James listened to the whine of the A-10s start up from his bunk. His quarters was in the back of the complex, a windowless room made of concrete and painted a dull gray. He had only a single light, a small LED lamp on his nightstand, but it was enough to light the small, square room.
He lay, partially dressed in athletic shorts and a t-shirt, holding a picture up to the light. He’d kept it, squirreled away in a rucksack. It was bent and creased despite his best efforts. The top was partially torn but he’d done that. He’d wanted to tear her from his life but found he couldn’t.
Elena looked furious, standing in her grease-stained fatigues while James grinned widely in his flight suit and helmet. They’d both been wasting time while she checked over his landing strut. He’d said he’d popped the hydraulics on the landing as a joke. That face she’d made kept him laughing for a long time.
She was not a beautiful woman. Her nose was long and sharp, her jaw too square, her body thick with muscle. But that face, no matter the expression, never failed to make him grin. She was beautiful. To him. Always.
And she’d always stayed the night, even when it was stupid to do so. He’d hold her long after the sex was over, pretending he didn’t want to, but she would stay buried against him.
“Land soft,” she’d whisper. “Don’t bounce. Don’t die.”
“I can’t die, I’m a fighter pilot,” he’d say.
He closed his eyes and dropped his hand and picture onto his chest. Cursing over and over, his voice barely audible even to his own ears, he took a deep breath and let it out.
Quit your bitching, he thought. You did this to yourself.
Swinging his legs down off the bed, he put his bare feet on the cold, cement floor. He found a pair of socks, shoes and a jacket, pulled them on and left the room. He was intent on a walk, maybe a smoke, and maybe a visit to the Hole. Maybe he could find some office girl and fuck Elena out of his mind.
It was dark in the hallways. The whole complex was lit sparingly with LEDs where it wasn’t needed. Pilot quarters were often the darkest, since they flew both day and night and night vision was precious. Outside, he heard the first A-10 rocket down the runway. He checked his watch.
So it looked as though his dad was pretty serious about this rescue thing. Jazz and Bubbles were on deck that night, so they were heading south to check the area again. He hoped Jazz had his eyes open because Bubbles couldn’t fly worth a shit at night.
Pushing out of the pilots’ barracks, he heard the heavy metal door shut and click, the locks engaging. He’d have to punch in the code to get back in. He hoped he wouldn’t be too drunk later. Maybe he should just stay at the Hole tonight.
That thought disgusted him and he reached into his pocket for a cigarette. His hand came up empty and he realized he’d left them in his room. Cursing, he shook his head and turned to skirt the back of the command bunker.
A rattle of metal on metal caught his attention. He stopped, turning his head to the sound. A long, hissing moan echoed through the air before another metallic rattle followed. Smirking, he turned towards the fence and searched the length until he saw her.
The zombie was definitely female, wearing a pair of tattered draw-string pants and a faded tank top that looked gray in the pale light. She still had most of her dark hair, but the side of her neck was almost eaten through. When she moaned, it gurgled and hissed like a low boiling kettle through the open wound.
He stepped closer, the faint light from the airfield illuminating her just enough for him to see that her eyes were light, blue or green maybe. Most of her jaw was intact, but her teeth were broken, black and bloody. She lurched at the chain-linked fence when he came near, moaning again. Her jaw snapped shut over and over, pale eyes focused on him.
“You can’t get in here,” he said, waving a hand in her direction. “Get out of here. Fuck off.” He knew it was stupid, but he was angry and frustrated and kicked at the fence, sending her stumbling back. She fell over onto her back and James found himself laughing.
After a moment, she stood again and stumbled back to the fence. She kept moaning, her fingers gripping the links, curling around the wire. Something flashed and he saw an engagement band on her left hand. It was small, probably not very expensive.
It still punched him in the gut.
His amusement died and he turned to look at her, to really look at her. She was small, petite, and young, maybe twenty or twenty-five at most. The shirt said UPENN at on it.
“Fuck,” he muttered and backed up a few feet to the wall of the bunker and slid down to sit on the bare patch of grass there. The overhang above had kept most of the snow away, so he sat, his legs freezing and stared at this dead girl.
“Elena said she got into U-Penn,” he said, ignoring the fact he was talking to a zombie. “Said she was starting up right after she mustered out. The GI bill would have paid for it, you know? But… not if you were kicked out.”
In response, the zombie moaned and bit into the chain-linked fence, shattering a few more teeth. Blood splattered the snow at her feet. They were bare in the snow, black from rot.
And suddenly he couldn’t stand the sight of her. The broken teeth, the blackened feet, the engagement ring; it all infuriated him.
“Fuck you. Fuck you and your stupid fucking virus and… and…” James stood, suddenly unable to contain the fury that rose within him. He walked up to the fence and kicked again, sending the zombie to the ground once more.
“Did you kill her! Is she dead? Tell me! Tell me you piece of shit! Speak! Fucking asshole!” He kicked again at the fence and then again and again, even though the zombie had yet to stand. He wasn’t sure how long he shouted and raged, but a strong arm pulled him away.
“Whoa, Cubby! Whoa!” Ringo said, wrapping his other arm around his chest, holding him back from the fence. “What’s up, kid? Huh? It’s just an Infected. Just an Infected.”
He fought the hold, wanting to get back to the fence, wanted to tear the thing apart. Tears sprung to his eyes, and he let out one, gasping sob before he came to his senses. The thing rose to its feet and stared at them, mouth open, its whistling moan echoing in the night.
“Where’s your gun?” Ringo said. “Don’t tell me you walked out here without a gun?”
James shook his head and Ringo cursed.
“You all right? I’m going to let you go.”
“Yeah man I’m good.”
Ringo’s hold slackened and then was gone. James staggered to the side and wrung his arms, trying to get feeling back in them. Ringo had held them pretty damn tight.
A gunshot pierced the night. Looking over, he saw Ringo holding a smoking pistol to the fence and the zombie girl slumping back into the snow. A hole was drilled right through her skull, between the eyes. She made no more noise.
“You good?” Ringo said, holstering his weapon beneath his jacket. James nodded and took a few deep breaths to make sure it was true.
“For fuck sake man, where are your pants? Were you sleep walking or something?”
James looked down at his athletic shorts and snow-covered legs. It was then that he realized how numb they were becoming. He shrugged.
“Was going to the Hole, figured I didn’t need them.”
“You realize that the dead girl would have cost you a lot more than herpes, right?”
James blinked until he saw Ringo’s broad smile beneath his bushy mustache. They both began to laugh a moment later and Ringo put an arm around his shoulders, leading him away from the fence. They passed out into the light of the bunker.
“C’mon kid, I’ll buy you a round myself. After I call in that gunshot, otherwise the MPs will shit themselves.”
Fours hours later, they were on their sixth glass of Jeremiah Weed when the roar of an A-10 announced its return to base. The other pilots all raised their glasses until a great thump was followed by metal shrieking and tearing.
“What the fuck?” Ringo said, drunkenly even as James pulled him towards the exit along with the other pilots. Together, they stumbled out into the snow, shielding their eyes from a burst of red and orange light.
An A-10 lay burning on the runway. James searched the sky for the other but found nothing. No flashing lights that would signal a circling plane.
“Fuck! That’s Bubbles!” Ringo said and began to run, stumbling, towards the burning aircraft. Already a fire team was en route, its foam jets beginning to spray the crashed jet.
An alarm stopped them all in their tracks. Sirens blared and a voice echoed loud across the base.
“All crew to the ready room, this is not a drill. Repeat, all crew to the ready room, this is not a drill.”