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Calamity (Book 1, Calamity Series) - Chapters 1, 2, & 3

Updated: Dec 20, 2023


Chapter One


Derrick Hart

Birmingham, Al


Nothing was as terrible as the sound of a man crying. It was the whimper of a wounded animal dying in the street. A man crying was a foreign sound that once heard could not be forgotten, no matter how hard you tried. Especially when it came from one of these men. The sheepdogs who protected the sheep.


Officer Derrick Hart lay on his back in the dark roll call room, his fingers curled around the chain that held a pair of worn dog tags around his neck. He had never served in the military. The two pieces of metal were not to identify him as a soldier but instead were all he had to tie him to his best friend. They were a cheap toy made of thin metal and meant to be snapped free and lost days after a child received them for their birthday or a weekend trip to the toy store. The chain on Derrick’s set had broken on more than one occasion during his childhood but he always replaced it with another.


Dozens of police officers lay around him on the musky carpet and pretended to sleep; pretending not to hear the whimpering in the front of the room. It had been nine days since the outbreak in Miami, and Derrick questioned how many hours he had slept since then.

How much sleep has anyone gotten? How do you sleep when horror movies become reality?

Sleep wasn’t measured in days and nights for police officers anymore but in clumps of hours here or thirty minutes there. This made these precious minutes of peace that were being disrupted by the crying man all the more serious.


The infected were coming. Thousands of them, millions, perhaps. The Army National Guard was now in charge and refused to give estimates, but everyone knew the infected were running to Birmingham. They were coming to tear Derrick apart along with all those who remained in the city. The first of them would arrive today.


Turning the piece of metal over above his face, Derrick studied the drawings of two Viking warriors on one tag. Their tattooed, muscle-bound bodies were strapped with a heavy axe and the other a broadsword as tall as the man. The two warriors looked nothing like his best friend or himself, but Derrick had always pretended they did as a kid.


Two brothers clasping arms before battle.


The second of the two tags read a quote that Derrick must have repeated with his friend a thousand times. ‘Valhalla waits for no one…’ Of all the times he had read that, today was the first time Derrick’s stomach dropped as he weighed the meaning of those words. Because today he would see Valhalla.


Today is the day I die, he thought.


He twisted the bulky, Redband bracelet that was fastened on his right wrist, letting air reach the soggy flesh beneath it. His thumb rubbed across the barcode etchings along the metallic side of the bracelet. It was his government-imposed tether that all present in the room had agreed to wear for the sake of their loved ones. Something to ensure they didn’t flee their duty.


The layer of dried sweat and grease coating his skin pulled every time he moved. His auburn hair was the only thing greasier than his unwashed flesh. The closest thing Derrick had to a shower in the past week was pouring cold water over his neck from a hose behind the precinct yesterday.


At least I think it was yesterday.


He had stopped noticing his body odor last week and was getting better at not noticing others too. Derrick had an unassuming way about him. At twenty-nine years old, he was of average height with plain looks and soft features. Few would guess he was a senior member of the Birmingham SWAT team. He didn’t possess the swollen muscles or gaunt jawline that the TV shows demanded of those on the elite team of the police department. He never wanted to be a superhero. Ever since he was a child, Derrick had only sought normality, something that his childhood was not.


The muffled cries that jabbed at the quiet room came from a young man who stood by himself near the whiteboard. The board behind him was covered in old messages from supervisors, ‘OT Mandates,’ ‘found pair of handcuffs in sergeant’s office,’ along with an officer’s hastily scribbled comment, ‘also make sure all of the suspect’s cocaine is out of their pockets before booking them (Alex!).’ Long gray tables and black plastic chairs were shoved to the edge of the dim room and stacked on top of each other to make floor space.

Shrouded in the shadow of a stack of chairs taller than him, the young man held his face in the palms of his hands as he cried. Derrick could sense the old-timers beside him growing perturbed with these audible emotions.


Derrick did his best to ignore the messy sobs and focused on the other officers around him. Most tried to sleep but, like Derrick, they were too restless as they rolled about on the thin carpet that felt more like they laid on concrete slabs. Leaving on just their black work pants and black undershirts, officers had stacked their uniform shirts, body armor, and gun belts beside them.


Everyone dealt with the tense moments during downtime differently. Some men mumbled prayers to themselves–barely audible whispers filled with pleas for God’s protection. Others stared at pictures of their loved ones under the glow of their cellphone screens. They twisted the Redband bracelets on their wrists. At some point, every police officer had doubts about signing the suicide contract so their loved ones could escape the city. Even Derrick.


Alyssa’s safe with her family… at least you could give her that, Derrick.


No one talked to one another. He couldn’t blame them. Just like he didn’t blame the young patrol officer for crying. At some point today, every man and woman in this room would allow their tears to consume them in the privacy of a bathroom stall or patrol car. It was inevitable. There was only one thing on everyone's mind, and no one wanted to say it out loud. As if staying silent might keep death at bay.


Derrick took his phone out of his breast pocket hoping to see a green notification from her. A missed call or text message, some sign that Alyssa was alive. That she was safe.


That Alyssa is thinking of me, Derrick thought. He immediately hated himself for thinking it. But alas, the top of the screen showed the same symbol it always did. No signal. The only reason Derrick still charged the damn thing was for the few times it connected to a Wi-Fi signal, he’d receive sporadic data dumps of news updates, text messages, and voicemails that had been suspended in limbo for hours or days. But as ‘America’s Last Stand,’ a term coined by news channels, approached, even the Wi-Fi seemed sluggish.


