Captain Gordon was impatient for the meeting to end. For more than six months he had participated in the testing of the miniature computer that replaced personnel badges. Although the program was proceeding as planned, he felt restless. Thoughts of Joan and how she had looked when he left her at the motel during the noon hour interfered with his concentration. He knew that he would not see her again, but realized that it was for the best. People had been becoming suspicious of their relationship. Now, it would not be necessary to transfer her to another department as he had planned. He would miss her she had done fantastic job, 'in more ways than one', he chuckled to himself.
Forcing his attention back to the meeting, he was extremely gratified to learn that his suggestion regarding the most recent 'glitch' in the security system that compared data base retinal images to the retinal image stored in the snitch computer, had solved the problem. All that had been required was a minor adjustment in the lens of the camera that verified the person's 'retina print'. The president of the United States and most members of congress were well aware that the country was literally falling apart. There was no legislation or law that could possibly restore order. The government was bankrupt and the national debt could never be paid. It was a problem that required heroic measures to overcome.
The solution, at first, seemed outrageous. However, over time it became obvious that there was no other solution. The plan, put simply by the president, was to force the collapse of the government and then restore order from what remained of the populace. In short , 'order out of chaos', The chaos would create enough disruption and fear so that the average citizen would not complain when individual rights were removed. In fact, they were fairly certain that with enough mayhem, the majority of people would beg to have order restored. The notion that the country could remain under martial law was rejected, simply because everyone knew that this would be living under constant siege.
There were better solutions than the 'siege mentality' that now gripped most of the civilized world. Actually, the only condition necessary was to remove the 'right of independent action', such as voting. All decisions would be made by a central government. To insure cooperation, the 'tiny computer snitch' would track all citizens, relaying the necessary information to the authorities. Those that cooperated would have their every need and desire fulfilled. Those that did not cooperate would simply be asked to leave. Soon, the size would be reduced enough to be implanted one's body. A micro-chip, matched to the 'snitch' would replace the need for retinal scanning. The link between chip and computer would act as a monitor for criminal tampering. If the 'snitch' were placed on the wrong person it would immediately send an incompatible error message to the central computer. Coercion was not necessary. If an individual refused to cooperate they would be unable to participate in society and 'shown the door'.
Each region of the country would have well planned cities developed to be entirely self sufficient. Outside of these organized communities would exist a primitive waste land, the remains of a civilization that was unable to discipline itself. The most unique feature of the entire plan was that it had the approval of many world leaders who planned the same scenario in their respective countries. Major impetus for the plan came from a small group of wealthy philanthropists that offered to help finance and organize this global effort toward peace and prosperity. Complete order would be initiated within three years after the apparent failure of the United States.
All world governments had stored plenty of fuel and food in order to begin the process of re-building after the human population was brought to its knees. The necessary equipment to complete these efforts was stored in deep caverns below the hills of Kentucky. It was well understood that an efficient organized society could only maintain its existence if it had access to a dumping ground for the uncooperative. This meant that the primitive wastelands must never achieve any form of technological advancement. Of course, like all brilliant schemes, this slight flaw would come back to haunt the architects of the 'one world government'.
The meeting came to a close and Captain Gordon gathered his notes into his briefcase. It had been a very long day and he was anxious to get set up in his new home. Home for him and the others working in this branch of government, had been ten stories below the offices in which they worked. National Emergency Retreat Depots, affectionately called Nerds, were established shortly after the first bombing of government offices in Washington, D.C. Continued threats on the offices of the federal government across the nation convinced the Washington bureaucrats that they need a secure place to conduct the nation's business. A network of N.E.R.D.'s was spread from Washington D.C. to Virginia. They were built below ground level and could feed and house 1,000 employees and their families. The power supply within the depots was atomic and independent of outside sources.
Working within a N.E.R.D. was considered a necessary step towards gaining political clout. Richard Manning, a young black economist, was going after that clout. He was a special consultant to the Secretary of State. His wife Joan, was a wizard with computers and occupied an important position as executive assistant to Captain Bruce Gordon, the secretary for the Department of Urban Planning. Sinking into his lounge chair, Richard was unable to contain his anger as he spoke of the maelstrom that was occurring outside of their 'secured city'. Looking at his wife, he said," Everybody told that bastard what would happen, but he just had to sell that fuckin' wheat. The country is crumbling and there isn't one damn thing anyone can do about it!"
" Let it crumble," said Joan, "if Whitey wants to tear it down, who gives a shit? Everything I want is right here. What's left of the old city isn't worth crying about. Now, let's go to dinner. I heard about this new restaurant that opened last week over in the next block."
"How in the hell can you think of food at a time like this?"
"Easy, I just listen to the growl in the pit of my stomach." Joan stretched and lifted her tall lanky frame from the couch," If you want to stay here and worry about those murdering bastards that's up to you, but I'm going to get some food." After dinner, Joan returned to the apartment and found Richard staring at the televised mayhem.
"You must be a glutton for punishment," she said, "Why don't we light up a joint and tune that crap out?"
"Yeah, sure," Richard replied, "Rome burns and Joan gets stoned."
"Maybe if you'd smoke a bit of pot once in a while you wouldn't need to join the 'suicide of the month club'. Chill out, have a Prozac" The remainder of Joan's cutting remarks were cut off by the sudden wail of the radiation siren. "Oh, shit!" she yelled, "there's a radiation leak." As the television turned to static and a voice informed that this was not a drill and advised them they had to evacuate immediately, Richard added, "Grab your bags, babe."
