A TEMPORARY PATCH JOB, PART 2 OF 3 by Kevin Fortune
March 9, 2012 Longer stories Tags: Ireland, Kevin Fortune
I hadn’t pumped near enough juice to keep us in the air for more than a few minutes. We could land safely anywhere; in a nearby field or something, but we’d never take off again with empty tanks. We didn’t want to lose the Cessna so we had to return and finish our refuel. Weeks beforehand we had discussed the possibility of this very situation and we developed a procedure to deal with it.
“D’you remember the plan?” Greg shouted. I sat on the floor where the right hand seat should have been and tightened my leg straps. He poked at the fuel gauge to illustrate the gravity of our situation. “Just coax them away from the runway long enough for me to land. You’ve already kung-fu’d over half of them so the rest are probably quite demoralised already. Keep out of their mitts and I’ll be down directly!”
“Just keep climbing. Give me altitude.”
I shuddered. Keep out of their mitts. I moved back to the breezy, sunlit doorway and looked at scattered plumes of cumulous drifting sedately below. Even from four thousand feet I could see impossibly minute creatures moving across the airfield. We were running on the fumes of fumes. I was waiting for the engine to just putter out and die.
Now, we could just land and deal with the Dead; they were dry and slow so no real problem there. The problem was that if we so much as clipped a stray corpse on touchdown we could easily bend the propeller shaft – and that could kill the Cessna too. Our plan dealt with runway clearance first and corpse clearance second.
I used the cloud shadows, as they slid across the boggy landscape, to read the wind direction. The sunlight crept lazily across the aircraft interior as we turned into the wind for jump run. I picked my exit point. Those old waiting room nerves began to sizzle in the pit of my stomach. I hated that feeling. To make things worse my parachute hadn’t been packed in five years. This put a small dent in my confidence as to the safety of my system. But I felt I had to go through with this. What could possibly go wrong?
Greg’s run-in was good. I didn’t need to give him any course corrections.
“Okay, Greg. That’s on the button. Hurry down!”
He barked a humourless laugh. “What are my choices?” He yelled.
I hopped from the aircraft and began my count; one thousand. My entire body was instantly punched by a horizontal wall of solid, high speed air. A hurricane blast ripped past my unprotected ears. The Cessna receded rapidly upwards as I rode its forward throw down. Then it was gone. Utterly alone, seemingly motionless, I dropped like a stone through an empty immensity of sky, balanced atop a monstrous cushion of wind. I was a microscopic spore in a violent landscape of dazzling blues, blazing whites and eye searing sunshine.
The runway was directly below me as I approached terminal velocity. I plummeted alongside a vertiginous cliff wall of upwardly billowing cumulous. I scraped its diaphanous edges as I fell. It could have been the watery tumble of Angel Falls. It could have been the knee grazing face of El Cap – I’d forgotten what a blast this could be! If only I’d bothered my arse to repack the canopy over the last few weeks I might even have enjoyed this. I was just hoping that the main didn’t feel the need to retain its current compressed shape when I initiated the opening.
I caught a fleeting glimpse of the 206 diving into distant cloud tops; practically in freefall itself as Greg tried to beat me to the ground. At the count of eight thousand I hammered through cloud base and the entire countryside opened out cleanly from horizon to horizon. At the count of fifteen I brought one stabilising hand to my head while the other felt for the little hacky sack on my hip. I swore like a bastard as I pulled the pilot chute from its pouch. I was gripped by mortal terror as I let it fly.
“Just…feckin…OPEN!” I screamed inaudibly into the maelstrom.
The lines streamed up and away, every microscopic weave of kevlar visible against the blue sky above. The canopy stuttered and flapped from the bag and with utter relief I watched the aerofoil shape oscillate briefly from side to side as it inflated from the centre cells out to open comfortably with a fluttery BLAM. I released the steering toggles as the slider shot down the lines to meet me. Clear canopy. I breathed again.
