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"And that's how it happened," Alexander finishes roughly. He's clearly noticed the suppressed amusement on Jacob's face and doesn't care for it.

"An epitaph to humankind if I ever heard one," agrees Jacob in the most sincere tone he can manage, while trying not to grin. The tale of how the world ended shouldn't crack him up, he knows this, but he hasn't had a decent night of sleep in a very long time and the idea of a computer glitch having triggered the apocalypse seems hilarious. He does have the presence of mind not to mention it aloud. He's known Lucas Alexander for a year now and still finds the man incredibly hard to predict. One minute, he'll have the patience of Job and let just about any smart crack go without a word; the next, he's in the kind of savagely impossible-to-live-with mood Jacob used to expect from his ex-wife once a month. There's never a dull moment, but damn, sometimes Jacob misses the dull moments.

They've reached the top of a rise, and Alexander unslings the water bottle from his shoulder and drinks, studying the cracked ribbon of road that stretches away ahead of them to the northeast. It may or may not lead all the way to Kansas or Nebraska, but they're following it in the hope that it will. While it's true this lovely little road trip would be a lot less haphazard if they still had their map, Jacob was the one who left it and half their other supplies behind when he and Alexander made their hurried escape from the ruins of Colorado Springs. And he's not stupid enough to say anything skeptical about his companion's sense of direction, since so far it's led them exactly where Alexander said it would.

"Don't jinx it," he mutters under his breath.

Alexander gives him a silent look that walks the line between annoyance and long-suffering patience.

"Talking to myself again. No need to worry. I mean, there are no working nuthouses to throw me in anymore, so you might as well just go with the flow."

"Some cultures kill the mentally and physically impaired to reduce the strain on society. It's probably what the street gangs in the cities are doing." The matter-of-fact way he says it is unnerving. Alexander's indifference is another uncomfortable hint that whatever he did before the War, it probably wasn't much different than the things he does now to keep the two of them alive and fed. Or the things he did in Colorado Springs when the gangs tried to shanghai them.

Jacob smiles uneasily and wipes the back of his hand over his mouth, pushing the memory away. The last thing he needs is more of those nightmares. "So, uh... You were telling me about the start of the War?"

"No. I had just finished."

"All right, start over." There's nothing quite so mind-numbingly boring as walking miles a day in perfect silence but, left to his own devices, that's exactly what Alexander will do. Getting him to talk about the beginning of the War has been a pleasant change.

"Why?" asks Alexander, apparently finished with his brief lapse into cooperation. "Weren't you listening the first time?"

"You know, I was married twice, and you're beginning to sound a lot like my first wife. You should be ashamed of yourself."

"Maybe, or maybe she had the right idea and you just never learned. Tell me what I was saying about the War."

They've started walking again by now, so Jacob only scowls in the man's direction, concentrating on not twisting an ankle in the neglected pavement's potholes and crevices. The region is full of some determined weeds that have grown right through the asphalt, so there are hundreds of vines and twisty stems to reckon with too. It would almost be easier to walk on the shoulder of the road, except that the shoulder is full of flourishing thistle plants. There's just no winning here.

"Okay," he says, having weighed the pros and cons of staying silent and come up with Pointless Defiance versus Potentially Irritated Alexander. "You were saying a computer glitch in one of our military defense centers mistook something in the air for an enemy assault over U.S. soil. That's why our troops made the raid on Iran, right? The media had a field day over that. Anyway, politicians worldwide started pointing fingers and rattling sabers, a bunch of countries pulled out the nukes, poof, instant apocalypse. How'm I doing, sweetheart?"

"That's not what I said; but close enough."

"Thanks. I live for your approval."

Silence, broken only by the quiet sounds of their boots on the pavement and the myriad of natural noise coming from the open land around them--geese honking loudly as they cruise overhead, a few crickets harmonizing with a choir of songbirds, and some slightly larger animal prowling through the tall grasses in search of a meal.

Jacob worries belatedly that he's exceeded today's number of permissible smart cracks. But no, the quiet is comfortable on Alexander's side and the man looks low-grade alert rather than ticked off. Okay, then. It's all good.

Well. Good is relative these days. Before the War, it was getting Teresa and Kyra moved into Washington, DC, so he'd be able to come home to them every day instead of only flying home every few weekends. Nowadays, it's being able to forget that he unwittingly sent his wife and five-year-old daughter straight into the path of the nuclear bomb that leveled DC while he stayed behind to wrap up their affairs in Colorado. There have been other unimaginably horrible things to push to the back of his mind since the solar flares--or sunspots, whatever the damned things are that blew all the power stations and computerized crap to kingdom come--and definitely since he met up with Alexander in the wake of the nation's collapse, but for some reason none of that pain and fear sticks around in his mind for long.

