Derrick jumped to his feet and scanned the horizon, eagerly watching for movement. The noise of the helicopter, echoing across the flat landscape, seemed to come from nowhere in particular, but its intensity continued to increase steadily. After a moment, the lone aircraft came into view over a small patch of forest, two or three miles southwest of the town.
Rummaging hastily in his munitions satchel, Derrick produced a flare gun and a couple of cartridges. He glanced over his shoulder as he loaded the pistol. The helicopter was less than two miles distant now, and it was still heading right for Ashby. He couldn’t make out much detail, but it appeared that the aircraft was standard commercial fare, judging by its small size and inconspicuous paint job. Raising the flare gun, he prepared to announce his presence.
Even as he did so, the approaching aircraft veered to the left and plunged downwards. Regaining stability for a moment, it repeated the alarming maneuver and then entered into a tailspin. Astonished, Derrick watched as the helicopter whirled out of sight behind a wooded ridge. Seconds later, he heard the sound of the impact.
“Holy shit!” he exclaimed. “That’ll bring ‘em swarmin’ for sure.”
If there were any survivors out there, Derrick knew it wouldn’t be long before they were in serious danger. Grabbing his flashlight and shotgun, he opened the hatch and made his way back down into the dark room at the base of the water tower. All was quiet there, and the door was still shut fast.
As soon as he emerged from the tower, Derrick scurried to the truck and removed the suppressed rifle from his gun rack. He looked about cautiously as he cycled a .338 round into the chamber – there was no movement as of yet. Although he couldn’t see the helicopter, a distant column of black smoke left no doubt as to its location, and he struck out immediately in that direction. Crossing the road, he passed through the school’s weed-infested baseball field and out into the desolate farm country.
After about a half an hour, he approached the stand of trees beyond which he knew the helicopter must lie. The ground rose abruptly here, forming a little, wooded island in the midst of the surrounding grasslands. As he proceeded up the hill, the air became increasingly laden with smoke and the oppressive smell of burning fuel. Spluttering a bit, he reached the summit and looked down through the haze.
Twenty or thirty yards below him sat the mangled fuselage. When it crashed, the small aircraft had crumpled against the rocky hillside like an aluminum can, exploding into flames. Even now, the blaze continued unabated, fueled by an abundance of leftover propellant – it was not likely that anybody had survived the crash.
Derrick ventured out from the woods and examined the wreckage. As he picked his way between patches of fire and helicopter fragments, he observed a darkened mass to his left, near the central conflagration – with a shudder he realized that it was a human torso. The remains had been transformed hideously by the intense heat. The flesh was blackened and emaciated, and the eyeless face looked like a strange, leathery mask. The right arm of the corpse had been wrenched off and lay at some distance from its body.
A thorough search of the debris yielded no further discoveries, and Derrick concluded that the dead man had come alone. He felt disappointed. It had been half a year at least since he had last talked to anyone, and he would have welcomed a little friendly banter. He sighed and looked skyward. The sun was floating high in a sea of azure, and it reminded him that it was nearly midday. He still needed to get supplies, but he didn’t feel like dallying in Ashby another night in order to do so. Shouldering his rifle, he started back up the slope.
All of a sudden, he checked his pace. What was that? Retracing a couple steps, he peered among the rocks and tall grasses off to his right. There was something white on the ground over there, maybe five yards distant, but he couldn’t get a clear view of what it was. Grabbing hold of his rifle, he advanced warily towards the spot.
He came upon the body of a young woman lying in the grass. Her eyes were closed and her upturned face looked deathly pale. She was dressed in a white tank top and well-worn jeans, both of which bore bloodstains from a number of superficial cuts and abrasions. Her long auburn hair was matted with blood from an ugly gash along the scalp. Crouching beside the woman, Derrick pressed his fingertips to her neck. Her skin was cold to the touch but, to his surprise, he perceived a faint pulse. He removed his outer jacket and wrapped her in it against the chill autumn wind.
“Hey lady, can you hear me?” asked a strange voice. “My name’s Derrick. Don’t worry, I’m gonna help you.”
“Au…drey,” whispered Audrey faintly.
She tried opening her eyes, but it felt like there were enormous weights attached to the lids and she quickly gave up.
“Glad to know you,” continued Derrick’s voice.
“Wh. . . wh. . . where?” stammered Audrey weakly.
“Nowhere safe, that’s for sure,” said Derrick’s voice, “in a field outside of Ashby, Minnesota. Don’t worry though, everything’s gonna be just fine. Now just take it easy and I’m gonna carry you.”
Derrick was apprehensive as he bore Audrey towards town. He was trying hard not to jar the injured woman, yet at the same time speed was imperative. Bloodied as she was, it would be nearly impossible for them to avoid detection by a keen predator, so the sooner they got inside the water tower, the better. He looked up. Ashby was extremely close. Suddenly, an eerie cry rang out across the bleak landscape.
“They’re finally on the hunt,” said Derrick.
…TO BE CONTINUED…
by Mike Goetz