Steen leaned against a thick tree. Sweat ran down his face, and blood dripped from his bitten hand. With his good hand, he pulled a knife from his belt sheath and cut off the hem of his shirt to make a bandage.

Animals crashed through the trees.

Steen stopped wrapping the bandage and fumbled for his pistol. Why’d the wolf have to bite his gun hand?

He finally drew the pistol and pointed it toward the noise.

A huge wolfdog with a bleeding face charged from the darkness of the trees. Behind him, at least a dozen other canines and big cats followed. The wolfdog paused and stared at Steen.

“Koda. I thought it was the others.” Steen holstered his pistol. “No luck?”

Koda’s tongue shot out and licked the blood running down his torn muzzle. “What do you think?” More growling than usual accented his voice.

Behind Koda, a hound balanced on three legs, her head low. A lion stood, a row of huge gashes torn across his face. He’d probably lost an eye to another big cat.

Steen tied his improvised bandage. “Let’s get back to the lab.”

The walk to the lab only took a few minutes. Steen and Koda stepped onto the lab’s concrete parking lot. The rest of Koda’s pack followed.

One of the head scientists ran to them, his hands twitching. “Did you get them?”

Steen grimaced. “They got us. We lost at least four men, and we’ve got more injured. That dark wolf got me good.” His hand throbbed in agreement.

Koda spoke, his growling accent stronger than ever. “I lost at least fifteen of my pack, probably twenty.” He turned his head, exposing the chunk of skin missing from his muzzle. “One of your traitorous dogs almost ripped off my face.”

The scientist stared at them. “I can’t believe it. They gave you the slip, hundreds of them. Either you’re both idiots or our work’s paid off.”

Steen lashed out at the scientist, his good hand connecting with the man’s chin. The scientist fell to the pavement. Steen glared down at him. “You give animals human minds, then expect them to stay locked up like normal lab rats?”

Koda stepped over the scientist and bared his teeth inches from the scientist’s throat. Blood from his wound dripped onto the man’s face. “One of your own scientists let the disloyal beasts out. They’ll put you down for that oversight.”

The scientist paled.

“Get in the building.” Koda stepped off the scientist. “I’m not adding your escape to my record.”

When Steen looked down at the terrified man, power surged through him. Koda spoke the truth. The government wouldn’t allow word of this to get out. Good thing Koda and I are loyal.








Chapter 1


Ten years later


“Hey Rolf, you want to go to the Castle Café and get something to eat?” Jerry threw a dirty rag on the machine shop floor. It landed under a car with a missing headlight.

Rolf attempted to wipe the grease off his hands, but he needed soap to get the worst of it off. “I’d better get home. It’s almost nine, and I’m a mess.”

“Just leave your coat on. It’ll hide the grease.” Jerry combed back his thinning hair.

Rolf calculated how many homemade meals he could have for the same price as one restaurant meal. “No thanks.”

“When was the last time you ate?”

Rolf stared at the floor. “I had a sandwich and a big breakfast.”

Jerry slapped Rolf on the back. “If money’s what you’re worried about, I’ll pay. I need you tomorrow.”

“I guess I’ll go.” A warm meal would be a step up from what he normally gulped down before bed. Rolf hurried to the restroom and washed his hands. He combed through his hair with his hands, thankful any dirt would blend in with the hair’s muddy color. A bit of hair fell in his eyes. I’ll have to get Granddad to cut it. Rolf ran out of the restroom to catch up with Jerry, who was already outside the machine shop.

Jerry and Rolf stepped onto the sidewalk. Because of the humid summer night, even more bugs swarmed around the streetlights than usual.

As a car whizzed past, Rolf squinted against the bright headlights. He crossed the street after Jerry. Jerry darted through the low door and into the Castle Café. The building had no windows, making it feel like a basement. The heat and thick smells of burning grease in the air didn’t help matters either.

Jerry chose a table near the bar, where the stench of beer hit Rolf’s nostrils.

Rolf scanned the crowd. There were only a few customers eating, but nearly a dozen were perched on the bar stools drinking and watching the TV. At least it was a North Dakota ball game and not another bit of propaganda about how close Iran was to developing nuclear weapons or an “expert” trying to reassure Americans the economy wasn’t about to crash.

A waitress with a nose ring and too much makeup strutted to their table and stood with her pencil poised over a pink notebook. “What can I get you?” She brushed her ratty hair out of her eyes.

Jerry smiled at the waitress. “I’ll take the shrimp special. Get the kid a steak, medium rare.”

