Soup. That's what I really needed.
I could not find any in the jumble of cans and bottles in the cabinets, but the fridge yielded cold chicken. I had no idea how long it had been there, but nothing was growing on it, and it smelled okay, so I took some and plopped exhaustedly on the sofa in front of the TV.
I wondered how long it had been since I told my assistant I was going home early with a touch of the flu. She must have been frantic trying to reach me.
I had not been this ill since I was a small child. I was vaguely aware of the passage of several days as I feverishly drank juices and water in my rare lucid moments, just trying to stave off dehydration. When the fever had finally broken, I felt weak as a kitten.
I resolved to call my assistant as soon as I had eaten to see if there was anything urgent that I needed to handle. As CEO of TeleSoftCon I could take time off any time I wanted, but it was not good for business for me to be out too long, nor did it set a good example for my executives and other employees.
Melinda, too, must have tried to call and would be worried that I hadn't answered. She had gotten a call that her mother was sick and had flown off to Chicago. As soon as I had some strength back, I would call her, too.
As I sat there in my underwear, nibbling on a chicken leg, exhausted from the effort of finding the food, I used the remote to turn the television on, only to find some public service notice filling the screen. Annoyed, I changed channels only to find a similar notice. One channel after another I flipped through only to discover that they were all the same.
Disgusted, I almost turned the thing off before my fever-addled brain told me I should probably read the notice, first.
"NOTICE: Due to the release of a biological agent by an unknown terrorist organization, regular programming is suspended until further notice. If you are experiencing flu-like symptoms, with nausea and vomiting, the National Institutes of Health and the Center for Disease Control recommend taking plenty of fluids and bed rest. Do not leave your home. Roadways are impassable due to excessive traffic and emergency rooms are full to capacity. The death toll from the unknown agent is already in the millions and no effective treatment has been discovered."
I almost threw up everything I had just eaten.
I turned on the radio, only to hear a recorded notice to tune to a particular frequency for information. I found the channel and a voice came through. The signal was loud and clear, the voice weak and shaky.
" ... recorded announcement. A biological agent has been released by an unknown terrorist organization. Reports from all over the globe place the death toll in the billions. There are rare reports of people developing immunity to the disease, but medical and scientific personnel have themselves succumbed too rapidly to the agent to develop an effective remedy. Stay in your homes. You will be notified when it is safe to travel. This is a recorded announcement. A bio... "
I turned it off, fighting further waves of nausea. I shuffled slowly back to my bedroom, trying not to pass out, and grabbed my cell phone.
With a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach, I began dialing every number in my phone's memory. No answer on any of them - no one answered the phone at TeleSoftCon, nor at any of the other companies whose numbers I kept in my phone.
Crap! Was I the only survivor?
Holding onto furniture and walls, unsure of my legs, I made my way to the window and opened the curtains. Outside, it was morning of a bright autumn day. Birds flitted through the trees, and everything, at first glance, seemed quite normal. I felt a strange sense of something akin to vertigo as the sheer normality of the view hit me. Surely, in the wake of a disaster as monumental as this, there would be fire, smoke, explosions, something to mark the passing of humanity!
That was when our relative insignificance came sharply into focus. Even if every human on the globe died, the planet would go on. Eventually, all of the things that we had built would be torn down by the inexorable march of new vegetation, or by wind, water and weather. Some new species would eventually achieve dominance over the others, and perhaps develop their own form of intelligence and technology.
As I gazed on the bizarrely peaceful scene, small cracks began to appear in the gloss of its façade. There was Mrs. McReady, on the lawn in her bathrobe, as she had been every morning since I moved into this neighborhood. This morning, however, she lay slumped in an awkward position on the grass. Her cat, who appeared at first to be licking her face, could be seen, on closer inspection, to be tearing bites of flesh from her owner's visage, as daintily as if she were eating canned cat food.
Halfway down the block, a delivery van, that on first glance appeared to be double parked, proved, instead, to have drifted into the side of one of the cars parked along the street. Inside the cab, the delivery man was slumped against the side window.
A vast sense of loneliness swept over me as I turned away from the window. One part of my mind told me there must be others besides me who had survived, but the logical, engineering part of my brain told me that, based on the notices on radio and television, and the fact that I could not reach anyone whose number was stored in my phone, there must not be very damned many.
I noticed the light blinking on my answering machine so I pushed the playback button.
"Gavin?" Melinda's voice sounded weak and strained, "Oh Gavin, please be there. Please let me hear your voice one more time! If you get this, please call me. I love you!"
I remembered the last message that Stephanie, my assistant, handed me as I was getting on the elevator.
