Panic, et al
New – 20 August 2005
A Glancing Blow
Panic, et al
Fred Smith continued to watch the TV monitors for several moments. He was astounded at the number of airline flights which had been cancelled. The problem had to be manpower; the airlines simply could not get enough people to man the planes. The 'sick leave' schedule would be beyond precedence. As Fred glanced away, the thought occurred to him that Chicago was quite a distance from the little town of Kimball in western Nebraska.
Then he realized he had planned to take a rental car from Denver anyway. It would be a long drive but it would be just as simple to rent a car here as elsewhere.
Unfortunately it was no longer possible to rent a car at any major city. When Fred reached the airport's rental car area there were several small mobs jammed at each counter. In one case a man was pasting up a hastily lettered sign which read: 'No Rentals Available Until Tomorrow'. The catcalls made the man shrink away from his pronouncement.
It was same at all the counters. Fred saw a harried young woman at one of the smaller rental companies trying to explain to a dozen angry, boisterous customers that there were no cars left. Finally, on the verge of tears, she threw her hands up and turned away from the miniature mob. When they continued to demand action, she made up her mind. She quickly opened a large drawer set against the back wall, grabbed a purse, and began to leave. Throwing the counter top aside with a crashing noise, she momentarily intimidated most of the people. Breaking away, she began walking rapidly in Fred's general direction.
But two of the more persistent customers came after her, still demanding that their reservations be honored. She told each of them what to do in the clearest possible way. "Go to hell!" she yelled. Then, as they ignored the obvious, she began to get scared. "Leave me alone!” But the hint of a plea instead of being accepted as an order only encouraged the two men. Almost instinctively Fred stepped into the melee.
"Take a walk, gentlemen,” he ordered. His grim and determined stare immediately quieted the other two men. At first it looked as if they might object, but Smith's stance made him look more formidable than perhaps he was. In any case, they relented.
The girl looked up at Fred, clearly grateful. With complete sincerity, she said, “Thank you very much." Then she turned and walked away, somewhat slower than before.
Fred watched her for just a moment. He glanced back at the two men, who glowered at him from a distance. Then Smith turned and walked after the girl.
As she went through one of the many exits of the terminal, Fred could see that one hand was partially covering her face and the other gripping her bag intently. Just outside the door she hesitated and then moved over to an out-of-the-way corner. Leaning against the wall, she broke into a full fledged cry.
Quickly Fred went up to her and put his arm on her shoulders. Softly he said, “Hey, it's okay.” She jerked abruptly as she felt his presence. Then she looked up at his face, recognized him, and immediately buried her face in his chest. Fred put both arms around her shaking shoulders. Quietly he whispered, “Take it easy. Everything's going to be okay.”
The girl hesitated and lifted her face momentarily. It was clear to her that the man just did not understand. She would have to explain somehow. “It's not what you think,” she stuttered. Still crying, she took a deep breath. Then, “All those people demanding to go somewhere!” She paused for a second and then looked directly at Fred, "And I don't even have a place to go to!”
Fred looked down at her for a long moment; then smiled. “You do now."
Joe Bratten sat in the dimly lit conference room. A single spot lighted his work area as he read a variety of reports. One in particular seemed to interest him. Finishing it, he leaned back in the heavy leather chair and smiled. At last he had found what he was looking for.
For several weeks he had been convinced that the collision was real and that he was not prepared. He had kept studying the myriad reports that trickled across his desk, on the theory that he would find evidence of some intelligent preparations. Bratten also had an appreciation for the value of information and had initially been rather unconcerned at his ability to discover and subsequently join a group with preparations already underway.
But for two weeks he had not found a single clear instance of anything significant. He knew with certainty that something was happening, that numerous groups were hard at it, but there was no hard evidence in the numerous reports to which he had access. Clearly it was a flaw in the information gathering scheme and not a result of little or no activity. But, irrespective, Bratten had not found himself a home.
