EPISODE 5: Luke Diefer
Settler’s Village, Maine
2069 - 2070
LUKE DIEFER, THE BARREL-CHESTED Mainer, with hands like a ham and shoulders that could drag a bull, roused out of his wife’s arms. The dawn outside was as ruddy as his big cheeks. He yawned gigantically, hawking and clearing his throat. His wife, hair tousled around her face like corn, stared at him with eyes crusted by sleep.
“Luke,” she said, “it ain’t come morning, already?”
Luke nodded and started to dress. His wife burrowed deeper into the covers.
Luke, a slow-chewing Clydesdale of a man, chewed at his thoughts, looking around their small bedroom almost puzzled, as if trying hard to remember it. He and his wife didn’t speak much to each other, either in there or during breakfast. Eating was something serious.
Luke cooked breakfast—an unfamiliar task for him—and burned two of the pancakes as he stared distractedly at the word “SALT” handwritten in ink on the small pine box over the stove. Behind him at the table, his wife slouched over her plate, her face pale, cold and clammy.
“I feel mighty rough, Luke,” she said. She spoke stoically, but the sweat on her forehead and the tears in the corners of her eyes betrayed how severe her pain was. Luke turned and looked at his suffering wife. He wasn’t sure what to say to her. His mind laboriously worked through his own feelings, like a grinding stone wheel.
After breakfast, the two of them rose from the table and headed down the creaking steps to the cellar. Luke supported Sammie as they walked; she clung with both arms to his elbow, tottering weakly into the close, dark space.
Moisture beaded on the walls, seeping from cracks between the stones. Pale fungus stood here and there along the dirt floor. It had always been too humid here for them to store their flour, but the place had served to ferment cider and mead. The cold made fermentation slow, but they were slow-thought-chewing Clydesdales, and patience was never a struggle.
Sammie threw her arms around Luke’s neck, kissing his face with clumsy force and letting out a deep, chesty sound between a sob and a cough. Luke cried, too. The wheel was grinding so hard that tears bled from the squeezed stone.
Sammie staggered back, to stand against the cellar wall. She couldn’t speak anymore.
“I love you, Sammie,” Luke said through the tears. He lifted his rifle to his shoulder.
The shot in the stone cellar was like a firecracker set off in a stone jug.
The harsh stink of sweat, mold and gunpowder made Luke gag, and grope back up the creaking stairs in a haze. He shut the heavy oak door to the cellar behind him, and right away began to place plank after plank across the doorway. The sound of him hammering rough iron nails echoed through the empty cottage.
The horror had descended on their little village the previous winter.
Decades before, the people there had carved something for themselves out of the chaos that followed the plague; something lasting, something stable. Something older than myopic traditions they themselves had known, but still part of a hyperopic heritage that ran deeper and farther than any of their lives and deaths. From around the ashes of New England, that disavouched, hard-bitten pack gathered together, all without honor, some without shirts on their backs. They came bearing strains of the Norse adventurer, of Celtic fantasy, and of the Protestant revolution that helped to free mankind from the old tyranny of kings and emperors.
And they had built something together.
Some remembered things, and they taught the others, so that all knew how to grow tobacco and squash, make fire, work with wood, and play the mouth-harp. They built a village like something out of the past. They lived like centuries-dead forebears, and barely knew they were doing it. They were simply human beings set back hundreds of years, surviving only with what they could make and grow with their hands.
And another atavist sprang up from the past, in these villagers. They were burdened with invisible baggage that pervaded the new, ancient culture that grew between the staunch, weather-beaten homesteaders and the generations that followed the founders. They carried on the great ballads of the old days. Their music was a gift from God, and they were proud to pick banjos and sing songs. These people didn’t have symphonies and choruses, but they were artists with their fiddles and tunes.
Thousands of square miles of beautiful, tangled green hills allowed an old American thing to reshape itself, in that place. As their lives were cut to pieces by the fiery, gruesome death of the old world, the American thing was reforming itself. It took on a new life on a new frontier, out of new cornfields and new whiskey stills; out of the feuds, out of the loneliness, and out of the struggle to keep living. This old American thing grew in a people who had embraced the fear of leaving the home they’d known, who’d pulled up their roots and faced the wilderness.
They were Americans in a hyperopic tradition that ran deeper and farther than any of their lives and deaths. They were the settlers. They were the colonists. They belonged to a stock not seen on the continent for centuries.
The horror that had doomed their village had come like a tattered ghost out of the night.
A grizzled man was drawn from the woods by the lights in windows and the smell of food, on the night of the first snow. He knocked on the door of the Oliver family’s cabin—the pair that had come to the village a decade earlier, wandering down from desolate Canada in search of other living souls.
The man begged the Olivers for something to eat and a warm place to sleep, and they gave it to him. They fed him, shaved him, dressed him in new clothes stitched by Mrs. Oliver herself. They were Christians, and could not send the man back out into the snow as the days went by and the winter grew colder. But the man was no freeloader. He was thankful, he worked, and he was a fount of stories from the world beyond the New England forests.
He had traveled as far as the West Coast, he told the Olivers. As weeks passed, he socialized with villagers who came by, and a little legend grew up around his stories. The man’s name was Jake Breckenridge. He was likable and worldly. He was friendly. He was always happy to talk with anybody, to help keep folks’ minds occupied with imagining the outside world he described, as they waited out a cold winter of heavy snow, sometimes trapped in their cabins for days on end by the gathering drifts.
One evening, Luke and Sammie paid the Olivers a visit, and saw the stranger firsthand. Jake Breckenridge talked with them like an old friend, recounting all his grand stories and asking about their lives in the village.
“Times was really hard, then,” Sammie said, telling Breckenridge about the early years of life in the village. At 27 years old, she was of the second generation the settlement had seen. “But we always made it. You can make pretty plenty to eat on the farm. But we always had to work. From the time I was eight years old, I had to work. My mother, she plowed, hoed corn, made everything at home…”
Breckenridge listened gregariously, smiling and nodding.
