Below is a sample from my first novel, "Half Past Midnight". It's far from perfect and I know it. But it seems to have done well enough for a first novel. I notice that the site gets a little strange with formatting, but it I honestly don't know how to deal with that. I also didn't realize the site bleeps cursing. I'll post a sample from the companion novella ("The Road to Rejas") later on. For now, I hope you enjoy... ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ CHAPTER 1 * * JUNE 13 / 10:14 A.M. * * Les fleurs passés diminue le monde, Long temps la paix terres inhabitées: Seur marchera par ciel, serre, mer & onde: Puis de nouveau les guerres suscitées. Pestilences extinguished, the world becomes smaller, for a long time the lands will be inhabited peacefully. People will travel safely through the sky, (over) land and seas: then wars will start up again. ----Nostradamus – Century 1, Quatrain 63 Doomsday fell on a Saturday. I was at work. But then, I was always at work, or at least that was how it seemed. I didn’t know at the time just how easy I had it. In those days, I was a CNC machinist and programmer. I worked in a small, family-owned, high-volume, high-precision machine shop. Quite a mouthful, isn't it? The key words there are "family owned," and the family that owned this particular business was the Dawcett family. It was, not so coincidentally, my family. I was the only son of Raymond and Elizabeth Dawcett, owner and office manager, respectively. That effectively gave me the unofficial title of S.O.B., supposedly standing for "Son of the Boss," but some of the employees used it a bit too gleefully. That particular Saturday morning, I was tweaking the setup on a CNC lathe to run an extremely close-tolerance job. It was a tricky setup, requiring all of my concentration. On a weekday, there would be all the myriad distractions that come with Monday through Friday's nine to five. So I had come in on Saturday. My dad was also in, working in the office on a proposal for a new job. He’d been forced to cut back on his workload ever since his heart had gone bad and he'd gotten the latest model Jarvik. The doctors had restricted him to light workdays, warning that he would tire much easier for the next several months. So in his typical fashion, he'd decided if he had to work fewer hours per day, then he would do it seven days a week. We often joked about the limitations of his bionic heart, but we both knew he wasn't getting any younger. And he wasn't even close to being completely recovered. Everything was going smoothly with my setup, and I was nearly finished when the power abruptly went out. Sudden darkness. Safety mechanisms on the lathe kicked in, immediately clamping the brakes onto the spindle, winding it down from fifteen hundred RPM to a full stop in less than two seconds. Great! Just my luck. Try to get ahead and see what happens? Then, in my best Dangerfield voice, I said, "I don't get no respect." I stood there a moment and considered my options. There was a slight chance the power would come back on momentarily, but I didn't think it very likely, since both the one-ten and the two-twenty had gone down together. The loss of power to either system wasn’t that unusual, but I could count the number of times we had lost power to both on the fingers of one hand. On each of those occasions, the electricity had stayed down for several hours. Lucky me. I got to add another finger to the tally. As my eyes began to adjust to the gloom, I saw the darkness was not as absolute as it had first seemed. Far across the large machine shop, I could make out the dim outline of the door to the office area. That was my beacon as I made my way through the otherwise pitch-blackness. Stumbling over pallets and tool chests, I cursed quietly with each bump. Soon the cursing wasn’t so quiet, but I finally made it into the adjoining office. I entered the office through the door behind Dad's desk, but he didn’t turn to greet me as he normally would. Instead, he remained facing forward, his attention apparently focused outside. "What's going on, Dad? We just lost all the power in…" I rounded the desk and saw that he wasn’t paying any attention to me. He just continued to stare outside with a puzzled expression on his face. I followed his gaze and saw what held his attention. "What is…?" For several seconds, my mind simply refused to accept what my eyes conveyed. The sky was one of life’s constants, one of those things one could always count on to remain within a specific set of parameters. On a clear summer day in June, I knew I could count on seeing the blinding yellow disk of the sun in a deep blue sky. What I saw instead took me aback. "What the…" The sun was indeed a blinding yellow but, past that point, I had trouble comprehending what I saw. The sky was not the normal crisp blue of a hot Texas summer morning. Instead, it dopplered into more of a shimmering violet, with the deepest of the color centered around a second glowing orb about fifty degrees to the north. It was almost as large as the sun, though not quite as bright. In fact, it seemed to be fading slightly even as I watched. The sky around it shimmered slightly, like an aurora borealis. In the eastern sky, a bit to the north and halfway between the sun and the horizon, burned a small, intensely bright ball of light. It seemed as bright as the sun, though it appeared to be slowly fading. "What the hell is that?" Even as I said it, though thirty-seven years old, I realized I still wanted to flinch when I forgot myself enough to curse in front of my parents. But still, Dad didn't comment and, when I looked back at him, I saw he still hadn't moved. Not at all. "Dad?" Still nothing. Alarmed, I stepped toward him—and stopped. It wasn't until then that I finally realized what else was wrong. Dad wasn’t just motionless—he wasn’t breathing. "Dad!" Knocking over his guest chair, I scrambled to my father’s side. I hesitated a second, irrationally afraid to touch him, knowing at the same time that I had to. My hand shook as I felt for a pulse. "No, no, no, no, no," I chanted over and over, as if willing it not to be so would bring him back. In desperation, I dragged him out of his chair to the floor. Laying him on his back, I grabbed the portable defibrillator from the wall and ripped open his shirt. The sight of his surgical scars stopped me. Could I use the defib on him? Would it interfere with his Jarvik? I considered CPR, but another glimpse of the healing incision on his chest halted me yet again. "Shit!" I opened the Portafib and ripped open the adhesive electrodes. Reading through the instructions, I applied them to his chest as shown in a diagram and glanced at the indicator on the box. "God damn it!" The indicator was as dead as the lights in the shop—as dead as my father on the floor before me. I flung the Portafib across the office. "What the hell am I supposed to do?" I screamed at the ceiling. The world had gone mad, and I didn't know how to react. The sky, Dad’s heart, a second sun—suddenly I knew what had happened. All the pieces abruptly fell into place, and I knew what the fireball outside was—what had killed my father. Worst of all, I knew he had died just a few minutes before, while I was stumbling around in the darkness of the shop and cursing at boxes. The last thing my father had heard had been me cursing. The shame and sorrow of that knowledge freed the tears I didn’t know I’d been holding back. Somehow I felt that I had betrayed him by not comprehending what had happened until after I realized he was dead. It was as if he had died so I would know what had occurred and, if I had caught on sooner, before I turned to look at him, he would have been alive to respond when I spoke. I knew that was nonsense, just as I knew there was nothing that I, or anyone, could have done even if I had been right there when it happened. The electromagnetic pulse created by an orbital nuclear explosion would short out any unshielded delicate electrical circuitry, the microminiature circuits of an artificial heart, for example. Dad’s Jarvik had simply burned out at the same time the lights went out. I realized that intellectually, but emotionally, I still felt guilty. * * * Sobbing, I dragged my father out of the middle of the