The sound of the cannon had left a ringing in his ears. Ian held his grandfather's hand, and as each cannon sounded, the old man's hand flinched almost imperceptibly. He wondered what made Grandpop jerk like that. He thought of Grandpop as being God on Earth, and it puzzled him that the explosion of the cannon had caused the old man to flinch. He had no clear picture of war and no understanding of the reflex that it had imprinted for life upon his grandfather, a man who had learned of his own mortality at too early an age.
His grandfather's medals clinked as the old man brought his right hand smartly up in a salute. One of the medals, a bronze one with a star on it, fell, having broken loose from the ribbon that held it, and lay on the wet, grey ground.
He slipped his hand from his grandfather's and picked the medal from the pavement. Ian wanted to hand the medal back to his grandfather, but the old man still stood rigidly at attention, his arm still raised in a salute, staring straight ahead at something Ian was too short to see, so he held it in the palm of his hand trying to make some sense out of the writing on the medal. Ian was too young to be able to interpret the mystic symbols of written language, but he was left with the impression that something of great value had been lost, and could never be recovered.
Another cannon fired and Ian jerked. Reflexively, his tiny hand tightened around the medal and the open pin stuck into his palm. He cried out and his grandfather knelt down beside him. The old man brushed away the tears from Ian's eyes.
“There, there, Ian,” Grandpop said softly. “You'll be okay.”
The old man took the medal from Ian and stared at it sadly. Ian looked at his grandfather and was concerned.
“It didn't hurt, Gran'pop,” He reached out and wrapped his arms around the old man's neck. “I'm okay.”
They hugged each other tightly.
Another cannon fired and Ian jumped and Grandpop hugged him tighter, rocking him gently.
“Oh my poor little boy,” Grandpop whispered in his ear, “My poor little boy. I love you so much! I love you so much...”
Ian felt a tear drop onto his cheek and he leaned his head back and stared at the old man. His grandfather was crying. Ian squeezed against his grandfather and hugged him as tight as he could.
“I love you too, Gran'pop. I love you too.”
Ian stared across the fire at Nick, knowing that he probably would never know the human being inside the man. No one he had ever known had been the person he had first imagined them to be. Unless he could be certain of who Nick really was, he would slip back into the Dream and the veneer of the hollow projection he saw as Nick would dissolve before his eyes and he would find himself alone, trapped within the Dream.
Ian reached behind him and his fingers curled around the handle of his knife. He didn't want to use it, but he had to know if his world was real.
I have to know...
“Nick?” Ian asked. Or did Nick call him? The world around him began to slide.
Nick looked at him quizzically.
Ian shook his head and his hand came away from the knife. “You okay?” A look of concern. Nick started to stand.
“I... I need help, Nick,” Ian stammered, “I can't...” Nick was beside him, placing his hand on his shoulder. The hand was heavy. Solid.
The world steadied. He looked up at Nick.
“I don't know if I can handle it Nick,” Ian whispered, “I just... I'm not like you. I'm not ready for this, Nick.”
“Hey,” Nick said softly,“I wasn't ready either. None of us were.”
“It's the Dream, Nick. If it wasn't for the Dream-”
Nick stood up and walked towards the fire, hands resting on his hips, stared at the roof of the cave, and let out a long sigh.
“It could have been worse,” Nick said.
“No.” Nick turned to look at Ian “The War. It could have been worse,” Nick gestured around them. “This is nothing!”
“All-out War is nothing?” Ian asked Nick incredulously.
“It wasn't all-out war.”
“You saw the bomb that took out the city?”
“One megaton blast at the most. Maybe two. A bomb like that can set a fire that would cover two hundred and fifty square miles. Instantly! The combined TNT equivalent in the world's nuclear arsenals was supposed to be around twenty billion tons...”
Ian looked up at Nick.
“A billion is a thousand million, right?”
The figures simply wandered around in Ian's brain. He couldn't put them together.
“Look at this...”said Nick picking up a small stick and tracing a circle in the dust on the floor of the cave.
“This circle has a radius of nine and a half miles, a diameter of nineteen miles. It's the size of the fire created by a one megaton airburst. It has an area of two hundred and eighty some square miles.”
Nick glanced up to see if Ian was watching, then traced a straight line that bisected the circle and extended beyond the perimeter in both directions. He added another circle the same size as the first so that the two circles touched at the point where the straight line intersected them and the second circle was also bisected by the line. He added another on the other side of the first circle, so that he had three circles side by side along the line. He drew another straight line through the middle of the centre circle at a right angle to the first, and added another circle above and below it.
“Say this is the way that the bombs are detonated. Nineteen and a half miles apart in a grid pattern...”
Ian nodded and Nick added four more circles to the pattern so that each of them touched two of the outside circles, and he had threelines of three circles each.
