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Old 10-15-2012, 11:22 PM   #19 (permalink)
Deus Machina
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Join Date: May 2006
Location: Brandon, Florida

Aaaaand number three, now that I'm done after class.
And holy balls, I'm amazed that's under 5k words.

The Home Front


James slid smoothly into place behind a car, crouched behind a flattened tire to keep his feet hidden. The lens of his mask reflected ghosts back to him, bloodied by the deepest red of the sunrise. He cursed his timing, his eagerness to be about his business, but there was nothing to be done for it now.

He settled onto the balls of his feet and rested a hand onto the fender to steady himself. It was a position he was accustomed to, now, head raised barely above the trunk and motionless to watch and listen. The morning sun threw glare off every intact window despite the dust, leaving him unable to see what may lay behind them, but at least it was behind him and he didn't have to worry about his mask catching the light.

The soft hiss-puff of breath through filter and valve was hidden well by the soft rustle of the golden grasses that grew through the cracks of cement and outside the parking lot. A soft clack, clack-clack broke his eyes' slow scan to one side, only to be revealed as a muffler swinging beneath an old Ford truck so rusted it almost seemed to flow into the stained cement beneath it.

The truck seemed to be among the worst of them; most suffered from tires that had succumbed to dry rot or were missing altogether, usually with the jack still beneath, and several had their hood up and parts strewn in front of them to indicate they had been the donor for a transplant at some point. None appeared in driving condition, and the layer of dust upon the discarded components suggested none had been in a long while.

No diesel-fueled vehicles or bicycles were parked outside. There were no footprints, but when a good wind in the night can erase those, it is still better to be cautious. James has been crouched too long; he almost started at the sharp crack his own back made as he straightened. His bedroll had done little to soften the floor of the long-disused pumphouse he had spent the night in, a place set away from the plaza where he could block the door and sleep and wait until morning.

He began his way around the plaza, feet quiet on the ground. People out on their own got a particular way of walking, now--smooth, quiet, but casual enough they did not appear to be sneaking. It was best to stay quiet, and still better to be seen first than to look to be skulking around.

One hand fell to pull the radio from his belt but left it off for the moment, letting it swing by his side as he walked around the parking lot in the center of the plaza, peeking through boarded windows and taking note as he passed. Quiznos. Staples, worth looking through later. Petsmart. Marshall's, worth a look despite the broken windows even if the clothes up front would be in bird nests or rotting by now.

A hobby shop would be likely to have odd bits of hardware and electronics. Those were always in increasingly high demand. He absentmindedly brought the radio against the side of the garbage can in front, bringing the dull 'bwong' of a barrel full of water to the point it had rusted through halfway up.

He stopped in front of the window of what was obviously the plaza's largest store, making a lazy attempt to actually see through the boards and the dirty but mostly unbroken windows that protected what lay within. It was a lucky find, he had thought. A city the size of Peoria was bound to have plenty to offer in years past, and it was far north enough that not many people would risk it yet. Bloomington, in a rough semicircle to the east, was the furthest anyone could settle down again, and then only because it was on a crossroads. It was a sparsely populated town to begin with and even more so after; the northeast edge of it was still littered with buildings and cars with the paint blasted off that side.

Aerial photos had proven literal what many residents had considered a sore joke before: Chicago was a pit, bleeding out into the rest of the state.

His reverie broke at the impact against another can, with a heavier oscillating gong. He turned to stare down into it, filled nearly to the brim and heated by the hot plains sun until rainwater and discarded food had cooked into a nasty stew.

It took several seconds to register before he broke into a sprint, dodging back to crouch behind a pickup that had probably seen better days before the impact. He stuck his head around the side this time, and fumbled for the switch on his radio. It clicked on and he hit the button to signal a break to the silence with a quiet static 'kssht'.

A tense moment passed as he waited, inspecting the storefront. "W pblton's," the sign proclaimed; a B had spun loose and taken a vowel on its journey. His pulse had a chance to slow before the radio replied. "You alright, Jim? Get anything?"

He kept his head up as he lifted the radio, nearly spooking himself with the reflection of his own eyes. "Yeah, a grocery story. There's old trash in a can."

Cut-in static faded into a sigh before a response. "Alright. You should come back, but I know since you're out there already... Be careful."

"I know. You always say that, and look how Lincoln and Middletown turned out. Don't worry."

"A bunch of farmers aren't gonna be camping out in a grocery store. You get back out here by evening or I'm going back to Bloomington without you."