floor and into my mother's adjoining office, where I laid him out on the carpet. Knowing I would probably never return made what I was doing that much harder. This man had given me my life, taught me the fundamental values for day-to-day living. Now I was going to repay him by leaving him to lie on the floor of a darkened office without so much as a decent burial. My next actions did nothing to alleviate my remorse, but now that I knew what had happened, I knew they were necessary. Turning away from my father, from my father's corpse, I went about gathering things to help me through all that I knew was to come. I tried to remember what I’d read. A search through the desks yielded matches, a personal sewing kit, and a small first-aid kit. In the lunchroom, I found a coffee can full of packets of salt, pepper, sugar, and non-dairy creamer, as well as some instant coffee. I found other odds and ends, and everything went into a growing pile in the middle of the floor near the front door. Then, I went back out to the shop, leaving the connecting door open so the twin lights of the sun and its new companion would help push back the darkness a bit. Even with that, it became necessary to light a match as I made my way deeper into the darkness to my workbench. My hobby was knife making, a natural fusion of my career in machining and my love of martial arts. My most recent creation was in a drawer under the bench. Fumbling a bit in the dark, I found the custom Bowie knife I'd recently finished and grabbed the unstained leather sheath I was still working on. Thrusting the treasure through my belt, I hurried back to the pile of items I'd left at the office front door. After I'd gathered everything into a bucket, I took a deep breath and went back into my mother's office. This was the part I dreaded. Kneeling at my father's side I whispered, "I'm sorry, Dad." Tears formed once more. "But you and I both know I love you… and you're already gone. A burial won't do you any good now, and it'd just take up too much time. And I have a feeling time’s getting really short." I was torn between the need to do something—anything—to properly observe my father's passing, and the need to get to my wife and children. But, as difficult as it might be, I knew which choice had priority. Sobbing now in earnest, I closed his staring eyes. "I love you, Dad. Please understand." I bent and kissed his forehead, my final farewell. Wiping my eyes, I stumbled to my feet and exited, closing the office door behind me. I picked up my bucket and walked out into a world completely changed. I glanced at my watch through blurred eyes. It was ten forty-one a.m., twenty-seven minutes after the lights had gone out. * * * Knowing it was useless, I tried the ignition on my car. I figured if I didn't at least try it, I would always wonder, "What if, by some wild chance, it had worked?" It didn't. I was willing to bet that very few cars in the nation ran at this point. Very few, indeed. EMP again. The semiconductors of an electronic ignition system were just too delicate. My little Toyota was now nothing more than half a ton of artistically-shaped scrap metal. I had expected it, but it was still disappointing. At least I was better off than most people at this stage. I knew I had a few alternatives at home. One consisted of a fairly tired, but theoretically EMP-proofed minivan. Long ago, I’d had a mechanic replace the old electronic ignition system with an even older standard ignition, and had stocked up on extra parts. The mechanic was a fellow survivalist and had known exactly what I had in mind. Hopefully, my better half would be organizing the kids and converting the van into our survival vehicle. We had long ago discussed this scenario and agreed that under these circumstances—me at work, her at home with the kids—she would begin preparations for our little evacuation and wait no more than four hours before pulling out. I would follow as soon as possible… if possible. * * * My parents’ house was on my way home, and I wasn’t looking forward to telling Mom about Dad’s death. Nor was I looking forward to having to convince her to come with me and leave Houston. In my mind, I went over various conversations. Mom, I need you to pack a few things, just what we can carry to my house… on foot. What? Oh, well, you see, there’s a nuclear war brewing, and we need to get out of Houston before the shit hits the fan. Dad? Uh, sorry, but Dad’s dead. So put on your tennis shoes, and let’s get going. I shook my head. There was no good way to do any of it. It was just over a twenty minute walk to Mom and Dad’s. As I trudged, I saw children playing in their yards, oblivious to the nervous huddles of adults glancing at the odd display in the northeastern sky, and speaking in low whispers. A family of three busily loaded a pickup truck, apparently unaware that it wouldn't start. As soon as I came within sight of my parents' house, my heart dropped. Mom’s car—her new hybrid electric car with the state of the art electronic ignition—was gone. I let myself into the house, just in case. "Mom? You here?" Silence confirmed her absence, and my heart dropped. Shit. I took a deep breath and turned to leave, but then remembered Dad’s gun cabinet. I went to the master bedroom and to the back wall of their walk-in closet. Sliding the clothes to one side, I opened the door to the hidden cabinet. Inside were three hunting rifles and a shotgun. Dad was an avid hunter. Or, he had been. My chest began to tighten as I thought about him again. Not now. No time for it now. I pulled out his Remington pump action .30-06, a scope, and two extra clips, then slid everything into a rifle case. I found three more boxes of ammo for the rifle and dropped them into my trusty bucket. I’d thought it over as I packed the gun and, though it seemed heartless, I couldn't wait there on the off chance that Mom would somehow return. Nor could I afford to search all over Houston for her on foot. The best I could come up with was to leave a note and hope she made her way back to read it. It was awkward, putting pen to paper to explain what had happened with Dad—more so when I wrote what I had done, where I was going, and why I hadn't waited for her. I could only hope that she would understand. I asked that she follow as soon as she could. Leaving the note on the kitchen table, I turned to leave. I glanced at my watch and saw that it was 11:13. On my way out, I locked the door on yet another part of my life. * * * I must have been quite a sight as I trekked homeward—a big man with a scraggly beard toting a five-gallon bucket and a deer rifle along with a rather large knife tucked into his belt. People stared as I walked, but no one seemed to want to question me. Hell, if I'd seen me under those circumstances, I wouldn't have spoken to me either. I used any shortcut I could think of to save time: hopped fences, cut across fields, and followed a small creek that ran between neighborhoods. Eventually, I came to the state highway that ran near our home. Traffic was light and slow as a mixture of diesel-powered and old pre-electronic-ignition autos wove through the maze of shiny, stalled hybrids and electronic cars. Luckily, there was enough clearance between stalls and on the shoulder to allow steady progress. The amount of traffic told me word had gotten out that there was a nuclear war in the making, and that was good. However, it also meant every road out of Houston would very soon be choked with traffic, and that was bad. Very bad. Despite the number of incapacitated vehicles, in a city of three-and-a-half million people, there would still be more than enough left functioning to clog the eight freeways leading out of town. I hurried home to join the chaos. CHAPTER 2 * * June 13 / 2:23 p.m. * * Les dieux feront aux humains apparence, Ce qu'il seront auteurs de grand conflict: Avant ciel veu serein espee & lance Que vers main guache sera plus grand afflict. The gods will make it appear to mankind that they are the authors of a great war. Before the sky was seen to be free of weapons and rockets: the greatest damage will be inflicted on the left. --Nostradamus – Century 1, Quatrain 91 Nearly three hours later, I finally made it home. I was barely through the front door when I collided