Chapter 21

The seven of us worked with calm professionalism down in the armory. Weapons were checked, cleaned, lubricated and checked again. Magazines were loaded. Blades were sharpened and sheathed. Batteries were charged and replaced. No one spoke. We were all too focused on the upcoming battle – and we knew it would be a battle – to engage in idle chit-chat.

Scotty loaded his twin Schofields with his custom silver .45 Long Colts, locked the weapons closed, and spun them like an old-time cowboy before sliding them into his dual hip holsters. He loaded up his Benelli M3 Super 90 with eight shells of double-aught buckshot, then stuffed the dozens of loops on his armor with every shotgun load known to mankind. Breacher rounds, bucksnot, Brenneke slugs, tear gas, bean-bags, flechettes, bolo rounds, those Frag-12 grenades he loved so much, and even a few rounds of quadrangle buckshot (which really exists thanks to Milo Anderson). If someone loaded it, Scotty had it on his vest. His blades were just as unusual as his sidearm: a pair replica Franciscan battle-axes just like the ones the Franks had used to conquer their homeland were crossed behind his back.

Dominique rocked a magazine into her German-made G3KA4 assault rifle, stuffed a full two dozen magazines into the pouches on her tac vest, then turned to her HK45 pistol. She smoothly loaded a magazine into the weapon, racked the slide and decocked it, then dropped the mag and replaced the chambered round before reloading the mag. A half-dozen pistol mags went into the pouches on her belt, and an oversized combat knife was strapped upside down under her left armpit.

Chris loaded a 200-round-long ammo belt into his customized M60E3 machine gun, then loaded four more plastic boxes into the large pouches on his belt. For good measure, he draped another belt over his shoulder like a bandoleer. He tested the light clipped to the frame of his 1911 automatic – a full-custom build by Les Baer – before loading it up, topping the mag off, and sliding it into the drop-leg holster on his right thigh. Another custom 1911 – this one an Officer’s Model by Wilson Combat – went into the holster strapped inside his left ankle. Pistol mags covered every open spot on his vest and pistol belt. His Ka-Bar knife went into a leather sheath on his left hip.

Shannon locked the big drum magazine full of buckshot into Boudica, stuffed a dozen ten-round box mags into her vest pouches, then hooked a tank of Milo Anderson’s homemade napalm mix up to the underbarrel flamethrower. Based on Milo’s calculations, Shannon had a good ninety seconds of flame at her disposal with that thing. She double-checked to make sure her Springfield XD45 Tactical was loaded and topped off before sliding into her front break Galco-shoulder rig. A big Kuhkri knife was already strapped to her left thigh.

Odette had a custom Galco shoulder rig too, but here’s was a dual-gun rig: her full-size S&W 4563 hung under her left armpit, while the smaller 457 rode under her left. The mags for the pistols were in pouches on her belt. She loaded up her UMP45, locking the mag into the receiver and slapping the charging handle down just like you see in all those action movies. Ironic, since she hated “shoot-‘em-up flicks.” She looked more ready for war than any of us, with a full thirty magazines attached to her armor. She slid her big Bolo machete into a sheath on her right hip.

Jon carefully cleaned his new Crusader Broadsword for the umpteenth time before reassembling and loading it. He triple-checked the adjustments on the Magpul stock before loading a magazine into the rifle and six more went into his vest pouches. He already had his custom 1911 locked and cocked in a low-riding hip holster, and was sliding a second one into a high-ride cross-draw holster. The rig made him look like a modern-day Wyatt Earp. A full dozen pistol mags were strapped to the sides of is vest, and his oversized Tomahawk was already slung across his back.

Meanwhile, I rocked a 30-round magazine into my FAL and stuffed ten more 20-rounders into my vest pouches. My full-size SIG P220 went into its regular drop-leg holster, and eight spare magazines went into vest and belt pouches, while the P220 Compact and two more magazines slid into my new Galco shoulder rig. I stared at the rig for what felt like hours, a sense of foreboding and dread seeping into my body until I forcefully brushed it aside and shrugged the rig on over my armor. It was still a little uncomfortable: I’d had it for less than 24 hours and hadn’t gotten it adjusted perfectly yet. I loaded up my Mossberg 590A1, slid it into my back-scabbard, then stuffed a few dozen extra shells into loops on the front of my belt. I slid a few breacher rounds into a row of loops on my right shoulder in case I ran into a locked door or something. My Katana was already in its sheath strapped to my left hip, while the smaller Wakazashi was strapped to my back, its sheath riding underneath the Mossberg’s scabbard.

“Everyone set?” Dominique asked. We all nodded affirmatively. “Move out.”

We marched up the stairs and out the door towards the motor pool, where my family was waiting for us. Owen and Julie were with them, already geared up and ready to go. The plan was to drive my family to a nearby airport, where one of MHI’s aircraft would meet us and fly them down to the main compound down in Alabama, before we continued south to Philly. The outbreak was so big that Earl had retracted his order confining me to the compound and was sending me out with the rest of the team, and it had been decided that it was too dangerous for my folks to stay alone in the compound in case Robert decided to hit it again. Even though every available team from MHI was being sent into Philadelphia, there would still be more than enough support staff in Alabama to keep them safe.

