ASCENSION: THE SYSTEMIC SERIES

CHAPTER 1

 

It was a scorching late-August day in north Florida.  Gordon was almost asleep – feet propped on his garage office desk – when the CB radio on his desk squawked loudly, jolting him back awake.  He reached over and fumbled for the receiver.  Finally pulling it from its resting spot, he drawled a bored sounding, “Yuuup.”

“Gordon…Hank here.  Got a big rig over on 95, ‘bout two miles south of Earl’s old place, next to the pond.  You know the spot?”

“Yuuup,” Gordon drawled again.

“Better get over there quick.  Got a load of diesel in it, but I saw some fellas pokin’ ‘round there this mornin’.”

“I’m on ‘er,” said Gordon.

  He hung up the receiver and stiffly removed his booted feet from the desk, the top of which was littered with candy bar wrappers and empty chip bags.

He swiveled in the dusty, vinyl office chair.  “Alright boys, we got a nibble.  Let’s go check ‘er out,” he called into the garage behind him where men worked clanking away on engines beneath open vehicle hoods or leaned against walls fiddling with greasy car parts.  On Gordon’s command, they slowly started tearing themselves away from their mechanical puzzle pieces and began wiping hands, picking up rifles, loading ammo, and conducting weapon checks.  

Gordon was nearly 60 years old, and he looked every day of it.  He’d spent a lifetime banging cars back into shape and listening to people bitch about how much he charged to do so.  They’d never understood what it took.  And just as he’d finally gotten the money together to buy his own garage, the flu had struck.

He’d pulled almost his entire family – of which there were more than a few – through the damn disease that had swept the country, wiping most of its population out in the process.  Now he felt it was his time to relax once in a while when the opportunity presented itself.  He was almost tempted to let the boys go check this one out on their own; but he was awake now, and he liked to get away from the shop occasionally, so he figured he’d tag along.  He looked at the oscillating fan which scanned the room – back and forth, back and forth, back and forth – doing little more than wafting the humidity-laden air around the stuffy office.  If nothing else, this little trip would give him a chance to enjoy the cool of an air-conditioned vehicle for at least an hour or two.  Plus, it was only one o’clock, and the boys had just finished their lunches; if he let them go off on their own now, he wouldn’t see them again for the rest of the day.  Their full bellies would likely end up sleeping under a shady grove of trees somewhere or fishing far away from the boss’s watchful eye…even when that eye was half asleep.

Even after the flu, Gordon had found that there was still a livelihood to be had in the auto repair business.  While the market was greatly diminished, the people left in the area still needed to get around.  And while they could steal cars, with fewer and fewer running vehicles to be had almost a year after the flu, and there being no supply of new car parts on the market, the knowledge necessary to fix and maintain vehicles was proving to be a valuable commodity. 

However, while such work kept him fed, with a family his size, it was more than just him that needed feeding.  A large family in this new world could work both for and against someone, and Gordon had been savvy enough to realize this fact early on.  After the wave of post-flu chaos broke and receded, he’d set his boys to scavenging the narrow corridor along I-95 and the coast that stretched between south Jacksonville and north Daytona in which they lived, loading up on the things he recognized retained the most value for post-apocalypse living.  Fuel, vehicles, food, guns, ammo, medicine, clothing, cigarettes – they were all fair game; and Gordon and his family had made quite a lucrative little business for themselves over the past year, controlling much of the trade that went on in this part of Florida.  Gordon recognized the niche he could develop in the area as long as he stayed away from the heavily-populated – and significantly more dangerous – urban environments.

So when Gordon took the call informing him that there might be a semi-truck with a tank full of diesel fuel – a highly prized commodity these days – still out there for the taking, not only was he surprised that it was still there, but excited too.  Diesel was getting hard to come by lately, and the thought of sucking out a barrel-full free of charge got Gordon’s motor running.

He left his brother Jack and cousin Doug behind to watch the shop.  He decided to take his four sons: Jeff, Billy, Jerry, and Barry; and his three nephews: Edwin, Ian, and Andrew along with him.

