The Line Of Departure: A Postapocalyptic Novel

Paperback | June 2, 2015

byG. Michael Hopf

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A gripping new novel from one of the best-known names in survivalist fiction.

Former Marine-turned-author, G. Michael Hopf grabs readers from page one with his breathtaking blend of action, adventure, and political intrigue. The End—the first book in Hopf ’s New World series—has sold more than 50,000 copies, and word of mouth is quickly building on the series as a whole. In the fourth book, The Line of Departure, the United States is on the brink of total anarchy in the wake of a super-EMP attack. Gordon Van Zandt and his family have managed to beat the odds so far, but can they survive once war erupts?

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From the Publisher

A gripping new novel from one of the best-known names in survivalist fiction.Former Marine-turned-author, G. Michael Hopf grabs readers from page one with his breathtaking blend of action, adventure, and political intrigue. The End—the first book in Hopf ’s New World series—has sold more than 50,000 copies, and word of mouth is quickly...

G. Michael Hopf is a combat veteran of the U.S. Marines Corps and a former bodyguard. He lives with his family in San Diego.

other books by G. Michael Hopf

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Sanctuary: A Postapocalyptic Novel
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Format:PaperbackDimensions:368 pages, 8 × 5.3 × 0.8 inPublished:June 2, 2015Publisher:Penguin Publishing GroupLanguage:English

The following ISBNs are associated with this title:

ISBN - 10:0142181528

ISBN - 13:9780142181522


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SPARKPIXCONTENTSACKNOWLEDGMENTSAs I have mentioned in earlier acknowledgments, writing a novel is something an author doesn’t do completely alone. Yes, the author sits behind the glow of the screen tapping away for what seems like endless hours creating the characters, plot, and story that will eventually become the book. But once that first draft is complete, an author, if he’s doing it correctly, will send it off to a trusted confidante and, in many ways, collaborator: the editor. I have had the honor and great fortune to be surrounded by an incredible editorial team at Plume. I don’t know all of their individual names, but the one person who has worked with me to ensure that my novels have been readable, richer, and top-notch has been Kate Napolitano, editor at Plume. Her careful eye and attention to detail has aided me in making The Line of Departure the great book it is. She worked closely with me, pushing and encouraging me as I went through the most extensive rewrite I’ve ever done in my life. It was her insistence and vision that the book could be better that led to the book you’re about to read. When I turned it in originally, it was a totally different book. I want to thank her from the bottom of my heart for being open, honest, and professional, as an editor should be. I am often asked for advice by aspiring writers. Besides my typical response of “Just write,” I now follow up by saying, “Get an editor—they’re a priceless asset to your team.”Thank you, Kate, and thank you, editorial staff at Plume.PROLOGUEOCTOBER 19, 2066 • • • McCall, Idaho, Republic of CascadiaHunter Rutledge exited the warmth of the aircraft only to be greeted by a brisk wind. He lifted the collar on his thick wool peacoat and headed toward the lobby of the small airport. He took a deep breath and tried to prepare himself for the unknown. McCall had played a large part in his family’s history, but this was the first time he had stepped foot here. There was nothing like the promise that something “life changing” had happened to encourage him to seek out his roots, and that’s exactly what had been promised to him by his brother, Sebastian. Even after badgering him for more information about what possibly could be in McCall that needed his immediate attention, Sebastian stood firm and said it would be better for Hunter to come see himself. How could anyone turn down an invite promising something so profound? Curiosity got the best of him, and so he soon found himself on a small plane, unsure of what to expect.As he strode toward the terminal building, the first thing that struck him was how small a place it was. It surprised him, especially considering what he had seen on his flight. As his plane made its approach, he had peered out the window like a small child, eager for the view. He marveled at the size of Long Valley, how it stretched north for miles on end. An early dusting of snow capped the exposed granite tops of the two mountain ranges on either side; the white transitioning to the deep green of the pines, then segueing into the patchwork of browns, tans, and greens of the valley floor. He took in every mountain, road, and building he could until they landed just south of town.Hunter was the deputy chief of mission for the embassy, a busy man whose schedule was dictated by political turmoil—and in this day and age, there seemed to be a nonstop supply. If he didn’t have such a great relationship with the ambassador, he wouldn’t have been able to make the trip to McCall. His original itinerary took him back to Austin, Texas, today, but when he asked for some leave due to personal family issues, the ambassador granted it without discussion. Hunter was a consummate professional, never one to take a day off, so for him to ask for leave meant that it was something serious. It was just too bad that he didn’t know what this serious thing could be.Just a few feet shy of the entrance he stopped and took in his surroundings. “So this is the fabled McCall,” he said to himself.A large man wearing an orange vest opened the door and said cheerfully, “Welcome to McCall! What brings you here?”Hunter looked around the sparse lobby of the terminal. Small red leather-bound chairs lined the walls, interrupted every few feet by tiny tables covered with magazines and newspapers. In the corner of the room was a counter with old computer monitors and behind it a board listed arrivals and departures. He took notice that the board only listed one other arrival coming in later in the day, and the only departing flight was for tomorrow morning.Realizing that he hadn’t promptly answered the man’s question, he said, “Sorry, I was expecting to meet someone here.”