The long-awaited third installment in a series that has become a classic in family preparedness.
When Robert Hardwick’s daughter, Grace, was struggling to reach home because the nation was collapsing, he couldn’t wait. He went after her, finally finding her at one of the safe houses he’d arranged along her route home, a friend’s survival compound in the mountains of northern Georgia.
A chance encounter at the compound gave Grace the opportunity to hitch a ride home in a chopper while Robert chose to wait for an injured friend to heal up. Before he could begin his own journey home, the compound came under siege from a corrupt congressman and his private army, determined to take the property for themselves.
In a bid to save the compound and reach his family, Robert comes up with a bold and dangerous plan that just might deter the invading army, if it doesn’t get him killed first.
Release date: May 31, 2019
Publisher: Independently published
Print pages: 298
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Robert Hardwick’s eyes snapped open and he immediately checked his watch. It was 5:25 AM. He decided he might as well get up since his alarm would be going off in five minutes anyway. He was never one for lingering in bed. He wrestled free of the blankets, sat up in bed, and glanced out the window. The curtain-less window looked out onto the southern Appalachians and he found only the palest glow at the eastern edge of his view. The sun wasn’t up yet and there was no reason Robert had to be either but he couldn’t break routine. This was when he got up — winter, summer, weekday, weekend, normal life, or not-so-normal life. Like now.
He went to the window, leaned his head against the cool glass, and thought of his family. His wife and son would probably not be awake for hours. His daughter Grace was different, though. She was probably up now, just as he was. He hoped they were all safe and that he would be back with them soon.
Robert was not a person who stepped into his day like it was hot bath water, testing it first with a toe before easing in. Robert dove into his day like a drunk belly-flopping off a diving board, springing from the bed into a state of full wakefulness that drove his wife nuts. She required more time to ease into the day.
Normally, a few weeks ago, his routine would have been to get up, suck down some black coffee, and get in four hours of writing before doing anything else. The world was quieter then and he was better able to resist the temptations of the day — business matters, farm projects, or mountain biking. He’d gone without writing for several days now and it made the world seem wrong. The process of putting down his thoughts, of writing stories that engaged people, helped him process the world around him. It purged demons and emotions alike.
What point was there in writing now? If there was a story here in this broken world, he didn’t know how it would end yet. Would he live to be the narrator or would that responsibility fall to someone else because he died here, far away from his home and family? He didn’t want to think about it. It was a pointless spiral of negativity and pain.
He dressed and went to the kitchen, boiling some water on the gas range for a single cup of coffee. When it was ready, he poured it through a French press, then moved to the back porch, placing the cup on the rail to cool in the chilly morning air. The camp was quiet but he knew he wasn’t the only one awake at this hour. There were men on perimeter security, ready to sound the alarm and shoot back should anyone try to breach the unfenced boundary between this compound and the area controlled by the interlopers.
While his coffee cooled, he dropped to a pushup position, feeling the grit and dust of the floorboards beneath his hands as he knocked out twenty-five pushups. He transitioned to a plank and stayed that way until he felt the muscles of his stomach and lower back start to spasm. From there, he did squats until he felt fire in his legs.
“This the morning routine?” Arthur asked as he came out onto the porch with his own cup of coffee.
“No,” Robert said. “Usually it’s coffee, writing, and exercise after that. Then back to writing in the early afternoon. Everything’s off schedule now.”
Arthur shrugged. “You might as well relax into it. Not a lot can be done about it right now, other than what we’re already doing.”
“Relaxing and accepting aren’t qualities I’m known for. I feel like a caged animal,” Robert said, taking that first, magical sip of strong coffee. “I’m going nuts here. All I can think about is my family. Wondering if they’re safe, if they’re comfortable, if they’re eating well.”
“You’re doing this to yourself,” Arthur said. “Take back control. Rein yourself in. Push the emotional bullshit to the side. Process what’s in front of you and nothing else. Besides, you know they’re okay. You’ve talked to them. Grace and Tom are there now. Everything is going to be fine. You guys will be back together soon and this will just be a footnote in your story.”