Instead, Derrick just stared at the photo on his home screen. It was a year-old picture of Alyssa on her tippy toes kissing a blurry-eyed Derrick on the cheek after a long night of drinking. The picture always made him smile, not just because of the moment, but what had occurred just after. His best friend, Brandon, had snapped the picture as they waited for their rideshare from downtown Birmingham back to Derrick’s house. Not two seconds after taking it Brandon vomited the pitcher of strawberry margarita he had inhaled an hour prior. The mess had covered the front of Brandon’s cowboy boots that his wife had insisted he wear. Karen and Alyssa had spent the rest of the night chastising him for splattering on them, and Derrick had to hold his gut because he was laughing too hard. He was sure he still had a video of Brandon passed out in a bush in his backyard later that night.


Derrick’s smile soured as the sobs of the patrolman grew louder. He was more than background noise at this point. The base in his voice rumbled, making officers who slept stir.


“Please god… Please…” The young officer’s voice broke as he cried his prayer.


“Jesus Christ…” A heavyset officer to Derrick’s right grumbled as he turned on his side. To be honest, Derrick didn’t want to listen to this kid’s tears, either. Deep down, he wanted this boy to man up and give everyone some much needed peace before they died. That was Derrick’s exhaustion talking.


But how else should this patrolman act? The military that now fortified Birmingham with hardened defenses fit for a Russian invasion gave the Birmingham Police updates on how far the infected swarms were from them. Three days. Two days. One… This rookie officer was tormented by videos of infected civilians tackling Florida police officers in fits of violence. Men and women stripped of their humanity as they growled and screamed like animals. An entire state lost in days. And now three more teetered on collapse.


Now, Birmingham was all that stood in the way of the infection spreading to the rest of the country. And the ETA of the amassing hordes of infected wasn’t days anymore, but hours.

“Ah, for fuck’s sake,” Tommy spat. “Shut the fuck up!”


Derrick couldn’t see Tommy in the darkroom but knew his grating, Jersey-accented voice anywhere. It was ironic he was the one silencing another since Tommy had spent his whole career being told to shut his overactive mouth.


“Oh god…” The crying officer’s voice broke. “I don’t want to die…”


“Are you kidding me…” a deep voice groaned from the back of the room.


“Shut up!” another officer echoed as exasperated gripes joined in.


Derrick felt a knot in his throat and another forming in his gut. He tried to ignore the heavy and obligatory pull he felt from within when duty called. It wasn’t something Derrick could just turn off, no matter how much he wished he could. All he wanted to do was sleep, but he couldn’t just sit back and listen to this rookie officer being berated.


“I’m sorry, I just–I can’t,” the young man tucked his arms into his chest. His hands covered his face as his cries turned to hysterical sobbing. The kind of crying he probably hadn’t done in twenty years, since he was a little boy tucked in the safety of his mother’s embrace.


“Look, you fucking pussy,” Tommy’s voice boomed, again. This time he was up and lumbering toward the front of the room with heavy steps. Tommy was a giant to most. His six-foot-four, two-hundred-and-fifty-pound frame only amplified his broad shoulders and pointed jaw. “I’ll fuckn’ kill you myself if you don’t shut up.” Tommy snatched the smaller officer up by his lapel making the boy’s metal pins on his uniform clang against each other.


Tommy’s voice was erratic and strained, a testament to the amount of stress they were all under after days of sleeplessness and nights of violent rioting. The infection might not have reached Birmingham yet, but the riots, looting, and surge in crime had plagued every major city in the United States for over a week now.


“In fact,” Tommy pointed down to the young man’s duty pistol in his holster, “why don’t you take that gun into the men’s room and fucking eat the muzzle like the rest of the pussy suicides, huh?”


“I-I’m, I just–” the boy stuttered.


Derrick scrambled to his feet, but his aching body didn’t move nearly as fast as he thought it would. His feet were covered in blisters and sores from being on his feet for twenty hours a day for over a week, while his chest and arms were covered in undiscovered bruises from working the riot lines at night.


“Here, I’ll fuckn’ help you pull the trigger,” Tommy spat, reaching for the boy’s weapon. But a small figure appeared behind Tommy before Derrick intervened. She was shorter than both of the men. When she pushed between Tommy and the crying officer, she looked like a child trying to hold back her dad from a fight. Both her hands propped against Tommy’s chest, failing to hold him at bay. That’s why it was to everyone’s surprise when Tommy collapsed onto the carpet like a chopped tree.


“I said, back the fuck off!” the woman shouted, pointing her finger down at Tommy. Derrick recognized the voice and in the gray hue of light, he was able to see Perry’s familiar face.

Tommy writhed on the carpet. His hands clutched his groin, his knees pinched together like a cartoon character.


“You bitch!” Tommy fumed through gritted teeth. Like an angry bear, he clamored to his feet, marching towards Perry until he saw her Glock 19 half drawn out of the drop holster on her thigh. “Oh, you gonna shoot me now? Do it! Do me the favor, bitch!” Tommy held his arms wide open in a challenge as he stepped closer to her. His enormous wingspan made her seem even smaller.


The room became icy cold as the two stared each other down. In that hair of a second, the room wasn’t full of police officers, but just a group of people at their wit’s end. The anarchy that had spread through the country had finally found its way into the police precinct. Derrick broke from his trance long enough to muster as much of a commanding voice as he could despite his exhaustion. “Back off, Tommy!”


Tommy’s eyes jolted over to Derrick, and he drew to a halt barely a yard from Perry. Tommy gave a measured snarl in Derrick’s direction. Then, as if realizing where he was, did a brief survey of the dozens of officers staring at him.


With a final grunt, Tommy relented, turning away from Perry and the cowering patrolman “Whatever… fucking cunt.”


Perry’s eyes didn’t leave Tommy until he fell back to his spot on the floor, his hand rubbing his wounded crotch. Her hand seated her Glock back in the holster and she gave a brief nod to Derrick, which he returned. Derrick hadn’t realized Perry was in the room until then. He hadn’t realized she was still in the city.


