Bullets Are Cheap, Funerals Are Expensive

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Action and Adventure  |  House: Booksie Classic
In God We Trust. Everyone else is a target.

Submitted: September 21, 2015

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Submitted: September 21, 2015

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Night shift patrol duty is getting boring.  I haven’t killed anyone in four months.  That’s okay by me.  It’s not the U.S. Army anymore.  They deduct the cost of ammunition from my pay.

Dad told me, “Join the Army.  It’s not like you’ll get into junior college with those grades and your non-existent study habits.  See the world, grow up, maybe you’ll be ready for the GI Bill and college in four years.”

I didn’t know joining the Army would save my life.  By the end of the first day of the war, both of my parents, my brother and sister, and almost everyone I grew up with were dead.

There are no colleges here but there is food and a place to sleep.  Not a lot in the way of government, beyond Centaur.  He had a different name when he was a general in the Army.  Back when there was a United States of America.  There may still be governments somewhere.  Not here.  Centaur makes the rules and administers justice.  His word is the government.

Everyone assumed the next big war would be called World War III.  I’ve never heard anyone refer to it that way.  It is just the war.  Lower case.  If a historian asks me, I’ll call it The War That Blew Up Or Burned Down Almost Everything And Poisoned The Rest.  Too many words to catch on but I dare anyone to be more descriptive.

It wasn’t until after the war that I learned about radiation and half-life.  How to use a Geiger counter.  How to put on a hazmat suit.  How to plow off the contaminated soil on top and get down to the clean stuff.  How to dig a mass grave with a backhoe.

The people who died first didn’t die of radiation.  They were burned to a crisp, or they were crushed by a concussion wave or a falling building.  It was a couple of days before the radiation deaths started.

After ten weeks, some radiation victims started showing improvement.  They were the exceptions.  Most of the radiation problems were solved with a funeral.

It’s been five years and we only see radiation poisoning occasionally now.  Some desperate idiot will go into a radiation zone hunting for who knows what.  We need everything.  A load of copper pipes will provide for you and your family for a year.  But we know what happens when someone gets exposed.  Always vomiting and diarrhea first. 

If it is a limited exposure, they may get better for a while.  Then die from internal bleeding and infections six weeks later.  Those who get a big dose go into a coma and die within 48 hours.

When I enlisted in the Army, I was a Private.  When the war started, I was a Private Second Class.  The sky was not my limit, it was much lower.  I would have never made it to Sergeant if I hadn’t discovered Tang.

Tang is a person, not a breakfast drink.  When I met him, he wasn’t a Colonel as he is today under Centaur.  He was in a cell at the police station in an abandoned town.  It was a few days after the war and chaos still ruled.  We were on the move hunting for uncontaminated ground to occupy.  That day, six of us were scouting ahead.  The Lieutenant told me to stand guard at the police station and wait for the rest of the force, a few hours behind.

Great.  Nothing like being in a jail in an abandoned town, with a gigantic, scowling black man on the other side of the bars.  I said, “The rest of us will be here in a couple of hours and the CO will decide what to do with you.”  He said, “I’ll tell you what, son.  If you let me go now, I promise I won’t kill you.  Otherwise, I’m going to fuck up you and your pissass Army.”

Great.  I didn’t say anything else.  I sat at the desk and read the log book.  My new friend had been arrested on four counts of aggravated assault.  The ER was already busy the night the bombs fell, thanks to him.

Turns out the town was not as abandoned as we thought.  A half hour later, the quiet was shattered as the jail was under siege.  I hit the deck when bullets started bouncing off of the building.  It was designed to handle small arms fire, and the door was locked.  Still, it will scare the shit out of you when you realize there is nothing but a wall between you and hot speeding death.

After an eternity of gunfire, which was probably about 30 seconds, there was a pause.  Then a voice over a megaphone.  “Hey Huckleberry Finn!  We’ve been watching, we know you are in there.  We don’t have a quarrel with you.  Send out your prisoner.  We have unfinished business.  Do that and we will be on our way.  Otherwise we set the building on fire.  Take your time, we’ll give you one minute to decide.  Clock starts now.”

My prisoner did not waste a moment.  “Son, those men want to kill me and they are not going to leave any witnesses.  Do what they say and they will set the building on fire anyway.  There are four of them, I can tell from the gunfire.  They are the rest of the gang, the ones I didn’t put in the hospital.”

“If you want to live, let me out and give me a pair of Glocks.  I’ll take care of these fuckers, then you’ll never see me again.  Forget what I said before, I was just busting your chops.”

I realized I had nothing to lose.  I put two guns on the table and unlocked his cell.  My M16 remained pointed at him.  He said, “Son, I’m going out as fast as I can.  I expect you to provide covering fire.  Be sure to aim over my head.”

He backed up and got a running start as I pushed open the door.  He was firing with both hands then belly flopped down behind a brick planter on the sidewalk.  Bullets were coming from the rooftop across the street.  I put two holes in someone’s chest.  A shot from behind the planter winged a second assailant.  The victim screamed, then disappeared around a corner.  There was yelling, car doors slamming, and wheels screeching.  Then silence.

