Chapter 3 Dark Christmas

From the Personal Journal of Major Joseph L. Sherman, United States Air Force (retired)

July 23, 2013

There is just so many things to do, and I cannot drive these kids the way I would, say, a group of Airmen and Sergeants. They should be home, and listening to their Hip-hop music and sleeping late for summer vacation, not digging this mine deeper and guarding against Eaters.

We were incredibly lucky.

We started with 93 students and six teachers. Lt Col Pete Weger, Lt Col Ed Wilson, myself, SFC Tim Wooten, MSgt Joe Dumas and MSgt Jan Abbarno.

I hope David Lipidov rots in the hottest circle of Hell. He was the guy who invented the "Lipid-Off" weight loss program. I remember that it sort of bothered me when I first heard of it.

Basically, they found an enzyme that caused the body to metabolize lipids – the basic chemical building block for fat. We had had lipid blockers for years – trouble is, the body can create lipids from carbohydrates and proteins, but it is the LAST thing that the body tries to metabolize.

I don't know if Lipidov found the enzyme, but his company developed a way to make an E. Coli bacteria manufacture the enzyme in commercially viable quantities. We had been making Insulin and other enzymes that way for years.

Now, I don't know, we probably never will know, how it happened. Poor quality control, somebody screwed up, or God was just tired of the human race. But – E. Coli is found, naturally, in the human body. It is a very common bacteria.

It is also easy to genetically modify. They had a strain of E. Coli, that, supposedly, could not live in the human body.

And they would modify this strain of E. Coli to manufacture custom tailored enzymes in mass quantities.

But – somehow – Lipidov's enzyme production gene became linked to a variety of E. Coli that COULD live in the human body.

And it got into the wild.

Well, if the infection could have been limited, that wasn't too bad. Problem was, the "Eater" E. Coli strain produced huge amounts of the lipid-off enzyme.

Once the body's store of lipids was gone, the person experienced extreme, excruciating hunger pains.

Additionally, lipids are important to the brain cells of the Cerebrum. So, after a certain point, the body began to consume the lipids of the brain. So we have an intensely hungry person who has is, basically being lobotomized by the disease.

Eaters will eat anything they can possibly eat. Anything that even looks like it might contain lipids or any form of sustenance. And what they do metabolize is turned to energy – they have the metabolism of a blast furnace – and the hunger of one, too.

They quickly lose the ability to open cans or even to rip open packages. That is a good thing for us – with the severely decreased population, we can probably live for quite awhile by gleaning canned goods and packaged food.

I do make sure the kids sterilize everything we bring in before we use it. The forage crew wears what amounts to a HAZMAT suit when we go out. But luckily, we have the ability to sterilize everything.

That was another of our lucky breaks.

December 24, 2012 Camp Whispering Pines, Franklinville, NY

The cadets were in the lodge sitting around the fireplace and singing Christmas Carols. Outside, in the gathering dusk, the remaining instructors were staring at the swirling snow and discussing the situation.

"This is starting to get me scared." Said LTC Weger.

"You ain't just a woofin, Colonel." Said MSgt Dugan.

"Tim should have been back an hour ago." Said LTC Wilson. This snow is bad, but that H1 of his should not have had a problem with it."

"Snowstorm, electricity out, phones out, bunch of teenagers in a ski lodge – sounds like the beginning of a horror movie." Said Major Sherman.

"Heh." Said MSgt Abbarno. Her face was drawn. "Horror movies are fine entertainment – but not when you're a character in one."

"We've got food for a couple of days." Said Sherman. "Especially if we try to ration it a bit."

"I can't understand why we haven't at least had the police up here. The bus company should have at least made it to the main road and called us yesterday. The snow wasn't THAT bad. And there ought to be worried parents wondering where their kids are on Christmas Eve." Said LTC Weger.

"I'm thinking maybe I need to take a walk over that ridge and into Franklinville, Colonel." Said Major Sherman. "I'm getting that tickly feeling between my shoulder blades that tells me there are bigger problems than ours."

