As the shadows of the hills to the west crept out to the beach, Ian finished packing the first load of supplies against the empty bulkhead of the truck. He knew it would take a long time to carry all his supplies back down the mountain, but he had made a beginning, and he was glad he was getting ready to leave. Time to go, old truck, Ian had told it happily. He rested before attempting the long climb back to the cave, and was sitting with his back against the rear wheel when he heard the crunch of footsteps on the pebble beach.
He picked up Sam's shotgun leaning against the truck beside him, and slipped off the safety catch. Ian pulled himself to a crouching position and crawled along the side of the truck toward the sound of the footsteps.
The footsteps were regular and strong. Steeling himself, Ian jumped up and out from the truck, swinging the shotgun toward the point where he thought the unseen intruder would be.
He found himself facing the stranger. For one awful moment, the shock of seeing the stranger alive made Ian hesitate, and in the space of half a heartbeat, the crossbow swung up from the dark figure's side.
With their weapons pointed at each other, and in the fading light of the sun, they resembled two duelists at dawn, each knowing that they had reached the moment of truth, but neither daring move. The instant that one pulled the trigger, so would the other. Stalemate. To break the standoff, both would have to die. Sweat dripped from Ian's forehead into one eye, but he didn't dare blink, let alone wipe it off. He realized how short his life had been and how little he had accomplished, and was saddened by his death. It had all been for nothing. He would die on this lonely beach in the parched wilderness on a planet that was slowly dying. He had no children to carry on for him, and never would have.
Ian's finger pulled tighter against the trigger, pushing the mechanism of the gun closer and closer to point where it could no longer contain the tension stored inside it; The firing pin would flash for a brief instant against the shell, sending both Ian and the stranger into oblivion.
Ten feet away from him, the stranger would soon be lying dead, blown away by Ian's shotgun. Side by side, two corpses would lie undisturbed, eventually crumbling into dust until finally, with no evidence to prove they once existed, all that would remain would be a silent deserted beach.
The ghosts of the people that lived on only through Ian stood behind him whispering. Suicide. They had all lived and died for nothing.
Millions of voices echoed between the hills of the valley. I shall fear no Evil. Ian knew when he pulled the trigger, those voices would be silenced. They were the souls of the dead whose existence depended upon the thoughts of the living. He tried to push them out, but the cacophony of their wailing, a million voices clamoring to be heard, drowned his own thoughts. As surely as his ancestors and dead contemporaries had created the physical world in which he found himself, their ghosts had gained control of Ian, and he was powerless to stop them. Ian tried desperately to regain control of himself, but he was trapped in a body which was no longer his own.
To his horror, his finger slipped out of the trigger guard. He hoped in the fading light the movement would be hidden from the probing eyes of the stranger. His trigger hand pushed outward and toward the stranger as both hands rose toward the sky, turning the barrel of the shotgun slowly sideways and upwards.
This is insane! he screamed silently.
The shotgun continued its slow arc upward until Ian stood with the gun held high above his head, no longer a threat to the man in front of him.
His whole body trembled. He tensed, trying to swing the gun back into firing position, but couldn't move, and in a single heart-sickening moment he realized the minds which held him prisoner and at the mercy of the stranger belonged to the Dream People.
They've won... he thought sadly. They've won.
Ian stared at the tip of the arrow aimed at his heart. Then, with an agonizing slowness, the arrow traveled up his body until it pointed at his head. The cold steel tip shot forward suddenly, shattering his skull, plunging with an electric force into the gray jelly of his brain. The grip of the Dream People vanished.
The strength drained from his body and Ian collapsed to his knees, holding the gun with his left hand. The shotgun clattered on the pebbles as it dropped onto the beach.
The stranger dropped his crossbow to his side and walked slowly toward him, stopping an arm's length from where he was kneeling, and Ian stared up at the ominous dark figure above him.
Ian blinked stupidly up at the stranger, wondering at the bitter taste of copper in his mouth. With a sudden swift motion, the stranger brought the butt of the crossbow in a vicious uppercut to Ian's jaw. His head reeled in a sudden, brief explosion of pain and light. He fell backwards and lay helpless, his face burning in pain, the pebbles rasping against his helmet.
He was alive.
Or am I?
He was paralyzed. His eyes wouldn't focus and the helmet restricted his vision. Directly in front of his face, he could see the pebbles on the beach, the stranger's feet and the shotgun. He saw a hand pick up the gun, and the heavy boots crunched toward him. His head was turned roughly and Ian stared up at the masked figure silhouetted against the swirling clouds. A hand reached toward him and pulled the arrow from his head. He felt a searing pain as it pulled free. I'm alive! The arrow had penetrated the helmet, then slid between the helmet and his skull, ripping his ear and scraping away the skin. He felt the warm trickle of blood dripping from the wound. I'm alive!
The stranger dropped Ian's head and Ian groaned from the impact of his head hitting the beach. His head ached unbearably, and Ian reached up and fumbled with the helmet strap. He released the fastener and painfully slipped the helmet off.
His vision cleared. The stranger stood with the shotgun pointed at Ian.
“Fuck, you're stupid!” the stranger said contemptuously.
Ian didn't answer.
“Where's your base?” asked the stranger.
“In a cave up the hill,” replied Ian meekly. He tried unsuccessfully to sit up.
“Is it sealed?”
“I covered the entrance with plastic,” Ian answered.
“Okay, let's go!” said the stranger enthusiastically, waving the shotgun toward the hill.
“Sure, why not?”
Ian struggled to his feet. He clipped his helmet to his belt and stood swaying while his mind regained its equilibrium.
“What's your name?” asked Ian.
The stranger ignored Ian's question.
“My name's Ian,” stated Ian hopefully, holding out his hand.
“Let's go!” the stranger waved Ian forward with the shotgun.
They walked single file along the beach and the pressure of the shotgun pushed into Ian's back whenever his pace slackened. He was exhausted, but determinedly placed one foot in front of the other, convinced if he collapsed, the stranger would shoot him.
“What have you been eating?” the stranger asked.
“Peaches, corn, carrots and peas, corned beef. Stuff like that. What about you?”
“Bark, roots, and berries.”
Ian groaned at the thought.
“You'll have to eat the same thing when your peaches run out. Did you dry them yourself?”
“Yeah, how else would you preserve them?”
“Uh... they're in cans.”
Ian concentrated on picking his way along the trail in the almost complete darkness. The stranger was right though, pretty soon he would have to eat bark, roots and berries. That is, if the plants can survive the fallout and no ozone. Ian wanted to stop and rest, but he didn't want to suggest a break because he didn't want the stranger to think he was weak.
But he was.
The radiation sickness still made itself felt, whether he was recovering or not. The pain in his back and his legs became more and more insistent, until he finally broke down and asked if he could stop for a rest.
“Sure,” said the stranger, “Why not?”
They sat down and stared out across the valley. Ian wanted to talk; if he could get the stranger's confidence, perhaps there was a way they could become allies.
The stranger stood up quickly, clutching his stomach, then threw up. The sight of the stranger bent over shocked Ian and he stared in disbelief as the man heaved violently and dropped to his knees. The last trace of the legend and myth of the stranger vanished from Ian's mind as he recognized the powerlessness he had suffered from for so long. Suddenly mobilized, Ian leapt to his feet, and in one glorious smooth movement, twisted the shotgun from the stranger's hand.
The stranger recovered finally from his attack of nausea, and straightened his back, turning to look at Ian, shaking his head. “I never thought it would be like this,” the stranger said weakly.
“Too bad,” Ian answered ironically.
“You gonna use that thing?”
Ian tightened his grip on the shotgun.
“The name's Nick,” said the stranger, lifting his mask, pushing it back onto his head, revealing rugged features that were marred by an ancient scar that ran diagonally across his expressionless face from above his left eye, across the bridge of his nose, and across his right cheek.
“We have to cross the creek,” Ian told the stranger.
The stranger shrugged. “Okay, you're the boss.”
Roles reversed, they traveled in silence through the woods. As they approached the creek, Nick broke the silence.
“How long have you been here?”
“The day after the War.”
“How long were you aboveground?”
“Two, three, maybe four days...”
“Not good,” said Nick.
“I've been pretty sick,” Ian confessed, then added quickly, “But I think I'm getting better. I guess I'm just coming out of the second stage...”
“You know the three stages of radiation sickness?” There was surprise in Nick's voice.
“Sort of. I'm not too clear on the details and the technical stuff, but I know what to look for.”
“Really? Maybe we can become partners, after all...”
Ian snorted derisively. “Sure. I'm not that stupid.”
The stranger stopped and turned to look at Ian. “You got something better than brains, you know that?”
“Yeah? Like what?”
“I guess you're wondering why I warned you off the last time we were here,” said Nick.
They reached the fallen tree where Ian had tried to walk backwards across the creek. The rising water caused by the landslide had deposited a jumble of broken trees and branches on the lakeside of the natural bridge.
“Yeah, I was kinda,” he admitted.
“Well,” said Nick lifting himself onto the log, “I figured you wouldn't know beans about survival.”
“Well,” Ian admitted, “I don't know anything about survival.
“You're alive aren't you?”
Ian looked at Nick for a moment, and they stared at each other for a brief second.
“Yeah,” Ian answered, smiling, and hauled himself onto the tree.
“Yeah, I guess I am.”
“Well,” said Nick as he jumped onto the far bank. “That must mean you have some survival training.”
“None? Then how do you know about the symptoms of radiation sickness?”
The question sent a cold wave through Ian. He didn't want to talk about the doctor, but he knew he would have to answer Nick's question.
“A doctor told me about it.”
“A doctor?” asked Nick.
“Yeah.” Don't ask me about the doctor, he thought to Nick.
Ian felt the compulsion to explain to Nick about the shooting.
“I...” he began, but realized that he didn't know how to start. He remembered Sam apologizing to him and the aggravation he had felt as the old man tried to explain that the shooting hadn't been intentional. What difference does it make after you've shot at someone whether it's intentional or not. The intention didn't change the act itself. From the victim's point of view, an act of violence was still an act of violence. Besides, even though the first shot had been an accident, the following volley wasn't.
“You want to rest for a while?” Ian asked Nick.
“No,” said Nick, “The sooner we get out of the open the better for the both of us.”
They climbed the rest of the way to the cave in subdued silence.