She was one of the few who still had her gear and uniform on, but unlike the patrolmen whose shirts and pants were black, Perry wore a baggy, forest green uniform that matched Derrick’s. She also wore a heavy vest similar to the one Derrick had laid beside him. It was covered with filled magazine pouches across the chest and white lettering across the upper back panel that read, ‘SWAT.’


“I’m sorry. I just, I need–” the young patrolman stuttered. His face was a mess of tears, snot, and shock from what had just happened.


“It’s okay… it’s okay… what’s your name?” Officer Perry asked.


“Miles,” he answered, wiping his nose with the back of his hand.


“Miles, my name is Perry,” she said.


The barrel-chested patrolman beside Derrick rolled to his side with a labored sigh, “Would you get that coward out of–”


Before Derrick could even consider speaking, Perry snapped at him, “Shut up you fat fuck and go back to sleep.”


The man growled something to himself but did as he was told.


Perry turned back to Miles and pulled him down into an embrace, petting his hair as his mother might have. “It’ll be alright, take a deep breath. In and out, come on.”


The officer followed her instructions through wet sniffles. After a moment she pulled away but held Miles’ shoulders as she looked at him.


“Listen Miles. I need you to suck it the fuck up, okay?” she said, pulling his six-foot frame down to her shorter self. “You’re a fuckin’ police officer. You’re built for this shit, otherwise, you wouldn’t have that badge on your chest. The rules are the same out there. Bad guys chase civilians, and we chase bad guys, okay? There’s people out there who aren’t as strong as you, who are counting on you right now. And more importantly, everyone in this room is counting on you, and I’m one of them. It’s easy to be a cop when nothing bad is happening, but it’s what you do now that matters most, okay?”


Miles nodded, taking a deep breath. He wiped his eyes on the back of his forearm.


“Okay. Now go outside, get some water on your face, and come back. Get some rest, alright?” Perry gave him a nod. Miles left the room quickly with his head tucked low. Derrick saw a brief glare of Miles’ wedding band catching the light as he passed.


It's falling apart. Everything is about to fall apart.


Derrick laid back down beside his gear and rubbed his greasy forehead. If the police were barely holding it together, the military couldn’t be far behind.


And the virus isn’t even in Birmingham, yet.


Derrick rolled to his side and tried to quiet his mind. With a deep breath, he allowed his body to release the tension and begin his fast descent into sleep. His fingers touched the rifle that lay beside him as the world faded into darkness and his muscles unclenched for the first time in days. His relaxed mind rested on thoughts of Alyssa and wondering what his girlfriend, or former girlfriend, was doing.


Before the warm embrace of sleep could envelop him, the hallway door smacked open against the wall, rattling the room to life. The cut of the bright setting sunlight from the summer day shone painfully across their eyes. The roar of thumping helicopter rotary blades filled the room.

“It’s time. Everybody up!” Captain Elwood ordered. “They’re here.”



Chapter Two


Rachel Anderson

I-65 N


Rachel Anderson pressed her hands against the dashboard as the Toyota 4runner barreled violently across the muddy terrain. Her butt jumped off the seat with every bump. The engine roared across a farm field that grew muddier the farther they drove away from the interstate. Rachel didn’t know anything about cars, but she knew the sound the engine made meant their vehicle wasn’t going to last much longer. The engine whined from the high RPMs as Sean turned the steering wheel side to side and pumped the gas pedal to escape from getting stuck in the thick cake of black sludge.


Come on, we’re almost there.


They passed hundreds of unoccupied cars. Each with their tires half-buried in the muck and their sides splattered in a massacre of mud, evidence of the drivers’ final attempts to free themselves from the clutch of the bog. The vehicles’ occupants would be walking along the interstate with the others now. Their possessions abandoned along with their cars as they committed to the long walk north to safety, wherever that may be.


The forgotten vehicles extended to the left and right of the interstate for over a hundred yards in each direction. Rachel and the three men she rode with in the Toyota had been lucky so far. They had made it farther than most. The one good thing about being this far from Interstate 65 was they had distance between them and the tens of thousands who trudged along the road.


Rachel stared nervously at the endless procession of sweaty, worn-down people who walked beside the traffic-clogged road. She swore if she ever made it home to safety, she would lock herself in her bedroom with all her lights on and just be alone. For all her love of people and the years Rachel had dedicated to teaching the underprivileged youth of America, the bleak chaos of the past days had caused her to question her core beliefs for the first time in her twenty-five years on this planet.


People were no longer an idealized vessel of hope to Rachel. They were unpredictable animals. Any group greater in number than theirs made her wary. Staring out the window at the thousands across the field, her mind had violent recollections of being nearly trampled in panicked stampedes in Florida or bruised by muggers who swarmed her. Rachel had seen the dark side of humanity.


“Watch that bump there,” Chris pointed from behind the driver’s seat. Chris Carroll was a middle-aged man who was balding, though, as usual his head was covered in a Philadelphia Eagles ball cap that was worn and frayed at the edges. “Looks like a soft spot.”


“They’re all soft spots,” Allen grumbled, the permanent snarl fixed to his face beneath his hooked nose. “It’s a goddamn muddy… trough.”


Even though Allen sat behind her and she couldn’t see him, Rachel had to literally bite her tongue to keep from cussing him out, again. The stress of survival had worn on everyone’s nerves and regressed each person to their base personalities. The carefully crafted public identities displayed for the world to see had been stripped away days ago.


Rachel realized this about herself too. In the first moments following the massacre in Miami, the outgoing, confident, and opinionated self she identified as had reverted back to the quiet, insecure teenager she had once been. The world she thought she knew was suddenly built on shifting sands. When the laws and rules of the land had been stripped away, Rachel had found herself timid and uncertain to speak. She hated herself for it. Sean was the only one who hadn’t changed since the outbreak.


