Survival Fiction: The Last Emergency, Part 6

“I’m afraid I’ve forgotten much of my university biology, Dr. Warren. Perhaps you could fill me in. What are we dealing with?” Martin said as the two waited for the biohazard team to arrive. He was a soldier, really, not a research scientist.
Dr. Warren walked around the room again, peering closely at the equipment. He noticed earlier that she gestured and fidgeted as she talked.
“I suspect . . . detective . . . “ she said haltingly as she looked carefully at the home-made scientific equipment, “their goal was to tweak a virus into a superbug.”
She turned and looked at him, clutching her hands together. Martin thought she looked a bit frightened. “It’s long been a goal for some very bad actors in the international community to create an outbreak, perhaps even a pandemic.”
Martin was getting a little impatient with her. “Yes, I’m aware of this. Ecoterrorists want to kill off 'excess' human population, political terrorists want to punish their opposition, religious terrorists want to bring glory to their god. But did they succeed?”
He paused, and then after a few seconds said “Are we exposed to something? In here? Now?”
Dr. Warren sighed rather dramatically. “I can’t say with any certainty. We have equipment and samples from which we might be able to test and tell us what they did or wanted to do. This is all, quite honestly, just speculation on my part. But I think it stands to reason we could be standing, essentially unprotected, in ground zero. And if so, you and I will be among the first.”
Martin resisted the urge to bolt out of the apartment door in a panic. He was something of a germaphobe, he had to admit. He liked to be clean and tidy, something is aunt – who’d raised him after his mother had passed away – had insisted upon. He was health conscience, fit, and kept scrupulously clean at all times. The thought of contracting an unknown disease in a putrefying apartment was almost intolerable.
He realized, suddenly that she was talking again.
“Of course, a virus is really just a bit of genetic information wrapped in proteins, fat, or sugars. It cannot live long by itself, and so must quickly get into a plant or animal cell to survive. Once there, the virus uses the cell to replicate. It tricks the cell into making a copy of its genetic code. Sometimes during this copying process natural mutations occur. If the mutation results in a change which enables the virus to better survive, to more quickly infect or better replicate it, then that virus will become more infectious – more deadly, more destructive.”
Martin grunted disapprovingly, and Warren spun around defensively. “The virus doesn’t think – it just replicates. It’s not malicious. It just,” she shrugged, “it wants to make more of itself. And it needs living things to do that.”
She leaned back against the wall and gestured. “That’s the beauty of the evolutionary process, really. The best – well, viruses in this case – survive to have more progeny. It just happens to be that a real killer virus, a retrovirus, alters the genetic code of the host. Often this is quite catastrophic, you see. Victims of Ebola Zaire, for instance, suffer a 90% mortality rate.”
“I thought Ebola was blood borne. Not a pandemic threat.” Martin interjected. He was recalling some of the bioterror training he’d had, and wished he could recall more of it.
“That’s just it. These people were manipulating something. Maybe it was smallpox, or whooping cough, or a strain of flu. If one could tweak something like Ebola, ostensibly you would modify it so that it changes its vector – the method in which it is most likely to be delivered. Alter it, say, so that its protein envelop was tougher than normal, which would allow it to survive longer in the air without drying out. Fairly simple, really, at least in theory; just cross it with some other genetic code, like the common flu. We do the same thing in producing antivirals, we simply reverse the code and try to convince the body to knock it out quicker. Marshal all the body’s forces, you might say. Of course that takes a long time because you can’t test it on humans until you’re convinced it will work.”
 “So, these devils were able to do all that here, in this moldering mess?” Martin asked, gesturing at the fetid flat.
“Well . . . yes. The technology, as I said earlier, has been greatly democratized, if you will. Now anyone with a little cash and some effort can do this sort of kitchen sink lab work. You just need a few basic tools and some rather sophisticated knowledge, but it’s certainly more than possible. They’d need something to test the resulting virus on – but other than that they probably could have started with a number of feedstocks in various university or research labs because --”
“What did you say?” Martin asked.
“What, the feedstocks?”
“No, the testing. What would they test this on?”
Warren looked at Martin. “Well . . . people, naturally.”
“I think we need to look back there,” He said, motioning to the hall.
“Because someone could be alive back there.”

       Go on to part seven.

Thank you for reading. If you will indulge me, I ask a favor or two. Please Like my page using the Like button at the upper left. Follow me on Twitter at @liamkfisher. I would also love to hear your comments, if you are in a chatty mood. Please post them below!

Survival Fiction: The Last Emergency, Part 5

The flat was just as disheveled and dilapidated inside, as the rest of the building. Dark and damp, it smelled of urine and rotten food. Piles of empty pizza boxes and discarded energy drink cans littered the place. All the furniture had been piled in a corner, along with a massive pile of refuse. Lawn chairs and card tables were arranged as workspaces. They were covered in chip crumbs and neglected pizza toppings.
“Aw, it smells like student digs,” Warren said.
“Quite seedy,” said Martin. He held a flashlight in his left hand, and retractable pointer in the other. He intended to use it to probe at evidence.
Clearly, the occupants had wanted a workspace and little else. The small kitchen was filled with all manner opened shipping boxes full of medical and scientific equipment – beakers and microscopes, he recognized, but some of it was quite esoteric stuff. He walked over to one microwave-sized device on the kitchen table and motioned to it with his pointer.
Warren approached, and then turned to him with a sparkle in her eyes and said, “It’s a homemade PCR machine. Fascinating.”
Martin shrugged and Warren hurriedly added, “It’s a device for copying DNA. These used to be very expensive machines – university or major hospitals only. But these days the open source movement has made it possible to produce them from off-the-shelf components.”
Warren was peering at the device as she spoke, but then she stopped and looked at him. “You can buy the parts to make them on Ebay, detective. I know graduate students who could throw one together in a weekend.”
“That’s all very good, but why in the devil would you want one?” Martin said with a hint of impatience in his voice.
She walked over to the counter and picked up a power drill. “This drill, for instance. See they’ve replaced the bit with a kit-bashed beaker holder. This is now,” she said, barely pressing the trigger and watching the beakers slowly spin, “a centrifuge.”
She put the device back down. “These people, whoever they are, have spent a lot of time putting together a biological research lab on the cheap – and completely off the grid. Only a few items are traceable through official channels. Most of its homemade kit.”
They left the small kitchen and living area and went into the hall, which was covered with a drape. When Martin pushed it aside it was heavier than he expected and didn’t budge. He started to force it firmly back, and then thought otherwise. He peeled the curtain down from the ceiling and it revealed a heavy barrier of plastic sheeting sealed to the wall with duct tape. He could see through it where more sheeting was visible over other doorways down the hall.
“Careful there, detective. It’s a sealed space.”
Martin stepped back and gave her glance. He’d suddenly caught up with what he was encountering, and he did not like it a bit. “Is that what I think it is?”
Warren nodded.  “Yes, I think it’s as far as we go. They did not want whatever testing they were doing back there to get out. Who knows what’s back there, honestly. We’d been better off in Level As, I think. And we need to decontaminate.”
Martin nodded, and then cursed to himself. They probably should have put on a “Level A” hermetically sealed hazardous material suit in the first place, instead of wearing evidence collection suits, which provided only a small measure of protection. Nothing like a full Level A suit, of course. But, they had entered the flat with no real idea what they were about to encounter. It was too late now.
They backed up to the door and Martin, a dozen serious firefights behind, a veteran of the Royal Marines and something of a serious risk taker, both on and off the job, was feeling a bit panicked. His breathing became rapid and his chose felt constricted. “Now what, doctor?”
“We sit tight.” she said tersely. She then reached into her suit and produced her cell. "I’ll call for help.”
As Martin stood there looking uneasily around the flat, and feeling completely useless and exposed, she made the call. In a calm professional voice she explained the situation briefly and requested a full “biological response team.” He winced when she repeated that she and a Met detective were possibly exposed. Clearly, his day was not going to get any better.
She ended the call, and he gave her a grave look. “What are they doing here, doctor? Is this what I think it is?” He asked the question, but suspected he already knew the answer.
She cocked her head and he could see the corners of her eyes crinkle, indicating she was smiling behind the face mask. She must have been enjoying seeing him start a bit, but her body language and voice were surprisingly cheery. She had a hint of impatience in her voice, as if the answer were obvious.
“Well, Detective Rowley, judging by this equipment, the efforts to act clandestinely, and the plastic sheeting in the hall there, my first guess is that ‘they,’ whomever that may be, are in the business of developing some sort of biological weapon.”

