Brandon carefully conned the shortwave radio bands searching for the faint signal he had heard a few weeks earlier. He located it on the maritime bands and while the speaker only spoke Spanish, he found it strangely comforting. After all, it meant someone was alive. That was, someone besides Brandon and his dog, Cooter.
Brandon hightailed it to his cabin in the middle of April when the plague first reared its ugly head in the far East. He stopped long enough to pick up some last minute supplies before making the four hour drive into the St. Francois Sauk mountains where his hideaway was located. Since then, he had barred the door so to speak and remained hunkered down until the mess passed.
He had a medium sized solar setup which kept the well water flowing, powered some LED lights and the shortwave set. At first, he limited his communications to an hour or so a day. The rest of the day he worked on his garden, construction of the coop and yard for his dozen or so layers, and getting the place ready for the duration. But lately, he found himself trolling the different frequencies more and more each day.
Brandon had few friends, none he could think of by name, only passing acquaintances from work and such. He was married once and briefly. His distance and lack of patience for her idle chit chat drove his wife away eventually. He had not spoken with her in more than a decade and could sadly assume she was carried away with all the others.
But for now, Brandon searched for any scrap of information about the outside world, more importantly, for the sound of another human. Cooter lay by his feet, resting his doggie chin on his crossed paws as he had hour after hour lately.
It was then the six inch speaker blared with the sound of a male voice:
"This is station WGY906 on air. Are there any listeners out there?" said the voice.
"That's not proper protocol," thought Brandon. "Clearly some sort of amateur working the dial."
He then reached over to his catalogue and looked up the call sign WGY906. He nearly fell out of his chair when he read it was a FEMA call sign out of North Texas.
"This is station WGY906 on air. C'mon folks, there's gotta be someone awake tonight?" said the voice which Brandon detected had a slight southern drawl to it.
Brandon decided to keep his cards close and play it safe considering it was FEMA and all.
"This is K... KGX713, over. Repeat KGX713, over. I hear you nice and clear, over." Brandon stated.
"Well, hot dog. We got one guys!" said the man's voice slightly fainter into the microphone as if he turned away for a moment. It seemed Brandon could hear at least one other voice in the background, maybe two.
"Sorry, I had to tell the rest of the team. How you doing out there, KG.. um, KG?" he asked.
"All is positive and affirmative, over. And the call sign is KGX713. Say, how long have you had your license, over?" asked Brandon.
"License? Oh, for the radio. I don't have one I'm afraid, KG. We just got this rig up and working this morning and we're just trying to spread the word. My name is Ryan and I am in Denton, Texas just north of Dallas. It's good to hear another voice as always. Where are you at?" Ryan asked.
Brandon panicked. Denton was far away, but who knew if the JBT's were triangulating his signal even now as he spoke. He'd have to make it quick and figure out how to play this one out.
"I'd rather not say, if you don't mind, over. What with things being as they have been the past few months, one can't be too careful, over." Brandon replied.
"I gotcha. Tell you what, I'll tell you about us and you just chime in whenever you want, okay?" said Ryan.
"Affirmative, over." said Brandon.
"Cool. OK, so we are where I told you and you're the first person we've reached on the big radio. We've found some others on the CB and with handhelds, but now that we've got this system up and running, we can really spread our wings."
For the next half hour, with Brandon furiously taking notes, Ryan explained how he and a group of others, primarily from Louisiana southern Arkansas and east Texas made their way to the FEMA center they were now broadcasting from.
Their hope that the center being a "continuity of government site" would have some sort of authority or organization. Instead, they discovered all within were dead. The power was still nominally on as were the computers and they learned the truth about the effects of the plague both in the United States and the rest of the world.
"So, the government is gone and it's the same everywhere else. Most of the people in the world are dead except for a few scattered crumbs like you and I, KG." finished Ryan.
Brandon slumped in his chair the enormity of the situation he knew in his heart to be true.
"Look, if you want, KG, and if you have the means, you can come visit us here. We got a great group of folks, more every day in fact." said Ryan.
"How many of you are there, over?" asked Brandon.
"Over two hundred now. We got the power working to this place and are working on clearing out bodies, you know? We've got a lot to do and need everybody we can find to get things going again." replied Ryan.
"I imagine so, over. I have some things to attend to, Ryan. Will you be on the air tomorrow, say the same time, over?" asked Brandon.
"Sure! I'll holler at you tomorrow, KG. Take care." said Ryan and then he cut out.
Brandon turned down the volume on the short wave and put his head in his hands.
That night Brandon tossed and turned in his bunk.
"What if this Ryan guy was telling the truth? What if the plague had run its course and survivors were regrouping? What if there was a chance to rebuild society?"
Of of these possibilities were intriguing to Brandon. He had long embraced the survival movement known as prepping and the results were clear. He bugged out, survived and still had adequate supplies and knowledge to continue on indefinitely.