with my son in the darkened interior of the house. With the power out, the only light came through the open windows. Zach carried a paper sack nearly as big as he was. "Hi, Dad. Wow! Where'd you get the gun?" He grinned in childish delight. "Borrowed it from your Grandpa Ray." I didn't figure this was the time or place to tell an eight-year-old that his Grandpa was dead. "Oh." His attention shifted in that sudden way that only a child's could. "Well, whatcha got in the bucket then?" His energy and enthusiasm made me smile despite my fatigue. "Don't worry about it right now. Where's your mom?" "In the garage. She's putting a whole bunch of stuff in the van. Guess what! The ‘lectricity went out, so Mama said we're gonna spend the weekend at Nanna's. Is that why you got the gun? Are you gonna shoot a deer while we're there?" I scowled and invoked the third unwritten Law of Parenting. "Aren't you supposed to be doing something?" "Yes, sir. I'm taking this stuff out to the garage for Mom." "Well, don't you think you'd better get with it?" "Okay." He paused for a second. "Dad?" He came closer and lowered his voice, his face suddenly serious. "Why is Mom so mad? She yelled at me and Megan and slammed the door and stuff. And we didn't even do anything!" I set the bucket down and leaned the rifle against the wall. "Here, give me that." I reached for the sack he held. "Your mom is really nervous right now, Zach." He nodded as if he knew exactly what I meant. I knelt down next to him. "Did she tell you why?" "Huh, uh." I thought for a moment on the wisdom of telling him what was going on. How could I explain to a child that there were people in the world who wanted to kill each other because of differing political or religious beliefs? That those people were so wrapped up in the "causes" they promoted and fought for, that they no longer cared about anything else, including the lives of their fellow human beings? "Go get Megan, and both of you come out to the garage." "Yes, sir," and he ran off to get his sister. I turned and stepped into the garage. By the light of the garage windows, I could see that Debra was indeed upset, though worried seemed a more accurate term. I also saw that she had evidently been working at a frantic pace, loading the back of our minivan with any item that would be of use during the coming crisis. Nearly every bit of space from the front bucket seats to the open hatch was filled—garden tools, food, clothing, food, camping supplies, more food. Knowing my wife, I was certain she had thought of everything. There was an area of about two feet of empty space before the hatch, and she was busily filling that with the survival books, magazines, and microfiche books I had collected over the years. The rest was totally packed. I was gratified to see some of the worry leave her face when she saw me in the doorway, relief altering her expression. Setting down the sack, I walked over and opened my arms. We held each other for a moment, needing no words, simply relishing the feel of one another. I felt her shoulders shake as she sobbed quietly, and I pretended not to notice. She hated losing control of her emotions. "I was so scared. At first it was just the electricity, but then Megan noticed the phones were out too. So, I went outside to see if the Thompsons had heard anything, and I saw the sky." She sniffed. "I remembered what you'd said back when you were hanging out with those survivalist crazies." All of this was said with her face still buried in my shirt. "I guess maybe they weren't so crazy after all." "I guess not." I stroked her hair. She took a deep breath and stepped back, discreetly wiping her eyes. "You all right?" "So far, so good," I replied dryly. "The hard part is still ahead, though." She nodded. "I take it you haven't told the kids what's going on yet." She shook her head. "I didn't want to scare them, but I’m pretty sure Megan's guessed anyway. She's read most of that science fiction garbage you keep around. And she's smart enough to know I'm not just packing for a weekend at Nanna's." I smiled. "Smart enough to keep quiet about it around her little brother, too. He's so hyped about seeing your mom again that he hasn't got a clue there's anything more serious going on." I paused. "Listen, they'll both be here in a second, and I want to tell them. I mean, even if Megan’s figured it out already, she deserves to hear it from us. And Zachary may be young, but it looks like he's going to have to grow up in a hurry." She thought for a minute and nodded acceptance just as Zachary came charging into the garage, followed a moment later by his older sister. At sixteen, Megan was every bit as pretty as her mother had been at that age, though a few inches taller. Not that her mother wasn't still pretty, but maturity brings a different beauty. Debra, despite her personal opinion, was a gorgeous woman. Megan, on the other hand, was a beautiful girl. "Hi, squirrel bait." She tentatively returned my grin, as well as the insult. "Hi, scum wad." This had been a tradition in our family since she had been about seven years old. She and I had begun to derive a perverse pleasure in making fun of one another. I suppose that showed my level of maturity… or lack thereof. It had actually gotten so bad that my wife, slightly perturbed at the prospect of going through life with a daughter named "Squirrel bait" and a husband whose name changed without notice from "Scum wad" to "Scuzz bucket" or "Monkey toes"—I do have extremely long toes—had threatened us with bodily harm if we didn’t curb our insanity. Out of deference to her mandate, we thereafter confined our odd pastime exclusively to Saturday mornings. For the next few years, Saturday mornings became an endless barrage of name-calling, from the borderline offensive to the ridiculously funny. However, as Megan got older, she became aware of the fact that she was becoming a young lady and decided our Saturday morning ritual was too childish for someone of her maturity and sophistication. The insults tapered off to gradually be replaced by the expression that only a teenage girl can give—that rolling of the eyes that asks the Gods That Be what she had ever done to deserve such an immature parent. The fact that she now returned my jibe, rather than ignored it as usual, told me she was probably pretty frightened. It meant she felt more like Megan, the little girl, than Megan, the all-powerful teenager. "Okay, you guys, we need to talk." I knelt so I would be at Zachary's eye level and looked up at Megan. "Megan, I think you've already got a pretty good idea of what's going on, don't you?" Her striking brown eyes showed worry but little fear as she nodded. "I think so." "Smart girl." I held my hands out to her brother. "Come here then, Zach." He came over and sat on my raised knee. His normally cherubic face was totally serious, evidently sensing the tension that the rest of us were trying to hide. "What'sa matter, Dad?" "You know what a war is, don't you, Zach?" "Yeah, it's when ever'body shoots each other and stuff, like on TV." I almost smiled. "Close enough. Okay, listen up. This morning, a real war started between another country and ours. I don't know yet who we're at war with, but we have to get to your Nanna's house so we'll be safe until we know more." He thought about it for a second. "Why won't we be safe here?" "Do you know what a nuclear bomb is?" He shook his head. "Huh uh." "A nuclear bomb is a bomb that can blow up a whole city and poison the air all around it with radiation." "What's radiation?" "Well, it's… uh, it's a kind of poison that works real slow so that you don't know you've been poisoned for a long time." "Can't a nukilar bomb hurt us at Nanna's?" "Nuclear." I automatically corrected. "And yes, a nuclear bomb could hurt us at Nanna's. But they probably won't drop one there." "Why not?" Could he understand the concept of priority targeting? Debra saved me from attempting to find out. "Because they don't know where she lives." That apparently made sense to him. After a few more questions, he said he understood. I doubted it, but at least the effort had been made. Our talk completed, Debra began telling the kids what still needed to be done before we could leave. She issued tasks like a commanding