Copyright© 2010 by Shakes Peer2B
General Howard was an anomaly in the post-sickness era. Good health prior to contracting the sickness seems to have been a prerequisite for those of us who survived outside. Not so for those in the President's bunker. When I saw him, I knew immediately that, beyond helping retrieve the information we wanted, Howard would not be the man for the job of finding and disarming the bombs. General Victor Howard was the epitome of the armchair General. He was so overweight that his uniform threatened to pop its buttons. His white hair glistened with sweat and he wheezed from the exertion of getting himself down the stairs from the 747's hatch as he and some of the others came out to meet the helicopter's return.
But, I'm getting ahead of myself.
As soon as it looked like we were going to be able to make a deal with the former President, I asked Amanda to put together a task force and head out toward Edwards. By that time, the scavenger gangs in Barstow and the other nearby cities knew better than to screw with one of our mobile groups, so I wasn't as worried about sending women with the expeditions, and I wanted some backup in the vicinity of the former Air Force base in case some of those who stayed with Air Force One were not as accommodating as Wyndham.
The upshot of our talks was that Wyndham and his wife, Elizabeth, decided to stay with us in exchange for persuading General Howard to get the nuclear arsenal data we needed to send out an expedition to disarm the nukes. We hadn't made any trades with any of our other citizens, but I didn't want Wyndham's political mind to start thinking we owed him any favors. Gunny, Seamus O'Donnell, and I piled into the Huey that had been temporarily designated Marine One with the president and those of the Secret Service guys who didn't think that life in the Mojave Desert was their cup of tea.
It was growing dark in the desert by the time we took off. When we landed, no one else seemed to be looking, but I caught the shadowy outlines of the three Hummers Amanda's group had taken just off the runway, and felt a little better about sticking my head in the lion's mouth. Gunny and Seamus were about the best fighting men on the planet at the time, and by then, I was pretty good, too, but Presidents are always surrounded by lots of armed people and there was no telling which way any of them would jump when they finally realized that their whole reason for existence didn't exist anymore.
There were lights on the tarmac from the chopper and the plane, as well as from a fuel tanker and a tractor that the 747's crew had brought out to the apron. It was full dark in the desert, but full dark on a cloudless night with no pollution provides plenty of light for eyes that know what to look for. I could see Gunny and O'Donnell doing the same thing I was - checking the positions of the lights, while not looking directly at them. If it came down to a firefight, the lights would be among the first casualties.
"Gavin Thompson," Mark Wyndham said, indicating me, "this is General Howard, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and his adjutant, Colonel Nicholas Leahy."
"Pleased to meet you," I lied, sizing up the fat man and the closed-face adjutant.
"Likewise," Howard replied distractedly, briefly touching my hand with limp fingers. For a moment I considered grabbing the hand and giving it a good firm grip, but decided breaking the hand of the guy of whom I was about to ask a favor was not a good idea.
I guess I couldn't blame him. Wyndham, of all people, would be acutely aware of the protocol for introductions that dictates naming the most important person first. Being a DC insider, Howard, too, would know that Wyndham had placed my importance above his.
Gunny and O'Donnell came inside the plane with me, but stayed outside the conference room as I accompanied Wyndham and most of his Cabinet inside.
"Ladies and Gentlemen," Wyndham began, "this may be our last official meeting. As you know, we have flown over much of the United States and landed in a number of places, and have found only small pockets of humanity, most living hand-to-mouth off of the remnants of our former society."
There were a number of reluctant nods, and all the faces at the table were somber. They knew the implications of that for their life's work without being told.
"Mr. Thompson, here," he gestured in my direction, "has collected more than five hundred people in the desert to the east, and has formed alliances with other groups nearby. Unlike the rest of the people we have seen, he and his people are making strides toward building a society of their own, instead of just living off the dregs of what was left by the Sickness. As you may have realized by now, the country we once governed no longer exists. All that remains for us is to clean up after ourselves and decide how we will spend the rest of our lives."
No one spoke as the former President paused and looked around the room.
"Mr. Thompson has agreed to make a place among his people for any of us who wish to remain here, provided we agree to his conditions. In exchange, he's asked that we undertake one last official task - the disarming of our nuclear weapons."
This time, the pause was filled with murmuring as those around the table discussed this little bit of information.
"How can they live in the desert like that?" One middle-aged woman asked.
"Would you like to answer that, Mr. Thompson?" Wyndham passed it on to me.
"I won't lie to you, ma'am," I said, without getting up. "It's hot and we don't have air conditioning. You grow accustomed to the heat and the conditions, over time. We do have electricity and plenty of water. In fact, our living quarters have running water, but the bathrooms are shared, as are the cooking facilities. We put up with those conditions because we figure that by the time the scavengers get this far, we'll be strong enough to keep them from messing with us. We're already scouting other places for when we get too numerous for our current location. This is temporary - kind of an incubator to give us a fighting chance when we start spreading out."
"Do you anticipate having to fight a lot?" a balding, fit-looking gentleman asked.
