Tom handed over the cutlery for her to dry. “My parents split when I was eight. Then my dad got remarried and he and my stepmom started cranking out babies. It was okay. Kids are cute.”
“Where’s your family now?” she asked.
“What do you mean?”
“They live in Maryland, right outside D.C.” In the Coleman’s light, his features were flattened and void of color, all except the darkling shadows beneath his eyes. “That’s about as ground zero as you can get.”
“And you say I watch too many movies. Tom, you’re making an awful lot of assumptions. We have no idea what’s going on.”
“You’re right.” Tom huffed out a breath. “Hang around a war zone long enough, you begin to always assume the worst. Sorry. So … what about your parents?”
She didn’t stop to think about sugarcoating it. “My parents are dead.”
His face fell. “I’m sorry.”
“Don’t be. You didn’t know.”
“How long have you been alone?”
That surprised her. After the initial shock and embarrassment—why people were embarrassed she never did understand, unless it was one of those better you than me moments—people asked how her parents died. The way they asked always bothered her, as if they had this, well, hunger for bad news. Like when people slowed down to look at an accident or gathered to watch lions feed at the zoo.
“Couple years, but I’m not really alone. I live with my aunt near Chicago.” She paused. “You really think the cities aren’t safe?”
“Depends.” He was silent a moment, still staring into the dirty dishwater, and then he said, “I think I know a way we can find out.”
The icy wind was a steady nor’wester from Canada, soughing through the lookout tower’s struts with enough power to make the metal hum. Wrapped in the ranger’s heavy sheepskin coat, Alex shivered as much from the metal’s moan as the cold. The deeply emerald light of a waning three-quarter moon bathed the landscape in a dank gray-green. The color reminded Alex of a pond at high summer when the algae bloomed.
At the very top of the tower, seventy feet above the ground, a walkway ran on all four sides of a square cab. Inside the cab was a waist-high table, and on the table squatted two pieces of equipment, one protected by a plastic sheath and the other by a dark metal, vaguely military-looking rectangular box with six metal clasps. Beneath the plastic sheath was a digital, battery-powered CB just as dead as all their electronics. She aimed the flashlight at the metal box as Tom forced the squalling clasps spotted with rust.
“I didn’t want to say anything around Ellie,” he said, levering the last clasp. “I’d half decided to wait until tomorrow when it’s light. Nearly everything looks better during the day, but now’s as good a time as any.”
“What is it?” The main body of the unit was light gray, but the face was a darker gray-green, like the moonlight, and studded with controls, some lever-type dual controls that could be clicked from one setting to another and others like the round knobs Alex knew from Aunt Hannah’s gas stove. There was a very large control knob in the center that controlled a black dial scored with white numbers and hash marks. Alex read the bold, silvered letters—HEATHKIT—and above that, in a much smaller inset, SB–101.
“Old ham radio receiver is my guess. I’ve seen guys who use these in hunting cabins.” Tom pointed to a coil of wires spooling off the table to a car battery. “All you need is the inverter here to make sure you don’t fry the radio, and you’re set.”
“Will it work?”
“It should. This is old, which means pre-solid-state. The guts are tubes, not transistors. Of course, that presupposes there’s someone transmitting.”
“Well, we can’t be the only normal people left on earth,” she said. “There have got to be other old radios like this out there, and if the cars don’t work, there are still plenty of batteries. Besides, worst case scenario—if you’re right and it’s all of North America—there are other countries. Someone’s got to be somewhere.”
The radio worked. Tom zeroed out the frequency and then slowly goosed the large dial, moving with exquisite care like a safecracker listening for the telltale click of a tumbler. There were no speakers, and they shared the one headphone, Tom turning up the volume loud enough that the crackle of static sounded like a hard rain on tin. There was a great deal of static, in fact; too much, Tom said, especially for a cloudless night, which meant there must be a lot of atmospheric interference.
“But what does that mean?” she asked.
“Shh.” He fiddled with the large dial, feathering it with two fingers. “I think …”
Through the static sizzle, Alex heard a soft murmur and then a single word: … control …
“Wait, wait!” she cried. “Right there!”
