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Sample Chapters 1 – 4

CHAPTER 1

Wednesday afternoon, Russia

“Sergei, I need those calculations now!”

“Da, Professor,” Sergei’s speech slurred a bit. “I have them right here.”

“Did you drink your lunch again?”

Sergei looked at Professor Dustov, his face all innocence, as he handed the computer sheets to him.

“You know that too much vodka will kill your liver. — No, don’t bother to deny it. Just assure me that the calculations are correct. Did you double check each one?”

“Da, Professor, all — correct. I personally entered the formulas and checked them afterward.”

Professor Dustov rolled his eyes toward the ceiling as he punched the final numbers into his machine. Stupid alkonavt. He’s been a good lab assistant so far, but one of these days he’ll drink too much and foul up something important. “Set the focus on the chair while I finish this.”

Sergei wheeled the machine around. Its main feature was a large, flat plate about 6 inches thick. It stood upright on a squat, homemade machine that made up the rest of the “business” portion of the machine. A stout cable connected the machine to the computer control. A heavy power cord led to a large connector on the wall.

“Okay, Sergei,” Dustov finished tinkering with the computer, “you run the machine. I’ll be the subject for the first test.”

Dustov picked his way through the makeshift lab equipment and cables to the chair while Sergei replaced him at the controls on the other side of the machine.

It was unfortunate that Sergei did have one too many vodkas for lunch. The error he made was only a small one. His hand shook a bit as he entered an asterisk to tell the computer to multiply. The result was two asterisks (**), a command to raise the number to a power. So, instead of “P times R” it became “P raised to the Rth power”; in other words, “P” multiplied times itself “R” number of iterations. It was also unfortunate that “P” stood for “power” and that “R” was a fairly large number.

It was also unfortunate that when Sergei threw the power switch, a squirrel jumped onto both power wires leading into the building, sending a 44,000-volt surge into the device — and frying the squirrel in the process.

If Dustov had been on the other side of the machine, he might have survived the consequences. Certainly, Sergei did not.

CHAPTER 2

Wednesday 2:00 am Pacific Time

“Flight 423 heavy, descending to 500 feet. On approach.”

“Flight 423, you are clear to land runway twenty-five R.”

“Roger tower. Turning to …”

“Jesus Christ!” Dr. Herman Proust, PhD yelled as the passenger next to him suddenly disappeared, leaving only his clothing, which settled into a disorderly pile. Frantically, he looked around the cabin of the airplane. All of the seats seemed to be empty.

Dr. Proust unbuckled his seatbelt and stood up, but could see no one. Those seats he could see had clothing in them, but no passengers or members of the flight crew.

The plane’s port wing suddenly dipped, almost dumping him back into his seat. “Holy shit!”

He looked out his portside window and saw the airport runways where they didn’t belong.

Dr. Proust screamed, hysterically, and wet his pants as the Boeing 747 continued its descent and crashed, in a pyre of flaming jet fuel, into the middle of a shopping mall — one mile from the runway.

* * * * *

Jack leered at the pretty girl he’d picked up at the bar, and handed her into his car. He hurried around to the other side and slid behind the wheel as she moved closer and cuddled up to him.

He thought about seat belts, but decided he’d rather not disturb her mood — or his. The well tuned engine turned over on the first try, and he pulled smoothly away from the curb, then accelerated down the street — missed the turn at the end of the road, and crashed into a hardware store. Except for their clothes and a bit of ash, the car was empty.

* * * * *

Paul’s electrician lounged at his station as the 47-car freight train slid through Junction City. Paul dutifully sounded the horn at each crossing, interrupting George’s tall tale of his latest fishing trip.

As the train cleared the last crossing, Paul’s clothes collapsed over his seat, as did George’s. The dead man switch engaged and the train ground to a halt.

* * * * *

In Portland, Maine, ten suddenly empty automobiles on their way to work collided in a major intersection.