“It is amazing, what you all have built here,” Breckenridge said. His accent was different than Sammie’s. He didn’t talk like anyone Luke had ever heard before. “I’ve traveled thousands of miles, and I have only seen one settlement more secure than this one. There is a city in California. Thousands of people live there. It really is like something from the old days.”
Sammie’s eyes widened. Luke felt a dull heat of anger, seeing her attentiveness to him, but he kept listening because he, too, was very interested to learn more about this city. He had heard about cities; his father had lived through the great plague at the end of the world, so the old man had remembered all about the old days and had told Luke what the world used to be like when he’d been young.
“A city?” Sammie asked. “I can’t imagine…”
Breckenridge chuckled. “I wouldn’t believe it either if I hadn’t seen it myself,” he said. “The roads are smooth glass. The buildings take energy from the sun, like a plant’s leaves, so that the people power their machines.”
Now Luke leaned forward as attentively as Sammie. There were no machines in his village, but his father had told him about machines in the old world. It was hard to conceive of what they must have been like, except as an immensity of wheel made up of other wheels, oiled with inhuman sweat and glittering with the heat of ladled steel. They could do the work of hundreds of men, and made things possible that were impossible for human beings.
“They have electricity, doctors to cure sick people,” Breckenridge went on, “vehicles to get around, phones to talk with anyone in the city. They need technology to survive. Unlike you here in this village, they don’t have abundant water. There is always a drought. There is hardly ever any rain, there.”
“Is that why you left?” Sammie asked. “Because there was no water? I don’t know if I would leave a place like that. It sounds like paradise.”
Breckenridge’s face darkened. He didn’t answer Sammie about why he left. And Mrs. Oliver interrupted at that moment, walking in from the kitchen, carrying tin platters to set on the table.
Weeks later, a massive blizzard came. Everyone was trapped in their cabins. For two days and nights the snow fell, piling so high that doors could not open. People stayed inside, huddling around fireplaces, singing old songs:
Black is the color of my true love’s hair;
her cheeks are like the rosy fair.
With the prettiest eyes and daintiest hands,
I love the ground whereon she stands.
So fare thee well my one true love.
Our time is passed but I wish you well.
Still I hope the day will come,
when you and I shall be as one…
After the storm, when the people had dug paths out of their doors, the men strapped on snowshoes and did what they always did. They traveled across buried farmland and whitewashed forest paths, checking on each other, seeing how the other families had fared through the days of isolation.
The Olivers’ homestead was hard to reach, lying across bare, snow-swept acres, but Luke and a few other men from the village plodded towards it, noting from afar that no smoke rose from the chimney. They were worried; it was below freezing, and there was no good reason there should not have been a fire in their fireplace.
They reached the door and knocked loudly; there was no light inside. The men battered down the door, and slid into the building on a cascade of snow, caving in through the open doorway. The creaking pine floor ahead of them was bloody. In a bumbling rush, the men searched the little cottage, sweeping from room to room, following a spattering of brown, dried blood. They found the Olivers dead in their bedroom.
They had been murdered, brutally. The men crossed themselves and wrapped the bodies in sheets.
They knew the murderer was Jake Breckenridge. They hadn’t found him in the house yet, but they followed bloody tracks to the cellar door.
In the cold dark basement, they saw the huddled mass of Breckenridge. Even in the cold, he sweated with fever, and his face was drawn and jaundiced.
But they took no pity on the wretched man.
Luke and the others beat him to death in the cellar, and dragged his body out into the snow. Trudging to the frozen river that ran across the Olivers’ acres, they cast him off the wooden footbridge. They hoped he would break through and sink, but the ice was too thick and the snow over it too deep and soft. He landed with a dull thud and lay there mockingly, so the men that carried rifles unslung them from their shoulders and shot at the dead face. They stood there on the bridge for a while, barbarously misusing the dead body of Jake Breckenridge, stinging it with bullets until it was a ghastly, riven target and a red smear crept through the fresh snow around it.
Some of the men whispered that they saw Breckenridge trying to move, trying to stand, even as they shot him again and again. But Luke didn’t see it.
The body slowly cooled down and started to freeze, and the men no longer claimed to see it move.
Finally, they left, dispersing back to their homes to tell wives and families that the Olivers were dead and when the ground thawed in the spring they must be buried.
And that was the beginning of the nightmare. Jake Breckenridge was an accursed man; the Oliver family were only his first victims.
After he was punished for the slayings, some of the men who had found him in that cellar fell ill with fever. It wasted them for weeks, never breaking, never dwindling away. It grew steadily worse, wracking the sufferers with headaches and dizziness, and if they looked out their windows into the sunlight on the snow, the glare made them panic. Light was painful to them. It grew worse and worse, until the sickness vanished one day.
One after the other, the men suddenly recovered. They took to their beds one night ill, and awoke the next morning restored. The villagers rejoiced and thanked God for answering their prayers and healing the men. But after the jubilation faded, there were whispers that the recovered men were somehow changed. The wives of those who were married said that there was a weird hardness in their eyes, and they were quicker to anger than they had been previously. The younger men who lived with relatives or parents gave their families much to gossip about. They behaved strangely, and the strangest thing was that no one could agree on what had changed. It was nothing definite that could be reasoned out in words, but you felt it under your skin. It was just a nebulous impression that something in the men’s souls had been altered by what they had seen or done that day at the Oliver homestead.
Luke was not among the men who fell ill or changed. But his friend Eliot was. Luke saw less of Eliot after his sickness. The young man did not become reclusive—it was the opposite. He socialized almost frantically, like he feared to be alone. And he became wanton. He pursued all the women in the village relentlessly. He even made advances at Sammie one night when Luke was in the next room. Luke threw him out, and that was the last he saw of him.
