Ten Years After the Blackout
General Matheson’s coach rumbled along the streets of Philadelphia, over the Expressway, through Old Chinatown, down Arch St. Inside, Miles tapped his fingers on his knee, patience worn thin by rats in the walls and a leak in the gunpowder room, the disgruntling results of a routine inspection at the West Munitions Storage Facility or, as it was better known, the Barnes.
It was nearly pitch black in the coach though dusk had yet to fall, heavy curtains drawn shut against the peering eyes of the poorly fed and housed population. The seclusion was supposed to be for his own protection but it was one security measure he never railed against. Miles didn’t have a reputation as a humanitarian; still, he was as glad to avoid looking into those hungry eyes as he was to avoid being seen by them.
The coach rolled to a stop, horses stomping outside. Flicking the curtain open an inch, he grunted confirmation of their arrival at the home of Captain Jonathon Olliver and his grating Texan wife, Miranda. The Old City offered everything the average Militia officer wanted: quaint cobblestone streets, antique doorknobs and other elements of so-called domestic bliss, or as close as one could come to such a thing in a world of war clans and rampant diphtheria. Miles still wasn’t sure he saw the appeal of Independence Hall, let alone this middle-upper class existence.
He stepped out of the coach, his guards and driver taking up positions outside the house as he marched to the front door, rapping his knuckles against green-painted wood. There was a quiet shuffling on the other side, as if someone had been standing there waiting for him, and Miles had to fight to keep from rolling his eyes.
On the battlefield, in inspections, he was the very picture of the composed and straight-laced general. He had less inclination towards the incomprehensible etiquette of social-climbing Militia wives. The door opened on a freshly pressed Captain Olliver who snapped a sharp salute. “Good evening, General Matheson.”
Miles returned the gesture before relaxing his posture slightly. “Good evening, Captain.”
“Please come in, sir. May I take your coat?”
He glanced down at his uniform, green wool fitting to his wrists. “Ah, no, I think I’m good.” Miles raised an eyebrow, lips pressed into a thin line.
Olliver flushed, clearing his throat. “Of course, sir. Something to drink perhaps?”
“That you can do.” Miles followed Olliver into the front room, finding Miranda encircled by her other guests. To one side stood the Nevilles and to the other was Jeremy, who was surely only there to round out an even six, with Miles still ‘woefully unmarried’, as quoted by Bass from the morning’s paper. It was quite possible having a society column either meant they had officially achieved civilization or that they had peaked, and defeat was on the horizon.
He shook hands with both of the Nevilles as Olliver handed him a glass of Scotch. Miles had to wonder where he’d gotten it but, then, Scotch was Scotch. “Tom. Julia.”
“Always a pleasure, General,” she smiled, that lukewarm expression that always made him think of his high school girlfriends’ mothers, sizing him up in the entryway.
“Well, we all know I’m not the best company. Let’s not push it.” There was a titter of nervous laughter as he pressed the glass to his lips, hiding the faintest twitch of a smile. Let them sit on their anxiety, wonder if they were meant to laugh or protest. Kept the supplicants in line, Bass always said.
“That you’re not. Sir.”
And then, of course, there was Jeremy, who couldn’t be kept in line if he was tied down. The officers and their wives stilled, even the clinking of ice in glasses quieting for a moment, but Jeremy only shot him a crooked grin. “So, Miranda. I hear you have an exciting new purchase to unveil.”
The moment passed, her face lighting up with a smile. “Word’s spread so quickly! I half expect to have my door beaten down soon,” she joked, glancing nervously at Miles. “It’s in the living room. I had such a difficult time deciding where to put it, really, but it just looks spectacular over the fireplace.”
Miles allowed himself to retreat into the familiar slosh of alcohol and clattering of uneven ice cubes, though Miranda kept on blathering. He followed the others into the living room, grabbing Jeremy by the back of his collar and grumbling in his ear, “Insubordinate shit.”
“It’s all in my job title, sir.” Jeremy clinked his glass against Miles’, as over-confident as ever.
As they joined the couples in the living room, gathered around the fireplace with the appropriate exclamations and worldly discourse, Miles squinted at the painting everyone seemed so enamored with. “It’s an original Delacroix,” Miranda was saying, and Miles didn’t speak French by a long shot but he was fairly certain she was butchering that name, “The Death of Sardanapalus. Isn’t it extraordinary?”