“Okay,” Nick said, drawing a square around the centre circle so that it touched the circle where the two original straight lines crossed the perimeter. “If this pattern is carried off in every direction, you can see that each circle touches an adjacent circle at four different places. There's a gap here...”
Nick pointed his stick at one of the corners of the square, “You can see that four of these gaps are the same area as the gaps between four touching circles and to find the area of each gap we simply subtract the area of the circle from the area of the square...”
Ian nodded. “The square is what? Nineteen miles by nineteen miles. right?”
He picked up a stick and multiplied nineteen by nineteen in the dirt. Nick sat as he worked it out.
“Three hundred and sixty-one,” he announced finally. “Subtract two eighty from that,” said Nick.
“Eighty-one square miles,” Ian said slowly as the mathematics ground out the figures. He never had been a whiz at math.
“And what's going to happen to that area in an attack like this?” asked Nick, “It'll burn, right?”
Ian nodded again.
“Okay, the area covered by twenty billion tons TNT equivalent is five million square miles, but if you add another eighty square miles for each megaton, you have to add another eighty times twenty thousand is...” Nick paused as he multiplied, “One million, six hundred thousand square miles. Our total burned out area would be six million, six hundred thousand square miles!”
“Wow!” Ian exclaimed, “That must be the whole of the Earth!”
Nick smiled. “No, not the whole Earth. The Earth is just a touch under two hundred million square miles, but of that only about sixty million square miles is land.”
“Well, that still leaves a lot of land left over,” Ian argued, “So an all-out attack would only take up a small part of it.”
“True, but remember that the pattern I described is the immediate incineration from the thermal pulse. How far apart would the detonation have to be before the fires wouldn't join?”
“Oh,” Ian said, seeing Nick's point. It would be impossible to calculate.
“Then, instead of using that for our formula, let's use the area contaminated strictly by local fallout. That area depends on the height of the detonation and the wind velocity present at the time of the attack.”
“Let's say that all our bombs are ground burst and the wind velocity is fifteen miles per hour. Okay, the area downwind from a single explosion that will become contaminated by lethal doses of radiation would be two and a quarter thousand square miles.”
“So you add that to the burned area?” Ian asked.
“No.” Nick shook his head. “The burned area is within the zone that would be contaminated, so you would ignore it for this purpose. So then you have a figure of-” Nick multiplied the numbers on the ground with his stick, “...forty million square miles!”
“That's coming pretty close to blanketing everything,” Ian declared looking at Nick.
Nick nodded. “Now for the bad news...Of the sixty million square miles that forms the continental land mass, a fifth of it is too cold for agricultural use, a fifth is too dry, another fifth is too high. And another tenth is infertile for various reasons. Which leaves us with three tenths of the surface that has potential for agricultural production. Note, I said potential. It isn't all used.
“So that gives us only eighteen million square miles that can be used for food production, and unfortunately, that is also where you will find close to a hundred per cent of the members of the human race. And that is where the bombs will be targeted...”
The impact of Nick's lecture sunk in and Ian was numbed. He had barely survived the greatest cataclysm that Humanity had ever witnessed; it was totally beyond his ability to imagine that it could have been worse. If the people of the Earth had lobbed everything they had at each other, he and Nick would have died instantly. And the ground where they had once stood would still be warm!
“So how much do you think was used?” Ian asked in amazement.
Nick shrugged. “I dunno. A few thousand megatons. Any more than that, and no one would have survived the first few hours of the War. You and I would have been incinerated in a continent-wide conflagration! And it depends on the tactics. If you use a barrage of small kiloton weapons, say sixty kilotons each, and detonate them in a blanket barrage instead of using the megaton hardware, the damage is spread over a wider area. A megaton of smaller bombs, say a thousand one-hundred kilotons apiece will spread the fire and radiation over ten times the area the single bomb could cover. That's what they mean by overkill. There's nowhere to run to. If there was any targeteers left, you could use the leftover missiles to hunt down the enemy one by one.”
“You think it's over, Nick?”
Nick shrugged. “Who knows? Your guess is as good as mine.”
Nick stared thoughtfully through the plastic barrier.
“Yeah.” he said finally, “I think it's over.”
“Then we're okay? We can pull out of this?” Ian asked hopefully.
Nick shrugged. “Who knows? I sure as hell don't. I'm alive now, and that's all that counts. What more can I ask for?”
“Yeah,” Ian said, agreeing with Nick. “But there's more to it than that, y'know? I'm alive, and that's what I want to be, but it's not enough. I want to know if we -if the human race- is going to pull through. I've seen only a few people that looked like they had a chance to survive, and not one of them is alive anymore.”
“Yeah, I know. I know. But you shouldn't think about it so much. Just let it ride, let it ride. Don't think too much about the future. There just might not be one...”
What a thought!
