A few hours later, we were all sitting in the lounge. The house was empty now, except for family. Leigh was still glaring daggers at Corran, who had broken her boyfriend’s nose. To be fair, it wasn’t an uncommon occurrence. To hear Stephanie tell it, Leigh’s friends didn’t consider a boyfriend official until he’d been punched by her little brother.
I suppose that should say something about the way I raise my kids, but in my defense, they didn’t all live with me until a few years ago. Leigh moved in after she and her mom started fighting all the time, and Corran and Stephanie moved in after their mom decided to take up nursing back in the Philippines. Dillon’s lived here the whole time, and he’s shown no inclination to punch someone simply for dating his sisters.
His brother and sister were here now as well. Cathy had two children of her own before she moved in: Mariah (age 19) and Timothy (age 17.) They had never really forgiven me for shooting their dad, despite the fact that he had thoroughly deserved it and had lived to tell the tale, so they spent as much time as possible at their grandma’s house. That said, they knew better than to stay away when Cathy told them to come home. They might not like me, but they knew I had ways of finding out when trouble was on the way.
Five teenagers and a close enough to count preteen would have been a handful, but to make matters worse, Cathy’s cousin and her two girls were there as well. I had always gotten along well with Tina and her two daughters, Mac (age 20) and Lexi (age 17), but this place was in serious danger of an estrogen overload. And, joy of joys, Marie, Francis’s mom, and Sophie, the Twin’s mom, were here as well.
Timothy, Corran, and Dillon had banded together in the corner with cleaning kits and a small stack of firearms, their manner evocative of ancient cavemen huddled around the fire in the dark, hoping to ward off beasts with the flames.
The girls, meanwhile, had their own circle in their own corner with their own stack of guns. Judging by the hushed whispers and evil looks, they weren’t huddled around the fire, they were forming a hunting party.
Maybe telling Corran to punch Leigh’s boyfriend hadn’t been such a good idea after all. Oh well.
The adults were all huddled around the bar with me, discussing the situation in hushed tones. We were light on facts, heavy on wild speculation, and tense as hell. There were drinks aplenty to be had, and only Sophie was abstaining. She had never been much of a drinker, and anyway, she never mixed weapons and alcohol. I could tell she wanted to indulge in some gin, but the long, wickedly sharp rapier on her hip was definitely not for show. It wasn’t her usual SCA practice piece, it was a deadly functional weapon that could skewer a human as effortlessly as a jug of milk, and she had the skill to do it.
A smarter man than me might have questioned the wisdom of letting one’s ex-wife within arms reach with a weapon, but frankly, I was glad she was there. In addition to being one of the better swordsmen in the country, she was also an extremely capable nurse, and the closest we had to a medic.
Marie’s weapon of choice had always been her tongue, which she frequently used to eviscerate opponents in court. She was a lawyer with a nasty reputation among her peers for dismantling them with the sort of rapidfire fridge logic that induced migraines in judge and jury alike.
This, of course, did not stop her from drinking. Despite being barely five feet tall and weighing in at 110 pounds soaking wet, she was on her fifth glass of absinthe, and showed no signs of intoxication. The woman’s liver was practically ironclad.
Cathy was deep into her usual Fireball, and Tina was helping her polish it off. They were both well and truly tipsy by this point, but not in a fun giggly sort of way.
As for me, I had my usual Wild Turkey, neat. I wanted to keep pounding it down until I forgot about all the mess going on, but that would be unwise. For starters, someone had to be the responsible adult, and none of the others were good candidates. Sophie might be sober, but if the girls organized a lynching for Corran, she’d probably give them the rope.
We were all more or less silent. There wasn’t much in the way of news, beyond the initial announcement. My phone was buzzing more or less constantly at this point as others in our network tried to see what was going on. They weren’t exactly thrilled that I didn’t know any more than they did, but most of them were patient.
Most of them, but not Pell.
Pell lived in Boston, which, in the event of any sort of apocalypse, let alone zombies, would turn into an abattoir in short order. She was, for lack of a better word, a mad scientist whose inventions regularly terrified her neighbors and occasionally the ATF, and I had no doubt that she could defend her apartment from all comers, but she did not take being left in the dark well.
After the first three times I told her I hadn’t heard anything, she sent something that frankly scared me more than the zombies.
