COOPER FELT HANDS BENEATH his back lift him from the comforting coolness of the ground. His entire body felt hot. His eyes felt thick but he opened them anyway and the world came rushing back to him in a blur. He heard sirens in the distance but their wails sounded…wrong. He coughed, his lungs on fire. A groan escaped his lips. He felt like he’d been in a car accident without a seatbelt. Then an orange-white memory flashed across his mind: the Semtex had exploded.
A dark shadow appeared over him. The glossy, black HAHO helmet reflected the outside world. Cooper saw himself, bloodied and charred like a steak. The visor cleared and Charlie’s face appeared, lit by soft blue LEDs from inside the helmet. Concern was etched on his face in the glowing light of early dawn. The helmet’s external speakers made his voice tinny. “You okay?”
Cooper coughed again and rubbed soot and dirt from his face. “Yeah, I think…” He sat up with another groan. “Man, I haven’t had my ass kicked like that since BUD/S.”
“Jesus Christ,” said Mike. He lapsed into a wet, hacking cough. “I’ve already got the virus and you go and try to burn me alive?”Cooper took Charlie’s hand and got to his feet and tried to laugh but it turned into a hacking cough.
“Glad to see you still have your sense of humor, Beaver.” Static tickled Cooper’s ear. He adjusted his bone phone and Swede’s voice came through loud and clear.
“Yo, Coop, we need to get out of here, man. I see three more vehicles down the street. Comin’ up fast. We put a big bull’s-eye on our backs with that one—bet you can see the smoke and fire all over the city.”
“Copy that,” replied Cooper. He knuckled his back and got his bearings, looking up and down the alley behind the CPS building. “Where’s Boatner?”
“I’m here,” said the virologist, as he stared at the flames dancing within the shelled remains of his old lab across the street. “Can we just get out of here?”
“I think that’s a fantastic idea,” said Mike. He got to his hands and knees and coughed again before depositing a huge glob of pink-tinged mucus onto the pavement.
“That’s nasty…” said Charlie’s tinny voice, transmitted through the external speakers on his helmet.
Cooper checked his wrist-mounted digital display. The tiny screen was shattered. Of course. “Doc, we need to get north of here into New Hampshire. What’s the easiest way?”
Boatner stepped out of the shadows and grimaced. “Right now? Better get yourself a tank. Normally, I’d say we just hop on Massachusetts Avenue and get off campus, but now…”
“Transport will be dicey,” said Charlie. “You hear the sirens?”
“Coop, I wasn’t joking… Jerry’s on his way…” warned Swede’s voice.
“All right, all right. Charlie, you’re in charge of Dr. Boatner. We need to head to the secondary rendezvous point and meet up with Jax and Sparky. Swede!”
“We’re moving—you take point, stay a block ahead of us and for God’s sake be quiet…”
“Hey, you’re the one that blew the lab halfway into orbit.”
Cooper bent and looped Mike’s right arm over his shoulders before standing again. His back burned and his muscles protested, but he ignored the pain. Once Mike was on his feet, Cooper shifted the infected SEAL’s weight a little, then glanced at his teammate. “You good to go?”
Mike turned his head and coughed. “Yeah, feels like the fever broke. Hopefully that was the worst of it…”
“You’re running a terrible risk bringing him along.”
“Dr. Boatner,” growled Cooper. “When I want your medical opinion, I will damn well ask for it. Charlie, take us out.”
“Okay Doc, let’s go,” said Charlie. He put a hand on the scientist’s shoulder and the older man flinched. They turned and moved north, through the alley.
Cooper let Charlie and Boatner get about half a block away before he started to follow, Mike limping at his side.He noticed for the first time curious heads watching through open windows on either side of the street as the CPS building went up in flames. Witnesses were never good. Cooper cursed under his breath.
“I told you to leave me,” said Mike.
“Bullshit,” growled Cooper. “I’ve already lost too many men since this shitshow started. I ain’t losing you to a goddamn cold.” He glanced up as one of the onlookers asked what happened.
Think. Fast. “Fire!” Cooper hollered. Laughter erupted from one of the windows behind him.
“No shit. I mean—”
“Hey, those guys took out a bunch of Germans!” someone else said.
