1. THE BALLOON POPS
The sirens wailed in the distance, making a mournful sound that pierced the air. It was a sound that was impossible for anyone to ignore, a sound that resonated through the house, reminiscent of a fifties low grade, end-of-the-world movie.
Except this was real.
Dogs yelped in mournful synchronization. Birds in large flocks took flight and were gone. The local news station said there was a terrorist attack on the East Coast of the United States. Most of the stations gave the same message and implored everyone to remain calm and stay at home.
The radio on the kitchen counter was tuned to a soft rock station when the emergency broadcast signal started to blare. It was a man’s voice.
A message has been handed to me by the station director. It’s my sad duty to inform you that a nuclear device was detonated in Atlanta, Georgia a few moments ago. Casualties are running high, but details are sketchy. Stay tuned for further developments.
Mike knew exactly what he was going to do. It was the same thing the rest of the members of his retreat were probably doing right now. He prepared to leave, packing up his “bug out” essentials so that he could head for the retreat. He and members of his group kept several crucial items handy in backpacks and a few nylon bags that they would take with them if anything like this ever happened.
It was happening now!
Mike and the members of his group had planned for a contingency such as this one years ago, but none of them believed it would actually happen in their lifetime. Those sirens were telling him a different story, and he had to get going as soon as possible. The radio came to life again.
Fellow Americans, we are being asked to please stay home and off the streets in order to allow emergency personnel and officials to get to the areas where they are needed. We will inform you of any current and updated information as it comes into the studio. Please remain calm and, again, please stay at home.
“Stay home? No way; I’m outta here!”
He said it aloud as he switched off the radio, his voice momentarily echoing off the walls.
Mike turned on his hand-held-radio, recognizing the familiar sound of a message being sent. The key word “Firestorm” was said five times audibly, and then there was a slow but precise rhythm in standard Morse code of a coded message being transmitted. He and members of his group used The DaVinci Code by Dan Brown, paperback version, as a code reference. Mike made his way over to the writing table, opened his copy of the book, and began writing.
Chapter six, page thirty-five, third paragraph, twenty-third word, third letter (w).
Chapter six, page thirty-five, second word, fourth letter (e).
Chapter six, page thirty six, fourth word, second letter (a).
Chapter six, page thirty-six, seventh word, third letter (r).
Chapter six, page thirty-six, first word, fifth letter (e).
Chapter six, page thirty nine, first paragraph, second word, fifth letter (a).
Chapter six, page thirty-nine, second paragraph, second word, second letter (l).
Chapter six, page thirty-nine, second paragraph, seventh word, fifth letter (l).
When he had copied all the letters it read,
We are all leaving now. Cache first. See you there. Luck
The planned route would take him through the dwindling suburbia of his neighborhood, out and away from home, along country roads and open fields, and eventually off the beaten path. Another part of the journey would have him riding through a creek bed, which remained dry in all but the wettest months. It would be dry this time of the year; not a drop of rain had fallen anywhere around here in weeks.
It was cloudy today, with cooler temperatures than there had been all week. Some of the trip much farther down the road would take into consideration an abandoned railroad right-of-way, but there were no railroad tracks. Decades ago, they were deemed unnecessary and were removed by the railroad and installed elsewhere.
He knew this would be a fairly safe course and it was unlikely that he would meet anyone as the miles slipped by. If he did, he had decided a long time ago to essentially ignore them, if possible, and continue on. At this very moment, getting to the cache, and then the retreat, were the first two items on his agenda.
As he considered the current time frame, he felt grateful it was still daylight. Traveling by dirt bike had one major drawback… it was noisy and could be heard coming for a mile or more. That meant he had to be careful where he traveled and not set himself up for an ambush. The overwhelming benefit was that it could eat up the miles rapidly. Even seventy-five miles traveling cross country would pass by in under an hour and a half, with a little luck.
These thoughts, along with so many others, flowed through his mind in an endless stream as he made his way out of his semi-suburban neighborhood.
A few blocks before he was clear, he rounded a corner to find a band of gang bangers plundering an abandoned car. They were easily recognizable from their distinctive mode of dress. He knew this was the first of many civil disorders and it would only get worse in the upcoming days. The bad guys would come out of the woodwork as society began to break down.
He stopped well away from them, surveying the scene with his small binoculars. They were busy and didn’t notice him watching. He saw a man lying in the road with a pool of blood growing around his head that spread out like a fan and glistened as the light reflected off it. The man’s skin color convinced Mike he was dead or nearly dead from the massive wound, and there was no perceptible breathing. Given the massive blood loss, the outcome was clear. He’d seen enough death to have a good idea what it looked like. He was still a little distant from the scene in front of him, but he was confident his deduction was correct.
