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Chapter 21

Big Pine Key, FL, United States of America, Sol III
1422 EDT October 4
th, 2004 ad

The Keys were a scene from the Twilight Zone.

The last time Mike had been down Highway 1—the long strip of asphalt and concrete that linked the beads of the Keys together like the cord in a coral necklace—the traffic had still been heavy at 1 a.m. The occasion was a spring break from college and the party would go on through the night and the next day. Honking cars and pickup trucks crowded the highway, and people packed the shops and restaurants from Largo to Key West.

Mike watched an errant palm frond tumble across the sand-filled parking lot of the Piggly Wiggly and knew in his bones that the world had turned a corner. The strip mall on Big Pine Key had never been a center for bustling tourism, but the islands to the north of it, where once retirees and college students mingled, were just as deserted. The O'Neal family had driven ever southward on the strip of blacktop looking for an open motel, or even a gas station. Instead there had been an unending string of closed shops, abandoned businesses and tumbledown residences. Crossing the Seven Mile Bridge to this ghost town had been the final straw.

The whole trip had been a disaster. The visit to Sharon's parents had been particularly excruciating. Despite the fact that he had faced the Posleen in combat, and still held the scars to prove it, Sharon's parents had retreated into the disbelieving shell that many of the nation shared. In their hearts they truly believed it was all a made-up threat of the "gubermint" and stated the fact in no uncertain terms.

To many of their ilk the world was flat, the sun revolved around it and there were no other worlds. The sociologists were referring to this stance as "societal denial." After the third time his father-in-law had carefully but firmly corrected him on the subject, Mike started referring to it as "total bullshit."

Finally Sharon had cut short the visit and they had continued on their way to the Keys. The locale held special meaning for Mike and Sharon. They had briefly met on Key Largo during school and felt a mutual, undeclared, attraction. When chance happened to throw them together at a later date the mutual attraction had rapidly flowered. Michelle and Cally were the results.

When the opportunity had come to take time together the target of the Keys immediately came to mind. The lure of four-star hotels, pools and diving was almost irresistible. Mike knew that Cally would love it; there would be other kids to play with and the clean green sea to play in. The only thing that would make it perfect would be to have Michelle along. But at least she was safely on her way to Adenast. Whatever happened on Earth, at least one member of the family would survive.

But the vacation might not. They had traveled through the deserted islands looking in vain for a place to lay their heads. Or even refuel. The Chevy Tahoe was a gas guzzler. Since Mike had packed along some items to start prepositioned caches they were able to get all the gas they needed from military rations, but the range of the tank was only so great.

They had filled up in Fort Worth, north of Miami, but they had now reached the point of no return. There was not enough gas to get them to Key West, where Mike was sure he could get refilled at the reactivated Navy base, but if they turned around they could make it back to Miami. If they did that they would stay; the Keys were not worth wandering in the wilderness. And that would put the cap on the trip.

Mike tossed the useless map he had been perusing on the floor and looked at his wife. Even with the travails of the vacation she still looked like a starlet in a low-budget disaster movie. Her hair was just pleasantly mussed, her eyes slightly shadowed, her face lineless and grave. It made him sit back and pause. She had hardly talked about her Fleet position, but he was sure it was no sinecure. He suddenly realized that being lost in a howling wilderness, running out of gas and on the edge of being stranded might look good. What that told him about her last few months was unsettling. He cleared his throat.

"Take the chance on going on or turn around," he said, laying out the options for discussion.

She nodded her head and looked around again. There was nothing more to be revealed by the scenery. The day was one of those "blazing gray days" that south Florida had from time to time. A cold front had petered out to the north but the high-level clouds had continued on, obscuring the sun but permitting the heat to build up underneath. The result was a condition of terribly bright indirect light, combined with a dessicating wind. It was like being in Kansas, except with palm trees and green water.

The scenery matched the conditions. The strip mall had once sported all the usual businesses for such a locale. There was a grocery store, nail kiosk, chiropractor and hair salon. The "random choice" on this particular mall was a small restaurant that professed to sell "Authentic Keys Food." This could be read on the sign that was now swinging from side to side in the hot, dry wind.

Sharon stared at the same palm frond that had caught Mike's eye and snorted. "This isn't going so well, is it?" she asked.

Mike had talked endlessly about his company. And every word was praise for the men, the command and the training. Which just meant that his situation was about as fucked-up as hers. She knew she should talk about it. He might even have some input that would help; he had been bumping around Fleet for a couple of years longer than she. But it would sound like complaining and she just couldn't add that to the unmitigated disaster the trip was becoming.

The days at her parents' house in Orlando had been bad for many reasons. Besides her parents' complete illogic about the Posleen there was also the fact that Cally was used to going to the various amusement parks in the area. Unfortunately, they were all closed "for the duration." Cally had taken it well; she seemed to have developed an almost unhealthy control under her grandfather's influence. But not being able to give her the treat hurt at a subliminal level. The trip to the Keys was as much for Cally as for Sharon and Mike.

Now even that had come apart. The world's greatest natural tourist trap had apparently closed for the duration as well. And that did not leave many alternatives.

"There has to be a way to find a motel or something," she said, fingering her AID.

