“We’re ready to go, Big D.” Private Robertson leapt down from the back of the supply truck. Smoke drifted into the cul-de-sac and ash stirred in small cyclones. The incoming storm had brought the wind, shifting the direction of the fire. Rats streamed into the neighborhood and stopped to inspect the debris piles. It wasn’t the frenzy like when he and his men found the civilians, but their furry arrival portended the sweeping conflagration heading their way.
Personnel carriers, civilian four-by-four hauling occupied animal trailers, and humvees rumbled slowly over the asphalt. Death permeated the hot air. He hoped the mountains smelled better.
In the shadows of the truck, David made out the faces of Wheelchair Henry and young Manny. Children giggled–the sound so foreign almost cleaned out his ear to make sure it was real. Mavis’s neighbor sat on sacks of flour, bow and arrows on his right and an oxygen tank on his left. He reached a liver-spotted hand up and tugged on the plastic tubes stuffed up his nose.
“Stop fiddling with it, Grandpa.” The young boy’s voice broke over the last word.
Puberty. David grimaced. He wouldn’t go back there for all the Cipro in China. And he hoped there wasn’t a single pill to be found. Bastards! He prayed whatever asshole had concocted this biological offensive was dying slowly in a dark hole. Preferably, while having their balls poked with a sharp fork.
Across the street a motorcycle engine roared to life–Brainiac pointed at parts of the bike while Papa Rose and Falcon either shook their heads or nodded. David adjusted his copper memorial bracelets. He’d remember the men who were risking their lives to buy the rest of them precious time. How many more like them would be forgotten?
Holding her open laptop with one hand, Mavis shut her house door with the other. Keys jingled as she aimed for the lock.
They were leaving the valley for the next ten thousand years and she was locking up. Shaking his head, David crunched across the gravel, eased the keys from her grip then finished securing the house. Habits gave comfort.
She smiled at him. Fever dotted her cheeks and her eyes were glassy. “Thanks. Did you get the blow-up mattress from my trunk?”
“Absolutely.” When they would use it was anyone’s guess, but he’d try for tonight. Maybe his body heat would help break her fever. He set the keys in her palm, before taking her hand in his. “We emptied the supplies from your garage, raided the stores for seeds, rakes, and anything else of value.”
“Luke Air Force Base called.” She shut the laptop and cradled it close. “They’re taking helicopters and will airlift the survivors to the first point along the evacuation route.”
He guided her along the walkway. “They should be able to make quite a few trips, before the fuel runs out. Lots more survivors.”
“I hope so.” She chewed on her lip and stared at the deserted street. “We lost so many last night.”
“We’ll find more. Or they’ll find us.”
“If the Emergency Alert System works.” She closed her laptop and tucked it under her free arm.
“It will. Lister’s men know what they’re doing.” They’d rolled into camp in time to climb aboard their transport and head out of town. “We’ll be able to hear it in ten minutes.”
As they roll out of town. Forever.
“Let me just speak to our atomic saviors before we get underway.”
He eyed the convoy of trucks slowly leaving the neighborhood. “You have five minutes.”
She squeezed his hand and tried to pull away.
He tightened his hold. No way was he letting her out of his sight. Too much depended on her.
She rolled her eyes and walked to the trio with him in tow. “Four days, gentlemen. We need four days to get someplace reasonably safe from the fallout.”
Brainiac killed his bike’s engine. “I’ve been looking over the specs and I think I can give you a week, ma’am.”
“Keep it running for four days, then you are to leave.” She tugged a piece of paper from her pocket. “I’ve synced the escape route for you to join us. There’ll be some gas at Luke. But it won’t be enough to get you to Colorado, so I’ve marked all the fast food places along the way. Use the oil from the fryer. It should get you close enough to avoid most of the fall out.”
The trio exchanged looks and didn’t take the paper. They weren’t going to obey Mavis. He knew it.
So did she. “Radiation poisoning is a slow and painful death. You literally rot from the inside out and having your skin split open while you’re alive to enjoy it is agonizing.”
Doubt flitted across the men’s faces. Brainiac took the paper, folded it and tucked it into his peacoat.
Damn, but she was smart.
“Once you run out of available water, get the hell out because they only thing left to do is die.” She cleared her throat. “Be saviors not martyrs and meet us in Colorado.”
“Yes, ma’am,” they chorused.
Smiling, she tugged him toward the truck. The two motorcycles started, the engines growled as Falcon passed them. Papa rose followed with Brainiac behind him, clutching the seat.
“What are their chances?”