Bad things moved on the deck eighteen hundred feet below. They were looking my way too. Corpses lay scattered and motionless across the ground near the Portacabin. They were all truly dead. As in dead Dead, and I hadn’t brained that lot – In fact I hadn’t even fought over there at all. The ones I had killed were lying in a clear, staggered line from the fuelling area to the centre of the field. I could see them. I could even count them.
I was puzzled but I wasn’t immediately concerned. No, it was the remaining Dead, grouped by the Portacabin, that interested me. Four pale faces stared upwards and I was confident I could easily handle four. I had to get down real quick though and make sure they didn’t wander out on the field. I pulled down hard on the right brake and dropped out of the sky in a fast spiral. At a thousand feet I swooped back into level flight and saw something that dried the spit in my mouth. Two of the corpses had broken from the pack and were running towards the airfield.
Running Dead! Panic gripped me. Oh, bollocks! I’d never have believed it. Oh, bollocks! I’m dead! Without thinking I banked hard left and fled for the tenuous safety of the neighbouring bog. Maybe Greg would see me high tailing it that way and follow – though we’d lose the Cessna for sure in the soft, loamy soil. But that didn’t matter anymore. Running Dead!
An extensive barrier of out-of-control brambles; thick enough to stop an elephant, ran the entire length of the airfields southern boundary, separating it from the peat lands, and I hoped I had the altitude and the speed to get me over them. I deeply regretted the height I’d just squandered while spiralling. The canopy bumped and shuddered as warm, rising air pummelled it.
The runners crossed the runway. I was making headway but as I passed through five hundred feet I suspected I’d land short. By two hundred feet I had no choice left but to try. The runners waited by the brambles; agitated skeletons with reaching claws. I flew parallel to the bushes just inside of the airfield perimeter. I hook turned the canopy towards the bog and swooped for speed, pulling out level with the ground as low as I dared. Lower than the bramble tops. I shot horizontally through the grass tips towards the thorns and pulled down hard on the brakes. I rose up again and my dying forward speed took me over the top of the brambles.
I’d made it! I hit the boggy ground and slid on my arse into the fetid bowels of a long, narrow drain. I swallowed a mouthful of stinking black water as the canopy collapsed beside me.
I had no time for the niceties; like catching my breath. I struggled upright from the mire and used the cutaway pad to detach the canopy. It drifted limply off to one side but I remained in a crouch where I was, peering intently with wild eyes over the soft lip of the channel. There was no movement from the brambles; no sprinting undead tearing themselves through the thicket to target, pursue and kill me. I quickly tore off my goggles and shucked off the harness. I pulled my knife and felt a little less helpless with its solid weight in my hand.
The Cessna approached from the west. No, no! Don’t land! Don’t land! But as Greg came in on finals the engine stuttered, faltered and failed. He’d run out of fumes at last. The aircraft sank silently from sight behind the bushes.
The soft banks of the drain crumbled as I scrambled out and sprinted back towards the thorns; my only thoughts being for Greg’s safety. I topped a rise that jutted out like a high stubby pier through the chaotic mass of bramble tops and from this vantage point I could see clear across the airfield. Greg touched down safely and I watched as the Cessna rumbled swiftly through the tall grass, spilling off its forward speed. The underside of the right wing was torn from our earlier brush with the treetops and strips of loose aluminium flapped and rattled about. We’d need to patch that up pronto, I thought absently.
The runners were in hot pursuit. Before the aircraft rolled to a stop Greg jumped nimbly out, knife in hand, and faced them down. To my surprise the runners hesitated and stopped. An explosive sigh of relief escaped me. They were alive! They were living! Jaysus! One of the formerly dead guys held his palms out towards Greg. These must be the Air Corps guys, I thought; the pilot and a crewman. They’d been the ones who killed the remainder of the old, dry Dead. That’s that mystery solved.
But before I could rejoice one of them walked up and punched Greg hard in the face. I winced in shock. Greg sliced at him with his knife and ran, but they were on him in seconds. They knocked him to the ground and kicked him savagely.
