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Chapter 3

Over the years, millions of microphone-equipped microcameras had been installed in all public areas. They broadcasted their sounds and images to a local National Security Precinct (NSP) where the data was fed through recognition filters to identify violations of the common good, like the appearance of a gun or the utterance of some hate speech. Once detected, the corresponding image would be highlighted red for easy identification, an alarm would sound, and federal Protectors of the Common Good would be dispatched to the scene. Another class of officers–descendants of the 911 operator–sat in the NSP control rooms illuminated solely by the light of flickering monitors. These officers only had to supervise the process and add a human element to automated law enforcement. Their official title was Guardian of the Common Good, but most people just called them loos–short for looky-loo.

The NSP monitors depicted a collage of the various vignettes of chaos expected to accompany the end of the world: religious zealots preparing for the apocalypse, nihilists welcoming it, looters taking advantage of it, and demonstrators protesting the plague as if it could be eradicated with painted slogans and angry chants. The casinos were empty and the churches were standing room only. People were rolling the dice on a different kind of dream: they just wanted more time.

One of these monitors showed students milling about on the front grounds of their school as if it had just exploded and they were trying to regain their senses. Students typically felt jittery outside of the classroom where the air was crisp and drug-free, and today the news of an impending apocalypse was exacerbating their withdrawal-induced anxiety.


***


Clyde Sexler walked with his only friend in the world, Jasper Spamuchi. Everything about Jasper was compact and angular, like he was designed to minimize wind resistance. He was a schemer who in every situation saw something to be gained–the end of the world included. "Hey, wanna go to the strand tonight? I heard the bars aren’t carding anymore. The place is gonna be crawling with jens. It’s gonna be medicinal."

Clyde didn’t answer. He was too busy watching Candi holding court with her entourage; they were walking his way and were about to pass by. He stared at her longingly, his eyes begging to be met.

"I finally found the perfect dress," Candi was saying, "and now the world is going to end just before prom. High school is so racist." And then she was gone.

"Just once I wish she would look at me," Clyde said.

"Even if she did look, Clyde, she wouldn’t see you. The only thing that girl sees is the mirror." Jasper had a real talent for disliking girls who were out of his league.

Clyde sighed. "I gotta go to work."

"Why? No one else is."

Clyde shrugged. "If we’re going to the strand tonight, I’m gonna need money." Clyde was always in need of money–the Sexler family lived hand-to-mouth. But it wasn’t his only motivation. Clyde worked as a delivery boy for the local Todo-Mart and one of his clients was a shut-in who lived outside of town. Clyde believed the man was an invalid who would starve without a food delivery. He didn’t bother telling Jasper about it because he knew what Jasper would say: We’re all gonna die. Jasper wouldn’t understand.


***


At the edge of town, where the freeway joined the interstate and the weeds turned into grass, there was a monstrous building that was almost a town unto itself. It was one of the Todo-Mart chain of stores, and it sold just about anything a person could need–and everything they didn’t need, too.

Clyde pulled his truck–an exhaust-belching antique in a world filled with commuter cars–into the Todo-Mart parking lot and swerved his way through the haphazardly parked cars. People were circling their vehicles like bees around a hive, loading them with food, water, and other supplies. The store’s alarm filled the air, adding to the chaos of the scene. Clyde imagined it was yelling, "The end is coming! Grab what you can!"

He pulled around back and parked in the employee lot. He thumbed the entry pad for the door to the employee quarters, which not only gave him access but was also his way of punching in. When he punched out at the end of his shift, his wages for the day would be direct-deposited into his account. He grabbed an employee vest from his cubby and logged into the home-shoppers kiosk where he could retrieve the shopping lists submitted for home delivery. He downloaded the list for a delivery to 7476 Observatory Way.


***


Clyde fought his way through the crowds, procuring the items on his list. His employee vest quickly proved to be a liability, so he tossed it. Despite the Normalcy Mandate ordering everyone to continue working, Clyde was the only member of Team Todo who showed up for duty, and his vest was making him a target for the product-hunting mobs.

People pushed and shoved and grabbed as if each item was the last one in existence and their zeal necessitated clean-ups on aisles three through forty-six. They worked in pairs–one snatching while the other guarded their basket from potential looters. Clyde, working on his own, had to perform both jobs himself and he lost more than one item from his handbasket to slippery, opportunistic fingers. Liquor was particularly sparse. He caught a bum trying to pull a bottle of Pinot Noir from his basket. The man was dressed in new clothes but his skin was still caked with filth and his hair smelled like peed-on trash. Despite the unfair advantage the bum gained from the power of his stink, Clyde was able to wrestle the wine bottle away from him. But it was all for naught. He was about to face a far more formidable adversary.

"Hey, this guy’s got a bottle!"

Clyde turned to see Candi Lovelace with her entourage in tow. She was eyeing his basket. It’s for a customer, he thought, but the words didn’t come out of his mouth. His mouth had stopped working. She’s looking at me!

"We came in to get some wine, but the liquor aisle is totally racist right now!" Candi explained. She reached out her hand, fully expecting Clyde to put the wine bottle in it without her even having to ask.

