End Plan

This is the first chapter of my novel End Plan, which is complete and published.  You can purchase the full version at Amazon here: https://www.amazon.ca/dp/B06XFNPN3G

The man stood at the edge of the ocean and gazed out over the greyish-blue water, the sound of the waves hitting the beach around him steady and hypnotic. The beach was long and narrow, following the curve of the shoreline in both directions as far as the eye could see, weaving gently in and out of tiny bays, a ribbon of vaguely reddish sand set against the green of lush grasses and wildflowers of white, yellow and purple. There were still several hundred more miles he needed to travel before he’d reach safety, but the flight of the last few days had taken their toll and he badly needed to rest.
Maybe they wouldn’t actually make it this far, he thought, trying to convince himself of that possibility, but knowing deep down that they undoubtedly would.

He hadn’t rested since just after the New Brunswick border with Quebec, where he’d managed to catch a few hours of sleep in one of the tents that the Maine National Guard had set up just south of the barricade. A barricade manned by normally cheerful and friendly Acadians, now grim faced and clutching their hunting rifles tightly, city cops from the nearby town of Edmundston still holding on to the hope that they’d be able to keep their quiet town intact, and Guardsmen from across the river, all concerns about passports and international borders forgotten in the shared drive to stop what was coming out of the West.

He’d expected the barricade, riding down highway 185. By now he’d developed a sense of where frightened townspeople and local law enforcement tended to place them. Although what was coming wasn’t using motor vehicles to travel — yet, anyway — he’d already narrowly missed being shot by an overly tense citizen-turned-soldier and had developed a technique that seemed to be working, where he simply honked his horn repeatedly as he approached. It seemed silly but for whatever reason, it worked.

Those guarding the barricades were always hungry for information, and he provided what he could. The cops from Edmundston had grilled him hard, as cops tended to do, hoping, perhaps, that if they asked him the same question in different ways that they’d get a different answer. They didn’t. He liked the cops, still trying to project a sense of law and order in the face of impossible odds, still wearing their uniforms with some unconscious hope that what was on its way would show some respect for them.

Since he’d left that barricade, he’d stuck to the secondary roads and seen few people, which was just fine with him. His early experience with the main highways had depressed him — miles of asphalt clogged with hundreds of cars, all heading blindly in one direction: away. He knew that those desperate people didn’t have a chance. That the areas that the government said they would hold would be overrun, and that the single one that could, and would, be held would be denied to them; neither the transportation, food or even basic lodging available. They would be turned away if they managed to make it that far and would perish in the onslaught.

The man knew this because he’d been one of those who’d drafted the Plan, and had signed his name to it. And he couldn’t look at them and so travelled onwards on roadways where he wouldn’t have to.

***

He decided he’d camp where he was for the night and began to go about the business of setting up his tent. He chose a spot far enough back from the beach where his camp wouldn’t be visible to others who were travelling these same secondary roads — most being honest people smart enough to realize the futility of attempting the main highways, but some looking for prey. Opportunistic fools seeking to rob travellers of their possessions, not smart enough to realize how useless those things would be in a matter of days.

The man had had a run in with some of these human jackals some hundreds of miles back, and had lost his motorcycle and the small amount of cash he was carrying. He’d managed to hang on to his ID and the USB stick he carried on a chain around his neck. Both would be critical soon. He gave up everything else without a fuss, glad to see the highwaymen disappear in search of other unwary travellers, satisfied in their haul. The man had simply walked the few miles to a dealership he’d seen on the way and taken another motorcycle. The highwaymen were now undoubtedly absorbed into the oncoming wave. He was certain that they were too stupid to avoid it.

He’d also picked up a revolver and ammunition, almost on a whim, at a sporting goods store near the dealership. Time was running out, he thought, and he wouldn’t be able to keep replacing his transportation if he wanted to make it in time. He’d prefer to avoid using it, which is why he was careful in the choice of his camp sites. He would use it if he had to, though. He’d spent a few minutes coming to that decision before shoving the gun into his pack.

He’d become quite good at setting up and tearing down his simple camp and soon had the tent set up, the sleeping bag inside it and the single burner butane stove running with his aluminum camp kettle on top, boiling water for tea and washing up. He’d eat a cold meal tonight. He had neither the energy to prepare anything substantial nor the desire to eat it. Food was simply the fuel his body needed to keep going.

He saw the flash on the horizon to the West at dusk as he sat drinking his cooling tea, having finished the dried meats, cheese and bread that served as his dinner. He looked at his watch instinctively and noted the time. He continued to drink his tea, and felt the rumble minutes later. He looked at this watch and did the mental calculation. Chicago, he thought. This was in the Plan too, but it was being done earlier than he expected. He needed to get on the road at dawn, he thought, and tossed the remainder of his tea into the nearby grasses, rinsed his cup and crawled into his tent for another night of troubled sleep.

