The apocalypse kills billions—numbers so large that most survivors’ minds snap shut. Foes of the U.S. have attacked with a bio-engineered contagion that spreads around the world. One of only a few survivors, Penny Castro, ex-USN diver and L.A. County Sheriff’s deputy, reacts differently. She fights back and creates a life for herself where death is the common denominator. On a forensic dive, she is interrupted. When she surfaces, she finds all her colleagues dead, so she has to battle starvation, thirst, and gangs of feral humans until she ends up in a USAF refugee camp. A post-apocalyptic thriller for our times, Penny’s adventures will entertain and shock you into asking, “Could this really happen?”
One week later I learned the truth in the adage that you can be a victim of your own success. Even though I’d insisted that I didn’t want any more violence in my life—the trip to the Valley was more about curiosity almost killing this cat—the USAF now considered Ensign Penny as an asset, although a reluctant one.
“I’ve never been to Vandenberg,” I told Rodriguez.
He stood before me looking a bit forlorn. Couldn’t see him well from my camp chair with the blazing sun at his back. “If it’s any consolation, I tried to dissuade the colonel because I know you don’t want to participate.”
“Why do they think I’d want to participate?”
“One major reason: we airlifted someone from the Santa Maria area who had managed to cobble together a coded message we could recognize and broadcasted it at a radio station.”
Thought of my own broadcast. Wondered if it was still hitting the airwaves. Thought a moment more. “I’m guessing he’s from Vandenberg.”
“She. There’s a top secret satellite there Cheyenne Mountain wants us to recover, and she knows where it is.”
“So La Femme Nikita will be our guide to recover something completely useless?”
“Why useless? Cheyenne Mountain doesn’t think it’s useless. She doesn’t either.”
“How are you going to put it into orbit, flyboy?”
He upended a pail and sat near but still facing me. He looked around. “We—she thinks there’s still a rocket ready to launch there.” His voice was a whisper.
“Gee, why don’t you just use it to pay back the jerks who did this to us? Or bring back the astronauts and cosmonauts for burial?”
“The rocket can’t handle that kind of payload. Besides, the satellite is more important.”
“I can’t, but it will help this country get back on its feet again.”
“You mean that no comsats are online?”
He hadn’t changed expression when I made that deduction. “They’re still up there, but the Mountain can’t wake up all of them. There’s some evidence that enemy anti-sat missiles blasted the silent ones with EMP bursts just before the others carrying the plague hit the West Coast. And they weren’t just comsats that were affected. I can’t talk about details. Many of them are missing anyway. Key people who knew a lot died at the Mountain too.”
“I’ll need details.”
“You won’t get them. You’re considered a civilian.”
“But why should I help you then?”
“Because our survivor says your brother is in the group that took over the base. She barely escaped.”
My brother is alive! “Wait! You want me to convince him to surrender? No way. I can’t do that. Is that your second reason?” He nodded. “My brother and I have been estranged for years. I don’t want to even see the SOB again…ever!”
“Would you at least talk to Rebecca?”
“Is that the woman from Santa Maria?” He nodded. “Why would that accomplish anything?”
“You’ll see. Just talk to her. That’s not her name, by the way. We created an alias just for you.”
“Gee, thanks, for all your trust.”
“Looks like you could use some of this,” said Ben, sitting a half-filled bottle of Dewar’s on our little camp table that evening. Made our little tent in the refugee camp seem more homey.
“Only if you share some,” I said.
He pulled up the other camping chair. “You need it more than me, although I’ll take a few sips. Want to talk about it?”
I didn’t care about national security. Alejandro had said it: I’m a civilian! I told Ben everything I knew. “What should I do, Ben?”
He took a sip—I’d already downed half a water glass—and thought a moment. “It’s your decision, but I’d consider it an opportunity.” He waved a hand in a circle. “Everything has changed. The reasons for your estrangement with your brother are irrelevant now in these terrible times. It might be worthwhile to mend fences with the gentleman.”
Gentleman? I smiled. My Ben was such a gentle soul. How could he know how Bobby had treated Mom, how he took sides with Dad, and what a controlling jerk he had been in my life?
“You’re focusing on my brother,” I said. “What about that satellite?”
“If they’ll use it to beef up comlinks, it might be justified as a way to stitch the country back together again. Right now Hannibal and his jet pilot friends are about as good as the Pony Express was before telegraph and the railroads. All the com here is pretty local, unless somebody is willing to chance bringing TV and radio stations back online. Don’t see that happening anytime soon.”