On their way out of the depot they met others following the evacuation plan that had been practiced so many times. "Do you know what happened?" Joan asked a familiar face.
"It's real bad," came the reply," Some nut got through security and blew the cooling tank. I'd be out of here too, but I've drawn the lot this month for the last security check. I figure there's three hours before the core burns through the cement casing. Good luck to you, see you topside."
With a tone of despair, Joan said, "We've got to get out of here, there's no way that kind of leak can be repaired."
"Out to where? There's no place to go, if we leave the area, how will we get back in? The only emergency plans the NERD's have is to get people out, nothing's been planned to get displaced people into another facility."
"Oh stop acting like a fool, Richard!" shouted Joan, "I'm sure there's a shuttle waiting outside to get everyone to a reserve NERD."
Joan and Richard walked towards the stairway and began to climb the six levels toward the last security gate. Just before reaching the exit, Richard stopped, took Joan in his arms and kissed her.
"What's that for?" asked Joan. " Just for luck, baby, just for luck."
Hand in hand, they walked out of the door. Richard wished he could stop the reality that was about to shatter Joan's make-believe world. When they reached the last gate, the could see the NERD 16 refugees milling around dark streets, that they no longer recognized. Like Joan, most of the residents believed that a shuttle would come and carry them to safety. It took a night of sleeping on the rubble left over from the rioting to convince them that they were expendable. Richard and Joan spent the remainder of the night huddled in a doorway close to the exit of the NERD complex. Joan's sleep was fitful, and like a child on Christmas Eve, she kept popping awake. The morning sun, filtered through a gray smoky haze, found them wrapped in each others arms. Richards opened his eyes and stared at the riot torn city of D.C. Most of the NERD citizens had drifted away during the night and only a handful of optimists were left. Lying there, he could hear their whispered arguments about whether to wait any longer for rescue. Joan, awakened by his movement asked, "Are they here yet? Did you see anything?"
"No baby, they're not here, and I don't think they're going to be, either. There are a few people from the janitorial department milling around, but that's all. I think everyone else has gone. It's no good staying here, maybe we can find one of those government shelters."
"Sure," said Joan, with renewed optimism, "I'll bet they're waiting for us at the 43rd Street shelter."
"Yeah, maybe so, let's see what the people from Janitorial are going to do."
"Who gives a damn what those people are going to do," Joan snapped, "I've never spoken to them before, and I'm not about to start now. If you want to go slumming, I'll wait here for you."
With a note of resignation, Richard said, "Oh hell, let's not get into that now. I was just trying to be friendly."
"My dear Richard, that's the very reason why you'll never get ahead, you're always making friends with the wrong people."
They stepped out of the doorway and started walking briskly down Pennsylvania Avenue towards 43rd Street. On their way, they tried not to notice the small groups of children scurrying down the alleys of the inner city streets. Along with the economic depression came these wandering bands of street urchins. These homeless children, the majority of which were the sole survivors of families destroyed by drug abuse, lived in the basements of abandoned buildings. Constantly hungry, their most reliable source of food was the rat population that had grown fat on the garbage of the city. In turn, the some of the weaker children became a source of food for a pack of wild dogs that prowled the city. Turning the corner when they reached 43rd Street, they spotted many of the NERD residents standing in the soup line. Uniformed soldiers were standing on guard nearby, their weapons at the ready position. A large shuttle was parked in front of the government shelter.
"What did I tell you!" Joan said smugly," we even have an armed escort." Before he could stop her, Joan ran up to the nearest soldier and asked him if this was the shuttle for the NERD 16 people.
"It is," said the young soldier, "it will be leaving in one hour. You can get some breakfast inside the shelter."
"Thank you," said Joan. She turned and started back toward Richard. The soldier grabbed her arm and said, "I'm sorry, but you have to go into the shelter."
"I just want to get my husband," Said Joan, "you don't have to be so rough." Richard had now walked up to where Joan was standing and asked the soldier, "What's wrong?"
"Nothing," said the soldier. "Are you from NERD 16?"
"Yes," answered Richard, "my wife and I spent the night at the exit. We thought the shuttle would pick us up there."
"Too much radiation leakage," answered the soldier. "Now you both better get inside." The soldier walked behind them and literally herded them into the shelter. Richard had the perverse feeling that if they had refused, there would have been trouble. Except for the curt treatment she had received from the soldier, Joan was absolutely delighted, until she spotted the crude sign above the shelter entrance, 'American Republic of Governments for the United States'. Joan looked back at the soldier and gasped," What the hell is that?"
"That is the new social order," spoke the soldier with pride, pointing to the small ARGUS insignia on his shoulder. "As of midnight, the country fell under the supreme control of Major General Bryant Patrick McDonald."
"You mean the government's been overthrown?" squeaked Richard. Of course, did you really think the Pentagon would let the United Nations gain control of our country?" answered the soldier, "All government employees will be reviewed in order to pledge their loyalty to the new government of the United States. The residents of NERD 16 will be sent through the Review Tribunal, the shuttle will take you there in an hour."
