Chapter 1: Goliath Stumbles
The Near Future...
Jack Rourke’s desk phone rang, breaking through a zen-like level of concentration. He was in what he liked to call the productivity zone, trying to finish off a slide deck to shoot out to the project team before the end of the day. His calendar was blocked off, giving him some peace and quiet, and a half drained 16-oz energy drink was powering him through the afternoon. He was on a roll, with only two slides left to throw together. He didn’t need any distractions—he had to get the slides done today, and anything that got in his way would only keep him here later. He had martial arts class right after work, and he really didn’t want to miss it.
He debated letting the call go to voice mail, but checked the ID on the fourth ring. It was Tyler “Tex” Ryan. Tex never called his desk phone. Jack’s hand flew out, snatching the phone off the receiver.
“Hey Tex, it’s Rourke,” he answered.
“Buddy, have you seen the news?” Tex asked. His voice was hushed, and a bit stressed.
“No, should I have?”
“Dude, I think the crap just hit the fan. Pull it up and tell me I’m not crazy.”
Jack tried to pull up his usual news source, but got a weird load error. He tried an alternative, which was also down. Finally, a third website loaded, the title scrawled prominently at the top of the page setting his heart dropping:
Massive Explosion Rocks Washington, D.C.
Jack clicked through to the article, quickly skimming over the scant details. Reports were flying in from outside of the D.C. area, reporting a bright flash, ground tremor and a huge mushroom cloud, centered on Capitol Hill area.
“Somebody hit D.C.?”
“Wait, D.C.? You mean Manhattan, right?”
“No, this says D.C. What are you reading?”
Jack backed out to the homepage and found if featuring a new headline, worse than the first:
Breaking: Simultaneous Nuclear Attacks hit New York and D.C.
The image showed a billowing, ominous and unmistakable mushroom cloud, wicked and black against the afternoon sky.
“They hit both. Manhattan and D.C. It just came through—the attacks must have been in the last few minutes.”
“Wait, D.C. AND Manhattan? Holy crap.”
Neither spoke for a long while, shocked. Jack pulled up another news website and found a similar headline and mushroom cloud photo. This was real. D.C. and Manhattan had been hit by what was thought to be nuclear weapons—huge fireball, mushroom clouds, no communications into the impacted areas. No real details beyond what people 15 miles out from the blast sites were reporting.
A woman in a cubicle a few down from Jack’s gasped loudly. She’d just spotted the news, too.
“Oh no!” the woman started to repeat over and over, panic rising in their voice co-workers rushing over to see what the problem was.
The woman’s panic snapped Jack out of his stupor and into action. He had a head start on the news and on the frantic, panicked masses, but not by much. He had to move, and move quickly.
“Tex, get home as fast as you can. People are going to go nuts and panic.”
“Do you think we’ll be ok? About the radiation I mean? Or EMP?”
“I don’t think we’d still be talking if EMP was going to be a problem. Fallout, I’m not sure. We might be in range of the D.C. stuff. Depends on winds, how big the bomb was—I don’t know.”
“Damn, man, this is it,” Tex said, his voice sounding grim and faraway sounding. Jack could hear the rustling sounds of movement on the other end—Tex was up and going.
“This will be bad, Tex. At a minimum, the country’s political and economic centers are out of commission. That alone is bad, let alone what else is going to happen in the aftermath. I’m out of here—going to call Fiona and get home as fast as I can.”
“Same here. Be safe, man.”
Jack undocked his laptop and threw it in his work bag, rising to leave.
“You too, Tex. I don’t know how bad this will be here, but I think probably smart to play it safe and have everyone rendezvous up at my place. Can you call Blackwell and give him the heads up on the way home? I’ll call MacNab.”
“Sure. I’ll have Esme load up, we’ll be over there as soon as possible.”
“All right, let’s move. Be safe, Tex.”
“You too, Jack.”
Jack slung his daily carry backpack over one shoulder, speed walking for the elevator. He worked on the 20th floor of a downtown skyscraper; he had an elevator ride, a walk to his truck in the company parking garage and a 30 minute drive home—without traffic. He needed to beat the mad rush out of the building and the downtown area—if he didn’t get out now, he might be stranded in traffic for hours.
He speed dialed Fiona while waiting for the elevator, but got her voicemail.
“Fiona, honey: Alas, Babylon. I repeat: Alas, Babylon. Get Porter. I’m on my way home. I love you.”
He sent her a text message to similar effect. Alas, Babylon, the title of one of Jack’s favorite post-apocalyptic novels, had long been their emergency code phase, and should trigger Fiona into immediate action.
The elevator arrived, empty, and the ride down had no stops in between. A cluster of people had gathered around the lobby’s flat screen TV, which usually aired Wall Street financial shows. Now, it was playing coverage from the D.C. bomb, helicopter footage showing the growing mushroom cloud miles off in the distance. The small crowd was transfixed, mesmerized by the horror. How many millions were dead?
Jack broke into a jog, heading for the parking garage. He dialed Kyle MacNab on the way.
“Hey Rourke, calling in sick on training tonight?” Kyle answered.
“Kyle—crap’s hit the fan. Looks like nuke attacks on New York and D.C.”
“Wait, what? Are you serious?”
“Dead serious. We’re rendezvousing at my place as soon as possible.”
“Crap, Rourke. I’m at an install two hours away.”
Jack flew up the stairs towards his truck.
“Not good. Get moving, then. Call Amy, have her load up quick and bug out to my place.”
“You think it’s that bad?”
“Don’t know at this point, but the roads will be jammed soon, phones might go down, and we might get some fallout from the D.C. attack. Just get moving.”
“All right, all right man.”
Jack was nearing his truck, a black double cab Toyota Tacoma with mild off-road modifications. He used the remote to pop open the doors and start the engine, tossed his pack into the open bed and hopped in the cab.
