This is the first chapter of one of the first books I ever wrote way back in about 2013 or so. It started out as a D20 Modern game a friend of mine was running and I sort of took everybody's characters, picked up that football and ran with it for three novels and a collection of short stories.
I'm re-editing the books and getting ready to make them available in paperback for the first time. Outbreak: Boston, the first book in the trilogy of main books in the series, is looking at a mid-September release date. I've got new cover art coming and I'm perhaps half way through formatting the manuscript properly so it looks like I'm on track for that.
Anyways, enjoy! It's coming soon.
12 May 2011 21:35 hours, Massachusetts Institute of Technology Boston, Massachusetts
Senior Airman Amy Frays woke with a yelp and looked around, thoroughly confused for a brief moment until she could get her bearings: slight chill plus buzzing florescent lights that made you look like you had a pretty serious case of jaundice plus dry air equaled the computer lab in Physical Science building. She was short with a lean, muscular frame but the young woman was ‘mid-deployment hot’ (her hips were a little too wide, legs a little too short, just a shade too much muscle to be really attractive to most men but after three months in the desert she was practically fighting the guys off with a stick) and she knew it so she did not even really try most of the time. She tended to favor faded Levis and tee shirts or sweatshirts and had a nodding acquaintance at best with makeup. From a distance someone observing her might think she was wearing reddish brown gloves until you got closer and saw that the skin of her hands, neck and face had sunburned then healed and sunburned again repeatedly.
She turned her attention to what woke her, namely the buzzing cell phone in the pocket of her hoodie. It was almost summertime and it sure seemed to feel like it outside to everybody else but it felt kind of chilly to her. It had averaged well over a hundred and twenty degrees in the shade when she left Iraq just a few weeks ago, after all... With one bronzed hand she dug the phone out while she dug a large crusty piece of gunk out of the corner of her dark brown eyes with the fingernail of the other.
"Outstanding." she muttered quietly, sighed and stabbed the green button on the screen of her Smartphone with the pad of her thumb. "Hello, Lieutenant Anderson. How are you, sir?" She groaned inside, trying to hide her dislike for the man. He was not a bad guy...things just seemed have a way of getting conveniently lost when he was involved. Her Air Force Reserve section had come back from Camp Freedom, a little Forward Operating Base with an airstrip just outside Mosul a little bit over a month ago. She had completed Airman Leadership School before her deployment but somebody somewhere down the line screwed up the paperwork holding up her promotion to Staff Sergeant. And she had a pretty good idea who it was that might be responsible for the foul up too…
"Airman Frays" the lieutenant began quickly. She imagined him wherever he was puffing up with self-importance as he spoke. "Call your points of contact, grab your battle rattle and get to the airfield TIME: NOW."
The urgent undertone of the man's voice instantly squashed any personal feelings against the man. The young woman put the phone on the table next to the keyboard and pressed the speaker button as she hurriedly saved what little work she had actually managed to get done before dozing off. "Roger that, sir. I have you on speaker phone." she answered sparing a suspicious glance at the phone. "What's going on, sir?" A million bad scenarios ran through her head as she pulled some stray locks of chocolate colored hair back in to the bun on the back of her head. She could practically feel the sand crunching between her teeth.
The man let out an exasperated chuff before he could stop himself. "Don't you watch the news, Airman?" he asked, clearly sounding upset with her. "You'll get a briefing when you get here. Get here. Now."
With that the phone went dead on the desk next to her hand. She frowned and put it away wondering what the heck she was missing anyway as she hustled out of the Physical Sciences building and into the humid night. It had been raining more or less constantly for the past three or four days and the moisture still clung to the air. After the past six months in the desert Frays could not help but take some time away from her class work to walk in the gentle drizzle and enjoy the feeling of it on her face. Jacob, her R.A., went with her sometimes. There was also that epic game of Ultimate Frisbee that he had dragged her to that seemed to take up the better part of an afternoon…
Now she could not afford the luxury and hurried across the quad, through the parking lot and up to her dorm. Frays noticed that a lot of the dorm rooms and parking spaces were empty. It sounded like somebody had thrown a bottle at the far end of the parking lot followed by a lot of yelling. Frays crouched instinctively at the noise, looked around to ascertain the direction of the sound then sprinted up the stairs to her dormitory. There was nobody sitting at the security desk in the foyer. She shook her head and hustled up to her dorm room on the third floor, taking the stairs two at a time.
Frays jammed her key in the lock, opened the door to her room and ducked inside. She paused and stared at what was on her roommate's side of the place, or rather what was not there on her roommate’s side of the place: the dresser drawers hung open and the closet empty with the door open wide. Thankfully her closet was still closed and locked and her dresser looked like it was just as she had left it. When she returned to school a week after the welcome back ceremony Frays had found that her roommate Janice had apparently gotten some of their things confused and all mixed together.
She crossed to the small communal television resting on the cheap press board TV stand and flicked it on. Frays was not surprised to see that it was tuned to the Fox News Channel. Janice was active in the campus Republican Committee and she was thrilled to have an Iraq War veteran as a roommate. Frays however found herself…somewhat less than ecstatic with the arrangement.
While Janice and her yuppie scumbag gel head friends were partying, eating everything in the fridge (whether they paid for the food or not) and making a mess of the place. Frays, however, was too busy trying to catch up on her classwork to do little more than sleep, work out at the gym for an hour or two and hopefully grab a bite to eat in the dining hall.
