DAY 920 SINCE “THE DAY”
“Do you remember the opening line of that book by Charles Dickens, ‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times’?”
John Matherson whispered the famous line with hands wrapped around a warm mug filled with, of all things, coffee—real coffee. He looked over at his friend Forrest Burnett, who had arrived bearing the precious gift. Where it had been looted from John had learned never to ask.
Forrest’s crooked face, twisted up by his old Afghan wound, left eye socket covered with a patch that certainly gave him a pirate look, smiled in reply.
“Wasn’t that from the movie where the guy gets his head cut off by the French mob at the end?” Forrest replied.
John chuckled. “Yeah, something like that.”
“That guy was crazy, stepping in to take his friend’s place at the guillotine, and to top it off, the guy who gets rescued escapes with the girl. Never did like that movie. Why mention it?”
John sighed, standing up and walking over to the window of his office to look out.
The first snow of late autumn had arrived early this year, blanketing the Montreat College campus with half a foot or more. Old-timers prognosticating over woolly caterpillars and nut-gathering squirrels had predicted this was going to be a tough one, and this early November snow appeared to be the first proof.
Before the Day, a first snow, for John, was a time of relaxation and happy memories. Classes were usually canceled, forewarned by the Weather Channel on the Internet. He would have stocked in extra firewood, and it would be a long day of reading by the fire, Jennifer and Elizabeth outside playing, coming in soaking wet for some hot chocolate, and later in the day board games like Clue or Monopoly. If the power went out, so what? It added to the cozy feel, at least for the first few days, camping out by the fireplace and watching the woods fill up with snow.
Before the Day …
Jennifer is dead. His eldest daughter, Elizabeth, all of nineteen years old, was a mother with a two-year-old son and had finally taken a further step away and moved out of the house in Montreat. She had married Seth Robinson—the son of his old neighbor and close friend Lee—and was living with her new husband, and they were already expecting a child.
How that as well had changed after the Day. Only a few years back, the line had become that twenty-five was the new eighteen. Most kids were expected to go to college, get a degree, start their first job on the career ladder, date for a while, at last find the right partner, settle down, and around twenty-eight to thirty finally start a family. It was again like the world at the time of the Civil War—to marry at sixteen, seventeen. An unmarried girl at twenty-one was seen as already becoming an old maid.
No longer, and the historian in John read it as something that was primal, that after a tribe, a city, an entire country had lost so many lives in a war, the paradigm shifted to marrying young and starting families young—the so-called baby boom of the late ’40s and ’50s a recent example.
At the other end of this age spectrum, Jen—dear old Jen, mother-in-law of his first marriage to Mary—was gone. Perhaps in a different time, her life might have gone on for another five, even ten to fifteen years. But gone now as well were all the hospitals and medications that extended life, and thus something primal occurred with the elderly. Once they had seen too much tragedy, the will to live for so many was simply extinguished.
She had quietly slipped away in August. He had seen it far too often after the Day—the elderly one day calmly saying that they had experienced enough of life with all its vicissitudes and it was time to leave. He found her one evening sitting “alone” out on the sunporch, happily talking with her husband, young Jennifer, and her daughter—his wife, Mary, who had died long before the Day. She was talking to ghostly presences. He stood silent, eavesdropping as she talked and laughed softly to replies that were silent, at least to his ears.
Makala had slipped up to his side, listened as well for a moment with tears streaming down her face. Makala then guided him to the far end of the house, telling him to leave her be, that, as a nurse, she had often seen such, a clear sign that the beloved who had already crossed over were gathering to help in the final journey.
Jen insisted upon going to sleep that evening not in her own bed but out on the sunporch that looked out over young Jennifer’s grave. They found her there in the morning, as if just gently asleep.
They buried her next to Jennifer. Yet another thread that connected John to a former life severed that day.
Even his old familiar office was gone, burned out in the fight with Fredericks back in the spring. It was decided to move what was left up to the Montreat campus and set up a new town office in the basement of Gaither Hall, a logical decision after it had served as the backup command post during that fight. It had been suggested to actually move it into the now-empty office of the college president, but John could not concur.
That office complex held for him a deep symbolic significance. When a special meeting involving representatives from across the ever-expanding “State of Carolina” took place, he would unlock that room for use. Centered on the office wall opposite the desk of the college president was the famed painting of George Washington kneeling in prayer at Valley Forge. It was a reminder of his friend Dan Hunt, who once occupied that room and died in the first year after the start of the war.
His own office downstairs in the basement of Gaither was an easy walk from his home and just down the slope from the college was the new “factory,” christened “the Dreamworks.” Within the walls of what had once been Anderson Auditorium, full-scale production was under way, assembling new electrical generators complete with wirework for drawing out copper wire for the generators and the stringing of power lines.
The electrical light that illuminated his office regularly flickered as power fluctuated up and down; the system was, after all, jury-rigged, very much a learn-as-you-go process.
The snow was picking up again, swirling around the small campus commons below Gaither, the tattered American flag that had flown during the air battle with Fredericks’s Apache choppers standing out stiff in the northeasterly blow.
Watching such moments with the first snow of autumn falling had once indeed been the best of times, and he tried to not let melancholy take hold. He was actually drinking real coffee, the room was illuminated by an actual electric lightbulb, and the woodstove that students had installed in the room was radiating a pleasant heat the way only a wood-fired stove could.
“Why so depressed, John?” Forrest asked.
John heard a match striking and looked over his shoulder and saw Forrest leaning back in his chair and of all things actually lighting a cigarette. Merciful God, how he now longed for one as well, but the promise to his dying daughter and the potential explosion from Makala if she ever detected the scent on his breath was enough to restrain him, even though he did step closer and inhale the drifting smoke.
