When a devastating and vicious plague turns most of the population into frenzied killers, a lone soldier is on a mission to rebuild his ruined world.
A SOLDIER’S MISSION IN A WORLD GONE TO HELL: SURVIVE, RESCUE, REBUILD
Lee Harden stood in the center of a knockoff Persian rug. The soft polyester fibers felt like sandpaper on his bare feet. The seventy-two-degree temperature of the room felt hot one moment and too cold the next. His cotton T-shirt clung to his chest. The walls of the room were cloying and stale. Everything was frustrating. Monotonous. The sameness of his prison buzzed in his ears and drove him mad. His body begged him to break free.
His clammy left hand planted in the pocket of his jeans while his right bounced a tennis ball in front of him. To the side, his German shepherd, Tango, sat and regarded the bouncing ball with quiet intensity, his eyes following up and down with the even rhythm of a pendulum counting the endless seconds.
He closed his eyes and tasted brine in the back of his throat. Sand crunched between his teeth and lactic acid coursed through his legs and arms. His lungs clawed for air like someone buried alive. Words punched through the riptide of blood rushing past his ears: The only easy day was yesterday!
He opened his eyes and the salty sea and gritting sand fled from his mouth, but the words still hung before him, tangible now. Carved into wood. The “plaque” was big, about three feet long, and the words were hacked out, like a convict had gone to work with a penknife. Crude and simple. Like the sentiment it bore. Below the chunk of wood was a large steel door that looked like the entrance to a vault.
But it was Lee who was inside the vault.
The only easy day was yesterday.
He wondered how true those words were going to be.
Lee had spent the better part of the day in front of his computer, reading the same news bulletins that had been displayed for the past week. No one had updated the stories. Images of burning cities, overcrowded refugee camps, and violence on the scale of genocide remained untouched. No turnaround. No good news.
He had spent most of the past hour lost in thought, gazing at a picture of a very young Honduran child standing in the middle of the street, wearing no shoes, dirty blue shorts, and a yellow shirt stained with blood. He held a half-empty water bottle, likely given to him by one of the humanitarian aid stations. The look on his face was that of someone recovering from a knockout punch: eyes open but not seeing.
Behind the boy and out of focus was a leg. No body to accompany it. It had been sheared off just above the knee and now lay in some dirty Honduran street. The caption under the picture read, Honduran boy outside Red Cross shelter. The picture was dated June 28.
It was now July 3.
Most articles on the news websites were dated June 28. One or two were dated June 29. The ones from the twenty-ninth were just blurbs. US military recalling all overseas troops back to the homeland. Martial law was in effect.
Frank had confirmed all of this yesterday, but despite the look on his face, he had reassured Lee that it would all be over soon. He even apologized for keeping Lee in The Hole for this long. Maybe another week at most. I’ll send you a gift card to Ruth’s Chris, he had said. Just hang in there.
Lee realized that he had inadvertently been tempting Tango with the bouncing ball and tossed it in the air. Tango let it bounce once, then snagged it in midair. He smiled and wagged his tail, looking deeply satisfied. Completely ignorant. But that was the beauty of a dog.
Pets were strongly advised as companions while in The Hole, a place where Lee had spent many days. Usually two or three weeks at a time. There had been occasions when national disaster was foretold but averted. Such as when Fukushima melted down after the earthquakes off the coast of Japan. The Washington Worrywarts said fallout could reach mainland USA and cause agricultural collapse, which would in turn collapse the stock market, the economy, and the government.
They kept him in The Hole for eighteen days.
A month after that, Korea created a little nuclear scare that rippled through the various offices in Washington but never reached the press, which always surprised Lee, since the people controlling him made it out to be the next Cuban Missile Crisis.
On that occasion, they kept him in The Hole for a week.
