The afternoon drizzle had finally stopped. It was one of those typical mists that flooded down the forested sides of the Cascades and left little droplets in your hair, and enhanced the river valley’s smells of washed down oils and animal carcasses. It was promised to be the country, a nationally protected land from the evil deeds of advancing human technologies and violence. That was all a lie, it was as destroyed and miserable as everything else in the world, but at least Sean didn’t seem to mind. He wasn’t quite old enough to understand, anyway, and that was all good to Gunnar.
They stumbled over slippery roots and around deep brown puddles on the wild trail. The prickly bushes and tall conifers offered up a sort of serenity from the rest of the flamed over world. It was exactly what Gunnar and Sean needed, there was no denying it.
Gunnar carried the 22s and his holographic scope sniper in heavy brown bags that were slung over his right shoulder. Perhaps he was just another piece in the game of world violence by teaching his son how to shoot. He chuckled at the thought.
“Why can’t we stay here just a little longer?” Sean asked. The small blond-haired boy looked up at his father and then at the guns.
Gunnar smiled. “It’s getting late, and we have to be home before dinner. Your mom would be very mad at us. We can come back next weekend, if I’m not too busy.”
Sean jumped with joy. “So that I can play with the animals and shoot more cans?”
Gunnar smiled. “That’s right. Come on, the truck is just up this way. Watch your step.”
It felt really good to have gotten out, Gunnar noted. He had been incredibly stressed out over the past few days. The base had called him in for overtime and for meetings about preparations for the operation. Imperial forces had gained a lot of ground during the past year and that was not a good sign for the old US of A. They were losing, and that had to change.
They exited the bushes near the new Chevy truck and climbed in. Sean sat in the passenger seat and grinned.
“Don’t tell your Mom that I let you sit up front,” Gunnar warned him, putting the truck into drive.
He sped down the winding dirt road, kicking up mud all over the sides before merging onto State Route 7, or Mountain Highway, following the Nisqually River. They passed through the town of Elbe and along the eroding shores of the anchor-shaped Alder Lake. His father had always told him that there used to be a town down in the valley, until the government built the dam and flooded it.
He glanced over to see Sean gazing out at it, the water looking bleak and lifeless under the overcast sky. Gunnar fiddled with the radio and turned the volume up. Reception was spotty at best in the country, but it would do until they reached the metro area.
“Today President Faulkner and Secretary of State *STATIC* discussed plans for *STATIC* United States war with the Empire. The conflict, which has been ongoing for the past eight years, has been the bloodiest war in US history. *STATIC* both sides of the conflict have fallen flat, but *STATIC* are saying that the end is near. Ambassadors from DC met with Imperial leaders last week, nearing what they are calling ‘an era of peace.’”
Gunnar grunted and pressed up on the radio, opting for rock music instead. Def Leppard, a classic example of the old world in Gunnar’s eyes. It had been decades since they were popular, but no one made rock music anymore. His parents had made sure that he knew all of the classics. No one else did anymore.
“Daddy?” Sean asked.
“Is the war going to end?”
When our project is unveiled, nothing will be left of the Empire, Gunnar thought. “I don’t know,” he replied. “I don’t know.”
Sean frowned. Gunnar knew that he liked direct answers. It ran in the family. “Why are we in war?”
Gunnar sighed. He really didn’t want to have that sort of discussion with his son. It would probably just confuse him more. He didn’t think that any adults had a real grasp on the conflict. “You’ll understand when you’re a little bit older. They will teach about it in school, I’m sure.”
“Daaaaaddy,” Sean protested. “I want to know.”
“I know, but I don’t want to talk about it right now.”
Sean was silent for the rest of the ride, while Gunnar hummed along to the songs on the radio. They traveled away from the lake and turned off onto the Alder Cutoff road, cutting through fledgling farmland pushed against the railroad tracks, and then through the growing town of Eatonville, Washington, population five thousand. They turned right onto State Route 161 and followed it for half an hour, driving at well below the speed limit in the weekend mountain traffic. They approached the city of Graham, just passing the massive heaps of the landfill, when Sean had to go to the bathroom. Seeing that he wouldn’t be able to hold it, Gunnar pulled into the parking lot of the newly built South Graham Shopping Village and walked Sean into the Target store.
