Authors: William W. Johnstone
Tags: #Science Fiction
“There are kids in that mob!” a Rebel shouted, looking through binoculars.
“Stand firm!” Ben shouted.
Several Rebels were openly crying as they lifted their weapons, silent tears running down their tanned faces.
“There is no hope for these people,” Ben shouted. “Their brains have been destroyed. Rotted away. They cannot be cured. They’re walking dead.”
Then the mob was around the curve in the road, several hundred yards away.
“Jesus Christ!” the lookout called. “They’re foaming at the mouth like rabid animals.”
“Fire,” Ben gave the orders. “Fire, goddamnit, fire!”
The quiet afternoon blew apart.
Dozens of tanks and APCs opened up with their mounted machine guns. All around the defensive ring, in the spots where the maddened natives were attacking, hundreds of Rebels cut loose with automatic weapons fire. It was carnage, a slaughter. Still the rush of the insane continued. Still the Rebels cut them down.
The crazed mob almost reached the defensive line. Almost. But the deadly fire chopped them down until the howling mob had been reduced to a moaning mass.
“Cease fire,” Ben called.
“What the hell do we do with the ones that are still alive?” the noncom who had stood near Ben asked.
“Finish it,” Ben said, a deadness to his tone. “That’s all we can do.”
The sergeant cut his eyes to Ben.
“Sometimes, Sergeant,” Ben said, “my job sucks.”
“Yes, sir,” the noncom said. “Mine, too.”
“Finish it!” Ben shouted the order. “Move out there and finish it.”
“But, sir,” a young Rebel fresh from the States said. “The kids? …”
“Finish it, goddamnit!” Ben roared.
Noncoms and officers began shoving very reluctant troops outside the defensive line and pulling out sidearms to finish off the wounded.
Ben stood behind the ring of tanks and trucks and hummers and watched. He kept his face expressionless. Only his eyes moved. Lamar Chase came up to stand by his side.
“It’s the humane thing, Ben,” the chief of medicine said. “They would have had nothing in front of them except more madness and a slow, very painful death.”
“I want the chaplains to be very aware of that, La-mar.”
“They know. I informed them. And they are ready to counsel the troops.”
“Some of these kids are growing up pretty damned fast.”
Lamar said nothing.
The commander of the Rebel Army and the chief of medicine stood in silence, shoulder to shoulder, as the gunshot-filled minutes ticked past. Ever so slowly, the gunshots began to diminish, until they became only an occasional sharp crack in the afternoon.
“Get some of the trucks with scrapers on them up here,” Ben ordered. “Scoop out a grave for those … people. Be careful handling them. No one with any open cuts should touch any of the bodies.”
“Right, boss,” Corrie said, her voice unusually soft.
“Only experienced troops handle the bodies,” Ben added. “Order the young replacements to fall back. I think they’ve seen and done enough for one day.”
“Lamar, why didn’t this bug kill the animals, too; make them crazy?”
“Because it didn’t reach very many of them, Ben. It’s short-lived and was concentrated in the cities.”
“But the animals later ate contaminated flesh.”
“Yes. But animals have a digestive system different from ours. They can eat things that would kill us on the spot. Until we get our hands on a sample of this
bug and break it down, that’s all I can tell you. All right, Ben?”
“All right, Lamar. Come on, let’s walk the camp.”
Many spots around the huge protective ring had not even seen any of the maddened mobs. They had not fired a shot. Others had dozens of bodies stacked up in front of them. Trucks with scrapers were moving out, to gouge holes in the earth for mass graves.1”
Ben stopped and watched as a young replacement rushed off behind a truck, a tad green around the mouth. Sounds of retching quickly followed. “Corrie, tell the cooks to fix only coffee and sandwiches for this evening. I doubt that many people will have much of an appetite.”
“I hope this experiment of Brunos was confined to only a few areas,” Ben said. “I would really hate to have to go through this all the way across Nigeria.”
“I think this was the first one,” Lamar ventured. “A test case. After a flyover and observing all the bodies, they concluded it worked and then went for the cities.”
“Bruno’s troops must have run into this on their way back after the assault,” Jersey said. “Why haven’t we intercepted anything about it?”
