The staff at Fort Irvin had put some of Diane’s people into two empty barracks. The rest returned to their homes in the civilian part of Fort Irwin, but without air conditioning, these homes were unbearable. With all the windows open it still took until past midnight for things to cool down enough for sleep. By 9:00 a.m. the following morning the thermometer began its relentless daily march toward 90 degrees.
Diane chose the barracks over her apartment. At least the rooms were large and open, and the windows were high and wide enough to let the cooling desert wind blow through. This wasn’t always a cool wind, but the barracks were still far more comfortable than her third-floor apartment. There was the other small matter of no functioning elevator. The climb to her apartment felt as sweat-inducing as the Mojave sun.
The population of Fort Irwin was formerly fed by trucked-in food, and the trucks were gone. No one knew for how long, so they set about trying to preserve some of the meat by salting and drying it. Fresh veggies were a bigger problem because very few residents knew how to preserve these items and the base had a limited number of suitable containers. Soon they were sending the two functioning military trucks out, but forays into the surrounding communities came back empty. No one had food to give. By the end of the third week, meals became monotonous, most of them canned tuna or peanut butter and jam sandwiches made with stale bread. Diane was losing weight, a good thing at the time.
By the fourth week, breakfast became a small bowl of oatmeal, lunch a bag of potato chips and a single piece of jerky, and supper a few strings of pasta soaked in canned tomato sauce. Every. Single. Night. Roasted rodents and birds of various kinds made an appearance, followed by edible cacti. The kids whimpered, often well into the morning’s small hours. Diane restricted herself to the morning bowl of oatmeal, but the kids kept whimpering. Eventually, they ran out of powdered milk and rationed water.
She’d got in the habit of rising early to avoid the midmorning bathroom crowd. The tube of toothpaste in her bag was now mostly spent, and she put little on her toothbrush. What am I doing this for? she wondered. Diane looked in the mirror. The last time she’d seen that many ribs was during a struggle with bulimia in her late teens. It was not a pleasant memory. She picked up her toiletries and walked out to greet the rising sun.
Her bag yielded a package of cigarettes, the one thing the base had not run out of. She lit up, listening to the sound of the match flaring and her own crackly draw on the smoke. Under a dead street lamp that hadn’t cast a shadow in three months, she found a solitary plastic lawn chair. She settled into it, put on her sunglasses and watched the sun’s half ball on the horizon until she was forced to look away. “You will eventually kill me, won’t you?” she said to it and drifted into a smoking trance.
She was brought back by an excitement of distant voices. Multiple trucks on the horizon. It took a moment to register what this was. They were coming with supplies! She counted the trucks—eight—and then slumped back down in the lawn chair. She wasn’t sure of the base’s current population, but it had swollen well beyond the 9,000 plus listed in the last census. Eight trucks would not cut it. She questioned her own mindset. This should be good news even if the amount was small, but everything that had happened in the past six weeks had thrown a pall over her life. She was starving, and she had lost her purpose. Motivation, it seemed to Diane, was an illusory concept. Still, she forced herself to get up and walk out to meet the coming convoy, if for no other reason than its value as a distraction, a temporary funk deflector.
The trucks had what she expected. Staples. Flour, rice, potatoes, beans, powdered milk, smaller amounts of fresh fruit and vegetables, canned everything especially protein, basic medical supplies, and wonder of wonders, a shortwave radio and a large water purifier, both with accompanying diesel generators. And mail. There were letters for people on the base including one for her.
She carried her prizes back to the barracks, an apple, a Mars Bar, and the letter. The apple was a Granny Smith with a hard outer skin. Biting into it made her gums bleed. She ate all of it including the inner bits, followed by the Mars Bar which she allowed to dissolve in her mouth, a soothing balm for bleeding gums. The letter she looked at but did not open, certain it would contain bad news about her parents or someone close. There was nothing on the envelope to indicate its source, but it was addressed to Diane in her official capacity as the head of Goldstone. Maybe it isn’t personal, she thought. The food had helped clarify her thinking. Finally, she opened it.
