“The world is indeed full of peril and in it there are many dark places.”
― J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings
The helicopter landed gently, Chris hardly feeling the skids touch cement. He likely wouldn’t have noticed anyway, his attention was on his new surroundings. He’d never been here before, but knew of it.
The reports, everything they’d been told, were wrong.
The campus was on several thousand acres of woodland, that much looked to be true, but none of the imaging they’d been given really captured the scope. They’d landed on a helipad next to a long runway. The A-10 Thunderbolt II’s were just now landing, their big turbines roaring as they passed. To the other side was a low, squat building that looked like a bunker. There were other buildings like it, tucked back beneath the trees. Some were open and Chris saw more A-10s and even an F-15C. Those kinds of aircraft simply were not sold to civilians.
What the hell is going on here?
A group of six men came to greet them, dressed in dark gray Battle Dress Uniforms (BDUs), wore protective vests, and had M4s slung across their chests. Not the civilian AR-15s, but fully automatic M4 carbines. Each man walked with the casual, but predatory, gate that Chris knew too well. Ex-military, and more than likely ex-Special Forces.
The low pay and relatively low appreciation given to them in the military often drove men like these into the arms of Private Security. You could do what you normally did for ten times the pay and fewer rules. That was partially why Chris got into it himself. Kurama had paid those debts he owed for all the surgeries to repair his back and knees. They’d given him a purpose after the accident. So what did Black Dawn give?
“Sorry for the shit greeting!” the man in front said with a big smile, yelling over the chopper’s turbines as they spun down. “Come inside, we’ll talk over some hot, honest-to-fucking-God coffee!” Chris hesitated, as did the rest of them. They didn’t really have a choice, Chris knew that, but the man’s smile didn’t have an ounce of actual pleasure in it. He’d used that smile himself a hundred times when they’d been dropped in to deal with outbreaks.
“Sure,” Bill said, slapping the release on his restraints and sliding off his seat. The guards tensed a little, their hands flexing on the grips of their rifles. Bill was testing them, letting Chris get their measure. It wasn’t good. If anyone in their group made a move, any move at all, those men could kill all of them in moments. There were no good options, so he did what might keep him alive until other opportunities opened. He played along.
“Please tell me it isn’t Folgers!” he shouted, grinning back and sliding off the chopper deck.
“Naw, better, trust me,” the man said. Chris got a good look at him as he stepped away from the chopper. He was in this early forties, close-cropped graying hair beneath a black ball cap. His face was clean-shaven with old pock scarring on his cheeks. Brown eyes, tanned complexion, likely hispanic mixed with asian judging by his features. No memory of anyone like that came to mind.
“Name’s Holden,” the man said and offered a hand to Chris, as if reading his mind. “I’m sure you’re thinking this is all FUBAR but trust me, it’s all good. Let’s get your men inside and out of this fucking cold.” Holden turned and waved them all out. By now the whine of the chipper engine began to die down. Chris could almost hear himself think.
Their weapons were not confiscated, something that Chris made quick note of. Likely they’d be taken later, once they were inside. This let them have a sense of security for the moment, like they were still in control and not prisoners. The way the other five men loosely gathered around them belied that intention, but it was a nice try. Chris gave Holden points for ingenuity.
He turned to look towards Allan. The man was despondent, eyes downcast and vacant. Turner and Williams were both leading him by an arm. Turner had the case with the medicine in his right hand. They needed to keep that in their possession as long as possible if they had any hope of negotiating here.
“Good thing we found you folks before cleaning out that town,” Holden said as they walked. “Intel said it was clear of anything but the Zombos.”
“Zombos?” Chris said, raising a brow in Holden’s direction.
“The Infected. We’ve been calling the damn things Zombies, Zombos, whatever the fuck. This whole thing’s messed up.”
“Yeah,” Chris said, glancing over to Bill. His friend merely grimaced.
“No worries. We’ll get things straightened out. Now that you’re here, might even be faster.”
Chris wondered what that meant but said nothing.
Holden led them to the bunker-like building and through a set of heavy glass doors that Chris suspected were shatterproof. Holden ran a gloved hand over a security pad and the door unlocked, then ushered them through. Inside was a reception area with industrial carpeting and a desk where a young woman sat staring at a set of dual monitors. All of the lights were on.
Where the hell are they getting the power?
“Steph, please tell Mister Fitzpatrick that they’ve arrived?” Holden said and the girl nodded. When she turned to pick up a phone, Chris saw that she was armed. He also saw the tattoo sticking out of her uniform collar. The symbol of the USMC was just barely visible beneath.
