Jack took a deep breath through his nose, trying to get the gasps under control. He had stopped only at Jenny’s persistence and he now realized she wasn’t the only one who needed the break. The roaring and crackling of fire was barely audible through the thudding of Jack’s racing heart and short breaths. He glanced at his watch. They had a forty five minute head start on the military, less than he liked but neither he nor Jenny was trained to consistently run. They needed the break.
He set a timer, seven minutes. If they moved fast enough they could make up the time easier than they could ten minutes. Every second counted now. He wiped his brow and took a small sip of water, handing the bottle to Jenny as he looked over the smoking city.
The soldiers had entered the city an hour after Jenny and Jack had left the elementary school. Jacks plan had been to get a few more supplies to sustain them and then head towards the county line. The sight of smoke had stopped them, and after climbing to the roof of the bank, they discovered their former squatting ground was lit in flames. Jenny had voiced her concern for Beau. Jack had none for the man.
He had watched through binoculars, as a five vehicle convoy of military vehicles had begun to snake its way through the city. It went block by block. Armed men in full Hazmats suits searched each house as well as any other building that stood. Jack was fearfully curious if they were searching specifically for him or perhaps other survivors. The sound of gun shots confirmed his fears and made his heart sink.
There had been at least one other survivor. Now, there would be none, the risk was too high. He briefly thought about how every government’s reaction was the same in the event of a serious catastrophic outbreak. He wondered what the news stories were going to be, what lies would be told to cover this up.
The small convoy went building to building. They used spray paint to mark the doors of the searched buildings, some black and some green.
Jack noticed another snake moving at the outskirts of the city. This one was three big rigs, five–tons if he remembered his outdated terminology correctly. The large trucks stopped every so often, at the green doors, Jack noted. More suited men, these unarmed, brought items out of the buildings and loaded them into the backs of the trucks. From Jack’s view he couldn’t tell what they were taking, but it seemed trivial. A third serpent was shortly behind the trucks. It appeared that the job of this one was to burn the buildings to ashes and extinguish the flames. Whatever propellant they were using was efficient, as was the retardant.
Ten minutes per block, Jack had calculated.
It wasn’t a mission of search and rescue. It was a mission of seek and destroy. Unlike what all the movies portrayed, they weren’t going to just bomb the place to wipe out the virus. They were going to burn it down, systematically.
Once Jack had assessed the military’s movements, Jenny and he had headed towards the other side of the city. Ten blocks was how far they had gone when they’d had to ditch the vehicle. A jet had flown by at low altitude. Jack had heard and recognized the noise. He had stopped the truck so he was sure they were unaware of him and Jenny’s presence but he decided it wasn’t worth the risk. He knew they couldn’t out run the radio’s.
They had been running and jogging for the last hour. The more space they put between themselves and the first convoy, the better. Jenny had finally just stopped, unable to continue. Now Jack was grateful as he felt oxygen reaching his, far too long deprived, muscles.
“Are we almost out of the city?” Jenny asked with staggered breath.
“Another hour or so.”
“But then where? That jet has flown over head three times.”
“I’ve been thinking we should go underground?”
“The sewer running down Elwood is large enough for us to get through, it leads out to the processing plant. The dump is less than a mile from there. The national park is only six miles from the dump and we can rest in the plant and head to the park when night falls. Once we are there we can meet up with Calcanut River, it will lead us into Alabama and we’ll be under the cover of the tree’s the reminder of the time.”
Jenny’s eyes grew wide at his words. “You’re kidding right?”
“No Jenny. If they spot us, we won’t be able to outrun them. I know it’s nasty but it’s our safest bet.”
Jenny’s face paled. “Do you know how many diseases we could catch going through the sewer?”
“Could. If they catch us, we will catch a bullet.”
“You don’t know that…”
“Jenny! They’ve already tried to kill you!” Jack said exasperated at her inability to grasp their situation. She stared at him for a moment as her eyes shone with fresh tears and Jack did his best not to react to the sight.