"What'cha mean, Major?" said MSgt Dugan.

"I dunno. We've been out of contact with the world for a couple of days up here. Some of that was intentional, but…I just have a feeling that I can't really put into words."

"Well, wait till morning and maybe take some cadets with you."

"Uh, most respectfully, no sir." Said Sherman. "I'm thinking tonight is a better idea."

"That snow is getting worse" said LTC Wilson. "And the temperature is dropping."

"Hah." Said Sherman. "Unlike you wussy Army guys, I'm Air Force. Snowshoes, ECWCS suit. NVGs. GPS. I can probably be there by midnight, certainly by morning."

"OK, I don't really like it, but…you're a big boy Joe. If you think you can make it safely tonight."

"Roger that, Sir." Said Joe. "Be back with some help in the morning."

The other instructors went back in with the cadets.

Joe and his NCO, Jan Abbarno, went over to his minivan, half buried in the snow. He pulled out a couple of duffle bags and handed one to Jan. She looked at it suspiciously.

"Is this what I think it is?"

"Yep." Said Joe. "I am very worried about what I'm going to find when I get into Franklinville."

They went into the lodge and Joe started dressing in his ECWCS. The Extreme Weather Clothing System is one of the best cold weather systems ever developed. Polypropolene undergarments to wick the moisture away from the body, Goretex™ outergarments to cut the wind and moisture, it is designed for the average soldier to operate in temperatures down to -20 or more.

Joe had brought the whole system out to the Camp, not because he expected to need it, but because he had taught a class on cold weather survival. The next items out of the bag had Jan's eyes widening.

"You know you could get fired for having that at a school function." She said, looking at the Saiga 12 gauge shotgun.

"I know" said Joe. "But I rarely go on any trip without it. Never had a need to take it out of the case before. But I am REALLY worried about what is going on." He shrugged. "This storm ain't that bad, not for the Southern Tier. But we haven't even seen snowmobiles in the last two days."

Jan screwed up her face. "Yeah, you're right." She said. "Didn't really think about it – but yeah. Snow like this, the snowmobilers ought to be having a blast out there."

"At least the Police ought to have come up and checked on us." Said Joe. "Both Erie County Sheriff's and the State Police run snowmobile patrols in this area." He shrugged. "So why aren't they up here?" he said. "I get the feeling that there may be more of a problem than 94 missing high school students."

"Be careful, Joe." She said, as he turned to go out the door. She stood on her tip toes to give him a hug and a peck on the cheek. "Be careful."

"You know it, Sarge." He said, as he stepped into the swirling snowstorm.

Joe headed up the snow covered road in the darkness. He didn't bother with a light – he had decent night vision, and it was pretty easy to follow the clear spot between the trees bordering the road.

At 53, he was not in his top form, but he knew the pace to get the most efficiency out of his old body. A few hours later, he crested the ridge and looked down on the small town of Franklinville.

His hackles rose.

The electricity was off. There were a few glimmers of firelight, maybe candles in windows – but it smelled wrong. There was smoke in the air – that wasn't strange.

Like most rural areas in the Northeast, many people stretched their home heating bill by burning the wood supplied by the abundant forests.

But this was not the clean smoke of wood burning stoves and fireplaces.

This was the ugly, all-too-familiar burning garbage smell of destruction. Joe had smelled it – as a volunteer fireman, and in dozens of battlegrounds around the planet. And it was not just a single housefire. It smelled as if there had been a large fire recently – not all that strange with so many wood burning fireplaces and kerosene heaters – but there were no fire trucks down there, flashing their lights.

The only lights he could see looked like they were huddled in for safety…or maybe the smoldering embers of an untended fire.

Joe loosened the strap on his three point harness and checked the bolt on his shotgun. He pulled out the box magazine, slapped it on his hand to seat the rounds, and locked it back in place. He unzipped his parka a bit. He had put his Kevlar vest and tactical Load bearing vest under the parka, to keep it dry and out of the snow.