But Brandon had never thoroughly thought out what would happen afterward. He always assumed that daily life would be dangerous, but over time, he would hook up with a burgeoning community and share what knowledge and skills he had obtained over time.
Brandon bolted out of bed, turned on an LED lantern, grabbed a notebook and pencil and began making a list of questions for Ryan the next time they spoke.
For the first time in months, Brandon was actually excited about the day and could be caught whistling and even smiling to Cooter. He tossed the dog several treats as he cleaned and straightened out his small, but efficient cabin. Brandon had not realized it before, but he had been neglecting chores the past few weeks what with the hours he spent in front of the radio so now he had plenty to keep him busy.
Before long, the shadows through the window grew long with the setting sun and that meant prime broadcasting time. Brandon warmed up the shortwave set, put on a fresh pot of tea and took a quick trip to the outhouse while he let Cooter relieve himself in the yard.
Eying his pocket watch, Brandon noticed that Ryan was a few minutes late for their arranged time.
"Young man does not know good radio etiquette or how to be perfunctory for appointments." he humphed to himself.
Just then, the speaker crackled and Ryan's voice came through, loud and clear.
"This station WGY906 on air, who's got their ears on tonight!" his voice boomed.
Brandon adjusted the speaker volume and keyed his mike.
"This is KGX713, over." he said.
"KG! What's happening? Hey, did you hear me asking who's got their ears on? I learned that from a guy calling in from Arizona yesterday." said Ryan.
"I did. If we get the chance to meet someday, I'll be happy to go over radio jargon and standard responses, over." replied Brandon.
"That would be cool. So you must be a real ham, do I have that right? A ham?" asked Ryan.
"Indeed, I have had my license for several years, over. Any news you can share with me today, Ryan?" asked Brandon.
"You bet, KG. After we spoke last night, we got in touch with five or six others during the night. We made contact with folks all over. Lesse, that guy in Arizona, someone in Washington state, Wisconsin, a lady in Ohio and even one guy in Iceland." said Ryan.
"That's great, Ryan. We're they thinking of coming down where you are, over?" inquired Brandon.
"Almost all of them, even the guy in Iceland. He was talking about fitting a boat and trying his hand at getting to Canada and then down our way. He's all alone and said he'd rather die at sea than stay where he is." replied Ryan somberly.
"I can imagine. So these people who you are talking to, do they have any skills you need? I guess, does your community have a list of skills or trades you are looking for? Perhaps trade goods, over?" asked Brandon.
"Right now they only thing we need are living people. It's more of a come as you are proposition right now. As for skills, Casey sitting at the radio next to me worked in a comic book shop before all this. Evie was a waitress." said Ryan.
"There are women there, too?" blurted Brandon without thinking.
"Sure, men, women, some kids, some older folks. KG, you old devil, you sound like you're looking for a girlfriend." laughed Ryan.
Brandon blushed and looked down subconsciously at his shoes.
"No, I was just surprised that you are advertising women being at your survival community. I mean what if brigands or convicts were listening, over?" asked Brandon.
"They would if they wanted to KG, I can't control the airways. And besides, if there's one bad character out there, he'll have to deal with all of us. We stick by our own, you know?" replied Ryan.
"That's good to hear. So how do I know you won't rob me and steal what I have if I decided to pay a visit?" asked Brandon.
"What would we steal?"
"Food, for instance."
"Why? The stores are full of food, enough for a lifetime."
"What about my truck or fuel?"
"I have a dozen different cars I can drive right now. And we can't use all the gasoline in the tanks if we wanted too."
"Guns or gold?"
"We got a National Guard armory down the road with anything you can imagine. The coin and jewelry stores are wide open if anyone wanted anything from those places, not that they're worth anything any more."
"How do I know you won't put me in chains and force me to labor for you?"
"Slave masters don't sleep well, KG."
"What if I wanted to leave if I didn't like things there?"
"How can we stop you? And if you left, we don't have enough people to look for you if you did."
Brandon stopped and said nothing for a few moments.
"KG, you still there? Did we lose you?" asked Ryan.
"No, you didn't Ryan. Rather, I'm glad you found me. And please, call me Brandon. Brandon Mitchell is my name."
Ryan cut off the conversation after fifteen minutes saying he had others to check in with including a group he had made contact with in Nebraska. Word had it they were heading Ryan's way in the next two days and wanted to check on road conditions. Brandon was immediately jealous.
Standing and stretching his back, Brandon looked around the cabin and was struck about how small and dark it was. Cooter lifted his head and looked up at his master sensing something was wrong.
"Cooter, how would you like to go on a trip, buddy?"
The next evening found Brandon having winterized the place as best he could. He decided he would leave in two or three days once he calculated a route, fuel stops and taking time for detours due to road conditions. At the approximate time, he reached out to Ryan on the radio.