***

The man came across the young mother and her son early the next morning near Alma. Her car had broken down the previous evening and she and the boy — two or three years old, he thought — had slept in the car, sheltered from the chill of the Atlantic night. The residents of the area had moved on and tourists were non-existent, now driving for their lives rather than to the next attraction.

He saw the woman sitting, crying, as he slowed down to go around her car and instead found himself pulling over rather than accelerating and leaving her and her problems behind him. It was one thing to leave the masses of humanity on the highways to their doom — he couldn’t save them all. It was stupidly sentimental, he thought, given the stakes involved, but he could help this one person, and that was something. Still, he wasn’t a complete fool and he jammed the revolver down the back of his pants as he got off his bike and walked towards her and her child.

The woman was young, no more than a girl really. The man thought she was in her early twenties, maybe 21 or 22. She was pretty, slim with long dark hair and blue eyes red-rimmed from crying. The man thought she would almost be beautiful if she smiled. Her son took after her in looks, with the same dark hair and blue eyes, and he sat in the back seat of the car playing with some toy dinosaurs. The boy looked up at the man as he approached, but saw nothing interesting and returned to his toys. The mother had watched the man with a wary gaze the whole time he walked from his motorcycle. The man thought that she most likely had a weapon — a knife probably, not a gun. He imagined he looked a bit disreputable from his hard ride, and didn’t blame her for her suspicion.

“Car trouble, I take it?” he asked when he came close enough to talk to the woman without yelling.

“Yes,” she replied, “it just stopped as I was driving along, and I managed to pull over, but I have no idea what the problem is, and I need to meet my husband.”

The man nodded. “I can look at it if you like.”

“Oh yes, please,” said the woman, suspicion momentarily forgotten in her rising hope.

“Keys?”

“In the ignition.”

The woman moved out of the way to give him access to the driver’s side of the car. The man noticed the small knife she moved to her pocket. He turned the ignition key and received nothing — no bells, lights or engine cranking. He popped the hood and got out of the car, walked to the front and opened it. After a few minutes with his head under the hood peering into the dark corners of the engine compartment he found what he was looking for. Reaching in and following the thick wire to its source, he felt what he had expected. He stood straight and turned to the woman, now standing near him.

“Do you have a wrench? Any kind of crescent wrench will do.”

“Do you know what the problem is?” she asked with optimism.

“Loose grounding wire,” replied the man, “the rough roads can work them loose.”

“And you can fix it?”

“If you have a wrench, I can tighten it up and everything should be fine. I can hand tighten it, but it’ll just work itself loose after a few miles.”

“There’re some tools in the back.”

She led him to the trunk and opened it. Sure enough there was a small roadside emergency kit. Probably a present from someone concerned with this young mother driving alone on country roads with her son. The man thought that that person would be happy knowing how useful it had ended up being.

He found what he needed quickly and returned to the engine compartment, tightening the bolt holding the grounding strap. The car started immediately when he tried it. The boy looked up from his toys and clapped his hands with a broad smile on his face. The man closed the hood and returned the wrench to its place in the emergency kit.

“Oh my God, thank-you,” said the woman, who had stood back and watched the man as he made the repair.

“You’re welcome,” he replied, satisfied that he had helped at least one person in his flight.

“I don’t know how to thank you. In fact, I don’t even know your name. I’m Mary, and my son’s name is Joshua.” She offered her hand. The man took it, and told her his own name.

Mary’s husband, it turned out, was a soldier who had been deployed days earlier when the proverbial shit had hit the fan. He had had some inkling of how bad things were going to get, and had given his wife instructions to keep to the secondary roads. Exactly the way the man was travelling. In fact, they were travelling to the same destination. However the man knew, as Mary’s husband didn’t, that she would be turned back. It was in the Plan.

He made a snap decision.

“I’m on my way to Sydney as well,” he said, “if you like, we can travel together. It might be safer that way, especially if you have more car problems.” The man didn’t mention the fact that this would also be her only way of getting through. It would involve more explaining than he wanted to do.

Mary searched his face before replying, suspicious once again.

“Are you going to keep riding your motorcycle?” she asked, still not trusting him enough to have him in the car with her and her son, with no options for escape should he turn out to be something other than what she thought he was.
“I’d prefer to,” replied the man.

Mary nodded. “Okay, lets get going then.”

***

That night found the three of them camped out off the road, a couple of hundred miles closer to their destination. The man gave the tent to Mary and her son along with his sleeping bag. He would be okay catching whatever sleep he could in the front seat of her car. He wasn’t sleeping very well anyway.

He decided to risk a small fire that night. The air was chill blowing in from the ocean, and they could use the warmth. That was his story, in any case. The fact of the matter was that he found the flames comforting. A bit of homeyness in a desperate situation.

