Gunnery Sergeant Marianne Beaubien, USMCDay: E-Day +2
Time: 0300 hrs CST / 0900 hrs GMT
Location: An airfield outside Madison, Wisconsin.
She was cold. Though the weather had been unseasonably warm for December, the temperatures at night still dropped into the forties, or “the singles” as she would have called them back home. Marie wrapped the blanket around herself a little more and refused to open her eyes. To save fuel, they had shut everything down, robbing her of the familiar hum of the engines. After their last close call the decision had been made to forgo putting the plane to bed which, while logical in the circumstances still left her uneasy. Curled up in bits of survival gear, her cheek against the troop bench of the KC-130J air transport, falling asleep had been hard enough the first time; she had no desire to hamper its return.
She turned her head away from the rough straps of the troop bench and took another long breath of the cold air. The cargo ramp was opening, allowing the northern air to sweep up and down it at will. She forced her eyes shut. Sleep should not be a challenge. In the last two days she had totalled eight hours of rest, catching brief naps in between the mad dash to refuel after landing, and taking off again an hour or so later.
“Gunny.” A firm hand shook her shoulder. The shake was unnecessary. Her eyes snapped open as a surge of anxious energy filled her with the evocation of her rank.
“Sir?” The grim face of Maj. Thompson, the plane’s Aircraft Commander, stared back. He was a serious man, a dyed-in-the-wool-Marine-for-life. She respected him and all he had done for her over the last few years. Even now, she knew that he understood what was going on enough to see the crew through this.
“Wheels up in twenty eight minutes. We’ve got another storm coming.”
He did not say anything else, instead moving up the cargo bay and into the flight deck, presumably to begin preflight. She looked across the aircraft. One of her two crewmen, was wrapped in his poncho liners and completely asleep. Standing, she stretched and resolved to allow him another few minutes of sleep. His name was Cable but everyone called him Larry. She and Frias, who they all knew as Lefty, had managed the ground operations on their own, before she was ordered to get some sleep. It took a bit longer, but the tanks were filled, the fuel truck a fair distance away and all was in order for a quick departure. Frias was sent off to scavenge for parts and she was ordered to bed.
She looked at her watch and stifled a groan. 0300. Two hours of sleep was the longest she had managed since the first wave of meteors had hit. She untied her hair, and shook it out, then carefully and methodically pulled it back into a small tight bun. With a deep breath she started down the ramp and began her preflight inspection of the plane. It would be quick. For the last half dozen times they had put down, they had left the aircraft strip ready. Time was just too precious when it came time to get airborne, again. She took a moment to watch Frias unload crates of parts from his borrowed ATV.
“A good siesta, Gunny?”
She wanted to say “no”. It would be honest. Marie had slept but it had been restless and she still felt exhausted. “Yeah,” she lied. “You get a break next time we’re down.”
He nodded once and resumed his work. Marie stretched one final time and looked out over the field.
Then she saw them approaching.
The emergency lights along the hangers gave the crowd even longer shadows, stretching out from their forms like long clawing hands. There were perhaps two hundred of them, walking briskly in the cold night air. Flickers of flashlights blinked her direction as they moved together towards her. Some of the refugees were wrapped in blankets, while others walked closely, conserving warmth. They had come from the single small terminal nestled between the half dozen hangers. It was a good walk across the tarmac which gave her a few minutes to before they would be at the plane.
She told Frias to get the ATV out of the plane and to rouse Cable, and then moved up to the flight deck. Putting her hands on the sides of the hatch she leaned into the space.
“There’s a few smaller airports outside of Atlanta we might try,” Lt. Regal, one of the two copilots was saying. “Be good to head south if we can and rest in some warmer weather.”
Thompson shook his head. “From what we’ve heard, the clouds thin out as you move north. I don’t want risk coming down into one and gumming up the intakes. Nothing south of Chicago.”
The Major grunted his approval, the quiet giving Marie a moment to speak up.
Thompson did not look up from his checklist. “Gunny?”
She took moment to swallow before speaking. “Sir, we’ve got a group of about two hundred civilians coming over to say hello. I think they were holed up in the air terminal. They probably got the same report you did, Sir.”
Thompson turned to look at Lt. Regal. Lt. Sobal continued to snore in the rear seat, blankets tucked up under her chin and her fleece watch cap pulled down over her eyes. There was a moment while the two officers shared what seemed like an entire conversation without words. “Find out what they want, Gunny, then report back up here. Do not let anyone on without my go-ahead.”
She nodded. “Yes, Sir.”
“Have you done an external walk yet?”
“No, Sir. I'm on it.”
