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The sedan quietly took up station outside Trennt's bungalow. Idling patiently at the foggy curb, its sullen geometry was staked out in the cheerless red and amber smudges of its running lights.

Crushing out a smoke, Trennt took a final look at the place. Brief stays and unplanned, odd-hour departures were part of the job. Yet a strange facet about good lodging was always in the pang of hominess he felt on leaving—a peculiar wish that something could be taken along as a memento to sustain him later.

But again, this place as all others before it, offered no suggestions. So like the weary traveling salesman he'd become, Trennt dutifully flipped off the lights and set the door lock. Gear in hand, he stepped quickly into the stale night air, toward his ride.

The sedan deposited Trennt at the compound airfield, beside a medium-sized VTOL jet. Its dim cabin lights glowed a cozy saffron in the growing, bitter mist as Trennt stopped by its pilot and a ground crewman in the midst of exchanging signed receipts.

"I'm Trennt," he announced, surrendering his pocket badge to the pair.

"Okay," answered the young pilot. "About ten minutes more and we should be in the air."

The flier swung his pencil between a couple of technicians seen moving about the cockpit and a distant pocket of heat lightning.

"Apparently we need some last minute computer module adjustments before wading into that."

Trennt glanced beyond. The first blue and pink streamers of an EM storm were corkscrewing in, graceful and silent, from the predawn northeastern sky.

"Don't planes usually avoid magnetic storms?"

The flier grinned privately.

"This one is different, trust me. Go ahead and get settled in. Vittles in the galley, if you want."

Trennt looked about the drizzly taxiways. He sniffed the familiar, though much diluted, bite of ozone.

"Big inversion on the way."

"Already here," replied the groundsman folding his papers.

"Chicago took another big hit right after midnight. Level eight. Socked them in good. Sanitation boys'll have a busy time trucking stiffs to the burners after this one."


Trennt gazed pitingly toward the invisible, suffering city, then back toward the parked plane.

"Seen anything of my partner?"

"Short guy? Already aboard."

Trennt stepped through the small hatchway and into the twenty-passenger jet. Ahead, the technicians glanced up from their control panel work. Midway back, Baker snuggled under a blanket. Business goods set in a pair of canvas satchels beside him, his peaceable grin was that of the world's best little boy on Christmas Eve.

In the rear sat a passenger Trennt didn't expect or recognize: an uncomfortable looking middle-aged man, clutching a bulky carry-on bag of his own. Trennt nodded hello, but the man only returned a bovine stare, preoccupied and unresponsive.

Baker, though, did mumble a closed-eyed, dozy greeting.

"Like going to work in a chauffeured Caddy, huh, Jimbo?"

"Yeah," Trennt answered, glimpsing about. "Pretty big plane for just a couple of us."

"First class, Pard. An' just a taste o' what's up the road, if'n we handle this job right."

The shooter's face lit to a broad, savoring smile.

"Say, you take up their offer of evenin' companionship?"

Trennt settled in across the aisle. "No."

"I sure did. Dialed me up that number and they sent over a couple tender young honeys eager to take me places I ain't been in quite some time." Baker's grin withered as he spared a critical eye for his associate. "See there, Pard. That's your trouble. Keepin' to yoursef' all the time just ain't natural. A man needs the right kind of relaxation now and again to keep things in balance."

Trennt ignored the advice and cocked his head rearward.

"Who's the stiff?"

"Doctor somebody," chuckled Baker. "Kinda peak-ed lookin' hisself though, ain't he?"

"You hear any reason for the sudden call-up?"

"Trouble in the hen house—paper cut, stubbed toe. Who knows? Figger it all out when we get there."

The shooter yawned, found that satisfied grin again, and drifted off, fast asleep.

Trennt marveled at the man's untroubled cherublike glow. No lost winks over the horrors he'd survived. Or devised. Not a care of what gruesome end might lay hours ahead. Just turn it on, turn it off, like always.

Finally the technicians departed and the pilot arrived. As if making up lost time, he initiated a smart, two-handed drill in the cockpit. A brisk sequence of sharp clicking switches and toggles filled the air. Outside, one, then the other, aft-placed turbines awakened and stirred to life. Within seconds, their mounting eagerness synchronized into a quivering rhythm.