“No one here but us,” the man said, shrugging his shoulders.Hunter shook his head, exasperated. Sebastian told him he’d be there upon his arrival, but being typical Sebastian, he was late. • • • Hunter looked at his watch and grimaced. Sebastian was now two hours late. He couldn’t wait any longer, not when he was this anxious. After asking for directions, he departed the terminal and headed toward town. He chuckled to himself when he saw the street sign for Van Zandt Boulevard. His own family namesake, emblazoned for all to see.As he walked, the occasional truck or car drove past, but as a whole, the town seemed sleepy and quiet. Large ponderosa pine trees towered over the houses and small commercial spaces that fronted the street. He had heard so many stories about McCall over the years—it had given his mother a place to call home as a child and was the birthplace of their republic. It was hard for him now to see how this tiny mountain town could have been so instrumental in the beginnings of a new country. The town had a population of less than seven thousand people, but those people had the vision and drive to be independent from the tyrannical forces that collided during the Great Civil War. McCall may not have started as a unique place, but it became pivotal because of one person: his grandfather, Gordon Van Zandt.Hunter inhaled deeply through his nose. The fresh smell of the alpine air invigorated him. He strode closer to the lake, taking mental notes on restaurants and bars he saw along the way. He wasn’t sure how long he’d be in town, and knowing where to eat and, more specifically, where to grab a drink was a priority.The blare of a truck’s horn startled him and brought him to the present. He turned in the direction of the sound and saw an old Ford coming his way. Its side panels were decayed from rust, its blue paint faded to the point that primer now showed. The years of being subjected to the harsh conditions of the mountains had taken its toll on the truck, clearly.“Bro, I’m so sorry. I’m such an ass. I was tied up!” Sebastian hollered out from the cab.Hunter peered at his baby brother’s beard-covered face. “You are an ass. And a late one at that.”Sebastian leaned over and unlocked the passenger-side door. Hunter tossed his duffel into the bed and got in. “So. I’m here. What the hell is up?”“Nice to see you too,” Sebastian joked, making a U-turn in the road and heading south out of town.“I’m starving. If you’re not going to tell me what’s up, can we at least stop and get something to eat?” Hunter said.“No time! Where we’re going there’s plenty of food,” Sebastian said happily.Hunter rolled his eyes. As much as he loved his brother, they were very different people. Sebastian took after his grandfather in his demeanor and thirst for adventure. He loved life and wanted nothing more than to see the world. As soon as he was of age he had left home and never looked back. Now in his mid-twenties, he had finally taken interest in his roots, and this desire for knowledge had taken him to McCall. Hunter was the polar opposite—steadfast, reliable, and grounded. He knew every detail about the Van Zandt and Rutledge families. It was a priority for him to maintain the reputation the name gave him. He was proud of his family’s history, regardless of current revisionism taking place in the media.“So, where the hell have you been?” Hunter asked.“Everywhere!”“I just saw Mom and she’s worried about you. You need to call her,” Hunter chided.Sebastian cut him a look and answered, “I love Mom, but”—he paused, clearly trying to figure out how to present the information—“it’s just . . . she hasn’t been honest with us. That’s part of the reason why I asked you to come here.”“What are you talking about?”“What she told us about Grandma and Granddad were not true. To be blunt, I now question everything she ever told us.”Hunter pursed his lips. “Mom’s been through a lot. I don’t know what you’re talking about, but right now she’s being interviewed by the paper about the family, about everything.”“Really? I wonder if she’ll tell the truth.”Sebastian took a left off the highway and headed east. The one-lane county road was paved but the lack of maintenance made for a bumpy ride. The towering ponderosa pines were now gone, replaced by the tall grasses and small shrubbery of the open valley.“If you’re not telling me what we’re doing, can you at least tell me where we’re going?”“Almost there, calm down! You’re going to love it here. McCall is a great place—I can’t believe it’s taken me so long to get here. I’ve learned so much about the family since I’ve been here.”“Since when have you given two hoots about the family?” Hunter asked, an edge in his tone.“I know I’ve not been the best brother or son, but when I was in New Zealand a few months back, I had a chance encounter with this woman—”“How surprising,” Hunter interjected. Sebastian had a reputation for being a playboy.“It’s not like that. She was an older woman, and she knew the family. She had known Granddad, Hunter.”“Really?”“I knew that would pique your interest.”“I hope it’s not another person claiming how bad he was. I’m sick of hearing that side of the story.”“I’ve heard the stories. But what if I was to tell you there’s a different perspective?” Sebastian said as the truck slowed and pulled into a gravel driveway.Sebastian stopped the truck in front of a metal gate and got out to unlock it, hollering at Hunter to drive the truck in. Once the gate was secure again, Sebastian jumped into the passenger side and instructed him to drive.Hunter paused. He trusted his brother but the entire situation made him uneasy. He peered down the long drive; mature groves of aspen trees to either side gave it an ominous look.“C’mon, let’s go. You’re hungry and I got to use the bathroom,” Sebastian urged.Hunter put the truck in gear and drove down the driveway. After a quarter mile, the green metal roof of a house came in view. His curiosity was at a high. He leaned in and stared as more and more of the house came into view. It looked very familiar.“Is this Mom’s old house?”“Yep.”“I thought . . . I thought Mom said this was gone, that they had sold it.”“That’s the first lie,” Sebastian blurted out.Sebastian’s excitement for what Hunter was about to see couldn’t be contained. “C’mon!” he yelled, and jogged to a side door next to the garage. He pulled out a key and unlocked the door. When the final click of the last tumbler fell on the lock, a bark from a large dog sounded out.Sebastian grabbed the handle and opened the door slowly so as not to let the dog, a pit bull, out. “Oh, who’s a good boy?” Sebastian said to the dog. The dog wiggled with excitement and licked Sebastian’s hand intensely. The dog’s friendly behavior was the antithesis of its appearance.“This is Irish,” Sebastian told Hunter.“Hi, Irish,” Hunter said, just standing behind his brother. He wasn’t much of a dog lover and didn’t have too much experience with them, as their mother, Haley, never allowed them when they grew up.