The surviving members of the human race that night were seeing the sky in a way that hadn't been seen by many other human beings in at least a century.

Everything was completely black at least that was his first impression. The only light that could be seen in any direction was the glow from the stars. The moon wasn't up yet, and Kevin had to admit it was a little spooky out here in the dark and he could really appreciate how people in ancient times had been afraid of the dark. How they could see things like witches, demons and what not in the night; it was an easy trap to fall into after all under these circumstances, to let your imagination get the better of you like that.

But now humanity was standing at the beginning of a new and quite literal Dark Age and he had to wonder just how would we fair this time?

Early the next morning Kevin got ready, wanting to get this outing done before it got to uncomfortable outside. Weather forecasts were a thing of the past of course but he didn't have to be weather man to know it was going to get hot today.

Climbing into a set of surplus army fatigues for the first time in a long while Kevin felt a little strange; these weren't his old uniform's they didn't fit him anymore, though some how he didn't think that was going to be problem for much longer, but John had plenty of surplus army fatigues stashed away and Kevin found a pair that fit well enough.

Deciding on whether to wear some of the dragon scale body armor John had acquired some where was also an easy choice. The choice of weapons for this outing was a little harder, John had a large arsenal of both automatic and semi automatic weapons of many different types, Kevin didn't know where he'd gotten them since he was pretty sure that most of them would have been illegal to have before the plague broke out but he sure wasn't complaining.

After deliberating the situation over for a moment Kevin finally decided that since he'd be inside during most of this outing he chose one of the Remington 870's John had. This was the military style shotgun with a collapsible stock to make the weapon smaller and easier to handle in close quarters. Loaded with double- OO buckshot he knew it would be a lethal weapon indeed, but just in case he also brought along a 10 mm Glock pistol since after all you couldn't be too careful.

Getting together the extra ammo for both the shotgun and pistol along with the addition of an army surplus plastic canteen full of water, Kevin figured he was ready. He'd already plugged in the two extra large chest freezers John had waiting for the food that Kevin would hopefully bring back. Deciding that he'd find whatever else he'd need at the store, Kevin knew it was time.

The drive to the Wal-Mart was as short and as swift as Kevin could make it. He avoided going through much of the town by using a gravel road he knew about in the hope of avoiding meeting anyone. He even went so far as keeping his speed down to the bare minimum to limit the amount of dust that was kicked up behind his pickup.

Safely arriving at the store Kevin found to his relief that it looked deserted and it also looked like he was the first one here since the large sliding glass doors at the entrance still seemed to be intact. Expelling a sigh at that realization, Kevin took the truck around the back since he sure didn't want anyone getting ideas about what he might be doing here and then deciding to come pay him a visit while he was otherwise engaged.

Backing up to a rear door loading dock he hopped out armed, not only with his weapons but also with a pry bar he'd brought along as his own personal passkey. After looking the situation over for a moment, he quickly set to work on the locked door. It took awhile but he managed to get the fire door pried open. With flashlight in hand and pistol at the ready and his shotgun slung over his shoulder, Kevin headed into the darkened store.

It was the smell that first got his attention; the air inside the store really stunk with the smell of rotten food. He suddenly hoped he hadn't waited too long in making this trip. Quickly checking to make sure he could get the large loading dock door open when he needed to, Kevin started to survey the freight areas of the store.

He found lots of stuff just lying around, most of it not of any use to him since he wasn't interested in children's clothing or toys for that matter. After a little more looking he started finding things that could be a lot more useful.

Such as a pallet of canned vegetables that had been left out, it was still all nicely shrink wrapped, apparently it had just been shipped in before the place had been abandoned and for whatever reason it hadn't been taken with them when either the military or FEMA people had pulled out.

Making a mental note to remember to grab as much of it as he could later since the canned food would last almost indefinitely compared to even the frozen stuff he was hoping would still be here somewhere. Anything fresh that had been left out would have certainly spoiled by now which was where the smell he was currently trying not to think about had to come from.

Heading deeper into the cavernous rear warehouse area of the store he found several pallets of portable coolers, the kind you'd take on vacation to keep your picnic stuff cool. It was just what he wanted but the problem was it was way up on the top shelf, a good 50 feet off the floor.

Kevin pondered for a moment just how to get them down 'til he spotted an electric forklift that fortunately still had some juice in the batteries. It had been a while since he'd run anything like this but after a little trial and error he figured it out. Getting the coolers down and cut loose from the pallet, Kevin started looking for some sort of cart to move his acquisitions around the store since he really had no intention of lugging these big things around by hand when they were loaded down with whatever he could fit into them.

It took some additional snooping in the darkened warehouse but Kevin finally located what he wanted. A nice four wheel steel cart, plenty large enough to haul the coolers he wanted around. So after loading up the first four empties he made his way through the grocery department to see what was left.

The stench of spoiled food was even thicker in the air here. The buildings air conditioners had been left on 'til the power went out but still the remaining fruit and vegetables left out wouldn't last more than a few days before they started going bad and it had been a lot longer than that.

