Martin Bedell graduates Presidio Alto Military Academy with a gold oak leaf, a few awards, more credits than demerits and no idea what the hell he’s supposed to do next.
West Point beckons, of course it does, and that makes sense. Hell, it made sense to his father and his grandfather, and at least three generations of Bedell men before them.
But that’s the past and this is the future, and Bedell knows that West Point can teach him a lot, but he isn’t sure it can teach him enough – no, if it can teach him in time.
He gets that the end is probably nigh, but problem is, they never said exactly how nigh. Intellectually, he knows it won’t be tomorrow or even the day after, but it still takes two weeks before he stops recoiling at the cracks from the range and he just can’t shake the feeling that an accelerated education is in order.
Funny thing is, he’ll always tense at the sound of jets overhead, even when the end has come and gone.
He wishes he’d asked Baum – Connor – for his cell number or an e-mail address; hell, just asked any one of the questions that appeared the moment the truck pulled away and left him there trying to make the present mean anything at all.
Maybe it’s just as well: it’s not like Connor would have given him the answers and Bedell doesn’t think he could handle any more questions.
Anyway, boot camp starts Friday and he waits until Thursday to tell his father that he’s enlisted 311.
They’ll talk again, eventually. Around the time Martin makes Force Recon. It will be the last time.
A year later, he’s somewhere south of Ab-Redacted and his buddy Ruan says, “What the fuck is that?”
Bedell looks up – and up - and scowls. “Nothing to do with you.”
Ruan grins and drops heavily on Bedell’s cot, raising a fine dusting of sand from the blankets and forcing a loud protest from the metal frame. He reaches for the kitbag. “Didn’t they teach you to share, Bedell?”
“They taught me to guard my perimeter.” Bedell kicks out half-heartedly and snatches up the bag when Ruan shies away.
Ruan isn’t deterred for long, he never is. Normally that’s something Bedell considers the mark of a good Marine, but it has its downsides - during ordnance theft, for instance. Ruan shifts around until he’s sprawled over the cot, so tall his feet are flat on the ground. “You noticed we’re Marines, right? They like arming us - you don’t need to be all tactical about it, dude.”
“You kidding? You’ve seen what they’re sending us out there with.” Not sending them out with, to the point. “Beans, bullets and bandages, man. I’m just being prepared.”
“Because nothing says prepared like losing a hand when you drop your kit.” Ruan squints at Bedell and gives him a puzzled smile. “Seriously. What?”
Bedell sits back on his heels and grins up. “You don’t think grenades are comforting?”
“This is because they made you give up your security blanket in boot, right?”
Bedell nods soberly. “There’s a little lingering trauma.” He turns his eyes heavenward and holds a hand over his heart. “I’ll always remember you, Blankie.”
Ruan’s smile fades and Bedell tries not to flush under the intent stare that replaces it, but when the silence goes on a touch too long he finds himself saying, “I’m not … selling anything, if that’s what you’re thinking.”
“I thought that, we wouldn’t be talking.” Ruan’s expression hardens. “But a guy’s got a bagful of grenades where his gear should be, I’m going to get a little curious.”
Bedell looks away, to the tent flap and the heat haze rising from bleached-out sand. “You know who one of the patron saints of the Navy is?”
“ Saint Michael,” Ruan says promptly, bemused but humoring Bedell for now. “Or Saint Chuck of Norris, maybe. Guess it depends if anyone’s shooting.”
“Saint Francis of Paola. Francis the Fire Handler. He was just this guy who was all about the caves and the beards - a hermit. Then there’s a river and he can’t cross it, but there’s another guy who could help him. Only this guy says no -- takes his boat and keeps on going.”
“Yeah, because you’d want Frank the Fire Handler on a wooden boat,” Ruan says dryly, with a nod. “That’d work out great.”
Bedell waves the comment away. “So Francis, he gets his cloak and he puts it on the water. Gets his staff, ties it to the cloak … and he sails anyway. He doesn’t know what the hell he’s doing, but he sails anyway.”
Ruan considers this and then shrugs. “Yeah, sounds like the Navy. What’s it got to do with grenades?”
