Chapter 1: Jim Wright, November 9, Year 1

I should know by now to keep my mouth shut around Mark. Tell him a good idea and he’ll make damn sure you pay for it.

A week ago Hiram, Mark, and I were discussing the same thing we’d been talking about for four months—the mystery up north. Last December, I’d been part of an expedition that had gone up to Ogden, a city thirty-eight miles due north of Fortress Salt Lake.

From the zombie outbreak last year on September 11th through the EMP on October 9th which destroyed our radios and all our other unshielded electronics, Forest Dale First Ward in Salt Lake City had been in contact with Eccles Park Ward up in Ogden. Our mission in December was to make I-15 from Salt Lake City to Ogden drivable and to bring as many survivors as we could from Ogden to Salt Lake.

When we got to Eccles Park Ward, we found Utah’s version of the Mary Celeste. The ward was completely empty. It hadn’t been overrun; the outside enclosure was still locked and zombie proof. Plates of food were still out on the tables as if the ward members had been interrupted in the middle of a meal. There were no signs of a struggle.

There was no preserved food, guns or ammo left in Ogden, either—it had all been cleared out.

The question of where the Eccles Park Ward members had gone and who had scavenged all the ammo in Ogden was a major mystery, but last December solving this wasn’t high on our list of priorities. At the time, our survival in Salt Lake City was still in doubt. Then, the FLDS started a war with us. It wasn’t until we ended the war in late May that Mark had any time to devote to the mystery up in Ogden.

He sent SaLT patrols in armored personnel carriers past Ogden into Idaho—up I-15 into Pocatello and I-84 into Twin Falls. They didn’t find any survivors. This was strange because we were able to find small groups of people in every other direction we went. Most of the major cities were wiped clean but it was commonplace to find survivors in small towns and rural areas.

Last year on September 11th, forty percent of population of the US became zombies. If you knew the pre-outbreak population of a town, it was easy to calculate how many zombies there’d be. There weren’t as many zombies as there should’ve been north of Ogden. Also Pocatello, Twin Falls, and all the small towns around them had been emptied of food, medical supplies, weapons, and ammo.

When we got our first plane working in March, our reconnaissance pilots saw thousands of survivors in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho. A second overflight a month later found the place a ghost town

Starting in July, Mark became serious about solving our northern mystery. He sent reconnaissance flight after reconnaissance flight over northern Utah and Idaho. By then, we had an air force consisting of three Cessna 150s. Since these planes were built in the early 1960’s, they didn’t rely on solid state electronics; the EMP hadn’t damaged them much. Depending on conditions and wind, one tank of fuel usually took a Cessna 150 four hundred and twenty miles. To be safe, none of our planes flew more than one hundred and fifty miles from one of our fortified refueling depots.

In late August, we set up a refueling depot at the Twin Falls Airport. We flew seven missions out of Twin Falls, and none of the pilots saw any signs of living human beings. This drove Mark nuts.

To tell the truth, the northern mystery didn’t bother me much—I had too much on my plate to worry about a known unknown. Mark promoted me to Lieutenant Colonel in June. I became the second highest ranking Salt Lake Trooper after him. Since I started off as a private in December, I was reasonably pleased with the promotion until I figured out the son of a bitch wanted me to be responsible for all of the administrative paperwork.

When I found out I was going to be our main pencil pusher, I stomped into his office and leaned over his desk. “Mark, I didn’t sign up to shuffle paper!”

He grinned up at me from his chair. He’s only five-eight and I’m six-three. I stood over him as he sat at his desk, but somehow he made me feel like he was looking down on me. “The way I remember it, you didn’t sign up for anything. I peer pressured you into joining the SaLTs.”

He was right. If I’d had any real choice, I wouldn’t have signed up for any kind of military. “Don’t try to change the subject, you little weasel. I don’t have time for this petty bullshit! Find some God-damned secretary to do this crap!”

