We spent another week and a half in Atlanta, exploring, relaxing, and seeing the sights. At one point, Arnold and I went to a large zoo and spent a fun filled few days poking through and messing around in all the empty animal habitats. While there were no animals in the zoo, Arnold and I had seen the half-eaten corpse of a dog stashed high up in a tree in an urban area of the city, so we concluded that a few of the bigger predators had escaped.
Departure date was scheduled for D+161, and we were all back at the airport by D+160. Atlanta was such big city that none of us had seen each other during our salvage trips. The other group had included a former demolitions man, and they had spent their entire two weeks blowing bank vaults and looting liquor stores. They brought plenty of fruits of both labors to share. Their most valuable haul had astonishingly been ten gold bars, which they chopped up with fire axes to share.
“Gold holds its value,” John, the unofficial leader of the other group, informed us. “Eventually, people will grow back, and when that happens, yes, dollars will be worth less than the paper they’re printed on, but gold will still have intrinsic value.” Here he stopped to grin before continuing, “And I survived the freaking apocalypse, I’ll be darned if I’m going to die of poverty in my old age!”
We all had a good laugh at that and a cheer for our pocketfuls of gold bits.
That night, we all ate dinner in one of the conference rooms in the terminal building. The Guard had spent their little free time scavenging food, and had a veritable feast waiting for us.
We flew out early the next morning, following the Guard who had left an hour earlier. Most of us fell asleep after takeoff, but I went up to the cockpit to hang out with Daniel. I winced as I entered, as the sun was beating down through the windshield.
“Hey,” Daniel greeted me, “What’s new?”
“Oh, nothing, everyone’s asleep.” I settled myself in the copilot’s seat. “What’d y’all do in Atlanta?”
“Well, we spent most of our time just poking around. I mean, no matter how much good stuff we found, we couldn’t have brought much of it home. So we decided just to enjoy ourselves.”
“Yeah. Thanks for the gold, by the way.”
Daniel chuckled. “No problem.”
“Why didn’t you get any for the Guard?” I asked curiously.
Daniel thought for a moment. “I don’t know,” he responded, absentmindedly rubbing his chin, “I honestly don’t. I guess . . . I guess it’s just because they’re them and we’re us. They’re coping with this by taking care of us, it’s almost like they’re the new authority here. They’re definitely not going anywhere, they’ll be taking care of themselves if something goes down, and probably take care of the population as it slowly grows back. I guess that’s why we didn’t give anything to them. We’re all Survivors, but they’re the authority.”
I considered this. He had a point. Both groups kept to themselves.
We flew in silence for about half an hour. Suddenly, the radio squawked and Arnold jumped.
“Guard aircraft Bravo-six-niner to unidentified aircraft, identify immediately.”
“That’s the Guard,” Daniel said, reaching for the radio, “Not sure what they’re so uptight about.” He keyed his mike, “It’s me, Delaney. Colleen and I are coming up on your six, probably about two-zero miles back.”
There was a rush of static that I interpreted as a sigh of relief. “Roger, Dan, just please let us know before you sneak up on us like that.”
“We weren’t sneaking,” Daniel replied indignantly, “We were going to call when we saw you.”
“Well, we saw you first,” came the reply, “Alpha-one-three picked up a two objects closing on our six, so we got a little jumpy.”
“Oh, okay,” Daniel said, “Where are you, anyway?”
A brief pause. Then, “About one mile off your nose, hovering over the parking lot at your two. We didn’t know what you were, so we took precautions.” As this transmission came, I lifted some binoculars to look and saw several helicopters rising from the asphalt of a grocery store.
“Roger, Delaney,” Daniel said, “We’ll continue on ahead.”
“You do that. Out.”
The rest of our flight home was uneventful, and we landed at our small city airport around midmorning. Daniel had called ahead, and there were two Blackhawks and an Apache for escort waiting for us at the airport. After putting the King Airs back in the hangar, we sealed it up again and the Guard flew us home. For whatever reason, I managed to get a headset on our helicopter and listened in on the pilots. Because of this, I caught some interesting information.