*    *    *
                Mike Harris rubbed a hand over his short cropped hair as he looked through the Plexiglas windows of the powerhouse control room for the Wolf Creek dam. All he could see inside the powerhouse was a burning, smoky, mangled mess. The dam’s six generators had destroyed themselves. He had not seen it himself, but Jim Potter and the control room operators had described a great shuddering and screeching sound and then a series of crashes as each of the gigantic 45 megawatt generators spun itself apart. The powerhouse was now in shambles. Two operators were missing, presumed dead.
                Jim Potter stood beside Mike. He was hearty man in his late sixties, massive arms, thick neck, a Vietnam Vet, and an expert in the civil engineering business. He’d worked on Wolf Creek as a young man and had come back to  Kentucky a few years back to retire after decades of overseas engineering experience. He was now semi-retired; Mike had instinctively realized the leadership and cool-headedness in Jim when they’d met at a local football game, and had put him on the clock as much as Jim (and his wife, Marlene) would tolerate.
He looked over at Mike and said, “What just happened here, Mike? What the hell is happening?” Jim suddenly looked gray and exhausted, not like the tenacious former triathlon competitor Mike had come to respect.
Mike just shrugged. He’d read the warnings. The Department of Homeland Security had conducted a test called Project Aurora a few years back. It had showed that if a generator on a load somehow got out of sync with the grid – somehow left the 60 hertz timing – that it could be made to destroy itself. It was much like throwing a car into reverse while driving on the highway at 70 miles per hour. The sudden braking torque would just rip a generator to shreds. He’d seen a film of the test, which showed a diesel generator which had been hacked into getting out of phase doing just that. It had blown itself up. Just like all six gens at Wolf Creek. He was looking at the most successful infrastructure attack to date, and he was afraid, according to Bill Nudally, that more were coming.
No matter. His whole region was now without power and the electrical grid for the Midwest and Northeast was going to be under a tremendous strain just to balance the load across the rest of the country. Mike shook his head. He was just as much in shock as everyone else.
“They got through somehow, Jim. We’d been talking about this for several years, even taken steps to prevent it. An Aurora attack, they call it. We were warned that if the generators were forced out of phase that the power grid itself would put tremendous mechanical pressure on the generators, enough to cause serious damage. We thought it might damage them, maybe cause one or two to go offline. No one expected all six generators in a dam to . . . just . . . disintegrate.”
“Why couldn’t we have noticed that?” Jim said. “We were monitoring the systems the whole time. Nothing spiked. There was no warning. No heat. No gauges moved. No alarms. Just a sudden screeching sound and in a few seconds . . . WHUMP, WHUMP, WHUMP. BAM! They just blew apart.”
“We were concentrating on getting the gates up,” Mike said. “Not on the penstock inlets, the generators, or turbines. I suspect they created a crisis to coincide with the attempt to put the generators out of phase.” He looked over at Jim and with an air of respect in his voice that surprised even himself, he said “It worked. They nailed us.”
Jim snorted. “It’ll be six months to a year before she’ll be generating again. We’ll have to dismantle the powerhouse, get a crane in here, and replace every one of those gens. What a nightmare. I bet we're looking at a quarter to half billion dollars damage, plus other losses. They could not have done a better job if they’d flown a cruise missile up the Cumberland.”
Mike nodded. That’s exactly what they intended. They had targeted the dam and struck it with extreme precision. They just used computer programs instead of smart bombs.

Go on to part six.

Thank you for reading. If you will indulge me, I ask a favor or two. Please Like my page using the Like button at the upper left. Follow me on Twitter at @liamkfisher. I would also love to hear your comments, if you are in a chatty mood. Please post them below!

