Authors: Greg Shows,Zachary Womack
Blakely glanced out the window. He was amazed the convoy had made it as far as it had—two miles across Meadville—before the first mishap split their force and slowed them down to a crawl. Titman had launched the convoy too late to make the rendezvous on time, refusing to listen to Blakely’s input, and thus miscalculating the travel time like he’d miscalculated nearly everything else since his arrival.
At this point they’d already had to backtrack five times to get around traffic jams, and in a few places they’d wound up rolling over barbed wire fences and slogging through narrow trails that wound through dust-choked woods or empty pastures now dotted with the long-dead carcasses of dead horses or cows. The going had been rough, and they’d been bounced and jarred and slammed around so much they were going to have bruises from it.
Blakely rolled his shoulders, trying to release some of the tension, but failing. He was getting mentally exhausted from the trip. Several times they’d had to stop and leave detour instructions for the third Humvee to follow, since they’d quickly lost radio contact with Nate Clark and his crew. Blakely wouldn’t be surprised to find out the men had turned the Humvee around and headed back across town to the base. After all, who was going to do anything about it? If Titman even tried, he was liable to find himself being carved up and barbecued. There was only so much Blakely could do to keep the men in line, and Titman hadn’t helped that reality with the summary execution of an inexperienced rookie.
Out in the distance, lightning strikes danced along the tops of hills, a subtle reminder that this new world they lived in could kill or maim them at anytime. Shock and awe was probably no longer the best policy to pursue, but that wasn’t a lesson military brass learned easily. Already the convoy was three hours late to the rendezvous, and their tardiness was driving Titman mad. He kept getting on the radio and shouting “move your ass, son” and “pick up the pace and don’t be a pussy,” and “act like you give a shit about something, boy.”
And they still had another twenty miles to go. They’d be six hours late by the time they arrived—provided nothing else went wrong.
But Blakely knew something else would go wrong.
Things always went wrong.
When you were dealing with the end of the world, how could things not go wrong?
As if to punctuate his thought, a streak of lightning ripped down in front of them. Seconds later the thunder boomed.
It was followed up by a blinding cluster of lightning strikes that swept along the line of dead trees to the left of the road they were on.
“I hate this lightning,” Duck said as he bashed into a Buick and rolled it over the edge of the road into the ditch. “But not as much as I hate this mission.”
“I got something!” Kane yelped over the comm. “The transponder came through.”
“Where?” Titman barked.
“West. In Youngstown, or not far from it.”
“Hot damn!” Titman said. “Come on private. Move your ass up there. We’re late.”
“Yes sir,” Duck said, and held up a middle finger.
Blakely tried to make himself care about the tardiness of the convoy, and about the importance of reaching the objective in a timely manner.
As far as he was concerned, the mission was bullshit.
A pointless waste of time.
He’d come to realize that all that remained of the U.S. government—for which he was supposedly undertaking this mission—was a bunch of civilian pukes fighting over a shitheap no longer worth having. The Constitution that he’d sworn to uphold was a dead letter.
After the big Blow Off in Yellowstone took out a quarter of the population and nearly all of its farmland, and after D.C. was obliterated with a nuclear weapon nobody claimed credit for, no one took the claims or actions of the surviving members of government very seriously. But when the nuclear plant workers started walking away from their jobs and the nuclear waste stockpiles started boiling away their cooling ponds and releasing deadly radiation, it was fairly obvious to anyone paying attention that the U.S.A. was D.O.A.
The elites in California and the Eastern Seaboard had sure as hell been paying attention. They had taken their slow boats to Brazil, or Argentina, or Chile—since flying was right out of the question. Even Hollywood had folded up its tents and caravanned to Caracas, Venezuela, the leftist losers.