officer, and the kids took orders like two soldiers as I took care of a little task of my own. Our backup vehicle was an old, very old, dirt bike that I needed to check over. I'd be riding shotgun for the van on the motorcycle for a couple of reasons. The bike was a much more economical vehicle than the van when you considered gas consumption and, since it couldn't fit in the van, it had to be ridden. Also, if the traffic turned out to be as bad as we anticipated, we could probably use it to open up a place for the van between vehicles that might be reluctant to let people in. As soon as I completed my check of the bike, I grabbed an old military surplus ammo case from my tool cabinet. I hesitated a moment, considering my actions. As long as the case remained closed, the contents were protected from EMP. Once I opened it though, I risked losing the treasure inside if another warhead were to explode. Well, they're not doing me any good locked away. I took a deep breath and opened the case. Nestled inside were two cloth-wrapped bundles. The cloth kept the contents from coming into contact with the metal sides of the case, which would in theory have kept them protected from this morning's pulse that had fried just about any electronic system it touched. Almost reverently, I removed the first bundle and reclosed the case. I unfolded the cloth, and held the little radio up for inspection. It was a combination AM/FM/weather radio and flashlight that powered off of either the built in solar cells, or an attached hand crank. I cranked the handle for a few seconds and watched the charge indicator begin to glow. After a few seconds I turned the radio on. There was nothing but static, but at least it worked. I exhaled with relief, only then realizing that I'd been holding my breath for several seconds. I carefully re-wrapped the radio, placed it back in the protective ammo box, and checked the second radio. It also passed inspection, and I grinned. I placed the case with the spare radio in the back of the van before setting its unwrapped brother in the front seat. With that task done, I joined the "troops" in taking orders from Debra. I had been with her long enough to know she was in her element: chaos. One of her greatest assets was her organizational ability. When she finished with the mess, it would be reconstructed into an evacuation as well organized as the local library. First, I went back into the house to retrieve the bucket and rifle. When I returned to the garage, Debra eyed the rifle with distaste. While she had always been pretty pacifistic, she’d never interfered with my martial arts training, even when I had opened a small school and taught classes every other weeknight. But she had never been big on firearms and refused to allow them in the house. I’d never pressed the matter as I had other options in the way of home defense. "Where’d you get that?" "Dad." The reply brought the grief back to the surface. Debra noticed immediately and started to question me, but desisted when I shook my head. I couldn't trust myself to talk about it yet, especially with the kids in the next room, and she knew me well enough to back off. She went back to the original subject. "Is it loaded?" "Yes." "Can't you carry it with you on the motorbike?" "No sling for it. It's going to have to go in the van." She paused a moment. "Put it by the passenger's seat. And make sure the safety's on." Then she turned away, going back into the house with Zachary. She knew the fireball in the sky heralded a momentous change in the world and was obviously willing to set aside old prejudices, but the coldness of her tone made it abundantly clear that she didn't like the new rules at all. I took Megan aside for a crash course in basic firearm safety, showing her how to release the safety, sight, fire, and reload the weapon. "Megan, everything's changed now. You have to understand that. If it comes down to your having to shoot someone with this, you won't have time to think about it. You'll have to remember everything I've taught you in class: put your feelings aside until later, concentrate on what has to be done, and do it. Do you understand?" "Yes sir." She hesitated a moment. "But what if I'm too scared, Dad?" It was completely unfair to force a sixteen-year-old girl into adulthood so abruptly, but at this point, it couldn't be helped. "Okay, Megan, what if someone was holding a gun to your brother's head? Could you shoot them to save his life?" When she nodded, I continued, "What about your mother? Or me? Could you shoot someone who was trying to kill us?" Another nod. "Listen, kiddo, you and I are the only ones in this family who have any kind of fighting skills. That means it's up to us to protect your mother and Zachary if anything happens. It's just like you learned in class. There's nothing wrong with being afraid. And there's nothing wrong with not wanting to hurt anyone. I'm glad you don't want to hurt anyone. But if there's a situation where you have to, even if you have to kill someone to save Zach, or your mom, or me, then you have to put your hesitation aside. If you don't, then one of us could get hurt, or even killed. Understand?" Eyes downcast, she meekly responded, "Yes, sir." I pulled her to me and hugged her tightly. "I love you, kiddo, and I wish I could put into words how very proud of you I am. You're smart, pretty." I pushed her back to arm's length, put a finger under her chin, and brought her eyes back up to meet mine. "And you could probably beat the crap out of anyone that looked at you crosswise. You're the best student that I've ever had." "Like you gave me a choice?" She smiled and blinked away the moisture that threatened her mascara. "I'll put the gun in the van." With that, she walked away. At this point, Debra, an aluminum baseball bat in hand, reentered the garage. I cocked an eyebrow inquisitively. "Maybe we'll get time for some softball." Her eyes dared me to make further comment. "Maybe we will," I agreed straight-faced. I decided it was safer not to mention the fact that she'd left the ball and gloves in the house. So much for pacifism. She went past me to the front of the van. Over her shoulder, she suggested, "Why don’t you go change? I laid some things out on the bed for you." * * * I shook my head in astonishment when I reached the bedroom. When she said she had laid out some things, I’d expected a change of clothes. Next to the clean clothes, boots, and denim jacket, my delicate, anti-firearm, pacifistic wife had neatly laid out some of my nastiest little martial arts "toys." Debra was subtly telling me that she recognized and accepted the fact that the world might suddenly become a nastier place in which to live. But by not mentioning her concession in front of the kids, she was also telling me that she would appreciate it if I would keep my little arsenal hidden from them. I agreed, no use making them any more nervous than I already had. I quickly set to the task of selecting suitable armaments. I strapped a sheath containing an eight-inch, flat, black throwing knife to the top of my left forearm. I was pretty good with it, and could usually sink four out of five throws. Next, I hung a manriki gusari around my neck. A three-foot-long fighting chain, its weighted ends tapped against my ribs. I rejected the crossbow, since I could hardly expect to load and shoot while riding the motorcycle. I did grab a pair of knives in clip-on sheaths, one for each boot, and secured that custom Bowie to my belt, within easy reach. Last, I put on my jean jacket and looked in the mirror. I felt like a reject from a low-budget ninja movie, but all of my toys were hidden, with the exception of the lower half of the Bowie hanging from my belt. For the pièce de résistance, I had a sheathed machete hung on a web belt slung diagonally across my back with the handle within easy reach over my left shoulder. Feeling a bit like a walking armory, I stuffed the remaining weapons into a sport bag and carried it out to the garage. Debra met me at the door. "Do I look as conspicuous as I feel?" I shifted the sport bag to my other hand. "That depends on how you feel." "A little bit like Robocop's long-lost father." She shook her head. "I'll never understand how you can crack jokes when