Chapter 20

Copyright© 2000 by Al Steiner

Sci-Fi/Post-Apocalyptic Story: Chapter 20 - When Comet Fenwell crashes into the Pacific Ocean one October day, it spells the end for most of humanity. Those that survive find themselves in a greatly changed world filled with different morals and the same old urges.

Caution: This Sci-Fi/Post-Apocalyptic Story contains strong sexual content, including Ma/Fa   Ma/ft   Fa/ft   Consensual   Reluctant   BiSexual   Science Fiction   Post Apocalypse   Group Sex   Sex Toys   Violent   comet crashes into earth story, end of civilization story

"What are we going to do?" Sherrie asked, trying not to let panic overcome him. "Is there any way to land this thing without those pedal thingies?"

"Well, there's an auto-rotational landing," Brett said, "but that's not really the ideal solution."

"What's an auto-rotational landing?" Sherrie wanted to know, locking onto that in desperation. "If it'll get us down, let's do it."

"That means he cuts the power and lets us fall to the ground," Jason said. "At the last moment, he pulls up and arrests the fall."

Sherrie looked at the two of them as if they were mad. "Cut the power?" she said. "Fall? Are you insane?"

"Not at all," Brett said, putting the aircraft back in the wide bank that it had been in a few moments before. "That's how you get down if you have an engine failure. The problem here is that it'll be kind of hard to bring us down in a specific place. We might end up in a tree, or on top of a building. And you come down rather hard too. I had to do it once in a Kiowa in Texas. It wasn't pretty. My observer fucked up his back pretty good and the helicopter never flew again. This chopper would almost certainly be permanently disabled if we did that and there's still a better than even chance that we'd all be killed anyway over this kind of terrain."

"Great," Sherrie said, barking out a semi-hysterical laugh. "So we're talking a fifty-fifty chance?"

"If we try that," Brett said, wiping the sweat off his face again. Christ his knee was hurting. "There might be another way though."

"Like what?" Sherrie asked.

"Like letting me fly," Jason said.

"Letting you fly?" Sherrie said, her eyes wide. "You don't know how to fly this thing!"

"I know how to fly it," Jason corrected. "I've just never done it before."

"And this isn't the time to take over the controls," Brett said. "Sorry Jase, but I don't think it would be possible to maintain control if we tried to switch in mid-air, otherwise I might give it a shot."

"Then what do we do?" Jason and Sherrie asked together.

"You can't fly it," Brett told Jason. "But maybe you can be my left foot."

"Push the pedal for you?"

"You got it," Brett said. "Unbuckle and lean over here. If you put your foot on the pedal and push it when I tell you to and release it when I tell you to... maybe it just might be enough to keep us under control. I can still work the right pedal, the collective, and the cyclic. Sherrie?"

"Yeah?" she said doubtfully.

"We'll need your help too. I need you to come over here and hold onto my left leg to keep it from moving. When Jason pushes the pedal down, don't let my lower leg go down with it. Got it?"

"I think so," she said, nodding, glad to have something to do.

"All right," Brett said. "Let's give it a shot. We'll try to pull a hover up here again to get the feel for it. If we can do that, there's a good chance we'll be able to land."

Sherrie and Jason both got into position. Jason released his harness and edged halfway out of his left side seat. He stretched his right foot out and over and slid it up against Brett's left boot. Brett winced a little at the contact. Sherrie resumed her position between the two seats. It took a little experimentation but finally, by kneeling down at an uncomfortable angle, she was able to get her hands around his upper calf, just below the wound, and hold it in place without obstructing either his vision, his hand on the collective, or Jason's leg on the pedal. The fit of the three of them however, was more than a little awkward.

"Okay," Brett told Jason once they were ready, "the important thing to remember is not to push down hard on the thing. When I say to push it, just ease it down a little tiny bit at a time, very slowly. When I say let up, do the same. Got it?"

"I got it," Jason said.

"All right, let's give it a shot." He took a few deep breaths and leveled out their bank once again. "Slowing up."

