"Done!" Melody stretched to ease her aching back, then wheeled the mop bucket out of the saloon and dumped the filthy water into a drainage ditch before carrying it back to the maintenance shed. It was one of the few buildings that had water, though her grandfather had had the rest of the ghost town wired for electricity years ago. She took a final tour through all the buildings, making sure she hadn't missed anything while getting ready for the season. The first tour group would arrive at the Sulfur Springs Mine and Museum in three days, a school field trip. She'd guided hundreds of groups through in the last ten years, she'd learnt the spiel by heart when she started working a a tour guide at fourteen, and had spent her summers here before that. Strange as it might seem, this was the only place she felt at home.
Inside her trailer, she headed straight for the shower, and washed the sweat and grit away. She reveled in the hot water until it ran out, then wrapped in a towel, headed to the kitchen. The flashing 'messages' light on the answering machine caught her attention. A press of a button started the playback while she rummaged in the fridge for something that looked good. The first two messages were confirmations from tour groups, but the third...
"Sergeant Corbett this is Lt. Stuart, We've been activated. Use the phone chain to alert your team, and report to the armory ASAP." The message had been time-stamped Nine-fourteen A.M. The robot voice of the answering machine announced the next message, left only a few minutes later. Her platoon sergeant, leaving the same message. There were three more messages, all left by the company clerk, telling her to call in immediately and report to the armory. The clock on the wall read six-thirty-three by the time she finished her fried egg sandwiches. She had nothing to lose by eating before she called, but once she acknowledged the message...
Following SOP, she called the three squad members she was responsible for, leaving messages. She called the armory. It rang for a long time before a breathless voice picked up. It was the company clerk. By habit, he identified himself and the unit. Melody identified herself, and asked for more information. "Those riots have spread, we have rioters here, right outside the fence." The armory was in an older part of the city, The once pristine subdivisions and immaculate townhouse apartments that had grown up around it years ago were now filled with immigrants of dubious legality. Last drill, they'd road-marched three miles to the fire department training site. As they went along the streets doors slammed shut and fearful inhabitants had peered at them from behind drawn shades. In the countries they were from, if the army was in the streets, it meant blood would be shed. Here, they'd only had blanks they'd used for urban training. "Get here as soon as you can." he went on. "I am not authorized to tell you to bring your own weapons." This was unofficial code for, 'if you don't have a weapon, you might not make it to the armory alive'. He cursed as a spate of gunfire sounded in the background. "Hurry, as soon as we stop 'em here, we're moving out." He hung up.
For a moment she just stood there. There had been riots over the last week in all the major cities, starting with New York. She hadn't seen much news, working alone up in the mountains, but she'd heard the new flu had something to do with it, making people crazy, but she'd also heard it was terrorists spraying the cities with psychoactive drugs. Melody shook her head to clear it, then hurried to her room, dialing as she went. The phone rang. "Pick-up. Pick-up." Her sister's voice answered the phone, but it was only the machine. "It's me, Mel. Melissa, it's me, pick-up. I got alerted for the riots, things are looking bad. Bring the kids up to the mine now, there probably won't be classes anyway. Hurry, you won't have much time if..." The machine cut her off with a beep. She made one more call, arranging for someone to be at the museum to meet the tour group in the morning, then got to work.
A few minutes later, she was in her truck, shotgun beside her, along with her LBE, the ammo pouches filled with shotgun shells in place of the thirty-round magazines they were designed for. Her ruck was on the floor of the passenger side, with everything she needed for a week in the field, she always kept it ready, just in case.
There was no traffic until she hit the freeway. There were no services at the offramp connecting the mine to the outside world, and anyone going to the towns on the other side of the mountains would take the freeway, that route was much faster. She turned on the radio to get some news, but reception was poor, and the only station she could get alternated between Emergency Alert System broadcasts to 'Stay in your homes', and the DJ's ranting about reports of cannibalism among the rioters as being racially motivated.
It was full dark when she hit the roadblock. Two Highway Patrol cars blocked most of the inbound interstate, and the officers signaled her to pull through to the outbound lanes and turn back. Instead she pulled up to the cars. They didn't say a word about her shotgun, just look one look at her uniform and MP brassard and waved her on. The trickle of outbound traffic grew into a steady stream, apparently she wasn't the only one who didn't trust FEMA's platitudes. Well, at least FEMA would let her keep a weapon. The most recent announcements gave locations for 'Evacuation Centers' but having worked with them before, she knew anyone showing up at a center would be disarmed and almost certainly relieved of any excess food.
The city streets were nearly deserted, except for the outbound arteries. Power was out in many of the neighborhoods she passed through on the way to the armory. She caught brief glances of people skulking in alleys, or pounding on doors. Some of them left off what they were doing to chase her, but she quickly outdistanced them. One set her heart pounding when she stopped at a flashing red light. A man in ragged bloodstained clothes smacked a bloody palm against her window, leaving a dull red smear. She pulled quickly though the intersection while he stumbled after her.
