The duffel bags dropped to the floor with a loud thud as Carl shuffled his feet toward the AC, craned neck, nose in the air, like a cartoon character from the 50s enticed by the smell of some delicious pie on a windowsill. The AC vent was adorned with multicolored ribbons that fluttered in the cool breeze. They danced in red and green and blue and reminded Carl of the convenience store his parents used to own back in Baltimore and the hot summer days in which he’d stick his face close to the fan’s blades as ribbons much like these ones tickled his nose. But that’d happened about a million years ago. The ribbons were the only color in that room of white walls and grey furnishings. A few of the plastic chairs were coated in fresh beads of sweat.
Perched high in a corner, under dim neon lights, a TV displayed a live stream from Anchorage, Alaska. Someone was gate-crashing President Carey’s presser as Carl bent over his bags with a sigh and inspected the contents again. It’s been a while since he’d done this and he became forgetful with age.
“The remnants need AID! They’re DYING OUT THERE…like rodents underground! DO SOMETHING ABOUT IT!” As soon as he backed away from the vent, beads of sweat bloomed all over his body and dove inside the bags beneath him leaving silent splotches on black metal and plastic polymers.
“I…I assure you that we’re doing everything we can for those that still seek refu…”
“LIAR! You bombed Dallas for fuck’s sake!” Twelve mags of 5.56 ammo, three mags of 9-mill, five frag grenades…one trusty M4 carbine, one custom-built scope, one not-so-standard issue berretta side arm…
“I’d like to remind you that that happened more than ten years ago, I wasn’t even in office at the time. You might remember that on the month of those truly…truly regrettable events I was on the set of “Apocalypse Later”, which, if you’ll recall, had a strong message on climate change!” One standard issue Kevlar vest, five ceramic plates…box of water purification tablets…
“Even the Cowboys stadium was raised to the ground! THEY WERE AMERICA’S TEAM!”
“We did give you Tulsa…”
“Oh, Tulsa’s a shithole!”
“To hell with the Cowboys.” Carl said calmly to what he thought was an empty room. He supported the Ravens, not that there was anything left of those either on account of Baltimore turning into yet another version of Atlantis.
“What’d you just say?” The question came from the doorway where a gangly, long-haired man with a scraggly beard leaned on the frame and crossed his arms. He looked like a lazy tom eyeing his prey, pondering on whether he should pounce or not.
Carl got up and took a few steps towards him. “You heard me. To hell with the Cowboys.”
“You’re lucky I’m not armed right now. It’s good to see you, Carl. How’s the missus?”
“She’s alright. Been through a bad spell a couple years ago. The big C. They caught it in time though. Surgery, chemo and a mountain of debt. But at least she’s fine now. What about you, Ray? Find yourself an old lady yet?”
“Me? Hitched? Never. Just not my style. You got your credentials?”
“Clip’em on and follow me. Leave the bags. The boots will take care of them.”
Soldiers moved about the hangar with purpose, oblivious to their presence. They carried crates from left to right and right to left and up and down stairs with the cadence of ants burdened by gigantic leaves for the betterment of the colony. Sergeants shouted orders in rapid succession in a language no civilian could ever hope to understand, with muddled words that resembled the barks of rabid dogs. Carl and Ray were the only devil dogs in the hangar though, the rest were army. There were no planes in the hangar. Just tens of large eight-wheeled armored vehicles with 12 foot tires and enough space inside to house a family of five, their pets and their entire suburban three-bedroom.
“We taking one of the turtles?”
Ray grinned. “Nah, this way. We’ll ride in style. And they’re tortoises, Carl. Turtles swim.”
“Well, shit, Ray, please excuse my ignorant ass.”
The two picked up their pace while dodging incoming busy-bodies and stopped in front of a truck hidden among towering giants. The hatches looked to be rusted shut under a thick coat of dust and sand and dirt mixed with gravel. A roll-cage on the outside, panels of all shapes and sizes welded everywhere, a bumper sticker on the front that read “Fuck Greta” in large capital letters.
“Ray, you tryin’ to get us killed? You planning on a ‘Mad Max’ sequel? What is this shit?”
“This? This is an F-150 interceptor and it’ll do us just fine. I got it off an old, retired storm chaser in Broken Arrow. He, ugh, had no need of it anymore.” Ray pulled out a shiny metal flask from one of the many pockets sewn onto his cargo pants and took a swig while holding a finger up at Carl. “Besides, we’ll be flying under the radar on this one, I thought I’ve mentioned that in the initial brief. Command has no clue about this, the orders came from up high.” His finger now pointed toward the bright lights hanging from the tall ceiling.