Only days later, Luke heard the crushing, mortifying news that Eliot had murdered his father.
The young man was reduced to a frothing lunatic as the mob carried him to a large oak tree and lynched him.
Luke thought about going to the gallows tree to see the frozen body, but he never did.
And similar tragedies began to unfold, a string of murders rocking the little community and turning the winter red.
It began with the men who had changed after killing Breckenridge: all of them turned into crazed murderers. They killed their wives, parents, even children. The men had been damned by Jake’s evil powers; they were all driven to kill.
One after the other, they were lynched from the oak tree. After the first wave of killings, a second wave of villagers fell ill. The village was a coal-bed of burning fear; a breath would blow it into flames. It was all beginning again.
The blighted sufferers recovered, and distrust ran rampant. Everyone dreaded that the same cycle would play out. The recovered men or women were mobbed and lynched at the slightest sign that they had changed; the gnarled boughs became laden with frozen corpses as the winter wore on.
Some folk gave no sign of any change and were spared, only to suddenly turn violent weeks later, murdering the unwary who met with them alone.
So the village spiraled downward into violence and madness.
Of the sixty souls who had resided there, five survived to see that spring. And as the weather broke and the ice began to thaw, the crowning horror descended on the survivors. The frozen bodies dangling from the gallows tree began to unfreeze and awaken. Hanging from their necks, they first began to writhe slowly, almost imperceptibly, so onlookers thought it was only the wind that stirred them. But the warmer the weather became, the more they moved, until they kicked their legs silently and reached out their hands to any who passed too close.
The surviving villagers stacked wood and burned the gallows tree. The hellish things hanging from the boughs disappeared in the blaze without a sound. Not once did they speak or scream. They had no voices.
And then the last survivors became ill. For reasons only God knew, Luke alone did not.
The others died, and Sammie wasted slowly. She and Luke both knew what would happen to her if she recovered. She would change. She would no longer be herself, and would kill Luke if she could. They couldn’t allow it to happen. Sammie begged Luke to end it while she was still herself and not let her become a monster.
Residential District, Old Sacramento
March 30th, 2070
Steve stood at the range-top electric stove in his pajama bottoms. He casually laid four strips of bacon on the hot surface, side by side, leaning back from the splattering oil because he was unclothed to the waist.
Across the island counter, Abbie sat at the table in a button-down shirt and panties. She watched Steve cook. As he wielded the spatula, the sleek muscles in his back shifted like a stretching cat.
Abbie laughed and said to him, “You’re cooking me bacon, shirtless. Now that’s devotion.”
“Ha!” Steve said. “I might need you to rub ointment into my burns later.”
The ‘bacon’ Steve cooked was, like nearly all sources of protein for the people of Sacramento, made from processed insects. Sustainable food production for a population of several thousand in arid, perennially drought-ridden central California was a delicate balancing act of limited resources. Crickets, grasshoppers, ants and mealworms were the only animal food source that could be reliably farmed. Every pound of edible beef protein required 2,000 gallons of water. Edible pig protein, 800 gallons per pound. Crickets, however, required only one gallon of water per pound of edible protein produced. Insects were the answer the social engineers behind the city-state desperately needed in its early days.
The “bacon” on Steve’s skillet was produced from freeze-dried crickets, ground and seasoned. The strips were engineered to be extremely palatable and highly nutritious—65% protein, versus the 33% protein in a strip of beef jerky. They contained all essential amino acids, and 2.2 times more iron than spinach. Insects were a staple of the Sacramento diet, and that was a major part of the radical efficiency that allowed the Republic to survive.
“Thank you,” Abbie said brightly, flashing Steve a smile as he set plates on the table and slid into the chair opposite hers.
Cricket-bacon and hash-browns.
“‘Only dull people are brilliant at breakfast,’” Steve quoted.
It was early. Steve would need to finish his first cup of coffee, at least, before he could keep up with her sunny attitude. “I only have an hour before I need to report to the barracks,” he said, between mouthfuls. “Supply run, today. It’s time to top-off the municipal reserves.”
Abbie’s brow furrowed. “I remembered the run was today,” she said. “I’m going to be trying not to worry constantly, until you get back this afternoon.”
“We’ll be fine,” Steve said. “I’ll be riding around in an armored hummer with a half-dozen soldiers. I’ll actually be safer all day today than I am most other days.”
“I know, I know,” Abbie said, “It’s just nerve-wracking. The Armorers don’t believe in VHV at all, so any one of those guys sitting on that pile of guns could be a Sleeper, and no one would pick up on it until half the compound had been murdered. Then maybe they’d finally think, ‘Huh, I guess what those Sac people have been saying all this time about the virus might be true.’’”
“That’s the whole reason there’s BPH accompaniment on these supply runs in the first place,” Steve said, shrugging. “To watch the army guys’ backs, and prevent any exposure to infection. But it’s just out of an abundance of caution. The Armorers don’t let any strangers in, so the odds of infection infiltrating the compound are pretty low.”
The Armorers were the sole suppliers of guns and ammunition in the West. They were the last of the old world Capitalists, or maybe the first of a new breed. Their dynasty had been founded by a group of nomads who’d stumbled upon the pristine remains of Fort Calhoun military depot in the northern reaches of the Mojave Desert. The depot had been abandoned in the chaos after the collapse of the Federal Government and the disbandment of the U.S. Military.
Those wanderers who’d rediscovered it only a few years later had found a treasure-trove of weapons and munitions, a precious commodity in the feudal wastes of the world. They’d understood how much they stood to gain in trade by establishing themselves as the controllers of that commodity, so they’d set to work securing the compound, making it impregnable and imposing. It began with patching up the thick concrete structures and erecting huge guard-towers with plank wood and scaffolding, where snipers could survey the flat expanse of the Mojave as far as the horizon.
