0633 HOURS LOCAL
1233 HOURS ZULU
Howe rose early, his head finally feeling somewhat better. Olerud had re-bandaged it last night, and a couple of tranks had kept the guilty nightmares at bay. All he could remember was a dream of a pleasant summer stroll to the Stave Church in Minot, holding hands with Sheree, while Dotty chased birds and chattered incessantly.
That was August. It had been hot. Dotty didn’t want to wear her hat. Sheree had started talking about making another baby. He’d said, “Wait till I make Major.”
Now, there would be no other baby. Just as well. Howe mechanically went through the motions of making coffee as a way of changing mental gears. He tried to think about the Stave Church instead.
It was a magnificent all-wood, Viking style monument to the Scandinavians like Olerud who had populated the area. To Howe, it had reminded him of the popsicle-stick houses he’d made as a boy.
Was it flattened into twigs? Burned into ashes? Or simply swept away as if it had never been there?
Or had Minot been spared as they had been? However unlikely it was, the hope lingered. Howe knew it was stupid. But Olerud was right. They had to try.
The coffee was on. Olerud snored loudly in his launch chair. Howe walked over the console and checked the counter. He did a quick mental calculation. 20 rems an hour. A big drop from yesterday. But still, ten hours of walking to Minot, and they’d be radsick. If they left today, they’d have to hope the levels would decrease further south.
That seemed unlikely. But he wasn’t sure how long he could keep Olerud in here. And their survival depended on sticking together.
Command decision. This was the sort of thing the Colonel had always emphasized with him.
“You are the man. The procedures? The chain of command? It’s just you with two engines shot away over the Sea of Japan in the middle of the night, and ten guys whose lives depend on you. Life and death are all in your hands.”
As a missileer, he’d never really seen himself having to make that sort of John Wayne, hell or the high road, type decision. But his dad was right now. The procedures were exhausted, the chain of command had told them to fend for themselves. He may not have had ten men to look out for like his dad had back in ’53, but he had one. And that was enough.
Maybe today was the day. He couldn’t decide just yet. He couldn’t do anything without coffee.
0740 HOURS LOCAL
1340 HOURS ZULU
Howe awoke to the sounds of Olerud bustling and assembling supplies.
“I must’ve drifted off again.” He looked at his watch. “Shit.”
“We’d better get moving if we want to make Minot by nightfall.” Olerud was stuffing ammunition and rations into the big pockets of their parkas.
Howe sat up. “That’s if we move today.”
“We’re moving today. Sir. If not you, then just me.” Olerud stopped and stared at him. “The President said the war is over. That means we did our job. Our standing order is to burn codes, secure the facility, and leave. I’m following orders.”
Howe looked around and saw that Olerud had already filled a burn bin with the codebooks, procedure manuals, and decoding cards. Two shotguns with slings leaned against the console. The man had made a decision. “The orders are to move when radiation levels permit. I checked the count this morning, Arne. Still pretty high.”
“Low enough to get to Minot alive. Good enough.”
Howe steadied himself against the wall and stood. “If Minot is glowing like a radioactive cow, Arne? Then what?”
Olerud jutted out his jaw. “Then it don’t fucking matter, Fred.”
“Suicide mission? Count me out.”
“Fine.” Olerud began to unhook his Lieutenant’s bars from his collar.
“What are you doing?”
“Resigning my commission. Otherwise, it’s desertion. And you’re the only superior officer around to resign it to.”
“Don’t.” Howe held out his hand to wave off the bars. “I need you, Arne.”
“Then I guess you’re coming with me.”
Howe sighed. “We got time for one more cup of coffee?”
“That’s an order I can follow.”
0835 HOURS LOCAL
1435 HOURS ZULU
Thick black smoke from the burn bin followed them up the escape tunnel as they clambered ponderously to the surface. They wore Poopie suits with respirators, their parkas over top, pockets stuffed with water, rations, and ammo. Olerud carried a map and compass. Howe carried the Geiger counter. Each man had a twelve-gauge shotgun slung across his back.
The smoke reduced visibility to zero as it rose to the top of the tunnel, seeking the open air. Olerud felt for the hatch cover, grunting as he forced it open. Light bathed the two men as they emerged, Olerud helping Howe the last few steps to the surface. They stood clear of the tunnel mouth. Olerud kicked the hatch closed and code locked it.
“Should be nice and ripe for the next occupants.” Howe looked around. “Jesus Christ.” He waved a hand to clear the black smoke and surveyed the scene.
Just over forty-eight hours ago, when they’d reported for duty on what would be their last shift, the prairie that surrounded LCF Oscar-01 had been bright with late fall snow, hard-packed and frosted over. Farms dotted the landscape, about one a mile. Long, straight, clean roads crisscrossed it all.