Senses fully on alert, he slipped on through the snow on his snowshoes. The updated, high density plastic and fiberglass version of the Maine Snowshoe is closer to a cross country ski than what most people think of as a snowshoe. He was moving across the snow drifts almost as fast as he could have run that distance in dry weather – and far faster than trying to negotiate those snowdrifts without them.

He slowed as he approached the houses. Despite the heavy clouds, the snow reflected what ever light was available. He flipped down his NVGs and scanned the scene. The snow made it a bit strange. Usually, the ground was dark and the sky was light, but the reflectivity of the snow made it seem like he was looking at a negative of a picture.

The road was uncleared. The snow covered lumps indicated parked cars, but some of the parked cars appeared to have open windows. There were meandering trails in the snow, slowly being filled in by the storm.

Several houses looked like they had been involved in fires, with the roof joists showing where there should have been snow covered roof. Detail was hard to pick out, but it did not look like a normal town on Christmas Eve, snowstorm or not.

Joe was shivering, and not from the cold. This was a nightmare, come to life. The problem was, he needed to get in close, get information, find out what was going on, and get out safely. The kids were going to need it.

His shotgun was at low port. He moved slowly along the street, looking for signs of life. He was starting to get a really ugly feeling now.

Four –creatures – broke from the side of a darkened building and began moaning and howling as they tried to clumsily fight their way through the snow towards him.

Once - not so long ago – they had been human. Now, they looked like humaniform aliens. Coatless, hatless, wearing tatters of clothing, they forced their way at Joe, slavering and moaning some incomprehensible sounds. He backed up, then turned and began "running" – the sliding lope that makes the Maine-style snowshoe almost as good as a cross-country ski.

After a hundred feet, he turned and looked back at his pursuers. One had fallen, and was floundering weakly in the snow. The other three were still moving, but slowing down.

As the three got closer, another fell. The two kept going, not stopping to help their fallen comrade. Joe turned and moved off again, taking care to keep within their sight. Another one fell, and then there was only one.

Joe looked back at the town, and he could see indistinct figures moving by the buildings. Finally, the last one fell into a snowdrift, and was thrashing about, floundering aimlessly.

By now, there were several hundred feet from the town, in what was probably a farmer's field. Joe let him thrash a bit, then began his approach. He kept an eye on the town, but there seemed to be no sign of further pursuit. He could not tell if the other creatures had gone back to the town, or if they had stopped struggling.

Joe moved in closer, as the thrashing grew weaker and the sound of the creature's voice lost volume. When he got about ten feet out, he switched off the NVGs and risked the TAC light on his shotgun. The NVGs were good, but they lost a lot of detail.

The creature was a big one, and from the tattered rags of the shirt and pants, it had probably been a State Policeman. The creature was panting hard now, still incoherent, but thrashing aimlessly in the snow. It might have been trying to get up, but it seemed as if the run had exhausted it past that capability. The eyes were wide and staring, the pupils dilated that they seemed like big black dots rimmed in red. The creature jerked away and screamed wordlessly in pain as Joe pointed the light at it.

The thing was still wearing a Police equipment belt, and a Glock still was strapped into the holster. What ever had happened to turn this man into –this – whatever - it must have happened fast…and he no longer had the brainpower to use his duty weapon instead of chasing someone.

Joe despaired of getting through to whatever humanity might still remain in this husk. He decided to give the man one last mercy, and fired a round into his skull, collapsing it like a broken melon.

He debated searching the body. - How communicable was this disease?- but in the end he decided that the chance for some usable intel – maybe some salvage – was worth the risk. He had a large garbage bag in his coat, and he quickly field stripped the body, dumping everything in the bag. Then he followed the trail in the snow back to the other bodies.

He looked at the town, and decided he better head back to the Camp. The Colonels needed to know about this.