"Your fiancée called while you were in the meeting," she told me as she handed me one of the ubiquitous, pink, 'While You Were Out' memo slips. "Her mother is sick and her sister needs help taking care of her. She's taking a flight out of SFO to Chicago."
I remembered checking my watch as I scanned the memo. Melinda would already have been in the air.
"Thanks, Stephanie," I said, as the elevator doors began to close.
Shaking the memories out of my head, I punched up Melinda's speed dial number, over and over again. The time stamp on the voice message was two days ago. No answer now. Nor was there any answer at her mother's or her sister's. Desperation and despair mounted as the phones continued to go unanswered.
I was too weak to do anything about it yet, but as I lay there on the rank, sweat-soaked sheets, and my mind started working over the ramifications of a disaster of this magnitude, I knew I had to do something pretty quickly if humanity was to have any chance at all of surviving. Why me? Because somebody had to, and unless and until someone better suited to the job came along, I was the only one I knew who might have a chance to pull it off.
'Quickly' is a somewhat subjective term when you're chafing under the ravages of a disease that has left you weaker than a newborn.
Three days it took to get me back on my feet for most of the day. I figured if I took it easy, I'd be able to go a bit longer each day. For those three days, I thought and schemed and planned as best I could for what I knew and what I couldn't know. I found that much of the Internet was still available, and used it to do as much research as I could, and every day, I tried Melinda's numbers again. Every day, I got the same result. I resisted the temptation to throw the cell phone through the window, hoping against hope that one of those calls would be answered.
I approached this problem like a business problem, not worrying about causes, for now, only about possible solutions. It kept my mind off of the knowledge of the enormity of this disaster, both personal and public, that lurked in the background and threatened to overwhelm me, and it gave me a purpose. When I finally felt up to getting on with my life, I knew what I was going to do and where I needed to go first.
If there are any other survivors, and I can find them, I am determined to: first, survive, and second, get started on rebuilding whatever can be rebuilt.
It is with that thought in mind that I have started this journal. If anything happens to me, whoever finds this might be able to continue what I've started, and, possibly, learn from my mistakes.
My first thought, of course, was for defense. With the collapse of society and its legal systems, whoever was left would essentially be living in the 'old west, ' except that with the moral decay that had plagued much of our society, there would likely be elements out there with no sense of 'right' and 'wrong' and no concept of 'honor.' If I, and whoever came with me were to survive, we needed to be able to defend ourselves against such elements.
The place to start for that: The Army Reserve depot on Mare Island.
When I started my company, I could have moved closer to Silicon Valley, but Melinda lived in Vallejo, and I preferred to be near her, even if it meant putting up with the commute up and down I-680 every day. Now, I was glad I had made that choice.
Vallejo, situated about thirty-five miles northeast of San Francisco, for most of its history had based its economy around the Naval base and shipyard on Mare Island - not really an island but an extension of the swampy land on the other side of the Napa river from Vallejo. When the DOD closed down the military functions of the base a few years back, businesses and other government agencies moved in, including the one in which I was interested.
There were two bridges connecting Vallejo with Mare Island. The high rise bridge on State Highway 37 at the north end of town was out of the question for me. Not only was it further from my apartment, but in my weakened condition, I doubted that my legs would get me over it on the bicycle, which was my only reasonable choice for transportation if traffic was as bad as the notices said.
The causeway at the end of Tennessee street, however, was flat, and with the drawbridge down would make for relatively easy crossing.
My bicycle threaded its way across town from my apartment in East Vallejo, avoiding hills as much as possible and dodging cars that had simply stopped, or worse, crashed.
I was constantly fighting the urge to stop and help the occupants, and had to keep reminding myself that there was nothing I could do for them. Crossing the causeway to Mare Island, I was almost overwhelmed by the eerie silence. Never, in all my years in Vallejo, had I heard the lapping of waves on the pilings of the Mare Island causeway, simply because there was always too much traffic and other activity. Today, the only unnatural sound was the chain and the tires of my bike, and when I finally reached Mare Island, the forlorn clanking of the line that should have held a flag against the empty flagpole in front of Rodman Center.
The Army Reserve Transportation depot was locked up tight as a drum, but a padlock is no match for a tire iron and, with no one around to stop me, I broke in. My first stop was the motor pool. The lock on the office door was no harder than the one on the gate, but the one on the key cabinet was a little tougher. I wound up tearing the cabinet doors off their hinges, instead.
I had no idea which keys I needed, but I grabbed a handful and walked to the biggest truck on the lot - an M900, 5 ton 6x6. The seventh key slipped in and turned. The engine caught after only a few turns of the starter and rumbled easily at idle after a few roars as I worked the accelerator. I left it in Neutral with the brake on and tossed my mountain bike into the bed.