But then, just as he was beginning to be genuinely concerned, he had found his answer. Within two days he had found who, when, and where. Perhaps more importantly, he had deduced several key items that were missing in their preparations. And therefore he could arrive on the scene with the missing ingredients and thus ensure himself a place. Bratten smiled as he thought of his arrival. They would undoubtedly be surprised, but they would recognize his value to them. They would welcome him with open arms.
Gathering the key reports together, Bratten smiled again. All the while he was thinking, 'Good ole Murray Tolman'.
Martin Corrin looked at his tenants with amazement. He had driven over to collect rent from the young couple when he found them loading their old Volkswagen and the small rental trailer. They were moving out, and without the mandatory thirty days notice! Martin was astounded and outraged. People who left without notifying a landlord were of the lowest caliber of people, only slightly better than terrorists. Had Martin not known that he could now automatically keep the couples' last month's rent plus the cleaning allowance, he would have been truly upset. He also realized that good apartments were hard to come by so it would be easier to rent the vacated flat.
Just to make sure, Martin asked the young wife, "You realize that you are no longer entitled to a refund of your last month's rent nor your cleaning deposit?"
Setting the latest load into the already full back seat, she looked back at Martin with amazement. Then, with genuine interest, she asked, "You're kidding?"
"Of course not!” Silly question, Martin thought. Then, more gently, "Where do you want your mail sent?"
"Upstate New York, my parent's home," she answered automatically. Then it dawned on her what Martin had meant.
Casually he asked, "What's their address?”
She watched him for several moments. She could not really bear Martin any bad will, he was the way he was and nothing could change that. She was only amazed. Then gently she replied very carefully, allowing him to write it all down, "R.F.D. Dannemora, New York." She even spelled Dannemora for him.
The rains had been relentless. Of course they usually were in the late spring time. And, of course, the Tallahaichie river was going over her banks again. But this time there were no hastily built dikes to prevent the wide scale flooding of the bottom lands. There was practically no one at the river's edge, trying to contain the waters. Jeb Henderson and a few others were trying to save their own small holdings without any help at all.
Jeb continued to drag more dirt onto the dike surrounding the main house while his son loaded the truck with hay and feed for the horses. For the horses would have no feed inside the dike. But, even with the dike, the rain would continue to drench the area. And Jeb had no pump to remove the water from the low depression just behind the dike. They would have to do everything by hand -- a bucket brigade.
Suddenly the tractor sputtered and quit. Jeb knew that it was out of gas and he could not get to town for more. Looking over his shoulder, he saw his small flooded cornfield with the water rising and lapping at the edge of the homestead. Jeb abruptly realized that there was little more he could do now, he would have to trust to luck.
'Damn,' he thought, 'Where the hell is the government? Why aren't they doing something?'
Hilda Brandt stared in stark disbelief. Incredibly, in her small backyard surrounded by homes and virtually hidden from the rest of the world, someone had taken the trouble to come in the night and loot her garden. It was unbelievable! There was nothing in the garden that was even ready for picking except for a few early tomatoes. And yet someone had come and stripped almost everything sticking out of the ground and then carefully hauled it away. For the first time in years Hilda was genuinely shaken.
She thought immediately of Hans. Her quick-tempered son would be enraged. She'd have to be very careful. Then she thought of something even more critical: She'd have to avoid telling her husband Max. She couldn't be sure that his heart would take it.
Ahmed stopped walking for a moment to look up and bring the whole of the mountain into his vision. The mountain was high, sheer, rocky, utterly devoid of vegetation, and baked white by the Egyptian sun. Spread across its base, foreshortened by the height of the towering cliffs, Queen Hatshepsut's temple rested in perpetuity. Ahmed never tired of the scene -- it was his first love.
Then Ahmed noted something strange. At first he could not pick it out. Then he realized the significance. There was no one around. There were no tourists. There had been few, if any, tourists for weeks -- nothing but a multitude of cancellations. Ahmed had been partially relieved; now he would have time to study more of the inner walls .