As she neared the armory, she heard firing. The unmistakable bark of M-16s mixed with the duller sound of pistols. Ahead in the glow of the emergency lighting high on the two story brick walls of the armory, she saw the half full parking lot and a crowd of people hammering on the side door.
She cut her lights and coasted to a stop. This wasn't some riot. Rioters screamed and threw things, all these people did was moan and pound on the metal doors. It was all eerily wrong. As she watched, a helmeted head stuck out from a second story window. Whoever it was looked around, then studied the mob below. When the solder looked up, she flashed her lights, twice.
Some of the mob must have noticed, because they started towards her idling pickup. The figure in the window lit a flare, waved it wildly in response, then yelled and threw the flare in front of the door. The mob turned their attention to the soldier in the window, moaning louder. Some even tried to climb the brick wall to reach the distant figure. More flares were thrown down, they bathed the area around the side doors in flickering red light. The mob below stayed away from them, but the commotion drew an even bigger crowd.
The firing had long since stopped, The soldier disappeared form the window and the mob quieted down. The seemed both attracted to the light, and repelled by the flames of the flares. A few people who had been walking towards the armory turned and headed for her instead. Without the gunshots urging them on, they seemed attracted by the sound of the idling engine.
Melody put the truck in gear, and let the truck ease closer to the armory. The people following her gradually fell behind, even though they should have been able to catch her easily. Were they sick? There was that nasty flu, but if they were well enough to walk around, why didn't they go to the hospital? She drove around one who staggered in a circle, was shirtless and had what looked like bitemarks all over his body.
A spate of gunfire caught her attention, A half dozen of her fellow MPs came out of the side door shooting. At least twenty of the mob went down in the first three seconds, but that didn't seem to bother the rest. The closed in on the little group as they ran for the parking lot. Another mob of people followed them out of the armory. She gunned the engine and pulled into the lot. They saw her and three of them ran towards her, dragging a fourth. Two more hopped into a Jeep, They cranked the engine, and careened out of the lot just before the last man reached them. Melody slowed just enough for the four to hop in, then made for the fallen soldier.
M-16s barked in the bed of her old pickup, and more of the mob fell. But it didn't do any good. He screamed as they bit chunks of flesh from his arms, then the screams died in a gurgle as one of them got to his throat. Someone pounded on the roof of the cab and yelled to her "Go! Go!" More of the mob poured out of the building, headed for her truck, but the ones who tried to block her path went under the wheels with a sickening crunch. In her rear-view, she saw Top bash one of the rioters in the head as he tried to climb over the tailgate. She recognized the others by sight, but they were in another platoon and she couldn't remember their names. Melody couldn't see the wounded man.
Top slid open the back window. "Sergeant Corbett, You're late." He sounded relieved rather than angry. "Good to see you in one piece."
"Came as soon as I got the word First Sergeant, where are we going?"
She saw his haunted eyes in the mirror. He met her gaze, then looked away. "Last orders we got, before we got overrun, move to secure the stadium at the community collage. FEMA camp there, taking in refugees from the 'riots'."
"What is that anyway? The radio said some kind of flu, but those people acted weird."
"We don't know, the Captain thinks drugs, they can take center mass shots and keep coming, but one to the head puts em down." He glanced behind him and lowered his voice. "Me, I think they're already dead..."
She studied him in the rear-view mirror. He was serious. "You mean like zombies?"
"That's exactly what I mean. They heard us in the armory, and we went out in riot gear to disperse them. Most of us didn't come back. Some who didn't joined the 'riot'..." His voice trailed off, she couldn't remember ever seeing Top worried, not even while running patrols in Iraq.
A police car passed them going the other way, lights and siren blaring. Shortly they came to a section of road with streetlights still lit, and she slowed but did not stop for a red light. As she accelerated through the intersection, the captain sat up, moaned, and grappled the soldier next to him, biting him in the neck. The other pulled the captain off his buddy, and had to hold the captain away from himself. Top hesitated only a moment, then stuck his .45 under the brim of the helmet and fired one round into the skull behind the captain's ear. Their Company Commander twitched once, and then flopped lifeless to the bed of the truck.
Top passed the captain's Barreta and extra magazines through the window to Melody. "I was afraid of that, He was sick with that flu when he got to the armory, and it didn't help that they bit him." He looked at his watch. "He was still alive less than fifteen minutes ago."
The unwounded solder pulled him away from the window and said something Melody couldn't hear. Top argued with him in a low voice, and finally simply ordered him to 'shut up and drive on'.
A knot of rioters congregated around a Volkswagen Beetle. At least thirty of them pounded on its windows and top. She slowed down and yelled. "Top! I think someone's in that car, shouldn't we do something?"