"Love you, too, Trace."

James stood from behind the car. No one had yelled or shot at him yet, so what was the harm? Hands above his shoulders and still holding his radio, he began walking to the door. No point in appearing threatening, but showing contact elsewhere still played a good bargaining point.

Garbage cans were worth a glance as he passed, now. This long after, most had been cleaned out enough by rain that they made great water catchers--the Hit had shaken the world but it certainly had not turned it to a complete wasteland. It had become habit throughout the country to upend the serviceable trash cans to clean out the mud and sand and throw a sheet over them to filter out the dirt the rain still brought with it--and keep that ever-present dust out--and the water would be as potable as any other source. It had been years since any of them had pre-impact garbage left to contaminate it.

Jim paused at the door and cupped his hand across his brow to peer through. Carts in disarray, an old broken display mannequin, shelves holding dust and whatever faded boxes and cans had been, surprisingly, left. He took a deep breath, steeled himself, and knocked the radio onto the door several times. After a brief wait and no reply, he clipped it back to his belt, wrapped his hands against the edge of the door and pulled; he had to put his shoulder into it until it grated open on its track and allowed him to slip through, blinded briefly by the glare off the glass.

"Just sign on, huh?"

A hand flipped back his jacket and tucked under his shirt, filling his palm with the grip of the battered handgun behind his hip before he could process the thought. He spun, wide-eyed, to face a man perhaps in his fifties, with similarly wide eyes--and hands held in front of him, palms open.

"Whoa, whoa! Calm down there, friend." He paused a moment to look James up and down. "Went through the training films today, huh? I know how the speeches and public-service reels can get you jumpy. I'm retired, myself."

Jim froze to take him in. Short, greying hair. Brown eyes above a nose rather on the large side, with the creases of smile lines at their corners.

He stood, bewildered. The man's greying black hair was recently cut and combed back. His cheeks were freshly shaven, and his salt-and-pepper goatee was too neatly trimmed. No one out here had wrinkles from smiling without others to rival them; for that matter, no one out here got to that age without looking more weather-beaten overall. Even at their Sunday best, no one could match this man's buttoned and unfaded blue shirt, rolled neatly to the elbow, or the crisp black apron tied in place over it. Russell, the tag said. He appeared patently nonthreatening, but...

His hand was easing from his bulky old Ruger and he was preparing to ask questions when, shhhup, the door slid smoothly shut behind him, bringing him to jump again and spin to face it.

A poster was taped onto the door, facing outward, flashing his reflection back to him. In stark contrast to the man, James' posture was slouched in his old desert-camo jacket. The sunbaked patch under his mask's bubble lens showed creases at the corners of grey eyes, and he wasn't even thirty yet. Light brown hair was an uncombed mass of loose curls, oily and undecided between standing messily from between the straps of his respirator or hanging nearly to where a scruff of beard went uncovered at the bottom.

Russell seemed to have the same thought as him. "Oh... Hey, friend, it's a great way to get back on your feet--I joined up back in the depression--but your recruiter won't be happy if you show up to basic like that." He dug into a box beside the door (the poster taped to it proclaimed "Join today! - US Recruiting Office 62656, 905 Jefferson Ave. Peoria, IL") and handed him a brown box (USAF - Toiletry) and a sealed green can (Filter, 40mm). "Looks like they even left you with the old training filter, poor guy. It's been a slow day; the restrooms are right around the corner there. Lock it for a few minutes and clean up a bit. I'll tell anyone it's out of order."

"Yeah... Yeah, sure." Jim was staring at the kit on his way, working a thumb at the seal. Russell was too clean and accepting, the lights were bright enough that they glared off the too-clean windows rather than allow a view outside, and it was easier to concentrate on getting to somewhere with a sink and a mirror than it was to think it all through.

He blanked all that out for the time it took to close and lock the door, only vaguely noticing how white the tiles were as he tracked down the plug for the sink. Dumping the contents of the box--nail clippers, a comb, a razor, a pack of double-sided blades, a bar of soap, several packets of shaving gel, and a washcloth--onto the back of the sink as it filled.

A pull at the metal ribbon around the can released the new filter with a hiss of broken seal. Force of habit brought him to draw a deep breath, quickly unscrew the old filter from his mask... and pause.

The mirror lacked the layer of dirt that most of the world sported now. Hell, the room actually looked like it had been mopped recently. Without the iridescent shimmer of that ever-present dust, there really wasn't much risk, so he grabbed the bottom of his mask and peeled it over his head.