“It’s Sebastian!” Sebastian called out.They entered a small mudroom. The only furniture in the small space was a bench, coatrack, and baskets with boots and shoes. Irish bolted ahead of them into the main part of the house. Both men took off their shoes and followed him. The next room they walked into was a large kitchen. The appliances in it were at least fifty years old, but what stuck out was how clean everything was. Whoever lived there took great care to keep it that way. The kitchen opened up to a large great room with twenty-five-foot ceilings. A large rock fireplace and chimney spanned the distance from the ground to the wood-beamed ceiling. From this room, one could sit on the large sectional sofa and overlook the valley and a creek that was a hundred yards off the back of the house. Jug Handle Mountain stood prominently in the distance.Hunter was captivated by the view and approached the windows to get a better look. It was stunningly beautiful. He was starting to understand what his grandparents saw in this part of Idaho. His awe was shattered when the realities of the years before came crashing down. Off in the distance, under a large pine tree, sat a gated graveyard. The site of graveyards in this age was common. After the lights went out, the luxury of having funeral homes and municipal graveyards disappeared. If someone died in your family they’d have to prepare the body and bury it themselves. But knowing what those graves meant—the history behind them—took Hunter’s breath away.“Mom said this was a cabin, not a compound,” Hunter remarked.“I know.”“This house is huge. What do you think, three-thousand-plus square feet?” Hunter asked out loud.“More like four thousand,” a voice echoed from the hall beyond.Hunter turned around quickly. The hallway was dark, but in the shadows a person moved slowly toward them.Hunter’s heart pounded with anticipation as an elderly man with a cane appeared. The man walked up to Hunter and outstretched his hand.Hunter was confused; there was something about his weathered face that seemed so familiar. When his eyes fell on a scar on the man’s right cheek, his stomach dropped. It can’t be, he thought to himself. He was dead. His mother had told him he had died years before. History books had talked about his demise. There had been a state funeral. His mother told him about how sad the republic had been when one of its founding fathers had passed. So many questions came rushing at him; he was overwhelmed with confusion.“Granddad?”“Hi, Hunter.”“Granddad, it can’t be you. You’re supposed to be dead!” Hunter exclaimed in disbelief.“You can’t always believe what you read,” Gordon said.Hunter was in shock, but he extended his hand to his grandfather’s and shook it. Gordon gripped it tightly.“Let’s go sit in my office,” Gordon recommended. He led them down the hallway to a set of large double doors that opened to a dimly lit space. The smell of cigar smoke wafted over Hunter. In the room were two large leather chairs with matching leather ottomans. Both were positioned in front of another fireplace, this one made of river rock. Against the wall across from the chairs was a leather love seat. It looked like a museum. As Hunter’s eyes scanned the space, he saw pictures of his family and relics of days gone by; men in uniform, flags and medals now encased in shadow boxes. Above the fireplace hung an M4 rifle. Hunter remembered seeing the many pictures of his grandfather during the Great Civil War, always with a rifle in his grip.“Take a seat,” Gordon said, motioning to a chair. “Sebastian, come in here and turn these around to face the love seat.”Sebastian jumped at his command and turned the chairs around.Gordon plopped himself in one of the chairs and Hunter took the other. Sebastian sat across from them. At first an unnerving silence separated them all.Sebastian finally broke it by saying, “Granddad, I told you he’d come.”Gordon nodded at Sebastian and turned his attention to Hunter. “Hunter, I’m sorry this is how you had to meet me. And I’m even more sorry that you had to go through your life so far thinking I was dead.”“I don’t understand. What’s going on?”“I will answer everything in time. I will tell you everything, like I told your mother many years ago.”Hunter was dizzy from this revelation. His mind couldn’t grasp the enormity of it all.“Why would everyone think you’re dead? Even Mom thinks you’re dead.”“Everyone thinks I’m dead, except for a few chosen individuals who know the truth. Your mother is one of them,” Gordon said.“Why would she lie to us?”“Because I asked her to. We had to . . .”“Had to?” Hunter replied, anger rising in his voice.“I learned a long time ago that life is full of choices. I made the choice to do it this way, and for good reason. You shouldn’t be angry with your mother,” Gordon said.“Why, what happened that made you do such a thing?” Hunter asked.“It’s not a short or easy story, but let me first share with you that I’ve been watching and looking out for you all of your life. I never intended for us to ever meet because . . . well, it could be dangerous for you to know the truth, but two weeks ago a knock at my door led to this meeting. Your brother found me. He’s a good detective, I must say,” Gordon said with a smile.Sebastian returned the smile; a sense of pride filled him to have his famous grandfather give him praise. “I’ll say it wasn’t easy but it kind of fell into my lap, the knowledge that you were even alive.”“There’s an old saying: ‘Three can keep a secret if two of them are dead.’” Gordon grinned.Hunter looked at Sebastian intently and asked, “Who was it? The woman in New Zealand?”“Yes, a woman named Brittany. I was working this shitty landscaping job at a nursery home to make a few dollars and she asked me if I was Sebastian Rutledge. Just like that, she came up to me out of the blue. I don’t know how she knew who I was. It really doesn’t matter to me. But the conversation went from there; she eventually told me that Granddad was still alive.”“Who’s Brittany?” Hunter asked, his focus now back on Gordon.Gordon, lost in thought, didn’t answer.“Granddad?” Hunter pressed. “Who was she?”“Someone I knew many years ago. But she’s not important to the fact that you’re here. I’m so happy that Sebastian found me and that you’re now here. We have much to catch up on.”“To say that we have some catching up to do is an understatement.”“Come with me,” Gordon said, slowly standing up.The brothers followed him out into the cold chill of the early afternoon. Hunter watched his grandfather take labored steps toward the small graveyard behind the house. Nine gravestones stood like monuments behind the wrought iron fence.“This is why I had to fake my death those many years ago.” Gordon pointed toward the largest gravestone.Hunter leaned in and read name on the gravestone. Samantha Van Zandt.“I don’t understand this at all. Grandma died years after your supposed death. Unless—is she alive too?” Hunter exclaimed.Gordon’s eyes grew hazy for a moment. “Unfortunately, she is not. Not a minute goes by that she doesn’t cross my mind. I loved her deeply. She was a fine woman. I hope you boys find a good woman like your grandmother.”“But I don’t understand—how does our grandmother’s death relate to why you faked your own?”“I made her a promise right there almost fifty-one years ago,” Gordon said, now pointing to an old paver stone patio just off the main deck of the house. “I’m happy that you boys are here for many reasons but one is to impart some knowledge and wisdom that I have had to learn the hard way. So often history tends to repeat itself because people forget the lessons of what happened before.”