And there had been a bungalow surrounded by a chain-link fence, and a forest of antennae, on top of their subterranean home.
Now, the landscape was a mixture of black and gray. Shimmering black glassy craters dominated the eastern horizon. Everything else was gray with fire ash and fallout. The straight roads were still straight, but they had been burned black by the touch of manmade suns.
The LCF bungalow had vanished, only the foundation and elevator pit remaining to suggest it had ever existed. The concrete foundation was burned black. Howe saw the skeleton in the forecourt. A charred M-16, twisted like a liquorice stick, rested nearby.
The sky above was a child’s crazy mixture of colors in the morning light. Blue was there, but so were black and gray, ubiquitous above as below, and strange reds and oranges, particularly to the south in the direction of Minot.
And it was hot. Granted, they had three layers of clothing on, one of which was impermeable, but he was sure things had gotten hotter. “It’s hot, Arne. What the hell?”
Olerud nodded. “Ground heat left over from the detonations and the firestorms. Visibility’s better than yesterday though. How’s the count?”
Howe checked the Geiger counter. “Same as the sensors. 18 rems an hour. Better get moving.”
“Yup.” Olerud took out his compass and map. He oriented himself towards Minot. “We head south-south-west. Avoid that big crater over there. See it?”
A glossy black impact crater reflected sunlight. “Jesus. That must be 05. It’s close.”
“Yeah. Fred, I think we’re gonna have to make a break for it between 05 and 07. No other way to get to Minot.” Olerud pointed to the south-west, where Larkin and his crew had died. Another shiny crater marked an impact point.
“Okay. You lead. I’ll tell you when it starts getting hot.”
Trudging and clumsy, fighting heat and fogged eyepieces, the two moved south. They passed two pickups, charred and tossed hundreds of feet from where they’d been parked two days before.
“There goes our ride.” Howe observed glumly. They reached the end of the gravel path and turned right onto 97th Street. “Counts picking up. Keep up the pace.”
“Right.” Olerud panted, suffering. They quick-marched past the farm next to their LCF. It too had been obliterated, nothing remaining but charred timbers, blackened corrugated metal, and an overturned, blistered tractor.
Those kids were friendly. They used to wave to us on summer mornings.
“Hurry it up! We spend more than an hour getting past these craters and there’s no fucking point. We’re cooked!”
“Okay!” The two men panted, sucking in air through the dreadful stinking respirators, as they passed black cow skeletons in gray fields. Behind them loomed one gleaming crater, in front, another. “Okay, turn onto 256 here!”
They entered the highway from the Canadian border to Minot, the pavement seared and blackened. A semi-trailer sat on melted tires, it’s driver a grinning piece of charcoal, his trailer three hundred feet away in a field. A signpost was bent at 90 degrees away from the 07 ground zero.
Now, the Geiger was pegged to maximum, the counts coming like pelting rain. “Move it, move it!” Howe was sure he could taste it, that metal taste they said you could sense when you were getting a bad dose.
They began to run. As they ran, they stopped seeing, stopped hearing. They stumbled, got up, started over.
Soon, the counts began to slow. The craters were behind them now. The cars left on the highway, not quite so blackened, more hammered by blast than immolated. The people inside or strewn about, still dead, all the same.
“Okay… okay.” Howe bent over and rested. “We can slow down. But just a bit.”
Olerud checked his dosimeter. “107 rems. Jesus.”
“You wanted to go now.”
“Looks like the Russians missed 06. I think we’re clear all the way to Minot.”
“Holy shit. Look at that.” Howe pointed to the west. The majority of the Wing’s facilities were in that direction, hitherto hidden from view by folds in the land and their sheer panic to move fast. Now, at least fifty craters, some overlapping each other, dotted the landscape.
“God almighty, Fred. Nobody’ll be able to live here for a hundred years.”
“At least. Let’s move. We don’t wanna be around if the wind shifts.”
“I’d say so.” They resumed their hike down the highway. When they passed a car or truck, they no longer looked in it.
48.41.56 N 101.18.05 W
1030 HOURS LOCAL
1630 HOURS ZULU
They had been on the road for almost two hours when Howe spotted the antennae and the fence from the road.
“Oscar-06. Real crapshoot.”
“War. Larkin and his team, if they’d been here instead of 07, they might’ve made it.” The LF was close to the road. Howe walked over to the shoulder and peered at the silo. The launch door was still open.
“146 rems. You?” Olerud was weary. “I’d sure like to take off these masks.”
“In a bit. Let’s watch the counts. I’m at 142. Looks like we’ve finally found an advantage to being black, Arne.”
“We’re less radioactive.”
They kept plodding on. The counts lessened with each step away from the impact zones to the north. Howe made out a windshield glinting in the sun. “Car ahead on the shoulder. Let’s check it out. Carefully.”