“To hell with this, I’m on my way down.”
I jumped up and away from my phone like it had just turned into a particularly ill-tempered koala.
“SON OF A WHORE!” I shouted.
The others startled to varying degrees, with Marie actually spilling her drink in surprise. Her white blouse was now spattered with a rather fetching shade of green.
“What, what is it?” Cathy exclaimed. She picked up my phone, read the text, and swore.
“Pell’s coming,” I explained as I picked up my chair.
“Who’s Pell?” Tina asked.
Sometimes it’s hard to remember that events that were traumatic for me weren’t necessarily known to the rest of the world. Sophie gave me a questioning look, and Marie was scowling; they didn’t know Pell either.
“Bad news is who she is,” Cathy muttered darkly. “Last time she was here, she nearly got Rusty arrested, which would have been bad enough without the pregnancy scare.”
I swear Sophie’s hand twitched towards her sword. She and I had gone through probably the most civil divorce in history, but she still didn’t like the idea of me with another woman. She, like her parents, was a devout Catholic, and had only gone through with the divorce at my insistence. As far as she was concerned, we were still married in the eyes of God, the government be damned. She and Cathy did not get along as a result, and I’m sure words would be had with Pell when she got here.
“We’ve been friends for ages. I’ve visited her in Boston quite a few times. She visited me a few years back, and started a bar brawl that nearly got us locked up. Would have, if Clay hadn’t been the one to respond. We made it out of there, high on adrenaline from the fight, and, well, one thing led to another…”
I trailed off, mostly because Sophie looked like she was going to skewer me. Marie, on the other hand, was leaning forward eagerly. She’d want the details later. Tina looked like she had a few questions of her own.
“Long story short, she was engaged at the time, missed period, frantic scrambling to figure out what the hell to do. Things got really bad between us after that. We sort of haven’t seen each other since, figured it was for the best. If she’s coming down, she’s scared, and when she’s scared, bad things happen.”
I sighed and ran my hands through what was left of my hair. I kept it cut close, a habit born from two decades in the National Guard. Considering I’d have ripped it out years ago if it was long enough to get a grip on, that too was probably for the best.
“She’s not going to be the last,” I said. “This place is a fallback point for the network, and I’m expecting a fair few folks to show up. We’ll have a few fighters in the mix, some sciency folks, maybe a doctor or two, but mostly they’re going to be friends and family. Which means more mouths to feed.”
I frowned, trying to work out the logistics of feeding that many people. I had laid in stocks for an extended stay, but the longer we could stretch those supplies out, the better.
“Right. Things haven’t gotten bad yet, so I think it’s safe to say we can still go out shopping. This is where you guys come in.”
Cathy motioned towards a filing cabinet in the corner. I nodded, and she padded off towards it. While she was grabbing the required items, I turned towards the others to explain my plan.
“No one person can buy too much at once, not without drawing attention. So over the course of the next few days, you guys are going to make trips to Walmart, Sam’s Club, Costco, whatever. I’ve got some preloaded debit cards you’ll use to pay.”
Cathy returned with an envelope, the contents of which went onto the bar. There were twenty debit cards, plain black with no identifying features other than the embossed numbers.
“Each one of those cards is good for a grand, one time use only. Try to spend as much as possible. Our priority is food, but things like medical supplies, blankets, diapers, whatever you can get your hands on is worth it.”
“Diapers?” This from Marie.
“Diapers,” I confirmed. “Chances are, we’re going to be here for a long, long time. Someone’s bound to get knocked up, and we’ll be thankful for all the diapers we can get. Besides, they might be good for barter later on down the line.”
“How can you know we’re going to be here a while?” Tina asked. I wasn’t surprised. She wasn’t read in on the networks or the assorted alerts. All of this was still new to her.
“The alert we were given indicates the sort of disaster we’re looking at,” I explained. “In this case, Bravo Tango Romeo, which stands for Black Tide Rising, is for a large scale epidemic of something that’s going to look an awful lot like the zombie apocalypse. My guess is someone tampered with the Regen nanites, and have managed to create bona fide zombies, or something close enough to count. If we’re getting the alert, it’s because the problem isn’t nearly as contained as the feds would like us to think. They’re still trying to keep a lid on things to prevent a panic, but it’s only a matter of time.”