“Cloak and staff, man. Cloak and staff.” He straps the bag down and pushes it under his cot. “Now I just got to wait for the river.”
Ruan sighs and rolls off the cot, to his feet. “You’re really fucking weird, Bedell.”
Bedell nods his frank agreement. “Yeah, I know.”
They run out of grenades Judgement Day plus thirteen, but by then he’s built stockpiles of weaponry around the country so large that Sarah Connor herself would be proud.
“What I don’t get,” Reilly says, breath shimmering in freezing air, “is why you’re here.”
Bedell hunches down against the cold and makes a mental note to add heating packs to the equipment in storage. Connor didn’t mention anything nuclear, but Bedell can’t imagine it’s not coming up. Iodine’s already on the list and Geiger counters are right there with it.
Ruan’s elbow jabs into his ribs and brings him back from the logistics of the Apocalypse. “Orders,” he says shortly, after jabbing Ruan back. “Same as you. Officers appreciate it when you follow them.”
“Why you’re here,” Reilly continues, unfazed if slightly muffled under the layers. “Not some place else. You went to West Point, right?”
Okay, the scuttlebutt is officially out of control. Bedell scowls. “I didn’t go to West Point.”
“I heard you did,” Ruan says with a smirk; he’s leading Reilly on to pay Bedell back for something, Bedell guesses. He loses track. They know each other’s life stories back to Kindergarten, which is more than Bedell ever wanted to know about anyone.
Ruan knows Bedell never went to West Point. He doesn’t know why.
“I was at Presidio Alto,” Bedell relents, in the face of Reilly’s confused expression. Kid looks all of thirteen and like Mom and Pop are arguing again. Jesus. “My old man was West Point, though.”
“Why didn’t you go TBS? You could’ve been an officer, get the easy ride.”
“And miss all this?” Ruan says with a wide, sharp grin. “You crazy?”
“Just weird, is all,” Reilly mutters, and hunches down again.
“See, I said you was weird, Bedell,” says Ruan.
“Yeah,” Bedell nods amiably. “You did.”
“But you volunteer all the time,” Reilly continues persistently,
like he’s gnawing away at a piece of meat. “And for the worst stuff. Why even do that?”
“Worst’s relative, private,” Bedell says flatly, and hopes the kid takes the hint.
Reilly’s mouth opens again, but before he can ask another stupid question, Ruan’s foot kicks into Reilly’s padded knee, eliciting an injured, “Hey!”
“Shut the fuck up already,” Ruan says, not unkindly. “Do your job.”
To Bedell’s relief, Reilly shuts the fuck up and does his job. He sees action for the first time two days later; he doesn’t live to see the sky burn black.
The next time he rotates back stateside, Bedell gives a few seconds serious consideration to asking for a release, maybe going Air Force, or Army. He’s seen both in action and adding their skills to his own could only help.
It’s tempting, but somewhere in the last three years he’s found the men and women he wants to fight with when it all goes down, and he can’t leave them.
Instead, he begins to order books - as many books as he can - and ignores Ruan’s eye rolls and occasional attempts to hide them. In the fourth year, Colonel Spreck commissions Bedell for officer training, this time he accepts it.
On Judgement Day, Martin Bedell has two silver bars, a few medals and seven weapons caches, and he knows exactly what to do next.
Ruan skids around the door in full battle rattle, breathing hard and already beginning to reel off the latest sitrep. He falls silent when he sees Bedell methodically stripping the room of its hidden survival gear, clearly getting ready to move out in ways that have nothing to do with orders. “What the fuck? We’re under attack and you’re deserting?”
Bedell shoves a bag of MREs into the man’s arms and then pushes past him to grab the generator from its hiding place at the back of the closet. “Cloak and staff, Ruan. Welcome to the river. Come with me.”
“You’re crazy,” Ruan says, almost automatically, but he doesn’t move.
“Come with me,” Bedell says again, calmly. “They don’t know how to fight this.”
“And you do?”
“Since I was eighteen. You’ve trusted me for years, Ruan.”
“I’ve thought you were crazy for years,” Ruan points out, but the wide-eyed panic abates. He glances quickly back over his shoulder and then nods. Bedell doesn’t know what the man’s already seen or heard, but whatever it was it did his sales pitch for him.