He eased up on the airspeed once again, making the indicator slowly wind down. He watched it carefully as it dipped closer and closer to the point where the torque became a force to be seriously reckoned with. As before, it was just under thirty knots when Brett felt the tail starting to turn. "Push down just a bit," he told Jason.

Jason applied a very small amount of pressure to the pedal. It sank down a half an inch and than another half an inch. The swing of the tail smoothed out. Brett's foot remained just above the pedal, held there by Sherrie's bloody hands.

"Good job," Brett said, starting to think that this just might work after all. Though having his leg suspended was increasing the pain considerably, it was nowhere near the white-hot agony of his first attempt at slowing. "Get ready to do it more. The more I adjust the collective, the worse the torque is going to be. It's a constant adjustment as we slow."

"Right," Jason said, shifting a little in his seat.

Brett continued to reduce airspeed and Jason continued to gently push down on the pedal to compensate for it. The needle dropped below twenty and then below ten. There were a couple of moments when they swung back and forth, when Brett had to push a little on the right and Jason had to ease up on the left, but these swings, although jerking, were almost gentle, nothing like the violent spinning of before. Brett barked out commands - up or down - as they were needed. Finally the needle dropped to zero knots of forward speed. The back end tried desperately to swing and actually was able to in small increments, but the up and down of the pedals with two different feet upon them were able to counter it. They hovered in space, 2000 feet above the ground.

"We did it!" Jason yelled excitedly. "Goddamn, Brett, we did it! We're hovering!"

"Thank God," Brett said, smiling in spite of the pain.

"Does this mean that we're going to live?" Sherrie asked from her kneeling position. Her hands were cramping from the effort of holding Brett's leg.

"It means our odds got a little better," Brett said. "Now lets bring it back up to forty knots or so and then we'll head on down. Get ready to push again, Jase."

Slowly Brett built up airspeed once more until they were past the critical point. Jason kept the proper amount of pressure applied to the pedal. Once they were relatively stable Brett let everyone back away from him in order to stretch their fatigued muscles before the big event. Brett also had Jason contact Paul on the radio to tell him what they were doing and to have him clear the parking lot.

"We're going to land on the far side of the lot," Jason explained, "but be sure everyone stays well clear until the skids hit the ground. There is a chance that we might... you know... have a loss of control and we wouldn't want anyone else to get hurt."

"Copy," Paul said slowly. "We'll be standing by. Good luck to you."

"Thanks," Jason said. "We'll need it."

Brett banked the helicopter back around in a wide circle, bringing them around so that he could approach from the north, which would lessen the chances of them accidentally hitting the community center building if they lost control at the last second. This course put them out over the canyon, which was still about a third full of raging floodwaters rushing down from higher in the mountains. As he passed over the northern rim Brett began to descend and slowed his airspeed to thirty-five knots.

"Okay," he said as the altimeter approached 5000 feet above sea level, "let's get back into position and we'll start slowing down."

Jason and Sherrie both quickly resumed their respective places at Brett's side. Brett had to stifle a scream as Sherrie grabbed his leg a little too hard and then another as Jason's boot nudged his foot.

"Are you all right?" they both asked, looking at him anxiously.

"Yeah," he breathed, biting his lip a little. "Everyone ready?"

They assured him that they were as ready as they were going to get.

"Then let's land this thing," Brett said.

He continued to descend, letting the helicopter take a gentle angle downward. They passed over the hills between the town and the canyon and then over the southern wall itself. The rooftops and winding streets of the subdivision grew bigger and bigger in their field of view. Ahead of them and slightly to the left, the park and the community center could be seen, including the large parking lot that was their landing zone. Brett eased up on the airspeed a little more, keeping them just above the point where Jason needed to actively intervene. He banked a little to the left and then back to the right, putting the landing zone directly in front of them.

"Okay," he said once they were lined up. "We're on final approach now. I'm going to slow up some more. Get ready to do your stuff."

"I'm ready," Jason said, chewing his lip a little.

"Remember," Brett said as he pushed down a little more on the collective, "once we get into the ground effect, you're going to have to ease up. The blades won't be biting into the air as hard and the torque is going to suddenly lessen."