As the decades went by and the Armorer Dynasty moved through second and third generations, the compound grew into almost a city, and an incalculably wealthy and luxurious one by the new world’s standards. An extensive complex of underground shelters and opulent living spaces was excavated to supplement the aboveground compound, a ruling aristocracy in the lineage of the original founders lorded it over the population, and a special class of lethal, highborn guards was trained from a young age, in emulation of the institution of medieval knighthood. Their snipers could pick off an intruder across two miles of desert. No one who was not welcome could enter the compound.
The Armorers’ wealth consisted of anything and everything they could receive in trade from people scattered throughout the West Coast and the Southwest. Resources like water and food. And also precious things preserved from the old world: vehicles and electronics, medications and prescription glasses. Building materials, canned goods, batteries. Occasionally the dynasty accepted human beings in trade, from poor groups of wanderers or desperate feuding clans who had nothing else to barter with. The women given to them in exchange for weapons provided the means for the population in the compound to continue to grow.
From the earliest days, the Armorers knew that their supply of weapons in the depot was finite and could not support infinite profit and expansion. So, like an old world corporation, they diversified, using resources like the vital medications and medical supplies they stock-piled to draw repeat business from customers that they had previously armed. And the Dynasty constantly worked to secure other caches of weapons through trade or through force. It wasn’t beyond them to arm a couple clans, let them wipe each other out in a bid for territory, then step in and collect the guns right off the corpses for resale.
When the city-state of Sacramento was first established, trade deals with the Armorer Dynasty were invaluable in supporting the government and kickstarting the city’s own medical and technological sectors. Sacramento had qualified specialists to create their state—like doctors, mechanics and urban planners—but the Armorers had many of the raw materials needed to get their vision of the Republic off of the ground: usable medical supplies from the old world, reparable vehicles, vital mechanical parts, and weapons to equip a new military and police force. Over the years, trade between Sacramento government and the Armorers became so well-established that the Armorers even began to accept Sacramento’s own newly minted internal currency.
But, in the minds of the Republic’s leaders, there loomed always a deep-rooted fear of the Vox Humana Virus entering Fort Calhoun—which the Armorers had flippantly renamed Hell’s Gate. The reason for this fear was that the aristocracy there did not believe in the continued existence of the virus. They believed that the plague had ended when the armies of the undead began to recede. Long after the physicians in Sacramento discovered the changed nature of the virus and the new danger posed by infected Sleepers, the Armorers stubbornly rejected their findings and would not accept that the danger was still very real. They would not institute screenings for infection in their population, and would not allow SAC BPH access to any records that they could use to assess the danger of outbreak within the compound.
Yet, regardless of the idiocy of the benighted aristocrats, Sacramento needed various supplies that only the Armorers could provide. Regular supply runs were conducted by the military, always accompanied by BPH agents who remained vigilant for any signs of infection in the guards and representatives the soldiers had to deal with.
In Sacramento, the BPH was a super-agency with unlimited authority with regard to securing information and applying force. But in Hell’s Gate, the authority of the BPH was not recognized, because the aristocracy did not acknowledge as legitimate the threat that the agency’s authority existed to address.
If a BPH agent were to discover infection in a representative of the Armorers, taking aggressive action would likely be interpreted as an act of war. So the agents accompanying the soldiers had one task: stay vigilant, and immediately order an unceremonious retreat across the Mojave if there was a danger of infection.
Abbie snapped her fingers in front of Steve’s face.
He looked up from his plate.
She gave him a sympathetic look. “Hey, where are you? I said, ‘What is it, a seven hour drive?’”
Steve nodded. “Seven hours, and nothing to see but desert. But I’m counting on it being boring. If anything exciting happens, that’s a problem.” He took another bite of his breakfast, and smiled at Abbie.
She forced a smile in return, but she knew she would be on edge until he got back, which would most likely be quite late in the evening.
Settler’s Village, Maine
March 30th, 2070
Luke would not stay in the village. There was no reason for him to stay alive if he could not find a better recompense for life than life.
I’d rather I die, he thought, looking for something new, than go on living here.
He stood outside the door of his cabin, where he had lived with Sammie for seven years. He closed his eyes and thought back on that morning, when he had looked around the bedroom and tried hard to let every detail burn permanently into his memory. The dawn in the window. The sight of Sammie on the bed. He would remember her like that. Not the way he had left her in the cellar.
He faced the forest, the tangled wall of green pressing up on all sides.
He didn’t know what his destination would be, but he had to start walking.
“Rain is pouring, rain is pouring down,” Luke sang quietly to himself as he rode on tirelessly, hours later.
He was not traveling on foot; he went mounted on his old draft horse, Star. “If I can’t have my Dinah, I’ll have no one in town. It’s raining, it’s snowing, the world is turning white. The sun lights up the daytime, but save Dinah for night. Save Dinah for the night…”
In contrast with his melancholy song, the weather was fair and clear. Balmy wind snaked through the thick stands of oak and maple trees with a hollow sound. There were no leaves yet to rustle, but red buds on the branches glowed in the sunlight as if every tree top were a lit torch. The ground was spongy with melting snow and ice under Star’s hooves. The wooly green mosses and yellow lichens were awakening after the winter, and the heavy fragrance of moss and loam filled the cool air in Luke’s nostrils.
He thought hard about where he could go, as he rode aimlessly. But awful things kept coming unbidden into his mind. Sammie, as she had looked before he groped his way out of the basement and gagged on the smell of blood and mildew. He tried not to think about that, but the image kept coming. And the writhing, kicking bodies hanging from the gallows tree, disappearing into the fire without a word. And Jake Breckenridge smiling at him across the Oliver family table, talking about the paradise he had seen.
Luke pulled Star’s reins and he stopped in the middle of the path.
Breckenridge talked about a city in California, he thought. Was he lying? Was he crazy then, or was he telling something he’d really seen—and only went crazy later? His wheel of a mind ground laboriously at the question. It would be a mighty long ride. And ever since I was young, I was told how dangerous the Midwest was. How it was death to head that way. But Breckenridge said he made it through.
