Authors: Noah Mann
Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #Science Fiction & Fantasy, #Science Fiction, #Dystopian, #Post-Apocalyptic, #survivalist, #prepper, #survival, #Preparation, #bug out, #post apocalypse, #apocalypse
* * *
stood in the kitchen and stared at the stove and cursed myself.
The stove was perfectly good, but, like all stoves, it required fuel, and the propane tank nestled out back beyond the generator shed hadn’t been topped off since spring. And, adding insult to injury, that slow leak I’d suspected it to have in its regulator, the one I’d been meaning to get fixed, looked to have bled out what remained after a spring and summer of regular use.
I cranked the burner off, then on again, and flicked the long lighter I held over the jets. A few spouts of flame glowed blue for a second, then flickered out, whatever gas there’d been in the tank virtually gone. I’d stocked up on smaller propane cylinders for a camp stove, and a dozen large bags of charcoal for the barbecue, but I’d mentally prepared myself for at least a few months cooking on the existing stove, in the kitchen, like any normal person would. Just a slice of my old life that I could maintain.
I didn’t speak the word aloud, but even thinking it I felt a sense of relief rise.
. From the moment of my arrival early in the day until this very moment, I hadn’t opened the shutoff valve on the tank. The very same valve I’d closed at the end of my last extended stay during the summer. All I was getting was residual gas in the line between the tank and the house.
“Idiot,” I repeated, for different reasons now, and tossed the lighter onto the kitchen table as I pushed the back door open roughly. I’d neglected to grab my jacket, and the evening chill was already settling in, biting at me as I moved down the side of my house and rounded the back corner. The propane tank, supported on its side like some giant white pill, rested just ahead, in the deep shadow laid by the generator shed, the very last light of day blotted out by the structure. I went to it and reached for the valve handle.
But I stopped before laying a hand upon it. Even in the din of the coming night I noticed something.
The regulator fixed to the outlet valve had been changed. It was dull metal and far from new, but it was different. Not the rusted mass that had topped the tank the last time I saw it.
I grabbed the valve handle and twisted it open. Gas hissed through the regulator and into the buried line feeding my house. The tank wasn’t empty. The repair had prevented that from happening.
But repaired by who?
Instantly I felt exposed, turning to take in the sight of the darkened woods surrounding my refuge. I wore no pistol on my belt. Had no rifle slung. One or the other I should have had with me. Because, clearly, I wasn’t the only person who’d visited my refuge in the recent past.
I glanced to the working regulator again, then returned to the house, closing the back door and locking it as night came fully. Gas was flowing again. The meal I’d planned from the small amount of fresh food I’d brought with me on this final trip was just minutes away. But I never cooked it. Never turned the stove on. Sounds from the great room made that impossible.
he pair of newscasters, a man and a woman, stared out at me from the television in the great room, taking turns speaking to the camera as the newsroom buzzed behind. Everyone both intentionally and unintentionally on camera seemed running on the juice that fueled the news profession when some crisis struck.
Calm, though, was my reaction to seeing what I did. Borne of lingering tiredness, or simply from surprise at finding some connection to the world beyond my refuge, it set me into a mode of near stasis. I didn’t sit. Didn’t move. I just stood a few steps inside the great room and watched the first reports of the nation beginning to crumble.
“Again, bear with us,” the male newscaster said. A graphic beneath identified him as Jim Winters, and his colleague as Stephanie Brent. “We’ve just managed to break through the signal that has apparently overrun all television broadcasts.”
“And radio,” Stephanie added as Jim took a breath. “Cell phones, the internet. This takeover of communications has been total and widespread.”
“Unprecedented,” Jim agreed, falling quickly back into his role. “If you are joining us, this is Network Five, Denver, and we are on the air after more than fourteen hours of inability to bring the news to you.” He glanced briefly over his shoulder, to ranks of monitors high on the wall in the newsroom beyond, each and every one still showing the glaring red rectangle. “All national and affiliate stations are still off the air, as you can see behind me.”
