Chapter 1

Copyright© 2000 by Al Steiner

Sci-Fi/Post-Apocalyptic Story: Chapter 1 - When Comet Fenwell crashes into the Pacific Ocean one October day, it spells the end for most of humanity. Those that survive find themselves in a greatly changed world filled with different morals and the same old urges.

Caution: This Sci-Fi/Post-Apocalyptic Story contains strong sexual content, including Ma/Fa   Ma/ft   Fa/ft   Consensual   Reluctant   BiSexual   Science Fiction   Post Apocalypse   Group Sex   Sex Toys   Violent   comet crashes into earth story, end of civilization story

It was called Comet Fenwell. Named for the eighteen year old English amateur astronomer who first detected it as an out of place smudge of light just past the orbit of Saturn, it was an irregularly shaped chunk of frozen methane, ammonia, and water mixed with a scattering of rock. Preliminary calculations revealed it would pass alarmingly close to the Earth after its spin around the sun, as it headed back towards the deep space beyond Pluto from which it had come. This led to a fever of religious conversions and mass hysteria in those first few days as reputable scientists gleefully went on television to explain just what this mass of ice was capable of doing if it actually struck the planet. Though Fenwell was not a huge comet - it was just a hair over two miles long and just a hair under a mile wide - the velocity at which it was moving was enough to cause a global catastrophe, particularly if it struck the ocean.

But after those first tense days things calmed down considerably when, by unanimous agreement of scientists from across the globe, it was announced that while Fenwell would be close, it would still pass more than three thousand miles from the Earth. These same scientists who had stirred up the hysteria in the first place calmed it by explaining that the course they predicted the comet to take was based upon Newtonian laws and was absolute. They assured the people of Earth that there was no guesswork or speculation and no possibility of error. Fenwell would provide perhaps the most spectacular celestial show in recorded history and would then leave them in peace.

And so while everyone on the small blue planet settled in to watch the glowing tail of the close encounter that October, none of them realized that their coveted scientific community had made a terrible, lethal miscalculation. It was just a little error, easily attributed to mankind's lack of knowledge about the exact makeup of these strange travelers, but it was enough.

Just past the orbit of Mars, solar radiation began to bombard Fenwell with enough energy to vaporize the outer layer of its surface, sending it outward behind it in the spectacular tail that was indicative of such objects. Night after night the tail grew longer and brighter as the amount of radiation striking it increased until finally it trailed across more than ten degrees of the night sky. Fenwell disappeared briefly as it reached the extreme of its orbit and was pulled around the sun, reappearing later on the other side, this time with the tail facing towards the Earth. Night after night, all over the planet, people clustered outside of their homes to see the strangely beautiful show that was being staged for them. As Fenwell grew closer still it became possible to see the tail even during the daylight hours under favorable conditions.

When it was just past the orbit of Venus a few scientists began to note that Fenwell was not exactly where they thought it should be. Though the discrepancy was minute, there really was not a lot of margin for error when you were talking about only a three thousand mile difference in orbits. The scientists did not raise any sort of alarm at this time since their calculations still showed the comet passing more than fifteen hundred miles from Earth's atmosphere. Instead, they tried to figure out just where their careful and supposedly ironclad calculations had gone wrong. Why wasn't the comet following the basic principals of Newtonian theory? What had thrown its orbit off?

The answer, though they would never know it, was thrust. As the comet slowly turned on its axis while under the influence of the sun's rays, pockets of methane and ammonia would periodically explode, releasing pressure. These explosions were not noticeable by the many peering instruments that kept watch on the comet. They were very small and they always occurred on the sunward side. Individually they did little to move the large chunk of ice. But collectively, day after day, hour after hour, they nudged Fenwell further and further off of its projected course and closer and closer to a lethal intersection with Earth.

Two days before the pass-by, the scientists began to become seriously alarmed by what they were seeing. Their calculations now showed that Fenwell would pass less than five hundred miles from the surface of the earth. That was almost close enough to skip through the thin layer of upper atmosphere! And still they had no idea why the point of passage continued to grow closer. On the surface of the comet itself pockets continued to intermittently ignite and by twenty-four hours prior to closest approach it became apparent to anyone with the ability to perform the equations that, barring a miracle, a collision was inevitable.

The scientific communities of the various nations on Earth all informed their various governments of the coming impact. Inquiries were made in each case as to whether anything could be done to either destroy the comet or nudge it to a safer course. In every case the answer was a firm no. Fenwell was simply too large and moving too fast. So while the various government leaders and wealthy insiders of Earth tried to make a mad dash to whatever underground place of safety they had access to, it was decided that there was nothing to be gained by informing the general public of what was to come. There really was no place for them to hide even if it was possible to get them all there. Had there been even a little more time, the secret undoubtedly would have leaked. A secret as horrible and as far-reaching as this one could not have been kept. But there was not more time.

On October 12 - a Thursday in the western hemisphere - Comet Fenwell, moving at approximately 100,000 mph, impacted the Pacific Ocean 600 miles off the coast of Oregon. Its trip through the atmosphere took a mere eight seconds to complete, during which time friction heated its surface to nearly thirty thousand degrees Fahrenheit. This superheated mass slammed through the water and buried itself in the very mantle of the earth. The release of energy that resulted was so powerful that the entire world's stock of thermonuclear weapons being detonated at once would have seemed a child's firecracker in comparison. Rock and sludge from the sea bottom was exploded outward before falling back to earth hundreds, even thousands of miles away. An actual hole, more than a hundred miles in diameter, appeared for nearly twelve hours in the Pacific Ocean as the tremendous heat boiled billions of tons of seawater into steam sending thick, gray clouds into the atmosphere. As more water rushed in to fill this void, it too was boiled away to vapor. Aside from this hole in the ocean, the impact sent huge tidal waves outward, tidal waves unlike anything ever seen before. The first set was more than two hundred feet high and moved at nearly the speed of sound. They would keep moving until they struck something.

The first catastrophic effect to be felt by the inhabitants of the earth came from the shockwaves of the mantle impact. They traveled outward along the planetary crust, circling the globe in less than twenty minutes and releasing the pent-up energy from every fault line they crossed. Everywhere along the surface of the planet, earthquakes erupted on a scale hardly even imagined. In nearly every country, buildings and bridges crashed to the ground, underground fuel storage tanks exploded, dams burst. Those that died quickly in this initial disaster were perhaps the lucky ones.

At impact+45 minutes the west coast of the United States became the first to be struck by the tidal wave. It rolled in at a height of two hundred feet and moving at 684 mph. As it crossed the continental shelf it doubled in size and when it reached the actual coastline, it reared up to nearly a half mile in height. The coastal cities and all their inhabitants - those that had lived through the earthquakes - were obliterated in an instant as the massive wave destroyed everything in its path for nearly one hundred miles inland. The great metropolitan areas of Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Diego, home to nearly a thirty million, were erased from the landscape in the blink of an eye, leaving nothing but a clogged mess of debris and shattered bodies near the wave crest. The breaking of this great wave atop them similarly destroyed the cities further inland - Portland, Seattle, Vancouver. In the great central valley of California, where water was already rapidly rising due to the smashed Shasta, Oroville, and Folsom dams, water rushed up the Sacramento and San Joaquin River channels, funneling into a destructive force that swept away the cities of Sacramento, Stockton, Bakersfield, Fresno, and the many other small farming communities that dotted the landscape. Some of the most fertile land on Earth quickly became an inland sea upon which the bodies of millions of humans and livestock bobbed and floated.

The west coast of the United States was only the first to be struck. Eventually, every sea coast area in the world would be hit in a similar manner several times as the great waves traveled back and forth across the oceans of the world, bounding and rebounding like ripples in a bathtub. Most of the major metropolitan areas of the planet were located either on or within a hundred miles of a coastline. The earthquakes and the tidal waves alone killed off a sizable fraction of the planetary population.

But the death and destruction, as horrific as it was, did not stop there. If it had, perhaps civilization could have been rebuilt eventually. After all, many of the inland cities, though heavily damaged by the earthquakes and dealing with out of control flooding in some cases, were still standing when the waves finally equalized. Unfortunately for the human race, the greatest catastrophe was still forming over the impact site and spreading across the globe.

From the hole made by the comet in the Pacific Ocean, immense clouds of seawater continued to boil away into the atmosphere. In all, before the seawater finally closed the hole by quenching the tremendous heat, more than five percent of the total volume of water on Earth was vaporized and sent aloft. These clouds quickly spread out and covered the globe like thick blanket, dumping rain virtually everywhere and blocking out the sun. The rain promised to continue for months, killing all crops, flooding every low-lying area, and disrupting the planetary food chain in ways that would guarantee the extinction of all but the very strongest species.

Sierra Nevada Mountains - 40 miles northeast of Auburn, California
Impact+5 days

Brett Adams trudged slowly along through the thick mud on the top of the ridge. With each step he took his hunting boots plunged four inches into the syrupy muck the ground had become, forcing him to pull upward to take the next. His camouflage hunting clothes were saturated and covered with mud and pine needles. He had not been dry since the rain started and he was on the verge of hypothermia. He was tired beyond belief. Every muscle, every joint throbbed like a rotten tooth. He was weak from hunger, having eaten nothing in the last five days but a chocolate bar and some trail mix. He had no idea where he was going or why he was even bothering to continue on. He constantly shifted the Remington .30-06 rifle on his back from one shoulder to the other, thinking quite often of simply sitting down, putting the barrel in his mouth, and pulling the trigger. Why shouldn't he? Everything that he cared about was gone now. Why was he bothering to keep propelling himself forward?

But somehow he did keep going, his survival instinct a little too sharply honed to allow him to simply give up. Brett, at thirty-five years of age, had lived through five years as a street cop and four years as a helicopter cop. Before that he had flown Apache attack helicopters in Desert Storm, striking targets deep behind Iraqi lines while anti-aircraft gunners tried their damnedest to bring him down. He had once been in a gunfight on the streets of Stockton during his rookie year with the San Joaquin County Sheriff's Department. He had once had the engine of his helicopter die on him, forcing him into an auto-rotational landing. His mindset was geared to keep him alive as long as possible, under whatever conditions or situations he encountered. Though he was racked with grief, cold and miserable, and quite probably going to die within the next twenty-four hours no matter what, he kept going. He lifted one foot and placed it in front of the other. He did it again. He kept moving through the purgatory that he found himself in, wondering why he couldn't have been with his family when the end came.

The rain had slacked off some in the past six hours. Of course, when you were talking about this sort of rain, slacked-off was a very relative term. It was now only slightly worse than a torrential downpour of the sort that was normally only seen at the height of a severe thunderstorm. Visibility was now almost a hundred yards or so. The wind had died down to something like a moderate gale, no longer packing the power to sweep him completely off his feet, no longer blowing pine cones and tree branches through the air like deadly missiles. During the first twenty-four hours of this biblical-like event, the rain had been so thick it had been difficult to breathe at times. Lightening strikes had flashed and exploded all around the mountaintop like an artillery barrage. Trees had toppled in the hurricane force winds and then been washed downhill by the mud like toothpicks.

It had been a mudslide that had taken Carl, his best friend. Carl was a San Joaquin Sheriff's deputy, just like Brett. They had met six years ago, when Brett had still been working uniformed patrol. Carl had been like a brother to him, closer in fact than Brett's own brother had ever been. Their wives socialized together, their children attended the same schools. The night before the impact, he and Carl had driven up to nearby Castle Point in Carl's Toyota Four-Runner to set up camp for their annual deer-hunting trip. They had been happy, full of life, contemplating bagging a nice trophy to take home to their families. That first night of the trip they had stayed up late, often staring at the night sky, which had been overly bright with the beautiful, gossamer tail of the approaching comet. They drank beer and cooked their simple meal before retiring to their tents for the night. At 6:00 AM the next morning, they had set off into the woods to make their kills. That now seemed a different lifetime. Had that really only been five days ago?

