands. Furious, he snatched up the knife, prepared to launch his next assault. There was an uproar from the crew.

“C’mon, Dave, he’ll fuckin’ kill you!”

Dave was blind to that possibility. “Fuck you!”

“You gotta know that, Davey,” taunted Connor.

“Piss off!”

“I haven't seen somebody move that fast in a long time,” said the Sniper, admiringly.

“Yeah, so what! I’m gonna kill this little bastard.”

“Dave. Dave. Just how ‘bout you save some face, huh? Admit you’re outmatched. C’mon, let’s move on. We don’t need this.”

“You don’t know shit, Marty.”

“Dammit! Just let ‘im go. It's not worth it.”

“Fuck you, Marty! I run this crew.”

Connor tracked the exchange with interest. Like watching a tennis match, turning his head to catch each volley.

“Davey, c’mon, this guy’s probably a damn staff sergeant in this shit, aren't ya, Airborne? Huh?”

“I’ll take that as a compliment, Recon. Or, if I may, Marty.”

“Let’s just leave ‘im,” suggested Marty.

“He’s mine!” said Dave.

“Have Gizzy shoot ‘im, then. That’ll solve it.”

Enraged, Dave attacked using a nicely deceptive right leg feint coming up and into Connor’s neck with a vicious, stabbing stroke. Connor shifted, accommodating the knife and body motion. He slammed an open right cross to the nose. Blood burst onto Dave’s face and he staggered. Dazed, he snorted, clearing blood pooling in the back of his throat. Dave appraised the situation, in no hurry to launch another assault.

“C’mon, Davey, listen up! Stop before Airborne gets pissed and kills you.”

Grudgingly, Marty nodded in Connor’s direction, a small sign of respect.

“Sounds like a plan,” said Connor.

Connor wore a tight smile, knowing a more deadly assault was coming. Fuming, Dave launched with clear intent to use his fifty-pound weight advantage. Connor took the impressive energy of the charge and transferred Dave into a nearby oak tree. Dave slammed horizontally against the tree, crumpling to the ground. The sound of snapped ribs and a grunt of escaping air told a clear story. Dave lay gasping, quite done for the moment.

“I noticed you haven’t killed him yet,” said Marty.

“Ah, I’d rather not have to fight the rest of the crew, including you, if I don’t have to. Killing Dave would kinda force the issue, wouldn’t it?”

“I see your point.”

Connor scanned the dirty and disheveled crew. “Listen, you guys, let me be on my way, okay? If we meet again and you guys need anything serious on the up and up, just ask. Name’s Connor Mac. Hear that? I’ll help you out, no questions asked.” He adjusted his backpack for comfort, preparing to leave.

Marty interrupted. “Sorry, Airborne. Sorry, Connor Mac. Can’t let you leave. Unless you leave that pack.” Marty leveled the rifle toward center mass and moved his finger tighter on the trigger.

“You’ll be dead if that finger goes any further, Marty.” Connor’s voice held calm conviction. Marty hesitated.

“How you figure that?”

“You’re good. But you’re not Snuff.”

“Snuff?”

“My traveling partner. I imagine that crazy fuck’s just about had it with my games. And, itching to do some shootin’ that’s for sure.”

“What the fuck you talking about? You don't have squat out there.”

“Huh, are you willing to chance that?”

“I been scouting you damn near six hours. Circled you twice the last two. Area’s secure. Clean as a whistle.”

“Your call, blue eyes,” said Connor. Leisurely, he wiped his nose, twice.

“Let’s just waste ‘im,” said Gizmo.

Taking the initiative, Gizmo approached Connor, shifting the M4 into his hands to fire.

“Watch it, Gizzy,” said Connor, pointing and holding the pose, “You’ll be first when it goes down you keep at it.”

“Fuck you, Connor Mac,” said Gizmo, continuing his progress, “I told Dave to let me handle—”

Gizmo crumpled to the ground with a 30.06 caliber hole between his eyes and the back of his head missing. Everyone but Connor stared at the fallen figure, stunned. A single loud reverberation bounded through the woods and Marty dropped to the ground and rolled. He swung his rifle toward the direction of the sound and immediately swung it back toward Connor.

“Save the ammo, Marty,” yelled Connor, palms up and out, “if you actually have any!”

“I have one for you!”

The crew ducked, seeking safe cover during the exchange. Connor smiled.

“C’mon, Marty! The best firepower’s first to go. You know that, you fuckin’ Jarhead! Why’d I let you live? Huh?” yelled Connor.

“You tell me,” yelled Marty. He sensed things were not as they seemed.

“Because I pointed to Gizzy, that’s why! Shoulda been you, you know that! Damn, Snuff’s probably pissed, but now has sights on you and only you.”

“Huh?”

“Listen. You hafta know I’m giving you a break.”

“That right?”

“Call it military courtesy.”

“Really? This Snuff can't have line of sight! Besides, you’ll go down with me.”

“You don’t know Snuff.” Connor’s relaxed smile was incredibly bright. Some of the crew edged closer to the treeline. Connor noticed.

“Ah, I wouldn’t move around too much just now, guys. It might be misconstrued as an attack. You know…towards me personally.” His easy confidence stopped most movement.

“Just drop your weapons and packs, guys. Take a step or two back from ‘em for me, would you?”

Grumbling and swearing, each resisted. Into the pissed off chatter, a furious scream announced that Dave had made it to a standing position, covered in his own blood. With a sigh, Connor simply pointed and Dave dropped to the ground with a small grunt. The last rays of sun began to fade, but were enough to highlight the bullet hole above his left eye, as he lay twitching. Once again, the air reverberated with the sound of a single bullet fired at medium range. Soon, night would come. Marty lowered his weapon, grinning. Connor nodded at Marty and moved toward the rest of the crew. Irritable but silent, the men dropped what they carried, except Marty.

“Like I said, gentlemen, I’ll just be on my way. But thanks for the entertainment. I must admit, I kinda needed it. There’s so little real action nowadays, since the Sickness. Oh, and sorry about Gizmo—he was probably an alright guy.”

Connor scooped up each man’s pack, testing weight. He kept several heavier ones, discarding the light ones as having limited value. “Back up, you fuck,” said Connor to a man attempting to guard his pack possessively.

The pure threat in his tone caused the man to jump. The men who’d lost packs were none too happy, but did nothing other than glare. Taking his time, Connor inspected the available guns, particularly the M4 in Gizmo’s hands.

“As I thought. No ammo. What is it with the bad planning?”

Connor checked the knives lying on the ground. He chose the nine-inch stainless Gerber for his own pack and tossed the remaining weapons deep into the woods. He found no guns of any intrinsic value except the one Marty carried. He knew he wouldn’t get that one without a fight. Besides, military sniper bore would be impossible to find nowadays, making the weapon worthless unless used as a club.

“Thanks, guys.” Satisfied, Connor slipped past a scrawny black-haired man and walked backwards for the first twenty feet before easing around to head east.

