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“They take up arms against their ruler; but in this they deceive themselves, for experience will prove that they will have actually worsened their lot.”
—Niccolo Machiavelli, The Prince
In the morning, Jimmy Marzan marched out of the abandoned town of Walden with a 9mm, a canteen, a backpack filled with bullets, matches, MREs, and a satchel to be delivered to Captain Al A. Rick–who was very much still alive. Minutes earlier, the bus driver had taken the other six men into the cooler to view the corpses. Each of them had chosen to return to their units after they had seen the dead. Three went north and three went west. Marzan went south, alone.
The faded, cracking asphalt ran straight as an arrow, flanked on either side by miles of flat, featureless, high basin. The road was abandoned, not a single car had appeared five miles into his trek. The temperature was not oppressive, but the sky was a cloudless azure and the bright sun was getting high. The sun and the pace of the hike made him sweat, but the dry, thin air evaporated it in a flash. He thought about taking a drink but knew he had to hold out as long as possible until he found another source of water.
The road bent to the southeast, following the arroyo that spread into a lush, green field. To his right, about a thousand yards off, he spotted a large irrigation pond. He stepped through the barbed wire fence along the road and hiked through the green wheat towards it. He searched for a container to hold some extra water, but only found an old plastic milk jug that was cracked and useless. He sat down in the grass on the edge of the water to rest. A breeze blew in, down off the hazy mountain range far to the west, over the treeless plain and across the water, cooling Marzan as he sat in the brilliant sun. He rested there for an hour, drinking half his canteen, his eyelids getting heavy. A blue heron glided down, its broad, swept wings fully extended and slowing its descent. It landed, standing on its sticklike legs in the middle of the pond, and proceeded to gracefully stalk through the water, occasionally lancing aquatic morsels with its slender beak. Then it extended its giant wings once again and lifted off, headed south. Marzan fell asleep.
He was startled awake by a distant explosion. He looked around for the smoke plume. Hundreds of black birds had flown in and populated the far shore. The sun was past its zenith. It was perhaps 1600 or so. Massive cumulonimbus clouds were building in the west, over the mountains. James surmised that it would probably rain within a couple hours. He stood up and stretched the stiffness out of his joints, looking in all directions for the smoke from the explosion. Then he found it, south, in the same direction he was headed. He scrambled through the grass towards the road and through the barbed wire. The gray band of silent asphalt ran directly into the black smoke perhaps four or five miles ahead.
“Perfect,” he muttered. He searched the skies for helicopters or contrails but there was nothing. “Drone strike,” he guessed. He resumed his march, directly towards the distant smoke.
Not a single car passed him on the road. After three quarters of an hour, the plume had vanished. The sky had grown hazy as the front moved in from the west. He heard the shearing sound of a fighter jet but he couldn’t locate it in the patina of wispy clouds and scattered, blinding rays of the waning sun. The roar faded to the east. The road extended infinitely. He was hungry but he thought it better to save what he had.
He passed a herd of black cattle grazing just to the west of the road. Then he spotted a cowboy, guarding them from horseback two hundred yards off. He was watching Marzan, a rifle slung on his back. Marzan waved but the cowboy just sat in his saddle, watching. Marzan walked on down the road without looking back, but sensed the mounted sentry’s eyes were still on him until the topography took him out of view.
The farmers and ranchers withdrew from the economic chaos and realigned their lives with their neighbors and communities. They withheld the vast portion of their produce as well. They weren’t about to exchange the fruits of their labor for worthless, green pieces of paper. The government’s forces tried in vain to redistribute the rural hoards, but it proved a fruitless endeavor given the manpower required for such a large scale intervention. Inflations and wars are invariably less cruel to rural folks. No historical army has ever had enough manpower to occupy, terrorize and loot the entirety of the countryside of any sizeable province with any permanence or efficiency, especially in the Twenty-First Century when there are thirty support personnel for every pair of boots on the ground. Life in the country carried on in spite of the insurrection, largely unabated, unless you factored in the need to guard one’s livestock from rustlers. The rural areas drew into themselves and the urbanites went hungry or bartered their wedding rings and car parts and furnishings for sacks of potatoes and stale bread, biding their time until the FEMA trucks, with their blue eagles emblazoned on their sides, rolled in to the local football stadiums to distribute forty-pound blocks of cheese and dried noodles.