things get so bad." She reached up and stroked my cheek before I could answer. "I know it's just your way, and I've been around long enough to realize that it's more of a nervous response than anything else." She gripped my chin and pulled my face down to her eye level. "But it drives me nuts sometimes!" She stepped back and gave me a once-over. "Well, you look all right. Nothing too obvious, anyway. Are you ready?" "Not quite. Is there room left in the van for my staves and sticks?" "I already packed them," she replied quickly. "What about my backpack?" "Packed." "Well can I at least grab a bite to eat?" She smiled smugly. "Sandwiches in the front seat." I chuckled at the sheer normality of the exchange. "All right, I give up!" I raised my hands in mock surrender. "I freely admit it. Once again, you've thought of everything!" "Good thing, buster. Otherwise, you don't get a sandwich." CHAPTER 3 * * June 13 / 3:15 p.m. * * L'horrible guerre qu'en l'Occident s'appreste, L'an ensuiuant viendra la pestilence Si fort l'horrible que ieune, vieux, ne beste, Sang, feu. Mercure, Mars, Iupiter en France. The horrible war which is being prepared in the West, The following year will come the pestilence So very horrible that young, old, nor beast, Blood, fire Mercury, Mars, Jupiter in France. --Nostradamus – Century 9, Quatrain 55 Five minutes later, we were ready to pull out of the garage so we could strap the bicycles on the back and top racks of the van. That meant announcing to our neighbors that we had viable transportation. It also meant announcing that we were bailing and leaving them to their own devices. My conscience twinged a bit, but I wasn't about to risk my family's safety for the sake of maintaining good relations with the neighbors. For all we knew, missiles could be streaking toward Houston at this very minute, so I didn't want to spend any more time here than was absolutely necessary. Debra and the kids got into the van, Zachary sitting on the floor in front of Megan on the passenger's side. I walked around to the driver’s side. "Don't open the garage door until you start the van. I'll put the bikes on as soon as you're in the driveway, so you won't have to get out at all. Just don't leave until you see that I have the motorcycle running, okay?" "Afraid we're going to leave you?" she joked. I shrugged. "Rejas would be a pretty long walk." She leaned through the window and gave me a quick kiss. "Okay, let's see if this thing’s going to start." She pumped the gas, turned the key and, with a whoop from all of us, the van purred to life. Grinning, she thumbed the transmitter for the automatic garage door opener. Her grin quickly faded, as did mine, when nothing happened. With a panicked motion, she jammed her thumb on the transmitter again. I watched understanding dawn on her face at the same time I realized what was wrong. The garage door opener was such an accepted part of our lives that it took a moment for me to realize that the power outage had knocked it out along with everything else. I didn't know about Debra, but I felt incredibly stupid. We’d been looking so far ahead, we'd overlooked the obvious. Signaling for Debra and the kids to wait, I climbed up the hood of the van and reached to pull the linking pin out of the arm on the opener. Now the door could be raised manually and, since the air was quickly becoming fouled with the van's exhaust, I hurried to open it. With a look of relief, Debra pulled out onto the driveway. I dragged two of the bikes up the side of the van and into place on the roof rack, scratching the paint in the process. If that was the worst that happened, I figured we’d be in good shape. The other two bikes went onto the rack on the back hatch. After checking to make sure they were all secured properly, I ran back to the garage, strapped on my helmet, and climbed aboard the old dirt bike. After making sure the fuel line was open, I thumbed the choke, pulled back the throttle, and kicked the starter lever. It took nearly a dozen tries, as the engine hadn't been run in nearly a month, but it finally started. I rolled the trusty relic out of the garage, and dismounted to close the garage door. "What are you doing?" Debra yelled. "You're worried about the garage at a time like this? Let's go!" She was right. I shook my head. "Habit!" I climbed back on the bike to take the point position as we pulled out of the driveway. We headed northwest on Highway 249. It was a little out of the way, but the route kept us well away from Houston's Intercontinental Airport. Major runways could be used by U. S. bombers and, in the survivalist community, were thought to be likely priority targets for surface strikes. The traffic, though slow, was lighter and much more orderly than I expected. I had feared that the road might be packed bumper to bumper with a panic-stricken mob, ready to ram anything that got in the way. Instead, I actually had a motorist slow down to let me into the flow of traffic. I waved gratefully, then pissed him off when I opened a gap to allow Debra into the lane ahead of me. It wasn't likely that he'd been offering a package deal, but I couldn't afford to become separated from the van. After Debra maneuvered into the space, I gunned the little motorbike and whipped into a space in the next lane. Again I slowed, momentarily creating another break in traffic for Debra. In this manner, we quickly leapfrogged into the faster inside lane, moving along at a clipping twenty-five miles per hour, as opposed to ten miles an hour in the outer lane. Once we’d finished jockeying for position, I took the time to examine the occupants of nearby vehicles. Sitting on the motorcycle gave me a good vantage point. Most of the people looked grim and determined. I was surprised at how few appeared panicked. I had always been told to expect the worst of people in the event of an emergency evacuation. My survivalist acquaintances had assured me that in the event of such an emergency, most of the public could be expected to… well, the phrase "freak out" kept popping up. Well, there it was, "Crisis relocation," as the government called it. Sure, everyone seemed frightened, and a very few looked seriously freaked out. But the wild-eyed, bullet-slinging maniac with the demented, insane laugh they had told me to watch out for didn’t seem to be present. It wasn't for lack of opportunity, either. Nearly every other car I looked into had a weapon of some kind in evidence. From hunting rifles, to pistols or shotguns, it seemed everyone had a firearm within reach. Sure, this was Texas, but I'd never seen such a flagrant display of firepower before. As this dawned on me, my skin began to crawl, and I abruptly lost all of those earlier feelings of being excessively armed. Instead, I felt more like the punch line of an old joke. Just like me to bring a knife to a gunfight. * * June 13 / 4:23 p.m. * * After a long hour of stop-and-go traffic, we leapfrogged back to the outer lane. Our exit led to a narrow, two-lane country road that wound back through thick forest to the northeast. The traffic was sparse; in fact, it was nearly nonexistent. The road had many intersections and, one by one, all of the other vehicles eventually turned off, leaving us alone in the forest. We had traveled for about ten minutes without seeing another car when Debra honked the horn and began flashing her headlights to get my attention. Fearing engine trouble, I immediately pulled over and removed my helmet. If we lost the van, we would lose most of our supplies, as well as our best means of transportation. I listened for any unusual clanking or clattering as Debra pulled up behind me but my fears evaporated when she yelled excitedly out her window. "There's a station back on the air!" I dropped my helmet in the grass and ran toward her, as she continued, "They said that L. A., New York, and Washington have been bombed." Sticking my head in the open window, I saw Megan cranking the charger on the little radio. The volume increased as the nervous voice of the announcer pierced static-laden airwaves. "…-trollably. Washington, D. C. has received an undetermined number of hits. There is no official comment on the amount of damage the capital has received, but we are assured that the President is safe, as