“Hot as hell,” Barry Font yelled, wiping the sweat from his face.¬† He looked around him at the crew he was transporting straight into the hot zone.¬† He hadn’t meant the strip of land they were setting the helicopters down in.¬† They all knew it was bad.¬† The last rescue attempt had been ambushed.¬† Three dead, two wounded and the helicopter had barely made it out.
The temperature was at least ninety degrees with 99% humidity and gusting winds that took that heat and shoved it right down your throat—and this was at night.¬† His skin felt wet and sticky all the time.¬† He wanted to strip himself bare and lay under the helicopter’s rotor blades just to get some relief.
They dropped down out of the mountains, the helicopters running low enough to make his gut tighten as they skimmed along the lowlands heading toward the forest.¬† They were sitting ducks making that run and this area was infamous for frequent ground to air fire.¬† With the Milisi Separatis Sumatra terrorist cell active and firing at anything, every man in the choppers was at risk.¬† Gunners grimly watched out their doors on either side, but that didn’t make him feel any less like he had a target painted on his back.¬† Strangely, it wasn’t the run that was scaring the crap out of him.¬† He felt like he was trapped in a cage surrounded by predators.
The Air Force Pararescue team didn’t seem affected by anything so mundane as the heat or terrorists.¬† The crazy thing was, they were mostly officers. Doctors.¬† What the hell?¬† As a rule, Barry thought most officers were a joke.¬† These men had seen combat and looked as tough as nails.¬† He’d never flown them anywhere before and hadn’t known what to expect.
His crew had taken men into all sorts of combat situations, but he’d never seen a team like the one he was bringing in.¬† He didn’t even know how to explain their difference.¬† It wasn’t like he could name one single thing about them that made them stand out in his mind.¬† They just gave off a dangerous vibe.¬† Being with them really did feel as if he was inside a tiger’s cage, surrounded by the big cats.¬† They were that still, that menacing, and yet they hadn’t said or done anything to warrant his nerves or the shiver of dread creeping down his spine at the sight of them.
They sat stoically while the helicopter swayed and jerked, bumping like it was in the rockiest terrain.¬† They moved with the craft as if seasoned veterans of helicopter travel.¬† Sweat trickled down faces—well—all but one.¬† He looked at the man sitting at the very end of the jump seat.¬† Dr. Draden Freeman, a gifted surgeon, looked like a fucking model, not a tough-as-nails soldier about to be dropped into the hottest zone in Indonesia.¬†
Freeman had dark brown hair that was thick and wavy.¬† At six-two he was all muscle, without an ounce of fat.¬† His eyes were a dark blue and held an intensity that when he flicked Barry a careless glance at his remark, Barry’s gut reacted as if punched.¬† The man had rugged good looks that had catapulted him into stardom in the model world.¬† Ordinarily, Barry and the crew would have been making fun of him behind his back, but no one did--especially after one of those smoldering, scary glances.¬† Not one single bead of sweat marred his good looks.
“Five minutes out.” The call came from the front via his radio.
Barry held up five fingers and the five men in the helicopter barely reacted.¬† The helicopter was coming in with guns ready, knowing they wouldn’t have much time to retrieve the wounded US Rangers, Kopassus or civilians.¬† The gunners were in position and tension mounted.
Members of WHO, the World Health Organization, had come at the request of the government to examine the remains of the dead at a small village, Lupa Suku, in a remote part of Sumatra.¬† Every man, woman and child had died of what appeared to be a very fast-acting and deadly virus, possibly one of the dreaded hemorrhagic viruses.¬† Once on the ground and before they could set up their equipment, the WHO members were attacked by a small terrorist cell known to the government. ¬†
The Milisi Separatis Sumatra or MSS as the government referred to them, had sprung up in the last few years.¬† They were growing fast and were well-funded.¬† Their goal seemed to be similar to most other terrorist cells—to take down the government.¬† They were now suspected of having chosen the small village of Lupa Suku to test a hemorrhagic virus, but where it came from and how they got it, no one knew, but they needed to find out fast.
The rain forest of Sumatra was rich in plant and wildlife, although, over the years even that had been shrinking significantly.¬† The trees were thick, the taller Dipterocarp trees shooting up to the sky providing shade, vines climbing them and flowers wrapping around them.¬† Mangrove roots pulled sediment from the river leaving large areas of peat swamps with rich nutrients at their edges promoting thicker growth.¬† The village of Lupa Suku was surrounded by the forest and tucked in just far enough from the river to be a perfect target.