“Then please tell us, please explain to us. Many out there praise you, but others curse you,” Hunter said.“I’ve never worried about those who criticize. I learned a long time ago that some people just need to do that. But I do owe it to you to explain why I had to make that choice to exit the world. However, I need to start with the promise I made to your grandmother those many years ago so that it will give my decision context.”“I’m all ears,” Hunter said.Gordon shivered from the cold. His gray, thin hair was waving in the cool breeze. He looked at Hunter. Gordon saw his blood and his legacy in those green eyes. Ready to explain his side of his life, he said, “Let’s go back inside, grab a drink, and I’ll tell you both how it all went down.”JUNE 24, 2015“The promises of this world are, for the most part, vain phantoms . . .”—MichelangeloMcCall, Idaho, United StatesBoth Gordon and Samantha smiled as they looked upon a hard day’s work. Just off the back of their house now stood freshly tilled earth—the beginnings of their garden. Close by, their daughter, Haley, was playing in a sandpit that Gordon had made her after they had settled into their new life in McCall. The deep and rich smell of the upturned dirt filled the air as they shared this moment of contentment and pride.The roads had cleared enough by early May that the group set out from Eagle to complete their journey from San Diego. Almost five months to the date they had set out to make the trip, they had arrived. When they left San Diego, their group was comprised of six families, but the harshness of the trip and rash decisions of some members reduced that number to three by the time they reached McCall. They had lost many along the way, including those near and dear, but also gained some, including Gordon’s brother, Sebastian, Annaliese, and Luke. When they arrived at the first checkpoint in McCall, the celebration was bittersweet. The loss of their son, Hunter, Frank, Mack, and Holloway hung heavily on the group, but they were determined to make something out of their new home.So much horror and loss had occurred on the long road, but now the hope was that McCall would be their sanctuary from the new world. There they could rebuild and reconnect with each other, and for Gordon and Samantha, that was of greatest interest to them. The traumas they both experienced had taken a severe toll on them personally, and their relationship had taken some hits. They both recognized the importance of mending those differences, not just for their own sake, but for Haley’s. Deep down their relationship had a solid foundation built on love, but it was cracked.Samantha wanted to immediately forgive Gordon for leaving them after Hunter’s death, but she couldn’t. Gordon had painstakingly explained his position and she could understand why he would want to avenge Hunter, but she still felt deeply that his departure jeopardized her and Haley. Finally he broke down one night, his tough veneer melting away to show her a man ashamed of putting his son in the position to get captured and killed. He acknowledged that some of his reasoning for not being able to come back right away was due to his utter inability to face her. He felt he had let her down, that his decisions had cost them their only son. He explained what little peace of mind they could ever have would come knowing that Rahab was dead and could never harm anyone else again.Even with his impassioned explanation, Samantha still felt hurt. She didn’t look at the world the way Gordon did, but then again she knew that was why their relationship worked. They shared similar values, but their approach to things was different. After his breakdown and tear-ridden confession, she decided that she had to forgive him completely if they were going to move on with their lives. Someone had once told her that no one can heal if the wound is left to bleed, and with that in mind, she decided that they couldn’t dwell on the past any longer.“I forgot to tell you, Michael Rutledge has enough wood for us to build that smokehouse you wanted. He should be stopping by tomorrow sometime,” Gordon said.“That’s great news. I like the Rutledges,” Samantha replied with a smile.“Yeah, they’re good people. I’ve noticed that you and Tiffany are BFFs,” Gordon joked.Samantha shot him a look, “BFF? I haven’t heard that phrase in a long time. Gosh, seems like yesterday that was so important.”“Friends are important.”“I know friends are important, it’s just that I was so focused on having quote-unquote friends and doing the mommy stuff with the ladies back in San Diego that I kinda lost sight of what a real friend is. You know, play dates, dinner dates, and mommy nights out, blah, blah, blah. Keeping up with everyone else distracts you from the important things.”“I wonder what happened to all of them.”“Well, I’m sure Marilyn and Irene didn’t make it out alive.”“Irene, maybe—she’d eat her own young to stay alive! Actually the best thing she could have done was knock off her drunk loser of a husband first; that probably would have given her and her pack of wild children a fighting chance.” Samantha laughed.“Oh, and Marilyn, that snob and her ‘look at me and how nice all my stuff is.’ I just loved her ‘brand name this or that’ attitude. I hope that Versace bag kept the Villistas away because her husband, ‘the man who hated guns,’ wasn’t about to do anything,” Gordon said.“Anyway, enough about them. I am just grateful for the good friends we’ve had and the new ones we’ve met.”“I like Michael a lot, but he drones on about politics all the time,” Gordon said.“Don’t kid yourself, I know you love to talk politics.”“What? I hate politics!”“Yeah, right. You hate politicians but you’ve never walked away from a good old political debate.”Gordon cracked a large smiled and said, “You’re right, but can he talk about anything other than Casadonia?”“Cascadia, not Casadonia.”“Whatever. I’m not the biggest fan of how the U.S. was run before, but at least I know some of the people who run it now. Trying to secede and break away will only bring bad things.”“Wait a minute, didn’t you tell me other states had seceded without issue?” Samantha asked.“Yes, but I can’t believe President Conner’s going to let it keep happening. Also, what do Michael or the other Cascadians know about governing?”“Michael must have some sway—he’s convinced Sebastian to join his cause.”“Don’t remind me,” Gordon lamented. He had been to a couple Cascadian Independence meetings. He listened to what they had to say and liked most of it, but he just couldn’t get his mind around pushing for secession, especially since he had allies in Cheyenne. For him it didn’t make practical sense, but Sebastian was a convert, and a proud one at that.“Whatever you do, don’t be an ass to Michael. I like him and Tiffany.”