“Alien attack?” Envy choked, more because of the strange twist of intensity rather than the ridiculousness of the idea. She leaned forward and squinted up at the cloudy sky through her front window. “What you seeing?”
“Dunno,” Rusty said. “Was a flash up there, real bright.” He dragged his head back into the vehicle. He looked sober. “How fast can you get us to Hatcher’s Pass? I got some stuff for aliens up there in the Pass.”
She squinted at him. “You’re kidding me right now, right?”
Rusty shook his head, looking like they were talking about drowning puppies. “After my time with the feds, I got ready.”
“For an alien attack,” she said, unable to contain her incredulousness.
He nodded, still looking stone cold sober.
“What could you possibly store up for an alien attack?” she demanded.
“Grenades,” he said. “C-4, RPGs, white phosphorous, fifty-cals with depleted uranium rounds, coordinates, keycodes, and blueprints to all the other secret bases in Alaska.”
She couldn’t believe that, but he didn’t recant his words. In fact, he was examining another gun on his belt, peering down the chamber. “Rusty,” she said carefully, “please tell me you’re joking.” There had been some brazen—terrifying, actually—thefts at the local Air Force base a couple years back, and Alaska had endured a big federal manhunt looking for the culprit.
“There’s a bunch of them in those federal wildlife ‘preserves,’” Rusty said, still inspecting another handgun. “Why else you think they send in six ‘park rangers’ with automatic weapons to jump out of a helicopter every time a hiker wanders off the trail in the ‘park’?”
It was leaving her cold just thinking about it. “You’re the one who took the white phosphorus?” They had been blaming it on an act of international terrorism, some rogue group of extremists who were planning to use it on a city somewhere in the Lower 48. “They said they caught those guys. Put them in Guantanamo.”
Rusty snorted. “’Course they did. Can’t have white phosphorus just laying around, right?”
She knew that Rusty was weird, and a Doomsday prepper on steroids—quite possibly literally, considering how much muscle he toted around—but it had never even crossed her mind that he would break the law, much less steal from the military to fulfill his last-man-standing fantasies. Looking at him cleaning his gun, Envy wondered just how far off the deep end that Rusty had gone.
“There’s a base up in Hatcher’s Pass,” Rusty said. “Hard getting to it, though. We’ll have to steal a snow machine.”
Envy was about to stop the truck and tell him she wasn’t harboring a gun-toting domestic terrorist when, the moment her foot left the gas pedal, she was wracked with a pang of dread so bad it almost made her puke. She swallowed and pressed her foot back to the accelerator. Staring straight ahead, caught between the need to dump the terrorist out of her truck and the need to get the hell to safety before the shit hit the fan, she pieced together how she was going to survive the next few hours.
“Look,” Envy said. “I don’t know what you’ve done—and I don’t want to know—but this is my truck and if you’re coming with me, you’re gonna do exactly as I say, and you’re not gonna shoot anyone unless I give the go-ahead beforehand, okay?” She turned to look at him with what she hoped was her most commanding stare. “Otherwise I dump your jarhead ass out on the curb right now and drive up the Pass myself.”
Rusty, who had at least six guns loaded guns strapped to his person—probably more, since there appeared to be a lump in his sock under his pant leg—didn’t argue. Instead, he grinned at her as if her putting her foot down had made his day. “You got it, Miss Travis.” He always called her ‘Miss Travis’ when he was being especially polite and respectful, which was a good sign. It meant maybe he wasn’t going to go psychotic killer on her watch and murder half the families on the south side of Hatcher’s Pass before the authorities could arrive.
Envy swallowed and turned back to the road. They drove in silence for several moments before something beyond the cloud cover caught her eye. It was a purple flash that lit up the fog, a color she wasn’t used to seeing in the sky.
“There it is again!” Rusty hastily holstered his gun and pointed. “You see it, Miss Travis?”
Apparently, they were no longer on a first-name basis. Considering that he’d essentially just admitted he was a dangerous, wanted criminal who had been moonlighting as her innocuous-if-crazy roommate, that worked for Envy. “I saw it,” she muttered, still uneasy at the thought of sharing her vehicle with America’s Most Wanted. “Aurora, maybe?” On really, really good days, sometimes the aurora borealis had colors other than the standard green, and shone even in daylight. They had even been known to accompany vast solar storms, which had the potential to knock out electronics. Maybe that’s what was happening here…
“If that’s an aurora, I’m a fucking lily white Calvin Klein buttbuddy. It’s flashing.” Indeed, it looked like the strobe light on an airport and was moving slowly overhead.