“Just the snowfall triggering a lot of memories this morning,” John replied, settling back into his office chair, his gaze still lingering on the snow dancing on the wind. The sound of laughter echoed, and he caught a glimpse of a couple of his students sliding down the slope on a makeshift sled. Kids, long ago hardened by war and backbreaking labor to repair the damage of the spring battles to Gaither Hall before the onset of winter, were taking a break and again being kids. Their unit commander, Kevin Malady, would soon be out with a shout for them to get back to work, but for the moment, he was glad to see them enjoying themselves.
“Yeah, same here,” Forrest said, gaze drifting off as he absently reached over with his one hand to scratch the stump of his missing arm.
“Feeling it again?” John asked.
“Ghost limb, they call it,” Forrest said with a chuckle. “Yeah, it feels like it’s still there and itchy as hell. Memories of snow for me get all screwed up by this.” He motioned toward the missing limb with his good hand and then up to the eye patch.
“I loved to hunt as a kid; we always got a lot more snow over on the north side of Mount Mitchell than you did here. Easy to track deer, fox, bear. Friends and I would even camp out in it, get a deer, and then just stay out in the woods for days living off the venison and some potatoes and corn we packed along.” He smiled wistfully. “And more than a few mason jars of shine and a bit of homegrown weed as well. A lot better than sitting in a damn boring history class in school, and given the way the world is now, a better education for our futures as well.”
“For someone who apparently hated history classes, you sure know a lot about it,” John said with a smile.
“Oh yeah, you were once a history professor. What good did that do you when it came to surviving in this mess?”
“It helps at times, Forrest.”
“Okay, I guess it did when it came to running things and getting that ‘Declaration,’ as you folks call it, written. Lot of good that will do, though, if the BBC reports are true.”
“Gave me the idea for how to face off against the Posse.”
“You mean you used Hannibal’s plan for the Battle of Cannae?”
John smiled at that and nodded. “Seems you know more history than you let on, Forrest. Often the mark of a good leader, which you sure as hell were and still are.”
“And it should have told me not to volunteer for that extra tour of duty in Afghanistan. The way it was being fought by the time I shipped there, it had turned into another Vietnam. Build laagers, hunker down, can’t shoot even when shot at, and the bad guys own the rest of the countryside while we wandered around like fools trying to win ‘hearts and minds.’”
Forrest shifted his gaze to the storm outside as he took one final drag clear down to the filter and let the cigarette burn out. He stood up and went to the window, pulled the flimsy curtain back, looked out, and sighed.
“When I copped all of this in Afghanistan it was a day like this one.” He motioned again to the eye patch and the missing arm. “It was a freeze-your-ass-off day. Still haunted by the memory of all that pink frozen slush where the rest of my squad lay, blown apart, the crunching sound of footfalls on snow as the bastards who ambushed us came in to make sure we were all dead and loot our weapons and gear. That’s my memory of snow now.”
John was silent. It was the most detail his friend, who but six months back had been an enemy who had damn near killed him, had yet said about the day he was torn apart in a war all but forgotten now.
Several minutes passed as they silently sipped their contraband coffee, a gift Forrest would show up with occasionally with a clear “don’t ask, don’t tell” understanding between them. Forrest lit another Dunhill, smoked it halfway down, and then pinched the flame out, sticking what was left into his breast pocket.
“To what do I owe the honor of your visit today?” John finally asked, for it was a very long trek over the mountains, requiring several gallons of precious gas for Forrest’s Polaris six-wheeler.
“You’ve heard the BBC reports about Roanoke being pulled in with the government up in Bluemont?”
“Yeah, I was about to suggest the state council getting together here this weekend to talk it over. It is only prudent to expect we might be next on their list.”
“I expected an immediate response after the way we trashed their ANR unit back in the spring, and then nothing. But I think something has got to be stirring by this point.”
“Why I said, ‘Best of times, worst of times,’” John replied, watching as the last wisps of smoke from Forrest’s cigarette coiled toward the ceiling and then disappeared.
“‘Best of times, worst of times,’” and this time it was Forrest. “I was hoping for a winter of peace after so much crap these last few years.”
“You think it will go bad?”
“If you expect shit to happen, John, you’ll never be surprised when it does.”
“Thanks for that cogent piece of advice.”
“The price of a good cup of coffee and the offer of a cigarette. Anyhow, beyond bearing potential bad news, I thought I’d hang around here for a few days. With the storm, it’d be a good time to teach some of your kids winter survival stuff.”
“Good idea. What made you think of it?”
“Because before it’s done, I think they’ll be fighting a winter campaign, my friend. Up in the mountains of Afghanistan, it was colder than Valley Forge, the Bulge, even the Chosin Reservoir in Korea. The Afghans understood it; more than a few out there with me did not. I don’t want to see that again.”
“You think it will come to that?”
John did not reply. There were far too many other worries at the moment. The harvest was barely adequate to see his rapidly expanding community through the winter, especially with this early onset of autumn snow when there should have still been time to gather in additional forage. Two years ago, his worries extended only as far as Montreat, Black Mountain, and Swannanoa, but in the exuberant days after the defeat of the forces from the government at Bluemont, dozens of other communities had allied in, as far south as Flat Rock and Saluda, north to the Tennessee border, east to the outskirts of Hickory, nearly sixty thousand people in all. A tragic number when it was realized that more than a half million had once lived in the same region.
The city dwellers who had survived in the ruins of Asheville were of course welcomed, but few came in with any kind of resources, having lived hand to mouth on what could be scavenged from that once upscale new age–oriented community. It was the backwoods communities like Marion, even Morganton, with groups surviving like the one led by Forrest who joined with a quid pro quo of skills and even access to food that really counted in what all were now calling “the State of Carolina.”
Forrest was usually not the talkative type, and John remained silent. Something else was up with this man, and John waited him out.
“Someone came into my camp yesterday,” Forrest finally offered. “I think you should come back with me and meet him.”
“Who is he, and why?”
