art by Bart Verburg

by John Tompkins, Jr.

After the final war….

     Jon Tyler ducked back inside the ruined house just as the helicopter’s searchlight stabbed down. He watched the light drift over the lawn to a burned-out car. All the while the roar of its engines filled his ears and the dust it kicked up blinded him. He crouched by the window and held onto his bullpup M-16. He closed his eyes and he could see them. Oil rigs out in the desert burning. Giant pillars of flame belching smoke into the sky that blocked out all light from above.

     He felt a hand on his shoulder. Startled, he turned and saw that it was only Janet. Somehow the copter had missed them and drifted off. He hazarded a look outside again. The craft was well down the next block, its white light poking down looking for them. They had beaten the odds. But just barely. He wondered how long their luck would hold out.

     “They’re gone,” said Janet. She moved off a bit and turned on her red-filtered flashlight. In the glow they could make out overturned furniture. Not long ago this area (and he was pretty sure they were in Montana) had been someone’s home. Of course that was before the militias took over most of the West, and the United States and Canada had been two separate countries. Now it was AmeriCa and that was an AmeriCan Defense copter out there kicking up dust. 

     He looked at Janet.

     Ever since he had found her three days ago hiding under a highway overpass, his life, such as it was, had become more interesting.

     They wanted her bad, that was certain; they wanted all Gulf War veterans, himself included. That was nothing new. After Washington had concluded the Niagara Summit some ten years ago, the new country had closed its borders.

     They had heavily mined the Bering Strait, and had dug a huge anti-immigration trench along the Mexican border. Then they had started to comb the interior for Gulf War vets.  He could recall a time when Washington had wanted them to just disappear—now they wanted to be friends again. But Tyler did not want to play any more.

     He went into the kitchen and found Janet sitting at a small table. Above her head on the wall was a Militia slogan, and the symbol of the Western Branch of the New Republicans.

     “Welcome back to the Wild West,” he said.

     “Huh?” she asked.

     “Nothing—we’re in Militia-held territory without a doubt.” He sat down and leaned his rifle against the wall. “How much further until we meet this Cyrus guy?” he asked. Janet shrugged.

     “As long as it takes us to get to East Glacier. That is where the Underground Railroad starts.”

     Tyler smiled at the reference to the Civil War network of safe houses that had enabled blacks to escape the South. History, he felt, never changes.

     “You know you never did tell me why they are after you, and what this Cyrus can do for us,” he said.

     Janet smiled. “As you have probably figured out, I was in that war too. I was a crew chief on a Blackhawk. I won a medal and everything. When AIDs mutated into an airborne pathogen, they came and got me, simple as that. They took me to a psychiatric hospital in Baltimore, me and about fifteen other female vets were there.”

     “Why only women?”

     She looked at him as if he had been living in a cave for the last decade. “Because of the immunity Gulf War Syndrome gave us.” She hesitated. “They wanted to see if the changes to our DNA would be passed along. They think the immunity causes changes in the DNA molecule. If they could isolate the altered DNA molecule before cell differentiation they might be able to concoct a serum that works on the molecular level.” She leaned back against the wall and looked at him. “They’re desperate, Jon. Time is running out for the infected.”

     “How did you get out?” he asked.

     “Well, I was in the Kevorkian Wing of the Center for Applied Euthanasia, when one of the techs approached me and the others. It seems that he was part of the Brotherhood and was willing to help us escape. There’s more. He also gave me a code, a virus that I can download into the computer at the border. Then we can leave this country for good, go to Mexico or Central America.” Tyler smiled at the idea of seeing Americans fleeing to such a place as Central America.“What’s so funny?”

     “Nothing. So where’s this guy now?”

     “Probably still at the center. But he was from the South and had some whacked-out notion of going back down there and reviving the Confederacy.”

     “Where are the other women?”

     “I don’t know—we split up after our escape. So what’s your story? I’m sick of mine.”

     “After the war I got the syndrome so bad I couldn’t work. My father had bought some land up in New Hampshire and I stayed there for a while. In ’01 the trouble started. For a while I thought I would die too, and I waited it out.”

     “With dear old dad?”