The government had sent in their special forces, the Kopassus to rescue the single WHO representative still alive.¬† The Kopassus were known world-wide as tough soldiers able to stack up against any army.¬† They were well trained and very skilled.¬† They’d been ambushed as they were trying to aid the wounded man.¬† A small force of U.S. Rangers had been called to aid the Kopassus who were pinned down, some reportedly badly wounded.¬† The Rangers were then attacked and pinned down as well.¬†
It began to look as if Lupa Suku had been sacrificed in order to draw the Indonesian soldiers into fighting a guerrilla style war on the terrorist’s home turf.¬† Whatever the rumor, there were wounded men needing aid and six of them were soldiers of the United States. Now, this team was going to try to bring those soldiers out of the hot zone—along with any Kopassus and the remaining single living representative of the WHO.
Barry held up two fingers and the team moved, readying themselves for a quick departure.
“Ten minutes is all you’ve got and then we have to get into the air,” Barry reminded them.¬† “If we can’t hold our position, we’ll come back around for you.”
Freeman flicked him a quick glance.¬† It was one of those looks that seemed to burn a hole right through him.¬† Barry shivered, not liking those eyes on him.¬† They were intelligent, focused—almost too focused, but they didn’t blink, and it felt like death looking at him.
The team leader, Doctor Joe Spagnola, gave him a quick look as well.¬† It pretty much said, ‘You maggot, if you leave one of my men behind, don’t ever go to sleep because I’ll be coming for you’.¬† At least Barry interpreted the look that way.
Joe Spagnola ignored the way the helicopter crew was looking at his team.¬† He didn’t look at them or his own men, but instead, reached telepathically to his GhostWalker unit. GhostWalkers were enhanced psychically as well as physically.¬† The first they’d signed on for, the last, not so much.¬† Still, they were classified soldiers and they did their jobs, no matter how fucked up that was.
Each branch of the service had one GhostWalker team consisting of ten members.¬† The first team experimented on had a few major problems.¬† Some needed anchors to drain away the psychic energy that adhered to them like magnets.¬† Others had brain bleeds.¬† Every subsequent team had fewer flaws until Whitney, the doctor performing the experiments, had rolled out his prize team, the Pararescue Team. ¬†They might have what Whitney considered fewer flaws, but they also had more genetic enhancements than any of them cared for.
He leaves us, we’ll be finding him and his candy-ass crew when we get out of here.¬† Joe’s voice slid into their minds.
Draden’s gaze shifted, just for one moment to Barry Font and then over to his fellow teammate, Malichai Fortunes.¬†
There’s a hundred and fifty volcanoes in Indonesia, Malichai, their fact man informed them all telepathically.¬† We can shove his ass out of the helicopter right into one of them if he tries leaving any of us behind.
Draden let amusement slide into his eyes for a moment but didn’t let it show on his face.¬† Malichai had been spouting all kinds of facts, the rainforest and the wildlife at risk there.¬† That was his way in a dangerous situation, and all members of the team just let him carry on.
¬†The enhancements made them predators any way you looked at it.¬† Hunters.¬† They were very good at their jobs.¬† They looked like soldiers.¬† Doctors.¬† Officers.¬† But they were much more than that and anyone in close confines with them felt that difference sooner rather than later.¬† All of them could smell the fear the helicopter crew were giving off and that fear had nothing to do with flying into a hot zone.¬† No, Barry and the crew were used to that sort of danger—they just didn’t like their passengers.
Draden could give a rat’s ass if he was liked or not.¬† He had a job to do.¬† They were going into enemy territory to bring out the wounded and make certain they stayed alive until they got them back to the hospitals.
The helicopter set down with a jarring thump and Draden was out fast, running with his fellow teammates in the dark toward the southern tip of the tree-line.¬† Deliberately, they’d chosen to fly in at three in the morning, when the enemy would least likely be at its sharpest.¬† The sound of the rotors was loud in the night, something that couldn’t be helped.¬† He knew the noise would draw the enemy.¬† That couldn’t be helped either.¬† They just needed a few minutes.