 “You said we made four major mistakes in this,” Buzzy yelled. “What were the other three?”

Connor faded into the woods, but decided to respond. His voice carried.

“Well, I guess I’ll answer that just for fun. The first mistake is that you guys smell from a mile away. Truly, take a damn bath once in a while. We smelled you 400 yards out on your first approach into our neck of the woods. Remember, human shit smell carries on the wind. Isn't that right, Marty?”

Marty remained silent, trying his best to not grin.

“The second reason,” Connor continued, “is that ambush tactics are best used in conjunction with immediate and overwhelming force. But, as you can see here, Davey felt like the infamous fat cat playing with a mouse. This time, the cat died. And number three, save some damn ammo! The best-placed firepower usually wins.”

The crew grumbled and swore, as Connor passed on his words of wisdom.

“Oh, and as a bonus, I’ll let you guys in on a special little secret. You never, ever bring a sniper into a hostile situation. As you can see by Snuff's ministrations, they’re worth their weight in gold from afar.”

“I hear that.” Though the voice was quiet, he knew Marty had spoken. The crew strained to hear more, but the coming dusk held no sounds. Connor had faded into the trees like a smokey apparition. A minute later, the crew stirred and the almost magical spell was broken. Buzzy and several others glanced at Marty to complain about not shooting the guy, but his return glare quelled such conjecture. Eventually, the men stripped Gizmo and Dave of their belongings and talked of tracking Connor, though nobody committed to such a pursuit. Upset, each trudged off to search for their guns and knives Connor had tossed into the woods. Most were recovered before total darkness came.

 

CHAPTER 1.2-Returning to Base

 

Several hours later, the unlucky hunting crew reached the abandoned stone farmhouse designated as base for the past week. Each man was angry and in a foul mood. They discussed the unfortunate outcome of today’s hunting and the impact it had had personally. Buzzy, usually quiet, voiced his displeasure at losing four packs of Marlboros he’d just found in Warsaw, Indiana. The entire crew was hungry and several scrounged the kitchen and basement in a futile attempt to find any remaining canned goods, though all such edible items were long gone. As it stood, they’d not eaten anything since the small doe killed that morning. The doe hadn’t gone far in appeasing their hunger and, to exacerbate it, they began to speak of the times before the Sickness, when cow and pig meat was abundant. A few spoke of hunting the huge flock of geese that gathered on the small pond close to the farmhouse, but their hunger was not enough to overcome the superstitious fear of succumbing to the Sickness brought upon them by the worldwide Avian flu.

By unspoken agreement, Marty was the new leader of these demoralized losers. He assigned night watch to three men, promising to replace them in four hours. The rest of the crew, including him, spread out on the ground floor of the farmhouse for sleep. Feeling mildly depressed, Marty wondered how he’d dropped so low as to have to hang out with this sorry bunch. Sleepy, Marty McCullough’s thoughts drifted to Connor and his mysterious friend Snuff.

 

CHAPTER 1.3-Snuff

 

“You can’t keep doing that shit, Mac,” said Amanda Abbington. She set her Remington 30.06 and Connor’s M-4 and Mossberg shotgun against the fireplace bricks. Angry, she threw a string of several rabbits in his lap. Caught off guard, he grabbed hold of the rabbits as they nearly flopped into the small fire.

“I know, Snuff. But damn, it sure keeps the boredom away.”

“Quit calling me that! And you’re fucking suicidal man.”

“Aww, c’mon, Snuff! They were just a bunch of low-life assholes. I couldn’t resist setting them up. And, you know that I needed this.”

“Needed it?”

“Yeah. C’mon, I told you before. I need it sometimes. I just can’t handle the mundane routine sometimes, you know?”

“Is that right?”

“Sure. Stealth, intelligence gathering, planning and prep, tactical analysis and execution are the name of the game. It’s how I was trained. It’s who I am. But, I need to live it sometimes, you know? I have too much of that existential risk-taker in me, so my dad used to say.”

“Right, stay delusional for all I care.”

With a dreamy, faraway look, Connor continued. “Yeah, I need to feel like I’m alive. Right in the thick of things...something like that.”

“Yeah, yeah, whatever. You’re bat-shit crazy, Mac. I can’t keep saving your ass if you keep pulling these stunts!”

Connor leapt from his sitting position, anger building. Facing Amanda with the intent to rage, he noticed the raw frustration and concern in her eyes and dialed his anger back several notches. “Aww, c'mon, Snuff! You wouldn’t even be here now if it wasn’t for me! Did you just conveniently forget how I saved your sweet ass in Kansas? Huh?”

“Fuck off,” Amanda said. She was mostly past reliving those assholes pinning her down and ripping at her clothes. The nightmares were almost totally gone. For a few angry seconds, they stared at one another, each unwilling to give ground.

Abruptly, Snuff turned, snatched her rifle, and left the living room. She entered the small kitchen, surveyed her options, and began searching the kitchen drawers and cabinets for useful items. Upset, she banged drawers closed. Connor, who had followed her, noticed that her rifle never left her grip.

He couldn’t help himself. “Yeah, that’s it, make yourself useful.”

“Fuck you. You’re such an asshole.”

Stubbornly, Connor ignored the watery tears welling up in her eyes. He retrieved the string of rabbits and re-entered the kitchen, casually tossing the fresh kill into the sink. With little ceremony, he expertly skinned each rabbit with his mainstay, a six-inch Kershaw combat knife. Amanda stormed out of the kitchen and into the back rooms.

“We’ll have Cajun spiced rabbit for a late dinner!” yelled Connor. His outburst made him feel immature, but he continued skinning the rabbits. When finished, he removed some spices from his backpack and dry-rubbed them into the meat. Arranging several makeshift skewers over the living room fire, he began to slow-cook the rabbits. He expected they would be ready in a few hours. As they cooked, he reentered the kitchen and searched through the backpacks he'd taken from Dave’s crew. Inspection of a can of peaches revealed no apparent oxidation, no denting, no expanding or anything else that would hint of spoiling.

“I got sliced peaches in heavy syrup!” Despite his excitement, his revelation was met with silence. Yet, Amanda couldn’t resist the thought of canned peaches. Connor heard her return to the living room. When he peered through the doorway, she was sitting in front of the fire, sullenly staring into the yellow flames. Connor studied the slump to her slim shoulders and a protective urge crept into his thoughts. Strange, he thought, how this beautiful young woman had such an impact on him. Amanda Abbington endured much on her own since the Sickness. She was twenty-four years old and living in a world filled with pain. The thought made him feel exceptionally old at thirty-seven.

“Hey,” he said quietly as he approached. Amanda ignored him and Connor felt her weariness, deciding that maybe she had a point, maybe he was suicidal. He settled next to her, gently brushing her silky black bangs from her eyes. She didn’t pull away from his touch, an overall good sign, but she was lost in thought. “You okay?”

Amanda remained silent while Connor reached into his jacket pocket and removed a newly opened pack of cigarettes. Slipping one from the pack, he took his time and slowly leaned toward a small burning ember in the fire to light it. Inhaling deeply, he blew the smoke toward the ceiling.