“You must’ve forgot, eh? So where’s that old storm chaser now?”
“You know where.”
“Shit, gimme a taste of that.”
“Hi honey. I’ve lost track of time. I’m guessing it’s still early over there. You’ll get this when you wake up. We’re about to cross the border into Texas now and there’s no service where we’re going. This shouldn’t take long. I’ll be back home before you know it. We’ll be in and out if everything goes smoothly and I don’t see why it shouldn’t. Ray hasn’t changed a bit aside from a few bald spots on top of his head. He’ll never cut that hair of his though. Make sure to call Trevor about that leak in the garage and let Linda walk Buddy. You shouldn’t be out too far from the house. I love you, cupcake, see you soon.”
Alex and Michael joined them in Stratford. They drove the second pick-up which was filled to the brim with water and gas canisters. In the early morning hours, the small convoy crossed the border into Texas proper by way of Amarillo. The border guards slouched and dragged their rifles behind them. Carl had never seen the wall in person. It stood from Redding, California to Charlotte, North Carolina and looked like a madman’s desperate attempt to blot out the sun. He wondered if this one was visible from outer space, a long, thin, irregular doodle splitting the country in half as a delayed but inescapable ending to the first Civil War. They were to follow the rails through Lubbock, Abilene and Austin, all the way to Luling, a small town in the south where someone, somewhere held a few flash drives that were of interest to another someone, somewhere else, all the way north in Anchorage. Carl didn’t really care about all that. He did, however, care about the fact that they weren’t the first to try.
Carl could barely make out the turrets on top of the wall. The glares of scopes bounced off the rearview mirror, sending short pangs of stabbing bright light into the car. The Texan desert lay before them, eating away at all that crossed it, highways and rails alike. Ray stepped on the gas and forced the other pick-up truck to do the same. He named them ‘Greta’ and ‘Greta Two’. The Janus emitters did their job for now; small silver alloy gadgets plastered all over the inside of the car meant to cool the air. To Carl, they might as well have been magic crystals. Ray was quiet and focused on the empty road ahead while the hum of the turbo V6 engine lulled Carl into a state of sleep. As his head tilted to the side and eyelids began to close, he’d see the carbine strapped to the door and shake himself awake again.
“Hey, Ray. You trust these two watching our six?”
“Don’t worry about them. They’re solid. We had our skirmishes against the skinnies, some close calls. They always delivered.”
“Didn’t they use to call Somalis skinnies back in the 1990s or so? Funny how that goes. Here we are now, forty years later. We really lack imagination in the armed forces, don’t we?”
Ray let out a chuckle. “Hey, if the shoe fits…”
“Except now they’re our own and they’re starving just the same.”
“They’re not our own, Carl. This place was always about putting one’s own self above all others. Nobody is anybody’s.”
“Sure…Texas. But if you’re up for indulging sentimentality, we can always take a detour down to Arlington. I’d like to pay my respects to the Cowboys.”
“Shut up, Ray.”
Except this was not Somalia. To Carl, it smelled of Afghanistan. Here he was, back inside an armored gas guzzler, gun at his side, racing down broken asphalt, praying not to blow up at any second. As far as the eyes could see, the land was dead, much like back then. Except now, here, the sky would conjure up fierce storms out of the blue above and send jolts of electricity down through the dust to bring it back to life. A futile attempt, a disturbing act of necromancy.
“Hey, Ray. How d’you think Afghanistan looks now?”
“Pfffft. Can’t be much worse off than when we left it.”
The great ball of yellow light kept climbing its ladder as they passed Lubbock. By the time they reached Abilene, the engine began to show signs of overheating and the Janus emitters slowly surrendered to the fever. The Gretas had to make a stop on the side of the road. Carl deftly climbed on the hood of the car and felt his boots sink ever-so-slightly into aluminum. He peered through the glass of his rifle at the great nothing that surrounded them. The air shimmered and tricked the eye. Nothing truly moved but Carl couldn’t shake the feeling that they were being followed. He kept it to himself. It was known and documented that skinnies rarely left shelter during the day. Something did intend to ambush them though. Storm clouds gathered at their backs. An all-consuming dark blanket covered the sky to the north, always moving, roiling at great speed, as if someone had pressed a fast-forward button in Carl’s head. Flashes of lightning danced in silence as, for now, the fight remained in the heavens above.
