1. Onward and Forward
“Mr. Greggs, sir?” Spider asked, skidding to a halt in front of me.
“Spider,” I said, trying not to laugh at his name. “Just call me Evan.”
“Evan, sir,” he said, fumbling the words. I could tell that it was hard for him to keep the Mister title from slipping out. “There’s an army scout coming up the road.” He looked back as if the scout was stalking him, then back to me. I nodded for him to go on. “He’s coming to you and Mist… Tony.”
“Okay,” I said, glancing over at Tony Galliardi. He shrugged. “Make sure he finds his way to us, and make sure no one says anything. Go.”
We watched him run back down the road, an all-out sprint at first before slowing down to a jog after a sheepish look back at us. I picked up my pack and shouldered it, waited for Tony to do the same, then continued along the Willamette Highway.
“Who do you think taught him manners like that?” Tony asked as we put one foot in front of the other.
“No clue,” I said with a chuckle. “Is he a Farm kid, or from one of the outer reaches?”
“He’s one of the Davis kids. From up on the northeast edge.”
“Huh,” I said, trying to place the family to the location. “I don’t remember them. Seems like a good kid.”
“Let’s just hope he doesn’t fall on his knife while trying to slice an apple.”
I laughed, imagining the gangly teenager tripping over his own two feet, especially around council members. We stopped when we came to the small bridge over Big Marsh Creek. Tony gave the halt signal to the soldiers behind us. I hated calling them soldiers, as they definitely weren’t that. They passed the signal back down the line, where it would eventually reach the rear almost a mile behind us.
I wasn’t really sure what the seven hundred men and women following me should be called. Humans, for sure, but beyond that, they were Tony, Druscilla, Mitch, people I’d known for years in most cases. A couple of the older men had been soldiers at some point in their lives before the Bulls arrived and nearly put a stop to humanity. The rest of us were as well-trained as a small outpost of civilization after the collapse of mankind could expect—which was little more than limited shooting lessons and some survival training.
It wasn’t like we were going up against an organized military unit with ultra-modern equipment, communications, and weapons. Based on what we’d extracted from David Hamida, Corporal Hackett, and Sergeant Waters, the “army” soldiers we headed toward weren’t any better equipped than our people. Most of them had likely received only the minimum of actual combat training. Kyle Holloway and Larry Mellon, two ex-army vets, spent two weeks attempting to rouse eight hundred men and women into a cohesive unit. That was on top of a former drill instructor in the Marines named Kember Freemont who’d done his best to scream and insult us to tears—or get us to wash out.
Nearly one hundred of the volunteers didn’t make it through the first week of running, jogging, walking, and more running. I barely made it through the first week myself, and I was in great shape. Twenty or so wound up with serious injuries, though nothing life-threatening. Sprains, a broken finger, a broken ankle, and a concussion from taking a headfirst trip into a solid log were the worst cases, although most dropouts were simply too out of shape to continue.
When a dozen quit during the first day, I laughed and made snide comments to Tony and Arn about them. By the third day, Tony and Arn were laughing and making snide comments about me. By the end of the week, everyone wanted to murder Kyle, Larry, and especially Kember.
All three had lamented to me, the unspoken co-leader of this company of armed vigilantes, that they really needed at least four weeks to make real soldiers out of everyone. They hinted that six to eight weeks was a more realistic time frame to get the entire group to think and act like a military unit. Part of me wished we had waited a month before marching south, but another was glad we’d only received minimal training—which was mostly getting everyone in shape to walk for days, spend maybe thirty minutes of sheer terror shooting or being shot at, then walking for more days. The Farm didn’t need seven hundred citizens who were suddenly under the impression they were real soldiers.
Kember assured me everyone was at least proficient with their weapons, and they’d all been able to grasp the concept of keeping silent and letting me, Tony, or their squad leaders do the talking. When it came time to actually shoot at another human being, most wouldn’t hesitate since they knew the stakes as well as anyone. We couldn’t afford to let the men playing army down at Crater Lake attract the Bulls’ attention, and we couldn’t let them seek revenge on us for murdering their delegation.