But Nick has a way of talking about the War that doesn't make it as forbidding. I like to listen to him talk. He makes the War seem more bearable. Talking to him makes me feel more secure than if I was writing to myself.
He's asleep right now, and it's my turn to watch him.
And now I'm writing again. If the radio worked, I could just sit here and listen to it. I could block out the thoughts of the War. I don't think I could take this god-awful silence without this book.
I told Nick about writing. He told me he'd read parts of it while I was sleeping. It upset me at first. It would mean he knew things about me that I'd never wanted to tell him.
But I think I feel okay about it now. I guess the things I'd written were really the things I had wanted to tell him -or anyone I could- about the fear and the loneliness.
We talked about what I had written, and we're more alike than we imagined. Once we stripped away the Otherlife roles we had set for ourselves, we found we could meet on common ground. As human beings. Friends.
The Dream has shattered all the illusions we had held about the nature of ourselves and consequently, each other, making both of us realize we had allowed intellectual arguments and attitudes to colour our perceptions of the world around us. We had lost the awareness of the fact we were human beings, that we were merely playing a superficial pre-written role, and that our roles were really secondary to the consideration of the well-being of the rest of Humankind.
Nick laughed when I told him that, and said that I thought too much. It's strange that I should repeat it on paper, but the idea has stuck in my head.
But like Nick says, that's not the way the world was.
And there's not much point in writing about the way the world should have been...
Ian was suddenly tired.
He put the book down and stretched his arms and legs. He glanced at Nick to see if he was asleep. Ian's thoughts became disjointed and he yawned, folding his arms across his chest. He looked down at Nick's watch. Only an hour to go...
Fatigue accelerated the transition to the dark oblivion of sleep, but Ian fell immediately through the blackness, and dropped instantly into the Otherlife. Without opening his eyes he knew what had happened. He sat on the edge of his bed, shaking his head from side to side. No, please, I want to go back.
But it wasn't that easy.
He opened his eyes and stared at the ceiling. I want to go back He tried to will the flat white surface above his head to dissolve into the rough rock of the roof of the cave, but it stayed flat and white. He lifted his arm and looked at his watch.
He held his aching head in his hands, resting his elbows on his knees. He didn't feel well and he knew he was suffering from mild symptoms of radiation sickness. He reached for his cigarettes on the night table, and fumbling with the package, stuck a cigarette into his mouth. His throat was sore. I need a drink first, he thought and stood up, pulling the cigarette from his mouth and setting it on the night table beside the phone.
As he walked past the entrance to the living room, Ian glanced at the boxes. Someone had moved them! They sat piled together beside the living room window as if they were waiting to be passed outside. He walked to the window and slid the moveable pane to one side and stuck his head through the opening. He stared down at the street. There was nothing down there. Ian had expected to see broken cases lying on the street. He pulled his head back in and touched the nearest box.
Ian shrugged and walked into the kitchen, extricating an unwashed glass from the jumble of dirty crockery that filled the sink. He ran the cold water, sticking his fingers under the faucet, and let the water run over his fingers. The ragged wounds on his arms were growing worse. I'll have to cover them up before I go out, he thought and stuck the mouth of the glass under the stream of water.
He drank all of the tepid water from the glass and filled it again. Without bothering to turn the tap off, he carried the glass back into the bedroom, setting it on the crowded night table. He picked up his lighter and the cigarette that lay beside it, then bent down and lifted the journal from the floor. He lit the cigarette and lay on the bed, settling down to read. He knew the reason for the boxes being moved would be found in the pages of the journal.
He opened the tattered cover of the book just as the telephone rang. Damn! he thought, cursing the interruption.
“Hi. It's Linda.”
“Hi,” Ian's annoyance dissolved at the sound of her voice. “What's up?”
“I... I was just phoning to remind you about the appointment this afternoon...”
“Are you going?” she asked.
“Yeah,” he lied, “I was just getting ready.”.
“I got time off work,” she told him.
“Great. Are you coming down?”
“I'll meet you there.”
“You are going, aren't you?” she asked suspiciously.
“Sure. Sure, why wouldn't I?”
“Okay, I'll see you,” she said hesitantly.
“Yeah. Good. I'll see you!” Ian said it with more enthusiasm than he really felt.
“Bye.” She hung up.
He put the receiver down and closed the book. It will have to wait, he thought.
Ian stood up and sighed.
Let's see... First a shower, shave... clean clothes... the journal. I have to take the journal. Ian immersed himself in preparing for his expedition to the clinic. He was confident that he was already on the road to recovery, that he could convince the psychiatrist he was in control of himself, and that Linda would come back to him. Everything is fine, he told himself as he walked into the bathroom.