They approached the blue Chevy Citation with shotguns levelled. But there was nobody inside. “Weird.” Olerud shook his head. “Run out of gas?”
Howe sat in the driver’s seat. The keys were in the ignition. He turned them, hearing only clicks.
“EMP is my guess.” The combined electromagnetic pulse from so many bombs in such a small area must have been massive. “He was lucky he crapped out here. But where is he?”
Olerud was alert. “Somebody’s coming!”
Howe heard a loud engine headed north. “Behind the car!”
They crouched behind the Citation as the engine noise grew louder. An old Ford pickup, cab and bed full of people, came into view. “Now!” Howe jumped up, shotgun levelled at the truck. “Air Force! Stop your vehicle!”
Olerud emerged behind him, reluctantly. His shotgun was pointed downwards. The old Ford coughed and lurched.
“We ain’t got nothing! We just wanna get to Canada. You can have our wallets!” The driver had a greasy Caterpillar hat on. “Don’t hurt us, please, mister!”
The passenger was a young woman with red hair. She reached down with her right arm. Olerud caught the movement and brought his weapon up. “Hands up, lady! Air Force! We’re not bandits!”
“What?” The driver yelled.
Howe pulled his respirator off in frustration. “US Air Force, for Christ’s sake!”
“Oh, okay.” The driver lowered his hands and nudged the woman beside him. “Take it easy, Kim.”
Howe motioned Olerud to stay put and walked up to the driver. The passenger had a sleeping baby on her lap. In the back, a horribly burned boy of perhaps twelve was nestled on a stained mattress, tended to by twin teenage girls. The boy whimpered through blistered lips. His eyes and ears were gone. Dear God. He looked back at the cab as the boy cried out.
“Where you folks headed?”
“Canada. Hoping to find a hospital and some food. Where’d you boys come from?” The driver had a massive Adam’s Apple and bleeding gums. His hair was already starting to fall out.
“Up near Maxbass.”
“You guys on the missiles?”
Howe hesitated before answering. “Yup. Where you guys come from?”
“Lansford. Pretty bad down there.”
Lansford was the last town before Minot, a one-horse affair. “You folks get hit?”
“Close enough. Minot got it bad, and we were too close I guess.” Olerud looked across the roof of the truck at him, his respirator off now too, a hopeless look on his face. “Whole sky lit up, just when we sat down to lunch. The girls and Bobby were at school. Bobby got caught outside and trapped in a fire. I wonder…I wonder if I might ask you something in private, sir.”
Howe frowned. “Sure.” He flashed a warning glance at Olerud. He walked with the driver to the other side of the road.
The driver turned toward Howe, voice low and insistent. “Are you a Christian, sir?”
“I, ah… what does that have to do with anything?”
“I just ask ‘cause, well, Bobby’s real bad. He can’t see anything, hear anything…all he can do is suffer, you see?”
Howe began to get the picture. He started to feel sick. “I do.”
“So, if your faith doesn’t allow you to, I’d understand, but…”
“I’ll do it.” The words jumped out of his mouth before he could pull them back. “Just take your family away for a minute, okay?”
“God bless you, sir.” The driver hurried back to the truck. The woman burst into tears and grabbed her husband. He held her for a moment. Howe looked away.
“What is it?” Olerud looked befuddled.
“I’m gonna waste the kid.” Howe said it neutrally. Olerud was shocked.
“You heard me, Arne. Unless you got some miracle drug that can fix him, it’s the only decent thing to do.”
“But… I’m a Christian.”
“Guess that’s why he picked me. I don’t know what I am, now.”
“But… they’re going to Canada. Bet they didn’t get hit at all.”
“Yeah, maybe. But half the people on the Plains will have the same idea. Even before Wednesday, you think a hospital could do anything for a kid fried that bad? Look at him!”
The twin girls walked past them, confused looks on their faces. “Why us?” Olerud whispered, miserably.
“Why me, you mean. I told you, I’m doing it.”
Olerud sighed. He retrieved his revolver from his parka and checked it. “No. We’re a team, remember? Let’s get this over with.”
They walked back to the pickup. Bobby writhed, insensate save for agony. Olerud intoned the 23rd Psalm. Howe beckoned for the revolver.
“Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil…”
Howe shot the boy where his left eye used to be, and the moaning stopped. He handed the gun back to Olerud. “Go easy, Bobby.”
“God forgive us.”
Howe looked down the road to where the family clutched at each other. The mother and one of the twins had fallen to the ground. The baby wailed. He took a soiled blanket and put it over the boy’s ravaged face. “Arne, there’s a lot to forgive.”