Thompson grunted. “Time's going to be tight. Let's get this right.”
She ducked back into the cargo area where Frias and Cable were waiting. Already they had stowed their sleeping gear and were now looking to her for direction. She said nothing but waved them to follow her down to stand at the bottom of the ramp.
As the wind kicked up again, she resolved that at their next landing she was going to forgo sleep to go scrounging for more warm weather gear. It did not sound like they would be returning to warmer climes anytime soon.
As the crowd approached she was able to see more details. Those at the front of the mob were armed with pipes, large tools and other makeshift clubs. Her doubts about their intent evaporated. She turned and spoke quickly, praying her voice would not carry in the cold night air.
“Lefty, Larry, get your sidearms. We’re not letting them on.”
Frias stared back at her. He was a young man with eyes that shone bright with energy despite their hazel color. He was the most junior of the flight crew and as soon as she gave the order she had known he might flinch. He did not question, and after blinking once, turned, pulled on Cable’s sleeve and the two corporals moved back up into storage unit they had turned into an arms locker shortly after take-off. Orders or not, it was a pain to fly with a pistol strapped to her side, and Marie was sure she was more likely to blow a hole through the skin of the craft than she was to need it for self defense. Of course, that assessment had been made when this was just a test flight, an endurance run for the crew. Things were different now.
She could see the faces on the crowd more clearly. They were a mix of anger, frustration, fear, and desperation. It was little surprise to her that those who appeared the most armed also were the most agitated, their strides more confident as they came up close. Seeing Frias and Cable coming back up to flank her gave her a small boost of confidence. She studied the mob. Were they coming to ask for supplies, for guidance, or was it their intent to board the plane en masse?
Clasping her hands behind her back, Marie put on her game face and called out to them. “Good morning.” She kept her tone firm and neutral, the salutation intended to be nothing more than an acknowledgement. There was no warmth or greeting in her voice. For all she knew they intended to rush the plane and kill them all. The mob did have the advantage of numbers: two hundred to six.
One of the men shouted back, his voice hoarse and tired. “We heard on the radio that another wave of meteors is coming down and there’ll be another dust cloud soon.”
Marie nodded. “We heard the same.” Playing ignorant was unlikely to be successful. “Doesn’t the airfield have a disaster shelter?”
“Where do you think we’ve been the last three days?” Another man waved a long, heavy pipe at them. “You think we’d be out here if that was still an option? We’ve seen what happens to people out in the dust, and that ain’t going to be us.” He slammed the metal rod onto the tarmac, and looked at the other man who had spoken. “Man, I told you they wouldn’t help us.” He lifted the pipe and let it drop into his open hand, turning back to Marie. “Not if we don’t make them help us.”
Marie did not have to look to know that both of her fellow Marines had dropped their hands onto their side arms. She wished she had gotten her own as well, though she knew that making a show of retrieving it would have only added to the tension of the moment.
The first man spoke again. “They’ll help us, Steve. Give the woman a chance.”
The truth was that she did not know if they would or not. So far the Aircraft Commander seemed set to find airfields as remote as possible, probably to minimize their contact with others. She too had seen the what was left of of those caught out in the dust, but she had managed to push those images from her mind.
Steve shot back. “We don’t have time to talk about this with majors or generals or admirals. The next wave is going to hit any minute now and we’ve no idea if we’ll get back to the shelter, what’s left of it, before the cloud gets here.”
Marie nodded turned towards Frias. She spoke firmly and loud enough that everyone gathered could hear. “No one boards the plane until we have the Major’s go-ahead. No one.”
He nodded his understanding and released the strap holding his sidearm tight in its holster to make his point. Marie wished that he had not made the gesture, the last thing they needed was a full-force brawl on the exit ramp. She strode the length of the plane back up to the flight deck. She should have a headset on and was annoyed at herself for having neglected it thus far. She still had to do a pre-flight walk; it was unlikely to be an option at the pace events were unfolding. Lt. Sobal was awake now and managing the third pilot’s station. Thompson turned around to look back at Marie.
Marie started to respond and was cut off by the whine of the aircraft’s APU spinning up, the noise forcing her to reach for a headset finally and plug it in. “About two hundred civilians. Sounds like their shelter here is running out of supplies and they want a lift somewhere safe. About a dozen are armed with clubs and don’t sound like they’ll take no for an answer.”
Lt. Regal spoke up. “We can fire up the engines whenever you’re ready, Sir.”