Robert laughed. “Push it to the side? Easier said than done.”
“What else is there? What else can you do? We’re in a holding pattern.”
Robert had no answer for that. He took a seat in a creaky wooden chair and sipped his coffee. “Any new developments?”
Arthur leaned casually against a porch post, one hand in his pocket, the other holding a Shark Coast Tactical coffee mug that was always close at hand. He took another sip. “Kevin and I were up late. I think we’ve come up with something. Not sure if it’s a good plan or not but sometimes you just have to shake things up and see what falls out.”
“I think I’m about ready to make another run for home,” Robert said.
“Your call, but I think that’s your emotions talking,” Arthur said. “If you keep butting your head against the wall you’re going to get yourself or Sonyea killed. You’ve been lucky too many times and I think you’re running on borrowed luck now.”
Sonyea was a friend of Robert’s. His daughter Grace had stopped over at her place while finding her way home from school in Oxford, Mississippi. Robert had come to Arthur’s compound to bring Grace home but had stuck around to give Sonyea a few days longer to heal from her wounds. Grace and Sonyea’s son, Tom, were already home, having managed to hitch a ride aboard the chopper that delivered Kevin here to the compound. It was killing Robert to be stuck here away from his family but Arthur was right. With Tom and Grace already home, his family would do fine.
“I don’t like it a bit,” Robert said.
Arthur shook his head. “You think I like the feeling of being pinned down like a bug beneath a shoe? You think I like those guys breathing down my neck, waiting for us to make a mistake? Waiting for us to give them an opening?”
“You don’t seem stressed.”
“Because you can’t let it get to you, Robert. You have to get your head right and play the long game.”
“I know it.”
“Then do it. You’re in control. Burn the emotions out of your body. You’re not going to do it with a couple of pushups and a handful of squats.”
“What do you suggest?”
“Go down to the shooting range and tie off to one of those tractor tires. Drag it back and forth for a while. Carry some railroad ties up and down the shooting range. Do something that knocks you in the dirt.”
“I might take you up on it,” Robert said, taking another drink.
“You’ve got to do something, man. You’re wigging out. People are noticing. You’ve got Kevin concerned about your mental health.”
Robert shot to his feet, downed the last of his coffee, and gave Arthur a nod. “I’ll tighten it up, Arthur. You don’t have to worry about me.”
He went back in the kitchen and rinsed his mug out at the sink. The gravity-fed water was not pressurized, coming from an elevated tank near the cabin, but it beat the hell out of hauling water from the creek in buckets. It wasn’t just the fact that he was separated from his family that was bothering him. Robert was a loner. He was a person who spent most of his time either alone or among the trusted circle of his own family. He wasn’t used to having to work in tandem with other people. He wasn’t used to having to arrive at a consensus before making a decision. He was used to doing whatever the heck he wanted, whenever the heck he wanted to. Except now he couldn’t.
Arthur was right. He needed to get himself together. People probably were noticing and concerned that he was a flake. The big bad writer who wrote such engaging stories, such taut action sequences, who didn’t shy from blood and gore, was crumbling under the pressure of a tactical standoff.
Maybe he did need to spend some time dragging tires and toting railroad ties. Maybe he did need to cook the worry and self-doubt out of himself. He stowed the coffee cup and went back outside.
“I’ll be at the range,” Robert said, not slowing as he strode across the porch and skipped down the steps. “I’m going to spend some quality time with your tractor tires.”
Arthur held his mug up in a toast. “Go for it. When you get back, check in at the commo shack. Kevin and I have a little recon operation planned. You might find it interesting.”
The communication shack at Arthur Bridges’ compound was a rustic plank building painted in Forest Service green. Corrugated steel panels of a similar color made up the roof. There were two double-hung windows recycled from an old house. The structure wasn't much bigger than a suburban backyard shed. The only hint that the shed held anything interesting was that the window glass was painted flat black.