Waved clear by the ground crew, VTOL ducts and tilt wing mechanisms hummed confidently to their takeoff attitude. Amid a rising howl, the craft gathered its strength and pulled from the ground. Seconds more and it was above the hangars, slowly rotating about a rising axis toward the west, on a merging path with the growing flux of skybound magnetics.

From his lofty perch, Trennt imagined he could discern the vague outline of distant Chicago. Drooped beneath her sooty crown of thorns, the grand old lady of the prairie hovered as a dim collage of askew roof lines. Only the twin 3000-foot Nippon Towers stood out. Then they too fell away. Supplicating arms drowned in the newest quagmire of brown photochemical soup, soup that ruined lungs and birthed killer pleurisies among its citizens—like that which had claimed his own family.

* * *

Chicago. Trennt knew her all too well. Twenty-first-century life wrapped in the tattered discards of the Dark Ages. Its once magnificent boulevards now just cluttered valleys to the fire—blackened stonework jutting skyward like desolate mountain peaks. Deep in its bowels, the old landmarks lived on as razed abstracts: museums, planetarium, aquarium; the scorched and chipped crematoriums that were once Soldier Field and Comiskey Park.

Smothered in a roiling caustic fog tonight again, the city stubbornly clung to life. With sunup the poison would once more evaporate. Somewhere a church bell would shudder to life and draw others to a throbbing chorus of "all clear." Families would pull off their urine-soaked rag respirators, parcel off their dead, and get on with the business of survival.

Trennt had braved the routine many times and earned his stripes as a survivor of the big city riots, outliving the absolute madness, which drove off the town's very soul one unforgettable scalding July night.

Dumped there by the millennium census, the Cee-Dee population had lived jammed in each other's faces for three years. Heated by lax supplies and inadequate public care, their frustration finally exploded like a huge boil, emptying its corruption far into the streets.

Wholesale slaughter flushed out, anxious to punish the system which had abandoned its people. But what remained of true authority was locked safely out of reach. So the rage fell back on itself, setting neighbor on neighbor and square miles to the torch. When the insanity finally died, so did the spirit of the people. Ever since, their only noise was the clamor of defeat.

The whole time he'd lived as her adopted son, Trennt had hated the town. But now, cut free and outside, he felt a weird rush of something like regret, pity toward an abusive mother who simply couldn't help herself.


Trennt dwelled on the horizon a long time after the town was gone, awash in other memories: long ago troop movements, drives against sworn enemies of his country—supposed threats to his way of life. It had mattered once. Or so they'd said. And he'd believed them. America, right or wrong; the simple-minded declaration of an old-fashioned bumper sticker validating it all.

Now, they were telling him again. Different words, but the same old tune. Them and us. Conditional logic that made even the bleak reality of total extinction seem less a threat than the loss of national sovereignty. Not that any of it mattered in the real world. Those living in Chi-town would probably agree that the dead were better off anyway. And to him it was all just part of another job.

Trennt looked again at Baker. Beside the dozing shooter sat two canvas duty bags. Trennt slid one over and peeked in. As the old saying went, the tradesman certainly was known by his tools. A pair of holsters and well-oiled 10 mm automatics rested inside. Beneath were two disassembled S-12 shotguns, ready for a deadly mix of explosive and flechette ammunition. A cased sniper rifle and enough other ordnance to arm a determined infantry squad filled the other bag.

Trennt shucked one of the clip-fed weapons free of its chamois wrap. He clicked the barrel in place and pondered the evil-looking result. Rubber grips, forged aluminum receiver, extruded high tensile barrel. Lightweight, well-balanced. Coated in black oxide, it shined dully in the cabin lights as both a familiar lover and menacing servant.

Just holding the weapon awakened old and primitive feelings deep inside the handler. Power. And shame. That grating mix cultured in the insanity of war, where one sustained and the other tormented.

On a small, insulated tackle-type box, was a yellow label printed over in a red ink. A tiny ball surrounded by three wedge-shaped blades warned of its contents—the A-bomb detonator Corealis had mentioned.