Wednesday 7:00 am Pacific Time

Buck hit the light at Division just right, cruised into the intersection, and turned his dark blue Nissan south, toward downtown Spokane. With no traffic in front of him, he was able to travel at the legal limit. The weather was unseasonably warm, so he rolled his window down to enjoy the fresh air.

He checked the rearview mirror, and with no traffic behind him, turned on his signal and moved into the right lane.

Friends who rode with him often remarked that he signaled even when no one was around to see it. Buck contended that he would rather overdo it than be one of the idiots who never signaled. In fact, he’d almost gotten into a fight with one fellow who overheard him shout, “Nice signal moron!” when that driver failed to signal a lane change. Stephanie had stopped that fight by stubbornly insisting that Buck keep on driving, rather than accept the driver’s invitation to pull over and settle it.

“Well he was a moron,” Buck mused half aloud as he thought back on the incident, “and a jerk.” His sour mood after the incident had almost spoiled their date.

By regulating his speed, he was able to hit each light while it was still green. This was the easiest commute he’d ever had. It was almost like a Saturday morning, except that there would be at least a few other cars on the road. The traffic lights worked normally, but no other cars were traveling the street.

That jolted him out of his semi-trance. He checked his watch. The indicator along the top was under the “W” for Wednesday. Traffic should be heavy. Even if it were a holiday, there would be some traffic — and it was definitely not a holiday.

Buck turned on the car’s radio, evoking only a carrier hum on his favorite station. He searched up and down the dial. There were more carriers, but no programs.

What was going on? This didn’t feel right at all. Something was very wrong. Bile soured his mouth and flowed past a tongue suddenly made of cotton.

A nuclear attack on its way? Surely Civil Defense would broadcast instructions. An air raid siren should blare out the warning. But all was still.

Now, the quiet streets mocked him. His palms began to sweat, which made the steering wheel slippery. He sped up a bit, driving a few miles above the speed limit. This put him out of sync with the traffic lights, and he had to stop for a red one.

He looked down both side streets. No traffic. The roads should have been full of impatient drivers on their way to work. A check in his rear view mirror confirmed that Division was still devoid of traffic. The silence was no longer peaceful.

Empty streets now looked ominous. Did hostile eyes watch from the darkened windows of the closed businesses that lined the arterial?

Everything is wrong, his mind screamed at him.

Then he did something he would never have done until today. He accelerated through the red light, his trembling hands locked on the wheel.

Detractors had teased him as “unimaginative” and “stodgy”, but he certainly didn’t have any trouble with his imagination now. His mind leaped from one horrendous possibility to another.

Ignoring red lights, he sped towards the downtown area in top gear. The high whine of his engine’s exhaust echoed off the silent storefronts.

Buck plunged the car into a corner where the street doglegged towards the business district. He braked hard, double clutched to downshifted into third, and fought the car into the corner. As he accelerated out of the turn, a stalled pickup loomed directly in front of him.

The Nissan’s tires screamed in protest as his brakes locked up. It hit with barely enough force to send the other vehicle rolling forward.

Agitated, but uninjured, he stared at the truck as it rolled to a stop a few feet away.

He climbed out of his car on rubbery legs and examined the front of his car. It was only slightly damaged, so he walked to the truck to exchange insurance information with the driver. It was an older truck with faded red paint. Rust showed in many places, especially in the cluttered truck bed. A worn bumper sticker instructed, “Honk if you Love Peace and Quiet”.

There was no driver.

On the front seat was a pile of clothes. Two shoes with socks were on the floorboards. Gray dust littered the clothes, shoes, the seat, and was scattered over the dirt on the floorboards. But the driver was absent.

Strange, the logical part of his mind thought. The little animal part of his mind that jumped at strange sounds and turned nighttime shadows into monsters, retreated into a corner and cowered. His bowels threatened to disgrace him.

He left his business card on the pickup’s dash, took down its license number after scraping away some of the dirt on the plate, and crept downtown at a more sedate pace.

He saw a couple more cars in the street. One had crashed into a light post, the other into a parked car. Not a soul was in sight. The silence was eerie.