What he found in his search was a lot like he figured it would be. In the darkened store most of the shelves in the grocery side were either completely bare or pretty picked over. He had anticipated that but heading past the public areas of the store he went through a set of swinging double doors and found the large walk in freezers and coolers that would have held both the fresh and frozen goods 'til it could be moved out to the display cases, which was never going to happen. Adding to his good luck Kevin could clearly hear the hum of the electric motors on the big reefer units still operating.

After seeing the pallet of canned goods left by the loading dock Kevin had been increasingly hopeful about finding at least something still in these big units. He had at first been more than a little worried about getting here to discover nothing left but empty shelves, since what hadn't been distributed could have been packed up by either FEMA or whoever and taken with them.

But fortunately for him the Federal government even in the midst of crisis had been operating at its usual level of efficiency. They had gone to a lot of trouble to bring the food in but they hadn't bothered to distribute it before they pulled out or had all died, so whichever way it had happened the result was the same.

Popping the big insulated door open Kevin found the stores industrial sized refrigerators and freezers full of not only fresh meat but also vegetables. Most of the veggies were the prepackaged type but Kevin didn't care, it just made them that much easier to handle.

At last finding what he was looking for, Kevin relaxed a little and set about doing what he'd come out here to do. He was thankful that it didn't look like he would have to risk trying one of the other grocery stores in town and then have to worry about running in to anyone else that might be doing the same thing he was. Especially since both of the other stores were in much more heavily populated areas or at least they had been.

With a little more luck he could load up as much as he could carry today and maybe even come back tomorrow if he wanted to finish. One way or another he wanted the extra freezers and refrigerators John had provided to be stuffed to the gills with whatever he could fit into them. With no more supplies coming in this would be all he could get of any of this for who knows how long. So he would have to make it last as well as getting all he could while he could.

Setting about his work Kevin quickly developed a rhythm of loading up empty coolers hauling them out to the loading dock, but not putting them on the truck since he didn't want anyone that came by getting any ideas as well as he didn't want them sitting in the sun for any longer than they absolutely had to. So instead he kept them out of sight in the dock area with the doors closed and went back for more.

Chapter 4

Leaving the hospital after it had been shut down Kelly almost made it back to Beatrice, almost. Unfortunately for her she ran out of gas when she tried to push on from Courtland back to Beatrice. She had wanted to scavenge what fuel she could at the only gas station in Cortland and had even started to slow down to do just that while she looked the situation over but hearing the roaring of an engine followed by a flurry of gun shots was more than enough motivation for her to get out of town as quickly as possible.

From the moment she'd pulled out of Saint E's previously fortified grounds which was the nickname given to Saint Elizabeth's hospital, Kelly knew she would be cutting it close on gas. Unfortunately the hospital generators ran of diesel and the little bit of gasoline the military still had for official use, well let's just say they weren't going to give any to her. She also didn't know how to siphon gas out of another car. So all things considered it left her with few options good, bad or indifferent.

Deciding it was just too dangerous to stop anywhere in Lincoln, Kelly knew that she had enough to make it at least as far as Courtland which is a good twenty-five miles south of the city. Kelly had hoped that the small town would be disserted at least enough, so she could hopefully get some fuel then get out without anyone noticing.

Well as usual her plans didn't quite work out that way. Now having to skip her planned stop, Kelly watched her gas gauge with rising anxiety knowing full well it was going to be really close. She did everything she could think of to stretch the gas she had and prayed it would be enough since she really didn't want to be stranded out in the country after dark, not these days.

Well she almost made it, only about a mile from town her little Tracer sputtered and started to die, it fought valiantly to stay running but the little fuel still in the tank had sloshed away from the pump that sent it to the engine so the pump had nothing to send but air. Unfortunately internal combustion engines don't run on air very well. So here she was out of gas with her destination nearly in sight.

After getting over her initial anger at her predicament Kelly considered her options. From where she was standing on the side of the highway she could see Wal-Mart in the distance. She knew they had recently added fuel pumps in a little gas station kiosk in the corner of the parking lot. It wasn't much just four pumps and a little shack for an attendant to keep an eye on things. Wondering though what the odds were that it would still be operating and had gas. If she could get a can from the store she could fill it up then use it in turn to fill up her car so she could get home with fuel to spare.

At least that had been her plan, which had seemed like such a good one to her on the face of it anyway. But her first nearly insurmountable obstacle upon arriving in front of the apparently disserted store had been just finding a way in since the place looked sealed up tight.

After striking out on the front doors she peeked in the windows only to find the stores darkened interior. On the plus side the store didn't look like it had been looted, which was definitely a good sign. But even with this small piece of good news Kelly was already starting to rethink her plan when she heard a sound she really didn't want to hear.

Stranded outside the apparently impenetrable facade of the local Wal-mart Kelly heard the sound of an approaching engine, that meant people and these days that meant bad news. Now finding herself out in the open with nowhere to hide Kelly knew she was stuck. Seeing the source of the sounds being a beat up pickup come into view, what might have even been a nice truck at one time now looked like it had definitely seen better days not unlike the three men in it. As it pulled up Kelly got a better look at the three of them. Watching as they got out of their 'loser cruiser', as her mom would have undoubtedly described it, Kelly got an even worse feeling about this.