“Well, here it is,” Ian told Nick finally as they reached the cave, “Home, sweet, home.”
“Nice,” said Nick admiringly as they stepped through the screen door.
“Thanks,” he said to Nick, feeling for the candle and pack of matches he had left beside the entrance. He found the candle and handed it to Nick.
“Light it,” he told Nick.
The big man lit the candle, and holding the flame up above his head wandered over to the fireplace. Ian had stacked the wood for the fire before he had left because he knew he wouldn't have the energy to gather the wood after his trip down to the truck. Nick bent over the firewood and started the fire using the burning candle. The wood crackled loudly in the cave, and Nick carefully placed the candle on a flat rock and sat down, smiling at Ian.
Ian began to have doubts about the advisability of bringing Nick into his haven. He wanted Nick as a partner, but he knew he couldn't trust him completely. Ian unshouldered his pack and flicked on the safety catch of the shotgun out of habit. He looked at Nick. Nick was smiling; his crossbow, fully loaded, was pointing at Ian's heart.
“Really fucking stupid.”
Ian was dumfounded. He hadn't taken the crossbow away from Nick. Distracting Ian by talking, Nick had managed to reload the crossbow during the trip up to the cave. He had waited until Ian had led him to the cave to make his move.
Ian sat down dejectedly.
Nick pulled a set of handcuffs from his pack and threw them at Ian's feet.
“Put 'em on.” he commanded.
Ian picked up the cuffs and snapped them closed around his wrists.
“That's better,” Nick said smugly, “ Nice and friendly.”
Nick pulled a strip of dried meat from his pack and offered some to Ian.
Ian shook his head.
Nick shrugged and chewed at the leather. He stood up and wandered to the stacked boxes. He pulled out a can of fruit and walked back to the fire. Ian lay back on the cave floor and closed his eyes, feeling he would cry at any moment. He opened his eyes and stared at the roof of the cave. The snap of a twig in the fire made him jump. Nick shifted position, and Ian glanced across at the survivalist, afraid that Nick was preparing to attack him. He shivered. Ian was cold despite the glowing warmth of the fire, and reached clumsily for his sleeping bag.
As he pulled it toward him, a thrill of excitement rushed through him as he realized his hunting knife was inside it. He crawled into the bag and his foot brushed against the leather sheaf holding the knife. The presence of the knife comforted him, even though he didn't think he would be able to use it against Nick. He pulled the sleeping bag up and around his shoulders. He felt safe in his quilted cocoon, and his aching muscles relaxed. Wearily, he closed his eyes and drifted off to sleep.
He heard a noise outside!
Ian sat up quickly, the hair on his scalp tingling, but realized the sound he had heard was Nick snoring and relaxed. I wish I could sleep like Nick, he thought, lying down again. He closed his eyes and rolled over on his side. He was more afraid of the Dream People than he was of Nick. Maybe they won't come tonight. Even though he was a prisoner, being close to Nick had a reassuring effect upon him. Ian felt better. Yeah, I'll sleep better tonight, he told himself. The Dream will go away now that I have someone else nearby.
He had a sudden flash of memory that passed quickly, leaving him with a vague picture of himself being surrounded by people in a street somewhere and being haunted by the Dream People. Ian couldn't hold on to the image and it disappeared, leaving him feeling distinctly uneasy. The Dream People will come for you no matter who else is here. They want you and they won't relax until you're one of them...
I can't relax any more than they can. I'm afraid of letting go. The Dream People will come for me. They won't leave me alone-
He heard a noise! He definitely heard a noise!
Ian was afraid to open his eyes. He heard a rustle in the cave, a struggle of some kind beside him. They've got Nick! And they were using Nick to get to him. Well, it won't work! Ian refused to open his eyes.
It was a trick!
He could hear the sounds of a subdued scuffle inside the cave, but lay huddled in the darkness, refusing to accept the Dream.
Settle down Ian told himself, It's not real! How could they grab Nick? He's not a part of the Dream... Ian was afraid if he opened his eyes, he would see the Dream People, and he worried that Nick would wake up and see him fighting people that didn't exist. What would I tell him?
The noises continued, but there weren't any voices. What if it isn't the Dream People? What if it's someone else and they have Nick? Hampered by his handcuffs, Ian reached down into his sleeping bag and carefully pulled his knife from its sheath, and opened his eyes. The cave was dark and he could see nothing beyond the feeble glow of the fire. Keeping his eyes on the black space on the other side of the fireplace, he slid silently from his sleeping bag, and raised himself to a crouching position.
He could hear Nick's labored breathing, and knew something was wrong with him. Someone has attacked him! Now they're waiting in the shadows ready to spring out at me...
Ian dropped the knife and fumbled in his pocket for his lighter, raised it above his head and flicked it. The tiny flame lit up enough of the cave that he could see that there was no one there.
No Dream People, No one...
Just the fading fire.
Nick groaned and Ian stared unbelievingly at the sleeping form as it tossed and turned. Nick breathed forcefully through his teeth.
“Nick?” Ian called quietly.
Nick moaned, but his voice was garbled, muffled as if it were calling from deep inside Nick's body.
Ian looked at his knife, then at Nick. He picked it up. Now's my chance! But as soon as he thought of murdering Nick, he knew he couldn't bring himself to do it. He needed Nick. Ian put the knife down quickly. He tiptoed over and knelt down, shaking Nick's shoulder.
Nick's eyes snapped open, but they stared straight ahead. Nick couldn't see him. The Dream wouldn't allow it!
“Nick!” Ian shouted, “Nick, wake up! It's me!”
From deep inside his throat, Nick forced the words out in a strained and constricted whisper.
“Nick!” Ian shook Nick as hard as he could. “Nick! Wake up!” With a terrifying scream, Nick catapulted forward, knocking Ian backwards, and as they fell to the ground, Nick grabbed Ian by the throat! Ian's shoulder smashed into the smoldering fire sending out a shower of sparks.
“Nick!” Ian screamed, “Nick! Wake up!”
As the heat of the coals seared Ian's shoulder, Nick's hands tightened around Ian's throat and he couldn't breathe. With both hands, he reached above his head into the fire, and his fingers closed around a burning stick. His palms sizzled as his flesh came into contact with the wood. With all of his strength, he smashed the branch against the side of Nick's head.
Sparks exploded into the air as the stick shattered from the force of the blow, and burning pieces of wood fell all around them. Nick's hands released their grip on his throat, and Ian rolled away from the fire.
Nursing his burnt hand, Ian looked for Nick, who was standing in front of the fire, his eyes wide, staring down at his hands. Ian knew that the grip of the Dream had been released by the look on Nick's face and breathed a sigh of relief, rolling over onto his back.
Ian lay on his back, eyes closed, holding his burnt hand. Every time he let go of his wrist, a spasm surged up his arm and incredibly powerful sparks of pain exploded inside his head. He felt the handcuffs being removed from his wrists, but the pain was so intense, his eyes stayed firmly closed.
Finally, Ian stood up and walked back to the fireplace. He pulled a roll of gauze from the side pocket on his knapsack, carried it over to the side of the fire opposite Nick and sat down. Neither of them spoke. Nick stared into the embers, and Ian occupied himself with covering his injured hand. After he wound the whole roll around it, Ian idly rearranged the bandage, pulling at the gauze and moving it a fraction of an inch here and there. He looked over at Nick, and at the same time Nick glanced at him. Their eyes locked for a second, neither one of them knew where to start, but both knew that the time had come to talk.
Instead they both stared into the fire.
Finally Nick broke the silence. “How's your hand?” Ian looked up at Nick and saw such a curious mixture of guilt and concern in Nick's face that he smiled.
“How's your head?”
“About the same, I guess,” Nick answered grinning. They grinned inanely at each other and became trapped in an uncomfortable silence.
Nick reached over to his crossbow, smiled and placed the weapon on his lap, the arrow pointed at Ian, then moved a small lever, releasing the tension on the crossbow, and slid the arrow from its channel.
Ian reached down and pulled the magazine from the shotgun, dropped it in his oilskin pocket and smiled back.
“Partners?” he asked Nick.
“We'll see,” said Nick and smiled, “We'll see...” Nick laughed, and set his crossbow on the rock beside him and opened his pack.
“I have a little something here,” said Nick reaching into the pack, and pulled out a bottle of vodka, cracking the seal and offering it to Ian.
Ian took the bottle and swallowed a large mouthful, and it burned all the way down to his stomach. He tried to cover up the pain it caused, but he wasn't too successful.
“Pretty rough, huh?” asked Nick sympathetically. Ian nodded.
“It's the radiation sickness,” Nick explained, “Eats away the lining of your stomach and intestines.”
He took the bottle from Ian.
“Well, if you can do it, so can I,” said Nick, and lifted the bottle to his lips. He screwed the cap back on and stuffed it back into his pack.
They talked for a while, and Ian told Nick briefly about his trip to the lake. Nick said he'd seen the War coming and had prepared for it. He'd checked out the countryside for a suitable spot to hide out when the War finally broke out.
“Only I hadn't planned on it happening that particular weekend,” Nick smiled. “The place I'd picked was a few miles north of here, and I was way out of position when the Bombs started dropping.
“I guess you could say that I was caught with my pants down. I was in the crapper at a service station, and my car was outside getting gassed up. I hit the floor in half a second flat. Lucky for me, I was far enough from town there wasn't too much damage to the building.
“It was built with concrete blocks. Man, was I lucky! The blast blew the door off the washroom, ripped it right off its hinges. I was sitting curled up in the far corner of the toilet, and the shrapnel that fired through the doorway missed me by that much!”
Nick held his thumb and forefinger apart about a half an inch.
“As soon as the shock wave passed, I jumped up and stuck my head out the doorway, an I tell ya, I froze. I mean, just stood there my mouth hanging open. I've read everything there is to read about nuclear war, and I thought I had it all under control. I was prepared.
“But reading about it and seeing it for real are two totally different things, you know?
“The first thing I thought was I was dreaming. Like it wasn't happening. But I knew it was.
“It was so quiet. Nothing moved for as far as I could see. Only the wind blowing the smoke. There I was in a world I knew was coming, but I just couldn't believe it was happening.
“I guess I wasn't as prepared as I thought. When the second bomb went off, I ducked back into the washroom and curled up in the corner, hoping to hell it wasn't close. I was scared shitless!