To his advantage, Clyde already had the bottle in his possession. To his disadvantage, Candi had breasts so firm even melons were green with jealousy. The allure of her blue eyes caused the sperm in his penis to charge forward, eagerly trying to make the jump from his pants to hers. Instead, the little rascals just moistened his drawers. He moved the handbasket in front of his crotch to hide his lust.

Candi seemed confused by the emptiness of her hand. It had been like three seconds and still there wasn’t a wine bottle in it. She stepped up to Clyde and he breathed in the scent of her perfume greedily; it was as if Candi was caressing his loins through his olfaction. She reached into his basket and her hand brushed against his along its route; it was slight and only lasted for a moment, but Clyde could feel her touch throughout his whole body. As she rifled through the contents, the weight of her hand pushed his basket into his crotch and Clyde wondered if his penis would break through the plastic out of a desire to be amongst the rifled-through goods. He looked down as she pulled the wine bottle out and the sight of it was so fantastically, erotically suggestive, it caused a full battalion of microscopic want-to-be-Sexlers to throw themselves at his cotton briefs.

"We’re really going to enjoy this," she said. It was as close as a girl like Candi came to saying thank you. She spun on her heels and left, taking the wine and the scent of her perfume with her. Clyde just stood there post-coitally drained. He was so dumbstruck by what had just happened, he didn’t even notice it when the same bum from earlier took a block of cheese from his basket. After several minutes, he took a deep breath and returned to the liquor aisle.

All the wine and hard liquor was gone and a crowd was fighting over the few remaining cases of beer. They shouted and pushed and pulled and grabbed. Broken bottles littered the floor and the combatants kept slipping in foamy suds. Things were starting to escalate when a gunshot cut the noise and everyone froze.

"Protectors coming through!" Five men pushed their way into the aisle. They weren’t in uniform, but their shotguns mooted the point–only Protectors of the Common Good carried guns, lawbreakers excepted.

"Finally," one of the combatants said. He approached the leader. "That case of beer was mine and those two thugs stole it from me."

The leader ignored him. "Chiporous, get over here!" The four other officers used their shotguns to push the crowd back, clearing the way for a chubby man pushing a shopping cart. "Load it up," the leader commanded.

The people watched as Chiporous grabbed the disputed case from the two thugs and put it in the cart.

The leader flashed a smile to the complainer. "Problem solved."

"Any light beer?" Chiporous asked, looking around. "Doc says I gotta watch my weight."

"Just load the cart, Chiporous. You’ll lose plenty of weight after the virus gets you."

Clyde slowly backed away, and once he was sure no one was watching him, he thumbed the access pad to the employee quarters and slipped inside. His footsteps sounded hollow and lonely compared to the chaos outside. He entered the manager’s office and sifted through the desk drawer until he found the all-access card that would get him into the storage warehouse. On his way to the warehouse he heard someone trying to get into the employee quarters. At first they just tried the handle, but then there was a large bang; the mob was trying to break down the door. Clyde hurried to the warehouse, swiped the card on the door’s access pad and entered. It was like a treasure room–everything he needed was there untouched. He grabbed two of everything on his list and a couple of extra bottles of wine. When he was done, he considered returning the access card to the manager’s office, but he could hear the mob still trying to break in and thought better of it. He slipped the card into his pocket, and exited out the side door.


***


Rolling hills dotted the landscape several miles outside of town. They looked like a school of green whales swimming in a vast green ocean. Settled atop the largest hill was a white observatory. It had moss growing over its bottom half, giving it the appearance that it was growing out of the earth. Most of man’s buildings speak to the world. This one said, "Please disperse. There’s nothing to see here."

Despite the warning, Clyde’s truck chewed up the dirt road that led to the hill supporting the observatory; it skidded to a stop before a black steel door built into the base of the hill. He killed the engine, grabbed the groceries from his truck bed, and approached the door. The observatory looked bland and archaic, built with white stone, probably over a century ago. Only this futuristic door hinted at the possibility that there might be something special inside.

He pressed the buzzer and a slit opened revealing an eye in the center of the door. It was an electronic eye, yet eerily human with pupil, iris, and all. A small hatch next to the door slid open and Clyde placed the bags on a conveyor belt that carried the groceries inside.

"I require another delivery," came a deep and austere voice from a mouth-shaped speaker beneath the eye. Despite hundreds of deliveries, Clyde’s exchanges with the door had never advanced beyond curt transactions. The man who lived here had no use for other people … except for Clyde. Several bills and a small shopping list slid out of the door like money and a receipt from an ATM. Clyde took the money, but left the list fluttering in the breeze.

"I already got you more than you’re going to need."

"I need these items more than the ones you brought me. I need them as soon as possible."

Clyde grabbed the list and looked it over. "Most of this stuff isn’t even food. What do you need it for?"

"To survive."

Clyde had no intention of fighting the mob at the Todo-Mart again just to indulge this man’s survival fantasies. "I’ll see what I can do," he said noncommittally. He had always thought this client was a bit of a nut–after all, who lived in an observatory? But he didn’t judge him too harshly. It wasn’t like he was the only one entertaining survival fantasies.