"I'll remember," Jason said, his eyes watching out the windshield in front of them.

They passed the outer edge of the park, still descending, and Brett dropped the airspeed past the critical point. "Down a bit, a bit more," he said, and Jason pushed down on the pedal. The back end, which had been trying to swing, stabilized for a moment until the speed dropped even more. "More," Brett said. "Just a bit more."

They passed over the baseball diamond at a little over a hundred feet above the ground, still slowing, the tail swinging spastically back and forth about three feet in both directions. Brett continued to slow them up and Jason continued to apply pressure to his pedal.

"Doing good, doing good," Brett said, feeling sweat dripping down his face, feeling his heart pounding in his chest. He slowed some more. "A little more, a little more."

They passed over the southern edge of the parking lot, still slowly dropping, still moving at about twelve knots, the back end still swinging back and forth as Jason's control movements lagged just behind Brett's voice commands.

"Coming up on the LZ," Brett warned, slowing them even further. "Here's where it really gets tricky."

"Bring it on," Jason said, wiping his own face, watching with intense concentration as the white lines of the parking spots grew larger and larger.

Brett dropped a little further, until they were about six feet above the ground. "We're going to hover now," he said, bleeding off the rest of the speed. The tail swung out a little wider as Jason struggled to keep up with the maneuver. For a moment it seemed they were going to spin wildly but it was only a moment. He pushed down a little more and arrested it and then overcompensated just a little, forcing Brett to counter his move. At last the airspeed stood at zero knots six feet above the ground.

"Good job," Brett said with a little sigh of relief. "We're almost home free. I'm gonna drop us down now. Get ready for the ground effect. As soon as we start to swing, let up on the pedal slowly and I'll give a little push on mine."

"Let's do it," Jason said.

Brett let them drop down a little bit more and, at three feet, they were firmly in the ground effect, where the air from their own rotor was bouncing off the ground and pushing them back upward. The helicopter suddenly didn't need as much power to keep aloft and in order to get them the rest of the way down, Brett pulled back on the collective considerably more than he would have to make the same adjustment at altitude. As such the rear end tried to swing around since the force of torque was equally reduced.

"Ease up, ease up!" Brett barked, feeling the swing.

Jason eased up a little faster than he had been, countering the action. The rear end stabilized.

"Out of sight," Brett said, dropping them the rest of the way down. There was a thump from beneath them as the skids touched semi-gently down on the asphalt. It was almost anti-climatic.

"We did it!" Jason yelled, feeling the wonderful sensation of being back on mother earth. "We're down, Brett! We did it!"

"We're down?" Sherrie asked. She too had felt the thump of landing but was having trouble believing that they were really safe.

"We're down," Brett said, neutralizing the collective and turning the throttle back to idle. The whine of the turbine engine, which had been screaming a moment before as it held the helicopter at a hover, died down to a soft, almost gentle hum. The rotor blades began to slow down. "It wasn't the prettiest landing I've ever participated in, but Goddamn if it didn't feel the best once it was over."

Now that the immediate crisis was over and the adrenaline had a chance to slack off some, Brett's leg began to seriously scream at him for the abuse that had been inflicted upon it. The pain swelled up like a balloon, traveling up and down his body in sickening waves, commanding his attention. He had never imagined that a simple gunshot wound could be so freaking painful. Hadn't he been told once that they were almost painless? What moron had pulled that information out of his ass? Obviously someone who had never been shot in the knee before.

"Are you all right, Brett?" asked Jason, still quite elated at the fact that he was actually alive and not a burned up, smashed up corpse. He didn't like the way that Brett was leaning back in his chair with his eyes squeezed shut.

"I think..." he said, "that you... you better do the shut-down checklist for me. Do you mind?"

"I'm on it," he said worriedly. He gave his mentor one last glance and then began the process of disengaging the rotor and shutting down the engine.

Sherrie meanwhile, jumped out through the missing door on the side and fell to her knees on the wet asphalt. She leaned down and put her lips to the ground, kissing it several times. "Thank you, thank you, thank you," she said, over and over again, presumably to God or Jesus or whatever entity she believed in.