Actually, it was a little horrific, to be honest. He glanced around the tidy room with its modest furniture, pillows carefully placed on looted chairs to hide the wear and the gleaming mantelpiece, painted white over a missing chunk of wood. It was a comfortable space, warm and inviting if a little war-torn, as opposed to the bloody massacre hanging over the fireplace.
Everyone was still gushing about it though and dinner party repartee never was his strong suit. “It’s a little graphic for the living room, isn’t it?”
All of them turned to him like one person, eyebrows raised in silent disapproval, and for just a moment, Miles felt like he was twelve, asking his grandmother why they couldn’t use paper plates instead of the good china. He rubbed his thumb through the condensation on the glass, shrugging a shoulder. “I mean, I don’t know anything about art, but we see horrible things on the battlefield constantly. Just, I know I for one want to come home to something that takes my mind off it.”
Julia finally broke the silence, gesturing to the painting with her wine glass. “Well, I suppose it is a little gory. But it tells a story; it isn’t just gratuitous violence. And the coloring goes so nicely in here, Miranda.”
He felt certain Jeremy was laughing into his Scotch at him. Miles sighed to himself, remembering he was only here so the Ollivers could say they hosted General Matheson for dinner. They’d invited Bass first and only turned to him when the president had invented a conflicting engagement, as if the two of them didn’t talk or something.
Sinking onto the couch, one arm draped over the back, Miles glared at the fierce-looking sultan, or whoever he was supposed to be, sprawled on a bed and surrounded by bodies. His eyes traced the ragged, naked curve of a woman with a dagger in her breast and wondered why this Delacroix would have painted a woman in such a way. He must not have been a soldier; a man who’s seen combat always wants his women safe and warm, soft and inviting.
But, then, Miles knew nothing about art.
Four Years After the Blackout
Two Months After the Siege of Philadelphia
“We can’t live like this much longer,” Bass growled, sitting on an over-turned bucket with maps and papers spread across his make-shift desk. “I can’t find a goddamn thing. It makes us look like a bunch of warmongers.”
“Aren’t we?” Miles lay on his cot, boots dangling off the edge as he sliced into an apple with his Bowie knife.
“Doesn’t mean we have to be uncivilized. We need buildings, not just for us, but for storage. Walters is almost ready to start manufacturing swords and bayonets but we’re going to need someplace to put all of them. We need an armory, Miles.”
“So we’ll take over some of the old civic buildings. There’s got to be loads of places that are just abandoned.”
Miles led an exploratory unit into the heart of Philadelphia the following week, his men tramping through concrete jungle. Skyscrapers rose above them like hollow shells, half their pane glass windows shattered out. The civic center was a mess, City Hall burnt out and the surrounding blocks all but razed in the early days of the Blackout, when the cities had been reduced to panic.
But just beyond that, there were districts that had simply been deserted. In the Old City, Independence Hall stood looking as elegant and grand as ever, if a little worse for the wear. The so-called “Museum District,” according to a ripped tourist map, was a ghost town, abandoned marble and stone jutting out from the remains of a wide parkway, cars battered and dumped every few feet.
It had only been four years since he’d had his hands on the steering wheel of a sleek red Challenger and Miles still found foot and horse travel frustrating. They spent over two hours picking their way back across the city to Edgely Field and by the time he collapsed in the wide tent he shared with Bass, all he wanted to do was pass out.
Over the next several weeks, though, Miles found himself directing the move of their entire company from Edgely into the city. They scrubbed and scraped and in time, the Old City even looked habitable. Bass oversaw the conversion of Independence Hall from a people’s museum to an imposing but practical base of operations. Much to Miles’ protest, he even had the Liberty Bell moved into the hallway. Said it “strengthened their tenuous hold on power,” and “that people wanted to believe in tradition.” Bass always said things like that after they took Philadelphia, as if he knew what he was talking about.
But the old problems raised their heads, almost before they were settled in their new home: they still needed stables, an armory, a hospital. They might finally be comfortable but no one else was.
“Armory’s got to be first priority. We have to be able to defend ourselves. It needs to be something sturdy, something easy to guard.” Bass slouched in the wooden chair from downstairs, with the carved sun peeking out behind his head, feet on an upside down crate.
Miles squatted by the fireplace, stoking it with the poker. “What about next door?”