“Some of my people found him wandering on Interstate 26. Poor bastard is pretty far gone—several ribs broken, bad frostbite, and coming down with pneumonia. He got jumped by some marauders on the road and took a severe beating. Chances are he’ll be dead in a few days, so we decided he should stay put and you come to him.”
John did not reply. Forrest was not given to extreme reactions; months earlier, he had come into Black Mountain, leading nearly fifty of his community, after they were hit by an air attack from Fredericks’s Apaches. The man had been gut shot and kept refusing treatment until those with him were treated first. If he judged their refugee to be too sick to travel, John wouldn’t question the decision.
“Who is he?”
“Says he’s a major with the regular army. Claimed he served alongside you years ago. Name of Quentin Reynolds. That he was with the army that took Roanoke.”
“Quentin?” John whispered. The name struck somewhere, but if they had served together, that was close on to a couple of decades ago.
“Claims he was an adjutant to a General Bob Scales who’s in charge up there.”
“Bob Scales?” And with that, John sat bolt upright. It was Bob whom he had been speaking to at the Pentagon when the EMP hit. It was Bob who had been his mentor during his army career and who had arranged through the good ole boy network his teaching position at Montreat when John left the military to nurse Mary through her final months in the town where she had grown up. “Bob is alive?”
“He didn’t say that—just that he served with him.”
“Still, I got to talk with him,” John said excitedly. He looked back out the window; the storm was picking up. “Think we can make it now if we left today?”
“If it’s like this down here, I wouldn’t want to venture crossing over Craggy Gap and the Mount Mitchell range with night setting in. It was really blowing in as I came over this morning. Best let it settle down first.”
“Damn it.” John sighed. “This Quentin, think he’ll make it?”
“Can’t say, to be frank. Just had a gut sense I should come over and tell you. Anyhow, who is this Bob Scales?”
“I served with him years ago and thought he had died when things went down. If he is in charge of things up in Roanoke, my God, I got to find out.”
John’s worried thoughts were interrupted by the sight of Paul Hawkins running across the commons, head bowed low against the storm. Paul barged into the room, bringing with him a cold blast of air, Forrest cursing for him to close the damned door.
“John, you gotta come see something now!” Paul cried, features alight with a broad grin, made rather comical by the mantle of snow dripping from his broad-brimmed hat.
It was Paul and his wife, Becka, who had discovered the nineteenth-century journals of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, known as the IEEE, in the college library’s basement, the trade magazine for the new industry of electricity. Filled with discussions and debates about the new science of electrical engineering, complete with detailed patent applications by the likes of Edison, Tesla, and Westinghouse, it was a discovery that ignited the plan to restore electricity, a “blueprint,” to bring their community back online.
“What is it, Paul? I’m kind of preoccupied at the moment with some news Forrest brought in.” He nodded to his friend sitting in the corner.
“Can’t explain it; you just got to see it now. You too, Forrest.”
John looked over at Forrest.
“You sure we can’t go back over the mountain today?” John asked anxiously.
Forrest shook his head. “Maybe first light tomorrow.”
John knew better than to second-guess Forrest, and he sighed. It would have to wait. He looked over at Paul, forced a smile, and nodded.
“Well, let’s go see what has you all fired up.”
If Paul thought there was something worth going out into a blizzard for, it had to at least be interesting.
The two pulled on jackets and, with heads tucked down, followed Paul out into the gale, Forrest cursing all the way as they followed Paul on the walkway that led up to the old library. The storm was of such intensity that John realized Forrest was right; to cross over the six-thousand-foot-high mountain range in this weather, no matter how urgent the mission, would be suicide.
The library, a building that architecturally had never fit into the classic native stone construction of most of the other buildings on campus, had always been a source of woe. It had leaky ceilings, and even before the Day, it had been sealed off for a semester because of the dampness and mold.
Once into the building and his hat and scarf removed, John took a deep breath and knew his allergies would soon nail him. The main part of the building was dark, the sound of dripping water echoing. A single light shone through the swinging doorway leading into the back office, where Paul and his young wife had taken up quarters, preferring to live there rather than in so many of the well-built and now-abandoned homes and cabins that surrounded the campus. At least this part of the cavernous building was warm and cheery, a large woodstove providing heat. Becka was there, balancing a newborn twin on each arm, and John smiled at the sight of them, going up to kiss Becka lightly on the forehead.
“How you doing, young lady?”
“Feeling better thanks to Makala’s attention and help.” As she spoke, one of the newborns stirred, whimpered slightly, and then nuzzled back in against her mother.
As is too often common with twins, they had been a month premature. There was a time when that was not much of a concern with nearly all hospitals providing intensive care neonatal centers. But now? The babies had come into the world in what was the community’s local hospital in the old hotel, the Assembly Inn, on the far side of campus. John’s wife, who was due herself in another two months, had taken charge, and rather than let them return to their makeshift home in the library, she had ordered the three to stay at their home, setting up a nursery in the sunroom and hovering over all three during the first crucial weeks.
It had been an emotional experience for John, his home again echoing with the late-night cries of newborns, the sight of a very pregnant Makala up with them every night, in the morning holding one of the girls while an exhausted Becka nursed the other.
The sunporch had been the final sickroom for his daughter, Jennifer, who died there. It was also where his mother-in-law, Jen, had slipped away. He had tried to balance all, death and new life in the same room, and in some small way, it had helped to ease his grief and heartrending memories.
John fought down the temptation to ask to hold one of the twins for a moment. Makala had repeatedly warned that in this now heavily germ-laden world, the less exposure they had to others over the next few months, the better. Paul, after a quick kiss to Becka’s forehead and a fond look at the girls, was already pointing the way to the basement door.