He isn't suicidal. He's still functioning fine, thank you very much, and when he lets himself think about it that seems like another betrayal. Shouldn't he be insane with grief? Hopelessly depressed? Instead he's touring the Great Plains with an unpredictable, rifle-toting soldier, and allowing himself to be led to relative safety for the coming winter.

Alexander backhands him suddenly across the face, hard enough to split his lip and throw him sprawling on his butt in the road. "Go for the ditch."

Utterly unexpected, the attack blanks Jacob's mind of everything but stunned pain. Alexander hasn't hit him since the pitched battle in the Colorado Springs Airport. Before he can gather his wits enough to put together what that might mean, Jacob hears the roar of a very big gun going off somewhere ahead and sees that Alexander has dropped to a crouch and brought his rifle to his shoulder. Jacob has seen what that rifle can do to the human body. He decides he doesn't want to stop and argue all that much, and drags himself on his stomach into the ditch at the side of the road. He'd rather have the thistles sticking in him than whatever heavy-duty lead the person up the road has loaded into their very big gun.

He recognizes the second, considerably closer blast as it deafens him. Hopefully Alexander took his own advice and got under cover before engaging the stranger in a gunfight.

There's shouting. Not from Alexander, who has at no time in Jacob's memory raised his voice above a disapproving snap. It's the guy or gal who took a potshot at them, but Jacob can't tell what's being said, with his eardrums still out of order from the rifle blast. He really hopes that won't be permanent. His face feels hot, swollen in the general shape of Alexander's hand, and that, added to the headache he feels coming on, would already be more than enough excitement for one day without simultaneously getting shot at and going deaf.

"I am not, and if I was you would already be dead," snaps Alexander from the other side of the road, sounding strange to Jacob's muffled hearing. Presumably, he's responding to whatever the other person down the road was yelling, because Jacob didn't say anything.

Indistinct voices all talking at once, at least three of them for sure, and ain't that wonderful? They've got a posse.

"I don't know or care," says Alexander. There's an edge to his voice that Jacob doesn't like at all. Is it the "they asked for it, I'm gonna blast them all" tone? Or the "Houston, we have a problem" tone? It's hard to pick out such delicate inflections with semi-functional ears.

Alexander continues impatiently, pausing occasionally while the strangers ask their questions. "He was unarmed and unable to defend himself; he headed back the way we came when you shot at him... No. I only want to pass through... Then do it... No, I won't... Because, idiot," --and is that any way to speak to the superior numbers holding guns on you? Jacob thinks not-- "we both know how that would end for me... Fine. Stay there all night or get her to shoot me out of here."

That's the straw that fractures the dromedary's spinal column for Jacob. "What are you saying!" he hisses, raising a hand to paw the underbrush aside and getting a palmful of thistles along with another slap in the face from their prickly leaves. "Are you trying to get us both killed? Look, I'm sorry I've been such a pain in the ass, honestly, but isn't murder/suicide by proxy going a little far?"

"Shut up and stay hidden," Alexander tells him absently. "There are four of them but only one is armed. If they insist on being hostile I can take her down; the others will be easy targets while they try to get the rifle from her body."

"No..." Jacob moans, thinking of the city. "No more bodies and shooting! I've had enough, I want out."

"You still there?" calls a woman's doubtful voice, fully intelligible and clear. Ah. Jacob's hearing is back to full strength. Thank God for small favors.

Cool as a cucumber, Alexander calls back, "Yes. What's it going to be?"

"I'm coming over. Hold your rifle out where we can see it."

Boot heels clump loudly on the pavement, approaching at cautious speed. Jacob is wondering if she's as big as she sounds or just walks too heavily when she comes into view and turns her back to him, looming over Alexander. Although she's "looming" only by virtue of the fact that Alexander is lying down. She's petite and blonde, currently unarmed, but Jacob guesses that this is the lady who shot at them.

Alexander and the woman stay there for a minute, taking each other's measure. The woman's face is turned where Jacob can't see her expression, but Alexander has an intense look on his face that sure as hell ain't love. It's calculating.

She speaks first. "If you're not from Colorado Springs, where did you come from?"

"I never said I didn't come from the city, only that I wasn't with the gangs. I left because of them."

"Tell me you're not marked or hunted or any damned thing that's gonna finish up with the gangs following you here."

"I'm not. A few men thought I was joking when I said I didn't want to join their gang. There was a fight, I won. I left the city before there could be another incident. They didn't follow me out."

Wow, quite a neat little summary there, Jacob thinks irritably, but you're leaving out all the exciting parts. Tell her about the price you had on your head! Or maybe how you got me to solve that minor problem! Or how about that shootout in the city airport before we got away? Yeah! Wasn't *that* a massacre for the ages? I didn't even know a person could leave that much of his blood supply on the floor and still be walking around!