As they sat around the fire, Joshua nestled against his mother’s side, her arm around him, with the glazed look of a child who is fighting sleep, there were three more flashes on the horizon. One in the West, and two towards the South.

“I saw one of those the other night,” said Mary, “do you know what they are?”

“Nuclear sterilization,” replied the man absently, as he checked the time on his watch. “Toronto, New York and Boston is my guess.”

“What?” she asked incredulously.

The rumbles minutes later confirmed his guess and the man suddenly realized that he had just given away more than he should have. So far, he had been able to fob off Mary’s questions about his own situation with vagaries. He supposed it didn’t matter, that she’d find out tomorrow anyway. And it would be a relief to tell his story to another human being.

“Nuclear sterilization. A nice clean clinical term for incinerating cities full of people. Each of those flashes is a nuclear warhead being detonated over a major city. An airburst, mind you, for maximum effect.”

Mary stared at him in shock for a moment and then slowly shook her head. “No. I can’t believe that. Everything was fine just a few days ago. They must be something else.”

The man continued.

“I was working in a government lab trying to find a cure. We knew about the virus about two weeks before it started manifesting itself in a way that was noticeable to the public. You remember the small riots that seemed to spring up and were explained away as student protests gone bad?”

Mary nodded, still struggling to come to grips with the enormity of what the man was telling her.

“That was the start. We managed to control those — barely — but the virus spread. All it needs is for some bodily fluid to be transferred. A bite or a scratch is most likely, but even something as innocent as a kiss before symptoms start to show. When things started to come apart, we directed people to safe zones that could possibly be defended. You know all about that, but your husband was smart enough to send you elsewhere. Everyone underestimated how fast it would spread and how uncontrollable the infected are. The safe zones didn’t last long.”

“But nuking cities? My God, I can’t believe that. It’s insane.”

“There was a lot of discussion about it. I was against it: there’s a chance that the radiation on the outskirts of the blasts could cause mutation of the virus. It isn’t airborne right now, for example. Things would be a lot more hopeless if it was. It looks like they decided to do it anyway though. They’re probably trying to protect whatever safe zones are left by burning out millions of infected like you would hornet nests. I don’t know for sure though, I haven’t talked to anyone in authority since I left.”

“I was the last one out,” he continued, “everyone else was evacuated days before, but I thought I was on to something so I kept at it. I didn’t know what the equipment would be like in the new labs, and I wanted to get as far as I could. When I left, I could hear the infected blocks away.”

There was a long silence when the man finished his story. He wondered if he had told the woman too much, if she would think him one of those responsible for what was happening and hate him for it.

“Did you find a cure?” asked Mary finally.

The man shook his head slowly. “I don’t know. I don’t think there’s a cure…any way to revert the infected back to who they used to be…there’s too much damage. But maybe a vaccine. If the virus doesn’t mutate.” He looked at the three dying glows on the horizon as he said this, each representing the remote control cremation of what used to be cities of millions of people.

Mary followed his gaze.

“You at least need to try,” she said, hugging her now sleeping son to her tightly.

***

Next morning, they came across the first real authority the man had seen in days. Soldiers had barricaded the causeway that would carry them on the final leg of their journey to safety, two armoured personnel carriers sitting in the road, their canon pointed menacingly at any who approached. Behind them, soldiers moved busily amongst troop carriers and jeeps, and in front of them, a handful armed with rifles turned back those travellers who approached, forcing them to perform u-turns and return back down the causeway.

The man pulled up in the line of cars and campers leading to the barricade, with Mary’s car behind him. He turned and looked at her, seeing the concern in her face. He raised his hand slightly to signal her not to worry. Ahead of him, he watched as an argument ensued between a soldier and the driver of a pickup truck brimming with household belongings. The man was transfixed by the sight of the items that the driver thought were important enough to bring with him. He found the elaborate gas barbecue particularly fascinating.

It was clear that the driver was not happy at being turned back. As the argument grew more heated, two other troopers strode over and levelled their rifles at the driver through the windshield. The driver seemed to get the message at this point and put his truck in gear, performing a wide u-turn, narrowly avoiding the first soldier.

The rest of the vehicle owners in the line ahead of the man, having witnessed the altercation ahead of them, meekly turned around when each was ordered to. Eventually it was the man’s turn.

“I’m sorry, sir, but you’ll have to turn around. No civilian vehicles are allowed beyond this point.”

“I’m on your list,” the man said calmly.

“I’m not aware of any list, sir. You’ll have to turn around now.”

“Get whoever is in charge over here. You really don’t want to turn me back.”

The soldier hesitated, then decided to pass the buck up the ranks.

“Wait here, sir.”

The man shut off the motorcycle and waited for several minutes until the soldier returned with a sergeant carrying a clipboard.

“Your name?” asked the sergeant.

