“I’ll take point,” said Victor, “and you can ‘lead from the rear.’” Bryce let it pass because this was no time for petty posturing, however much Victor thought it was. At least the hindmost position let him discreetly admire the two young women between Victor and him as their horses climbed the wooded hillside.
“Take the trail to the left!” called out Bryce.
Victor pulled hard on his left rein. Beneath his bravado, Victor was a novice rider who barely could control his animal. A part of Bryce regretted having provided him with a good-natured roan tolerant of neophytes. Bryce knew one mare that liked to scrape riders off against trees. It was a pleasant mental image.
All his adult life people had laughed at Bryce for being a prepper, but he was right and they were wrong. Despite his years of preparation however, the ascent up Black Birch Mountain wasn’t going at all as he had planned. His longstanding evacuation scheme had been simple: stop for no one, hightail it up to his shelter, hunker down, and wait it out – whatever “it” might happen to be. But, no, when the crunch finally crunched he failed to think with his head. Instead, like some hormone-fueled teenager, he delayed his escape to stop at Ella’s house and urge her to come. He barely knew the sandy-haired grad student, but she had caught his fancy the few times they had spent time hanging out at clubs in the company of mutual friends. She had been sociable, but he had no reason to assume she felt any attraction to him. Nonetheless, he had convinced to flee with him. The pungent odor in the air did most of the persuading for him. Then it got complicated. First Ella brought her sister Zoey, who was two years younger. Bryce hadn’t been aware “Zoey” existed. Then Ella insisted on stopping for her boyfriend Victor. Bryce knew Victor existed, but he didn’t know he was Ella’s boyfriend. This must have been a recent development. Victor was a well-muscled good-looking fellow with an annoyingly degree of self-confidence. Bryce knew he should have refused to include him, but his distaste for seeming churlish to Ella delayed his response for so long that a refusal became too socially awkward for him to manage.
As he had expected no one was at the stables. The manager and employees had heeded the civil defense warnings to get inside and stay inside. The horses had been left out in the pastures. The four Bryce chose – his own horse and three others with which he was familiar – didn’t avoid being caught as they commonly did. They smelled something wrong in the air and were ready for human assistance. Victor volunteered to stand watch as Bryce tacked up the horses. The air noticeably worsened in the time this took. It already was burning his lungs when they finally mounted and left for the mountain trails. The delay very nearly had been fatal.
“Keep to the left,” Bryce called out referring to a large rock outcrop ahead.
“I think we’re better to the right. The trail is better. The left will take us along the cliff,” said Victor.
“Yes, I know! That’s the idea. We want to avoid other people. If there are any, they’ll go right. I’ve been up this way a hundred times. I know the best way to go. Stay left.”
Victor went right. Bryce wasn’t sure it was deliberate defiance. It was possible the horse had chosen for Victor and he didn’t want to appear not to be in command.
“I’m only doing this at all because I’m not letting Ella run off with alone you,” said Victor.
“I thought I brought you,” said Ella.
“I’m here because I don’t trust him,” responded Victor. “The radio stations told us to stay put.”
“While the authorities who delivered that message get out of town or hole up in fortified bunkers with air exchangers,” said Bryce.
“Why do you think you know anything about it?” Victor challenged.
“Why do you think you know anything about it?” Victor challenged.
“Because I read.”
“You mean your crazy conspiracy websites.”
“The conspiracy has arrived, hasn’t it?”
“It’s some stinky fumes, that’s all. The radio said they were mildly toxic but survivable if we just stay inside or dampen some cloth to put over our mouths.”
“That won’t help!” insisted Bryce. “They just didn’t want us clogging the roads and choking to death in a big traffic jam. It’s poison gas. It’s not a nerve gas or we’d already be writhing on the ground in our death throes. But it will burn out your lungs and blind you if you stay in it too long. Didn’t you hear what happened in Japan?”
“Won’t it just dissipate?” asked Zoey. “I’m mean, how big a gas bomb could it have been?”
“It’s not a gas bomb,” said Bryce. “I’ve been reading rumors about this stuff on those ‘crazy conspiracy websites’ that explain what that crazy cult set off in Okayama and Okinawa.”
“You mean ‘wildly speculate,’ not ‘explain,’” said Victor.