And if I die, I don’t suppose that would bother me more than living.
He pulled a brass compass from his pocket. It was old; it had been his father’s, in the old world. The needle quickly stopped wobbling and pointed steadily north, but Luke was interested in west. He put the compass back in his pocket, adjusted the straps of his rucksack and rifle, and nudged Star’s ribs with his heels. The horse started again down the path.
From now on, I follow the sun when it sets.
God knows if I’ll get to California.
That night was cold. A frost settled in over the forest. Wrapping himself in the heavy canvass covers that had been neatly bundled on top of his ruck, Luke burrowed down as deeply as he could into the dry leaves inside the rough shelter he had built. At least it will get warmer as I travel west. Water will get less and hunting will get scarce, but at least I’ll be warmer.
He was tired down to his cartilage and bones; a deep, sickening fatigue. And the cold leeched through his covers and shelter, making him shiver so hard it almost hurt. Sleep would not come. The night was a cold chain of dark hours, shifting like prayer beads through cold fingers.
Luke thought about Sammie and moaned as he lay there in the leaves. Oh my god, why won’t she answer the aching? Oh my god, to lie with her through the dark…
Dawn found him and Star still alive.
April 11th, 2070
Luke did not know it, but traveling from Maine into the Midwest meant that he and Star were stumbling into an invisible cloud of death.
In the last days of the old world, as the plague tore civilization apart and, one after the other, the machinations of industrialization were abandoned.
The hordes of the undead had been only the beginning of the global catastrophe.
The flashpoint came ten days after the first nuclear power plant—Yankee Rowe Nuclear Power Station in Massachusetts—was cut off from maintenance. After being inaccessible to maintenance crews for just over a week, the radioactive fuel rods in the reactor evaporated the water from their cooling pools. The meltdown bathed thousands in an explosion of radioactive mist. Plumes of irradiated steam rent the ground around the station and billowed over a radius of fifty miles. Thousands were sickened and killed; a society already reeling was dealt a crushing blow.
The next to meltdown was Calvert Cliffs Nuclear Power Plant in Maryland. Thousands more were irradiated. In a country already on the edge of collapse, there wasn’t enough cohesion left in the Federal Government to address these new huge-scale disasters or the mass casualties they caused. So nothing could be done, and the meltdowns hit critical mass. There was no one left to maintain the plants; across the country, one by one, the reactors exploded, spewing lethal smog over millions of Americans.
Surry Power Station, seventeen miles northwest of Newport News, Virginia.
Perry Nuclear Power Plant, thirty five miles northeast of Cleveland, Ohio…
Some stations were successfully shut down by emergency SCRAM protocols before the cores collapse—but not enough. Not nearly enough. Across thirty one states, reactors exploded day after day, killing over one hundred and twenty million Americans. The United States being the last nation standing, this chain-reaction truly was the deathblow that ended the world.
The European Union had had an even greater number of nuclear power stations scattered throughout its territories. When society there had begun to break down under the ravages of the plague and those stations finally collapsed, the devastation must have left that corner of the earth a scorched cinder. No one in the wastelands of ex-America knew what had happened to other parts of the world, or if anyone beyond the oceans had survived; it had been decades since any communication across the Atlantic had been possible.
But in the western United States, where nuclear power plants were scarce and spread out across massive tracts of land, many more people survived. Where those who lived through the catastrophe on the East Coast were like ghosts, wandering among the blasted remains of their world, set back to a way of life that had been outdated by hundreds of years, some of the humans in the West had been spared such thorough annihilation. As the roving troglodyte irradiated armies of the infected started to dwindle away, there was enough raw material left behind for the western survivors to recoup civilization, continue the advancement of technology, and begin to build a better life. That was the backdrop out of which the city-state of Sacramento had grown.
Luke didn’t know all this recent history in detail, but he knew the name “Sacramento.” And so he trudged towards that civilized place, a city which to him was just a story or a dream.
He had a long way to go still. Walking through the cracked, overgrown streets of Chicago, leading Star behind him by his reins, Luke paused to rub his temples. He was nauseous. And he was becoming dehydrated.
He was losing water through issues with his digestion that had crept up gradually over the past several days. He thought it was caused by the unfamiliar diet he had been eating: rabbits and squirrels, and wild greens or flowers he found growing. Dandelions had been a staple for the past weeks. He ate the leaves and flowers, and boiled the roots in water to make himself tea. He remembered that the older villagers had always told him dandelions were a remedy for all disorders. If you could find and dig up the roots, they could cure sickness that came over folks during the long winters without fresh food. He wished they would cure his gut, but the pain and nausea didn’t abate.
He would often vomit after trying to eat. He didn’t know, as he walked through the broken street between towering, scorched wrecks of buildings, that he was only seven miles away from the endlessly smoldering ruins of Bryon Station—just one of six stations radiating death over the blasted city, like they would for hundreds or thousands of years into the future.
Star, always somewhat boney, was starting to look dreadfully gaunt. Luke could count his ribs, and the muscles of his shoulders and haunches looked like smoked jerky. But the tough old horse trotted on. He had no self-pity.
The ruins of Chicago were the first glimpse Luke had ever had of a city of the old world. The huge gray expanse was overwhelming, even tattered as it was, and covered in creeping vines. He imagined what it must have been like in the past, not drowned in silence, but alive with chanting motors, clanging with footsteps as busy crowds surged about inside the giant metallic cage, no longer relentlessly bound to what the soil could grow. Folk had all been machinists, in those days. They’d made the soil grow steel-faced mountains reaching for the sky, strung with hard jewels of electric lights. Pillars of smoke and fire, splendid and sooty. Theirs was a metal age with engines for hands; machinery was a genie they raised to rule the world; their servant-master, more than half a god.