Not that The Hole was a bad place. It contained almost every creature comfort one could think of. It was a little over a thousand square feet, with a great kitchen, fully stocked bar, den with a big TV, a bedroom with a king-size bed, and a bathroom with a large Jacuzzi tub and a sauna next to the shower. It was stocked with a week of fresh food, three months of freeze-dried meals, and three months’ worth of water. A battery bank, trickle charged from solar panels on the surface, could run every electronic in the place for nearly a year, and Lee kept it full of entertainment, from books and magazines to video games and movies.
Yes, Lee’s bunker had everything. Except human interaction. And the freedom to leave. So far, the Washington Worrywarts had always been wrong. A few weeks after he locked himself in, Frank’s face would appear on Lee Harden’s computer screen, smiling and telling him to “come back to the land of the living.” That was his signature it’s-all-over phrase.
But Frank would also be on Lee’s computer every day at 1200 hours to give Lee an update. Not once in all the days Lee had been restricted to his bunker had Frank been even a minute late to update Lee.
Frank had not appeared today.
Lee checked the digital clock on the wall above his computer.
His stomach flip-flopped as he considered the possibilities. His mind took him to a place without controls or any central government. A place where a disease, or a virus, or some kind of plague had brought humanity back to the Stone Age. Complete collapse of civilization. People going crazy, murdering other people, looting and pillaging, warlords seizing control in power vacuums created by fractured governments.
This could be his reality in thirty days. Picturing it all, he felt sick. But anxious. He looked down at Tango, who sat clenching the tennis ball in his mouth and waiting for Lee to do something. The thought of the end of the world was like trying to swallow a mouthful of vinegar. His mind completely rejected it.
“Fuck it,” he told Tango. “He’ll call.”
* * *
Before all the hell weeks—the pounding, cold surf; and the hot, muggy swamps; and the arid, craggy mountains—there was Primary Selection. Lee was approached, along with 237 other candidates, the proposition coming in the form of a letter, pre-typed and unsigned. It came on the heels of his parents’ funerals, and he would later discover that he and many of the others had been chosen due to several factors, not the least of which was the fact that they had no family.
The letter gave no details, but instead spoke of an opportunity to be involved in a top-tier government initiative and some such nonsense about being elite. It provided a number and extension to call, and that was essentially it. When Lee asked his superiors about the weird letter he had received, they just stared blankly and shrugged, apparently not in the loop.
Of the 237 to receive letters, Lee was one of the 191 who called the number. A polite female voice on the other end scheduled a session for what she referred to as the Primary Selection process. Still, she gave no details of what the process would be about or what the government initiative was.
Of the 191 who showed up to their appointments, only 169 signed the waiver that explicitly stated that Primary Selection was a mental test only and would be conducted under the influence of some legally prescribed narcotics, closely supervised by a medical professional.
Lee could never remember the test. He remembered lying down, and the IV in his arm, and something odd flooding his system. Then there was a block of time, filled with snippets and pieces of something terrifying that never made sense to him, and which his conscious mind was unable to make sense of. Then he remembered waking up, heart still pounding.
Of the 169 who took the test, 60 had a conversation with the doctor afterward.
Lee was one of them.
The doctor was a skinny black man. Rather than a white lab coat, he wore cleanly pressed ACUs with no division markings and just a nametag that read COOK and single black bars on his collar. Dr. (or Lt.) Cook was of average height with close-cropped hair and a mouthful of large, incredibly straight teeth. He had a relaxed manner, and he seemed perpetually curious.
“Do you have any questions?” Dr. Cook had asked.
Lee remembered testing his own thundering pulse—touching his fingers to his carotid artery. His skin was clammy and sweaty, his collar wet. “When do you guys tell me what this is about?”
“Well, today you sat in a chair and received visual stimuli for a period of ninety minutes. Kind of like a virtual reality game. The drugs were to help your mind interpret the visual stimuli as reality.”
Lee stared blankly, not quite sure what to ask from there. He had plenty of questions but really couldn’t categorize them or prioritize them.