He looked at the car, then behind them before he answered. "Ease up and stop about fifty meters away." He gave orders to the other two, and they took up firing positions, resting their rifles on the passenger side wall. Top stood up to fire over the cab. She turned to the left as she stopped, trying to give them a good angle. As the first shots rang out, she put the ammo and pistol in the pockets of her ACU jacket.
When she looked up a good half dozen of the crowd were down. Five more went down in as many seconds, but the rest started towards them. The last went down a good ten meters short of the truck. Without being told, Melody drove up next to the little car. When she stopped again, Top barked an order and one of the men fired again, and again. In her side mirror, Melody saw another crowd coming up from behind them.
Top jumped down and peered through the blood smeared windows, then gestured to whoever was inside. The rifle behind her barked every three or four seconds while he talked the occupants out of the car. They were a couple about her own age, Top ordered them into the cab with her, then climbed back in. "Go sergeant, three more stoplights then turn left."
Melody already knew how to get there but didn't say anything. Instead she gunned the engine. After she made the turn, the man next to her seemed to come out of his shock. "You guys killed all of them, you can't do that! I saw everything!."
Melody grunted as she avoided another one of them. "And saved your life."
It was like he hadn't even heard her, For the next five blocks he kept it up, then the woman with him grabbed his ear and swung his head around to face hers. 'Shut up Thad.'.
"You saw what they did!"
"Yeah and I also saw those cannibals eat a little girl. You wouldn't even stop to help her. When this is over you I don't want you even near me again."
"Hey Sandy, you're just overwrought, you know you need me."
He started to press his point with the woman, but Melody cut him off with an elbow to the ribs. "Shut your mouth Romeo, or you can walk to the FEMA camp." He shut up.
The arena parking lot was a madhouse. There were cars parked every which way, as well as a mob of people struggling to get through the gates. The local mech infantry company was already there, firing over the heads of refuges who ran for the shelter of the open doors. As they pulled up, one of the Bradleys parked out front let off a stream of 25mm rounds into the dense packed mob. It would have saved a dozen people, but instead of sprinting towards the AFV, they panicked and ran away from it, straight into the arms of the mob chasing them.
Top tapped her on the shoulder "I don't know how long they can keep that up, but we can't get through that mess. Try around back at the service entrance. Melody pulled back onto the street, and around the sports center. The rear parking lot had a light scattering of cars, and at the far end, a Bradley and a pair of Hum-vees were parked in front of a loading dock. There was a cleared area, with a six foot chain link fence around it. The area in front of that was carpeted with bodies. The co-ax machine gun on the M-2 fired a warning shot in front of the truck, then when she didn't stop fast enough put a burst into her engine.
The truck shuddered to a stop. The man next to her reached over the woman and opened the passenger door, then shoved her out and stepped over her. Melody threw on her LBE and rucksack, while top helped the woman up. The man was more than halfway to the doors when she caught sight of him again. He tripped, rather it looked like she tripped but when he tried to get up she saw that someone had a hold on his legs. More of the bodies she'd assumed were dead crawled towards him. She looked away only to see that the people who'd been milling around the cars in the parking lot had been drawn to the sound of gunfire. They stumbled towards the fence. "First Sergeant, we've got rioters incoming."
"I see 'em." He looked around, then headed for a concrete retaining wall at a fast walk. He dragged the woman along with him. "This way, be careful, some of these bodies might not be dead, you know the drill." They did, it had been a favorite AIF trick play dead and shoot from behind. The wall was only seven feet high, and Top boosted the woman up, then gestured to Melody.
She shook her head, "Don't think so Top. I'm not wounded, besides, I'm lightest, I should go last."
He nodded, and boosted the wounded soldier up next, then got an assist from the other. The wounded man, Tompkins, aimed his rifle as she boosted the other man, but Top ordered him not to fire. She passed up her shotgun, then Top caught her hand and pulled her up. They worked their way along the wall. Melody brought up the rear, nervous because of the moaning mob just below her. As they neared the fence, the area opened up and they able to move away from the edge. The mob had trouble climbing the wall, it was only six feet high where it met the fence, but it stopped them despite their frantic struggles to reach what was left of Melody's unit. Not only did they pull each other down, but they seemed to lack the coordination needed to climb the wall.
The wall merged with the loading dock. Top reported in to the lieutenant in charge of the service entrance. He seemed disgruntled that they'd led another mob up to the gate, but he send the woman inside, and one of his men took Tompkins to the infirmary. "First Sergeant, I'll take you to report to the C.O. Your people can stay here and help."
Melody walked over to the M-2, climbed up and rapped on the gunner's hatch. When it opened she looked at the kid, and he was a kid, he might be all of eighteen, then at the single stripe on his ACU jacket collar. "Explain to me soldier, why did you shoot up my POV?"
The kid looked like he was about to cry, "Sorry sergeant, I'm supposed to make sure no one rams the fence like they did out front."
"Right, well when everything gets back to normal, you're paying for it." He looked relived at the concept of normal, she wished she felt that way, but this was just too big. Her gut told her that 'normal' might never come again.