Three of the gang members held a woman on the hood; one was raping her while two others held her down. She appeared to be unconscious as she lay there limp, not putting up a fight. They had ripped her clothing to shreds and the front of her body was exposed.
His sense of morality and justice urged him to act, but he knew there were people depending on him to show at the first rendezvous. Every minute he delayed potentially put them in danger. Ammunition wasn’t a problem although he knew he should conserve it, just in case.
He only vacillated for a split second before he decided to act. He might not have the ability to correct other unjust situations, but he knew he could act on this one. So he did.
The bike lurched as he quickly moved close to the scene within pistol range. A quiet rage filled him as he drew closer, but he quickly pushed it aside, knowing it would only cloud his judgment at a time when he needed it most.
Stopping the forward momentum of the dirt bike, Mike turned his body slightly as he removed his 1911 A1. He took careful aim and squeezed off three rounds. Three of the gang bangers lurched and fell to the ground. Those who went down didn’t make any effort to get up, and one of them twitched as his nerves caused him to convulse. The others ran around the car and attempted to hide.
The woman fell from the car onto the street, clearly lifeless. Her face hit the pavement and some of her teeth broke off and skittered past her chin. He realized there was no point in taking further risk, so he put the .45 away and shoved off as they stared at him from their hiding place. A couple of them turned and ran away, while two others stood their ground. He could see the hatred burning in their eyes and he heard the word “Gringo” shouted toward him.
He knew he couldn’t save the world; the stark reality was there was going to be a lot more of this as the days went by. The people to which he had made a pledge were the most important priority to him right now and he knew he needed to make the meeting.
The scene quickly slipped away as Mike entered a creek bed in which he traveled for a few minutes before pulling out. He then crossed a field of clover and noticed there were a few cows that grazed leisurely. He stopped and cut the barbed wire, and once through, he mended the fence with the extra wire he had placed there long ago, wrapping it around the post during his planning of this route.
It was simply one more detail that had become part of his plan. He wasn’t a vandal, after all, and he wasn’t going to leave an opening for the farm animals to escape. If they did later, it wouldn’t be because of anything he had done. Perhaps it seemed a petty thing to do but in his mind, it was the right thing to do. He made good time and soon noticed a stand of thick woods ahead. As he thought about it, he decided it could be a dangerous area, perhaps the ideal place for an ambush by unfriendly people.
It was early, he knew; the proverbial balloon had just popped in which Middle Eastern extremists had set off a small suitcase-type nuclear bomb in the middle of Atlanta, Georgia. Not that any type of nuclear bomb was actually small. Another was detonated only minutes later in Washington, D.C. He didn’t know it yet, but the death toll was soaring. It climbed as quickly as the mushroom clouds that had already begun to swirl up into the heavens on the East Coast.
The deaths of 9/11 paled in comparison to what had just happened and the loss of American lives in a matter of days would eventually exceed the casualties of the Revolutionary War, Civil War, Vietnam, Korea, and World Wars I and II combined. The overwhelming carnage and casualties swamped police and hospitals, essentially rendering them ineffective during the initial onslaught. Thousands of accidents on the freeways and highways added to the ensuing massacre.
People panicked and ran in every direction, not really knowing where to go or what to do. Their instinctive fight or flight mechanism had been activated and since they could see nothing to fight, they ran.
Mike continued toward the woods, but just before entering, he decided to turn and go around the thick clump of trees. He understood the cost of losing even a little time. Going around the woods might add an extra fifteen minutes to the trip, but his gut told him it was the best choice, so he gave the area a wide berth.
As he passed the particular section of trees that had concerned him most, people came out. They had rocks and clubs in their hands and though he was armed, he likely would not have been able to defend against the lot of them. He knew his instincts were good and had likely just saved his life.
He ate up the countryside on the 250X and left the people on the outskirts of the wooded area jumping up and down and shaking their fists at him. In another moment, they were gone from view. He was grateful he had trusted his intuition and listened to the inner voice that had saved him again, just as it had in Bosnia.
The miles were devoured as he rode, and he knew it was only a few more minutes until he would turn to the left and approach the first cache. He stopped a short distance away and took out the binoculars. As he scanned the area, it appeared safe enough, but he saw there were two other dirt bikes there. They were hidden, tucked into the brush and partially obscured, but not from his trained eyes.
He recognized the bikes, knowing their riders, and they knew his too. At first glance, they remained hidden, but they showed themselves as he approached. They had already started digging, and had stopped when they heard him coming.