“Give me one, you lucky bastard.”

Connor knew she was on the way to getting over the day’s events.

“Huh? Oh, this? For a small kiss, you can have a whole pack. I have four—didn't I mention that?” Connor began pulling other items from his backpack. “I secured a bunch of canned food and two D batteries that might work. And, we now have nine twelve-gauge shells, too. Guess those bastards didn’t like to share ammo, being as one of the guys had a piece of shit shotgun. Don’t know if the shells work, but maybe.”

“Really? You found four packs?” Snuff’s eyes lit up in excitement.

“Yeah,” Connor stared amazed at the transformation. “As you might imagine, they’re a wee bit stale.” The brightness of her crystal blue eyes beneath straight black bangs nearly decimated him.

“And you can have all four packs, if you dance for me again tonight.”

“C’mon, Mac, I’d dance for you anyways, if you asked. You know that, you sonofabitch.” Her voice had softened considerably and she shifted to face him. He smiled.

“Yeah, and somehow, I think you might even outdo yourself tonight. But, you know that smoking...it's a bad habit.”

“Tell me about it.” Snuff rose, standing before him. The fire highlighted the fine curves of her hips and the long, lithe muscles of her tall, slim body. She unbuttoned her light summer jacket, tossing it aside, before pulling the tan colored tank top over her head.

“Wow,” said Connor.

“Shhh…”

In awe, Connor watched. Undressing, Amanda had a natural animal grace that emphasized her flat stomach and the smooth curves of her buttocks and breasts. Hand faintly shaking, he lit another cigarette and offered it to her. He knew he was lucky to have this young woman, for whatever brief moment of time.

 

CHAPTER 1.4-Nicole

 

Nicole and Colonel Starkes sat on five-gallon buckets near the helicopter while the men formed a ring around them on guard.

“Where is he?”

“Who?”

“The father of your child.”

“He left.”

“Where?”

“Said he was going to Pittsburgh, south of it, a place he had in the mountains.”

“I need to find him.”

“Good luck on that. Oh, and if you do, tell him he has a son.”

“What’s the man’s name?”

“His name? Why the hell would I tell you that?”

“Because I’m here to help you outta this shithole.”

“Is that right?”

“Yeah, that’s right.”

“Huh. All right, okay then, he goes by Connor Mac. Don’t know his full name.”

“Sounds Irish. He’s Irish? That’s good—”

“Why’s that good?”

“Cause our latest viral studies suggest Irish genetics were the most successful subgroup at surviving the Sickness. They're the most robust of any and all humans worldwide. Well, as far as we know.”

“Huh?”

“We've determined that the presence of gene marker K-64S1 provides optimal resistance to the H5N1 Avian plague. Or, the Sickness or Cuckoo Flu as everyone likes to call it. This gene marker’s rare and only evident in individuals of strong Irish descent.”

“Huh? Whatever that means...but hell, I’m Irish. Full blood my Dad’s side.”

Colonel Hannah Starkes studied the young women before responding. She certainly was striking in her natural Irish beauty. The large almond-shaped eyes, blue-gray, were accentuated nicely by the straggly, red-blonde hair. Her cheeks were lightly peppered with freckles around her thin nose. Her teeth were perfect.

“I can tell. You have the look. Based on your genetics and your smarts, it’s probably why you’re alive. By the way, you seem quite healthy and, I must admit, rather striking, even dirty and wearing scraps. Huh...it does seem that all survivors seem to have an inherent 'attractive' quality, particularly as defined by western standards of beauty.”

“Uh, thanks, I guess. You have any real food?”

“Sure. As much as you want.”

“Really?”

“Yeah, are you breast feeding?”

“When there’s milk to give, yeah. Haven’t eaten real well in three days. So…there’s not much.”

Colonel Starkes stared at the small baby swathed beneath a dirty pink blanket in the woman’s arms. With a gentle tremble to her hand, she lifted the coarse cloth to take a better look, exhaling in relief.

“The kid looks healthy though.”

“I know, right? Doesn’t seem to bother him, not eating real good for a few days. Seems like he almost expects it…probably has some ‘tough’ gene crap in him, like his daddy." Nicole hesitated before further speaking her mind. “Umm, you know …I’m still scared shitless. Why all the men and that big black helicopter?”

Colonel Starkes gave Nicole what she hoped was a gentle, reassuring smile. Calmly, she answered. “Well, what you’re staring at is the only known ‘copter operating in the States. That’s an H-92 Superhawk. And, flying here to San Fran from Mt. Storm was a logistical nightmare, let me tell you. The men are mostly active military, except GT, Scott and Shamus. That’s those three refusing to wear army issue. We found that trio in Baltimore, on a boat in the inner harbor, if you can imagine. They were doing some fishing. We had to convince them we were for real…after they captured four of our ops trying to board their boat.”

“Ops?”

“Hell, it took a full week’s supply of fresh food and four bottles of Glenlivet to let them know we were serious in recruiting them.”

“Recruiting?”

“Yeah, see, Shamus, the big one there with the pointed goatee? He knows how to fly that Superhawk. And GT, the guy with the thick glasses and tribal tattoos next to him can fix anything on it given time. Scott, well, he’s kind’ve got a knack for ‘finding things’ when they’re needed. See him? He’s the black-haired one with green eyes thinking he’s Mr. GQ.”

“I see—”

“If you can keep a secret, I’ll let you know that they’re a seasoned team of heavy hitters from back in the day. Retired. Retired early from Uncle Sam's covey of covert specialists.”

“Oh.”

“Look at them three standing there next to that big monster of a man, Major O’Malley. He’s my right hand man. Major’s smart as hell.”

Colonel Starkes nodded toward her second. By unspoken signal, the huge man with the green eyes, bright shock of red hair and bushy red mustache started toward the helicopter to grab a go packet containing a few hunks of cheese, crackers and a can of soda. With keen interest, Nicole followed his movements.

“You know, I haven’t seen anything in the air for five years. I mean nothing. Kinda scared the crap out of me seeing you land last night and track me down into my hidey-hole—it was unreal.”

Colonel Starke’s expression softened. She felt a compelling need to explain. “Infrared. We have infrared capability. Well, some, anyway. But, you know, you had a good hidey-hole. Three exits and two hidden knives, plus a shotgun. The way I figure it, you’ve probably made good use of them livin’ so close to I-80.”

“Ummm.” Nicole nodded.

“By the way, nice try with Mickey. If he weren’t a hand-to-hand combat expert, you would've gotten the better of him. He said you were a wildcat. That’s high praise from Mickey—he doesn’t talk much.”

Nicole hugged her baby tighter in her arms, getting colder with the late night chill. Colonel Starkes recognized the gesture, removing her army jacket to gently drape it around Nicole and the baby. They sat quietly for a moment while the men surrounding them stole surreptitious glances in their direction.

