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Path of Ashes 1-3
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A Path of Ashes; Fireside; Dark Embers

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This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.





Notice: The views expressed herein are NOT endorsed by the United States Government, Department of Defense or Department of the Army.



The Path of Ashes

Omnibus Edition



Copyright © 2016 by Brian Parker

All rights reserved. Published by Muddy Boots Press.

www.MuddyBootsPress.com

Edited by Aurora Dewater





This book is protected under the copyright laws of the United States of America. Any reproduction or other unauthorized use of the material or artwork herein is prohibited without the express written permission of the author.





Contents



A Path of Ashes, Book 1



Fireside, Book 2



Dark Embers, Book 3





Works available by Brian Parker



The Path of Ashes

A Path of Ashes ~ www.amazon.com/dp/B00XATPU9E

Fireside ~ www.amazon.com/dp/B015ONZOU8

Dark Embers ~ www.amazon.com/dp/B01CPSAI1A



Washington, Dead City

GNASH ~ www.amazon.com/dp/B01ACTBBZQ

REND ~ www.amazon.com/dp/B01AYEQRUI

SEVER ~ www.amazon.com/dp/B01C7VEMG2



Unrelated Works

Enduring Armageddon ~ www.amazon.com/dp/B00XZA2UQY

Origins of the Outbreak ~ www.amazon.com/dp/B00MN7UFBW

The Collective Protocol ~ www.amazon.com/dp/B00KUZDY4O

Battle Damage Assessment ~ www.amazon.com/dp/B00PCND2RI

Zombie in the Basement ~ www.amazon.com/dp/B00H6DUXY2

Self-Publishing the Hard Way ~ www.amazon.com/dp/B00HNQCZ9I



Coming Soon

The Immorality Clause, an Easytown novel



Look for Brian’s short story I Guess This is Growing Up in the Bite-Sized Offerings anthology alongside 33 more zombie authors ~ www.amazon.com/dp/B014I7MMZQ





A Path of Ashes

Book 1 of The Path of Ashes



a post-apocalyptic novel by

Brian Parker





Copyright © 2015 by Brian Parker

All rights reserved. Published by Muddy Boots Press.

Edited by Aurora Dewater



Omnibus Contents Page





PROLOGUE



Ash drifted across ; the family’s compound. The old man didn’t know if it was from his own fire or if it simply fell from the clouds above. The filth was a constant reminder of what had been lost to human pride and arrogance. The old world died in fire and somehow humanity continued to scrape by in the darkness.

Aiden Traxx leaned back in the wooden chair that his youngest son had made for him years ago when the heavy metal chair from his grandfather’s time had finally rusted through. He watched his grandchildren play while they used sticks as swords, imitating their father and older brothers, not even realizing that they were already laying the foundation for training with the weapons that they would soon need. The armaments that his predecessors used to destroy the old world were mostly useless relics now, scavenged for the metal that they contained. Occasionally a working gun would make an appearance or be unearthed, but it was a person’s ability to use a sword to defend one’s family that mattered now, not questionable old world technology.

Unconsciously, the old man’s gnarled hand drifted down to his grandfather’s sword beside him. He still carried it with him everywhere, even though it had been many years since he’d needed to use his own weapon to protect the family perimeter. His sons and grandsons had taken over the role of defending the family and their meager crops against the Vultures who lived in the ruins of the cities with the creatures of the night. The Vultures were men who’d succumbed to the deprivation of the world around them, more deadly than any other living thing. They lived deep in the wastelands with the other creatures like the demonbrocs that had been born after the world had burned.

“Come, children, come. Grandad has a story to tell you,” he called to the young ones on the far side of the fire.

The two boys and their cousin, a girl, looked at the old man for a moment. Recognition flickered in his eyes. The children’s desire to disobey the feeble old man was almost palpable. Why should they stop their game and sit to listen to him? The respect that their parents had instilled in them overcame their resentment and they came near to hear his tale.

“Caleb, you sit over here,” Aiden said, indicating the space to his left. “Varan, sit on this side with Tanya.” It was better to keep the boys separated so they would pay attention to the story of their family history.

He waited for them to seat themselves before looking to his left and then the right. “Are you all settled?”

“Yes, Grandad,” Caleb, the oldest of the three, answered for the group.

“Good. When I saw the two of you fighting through the flames of the fire I was reminded of a story that you haven’t heard yet. It’s the story of my grandfather, Aeric Traxx. Have you heard of him before?”

“We’re Traxx,” the little girl answered proudly with a thumb to her chest.

“Yes, little one, we are. Aeric was the first of us.” He leaned down conspiratorially and whispered, “In fact, Aeric’s family name wasn’t even Traxx. He took the name when the old world burned. He was the last of his family and he no longer had any use for the name that he’d been given as a child.”

“Was that when the ruins were made?” Caleb asked.

“Yes, when the ruins were made,” he replied and then stared into the flickering flames. A piece of ash separated from the wood and drifted upwards, riding the heat current towards the heavens where it would combine with the rest of the ash to eventually fall back to earth.

Fitting, he thought. The man’s gravelly voice filled the space between the Traxx family homes where they sat as he began to tell the story of his grandfather Aeric. It had been told to Aeric’s son, who then passed it on to the elderly man when he was young. Now, he passed the family’s history on to his grandchildren.

“On the day that the old world ended, ash drifted across the sky, blotting out the heavens and making it impossible to see the sun in the day or the stars at night—much like it does now when we have high winds, children—except this wasn’t the way that it used to be. Would you believe that when Aeric was a boy, they could see the sun all day long and people were never cold because of the warmth that it provided? It’s true.”





ONE



Aeric stared at the ceiling above his bed and imagined life outside of his tired hometown of Springfield, Missouri. He was done with this town and ready to move on to the next phase in his life. In two weeks he’d graduate from Central High, and then he was headed to Austin, Texas to attend the University of Texas on a baseball scholarship.

He was ready to be an adult, to experience life to its fullest, away from his parents and away from everyone he’d ever known. He was moving three entire states away from his parents, over ten hours one-way. The opportunity to put that much distance between himself, his doting father and overprotective mother sounded like heaven to Aeric.

It wasn’t that he didn’t love them—he did—it was just…too much. His dad always praised everything that he did, or found a way to put negatives in a positive light while somehow still managing to be headstrong, and not budge on much of anything once he’d made up his mind about a subject. His mother worried that something would happen to her only child, so much so that he hadn’t been allowed to go out for football when all of his other friends had. She told him that with all the information about traumatic brain injuries that football players sustained, it would have been criminally negligent for her to allow him to play. So he’d tried out for baseball and earned a spot on the varsity baseball team as a freshman. Four years later, Central High had won three Missouri High School Baseball State Championships and Aeric had a full ride to UT—away from his parents.

He was even looking forward to the summer job that the coaches had helped him land. He was going to spend Monday through Friday coaching at a baseball camp for underprivileged kids. He’d be able to keep working on his own fundamentals while teaching the kids how to perform theirs. It was a win-win for him.

Aeric had to get through the last two weeks of school and then he could leave. Everything had become complicated once he and Kate, his former girlfriend, had broken up. She was a cheerleader and the Prom Queen, easily the most popular girl in their school and they’d dated since the seventh grade. They broke up over a huge misunderstanding. Katie thought that he was cheating on her with his biology partner. As a result, the past three months had been hell as she’d made it her life’s goal to ruin him, turning almost everyone at the school against him. He was ready to get it over with and move on.

The alarm on his phone chimed once again and he pressed the button to turn it off. “One day at a time,” he muttered as he sat up on his bed.

He went to the bathroom and then selected a pair of jeans and his baseball team’s t-shirt from his closet. It was supposed to be rainy all week, so he’d have to wear a jacket—another thing that he was looking forward to when he moved to Texas. He hated the rain and knew that it hardly rained in Austin. When it did rain, they had actual storms, not the drizzle that seemed to go on for days in Missouri, keeping his mood sour.

“Honey, time to get up!” his mother called up the stairs.

“I’m up, Mom. Just getting dressed.”

“Okay, honey. I made you some breakfast. Oh! It’s raining, so don’t forget to take a change of socks and shoes in your backpack in case yours get wet.”

“Be down in a second.” There it was again. The constant coddling and over-protectiveness was exhausting. Why couldn’t she give him a bowl of cereal like every other kid in America got before they went to school? He reluctantly grabbed a second pair of socks and another pair of sneakers.

As he jogged down the steps, the smell of fried eggs hit him full in the face and his stomach rumbled accordingly. Okay, maybe I’ll let her cooking for me slide, he thought. Aeric dropped the extra pair of shoes beside his bag and went into the kitchen. She’d made him an egg sandwich with mayonnaise and tomato. On the side was a bowl of freshly chopped melon and a glass of milk. He liked to complain that his parents were always doting on him, but he was going to miss having a home-cooked meal waiting for him whenever he was hungry.

He scooped up the sandwich in one hand and crammed a large bite into his mouth while he used his other hand to unravel a paper towel. Another bite went in as he dumped the melon onto the napkin. The milk disappeared as quickly as the sandwich had and he yelled, “Thanks, mom!” while he carried the melon down the hallway towards his backpack and shoes.

“Have a good day, honey!” she called after him. “I love you!”

“Yeah, love you too.”

He slipped on the rain jacket that his mother had laid out for him and darted out the front door into the drizzle. Aeric was tempted to run so he could get out of the weather faster, but he knew from experience that doing so would only result in him getting soaked from the waist down as the water splashed up from his feet slapping the pavement. Besides, he still had more food to eat.

He was still three blocks from school when he finished the melon and used the paper towel to wipe his mouth. It came away smudged with a greasy, gray film.

“What the hell?” he muttered and looked skyward. He squinted against the falling rain and noticed a dark cloud above that trailed towards the southeast side of town where the industrial park was located. Something big was on fire over on that side of town.

The dirty rain dribbled through his dark hair down his forehead and stung his eyes. “Ow! Come on! Can this day get any worse?” he grumbled as he walked quickly towards his school rubbing his eyelids.

Once he got there, everyone in the hallway talked about the big industrial fire to the south of town. First, one plant had caught fire and then, an adjacent factory had lit as well. The school’s resident conspiracy theorists said it was a terrorist attack since the two buildings were separated by massive parking lots and there was no way that the fire had jumped that distance.

Their theory married up with the rest of the attacks happening across the country. Over the last several years, they’d gotten worse. Riots happened almost weekly as the disillusioned youth protested the lack of jobs and rising cost of education while minorities protested the lack of upwardly-mobile positions available to them. Adding fuel to the fire were the religious extremists who’d stayed away from America’s shores for decades after getting their asses handed to them in the Middle East. They’d recently begun to return in force to spread their message of hatred and intolerance.