     “No, he died long before that, lead poisoning. It’s a long story. Anyway people started to get suspicious of me, not having the disease and all. And some militia group even burned a cross on my lawn. I could never figure that one out. I decided that it was time to leave. So I lived in the woods for awhile. Eventually I made my way to “upstate” New York. In the Adirondacks I met a group of vets and they told me of the underground railroad. So with my trusty M16 I started to make my way west. By this time the West was out of control. Mostly there were militia roaming about in bands like Indians—just like it used to be.”

     They stopped talking. Janet curled up on the floor and fell asleep. Tyler walked out of the house and stood on the front lawn. The sky was filled with stars, and he could see the Milky Way stretched out across the sky like a gauze bandage. He did not tell her how his father had served in Viet Nam, how he had gotten cancer from Agent Orange. Or how he’d beaten the disease to the punch by a bullet. From the .357 Tyler now carried. He pulled the old wheel gun out and looked at it. In this age of caseless rounds the gun looked like some throwback from the Dark Ages. It was crude but effective and it reminded him of where he was from. He had taken the gun from his father’s dead hand and had then moved on. Now he thought of his old man and how he’d died a slow death while the world had gone on living without him.

     Now the world was dying a slow death and his son was going to go on living. He thought of what they might find below the border. All of the Gulf War vets could go there. They could start a new world free of AIDs, free of everything. But he was certain that they would carry the disease of human nature with them.

     Would it be the same old story? He tried not to think about it too much. First things first, he thought, and he went back inside to try to sleep.

     The next day they decided to lay low and travel only at night. They roamed around for a bit and towards the afternoon ended up in the steeple of a local church. There, looking out over the plains, they could see flashes of light and then could hear the distant rumble of artillery.

     “Militias again,” said Janet. She had brought a blanket with her and had spread it down on the floor of the steeple. Tyler turned and Janet pulled him down close to her. He looked into her eyes and felt a great sadness overwhelm him. He opened his mouth to say something, anything. Janet brushed his bottom lip with her fingertips and then kissed him gently. They made love while his mind drifted over the plains outside to the towering peaks of the Rockies.

     At dusk they moved out. Keeping low, they made their way across part of the plains. Towards dawn they drew near a hill studded with white dots. As they drew closer they could see that they were tombstones.

     “We’re at the Little Bighorn,” said Tyler. They stepped over the small fence but did not spend long among the markers. They trudged down the hill towards the visitors’ center. Inside they saw the huge glass-encased map in the middle of the building depicting the battle that had taken place there so long ago.  In one of the glass display cases along the wall was Custer’s buckskin coat and colt revolver. Tyler knew from history that Custer had been found naked, not mutilated like the men in his command. But still it was fun to pretend that this was truly part of Custer’s duds. He had to fight an impulse to smash the glass and pull the coat on over his fatigues. They wandered toward the back and found shelter in an employees’ lounge. They made love again, this time on the black vinyl couch. Afterwards, after the act, holding her to him, he tried to feel something other than fear and desperation. He failed and they fell asleep without a word spoken. Towards dusk when they were preparing to leave they heard the distant thump of helicopters and the roar of a jet engine.

     “Think they’re looking for us?” he asked.

     “I wouldn’t be surprised.”

     She pulled her hair back into a pony tail and secured it with a rubber band she found on the room’s desk. How long had it been there? Then she threw her arms around his neck. She kissed him, saying it was for luck. He smiled. They set out again, leaving the center through the back door that opened onto a parking lot. They had not gone far when they were blinded by a bright light coming from their left.

     “No one move,” called a voice. Instinctively Tyler’s hand slid toward the M16 he had slung battle style. He heard the crunch of boots on gravel.

     “This could be one of them,” whispered Janet.

     “Or not.” He flicked off the safety on his gun.

     “Easy,” said the voice again. “Slowly drop your weapon.” At first Tyler did nothing. “I’m not a very patient man. So let’s not have any heroics, shall we?”

     “Do it, Tyler,” said Janet.

     He unslung his rifle and dropped it to the ground.

     “Very good. Now you may turn around.”

     They turned and saw a large heavy-set man dressed in fatigues. He was surrounded by several other men, all of them wearing army uniforms, mismatched. There was even one dressed as a policeman.

