All the world was silent. There was no wind. No chirping birds. No barking dogs. No meowing cats. No fleas, no crickets, no frogs. No horny insects rubbing legs together to attract a mate. Not a whisper of sound from a rustling leaf or any sign of nature at play. The food chain was all screwed up.
Mother Nature had proven herself very resilient throughout the millennia. She had adapted to drastic changes in temperatures in the Jurassic period, the Ice Age, a meteor strike that supposedly killed the dinosaurs, and God knows what else. Mother Earth had survived humanity's fears of a new Ice Age, then fears of Global Warming, then fears of Global Cooling. Yet, nobody saw the real danger coming. Nobody. And by the time they did see it, it was too late. Suddenly, without warning, humanity's reign was over.
Yes, the Earth had survived as the multitude of species that crawled across her surface or swam through her oceans came and went. Humans, however, were not so lucky. The Arrogance of Man. Humans had tried to save every endangered species on the planet, but we couldn't even save ourselves. For all our brainpower and ability to manipulate our environment, in many ways we remained the most vulnerable creatures on earth.
Cockroaches were laughing their asses off at us.
As the sun dipped low enough to barely touch the horizon, a faint noise fluttered through the warm, dead air. A soft murmur, growing slowly but steadily in intensity. Actually it was two sounds blended together. The whine of tires on asphalt and the thunder of a roaring engine peaked as the supercharged pickup perched itself at the top of the hill and stopped.
The driver carefully scanned the tiny gas station below and the surrounding area through a pair of high-powered binoculars. The pickup had originally been a Ford F-175, but had been so heavily modified it was doubtful that any engineer from the company would have recognized it internally. Several stickers portraying the American flag had been slapped onto the outside of the truck, with a rather large one on top of the roof and a big bumper sticker on the rear that said, “Don't mess with Texas!”
Every inch of space within the cab and hard-covered bed been modified by the driver as well. Every space had a purpose and every purpose fit within a well-orchestrated plan. The bed had a hard-top lid and was filled with 20-some odd, assorted fuel cans. A few could hold only one or two gallons. Most could hold five to ten gallons and a few more held 20. Two could hold 50 gallons and only one of these was about half full. The rest were all empty. So were most of the gallon-sized bottles of water stacked behind the seats.
The dashboard was covered with a carefully arranged assortment of folded road maps and Thomas Brothers guide books for different states and counties. Local area maps were closest, on top of the others and within arm's reach, while maps from outlying regions were arranged alphabetically at the other end of the cab. An orderly batch of handguns and ammunition clips rode on top of the maps; everything held in place by a long wooden plank, duct tape and brackets screwed into the dash. Floyd wasn't the handiest of handymen, but he knew his way around a wrench, lathe and other assorted power tools. He had been a mechanic working for a national chain of automotive stores back in his home state of Texas only two years ago, but that was now a distant memory from what seemed like decades long gone by.
Large capacity magazines had been outlawed by the government, but even in normal times, Floyd didn't much care for anyone telling him how to live his life, especially the Feds. He had been a proud American when there was an America, and he valued his freedom more than anything (which is why he had affectionately named his truck, “Freedom”). He would be damned if he was gonna allow the government that was supposed to protect that freedom to take it away from him piece by piece. One idiot politician had once proclaimed, “You don't need 10 bullets to kill a deer!” Of course, nobody was talking about killing a deer, and you needed a helluva lot more bullets than that once the world fell all to hell.
Floyd had owned or scavenged only the best firearms and the highest capacity magazines. Revolvers were theoretically more reliable as they never jammed, but he couldn't afford to be limited to six or seven bullets. Weight and space each had their price, and he needed the most bang for his buck, so to speak. The pride of his arsenal sat in a custom holder on the seat beside him.
Ol' Faithful was originally manufactured as a Browning Maxus Millennium version, single-barreled, autoloading semi-automatic shotgun. Floyd had added a magazine extender to increase the capacity to nine 2.25” shells (one in the chamber and 8 in the mag) and had sawed off half the barrel to make it even with the magazine. He had also cut out the middle of the stock and glued the end back on so he could shoulder the weapon if necessary, although he preferred to grip the weapon tight with both hands. It didn't take the largest shells, but it was devastatingly effective at short range and could be used in all but the tightest of spaces. That was where the handguns came in. A high-powered sniper rifle fitted with a sling sat in its mounting bracket on the inside of the passenger-side door. He didn't use it often but like Ol' Faithful, it had never failed him when he needed it, either. That was a major reason why he was still alive.
“Bitchin,” Floyd said to himself, lowering the binoculars and shifting back into drive. He had timed it perfectly, carefully calculating his fuel consumption to make it back here with a little more than a tank of gas to spare. Everything seemed exactly as he had left it a month ago, but Floyd took nothing for granted. He had endured more than his share of unpleasant surprises and was not about to get sloppy now.