“Maybe the airplanes changed the color of their in-flight wing lights.”
Rusty leveled a very long, very unimpressed stare at her. Then he turned back to watch the purple light slowly move overhead before it cut off suddenly, leaving the section of clouds almost dreary where they had been spotlighted before. “It’s headed the same direction as the last one. Out towards the Cook Inlet.”
“Why don’t you think it’s a meteor shower or something?” she asked.
“Because my daddy always taught me that when it doubt, it’s aliens.” He started checking his guns again.
Of course he did.
“So your dad…” she broached gingerly. “Seems like the two of you had a pretty strong bond.”
“Not really,” Rusty said, wiping something off of one of his black handguns. “He was a drunk womanizer dick. Tried to hit my mama once when I was fourteen and I put him in the hospital with twenty-six stitches so he left home.” He glared at her over the gun. “Nobody fucks with my mama.”
“So, uh…” Envy began, a little uncomfortable that she might be unwittingly filling in for his much-loved mama—and that he might have secret visions of his mama in black leather with riding crops—said, “your dad doesn’t sound too smart. He ever end up in the loony bin?”
“Oh, sure, all the time,” Rusty said. “There was the time he raided the sheriff’s office and stole all the guns, then again when he held up the late-night cashier at the Wal-Mart two towns over so he could fill his truck with fuel and supplies for that revolution that didn’t quite pan out, then the time he got me to slip through the air vent in the local sports shop to grab extra worms and a couple AR-15s before an early-morning fishing trip when I was eight…” He frowned. “How’d you know?”
Like father like son, Envy thought, swallowing. He’s utterly batshit, just like Pappy.
“Then again,” Rusty said thoughtfully, “he did get a presidential pardon when he saved six Secret Service guys from an alien shapeshifter dressed up as a European royal when I was eleven, then another one when he drove a truck into another one who was trying to schmooze the head of the Federal Reserve when I was thirteen.” He grinned at her. “Squish.”
I am so fucked, Envy thought, beginning to realize that, while she’d woken with a bad feeling, it was probably more due to the apocalypse-savvy schitzo and his stash of white phosphorus than a natural disaster. “You said your stash is in Hatcher’s Pass?” she asked, trying not to sound too conspicuous.
“Oh, they’re all over the place,” Rusty said. “Pappy always said be ready for those creepy lizard-eyed bastards when they showed up again. Got supply caches in Hatcher’s Pass, Tok, outside Fairbanks, McCarthy, Denali, outside Homer, near Sutton, Petersville, near Skilak Lake, out on Kodiak… Then there’s the piece of land I bought out near Copper Center. Good fishing out there. Built a bunker the first year I was here.”
Envy gave a mental whistle. Either the guy was totally off his rocker, or he had actually stashed survival supplies all across the state. Then again, maybe his idea of a ‘cache’ was a Ziplock bag of matches and his idea of a ‘bunker’ was a buried cargo container. Still, she’d never thought of Rusty as wealthy enough to buy random thousand-dollar-plus cargo containers and hire a heavy operator at seventy-five an hour to bury them. Hell, after three years, she still didn’t know exactly what he did. She’d just assumed disabled veteran, since he liked to talk about his time in the Marines so much.
“That’s a lot of caches,” she said as they drove. “What about the one in Hatcher’s Pass? What’s in it? Anything I should know about?” She needed to know whether or not she was basically leading a confirmed terrorist to his weapons of mass destruction.
“Everything I could think of,” Rusty said.
So yes, yes she was. “I haven’t done much driving up there,” she hedged, suddenly sure that the general, permeating dread that she’d been feeling had been the liberal application of white phosphorous to the skies over Eagle River. Glancing at him, she said, “What road are we talking?” She needed to know which road to avoid.
But he seemed totally unfazed, completely absorbed in checking and re-checking his guns like he expected an invasion. “Don’t worry, Miss Travis,” he said as he blew on one of the muzzles, “I’ll tell ya when we get there.”
“So, uh, your Pappy,” Envy hedged as they drove. “How’d he get hooked on the aliens thing?” Most of the cars on the road that had stalled were once more moving again, aside from a yellow dually Chevy on the southbound lane and a fancy sedan ahead of them whose overcoat-wearing owner was even then grabbing his hair and shouting.