“Leave him alone, you bastards!” I yelled and they stopped. One of them pointed at me. They gazed my way for a moment and resumed kicking Greg again.
“Stop!” I screamed. I looked for a way through the thicket but only a bulldozer would get me through those thorns. They kicked Greg a few more times and stopped. I could only stand there helplessly on the little rise; calming my rage as they walked casually my way. Greg lay quietly in the grass; forgotten. I ached to get over to help but I had to bite down on my anxiety – and my fury – and negotiate with these vicious pricks for his safety.
His attackers snickered, nudged and pushed at each other like kids. As they closed I could see that they weren’t military. Not in the least. They were just underfed, passing scavengers. On the other side of the airfield two more men stepped from the shadows of the Portacabin. I kept an eye on them as well as they strolled my way.
When the nearest pair reached the scraggly outskirts of the bramble bushes they pulled big knives and broke into a sudden run. I gripped my own blade tighter. They hurtled the lower, outer bushes with ease and barged their way aggressively through the middling sized ones. They thought they could use brute force and speed to get them through the thorns, the feckin eejits, but they were quickly halted by the higher, more mature brambles. They were only metres away from my little ridge when the nearest one fell; yelping as he was swallowed by the greenery.
“You stupid, feckin eejits,” I spat diplomatically; successfully opening negotiations.
“Shut up and don’t bleedin’ move until we tell you to!” said the upright one in a flat Dublin accent. His voice had the whiny, nasal tone I always associated with drug related brain damage. Mostly that kind of kid wasn’t bad; just unfortunate. But these two were bad.
“Or what?” I asked.
“Or we’ll bleedin’ kill you!”
“And how do you intend to do that with all those thorns sticking up your stupid, skinny holes?”
Shoulder length hair framed their sunken faces in dirty strings. They couldn’t have been more than nineteen years old. I was well acquainted with their type from my time on the force. They were mean, vicious vermin; they considered everything to be theirs for the taking, whether it belonged to them or not.
The fallen one clawed his way awkwardly to his feet. Streaks of blood mingled with the dirt on his cheeks. One of his legs was obviously still trapped by older, meaner creepers but he was doing his best to pretend that it wasn’t. As my feet were level with the highest thorns I briefly considered taking a running jump at them over the brambles. I wanted to knife them for what they did to Greg but they’d just stick me like a pig with those machetes of theirs if I so much as twisted an ankle. And that’d be a stupid way to die.
“Are you lookin’ at me?” snapped the entangled one. “Ye ugly, stupid bollocks.”
As the other two men traipsed uncaringly past Greg’s prone form I saw him lift his head groggily to size them up as they passed. The hardest thing I ever did was deliberately ignore him as he struggled to his feet in their wake and stumble away towards the Portacabin.
My job was clear cut now; I had to keep these guys focused firmly on me while Greg made good his escape. If I could buy him enough time to lose himself in the fields, ditches and bogs beyond the airfield boundaries well, then he was home free. These arseholes would never find him. We had another simple plan too, in case we ever got separated. We’d just meet up at the nearest airfield. In this instance it was about ten kilometres south of here.
The two men strode smiling up towards the barrier of brambles, glancing at their teenage companions with open contempt. The elder of the two was probably in his early fifties. He had long grey hair and a beard streaked through with black. With a little effort and a haircut he could have looked quite distinguished. His companion was a taller, broader man who sported a massive black beard that completely hid the lower half of a thoughtful, almost sensitive face. He was balding, in his thirties, and he gazed at me with a strange curiosity, his head tilted to one side as he scrutinised me.
“Hello there!” greeted the older one cheerfully. Unlike the two boys he spoke with an educated, Dublin 4 accent. “How are you today?” He gestured towards the entangled teens. “Please forgive my underlings here for whatever it was they said to you. They are entirely incapable of politeness.”