“I think they headed across the lower part of Niger and were picked up by chopper. But only the white troops and a few ranking black officers,” Ben added. “The local troops-those that survived the attack on us-scattered. They might have run into some of these … people. I hope they did. I hope they ran into large groups of them.”
“Boss,” Corrie said.
Ben cut his eyes.
“Paula Preston hit one of the guards on the head with a club and escaped. The other guards let her go.”
“Good. I hope she runs into some of Bruno’s handiwork. How is the guard?”
“He’s all right. Got a sore head, that’s all.”
“How about Marilyn Dickson and Alex Marsh?”
“They made no attempt to escape.”
“Paula’s a pro,” Ben said. “She figured the odds and decided they were better if she broke and ran for it.”
“But she was going back stateside,” Lamar pointed out.
“To face a very uncertain future,” Ben said. “Her masters might not condone failure.”
Lamar sighed. “Her masters. Interesting phrase, Ben. Whatever happened to the old Democratic party that my parents belonged to?”
“It died when the left wing took over.”
“I guess it did, Ben,” the doctor replied. “Hell, I know it did. I saw it happening, you saw it happening. Why did so many intelligent people continue to vote them in?”
“Something for nothing, Lamar. No cares, no worries, no woes. Big Brother will take care of any little problem you might have. Hungry? The state will feed you and don’t worry about working. Just be sure and vote along party lines. That’s all we ask. A subtle form of civilized communism, you might call it. The state is almost everything to everybody all the time. Hell, nobody has to make any choices. The state does it for you. Nobody controls their own destiny. The state controls it. Nobody has to think very much. The state does all the thinking for you. You’re right, Lamar. Many of us saw it coming, but couldn’t do a damn thing about it.”
“They’ll be coming after the SUSA next.”
“Eventually, yes, I think they will. And they will be able to overrun us by sheer weight of numbers. But when I see the end is near for us, I will give the orders to leave North America a smoldering ash heap. And
out of the ashes the strong will emerge and start all over. The Tri-States philosophy of government will never die, Lamar. Too many of us have seen that it works. Millions now see that a very limited form of government is the best form of government. No, Lamar, the philosophy we started will never die.”
Lamar was silent for a moment. He finally sighed and said, “A smoldering ash heap, eh?”
“That’s right, Lamar. MAD. Mutually Assured Destruction. The liberals don’t think I’ll do it.” He smiled faintly. “They don’t know me very well. Because I will personally press the button that lets the birds fly. I will never allow our people to be forced to return to that degenerate, immoral, irresponsible, and undisciplined do-your-own-thing-if-it-feels-good form of government. We’ve proven over the years that millions and millions of good decent hardworking people don’t want it, and I’ll be damned if they’ll have to live under it against their will. Not again. Never again.”
“Seems as though I heard a form of this same little speech from you about a decade ago, Raines,” Lamar said with a smile.
Ben smiled. “I guess you did, Lamar. I think we were standing outside the ruins of an American city.”
“That we were.” The doctor cleared his throat. “Well, I’ve got work to do. I can’t spend the rest of the day standing around listening to your speeches. See you later, Raines.”
“All right, Lamar. Corrie, double the guards tonight. Tell them to stay heads-up. Tomorrow, we’ll get the hell gone from this place. Early.”
Ben walked off a few yards to stand by himself for a moment, as much alone with his thoughts as he was ever allowed to be.
“There’s gonna be a civil war back home,” Cooper said. “Again.”
“I think you’re right, Coop,” Jersey replied. “I think the folks back home are looking at one. And it’s just around the corner.”
Ben was alone in his tent, working at his field desk, the gas light bright against the darkness. Jersey and the others were outside, chatting with some Rebels from the 4th Battalion who had walked by. He heard an odd noise and let his right hand close around the butt of the 9mm Beretta on the desk. He turned just as Paula Preston was stepping through the slash she had made in the rear of the tent. Her eyes were wild and her left arm was a bloody mess.
“You’re pretty good to get past the guards, Paula. Either that or awfully lucky.”
She grunted at him and slobber leaked from her mouth.