As for the boat-less Americans unfortunate enough to be outside the pyroclastic zone and heavy ash fall areas...their lives had gone about like you’d expect—if you’d ever seen a zombie movie or played a post-apocalyptic video game. Most Americans had suffered—were likely still suffering—a long, slow death by starvation. FEMA had been woefully unprepared to deal with the Crisis, and in the absence of any ability to restore order, things had gotten FUBAR fast. They’d managed to evacuate only two million Americans before the ability of the U.S. government to maintain order had collapsed and the country had descended into chaos.
Two million. Out of three hundred and eighteen million. Not even one percent.
It was a monumental miscalculation of what would be needed in a major emergency by the federal government. Or a gross dereliction of duty whose punishment should likely be the severest penalty possible.
Blakely snorted out loud.
No one would ever be punished. Everyone knew that.
“Something wrong, sir?” Duck asked.
“Nothing,” Blakely said and stared ahead. Here he was. A year after the Crisis. Chasing around the dead gray landscape. Playing soldier with an outfit of cast-off kids who’d had no one to go home to when everybody else had deserted.
Not that he’d had anyone to go home to either. Not anymore.
It was pretty goddamned pathetic, if you thought about it, but since Blakely didn’t like thinking about it, he didn’t.
“Easy,” Blakely told Duck as he was about to take them down into a ditch to get around a smash-up. “The general will have our asses, we lose this Humvee.”
“Yeah, right,” Duck said. “I don’t think the general’s going to be with us long.”
The three men in the back grumbled in agreement.
“Stow that,” Blakely said. “Eyes on the environment.”
“There’s no one out there,” Duck said, and jammed a foot down on the accelerator, driving the Humvee hard up the slope of ditch beneath the highway, sending it rocketing up onto the dust-covered blacktop above. “Not anymore.”
“Probably not,” Blakely said, “but we’ve lost enough people today, so let’s remember our training, all right?
“Yessir,” Duck said, and gave a long, Daffy Duck quack that got swallowed up by the rumble of the Humvee engine.
Three hours later, when the two-vehicle convoy arrived at the 7-11 on the corner of Matilda and Burke, Duck drove the lead Humvee over the curb and into the parking lot. Just for fun he slammed the front bumper into the rear end of a Prius, which went sliding into the gas pump island where it crumpled against the concrete barrier that protected the pumps.
“Filler up, bitch,” he said. “Quack quack.”
“Nice one, Homes,” said Mickey Hider in the back seat, his voice muffled by the respirators they were all wearing. Blakely glanced back at them to make certain Hider and the other two grunts had their night vision goggles on and were ready to go.
Duck cut the engine and turned off the headlights, just as the driver of Titman’s Humvee had done.
Darkness descended, but the night vision goggles gave them all a good view of their surroundings.
“Sweep it,” the General said into their ear buds a few seconds later.
“Go,” Blakely said.
Almost as one, eight doors opened and the soldiers spilled out, their assault rifles at the ready. They quickly spread across the pavement, moving away from the two vehicles in an expanding box formation.
“Keep it tight,” Blakely said, feeling a little paranoia rise up in him because of the stink of the smoldering building eight blocks south of them. It was likely that lightning had set the building on fire, but you never knew. Cannibals who looked like the Mutant Freaks from
The Hills Have Eyes
might pop out at you anytime these days.
Ninety seconds later, after all eight men had taken a turn yelling “clear,” Titman emerged from the second Humvee.
“Sir,” Duck reported through his radio. “We found the contact.”
“Bring him in,” Blakely said.
“Can’t, sir,” Duck said. “He’s dead. Looks like dogs, Sir.”
Titman growled into the comm: “Find the package.”
“Yes, Sir” Blakely said.
“Got his pack,” Duck said.
“Don’t touch it,” Blakely said. “Might be rigged.”
Blakely jogged the thirty yards between himself and Duck. The area ought to be a crime scene, he thought. But since there probably wasn’t a single forensics outfit working in U.S. territory, that wasn’t going to happen.
“Step back,” Blakely said, and Duck obeyed his order. Blakely felt his hackles rise as he examined the scene where their contact had been killed. Blakely pulled up his night vision goggles and turned on a flashlight.
