Jackson was born in Phoenix, Arizona, in 2072 — six years before Death Storm. His mom, Celine Augusta-Mills, was an event planner, and his father, Garrett Mills, was a wealthy developer.

Garrett wasn’t always involved in real estate, but it was a match made in heaven. Garrett was handsome, charismatic, and aggressive when he needed to be.

Garrett came from a wealthy family and got his start at Stanford. When he was twenty, his parents cut him off, and he was forced to drop out of school. This started Garrett’s ongoing narrative as a self-made man that would last the rest of his life.

Garrett had friends in Silicon Valley, and they brought him on as CFO of their rapidly growing startup. When the startup went public, Garrett immediately sold off his shares. Everyone thought he was insane, but Garrett had other plans for the money.

The next day, he turned around and invested his small fortune in several promising biotech companies — a heavy gamble that was about to pay off.

Garrett got married the year the first bomb hit Washington D.C. Americans panicked, the economy tanked, and most blue-chip stocks took a tumble. The company where Garrett had started went bankrupt — its stock suddenly worthless.

If Garrett had been a normal investor, he would have gone broke. But since the companies he’d invested his money in produced things like heart valves, ventilators, and other life-saving technologies, his money was sheltered when the market tanked.

With the country in the throes a massive recession and layoffs spreading like wildfire, millions of people could no longer pay their mortgages and eventually lost their homes.

Garrett didn’t see catastrophe, though — he just saw another money-making opportunity. He bought a 3,000-square-foot home for a song and began snapping up other properties to pad his portfolio.

In 2061 when the economy began to recover and unemployment numbers started to shrink, Garrett more than doubled his investment.

Two years after that, he started his own development company to take advantage of the booming housing market. He tore down old neglected homes, slapped up a bunch of fancy condos, and made millions.

During that time, his first marriage crumbled, and in 2068, he met Celine.

Although Garrett was fourteen years her senior, Celine was instantly taken with the charming, powerful real estate mogul. She owned her own event planning business, and she admired Garrett’s ambition. The two married in 2070, and soon after, Celine became pregnant.

In 2072, the year Celine gave birth to Jackson, the housing machine in Phoenix looked as though it would continue to churn out money for developers like Garrett. But despite the fact that their net worth was growing, Celine was far from happy.

Four years into her marriage, Garrett was already growing distant. His thirst for power, recognition, and attention meant that he was hardly ever at home. When he wasn’t working, he was out schmoozing Chinese investors or flirting with beautiful women. Celine had never pressed the issue, but in her heart she knew he did more than talk to those women.

The few hours he spent at home, Garrett largely ignored Celine. Most of the time when he spoke to her, it was only to ask her to keep the baby quiet or remind him about a function he had to attend.

Meanwhile, Celine had put her career on pause to care for baby Jackson, and her days were filled with playdates and trips to the park. She loved her son dearly but was ultimately unsatisfied with what her life had become.

When Jackson was born, she’d thought that giving up her high-pressure job was the right thing to do. Garrett was the primary breadwinner, and they didn’t need the money anyway.

Part of her felt relieved to be rid of the bridezillas and PR douchebags who used to monopolize her time, but she couldn’t deny that she was bored. She missed the hectic rhythm of her job and the art of carefully choreographing other people’s most memorable days.

Sometimes after Celine put Jackson down, she’d crawl into her empty bed and down some pills a doctor friend had prescribed. By now, it was 2077, and Americans had once again grown complacent.

The horrors of ’56 had faded, and even though U.S. relations with Russia, China, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan were strained, people felt safe and optimistic.

In 2078, everything changed.

That year, bombs began to fall on major U.S. cities. People were dying by the millions, and residents of Phoenix were fleeing the city. Development projects came to a grinding halt, and Garrett’s company was saddled with truckloads of building materials and nothing to build. Investors pulled out of projects. Mills Group was forced to close its doors, and Garrett lost millions overnight.

With all the money he’d made over the years, things shouldn’t have been that bad. But a combination of Garrett’s unchecked optimism and a thirst to find the next big thing had led him to make some risky investments that ultimately didn’t pan out. The family lost everything except their house, and Garrett hung himself in his six-car garage.

For a few days, Celine sat alone in the dark, getting up only to feed Jackson and put him to bed. Within a week, Phoenix was experiencing rolling blackouts, and the water simply shut off.

When it all became too much, Celine fished her dead husband’s pistol out from under the bed, packed their backs, and loaded Jackson into the Range Rover.

Phoenix was decimated two days later.

Celine had no living family, and all of the Millses’ wealth friends had elected to stay in Phoenix. She and six-year-old Jackson had nowhere else to go, so she drove north.

For a few days, they bounced from hotel to hotel — avoiding major cities — and soon Celine was running low on money. She and Garrett depleted their checking account after the money dried up, and her credit card was no longer working.

She pawned her wedding ring to get some cash, but she knew she had to find a more permanent solution.

Finally, Celine remembered friends of hers who’d owned a home in Vail, Colorado. They hadn’t made it out of Phoenix, but they’d given her the code to the lockbox just in case she and Garrett had ever wanted to get away.

With nowhere else to go, Celine headed for the mountains — buying whatever supplies she could and hoping there would be other survivors in the mountains.

Celine had been right to head for Colorado. There were plenty of survivors in Vail — mostly wealthy families like those they’d known in Phoenix who happened to own second homes near the resort. They’d fled their primary homes when the bombs started dropping, and they immediately welcomed Celine and Jackson into the fold.