Survival Fiction: The Last Emergency, Part 4

Jake Cooper sat in his recliner with a soreness deep in his bones. He’d ran a jackhammer all day, something he had not done in years. As the owner of a small general contracting firm he often filled in – and not without some relish – when one of his essential workers failed to show. He was a man who wore many hats. But, today he’d led a wrecking crew. It was fun, but he was feeling it. He was not twenty years old anymore, that was painfully obvious.
Then, as he was clicking through the channels, something caught his eye. A news report. The flu was spreading.
The first reports, days ago, had said that it was just another in a string of pneumonia-type diseases. SARS, avian flu, H1N1. Sensationalized news reports and blathering government officials had calloused most of the country to any sense of urgency in preparations. Everyone in the world had seen a number of diseases touted as “the next super plague” in the past few years. None of them had spread very much, and those that had were responsible for only a few deaths, despite all the media hype.
But now he sat stunned as the first clear CNN reports were coming out of India. Hundreds dead. Thousands in the hospital. The day before, Nepal, and the day before that Bangladesh. It was spreading.
He sat upright and leaned forward to listen. The journalist confirmed that this was worse than had been previously reported. It was a hemorrhagic fever, a slow burning type that began with flu-like symptoms. Over the course of several days it would turn the victim’s body upon itself through something called a cytokine storm. The hosts own immune system attacked healthy cells until the victim became so weak he was unable to care of himself. The process was nasty, something called septic shock syndrome: hemorrhaging, multisystem organ failure, and cellular death. Once bedridden, the victim would then succumb to the final stage – drowning in their own blood and phlegm.
It was the killer plague the world had been expecting.
He clicked the TV off and sat in the dark silence of his home.
His wife and kids had long since gone to bed, but his mild insomnia had kept him up again. It was three in the morning. He took a drink of ice water and exhaled slowly.
He knew how the scenario would play out; he’d been trained on FEMA and CDC response when he was an emergency room manager. He knew what the TV people had said. By conservative estimates the airliners coming out of India in the past few days had carried the disease worldwide within hours. In the next few days, perhaps hours, reports would surface about cases cropping up everywhere. America already had it, that much was certain. There were probably people carrying the disease in a couple of dozen of U.S. cities right now, spreading it by coughing and shaking hands, touching doorknobs, shopping carts, you name it.
He started to panic and considered briefly that he should wake his family and drive madly into the night. He could make it to his hunting cabin in the Ozarks. It was very remote, far off the beaten path. There’d be plenty of fish in the lake and game in the nearby woods. He could live there for months, maybe years. He’d chop wood for the cabin’s little potbellied stove, and it might even be a good thing, the forced isolation in the woods, time together to get to know each other again . . . except, they’d never make it. He took another drink of water.
By the time they’d driven to the cabin everyone in the family would be exposed. He’d have to fuel up the Suburban with gas. They’d have to buy food, clothing, equipment, and carry it with them. He’d risk infection each time. There wasn’t enough room in the SUV for his whole family and all the stuff they’d need to survive the long stay in the cabin.
He stood and gathered his wallet and keys and walked through the house and down to the basement. Downstairs he rummaged around until he found the dust masks left over from a painting project. He climbed the stairs and went back to the kitchen and found the medical kit and a single pair of latex gloves. Back in his den he retrieved a revolver from the gun cabinet and slipped it into his jacket pocket.
The government would be no help either. At first sniff the government would quarantine, at the borders and probably in areas close to international airports, but this would be too slow. And so as the outbreak gathered momentum, more and more of the country would be subjected to a “shelter-in-place” plan, wherein citizens we would be ordered to stay in their homes or risk arrest and relocation. Previous warnings had mentioned lengthy quarantines, from weeks to months if necessary.
The disease, he knew, was not the only threat looming on the horizon. People were going to go crazy. The human problem was just as deadly as the disease. There’d be religious crazies in the street, gangs poaching on the weak, and then the mentally ill, unable to handle this one last blow, would simply fall apart. No one could predict how a large population would react under stress. He was taking no chances.
Like many of his neighbors, Jake had stockpiled some food for the heavy snow and ice storms, but there wasn’t enough food in the house for such lengthy quarantines. In fact, he knew there wasn’t enough food in the whole United States for that type of scenario.
Most retailers “ran lean” on stock, with no more than three to five days’ worth of supplies on hand. He’d seen the drained shelves after just the mere prediction of severe weather. Large retailers would have more in regional warehouses, of course, perhaps a thirty day supply at most. But these would have to be distributed, and riots would be likely before that could occur. When dawn came and the news spread people all over the city would panic and hit the stores, just as he was now, and by the next day there wouldn’t be a single crumb remaining for sale anywhere in the country.
He hopped into his SUV and headed down the street and out of his neighborhood. They way he figured it, he had one chance.
He made his first stop at the nearest all-night big box supermarket. He donned his mask and gloves, and strode in fast, pushing one flatbed cart and pulling another. It was mostly deserted. Jake relaxed a little. By sheer dumb luck his insomnia had given him an advantage.
The bored cashier smiled weakly and went back to her romance novel. She didn’t seem to notice his mask or bright blue gloves. He smiled and laughed to himself. She’d probably seen far stranger things while working the late shift.
He rushed straight to the staples isle. To the comforting tunes of Musak he loaded the first cart with all the rice, dry beans, and powdered milk they had. He switched, pulling the monstrous weight of the full cart, and pushing the lighter one. He next found the canned foods and loaded the second empty cart with fruit– pineapple, pears, peaches – plus all the Spam he could find. Next he loaded up on bags of sugar and salt and cases of vegetable oil. In essence, on the fly, he was creating for his family a simple yet filling ration of the type issued by the United Nations during mass hunger emergencies. He also grabbed several large bottles of vitamins. On his way to the checker he made one other purchase: several bottles of spray bleach.
He grunted as he moved the carts to the checkout line.
“It’s for our soup kitchen,” he offered. He pointed to the mask and held up his hands. “I’m allergic.”
The elderly woman at the register didn’t seem to notice. She just smiled. “That’s so sweet that you take care of the poor. Not enough people care like this these days.” She motioned at a stack of coupon papers. “If you will hand me that sale paper, I can get you a discount on some of this.”
Jake shook his head no. She shrugged and went back to checking, but never raised an eyebrow.
Just as she finished the last item and rang up the sale, the power went off. The store was pitch dark, and quiet as a tomb. Then the emergency lighting kicked on and bathed the whole building in a dim aura.
They looked at each other, and Jake produced his check book, filled it out, and handed the check to her.
“Oh, dear. What a night,” she said looking around. “I hope my cats are okay.”
“Ma’am, you take care,” he said. He walked off pushing the carts, and then stopped and walked back as a rotund office manager emerged with a flashlight.
“Lucille, you okay?” he asked with barbecue sauce on his chin.
“Oh, yes, Harold, I’m fine. I was just checking out this last customer here.”
“Alright then. You can pack up and go home. I’m going to shut the store down in a minute.” He waddled off, back to his pork ribs no doubt, Jake thought.
“You’re Lucille, right?” Jake asked.
She nodded. In the dim light of the store he could see that in days long ago she’d been a real looker. High cheek bones, slight frame, a bright, intelligent gleam in her eyes. She was waiting for him to speak, and listening intently.
“Lucille, you need to get everything you can right now and get home. Lock the doors and don’t let anyone in. There’s some bad stuff coming down the pike.”
Lucille smiled and said “Mr. Cooper, if what I think is happening is happening, there’s nothing you or I can do about it.”
She’d remembered Jake’s name from the check, and she had an inkling of what might be happening. Jake nodded in approval.
“Just the same Lucille, you need to get out of here. There’s going to be a very mean crowd coming in here shortly, whether the doors are locked or not.”
Lucille nodded and simply said “Thank you” in a soft voice as she pulled the cash drawer from the register.
Jake managed, by pulling both carts and walking backward, to make it to the Suburban. Before he started unloading the carts, he got out the bleach and disinfected his hands.
He was sweating a little after loading the truck, but he felt better. He had a purpose now, a plan. He guessed the food would last his family quite some time, maybe weeks. Long enough, perhaps, to make it through whatever might happen.
He quickly drove to the next supermarket, and the next, until when he finally returned home, his vehicle was straining under the load, every amount of space packed with food and medicines, even ammunition for his guns.
He worked fast and had the whole lot unloaded on the garage floor by the time the first rays of the sun were thinning the darkness from the skies. Before he shut the garage door he could feel something. Maybe it was his imagination, but he could feel a tension in the air. He noticed traffic was picking up earlier than normal and the main streets were already looking busy. He suspected that by noon it would be complete pandemonium.