Since his office was near a major hospital, he stopped there to search for signs of life. This particular hospital had a fallout shelter in the basement. If it were an enemy attack, the hospital staff and patients would be there.

No one was at the information desk, but a nurse’s uniform, shoes, stockings, undergarments, and a pile of dust lay in the first hall he strode through. The antiseptic smell typical of all hospitals hinted that all was normal.

The little animal portion of his mind howled in fear. Sweat blurred his vision and soaked his collar. The underarms of his fresh shirt felt sticky.

The basement area, normally given over to offices and physical plant, was deserted. All shelter supplies were there and undisturbed. Most of the lights were still off as if it were still night.

He rushed back to the lobby, grabbed the desk phone, and dialed “9”, followed by his firm’s phone number. Surely Ruby is in. Four rings got him the firm’s recorded message, but no human.

He dialed “911”. The phone rang 10 times. “Answer the damned phone,” he yelled into the mouthpiece. He finally hung up.

“Maybe it’s just Spokane.” He grabbed his cell phone and tried the phone of a Portland, Oregon business he had done consulting work for, then another in Seattle, but got no answer at either location.

Panic threatened to overwhelm him. The animal inside wedged itself more tightly into its corner and gibbered insanely. Doggedly, he fought off the instinct to run — and run — and run.

The trip to his office required only two minutes. It took three tries to fumble his key into the lock.

The reception desk was empty, with no indication that Ruby had come in yet. No coat, no purse. The desk and reception area was as immaculate as she always left it in the evening. All the magazines were put precisely where she always placed them when she tidied up. He’d always liked the image the reception area gave of the firm. It fitted his sense of neatness and order.

San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York all failed to answer. Vancouver, B.C. switched him to their answering machine.

He called his sister’s home phone in Colorado Springs. After four rings, she picked up the phone. “Hello”.

The sound of her voice almost made him pass out. “Hello, Dix, I’m sure …”

“You’ve reached the Turner residence,” Dixie’s voice continued. “We’re not able to answer the phone right now. You know the drill.”

Buck almost cried aloud. A tear trickled down his left cheek. After the beep he restrained himself to an almost normal tone of voice. “Dix, this is Buck. Please call me at home, or work as soon as you get this message. If I’m not in, please, please, please leave a message. Try my cell phone. Everything is strange here and I need to know that you and Jim are okay.”

He tried all the phone numbers he had for his two brothers. Dixie’s work phone was equally unproductive. He left similar messages on their answering services.

Tears mixed with sweat dripped off his chin and stained his tie.

What had happened? What caused this calamity that left bodies a pile of dust in their clothes? Why everyone else and not him?

Bill and Jan had talked to him yesterday. They planned a vacation in two weeks, but should be home — no answer. Calling Stephanie’s phone at home and at work produced the same results. He tried the numbers of the 2 other girls he was currently dating and got nowhere. He left messages at all the numbers that had machines or service.

Buck ripped the Spokane phone book out of his bookshelf and dialed numbers at random. Surely someone would answer — but no one did. He did hear some very creative answering machine messages. Then he flipped to the business listings and dialed every tenth number. No one answered.

“Right now, I’d give anything just to hear the boss complain,” he cried.

Dumbly, he sat down at his desk and stared through tears at his desk calendar. He turned the page to today’s date and reached for the power bar switch that would start his computer. He glared at his hand, the index finger poised on the switch. Why am I doing this? he wondered. His hand fell into his lap.

Would the Internet have anything? He flipped the switch on his power bar and fidgeted while the computer went through its boot-up process and connected itself to the office network. Once on the Internet, he switched to the Drudge Report. It was all yesterday’s news. All of the other news sources he’d bookmarked were in the same condition. Even the latest bulletins, all time stamped very early in the morning, gave no clue as to what was happening.

He had several e-mail items, but they were all from late yesterday; an e-zine that he subscribed to, an offer to surf a site with “hot” women on it, and two other items that were clearly SPAM.