Luke’s mind was spinning with wonder as he looked around those enormous ruins. He was almost able to forget that he was nauseous and malnourished. He walked his horse slowly, watching every change in light as the sun revolved overhead, casting long shadows all across the cracked streets from the weird vertical constructions that dominated the city.
He still followed the sun. As it set, he walked towards it. That was all he knew how to do. Beyond the single consuming thought—go west—he had no idea how to find Sacramento. But he continued on. He continued undaunted in a way anyone with a faster mind would not. Luke’s mind was a stone wheel; it turned and turned and kept him walking when others would lie down and die.
When the image of Sammie in the cellar came into his mind, he felt sad but it didn’t occur to him to stop walking. When he was clutched by a sudden pain in his guts, and wretched on the side of the road, he wiped his mouth and kept walking. Like Star, he had no self-pity.
The two of them would walk until they died.
Mojave Desert, California
April 30th, 2070
A month after the previous one, it was time for another supply run to Hell’s Gate. Military training exercises throughout April had eaten into municipal ammunition reserves, and these needed to be replenished to maintenance levels. A semi truck escorted by three armored humvees crossed the Mojave, carrying eleven thousand Sacramento dollars and one thousand gallons of fuel to buy 5.5x45 mm M4 Carbine rifle ammunition, M18A1 remote-control Claymore Mines, and various replacement parts for the city-state’s two operational UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters.
Gasoline was a highly refined product which rapidly degraded to the point where it could no longer power engines. Four decades prior, less than a year after the last oil refinery ceased to operate, there simply was no usable gasoline left anywhere on Earth. The fuel that the convoy carried for trade was a new invention, a technological advancement unique to Sacramento, which had made them the first people in the new world to resume using combustion engines after the collapse of the old one.
There was no shortage of undamaged or repairable vehicles for the survivors in the Western wasteland, but, without a way to fuel them, they were useless. It wasn’t until years after the establishment of New Sacramento that government scientists struck on a new way to power the old combustion engines: algae fuel. The discovery changed everything.
It began with algae colonies grown in petri dishes. Transferred into laboratory flasks, the colonies grew larger until they could be moved outside into swimming-pool-sized cultures. The aquatic plants grew in a combination of salt water and recycled waste water from the city sewage treatment facilities. The huge algae cultures matured, without requiring fertile land that could be used to grow human food, converting sunlight into sugar with a minimal use of resources: a perfect bio-energy source.
When it was ready to harvest, the collected algae was centrifuged and dried in the sun. The dried pellets were shunted into a heated press, which squeezed out the oil: a finished product almost identical to petroleum diesel. The algae fuel could be dropped into any existing motor designed to run on gasoline, and it burned without any change in the vehicle’s performance. Suddenly, all the remaining vehicles of the old world were available to the people of Sacramento. And the algae, after pressing for oil extraction, was ideal feed for insect production. It was a system precisely engineered for minimal waste.
Hell’s Gate was always eager to trade for the fuel, and that gave Sacramento considerable leverage in procuring necessities from the Armorers that they were unable to produce themselves.
Steve sat in the passenger seat of one of the humvees. The young man in military fatigues behind the wheel was relaxed but alert, watching the road and scanning the vista of desert to either side.
“Every time I think it’s dry at home,” the young man said, “I come down here. Then I remember what dry really looks like. At least at home we have a cactus every couple hundred yards.”
Steve knew there were actually parts of the Mojave with just as many cacti and brambles as the land outside Sacramento, but the soldier was right: the spot they were crossing was exceptionally barren and sandy. Like a miniature Sahara.
“It’s as dry as a preacher’s tongue,” Steve said.
The comment struck the soldier as funny. The young man laughed for a while. “I’ll have to remember that,” he said.
“You can take credit for it, if you want,” Steve said, smiling.
In the distance, the black guard towers of Hell’s Gate came into view across a sweltering expanse of sand.
“Watch it, watch it!” a foreman shouted, as a worker transported a pallet of ammunition crates with a forklift.
Moving the pallet across the warehouse floor towards the hydraulic tailgate of the military truck, the worker came dangerously close to clipping the side of some shelves covered in various pieces of organized hardware. It would have been a disaster if a set of shelves were knocked over in the packed warehouse—like a huge, catastrophic line of Dominos.
“Sorry, boss,” the worker called. He had a clear line to the truck now and seemed to have recovered from the wave of dizziness—or maybe just inattention—that had nearly cost the crew the hundreds of hours of work they would have had to spend sifting through the mess.
Steve’s eyes narrowed. He watched the worker closely. Yellowish eyes, he thought. Jaundice? There was a very slight discoloration in the man’s sclera and skin. It could indicate raised bilirubin levels in the extracellular fluid. There were a number of possible causes, from pancreatic cancer to obstruction of the biliary tract. Or, it could be something else entirely…
Steve wished he could demand to see the sketchy files that passed for medical records in the Armorer compound, in case that worker had been examined recently. He wanted to scan for predictable patterns of liver panel abnormalities in his record, to rule out possible causes of his jaundice. But Steve knew he had no authority to secure that or any other information. Hell, as long as he was asking for impossible wishes, he also wanted to know where and with whom that man lived and if there had been any recent unsolved murders or disappearances in his social circle.
Standing on the open floor of the warehouse, Steve continued to stare at the worker.
The other members of the crew busily loaded supplies onto the back of a truck. The barrels of fuel had already been delivered; the total transaction between the two nations was halfway finished.
A few Sac soldiers stood to either side of the truck, watching. A few others helped the workers, carrying ammo crates.
The yellow-eyed man stood back from the rest of the workers, swaying almost imperceptibly on his feet like he had been drinking. No one would have noticed the slight disruption of balance, unless they were looking for it.
“Hey, Carl,” another worker called, staring at the yellow-eyed man. “Carl! Can I impose on you to help with all this?”