Sean ignored Chris and Allen’s bickering behind them. He was a dark-skinned man and square jaw was a constant poker face. Sean was not a boisterous person. A serious man with a calm demeanor, he maintained a focused exterior in every situation. While Chris’s nerves sent him into a talking frenzy, and Allen’s spiraled him into a moody pessimist who wasn’t able to go two minutes without uttering a complaint, Sean Williams remained the rock that Rachel counted on to keep her centered. She had done her best not to demonstrate any affection towards Sean that Chris and Allen could pick up on over the past days as she knew it would only get Sean into trouble should they survive this ordeal. But sometimes just holding Sean’s hand was enough. Like his calming aura transferred from him to her with a simple touch.


“Would you quit saying that?” Chris snapped at Allen.


“They’re not going to let us cross the border into the city, I’m telling you! We’re walking into a death trap,” Allen said. “And I’m–”


“You don’t know that. You have no reason to think–”


“Why are they having us drive all the way to the border? Ignore signs?” Allen pointed to the blockade they approached a few hundred yards away. “Why didn’t they send a helicopter to come to pick us up instead?”


“I don’t know!” Chris yelled. “You can ask them when we’re there.”


“They’re not going to let anyone who’s seen this– this debacle live. Us included. The cover-up starts at the border–”


Chris swiped at the air in frustration. “Would you shut up with your freaking conspiracy theory crap!”


“You don’t–”


“Shut up! Shut up! Shut up!” Rachel whipped around in her seat. Her mind was ablaze from listening to these grown children bicker for too many days now. “Just shut up! I’m sick of both of your shit! Allen, if you have a better fucking idea–if you have an original thought for once in your life, then say it. Otherwise, shut up.”


Allen covered the sour expression on his face with his fist as he pouted and fixed his gaze out the window. Chris simply sighed and mumbled to himself, finishing the argument under his breath while looking out his window.


“Unbelievable…” Rachel shook her head.


The car rocked over a deep ridge in the muddy field and Rachel fell back into her seat at the impact with an especially cavernous bump. Despite the engine ramping up to a loud whine, the 4runner slowed and slowed before eventually gargling to a halt. Sean jerked the steering wheel trying to put the car in reverse, shifting into low gear and going forward but it wouldn’t budge. He revved the engine until smoke spilled from the hood.


“We’re stuck,” Allen said as if it was everyone else’s fault and he could have prevented it.


“Thanks, Captain Obvious…” Chris murmured under his voice, and Allen turned on him.


Rachel whipped around in her seat to hurl more venom at the men behind her, but Sean’s hard gaze caught hers, and without saying a word he simply raised a hand to give her pause as if he advised her, just let it go.


“Grab your bag,” Sean said. “We’re walking.”


Rachel hopped out of the car and immediately felt her feet sink ankle-deep in the mud, the moisture seeping through every vent in her shoes and being absorbed into her socks within seconds. She felt the prickle of irritation travel up her spine to the back of her neck, threatening a mental breakdown if another line got crossed. Sean grabbed the dirty abused backpack that held the handful of refilled plastic water bottles and the little food they had left. Mostly energy drinks, a smashed bag of half-eaten chips, and two melted candy bars.


Rachel, Chris, and Allen followed Sean in a jog toward the interstate. They ran in a familiar formation that Rachel had come to be used to. Sean in the front, followed by Rachel with Chris and Allen behind her. They allowed no more than ten paces between her and them at any time. After days of running for their lives, Rachel’s limbs ached. She tried not to think of the rescue site they neared. Doing so only led her down a path of imagining the safety of her father’s arms.


Though Rachel was twenty-five years old and stood as tall as her dad, when he wrapped her arms around her, she still felt like a child. No matter how powerful of a political figure he had become, her dad was still the man who had called her every Sunday while she was away at college, traveled to every one of her volleyball games in high school, and was still the man who had set aside work every evening to spend time with Rachel when her mother had passed away from a heart condition as a child. Rachel’s father was her best friend and biggest supporter, but nothing was more terrifying than surviving hell only to be on the brink of rescue. The closer her father’s embrace became, the more panicked she felt. She worried it was all a mirage.


Sean had led them to I-65 and followed it north but kept them about twenty yards from the road until they reached the blockade. Rachel meandered along the outside of the crowd with the men surrounding her. They all wore battered clothes that smelled of body odor and dirt, the same as everyone they walked beside. Rachel could see the outline of Sean’s handgun in his waistband holster on his back right hip as she followed him.


Sean’s black skin glistened with a layer of sweat as his eyes shifted from person to person as they walked past them, the same as Chris and Allen from behind Rachel. To the outside world, the four of them looked just like a dysfunctional family. No one knew the three men that surrounded her were secret service agents. Loyal, highly trained, albeit annoying secret service agents.


It took several minutes before they reached a series of stanchions in the road. Four-foot metal poles protruding from recently poured and hardened concrete, spaced far enough apart to stop traffic from passing but leaving plenty of space for people to pass by.


Large signs guided civilians with arrows to the east of the road following a trail of muddy footprints along a ten-foot fence topped with razor wire.


‘WARNING! WARNING! WARNING!

DO NOT PASS!

EXPLOSIVES/BOMBS AHEAD!


Follow arrows east to get to safety. Follow arrows to the right to safety.

You cannot pass going straight. You will be killed going straight.

Follow arrows east to get to safety. Follow arrows to the right to safety.’


The signs were written in five different languages and were posted along the border as far as the eye could see. The tired civilians followed the crowd, curving east without even stopping to look at the signs. Rachel guessed most of them were used to following the crowd at this point. Sean and the others paused, staring at the signs for a long moment. Even Sean’s hard-set eyes betrayed him when he glanced at Rachel.