“The blast wave hit and the concrete wall beside me cracked! I could feel it move! I thought I was a goner, you know? Nick Adams, nuclear survivor, and I was going to be one of the first on the list of postwar statistics!
“The wall held, and I breathed a sigh of relief just as another shock wave slams into the building! Christ! I thought They were going to keep flinging bombs at me until they finally got me!
“The wall beside me jammed me against the toilet! The wall was still in one piece, but it was a foot closer than it had been!
“I panicked,” Nick laughed. “After all that training I went through, I panicked! I slid out of the washroom feet first. The beams of the garage were steel, but they had collapsed, and the roof had fallen in over me, but had come to rest about a foot above my head!
“It must have taken me all of two seconds to get out of the washroom. I ran around to the front of the service station. The gas pumps were gone! It was as if someone had hit the city with a giant hammer, and smashed down everything around me except the gas station. I looked around for the gas station attendant but he was nowhere in sight!
“I freaked out, I guess. All my survival gear was in my car”
“But you found it?” Ian asked Nick.
“Yeah, halfway across the lot, upside down. I had the pack in the trunk in case something went wrong with the car. I got all the stuff I could carry and still run, and hightailed it away from the city.
“Once I had my gear on, I straightened out. `This is what I've been training for!' I told myself. Being back in uniform brought back all the time and effort I put into preparing for the War. I ran for a good fifteen miles before I stopped.”
Ian stared at Nick incredulously. “Wow, that's some run!” he said admiringly.
Nick smiled. “Yeah, I guess it is. I couldn't do it again. Not now.” Nick shook his head.
“I guess you ran all the way here?” Ian asked Nick.
Nick laughed. “No. An old guy stopped and gave me a lift as far as the junction. He thought I was in the army, so I never bothered to tell him any different.
“I cut across country from there, and followed an old hiking trail. I didn't want to follow the road. Too many crazies!”
Nick's last comment gave Ian a start, and he looked across at the survivalist to see if Nick's comment was directed at him, and all the uncertainty of the Dream flooded back. For one awful moment Ian was afraid he was dreaming and that Nick was only another of the Dream's agents.
“What happened to your arms?” asked Nick.
“What?” Ian asked nervously. Why would Nick ask me about my arms just when I'm thinking about the Dream?
“What happened to your arms?”
Ian hesitated, expecting a trap of some kind. He was afraid that the Dream had set him up again and the hair prickled on the back of his neck. He tensed, waiting for the Dream to show its colors. And even if he wasn't dreaming, Ian didn't want to tell Nick about the Dream. He didn't think Nick, if it is Nick, would understand.
“Oh that,” Ian said nonchalantly as possible, “I... I got them in a fight.” He hoped Nick wouldn't press him for details.
“Yeah, who with?” Nick asked.
“I... I'd rather not talk about it.”
“Sure, fine,” Nick said with a shrug, “I understand.”
No you don't, Ian thought, You'd never understand... But a rift had formed between the two men, and they sat in silence, staring into the fire. Ian hadn't wanted to lie to Nick, but he couldn't tell him about the Dream. He was embarrassed and he wanted Nick to like him. He glanced over at Nick, thinking that Nick had seen the guilt in his face, but Nick was staring into the fire, breaking pieces of a small twig and tossing them into the flames.
“Did you ever kill anybody?” he asked Nick.
Nick looked at him, surprised by the question.
“Why'd you ask?”
“No reason,” he answered, “I was just wondering.”
They sat staring into the fire again. Why did I ask?
“Did you?” asked Nick.
Ian looked at Nick and he wasn't sure if he should tell him. He didn't want to talk about it, but the memory of the first night of the War bubbled up through from the depths of his mind, and he knew that when the bubbles broke to the surface, he would have to tell Nick everything.
“Yeah,” Ian admitted, and the story poured from him like a confession as the bubbles of memory created ripples across the pool of his consciousness...
He had finished changing the flat tire, and stopped to stare back at the city. The wind blew at his back toward the ever-expanding column of fire and smoke rising above the distant ruins.
Fire and brimstone, he thought.
Sodom and Gomorrah...
The wind was growing stronger, and was becoming more erratic. It picked up pieces of material, pushed them towards the inferno on the horizon that had once been Ian's home, and fanned the fires that burned everywhere in the darkness that surrounded him. Ian decided to leave, but as he was climbing back into the truck cab, he turned to take one last look at the city.
Silhouetted against the flames of the city and casting a long black shadow, a human form staggered onto the road. After a few agonized steps, it stumbled and fell face first onto the ground and lay motionless on the asphalt.
Ian stood staring at the fallen figure, wondering if he should go and help or not. He thought that it might be hit by a car at any moment, and looked around him to see if there was anyone else that could render assistance nearby, but he was alone.
The figure groaned, and Ian reluctantly began walking towards it. As the thought of a car careening around the curve and squashing the body into the asphalt grew stronger, Ian quickened his step.
He broke into a run.
He knelt down beside the figure, and realized for the first time that the body was of a woman and that she had been horribly burned. The right side of her face was badly scarred, the skin twisted and melted by an incredible heat. Huge blisters covered her back, arms, and legs, and everywhere charred bits of clothing were stuck to her naked body.
He was afraid to touch her. She said something to him. “What?” he asked, bending his head closer.
“My bag,” Her voice was weak and strained, a sort of rasp. “I dropped my bag. Get my bag.”
He looked down the road in the direction that she had come from, and in the twilight gloom, he could make out a black lump on the shoulder of the highway.
“Get my bag,” she whispered, “Please...”
“Okay,” Ian assured her, “Okay. Just hold on.” He walked toward the lump, and after a few steps, it coalesced into a large black leather bag. He ran toward it, and after a brief glance down the road to check for cars, picked it up.
It was heavy and soaking wet.
The traffic from the city seemed to have stopped, but Ian still worried about the woman being hit by a car. He ran back and dropped the bag beside her.
“Can you move?” he asked as he crouched down beside her. He looked into her eyes for the first time. She was helpless and they both knew that she was going to die.
“You can't lie here in the road,” he told her, “You might get hit by a car.”
She didn't answer. He looked at the truck, then back down the road toward the city.
“Wait here,” Ian told her, “I'll be right back.”
He ran to the truck and jumped behind the wheel, put the truck into reverse, and holding the clutch in, turned the key. The truck started immediately and he popped the clutch, and drove backwards around the woman, stopping so that she was shielded by the truck from oncoming traffic.
Ian ran to the back of the truck, opened the tailgate and after rummaging around in the camping gear he had stowed there, pulled out his sleeping bag. He untied the string wrapped around it and unrolled the bag. He laid the sleeping bag beside the woman and unzipped it quickly, folding the top halfback.
“I'm going to put you on my sleeping bag so that I can get you into the truck,” he told her loudly.
“My bag,” she whispered.
“Yeah, yeah. Okay.”
He'd get it later. Ian rolled her onto the sleeping bag and she tried to help, but she was too weak. She groaned as he positioned her on the bag. He zipped the bag around her and patted her on the shoulder reassuringly. She winced, and he pulled his hand away quickly.
“Sorry,” he said lamely.
He grabbed the corners of the bag on either side of her head and dragged her to the side of the road.
“Wait here,” he told her.
As Ian ran back to the truck, the ridiculousness of telling her to wait struck him. She wasn't about to go anywhere, he thought grimly. He climbed back into the truck and drove it onto the shoulder. He glanced at his reflection in the rear view mirror. His face was streaked with sweat and soot. He was surprised by his appearance and wiped his face with his sleeve, but the soot didn't come off. Weird, he thought.
He took a deep breath and held the steering wheel with both hands. He didn't really want to go back and help the woman. He had no idea of how to help her. He wondered how he would feel lying in his sleeping bag knowing that someone had died in it.
He stepped out onto the pavement. The woman was still conscious and lay staring up blankly at the darkened sky. She craned her head as he approached.
“My bag,” she whispered.
Talk about an obsession. The bag was three feet away from the bottom of the sleeping bag. He picked it up, holding it high enough for her to see, then placed it between her legs. Still conscious of the danger of being run over, Ian told her he was going to move her closer to the truck and she nodded. As he dragged her to the truck, he picked up her bag to throw it into the truck.
Ian looked down at the woman.
“I need something from my bag,” she explained. He set it down beside her, and as he reached to undo the clasp, she put her hand over his.
“I'll do it,” she said softly.
He shrugged. Fine with me. Ian needed a cigarette, so he left her and walked around the truck and took a new pack from the dash. He leaned back on the front fender, slowly pulling the cellophane from the cigarette package. The wind caught the wrapper and he let it go. The cellophane fluttered away with the wind.
After he pulled the foil from the cigarettes, he held it high in the air and released it. The wind whipped it away toward the city. He wondered idly if it would travel all the way to the city to be incinerated in the firestorm raging above it.
Who cares? he thought. He pulled out a cigarette, and cupping his hands to fend off the wind, tried to light it. The wind was too strong, so he turned his back to the wind and tried again. The lighter flickered briefly and he managed to get the cigarette going before the flame went out. He took a deep drag and stared toward the city.
The huge dark clouds that filled the entire sky reflected the orange glow of the flames, and the haze that hung in the air was beginning to obscure the image. He thought he could hear the occasional dull thud of distant explosions.
Ian leaned back on the truck, not thinking about anything in particular, mesmerized by the dance of the flames around him. The hundreds of fires that lit up the night flared this way and that, whipped into a mad frenzy by the wind. A small whirlwind skittered across the highway and passed in front of the truck.
Dust devil, he thought and took another drag of his cigarette. He noticed that he had scraped the back of his hand somehow, and he ran his thumb over the wound, and it peeled off! He wasn't hurt; some of the woman's hand had stuck to his. He almost threw up, the sour taste of bile filling his mouth. He swallowed and wiped his hand off on his jeans, dropping his cigarette. It blew under the truck and out of reach.
Oh well! he thought, and began walking back to the woman. And he heard a click. A metallic click.
And it sounded wrong.
He ran the last few steps.
The woman was sitting up holding a revolver, the end of the barrel in her mouth. The hammer was cocked. The click... Ian couldn't believe it. This woman was going to blow her brains out, and he was going to have to watch her do it!
Slowly the woman let the gun barrel slip from her mouth. She turned slowly to face him and carefully released the hammer of the gun and laid it down beside her.