“Shit…” muttered Cooper. He glanced at Mike. “We gotta pick up the pace, man.”
“Why you walking so slow, then?”
“Hey! You guys with the Sons?” another voice demanded.
“’Course they are! Who else is fightin’ the Germans? Nice job, boys! You need anything?” said an old woman’s voice from above.
Cooper looked up into the pink-tinted sky. Dawn’s coming. Gotta hustle… “Just directions, ma’am. You know the fastest way west?”
“Yeah, from here you wanna take Linnaean. Two blocks up, take a left.”
“No, way,” replied a younger, male voice from the opposite side of the street. “That’ll take you right by one of the German camps. I saw it yesterday. You want Lancaster. Go a block past Linnaean, hang a left, and then take Washington north till you reach Upland. That’ll getcha ‘round those goose-stepping a-holes.”
“When they set up a camp on Linnaean?” asked the woman.Cooper ignored them as they debated across the street. Three more voices joined in, arguing with each other. He hoped it would provide enough cover for his team to slip into the darkness and disappear.
“Heads up, German patrol headed your way—12 o’clock,” warned Swede.
“Cover!” Cooper ordered. He looked left and found an alley between two apartment buildings. “This’ll do,” he said to Mike. A large dumpster sat just inside the mouth of the alley, overflowing with trash.
“Christ, this stinks!”
“Just get in there,” said Cooper as he shoved Mike forward. The two SEALs slipped into the shadows and crouched.
“I got eyes on the Germans,” said Charlie’s voice. “They’re movin’ fast. Just keep your heads down and they’ll go right past us.”
“Everybody head east when you’re clear,” whispered Cooper into his throat mic.
“East?” asked Swede.
“Yeah, the Germans are going to run right into those civvies behind me. I don’t want to risk them finding out we’re headed west. We need to go in the opposite direction for now.”
A German military truck rumbled past Cooper’s position, a searchlight mounted in the passenger window scanning the street. The light flashed momentarily down the alley, hovered on the dumpster, and disappeared as the truck moved closer to the burning lab.Cooper did his best to ignore the stench as he worked his way through the garbage to the mouth of the alley and peered around the corner. He saw brake lights. He could hear indistinct yelling back and forth between the occupants of the truck and the buildings. The searchlight panned up and illuminated an elderly black woman as she leaned out her window. She acted as if nothing was unusual about a German patrol in the street below her apartment.
“Swede, where you at?”
“Two blocks north, about a click away from the rendezvous point.”
“Negative, it’s clear now.”
Cooper looked back at Mike, shivering in the shadows of the dumpster. We just need to get to that rendezvous point and we can hole up and wait for Jax and Sparky. We have to get a ride.”Charlie, pick up the pace and get Boatner to the rendezvous point. Swede, scout out a place for us to hide, we’re not going to be able to move in daylight. We’re running out of time…”
“You’re telling me,” said Mike.
A flash lit up the street behind him and Cooper brought his weapon up to bear on the German truck down the street. He heard an explosion and saw smoke blast from the window where the old woman had been talking. Next to the truck, a German soldier aimed a grenade launcher at the next window.
“The hell was that?” asked Charlie’s voice.
“One of the Germans just popped a 40 mike mike through an old lady’s window back there.”
“Son of a bitch!”
Cooper clenched his jaw, frustrated that he could do nothing to help. He had bigger things to worry about. He grabbed Mike’s arm and dragged him to his feet again. “Let’s go, SEALs. Double time! We gotta unfuck ourselves before things get out of control!”
Semi-automatic gunfire erupted behind them. Cooper ducked on instinct and swerved Mike across the street into the adjoining alley. “You hit?”
“I’m good,” gasped Mike.
“Cooper! You okay? The fuck’s going on back there?” asked Charlie.
“Yeah, I’m fine. Wait one.” Cooper inched his head around the corner as more gunfire rattled down the street. He couldn’t believe it, but weapons had emerged out of windows and the civilians were actually shooting down into the German vehicle. The soldier who had fired the grenade into the old woman’s apartment was cut to shreds and dropped on the pavement. Cooper watched as a hatch on top of the German truck popped open and another soldier appeared with a rifle. Under a hail of fire, he took a headshot to the face and tumbled back inside the truck.