"And what if we refuse?" snapped Joan. The soldier, who was returning to his post, turned his around, looked Richard and Joan, then said brusquely , "You'll be shot for treason." The thud of his boots echoed ominously. Holding on to his wife's arm, Richard said," Some choice, radiation poisoning at the NERD, tyranny in government, or anarchy in the streets; and the result from all of the above is that you die.
"My choice, right now, is to get something to eat. And a change of clothes," Joan added, wrinkling her nose, "This dress is about to walk off me. Maybe they'll let me run over to Bloomie's on 45th Street before we leave."
"You can't be serious," said Richard in disbelief, "we're on the brink of total chaos and you want to go shopping!"
"Oh, Richard, you are such a pessimist. All they will do is ask us to take a loyalty oath. Now let's get into that food line, before it's all gone." While standing in line, the officer in charge took their names and issued them an ARGUS identity card and a meal pass. Before he could complete the paper work, a disturbance near the head of the line drew the officer's attention. He summoned a guard and they ran up to the front. The line curved around and Richard and Joan saw clearly what was happening. The officer and guard pulled Bob Lowe, the chief engineer from NERD 16, away from the line. With a flash, the officer drew his pistol and shot Bob in the forehead. The guard dragged Bob's body away. The notion that American troops would not fire on their own citizens had been proven a myth by the incident at Kent State. This special military group, chosen for their brutality, had been hand picked by the General himself. The woman standing ahead of Richard whispered," if you want to stay alive, don't insist on anything, especially, more food."
The abrupt violence of what they had witnessed left them stunned. The officer nonchalantly walked back to the end of the line and finished signing the meal passes. By now, Joan was so frightened that she was unable to speak when the officer asked for her NERD identification number. " Are you refusing to answer?" growled the officer.
"No, it's not that," Richard interrupted quickly, "my wife has had a rough night, she'll be fine as soon as she gets something to eat." He then repeated their ID numbers to the man in a quivering voice. After the officer wrote down their numbers and left Richard asked, "You all right, Baby?" Joan could only nod in the affirmative. She wanted to talk, but her throat felt like it was stuffed with cotton. Just as she tried to speak, an explosion at the front entrance of the shelter rocked the building. Everyone began to scream at the same time. The shelter quickly burst into flames from the bomb that was thrown by a mob of anarchists, now rushing the guards at the entrance.
Joan's inability to speak had not affected her survival instinct. She grabbed Richard by the arm, hauled him to his feet and pointed to the gaping hole in the wall. He nodded in agreement and quickly, they ran across the room and out of the building. Behind them they could hear the officer yell at them to stop as the bullets ricocheted around their feet. The guards were too busy with the rioters to be concerned about two escapees. Richard and Joan ran down the street and turned towards 45th Street. Their lungs were nearly bursting before they stopped to see if they had been followed. Ducking into an alley, they collapsed behind a pile of garbage. Gasping for air, Richard said, "Well, we can't stay here, and I don't think I could stomach the new social order. What about you?"
"That sidewalk justice we saw was sickening, but I'd still go back if I thought we had a chance of staying alive. My guess is that the Review Tribunal was set up to find scapegoats for the economic chaos. If so, then it could mean prison or execution for most of the former civil service employees, and that means us. The choice is simple; either we go back and risk execution for trumped up political crimes, or we wander in the wastelands of democracy."
Richard was amazed at Joan's ability to adjust. Her calm, clear statement of alternatives rid him from any fear he had regarding her emotional stability and he suggested, "If we leave now, we have a chance of finding a place to hide; maybe in Canada or in the Rockies. It will take months for the ARGUS troops to gain control across the country, and I suspect that there will be plenty of militia to help us find refuge."
"OK," said Joan, "If we don't go back, what do we do?"
"What we're able to do depends on how much you are willing to give up; and that includes the class bigotry you've been practicing. If we don't go back, we're going to need help from whomever we can get it."
"Richard, I may be a snob, but I'm not stupid. Whatever it takes to survive, I'm prepared to do. My problem isn't motivation, but lack of information. I don't have the slightest idea of where to start. The only thing I know for sure is that I'm still hungry."
"Then, that's where we start." said Richard. "We've got to get some food and then I think we should take that shopping trip you wanted."
"Oh sure," said Joan, "we'll just walk into Bloomie's and get whatever we want. I'm sure they'll take an IOU from a couple of revolutionaries."
"Not buy," said Richard, "steal, but not from Bloomie's. Besides, I doubt if Bloomie's will ever open again. What I had in mind, was breaking into the complex of NERD warehouses on Arlington Blvd. If we're going to travel, we'll need some clothes and supplies."
"Travel where?" asked Joan. "For now, I think we should make our way west to the Rockies. You have a better place in mind?"
"No," said Joan, "I don't. But you said we would eat first. I don't suppose you have a ham sandwich tucked away in your pocket."
Standing up from their hiding place and peering out to the street, Richard said, "No, but I'll bet we can find food in one of those warehouses. It doesn't look like we've been followed. If we're going to make a break out of this alley, we better do it now." Following Richard's lead, Joan stepped cautiously out of the alley and together, they made their way to Benson Avenue. They chose a course that avoided the main streets, but required them to thread through the fires and rubble of last night's rioting. A few blocks from the warehouses, they stumbled into a small crowd of rioters turned anarchists. Too late for them to run, the crowd soon had them surrounded and they found themselves face to face with the leader, Swede Christenson.