After the earthquake, and after the barrage of flaming rocks and mud had fallen throughout the forest, setting it ablaze in many spots, they had immediately started back towards camp, concerned not so much for their own safety as for the safety of their wives and children back in Stockton. They had intuited that the comet had struck the earth at that point but they had been completely clueless about just what the ramifications of that were. Global catastrophe is on a scale that mere humans can hardly fathom. As they huffed and puffed their way through the woods, dodging fires here and there, hearing the impacts of rocks slamming into trees, they saw the clouds to the west of them for the first time. A thick, black, angry front was swelling into the sky, moving rapidly towards them. By the time they made it to camp, the wind and the lightening had started, toppling trees and igniting more fires.

They dove into the Toyota, not bothering to pack up camp, terrified at the fates of their loved ones, and started to head back to Auburn, which would in turn lead them back to Interstate 80. The road they were on curved slightly upward from Castle Point before twisting and turning its way down to the foothills below. From the summit of this peak was a clear line of sight out over the Sacramento Valley. Usually it was one of the most impressive views that Brett could imagine. This time it was a glimpse through the gates of hell itself.

When they first topped the rise they were able to see the city of Sacramento and its suburbs some fifty to sixty miles away. Already they were able to see huge areas of flooding caused by the breaking of Folsom Dam and the release of nearly a million acre feet of stored water. This first glimpse of isolated devastation was horrible but it did not destroy all of their hopes like what happened next. From the southwest, in the direction of the San Francisco Bay area, a huge wall of water appeared. It moved forward at what seemed a slow rate from their vantage point in the mountains but it advanced steadily. It swallowed up everything in its path, burying the valley and turning it into a brown, muddy sea. They watched in horrified fascination as the city disappeared and the water reached the fringes of the foothills twenty miles below them.

Any illusions they might have had about the possible survival of their families disappeared at that moment. Though Stockton was forty miles south of Sacramento and well out of their line of sight, it was in the same valley and at the same elevation. It had been slightly under an hour since the earthquake had occurred. That was nowhere near enough time for Julie and Summer, Brett's wife and daughter, or Sandy and Kevin, Carl's wife and son, to get to ground high enough to save them. Nor was there any way any human could have lived through what they had just witnessed.

Soon after this, while they were still staring at what had once been the home of more than a million people, the clouds overtook them. The sun was blotted from the sky, making the early afternoon daylight fade to an inky twilight. And then the rain began. It did not gradually develop from a drizzle to a downpour like a normal rainstorm, it simply started. One moment it was dry and the next it was raining harder than either man had thought possible. Visibility dropped to less than ten feet and the dirt road quickly turned to an impassable sludge of running mud. As they'd sat there, trying to cope with the loss of their families, wondering what to do next, the Four-Runner began to move on its own, propelled along by a river of mud pouring down the hillside above them. They picked up speed and finally fetched up against a stand of trees, at which point the mud began to pile up against the driver's side.

Brett made it out, climbing through the passenger side window and up a small rise to safety. He didn't stop to help Carl out of the car, not out of fear, but because he hadn't thought it necessary. The situation had seemed under control at that point. It was a decision that would haunt him later. When Carl was halfway out, a huge glut of mud suddenly buried the truck like a breaking wave, knocking the trees it had been resting against flat. The entire mess had continued down the hill and over the edge of a ridge, landing in a creek bed that was already raging with brown runoff. Tons more mud quickly landed atop it, burying Carl and the Four-Runner for all time. Brett had not even bothered trying to rescue his friend. It would have been beyond futile.

That first night, while the rain continued to fall and the wind continued to blast and the lightening continued to explode against the ground every ten to fifteen seconds, he had huddled against the base of a tree on the upside of a ridge. This had put him at high risk for a lightening strike but kept him safe from being buried alive by a mudslide. Though he was even then seriously considering ending it all with his Remington, he had no wish to endure the same hellish death that Carl had.

Since then he had been walking north, inching along through the mud, keeping as close to areas of thick vegetation as he could to avoid the rivers of mud that continually washed down from the mountains. Despite these precautions he had almost been swept away several times when slides passed over a spot where he had just been. As the lightening strikes grew fewer and farther between, he worked his way onto higher and higher ground, staying out of potential flooding. He lived off of nothing more than the two candy bars and the small bag of trail mix he had in his shirt pocket and his body began to grow weaker and weaker.

At night, with the thick cloud cover blotting out the moon and all the stars, the blackness was absolute, broken only occasionally by the odd flash of lightening. During the day it never got brighter than early dusk or late dawn as the clouds blotted out most of the sunlight. He sensed that, survival instinct or not, the end was near for him. Either hypothermia or starvation would soon cart him away to join his family and the billions of others that had undoubtedly died with them. This was not a particularly unpleasant thought. He almost welcomed the coming oblivion.

Now, five days after the end of the world, running on the very last reserves of strength he had, he sat down on the leeward side of a pine tree and ate the last of his trail mix. It was unsatisfying and unfulfilling but it was all he had. Would it be safe to end it now? Could he concede that further survival in this terrible new world was an impossibility?

The sound of a gunshot startled him out of his suicidal thoughts before he could bring them to a conclusion. It was not terribly loud but with the damping effect on sound that the wind and the rain inflicted, he knew that it had to be close. He looked around him, trying to gauge just where it had come from. He wasn't sure, and what real difference did it make anyway? So someone was nearby, shooting at something? What of it? Granted, it triggered his cop's instincts, but he wasn't a cop anymore, was he? There really wasn't any such thing as a cop anymore.

Another shot rang out, a sharp crack void of any echo. This time he was able to tell where it had come from. It had issued from just over the ridge above him - a ridge topped with a stand of old growth pines that had so far managed to survive all that the comet had thrown at them. Two more shots quickly followed and then a prolonged burst of what could only be an M-16 rifle on full automatic. He knew that sound from his basic training days in the army. It was very distinctive. Another, shorter burst followed this and then, faintly though clearly, came a blood curdling scream of anguish.

It was the scream that got him moving. That had been a woman! Though he was weak and on the verge of ending his life, though he was no longer a cop in a suddenly lawless world, he could not deny the cries of a woman in trouble. What the hell was going on over there?

He pulled himself to his feet and unshouldered his Remington, checking to make sure the safety was off. It was. Next he checked the .40 caliber pistol strapped to his waist. It was his duty weapon, issued to him by the Sheriff's department to carry at work. He had packed this pistol through five years of service on the streets and through four years as the pilot of the northern San Joaquin valley's primary law enforcement helicopter. On hunting trips he carried it both for self-protection and to finish off any deer that might have managed to live through the initial rifle round. It was a weapon he was much more comfortable with at close range than the bulky rifle. It was seated neatly in its nylon holster. He gave it a pat and then put the rifle at port-arms position. He began to move up the hill.

He moved tree to tree, rock to rock, keeping a close eye before him and to his flanks as he moved. He saw nothing unusual and heard no further gunfire although he did hear a few more faint screams and once a barked male voice telling someone to "shut the fuck up, bitch."

As he got closer to the top of the ridge he dropped down to his belly and began to inch his way forward, crawling along the ground as he had been taught in the army. He wedged himself against the base of a tree on the summit of the hill and let his head edge slowly to the side. What he saw down there made him forget his hunger and his fatigue.

About sixty yards down the hill, resting against an outcropping of large rocks, was a camping trailer. It was about thirty feet long and sitting upright, almost perfectly level, with only a small mound of mud pushing against the uphill side. That it had come from the public camping area two hundred feet up the next hill was obvious. Also obvious was the fact that it had been swept down there when that portion of the hillside had given in to the erosion of constant rain bombardment. Just beyond the trailer was the telltale swatch of bare, torn-up hillside that bespoke of a recent mudslide. But how had this single trailer been separated out and spared? Looking at the path it had made in its journey it appeared it had somehow become aligned forward during its trip down the hill and had managed to roll out of the flood of mud, where gravity then propelled it downward until it encountered the rocks.

But the trailer itself, despite its almost miraculous existence in the first place, did not hold Ken's attention for more than a second. In front of the trailer was a group of four men and two women. The men had M-16s in their hands and sidearms attached to their muddy clothing. They had long hair and beards and looked, to Brett anyway, like methamphetamine snorting biker types. He had seen such people many, many times in his career and had taken many of them to jail for various offenses. They could be very dangerous even when living in a society ruled by civilized law. Now that the factor of civilization was removed from the equation they had become infinitely more dangerous, as was evidenced by what he was seeing below him. He wondered where they had come by automatic weapons? It wasn't like fully automatic M-16s could be found just lying around.

The bikers were training these weapons on a group of two women and a young boy that were cowering in fear before the trailer. The oldest of the women looked to be in her late-thirties. The youngest looked to be a teenager. The resemblance in the facial features of the two told him they were mother and daughter. The boy, who had his arms protectively around the younger woman, was about fourteen and obviously a son. The father of this particular family was no longer in the picture. This was apparent by the fact that he was lying lifelessly at the foot of the trailer, a pistol next to him, his body riddled with bullets and covered with blood. That must have been the bursts of M-16 fire.

"I'll give you anything you want," the mother of the group pleaded with the men. "I'll do whatever you want. Just let my kids go. I'll... I'll go with you."

This struck the bikers, and even their women, who were unarmed and lagging in the rear, as deliciously funny. They laughed for the better part of thirty seconds before one of the men said, "Oh, you're both coming with us, mama. We might get around to doing somethin' with you after we're done with this little sweet piece." He jerked the barrel of his rifle towards the teenager.

"I'm gonna tear me a piece off a that shit right now!" one of the other men declared. "Look at that shit. I bet she got some nice titties!"

"No," the first one to have spoken said after a moment's reflection. "I get her first. Y'all can have sloppy seconds. Let's all take a quick piece of her and then we'll see what kinda goodies they got in that trailer for us."

"No!" screamed the woman, trying to get up. She was forced to sit back down again by four rifles swinging towards her.

"Take it easy, baby," the apparent leader of the group warned mildly. "We wouldn't want to have to kill you before we had our fill now, would we?"

"You can't do this!" the teenaged girl cried hysterically. "You just can't do this!"

The leader chuckled a little. "We can do anything we want now, sweet piece. The law done blew up with the comet. Ain't you figured that out yet?"

"What about the little shit?" one of the other bikers asked, pointing at the young boy. "Think we oughtta just kill him now? He ain't good for nothin', is he?"

While the boy in question trembled in fear and his terrified mother and sister moaned in terror, the leader seemed to consider this question very carefully. Finally he answered, "Let's keep him for now and take him back to camp. Zipper and Turbo like to slam little dudes once in a while, don't they? Reminds 'em of when they was in Folsom."

"I guess you're right."

"I can think of a few uses for him too," said one of the women with a lascivious grin.

"Shut the fuck up, bitch," the leader said, casting an evil glare at her until she dropped her gaze. He then turned back to the teenage girl. "You ever give a blowjob before, sweet piece?"

Brett watched all of this, unseen from his perch up the hill from them, his mind whirring as he tried to think of what he could do. He certainly had no desire to stand by and watch a young girl get raped by a gang of bikers in front of her mother and brother, but he had nothing more than a hunting rifle and a pistol and they had automatic weapons. He hardly had a chance against that, did he?

But on the other hand, he had just been willing to take his own life a few moments ago. So when you came right down to it, what difference did it make if these biker assholes were the ones to kill him? Wouldn't dying in a firefight to save a helpless family be preferable to blowing his own brains out? What could be nobler than that?