"Ryan, this is Brandon Mitchell, you know, KG. Are you on, over?"
"KG, how's it going good buddy. I was hoping you'd call in. So what did you decide you wanted to do?" Ryan asked.
"Well, after thinking it over, I guess I'll give it a shot." said Brandon.
"Great, we'll be glad to have you! We've been on the radio all day with people and groups all over. So many out there. So when are planning on leaving?" asked Ryan.
"I think in a day or two. I have to get the place buttoned up, put gas in the truck, get some food and supplies together, round up the chickens.."
"You have chickens! Man, I can't wait to see you! We got a small flock we found here about but everyone can't get enough fresh eggs." interrupted Ryan.
"Indeed, I have chickens and plenty of good knowledge and skills which might be of use to you. Small engines, power systems, animal husbandry, gardening. I hope I can be useful." replied Brandon.
"Why you're a regular Mick Steen, KG." said Ryan.
"Mick Steen, who's that?" asked Brandon.
"He's our local jack of all trades. Older guy like you. Fixes stuff, got the lights on, found some dairy cows. Yep, you and he will get along great. Either that or you'll go at it like a couple of cats in a sack." laughed Ryan.
"Humph," thought Brandon to himself, "this Steen character will be my assistant when I'm through."
"Sounds great, Ryan," said Brandon through pursed lips. "Any good news you can share with me, I know your're busy and have to go soon."
"Sure, KG. I got a great story. A woman and a little girl came in last night. The woman had stepped on something and had a pretty badly infected foot. I don't think she'll make it. The girl, she's about three or so but she's in pretty good health. The woman found her about a month back and they've been on foot this whole time. See, the woman couldn't drive a car."
"Anyway, they don't have a radio, never they heard any of these broadcasts. Just the woman said she had a dream to head this way and so they did. The little girl keeps saying 'Go see G. Go see G.' We don't know why or what it means, but don't that beat all? That little girl is like our mascot around here. We don't know her real name or anything about her, but she's cute as a bug."
Brandon paused as his eyes watered up, the first time in as long as he could remember.
"I can't wait to meet her, Ryan. She sounds like a real little miracle." he said in a cracked voice.
"She sure is. OK KG, let's plan on talking one last time tomorrow and then I guess I'll see you in a week or so, good?" said Ryan.
"Sounds like a plan, Ryan. I am looking forward to meeting you, that little girl and the community real soon." said a beaming Brandon.
And he meant it.
The next day, Brandon filled the gas tank and turned over his old Ford pickup. It sputtered but finally caught and soon was purring away. He checked the tires and fluids and pulled it around in front.
He took two large duffles and filled them with clean shirts, pants and socks. He then took down a large tote and filled it with non-perishable foods including dog food for the trip.
Satisfied with his work, he fed the chickens one last time and took around his place.
"I'm going to miss this old place," he thought to himself, "But seeing some new faces will be fine all the same."
The evening found Brandon pacing the floors until his scheduled call in with Ryan. He ended up calling in early and waiting as his attempts were ignored for a few minutes. Just as the first time, the speaker squawked to life.
"This is station WGY906 on the air. KG, you out there?" came Ryan's southern drawl.
"This is KG, over. How's it going Ryan?" asked Brandon.
"Just peachey. Man today is a day of all days. We've got dozens of people calling in to our broadcasts from all over and even more traveling here now as we speak. But I got good news for you tonight, KG." said Ryan.
"What's that?" asked Brandon.
"I got a full staff of ten folks working the radio tonight so that means you and I can have a good long chat. I figure this being your last night before you head out, you probably have a lot of questions." replied Ryan.
"I guess I do, but to tell the truth, it's just good to hear another human voice. I guess I really missed it." said Brandon.
"That's what everyone says, KG. So tell me, were you married or have kids before all this?" asked Ryan.
"Yeah, I was married, but that was over ten years ago. Don't know what happened, well, I do. I wasn't much of a talker and kept to myself. I think that drove the poor woman away. I realize that now." said Brandon.
"Don't beat yourself up, KG. You got a second chance most don't get. So how long's it been since you talked to another person? We keep a sort of unofficial record around here of who's gone the longest." said Ryan.
"Really? I haven't really thought about it. I bugged out when the virus started spreading and was fortunate enough to be off the beaten path when things fell apart. I guess I'd have to look at a calendar." replied Brandon.
"That's the same story most folks share with us. I was in Little Rock in the middle of May when the virus arrived in LA, Seattle and San Francisco. Afterward, I went down to Baton Rouge and helped my sister and her family until.. well they all passed. That was tough. Then I had to lay low for the rest of the summer, what will all the government folks looking for folks who weren't sick. Remember that?" asked Ryan.
"No, actually I didn't experience that, Ryan. I was fortunate enough to get to my place here in the hills before it got that bad." said Brandon.