Trennt replaced the gear and left his seat for the mini breakfast buffet. He wasn't interested in the meager selection of self-warming rolls, but he plucked a sealed coffee from the courtesy rack. Popping its heat activating tab, he turned back for his seat when the pilot spoke.

"Someone back there free to hand me a java?"

"Sure." Trennt snatched up another of the sealed cups as the pilot reached out. Bright-eyed and friendly, he filled Trennt with the comfortable notion of his own younger brother.


Trennt nodded and continued back.

"Say," the flyer added unexpectedly, "I've got an extra place up here. If you're interested."

Trennt paused. "Sure it's okay?"

"No problem. The bureau won't mind and this bird is bor-ring. Does everything itself. Just keeps me on like a kind of night watchman. Still comes with two seats, though. Have one."

Trennt shimmied through the narrow cockpit, mildly surprised to see the man absorbed in working a crossword puzzle. He eased in the vacant right chair and browsed the flight deck. Some gauges he recognized, but others were strange. Scanning the tiny half dozen CRT screens monitoring systems' performance, he singled one out.

" 'Core temp.' What kind of plane is this?"

The pilot grinned expectantly. "Nuclear."

Trennt blinked.

"Best thing to ever come out of Area 51," he declared.

"Point nine eight mach; tilt wing and vectored thrust. No fuss, no muss. No old-time fire worries. And never a thought of running out of fuel."

Trennt marveled. "No joke?"

"Serious as a heart attack," pledged the flier. "It could circle the globe nonstop for months, years. We'd give out before the plane would. The power plant is an extremely lightweight fusion-type reactor, made of something they call plasticized magnets. Very expensive and very limited. But you are indeed being powered by one."

The craft sounded and felt like a traditional jet. Trennt was naturally curious.

"Nuclear power normally means steam, right?"

The pilot nodded. "Kind of. A marble of isotope does all the work in a crash-proof container about the size of a watermelon. It superheats a propylene glycol and nitrogen mix that's routed from back in the tail through high-pressure plumbing to the aft-mounted turbines.

"Difference over other jets is in the hollow compressors. These radiate their heat into the outside air while spinning to squeeze it for thrust. That action both powers the plane and cools the propellant for its return to the atomic pile. Much like a car's radiator."

Trennt appraised the wonderful cockpit. "How'd they ever come up with something like this?"

The flier offered a jaded shrug.

"How'd they ever put sound and pictures on magnetic tape? Or anything else they do? Money. Where there's enough, there's a way." He continued, explaining, "The first nuclear aviation work was begun by the CIA Skunkworks in the mid-1950s. This prototype came about in the late '90s and was kept under lock and key at Groom Lake. Now, it's ours."

"A real nuclear airplane."

"Fly anytime, anywhere," reiterated the pilot, smugly gesturing at the controls. "And with its independent logic, it can be totally unmanned. Heads-up multicolored graphics if there is a pilot. Traffic avoidance. Doppler. Even voice response. But everything is kept out of reach until you go through just the right access procedure. Synthetic intelligence doesn't want inferior humans mucking things up unless absolutely necessary, you know.

"Takeoffs, landings, and everything in between is run through its disinfected nanosecond brain. So for me, it's kind of like the sick old joke on rape: just lie back and enjoy the ride."

The pilot huffed a low, dark snort.

"But it is hard not feeling the occasional urge to yank out some transistors and make this crate earn its keep the old-fashioned way."

They shared a glance of solidarity.

"Drue Kosinski," the pilot introduced himself.

"Jim Trennt." The two men shook hands.

"You and the other guys work together?"

"Kind of. How'd you fit in?"

"Taxi driver. Besides spending a lot of shakedown time with this bird, I'm also familiar with your LZ. I've made the resupply runs out there now and again."

Trennt checked the heightened stream of twisting lavender pacing them.

"Any problem if those static bolts catch up with us?"

"They will, shortly. But no. They'll just pass around and continue on whatever path eventually gets them to the South Pole. Passpod and avionics on this bird are double insulated against magnetics and UV. Fuselage is graphite epoxy; strong stuff. We could handle some time inside the main weather cell itself, if we had to."