Arthur, owner of both the property and the shed, had not wanted to include any windows at all but his radio operator friends had assured him that the heat from the equipment would make the shack stifling in summer with no ventilation. The heat could even damage the sensitive electronics. Arthur's compromise was to allow windows on the condition they be blacked out to contain the glow from the electronics after dark.
The shack only had one chair, intended for the single radio operator using the equipment. The room was packed to capacity now, the radio operator surrounded by eager faces waiting for an update from the man they’d just sent beyond the wire. Recon was always risky work. Arthur and his men were aware that the men surrounding them had thermal and night vision capabilities. They’d also heard a .50 caliber sniper rifle, an utterly devastating weapon in capable hands.
The presence of such a rifle, of night vision and thermal gear, did not necessarily imply that the enemy had access to military gear. All of those items could be purchased off-the-shelf at a local gun or sporting goods store. While there had even been some full-auto fire during the brief skirmishes between the compound folks and the outside force, that didn’t mean much either. Most local police departments had access to full-auto weapons now through government re-utilization programs. Whatever select-fire gear these men had probably came from a law enforcement agency with access to military surplus weapons.
The radio operator, a young guy named Carlos, threw a hand up to silence the room even though no one was speaking at the moment. It was purely a reaction. Carlos nodded as he listened. “Roger that,” he said. “Jim Beam over.”
“What is it?” Arthur asked. His impatience, his desperation for an update, mirrored the anxiety of everyone else in the room.
“Jim Beam Delta in position,” Carlos said calmly, not taking his eyes off the meters, buttons, and LEDs in front of him.
“Remind him to keep under that thermal blanket,” Arthur said, nervously flexing the sides of a thin plastic water bottle. It made an irritating crackling sound. He tried moving around, wanting to pace, but there was nowhere to go in the tight quarters.
“He knows that,” Kevin said.
Kevin Cole was an old friend of Arthur's and maintained a bug out location at Arthur's compound. As a resident of the Washington, D.C. area, he needed a safe place to go if the shit ever hit the fan. He never really expected it to happen but it had just a short time ago. Kevin packed his toys, flagged down a chopper, and arranged to have himself dropped off at Arthur’s compound.
“It never hurts to remind folks,” Arthur pointed out. “I feel a responsibility to look out for my guys.”
“Brandon is a sharp kid,” Kevin pointed out. “He’s obsessive about details. He’ll be fine.”
Arthur shrugged and conceded the point, though the whole thing left him a little uneasy. Weapons and tactics had always been a hobby for Arthur, never his trade and profession. When it came to operations like this he had to trust the people among his group with operational backgrounds. This was their sandbox.
Arthur came from a construction background, having built high-end safe rooms and secure vaults for people in the Washington, D.C. area. It was amazing how many people needed such things and what they were willing to pay for them. A lot of his work had been for upper-echelon folks employed by the government’s intelligence agencies. In those cases, the government often picked up the tab for his work, allowing Arthur the pleasure of recouping a portion of his tax money by sticking it to the government.
It was an eye-opening experience for him. The more he worked with people in the military and security fields, the more he learned just how precarious the security of the United States was. Arthur began thinking seriously about building a secure bug out retreat in the Appalachian Mountains. He’d grown up there and felt it was one of the safer places on the East Coast. When he realized he wouldn't have enough money to do what he wanted on his own, he broached the topic with other like-minded folks and began to build a network of people who wanted in on the project.
Arthur was highly organized and made the decision to set up his retreat as a corporation, allowing people to buy in at different levels. Some levels of ownership bought you a cabin on the property, which Arthur would build to suit your needs. Other tiers of ownership allowed you to cache a shipping container of goods on the property and stay in communal bunkhouses. Regardless of the level you bought into, all the paperwork made it clear that Arthur was in charge. This was his baby. He made the rules. He surrounded himself with people with an array of useful skills and experience and he sought their input, but they had to understand that every final call rested with him.