Go to part 5 here.

Thank you for reading. If you will indulge me, I ask a favor or two. Please Like my page using the Like button at the upper left. Follow me on Twitter at @liamkfisher. I would also love to hear your comments, if you are in a chatty mood. Please post them below. Thanks!

Survival Fiction: The Last Emergency, Part 3

Abi sneezed multiple times as he walked through the shopping mall. He made no effort to cover his face. He ached all over and was slightly feverish. He could tell his body was fighting hard against the disease. He sneezed again and wiped his hands on the door handle as he entered the men’s restroom. It was empty. He made frequent and hurried swipes at his runny nose and then wiped his hands on all other high contact surfaces in the restroom – the door handle, the faucet handle, the paper towel dispenser lever.
His intent, of course, was to infect as many people as possible. His fellow warriors in other cities in the U.S. and around the world were doing the same. They all followed carefully rehearsed plans that targeted locations in which the maximum number of people would be exposed in the shortest amount of time. The secondary goal was to spread the disease as widely as possible. It was much better, in their view, to have a broadly dispersed and sickening population rather than one which had a high death rate but was confined to a small area. They wanted a worldwide pandemic and this was the easiest and least risky avenue to achieve that end.
He carried out his mission thoroughly. He made a number of small purchases at the mall, for instance, and was careful to touch his nose and mouth just prior to the purchase. Money exchanged hands, as did his germs. This was the protocol he followed for several hours – traveling on public transportation or frequenting highly populated places. He strove to have as many physical interactions with the people he encountered as was possible without drawing public scrutiny.
He did this on the bus, the subway, and at the stops and transfers in between. Several times he was able to turn and sneeze “accidently” on people sitting or standing close by. He always apologized profusely, concealing his malice beneath the crude cultural stereotype he had adopted.
He then headed to the airport, checked in his baggage, messily, and began a long day’s trip – all pre-planned so that he took multiple hops, each of which would require travelling the interior of the nation’s busiest airports. He carefully concealed his agenda with a handkerchief and polite manners when was around security personnel, but went back to his mission when out of their sight.
In Denver he had a three hour layover, and decided to exit the airport and frequent its malls, to better spread his cargo. One of the tenets of biowarfare strategy was the creation of multiple epicenters, which would handicap epidemiological research teams. The larger the city and more dispersed the epicenters, the less likely they could respond quickly enough to make a difference.
On his way out of the airport he spotted a young, pretty brunette trying to remove a large, suitcase from the baggage carousel.
“Allow me to assist you,” he said.
“Oh, no thank you, sir. I can handle it,” the young woman said, even as he hefted the bag up and onto its wheels.
He followed his script carefully. He pretended to be slightly socially awkward and a bit shy, but someone who sincerely wanted to offer assistance. His “character” for the mission was always a bit naïve and clueless. It was a complete charade, even the slightly affected accent.
“It is no problem,” Abi said, smiling. “I help you to your car?”
The girl shook her head. “No, please, I’m fine.”
“I do not mind to help you, please,” he said, smiling broadly, feigning ignorance. Of course he realized she would not want the assistance of a complete stranger with her large bag all the way to her car. He smiled and acted as if his offer was completely normal.
“Oh, that’s sweet. No, thank you. I wouldn’t want to bother you.”
Abi sneezed, and as he did he turned his head and upper body and covered his mouth. The sneeze was productive and left a large amount of moisture in his hand. He concealed what had occurred by producing a handkerchief with his other hand. It appeared as if he was covering his mouth, but he had actually sneezed nto his hand. He turned and offered his hand to the young woman.
“I thank you then for allowing me to assist you.” He bowed slightly. His hand remained in the air.
She smiled and hesitantly took it. It was a small gesture of thanks in an awkward moment, just the sort of thing Abi had learned was common in America, and perhaps no place else. Americans were a touchy people, far too informal for their own good, he had observed.
The handshake was brief, and as she tried to take her hand away Abi held it for a second and then let their hands slide apart.
“You, madam, are a delight. May you have a wonderful week,” he said with a smile before turning and walking away. The young woman simply hurried off looking slightly perplexed. Abi smiled to himself. Statistically, he’d given her approximately a 60% chance of acquiring the flu and a 35% chance of death.
Hours later, Abi sat in the coach section of a 737 bound for Tampa, sneezing and blowing his nose, careful to expectorate in ways that would not draw undue attention to him but would still infect as many as possible. He visited the restroom several times, wiping his germs on all touch surfaces.
The organization had initially focused its study of a second attack on the U.S. on bypassing the airline screening of travelers for weapons. Much money had been spent looking for ways to carry bombs and guns through the security apparatus. That proved to be difficult. The Americans were not perfect, but it became clear that getting box knives through a search a second time was no longer going to be guaranteed. No matter.
Abi smiled to himself, even as his body was in rapid decline. He looked around the plane and imagined all its passengers would soon be dead or dying. A baby giggled across the aisle, bouncing on her father’s knee. A young couple sitting in the row in front of him held hands. Businessmen read their newspapers. Flight attendants served drinks. They would all soon be dead.
All the expensive screening equipment in the world meant nothing if the man himself was the weapon.

Go to part 4 here.

Thank you for reading. If you will indulge me, I ask a favor or two. Please Like my page using the Like button at the upper left. Follow me on Twitter at @liamkfisher. I would also love to hear your comments, if you are in a chatty mood. Please post them below!