Then there was the time Janice's dumb jock boyfriend of the week blew up a twenty gallon sized trash bag and popped it next to Frays' bunk while she was asleep. She had rolled out the bed and ran head first into the wall trying, out of instinct, to make it to the cement shelter that had been outside her connex. Frays had wanted to slug Janice when she had gotten mad 'because you can't take a joke'. In retaliation she had thrown Janice’s laptop across the room as she stormed out instead of decking her.
She took a bottle of water out of the small refrigerator, measured out some into a large travel mug then set about making some coffee. Frays grumbled angrily under her breath when she saw that Janice had used up the last of her half and half then put the empty carton back. At least there was still plenty of sugar in the plastic container on top of the fridge. As the coffee brewed Frays checked the butter container in the door of the fridge. "Ha!" she cried triumphantly: the little thief did not find her hidden cache of flavored creamers she had filched from the student union at breakfast yesterday and carefully squirreled away.
The coffeemaker sputtered and spat as it finished filling the carafe with that wonderfully hot and life giving stuff. Frays sat on her bed blousing her boots and half listening to the talking head on the screen across the room. What she heard was not that good. The newscaster was saying something about some new jumped up meningitis bug or something and she was not entirely sure that she wanted to hear the rest. It looks like the natives are getting restless... Frays thought grimly as she shrugged into her ABU top.
She recalled hearing rumors about something like that while on deployment but it was in Asia or Africa or someplace. She had never really given the scuttlebutt much credence because...well...while it was pretty common knowledge that they got a censored version of the news there was not even a peep of it in her email or anything like that. They could not censor her private email and Facebook, could they?
Either way it did not make much of a difference: neighborhoods on the south side of the city was currently on fire and the TV kept showing her the same police car getting smashed up by a bunch of people wielding bats and pipes. “Well...time to go.” Frays muttered to herself as she flicked off the television and started towards the door.
She slapped her beret on her head and paused to study her reflection in the mirror by the door to make sure it was on right. Frays frowned at herself then slung her rucksack over her shoulder and picked up her duffel bag. She paused outside Jacob’s door and knocked a couple times hoping to get to say goodbye. Frays sighed then hustled down to her little Ford Ranger pickup truck in the student parking lot when he did answer. Frays frowned as she slung her gear into the bed of her truck and pulled away from the parking lot.
Frays had made it off campus with reasonable ease, but Route 2A North was a giant snarled up mess. She had called the eight people on her list three times each which was easy to do since she had not moved in thirty eight minutes according to the clock on her truck’s dashboard. It was not that big of a surprise to find that none of them answered and nobody seemed likely to call her back. Frays drummed her fingers on the steering wheel her ears already ringing from the reaming she was sure to get.
She grumbled to herself and began absently flipping through radio stations trying to find out more about whatever the heck she was probably going to be dealing with. The problem was that there did not seem to be much to tell... though of course that it did not stop the talking heads from throwing wild speculations and half baked sounding theories. Muslim extremists, Iranian agents or good old fashioned act of God seemed to be the top three. Frays let out an exasperated sigh and stabbed the seek button again.
And to make matters worse, she realized that she had left her cup of coffee sitting on the top of the fridge back in her dorm room.
She dug through the storage space in the truck’s armrest trying to find the connector for her MP3 player so she could listen to something besides the infuriatingly repetitive news reports. The woman's hand closed around something instantly recognizable and pulled out a pack of cigarettes. She had picked up the habit while pulling guard duty or radio watch while on deployment mainly as a way to kill time and stay awake while on guard duty. She had quit cold turkey the week before the flight back to the states, stashed the mostly full pack of Miami cigarettes in her truck before her parents could see. Frays had not even thought about them since. She frowned at the Arabic writing on the package. "Ah, the heck with it." Frays muttered as she thumbed open the pack and jammed one of the horribly stale cancer sticks into the corner of her mouth as she pulled into the breakdown lane.
She made it a quarter mile or so down the road before she found what was causing the traffic jam. The shattered smoking remains of what looked like three or possibly four cars choked all four lanes of the expressway. A large man in a State Trooper uniform loped over to her vehicle with an irate look on his face. "The hell are you doing?" he growled one hand going to the butt of the pistol holstered on his belt. Frays felt her gut tighten into big knots. “Didn’t you see the goddamn signs?”
"My flight got recalled, Trooper." she said quickly as she pointed to her Security Forces armband on her bicep. She dug in her pocket and flashed her badge. "I gotta get to Hanscomb Air Force Base right away. What's going on?"
The policeman's scowl deepened even though Frays didn't think it was possible. "Go on, get out of here." he muttered as he waved her on. Frays shakily released a breath she did not realize she was holding as she motored away from the wreck. She had seen the look on that policeman's face before in the eyes of the grunts guarding the gates of the FOB and sometimes her fellow airmen. That man had wanted to shoot her and he was more than a little irked that she had not given him an excuse.
Thankfully the road was more or less clear the rest of the way to Hanscomb Air Force Base. She felt something almost akin to relief as she showed the men guarding the gate her ID card and got waved inside the perimeter. The brief encounter with the State Police had left her wanting to be safe (or rather safer would probably be a better term) with her fellow airmen.
Frays pulled in to a parking space at the rear of the armory and muttered angrily under her breath. There was a loose gaggle of men and women in uniforms beginning to form into lines and columns perhaps ten yards away from her truck. However, it was perhaps a third the size it should have been. She slammed the door of the truck and ran to the spot where her flight should have been assembling.