They split themselves into five vehicles.  While it would have been more economical to take just one or two, they’d learned through experience that this wasn’t always the wisest move and that the small investment in extra fuel could pay off in saved lives.

While Gordon had balls big enough to ballast the Titanic, he also had brains.  This was how he managed to keep his family alive during the pandemic and then have them not only survive but thrive after it wreaked its havoc.  And Gordon had discovered early on that when traveling in this post-apocalyptic age, it was best to make it look as though you had numbers on your side, even if you didn’t.  Therefore, while eight guys could have easily piled into two SUVs, or the back of one pickup truck, it wasn’t the pertinent move.  And even though Gordon and his boys kept their vehicles well-maintained and knew their stuff when it came to making repairs on the fly, there was never a guarantee against mechanical failure.  In a world where people shot first and asked questions later, being able to get into, and often more importantly,
out
of a situation quickly, could mean the difference between the success and failure of a mission, and life or death for his loved ones.

Therefore, he had no qualms about taking five vehicles for their needs.  He rode along with Jeff, his oldest boy, in a souped-up Mustang.  He chose this less protected vehicle for speed rather than safety.  As the general of the group, he often needed to be mobile since he would most likely be calling the shots, not firing them.

The others broke themselves up between two lightly armored SUVs and two pickup trucks.  The SUVs would carry two men with machineguns meant to bear most of their defensive capabilities should they encounter trouble.  The two pickup trucks were driven by one man each and largely served for hauling their scavenged finds.

While their group only consisted of eight guys, tinted windows on all of the vehicles kept their true numbers a mystery to anyone with potential designs on making a move against them.  At the same time, their string of vehicles appeared a quite formidable convoy.  Like those big false-eyes grown on the wings of certain types of moths, the added vehicle numbers were a sort of façade that made their group look bigger and badder than it really was.  Gordon’s hopes were that this would act as a deterrent to violence, which, while always an option, was never his first choice if at all possible.

Gordon followed his troops out of the garage to their parking lot full of vehicles where his son’s Mustang was parked.  Like opening a hot oven, a blast of oppressive heat hit Gordon in the face as he opened the car door and lowered himself into the Mustang’s leather passenger-side seat. A minute later, the air conditioning had cooled the inside of the car considerably and the hair on Gordon’s arms began to bristle while his skin goose-pimpled in delight.  He shivered in chilled ecstasy.

“Oh
man
that feels good,” he breathed, leaning back comfortably, adjusting his seat back while his son, Jeff, revved the motor, threw the car into drive and peeled out of the garage parking lot and onto A1A. 

“Cool it, hot rod,” his dad told him.  “We gotta wait for the others.”

“I know, I know,” Jeff nodded, having heard it all so many times before.  “This ain’t my first rodeo.”

“Then don’t act like it is,” his dad chastised, pulling a .45 caliber handgun from the center console and removing the clip.  He eyed the clip for a moment and pushed out a few rounds from inside to inspect them.

“I wish you wouldn’t play with that thing,” Jeff said, his eyes in the rear view mirror as he took his foot off the accelerator to let the rest of the convoy catch up to them.  “You’re gonna accidentally shoot me one day.”

“Huh, huh,” his dad chortled.  “Yeah right, ‘
accidentally’
,” he nodded, giving his son a sidelong glance and double-raised eyebrows.

“Funny,” Jeff said, not smiling, and still watching in the mirror.  “What the fuck are they doing back there?  Christ, Nana could drive faster,” he shook his head.

Gordon pickup up the car’s CB radio, “Move your asses,” he growled into it.

Moments later, one of the SUVs, accompanied by one of the pickups, passed them to take up the lead.  This was their typical convoy alignment, two protective vehicles in the front, Gordon – their commander in chief – in the middle, with two more security vehicles bringing up the rear.