well as most of his staff. Citizens are urged not to panic, but we repeat, a state of emergency does exist throughout the United States, and citizens are advised that martial law is now in effect for the duration of this emergency." This was followed by that irritating tone associated with the Emergency Broadcast System. A few seconds later, the message started over. "This is KKFM radio in Houston, Texas, operating in voluntary cooperation with the Emergency Broadcast System. This is not a test. We repeat, this is not a test. Citizens are advised that a national emergency has been declared. All persons living within the Houston metropolitan area are instructed to evacuate immediately. Military and law enforcement personnel are on hand to ensure an orderly evacuation. All National Guard and military reserve personnel are ordered to report for immediate active duty. Citizens are urged to cooperate fully. At ten fourteen this morning, local time, several high-yield nuclear devices simultaneously detonated above the United States. These warheads released a high-voltage electromagnetic pulse that has caused massive electrical and communication failures across the western hemisphere. There are unconfirmed reports of major nuclear attacks on New York City, Los Angeles, and Washington, D.C.. Both New York and Los Angeles, as well as many of their surrounding suburbs, are reported to be burning uncontrollably. Washington, D. C. has received an undetermined number of hits. There is no official comment on the amount of damage the capital has received, but we are assured that the President is safe, as well as most of his staff. Citizens are urged not to pan…" Megan gently shut off the radio, and we all stared at one another until Zachary broke the silence. "Are we gonna get blowed up?" Debra turned to where he sat at Megan's feet and smiled reassuringly. "No, babe, we aren't. We're far enough away from the city to be safe if they drop a bomb on it." "What about the ray-shin poison?" "Radiation. We'll be safe after we get to Nanna's house." She turned to me and gestured back to the motorcycle. "But we'll never get there if we don't quit talking and start driving." Her feigned confidence evidently reassured him somewhat, but a nervousness remained in his face. As I leaned through the window to kiss Debra, I saw Megan reach beside her seat and check the rifle. I remounted the motorcycle with a feeling of disquiet. Undeniably, the world was changing. But I couldn't accept that it was changing into a place that forced my children to find comfort in weapons. I shuddered to think of the expression I had seen on my daughter's face, the grim countenance of one who truly expected death. It was unfair, and I knew that I only had myself to blame. I had cultivated her interest in the martial arts, had taught her that she need fear no one, that each opponent had a weakness. No matter how strong he was, or how big, he was always vulnerable in some way. In effect, I had attempted to instill some of the old spirit of bushido. Now, how would she react? A bomb had no weakness to exploit. We evidently had an enemy, but who was it? You couldn't fight an enemy you couldn't see. She must have felt trapped and betrayed. Sure, she could cope, but it was going to be a rough transition. * * * The road was soothing, almost hypnotic—an endless ribbon winding through the deep evergreens of the Texas Big Thicket. Only occasionally was the tranquility broken by the sudden appearance of another car from over a hill, or around a bend in the road. When this happened, I found myself quickly scanning the vehicle for any sign of a threat. Was the driver in control, or was he panicked? Were there any obvious signs of weaponry? Sure, I was a bit paranoid. I had been all day, since I had realized what that fireball was, anyway. But I had been a Boy Scout as a kid and couldn't seem to keep their motto from echoing through my brain. "Be prepared." I wondered if any of my old scoutmasters were prepared for this. I doubted it. Last time I had checked, they didn't offer a merit badge in "Nuclear War Survival." At any rate, a little paranoia seemed to be in order for a trip that could mean the difference between living for several years or dying a miserably slow death from radiation poisoning—something that I understood could take from several hours to a several months. Well, paranoia is one thing, I thought, but let's not get morbid, too. For distraction, I concentrated on watching the road unwind ahead of me and tried to will any missiles away from the area. I was beginning to relax a little, enjoying the scenery as much as possible under the circumstances. Even the grief that had constricted my chest all day began to ease as I watched the trees go by. Before long, I was entertaining myself by searching for wildlife along the roadside. I had seen a few squirrels and a dead armadillo, when a Rabbit whipped around the curve ahead, coming straight at me. The tires and Volkswagen emblem on the hood were a dead giveaway that this was not an indigenous form of wildlife. I veered right and laid the motorcycle on its side, feeling my jeans shred as I came to a stop. I saved myself from an impact with the trees, but scraped my right leg from hip to knee. The Rabbit veered to its right, hit the opposite embankment, popped up on two wheels for a heart-stopping moment, then swerved back onto the road and nearly clipped the van before running off down the road. Struggling out from under the motorcycle, I heaped curses on the driver, his mother, and father; I even threw in a few reproductive suggestions that, unless he was extremely well endowed, would be anatomically impossible. Debra and Megan reached me at that point, with Zachary close behind them. "Are you all right?" my wife and I asked at the same time. We chuckled for a second. Comic relief was wonderful medicine. Then, I repeated, "Are you okay?" She nodded. "Missed us by at least six inches. You're the one that wrecked. Are you hurt?" "Just a little scraped up." My leg began to throb. Debra sent Megan for the first aid kit, then she examined my leg. Zachary tugged on my sleeve to tell me in all seriousness, "You shouldn't say asshole, Daddy. It's a bad word." At first I couldn't wipe the stupid grin from my face, giddy as I was with adrenaline and relief, but I quickly got myself under control and agreed that it was indeed a bad word and apologized. Megan saved me from a further lecture from the perspective of a confused and nervous eight-year–old by returning with the first aid kit and another pair of jeans. Debra sprayed my leg with an antiseptic. "Ow!" "Oh, don’t be such a baby." She slapped an adhesive bandage on the worst of the scrape and smirked when I jumped. "Hey! You know, that bedside manner of yours could use a little work. That freakin’ hurts!" She stood and planted a quick kiss on my lips. "You'll be fine." "Thank you, Florence Freaking Nightingale." Limping slightly as I walked back to the bike, I pulled it upright and checked for damage. It appeared the soft grass on the shoulder had saved both the motorbike and my hide from any serious damage. I was lucky the shoulder hadn't been gravel. Now that I had time to think about it, the whole situation could have been much more serious. What if the driver hadn't regained control before he hit the van? What if I had been about ten feet closer to the curve that had so unexpectedly produced the speeding automobile? Paranoia again. But who could blame me? In the last six hours, I had witnessed a mass exodus from the city of Houston as her citizens, myself included, abandoned ship. I had seen that most of those refugees were armed with deadly weapons. Worst of all, I had seen my father die and had been forced to abandon my own mother, not knowing where she was, or if she was even safe. And don't forget, I added mentally, that you just got to see your life flash before your eyes when some asshole barely missed turning you into a hood ornament. I figured I was entitled to a little paranoia. "Debra, I think maybe we should be a little more careful." "No kidding." "No, I'm serious." Waiting to hear me out, she arched an eyebrow. I felt a little silly, but I was already committed. "You and the kids need to stay further behind