"Now who the hell are you?" growled Swede. "From your clothes, I'd say a couple of NERD Turds." Some of the men standing by Swede suggested that they be held for ransom. Hoping Joan would not choose this moment spout off a sarcastic response, Richard took a hold of her arm and said," It's true, we worked in NERD 16, but we're not part of ARGUS. We escaped from the 43rd Street shelter about three hours ago. They want us, but for the same reason that they might want any of you."
"How do we know you're not lying?" asked Swede.
"If we wanted to get to an ARGUS shelter," snapped Joan, "we wouldn't be crawling around back alleys."
"OK," said Swede. "Maybe you're talking straight and maybe you ain't. But I know how to find out for sure. We're gonna break into the NERD warehouse complex and we need a way to get close to the gate without the guards getting suspicious. You two could walk right up to the gate and maybe they'd let you in, seeing how you're dressed in those NERD clothes." Swede looked at Richard, thoughtfully for a moment and then continued, "Here's what we'll do, you'll trade clothes with me, then me and your lady will distract the guards while my men sneak up and rush the guard house."
Richard did as he was asked, and watched with clenched fists as Swede ripped open Joan's shirt, exposing her flesh almost to the waist. "There, that should get their attention!" Swede said looking at Joan's healthy chest approvingly. It took a supreme effort on Joan's part not to rip this jerk apart with her bare hands. The phrase 'if looks could kill' came into Swede's mind as he laughed and walked with her up to the gate. The two armed guards watch the couple of NERDs approach unable to keep their eyes from the stunningly beautiful black woman as she strolled toward them. Swede's men waited from their hiding places. Most carried a homemade bomb, but a few carried rifles.
"No one is allowed inside without clearance from ARGUS." the guard told them as they stopped at the gate. Joan felt momentary panic as she saw the automatic weapons pointed at them. Swede had a knife placed up his left sleeve and mentally prepared himself for the kill. "Do you have a pass, or not?" the guard continued.
"No we don't," Joan said, she was glad that her voice sounded more confident than she felt. "We're just trying to find a way to get back to a NERD unit. Ours was evacuated last night because of radiation leakage. I'm sure you two gentlemen will be able to help." She finished her speech with a strategic shrug of her shoulders and gave them each her best 'cheer leader smile'. Unlocking the gate, the soldier ordered them into the guard house. As one guard turned to use the phone on the wall, Swede came up behind the second guard and quietly slit his throat. The bombs flew and as Swede's men stormed the gate, a piece of metal tore into Joan's cheek. Richard ran to her side and pulled her away from the burning guard house. Richard attempted to clean the blood away from his wife's face. A sharp piece of metal glinted in the sunlight. "It's not too bad, Baby, I think I'll be able to get it out, hold still, this might hurt a bit!"
"Ouch!" she screamed as she searched her handbag for a mirror. Looking in the mirror, she yelled, "Look what you've done to my face, you dumb son of a bitch!"
"What? I didn't do anything to your face, the bomb.." Richard began stuttering but was interrupted by Swede's yelling at them to stop their bickering, "You can't stay here long, but since you helped pull this off, you can have whatever you can grab. I figure we've got an hour before the army gets wind of what's happened here." Joan and Richard scrambled for gear and food. They gulped down army rations while changing their clothes for fatigues. With two nap sacks full of freeze dried food, they headed out of the warehouse. They met Swede outside, his men were loading a small truck with food. Swede handed them each a pistol and a couple of boxes of ammunition. "You're welcome to stay with us if you want, but if you want to try it on your own, that's OK with me."
"Thanks," said Richard, "but we're going to try to make our way west. Maybe we can find a place where ARGUS isn't. Take care of yourself, you're a good person to have as a friend." Waving goodby, Joan and Richard ran out of the compound and turned west on Benson Avenue. They could hear the army sirens screaming towards the Arlington Blvd. warehouse complex.
Staring up through the cellar grating, Joan could just barely see over the rubble and garbage. Her thoughts, drifting like smoke meandered aimless and without effort. 'Christ, I'm tired ... where the hell do we go from here .. It's pointless, we're probably going to die out here. Maybe we should take the damn loyalty oath. God, I'd give anything for a bath . . and a joint, yes, a nice hot soak in a tub full of bubbles with a joint and a glass of wine, maybe some candles, and a large cut of prime rib.. rare. I'm sure I could get my job back, Bruce will believe anything I tell him. This little scar on my cheek would add a nice touch of reality to my story of how Richard forced me to go with him. They'll never suspect we were involved in that nasty little scene at the warehouse.'
Richard looked, puzzled at the little grin that was on his wife's lips as she stared vacantly through the grating. "What do you see, up there, a steer all cut and ready for you to eat? You look like the cat after he ate the mouse." Shaking her by the shoulders slightly, he continued, "Snap out of it Joan, it's time we were going. The Capitol Beltway is about a mile from here. We ought to try and cross under the Arlington Overpass and then head west on U.S. 50. What do you think of that plan?"
" Not much," grumbled Joan, slapping his hands away, "the Beltway is sure to be patrolled. Maybe we should just stay here for awhile."
" Are you nuts!" snapped Richard," You know they've got to be looking for us. Just how long do you think we could hide in this cellar?"