He shook his head and gave me a pitying look. “Jim, we now have a thousand SaLTs. And the way we’ve been growing, we’ll probably have another couple hundred in a few months. All our troops need to get paid. They all need supplies. You can’t run an organization this large without paperwork. Who the hell else is going to do it? You know me—I’m way too ADHD to run anything that requires precision and attention to detail for very long. And we can’t let a civilian be responsible for this kind of shit. Stupid paperwork mistakes will lead to dead SaLTs. I need someone in charge who feels it in his gut when a SaLT dies.

“Jim, I’ve never been able to keep my check book balanced. How the hell do you think I’d do if I had to do the equivalent of that for a thousand men? Hiram’s a good man and he’ll help you the best he can as your Command Sergeant Major, but he’s not a numbers and ledgers kind of guy. Someone else has to be in charge of getting things right. Answer me honestly: is there another trooper you know that’s going to be better at this job than you?”

I guess that’s why the son of a bitch was in charge. I couldn’t come up with an answer for him that didn’t end up with me doing all his crap paperwork. Mark threw me a small bone. He gave me a budget big enough to hire a bunch of civilian staff to help out.

It’s funny how being in the military changes you. I’ve been an officer for less than a year, and somehow civilians have become a completely different species. Deep-down no civilian really understands how absolutely important it is to have enough ammo, and just how fast the ammo runs out. SaLT foot patrols often cover twenty miles in a day; civilians never really believe how many calories we need. I was forced to admit Mark was right. A SaLT has to be in charge, and I’m the best guy for the job.

On top of my SaLT duties as Lieutenant Colonel, I’m still the co-owner of Wright and Tucker Firearms—the largest manufacturer of suppressors in Fortress Salt Lake. Sam Tucker, my partner, takes care of most of the day-to-day operations but whenever there’s a design question or problem, I have to get involved.

Then on top of that, I’m a newlywed and my wife, Cheryl, isn’t the kind to quietly allow me turn into a workaholic. Hell! I want to spend time with her. I’m not getting much sleep, so I just couldn’t find it in me to care about some mystery up north.

So a week ago, it was me, Hiram, and Mark in one of our weekly meetings. Mark was ranting and raving again about how the people up north must be using camouflage and how there had to be a way to see through it when I thought out loud, “I bet if we used 3-D imaging, we might be able to make out where and what they’re hiding.”

I realized I’d done something stupid when Mark shut up. I could see his brain process what I’d said. To do aerial reconnaissance, you have to use photographs. At thousands of feet of elevation, the human eye can’t make out a lot of details. The advantage to high quality aerial photography is that you can cover a lot of ground and study that ground at your leisure. The disadvantage of using a 2-D image is that you lose depth perception.

It doesn’t take much to camouflage against 2-D aerial views. Lay the right kind of netting over a low building and it disappears. On a 3-D image, the illusion created by this kind of netting isn’t as effective.

Mark was born paranoid. Before the EMP, he put as many electronic devices as he could into makeshift Faraday cages. If we’d had to depend on just the electronic devices he’d saved, we wouldn’t have had enough high quality digital cameras.

A Faraday cage protects against an EMP by conducting all the electromagnetic energy away from the electronics it encloses. It’s just a grounded metal cage. Any warehouse with a metal roof and walls was a Faraday cage. We found a couple of Faraday-type warehouses that had high quality digital cameras along with a lot of other consumer electronics. I now had a working computer at home and at work. All our planes had twenty-five megapixel SLR cameras mounted underneath them.

Before the outbreak, I was a computer programmer for a gaming company. I’ve done computer based three-dimensional modeling. Mark knew that.

I knew he was going to dump more work on me when he started smiling. “So Jim, are you thinking about taking two digital pictures at the same time and then using software to combine them into a three dimensional image? Are we going to need 3-D TV screens?”

I had way too much my plate. I was tempted to say that I was just talking out of my ass—that without the proper software we couldn’t create 3-D images. But as little as I personally cared about our northern mystery, it was worrisome that someone was trying so hard to hide from us. Mark was probably right to be concerned about it.

