Lieutenant Colonel Charles Grove sat in contemplation after his midday meal. He leaned back in the chair that once belonged to the principal of Evergreen High, put his feet on the desk and began cleaning his teeth with a toothpick. He saw the name plate of the principal. “Principal Miller,” it read in white letters, with a hunter green background. Lt. Grove flicked the plate off the desk with his foot, then went back to running the toothpick through his mouth. He gazed up at the projector showing a map of the midwestern United States. The lieutenant’s eyes narrowed as he studied the map.
Colonel Grove was at ease, he had been for a while. The outbreak of the virus had given him and his men freedom from military work, and allowed them to find their own land and resources. The incubation period of the virus was fairly long – a little over a week – so once the virus hit the map, it spread like wildfire. Large numbers of people in major cities began dying suddenly. No one knew what was happening.
The media jumped all over it, inducing panic throughout the country and major cities of the world, naming it the “silent virus” because of the long incubation period. Once symptoms began, there was no hope for you, you were dead.
The first symptom was bloodshot eyes, but no other physical effects. One to two days later, a respiratory infection would ensue, marked by a blood spewing cough and intense swelling of the mucosal membrane in the lungs. The result was death of cells within the alveolar sacs, which is where blood oxygenation occurs. The alveolar sacs would swell and burst, and another one to five days later the individual would be dead.
Breathing machines only prolonged an individual’s agony, and because the virus was asymptomatic for so long, no one stood a chance – well, no one over the age of thirty-five or so. “Infected individuals describe the sensation as, “drowning in air’” the media reported.
How awful, thought the colonel, as he imagined the discomfort of the sensation.
Another curiosity about the silent virus was that it only seemed to attack adults over the age of thirty-five; and, of course, extremely young individuals and the immunocompromised. What a troubled group of humans to leave out in the selection process, Colonel Grove pondered, as he ran his tongue across his pearly-white teeth.
Colonel Grove was 29 years old, and all of his men were approximately that age or younger. Being the youngest leader of a battalion, he was instructed to stay with his soldiers at their base, manage supplies and keep everything in order, while the rest of the division was sent to quarantine major cities. And he and his men did just that – until word from upper chains of command stopped coming. Soon enough, any soldier over the age thirty-five developed symptoms, which led to the obvious ending. Younger soldiers scattered to find families. There wasn’t much anyone could do. The world had become semi-apocalyptic.
Instead of sitting around and waiting for orders, Colonel Grove took matters into his own hands. He was headed north to build a small town, or take over an abandoned one, and any soldier that wanted to travel with him could; any soldier that wanted to go another way could as well. He was left with a small company of men, forty-seven soldiers, including himself.
Surely, he would be court martialed if he was ever found, so would the rest of his soldiers; that’s why he was headed north, away from big cities, away from nonsense, to “live off the fat of the land.” At least until he was aged thirty-five, he thought, as he chuckled at the morbid humor of it. The colonel just didn’t see the point in waiting around until it was time to die.
Besides, who was going to worry about court martialing someone while half of the world was dying. A viral outbreak of this magnitude meant no one knew how long they had. Viruses replicate and mutate faster than anyone can imagine, that’s why there’s a different flu vaccine every year and no cure for HIV. We can’t keep up with mother nature, we can’t play God, thought the colonel.
A knock at the door.
The colonel’s voice was authoritative and deep, as he answered, “Come in.”
“Colonel Grove?” A young soldier walked into the office and saluted.
“At ease, Soldier,” Grove stood up. He was a massive man. His trunk was like that of a sycamore tree, with a thickness about him that made him look immovable. His chest muscles shown through his tan t-shirt, his arms bulged, and every vein popped as he adjusted his waistline. The man’s legs were trees of their own, and atop his thick shoulders sat a head that appeared to weigh twice as much as any other man’s. He had the standard blonde military hair cut, high and tight, and a stern, clean shaven face.
“Captain Stone requests your presence in the cafeteria, sir”
“Tell him I’ll be right there.”
“Yes, sir.” The man saluted again and immediately walked out the door, shutting it behind him.
The men had begun eating by the time he had arrived. As the Colonel approached, Captain Stone was talking to another soldier, next to a mound of food stacked about shoulder high on a lunch table. Stone was smaller in stature, and a good head shorter than Grove – although, most soldiers were. The soldier motioned toward Grove, and walked away as Captain Stone turned around.
“Sir.” The captain saluted.
“Sir, there’s enough frozen potato products, pizza, chicken and vegetables to last us a week. The freezer isn’t running, but it’s cold enough to keep frozen foods from spoiling for another week or so; if we only open it twice a day to make meals, that is.
“Thank you, Captain. Develop an itinerary for meal times, and explain to the men that noone is allowed in the cooler or pantry, except authorized individuals at meal time. How are the munitions?”
“Approximately the same as last week, Sir. The men have been well behaved.”
“Good. Let the men play a little, then. But don’t let them get carried away, Captain.”
Grove would be happy when they found their new home, so that all of this formality could stop; but, for now, it held the company together and kept them moving forward.
“What’s happening on the grounds, Captain?”
“A man at every corner of the building. All is well, no sign of any activity except for the two young women we found upon entering the building.”
“And where are they now?”
“Just outside of the cafeteria, in a classroom with two men, sir.”
“Have they been fed?”
“No, sir. They won’t eat.”
“Have they been harmed?” The colonel looked as if he didn’t trust the captain’s answer, even before he replied.
Captain Stone let a thin, sly smile curl around his lips. “No, sir. They’re in good hands.”
Grove looked curiously at his captain. He still didn’t trust the man’s answer. “Take me to them.”
The two men walked out of the cafeteria, took a quick right, and then found two soldiers standing outside the door of a small classroom. They stood at attention as their commanding officers approached the door, and saluted once the officers were standing in front of them.
“At ease, Soldiers. I am told you are holding two women hostage in here.”
The soldiers nodded. “Yes, sir,” one of them said.
“Let me see them.”
A soldier turned around and opened the door to let the officers in. Grove saw two young women, maybe twenty years old, back to back with their hands and feet zip-tied to the computer chairs they were sitting in. Their mouths were gagged and duct taped, and they whimpered as they saw the men enter. Too small and skinny for me, thought the colonel.
Captain Stone had another opinion, and he eyed the dark haired one on the left, like a snake playing with a mouse before a feeding. She shuddered in disgust, fearing for her life, knowing what the look meant for her. Fire filled her eyes as she peered back at him.
“I’m not interested in either of them. Captain Stone, they are yours to choose from. Do what you please with them. But remember,” Grove turned to look at his captain, his face stern, “they are ladies and human beings. Treat them as so, and tell your men the same. If I hear or see otherwise, I will not be happy, and I guarantee that you, and every other man in this company, don’t want that. Is that understood?”
Although Colonel Grove didn’t exactly see women as equal, he respected their humanity. He also knew that if he wanted to build a small civilization for he and his men to thrive in, beautiful, healthy women were of necessity.
Stone didn’t share the same opinion, and Grove half knew that.
“Yes, Colonel, of course. Sir, yes, sir.”
“I’ll be in my office.”
The soldiers all saluted as the colonel walked out the door. Just before he exited Grove turned back. “And for Christ’s sake, take off the damn duct tape!”
Once the door shut behind Grove, the Captain turned around and smiled a devilish grin.
The girls closed their eyes, as tears fell from them. Their stomachs turned. They knew what that grin meant.