“Something’s up at Five Zero.” This was the Apache speaking. He was apparently scanning ahead, and had picked up something at Arnold’s residence.
“What is it?”
“Uh, some of the main structure appears to be missing . . . looks like it’s been destroyed, over.” I sat up suddenly at this and listened carefully.
“Roger, weapons free. Can you see anything else? Any aerial?”
“Negative, no activity aerial or otherwise.”
I smacked Arnold to wake him up. “Arnold. Arnold!” I had to shout right in his ear for him to hear me. He sat up.
“What?” he hollered.
“They’ve picked something up at your place!” I shouted. Arnold look startled and began scanning nervously out the window. As we approached the shopping center, Arnold moaned and leaned against the wall of the helicopter.
The Guard had been right. Somehow the shopping center had caught fire and most of it had burned to the ground. The helicopter came in for a landing, and before it had even touched the ground, Arnold was out of the bird, racing for the entrance. I ran after him, as did one of the Guardsmen.
Arnold entered the broken glass doors and stared around dejectedly. The grocery store in which he had lived was all but destroyed. The walls were charred and blackened, all the food destroyed, and the place reeked of smoke. Arnold headed towards the side of the store, and we followed, the noise of the helicopter decreasing behind us. I coughed, the smoky air stinging my eyes.
Arnold opened a door labeled “Manager.” “Well,” he muttered to himself, “At least something survived. I peeked past him into the small office where he had slept. It was nothing much, just a cot and a fridge and stove. There was a gun safe in the corner and a TV on the wall.
“Arnold . . . you okay, man?” I asked him quietly.
“I’ll be fine,” he said dully. And then, “Everything’s destroyed.”
“What do you want to do?” I inquired.
“Whatever you’re going to do, you’ll have to decide fast,” the soldier next to me cut in, “Just heard from the pilot, and there’s a storm moving in. If you want to get back to your place, we need to leave.”
“Arnold, you just want to move in with me for now?” I asked quickly, “You can crash at my place for a little bit.”
He nodded, “Okay, thanks. Let me get my stuff.” He crossed the room and pulled a foot locker from under his bed. He then pulled a duffel bag out of a wall-mounted cabinet and opened his gun safe. After emptying most of the safe into his bag, he tossed it onto the foot locker and moved the whole load to a trolley. “Okay, let’s go.”
We exited the store to an outdoors that was rapidly getting cooler. The helicopter was sitting where it had landed, rotors drooping like a waiting beast. When the pilot saw us, the motors began to whine.
We scrambled aboard and secured Arnold’s luggage. “Cutting it kinda close,” the pilot said to me over the intercom, “This could get rather exciting.”
He was right. Before we reached my house, it began raining a freezing downpour. I could also see more dark sheets in the distance. And unfortunately, my house was in that direction. The Guard would have no trouble getting home, but getting to my place and then landing in the narrow street could be hard.
Finally, though, we did. The helicopter was rocking back and forth over the rapidly flooding street. This was one heck of a storm.
“I can’t do it,” the pilot suddenly said, “Every time I try to go down, the wind pushes me towards one of the houses. We’re going to have to go back.”
I swore, thinking quickly. I didn’t want to fly back to the Post and then try and hitch a ride out here. A thought suddenly occurred to me. “Well, there’s a field a mile to the east. Can you set down there?”
“We can try,” came the terse reply as the rain intensified, “But if that doesn’t work the first time, we’re going to have to go back to the Post.”
Thankfully, it worked. The pilot dropped us off in the muddy field and immediately pulled off and departed. With the winds blowing his way, he’d be back at the Post soon
Arnold and I struggled our way through the mud and freezing rain to my house. I unlocked the heavy door and we staggered inside. The generators had been off during my absence, and the house was freezing. After changing out of our wet clothes and drying off, we each dropped onto some couches. Exhausted, we fell asleep halfway through The Dark Knight, despite the pouring rain.