A man who vaguely resembled a refrigerator in ABUs scowled as she approached. She had been surprised to learn that he had played defense for two seasons with the Boston Bruins (Carl, her little brother, would not give her a moment’s peace until she had gotten him to sign his rookie card) and had eight combat deployments with a Vehicle Operations unit under his belt before coming over to the Reserves. Frays thought he looked like Steve Rogers, Captain America’s alter ego, with his square jaw, blond crew cut and bulging muscles. She had considered making a pass at him when she had first gotten to the unit until she had learned that he was married with two kids, twenty years her senior…and her Flight Sergeant. In the three years since then their relationship had settled into one of friendship and mutual respect.
"Glad you could finally make it, Frays." the big man grumbled as Frays fell in to his left. "Did you call everybody else?" He glowered beneath the brim of his patrol cap.
"Sorry, Sergeant." she answered quickly. "I called and left messages but nobody answered." Frays took a quick look around. There were maybe thirty or forty airmen in formation where there should be a hundred and fifty not counting the airmen currently on deployment. "Doesn't look like they were the only ones."
Master Sergeant Emery tapped the woman's elbow drawing her attention back towards the front of the formation. Captain Forsythe wandered awkwardly from the back exit of the building to stand before his airmen. The highest ranking people available stepped forward to fill in for their missing superiors and called their flights to attention then conducted roll call. There was an Airman First Class standing at the front of the other squadron. Frays bitterly shook her head. When that was done Captain Forsythe gave them the command to stand at ease.
"As you have probably heard, the governor has declared a state of emergency." said the Captain as he slowly paced back and forth in front of the formation. "There is heavy rioting in south Boston and the disturbance is spreading across the river and into the suburbs." The man stopped and turned his gaze dramatically towards the men and women before him. Frays was not surprised to learn that the captain had been an amateur stage actor in his youth.
"We are to draw weapons and live ammunition. Personnel qualified with grenade launchers and shotguns are to draw less than lethal countermeasures." the captain said quickly as he continued pacing, trying to channel the gravitas of George C. Scott's famous battle speech scene from Patton. "Charlie Flight, you’ll be moving out by bus to a staging area west of the city where we will assist local law enforcement in restoring law and order to the area. You'll receive your assignments when we arrive. Now let's going!"
The response from Frays and her fellow airmen was probably not as enthusiastic as their captain wanted, but they still filed in to the armory and began to draw their weapons and other supplies. Frays hustled out to her truck and grabbed her gear before signing out her M4A1 carbine with it's M203 40mm grenade launcher mounted under the barrel as well as her M9 pistol. The young woman put a fresh battery in her carbine’s Aimpoint red dot sight with 3x magnification module and made sure she had a couple spare batteries not only for the sight but also the illuminator clamped onto the weapon’s hand guard. A quick press of the pressure switch on the side of the weapon's handguard sent out a beam of bright white light.
She shrugged into her body armor and buckled the pistol belt of her LCS as Sergeant Emery approached, already decked out in his own field gear. She had felt a little under dressed when she first stood next to him, as the big sergeant carried not only the full complement of gear, but a six shot 12 gauge Mossberg 590 pistol gripped pump action shotgun in a scabbard on the back panel of his LCS with nineteen spare rounds of ammunition for it on each shoulder strap. Her only additions to her basic issue kit were the Blackhawk SERPA drop leg holster on her right thigh (a birthday gift from her parents) as her unit’s standard issue holster was one of the ancient M12 models with a flap which made drawing the pistol a huge pain when you really needed it, a Saint Joan’s medal (from Father Greg, her hometown priest) and a Combat Life Saver kit on the left side of her LCS.
The man awkwardly held the handle of two green ammunition cans in each enormous hand. Frays took two of them, cracked the lead wire seals with her multi-tool and tugged open the cans. The two of them made nervous small talk as they pushed rounds into their magazines and stuffed them into carriers on their harnesses. Frays asked after his wife and kids and he inquired about her own folks and how her classes were going.
Frays went back to the arms room and signed out a rubberized canvas bandoleer containing a half dozen CS grenades for her launcher which she slung across her chest like some old timey outlaw. Sergeant Emery and Frays went into the office to fill their camelbaks and canteens from the water cooler. Once they had their water Sergeant Emery did a hands-on check of her gear and the two of them went out the back door to wait for the bus.
Frays immediately started to loathe herself for having those two cigarettes on the way in. There was an itching crawling sensation climbing up and down her spine when it was not busy running laps and doing back flips inside her skull. It did not help that about a dozen of her fellow airmen stood around in loose groups with thin blue clouds of tobacco smoke drifting up into the sky. Sergeant Emery was by her side. “Ya know, I almost thought that we were gonna go back to The Sandbox.” he said as he pulled a pack of Marlboro cigarettes out of an old ammo pouch on his LCS. He offered one to his subordinate who accepted it with grateful resignation. He lit hers then his with his silver Zippo before snapping the lighter shut with a flourish. “Somehow this seems a lot worse.”
“I know.” Frays said quietly as she exhaled a plume of smoke. A look of alarm passed over her face as she dug out her cell phone. “Goddamn it. I need to call my parents and let them know what's going on.” The big NCO smiled at the surprised and ashamed expression on his subordinate’s face. Frays was a two mass a week Catholic and was absolutely mortified whenever she let the occasional cuss word slip.
