Authors: Nathan Jones
Book One of
Best Laid Plans
Copyright © 2015 Nathan Jones
All rights reserved.
This book is dedicated to my brother David,
for all his valuable advice and encouragement.
Mere thanks just doesn't seem like enough.
In most post-apocalyptic fiction I've read the events that precede the story tend to be, well, apocalyptical: nuclear holocaust, EMP, major invasions, pandemics, etc. But considering how fragile our existence is, packed into cities completely dependent on everything we need being shipped in at the last possible instant and for the most part no longer possessing the knowledge or skills needed to be self-sufficient, I wanted to explore just how little it would take to bring about a major disaster in our day and age.
And so I wrote Fuel. Anybody who's driven in extreme conditions (such as blistering desert or intense cold), knows that running out of gas without the things needed to survive even short term can quickly turn an inconvenience into a potentially life or death situation. An extended power outage during the coldest days of winter can be similarly eye opening. It's a grim prospect to think of what might happen if the entire nation ran out of gas.
The events depicted in this novel are fictional. The characters in this story are also fictional, and any resemblance to anyone living or dead is entirely unintentional. While most locations are real some creative license has been taken in describing them, and the town of Aspen Hill is entirely fictional.
Even a year later Trevor Smith still remembered exactly where he was and what he was doing when he learned Iran and Israel had nuked each other.
He'd been in Biology listening to Professor Adams drone on about phospholipid bilayers when people began shouting out in the halls. He'd even heard a few girls screaming. Only moments later the PA system had blared out the announcement that nukes had been launched in the Middle East and encouraged all classrooms to turn on the news. With some help from his TAs Adams had quickly turned the projector from his presentation to channel 4, with students shouting for him to go to their preferred news channels instead.
It turned out it didn't matter since they were all showing the same things. Maps of the Middle East with lines showing the origin and paths of the dozen nukes that had been launched between the two countries, frantic newscasters relaying information in front of a background of satellite photos and shaky videos of cities being engulfed in mushroom clouds. The President and other world leaders making announcements forcefully urging calm so the nuclear war wouldn't spread to the rest of the globe. Dry, completely speculative analyses on what could've caused the sudden launching of weapons of mass destruction between the two old enemies.
Classes had been canceled for the rest of the day, which in some ways was almost more difficult than trying to pay attention to school in all the chaos. It meant he had nothing to do but go back to his dorm and follow the news all day, browsing internet sources trying to figure out if someone, anyone, knew more than what the media was telling people. All he'd found were crazy and unfounded theories blaming anyone and everyone. School for the rest of the week had been almost a waste of time since none of the teachers really wanted to teach and none of the students really wanted to learn. Everyone just wanted to talk about what had happened.
It was a terrible disaster that had plunged the US into deep grief. Everyone had talked about it like it was the end of the world, and plenty of people had even cited it as evidence of the impending Biblical apocalypse. But in spite of all that the nation's day to day life hadn't changed all that much. Sure, there had been a brief but significant downturn in the stock markets and stocks had been declining ever since, and the US had led the world in sending relief efforts to help the areas around the devastated countries and any survivors who emerged from the wreckage, but the biggest impact had been oil.
The flow of oil had completely halted from the Middle East after that point. The price of gas went up by over two dollars a gallon overnight and there was a minor panic when it looked like the dollar would crash, but the US government managed to stabilize with reserves until they could produce sufficient oil from fracking on US soil, as well as drawing from the Canadian shale oil fields and piping the crude down to the gulf refineries. Some claimed production still wasn't enough to meet demand and the government was still drawing heavily from reserves in order to maintain consumption at the current rates and avoid a panic. If that was the case no public official never admitted it and the story never touched the mainstream media.
As for the rest of the world, Russia, China, Iran, and a few other countries had already been talking for years about forming a new gold standard to compete with the petrodollar, and spurred by the disaster they finally implemented it, ramping up Russian oil production to be distributed to other nations. Including a European Union that suddenly wasn't quite as much in lockstep with the US since they had to get their oil from somewhere and the US wasn't exporting. Needless to say the new Gold Bloc had no interest in selling oil to the US: that reluctance didn't quite reach the level of an embargo, but only because the US didn't press the matter.