The terrorist cell had set their trap with live bait.¬† They knew the terrain and had chosen it carefully.¬† The MSS had the advantage, especially when the Indonesian government had wounded soldiers waiting for help.¬† They knew the authorities would send their elite and it was a chance to mow them down.¬†
Draden fanned out to his left while Gino Massa went right, both flanking the others as Joe went down on one knee and flashed the tiny blue light in each direction three times.¬† They received a response, from the west.¬† Instantly, they were up and running again toward the return signal.
Thirty feet from the thickest brush, they spread out even further, running in absolute silence as only GhostWalkers could.¬† Joe, Malichai, and Diego Campo dropped down, their weapons ready while Draden and Gino continued forward.¬† Draden slipped into the cover of the brush, a place he was at home.¬†
He found their contact ten feet in, crouched down in the thick buttresses of a Dipterocarp tree.¬† “How many wounded?” Draden asked, his voice a thread of sound.
Draden gave a mental shake of his head.¬† Fifteen wounded was a lot of wounded.¬† They had the room in the three helicopters, but maybe not the time to get them all in.¬† “Anyone besides you can help get them to the choppers?”
That wasn’t good either.¬†
“No idea of their numbers.¬† They seem to come and go.¬† At least we think they’re gone and the moment we move, they open fire.”
Draden nodded.¬† “Any of you sick?”
The Ranger shook his head.¬† “The only one to go near the village was Dr. Henderson and he was in full hazmat gear.¬† We stayed out of there.¬† Henderson wants the village burned.”
Draden turned and signaled the others in.¬† They came like wraiths, sliding out of the night in complete silence.¬† Draden gave him the number of wounded telepathically while Joe tapped his watch.¬†
Move fast, gentlemen, we don’t have time to triage here.¬† Get them into the choppers.
Joe didn’t sound alarmed, but Draden felt it never-the-less.¬† They had about eight minutes and getting to the wounded would eat up another minute or two.
He was already on his feet, so they followed their contact through the thick forest to the small dip in the terrain hidden by brush and the buttresses of wide tree trunks.¬† The Kopassus looked grim, two dead, three of them badly wounded, but guns steady as rocks.¬† One was still standing and ready to pack out his teammates, already gathering their weapons.¬† The Rangers were in similar straits, one dead, the others in various states of badly wounded or just broken and bloody.¬† Those with lighter injuries were gathering up their teammates to pack them out.¬† The WHO doctor, clearly in bad shape, staggered as he stood.¬† None of them looked as if they could walk more than a few steps.
The GhostWalkers were all business.¬† Gino took the worst Ranger, slapping field dressings on the wounds to keep him from bleeding out while he ran with the man to the choppers.¬† The Kopassus followed with one of his fellow team members.¬† Joe took a Ranger while Diego a Kopassus.¬† Malichai took the civilian.¬† One of the Rangers staggered to his feet.¬†
“I can walk out.”
Draden nodded and waved him after the others.¬† He moved from wounded man to wounded man, giving them water, and seeing to the worst of their wounds, all the while listening for any changes in the sounds of the night that would indicate members of MSS had returned at the sound of the helicopters.
Gino was back, hoisting another Ranger onto his back.¬† The Kopassus soldier returned with him and took another of the wounded.¬† The Indonesian didn’t look in good shape, but he wasn’t leaving anyone behind.¬† They wanted to pack their dead with them as well, not leave them behind, but the dead had to go last.¬† Joe, Diego and Malichai all had the next round of wounded and were gone, disappearing into the darkness when Draden felt his first prickle of unease.
He crouched low and signaled to the remaining soldiers for absolute silence.¬† The remaining men showed why they were considered elite.¬† In spite of their wounds, they immediately went into survival mode, weapons ready, sliding deeper into the depression for cover.¬† Draden moved away from them, toward the north.¬† There were no sounds of insects.¬† Not even the continual drone of cicadas or loud croaks of tree-frogs.¬† For a moment, the forest had gone unnaturally quiet, signaling something was moving into it that didn’t belong.
He was part of the forest and he could read every sign.¬† He moved fast, slipping through brush without a whisper of sound.¬† Sinking into the thick foliage, he waited.¬† A man emerged from a small group of trees, heading stealthily toward the encampment of wounded.¬† Draden saw another fifteen feet from him, and a third man, the same distance out as the terrorists moved in unison toward the small group of soldiers.