Though he was not particularly worried about the state of his own skin, Brett nevertheless was not reckless in his attack. Being shot in the first volley would not help the family down there. Utilizing his army training and his experience as a cop, he waited, watching the developments below in search of the best possible time to make his move. It came a few moments later.

"Hold this, Ricky," the leader said, handing his M-16 to the biker next to him.

Ricky took it from him and slung it over the opposite shoulder from his own.

"And keep those two in their places," he added next, unholstering a semi-automatic pistol and walking towards the terrified teenage girl. Beside him, Ricky advanced a few paces and kept his rifle trained on the mother and the son.

The leader stopped right in front of the girl, towering over her.

"You're gonna do exactly what I say, ain't ya, sweet piece?" he asked, pointing the pistol at her head.

Before she could answer the mother spoke up. "Just do it, Chrissie," she told her daughter. "Just do it and it'll be over soon. Try to stay alive, honey. Just try to stay alive."

The leader glanced over at the mother and grinned, nodding his head a little. "That's right, Chrissie," he said, unbuttoning his pants and letting them drop. His small cock was already hard. "You just do what I say and we'll get along real good. You might live long enough to starve to death. Now suck my cock, bitch. And make it a good one."

As a trembling Chrissie leaned forward to do what she had been told, and as her weeping mother buried her face in her hands, unable to watch the degradation of her daughter, Brett saw his opportunity. Everyone was distracted by the goings on with Chrissie. Though none of them had dropped their weapons, except the leader of course, it couldn't possibly get any better than this.

He brought the rifle to his shoulder and peered through the telescopic sight. He aimed at the head of Ricky, the biker closest to the mother and son. He was the most dangerous at the moment since he was packing two automatic weapons. Brett's scope was designed to sight in on deer more than three hundred yards away. From a mere sixty yards, Ricky's head, in partial profile and mostly facing forward, filled the entire field of view. He centered the crosshairs just above his right ear. Though the wind was blowing at nearly forty miles an hour it was not a particular concern at this range. It wouldn't throw the bullet off by more than a quarter inch or so. He took a deep breath, whispered a silent prayer for the lives of the family he was trying to save, and then smoothly squeezed the trigger.

The rifle bucked against his shoulder and the sound of the shot rolled across the landscape like thunder. In the scope, Brett saw Ricky's head explode into a spray of blood, brain, and skull fragments. Before his body even hit the muddy ground Brett was working the bolt on the rifle. The ejected shell casing shot out to his right and he slammed another round into the chamber. A quick glance down into the clearing showed exactly what he had hoped to see.

Ricky was down and the other three bikers were still trying to process exactly what had just happened. They were all standing still, looking up towards him, trying to identify the direction from which the shot had come. The two behind Ricky, those that still had rifles in their hands, were not even aiming at the spot.

He quickly sighted on the farther of the two men, centering the crosshairs on the middle of his chest. As soon as they were steady, perhaps four seconds after the first shot was fired, he pulled the trigger again. The gun bucked and the second biker suddenly had a hole in his muddy shirt. He looked almost comically surprised at this for a moment and then he fell to the ground.

The second shot got the bikers moving. The leader and the one remaining man with the rifle, finally realizing they were in mortal danger, both dove to the ground and began firing up at him. The leader only had his pistol and his shots were nothing to be concerned about from sixty yards, but the other biker was firing short, controlled bursts from the M-16. Bullets began to slam into the mud and the trees around him, sending little sprays of water, bark, and dirt flying through the air. Brett knew instantly, by the way the man was firing his weapon, that he had military experience. A novice would not have shot a rifle that way.

He slid down the hill about ten feet and crawled quickly to the left, hoping to catch them on the right flank before it occurred to them to turn their attention back to the family they were tormenting. Above him bullets continued to whiz by in groups of three and four, smacking the trees or flying off into space. He found another tree that overlooked the ground below and inched on his belly up to it, his body coursing with adrenaline, the rifle dragging behind him.

When he reached his new position he poked his head out a little and trained the barrel of his rifle down over the scene, looking first and foremost for the biker with the M-16. He saw him immediately. He was in a crouch, moving right to left towards a stand of trees that would provide him with relative cover. Yes, Brett thought, this man, despite the fact that he had not reacted to the first shot, knew what he was doing.

Intending to snap off a shot at him before he reached the tree line, Brett took a quick glance at the rest of the players before he did so, just to make sure that they were all where he thought they were. The two women that had come with the bikers were nowhere to be seen, apparently smart enough to run off into the woods once the shooting started. The leader of the group was crouched behind a rock, having taken the time to pull his pants back up into the combat position. He was reloading his pistol with a fresh magazine he had pulled from his pocket. The young boy was cowering where he had last been, as was the young girl. But the mother, that was another story.

"Oh shit," Brett muttered, seeing what she was doing, knowing he was helpless to prevent it.

She had decided to take a little initiative in the gun battle by creeping forward and pulling one of the M-16s from Ricky's body. Crouching next to the former biker and obviously having never fired a rifle in her life, she socked the weapon into her shoulder and took aim at the leader just as he made a sprint towards the tree line where the other biker had gone.

She pulled the trigger and unleashed the entire clip at him. It took about four seconds to fire all thirty rounds. The barrel of the gun jerked upward in her arms and at least twenty of the rounds flew harmlessly into the air above. But the first five or six rounds cut the leader's legs out from beneath him as he ran. He dropped sprawling to the ground, his pistol flying out before him, his body landing facedown in the mud and sliding about ten feet.

This immediately drew the fire of the biker with the M-16. He stopped in his tracks and trained his weapon on the woman, firing a three-round burst directly into her chest. The rifle dropped from her hands and she clutched her chest, falling forward over the body of Ricky.

"Momma!" screamed her kids simultaneously, their voices filled with fresh horror.

The biker ignored them. So did Brett. He only had a second or two before his target started running for the tree line again. He sighted in on him until his torso was the only thing in the crosshairs. With a smooth tug of the trigger, the bullet was fired through his body, a good portion of his internal organs spraying out behind him with the exiting projectile. The M-16 clattered to the mud and a moment later, he joined it, dropping face down.

Brett did not take any time to celebrate his victory or marvel over the fact that he was still alive. He quickly shouldered the rifle and stood up. Moving as fast as possible in the thick mud, drawing his .40 caliber as he went, he ran down the hill. As he went past the man with the military experience, the one who had shot the mother, he put a single bullet into the top of his head, turning it into pulp and insuring that the man would pose no further threat. He did the same for the second biker he had shot, the one who had taken a round in the chest at the beginning of the battle. Ricky, he didn't bother with. Ricky's head had exploded from the .30 caliber round, unequivocally ending his days of posing a threat to anyone. Besides, the mother of the two children was still lying over the top of him.

The leader of the group was still very much alive. His legs were both virtually useless, the knees shot out by the rounds from the M-16, but he crawled relentlessly forward, dragging himself through the mud towards his .45 pistol that was lying about five feet in front of him. Brett did not put a bullet in his head. Instead he ran up behind him and put his hunting boot between his shoulder blades, pushing his head down into the mud.

"Don't move, motherfucker," he said, "or I'll stick this gun up your ass and pull the trigger."

The leader stopped instantly, his hands still outstretched.

"I oughtta do that anyway, you piece of shit," Brett told him, pushing a little with his foot. "You like to rape little girls, do you? How'd you like a nice piece of lead up your ass?"

The biker said nothing. He only whimpered pathetically.

"Roll over," Brett said, stepping back a few feet. "Keep your hands in sight at all times."

He did as he was told, his face miserable with fear. Brett was glad to see it.

"If you so much as twitch, I'm gonna gut shoot you and let you lay here until you die, do you understand?"

"Yeah," the man breathed, looking up at him with terror. His face recognized something in Brett's, something he had undoubtedly seen many times before. "You a cop?"

"I'm worse than a cop," Brett told him. "I'm a cop with no fuckin' internal affairs division or Supreme Court to tell me what not to do. Do you dig it?"

The biker nodded, not saying anything.

"Good," Brett said. He stepped back a few feet, keeping his pistol leveled on the biker and diverting half of his attention to the tree line where the two women had disappeared. There was really no telling whether they had been armed with concealed handguns or not and there was really no telling just where they had gone. He looked over at the two kids he had rescued. They had pulled their mother off of Ricky and were cradling her in their arms, sobbing over her. Even from twenty feet away, Brett could see that she was still alive but fading fast.

He walked over and picked up the pistol the biker had been trying for. It was a Colt .45, one of the newer models of a timeless firearm. Its surface was caked with mud. We wiped a little of it away, unplugging the barrel. On the grip were the initials: EDCSD followed by a serial number. Brett, as a California law enforcement officer, knew that meant the weapon had once belonged to the El Dorado County Sheriff's Department. Strange.

He stuck it in his belt and walked over to the family after a quick warning to the biker of what horrible fate awaited him if he moved. The two kids were still cradling their mother, telling her that she was going to be all right even though it was plainly obvious, even to them, that she wasn't. Blood was running freely from her mouth and her skin was pale, almost gray. Her breath was ragged in her mouth. But still she was awake and alert, her eyes locking onto him as he approached.

"Thank you," she croaked at him as he kneeled next to her. "You... saved my... my kids."

"And you probably saved me," he lied, not wanting her to die thinking that she'd done something stupid. "You're pretty mean with a machine gun."

A faint smile followed by a ragged breath. "You're not... not going to just... take over where they left off... are you?"

"No, ma'am," he assured her. "I'm not like them."

She nodded a little, becoming weaker by the moment. "Take... take... take care of them... for me. Please?"

"Momma," the girl insisted bravely. "You're gonna be all right! He doesn't have to take care of us. Right, mister?"

Before Brett could answer, the woman answered for him. "I'm dying, baby," she said. "It's a new... a new reality now. Your job is to... to live."

"Momma!" the boy said miserably. "You can't die!"

"Can't help it," she said. "I'm all used up. I'll be with your daddy in a minute." She looked at Brett again. "What's your name?"

"Brett," he told her. "My name is Brett."

"Take care of them, Brett," she said weakly. "Please? They'll die without... without someone to help them."

And they'll die with someone to help them, he did not say. "I promise," he told her instead, having only the vaguest idea at that moment of what he was getting himself into.

"Thank you," she croaked. She told her children that she loved them and a moment later, her breathing stopped. She died with a faint smile on her face.

While the two kids cried over their fallen parents, Brett picked up the M-16 the woman had fired and looked at it. It was a standard military issue rifle, no different than the ones that he had fired in basic training so many years before. Engraved on the metal just below the action were the same initials he had noted on the .45: EDCSD.

He popped out the empty magazine and stuck it in his pocket, having to struggle to get it to fit. He then patted down Ricky's pockets, searching for another. He found two of them, one in each rear pocket, both fully loaded with jacketed rounds. He made a quick check to make sure the action and the barrel were clear of mud. There was a little bit in there but nothing to be concerned with. This version of the M-16 had been designed, after all, with conditions like this - mud, water, and rain - in mind. He slammed one of the magazines into the weapon and jacked the first round into the chamber. He then fiddled with the selector, turning it to the setting for semi-automatic fire. That done, he pocketed the other full clip and walked over to where the single surviving biker was still laying in a pool of his own blood. The biker looked up at him in fear as he approached.

"You know that you're gonna die, right?" Brett asked him, pointing the rifle down at his body. "I mean, even if I just left you alone here, there's no way you could last for very long in this new world of ours without being able to walk. Even if your buddies came and got you, even if they hauled your sorry ass back to camp, I seriously doubt they're gonna waste any precious food feeding a cripple, right?"

The biker said nothing, only trembled there, his face a mask of pain.