I wondered for the hundredth time since we left The Farm if what we were about to do was morally acceptable regardless of the fact it had to be done. With only a week to get everyone acclimated to working in small squads while coordinating with the larger group, it was an unknown variable as to whether or not everything would break down if and when shit hit the fan. We went over the plan with the entire group before beginning our journey, and again with the twenty or so squad leaders three hours earlier.
It wasn’t enough time to guarantee perfect coordination or execution, of course. The truth is, even if we spent a year preparing, some unknown variable would unravel the plan minutes after putting it into action. We walked in silence until two of our scouts approached from the south escorting a man in dark green camo between them.
“Commander Greggs?” the soldier asked after coming to a stop in front of us.
I glared at Spider, sure that he’d put the idea into the soldier’s head.
“It’s just Evan,” I said. I held out my hand. He shook it with a firm grip.
“Corporal Myers, Sir,” he said, giving me a salute. I was sure Tony would burst out laughing, but when I glanced over, he looked as serious as I’d ever seen him. “You’re from the community up at Waldo Lake?”
“Correct,” I said. “Colonel Hardaway gave us the recruitment speech and we rallied just over five hundred to join the fight.”
I was hopeful the other two hundred shadowing us would be able to remain undetected until we needed them, though we’d made a contingency plan that allowed for them to join us if necessary. It would play into the army’s expectations perfectly if we had to explain the others as another batch of recruits.
“Five hundred…” Myers trailed off. I watched his face for any sign of suspicion, but his expression seemed more surprised that such a large number of people existed in one place. “Damn. That’ll bring us up to almost eight hundred. Going to be a bit of a pinch for all of you until we get more of the base set up, but at least you’ll have a place to sleep and a hot shower.”
“Corporal, we’re used to hard living,” Tony said. “Besides, sixteen hundred arms and legs can get a place fixed up a hell of a lot faster than six hundred.”
Myers frowned. “Less than that. There’s at least fifty of us either scouting or actively recruiting. General Pryor is gonna go apeshit when five hundred new recruits show up all at once.”
He reached into one of the pockets along the leg of his pants and pulled out a two-way radio. I felt the pang in my heart at the sight of it. Other than the video projector Colonel Hardaway and his crew had brought, none of us had seen a working piece of technology for almost two decades.
“Base, this is Rover-4, over.” Myers looked up from his radio and grinned at us. “When’s the last time you saw one of these that worked?”
“I don’t even remember what that is,” Tony said with a laugh.
“Roger, Rover-4. Status? Over.”
The voice coming from the radio was crystal clear, which surprised me, especially if he was all the way down at Crater Lake. There had to be at least fifty miles separating the two radios, which could only mean the army techs had tapped into the old cellular towers to use them as repeaters or boosters.
“Incoming recruits,” Myers said into his radio. “Estimated number is five hundred. That’s five-zero-zero bodies, over.”
The three of us stared at each other for at least ten seconds before whoever was on the other end finally replied.
“Roger that, Rover-4. Base out.”
Myers turned off his radio and slid it back into a pocket. I gave him a raised eyebrow, and I noticed Tony giving him a strange look as well.
“They probably think I’ve been drinking,” Myers said. “On a good day, we get maybe two, sometimes five recruits showing up. The most we’ve ever had was a group of twelve who arrived after one of the recruiting crews helped them defend their little commune down near Chiloquin. Lost one of our guys in a firefight and about fifteen of the commune guys, but they drove off a gang of scabs after killing at least thirty of them. The survivors decided with only twelve left, they’d be unable to defend themselves if the gang or another pack of brigands showed up.”
“I guess hearing five hundred new recruits were on the way would warrant them thinking you might be drunk,” I agreed.
“I can walk with you as far as the Little Deschutes River, not that you need my protection.” He laughed again, staring down the road behind me as if he might get a glimpse of all five hundred of us in a huge clot. “Rover-2, Corporal Yates, will meet up with you somewhere along the line. That’s his zone.”