48.41.56 N 101.18.05 W
1232 HOURS LOCAL
1832 HOURS ZULU
They marched south in silence, the great road spreading out ahead of them, littered here and there with dead cars. Unlike further north, only the cars were dead. The people must have continued on foot, Howe surmised, meeting their inevitable ends between the craters of Oscar flight.
They had not seen any bodies on their hurried run past the hotspots, to be sure. Besides the ones melted into their cars by the initial blasts. More likely, they had made it north, feeling themselves safe, only to die of radiation sickness within reach of their goal. Howe wondered idly how the Canadians were coping. Probably not well. He guessed bulldozers were digging graves right about now.
There was nobody on foot now. Not one soul. Only three cars had passed in the last two hours. It was not the most populated area, but it still seemed sparse traffic to Howe, when there was so much to flee from south of them. Canada was so close, and potentially untouched. He had expected a torrent of refugees.
The uncomfortable conclusion: The holocaust in Minot had been so sudden and total that few escaped. Of the two cars that had stopped to talk to them, nobody was from Minot. Nobody was from south of Minot, either. The cars were all oldies, mechanical ignitions unaffected by EMP.
The third car had driven around them in a panic. The guns probably didn’t help. Neither did the USAF uniforms, Howe figured. They had brought the war to this peaceful place. A war that had always lurked, incipient, potential, in the farmer’s fields, in every buried capsule and silo. But, like him, the farmers had never really believed the day would come.
But here they were. Howe had cautioned the Hoaglunds (That was the family of Bobby. The round of introductions after he had shot their son in the face was a social grotesquerie Howe had willed from his memory.) and those who had come down the road after them to move fast past Maxbass to limit radiation exposure. The Hoaglunds were already suffering, and Howe wasn’t sure the father was going to make it. The others seemed better off, and listened intently.
The uniform still carried some authority. Maybe they could help someone. Howe was mostly just relieved he hadn’t been asked to shoot anyone else.
They passed fallow fields, dusted with fallout and dying cows, untouched by fire and blast. This was a “safe” spot between the blast zones. But radiation had taken care of that. There was no safety, anywhere. Still, Howe and Olerud hiked with respirators off. The counts were still low, and the wind was still. If that changed, they’d have to go on again. They stuck to the pavement to avoid kicking up fallout.
Olerud marched in sullen silence. The killing of Bobby had affected him deeply. Howe felt for him, but he also felt the need to tell him to harden up. Post-nuclear life was not going to be gentle. He wondered if he should tell him about his sister Dorothy. Maybe he would understand. Maybe he wouldn’t.
Perhaps Olerud really understood that things had changed, really got the fact that life was not going to be very “Christian” any more. Maybe that was why he was hell bent on getting to Minot.
It occurred to Howe that Olerud wanted to die. He had suggested it was a suicide mission. Granted, both men needed to know what had happened to their families. But after that, what? Find the pile of ashes and move on to another duty station? Follow the Emergency War Order?
Howe strongly suspected that things were not going to end that way. The very thought was ridiculous. But if Olerud had a plan, what was his? He really had no idea. For lack of a better idea, he tagged along with Olerud and told himself he was in command.
What a difference 48 hours makes.
Forty-eight hours. Since the war, since the end of everything he, and everyone else he knew, had ever known. Two hours ago, he had shot an eleven-year old boy in the face. What’s more, he’d done it without hesitation, ruthlessly, knowing it was the only possible thing to do.
Does a switch go on in a man’s head to tell him he needs to become a different person? How else could he have gone from the man on Wednesday morning, worried about his next performance review and making Major on the first try; to the man hiking south through a destroyed country to make sure his family was ashes?
A fixed, predictable, regular life. Each new signpost a goal reached. A job protecting a country; a job supporting a family. Now a man operating on entirely different principles.
A country he was supposed to protect. A family he was supposed to protect. How had that worked out? Fred Howe had no idea who had won World War III. But he was beginning to believe that he was one man who had lost it.
“Supposed to be a big farm ahead.” Olerud broke the silence.
“I see it.”
“Not much to look at, this country, is it?”
“It’s not in its best light right now, to be fair, Arne.”
“Reminds me of what my dad said about Italy.”
“What was that?” Howe was relieved for the path out of dark thoughts. Olerud was good at that.
“My mom was always bugging my dad to take her to Italy when he retired. Her big dream trip. He said ‘I saw Italy, in ’45. Don’t believe the brochures.’ My mom said what you just said, ‘It was a war, you didn’t see it in its best light!’”
“Ha ha. My mom got her dream trip.”
“Italy was nice. I used to live there, when my dad was based at Aviano. Nice girls.” Howe smiled at the memory. “How did your dad like his second visit?”
“Said it was pretty nice with no krauts shooting at him. Sleeping in hotels instead of shit-filled trenches.”
“I know this is no Italy. Still, it’s the America my people chose.”