"So if you concede that you're gonna die here," Brett went on, "the only question remaining is whether it's gonna be an easy death or a hard one." He pointed the barrel of the M-16 at the biker's forehead. "A head shot would be pretty quick," he said reflectively. "One second you're alive, the next second you're dead. I don't imagine that you even feel pain, it happens that fast. But a shot to the groin on the other hand..." He let the barrel drop about eight inches, until it was pointing at the man's crotch. "Now that would be a miserable way to go. It could take hours, days even. You'd just lie there in pain while you slowly bled out onto the ground. Hell, I bet scavengers would start eating you before you were even dead. After all, they gotta be just as hungry as we are."

Brett saw that his speech was having the desired effect. The biker began to shudder uncontrollably. His face became a mask of horror as he contemplated the thought of coyotes or mountain lions, insane with starvation, making a meal of him while he was still conscious. "What do you want?" he asked Brett in a halting voice.

"Information," Brett said simply. "It seems I have a couple of people to watch after for a while and I'd kinda like to know just what I'm up against out here. Now I'm gonna ask you some questions and you're going to answer them truthfully and without hesitation. If you lie to me, I'll know it. I've talked to a thousand pukebags just like you in my lifetime and if there's one thing I know how to do is tell when a piece of shit like yourself is handing me a line of crap. Besides, you're about to die anyway, right? What would be the point of lying to me? If we get through this interview without a lie, I'll put a bullet in your head and end things quickly for you. If you do tell me a lie however..." he jabbed a little at the man's crotch with the rifle, making him jump, "... it's semi-automatic castration. Get it?"

"Yeah," he breathed.

"How many of you are there at this camp you mentioned?" Brett asked.

"About thirty or so," the biker replied without hesitation.

"How many men, how many women?"

"Mostly men. We got six bitches that were girlfriends and wives we managed to pick up after the comet. We got three more we snatched from other guys up here. Campers and hunters, you know. We keep them in one of the tents."

"I see," Brett said, not bothering to ask why they were keeping these women in tents. "And what became of the guys these women were with before you snatched them?"

He hesitated for a moment.

Brett jabbed at his crotch with the rifle again. "No lies now," he said. "Remember the penalty."

"We killed them," the biker said, almost defiantly. "We killed them and took their supplies."

Brett simply stared at him for a moment, enraged at what he heard though not particularly surprised. As a cop he had always instinctively known that he and his colleagues were the only things standing between civilization and the sort of savagery that this man represented. Now he had proof. He took a deep breath, calming himself, resisting the urge to end the interrogation right then by means of a bullet. "And just where is this camp in relation to this spot we're in now?" he asked when he felt he had regained control.

"About half a mile that way." The biker raised a hand and pointed off to the east. "We grabbed some Arctic tents from a sporting goods store in Placerville before we headed up here. They stand up pretty well to the wind and the rain. Especially since we put 'em in a grove of big-ass trees."

About half a mile to the east, Brett thought reflectively. That was higher ground up there, more trees and less mud. Was a half a mile close enough for his fellow bikers to have heard the gunshots from the recent battle? Were they even now on their way here to see what had happened, or would they have to wait until the two women who had fled made their way back? He didn't know, could not guess just how far sound was capable of traveling in these horrid weather conditions. But common sense told him to assume that they had heard. They wouldn't have much time.

"Where did you get these guns?" Brett asked next. "They belonged to the El Dorado Sheriff's Department, didn't they?"

"Yeah," the man said, again hesitating.

"So how did you get your hands on them?"

The biker took a deep breath. "From the arsenal at the ED-triple C," he said, using the local slang term for the El Dorado County Correctional Center. This was a county jail facility where inmates sentenced to less than a year were housed. "All of us in our group were inmates there when the comet hit. The guards let us out when they realized what was goin' on. They said they didn't want us to drown like rats."

"That was awfully decent of them," Brett said, feeling a fresh rage creeping through his body. "And you repaid them by..."

"We killed most of them," the biker reluctantly admitted. "There was only eight of them and there was almost fifty of us. Some of the guys didn't get in on it and they went their own way. But me and my guys... well... we knew we had to have guns if we was gonna live and we knew there was a shitload in the armory there. You can't blame us for that, can you? It's survival of the fuckin' fittest out here now. How could we just walk away and leave all them guns behind?"

"I'm real tempted," Brett said through clenched teeth, "to gut-shoot you and leave you here to die slowly. I'm real tempted."

The biker said nothing, simply looked upward in fear.

"But I'm a man of my word," Brett said next. "I don't have much in this new world, but I can still keep my fucking word. Even to a sub-human piece of shit like you. Good-bye asshole. I sincerely hope there's a hell so you can rot there."

He backed up a few feet and pointed the barrel of the rifle at the biker's head. The biker closed his eyes, awaiting his oblivion. It came a moment later when Brett squeezed the trigger, unleashing a single shot that punched a hole in his forehead and blew his brains out the back of his head. His days of raping teenage girls were over.

The two kids, still sitting by the bodies of their parents and sobbing, looked up at the sound of the rifle shot, jerked back to the reality they now found themselves in. They looked at Brett fearfully as he walked over to them, the Remington and the M-16 both slung over his shoulders.

"Are you... are you gonna... hurt us?" the girl, Chrissie, asked softly, her eyes cast downward. It was hard for Brett to tell for sure but it looked like, under all the dirt and mud that covered her, she might be pretty. Her eyes, though haunted by what they had seen, were a pale blue, the color the sky had once been before the comet. Her hair, which was mostly tucked under a filthy brown hat, was light blonde in color. The shape of her body was impossible to guess at under the bulky clothing she wore, but it seemed she was neither overly chubby nor overly thin.

"No," Brett said, kneeling down next to them, these two kids he had suddenly been put in charge of. "I'm not gonna hurt you. Whose trailer is this? Are there any supplies we can carry in it?"

"You killed that man," she said, ignoring his question. "You shot him."

"I killed all of them," he told her. "They would have killed you and your brother just like they did your parents if I hadn't. Does it bother you that I did that?"

She thought about that, sniffing a few times while she mulled it over. "No," she finally said. "I'm glad you did it. I'm glad they're dead. Thank you."

"Anytime," he assured her. "Anytime. Now, we need to get moving out of here real quick-like. Is this your trailer here?"

"We found it the day after the rain started," she told him. "Our camper got washed down a hill. It almost killed us all but we got out before it went over a cliff. We started walking and we came across this one. The owners didn't seem to be here so Daddy broke into it. We've been staying in it ever since. Why do we have to leave it? It's shelter."

"Because it's a magnet for people like this," he said, indicating the sprawled bodies of the bikers. "Why do you think they attacked you in the first place? This place just screams out for any passing dirtbags to pillage it. And my guess is that there are a lot of desperate dirtbags out here. That's in addition to the thirty or so other bikers that are part of the group that these ones came from. If they're not on the way here now, they sure as hell will be soon."

"We'll stay here," the boy, speaking for the first time, said defiantly. "Leave us a couple of those guns and we'll fight them off. This trailer is ours. No one is going to force us away from here."

Brett looked at him pointedly for a moment. Like his sister, it was difficult to make out his features very well, so dirty was he and so bulky was his clothing. He had light brown hair, the same color as that on the head of his dead father. "What's your name, kid?" he asked.

"Jason," was the reply.

"How old are you, Jason?"

"Fourteen," he said toughly.

"Well Jason, I'm thirty-five. I've spent time in the army. I'm a combat veteran of the Persian Gulf War. I've been a cop for the last eight years. With all of that experience at fighting and shooting, even I would not try to defend this fixed, highly visible target from a group of bikers armed with automatic weapons. It's suicide."

"We'll manage," he said. "No one's asking you to stay here. I just want a couple of those guns."

"Jason," his sister broke in. "I think we should..."

"Shut up, Chrissie," he said angrily. "I know what I'm doing."

"No you don't," Brett told him. "If you stay here, you're going to be killed, probably within the hour. I promised your mother that I would take care of you. You need to come with me."

"I don't think she meant that we should..."

"Look goddammit," Brett jumped in, taking a step closer. "I'm sorry about your parents, I really am. I lost my entire family to this comet as well as my best friend. You'll forgive me if I seem less than compassionate with you - its not really my nature - but we don't have time to sit here while you posture and whine at me about this fucking trailer. We need to get moving as soon as possible and I'm not going to allow you to stay here, with or without guns. I'll drag your ass out of here forcefully if that's necessary. So let's drop this worthless discussion about staying or going. We're going. Do you understand?"

"You don't even know us," Jason cried, holding his ground. "Why do you care what happens to us?"

Brett had to admit the little shit had huevos. "What else do I have to care about?" he asked in reply. "Twenty minutes ago I was all alone and about to blow my brains out, to give up. Now, a couple of people need help and I'm the only one around who can give it. I can't turn my back on you now. I couldn't do it even if I hadn't promised your mother that I would look after you. We're all probably going to die anyway, and soon, but if there's a chance for you two to live for a while, I'm it. Okay?"

Reluctantly, Jason nodded, his tough expression fading a little.

"Good," Brett said. "And if you want to live, you're gonna have to let me make the decisions here and you're gonna have to do what I say, when I say it. Little boys aren't going to be able to cut it. You need to be a man. All right?"

"All right," he mumbled, taken, as Brett had known he would be, by the challenge to "be a man."

"Good enough. Now, what kind of supplies do you have in that trailer?"

As it turned out, the trailer was a virtual treasure-trove. Whoever it had belonged to before the apocalypse, they had stocked it with enough canned food and dry goods to last for a while. There were nearly a hundred cans of Chef Boy-R-D pastas, Campbell's soups, various vegetables and fruits, and even pie filling. There were bags of rice, beans, flour, sugar, coffee, and powdered milk. There were vitamin pills and aspirin and Tylenol. There was even - glory of glories - two bottles of Jack Daniels and a half a case of Budweiser.

"There is a god," Brett said, seeing all of the supplies.

The two kids both had backpacks which Brett directed them to fill with as much of the canned and vital dry goods as they could fit in there. He dumped out another backpack, which had belonged to their father, and began to fill it as well. Even with all three filled to capacity, there were still numerous supplies left over. Brett would have liked to haul them out of the trailer and bury them somewhere for a rainy day (no pun intended) but he felt the time slipping away from them. Any moment a group of armed bikers could come bursting out of the forest.

He rolled up the sleeping bags that were in the trailer, noting with satisfaction that they were the waterproof kind, and tied one to each backpack. Into his he carefully slipped six of the beers and both of the bottles of JD. Strictly for medicinal purposes, he told himself with a grin.

"Okay, let's get out of the trailer," he said, once they were ready. "One last thing to do before we go."

After they stepped outside, packs firmly upon their backs, Brett went and collected two of the rifles and pistols. He searched each body for ammunition, finding a total of six magazines of M-16 rounds and eight of .45 rounds. He shoved all of it into his backpack along with the cans.

"Do you guys know how to use guns?" he asked them.

They both shook their heads. "Our dad doesn't... uh didn't believe in guns," Chrissie said sadly.

Brett raised his eyebrows a bit and looked at the .38 pistol that was lying next to his body. Chrissie followed his gaze over there. "It wasn't his," she explained. "He found it in the trailer. When the men came he pointed it at them but they just laughed. He fired at them a few times when they kept coming and they..." She couldn't continue.

"It's okay, honey," he said soothingly. "Your dad was obviously a very brave man. He tried his best. But in any case, you guys need to take these." He handed each of them an M-16, after removing the chambered rounds.

They took them very doubtfully. "I don't know how to fire this," Jason said. "I've never shot a gun in my life."

"Me either," Chrissie echoed.

