IN THE GUN SIGHTS
This Marine’s apocalypse is heating up. After saving the strangers from the bear, Joe found himself in a precarious stand-off. Readers thought he should talk this one out.
The shaking rifle betrayed the constitution of the middle-aged man wielding it. Joe had no quarrel with him. Nor with the other man, the rusty-bearded traveler he held in the Mk-14’s gunsights. Escalating the already tense situation would gain nothing.
However. Be polite. Be professional. Have a plan to kill everyone you meet.
So he kept his rifle expertly trained on Rusty’s face, the sights lined up to put a 7.62 round right through the base of his skull. The barrel did not move. Rusty did not blink.
“Man, you do not want to be pointing that at me,” Joe said. “And you don’t need to. We’re gonna talk. Then you’re gonna put your gun down.”
“He saved us,” the boy said. His breath came out in rasps. “The bear, he killed it.”
Dark blood seeped from over a dozen holes riddling the carcass, proving the point. The beast was dead but its fading warmth seemed to thicken the air and the scent of its sopping, mud-caked fur lingered.
The boy stepped closer to his uncle, and risked raising a hand to the quivering rifle. The man lowered the weapon and relaxed, as if unhinging himself from a tenuous courage he never imagined possible.
“Drop it,” Joe ordered.
“It’s not even loaded. Neither is the other one.” Greybeard said. The rifle hung loosely at his side. He squeezed the trigger. A feeble, empty click of the chamber echoed in the woods.
“Then it’s a good thing mine is. Drop it.” Joe repeated. The man obeyed and the rifle splashed into the mud.
In the dimming light, he ordered them all to sit down. He took the kid’s .22, a round jammed in the chamber. He freed it, unbolted it, and emptied four rounds into the mud. He found Rusty’s AR, also empty, and instinctively removed the magazines of both and double checked the chambers.
“We’re not dangerous,” the boy said.
“Doesn’t matter what you are or what you’re not,” Joe said. “Where did you come from? Why are you following me?”
Rusty spoke. “We’re not following you. We’re trying to find somewhere to camp. Our last place got bad.”
“The hell does that mean?”
“Some kind of gang, they took over the place. A lot of our friends got killed.”
“When was this.”
“Two days ago.”
“Are they following you?”
“I don’t know.”
A groan of thunder interrupted the conversation. The storm wasn’t quite done yet. Joe looked at the three people sitting in the mud as the rain began to fall once more.
“I’m moving on,” Joe said. “I don’t care where you go, but I’m not saving your asses again. Don’t follow me.”
They stood up and started collecting the few things they had. Two smallish backpacks, probably low on food. The two men slung their empty rifles over their shoulders, and the boy stood like a lost child, as if any direction traveled from this point would lead to the same unpromising future.
You’ve done enough. It’s time to leave.
He turned and walked away.
The encampment was a repurposed mini mall, a block at the edge of a community appropriated by immune survivors. 54 people lived in the shops, their storefront signs illuminated by the generators powering the facilities. Similar encampments dotted the coast, separated by hundreds of miles, some clinging to the ailing power grid abandoned by the last vestiges of infrastructure the state had left.
Three days had passed since Joe left the travelers in the woods and returned to camp with the supplies he’d scavenged. The rain finally ceased and the wind grew colder as winter settled into the coastal community, the roadside grass dusted with a light frost that burned away in the quickening light of morning.
Things made sense in camp. The pharmacy served as a medical center. The fast-food restaurant in the center of the parking lot was the chow hall. In a corner near the café stood a gazebo, the gathering point for all things community related.
The garden was further down the road in a clearing, a series of plots surrounded by chicken wire. Potatoes, carrots, and cabbages grew there, augmenting the abundance of grocery store-scavenged food suddenly available to the small population of survivors. Keeping the refrigerators stocked and powered was a full-time job, but no one went hungry.
There was a clocktower too, an aesthetic irrelevancy when first built, a sharpshooter’s nest now. Joe had spent many nights there with his rifle, surveying the street to the south, and the forest to the east. Encircling the entire encampment was a chainlink fence topped with razor wire, with a guard post set up at the main gate.
Joe would’ve preferred snipers on every rooftop. At highest alert, the best he could muster was three shooters: Hank, the buck-hunting sportsman, Mitra, an airman from the Portland Air National Guard, and Todd, a college kid who loved airsoft.
Todd was the worst shot.
Still, they were eager. And they were the only defenders the camp had. Joe wish he could train them more—and so did they—but ammunition was a scarcity. He’d raided as many sporting goods stores as he could and scrounged up enough bullets to fend off an army, but it would do no good if most of them ended up in the dirt behind practice targets.
On a clear afternoon, Joe sat shotgun in a flatbed ATV while Mitra drove. They needed fuel for the generators from the gas station to the south. Recalling the criminals the boy had mentioned in the woods three days ago, Joe ordered Todd on clocktower duty and put Hank on patrol to the north.
Mitra, a 29-year-old Pakistani-American, kept her thick brown hair in a bun, complying with USAF regulations through a comfort of habit. Her father was an accountant from Islamabad. A widower, he moved Mitra and her two brothers to Seattle after their mother was killed in a suicide attack at a market. Twenty years later, Mitra lost the rest of her family to the disease.
The ATV rumbled down the road. Mitra was alert yet talkative. After days in the forest, Joe appreciated her conversation. She had to yell over the sound of the engine.
“You know, I really miss my baba’s maash pulao,” she said loudly, speaking only the last words with a Pakistani melody. The rest of the time she sounded like a typical Seattle girl.
They crested a ridge as Mitra continued her musing about vegetarian cuisine. Joe grew hungry listening to her. The gas station wasn’t far.
“We gotta find some apricots,” she said. “Hell, even some jam would work.”
“I’ll be sure to look for some at the farmers market next Tuesday,” he quipped. “You hipsters love that shit, don’t you?”
“Hey, don’t judge.”
“I outrank you, I can do whatever I want.” That got her laughing.
Mitra stopped laughing and Joe’s thoughts of food vanished. His combat instincts ignited as the sudden sound of an explosion ripped through the air. A deep, huge detonation.
Joe knew the gas station was gone before the shockwave hit him. The ATV’s chassis rattled violently.
Mitra raised her binoculars. Dark smoke rose from behind the trees down the road.
The radio on Joe’s plate carrier buzzed.
“Joe, come in!” It was Todd, in the clocktower. His youthful voice cracked over the radio. “The hell was that?”
He keyed the transmit button. “Gas station’s gone, Todd.”
“Jesus. That’s the only fuel for miles.”
Swarms of blackbirds fled the trees down the road, darting in every direction as the smoke rose thicker.