Mike parked his bike with the others and took off his backpack in order to help them dig. The one who had most recently dug assumed the guard. It was Caroline, an ER registered nurse, and an important member of the unit. She was also beautiful.
Mike and she were close.
2. THE CACHE
The events that were transpiring came as no surprise to Mike and his survival group. To them, it was not as much a matter of if it would happen, but when. They had decided early on that having a stocked cache en route to their carefully built retreat was a good idea, principally because several items such as automatic long guns and hand grenades were better left securely buried. Some were even considered illegal to own in various states, but having them available when the need arose served the group’s purpose once society was on the verge of a major collapse.
It was also discussed and agreed upon that well-stocked caches of essentials such as food, weapons, ammo, and medical supplies would be a pivotal part of their getaway. In a dire situation, it could have been possible that some of them might not be home or they might have been forced to abandon whatever they had in their bug out bags, those pre-packed essentials for times such as this. It meant they could be forced to flee unarmed or possibly wounded… or they could be killed.
The tubes were made of 8-inch PVC plastic pipe with an end cap cemented at one end and a threaded, screwed on cap on the other. The threaded cap had a heavy duty rubber gasket on the inside that made it waterproof. They were not buried deep in the ground, and they contained food, medicine, bandages, ammo, long guns, and magazines for each team member, plus a few others.
The caches were insurance for all of them, and they made certain each of them had the opportunity to be well armed with supplies that would prolong and ensure their safety, regardless of what the current situation dictated. Part of that safety was to not draw attention to themselves as they made their way out of the city. Resources would be sought after quickly and the leaner they appeared while around decaying civilization, the better.
The initial concealment of the caches had been carefully and painstakingly planned. In order to reduce the chance of someone discovering them, they had buried the tubes vertically with a set of post-hole diggers. The tops of the tubes were placed about two to three feet beneath the surface and then covered with another foot of dirt from there to the surface. They had scattered rusty nails, bottle caps, and other junk metal over a wider area in the unlikely event that someone with a metal detector stumbled across it.
The trick had been to place the caches in locations that were remote enough to evade the normal traffic pattern, but easy enough to remember. They didn’t bury them in dry creek beds because those might not always be dry, and they chose areas quite a distance from roads to avoid construction or expansion. It was more difficult to find and use lasting landmarks for triangulation than they initially thought it would be.
They ended up using large boulders that weren’t likely to be moved and a few old stumps from the early days of old growth logging. Those had been there for over a century and would likely be there for another one to come. As a backup, they marked geodesic Forest Service maps, but even those markers placed the caches 100 feet due west of their actual locations in the unlikely event the maps fell in the wrong hands. The misleading information would keep those who were aware of the decoy secret a safe distance from unfriendlies who might come searching.
They pulled out various straps with magazine pouches sewed onto them. A few practical tools were in there, as well, to include an ax, a hatchet, a South American homemade Bolo, a folding saw, several machetes, some fishing odds and ends, a large camouflage net, and a few rolled up nylon bags to carry it all. The last items they dug up were two three-gallon gasoline cans that were only a month old, having been changed out during their most recent refreshing of supplies. They included a piece of chamois to strain the gas through in case water had intruded into them through condensation.
They reburied the empty PVC pipes quickly, not being quite as meticulous as before, but instead covering up the area with tree limbs and debris from the surrounding area. They were now equipped with rifles and had only 150 miles left to travel. Most importantly, Mike’s group had grown from one to four. They left a predetermined signal the others would recognize if they showed after this group was gone. It essentially meant “do not dig… all was uncovered and removed.”
They waited an extra hour and, when no one else came along, they left for the next cache and rendezvous spot that lay another seventy-five miles ahead. With only a couple of hours of daylight left, they had to move quickly to avoid getting get caught out after dark.
The trip moved along without complication. The group passed several burning houses as they traveled, but soon their small band had to deviate a little. Up ahead, they would need to enter and travel the state highway for a short distance. It was the best and fastest route, but it was dangerous and would leave them completely exposed. It was for that reason they tried to limit these trips to the shortest durations possible and only when absolutely necessary.
Just ahead on this road was a railroad trestle that passed over a large river, which they needed to cross to get away from the road. They would cross the river there first because it skirted the highway for another several miles. After crossing on the trestle, they would be able to move back down off the beaten path. Mike scanned the surrounding area to ensure there was no ambush, and the small group moved as quickly as possible to the other side.