“I'm sorry,” she wheezed, “I don't know what else to do.”
He looked down at the gun. A stethoscope lay beside it.
“You're a doctor.” he said.
“Well, if you tell me what to do, maybe I can help you.”
“No,” she shook her head, “I'm going to die.” She held up her arms, palms outward.
“I have massive third and second degree burns, and I have probably absorbed a lethal dose of radiation. I have one bag of saline solution, which may protect me from the trauma of shock for a few hours, but I need plasma and other supplies that I don't have. I need a fully equipped burn unit, and I seriously doubt that any such facility remains standing on this continent...”
“Maybe I could get you to a hospital,” he suggested.
She laughed ironically. “No! No hospital. If there's a hospital that hasn't been rendered unusable by the blast and heat, it will be overrun by thousands of people like me. Triage will take one look at me and stick me with the rest of the incurables.”
She paused for a moment, staring absently into the darkness. “I think I'll last until morning. I just want to find a peaceful place to die.” She grabbed his hand and winced. Her hand was sticky with pus and blood.
“Find me a place to die!”
She was intent on dying and they argued, but Ian finally managed to convince her to let him help her. She told him how to prepare a needle for the intravenous feed and took it from him, and slid the needle into the back of her right hand. She tried more than once to insert the needle correctly, but she couldn't find a vein.
“Shock,” she explained, “causes the blood vessels to contract... There!”
Blood trickled into the needle. She asked Ian to hold the needle as she searched through her bag for a butterfly adhesive to hold it in place. She handed the packaged bandage to Ian and held the needle as he opened the package. Under her direction, he carefully taped the needle to her skin, then attached the intravenous tube to it. Ian took the solution bag from her as she adjusted the drip, then hung the bag from the door handle.
She told him how to fill a syringe from a medicine bottle, and as she explained the procedure, he searched her bag for the bottle of morphine she said she had. He pulled out several little bottles, some filled with clear liquids, some containing pills. Antibiotics mostly, she told him. He read the labels out to her one by one. The names were technical and he had trouble pronouncing some of them.
“Tetra... cycline.... clox... a... cillin... Morphine!” he announced triumphantly.
He was fascinated by the whole operation and felt a surge of pride as he pushed the needle into the little bottle and watched it fill. The needle fit into a small valve on the intravenous tube and he squirted the morphine into it. The doctor adjusted the control before she was satisfied with it.
He wanted to bandage her burns, but she wouldn't let him. A waste of time, she explained, her wounds were already infected, and for the length of time that she had left, the bandages wouldn't help.
He guessed that the morphine was helping her, because she relaxed and closed her eyes for a while. After a few minutes, she opened her eyes again.
“Have you anyplace to go?” he asked her. Ian hesitated as she stared at him, and waited for a reply. It never came.
“Can I drive you somewhere?”
“One place is as good as another.”
He took her answer to be in the affirmative. “Okay,” he said, handing her the saline bag. She took it and Ian pulled her to a standing position.
After she was seated in the cab, he gently covered her with the sleeping bag, and she painfully pulled it around her body. She tilted her head back.
“Water,” she whispered.
“What?” he asked as he hung the intravenous bag inside the cab.
“Do you have any water?”
She looked at him and he was disturbed by the sadness in her eyes. She was sorry for him. She's the one who was burned. Why would she feel sorry for me? I'm okay...
Ian shrugged his shoulders and slammed the door shut, shaking his head. He walked around to the back of the truck and picked up her black bag, putting it into the back of the truck. He closed the tailgate and walked to the driver's door, but as he was climbing in, the doctor whispered at him.
“Oh yeah, I forgot,” he told her. He reached behind the seat with one arm. His fingers looped under the strap of the canteen, and he pulled it out. He unscrewed the cap, and noticed her hands were shaking as she took the canteen from him. She took a small sip, but she shook so badly, most of the water trickled down her chin.
He started the motor and released the parking brake. Slipping the truck in gear, Ian drove out onto the highway. He pulled on the headlights, and the beams cut into the darkness, solid bars of light in the smoke-filled air. Ian was surprised by the thickness of the smoke, which was now a heavy liquid smog.
As Ian drove, the doctor sat silently sipping at regular intervals from the canteen. The sparks from the fires that surrounded them flew everywhere, and the smoke that drifted across the highway became so thick that he slowed the truck down to a crawl.
“No Stopping on Shoulder,” a sign beside the road told him. I don't intend to, he thought back at it, I just want to get the Hell out of here!
It began to rain. When the large drops of water struck the windshield, they left black marks on the glass. Black rain. Ian switched on the windshield wipers, and the first pass of the blades left thick brownish-black streaks. He pushed the windshield washer button to clear the glass.
He wound down the side window and stuck his hand out in the rain. When he pulled it back in, his skin was speckled with black.
The doctor looked at him. “The rain is radioactive,” she said calmly, “It would be best not to expose yourself unnecessarily.”
Ian looked at her, his eyes open wide. It took a second or two for him to react, but he wound the window up as quickly as he could, and wiped his hands off on his jeans. He had no way of knowing that he had merely transferred the contaminated water from his arm to his leg, but then, he still had a lot to learn about the world of nuclear war.
“Jeez!” he whispered, and turned his attention back to driving. Even the rain is dangerous!
“Holy shit!” he added.
They drove on in silence. The rain stopped. The doctor suddenly moaned and wound down the window. Sticking her head outside, she began retching uncontrollably, and he slowed down. It took her a while to recover. When she finally pulled her head in, Ian could see a flap of skin hanging down from her jaw. The wind had peeled it from her face.
He turned away quickly and stared intently through the windshield, not wanting to look at her, but he couldn't stop himself from glancing at her every once in a while. Each time he did, Ian regretted it. The sight of the piece of skin flapping in the wind turned his stomach. He turned on the radio to keep his mind off the wound on the doctor's face, but there was nothing on the air, only a loud static hiss.
“Yempee,” said the doctor.
“What?” he asked, looking at her. She turned to face him and the flap of skin disappeared into shadow.
“E-M-P,” said the doctor slowly, “Electromagnetic Pulse. When a nuclear device is detonated, it emits a broad spectrum of electromagnetic waves that radiate outward from the detonating bomb. During atomic tests, scientists discovered that many of their instruments suffered inexplicable electrical failures. They eventually traced the source of the failures to the electromagnetic pulse generated by the bombs themselves. A single one megaton bomb detonated at an altitude of a hundred or so miles above the center of a country would generate an electromagnetic pulse that would damage solid-state circuits from border to border, making communication by electronic means impossible.”
He looked at her blankly.
“They affect radios?”
She nodded. “The E.M.P. is capable of destroying the circuits whether they are active or not. The pulse produces a high voltage surge through any conductive material within its sphere of influence.”
“Wow! You mean that nobody has a radio that works right now?” he asked, “I suppose if a radio was shielded by lead or something, it might be okay?”
The doctor didn't answer. She was sick again.
Suddenly a huge semi roared out of the haze behind him; its air horn blasted as the driver saw Ian. The semi swerved to avoid the truck but before Ian had time to react, the steel wall of the semi smashed into the side of the truck. Ian stared in horror at the side fuel tanks as they collided with his door, and the two vehicles locked together. The rear of the truck bounced against the semi's drive wheels, pushing the nose of Ian's truck into the semi, and for an agonized split-second, Ian thought that he was going to be dragged down the highway, but the two trucks suddenly separated violently and the semi roared away, and disappeared into the smoke.
Ian was badly shaken by the accident, but the only damage he had suffered was a bleeding tongue when the impact had snapped his jaws closed. He glanced at the doctor. She held the dashboard with one hand, her head hanging down in front of her. She was breathing heavily.
“Are you okay?” he asked.
She nodded weakly.
He caught a glimpse of a side road leading from the highway and pulled into it and stopped. He couldn't see past the hood of his truck and was afraid if he drove back onto the highway he would be involved in another accident.
“Maybe we should stop here for a while,” Ian suggested. The doctor didn't answer.
The side road, not much more than a dirt track, led into a dark clump of smoldering trees and bush. Ian drove slowly forward. After a short distance, the road opened into a small deserted quarry about a hundred feet across and closed on three sides. At the far end of the quarry, dug from a twenty-foot ridge, was a slope of loose dirt and gravel. Ian wheeled the truck around inside the quarry, and backed up within a few feet of the gravel slope. The headlights illuminated the trees opposite the entrance to the pit, and as he glanced out the rear window, he could see the city on the horizon through the gap dug in the ridge.
“We'll stay here for the night,” he told the doctor, “Wait here and I'll light a fire.”
While the doctor watched him through the windshield, Ian gathered dried bits of wood and grass. The night was hot, and he didn't really need a fire except to fill his need to feel safe and secure. He needed it to dispel the growing uncertainty that nagged at him and he had resorted to an instinctive solution used by his race for thousands of years.
He gathered a large pile of firewood beside the truck and arranged a few branches into a smaller pile for the fire. The wood was extremely dry and burst into flame as soon as Ian touched the flame of his lighter to the bark. After satisfying himself that the fire was self-sustaining, he threw more broken branches into the flames, and went to fetch the doctor.
As he opened the door, the doctor handed Ian the sleeping bag.
“I can walk,” she said, passing him the intravenous bag.
He hovered beside her as she hobbled around the truck to the fire, afraid she would slip or lose her balance. As she neared the fire, he opened out the sleeping bag and lay it by the truck for her. She sat on it, her legs straight out in front of her. Ian hung the saline bag from a broken piece of plastic that stuck out from the truck cap.
She leaned back, gingerly resting her head and back against the side of the truck. He peeled off his jacket, rolled it into a pillow and slipped it behind her neck and back.
“Thanks,” she whispered.
“Are you hungry?” he asked.
She shook her head weakly.
Ian walked behind the truck and crawled inside looking for the box of food he had prepared for his camping trip to the lake. He was dismayed at the meager food supply he had brought with him. None of the items were very nutritious. He pulled out a can of baked beans and scrabbled around in the bottom of the box for the can opener. Found it!
He crawled from the truck backwards. He opened the can as he walked to the fire, then crouched down and stuck the can into the fire. The paper label blackened, flickered into flame and peeled away from the metal.