Draden waited until the nearest terrorist had passed him and he rose up swiftly, caught him around the head, his hand muffling any sound as he plunged his knife into the base of the skull before lowering him to the ground.¬† The forest floor was thick with vegetation and cushioned the fall of the rifle.¬† Draden was already melting into the dark, making his way across the expanse to the next man in line.
As the terrorist turned his head toward where the fallen man should have been, Draden was on him, repeating the kill, and slipping away.¬† Behind him, more of the terrorists were emerging into the kill zone.¬† They were filtering through the trees and shrubbery, making little sound, coming up toward the encampment where the remaining wounded waited to be transported.
Draden took the third man on their front line and then glanced down at his watch.¬† He needed to buy Joe and the others an extra couple of minutes to pack out the last of the wounded. Then he’d have to double-time it back to the choppers, so they could get out of there before the MSS had time to get real fire power set up.
He reached up, leapt, caught the branches of a Durian tree and pulled himself up, waiting for the next line of the soldiers to pass in front of him.¬† Although he was aware of every second ticking by, he was patient.¬† The moment the five men crept through the darkness, he dropped down, so he was between the MSS filtering through the forest.¬† They were creeping stealthily toward the helicopters, trying to insert themselves between the choppers and the remaining wounded soldiers.
MSS coming at you, Draden warned his team.¬† I’ll buy some time.
Draden moved much faster, risking being seen by one of the terrorists behind him as he cut down first one and then a second one in that line.¬† Glancing at his watch, he ran toward a third, his knife stabbing deep into the base of the skull as he shot past.¬† He held onto the hilt of the knife, so that as he ran, it spun his victim around before the blade came free.¬† He threw a balanced throwing knife sideways into the neck of another as he sprinted out of the protection of
We’re in.¬† We’re away.¬† Joe reported.¬† Circling to bring you home.
Coming in on the run.
The last of the helicopters had lifted from the ground, gunners providing cover for him, spraying the tree line to keep the terrorists from taking aim at Draden.¬† Diego and Malichai used automatics to aid the gunners as Joe, and Gino worked on the wounded.¬† A rope was dropped down as the chopper circled back.¬† Draden kept running as gunfire erupted from the cover of the forest.¬† Bullets spat around him.
The chopper came slipping out of the sky toward him, coming in low, the rope flying like a slinky tail.¬† Behind him, the forest went strangely silent.¬† No gunfire.¬† He didn’t stop.¬† He leapt for the rope, his gloved hands catching hold, the jerk so strong it nearly pulled his arms out of his sockets.¬† Still, his enhanced strength allowed him to hang on while the chopper began to climb.
He was twenty feet up when he felt the sting in his thigh and his heart stuttered with instant awareness.¬† He glanced down to see the dart protruding from his muscle and knew why the terrorists’ weapons had gone silent.¬† They had a sniper and he wasn’t armed with a bullet.¬† He was armed with a virus.¬† If Draden went up into the helicopter, he was condemning everyone in it to the same death as those in the village.¬† Without real conscious thought, he let go of the rope, dropping out of the sky and back to earth.
Virus injection.¬† It was the best information he could give them, so they would know to leave him behind.
Malichai was staring down at him, their eyes meeting as he fell away.¬† He saw Malichai practically dive from the helicopter, but Diego caught at him, holding him back.¬† Draden landed in a crouch, his enhanced DNA allowing his legs to act like springs to absorb the shock.¬† He somersaulted forward and stood up, facing the forest, his arms spread wide.¬† Let them shoot him if they wanted, but if they didn’t, he was infecting the bastards.¬† He began walking toward the edge of all those trees and brush.
Draden.¬† What the hell happened? Joe’s voice slipped into his mind.¬† It was faded, as if the distance was already too far.¬† He heard the helicopter circling back so Joe would be able to reach him.¬† He pictured Joe holding a weapon on the crew.¬† He could get that intense.