“Look, Kyle. I gotta drive. What route are you taking home?”
Kyle told him the interstate he’d be taking, and then the alternate route he’d plan to use. It didn’t look good—he’d have to either cross through the downtown area, or entirely circumvent it, adding time and miles to the trip. While he talked, Jack put the Tacoma into gear and raced out of the garage, tires screeching down the circular exit ramp.
“All right. If comms go down and you’re not home by tomorrow morning, we’ll send out a search party. Keep your walkie with you if you have to bail.”
“Got it. I’ll be on the road in five. Be safe, man.”
Jack raced out onto the surface streets, heading for the interstate. Afternoon traffic still looked normal. He was still ahead of the crowds.
Connecting to the truck’s Bluetooth, he tried Fiona again, and still no answer.
“Come on, babe. Of all the times not to answer your phone…”
He pulled onto the freeway, flooring the accelerator, the Tacoma’s powerful V6 getting him up well over the speed limit in no time.
The interstate had light traffic, an everyday average before rush-hour lull. Jack wondered how long that would remain the case.
He mentally scanned over his commute home—traffic-wise, he usually had a straight shot for about ten miles once he left the immediate area of downtown. But then, the road narrowed, a highway merged onto the interstate, and passed through a suburb town with several office parks and corporate headquarters only minutes off the freeway. That stretch often became a rush-hour nightmare, a bottle neck on his commute home.
Jack pushed the truck faster. That bottle neck was a real potential—he’d be hitting it in about seven minutes, which would be a total of fifteen to twenty minutes before the news of the attacks had first broke. He doubted that the thousands of office workers would be that far behind the on decision loop.
Jack had an alternate route, though—a shortcut that ran across a fairly sparsely populated area of old farms, wooded homes and a few small developments. It was slower if the freeway was empty, but much faster if it allowed him to beat the traffic. He exited the Interstate a few miles ahead of the bottle neck, hitting a green light for his turn onto the old state highway route.
The roads were still clear. Jack got up to speed again, weaving around slower cars—many probably still oblivious to what had happened.
Jack tried again to get a hold of Fiona, dialing the number and waiting. The phone dialed though, but then clicked off after a pause.
Jack swore, hitting the steering wheel in frustration. He picked up his phone to see if it he’d lost signal. Instead, he found that he had a missed call—from Fiona.
“Yes!” Jack said. He tried to call her back again, but got similar results. He tried two more times before giving up. Something was wrong with the cell network.
Jack’s mind raced over what to do next.
Fiona had called him back, which meant she’d at least most likely received his text message. If she didn’t putter around, she’d already be in the SUV on the way to pick up Porter from school, about four miles from their home—maybe even gone and back again. But what if something had happened with the message or the voice mail? Jack could swing by Porter’s school, but it was out of his way for his straight shot home.
Jack turned a corner, coming up on a little strip mall. The strip mall had a grocery store, drug store, hardware store and a gas station.
Jack thought about his preparations, which felt far too insufficient in the face of what lay ahead. His mind ran through everything he’d want to have in store for the tough times they faced. More gas – his truck’s tank was half empty, and two of his 5-gallon cans at home had been used up during the group gathering the month prior. More propane for their stoves and the grill, too. More food—they had six months for the Rourke family, but with three other families under their roof, that would be cut dramatically short. The other group members had food in their homes and would certain bring some, but there was no telling how much they would be able to bring. Similarly, the Rourke family’s supply of other consumables, things like toilet paper, batteries, bleach, hygiene products, would not last long if they had to support the entire group.
Then, Jack remembered the potential for fallout. They lived in the Southeastern United States, hundreds of miles from D.C. From Jack’s vague memories of fallout patterns, he thought that they would probably be on the outer edge of any possible fallout from whatever hit D.C., if they got any at all. Of course, if two cities were attacked roughly simultaneously, more cities could be next. If it was all-out nuclear war between the U.S. and some unknown aggressor, then fallout and radiation would be inevitable. Jack could only hope and pray that was not the case.
Jack’s home was made of brick and had a basement, both of which would provide some protection in the event of radioactive fallout. It was far from the real-deal nuclear fallout shelter that was still on his survivalist wish list, but he was the only one in the group to have even a basement, and he really could think of no better option at this point. For supplies, Jack had a box of protective N95 particulate masks, a couple old surplus Isreali gas masks and one actual, recent military issue gas mask and a single CBRN suit—a chemical/biological/radiation/nuclear protection suit. The hardware would have additional masks or respirators, gloves, plastic sheeting for sealing off doors and windows, sand bags for creating a protective barrier, maybe even some extra shovels and picks for digging.
Jack weighed his options.
After the strip mall, it was a ten minute drive to his home on the same back country road, with little chance of hitting real traffic. If he assumed Fiona was handling picking up Porter, then maybe a quick stop for some very last minute purchases would be worth a few minutes delay.
On the other hand, if there had been an issue receiving his message, maybe Fiona hadn’t even left yet to pick up Porter. While the school was only four miles away, half of that distance was on one of the area’s major roads, which was likely to be quickly clogged with traffic.
Or, maybe he should get home as fast as possible, make sure everything was ok and the family was safe, and then try to run back out to the store and hope that law and order still reigned for at least a little while longer. They lived in a fairly good, safe, almost rural suburb; he’d expect to see some chaos and trouble in other areas, but here, they should have some more time.
Whatever Jack was going to do, he needed to make up his mind quickly. The turn into the strip mall’s parking lot was fast approaching—if he was going to try to hit one of the shops, he needed to decide now. If he was going to speed past, rushing for home, it was doubtful he’d be able to find much on a return trip, so he needed to be satisfied with the preparations he already had in place.