Dr. Cook smiled and leaned forward, clasping his hands. “We’re testing something I like to call mental flex.” Dr. Cook looked thoughtful, as though trying to come up with an apt description, though Lee got the impression that he had already given this speech dozens of times. “Imagine a dream where you are faced with a life-or-death struggle—a literal fight for your life. Now imagine that this dream fight is against something terrifying, something that you know cannot be real. Even as your logical forebrain is thinking, This can’t possibly be real, is your dream self still fighting? Or do you stop and wait for the dream to be over?”
Dr. Cook leaned an elbow on his chair’s armrest. “We’ve found that in certain scenarios or situations, a sense of denial is unavoidable. You actually can’t really train it out of someone. It doesn’t matter how elite of a soldier, how much of a badass he is; certain things the brain simply refuses to believe. So when that happens, we’ve found that most people fall into one of two categories—the flexible or the inflexible. If a person is inflexible, he will mentally stop, almost like he is refusing to entertain the thought because it is so unbelievable.” Dr. Cook laughed a weird little chuckle. “I’m talking about top-tier operators here. I’ve seen it happen. Now, granted, the better trained they are, the harder it is to get them to that denial. But you keep pressing the boundaries of someone’s reality, and eventually he will reach it. And then most people pop. Like an overloaded circuit.”
Here he stopped and held up a finger. “But a few—probably about a third—will keep fighting, even when their brain is in that state of denial. And if you’re still fighting then you are flexible. You have mental flex.”
Lee swallowed, felt cold. “So do I have it?”
Another big, toothy grin. “Oh, you’ve got it.”
* * *
Lee lay in his bed, still awake at 0200 hours on the morning of July 4.
He had not eaten for the remainder of the evening, not having the appetite. His mind kept replaying his concerns in a dizzying cycle, like a short, annoying song set on repeat. What if this is it? I can’t believe it’s the end. It can’t possibly be the end. That’s bullshit.
You’re overreacting. Frank will call. He’s never missed a call before. But what if this is really it?
What if? What if?
Lee tried to turn off his mind but couldn’t, and he failed to think of a reason that he needed to sleep. It wasn’t like he had big plans, despite it being Independence Day.
That’s a first. Locked in The Hole on Independence Day. That’s fucking un-American, he thought. I swear to God, I am going to chew Frank the fuck out . . . I hope he’s okay. He’s gotta be okay. I am a contingency plan. Contingency plans are for contingencies. Contingencies don’t happen, at least not on this scale. Not on the scale that requires me to get involved.
He recalled his commission for this job. He remembered thinking, at first, that it was total horseshit. But in the end you couldn’t beat the pay, and you couldn’t beat the benefits. The government built his entire house on three acres in the central North Carolina countryside. From the outside, the house didn’t look overtly rich, but the inside was large and comfortable. The bunker he now found himself restricted to was a part of this house, buried almost twenty feet beneath the basement. They also paid him an amazing salary to go down into his bunker when they told him.
Seal the doors, they said. You’ll receive more information from Frank during your restricted periods. If you stop receiving communications from command, you will wait in your secure bunker for thirty days from the date of command’s last communication before exiting to begin your mission.
The thought of that massive undertaking made sweat break out across Lee’s forehead. The parameters of his mission, the whole reason he was sequestered away from what was going on outside, bordered on the impossible.
He shook his head. Frank would call. And so the thoughts cycled and cycled until they had blended into a slur of white noise in his mind, and somewhere around 0330 he fell asleep.
* * *
When he woke up at about 0930 he felt great.
For a moment he was truly convinced that the previous day had not happened and that it was the morning of the third, only a few hours from Frank’s scheduled call, which he would undoubtedly receive. He eventually realized this wasn’t the case. But the greasy knot in his stomach didn’t return. He felt more agitated, slightly angry. He took a hot shower and thought of all the choice words he would say to Frank when he finally called, which he was sure he would. Lee hoped Frank had a most excellent and entertaining story to explain why he was twenty-four hours overdue for his call.