“I mean ‘explain.’ It’s a catalyst bomb. Some maniac chemists found a way to spread airborne nanoparticles that catalyze atmospheric nitrogen and other atmosphere components to form a poisonous black smog that destroys organic materials. The fairly simple method of manufacturing the nanoparticles was published on the internet, so now the stuff is in the hands of rogue states, terrorists, and apocalyptic cults. Striking back is pretty impossible. Strike back at whom and where? The gas will linger until the catalysts themselves break down.”
“How long will that be?” asked Zoey.
“I don’t know. But the at least the gas is heavy and will cling to the lowlands. My cabin is plenty high enough and it is only accessible by horseback or on foot. Not even an ATV can get there. I brought the construction materials up there piece by piece over the past 10 years. We should have gone to the left.”
“My nose is running,” said Ella.
“It’s the gas. We barely made it out in time.”
“I think this is a mistake,” said Victor
“So, you’ve said repeatedly, said Bryce. “If you insist on going back I won’t stop you.”
“Don’t, Victor,” said Ella. “I’m not going back down there. What if he’s right?”
“Then I’m definitely going with you,” said Victor, immediately re-establishing himself as alpha male. “How long is this foolishness going to take?”
“If by that you mean ‘Are we there yet?’ it will be sunset because we delayed our start,” said Bryce. “If you mean ‘How long will we have to stay on the mountain?’ I don’t know. Weeks at least. Maybe months.
“You expect us to camp out for months?” Victor asked.
“It is not ‘camping out.’ I’ve told you it’s a cabin. It’s not big but it is sturdy and defensible with solar electric panels and water from a mountain spring.”
“What about food?” Ella asked.
“I have supplies for six months… well, a month or two with the four of us. After that there is game and edible plants on the mountain.”
“You are going to hunt game? With what?” asked Victor derisively.
“I have firearms there. They are hidden under floorboards so if any hiker stumble on the place they won’t steal them. But as far as I know no one but me has visited the cabin.”
“Doesn’t sound like you have many friends.”
A bullet sprayed splinters from a tree next to Victor. Victor disappeared from view as his horse had run away with him. Whatever value he might have brought to the group as a bodyguard went with him.
A man in hunter’s camouflage emerged from the woods. He was not armed, which indicated at least one companion remained hidden. “So we’re not the only ones with the brains to head for high ground after all,” he said. “Hello ladies.”
“What do you want?” asked Ella. Bryce could see Zoey eyeing possible escape routes. Bryce scanned the shadows for the sniper.
“To get out of the stink, of course. The mountain is too thickly wooded to drive up, but I hadn’t thought of horses.”
“Sorry we can’t help,” said Bryce.
“I think you mean you won’t help. Now that’s very inhospitable. Bad karma. Charlie, show him what happens to the inhospitable.”
The bullet felt like a sledge hammer to the chest as Bryce dropped to the ground.
“So where are you ladies going?” the fellow asked.
“To his cabin up the mountain,” said Ella pointing back to Bryce.
Bryce’ efforts to inhale were meeting with little success. His vision was oddly fuzzy.
“Really? How convenient. Charlie search him for keys and keep your eye out for the other one.”
“Oh, he is long gone,” said Charlie as he emerged from the woods with a Remington 700.
As his vision faded, Bryce could feel someone rummage through his pockets.
The brush of a leafy twig against his face brought Bryce out of his reverie. The gelding surefootedly followed the narrow path to the left of the outcrop as he had done so many every Saturday for the past year in sun, rain or snow. The Big Crunch could arrive in any weather, so Bryce had practiced the ascent in every type. This was an endless source of amusement to the few people who knew of his prepper ways. He had trusted none of them with the precise location of his hideaway, and none had ever pressed him about it. Today was warm and cloudless. Bryce caught a seasonal whiff of honeysuckle. Bryce shook his head at his own sour imagination.
“Damn,” he spoke to himself. “Even in my daydreams I don’t catch a break.” Bryce did not Ella from casual meetings with friends. He had no idea if Ella had a sister, but the fantasy of including one at first had been pleasant. His natural pessimism couldn’t leave it at that, of course. He had to put Victor in the mix and then a couple of random psychopaths until the trail led to the sort of dark place his fantasies usually went. On the other hand, Bryce reminded himself, his pessimism was what had prompted him to build a prep shelter in the first place. It is also what stopped him ever from having invited Ella to join him for real.