Lt. Jacqueline Sobal, USMC
Time: 1730 EST/ 1810 GMT
Lt. Jaqueline Sobal was one of the last of the survivors to get a tray of food. As far as she knew, only Major Thompson had yet to take a portion of the Christmas Dinner feast that had been scavenged from the small food court in the airport terminal. The two of them had gone through every document they could find on her tablet computer, on their small shelf of manuals, or on what defense networks they could log into. She had hoped that the Major would have had clearance for something unique, some hidden orders for the end of the world or the like. If he did, he was not sharing with her or the rest of the crew.
She took another bite of the burger Lefty had made for her. It felt weird to let an enlisted cook for her. It ran counter to all of the Marine traditions, but every effort to relieve Lefty of the cooking duties had been met with a smile and an insistence that he needed a chance to relax and grill. While she had waited, he had regaled her with the stories of his mother's homemade Tamales and how bittersweet every Christmas was since she had passed. His sister, apparently, had never learned the art, and thus the tradition had died with their mother. Jackie still would like to take a turn at the grill, but if this was Lefty's idea of down time, she would grant it. She and Gunny had eaten in silence, sharing one of the tables near the windows overlooking the tarmac. Any survivors of the first clouds must have taken refuge in a shelter nearby, a shelter that had not proven sufficient.
She was thankful, though, for the lack of bodies. More specifically she was thankful she had not had to clean them up herself yet. It had been bad enough to see the skeletal remains of ground crews the last three times they had set down. It had fallen to the loadies and the crew chief to get the fuel trucks in position, and thus to them to also dispose of the bodies of those claimed by the cloud. Jackie was becoming too good at hiding in her instruments at those times.
In fact this meal was really the first time she had been out of the aircraft for more than a few moments since it all began. Her muscles ached from trying to sleep on the flight deck, and from the lack of movement. She took another bite of the burger and washed it down with some bottled water. Somehow the power had remained on, and that meant refrigeration had as well. This discovery had shifted all of their timetables as they tried to do a proper inventory and establish how best to recover the maximum amount of non perishables, as well ensure that the food that would not travel was consumed while they were still grounded.
Jackie looked up to see Gunny watching a group of survivors sitting together on several couches and chairs. They held each other's hands as they prayed. She watched quietly as well until they released hands from each other, several making the Sign of the Cross. Gunny did the same and then returned to her meal.
There was a gold star under Jackie's flight suit. She had worn it since her Bat Mitzvah, which had also been the last time she had set foot inside a temple. Her family was Jewish, really, only in ethnicity and even then she felt awkward using the title. She knew in her heart there was a God, and she tried to honor the holy days. It had just never been an important part of her life or practice. Her parents had held her Chanukah presents until Christmas, and Passover was recognized with a reminder from her Mother that one of these years they would honor the holiday with a proper meal. This was usually said just before sliding a store bought ham into the oven.
And there had always been an awkward feeling when the subject of keeping kosher had come up with more devout friends from school.
She finished the rest of the food, continuing to enjoy the silence between she and Gunny. Jackie wanted to ask about the incident back in Wisconsin, when Gunny had been forced to shoot at the survivors rushing the aircraft. Her curiosity was starting to nag at her, but she respected their crew chief too much to ask. If it was something that Gunny wanted to talk about, there was little doubt that she would.
The silence between them made it clear that there was little to say.
She downed the rest of the water and started another mental checklist. There was still internet connectivity which meant major computer systems had to still be online. She started to tally those she would attempt to make contact with when she got back to the plane. Maybe she could still make contact with someone through a web service that was not commonly used. Most of the major networks had gone offline, the top micro-blogging site showing nothing but the image of the Fail Whale when the main page was accessed. Of course most social media was gone, but she might have success with some of the smaller specialty sites. She started to list off their names in her head. There was one for civil war reenactors that her dad was a member of. Her old high school alumni group had a website with internal messaging. There was an association of Jewish Pilots she had joined years ago. Could she even remember the password for it?
"Excuse me, Sarge?"
The voice cut into her thoughts and made her jump slightly even though the speaker was not addressing her. An older man approached their table from behind Jackie. Gunny shook her head, the traces of a smile starting to form at the corners of her mouth.
"Gunny," she corrected, her voice free of the usual annoyance that Jackie had seen when others had made the same mistake.