“He could see them,” Rusty said, watching the nicely-dressed, fashionably-thin man cross brazenly over into their lane in front of them, waving his arms. Rusty pulled back the slide on one of his handguns.
“Maybe I should pick him up,” Envy said.
“He’s a civilian,” Rusty said, glaring at the guy with the yellow truck who was making her slow down. “In a survival situation, there needs to be a tight chain of command.”
“Yeah,” she snapped, “me.” She hit the brakes. The man immediately made a relieved look and jogged around to Rusty’s side. At the last moment before he saw them, Envy threw her coat over Rusty’s weaponry. “Don’t let him see your guns,” she hissed.
A moment later, the man was knocking rapidly on Rusty’s window.
Rusty stared straight at him and ignored him.
“Oh for the love of—” Envy hit the passenger window button on her door and the glass rolled down.
“Anyone got a phone?!” the man cried through the open window. “I need to make a call.”
“Pretty sure you ain’t gonna make that call…” Rusty looked him up and down with an unpleasant scowl, “…pretty boy.”
The man, who was obviously intelligent, gave Rusty a startled blink.
“Hey, at least he doesn’t spend two hours a day taking steroids and pumping iron,” Envy blurted, reaching over Rusty to offer her hand. To the man, she said, “Envy Travis.”
“Douglass Stiles,” he said, shaking it firmly. His hand felt lotioned, which Envy surreptitiously wiped on her pants. “I’ve gotta call the hospital. They were waiting for me, and I’m going to be late.” He gestured in the direction of Palmer.
“We could give you a ride,” Envy offered.
Beside her, Rusty choked, but her I Am In Charge rule seemed to still be in effect. He started grinding his teeth hard enough the muscles in his jaw stood out.
But Envy was more interested in the fact that helping this guy out seemed to be lessening the permeating feeling of doom and gloom she’d been getting since she’d woken up this morning.
“Absolutely!” the man cried. “Let me just grab my bag.” He turned and jogged back to the shiny new sedan, surprising her that he was willing to leave such a beautiful car unaccompanied. It looked like a custom Mercedes-Benz, and she knew those weren’t cheap.
As soon as the smartly-dressed man was out of earshot, Rusty swiveled on Envy and said, “We ain’t takin’ him. We gotta get moving again before the world figures out it’s an alien attack. Leave this limp-dick city slicker here to starve.”
“That’s not very charitable,” Envy said. Within minutes of first meeting him out in the rain in that swamp, Envy had discovered Rusty’s vivid—almost neurotic—distrust for lawyers.
“Charity ain’t my middle name. It’s Brendan. And Brendan ain’t interested in savin’ some no-good money-made bottom feeder.” Rusty rolled up his window. As the man pulled an expensive leather bag out of the car—which immediately spilled multi-sized packets something colorful all over the dirty ice-slickened ground—Rusty made a face and locked the doors.
“Goddamn it, Rusty,” she snapped. “He’s not a lawyer.”
“You don’t know that,” he retorted, apparently willing to void their She’s In Charge rule over his impassioned—schizophrenic, now that she thought about it—suspicion of attorneys and the law.
Envy grabbed him by the collar of his jacket and yanked him towards her as much as his big body and her comparably slender arm could make him go. “You know that feeling that saved you from that flight to Fairbanks?” Envy demanded into his face. “That feeling is telling me to give him a ride, and no hillbilly redneck dumbass is going to get in the way of me keeping us alive.”
Rusty squinted at the man who was scrambling to scrape the packages back into his bag. “We don’t need a clumsy-ass lawyer in a survival situation.”
“Look at his bag,” Envy snapped. “See the medical stuff? He’s probably trying to get to some open-heart surgery before someone dies or something.”
“So?” Rusty demanded.
She couldn’t believe he was so dense. “He’s a doctor, not a lawyer.”
Rusty’s eyes immediately went wide and she saw him locate the syringe packets and gauze on the ground.
“Oh,” he said.
“Oh is right,” Envy said. “He’s not a creep. Scoot over. Hospital’s on the way. We’re giving him a ride.” Though, at this point, it was mainly because she wanted find an opportunity to pull the guy aside and figure out a way to relieve Rusty of his guns before he killed someone.
