|The morning light flowed over the desert pan. Snakes drag themselves out onto branches of petrified trees, to warm their cold-bloodied bodies. Their tongues flick the air sensing the odor of the body lying prone on the sands. A breeze disturbs the shock of black hair upon the body. A finger trembles, a small spasm followed by a wracking cough. Pushing himself upright, Matt Stines empties the contents of his stomach onto the dried earth. Quivering with the exertion, Matt rolls onto his back and looks to the cloudless sky.
A belch of black smoke pours out of the wreckage of the steel doors. Sheriff Bradshaw, his aged face even more wrinkled with concern, replaces the battered Stetson on his grey haired head. Moving slowly, his booted feet unsteady on the scattered rubble, Bradshaw lights the battery torch in his hand. Behind the ruined doors darkness and smoke reign.
" What the hell happened here?" he mutters to himself.
Ray Welch his young deputy looks up from the rubble his face puzzled.
" You say sometin' Phil?"
Bradshaw pauses at the twisted entrance, a look of annoyance sweeps his features. He lets out a small chuckle then shakes his head ruefully at his young nephews impertinence.
" Ray, how many times do I have to explain? You call me Sheriff when we're on duty, you got that?" he half scolds.
Ray's face reddens and he kicks out at a chunk of rubble, sending it skittering across the dust.
" Sorry Phi... I mean Sheriff, I didn't think it'd matter out here."
" When we're on duty, Deputy."
" I got it...Sheriff."
Bradshaw waves the torch across his shoulder and enters the gloomy interior. Ray follows, lighting his own torch as he enters.
Inside, huge rends in the concrete and steel cover the walls. Bradshaw's gaze falls on the broken figure in the corner. Dressed in a white lab-coat splattered in blood the bodies' neck hangs at an unnatural angle. Crouching down, the lawman lightly touches the corpse's neck. Shaking his head he rises.
" Dead?" stutters Ray.
" Yeah, for quite awhile by the looks of it. This place smells of government. I never heard of anything out here, did you?" Bradshaw growls.
Rays torchlight dances on the walls, as he shakes his head, his eyes wild in the flickering light. Bradshaw moves further in, Ray following swiftly in his wake. A circular tunnel, roughly man height, looms into view. Shining the torch down its length, the sheriff breath catches in his throat. Bodies of men and women are scattered around the tunnel's floor, some wear uniforms, some white coats. The torch falls from his shaking hands, a pain clasps his chest.
" You al'right Phil," Ray gasps as he grabs his aged uncle.
" Need my pills, let's get the hell out of here," he says in ragged gasps.
Ray helps his shaking uncle back towards the diffused light of the door. The torch shines out upon the ruined features of the dead.
With a great effort, Matt Stines gets to his feet. Looking down at his bare feet he grimaces at the criss-crossed lacerations. His grey eyes wince as he peers ahead. Dust and rocks run to the horizon, some scrub grass lending little colour. Hissing from a dried out tree to his left make him turn. A sharp pain lances his shoulders. Snakes watch him from their morning roosts. With flickering tongues, they beat a hasty retreat when his gaze falls upon them.
His legs ache as he pushes them into action. Rubbing at a tenderness on his unshaven cheeks, Matt Stines heads into the wilderness. His mind blank, his stomach empty, his muscles screaming.
Sheriff Bradshaw, sits on the bumper of his jeep sipping from a battered canteen. His shirt is open to the waist, showing the scars of previous operations. Ray tumbles from a nearby ridge, making him jump.
" Clumsy son'o'a bitch," Bradshaw thinks.
Ray rushes over brushing the dust from his state troopers uniform. He looks down at his uncle with a mixture of concern and pity.
" You feeling better?"
" Kinda," soothes the sheriff.
" Well they're on their way, said it'd take about ten minutes," Ray informs.
" Ten minutes? what they got. The space shuttle?"
Ray shrugs his shoulders. The sound of helicopter blades drift in from far off, getting closer. After a few minutes the ground under their feet hums with vibrations. Looking out across the desert plains, four black hawks thrummed low over the ground.
" It ain't near ten minutes yet!" offers Bradshaw.
" Maybe they got their times mixed up," Ray opines.
" Get in the jeep, boy. Whatever's coming in them choppers I don't want to be here when it lands," snarls Bradshaw, as he levers himself off the bumper with one muscular arm.
Ray doesn't argue, he opens the door and fires up the motor. Bradshaw settles himself into the passengers seat with a groan. Ray hammers the accelerator to the floor. The jeep swings in a wide arc, sending dust into the air and then they are gone.
The blades of the black hawks are dying when Fletcher and Milton drop silently to the earth. Removing their shades, they trace the Tyre tracks with their fingers.
" Local cops?" wonders Fletcher.
" Most likely, another problem," rasps Milton, rubbing his bald pate.
" I'll get the boys onto it," shrugs Fletcher.
" See to it," advises Milton.
Fletcher deftly waves orders in the air with his fingers. A black hawk's blades whine into action, spraying the area with sand. Fletcher and Milton bend their backs, as they head for the busted doors, followed closely by a squad of marines. The black hawk rises and flies off in the direction of the jeep.
Dusk comes to the desert plain. The sand hisses away the heat of the day. Matt stines stares at the sinking glow of the sun. His fingertips are turning black already and a knot of bile is rising in his stomach. In the distance a coyote howls at the translucent moon.