Our two SUVs were sitting side-by-side in the center of the garage, rear hatches open wide. The rest of the team began piling their weapons and crates of extra ammo into the cargo compartments. My parents’ minivan was parked off in the corner. Mom and Dad were loading their things into the back while Jake and Terry stood off to the side, holding the dogs on their leashes. All the dogs were visibly agitated; milling about, tugging on their leashes, whining loudly. They knew something was up, that we were going to be moving somewhere new, and they were afraid they were going to get left behind.

I headed to the rear of the garage where The Beast was parked, set my FAL on the floor, then opened the GTO’s trunk.

“Hey Steve!” Dominique called, “What’re you doing?”

“Loading up,” I replied as I loaded the FAL and Mossberg into a hard gun case and set that in The Beast’s trunk.

“I can see that, but why in The Beast? You’re not seriously going to drive that, are you?”

“Why not? I’ve barely broken it in yet, and besides, I’m only gonna take it to the Academy, not all the way into Philly.” All of the available MHI teams – along with the National Guard and the MCB – were rendezvousing about fifteen miles west of Philadelphia at Valley Forge Military Academy for a briefing and a status update before we would actually enter the city.

“Whatever,” Dominique shrugged as I loaded my swords in the trunk, “I’d just hate to see my little brother’s handiwork get messed up.”

“Don’t worry about it,” I said. She just rolled her eyes and heaved a crate of 12-gauge slugs into the back of the Excursion.

**********

It was a half-hour drive from the compound to Wilkes-Barre/Scranton International Airport, but it felt like hours. As promised, Hondo rode with me in the front seat, and Jake and Terry sat in the back seats. My earlier suspicions about them had been correct; they were both hooked on the idea of becoming Monster Hunters and they begged and pleaded with me to get them into MHI. Unfortunately for them, Mom and Dad had talked with me about that, so I told them what I promised my parents I would say: I wasn’t going to encourage them, but I wasn’t going to try and talk them out of it either. I did tell them that once they finished up with school and got their degrees, if they were still interested in becoming Hunters, that I would get them in touch with Earl Harbinger about joining a Newbie course. Somehow I knew they’d end up joining.

We got to the airport right on time only to discover that our plane was running late. Apparently it had encountered headwinds over Kentucky. Or West Virginia, I wasn’t really paying attention. Either way, we ended up waiting around for a good forty minutes or so with nothing to do. At least the airport staff let us wait in an empty hangar; nine heavily-armed and armored individuals hanging out in an airport lobby would have brought every SWAT team and Alphabet Agency in a hundred-mile radius crashing down on our heads.

I paced back and forth across the concrete floor, impatiently waiting for the plane. It wasn’t that I was anxious to get rid of my family. Even though my parents had been kind of distant over the last few weeks, I was still glad to have had them around. They were still family and, much as I hated to admit it at times, I’d missed them.

“Anxious to get rid of us?” I turned around and found myself face-to-face with Mom and Dad.

“No,” I said quickly, “It was great seeing you guys again! I’m just… nervous, I guess.”

“You don’t have to do this, you know,” Dad said.

“Yes I do,” I replied, “I signed up for this. I’m going.”

“But it’s dangerous,” Mom argued.

“I know.”

“It isn’t your fight,” she pressed, “let the others handle it.”

“If not me, than who? And if not now, than when?” I asked rhetorically, using the same phrase as when I’d told them my plans to enlist in the Marine Corps after high school.

“But…” Mom said, then her face fell.

“It’s his decision, dear, whether we like it or not,” Dad said as he draped an arm around my mother’s shoulder.

“Look,” I said slowly, “I’m sorry. About all of this; about lying to you, about getting you caught up in this whole thing with Robert, making you live in a compound in the woods with a bunch of heavily-armed right-wing paramilitary wackos…”

“It’s not about that,” Mom replied quickly, “Well, all right, having to come to the compound did mess things up for us a little, but that’s not why we’re upset. It’s just that… you’re our son, and we love you, and… and we don’t want anything bad to happen to you. I mean, we know you’re a man now and you can make your own decisions, but to us, you’ll always be our baby.”

I didn’t know what to say to that. I think I might have started crying a little bit. Tell anyone that last bit and I’ll hunt you down and kill you.

“I…” I finally found my voice, “I know.” I pulled both of them into a hug. “I know.” Now I really was crying (again, don’t tell anyone or else). After a long moment, we released each other.

“Promise us you’ll come back?” Mom said.

“I… you know I don’t make promises that I don’t know if I’ll be able to keep.” Their faces fell and Mom started to tear up. “But I do promise that I’ll try my hardest.” That seemed to satisfy them.

“Plane’s on the ground!” Dominique called, “It’ll be here in a few miniutes!”