“My people didn’t get to choose, Arne.”
“Hey, stop.” Howe knelt and took out his binoculars. “That’s one of our pickups, by the side of the road. Wonder why? Just past that farm. Look.” He handed the binoculars to Olerud.
Olerud looked down the road. “EMP, like everybody else. Still, wonder who?”
“My guess is it’s the Air Police Minot sent out after we went to DEFCON-TWO. Royer told me they were sending reinforcements. They never could’ve made it far. Wonder what happened to them.”
“Only one way to find out, Fred.”
“Let’s be real careful.”
They walked to the farm, shotguns at port arms, scanning the ground carefully. A row of poplars, spindly and denuded, covered their advance from the road. Low buildings lay at the end of a short drive. A tractor sat idle out front, an empty trailer attached. Smoke rose from the farmhouse.
They knelt at the end of the row of poplars. “You see that smoke?”
Howe nodded. “Yeah, there’s people there for sure. Maybe they can tell us what happened to our guys. You wait here, I’m gonna check out the truck.”
“Okay.” Olerud looked towards the farm while Howe sprinted over to the truck. A lunchbox sat on the back seat. Otherwise, it was empty. The keys hung from the ignition. Howe signaled to Olerud. Nothing.
Howe braced himself against the truck and considered his next move. It was possible, if unlikely, that the airmen in this truck had gone missing for a sinister reason. If so, they needed to keep moving.
But Howe figured they were probably just trading protection for fresh eggs and milk. If so, there was no harm in checking in. And maybe a lot of information to be gained. He looked over at Olerud. No sense testing his theory with two men’s lives. He caught Olerud’s attention and held up a fist. Wait.
No sense being all tactical. If he was entering friendly territory he’d be leaving the wrong impression. He slung his shotgun and started walking nonchalantly down the drive towards the farmhouse.
He was trying to act nonchalant, but his blood was pounding in his head and a warning siren, somewhere deep in his head, was going off. He decided to walk towards the source of the smoke, which looked like it was coming from between the house and the main barn.
Cows watched him passively, sheltered from the worst of the fallout in a barn with little windows, the glass all blown out by the faraway blasts. Rusted cars dotted the field. Howe was beginning to hear an imaginary banjo playing. The warning siren in his head was not going away.
Around the back of the house, an open oil drum shot flames and smoke into the sky. Camp chairs and wooden benches were arrayed around the drum. An M-16 hung by its sling from a nearby tree.
An M-16. No people, a roaring fire, and an M-16. Howe turned and yelled “Arne! Arne!” He started to run. A burst of fire hit the gravel drive in front of him. He froze. He stabbed a hand into his parka and came out with the .38, hoping to keep it concealed in his bulky glove.
“Hands up, Air Force. And turn around, real slow.”
He scanned the tree line. Olerud had disappeared. Howe turned around slowly. His hands were up, the right hand turned to conceal the .38 from view. He hoped their attention stayed on the shotgun.
There were two of them, both holding M-16s. He was sure he knew where those had come from. They wore bulky sheepskin rancher’s coats and thick hats with earflaps. They had pale skin and red stubbly beards. They looked like brothers. “Don’t recall asking the government to come on my land, sir. I don’t at all.” The taller one spat on the ground for emphasis.
“I was just looking for some of my comrades. I saw their truck out front.”
“Comrades?” The tall man laughed. “Funny way to say that. Which side were you on in this war, anyway?”
“I’m a USAF officer. I’m Captain Howe.”
“I don’t give a damn who you are. You’re the Government. The government that started this war. You alone?”
“We didn’t start it. The Russians shot first...”
“I asked you a goddamn question, blackie. You alone?” The looks were pure hate. He had a feeling the men in that pickup truck were in very serious trouble, if they were alive at all.
“Yes. I’m on a scouting mission. My deputy stayed behind to guard the facility.”
“Well.” The tall man smiled. The shorter brother said nothing, glaring as if anticipating some future sick thrill. Howe felt his bowels start to loosen, and tightened his sphincter. “Your authority is not recognized here. This is the Free State of the Dakotas. We follow the True Constitution, the one that says ‘No standing army.’ You are in violation. Your military-industrial state started this war. We’re not gonna be a target anymore.”
Howe struggled to keep control of the revolver, felt it slipping out of his grasp. “What… what are you gonna do with me?”
“Hmm.” The tall one braced his M-16 on his hip. “We only kill in self-defense. Or, after a lawful trial by a jury of the people. Unfortunately, the penalty for service in the illegal federal army is death. The jury’s waiting.”
“But we can help you.”
“We don’t need your help. This was a beautiful place, and you ruined it. Turn around and start walking. Now.”