But today in addition to no tourists, there were no beggars, no hangers-on hawking their very questionable wares, and no guards. The latter fact shocked him. For as long as Ahmed had known of Queen Hatshepsut, there had been guards at her temple, protecting her heritage. But today, no one.
Immediately Ahmed realized his goal: He must be Hatshepsut's guard. He would move his family here. His three sons could bring the provisions, their small number of goats and chickens, and Ahmed's kin would live at the base of the Queen's funeral temple. Ahmed would preserve all that was Hatshepsut's. Even her pharaoh son had been unable to erase her memory. Ahmed would allow nothing else to end her history. Nothing!
The gasoline station looked deserted and abandoned. But Fred Smith could not assume it to be so. He strongly suspected that, if there was any gas left in the buried storage tanks, someone would be minding the pumps.
As they pulled in under the shade of the building and stopped, Fred saw the first signs of life. An old man was filling a box with a variety of tools and supplies. He ignored Fred completely.
Getting out of the car, Fred stepped to the door. In his most friendly manner he said, "Howdy."
The old man looked up, his face blank. Then going back to his work, he muttered, "Howdy.”
"Mind if I fill up with some gas?"
"Don't never mind me. Take all you want." The old man obviously could care less.
Fred took advantage of the opportunity. Turning, he motioned to his traveling companion, "Okay, Mary. Fill it Up." With no hesitation, Mary grabbed the handle, rang up zero on the pump, and began pumping gas. Fred, holding his breath, was suddenly relieved to see gas actually going into the tank. He had been afraid that the old man's generosity was based on giving away an empty storage container.
Behind him he heard a meek, "Excuse me", and then moved out of the way as the old man carried his box of goodies to the pick-up truck parked beside the building. Quickly the old pick-up came to life and the man did a quick U-turn to head down the gravel and dirt road. Soon there was only a light cloud of dust to suggest that anyone was about.
Fred glanced around. The small town was deserted, or at least no one was in sight. Suddenly Fred realized that he should not just be standing there like a tourist. Abruptly he walked into the small office area and then into the attached mechanic's shop. Looking for anything of value, he began picking up tools, fan belts, etceteras. Then he heard Mary call his name.
"Fred, we've got company.” Fred quickly looked through the dirty glass window of the closed garage door and saw a new pick-up on the main highway. It clearly had just pulled off, apparently having just seen Mary.
Mary was not an astounding beauty, but neither was she ugly. She was neither skinny nor fat, but was pleasantly figured. She kept her dark brown hair short but neat. Her complexion was clear and soft. She was pretty enough but had never thought of herself as such. Fred had found her only slightly attractive. What Fred had found attractive was the fact of her having her own private car which she would share – in lieu of one which she could no longer provide as a rental company employee. In addition, she made a nice companion on a long drive, and indeed might be quite pleasant in bed. But Fred had not felt any need to have sex with her; things had been too busy and hectic. But Fred also knew that others might not be so inhibited.
Fred grabbed the crowbar, everything else falling to the ground. As he came out of the office door, he told Mary to stop filling the tank. She quickly pulled the hose out and replaced the gas tank cap. The pick-up had just made a quick U-turn and was heading their way.
“Forget the pump!” Fred ordered. Mary immediately dropped the handle and ran for her car door. But, before either of them could get into their seats, the truck lurched to a screeching stop in front of them, blocking their way.
Fred jumped back from the car and, taking precise care, heaved the heavy crowbar at the pick-up's windshield. As the bar crashed into the windshield it shattered in a flurry of cracks, blanketing the middle two-thirds of the glass. Despite the fact that the windshield held and did not scatter glass everywhere, all three men in the truck ducked or shied away from the crowbar as it sailed toward them. Without a moment's hesitation Fred was back in the car and starting the ignition. The driver of the pick-up was the first to recover from the shock of Fred's attack and leaped out of his seat. Swinging on the door with the window rolled down, he came at Fred and Mary. As the motor took hold, Fred jammed the car in reverse and gunned it. The car lurched backward, barely eluding the man's grab for Mary's door handle.