By the time he reached the trees, the members of MSS had faded away, leaving him to die however the villagers had.¬† He’d seen the reports the Indonesian government had shared with WHO.¬† It was one of the reasons his team had been in the region.¬† Two team members were two of the leading scientists developing treatments, therapies and pharmaceuticals in the field of viruses.¬†
Infected with the virus.¬†
Draden had taken the time to finish both his doctorate and MD, to be an asset to others on his team. He’d dabbled in biochemistry but finished his undergrad degree, a BS in genetics.¬† Stanford offered a dual MD and PhD program and he’d taken advantage of that.¬† He’d gotten his MD as an infectious disease doctor and his PhD in microbiology and immunology.¬† He found it ironic that he would be dying of a weaponized virus after all that work to earn his degrees.¬† Determined to be of some use, he decided to record everything he could about his symptoms, along with any suppositions he might have before he put a bullet in his head.¬† He’d leave final conclusions for them.
Tell Trap and Wyatt I’ll leave behind a recording.¬† Don’t know if they can use whatever I find, but they should remotely be able to access my recorder without touching the device.
I’m sorry, man.¬† Trap and Wyatt may have ideas.
Draden knew, just from the earlier reports, that their ideas would be too late.¬† The virus acted too fast.¬† He would be dead before Joe had time to make it back to the States.
I’ll torch the village. He hoped he’d get that done fast so he could hunt the terrorists who were infecting people and then using them as bait to kill more.¬† He wanted to kill as many of the bastards as possible before the virus took hold and left him too sick to go after them.¬†
He could hear the chopper circling back around a second time.¬† Hope you didn’t put a gun to their heads. He injected humor he wasn’t really feeling into his voice.¬†
Maybe if we get you back we can find the treatment before it’s too late, Malichai said.
Too fast acting.¬† Can’t chance infecting all of you.¬† We all signed up for a one-way ticket when we joined the GhostWalkers.¬† It’s just my turn.
Fuck! Gino hissed.
I’ll take out as many of the cell as I can before I go down, Draden said, meaning it.¬† He was going to make sure as many of them were dead as possible.¬† Not because they’d infected him, but because they’d infected an entire village to use as a trap.¬† Joe, someone has to find out where this is coming from.
I will, Joe promised.
Get the wounded out of here, there’s not much you can do for me.¬† Some of those injuries were severe.
Damn it, Draden.¬† That was Gino.
He didn’t feel as bad as they did.¬† He didn’t have much of a future anyway.¬† Just pissed I wasted all that time going to school instead of partying.
Yeah, cuz’ you’re such a party animal, Malichai said with an attempt at sarcastic humor.¬† His voice was tight.¬† The feeling in his mind—sorrow.
Tell Nonny, she’s the best.¬† He should have told the old woman that himself.¬† Wyatt Fontenot’s grandmother had taken the entire team into her home.¬† She’d cared for them as she would her own.¬† He hadn’t had that kind of affection from anyone since his foster mother had died when he was so young.¬† He hadn’t known anyone else was capable of loving others the way the woman he called mother had until he met Nonny.¬† He should have told her, and he hadn’t, not once.¬† He was surprised at the emotion welling up.¬† Yeah, he should have told her.¬† She’d mourn for him and it shouldn’t have shocked him that his teammates would as well, but it did.
We can pick you up, take you back and try one of the treatments.¬† I know they’re not sanctioned yet, but some have worked when a virus is detected early enough, Gino said.
We don’t know anything about this one yet and we can’t take the chance, you all know that, he objected, because he could infect every one of them and when they landed, every doctor and nurse waiting to help the wounded.¬† He wasn’t having that on his conscience.
You have anywhere from a few days to twenty.
Joe, don’t make this worse.¬† Get the hell out of here and make certain every single one of the wounded survive.¬† Draden knew the virus was more fast acting than that, at most, he had two days.
There was the briefest of hesitations, but Joe was the commanding officer for a reason.¬† He had to make the tough decisions.¬† You have my word.¬† Damn honor serving with you, Draden.
The others murmured similar sentiments.¬† He didn’t reply. What was there to say?¬† He had never considered himself a sentimental man, in fact, he tried not to feel much at all, but living in Louisiana with his GhostWalker Team, emotions had crept in whether he wanted them to or not.¬† He’d learned at a very early age that it was better to push feelings aside and use logic for every decision.¬† Emotions fucked things up in ways that could be very, very bad.
