The landscape surrounding White Sands is stark and unforgiving and now it belongs to the dead. I take the hose of my camel bag from Claire and swallow down the last bit of water before I shrug the pack off and toss it inside the pickup.
“What do we do now, Chase?” she asks me.
“I don’t know,” I admit.
Hundreds of soulless creatures trudge toward us through the desert. The scorching sun glints off the sand and slowly cooks our bodies. No human can survive in conditions like this. But those things out there aren’t human. They’re relentless. Remorseless. And they’re everywhere now.
I hear the moans of the dead carry on the wind. The haunting sound is almost always there now. I’m so used to hearing it that I get the feeling that something is wrong when it’s absent.
“You hear that?” I ask Claire.
“What?” she asks. “I don’t hear anything.”
I hold a finger to my lips so she stops talking. The unmistakable whirring of a helicopter cuts through the stifling air. After listening for a few more seconds, I’m sure that I’m not just imagining things.
“A helicopter,” I say to Claire. “Heading this way.”
As the bird gets closer, I scan the horizon. The Osprey emerges through the clouds to the east and circles around Holloman Air Force Base and the swarms of dead below. The sight of the military aircraft is surreal. It has been over a month since I have seen any sign of military activity. The pilot peels away from the overrun airfield and turns towards the Tularosa Basin.
“What is he doing?” Claire wonders out loud.
“It looks like he is trying to find a spot to touch down,” I say.
The engines of the Osprey shut down as the pilot circles above the desert. The fool must have run out of fuel up there. Claire and I watch as the aircraft wobbles down to the ground and spews up a cloud of sand as it makes a hard landing. I hold my breath for a long moment, expecting an explosion that doesn’t come. The corpses in the area begin to converge on the crash site. If anyone managed to survive that landing, they won’t be alive very long.
“We should get moving,” I say to Claire. “That crash will draw every walking stiff for miles.”
“They could still be alive,” she pleads as she watches me load my gear back onto the truck. She folds her arms across her chest when she sees my indifference. “They’re probably military. Aren’t you supposed to have some kind of code or something.”
“They’re probably dead,” I say. “And we will be, too, if we don’t get the hell out of here.”
Gunfire from the direction of the helicopter proves me wrong a moment later. I bring up my rifle to scope the area again and see a big ass guy dressed in SEAL fatigues. He hauls a woman out over one shoulder and fires at the incoming dead with his free hand. A woman and a man dressed in black tactical uniforms follow him out into the white hot sands and cover him as he runs into the Osprey and retrieves another person. The big guy returns carrying a kid in his arms and is trailed out by scruffy dog.
As the man in the black uniform scans the desert for threats, he spots our vehicle parked on the dune. He waves an arm in the air at us to show he is friendly, but keeps his rifle at a low ready. I don’t move to return the gesture. These people aren’t military. Not all of them anyway.
“Get in the damn truck,” I growl at Claire.
She ignores me and waves her arms over her head.
“I’m going to help them,” Claire says.
Before I can stop her, she is heading down the hill, skidding on the hot sands. This woman is hell bent on getting me killed. I decide to leave her ass to die out here in the desert with them. She made her own damn choice. I walk around and get in the pickup and start the engine. After I shift the truck in drive, I look back to see Claire running toward the chopper as the dead from town swarm toward their position.
“Dumb bitch,” I growl. I slam a fist on the steering wheel, then I crank it to the right and drive down the hill.
I slow down alongside her and tell her to get her ass in the truck. She ignores me and keeps walking.
“I can’t believe you would let them die out here,” she shakes her head.
“I’m just trying to protect you,” I tell her.
“Yeah, yeah, the mission,” she scoffs.
“It’s not about the mission anymore,” I say. “Damn it, just get in the truck, Claire. We’ll help them.”
She stops walking and stares me down before she finally gets in the passenger seat.
I hit the gas and we rumble over the sand until we reach the helicopter. We get out, and the big guy in the SEAL uniform looks me up and down as he heads inside to the bay of the Osprey again.
The guy in the black fatigues approaches the vehicle cautiously.
“We came to help,” Claire says.
The guy shifts his gaze to me and my finger hovering over the trigger of my M4. He gives me a nod and then smiles at Claire.
“I know you were taking a chance by coming to help,” he tells Claire. “Thank you.”
“Who are you guys?” I ask him. “And how’d you get all this shit?”
“I’m Blake,” he says. “Not sure you will believe me if I tell you how we ended up here, but I will. Once you give us a lift out of here.”
He looks to me for agreement. My eyes shift from his face to the kid crying beside the body of a woman that looks to be dead.
“All right,” I agree as I open the door to the truck again. “Just hurry the fuck up.”