“Remind me never to pick a fight in Boston…”
“Never mind. Everybody keep moving!” Cooper wrapped his arm around Mike’s back and led him away from the firefight.A kid in a Bruin’s jersey exited the building across the street to Cooper’s left and ran past waving an AR-15.
“You guys get outta here. We got this!”
“Thanks for the assist,” Cooper called over his shoulder. The teenager with the rifle waved again and then charged into the gunfight. Two more men exited the building across the street and ran by, shouting encouragement to the SEALs and cursing the Germans.
BY THE TIME COOPER and Mike staggered into the boarded-up townhouse at the end of Willard Avenue, both men were exhausted. A sheen of cold sweat had formed on Mike’s forehead and his face was pale. As soon as Cooper got him inside the door, Mike collapsed to his knees and leaned against the wall, panting and wheezing.
Cooper turned, taking one last glimpse down the street as the rising sun fully illuminated their new area of operation. Boston brownstones lined the street as it ran west. His eyes lingered on the handful of windows that glowed—people were rising to start the day and more than a few had candles. That made him uncomfortable. Cooper didn’t like the idea of hiding in an area that teemed with survivors. Willard Ave. was littered with trash and a few civilian vehicles that had crashed. They would definitely have to wait until dark to move out. He didn’t want to test the loyalty of the locals. Anyone in desperate need of food might turn them in to a passing German patrol.He heard the low-pitched hum of a German helicopter as it cut the still morning air. Cooper shut the door.
The interior of their safe house was as dark as night. He thought about turning on his night vision, then remembered he had left his HAHO helmet back at the lab. It was just a charred lump of plastic and Kevlar now. “Charlie?” He called out in a hoarse voice.
“Upstairs in the master bedroom. I got first watch.”
“You got eyes on that German helo?”
“Negative. I got the windows cracked up here, though, and it’s a loud son of a bitch.”
Cooper leaned his sweat-soaked head against the door and closed his eyes in relief. If they had been out on the street for just another minute, they would have easily been spotted by the helo. They were taking too many chances.
“Any word from Jax or Sparky?”
“Negative, I ain’t heard shit.”
Cooper helped Mike get to his feet and pulled him into the apartment’s living room. The place had been abandoned for a while, if the layer of dust and dirt on everything was an indication. There was a bare spot on the floor underneath the front windows, about the size of a couch. Cooper brought Mike over, careful not to disturb the window coverings and helped him to the floor.
“It ain’t a bed, but at least you can stretch out a little.” He unclipped Mike’s pack, tactical vest, and gear and used them to prop him up so he could breathe easier.”Sorry it’s not the Four Seasons or anything, but it’s about as good as I can do for you right now, brother…”
“Don’t worry about me,” said Mike, his eyes already closed. “But if you happen to come across some water, I’d be much obliged…”
Cooper patted Mike’s shoulder. “I’ll see what I can find. You hang tight.”
Don’t let him go out like this. He’s an operator—let him go out fighting…
Cooper made his way through the darkened interior of the apartment and found Swede still in his HAHO helmet, leaning against one of the countertops in the kitchen. He was digging through the cabinets while keeping an eye out the kitchen window that faced northeast. Cooper stepped up next to him and peered out the window. There was a small patch of bushes at the rear end of the tiny lot. Beyond the bushes, Cooper saw a sizable parking lot dotted with abandoned vehicles and a few boats. On the other side of the parking lot was a four lane interstate.
“That’s gotta be 93.”
“Yup. The Northern Expressway. I saw a sign on the way in. And that’s Russell Marine,” said Swede with a jerk of his head toward the parking lot.
Cooper wiped the sweat from his brow. A flare of worry ignited in his mind—do I have a fever or is it just from dragging Mike’s ass across Boston? He suppressed the fear, reminding himself to worry later and took his pack off before he placed it on the trash-covered kitchen table. Fast-food wrappers and empty cans rattled on the floor. He pulled out a local map from his pack and stretched his burning shoulders.
Using the faded light from the grimy kitchen window, he examined their options. According to the map in his hands, Russell Marine had a facility on the other side of 93 that backed up to the Mystic River. He looked out the window and could just barely see beyond the deserted interstate, where a tree line indicated the river’s banks. A long, squat building surrounded by a high fence sat on the other side of the interstate.