"I'll teach you everything you need to know about them later," he said. "I was always in favor of gun control before. There were simply too many goddamn weapons out on the streets. If you had asked me last week, I would have said melt down every last one of them, including mine. But now, this is the kind of world where you're gonna have to learn how to shoot if you wanna stay alive. For now, just lug em. Sling 'em over your shoulders like I have."

They did as he asked.

"And take these too," he said, handing each of them one of the holstered .45 pistols. "Run the holster through your belt."

When they were all armed up and ready to go the kids took one more look at their dead parents, tears falling from their eyes. Chrissie had asked Brett if they could bury them before they went but he vetoed that idea. There simply wasn't enough time. And so they left them there, lying beside the dead bikers.

"Goodbye, Momma, goodbye, Daddy," Chrissie said as they walked away. Jason looked over his shoulder once, but offered no words of parting. Both of them were sobbing as the campsite faded from view behind them.

Two hours later they were nearly a mile north of the camper, having trudged mostly uphill to where the woods were thicker and the problem of landslides was not as severe. Brett had a full stomach for the first time since the impact. After leading his new charges out of the zone of immediate danger he had stopped for ten minutes and inhaled a can of cold ravioli. That greasy, tinny tasting concoction of pasta, processed meat, tomato sauce, and imitation cheese had already been written into the log of his brain as the finest meal he had ever consumed. He had eaten every last scrap, even going so far as to run his finger over the inside of the can to gather up the stray sauce. Now, with food in his belly and working its way into his malnourished bloodstream, he felt himself a new man, full of energy, ready to take on the world and everything in it.

"Can we take a rest for a few minutes?" Chrissie asked as the reached the top of the latest hill. They were in an area of dense forest and underbrush. Many of the trees had been knocked down by the wind but most were still standing, towering above them and rocking gently back and forth.

Brett was in the lead, taking the point on their journey, his M-16 locked and loaded and held out before him. He stopped and looked at them, seeing that they were on the verge of exhaustion. Though they were younger than him and had been better fed over the ensuing week, they probably were not accustomed to lugging fifty pounds of gear uphill through the mud. "Sure," he told them, pointing to a fallen log that was half buried in the mud. "Let's take ten. I could use a breather myself."

Chrissie and Jason unshouldered their packs and set them down in the least muddy place they could find. They set their unloaded rifles down next to them and then planted their weary bodies on the log. Brett, after setting down his own pack, grabbed a seat on another fallen log a few feet away. He kept his rifle cradled in his lap.

Chrissie put her hands in the small of her back and pushed her hips forward, stretching out her spine. There was an audible pop as she reached the limits of her stretch. She grimaced a little and then took her baseball cap from her head, freeing her blonde hair. It was damp and spotted with mud, the bangs and the ends knotted in stringy lumps from the lack of recent care. She ran her fingers through it a few times before bunching it back up and replacing the hat. Her face, though dirty and rapidly acquiring the thousand-yard stare of combat fatigue, was pretty and had an undercurrent of innocence about it. It was a face that boys had probably pined after not too long before, that they had dreamed of kissing.

They had not talked a lot on their journey so far, the effort of movement making idle conversation a waste of precious energy. Now that they were at rest however, Brett made an effort to get to know his new friends.

"Where are you two from?" he asked, directing the question at no one in particular, but looking more towards Chrissie.

It was she who answered him. "Berkeley," she said softly. "Dad was a professor at the university."

Brett nodded. "And what brought you up here? Wasn't it a school day when the comet hit?"

"We come up here every year at the beginning of hunting season," she told him. "Mom was a wildlife photographer. When the hunters started filling the woods, all of the deer would go into the national forest to get away from them. That was when she got her best shots." She sniffed a little at the memory.

"Yeah," Brett said, feeling a pang of sadness of his own. "I came up here for the start of hunting season every year too, although I was always one of the ones chasing the deer into the national forest. It's kind of funny, isn't it? How we're alive now just because of an annual tradition?"

"Yeah," she said bitterly. "Real funny."

"Were you both in high school there?" he asked next, trying to ease the subject to a less painful track.

"I was a junior," Chrissie said. "Jason was a freshman. I was gonna study medicine when I got to college. UC Davis has a top-rated medical school. I guess that's not really gonna happen now, huh?"

"I guess not," he said.

"What is going to happen to us, Brett?" she asked next. "Is there anyplace we can go, anything we can do? There had to be someplace safe, doesn't there?"

He sighed, wishing she had not asked that. It was a question he hadn't even wanted to ask himself. "I think civilization on planet Earth is pretty much over," he told her.

"Over?" Jason said. "How can it be over?"

"Most of the major cities are probably gone along with all of the people in them. For those that were anywhere near the coast, that's a given. For those that were inland... well, people build cities near rivers so they have a water supply and a means of transporting goods. They build them on low, flat ground. Those rivers are all swelling up to ten, twenty times their normal size because of all this rain. Those that weren't swamped in the initial strike when their dams broke are now probably underwater from torrential flooding. Without those cities, there is no structure to base society on. A lot of people probably survived the impact - I imagine there are groups like us all over the place - but they're scattered all over and soon, they're going to start starving. There will be no crops, no food production or transportation, no organization of any kind. Everything has collapsed to rubble."

"So are we all going to die then?" Chrissie asked. "Are we going to starve to death when we run out of food?"

"Millions of people will," he said after a moment's consideration. "But that doesn't mean we have to be among them. Are you familiar with the theories of Darwinism?"

She scoffed. "Are you kidding? My dad's a college professor at Berkeley. I've heard about Darwin since I was in kindergarten."

This got a laugh out of Brett, the first he'd had since flaming rocks and mud had started to fall from the sky. "I see your point," he said. "Anyway, we're living in a Darwinian system now. There is no law. There is no civility. There are no hospitals or schools or jobs. There is only survival of the fittest. I think that the human race can survive this little episode. Eventually these clouds are going to clear away and we'll be able to grow food again. We'll be able to rebuild a society and start feeling safe again. But the ones that are left to do that are going to be the ones who can live through the next year or so. In order to live through the next year, we have to be strong enough and smart enough to keep ourselves alive in a world that wants us dead."

"And how do we do that?" Jason wanted to know.

"It's simple," Brett said. "Food is life. We have to find a way to keep eating even though there is no more food being grown or produced. As you can see from the little stock you found in that trailer, there is food in cans to be had. The trick will be finding it and keeping others from taking it away from us."

"And how are we going to do that?" Jason asked next.

Brett offered him a cynical smile. "As soon as I figure that out," he said. "You'll be the first to know."

They continued to work their way northward throughout the rest of the day, stopping every hour or so to rest and regain their strength. They saw no one although several times they came across the remains of tents, trailers, and SUVs. In each case they made a search for usable supplies and in each case they found someone had been there before them, stripping away anything that was even remotely useful. These findings served to confirm Brett's belief that there were other survivors all around them.

As they went north, heading towards the Auburn Ravine section of the mountains, they continued to climb higher and higher in elevation. The mudslides ceased to be much of a danger as the foliage grew thicker but the temperature also dropped, chilling them in their wet clothes. Through it all, the clouds overhead remained thick enough to block out the majority of the sunlight and the rain continued to fall in a steady downpour.

Just before dark Brett found them a place to camp for the night. On the leeward side of a rocky hill he was able to build a lean-to of sorts out of thick branches from a fallen pine tree. Once it was complete it was almost undetectable as a man-made object unless you happened to be standing right next to it and the inside was relatively free of dripping water. Brett directed the two kids to store their backpacks and their guns against the rock and to spread their sleeping bags out in a line.

They shared a family sized can of chicken noodle soup for dinner, taking turns using the spoon attachment on Brett's Swiss Army knife to ladle the cold broth into their mouths. Afterward, Brett took the empty can and set it where the rain was falling, holding onto it with one hand to keep it from blowing away. Less than five minutes later, the can was full of clear, sweet water that had been boiled upward from the heat of the comet five days before. They passed this around, rehydrating themselves until it was empty. Brett then refilled it six more times and poured the contents into their canteens.

"How do you know so much about, you know, surviving? Building shelters and all that?" Chrissie asked him as he poured the last canful into a canteen. They were all three sitting under the shelter of the lean-to, looking out at the forbidding and rapidly darkening landscape.

Brett shrugged, tossing the can to the side and fishing into his sleeping bag. After a moment, he pulled out one of the bottles of Jack Daniels. "I grew up in Sacramento," he said, breaking the seal and twisting the cap off. "My dad used to take me camping and hunting a lot when I was a kid. Usually right up in this neck of the woods. He taught me a lot of stuff, like the lean-to for instance, in case I was ever lost in a snowstorm or something. A lot of the other stuff I learned from the survival school I had to go to in the army."

"Survival school?"

He nodded, taking a large swig out of the JD. He wasn't much of a hard alcohol drinker and the liquid burned like fire as it went down his throat, bringing tears to his eyes. But at the same time he felt warmth spreading through him for the first time in forever. The fact that it was false warmth, that it was actually making him more prone to hypothermia, seemed a trivial matter. "Aviator's survival training," he said when his pallet was clear. "It was designed to teach us how to survive if we were ever shot down behind enemy lines. They taught us all about evasion techniques and living off the land and then they dropped us into the woods by ourselves and made us do it while people tried to find us. It was pretty intense training. They called it hell on earth back then." He scoffed a little, taking another swig. "They obviously had no idea what hell on earth really meant."

"You flew airplanes in the army?" she asked, hugging herself with her arms to combat the cold.

"The army doesn't have any airplanes," he told her, taking one more swig. He could feel it going to his head now, making him buzz pleasantly. "They only have helicopters. I started off flying the Kiowa; that's a little Bell Jet Ranger like the police departments fly. Its job is to seek out targets for the combat choppers. I did a little time in the Blackhawks too; those are the transport choppers. Finally, they gave me the job I really wanted. My last two years I flew the Apache. It's an attack helicopter that goes after enemy armor. That's what I flew in the Gulf War." He shook his head a little, remembering who he was talking to. "Christ, you two were in kindergarten during the Gulf War, weren't you?"

"I was in first grade," Chrissie said seriously, as if that made a difference.

Brett laughed. "God, I'm getting old. Now I know how my dad used to feel when he talked about Vietnam."

"How many ragheads did you kill?" asked Jason, speaking for the first time since dinner. "In the war I mean?"

Brett looked at him, seeing something like life in his face for once. "I didn't kill people in the war," he said. "I killed tanks and armored vehicles and radar sites. I did it from three and four miles away, or actually, my gunner did."

"But there were people in those tanks," Jason pointed out.

"Not as far as I could see," Brett answered, offering the justification he had used back then. "It's real easy to kill someone when you don't have to see them. I got in a gunfight once as a cop but I didn't hit anyone. When I shot those bikers today, that was the first time I ever killed anyone at close range. I didn't like it much. I didn't hesitate to do it, but I didn't like it."

"They deserved it though," Chrissie said. "They killed our parents."

"Yes," Brett agreed, taking yet another swig of whiskey, "they did. That makes it justifiable. That makes it a little easier on my conscience. But that doesn't make it enjoyable. Not at all. Try to remember that as we go on here. There may come a time when you kids have to kill someone with those guns I gave you. Don't hesitate if it's necessary, but don't be surprised when you feel guilty about it later."

While they contemplated that thought, Brett screwed the cap back on the JD and stashed it next to his backpack. Though the temptation was to drink until he passed out, he refused to give in to it. He had people to take care of now. A hangover the next morning would not be a good way to do that. "We'd better hit the sack," he said. "Let's try to get to the edge of the canyon tomorrow so we can get a look at what we're dealing with. Auburn and Colfax are across the canyon. If there's any sort of civility left in the world, maybe we'll find it there. And if the bridge across the canyon is still intact, maybe we'll be able to get there."