The story was all there: Someone had got the drop on their contact, made him kneel, and shot him in the chest. Then the dogs had come and torn him to pieces, dragging him through the dust, away from where the blood and had sprayed out of his back and covered the ground with a dark mist.
Blakely moved on to the day pack, using his flashlight to gently ease apart the unzipped fabric at the top of the pack. He was relieved when he didn’t see wires, batteries, and plastic explosives ready to take out half the unit.
“Bullet to the chest,” Blakely told Titman. “Pack’s been searched. Water and food gone, no ammo. No respirator. No package. Got a map and notebook with coded messages. They might’ve just been after his food.”
Titman ground his teeth together.
“Make a full search, Sergeant,” Titman growled. “We need that package.”
“Yes sir,” the sergeant said, and gave orders to his men to spread out and search a grid. They reported that some dog tracks led to the 7-Eleven.
“Hider and Meadowlark,” Blakely said, and the two young men came running. “Check that store.”
“Yes sir,” both men responded.
Hider knocked out the glass remaining in the metal door frame and both men stepped under the horizontal door handle. Just inside the door lay a dead Labrador Retriever.
“There’s dead dogs everywhere,” Hider said, but then he coughed inside his respirator and Meadowlark cursed, and they both began to retch.
In a panic, they both soldiers tried to get back out through the door at the same time. Blakely ran over and shoved Meadowlark sideways so he could pull Hider out. Meadowlark scrambled out after him.
“Chlorine,” Hider wheezed.
“I smell it,” Blakely said, and fought down a cough.
“Who the fuck is using chlorine gas?” Duck asked. No one answered.
“Sounds like we got us some goddamned terrorists running around,” Titman said.
Hider and Meadowlark were still coughing and retching on the sidewalk outside the store when Blakely tapped Duck on the shoulder.
“I need this building aired out, private,” he said.
Duck, getting Blakely’s intentions immediately said, “Yes sir!”
Blakely helped Hider and Meadowlark over to the gas pumps, away from the store, while Duck jogged to the Humvee, climbed inside, and pulled up his goggles. When he turned on the engine and got the big vehicle rolling, Titman shouted, “Hey!”
No one responded.
The Humvee’s engine roared as the vehicle sped up and jumped the curb. Then it shot across the sidewalk at the front of the store and tore through the front doors, snapping them out of their frames and sending them flying into the store’s interior. Spears of plate glass soared through the air, shattering when they slammed into metal shelving or fell to the filthy floor.
“What in the hell is going on?” Titman barked as Duck backed the Humvee out of the 7-Eleven, cut the wheel, and slammed it forward again, raking its front fender through the remaining plate glass windows and sending more glass spears raining down on the dusty concrete. Duck backed out and cut the engine, leaving the lights shining into the now wide-open convenience store.
“Quack-quack, bitches!” said Duck as he jumped out of the Humvee and joined Blakely.
“Just stepping inside now, sir,” Blakely said as he and Duck stepped through the twisted metal scaffolding that was once the door and window frames.
“Holy shit,” Duck said when he saw the dogs. There must have been twenty or more of them lying around, all of them twisted into the odd positions their coughing and vomiting and struggling had placed them in when they died. A faint smell of feces remained in the store once the chlorine gas had fully dissipated.
Despite the fact that the 7-Eleven was now wide open and aired out, Blakely felt a chill run up his back. He’d never seen a doggie holocaust before, and wondered what kind of a monster would do such a thing. Shooting the dogs would have been quicker and more merciful.
Blakely explored the front of the store, stepping over dead dogs and weaving around the empty white shelves. A glance behind the cashier’s counter showed him the doggie traffic jam that had trapped the animals inside the store. When he walked to the back of the store and looked into the storage room he gasped. The overturned shelving, the human ribcage and hip bones floating on a sea of rat turds, the dog tracks in the dust, and the improvised homemade chlorine bomb he recognized when he saw it lying on the ground, all made him uneasy.