Sergeant Emery nodded and moved off to talk to some of the other NCOs as Frays scrolled through the contacts list on her phone. She pressed a couple buttons and the phone started to ring. Frays nervously tapped her toe as she waited for someone to pick up.
“Hey, kiddo.” said a rough, masculine voice. Frays' father smoked two packs a day and it showed in his voice. She could tell from his tone that he was worried but was trying to sound upbeat for her sake. “What's shakin'?”
“Hi, Dad. Just calling to let you know that I got recalled.” she answered quickly. The headlights of the buses to take them to the staging area came in to view at the other end of the parking lot. She frowned at the driver willing him to give her just two more minutes. “Listen, Dad…why don't you take Mom and Carl up to the camp for a little while?”
She could not hear her father's response because the buses had pulled up right in front of her and the airmen began crowding on to each of them. “Dad, I gotta go. Tell everybody not to worry, I love them and I'll see everybody soon.” She hung up and stuck the phone back in her pocket as she boarded the rear bus.
Frays could not help but feel like she had wasted her breath telling her parents not to worry. Her dad, who had served as a tank commander in the Marine Corps during Desert Storm, would act like he was not worried (even though he was). Mom would most likely bawl her eyes out like she did when her flight got on the plane for Iraq. Carl, of course, would probably wonder what they were so bothered about. She had Brian Effin’ Emery watching her back, after all.
Frays plopped into the seat next to Sergeant Emery with her rucksack on her lap. Captain Forsythe clomped up the stairs to the bus and stood next to the driver. “I need two volunteers to drive a Humvee.” he said loudly, his voice barely audible over the din of the airmen getting settled in for the long bus ride. Frays shrunk behind the seat in front of her and lifted her rucksack in an attempt to hide from what she knew was coming. “Alright. Airman Jacobson and...” the man surveyed the airmen in front of him “Airman Frays. Get over to the motor pool and sign out Bravo Three Four.”
Frays bit back a groan. The bus seats were way more comfortable than the Humvee not to mention the fact that the bus had air conditioning. Some weird shift in the weather was making it seem really muggy over the last half hour or so. Frays also was not exactly fond of the idea of spending the next couple of hours trapped in a vehicle with Airman Nick Jacobson either. He was short with bad skin and just on the edge of being jammed up over his weight. Not to mention the way he sometimes looked at the female personnel when the unit got together for PT and stuff made her skin crawl. It reminded her a little too much of the way the male personnel would stare at the females in the chow hall at good ol’ Camp Freedom.
The detail sullenly disembarked, pulled their gear out of the bus's cargo hold and took off at a trot towards the high fence surrounding the motor pool. A couple of airmen from the Base Security section opened the gate to the motor pool and held it open for them while they got the Humvee ready to go. Frays opened the door and unlocked the chain securing the vehicle's steering wheel. She pulled the sling of her M4 over her head and snapped the weapon in to the rack next to the driver's seat. Airman Jacobson tossed his stuff onto the back seat and secured his weapon as well then ran around the vehicle to get the drip pan and chock blocks.
Frays programmed the radio mounted to the Humvee’s dash then picked up the handset and keyed the mike. “Any station this net, any station this net. This is Bravo Three Four. Radio check, over.” she said quickly as she flicked the switches to turn the vehicle's motor over. A shudder ran through the vehicle when the starter motor caught and it rumbled to life spewing a cloud of black exhaust out of its tailpipe.
“This is Bravo One Actual.” said Captain Forsythe, the man's voice rendered somewhat tinny and distorted by the radio's speakers. “Read you Lima Charlie, Bravo Three Four.”
“Roger that, Bravo One Actual.” Frays said as the Humvee roared to life and she flicked on the headlamps. “We're ready to roll.” she said as she leafed through the vehicle's dispatch folder then dropped it back on top of the radio.
Ten minutes later the convoy of buses, Humvees and Five Tons was headed east down the interstate towards the staging area. Frays occasionally spared a glance at the young man sitting next to her. Jacobson looked pale and frightened like a scared little boy as he sat fidgeting in the passenger's seat. She suddenly remembered that he had joined the unit after she had gotten back and started to feel like kind of a jerk for her harsh opinion of the guy. This was his first deployment and it might just be in his backyard. She frowned slightly then felt around under the radio mount until her fingers found what she was looking for. Frays produced a thin black wire with the male end of an audio jack on the end. “Hey, Jacobson. Do you got an iPod or something?” she asked, holding up the wire so he could see it “Hook this into its headphone jack.”
Jacobson looked a little confused. “What?” he asked, arching an eyebrow at the woman seated next to him. “Won't we get in trouble?” He had a vague suspicion that she might be trying to set him up for some kind of a trick or something.
Frays laughed, drawing a nervous little smile to Jacobson's features. “If Captain Forsythe wants to jam us up I'll rip out the same set up I put in his Humvee.” she turned her attention back to the road in front of her. “Go ahead, man. It's fine.”
A few moments later the two of them were cruising down the road with the gentle strains of some kind of German speed metal band that sounded to Frays like someone had put a microphone in a sack full of sick cats then started swinging it around their head then recorded the noises it made screaming at them out of the Humvee's speakers. This improved Jacobson's mood greatly however and he even started talking to her. In fact he turned out to be a regular chatterbox and he started grilling her about her previous deployment. Frays told him all she felt comfortable with and gently redirected the conversation when he started to get too close to something she felt was better left alone.