As the car slammed into a small pile of stacked used tires, Fred hit the brakes, shifted, gunned the motor again, and turned the wheel. The driver had initially lost his balance but was now running to head them off. His aggressiveness was such that it was apparent that there was an unspoken assumption on the man's part that Fred would not run him down. Unfortunately for that kind of thinking Fred had no compunction to avoid the defenseless man. He drove right at him.
The man tried to leap at the last moment for the hood of the car but was too late. The car slammed into his legs so that he was jackknifed onto the hood. Fred instantly jerked the wheel further to the right, throwing the man off to the side. Now perpendicular to the highway, Fred had to yank the wheel back to the left. The car skidded around to where it was sideways and just off the far shoulder of the highway. As the wheels caught hold, the car shot forward, streaming dust, until Fred managed to get it back on the pavement.
Fred glanced in the rear view mirror and saw that there would be no pursuit. He was only partially relieved. He would not again be totally at ease and he knew it.
Mary sat quietly, in shock, looking at Fred out of the corner of her eye. Then she turned her head slightly to see him better. Neither spoke a word. Mary had not known Fred Smith before he had helped her at the airport. She had not learned much from him as they had made it to her car and then spent almost ten nights on the road. Even in having to constantly scavenge for gas and food, he maintained such a distance that Mary had no real hint of the man with whom she was teamed. Nevertheless, she was sure that she was witnessing a profound change in Fred's life and habits. An irreversible change.
Katherine Philips heard the sound of the truck as it slowed and turned into the gravel driveway alongside the house. She thought that she had recognized the familiar sound but was in no mood to take chances. She grabbed the twenty gauge shotgun from the dining room table and headed for the kitchen. Through the window over the sink and the attached screened-in porch, she saw her husband's familiar blue truck.
She breathed a solid sigh of relief, as she saw him backing the truck up to the porch's screen door. She ran out to the door, throwing it fully open as the truck came all the way up to the threshold. The truck was completely loaded with boxes and sacks of food and supplies. Laying over most of it, however, were scattered tomatoes. The tomatoes were recently picked and apparently tossed into the back of the pick-up directly from the field.
Katherine did not bother to ask any questions as her husband got out of the cab and came back, grim-faced, to help unload. There was no point in discussions. They had both seen the heavy traffic toward the east, the vandalism, the scavengers making their hit and runs on the fields, and the fear on everyone's face. Kat was only relieved that her husband had managed to pick up the amount of supplies that he had. Soon they would have a bigger family to feed; her daughter was coming home from the University of California at Davis tomorrow and her son and his wife were leaving San Francisco tomorrow. She fervently hoped that they would have no trouble getting home.
Ito Torishita had been justified in his faith that the management of Tashki Industries could take care of their own. Already they were making preparations. Ito even had a new task in storing provisions, rice, etceteras. And, with the factory near the sea's inlet, everyone realized that they would have access to fish as well. Everything was clearly in control.
True, there were innumerable rodin rushing about, but they would be controlled soon. They always were. Eventually.
Beli Singh had only just heard of Ketuohok but had not been impressed. His view of time was such that events were not of a sequence, but of a pattern. The future was no different from the past, nor the present. Nothing was changed.
Beli was considerably more affected by the fact that his good friend, Ali, had been run down by an army jeep speeding through their village. Ali was still alive but seriously hurt. With no medical facilities to speak of, his fate was still unknown.
Beli knew that he would grieve mightily should he lose his friend. But he also knew that he would continue to live as before. Each day was to be lived when it arrived. Even Ketuohok could not change that basic philosophy.
But, of course, even if Beli Singh had been inclined to prepare for Ketuohok, there was really nothing that he could do. His line had suffered a multitude of disasters and catastrophes but still survived. They would continue to do so.