It had been a while since I had driven anything this big, so it jerked and bounced a bit as I got it moving. To my gratification, the fuel guage read full, and I left it idling as I pulled up in front of the building that housed the weapons vault.
I wasn't surprised to find the combination-locked door closed tight, but the sergeant who had been on duty was slumped over his desk with no pulse and no breath in his lungs. The mess in the wastebasket beside him attested to the illness that had done him in along with most of the rest of humanity.
I unclipped the keyring from his belt and rolled his chair away from the desk, leaning him backward so he wouldn't fall out. I searched the desk thoroughly, including the sides and bottoms of the drawers, but didn't find what I was looking for. I was about to give up and go in search of a cutting torch when I noticed the small black notebook in the front pocket of the Sergeant's camouflage shirt.
Sure enough, penned carefully inside the back cover were two sets of numbers. The top set, four one- or two-digit numbers, had to be the combination to the vault. I wasn't sure about the bottom set; one number comprised of six digits, but I thought I had an idea what it could be.
Sure enough, the top set of numbers opened the combination lock, and I was glad I had held onto the little black book, because I had no sooner opened the vault door than the security alarm panel mounted inside the door began beeping. I quickly punched in the bottom sequence of numbers and the disarm key. Wrong order. After I hit the disarm key it asked for the disarm code, so I punched it in again. To my relief, the beeping stopped and a green light appeared on the panel.
I had to search through the numerous keys on the duty sergeant's key ring to find keys that fit all the locks on the weapons racks, but I went around the room unlocking all the locks before starting to load weapons into the truck.
M-4s, the short-barreled version of the M-16 used for close-quarters combat, and M-16s were plentiful, as was the ammo for them, so I loaded a handtruck several times with them and as much 5.56mm ammunition as I could find. Same with M-9s (9mm automatic pistols) and their ammo.
Anyone who has ever been around weapons and ammunition must have realized by now that this was not a smooth operation in my still-weak condition. That stuff is heavy! Still, taking my time and conserving my energy, I managed to get what I thought I needed.
I looked longingly at the machine guns, and after a mental coin toss loaded a 7.62mm machine gun and several boxes of ammo belts instead of the heavier .50cal guns and their loads. If I ran into anything that needed that much firepower, I was probably in over my head to begin with. Hedging my bets, I also picked up a couple of SAWs (Squad Automatic Weapons). These should be easier to keep in ammo since they used the same rounds as the M-16s, and would be easier to lug around. Some hand-grenades, claymores, and body armor rounded out my 'purchases.'
Given the destination I had chosen for my attempt at re-starting civilization, I also loaded as many cases of hydration packs as I could.
As an afterthought, I picked up a few Ka-bars, strapping one of the knives around my waist with a web belt. Just in case, I loaded one of the M16A4s and a 9mm sidearm and took them into the cab of the truck with me.
The canvas-covered bed of the truck was nowhere near full, and that was just as well. I had a few more stops to make. I was tired as I dragged myself back into the cab, but satisfied with what I had so far accomplished.
Back across the causeway, I turned right onto Mare Island Way and followed it around to Sonoma Blvd, where I turned right. A couple of blocks up I turned onto Bennet and, instead of wasting time with the tire iron, just drove the truck through the gate into the National Guard armory. There wasn't much there that I wanted that I hadn't already picked up from the Army, but I backed up to a HMMV and hitched it to the rear of the truck. A quick search, and I came away with a few shoulder-fired rocket launchers and a set of detailed topographical maps of California and its surroundings. Those would come in handy for what I intended.
Having completed my major purchases, I made one more stop at my apartment and picked up the duffel bag that contained the few clothes and personal effects that I wanted to take with me. After one last failed attempt to contact Melinda, I figured the cell phone was just dead weight, and left it behind.
My next thought was for food and water, but on the way, I thought it would be a good idea to see if I could find any more survivors. A quick tour of the major parts of Vallejo turned up no other survivors, until I hit the intersection of Broadway and Sereno, where a woman in nurse's scrubs flagged me down.
I stopped, and looking carefully around, helped her into the cab. She was a pretty Filipina in her twenties, and when she finished crying and thanking me, I discovered her name was Corazon.
"I tried to help them, but they all died!" She sobbed over and over. "Then I got sick, and when my fever broke, everyone was dead! Even the doctors!"
"I know, Cora," I tried to console her. "There aren't many of us left at all. You're the first one I've seen in Vallejo."
"What will we do?!" She wailed into my shoulder.