Carlos touched his headphones, listening, then relayed the info to the group. “He’s in position with eyes on.”
The forward observer they’d dispatched from the compound was armed but his primary tool was a spotting scope that would allow him to collect intelligence on the opposing force. The scope was equipped with a killflash, a specially-designed screen that prevented light from reflecting off the optic and giving away his position.
Kevin placed his hand on the radio operator’s shoulder. “Remind him I don't want analysis, just a description. He should start video immediately.”
Carlos repeated the message, touched a button, and twisted the volume knob. The observer's voice began pouring out of the loudspeakers in the commo shack. He was whispering so the volume was turned up enough that everyone could hear what he was saying. No one in the room spoke, afraid they would miss a detail.
“I've got one RV. It’s huge. Like the size of a tour bus. Behind it there’s a line of vehicles stretching down the road. I can’t see how far the line goes because of the trees. There are other campers of different sizes. Some are trailers, like you’d pull with a truck, but they’ve been unhooked from their trucks. There's at least a half-dozen individual vehicles—Jeeps, SUVs, and pickup trucks. Most are seriously loaded down with gear. They have shit tied to the tops and packed into every available space.”
“Does he see any people?” Arthur asked. It was nearly 8 AM. Surely there were people out there moving around already.
Carlos relayed the question and the speakers crackled back to life with the hushed response.
“There's a couple of those square pop-up canopies close to the RV with camping chairs and plastic tables set up under them. There's a campfire nearby and it’s still burning. A couple of older guys that look like they're on a deer hunting trip are standing around there sipping cups of coffee. I think one of them must be the congressman based on the picture I saw.
“Another of the men is wearing what looks like a military uniform with insignia but he appears to be in his seventies. If I had to call it, I would say he was retired military. I got two other high-and-tights standing with these guys. Looks like they've got on a mix of hunting camo and tactical gear. I know you don’t want commentary but if I had to put money on it, I'd figure these guys for state troopers. They’ve got some kid working as their cook. I would put him at eighteen to twenty years old. Looks like he's heating dishwater now. Doesn't appear to enjoy his work. I’m getting a pissed-off, resentful vibe from him.”
Kevin shot a quick glance at Arthur and the man nodded at him. Comments like that were good information. It was good to know there were chinks in the armor that could potentially be exploited.
“Give me a description of that dishwasher,” Kevin requested. “Is he armed?”
Carlos relayed the question and waited for the answer.
Brandon’s whispered voice returned again. “Scrawny guy. Bad skin. Cheesy mustache. Dirty T-shirt with some logo I can't read. Oversized jeans. He's got a big-ass knife hanging off his hip but it's nothing I recognize. Reminds me of those cheesy zombie killer knives that kids are obsessed with. I don't see a holster which would make this the only guy I’ve seen with no sidearm.”
“Brandon’s getting all this on video?” Arthur asked.
Carlos relayed the question and a second later nodded. “Affirmative.”
“Ask him if there's anything else we need to know,” Kevin said. “Anything that sticks out to him.”
Carlos did as he was asked. The whisper came back across the speakers again.
“You'll see this on the video but they have a flagpole attached to the RV, flying the American flag. It kind of rubs me the wrong way considering what they’re trying to do.”
Arthur gritted his teeth. It also rubbed him the wrong way that these men would hide behind the flag while trying to illegally seize his property.
Kevin leaned over the desk and picked up a microphone. “Jim Beam Delta, this is Jim Beam Actual. Your sentiments are acknowledged. Pack it up and retreat with the utmost caution. We’ll alert perimeter security to expect you at the reentry point. Safe travels. Jim Beam Actual out.”
Robert observed the operation from a position close to the door in the hot, overcrowded communication shack. He was already overheated. He’d taken Arthur’s advice and done an intense workout on the shooting range. He’d dragged and flipped tractor tires, carried railroad ties, run sprints with cinderblocks. None of it helped. If anything, he felt his anxiety had risen to hair-trigger levels. He felt ready to blow but who was he going to blow up on? None of these people were deserving of it.