His every muscle tense, Howe turned, struggling to keep the revolver hidden. He began to walk, as slowly as possible. A tall, thick tree lay at the end of the path. Something was swinging from it. He heard a shotgun rack.
“Stop right there! Air Force! You two drop your weapons, or you’re dead!”
Howe dropped to his knees and rolled on his back, landing painfully on his shotgun, just the tall man whipped around in Olerud’s direction, his M-16 at his hip. A blast caught him in the belly. He got off a single burst before another blast tore into his chest and he dropped to the ground.
The short brother still had his M-16 trained on Howe. “Drop it!” Olerud’s renewed commands distracted him, and he raised his weapon and turned his body. The revolver dropped into Howe’s hand and he shot the man in the throat. The short brother dropped across Howe’s legs, spewing blood from his mouth.
“Fred, you okay?” Olerud had leapt to his feet from behind a hummock, and was running across the yard towards him. Howe looked over at the firepit. The M-16 was missing from the tree.
“Arne get down! Get down!”
A muzzle flash and a series of thwock sounds came from the barn. Olerud stumbled and dropped his shotgun. The sniper foolishly strode out of the barn towards Olerud. Howe jumped to the tall brother, yanked the M-16 out of his dead hands, and fired from the hip.
The sniper turned to run back towards the barn, but Howe put two rounds into his right shoulder and he dropped. “Stay right fucking there, Jethro! You move and I’ll kill your whole fucking family! Arne? Arne!”
“I’m okay. It’s not bad.”
“Can you run?”
Olerud put up a hand. “Yeah.”
“Grab your shotgun and get into the barn. Cover that other peckerwood while I gather up these weapons.”
Olerud ran, white-faced and panting, carrying his shotgun in his left hand, his right arm limp by his side. Howe checked the farmers’ pockets for ammo and retrieved four 20-round magazines for the M-16 and a .45 Auto. He reloaded the M-16 he was holding, slung the other one over his back, and stuffed everything else into his bulging pockets.
From the farmhouse, he heard screams of women and children. Howe raced into the barn. The other gunman lay with his back against a barn stall, panting heavily. Olerud covered him. “There any other men here?”
The farmer seemed to have decided the game had changed, and played it straight. “Just Soren. He’s only fourteen. I told him to stay out of it.”
“Bet he’s not a real good listener, is he, neighbor? Maybe you oughta convince him.”
“Soren!” The man screamed. “Don’t do anything stupid. Daddy’s fine!”
Howe looked down the end of the barn. A USAF Air Policeman swung from the thick tree at the end of a noose. Two more bodies in blue fatigues lay beside the tree. Howe glared at the farmer, who was a carbon copy of the tall man who lay dead in the field.
The farmer glared back, defiant. “They showed up here after the bombs went, everybody already terrified, the babies hollering, the animals going nuts. Showed up armed, saw Lew’s International and demanded to confiscate it for government use.”
“Martial Law has been declared.”
“Not here it ain’t. You don’t show up here after a war you just started, invade our land with guns, and demand our property. That’s a declaration of war, sir.”
“Let him go!” An adolescent voice screamed at them from in front of the thick tree. Soren was a short kid with a thick mop of hair. He held an old break-open shotgun with a quivering grip.
“Jesus, Fred, let’s just go.” Olerud was pale and sweating.
“Soren, get out of here! We’re talking son, I promise!” The man was desperate. It distracted Soren long enough for Howe to swing the butt of the M-16 at the boy, catching him in the face. He pitched backwards, Howe grabbing the shotgun away from him before he could recover.
At the other end of the barn, the rest of the family had gathered. Three young women, a herd of small children, and two more boys almost Soren’s age had gathered.
Howe stared at them all. The oldest woman spoke with authority. “We’re witnesses! You won’t dare do anything in front of women and children! You coward!”
Howe looked at the swinging airman, his face purple and agonized. They’d taken his boots. Piss stained the front of his trousers. The bodies next to the tree were riddled with bullets and finished with shots to the head.
Howe smiled at the loud woman coldly. “Witnesses, huh? You witness this, too?” He indicated the airmen’s bodies.
“This is our land!”
“No, it isn’t. This is the United States of America. And it belongs to you and me. Like the song says.” He looked over at Soren, who stared at him silently, blood running down his face. “Get over there with your momma. You try anything else, she’s gonna watch you die.”
The boy looked back at his father. “Go. He won’t hurt you. Go.” The farmer insisted. Soren ran past Howe, glaring. The loud woman enveloped him in her arms.
“Where’s the keys for the International?”
“That’s our property.” The man was defiant again, now that his son had retreated.
“Not anymore it isn’t. How medieval do you want me to get?”
Olerud watched the man silently.
“Watching that strange fruit over there has me fixing for a meltdown, farmer. Right now, I’m thinking of a good name for your farm. I think that a good name would be ‘My Lai’.”