" I rather doubt those jerks have it together enough to find us. Besides, we're out of food and just how far do you think we'll get on empty bellies? Hell, maybe this was a bad idea anyway."
" OK Joan, I know when you're scheming, so you might just as well say what's really on your mind."
" All right!" she yelled, "I'll tell you what's on my mind. It has taken us six days to travel five miles. You can't really believe that we can walk all the way to the Rocky mountains at that pace. Maybe this whole idea was crazy from the start. I think we stand a better chance of staying alive if we turn ourselves in to ARGUS."
" That's what I figured you were thinking." said Richard, "Look Joan, I'm just as tired, dirty and hungry as you are, but going back now is out of the question. For one thing, it's too late and for another, we crossed the line when we broke into the warehouse. Going back now will get our bellies filled with lead, not food." Undaunted by Richard's logic, Joan press her plan forward, "We could at least go back and find Swede. He did make the offer."
" Sure, and in place of ARGUS, we get Swede. Sorry, Babe, dictators, benevolent or otherwise, are not for me. I'll take my chances alone. And if you're bent on going back . . ." Richard never finished his sentence. A burst of machine gun fire just outside the cellar door froze the conversation. Joan, quick to respond, fell flat against the floor and crawled to the window. She could hear people yelling, but her line of sight was blocked by the rubble. A flash of army green across the top of the debris was enough to convince her that ARGUS was paying a neighborly visit. Richard moved over to Joan's side and peered across the window sill. At that same time, an army truck drove up and parked on the sidewalk. Just as the driver opened his door, a shot rang out and the soldier slumped to the ground. " OK Joan, there's your transportation. The time to decide is now. Are you coming with me or going back?" Joan looked away from the window and stared across the dark empty cellar. "I don't really have much of a choice, do I? If they find me here, they're sure to implicate me with the local toughs. So tell me, how do we get out of here, Einstein?"
" If we go out the window and crawl around the garbage we shouldn't be seen. You go first, when we get to the truck, I'll get the keys from the driver." As planned, Joan reached the truck first. She slid into the driver seat, as Richard jumped in and rammed the key into the ignition. Like a sleeping dragon, the huge truck roared to life and raced out of the alley then, with controlled fury, into the street. There was no time to plan their course, Joan headed straight for the Arlington Overpass and maneuvered the truck smoothly around the entrance to U.S. 50. Their vehicle blended into the stream of military vehicles. They had nearly a full tank of gas which, Richard figured would take them as far as Tygart Lake, just east of Clarksburg. Except for an occasional troop transport most of the traffic ended at Winchester. After five hours of steady driving, they ran out gas five miles from Tygart Lake. The sputtering engine gave Joan just enough warning to swerve the truck off the road and into the high weeds. "Shit! According to those military maps, we're still five miles from the lake."
" It doesn't matter," said Richard," I was planning on dumping the truck before we got to the lake anyway. I'm going to cut some brush to hide the truck. Why don't you see if there's anything in the back that we can use?" Joan's shriek brought Richard running to the rear of the truck. He found her sitting in a pile of sardine cans. Apparently, the ARGUS had commandeered over 40 cases of Norwegian sardines. Joan had eaten one can and was opening a second when he arrived. After a lengthy, but well earned feast of sardines and storage water, they suddenly realized that they had not finished hiding the truck. They made a mad scramble out of the truck and began hacking away at the brush. Within an hour, their task was completed, the truck was covered. Joan walked along the edge of the highway in both directions to make sure that it couldn't be seen. In a pitiful voice, Joan bemoaned their inability to take the sardines with them. "Listen Richard, if we can't take them, we can at least hide them. I can't stand the thought of those ARGUS bastards eating my sardines."
" Your sardines," cried Richard," Whose were they to begin with? We stole them, remember?"
" Well, they're mine now," answered Joan, the hysteria in her voice building, "and I'll be damned if I'm going to let those assholes eat what just may be the last cans of sardines left in the entire fuckin' universe!"
The combinations of full stomachs and Joan's outburst of hysteria over her vision of some soldier eating the last sardine in the world was more than enough to send them over the edge into rolling spasms of laughter. Tears streamed down their faces. If was another half hour before they could compose themselves. That release of tension was rejuvenating to both body and spirit. " So Babe, how do you propose we hide 40 cases of sardines?"
" Easy," quipped Joan, "I saw an old barn just before we turned off the highway. We can bury them under the barn. It's only a few hundred yards from here."
The thought of shifting 40 cases of sardines across the length of three football fields was not appealing, but Richard knew that Joan was earnest in her attempt to keep them from ARGUS. As it turned out, the barn was less than half the distance, but it took them nearly four hours to complete the transfer. On the last haul, Richard carried the sardines while Joan carried their packs and gear. From the barn they plotted a course to the lake that ran parallel to the road. The long shadows of evening convinced them to spend the night in the barn, rather than risk losing their bearings over dark fields. Richard found a small creek behind the barn. Although it was only a trickle of water, it seemed like a rushing torrent to the two tired travelers, smeared with road dust and sardine oil. Even the cold autumn night did not stop them from stripping down and washing their bodies and their clothes. Naked, they ran back to the barn. Lighting a fire was too risky so they settled for the warmth of the straw piled in the barn. While Richard was hanging their clothes to dry, Joan prepared a bed in it and tied some old potato sacks together for a blanket. She lay back and in a soft voice called out to her husband. There, on the edge of ruin and chaos, they made love. Not the quick and hot passion of lovers, but rather the quiet and tender love that is known only between husband and wife. The night was eternal and in each others arms they slept soundly through the night.