Across the parking lot the door to the community center opened and Paul came out, followed by two of his medical team. They had a wheeled table with them - a makeshift gurney that had been constructed by Steve Kensington a few days before. They reached the helicopter before the blades were even able to stop turning. Paul ripped open the pilot's side door and looked in.

"Hey, Paul," Brett groaned, trying a grin on for size and doing a miserable job at it. "What's the good word?"

"That was some kind of fucked up looking landing," Paul said, his eyes dropping down to the bloody bandage on Brett's knee. He also took note of the blood, now congealing, that had dripped down to the floor.

"Any landing that you walk away from," Brett quoted, "is a good landing. I learned that in flight school. I think they laid that one on us the first day. It's right up there with the old, bold pilots saying."

"Well, it was a good landing then, I'll agree with that," Paul said, "but it don't look like you are going to be walking away from it. How bad is the injury? Give it to me straight."

"It went in below my kneecap and went out just above it," Brett told him. "I saw bone fragments and tendons sticking out of the exit wound. I can't move my leg at all."

"Do you mean you physically can't move it, or do you mean it hurts too much to move it?"

"Both," Brett told him. "It's agony to even try, and it won't move even when I do."

Paul nodded. He reached down and began unlacing Paul's left boot. "I'm going to check and make sure you're still getting blood flow down there," he said. "How's the pain?"

"Horrible," Brett said honestly. "I had a kidney stone once and I thought that was bad." He shook his head. "That felt like a blowjob in comparison to this."

Paul laughed a little, taking the laces all the way off. "You have a way with words, Brett," he said. "You oughtta be a writer. Are we gonna be able to get the wounded to El Dorado Hills?"

"Yes," Brett said immediately. "We'll get them there."

"Are you gonna fly there the same way you landed? With Jason pushing one of your pedals and Sherrie holding your leg up."

"There's no other way," Brett said. "Just shoot me up with some of that morphine to take the edge off of this. We'll make it."

Paul looked up at him. "Shoot you up with morphine before you fly a helicopter? Isn't that just a little unwise?"

"It's the only way," Brett said. "Don't give me enough to put me out. Just give me enough to make it tolerable."

Paul gave him a doubtful look and then began trying to pull Brett's boot off of his foot. The moment he moved the leg in order to accomplish this, Brett screamed as the pain flashed white-hot once again.

"Brett," Paul said softly, "I can't give you enough morphine to make this tolerable. That much will put you out like a light."

Brett panted for a few moments, wiping a fresh sheen of sweat from his face. "Give me what you can," he said. "There's no other way to do it. We have wounded that need to get there, don't we?"

He nodded. "Yes, we do. Lucy and John are both dead - we did everything we could for them but... well, it just wasn't enough. Susan, Lori, and Sandy will need to get there at some point for treatment but they can wait for a while. Sarah, Rhonda, and Megan all have pretty serious wounds however, particularly Megan. They need to get to the doc right away, like within the next twenty minutes."

"Then it's settled," Brett said. "I was the one that went against common sense and got myself shot up. I'm the one that'll just have to deal with the consequences. Give me as much dope as you think I can tolerate and then lets get those casualties loaded up."

"And what if you pass out from the pain while you're in flight?" Paul asked. "Or what if you pass out from the dope? I'm not a doctor, Brett. I'm not an expert at medicating people. That shit could happen. What will you do then?"

"Then we'll crash," Brett said, not mincing words.

Paul looked at him sternly, shaking his head hopelessly. "What a clusterfuck," he said. "Is that really our only choice? What about Jason? Do we have the right to ask him to risk his ass on this screwed up mission? If you crash, you'll be taking him with you."

Both of them looked over at Jason, who was still sitting in the observer's seat, following the conversation. "Well?" Brett asked him. "What do you think, Jase?"

"I'll go no matter what," Jason said. "My place is in this chopper. But... maybe there's another answer."

"Another answer?" Paul asked. "What do you mean?"

"No," Brett said immediately before he could even say it.