“Nah, Congress Hall’s too nearby. What if the gunpowder blew or there was a fire? Too easy to attack us.”
Licking his lips, he watched the flames dance. “Buildings in the Museum District are almost all marble or stone and they’re raised up so they don’t flood.”
“Anything left inside?”
“Don’t know. Probably. I’ll send Jeremy to check it out tomorrow.”
Miles half expected Jeremy to report that the museums were packed with paintings and priceless vases or something else equally helpful but, to his surprise, they were nearly empty. It was a mystery, really. Looting was expected of stores, groceries, banks, private homes. But a museum?
“What is art worth when you’re starving to death?” Miles had muttered aloud to no one in particular, his voice bouncing off the stone walls of the former Philadelphia Museum of Art. Discolored squares on the walls told them where pieces had once hung and though some tchotchkes and broken sculptures remained, the vast, echoing halls held almost nothing. The inside of the museums looked about as abandoned as the city district around them did.
Bass divided a few of the more intact pieces between Independence Hall and their top officers, calling it a thank you for their loyal service. Miles called it bribing the wives but it seemed to work and soon Philadelphia was a well-oiled capital.
Scavenged weapons like guns, bullets and reenactment cannons soon lined the halls of the Philadelphia Museum and their blacksmiths, headed by Lieutenant Walters, neatly packed the nearby Barnes Foundation with swords and bayonets. Together, the two buildings became the West Munitions Storage Facility, though the men never quite got out of the habit of calling it simply the Barnes.
Miles narrowed his eyes at the painting over the fireplace, listening with half an ear as the other men debated the existence of the Hedgehog, the pain-in-the-ass resistance figurehead who seemed to be all talk and no action. He figured he should probably put in a comment on the matter but he couldn’t seem to look away from Delacroix’s silent, frozen horror story. Something about it sickened him and it wasn’t just the brutality. There was a casual flagrance about the slaughter, about the king’s unconcerned features. He couldn’t put his finger on it.
Miranda announced supper, gushing to Julia about butternut squash, and they all stood, their glasses politely returned to the tray on the coffee table. He tossed back the remainder of his Scotch before setting the glass down, shoving away the desire to pop an alcohol-soaked ice cube in his mouth as well.
Each of them began to file into the dining room but Miles gestured to the painting, turning to Captain Olliver with a flash of genuine curiosity and a finely honed suspicious nature. “Where did you get this, Captain?”
Olliver and his wife exchanged a darting glance, both looking to the painting and each other with slightly widened eyes. “Just luck, I guess,” the officer said finally, a bit hoarse. He grinned but his fingers twitched without a glass to steady them and, anyway, the expression didn’t reach his eyes to begin with.
Miles opened his mouth to press him for more information but the Ollivers were saved from whatever lie they were about to spin by a knock on the door. The captain almost tripped over himself rushing to answer it, the others making small talk halfway into the dining room, but Miles could hear the request for General Matheson all the way from the front door.
He crossed the house in several long strides, nodding to the young man that stood in the doorway and taking the rolled piece of paper he held outstretched. Miles dropped a coin into the boy’s hand. “Thank you, Billy,” he murmured, unraveling the message as the boy tossed him a sloppy salute and darted off into the evening.
“What is it, sir?”
Miles raised an eyebrow at Olliver’s unintended impertinence but didn’t look up from the message, Bass’ perfect script marred by spilt ink and a clear irritation.
Penn’s Landing Granary under attack. Two bucket brigades on scene, requesting Militia backup. Possible rebel insurgents, the bastards.
He ran a hand through his hair, nodding to Olliver to follow him as he marched back into the living room and tossed the message in the fire. “I’m very sorry to interrupt your evening, ladies, but duty calls. Captain Baker, you’ll come with me.”
A smile almost tugged at his lips at the steam coming from Tom’s head that the other man was still the favorite of both generals. Jeremy, for that matter, seemed all too happy to make his apologies to the ladies and excuse himself, stepping outside to ready their horses. Penn’s Landing wasn’t terribly far and it would be quicker to return for the coach later than try and travel in it.
Miles shook the appropriate hands and turned up his collar against the chill of late September, glancing over his shoulder into the living room as he pulled open the front door. Catching a last glimpse of The Death of Sardanapalus, something cold and disconcerting settled over him. He blamed it on the weather but even the distant sound of hand-cranked fire sirens seemed to disagree.