"Hey sleepy head," called Richard," How about some breakfast?"
"Right on!" said Joan, "I'll have an order of ham and eggs, toast with lots and lots of butter, steaming hot coffee and a gallon of orange juice."
" You've got it," he said as he passed her an open can of sardines.
" My," said Joan, "You do have a talent with ham and eggs."
After dressing, they did what they could to hide the evidence of their overnight stay. "Well," said Joan, "the only thing we haven't done is wipe our finger prints. Is there anything you can think of that we've missed?"
" No," answered Richard, "I guess we better go. The sun will be up soon and I'd like to put some mileage between us and this barn." After a few hours of fence hopping and creek jumping, they rested on the edge of Tygart Lake. The sky was overcast and a cool autumn wind was blowing across the top of the water. Except for themselves and a couple of chipmunks, the lake shore was deserted. " Wow," said Joan, "We can really take a bath here. Come on, let's go for a swim."
" Are you kidding? It must be 40 degrees out here. That water is cold enough to freeze your ass off!"
" Suit yourself, I'm going in." With a couple of quick motions Joan undressed and was hesitating at the edge of the lake. Richard guessed that she might be having second thoughts. She held her breath and ran into the water. A resounding splash announced her arrival in the cold clear water. Richard thought of how this same scene must have occurred when the earth was young and man had not yet crossed the chasm of civilization. Richard had a small fire going when Joan returned. She came out of the water at a dead run; the fire and her husband's arms kept her from the fate of 'a well digger's ass'. " Richard, you just don't know what you missed," she said, through chattering teeth. "It was fantastic. Now I feel totally clean."
" And cold," answered Richard. "While you were having your bath, I sat down and figured out where we're headed. I'm glad to hear that you like cold water, because we're going to be swimming across the Ohio River. It will probably take us seven or eight days to get there; that is, if we can walk at least twenty miles each day." Joan was reaching down for her clothes when she saw something move from the corner of her eye. She slipped into her army fatigues and kept up a running conversation with Richard about their course and what roads they might take. She knew they were being watched and not wanting to alarm Richard, she quietly but firmly maneuvered him behind a large oak tree. " Hey, what the hell are you doing, Joan? If we get any farther from that fire you'll freeze your ass off."
" Better than having it shot off, honey bun. In case you didn't notice, we are being watched. I don't know by what or how many, but it's standing in the brush on the opposite side of the fire. I don't think it intends harm, or it would have attacked when my bare butt was hanging out."
" Maybe," whispered Richard, "it could have been leering at your body. I don't see a thing." Richard was fully aware of his wife's propensity for exhibitionism and drew his gun just in case Joan's appraisal of the situation was just wishful thinking. However, this movement caused the watcher to draw farther back into the brush and he could see clearly two sets of small bare legs and feet. "I'm sure it's just some kids," said Richard, "poor little bastards, they're probably looking for food. 'Wanna part with some of your sardines?"
" Sure," said Joan, "but I doubt that you can get them to come over to us. Why don't we open a couple of cans and leave them by the fire. We're about ready to leave anyway." After moving a socially acceptable distance from the camp fire, the Mannings looked back through the trees. They saw two small children huddled by the fire, their little hands working frantically in a tin of sardines. Their hollow cheeks and sunken eyes told a grim story of hunger. "We can't just leave them," said Richard," they'll starve for sure."
" I don't think we really have a choice," replied Joan. They would only run from us if we went back and the plain truth is that we can barely feed ourselves." Richard disagreed and started toward the two children calling out for them not to be afraid. However, they ran, fear was all they knew. It became obvious to Richard that even if he managed to catch them, he would never be able to hold on to them. They had become feral. Joan's logic could not be distorted by Richard's empathy. Taking on responsibility for two children would only lessen their chances of survival. Without another thought, Joan turned on her heels and headed into the trees. In that one agonizing moment, Richard felt the total brutality of necessary indifference; sadly, he turned and parted from the world he once knew.
From Tygart Lake they cut across country and headed for Mount Alto. It was at that point they would attempt to cross the Ohio River. Although they had enough food for two weeks, Joan nagged at Richard to find something to eat besides sardines. " God damn it Richard, I can't eat one more sardine. All I've done for the last four days is burp and fart sardine. I've got to have something else to eat!"
" We might find some food around Weston." He offered tiredly, "From the map it looks like a pretty small town, so it's not too likely that ARGUS is there. We should be there by tonight." During that day's travel, Joan tried to ignore her hunger and the offensive sardines. By mid-afternoon, her determination was waning. Although the thought of eating another sardine sickened her, the reminiscence of satisfied hunger was overpowering. During their second rest period, she reluctantly opened her pack and withdrew one of the less evil looking tins. She remembered from a college course that the taste of food was highly dependent on the ability to smell and the expectation of taste gained from visual contact. With all the ceremony of a presidential inauguration, she opened the can. Tilting her head back, she closed her eyes, held her nose closed and literally shoved a piece of fish to the back of her throat. With rapid swallowing, the retched thing was devoured. She continued this method until every sardine from the can had been consumed. " Joan, that's the first time I've ever seen anyone inhale their food. Aren't you afraid of choking?"