“Are you sure they were talking about these signs?” Chris asked. Allen snorted and shook his head but said nothing.


Sean studied the border carefully before answering, “I do. You don’t?”


Chris sighed, rubbing the back of his neck, “I don’t know…”


Rachel saw Sean look at her for her input. “I think this is it.”


“I–I don’t think we should go that way,” Allen said. “It’s not safe.”


“Allen...” Rachel rested her hands on her hips.


“I’m just saying, I don’t think it’s safe. It doesn’t make sense!” Allen said. “Why would they put a sign there if it’s a lie? Why would they tell us to ignore it? It clearly says there’s explosives–”


“What do you want to do instead, Allen? Suggest something, don’t just–” Chris said.


“Let’s just follow the crowd,” Allen pointed along the fence. “The signs say it’s safe that way. Let’s go that way!”


A charge coursed through the solemn trail of refugees. Something stirred in the crowd. People hollered as others jogged with their bags and children in their arms. Rachel watched as two men shouldered past a woman knocking her to the ground as they scrambled to follow the arrows. It’s happening again. The panic. The stampede. Without thought, Rachel stepped closer to Sean’s shoulder and his soft but firm grip slipped around her wrist as he moved ahead of her. His right hand lingered close to his hip where his weapon was concealed.


“Run, go! Hurry. They’re coming!” a bug-eyed man with wild hair shouted as if someone had elected him to warn the others. His voice broke as he ran past Rachel and curved to the right with the crowd. Instinctually, Rachel placed a guarded hand at her stomach as the man passed. “The rabid are behind–they’re coming!”


Allen had already drawn his sidearm and kept it at his side. He was as panicked as any of them at the mention of the rabid. All of their eyes were locked on the worried faces that clamored by, looking for the red eyes or bared teeth.


They can’t be here already. They’re not that fast–they can’t be…


Three helicopters roared overhead, making Rachel duck. Their altitude was low enough that she could read the words, ‘United States Army’ on their body as they flew south following the interstate. A flare of hope exploded inside Rachel as she uselessly waved at the helicopters with thousands of others. The sight made her believe they weren’t alone. That up ahead protectors were waiting for her. The roar of rotary blades waned and became a distant hum as they became specks in the sky.


“We’re going,” Sean said with a finality in his voice. Rachel nodded and slipped her fingers into his hand.


“Okay,” Chris adjusted his baseball cap.


Sean looked to Allen who grimaced, glancing back at the distant helicopters. “Alright, but let it be known, I said this was a bad idea.”


Sean turned and, pulling gently on Rachel, jogged a dozen steps past the signs that warned of death for all who continued past. Allen had a brief moment of hesitation before he joined Chris, taking up their familiar formation as they separated from the procession of the thousands to continue north alone on I-65.


“And what haven’t you thought was a bad idea, Allen?” Chris huffed as they jogged between the line of wrecked vehicles left abandoned in the road.


“Has anything we’ve done over the past weeks worked out?” Allen retorted.


“Touché.”


Rachel smirked as she jogged behind Sean.


We can make it. We have to make it…


Screams began to flare behind them as they passed a traffic sign along the side of the road that read, ‘Downtown Birmingham – 16 Miles.’



Chapter Three


Derrick Hart

Birmingham, Al


“Everybody up, let’s go!” Captain Elwood shouted.


He flipped on the lights in the roll call room and was greeted with a murmur of resentment as the officers stirred. They began tossing their body armor over their shoulders and zipping up their uniforms. The captain’s uniform was a wrinkled mess like he had bunched it up and used it as a pillow earlier in the day. Next to him was an Army Lieutenant in military fatigues, his sleeves neatly rolled up above his elbows. He was younger-looking with a short fade and his uniform was pressed neatly as if the greatest trial he had faced today was sitting down and standing back up from an office chair.


“Alright, listen up,” Captain Elwood began. “I’m going to assign intersections to everyone. You’ll be in pairs. You are–”


“How far away are the infected?” an officer interrupted.


“How many are there?” another asked. The words spilled out of their mouths before the captain could finish as if they had been gnawing at them in their sleep.


Captain Elwood’s age was highlighted by the crow’s feet beside his narrowed eyes. His bald head shifted from one insubordinate speaker to the next. Law enforcement wasn’t nearly as strict as the army, but there was still a chain of command, and the brass were not used to being interrupted.


It’s falling apart, the words repeated in Derrick’s head.


“You are to report immediately to your post once assigned. Bring plenty of water and snacks. You could be out there for a while,” the captain’s voice filled the room. Glancing at the Army Lt. to his side, the captain looked for permission to continue. When the iron-jawed Lt. said nothing, Elwood continued in a quieter tone. “The infected are expected to be at our perimeter within the hour, two at the max. I don’t know how many, I don’t know where…”


“I bet he does,” Tommy’s voice cut in. The room turned and saw Tommy, with harsh black bags under his eyes, pointing at the Army Lt. “Why don’t you just tell us?”


“You don’t need to know,” the Lt. said flatly. “Your job is to support the military’s supply lines and keep civilians out of the restricted area. Worry about that.”


Tommy grumbled something to a man standing next to him but went silent when Captain Elwood continued. “Effective immediately,” the police captain read from a piece of paper on his clipboard. He tried to keep his voice neutral, but an awkward twitch of his head gave away his displeasure. “We will no longer be taking anyone into custody.” There was palpable dissent in the air as officers balked at the news. “No arrests. Booking is shut down. The jail is shut down until further notice.”


“Why the fuck do I have handcuffs, then?” a voice hollered over the murmurs.


“What the hell do we do with people that refuse to stay out of the perimeter?”