“I got it, I got it—hang on.” The radio let out a sudden sawtooth crackle of static. “Here,” Tom said. “I think—”
“… firestorms …,” the radio spat. “… lantic seaboard …”
“What?” Alex said.
“… system failures … ground-based … secondary nuclear events …”
“Oh Jesus,” said Tom.
“What? Nuclear? What does that mean?” Alex asked. “Do you understand what he’s saying?”
“I think so.”
“In a bit.” Tom’s free hand found her icy palm and held on. “I know you want it all right this second, but let’s see how much we can get out of this, okay? If one guy’s broadcasting, there’s got to be another, and there are people in other countries, and then we’ll have a better picture.”
Picture? Of what? How could doomsday get any better? She didn’t want to wait; she wanted the answer now. But instead she gritted her teeth and concentrated on parsing words from the static: “… under the age of … children … panic …”
More words, broken by sputters of static, dribbled from the headphones, words that were phantoms woven from thin air, spinning a nightmare. When that signal faded, they got another, this time from England, and then another from somewhere in Africa.
By the end of it all, her eyes were still dry, but Tom’s hand gripped hers hard enough to hurt.
“So that’s why the moon is green.” In the kitchen, next to the woodstove, Alex hugged a mug of tea from which all the heat had long since gone. Two hours ago, they’d been scarfing Oreos, and now the world was in flames. Well, half the country, which was enough. “I remember now. We studied Krakatau in world history. After that blew, the sunsets were bloody and the moon was blue and green because of all the ash in the air. Our teacher said that the sky in that scream painting by Munch? He painted it that way because he’d actually seen it, right after Krakatau.” She looked across at Tom. “It’s the same, isn’t it?”
“Maybe.” Tom hesitated. “If what we heard is right. It might not be, though.”
“Tom, we’ve heard it a couple times over from different people in different countries, so there has to be some truth to it.”
“Unless they’re just repeating a story.”
“But the story makes sense, doesn’t it? You wipe out power and communications with a bunch of those e-bombs. Boom. No power, nothing works. That guy from England said there were enough all over the world to knock out just about every country.”
“But it might be only rumors. People panic. They can’t know for sure without satellites.”
“Which are gone. You’re the one who said that would happen. You know that means there’s no Space Station either. Without computers, they can’t come back here, and nothing works up there. So they either suffocated or froze, and now they’re orbiting in that big, dead tin can; they’ll be up there until the orbit decays and they burn up.”
“It still might not be everywhere,” Tom said stubbornly. “We only picked up five broadcasts.”
“We were lucky to get those. Besides, you thought of this days ago. What did you call it? Mutually assured destruction? Well, you were right; good for you.”
“You know, I didn’t want to be right about this.”
“Maybe not, but hey.” Alex let out a bitter laugh. “You called it.”
“Not all of it.” Tom’s face was bone-white in the Coleman’s light. His mouth was a black gash. “I didn’t think about e-bombs and targeting nuclear waste storage facilities.”
“More bang for the buck.”
“No, the facilities wouldn’t explode like an atomic bomb.”
“Same diff. You’re not the only geek in the universe; I had a very weird physics teacher who really got into doomsday, especially after that earthquake in Japan when those reactors in Fukushima started going critical. Besides, it’s not that hard to understand. You set off bombs over the facilities, the water cooling the waste rods vaporizes, the rods melt and release radioactive steam, and then boom! Just like back in the eighties, with Chernobyl. Do you know how fast the core overheated there?”
“Only a few seconds after they tried to scram the reactor.” Her eyes stung, and she could feel the bright burn of panic in her chest. “Like I said, he was a real geek. We spent two whole days on Chernobyl. It took something like forty seconds for the temperature to spike and radioactive steam to build up to the point where that first boiler blew. Forty seconds. The fires went on for weeks, and that released even more radiation. That’s what’s happening out there, over and over and over again, only it’s a thousand times more destructive because the facilities are bigger. Come on. You’re the explosions guy; you know about firestorms and pressure waves from nuclear explosions. Everything melts or vaporizes, and that’s just the first day.”
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