Fortunately for Celine, the cabin her friends had owned was completely off the grid. It had its own well, septic, and wood-burning stove. The lights ran on solar power, and there was even a propane-powered generator out back.

For a while, she and Jackson managed just fine. But when supplies started running low, Celine began to panic. Food sold at a premium all around the resort, and fuel was becoming scarce.

In the winter, when they only had scraps left to eat, Celine got desperate. All the families were rationing food by now, and none of them had any to spare for a single mother and her child.

There was only one thing left to do.

Down at the town saloon, there was a man who’d made some not-so-subtle passes at Celine several times before. Celine only intended to trade sex for food once, but as soon as word got around, everything changed.

Suddenly, the women who’d been so kind to Celine shut her out of their homes. None of them wanted their children to play with Jackson, and Celine was shunned whenever she walked down the street. Meanwhile, the husbands of Vail saw Celine’s desperation as a sign that she was open for business.

Celine had grown up poor, and she knew what it was like to be hungry. She never wanted her son to experience that feeling.

By their third winter in Vail, Jackson began to wonder what his mother was up to. Celine never saw clients at her cabin, and she always waited until after Jackson had fallen asleep to slip out into the night. Still, Jackson heard the nasty things people whispered about his mother on the street, and he started to wonder if there was a connection with her late-night outings.

One night he followed Celine and was horrified by what he saw. He never looked in the window again, but he began following his mother on her calls just in case she ever got into trouble. He’d hide in the shadows with his father’s pistol, listening to music to deaden the sounds.

By the time Jackson turned 10, food was becoming more and more scarce. The families living in Vail had scavenged all the grocery stores and houses for miles around, but they knew they’d never make it another winter. Most of them packed up their belongings and headed back to see what was left of their homes, but Celine had nothing to go back to.

Of the scant few who remained at the resort with the Millses, one was a long-time client of Celine’s named Sherman Oakes. Sherman lived just down the road from Jackson and Celine’s cabin, and his wife had moved away last fall with his dog and two sons.

Sherman had always had a bit of a drinking problem, but he seemed to spiral after his wife left him. He began calling Celine over more and more frequently, doling out less food in return each time. Celine, desperate to support herself, had no choice but to take the measly payouts — even though she hated Sherman Oakes with a passion.

One night, Sherman got drunk. He was loud and obnoxious and overly grabby, and it made Celine nervous. She fed Sherman more drinks in the hope that he would fall asleep, but that just made him worse.

Finally, Celine told him she felt sick and tried to leave. Sherman got angry, and things quickly turned violent. Sherman struck Celine and slammed her against the wall, eliciting a panicked scream.

Twelve-year-old Jackson heard his mother and barged through the door to confront Sherman. Jackson felt sick and was trembling all over, but he had three years worth of rage bubbling in his belly.

Sherman turned on Jackson, and Celine tearfully scrambled to put herself between them. She grabbed Sherman’s arm, and he knocked her back. Celine lost her balance and dropped to the ground — hitting her head on the marble hearth.

Jackson didn’t think. He just pulled out the pistol and fired.

Sherman dropped to the ground, and Jackson ran to help his mother. He waited and waited, but Celine never woke up. Neither did Sherman.

Horrified by what he’d done, Jackson fled the house and ran back to the cabin. He packed everything he could fit into a duffle bag, piled on his warmest clothes, and ran back to Sherman’s house to steal a car. His mother’s Range Rover didn’t have any fuel in the tank, but Sherman’s Mercedes did.

Jackson had never driven a car in his life, but he’d watched his mother enough to know how.

He got the Mercedes out of the garage, but navigating the icy roads proved difficult. Jackson made his way West along I-70, topping out at 20 miles per hour. He drove all night in a weary haze and finally ran out of gas.

The signs told Jackson he was close to Grand Junction, so he walked the remaining seven miles through the snow. When he got there, he found a refugee camp run by the Red Cross. He was given a hot meal, dry clothes, and a cot to sleep on. The social workers tried to get Jackson living under the care of one of the other families, but no one wanted another mouth to feed.

It didn’t matter. Jackson was determined to go it alone, so he stayed at the camp for two weeks and then started hitchhiking west. He had it in his head that he would go to California. He’d heard his father had family there, though he’d never met them and had no idea where to look.

Along the way, Jackson heard there might be communities of survivors south of Salt Lake City, so he changed course to head north up Interstate 15.

For the next four years, Jackson made his own way around Utah, looking for survivors who were doing better than he was. He didn’t find many. The people he met couldn’t understand how a young teenager was making it on his own, but Jackson always managed to find food or shelter when he needed it.

When he was sixteen, he met a young couple in Provo who were sleeping in their car and half starved to death. Jackson shared his food, they talked, and the three of them decided to push forward together. The couple needed someone who knew how to scavenge, and Jackson was tired of being alone.

Over the next year and a half, they picked up more people. Soon there were nine or ten of them living in the same abandoned building and sharing the food they found.

By now, Jackson was eighteen — handsome, charismatic, and endowed with the sort of confidence that made others confident in him. He’d never intended to be a leader, but he’s started something bigger than himself. He’d given people hope — he’d given them power. Most of all, he’d given them strength in numbers, and that often meant the difference between life and death.

That year, they made their home in an old rat-infested motel, and Nuclear Nation was born.

***

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