 "Listen, can you tell me more about the Sickness? I mean, is everyone pretty much dead?”

Colonel Starkes took a moment to consider. “No, not everyone. Last known population count was at 45,211 in the States. Though, I’ll need to add two more, counting you both. Some stragglers arrive every so often, so the count’s still rising. And, reports from Europe are a bit higher at around 200,000. Keep in mind most are from Ireland and Scotland. Russia’s officially unaccounted for, but reports confirm some have survived the Sickness. Oh, and China, Japan, and the entire Pacific basin were hit bad. Probably less than 300,000 left from billions from what we can tell.”

“Oh. Ah…”

“India and the Middle East are essentially gone. No real count above 200,000. Mostly speculation at the survival rate. Might be lower. Same deal with Africa, but that only includes radio transmissions from Johannesburg."

"I see..."

"And we don’t have any intel from elsewhere in the world except that Australia might be doing somewhat okay.”

“Australia?”

“Yeah...they’d be hard bastards to kill off totally, I imagine. There's an extensive amount of Irish blood in that Botany Bay gene pool. Oh, and all science stations in Antarctica and the North Pole reported no exposure impact over the ham. I’m told probably because of the extreme cold. But…we did lose contact with all but the Norwegians last month.”

"Oh.”

“On the other hand, problem is, radiation from blown nuke plants right here in the U.S. and around the world definitely took a good number of people that survived those first few years. I know we would have had more survivors of this fiasco without them, that’s for sure. And the dead bodies piling up all around brought diseases, which were once easy to fight—not anymore. They killed hundreds of thousands more.”

“Oh my.”

Colonel Starkes and Nicole lapsed into silence, each lost in thought. Gently, Colonel Starkes pushed forward. “Umm, your name’s Nicole Townsend, correct?”

“Uh…yeah. Hold up! Now, how in the hell would you know my name?”

“Lemme explain, please! Nicole, look, we don’t know much about what’s going on outside the States. In fact, we don’t know much even in the States. But, we're getting better.”

“But what caused the Sickness? Wait! How’d you know my name? Why didn’t you and I get it?”

“Whoa, slow up.”

“Why’re those big men here still alive and looking so healthy? Are there any other women?”

“Slow down, Nicole. Please. We’ll answer all your questions. And, if you want, we’d like you to come with us. Maybe come back to Camp David where we’ve set up shop. Then, we can head into Mt. Storm where we’ve set up our primary base of operations.”

“Camp David? You mean the president’s vacation home?”

Colonel Starkes stifled a laugh. “Yeah, with all the amenities.”

“Wow. Is he still alive?”

“Uh, no. Not the president you might be thinking of.”

“Oh, well then, is there still a president?”

“Yeah.”

“Who is he?”

“Umm, that would be me.”

“Cool.”

 

CHAPTER 1.5-H5N1 Devastation

 

"Major, I'll take one of those go packets as well, please."

"Yes, ma'am."

Major O'Malley handed Colonel Starkes a packet and returned to the perimeter where ten fierce men, heavily armed, faced outward. Sitting near the helicopter, Nicole noticed the menacing automatic weapons, gleaming guns, which she’d not seen in her lifetime. But, she had questions while munching the string cheese. Closing her eyes at the burst of flavor, she sought answers.

“Okay, obviously you’ve taken a great deal of interest in me. And, I want to know why.”

Colonel Starkes finished a bite of stale cracker. Her eyes saddened. “Sure. I'll tell you what I know."

"Good. Thank you."

"Yeah, well, H5N has essentially destroyed the human race. If you toss in the after effects of radiation poisoning, cholera, along with a host of other nasty diseases, you have a slam dunk.”

Nicole waited for more, but Colonel Starkes lapsed into a pensive silence. Nicole prompted her. “Okay. Sure, I hear you. A boatload of people died. But, some of us are still here, right? We just have to start small.”

“No, that’s not it. H5N1 and its airborne viral mutations had a hidden weapon in its arsenal that’s only come to light in the past few years.”

“Which is?”

“Well, the kicker is that H5N1 made all human males sterile. My DARPA lab confirmed this. This feature of the viral strain permeated the entire world population. The men around you are now sterile. And, at the time of the H5N1 avian pandemic, I was Deputy Director of DARPA’s Special Projects.”

“DARPA?”

“It stands for the Defense Advance Research Projects Agency. You can kinda consider it like the central research arm of the Department of Defense. Black listed. Mega money.”

“Oh.”

“Medical research indicates this male sterility is a worldwide event. Apparently, once the virus mutated to go airborne, it had a ninety-nine point ninety-nine percent sterility rate, whether it killed you or not. Sorta like all men on earth caught a real bad case of the mumps.”

“Wow! You mean…”

“Yeah, Nicole. That’s right. That child of yours is a national treasure. He’s not supposed to happen. And, as I see it, he’s to be guarded with the lives of myself and all my team.”

“Oh, I guess that does explain your interest.” Nicole stroked her baby’s cheek, swaddling him deeper into the green army blanket she’d received.

“Yeah, Nicole. Well, we’re very interested in you and your baby. ”

“How’d you find me?”

“A passing comment made by a hammer named Carl Rourke. Know him?”

“Uh, you mean Weird Carl? He died about a month ago. He lives about a mile from here in a farm basement.”

“I didn’t know he died. Though that explains why we haven't heard any ham radio transmissions from him lately. We thought it might’ve been his windmill breaking down. Anyway, we heard from Carl and decided to verify his story of a young woman with a newborn. It took a lot of energy and coordination to fly this bird out here, but being president helped.” Colonel Starkes chuckled and regarded Nicole and her baby. “Seems like I was right to make the effort.”

Nicole dropped the can of soda and stood. Trembling, she studied the ring of men and hugged her baby tightly. “I won’t let you take my baby. No way!”

“Nicole, take it easy,” said Colonel Starkes, soothingly, “No one wants to do that. Please believe me. We’re interested is all. We’d like to better understand you and your baby. Maybe run some tests. You can be with him all the time, if you like. I promise. That little boy you’re holding is very important to the world. And we'd really like to find this Connor Mac.”

Nicole studied Colonel Starkes for a moment. She relaxed and sat. “Okay, I’m thinking I might be able to trust you some, colonel."

"Good."

"And I imagine there’s plenty more where CJ came from.”

“CJ?”

“Connor Junior. I named him after his daddy. I thought it was the right thing to do.”

“What do you mean plenty more?”

Nicole smiled mischievously. “Well, I guess you’ll see, if and when you find Connor Mac.”

“What do you mean?” asked Colonel Starkes, not quite sure where Nicole was going.

“Hah. Look at you!”

“What?”

“Gettin’ all hot and bothered.”

“I am not,” said Colonel Starkes, feeling the heat rise in her cheeks.

“Okay, let me put it to you this way. How old are you, colonel?”

“It’s Hannah. Please call me Hannah. And I’m thirty-six. What possible bearing does that have on this conversation?”

"Okay, Hannah. Let’s just say that you’re a very attractive women."