“Maybe the airlines.” He grabbed the phone book and frantically turned to the yellow page listings. Northwest, no answer. He called Delta and listened to it ring for what seemed like hours. Southwest, American, and Alaska produced the same results.

“There has to be someone!” he almost screamed. He called Federal Express. Fedex always answered on or before the first ring. Not this time.

He stared at the phone book for a while, his mind in a fog, then dumped it into his trashcan. Buck went to Ruby’s desk and found the master list of all the firm’s clients throughout the world. It took him over an hour to try all the numbers on the list. When he was done, he threw the list into the trashcan along with the Spokane phone book.

He stared at nothing for a while, then got up and walked mechanically to the break room to start the morning coffee. There was an unwritten rule in the office: First one in makes the coffee. He didn’t want any coffee himself, but the next person to arrive would be miffed if he failed in this duty.

The smell of the fresh coffee grounds soothed his mind a bit. After he got the pot going, he wandered to the water fountain, took a drink, meandered back to his desk, and sat down, still in a daze.

The darkness that had started in his bowels rose up through his stomach, past his heart, and spilled through his eyes in a renewed waterfall of tears. He bent his head into his arms and wept out his grief. He hadn’t cried like this since his parents died in an auto accident five years ago, 10 days before his 27th birthday.

It seemed like hours, but it was only minutes later, when his tears subsided. He wiped his eyes on a tissue from his desk drawer, and then loudly blew his nose with another. The little animal portion of his mind stopped gibbering and settled down to a constant whimper. Buck sat and stared at nothing.

An hour later, he did what any sensible man would do under the same circumstances. He turned off the coffee, drove home, and went back to bed.

CHAPTER 3

Several Parsecs Away

Sek-ka ducked under his opponent’s right-hand slash and blocked his other arm with one of his own. His opponent’s lethal thumb claw scraped the top of Sek-ka’s leathery head, painfully, as Sek-ka lunged close to him and left two deep, matching lacerations down both of his sides.

Instead of backing out, Sek-ka ducked past the bravo’s now unprotected right side leaving another deep gash in his hide and then slapped him smartly with his own heavy tail as he skipped out of his range.

By the time the skink, his name was Kiluk, got turned around, Sek-ka was facing him, balanced perfectly on both feet, his tail digging into the sand of the arena. The small crowd of the People cheered his move. A few thumped their tails on the viewer’s sand in approval. He was elated that he’d finally scored some serious wounds on the kilk.

Sek-ka watched the youngster carefully to see if his new wounds would slow him down. His own wounds stung where the skink had scored earlier, but none were serious enough to impair him.

Kiluk seemed surprised and confused. He’d obviously challenged Sek-ka in the hope that his youth would allow him an easy score on an older high-status opponent. It was a foolish ploy; at least Sek-ka hoped it was. He doubted the idiot had even gone to the trouble of studying Sek-ka’s fighting history. The skink was, however, quite fast and fairly strong as his briefing file had revealed. He’d gotten past Sek-ka’s guard a couple of times, leaving bloody furrows in his hide.

Sek-ka almost allowed himself some doubt. He fought back the fear. He could lose this duel, and his life, if Kiluk scored some serious wounds or wore Sek-ka down.

Sek-ka was experienced enough that he didn’t allow the fellow’s confusion to tempt him into doing something rash. He circled to Kiluk’s right, where he’d scored the two slashes, to see how he reacted.

It was a nice, hot day, a good day for a duel. The sand felt warm under his feet, a comfortable, familiar feeling that restored some of his confidence.

His keen eyes noticed a slight wince as the skink raised his arm into third defensive position. Sek-ka must have scored on one of the muscles that ran from his arm down his side. He heard a couple of remarks from the onlookers. Probably knowledgeable “fans” among the casual visitors that often visited the arena to see if any quarrels were being settled. Sek-ka smelled Kiluk’s fear as his leg glands betrayed him. The smell of fear acted like a narcotic to Sek-ka. His confidence returned in full and he had to fight to keep his natural blood lust from clouding his judgment.