"Well, the first thing you need to do is pull yourself together," I said. "With no one left in authority, there will be some who will turn to violence to get what they want. My plan is to gather together as many like-minded people as I can and find a safe place where we can start over. I'd like you to go with me, if you want to."
"I have to go home. I have to see my husband and my daughter!"
"Where do you live?"
It was only a few blocks away, and I locked up the truck in the middle of the street and followed her inside, carrying the M16 with the safety off, just in case.
They were dead in the living room. The little girl had apparently died in his arms before he, too, succumbed. It was several minutes before I could get her to calm down and pack a bag. Jeans, jackets, even scrubs - all utilitarian clothing.
Partly to keep her mind busy, and partly because we would need the supplies, I drove back to the Kaiser Permanente hospital where she had worked and had Cora round up all the medical gear that could be used in the absence of electricity. It was hard on her, again seeing the doctors and nurses that she had known and worked with lying dead there, but she stuck it out.
She didn't know as many of the people at the Sutter Solano Medical Center when we stopped there, but it was still a struggle for her. Strangely, fighting the emotions evoked by seeing dead co-workers and acquaintances seemed to take her mind off the loss of her family, if only for a while.
At the Raley's supermarket on Broadway, I ignored the stuff on the shelves and in the coolers and rummaged around the storeroom in back, using the supermarket's hand truck to load box after box of canned meat and vegetables, rice, beans, dehydrated potatoes, flour, sugar, salt, and anything else that looked like it might have a reasonable shelf life and decent nutritional value, as well as many cases of bottled water. Cora, still fighting tears, rifled the Pharmacy, coming away with antibiotics, bandages, and as much other first-aid stuff as possible, all thrown into industrial strength garbage bags.
By the time we returned to the cab, her eyes were dry and there was a determined look on her face. That was about as good as I could hope for, in these trying circumstances, and I gave her a quick, friendly hug.
Carl's Sports Emporium provided us with camping gear and water purification equipment. I ignored the propane powered stuff. I might be able to scrounge the fuel for a while, but it would eventually run out, and I figured Mother Nature would provide us with the fuel we needed for cooking and heating.
I did load up on hunting bows and arrows, then, on a whim, took a couple of crossbows and the bolts for them.
With a mental apology to Carl's ghost, I started the truck, its bed now almost half full, and headed off toward the exit of the empty parking lot, the map with my planned route out of the Bay Area marked in hi-liter and clipped to the dash
Over the noise of the engine, I thought I heard a voice, so I let off of the accelerator. Sure enough, somewhere, a thin, reedy voice was calling. I looked around and saw nothing. Clipping the holster of the loaded 9mm to my web belt, I grabbed the M16, turned off the ignition and motioned for Cora to stay where she was. I stepped down, looking cautiously around, M16 at the ready. I saw nothing on my side of the truck, and instead of walking around, bent over and duck-walked under the bed, rolling out the other side.
She was armed, but the revolver shook in her frail hand so badly that she couldn't have hit me if she pulled the trigger from five feet away.
"You ... you put all that stuff back!" She scolded, standing there in a stained robe, looking like I must have looked three days before. "That's my father's store and you haven't paid for any of that!"
I lowered the muzzle of the M16 and walked slowly up to her. She fainted before I got there, and I had to grab her and ease her to the ground until I could get a better grip on her and carry her and the huge Ruger .44 Magnum to the cab of the truck.
She couldn't have been more than 13, and the disease had ravaged her already frail body. She smelled awful, but if she had gotten this far, I figured she'd survive. Cora gave her water and coaxed her to eat some canned fruit as I went back outside.
A quick check revealed the door on the side of the building from which she had emerged. A staircase led up to a nice little apartment above the store. A man and woman lay side by side on a bed in one room, both dead long enough that they were beginning to stink. The girl's room was down the hall, and I could see where she had puked on the floor and hadn't had the energy to clean it up.
I rummaged through the closet and drawers and put every pair of jeans and every shirt that looked like it might last a while in a garbage bag. I hesitated over the flimsy underwear, then went ahead and added it. It might not last long, but a period of continuing to feel civilized might help her adapt. As an afterthought, I added the teddy bear from the rumpled, sweat-stained bed.
She was sleeping peacefully in Cora's lap when I returned to the cab. The young nurse stroked her greasy, stringy hair, and gazed sadly at her young face.
"She is too young to have to face such a thing!" The tears, this time, were for the girl in her lap, and it gave me hope that she would have something to occupy her mind besides the loss of her own family.
Certainly, I was trying to keep my mind occupied so it wouldn't dwell on my own loss.