"Oh, yeah, dammit," the older man said, scratching the back of his head, one of the only places he still had hair. It was long and white, contrasting the shining baldness of his brow. "Old habits, you know. I still remember the first time I called my sargent 'Sir'. I never thought I'd get my hearing back the way he yelled at me. Said it was bad enough I didn't know an NCO from a CO, just saying it in earshot of Charlie would get someone sniped, and then I'd have to write the letter to his widow and eight kids. Swear, God as my witness, that man had a different number of kids each time he dressed someone down. Hell, I think his number of wives changed a few times, too." He laughed at his own joke and leaned a hand on the table. His eye finally caught Jackie and he stood up again, quickly. “Sorry, Lieutenant didn’t see you there.” He was not quite standing at attention but the respect for her rank was clearly present. Jackie liked him already.
“What’s up, Bull?” Gunny asked.
“Well, I don’t mean to interrupt,” Bull started. Jackie smiled a little. She could see how he might have had the nickname, once upon a time, with his wide shoulders and strong jaw. “Some of the guys from the 717 wanted to talk to you,” he paused and looked at Jackie. “Or you, Ma’am. They’ve got a proposal, and now that I’ve got both of you, I think this is an officer level issue.” He hastened to add. “No offence, Sar-Gunny.”
“None taken,” Gunny answered raising her hands. “I need to get back to the manifests.” She acknowledged Jackie with a solid nod. “Ma’am.”
Jackie stood as well. Before she could say anything, Gunny had snagged the plastic tray she had been using and headed towards one of the trash bins to deposit the disposables as though someone would come by later to empty them. It seemed so illogical to pretend that things were normal, but that routine of clearing a table had to provide a much needed moment to escape into.
"Right," she said to Bull. "Let's hear this idea."
He lead Jackie through the terminal and out onto the tarmac. A group of men stood about the nose of the 717 talking, their coats closed and their bodies hunched over a little in the cool December air. The sun was going to set soon and it was going to get a lot colder. One of the men was wrapped in a black wool coat marked with the insignia of the 717's airline. His pilot cap sat high on his head, casually. Another was dressed in a long overcoat. His short trimmed grey hair and clean shaved face gave the impression of a man of means. The third had a wool blanket draped over his shoulders, adding a layer of warmth to what little his windbreaker provided. He had to have been traveling from a warmer area, Jackie concluded.
"That's Morgan," Bull said, pointing at the pilot. "He's the copilot. With him is Bob Hastings, and Dave Somethingorother. Bob was up in business class and has been pretty vocal about what we should be doing and when. I was pretty sure he was going to get left at our last stop. Dave's a decent guy, near as I can tell, so that he's on board with this is a good sign."
"And what is he on board with?"
"Not a clue, Lieutenant. They just asked me to get," he paused, "Gunny for them to talk to. I'm guessing it's because she and I were swapping war stories a bit ago."
"Thanks for the intel," Jackie said.
They approached the group and Bull made the introductions, stating her name and rank clearly as he did. Jackie did not spare a thought for the fact that it was unnecessary; "Sobal" was printed clearly on the front of her flight suit. She shook each man's hand in turn, and then stepped back to listen.
"Where's that one you were talking to earlier? The one you were friendly with?" Bob seemed already annoyed.
"Any plan you've got is going to have to go through command," Bull explained. "Seemed to make more sense to let you make the pitch right at the top."
Jackie did not say anything but remained still, her attention on the assemblage.
"Well, it goes like this," Dave started. "We've all been working pretty hard to scrounge up what we can, right?" He did not wait for her to nod before continuing. "Only most of what we've got has been going into your plane, and not ours. Most of the people are over here, and all of our food is over there." At this he paused and looked at her as though she should understand the obvious implication. Jackie did not find it so obvious.
"Which means," Bob began, "that if you should decide to leave suddenly, we'll be without most of the food we've been working to gather and the majority of the mouths to feed."
Jackie blinked. "We have no plans to just leave you here."
"Of course you don't," Bob answered. "Not now at least. But who's to say plans can't change? What if a meteor lands nearby and there isn't time to be sure we're all going to get above it in time?" He leaned towards her. "Let me say this: I didn't make my first million by trusting everyone who told me they had a plan. I made my own plans just in case their plans had to be 'modified'."
Offended. That was the word that leapt most prominently to Jackie's mind. That and several other words best left unsaid in polite company. She smiled, reminding herself that losing her cool was not going to add anything to the situation already marred by distrust.
"So what exactly are you proposing?" She offered up nothing of her own, deciding it best to not give them any ideas they had not already hatched on their own.
The copilot spoke. "What Mr. Hastings proposes is that one of your crew come over to our plane and a few of our numbers go over to yours."
They wanted a hostage as insurance?
"I'm not sure how that would work," she answered honestly. "None of us are certified to fly turbojets, and so much of our own flight deck is specialized just for Herc's, I'm pretty sure you'd feel just as lost."