They went through another set of security doors and down a long hallway. They passed a cafeteria where men and women were filling trays steaming with food. The smell was mouth watering. Not all of the men and women were security, and most looked liked civilians in casual business attire. It’s like the fucking world hasn’t ended here, he thought. What the hell is this?
“Hungry?” Holden said, looking over his shoulder at them. He must have seen them eying the cafeteria. “We’ll fix you up something. Not to worry. On the house too.”
“Thanks,” Chris said, trying to keep his tone light but failed. The edge was there, the wariness. This was going to go south any moment.
Finally, Holden paused outside of a metal door, swiped his glove again and opened it. Inside was a small room with a security window and two metal doors. A middle-aged man was seated behind the security window and took Holden’s weapon, checked something off on a sheet and looked up expectantly.
“Your weapons,” Holden said with a shrug. “We’ll hold them here for you.”
“We won’t be staying long,” Bill said and narrowed his eyes. “I’ll hold mine myself, thanks.”
Holden wasn’t phased by this. “Sorry, procedure. Don’t worry, we’ll get them back to you right after.”
“Right after what?” Chris said, glancing around. The other five men Holden had brought with him had their hands on the grips of their rifles again. Their stance was relaxed but ready. This would be a death chamber if they resisted.
“After you hear Mr Fitzpatrick’s deal,” he said and waved towards the window. “Let’s keep this civil shall we?”
Bill gave him a hard stare but Chris could only shrug. What could they do? With reluctance, Chris disarmed himself of his rifle, his pistol and two knives. Holden then insisted on his ammo packs as well. By the end, everyone was down to their fists and teeth, except two of the men Holden had brought. They went out instead. Chris presumed they’d be standing guard outside the door.
After they were through with that, they proceeded through one of the metal doors and into a large conference room. There was a screen at one end and amphitheater seating for about fifty. For briefings probably.
“Sit,” Holden said with a smile. “I’ll get you all something to eat while we wait. Is roast chicken good for everyone? Any allergies?”
No one said anything so he left. Two of his men remained though, looking distinctly like guards. Chris settled into a chair and leaned his head back. Closing his eyes, he tried to let the tension drain from him so he could think better, plan better. Instead, thoughts of Katie floated to the surface. Was she alright? Was she afraid by herself? He’d taught her as much as he could in the time they’d had. He just hoped it was enough.
“What do you think?” Bill said, talking in a low rumble.
“I think that we eat some chicken, hear this asshole out and find a way to get back to the Ford,” Chris said, speaking as softly as possible.
“How the fuck did he find out we had Kirchner? They didn’t just stumble on us out there.”
“I don’t know, Bill. I don’t know.”
It wasn’t long before trays of chicken, mashed potatoes, steamed carrots and steaming coffee were delivered. Chris had no idea how long it had been since he’d eaten such things. Probably since the divorce. He usually made quick, simple meals for himself nowadays that Katie and his wife were both gone. The food was delicious and he found himself tearing into it. The coffee was good too, as promised.
Holden then returned with someone else. Chris recognized Gideon Fitzpatrick from his briefings on Black Dawn. He was taller than he’d thought, with powerful shoulders and physique. From the reports, Fitzpatrick was ex-Navy SEAL, a retired Major. The man had a very impressive jacket. He was also good at public speaking and good at making money, it seemed.
“Gentlemen,” he said, leaning against the wall in front of them, just to the left of the screen. “I’m sorry for how we had to do this. It wasn’t the respect you deserve. Christopher Fox, right? I knew your commanding officer in the first Gulf War. He was a good man.”
“Yes, he was,” Chris said, letting the attempt to connect roll off him. He needed to be wary, not nostalgic.
“I must also apologize for my little deception. You’ve all met my son-in-law?” He waved a hand at Turner, who stood up and handed the case to Fitzpatrick. Chris was stunned. His breath caught in his chest.
You son of a bitch.
Turner smiled faintly at them but at least he had the grace to look embarrassed. Kid, you just cost the United States a future. He wanted to rage, to leap up and tear Turner limb from limb, but that would only get himself killed. Holden still had a pistol in his jacket. Chris had seen the bulge when he walked in.
Fitzpatrick opened the case, smiled to himself and then closed it. Handing the case to Holden, he turned to Chris and Bill and Williams once more. There was a very pregnant pause while he regarded each of them, giving all of them a moment’s eye contact. Chris’s rage was met with cold calculation.
“I know about the Ford, gentlemen. I know that it’s no longer an option for you. At 2200 last night, the Ford was overrun from within. Infected are all you’ll find there. The president is dead. The government of the United States is dead, but our country can live on.” He smiled again.
“With Black Dawn in control, I will make sure of it.”