She chewed nervously on her bottom lip. She had no practical experience with this sort of thing, and I’m fairly certain she thought I was nuts. We’d known each other for years, and Cathy trusted me completely, otherwise she wouldn’t be here, but that didn’t mean she took all this at face value.
“How does your contact know?”
“She works at the CDC,” Cathy supplied helpfully. She knew it was only a matter of time before I got frustrated playing twenty questions with her cousin. I had no problem explaining something, but dear God, that woman is not satisfied until she understands every little nuance of an issue, and she’s not terribly bright. That didn’t mean she wasn’t without her uses; thorough and none too imaginative made for an excellent bookkeeper, for instance. Tina was an extremely successful corporate auditor, and I fully planned to make use of her skill in keeping track of supplies.
If I didn’t end up shooting her first.
The rest of the evening, we went over the basic outline of our plan if (or when) things went to hell. I kept enough foodstuffs here for a relatively small group, such as the one in the room, to survive for about a year. Most of it was long-lived stuff that had no effective expiration date, and while it might not be the tastiest source of sustenance in the world, it would keep us from starving.
However, we weren’t going to be the only ones staying here. I had reached out to the network and confirmed at least seven more contacts would be coming, some alone, some with family. If things really went to hell, that number could easily double. A year’s worth of food had suddenly turned into a few months’ worth.
It was a good thing I had other tricks up my sleeve.
The basement to this place was cavernous, almost literally, and I had it set up as a warehouse. It wasn’t industrial-size, but there was room aplenty. In addition to stocks of survival rations, I had also invested in the equipment necessary for hydroponics, as well as seeds. Most of it was high yield stuff like soy or a few strains of GMO rice I had picked up over the years. Soy was disgusting sure, but it was also extremely versatile, and could be turned into a number of less disgusting products. Genetically modified rice could provide a number of vital nutrients, and had higher yields than natural varieties.
A diet consisting only of soy, rice, and MREs was not anyone’s idea of a good time, however, so there were plenty of assorted fruits and vegetable seeds as well. Stuff that required trees to grow was out, but we had berries aplenty. Tomatoes, squash, watermelon, just about anything that could be grown relatively quickly was present.
Of course, as huge as the basement was, it wasn’t anything near as large as necessary for a full scale hydroponics farm, so the plan was to use the hydroponics to focus on rice and soy, and then construct a greenhouse in the backyard. The rice and soy were the most vital, which is why they were safe underground. My fence was good, but there was always a chance of a swarm.
In addition to crops, there was a fairly extensive stock of various kinds of meat in deep freeze. Meat wasn’t exactly a necessity, and the energy cost of keeping it frozen was high, but I had done my research. Though we could get most of the protein we needed from the crops, meat was far more satisfying. It could be saved for special events, or to boost morale. It would also be useful for barter later on down the line, another check in the plus column. If this thing went big, there was a pretty good chance that cows, pigs, chickens, or pretty much anything tasty would become scarce in a hurry. If five years, a frozen steak might be worth its weight in salt.
Salt, you ask?
Well, it’s like this. Unless you live in a coastal region, when the world goes to hell, salt is going to be hard to come by. That’s a shame, because it’s one of the few really essential things you need for any post-apocalyptic redoubt to thrive. It’s not just because you can flavor your food with it either, though that is a huge part. Salt is used in a lot of different applications, and it’s one of the more reliable methods of curing meat. Smoking works too, but smoking takes time and experience to do correctly, something that most would be survivalists weren’t going to have at first.
It’s no mystery why it was used as a currency in many early civilizations.
So I had built a dedicated salt cellar into the basement, waterproofed to keep the contents dry no matter what. I generally kept three types: rock salt, sea salt, and iodized. Rock salt wasn’t terribly useful in cooking without a bit of effort, but it came in lumps, and that made it easy to use as tender. Sea salt, which had somehow become something of a luxury the last few decades on account of being “natural,” was to be used as midgrade barter material, and for day to day use. It was coarse, smaller than rock salt but not as fine as the iodized stuff. I expected trade routes to the ocean to open up eventually, which would bring in a decent supply of the stuff, so I wasn’t counting on it to hold its value indefinitely.