And so the country around Trev limped along, as the price of oil continued to climb and stock markets continued to plummet. The news was full of new oil drilling ventures that would solve the problem and put things back on track before things could get really bad, and great hope was placed on the vast potential of the untapped fields of northern Canada. In spite of the difficulties nobody considered this a prelude to a major catastrophe or any long term negative effects.
That was the current situation a year after the nukes flew, with the price of gas (and all products produced or shipped to stores using gas) more than doubling during that time. In some places gas edged up over $10 a gallon, although the government did its best to set a hard cap there and worked furiously to keep prices from rising any higher.
It looked as if they would succeed. Even Trev, who didn't take the news or reassurance of politicians at face value and tried to dig deeper into the truth of the matter, thought that the nation might just pull through and all his efforts to prepare for the disaster he'd seen coming after the nukes flew would be unnecessary after all.
Those illusions were completely gone, now.
It was late at night and his classes started early in the morning, but still he sat up with his roommates watching the explosions on the television screen, captured from every possible angle using every bit of footage the news stations could beg, borrow, or steal. They weren't fireworks, and they weren't nuclear explosions. They weren't bombs being dropped on enemies on foreign soil, or for that matter enemy bombs being dropped on US or allied soil.
The explosions were caused by the entire refinery operation along the Gulf of Mexico going up in flames.
Nobody knew yet whether it was an act of terrorism or sabotage from an enemy power. There was even some confusion about which explosions were from planted charges or boats filled with explosives docking with the refineries, and which were secondary explosions from the tanks of crude oil and refined gasoline igniting. But what even Trev and his roommates could see without being told was that the attacks had been thorough, hitting just about every refinery and storage depot. Even hours later the fires still raged everywhere, including across a large portion of the Gulf of Mexico from ignited oil spilled straight into the water and spreading across the surface to create a firestorm above the dark waters below.
The burning Gulf was probably the best visual representation of the millions upon millions of gallons of fuel that had gone up in flames. But more devastating than the fuel itself was the destruction of the operations designed to refine that fuel from the relatively useless crude oil piped in from elsewhere. This didn't just represent a short term catastrophe but a long term disaster.
Trev numbly watched the alternative images of melting refineries and burning waters as the newscaster on the screen droned on about sailing itineraries and cargo manifests for the boat bombs that had caused most of the devastation, starting to go into detail about the identities and nationalities of their captains and crews. No pattern that anyone could see, no hints about the source behind it all, but Trev had to wonder how much it mattered now.
No nuclear bomb had landed on US soil. No EMP had detonated high in the atmosphere above them to wipe out the nation's electrical grid and electronics. The refineries had been destroyed at night so the loss of life was minimal, and although the fires were fierce the summer had been a wet one and there wasn't any danger of them spreading.
And yet in spite of all that Trev wondered if the panicked newscasters caught up in the moment, the President and other politicians making brief reassuring statements, or the people watching realized that millions of people were potentially about to die.
Most gas stations kept just enough gasoline and diesel to meet demand and their tanks were regularly refilled. Where did that gas come from? From the burning depots on the television screen. Those impressive fireballs represented most of the US's reserves of fuel.
The nation had just run out of gas and there was nowhere else to get more.
His phone suddenly rang, and in spite of himself Trev jumped as he hurried to answer it. That was nerves, not surprise: everyone's phones had been ringing ever since the news first broke about the disasters. Loved ones calling or him and his roommates calling loved ones to let each other know that they were all right, even though nobody on either end was within 100 miles of the attack. Trev had already called his parents to share the same reassurances.
Even without checking the ID he could guess who was calling, and sure enough when he pushed the talk button it was Lewis's voice he heard. “Hey man.”
“Hey,” Trev answered. He expected his cousin to say something like “Can you believe this?” or “Pretty crazy, huh?”, but Lewis wasn't the type to state the obvious.