Alexander fails to mention any of these things and the woman shifts stiffly on her feet.

Now the silence is awkward. Alexander seems to be waiting for her to make her point and either let them through or tell them to go back the way they came. She's not doing anything that Jacob can see. She backs up a few steps, coming within a foot of his hiding place and giving him a close enough view that he realizes why she walks so heavily. Her right knee is crippled; the brace on it might be helping to keep her mobile, but it's not doing anything to hide the crooked shape of her leg.

"Have we met, sir?" she says slowly. She sounds small all of a sudden, small and hopeful like a poor kid at Christmas. Her fists clench and relax spasmodically at her sides, and Jacob wishes powerfully that he could get a look at her face to see if this is a good thing or if she's maybe having some kind of break with reality.

"Not that I remember, ma'am." The man does have manners when he feels like it. "But I've worked with a lot of people from all over the world. What's your name?"

"First Lieutenant Olivia Forbes, U.S. Air Force. And I think I may know who you are, sir."

"Major Lucas Alexander, Marine Special Operations Regiment. I was a guest in Colorado Springs before the War and didn't get out until recently."

"But, sir, you were supposed to have been in Washington by the time the-- the bomb hit."

"I was supposed to be there, yes. Instead I was under arrest at Peterson Air Force Base for assaulting my superior officers. I hope you won't hold that against me."

"No, sir. I'm too damned glad to see you. Six civilians and I have been living right down the road in what's left of a town, but we've got a kid and two sick men to look out for, and I'm the only one who really knows how to fight or hunt for us. I wasn't ready for this, Major; everything that can go wrong seems to be going wrong. Will you stay? Please, sir."

"That's a definite yes, ma'am!" gasps Jacob, surfacing and struggling to disentangle himself from the thistle plants crowded over and around him. He's not sure why he assumed the blonde knew he was there, especially after she walked right up and put her back to him, which wasn't a very strategically sound move. Apparently she didn't know he was there. She whirls savagely on him as he rises out of the underbrush, her face tensed in a wild-eyed, visual version of the "they asked for it, I'm gonna blast them all" tone that Alexander uses. She doesn't have a gun, but does she let that stop her? Of course not! Her good leg lashes out as she twists, aiming for Jacob's head with the speed and accuracy of a seeking missile.

Her boots have an interesting tread, which is sure to be printed deeply in the side of his face when---or if---he regains consciousness. Bad leg or not, the lady's got a mean ninja kick and Alexander's killer instincts. It must be a soldier thing.

Jacob should really learn to keep his mouth shut around soldiers.

 

He does finally wake up, alone in a little hut that appears to be built out of scorched concrete blocks. It's pleasantly cool inside, although the close, sooty smell calls up unnerving memories of Colorado Springs during the bombings. There is an open space in the wall where a door could go and he can see the sun setting outside in its usual smoldering red blaze. It used to be the bombings and burnings that made the sky look like that, but so far as he knows the War was called off after everybody's electronics went on the fritz. Maybe it's the amount of radiation in the atmosphere that makes it that color now.

Then again, what does he know? He's been traveling with a psycho. A major psycho, ha ha, not so funny. Of course he'd guessed that Alexander was military and a few sandwiches short of a picnic already, but knowing that the man was being court-martialed for assault before this apocalypse mess even gave him an excuse is a teensy bit different.

His head throbs as he goes to stand in the doorway, but the sight that greets him overwhelms his awareness of that pain. Outside is an endless junk heap of twisted metal struts, toppled concrete, shells of burnt out vehicles, and ash, ash, ash everywhere. Gray dust coats everything, filtering to the ground in drifts as the wind stirs it. It really looks like the end of the world. What was it he said to Alexander earlier today about an epitaph to humankind? He was wrong. This is humankind's epitaph, this dead husk of civilization, this mockery of all they made for themselves. In the end, it all came back to bite them. Give man a new discovery and he twists it to blow people up. Give him peace and he stirs up a war out of boredom.

"It *was* Highway 24 we were following. It goes to Kansas."

Jacob isn't particularly surprised by Alexander sneaking up on him anymore, and doesn't respond.

"I'm staying the winter here. The lieutenant has a good settlement and they could use some help. She's offered a place for you, too, but I know you wanted to go further east before the snow falls. If that's still what you want, you're welcome to my supplies."

Blunt as ever. Alexander hasn't changed, and Jacob finds himself grateful for that stability right now. No, he doesn't want to go further east and see what the radiation and the bombs have done to the densely populated eastern cities.

"I'll stay," he says. "My girls are gone, you know? Not just somewhere on the east coast. I guess I've got to accept that and move on."

Alexander makes a quiet sound that's not quite approval or sympathy, but near enough to both to be comforting, so Jacob manages a smile and asks, "Did you really assault a superior officer?"