Carl snapped out of his trance, and started mechanically loading crates onto the truck tailgate. It seemed that he’d recognized that he had been spoken to but hadn’t recognized his own name.
Steve had seen enough.
“We’re moving,” he called, raising his right hand in the air to signal the troops that they needed to withdraw.
Without hesitation and without any need for explanation, the soldiers moved quickly back to their vehicles. The ones that had carried ammo crates set them down on the warehouse floor and abandoned them.
“What the fuck is this?” the warehouse foreman demanded. “You only have half of the stuff you paid for.”
“Keep the change,” Steve said. “My government will be in contact with yours,” he added, as he slammed the door of the armored humvee and the young soldier started the engine.
The Sacramentan convoy peeled out of the shady warehouse and into the bright light of day.
The young soldier and Steve didn’t speak for several minutes, as they drove down the central road of the compound between bunkers and warehouses, out through the gates, past the guard towers, and into the desert.
“Who was it?” the soldier finally asked.
“The man operating the forklift,” Steve answered flatly.
The soldier whistled. “I’m glad we didn’t shake any hands. Will we need to be quarantined before we can reenter the city?”
“Yes,” Steve said. “But only for a week. After that we’ll be vetted and cleared for release. Don’t worry, I’m sure we didn’t catch anything. We got out of there too fast. We basically have a week of paid vacation coming. We’ll get our own cabin, too, on the government’s bankroll.” Steve smiled. He was trying to be reassuring, but he wasn’t lying. He actually was confident they had mitigated the risk of infection by leaving so quickly.
He hadn’t bothered to share with anyone in Hell’s Gate his suspicions that Carl was a VHV carrier—probably an advanced case. The man’s jaundice showed that the abnormal proteins accumulating in his body were already beginning to shut down his liver and kidneys. And he had almost certainly been murdering people in the compound for some time, without being linked to the deaths. Steve hadn’t said any of that because the foreman wouldn’t have listened. It would have been a waste of breath to caution them to quarantine that man and everyone he had been in close contact with.
Steve would leave it to the Republican government to make radio contact and issue appropriate warnings and instructions, all to be ignored.
Despite his reassuring manner with the soldier, Steve was thinking hard about what had just happened. If he was right about Carl, that meant VHV had entered the Armorer’s compound. The people sitting on the biggest stockpile of guns and munitions left in the world were about to be the epicenter of a new outbreak of a plague they didn’t believe existed.
What the hell happens now? Steve wondered.
April 30th, 2070
Luke had taken care of several things before leaving his village in Maine:
He had gathered a few pots and pans to stow in his rucksack for cooking what he could find and catch as he went.
He had bundled up heavy canvas and brought it to sleep in.
He’d slaughtered one of the lambs and smoked as much meat as he could carry, wrapping it in cloth to stow in Star’s saddle-bags.
After that, he had walked between the homesteads, opening all the barn doors and breaking down the gates of every fence, so all the rest of the animals, horses, goats, cows, could go free and become wild.
The road from that moment to this had been long.
Something Luke had not seen in a thousand miles of overgrown paths and cracked roads was another human being. Not even one. The Midwest was dead. He and Star seemed to be the only living beings, as they advanced slowly down the craggy asphalt of an old highway, which baked under the noon sun.
The ground around them was dry and brambly. In the distance, across miles of coarse prairies and nodding sunflowers, there was a towering rock formation. A great boulder with a spike rising from the top like a nail driven in by a giant. Luke didn’t know it, but it had been called Chimney Rock. He couldn’t have known, but that landmark meant he was twelve hundred miles from Sacramento.
It was becoming hotter day by day. Water was harder to find than it had been back in the northeast. Though his nausea had been less intense in recent days and his digestion had been less sour, Luke’s chronic dehydration was getting worse. He was more careful about rationing his water, because opportunities to refill his canteens were farther between than they had been.
Star had been suffering for the past several days. There was a wheezy sound when he breathed; just that morning, Luke had noticed blood in his stool. He trotted with increasing difficulty, like he was pushing through treacle. Luke wondered if he should put the poor horse down, but, every time he thought about shooting him in mercy, the image of Sammie in the basement flashed back into his mind and he began to dry heave.
Still, he knew Star was getting worse, not better. It would be hard to put him down and harder still to finish the journey on foot, but he couldn’t let the poor horse suffer.
Late that afternoon, after miles and miles of walking, he led Star to a shady spot, and let him lie down and rest his aching legs. Luke emptied one of his precious canteens into a pot so the horse could drink, and he gathered whatever dry grasses he could find nearby to let him eat. Then he waited.
It was hours before the horse drifted off to sleep. When Star’s wheezing breath turned slow and even, Luke said a prayer, and shot the horse with his rifle. He died instantly in his sleep.
Weeping so deeply that it was as though his soul was being dislodged from inside his chest and dribbling out of his eyes and nose, Luke covered the horse’s body with a shawl of branches and uprooted brambles. He tied whichever saddle bags still contained anything useful onto his own rucksack and shouldered it all, grunting as he took on the multiplied weight.
He didn’t stop to sleep that night. He walked on and on through the darkness.
He encountered a sign of life that night: the howling of coywolves in the distance. A deep, strong wail, that changed partway into high-pitched staccato yipping.
Luke shivered at the sound and kept walking.
May 7th, 2070
Steve had gotten the men out of Hell’s Gate safely. After their week-long quarantine, they were vetted, and all tested negative for VHV exposure. They were cleared to reenter the general population.
An army truck met them at the remote cabin outside the city where they had spent the last week. The soldiers driving the truck were the first different human faces they had seen in days. The anonymous BPH technicians who had come to the cabin every couple of days to drop off provisions were always swaddled, head to toe, in hazmat coveralls and gas-masks. The technicians that arrived on the seventh day to conduct their blood-tests had been, as well.