Maybe what he needed to do was slip through the wire and take it out on the people who were really at fault. Slip inside their campers at night and slit throats like some shadowy assassin. Such action wouldn’t be his call, though. Not to mention that he had no practice at being an assassin, though he’d written about one. Once. He’d probably end up getting killed.
With the group still processing the operation, Robert shoved his way out the door. His frustration was evident and did not go unnoticed by Arthur, Kevin, and some of the others. After a few moments, Sonyea followed him and found him stretched out on a wide wooden bench.
She nudged him with her foot, causing him to remove the hand shading his eyes. When he saw it was her, he moved his feet and sat up.
“What’s the deal?” she asked.
“You know the deal. The deal hasn’t changed since yesterday. Nothing has changed. That’s the problem.”
“People were watching you in there,” Sonyea said. “It was clear what they were thinking. They think you’ve checked out. You’ve moved on. You’re not one of them anymore.”
Robert opened his hands in a gesture that indicated he wasn’t sure what he was supposed to do about that. He had a sour expression on his face. “I’m not one of them. This isn’t where I’m supposed to be.”
Sonyea’s mouth tightened. “You know, I’ve only met you in person a couple of times. Obviously we’ve spent more time together in the last few days, we’ve gotten to know each other better, but I have to tell you you’re not what I expected. You come off as being more together in your interviews and public appearances.”
“Those are under ideal conditions.”
“We don’t get to choose our conditions, Robert. Your books preach about flexibility and adaptability but I don’t see any of that here. What I see borders on a tantrum. You’re mad at the world because you’re not getting your way.”
Robert gave her a bitter look. “Sorry if I’m a disappointment. Excuse me if I don’t beg for forgiveness.”
Sonyea shook her head at him. “You just don’t get it, do you?”
“At this moment, I don’t really care about disappointing people. I’m more concerned about the people that aren’t here. Like my wife and kids.”
Sonyea sighed deeply, coming to the conclusion that arguing with Robert was a waste of breath. She rose and walked off, returning to the commo shack. Robert laid back down on the bench and slipped into the familiar murky waters of his thoughts.
“Jim Beam Delta is safely behind the wire,” Carlos relayed when the forward observer reached his reentry point.
No words were exchanged but there was evident relief that the operation had gone off without a hitch. There was no such thing as a routine operation under the current circumstances. Arthur, Sonyea, and Kevin filed out of the radio hut and walked back across the gravel lot to Arthur's cabin. Arthur lived at his compound full-time since retiring and, as the only permanent resident, he’d built the most elaborate home on the property.
Arthur spotted Robert sitting on the bench. “You want to join us for some breakfast?”
Robert stood and gave a sullen nod, falling in behind the others.
While other investors had cabins, tiny houses, or stayed in the various bunkhouses that were scattered around the facility, Arthur had built his dream home here. It was fully off-grid with solar power. Secondary power was provided by diesel generators but it was unlikely Arthur would be using those very often since he didn’t know when fuel would become available again. There was even a micro hydroelectric generator installed on a spring-fed brook that ran off the mountain all year long.
With his construction background, Arthur did most of the work himself, building everything exactly how he wanted it. He performed the work with the attention to detail that made him successful when he built for a living. Doing the work himself also meant that he could reduce the number of outsiders he had visiting his property. No utility workers, no excavation contractors, no electricians, and no carpenters. The only thing he subbed out was concrete and metal roofing. Both were jobs that required a crew, and most of the time he was a crew of one.
There were times he preferred things that way. The end of the world, when numbers could make the difference between life and death, was not one of those times. That was a time to circle the wagons and join forces with people you trusted.