"We don't mean as active crew members," Bob explained, laying to rest any doubts Jackie had as to the purpose of their proposal.
Jackie looked at the copilot, Morgan. "What's your AC think about this?"
Morgan hesitated a few moments before speaking, turning his gaze up towards the nose of the aircraft. "He's not a hundred percent supportive." He took his hat off and scratched his head. "I'm not either, Ma'am, but things are different. It's not that I don't trust you, but if you take off, without us, we're going to be in a serious world of hurt." He did not acknowledge Bob's glare. "Things are just...different,” he repeated, “Ma'am, and I've-- we've got souls counting on us to make the right call for them." His words were slow, sad. Jackie could sense the weight of responsibility he felt as he spoke. She could empathize, though she had wished that Morgan had talked to her, or to the Major, privately. Bob and Dave had done little to help.
"I think I understand what you want, and I'll take your proposal to the Major." She nodded politely and offered her hand out, first to Morgan. "I'll make sure he hears it as fairly as I can."
They shook hands. Morgan held on to her longer than she had expected, his eyes on hers. This had not been easy for him, she could tell. She shook with the others, quickly, including Bull. "Thanks," she said to him.
"Anytime you need something, Lieutenant," Bull said as she turned to head back to the Herc.
She tried to sort out what to say to the Major when she reached it, each step reminding her that the last place she wanted to be was back in the flight deck. What she really craved was a long hot shower, the kind where she could just let the water run until her fingers and toes completely pruned, the kind where she could escape completely into the steam. She needed the shower where she could rest her cheek against the cool tiles and just let a separate pair of hands scrub her back, her shoulders, her chest, and escape into the sensations and contrasts of water and skin. She could almost feel the hands on her hips as they moved under the cascades of water.
The Major was standing in the doorway of the Herc, waving at her. "Regal's at the coordinates."
She hastened her step. As she climbed up into the flight deck, Regal's voice filled the speakers.
"It looks like a hospital complex, Sir," he said over the radio. "We've got two APC's parked nearby, but I don't see any markings on them. Local police, maybe?"
"Any survivors?" Thompson asked into the handset.
"Not that I can see," Regal started. Jackie could hear him talking to someone off the radio, the words muted. "Wait," he said again. "We think we.... yah, I've got about a half dozen people in hazmat suits coming out of the main building. And another dozen or so people behind them. They're being moved into one of the APC's."
"Any markings on those? CDC?"
"No, sir," Regal answered. "I can't tell but something looks wrong. Maybe they're infected with something? Wait.... one of the suited guys has some kind of weapon sir. It's nothing I recognize, maybe one of those experimental fusion rifles. What the..." His voice trailed off as a dull roar filled the speakers.
"What do you have?" The Major was starting to sound anxious.
"Incoming aircraft. Looks like a vectored thrust, maybe VTOL. Markings indicate, USAF, CAF and MAF."
"Repeat that again."
"United States, Canadian and Mexican flags, sir."
Jackie looked at the Major who returned the glance. The transmission that had sent them to those coordinates had claimed to be jointly issued by all three nations.
"Keep talking, Lieutenant."
There was another sound, a roar almost, over the radio. Regal was shouting now, profanity filling the com. "The other APC just lifted up. Appears to be some kind jet powered hovercraft only it's climbing at an incredible rate. It's launched missiles. Everyone down!"
The sounds of an explosion filled the flight deck followed by nothing but the roar of the unknown aircraft. Jackie thought it did sound a lot like a jet engine but something was wrong about it.
Thompson waited before speaking into the com mic. "What's going on, Regal?"
His voice returned. "It's still hovering over the site. The inbound craft is totally gone, sir. Dammit, Paul, can you see anything?" They could hear someone shout but not make out the words. "One of the civilians is trying to leave the group. The CDC is trying to stop her. She's broken loose, and she's starting towards us. Larry, cut left and see if you can get a better angle on what's going on. Shelly, stick with- What?" He was cut off suddenly. "The civilian is down. She's been shot, I think." Regal swore again, eliciting a wince from the Major. "Larry, Paul, move and get into position to approach. Shelly, that tree line, we'll cover them."
Sounds of gunfire followed his orders immediately. Jackie reached out to turn down the gain on the speakers. She looked up to see Gunny standing in the hatchway, her face grim. The steady report of the rifles continued, interrupted by Regal shouting to his companion that he was reloading. This was matched with what had to be her own bursts of gunfire.
There was a blast of noise followed by a scream. "I don't know what that is, but it's taking out entire trees," Regal shouted. "Shelly look ou-"
The radio went dead, filling the flight deck with sudden and deafening silence.
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