"I could fly this thing to El Dorado Hills," Jason said, ignoring him.

"Absolutely not," Brett said. "This is not the time to learn to fly. Not with casualties on board."

"Brett..." Jason started.

"I said no," Brett said. "That's final."

"I can do it," Jason said defiantly. "I've been watching you fly this thing for weeks now. You've taught me every system, every control, everything."

"Jason, you can't just jump behind the controls of a helicopter and start flying," Brett told him. "It doesn't work that way, no matter how much you think you know about it."

"Is that any riskier than flying the damn thing all shot up with morphine, with one foot on the controls and a woman holding the other foot? And there's not even room for Sherrie and the casualties anyway, even if we could talk Sherrie into climbing back in here."

"No," Brett repeated.

"I can do it," Jason said, staring at him. "Brett, I can. I know I can."


"I'm not a kid, Goddammit!" Jason yelled, leaning closer to him. "You're sitting there thinking that I'm talking out of my ass because I'm fourteen fucking years old and I don't know any better. I'm not, Brett. I know exactly what I'm saying. It might be a little rough at first, it might take me a few minutes to get the feel of the thing, but if you help me, I can fly this helicopter. I know what I'm saying and I know what the risks are. I wouldn't tell you this if it wasn't true."

"Jason..." Brett started.

"You need to trust me, Brett," Jason told him. "You've always been the one to treat me like I was a man, even when I wasn't acting like one. You treated me that way from the very start, back when I was crying over my mom and dad next to that camper and I really was just a kid. You stood up for me in front of Jessica, in front of the other women in town, in front of everyone. Don't start treating me like a baby now." He leaned even closer, his voice softening. "Let me fly this thing," he said. "If you help me, I can do it. We might crash, but I think we stand a better chance with me doing it than having both of us try to monkey the damn pedals together."

Brett looked at him, at the serious expression on his face, in his eyes. Jason wasn't even old enough to shave yet. He hadn't even reached his full adult height yet. But was he a man? Was he old enough to give a subjective assessment of his own abilities independent of the desires of youth? Was he?

"Brett, I can do it."

Brett let out a breath, letting his head hang down for a minute. He looked back up. "Get this thing refueled and get Steve to put the doors back on," he said. "And then, while Paul is loading up the casualties, you can help me over to the other chair. We take off in fifteen minutes."

Jason could not prevent the grin from spreading across his face. "You got it, Brett," he said, standing up. "We'll lift off in fifteen." He hopped out and began sprinting towards the fuel truck and Steve's shack.

Paul and Brett both watched him go. "Do you really think that's a wise decision?" Paul asked carefully.

"No," Brett said, shaking his head a little. "But he made a very good point. His way is about the safest option that we've got."

Stu was looking at the trench that his forces had just managed to capture. He couldn't help but be impressed by it. "This has got to be the work of our friend Brett," he told Stinson, who was tagging along just behind him. "No bitch would have thought of something like this. Only someone with military experience could have supervised the construction of this thing."

"I suppose," Stinson said almost shortly. He had been through a little too much in the last hour to be concerned about who had built the trench. "They surely pounded the shit out of us from here though."

"Yes," Stu said with a nod. "It all makes sense now. He put trenches at the first line of defense to keep the bitches that are shooting at us safe from fire. He probably hit on the only fucking way there was to keep them from bolting the first time we shot back. Even so, they fled like the wind once we started to close and take some of them out."

"How many did we kill?" Stinson asked.

"Three bodies in the trenches that we took so far," Stu said. "There's also one towards the front that Lima's people hit when they were in that stupid-ass shootout with the group that was running away." He shook his head in disgust. "I still can't believe that he stood there and shot at them when he could have just gone around the other side of the hill and hit them from close range. I'm going to demote his ass for that. Make him a Goddamn private again and put him on point."

Stinson looked at him with unmasked contempt. "I wouldn't be too hard on him," he said. "Sometimes its kind of difficult to make rational decisions when people are shooting at you and killing your men. Especially as tired as we all are."