Still there was Trap.¬† The man was a genuine crazy-ass genius with Asperger’s.¬† Super high IQ and wealthy as all hell.¬† Didn’t have a clue about social cues.¬† Draden had been the one to clue him in as often as possible.¬† Trap didn’t let many people in and neither did Draden, but they’d been there for one another.¬†
Tell Trap, he’s the best.¬† He’ll do fine.¬† Tell him‚Ä¶ he broke off, shocked that he was choking up.¬† He loved the man like a brother.¬† Shit.
I got it, Joe said.
Draden let the forest close around him as the sound of the helicopter faded into the distance.¬† He wasn’t worried about being alone.¬† He was used to it.¬† He’d been alone most of his life, even in the midst of a crowd.¬† He could handle that no problem.¬† He began to move fast toward the village of the dead.¬† It was very small, only a few families, many related to one another.¬† He was a very fast runner, but that would spread the virus through his bloodstream much quicker.¬† Still, it might not be a bad idea just to get it over.¬† He played with that idea as he jogged, his animal senses flaring out to uncover anyone that may have been left behind to keep an eye on him.¬†
He pulled up the facts about the village and region they’d been briefed on.¬† The village’s name, Lupa Suku meant Forgotten Tribe and he thought it very apt from everything he’d read about them.¬† The village was so remote, it wasn’t even considered a sub-district of Rambutan.¬† He knew that driving southeast from Palembang the thirty-four and some miles to Rambutan, villages along the road were more and more scarce.¬† Eventually, that road became nothing more than a muddy broad path lined on either side by trees and brush. A few cars and busses shared the road with bikes and animals until it disappeared.
So remote, Lupa Suka could only be reached by bike, boat or animals such as a domestic ox.¬† It was impossible, during the wet season to get any motorized vehicle through.¬† Heavy items tended to get stuck in the thick mud, so it was necessary to move everything via water.¬† Most used a small boat to access the village via the Banyuasin River.¬†¬†
According to the briefing given by the representative of the Indonesian Government, primary trade consisted of fish and rice.¬† There was a small copper mine that was kept a secret by the locals.¬† The copper was mined by hand a little at a time as they had no modern machinery.¬† The government had turned a blind eye, acting as though they knew nothing about that little mine or the fact that the villagers traded the copper to poachers who came to the area looking for exotic birds.¬† Money meant little to the villagers, so they tended to barter for the things they needed.
Draden figured bartering was how the terrorists had introduced the virus.¬† It was possible that the virus had occurred some other way, via bugs or animals, but he doubted it.¬† WHO had been trying to find a source, but the fact that the nearby terrorist cell had used the dead villagers for an ambush, killing nearly all the WHO doctors and their workers tended to make him believe, they were responsible.¬†
The terrorist cell was organized for being fairly new.¬† Their job was to topple the government and unlike others targeting police officers, they had chosen to undermine the people’s confidence in their government by introducing a hot virus.¬† Draden and his team believed the village was their first large test.¬† There had to have been other smaller experiments.
Lupa Suku was the perfect village to test the virus on.¬† The people preferred to do their trading via boat, didn’t allow outsiders to come to their village without a good reason or an invitation.¬† They were secretive, mostly, the government thought, because they had the copper mine and didn’t want outsiders to know about it.¬† They were very self-sufficient and lived in accord with the animals in the forest.¬† Very peaceful, they used their weapons only for protection.
During the times of the year when the rain made it very difficult to travel, the tribe went weeks without being seen by others.¬† Lupa Suku was located a quarter mile inland of the river and couldn’t be seen by passersby traveling on the water, which, again, made them a perfect target.¬† The village kept boats docked and a sentry to watch over the area and call out should there be trouble.¬† A virus would go unseen by the sentry.
Draden moved through the forest with confidence.¬† He knew at least one or two of the MSS would have been left behind to observe him and tell the others what he was up to.¬† He intended to burn the village and then go hunting them.¬† He would kill as many as possible, leaving one alive to follow back to the main MSS village.
Trap and Wyatt, like Draden, were very familiar with hemorrhagic viruses.¬† All three had worked on combining antibodies to target specific strains of Ebola.¬† The antibodies had successfully saved monkeys that had been infected within twenty-four hours but as the disease progressed, the success rate had dwindled.¬† They had been in discussions, long into the nights, on how to raise those chances for those who were into the more advanced stages of the diseases.