“Fight well,” Dad said.

“You know I will,” I replied with a smile.

Any further conversation was cut off by the arrival of Gryphon, MHI’s very own C-130 Hercules. The pilot didn’t pull the aircraft into the hangar – a good thing because there wasn’t enough room with us and our cars in there – but instead turned the aircraft around so the tail was pointed straight at the hangar doors. The pilot cut three of the engines, and a second later the rear hatch dropped. The fourth engine died, and after a moment a short Asian man with a cane walked down the ramp.

“Hey Lee!” Owen called as he and Julie ran over to greet him. I vaguely remembered him. His name was Albert Lee; he’d been an active Hunter for a few weeks before being wounded during the Chosen One Incident – a Master Vampire had left him with that cane – and how he worked down in MHI’s archives and served part-time as a classroom instructor during Newbie courses.

“So,” Lee said after greetings were exchanged all around, “you the passengers?”

“Yes, that’s us,” Dad replied. I noticed that Mom’s gaze was locked on Lee’s cane. No doubt she was scared to death that I’d come back from Philly with one of those, or worse.

“Let’s get you loaded up and outta here,” Lee said, “That your van? You can just drive it right up the ramp; the loadmaster will show you where to park it.”

“Thanks,” Dad replied. He, Mom, The Twins, and the dogs all piled into the van. All except Hondo. He just stood there, looking at me with big sad eyes. Somehow he knew that he wouldn’t see me again after this.

“Aw, Hondo,” I said, walking over to him, dropping into a crouch, and pulling him into a hug, “I’m gonna be okay,” I whispered into his ear so Mom and Dad couldn’t hear, “I’ll be gone for a couple of days, but then I’ll be back. I promise.”

“Oh, that reminds me,” Lee said, “Milo sent along these.” He shrugged a small backpack off his shoulder, unzipped it, and pulled out four seats of electronic earmuffs: one tiny, two small, and one just about human sized. “For the dogs,” he explained. I couldn’t help but laugh: I’d heard of those but had never actually seen them before.

We finally got Hondo into the van, then Lee and the Hercules’ crew got the van loaded onto the plane. The ramp retracted, the engines roared to life, and the big aircraft taxied away from the runway. Everyone else headed back to the SUVs, but I stood there watching until the C-130 lifted off from the runway a moment later. I waved goodbye to my family for the last time, then ran over to The Beast.

**********

It was another two hours from the airport to Valley Forge Military Academy. Part of me was actually looking forward to going back there – I’d grown up close to VFMA and had attended a (civilian) college literally right down the road from it – but I was really too nervous to care. Not even the thundering V8 of The Beast and the blaring guitars and drums of Manowar – Eli had also installed a kick-ass audio system and an audio jack – could take my mind off of the dream. First the shoulder holster, and now the zombie outbreak; I was really starting to think that the dream was a prophecy, a vision of the future, or whatever you want to call it. And I couldn’t forget how the vision had ended.

“Do you mind if I turn this down?” Odette asked from the passenger seat. She wasn’t much of a Metal fan.

“Sure,” I said absently, “Go ahead.” She reached into the glove compartment (where the audio jack had been thoughtfully hidden) and lowered the volume on my iPod.

“Thanks,” she said, then turned to me. “Are you okay?”

“Yeah, I guess,” I replied.

“It was just a dream,” she assured me.

“If you say so.” We drifted into an uncomfortable silence for a minute.

“Can you do me a favor?” I asked.

“What is it?”

“If anything happens to me—”

“Nothing is going to happen to you,” she insisted, “it was just a dream. It doesn’t mean anything.”

“Maybe, maybe not,” I said, “But if something does happen to me, I want you to do two things for me.”

“What?”

“First, I want you to have The Beast, and second, I want you to take care of Hondo for me.”

“Don’t talk like that! You’re talking like you’re not planning on coming back from this!”

“I’m planning on living, I just like being prepared.” The lie came smoothly. Somehow I knew it was more than just a regular dream. “I trust you, and I know you’ll take good care of both of them.”

“Steven—”

“Odette, please, promise me.”

“I promise,” she said it reluctantly, but I could tell she meant it.

“Thanks.”

“But it won’t matter, because you’re going to make it out okay.”

“I’ll do my best,” was all I could offer.

“Yes, and your best is going to be more than enough to—” she stopped suddenly as House of Death ended and my iPod shuffled over to another track. I felt my heart literally stop beating for a second.

“Uh, you can change that if you want!” I blurted. Odette just stared at me in shock.

“Maxine Nightingale?”

“I… uh… I’ve got an… eclectic taste in music!” I sputtered, “You can change it!”

“No way,” she laughed, “I love this song!”

“Seriously?”

“Yep,” she said, then started singing along to the music. “Ooooh, and it’s aaaallll right and it’s coming ON! We gotta get-right-back to where we started from!” I just shook my head and rolled my eyes. My anxiety was suddenly gone.

A moment later, I joined in the singing as we barreled down the highway.

Chapter 22

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