I reluctantly shook my head. “To do something like that, I’d need software that we don’t have. Give me a couple years and I could probably recreate it, but I don’t think you’d want to wait that long. It shouldn’t be too hard to set up a laptop to display photographs on a split screen and then use an old fashioned stereoscope—two lenses that display the split screen images separately to each eye—to create the perception of depth.

“I’m not worried about the software part of this—I know how to do that and it shouldn’t take long. Since I don’t know anything about optics, making the stereoscope could be a bitch.”

Turns out the hardware issue wasn’t as difficult as I thought and the software part was a lot harder. We made new camera mounts for our planes that held digital cameras fifteen feet apart—one near the front of the plane and the other near the back. Helen Hansen, Mark’s significant other, is the CEO of Hansen Enterprises—the largest employer in Utah. She has a guy working for her who knows how to grind lenses. He custom built a stereoscope that attached to a computer screen for us in two days.

For the stereoscope to work the side by the side pictures on the split screen have to have the same focal length —this means the plane has to be completely level when the pictures are taken, or we’d need software that digitally took care of the focal length issue. It was an intriguing problem. I was surprised how much I’d missed programming. It took four days of enormous amounts of caffeine and even less sleep for me to solve that irritatingly interesting problem.

I flew up to Twin Falls early this morning to teach the flight crews up there how to use our 3-D imaging system. The plan was for me to be up here for just a couple of hours and then fly back to Salt Lake City. Today, October 9th was the first anniversary of the EMP a year ago. It was the day Mark had dragooned me to Forest Dale ward to kill vampires. Cheryl had a party she wanted me to go to this evening.

The Cessna 150 holds two guys and a little bit of cargo. I hadn’t had a lot of time to field test the system so I had Tully Smith, one of our pilots, take me for a test flight. I had him head toward Boise while I used a stereoscope and a laptop to look at real time 3-D images of the ground we were covering.

About ninety miles out of Twin Falls, we turned around to go back. We were flying over a whole lot of nothing—desert with a few patches of grass, brush, and scrub trees—when I thought I saw an outline where there shouldn’t have been any. I got out of the real time view and went back a few frames. Yes, there definitely was an outline. Someone had put netting over something.

“Tully, circle around, slow down some, and go a little lower. I want to get a closer look at something.”

Tully screamed, “OH SHIT! MISSILE!”

The plane dropped out from under me and I hung weightless in my seatbelt as Tully threw us into a steep dive, jinked hard right and then harder left. An explosion shook the plane, and a fireball obscured my view. When the flames cleared, I saw the ground coming up fast. I knew I was going to die. I had just enough time to think, “Please God, keep Cheryl safe” before we hit the ground.

I never lost consciousness. Plane crashes hurt like a bitch! My face smashed against something hard and I got the wind knocked out of me. As I tried to catch my breath, blood flowed down over my face. I saw through the cracked and starred windshield that the front of our plane was on fire. The cabin was filling up with smoke fast. Tully had somehow gotten us down intact.

I fumbled at my seat belt latch and screamed, “Tully! Tully! TULLY! We got to get out of here!” I looked over when he didn’t respond. I saw the reason why; there was a fist sized dent in his forehead. Even though the wound was gashed open, he wasn’t bleeding. A year ago, I wouldn’t have known what it meant; now I knew his heart wasn’t beating. Tully Smith had been a good man and a great pilot. I owed him my life.

The door handle wouldn’t move. I kicked at the door. It didn’t budge. I could feel heat radiate from the instrument panel. Smoke was so thick I couldn’t see. I coughed and my lungs burned. I grabbed my seat to brace myself and kicked again. This time my kick was powered by panic—the door flew open.

I jumped out and landed on my hands and knees. I took a long deep breath of clean air. Oh that was so good! I got up and ran away from the explosion I knew was going to come. Crap! My backpack and rifle were still behind my seat.