“That’s not legal, that’s against your own rules, on American soil…”
“I thought you said this wasn’t American soil? Huh? So, I guess I can do whatever I want, right? And since you appear to be in insurrection against the United States Government, you’ll be lucky if all you lose is two brothers and one truck. So turn it over, before I start subtracting, asshole!”
The man looked towards Olerud, sensing his reluctance. Olerud put the barrel of his shotgun under the man’s chin. “Captain’s got a point, I think. Give us the keys.”
Three minutes later, they were driving up the lane in an ancient International pickup, Olerud at the wheel, Howe in the back with the wounded farmer, their hostage.
The family marched behind them silently. “Tell them to stop. Enough of this Jonestown shit.”
“Stay there! They’ll let me go! Stay there!” The crowd stopped. They reached the road and drove south for a while.
Howe figured this guy was the leader, despite the tall one’s penchant for speeches. He figured he ought to kill him, but he was so weary of death. “Arne, stop here!” He slammed on the roof of the cab. Howe slid to the tailgate and opened it. “This is your stop.”
The farmer slid out, clutching his injured shoulder. “Pretty far to walk.”
“Fuck you. Hope you die. And if there’s any more trouble out of your miserable band of inbreds, or if you don’t give those airmen a decent goddamned burial, I will come back here with the Seventh Cavalry and burn your fucking farm to the ground. Are we clear?”
“You’ll never win. You can kill us, but…”
“I don’t care about winning. But you’re right. I can kill you. I can kill Soren, too. You think about that now. Walk.”
They left the stumbling farmer walking down the shoulder, trailing blood drops. They drove in silence. Finally, Olerud turned to him.
“You almost seemed like you enjoyed that.”
“What do you mean?” Had I?
“All that ‘putting down the insurrection’ bullshit. You really believe that?”
Howe turned to Olerud. “It’s not bullshit. We are officers in the US Armed Forces. Those scumbags back there killed three of our men. We have orders to restore order. We also have a truck that will get us where you very much want to go. What’s the problem?”
“Haven’t you had enough war, Fred? I mean, at least for this week?”
Howe rubbed his eyes. Ahead, he could see blackened land. Counts were going to start picking up soon. “I’m sure everybody in 1865 had had enough war, too, Arne. But if they’d have just hung a few more Klansmen, we could’ve saved ourselves a shitload of trouble. And my people wouldn’t have had to dodge firehoses and attack dogs a hundred years later just to vote. Lessons of history, Arne.”
Olerud shook his head. “No more stops, please. No more mercy killings or Civil War battles. Let’s just get to Minot.”
“Fine.” He couldn’t argue. He wasn’t sure how much more he could take, either. “Pull over here. You need to bandage that arm, and I need to take a shit. Pretty soon, things are gonna start glowing again.”
48.64.25 N 101.29.24 W
1402 HOURS LOCAL
2002 HOURS ZULU
Howe awakened with a start, his face bathed in sunshine. “Arne, wake up. Wake up!”
“Huh? Oh shit… how long were we out?”
Howe looked at his watch. “Not long. We still got a couple hours of daylight left. Enough to get to the Chicago of the North.”
“We’re lucky those freaks back there didn’t skin us in our sleep.”
“Yeah. Let’s not push our luck. You ready?”
“No. But I’m going anyway. This reminds me of The Blues Brothers.”
Olerud started chuckling. “Yeah. Except it’s not dark, and we’re not wearing shades.”
“But we’re still pretty fucked. I’d rather have the whole Chicago PD on my ass.”
“Yup.” Olerud looked at him. “I gotta thank you, Fred.”
“For making me laugh a couple of times the last few days. I would have thought that was impossible.”
“Me too. But what else are we gonna do? Thanks for saving me from those butt-raping yokels back there, too.”
“I don’t think they were butt-rapers, Fred.”
“Glad I didn’t find out.” Howe looked ahead. The rolling prairie gradually darkened as it approached Minot. The clouds over the base and the city mirrored the ground. “It’s gonna get hot, Arne. Drive fast.”
“Use of unnecessary force approved?”
They set off grimly, despite their forced jokes, each man knowing the end was approaching. Howe looked down as his dosimeter. 202 rems now. Even if levels held steady, which was doubtful, radiation sickness was a virtual certainty, as early as tomorrow morning. If they spiked closer to Minot, which seemed likely, they might only have hours to live.
To live, for what? They had been on the road for a few hours, and already it didn’t seem like a world worth living in. They were both clinging to faint, miraculous hopes, and pretending to be sane men. Howe knew it, and he was sure Olerud did too.
Flat plains, distant trees, monotonous road. He tried to remember driving this stretch on Wednesday morning, en route to Oscar-01 and their duty shift. How unremarkable it had seemed then, full only of people who droned on about corn, weather, cows, and high school football.