Finally she turned away, her voice low. “And when we get to Alabama?”
“We blend in. I don’t know, but we’ll be alive.” Jack stood from his squatting position and took the bottle of water from her hands, tightening the lid before securing it in the side pocket of her pack. He no longer wanted to discuss nor ponder on the long term future. He simply needed to focus on surviving the here and now. “Let’s go, we’ve been stopped for eight minutes, they are nearly a block closer. Once we get to Elwood and below ground, we can slow to a fast paced walk.”
“I never thought our government, out of all the governments in the world, would do this.”
“Every government is about two things. Money first, and the greater good second. You don’t have the first without the second. Let’s go.” He began to jog towards Elwood street without waiting for her response.
Jack thought Jenny was going to refuse when they reached the manhole cover that sat square in the middle of Elwood and Grey crossing. She shook her head and looked around, as if hoping there would be some other form of salvation sitting about, waiting for her discovery. Jack heard the distinguishing sound of the low flying jet in the distance. The sound was enough for Jenny to come out of her resistance. He placed her headlamp on her, ensuring it was secure and gestured for her to go first. He would have to replace the cover to prevent drawing attention. He climbed in after her as the sound of the jet drew closer.
“Hurry up.” He demanded as she moved slow and uncertain on the ladder below him.
“If I slip…”
“Then at least you’ll be in.” He snapped back. The jet was getting closer and he was beginning to doubt his ability to get the cover on before it flew over.
“Jerk.” He heard her huff below him.
He ignored it as he nearly stepped on her hand to get below the lid enough to pull it back into place. The whoosh of the jet sounded above them and Jack’s angst rose. He had no idea if they’d spotted him. If they did, they had little to no time.
“We’ve got to move.”
“You said we could slow down?”
“I don’t know if they spotted me, and I’m not willing to take that risk. We can slow when we get to the plant, if they’re not there waiting.”
The fumes were far worse then what Jack expected. Several times he found himself gagging, Jenny was doing the same, though she seemed far better at controlling her reflex. Years in the medical industry, Jack supposed. His eyes burned slightly and he found himself reaching to rub them far too often. The first mile of their excursion was slow at best and Jack prayed he hadn’t been spotted. Then their senses adjusted to their surroundings and they were able to speed up to a walking and jogging pace. As they traversed through the filthy tunnels Jack began to feel bad. He knew he’d been harsh on Jenny but damn if the girl seemed incapable of grasping the fact that their lives were hanging in the balance. He’d apologize once they made it to Alabama. Until then it was about surviving, her feelings would have to wait.
Jack wanted to rest and knew soon it would no longer be a choice. He felt that at any moment his legs were going to give out on him. That wasn’t an option and as they rounded a corner a sigh of relief escaped him when he saw the pale light of dusk and the sound of rushing water. They had finally made it to the plant. This part would be the worst, having to literally swim through the sewer water. The thought of bathing in Calcanut River propelled him forward.
“We made it!” Jenny’s voice echoed down the pipe, the sound startling Jack.
“Almost there.” Jack gave her a half smile, not sure if she understood that they were going to have to swim in a moment. A strange sound caught Jacks attention as a new smell drifted past his nostrils.
“What is that?” Jenny asked as she turned to face him. Her eyes widened as they peered past him, he saw the reflection of an orange glow in her eyes and recognized the scent all at once.
“RUN!” He screamed and grabbed her arm as every ounce of his strength was now focused on reaching the grey light of dusk. The smell was so obvious now, as adrenalin surged through him.
Somehow his brain processed exactly what was happening. The Crescent Moon Propane Station was just on the outskirts of town, they had passed under it a good mile back. Whether accidental or purposely, propane had entered the pipes and had ignited. The orange glowing reflection in Jenny’s eyes had been a giant fireball and it was heading straight for them.
They reached the edge of the pipe, Jack felt the heat on his back as he tackled Jenny over the edge and into the flowing sewer below them.