It took them just under half an hour to cut from route A1A – which ebbed and flowed along Florida’s coastline and outer banks – over to US1 and finally to Interstate 95.  Over the past year, they’d become accustomed to making this run. And Gordon had to admit that even though he was a Florida resident, born and bread, it had to be one of the most boring and just plain ugly drives that the beautiful US of A – or whatever it was called now – had to offer. 

The drive was largely an unbroken, eye-blurringly boring blend of scrubby undergrowth that was knit into a thick mesh of vegetation mixed with swampy marshland.  Thus, hardly anything had been built along the corridor except for a couple gas stations near the turnoff for US1 and a small correctional facility out in the middle of nowhere.

Gordon had to admit, putting the correctional facility out here away from everyone and anything and in the middle of a jungle-like environment had been a good idea.  He figured that even the most desperate of escapees would turn right back around and ask to be re-admitted after seeing what they had to contend with once outside their cell.  Escaping the facility would be the easy part, its interior a plush pleasure palace compared to what awaited them outside.  There could be 95-degree temperatures often accompanied by comparable humidity.  It could be a blazing blue sky in which the sun beat down on you as though you were in the Sahara or it could be a torrential, monsoon-like downpour that made you feel as though you were mucking it out in Malaysia.  Then there was mile upon mile of terrain to navigate with no safe haven from poisonous snakes, ravenous spiders, swarms of mosquitoes, armies of sand flees that invaded every inch and crept into every crevice of your body – and of course, alligators.  Add to this the web-like netting of vines, trees, bushes, thorns, and spider webs so thick it would have had Indiana Jones reconsidering and there was a good reason why this part of Florida had yet to be developed.   

However, once past this corridor of blandness, there was the crisp, clean, modern, heat-rippled canal of concrete that comprised Interstate 95.  Here, numerous vehicles had been ditched during the past year, often due to running out of fuel; and Gordon and his crew had been able to harvest a variety of parts and supplies from these abandoned relics.  It was unusual to actually find a vehicle that still had any fuel left in it at all – let alone diesel fuel – and this was part of the reason why he was in such a rush to get to this particular tractor trailer before anyone else.              

Once on the highway, it was only about a half mile from the exit until they saw the big rig sitting lurched over on the northbound shoulder.  Gordon hoped that there might be more treasures waiting to be discovered inside the trailer.

His convoy pulled up, creating a sort of half-moon perimeter around the truck, alerting any potential new arrivals that they had laid claim to the wreck.  Gordon and his salvage crew climbed from their vehicles.  Several of his men took up positions on the highway – two facing north and two facing south – as lookouts and to provide a defensive line should anyone else decide to take a stab at their loot.  Meanwhile, Gordon and the rest of his boys inspected the scene.  Two men went to check the truck’s fuel tank while Gordon and Jeff went around behind.  Jeff popped the back of the truck, but they were disappointed to find it had either been traveling light or its contents had already been offloaded.               

Gordon walked around to the front of the semi.  Being outside the air-conditioned comfort of the Mustang, he was sweating already.  “Alright, pull that pickup with the siphoning equipment and barrel in the back around and let’s get to work.  We ain’t got all day.”

His two youngest son’s, Jerry and Barry sprung into action, getting the pickup truck with a 100 gallon drum strapped to its bed pulled up alongside the rig where they could begin the process of sucking out the diesel fuel.

Gordon and Jeff walked a safe distance away and each lit up a cigarette.  Once common, cigarettes were now a luxury.  One of the scavengers Gordon regularly did business with had begun growing and drying tobacco and was in the process of creating his own hand-rolled cigarettes.  Gordon had arranged to purchase the entire first batch, and pending their quality, wanted to be the scavenger’s distributor once he perfected his craft.  Even if the quality wasn’t there, Gordon really didn’t care.  The few remaining people on the planet didn’t have many indulgences left, but cigarettes had become one of them.  Even for non-smokers, cigarettes could be used in trade to be bartered for food or other necessities, and therefore they had become a valuable commodity to almost everyone.  Either way, Gordon wanted to get his hands on as many of these freshly-produced smokes as he could.  Like alcohol during prohibition, even a shit product was valuable simply because it was scarce.

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