me. That way, if another idiot comes around the corner like that last one, you'll have plenty of space to maneuver. And I'll slow down before I top any hills or round any corners in the road. All the trees and brush out here muffle most of the sound, so I can't count on hearing oncoming traffic before it's right up on me. Especially through my helmet." I paused. This next one sounded crazy even to me. I could imagine how it would sound to my wife. Nevertheless, I added, "I also think we need a few hand signals. You know: stop, slow down, hurry, hide." "Hide?" Again, I paused. "What if that guy had come flying around the corner ready to blast anything in his way?" "Oh, come on! Don't you think you're getting a little carried away?" She laughed nervously. "Not with everything that's at stake here. What if he'd wrecked into the van and hurt the kids?" She was silent, thinking. I could see the conflict on her face. Pacifism was her chosen point of view, but threaten her children at your own risk. She would use any and all means possible to defend them. We’d had enough "what if" conversations in the past for me to know this about her, much like I had gone through with Megan. "What if someone kidnapped Zachary, raped Megan, hurt or killed any of us?" I knew from her answers that her point of view took the form of shades, not blinders. She finally acquiesced. "Okay, but we'll also need a signal to ready the rifle." We settled on six basic hand signals: stop, forward, slow down, hurry, hide, and danger. Megan already knew those signals. They were the same ones we used when she and I played paintball once a month. Upon seeing the "danger" signal, Megan would ready the rifle, and Debra would pull over, perpendicular to the road and ready to turn around if necessary. Zachary was to stay down and under no circumstances let himself be seen. We went over the signals a few times, making sure Debra knew them as well as Megan and I did, then continued on our way. According to the map, we had just over an hour's drive. As we traveled, the van about a hundred yards behind me, I began to feel a little better about our situation. We’d had a frightening brush with disaster but, other than my scrapes and bruises, no one was hurt. And it had served to make us a little more careful. Besides, the odds of another accident occurring on roads as deserted as these had to be astronomical. Fifteen minutes later, I topped a hill in the road and stopped. In the little valley below, it looked like someone had beaten the odds. * * June 13 / 4:56 * * The road down the other side of the hill was long and steep, one of those lengthy slopes that thrill children. It dropped nearly two hundred feet before rising again. At the bottom, two vans, a pickup, and a station wagon were scattered all about the roadbed. They were accompanied by six bodies. The whole area looked burnt, as if the vehicles had caught fire after the wreck. Shocked, I barely had the presence of mind to signal for the van to stop before removing my helmet and scanning the carnage below. There was enough room on the right side of the road for the van to pass, but I didn't want the kids to see the bodies if it could be helped. I finally turned the Suzuki around and headed back to where my family waited in the van. Pulling up to Debra's window, I suggested we stop for a break. "What's wrong?" "There's a pretty bad wreck over the hill there. Six-car pile-up. I need to see if I can find a way to get the van through." "Let's just take the van down and push them out of the way." I shook my head. "Too much glass," I lied. "Megan, would you and Zach make us some sandwiches, please? I'm starving. Your mom and I are going up the hill." Without giving them time to object, I hustled Debra out of the van and up the hill. "Come on, I'll show you why you can't use the van to push." As soon as we were out of range of the kids' hearing, she asked, "What's wrong?" "I didn't want to mention it in front of the kids, but there are some bodies down there. I need some time to move them out of sight." She was silent for a few seconds. "How bad is it?" "Judge for yourself." We topped the rise and looked down. She reached out and took my hand. "I don't suppose any of them are still alive." "Doubtful." There wasn't much more to say. We were turning to go back to the van when she stopped and, with a puzzled expression, went back up to the crest. She studied the wreckage intently for a minute or more. "What do you suppose happened?" "What do you mean?" "What exactly do you think caused the wreck?" I shrugged. "It looks to me as if the second van down there got rear-ended, and the gas tank blew." The van I pointed out lay on its side on the shoulder. One of the back doors rested on the grass, about thirty feet away. The other door was missing completely, along with most of the rear end of the van. It must have been one hell of an explosion. "I guess the gas sprayed on the other cars, and the drivers panicked and wrecked into each other." Even as I said it, though, something felt wrong. I was missing something. Debra pointed it out. "If they were rear-ended hard enough to cause an explosion like that, shouldn't the station wagon's front end be smashed up, too? It was next in line. And what caused the truck in front to wreck?" I didn't like where this was leading. I didn't like it at all. Debra caught it, too. "Someone ambushed them." Quickly, we backed down the hill until we could no longer be seen from the other side. Both of us thought about the implications of the situation. Debra finally asked the question that was on both our minds. "So, now what?" I thought for a second longer. "Well, we can't very well turn back, and it would be another eighty miles to go around. We're half an hour away from being home free, and we don't know how long we have before things get really rough." She crossed her arms as if she were cold. "Looks like they already are." "You know what I mean." We were both all too aware of the nuclear war in the offing. "Yeah." I looked over at her. "We've got to go through." She stared back at me as if I'd lost my mind. "And I suppose whoever blew the hell out of those people down there is just going to smile and wave as we drive past? Get serious, Lee." "No," I agreed. "It won't be that easy. I'll have to go down first and scout the area. Find out if it's safe." "And if it isn't?" "Then I'll come back very quietly and let you know." I grinned in what I hoped was a reassuring manner. "I'm not about to take any chances, babe. First sign of trouble and I'm out of there." She jerked a thumb over her shoulder, indicating the other side of the hill. "Fine. But what if they have other ideas?" I could see that her mood was rapidly deteriorating, and I was beginning to get a little exasperated myself. "Look, Debra, we don't even know if there is anyone. I doubt there is, honestly." That wasn’t exactly true. I certainly hoped that whoever had massacred that convoy had had the good sense to move on immediately afterward. But they might just as easily have been lying in wait down there, hoping the wreckage would attract more victims as they came to help. I wasn't about to mention this to my wife, however. "Well, if you don't think there's anyone down there, let's just take our chances and drive on through. We could probably make it through on the right shoulder without any problems." Uh, oh. "I just said I doubt that there's anyone there. I can't be sure until I go down and check it out." She mulled it over for a moment. "But you really don't think there's anyone there?" Good. She was giving in. "No, I really don't." Her smile was very nearly vicious. "Okay then, which side do you want?" I gaped stupidly as the implications sank into my skull. "What do you mean?" "Well, if there's no danger, and this is just a precaution, then two of us should get it done twice as fast. And you did mention that time is of the essence." Her smug grin was infuriating. "Now wait a minute!" I nearly exploded. "I just said I didn't think that there was anyone there. There's no guarantee that I'm right. And if you think I'm going to let you risk yourself just because you happen to have a stubborn streak, you're sadly mistaken." Well, that did it. Her grin disappeared, and genuine anger laced