“We can’t risk any of our officers going hands-on with a possible infected subject if they get into the city,” Capt. Elwood said with a sigh, clearly annoyed by the situation himself. “And the sheriff’s department refuses to risk letting the Rhabdo-11 infection into the jail. Besides, there aren’t enough deputies to safely staff the jail anymore. A handful of our most serious offenders were transferred north by the military but most of the prisoners we booked over the last couple of weeks were just released this morning.”


“Cause that makes a lot of sense,” one voice said, inviting a barrage of others to join in with their protests.


Even Derrick felt the urge to laugh at how absurd all of this was. He thought of all the arsonists they had arrested last week who had tried to burn the city down with Molotov cocktails and gas cans. How many men and women had been arrested for aggravated assault, homicide, and rape during the riots… as the infected neared, those crimes were the norm now. Theft and looting had become such commonalities that officers were forced to ignore them. Police had little time and even fewer resources to deal with non-life-threatening crimes. But now on the cusp of the chaos meeting its peak, the most terrible criminals in Birmingham had been released.


What are we even doing?


“Quiet down… Quiet!” Capt. Elwood snapped. He fidgeted with his hands and again shot a look at the Army Lt. that went ignored. “Our only responsibility is dealing with our road closures and security details. As the National Guard begin their defense of the city, it’s imperative their supply lines remain open, and civilians stay out of the hot zone. Under federal martial law, if any civilian violates your lawful orders and tries to cross into the restricted area, you have permission to use whatever force necessary to stop them… up to and including deadly force, effective immediately.”


The room went silent. Every officer waited for the captain to explain more or qualify his statement. A few of the officers looked to one another trying to make sure they heard correctly.


“What the fuck?” Tommy bellowed.


“We’re not soldiers!”


“Uh uh, nope, I’m not going to prison,” an officer behind Derrick said to his friend.

“That’s not legal,” his friend replied.


“This is a signed directive from the President of the United States authorizing all federalized law enforcement officers, which all of the Metro Birmingham Police have previously been federalized, to enforce federal martial law and quarantine procedures with authority ‘up to and including lethal force when necessary.’” Captain Elwood quoted the last of the sentence from a piece of paper buried on his clipboard.


The mood of the room shifted from exhaustion and self-pity to anger and mistrust. Derrick clasped his Redband bracelet and twisted it unconsciously. Every man and woman in that room was questioning what they were doing there. If staying had been worth signing their name on the suicide contracts earlier this week. It was hard for Derrick to imagine shooting a person for running past a barricade.


What if hundreds charge to get on the interstate? Are they going to have us shooting into the crowd? Killing hundreds of people just trying to save their own lives. In the chaos of it all, it was difficult to not have surreal moments when Derrick viewed himself as a page in a history book. Fifty years from now will they say the government was tyrannical and criminal? Will the soldiers and police be blamed for excessive force, having only the flimsy shield of, ‘I was following orders’ to hide behind? Will history just see us as the twenty-first-century Nazis?


“Now listen up and write down your post and channel because I’m only going through this once,” the Captain continued reading off his clipboard. “Traffic branch will be operating off radio channel P112. We don’t have dispatchers anymore–they’re all gone, too. It’s just us. If you need backup, ask for Command. We only have two medics for the entire city. They’re only here to respond for Police or military units injured, so don’t bother asking for a medic for civilians.” Derrick shook his head as he penned the radio channel down on the palm of his hand. “You and you,” the Captain pointed at two patrolmen to Derrick’s right.


“You’ll be 6th Ave N and I 65 N entrance ramp. You and you,” Elwood pointed at Derrick and the large patrolman he stood in front of, “you both will be 6th ave N and–”


“Are you SWAT?” the Army Lt. interrupted, looking at Derrick. He eyed Derrick’s green tactical uniform and the various weapons and equipment that lay by his feet. Captain Elwood’s arms went to his side as he waited impatiently for the Army Lt. to finish.


Derrick gave a nod, “Yes, sir.” the Lt. flipped through his clipboard, looked at his watch, then made a face. He didn’t look nearly as exhausted as the police officers did, but Derrick guessed he hadn’t had to spend much time in the streets. The army didn’t care about the riots; they had bigger fish to fry. The Police had been fighting their war for nine days now trying to keep the city from falling apart. The army’s war was just about to begin.


The Army Lt. looked among the other officers in the room. “Any other SWAT in here?” he asked.

“Here,” Perry, the young woman from before, called out. Hidden behind the towering men in front of her, she stepped out into the open.


The Army Lt. gave her a measured but annoyed look and sighed.


“Anyone else?” he surveyed the room, but when no one answered he looked to Captain Elwood. “These two are with me.” His words weren’t a request, but an order and he didn’t linger for a response. “With me.” The Lt. was already out the door as Derrick and Perry scrambled to get all their gear together. Perry left first with Derrick following after flinging his heavy vest and backpack over his shoulders with a thud.


“You and you, 6th ave N and 11th,” Captain Elwood continued with the patrol officers. Derrick shouldered his AR-15 Colt rifle and jogged out the door not knowing what assignment he was just volun-told for. He was used to the chaos by now. The past week of every police officer’s life had been in constant flux, with thinly stretched supervisors pointing them to complete tasks that had already been completed or already assigned. After seven years on the job, Derrick didn’t fret over the assignment anymore. Cops were problem solvers. He was confident enough in his abilities to handle what came his way.


The hallways were alive with army officers and their staff hustling from one room to the next. The military had taken over control of the precinct, using it as one of their many operation centers. Derrick passed one conference room that had four men crowded around a TV in the corner. He could just make out a billowing cloud of smoke that rose from behind the Atlanta skyline. The banner along the bottom of the screen read ‘Battle For Atlanta: End of America?’


Leave it to the media to care more about ratings than fueling panic– even now.