He growled deep in his throat, hoping to intimidate Kiluk.

Sek-ka feinted to his own right, then launched himself at the skink’s right side, blocking with his right arm, slashing with his left up under the arm pit, and raking Kiluk’s right leg with the claws of his feet before dancing away. Ya was with him and the kark failed to do more than scratch Sek-ka’s tail.

Sek-ka dug his foot claws into the sand to clean them before retracting them into his toes. “You will die today, youngster,” he snarled.

Kiluk was visibly shaken and weakening from loss of blood and pain. When he again tried to get into third defensive position, his right arm failed. Blood ran freely down his side from his armpit. He even limped slightly. Sek-ka studied the fellow’s face. It was obvious from his eyes; he was beaten and the end was no longer in question. Still, Kiluk protected his right side and kept his left towards Sek-ka, a look of stoic determination replaced the helplessness. Sek-ka knew what was next.

Sure enough, Kiluk screamed and slammed his tail onto the sand as he leapt, his tail giving him a bit of extra height to compensate for his weak right leg. It was a desperation move, the move of a relatively inexperienced fighter.

Sek-ka dodged to his right, avoiding the Skink’s feet and hoping to confuse him by attacking his good side instead of his damaged right. He grabbed Kiluk’s good left arm at the wrist as he went past. In one smooth motion, he swung around, using the fellow’s arm as a pivot, and landed on Kiluk’s back. A quick slash with a thumb claw across Kiluk’s throat and the fight was over.

Sek-ka jumped back to land on his feet as the skink collapsed to the sands. His thick blood made a small pool before soaking into the white sand.

He turned his back on the body, bent over to clean his claws in the sand, and calmly, ignoring the pain of his own wounds as befitted his status, walked over to the judge’s stand amid a minor tumult of tail thumping, to see how much new status he’d acquired.

CHAPTER 4

Wednesday Afternoon

When Buck woke up a couple of hours later, he did something he hadn’t done in a long time. He got out of his bed, sank to his knees on the light blue carpet, and for five minutes prayed for answers, help, and guidance.

Gradually, he recovered enough to consider his problems with less passion. There must be some reason he was left alive, some purpose for his life, although he had no idea what that might be. He’d just have to wait until the reason was revealed.

Almost automatically, he slipped into his “professional mode” and started analyzing his situation as if it were a client’s business problem.

The city was his to live in and off of, but for how long? How long before the electricity failed, before the water purifying plant broke down and the water turned brackish? Before the dogs that didn’t die of starvation locked in houses or yards start to pack and run down any meat in sight (including him)? How long before a dozen other things went wrong with the balance that keeps a city living?

Food could get to be a problem after a while. Frozen foods would last only hours after electric power failed. Even canned foods have their storage limits.

Viewed in that light, the city didn’t sound like a good idea. Where then? Should he migrate south where the weather was better, or should he stay in the area?

The first idea had a great deal of appeal, but since he’d spent the first half of his 32 years growing up on a farm in northern Idaho and was educated in that state, the latter proposal won out. He knew how to grow things in the area, when to plant, what to plant, and when and how to harvest. In the south, he might make fatal mistakes in timing or selection of crops.

So where?

As an ardent hunter and fisherman, as well as a business consultant, he’d traveled most of the country within 300 miles of Spokane.

The area that attracted him most was near the Canadian border, but finally, he chose a locale several miles north of town near a suburb named Deer Park, to be near the city and its “shopping conveniences”.

May as well go about this methodically.

He wandered into his home office, pulled a pad of paper from his desk, and then went to the kitchen to make a sandwich. He ate as he wrote out a list of things he had to do, absently tugging at his ear as he worked. It was like planning a solution for a client. The task took only an hour and most of that in thought.

First on his list was a place to stay. An appropriate place ought to be fairly easy to find, since many small farms in the area should be able to support him.