Iodized table salt, on the other hand, was a commodity that couldn’t be easily produced until some semblance of industry was rebuilt. People really tend to underestimate how much they rely on the stuff in, well, pretty much everything. It wasn’t exactly high up on the list of things most people tended to scavenge, which meant all but the smart scavengers would pass it over until they realized just how much they missed it. Then, it would be both a tightly controlled commodity and highly sought after. On top of that, iodine is kinda necessary. Its introduction into the salt supply reduced the frequency of goiters by a significant margin, and also had a direct impact on the average IQ. It doesn’t naturally occur in salt, but you absolutely need it, which is why the whole “natural sea salt” thing has always annoyed me.
At any rate, I’ve been stockpiling the stuff for years, and believe you me, if this turned out to be a false alarm, I’d keep stockpiling it.
Other items of note included the large still bought from a distillery that had gone bust a few years back, an impressive collection of liquor of all types, and the raw ingredients (dried, of course) to brew beer. Alcohol is another one of those things that will prove valuable for a wide variety of uses. It can be used as fuel, disinfectant, accelerant, or in a pinch, for drinking. The bottled liquor would only be traded in special circumstances, since most of the adults here tended to enjoy drinking and would only give the stuff away if really necessary. The still could produce a near endless supply of moonshine, which could be used for trade, and would likely be our primary source of recreational intoxicants when the final bottles ran out. As for the beer, well, I’d never tried brewing, but there was a reason it was far more common to drink beer than water in medieval times. Even at three or four percent alcohol, it was still far cleaner than water, and was actually a decent source of carbohydrates. If I could get a somewhat potable beer brewing in sufficient quantities, there would probably be a market for it.
You might be getting the idea by this point that I’m something of a prepper. Don’t be absurd. Preppers are, by and large, short sighted and idiotic, in my opinion. What the hell good does it do to lay in stocks for the apocalypse if you don’t have the means to thrive once you’ve expended them? The best bunker in the world means nothing if you don’t have a way to feed yourself once you run out of goods.
They say that society is three missed meals away from anarchy at any given time. Most of the so-called preppers would end up as little more than bandits, or targets for bandits, in the long run. Meanwhile, the folks who had already been out in the world, fighting to survive from day to day, would have a huge advantage over folks who hid in a bunker for a few months, getting fat and soft off of Mountain Home meals or MREs.
It was not my intent to end up like that. I planned on my compound being something of a local hub of trade, because the best chance of surviving was to make others dependent on your own survival.
That was the point of the network to begin with. In any one of a dozen worst case scenarios, society would fall in short order. By gathering experts in various fields together, providing shelter, supplies, and work for them, we had a chance of warding off total chaos. As much as most preppers like to fantasize about total anarchy and making their way in the world by the skill of their hands and the sweat of their brow, completely independent of humanity, we’re not a solitary race. We always tend towards organization, and will make our own in the absence of one.
It was inevitable that there would be warlords and despots if the government fell. At the very least, if the network worked as intended, at least a few of those would be relatively benevolent. That was a big if, but it was one I was willing to bet on. There was always a chance that all of the network compounds would succumb to chaos or disease or something unanticipated, but odds were good that at least one would survive, and with it, some semblance of the society we knew. The human race might be in rough shape for a few centuries, but-
“Rusty!” Cathy exclaimed, poking me violently in the forehead with her forefinger.
“AH! What?” I asked, rubbing the newly created sore spot.
“You’re zoning out again.”
“Yeah,” I muttered. “It was great.”
“Excuse me?”
I looked around the room to find it mostly empty. The only two souls in the lounge were Cathy and me.
“Sorry,” I said, trying to muster up a little sincerity. “Everyone else go to bed?”
“Yeah, it was getting late, and you were kinda staring off into space and muttering. I explained that that was sort of your planning mode and left it at that, so I don’t think they’re too freaked out, but you’ve got to get it together. They’re going to be looking to you to hold us together, and spacing out like that doesn’t inspire much confidence.”
I nodded, then stood up, joints protesting loudly at the sudden motion.
“Can’t promise it won’t happen again,” I said, “but next time try to rouse me before everyone thinks I’m off my rocker.”
“Duly noted,” Cathy replied with a smile. “C’mon, let’s get some sleep. Got a long day ahead of us tomorrow, from the sound of it.”