A huge explosion shook Ariela awake. Instinctively, she rolled out of bed and hit the floor. She waited silently for a moment getting her bearings. This wasn’t Afghanistan. She was in her little house in Nebraska. The explosion didn’t make sense.
Ariela low-crawled to the dresser where she left her sidearm at night. She reached up and grabbed the familiar Beretta, automatically checking the load. Full magazine and one in the chamber. Safety off, ready to go.
As a Marine, Ariela had gotten in trouble more than once for carrying her M9 in Condition Zero – loaded, round in the chamber and safety off. In her opinion, it was better to receive an Article 15 than it was to end up dead because you were fumbling with your safety while someone was trying to kill you.
Fortunately, Ariela was an exemplary Marine in virtually every other sense so her company commander had overlooked the infractions.
There was a reddish glow coming through Ariela’s north window. Her bedroom was tiny – barely big enough for her single bed and dresser – but it had two windows. The north window allowed a nice breeze to enter the room in the spring, summer and fall. The west window allowed it to pass through.
Ariela raised her head just above the window sill. There was a huge dust cloud in the general vicinity of the armory. She could hear secondary explosions and small arms fire from her location nearly two miles away.
“They didn’t wait,” she whispered. “Whoever they are, those survivors didn’t wait for us to attack them. They attacked us.”
Ariela found herself filled with a certain degree of respect for these people.
“They must be former military,” Ariela speculated. “If we had attacked them, we would all most likely be dead.”
The next thought that popped into Ariela’s head brought an evil grin to her pretty face. Enrique was at the armory. He and the rest of the local crew would have been loading the trucks and getting ready to leave on her command.
Suddenly, it seemed, the Enrique problem had solved itself.
“Sometimes that happens,” Ariela chuckled aloud. “Problems left alone often have a way of solving themselves.”
Of course, Ariela realized that she would need to verify. “Trust, but verify,” pithy advice from one of her ITC instructors.
Ariela had been the third female to participate in the Marines’ Individual Training Course, the seven-month course designed to produce the Marines’ Critical Skills Operators. It had been the crowning achievement of her life. The Marines had only started allowing females to participate in Assessment & Selection the year before. Two females before Ariela had been selected to participate in the ITC. Both had washed out before Phase Three. Ariela was the first female to complete all four phases.
Then, during an extended leave for her mother’s funeral … the crash. Ariela was left stranded in Nebraska with no communication. As far as she knew, the Marines had been shut down – along with every other department of the federal government – when the U.S. went bankrupt.
Ariela snapped back to the present as another secondary explosion ripped through the frosty morning air. She could see the column of fire from her window.
“Must have ignited the propane tank,” Ariela thought as she began getting dressed.
Five minutes later, Ariela was fully dressed and armed with an M4 and her Beretta. Her short, dark hair barely stuck out from under her boonie hat.
Twenty-five minutes after that, Ariela was scouting the area around the armory. The place had been leveled. Whatever had been used for the initial blast must have had the power of … Ariela caught a whiff of ammonia. Of course, farmers with anhydrous … these people were not only competent, they were resourceful as well.
“Make use of what you have at hand,” Ariela recited the maxim as if she had learned it only yesterday.
From her vantage point, Ariela could see uniformed individuals advancing on the remains of the armory. They all appeared to be wearing U.S. military uniforms but the uniforms were unmatched. Some had more recent ACU’s or MCCUU’s. Others wore the old Woodland BDU’s and still others wore the Desert BDU’s from the First Gulf War.
The uniformed troops systematically cleared the remains of the armory and killed anyone they found still alive.
“Ruthless,” Ariela whispered breathlessly. She was slightly taken aback by the survivors’ absolute lack of mercy.
As Ariela watched the remainder of the operation, her admiration grew. Some of the participants obviously had no military training but they followed what appeared to be a strict protocol, regardless.
Eventually, the group roared off with three still-mobile HMMWV’s, two Deuce-and-a-halfs, a Dodge pickup and a Ford Excursion.