The police had become increasingly hostile as well. They no longer knew who the enemy was since they were confronted on all sides. As a result, they often dealt rapidly and with an iron fist before small demonstrations became full-fledged riots. Their heavy-handed tactics did little more than add to the tension and further divided the nation’s residents as seemingly innocent people were injured during melees with the people who they trusted to protect them.

Aeric didn’t know whether the conspiracy theorists were right in proclaiming that the industrial fires outside of town had been a terrorist act, but he did know that it was another nail in the coffin of his life in Missouri. If anything, the idea that the troubles might be coming to Springfield solidified his desire to leave the state and never return. Graduation couldn’t get there soon enough, so he could start making a life for himself elsewhere.

*****

Aeric pulled up in front of his new apartment on San Jacinto Boulevard. He was tired after driving all day from Springfield to Austin and wanted nothing more than to curl up and go to sleep. The baseball coach had overnighted him the apartment keys and updated camp schedules, so he knew that he had tonight to move in and get settled, and then he’d be working every weekday after that. Even though he had a couple of hours of unpacking to do, the idea that he could potentially be asleep if he let himself skip out on it made him that much more tired.

The university had provided him and another player with a furnished two bedroom apartment for the summer. Then he’d move into the Blanton Dormitory for the fall semester. The apartment was only minutes from campus and the baseball camp where he would work, so he planned to walk or buy a cheap bike instead of driving the car that his parents had surprised him with on graduation night.

Leaving home that morning had been exciting, terrifying and a relief all rolled together. His mother had been an emotional basket-case, while his father went over the route with him for the hundredth time and gave him some cash for the drive. Aeric thought his mother was going to chase after him because she’d followed the car to the end of the driveway. Thankfully, she’d saved both of them the embarrassment and just stood near the street to watch him drive away.

The trip through southwest Missouri and across a small corner of Oklahoma had been uneventful until he’d turned south on US Route 69. That’s when he’d noticed the huge black smear across the morning skyline. As he’d driven closer, it had become evident that something big was on fire and he was reminded of the industrial fires back home a few weeks ago. Those fires hadn’t been the result of a terrorist attack. It turned out to be a disgruntled employee who’d started the fire and then set one of the hotels near the condiment factory on fire—not a second plant as originally reported.

Several thick columns of roiling black smoke drifted skyward to form a massive cloud that hung over southern Oklahoma like a dense blanket. When he got near the town of McAlester, the smoke had been incredibly thick, causing traffic to slow down to ten miles an hour due to limited visibility. In town, he was diverted down back roads far to the east and then back south around the big army ammunition plant that was in McAlester.

The radio had said that several of the massive underground ammunition storage facilities had exploded; Aeric would have bet everything he owned that it was more than just a few of the bunkers, though. There was too much smoke for it to have been a small number of bunkers. The discussion of terrorists had come up on the radio, but Army officials denied it, insisting that it was an explosion of improperly stored ammunition.

His mom had called his cell phone when he was traveling wide around the site of the accident. She’d heard about what happened and wanted to make sure that he was okay. He’d assured her that he was fine and told her that he’d been diverted around the fire, not to worry about him. Of course, that sent her into a tailspin of worry since he’d been close enough to see the fires. After all, what if another bunker exploded?

When he crossed into Texas about fifty miles later, it seemed like a weight had been lifted off of his shoulders. While he still had several hours to drive, including traveling through Dallas, the fact that he’d arrived in the state that he’d call home for at least the next four years had made him feel relieved. He felt like he was actually on his way to becoming a full-fledged adult.

Aeric looked up at his apartment building with a lopsided grin and turned off his car before sliding an arm through his backpack. Might as well take a load when I go up, he thought as he unfolded himself from the Pontiac. He wasn’t overly large at six foot four, two hundred and thirty pounds, but he was pushing the manufacturer’s recommended size limit for the small coupe. He twisted around to pop his lower back and then walked up the sidewalk to the stairwell.

His apartment was on the second floor and he inserted the key in the deadbolt. He hadn’t even turned the key completely around before the door knob twisted and a massive wall of a man opened the door. He looked like he was cut from rock, six seven, maybe six eight, big, broad shoulders, squared off chin and close-cropped blond hair.

“Hey, bro! Are you Aeric?” he asked.

“Uh, yeah. Are you Tyler Nordgren?”

His new roommate stuck out his hand, “Yup. I go by ‘Ty’ though.”

Aeric shook it and stepped through the front door. The apartment was nice, not too large, but bigger than he’d been expecting. Ty had obviously already been there for a day or two. Empty beer cans sat on the counter beside the sink and an open pizza box indicated what he’d eaten at some point. “Nice place,” Aeric muttered.

“Yeah. Sorry about the mess, we don’t have a trash can or recycling bin yet.”

He breathed a sigh of relief. He’d wanted the full college experience, which in his mind didn’t include living like a slob—although the presence of beer was intriguing, Aeric wondered how his underage roommate had gotten it. “That’s okay, I get it. So, which one’s my room?”

Ty led the way through the living room down the hallway. The bathroom lay straight ahead with a bedroom on either side. “I slept in this one last night,” he said indicating the room on the left. “You can have it if you want to be on the side with the parking lot, though. I don’t really care which one I get.”

“Oh, uh… I’ll just take this other one. I don’t care either.”

Tyler helped him unload his car, which was a huge help and cut his trips in half. They cracked a beer and Tyler stood out in the hallway talking while Aeric unpacked his clothes in the closet.

“So, what position do you play?” Aeric asked as he shook out the t-shirts that his mother had wisely made him leave on their hangers.

“I’m a first baseman. But since Chase Hunter is only in his second year of eligibility, I may try to transition over to third so I can play this spring.”

Even though Ty couldn’t see him, he nodded his head. Hunter was a shoo-in for the big leagues. He batted .487 over the course of sixty-three games with 39 home runs as a freshman on the Longhorns run to their national championship last year. The kid was destined to be a star as long as he stayed healthy.

“What about you?”

“I play shortstop,” Aeric replied. “Where are you from, man?”

“Lincoln, Nebraska. You?”

“Springfield, Missouri. I really don’t care if I ever go back, though. There’s nothing there for me anymore. So, are your parents mad that you came all the way to Texas to play ball instead of going to Nebraska right there in town?”

“Nah. My dad realizes that my best opportunity to get scouted is at a College World Series winning school like UT. Besides, Austin is a much better fit for me than Lincoln. People don’t approve of me up there.”

“Well, if you got recruited to play for Texas behind Hunter, you must be pretty good,” Aeric retorted, misunderstanding him.

“No, I mean they don’t approve of me, of my lifestyle.”

He popped his head out of the closet so he could see his giant roommate. “What do you mean?”

“I’m gay, man. They’re not crazy-backwards up there, but people give me a wide berth when I walk by. The LGBT community in Austin is huge and extremely supportive, so I think I’ll fit in better down here.”

Aeric nodded his head in understanding. There had been a lot of growing pains in his hometown over the years as the population there had slowly accepted the fact that homosexuals were just people and not some abomination that they’d been made out to be by various religious organizations. There were problems every once in a while because some bigot would do something absolutely horrific, but for the most part, the issue had passed the test in the Springfield area. However, too far outside of the city limits and he expected that there were still a lot of problems with acceptance.

He hadn’t ever considered living with a gay man before. It didn’t matter to him though, who cared who the guy liked? Then, an epiphany struck him. “Have you met any cute girls that want to hang out with you that you could introduce me to yet?”

Ty smiled at him and flipped him off. “I’ll keep my eye out, bro. I’m starving so I’m gonna order a pizza, what do you like?”

“Just about anything except anchovies or olives.” And just like that, Tyler’s sexuality wasn’t a big deal. The dude liked beer and pizza, played baseball and looked like he could bench press a truck. What more could he ask for in a teammate?





TWO



Aeric dropped his backpack heavily on the floor by his dorm room door. It had been another long day of university-mandated 100-level classes, mostly information that he’d never use. Tyler sat on the couch engrossed in the television while he ate a grilled chicken sandwich. The team trainers had put them both on high-protein, low-pizza diets after they’d each gained several pounds over the course of the summer. Ty’s parents seemed content to fund his unlimited pizza and beer expense account and he always dragged Aeric along. Dieting sucked, but now that the fall semester had begun, they had to get back into baseball shape for the spring.

“You’re not gonna believe what just happened,” Aeric said.

“What?” Ty asked around a mouthful of sandwich. It came out sounding more like a cow’s moo than a human’s words and a large piece of bread fell out of his mouth onto the floor.

“Dude! For a gay guy, you’re the messiest person I’ve ever met,” Aeric teased. “Aren’t you like, supposed to be super clean and smell like roses all the time?”

Tyler leaned to the side and farted with a laugh. “Man, you set that up perfectly!”

“Geez… Anyways, some homeless guy was talking on his cell phone and then began begging me for change so he could eat.”

“Yeah, so?”

“The homeless guy had a cell phone…and was begging me for change,” Aeric prompted.

The light went off in Tyler’s head and he said, “Oh… You think that he shouldn’t have been begging for money if he can afford a cell phone.”

“Exactly. I told him that I wasn’t giving him any money if he had enough to pay for a cell phone contract, and then he went on this crazy rant about how I was an over privileged, rich white kid who went to college while he spent his college years fighting in Afghanistan. Like, everybody stopped and stared at me and several people gave me the dirtiest looks—people we go to school with—and then they gave this dude money. Can you believe that? They made it seem like I was the bad guy for telling him that he had to prioritize whether he wanted a cell phone or food.”

“Pretty typical stuff, man. We’ve talked about how people with money are demonized in my sociology class. You wouldn’t believe how many of the people in our school actually believe that having money is evil.”

“They’re at a university that charges a shit-ton of money for tuition,” Aeric muttered. “They have money, or student loans, and they talk about how bad money is. Yeah, my freshman psych class has those debates too.”

“It’s just like all these riots,” Tyler said as he gestured towards the television. “Some of them are about racism, some are about social equality, and others just want to bitch about something near and dear to them and a thousand of their closest friends.”

Aeric glanced at the TV, “Shit, man. Is there another riot going on?”

“Yeah, this time it’s in Cincinnati. They’re rioting about the government response to the terrorism threat here in the states.”

“Geez, what is that, four or five this week?”

“Well, let’s see,” Ty held up his hand and counted off the massive riots that had swept the country during the last week. “Houston, New Orleans, Atlanta—”

Aeric interrupted him, “Did they find those news anchors yet?”