"Do you really think there might be?" Chrissie asked hopefully, no doubt thinking about warm hotel rooms and pancake breakfasts in the diner.

"No," he said simply, having made a vow not to lie to them, "but it's worth a look, isn't it?"

On that note, they began to get ready for bed. Brett set his rifle down alongside his sleeping bag and then unstrapped the .40 caliber pistol from his belt, laying it next to it. Before he got any further in his ritual, he noted with alarm that the kids were fully intending to climb into their sleeping bags as they were.

"Whoa," he said, holding up a hand in the rapidly encroaching darkness. "You aren't going to get in your sleeping bags while you're wearing those clothes, are you?"

They looked at him in confusion for a moment. "What?" Jason finally asked.

"What else would we do?" Chrissie contributed.

"Strip," he said simply.

"Strip?" they said simultaneously.

"Everything off," he confirmed. "If you climb in there like that, you're going to get the inside of your sleeping bags all wet and muddy. Pretty soon they'll mildew. Not only that, but you'll be a lot warmer if you're not wet."

They looked at each other and then at him for a moment, both clearly embarrassed at the very thought.

"Chrissie," he said, rolling his eyes a little, "you go first. Go out and pee if you need to and then take your clothes off and climb in your sleeping bag. Jason and I will turn the other way while you do it. Trust me on this, you'll be a lot happier if you're dry in there."

Only after several more minutes of cajoling and convincing did she agree to do as he said. She hiked out into the rain and out of sight for a moment to relieve her bladder and then came back to the lean-to, a sheepish look on her face. Jason and Brett, as promised, turned their heads away from her. From behind them came the sound of a belt buckle being undone and then clothing being pushed forcefully down.

Brett, looking out at the dim landscape outside, didn't see a thing. But listening to the young girl undress behind him, he became aware of her for the first time as something other than someone that he was trying to look after. He found himself wondering what just what her breasts looked like. Would they be nice and firm? Would they be small? Did they have pert little nipples? What would her pubic hair look like? Would it be blond, like her hair?

Knock it off! he told himself before these thoughts spun completely out of control. She's a sixteen-year-old girl! Half your age! You used to arrest people for doing what you were just thinking about! You shot four men who were thinking about doing it less than eight hours ago! He managed to drive the thoughts underground but they didn't bury themselves very deep. When he took off his own clothes a few minutes later, while Chrissie was snuggled in her sleeping bag, dutifully turning her head to the side, his penis was a turgid mass of flesh, sticking out before him. It remained in that state until long after he drifted off to sleep.

Breakfast the next morning consisted of a can of Vienna sausages followed up by a can of syrupy orange slices. It wasn't exactly bacon and eggs but it kept their stomachs from growling too noticeably. Before heading off for the day's hike through the muddy woods, Brett spent a few hours making the two kids familiar with the M-16 rifles they were carrying. He instructed them in assembly and disassembly, making them do both several times until they got the hang of it. He showed them how to load the weapon, how to eject unfired rounds from the chamber, and how to clear the action if it became jammed. He had them dry fire at various objects, getting them used to the sights and the feel of the weapon. Unfortunately, the most important part of the lesson, shooting the damn thing, could not be accomplished very well without seriously depleting their ammunition supply. He allowed them to fire three rounds apiece at the culmination of the lesson, setting up an empty can on a stump twenty yards away and challenging them to hit it. To his surprise, Chrissie potted it neatly through the center on her first shot.

"You're a quick learner," he said, impressed.

She smiled sweetly, glowing in his praise and clearly quite proud of herself as she went to go pick the can back up and replace it. Her next two shots were also on the mark. Jason turned out to be a quick study as well. He missed by about eight inches or so on his first shot but was able to knock the can down on both of his successive tries. In all, Brett considered the lesson to be time well spent and the ammo expended an acceptable loss. If nothing else it got them accustomed to the kick and the noise of their rifles and built their confidence up about their abilities to hit something. It wasn't the same as shooting at a human being that was shooting back, and they were certainly a long way from being properly trained in safety, combat techniques, and a thousand other things, but it was better than nothing. At least they could return fire in a fight and reload their weapons. If they didn't panic that was - something that remained to be seen.

"Okay," he said, picking up his backpack and his own rifle and donning them. "You've earned the right to load your weapons. Keep them locked, loaded, and on single fire whenever we're on the move from here on out. Remember, if someone starts shooting at us, the first thing you want to do is get down on the ground. Make yourself as small a target as possible. Understand?"

They both told him that they understood.

"And please," he admonished, giving them one final piece of instruction, "don't accidentally shoot me, all right?"

They both promised that they would not do that.

"Let's move out then before some curious person comes to see what all the shooting was about."

They moved out, Brett, as always, taking the point, his apprentices in a triangular formation behind him, their weapons gripped like his.

Brett had come on his hunting trip with an expensive, hand-help GPS receiver that was capable of fixing his position within ten meters of any given spot on the earth. It was touted as the most reliable and sturdiest device of its kind, even coming with a lifetime guarantee. Apparently however, its designers had not considered the fact that thick, comet-produced clouds would block all of the satellite signals it used to orient itself. He had thrown it away as useless, excess baggage shortly after Carl's untimely demise. Now he relied on his backup navigation device - a trusty army surplus store compass that his dad had taught him to use long before the world had even heard of a global positioning system. He checked it every few minutes to make sure they were continuing to head in a generally northward direction. He was glad he had been in the habit of carrying the compass in his hunting clothes. Without it he might very well have ended up leading them around in circles since the clouds, in addition to blocking the GPS signals, covered every other navigational reference available. It was impossible to even tell where the sun was in the sky.

Several times as they picked their way forward, moving over mudfalls, around downed trees, and crossing over swollen creeks, Brett looked back to see either Chrissie or Jason weeping softly. It was understandable. Their parents were less than a day dead and they were heading off to an unknown fate with a total stranger. It would have made him weep on occasion as well. He offered a few words of comfort to them during their breaks but otherwise left them alone. Their grief was something they were just going to have to work through themselves.

It was about an hour after lunch when they first heard the roar coming from the direction of the canyon. It was a low, bass rumble, similar to thunder, that grew louder and louder the closer they came to it. By the time they reached the rim of the canyon it was so loud that they could barely hear each other.

The Auburn Ravine was a deep cut across the Sierra Nevada mountains and its foothills that had been formed by the north fork of the American River. From where they stood on the rim, the bottom of the canyon was about five hundred feet below them, down a steep cliff. Ordinarily the river at the canyon bottom was a mere trickle during the autumn months, slow enough and shallow enough to walk across. Now, it was not so much a river as a raging torrent of floodwaters draining down from higher in the mountains. The entire bottom third of the ravine was filled, wall to wall, with turbulent brown water rushing at high speed towards the Sacramento Valley and the sea that had formed there. Thousands of uprooted pine and sequoia trees were propelled along in this flood, bashing into each other and sometimes smashing against the rock walls hard enough to snap them like twigs.

"We can't get across that!" Chrissie yelled over the roar, her eyes staring in fearful awe.

"No," he agreed. "I never thought that we would. But maybe there's still a bridge intact. There was one at Auburn and one at Garden Hill a little further up the hill. Both are high enough above the bottom of the canyon so the floodwaters can't reach them. If they survived the earthquake then there's a good chance they're still intact."

"Which one should we head for?" Jason wanted to know.

"The Auburn bridge is closer," he answered, having already thought this through, "but the Garden Hill one is newer. They only built it a few years ago. It's probably a lot more likely to still be there. Garden Hill is also a lot more likely to be intact itself. It's on high ground and there are no rivers running through it."

"Will there be people there, you think?"

"It's possible," he allowed. "Garden Hill was mostly a bedroom community for people who worked in Sacramento but liked to say they lived in the mountains. It was kind of a ritzy place. I don't know how welcoming they'd be to strangers, but it's worth a look anyway."

"How far?" Chrissie asked.

"I don't know exactly because I don't know exactly where we are. All my maps got buried with my friend. But I think we're probably about twenty miles southwest of it, give or take a few."

"How long will that take?"

"A week or so at this pace," he told them. "We should have enough rations to last us until then."

"And if there's nothing there?"

"Then we come up with a plan B," he said.

They seemed to accept this.

"C'mon," he said, waving them away from the canyon. "Let's backtrack a little until we can hear again. I don't like being deaf."

They trudged back the way they had come until the roar of the water in the canyon was nothing more than white noise. They then began to parallel the rim of the ravine.

As dark approached Brett taught the kids how to build the lean-to shelter, instructing them in everything from how to pick out the proper spot to how to pick out the right branches to use. The end result of their efforts was fairly respectable. It didn't leak very much, mostly due to it's positioning rather than its construction and, most important of all, it was extremely difficult to see as anything other than a naturally occurring deadfall against some rocks.

Jason, after eating his portion of dinner, went directly to bed, obviously quite exhausted from his second day of lugging a pack. He had them turn their heads while he stripped off his wet clothing and then he climbed into his thick, arctic sleeping bag. He placed his coveted rifle next to it, positioning it exactly as Brett had the night before. He gave them a quick "good-night" and less than five minutes later he was snoring away.

Brett stayed up a little longer, watching the night conquer the landscape and drinking one of the cans of beer he had taken from the trailer. Chrissie, though she looked, if anything, even more tired than her brother, stayed up with him. She sat beside him near the edge of the shelter, her legs crossed Indian-fashion.

"Can I have one of those?" she asked timidly after watching him take a few swigs.

He looked over at her pointedly, giving her a parental stare.

"Oh come on," she said, rolling her pretty blue eyes at him. "It's not like I haven't drank a beer before. I'm sixteen for God's sake."

"I'm sure you're a woman of the world," he said sarcastically. Nevertheless, he reached into his supply and pulled out a can for her. Who was he to dictate what she could and couldn't do? He wasn't her father. Besides, what was the harm? If she lived long enough to develop a drinking problem that would be a blessing, wouldn't it?

"Thanks," she said, taking the can from his hand. Their fingers touched for an instant as the transfer was made and Brett was jolted a little by the contact. Even that brief, innocent touch of fingertip to fingertip seemed to stir something within him. He fought the sensation down, forcing it to the back of his mind.

They drank in silence for a few minutes, not looking at each other, only staring out towards the distant roar of the canyon, watching the rain. It was a companionable silence, not the least bit awkward.

"It's funny," Chrissie said at last, after having drunk most of her warm beer, "how overwhelming all of this is, isn't it?"

He looked at her, seeing that she had taken her hat off, letting her blond hair spill free. "What do you mean?"

"I mean everything that we've lost," she said. "It's not just my parents that are gone, it's everything. My whole life, all of my plans, everything I liked to do. I won't ever go to school and see my friends again. They're probably all dead. I won't get to go to the junior prom this year. I had a bitchin' dress all picked out and everything. I even had an idea that Tommy Morgan was going to ask me to it." She shook her head a little. "Just a week ago, that was the most important thing in my life. That was all I thought about, that and the cheerleading routines we were working on. And look at me now. I'm up on a mountain with half the world destroyed, carrying a gun and wondering if I'm even going to be alive next week, worrying that some biker gang will kidnap me and rape me like that last ones tried to do."

"You've been forced to grow up a little faster than what you were meant to," Brett said, reaching over and brushing a lock of her hair out of her eyes. "But you're doing a great job of it so far. Jason too. Most adults would have gone insane after what you've been through this last week, seeing your life destroyed, seeing your parents killed right in front of you, but you've hung in there. You should be proud of yourself."

"Thanks," she said, sniffing a little. "Thanks for everything you've done for us. I'm so glad you found us and helped us. You make me feel safe."

