Launch on Warning: A Novella (Pt 5)
White Christmas (Finale)
48.24.57 N 101.21.29 W
1510 HOURS LOCAL
2110 HOURS ZULU
The sun was weak and low in the sky by the time they began to pass the first smashed and burned buildings on the base grounds. Howe could see the elementary school they were going to send Dotty off to next year in the distance, its roof smashed in as if by a petulant giant, its playground warped and twisted.
The children would have been out there when the sirens sounded. Did they get inside, only to die there? Did they live their last moments at play, before the airbursts immolated them? He knew he wasn’t going any closer to look.
Howe felt weak and nauseous now, too, but thought he could hold on till he got home.
Home. This black, charred, radioactive hell was nobody’s home now. They could have driven to Canada. They could’ve lived. But they’d made their choice. They’d come home to die.
Olerud’s head slumped against the window. The Geiger was pegged, its counts relentless now. Olerud picked it up and switched it off.
“You know where to turn, Fred?” He asked weakly.
“Yeah. The Missile Avenue gate is right over there.”
“Used to be.”
“Used to be.”
Now, there were no recognizable buildings, the school, due to its size, having been the last one north of the impact zones. Howe surveyed the territory and deduced what had happened from the damage. Three high-yield warheads had airbursts, about 1000-2000 feet above the base, in a spread west to east. The intense heat and titanic blast had left only shadows of some people and things, smashing any structures left straight downwards. It was as final as destruction could possibly be.
Howe wiped his eyes. Soon, it would be time to mourn his wife and child. Soon, it would be time to join them.
They turned off the highway and passed what would have been a checkpoint onto Missile Road. Howe marveled at the shadow of an Air Policeman, complete with a shadow of a rifle, etched onto the roadway. Olerud looked at another group out his windows.
“Mother of God. The shadows. Just like in the book.”
They passed the Visitor Center on their right, the Base Pharmacy on their left. Both scoured to the foundations. Olerud looked around.
“Turn right, here.”
“Sorry. No landmarks now.”
“I know,” His voice was small.
They drove down Shawnee Road, passing vehicles incinerated in their driveways, reduced to little but axles and puddles of melted rubber and plastic.
“Here.” Olerud seemed to have shrunk into a tiny, forlorn presence, “This is my house.”
Howe stared at the blackened foundation. He tried to remember what it had looked like two days before when he’d picked up Olerud for their shift. He failed. A small car sat in the driveway, reduced to a partial axle, and a thin shell of metal.
Olerud kissed the crucifix around his neck and opened the door.
“I need to have a look around, Fred. You can go if you want to. We don’t have much time.” He pointed to the western sky. Roiling clouds were moving in, quickly, from the hot fields to the west. The fallout would surely kill them now, even if the ambient exposure did not.
Howe could taste metal in his mouth, smell it too, burning, like a toaster on fire.
“I’ll wait here, buddy. Let me know if you need me.”
Olerud nodded and closed the door gently. Howe watched as the man carefully walked the grounds of his property, scanning the ground like a focused dog. A wave of nausea hit Howe. He swallowed it, and looked at his dosimeter.
364 rems. It was already too late. Those clouds would seal the deal. Olerud startled him by opening the door.
“I’m staying,” He said simply. “Good luck.”
He turned to walk back to his former house.
Howe found the strength to get out of the driver’s seat. He opened the door and stood, calling after his partner.
“What? What the hell can you do here? Die?”
Olerud turned to face him, “Die happy, you mean.”
“What? Why happy? Was there some secret bomb shelter I didn’t know about?”
“Of course not. But I know they got away. And now I can die.”
Howe shook his head. He imagined the intense radiation as a buzzing sound in his ears, but he knew that this was fantasy.
“How do you know that, Arne? Come on, maybe we can still make it to Canada if we leave now!”
“Who’s crazy now, Fred? Canada?”
“How do you know they got away, Arne?”
“Maybe she went to the store.”
“Maybe she did what I told her to do. Maybe she ran.”
“You told her?”
“I couldn’t follow that order, Fred. I had to give them a chance.”
“Arne, you know there was no way.” Why didn’t I do that? Why?
“I’m going to die thinking you’re wrong. So long, Captain.” Olerud saluted him, “It’s been an honour.” He sat on his doorstep and took out his wallet, looking at pictures, “You’d better go.”
Howe looked back at the western sky. There was no time left. He vomited into the driveway.
“Sorry. I puked on your drive.”
“That’s okay. I was gonna sell the place anyway.”
Howe waved at Olerud, and drove away. When he looked back in the rearview, the man had collapsed on his side, still holding his photos. He drove robotically, seeing flashes in his eyes now, feeling a pounding headache. He turned slowly onto Eagle Way. He passed a station wagon on melted tires. It could have been a Volvo. He didn’t want to know.
Howe looked to his right in the dying sunlight, the day growing dim under fallout clouds. The runway was just visible from here. He could see the shadows of B-52s and KC-135s on their alert stands. He vomited on himself, felt his bowels go. He lurched to a stop.
A twisted tricycle sat in the driveway. Right where she always left it. He staggered out of the truck, hearing a high-pitched whine in his ears.
Howe was propelled now, knowing what he would find, but desperate for culmination. There would be no miracle. He had given no warning. He had responded to a sneak attack on his nation with a sneak attack on his family. Now, he was seeing the results of both.
Both cars sat in the driveway, dissolved. The foundation held only shifting warm ash. A cat’s skull. Ringo.
He searched, stumbling, at the edge of lucidity, feeling his intestines dissolving.
Two little carbonized scatterings of bones. Nothing bigger than a little finger. A ring, blackened and bubbled. The buckle of a little girl’s sandal.
Fred Howe sat in the ashes of his family and screamed to the fallout clouds. He sat, rocking back and forth, a Polaroid picture in his trembling, ataxic hands.
That day at the Stave Church. A happy day at a monument to God. Now flattened by the hand of man. They smiled at him, smiled as if he could still protect them. Now, all he could do was join them.
He heard a woman screaming. A man, threatening. Howe wrapped the Polaroid in the note they’d given him.
WE LOVE YOU DADDY
XOXOXO DOTTY AND MOMMY
He set it down gently in the pile of bones and struggled to his feet.
“Be back in a second, girls. There’s something I just gotta do.”
He staggered back to the truck, retrieved a shotgun, stumbled to the sound of the commotion. He rounded the corner onto Missile Avenue, to see a huge man, body blistered and red, shirtless and hair patchy in radsick clumps, tossing a woman to the ground beside her ancient Volkswagen. A terrified girl cowered in the passenger’s seat.
“I’m commandeering this vehicle, bitch! I’m commandeering you, too! Get in the car!”
He staggered forward towards the blurry target, and he was almost on top of them before they noticed. Howe racked the shotgun.
“USAF! Get away from the woman!”
The man took two steps toward him. It took three shots to kill him. The girl in the passenger seat screamed.
The woman was radsick, her sweater covered in puke. Her hair was still in curlers. She pulled herself up to the hood of the car.
“Who? Who are you?”
Captain Frederick Douglass Howe, Jr, USAF puked a technicolour spray in front of the Volkswagen, and all over the dead lunatic. He looked up at the sky as the RF-4 flew another low, roaring pass over Minot. Hotshot.
“I’m from the government, ma’am. I’m here to help.”
The fallout began to settle gently in the streets of Minot, like the first snow of Christmas.