The radio squawked thankfully cutting off the music. “This is Bravo One Actual. There's a rest stop two miles up ahead.” said Captain Forsythe. He paused and keyed his mike again. “The Dunkin' Donuts is donating coffee and donuts to emergency services personnel. We're taking a twenty minute latrine break. How copy?”
Several jubilant cries went up over the radio as the convoy pulled in to the rest stop. Frays grabbed her weapon and hurried in as dignified manner as she could towards the ladies' room while Jacobson made a beeline for the Dunkin' Donuts. When she came out and walked back to the vehicle Jacobson pressed a large cup of black coffee into her hand. “Check it out, Frays.” he said, holding up a paperboard box with a proud smile. “I scored us a half dozen fried cakes and a bunch of doughnut holes.”
She looked quickly over both shoulders and flashed Jacobson a quick grin. “Good deal.” Frays said as she led the way back to their vehicle. “Keep those out of sight until we're moving again.” Frays stopped a few paces from the Humvee, a yawn slowly building in her chest. “Would you mind driving?” she asked as she covered her mouth with a fist and yawned.
Jacobson grinned like a kid. “Sure!” he said quickly. “I just finished up driver's training!”
Frays could not help but smile nervously at the young man's enthusiasm. “Just be careful, okay?” Jacobson seemed like a good guy but she could not help but wonder if she was making a mistake as she stowed her weapon and climbed into the passenger seat.
Sergeant Emery approached their Humvee with two plastic bags in each hand that were full almost to the point of bursting. “Hey, Frays.” he said as he handed her one of the bags through the window to Frays. “A little present from Maria. Merry Christmas, guys.” The two of them thanked the master sergeant profusely as he hurried back to the bus. The two of them divided up the bottles of soda, cans of Red Bull and snack cakes while they waited for the convoy to get ready to leave again.
Frays grumbled under her breath when she discovered her flight sergeant's other present: a carton of Marlboro Red Pack 100s. He even thoughtfully included a couple Bic lighters. “He knows I've been trying to quit!” she cried holding the cigarettes up for Jacobson's inspection. Frays sighed glumly and ripped open the box then took out a couple packs and jammed it into her cargo pocket.
“No, thanks.” Jacobson said when Frays offered him a pack. She frowned and put it back. Figures he doesn’t smoke Frays thought sourly as she pulled her rucksack off of the back seat and put the cigarettes inside.
The man laughed at the sour look on her face. “He's just looking out for you.” he said as he fired up the vehicle's engine. “Besides, you picked a helluva time to quit smoking.” he added in a perfect impression of Robert Stack in the movie Airplane! Frays snorted a tiny laugh in spite of herself and shook her head.
Maybe ten minutes after they were down the road Frays found she was having trouble keeping her eyes open. A few seconds after that she was snoring contentedly, the paper cup still clutched in her hand. Jacobson watched her out of the corner of his eye. The peaceable look on her face brought an uncomfortable stirring sensation in his groin. He quickly gulped down his coffee and threw the paper cup out the window. Jacobson hesitated for a moment then reached across Frays' lap and took her coffee. He allowed his fingertips to brush against her left thigh, the soft skin of her wrist before returning to his side of the vehicle. The woman mumbled something under her breath and shifted around in her seat a couple times before falling back to sleep.
It was still dark when she opened her eyes. Frays groaned and stretched then checked her watch. She blinked at the numbers on the watch face trying to make them make sense. “Wakey, Wakey sleepyhead!” Jacobson said his voice rising and falling in an annoyingly sing-song manner. “I saved your coffee for you but it's been cold for at least an hour.” He held the cup out to her. “You want it?”
Frays waved it away and grimaced in disgust as the man chugged the bitter black liquid. “Any of those donuts left?” Jacobson handed her the box and she was surprised to find the box mostly full. She carefully picked out a handful of chocolate covered doughnut holes.
Jacobson turned the volume on his iPod up a few notches. “Go ahead and eat them if you want those donuts.” he said when Frays put the box back in between their seats. “I don't need them.” the airman added as he gave his middle a pat.
They rode in silence for a few minutes. “Good thing you woke up when you did.” Jacobson said quickly. “We're almost there.” he licked his lips nervously. “I-um...nobody showed up from my flight. Do you think we'll end up together? Working I mean.”
Frays laughed quietly. “I don't know. We'll have to see.” she answered. There was something in the young man's tone that made her a little nervous for some reason she could not quite put her finger on. “I mean...it's not up to me, anyway. That would probably be up to Sergeant Emery.” Jacobson looked more than a little crestfallen. “I'll see what I can do.” Frays added quickly drawing a grin to the young man's face. “Sergeant Emery likes me.”
Their convoy pulled up to the gate of some sports stadium Frays had never heard of but then she reflected that she never really followed sports all that much. Policemen decked out in riot gear waved the buses and other vehicles inside the perimeter before closing the gate behind them. The woman's heart settled in to an uncomfortable region somewhere around her ankles. The sight that greeted their eyes was something Frays never expected to see in an American city: hundreds of people lay on stretchers swathed in bloody bandages while medics buzzed around them like flies. Dozens of heavily armed soldiers and policemen trundled off in trucks or Humvees. There were even a few Strykers, the latest and greatest thing in armored personnel carriers, which Frays guessed probably came from an Army Reserve or National Guard unit (or so she found herself hoping). The APCs could shrug off just about anything the Iraqi insurgents could throw at them so she found their presence simultaneously reassuring and terrifying.