From his studies into most hot viruses, Draden knew he didn’t have long before he would be feeling the effects.¬† His death would be a horrible one.¬† He had a gun, and he was going out that way for sure.¬† He just had to make certain he didn’t wait so long that his body was too ravaged by the disease to be able to make the rational decision to use a bullet. He’d seen the effects of hemorrhagic viruses on a human being and his mind shied away from his gruesome future.¬†
Even so, he picked up the pace, winding his way along the narrow animal trails he found, leading through the forest toward Lupa Suku.¬† He knew he had to be cautious, traveling fast the way he was.¬† There were other dangers in the forest besides the MSS.¬†
There were only about five hundred Sumatran tigers left and one of them had chosen the area around the village to make that his territory.¬† The people of the village considered it an honor and lived in harmony with the big cat.¬† According to the reports Draden had read, the tiger had showed up when a palm mill threatened its habitat and the peat swamp nearby Lupa Suku had lured the endangered animal to claim new territory.¬† The village made an agreement with the local poachers to leave the tiger alone in exchange for trading their copper exclusively with them.¬† Even with that agreement in place, traps were set for poachers looking for tigers or other rare animals.¬† Draden couldn’t afford to be caught in one of them.
Heavy vegetation surrounded the village of Lupa Suku.¬† Tall Dipterocarp trees joined at the top to gather into a canopy, providing shade.¬† Climbing their trunks were woody, thick stemmed lianas and dozens of species of epiphytes. ¬†The orchids and ferns lived on the trunks and derived their nourishment from the air.
Flowers were everywhere, the exotic plants and vines were surprisingly colorful.¬† Several trees and brush held the colored flowers up and out to grasp at the sun’s rays.¬† Cicada trees lined a path from the water to the inland village, more trees forming a barrier to the peat swamp, the flowers threatening to blossom at any moment.
Draden drank in his surroundings with both appreciation and sorrow.¬† The beautiful path led to a village that should have been thriving. Instead, it was now a path to certain death.¬† The stench was unbelievable.¬† The WHO camp had been set up a distance away from Lupa Suku, but still within sight.¬† He could see that members of the MSS had ransacked the camp after killing the workers and doctors.¬† Some lay dead in their hazmat suits.¬† He went right past their camp and entered the village.
It was eerily silent.¬† A pit had been dug and the bodies already had been placed inside of it for cremation by WHO.¬† Even the fuel was sitting there in cans.¬† It was a fuel that burned hot and fast.¬† Draden made a quick circuit of the village to make certain no bodies had been left behind before he doused all buildings with more of the accelerant and then the bodies in the pit.¬† He lit the entire thing on fire and then backed away from the terrible heat.
He was fortunate that it wasn’t raining, although the forest around Lupa Suku was saturated.¬† He moved into deeper forest, away from the flames shooting into the air, going further inland so that the sentries MSS had left behind would have to actively search for him.¬†
He covered his passing through the peat swamp, using trees to travel in, rather than making his way across the wet ground.¬† He found a nice place to wait—the branches of a hardwood tree.¬† Around him were aromatic spice trees, but this one had a nice crotch where several branches met at the main trunk, providing him with a semi-comfortable place to rest.
Draden remained very still and quiet so that all around him, the insects and rodents in the forest once more became active.¬† They made for good sentries.¬† He drank water he’d retrieved from one of the fallen ranger’s packs while he studied the forest around him.¬† Fig trees were abundant, mass producing enough fruit twice a year to feed many of the forest’s inhabitants including the endangered helmeted hornbill.¬† The forests were rich in valuable hardwood and he saw the evidence of that all around him.¬† The tree he’d chosen was in the middle of a grove of exotic fruit trees which attracted a tremendous amount of wildlife.