her voice. "And if you think I'm about to go sit in the van and twiddle my thumbs while you go play GI Joe, then you are sadly mistaken!" Our voices had risen as we argued, and the kids looked up the hill. Struggling to stay calm, I asked in a low whisper, "What if I'm wrong, Debra? What if there's trouble?" "'Then I'll come back very quietly and let you know.' I think that was exactly how you put it, wasn't it?" "Oh, come on! Listen, I know how you feel, but be reasonable, for Christ's sake!" Major mistake. Her voice was suddenly icy cold. "Be reasonable?" she hissed. "I am being reasonable. You're the one that thinks that just because you're a man, you're more qualified to walk in the woods. Well, you listen to me for a second, mister. I'm smaller than you, lighter than you, and can outrun you. And unless I miss my guess, your precious martial arts training doesn't teach diddly about woodland stalking, so I'm just as well-trained at that as you are. So what do you have to say to that, Mr. Haiya-mama kung fu super shit?" To say she was pissed off would be like comparing Krakatoa to a Roman candle. The thing that bothered me was that, when I really stopped to consider, she was correct on all counts. I was acting like a stereotypical insecure, macho male. I knew that on an intellectual level. But this was my family, damn it! I didn't want to chance any of them getting hurt if I could possibly help it. Logic and emotion battled. Logic presented a way out. "All right, what do you suggest?" Surprise quickly replaced the anger in her eyes. "What?" I shrugged. "You're right. I'm being an idiot. So what do you suggest we do?" Quickly recovering her composure, she replied, "Just what I said a minute ago. You take one side, and I'll take the other. We'll get done twice as fast and be on our way as quickly as possible." "All right." I nodded amiably. "But what about the kids?" She paused, appearing less certain. "They'll stay in the van. You showed Megan how to use the rifle, so they should be just fine." "Fine. But what if something does happen to us? Not that anything will, but what if? Say that there is someone down there, and they kill us," I said bluntly. "Or even if they just capture us and try to ransom us for the supplies in the van. Do you think Megan could handle a situation like that on her own?" Debra was quiet, thinking. Finally, she shrugged. "Okay, you're right. One of us needs to stay with the kids. But I still think that I should do the scouting. I'm smaller and quieter, so I have a better chance of getting in and out without being seen." "But if there's trouble, I'm the one who’s trained to handle it," I countered. I pulled a quarter out of my pocket. "Flip you for it." CHAPTER 4 * * June 13 / 6:03 p.m. * * Le bras pendant à la iambe liee, Visage pasle, au sein poignard caché, Trois qui seront iurez de la meslee Au grand de Genues sera le fer laschee. His arm hung and leg bound, Face pale, dagger hidden in his bosom, Three who will be sworn in the fray Against the great one of Genoa will the steel be unleashed. --Nostradamus – Century 5, Quatrain 28 Watching the van as it passed around a curve and out of sight, I slipped the two-headed quarter back into my pocket. They would wait at a roadside park we had passed a mile back until six forty. No more, no less. That gave me just over half an hour. If I hadn't made it back by then, Debra had agreed to backtrack and detour around the area, taking the longer alternate route. I had assured her I would follow as soon as possible. It would mean driving an additional eighty miles, but that was better than ending up as part of the litter problem on the other side of the hill. I pushed the Suzuki into the woods and slipped among the trees to head over the hill. I made my way about halfway down the hill, then stopped to scan for any signs of life. Nothing. I moved on down, slipping from tree to tree as quietly as possible, alert for any indication that I’d been seen. Finally, I drew alongside the rearmost vehicle. The station wagon, about twenty years old, with what had once been imitation wood grain trim, was about twenty feet from the tree I hid behind, so I had an excellent view. In the scorched mass of melted plastic and charred paint, I saw that the windshield had shattered, and wispy tendrils of melted plastic trailed from the chromed border. The hood was blackened, and black streaks trailed down the fender. Even the front tires were melted. Astonishingly, the rear of the vehicle was nearly untouched except for the windows, which were all networked with the millions of breaks characteristic of overstressed safety glass. I figured the heat had probably done that, since I spotted no apparent points of impact. The idea of impact brought another thought to mind, and I quickly reexamined the wagon. I sighed in relief at the lack of bullet holes, at least not on the side I could see. Checking the other side would mean leaving the cover of the trees, and I wasn't willing to risk that yet, not until I was reasonably sure there wasn't a sentry, or ax murderer, or whatever hiding somewhere in the trees on my side of the road. I glanced at my watch. Only five minutes had passed since I'd come over the hill. Yeah, I thought, time sure flies when you're having fun. It took another ten minutes of sneaking around to convince myself that no one lurked in the trees on my side of the road. Unfortunately, I also confirmed that there had been an ambush. Both vans and all of the bodies were riddled with holes, and I saw enough broken glass to tell me how the attack had probably gone. An initial barrage of Molotov cocktails inundated the convoy, panicking the drivers and their passengers. They abandoned their vehicles, only to be cut down by snipers in the trees. The end result lay before me. Six bodies and four gutted vehicles. I checked my watch. Nearly half of my time had passed, and I still had to search the other side. If it proved safe, I needed to drag the bodies out of sight. I hesitated for a moment more. I finally prodded myself into action. I sprinted from the trees to the side of the overturned pickup. Then I waited, listening for a response. Nothing. So far, so good. I ran for the trees on the far side of the road and crouched next to a large pine. The trees were quiet, and the only sound I heard was the pounding of my heart. Still, I couldn't shake the feeling that something was wrong. I began the search, picking my way as quietly as possible through the trees, uphill to the motorcycle. I had nearly finished my inspection, keeping close track of the time, when I heard a faint buzzing coming from the thick underbrush about twenty yards ahead. Not quite a buzz, though, different somehow, but familiar. I listened intently, willing my heart and breath to silence so that I might identify the tantalizing sound. I finally realized that, while I sat there frozen in place by a noise in the brush, my time was steadily ticking away. I couldn't afford to wait around for the source of the disturbance ahead to jump up and identify itself. So I stepped out from behind the tree to investigate. As I did so, two things happened simultaneously. The first thing was relatively insignificant. Something in my head clicked, and I finally recognized the buzzing as the faint sound of a carrier wave over an open radio channel. As soon as I realized that, I froze. That sound indicated that someone was watching the road, which in turn indicated that the road was unsafe for travel. Even as this ran through my head, and I prepared to carefully work my way around and up to the motorcycle, something much more critical occurred. I heard the sharp "snick-chak" of a semi-automatic handgun being cocked behind me. "All right, buddy, you've got two choices here," the voice behind me gloated. "You can either raise your hands and come with me real quiet-like, or you can make a run for it. Who knows? You might even make it." He paused. "Well, what's it gonna be?" I could tell he was too far away for me to try for his gun and, even if he were closer, I didn't know whether it was at the level of my head or back. Since I wasn't feeling particularly suicidal, I surrendered. I raised my hands, glancing at my watch as I did so. Six twenty-nine, just over ten minutes left.