“Well,” Ben said, “so much for Chase’s theory about it not being fatal. Some of the mob got to you, huh, Paula?”
She shook her head. “No,” she managed to speak. “I got caught during …” She grunted and slobbered for a moment. “… No. Can’t think clearly. I found a wrecked helicopter outside Jega. A canister. I opened it. Very stupid of me. It was the bug. Spilled on me. I thought for a time …” She coughed up blood and pus and yellow slobber and fought for breath. “… I might be immune. About two hours ago I knew I was dying.
But I had … one thing to do before I died.” She lifted the knife.
“Kill me?” Ben asked with a smile.
She slobbered and nodded her head. “That’s right.”
“You’ll never do it, Paula.”
“You hate me that much?”
“The country … must be made whole again. Under a central government.”
“Hell, Paula, killing me won’t accomplish that. The philosophy is too firmly entrenched now. So why don’t you just be a good girl and go on back out into the bush and expire quietly?”
She screamed and jumped. Ben lifted the pistol and put a half a dozen rounds into her chest, throat, and face. Paula fell to the floor, dead a few feet from his boots.
Jersey and the others burst into the tent. “Jesus,” Jersey said.
“How the hell did she get in here?” Cooper questioned.
“She got lucky,” Ben said. “Check outside and see about the guards. She might have killed one.”
“What do you want done with the body?” Anna asked, just as Dr. Chase jerked back the flap of the tent and stepped in.
“Dump it in the pit with the others,” Ben said. “And get some room deodorizer and spray around, will you? Stinks in here.”
The miles-long column headed south, toward Minna, about two hundred miles away. There was an airport of sorts there, and at Minna, Ben would be rid of the reporters. They were grumbling and griping about being sent back, but they were not doing it to Ben’s face.
Ben had told them about Paula, but he doubted that many believed him. Not that he really gave a damn whether they did or not.
Ben had ordered the Scouts not to venture too far, now that those infected were returning in droves to the towns and cities. Too much risk involved for them.
“Why didn’t they attack the Scouts when they were ranging out a hundred or so miles from us?” Cooper asked, as they drove along.
“I don’t know, Coop. Maybe those infected were still hiding in the bush. I just don’t know.”
“Pride of lions crossing the road,” the Scout’s voice came through the speakers. “Slow it up. They aren’t in any hurry to get across. Hell, one just sat down in the road to scratch himself. Big bastard. Halt the column.”
“It’s their country, now,” Ben said. “That’s about the only good thing to come out of this tragedy.”
“Look over there!” Anna said, pointing. “That’s an elephant! There’s several of them!”
“They’re just ambling along,” Jersey said. “Without a care in the world.”
“Let’s just hope we don’t run into an irritated rhino,” Ben said. “That’ll really make your day.”
“Are there any in this area?” Corrie asked.
“There probably are now. Animals can recover quickly if given just half a chance.”
“Okay,” the Scout’s voice came through the speakers. “He scratched himself and wandered on.”
Ben lifted his mic. “How close did you get?”
“Not too damn close, sir. This was a big pride. We watched them through binoculars.”
Laughing, Ben hung the mic just as Cooper moved out.
“There are gorillas in this country, too,” Beth told them, reading out of an old tourist pamphlet. “In the southeastern part of the country.”
“Oh, boy!” Coop said. “I want to see one of them.”
“Odds are you won’t, Coop,” Ben said. “They’re secretive animals, staying mosdy in the thick forests and high country. But on the off chance that you do come face to face with a silverback, don’t run. Just stand very still.”
“While the pee runs down his leg,” Jersey said.
“Probably,” Cooper agreed without argument.
“They’ll chase you if you run?” Anna asked.
“So I’ve always heard. And usually catch you.”
“Village just up ahead,” the Scouts reported. “And there are more of those damn crazy people waiting for us.”
Ben lifted die mic. “Everybody button up tight,” he ordered. “We’re going to roll right through this village and nobody stops for anydiing. If diey get in your way, run over them.” He hooked die mic and said, “Shit! It’s going to be a long trip down to Bruno’s batde lines. Hang on, gang, here we go!”