Colorful birds were everywhere.¬† He identified scarlet-rumped trogon and the red-naped trogon.¬† Eventually, he spotted the Asian paradise flycatcher and a blue-throated bee-eater.¬† He’d already seen the blue-eared kingfisher when he’d been closer to the river.¬† He looked for the rarest of the birds, the helmeted-hornbill, wanting a sign of good luck, but there were none to be seen.¬† This was a place poachers often came to trap birds to sell in other countries as there were so many sought after species. That, in turn, could mean there were traps set by the villagers.¬†
Further out from the fruit trees was a small grouping of Cinnamomum Burmanni trees.¬† This village had everything it needed to, not only survive, but to thrive.¬† The cinnamon was in the bark and could be harvested and traded as well as used by the villagers.¬†
Draden took his time studying the layout of the forest floor.¬† Once the members of the MSS came, he would have to move fast, kill most and then track one back to their nest.¬† He wanted to know where every trap might be, so he didn’t get caught in one.¬† After mapping out the forest floor in every direction as far as he could see, he marked the places he thought a trap most likely would be set.¬†
He closed his eyes and studied the effects of the virus on his body.¬† He could find none. His guess was, going off incubation for the Ebola and Marburg viruses, he had two to twenty-one days to find the home of the MSS terrorists and kill them.¬† As far as he was concerned, that gave him plenty of time to get his job done.
He might have dozed off but when the insects stopped their continuous droning, his eyes were quartering the forest floor for his prey.¬† Two men approached from the direction of the burning village.¬† He could smell the smoke, but the glow of the flames had died down.¬† If the fire had licked at the surrounding trees and brush, it hadn’t spread far, at least it didn’t appear as though it had, thanks to the level of saturation from the continuous rain.¬† There was nothing he could do even if the flames had found the trees and brush.¬† Lupa Suku had to be burned for the good of the country.
Both men studied the ground, searching for signs that Draden had come this way.¬† They were both Indonesian and used to tracking in the forest.¬† They didn’t hesitate as they moved through the dense vegetation.¬† They were quiet and appeared to listen to the warnings of the animals and insects.¬† Neither spotted him sitting up in the tree.¬† He watched them for a few minutes, getting a feel for them.¬† They talked back and forth in hushed tones, pointing out a bruised leaf and a crushed frond of fern as evidence of his passing.¬† Since he hadn’t come from that direction, he knew he wasn’t the one leaving behind the signs for them to follow.¬† Idly, he wondered who had.
He let them nose around right under the tree he sat in.¬† Neither looked up.¬† Not once.¬† Their eyes were trained on the ground as they cast back and forth for any kind of a track.¬† One squatted suddenly and pointed to the ground where Draden was certain a trap had been placed for any poacher. The trap was uncovered, proving him right.¬†
It was hot. Rain began to fall, a steady drizzle that hit the leaves of the canopy and filtered their way down to the forest floor.¬† Light was streaking through the sky, turning the rain to an eerie silver.¬† This was a far cry from his modeling days. ¬†He waited until the guerrillas pointed in the opposite direction of the village and started to walk that way.
Very calmly, he put a bullet through the head of one and the shoulder of the second one.¬† It was deliberate and fast, a quick one-two, squeezing the trigger as he switched aim.¬† One crumpled to the ground while the second one jerked sideways, nearly went down, but forced himself to stumble behind the thick buttresses of a Dipterocarp tree.¬†
Draden remained absolutely still.¬† The two bullets had been fired fast.¬† The sound of the gunshots had been loud, reverberating through the forest and quieting the insects.¬† It didn’t take long for the cacophony to start up again.¬† In short time, the frogs began to join in.¬† Mice scurried through the leaves. Beetles and ants found the dead body and the pool of blood that coated the debris on the ground.¬† The forest returned to normal that quickly, as if the violence had never been.
The man he’d wounded would need immediate care if he wanted to live.¬† Infections were almost a foregone conclusion in the high humidity and vast array of insects of the rainforest.¬† Diseases such as malaria were rampant in the area and spread mainly by mosquitoes.¬† As a native, the wounded man would know that.¬† He would have to make his way back to the nest, the home of the Milisi Separatis Sumatra.
Draden didn’t move, staying as still as any predator with his gaze fixed on his prey.¬† No muscle moved.¬† He didn’t take his eyes from the man.¬† He could just make out a part of his thigh and boot.¬† The MSS member was stoic, but the pain had to be excruciating.¬† Draden had made certain the shoulder was shattered.¬† He went for maximum pain.¬† He’d also put the man’s dominant arm out of commission.
The member of the terrorist cell held out for over an hour.¬† He had to have been worried about blood loss at that point.¬† Draden was.¬† He didn’t want the man to bleed out on him and die.¬† It would be far easier to follow him back to the nest than to backtrack.