Long after the paper disintegrated, Ian stared into the glowing cinders and was absorbed by the fire. No thoughts, no sense of anything filtered through the flames. No memories of the Bomb. His mind simply wasn't prepared to accept the tremendous change that had been wrought upon his world by the incredible destructive power of the nuclear age. His mind had turned to the fire for the feel of its warmth and the comforting orange light that it radiated.
Was it the intensity of her thoughts that made him look up at the doctor?
He suddenly looked across at her. She stared into the flames, her eyes wide open with some memory that the fire had brought to the surface.
The doctor must have sensed his attention turning towards her because she began talking, her voice a trembling monotone.
“I tried to save them,” she said plaintively, never taking her eyes from the flames.
“They screamed! They were screaming for me to help them. `Mummy! Mummy! Help me! Mummy, help me!'... Over and over!
“But I couldn't see them through the flames! They screamed for such a long time! I knew where they were, but the flames... The flames! It was too hot! ...and they screamed... long, terrible, high pitched screams! They burned to death in the basement!
She looked at Ian and the deep pain intensified her stare. Ian was drawn into her suffering and the horror and tensed, fighting the magnetic pull of her eyes. He didn't want to hear anymore. She spoke softly, but her words seemed to be emanating from within him and the hair on his scalp prickled as she whispered, “My children were roasted alive!”
She returned her gaze to the fire, and his shoulders sagged. He was thankful that her eyes had released their grip upon him. He lay on his back and stared up at the hazy image of the clouds illuminated by the dull orange glow of the fires that burned across the countryside. Thousands of sparks filled the dark sky like a frenzied swarm of crazed fireflies. He tried to block out the doctor's voice but he couldn't.
“...only a few feet away... and I couldn't save them! Nobody could! It was too late...”
Her words dissolved into pictures as she took him back with her. Ian was there with her, an unseen observer of the tragedy of this one woman amongst the million other separate tragedies, each as terrible as the other. How was it that so many people could be so terribly burned and crushed and battered to death in such a short space of time, and yet all die so alone?
“...I was downstairs in my study. I was writing a letter to my husband. He... he was in Bermuda on holiday...”
Ian could see her in her study sitting at her desk. An antique writing desk. Personalized stationery. A green ink blotter framed in gold embossed leather. To her left, large french windows, heavy dark curtains on either side of them, framing a floral gauze curtain that glowed pink in the setting sun.
“I could hear the muffled laughter and squeals of Jeff and Jenny playing in the basement. I had been writing about it in the letter...
“The light! The light... that's how I was burned. I stepped into the light. If only I hadn't!... but I did. It was so stupid! How could I have known... but I stepped into the light!
“I wasn't expecting it, but I should have known what it was! A silver electric current flowed through me as the light streamed in through the window... I should have known!
“One step! Only one little step! If I hadn't taken that one step into the light, I wouldn't have been burnt!
“But I did...
“Everything! Everything burnt! I stood watching as everything burned! My clothes. The tablecloth. The curtains- they all started to smoke... thick black smoke! Every surface facing the light started to smoke. Instantly! One moment everything was normal, the next, everything spouted thick black smoke... and I simply stood there and watched!
“I don't remember any pain. Only smoke... I lifted my hands. They were burned and blistered! My clothes were gone! My blouse had evaporated and my skirt melted into my skin! I couldn't believe it had happened! My mind simply wouldn't accept the scene before me... I think... I think I passed out.
“I remember lying on the floor,” she continued, “I could hear Jeff and Jenny in the basement. They were still playing downstairs!”
She looked directly at Ian as he glanced over at her.
“They were arguing over whose turn it was... `It's my turn! It's my turn!'”. She smiled sadly at the thought of her children, at their innocence, and Ian could see them - a little boy and a smaller girl, pouting at each other, arguing over a mindless game of... of what? What had they been playing?
Ian couldn't picture the game they were playing and it bothered him. The doctor gazed into the fire...
“If only I hadn't gone to the window...” she repeated. “I remember- I remember wondering why Jeff and Jenny were still playing when their mummy was dying. I couldn't understand it...
“Then they stopped fighting. I heard Jenny say `It's hot in here, Jeffie. It's hot!'
“And the floor beneath me heaved, rising up with a tremendous roar. As if a huge hand was ripping my house from its foundations. I... I think I heard Jennifer scream...
“The floor rippled, then the entire house shattered! Disintegrated!” She stopped talking for a few moments and Ian thought she was crying, but she was throwing up again. He stared idly around him. The dull light from the fire danced against the walls of the quarry.
“I was knocked unconscious by the blast,” she continued, “I remember a flash of whiteness that dissolved into black. I could feel myself floating. Then I remember tinkling music. Coming from a fine silver strand floating through the darkness. I followed it. The strand grew thicker until I could pull myself hand over hand along it. The music grew louder, but as it increased in volume, I realized it wasn't music; it was Jeff and Jenny calling for me...
“But the sounds of their calls became screams... Screams for help!
“I became conscious, but I wasn't sure of where I was. My house was in pieces around me, and I lay pinned beneath a heavy beam. I pulled myself from beneath it.
“If it hadn't been for the screams of my children , I would never have been sure that I was still in my home. I stood up, stupefied by the scene around me. I was standing in a sea of broken wood and pipes, battered overturned cars... Nothing stood any higher than ten feet with the exception of a few trees that had been stripped of their leaves and branches! The whole neighborhood for as far as I could see had been flattened. I heard Jenny scream...
“`Jenny!' I called, `Jenny, where are you?'
“`I'm here, Mummy! I'm here!' I finally picked out the direction her voice was coming from, and scrambled through the debris. I was so intent upon finding Jeff and Jenny, I hadn't noticed the fire.... All those pieces of wood and God knows what else had begun to burn!
“I tried to lift the house beams from the wreckage to get to Jenny. `Is Jeffie alright, Jenny?' I called.
“`I'm alright, Mummy.' I almost cried at the sound of his voice. `Please get me out of here, Mummy,' he pleaded, 'I'm scared...'
“'It's going to be alright, Jeffie! Just keep talking to me,' I told him. The beam I was pulling on came loose, and part of the wreckage over the kids slumped and they both screamed! I almost died from shock! But I could hear Jeff and Jenny calling out to me.
“`Are you alright?' I called.
“`I'm alright, Mummy, but Jen is crying. Get us out, please, Mummy!'
“`Okay, okay!' I was pulling out pieces of wood, some of them smoldering, from the debris. `Do you remember that song that Mommy taught you?' I called to them.
“They both said yes hesitantly. `Sing it for Mommy, okay kids?' To my relief, they began to sing. Uncertainly at first, but as their confidence grew, they sang louder and louder. I could hear the song clearly through the ruins...
The doctor began to sing in a choking voice:
“Row, row, row your boat...
Gently down the stream,
Life is...life is...but a dream...”
The last line of the song was merely a whisper, and the silence that pressed in on them after she stopped singing was almost too much to bear. Ian wanted to get up and leave.
But he didn't.
“The smoke was stinging my eyes... I couldn't see properly... I could see flames in the basement!
“I tried so hard to get to them!
“They stopped singing. I could hear Jennifer... `Mummy!' she called `Mummy, it's getting hot in here! Get me out Mummy, please, I'm fri.. frightened!' Then she screamed and squealed...`I'm on fire! I'm on fire, Mummy! I'm on fire! Help me Mummy.! Help me! Please!'
“Jeff was screaming too! I couldn't move the huge pieces of my home that covered them! They screamed and screamed!... And the flames pushed me further and further away from them! I screamed! I screamed and I screamed... and...I screamed!
“But they stopped!
“They were dead!... My children were dead!
“...such dear sweet children... roasted...
She looked at him.
“I tried to-” She was racked by a fit of coughing, and a stringy piece of blood and phlegm dripped from her mouth.
They sat in silence.
Ian wrapped his shirtsleeve around his hand and pulled the beans from the fire. He walked over to the doctor, but she shook her head when he offered her some.
“No. No thank you. Just some water. Have you any water?”
“Sure,” he said simply. He walked to the truck cab and pulled the canteen from the seat. It was empty, but he shook it to make sure.
“Gotta fill it up,” Ian said to the doctor as he stepped over her. He climbed up on the tailgate and spilled some of the beans from the can he still held in his hand. The sticky tomato juice dripped over his fingers. He shouldered the canteen, and with his free hand hauled himself onto the tailgate. He set the beans on the tailgate and licked the juice from his fingers. It didn't taste right. Must be the fire, he thought.
He filled the canteen and took it to the doctor. He held the canteen to her mouth, but as the water reached her lips, she grasped the container with both hands and began greedily gulping it down. Most of it spilled down her chest, washing bits of charred material, dried blood and pus between her swollen breasts and into her lap.
She drained the canteen completely.
“More!” she demanded.
He took the canteen from her and went to fill it again from the plastic drum in the back of the truck. After he'd filled the canteen, he took a couple of sips, and crawled out of the truck. He noticed he'd left the can of beans on the tailgate, but he didn't feel hungry any more, so he left it.
He sat next to the doctor and handed her the canteen. She took a controlled swallow of the water and began talking.
“I didn't want to leave them,” she whispered. “I had to!” She stared angrily into his eyes. He looked away.
“It happened so quickly! One moment I was writing a letter; the next, I was on fire; the next, I was clawing through the wreckage of my home to reach my children; the next, they were dead and I was surrounded by darkness and flames, scrambling through the ruins!
“It was so dark... the whole of the city was blacked out, and the only light was from the fire. I had no idea which way to go... I crawled in one direction and the flames would block my way; I'd turn and go in another and I would come up against a huge wall of broken wood and steel!
“I suppose I panicked. I scrambled like a rat trapped in a burning building, scurrying this way and that. Nothing remained of the quiet suburban neighborhood that I could use to find my way out! The rubble covered the ground so completely that I had no idea of where the streets had once been... There was no way of telling how deep the wreckage was- I never once caught a glimpse of the ground!
“All the time I was climbing over the wreckage, I could hear the crackle of flames. Occasionally, I would hear something explode. And for the first time, I heard the screams...
“Everywhere people were screaming! Men, women... children! Some wailed in terrible agony, trapped under what was left of their homes! Others screamed in sheer terror as the flames reached them and they were burned alive! I heard so many voices calling for help through the darkness! So many terrible ways to call for help! But I already knew I wouldn't be able to help them. I could think of only one thing...
