Authors: Noah Mann
Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #Science Fiction & Fantasy, #Science Fiction, #Dystopian, #Post-Apocalyptic, #survivalist, #prepper, #survival, #Preparation, #bug out, #post apocalypse, #apocalypse
I’d finished my dinner. Hunger was nowhere in my thoughts. I’d prepared, and I’d been lucky. But I was the exception, not the rule.
“If you have food, ration it,” Jim told his audience. “Stay home. Stay inside. If you have firearms, be ready. The police are not responding to any requests for help. As a captain told us in Mary Crane’s interview yesterday, they have been tasked with containing residents to the city so that relief efforts can be centralized efficiently.”
For a moment, Jim quieted. No co-anchor sat next to him. Stephanie hadn’t been seen with him for two days. Behind, the hive of activity that had accompanied the station’s breaking through the Red Signal was no more. Twenty staffers had become ten, which had become five, and which now, at most, was two. Silence embraced Jim during his pause, which only served to add gravity to what he said next.
“There will be no relief. We have been fed, and are being fed, lies. From where the decision to do this originated, I do not know. But it has come from higher authorities. This we can be certain of.” He cleared his throat, openly and without any vanity, choking back emotion. “We are on our own.”
Again he was quiet, then he glanced slightly off camera and gave a single nod.
“We’re now going to play something recorded just this morning,” Jim said, the statement coming as if he was releasing a breath he’d held for some time. “We debated showing you this, but you have a right to know the extent of what has begun happening. It came to us from a family returning to Denver after attempting to join relatives in Missouri.”
Jim sat motionless for a moment as the segment queued up. Then he was gone, replaced by video of a long line of vehicles creeping eastward on Interstate 70, fleeing Denver in slow motion, brake lights blazing, something ahead impeding the flow of traffic.
Then it appeared. The reason for the slowdown. A helicopter, sweeping low in the distance ahead, seen through the windshield of the car from which the images were being recorded.
“Daddy, what is that?” a little girl asked, unseen in the video being shot from the front seat of a vehicle.
“It’s just a helicopter, baby,” her father said, a conflicting mix of reassurance and worry in his voice. “Keep recording, Jess.”
“Okay, okay,” a woman answered, her voice mostly breath.
Beyond the windshield, the helicopter lumbered off to the side of the road and swung sharply around, its nose pointed at the line of cars, the whole of it hanging there like some menacing insect.
The woman never got the rest of the question out as the helicopter began to spit fire, a glowing jet of tracer rounds arcing over the line of cars. The woman screamed and the video jumped, just glimpses now showing the helicopter slipping back and forth, spraying fire from the cannon that hung beneath its nose like a misplaced stinger.
More quick flashes of the moment, recorded for whatever posterity mattered. The car lurched forward and bounced off the road, across the dirt median, turning fast and accelerating back toward Denver. The camera swung around now, shooting past a bawling child in the back seat, capturing the line of cars set afire, the helicopter laying a deadly carpet of shells along the roadway, cutting off any hope of escape from the city.
And then the video ended, and Jim Winters was back on screen, looking into the camera, quiet rage in his gaze, the cut of his jaw quivering slightly. He was gritting his teeth. Holding back. Crafting some measured commentary.
In the end he simply spoke more of the truth.
“Whatever happens,” he began, “there can be no doubt after seeing what you just have that the government, our government, no longer represents the people. It no longer—”
A sharp hum interrupted Jim. He quieted and glanced upward, then behind, just in time to see the monitors that displayed the bright red rectangle still blocking other stations go dark. Then the space around him dimmed. Lights were going out. He turned and looked into the camera again, but said nothing as the feed from Network Five turned to static. All that remained of my connection to the outside world was electronic snow on the television.
For half an hour I sat and stared at the interference, waiting, hoping, even praying that the station would be back up. A simple power failure it could have been. Or...
Or, possibly, the fact that Network Five had broken through the Red Signal had piqued the interest of those pulling the strings. Men and women of power who watched as the rogue station broadcast what could not be allowed. What could not be disseminated.