He changed the message on his answering machine to indicate that he was still alive and would check his messages regularly, put on some casual clothes including a sport coat, then grabbing his list, left his apartment. He stopped to lock the door out of habit. This is silly. He turned and went outside to his mutilated car.

A small puddle of green water under the radiator caught his eye. He found a small leak half way down the radiator core.

Assured that he had at least half his water, he started the car and proceeded to look for a replacement.

The BMC dealer had a mint-condition, vintage Jaguar XKE on display, which he had always coveted, but considered an unnecessary extravagance. The Nissan was all he could afford, in spite of his comfortable salary. Since he’d been accepted as a full partner in the firm two months ago, he might have eventually saved enough for the Jag, but would more likely have done the practical thing and invested it. He broke into the dealership with his car’s jack handle, opened the main display doors to the tune of the their alarm (he wished that a police officer would respond to arrest him), found the Jag’s keys on the key board, and drove it out.

He transferred his list and maps to the Jag, then, with a fresh tank of gas, drove the yellow car north. The sky was clear so he put the top down in spite of the chill temperatures. The sport coat helped fight off the cold.

This time he held his speed down except in stretches where he could see clearly, and then he unleashed the Jag’s engine and enjoyed the feeling of raw power at his command. For a brief time he forgot his troubles, and with the wind blowing his hair forward and chilling his ears, enjoyed the powerful classic.

Occasionally he had to dodge a car or truck in the road, but most had driven into the ditch or out into fields. The calamity (whatever it was) must have happened in the wee small hours for so few cars to be on the road.

Buck finally came to his planned turnoff and proceeded into tall timber dotted with farms, looking for a place that had most of what he wanted.

He passed by many and investigated many more, several of which came close to his requirements. He finally pulled up to a place that wasn’t far from the main highway.

Buck walked up to a newer home, painted a hideous lime green. Somewhere a cow bawled. It sounded unhappy.

Apparently, a large family with a substantial outside income had recently built the place and farmed it as a sideline, a “gentleman’s farm”. He knocked on the door, not expecting any answer, then “let” himself into a foyer littered with several pairs of shoes. He almost took the hint to remove his own shoes in respect of the family’s practice, but didn’t. He climbed the stairs to the second floor and found five bedrooms there. His stomach turned at the sight of the dusty remains of each bed’s occupants. The floor also had a family room, and two bathrooms.

Buck clattered down the steps and entered a large living room that featured a huge stone fireplace with heating insert. Fortunately the interior color scheme didn’t repeat the green of the exterior.

The carpet was a mottled, light gray plush. It was a pleasure to walk on. His feet sank slightly with each step.

He walked through a spacious kitchen and dinette with a wet bar next to it that opened onto the living room, a very formal dining room with a huge table, and a master suite with a king-sized bed occupied by the usual remains, plus a large bathroom. An office with a large mahogany desk, a guest bathroom with flowered wallpaper, and a three-car garage with a laundry finished off the main floor.

The garage held a station wagon, a fairly new 3/4-ton pickup truck, and a foreign-made luxury passenger car. He examined the well-marked electrical panel, but couldn’t find a breaker for a water pump.

The basement contained a root cellar and separate wine cellar — well stocked — both well-insulated, storage for canned goods, his hoped for wood furnace, now cold, a large rack for wood, and considerable storage space occupied with the usual clutter of a large family.

He opened a sliding glass door in the back of the basement and stepped out under the floor of a covered patio that seemed to connect to the bar and dining room on the main floor above. The house perched on a slope that fell away in back so this direct entrance to the daylight basement was possible. A large wood shed was close by, still about half full.

He lifted the handle on what looked like a freeze-proof faucet eliciting a strong flow of water. It tasted fine, without any smell or taste of chlorine.

About 400 yards behind the house, was a hill. As he scanned he noticed a strip running up the hill with shorter undergrowth than the surrounding brush.