“Nope, the entire tower is just…gone. Fucking terrorists.”

“Sucks.”

“Anyways, there was Baltimore, Chicago and now Cincinnati. People are scared of this shit, man.”

“By rioting about the government’s lack of response to the terrorism, all they’re doing is creating more problems,” Aeric reasoned. “They think that they’re telling our government to crack down on the extremists, but they create more propaganda for the terrorists to use and recruit even more people to their cause.

“And what about the police state?” he continued. “The government could easily end up with too harsh of a response and we’d end up being like Russia in the nineteen fifties. People were afraid to leave their homes, always wondering if they were gonna get snatched on the street or if the secret police were going to invade their homes. We can’t live like they did.”

“Whoa! This isn’t your Psychology class,” Ty responded with his hands up and accidentally knocked his plate off his lap. “You’re in la casa de Tyler. I’m not some ditz who thinks that those people out there in the streets who say that they’re protesting for social change are doing anything except causing more problems. I understand that the government’s lack of response could swing quickly to too heavy of a response. It’s the age-old debate about civil liberties versus security. Is there an acceptable middle ground there or do we always have to operate in the extremes?”

“You’re right,” Aeric admitted. “Sorry, Ty. I’m really freaked out by all of this. I mean, it feels like we’re unraveling at the seams and there’s nothing that we can do about it.”

“Relax, bro. It’s only going on in the major cities, like in the sixties and seventies. This is just another form of social change. It’ll blow over after cooler heads prevail and everyone calms down.”

“I don’t know,” Aeric said as he shook his head while he stared at the television. “This feels bigger. The extremists are attacking people who are different than them, everywhere. Paris is a war zone. London has an eight pm curfew… Hell, even Moscow is under siege. It seems like the only place that stuff isn’t happening is in China.”

Tyler snorted. “Don’t let them fool you. They’ve got massive social problems, too. Their government just goes in and eliminates an entire village if something happens, so we don’t even hear about it. I’ve read about things happening there that make Paris look like an out of control Christmas parade, man. China is an absolute nightmare.”

Aeric considered his roommate’s words. What the hell was happening all over the world? It was like the simmering pot of racism, social injustice and religious violence had overflowed and spewed out of the pot. He’d watched cautiously as it happened on other continents, but now it had erupted all across the United States and it scared the hell out of him.

“Are we, like, supposed to go to school or stay home?”

Tyler looked away from the television and shook his head. “Man, that’s so far away, there’s no way that the school is gonna close over this stuff.”

“This is a dangerous situation,” Aeric countered.

“Weren’t the sixties race riots dangerous? What about the war protests and domestic terrorism of the seventies, weren’t those dangerous? The LA Riots, the recent race riots, sporting riots… All of those were dangerous and the country recovered—and I’m pretty sure that school wasn’t canceled for any of those.”

“I guess one of the coaches would give us a call if we were supposed to stay in the dorm, right?” Aeric asked.

“Yeah, they would. Besides, Austin is fine. We haven’t had any incidents here.”

“You’re right. It’s just—”

He was interrupted by the ringing of his cell phone. He looked at the screen, it was his father. “Hello?”

“Hey, Aeric, it’s dad.”

“I know. You come up in my caller ID.”

“Well, it could have been your mother.”

He sighed. “What’s up, dad?”

“Your mother and I were worried about you and we wanted to check in to see if you were okay.”

“Yeah, we’re fine. Everything that’s happening is far away from us.”

“I know, son. Things like this have the potential to get out of hand pretty quickly. I just want you to be safe and make smart decisions.”

“I will. I won't get involved in anything dangerous. Our coaches are keeping an eye out for everything and will let us know if there's a problem.”

“Your coaches? Listen, Aeric, it's right to trust your coaches and to listen to their advice. But if things go bad, they're gonna be looking out for themselves and their families, not you. Understand?”

“Dad, I'm not stupid, I know that they'll be more concerned with their own families. Nothing is happening down here, though. We're fine.”

“You keep saying that. Promise me that if something seems like it isn't right, you'll leave. Promise me that, okay?”

“Uh, okay, sure.”

“Son, this is important to me. Just promise me, please.”

“Sure. I promise to leave if the situation gets weird.”

“Gaines don't break their promises, young man. I'm gonna hold you to that.”

Aeric was starting to get irritated with his dad's overprotectiveness once again. It had settled down over the summer and he'd hoped that the distance away from home had possibly mellowed his parents' attitude towards him, but here it was again. He wasn't even halfway through the fall semester and they were treating him like a child again.

“Dad, I got it! I’ll avoid any creepy guys in dark alleys. I’ve gotta go or I’m gonna be late for work.”

“It’s only four o’clock. I thought you didn’t have to be at the camp until six.”

Aeric muttered a curse under his breath. “Yeah. I usually start at six, but they changed the hours this week and I have to be there at four-thirty.”

“Hmm, okay. One more thing before I let you go, don’t use your credit card.”

“What? That’s the only way I can buy groceries, dad.”

“Well, the damned hackers busted into our bank yesterday. They cleared out our accounts and ran up all of our credit cards. Yours is maxed out too. Just eat in the student cafeteria until we can get this sorted out, okay?”

Aeric cursed under his breath. Now the goddamned computer hackers were messing with his life. What the hell was wrong with those people? Couldn’t they just work like everyone else instead of stealing people’s identities and stealing their money. “Yeah, sure, I’ll have the lasagna in the cafeteria,” he sneered.

“Look, son, I know it’s not the healthiest food that you need for baseball, but it’s only a few days. The bank is aware of the charges. Heck, their entire network was hacked and millions of dollars have been stolen. It took me three hours to get through to someone this morning. Everything should be okay in a few days. You’ll probably have a new card mailed to you by the end of the week. I’ll call you and let you know when things are back to normal.

“Shit—whoops, sorry, dad. I mean, darn. Okay, I’ll make it work down here and see about cashing my check instead of depositing it.”

“Good idea. You can’t go wrong with cash.”

“Yeah. Okay, I’ve really gotta go.”

“Be safe. Alright, son?”

“Yeah. Sure thing, dad. Bye.”

He stabbed the button to turn his phone off and Tyler looked over at him. “Your parents are freaking out a little bit, huh?”

“Yeah, my dad thinks that this is bigger than the news is letting on and now our damned bank got hacked, so I don’t have any money.”

“Now I know where you get your paranoid streak from,” Ty stated.

Aeric considered throwing something at the big jock, but he figured that he’d end up getting his ass kicked. “I’m not paranoid. As much as I hate to admit it, my dad’s right. We need to be careful.”

“No worries, bro. We will be. Man, I could totally go for a beer right now,” he grumbled. “All of your worrying is stressing me out.”

“I’m down,” Aeric said. “But I don’t have any money and we’re on that stupid diet.”

“I’ve got you. Besides, one beer won’t hurt anything. I’ll take your ass to the gym and beat the hell out of you tomorrow.”

“Yeah, one beer sounds good.”

*****

They’d called him crazy, a sociopath, even a terrorist. What the fuck did any of those assholes know? He was a brilliant visionary, the mastermind behind the largest planned hack in the history of computing. He’d spent years cultivating his followers, assigning them menial tasks to test their loyalty and now he had a network of more than five hundred experienced hackers who followed his every command as gospel.

Justin Rustwood’s life had been a series of setbacks and disappointments up until this point. He’d never been particularly good at sports and he had become the target of many practical jokes when his parents forced him to try out for one of his high school teams each year. He developed a deep-seated hatred for the jocks that had constantly made fun of him, beat him up and publicly humiliated the fat kid from Sonora, California.

After high school, he had surprised his parents by joining the Army as a computer systems specialist. The only thing that he truly excelled at as a kid was computer programming and the Army had trained him to be a computer hacker to defend against the invasive hacking of their computer systems. He became good, very good, and was quickly promoted in the newly formed Army Cyber Command, which promoted soldiers based on their computer skills, not how many stupid push-ups that a meathead could do.

He’d dropped the baby weight and the Army made sure that he built a lot of muscle, but he still hated the jocks that had ruined his childhood. Even in the CyberCom, the colonels and generals were all infantrymen; stupid, musclebound assholes who tried to attack cyber intrusions like they would an enemy on the battlefield by directing all of their forces to the point of attack. Justin knew better though, he’d begun hacking other networks on his own time, so he knew that for actual cyber-attacks meant to disrupt operations or steal information there were typically multiple points of entry. The main, easily recognizable, yet hard to defeat attack was meant to confuse defenders and pull all of their resources while the real attack was usually a subtle thrust from the side.

It was during one of these attacks that his shining Army career came to a crashing halt. Colonel Harris, the man in charge of his section, a Ranger who barely knew how to compose an email, let alone defend the nation’s computer networks from a determined hacking effort, ordered him to focus his team’s efforts on the main attack. Rustwood had argued against it, but ultimately conceded and had his subordinates defend against the attack while he searched for the real breach. He found it and stopped it, earning the appreciation of the Army, while also gaining an enemy in the colonel, who viewed his actions as a direct violation of his orders.

Things got worse for Justin as Colonel Harris made it his goal to punish him for disobeying his orders. One day, during a health and welfare inspection of the barracks, they found the Airsoft gun that Justin had purchased as a gift for his brother still in the package in his room. Everyone knew that it wasn’t a deadly weapon, but the colonel pressed charges all the same and somehow was able to get the JAG to agree. He was busted down to private for having a ‘gun’ in his barracks room and then got chaptered out of the Army without any benefits.

Over the years he continued to develop his computer skills and nurse his hatred for Colonel Harris, who’d retired and had become an assistant coach for the University of Texas baseball team. Justin formed an online group of Hackers known worldwide as ‘The Vultures’, named after the marvelously adaptive bird of prey that could survive on the world’s leftovers and then attack when enough of them were gathered.

Most of the members of the Vultures were like-minded. They were disillusioned with a world that rewarded people based solely on their looks, their personality, how fast they could run—all the things that a simple twist of the genetic Rubik’s Cube had given them and not what they’d earned. Our society was based on the lies of the government, reality television programs and performance enhancing drug-addled superstars who pandered to every minority and blamed people of European descent for all the social ills. It was such a farce. The Founding Fathers would be shocked to see what their Great American Experiment had become. The world would be a better place if they could reset the clock and start over.