" How the hell am I going to choke on something so God damned slippery that I can barely hold it between my fingers!"
" Slippery or not," warned Richard," you could choke to death. I guess we better get on our way; the sooner we get to Weston, the less chance there'll be of your committing suicide by way of sardine!" It was late evening when the Mannings reached Weston. Occasional flashes of moonlight through the parting clouds enabled them to see that this town, too, had suffered its share of rioting. There wasn't any sign of ARGUS, but there were civilians milling around the burned out stores. Most of them seemed to be wandering, without direction or purpose. A small group of people were gathered in front of what used to be Weston Hardware. Anxious for some news, Joan quickened her step. " For Christ's sake Joan, will you slow down? They may not be too friendly when you start asking for food."
" Don't be an ass! Did you really think I was going to start a conversation by begging for a turkey leg?"
Not knowing if the townspeople were ARGUS supporters, Joan had prepared a story about being given their fatigues by an ARGUS patrol, just in case they needed to explain the uniforms they wore. However, she found she had little need to worry because the people of Weston were in a state of shock and unable to think clearly. Most would not answer her questions and just stared right through her. Attempting one last time to gain some information, she approached a young man who was starting a campfire. Billy Jo Dickson was not normally inclined to talk to strangers, however, he made an exception and offered to share his campfire.
" Them folks ain't gonna tell you nothin'. They're just walkin' around waitin' to die. You folks come a long ways?"
" From D.C., " answered Richard. "We came into Weston to get some news."
" The only news I got ain't worth tellin' 'cause it's all bad." Billy Jo continued shaking his head, "Like them army boys comin' here and takin' all the food. They told us they gotta have it to fight the war, but people here don't know nothin' about no war. So we all told them to go to hell, and them bastards just ups and start shootin'. I guess the war was with us, 'cept they got all the guns and we got all the dead bodies."
" How long ago were they through here?" asked Joan.
" Bout a week back the last of 'em left town. They said they're comin' back and the new bosses in D.C. will feed us. But we ain't heard from them yet. Folks around here been hungry for a long time. Ain't nobody gonna hold their breath waitin' for them murderin' bastards to come back."
Billy Jo reached into a pail and took out, what looked to be, cuts of fresh meat. "But I still got some food. If you're hungry, I guess I can let you have a bit of this meat."
The offer was half hearted, but before Richard had a chance to refuse, Joan plopped down and said," Thanks, we're starved!"
The Mannings and Billy Jo became acquainted while roasting the meat over the open fire. Billy Jo told them about Weston and how most people were used to an abundance of food. It had been tough learning how to cut back and 'tighten their belts'. "Not that many of them couldn't stand a little less food. Specially that old fat ass mayor and his thugs." Billy Jo couldn't help adding with a chuckle. Billy Jo had been a farm hand for most of his life, but now he spent most of his time hunting and trapping. Changing the subject, Joan asked, "How far is it to the Ohio River?"
" The river is 'bout 130 miles from here, at least six days walkin' with a quick step."
" Do you know if ARGUS has any patrols up to the river?" Richard added. " I doubt it," answered Billy Jo. "Like I said before, they ain't been back and believe me, we'd know if they had a patrol out this way. A bunch of them good ole Ohio militia boys probably got the road covered pretty good. If there was trouble, maybe they'd help you. But not dressed like that. Anyway, it's not ARGUS that you need to worry most about out here."
" What do you mean?" asked Joan. " Ever since the country's been short on food, thieves and killers have been burnin' an lootin'. Now, most folks are so scared that they'll kill anybody that steps on their land and ask questions later, or maybe they'll just hide yer bodies."
" Shit," said Joan, "just what we need, trigger happy farmers."
" No, they ain't trigger happy," Billy Jo said in defense of his friends and neighbors, "they're just tryin' to keep on breathin', like the rest of us."
" Well, it really doesn't matter why they're shooting, it's still a problem for us." Richard said. "But, probably no worse than anything else we've been through."
" How about you Billy Jo, what are your plans?" asked Joan. " I don't know," answered Billy Jo. "There ain't much to do but look for food and wait." The hesitancy in Billy Jo's voice told Joan that Billy Jo wasn't too anxious to discuss his own plans. But then again, she knew there was no reason why he should tell a couple of strangers anything. Even though his skin was white, Joan felt comfortable around Billy Jo. She wanted to ask him to join them, but she didn't know how Richard would react. Billy Jo had the outdoor skills that would be needed in order to survive their journey west. Richard, second guessing his wife's thoughts, asked, "Do you have any family?"
" No," answered Billy Jo, "at least not now."
Richard didn't pursue what Billy Jo meant by 'not now'. The burned out buildings were enough to tell him that Billy Jo probably lost whatever family he had during the riots. "Instead of waiting," he said," why not come with us? We could use someone who knows their way around the outdoors."