Survival Fiction: The Last Emergency, Part 2

Mike Harris stood in a yellow rain suit and orange life vest on the edge of the Wolf Creek Dam as white water roared beneath him. He’d worked on the eastern Kentucky dam for four years and had never seen it flowing this fast. Over the last half hour he’d gone to each of the ten gates to inspect them for visible damage or obstruction, but found nothing unusual.
With his radio near his mouth he shouted “Control, this is Harris. I’ve got nothing. What’s going on there, over?”
Control came back smartly with “Gates are still non-responsive, Chief.”
Mike could barely hear the crackle of the radio over the roar of the waters. He was standing hundreds of feet above the Cumberland River, and looking across a mile long concrete structure with water flowing recklessly over the spillways. The rumble was incredible.
Mike snapped back, “Repeat that last, over.” He had a habit of using military radio slang when he was stressed, rather than civilian radio speak. His Marine days in Iraq had imprinted on him, and though he loved his civilian engineer job, he had to admit the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was a shoddy operation at times compared to The Corps, the U.S.M.C.
From Control came a new, recognizable voice, that of Jim Potter, a veteran operator and engineer. He spoke into the radio with his smooth Kentucky accent, saying “Mike, we’ve done everything. We reset the system, powered it off, rebooted it. Same deal every time. No response. Repeat. No Response.”
“Roger that, Jim. No response.” Mike didn’t like that he sounded a bit defeated. What was going on here?
Mike walked back to the white Corps of Engineers-marked Tahoe. Once inside the SUV he did a quick calculation on his laptop. Approximately an hour ago the gates had, without warning, opened full throttle, and the water was gushing down from Cumberland Lake at breakneck speed, endangering the lives and homes of hundreds of thousands of people downstream. Wolf Creek usually held a “pool” at a 90 to 100 foot depth. The word “pool” seemed to him such a silly technical term for a lake with a shoreline longer than Florida. However, pool level was crucial. Once the dam had released all its water in the “pool” down to 65 feet, the dam would be “dead.” No power generation, no controls. The whole region would be in blackout.
That in turn meant the power grid for the Northeast Region would have to compensate for Wolf Creek going off-line. This in term would draw down reserve capacity everywhere else, stressing every grid system to pick up the slack, or casting all of Wolf Creek’s customers into darkness. He’d seen the rolling blackouts before . . . and the chaos they had caused.
Mike put the Tahoe into drive, cruised smartly down US 127 which ran atop the dam, and then exited onto the service road and began working his way along the switchbacks and curves toward the Corps office. The view was breathtaking, even in the rain and late evening sun. He could see the autumn colors spread across the hills and valleys, all cloaked in dramatically moving wisps of fog and mist.
He punched on the speakerphone and called William Nudally, emergency manager for the Great Lakes and Ohio River division of the Corps. The call went through on the third try.
“Go ahead, Mike, what have you got?” Nudally answered in a clipped manner, obviously tense.
Mike was surprised that Bill was already on the ball. He was a competent manager, but he wasn’t telepathic.
“Bill, listen, I don’t have a lot of time, not sure who’s told you what, but we’ve lost control of Wolf Creek.”
Nudally cut in. “Mike, I understand. We’ve also lost Philpott, Kinzua, and Smith Mountain. We are fighting to hang on to a half dozen others”
That news hit Mike like a ton of bricks. “What?”
Nudally paused a second. “Didn’t you know?”
Mike stammered back, “No. I mean, know what, exactly, Bill?”
“Mike, we’ve been hit. Infrastructure attack, broad spectrum. Dams, power plants, the whole works. My board is lit up like a Christmas tree.”
Mike struggled to fully understand what he’d heard. Nudally, a retired Air Force colonel, was popping it out fast, as if he was back in his Air Force days, calling out bogeys as an air intercept officer.
“Hackers? Bill, is that it? Kids or something?”
“No, Mike, it’s an inside job of some sort. They were all keyed to go down simultaneously, here and across the country. Word is that Northwestern and South Pacific Division are hit, too. I hear the Canadians got hit as well. The whole grid’s starting to fall as we speak. You better pull out the whole emergency plan . . . and I mean the whole thing. I’m working federal forces from this angle right now, but get on the horn at the state level and see if the Guard is being called up. We’re going to need all hands on this thing. All hands, Mike. Somebody has declared war on us. Gotta run.”
Mike hung up the phone, left to his thoughts. An infrastructure attack was something they had planned for. The Corps control systems, like everything else in industrialized America, had long since moved to totally computerized controls. Nobody pulled a lever anymore; everything was done remotely, via the internet. It saved time, reduced man-hours, saved money on injuries, pensions, sick leave, and so on. Virtually every system was now run by a programmable logic controller (PLC), a computer box that determined when to open, shut, or otherwise initiate or operate some type of electromechanical infrastructure system. At the heart of the process was the supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) systems which monitored and controlled the PLCs across a site. With a single computer console a single person could operate a whole site – a whole dam, power plant, or pipeline.
The argument in favor of this was not only efficiency, but, ironically, security. By removing so many hands from the operating levers, it was argued that it would be easier to control security to the various critical systems. It was easier to watch one man than fifty. In addition, the initial wave of SCADA and PLC systems were proprietary systems developed by companies that most no one had any reason to target. Thus, obscurity was a key means of security. It was too hard for would-be hackers to get access to the very specific computer code and diagrams which had been written for each site. However, in the last decade the industry had begun to use off-the-shelf SCADA and PLC units. Everyone went to a standard system. This eased uniformity of training, operation, and replacement, and saved a bundle in the process, but also meant that a successful attack on one SCADA system was a dry run for possible attacks on any other system, anywhere.
Industry experts were concerned, but mostly swept the issue under the rug. They had safety protocols: turn the systems off, reboot, re-install code, and you were back in business. In addition, they had worked to make each system tougher to crack, using the latest security software. But what infrastructure protection teams had learned was that any system could be penetrated by cyberattacks – often these were hackers trained by and working for Chinese, Russian, even Israeli military organizations. Every year there had been probing attacks against U.S. targets. Usually they did nothing more than test security, but occasionally they managed to break into a system. The big fear for several years had been that an attack would be launched with the intent of causing real havoc.
It was hard for the average citizen to imagine the pain and suffering such attacks could cause. A simple example was the control of valves at a water treatment plant. If the sewage pipes were controlled so that raw sewage flowed into the clean water inlet, the whole plant would be contaminated. Raw sewage would be carried into the filters and treatment tanks. It might take weeks, even months, to completely clean the system of the sewage and bring the clean water treatment back online. The costs would be astronomical, and a whole city would lose access to clean water. More sinister plans might include shutting down the cooling water pumps on a nuclear reactor, causing a nuclear accident, or the opening of service or relief valves on an oil pipeline, causing its contents to spill out and create an ecological disaster. Any single event would be terrible, but a broad spectrum and coordinated attack, as Bill was describing, was beyond imagination. It could cause trillions of dollars in ecological and economic damage. Put simply, if a single attack was the equivalent of a cybernetic Pearl Harbor, what Bill was describing was the equivalent of a thousand cybernetic Hiroshimas, all across the country. Bill’s last statement, “Somebody has declared war on us,” echoed in his head.
Mike tried to keep himself from panicking. Work the problem. Work the problem. He guided the Tahoe into his parking slot in front of his neatly landscaped Corps office, then he pulled out his cell phone and started punching his contacts, calling in his emergency management team, all off-duty people, and his counterparts in the Forest Service, the state parks, state police, and so forth.
The message for his folks was simple: he was calling a meeting in one hour. Everybody in, right now. They were going to fight this thing.
His mind was spinning. If the whole grid was going down simultaneously, they might never bring it back online. It was a war.
He punched one last number on his phone as he walked into his office and began riffling through the file cabinets, looking for the hard copies of Wolf Creek’s SCADA diagrams.
“Hey, sweetie,” said a female voice from the other end.
“Laura, listen. There’s a problem here. I don’t have time –”
“What’s wrong?” Laura cut in.
“Laura, listen. Where are the kids?”
“At my mothers. Mike, what’s wrong?”
“Laura, get in the truck now. Get the kids, your parents, and get home. Wolf Creek is in trouble and I’m not sure how long we have. Head up to Russell Springs and get all the beans and rice. Hard beans. All of it. Get home and sit tight.”
“Okay, Mike, okay. Beans and rice?”
“Honey, just do it.”
“Mike, you are scaring me. I don’t understand--”
His words were coming fast now. “Just do it. Go now. Go right now. We don’t have time.”
“Okay, okay. I love you.”
Mike exhaled and slowed himself down. He was allowing himself to get panicked. He forced the feeling back. “I love you, too,” he said more slowly. “Just get the kids, get your parents, and get all the food you can. I need you to do this.”
“I will Mike. I will. I’m in the truck now.”
“Laura, one more thing.”
“Yes, sweetie?”
“Look in the glove compartment. Is it there?”
Laura’s end paused for a second. “The revolver? Yes, it’s there.”
Mike stopped to look out of his office window. As he watched, the lights in the valley below him -- homes, streetlights, parking lot lighting -- began to slowly go out.