A few minutes later, the man returned, looking frazzled. Rusty, thankfully, got out and held the door open for him, almost courteously this time. “Thank you so much,” the man babbled as he tossed the oiled leather bag into the back seat, then paused a moment, eyes fixed on the duffels of guns Rusty had brought out of his room.
Door still open, the man raised a brow, then glanced a little nervously at the two of them. “Going to a gun show?”
“Hunting trip,” Rusty said, and it sounded creepy as fuck. Inwardly, Envy groaned.
The guy must’ve really wanted to get to the hospital, however, because he seemed to shake himself and climbed into the truck between them anyway. Rusty followed, yanking the door shut behind him. Douglass’s eyes found the multiple guns strapped to Rusty’s waist—guns that had been hidden by the coat Envy had thrown over them—and slowly looked up the big man’s chest to his face. All-told, Rusty loomed a good six inches taller than the stranger in the car, and his hulking form probably weighed twice as much. She saw him swallow, hard.
“Seatbelts, everyone,” Envy said cheerfully. She got the truck moving again, weaving back into the flow of traffic. Douglass obliged, but Rusty was watching the houses along the road.
“Rusty!” Envy snapped. “Seatbelt!” Then again, she reasoned, if she was dealing with a potential mass murderer, maybe a lack of seatbelts in his case wouldn’t be such a bad thing if she were to, say, slam the truck into a tree to eject him through the windshield. Giving the stranger a careful look-see, Rusty deliberately plinked his belt latch into the receptacle.
“So,” Envy said, as they picked up speed again, “weird day, huh? Everybody’s phone and power goes out?”
“Could be a solar flare,” the man said, still glancing sideways at Rusty. “Big ones can sometimes put out a burst of EMP big enough to knock out whole grids.”
“Would explain the lights,” Envy agreed.
“No it wouldn’t,” Rusty said.
Envy gave him an irritated look. “So what’s your rush to get to the hospital?”
“I’ve got orientation today,” Douglass said. “New ER doc. Just moved up from Chicago.”
“So not a lawyer,” Envy said, giving Rusty a meaningful look. Rusty, however, just looked thoughtful.
“Lord, no,” the man chuckled, though he gave Rusty another uneasy look as the man picked up his bag and glanced inside. “He, uh, got a reason he’s wearing like four guns?”
“Eight,” Rusty said, prying open the bag and taking a big sniff.
Embarrassed at the behavior of her roommate-slash-domestic-terrorist, Envy hissed, “Rusty! Put it down!”
The big man shrugged and tossed the bag haphazardly back into the back seat.
Thankfully, the man seemed smart enough not to comment. He was watching Rusty carefully. “Are you…uh…okay, miss?” His eyes slid towards her cautiously. “You need…help…with anything?” He cocked his head meaningfully at Rusty.
“Maybe,” Envy said, knowing that her face was pinched. “Not sure yet.”
Rusty, who had been examining the sky through the windshield, immediately twisted back to give her a worried look. “Why? You got something wrong with you, Miss Travis? You sick?”
“No, just feeling a little sick from this morning,” Envy said. “Might need to go inside the hospital with Douglass, see if they’ve got anything for headaches.”
Douglass’s eyes slid warily back to Rusty. “We’ve got plenty of stuff for headaches. High-powered stuff. Military-grade, goes straight to the problem. Will take it down in two seconds flat.”
Well, at least the guy was perceptive.
“Sounds like my kind of drug,” Rusty said enthusiastically. “What’s it called?”
“Tramadol,” Douglass said. “You’d probably like it. Makes a bad day a lot better.”
“Tramadol,” Rusty mouthed, nodding. “You got any in here?” He gestured at the bag.
“Nah, that’s the kind of stuff you need a prescription for,” Douglass said.
Rusty looked disappointed. “So what do you got in here?”
With a cold chill, Envy realized that Rusty planned on stealing the poor guy’s bag. “Rusty, I’m sure it’s nothing—”
“Just got back from a conference, picked up a lot of free samples of just about everything.” The man cocked his head. “Why? You wanna try something?”
Rusty raised a brow. “Like what?”
“Oh, I dunno, something to help you focus? There’s this brand new thing on the market they’re touting as a mediclorian stimulant that’s supposed to give people super-human focus and I’ve been itching to try it out on somebody.”
Envy tensed, realizing Rusty was about as much of a die-hard Star Wars fan as they came and he’d just blown his cover.