"Well, let's hope I'm not just creating an illusion for you. I'm trying to teach you guys to be able to carry on yourselves if anything happens to me. Remember what I said about this new world."

"It's a Darwinian world now," she dutifully repeated. "And don't you go talking like that. We're not gonna let anything happen to you."

He didn't bother pointing out the fallacy of her words. He could see that she realized it without being told.

"Tell me about your family?" Chrissie asked him suddenly, changing the subject.

He sighed, draining the last of his Budweiser. "I'd rather not," he told her. "It hasn't been long enough yet."

"Talking about it helps," she said, scooting a little closer to him. "Really, it does."

Another sigh. Chrissie, despite her age, was very insightful into matters of the heart it seemed. "My wife's name was Julie," he said quietly, not looking at her as he spoke. "She was a nurse at St. Joseph's Hospital in Stockton. She worked in the emergency room there. I met her about five years ago, just before they assigned me to the helicopter. I was working a day shift patrol car and I went to the hospital to go take an assault report from someone that had been taken there. Julie was the charge nurse. We started talking while I waited for the victim to come back from X-ray. After that, I made a point of always looking for her whenever I went to that hospital. It wasn't too long before we were dating."

"A nurse huh?" she said. "Was she pretty?"

"She was very pretty," he replied, able to see her face before him as clearly as if she were standing there. "And more important than that, she was able to relate to me, to what I did for a living. Cops have a really high divorce rate because our spouses usually have a hard time understanding the pressures we go through. But Julie was a nurse in a busy emergency room. She dealt with a lot of the same people that I did. We got along real well together. Maybe we weren't storybook soulmates or anything like that, but I loved her an awful lot." He wiped at a tear that was running down his face. "We had one daughter," he went on after a moment. "She was two years old, would've been three in about two more months."

"What was her name?"


"I like that name," Chrissie said.

"I didn't at first," he said, a few more tears running down. "I wanted a more traditional name like Susan or Cindy or Michelle. But Julie liked Summer and she laid down the law with me. Women really are the rulers of the planet you know? So Summer she was and of course the name grew on me really fast until I couldn't even imagine her being named anything else. She was really a daddy's girl. I used to take her to the park every one of my days off when the weather was nice. I used to take her on the back of my bike when I went for rides. She used to tug on my shirt and giggle when we went down hills."

He sniffed a little, wiping more tears from his face. "Julie was probably at work when the comet hit. St. Joseph's was right smack in the middle of downtown Stockton, more than forty miles from any high ground. Summer would have been at my parent's house in Lodi. They watched her on the days we were both at work or when I was on my hunting trips. Their house wasn't any closer to high ground. Carl and I saw the water come rushing into the valley from Castle Point. If there's a God up there, he's got a rather twisted sense of humor, having us be up there at that exact moment."

Chrissie leaned over and put her arms around him, hugging him to her, resting her head on his shoulder. Instinctively, his arms came up in return, rubbing and patting her back. Though it was an innocent hug of comfort they shared, there was no denying that an undercurrent of sexuality was there as well. Brett felt the press of her breasts against his chest through their wet clothing. He felt her warm breath on his neck. Despite the haunting images of his wife and daughter he had just invoked, or perhaps because of them, his penis stiffened within his pants and he felt a wave of powerful lust for the teenage girl sweeping over him.

He tried to fight this feeling down again but this time the battle was futile. Though his wife was less than a week dead, his daughter with her, though Chrissie was half his age, he was forced to admit to himself that he wanted her. He wanted to take her in his arms and make wild, passionate love to her. With that admission came a vow that he would never act upon these feelings. Despite the recent events that had pushed her maturity to a premature evolution, she was still a child. If he were to take advantage of her just because he could, wouldn't that put him in the same category as the men he had shot the previous day? Wouldn't he be abandoning his morality just because there was no penalty for doing so? He would not do that. He would not.

As they broke apart from their embrace, Brett could see plainly, even in the rapidly diminishing light, that Chrissie had been as affected by it as he had. A blush had crept across her face and neck, raising goose bumps. Her eyes were shining at him in wanting and arousal. He knew that if he leaned in and kissed her at that moment, she would not pull away from him.

He successfully resisted the urge and they returned to their previous positions next to each other. They talked of inconsequential things for a few more minutes, until the light was completely gone from the landscape, and then they went to bed.

Like the night before, Brett was able to hear, though not actually see her undressing. He did not have to turn away from her this time though. The absence of any light made that an unnecessary precaution. He stared right at the spot, only two feet away, where the rustling of clothing and the jingling of a belt buckle were audible. He heard the whisper of wet cloth against her legs as she pulled off her pants. He heard her shiver a little as the pulled off her heavy shirt, her undershirt, and her bra. He discovered that he could smell her. It was a wet, musky odor of girlish sweat, very far from unpleasant. He wanted to reach out and put his hands on her body, to touch her, to feel her flesh against his hands.

But he didn't. When she was safely in her sleeping bag he excused himself, claiming he had to take one last leak before turning in. Moving entirely by feel, he walked thirty feet away from the shelter, out into the driving rain and the wind. He unbuttoned his pants and pulled his rigid cock free, grasping it in his right hand. As he stroked himself he thought of Chrissie; of the feel of her breasts against his chest, of the way they would feel bare against his hands, of the way she had smelled just before climbing into her sleeping bag, of how it would feel to slide into her tight warmth. The orgasm that resulted came quickly and with a power he was unaccustomed to. His knees became wobbly and he fell to them, spurting his seed upon the wet ground.

By the time he stumbled his way back into the shelter, Chrissie was sound asleep, her breathing deep and regular. Feeling more than a little ashamed of himself now that he had relieved the pressure, he stripped off his own clothes and set them to the side. He climbed into the relative warmth of his arctic sleeping bag and made himself as comfortable as possible on the rocky ground. Though he was exhausted, it was a long time before his troubled mind allowed him to sleep.

They made almost five miles the next day, moving steadily uphill and keeping the roar of the canyon at a low rumble to their left. Though they saw no other human beings as they trekked over rises and through gullies, they saw plenty of signs that others were nearby. They saw old food containers, a few lean-to structures such as the ones they slept in, even the remains of a failed campfire once. Brett suspected that others were leaving them alone because of the firepower they were packing. Having the entire group carrying military assault weapons like they knew how to use them was a great deterrent to anyone who spotted them and thought about trying to take their supplies.

That was all fine and dandy to prevent direct assaults upon them, but what about an ambush? Most of the people stuck up here had probably been hunters. That meant that most of them were probably carrying hunting rifles. Would it occur to someone to try and take them out from cover, such as the way he had taken Ricky and the others out? If a person was hungry and desperate enough, it just might seem a good gamble. And people would be hungry and desperate. As they had moved along Brett had seen precious little that could be used as food. They had seen plenty of dead and rotting animals along their way but not many living ones. Not even squirrels or raccoons, perhaps the most abundant pre-comet life forms in the mountains besides bugs, showed their furry faces, let alone deer or bears. If he and his group had not secured canned food from the trailer, they would be starving now as well.

He could think of no way to counter this perceived threat of ambush other than to keep a sharp eye out for anyone tracking them or following them. Such a person would more than likely shadow them for a while, waiting for the best opportunity to strike. Brett knew that if the attack were to happen, he would be the first one shot, probably through the head during one of their breaks. It would be quite obvious to anyone plotting against them that he was the leader of the group and the most dangerous one with his rifle. He did not mention any of these fears to Chrissie or to Jason, not seeing any advantage in it, but he did obsessively check their rear and their flanks as they hiked. The fact that he saw nothing did not make him feel any better.

As they went, he continued to instruct the two kids on basic combat techniques applicable to small unit action in a wooded environment. He made them learn hand signals, various voice commands, and the difference between cover and concealment. He explained about covering fire, shooting and moving, and flanking maneuvers. Most important of all, he explained to them how to make a fighting retreat.

"We're not trying to hold any ground here, you understand?" he said. "Our objective is to stay alive. In any fight situation, if we can get the hell out of where we're at, then that's what we'll do."

As had been the case with their firearms instruction, he realized that he was not exactly giving them a complete knowledge base. Nor was there any real way to have them practice the techniques since he figured that staying in one place for any length of time was just too dangerous. But, as had been the case with teaching them how to use the M-16s, it was better than nothing. Perhaps, if push came to shove, the things he had taught them would save them and keep them from panicking. You had to take any advantage that you could get in this new world.

They made camp that night a little earlier than usual, while the meager light that penetrated the cloud cover was still in the earliest stages of its long fade to black. Again, Brett had the kids pick out the spot and construct the lean-to. He was gratified to see that they required little instruction from him during this second attempt. While they were working on it he walked around the perimeter, checking out every conceivable vantage point that an enemy (which, in his mind, consisted of anyone who wasn't them) might use to spy on them and plot an attack from. He found nothing amiss.

As he had done the previous night, Jason went directly to bed after dinner. Brett wished him pleasant dreams and told him, in a man to man voice, to keep his weapon close by, just in case. Jason very seriously assured him that he would do just that. Brett had realized as the day had gone by that Jason was developing an attitude very much like hero worship towards him. He tried to do everything as Brett did it - the way he walked, the way he talked, the way he carried and stored his rifle. This attention sometimes made Brett feel proud but mostly just scared him. He was no hero. He was simply a man trying to survive.

Again, Chrissie stayed up with Brett after her brother had gone to sleep, staring out of the shelter at the approaching darkness and listening to the water roaring through the canyon. Their conversation was not nearly as somber as it had been the night before. They stayed away from the subjects of dead family members and friends, of the dead world they now lived in, and talked instead of neutral things.

"So it sounds like you were one of the high school elite," Brett told her as he sipped from his can of beer. "You were a cheerleader, honor roll student, I bet you were homecoming queen too, weren't you?"

"I was not the homecoming queen," she giggled, slapping playfully at his arm.


"No," she confirmed. "I was runner-up."

"Ahh, so you were a loser then, were you?"

They had a laugh about that for a moment and Chrissie took a few sips out of her own beer. "What about you?" she asked him, edging a little closer to him. "Were you a preppie back in high school? Were you in the happening clique?"

"No," he told her, noting her lateral motion but doing nothing to discourage it. "I was actually part of the stoners."

"The stoners?" she said, disbelieving. "But you're a cop."

He shrugged a little. "You'd be surprised how many cops and nurses and paramedics and firemen came from the stoner clique in school. I stopped smoking it when I graduated and that's why the department didn't reject me when they did the background check, but I probably smoked a pound or two in my glory days. I went through the majority of my junior and senior year in the freakin' stratosphere. My grades were barely high enough to let me graduate. If I hadn't of tested so high on the ASVAB the army wouldn't have even accepted me into flight training when I signed up. I almost ended up a grunt instead of a pilot."

She looked at him in wonder, her blue eyes shining. "It's hard to imagine you as a stoner," she said. "You're so serious now."

"I'm serious because survival depends on it. Catch me sometimes when we're not in the middle of a global catastrophe and you'll notice a startling difference."

They shared another few moments of companionable silence, during which Chrissie took the opportunity to inch even closer to him, until her left hip and leg were in contact with his. Without stopping to think much about the ramifications of his actions, Brett put his arm around her shoulders, pulling her against him. She cooed a little and snuggled into him, her head resting on his shoulder.

"This feels nice," she said softly.

"It does, doesn't it?" he replied, feeling pleasant chills surging through him as he felt her closeness. The chills were accompanied by a strong sensation of guilt. What, his mind demanded, did he think he was doing? Why was he putting his arm around the girl he had vowed not to touch the night before? Why?