John and Forrest followed him down into the darkness, and at the bottom of the stairs, Paul flicked a switch and a single fluorescent light flickered to life. It was definitely something John and Forrest were still not really used to—a flick of a switch and a light comes on. The town’s electrical grid was still slowly expanding from its first base at Lake Susan, and half a dozen other hydro projects were under way across the State of Carolina, but electric was still strictly rationed to public facilities and even then only ran for half a dozen hours each day. Paul and Becka had a special exemption for the cavernous library basement, able to illuminate their work area by recharging old flashlights while the power was on and suspending them from the ceilings so they could continue what they called “mining the past,” and from the way Paul was acting, he must have hit pay dirt again.
John looked around the storage area in wonder. The air was heavy with the disquieting scent of mold, mildew, mouse droppings, and tens of thousands of slowly decaying magazines and books. He paused to look at one pile that Becka said she was sifting through, a vast stack of Life magazines going back to the 1930s. The sight of it triggered memories of when he was a boy down with a bad case of the flu when his mother would come home from the library every few days with magazines from the Second World War era and the ones from the Civil War centennial of the early 1960s, inspiring his lifelong interest in the subject.
Life, Look, Saturday Evening Post, Newsweek, Time, even a pile of Mad magazines created a nostalgic smile and also a sadness for the lost world—not just of his childhood but for everyone’s loss.
“It’s back here, you guys!” Paul cried, pointing the way, and John felt pulled away, resolving that someday, if there ever was a someday without all his worries and concerns, he’d come back down here and perhaps just spend that day with Mad and the zany artwork of Don Martin, or dig through the stack of Boys’ Life for short stories by Ray Bradbury, or just look at the cover art for Saturday Evening Post and the lost world of Norman Rockwell. He looked over at Forrest, who was smiling as he thumbed through an aged copy of Playboy. John wondered why anyone would ever donate that to the college library book sale.
Forrest shrugged. “I used to get it for the articles,” he said a bit defensively, and John laughed. A pleasure since laughter was now so rare in his life. “Really, I loved Jean Shepherd—you know, the guy who wrote that Christmas movie about the kid with the BB gun. Here’s one of his stories.”
John looked over Forrest’s shoulder, a bit disbelieving, only to see it was indeed a story by “Shep,” whom he used to listen to on the radio when he was a kid and had once used the identical excuse when his mother had found his stash of the infamous magazines hidden behind his desk.
“Come on, you two, and leave that magazine there.” Paul stood, pointing the way farther back into the rabbit warren of the basement.
John followed him, going past a table stacked with educational tools discarded decades ago: old Dukane machines, which were thirty-five-millimeter projectors rigged to a record player, the slide changing every time there was a high-toned beep from the record—students were forever trying to imitate the sound of the beep to throw the projector off for some show for health class; overhead projectors, abandoned when PowerPoint came along; stacks of eight-track music cartridges; old classical 33 RPM records, which were useless, though older 78s were sought after thanks to those who had found hand-cranked record players in their attics and basements; mimeograph machines, which even he had tried to fiddle with after the Day, but the copying solution with its unique alcohol smell was nowhere to be found or reproduced. Just the sight of those old machines triggered a memory of the smell when a teacher handed out an assignment or bulletin, the blue ink smearing at times if still wet.
There were IBM Selectric typewriters, a dozen or more; John had looked those over as well after the Day, hoping that maybe the ribbons could be looted for his long-ago worn-out Underwood manual typewriter. There were several Singer sewing machines, from back in the days when the college was a female-only institution and students were most likely taught home economics. Of all things, a grandfather clock caught John’s eye, something that might be worth salvaging until he saw that the weights and pendulum were fake, an electrical cord draped up over the top of the machine. And back in a corner, of all things, a pinball machine, a classic Black Knight, which he remembered was still in use in the student lounge when he had first come to teach at the college.
Paul had stopped at a workbench in the far corner of this moldering gold mine of lost memories and lost technologies. He was smiling like a guide in a cave who was obviously proud of his domain as if he himself had created it.
He was pointing at a tan box, the corporate logo just above the keyboard—a more than thirty-year-old Apple IIe computer.
“You found an antique computer and…?” John asked, voice trailing off.
“Behold,” Paul said, still grinning, and with a flourish, he clicked the On button for the fourteen-inch monitor and then the computer.
The screen flashed to life, the room filled with light as the screen warmed up and came into focus, displaying the Apple logo in glorious RGB color.
John actually stepped back in amazement, almost feeling like some tribal primitive, a flash memory of the teddy bear characters in one of the Star Wars episodes, which he hated since militarily it was so absurd, going near crazy with wonder and then worshipful awe at the sight of C-3PO, floating around the tribal gathering thanks to Luke using the Force.
“My God, it works?” Forrest gasped.
“Hell yeah, it works!” Paul cried. “Watch this!”
He put an old five-and-a-half-inch floppy disk into one of the disk drives; it started to whirl and click, and all three stood silent as the seconds passed, and then a tinny familiar tune barely audible echoed from the monitor’s speaker and the logo for Pac-Man flashed on to the screen.
“Oh my God,” John whispered in awe, a deep, almost tearful nostalgia filling him. When Elizabeth was five and recovering from a long bout of the flu, his wife, Mary, had pulled their old Apple computer out of the attic, set it up by Elizabeth’s bed, and entertained her for a long rainy spring day with Mary’s favorite games the two of them had played while they were students at Duke.
He had written his master’s thesis on that computer, needing over twenty floppy disks to store his paper on proto-computers created for gunnery control prior to World War I. He was the envy of many students and even some of the professors who were still on electric typewriters or just beginning the transition to the first IBM Micros, as they were then called. Just running the final spelling check had taken several days, which at the time seemed like a miracle versus having to pay some English major to manually check your work one final time and then hand type it yet again.
Using a brand-new, expensive 2400-baud modem, he had actually managed typing in lengthy string codes via a system called the Internet to try to access data from a British library without success, but it was still a fascinating adventure at the time. Printing it out had taken half a day on their tractor-feed dot-matrix printer. He could still recall the speed and buzzing sound of it as it glided across the page, a momentary pause as the tractor feed advanced the paper up one line, and then the printer head running backward across the page.
