The whine of the A-10’s engines filled the air as James popped the canopy. He pulled off his helmet and let the frigid evening air wash over him. It was cold but at least it was fresh, compared to the stale, sweat-scented atmosphere of the cockpit. Nearly being shot out of the sky by a shoulder-mounted, guided missile tended to do that.
He leaned his head back against the ejection seat, closed his eyes, and laid his hands on the canopy rail. For a moment he just sat there, glad to be alive, thankful his training had saved him and his plane. Sometimes he wondered which his father would miss more.
Opening his eyes he glanced down at the instrument panel, looking for the picture he used to hide away there during his time in the Air Force. It wasn’t there of course, but the habit remained. He looked for it every time and every time it made him angry. He wasn’t sure if it was because it wasn’t there or because he still cared.
Elena was gone. Hell, she was probably dead. It wasn’t a comforting thought, but at least it would be final. He’d fucked that up pretty good. A relationship and a career in a single day. He had real talent.
A metallic thunk followed by the click of the ladder’s latch told him his crew chief had finally arrived. He glanced over to see the short, stout hispanic man appear over the side of the jet’s fuselage. Wordlessly, he reached out a hand and unfastened James’s restraints.
“Good mission, Sir?” Carl said.
“Long. I have to piss,” James said and realized just how urgently he meant it. Normally he’d carry a few piddle packs with him for a flight over four hours, but he’d forgotten. Carl hadn’t bothered to remind him either.
He’s no Elena, he thought and cracked his back as he leaned forward to remove the classifieds. Shoving the tapes, his kneeboard and half-empty bottle of water into his helmet bag, James waved Carl back. The crew chief backed down the ladder as James hoisted himself up and over the rail.
His legs felt a little stiff but five hours of flying wasn’t enough to turn to them to jelly. There was a mission over Iraq once that had kept him in the air for almost ten hours. When he’d finally gotten out of the cockpit, he’d fallen down the stairs. Luckily, only Elena had seen that. He’d have never lived that down in the O-Club.
“Cubby. Come here.”
Ringo was waiting for him when he hit the tarmac, standing beneath his right wing. James thanked Carl and headed over, raking a hand through his short, dark hair. His head itched and his fingers still felt like pins and needles. The adrenaline was finally wearing off.
“Did you get any readings off the launch?” James said as he caught up with the taller man. Ringo was an older pilot, in his forties with a thick, dark mustache and hair that was graying temples. Unlike James, Ringo hadn’t kept the military style haircut, letting it grow a little shaggy. He looked like a stereotype right out of a Cold War movie.
“Yeah, saw the whole thing. Intel’s going to enjoy this debrief.”
They headed away from the jets, making for the main administration building where they’d meet with Holden, his father’s primary intelligence man. James hated that guy, and he couldn’t wait to rub this in his face. He could almost see the look of annoyance as he asked how intel missed a heavily armed group operating in the area. A smile spread across his face in anticipation.
“Who do you think they are?” James said once they passed through security. They then swiped their badges to get into the Vault, the mostly highly secure part of the building. It was here they planned, briefed and debriefed all their major operations. It was the beating heart of Black Dawn.
“Don’t know. Could have been some rogue Guard, though I doubt it. They looked like locals.”
“You don’t think its the Carnival do you?”
Ringo laughed and slapped him on the shoulder. “Kid, we blasted the shit out of them the minute they reared their heads. Probably just some hicks with big toys.”
“Hicks that nearly blew my ass off.”
“Yeah,” Ringo said, his tone sobering. They sat down in the small amphitheater, waiting for Holden to show. “I’ll be honest, Cubby, takes a special kinda sicko American to shoot at other Americans.”
“We did,” James said, glancing over at his wingman with a raised brow. “The Carnival, like you said.”
“They were terrorists.” Ringo shrugged and yawned. “Attacked their own damn police station.”
James grunted but didn’t reply. He never quite bought that explanation. Maybe they’d just been looking for protection against the infection? He hadn’t been there though, so all he could do was take Ringo’s word for it.
Moments later Holden arrived along with his father. Gideon Fitzpatrick came in like a storm, his face dark and agitated. He didn’t even wait for Holden to ask them any questions.
“Captain, I want to thank you for saving my son,” he said to Ringo. The older pilot chuckled and shrugged.
“Sir, wasn’t me. Kid did it all himself. It was too fast for me to even know it was comin’.”
His father turned slowly towards him, his hands on his hips.
“Yeah,” James said. “One second we were passing the tower, RWR being clear as anything and then, fwoosh. ManPad. Intel fucked up, dad. We had no idea there was anything down there like that.”
Holden’s expression wasn’t pleased beforehand but now it went nearly murderous. James smiled at him.
“Nothing we’ve seen or heard about suggested there was any surface-to-air threats in the vicinity,” Holden said through clenched teeth. “If it was a ManPad, any asswipe with a functioning finger can fire one. They’ll be hard to track down.”
His dad turned from him to Holden. The look they shared made James feel very good. Son I never had my ass, James thought with a smirk.
“Get on this,” Gideon Fitzpatrick said. “Find out who they are and what they’re doing in my country.”
“Yes, sir,” Holden said, sparing the briefest of looks for James. It was pure loathing.
“As for you two, report.”
Ringo did most of the talking. He was the senior pilot even if James had essentially been the flight leader. One of these days, his dad would acknowledge he was every bit as capable as the other pilots and make him a Captain as well. He’d been on his way to Major before the Air Force had kicked him out. This lieutenant bullshit was insulting.
Sometimes James wondered why they used ranks at all. They weren’t part of the US armed forces. He guessed they were all just stuck in their ways.
When they gave the report on the horde, his dad held up a hand to stop them.
“Where was this?”
“Sector hotel seven-three,” Ringo said, indicating a point on the map. “Southwest of Mount Hope.”
There was silence as Gideon studied the map, his rough hands stroking a smooth chin. James wasn’t sure what he was looking for. That area was mostly wilderness and mountain trails.
“Did you see anything out of the ordinary?” Gideon finally said after the long silence.
“You mean other than the horde of zombies?”
“I hardly find that out of the ordinary these days. Focus, James.”
“No, not really—“ And then he stopped, remembering that brief glimpse into the forest. Had they been alive? Were they even people?
“Cubby here thought he saw two people in the forest.”
Gideon looked to Ringo and then back at James, coming closer, his hands behind his back. His eyes were squinted, studying him.
“Thought he saw? Did you see something, son?”
“I’m not sure. It might have been two people but it could have just been two other zombos.”
“Think, very hard, James. Did you see two people? Was one of them a teenage girl?”
James raised a brow. What the fuck? Was his dad looking for someone? That would explain the stupid amount of seemingly random flights into that wasteland recently.
“I… really don’t know, dad. It might have been?”
“And the other?”
“I don’t know. I barely saw them, whoever they were. Why?”
“Mark where you saw them on the map,” Gideon said and handed James the marker. He sighed and stood up, moving over to the map and finding the terrain, comparing it to his memory. Finally he put a mark where he figured they’d been.
His dad merely nodded. “Holden, scrub through their flight recorders. See if you can find anything from their run on the horde.”
“Yes, sir,” Holden said, looking more pleased with himself now. James still felt confused.
“Dad, what’s this about?”
“Survivors. We are bound to help any and all survivors, you should know that,” Gideon said. “It’s our duty.”
The icy tone in his father’s voice made James doubt that was true at all.