It was the first time in years he had gotten his lungs full of such sweet air. Cool, crisp, and he wasn't of a mind to complain about the sterile tang marked with hints of lemon and bleach. He unclipped his radio and tried a call to Tracy, to no reply. A few cranks at the charging handle on back, and further attempts brought back only static. He returned it to his belt with a sigh; all the same, he was actually enjoying the circumstance when he put his new comb to work, despite the tugging at long-unkempt hair.

Half his beard was gone--and he was finished giggling about the tan lines that mask and beard had left him with--by the time he actually paid any attention to the speakers. Someone put a lot of effort into keeping a place out here clean and the radio working.

"...diameter of... how large was that, Dr. Lloyd?"

"Roughly twenty-seven kilometers. Errr... about seventeen and a half miles."

"That doesn't seem all that big, doctor. I mean, in the grand scale of things."

"Sir, that's about the size of New York City. You look out your window and tell me this city "Isn't all that big.""

"I mean, surely it wouldn't really affect-"

"It will! We cannot allow this to continue on its current course. The Smith-Komo Object is more than twice the projected size of the one that--"

And he had stowed the kit back into its box and the box into his pocket, put the cap from his mask's new filter onto the old one when it started spilling that black-violet dust out the intake with a mica shimmer, dumped it into the can, and was out the door, with his hair back and face freshly shaven. He immediately stopped and gawked when he could no longer block out the view.

This... this wasn't right.

The lighting was too bright. Hell, the lights worked, casting a harsh fluorescent shine onto tiles that were still white, and still had a polish to them. He could actually see a couple people in aprons walking in the back of the store, straightening a rack of batteries--batteries! he noted--and Russell sweeping by the registers that surprisingly retained their lights and upright stature. The shelves looked to be worked over, like every other space was emptied, but there were boxes and cans.

His eyes froze at that. Blinked a few times. Then the thought processed and he was almost giggling in his sprint for a cart. Who cared if this was right or not? There were stocked shelves!

He nearly left skidmarks when he came to a halt before the carts, face-to-face with the mannequin wearing fatigues holding a rifle in one hand and saluting with the other in parade fashion. A sandwich board at its feet proclaimed "Serve your country, serve the world!" He snapped a sharp salute in return before grabbing a cart and spinning back into the store.

One of the wheels squealed in complaint but he still took it at speed down the first aisle, tossing bread and bagels and Little Debbie almost without checking the labels. He at least slowed down through the next aisle, to pick out the largest jars of the largest pickles, humming and half-listening to the speakers cutting out from music to news between every song.

"...this coming for more a year now, and known for months that it was on a path toward us. NATO has a committee of scientists in countries all over the world working on this threat."

"Senator, if we've known about this, what exactly is the issue with China and their eastern allies arming themselves for it?"

"They declined to be part of the committee, and we've been in a cold war for a decade. And now with this excuse to stock up? They're trying to gain an advantage, even when they know we can't afford any launch without the rest of the world informed and double-checking everything. There's no other good excuse."

Once more, his thoughts were interrupted, this time when he absentmindedly bumped his cart into a display of bananas. Bananas! Short of the rare hothouses, they wouldn't even grow locally! Eyes wide, he pulled a couple bunches onto his stack of food before even looking up to find himself surrounded by produce. Jim went dancing from display to display, tossing fruits onto the adjacent scales and barely remembering to write weights onto the bags before he crammed them into his mouth.

Bananas, mangoes, grapes, oranges, things he couldn't remember eating or even hearing of--what the hell was a kumquat?--made their way into his cart and his mouth, more so the latter than the former. A worker in gloves and a hairnet glared at him, somewhere between pity and contempt, but he paid him no mind. If Russell assumed he was a beggar turned to the military, who would begrudge him a feast before he left, now that he could afford it? The sleeve of his jacket was sticky from wiping his face by the time he was sated.

Unsurprisingly, there was no one else in line in front of him. He was confused for a moment before fumbling in his pocket; in a time when a wallet becomes only a habit to hold scant identification and notes, the cash that does accumulate lasts a long time. The drowsy-eyed girl with the forced smile took the grimy and crumpled bills with a roll of her eyes but no verbal complaint.

Russell was filling a rack of candy as he passed. "Hey, you clean up alright, friend. Good luck out there. If you meet a Lieutenant Matthews, tell him to come home in one piece. My daughter misses him." He dropped his box to shove a hand into his apron pocket. "Hey, before you go, take a couple of these. Hand 'em out when when you get stationed." He took Jim's hand, pressed a few metal objects into it, and patted the back.