In the kitchen, Arthur cracked fresh eggs into a stainless mixing bowl and preheated the oven for biscuits. Sonyea was used to cooking for her son Tom, now safely living with Robert’s family outside of Damascus, Virginia. She didn’t take well to sitting on her hands and watching other people cook so she jumped in to help, mixing biscuit dough from scratch. The stove ran off a thousand gallon propane tank sitting a distance from the house. Now that they were under siege, Arthur was glad that the tank was not sitting immediately beside his home.
Robert and Kevin sat at the table, watching Arthur and Sonyea work their culinary magic. It was one of those moments where, a few months back, both men would have been scrolling through their phones, checking calendars and reading emails. Without those devices, they had nothing to resort to but conversation.
“So, what’s your play now?” Robert asked.
He’d been silent in the communication shack but was curious what Arthur and Kevin were thinking now that they had more information. He was a guest here and felt he had no business asking questions during the stress of that operation. He was not one of Arthur's shareholders. He had his own relatively secure compound in the mountains of Virginia. He imagined that his family was experiencing some level of hardship but should be fairly comfortable when contrasted against the unprepared.
As long as there were no complications, anyway. And as long as they had no unexpected visitors.
Robert could not help but live a prepared lifestyle. It was a hazard of the job, so to speak. The collapse of society was his bread-and-butter. He lived and breathed fictional death and destruction every day, writing stories about apocalyptic events, constantly inventing new ways for the fabric of society to be torn asunder. As much as he understood the fragility of society, he never really expected anything to happen. He was fortunate, though, in that all of his research helped him to see the writing on the wall when the collapse began. He was able to understand where things were headed as soon as the first reports started coming in about the scope of the terror attacks. He knew it was time to batten down the hatches. Time to implement the bug-in plan he’d been perfecting for years.
The perfect bug-in plan didn’t help Robert now. Just outside Arthur’s compound was a United States congressman fully intent on taking Arthur’s compound for himself. Apparently the Honorable Congressman Honaker had picked up on the same early indicators of collapse that Robert had. He’d also known that it was time to batten down the hatches but he went an entirely different route in preparing for hard times. His plan went back to a period in time when Arthur Bridges first showed up on the congressman’s radar.
They’d met years ago when Arthur built a safe room in the congressman’s Washington residence. Congressman Honaker had not paid for the job himself. It was a gift from a “concerned citizen.” Through conversations between the two, the congressman figured out that his safe room contractor, Arthur Bridges, was a serious prepper. The common term at that time, the 1980s, was survivalist, and there were a lot of bad connotations associated with it.
At one time, Arthur considered Congressman Honaker to be his friend. Like many inside the beltway, the congressman had developed a different definition of friendship. Although he may once have been a country boy from the hills, he’d forgotten what real friends meant to country boys. Decades of deal-making and backstabbing changed him. He was more interested in what people could do for him than what he could do for them.
Years later, in the wake of the Y2K bug and 9/11, as prepping became more mainstream, Congressman Honaker recalled his encounter with the survivalist contractor Arthur Bridges. He began to wonder how far Arthur had progressed in his dream of having “a place to get away to if things get bad.” Using, or rather misusing, the powers of his office, the congressman kept tabs on the growth of Arthur’s compound. He developed a bug out plan of his own, based on booting Arthur off his property and taking it for his own friends and family.
It was not exactly working out like he’d planned, though. The residents of Arthur’s compound, needless to say, had no plans to go off quietly and surrender the facility they’d worked so hard to build. Hence the current stand-off.
At the island in his bright, open kitchen Arthur whisked his ingredients together in a stainless steel bowl, dumping in spices and a healthy squirt of Sriracha chili sauce. It was his favorite condiment.
“After I have another cup of coffee and I’ve enjoyed this nice breakfast, I’m going to try to get the good congressman on the radio to see if he's had time to recognize the error of his ways. Maybe he’ll realize that since we’re not rolling over on our bellies like scared pups he should just pack up and go home.”