“Mind if I join you three?”
John looked back to the darkened staircase and forced a smile of welcome. It was Ernie Franklin, the man who saved his life during the final confrontation with Dale Fredericks. He was grateful, of course, but at times Ernie could be more than a little domineering.
“I sent word to Ernie about my find,” Paul whispered.
“Why?” Forrest asked.
“He worked for IBM back in the days of Apollo and the shuttle—figured the old guy might know a thing or two.”
Ernie stepped up to the workbench, gazed at the screen for a moment, and snorted. “It would have to be one of those damn Apples. Damn toys.”
“I did write my master’s thesis on one,” John retorted.
“And then they screwed everyone over when Jobs dropped the operating system and went running off with those dinky nine-inch-screen Macs. We laughed our asses off over all you Apple fanatics stuck with the IIe system.”
“Wait a minute,” Paul interjected. “I asked you over here to explain something, Ernie. We can argue about which system was better later.”
John nodded, looking back at the image on the screen of the Pac-Man character, the tinny theme playing over and over.
“Could you turn that damn music off?” Ernie asked. “My daughter was addicted to that damn game, and it drove me crazy.”
Paul looked at the machine, not sure what to do, and Ernie just stepped forward and flipped the switch, turning it off. All three gasped as the screen went dark, as if he had pulled a curtain back down over a returning to the past from before the war.
“If it turned on before, it will again,” Ernie replied calmly, “but before we do that.”
He reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out a small flashlight and clicked it on.
If anyone in their entire community was prepared for life after the Day, it was Ernie Franklin and his family. After more than three years, they were still living off long-term rations stockpiled years earlier. His all-terrain Polaris was still running, and John had learned not to ask just how much gas he still had stored and treated against degrading. The old guy was always proud to show off his solar-powered flashlights like the one he had flicked on now, and without bothering to ask permission of Paul, he popped the lid off the top of the old—one could even say antique—computer.
This basement was Paul’s domain. John waited for a response from Paul, the young man who had designed and brought back to life the electrical system of the community, but Hawkins said nothing, obviously deferring.
Ernie peered inside the guts of the old Apple like a dentist poking around in the mouth of a victim in the chair, grunting with disapproval.
“Inexcusable,” Ernie whispered. “You educators never knew how to take care of a computer. Look at all this dust, and what the hell is this?”
He pointed down at the motherboard, and the three leaned forward to look over his shoulder.
“Looks like dog or cat hair! This is a mess. For now, leave it off; I’ll take it back home and blow it out.”
“What?” John asked.
“I’m taking it back with me. I still have some canned air.”
“Canned air?” Forrest asked. “What the hell are you talking about?”
“Pressurized air in a can for cleaning computers.”
“Just blow on the damn thing,” John whispered.
Ernie did not even bother to reply to what he thought was such obvious stupidity. “Let’s wrap it up; I’ll take it with me.”
“No way,” John stated quietly and forcefully. “It stays here for now.”
Ernie braced himself back up, ready for a good argument, something he always took delight in.
“Look, Ernie, it stays here. This thing is pure gold. Transporting through a storm back to your place, that’s crazy. Just go get that canned air, whatever else you need, and come back here.”
“That will take at least a gallon of gas,” Ernie replied with a cagey smile. “Will the town provide it?”
John sighed. They were scraping the bottom of their gas supply, his dream of somehow going over to steam power for transportation and the running of precious farm machinery still at a cold start for now. But this was too important to argue about at the moment; the curiosity about this discovery and all that it implied was overwhelming.
“Give me the bill tomorrow; I’ll make good on it.”
“Sure.” And without further comment, the lid off the computer, he reached to the side and flicked it back on, and again the three standing around him gasped as the screen flickered to life.
“I thought you said it needed to be blown or something,” Forrest said, and there was a bit of a grin as he spoke, for Ernie was infamous at times for going into off-colored repartee. Paul cleared his throat and nodded back to the stairway where his wife, having tucked the twins in for their nap, was standing and watching the goings-on.
Ernie nodded, backing off, and continued to peer into the machine. “It’s okay for the moment,” he finally replied, continuing to examine the motherboard and other boards slotted in for the video and sound, chuckling with delight.
“Damn, I gotta admit, in its day, it really was something, even though it was a toy compared to what we were developing with IBM. A 64K machine for under three thousand bucks—and that was in 1980s money, no less. You know, I helped design the operating systems for the space shuttle. Five computers not much bigger than this thing ran that entire spacecraft. That’s when we had to squeeze out every byte of usage in the software. No gigs and terabytes around back then, even with the big Cray machines the military had. We were still storing data on ten-inch magnetic reel-to-reels when I first started.”
He sighed, and for a moment, John could sense the inner sadness of this man who had been viewed as a crazy Jeremiah by some when he would publicly warn about the fragility of the nation’s infrastructure. He had retired to these mountains with that exact thought in mind, that it was all about to come crashing down.
“Ernie, the question is how and why?” John asked, interrupting his musings.
“How and why is this computer working?”
Ernie stepped back and looked around the semi-dark room, illuminated only by the single fluorescent light overhead and the softly glowing television screen.
“Easy enough. I bet this machine was dumped down here fifteen, maybe twenty years ago when you guys finally decided to leave Apple behind and upgrade to a Pentium. Someone stuck it in a corner, and—the key thing—it was totally off-line. The EMP pulse and its impact has a lot of variables. Intensity, line of sight from the weapon burst, how much shielding this basement provided.”
Ernie shined his flashlight around the room, chuckling sadly at the sight of all the piled-up magazines, books, and electrical tools that were once part of the business of teaching at a small college. He walked over to where several white and black boxes were stacked under the workbench.