Almost before he realized it was happening, he was kissing her. She turned her face up to his, offering an expression of surrender as old as the kiss itself, and he responded to it, touching his lips to hers. Their kisses were gentle at first, light pecks of affection. But gradually they became deeper, more passionate. They lingered sweetly and he allowed the tip of his tongue to poke out and touch hers. At this first contact of tongues she twisted in his arms, turning her body into his. Her arms came up around his neck, pulling him tight against her. Once again he felt her breasts pressing against his chest through their shirts.

He pulled his mouth from hers in fear and guilt, breaking the kiss but not letting go of her with his arms. He saw desire in her eyes, wanting. "We can't do this," he whispered, feeling himself trembling in her arms, feeling his erection building in his pants, feeling his resolve already slipping.

"We can," she whispered back, sliding her hands up and down on his back. "It's all right. I like it when you kiss me. I want you to kiss me."

He shook his head weakly. "You're just sixteen," he said. "I'm more than twice your age."

"So what?" she said. "I'm a woman and you're a man. We don't have anyone else. What's wrong with what we're doing? Who does it hurt?"

"It hurts you," he told her. "I'd be taking advantage of you."

"I don't feel like I'm being taken advantage of," she said, giving him another soft kiss on the mouth. "I feel like I want to do it some more."

"Chrissie..." he started.

"It's not like I haven't done this before," she said next. "I know what I'm doing and I'm old enough to know who I want to do it with. Now kiss me. Please?"

He opened his mouth to give her a firm "no" but she covered it with hers, sliding her tongue back between his lips. It was only a second before he became lost in her embrace, his resolve not just slipping but free-falling to a nasty death. He pulled her tightly against him and kissed her back, swirling his tongue against hers, sucking it gently into his own mouth.

They kissed for more than five minutes, both of them rapidly heating up as their passion built and then he let his lips slide down to her neck. He began to kiss the soft flesh there, nipping at it with his teeth, giving it gentle sucks and licks, unmindful of the occasional speckles of mud that he encountered. She purred in his arms, her arms dropping down to his lower back.

"Why don't we get in our sleeping bags now?" she panted in his ear as his own hands slid beneath the back of her shirt, feeling her bare skin.

He had one last moment of doubt that was abruptly squashed when she began to unbutton her shirt. The white T-shirt that she wore beneath it rode up a little, baring the skin of her midriff and exposing her belly button to him. Though he still felt it was wrong, though he still felt he was taking advantage of her, the sight of her pale, smooth stomach in the fading light decided him. He wanted her as bad as he had ever wanted anyone before, even Julie. He wanted her and she was willing to give herself to him, so he would have her.

He watched her undress for him, not making any move to take off his own clothing just yet. Underneath her T-shirt she wore a simple black sports bra. It molded to her breasts, accenting the fact that her nipples were hard beneath it. She gave him a nervous smile, clearly unaccustomed to a man watching her disrobe, and then she pulled it over her head, baring her breasts. They were as close to divine as a set of breasts could be. About the size of grapefruits, they sagged not an inch, standing up firmly and proudly as only the mammaries of teenage girls can do. They were capped with pink aureoles that were barely darker than the surrounding flesh itself. The nipples were small but rigid, just begging for his mouth to suckle them.

"You're beautiful, Chrissie," he told her, letting his hand reach out to run over her right breast. She took in a sharp intake of hair as his palm crossed the nipple.

"Thank you," she said, blushing, breathing quickly.

After kicking off her muddy boots and her filthy cotton socks, she lay on her back and began to unbuckle her pants. She snapped the button open and pushed the zipper down, revealing the front of her panties beneath. They had once been white but seven days of constant exposure to mud and water had turned them a dirty brown. Brett didn't mind. He grabbed the waistband of the pants and pulled, bringing the pants and the panties down in one motion until she was able to kick them off. She now was completely naked before him, lying on her back; her beautiful cheerleader's legs lightly spread. Her pubic hair was only a light covering of blonde fuzz, just a half shade darker than that on her head. He could see that her vaginal lips were swollen with arousal. The odor that he had noted the night before struck him again, only more powerfully and with a heavier tint of sexual musk.

"Come on," Chrissie breathed, lust in her eyes as she looked at him looking at her. "It's your turn. Take your clothes off."

He did just that. While he removed his boots, socks, and shirt, Chrissie unzipped her sleeping bag all the way and crawled inside of it. When he pushed his pants and underwear down, freeing his straining cock from its confines, she leaned up on one arm, her eyes locked onto it. She reached out with one hand and grasped it, feeling its girth, sliding her palm up and down lightly on it. It felt so good that Brett just held in place, letting her masturbate him.

"Come to bed," she said, patting his sleeping bag, which she had pulled next to hers after flipping it over to make sure the zippers were both on the same side.

He nodded, taking a quick look at Jason, her brother's presence occurring to him for the first time since they kissed. He was still sound asleep, snoring softly, completely oblivious to what was going on right next to him. That was good, Brett thought as he unzipped his bag and climbed inside.

They let their two sleeping bags overlap each other, in effect creating one big sleeping bag. Brett pulled her to him, feeling her naked breasts against him, feeling her soft legs touching his. He slid his hand up and down her back as their mouths came back together and their tongues found each other once more. As the kiss deepened, Brett slid his hand down to her butt, touching it, feeling the firmness of her cheeks. Her hand reached out to find his cock again and she began sliding it up and down softly.

He kissed his way down her neck to the hollow of her throat, spending a moment there before continuing his journey downward. His face rubbed over the swelling of her breasts and he let his tongue reach out and lick between them before he kissed his way to the nipple of the nearer one. He took it between his lips, tonguing it gently and then suckling it. Chrissie moaned softly from above him, continuing to caress his cock, her free hand on the back of his neck, encouraging him.

After several minutes of attention to the left breast, he switched to the right, pulling himself a little further atop her. She rolled over onto her back to allow him freer access. He took advantage of this position by letting his hand slide over the front of her thighs. Though her calves were somewhat scratchy due to the lack of shaving, her thighs were baby smooth and very feminine. He stroked them with his fingertips, moving from the knees to the upper thighs and gradually forcing his hands in between them. She spread her legs for him as she felt his hand traveling towards her center and soon he was touching the junction between her inner thighs and her crotch. He let his fingers slowly explore her. They moved through kinky pubic hair and across soft, velvety outer lips before finding the warm wetness of her inner lips. She moaned again as he touched her there and then again as he slowly slipped his middle finger inside of her. Her sex was saturated with her musky juices and very tight. He could feel her muscles clenching at him strongly, gripping his finger. He added one more finger and began to slowly push and pull, sliding them in and out, up and down. He let his thumb lightly touch her erect clitoris and she jumped, squealing a little.

"Shhhh," he whispered, bringing his head back up to her face and kissing her lips. "Wouldn't want your brother to wake up now, would we?"

"Sorry," she whispered back, in a voice that was not quite steady.

Their lips came back together as he continued to move his fingers in and out of her. After several minutes she loosened up slightly and her hips began to rise and fall in a gentle rhythm. He kept up the manipulation of her clitoris with his thumb and soon she was panting against him, her hands clawing at his back.

"Mmmmm, ohhhhhhh, ohhhh God," she groaned into his mouth. Her thighs tightened against his hands and her pelvis rose forcefully upward. He kept her mouth covered with his own until her spasms died away.

"Oh my God," she whispered excitedly to him, kissing his cheeks and his face. "I've never felt anything like that before."

"You've never come?" he whispered back, slowly freeing his dripping hand from her sex. He began to stroke her stomach.

"Well, yes, I have, but never like that. I've never had anyone make me come before. I've always... well... you know?"

"Played with yourself?" he asked, sucking gently on her bottom lip.

"Yeah," she breathed. "Sometimes I would. But you did it with your hand. And it felt so much better than the ones from my hand. My God."

"Are you ready for another one?" he asked her. "A real one."

"Yes, oh yes."

He rolled his body upward, positioning himself atop of her. He had to do it entirely by feel since, while they'd been warming up for the main event, the light had abandoned the sky for the night, leaving them blind. This made Brett a little apprehensive since he could no longer look over to make sure that Jason was still asleep, but not apprehensive enough to stop.

Her arms came up around him again and her legs opened up, allowing him to fall between them. He took his erection in his hand and rubbed it slowly through her wetness, lubricating it for the coming festivity in a most pleasurable way. Below him he could feel Chrissie trembling.

"Are you okay?" he asked her, giving her a gentle kiss on the lips. "We can stop you know. It might even be better if we did. What if I get you pregnant?"

"No," she said immediately. "I don't want to stop. And if I'm still around in two months to worry about being pregnant, I'll gladly accept the consequences. Do it to me, Brett. Do it to me."

He did it to her. He put the head of his cock between her soft lips and pushed forward slowly. Despite the abundance of natural lubrication he had to force his way inside of her, she was that tight. It took a while to accomplish but soon his entire length was gripped within the snugness of her clenching sheath. He felt her sparse pubic hair mingling with his. He felt his balls resting against her butt.

"Ohhh," she cooed in his ear. "Sooo big. So good."

He knew that he wasn't really particularly big, just average, but he didn't bother correcting this notion at the moment. He began to move within her, keeping it slow so as to avoid waking up Jason (assuming he was still asleep). Very quickly the going became easier as her body adjusted to having him inside of her. Soon he was moving in a delightful friction, a tight, slippery channel that seemed custom designed for his pleasure. Though Julie, his wife, had been an expert at making love to him, Chrissie had the tightness and the allure of youth in her corner. Though she was clearly without much experience, and though she couldn't hold a candle to Julie's techniques at movement and gripping, he had to admit to himself that the actual sensation of intercourse with her was better than anything he had ever felt before. He could revel in the pleasure of her body for hours.

The factor of Jason kept him from driving into her as he truly wanted to do. Instead, he kept it slow, using gentle, steady strokes designed not to make much noise or rustle the sleeping bags. It was a tender, almost hesitant act, though no less passionate than an unrestrained one.

When Chrissie began to buck up and down with her second orgasm, Brett once again covered her mouth with his, sucking her tongue to keep her from moaning aloud as the waves of pleasure overtook her. The uncontrolled spasms of her tightness against him as she came pushed him over the edge of his own control. He felt the inevitability of his own orgasm building in his groin, moving up and down his spine. His hips began to move faster, driving with more power and now creating the noise that he did not wish to create. But he could not help himself. To not thrust potently in her body was impossible.

This time it was Chrissie who kept him from moaning with her own mouth. She brought her legs up around his back, pulling him even harder against her. The spasms began and soon he was unloading thick jets of sperm into her body, plastering her cervix and overfilling her to the point that it ran out onto the fabric beneath them.

Slowly the last vestiges of orgasm departed, the strokes slowed to a halt, and their breathing began to return to normal. They lay against each other, kissing softly, their bodies bathed in a sheen of sweat that quickly gave them chills. The entire lean-to, despite the ventilation from the openings on the side, reeked of sexual musk. Chrissie reached up and pulled the sleeping bag tighter around them.

For the longest time they simply held each other, enjoying the sharing of their body heat, his wilting penis still nestled within her sopping opening. Finally Chrissie broke the silence. "I think the inside of my sleeping bag got wet," she said quietly to him.

This gave them the giggles, the sound of which they covered by putting their lips to each other's necks.

"Are you sorry for what we did?" Chrissie asked him when their laughter dried up.

He didn't answer her right away, he only laid there atop her for a moment, trying to examine just how he felt about what had happened. "I don't know," he told her at last. "Ask me in the morning."

"Okay," she said softly. "But in the meantime, can you hold me for awhile?"


He pulled himself off of her, rolling onto his back and she laid her head on his chest. His arms came around her, crossing protectively over her back. Within minutes, both of them were asleep.

Chapter 2 »