My partner was on the ground, moaning.  I asked if he was hit.  He said, “No, I dislocated my shoulder when I dove for cover.  Old football injury.  If you’ll grab my wrist and pull as hard as you can on the count of three, we should be able to get it back in.  I did and he screamed as loud as the guy he just shot.  He panted and laid on the sidewalk for a few minutes.

I helped him up by his good arm, and told him “I owe you one, so you can take off if you want.  You should think hard about that.  You’ll run out of ammunition soon enough.  What will you do then?  A man by himself won’t last long out there.  Stick around, Centaur has liberalized recruitment policies since the war.  You’ll get three hots a day and someone will always have your back.  We can definitely use a crazy mother fucker like you.”

He said, “My name is Tang.  There’s a bar across the street.  The first round is on me.”

I knew Centaur would be mad when he found me drinking on duty.  But I wasn’t too worried.  An extra week of night patrol was about the worst he could afford to do to an otherwise contributing member of the team.  You can’t put someone in leg irons if you are trying to cover ground quickly.  He lost interest in punishment after he got the full story and realized I’d scored the best recruit we had found, since the world fell to pieces.

Aside from being an extremely violent alcoholic, fearless, and a good shot, Tang is an engineering genius.  He can build anything out of anything.  Give him an abandoned farm’s worth of junk and he can build a Jeep, a piano, or a cannon.  The piano sounds lousy and only has three keys, but it plays.  He only built it because I told him he couldn’t.  We use the Jeeps and the cannons as needed.

As we made our way across the scarred countryside, we encountered frequent resistance.  Some folks were dumb enough to think they could steal our supplies.  Some thought we should have to pay to move through their turf.  Others didn’t want to share water from a spring, or firewood, or berries growing in the forests.  Some shot first before bothering to ask if we intended to play nice. 

We lost some good men, but we never lost a battle.  Militia groups, drug or motorcycle gangs, prison escapees, the remnants of other military forces.  The details never mattered.  None were a match for an army led by Centaur.

What I have to say about war and killing is this.  I always pull the trigger when it is warranted.  But it would be fine with me if I was done with that.

An army cannot roam forever.  A man needs a place to hang his hat.  After three years of searching, Centaur declared our traveling days over.  We found the place we would make our stand.  Ironically, in a town named for America’s most famous last stand.  Custer, South Dakota.

Number one reason was low residual radiation levels.  Lots of other good reasons.  Buckhorn Mountain overlooks the town, our artillery would provide cover from all directions.  We built a recon tower on the peak, where you could see for miles in all directions.  Nearby, Stockdale Lake and Bismarck Lake provided relatively uncontaminated water.

The survivors in Custer were naturally suspicious of a large military force occupying their town.  There were a few unfortunate incidents early on.  But an uneasy peace gradually gave way to trust and they eventually adopted us.  The technology that Tang and his team created for the town was a big part of that.  And I was on the team.  Tang had picked me two years ago when Centaur promoted him to Colonel and put him in charge of the engineering company.

The first thing we did was modify the small dams at the each of the two lakes.  They were installed for flood control and to maintain a steady water level.  They were tiny compared to the pre-war giants America built to generate electricity.  But when you have no electricity at all, a little bit goes a long way.

It took six weeks to build and install the turbine and generator in the first dam.  We used a little bulldozer, a lot of sledge hammer and some concrete.  For the first time since the war, the hospital had a small but reliable source of electricity.  The second dam, on line a month later, turned on street lights that had been dark for years.  

The locals realized we provided a level of security they had not seen in a while.  The bands of rogues that were always making rounds were no match for us.  Over time, we have thinned them out or convinced them to move on.

Myself, I didn’t have anything to do with the dam project.  I was busy building the recon tower.  When Tang told me I was in charge of the project, I was flattered and terrified.  For the first time in my life, I had real responsibility.  It was a lot more complicated than shooting at whatever moved.

When I saw Tang’s team assembling one of the turbines, the light bulb went on in my head.  Why not use the tower as a support for a windmill?  Two birds with one stone.  A twelve foot blade would provide enough electricity to power our operations on top of the mountain.

When the windmill began cranking, and the perimeter lights came on, there was just one more thing to do.  Fly the flag over our new home.  Next to the tower, I’d mounted a pole I’d found at a burned out school.  Centaur handed the flag to me and said, “This is your baby, you do the honors for us today.”

After I secured the rope to the cleat, we saluted the Stars and Stripes.  Tang sang the national anthem, another of his talents.  The flag was worn, faded, and beginning to fray.  It didn’t matter.  It’s our flag.  It represents what we used to be.  And what we intend to be again.  If not us, a future generation.

That was two years ago.  We’ve come a long way.  We’ve restored all manner of old equipment and are able to make our own flags, among other things.  A brand new one now flies next to the tower.  We put the old one in a display case in the museum.  We will never forget.

And I have come full circle.  I am finally going to school!  But the strange thing is, I won’t be a student.  I am going to teach shop class at the new high school.  Tang says I have an honorary degree in makeshift engineering.  I guess Dad really did know what he was talking about. 


© Copyright 2017 Serge Wlodarski. All rights reserved.

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