Ruan swallows hard and then visibly forces composure until he’s wearing the hard-eyed control that Bedell has come to rely on. “What’s the plan?”
“We take a Humvee, we get who we can and we get out. I’ve got stockpiles, we can regroup, make surgical strikes.”
Ruan nods and at last begins to move, efficiently gathering up the bags Bedell was piling. “Who the hell is doing this?”
“Not who, what,” Bedell answers grimly. “We’re out of here.”
Judgement Day plus three, Ruan hands Bedell a radio and murmurs quietly enough that Kendall, Paxton and Oshiro won’t hear him. “Cheyenne’s gone.”
Bedell takes the radio with numbed fingers and listens to the almost inflectionless voice reciting again the list of surviving installations; Cheyenne Mountain is no longer on it. The operator is a woman with an accent he can’t place. While her tone is deadened enough to be a recording, Bedell thinks she’s live.
For any given value of live.
He turns the radio up just enough that the others can hear it, as the woman begins to relay what news she has, messages she’s passing on. There’s never any messages for them; why would there be?
Except, “He’s coming, Francis. Stay alive out there.”
Bedell pauses and then carefully put the radio down. It can’t be for him: he never told anyone but Ruan that stupid story.
Yet, a voice whispers in his head, and he shivers.
He shakes it off. No one’s noticed he thinks, until he sees Ruan staring at him.
Ruan says nothing and Bedell looks away, tries to picture this woman. This one single voice somewhere out there, speaking in the same moment as he and his surviving marines are crouched in the ruins of a mall, waiting for twilight.
“Good luck,” she murmurs, as if she doubts such a thing. “God bless America.”
Kendall snorts and shakes her head, but Bedell hears the wry note in the voice on the radio and laughs under his breath. He likes this woman a little more every day.
“We should head for Crystal Peak, metal’s not getting in there any which way,” Paxton says, expression mulish under a five-day growth of beard and all the dirt the end of the world can throw at them.
“Like they weren’t getting into Cheyenne Mountain?” Oshiro glares at him and raises his voice to a shrill whine. “‘We should head for Cheyenne, metal’s not getting in there any which way.’ You remember that, Paxton?”
“Fuck you,” Paxton growls, and then launches himself at the other man, who meets the attack with a jagged grin.
Bedell would probably break it up, but Bedell is taking watch. Anyway, Ruan knows the difference between a real fight and blowing off steam. When Oshiro and Paxton are done trading hissed insults and scuffling in the dirt, he knocks both their helmets together and says, “We’re deploying to Wyoming, if that’s okay with you ladies.”
“Wyoming?” Kendall tips the last dregs of her coffee into the rubble. “What’s in Wyoming?”
“Jackson Hole,” Garcia says mutedly. “Best snowboarding in the whole damn world.”
It’s the first thing Garcia’s said since Austin was wiped from the map five days ago. After a shocked second, everyone stares at Ruan, like he’s supposed to know what to say to make sure the guy’s head doesn’t break any more than it has already.
“I heard that,” Bedell says conversationally from behind him, making the save. “You go there a lot?”
Bedell may be crazy – and seriously, Ruan’s half sure he is - but that doesn’t mean he isn’t good.
“Every year, with my brothers,” Garcia says vaguely. “We’re going again in October.”
Bedell nods. “Nice. You’re our navigator.”
Garcia stares at him, eyes blown wide and Christ knows what he’s seeing, but Ruan doesn’t think it’s Bedell.
“The answer you’re looking for, corpsman, is ‘Yes, sir.’” Bedell leans forwards and stares Garcia in the eyes until the pupils contract and for the first time, Ruan thinks maybe the man’s back in there.
Garcia nods jerkily and draws himself to a marionette attention. “Yes, sir.”
“Outstanding.” Bedell pointedly ignores the state of Oshiro and Paxton and raises his voice a little. “We’re pulling out.”
Ruan hangs back as the others finish loading the Hummer. “What is in Wyoming?”