Atop Greta Two, Michael was doing the same, eyeing the storm to come. “Intracloud for now, but not for long!”
Not a minute later, a relentless bombardment of current was unleashed upon the desert. “One Mississippi, two Mississippi, three Mississippi, four Mississippi.” The deafening aftermath cascaded into their ears in wave after wave after wave.
In the storm’s cacophony, the roar of the engines turned into the mewling of kittens as Ray lead the convoy farther down the I-27. The high pitched whistle of the turbo became lead trumpet and Greta Two began to lag behind. As Carl turned to look, bolts of lightning made way for anvils and spindles, unpredictable vortexes of wind and debris slashing vertical into the horizon. “We’re losing them, goddamn it.” The second truck became smaller and smaller, engulfed in sand and dust. Greta Two swerved left, then right, flipped over and rolled on the highway like tumbleweed, gas canisters flying and clanking soundlessly on the road only to be lifted up again, moments later. A dramatic piano tune played in Carl’s head, a soundtrack to a silent movie nearing its end. In Ray’s hands, the interceptor was a conjured demon devouring the asphalt, while Ray himself entered a manic trance of concentration. The tornado climbed onto the highway and Greta Two was now a black dot carried by the updraft.
They parked Greta near “the world’s largest spur”, a rusted arch with a rusted star on the outskirts of the small town of Lampasas. An entire field of felled trees and scorched blades of grass gleamed in the light of the sun that was about to set.
Carl crouched next to the car and tried to get a good lungful of air while Ray dug inside the duffel bags in the back. “We need to call a CASEVAC. We’re done. There’s no more gas left in the tank. Not even to reach Luling.”
“Man, I KNOW I’ve put the batteries for the night vision here somewhere.”
“Ray, you listening to me?”
“You better pray for a clear night sky if I don’t find these.”
“There’s an abandoned gas station up the road. It’s in the open. Better drive over there and hunker down ‘til morning. I don’t think we want to meet the locals in town. Just lemme find these batteries first.”
“Ray, listen to me…” The ground radiated heat and Carl found himself gasping for air as if he got thrusted into the vacuum of space.
“Found’em! There’s MREs for a few days here and two gallons of water. We begin rationing immediately.”
“Ray, it’s over! We’ll never reach Luling. Or anywhere else. Have them pull us out.”
“Jesus H. Christ, Carl. There is no CASEVAC! Get a grip! As far as the U.S. Government is concerned, we’re a bunch of scavengers who illegally crossed into Texas. Besides… nothing flies here anymore. Too dangerous.”
“We can wait for armor to reach us.”
“Carl, you need to focus on the now. Because the ‘now’ ain’t pretty and it’s gonna get a helluva lot worse if you don’t get your shit together.”
Ray was right and he knew it. Carl begrudgingly got to his feet and dusted himself off. “Alright. What then? We got a mugful of gas left in the tank and all of our canisters got blown to hell on the I-27.”
“We might just have enough to return to Abilene. We’ll scour that highway for all that’s left. We only need one canister and we’re back in business.”
“And if the tornado dropped them a hundred miles away? Then what?”
“Then we’re fucked, much like we are now. It’s ironic if you think about it. Texas without a drop of gas.”
Carl took up first watch on the roof of the old, abandoned gas station. He eyed the tree line and the rows of houses in the distance, black on radioactive green. He took the goggles off for a minute only to be swallowed up by such darkness that he couldn’t even see his hand in front of him. There were no lights on in Lampasas, no generators, no torches nor fires. There was no breeze, no wind and no sound, only his thoughts in the stillness. Carl figured it would be around 11 pm in Sacramento. His wife would now stand in front of the bathroom mirror and take off her make-up reaching quickly, with deft hands, onto her shelf of toiletries. She’d gently rub her skin with a cotton disc and, with the ritual over, she’d lazily climb into bed. And wonder what he’s doing.
“Taking over!” Ray announced his presence before climbing the old iron ladder to the roof. “Go and get some shuteye.”
He awoke to the sound of gunfire outside. A few rounds from Ray’s M4 then a flurry from an AR-15 followed by the boom of a shotgun. Then silence. She must be sound asleep by now.