"No. Three of them."

"Whoa, boy, when you do something, you do it right."

"Do you remember the glitch I told you about this morning?"

"Yeah, the one that started the War."

"I wanted to go public with the mistake. Admit that our technology screwed up, and make a last attempt to back off before things went any further. But the officers I had access to at that point said it was out of their hands. The politicians in DC wanted to cover it up. They thought it would be better to go ahead and trigger a war most of the big countries were spoiling for anyway and get it over with. I argued; my direct superiors accused me of attempting to leak secrets of our national defense and I lost my temper. That was a stupid thing to do, of course. It only gave them an excuse to lock me away."

"The joke was on them," says Jacob, grinning. "That arrest saved your life." His amusement fades quickly as he recalls that a lot of other people weren't so lucky. A glance at the grim landscape around him douses the remains of his humor.

"Here. This fell out of your backpack." Alexander extends an open hand to him, and after Jacob gets over his initial fear that the man is gushing blood again and expects to be patched, he sees the bloom of red in Alexander's palm for what it is. A balloon. He takes it slowly, almost reverently, as he stretches it gently and watches it spring back. It's still pliable. Bright, cheery red. A kid's color.

"Kyra---" he begins softly, but is forced to stop by the crack in his voice. His throat clenches so tight it's hard to even swallow and there's a burning behind his eyes. He wants to say that Kyra loved red balloons. She used to hoard them until she had enough for a flock and then she and Jacob and Teresa would fill them with helium and set them loose somewhere. The three of them would sit together, watching until the balloons were nothing but floating specks high in the distance. He wants to tell Alexander about the huge fleet of them Kyra had bought for her last day in Colorado Springs, a hundred red balloons, and how she and Teresa had released all but one into the sky while he watched. Teresa had tutted good-naturedly about the sheer number of the things, and extracted a promise from Jacob that they wouldn't do so many again, but it had been beautiful just that once. He'd been keeping the hundredth balloon until they were all settled in Washington.

"Take whatever time you need, Jacob," says Alexander with a gentleness all the more bracing for its rarity, and turns away.

Suddenly certain of one thing at least, Jacob reaches out and grabs the man's shoulder before he can leave. "Wait," he says thickly. "Look, maybe I do need some time to wrap my head around all this, but I'll be okay. And, umh, thanks. For keeping me alive in the city. And on the road. Here." He fumbles the balloon back into Alexander's hand and curls the soldier's fingers closed over it. "I think Kyra and Teresa would like for you to keep that. Just, if you decide to toss it in the fire or lose it or something like that, don't tell me about it, huh?"

Alexander looks down at his closed hand and then at Jacob's earnest face. "I understand. You can tell me in the spring if you want to leave then."

"Sure, but I guess I'll probably stay. Between you and that lieutenant, maybe you can teach me to fight. She seems to know her stuff."

"Yes. Speaking of which..." He touches a fingertip to Jacob's abused cheek. "This has swelled up quite badly. And turned purple."

"Ow! Keep your paws off, that hurts!"

"It's only some scratches and a bruise."

"Easy for you to say, but that Forbes lady's got the kick of a mule. And, you! Why'd you smack me?"

"I wanted you to get down but you don't respond to orders the way a soldier would. If I had just ordered you to drop, you would have paused to ask why."

Jacob can only muster a half-hearted glare at that, because it's the unfortunate truth. He's no soldier, but he doesn't intend to be a drain on anybody's society, especially not the tiny one budding here in the remains of a civilization that used to be. The few people living here seem to have managed shelters and not much else, but while the clustered huts are hardly distinguishable from the wreckage around them, they do look very sturdy and probably took a hell of a lot of work to build. And the inhabitants have sick people to look after while they're trying to get things set up here. Not bad, really, but more can be accomplished now with two extra sets of hands.

"You can tie bandages professionally, yet you aren't accustomed to blood," says Alexander. "Do you have medical training?"

"Nah, nothing like that. I went through this phase in high school, wanting to be a doctor. I studied a lot, but I didn't have the money to go to medical school when I graduated." He smirks. "The bandage technique just sort of came back to me when I saw you pouring blood on the floor."

And maybe that's another way he can be useful. Even if he never gets very good at the military stuff, maybe he can do some first-aid, or be support for Alexander and Lieutenant Forbes. She looked about ready to explode under the stress and, boy, does he know the feeling.

"All that fighting stuff you know, you'll teach me?" he asks more seriously, raising his eyebrows.

Alexander shrugs and turns away again, but Jacob already knows the answer. "If you're willing, I'll teach you everything I know. But I think you'll mean twice as much to the community if you'll take a look at the two men here who are sick and try to remember some more of your medical studies. We have two soldiers already. One doctor would be priceless."