“Drinks?” The waitress winked at Jerry.

Rolf slumped in his seat and hoped the waitress wouldn’t notice he was closer to her age than Jerry. If she’s trying to flirt with a guy twice her age, she must be desperate.

“I’ll take a Bud Light.” Ignoring the waitress, Jerry lifted a brow in Rolf’s direction. “Rolf, what about you?”

“Water.” Jerry had already bought him a steak. Rolf didn’t need to waste more of Jerry’s money.

Jerry frowned.

“Is that all?” The waitress shifted from foot to foot.

“That’s all for now.” Jerry glanced at the bar.

The waitress zipped to the kitchen and flitted back to the table with the water and Jerry’s beer.

Jerry glanced at the bar again. “Mind if I go over there?”

“Go ahead.” Rolf took a sip of water as he listened to the men at the bar.

“Jerry!” one of the men shouted as Jerry sat on a barstool. “Levi was just telling us about the cat he saw.”

“I saw a cougar a few years back.” Jerry took a gulp of beer. “You don’t see them often, but something’s eating the deer.”

“This was a tiger, not a cougar.” A bearded man, Levi, reached for another beer. “I was checking the water tanks after dark a few weeks ago, and the thing was getting a drink.”

“You sure you haven’t had a few too many?” Jerry leaned back. “This isn’t exactly somewhere you find escaped zoo animals.”

“He might have a point,” another man said, his tone serious. “Remember that kid in the car wreck seven or eight years ago? Now that’s a story from someone who’s had way too many.”

“What about it?” Jerry asked.

“Well, this car ran off the road in the winter. Killed the mom, but a three-year-old girl made it. Thing was, the car was upside down in the snow for hours. When they found the kid, she was on the ground, away from the car. She said big kitties and a dog took care of her.”

Rolf wanted to go to the bar and listen, but he stayed at the table.

“The kid probably watched too much of that Narnia movie.” Jerry took a gulp of beer.

Levi shook his head, more serious. “I heard this one. The Beaver County sheriff only found her because he almost hit a wolf. Said the wolf ran off and came back dragging the kid. Wasn’t a tooth mark on her. If I hadn’t heard it from one of his deputies, I wouldn’t believe it.”

The waitress plunked two plates of food in front of Rolf. She rushed back to the kitchen. Jerry hurried back to his chair and sat down.

Rolf started eating his steak. “Thanks for the meal.”

“You deserve it.” Jerry leaned across the table so he was easy to hear over the bar noise. “Never thought a seventeen-year-old could do better than most of the adults I’ve hired.”

Rolf took another bite. Maybe I’ll get a raise. If he got a raise, he’d be able to get more money saved to pay for any health problems Granddad could have. Granddad wouldn’t let me spend all the money on him. He could buy some more ammunition for his rifle and get more practice shooting. With the economy the way it was, things could go downhill fast. Ammunition would be a good investment. Still, a raise would mean the government stealing more of his wages. Rolf gritted his teeth. They treat us like slaves.

The TV blared an emergency tone.

“Hey! What about the game?” One of the men at the bar leaped off his stool and glared at the TV screen, which had an image of a mushroom cloud displayed behind a newscaster. The fuzzy image could have been from a Cold War nuclear test if it wasn’t for the newscaster’s panicked expression.

Not seeing the commotion behind him, Jerry leaned forward. “I’m going to give—”

“Shh!” Rolf cut Jerry off. He stared over Jerry’s shoulder at the TV.

“Iran has gained nuclear capabilities and declared war on the United States.” Instead of looking at the camera, the blonde newscaster’s gaze darted around the newsroom, as if she expected bombs to fall on her. “You are urged to take cover in the nearest basement or bomb shelter. This is not a drill.” The video went black, then repeated.

Rolf stood, ready to bolt for the door.

Jerry sat frozen.

“Jerry, get yourself some food and guns,” Rolf said. “I’m headed home.”

Jerry stared at the TV. “It’s all over.”

I need to be with Granddad. Rolf ran for the door, his heart pounding. Jerry would have to take care of himself. It didn’t matter if he found a basement or not. The little backwater town was over a hundred miles from the nearest population center that could be a target for a nuclear attack.

Rolf raced out of the café and back to the machine shop where he left his pickup. Ignoring the speed limit, he sped to the drug store.

The pickup squealed to a stop outside the small drug store, which was attached to the owner’s house. Before going in, Rolf opened the glove box. He grabbed a pistol from the bottom of the glove box and stuffed it under his jacket. No one’s going to arrest me for carrying this now.