Bedell’s already checking and double-checking their route with map and compass and answers absently, a beat too slow. “There’s a weapons factory there, pretty small. Maybe small enough it wasn’t completely destroyed.”
“We have weapons,” Ruan points out. They’ve literally been sitting on grenades – yeah, that’s been great. He remembers jabbing Bedell about his explosive kitbag, turns out that was nothing at all.
“It’s going to be months, maybe years before we can hit back. You think the weapons are going to last months? Years? Sooner or later, there’s going to be a another voice on the radio.”
Bedell looks up and Ruan suddenly finds himself the focus of Bedell’s full and undivided attention. “We’re going to be ready for it and we’re going to have more than rocks to fight with.”
Somewhere between the robots and here and now, Bedell’s full and undivided attention has become an uncomfortable place to be. Ruan holds his ground, because if there was ever a moment to ask how Bedell knows what he knows, this is it. Demand an explanation, maybe. Demand to know why he said nothing.
Except Ruan knows why. It makes him a little sick, and he’s not sure it’s something he can forgive, but he gets it.
So he draws himself up with a crooked smile and just says, “Cloak and staff, huh?”
“Cloak and staff,” Bedell agrees, with a small, twisted up smile of his own.
On Judgement Day plus ten, the women on the radio says, “Crystal Peak,” and then falls silent.
“Told you,” Paxton says, but without any heat.
Garcia’s hands dart over Paxton’s chest, keeping the pressure on here, tying the wound closed there, while Paxton writhes on the ground with a piece of blackened wood clenched between his teeth and Oshiro and Kendall holding him down. Under the blood-soaked tatters of Paxton’s useless body armor, Ruan sees the white glint of ribs.
Beads made of blood and bone are a rosary passing through Garcia’s fingers as he prays and curses and prays again; the whispered litany is constant under Paxton’s muffled groans and the calm, even reassurances Bedell murmurs every couple of minutes
“You’re fine, Paxton,” Bedell lies, but convincingly. “You’re going to be okay. Ruan, eyes front.”
Ruan grits his teeth and turns his eyes back to their perimeter because no one believes for a second that the metal skeleton isn’t coming to finish what it started. Ruan doesn’t know what it’s even waiting for and imagines it out there, watching them die.
Bedell’s head is down as he works feverishly over a thermite pack, tending it with almost the same desperation that Garcia fights for Paxton’s life.
“Got it,” he hisses, as he finds and mends, making it whole in minutes. Garcia should be so lucky.
“You sure it’s going to work this time?” Ruan growls.
Bedell grins hard, red and bloody. His lip is torn open where the metal backhanded him and a long thin slice over his eye gives him a smeared red mask; war paint. “Fuck, no.”
“Then I’ll do it.” Ruan holds his hand out for the pack.
Bedell grips it tighter and shakes his head.
“You know where we’re going,” Ruan grinds out, and reaches for the explosives again. “Give it to me, Marty.”
Bedell holds the thermite tight against his chest – against his fucking chest – and hisses back, “I’m faster than you, Lee. I’ll get in and get out, it can’t touch me.”
Ruan gestures at the mess of Bedell’s face. “It touched you plenty.”
Bedell’s mouth thins and he pulls himself upright, shoulders back. “You have your orders, Sergeant Ruan.”
And what the fuck do orders mean anymore. Ruan stares at Bedell and Bedell stares back, and Ruan knows Bedell’s the one with the bars, but he’s not the one with the power. Ruan refuses, what the hell is Bedell going to do?
Then again, Ruan refuses and what the hell do any of them do?
“Yes, sir.” Ruan nods sharply and is at least savagely happy to see Bedell’s expression flicker with relief.
They see the explosion from down in the ditches of the highway and Ruan counts heartbeats: five-hundred and they’re moving out. He ignores the looks Kendall sends him and the wet sounds of Garcia’s field surgery, and counts.
At three hundred and eighteen, Bedell slides down the ditch to land beside them, breathing hard and with a burn already blistering on his forehead. Garcia reaches for his medi-pack; Bedell waves him away. “Later, we have to move. I heard engines – heavy engines.”
“You think they’re ours?” Oshiro asks, and looks so immediately mortified at the question that Ruan doesn’t have the heart to give him a smack upside the head.