"Umm, thanks, I guess."

"What I mean is, since I'm an artist, I see you got those chocolate brown eyes and huge eyelashes on that pretty heart-shaped face. A good tight bod and all that." Colonel Starkes cleared her throat, embarrassed. "And, if and when you find Connor Mac, you’ll probably be pregnant in a week if he takes an interest in you.”

“What?” Colonel Starkes heard a few snickers from a few of the surrounding men, but kept her attention focused on Nicole.

“Hannah, if you find him, you’ll find him irresistible. Just like I did. He has something about him—I don’t know—a chemistry, a magnetism. Just a very nice way about him.”

Flustered, Colonel Starkes became lost in unbidden erotic images. A fierce man atop her, hard, ready—

“I’m serious, Hannah,” said Nicole, interrupting the Colonel’s thoughts, “You’ll see. That is, if he wants to be found.”

“Can you describe him for me? In as much detail as you can?”

“Sure.”

“Fantastic. Umm...uh...you wouldn’t happen to have a picture of him, would you? I know that’s an absolutely ridiculous question in this day and age, but I have to ask. You know, just in case.”

“You’re taking me and CJ out of here? To plenty of food and Camp David and good treatment?”

“Yeah.”

“And you promise, as president, not to take CJ from me?”

“I promise.”

“If that's true, I can give you something better than a picture.”

“How?”

“Like I said, I was an accomplished artist in the City before the Sickness came. While we were together, I drew Connor Mac several times. I kept a few of the smaller paintings while I moved around. I'll get them.” She stood and shouldered her way through the ring of men, holding CJ tightly.

Colonel Starkes motioned for a few of her men to accompany Nicole to her hidey-hole. In minutes she returned, offering her drawings for Hannah's scrutiny.

“He certainly is... ahh... handsome,” said Colonel Starkes, “in a very rugged way.”

“Uh, huh.”

“Are his eyes really that deep shade of brown with those bright green-gold flecks? Is that smile for real?”

Nicole laughed. “See what I mean! See what I'm saying?”

“C’mon, Nicole. It’s a painting. I think you’re a fantastic artist, but nobody can look that good.” Colonel Starkes spoke quietly to keep the conversation away from the ring of men surrounding them. She pulled the eight by eight inch oil painting out of the Ziploc bag for closer inspection.

“Yeah, Hannah, he's that handsome. In fact, my artwork doesn’t begin to capture the charm and charisma that man has. It’s such a natural part of him; I don’t think he even notices it. But, I’ll tell you a little secret.”

"Yeah?"

"He saved me from a bunch of men and an old woman who were planning on using me as a slave. I was grateful. After he fed me, I was so grateful I was ready to repay him in any way he liked with anything I had to offer.”

“Oh.”

“But instead, like the gentleman he was, he let me use his sleeping bag to get a real night’s sleep. He sat next to me all night, on guard."

"Oh, wow."

"And I admit, it was probably the first true night of rest I’d had in years. I felt so unbelievably safe. But you know, I woke once when the fire popped and saw him glance at me above the book he was reading. He smiled and I went back to sleep. I remember smiling myself in contentment.

"What was he reading?"

"Umm, I think it was—Lord of the Flies. I felt safe with him. All he had to do was smile at me and I knew everything would be okay.”

Colonel Starkes continued to study the painting. “Did he tell you how he got that small scar?” she asked, pointing at a small discoloration above his left eyebrow.

“Yeah, I asked him once. He told me he ran into an open door. But Connor Mac's a terrible liar. I didn’t believe him and asked him to tell me for real. I remember he stopped smiling and it scared me. His face had turned deadly—it was the same intense face he used when he took care of those assholes who caught me.”

Hannah nodded sympathetically, a simple encouragement for Nicole to continue.

“But his look faded quick like he was caught showing me emotions that he didn’t want to show. Then he said he owed a staff sergeant from Kentucky for that.”

Colonel Starkes stood quickly, overturning the five-gallon drum on which she sat. “Of course! Why didn't I see this before? Connor Mac’s military!”

“Yeah, I guess.” answered Nicole.

“Do you know when he served, Nicole? Which branch? Do you know anything about his service time?” Colonel Starkes was intense, focused. When she noticed that Nicole looked panicky, she contained her excitement. She righted the overturned bucket and sat.

“I'm sorry, Nicole, it’s just that we still have some access to working computers and databases, specifically military. I should’ve known Connor Mac was military. Dammit!"

"Why? Why should you have known that?"

"Well, most soldiers, and sometimes their families, received preventative flu injections during wartime deployment. This has greatly augmented existing immunity to the Sickness.”

“Oh.”

“That’s the strong military angle to this survival equation.”

“Uh, huh,” said Nicole. CJ stirred in her arms and she consoled him with soft words.

“Nicole,” said Colonel Starkes, “what did he tell you about his military service time?”

"I never paid much attention to that kinda stuff. I can't remember him talking much about the military.”

“Major O’Malley, please join us,” said Colonel Starkes. The major approached and glanced shyly at Nicole.

“Yes, colonel?”

“Major, Nicole's about to give us information on Connor Mac. Please take notes.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

Colonel Starkes gathered her thoughts. “Nicole, what can you tell us? Don’t leave anything out—if it’s about Connor Mac, I want to know.”

 “Okay. Lemme think. Um, Connor Mac said that he was a parachute guy—no, he said paratrooper. Air something.”

 “Airborne?”

“Yeah, that’s it. And I think he said a number with that—eighty something.”

“82nd Airborne?"

“That sounds right,” answered Nicole.

“Do you have any idea of Connor Mac’s last name?”

“No. He was always Connor Mac to me.”

“Age?”

“He said thirty-six, but I didn’t believe him. He seemed much younger than that.”

“Okay. Major?”

“Ma’am?”

“Start immediately. A bottle of Glenlivet from my private stock for each man back home that helps identify Connor Mac."

"Yes, ma'am."

"Tell Jimmy to start the search on the Intrex System. If he can't find it there, tell him to check into Kojak and the archives. He has my password.”

“Yes, colonel,” said Major O’Malley. Nicole studied the major intently as he walked toward the helicopter.

She turned her attention back to Colonel Starkes. “Umm, colonel—Hannah, if you’re now the President of the United States, why don’t they call you Madam President?”

Colonel Starkes smiled and took her time before answering, primarily to calm her own curiosity about Connor Mac. She bit delicately into another stale cracker. She tentatively reached out, touching the pink and rosy cheek of CJ.

“Well, Nicole, I’ve explained this many times, so the answer’s pretty easy.”

“Yeah?”

“The way I figure it, I earned the title of full bird colonel. That’s a pretty big deal, by the way. I worked hard for that rank and I’m proud of it. Believe me, I was fast-tracked for my ability in the field and in the lab. It had nothing to do with the fact that I'm a woman, but many people thought that. Besides, there’s no one we've found who outranks me.”

“Oh.”

“So being Colonel Starkes is better than being Madam President.”