“What you’re asking me is to not piss him off by saying something like, ‘Michael, please shut the fuck up about the Republic of Casadonia’?”Samantha leaned over and kissed him and then said, “You’re a pretty smart guy—that’s exactly what I’m asking you to do.”“Hey, look how happy she is,” Gordon commented to Samantha while nodding over to Haley. A grin stretched across his face.“Yeah, she’s adjusted well. It helps being here. I know things aren’t perfect, but I wouldn’t have guessed it would have gone so well.”“Right, with everything that has happened, I would have bet that even McCall would have been a soup sandwich,” Gordon said, still grinning. He continued, “They’ve done such a great job, holding it together up here. These are good people.”“It’s also a matter of timing; you heard the stories about weeks after. They had their issues too.”“I know, but they dealt with them swiftly. Mayor Waits and Chief Rainey have been a godsend to this area.”“When is your next shift?” Samantha asked.“Not till tomorrow. I appreciate you letting me get out there and help. It means a lot to me.”McCall police chief Rainey had asked Gordon if he’d volunteer to be a part-time police officer. At first Gordon jumped at the chance to help, but Samantha resisted. But after spending a few weeks settling in, she saw the importance of Gordon having an active role in their community. She knew he had much to offer, and this was something he was good at; but she now had her eyes on something different.“I know I was resistant at first but this town has been good to us, and we need to give back, just as long as it doesn’t take you away from me too much.”Gordon grabbed Samantha’s hand firmly. “Hey, I love you. I won’t do anything without first running it by you and getting your input.”“I’ve wanted to suggest something to you but I think I keep talking myself out of it.” She paused. “There’s an opening coming up on the McCall City Council. I thought that . . .”“You want me to run for city council?” Gordon asked, a bit of shock in his voice.“Yes, I think the best way to keep us safe is to have you in place to make decisions.”Gordon sat back and thought about it. He hated politics, and nothing in life came without the politics of the position attached to it.“It will also keep you home more often. When you do your night shifts, it’s lonely in bed.”“Sam, I don’t know what to say. Let me think about it.”“Well, hurry up, there’s a special election in August.”“You are definitely full of surprises, I will say that,” he said, grinning.She looked at his rugged and scarred face. “I know there isn’t a guarantee what tomorrow will bring, I just want you here when the unknown comes.”“I will be.” • • • When they had arrived in McCall, they were interviewed by Chief Brent Rainey. New people were welcome, but under certain criteria. Fortunately for them, they passed the first test; they owned property within the city limits. After much back and forth with Rainey, Nelson, Gretchen, Melissa, Eric, Seneca, and Beth were allowed to stay too. Sebastian, Annaliese, and Luke were considered Gordon’s family and allowed in without question. The agreement to let the others come in required that they actively participate in the police patrols and other community-based endeavors created by the McCall leadership, including teaching responsibilities at the school, harvesting of community farms, and road maintenance. Gordon and his group were happy to pitch in in exchange for a safe place to call home.For the first few weeks, the entire group had to stay with Gordon and his family, but eventually they found housing elsewhere. Gordon loved his group, but when the last of them left for their own home, he was happy for them. The abundance of homes came from the fact that McCall had been a town built around recreation. Payette Lake and Brundage Mountain had provided a recreational industry that helped the town economically after the logging mill closed down in the 1980s. With an emphasis on world-class recreation, the town blossomed and many people from out of town built and purchased homes. After the lights went out, many of these homes were vacant. Some of those owners made their way to McCall, but many would never again lay eyes on their second homes. The surplus of homes was a blessing for Gordon’s group. Of course if the owners ever arrived, they’d be asked to leave, but so far this had never happened. Rainey’s department was in charge of this placement program and so far it had worked out successfully and without incident.While Rainey had allowed Gordon’s group to stay, he was not open to every person or group that came along. Brent Rainey was a no-nonsense man, a former cop and transplant from New York. Upon his early retirement from the New York Police department, he moved to McCall and settled down. He had never stepped foot in Idaho, much less out west, but he was a man in search of a new life. His wife had died from cancer years earlier, and McCall provided him a respite from those painful memories and a place to start fresh. Every time he looked into the face of a newcomer he approached with an open mind, hoping that they might be sincere—he had his own life to use as an example. However, he also knew the realities of the current world, and the town couldn’t allow anyone who would disrupt the peace, or those who had to be taken care of constantly. It wasn’t that McCall was without generosity, it just couldn’t be everything to all people.From his first meeting with Rainey, Gordon found him to be a man he could deal with and trust. Knowing that the town was being managed effectively gave Gordon peace, but he still had an urge to contribute to something that would ensure his family’s safety, hence his volunteering for the police department patrols.Gordon, Samantha, and Haley had just sat down to eat dinner when a loud knock at the door interrupted them. Gordon looked at Samantha with concern. Their experiences over the past five months gave them pause whenever an unexpected person was knocking.“I’ll be right back,” Gordon said, standing from the table and quickly walking to a table next to the front door. He opened the drawer and pulled out a pistol.He approached the door cautiously and peered through the peephole to discover Rainey and another officer standing there. He unlocked and opened the door. “Hi, Chief.”“Gordon, sorry to interrupt, but I wouldn’t be here unless it was something important,” Rainey explained, his Brooklyn accent still thick, even after years of living in McCall.“Not a problem. C’mon in,” Gordon replied and fully opened the door.Both men stepped inside the foyer, hats in hand. “Nice place ya got here,” Rainey commented.“Thanks. So, what’s up?”“Just over an hour ago, we stopped a convoy of vehicles at our southern checkpoint. We need you to come with us to verify who they might be.”“Verify?“Yeah, you see, these were military vehicles and one man is asking for you specifically.”“Seriously?”“You know me, I wouldn’t be bullshitting you. Do you mind grabbing your gear and coming with me? I’ll bring ya back right after. I need to clear this up.”Gordon hesitated for a moment, his mind trying to scan who could possibly be asking for him. “Uh, sure. Let me grab my coat and stuff. Did he mention his name?”