“I’m sure we’ll be fine, Corporal,” Tony said, a genuine smile on his face. “You can proceed as you were unless you’re bored or lonely. If so, you can fill us in on the details while we march.”
“Sure thing,” Myers said. He seemed happy to have some company. “Not much to talk to other than trees and broken highway out here. Besides, I’m a lot safer with you should anyone come along.”
“You get a lot of bad guys out here?” I asked.
I had no clue what was beyond our current location. I’d ridden up U.S. 97 twenty-three years earlier after fleeing from the madness of the apocalypse. I somehow made it out of the Treasure Valley and through the hard scrub desert of eastern Oregon unscathed. An older couple took me in after I stumbled onto their property near a tiny hamlet named Rome, ninety miles southwest of Boise. After Barney Rush suffered a fatal heart attack and his wife Barbara died from an infection three months later, I wandered up and down the coast for more than a decade looking for my sister. Sandra had been a student at Oregon State University, and most of my searching took place between I-5 and the Pacific Coast Highway.
“Not really,” Myers answered. “We definitely don’t get any from the north thanks to you guys. There was a pretty ugly power struggle that had the folks from Redding and Red Bluff going up against a warlord named Griffin, who had control of everything from Orland and Chico to pretty much all of Sacramento. That lasted almost seven years.”
Tony nodded involuntarily, the same as me. We’d heard bits and pieces from the network over the years, but only a handful fled as far north as The Farm. The few who came through wound up becoming citizens. Most of the refugees were ready for a safe, structured life after a decade of chaos when the Bulls came—only to be followed by another near decade of terrible fighting between humans. Humans who, for the most part, learned to kill each other without gunpowder again.
I shuddered at the thought of being part of a mob trying to murder another mob with homemade axes, swords, spiked clubs, chains, knives, rocks, and bare hands. Not that shooting another human was somehow better or more noble, but at least I could stay semi-detached from it. It was a terrible thing, no matter the situation, to kill another human being up close and personal, to feel their blood on your hands, their last breath on your cheek. The only thing worse was to lose the fight and end up as a haunting nightmare for the rest of your killer’s life. I’d learned to coexist with my nightmares, but I had no intention of adding any new ones of that nature.
“The army stayed out of it,” Myers continued as we walked up a slight rise in the road. “We stayed out of every conflict that we happened across for the first twenty years.”
I gave him a puzzled look. Corporal Myers looked almost as young as Spider. He grinned at us.
“I was four when the Bulls came,” Myers said.
He stared at nothing for a while, as if remembering the fear, the panic as the world became a hellish struggle for survival only hours after watching cartoons and eating Double Chocolate Honey Bombs soaked in vanilla-flavored milk. I felt the familiar sadness course through me. I lost the memory a long time ago of what my childhood cereals tasted like.
The only memory I had left was how my mother called them “Diabete-O’s”—her name for any cereal not made of twigs, stones, and seeds—and refused to buy them for us. My sadness was tempered by another memory, this one of my father sneaking boxes of the worst offenders into the house. Dad, Sandra, and I would gorge ourselves on the stuff as if we were jackals feasting on a fresh kill whenever Mom wasn’t around.
“We still have about six miles of your company,” Tony said, hinting for the corporal to continue.
“Sure,” Myers said with another grin. “I can’t tell you anything about our plans for the Bulls. That’s for General Pryor to fill you in on. But I can tell you the story we’re all told, which is about how the generals and admirals who survived came to the conclusion that the Bulls were too advanced for us to fight. Especially without a communications network, fuel and supply sources, or weapons and a strategy to counter their overwhelming force.”
Myers shrugged, as if it was the most common sense thing he’d ever heard. I had to agree. The Bulls delivered a knockout punch to humanity within minutes and we were still lying on the canvas in the dark, struggling to rise to our knees.