But the image staring out at him from the mirror on the cabinet above the sink contradicted his confidence. His face was drawn and piqued, the skin dotted with tiny spots. As his eyes stared back at him from dark hollows, the trembling fingers of his right hand gently touched his mouth, his left hand rose to his cheek and both hands traced a line along his cheek bones to his temples and pushed into his receding hairline. As his fingers slid through his hair, wisps of it pulled loose from the scalp and fell to the floor. He held his hands out in front of him and stared in horror at the clumps of hair which stuck to them.
Ian pulled the mirror cabinet open to search the shelves behind it. There! He found what he was searching for. Linda's foundation make-up. He turned on both water taps in front of him and washed the hair from his hands. He opened the bottle of make-up and closed the cabinet, then dabbed his face with the skin-coloured liquid. He leaned forward to peer into the mirror as he rubbed the make-up into his skin, disguising the dark circles around his eyes and covering the tiny spots on his skin. He stepped back, tilting his head from side to side. Good enough.
Ian opened the cabinet and pulled a roll of gauze bandage from the shelf and placed it on the counter beside the make-up bottle. I can bandage my arms and wear a long-sleeved shirt. The day was hot and sunny, but he decided long sleeves wouldn't look all that strange.
Ian smiled at the thought of his deception, pleased with his guile and smiled at his reflection after he closed the cabinet. It won't hurt anyone. He didn't see why he should upset anyone when his sickness was only temporary anyway.
He turned on the shower taps and shed his clothes, leaving them scattered on the bathroom floor. He stuck his hand under the shower. Perfect! he thought and stepped inside the shower stall.
He revelled in the exquisite pleasure of the warm spray massaging his body. He picked the soap from the dish and rubbed it into a lather on his skin. The aching in his muscles dissolved in the warm water and ran down the drain. The water rejuvenated him and Ian felt that he was cleansing his mind as well as his body. What a shock for them all down at the clinic to find they've lost a looney. He giggled at himself, confident that he had finally recovered his senses.
Ian stayed in the shower until his palms and fingers wrinkled. He shut the taps off before he pulled back the shower curtain.
He couldn't believe his eyes.
The bathroom had vanished. He stared out in amazement at the interior of the cave. He turned and looked behind him at the ceramic tile of the shower stall. Gingerly he stuck his foot out of the stall and touched his toes to the cave floor. He had expected it to give way under his weight, but it didn't. It held. He stepped cautiously from the shower into the cave and found it to be exactly as he had left it. Nick was sleeping beside the fireplace. He looked back at the shower stall, but it had vanished.
That was easy, he thought. Ian wandered around the cave to check to see if anything had changed, but he couldn't find anything out of place.
Even the journal was where he had left it. He picked Nick's watch up from the rock he had been sitting on earlier.
Just in time to wake Nick...
Ian was naked. His clothes were piled haphazardly on the floor where he had stepped from the shower stall. He walked over and gathered them up. It took him a few minutes to get dressed, and he walked back to his rock. He checked Nick's watch again.
I'll give him a few extra minutes, Ian thought, Big day, today. He can use the extra rest...
He sat down and sighed. He waited to see if he would slip back into the Otherlife. He didn't.
Ian woke Nick and they ate a light breakfast of canned peaches and fried corned beef washed down with a tin of reconstituted evaporated milk. They were in good spirits and ignored the sluggishness that the radiation sickness generated within them.
“...I tell ya, I was surprised as hell when I found your truck down on the beach,” Nick was saying, “I'd had a bellyful of people, and I sure as hell didn't want to be bothered by anyone!”
Nick became suddenly quiet.
“Except for the Dream,” Nick said softly. “I thought I could work it out alone, y'know?”
Nick stood up.
“Ah, what the hell? No good sitting around jawin' about a goddamned dream!” Nick said heartily, “What say we haul this stuff down the hill and get your truck loaded?”
Ian glanced up at Nick, tossed his empty can into the fire, and stood up. “Okay, where do you think we should start?”
“Right!” Nick declared casting his gaze over the supplies, “First we should get the battery hooked up!”
“The battery should go last.” Ian was surprised at himself for sounding so determined.
The smile drained from Nick's face as the survivalist eyed Ian suspiciously. He laughed. “So. You don't trust old Nick!”
Ian became suddenly aware of Nick's intimidating bulk, and regretted using such a strong tone with him.
“You're learning!” Nick declared, slapping Ian on the back, “First rule of survival: Never trust anyone! Okay. Battery goes last! So, let's get the rest of this stuff loaded first!”
They hiked down the mountain with full packs, and by the time that Nick had force-marched them back to the cave, Ian was exhausted. Nick said that he would go back down with another load. So Ian waved goodbye to Nick and the survivalist disappeared down the hill.
Ian wandered back into the cave and began sorting what was left into packsack-sized piles, stacking them by the mouth of the cave. But he was tired and decided to lie down for a while.
Just to rest, I won't fall asleep...