"You were lucky, real lucky. I haven't heard anyone who got out of the cities so late in the summer. By then the quarantines, the roadblocks and all were up. You must be like a fox, Brandon." laughed Ryan.
"Well, I can be crafty when I need to be. But that's not what happened. See, I bugged out in April long before the virus reached the States. Where I am right now is miles from the nearest town or house. How many months does that make it? Six months? Is that right? How's that for the record, Ryan?" asked Brandon with a smile on his face.
There was silence for a few moments before Ryan finally spoke.
"Let me ask you something, Brandon," asked Ryan using Brandon's real name for the first time.
"Since April, have you had contact with anyone? You know, a trip into town for some groceries or gas? Maybe a look around in the past few months? Even just a drive through a nearby town?" Ryan asked in a serious tone.
"Why no, Ryan. Like I told you, have been sitting tight here since April. If your worried I might be carrying the virus you don't need to. I have been maintaining strict mitigation and quarantine protocols the whole time. I even have a respirator and Tyvek suit I wore during the first few months whenever I left the house." said Brandon.
"Yeah, those respirators, saw a lot of them in the end.." said Ryan his voice trailing off.
"So I don't think you have anything to worry about Ryan. Now you're starting to worry me, like I did something wrong or maybe you don't want me to come out your way." said Brandon.
"No, you didn't do anything wrong, KG. You did everything right, right by the book. But unless I heard your wrong or your left something out, then I can't let you come here." said Ryan quietly.
"What do you mean," blurted Brandon, "What's wrong? I need to get there.. what are you talking about?"
"Brandon, I want you to listen carefully to me. You have been in self-imposed quarantine for over six months and there's nothing wrong with that. The problem is none of us have." said Ryan.
"But.." interrupted Brandon.
"Please, listen to me, this is hard for me to tell you, Brandon. The rest of us were exposed to the virus, from our friends, families and strangers before they died. But for some reason or another, we never got sick. Nobody can explain it and even here, on the FEMA computers, they could not figure it out until the end. It seems some people are naturally immune, but they are still carriers." said Ryan.
"Well, obviously I am immune as well," replied Brandon. "I mean it's an airborne virus and it's not like I am in a fallout shelter with filtered air. So I don't think we have anything to worry about, do we?" said Brandon, now with a hint of desperation in his voice.
"It doesn't work like that, KG. The virus is airborne, but only over a short distance. Most were infected through contact and you.. you have had no contact. I guess there is a small chance, almost Infinitesimal that you are immune, but the only way to find that out is for you to leave your cabin and come here."
"Sure.. so I'll make plans to ..." said Brandon.
"But odds are you aren't immune and you will contract the virus long before you ever get near here. You'll drive through an infected town, pick up a gas pump handle covered in the virus, any number of ways. And you'll get sick and then you'll die. I can't let you do that, life is too precious. I won't have that on my head." said Ryan.
"But maybe there is a cure for the virus at that center you're at. Maybe they found a way for me to live there and not get sick. If anything, I can just bring my respirator and gear and live with you guys, I'll just be separate and keep covered up, OK?" begged Brandon.
"There's no cure, Brandon. It just how it is. And your gear won't work either, Brandon. All the authorities in the end did the same thing and they all died. Respirators, gloves, sanitizer none of it works long term. The virus finds a way around it." said Ryan.
"But that's not fair! I am alive, just like you and all the others. You can't make me stay here! It's not fair! I want to see all the people, the little miracle girl! I have to show that Steen guy how much I know!" shouted Brandon.
"I'm sorry, Brandon, I really am." said Ryan quietly.
"You just didn't want me there, none of you did. You guys were just pulling my chain. There's probably nobody there, just you and a few other flea bitten good for nothings sitting around in an old building messing with people." said Brandon bitterly.
There was no reply or sound from Ryan, just the quiet static from the speaker.
"Brandon, I'll be right here if you ever want to talk for a bit. I don't know what will happen, but there are more people coming here and I am sure we will have someone you chat with from time to time." said Ryan hopefully.
"Sure, pick straws to see who gets stuck talking the old man in the woods. The freak who didn't die. A man in a jar cut off from the living world like a trapped lizard in some kid's room. Looking out and watching all of you live, love, grow old and do things. No thanks, Ryan."
"This is KGX713 signing off. That means good bye Ryan." said Brandon as he keyed the mike for the last time.
Brandon stood and balled his fists. He so badly wanted to smash the shortwave to pieces and toss the remains into the fireplace, but he couldn't bring himself to do it. Instead he flipped the receiver to scan mode, the dial spinning away from Ryan's frequency to the next station.
Brandon kicked aside his packed duffles, threw open the front door and stared at the dark sky knitted with diamond like stars. In the background, the speaker sputtered with the chatter of hundreds of voices from across the globe.