Stu wasn't buying this. "That's what our job is," he said. "And I expect better decisions than that. First he loses his golden opportunity, and then he gets half of his fucking men shot by that Goddamn chopper. Jesus, what a moron."

Stinson dismissed the subject of Lima, having passed the point where he really gave a shit. "What about the chopper?" he asked instead. "What do you think was up with that weird shit it was doing?" They had all seen the Garden Hill helicopter climb up to altitude and go into a very wide circle around the battle area and the town. After circling for several minutes, it had straightened out and then tried to hover, but had not been able to. For a moment it seemed that the thing was going to spin out of control and come crashing to the ground. But then it had sped back up and began to circle again. Finally, it had slowed up once more, going into a shaky looking hover for a few moments, and then had turned to the south and disappeared from sight.

"I think that one of Lima's guys managed to hit it," Stu said. "Obviously the thing was having some sort of mechanical problem that they were trying to deal with. Maybe the tail got hit or maybe one of the controls is out. Either way, it looked like they were having a lot of trouble keeping the thing under control. They might not have even been able to land it. My guess is that that chopper is out of the fight whether it landed or not, and good fucking riddance. We'll have a much easier time taking that town if they don't have a means of seeing us when we advance or dropping that napalm on us."

"Taking the town?" Stinson asked. "You still think we have a shot at that? I lost twenty-eight men charging this trench. How many did Lima lose?"

Stu shook his head again. "That asshole lost thirty-eight, including the five that the chopper took out. That leaves him with eighteen. Obviously we'll have to combine forces into one large attack."

Stinson did some mental addition - something that wasn't terribly easy considering his fatigue level. "That means we have forty-six men to make an assault," he said once he had the figure. "That's less than I had to take this one trench."

"Don't forget the ten able bodies from my covering platoon," Stu reminded him. "That brings us back up to fifty-six again. That should be more than enough to take the town now that we've cleared the trenches out. The rest should be pretty much a cakewalk, especially considering the fact that they won't have the chopper any more to help direct them."

"You don't think they have any more trenches?" Stinson asked doubtfully.

Stu scoffed at the very notion. "It takes time to build a trench like this," he said. "Especially if your workers are a bunch of bitches. What do you think they did, spent the last month digging fucking trenches on every Goddamn hill around the town?" He shook his head condescendingly. "No, they only could've done this on the first line on the most likely approaches. We just made the mistake of advancing through the easiest area. That's the disadvantage to not having air assets - you can't recon shit like this."

"So we're going forward again?" Stinson asked.

"Of course we are," Stu said forcefully. "There's no other option. And now that that chopper is damaged, there's a good chance we might be able to capture it and our friend Brett intact. If we're lucky, the chopper will be repairable and we'll be able to use it for ourselves."

"If we're lucky," Stinson echoed, sighing as he said it. "What about the men? They've been through an awful lot. I'm not sure they're... well... motivated to try this again."

"They'll do what the fuck they're told or they'll be shot on the spot," Stu said roughly. "Now let's start shifting everyone over to here. We'll reorganize again and then we'll start to move in ninety minutes from now. And just to show everyone that the worst is over, I will personally lead this assault."

It took Steve about ten minutes to put the doors back on the helicopter - about five minutes faster than it usually took Brett and Jason working together to do it. While he was doing that Jason drove the fuel truck over and filled up the helicopter's tank with fresh jet fuel. Brett continued to sit in the pilot's seat while all of this was going on. His knee was still screaming at him quite loudly but he tried his best to ignore it as he talked on the radio to his field commanders.

"The last look I got of them," he told them on the VHF band, "they were still scattered around pretty good. They were in possession of the two outside trench complexes but the original group near the rear was still back there. You guys mauled them pretty good, probably fifty percent casualties. It'll be at least an hour, maybe more, before they can regroup and try again."

"I copy, Brett," Matt, the commander of the ground forces, replied. "We're all in position now and we're expecting our replacements out here soon. Confirming they're on their way?"

"They just left five minutes ago," Brett assured him. "Chrissie's squad lost two of their weapons during the final pullback so I only sent out enough to cover every gun. I loaded them up with extra ammo though."