Not long after they crossed, they came to a car with the doors wide open and stopped for a moment to investigate. They saw a man and woman slumped in the front seat, obviously looters. The car was jammed full of multiple personal and household items and the backseat and trunk were packed full, as well, with silverware, canned food, and various other goods. Someone had turned their pockets inside out… probably their killer.
Nobody spoke, but they were all thinking the same thing. Someone had caught up to them and ended their looting binge. Caroline checked their pulses and knew from their fairly cool body temperatures that they were dead. Rigor mortis had not set in yet, which meant they had not been dead for more than a few hours. The bad guys had been at it in short order, especially since it had not been that long since the sirens had begun to blare.
Someone had delivered them to Heaven or Hell with a single shot to the head and one to the chest. Double tapping was the sign of someone who knew what they were doing. Mike knew about that; he was an ex-Navy SEAL and that was one of several ways it was done. Professionals always made certain their enemies couldn’t follow them later at an inopportune moment.
Greg kept watch while the others searched for weapons and ammo, but there were none. The gas tank was siphoned dry and whoever did this had taken almost everything of practical value. Mike and his group took the rest of the food and loaded it on their bikes but left the items that were monetary in value and, thus, worthless to the group. There wouldn’t be much use for anything that couldn’t be eaten or used for defense if things continued to deteriorate more than they had already.
They checked their own tanks and topped them off with the spare gas each of them carried. Greg checked his wristwatch and mentioned that without any further delays, they still had about another thirty minutes to go before reaching the next cache. After taking a moment to scrutinize their loads for balance, they were satisfied with the cursory check and were off again, moving down into a semi-wooded valley off to the left.
Several minutes later, they saw smoke over toward the highway and Mike told the group he wanted to investigate the cause. He parked his bike and made his way up to the crest of the hill a couple of hundred yards away. He could see from this vantage point that the action was on the opposite side of the river, which kept them out of danger.
He noted there were about fifty of them and they were armed with rifles and shotguns. Old tires were stacked up along either side of the road, burning fiercely and sending black smoke billowing into the cloudy sky. Highway flares glared on both sides of the road, out and away for about three hundred feet. It was a barricade, with several pickups obstructing the highway. Two of the cars were police cruisers with their emergency lights flashing and Mike guessed they were collecting a toll from anyone wanting to pass.
Three cars were stopped, and there was an argument going on between the driver from the first car and a large burly man who was probably in charge of the roadblock gang. When the big man suddenly butt-stroked the argumentative driver with his rifle, the screamer went down in a heap and his body stopped moving.
The other drivers saw what happened and quickly decided to cooperate. They walked meekly to the rear of their cars, removed various items from the trunks, and handed the goods over to the mob. There were so many brigands blocking the road, they wisely decided not to resist.
As Mike watched with interest, several of the mob members carried the stolen items over to a large truck and loaded them inside the cargo bay. The urge to go down and kill those taking advantage of the situation gripped him with fury, but he forced himself to calm down and control his feelings.
Those people were just trying to escape with their lives and a few meager possessions and those wolves were preying on the escaping flocks. The river likely saved the bullies from certain death because Mike hated people like these “Toll Collectors” who took advantage of others in desperate situations. He had seen it happen numerous times in Bosnia, Africa, and elsewhere, and he knew he couldn’t save everyone.
It startled him when Caroline crawled up next to him. He had been preoccupied watching the action below with avid intensity and her unexpected touch made him jump.
She laughed and said, “We need to be moving on, Michael, it’s getting late.”
She was right of course, so he nodded and wiggled backward to clear the brim of the ridge before the two of them stood up and walked to their bikes. Greg stood guard with his 9mm Uzi at the ready and tucked in the crook of his arm. Mike noticed there was an oversized magazine in it with probably a hundred rounds of ammo. It was one of the weapons cached at the last stop.
Mike was armed with an automatic of his own, an H&K MP3 9mm that had been stashed in one of the PVC goody pipes at the last cache. Caroline was armed with an H&K 91 loaded with a thirty-round mag strapped to her bike and a 9mm Ingram Mac-11 slung over her shoulder. Mike thought it was the sexiest thing he had seen in quite a while.
They mounted their bikes and were on their way once again. These nonessential stops ate up quite a bit of time, but the overwhelming curiosity to pause and see what was happening was too compelling not to take an occasional look, especially since they knew it might be quite some time before any of them ventured this way again, if ever. They were surprised to see how quickly society was eroding.
Twenty minutes later, the sky clouded over and they could smell the rain coming. They pinpointed the second cache and began to dig. There were several more tubes here and one had an end cap that was painted red. They all knew the red cap meant the tube contained vitamin and mineral supplements and medical supplies, including sedatives, morphine, other pain killers, and disposable syringes. There was a battlefield suture kit, a few I.V.’s, some powdered veterinarian grade antibiotics, small bags of sulfur, and many more necessities that would be added to the retreat’s clinic when they arrived. Everything was packed inside the tube and the triple plastic garbage bags were individually sealed at the top.