I drove slowly through the surface streets, out of necessity due to the cars stopped here and there, and to watch for signs of other survivors. At one intersection, I stopped to watch as, about a block away, a guy in a leather jacket leaned through the window of a derelict car and came out with a shiny necklace in his hand, grinning like he'd just hit the jackpot.
No, I decided, his genes didn't need to be perpetuated. If the guy thought the most important thing for him to do at this point in his life was to steal jewelry from the dead, his elevator wasn't going all the way up, and I had enough on my hands. When he noticed me and started to point a handgun in my direction, I sprinkled him with chips of lead and asphalt by firing a short burst at his feet from the M16. He and the gun disappeared in the other direction.
Beside me, the girl and Cora were staring wide-eyed, as if seeing me for the first time.
"Sorry about your dad's store, miss," I told the girl, as I continued my route out of town, "but believe me, it's better that I get this stuff than the likes of that guy, okay?"
"Where are you taking me?" she cried. "I've got to get back! My Mom and Dad are sick! I'm the only one who can take care of them!"
"Your mom and dad didn't make it, honey," Cora said as softly as she could over the roar of the diesel.
"Didn't make it?" the girl's eyes, uncomprehending, darted back and forth between us. "Of course they made it! We just had a little flu, is all. I made it. They must have, too!"
On a hunch, I reached behind the seat and pulled out the teddy bear. "I know it's hard to accept, sweetheart, but you and I and Cora, here, are the lucky ones. Hardly anyone survived."
To my surprise, as she hugged the teddy bear, she seemed to be thinking about that, instead of going into a panic over it.
As I had expected from the notices on the radio and TV, the freeway was clogged with stalled cars and RVs, some abandoned, most still occupied. The smell was horrible.
I had to bull my way across the Benicia-Martinez Bridge by pushing cars out of the way with the truck's bumper. It couldn't be helped. The truck wasn't amphibious. The railing gave way a couple of times and cars fell into the strait or dangled precariously from the edge.
It took more than an hour to get across, then onto the shoulder and down the ramp to Marina Vista. I had to edge along the shoulder on Marina vista until I passed the road through the Shell oil refinery that led to Pacheco Blvd. From that point, most of the would-be escapees hadn't known enough about the surface streets to take the route I intended, and getting to the other side of Martinez was relatively easy.
Once on Alhambra, things started getting sticky again. The closer we got to Highway 4, the worse the congestion got. I was tempted to try going over the tops of the stalled cars with the 6x6, but thought better of it. If the truck got stuck, I had no idea how I'd get it off or find a replacement, so I stayed with the old tried and true method of nosing vehicles aside into yards and parking lots.
Once past Highway 4, we had fairly easy going, especially when I cut west and found Reliez Valley Road. Under normal circumstances, it was not a road that would accept a rig this size, especially towing the Hummer, but there was nobody to complain, and there were many fewer cars to move out of the way until we got back to Pleasant Hill road.
Again, we had to shoulder cars out of the way to get through.
Cora and the girl had been talking, off and on, but I could not spare any attention for what little I could hear of their conversation over the roar of the engine. The girl finished her water and asked for another and I finally realized she must be starving, though she had eaten the peaches that Cora fed her earlier.
"There's some canned food and stuff behind the seat, there, uh... ?"
I don't know what she and Cora talked about, but the young Filipina must have said the right things because the girl smiled. Her smile was brilliant, and transformed her entire appearance from that of a bedraggled waif to a somewhat unkempt tomboy, off on an adventure.
"Crystal, with a 'C, '" she told me, extending a fragile hand. "Crystal Adams."
"Um, Gavin, Crystal," I replied, taken by the sudden transformation, "Gavin Thompson. Pleased to meet you, and I guess you've met Corazon Mendoza."
We all shook hands briefly and I returned my attention to the road while Crystal and Cora rummaged around, until Crystal came out with a can. It was a pop-top, which was why it was in the cab, but once it was opened, Crystal looked helplessly for something else.
Guessing at her need, I pulled out one of the clumsy all-in-one fold-up utensil kits I'd stolen from her father's store, and she gratefully unfolded the spoon. I was surprised that what she had chosen was the beef stew.
She grimaced at the cold greasiness of the mess, but finished every bite, then looked over at me sheepishly.
"Protein," she said apologetically.
I grinned. Crystal was one smart cookie, and though her body might be a little frail, there was nothing wrong with her mind.
Looking at her and Corazon, I realized that a bond had formed between them, and it warmed my heart. Together, they could weather their losses more easily than alone, and there were going to be too many struggles ahead for any of us to spend too much time on grief.