She arched an eyebrow. “You really want to know?”
Hell no. “Yes.”
“I hope they reach us before their symptoms get too bad, so we can help them pass relatively painlessly.”
Damn. She was talking euthanasia and he wanted lottery ticket odds.
“Have I shocked you?”
“Don’t worry, I’m not about to spike the Kool-aid, but we can’t waste medical supplies on the dead and, trust me, they’ll beg for it.”
He shivered despite the warm breeze. Guess, he didn’t have to worry about her making the hard choices. Perhaps, she did it a little too easily.
She glanced at the back of the truck. “Maybe I should ride in the back with Sunnie.”
“No.” He tugged her toward the cab and opened the door. “She’s fine. She even feels a little better than yesterday. Now get up front. You’re holding up the convoy.”
Shaking her head, she climbed onto the bench seat and squeezed next to Robertson. “Don’t get used to bossing me around, soldier.”
“Don’t try to shirk your duty, Surgeon General.” David climbed inside and slammed the door shut.
Robertson started the engine and shifted into gear. Slowly, he turned the truck around in the cul-de-sac.
“That was only to get the people to listen to my broadcast.” Mavis drummed her fingers on the laptop. “Miles is alive and recovering. He’s leading the march from the Virginia bunker to some mines in the Appalachian Mountains.”
David set his hand on hers. God help him if he had to listen to drumming for the next several days. “How’s the base set in Colorado?”
“Everything I requested has been sent. And some I didn’t. Miles confiscated some technology from NASA that might help us.” She turned her hand over and laced her fingers through his. “We’ll have boots on the ground in about two hours, then I’ll have a better idea of what that the commandeered technology will do and how to use it.”
“Who-wee.” Robertson slowed as they approached the street. A truck hauling a horse trailer waved them into the opening. “No wonder you love the woman, Big D. She speaks military.”
Brown and red splotches covered what he could see. More rats poured into the street replacing those splattered like marinara sauce on the asphalt ten-fold.
“I can do more than that, Private Robertson.” She smiled wickedly.
David fidgeted in his seat.
“My cursing can make a soldier blush.” She straightened as the truck rumbled down the road. “What’s more, I can do it in twenty languages.”
“Really?” Awe-tinged Robertson’s voice. “You know all the swear words in twenty languages?”
Christ Almighty! He couldn’t let these two bond over profanity. He’d never get any rest. Reaching into his pocket he pulled out a walkie-talkie. “Here. This is so you can keep in contact with Sunnie in the back.”
“Thank you.” She kissed his cheek, her lips lingered for a moment. “Now let’s get out of here.”
Air raid sirens sounded over the city. The noise wailed down the debris strewn streets and over the smoldering buildings. Here and there, people stirred in the rubble. Finally, the siren faded and a woman began to speak.
“This is Doctor Mavis Spanner, Surgeon General and acting commander-in-chief of the United States Armed Forces. On March Fifth, our country was attacked by a foreign government. Instead of bombs, the enemy used biological or germ warfare, specifically Anthrax.”
The ghostly figures straightened and stared at the speakers on the church bell tower.
“The spores were delivered in the plush toys promoting the new film Hatshepsut. Fire will not destroy them. As such, I have ordered the evacuation of all cities. Directions for your egress routes will follow.”
The ashen people stumbled among the debris, slowly gathering their meager belongings, before again facing the tower telling them what to do, how to survive.
“Anthrax is not contagious. While the sick cannot pass it to one another by coughing or sneezing, I ask that you continue to wear your face masks. The spores are in the air and the masks will protect you.”
More ashen creatures stumbled forward, swelling the crowd to a dozen. One hand rested on the scraps of fabric over their faces, the other on their bundles of belongings.
“The trek ahead will be long and dangerous. While we have laid in food, water, shelter and medicine along the routes, you will need to depend on one another to survive. You will need to stand for what is right, although there may be no one to witness your transgressions. Discord cannot be allowed to gain even a toehold or we may all still perish.”
The people on the ground stared at each other. A few shifted closer. One held himself apart.
“Please follow the routes. Please join us. Now, more than ever, every person counts. You count. And we need you. We can and we will overcome this tragedy. With your help and your hope, the human race shall remain.”
The people stood a little straighter as the woman’s voice faded away. Soon a man relayed instructions for their route. One by one they formed a train, helping each other over the rubble, murmuring words of encouragement.
They weren’t the strongest of the species.
Nor were they the smartest.
But so far they had survived an extinction level event.
They could adapt.
And the voice told them how to do it, promising them a chance to survive.
They would take it.