“Now these babies,” he announced with delight, “those are mine; I helped write some of the software. IBM 8088s, our competition for the Apples, which you educators loved to cling to. Bet the administration at least had those; they always were smarter than professors when it came to this stuff.”
John bristled slightly at Ernie’s jab as he squatted down, wiping dust and mildew off the front of one of the boxes.
“Yup, a tower box model. We gotta take a look at this next.”
“Wait a minute,” John interjected, “let’s not get ahead of ourselves here. Ernie, how, why, and what do we do with it?” As he spoke, he nodded back to the Apple.
“Like I said, it survived the EMP pop and then just sat here undamaged. Nothing unusual about that.”
“How come we didn’t know before?” Forrest asked.
“Well, because we just didn’t have the juice,” Paul replied. “Once we’ve got at least some electricity going, why, we just kind of…”
The question was so damned obvious, John realized. Why didn’t any of them come running down to this basement the day after they got a few kilowatts of electricity running and start trying to hook things back up?
“I never really thought about it,” Paul said woodenly. “Too busy with getting lighting, juice for the sterilizing autoclave and hot water in the hospital, high-intensity lighting for the surgery room, more juice for the chemistry lab, stuff like that. Any of the computers sitting in faculty offices and such were just dead hunks of toasted boards and wires and tossed into a basement or Dumpster after the Day, figuring they were all fried.”
“Because they were all wired in and got zapped by the full overload,” Ernie stated.
“Ernie, a question?” John asked.
“You of all people, didn’t you think to stick a computer into your basement inside one of those faraday cages folks were later talking about?”
Ernie looked off, now obviously embarrassed and caught off guard, his silence answer enough.
John remembered how a few months before everything hit the fan, how Paul and others with the IT team for the school had finished remodeling the computer center because the school was creating a new major in cybersecurity. The old machines, in an age where a computer aged faster than Detroit-built cars of the 1980s, were just simply tossed into the Dumpster after the hard drives were downloaded for anything of value and then wiped clean.
Truly a throwaway world that now seemed a thousand years away.
The fluorescent light overhead began to hum and flicker.
Ernie quickly reached behind the Apple and pulled the plug, the screen going dark.
“This power supply isn’t clean at all,” he growled, glancing over at Paul.
“What do you mean, not clean?” Forrest asked.
“Just that.” Paul sighed. “Someone throws a switch on in the hospital, it sucks up a few kilowatts, the voltage to the rest of the grid fluctuates, and that can be death, especially for these older machines. It’s exactly the thing that can kill this computer while we’re gazing in wonder at it. I’ll bring some surge protectors along.”
“All right,” Ernie sighed, “I got a couple of portable solid-state solar-charging battery systems at home. Gives clean, steady juice for electronics—I’ll bring that over as well to power these computers.”
“You got one of those?” John asked sharply. “Nice to know now.”
Ernie shrugged. “Be prepared, as the Boy Scouts used to say.”
“But you didn’t have a computer stashed off, did you?”
“You accusing me of something, John?” Ernie snapped back.
John held up a hand in a calming gesture. “No, but still?”
“Look, we all got caught with our pants down in different ways. My wife Linda kept complaining that I was trashing up the basement with cast-off computers, so, like everyone else, I tossed them out when I upgraded every year or two.”
He sighed, and John could see that the memory troubled him. The old guy had most likely spent many a night kicking himself with that memory of all the computers he had once owned and then thrown out rather than storing away. Again, the throwaway society before the Day. At least some of the old-time ham radio operators had hung on to those precious devices and had them stashed away “just in case.” Some even took pride in the niche hobby of actually operating old ham radios with vacuum tubes rather than “newfangled transistors.”
Such a lost world, John thought sadly, looking at the darkened screen of the computer, symbolic of all that they had allowed to slip out of their grasp. America in an instant plunged into darkness and wondering at this moment if the few small flickering lights of hope were going out now as well.
He remembered Sir Edward Grey’s heartfelt cry when midnight struck on a warm August evening in London of 1914, and war with Germany had come to pass. “The lamps are going out all over Europe, we shall not see them lit again in our lifetime.”
In a way, how prophetic his words had been. That first war ending a hundred years of peace. The prophetic H. G. Wells predicting it truly was the beginning of the end, complete with atomic weapons. The steady, peaceful advance of the Edwardian era did indeed die in the trenches of Ypres, Verdun, and the Somme, with civilization taking a step backward to unleash poison gas, flamethrowers, bombs tumbling from the sky into undefended cities, and millions tearing at each other in the squalid mud of the trenches in primal rage with knives and bare fists. It led to a second war of death camps and brilliant flashes of light delivered on August mornings, thirty-one years after Edward Grey spoke and H. G. Wells uttered his prophecies, as entire cities were incinerated in a blinding flash.
Then the long years of what was called a Cold War, civilized nations ready to unleash a thousand such flashes of light over their enemies, no one realizing at first that when they created those first such bombs, it was not the blast, the fire as hot as the heart of the sun, that could destroy; it was something subtle, a mere microsecond of a massive gamma ray burst ignited out in space, that as it raced to the earth’s surface at the speed of light would free off electrons in the upper atmosphere’s oxygen and nitrogen—and as it did so building up to an overwhelming static discharge that could cripple the greatest nation in the history of humanity and leave 90 percent of its citizens dead two years later.
It was something he had long ago learned not to allow himself to dwell on too much, for surely it would drive him to impotent despair. Here he had been asking Ernie the how and why of this one computer surviving when the far greater question still was how and why his entire nation, his entire world, had allowed the unthinkable to happen. Who was responsible? Surely someone must have known it was coming. And with that coming, his youngest daughter became marked to die.
“John, are you okay?”
It was Becka, who was standing behind him, reaching up to touch him on the shoulder with a soothing gesture. He realized there were tears in his eyes, and he forced a smile.