The man gave him his name and the sergeant checked the list attached to the clipboard. It was pitifully short, consisted of two pages of double spaced text. The sergeant found the man on the second page.

“You’re a bit late, sir,” said the sergeant, “we’re about to blow the causeway and fold operations here. If you’d got here tomorrow you’d be swimming.”

“It’s been a tough ride,” replied the man. “How far away are they?”

“Moncton’s gone,” said the sergeant, “another day or two and we expect them here. The general evacuation order’s been given and we’re heading out as soon as we set the charges.”

The man thought of the group of civilians, cops and Guardsmen back at Edmundston. He’d liked them and their determination and hoped that they’d somehow managed to get away.

“How’s the road up to Sydney?” the man asked.

“It should be fine,” replied the sergeant. “None of the infected, if that’s what you mean, but I’d watch out for the folks who’ve decided to take things into their own hands. You’re welcome to travel with us, if you like.”

“I need to get this information to St. John’s,” replied the man, taking the chain holding the USB stick out of his shirt and showing it to the sergeant. “Time is, as they say, of the essence.”

“A plane sure would be useful, wouldn’t it?” asked the sergeant.

Nothing had been in the air for the past two weeks but fighter jets enforcing the no-fly zone over North America, directed by the joint command safely buried under a mountain. There was no negotiating with the fighter pilots, and no exceptions. The man had seen evidence of this several times in his travels in the form of metal, plastic and bodies strewn over the landscape as private and commercial pilots decided to try their luck. It was in the Plan, and it didn’t surprise him when he saw it.

“It sure would,” replied the man, “I think I’m getting saddle sores.”

The sergeant laughed. “Well, good luck, sir.”

The man nodded and started the motorcycle, accelerating slowly up the narrow path leading through the military encampment. He looked for Mary in the rear view mirror and saw that she’d been stopped by the soldiers. He doubled back to where she was stopped. He left the bike running and got off and walked over to the car.

“She’s with me,” he said to the sergeant, who hadn’t returned to whatever he had been doing before the man had arrived.

“She isn’t on the list.”

“No.”

“Well, I really shouldn’t let her through if she’s not on the list.”

The man stared at him without saying anything. Eventually the sergeant dropped his eyes and sighed, then looked back at the man.

“I guess it doesn’t really matter, does it? Go on then.”

The man got back on his bike and started it, and waved to Mary to follow him, their successful passage giving vain hope to the others in the line behind them. The soldiers’ job would be harder for a little while. The tiny convoy threaded its way through the troops before hitting the open causeway and the man accelerated, eager to put the blockade behind him before someone higher up than the sergeant decided to stop them.

***

They arrived at the ferry that afternoon. The winding mountainous road had been empty — the inhabitants along the way having fled or holed up, hoping that the tide wouldn’t come or would pass them by. It was rough country, and the man thought that they might have a chance if they were careful.

Enough of the locals had had the same idea of trying to leave the mainland that the marshalling yard was a sea of vehicles, the entrance road impassable for the cars and trucks jammed into it. The man rode to a stop at the end of the line far, far from the ferry, and motioned Mary to pull alongside him. The air was heavy with the smell of dead fish and diesel fuel.

“You’ll have to ride with me,” he yelled over the sound of his engine after she rolled down her window, “there’s no way we’re getting through this with a car.”

“But Joshua…”

“Get on the back and put him between us. You can hold onto me with one arm and him with the other. We’re not going to be going fast.”

Mary nodded, switched off the car and got out. She hurried to the back door and extracted Joshua from his car seat, grabbing her purse, which lay beside the boy, almost as an afterthought. The man resumed surveying the activity closer to the ferry and felt Mary get on behind him. He glanced over his shoulder and saw Joshua looking up at him smiling. He smiled back and then looked directly at Mary.

“Ready?”

“Go.”

The man put the bike in gear and inched it forward, weaving between cars and onto the shoulder, taking whatever path he could to make it down to the boat. He saw soldiers in the distance and made for them.

Behind him he could hear yelling as outraged drivers, hoping in vain to get on the ship that would take them to safety watched him jump the queue. He ignored them and continued in the direction of the troops, who were now taking an interest in his approach.

He felt the impact of the bullet before he heard the shot, and managed to bring the bike to a stop. He looked down and saw the blood beginning to soak the front of his shirt. At least it missed the USB stick, he thought.

He got off the motorcycle shakily and stood to face Mary, her questioning look changing to one of horror as she saw what had happened. She dismounted quickly, pulling Joshua off with her, and ran over to him as he sank to the ground.

He pulled the chain with the USB stick over his head and handed it to her, and then dug in his pocket for his ID and gave her that as well. As his vision began to fade, he saw the soldiers running towards them.

“Make sure they get this,” he said to her, as darkness engulfed him.