Copyright © 2016 David E. Nees
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Prologue

The tramp steamer plodded across the Atlantic, a beast of burden laboring without complaint through the ocean’s waves, the bow rising and falling in response to the heavy swells. The diesel engine rumbled in its efforts, the vibrations continually coursing through the ship. The superstructure was unkempt. Rust attacked it everywhere; its owners long since having given up the fight. It was a tired, old ship that should have been taken out of service years before, yet still continued to subsist on the fringes of world trade, scrabbling for any dollars it could make. This voyage, however, would be its last.

Mahmood stood in the wheel house looking out over the ocean. The gray water and leaden sky merged without a horizon, holding a hint of danger to come, as if the ocean were saying, “I can turn deadly. I can hurt you.”

He did not like the sea; he preferred the mountains. Man was a land animal and being on the water was foreign to him. One could not live out here. One could only pass through. Yet being in the wheel house was better than being below, closed up in the steel of the ship. The comforting smells of familiar cooking, the lamb, the onions and peppers, the garlic, the odors that brought up sharp, welcoming images of his village home in Pakistan, now did not comfort him. Inside the ship they mixed with the ever present diesel and sweat to produce a nauseating haze of scent that violated all his cherished memories, making the comforting now sickening. He had passed through the initial round of sea sickness, but the uneasy possibility of throwing up always came back when he stayed too long in the bowels of the ship.

He turned needlessly to the charts where the ship’s dead reckoning plot was updated every four hours. He forced his impatience down. The pace was slow but that didn’t matter. All that mattered was that they arrive at the coordinates at the right time. He knew they were still days from their position. The GPS and AIS identification system were turned off, the ship was out of communication with the world, and, Mahmood hoped, the world was ignoring its presence as well.

Half way around the world, in the Pacific, another indistinct, small freighter also slowly made its way to pre-arranged coordinates off the shore of the U.S. The two freighters had a common purpose, more than two years in the making. In the hold of each of them, hidden in containers, was a missile that they would fire at a set time. Each Sajjil-2 missile was topped with a nuclear warhead. It was a solid fuel rocket with a range of 1,300 miles; more than enough to reach their targets. The targets were not on land, but were points in the upper atmosphere over the U.S. They would be launched simultaneously and aimed so each would explode over part of the U.S., effectively blanketing the country with an electromagnetic pulse or EMP.

Mahmood recalled the efforts of his mentor, Nusair, in convincing the al Qaeda leadership, most of whom did not understand his plan. They wanted the rockets to drop on major cities. They wanted to see death and destruction come with fire and explosions. At first they seemed unsatisfied with what his mentor proposed which would cause the U.S. to die from within. It might not be as immediately satisfying as raining fire and destruction from the sky, but his way would be more complete. Nusair had to educate them on how dependent the people in the United States were on having all goods and services delivered to them.

As the picture emerged the leadership grew more enthusiastic with the plan. If one could knock out microprocessors throughout the country, all would come down. Cars, trucks, planes and trains run on microprocessors. The EMP burst would destroy them which would stop the vehicles from running. If they stopped transportation, they would stop the distribution of food, fuel, medicine, clothing; just about every good and service required for maintaining modern civilization. Additionally, communications would shut down, ending any attempt to coordinate relief efforts.

Next, the burst would knock out the energy grid and the power throughout the country would go down. The country would be blacked out, factories would shut down, buildings couldn’t be heated and the pipelines that control distribution of natural gas would stop flowing.

No food, no fuel, no energy, no support systems needed to maintain the massive population. Nusair won them over. The leadership relished his vision of massive starvation and the collapse of civil society. The terrifyingly powerful U.S. army would have to turn homeward to handle the chaos that would ensue.

Mahmood did not know the effect of launching the missiles from the ship’s hold. The blast of the rocket could very well sink the ship even though they had added reinforcing plates to the bottom of the hold. So be it; Allah will be pleased and Mahmood will be honored by his companions in arms. He could imagine the tales told around the villages of the man who brought down the great Satan.

If the hull held together and he lived, so much the better; the ship would turn towards North Africa and they would flog the engine for as much speed as they could generate. If they reached the coast they would run the ship up on a beach and disappear into the interior. He would be assured of his place of honor and power in the new caliphate that would emerge. There might be retaliations but Mahmood knew his people would survive them; they were used to the wilderness—the caves in the deserts and mountains. They would wait until the fury of the response faded. When the U.S. forces had to turn to the collapse of civil order at home, they would go away and his people would come out to reclaim their lands and then take the soft, fat European countries that would not have any protection from their benefactor across the ocean. He smiled at the thought of the new order he was soon to initiate. Tomorrow, I will trigger an end…and a new beginning.

The launch day dawned clear. As the sun climbed higher, the ocean turned a sharp blue in reflection of the sky. The tired ship was throttled down and turned into the gentle breeze. The swells were long and regular and the old freighter slowly rode up to meet each one; its motion now more gentle. The captain had taken full control over the ship’s steering and engine as he expertly kept the vessel holding its place in the water. The technicians had all retreated to the farthest corners of the freighter taking the crew with them. Only Mahmood remained in the wheelhouse with the launch technician and the captain. Everyone was wearing smoked goggles and ear protectors.

At the appointed time Mahmood pressed the launch button with his breath held. Suddenly it was as if the fury of hell erupted in the ship’s hold. The violence of the ignition threw them onto the floor where they lay, curled up as the roar of the rocket, heightened by its close containment reached two hundred decibels, piercing the ear protectors and smashing into their ears. The blast thrust shattered the windows of the wheelhouse as the missile cleared the hold.