The owner of the truck who also was driving it since no one ever drove his truck but him was Earl Collins. Now no one would ever call Earl an overly handsome man, but at just over six feet in his boots he was fairly heavily muscled from a lifetime of work in the local factories.

But when the world as he liked to call it went down the shitter, he had been just another guy going about his life, but one of things that everyone who knew him could agree on about him was his religious convictions. He went to church every Sunday without fail and quite often during the week as well, if he felt he should, which was most of the time.

When the outbreak had started, Earl like most everyone else really hadn't paid it much attention. Not being one to watch the news all that often in any case, he just felt that he could find out everything he needed to know from watching the 700 Club or from listening to the Sunday sermon.

The first time Earl really took note of what was happening was listening to the televangelist on the TV rail on about how the world was being judged and only the righteous would be aloud to live, that if you prayed enough and believed hard enough God would protect you. Always one to take that as sound advice, Earl did just that.

Well it seemed to work as far as Earl could tell since he prayed as hard as he'd ever prayed in his life and he had lived even though everyone else had pretty much died off. He took this as a sign to mean that it was up to him to do the rebuilding, and he also took it to mean that since he was so devout the new world he was going to build would be built alone traditional Christian lines.

Earl had felt for a long time that his country had drifted to far from its puritan roots and something like this plague happening had been the inevitable result.

Now if he was going to rebuild a new society he had a few problems to deal with, the first was he was going to need to gather together the survivors. This proved harder than he had thought it would in the beginning, but finally the good lord had seen fit to bring him his first followers, who would help start the rebirth of this great country.

The first of Earl's new flock was a young man named Mike Rodgers, another local like Earl he'd worked in and around this small town most of his life. After the plague had hit the young man had been reduced to breaking into abandoned houses near his apartment looking for something to eat, when Earl and driven by in his pickup and had decided to stop. It hadn't taken much to convince the hungry young man to come with him, just saying he'd make sure they had enough to eat was pretty much enough since Mike had been going on two days by that point with little to nothing in his stomach.

Sharing their first meal of cold canned soup, Earl had found himself going on with the passion of an evangelist telling his young recruit about how the world was being punished and that they were now doing God's work. Earl also made it clear that he was the one in charge. Now Mike didn't know much about God but being a pragmatist he decided that as long there were regular meals in it for him he'd go along.

Earl next disciple was Ted Hansen, he simply had the misfortune of blowing a tire while trying to make it through town a few days before.

Now Ted really didn't have anywhere to go necessarily, but just like a lot of other survivors he had wanted to get as far from the horror story Lincoln had been turning into as he could. Unfortunately for him while he was trying to change his traitorous tire, a few of the local surviving kids had decided he might have something they wanted. Ted really didn't know what that might have been since he had just got into town and only had the clothes on his back, but a group of them came up on him; all of them were armed in some way and he unfortunately wasn't. Until recent events had started to change his mind he'd never been a big believer in guns, a stance he had cause to regret a great deal at that moment.

The group of kids deciding amongst themselves to have some fun with their current target and one of the young men in the group armed with a .22 rifle started using Ted's car for some target practice.

Seeing all the fun their friend was having and wanting to join in, the others in the group that had guns started shooting too, which caused Ted to stay hidden behind what used to be his car but now was quickly turning into worthless scrap metal.

Listening to the bullets smack into the metal, Ted wondered if he should just try to make a break for the nearby houses; not that he would make it of course, not unless the gang of teenagers who were shooting up his car would let him.

After having decided he was just going to have to take his chances with that dash to relative safety was when this big pick-up truck came roaring around the corner, scattering the teens like a flock of birds.

Ted could see one man in the cab driving and another in the back, who seemed to be spending most of his time hanging on to the bucking truck and the rest shooting a double barrel shotgun at anything that moved.

The driver also had a pistol out the window and he was blazing away as well. They didn't seem to be hitting anything but they were certainly making enough noise to scare the teenagers away, at least for the moment.

Screeching to a stop, the driver, a big guy in bib overalls leaned out of his window and shouted for him to get moving. Ted didn't have much choice in the matter since he certainly didn't want to stay here and his car was obviously not going anywhere now so he ran and hoped into the truck which quickly took off down the dusty street.

Much like he had done with Mike, Earl had gone on at length to his new friend about how the world was being punished by God for its wickedness and that it was up to God fearing people like them to rebuild a proper christen society. Now Ted was a lot like Mike in that he never claimed to be on a first name basis with God or anything but he did know that he wanted to live. Earl, despite the fact he could use a bath in the worse way, seemed to have some idea how to stay alive and if listening to him preach was the price of that new life, Ted figured it was worth it.

After a few days of rummaging through abandoned houses, all of them were armed now with some kind of a gun. Earl had kept the pistol he'd started with but had also found an AK-47 stashed in someone's closet. Mike had likewise kept his double barrel shotgun but did find some more shells for it and they found a pistol for Ted. Perhaps more importantly they'd also found enough food and water to keep themselves going for the moment anyway.

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