But it went right over Rusty’s head. “You mean mediclorians are real?” Rusty demanded, glancing with awe at the doctor’s bag in the back. “I thought it was all just made up.”
“George Lucas was just well before his time,” Douglass said solemnly, somehow keeping a straight face. “A true visionary.”
“Fuck yeah, he was,” Rusty agreed, nodding vigorously. “There’s stuff out there, man. Stuff that wants to kill us.”
“Oh I know,” Douglass agreed. “See shady types come through the ER every day.” He glanced pointedly at Envy. “Got to the point where I can pretty much recognize them on sight.”
Rusty frowned. “Huh? No, I’m talking aliens. Dad was always seeing aliens. Lizard people.”
“Oh, those too,” Douglass said smoothly. “Those guys are literally everywhere.”
“Dad saved the Secret Service from one,” Rusty said. “Almost got the president.”
“How awesome is that?” Douglass said, still looking totally at ease. “He get a commendation?”
“Nah,” Rusty said, looking depressed. “The feds didn’t wanna make it public. Just issued a pardon for putting a couple guys in the hospital.”
“Ah.” There was an awkward moment of silence, then, “So, you wanna try that mediclorian booster? I can grab it for you…”
“Oh no!” Rusty said, hastily stopping Douglass’s arm with a big hand. “Save that for when we need it.
“Oh don’t worry, they give those things out like candy at those conventions. I’ve got plenty,” Douglass insisted. He leaned over to grab his bag.
“Yeah, and just leave them where they are,” Rusty snapped. He shoved Douglass’s arm away almost violently. “When the aliens hit, we’ll need the extra brainpower.”
Giving Rusty a nervous look, Douglass sat back in his seat. He gave Envy an apologetic look. Envy, knowing that Rusty probably planned to steal the poor guy’s bag, returned the look of apology.
There was a long, awkward silence as they drove the rest of the way to the outskirts of Wasilla. As soon as the highway split heading to Wasilla and the Mat-Su Regional Hospital came into view on the road ahead of them, Douglass cleared his throat. “Well, thanks for the ride, guys.” He turned to Envy. “If you could drop me off at the front door, near the security station, I could quickly go inside and find something to cure that headache for you.” He gave her a meaningful look, then glanced again at Rusty and started to fidget with one of his black leather driving gloves.
“Sure, I can come inside,” Envy said. She wasn’t really looking forward to finding out what Rusty wanted to do with white phosphorus. She slowed as the off-ramp came into view. “You know, I might even come inside with you. Maybe give you a description of the headache’s symptoms.”
Rusty pulled a gun. “Don’t take the Wasilla turn-off. Take us to Hatcher’s Pass,”
“Rusty!” Envy snapped.
Rusty looked apologetic. “It’s the end of the world and this doctor just happens to stumble into our truck? You’re goddamn right I’m bringing him along. Pappy’s up there lookin’ out for me.”
“Your Pappy was a drunken, wife-beating, asylum-dodging career criminal!” Envy snapped. “You said so yourself!”
“Sorry, Miss Travis,” Rusty said, honestly looking sorry. “But Pappy said this day was coming and I gotta save us. Take us to the Pass.”
Envy tensed her hands on the steering column and started pulling the wheel to the left to take them to Wasilla anyway.
Douglass’s hand on her wrist stopped her. “I don’t mind helping,” he said, again with that meaningful look.
Meaning he didn’t mind getting kidnapped, if it helped her get out of her predicament.
Considering she really didn’t want to deal with Rusty and his alien fetish on her own, Envy deliberated for much too long, then reluctantly yanked the car back onto the Glenn just as she was about to miss the fork to Palmer, beyond which lay Hatcher’s Pass.
“Besides,” Douglass said, his blue eyes finding Envy, “I get the feeling you’ll need all the help you can get.” His gaze drifted back to Rusty. “If it is aliens, and not something more mundane and…local.”
“It’s aliens,” Rusty said, watching another of those strange purple lights flare beyond the cloud cover. “Keep those mediclorians handy, doc. I’ll probably be needing them soon.”
“Sure thing,” Douglass said, his eyes sliding back to Envy. He cleared his throat, then settled into the chair, seemingly unperturbed by the loaded gun that the ape beside him was still pointing at him.
Knuckles white on the steering wheel, Envy reluctantly proceeded to kidnap her very first doctor.