I knew the plane was going to blow any second. It took every ounce of will power I had to force myself to turn around.

The open door helped clear some of the smoke but the blood running into my eyes made it hard to see. I reached behind my seat. It took a bit but I was finally able to grab my backpack. God dammit! Where the hell was my rifle! I was sure I’d attached my rifle carrying case to my pack.

I held my breath and climbed back into the cabin. The heat was intense. I couldn’t see anything. I reached blindly behind my seats and I couldn’t feel anything that felt like my rifle case.

I found myself gasping for breath as I sprinted away from the plane with my backpack cradled in my arms. I couldn’t remember making the decision to run. I had no memory of what had happened from the time I’d gone back into the plane.

Every scene from every movie I’d ever seen of crashed planes exploding flashed inside my head. I knew I was going to be picked up and thrown forward by a huge blast. Panic helped me fly across the desert faster than I’ve ever run before.

I didn’t decide to stop, I just couldn’t run any longer—I couldn’t even stand. I dropped to my knees. I tried to wipe the blood from my eyes as I turned and stared at the Cessna, which was completely engulfed in flames. It hadn’t exploded. Maybe movies aren’t the best source of information on plane crashes.

I was alive but I was wounded and alone in a desert that had to be filled with zombies and vampires. I had no idea who had shot us down, but they were probably on their way to check out the crash site. I had three liters of water and some food, but the only weapon I had was a SaLT baton. FUCK!

I took a deep breath, and then another. I had to calm down. I forced myself to think about what I needed to do next. I was about a hundred yards away from the burning plane, and I heard a series of loud pops as my rifle ammo cooked off in the fire. It didn’t look like the plane was going to explode.

I decided to take care of my head wound first. I couldn’t afford to lose more blood. Every SaLT backpack contains a first aid kit, three liters of water in a CamelBak style hydration bladder, a water purifying kit, a handful of energy bars, a lighter, a magnesium fire starter, a mirrored compass, an LED head lamp, a small roll of duct tape, five super glue tubes, a water resistant ghillie poncho, a Multi-tool, an entrenching tool, a walkie talkie, a SaLT baton, and extra ammo.

As soon as I opened the backpack, I realized why my rifle case wasn’t attached—it wasn’t my pack; it was Tully’s.

Thank God! If you have to take on zombies and vampires up close, a SaLT baton is your best option. It’s a three-pound collapsible metal club that expands from fifteen inches to thirty-eight inches with a flick of a wrist. It’s perfectly designed to crush zombie skulls without getting stuck afterwards. Push a button and twist the handle and the baton turns into a fifty-inch long spear that theoretically can take out a vampire.

There’s only one SaLT crazy enough to take out a vampire with a spear and he’s my Command Sergeant Major. Hiram Rockwell is a good guy but when God made Hiram, He didn’t tighten all the screws. Hiram lost his left hand when he rammed his fist down a vampire’s throat. The vampire suffocated in less than a minute, but that was still long enough for it to chew almost all the way through Hiram’s forearm. Don’t get me wrong—given the choice between losing my life or my hand, I’ll always pick losing my hand. But any guy who comes up with the idea, ‘Oh there’s a vampire, I think I’ll stuff my hand down its throat’ on his own is Abby Normal.

Every SaLT has taken out zombies with a baton; and I’ve personally killed seven that way. I currently hold the world’s record for the SaLT with the least amount of baton zombie kills. It’s a sad commentary on my fellow troopers, but anyone who lets a zombie get within biting range instead of shooting it from a safe distance is a drooling idiot.

It’s not strictly necessary for our pilots to carry rifles or packs since they spend most of their time in the air, but shit happens. All of our aircraft have an emergency pack, and all the packs include a survival firearm.