“Maybe having the whole country connected wasn’t a good thing,” I said. “People would just get on their soapboxes and proselytize and other people would get angry about it and do the same thing. Smaller groups might get along better.”
“From a sociological and anthropological point of view, you might have something there. Homogeneous tribes got along because members who didn’t were thrown out. That’s easier to do within a small group. But even Native Americans, Egyptians, Macedonians, Greeks, and so forth formed cities, states, and empires, ones often evolving into despotic regimes.”
“Ben, I don’t need a history lesson about why human beings suck,” I said. “Small groups are like big families.”
“And big families can be ripped apart by contrary actions and opinions,” he said. “Yours is a case in point.”
“Which is why I’m very happy to have had the opportunity of choosing my present one,” I said with a smile. I’d long ago decided that Ben and Sammy were my family. Talk of my brother disturbed me.
I spent a night of insomnia thinking about my choices, even in the throes of my drunken stupor. I didn’t want to make a decision. I didn’t want to think about the USAF, the Navy, my government, or my brother. And I didn’t give a rat’s ass about Cheyenne Mountain.
The next day, Alejandro took me to see Rebecca. I think he would have done it even if I’d committed right away, but not doing that made it also a meeting for her to try to convince me.
I was left in a small conference room somewhere in some base building in Edwards. Figured it belonged to security because it looked like an interrogation room in my old sheriff’s substation. Waited about five minutes until there was a knock at the door. A woman entered, moved slowly around the table, and took a seat opposite me.
“You can call me Rebecca,” she said, placing hands palms down on the table’s edge. She seemed to be focused on the wall behind me, her gaze about six inches over my head. Huh? I then noticed the hands. They were prosthetics, maybe the best I’d ever seen, but prosthetics nonetheless. “You have heard the general outline of our problem. I’m here to answer your questions.”
“I’ll call you Becky,” I said. “You were picked up in Santa Maria? Were you at Vandenberg?”
“Yes. I’m a scientist. I was working there and living in Lompoc.”
No expression. I stood and went to the window to peer through the blinds and bars at an expanse of tarmac, much of it now sprouting weeds in the cracks of the asphalt and concrete, about the only thing that managed to grow without water, although even the weeds looked dry. Her eyes didn’t follow me.
She continued. “It’s no different than other bases. Andrews and Edwards are in better shape, though.”
“You follow my sound. Are you blind?”
“I’d probably be called just ‘legally blind’ years ago, but that definition was used by the authorities. Now it doesn’t matter.”
“Did that happen on Vandenberg?”
“Yes. A small group wreaked havoc, especially among the scientists. We were blamed, you see. I and a few others escaped.”
“Did you build military satellites?”
“Some of them. The one we want to launch in particular. Do you want me to elaborate on what we’ll use it for?”
“For now, the government is the military, and it’s handling most of its communications piggybacking on the military’s. This satellite will aid in that process and help bring the country back together.”
“And you think that’s a good thing?” I watched her body language. I had some interrogation training when I became a deputy. She didn’t realize that I was interrogating her; she probably thought she was there to convince me.
“It will help. It’s not the complete answer.” Her sideways response to my question annoyed me. “There will be no quick solutions.” Roger that! “We’re doing the best we can.”
“We? After all that happened to you, you’re still ready to aid the government? Don’t you think they share some of the responsibility?”
“Perhaps. After careful analysis, though, I think they don’t share much culpability.”
“You’re blind and with prosthetic hands, and you still say that?”
“Our government didn’t do that, Penny. I lost my eyesight and hands in an explosion caused by the group I mentioned. I survived. Many of us didn’t.”
“OK, why me? I have no favorites in this fight. I just want to live whatever life I have left in peace with my family.”
“Your brother was one of the leaders in that group.”
I returned to my chair and buried my head in my folded arms on the table. Oh, Bobby, what have you done?
I felt like crying because I could understand Bobby’s sentiments. I often figured that somehow our government had failed us. Supposed the Vandenberg scientists and technicians were the obvious scapegoats. Maybe all over the world? Maybe in whatever country or countries that launched the missiles carrying the plague? Politicians will pay scientists tons of money to do their dirty work, but that didn’t mean they were responsible. The politicians were like the pimps, the scientists like their whores.
“OK, tell me what you want me to do,” I said to Bec.
Steven M. Moore is a native Californian who lived and traveled abroad before settling on the East Coast. The reader can observe in his fiction the great appreciation he has for diversity in character and culture and our common hopes and desires. His fiction work contains many novels in the mystery, thriller, and sci-fi genres, including four series and young adult novels. In The Last Humans, he returns to his native California to ponder a possible future.