Erin Stokes surveyed the area. The cabin was fully provisioned, the stock of firewood seemed more than adequate, and Erin knew that all the essentials were on hand. There would be no reason for more trips down the mountain. Erin felt a surge of pride as he thought of his providing for his family's safety and welfare. They now had everything they needed.
Erin smiled even more as he recalled his family's initial skepticism. But then they had all pitched in and helped. Erin's proudest moment had come when he had been working in the generator shed. His teenage children had been working outside and talking. The one thing that had made Erin's year had been his daughter's statement, "I'm beginning to think that Daddy is not so paranoid, after all.” Erin had smiled continuously for days thereafter.
The flat, boring miles of western Nebraska fell behind as Fred doggedly kept his eyes on the road. Mary had tried to spell him, but Smith was too keyed up to relax. Finally he accepted the inevitable and took over the driving. Mary was now sleeping.
There were now less than fifty-four miles from Kimball, they had since driven past the sign detailing this fact. And the site was no more than twenty miles north of Kimball. But Fred had not woken Mary to tell her because he was now worried about another problem. They were running out of gas. They might make the turnoff just before Kimball, but he couldn't see any chance of making it those extra twenty miles. Fred had already determined just how many miles he could go on a tank of gas in Mary's car, and right now it wasn't looking too good.
The question on his mind was whether or not to go the extra couple of miles into Kimball and try to get gas. But why should there be any gas there? Too many towns along the Interstate had already effectively closed their doors to outside traffic.
What bothered Fred almost as much had been his decision to not stop for gas after the incident with the pick-up. He had had one or two opportunities, but figuring to be on the safe side, he had bypassed them. And now that decision was coming back to haunt him. The fact that there was no other traffic on the Interstate should have told him something.
Then Fred saw another highway sign. It read twenty-four miles to Kimball. The fuel gauge was already aginst the “E” but you never knew how much was left, even then. In addition, the camp was even closer if they took the old unpaved back road. They might make it yet. Fred made the appropriate turnoff and thereafter kept the car on forty-five miles per hour, trying to conserve fuel but also trying to beat the darkness. The sun's lower limb had already touched the horizon.
The new route was somewhat rougher and very much dustier, but even so Mary slept. Not soundly, but not quite willing to give up some much needed rest. The good news was that most of the dust was behind them.
Then, about ten minutes later, the car sputtered. Mary was instantly awake at the sudden change in the background noise. Fred shoved the gear shift into neutral in order to coast. He smiled slightly for Mary's benefit and said, "Time to start walking."
Mary smiled courageously back, then grimaced as she looked around at the barren countryside with cultivated (but poorly tended) fields as the only sign of civilization. "Where are we?" she asked.
“I think we're about fifteen to twenty miles from the camp."
Mary looked more hopeful. "Then maybe we can walk it.”
"Exactly what I had in mind.” Then Fred stopped talking as he noticed a bridge up ahead, crossing a low wide gully. The car still barely coasting, Fred glanced at the last remnants of sunlight and made a quick decision. "But we're sleeping in the car tonight. No walking until tomorrow morning."
Mary said nothing, not understanding. But she could see Fred thinking. The car slowing as they approached the bridge, Fred pulled over to the left hand side and said, "Hold on.” Then they coasted down the embankment to the dry creek bed. Just as they jolted down to the level area, Fred jerked the wheel to the right and the car skidded to a halt half-way under the bridge. Fred smiled, "At least we have a little bit of roof overhead."
Mary smiled. Neither one mentioned that they were also out of ready sight of any other motorists that might come racing down the road.
George Frederick tried to get a comfortable position in the dugout. It commanded an excellent view of the nearest highway and the makeshift road to the site. But it was just not comfortable, not homey. Even the presence of Beverly Losten with him did not improve the conditions. He was simply too professional to let down on his security responsibilities to enjoy Beverly's company. With less than ten days until Ketuohok, and the latest government announcement on the necessity for preparations for the encounter with the comet, security was an absolutely essential factor for the enclaves and their residents.