“Yeah, sure. The babies asleep?”
It was hard with just those two words to hold back long-suppressed tears. Those were exactly the same words Mary used long ago to describe Jennifer when she was tucked in and asleep. When they had learned she had a highly aggressive type 1 diabetes, they could not help but hover watchfully over her. The memory of it was made even more poignant after Mary learned she had something aggressive as well, breast cancer that would finally take her, leaving him with two young girls to raise. Nights when he would look in at her asleep, the two girls asleep to either side of her, knowing their mother was ill, and with childlike instinct sensing that she would soon go away from them forever.
And he would think of them as two kittens nestled in against their mother.
He struggled for control, turned away from the others, and walked off to the other side of the basement, absently picking up one of the old Life magazines as if studying it, his friends having the instinctive sense that he wanted to be alone.
The magazine was from right after World War II, falling open to an article “Our Boys Are Come Home”—pictures of the old Queen Mary being escorted into New York Harbor, fireboats around it up sending up a salute of red-, white-, and blue-colored water, the Statue of Liberty in the background. Joyful mothers, wives, and children embracing young men, young men with dark, haunted eyes, age far beyond their years etched into their faces, in tears as they returned embraces. On the following pages, an article about the new homes to be built a thousand at a time in a place called Levittown.
Gone, all of it gone. The young captain from the ANR he had taken prisoner back in the spring and who was now part of his inner core of advisors had briefly served with that force on the Jersey Shore, facing Manhattan, a deadly island now quarantined with reports that bubonic plague and cholera were still endemic with the few thousand survivors still living there, scurrying and scrounging in the vast, abandoned concrete canyons.
No nuclear blast had leveled what was once said to be the pulsing heart of the Western world … just quietly turn off the switch, and in an instant, it was as uninhabitable as Antarctica or the searing Gobi Desert … its once fertile lands that had greeted Henry Hudson and Peter Stuyvesant long paved over—except for Central Park, where it was rumored that feral dogs, once tamed and loving golden retrievers and spaniels, had been wiped out, replaced by breeds of mongrels who again hunted in packs and would kill anything, including a man foolish enough to wander into that overgrown forest.
He closed the magazine and set it aside. It was too much to bear, feeding this sudden surge of depression. He again could hear the other four talking among themselves, a bit of a friendly argument that did have an edge to it as to why no one had thought to check on old computers and other electronic devices earlier.
He wiped the tears from his eyes and took a deep breath. “Galileo and the telescope,” he said.
The others fell silent and looked back at him.
“What?” Paul asked.
He forced himself to smile—at least there was still a touch of the college professor in him—and as he looked at Paul and Becka, there was a flashback to when they were students in his History of Technology class, more often than not paying slight attention to him as they gazed lovingly at each other in the back of the classroom.
“You remember our discussion about Galileo and the telescope?” he asked, taking a few steps back to join them.
“Not exactly,” Paul replied.
“It’s like this, and it applies to us now,” John said, taking a deep breath, feeling a bit of calmness coming back with this diversion. Grief was a luxury in this world, especially for him, the one that far too many looked to for strength. Later, if still troubled, he’d let it back out when alone with Makala, though even after their more than two years together, he still felt uncomfortable when memories of his long-departed first wife troubled him. He had loved Mary deeply, but it was different from what he now felt for Makala, where there was a more mature intensity and a sense that she was truly his equal partner in all things.
“I’m all ears for this history lesson,” Ernie interjected, and now he did smile. It was at least one area where Ernie really did defer to him, and there was no sarcasm in his voice.
“Think about it,” John continued. “It is an unanswered question I find to be fascinating. Modern eyeglasses were being manufactured by glassmakers in Italy as early as the fourteenth century. They could even grind them for each individual’s needs. They used to be given as a symbol of achievement to scholars at universities of that time, since most of them had gone half-blind after years of studying manuscripts in dark rooms like this illuminated only by candlelight.
“Across three hundred or so years, lens grinders were making glasses, and the question is, how come not one of them, even by accident, one day held up one lens in front of another and had the ‘oh my God’ moment that the two lenses, one in front of the other, were a telescope?”
He fell silent and now smiled inwardly, the grief of a moment before pushed aside. It was almost like being back in the classroom again—and this time, even Paul and Becka were listening.
“Then some guy in Holland, can’t remember his name, actually does that and does go ‘Oh my God!’ He put the lenses into opposite ends of a leather tube. Thus the first telescope.”
The four were silent for a moment, and he wondered if they were caught up as he had always been with the fascination of this question of why three hundred years had passed when the tools were there literally on any lens maker’s bench.
“So you’re saying that that stuff for telescopes lay around for three hundred years and nobody thought to do it?” Forrest asked.
“For starters, yes.”
“I remember this Italian girl in the dorm across the commons from my room when I was in college; we had a telescope aimed at her window 24-7,” Ernie interjected. “You’d think one of those Italian glassmakers would have figured that out.”
John sighed. There was always someone in a class to blow away a teaching moment, and even Becka laughed, commenting that was exactly why every girl in Anderson Hall always kept her blinds down.
“You’re losing the point,” John finally interjected, a bit exasperated.
“Please continue,” Becka replied, though there was still a touch of a smile as she looked over at Paul.
“So this guy in Holland makes the first telescope, and—typical then and now—the government gets wind of it and tries to clamp down a security lid on the whole thing.”
“Why?” Paul asked.
“Military secret,” Forrest said, and John nodded. “In Afghanistan, we were under strictest orders to smash our night-vision gear if we ever thought we were going to be overrun. They had stuff they had captured from the Russians years earlier, but nowhere near as good as ours. He who sees first or sees farthest wins.”