“Start them up,” Thompson answered. He looked back at Marie. “Gunny, we both know there isn’t room for that many people and we don’t have time to debate it with them. Do your best to-”
His words were cut off as a thunderous roar sounded around the craft. The night sky was lit with an orange light as bright as day as a meteor broke through the atmosphere and streaked overhead. They had been airborne when the first meteors hit but she had seen them streak through the sky near them. This was the first she had seen one from the ground. Lt. Regal ducked to watch it blaze over them and out of sight. Marie, too, felt her knees bend as she lowered herself to watch it pass. As it disappeared out of sight she turned back to receive her orders. Regal nodded his head as he counted silently, before the deafening sound of the impact reached them, driving home with it the need to move before the cloud of dust it surely had created reached the airstrip. “Thirty eight seconds,” he reported. It had felt like an eternity between the flash and the thunderous report, audible over the growing roar of engine number three as it began its rotations.
The major turned back to his main instruments. "We’ve got less then ten to get ahead of that. Time to go. Gunny, man your station. Let’s get the ramp up."
The ambient noise grew as another engine began to spin..
"What about the civilians?"
"Two hundred of them?"
Major Thompson swore. It was the first time she had ever heard the senior officer use profanity. "Take twenty. They’ve got until we get all four props going to sort it out, then I’m closing the ramp.” He did not look back at her, but instead watched out the side window was the number two engine began to spin up to speed.
She knew they were rushing the checklists. The meteor pass overhead put them all on the clock and accentuated the need to be airborne before the dust cloud reached them. At the least it required buttoning up the plane and pressurizing it. She turned back into the cargo area. The roar of the engines did little to move the crowd. They were taking steps forward now, the order of having one speak on behalf of all of them was gone as they all shouted to be allowed aboard. Corporals Frias and Cable had taken a step back into the plane, their free hands outstretched towards the mob.
“Everyone,” Marie shouted as she rushed back out between her men and the crowd. “Everyone just calm the hell down.” The crowd surged forward despite her cautions. She moved past Frias and Cable, and put her her hands out in front of her. “Just back up and listen to me.”
Steve, the man with the pipe, stepped forward with several others. In the bottom of her vision she could see a foot touch the base of the ramp, and in the corner she caught the flash of steel as Cable drew his firearm. “‘No one boards the plane,’ means ‘no one boards the plane’,” he shouted over pre-flight cacophony.
“I said calm the hell down,” she repeated louder, shouting as much to her men as to the crowd. “We don’t have space for all of you and we definitely don’t have supplies for everyone. We try to take you all and we’ll die within a day.” Truth was they would not even be able to get airborne with that many people but she was not positioned to get into a lecture on modern aircraft load capacity. Her mind raced as she tried to come up with a way to select the twenty people that she was to allow to board within the next few minutes. She looked at the man who had spoken first for the crowd. “Do you have some kind of plan you all agreed to in case we didn’t take everyone?”
He stared back mutely, the only one in the crowd who remained silent. None of them pressed forward but they all shouted to be given access to the plane, waving their hands and calling out all manner of qualifications from “I’m a doctor” to “I can pay you”. She swore again. She needed a quick way to separate out one in ten to take with them and send the rest back.
She scanned the crowd again and then looked at Frias. “Lefty, give me your gun.” Without hesitation he handed the piece over. Marie stepped towards the crowd, the weapon held at at her side. “If you have identification that proves your birth date is in the month of January you’re free to board. The rest of you head back to that shelter asap and hunker down. That impact was not that far away and we don’t have time to argue this. That’s the deal, now make it happen.”
There was a scramble as people fumbled in pockets for anything proving their birthdates. People began to surge forward and offer their ID’s over, Cable and Marie watching closely. No one stepped up that did not have an ID of some kind, but that did not end the shouting. There were still offers of money, of personal jewelry, even sexual favors, if they’d just be permitted to join them. Frias worked as quickly as he could looking down at the offered cards, saying nothing, then firmly guiding them into the cargo bay with a hand. Marie kept a steady count. At ten she heard engine four spin up to full speed. It was time to button up the aircraft.
Still brandishing her sidearm she looked over the refugees. “That it, Lefty?”
“Ya, Gunny. That’s it.” Frias shuffled survivors fifteen and sixteen onto the plane.
Marie shouted out to those that remained, screaming for a chance to board, “Get back to the shelter.” She blinked a few times and then pulled the microphone on her headset to the front. "We've got who we're taking, Sir." There was a moment and then the massive steel ramp began to rise.
The man with the pipe, the one called Steve, charged forward. “Screw the shelter!” He climbed up into the plane, the ramp now two feet above the ground and rising.
Marie did not hesitate in that moment. She raised and discharged her firearm.
She did not miss.