“He said his name is Smitty.”Elko, Nevada“Please, please don’t hurt us!” a woman cried. Blood ran down her face from a deep cut on her head.“Mommy, Mommy!” screamed her daughter.“Take her inside the house with the other women,” a young corporal in Pablo Juarez’s army ordered.Two soldiers hovering over her immediately grabbed her by the arms and yanked the woman to her feet.“My daughter, please don’t hurt my daughter!” the woman begged.“Stop!” General Alejandro barked as he exited a vehicle that had pulled up to the scene outside the house.After General Pasqual’s demise, Alejandro, then a major, had been promoted to general and commander of Pablo’s forces. Alejandro was a man of few words, so when he did speak, his soldiers paused. It was this demeanor that kept him out of Pablo’s crosshairs. Alejandro was short and thin, but what he lacked in stature he made up for in reputation. Never one to shy away from a fight, his friends nicknamed him El Luchador, or The Wrestler, as he was well known for his ability to beat anyone on the wrestling mat. It was a name he was proud of.Both soldiers carrying the woman stopped in their tracks.“What is going on here?” he asked.The corporal approached and saluted.Alejandro didn’t return the salute. His face grimaced with anger at the man’s ignorance. “Don’t ever salute me on the battlefield, ever!” Alejandro was referring to an order he had handed down as soon as he had taken over for Pasqual. The guerrilla war they were fighting against the Americans had forced them to embrace different tactics and to do away with typical military decorum. American insurgents had been able to target officers after they had been identified from something as simple as a salute. In this age, it was necessary to take all precautions possible.“Sorry, sir,” the corporal responded, his face now ashen.“What are you doing here?” Alejandro asked again.“Sir, we are taking the woman into the house with other women we have gathered.”Alejandro walked up to the woman and looked at her. Her eyes were swollen red, tears mixing with blood. He brought his hand to her face and she flinched from the anticipation of being hurt. “Shh, I won’t hit you.” He brushed her hair out of her face.The woman couldn’t control her sobbing, loud wails piercing the air. She looked at Alejandro but frequently her eyes darted off in the direction of her daughter.“What happened here?” he asked her.“We . . . me and my daughter were hiding and—”“Her husband was an insurgent, and we killed him,” the corporal interrupted.“Is this true?” Alejandro asked softly.Her eyes widened with the mention of her husband’s role.Alejandro now gripped her jaw tightly and asked again, “Is what the corporal said true?”“We were only defending ourselves!” the woman blurted out.Another door on Alejandro’s vehicle opened up and out stepped Pablo. Simultaneously men poured out of a vehicle parked behind it and surrounded him. All eyes turned toward him as he strode up and stopped just a few feet from the woman.“Your husband was an insurgent?” Pablo asked.“Please, we didn’t have a choice,” the woman pleaded.Pablo examined the woman, her dark hair, olive skin, and brown eyes. “You’re Hispanic, aren’t you?”“Ah, yes, yes,” the woman answered, hoping that the admission of her heritage would benefit her.“So why oppose us?” Pablo asked.“My husband . . .”“Was he not Hispanic?”“No, I mean, yes, he was. He just thought . . .”“Thought what?” Pablo asked.“Please don’t hurt us.”“My dear, I’m not going to hurt you,” Pablo said, looking the woman over. “So what did he think, your husband?”“He, ah . . . ” the woman said, then paused. She wanted to answer correctly but didn’t know how to answer.“Never mind,” Pablo blurted out.“No, please don’t hurt us.”“Your husband fought against us, you probably fought against us, so . . .”“No, please, no!”“Did your husband love his country, did he love America?” Pablo asked, curious.The woman’s eyes were wide with fear; her mouth dropped open but nothing came out.“Well? Answer me!”“Yes, yes, he loved America, but me . . . I, I love Mexico. Viva la Mexico!” the woman cried out.Pablo looked at her with black eyes then looked at General Alejandro. The serious look then changed to humor as he burst out laughing. The laughter drew even more fear from the woman.Her daughter’s whimpering grabbed Pablo’s attention. Another soldier held her by the shoulders. The dirt on her face had now turned to a thin veil of mud as it mixed with her tears.As Pablo looked at the little girl, he felt nothing. Absent was any remorse or sympathy. His emotional state kept him at the distance he needed in order to accomplish what he had to.“Please shut up,” he said to her. She complied with his command.He took a few steps away and looked at the carnage that was left over from the short skirmish with the insurgents. The once tidy middle-class neighborhood was destroyed. The homes that lined the street were riddled with bullet holes, their windows shattered and blown out. Bodies of insurgents and soldiers lay scattered on the lawns, driveways, and street. The short battle was hard fought, but Pablo’s force was overwhelming and had superior firepower. His men were now coming and going from the homes, taking what spoils they could; in one home he heard the screams of women as they were suffering the wrath of his men in the most violent and personal of ways. As he had told Isabel the night he killed her, he would not offer mercy beyond an offer to join him. Once engaged, his men were given carte blanche to do what was necessary to defeat the enemy.His trek from Sacramento to Elko had taken him over two months. He had departed Sacramento in mid-April once his Villistas were firmly in place across the city. With each town he took, he spent the time to ensure he placed a force of his Villistas with a sound leadership structure. Elko wouldn’t be any different. Once every pocket of resistance had been eliminated, the process of transformation would begin.While taking each town along the way had slowed his conquest toward Cheyenne, what most frustrated Pablo was the constant sorties run by the remnants of the United States Air Force. Without air support, his troops were sitting ducks, but luckily they were able to maximize their countermeasures, diminishing the effects from the U.S. bombardment. Pablo had also split his main force into two forces of equal size. He led the main force as they marched along Interstate 80 toward Salt Lake City, Utah, while the other force followed along a parallel route south of his on U.S. Highway 50. He had hoped this would make his forces a more difficult target against U.S. airstrikes, while also expanding his reach. His forces to the south had not been bombarded and were making their way unopposed, as if the U.S. military was unaware of them. The two forces would link up again when they began their assault of Salt Lake City sometime in July.Pablo’s goal was to march on Cheyenne by late August. The fight would be tough, but he knew the only way to defeat the United States was to level the capitol and kill the president. He wanted to do it the old-fashioned way, with fighting in the street and hand to hand if necessary, but if he couldn’t win that way, he had one surprise that would guarantee him victory. The last he had heard was that his surprise was already in Cheyenne; all that needed to be done was to give the word.He turned back and faced the woman, his thoughts back in the present moment. He could see the fear in her eyes, pleading to let her and her daughter go free. While others might have seen this woman’s daughter as an innocent, he only saw someone who would grow up one day to oppose him. She would grow up angry that her father had been killed and her country conquered, and use her anger and strength to find a way to try to reestablish her father’s country. He couldn’t risk that.