"Good," Matt said. "We should be all right as long as they attack us on somewhat the same path as before. We're pretty well spread out here. It would be nice if we could get you back in the air for us before that happens though. It's not real fun down here not knowing what they're doing."

"We're going to be leaving for a wounded run in just a few minutes," Brett assured him, leaving out the part about how Jason was going to be flying. "With any luck we'll be back within forty-five to an hour. That should get us overhead again before they can make their next attack. If not, you're just going to have to wing it. Do you think you're up for it?"

"I guess I'll have to be," Matt said. "I'll talk to you when you get back."

"Good luck to you," Brett said. "Not that you'll need it."

Before he could sign off, Chrissie came on the air. "Brett," she said. "How are you doing? How's your leg?"

"I'm hanging in here," he told her, putting a note of nonchalance into his tone. "Don't worry about me. Just worry about keeping those assholes back."

"Is the bleeding stopped?" she asked, insisting upon worrying about him. "Will you be able to fly okay?"

"Paul wrapped me up nice and tight," Brett answered. "And I can guarantee that the flight won't bother it any worse than it's being bothered now. Just put me out of your mind. I'll be back overhead soon."

"Copy," she said slowly. It was obvious that she could sense something was not right but she mentioned it no further.

"And no more heroics," he told her sternly.

"No more heroics," she agreed.

No sooner had Jason finished the fueling process than Paul and his helpers began to bring the wounded out. They were wheeled one by one across the parking lot on the homemade gurney. Rhonda was the first one. She was barely conscious, obviously well doped-up, and had a large bandage over her chest. Her breathing was very ragged and sounded very wet, her face was pale, almost ashen in color. An IV had been started on her and was running down into her arm. Since there was not room for three people to lie down in the back, she was forced into a sitting position against the back wall.

Megan Flitcroff was next. She was even worse looking than Rhonda. Megan had been shot in the center of her chest during the first stages of the assault on Matt's position. Though it seemed her lungs had been spared, some vital organ or vessel had been severed somewhere in there. She was completely unconscious, her breathing fast and shallow. Two IVs had been installed in her arms and Paul had already run in three liters of fluid in a vain attempt to keep her blood pressure above 80/20. She was forced, by virtue of her lack of consciousness of any kind, to lie down on the floor. It was somewhat cramped and her feet ended up between the two front seats.

The last gravely wounded person to be loaded up was Sarah, Steve's wife. She had taken one in the right side of her chest and, like Rhonda, was obviously suffering from a collapsing lung in addition to blood loss from internal damage. She was fully conscious but having considerable trouble with her breathing. Her pale skin was soaked in sweat and her chest heaved up and down with the effort of respiration. She had an IV as well and she also had a catheter in her chest to help relieve the pressure that was building up from the leaking air. Steve, who had been standing in the background until this point, rushed over and wept over her as she was loaded up.

"I'll... be... okay..." she panted to him, kissing his face and offering him a hug. "A little... trip... to... the doctor... is all."

"I'll see you later," he said, sniffing as he returned the hug. "Do you understand?"

"I do," she said. "And I will. That's a promise."

Sarah, like Rhonda, was forced up against the back of the chopper in a sitting position. Steve gave her one last kiss and then allowed the door to be closed upon them.

"All right," Brett said, looking at Paul and Jason, who were standing outside in the rain. "I guess it's my turn."

"I guess it is," Paul said.

Paul, Jason, and Steve, all working together, carefully lifted him out of the right side seat and carried him around the nose of the aircraft to the front. He screamed a few times as his leg was jostled up and down during the trip and a few more as they maneuvered him into the observer's chair. Paul used a pillow to prop up his leg in the most comfortable position but even so the pain was tremendous.

"War sucks," Brett said through gritted teeth as Jason climbed into the pilot's seat.

"Give me your arm," Paul told him from just outside the door. "I'll give you a little something for the pain."

"Now you're talking," Brett said, handing over his left arm.

