Solaris Mortem: The New Patriots
Terry Burrows was rolling down I-5 in his Peterbilt when it happened. The brightest flash of light he’d ever seen washed over everything, and for a moment, the world was paper white. He shielded his eyes from the corneal blast, the radio in the truck screeched static for an instant then died, and he realized he was no longer under power, nor were the thousands of vehicles in front of him or behind him.
Terry jammed his foot on the brakes and flipped the switch on his compression release, but that didn’t stop him from plowing into the cars ahead of him. He pushed a Corolla under a lifted Ford pickup, gripped the wheel and screamed, “Oh, Jesus!” For fifteen horrible seconds, he parted the traffic, spraying sparks, pushing the little Corolla and the pickup it was wedged under as his battering ram.
The Peterbilt came to a skittering stop. He fumbled for his cellphone which was dead, then the CB; also dead. He sprung down from his leather perch and saw the family of four in the Corolla he’d just hit; also dead. The driver of the Ford was alive, but only for a few minutes. He shocked out from his injuries and never regained consciousness, just slipped away. God’s mercy.
Terry looked around, horrified to see the scene repeated over and over again. He had just killed five; how many others had died up and down the interstate? The power lines were burning, the scent of ozone hung heavy in the air, women screamed, and children cried.
Dazed drivers stepped out of their cars, holding dead cellphones to the sky, looking for a signal, desperately trying to bring them back to life when the world turned white once again. A hot wind gusted Terry’s cap from his head. Now the men screamed too.
He checked the Ford driver’s pulse once again; he was still dead. How many times had Terry fantasized about plowing his Peterbilt through the hordes of idiot drivers on his way home from a long haul? Get the fuck outta my way. More than a few, but this was not what he had in mind at all. His dark fantasy had come to fruition and shamed him for ever thinking it at all. Oh, God! Please forgive me, please forgive me.
It wasn’t his fault; of course, it wasn’t his fault. It was the fault of whatever had just happened. What had just happened? Are we under attack? Did we just get nuked? Terry pulled his shirt over his nose with that thought, and he saw others doing the same.
“It was the goddamn North Koreans!” someone shouted, followed by more screaming.
“God’s wrath on a Godless people!” another shouted, followed closely by,
“Shut the fuck up, you moron!” and a fist fight broke out just-like-that.
Terry jumped back up in the truck and retrieved the .45 he had for occasions such as these, and tucked it into his waistband. Whatever was going on, he had a feeling he would be hoofing it from this point forward.
No sirens cried, no helicopters flew overhead; the fist fight broke up, and it became eerily silent. No one was coming. We are on our own. Terry sat in his rig for about an hour and watched the mass exodus from the interstate. He checked his phone compulsively. What about Katherine and the kids? But it never did turn back on again, nor did the CB or anything else.
People milled about the interstate; fear and confusion were palpable in the air when the sky lit up again. Fear turned to hysteria and some people just ran. They left their cars behind, everything in them, and ran away empty handed. Some sat in their cars, gripping the wheel and cried. Still others were in the rank of preppers, and they grabbed their B.O.B.’s, (bug out bags) firepower if they had it, and trekked away from the gridlock. Terry knew that preppers would never be made fun of again by anyone.
Terry stayed in his truck and watched as thousands of people made their way away from — all of this. He heard an incoming plane and looked out his window to see an incoming Boeing 747 hurling itself at the roadway — maybe two hundred feet in front of him. 3…2…1…. kaboom! A giant fireball erupted, throwing shrapnel, asphalt, luggage…and probably body parts too, Terry thought. This provided all the motivation most of the stragglers needed to get out of their cars and run. He watched helplessly as a mother with a young infant in her arms was trampled beneath the panicked feet of the hordes.
Terry resisted the urge to flee himself. His place in the truck was as good as any other and better than most. He had no desire whatsoever to join the hysterical mobs. Not that he wasn’t panicked; he was. He just didn’t need that group energy pushing him over the edge into insanity. He didn’t need to get trampled underfoot as that poor young woman and her baby had been. What he needed, was to think…to figure out how to get back to Seattle. Katherine, his sister, and her children were the only family he had left.
