Dust swirled up from the ground to join its airborne brethren that clouded the air like early-morning fog in San Francisco as I slowly walked through the slag and rubble. In the absolute silence, each footstep was like a marching army and the rasp of my breath as I attempted separate oxygen from the venerable dirt that passed for air seemed as though it could drown out a war. In truth I was grateful for even these small respites; as anyone who has experienced both can tell you, a complete lack of sound is far more deafening, far more unnerving than the most heinous sounds of battle. It's not fear so much as an unidentifiable disturbance, a feeling that something around you is very, very wrong. Although it was, by my best estimate, mid-afternoon, the little light that filtered its way through to the surface had more of an overcast, late evening quality. Omaha, Nebraska. A thoroughly depressing place on the best of days.
I had been walking for hours; my camp was several miles behind me. After all this time, I still wasn't sure where I was going, or why I left. At least, that’s what I kept telling myself. To tell the truth, I knew damn well why. I’d known perhaps even before the compulsions, the sudden gripping urges to abandon everything I had worked so hard to create, first started creeping into my mind. I couldn’t stand it. I just couldn’t face it anymore—day in and day out, working, not only for my own survival but for the survival of many, nearly fifty. People who couldn’t manage to take care of themselves, even now, after all they’d somehow lived through. People able to fend for themselves, yet still willing to take advantage of those who, well, no one could be considered better off around here, but some of us certainly have a stronger ambition to keep going. People who didn’t even want our help, didn’t want to survive.
I think the others just assumed I went out in search of food. I figured they'd try radioing me soon, if they hadn't already. It didn't really matter, as the signal would have never reached. I was violating the rules, of course, the very rules I had helped draw up, fought so adamantly for. The Rule of Three was a big one. Travel in groups, never leave the grounds alone. We weren’t the only living things trying to survive out here, not by a long shot, and the rules were set up to protect people, to ensure the survival of the herd. The irony was, the suicide rate in camp was fast on its way past 50 percent. These people, the Broken, didn't really care whether they lived or died, yet we bent over backward to try and keep them safe. And here I was, with no intentions of dying even one minute sooner than I had to, blowing it all off for reasons I could never had justified. I didn’t want to think about it, I didn’t want to admit the truth, because if I had, the whole thing would have broken down and I would already be heading back, with nothing gained but twice the guilt and ten times the dread. Looking back on it all now, I sometimes wonder if I was on the verge of some major breakthrough in my life, or some sort of mid-life crisis. Lord knows life expectancy couldn’t have been much past forty anymore. Perhaps some deeper, subconscious thoughts were guiding me, leading me to something. I'll never know for sure. Because at that moment, all my thoughts, conscious and subconscious alike, were driven out replaced by one single thing. That was the moment when I found it. The bomb.
About a two years ago, Spring 2008, the Presidential Races were the only thing the media cared about. It was a regular three ring circus—two years of campaigning accomplishes nothing when you have a dozen other marginally-qualified opponents doing the exact same thing—and the primaries did nothing to help as the third-party mentality broke down into merely subsets of the two main contenders, vessels for the losers within their parties to continue diluting the pool. That's why, to the American public, Daniel Cooper was a godsend. Upper-middle class and boasting a political background consisting entirely of a 5 year run as President of his local school board, Cooper alleged that the political games and focus on hot-topic issues were distracting the public from what was truly important. He offered the public something else, something he said had been missing from this country for far too long. Common sense. Cooper didn't waste time on whether or not Iraq was a good thing. Quite frankly, he said, he didn't give a shit. What mattered was that we had men over there, dying, and accomplishing nothing. We needed to completely rethink what we were doing out there, form new plans, and get our people the hell out. And he flat out told the nation that he had absolutely no idea how to do it. But he was taking suggestions.