But it was worse than that, I thought. Maybe the station had been put out of commission by the government, but what it had shown, what had been recorded on the highway east of Denver, told more than just horror. More than sanctioned murder. Because I saw something in it that Jim Winters had not mentioned.
The helicopter strafing the road bore no markings. It had been painted solid black.
walked down my driveway to check the chain I’d secured across it and caught sight of something as I tugged on the sturdy barrier. Something through the trees. On the distant slopes, bolts of light from the setting sun painted the mountains as they did every day. But not like this.
A ten minute hike and climb up the hill to the south of my driveway brought me to the crest of the rise, the trees thinned naturally in one spot so I could stand and look across the valley to the peaks soon to be lost in shadow. For now they were still bathed in that warm glow from the fading day. A glow that usually set them alight with bursts of color, pines vibrant green, aspens glittering in what fall color they still retained this late in the season.
But I did not see that. What lay upon the mountains was a muted mask akin to cold granite, as if an avalanche of grey had swept down from the jagged tops more than halfway to the flats below. Wisps of color still remained low on the slopes, but above them to the crest of the peaks was little more than a colorless canvas, nature robbed of its beauty.
From my coat pocket I took the small pair of binoculars I always carried and brought them to my eyes, dialing in the distance as best I could with the compact optics. The view I found was more startling that what the naked eye had presented me.
It was death. Every tree and every bush in the dead zone was drained of their natural hues. They stood and squatted now as grey sentinels marching down the mountain toward the valley. Moving west. Coming my way.
I lowered the binoculars and stared at what was soon to be upon me. Yet it didn’t make sense. A week before there’d been no sign of the blight across the valley. Now it had swept over and down the mountains, covering tens of miles in just days. How that was possible I didn’t know, but possible it was. No,
it was, because there was no denying what my own eyes were witness to.
“What the hell is this?” I asked the emptiness, but soon realized the land before me wasn’t quite as empty as I’d thought. The rumbling engine beyond the trees below told me that.
I stowed my binoculars and moved quickly down the hill, driveway ahead, road to the right, though I could see neither through the still-green woods surrounding my refuge. My ears told me that the vehicle, the engine powering it having seen better days, was chugging along the road a few hundred yards to my east, heading north.
Until it slowed and turned. Moving slowly east. Up my driveway.
The AR swung easily from my shoulder as I brought it to bear, slowing my pace. I flipped the selector to fire and kept my finger against the side of the receiver, just above the trigger. Ahead, maybe fifty yards now, I could just make out the unnatural line cut through the forest—my driveway. And I could hear the vehicle chug to a stop, right about where my chain was. A door on the vehicle groaned open and then closed with a heavy thud.
Who the hell is out there?
I asked myself. They’d taken the turn from the road to my driveway like they’d expected it. Like it was a known, not just some chance track off the way they were traveling. A half-dozen other driveways split off the road heading north to Whitefish, but the vehicle that now idled loudly some thirty yards from me had turned onto
. With some purpose, it seemed.
Ten yards now, and I could make out the rough shape of small RV, not sleek and new, but boxy and well-traveled. A figure moved forward of it. Up my driveway. A man. He stepped over the chain that blocked his vehicle’s path and continued.
Five yards now. I shifted left and skirted the edge of the driveway, keeping some cover of the woods between us. A sweatshirt covered his upper half, hood pulled over his head, hands jammed deep into the garment’s from pockets. Just to keep warm, maybe.
Or gripping something within.
I raised the AR and stepped from the woods, taking a position in the middle of the driveway, lining the tactical sight on the hooded stranger, its illuminated reticle superimposing a glowing orange triangle on the man’s back. At this distance I would not miss. That reality didn’t make the possibility of having to do so any more palatable.
My finger eased onto the trigger, heart racing.
“Don’t move,” I said, and the stranger froze where he stood. “Take your hands out of your pockets. Slowly.”
The man complied. His bare hands appeared, empty, and eased away from his body, fingers spread.
