Thoughts of Rourke Mullen filled Jared’s mind as he trudged through a familiar ravine. Rourke, head of research at the Institute of Progress, had first approached Jared at Eve’s company picnic two years prior. Jared delighted in Rourke’s penchant for preparedness, so he told him all about his Adventure Base Camp. As it happened, Rourke sought an outlet for his three teenage sons’ endless energy and thought the ABC Camp fit the bill. The two men agreed to meet for drinks the following evening as Rourke had several ideas for taking the Jared’s camp to “the next level.” Over drinks, a partnership was formed and a charter brewed, yet another thing Jared kept from Eve.
As Jared watched the sun set behind the ridge in the distance, he fiddled with the sole working electronic device in his possession, a very sophisticated two-way radio. It was his connection to Rourke, the Institute…and Eve. Should I make the call? Can Rourke be trusted? Those were the million dollar questions and the ones he spent the last seventy-two hours contemplating, distracting himself from the pain of the journey. Jared had always considered Rourke a visionary, his ramblings prophetic. But now? He was positive that Rourke had either made sure his predictions came to pass or had knowledge of someone else’s plan and wanted to prepare for the inevitable. It has to be the latter. Jared had always been a good judge of character. He couldn’t bear to think he was wrong about Rourke.
Rourke had smuggled out prototypes of every Institute creation but one—the one that Rourke claimed kept him up at night, the one that was a game changer. The one that likely caused all of this—Eve’s creation. Jared didn’t know the details of the device—just that, “Used properly, it would eliminate any threats to national security. However, in the wrong hands, it would be the end of life as we know it.” Jared saw the dark circles under Rourke’s eyes, the worry in his brow as he talked about it. If he faked his concern, he deserved an Academy Award for the performance.
Jared stopped to catch his breath before attempting to climb the steep hill in front of him. In his mind’s eye, he saw the camp just beyond the ridge, over the stream, and beyond the orange groves. Is it in tact? Have the others gathered there? He went through the list of “locals,” counting them off on his fingers. Three at the camp. Thirteen within a twenty mile radius. Upwards of forty within fifty miles.
Cassie snored softly in his ear, asleep in the sling Jared had fashioned for her. Her sickly sweet breath caressed his neck. Sweat dripped down her curls. She needed medical attention and soon. Jared’s right hand man Percy had once been an EMT. He lived at the camp alongside Ed and Wade, two ex-marines. Together, they served as Jared’s staff. Jared needed to get Cassie to Percy, his own rest be damned. Three days of traveling at full throttle with sixty-five pounds of dead weight hanging off his neck—first through small towns full of looters and thugs, and then through dense forest—had sapped all his energy. His only rest was forty-eight hours ago in a dumpster at the edge of a town. The meager water and protein bar rations had done little to bolster Jared’s strength.
Jared rubbed his hand along his jaw, feeling the effects of days without a shave. He chuckled at how livid Eve would be. “Scruff is hot, a scraggly beard is not,” she’d say as she handed him his razor. Had she reached the Institute? Could they fix this? Jared shook his head, disappointed in himself. His job wasn’t to worry about whether the problem was fixed. His job was to assume it couldn’t be fixed and to help the nation’s new generation of leaders survive long enough to rebuild the new order.
The temptation to turn on the radio and make the call was strong but the desire to get Cassie to camp and help was stronger. Jared took a swig of water and pressed forward. He wouldn’t need the light of the sun to reach camp. Every felled branch, tangle of roots, and change of elevation had been seared into his memory long ago.
Jared imagined the crickets to be singing a tune, urging him towards the finish line. When the camp fence came into view, he found a reserve of energy and made swift progress the final quarter mile. He grabbed for his water bottle to wet his lips and whistle a signal to his men, warning them of his approach. Given the circumstances, they’d be armed and ready for an attack. He awaited their response for ten, twenty, thirty, then sixty long seconds. Silence. Jared repeated his sequence of short and long whistles but even the crickets stayed quiet.
“Daddy, are we here?” Cassie whispered in a weak voice. Jared lifted her from the sling and set her down at the base of a large tree. He raised his finger to his lips and motioned for her to stay put. She whimpered in protest, but he repeated his hand gestures, letting her know that he was going to see if the camp was safe to enter.
Maybe they’re all holed up in the bunker. Jared and his crew had excavated a bomb shelter below the camp kitchen a year prior. At most, it could hold a dozen, but those lucky few could live off the supplies for well over a year.
Jared followed the fence line a few hundred feet until he reached a hidden gate, the lock powered by a solar keypad. He entered the six digit code and then propped open the gate in case he needed to get back to Cassie quickly. A pungent odor filled the air, all too reminiscent of his journey here. Death at every turn. He pulled his shirt up over his mouth and picked up his pace.
A gasp escaped his mouth when he saw them. Lined up, side by side in the camp’s outdoor classroom, three bodies, each with a bullet hole in their head. Percy, Ed, and Wade. From the stench and decomposition of the bodies, they had been here for days. Jared crumpled to the ground, dry heaving into the stony soil, mourning for his best friends and colleagues. It wasn’t until he heard snapping branches and telltale footsteps that he gathered his wits about him, yanking his gun from his harness and raising it.
Jared dropped the gun just as fast when he saw his daughter standing before him, tears in her eyes. He ran to her, trying to shield her from the sight of the corpses. Cassie had been close enough with these men to call them each, “Uncle.”
All thoughts of training the next generation of leaders were discarded, replaced with yearning for revenge. Jared needed to know who was responsible—for the deaths of these men, for the carnage of everything he held dear. He would not waste another moment. Gripping Cassie tight with his left hand, he used his right to switch the radio on, push the button, and to enter his authorization code.
“Took you long enough, Alphabet.” Rourke knew better than to call him that. Something had to be wrong. The last time Rourke called Jared, “Alphabet,” for naming his camp, “ABC,” he got a right hook to the jaw and had his mouth wired shut for two weeks. Rourke’s wife fed him kale smoothies through a straw for the duration. Jared told him that the next time he called him that he could expect to eat through a feeding tube.
“Been a little busy, tending to…” Jared was cut off mid-sentence.
“No matter what, keep the assets safe.” Rourke’s voice started out strong but trailed off. Jared heard scuffling at the other end of the line, followed by a gunshot. Cassie screamed out in terror.
A new voice boomed across the transmission, and Jared clamped his hand across Cassie’s mouth so that he could hear. “Welcome to the dark, Jared. I should have known Rourke would turn to you.” Jared knew that voice. It belonged to Eve’s ultimate boss, head of the Institute, Reggie Emerson. Jared had never liked the secretive bastard. Reggie chuckled before his tone turned icy. “Would you like to hear your wife, Eve, be executed next, or are you ready to listen?”