“No kidding?” I said. “Are they your kids or what?” I knew damn well they weren’t.
“Dear god!” he guffawed in surprised amusement. “Oh, dear god… no, no, no, they’re not my kids, they’re just a pair of lost orphans I adopted along the way.”
“How nice. Training them in yourself then, are you?”
“I try,” he declared with saintly patience. “But one can only work with the materials one is given.”
“I suppose.” I agreed. The boys regarded me with murderous eyes, but that was okay. Once they kept looking at me. That was all I wanted.
Greg became more unsteady as he moved further away. He staggered round to the far side of the Air Corps Cessna and fell to his knees. I could only see his legs below the fuselage. I had a terrible fear that some overlooked undead would simply crawl through the weeds and claim him.
“Tell me,” asked the D4 man, “who are you, and what brings you to this ungodly place. And by parachute, no less! My young, entangled helpers here nearly wet themselves when your canopy opened. The little foundlings were quite overcome with excitement. Weren’t you, boys?”
The teens stared mutely at me with dull eyes.
“You see? Not a response from either of them,” he remarked in a long suffering voice. “Impolite isn’t the word; you may as well be talking to the wall. So don’t be fooled, my falling friend; their ability to form words should not be misconstrued as evidence of synaptic activity. Although they can, sometimes, if properly persuaded, move somewhat faster than the Dead.”
“Yes. I saw them do that. But their aim was off and they ran into these brambles here. You should send them off to Specsavers.”
The big bearded guy folded his arms and smiled broadly at me from behind their backs. Greg was on his feet again. He looked through the Cessna’s windows, raised an arm in farewell and turned away.
“Um…indeed, yes,” their chief was saying. “Anyway, enough about them. I must assume that you belong to an organised group? What with parachutes and aeroplanes and everything. Are you acquainted with the owner of that other little aircraft over there?”
“The Air Corps plane? No. I’m not. But I’m curious about it myself. I don’t suppose you’ve seen the pilot at all, have you?” I caught the teens glancing slyly at each other.
“No, I’m afraid not,” said the D4 guy. “He wasn’t a friend of yours, was he? Perhaps he landed here and simply fled on foot from the undead that were haunting this place.”
Greg was on his knees by the Portacabin door. Oh jaysus, kid. Get up, will you? Get moving!
“He wasn’t a friend of mine?” I repeated. “Is that what you just said? Is he still amongst the living, then?”
D4 lifted a hand to his mouth with a wide eyed “whoops” expression.
“I see,” I said. “You had your little minions here do a job on him, didn’t you?”
“What? How dare you say such a thing!” blustered the D4 guy in sudden anger. He turned to his bearded companion. “Did you hear that outrageous accusation? He called the boys Minions. Minions! They are not Minions sir, they are Underlings! Minions, as you well know, are impossible to find in this current climate.” He was laughing at me, the windbag.
I tried not to look at Greg as he fell over but luckily the sound didn’t carry over D4’s pompous drone. I was terrified they’d given him one kick in the head too many; that he was haemorrhaging internally, but then he was up again, slipping round the side of the ramshackle prefab and out of sight. Good, just a few more minutes of pointless talk and my work here would be done.
I decided that I’d better stick quietly around for a day or so and keep an eye on these guys, just in case they actually did find Greg. Even if they didn’t I thought I’d better find him myself. I was no longer confident he was in any shape to make his way alone to our rendezvous point.
The teenagers pulled and ripped their way clumsily from the thorns as their boss wittered obsessively on about their status in his little gang. I threw in the occasional insulting comment to keep their attention. Every second I distracted them was a bonus for my damaged brother’s chances and luckily the teens were too busy glaring at me or fighting the bushes to notice him gone. Eventually I reckoned he had a decent enough head start. I made a big show of pulling up a sleeve and looking at my empty wrist.
“My god,” I cried. “Just look at the time. Well, this has been very nice chatting with you over the garden fence, Mr…ah..umm? Anyhow, I must run.”