“Turn to face me,” I ordered him.
He swiveled slowly, my finger drawing back from the trigger as his face came into view.
ric,” Marco said as he turned fully to face me.
I lowered my weapon but made no move toward my former employee. My friend. For a moment I simply stood there and studied him across the five yards that separated us. A thickening beard covered the lower half of his face—a face that had been perpetually smooth since I’d known him, shaved crisp and professional. Beneath the newly sprouted facial hair I could see that he was thinning, cheeks showing bone, eyes above them more pronounced, the slack skin forming hollows around them. The clothes he wore, utilitarian, layered for the weather, also could not hide a frame that was disappearing ounce by ounce.
It had been three weeks since I’d seen him. In another three there’d be nothing left of him to look at.
“Marco, what are you doing here?”
He glanced at the weapon in my hand. I swung it back over my shoulder and slung it, stepping toward him.
“We’re heading south,” he said, and looked past me, toward the front of the RV just visible past the chain.
It hadn’t occurred to me. His family. Judy and their son, Anthony. He was six. I glanced behind. Through the windshield of the RV could just make out two silhouettes, small one close to the larger, mother clutching her son. Their son.
“You were the only one I could think of who might...”
I looked back to Marco, a tide of embarrassment rising in him. Maybe cresting in shame. The look of a man who cannot see to his own. Cannot provide for them. Quiet desperation, I would even go as far as saying. Desperation edging toward defeat.
“You saw this all coming,” Marco said. “You knew it was going down. You prepared. I wish I’d known. I wish you’d...”
He stopped there, never giving the accusation voice. But it deserved that.
“I wish I’d told you,” I said. “There were reasons I couldn’t. It involved someone else.”
Marco nodded, piecing it together.
“The guy who showed up to see you.”
“Yeah. If I’d said anything he would have been in danger.”
“Isn’t he in danger now like the rest of us?”
Marco had a point. But it didn’t change things.
“Where are you heading down south?”
His hand slipped into his pocket and he pulled a folded piece of paper from it, opening the worn square, its edges frayed, creases tearing, as if he’d opened and closed the document again and again like some distant promise he had to convince himself of.
“Arizona,” he said, pointing to a small map imprinted on the official-looking flyer, FEMA stamped at the top. “They have supplies there. Food and water and doctors.”
I eyed the language in the instructions.
Relocation Centers... No Weapons... Martial Law...
“Where did this come from? This paper?”
“There was a plane,” Marco explained. “It flew over Missoula and dropped these everywhere.”
I’d heard an aircraft to the south earlier in the week, approaching Whitefish, it seemed, flying low and out of sight. I’d tried to zero in on it with my binoculars from the hill to the south of my refuge, but was never able to get a visual on it. Would the aircraft Marco had seen bothered to travel this far north, spreading leaflets to the wind in some effort reminiscent of psy-ops actions from wars past? Psychological operations, in this place and time, not to convince an enemy to surrender, but to herd a populace toward...
Then, another question rose—who was actually doing the herding?
Was it realistic to assume that some entity of the government still existed in a functioning capacity? I looked at the flyer again. It could have been printed by anyone with enough sense to paste a FEMA logo on it.
“Are you sure this is a good idea?” I asked Marco.
“I’m out of options, Eric. Everything is gone. Food, medicine, everything. The stores have been stripped since the first week. Hell, since the first days after...” His gaze dipped away again, that sense of failure gripping him. “That’s why I’m here.” He made himself look up, a light sheen spread across his eyes now. “I need food. Enough to get us down south.”
Like most people, Marco had trusted that the government he’d paid for would be there in times like these. When a crisis arose to threaten the wellbeing of its citizens. He was learning how thin an implied covenant that had been.
“How long do you think it will take you to make it to Arizona?”
Marco thought for a moment, seemingly glad to focus on something beyond the helplessness he felt. “If the roads aren’t too bad, three days. Maybe four. I had to stop a few times on the way up here to push some wrecks clear.”