“I was told months ago that being merciful was the apex of strength. I can tell you now, it’s not. That lie almost killed me. I warned this quaint little town two days ago to surrender or die.” He paused and took a step closer to the woman, making her cringe. “Your husband made a choice. He believed in something. I have to say, I respect a man who is willing to die for a cause he believes in. I need men like that, but unfortunately, he fought for the losing side. You, on the other hand, are willing to beg and change your allegiance just to live. You cherish your own life above anything at all. You would be willing to sell out anyone just to see the sun rise one more day. Your husband was a brave but stupid man and he died. You’re a coward and stupid. That’s worse, and you’ll die too, but with the knowledge that your daughter died before you,” Pablo barked. He pulled out his pistol from his side holster and pointed it at the little girl and shot her.The woman screamed, tears bursting forth as she struggled to go to her dying daughter.“Look at me!” Pablo yelled.The woman’s own screams of anguish drowned out his command.He slapped her face, the force of which caused her to look at him. She saw the pistol in her hand and began to beg for her life.He placed the pistol against her forehead.She cried out, “No, you said you wouldn’t hurt me.”Pablo was squeezing the trigger but her comment stopped him. “You’re right.” He turned to General Alejandro and looked at him.General Alejandro knew the look and answered it by pulling out his pistol and placing it against her head.“No, no, no!” she cried.The single shot from General Alejandro’s pistol silenced her cries. Her body slumped into the soldier’s arms.“General Alejandro!”“Yes, Emperor!”“It’s time to go.”“Yes, Emperor!”Pablo walked back to the truck but stopped just outside of it. He turned around and said, “Good job, General. Today marks another victory for the Pan-American Empire.”Cheyenne, WyomingOnce a week, President Conner would go outside the gates of the “green zone” that encompassed the downtown area of Cheyenne. He traveled with an armed escort to visit the newly erected tent cities that were quickly popping up along the perimeters of the city. The news that the United States government had established a new capital and that it was functioning had spread fast. People were migrating from all over the mountain and central states with the hopes of a brighter and safer future.General Baxter didn’t agree with his weekly sojourns, but Conner rebuffed him. The days of the president having to abide by every security protocol were gone. Conner knew he couldn’t sit up in the proverbial ivory tower and lead. Once he made the decision to leave the bunker, he made it a point to mingle with the people he was sworn to protect. He knew he needed to be one of those leaders of times gone past who led from out front.The first outcropping of tent cities stressed the government resources, but soon Australia, along with Brazil and Argentina, followed through on a commitment that they had struck with the United States. Within a month of a signed deal, aid began to pour in via Houston. Conner’s treaty with the Republic of Texas had worked out for everyone’s benefit—having a port to access like Houston’s was critical to rebuilding, and its location was important. The ROT was working feverishly to establish diplomatic relations but the process was moving slowly. Only with Conner’s help did the ROT get recognized by Australia and other nations, but that was in exchange for unfettered access to the port in Houston.As Conner walked past the campfires and small gatherings, he was pleased to find people were adjusting. He noticed laughter as he passed many of the fires and tents. He knew the laughter didn’t originate from a deep-down happiness but from a place of hope. These people had experienced horrors on the road. Many had experienced loss, not only the loss of their personal belongings, but the deep and painful loss that was so common now—the loss of a loved one. Death had become a familiar part of daily life. The initial shock of so much death had quickly vanished as people realized they needed to adapt or they would be one of the unfortunate ones. Those who had managed to survive to this point were lucky but not guaranteed to live another six months.Conner found these visits enlightening, and he knew the citizens appreciated it as well. While mostly cordial visits, the encounters had occasionally gotten tense. He never once held a grudge against the people, though; he too might act out now and then if he were living under the same circumstances. For the most part, his interactions had given him a love and respect among the people that few politicians ever receive.At Conner’s request, Pat, the owner of Pat’s Coffee Shop, would join him occasionally. They had forged a unique friendship. With Pat, Conner could be himself and remove himself from what seemed like the nonstop decision making. He and Vice President Cruz were still best of friends, but per Conner’s request they remained separated. He couldn’t risk something happening to both of them if they came under attack, so within a week of returning, Conner dispatched him and his family to Cheyenne Mountain, the bunker installation that he himself had called home for a bit.Conner never shared the operational details of what was happening with Pat, and he never asked. He respected his place and knew it was not his to interject. But tonight things were different.“President Conner, we hear rumors of a foreign army coming toward Cheyenne. Is that true?” a middle-aged man asked from across the small campfire. The man was joined by his wife and two teenaged sons.“I won’t lie to you: There is an enemy force southwest of us and they intend to kill off what is left of the United States. I will add that we are fighting them every inch. They will not make it here. I can assure you we are doing everything in our power to stop them,” Conner answered.