Information had been scarce the first few days after the outbreak was announced. The government had seemed more at a loss than anyone else. A sweaty infectious disease expert, Dr. Ronald Towne, would stand in his business suit under hot camera lights and repeat White House fed lines for the public. “The CDC and USA MRIID are working hard and working well together– sharing information to figure out this infection. We do not yet have any factual, science-based data on this outbreak other than to tell you it is limited–contained to southern Florida where we expect it to remain. I caution any news reporter or online, you know, social media people, or what have you, from speculating on its origins or transmission as these guesses can be just as dangerous to society as this is a new infection.”


But as the days ticked by, the full weight of the internet and crowdsourced social media was unleashed on this outbreak. Every American had seen the bloody violence that once was only a thing of apocalypse movies come to life on their TVs, computers, tablets, and cellphones. #zombieaapocalypse and #shoottheminthehead had trended number one and two in the first week, succeeded by ‘#bombflorida’ during the next week.


There weren’t many videos of the infected, but there were enough to see how surreal and violent those infected had become. It was easy to see how the general public could confuse the infected with zombies. Trembling videos of blood-soaked and wounded people who were sick with this unknown disease surfaced and showed them chasing civilians. Body camera video of police firing on the infected and them not reacting to the pain. The void of information created by the government didn’t help and was quickly filled by the keyboard warriors on social media.


Alice Harris

‘Omg! Why aren’t the police or National Guard in #Tampa rn?! People are dying in the streets and the cops are running?!??!? What kind of President allows this! If you ask me, these people are just sick. Have you ever seen like a really violent schizophrenic or someone suffering from delusions?? They need doctors and medicine; they shouldn’t be getting shot!! #miamiaoutbreak #impeachthepresident #standwithflorida’


Ross Clark

‘Anyone else sees too many coincidences here? Like not to go tin foil here but outbreak hits Miami on April 20 (Hitler’s birthday). Then I just checked and this ‘unknown disease’ started in one of the first places to just get the new bird flu vaccines. Hmm… #miamiaoutbreak #420conspiracy #blackflag #tellusthetruth’


Will ’SaVy’ Williams

‘Fam! Here me out FR! My bros in the army they strate up got there ass handed to them in #florida no lies! Armys going to #Birmingham and more goin fer #Atlanta They ready for a #zombiewar there FR FR! Shits crazy! Don’t 4get u heard it here first. Follow my page 4more. #laststand #shoottheminthehead #420conspiracy #miamiaoutbreak #willsavy’


By the time CDC officials had begun releasing information to the public no one trusted what the government was saying. What little Dr. Towne reported in the national address, had already been widely known. “The USA MRIID and CDC, who are working parallel with one another, have come to similar conclusions. This infection appears to be a radically new virus from the Rhabdoviridae family of viruses. We have assigned it the designation of Rhabdo-11 for common use,” Dr. Towne had said in a nationwide press conference.


“For the public’s understanding, I’d compare Rhabdo-11 to rabies. Um, it’s similar in that it appears to be transmitted via infected saliva in contact with human mucosa or fresh flesh wounds. However, there are also reports that infected blood in open wounds can transmit the infection as well. It is not completely clear, yet. It causes extreme hyperaggression and confusion, much more so than the Rabies Lyssavirus. However, it deviates greatly from rabies when it comes to the incubation period.” Dr. Towne adjusted his reading glasses as he glanced down at the notes on the podium.


“While rabies typically takes days, weeks, or longer for symptoms to develop, those infected with Rhabdo-11 appear to show symptoms within seconds, apparently. We have reports of infection outbreaks in southern Alabama, southern Georgia, and, yes, we can confirm there are a significant number of infected individuals, um, exiting Florida and going north. The President will talk more about that in his national address. State Governors will give more direction following that.”


Derrick couldn’t believe how unprepared the US government was for this infection. The response was knee-jerk. Like the President was trying to plug holes in a leaking dam, similar to Derrick and the rest of the police in Birmingham were trying to keep law and order in the city. The National Guard had only been in Birmingham less than a week, but their presence had allowed the police department to regain a semblance of control of the rioting. However, Derrick had never directly participated in an assignment for the military before now.


“…simple escort mission. That’s all,” the army lieutenant said as Derrick jogged beside him and Perry. They stood in the entryway near the back door to the parking lot. The door pushed open every few seconds as army personnel hustled in and out of the police station. “You two will ride in convoy to checkpoint Alpha just south of the city. That’ll be the I-459 overpass over I-65. There you will be meeting a Greenband and her secret service bodymen as they cross into Birmingham. Four people in total. There will be no quarantine for the Greenbands. They will receive an expedited decontamination protocol–should take about fifty minutes.”

Perry and Derrick shared a puzzled look. Every other person who had been let in from the hot zone since the National Guard’s arrival had been forced to comply with a six-hour decontamination process and a seventy-two-hour quarantine.


It was common knowledge, though, that Greenbands were treated as ‘first class’ citizens. These were civilians seen by the government as possessing specific, essential skills or assets that allowed them not only unrestricted travel nationally but also military logistical support to expedite their travel. Usually, they ended up being politicians.


Funny how that works. Politicians create Greenbands to protect politicians.


The army lt. had seen their confusion and ignored it, continuing. “Once decontamination is completed, you two will escort the four Greenbands to your Birmingham Police Academy where the Greenbands will be extracted via choppers to the logistics hub in Louisville. This was supposed to be a Tier One assignment, but our Tier One element was pulled. You will have a couple of army MPs driving you but besides that, you’ll be on your own. Remember, lethal force is authorized on anyone who gets in the way; these Greenbands must be evac’ed at all costs. Once they lift off, you two will remain at the Police Academy gun range and provide security. We have civilians loading up the remaining ammo for transport.”


“Sir, who’s the Greenband?” Perry asked.