“I think he underestimated what he’d come up against,” Kevin said. “I’d bet he wrangled together his hunting buddies, some of his law enforcement contacts, and asked them if they wanted to be part of his plan. I doubt they knew the details of what they were getting into. They probably thought they were just going to roll in here and you would give them what they wanted.”
Arthur carefully poured the eggs into a cast-iron skillet heating on the gas range. “Well, you know what I bring to the table in terms of gear. I’ve been seriously preparing for this for probably thirty years. I know some of the equipment you and other folks staying here brought too. All of us came into this expecting the worst. We’ve spent years accumulating good weapons and high-tech gear. Beyond what we’ve talked about and shared openly, I bet we've all got a secret stash of even scarier stuff held back for a rainy day. Honaker and his guys are outclassed here. They have no idea how big a bear they’ve poked.”
Robert smacked his hand on the table in frustration. “Then why not make that readily evident to them? A show of power and weapons capability might send them scurrying back down the mountain.”
Arthur shook his head. “The problem with taking action like that is that you give way too much information. If we show our cards and allow the congressman to leave, we could be giving him the information he needs to go off and build a force that could eventually take this place down. It’s better to be vague and keep them guessing about what we have. I’d rather imply force than demonstrate it, when the situation allows.”
“Then what does that leave you?” Robert continued. “I wouldn’t let those bastards linger out there any longer. If you're that much better trained, that much better equipped, then don't give them any more time to probe your defenses. They’ll eventually find a weakness and someone will get hurt. Put snipers on them. Plant a bomb and blow them all to Kingdom Come. Take out everybody in their head shed and then send in your foot soldiers to mop up the mess.”
Arthur stirred his eggs. He looked grim. “That's not the only option. I want to try to talk to him one more time. He’s had time to think about this. He could still do the right thing.”
“I just don’t get it,” Robert mumbled, unable to let it go. It was his frustration speaking, the desire to clear out everything standing between him and getting home to his family. The comment was ill-timed, and exactly the wrong thing to say among this group of men.
“You sound like a politician,” Kevin spat. “That ‘sending in the foot soldiers’ comment is the kind of shit you hear out of rear echelon desk jockeys who have never seen combat. You know what a fobbit is? Look it up some time.”
This was not the first time Robert and Kevin had exchanged harsh words. There had been a little tension since their first meeting, when Robert angrily implied that Kevin’s chopper ride into the compound went against the idea of maintaining a low profile. He went on to speculate that it may have even led Congressman Honaker to Arthur’s place, thereby preventing Sonyea and him from getting home. They knew now that wasn't true. They had learned that Congressman Honaker had been tracking Arthur's progress for years as he built and stockpiled the compound.
Robert shrugged. “I know what a fobbit is, but I'm just trying to be realistic here. Times are different. You have to be prepared to make the hard calls.”
That was the wrong thing to say to Kevin. He crossed his arms and shook his head with disgust. There was a look in his eyes that said, under different circumstances, he would probably be throwing a punch. “You’re in no position to talk to me about hard calls, buddy. I've made more of them than you'll ever have to make. How many times have you ever sent anyone off knowing they might not come back? And when the worst happened, when they didn’t come back, how many times have you ever had to visit a family and explain to them what happened?”
“Obviously, I’ve not done any of those things,” Robert said. “Our experiences in life have been different.”
“Damn right you haven’t! When you have done those things, we can talk. Until then, everything that comes out of your mouth is just ignorance and noise.”
“Look, I appreciate your service to our country, Kevin. I would never try to minimize that. But being a contractor, an operator, a fixer, or whatever the hell you really are doesn't make you any better prepared for the collapse than I am. I have access to most of the same gear you can get. I’ve had plenty of shooting and tactical training. Having a military background doesn’t make you any more of a prepper than the next guy.”