But, was there any getting back to them? Were they even alive?
The world has just changed in the twinkling of an eye, with the flashing of bright light. He didn’t know if it was by man’s hand or God’s, but he knew what he needed to know. Planes were falling from the sky, the power lines burned, no machines, no communications. The world had been blasted back in time two-hundred years or more, technologically speaking, and the adjustment would be mostly fatal. Suddenly he wished harder that he was on that remote homestead he had always dreamed about. One of these days, I’m just going to move out to the middle of nowhere, get away from all these people and the rush of Seattle. Grow my own food, raise some animals and sit on the porch every night in my rocking chair to watch the sunset.
It would appear Terry had put his dreams off for too long. Kat and her kids were stuck (or dead?) in Suburbia and Terry was locked in traffic that may never move again two-hundred and fifty miles from home. Sweet Jesus, what a mess…
Terry continued to wait out Day One of the apocalypse in his truck. He had a little food, a little water, and an empty Gatorade bottle to piss in, so he would wait out the night and set out on foot in the morning. The sun began to set in the distance, and now he could see the cause of all the calamity. It was solar flares. The kind that would make the Carrington Event seem minor. He could see spots on the sun and fiery ejections bursting from its surface, flames licking at the sky in the distance.
Several more times throughout the night, the ethereal light flashed again behind the mountains lighting up the night-scape like a brilliant flashbulb from God’s own camera. Terry saw it each time between fits of restless sleep, a string of naps offering no restoration for mind or body. The earth continued to spin round its axis, and the sun continued to spew a geomagnetic storm, the likes of which had never been seen. In twenty-four hours, the whole world was in a blackout.
Terry woke up before dawn and thought of coffee as he always did on waking. He plugged in his 12-volt coffee maker, scooped in the grounds and poured in the water. He flicked the switch and heard its click, but that was it. There was no red light; there was no gurgle of the water feeding its way through the heating element. Fuck me…idiot…. He knew there was no grid power, but for a moment, he forgot his truck, his oasis, was dead in the water too. There was no power anywhere. Like a giant EMP, the geomagnetic storm had fried everything electronic. No power, no generators, no electronics — no nothing.
He may as well be in the Stone Age. The critical difference was, back in the Stone Age, people knew how to survive. Today, billions would die without the grid. They would starve, thirst to death, and freeze come winter. The new world would be an ugly, savage place full of death and disease. He shuddered to think of the breakdown and the plague seven billion rotting corpses would spread across the face of the earth.
Terry tucked a generous pinch of coffee grounds in his lip, like snoose, and tried to get a caffeine lift which did not come. He looked around and saw no one. All he saw was the wreckage and numerous plumes of smoke. The city was burning, and there was no one to put it out. He would have to get moving today. There were an awful lot of footsteps separating him and his family
“No time like the present,” he said and stepped down from the cab of his truck, pistol drawn just in case. A careful survey told him the interstate was deserted, and he tucked the pistol back into his pants. He reached up and grabbed his duffel, laden with water bottles, Fritos, granola bars, and a change of clothes, and made tracks for Eugene. Stocking up was first on his list, and then he would follow I-5 North, and find his family.
Terry was about five miles south of Eugene, Oregon when he began his walk up the median. He was glad to walk away from his accident, the bodies of those he had killed, and that of the young woman and child trampled the day before. What a fucking disaster. He didn’t have to walk long to find more of the same. He took guilty comfort in knowing he wasn’t the only one that had cut a life short yesterday. It didn’t help much, but it helped a little, and he walked.
The sun rose up in the sky, and he wondered what today would bring. Would the sun just explode, a massive supernova to destroy life on earth once and for all? More flares? If Katherine and the kids were dead, he would prefer the sun did explode. What would be the point without them?
Fresh panic washed over him, and he tried to push it down. It would be days, weeks before he would know the shape of his family, so for now, he had to keep his shit together…. For them. Kat was a stay at home mom and part time author of children’s books. At least, he knew she was with the kids when this all went down. They were much too young to fend for themselves. Jonathan could help himself some; he was a very resourceful boy, but he was only nine-years-old, and Tabitha, her little, towheaded princess was only four. Terry couldn’t wait to see them again. He hoped he would see them again….