Cooper announced his candidacy early one March afternoon to the Yankton, South Dakota-based newspaper, the Press and Dakotan. Most locals figured it was a joke, or some sort of statement. But he kept up with the campaign, and it wasn't long before other area papers picked it up. Eventually, someone put it up online, and before even Cooper knew it, he was all over the news. True to his platform, he never held fancy, pretentious fund raisers, never bothered to make huge campaign tours, never spent millions in advertising. He didn't need to. The cynics and politically ambiguous loved him, and we sang his praises across the 'net. He appeared on the Daily Show long before agreeing to a network interview, and turned down Chris Matthews in favor of Stephen Colbert. And every campaign convention he broke, every trend he bucked, only made him a bigger star. When the regular media noticed the momentum he was gaining, they decided to jump on the bandwagon with their own brand of coverage. And their bullshitting, ratings-whoring, and total misrepresentation only served to further endear the man to us. Within a few short months, Daniel Cooper proved that the stubborn, anti-participatory demographic, united, was far more powerful than the divided regular voters, effectively clinching the election before the Primaries. His victory in November was thus no surprise to anyone. To be honest, I think by this time even most of the traditional voters had succumbed to the inevitability of his victory, resulting in an unbelievable 83% popular vote. Many celebrations were had; the internet was ablaze with rejoicing; we knew that change was upon us. Really, the rest was just awful timing.
We should have seen it coming. We talked about it constantly—"If it was ever going to happen, this is how it would go down."—but it was all hypothetical. I don’t believe any of us believed, even the slightest, that it would actually ever happen. The reports of terrorist activity never really grew; it was just the steady stream of small movements there always were. Which only means we were never really watching. I had always been adamant about the lack of notable incidents, and rather than crediting counter-terrorism, going on about the "calm before the storm," convinced that it indicated something in the backdrop, a strike waiting to happen. I was so full of shit. Never mind that I was dead right. The strike, it came as we predicted it would, almost exactly as we predicted it would. The fact that it took us by total surprise is further proof of our hypocrisy. January 27, 2009. A week after President Cooper's inauguration. The day America died.
I had been staring at the missile for several minutes, bitterly recounting just how much we’d lost—a brooding, half-assed eulogy for an entire way of life that left a taste in your mouth far worse than the chemical-ridden air. Several ideas popped into my head at once, none of them speaking well for my sanity. Torn somewhere between savagely attacking the deceptively small warhead and pissing on it in an irrational and completely irrelevant act of defiance, I raged silently at the dormant deathbringer and all it stood for, cursing it and those who sent it with a passion that words could have never truly conveyed. It must have been therapeutic, for it eventually occurred to me that this wasn’t accomplishing anything, only stirring up all the self-questioning I was trying to repress. And I’d had enough of reality, I was running away.
I couldn’t stay here, obviously. The Rule of Three hadn't been formed to guard against only dangerous animals. Despite the hundreds of millions killed, some thousands managed to survive the horrors that tore our nation apart. Most, if not all, formed nomadic groups, part as a natural human fear of being alone but mostly because it gave the best chance of continuing to live. Many of these groups were like mine, pooling their resources for the good of the clan, exchanging goods, services, and information with others they met along the way. Unfortunately, circumstance didn’t discriminate who it allowed to live, so another type of group was prevalent as well—the type that embraced greed, violence, self-service, the very qualities that marked our downfall as a society. The danger this type of group posed was varied, ranging anywhere from bandits who would simply sneak into your camp at night and steal anything they could use, to those who would forcibly take what they wanted, any time of day. Some staked out certain areas as their territories and would defend them against intruders like wild dogs. Some were the modern equivalent of school-yard bullies, who seemed to pick on the "weaker" clans for the fun of it. And a select few, easily the most dangerous and feared, had almost devolved, reverted to a more feral, warped form, going as far as to resort to cannibalism. It was mind-blowing, really. Food sources weren't scarce, yet. Enough preserves alone existed to feed the survivors for quite some time, and there was plenty of wildlife for the hunting. So there was no need to resort to hunting human beings. It wouldn't quite be accurate to call these savages inhuman, for they still possessed all the higher reasoning skills of our species, sharpened and honed as tracking abilities rivaled by no man or beast. But they had fallen as monsters far too easily and unnecessarily to such a horrible practice to be counted among the rest of us. Even the bandits and muggers feared and loathed them.
With dangers like these, the one thing vitally important to make it through the night is location. The vast concrete terrain I was currently traversing offered little natural protection or cover and the unexploded missile, a rather easily identified landmark, invited far too much attention to the place. But I had an advantage, being alone. Very few enemies would be actively searching for a single person, although I doubted they would show any compassion or indifference to anyone they happened to stumble upon. Additionally, one person is far easier to hide than a group. My ideal destination was some small crevice I could slip into long enough to get some rest, but nothing suitable presented itself for a number of hours. By that time, I had reached the outskirts of the city proper and was entering the surrounding farmland.