Paul wrapped a rubber tourniquet around his bicep and tied it off, causing the vein in his elbow to poke up invitingly. He pulled an alcohol swab package from his pocket and ripped it open, discarding the wrapper and using the pungent smelling swab to rub the vein. He then produced a capped syringe from a fanny pack on his waist. He pulled off the cap and dropped it to the ground. A small needle on the end of the syringe gleamed up at him. He poked the needle into Brett's arm, just over the top of the vein, and a moment later some of his blood could be seen swirling into the clear liquid inside of the syringe, clouding it.

"Okay," Paul said, "I'm in the vein. You should be feeling better in just a moment." With that, he slowly pushed the plunger on the syringe and injected the contents. "This is eight milligrams of morphine," he told him. "As much as I dare give you. It won't make you completely comfortable but it'll take the edge off and let you still stay awake and alert enough to make decisions and give instructions."

"Whatever helps," Brett told him. Already he could feel the medicine coursing through his body, making him a little dizzy, relaxing him. "Damn, that shit works fast."

"Nothing like IV push," Paul told him. "All right. I've done what I can for you."

"You're a good man," Brett said. "But we need to get going. Get everyone well clear of the area."

"Right," Paul replied. "See you in a bit."

"Damn right you will."

By the time Paul had pulled everyone away from the helicopter and back inside the community center, the morphine was up to nearly full effect in Brett's body. As Paul had told him, it didn't take the pain away, didn't make him completely comfortable. Instead, he just didn't seem to care about the pain as much. The swimming sensation in his head made it seem like more of an annoyance than a living thing.

"All right," Brett said, looking over at Jason. "You ready to fly?"

"I'm ready," Jason assured him nervously.

"Then let's do it. Go through the engine start procedure and get the rotor turning."

Jason flipped the proper switches and then engaged the starter, going through the motions mechanically and with confidence. This part he had done many times before. The turbine engine, still quite warm from the earlier flight, flared immediately to life, making the vehicle vibrate almost comfortingly. Jason then disengaged the rotor clutch, allowing the blades to begin spinning above them.

"So far, so good," Brett told him. "Now go through the abbreviated pre-flight check real quick and then we'll lift off."

Jason nodded and then began going through the checklist one by one. He called out each item as he checked it and then confirmed it's operational status. This was also something that he had done many times in the past and it took him less than two minutes to accomplish. "We're ready," he said when he was done, now starting to feel real nervousness. Was this really a good idea?

Brett didn't allow himself to have second thoughts. "Then let's go," he said. "Keep the cyclic and the collective neutralized and throttle up to one hundred percent."

"Throttling up," Jason said, turning the knob on the collective all the way up. The whine of the engine increased greatly, as did the vibration of the cabin. The needle on the RPM dial swung upward and stopped just below the red zone. The rotor blades became a blur above them.

"Now push the collective gently forward," Brett told him next. "And I mean gently. We'll lift up into the air once the blades bite into it. Remember, the moment that the skids leave the ground, you'll have major torque to deal with. Push down on the right pedal as soon as we go up, about two inches, slowly. That oughtta keep us under control at least. You'll have to monkey back and forth until you find the neutral position."

"Okay," Jason said, stuttering a little, he was so nervous. "Here I go." Slowly, as he had been told, he pushed forward on the parking-brake like lever to the left of his seat. As he did so, the angle of the rotor blades was changed, creating lift. The vehicle began to shudder as the force of gravity was countered and then, after an agonizing five seconds, it lifted up, the skids breaking contact with the ground. Immediately and violently the back end tried to swing in opposition to the rotor.

"Right pedal," Brett barked, feeling the swing.

Jason pushed down about two inches, dampening but not entirely killing the torque. The rear end continued to spin around as the helicopter reached the top of the ground effect and stopped there, unable to lift any more.

"Get this thing stable," Brett said, watching Jason's every move. "Hurry up. There isn't a margin for error here."

Jason pushed the two pedals up and down for a moment as they hovered three feet above the ground. He overcompensated the first time, sending them spinning in the other direction. He then overcompensated for his overcompensation, sending them spinning back the other way.

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