Dear Dr McLean,
I hope this letter finds you well. As I’m sure you’re aware, many of your fellow Americans are suffering greatly. President Alatorre and I hope you are not among them. If you are, rest assured we will rectify that situation shortly, not only by means of increased aid to your part of the country but by changing your personal situation. The President is gathering scientists from a wide variety of disciplines and bringing them to MIT in Boston to jump-start the rebuilding process. We will include you and your colleague, Mr Trent Proctor, in that process. Though I cannot speak to the exact means, we will provide transportation for you and Mr Proctor.
Gerald Garneau, Presidential Chief of Staff
Diane stared at the letter in disbelief. Of what use could two astrophysicists be in reconstructing the country? There must be better choices. She’d done her PhD. so long ago she couldn’t remember the last time someone had addressed her as “Doctor”. And Proctor? He’d been a perpetual state of thesis revision for the past ten years, far more of a techie than a scientist. Still, the two of them had been in a forefront of all the discoveries related to the coming of the Fahr. Perhaps that was it. Perhaps the President wanted to reward them.
They had a proper meal that night. Canned corned beef, potatoes, canned peas mixed with fresh cooked carrots, and uber sweet canned pears for dessert. About ten per cent of the diners ate so fast they threw up, including a young soldier sitting at the table across from Trent and herself. “Let’s go outside,” she said to Trent as the young soldier cleaned up his mess. They found a bench outside the mess hall and sat down.
Trent was more emaciated than she was. He did not so much eat his food as suck on it, putting each fork full in his mouth and holding it there for a while before chewing. He said little while eating.
“Did you imagine anything like this?” she asked him.
He shook his head. “An explosion maybe. Some kind of shoot-’em-up. Didn’t expect starvation.” He lapsed into silence again.
“What did you think of the letter?”
“I have to get well before I can think through anything,” he said quietly.
“It doesn’t look like they’re giving us much of an option. But, really, what is the option? Go or stay here and die. This desert can’t support us.”
Proctor put a carrot in his mouth and sucked on it.
Another young soldier appeared at the door with two backpacks. When he saw them, he walked over. “I believe these are for you, Dr McLean,” he said. “They were in the cab of the lead truck.”
Diane and Trent looked at each other. “Thank you,” she said.
The young soldier nodded his head and smiled. “You’re welcome, ma’am.” Then he turned and walked away.
“What’s this then?” Trent asked.
Each bag had a tag with their respective names.
“Here’s yours,” Diane said, passing Trent his bag.
Proctor took the bag and set it on the ground to his right. He took a fork full of corned beef and put it in his mouth.
“Aren’t you curious?” she asked.
“I’m eating,” he said.
Diane shook her head and reached for her own bag. First, she opened the small zippered pocket in the front. It contained a vile of Advil, two lip balms, a toothbrush, a tube of toothpaste, a Swiss Army knife equipped for personal grooming, a roll of breath mints, a plastic container of dental floss, and an assortment of hair and safety pins. “Looks like they’ve packed a bag for us,” she said.
Proctor grunted but continued to feed himself.
Next Diane opened the main part of the bag. She whistled and held the bag up for Proctor to see. It was full of food, granola bars, beef jerky, various candies, dried fruit, protein bars, wrapped and sealed pastries, peanuts, almonds, gummy bears, and three phials of vitamins. “I’m guessing we’re supposed to keep these to ourselves,” she said.
“For the trip,” he said.
Diane nodded. “Road food. Lots of it, so they’re not sending a Lear jet to pick us up.”
“Doesn’t look like it,” Trent said.
“I guess I need to go back to my apartment and pack,” Diane said. “Best to be ready.”
“Yeah, me too,” Trent said.