It was during a discussion with his disciples one day that the idea came to Justin. The Vultures could reset the clock. It was within their power to do so. All it would take would be to infiltrate the US Strategic Command’s network and initiate an attack. Of course, they’d have to do the same for the Russian General Staff, which had access to their nuclear weapons. The Russians, predictably, would shoot back immediately. However, the primary reason for even bothering to hack their network would be to ensure that none of their missiles were targeted at places where the Vultures would be. They couldn’t help to rebuild the world if they were obliterated in an attack.

He wasn’t stupid or crazy. Justin knew that in order to achieve his goals, he would need to convince his followers to do unspeakable acts. As a student of history, he’d decided that the easiest way would be through religion. So he began to speak of the Reset in terms of a righteous crusade against evil and people ate it up. His followers grew, both online and off. The first time that he met a small group of Vultures in person he was regarded as a legend, possibly even a celebrity, which he thought was hilarious.

In order to prepare for the harsh life after the Reset, he worked out for hours each day to achieve peak physical condition and set up secret guarded warehouses full of shelf-stable food that were paid for by hacking the offshore accounts of the rich. He urged his followers to move to Austin, Texas where he’d set up shop so he could observe Colonel Harris. As time wore on and more of the Vultures relocated to Austin, they began to view him as a deity, the savior of mankind. And he’d begun to believe it himself. The females of the group freely gave themselves to him and the males offered their spouses or girlfriends for his use. Life was good, but the distractions couldn’t keep him from moving forward with his plans.

“Brothers and sisters,” Justin said to the assembled group in his luxurious home. “Tonight, we set in motion the beginning stages of the Reset.”

He waited until the applause and murmuring died down before continuing. “It is imperative that you move to your safe location within the next few days,” Justin said as the Vulture transcribing his words typed rapidly into their ultra-secure server so that his followers around the world could hear his message.

“The world has digressed into hatred and villainy. Children idolize adulterous, murdering, drug-using football players who beat their wives. Our youth don’t want to learn about mathematics or science, history or geography, all they want to do is play silly games with balls so they can have the chance to be a millionaire superstar and have paparazzi follow them to the restroom one day. Enough is enough.

“We have spent years preparing for the next several days. I applaud your secrecy, your ability to disguise our true intentions, and the advancement of your skills which have allowed us to gain access to the United States Air Force’s nuclear network without their knowledge.

“We all know that the Reset will not be pretty and that millions of people will die. Be not afraid, for I have seen that the way is righteous. We are God’s chosen. We will purge the earth of its evil. Even today, terrorism kills thousands of people a month, our police forces abuse the population, and minorities demand a greater piece of the pie. We are the chosen ones and we will cleanse the globe with fire.

“I have set in motion the first stage of the Reset. By the end of the tomorrow night, the world will know of the Vultures and the world will rejoice at the freedom from repression that we will give them.”

Justin looked around the room, appraising his followers’ reactions. Two of them were clearly shocked as if they thought all the work that the Vultures had done was just a game. He’d have to have those two removed before they ruined his plans. His eyes fell upon the trio of his favorite hackers. He stood, allowing his robe to open slightly and reveal the muscles that he’d worked hard to develop, and beckoned the three women to follow him to his bedchamber.

*****

“Alright! Who wants to do a shot?” Aeric yelled to the small group that had gathered in their fourth-floor room in Blanton Dormitory.

“Hey, I’ll do one with you,” Amber, a petite brunette from Katy, Texas, said as she slid her hand up his arm.

Aeric tried to blink away the fog in his mind. He knew that he’d met her earlier that evening, but wasn’t sure if he’d been talking to her or one of the other girls that had seemed to magically appear in their room once they started drinking. They’d been discussing the merits of whether the government’s response to the growing terrorist threat should be soft and only go after the cells in secret or if they should smash through the neighborhoods where the organizations were likely hiding. Then, the next thing he knew, the room was full of girls and a few of Tyler’s guy friends.

“What do you want? We have SoCo, vodka or tequila,” he slurred.

Her hand slid along the crease between his biceps and triceps, then up over the bottom of his deltoid. “Mmm…what kind of tequila?”

“Uh, we have Patrón Silver,” Aeric replied.

Amber’s fingernails dug into the back of his arm slightly as she pulled him down to her so she could kiss him. When she broke away, she said, “Let’s do a shot of Patrón.”

He walked into the kitchen and pulled two short juice glasses down from the cabinet. Even though their RA was really cool and didn’t turn them in for having the alcohol, they couldn’t take the risk of having shot glasses. It was stupid little things like shot glasses that you missed when you hid the booze that would get you in trouble for violating the dorm rules.

Amber slid up behind him and pressed herself up close while he poured the tequila into the two glasses that he’d selected. A shiver went up his spine as her fingernails trailed along his stomach. “So, you’re a baseball player?” she asked.

“Uh, yeah,” he answered with a nervous chuckle. Amber was extremely hot and she was totally interested in him. This night is on track to end great, he thought.

“I love baseball players,” she purred.

It took him a little effort to spin around because she was so close, but he finally turned around and handed the pretty coed one of the glasses. “Cheers!” he said.

She raised the glass and replied, “Here’s to an exciting evening.”

He smiled back at her and downed the shot. The Patrón slid smoothly down his throat without the need for a chaser. “Mmm, that’s good,” he said.

Amber nodded and once again pulled him down to her. They were lost to their kiss when a nearby explosion rocked the building. The lights flickered and then went out completely. People in the living room screamed in terror while car alarms echoed through the night across campus.

“What the hell was that?” Amber asked.

“I don’t know,” Aeric replied. “It sounded like an explosion.”

“Hey, guys!” someone yelled from the living room. “Come check it out, I think the Health Science Center just blew up!”

“The Health Science building?” Tyler asked as Aeric and Amber rushed towards the window where everyone was gathered.

“Yeah, I take classes there.”

“Call 9-1-1!” a girl shouted.

“I’m trying,” another answered. “The lines are all busy.”

The partygoers were scared and confused, and Aeric’s buzz quickly wore off. How had the chemistry building exploded? Was someone working on an experiment after hours that went awry and somehow caused a major accident? Was it a planned explosion, an attack? Were the problems that plagued most of the country hitting Austin too?

“Come on, Aeric. We should go see if anyone needs help,” Amber asserted as she slid her arm through his and pulled him towards the door.

“Uh, yeah. Okay. Ty, we’re gonna go down and see if there’s anything that we can do. Are you coming?”

Tyler turned from the scene at the window and said, “Yeah. I’ve got that big first aid kit in my bat bag. Let’s take that and see what we can do.”

“Good idea,” Aeric replied. Tyler always had his own collection of bandages in case he got injured when one of the trainers wasn’t around. He returned carrying his entire baseball bag and led the way to the door. Aeric fell into step behind him and heard several others following behind him.

“This is so weird,” Amber muttered.

“Yeah, I wonder what happened.”

She shook her head and followed Tyler and Aeric down the stairs. The bigger man pulled out his cell phone and used the screen to illuminate the way. “Good idea,” Aeric praised him and slid his own phone out of his pocket. He briefly checked the signal strength before turning it around. There weren’t any bars on the screen.

“Huh, I don’t have any signal.”

“What? Let me see,” Amber said and looked at his phone and then pulled hers out of her back pocket. “I don’t have a signal either.”

They stepped out of the stairwell into the dorm lobby. Fires burned at various places, not yet generating enough smoke to set off the alarms. “What the fuck?” Tyler yelled.

“Hey, who’s that guy?” a girl that Aeric didn’t recognize as part of their initial group shouted. He followed her outstretched arm towards a man wearing a ski mask and holding a large red can of gasoline.

His eyes locked with Aeric’s for a moment and then he dropped the can, running from the lobby towards the street. “Hey! Get back here,” he roared and took off after the arsonist.

When he exited the building, his senses were assailed by the turmoil. Everywhere he looked, it seemed like fires were burning while sirens screamed through the night. He gagged on the low-hanging acrid smoke and wondered how the fire at the Health Science building had spread so quickly. It must have been the masked man. Had he escaped?

“There he is!” Amber pointed over his shoulder.

He saw the man running towards downtown and ran into the street, directly into the path of a huge blacked-out truck barreling down University Avenue. Aeric froze like a deer in the headlights. His mind screamed at his body to react. It wouldn’t respond as he stared at his imminent death.

“Look out!” a girl’s voice cut through the fog and he was hit hard in the back by her shove.

He felt her hands close around his waist and then suddenly pull him back towards the truck violently. An impossibly loud thud filled his ears as the truck impacted with the girl. Then he was spinning back around as he bounced off the side of the vehicle.

The truck slammed on its brakes, filling the night with yet another sound as the tires squealed against the pavement between the dorm and the Health Science Center. Aeric lay in a crumpled heap near the side of the road and his head pounded in rhythm with his rapidly beating heart. He tried to sit up, but couldn’t get his body to respond.

His head rolled listlessly to the side and he locked eyes with Amber. Had she been the one to push him out of the way of the truck? His vision swam in and out as his body threatened to pass out, but a woman’s screaming brought him back to the present. Only then did his sight clear up enough to realize Amber’s beautiful face was close to his while her body stretched out grotesquely behind her. She’d been ground into the pavement by the heavy truck.

Her lifeless eyes stared at him in silent accusation. She’d tried to save his life and sacrificed her own instead. From the high point near the center of the road, a dark liquid reflected the fires of the burning buildings as it slowly seeped toward Aeric.

He squeezed his eyes shut to make the sight of the dead girl go away, to wake up from the nightmare that had descended upon his world. When he opened them, Amber’s body was still there. He tried to move away from the blood that flowed towards him, but his body still refused to respond and he felt the first of it touch his cheek.

Aeric turned his head to pull his face away and noticed that it was snowing. The giant flakes falling from above seemed surreal to the baseball player. He thought that he’d left the early fall snowstorms behind in Missouri. The ‘snow’ landed on his cheek, but wasn’t cold like snow normally was.

It wasn’t until the red and blue lights of the emergency vehicle illuminated the road that Aeric realized that it was ash blown up from the burning buildings all around him.

*****

The next few minutes were a mix of insane moments interspersed with surprising lucidity for Tyler. He was standing on the sidewalk when his best friend at UT and Amber, the girl from down the hall who’d asked him to introduce her to Aeric, got hit by a big police truck. The damn thing was painted all black speeding down the road with no lights on like it was going on some kind of SWAT raid. They may even have been headed to arrest the arsonists, but there was no reason to be traveling with no lights on.

It took him less than a second to ascertain that there was nothing that he could do for Amber. She’d been mutilated by the huge tires, so he focused on Aeric. His friend’s eyes were partially open and unresponsive. He instantly went into lifeguard mode. He’d worked as a lifeguard at outdoor pools in the summer and indoor pools during Nebraska’s long winters every year since he was twelve. Having a little bit of a buzz didn’t erase six years of constant training. The first thing you were supposed to do when you came across an injured person was to check for breathing.