The old freighter shook, its metal plates screamed as they were suddenly heated to over 5,000 degrees, stretched, melted and warped. Sections of the ship buckled, the rivets holding the steel plates bursting free and shooting through the hold and across the deck in a massively lethal crossfire over the ship. The hull plates in the now-empty hold pried loose, and leaks sprang open. The hatches were partly melted and distorted from the rocket’s flaming exhaust; no covers would go back on them again.

And then it was over, the rocket now a point of fire receding in the sky and already beginning to angle westward towards its assigned detonation point. The ship was left open and vulnerable to any assault from the ocean’s waves.

On board no one could hear. They turned to one another, deafened and dumbstruck from the ferocity of the launch. The ship was still protesting the assault on it, though no one could hear it. The engine was struck dead from the rocket’s heat and fire and could not respond as the captain recovered his wits and attempted to get the freighter under control. The ship slowly turned side-ways in the swells and began to list to one side as she took on water. The captain shouted for his crew to man the pumps, but no one could hear him. After some time, he was able to gather and direct them, but the pumps did not work well; it was too little too late. The ship slowly listed further and the stern began to sink. In an hour, the old freighter ended her life at the bottom of the sea, taking Mahmood and the rest with her.

 

Book I: Into the Mountains
Chapter 1

He lay on the ground behind the rhododendron bushes. Their leaves remained through the winter, giving him cover. The earth was beginning to thaw on this February day. The south facing ground on which he lay hungrily drank in the sun’s rays. The long, unkempt grass though was still dry and dormant under him. Only the faint, musky scent of dry vegetation registered as he pressed his body close to the ground. The cold grip of winter had not yet fully given way to the freshness of spring.

Jason carefully pulled aside a branch to study the road ahead through his binoculars. He was hidden at the top of a gentle rise a quarter mile from the interstate. The road he was following went north under the highway. The houses had thinned out here, like a forest giving way to grassland. They stood with doors opened and broken windows, like sightless eyes looking out at the world, giving mute testimony of their violation. Grass had grown long, only challenged by the weeds which grew in riotous abundance after being left alone. Bushes once well trimmed were now beginning to assume their wilder shapes. He could see no movement, but still he waited. Going down the hill he would be exposed.

The underpass carried the interstate highway on its back. It was low and narrow, only having room for the two lane road which he followed. Above, the four lanes were split into two sections as they went over the local road. Abandoned cars were scattered along the interstate as far as he could see. The electromagnetic pulse burst had killed them all in an instant. Jason could see some crashes had occurred when drivers had lost control. Many cars sat with their trunks and doors open. Where had all the people gone, he wondered? It didn’t really matter now. What concerned him was the underpass made a good spot for an ambush. His route so far had skirted downtown Hillsboro. He had no desire for another encounter with the militia or gangs, which seemed to be one and the same. To the north of the interstate lay the national forest and the wilds of the Appalachia Mountains, his goal. This was the last obstacle. But there was not enough cover to allow a furtive approach. He would be exposed as he hiked down the hill.

The empty houses in the suburbs spoke of a retreat. Death first reigned among the elderly and sick, but without the delivery of food, life quickly became untenable for even the average citizen. And the ones who remained alive looked to the town authorities to provide for them. They migrated into the city when they ran out of food, needed medical help or were threatened by scavengers. They were looking for food, shelter and safety. In Hillsboro they found a limited amount of all three, but they came with a price.

Personal freedoms disappeared as strict rules were set up to stave off chaos. People were catalogued, assigned where to live, where to eat and to what tasks they would have perform as the price for the succor they sought. Hillsboro was turning itself into a medieval city. As martial law was established, Jason had watched personal freedoms disappear, and decided to strike out on his own in the forest. Crossing the interstate was his last challenge. From there he would be putting the city and its control behind him.

Over the winter he had made himself a copy of an Indian travois using aluminum poles and putting wheels at the end. On the webbing between the frames were two backpacks loaded with food, tools, weapons and camping gear; all the supplies he needed to survive in the mountains. He was ready to depart.

He would wait until night. It would be harder to see, but also harder to be seen.

There was still no sign of movement around the underpass. Jason crawled back twenty yards through the tall, dry grass. When he was far enough below the rise, he got up and walked to an old oak tree and relaxed against it. Get some rest. Don’t be careless now. He resisted his desire to hurry to the forest. It felt like freedom lay just on the other side of the interstate.

Late that night, with a quarter moon barely softening the pitch darkness, Jason lay in the same spot, studying the road. His binoculars pulled in more light than his naked eye, but it was still shocking how dark the nights were with no lights. There was no movement.

It was time to go. Again, he backed down from the rise, then shouldered his backpack. Jason carried a Ruger .223 Mini 14 Tactical carbine and a 9mm semi-automatic pistol. The Ruger held twenty rounds in its magazine and the 9mm held thirteen rounds. He pulled the charging lever back and with a click chambered a round in the rifle. He then pulled back the slide on the 9mm chambering a round. Each weapon was now ready to fire. He flipped their safety levers on and, with a deep breath, set out. He held the carbine in his right hand and pulled the travois in his left. He had encountered scavengers and militia on his journey out of town. Both were dangerous. Jason hoped there would be no encounter this night.

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