We reach town limits. Through a purpled, misshapen stand of elm, a sign pokes up, crinkled and black at the edges: Thompson's Creek. Pop 3,000.
It's gone now.
I met someone from here once. Said the trees were lovely. There was an annual folk concert in the square he loved as a kid. People picnicked and for an evening left their worries at the edge of the grass.
Till the day someone who got snubbed from the folk lineup and just lost his job and his wife hid a 20-kiloton in a picnic cooler and let it go in the square.
Just a sad day. Of course you had the calls from crazies to suppress the foundational right to self-defense, to shackle our hands and stack plutonium away in the vaults of the elite. They quieted down quickly.
Our belt geigers click the "welcome drums," as we've taken to calling them. Nothing outside tolerance. We have the kids secure gas masks just in case. They comply with the smooth competence of well-drilled habit. Green shoots stick through asphalt smooth from flash-melt. A single shock-red tulip shines in the black.
It reminds me of Browningville, the town I grew up in. Tulips were our pride. They grew so wild and free, we said it was really their town, we were just guests passing through. In spring that place was awash in reds, oranges and golds and the air was so sweet you could taste it.
It's gone now.
Friends of Martin--the handful who survived--said he was hurting. Said if they'd known, they would've stepped in. But he buried his hurt and it ate him from inside, till he could only let it out in a blink of gamma rays.
Maybe if he hadn't had that chrome-plated Little Boy it wouldn't have happened. And maybe if his dad hugged him more, and maybe if he had a happier job, and maybe and maybe and maybe. Maybes won't bring my parents back. All they'll do is chain someone else's to cute, dead ideas about social conformity.
We pass a standing cement framework, the skeleton of an old school. Seems like the oddest idea when you really think about it--gathering up the smallest, weakest members of a group, the group's incubating future, and putting them all in the same place. What do you expect to happen, really? May as well pass out their headstones with the textbooks in September.
Killers are out there and rules don't shield us. Even if all they have is a blunt blade, or a rock, or a fist. The school makes me think of Enfield High all those years ago. Remember that girl, the senior? She had a half-megatonner. Would've killed her whole city. What stopped her? A law? A stern moral lesson? Course not. A kid who saw it coming and cracked his parents' home defense safe.
The piece he hit her with was barely a quarter-KT. It didn't even take out the whole school. He saved hundreds of thousands.
Our scouts report contact with another group. They say they're open to talk and trade. We'll meet up in the old square.
This is how to live. Moving, discovering, free. Bound to no law nor nation. Those had their time. Like so many evolutionary dead-ends, they evaporated into history on the edge of a pressure wave when the Capitol bit it long ago. Of course people whisper that places like Canada and the countries across the sea are still going, but I don't see anybody with sense believing it.
Not that it matters, anyhow. If they haven't learned, I'm sure they will soon. All you have is yourself, your clan, your wits, and your bridgewire trigger.
We meet each other across the square. They look like us. Lean, a little parched, but eager, clear-eyed. The usual greeting ritual. We stand in open view and nod to one another peacefully. Our Button-Men step out, glinting detonators in hand, and kneel at the center of their respective clans, poised and calm. The elders step forward. Talk of fresh food, clean water, even a book they'd consider trading. Been two years since I read a new book.
It's tough to place the next few seconds. Some heated scrap of conversation. A startling noise off in the trees. Guessing and second-guessing intentions. Things spill over. Nobody's fault, nothing could really have been done. These things just happen sometimes.
We're gone now.