“But the broken trees and collapsed buildings seemed to block every path I thought I had discovered... I was bleeding badly from cuts on my arms and hands, my legs... My feet!
“I had given up hope of finding my way out when I suddenly stumbled across my car! All the windows had been blown out of it, and the doors on the passenger side had been ripped from their hinges. I clambered toward it. I don't know why really, I suppose it was the only familiar object I had seen.
“It was resting at a precarious angle, pointing up toward the sky. I looked inside... The interior was littered with broken glass, wood and brick. The vinyl on the dashboard and the steering wheel had melted and burned, and I could see the bare metal underneath it. The headrests had been ripped apart, probably from flying debris carried along by the blast wave.
“I climbed inside. My bag was on the floor in the back, and I reach over and picked it up, brushing off the broken glass. I held it with both hands, hugging it as if it were some long lost pet that had been returned to me.
“I opened the glove compartment and pulled out the revolver that my husband had bought for me...
“Simon's a lawyer, and he wanted to feel that I was safe when he was out of town,” she explained.
“When I touched it, the panic dissolved and my mind seemed suddenly sharp and crystal clear, like some well-oiled machine. I checked the magazine. Loaded. I dropped the gun in my bag and reached in for the box of shells I keep there. As I was pulling them out, my heart leapt!
“There, sticking up above the hood of the car was a street sign! Suddenly, I knew where I was! My car had come to rest at the corner of my street... I knew which way to go. Only a half a block away was the river! I threw the shells into the bag and scrambled out of the car.
“I held the bag behind me and slipped my arms through the handles like a knapsack, and climbed on the hood of the car. I slid toward the sign and grabbed hold of it and pulled as hard as I could. Sure enough, the sign was in the same place as it always had been- it was still stuck in the ground!
“I looked in the direction I had to take in order to reach the river. A huge mountain of wreckage blocked my way! I decided that if I was going to make it to the river, I would have to climb over it!
“It wasn't easy! Pieces that I was using to pull myself up with came loose. Footholds gave away beneath my feet. The broken pieces were burning! I cut myself badly, but I had to get out!
“I put my hand down to pull myself up and the debris felt strangely soft. I looked down. It was a woman's forearm, severed at the elbow. The hand was well-manicured, long red nails, an engagement ring and a wedding band on her finger, and a watch, still working, around the wrist. It had belonged to my neighbor, Nancy- Nancy Rayger... But the heat on my back moved me on.
“The incident with Nancy's hand changed my perception of the scene around me, and I began to notice the pieces of human beings scattered amongst the ruins. It was strange, because I hadn't noticed the bodies, or the pieces of bodies before that. I saw several bodies, but I didn't stop. There was no point...
“Finally! Finally, I reached the river! The smell of burning wood, plastic and flesh permeated everything, mixed with a strong acrid electrical smell from the ionization of the atmosphere. My eyes stung, and my lungs ached terribly...
“I waded into the water to avoid the smoke. The river was like a salve after the intense heat of the flames...
“Huge pieces of houses floated down the river. On the far shore opposite me, I could see a few people on the bank, and the river was alive with heads bobbing up and down as the current pulled them downstream. The sound of their screams and cries echoed out over the river and several people disappeared under the water and never resurfaced.
“The water had been whipped into huge waves by the wind blowing toward the city center. Huge eddies pulled the waves into massive waterspouts that devoured the flotsam and survivors on the river. It threw them into the air in broken pieces, then sucked them back under the surface.
“I hesitated for an instant, wondering whether I would prefer to die in fire or in the water. The heat at my back decided my course for me, and I walked slowly into the river. The current pulled me from my feet, and I slipped and was carried out into the debris-filled water. I saw a huge section of a wall float past, and I swam towards it.
“I almost didn't make it! The waves on the river tossed me about, and I was constantly struck by the wreckage that floated by me. Just as I reached the wall, I was pulled beneath the surface! Someone had grabbed hold of me from behind! I kicked and struggled! My mouth filled with water and I started to choke. The hands that clutched at me lost their grip and I fought toward the surface, but the current held me down. It was as if the force of gravity had suddenly doubled! I panicked, thrashing madly in the water!
“I surfaced in an airspace under the wooden floor of a house. I clung to a crosspiece between two beams, to catch my breath.
“I inched my way to the edge of the platform. My legs struck objects floating past me under the water. I reached the edge of the platform and took a deep breath. I swung myself out from underneath it. It was the floor to a house. Complete with carpet!
“The carpet had been scorched by the thermal pulse of the bomb. Where the light had struck it, outlined by the shadow of a window, was another shadow: the shadow of a woman and a small child!
“I wondered who they were. Were they still alive? I decided I didn't care, but after I climbed onto the platform, the image reminded me of my own children.
“The river swept my raft into a pool of flame. I suppose it was oil or gasoline floating on the surface of the river. The intense heat burned my lungs and skin! The smoke blinded me!
“Smoke and fire,” mused the doctor, “The entire world had caught fire! Even the water was burning! I think I lost consciousness, because the next thing I was aware of was a terrific jolt. The raft had wedged itself up against the steel span of a collapsed bridge. The span blocked the passage of the debris sweeping down the river. Huge beams, whole trees, sections of houses were trapped against it in a massive jam. The river passed beneath the wreckage, and the undertow was tugging at my raft. The platform bounced crazily against the piled wreckage.
“I scrambled clear of the raft, and clawed my way through the mass of shattered lumber and branches. I climbed up the riverbank and found myself on the highway. I walked as far as I could. I fell more than once... Finally I collapsed where you found me.”
Ian stared at her. Her story had left him awestruck. They talked for a while. About their lives, the people they had known and lost, and were drawn together by the loss. In the Otherlife they would never have talked to each other so openly. They probably never would have met, let alone talked.
He stood up to fill the canteen. He'd just given the doctor another shot of morphine. As he stood by the tailgate pouring water from the plastic drum, the entire sky lit up!
He dropped the container and the canteen and sprawled onto the ground. Not again! Why don't they stop? Haven't they had enough? He scuttled quickly under the truck, yelling at the doctor to follow him under the truck.
But instead, she stood up and walked forwards. He could see the doctor's feet as she stood out in the open. The brilliant light faded and he crawled from underneath the truck, ready at a moment's notice to scramble back under the vehicle. Nothing was burning in the quarry except for the fire he had lit. The sky was still dark, twilight, as though the sun had just set. He stood up and moved beside the doctor.
“Do you have any sunglasses?” she asked him.
“Put them on.”
He walked to the truck and pulled his sunglasses from the visor. He was polishing them on his shirt when the sky lit up again. The brilliant white light hurt his eyes and he quickly put his glasses on. The flashes continued, some brighter and some dimmer, and he and the doctor stared up at the sky.
One, just over the horizon, was incredible! At first, even with his glasses on, the light from the explosion was blinding, and he ducked reflexively. As the light faded, a huge cloud raced white hot into the upper atmosphere. It pushed at the thick canopy of black cloud, stretching the undersurface of the cloud, then rushing up through it, pulling the canopy up with it. The light from the fireball diffused through the canopy, turning the entire sky momentarily orange as the bomb transferred its energy into the atmosphere, giving the clouds a luminosity all their own.
“Ground burst,” commented the doctor. “We should be safe here for the time being from local fallout. The wind usually blows in that direction.” She pointed.
He nodded, not saying anything. The ground beneath him had begun to vibrate.
They turned to watch each new explosion. At times, he didn't know which way to look as several bombs would go off at once. No two explosions were alike. The colors were incredible. Electric greens, pinks, oranges and violets would flash across the sky, shattered at irregular intervals by blinding white, and the dancing afterimages would reappear each time that he blinked, so that he would see multiple images of different explosions all at once.
“Believe it or not, you're lucky the city was hit early,” commented the doctor. “The canopy is protecting us from most of the thermal damage of the higher altitude bombs.”
He stared at her, amazed at the coolness of her attitude, her disassociation from the War, but realized she wasn't alone. He was alongside her, standing in the open in the middle of an all-out nuclear war as if he were watching a fireworks display.
While the sky darkened, the realization of what had happened began to dawn on him. Despite knowing the War had finally come to pass, there was a distinct gap between the intellectual acceptance of the War and the emotional reaction to it. He was numb.
The War had seemed more like a fantastic thunderstorm. He saw spots in front of his eyes for a while, but they disappeared, and his eyesight returned to normal. About an hour later he felt the warm glow of a sunburn and the skin on his face and hands had turned bright red. That was it.
The War was over.
Ian touched the doctor's arm to try and get her to sit down. “It's all over!” she whispered, still gazing up at the sky.
“It's finally midnight!”
“Doctor,” he said softly.
“Don't you understand?” She turned on Ian, grabbing him forcefully by both arms, staring wildly into his eyes. “Don't you understand?” she shouted at him, “It's all over! The End! We are no more! The bastards have shot us all to hell! Do you know what it means?”
He stared blankly at her.
The doctor burst into tears, and collapsed against Ian. He held her in his arms, but he felt awkward. He was afraid to hold her because of her wounds. He lead her slowly back to the sleeping bag, and they sat down together. He wrapped his arm around her shoulder and they sat drawing comfort from each other's breathing as if they were the only two human beings left alive in the world.
As they talked, she offered to tell him everything that she knew about surviving a nuclear war if he would agree to help her.
“Sure,” he said.
“Your word of honor?” she demanded.
“Yeah, I told you,” Ian answered.
“Out loud. Say it out loud,” she insisted.
“If you help me, I'll help you,” he said.
“No matter what?”
Ian hesitated for a second.
“No matter what,” he said finally.
She seemed satisfied.
“Alright,” she asked, “How much do you know about radiation?”
“As much as anyone, I guess,” Ian said, “Nothing...”
The doctor began explaining the basics of nuclear physics to him, but Ian felt ill and didn't listen very closely. He didn't care how the Bomb worked.
She talked about rems and rads and roentgens per hour, and at first, he tried to memorize her words, but he wasn't able to commit the information to memory. He couldn't concentrate. Ian felt like a dull student being lectured by a brilliant professor. Most of what she said seemed to go in one ear and out the other, flashing through his brain without leaving a trace.
She talked about how radiation would affect plants. Grasses had a greater resistance than trees. Different trees had different tolerances. She explained how to judge different radiation levels in an area by which plants were dying or dead. Ian couldn't see how it would help him because all the plants had a greater tolerance to fallout than he did.
