Six Months Prior
Cortwood wasn’t a city. More like a village. An unincorporated community in Klickitat county, right at the foothills of Mt. Adams. Not too far from the Columbia River, but a hell of a drive from anything both noteworthy and manmade.
Several hundred people lived in the area, giving it just enough of a footprint to have its own Wikipedia article. Most were farmers of some kind. Some were programmers or others who worked over the internet. They liked playing at homesteading in a place where land was cheap.
Services were sparse. A few residents lived to were the run the general store and the post office. There was a K-12 school. A bed & breakfast catered to passing travelers. In short, not much.
Some who lived there had come to this most obscure locale precisely because they wished to surround themselves with nothing. Others were the children of such people. Danny and Logan were both the latter. They spent twelve years in a school that usually served several dozen students.
By now most of their peers had escaped one way or another. After a few years of false starts and agricultural labor, Logan had escaped to Central Washington University. Danny didn’t. For the moment, though, Logan was on Christmas break, visiting his mother. It was New Year’s Eve, about a quarter to nine. He and Danny were currently sitting in the town’s only tavern, killing time.
“Whoa, hey, love this song!”, said Danny. He was referring to Journey’s Separate Ways, which was currently being coughed out by the bar’s barely adequate sound system. He turned to the utterly dour barkeep and premises-owner. “Turn it up, Tom!”
Danny was rail thin and scraggly-bearded. He was currently bobbing his head furiously as if he owned the Journey song, though it predated his conception by a decade. He had a sort of misplaced focus and energy about him that Logan used to refer to as Danny’s mojo. The pediatrician used to refer to it as ADHD.
“So you’re still at the hatchery?” asked Logan, absentmindedly rotating a mug.
“Yep,” said Danny. “Still mostly maintenance and repair. Dad still doesn’t want me fucking with the fish.” Danny did seasonal work at the nearby Salmon Hatchery, where his father held a supervisory position. His father giving him a job wasn’t really nepotism. Danny showed up on time and didn’t try to sneak any salmon fry home (nobody was really sure why the last guy had done this), so he was at least as qualified as anyone within twenty miles. Yes, Danny still lived at home.
“Yeah?” said Logan.
“Well, I mean, it’s not really something I want. I’d just have to go do the hatchery technician course. Probably not even that. I just have limited interest in fish guts. I do the other grunt work. The machines, the sweeping. Anyways, how’s school?”
Logan was a psychology undergrad. “Good,” he said, “Not really sure what comes next, but I’m thinking I’ll graduate.”
“It real interesting, this psych stuff? Like Criminal Minds?” asked Danny.
“Yeah, well, sorta. There’s some interesting parts. The beginning was mostly about defining the self. Also how Freud thought everything looks like a cock,” interpreted Logan loosely. “It gets better, but I think the real meat of it is grad school. You know I mostly chose it because it’s science with no math.” Logan’s mother was the science teacher at the K-12. He had gone off to school with the intent to do something of which his mother would be proud. It felt only right after the sacrifices she’d made to get him to college.
“Beats fish fuckery. Hell, man, you should do ROTC or something,” said Danny, “Be an officer. The Army needs head doctors and shit.”
Logan knew that Danny was a Reservist or a National Guard, whatever they called it. Once a month he spent a weekend in a drafty armory a few hours away, ostensibly honing warfighting skills of some kind. Logan had initially been surprised by how many funny GIFs Danny could find and pass on during a drill weekend.
“Yeah, maybe,” said Logan. He could think of worse things, but an Army lifestyle didn’t really appeal. Besides, he’d heard there were wars.
“Meet any hot chicks up there?” asked Danny. Danny still considered hot chicks to be a thrilling novelty and held to a fairly loose definition of the term.
Logan smiled. “Yeah,” he said. No elaboration. “So anyways, what’ve you been up to?” he asked.
“Dude, I finally got it. My dream gun. Remember that one I showed you on Facebook?” said Danny.
“Oh, the AR?”
“Yeah, but not just any. I made her cheap, but good. I ended up building it with a Palmetto State upper and this sweet-ass red dot with a flip-over magnifier.” None of this meant much to Logan, but it sounded legit. He liked guns, but didn’t put nearly as much thought into them as Danny.
“How much it run you?”
“Like eight, nine hundred with the mags and stuff. The slidefire wasn’t cheap.”
“Oh, right. How’s it work?” asked Logan. He vaguely remembered seeing a video of the slidefire stock. It harnessed recoil impulse to help the shooter pull the rifle’s trigger much faster than typically possible, effectively mimicking fully auto fire. A gun nerd’s dream in a slightly liberal state unfriendly to real automatics and other Federally-restricted weapons.
“Like a champ. Blew through a couple of mags last week at the quarry. Tell you what, it would cut down a mob of zombies like last week’s fish.” Danny was a contributing member of the Undead Defense League, a web-based movement that spruced up traditional survivalism by wholeheartedly embracing movie-monster mythology. Zombies were a great stand-in metaphor for looters and rioters. Werewolves were apparently biker gangs, and vampires were home invaders or census takers. It was a good way to introduce people to the concept of stocking up on canned goods and toilet paper. It was also a great excuse to buy ammo.