“No.” Bedell says. “Move.”
Paxton stays with them for four long days where he never really wakes and Garcia never really sleeps. He passes quietly with a soft gasp and open eyes; they bury him beside the freeway, under what’s left of a tree.
“Should’a gone to Crystal Peak,” Oshiro admits softly by way of a eulogy, and then they’re moving again.
Judgement Day plus twenty, Kendall holds up a fist and they all drop fast, waiting with fingers tight on triggers for whatever she spotted ahead to appear.
They hear the sound of an engine. Not the wild, tearing sound of the machines and their HKs, but the low rumbling sound of something a lot more familiar.
“Tread heads,” Oshiro breathes. “Fuck me, is that a Bradley? Is that a – they’ve still got a fucking gun.”
The Bradley moves at walking speed – three figures pacing it at each side. Oshiro shakes his head. “Man, the tracks are screwed. They’re down past the rubber and the pins are probably cracked as hell.”
Laying flat up along the ridge of the high ground, they watch the Bradley and its crew as they pass below, which Bedell finds a little disconcerting – he’s never met a Scout who liked the low ground. Then again, they still have their crippled vehicle to nurse, something Bedell really doesn’t. The Humvee was abandoned a hundred clicks back.
“We going to let them know we’re here?” Oshiro asks, eyes bright and clearly enchanted by the enormous M242.
Bedell watches the men below for a few seconds longer and then looks sideways to Kendall. “You’re up, Kendall.”
She scowls and then manages to marshal her expression into something more fitting when she replies. “Yes, sir.”
Bedell wants to apologise, but you don’t apologise for legal orders. Ever. And sending Kendall in like some kind of fucked up miner’s canary had worked well for them so far. People who’d wait to screw over a group of armed marines tended to show their cards more quickly when they thought they were dealing with one scared woman.
“Embrace the suck, Kendall,” he compromises. Sympathy isn’t an apology, he tells himself. “Ruan, cover her. Garcia, spot him. Oshiro, you’re on flank with me.”
Kendall strips off her combat gear, down to a vest and a pair of combats. With her hair just a little longer than regulation and her eyes wide with anticipation that will cover for fear in the dark, she makes her way down the slope.
“Hey!” She yells, to make sure they see her coming. “Hey!”
The Scouts stop and assume a defensive position around their vehicle, which Bedell considers a point in their favour. They’re not civilians wearing stolen uniforms, carrying stolen guns: they’ve had training.
Doesn’t mean they aren’t dangerous, and they’re young – Bedell’s pretty sure not one of them is over twenty-two, and that’s a point against them. He can’t imagine much worse than panicky, poorly trained kids with a 25mm chain gun.
They’re not wearing any identifying stripes, of course, but one of them raises his hand and starts cautiously forward. Bedell puts him at second lieutenant, maybe.
“Stop there, ma’am.”
Kendall stops obediently and hangs her head, hunches her shoulders and makes them tremble. There’s a catch in her voice when she pleads, “Don’t shoot me, please don’t shoot me.”
The LT looks around nervously. “There anyone with you?”
“No, it’s just me. I- I’ve been on the road and-and there was-“ Kendall trails away into hiccupping sobs. Bedell has to admit, she has a talent for drama.
The LT starts forward to comfort her and Bedell mentally gives him a merit for compassion, then an automatic demerit for sheer fucking stupidity.
“Wait!” The man behind the wheel says sharply, then coughs and goes on in a more measured tone. “She could be – there may be others. Sir.”
Sergeant, definitely a sergeant – Bedell knows that careful phrasing very well and studiously avoids looking at Ruan’s position.
The probable sergeant is wearing a battered dress Stetson, and now Bedell can see his face, he can see he’s got a few years on the other men.
That’s a good mark, but none of them are looking behind them – that’s another bad mark. Kendall is looking around; when she looks his way, Bedell waves his hand and she straightens.
“Yeah, actually?” She starts quietly. “There are others. We just had to check you out first, Sergeant. It is Sergeant, right?”