But now there was no risk of infection, and the cooped-up soldiers ambled around in the bright sunlight, blinking and looking enormously relieved, while the soldiers who had arrived to pick them up clapped them on the backs, smiling, talking and laughing.
Steve watched a black SUV driving up the dirt road towards the cabin, throwing up dust behind the wheels. He knew it was BPH Lieutenant Lillian Morgenstern. He had called her a week earlier, as he and the soldiers were first heading towards the remote cabin where they served out their sentence. Steve knew the protocol. He didn’t need to wait for anyone to tell him they needed to be isolated from the city. He had told the soldiers where to drive to as soon as they’d left Hell’s Gate, and he had apprised Lillian of the situation over the phone as they traveled, so she could make all the appropriate reports, and spread the alarming message up the government chain of command: VHV infection had entered Hell’s Gate. Then he had called Abbie to tell her what was going on, and that he would be fine.
“Need a ride?” Lillian asked, stepping out of the SUV and leaning against the open driver side door.
“Sure,” Steve said. “I’m happy to be heading home this way—and not as ashes in a bag, for controlled disposal in a hazardous waste dump.”
Lillian didn’t laugh. It was one of Steve’s usual unfunny jokes. “I’m glad to be bringing you home safe, too,” she said.
“Now what?” Steve asked. “The Armorers are all going to be infected. Do we do anything?”
“We don’t know for sure that VHV is present there,” Lilly reminded him. “You did the right thing getting the hell out, but it might have been a false alarm. You all tested clear.”
“We only tested clear because we got away so fast,” Steve answered. “That man was infected. And the virus had nearly run its course with him. He will die soon, the virus will reboot the corpse, and the whole dynasty will learn the hard way that the plague is still around. The first zombie they’ve seen in years will sprout up right inside their own fucking compound. And they’ll realize that half of them have probably already been infected without knowing it. The question is, what do we do about any of that?”
“There’s nothing we can do from here,” Lillian said. “All the appropriate warnings have been issued to the dynasty governors. We’ve let them know explicitly who you think is infected and why you think so. It’s up to them if they do anything about the threat to themselves.”
“I don’t like the idea,” Steve said. “They’re sitting on the world’s biggest pile of next-level weaponry. You know that whatever they’ve been selling to us and everyone else all this time, they saved the best for themselves. They wouldn’t arm anyone as well as their own. And it’s only a matter of time before none of them is human anymore.”
They got into the SUV without another word. Lillian made a three point turn, and they drove back down the long, dusty road towards Sacramento.
May 21st, 2070
The world around Luke was different than the one he had left behind, thousands of miles east. There was an inhuman enormity to everything; the soaring cliff faces, the white-capped mountain ridges, the tremendous, boundless sky. There were traces of mankind visible around him as he walked, and those too were gigantic: highways and bridges clinging to rocks, with massive wends and turns creeping around whole mountains. Concrete pillars huger than any tree he had ever seen, some toppled along with the road they supported, some engineered so skillfully that even now, years later, they still stood.
These things were amazing to him, but far more amazing was the gargantuan world of rocks and blue glass sky that had outlasted mankind, that had seen civilization come and go without any particular commotion. It was so huge that his footsteps could not cross it. He walked and walked, but there were always miles and miles ahead of him.
In his village, he had understood that nature was made for man. Everything could serve his purposes. Sheep were food and clothing for humans. Hemp was for wrapping packages and hanging the wicked. Iron was made for hammers and ploughs, lead was made for his bullets. It was all intended for him. But as he walked across the varied and gigantic expanse of the continent, he saw everywhere that the world had not blinked at the disappearance of Man.
He had seen cities like Chicago swallowed in infinite indifference by the huge throat of nature. He had seen ribbons slowly sinking into the dirt and being blotted out. The world was never meant to serve Man. Man was a small unit in the majesty of creation. The creation or destruction of the world did not hinge on Him.
Walking in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, Luke basked in a calm so deep that even the grass seemed to cease to wave. Everything in nature fit into him, or he fit into it, but it didn’t matter which. The sun didn’t shine on him, it shined in him. The river didn’t flow past him, it flowed through him, vibrating every cell of the substance of his body, making them hum and sing. The song of the birds was his song, the wind-song was his, the tremendous storm-song from the heart of mountains was his song, and the music was a gift from God.
His head swam as he walked; his mouth was dry and riddled with sores. Water was more plentiful in this place than it had been for weeks, but something was wrong. Something had gone wrong in his body as far back as Chicago, he knew. He hadn’t constantly been aware of it, but something in him was getting worse and worse.
He couldn’t quench his thirst. He hadn’t been able to eat for days, not because he had no food left, but because his stomach churned and rejected every morsel he tried to choke down his dry throat. But it didn’t matter. He looked up into the sky, smiling with chapped lips.
He thought about Sammie. He thought about the bodies hanging from the gallows tree—the hemp in the ropes they were lynched with was never meant to serve Man. Man used it, but it did not exist for him. It was beyond him; the meaning of it was beyond Man’s thoughts, just as the stars are beyond the reach of his hands. The God who made it had no special concern for human beings.
“You’re right, Sammie,” Luke said to the empty expanse of grass before him. He wasn’t aware of having fallen to his knees, but he was vaguely conscious that he now kneeled in the field as he spoke. “You’re right,” he repeated, spitting out the words with an effort.
Sammie stood there, in front of him now. She told him kindly that he had walked far enough for one day, and should rest.
He slumped down and huddled in the grass, feeling the warmth of the sun against his burned, peeling skin.
The stone wheel of his mind ground on, grinding up the memories of beating Jake Breckenridge to death and shooting at his dead face in the frozen river. Grinding up the memories of the empty village after everyone else was gone, when he and Sammie lived a lonely life together. Grinding up the memories of the day they realized she was sick. Grinding up the memories of the bedroom that morning he had once tried so hard to remember.
When it was all ground away, Luke’s mind was empty.