“...the LD-50 dose,” she was saying, “is the level of radiation that would kill fifty per cent of those who were exposed to it. Your chance of survival is fifty-fifty. That dose is somewhere between four hundred to five hundred rads. So if you were in a contaminated area of three to four hundred roentgens per hour for, say, half an hour, you would absorb a hundred to a hundred and fifty rems. Enough to make you sick, but not enough to kill you...”
Ian attention wandered again. What good would the information do if he didn't have a Geiger counter to measure the rems, or rads, or whatever anyway?
“So it's best to avoid areas that have been contaminated- the cities, airports, and the like. Your best bet is to remain underground for as long as possible. The short-lived isotopes, which emit extremely high levels of radiation will decay rapidly.”
“The day of the attack, today, the surface level of radiation in and around the bomb sites will be approximately two thousand roentgens per hour. Tomorrow, the levels will have dropped to around three or four hundred, and will stay at those levels for weeks, possibly months before they deteriorate significantly. But if you're in an area downwind from a target, a ground burst, the local fallout will remain long enough to kill you. I would say that the best rule of thumb is to watch for a film of dust or ash covering the ground. You can be sure that the levels in an area covered with ash will be extremely high.”
“Just remember,” the doctor continued, “radiation will have a cumulative effect. Prolonged exposure to low levels of radiation will kill you as surely as a short severe dose. Perhaps not as quickly...”
Ian clued out again. He had a headache and lost interest. He heard what she was saying, but he simply didn't care. He felt out of sorts. Detached. As if the scene around him was merely some vast movie set.
I wonder if perhaps I had been burned or injured, I might feel more a part of the War. I still can't fully accept this world as being real, or that I'm really in this nightmare. I no longer have more than a hazy memory of the Otherlife. The prewar world has become a lost dream, a fantasy that is forever out of reach...
But othertimes I feel as if I could climb back into the truck and drove back to it. But no matter how much I wish it, the truck isn't a time machine.
And there's no going back.
Unless I wish to withdraw from reality altogether. But I can't.
I remember seeing peace marchers and anti-nuclear demonstrators on television and thinking that they were wishy-washy eggheads and subversives. But if I had my life to live over again, I know I would be one of them.
The doctor had been. She said that was how she came to know so much about the conditions following a nuclear war. She'd been a member of a doctor's group, Physicians for Social Responsibility. I think that's what she said...
Towards morning the last of the morphine was beginning to wear off, and the doctor was succumbing to the debilitating effects of her injuries and the sickness.
Ian had regained his interest in her lecture, and was asking her about fallout levels and patterns, the stratosphere- which way the winds would blow, and the ozone layer screening out ultraviolet rays from the sun, but her answers were becoming more and more incoherent. She began talking about her children again...
“Jeff was only seven,” she mumbled, “Seven-and-a-half, going on eight-”
“The ozone layer,” Ian demanded, “How long will it take before the ozone layer is depleted to critical levels?”
“Huh?” She looked at him blankly.
“The ozone layer,” he repeated, “How long before it breaks down and the ultraviolet rays become lethal?”
“I... I'm not sure,” she said weakly. Her voice was strained. “I can't tell you any more. It's time for you to help me.”
She coughed. The spasm racked her body, and she threw up. She spit out mouthfuls of blood and mucous which hung from her chin in long gooey strands.
He was still holding the bottles and sample cards of drugs that she had given him. She reached into her bag and pulled out her revolver.
Ian knew what his part of the deal was.
She wants me to shoot her.
She held the gun by its barrel, offering it to him. He didn't want to take it.
“I have to take these to the truck,” he said quickly, holding up the pill bottles for her to see. The doctor knew he was stalling, but she didn't say anything.
Ian walked slowly to the truck. He could feel the doctor's eyes staring at his back and he tried his best to ignore her. He put the pills on the dash of the truck and stood in the open doorway, holding on to the truck. He didn't want to let go. He knew that if he did, he'd have to go back to her and take the gun. Once he took the gun, he would have to use it.
He would have to kill another human being.
An incident from his distant childhood, one of his earliest memories, filtered through his thoughts. He and his grandfather were on one of the many walks they used to take together in the countryside. His grandfather pointed out plants to Ian and told him their names, and Ian was amazed by his grandfather's knowledge. And his gentleness. The old man seemed as much a part of the world as the trees and the sky.
Ian heard a high-pitched crying scream, and asked his grandfather what it was.
“It's hurt. It's hurt, Grandpop.”
“There's nothing we can do,” Grandpop told him softly. But Ian had insisted. He badgered the old man until he gave in. He made his grandfather help him find it.
It didn't take long.
The rabbit lay in the grass close to the path. Breathing rapidly with short, shallow breaths, its eyes were wide open and rolled back with fear.
“I won't hurt you little rabbit, ”Ian told it, stroking it gently. “I'm going to take you home and make you better.”
It was a command. Ian looked up at the solemn giant towering above him.
“It's dying,” the old man said sadly, “The best thing that we can do for it is to put it out of its misery.”
Out of its misery. Like Sparky, the golden lab. He'd been hit by a car in front of their house and been put out of his misery .
“Can't we save it?” Ian asked.
Grandpop shook his head.
“It's too late,” the old man said gently.
“Please, Grandpop. Please.”
But the old man stood firm. Ian knew his grandfather was right, but he couldn't accept it. Try as he might, he couldn't stop the tears in his eyes and they trickled down his cheeks and dropped onto his sweater.
“Goodbye, little rabbit,” he whispered.
Grandpop picked up a large stone, and holding it high above his head like Moses holding the Ten Commandments, the old man threw it with all his might at the rabbit's head.
The shock of the rabbit's death ran through his whole body, coursing upwards from his feet, through his legs, and exploding in the pit of his stomach. He didn't have to look at the rabbit; he knew it was dead.
Ian let go of the truck and walked toward the doctor. He held his hand out for the gun.
They moved slowly, reverently, as if they were performing a mystical religious ceremony. Ian was an acolyte receiving the Holy Grail from the dying priestess. The Grail contained a supremely powerful force, but before it could pass completely into his possession, he would have to suffer a final ordeal. His belief was being held up for trial, and to prove that faith, he would have to kill the high priestess. She would live on through him, and he would live because she was sacrificing her life for his.
But as he held the gun to her head, the fantasy instantly dissolved. He was about to kill someone. Another human being. He had no fear of retribution. When so many people had died, what did one more matter? But he knew the answer. Every life is sacred. By pulling the trigger, he wasn't simply killing the woman. He was destroying everything that he believed in. From the moment that he murdered her, his own life would lose its value. But she wants me to do it. She doesn't want to live. Despite the conflicting thoughts battling within his mind, the pressure of his finger on the trigger increased, and the trigger moved slowly backwards. Ian's arms trembled, his muscles tensed against each other and frozen by his indecision.
I can't do it...
He pointed the gun upwards, and carefully released the hammer. “I'm sorry,” he whispered.
The doctor turned to look up at him.
“I can't do it.” Ian could barely get the words out. He couldn't look at the doctor and he walked away from her and stood by the tailgate, watching the glow above the still- burning city. Ian was ashamed, and knew he couldn't face the doctor. He set the gun on the tailgate, and heard a sob behind him.
Tears flowed from the corners of Ian's eyes and down his cheek, but he remained silent and unmoving, staring painfully ahead of him, trying to block out the agonized cries from the dying doctor. The sun rose slowly, a dark dull-red disk, barely visible through the brown-black clouds, and as the darkness dissipated, the doctor started to babble. Sometimes she would laugh, then cry, then scream. Her brain had short-circuited and her mouth released broken parts of her mind into the air and the disjointed pieces evaporated into the atmosphere. The sound of her agonized disintegration became more and more incomprehensible.
The babbling annoyed him.
Irritated by the mindless gibberish, Ian turned. The doctor had disappeared. All he saw in the dim dawn light was a mindless being, a grossly deformed idiot demon, one of the invisible spirits that had danced so madly in celebration on the day the Devil had erupted into the world. It had taken possession of the husk that had once been the doctor.
Ian picked up the revolver from the tailgate. The demon babbled in fear as Ian raised his right hand and steadied it with his left.
“No!” it screamed, “Please, no!” It crouched, its arms held out in supplication, pleading for mercy. He felt only revulsion at the sight of it. It had no idea of which way to run.
Ian smiled and fired the gun. It screamed, but he had missed! A puff of dust rose beside the demon's feet. It turned and ran towards the quarry wall, and the intravenous tube stretched and pulled away from its body, and as it snapped back, the almost empty bag dropped to the ground.
He fired again and missed. The demon scrambled frantically for the gravel slope, running as close as it could to the rock face. Ian took his time, sighting down the barrel. The demon scraped at the gravel at the foot of the slope. He fired. Missed!
It squealed in terror.
He fired again and hit it in the leg. It collapsed whimpering, sliding down the gravel, but it desperately clawed its way back up the ridge.
He fired and missed. It reached the crest of the ridge and was silhouetted against the dull gray-brown morning sky.
He fired again. He hit it in the back! The tension drained away from the body, and it slowly sagged and fell backwards, half-rolling, half-sliding to the bottom of the quarry.
He pulled the trigger again to finish it off with a final shot, but the gun clicked. Ian squeezed the trigger several times in quick succession, but he had no more live shells.
He walked over to the body. It was still breathing. Ian knelt down beside it, and the doctor opened her eyes.
There was a peace behind them that he'd never seen before.
“Jeffie...” she whispered, reaching a hand to Ian's face, her eyes filled with the love for the child that only she could see. But the look faded after a brief moment and was replaced by nothing.
She was dead.
Ian closed her eyes gently with his fingers, and kissed her on the forehead.
He didn't bury her. He simply walked away. He gathered up his sleeping bag, canteen, and the doctor's bag, and tossed them into the back of the truck. After throwing away the can of beans and shutting the tailgate, Ian walked to the cab, threw the gun onto the seat and climbed in after it. He started the truck and without looking back, drove out of the quarry.
“...and that's when I saw the Dream People for the first time,” Ian told Nick.
“The Dream People?”
Ian was suddenly back by the fire in the cave. Only seconds before he had been driving away from the doctor's corpse.
“You were talking about the dream people. Who were they?” Nick seemed insistent.