“Whatever was left of the military decided to go deep underground. Not to wait it out so much as to play the long game. They figured everyone would abandon the cities and join up with them, then spend the next decade or three plotting and planning while rebuilding their ragtag, decentralized units into a generational army.”
“They must have had their brains scrambled by the EMP blasts to think people were just going to join up and play army for twenty years,” I said.
“I agree,” Myers said. “The first ten years of my life after the invasion… joining up with a ragtag military to fight aliens was the last thing on my mind. We were too busy avoiding humans who wanted to take whatever we had. I can’t remember not being hungry, cold, or scared every waking moment.
“Even after my mother joined us up with a bunch of pot farmers in Broken Rib, it wasn’t much different. Instead of being cold, we were worked to death like slaves. There was never enough to eat because I either didn’t work hard enough or my mom didn’t whore herself out to their satisfaction. Even sleeping wasn’t a retreat from those assholes. They loved to wake us up in the middle of the night and…”
Myers looked away, his face full of embarrassment that he’d wandered down old, painful trails. I clapped him on the back to let him know we weren’t going to rank him out for it. Everyone had old, painful trails to walk down.
I watched my mom waste away from cancer three years before the end of the world, then watched my father die in a hail of gunfire. My sister either disappeared into thin air or was long dead and I’d been chasing a ghost for the last twenty-three years. My love for her kept her alive in my mind even though I stopped searching almost a decade ago.
“Sorry,” Myers said. “Anyway, they got that wrong, but they got a lot of stuff right. They waited patiently, and now there’s a chance to finally do something about the Bulls.”
I glanced at Tony after Myers’ consolidated ending to the history lesson. I’d spent enough time with Tony to guess he wanted to roll his eyes at the hope a thousand, hell, even ten thousand soldiers were going to boot the aliens off the planet. I kept my face neutral. Our goal was to get all the way inside the base with the majority of our people and do our best to shut down the entire operation permanently with as little bloodshed as possible. I felt another pang, this one of sadness at the thought we might have to kill Corporal Myers. He seemed like the kind of guy I’d enjoy having around as one of my scouting partners.
“So,” I said, “in all that time, they rebuilt cities? Or maybe just bases? Got some water and sewage going, maybe electricity and a little manufacturing?”
“You make it sound like they just picked up right where everyone left off when the Bulls landed,” Myers said with a laugh. “Whatever that EMP was did a hell of a lot of damage. For a long time, from what I was told, there was no electricity. They were too paranoid the Bulls would find out and leave a smoking crater behind as a warning. I guess about ten years ago word came through the network that other places had rebuilt to the point they had power again, yet the Bulls ignored them.”
“I guess they don’t equate light bulbs to guns,” Tony said.
“They don’t like motorized vehicles, that’s for sure,” Myers said.
“You guys have working cars?” I asked, surprised. It had been so long since I’d heard the sound of a combustion engine that my brain had trouble digging deep enough to find a memory that hadn’t degraded to muddled garbage.
“Yeah, but those are special things, you know? Mostly motorcycles. Cars have a hard time these days since the roads have all decayed. Plus, motorcycles are easier to hide if a Bull patrol comes along.”
“I’d think the noise would be a problem,” Tony said.
“We try to run ‘em as quiet as possible, but it kind of messes with the engines. Fouls them up or makes them weak. Plus we’re pretty sure the Bulls use infrared as well as visible to see, and bike engines are like flashing beacons to them.”
Tony frowned. “Sounds pretty risky to even use them.”
“It’s horribly risky. But they run forever on a small amount of fuel. We don’t even need gas. Most have some kind of setup that uses hemp oil, and I guess some are able to use propane.”
I nodded. Propane was extremely useful, but because of its nature it had to be stored in secure tanks. We’d found thousands of empty LP canisters over the years that had suffered seal failures, rust, or any number of misfortunes. Amazingly, we recovered more than enough that had held up. The brains at The Farm became creative at finding excellent uses for propane and kerosene over the years.