One of the tubes contained Kevlar bulletproof vests and fresh clothing. Greg stood watch while Mike mounted the medical tube on his bike and the other tubes onto Caroline and Greg’s bikes, making a very tight fit. Suddenly, two other members of their group appeared and without discussion, loads quickly shifted to the new rides while they armed themselves with long guns from the last cache and donned bulletproof vests.
They topped off the tanks again from their portables and took a GPS reading while scrutinizing the map. An additional half hour passed as they waited to see if one or more of the others would show up.
No one came.
There were six of them now instead of four, and there was enough ammo among them to hold off a small army. It was a comforting thought.
About three miles into the ride of this leg, they were forced to stop because a large fire raged just ahead and the smoke was extensive. Mike wanted them to scout it out first since the fire was directly in their path and there was no convenient way around it. Mike, Greg, and Sam, who was a former Mike Force Team leader in ‘Nam, decided to go on foot to within visual distance, which was about one mile from the billowing black smoke. The remainder of the group stayed behind to safeguard the bikes and supplies.
It took a few minutes to jog the distance and once they were within visual range of the large fire, they saw the charred farmhouse, which had previously been part of a large dairy farm complex. The burning structure was surrounded by other small outbuildings, all of which were completely engulfed in the furiously burning fire.
The glow from the flames was spooky as they approached the tragic scene. Shadows danced and changed shape as the fire flickered and popped; dead bodies were all over the ground. What appeared to be the main house was still burning ferociously and was hot enough to make the three of them flinch from the heat, even though they weren’t all that close to it.
Mike guessed, by the colored bandannas over their heads, that they were Crips from the city. Now they were dead Crips. There were thirty-four dead bodies in all, not counting the farmer and his wife, whose dead bodies around the side of the house were still cooking because of their nearness to the fire when they fell. It was impossible to tell which was male and which was female because they both appeared to be lumps of charcoal. Mike merely guessed they had been a man and wife.
There were no firearms in sight, not even those the gang members normally would have carried. Someone had picked the area clean, probably some survivors, and they were long gone. Spent brass lay everywhere indicating an intense battle, and the men wondered how long it had lasted. If there were others in the family, they were nowhere to be seen and they probably would have been taken by those human vultures or scurried off to find safety.
Mike, Greg, and Sam headed back to the group and their bikes. When Caroline saw their faces, she didn’t ask what had happened. Her only comment was,
They just stared at her without answering.
The drizzle caught up to them about seventy miles from the next stop, but they all agreed they needed to push on and rest once they got to the next cache. There would be plenty of room there for all of them, including their motors and equipment.
When they had been scouting for cache spots earlier, they found a large cave with a small opening toward the back. It was perfect for expelling a campfire’s smoke, a natural chimney. It had been a shelter for ancient people at one time and long forgotten until Mike’s group found it again by accident.
When they had originally discovered it, the entrance was overgrown by bushes and not at all obvious. Inside were remnants of an old fire pit on the floor and some old Indian pictographs were painted on the walls.
The opening was surprisingly large, but once they narrowed it with large rocks and camouflage, it was actually concealed better than it had been with the natural vegetation growing in front of it. They had rebuilt the fire pit and stocked the interior with kindling and firewood to provide protection and comfort from the elements.
And there sure was a need today!
They wanted a fire to dry out; that would go a long way toward boosting their morale. From here they only had to travel another twenty miles to the old abandoned railroad track bed… the last leg to the retreat.
Mike took out several generous chunks of pemmican, a paste of dried and pounded meat mixed with melted fat and other ingredients, and each person helped themselves. With the timing of current events dinner was out of the question, so the pemmican would have to do. They knew they would have a chance to eat at the hideout but that thought didn’t stop their stomachs from rumbling.
The pemmican was a little difficult to swallow but extremely nourishing and loaded with protein. One of the group members made it earlier in the year with a one-to-one weight ratio of dried venison and suet and 5 percent dried blackberries to take the edge off the taste of the tallow. The secret was to ensure the animal was grass-fed and the meat was never cooked above 120 degrees. Missing either of those critical points destroyed the nutritional value. Early settlers and explorers had proven they could live on it for months at a time with no ill effects.
With a swig from their canteens, the pemmican went down easily enough and even though it wasn’t quite delectable, it filled their stomachs and their need for energy.