Instead his cousin got right to the point. “I think this is going to be bad. Really bad.”
“I was thinking the same.” Trev took a deep breath. “I'm glad you called because I wanted to make sure you haven't piled my bed full of junk. I'm coming home.”
“Good. I was about to suggest it, and the sooner the better. Right now if you can manage it, but either way I hope you don't waste any time on things that probably won't matter in a week.”
“No, I've got nothing I really need to do here, although there's a few things I want to check out before I go and a few friends I want to say goodbye to. I'll leave tomorrow morning as early as I can get away.”
After a few inquiries about family and some pointless speculation about the attack Trev hung up and headed to bed, leaving his roommates still gathered around the TV. He had a feeling tomorrow was going to be a long day and he wanted to get whatever sleep he could.
Not With A Bang
The morning after the Gulf refineries attack Trev didn't even bother going to class or letting the university know he was leaving, probably for good.
During a mostly restless night he'd well and truly cut all mental and emotional ties with the heavily populated area around Orem, Utah, his college education there, and everything else in his old life. The only thing he was interested in now was saying a few goodbyes and maybe running a few quick errands, and then he was headed home.
Officially home was up in Michigan where his parents and younger siblings had moved a few years ago, but for Trev he didn't have nearly that far to go. He'd spent his childhood in Aspen Hill, roughly 75 miles southeast of Orem, where his cousin Lewis Halsson still lived and looked over things while his parents and teenaged sister, Trev's aunt and uncle and cousin, were on sabbatical in Norway reconnecting with their Scandinavian roots.
More importantly, his cousin had been preparing for a disaster since even before the nukes fell a year ago. And since he and Trev were practically brothers and had spent all their time together growing up Trev had been pulled into it too, reluctantly at first but with more commitment after the tragedy in the Middle East.
He'd helped Lewis purchase a sturdy half-cylinder aluminum shed, reinforce it, then bury it facing south for better sun exposure like they'd read about. The underground shelter would stay cool in the summer and warm in the winter, and almost as important to his cousin's cautious nature would be away from prying eyes when the Schumer hit the fan. Lewis had then gone on to fill it with inexpensive wheat, rice, barley, and other grains, beans, honey, olive oil, and any canned foods he ran across while they were cheap. He'd also purchased other tools and supplies necessary for survival, including guns and ammunition.
His cousin had blown just about all his money on his preparations, everything he'd earned over a few hard summers installing security systems in cities back east. Trev had joined Lewis on those jobs, but unlike him had spent most of the money on paying his way through college. Although he had listened to his cousin enough to purchase about two years' worth of wheat and other necessities, as well as a Mini-14 and a thousand rounds of ammo to go with the 1911 he'd bought when Lewis bought one for himself a few years ago.
At the time Trev had considered his spending choice the more practical one. In a world without a disaster Lewis was basically trading away his future to live an 1800s era settler's life off the grid. Meanwhile Trev was making a few cautious preparations but also paying for college and a career in a world that still continued to function.
In the end it looked as if his cousin's all-in gamble had paid off, grim as that sounded considering the situation the nation was in. Still, Trev was glad he'd prepared at least as much as he had, and also had a place to stay with someone who'd done even more and was better equipped to survive.
It felt a bit strange to not be heading to class as he left his dorm and made for campus, but with some luck and favorable timing he managed to catch up to Matt just before his friend went into his first class of the day.
Matt Larson was another resident of Aspen Hill, but although they'd all grown up together Trev hadn't spent nearly as much time with him. He would still call Matt a close friend, though, and going to the same college had helped cement that friendship.
“Isn't your first class English?” his friend asked, looking a bit puzzled as Trev flagged him down outside his classroom.
Trev shrugged. “I'm heading back to Aspen Hill. Today. I just wanted to touch base and let you know.”
Matt gave him a surprised look. “The attacks were all the way down along the Gulf of Mexico. You don't expect anyone to attack us up here, do you?”