Outside the city was hardly less depressing. True, the bleak industrial destruction was far less noticeable but that was compensated for by the equally depressing natural destruction. A flat, seemingly endless sea of the half-dead brown stalks that had become the native form of grass stretched out before me, rustling occasionally in the distance to indicate some small animal movement. The air was hardly fresher, as the same polluted air, dull and heavy with dust, debris, and toxins, likely blanketed the entire Midwest and seemed to stifle even the breeze. In fact, about the only thing that hadn't been killed off were the bugs. Unlikely as it seemed, these open plains were my best bet if I wanted to make it through the night unseen.
A few months were all it had taken to develop a feel for the land and it wasn't long before I hit upon the second best thing I could hope for, an abandoned camp. By my best guess, whoever had used this place had moved on almost a month ago. It took the stunted wildlife quite a bit of time to cover the mark left by a few days' encampment, but traces were already showing up. Half-dead grass beginning to poke up through the worn ground where tents had been pitched told me and anyone else who may be passing through, that this site had been deserted for some time. Yet the still-obvious signs of human tampering would serve to keep away most curious wildlife. Satisfied that I'd found a suitable place to crash, I set down my supply pack and climbed into the fire pit to examine my quarters for the evening.
One of the first steps when a clan settles in a new camp is the building of a fire pit. Standard practice is to dig a pit several feet deep on one end, sloped on the other for easy access. It seems like a lot of trouble, for a campsite that will only be in use for about a week, but it allows for pitching a dark tent over the flame, both providing protection against the rare storm and helping to block out the light, so as not to draw attention to the encampment. My find was luckier than I had initially though, as the builders of this particular pit had also seen fit to add on a roomy storage area deep within, offering me nearly full concealment. A couple of slight modifications later, my pack and I were nestled in for our first night alone since the attack. Finding my thoughts meandering back toward that unwelcome topic, I forced myself to instead plan out my immediate future. I couldn't just meander about Nebraska; lacking direction, I was no better off than I had been before I left. I needed a plan, even something relatively useless, like a simple destination, was better than nothing. The most obvious plan would be to head for Sioux City. With any luck, the further north I got, the better chance I had of finding more civilized life, or, better yet, long range communications. And really, what choice did I have. From what we'd heard, Des Moines was hit harder than we were, and Lincoln was step backward. No, Sioux City was my best bet. And even so, on foot, the journey would take several days, depending on how well I'd be able to eat. And found a suitable place to camp each night. 'A place as perfect as this,' I half-consciously reflected as I drifted off to sleep.
A familiar, yet uncommon, low rumbling woke me some time later. My weary mind took several seconds to identify the noise, and several seconds more to register the full impact of its presence. Motors. Motorcycles from the sound of it, several of them in fact. And the pitch and regularity of the pulsation meant they must be idling. Only a select few types of people drove motorized vehicles of any sort anymore, and none of them were what I'd consider "good guys." Around the time all of this finally hit me, the sounds stopped. It seemed as though the riders were sticking around. From this, I figured they probably fit the "bandit" category, as most everyone else preferred to establish their own campsite, or at least take one by force. Only the bandits were lazy enough and passive enough to use an abandoned camp. And unfortunately for me, if these bandits had vehicles, then they probably had a serious reputation among the other baddies in the area, meaning they'd have no qualms about starting a fire. At best, I'd be trapped in my little alcove, possibly burnt. At worst, they'd discover me, take my stuff, and do god-knows-what to me. Bandits may have been the tamest of the unfriendlies I could have potentially crossed paths with that night, but even so, I wasn’t sure what they'd do with a lone man if they found him. I heard footsteps draw near as one of the bikers came to check out their new fire pit. I turned toward the wall of the nook, hoping the back of my jacket adequately blended me into the shadows. The footsteps stopped and I could imagine him peering in, happy with the depth and size, admiring the nice smooth walls, noticing something odd, peering closer and discovering the storage space, with a prisoner waiting within. But after an intensely drawn out moment, the footsteps resumed, getting fainter as he left the pit. I nearly sighed in relief, although I knew I was far from safe. If only I had a way to wall up the open side of the space before they returned to build a fire. I was almost ready to simply starting digging up and cover myself with dirt when the footsteps started getting closer again, this time followed by a second pair. They stopped again inside the pit and I could hear muttering, although I was unable to make out the words, and then, one pair of footsteps leaving. All was silent for a moment; I didn't even dare to breath. I thought I heard a soft snort, as if of amusement, followed a moment later by a definite chuckle. "Well I'll be damned!