Aeric didn’t have a pulse. He rotated his body so that Aeric’s back was flat on the ground and began CPR. He was cautious not to press too hard initially for fear of breaking the guy’s ribs. If he didn’t get something going soon, he’d go into the full chest compressions, which would probably end up fracturing the delicate rib bones.

It only took three rounds of compressions and breathing for his friend to begin breathing again. Frankly, he was shocked. He’d never heard of anyone responding to CPR as quickly as Aeric had. He kept breathing and Tyler moved to the next item on the checklist. Check for bleeding.

Fuck. He had a massive gash in the side of his head and he’d also been laying in the girl’s blood, so Aeric was totally covered in it. He used the small first aid kit that he’d brought to try and bandage the cut as several hard-soled shoes came running up. A pair of EMTs took over bandaging his friend while a police officer took statements.

Tyler stumbled over to the officer in shock, while smoke began pouring from the Blanton Dormitory windows. The officer had everyone move to the far side of the street and one of the people from his party pointed at him, saying that he knew the victim. It wasn’t true. He didn’t really know her that well. Amber was just a girl on their floor who’d come to their impromptu party. He answered the officer’s questions woodenly until it came time to the actual accident.

“Then, that big fucking police truck came barreling through here without any lights on and hit them both. It didn’t even stop, just kept on going.”

“That’s under investigation, Mr. Nordgren. Tell me the facts as you saw them.”

“I told you that the truck came through here without any lights on and hit my friends. Those are the facts as I saw them.”

“Are you getting lippy with me, boy? Do you want to spend the night in jail for interfering with a police investigation?”

Tyler knew where this was going. The increasingly hostile police force wouldn’t investigate their own shortcomings. They’d make a public statement about the tragedy of the events leading up to Amber’s death, but didn’t claim ownership of it or punish those responsible. It was part of the price to pay for the increased security in America.

“No, sir. I’m just upset about my friend’s death.”

“Good. Now, let’s revisit your statement and tell me exactly what happened before I start asking you about why you’re carrying around a bag with a giant baseball bat in it.”

He sighed and began again, cautious to avoid anything that could be construed as blaming the police for the accident.





THREE



Aeric awoke to the slow beeping of electronic equipment and dim lighting. He tried to sit up, but his body was too sore, so he used his hands to push his back off of the bed. A sharp pain in his wrist made him reconsider and he brought his hand up in front of his face. There was an IV line sticking out of the big vein on the back of his hand.

“What the hell?” he muttered and dropped his arm down to his forehead. Something soft touched his arm and he used his hand to feel around his skull. A bandage completely circled his head without obscuring his line of sight.

He turned slightly and noticed Tyler sleeping in a chair beside the bed with his mouth open. “Hey. Hey, Ty. Wake up!” he croaked through parched lips. His throat felt like it was on fire. “Hey!”

“Wha—”

“Wake up!” Aeric repeated.

Tyler rubbed the palm of his hand into his eye socket. “Oh, man, you’re awake! Geez, I was really worried about you.”

Aeric tried to grin. His face hurt too much though, so he gave up the effort. “I’m alright. Did I fall down the stairs at the party or something?”

Ty leaned forward and then stood up to look down on him. “You don’t remember what happened?”

He searched his memory and nothing stood out. He remembered hanging out with some girls and drinking a lot, not much more after that except that he might have made out with someone. “Uh, it’s all a little fuzzy after the party got going.”

“You don’t remember the Health Science building exploding or all the fires that the arsonists set on campus?”

The blurry memory of fires painting the night sky orange and red did ring a bell. He thought he’d dreamt that part though. “I… I’m not sure, man. I don’t remember any explosions. The building blew up?”

“Yeah. It was after hours, so nobody was hurt in the explosion. Several hundred people died in the dorm fires, though.”

Aeric choked. “Several hundred?” His throat was killing him. “Can you get me some water?”

“Yeah, hold on.”

He heard a sink turn on and then Tyler came back into view and held the cup to his lips while he sipped the cool liquid. “They don’t know how many people died yet. Multiple arsonists disabled the fire alarms in all the university dorms and then set fires on the bottom floors. If we hadn’t gone downstairs to investigate the explosion, we’d probably be dead too.”

“I’m sorry, Ty. I don’t remember any of that. Maybe I was more drunk than I thought.”

“You did puke all over everything—I thought that was because of the truck that hit you though.”

“Huh?”

“Do you remember Amber?” Tyler asked cautiously.

He smiled. It wasn’t nearly as painful this time. “Yeah, that cute brunette from down the hall.”

“She saved your life when we went outside. You were gonna get crushed by a big police truck—one of those big ones that the city bought from the military when we left the Middle East—but she pushed you out of the way.”

“Oh wow! I— What is it?” he asked. His friend had tears running down his face.

“Amber was killed by the truck when she pushed you out of the way. It tore her to shreds.”

He recoiled deeper into the hospital bed’s mattress. “No! That… Oh, man, that sucks.”

Tyler wiped his face with his hands and cleared his throat. “It gets worse.”

“I don’t know if I can take anything else, Tyler,” he replied truthfully.

“You need to hear it. Some hacker group hacked into the computer systems of every plane that was airborne over the United States yesterday and turned off their flight control systems. Most of the planes crashed. There were some that were high enough that the pilots were able to recover and find a landing strip, but not many. We’re talking thousands of planes that went down in an instant.”

“Are you serious?”

“Yeah, bro. All those people are dead. The government is labeling it as a cyber-crime, not a terrorist act. There are massive riots in New York, Boston, LA… Well, you get the picture. All the places that have already had riots are having them again, except they’ve gotten out of control. I was watching the news until I got tired and turned it off. These aren’t even disguised as peaceful protests anymore. They’ve gone to full-on mob violence. People are getting killed protesting the government’s investigation into people getting killed. It’s totally crazy.”

“Is this really happening?” Aeric mumbled as he tried to clear his head and organize his thoughts.

“I’m afraid so. All of our stuff is gone, too. Blanton burned down. The university canceled classes indefinitely and the southeast side of town is a war zone. The police are fighting a losing battle with some of the Hispanic gangs out there.”

Aeric tried to sit up again and Tyler placed one of his massive hands on him to hold him down. “We need to get out of town, Ty!”

“Don’t get up. I’ll go find a doctor or nurse and see what they say.” He didn’t wait for Aeric to answer and strode out of the room.

He turned his head and tried to see out of the window. Aeric stared hard at the sky through the deeply tinted window for a few seconds and decided that it must be either late evening or early morning. Dark, angry clouds rolled by in the distance, some of which looked like they might have been from fires and not heavily laden with rain.

Amber was dead because of him. He’d been so drunk that he apparently couldn’t even get out of the way of a giant truck. What a fucking waste of a life. She’d seemed so vibrant and had a smile on her face every time that he’d seen her. Now she was gone—and so were a lot of other students. What kind of sick bastards would do something like that to innocent college students?

The tears flowed freely down his cheeks while he stared blankly out the windows. The world’s sanity had been slowly eroding during the last twenty or thirty years. Now it had gone completely mad. How had it gotten to this point? He understood the problems with the terrorists. They had been a constant threat since the mid-1970s, popping up when the population had once again settled into complacency and the organizations had been relegated to obscurity. Unfortunately, those types of random attacks were things that Americans had come to expect. There was little that people could do to defend against them except to be vigilant.

The bullshit bucket had finally overflowed and was now lying on its side to fill the streets. The social inequality and difference between the haves and the have-nots wasn’t any different than it had been for millennia. However, it seemed like everyone had developed a sense of entitlement and those who couldn’t afford the same things as their more wealthy peers had struck out in every direction.

It started with the riots in the major cities and now it seemed like it had come home to roost in Austin. There was a clear disparity in Austin, an affluent city with a large, disillusioned youth population. He had a hard time believing that people would go so far as to commit arson and murder, but that’s what was happening and there were certainly fires burning out in the city even now.

It occurred to him that he didn’t even know what hospital he was in. Was he in the University Medical Center or Saint David, or even the one way out north of town on Research? It seemed like a silly thing to think about, but it filled his mind and he couldn’t stop wondering where he was. The angle from his bed didn’t allow him to see the UT Tower or any other distinctive buildings so he was at a loss.

He’d started to drift back to sleep by the time that Tyler returned with a nurse. “Hello, Mr. Gaines. Your friend said that you’re awake. How do you feel?”

“Like crap,” he admitted. “I got hit by a truck, people everywhere are dead and my throat is on fire.”

“Well, that’s probably because we had to perform a gastric suction on you—we had to pump your stomach,” she amended when she noticed his confused look. “You had too much alcohol in your system for us to be able to properly administer medications. It’s possible that your esophagus was accidentally scraped during the procedure.”

“Hmm,” he muttered.

“As to getting hit by the truck, well you bounced off of it really,” she stated with a smile that made Aeric want to punch her in the face. A girl had died so that he could just “bounce off the truck.” It was serious, not something to joke about. “You don’t have any internal injuries, lots of bruising and a small contusion to the back of your head where it must have impacted with the truck. Other than that, there’s no swelling in your brain or anything to worry about.”

He forced himself to calm down. Her nonchalant attitude wasn’t her fault. She worked with patients who died, or were dying, on a daily basis. Amber’s death hadn’t affected her the way it had him. “Okay, so am I free to leave then?” he asked.

“You’ve been in and out of consciousness for about thirty hours, Mr. Gaines. We’d like to keep you for at least a day of observation, but if you feel that you’re healthy enough to leave, we can’t make you stay.”

He glanced at Tyler, who shrugged and said, “Where are you gonna go? Our dorm burnt down, remember?”

“Shit. Yeah, I guess I’ll stay then.”

“Ok, we’ll notify the police department somehow. They want to get a statement from you about the events of the incident. With all the problems on the southeast, I’m not sure how long it will be until they can speak to you.”

Aeric nodded, replying, “Well, they can always call my cell phone.”

“Cell service is still out, man. Hell, even the regular phone lines are down,” Ty stated.

“What do you mean? How are the cell phones down? They communicate over satellites.”

“I don’t know. The news is still able to broadcast, but other communications satellites don’t seem to work. I guess the telephone lines must have been cut too. Austin is pretty isolated right now.”

“What’s causing all of this?” Aeric asked.

“Let me disconnect all of your wires,” the nurse interjected. “I don’t think you need to be hooked up to a heart rate monitor anymore. Then I’ll leave you two alone and check back in on you in a couple of hours. Just buzz if you need anything.” She unhooked all the wires and turned off the beeping equipment before she left. The IV stayed in his hand.