“Oh, please, don’t go!” cried D4. “Stay and join us. We are fellow survivors in a hostile world after all. Why not pass a comfortable evening amongst new friends? If the truth be told I am absolutely starved of good conversation. And we’d love to have you for dinner!”
“Ha, ha, no shit. Poor old you, saddled with a pair of idiots and Silent Bob here. But I’ll tell you what; I’m feeling generous today, so I’m leaving you my aeroplane. It’s yours. You can use it to fly away in search of conversation. Fly away to food sources and safe territories. I believe Belmullet is lovely at this time of year.”
“Really? Well now,” muttered D4 thoughtfully. “There’s a fascinating consideration. Did you hear that, Silent Bob? We can fly to food sources with my new aeroplane – though I’d much prefer to fly to that very special place where they make the wonderful Stuff.”
I paused, suddenly interested despite myself. “What’s that about the Stuff?”
“Ah ha,” he said. “So you’ve heard the stories, too. You know, we’ve been hearing tales ourselves for quite some time now. Any survivors that we’ve met all claim that it comes from the sky! How fabulous is that?” He spread his arms wide. “It droppeth like the gentle rain from heaven. But no matter how persuasively we inquired nobody seemed to know of its source, or even what the Stuff actually was. It certainly had me wondering, I can tell you. And then who should drop in on us serendipitously only the pilot of that Air Corps plane over there. Naturally we welcomed him warmly with open arms. We chatted with him at length over dinner as we…”
“…ate him all up,” sniggered one of the teens. Behind them the bearded man’s face fell and his gaze dropped numbly to his feet. D4 pulled something small from his coat and stroked it across the back of the teenager’s hand.
“Ouch…” shrieked the boy as a trickle of bright blood ran up his sleeve.
“Don’t interrupt me again, you little scut.”
“You ate the pilot?”
“Well… yes.” He admitted. “Things got somewhat out of hand. But before he had his little accident we managed to converse with him at some length about the Stuff.”
“But you ate him, you barbaric bastard.”
“I have mouths to feed you know, but he was already dead before we dined. We’re not complete savages, after all. But he told us everything we ever needed to know about the Stuff.”
“Well, then he was talking shite,” I said. “He told you what you wanted to hear. There is no Stuff. It’s just a fairy tale. I’ve been flying up and down this country for weeks looking for it and I’ve found neither hide nor hair of it!”
“Then you’ve been looking in all the wrong places, my friend. You see, I know where it originates. The pilot told me. He was involved in its distribution. He was returning to his base having made a delivery when he put down here for fuel. And shall I tell you what he said? He said that it’s a cure. A wonderful cure! It even tested favourably well with the bitten, apparently.”
“Oh, please. Bitten my arse; he was making that up! Even the Yanks and the Chinese – with all their resources – couldn’t manage a cure.”
“Don’t get tetchy with me, my friend,” warned the D4 guy. “I’m simply quoting the pilot. He said that it’s manufactured in makeshift labs in Baldonnell aerodrome.”
“Baldonnell?” I snorted in disbelief. “Baldonnell’s overrun, I saw it myself.”
“Then you mustn’t have inspected it closely enough. Their perimeter is secure and they fly re-supply missions on a weekly basis, it seems.”
I stared at the ground as I considered this news. Could we have been so wrong about Baldonnell? We’d seen frightening volumes of the Dead smeared across every square centimetre of the area like a filthy tide, all the way back to the sea. Admittedly we turned back a few kilometres shy of its pallisaded fence. But what if? That’s less than an hour’s flight from here. Wait until Greg hears about this!
A droning noise broke through my speeding thoughts but it was just the D4 guy talking. Still talking. “…and therefore I would very much like to visit Baldonnell to witness this miracle cure for myself. Also, I rather think that if someone with a practical scientific background…say me, for example, were to offer them his services, well…”
“You’re not interested in a job.” I said. “You’d prefer to run the show, wouldn’t you? Control the flow, taint the goods probably…”
“Only in a modest way, perhaps. But we’ll never know unless I can get there, will we… so, can you fly?”