"We hope to get strong enough that we don't have to fight much," I answered, "but if the need arises, we intend to win. That's why everyone gets trained in fighting and desert survival. We have already established a reputation among the scavengers in the nearby cities and towns that keeps them at a distance."
"What about food?" A silver-haired man asked.
"We grow our own beef, lamb, and pork, and some vegetables. We also have trade agreements with some farmers in the San Joaquin valley. You won't find anything fancy on our tables, but we eat well, and most of what we eat, we produce or trade for. We do have some canned and boxed goods that we include in the menu now and then, but mostly just to use it up before it goes bad."
"Wait a minute," a youngish brunette said. "You said everyone gets trained in fighting and - what was it? Oh yes, desert survival. Does that mean we'll have to have this training, too?"
"If you want to live among us, yes," I answered. "One of our rules is that everyone takes the training, and to reinforce that, you settle your own differences with each other. That often comes down to a fight. We don't use weapons on each other, but you're expected to take care of yourself, and if it does come to a battle between us and any outside force, everyone will be expected to fight. This is the desert, ma'am, and there are no free rides. If you want to enjoy the security we offer, then you help make us secure."
"So is that all you do?" The bald guy asked, "Eat and fight?"
"We have a number of projects going that our people are working on, as well as maintenance of the compound, the generator, the gardens, the herds, and so forth. In addition, we send out exploratory expeditions now and then, and we have detachments providing security for some of our allies, not to mention standing a regular schedule of watches for our own facilities. There's plenty for everyone to do, but most of our folks find it a lot less stressful than the nine-to-five jobs they used to work. Oh yes, one of the most important tasks we have is making babies. Not everyone is successful in that effort, of course, but everyone enjoys trying."
I kept glancing at General Howard and Colonel Leahy, but it was becoming pretty obvious that Howard had no interest in joining us. Leahy's face gave nothing away.
Finally Wyndham brought the conversation back around to our original purpose.
"Okay, you know as much as you're likely to about what it will be like here," he said, "those of you who are willing to give it a try will be given a printed sheet of rules. You need to agree to abide by them before you can be accepted. General Howard, are you willing to cooperate in the effort to find and disarm the nuclear weapons?"
"I'm going back to D.C.," Howard said with finality, "I can live out my life in comfort in that bunker, and I'd much rather do that than sweat my balls off in this heat. If someone else is willing to act as courier to bring the list back here, I'll give it to 'em, but once I get back to Washington, I'm not leaving again."
That didn't surprise me, and though I saw a look of disapproval on Wyndham's face, it apparently didn't surprise him, either.
"Is someone willing to bring that list back here, so that we can launch an expedition from here?" he asked.
"I will," Leahy answered, raising his stock in my book considerably, "and if you'll have me, when I get back I'd like to stay."
"B-but, Nick," Howard spluttered, "What will I do without you?"
"Frankly, Victor," Colonel Leahy answered, "I don't give a good goddamn. I've wiped your fat ass long enough, and I'm sick of it. If this is what it takes to make me feel like a man, and a soldier again, then this is what I'll do."
"That's insubordination! I'll have you thrown in the stockade, you ungrateful little pipsqueak!" Howard's face turned purple with outrage. "Guards! Guards!"
"Gunny, Seamus, let's keep this private, shall we?" I said into my throat mike. "We've already got enough people at this party. Don't need any gate-crashers."
Leahy's mask cracked for the first time as he gave me a grin, then turned stone cold eyes on his former boss. I could hear the sounds of a scuffle outside the door, but it stayed closed.
"You obese, self-indulgent, brown-nosed asshole!" Leahy told the General, "The only army that's still got any clout around here is the one that this man commands, or haven't you noticed that yet? You can yell until you're blue in the face, but you can't stop me from doing what I've promised to do. You no longer hold my career in the palm of your hand, so you can't blackmail me into sucking up to you anymore!"
Howard sputtered and spluttered for a while before he came up with the only response available to him.
"In that case, I won't turn over the list!" he wheezed. "I'll keep it for myself and sell it to the highest bidder!"
"That will be a good trick, Victor," Leahy spat, opening the briefcase before him and removing a file folder, "I was trying, one last time, to save you a little face and not tell everyone that you hadn't the foggiest idea where that list was, but you had to go and be yourself."
Turning to me, he handed over the file folder, which was cryptically labeled, but contained a number of laser printed sheets of paper with the names and locations of facilities, the locations of nuclear weapons in those facilities, and the number of weapons stored at each location, broken down by type. At the back of the folder was a complete description of each type of weapon.
"This is the only copy in existence," he said. "It was considered too sensitive to leave on a computer. Some of the weapons listed there may have been loaded onto ships or submarines, but that was updated only a month before the sickness, so it should lead you to most of them. I'll be happy to help your people find the facilities, and provide access codes as well."
"Traitor!" Howard screamed, pulling a nine millimeter automatic from somewhere in his voluminous uniform and pointing it at Leahy. "The penalty for treason is death!"