     “Well, you’re not army,” said Tyler, somewhat relieved.

     “Was once, but gave it up,” said the man. He looked at Janet. “Seen any good movies?”

     “Only ones in 3-D.” She lowered her hands, looked at Tyler and smiled. “You can lower your arms, it’s Cyrus.”

     “Yes, quite, and this is the brotherhood.” He indicated the men who’d surrounded them.

     They wasted no time in clearing out. They boarded a Greyhound bus that had the words Mother Earth painted over the image of a dog. They took off to the Northwest. Cyrus was driving; Tyler and Janet sat behind him.

     “Started the Brotherhood about ten years ago,” he said in answer to Tyler’s question. “Been helping move Gulf War vets out to the Rockies ever since. But that damn trench down near Mexico, can’t get over it.” He looked in the rear view at Janet. “Now maybe we can.”

     “Did you serve in the Gulf?” asked Tyler.

     “Sure did, 82nd Airborne kicked Saddam’s ass all the way back to the border. Unfortunately, he left his calling card and now I am on the run, as they say.” Tyler turned and looked at the men in the back of the bus. Some returned his stare, others looked out the window at the darkened prairies rushing by.

     “What about them?” he asked.

     “Some are vets, others aren’t. Don’t ask. Membership in the Brotherhood is open to all who want out of this place.”

     They traveled like that for a week. Always when the dawn came they would pull off the road and cover Mother Earth with a huge cameo net. Lying under the nettles, Cyrus would tell them of his struggles and of the lands unfolding around them.

     “Most of this land is owned by the Militias by now. The Government hardly comes out here any more. We have a good chance of making it to the Going to the Sun road up in Glacier.

     “The what?” asked Tyler.

     “The Going to the Sun Road. It’s one of those scenic highways in the good old U.S. We’ve been using it for years now to shuttle people into the Rockies and then down to Boulder. There’s a small colony there. We’ve struck a deal with the local militias and they guard us from the Feds.

     On the eighth day they entered West Glacier. They drove through the gate and were heading up into the park when Cyrus called a stop. Tyler got out and read the metal plaque bolted onto a rock. It told of how in the 30s a whole army of workers had toiled to build the Sun Road, and how it was thought impossible by some. It was blasted right through the rock and now it would lead them to their salvation, at least he was beginning to think so. He was about to call Janet over when he heard the rumbling of a diesel engine that was not Mother Nature.

     “It’s a trap!” yelled Cyrus.

     He had been looking at a map pinned to a kiosk with the others and Janet when the black hulk of an American AFV appeared through the trees to their left. Tyler threw himself to the ground while 25 millimeter cannon shells ripped through the side of Mother Earth. It burst into flames. Somehow he managed to get up and follow  the fleeing members of the Brotherhood. The AFV fired again and a small group of Brothers went down in a cloud of dust and blood. He kept moving, head bowed, shoulders tense, waiting for the missiles that would take him from this nightmare. But they never came. He scrambled up the road to a small jumble of rocks and was pulled behind it by Cyrus. He was behind there with Janet, much to Tyler’s relief. “This is all that made it?” he asked. Cyrus nodded.

     “We have to get her out of here. I know the way but as soon as we move that thing’ll nail us.”  Tyler hazarded a glance over the lip of the pile. The AFV was moving about the lot, its turret swiveling to the left and right.

     “It’s only a matter of time before it starts up the road,” he said. He glanced back at Cyrus and saw the green tube of a LAW rocket peeking over one shoulder. “That a LAW?”

     “Yes, a Live Ammo Wabbler. But it can’t pierce the armor of that thing.”

     “Give it here. You two get going.”

     “Don’t, Jon!” pleaded Janet.

     Tyler took the weapon. “I know where to hit it.”

     “Soft underbelly?”

     “Right over the driver’s area.”

     The twenty millimeter rocket could be effective at close range. He unstrung it and telescoped it to its full length. In the Gulf he’d taken out a Soviet built BMP with a LAW at one hundred yards. All he had to have now was the same luck.

     He felt a tug at his sleeve. It was Janet. She was crying.

     “Please don’t do this.”