Billy Jo did not answer immediately, but just stared into the campfire. Leaving Weston was what he had to do, all right because ARGUS would eventually learn that it was Billy Jo Dickson who blew up their transport truck just after they headed out of town. It was just a matter of time before they returned to look for the Westonite who killed over two dozen ARGUS soldiers. He knew that anybody in town would turn him over for a loaf of bread. Looking over the fire, Billy Jo agreed," Sure, what the hell else I gotta do? Might as well leave now." Billy Jo hesitated, then added, "maybe things are better down the road." He didn't want to tell Richard and Joan about his problem with ARGUS because he wasn't sure if he could trust them. "You gonna travel all winter," asked Billy Jo, "or you gotta plan to hold up somewhere 'till spring?"
" I guess we'll go as far as we can," answered Richard, "but I'm hoping to travel through the winter." Billy Jo had done his share of winter trapping and knew the hardships they would encounter. He wasn't sure if these two black strays from the big city could handle a winter out of doors. At least, they didn't look as if they ever had to endure anything colder than an over-chilled bottle of wine. But even Billy Jo knew better than to point out a person's weakness if you were trying to make friends, so instead, he asked the route they had planned.
"It's not much of a plan," answered Richard, "but in general, we were going to follow US 50 until we get to Utah."
"I guess you know what you want," said Billy Jo, "but I hear them Mormons get real uppity with them that don't wanna join their church. And, there's some that says the only food left will be what's in Utah, so maybe it ain't so bad if you gotta get religion to stay alive."
"The name of this whole damn game," said Joan, "is do whatever is necessary to stay alive. Hell, I'll join anything if it's a choice between living and dying."
"That might be what we're all gonna have to do, but least ways, not now. I'm thinkin' now, the best way to the river is by Linn Junction, then over the bridge at the Point. There's not much people there and we could chance walkin on the county road. It takes you off the way you set, but it sure does keep you from Parkersburg. If them bastards is gonna be anywhere, it's in Parkersburg."
"Why there?" asked Richard.
"Cause, that's were the big armory was built," answered Billy Jo, "so that's where you'll find the army boys."
" Well," yawned Joan, "no matter what route we decide on, I can't do it without sleep." Looking at Billy Jo, Richard said, "I guess we travel together, Billy Jo, and unless you think we need to talk more, I'm going to sleep."
"No, we's jawed all we need. You can bed down right here by the fire. But, if we're gonna travel together, then I gotta know you ain't gonna be foolish, like you was tonight."
Somewhat startled, Richard asked what he meant," Our clothes? We can get others."
"No, not the clothes, but that's not a bad idea. What you did that was stupid was take up with a stranger, that's a good way to get killed. And I say it now so you'll worry so bad you won't sleep from thinkin' . . . 'bout how it was a mistake to trust somebody you don't know. Then after fretin' all night, you'll learn a good lesson."
As predicted, the Manning could not sleep. They tried swapping watches, but neither one was able to rest. Billy Jo's ominous warning kept their minds racing with thoughts of being murdered while they slept. Billy Jo also slept by the fire and his deep breathing only emphasized their own restlessness and paranoia. If the Mannings had learned a lesson from their sleepless night, they didn't discuss it the next morning. Their only consolation for the hard night was the hot coffee that Billy Jo had made for breakfast. The crisp autumn wind did little for the couple's morale. Shivering, they packed up their camp and followed Billy Jo's lead out of Weston. The course they decided upon was the road to Linn Junction since it was fairly level and they could see anyone coming for quite a long way. Billy Jo had no regret about leaving Weston. The town he remembered as a boy no longer existed. Walking down the road to nowhere with two strangers seemed almost natural. He had little else to do that morning, but reflect on what he left behind.
The memories of his past echoed from the fields and woodlands. " Now Billy Jo, you gotta go to school. You can't spend your whole life traipsing 'round them woods." With a sly wink, Billy Jo's dad would say,"You're Momma is right, boy. How you expect to get smart if you're off in those woods all the time." JoBeth would give her husband a cold stare and say," I saw that wink, Bill Dickson. You just go right ahead and encourage his wanton ways. For sure, that boy is gonna turn out bad," then she would grin as she added," just as bad as that old rooster I married." Billy Jo would laugh out loud with delight when Daddy would jump up and swoop Momma right off her feet and into his arms. Momma's laughter fell like rain water. She would fuss and kick, just enough to keep up Daddy's game. Billy Jo enjoyed watching his parents playing. In fact, they seemed to spend most of their time either laughing, or wrapped in each other's arms. It was just before Billy Jo's eighteenth birthday when the laughter in the Dickson house stopped. Billy Jo had just returned home from a hunting trip. Before going into the house, he hauled the white tail he killed to the back shed. Reverend Phillips was waiting for him when he came back to the front of the house.
"What you doin' visitin' so late?" Billy Jo had asked. The Reverend Phillips walked over and put his arm around Billy Jo's shoulder and said, "Billy Jo, I'm doing the job that God gave me. Sometimes, that means having to tell young folks, like yourself, news that will cripple their spirit. Billy Jo, there's no other way to say it but straight out; your momma and daddy were killed on the interstate last night by a drunken driver going the wrong way."
The sharp edge of despair cut through Billy Jo's nostalgia. His memories ebbed with each step out of Weston and were now whispers in the autumn wind. " I'm alone," he mused, "no, maybe not alone, got me a couple of fools to look after. Hell, even if they are dumb as posts, least they'll be company. That's if I can keep them from gettin' killed." Looking up, he saw Richard and Joan were getting too far ahead. "Hey!" Billy Jo shouted," This ain't no foot race and we still got a long way to go!"