“Why not just nuke ’em?” the man countered.“We reserve the right to use all options to protect us,” Conner replied, a response from his old politician’s playbook of answers.Conner looked at the family that sat across the orange flames of the fire. Their faces were gaunt and showed the stress of the past six months. Their eyes echoed the same plea for salvation of others he had met. They were desperate, and knowing that an enemy force was bearing down on them made them feel even more vulnerable—and they looked at the president to make a decision. Conner still hadn’t come to a resolution within himself about whether to use nuclear weapons. He wasn’t opposed to striking a foreign enemy across the ocean again, but to use one on U.S. soil was difficult for him to reconcile. The debate was raging within the situation room and halls of government, and it was a constant source of stress for the president. The man’s remark gave him the internal cue to call it a night.“Thank you all for allowing me the comfort of your fire. God bless you all,” Conner said, standing up.The family thanked him and offered him their hospitality again if he chose to accept it.As he walked away from the warmth and light of the fire, Pat commented, “You’re doing a good thing here.”Conner didn’t reply. He picked up his pace as they headed toward his vehicle.“Everything all right?” Pat asked.Conner stopped and looked at him. “No, it’s not all right.”Pat had never seen Conner this way. Gone was his mild-mannered demeanor; in its place was a man who was stressed and agitated.“What’s the matter?”“These people are looking to me to keep them safe, and to be honest, I don’t know if I’ll be successful against the PAE. We keep bombing them, but it doesn’t seem to slow them down. This emperor keeps taking town after town. My own reluctance to use nuclear weapons against them is now causing untold death.”“Then nuke them, get it over with,” Pat answered simply.“It’s not that easy when you’re the one pressing the button. Listen, I killed millions of people months ago after I launched a nuclear barrage against every enemy old and new. Without thinking of the consequences, I ended so many lives. That decision changed how our allies viewed us until I was able to convince them it wouldn’t happen again. How many people died here because we didn’t get the aid we needed sooner? I promised myself that I wouldn’t just do that again. Believe me, it would end this whole thing, I know that. And I know it sounds odd, now when I have all the justification in the world, but I can’t do it.”“Stop beating yourself up.”“Easy for you to say, you’re not the one everyone is looking to,” Conner quipped.“I get it; I’m not making light of your responsibilities.”“What would you do? If you were in my shoes, what would Pat do?”Pat remained quiet.Conner finally broke the silence. “See, not that easy when you have to start considering all the ramifications.”“I mean, are you really asking me for my advice here?”“No, I’m asking you what you would do. Don’t advise me; God, I get that daily. I’m asking you to step into my shoes and make the decision.”With this knowledge, Pat again paused to think. “I, um, I don’t want to tell you what to do.” He took a deep breath. “If I were you, I would have to know everything; I couldn’t make a decision that large without looking at all sides of the issue.”“What information would you need?”“Um, I don’t know, would one weapon work or would I need more? What happens after? Is there fallout?”“See what I mean? Not easy. When all of sudden all the weight of a decision is on your shoulders, you think twice.”“Sorry, I didn’t think about that.”“No shit, you didn’t.”“I’m sorry I can’t give you the answer you’re looking for. But you have to determine which is worse, the contamination of your country from this enemy force or from the fallout.”“I’m sorry. I guess I needed to vent a bit,” Conner said, a tinge of defeat in his voice.“Hey, let’s fall back to the shop and grab a drink,” Pat offered.Just as Conner was about to accept, a guard leaned in. “Excuse me, sir, General Baxter is looking for you. He has some important information.”Conner acknowledged the guard then turned to Pat and said, “Another time; duty calls. Do me a favor, jump in the chase vehicle. They’ll take you back. I need to go back to the office.”Once inside his vehicle alone, Conner sat in quiet reflection. He wanted nothing more than to hammer the PAE, but he couldn’t do what he wanted without the consequences of losing allies again. He found himself pulled in so many directions, attempting to satisfy many different thoughts and groups. There was pressure from one side to reconstitute the other two branches of government, there was pressure to sue for peace, there was pressure to fight it all out, there was pressure to openly negotiate with radical groups, so forth and so on. He could barely even keep peace with his own staff, who argued loudly and passionately for their causes.Recently, Conner had been looking back on history for examples to follow, and one came to mind: Lincoln. Before the lights went out, there were some academic circles that referred to Lincoln as a tyrant because he implemented policies that were construed as unconstitutional. Some asked, “How can a president save the constitution by destroying it at the same time?” It was a fair question, but history proved Lincoln’s actions were sound. In order to win a war, you must not only defeat your enemies, you must crush them. As each day passed without a clear plan to victory over the PAE, Conner began to reassess his own policy of what he termed moderated combat. Maybe, just maybe, he needed to take the gloves off and say to hell with what anyone thought. • • • Baxter was patiently waiting for Conner outside his office. The fact that Baxter wanted to meet now portended a lengthy evening.Seeing Conner, Baxter jumped up and got right to it. “Mr. President, do you want the good news or the bad news?”“I’m always one that likes to get my bad news first, but before you start, let’s step into my office,” Conner answered.Baxter followed Conner into the executive office and took his usual seat.“This is obviously important and couldn’t wait, so what do we have?” Conner asked.“The Aussies won’t supply combat troops.”Taking in the bad news, he asked, “What’s the good news?”“They will supply us more arms, jets, and tanks.”“That is good news, but do we have the people who can fly or drive the equipment?”“The good news was two parts; they will provide us with advisers to train our people. Bringing in all assets from military installations to come support us here was smart. Their troops levels were depleted but having them here will help.”“That is good news. How soon can we have it here? We don’t have much time; the PAE will be breathing down our necks soon.”“I kind of left out the second part of the bad news.” Baxter grinned sheepishly.“Shit, do I want to hear this?”“The ships should be pulling into Houston by late July.”“Late July! Damn!”