“We even have one rigged up to run on batteries,” Myers added. “It’s silent, doesn’t put out much heat, but only has a fraction of the range the others do.” He paused. “If the Bulls detect moving vehicles, they always send a ship to investigate. It rarely ends well for the rider, but at least it ends quickly.”
“I can imagine,” I murmured.
Bull soldiers carried weapons powerful enough to vaporize human flesh. I didn’t like to think about what the energy cannons on their shuttles were capable of. Humans no longer had radar to detect airborne threats, and up until today, I didn’t think they had a way to communicate over long distances faster than a messenger on horseback. I could see the appeal of a motorcycle even though the roads were nothing like they were in the old days.
I spent plenty of time as a kid watching videos of street bikes speeding up and down freeways, eluding police, or racing for trophies. These days, the first rider to try to go faster than twenty miles per hour would be the first rider to end up bleeding to death on a deserted, broken highway. Bicycles were challenging enough on the old roads to the point I preferred using the dirt shoulders.
I’d wrecked over a dozen bicycles at least a hundred times since fleeing Boise. The only paved surfaces still in decent condition were the interstate freeways, but even those were cracking and sinking thanks to the combination of weather and no one to maintain them. The idea of a motorized bike even on the freeway where it would have to constantly avoid potholes, rusted vehicles, and the bones of both animals and humans wasn’t particularly comforting.
We chatted for another hour until we came to the Little Deschutes River. Tony and I did our best to avoid prying for information. We figured General Pryor—whoever he was—would fill us in on the important parts once we settled in. Myers seemed sad that he had to part ways with us and resume his patrol. He assured us Corporal Yates would keep us company once we met up with him, and we could expect the same thing all the way down the line until we arrived at the base. We assured Corporal Myers he’d have plenty of company until the last of our people passed him, including a young woman named Kristin who would be his escort for mile or two until she passed him off to someone else. Kristin was attractive enough to make sure he didn’t pay too much attention to anything but her intense green eyes and disarming laugh. We shook hands and watched him begin his journey back up the Willamette Highway.
Tony and I resumed the march, neither of us saying much until we encountered Corporal Yates an hour later. Yates was a gruff, older man, but he was as likable as Myers. He was definitely more skeptical of the army’s ability to wage any kind of war against the Bulls, but he admitted it was mostly because he had seen what the aliens were capable of the day they arrived in orbit.
Yates didn’t badmouth the army or its commanders, and I could tell he was thankful they’d been able to provide luxuries like hot showers and electronic entertainment. But when it came to the reasons we were marching and the army was recruiting, his opinion became more guarded, less positive. I got the impression he was on board only because of the soft beds, guaranteed food, and the company of men and women who could hold off any of the typical bandit threats that were common these days. He didn’t seem the type to lead the gung-ho charge to eliminate the Bulls.
We linked up with several other army scouts along the way, each more impressed than the last at the size of our contingent. They had to have known how numerous we were, yet each encounter made us chuckle. One of the last scouts made me wonder if her eyes would pop completely out of her head when Tony verified that five hundred humans were stretched out for a mile behind us. Private Ailes didn’t look to be more than twenty years old, if that, so I understood why five hundred humans in a small area would be so surprising. She had never known what it was like to live in a city, surrounded by tens of thousands, sometimes millions of others.
I thought Spider’s eyes would burst out of his head when he met Private Ailes. If she seemed like a bumpkin based on her experience with large groups of humans, then Spider would be considered an inbred mutant based on his lack of experience with members of the opposite sex. Tony caught Spider’s elbow at least three different times to keep him steady as the awkward young man tried to stammer out a greeting to the attractive young soldier.
I was sure he was going to throw up on her fatigues before he got more than three words out but he kept it together well enough to only turn a shade of red that edged into purple. Private Ailes earned my respect by keeping her laughter in, both during the attempted greeting and again when Spider’s feet tangled up after being dismissed by Tony. The poor kid was still picking bits of dirt and gravel out of his palms by the time we bedded down for the night.