Tyler watched her go and then said, “I don’t know what’s causing all of this, Aeric. It seems like everything is happening all over the place. The internet has been a hotbed of activity for years with people all over the world calling for the overthrow of whatever government that they had, but it seems like some groups have actually begun to carry out their plans.”

Once again, Aeric muttered, “Is this really happening? I mean, are we really talking about the collapse of society because of disgruntled people banding together on the internet?”

Tyler gestured towards the television and shrugged. “That’s what the news says.”

“This…this sucks,” Aeric mumbled at a loss for words. “Hey, do my parents know about what’s going on?”

Tyler shrugged again and replied, “I don’t know. I haven’t talked to them, but the UT attack has been all over the news, so I’m sure that they know something is going on.”

“Dammit! The phones don’t work?”

“Nope, I’ve tried mine a bunch of times and the nurse said that the hospital’s phones don’t work either.”

“What about the internet? If they’re broadcasting the television over satellite, is the internet still up and running? I doubt that hackers, or whoever is doing this, would turn their primary means of communication off, right?”

“Good point. I hadn’t thought of that since my cell phone internet connection didn’t work. I thought it was all down.”

“Cell phone data flows over the cellular network, so it makes sense that it doesn’t work. I bet that computers that have their modems hooked up to the cable company lines have internet access.”

“Hold on, let me go find an internet lounge or something. Hospitals usually have them.”

“Wait a minute,” Aeric said. “Help me up, I want to go with you.”

It took some maneuvering to get him out of the bed, but they finally got him up and secured his open robe in the back. The IV drip pole had wheels, so Tyler rolled that along beside Aeric and they went looking for a computer.

“Where do you think you’re going, Mr. Gaines?” the nurse who’d visited him earlier asked from her seat in the nurses’ station.

“We’re looking for an internet café or something like that so I can send my parents an email to let them know that I’m okay.”

She raised an eyebrow and stated, “There’s not an internet café in Saint David’s.”

“Is there anywhere we could go?” Aeric pleaded. “My parents don’t know anything and I’m sure that they’ve seen the news saying my dorm was burned down.”

She glanced at another nurse beside her, then stood up and said, “Come on around here. You can use my computer to send an email.”

“Thanks,” Aeric said as he slid around the counter.

He sat down in her vacated seat and grabbed the mouse. Then, he opened up the internet and went to his email account. There were several emails from his mother. He didn’t even bother to open them up. Instead he clicked on the New Email icon and began composing his message.



Hey Mom and Dad,

First off, I want to let you know that Tyler and I are okay. I was involved in a minor accident when our dorm burned down yesterday and was taken to Saint David’s Hospital in downtown Austin. It’s right near the university. I don’t know how much longer I’ll be in the hospital, but the nurses tell me that I’m medically cleared to leave the hospital. I guess we’ll try and see what UT is doing for students who’ve been displaced.

My cell phone doesn’t work and the landline phones are down also. The nurse was kind enough to let me use her hospital computer to send you this note. I’ll send you another email once we get to a semi-permanent location or maybe I’ll try to call and let you know where we are when the phones come back on.

I don’t know if my car is alright. It was in the dorm parking lot and I’m pretty sure that the keys were in the building when it burned down. Isn’t all of this absolutely crazy? I haven’t seen the news yet, but Ty told me about the planes.

Alright, guys. I love you. Don’t worry about me, I’m fine, just need to get a place to stay for the next couple of nights until I can figure out what I’m going to do. Classes are cancelled for right now and everything is a mess down here.

Talk to you soon!

Love,

Aeric



He reviewed the message and tweaked a few areas to make it sound more upbeat than he felt. There wasn’t any sense in making his parents more upset than they likely already were. The nurse stood behind him, so he didn’t bother opening any of the emails from his mother. He knew the gist of what they’d say anyways.

Aeric closed out his email program. He didn’t see the message from his mother telling him that his father had been on a plane to Austin to find him when his plane went down.

*****

Aeric signed the release forms and crammed the doctor’s prescription for pain reliever into his pocket. “Thank you for taking such great care of me and for letting me use your computer yesterday,” he said to the ever-present nurse.

“It was my pleasure, Mr. Gaines. You be safe out there.”

He nodded and walked over to where his hulking friend stood off to the side for privacy. “Ready, buddy?” Tyler asked.

“Yeah. Are we gonna call a cab or walk?”

“Phones are still out.”

“Crap, I forgot,” Aeric admitted. “How far from the university are we?”

“I don’t know,” Tyler’s big shoulders hunched up as he shrugged. “It’s seven or eight blocks to the Athletic Department. I guess that’s where we should start.”

“It’s as good a place as any. I mean, maybe Coach Harris will be there, or at least there’ll be some type of notice for what we’re supposed to do.”

“I hope so. I don’t know what else to do. Honestly, being able to stay with you in the hospital was the best thing that could have happened. Otherwise I wouldn’t have had anywhere to go.”

Aeric nodded his head noncommittally. It was time to figure out what they were going to do. It had been two days since the Health Science building explosion and the string of arsons on campus, which had burned all of the residence halls except one. Back at the hospital, the news had stated that the student death toll had grown to nearly ten thousand as investigators searched through the wreckage.

The arsonist group had cut power to the fire alarms and blocked the stairwells before setting the fires in the lobbies of the buildings. Police didn’t know if the desk attendants had been in on it or if they’d been victims too. Speculation was that the arsonists—correction, the murderers—had likely killed the attendants before they started their fires. They knew what they were doing and the students had paid the price.

Even the street war in the southeast had escalated to include most of the city to the east of Interstate 35 and parts of the downtown area as well. Austin’s emergency response services were overwhelmed as the injured inundated the hospitals and clinics, while the dead lay stacked like cordwood near the curbs for the garbage trucks to pick up.

The first body that Aeric and Tyler saw freaked them out. It had multiple gunshot wounds to the body. The white button-down shirt that the man had worn when he died was stained maroon with dried blood. They saw several more bodies in the short trip from the hospital to the athletic department. It got easier for them with each one.

They finally reached the athletic offices building, nestled in the shadows of the giant UT football stadium where they’d reported after class every day. The power was out and even in the full light of the early afternoon, the place looked sinister and haunting. “You think anyone’s in there?” Aeric asked.

“I don’t know, man. Looks abandoned. We won’t know unless we go in, though.”

“Shit. This is the part in the movies where the audience is screaming at the people to not go into the building,” he muttered.

“Well, neither of us are virgins, so we should be safe.” Tyler’s comment brought a smirk to his face.

“Yeah, I guess I’m just being stupid.” He took a deep breath to steady himself and then started walking towards the building behind the bigger man.

Tyler pushed his way through the building’s front door and called out, “Hello? Anyone in here?”

There wasn’t an answer, so they went deeper into the building and their nostrils were assaulted by a strange, yet familiar smell. It was metallic, and reminded Aeric of the way that his hands smelled after handling old change. “What’s that smell?” he asked.

“I don’t know. It smells like when you open up the hood of a car after a long drive or something.”

“I don’t like it. This place hasn’t ever smelled like this before,” Aeric said. Then, he took a turn and called out, “Hello?” The darkened hallway yawned back at them in silence.

“I don’t know, Aeric. It’s pitch black further down this hallway. I doubt anyone is sitting back there in the dark.”

He nodded his head in agreement. “Yeah, I guess nobody’s in here.”

When they turned to leave, a voice called out from somewhere in the darkness, “Aww, the poor football players can’t find anyone to cuddle up with.”

“We aren’t football players,” Aeric responded to the creepy voice without even thinking. “We play baseball for the school. Where are you?”

“You’re still jocks. Your time ruling the world with your stupid over-sexed, beer- and testosterone-fueled attitudes is over. The bible says, ‘The meek shall inherit the earth.’ That time is now!”

Aeric felt his friend’s body tense beside him and he placed a restraining hand on Tyler’s arm. “Not worth it, Ty,” he whispered. “We can’t see shit in here and that dude might have some type of trap set. You saw all of those dead bodies outside. Things have changed, man. He sounds crazy, so there’s no telling what he’s capable of.”

The big man pulled against Aeric’s hand for a moment and then relented. Tyler yelled into the darkness, “You don’t know us. We could be the nicest people in the world.”

“You sure showed him,” Aeric whispered sarcastically.

“We know your kind. That is why your world must die and a new one will be reborn. We will Reset the world, make it a place of true equality where it doesn’t matter what you look like or how much money you have. We will choose what values and attributes are important, not some stupid ability to catch a ball and lift heavy weights or looking pretty in a bikini.”

“What the hell are you talking about? Come out here so we can see you,” Aeric demanded.

“I am not as stupid as you two, blindly rushing into somewhere that you have no business being.”

Indeed, Aeric did sense that they were walking a fine edge between stupidity and outright danger. He tugged gently on Tyler’s arm and they slowly backed away towards the entrance. The voice seemed to get nearer as it teased, “Run along home to mommy, boys. Say hello to Colonel Harris for me if you see him. Tell him that the Vultures are looking for him. We’ll find where he weaseled off to eventually.”

Aeric resisted the urge to laugh at the stupid name that the guy in the darkness called himself—or were the Vultures some sort of street gang that he’d never heard of before? Admittedly, he’d been self-absorbed with his classes and partying in between the mandatory team workouts, so he didn’t know anything about the various local Austin gangs. The Vultures sounded like something that a minor league hockey team would call themselves, not a street gang.

Vultures feast off the remains of dead animals, was that what this guy meant? Were they preparing to feast off the remnants of a dead society? His initial reaction to laugh died on his lips when he thought of dead things. Was that what the metallic smell in the air was from? Were there dead people down that hallway? He quickened his pace to leave the athletic department offices as fast as he could.

Society wasn’t dead as the voice in the darkness alluded to. It was on life support, though. Only a few more pushes towards the edge of the cliff and they’d be spinning headlong into an irreversible future. They reached the doors and Tyler pushed his way through them onto the sidewalk. From the darkness of the building came the laughter of a madman…and the sound of a pump shotgun racking a round into the chamber.

They’d both grown up hunting and being around guns, so they knew what the sound was. They dived away from the doorway as the glass doors shattered and the boom of a shotgun exploded from the darkness. They didn’t wait for the second round before they scrambled to their feet and took off sprinting towards the center of campus. After two blocks, they slowed to a walk to catch their breath.

“What the fuck was that?” Tyler asked, looking back towards the athletic offices.