Ariela stayed in place for another hour watching for movement. She scanned the hills around the armory. She scanned the houses. Most had been burned to the ground and were uninhabited.
After about an hour and a half, some of the local citizens started to come out of the woodwork. Ariela needed to blend in. Most of the citizens had guns. Ariela wouldn’t have to ditch her weapons. She did, however, need to get out of her MCCUU’s and into some civilian clothes.
Ariela scanned the houses around her with her binoculars. A man and a woman slunk out of a house about 100 yards away in the direction of the armory. Ariela guessed the woman to be about her size.
After a quick recon, Ariela decided the house was empty. The front door had been left unlocked.
“Not smart,” Ariela grumbled.
Inside, Ariela quickly found the couple’s bedroom and closet. She dug into the bottom of the woman’s dresser drawers to find clothing that the woman hadn’t worn in some time. Ariela found a stack of coats hung in the back hallway and selected one of the most generic that she could find. It was a man’s coat – Carhartt – and only a little too large. Nearly everyone in the area owned a similar coat. Once Ariela felt sufficiently gray – as though she would blend in with those around her and go unnoticed – she exited the house and headed for the armory. She imitated the pace and movements of the other civilians around her, trying as hard to blend in with her actions and movements as she had with her clothes.
As she reached the armory, Ariela could see that the civilians were picking it over without argument. Everyone had reached something of a balance. Things were in short supply. You might have to do without a little bit but it was better to share with your neighbors than to shoot them or be shot by them.
“Amazing!” Ariela pondered the implications.
Although Ariela wasn’t there to scavenge food or supplies, she picked up an item here or there to hide her true actions. She was looking at faces and body parts trying to find Enrique. In all likelihood he would have been in the HQ room, Ariela reasoned. He was probably sitting in that Aeron chair with his feet up on the commander’s desk while everyone else humped to get ready for the attack.
Ariela spit in revulsion and slowly made her way toward the back of the east end of the building. The devastation was complete. There literally was not a wall left standing on the back half of the building. If Enrique had been in the commander’s chair when the blast hit … he would have been nearly obliterated. Ariela resigned herself to trying to find a piece of him.
As she sorted through the rubble, Ariela picked up a few items. Suddenly she stopped. Protruding from a pile of broken concrete blocks was a hand. The hand had rings on every finger. Enrique always had loved his bling.
Ariela tugged on the hand. The crumbled blocks grated against one another and toppled to the side. Along with the hand came an arm. Ariela turned over the arm to find a panther tattoo. Enrique’s pride and joy. Oh, how he loved to flex his fat forearm to make the panther move.
“What an idiot!” Ariela had hidden her feelings about her cousin for so long, the phrase passed her lips involuntarily.
Ariela removed the rings from the fingers and tossed the arm aside. There was no sign of the body under the same pile of rubble. However, Ariela did come across a skull fragment nearly embedded into a piece of concrete block. Attached to the skull fragment was an ear. In the ear was a one karat diamond stud earring. Another sure sign. Enrique frequently twisted the earring when he was thinking – or doing what passed for thinking when it came to Enrique.
Ariela was sure of it. Enrique was dead.
Of course, along with Enrique went the National Guard armory and its resources … and a few members of Ariela’s extended family.
“So much for that part of the plan,” Ariela groused, focused on the loss of resources.
As she turned to investigate the motor pool, a black Cadillac Escalade pulled up. Ariela knew before he stepped out with his guards, it was her uncle, Fernando. No one else would be burning gas and driving an Escalade these days.
As the civilians around her started to scatter, Ariela scattered with them. She hadn’t decided whether it was better for Fernando to think she was dead or know that she was alive. Keeping him in the dark, for the time being, was probably the most advantageous Ariela decided.
Ariela made her way back to her small house, grabbed her bug-out bag, packed a few more things in her Marine-issue duffle bag and headed out through the back door.