Catching a glimpse of himself in the mirror, Floyd couldn't help noticing the lines around his eyes had deepened. His dark reddish beard and moustache seriously needed a trim, as did the hair under his weather-beaten Bear Auto Parts baseball cap. He hadn't had a bath in weeks, but he did try to wash his hair at least once a week or so. These last couple of weeks had been especially hard on him, however, and he was glad to be back at what he considered to be his home base.
Slowly heading down the road, Floyd followed the standard routine that had helped keep him alive these past years with expert precision. The little gas station was just off the highway, and the flat desert landscape extended for miles around. Floyd gunned the engine, making as much noise as possible as he made wide circles around the tiny building, hoping to bring out into the open anything that might respond to the noise. Then he would have an easy target.
Floyd drew nearer to the building in ever-tightening circles. Most of the asphalt had long disappeared from the parking lot, but the huge tires on Floyd's truck laughed at the plethora of potholes and chunks of gravel. Floyd noted that none of the building's large windows in front were broken and as he stopped outside the side door, he saw the lock was still on the deadbolt.
“Here we go again,” Floyd muttered to himself.
With two pistols in his front waistband and two in the back, Floyd grabbed Ol' Faithful and opened the driver-side door. He sniffed the air for anything out of the ordinary, then stepped down from the cab.
He didn't head for the door of the building right away. Instead, he headed for the pumps. There had been no electricity for over a year, rendering the pumps useless, but there was still gasoline in the underground tanks. At least, there should be, unless someone else had found this place during Floyd's absence. That wasn't terribly likely, as Floyd hadn't seen another living soul in nearly a year.
Prying up the lid of the tank, Floyd dropped a nearby pebble inside. He smiled as he soon heard the welcome sound of a splash from below and put the lid back on. He knew the gasoline wouldn't last forever, but he wouldn't be stranded here anytime soon, either. If all went well, he would pull his siphon out of the truck and fill all the gas cans in the morning. The sun was setting fast, so he had to get inside quickly.
Now it was time for the real work. Taking a deep breath, Floyd unlocked the deadbolt and slowly opened the door. There was still enough light streaming in through the large front windows to see by, which was one of the reasons he liked this place. The other was the tactical advantage of being able to see anything that might be approaching the area. The back of the building had no such windows, but there was an access ladder to the roof, where Floyd had sat on many an evening with his binoculars and sniper rifle.
Quickly and methodically, eyes darting every which way, covering every possible angle, Floyd made his way through each room. He quickly scanned the front where there was no place for anything to hide, then he hurriedly peered over the counter to see if anything lurked behind. The nose of Ol' Faithful was ever pointing ahead, ready for anything.
Floyd threw open the door to the back office, turning the knob and kicking it gently with his foot, shotgun raised and at the ready. Then came the break room, the bathroom (thank God the water still worked), and the back office. Finally, Floyd drew a quick breath and threw open the door to the garage.
This is where the worst surprises had occurred. He could never completely secure this place. Critters of all kinds – all kinds – had somehow found their way in here. He had cleaned out as much of the machinery as he could, but he still had to search two of the cars left in the area over jacks that would never lift again. With no windows, this was the darkest area of the building, illuminated only by light from the open door where Floyd now stood, the seam between the two large rolling shutters, and a few cracks in the skylight. Floyd could see clearly enough in the gloom, but the darkness was deep enough to be more than a little unnerving.
Scanning the room carefully, Floyd observed that the trunks and all the doors of the cars were still open as he had left them, making it harder for anything to hide inside. He poked the nose of Ol' Faithful into the trunk, front and back of each car, his senses alert for any sound or movement behind him as well. A diseased raccoon had jumped out at him once from inside one of the cars. With the greatest of luck and instinct, he managed to blow it away in midair, but the incident had left him very wary.
It took nearly 10 minutes to search the 40' by 80' expanse, but Floyd was always thorough. Heading back inside, He climbed the ladder, unbolted the access, and popped up onto the roof. Nothing. Finally satisfied, he made his way back to his truck, where he removed a large ammunition box and a crate of emergency rations to get at the box below on the floor in front of the passenger seat. He gathered eight small movement sensors into his arms and started making a wide circle around the building. One by one, he flipped a switch and dropped them at strategic intervals.
Each three-inch cube was black and powered by AAA batteries. Floyd had a large supply of batteries, but was always looking for more. Power cells of any kind were in short supply nowadays. Before he locked up the truck and headed inside, Floyd switched on the receiver and walked toward one of the cubes. At about 5 yards out from the nearest one, the box in his hand began to beep and a little green light turned flashing red. Floyd had the volume on low as he tested each sensor, and then turned it up high after he finally went inside. Fairly certain now that nothing could approach without warning, Floyd took a deep breath and finally began to somewhat relax. At least, as much as he ever dared to.