"Wh--Oh! Yeah, alright, Russ. Take care." He looked down to his hand. Pins. Tiny brass flags, the familiar flag with the blue star on a field of red and white stripes, emblazoned with "In our hearts and thoughts."

Jim stopped just inside the door to stuff what he could into his pockets. His ears tuned back into the radio.

"...launched only hours ago, without warning to or approval from NATO. Senator, wh--"

"Idiocy! Almost an outright act of war, to do this!"

"Sir, these are some of the most populous countries in the world, representing the most heavily populated areas, surely they are only listening to their citizens' demands."

"But NATO has had a committee working on this for six months, ready to launch! China, India, Korea You mean to tell me they could have missiles armed and aimed in a week? The Smith-Komo Meteor-

"Asteroid, senator."

The door 'shhup'ed open smoothly and Jim walked through, pushing the squeaking cart in front of him. He would transfer the rest to his pack once he got back to the edge of the plaza.

"Asteroid, whatever--we cannot mess this up! Its gravity skewed Deimos' orbit when it passed Mars! And now we have to wait, to calculate compensation for their unauthorized attempts to play the heroes!"

"Really, at this point, sir, what's the worst that can happen?"

He stopped walking. He remembered this.

"At best, they succeed. At worst, they alter its course toward us."

Two of India's missiles had missed. China's had not. But they came from the wrong angle, and sent a twenty-seven-kilometer asteroid into a spin, slinging the contents of its intermittent tail and volatile debris toward the planet. The first source of that shimmering, abrasive blue-black dust that spread through wind and clouds for years to come.

"And we still have to wait until they get there, or risk our own attempts failing. By then, it might be too late to deflect the asteroid, and destroying it could only fracture it."

James looked back out over the parking lot. Glare from windshields contrasted sharply against the rusting steel bulks, resting tireless on the pavement. No few of them had succumbed to the flora growing through the cracks, utilizing vehicles to climb higher to sunlight and giving them a nearly organic appearance.

"The fragments could do anything at that point. They could sling around the planet, or fall straight to the ocean and cause something akin to a tsunami. A strike at Antarctica could raise the sea level. I don't think I even need to say what could happen if a meteor, trailing the fallout from nuclear armament, struck at Beijing, or Tokyo, or... or DC or New York, or..."

Or Lake Michigan.

"Christ, Russ, why--" Concerned about anyone that would keep recordings from so close to the impact, Jim had spun on his heels to confront--

The door, dusty and corroded, hung open and crooked in its track.

No chromed carts. No shining lights off gleaming tiles.

"...AMES! JAMES, are you there?" Static, almost unnoticeable white noise, had finally abandoned his radio to give way to the voice from the other end. Tracy almost sounded more aggravated than worried.

One hand grabbed the radio. The other, confused and panicked, shoved into his pocket. He still had the pins, and pulled a couple free. "Y-yeah! Yeah, I'm here." The clearcoat was crumbled; red, white and blue lacquer chipped away to be replaced by the greens of corroded brass. He turned his gaze back to his cart.

"Jesus, Jim... did you at least find anything?" He was already picking through the cart. Crumbled labels and leaking lids identified pickle jars. Most of the cans sported dents or had ballooned from within. Boxes had holes from mold or rodents. Bread had turned into bags of dust and the husks of long-dead moths. The fruit didn't even bear a second glance.

He felt nauseous. He hoped fervently that it was because of the shock, not from his earlier feast. The surplus was still in his pockets. The new filter on his mask was faded and scuffed, but still sealed. The blades for the razor had been oiled well.

"I... Yeah, I think I got a few things. I'll be back soon." Little enough that he could empty his pockets and no longer needed the cart to carry it all. His pack would have more than enough room.

Curiosity stopped him before he went on. He turned back to the door. "Russ?"

He laid a hand on the crooked door to lean in "Russ!" The inside was covered in dust. The shelves were bare and falling, with rotten or desiccated food strewn the about aisles by previous frustrated searches or passing wildlife. The closet thing to a person was that mannequin, with its sandwich board vandalized, its plastic rifle and attached arm cast into the corner. Someone had taken its fatigue jacket and jokingly replaced it with a T-shirt. "Wibbleton's on the home front - In our hearts and thoughts."

His answer came only from the rustle of long grasses and a mannequin's one-armed salute.
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