I badly wanted to get the gun out and arm up, but first things first: I still had blood running into my eyes. I opened up the mirrored compass and had a look at how bad it was. I had a good-sized gash on the left side of my forehead, just below my hairline. A flap of skin was hanging down almost in my eye, and it was still bleeding freely. Of course as soon as I saw the wound, it started hurting like a BITCH. My stomach rolled and I got lightheaded. Why is seeing a wound worse than knowing you’re wounded? I decided to work by feel from then on.

I tore open a camouflaged field dressing and sprinkled some QuikClot powder on it. I leaned forward into the dressing and tied the dressing tails as tightly as I could. As the QuikClot did its thing, I had to grit my teeth until it settled down.

I resealed the QuikClot package with duct tape and made sure I picked up all the wrappers and trash from my self-aid session.

I pulled out a padded nylon case that took up a large part of Tully’s pack and opened it. A Ruger .22 LR Charger semiautomatic pistol with a ten inch barrel lay next to a suppressor and a custom aluminum buttstock. A BSA Sweet .22 3-9×40 scope with a screw-on sunshade and Butler Creek flip-up scope covers was already mounted on the pistol, and the elevation turret for 36 grain bullets was in place and set for one hundred yards. I quickly screwed on the suppressor, attached the buttstock, popped in a fifty round magazine, and chambered a round of 36 grain subsonic hollow point. There were four more magazines in recesses machined into the buttstock. I wouldn’t say I felt good once I’d put the survival rifle together, but now the situation didn’t suck half as bad.

My next instinct was to get as far away from the crash site as possible. Cheryl would go crazy when she found out I was missing. God, I wanted to head back to Twin Falls NOW.

The problem with being the second highest ranking officer in the SaLTs is that I’m forced to think ahead. I’m not a testosterone filled adrenalin junkie. I never wanted to join any sort of military—much less an elite special ops force, yet here I am. Any SaLT at any time can ‘ring the bell’ and opt out. But, humanity was hanging on by a thread and our civilization’s existence was still very much in doubt. I had to stay in the force until I was sure there was no doubt.

We had to find out who’s hiding from us and why. Shooting Tully and me down is a declaration of war; why would they do that? I needed to find out. I kicked dirt over my bloodspots, tore a branch off a shrub and swept the ground with it to blend everything in. Then I rubbed dirt on the broken spot where I’d torn the branch off.

I rucked up, grabbed my gun and carefully retraced my steps back to the plane, sweeping away all my footprints and bloodspots as I went. It was nerve wracking to get so close to the burning plane but I had to make it look like there’d been just the pilot and nobody else. It was tough maintaining focus while I was standing out in the open for everyone to see, but I had to get this done right.

The area around me looked flat but there were shallow depressions in the ground all around that were difficult to see from a distance. I headed back out to a promising area about eighty degrees west of the place I’d stopped to bandage my head. I moved as quickly as possible while still taking care to leave no sign of my passage. I found a good spot between some small bushes about hundred and fifty yards away from the plane, and I used my e-tool to make the shallow depression deeper.

Up until the FLDS war, we didn’t need camouflage. We wanted zombies to see us and come after us—it made it easier to kill them. Human enemies are a lot more dangerous than the undead; it’s best to hide from human enemies. We had to stop wearing our cool black leather jackets and jeans out in the field.

I was wearing military surplus desert pattern desert BDUs, tan suede combat boots, and a desert pattern boonie hat. This camo scheme blends in just fine with the northern Utah and the southern Idaho desert.

The survival gun had already been spray painted with desert colors. I used thin strands of duct tape to wrap some twigs around the gun to break its outline. I put my ghillie poncho on, rubbed dirt on my hands and face, and lowered myself into my scrape to wait for the assholes who’d killed Tully.

The wait was a complete let down. Nothing happened, and then more nothing happened. I’ve always loved guns and things that go bang but I’ve never been much of a hunter: I’m too impatient. I can shoot targets all day long, but make me sit still in a blind or tree stand for more than half an hour and I go crazy.