“If you pick up your landline phone,” Stephanie said, retrieving a handset from beneath the sleek desk at which they sat, “you’ll hear this.”
She held the phone close to the small black microphone clipped to the collar of her blouse, and over the air the familiar repletion was broadcast.
“Red... Red... Red...”
“There are no dial tones,” she said, returning the phone to its hidden cradle beneath the desk. “Just that word repeating over and over.”
“It is the same for calling on cell phones,” Jim told the audience. “Which has made our attempts to get some explanation from authorities exceedingly difficult. We’ve sent staff to reach out to both city and state officials, but have received no telling information.”
“Our engineers aren’t even sure how they were able to override the jamming signal,” Stephanie admitted. “But, thankfully, they were.”
They bantered on for a few minutes about their own situation at the station. How seasoned reporters were trying to work sources, to dig, to pressure any who might have information. But there was nothing concrete to offer. Only speculation.
“In the absence of official statements,” Jim began, drawing a breath, as if steeling himself for some difficult admission, “we must look to events that might enlighten our understanding of this ongoing event. What do we actually know?”
He began to list facts of the moment, and facts that could very well help explain the situation. There was widespread concern about the blight. Concern that had begun to manifest itself in hoarding, shortages, even theft of foodstuffs from warehouses. If the seriousness of the blight and its effects had been concealed from the public, might not the Red Signal be related? Some alert from the government to personnel? Jim Winters surmised that this was precisely so. I knew it was, thanks to Neil.
“And just who has the ability, the power, to do what we see on those screens behind me? We’ve learned through leaks and reporting by the few brave journalists with guts enough to stand against a government that preaches openness while enforcing secrecy that agencies of our own intelligence apparatus have—”
Something just off camera drew Jim’s attention for an instant, interrupting his monologue.
“No, I will not ‘be careful’,” Jim said, Stephanie at his side, both glaring at some unseen individual off camera. “We’ve been ‘careful’ for too long. It’s time to tell it like it is.” Again he looked to the camera. To the audience, whatever it numbered, beyond the lens. “Our own intelligence agencies have woven themselves into our daily existence. Hacking emails, collecting phone calls, tracking our movements both online and off with help from compliant technological behemoths. Is it too far-fetched to assume that an entity capable of that is also capable of implanting some code in our phones? Or taking over the airwaves? The satellites? To borrow a clichéd phrase, this reporter thinks not. So we have that as a starting point—this is the doing of our own government. And that, my friends, sends shivers down my spine. Because if they are afraid...”
He didn’t go on. Or couldn’t. After a moment to regain his composure, he simply glanced to Stephanie, and she took over.
“We have verified eyewitness reports that highways in and out of the Denver metropolitan area have been sealed by law enforcement,” she said, a stern directness about her now. She seemed to sit straighter. To speak clearer. Like an elder delivering uncertain news to an extended family, telling them all hope was not lost—yet. “There have been incidents of force being used against people trying to both leave and enter the city.”
So it was happening in Denver as well. Northern Montana did not have the monopoly on the first taste of a government tightening its grip. But wasn’t that, if all that was supposedly coming turned out to be true, an endeavor no more useful than a man strangling himself?
I turned away from the TV and returned to the kitchen, making my dinner, some sausage and peppers, as the broadcast continued. Snippets of the new normal drifted in. Man and woman on the street interviews, people more confused than frightened at this stage. Video from a distance of muzzle flashes and the quickened crack of small arms fire, followed by a concussive explosion. Police tactical teams had been deployed, and were being used.
Then there was the looting. I returned to the great room with dinner plate in hand to watch this, sitting in front of the television now, picking at my food, taking in the images of windows being smashed, televisions being carted off, armfuls of clothes, cell phones and cameras. It had come to this quicker than I’d expected. Two, three days of worry I’d thought, then the breakdown would begin in earnest. But here, unmolested, the foul nature of some was surfacing, in concert with its accompanying idiocy. Televisions? Cameras? These were prime examples of what Darwin had suggested. While they should be stripping shelves of foodstuffs, these people were grasping at worthless baubles of infotainment. The value of yesterday, of last night, still rang true in their thoughts, their desires. They lived for the moment. They would die for it, as well.