Marzan hiked onward, trying to put his thirst out of his mind. His side, near his wound, began to cramp. The sky grayed and the air cooled, bringing some relief. Still not one single car passed by. He figured he had walked ten miles or so. He could feel the skin on his heels begin to slide and blister against the collars of his sneakers. His toes and tendons ached. His entire body was stiffening with each stride. The sky darkened and the wind whipped in swirls through the tall green grass near the road along the creek bed. A herd of antelope grazed, auburn specks a thousand yards or so to the east. The jets of another military aircraft snarled in the distance, invisible above the clouds. The road rose in elevation and the prairie grass eventually yielded to patches of aspen and pine.
Ahead lay a half-mile jaunt, straight as a ruler, climbing to the horizon. As he approached the crest he saw faint smoke. He picked up his pace, his feet aching and side burning now with every step. He crested the rise, but the source of the smoke was hidden beyond the next crest. Exhausted and with his blood sugar plummeting, he slowed back down into a walk. The aspen gave way entirely to a ghost forest of dead pine trees. Ravaged by a blight carried by bark beetles, the endless forest of skeleton lodge poles draped with drooping, stripped branches swallowed up the road ahead. Through the rotting spires, Marzan could see the land rise, forming into foothills that rolled like a building tide of black to the south. The plume of smoke was wide and tall now, looking as if it was just beyond a bend in the road ahead. But he lacked the energy to run for it again.
The road climbed steadily. James stared down as he walked, at the pavement just beneath his footfalls. His sweat had oozed through his shoes and attracted a coat of brown dust. His knees and lower back ached. His breaths synchronized with each of his steps. He superstitiously avoided the cracks in the asphalt. The pain in his side grew. Then he looked up and saw it.
In the oncoming lane, some hundred yards ahead, sat the smoldering chassis of a sport utility vehicle. The cab was blackened with the front end splayed apart and the hood flipped up over the windshield. The road just ahead of the wreck was charred into a starburst pattern that filled the lane.
Marzan thought better of approaching the carnage as a second drone strike often came down to finish off anyone attempting to render aid. He thought that he might veer off the road a few hundred yards and continue south through the dead forest for a mile or so before rejoining the highway. But then he heard something—a sobbing sound coming from the sticks to his right. It was a child’s sobs. He scanned the deadwood and spotted the source.
“You all right there, little man?” he said to a boy that was hiding behind a stump. “You come outta there.” The boy slowly emerged. He looked about ten or so, and was dressed in a sweatshirt with burned sleeves. His hair was singed and a good portion of it was burned off. His face and hands were blackened with soot. His cheeks were streaked clean with his tears. Marzan ambled down off the shoulder of the road and approached him. “Were you in that car?” The boy just sobbed. “Here, take a drink.” Marzan handed him his canteen. The boy took a sip from it. “Drink some more. Drink it all.” He watched as the boy drank it all and handed it the empty canteen back. “Can you tell me your name?” The boy wept. “All right. All right,” Marzan said, trying to comfort him. “You stay right here. I’m going to check out the car.” Marzan turned and hiked back to the road. A feeling of dread filled him as he closed in. The wind had stopped and it was completely still. Ravens had gathered on the road but the car was still too hot for them to pick it over. The tires had melted off and the engine, or what was left of it, had broken loose and rested on the surface of the road. A small fire burned in the pool of fluids spilled beneath it. It reeked of burning rubber and oil. The ravens scattered as he came upon it. The cab was concealed by the rippled and smoldering hood. He walked to the driver’s side to look in. All the windows had been blown out or melted away. The interior was blackened with melted upholstery, and the panels and dashboard were disintegrated. The incinerated remains of two human beings sat in the front seats. One still clutched the steel ring of the steering wheel with its charred phalanges. The flesh of their faces was seared completely off leaving only an insane grin of teeth and hollowed eye sockets. A tuft of long hair flowed out from the back of the passenger’s skull. Marzan’s mind flashed to the last image he had of Michael Rollins, cooked alive by phosphorous in his Humvee.
He stepped back and looked up at the sky and caught his breath. It was gray and featureless, now far from optimal conditions for drones. Yet he felt anxious about staying there. He jogged back to where the boy was. “Are you hurt?” he asked the boy who didn’t answer. Marzan checked him over for wounds. Other than the burns, he found him intact. “You’re gonna need to come with me.”