“Rachel Anderson, the Vice President’s daughter,” the lieutenant replied. “Clearance only code name, ‘Swan two.’”


“She’s alive?” Derrick said surprised. One of the many early news stories in the outbreak that had been quickly buried was that the Vice President’s daughter, who worked in Florida, was out of contact and presumed dead by many.


“As long as you guys do your job.”


“When the civilians are done, are we escorting the ammo back to the front lines–checkpoint Alpha?” Perry asked.


“Negative,” the lieutenant responded. “The ammo is being chopper’d and trained to Louisville for redistribution. You two will return here for further orders. You will not get on those helicopters, is that clear?” Derrick and Perry seemed to have the same question on their minds as they both started talking at the same time, but the army lieutenant only acknowledged Derrick.


“Why is the army taking all of our ammo?” Derrick raised an eyebrow. “Are you guys retreating? The infected aren’t even in the city, yet.”


A nasty scowl formed on the lieutenant’s face at the accusation. He seemed to swallow whatever words he wanted to say. Instead, he clenched his teeth and enunciated each syllable as if he were lecturing a child. “It is not your ammo anymore, it’s the military’s. We aren’t retreating. The army allocates its resources on a need basis, and we’ve decided Birmingham doesn’t need it. Louisville is the staging point for all of our supplies and resources so that’s where excess ammo goes.”


In his anger, the lieutenant lowered his arm that held a messy stack of papers in it. Derrick’s eyes tracked to a sheet near the top that had a red ‘TOP SECRET’ watermark on it. The only words he could make out were ‘Locke protocol.’


“Sir, is this part of the Locke protocol?” Derrick probed.


The lieutenant revealed his true face of confused vulnerability for a moment as he was caught off guard. It wasn’t until he looked down at the papers exposed in his arm that the lieutenant seemed to recompose himself. “That–that’s on a need-to-know basis,” he said. The lieutenant must’ve deduced neither police officer was satisfied with the answer so before they could speak, again, he dismissed the conversation. “If you have any more burning questions, save it for someone in your own chain of command. Two Humvees are fueling out back and waiting on you two, so get moving.”


The patrol officers from the roll call room had finished their briefing, received their assignments, and were filing into the hallway. The army lieutenant disappeared into one of the offices as Derrick and Perry put their backs against opposite walls to let the patrol officers pass. The officers’ faces told each of their stories for the past weeks. Deep black grooves dug under their eyes from the sleepless nights. The nervous chatter and grinding of teeth as they mentally prepared to leave the safety of the precinct to face the civil unrest in the city. Derrick nodded at a few of his friends as they passed, and they nodded back or patted him on the shoulder in return.


After the last man had gone out the back door, Perry and Derrick approached one another, Perry gesturing at the room the army lieutenant walked into. “What a cock sucker,” she said.

Derrick smiled, “I think he likes you.”


“I think he’ll like my foot up his ass,” Perry said.


“He might,” Derrick shrugged as he snapped his heavy vest in place and smelled the stale sweat-stained fabric. Derrick had always had a good working relationship with Jessica Perry ever since she had earned her SWAT pin a year ago. He had helped her prepare for the selection process by hitting the gym with her every morning for weeks beforehand. On more than one occasion she had asked if he wanted to go out for a beer, but Derrick had always politely declined. Though he didn’t think Perry’s intentions were anything but friendly, Derrick was… had been… in a committed relationship, and he didn’t like the optics of him having a drink with a single and attractive coworker.


Not that Derrick’s girlfriend was the jealous type. In fact, Alyssa did not take much interest in Derrick’s work life or coworkers. She was a social butterfly with an enormous group of friends to tend to. A stark contrast to Derrick’s handful of friends. He was sure to keep Perry at a safe distance so as not to ever confuse the boundaries of their relationship. Until now.


Out of uniform, a person could be forgiven for thinking Perry was as soft as she appeared, with delicate features and an infectious giggle. Only the trail of black tribal tattoos down her right arm hinted at the hidden toughness that had carried her to become Birmingham’s first female SWAT officer. Every patrol officer who had worked with Perry had the same response when they heard she earned her SWAT pin. ‘Yeah, that sounds about right.’ Perry was a cop’s cop, through and through.


“I didn’t even know you were still here,” Perry smiled. “I was beginning to think I was the only one left.”


“I think it’s just you and me. Tom, Jeff… even Sergeant Bowers, all of them took their families and left town.”


“Well, I’m glad I’ve still got you watching my back,” Perry punched his shoulder.

Despite his exhaustion, Derrick could not help but feel a jolt of warmth surge through him at Perry’s smile.


“Yeah, me too,” Derrick nodded back.


He felt a vibration beneath his vest. Pulling his phone out from under his chest rig, he scrolled down past dozens of news updates and app notifications that had come in a data dump. Beneath it all there was a missed call from Brandon from two hours ago.


“You ready to go save the princess?” Perry said, grabbing her pack.


Derrick snickered and nodded to the door. “I’m right behind you.”


Brandon’s contact name on his phone was surrounded by two middle finger emojis on either side. He dialed his friend and waited to hear the three familiar tones followed by “We’re sorry your call cannot be connected at this time.”


But to his surprise, he heard an unexpected ringing. Elation filled Derrick’s chest. Less than three percent of phone calls were being connected nowadays, so this was a rarity.


He had so many questions about what was happening in Atlanta, but mostly he just wanted to hear his friend was still alive. It had been days since he last heard from Brandon who was more a brother than a friend. After several rings, his call went to voicemail with a message after the beep “The voicemail box you are trying to reach is full. Goodbye.”


“Lazy… stupid, fucking… piece of shit…” Derrick gritted his teeth. “Can’t even empty a damn voicemail box… Why do I have to have a freaking moron for a best friend…”


 

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