And some already had. More video of store owners firing indiscriminately into crowds of looters and onlookers was shown. Bloodbaths unfolded across Denver, at the hands of authorities and terrified citizens fighting to protect what they’d worked for.
But it was all dust. Or soon would be. Fires raged into the night. Long after my dinner was eaten and the plate quickly washed, the news focused on infernos spreading downtown. Fire crews, stretched thin by the sheer mass of conflagrations, and by dwindling numbers as firefighters chose to protect their own families, were unable to stem the roiling orange tide that leapt from commercial areas to residential neighborhoods.
Denver was a city consuming itself. Civilization on a pyre. A beacon atop the Rockies to mark the beginning of the end.
Long past midnight, into the second full day after the Red Signal, Jim and Stephanie were still on the air, the anchors and those behind the scenes doing what news, regardless of bias, had always done well—bring the scope of a disaster into one’s living room. I sat with them as their city, their home, smoked and screamed. Gunshots echoed even through their microphones. Close to the studio. After the first few times, neither flinched at the sound. They were exhausted. And numb.
What law there was had been tasked with sealing cities, blocking entrance and exit. Controlling movement. Or just plain controlling. For as long as they could. Their normal duties, protection, enforcement, prevention, had been set aside.
“All tumbling down,” I said aloud, then said no more. I just watched. And listened.
“We’ll be leaving you in a few minutes,” Jim said, nodding to his co-anchor. “Ed Mills and Terry Goodwin will take over for us. Obviously we’re not going back to any kind of regular programming. I’m not sure...” He hesitated, as if reconsidering the gravity of what he’d chosen to say. After a moment, he steeled himself and finished the thought. “I’m not sure we ever will.”
It might have been the truest words ever spoken by a journalist.
even days passed before the Denver station went dark.
I spent that week completing tasks both large and small to prepare myself, and my refuge, for what lay ahead. Patching suspect areas of the barn roof. Weighing myself and making a chart of calories needed to maintain my weight at various levels of activity. Cutting felled trees and stacking the wood for the winter just around the corner. Running my truck, the generator, my ATV, all to make sure they were in working order and keep the internals lubricated.
But always the television was on. Twenty-four hours a day. Whether I was outside or in. I’d even taken to sleeping on the couch in front of it, fire burning in the hearth off to the side of the great room. A succession of names and faces rotated in and out of the anchor chair, the numbers dwindling over the days that followed the Red Signal. Jim Winters, though, was there to the end.
It happened on Thanksgiving, of all days. The last of my fresh food had been eaten two days earlier, and for the day, the holiday, I’d concocted a spread for myself cannibalized from both MREs and a portion of dehydrated chicken. Surprisingly, it wasn’t bad, which didn’t make it good, but, in the end, it was to mark the fact that I was alive. And I had that to be thankful for.
Jim Winters, though, was looking haggard and hungry, his face thinned, eyelids slack as he looked into the camera. I’d read somewhere once that there was just an eight day supply of food in the huge warehouses that supplied the supermarket chains. Store shelves would have been bought out or looted in the first few days after the Red Signal, and what was intended to replenish them had likely never made it out of the cavernous storage facilities that contained everything from canned corn to frozen slabs of ribs. Jim Winters himself had reported on just such facilities being raided by a panicked public, stripped to the rafters, nearly half of the food within destroyed in fights and fires that erupted over it. There simply was no more. The man looking out at me from the television was living proof of that.
“We are on generator power here at Network Five,” Jim said, the heft of his voice seeming withered. What authority he could muster was fading. A sign of stoicism in the first few days after the crisis exploded, he now was little different than the tattered populace he served, wasting slowly physically, nearly shattered emotionally. There was no hope in his manner. He was going through the motions. “I am assured that we have adequate supplies for at least six days. Hopefully there will be some relief by...by then.”