I had a self-winding mechanical watch. I had to force myself to not check the time. I knew if I started took at my watch, I wouldn’t be able to stop and the time would drag even more. What in hell was taking these bozos so long?

Finally, after what seemed like forever, I heard vehicles. Their engines were running rough. Within five minutes, two beat up, dented, rusty deuce-and-a-half type trucks pulled into view. They came to a complete stop about fifty feet from the plane, and one of the truck engines made a sound like someone was hitting it repeatedly with a ballpeen hammer and blew black smoke from its exhaust.

The EMP fried all the automotive electronics along with everything else. Untreated gasoline goes bad after a few months while diesel stays good for years. To get our planes in the air, we had to re-refine all our AVGAS. It wasn’t worth the bother to do that with ordinary automotive gas, so the only vehicles still on the road are those with twenty-five plus year-old diesel engines. Even then, to get those vehicles going again the ignition systems have to be rebuilt and the batteries replaced. It takes effort and knowledge to rebuild an ignition system and it isn’t all that easy to find a battery that hadn’t been fried in the EMP.

People who put in the work to get a vehicle running usually make sure their rides are properly maintained; the ones that don’t tend to be dumbshits. I’d expected the Northern Mystery Plane Shooting Down Guys to have their shit together and be a whole lot more spic and span. I was almost disappointed.

Four scruffy looking guys in civilian clothes got out of the cabs, and people started jumping down from the truck beds—a lot of people. It was funny that I’d called these guys bozos before, because it was like watching a circus clown car act. I counted at least fifteen from each truck, and the only way they could have all fit was by standing upright, wedged in skin-to-skin. It must have been hellishly uncomfortable jammed in the back like that while the trucks were moving—especially off road from nearest paved road to this crash site. I got claustrophobic just thinking about it.

My first thought was that these guys were slaves or prisoners. There was no way people would voluntarily squash themselves in so tight, but I didn’t see any shackles or restraints, and they’d let themselves out of the trucks. The four guys from the cabs weren’t acting like guards either—they had handguns at their waists and military style rifles slung over their shoulders, but none of them paid attention to the people coming out of the back of their vehicles. The four of them faced each other, lit up smokes, and based on their body language, began shooting the shit. They didn’t even bother to pretend they were keeping a look out or act interested in anything other than their conversation. If they’d been SaLTs, I would have ripped them a new asshole.

I dialed my scope to its highest magnification and focused on one of the clowns. It was a seriously attractive woman with short blonde hair and a centerfold body. She was wearing jeans, a long sleeved t-shirt, running shoes, and a cop’s utility belt with a holstered pistol. She wasn’t wearing makeup but was otherwise clean and well kept. She seemed normal enough until she looked straight at me. I almost jerked back. The bitch was scary. She had a serial killer’s cold, dead eyes and she was staring straight at me. It was good I hadn’t flinched. It didn’t look like she’d seen me; if I’d moved, she might have.

I guess that explained why the four riflemen were okay with dicking around. The clowns from the back were scoping out the perimeter in a serious, professional, no-shit manner. I took a couple of deep breaths to slow down my heart rate and then looked through the scope again. She was still looking in my direction. The sun was behind me, I was in shadow, and I was well camouflaged. If I kept still, I should be invisible.

I studied her face. There was something about her that didn’t feel right, but I couldn’t put my finger on why. The whole group suddenly turned back to the trucks and started pulling gear out of the back—a lot of gear—which made it even more amazing that so many people had come out of each truck.

The longer I scoped out the girl, the wronger she seemed, but I still couldn’t figure out why. I looked at the guy next to her. He was about the same age as her and was similarly dressed in a t-shirt, jeans, and holstered handgun. He was about a hand’s width taller and was built like a fireplug. He had the same flat expression as the woman—that was it! In all the time I’d been watching her, the woman hadn’t ever smiled, frowned, or said a word. She hadn’t made any movements that weren’t goal orientated. Hell, she hadn’t even scratched her nose. The guy was acting just like her.