Go to part 3 here.

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Survival Fiction: The Last Emergency, Part 1

A cacophony of animal noises nearly drowned out the departure of the delivery van. Macaws, parrots, and rhesus and spider monkeys clicked, howled, and hooted as the small man in the lab coat walked past them. Even they seemed to sense that something was wrong.

Abi turned off the Christmas music on the radio and smiled as he placed the package on the table. Even though he knew he was alone in the testing facility, he glanced around out of habit. It was perfectly ordinary, a lonely grad student acting as the sole keeper of the university lab animals over the “holiday season.” His university bosses were bellying up to a table heavily laden with food, but Abi had only a bowl of Ramen noodles. A pile of crossword puzzles and a Quran occupied space on the table alongside his laptop.

He sat down in front of the computer and logged in to the VPN. The virtual private network was a secure encryption “tunnel” through the Internet, and virtually impregnable to codebreaking attempts, or so Abi had been told. The program created a hidden connection to other users of that program on the internet and purportedly allowed total privacy, even on unsecured networks. The NSA could snoop for weeks on any captured data and never crack the code, his trainers had explained. The software was so simple a child could use it and it was free, one of many open-source programs posted on the web by idealistic programmers who sought for everyone to benefit from the power of the computer. So naïve, he thought.

Once logged into the VPN, he sent an e-mail to his brother warriors around the world. The e-mail itself was also encrypted with another free software program; double encryption was standard procedure, and much more rigorous than what even the American special forces used in their hunt for the Sheikh.

His e-mail was brief, as he had been trained, simply confirming the package’s arrival. The e-mail response came back swiftly, ordering him to begin his witness, his shahada. At other points all over the United States and around the world other witnesses were performing the same operation, the opening phase of a war that they all hoped would rid the world of the Great Satan and cripple the West.

The package which sat before him was covered in bright stickers, warning of a "biohazard" inside. He peeled back the brown paper to reveal a cardboard box, and inside it, a gleaming aluminum case. Within it he found the delivery he had long expected, and then he rolled up his shirt sleeve.

He plucked the metal syringe from the case. It was cool to the touch. He removed the cap and then pushed in the plunger, watching as a tiny drop of the contents emerged from the needle, and without hesitation, jammed it into his arm. It was his duty, his shahida.

* * *

Detective Inspector Martin Rowley sat tensely in the back of the unmarked silver Metropolitan Police BMW as it careened along the London streets, its warbling klaxon echoing through the morning rain. He coughed into his hand and then looked out the window as the driver deftly guided the vehicle down the narrow lanes of the tightly packed streets of Tower Hamlet.

The rain-slicked roads reflected a leaden sky. It was a gray rainy morning in a colorless slum, and to Rowley even the people shuffling along the sidewalks lacked any semblance of life or vigor. The whole world seemed to be living in black and white, save for the occasional splash of color from graffiti or the occasional lighted sign.

He had left the station in a hurry, briefcase and umbrella in hand. The call to which he was responding was to investigate a flat with “unusual equipment” inside. He supposed it was a drug lab of some sort, but as an Intelligence detective in the Met’s Counter Terror Command, it was his job to “liaise” with the constable on the street. Methamphetamine labs were was making inroads in the poorer sections of England just like everywhere else, and the Met’s street officers were notoriously skittish of drug-related crime.

Still, he resisted the temptation to engage in too much speculation. He picked a bit of lint off his coat. It was better to let the mind remain placid and simply take in all that he saw and heard. Preconceptions could cloud the mind and inhibit rational, and careful, observations.

In a few minutes the car lurched to a stop. A Police Community Support Officer stood in the street, flagging down the car. The PCSO were volunteers, essentially untrained observers, and universally derided among the rank and file of the Met. Martin instantly bridled his temper. If the call was from these enthusiastic but utterly incompetent wretches headquarters was going to hear about it, Martin thought. It was enough to deal with honest but overly imaginative bobbies, but the PCSO were the dregs.

Martin smoothly stepped half out of the car, revealing something of the lithe athlete he was beneath a conservative suit A proper bobby in a yellow rain slicker quickly approached him, not a PCSO, and said, “Good morning, sir. Detective Rowley, I presume?”

Martin nodded curtly and retrieved his briefcase and umbrella from the car. The bobby said “If you will follow me,” and motioned toward a decaying multi-level public housing building, its shabby concrete stained with rust and marked with graffiti, its lights smashed, and windows cracked.

Martin followed the bobby up three flights of stairs. The building was hardly habitable: raw sewage flowed down the walls, rain pooled on the floor, and paint peeled from the walls. It smelled as bad as it looked. He would have condemned it immediately, had he the authority.

At the top of the stairs they entered a dimly lit hallway and walked past an upturned rubbish bin and toward a flat midway down the hall marked with blue and white crime scene tape. Two bobbies stood in the hall sipping coffee from foam cups. They nodded as he approached but they said nothing.

When he passed them he noticed that a woman was standing by the door. She’d been blocked from view by the bulk of the two constables in their rain gear. She was an attractive brunette in a classy skirt suit, looking incongruously clean and professional in such a sodden and dimly lit building. Headquarters had told him to expect a subject matter expert from “up the chain,” but did not mention who it might be. She spoke first.

“So glad to meet you, detective. I’m Dr. Eva Warren, National Health Service,” she said with a cheery smile. She struck him at first as being very polished, but perhaps a bit of managerial type.

“Martin Rowley, Counter Terror.”

She extended her hand and Rowley noted, approvingly, that she had a firm grip. He began to look her over more closely. She was clutching a bulky aluminum medical chart book, with several pages folded back in disarray. He could see notes scribbled in red ink. He then noticed the pencil stuck behind her ear, a wisp of hair out of place. Her lipstick was not freshened, and her eyes were slightly red; she’d been up for some time. He glanced down and saw that her shoes were clean, but slightly scuffed. Judging from appearances – something which he was quite skilled at doing – she was no PR consultant or foppish manager. She was probably quite competent.