“New Hampshire’s a long way, north, man…” observed Swede.
“Don’t I know it,” muttered Cooper. “And Mike…” Cooper turned and looked at Swede. “I don’t think Mike got sick at all ten years ago.”
“Poor bastard,” said Swede.
“He ain’t dead yet,” said Cooper. “But he will be, if we don’t get him out of here.” Cooper looked down at the map and used his soot-encrusted finger to trace the line of the interstate. The road ran north on the map as it headed for the New Hampshire border. Cooper could see the trip was going to be almost impossible with a man to carry and no vehicle.
Back in Colorado, Admiral Bennet had assured Cooper that as long as they could get out of Boston, someone would be able to get to them. The mission called for extraction from New Hampshire where a small airfield had been commandeered. A C-130 and a team of medics waited for them.The Germans had locked down the air space over Boston, but their control was tenuous outside of downtown. It would be possible, the Admiral told him, for a covert extraction anywhere in the area as long as they made it out of Boston proper.Cooper followed the Mystic River with his finger as it meandered its way around the north side of Boston and emptied into the Bay. If they could get across 93…and if they found a boat…and if they found gas and somehow managed to make it down the Mystic River into the Bay undetected by the Germans…
That’s a lot of if’s.
He stared at the map, willing it to offer up a suggestion, a hint, anything that might help. Then where the hell do we go? It would be a long, slow process to wind their way through downtown Boston out into the open waters of the Bay. Cooper tried to think back to the HAHO drop—he couldn’t recall seeing any German ships in the Bay. The briefings back in Colorado had explained that the German presence was heavily supported by aircraft and that a significant naval presence had yet to arrive.Still…Cooper looked out the kitchen window.
If they went out at night, they might be able to make it into the Bay by the following dawn. There were an awful lot of islands in the Bay that they could hide on if the trip lasted that long. He glanced down again at the map. Cooper’s eyes followed the trail of islands that dotted the western extreme of Massachusetts Bay and spotted one, just northeast of Boston. It was connected to a strip of land by a thin peninsula. He read the name on the map: Nahant.It didn’t look like there was any airfield, but right in the middle of the little spit of land there was an open space—maybe a golf course. Either way, there was a decided lack of buildings and trees. Helicopters or Ospreys could land there, no problem.
Swede leaned over the map. His helmet turned to face Cooper. “You got that look again…you changing the plan?”
Cooper nodded. He tapped the map. “Nahant. Just south of Lynn. I think this open space here would be plenty enough for an Osprey.”
“Sure as shit,” muttered Swede.
Cooper checked the distances and retraced the route with his eyes. The more he thought about it, the more he liked the idea. “Yeah, I think this’ll work.” A low rumble pierced the kitchen walls. Cooper looked at Swede and both men peered out the dirty window. A German tank rumbled down the abandoned interstate. A dozen soldiers walked behind it, looking tired and bored.
“Never thought I’d see that in Boston,” muttered Swede.
“Amen, brother.” Cooper folded the map and stuck it back in his pack. He keyed his mic. “All right everybody, listen up,” he said. “New plan for exfil. Soon as it gets dark, we’re going across the street and stealing us a boat.”
“A boat?” asked Charlie’s voice.
Cooper grinned. “What’s the matter? You afraid of the water?”A static-filled transmission scratched at Cooper’s ear. He closed his eyes and pressed a finger to the bone phone. “Anybody catch that?”
“That sounded like Jax,” said Swede. He grabbed his rifle and made for the front of the apartment.
“That’s what I thought,” said Cooper as he followed. In a louder voice, he said: “Jax, come in. You read me?”
There was a pause, and then Cooper heard a garbled message. It was definitely Jax’s voice.”Say again! You’re breaking up!”
“—there! Repeat: we are—” static swallowed the transmission.
”Dammit…They must be close,” said Cooper. “Charlie you got a visual?”
“Negative, I’m watching the street. I got no movement.”
“Jax, come in. You okay?”
“—hit. I say again, Sparky’s been hit.”
Cooper looked at Swede. “Let’s go get ‘em.”