The Scouts’ weapons turn her away and Kendall flinches, but speaks calmly – if quickly. “There’s two men on the ridge behind you, and one man on the ridge behind me. You shoot me and you’re paste.” She barely gives them time to process that before snapping off a textbook salute and then falling back at ease.
The lieutenant glances back to the sergeant, who nods his okay.
“You’re a long way from Kentucky, Sergeant.” Bedell says, when he and the sergeant have found themselves a quiet spot in the rubble, away from the others. He should be including LT Moore in this, but Ruan has the man occupied and, honestly, Moore seemed happy enough with that.
Dunn nods and crouches next to him with his hat in his hand, hanging between his knees. “Yes, sir.”
They haven’t exchanged ranks; Bedell guesses something about him just says ‘officer’. “Why Wyoming?”
Dunn’s mouth twists. “Because I know Wyoming. I told them there was an installation might still be alive out there, but. Hell. I just wanted to keep them moving.”
“I get it, Sergeant.” Bedell looks down at the ground and then up to the horizon, filled with a red kind of darkness. They aren’t in a hot zone, but the sky is a toxic spill of clouds wherever they go.
He listens to snatches of the wary conversation from the dell behind them, marines and scouts not quite willing to trust, but willing enough to swap news and horror stories.
“There’s an arms factory,” he says at last, “that’s why we’re here.”
“The place up over at Freedom?” Dunn nods. “I know it.”
“Next to the forest – good cover, if it hasn’t been burned out. Could be we can rearm there, maybe more.”
Dunn stares at Bedell and then past him, to his men; he nods again and looks back. “You’ll need scouts.”
And that’s how the marines get an attachment of cavalry scouts barely old enough to shave and a Bradley-mounted chain gun.
The national forest is almost intact, but it’s dying a slow, withered death in complete silence: no birds, no life. Not even bugs. After a couple of hours that silence presses down and Bedell thinks, even in a world where the sky is black and the ground is grey, it might be the most unnatural thing he’s experienced so far.
It puts them all on edge and three days later, the stillness is shattered by the sharp crack of a single bullet; the splinter of sound cuts though the trees and echoes around and around, like the forest is trying to hold on to whatever it can.
When they bury the scout, Bedell realises he didn’t even know the kid’s name. Dunn did, and he carves it on a wooden cross before they move on, deeper into the forest.
The next day, Garcia crouches next to Bedell and whispers, “They need something to do, Captain. Now.”
His voice sounds hoarse and tight, and Bedell realises he hasn’t heard anyone speak in hours. But there are maps to follow and lists to make. “Corporal-“
Garcia reaches over and grips his arm hard enough it hurts and Bedell tenses. “Now,” Garcia says, “or you’ll lose more of them.”
Ruan watches from a short distance, pacing uneasily and ready to jump in, but now that Bedell looks at him – really looks at him – he can see what Garcia means. He relaxes and makes sure he’s looking directly at the medic before he pulls his arm away. “Understood.”
When Garcia has slipped away, it’s Ruan who takes his place. “You’re waiting for something, Saint Francis,” he says. “And I know it’s not some freaking river, because we’re drowning in it.”
Bedell drops the papers on the ground next to him and closes his eyes. “You never asked. How I knew about this. You asking now?”
When he opens his eyes again, the troops have drawn closer.
Ruan turns the dial on the radio again and again, though the woman stopped speaking weeks ago. Finally, he says, “Yeah, I am.”
Bedell knew Ruan would, sooner or later – honestly though it would be sooner - but he’s never been able to think of how to tell him. How to tell them: he can feel the others listening and in this forest, noise carries and carries.
He’s not convinced that somewhere in its depths, the sound of a single bullet isn’t still ringing.
He thinks about that, and he thinks about the voice on the radio, and metal under skin; and he tells them about John Connor.
John Connor, he says, will lead the Resistance. John Connor will rise up and he will defeat the machines, but he can only do that if they’re there to back him up.
If there are bases, and bunkers and arms and munitions: if they give John Connor a chance to take.
And because they’re just desperate enough, they believe him.
And they plan.
On Judgement Day plus sixty, from somewhere behind a pile of scavenged munitions and a jury-rigged truck, the radio crackles and a woman says, “He’s here, Francis.”