     “Don’t worry, I’ve had army training,” he said, smiling.

     She allowed herself to be pulled away.  But he called her back.

     “Here, I want you to have this.” He pulled out the .357 and handed it to her. She took the gun in her shaking hand. “Now get out of Dodge.”

     She kissed him and turned away. After a few seconds they were several yards up the road. The ATV spotted them and started to close in. He wondered why the crew did not fire. Maybe they were waiting for a clear shot. Well, so was he. He laid the muzzle on the rock and peered through the plexi-glass pop-up sight. His right hand squeezed the rubber trigger half way down. He listened to the sound of the AFV’s engine, could see the black smoke rising over the rocks as it climbed higher.

     “Get ready for the long arm of the LAW,” he breathed between clenched teeth.

     A month later at the El Paso command post in Texas, the computer screens went blank. Then they came back on line and displayed the confederate flag. Lance Corporal Roberts, who was monitoring the sensor equipment at the time, fumbled with the phone. This was his first assignment and it showed in his voice as he called the watch commander.

     “The screens, they’re, they’re….” he stammered.

     “Report, Corporal,” said Colonel Blith on the other end.

     “All I’m getting, sir, is the Confederate Flag,” said Roberts, trying to mask the excitement in his voice. “I can’t clear them. Something is interfering with the satellite hookup.”

     For a moment Colonel Blith said nothing. The Confederate Flag? What the hell was going on? This was supposed to be an easy command. Frantically, he tried to recall if there was a militia group in the area, but nothing had been reported.

     “Sir?” called Roberts over the phone.

     “Stand by,” said Blith. He tried his own terminal and got the same image. He stared at it for a second. Then the other phone on his desk started to ring. He tried to answer them in the order of their ringing but soon lost track. The reports were all the same: the linkup with the satellite had been severed. The tracked robots in the trench would continue to patrol. But without overall computer control from the center they’d be blind and would have to stumble onto someone by chance. He’d have to send a patrol down there. He was just about to give the orders when the red phone on the edge of his desk started to ring. That could only mean one thing. He picked it up just as the sirens started to wail.

     “Colonel, I have incoming mortar rounds sector nine and ten,” said the voice. In the background Blith could hear the explosions.

     “I want verification, damn it. This could be some sort of diversion.” Yes, that had to be it, he thought. He hung up the phone. An explosion outside shattered his window. Shards of glass sprayed the room. Colonel Blith dived under his desk. When the next salvo came in so close that the explosions made his teeth vibrate, Colonel Blith lost his courage.

     A long line of men and women appeared out of the mists of the pre-dawn. They wound their way out of the brush-filled gullies that spread for three hundred meters back from the trench. They were all middle-aged. There wasn’t a child to be seen among them as they hurried warily forward. Janet Debase and Cyrus were among them. They stopped and looked to the northeast. An orange light filled the sky.

     “Awfully nice of the Brotherhood to leave our calling card with the boys in El Paso,” said Cyrus. He looked at Janet and smiled. Already some of his men had cut through the serpentine wire and had scrambled down the cement wall of the trench using grappling hooks and ropes. The only two robots that had been in the area had been knocked out of action with small-arms fire. Now they blazed in the floor of the trench and illuminated the long line of vets as they slid down the ropes and made their way to the other side. Cyrus had already decided to be the last one across.

     He watched his men climb up the other side and unroll rope ladders to the waiting throng. Janet watched them too, watched as the vets disappeared into the gloom on the other side that was Mexico. What they would find there she did not know. But whatever it was it had to be better than what lay north.

     She ran a hand over her belly. She thought of Tyler and tried to convince herself that he had made it.

     Under her coat she could feel the lump of the .357. She pulled the gun out and looked at it in the dull light coming from the trench. She shoved the gun into a pocket of her parka and tried not to think of his chances. Cyrus walked up beside her and placed a hand on her shoulder.

     “Long have I dreamed of this day when we could get out of here.”

     “Out of Dodge.” She smiled though tears streaked her face. “We’re getting out of Dodge.”

     As though it were in a dream, she looked at the face of Tyler staring at her in the heavy overcast at the end of the crossing.

     “I think I told you I’d be there before you,” he said.