“And writing about being a badass sure as hell doesn’t make you a badass!” Kevin exploded. “You can take all the same trainings I’ve taken, you can own all the same weapons I have in my safe, and you can be prepared for every survival scenario out there, but that doesn’t prepare you for the consequences of taking a life. There are long-term emotional and psychological consequences. There is responsibility. Only experience prepares you for that, and you’ve got no experience. Right now you just sound like some keyboard warrior. Like some punk on an internet forum with all the answers.”
Robert was silent, both surprised at Kevin's fury and embarrassed that he’d let his frustration push him to this point. He hadn’t wanted this to happen. He hadn’t intended to trigger Kevin in this way, but he clearly had. Sonyea slid the biscuits into the oven, wisely choosing to stay out of the argument.
Arthur scrambled his eggs with more vigor than was necessary. He was stewing too. Everyone saw it. Finally, he decided he could no longer stay silent. He pointed the oversized food service spoon at Robert.
“Those men out there, the ones we’re fighting, are still Americans. Honaker, I don’t give a shit about, but I don’t want to kill those other men if I don’t have to. They have families on the way here. What am I condemning those families to if I kill every man out there? To death, that’s what,” he said. “When the lights come back on, when the gas is flowing again, will I have to answer for that? Would killing the congressman be considered self-defense under these circumstances or would it be a war crime? I’m not saying it won’t come to the point where we have to take him out, but you have to think about these things. You have to consider the potential consequences even when there’s no law.”
Robert had no answer to that. He didn’t know what the right answer was and apparently no one else knew either.
“Just because you can kill someone doesn't mean you should,” Kevin said. “Arthur is right. If we have to answer for this one day, for killing a congressman, I want to be able to say with absolute certainty that we tried everything. Your daughter told me that part of how she survived so successfully was that you taught her to think several steps ahead of every action she took. Think several steps ahead now. It would be easy to kill all those men out there but will it be as easy to explain our actions to their families when they show up? Do you think they’ll accept our response? Are you prepared to kill them too if they threaten to go out into the world and bring more people back here?”
“Then what is the answer?” Robert demanded. “Do you just open the gate and invite them in? Do you give up this place and hand everything over to them? Do we stay trapped here forever?”
“There is no clear answer yet,” Arthur growled. “But there may be one around the corner. We’re not forced into action yet. Congressman Honaker and I will talk at least one more time. That idiot will hear all the same arguments you just heard. He needs to gut-check his own level of commitment. He needs to understand the very real possibility that their families might arrive to find them all dead.”
Robert pushed his chair back abruptly and stood. He shoved his way through the back door and went outside to stand on the back porch. He crossed his arms and examined the mountains. Frustration percolated inside him. He thought about everything, from the things he'd heard in Arthur’s kitchen to the fate of his own family at home. He thought about himself as a father and as a writer. He thought about his legacy and his future. He wasn't certain how long he dwelt on those things but at some point he felt a hand on his shoulder. He flinched, then turned to find Sonyea standing there.
“I’m sorry for startling you but breakfast is ready if you want some.”
Hunger overcame his anger and frustration, leading Robert to go back inside and sit down at the table. The other men were already filling their plates. The tension was thick, the disagreement not sitting well with any of the men. They weren’t best friends but, like it or not, they were a team thrown together by circumstance. They had to work together, which would be difficult with so many emotions swirling around between them. Robert accepted he was responsible for it and needed to attempt to fix it. If they thought he was losing his shit before, they probably thought worse of him now.
“I apologize. I was out of line,” Robert said. “It's easy to just drop in here and make suggestions when I don't have to stick around and face the consequences of those decisions. I’m sorry.”
“Acknowledged.” Arthur shrugged. “We’re all a little stressed out. Nerves are bound to fray under these conditions. We’ve got to hold it together and stay cool though.”
Robert extended a hand to Kevin and the man took it. “We good?”
“We’re good,” Kevin replied, perhaps a little too quickly to mean it.
Robert hoped it was true. He hoped he hadn’t damaged things beyond repair. For the rest of his stay, no matter how long it was, he would have to work harder to rein in his frustration.
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