He glanced back at her. She looked up from her medical book (she had taken quite seriously her responsibility as medical officer of their enclave) and smiled at him. It was a marvelous smile, George thought.
Beverly was pretty, intelligent, and just sexy enough for his liking. He realized once again the advantage he'd had in being the one to assign security guards. He'd not hesitated to pick Beverly as his partner. Better yet, she'd seemed pleased.
Then he turned back to his task. He watched the site road and where it intersected the two lane highway for a moment, thinking. It was no longer being used now, with everyone at the site. No one wanted to go out into the rest of the world now. It was just too unstable. Too much on the verge of all-out panic. George wondered if he'd have the courage to leave the site again before the comet. He hoped the question was academic.
Then the sound of a car brought his attention to the top of the hill. Beverly was quickly at his side with her binoculars. The car came over the hill at a fairly high speed. There had always been little travel on the farm-to-market highway, but the speeds of the cars now traveling it seemed to be increasing with every day.
Halfway down the hill, it happened. A tire blew. The car swerved from one side of the road to the other, the rear axle tearing into the pavement. Finally it ended up on the left shoulder - - excellent driving George thought.
There was no movement for a moment. George did not even consider going to their aid. That question was, for him, already settled. His only concern was for the actions of the people in the car now.
Then they started to get out. George counted two men, two women, an older boy, and two younger ones (about eight and seven, he guessed). As they inspected the damage, the sound of another car approached. One of the men heard it, barked an order, and everyone scattered. Most ran for a ditch nearby and the safety of a culvert. The men stood by the car.
Then the second car came over the hill. George could feel the brakes going on and then off. Several rifle shots went off from the speeding car (apparently at random) as it hit the right hand shoulder, avoiding the damaged automobile. It then swerved back onto the road and kept going.
The leader of the damaged car brought a pistol to fire at the departing group, held it for a second, and then changed his mind. It would have been a futile effort. Then he started barking orders again. Everyone but the two children began unloading and carrying the supplies to the culvert.
George frowned at the idea of some group setting up camp this close. It would only be a matter of time before they found the site road and traced it to the enclaves. He turned to Beverly, who was watching him with concern. He didn't know how to answer just yet and turned back to his binoculars.
Then he realized their plan. The car unloaded, they pulled it (the motor was still capable of something) across the highway -- blocking the road. The second man then dropped under the car with some tool. Quickly he was back out with the results of his labor now apparent: gasoline poured out onto the highway.
George could hardly believe it as he saw the leader with a quickly made torch near the car. The other man crossed the road to the other side of the road and took up his position. The ambush was ready.
They had to wait less than five minutes for the victim. As the sound approached, the torch was thrown to the car. Instantly it was ablaze. Almost as quickly, the new arrival was over the hill and braking. It managed to skid to a stop just past the culvert and twenty feet from the inferno. Then from three sides (one of the women helping), gunfire sprayed the car. Both doors opened and a man fell out one side and a woman on the other. There seemed to be no screams -- then a baby crying.
From the rear the other man reached the car, yanking open the back door. The others arrived at the car as the man set his rifle against the car and reached into the car. He came out with an infant.
The woman who had not fired ran up to him and quickly took the baby and comforted it. Then the others started to load the car with their own supplies. With the baby, the woman walked back up the road a way, most of her attention on the hill. Another car?
But no sounds yet. Within minutes she was running back to the car at the insistence of one of the men. Quickly all were in, including the baby, and the car was pulling away. It skirted the burning car carefully but quickly. Then it picked up speed as it raced down the road.
For just a brief instance George's training told him that the debris left behind could be an advantage for the site, since it would discourage anyone from staying in the area.
Then he heard Beverly's sobs. He pulled her gently to him and held her.
Quietly, his own tears mixed with her blonde hair.
Chapter Ten -- Uninvited Guests
Chapter Twelve -- Loose Ends
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