I dialed back the magnification to increase my field of view so I could see more than one person at a time. None of the clowns’ faces showed any life or animation; none of them said a word. Even creepier, they stood way too close to each other and they moved like they were choreographed. Every time there was a noise or anything else that drew their attention, they all turned their heads at the same time and at the same speed. It was FREAKY.

I got an attack of Movie-itis; that’s when real life seems like a movie and you have a hard time convincing yourself that what you’re experiencing is really real. Most of us survivors have it to varying degrees. Even now, thirteen months after the outbreak, there are times I’ll wake up thinking I’m still back in the old world when I was a computer programmer whose biggest worry was getting up early enough to beat the traffic. Compared to most survivors, I don’t have it that bad; it usually only hits me when I’m half-asleep.

This was the first time I’ve ever gotten it while fully awake. It was like watching the pod people from ‘Invasion of the Body Snatchers’. All I needed now was some dog with a human head. I wanted to believe that I was mistaken, that these were weird circus people and not some sort of new monster, but if zombies and vampires exist, why not pod people too?

Now I really, really wanted to get the fuck out of here, but I knew there was no way I’d be able to break contact without being made. I lay as still as possible and watched.

The pod people staked out camouflage netting over the two trucks, and propped it up with cross arms supported on collapsible poles. They set up two more nets like open pavilions, and then set up a much larger net over the crashed Cessna. They had it all up in no time at all with no missteps and no wasted motion. From the air it’d all look like the desert floor. They ducked under the net covering the remains of the airplane and started carefully breaking it up into small pieces with axes and pry bars.

The four riflemen stopped bullshitting and scratching their asses long enough to go under one of the empty pavilions and put up four folding chairs facing away from each other. I gathered they were supposed to be on the lookout while the pod people worked.

I seriously considered taking off. These guys were incompetent idiots. They continued to chain smoke and chitchat while they were supposed to be on watch. They didn’t seem bothered that the other camouflage nets obscured some of their field of view—unfortunately, my hide out wasn’t obscured.

The problem was that I was hiding in a flat plain. If I started moving, the odds were good that even these idiots would see me. I pictured a Jim Wright clone going home to Cheryl; that thought made my asshole pucker. I’d have to wait until they left.

The pod people did everything together, including taking bathroom breaks; they really did act like one organism. When they finally broke for dinner, they neatly opened a forty-pound bag of dry dog food and shared it out. If I’d had any doubts that these folks were seriously not right, the dry dog food dinner alfresco removed them. The riflemen used a camp stove to make themselves a dinner from cans and packages.

Watching them eat made me hungry as hell, but I wasn’t stupid enough to wiggle around to get to my energy bars. When I’d set up my scrape I’d been smart enough to put the mouthpiece of my CamelBak within easy reach, so I was able to keep well hydrated—too well hydrated. Eventually, I couldn’t ignore my bladder any longer. I debated trying to move around enough so I wouldn’t have to piss myself, but the damn pod people were too alert. If I moved, they’d see me. My crotch got all nice and squishy warm and then got slowly cold and wet. Lovely. Talk about service before self.

Once they’d reduced the Cessna into manageable pieces, the pod people started digging a trench to bury all traces of the plane. The sun was starting to set, and I was getting more and more anxious to get the Hell outta Dodge. Come on guys, get it done already!

At some unspoken signal, the pod people all stopped working at once and carried their tools back to the trucks. They pulled a couple of tarps out of the back of the nearest truck and lay them under one of the camouflage net pavilions. The four non-pod jerk-offs finally noticed that work had finished for the day and heaved themselves out of the lawn chairs. They grabbed a sleeping bag apiece and set them up under the other pavilion.

They were going to stay the night and have a pod person pajama party. Well, that was just what I needed to round out my day. The pod people arranged themselves on the tarps flat on their backs and alternating head-to-foot. They snuggled up to each other until they were as close as they could possibly get and then went completely still—okay, not so bad after all. If all I had to do was worry about was the Four Stooges, I was golden.