As Trev had expected, people were still thinking in terms of terror attacks. The more forward thinking may have been thinking about no longer having fuel for their cars, but very few, it seemed, had stopped to wonder about all the trucks that shipped necessities to cities. Not to mention that just about everything they needed like electricity and gas for stoves and heating also ran on the fuel that had gone up in flames last night and was still burning this morning.
In fact, as he'd walked across campus he hadn't seen any sign that the students and faculty around him realized that their fuel-dependent society had fallen off the razor's edge it was balanced on, and barring a miracle or government foresight that didn't seem to be in evidence they were about to plummet into a very dark place. Aside from being a bit subdued by the refinery attacks people were going about their daily lives.
He saw nothing like the psychological impact of the nukes a year ago, which he supposed wasn't too surprising since that had been the first event of a nuclear attack since WWII. Still, the Gulf refineries attack had hit much closer to home and was going to have a much, much greater impact on their lives, so they should be acting more affected. Didn't they realize this could potentially be nearly as bad for the US as the nukes had been for the Middle East?
Trev leaned forward, lowering his voice. “Listen, that was most of the nation's fuel reserves and refining capability that just blew up. Things are about to become really bad, and I think you should take some steps to prepare for it.”
Matt smiled slightly. “Surprise surprise, the preparedness nut wants to talk about being prepared.” At Trev's glare he quickly held up his hands. “Look, I know it's a problem but who cares if we don't have gasoline for a while? I was barely using my car anyway.”
“We have no diesel either, which means no trucks bringing in food,” Trev said pointedly. “Probably no natural gas, either, which means no electricity, stoves, or heating. No electricity means no water, no flushing toilets or other waste management. And you're about to find yourself in an area populated by millions of people who also don't have food or water and desperately need it.”
His friend's smile faded. “I don't think it's quite that bad,” he argued. “And anyway what about your grades? If you take off now you'll have to do the entire semester over.”
Trev couldn't believe his friend still wasn't getting it. “In a week, a few weeks at most, our college educations are literally going to be the least of our worries.”
Before Matt could respond two hands clapped down on Trev's shoulders. “Hey, man! Catching us to talk about what went down last night?”
The new arrival was Matt's roommate, Chad. Trev had played pick-up basketball, volleyball, and even video games with them and a few others around the dorm and knew the group pretty well.
“Trev's heading home,” Matt said. Trev did his best to suppress his annoyance at the blunt admission. “He thinks things are about to turn bad.”
“You're leaving just a few weeks into fall semester?” Chad asked, voice thick with disbelief. He moved around so they were all standing in a sort of triangle off to one side of the hallway. “You'll get incompletes in all your classes. And because what, gas prices will go up a bit more and prices in stores might go up too?”
Trev just shook his head. Chad was one of those people who liked to argue about everything but never actually changed his opinion, so explaining would probably just be a waste of time. An annoying waste of time.
Even if he'd wanted to, what would he say? The economy had been hovering on the brink for a year now. A lot of people had been betting on the nuclear war in the Middle East being what toppled everything and sent them back into pre-industrial society, but a miraculous recovery had been pulled off by people on all sides. They'd all limped along for months now, pretending it was business as usual and willfully blind to the fact that things couldn't continue. And maybe some believed that after the Middle East Crisis the American way of life was indestructible and nothing would bring it down.
Trev knew better. “Listen,” he said, directing his words mostly to Matt. “You know this area has become one big sprawling line of cities, a dense population cluster filling most of Utah and Salt Lake valleys. That's millions of people packed into a small space, and how much food do you think is actually kept on hand to feed all those people? Most businesses trim their operations so they don't have any surplus stock cutting into profits, meaning delivery trucks usually come every week or even every few days to restock grocery stores, restaurants, bakeries, and everything else. Now that all those trucks don't have fuel we'll be lucky if the cities have one or two weeks' worth of food. And that's not counting the inevitable rush as people try to buy up as many supplies as they can before everything's gone.”