Following Captain Forsythe's orders Jacobson steered their vehicle into an empty space in the parking lot. “This is Bravo One Actual.” said Captain Forsythe. Frays looked around and saw the unit commander's Humvee perhaps a hundred meters away. “Flight leaders, NCOs and acting NCOs, there's a briefing at my Humvee in thirty mikes where you'll get your assignments. Everybody else hang tight by your vehicles.”
Frays and Jacobson stood near their vehicle watching Forsythe move off towards a boxy command trailer that bristled with antennae and satellite dishes. A couple awkward minutes passed. “Wait here. I'll be right back.” Frays said as she ambled off in search of her flight sergeant.
She found him talking with a couple other NCOs so Frays hovered near the edge of the conversation, waiting for an appropriate time to pull her flight sergeant away. “Hey Sergeant Emery” Frays called as soon as the chance presented itself “Can I talk to you for a minute?”
Once the two of them were away from the others Frays took a deep breath. “Jacobson wanted me to ask if he can ride with us.” she said quickly. Frays paused for a second studying her flight sergeant's face. “He seems like he's alright, but he's...new.”
Sergeant Emery mulled the subject over for a few minutes. “I saw that there wasn't anybody from his flight here.” he half mumbled scratching the stubble on his chin as he thought. He frowned wishing he had time to shave. The stubble was itchy. “I trust your judgment, Frays. If you think he's alright and nobody else calls dibs he can ride with us.”
A sick feeling rolled around in her stomach. “Where is everybody?” Frays asked quietly. She felt her forehead and cheeks suddenly feeling hot despite the slight breeze blowing in from the ocean. “Don't they know we need them here?” She lashed out angrily, sending an empty soda can near the toe of her boot flying across the parking lot where it landed with a hollow rattle. “What the…heck is wrong with them?!”
Once the storm had subsided Sergeant Emery rested his enormous hands on the woman's shoulders. “Look at me.” he said sternly. Frays glanced at her boots, at his. “Look at me, Airman.” the big sergeant repeated himself, this time turning the statement into an order. “I need you here. Jacobson needs you here. Don't worry about what those fucktards are doing. We'll get this wrapped up and the chain of command will handle it. Roger?”
Frays smiled, feeling her game face coming back. “Roger that, Sergeant.” she said quietly as she composed herself. “Sorry. This is just so out there, you know?”
Sergeant Emery laughed and clapped his subordinate on the back. “It's strange, I'll give you that.” he said as the two of them walked back towards the vehicles. “It's about time for the briefing. I'll update you and Jacobson when it's done.”
Jacobson awaited her almost like an expectant puppy happy that his person came home. “Did you ask him?” the young airman asked. Frays could almost swear that he was actually trying to restrain himself from hopping from one foot to the other. “What did he say?”
“He said if nobody calls dibs on you from your flight you can ride out with us.” she said carefully. Unthinking, Frays dug her cigarettes out of her cargo pocket and tore open the cellophane. Before she could produce her lighter Jacobson had his out the lighter's small flame flickering. She muttered a thanks she lit her cancer stick.
Another awkward silence threatened the two of them as they watched the police and soldiers mobilizing around their staging area. “I thought you didn’t smoke.” Frays said at last. She field stripped the butt of her cigarette and dropped the filter into the cargo pocket of her ABUs. They went to the back of the Humvee and pulled out their vehicle’s crew served weapon: a Browning M2 .50 caliber heavy machine gun.
“There's a lot you don't know about me.” Jacobson said with a raised eyebrow, drawing a chuckle from the young woman next to him as he picked up the weapon’s pintle mount. “Though seriously, I don't. A lighter can just be a handy thing to have.”
A couple minutes later Sergeant Emery left the briefing and approached their Humvee just as Frays was checking the Browning's headspace and timing with what looked like a set of metal shims on a chain. “Alright you crazy kids! Road trip!” he cried, spreading a tactical map on the hood of the vehicle. Frays and Jacobson crowded around him and peered at the map. “We're gonna go here.” Sergeant Emery informed his subordinates while pointing at a spot on the laminated map with an index finger “This right here is scenic Checkpoint Twelve on the north side of the Harvard Bridge. There we'll find about a half squad of Marines from the One Eight Combat Engineers battalion.”
He paused so that Frays and Jacobson could finish writing down what he just told them. “Our mission is to contain the civilian population on the south side of the bridge.” Emery said, circling the quarantine zone with a red grease pencil on the map. “Intel indicates that so far only a few civilians have approached the bridge though command expects that more will turn up eventually. Nobody crosses the bridge. Nobody. Civilians are to return to their homes and stay there until told otherwise.” Emery rubbed his jaw and added with a hint of unease “Some people might be too sick to understand directions. We may have to use lethal force to maintain the quarantine. Just keep your heads and don’t do anything without orders unless you perceive a direct threat to yourself, friendly forces or civilians. Clear?”
He paused a moment to see if the airmen had any questions then continued the briefing. Frays went a little pale at the news while Jacobson looked like he was carved out of wood. “When we get there there’s this jarhead lieutenant named Peterson is in charge. We follow his orders unless we hear different come down from higher.” Sergeant Emery let Frays copy the marks he made on his map on her own. “We're leaving in ten so let's finish getting our fifty cal mounted and ready to go, kids.”