“Dr. Warren, may I ask why you’re here?“ he said, donning latex gloves.

She nodded as if she expected the question and then cleared her throat. “Well as you know, detective, all crime scenes related to possible epidemiological threats are seconded to our office.”

Rowley frowned. “Reports indicated the victim was struck by an automobile. Forgive me, but I expected a forensic specialist, not NHS.”

Warren smiled again. “Mr. Muhammad died of trauma, that’s true. But he was infected with a peculiar virus. We’re working it up now. Of course, then, the victim's residence is of great interest to us.”

He gave her a curious look and she smiled and nodded slightly in the direction of the officers standing at the end of the hall. “They haven’t let me in yet, detective . . . but I did chat them up a bit. It seems your boys found laboratory equipment of some sort.”

“It seems so, but my suspicion is its drug or bomb making kit.” Martin reached down and lifted two bags from a large yellow plastic box by the door. He handed one to her, then opened his and removed the contents. He slipped white disposable booties over his shoes and then stepped into a “clean suit,” a thin, white coverall with a hood.

He offered her a face mask and goggles, donned his, and then said with a gesture toward the door, “Shall we?”

* * *

Liz sat at the kitchen table listening intently to the announcer on the radio. He spoke with the cracker country accent of the Ozarks, but hammed up a notch or two – corny and commercial, rather than as an authentic country boy. He announced the school closings quickly, and when she heard Davy Crockett Junior High, she slumped back in her seat in disappointment. That was the third day in a row. She had not seen or heard from her friends in as many days; the power and phone lines worked intermittently, as did the internet service. Their computer had a virus, her father had said. He had been called in at the dam thirty miles away for extra shifts. He said he’d fix it over the weekend.

“I’m sorry honey,” her mother said without turning from the sink where she was washing the breakfast skillet. The kitchen still smelled of coffee and bacon. “It’s just this flu has been so bad this last couple of weeks. It’ll take some time for things to get back to normal.”

Liz thought otherwise. Flu was common enough, but this was different, and the TV news had repeatedly said it was nearing “pandemic proportions” over the last few days. Schools everywhere were shut down, some for only a day or two, some for much longer. Davy Crockett Junior High was hit particularly hard. She’d heard the principal say to one mother last Friday that because of the large number of families who had truck driving parents those folks, he guessed, were bringing in the flu from every part of the country. Liz knew her mother was smart enough to have figured all this out, and guessed she was just trying to sound reassuring.

She thanked her mom for breakfast and tugged on her rubber boots and walked out to the barn behind the house. Winkie, her frisky black Labrador, came out from under the porch and she knelt down and slipped him a piece of bacon. “Good morning, Wink. Hope you slept well. It was cold last night.”

He nuzzled her hand and wagged his tail as he walked along beside her through the frosty grass to the barn. Once inside, she was confronted by the familiar smells of dust, moldy hay, and horse manure. Before she could flip on the lights, however, the low rumble of Daisy’s eager nicker came from the back of the barn, and Liz could see the horse poking her nose over the top of the stall door. The other horses also beginning to nicker and neigh in expectation of their morning feeding.

“Well good morning, ladies and gentlemen,” she said, taking a half bow. “I’ll be your stewardess today, serving whole oats.”

Liz pushed the feed cart out of the tack room and began shoveling scoopfuls of oats between the wrought iron bars of the stall fronts into the feed buckets inside their stalls. She spoke to each of the five horses in turn, praising them by name with a low, soothing voice, and scratching their heads and ears.

There was Old George, the retired New York City police horse, a big bay with a regal bearing. And her favorite, little Daisy, the petite pinto filly who had such a sweet disposition. Then there was Archie, or Arch as her dad called him, a big buckskin horse that had been a state champ in barrel racing back in his youth. Her mother’s horse was Lucy, a lazy old palomino brood mare. And finally there was Dave, the two-year-old stud colt. He was nervous and full of boundless energy, and known to nip at careless fingers. She watched him closely. Sometimes he stood at the back of his stall, ears pinned back and neck bowed like a cobra ready to strike. He took most of his frustration out on her dad, though he had bitten – or at least threatened to bite – everyone in the family.

She bid them all good morning in turn and then retrieved the hammer, which she used to punch through the thick layer of ice on their water buckets. She then uncoiled the stiff hose and filled the buckets, the ice crackling as it was hit by the slightly warmer water from the well. This was her “before school” chores, a task which she repeated every evening as well.

Her friends in town had fewer chores, and seemed excited to help when they came to visit, but were quick to suggest that someone else do them when they proved inconvenient. After school band practice often became a chance to hang out at the Dairy Queen, but Liz could not hang out long – if at all – because she had to get home. Her friends would often protest, and brag about how they had gotten out of their chores by pawning them off on a sibling or parent. Liz never complained much about her job. The horses were friends, too, and she liked to take care of them. It had become second nature to her, and she enjoyed the early morning with her horses, even on cold frosty days like this one.

She finished her work in the barn and then headed back to the house, clowning and playing around with Winkie. She stuck her hands in her pockets and stood still, her head tucked under the hood of her barn coat. Winkie sniffed at her, whined, and then barked, as if to say “Play with me!” Liz leapt out at him, her hands held up like claws, and growled. Winkie jumped back and barked enthusiastically, then bobbed from side to side as she growled and chased after him. After a few minutes she sat down on the porch. He rested his head on her lap and seemed content for her to rub his head. His short play time was over.

Go to Part 2 here.

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Survival Fiction: The Sheriff of Stone County, Part 6