“Exactly what happened,” John continued. “Holland was fighting a bitter, decades-long war with Spain—actually, the Hapsburg Empire—for their independence. A ten-power telescope at sea gave them a huge advantage, when from miles away you could tell if that ship on the horizon was friend or enemy, to run or to fight. But like with all weapon systems, the secret doesn’t remain secret for long, and soon the word was out.”
“Same as today,” Ernie said softly. “I still want to get my hands on the damn idiots who allowed North Korea and Iran to get the bomb.”
“So do we all.” John sighed, and again the thought … surely someone knew before they were hit. Surely someone knew it was coming.
He let the thought drop for now, for it most certainly would take him back to his melancholia of but minutes ago.
“Anyhow, to finish this little class,” he said, clearing his throat. “And this is the really interesting part. Galileo receives a circular letter, sort of like the trade journal of his day, from a friend describing this new invention. Being Italian, in Renaissance Italy, he goes to a lens maker and shows him the design, and he now has his own telescope to fool around with and then starts making his own. But here is the fascinating part. He actually plays around with it for some time until one night he points it at Jupiter.”
“Checking out the girl bathing in the river down the street until then,” Forrest interjects.
John just sighed and pressed on. “That night changed everything. He was the first to observe what we now call the Galileo moons and in doing so presented proof that the universe is not geocentric.”
The four just looked at him, and he could sense his old students were now prepared for and would politely endure his launching off on some professorial run of thirty minutes or more about just how fascinating this moment was.
But he stopped there, aware that they were standing in a cold, dank, mildew-laden basement, and if Makala found out that a young mother still recovering from giving birth to twins had been forced out of politeness to stay and listen, there’d be hell to pay. Besides, with all the rush of emotions this experience had triggered, he was suddenly very tired.
“The point is that apparently every computer in use on the day we were hit got fried. We go without electricity for over two years until you two”—he nodded gratefully to Becka and Paul—“bring us back at least to the late nineteenth century world. But then in all the rush and excitement that created, none of us actually thought to look at the old electronic tools stashed away and forgotten in places like this. So thank you, Paul and Becka, for this discovery; you two are our Galileos.”
He was pleased to see that his words had hit; both of them were smiling at each other, Paul’s arm slipping around Becka’s waist as he kissed her on the forehead.
A thought struck him.
“We lost our house in the fight with the Posse, but my mother-in-law, Jen, God rest her, was a regular pack rat. Beside the old cars, she hung on to everything. I remember when we moved in, there must have been half a dozen old cell phones in a desk drawer.”
“No good without the towers,” Ernie interjected authoritatively.
“I know, but just curious. We all used to joke how we could remember phone numbers from when we were kids, but once the cell phone craziness hit, and then the smartphones, one simply just said a name or tapped a screen and the number was there. We lamented all the photos lost, all the text messages that touched our hearts and were saved being lost. Just curious now—I’ll dig them out and bring them into the office tomorrow and see if they light up again.”
“No good in that,” Ernie replied, “other than nostalgia. The question really is what to do with this computer and any others we might get running again.”
“Go on,” John offered, for it was indeed the question that had hit him the moment the screen had flickered to life and he was staring at that damned grinning Pac-Man.
“Databases,” Ernie replied. “Lone computers, like this Apple IIe, are nothing but toys.”
John was silent, not leaping to the defense of an old friend of a machine that had enabled him to write a master’s thesis in near record time.
“It was linking them together. The Internet back in the mid-’90s that truly launched the revolution. A machine alone, okay, it’s entertaining, and kids can play that dang Pac-Man and Mario on it until the motherboard finally fries off, and the way this one is smelling, I don’t give it very long unless I take it apart and clean it. I’m thinking about databases—uplinks, for example. Those guys up in Bluemont, don’t tell me they don’t have systems up and running. I’ll assume the low-earth orbit sats got killed off when the war blew, but the ones up at geosynch? I’d give my left—”
He paused looking at Becka.
“Excuse me. I’d give my left arm to be able to tap into that data flow and they don’t know I’ve hacked in.”
After mentioning losing an arm, seconds later, he realized the faux pas he had committed in front of Forrest, who had indeed lost an arm. He looked over at the veteran anxiously, and Forrest forced a smile.
“At least it wasn’t the arm I use for important things.”
Ernie offered a weak grin of thanks.
John, however, was looking at Ernie wide-eyed.
“Could you actually do that? Eavesdrop into Bluemont’s comm system?”
“I already knew the story about Galileo, Professor Matherson. And yeah, maybe I could.”
John looked over at Forrest, remembering the reason his friend, a former enemy, had ventured over the obstacle of the Mount Mitchell range in what was becoming a driving blizzard with word that someone who had once served with his closest friend in the prewar army had trekked two hundred miles to eventually reach them.
“I’m giving you whatever gas you need, Ernie, to move whatever you want here, to this basement. If you can get any of these machines up and running, do so ASAP. I’ll put the word out in a town announcement for folks to start rummaging through attics and basements to see what can be found.”
“I’d advise against that,” Forrest interjected.
“We learned that our old bastard friend Fredericks had one or more people of his planted here. Let’s assume the same. For now, I’d suggest keeping this nugget quiet, and let’s talk to that Quentin fellow first.”
John took it in, hesitating.
“Galileo, don’t you think he regretted blowing his mouth off about his discovery?” Forrest interjected. “He should have stayed quiet a few years, done his research, gotten it out to a trusted few others; instead, he invites the church officials in, and bango, he’s on trial for heresy and under house arrest for the rest of his life.”
John looked at his friend with surprise.
“Hey, a lot of long nights when deployed, plenty of time to read history, same as you, even if I didn’t get a fancy degree.”
John smiled and nodded in reply.
“Until this storm lets up, we’ll focus on what Paul and Ernie are playing with,” John said, though at this moment his thoughts were far more focused on who Quentin Reynolds was, if indeed Bob Scales was alive in Roanoke, and what portent that was for the future.
Copyright © 2016 by William R. Forstchen