* * * * *
Tak tak tak tak!
Small arms fire leaps through the crooked spray of a ruptured fire hydrant. Neon blood flies through the air, the swirling red glow of emergency vehicle lights refracting off the gushing water. A fleeing woman is hit in the back, a bullet biting into her spine as she collapses into paralysis.
A SWAT officer twists in position from behind his makeshift cover, riddling the hostile with burst fire. Another SWAT pitches forward to cover the downed woman, shielding her from further harm. Behind them, fingers bathed in sticky fluid, an EMT fastens gauze to a forehead gash.
A sound that is heard more in the mind fills the place; stifled sobs, and garbled shouts of warning flung in the direction of danger a moment too late. The primal, incoherent rage of a mob echoes off broken storefronts and down the canyon of avenues. The rush of blood and water. The beating of human and inhuman hearts. Staccato fireworks. Together they compose a private orchestra of madness to the afflicted, personal to every one. War.
And Stanford’s SWAT and Alison Merrick were caught right in the middle of it.
“On your feet, Detective,” Stanford grunted. He scooped the woman up at his feet, dragging her to safety. Safety was a single makeshift riot barrier—formerly an emergency stretcher for the injured off the plane—propped against a trestle standing in the gutter.
“He’s up,” Alison breathed, helping the police officer to his feet.
“I’m up,” McEvers announced, eyes blinking furiously. He had taken a partial shovel blade to the forehead while wresting it from the hands of a hostile during an intense struggle. Free flowing blood made his face look as a river map, and blinded his eyes.
Emery made a staying gesture with his hand, trying to restore calm to his allies. “S’alright, Lieutenant, I don’t see any others,” he said, glancing back at the gunman he had shot. Then he rose up over the barrier’s edge and began spraying the street with suppression fire.
The sudden and unprovoked onslaught of the Forsaken had been furious at first. Many of the rescue teams and civilians at the crash site had been forced into fighting out of sheer self defense. The latest one Emery had killed was only the second to be wielding a firearm. By now, wary of the return gunfire by SWAT and police, the Forsaken were only being held in check, viciously testing the defenders’ lines, and using suicide guerrilla tactics to terrorize and surprise the stressed and stranded mass of accident victims and rescue workers.
Stanford looked down at the blonde woman in his arms. She cried between sobs, saying, “I—uh—c-can’t feel my—legs!” He saw that she was wearing jeans and a jersey top—a civilian. One who had come to help in the hours after the crash. Added to the list of those whose lives were permanently altered that day.
“Help her take the victim,” he paused, “to an ambulance,” Stanford said, handing the woman he carried off to Alison. The blonde woman had cringed and made a forlorn noise at the word “victim.” Stanford realized this and quickly repeated himself. “Can you do that, McEvers?”
McEvers, now able to see, nodded while mumbling something, still groggy from his head wound, and ducked under the paralyzed woman’s arm to aid in carrying her.
Shouts and a brief scuffle erupted across the street. There was broken glass and the popping echo of discharged ammunition. A rear view mirror clanged off the riot barrier as a broken segment of brick thudded into Stanford’s upraised arm, there to block his face.
“Y’okay?” Emery spat, setting off a few more rounds.
Stanford didn’t answer. It wasn’t the hardness of the brick’s impact that the lieutenant felt. No. It was the softness of the blonde woman’s body as he lifted her. The firm resolve of her spirit to persevere throughout all that had happened. Courage and vulnerability intertwined. It reminded him of his wife—Sarah—and his family. His family who had come all this way to check on him. It informed him of how, unlike all signs pointing to the contrary, everyone was in the same. Either no one was safe or everyone was. Either no one was a potential victim or everyone was. And who would be next?
Stanford crouched beside Emery as the two of them caught their breath. Stanford slapped his helmet off and yanked Emery’s spare two-way off his belt.
“We have to march on them,” the lieutenant spoke into the receiver. “Press them back. Give them something else to target. Not them,” he shook his head, indicating the crash site and the village encamped behind him. “Not us. We can’t sit here any longer.”
Emery copied Stanford’s head shake, but little else.
“Sir, that’s no good!” came Dawkins’s reply. “We don’t have the manpower for that.”
Stanford stared hard at his sergeant, listening for any more feedback.
“Dawkins’s right, sir.” It was Frasier. “I don’t see any way for us like that.”
Lois’s voice came next. “We’re doing all right here, what’s the point?”
Stanford took the receiver down, still eyeing Emery. “What do you say? There a way like that for us? There a point?”
Emery frowned. He knew. Stanford was asking them to stick their necks out to get to his loved ones. Knew that the man had been hurting inside, for a long time. Even with his opposition to the others’ balking dissent, Stanford was going to be voted down three to two. And Emery knew what it had cost him.
“Whatever we do, we stay together on this. Family,” Stanford said. “We need to find a way.”