Now, it was a land full of unknown, exotic dangers. Rebel strongholds and hidden poisons. How very much more exciting it was now.
Didn’t the Chinese curse people by wishing they would live in “interesting times?" How very appropriate that seemed now. This suddenly interesting world was a very cursed one, too.
The cows were dead, or dying. The weather was replaced by fallout clouds and rad counts. The corn was inedible. Half the football team was dead, the stadium, burned and blackened.
Howe looked to his right. Fire-blackened fields stopped just short of a still-smoking little town. Lansford. Home of the unfortunate Hoaglunds. They began to see burned out cars on the road again. The rad counts started to pick up, the Geiger counter sounding off like a stock ticker.
“Keep it revved, Arne. Let’s motor.” They passed survivors, some waving their arms, others bent over and puking, still more lying motionless, waiting for death. They could not stop. The counter ticked ever more insistently.
Olerud avoided a woman who had run in front of the truck and gunned the engine. Mercifully, there were no more. As the counts increased, the likelihood of encountering living people decreased. Lansford was dying. They could not help her.
“You talk to God, Fred? I mean, since this happened?”
Howe looked out the back window as the woman tripped over the blanket she was wrapped in and fell to the road. “What?”
“I mean, have you prayed?”
“Not since just before… with Larkin. Not really big on Jesus the last little while anyway, Arne.”
“Mind if I ask why? I mean, since we’re probably gonna die anyway, right?”
Howe looked back at the woman. She was a speck now. A dying, forgotten, speck. "I never told you about my sister.”
“Just that you named your little girl after her, is all.”
“Yeah. Dorothy. After my mom’s favourite actress. Dorothy Dandridge. Anyway, she was a breech baby. She lost too much oxygen. Permanently brain damaged. I was four. I could never understand why my sister couldn’t play, for the longest time.” Howe smiled. “Kids are funny like that.”
“How’d you manage? I mean with overseas postings and all that?”
“My momma didn’t want to put her in a home. My nan and paw looked after her at first, but then they couldn’t anymore. My mom stayed behind in Atlanta for a while, while I went off with daddy. But then she got sick…”
They passed a burned and smashed farm. Charred corpses of people and animals littered the drive. The Geiger clicked constantly now. “What happened then?”
“My daddy was probably gonna get his first star. But that wasn’t gonna happen if he couldn’t deploy. So, he passed up promotion, and got a job with the Georgia ANG. We looked after her, together. We used to be real serious Baptists, you know, the singing and dancing kind. But slowly… I began to wonder why God would do that to her. Why he would make her moan all day. Live her whole life in diapers. That’s why, when Bobby’s dad…”
“Why you didn’t hesitate to do it.” Olerud nodded solemnly. “I’m glad you told me that, Fred. Makes a whole lot more sense.”
“There’s one more thing, Arne. One day we had a power outage. She needed power for her ventilator. There was supposed to a battery backup. My dad and I just looked at each other, and decided, ‘It’s enough. Let her go.’”
Olerud frowned. “Like that?” The land around them was burned by prairie fire now, black as pitch and heavy with fallout dust. “I mean, nobody ever…”
“Nobody said a damned thing, ever. Guess it happens a lot. So, no, Arne, I don’t see the hand of the Lord everywhere. Good thing, too, ‘cause otherwise I’d have one hell of a lot of questions for him. Like right about now.”
A jet screamed low and fast overhead, causing Olerud to swerve and Howe to duck.
“Easy, Arne. It’s one of ours.” Howe looked back at the jet, which was climbing and turning now, thick black smoke trailing from its engines. “RF-4. Probably on a damage assessment run.”
“Yeah, well why don’t they just come down and ask us?”
“Here’s your damage assessment: We’re fucked!”
Olerud laughed, then coughed violently. His head nodded against the wheel. Howe eased his foot off the gas pedal and steered the truck to the shoulder. “Arne? Arne!” The jet cruised by, headed back towards Minot. “Arne, are you okay?” He took the truck out of gear and felt the big man’s head. He was malarial hot.
“Yeah, yeah, I’m fine. Just real tired.”
“You wanna rest a minute?”
Olerud opened his eyes and stared at Howe frankly. “I don’t think we can spare a minute, do you? It’s beginning. I know.”
Acute Radiation Syndrome. Olerud was showing the first symptoms. Soon, he would be too. They’d be unlikely to survive without a hospital. Soon, even a hospital wouldn’t be able to save them.
Olerud answered the unasked question. “I’m not going back, Fred.”
Howe looked up at the contrails left behind by the now climbing jet, feeling a moment’s envy. I could’ve been a pilot. That could’ve been me.
“Neither am I, Arne. But I’ll drive from now on.”