“Oh,” Ian said abstractly, “the Dream People...” He still couldn't bring himself to tell Nick about them.
“That's what I call the people who came out of the city,” he lied, “They were all burned and they moved as if they were in a dream. So I call them Dream People.”
“Oh,” said Nick and stared into the fire, seeming disappointed in the explanation, as if he had expected something more.
I'd like to tell you Nick, but I can't. Not yet...
“I think I'm gonna get some sleep,” Ian told Nick, “I'm gonna lie down for a while. You need a blanket or something?”
“No, that's okay,” Nick said, “I'll just sit for a while...”
“Okay,” Ian said, yawning. He crawled into his sleeping bag. ”Goodnight.”
Nick grunted goodnight distractedly and blew out the candle, stretching out by the fire.
As he lay on his back staring up at the changing reflections of the dying fire on the rock formations on the cave ceiling, Ian knew he wouldn't be able to sleep. He wondered why he had mentioned the Dream People to Nick.
Because I really wanted to tell Nick about them, that's why! But I chickened out. I didn't want him to see me as being weak. So I kept the secret from him. But he's going to find out one way or another, so what was the point?
If I fall into the Dream and start walking around in my sleep, what will Nick do? Will he know I'm only dreaming?
I'll have to tell Nick about the Dream...
They both spoke at once, and both stopped to allow the other to talk which led to another embarrassed lull.
“I have this nightmare,” Nick's voice drifted through the darkness, “A dream that I can't control...”
Ian sat upright.
“Yeah. I never thought anything of it the first time, but it's so real when it hits me...”
They talked for a long time, about their dreams, discussing the ways that they each had tried to loosen the grip of the nightmare spawned by the insanity of the War. And they had come to the same conclusion.
They couldn't fight it alone. They would need each other to keep the Dream at bay.
Nick suggested that they sleep in shifts. That way they could watch each other.
“Eight hours sound okay to you?” Nick asked.
“Well, we could try it. I don't know how long I usually sleep in a day anymore. I threw my watch away.”
“I got one,” said Nick, holding up his arm and pulling back his sleeve to show it to Ian. “So, who goes first, you or me?”
Ian took a deep breath and let out a sigh, shrugging his shoulders “I guess it doesn't matter. I don't feel tired.”
“Me neither,” said Nick smiling, “But one of us will have to try.”
Actually, he had lied to Nick. Ian did feel tired, but although he had opened up to Nick while they were talking about the Dream, Ian still wasn't sure enough of Nick's intentions to trust Nick to watch him while he was sleeping. He wanted Nick to sleep first, and decided that if Nick agreed to sleep first, it would prove the survivalist's trust in him.
Ian was suspicious of Nick's motives. Could Nick be shamming friendliness until he was offered an opportunity to get rid of him? Would he kill me in my sleep?
“We'll draw straws,” Nick said, reaching forward and pulling an unburned twig from the fire. He snapped it in two, a long piece and a short one, and held one piece in each hand to show the difference in lengths. Covering them with his hands, Nick rearranged the twigs and held them out to him with one hand.
“Short straw sleeps first,” Nick said smiling.
Ian hesitated, suspecting that Nick had rigged the game. “Did you ever play scissor-paper-rock?” Ian asked.
Nick looked puzzled. “No, what is it?”
“Just a kid's game,” Ian told Nick. “You make one of three signs with your hands. The one for scissors is like this...“ He held his fore and index finger out like a horizontal peace sign, the same sign that Churchill had used in the Second World War as the `V' for Victory sign.
“...And for paper, you hold your hand like this...” Ian held his hand up, fingers flat and squeezed together, thumb parallel to his fingers.
Nick laughed. “You look like Adolph Hitler.”
Ian was upset by Nick's remark, and laughed uncomfortably. Nick knew the laugh was forced. “Well that's the way you looked to me. That's the way he used to salute his troops, just flipping up his arm like that.”
It struck Ian that there was probably someone alive at that very moment who had ordered the deaths of a hundred times more people than Hitler, and that no one would ever know who he was.
“Are you okay?”
Ian looked at Nick blankly.
“Are you okay?” Nick asked again.
“Yeah. I'm sorry, I guess I clued out...”
“So what's rock?” Nick asked, trying to dispel the mood that had enveloped them.
Ian held his clenched fist up, and smiled in spite of himself. Nick smiled back and went through the three signs, calling them out as he went, “Scissors... paper... rock...”
“Right,” Ian said, “Scissors cut paper, paper wraps around rock, a rock dulls the scissors. So if only two people are playing, one person beats the other.”
Nick caught on. “So if I make the sign for scissors and you make the sign for paper, I win, right?”
“Right,” Ian said, “And you get to sleep first...” He hoped that Nick wouldn't notice that he'd switched the game around so that the winner was actually the loser...
“No, winner watches first,” said Nick emphatically.
“Okay. On three,” Ian said, “One... Two... Three!”
Ian decided on rock. So did Nick. They tried again. Scissors. Apparently paper had no appeal for either of them, and the silly child's game had suddenly taken on a seriousness for which it had never been intended. For the third try, they both eyed each other, trying to determine which sign the other would take. Ian figured that Nick would take rock again, so he would take paper.
They tried again and Nick chose scissors. Nick would watch first.
Ian crawled into his sleeping bag convinced he wouldn't be able to sleep at all. The fear of the Dream had been heightened by their discussion, and was compounded by his mistrust of Nick. The two fears bubbled inside Ian's mind, making him uneasy and out of sorts.
Ian took one from the pack in his pocket and lit it. Nick glanced up from adding more branches to the fire.
“You'll kill yourself smoking those things,” commented Nick, “Smoking dehydrates the body, and lowers the smoker's resistance to radiation.”
Ian shrugged back, but he only smoked half the cigarette before he stubbed it out on a rock. Nick was sitting beside the fire, staring into the dancing flames.
“It's strange,” said Nick softly, “I thought I was ready for this but the more I see of it, the more I realize that no one can prepare for this kind of a world. No one could have known-”
Ian's eyes fluttered and closed, as sleep crept up on him and enveloped him in a velveteen blackness that washed Nick from his consciousness and filled his body with its warmth.
But the darkness stayed with him only briefly, and he awoke with a start.
Ian sat up and looked around him. The fire was still burning, but Nick was gone. He was only a dream, he thought sadly, staring into the empty shadows beyond the circle of light from the fading fire. Nick never existed. Ian wanted to hear the sound of Nick's boots on the bare rock outside the cave, but only the soft flap of the plastic waving in the breeze broke the silence.
Ian lit a cigarette and drew deeply on the thin tobacco-filled paper tube. He pulled it quickly from his mouth and stared at it. It has no taste! I'm still dreaming! The hair on his scalp rose as the old dread grew within him. He had been tricked by the Dream again, and had dropped his guard.
As the creeping fear took hold of him, Ian could hear the murmur: the Dream People calling his name. He backed away from the fire, retreating to the rear of the cave, and huddled against the rock, trying to block out the voices calling his name. Ian stared into the darkness as the barely defined shadows by the entrance of the cave began to move towards him.
Then, suddenly from out of nowhere, a black shape launched itself at him and grabbed him by the arms just above his elbows and shook him. Ian screamed, but the dark figure held him firmly in its grasp. A voice called to him from another world. A voice that was strong and audible over the calls of the Dream People.
The shape that held him shook him harder, and he could hear a voice telling him to wake up. But he couldn't. The Dream was too powerful. I can't wake up! The Dream People had found him and he was held helpless as the shape mutated into a disfigured corpse.
“No!” he whispered, “ I can't wake up! I can't wake up!”
A sharp stinging pain hammered against the side of his face and broke Ian free of the Dream.
“Sorry,” Nick apologized, “But I had to hit you to wake you up.”
“That's okay,” Ian whispered hoarsely, “How long was I asleep?”
“About twenty minutes or so.”
“That long, huh?”
“About that. I figured you had woken up at first until you started dragging on that cigarette without lighting it. You just went through the motions of lighting it. That's how I knew you were dreaming.”
Ian smiled at Nick. “And you said smoking wasn't going to help me!” They laughed, knowing that as a team, the terror of the Dream was coming to an end.
For the next eight hours Nick watched over Ian, pulling him free of the Dream again and again.
And now it's my turn to watch him. I've woken him three or four times already, but the Dream hasn't come for him for over an hour now.
In a few days, we won't have to watch each other at all, and we can both sleep a lot easier.
I can hardly believe it. One day soon the Dream will have faded forever...
He knew that it would be over soon. He wouldn't need the notebook to bear his soul anymore, now that he had someone to talk to. He was about to lose his final link with the Warworld.
He decided to take the battered journal with him when he visited the psychiatrist. He knew that it wouldn't prove the existence of the Warworld to her, but she might be able to see something significant that he had missed which would help him come to grips with the madness.
Perhaps she would be able to resolve the conflict between what he saw around him and what he felt was true. The fact that the War could still break into the Otherlife at any moment whether he was insane or not terrified him.
If it does break through, then I'm not as crazy as everyone wants me to believe. My reality will have been proved, and all those who want me to accept the Otherlife as an absolute will have been wrong.
But there is no triumph in knowing that I was right. There is no honor in victory if millions have to die merely to reinforce my sense of reality. Right and wrong hold no significance under the threat of nuclear war. The value of each human life negates any philosophical or moral judgement used to excuse its termination. Death, violent needless death, can never be justified. Without Life, there is no justice, no morality, no ethics.
There is no Truth.
And there is no Reality...
He stopped writing, knowing that he wasn't writing for himself anymore. He was attempting to justify himself to the psychiatrist he would show the book to, and he knew his writing should go beyond that. I want everyone to read it. I want them to see beyond the apparent calmness of their lives and look into the face of the madness that threatens to explode upon them at any moment...
He shook his head, knowing in his heart that he would probably never get the chance. He was just another doomsayer in a world of doomsayers. Throughout human history there had always been self-proclaimed prophets who have predicted the end of the world. Ian thought of the radio evangelist. How can I make my voice heard amongst the babble?
He held the book close to his heart, knowing that if he claimed that what he had written was true, he would be declared insane, and if he claimed that his writing was fiction, it wouldn't have the force necessary to change the things that he thought should be changed.
It's only fiction.
An alternate future.
A world with no future at all...