Rolf jumped out of the pickup and ran to the drug store door. The sign read “closed” even though the lights were still on. He pounded on the door. “Walt! It’s me, Rolf. Let me in.”

Walt, holding a broom, opened the door. Rolf shot into the store, almost knocking Walt’s huge glasses off his face.

“I need heart medicine for Granddad. I want all you have.” Rolf reached into his pocket and pulled out a roll of bills.

Walt’s eyes, enlarged by the glasses, settled on Rolf. “What’s going on? You know it’s past closing time. Is Karl okay?” He straightened his glasses.

“We’re about to get nuked.” Rolf slapped the bills onto the counter. “I need heart medicine for Granddad.”

“Nuked? They wouldn’t.” Walt grabbed his cell phone and dialed a number. When he put it to his ear, he frowned and looked at the cell phone. “Something’s wrong. It says there’s no signal.” The phone fell from his shaking hands and bounced across the floor.

Emergency sirens reverberated through the town.

“I need the heart medicine. Please.”

Walt looked at Rolf, pity filling his eyes. “Rolf, I can’t give it to you. By my reckoning, you’ve already got a year’s worth. That should be enough.”

“But this isn’t going to end after a year!” Rolf put his hand on the pistol in his jacket.

Walt grabbed a box of medical supplies and ran to his car, ignoring Rolf. “Karl probably won’t have a year to live if things go the way I think they will.” He tossed the boxes into his car. “I know a woman who uses the same medicine as he does. She’s got two little kids.” Walt looked Rolf in the eyes. “You won’t use that gun on me.”

How’d he know I had one? Rolf let his hand fall from the pistol. What was I thinking? I’m no looter.

He charged from the drugstore and leaped into his pickup. At nine-thirty, not many people heeded the sirens, but a few scrambled through town like panicked horses. God, help us! Rolf mentally cried as he drove.

A flash, like lightning, but from farther away and the color of fire, shot from the west.

Remembering what he’d learned from the military manuals he had read, Rolf averted his gaze before realizing the blast was too far away to damage his eyes.

In the rearview mirror, a blanket of darkness smothered the town. So this is what nuclear war looks like. The only unnatural light left was the bomb’s glow on the horizon, but the blast was too far away for the mushroom cloud to be visible.

He tried to remember what he’d learned about nuclear fallout, but most of that had been written for people much closer to a nuclear attack, not for ones hundreds of miles away. Taking potassium iodine would probably be enough to keep him safe, if any fallout did reach them. With the bomb going off to the west and the wind coming from the northwest, it would probably blow anything dangerous farther south.

When Rolf got home, he drove the old pickup into the driveway and slammed on the brakes. The moon gave the only light to the world without electricity. Rolf’s and the sole neighbors’ houses were both smothered by the blackness.

Rolf turned off the key and ran into the mobile home, leaving the screen door open as he kiltered through the house. “Granddad!” Rolf charged into his granddad’s bedroom where he found him sitting in his wheelchair looking to the west.

“So you saw it too.” Granddad gazed at the still glowing horizon. “Been a long time since I’ve seen a town bombed. Never thought I’d see this again, even with the news.”

Rolf sniffed and walked to the window to stand by Granddad. “I tried to get you more heart medicine, but Walt wouldn’t let me have any.” He tried not to let his voice break. Granddad would realize he was upset.

Granddad laid his hand on Rolf’s back. “You’ve gotten me a few extra month’s worth. That will be enough. Did you gas up the pickup?”

“No.” Rolf attempted to control his emotion. “I tried to get you medicine. It’s got three quarters a tank though. Why? We don’t need gas to survive.” He’d left his money on Walt’s counter. Not that cash would have any value now.

“I want you to go west to the Walls’ ranch in Montana. If you leave now, you’ll be able to make it there in a couple of hours, before things get bad. They’re just across the North Dakota border.”

Rolf headed for the hallway closet. “What about you?” Rolf grabbed his AR-15 carbine then snagged an extra magazine for it from one of the shelves. He also pocketed a homemade silencer, which was illegal but effective. Good thing he’d made it when the media started squawking about war and the economy more than usual.

Granddad wiped his glasses. “I’ll stay here. I can’t be slowing anyone down.”

“I’m staying with you.” Rolf slung the black rifle across his chest. If only he’d had enough money to buy more ammunition for the military style rifle. Most of the ranchers were better armed than he was. At least Granddad had an old hunting rifle. It’s not like we can use more than one rifle at a time.