"We already checked for websites," Mike reminded her, noticing the gesture. The Galactic artificial intelligence devices were connected to the Web and capable of searching it as well as or better than any human-made interface. But they could not produce shelter from thin air. "Heck, we haven't seen a single person except that one lady working in her garden up in Largo." He now regretted not asking directions, but at the time it had not made sense to stop.

"Hmm," she responded noncomitally. "A-I-D?" she queried.

"Yes, Commander O'Neal?" Mike was amused to note that the AID was a baritone. Most males preferred female voices; females appeared to choose the opposite.

"There are no website listings for motels in the Marathon or Big Pine Key area," Sharon stated. "Is that correct?"

"Correct, ma'am. There were such sites, but all are now inactive or specifically indicate that the hotel is closed. The nearest hotel that indicates functionality is on Key West."

Sharon let out a breath and thought for a moment. "AID, is there any other source of information that indicates that an area might offer guest services?"

"Please specify a source, ma'am." The AID actually sounded puzzled.

"Oh, police reports, news articles . . ."

"Infrared satellite imagery," Mike interjected.

"Right," said Sharon, nodding her head. "That sort of thing."

"Commander O'Neal, you are reminded that you do not have access to civil-political intelligence gathering," stated the AID. It was the flat, unaccented response Mike had come to recognize as security protocol response.

"Let me try." He smiled. "AID, check my overrides and use the lowest level of intelligence necessary to derive requested information."

The AID did not exactly sniff in disdain, but the tone of voice was distinctly unhappy. "National Technical Means," it said, sarcastically, "indicates that the small fish camp on No-Name-Key is in operation. There is no indication of cabin usage, but it has had cabins for rent in the past. They should still be available."

Mike picked the map back up and searched for No-Name-Key.

"That's right next door," he said in surprise.

"Correct," said the AID. "In addition, imagery indicates that the proprietor has been underreporting fish harvests by about twenty percent, contrary to United States Rationing and Storage Regulation F-S-B-One-Zero-Seven-Five-Eight-Dash-One-A."

Mike rubbed his chin and frowned. "Is that your own analysis or did you pull it out of a file?"

"That is my own analysis, Captain O'Neal," stated the device.

"Well, lock that analysis down unless overridden and remind me at an opportune time to discuss where you developed the information," Mike snapped. The hell if he was going to let a piece of GalJunk drop the dime on some hard-working fishermen.

"Yes, sir, Captain," the AID snapped back.

"Well, that's that settled," said Sharon with a smile.

"Mom?" asked Cally from the back seat.


"Do you think there will be somewhere to eat?" she asked. There was not a hint of a whine, just a simple question.

Sharon turned and looked at her oldest daughter. Cally lay against the driver's side door, looking out at the abandoned landscape, idly tapping her fingers on her thigh. Her face was somber and grave but the eyes slid across the area outside, constantly questing. For targets or threats, Sharon suddenly realized. The light blouse the eight-year-old wore had ridden up enough to reveal the small automatic in her waistband. Taken all together the image made Sharon want to cry. It was as if disaster had already come to America and they were wanderers in some post-Apocalyptic nightmare. Sharon took a deep breath and forced herself to be calm. Most of the reaction was stress still bleeding off from the Agincourt and the disastrous visit to her parents. It would pass. It had to.

"Probably. There should be somewhere to get something. And if not we've got more 'travel rations,' " she finished with a smile. The rations had been Papa O'Neal's suggestion and it had been a good one.

Papa O'Neal had been paying more attention to conditions across the United States than either Sharon or Mike. When they had stated their plans to take a car trip down the Florida Peninsula he had demurred. Even though they had access to unlimited fuel supplies because of the "cache" items Mike had ported along, he pointed out other problems. Without stating anything other than vague reports of lack of services in south Florida he had suggested that staying at the farm would be the best plan. But when Sharon and Mike had been insistent he had made a series of startling suggestions. He had been so adamant about them that the couple had finally given in, figuring that the additional items fell under the category of "better safe than sorry."

Thus, attached to the spare tire on the back was a five-gallon can of gas and a shovel. In the morass of material in the back were three cases of beer and two other cases of mixed liquor. There were more cases of smoked and tinned meats, gathered and prepared on the farm, along with sealed containers of flour, cornmeal and a variety of dried fruits. If they did end up on a desert island they could live comfortably for nearly a month on the stored provisions they had packed along.

In addition to food and liquor, Papa O'Neal had strongly recommended taking along "trade goods." The very thought of taking such ubiquitous items as hooks, heavy monofilament and rubber tubing for sling spears to the Keys was ludicrous. Looking around at the surroundings Mike had had more than one occasion to bless his father's foresight. The Old Man had spent years in Third World hellholes and now it looked like the Keys just about fit that bill. Even if no one was willing to take Galactic credits for room and board, Mike was willing to bet dollars to donuts a case of six gross Number Two hooks would open doors.

"Well, let's go find out, shall we?" said Mike, putting the Tahoe into gear. He deliberately steered to crush the tumbling palm frond, metaphorically spurning the depression caused by the desolation around them. As they turned down the side street towards No-Name-Key, the wind caught the shattered palm frond and tumbled the pieces onto U.S. 1. The hard wind whistled through the abandoned buildings and erased the marks the vehicle had made on the drifting sand in the parking lot.

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