Chad opened his mouth to argue and Trev hurriedly kept going. “Now think about all the newsworthy riots of the last ten years, and the comparatively minor events that set them off. Compare that to millions of people knowing there's no more food being brought in and what they've got is quickly running out. Even before the cities start running out of food rioting and looting will run rampant.”
“But you can't know any of that for sure, right?” Chad argued. “Maybe knowing how serious the situation is will bring people together.”
It was hard not to laugh at that, although nothing about the situation was funny. “In small, tightly knit communities maybe. In cities? People riot over soccer losses.” He turned back to Matt. “Anyway I'm just saying you should keep your ear to the ground and be ready to leave in a moment if things start looking bad. I think you'll be surprised at how quickly that happens.” He offered his hand for his friends to shake, then turned and hurried back the way he'd come.
Outlining the doomsday scenario had got him feeling antsy, and even though he doubted rioting would start immediately he still wanted to finish his business in Orem and be gone as quickly as possible.
But before he'd gone a dozen steps the loudspeakers throughout the building crackled. “Attention students. Be prepared for a message from the President of the United States, all channels. Teachers, please prepare for the broadcast.”
Trev turned and exchanged curious looks with Matt and Chad, then moved to rejoin them as they started for their classroom, which happened to be the nearest one. Whatever his urgency it couldn't hurt to get information from a more official source and find out a bit about what they could expect.
As long as it didn't turn out to be the Presidential equivalent of reassuring hand-patting.
It looked as if some students had used the excuse of the attack to ditch class, so there were plenty of seats available as they waited and stared at the Seal of the United States being broadcast on the projector screen at the front of the class.
Trev used the time to ask his friends a few subtle questions about how they and their families had prepared for a disaster like this. It was a bit of an intrusion of privacy, but at the same time Trev had been pretty frank with Matt about his own preparations and he was genuinely concerned about how the Larsons would be able to handle this disaster.
Matt didn't seem to mind the questions, although the only good news he really had to offer was that his mom kept a well stocked pantry that should last them a month or so, and Matt himself shopped in bulk to save money on food and had enough for another few weeks that he could share with his roommates.
During their discussion Chad was surprisingly forthcoming, announcing that even though his folks were the weekly grocery shopping type they had enough savings to last them a long time if need be. Trev tried to be circumspect as he advised his friend to call his parents and suggest that they go to the store today and purchase quite a bit more food than they usually did. As much as possible, even. He extended that advice to Matt as well and admitted that while talking to his parents last night they'd already promised to go to the store and empty their bank account on nonperishables.
Their conversation was interrupted by “Hail to the Chief” blaring from the speakers, after which the screen transitioned from the Seal to a view of the President sitting behind his desk in the Oval Office. Although the older man's face was grave, he didn't have the harried and strung out look of someone who'd spent a sleepless night being briefed on how serious his nation's situation was. Good acting and makeup?
“My fellow Americans,” he began in a solemn tone. “I know we are all reeling from last night's tragedy along the Gulf of Mexico. It was a terrible, senseless attack in which hundreds of innocent people lost their lives, and I assure you we are doing everything in our power to identify the culprits so they can be brought to justice.”
Trev couldn't help but wonder if, despicable as the attacks had been, hunting the perpetrators down was the best use of the nation's resources at the moment. Luckily the President's next words addressed that.
“However, terrible as this attack was locally for all the states along the Gulf, I must now address the ramifications for the nation at large.” He reached down and picked up the single sheet of paper resting on the huge desk, glancing down at it. “As of our current best estimates, 73% of the nation's refining capabilities and 42% of the nation's fuel reserves were destroyed in the attack. But severe as the loss of our reserves were I must stress the dire situation of our loss of the refineries themselves.”
He paused to stare directly at the camera. “I won't beat around the bush, citizens. Following the Middle East Crisis last year this administration elected to dip heavily into the nation's fuel reserves in order to keep the economy running smoothly until we could set up our own fracking and drilling operations and make a deal with Canada for the plentiful shale oil they've begun producing. We'd been making good progress on that front, but a year of consuming more than we produce has dropped our reserves down to critical levels.