Buck pushed his way through the young undergrowth, enjoying the smell of fresh greenery, followed the trial up the hill, and finally came to a spring box set into the side of the hill. He cleared some brush away from it and lifted the lid. The spring box was filled with water that looked clean and clear. This was the best possible source of water. Gravity would provide water pressure without the need for electricity.

A large creek ran through the property’s approximately forty cleared acres. About a hundred yards upstream was a perfect place for a dam. Buck figured he could get a headwall of fifteen feet with a fair reservoir behind it, if needed.

The field was plowed. Sprigs of winter wheat peaked from the smoothed furrows. Across the dirt road that connected the area to the main highway a mile away, he could see another farm with about 150 acres cleared and fenced and another 100 acres of lush pasture, also fenced.

Buck followed the sound of the cow to the barn and encountered her just inside the open doors. She bawled unhappily. Her bag looked very full.

In a large stall, two calves cried for food. He turned the cow and calves together in a holding corral and threw down some hay from the loft. The calves eagerly attacked the cow’s bag. The cow, apparently not used to this procedure, tried to move away from the hungry calves as the first one butted her bag. Eventually, she settled down to this “unusual” milking.

Chickens ran loose and foraged for themselves. Four horses and six head of cattle occupied a fenced pasture smaller than the one on the adjacent farm.

There were two smaller outbuildings; a machine shed which sheltered farm equipment, and a shop.

The house was much too big for one person, but everything else was adequate. He’d have to close off most of the rooms to avoid burning more wood than necessary, but it would do. “I’ll call the realtor and make an offer on this one,” he muttered. “But part of the deal has to be that they paint it another color,” he smiled.

Back in the kitchen, he whipped up a quick lunch out of what was available and downed it with a tall glass of cold, rich milk. He wrote down the home’s phone number from the label on the living room phone, then climbed back into his newly acquired Jag and headed back to town.

Less than 30 minutes later, he swung east to the Hillyard district and tried to break into the National Guard Armory. This was not an easy chore. There was a strong deadbolt lock on the steel office door.

He drove a few blocks to a hardware store and attacked its wooden door with his jack handle. No amount of prying would open the door. The jack handle just bounced off the display window when he tried to shatter it. However, while he considered ramming an automobile into the front of the store, the door’s window finally cracked and then broke after he repeatedly hammered it with his “weapon”.

Back at the armory, he attacked the door with a large sledgehammer and managed to bludgeon it into submission.

Then he hammered the padlock off the arms locker and hunted around for anything that might be useful to fend off overprotective dogs — or a large pack — if it ever came to that. There were hand grenades, Claymore mines, and the usual military equipment. He picked out a clean M-16 rifle and a crate of ammunition.

On his way out of the gun locker, he spotted a rack of shotguns. He removed one for closer examination. It was a Remington model 870 with a magazine that was actually a bit longer than the barrel. The barrel itself had a bead sight on the end, an oddity with which he was unfamiliar. It also sported a sling. He found ammunition cans with twenty, five-round boxes of 12 gauge shot shells and loaded one of the shotguns. It held eight rounds. “I think I’ll hang on to this!” he grabbed the top 2 cans of shells to include in his booty.

He loaded everything into the car, then stood back to consider his shoes and clothes. They were wrinkled and uncomfortable. His shoes were covered with mud and other unmentionable things from the barnyard. “I don’t think these clothes will do.”

“Good grief, I’m starting to talk to myself,” he shook his head. “Well, at least I have an appreciative audience.”

An outdoor and western wear store was not far away. After an uneventful break in with his new “key”, he obtained some blue jeans, work shirts, mostly in his favorite colors of blues and browns, heavy socks, and western style boots to augment his small wardrobe of “roughing it” clothing. In an unusual act of vanity, he added a wide belt, fancy buckle, and a wide-brimmed, genuine Stetson. For practicality, he grabbed a straw hat.

The ruined sport jacket went into a trashcan, useless in his new, lonely life. In fact, the Jaguar was beginning to look equally useless. It couldn’t carry much and it didn’t travel rough country roads very well. Fun to drive, but impractical. Anyway, he realized that there was no one to impress. That lowered his spirits considerably.