“Umm, how so?”

“Well, because the military wouldn’t have let the H5N1 Avian Flu become the political clusterfuck that it became. And, being the highest ranking military officer in the United States makes me golden in the eyes of these men.”

“And that’s a good thing?”

“It’s the only way we’ve kept things together so far. Nicole, this was once a great country and I really think that we can rise above this devastation point. You and your child will be a big part of it.”

"Wow."

 

CHAPTER 1.6-Dusting Off the Old Blue Quilt

 

Snuff rested atop Connor, her body content and her breathing regular and deep. Hesitant to wake her, he decided not to move for a time, suspecting that the deepness of her sleep had further to go—she was exhausted. After a few more moments, he gently shifted, easing her onto the carpet. With care, he placed her rifle next to her right hand, as previously instructed in situations like this, and walked naked to the back bedroom. Retrieving a large blue quilt, he shook it sharply to rid it of dust, and returned to the living room. Amanda was sleeping soundly on her side and Connor took a few seconds to admire the beautiful lines of her naked body before gently covering her. He snatched a cigarette from the open pack near the fire and moved quietly through the kitchen. Standing at the kitchen window, he stared out at an empty field that was lit softly by a half moon hanging low in a cloudless sky. He flicked his cigarette ashes onto the floor, cupping his hand over the cigarette when he took a drag. On guard, he searched vigilantly for any movement that shouldn’t be there.

 

CHAPTER 1.7-Return to Boot Camp

 

Marty left the farmhouse at about two o’clock in the morning. Nobody heard him leave. The men he had assigned to guard duty were all sleeping. Abandoning your unit by falling asleep on guard is a court martial offense in the military. There was absolutely nothing worse than finding out you couldn’t trust the people with whom you kept company. He took off on his own, thinking that he'd be safer without this bunch of low-lifes. He wondered why he had considered hooking up with them in the first place. He walked east through the darkness for an hour and bedded down for the night, a bit on the hungry side, but confident about the prospects of the nearing day.

He woke from a light sleep into a clear dawn. He heard a soft noise and when he opened his eyes, he spotted a fawn nudging the ground near a small maple about ten feet away. The mother fed on leafy weeds a few yards beyond the young one. Nothing on Marty’s body had moved except his eyelids. He had slept with his unsheathed knife in his hand, a habit for the last few years, and he tracked the fawn with his eyes, willing the animal to move closer to his position. As each minute passed, the fawn moved closer to Marty as if his thoughts controlled the animal. The fawn turned broadside to Marty and continued its turn until it faced its mother. By pure insane luck, the fawn backed up a step, presumably to capture a particularly tasty morsel, and Marty chose this time to act, knowing that there would be no better opportunity. At his first movement, the fawn and its mother became aware of him. While the mother escaped easily, the fawn had wandered too close. Marty salivated as he cut its throat.

Wasting no time, he dragged the fawn to the maple, roped its hind legs with a thin nylon cord from his pack, and tied it upside down to a low limb. Aided by gravity, the fawn’s blood drained quickly and Marty began skinning with practiced ease. He built a small fire and began cutting short strips of meat from the draining carcass. He laid the strips of meat on the small grill grate he carried for that purpose. He'd have to find a new grate—the steel rods that crisscrossed his were nearly burnt through.

When the meat was cooked to his satisfaction, he wolfed down a half dozen pieces and salted the rest for later. He needed to find more salt; his supply was running low. He untied what was left of the fawn, letting the butchered remains fall to the ground. He gathered his weapons and gear, settled his backpack comfortably on his shoulders, and exited the treeline. He moved due east through what were once surely the neat furrows of a cornfield. The human scum he left at the farmhouse were no longer his concern.

It was difficult for him to believe his own luck with the fawn. It wasn’t as if deer were scarce, but killing one wasn't as easy at it seemed. Sure, he could have easily shot one, but ammunition for the sniper rifle or his Colt was much too valuable to waste in the killing of game when other means were at hand.

As he walked through the field, his thoughts turned to his disturbing dreams of the night. He hadn’t thought of boot camp for many years and he was surprised at the emotions that his thoughts dredged up. In the dream, he felt exceptionally tired and terribly hungry. He was lying in thick, wet mud and his exhaustion made him unsure of his ability to continue. Shivering in remembrance, he braced himself for the harsh words of the drill sergeant as the dream sequence flashed again.

“Get up, soldier!” Incongruently, the staff sergeant reached down into the mud to hand him a bright blue towel, embroidered with the name “Sarah”. The real-time Marty’s knees weakened with the memory. In the dream, Marty accepted the towel while he tried in vain to rise, his exhausted arms refusing to obey. Yanked roughly to his feet, he came face to face with the scowling countenance of Connor. “You stayin’ and playin' or leavin' and sceamin'?" growled Connor, oddly smiling.

Marty felt naked before Connor’s smile. Yet, he also felt a renewed sense of energy seep into his exhausted body. Shaking his head, he broke free from the dream images and increased his pace into the rising sun. It was still early in the morning and the sun was low, painting his view with bright golden hues. Mesmerized by the vista, he slipped back into the clear memories of the dream.

“Stayin’, sir!” Marty yelled loudly, mimicking the words he’d said in the dream.

“Damn right! I’m gonna need good men to get where I’m going, but I’ll only take the best. You got it in you?”

With his head tilted, Marty listened again to the words still fresh in his mind. “Yes, sir!” Unbidden, Marty screamed the words again into the morning air.

“Then move it, you maggot piece of shit!”

A sudden noise broke further reverie; Marty tracked a plump squirrel skittering across a decomposing log twenty yards away. He shook his to clear the last vestiges of the dream. And for the first time in many months, he discovered he was somewhat content with his own thoughts. He sensed he’d found some definitive direction. Deep down, he was surprised at the strength of this conviction. He hadn’t realized he’d been that lonely. Mercifully, for a few moments, he discovered an ability to forget his own incredible pain and loss before the weight came seeping in like a brutal, cold shower. Sarah. Adjusting his pack and rifle, he set off east. He decided he would find this Connor Mac. If for nothing else, it might give him an opportunity to hide from the pain.

 

CHAPTER 1.8-Getting a Bead

 

“Okay, so why’d you stay here if this Connor Mac was so damn ‘magnetic’ as you put it?” asked Colonel Starkes.

Nicole paced with CJ in her arms trying to convince him to nap. She stroked CJ's cheeks and he squirmed comfortably in her arms. “Um, I guess I didn’t have much choice.”

“Do you mean, Connor Mac just up and left?” asked Hannah. Her eyes followed Nicole's pacing.

“No. He asked me if I wanted to go with him. He said he had to get back to Pittsburgh—well, he said he had to find a place south of the city.”

“Pittsburgh? That helps. Did he say why?”

“No, but I felt like it was something I shouldn't ask about so I didn't. Besides, I wasn't sure that I really wanted to know.”

“Was there a specific reason why he left?”

“Well, I guess because I made a mistake.” Nicole was upset and her eyes welled with tears.