When Sean had finished going to the bathroom they headed for the automatic doors on the other side of the shopping carts when the ground started to jolt. Items fells off of the shelves and people dropped to the ground for cover. Shopping carts rolled into walls and the lights flickered for a few seconds. The tremor only lasted for a few seconds, and then everything was calm again. People were freaking out, rushing out of the store and dialing numbers on their cell phones or watches. Sean seemed confused and tugged at Gunnar’s shirt. Gunnar pulled him along back out to the parking lot.
“It was just an earthquake. Don’t be afraid.”
“I’m not,” Sean replied, although his shaky voiced said otherwise.
People everywhere seemed to be in a sudden panic. Others carried on with their normal lives, just as Gunnar intended to do. It wasn’t like earthquakes were uncommon in Washington.
He started the truck and the radio began blasting a pre-programmed emergency alert. Gunnar shut the radio off. He didn’t want Sean to hear anything that could worry him. It was all going to be about the earthquake, which must have caused some damage in the cities, just like the 2001 Nisqually quake and the 2021 Snoqualmie quake.
They pulled out of the parking lot and onto the three lanes in each direction roadway of Meridian Avenue. The center median gave way to commuter rail service, although no trains seemed to be running. They raced up the notorious Graham Hill, but fell behind slow semi-trucks and break lights. Gunnar could feel the ground shaking again beneath the tires. The road looked like it was bending a little bit and everyone’s cars came to a crawl. Another tremor, just an aftershock, Gunnar told himself, breathing out real hard.
“Is that another earthquake?” Sean asked.
“It’s called an aftershock,” Gunnar said. “Don’t be worried.”
They reached the summit, where the road leveled out, offering a view of the surrounding land for miles and miles all around. One could usually see the snowy peaks of the Olympic and Cascade mountain ranges to the northwest and east, and the mighty port machines and skyscrapers of Tacoma on the western landscape. Today was different.
“What in the name of God…” Gunnar began, stopping the truck along with everyone else on the road. The truck stopped completely and people got out of their cars. Smoke rose from the north and northwest, bright orange and red lights blinding any onlooker, a sign of fires. Gunnar turned the car off and opened his door. “Stay here, Sean. Don’t move.”
He slammed the door and used his remote to lock the car. Others were doing the same, crowding along the summit to see the spectacle.
“When they said it on the radio, I didn’t believe it,” a woman next to Gunnar said, shaking her head. “I thought it was a joke, but the tremors supported the truth. This is unbelievable.”
“What did they say on the radio?” Gunnar asked, although he already knew the answer. He was looking at what could only be burning homes and businesses, buckled freeways and railways, damaged skyscrapers and thousands of bodies. No earthquake could do this to the United States. Gunnar was looking at a warzone.
“The Empire, they did this,” the woman said.
The sound of an engine whined above them as a missile streaked across the sky, propelled by a brilliant orange flame. It struck down upon the Earth as fast as it had appeared, crashing upon the next town to the north, the Seattle suburb of South Hill. There was a flash of white and gold light, then a boom that carried a great shockwave through the air and ground. The impact caused the road beneath them to crack and a gust of wind to slam into them. Gunnar’s shirt rippled like a flag as he kept from being forced to the ground. The car windshields shattered and alarms blared. Sirens sounded in the distance as emergency vehicles raced to the scene.
“Daddy?” Sean cried from behind Gunnar.
“I told you to stay in the car,” Gunnar said, grabbing Sean and holding his close.
“Something terrible,” Gunnar answered.
“Can we go home now?” Sean asked. “I don’t like it here.”
Gunnar kneelt down beside Sean, his eyes were beginning to water, but his mind was racing with angry thoughts towards the Empire. “I…I don’t think we have a home, anymore, son.”