“No,” I lied. “I can’t.” Then I thought of a way to buy some insurance for Greg on the off chance that these bastards actually found him. “My companion flies, though. He might take you there.”
One of the teens moaned and pointing at the empty airfield. “Aw, Chief. Wouldya lookit! He’s done a bleedin’ runner, the sneaky little bollocks! But I’ll feckin find him!” He turned to me. “And then I’ll find you, too!”
“Alive!” D4 warned the boy coldly as he watched him race away towards the Portacabin. “Alive!” he roared after him. “And unhurt! Do you hear me?” He turned his attention back to me. “My apologies for shouting,” he said. “But they don’t always speekee the englee, if you get my drift.”
Our little talk was over. He gestured to his remaining two cronies to circle round the brambles after me; one to the east and one to the west. The clock in my head started ticking; the pursuit was on. I jogged off into the bog. I intended to double back as soon as possible but I knew I’d be clearly visible until I reached the line of trees that lay two kilometres to the south.
Fifteen minutes later I was inside the treeline gazing back across the barren ground I had just covered. The chief’s bearded companion was following in plain sight a kilometre out. He seemed to be in no hurry. I couldn’t see the teen anywhere. I assumed that D4 and the other boy were hunting Greg.
I had two choices: either avoid my two pursuers or face them down and deal with them. I found a sizeable piece of bog oak and hefted it for balance. I missed my old cudgel but this hard, fossilised piece of wood would do nicely instead. I also found a handy length of baling twine discarded by some lazy farmer during happier times. The carpet of pine needles was soft underfoot so I made sure to keep my nose, as well as my eyes, peeled for any lurking Dead. I snuggled myself into the shade of a drooping holly bush and waited.
The big man moved so silently past my hiding spot that I would have missed him had I been looking the other way. He paused and scanned the woodland; sniffing the air and swivelling his large head slowly one way and then the other. I didn’t dare breath. I didn’t dare move. He was big. If my knee popped or a nostril whistled he’d be on me in a flash and, trained in self-defence or not, I didn’t think I could take him down in a fair fight.
As he padded away I crept from the bush and silently covered the distance between us. I leaped up and smacked him soundly across the back of the head with the bog oak. He groaned and fell to his knees. I put my foot against his back and pushed him face down. I quickly bound his limp hands behind him with the baling twine and tied him to the nearest tree. This was not as easy as I make it sound. My breath was coming in short gasps by the time I’d finished hauling him about.
“I hope that didn’t hurt too much.” I whispered as I stuck the point of my knife inside his nostril. His face was scrunched up in pain as he recovered from the blow.
His mouth moved but nothing came out. He cleared his throat. “It did,” he said in the croaking whisper of one unaccustomed to speech.
“Where’s your pal?” I asked, twisting the point of the blade a little.
“A man of few words, are you?”
He nodded his great head. “I don’t talk.” He croaked.
“Is that a fact? Then why am I so honoured?”
“We’ve met before.”
This is a small country with a small population – smaller now, of course – and coincidences like this were not uncommon. I lowered the knife, looked carefully around for any sign of the teen, and sat down in front of my captive, peering closely at the face beneath the beard.
“I don’t think so…” I began.
“You escorted remand prisoners to the Joy, didn’t you?”
“Yeah,” I said. “Back in the day. Were you one of them?”
He snorted and shook his head. “No, but I took them from you at the gate.”
Well, well… “Yes.” I said as his face became familiar. “Yes, I do know you, now. How’ve you been? What are you doing tagging along with these evil bastards?”
“It’s a long story.”
“Save it so.” I said. “But thanks for the heads-up. I might just come back for you later.”
I unwound a strip of duct tape from the hilt of my knife and pressed it firmly across his mouth. Time to find his companion in crime.