“Tell me what happened, Nicole,” said Hannah Starkes softly.

“I don’t know what got into me! Well, I guess I do...now. It was...I guess I just wanted to see what was in that backpack of his. He was always so damn possessive about it. And it was so big. You know, I thought maybe it’d shed some light on why he needed to run back to Pittsburgh so bad.” She became quiet, lost in her thoughts.

“Go on, Nicole. Please.”

“One night, he caught me going through his backpack. I thought he was asleep. Mac called it a breach of trust.”

“What happened?”

“It was kinda weird. Mac was sound asleep and snoring. I was on guard. He was so big on that guard thing, you know? He said it amounted to trusting somebody with your life and there were no second chances. Well, I was going through his pack as gently as possible and when I glanced over at him, he was propped up on his elbow watching me.”

“I bet he was pretty angry,” said Colonel Starkes.

“No. That’s what was strange. Right then, I just froze and we stared at each other across the fire. Then, he stood up and walked over to me. I guess I didn’t know what he was gonna do, but he just took the bag from me, sat down, and pulled out a few packets of food and a knife."

"Yeah?"

“Then he handed them to me, scooped up his sleeping bag, guns, and his backpack and left. He called it a 'breach of trust and end of story'. He left without another word.”

“Where’d he go?” asked Hannah.

“I thought for sure he’d be back, but when it occurred to me that he wasn’t coming back, he was long gone. I packed up and went searching for him no more than a half hour after he left, but I couldn’t track him. When Mac doesn’t want to be tracked, it’s like he goes through the woods without touching anything—even the ground. I thought about going east, just to keep going I guess, but I settled down after I found out I was pregnant.”

Colonel Starkes understood Connor’s behavior. She knew how important trust was to men living in combat conditions, which today’s times certainly were. There was no luxury in granting second chances when trust was called into question. In a way, she felt sorry for Nicole. She was about to offer some platitude when Major O’Malley approached. It was obvious he was hesitant to interrupt, but did so anyway.

“Colonel?”

“Yeah?”

“Jimmy has something on Connor Mac.”

“That quick?”

“Says he’s not telling anyone anything until he hears that a bottle of your Glenlivet’s coming.”

“Let’s see what he has first. If it’s worth a crap, he can have the bottle.” They walked to the helicopter and arranged themselves near the radio in the cramped cockpit. Major O’Malley spoke briefly into the headset, stealing nervous glances at Nicole.

For a few seconds, Major O’Malley laughed into the headset and listened. He stole another glance at Nicole and refocused on the weak signal coming in on the headset. “Ma'am, Jimmy says he might be able to load the data onto the ‘copter’s satellite datalink monitor. You want him to try?”

“Let's do it, major.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

Colonel Starkes waited several minutes for the information while the helicopter rotors slowly inched to full power. Shamus was taking the initiative to prepare for possible departure depending on the results. All personnel were now boarding and stowing their gear like they'd done a hundred times before.

Colonel Starkes was shoulder-to-shoulder with Nicole while in such close quarters. She smiled. “Can I hold CJ?”

Nicole nodded and handed over the squirming bundle.

“How old is he?”

“I think he’s ninety-two days old, if I kept track right. I’m not sure what the date was when he was born—I was kinda out of it.”

“He's a beautiful baby, though he looks a bit small.”

“Yeah, well, don’t let him fool you.”

 

CHAPTER 1.9-Thinking Long-term

 

“I’m taking overwatch for the next week of our travels.”

“Okay, I guess I can live in fear for the next seven days,” said Amanda smiling.

Connor laughed at her quip. “You know I’m better at it than you by a country mile.”

“You might be better than me, but not by a country mile. Maybe by a hundred feet.”

“Give a woman an inch...”

“And she wants to know where the rest of the package is.”

Connor laughed good-naturedly and finished the last few strokes of the straight razor on his chin. He wiped the blade clean with a rag and tucked both the razor and strop in his kit. He felt exceptionally comfortable in this woman’s presence—she was quick, resilient, adaptable, and eager to do whatever was necessary for their continued survival. He often had to remind himself that she was a young woman, one who had just started college when the Avian Flu consumed the world. But when he looked into her eyes, sparkling with intelligence and an innate love of life, he felt himself energized, as if her youth imparted an extra amount of energy to him. After watching her, he felt ready for anything.

“Pack up. We're leaving in five,” he said sharply. He wiped his face one final time and knelt to tie his bootlaces. Amanda leaned down to kiss his neck.

“We’re leaving after only one night?” she asked.

“Yeah, Snuff. I have a feeling the bad guys might want a little revenge. I might be wrong, but I don’t want to stick around to find out.”

“Okay,” she said amicably. “There’s no reason to stay right now. Hey, by the way, why’d you decide not to kill the sniper dude?”

“Marty? I don’t know,” said Connor, shaking his head, mildly confused by his own actions.

“Do you have any idea how good that bastard was?” asked Amanda.

“He was good?”

“Fuck, Mac, he was incredible," she answered with genuine awe in her voice. "He sat twenty yards away from me and I could tell he knew something was wrong, but he just couldn’t put his finger on it. The ants were eating me like crazy, but I couldn’t move a millimeter—he was frozen like a statue the whole time. Just waiting and facing you guys. Glad I was mostly behind him. I wasn’t sure I could wait him out.”

“That explains the bites on your legs and pretty tush.”

Amanda was all business now. “Yeah, well, he moved toward you when they called him in. He cussed a blue streak—he wasn’t happy about giving away his position. I could tell he sensed me. I’m pretty good at that, you know?”

“Yeah, so I’ve noticed.”

“So, back to my question.”

“Which was?”

“Umm, why’d you decide not to take out the big firepower? You drilled into me that that’s the ‘first order of business’ in all this happy horseshit. But then you go and screw me up?”

Connor studied Amanda. She looked so young and innocent in the early morning sunlight. Hers was a face that required very little makeup, and, for a fleeting second, he felt saddened to teach this beautiful woman the refined art of killing men. But, he had to admit she was good at it. She could find the killing zone, pull the trigger, and, most importantly, let it go afterwards. She was better than many men he had trained. Her grandpa had taught her well.

“Well, to be honest Snuff, I...I kind of...ahh...felt something there.”

“Huh?”

“Umm, it’s hard to describe. I thought maybe...ahh...there was a spark there.”

“A spark?”

“Yeah. I felt like it’d be a shame to waste him. In fact, I had a passing thought he might be helpful in our little trek across country. And, I just sensed he wasn’t real pleased hanging with that group of losers.”

“Oh. I guess it’s lucky I didn’t off the poor bastard.” Amanda laughed.

“Don’t get too cocky, Snuff. Remember what I said. Never get too cocky. And I imagine that Marty would be fairly hard to kill.”

“I had him in my sights, Mac. He was as good as dead. You know I don’t miss.”

“You never know, Snuff. You just never know.”