In her weakened state, Diane found the flight of stairs to her apartment a challenge. She wondered if the trucks had come too late, her body so damaged she would die anyway. The closet yielded a collection of pantsuits intended for a woman forty-five pounds heavier. She found coins, rolled bills, and lipstick in the pockets of three of the suits, a testament to her dislike of handbags. The fourth had her Visa and Mastercard, the credit cards waved in the general direction of the cashier whenever she was in a hurry. She must have worn that one the last time she went shopping in town. They were useless now that everything had reverted to the barter system, damaged anyway because of the small burnt-out circuit boards embedded in the plastic. She threw the cards into the trash bucket and lowered herself onto the bed.
Someone knocked on her door. She sat up and looked at her wrist, still expecting a working watch after so long without one. Not a morning person. She stumbled to the door and opened it.
“You get to ride in the Camaro,” Billy said to Diane without a greeting. “They’ll be around in about an hour to pick up you and Trent. Sent me to tell you.”
Billy was the only member of her team that did not look emaciated, but then he’d started this whole adventure packing an extra seventy pounds. And he was back to his old goth self now that the fiancé was out of the picture. She, along with her fellow fundamentalists, were living communally at the church waiting for Jesus’ imminent return. Billy wanted no part of that.
“What is this all about anyway?” he asked Diane.
“They’re taking us to MIT. Some government scientific consultation.”
“You’re going to Boston? How the hell are you going to get there?”
“The Camaro, I guess.” She smiled grimly. “I really have no idea. We got a letter yesterday from the President’s chief of staff saying they wanted Trent and I to come. They didn’t say how they planned to get us there. Sending the Camaro to pick us up is all I know. It’s the best answer I can give.”
“Just the two of you?” Billy said, looking disappointed.
“That’s what the letter said. Not my decision. Tell you what though. I’ll leave you in charge of Goldstone.”
Billy laughed. “That’s like being left in charge of a parking lot.” Then he got serious. “They’re bumping you up a tier. You’ll get fed.”
“If I’m going to be meeting with the President, I’m going to be advocating for Fort Irwin and for Goldstone.”
Billy gestured to the sky. “There’s probably nothing left out there to track.”
“Maybe not, but we won’t know until we get it up and running. And if the President thinks we’re important enough to bring us out to MIT for a consult, they want Goldstone functional again. Maybe to find the Fahr. Who knows? Whatever the case, they can’t do Goldstone without Irwin”
Billy nodded. “Well, I’ve delivered the message. Camaro in an hour. See you when you get back, I guess. I’m not going to say anything about this. I’m not sure they’d let you leave if I did.” He turned around and started back down the stairs.
“See you,” Diane said. It was probably a mistake leaving Billy in charge of Goldstone, but she doubted he would go anywhere near the place. Nothing to do there.
The Camaro arrived forty-five minutes later with Trent already squeezed into the back seat. He looked peaked and sounded wheezy. “You going to be all right?” she asked him.
“I have a bag full of food,” Trent said. “And you know what else? I didn’t have Advil in my bag—they gave me Gravol instead.”
“Must know something about you. You sure you want the back seat? I’d be happy to switch.”
“It’s a short trip, this part of it anyway.”
Diane held out her hand to the driver. “I’m Diane,” she said.
“Sergeant Feinstein,” came the reply.
“Where are you taking us, Sergeant Feinstein?”
“Barstow train station, ma’am.”
“The trains are running?”
“A few of them, ma’am. They’ve restored some older locomotives but the lines are crazy. They’ll have to detour around militia hot spots and stretches where the tracks are a mess. It won’t be a short trip and you’ll be going through some hostile territory. My platoon is coming along in case there are problems.”
Diane studied Feinstein. “You don’t seem very happy about it.”
Feinstein said nothing.
“So, is there a problem?” Diane prompted.
“The train has a functional dining car. We’re all going to be fed.”
“And you don’t think it’s fair?”
“No ma’am, I don’t. Irwin’s full of starving kids.”
“And we will do something about that. In the meantime, your platoon will not be effective if it’s weakened by hunger.”
“I suppose not, ma’am.”
“Doesn’t anyone else know about what’s going on here?” Diane asked.
Feinstein shook his head. “No. We were told not to say anything.”
Diane felt Trent looking at her from the back seat. When she caught his gaze, he turned and looked out the window.