“I don’t know,” Aeric answered. “Have you heard of the Vultures before?”

“No. I don’t know what he’s talking about.”

“Me either. Can you believe that mother fucker shot at us!”

“Why would that guy be sitting in the dark like that?”

“Because he’s a fucking psychopath,” Aeric replied. “I think I know what that smell was.”

“What’s that?”

“Have you ever helped your mom in the kitchen and opened a package of meat?”

Tyler nodded and said, “I don’t like where this is going. Let’s head over towards Blanton Dormitory and see if there’s anything left.”

“Good idea,” Aeric agreed and they started walking towards their old dorm. Once they’d crossed the street and after several glances over his shoulder, he continued, “So, you know that blood smell that comes from a package of raw meat? That’s what it smelled like to me.”

“So you think that there’s some dude sitting in there with a bunch of dead bodies?”

“I don’t know, man. With all the shit we’ve seen, just in the walk from the hospital to campus, I wouldn’t put it past someone who was off in the head to do that. He already tried to kill us.”

“Not really,” Tyler countered. “If he’d wanted to kill us, he probably could have shot us in the darkness. What does he want us to talk to Coach Harris about?”

“Does it matter? The guy’s a loony. I wonder if his Vulture group, or whatever, is behind any of this.”

“Behind it, like you mean the arsonists?”

Aeric shrugged. “The arsonists, the hackers, the gunmen who’ve shot some of the people that we’ve seen, I don’t know. That guy in there was definitely a whack-job though.”

“We should call the cops.”

He looked over at his big friend who slapped his forehead. “Oh yeah, I forgot. Maybe there will be police or firefighters at the dorm that we could talk to.”

“Yeah, maybe,” Aeric replied without conviction. He doubted that there’d be much of anything left for them in Austin.

*****

24th Street was silent as they walked the few blocks towards their old dorm building. The campus was mostly empty, giving it the feel of an old, abandoned town and the few people that they did pass scurried quickly away from their view. The charred hulk of the Mallet Chemical Library to their left reminded them that they weren’t walking through some Old West ghost town. They were witnessing the first stages of a war.

They turned up University Avenue towards Blanton. All along the bottom row of windows, dark burn marks seared the light brown brick. It became more random as the flames had licked alternating windows on the higher floors. Their room had been on the fourth floor and Aeric allowed himself a moment of hope that their things had escaped the devastation that the lower floors had suffered.

A dark stain of dried blood near the center of the road caused Aeric to stop. The stain stretched over ten feet, ending in a large splotch where it had pooled on the side. Amber died on the first night of the problems in Austin so they’d collected her body, but small chunks of meat littered the pavement and they hadn’t taken the time to wash away the blood. It reminded him of how the highway department handled dead deer back in Missouri.

“At least they had the decency to pick her up,” Aeric said as he gestured towards the grizzly scene at their feet.

“I’m sorry, man. I know that you two liked each other.”

He looked up with red-rimmed eyes, the tears threatening to overflow. “It’s not even that, Ty—I barely knew Amber. This whole thing is so messed up. There are bodies all over the place, burned out buildings, weird dudes threatening people from inside powerless buildings. When is it gonna stop? This is the twenty-first century for fuck’s sake. We were supposed to have moved past all of this bullshit.”

Tyler nodded his head, choosing to remain silent.

“Alright,” Aeric sighed. “Let’s see if any of our stuff is around.”

His roommate peered up towards the fourth floor. “It doesn’t look like the flames made it that high. Maybe our room is okay.”

“I hope so,” he replied without commitment.

The fire department hadn’t even bothered to block off the entrances to the burned out building with tape. They’d been too busy trying to stop the fires that burned unchecked around the rest of the city. It was like all the social rejects and degenerates had teamed up to ruin the small, beautiful city and the residents suffered because of it.

They stepped through the shattered glass doors into the lobby. The acrid stench of burnt, stained wood singed their nostrils and Tyler scrunched up his nose. “This place reeks.”

“Yeah, I’m not so sure that it’s safe to be in here,” Aeric replied as he looked around and then up at where the ceiling should have been. Instead he saw the sky above. The fire had burned the hottest here at the center of the building and destroyed all four floors and the roof in this section.

Tyler glanced around, “It should be alright. Looks like the outside structure is fine. The walls and stairwells are made of concrete, so we should be okay.”

“Is it going to collapse while we’re inside?”

“It’s been safe for two days,” Tyler reasoned. “What’s it gonna hurt for us to go up the stairs real quick? I’ve got some irreplaceable things that I want to keep.”

“Fine, let’s make this quick.” Tyler was much more of a risk-taker than he was. Aeric just wanted to get the hell out of the dorm before it collapsed on them.

They made their way around the charred remains of the front desk to the stairwell. Aeric’s mind replayed blurred segments of that night. He thought that this was where they’d come down the stairs and found the arsonist at work, although they may have come down the other set of stairs. The stairwell seemed to be intact, so they eased their way up, taking their time before they placed their full weight on each step. Aeric trailed his hand across the wall as they went for support. It came away covered in deep, black soot.

Peeled paint covered the back of the steel fire door that led from the stairwell to the fourth floor. There had clearly been a massive amount of heat on the other side and Aeric doubted even more that anything was left of their possessions. Tyler pushed the twisted metal handle down and pulled the door into the stairwell.

“Well, I guess that’s that,” he stated and stepped out of the way so Aeric could see. The floor was missing, it had been burned away.

“There’s no way we can get around this. It doesn’t look like anything survived the fire.”

Tyler looked over his roommate’s shoulder and asked, “You think we could make it over to the room somehow? I mean, there’s those metal bars that we could walk across.” He pointed towards the twisted floor joists that had once supported the floor.

“I don’t think so, man. Besides, there’s nothing left down there.”

“How do you know? The walls of the rooms are cinder block, so maybe they insulated our stuff.”

Aeric turned around to face his friend. “It’s over. Our shit is gone, man. Even if our stuff didn’t actually burn, it was so hot that everything would have melted.”

Tyler stared down into his eyes for a moment and then looked back at their old hallway. “You’re right. I don’t know what I was thinking… So what are we gonna do?”

“Let’s get out of here first. We need to find someplace safe to sleep for the night. Then maybe tomorrow we can rent a car to leave town or something.”

“You’ve got to be twenty-five to rent a car, Aeric.”

He frowned. “You think they’d still follow those rules?”

“Yeah. It’s probably worse now. What about buying bus tickets?”

Aeric hadn’t considered purchasing bus tickets to go back to Missouri. It was a foregone conclusion in his mind that he’d go back home to be with his parents until this all blew over. He didn’t know what the hell he was doing. He was only eighteen and this past summer was the first time that he’d ever made an entire day’s worth of meals for himself. It made sense to him to return home.

“Bus tickets? That’s a good idea,” he admitted as he walked carefully back down the stairs. “I don’t have any identification—or money. My wallet was in the dorm along with the keys to my car when everything happened. I can’t get a new driver’s license down here, so first thing tomorrow morning I’m going to the student identification center to see about getting a new student ID. Then I’m going to the bank with my new ID and getting cash. Then I can see about a bus ticket out of here.”

He’d come to the part in the conversation that he dreaded to hear the answer. “What are your plans?”

Tyler considered it for a moment and then said, “Missouri is north of here, kind of on the way back to Lincoln. I can go with you to your parents’ house and then continue towards home on my own.”

Aeric let out the breath that he hadn’t realized that he’d been holding. Having the big man at his side was a huge advantage that would help to keep some of the thugs away. Aeric wasn’t a small guy at six-four, but he was dwarfed by Tyler’s size. “That’d be great, man. Thank you.”

“No worries, bro. Do you want to try and find some food? I’m starving.”

“Yeah. Most of the restaurants that we’ve passed have been closed. Maybe one of the convenience stores is open.”

They exited the building that they’d called home for two months and went north on University to Dean Keaton Street. Two blocks to the west was a row of campus-friendly restaurants. If none of those were open, then there was a gas station a block north of there that was sure to be open.

As they neared the larger street, cars whizzed by in both directions. Were they running away or was it simply people coming and going from work, regardless of the dangers that faced them in the city? “I guess people are still going about their lives, huh?” Aeric said with a weak gesture towards the cars progressing through the powerless intersection.

“Guess so. They’ve still gotta pay the bills, right?”

He grunted in agreement. Tyler was right, people still had to buy food and pay their mortgages. This was a crazy confluence of events that would blow over in time. Those who did the right thing and continued to contribute to society would be fine, it was the ones who took part in all of the chaos and acted like this was the end of times that would face justice.

When they got to the small shopping center, it was as Aeric had feared. The storefronts were darkened and several windows had been broken out leaving glass littered along the sidewalk. His mind wandered back to his thoughts of justice that he’d had only minutes before. Would the police ever be able arrest all of those responsible? Had they gone too far down the path towards anarchy?

It was an insane thought. Only days had passed since the problems came to Austin. Other cities had been dealing with some of these issues for weeks—although, not as bad as the arsonists murdering thousands of college students in their sleep. Would the US Army be sent in? He knew that there was a big army base somewhere nearby to the north, he’d passed the signs on the highway when he drove down several months ago. In fact, why wasn’t the Army already on site? It wasn’t that far away, they should have been here by now.

He didn’t have the answers, but his stomach grumbled in protest at not being fed since he left the hospital. They’d eaten at the row of restaurants several times since they were so close to campus and the sight of them made him even more aware of his hunger.

“Looks like other people had the same idea,” he stated, pointing towards the smashed windows.

“Yeah, and then they got pissed off when the taco shop wasn’t open because it didn’t have any power,” Tyler replied. “Fucking assholes. We’re not moving past this until the average citizen steps in to help out.”

“What do you mean?” Aeric asked. “Like becoming a vigilante or something?”

Tyler’s eyes sparkled as the retreating sun’s reflection off the windows of the city’s taller buildings hit him in the face. “I meant that we all had to hunker down and not take part in the violence and looting. I hadn’t thought about people becoming vigilantes and striking out against the people doing this. That’s a good idea.”

Aeric reached out and wrapped his fingers around Tyler’s elbow. He gave his friend a good shake and said, “Snap out of it, buddy. We’re not trained to fight crime or whatever crazy thing that you’re thinking about. This is real life, not a video game. We get killed and there’s no respawn. What we need to do is get some food and then hole up somewhere close to campus for the night.”

Tyler grinned at him. “No respawn, that’s good! I wasn’t planning on becoming a vigilante, man. But we do need to think about self-protection.” He hefted his bag to his shoulder and continued, “The only weapon that we have is my baseball bat. Well, maybe my cleats could work too—those would be pretty useless except as an absolute last resort.”