 

CHAPTER 1.10-The Datalink

 

“Colonel?” Major O’Malley stood before her. “Ma’am, the information's coming through from Jimmy.”

Shamus was at the controls of the helicopter, going through the flight check in preparation for takeoff. The rotors had just begun to turn slowly and the whine of the engine was steadily increasing. Colonel Starkes took a seat in the front next to Shamus while Nicole and the major settled behind them, heads nearly touching to see the small screen set in the center of the instrument panel. She returned CJ to Nicole and concentrated on the screen.

The data link from Camp David used military satellites and the information emerged line-by-line on the screen. The link was a bit more degraded than the week before, but there was nothing within the colonel's control to change this fact. She didn’t have the ability to launch another satellite into space. She could only use what was there until it decided to quit working.

“Would you prefer that I not see this, ma’am?” asked Shamus, slightly yelling to be heard over the noise of the quickening rotors.

“No, Shamus, we’re in this shit together. You know I try not to hide anything from the men under my command.”

“Yes, ma'am.” Shamus stroked his goatee, adjusting a few dials on the helicopter console. Curious, he leaned closer as the information unfolded. He was quite interested in this Connor Mac. Already, this unknown variable’s reputation was building among the men. A few seconds into the data, Colonel Starkes realized that the report they were reviewing was an ultra-top secret clearance personnel file. Clearance that, until she officially became president, she didn’t have.

“You sure, ma'am?” asked Shamus, recognizing that he did not previously possess this level of security clearance.

“I’m sure, Shamus. Look and learn. Oh, and if I tell you to keep something to yourself, keep quiet.”

“Absolutely, ma’am.”

“That goes for you, too, major,” she said, turning to face him.

“Yes, ma’am,” he acknowledged.

"And especially you, Nicole."

"Sure," said Nicole, stunned at the opportunity to remain.

"I'm showing that I trust you, Nicole, but I will not hesitate to personally render you null and void should you violate our need to keep quiet."

"Null and void?"

"She means you'd be dead," whispered Major O'Malley.

"Oh," said Nicole, softly. She hugged CJ harder.

Scott approached Nicole. He gently touched her elbow. "Ma'am, you and CJ need to be strapped in before takeoff."

"Oh, okay. In a moment."

 

The screen read:

>Password authorized. User accepted.

>Warning! Security Clearance Alpha Nine: Ultra-Top Secret Clearance Required to Proceed! Improper clearance can result in immediate Court Marshall and Military Tribunal under applicable rulings if not authorized.

>Proceed?

>Acknowledged.

>Disseminating data…

 

Name: Connor P. MacMillen

Serial number: 1985638A

Social Security Number: 219-34-9618

Military Branch: Army

Last known Assignment: Airborne 82nd Detachment

Current status: Personal leave in Sydney, Australia.

Expected return to active duty: October 4, 2011.

DOB: April 8, 1979

Race: Caucasian

Blood type: AB+

Height: 5’ 9”

Weight: 185 lbs.

Eye Color: Brown

Military Entry Date: April 11, 1996-Westpoint

Last Known Residence: 128 Coldwater Ave

Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, 15218

Highest Education/Grade Level: Bachelor's Degree

Highest Obtained Rank: Colonel

Date of Last Promotion: March 29, 2011 (Seventh Field promotion)

Military Status: Active

Discharge Status: N/A

Signate Intelligence Rating: Very High Superior

RiXmond Conditioning Rating: Very High Superior

Staiger Flexibility Rating: Superior

Yenkel Endurance Rating: Very High Superior

Kirk Aggressive Qualities (KAG) rating: 10 of 10

Field Adaptability Rating: 9 of 10

Durability Rating: 8.9 of 10

Mission Execution Rating: 98.1%

Global Ability Quotient: 981 of 1000

 

Noted weaknesses (if applicable): Fearless. Demonstrates intermittent risk behavior placing him at increased probability for injury or death that is potentially inappropriate given circumstances. Susceptible to obsessive recovery of noncombatants, particularly females. May be susceptible to manipulation or coercion via this route.

 

Military Career Summary: West Point graduate. Completed accelerated education program on May 14, 1999. Completed Airborne Training under Major Underwood on October 3, 2000. Qualified as expert in Hand-to-Hand, Demolitions, Sniper Rifle, Electronics, Escape, Survival, and Recon. Immediately assigned to Special Ops under command of Colonel Roger T. Martin. Completed several key missions, four of which he assumed full field command due to heavy casualties. Served in Iraq and Afghanistan under black ops umbrella (assignments detailed below). Post Mission Briefings show a keen propensity for surviving under extreme stress conditions while ensuring success of military objectives. Post Field Reviews mention exceptional aggressive qualities and creative resolution when required. Connor P. MacMillen is considered an exemplary soldier and officer.

 

Medals Awarded: Purple Hearts with clusters (Three)

Congressional Medal of Honor (Private ceremony)

 

Mission Summary Highlights:

 

Sulu Nine- Document Reference #56412

Hawking’s Six- Document Reference # 78324

Desert Storm-Document Reference # 42134

Slipknot Four- Document Reference # 40983

Operation Wing Nut- Document Reference 67177

Krispy Kreme-Document Reference 71321

Kat Daddy 1- Document Reference # 19089

Slip-n-Slide 4- Document Reference # 36212

Tango in Paris- Document Reference # 18768

Kant in a Cup-Document Reference #23176

Deep Drop Diva-Document Reference # 00012

Milwaukee’s Best- Document Reference # 13400

 

Summary Performance Review (See form 1078C for full details): Connor MacMillen is considered a critical asset to the United States government as a covert surgical strike specialist. I have personally served with Colonel MacMillen on numerous missions and can attest to his character under fire. Put simply, I owe my life to this fine young man and his recent promotion to Full Colonel is well deserved. I have served with few men as courageous, brilliant, and dedicated to achieving mission objectives.

 

“Damn,” whispered Major O’Malley. Nobody heard him say it—he had not yet activated his intercom link and the helicopter’s rotors had achieved the speed necessary to lift off. The mild oath of admiration was lost to the volume of the whining engines.

Colonel Starkes studied the digitized photograph attached to the report and was surprised to find that Nicole’s drawing of Connor MacMillen was perfectly on target. In a photograph transmitted by a deteriorating satellite, Hannah Starkes recognized the aura of a man for whom, had she met him prior to H5N1 and during his military career, she would have immense respect. She was surprised to discover that this was important to her.

Colonel Starkes caught Shamus’ eyes and twirled her finger in the air in a non-verbal command to lift off. The bird immediately left the ground and banked sharply over the trees to the east, the passengers busy with their own thoughts about Colonel Connor P. MacMillen.

The raw data that she had assimilated agreed perfectly with the photograph. This man was a born leader. He had survived H5N1, traveled from the west coast of Australia to the United States in a world turned upside down by the Cuckoo Flu. He was certainly making his way somewhere. He had a destination in mind—apparently, somewhere south of Pittsburgh. She needed to find this man. He had not only survived H5N1, but also was able to breed.