Jacobson rode shotgun while Frays drove. Their truck was part of a four vehicle convoy of Army and Air Force Humvees moving from the staging area to their assigned sectors. Sergeant Emery rode in the gunner's cupola behind the Humvee's crew served weapon. Once they were out of the staging area, much to Frays' secret annoyance, Jacobson hooked his iPod back up and the German cat torturers were blaring once more.
She was just wondering when Sergeant Emery was going to get sick of it when he bent down into the vehicle and bellowed “Turn that shit off!” The young man seemed to deflate a little as he complied. Frays smiled into the palm of her hand. The few times they had to go outside the wire on deployment Sergeant Emery had her crank ‘Bad to the Bone’ by George Thorogood and The Destroyers on their way out of the gate.
After half an hour of driving Frays could not help but think of downtown Mosul. There were seemingly hundreds of cars crowding the streets, people yelling at each other, car horns blaring. Many of the vehicles had luggage or other household goods strapped to the top. A few of them even had animal carriers complete with panicked cats or dogs in them. “Any of this look familiar to you, Sergeant?” Frays said loudly so he could hear her over the street noise.
“Kinda!” shouted Sergeant Emery “Except there's more white people!” The two of them laughed then turned their full attention back to what they were doing. Jacobson chuckled nervously and began fiddling with his equipment as he stared out of the vehicle's windscreen. “Try to speed up a little. There’s a guy in a blue sedan right side intersection next block. Looks like he might try to get in the middle of the convoy!”
Frays stepped on the gas keeping the car from cutting into traffic and screwing with the convoy. Sergeant Emery swung the fifty cal around and pointed it in the offending vehicle’s general direction just to make sure he thought better of trying to cut into line. When they came to a stoplight Frays dug a Red Bull out of her rucksack, unfolded the knife blade from her multi-tool and used it to shotgun the energy drink. “Relax, Jacobson.” she said as she dropped the empty can into a plastic bag on the back of the man's seat. “It's gonna be alright. Just stay cool, buddy. We'll look after you.”
Frays broke off from the convoy when they arrived at the checkpoint to find two other Humvees arranged in a wedge perhaps a quarter of the way across the bridge. There was a five ton truck blocking both lanes closer to their side of the bridge with a couple other Humvees arranged next to it. A short beefy man in Marine Corps camo approached as Frays steered the vehicle onto the bridge. “Hey, Marine!” called Sergeant Emery. “Where do you want us?”
“Fill up that gap on our right flank.” said the Marine, gesturing towards where he wanted Frays to park the Humvee. “Lieutenant Haskins wants to go over the game plan with your squad leader once you're in position.”
Once the vehicle was stopped and Frays had the parking brake in place, Emery dropped down into the cab. “Frays, take over up here. Remember, we're here on crowd control so keep your M203 handy.” the man opened the rear driver's side door and stepped out onto the street. “Jacobson, just...try not to touch anything. I'll be back in a minute.”
Frays climbed through the back door and into the cupola. There was a dull roar of shouting and people angrily honking their car horns on the far side of the bridge. She could not imagine what it was like over there: the heat, choking on car exhaust, kids crying, hoping to outrun whatever this new hopped up bug was that brought on this panic... Her eyebrows shot up when a thought struck her out of the blue. That could could be me over there... Frays shuttered at the idea and tried not to go too far down the rabbit hole that particular notion presented.
The crowd started across the bridge perhaps pushed forward by the crush of people and vehicles behind them. Frays braced herself and prepared to rip open the Velcro of her gas mask carrier and stuff her face into the stifling plastic and rubber mask. She hated wearing the thing but it beat catching a lung full of CS gas by accident.
Frays crouched down inside the vehicle. “Move over into the driver's seat and get ready to put on your gas mask.” she told Jacobson. She stood back up and maneuvered her M4 into position and slid the breach of her grenade launcher open. “Just stay calm.” Frays added as she inserted a CS grenade into the launcher’s chamber and pulled the action closed.
Sergeant Emery came back to the Humvee on the run. “Wait for the green light from command!” he said loudly. The man shaded his eyes and watched the mob coming towards them on the bridge. “They appear to be unarmed, so hold your-”
The heavy unmistakable deep bark of a Browning M2 .50 caliber heavy machine gun cut him off. Frays watched in horror as perhaps two dozen people at the front of the mob tumbled like bowling pins. Screams rent the morning air as the mob tried to disperse but for the ones in front were in the middle of the bridge. There was nowhere for them to go because the people behind them would not let them pass. In their panic the civilians started shoving each other into the river or crushing one another under foot.
Frays looked helplessly down at Sergeant Emery. “Gas 'em, Frays!” he shouted pointing furiously towards the terrified mob. “Gas 'em!” Frays raised her M4 to her shoulder and prepared to fire as some people across the bridge who were not as unarmed as Intel had indicated returned fire. A bullet whined off the Humvee as Frays' M203 thumped a grenade back at them. White gray smoke billowed causing all nearby to choke and gag as the CS did its work. Frays ducked down inside the truck and tore open her mask carrier, her fingers fumbling with the rubber mask as she tried to get it out... Her nose and eyes already started to burn a little as the wind blew some of the gas inside the vehicle.
Sergeant Emery opened the rear driver's side door, digging out his own gas mask as he started trying to climb inside the vehicle. His face was perhaps a foot or so away from Frays’ own when it disappeared in a red mist. A bullet seemed to have found the gap between the door and the body of the Humvee turning the man’s face into dripping raw hamburger from the bridge of his nose down. One of his blue eyes dangled out of its socket, startlingly pale against the bloody mess that used to be her friend's face.