He hoped Frank was safe.
He air-dried after his shower. There was really no point in rushing to clothe yourself when you were alone, twenty feet underground in a cement-and-lead box.
He made himself a protein shake while Tango dutifully sat next to him in the kitchen. After the shake, Lee put on a pair of athletic shorts, because there was something privately disturbing about doing calisthenics in the nude. He knocked out his sit-ups, push-ups, felt lazy as he looked at his chin-up bar. Then felt guilty and did the pull-ups. He turned on the sunlamp while he did these. It wasn’t the same as the sun itself, but it was better than nothing. Being in a sunless environment could mess with your head and your health.
After that he made some egg whites and toast with peanut butter. Then fed Tango. He made some coffee and took it to the computer. He didn’t sit down. Just touched the mouse. The screen saver vanished. The homepage of CNN.com was still displayed. It had not changed.
Just to make sure, Lee refreshed the browser window. This time it gave him an error message about the site being down. He checked the status of his Internet connection and found it displaying a good connection. He tried Yahoo! and managed to get the home page, but it was still the same old news.
Nothing posted since June 28. He drank his coffee in silence. It was 1030. He sat down in his computer chair, lifting his feet onto the desk. He rested the warm coffee mug on his bare chest and regarded a flat, rectangular metal box to the right of his computer screen. It contained his mission brief. This was the predetermined contingency plan given to him directly from the Office of the Secretary of Homeland Security. It outlined in detail what they projected the situation would be like on the thirtieth day. Due to the sensitivity of the information contained, Lee was not authorized to open the box until forty-eight hours after his last communication with command.
Frank was Colonel Frank Reid of the United States Army, assigned as liaison between the Secretary of Homeland Security and the forty-eight “Coordinators” stationed in bunkers in each of the states across the Continental US. Lee was stationed in North Carolina.
Colonel Frank Reid was command.
At 1200 hours today, he would have to open that box and read its contents. That would be it. Project Hometown would do what it was meant to do. He could only assume that the other forty-seven Coordinators had not received communications from Frank either and would also be opening their boxes at their respective forty-eight-hour marks.
The thought of it scared him shitless.
He drank the dregs of his coffee, grabbed a water bottle, and sat down on the couch, facing the gigantic TV. He turned it on and scanned through the cable channels. TV had gone much sooner than the Internet news. Most channels had been displaying an emergency broadcast screen with a ticker at the bottom looping the same information: the major metropolitan areas that were under evacuation order and which FEMA shelter to report to for each area.
Now the channels displayed blank blue screens.
Lee sank back onto the couch and stared, unsure of what he was waiting for. Perhaps for the channels to start transmitting again. Perhaps for his computer to chime, informing him that Frank was on the other line. Maybe he was just waiting to wake up from a bad dream.
The blue screen staring back at him felt surreal. He shook his head. Frank would call. He had to call. A virus couldn’t knock out the United States government. There were scientists, whole departments whose sole purpose for existing was to identify and eliminate these types of threats before they even became a problem. He wondered fleetingly if this were a joke, but dismissed it. Colonel Frank Reid would never play that tasteless of a joke. Lee didn’t even think Frank would play any joke at all.
He didn’t strike Lee as the joking type.
Something was keeping him from calling. The Internet signal could have been damaged or destroyed where Frank was, causing him to be unable to contact Lee for the past two days. Techs would be working overtime to reestablish contact with the Coordinators so Frank could tell them to hold off on reading their mission packets.
In the meantime, Lee had no idea what to do with himself. He would usually busy himself with a book or a movie, but watching a movie seemed inappropriate and he would not be able to focus on reading a book with his mind running through scenarios of what the hell was happening in the world outside his bunker.
He drank the rest of his water bottle and went to his treadmill. He left the incline flat and brought it up to an eight-minute-mile pace. He needed to waste some time and planned on running for a while.