“If we’re trying to use your shoes to defend ourselves, the odor will probably knock them out before the cleats touch them.”

“We’ll use everything we have to our advantage,” Tyler deadpanned. “Let’s see if that gas station is open.”

They turned north on Guadalupe and walked up the block towards the gas station. As they neared it, gunshots rang out from somewhere close. They dove behind a set of two trash cans that sat on the corner across from the gas station. “What the hell was that?” Tyler asked.

“Gunfire!” Aeric replied and unzipped the bag on Tyler’s shoulder. He pulled out the bat and one of the shoes then zipped it back up.

Two men ran out of the store with a garbage bag and hopped into a car sitting in front of the building. The tires squealed as they fled the scene of the robbery. “Oh, geez,” Ty said. “You think they killed somebody in there?”

“I don’t know—maybe?” Aeric responded. “Let’s go and see if anyone needs our help.”

They ran across the street to the store and Aeric yelled through the open door. “Anybody hurt in there? We’re here to help!”

No one answered, so they rushed inside and stumbled upon a scene that would soon become commonplace to both of them. The store’s single employee lay slumped over the counter. It looked like they’d gone around the counter and shot him behind the ear. The small bullet hole belied the damage to his face when the round exited. Blood dripped slowly towards the floor and pooled where customers usually stood in front of the counter. The cash register drawer was open and empty. The man had been killed for a couple hundred bucks.

Tyler turned his head from the grisly scene while Aeric went up to feel for a pulse. As he pressed his fingers against the employee’s throat, the body slid backwards into the employee area and the man’s brown eyes, surrounded by some slightly yellowed whites, stared lifelessly at Aeric.

He considered what they should do for a moment. The phones didn’t work and they hadn’t seen any police officers since the truck that killed Amber that first night. Everything clicked in Aeric’s mind; they were on their own, with no place to live and Austin was now a dangerous city with no police presence. They needed food and shelter—and possibly weapons.

He reached across the bloody counter and yanked several plastic bags away. “Ty, start grabbing the canned food and bottled water.”

His roommate looked at him like he was crazy. “You want to rob this place, too?”

“Everything in here will be gone by morning. We’re just the first ones on the scene.”

“That’s not how I was raised, man. That dude died in here, we need to find the cops.”

Aeric slammed his hand down on the counter and blood splattered outwards in all directions. “Shit,” he muttered and used the magazines to wipe away the blood. “Ty, this is a really bad situation that we’re in. Austin isn’t safe and we need to leave. Hell, for all we know, the entire country is falling apart, what with the riots, the hackers and the gangs. There are dead bodies in the street, piled up and forgotten. No one gives a fuck about anyone else right now. We need to take care of ourselves. That means food, water and shelter, the three basic necessities of life. Either get that through your head or we’re done and I’m taking off without you.”

Tyler continued to stare at him for several seconds as the wheels turned in his head. “Fuck it. Alright, what are you getting?”

“Cigarettes,” Aeric replied and hurried around the counter.

“What?”

Aeric reached overhead and began pulling cartons down. “These things are going to be like currency soon, man. Fill your bags with all the canned food and water that you can hold. Maybe we’ll be able to use the cigarettes to pay for a ride out of the city.”

Tyler nodded and began grabbing canned food off the shelf and putting it into his bag. “Hey, grab toothbrushes and toothpaste too!” Aeric recommended while he continued to pull down cigarettes from the sales rack above the counter.

The clink of cans going into Tyler’s bat bag was almost drowned out by several other people rushing through the doorway. Aeric searched the counter for some type of weapon and only found the large plastic spatula that had the bathroom key attached to it. He sighed and hefted the cleat above his head. Tyler was more prepared and placed the bat on his shoulder so he could level one of the men if it came to it.

“Hey, we don’t want any trouble!” one of them said as he glanced at all of the blood and then back at Tyler’s massive figure. “We just want some food, too, man.”

Tyler glanced over at Aeric for instructions. He shrugged and continued grabbing the cigarettes while keeping an eye on the newcomers, who’d gone to the chip and cracker aisle. The bat slowly lowered and Tyler started shoving more food into the bag. Once he’d gotten about sixty cans of the gas station fare—mostly variations of pasta and meat sauce—he went to the refrigerated section and opened up the glass door to get water.

Aeric came around the corner once again and grabbed two cheap drawstring backpacks from a display. He pushed the plastic bags into the packs and crammed the rest of it full with packaged beef jerky and some cookies. “Ready?” he asked Tyler.

“Yeah. Let’s get out of here.”

They walked confidently, quickly, out of the store and hooked around the building towards the west on 26th Street. At the next intersection, they took Nueces Street north. “Holy shit!” Aeric finally said. “Can you believe that just happened?”

“I thought that we were going to get in a fight for sure.”

“If things stay like this, it will probably get to that pretty soon. Right now, people are concerned about staying safe while they wait for the cops to show up.” He lifted the shoe and stated, “We need better weapons.”

“Wait, we’re not leaving town?” Tyler asked in misunderstanding.

“Yeah, we’re getting out of here, but we have a long trip ahead of us. Austin is a big town and we’ve got a long drive back to Missouri. That’s about twelve hours in the best conditions. Right now, I’m not sure how clear those roads are.”

They had only gone north two blocks when the street lights at the corner of 28th and Nueces flickered and then died, plunging the intersection into darkness. Aeric peered as far down both sets of streets as far as he could see and was met with total darkness. Far to the southeast, the clouds that hung low over the city glowed orange with the many fires that burned freely in the conflict zone.

“Shit,” Tyler muttered. “Looks like we just lost power.”

“What the hell does that mean?” Aeric asked.

“It means that we need to get off the street and find someplace to hole up for the night. I don’t want to be out here in the dark without any real weapons.”

“Uh, so where are we supposed to go?”

They looked around, it was too dark to see much of anything though. Aeric thought he saw the dim outline of buildings and said, “I think there’s as set of apartments to the northeast, along Guadalupe.”

“Fine by me. How are we gonna get inside though?”

“Knock? I don’t know. We’ll figure it out when we get there.” Aeric was beginning to wonder if Tyler was up to the task of traveling across the country. His size alone was extremely intimidating and that was a huge advantage, but he didn’t seem to want to make any decisions on his own. He seemed content to follow Aeric’s directions. Aeric didn’t know if that was a good or bad thing.

As they jogged down 28th Street, the apartments that Aeric had vaguely seen loomed into view. Another set was off to the north, it was slightly taller with a total of seven floors instead of the five floors of the building that stood directly in front of them.

Gunshots rang out nearby, followed by several more. “We should probably try the taller building right there,” Aeric said as he gestured towards the northern building. “There are more floors, so at the very least we could probably sleep in a stairwell.”

Tyler nodded and said, “God, this sucks.”

The apartment complex that they’d chosen had retail stores on the bottom floor and apartments above them. It took some work to find the door leading into the building due to the near total darkness of the cloudy night, but they finally found a glass door that opened.

“I don’t know how secure this is,” Aeric admitted. Now that they were on their way into the building, he was already beginning to second-guess his decision.

“Hold on,” his roommate’s voice floated from the darkness. The sound of a lock twisting into place behind him announced that Tyler had locked the deadbolt on the door. “I don’t know if that will help much, but it might stop someone who’s just checking quickly.”

“Good idea.”

They stumbled deeper into the hallway that presumably led to a set of stairs, trailing their hands along the wall to find an opening. Aeric bumped into a small table and something glass fell to the floor, shattering and filling the small space with the boom of the initial explosion and then the tinkling of glass as the pieces skidded across the tile.

“We need to find weapons and a damned flashlight,” Aeric hissed. He was so mad at his clumsiness that he could have punched the wall—an unfortunate habit that he used to have in high school. A broken hand and loss of an entire summer of training had cured him of it, though.

“Hey, I’ve got something over here,” Tyler said excitedly.

Aeric pushed away from the wall that he’d been following and felt his way blindly across the open space as glass crunched underneath his shoes. “What is it?”

“A door. I don’t know if it goes to the stairwell though.”

There was a locked handle that snapped off after three solid hits from Tyler’s aluminum baseball bat. Through feel and trial and error, they were able to push out the handle on the other side and open the latch. More blind groping confirmed that they’d found the stairwell.

“I think we need to secure this door behind us,” Tyler whispered.

“Yeah, but how?”

“There was an upholstered chair on my side. We could put that up against the door.”

The heavy chair was better than nothing. They maneuvered it through the doorway and used it as a weight to keep the door closed. Again, the only thing that they could do was to hope that a cursory inspection was all that anyone trying to get into the building would do.

They crept up the stairs and were slightly out of breath by the time they made it all the way to the seventh floor. Thankfully, the door leading from the stairwell wasn’t locked and they slid into the hallway without making any more noise.

“I guess we go as far away from the stairs as possible, that way, in case someone tries to break in, we’ll have some warning.”

“Aren’t we breaking in?” Tyler asked. Aeric couldn’t see his face, but he knew the look that was likely on his friend’s face. He probably wore a smirk and the eye on the side where his mouth turned up would be squinted.

“Yeah, okay, you’re right. We’re the good guys, though.”

“How do you figure? We stole a shitload of food and cigarettes, broke through a locked stairwell door and now the apartments are vulnerable to someone else coming in here and robbing them…or worse.”

He hadn’t thought of it in those terms before. He’d only been concerned with finding a place to rest for the night, not how his actions would affect the residents of the building after they left. “Shit, you’re right, Ty. I just wanted to get off the street, y’know?”

“Yeah, man. We can’t always go around only thinking about ourselves. That door wouldn’t have stopped a determined thief, but it might have stopped some random dude walking by the apartments.”

Down the hallway, a door creaked open and Aeric tapped Tyler on the shoulder to make him stop talking. “You hear that?” he whispered.

“Yeah.”

“Come on.”

The darkness of the hallway was complete and total. There was absolutely no light coming in through the window on the far end. They made it about fifty feet along the hallway and a door slammed shut. Aeric rushed forward and felt the slight reverberations in the next door down.

“This is where that door was open,” he whispered to Tyler.

“Well, are you going to knock?”

He shrugged, and reached out to the door’s contoured metal. He pulled his hand back and used his knuckle to knock three times. The sound echoed down the hallway.

“I’m sure this was the door,” he muttered and knocked again.

“Go away!” a woman’s voice called from the other side of the door.

“Please, let us in. We’re just looking for a place to sleep for the night. We won’t hurt you.”

“I have a gun! It’s pointed right at the door.”

*****

Vero