Frays leaped across the inside of the vehicle, caught the big sergeant’s arm and tried to haul the much larger man inside. The blaring of an air horn distracted her momentarily from her task. Her eyes bulged when she saw a large green dump truck smashing a smaller car out of its way. Black-gray smoke billowed from its chrome exhaust pipes as its driver floored the accelerator. The huge truck's sparkling chrome grill seemed to take up the whole world as it came barreling towards their position.
Frays forgot about Sergeant Emery for a minute. She stared dumbly at the dump truck as it bore down on her smashing everything before it to pulp. Bodies flew through the air like rag dolls. She could make out blood spattered across the shiny chrome grill now as a handful of .50 cal rounds peppered the truck. Some threw off little sparks while others punched finger sized holes into its windscreen. There was time for only one last thought before the massive vehicle crashed at into the Humvee: This is it. I'm gonna die.
The truck slammed into the Humvee like the hammer of Thor sending the vehicle spinning into the cement guardrail. The force of the impact threw her into the rear seat of their truck and Frays lay in a heap against the rear passenger’s side door and it took her a moment or two to realize that she was somehow upside down, the top of her head almost touching the floor of the truck. Little sparks floated across her vision for a minute. Grey dust and tiny chunks of debris filled the air. Frays was vaguely aware that it sounded like the Marines were falling back as the civilians rushed forward around them. The shattered Humvee teetered, its front wheels tottering off into space. She righted herself and sat there blinking stupidly until she got her bearings then carefully pulled herself towards the front of the Humvee when she saw Jacobson still sitting behind the wheel. “Sergeant Emery!?” she called, surprised by how hoarse and weak her voice sounded in her own ears.
“Jacobson!” she hissed as she cautiously leaned forward and shook the man's shoulder. “Jacobson! We've got to get out of here!” Jacobson's head lolled towards her, his face spider webbed with cuts and blood dribbled down his chin. He tried to tell her something but no words seemed to come out. A few droplets of blood spattered on her face instead. “Come on, Airman! Can you open your door? Try it for me.”
The bridge groaned under the weight of the Humvee. The truck leaned farther over the edge showing her more of the bluish-green water roiling around the bridge’s support beams. Frays struggled to keep the panic welling up in her chest out of her voice. “Come on, Jacobson.” she said quietly as Frays tried to get her hands under the man's arms.
Frays pulled as hard as she dared hoping to extract the man from behind the steering wheel when a bloodcurdling scream in her ear made her stop. She peered over the Jacobson's shoulder. “Oh no. Oh God no.” Frays whispered. A tangle of metal and wire had speared through Jacobson's legs from about the mid thigh down. “I’m so sorry, Jacobson.” she whispered in his ear and brushed his cheek with the palm of her hand. Frays dug in her heels got as good a grip as she could manage on Jacobson's torso and pulled for all she was worth.
The Humvee lurched as the bridge beneath it groaned louder this time. Pieces of cement and rebar splashed into the water below as Jacobson screamed and started clawing at the back of Frays' neck. Flesh and bone began to separate as blood sprayed against the inside of the vehicle's windscreen. Something hot and metallic smelling stung her eyes as it ran down her face. She screamed in frustration wondering crazily why nobody was trying to help her get him out of the wrecked truck. “God, I'm so sorry.” Frays whispered as she braced herself to try again. “I’m so so so so sorry.”
The bridge squealed and crumbled. The woman's stomach launched into her throat as the Humvee finally lost its battle with gravity. She scrambled for the cupola, twisted, somehow managed to climb onto the top of the truck and jumped free. The world whirled crazily as Frays plummeted towards the water. She was only vaguely aware that she was screaming and felt a warmth on her crotch a half second before the river slapped her in the face.
Frays crashed into the river the cold surface of the water stinging her face and driving the air out of her lungs. The current grabbed her as Frays struggled to the surface gasping and choking. She had always been the active outdoorsy type and a strong swimmer but the weight of her gear threatened to drag her to the bottom. The tail end of the Humvee jutted from the water, bobbing along in the current as it slowly started to sink. Frays made an ungainly attempt at a doggy paddle, hoping to reach it before it went under and fighting the current all the way. “Jacobson!” she gagged as water splashed into her open mouth.
More water found its way up her nose and she sputtered, coughing as the cold foul smelling river water invaded her lungs. The Humvee disappeared below the surface with a shuddering fart as the trapped air inside escaped through a shattered window. Frays kicked her feet as hard as she could; trying to push herself out of the water as much as possible and hoping to see that Jacobson had somehow managed to escape. She took in a big lungful of air and dove under the surface. Frays swam as fast as she could but the Humvee's taillights vanished into the murky water as it sank out of sight.
On the verge of exhaustion Frays scrabbled to the surface and leaned back. She let the current carry her downstream while she did just enough to keep her head above the surface. She tried to look for a place to get out of the water, the cold working its way quickly into her limbs and sapping her strength. There was a frustratingly large amount of cement retaining walls along the river's west bank. Frays felt a little sick when she noticed that several dozen bodies kept pace with her down the river.
She finally spied a boat landing coming up. Frays gently steered herself into a position to snag one of the landing's low docks and pulled herself along it until she reached the slimy cement ramp that led to the water's edge. She lay there gasping for breath and coughing for some time before Frays managed to gather the strength to try and sit up so she could look around. The world faded to gray as the woman's eyes rolled up into her head.