"Where's that?"

"A couple hours behind the light show."

"Enough behind for us to get in and out?"

The pilot chuckled somberly. "Sure hope so. I wouldn't want to get caught on the ground in its path. A lot of old-fashioned lightning and hail still gets thrown around. And grounded planes don't handle that well at all. Not even one that does know its A-B-C's."

Conversation died away as the high flying jet raced with the dawn. Far below passed America's barren breadbasket. In less than a decade its once boundless wheat fields had faded from golden patchworks to a vast sea of dead khaki. Two centuries of chugging tractors, combines, and threshers were gone like the dinosaur, replaced with deep hollows and high dunes cut and piled by freak zephyr winds.

The great Missouri and lower Mississippi Rivers came into view. Redirected by the collapsed Madrid Fault, they now slammed headlong into a violent merge and flow which took a new river west. In the far distance a dim veil of gray-white plumes rose from the smoldering Pacific Plate volcano fields.

The jet navigated a path indifferent to the dead metropolitan centers far below. From its height, evident only as discordant flashes of dim and distant glass, were the cities: St. Louis, Kansas City, Omaha—all alike. Forlorn and abstract swatches sliding quietly beneath the autotinting windows of this climate controlled, private viewing studio.

Trennt looked on and wondered, How many innocent "displaced" families had found their end amid that distant silence?

* * *

The emergency National Census of 2042 was a desperate plan hatched by the withering federal government: a last organizational edict before decentralization finally knocked the blocks out from under Washington, D.C.

After several years of trying to devise a regenerative balance for its depleted urban areas, an injection of new bodies was hit on as the simplest approach. A special census, beyond the scope of any basic head count, ordered entire families to their father's birth city. This, it was believed, would redistribute needed skills and talents of the population and infuse fresh human resources into epidemic-withered areas after the devastating North American Flu.

* * *

Trennt and his family had traveled light. A two-bag limit was mandated for all refugee families, so few troublesome effects needed to be worried over. They were directed to the local post office to await transport on that early spring morning with little more than the clothes they wore. Of their entire rural township, they were the lone family to be sent so far away.

A few friends stayed with them during their wait that day, when hugs and assurances of a brief absence were exchanged. Trennt then led his family to one-way seats aboard a bus in a flotilla of commandeered vehicles and they took their place in an exodus not seen since biblical times.

After a week's living on wilted box lunches, they finally entered the hulking city by the lake. Trennt's wife and kids were asleep as their bus joined the angled rows of sooty Greyhounds and Trailways already parked at the Randolph Street terminal and Cee-Dee reception station.

Trennt woke Dena and helped bundle Jennifer and Andy against the late-night air. The family then spent three solid hours standing in a cold drizzle, awaiting their turn at processing into their new home.

Shortly after, four-year-old Andy became the first family member to develop the ominous Cee-Dee sniffles.

* * *

Kosinski's voice startled Trennt.

"We're about twenty minutes out."

Trennt offered a map folded to their landing zone.

"Can you hang just beyond range of the station while we give it a peep?"

The pilot reached for a swingout keypad.

"I'll ask permission."

"If things look sour you can set down in this secondary clearing about a half mile south."

Back in the cabin, it was Trennt's turn to do the waking.


The shooter came up in his seat same as always; instant on. No hint of normal human drowsiness. "How far out are we?"

"Few minutes. Get your goods around. We'll take a couple wide swings before deciding where to land."

"Grips, Pard."

Dismissing further courtesy, Trennt called back to the other rider.

"Hey, who're you?"

The man straightened to the gruffness.

"Doctor Thomas Ashton."

"You got something to invest in this, Doctor?"

"I'm to check over the station people."

"Whatever. If you're getting off, get ready. Otherwise, stay out of the way."

Changed to a transitional flight attitude, the jet swung a lazy wide orbit about the research station. From their height, a weave of hardwood trees and camouflage netting did obscure much of its surface. Yet all five research and storage buildings seemed intact—though uninhabited.

"No smoke or movement," declared Baker.

"Not good," Trennt concurred. He called to the pilot. "Drue, hit the alternate."


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