Accordingly, he scouted for, and obtained, a fair-sized moving van, transferred his belongings and acquisitions into it, gassed it up, and started the arduous, but boring, chore of collecting supplies.

Extra pistols, hunting rifles and ammunition to augment what he already owned, first aid supplies, medications, and prescription drugs he knew the use of became part of his load. Canned goods, dry goods, books on subjects he was unfamiliar with, extra cans of gasoline, extra clothing, and two upright freezers, which he loaded with the help of a hand truck and the vehicle’s power tail gate went into the van in the next two days.

The first night in town, he went to his apartment and rushed to his phone to check for messages. His heart fell when he saw the indicator light was off.

To make sure, he pressed the “play” button. No messages. Surely someone … He picked up the phone, hand poised over the buttons — and froze in that pose for what seemed like an hour. Reluctantly, he replaced the receiver and lowered his face into his hands. He’d never felt so alone in all his life.

A bit later, he changed his message encouraging people to call him at the phone number of his new location or his cell phone, “but leave a message here first.”

The last thing he did each evening, before going to bed, was to pray for guidance and companionship to end the crushing loneliness. As usual, God didn’t answer him.

While selecting things he wanted to keep from the apartment, he ran across a pile of bills. “I think I’ll default on these and see if anyone complains,” he chuckled, then sobered a bit.

He collected the rest of his items, mostly photographs of family and a very risqué’ picture of Stephanie, and left the apartment.

On his way to the van, a bird chirped happily from a nearby tree.

“Oh, button your beak!” he snarled at the bird, which ignored him. Steady, Buck, you’re starting to lose it.

He drove the van out to the farm and unloaded most of the items into the basement. He moved the family’s larger items he had no use for, into the back yard to be disposed of later. The rest of the stuff was pushed aside to clear space for his booty.

He checked the answering machine and replaced it with a more familiar one he had “liberated”. He recorded a message on it and prayed for someone to use it.

He also fed the livestock again, heavily.

While unpacking, he rediscovered the M-16 and shotgun, and included them in the truck’s cab along with some extra ammunition.

Reluctantly, he performed a task he had been putting off. He went to each of the bedrooms, carefully bundled up the bedding with the remains of the family, and lowered them into a carefully dug hole in a corner of the property under a large weeping willow tree.

He was unsure what to say over the family’s remains. After a moment of silence, he finally found the words. “Lord, I didn’t know these people, but you did. I now commend them … and the rest of humanity into your care.” He paused, and then added, “And I commend myself into your care also. I’m going to need all of the help you’re willing to give me. — Amen.”

He then filled the hole and placed a marker he had crafted over the grave. The marker simply read, “The Wills Family,” and included the date of death.

He spent the night in the house.

The following morning was Sunday, so he hunted up a Bible and spent some time skimming through it looking for guidance appropriate to his situation. He also spent some time in prayer asking for the same thing.

After two days of hard work, he fed the stock and started back for another load of plunder.

Halfway there, he stopped in open country to test the M-16. On single fire, it behaved like a normal rifle. On automatic, it “climbed up” toward the sky before he let up on the trigger. He learned to fire in short bursts and to hold it sideways so it would “sweep” to the side.

This time he picked up some portable generators along with a truckload of items similar to his last trip.

Although he wasn’t much of a drinker, he didn’t neglect a liquor store as a source of supplies.

Hungry dogs were starting to pack and roam, so he carried the shotgun with him whenever he was out of the truck. Its sling allowed him to keep both hands free for work. He also selected a .22 revolver that had been given to him by his father on the occasion of Buck’s 14th birthday.

The dogs were not attacking — yet. Most of them would approach him seeking a handout, but some of the larger ones were getting bolder. The possibility of attacks kept him from getting too bored. But crushing loneliness and the lack of normal street noise continued to nag at him.

As he loaded food from a neighborhood supermarket, his solitude was broken by a scream — a human scream!

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