Logan let that line of conversation drift for a moment while he scanned the room. Felt kind of strange, being here. He and Danny had grown up wondering if they’d ever be old enough to sit at Tom’s bar with the men. Didn’t seem so exciting now. Maybe college had warped his expectations. Tom had put the Times Square feed on his old TV, where it was almost midnight. A few other older men sat further down the bar. A few couples were at the tables. Their kids must be off at college or beyond, thought Logan. He hadn’t really seen anyone his age except for Danny since rolling into town last week. For that matter, he had put off telling Danny about his visit until after Christmas. He felt a little guilty about that now.
Actually, there was a couple his age having dinner over at a window table. The guy was tall. Looked athletic. Sort of like that one Olympic swimmer. The girl was very white, with short blonde hair. Didn’t look like a cheerleader, though. Kind of hippy, maybe SoCal. They both seemed vaguely familiar. He knew they didn’t grow up here. Maybe they were visiting an Aunt. Maybe they’d just gotten lost here on the way to something exciting. Maybe…
Exuberant noises caught Logan’s ear. He looked up and saw that the ball had dropped in New York. Happy New Year, sort of. He turned back to Danny. “Any goals for next year?” he asked.
Danny shrugged. “Just stayin’ alive, man.”
The lights suddenly cut out. The older patrons on the other side of the bar let out various exclamations. Danny let out an “Aha!” and started digging in his pocket. A few seconds later Logan and the rest of the patrons heard a faint clicking noise in the dark.
“Well, shit,” said Danny. “Tactical flashlight’s dead.”
“Storm tonight?” asked one of the old timers of nobody in particular.
“Haven’t heard. Was clear earlier,” said Tom, who had flared up a match and was busy lighting the kerosene lanterns lining a shelf behind the bar. Logan got up and walked over to the door. Not hearing any wind, he opened it and stepped out to the road.
It was utterly calm, a clear and cold night. Not as dark as one might expect for a winter night. The moon must have been pretty bright. He stepped out into the street to get a better look at the sky. He heard someone stepping out behind him. He turned and looked Northeast. What he saw held his attention far longer than expected.
“The hell?” said Danny from next to him. Logan had no reply. The horizon was lit with an eerie glow, red and orange. Deeper than a sunset, and far more ominous.
“Maybe Canada’s on fire,” said Logan. He immediately felt a little dumb. He looked over to Danny. Danny looked unusually concerned. “What? What is it?”
“It’s not a fire,” Danny said. “It’s the Chinese.”
Logan scrutinized Danny’s face for humor. There was none. In fact, Danny had an expression of wild-eyed concern that Logan had last seen when Danny had wrapped his first car around a post in the school parking lot and was wondering what to tell his father. “Really? The Chinese?” he asked.
“I’m not kidding. This might be an EMP strike. Electromagnetic pulse. Remember what I told you about those?”
“Set off a nuke at high altitude and it makes a wave that kills electronics.”
“I refuse to believe you haven’t heard of this.”
“My school doesn’t offer a degree in paranoia.”
Danny snickered. “I’m just messing with you anyways, man. It’s probably the northern lights or something. Or maybe a solar flare,” he said.
He had barely finished his sentence when something flashed behind them. The two friends turned around, looking up to the disturbance. There was a bright smear of light on the southern horizon, distant and tiny. Serpentine ribbons of light emanated from the slowly morphing sight, green and unearthly.
“What is?” asked one of the bar patrons. Several more had filtered out to the road and were squinting at the horizon.
“Fireworks,” said another.
“Nah, must be one of them laser show thingies. Probably down at the river.”
“High altitude nuclear explosion.”
Everyone turned to look at Danny. “Boy,” said a mustached gentleman in a cowboy hat who Logan recalled as Mr. Gonzalez, “Wasn’t it you who kept saying that aliens took that cow of mine? The one that wandered down to Smiths’ place?”
Danny seemed unfazed by this smear campaign against his credibility. “It’s bombs. Electromagnetic pulse killed our power, and those are bombs. Or maybe it’s just the Second Coming. Happy fuckin’ New Year, either way.” Logan could see that his friend was getting agitated, rocking up and down on his heels.
“It’s not a mushroom cloud, Danny,” said Mr. Gonzalez patiently, “It’s just a light.” Several others nodded in sage confirmation.
The group was silent. “Power’s not coming back tonight,” said old Tom at last. “Maybe time for everyone to head home.” There was no dissent. Danny and Logan started up the street towards their respective dwellings. There was murmured conversation back at the doorstep of the tavern, which they soon left behind.
“What the hell, man.” This was Danny, thinking out loud.
“Just stay in,” said Logan. “Maybe there’s a news bulletin or something. You said this thing, bomb, whatever, killed your flashlight?”
Danny shrugged. “Think I forgot to change the batteries, actually. Check your phone.”
Logan’s phone was powered off, something he didn’t remember doing. It came back on, but there was no network to pick up. “No signal,” he confirmed.
“Great, well… maybe someone’s got a ham radio,” said Danny.
It was time for them to part ways. Logan sighed. “You know,” he said, “Someone at the power plant probably took a few bottles to work for the holiday and tripped over a cord or something. And the light was fireworks.”
The sky was still glowing.
Last edited by redcabeca on Mon Feb 13, 2017 12:49 pm, edited 1 time in total.