Three of the four crawled into their sleeping bags. One started walking a circuit around their camp. As soon as I could see the stars well enough to orient myself I was going to low crawl my ass out of here.

The stars were just starting to come out when I saw movement behind the sentry, just before he collapsed. What the hell? The movement resolved itself into the fireplug guy, one of the wrecking bars in his hand. He picked up the sentry’s rifle and went over to the other three sleeping riflemen. He only struck each of them once, and then he dropped the wrecking bar, shouldered the rifle and started firing into the packed group of pod people.

They reacted instantaneously. He’d got five or six, but the rest jumped up as one, paired off and scattered in all directions. One of the pair would shoot at the fireplug guy while the other ran about ten yards further on. Then the runner would stop, turn, and shoot and the shooter would run ten yards past him—all without a word or any kind of signal exchanged. I was impressed in spite of myself—I’ve never seen ‘fire and maneuver’ done any better or more professionally. There were four or five pairs running in my direction, so I was suddenly in the fight.

With the big Wright & Tucker suppressor and the subsonic ammo, the only noise was the Charger’s bolt reciprocating and the ‘thwap’ of the bullets striking flesh. It took almost the whole magazine to drop everybody in front of me. All of the other pairs had stopped about fifty yards away from the camp and were taking turns returning fire on the fireplug guy. They hadn’t seen me, or noticed that the other guys had gone down. I dropped the magazine, fumbled out a fresh one from the butt stock, and clicked it in.

There were two sets of muzzle flashes on my right and three on my left. I got up into the kneeling position and aimed about two feet behind the closest set of muzzle flashes. I put eight or ten rounds on them, and when they stopped shooting, I set the drum and parallax to one hundred twenty-five and engaged the next most distant pair.

I killed the last pair at one hundred and seventy-five yards when the hammer dropped on the empty chamber and I realized that I was out of targets. I dropped the magazine, inserted a fresh one, and waited. There was no noise but the night sounds of the desert—no more shooting, no moans or cries for help from any wounded, no cursing or screaming, nothing. The only thing still moving in the camp was the fireplug guy, which surprised the Hell out of me.

If the pod people could shoot as well as they did everything else, I couldn’t understand how they hadn’t gotten him.

I seriously considered dropping him too because the enemy of my enemy isn’t necessarily my friend. In the end, I didn’t because I had to know why he’d killed his friends; I could always kill him later if I had to.

It was a night for surprises. I’d expected fireplug guy to start looking for me if he noticed me helping him or to immediately take off in one of the trucks if he hadn’t. Instead, he knelt next to one of the dead pod people, pulled the corpse into his arms and started rocking back and forth.

Ten minutes went by and he kept on rocking. After twenty minutes, I had to find out what was going on. I stood up slowly. Shit! My knees hurt, my legs were stiff, my lower back wasn’t happy, and I had a wet crotch. With my rifle up and ready, I carefully approached the rocking fireplug guy. Mood I was in, if he fucked with me even a little bit I’d definitely kill him.

I got close enough to hear what he was saying, “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. I’m sorry.” He kept saying that over and over.

He was cradling the centerfold blonde, and she was messily dead. “Hey.”

He looked up at me. Maybe he’d been un-podded somehow, or maybe he’d been faking being one of them, but his abject misery was clear; in the moonlight I could see the tears running down his face.

I aimed straight at his head. “I’m Lieutenant Colonel James Wright of the Utah Salt Lake Troopers. Who are you, who are these people, and what the FUCK is going on here?

For a few seconds, he stared at me as if he didn’t understand me. Then he said, “I’m…my name is Dave Henry.” He looked back down at the dead girl he was holding and caressed her face. “I’m sorry; I’m so sorry. It should have been me. I didn’t know you were here.”

Chapter 2: Dave Henry, September 11, Year 0