Terry kept walking, mile after mile of wreckage and gridlocked autos until he hit Eugene and exited at Franklin Blvd, just before the river crossing. He wasn’t sure where he was going, but he knew what he was looking for: a sporting goods store and food.
In town, looters were gathering already, and Terry hoped he wasn’t too late to find what he needed. He was hoping for a good pair of hiking boots, a tent, and a sleeping bag. A wide-brimmed hat to keep the sun off his face would be nice, some food and hopefully a water filter. He had no interest in lugging a two weeks supply of water around with him. He found an REI store three miles off the exit and already he was missing the days of Google Maps. So far, the sporting goods giant hadn’t been cleaned out too badly, and he found what he needed without much trouble.
The grocery store, on the other hand, was a different story. The place was bare and deserted. Aisle after aisle, empty and barren with food bits strewn about on the floor. Twelve hours prior, women stood in this aisle fighting over the last bag of egg noodles. They had wound up on the floor, crunched into little bits. Terry left that for the rats and walked out of the Safeway with just two cans of pork and beans and a can of SPAM. He’d never tried SPAM before, but he figured the apocalypse was as good a time as any.
Terry walked out of the grocery store to see a band of looters running by carrying flat screen TVs, MacBooks, and stereo equipment. Perhaps they were ill-advised of the situation, he thought, hadn’t got the memo…. I suppose looting and intelligence are two separate things, but an intelligent looter would be looking for food and fuel. He didn’t think electronics were going to be of much use anymore and hadn’t bothered grabbing a GPS or any other dead trinkets from the REI.
Passing through town, he observed the breakdown of society beginning. Without running water, people had already shit in the streets. Groups of religious zealots were holding signs and screaming about hellfire and damnation. Marauders and looters took advantage of those that were frozen by fear and waiting to be saved by someone else.
Terry wasn’t a religious man, but he did believe that the Lord helps those who help themselves, and he was eager to help himself right on out of town. He wasn’t the only one either. Bands of people were leaving, heading out in all directions. Everyone was looking for the same thing; something better, somewhere else. Only, it was no longer about the grass being greener, a better job, a nicer house, a prettier wife or whatever. It was about having a chance to survive.
Terry took the 105 crossing over the Willamette River and rejoined I-5 heading north. Along the way, he found a mini-mart that was still open. No power, and cash only, but open. It was manned by an elderly Indian man of the South Asian variety with a shotgun. There wasn’t much in there of value to Terry, but he got a bottle of ibuprofen, a box of powdered donuts, and all the water bottles he could fit in his backpack. Manning a mini-market to trade cash for wares seemed a fool’s errand to Terry, but to each their own.
Twenty minutes after Terry left, the clerk was shot dead for a warm case of beer and a carton of smokes.
Back on I-5 now, it was still the same mess. Maybe forever? Cars and trucks stopped dead in their tracks as far as the eye could see. Stretches between accidents looked like parking lots. Accidents looked like crushed cans of tomato sauce and birds of prey were feeding on the dead. Keeping his donuts in his stomach proved difficult, and he kept walking.
It was almost noon and beginning to get hot. The August sun beat down on the cars and turned them into solar cookers. The putrid stench of hot, decaying flesh hung like a tangible cloud, and this was just the beginning. It was going to be a long walk home.
He walked past groups of people just camping out, staying with their cars like this all might get cleared up soon. If they had firearms, they kept them trained on anyone passing by. Terry held up his arms, “Just passing through, folks; that’s all.” This was getting ugly.
At the end of Day One, he made it just fifteen miles beyond Eugene, but it was an improvement. He was out of the city and away from the crazies, at least for tonight. The interstate was still filled with dead cars, but they were more sporadic now. A single car here and there, and small clusters in spots. No more massive pile ups with fatalities and for that he was glad.
He laid his sleeping bag down on the ground beside a farmer’s pond and fell asleep under an expansive, star filled sky. He told himself: if there’s still beauty like this, then maybe it will all be okay…eventually.
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