Elizabeth screamed “Bo!” through the viewport grill.
Bo turned and looked her direction, and then bounded toward her, barking as he went. With his large body in the way Elizabeth could not see the man on the ground, but as Bo neared the door she could see that he was gone.
She threw up the crossbar and opened the door, letting Bo skitter inside, and then quickly dropped the bar back in place.
“Elizabeth, what’s wrong?” called her father’s voice from upstairs. She could hear the metallic click of a gun being put into operation.
“There’s someone out there dad, I saw him.”
“Are the doors locked?”
“Yes, sir!”
“Get up here and watch after your sister. I’m coming down.”
Elizabeth ran up the stairs with Bo right behind her. She slipped past the gate and into her bedroom, peeking out the window from behind a heavy iron plate and a row of sandbags. Her father had built heavy structures like it around all the windows, making them bulletproof. This kept raiders from shooting into the homes and killing them while they all slept, and it meant that each room had a protected area from which to fire back. This required heavy reinforcement – posts, timbers, crossties – all around the house, and since most of it had been thrown up quickly during the Emergency, it was ad-hoc and hasty work at best. It gave the home interior a very utilitarian look.
As Elizabeth squinted through a sandbag firing port near the bottom of the window she could see nothing moving on the lawn, in the wire fence, or in the garden beyond.
“Liz!” her father whispered from behind.
She turned to see him standing far back in the hall, looking over her head out the window with a pair of night vision goggles.
“Get down,” he hissed. “There are five or six men hunkered down in the wood line. Brazen, SOBs.” He kept watching with the goggles. “Definitely raiders, too. They are armed and pointing our way. Get Jim and Heath on the phone. Tell them they are on our north, between the two of us.”
Elizabeth crawled over to the hall and took an antique army field phone from a desk and cranked it a few times. Jim and Heath Sowell were family friends and neighbors just to the north. Back during the Emergency Jim Sowell had given the family the phone so they could coordinate at nights. For months they had seen a few refugees, and the occasional skulker, but raiders had been less common.
In a few seconds she heard Jim Sowell’s distinctive answer, “Yello?”
“Mr. Sowell, Dad says to tell you they are between us, on the wood line.”
“Hey there Liz, yeah, we seen ‘em come up, but we haven’t done nothing yet. He want us to shoot?”
Elizabeth looked up. “Dad, do they shoot?”
“No, not yet. They’ll be hard to hit in those trees, even for the Sowell boys. Just tell ‘em to keep a watch on. I’m going to get my rifle.”
“Mr. Sowell, Dad said not to shoot. He’s gettin’ his gun.”
Sowell didn’t respond for a second, and then came back with a hurried, “I see ten to twenty on our north. It’s pincer movement!” At that moment she could hear the sound of gunfire echoing through the night from the Sowell place a half-mile away.
“I know, honey. I’ll see what I can do,” he said as he rushed past her and into the hall. She heard his frantic steps as he went onto the shooting position on the roof. That was usually where he spent a part of his nights, watching for trouble.
Elizabeth did her job, getting her sisters Julie and Sarah into the sandbag bunker in her parents’ room. She left her mother in bed, as she was too difficult to move and the bed was well protected with sandbags anyway.
Elizabeth could not remember the last time her mother had moved out of the bed under her own power. She simply lied there most days, half conscious, slowly dying. The whole family tried to carry on without her, but the work load was getting to be unbearable. The two younger girls weren’t old enough to be much help, and so the major effort to raise and provide for the family fell to Elizabeth and her father. The strain was getting to everyone.
Her father, strong and patient as he was, was beginning to snap. He was losing his temper more often, and sometimes he just quit working midday and locked himself in his room. What was worse, the potatoes were running out. Elizabeth tried to fight back the gripping fear that her family, which had made it through so much, was now falling apart.

Part One Part Two Part Three Part Four Part Five

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Survival Fiction: The Sheriff of Stone County, Part 5

The four travelled on foot throughout the night, Will leading the way, Ed walking trail about 10 yards behind. The women walked in between them; Mary’s left hand held her daughter Lucy’s, and in her right hand she carried a .357 Magnum.
The group made frequent stops to watch and listen as they neared each danger area – at the tree line before crossing a field, or before they crossed a road, a field, or a hedge. As the sun came up they reached a banged up Jeep hidden in a blackberry thicket and covered in camouflage netting.
As Will stood guard, Ed uncovered the Jeep, then took a small garden trowel from his pack and dug up the battery, which he had buried under a nearby rock to keep thieves from easily hot-wiring the vehicle. He replaced the battery and then unlocked the burglar bar from the steering wheel.
From the back of the Jeep he removed a heavy satchel from a steel storage locker. He passed it to Mary: it was full of bread, fruit, cheese, and a bundle of jerky. Before he sat down to eat he whistled a good impression of a whippoorwill. In a short time Will came back to join the group.
Ed began tending the fire in the base of a chimney kettle. The air flowed up through the jacket steamer, which allowed it to boil water in a couple of minutes, and it kept the fire hot and nearly smokeless. Though they had been quiet throughout the night, more concerned with safety than anything else, it was Mary who spoke first.
“How is he?” Mary asked as she nibbled an apple slice. She looked near death. Both of her lips were busted in several places, and her mouth looked raw and tender. She had two black eyes which were beginning to heal, and it looked as if a handful of hair was missing from the left side of her head. Her other injuries, the more terrible and enduring ones, Ed knew, were concealed.
 He smiled and said, “I think we could all use a little coffee first, don’t you Mary?”
 “Is he dead?” she asked bluntly as she passed a slice of apple over to Lucy.
Ed exhaled and then shook his head. “No, but Matt’s hurt pretty badly. I’ll be honest – if he’s alive when we get back, it’ll be a miracle. I’m sorry to tell you that, but you know the odds as well as I do.”
Lucy said nothing at first, but her face, battered as it was from the assaults of the raiders, looked even more tortured, if such as thing were possible. She grimaced, sobbed, and then swiped at her tears. Eventually she said in a weak voice as she stared her lap, “How long until we can get back there? I want to see my daddy.”
Will was slicing apples with his buck knife. He looked uncomfortable and mostly stared at his lap too, but he tried to help. He gestured at the forest behind them and said, “It took us two days to make the distance, but we were moving pretty carefully then. Couldn’t be more than a day going back, maybe less. Dad?”
Ed nodded in agreement. “Roads are bad and getting worse every day. Farms are getting picked off all the time and we’ve got to be careful or we’ll get ambushed on the main roads. Still, we can make it by sundown today, I figure, even if we use the back roads and trails.”
Mary reached over and put her hand on Ed’s arm. She was a strong woman, and possessed an honest beauty Ed had always admired, even today, under all the bruises. Though she had a fierce look to her because of the injuries, it softened as she spoke.
“Ed, Will, we can’t thank you two enough for what you did. Lucy and I both owe you – “
Ed broke in quickly and said, “Mary, don’t. Don’t say a thing. We are glad we could help. I’m just sorry we couldn’t get in there sooner.” His voice cracked a little, and he paused, collected himself, and then started again. “We had to wait until they were all passed out . . . there was no other way.”
Mary smiled weakly. He could see by the morning light that she’d been worked over pretty badly, with blood between her teeth, and layers of bruising on her cheek and forehead.
“Ed, you saved us. You too, Will. They would have . . . killed us . . . eventually.” Seeing the look on Will’s young face, she added almost in a whisper, “You both did what you had to do." Then she looked at Lucy and squeezed her hand. “We all did.”
Ed took the chimney kettle and poured water from it into two canteen cups. He poured in a bit of instant coffee and added creamer and sugar from a few condiment packs. He passed one cup to Mary and the other to Will.
Mary stopped and wiped tears from her battered face, but then a change seemed to come over her. When she looked up Ed could see a firm set to her jaw. She sipped from the coffee cup, and took a deep breath, as if to savor the morning air, and the hot coffee.
“But that’s all in the past, . . . all in the past. It can’t be changed anyhow. We are alive this morning, thanks to you men. And that’s enough,” she said.
She then looked over at Lucy, who was nearly as beaten and battered as she, and said, “And all wounds heal . . . over time.”

Part One Part Two Part Three Part Four Part Five Part Six

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