We sat around the table trying not to stare at each other but largely failing. Michael looked at us expectantly waiting to hear the tale. I had no doubt he’d make one up later if this one didn’t suit him.
I maintained eye contact with Starke for as long as I could. I saw O’Toole wince and his head whip around to look at Starke. The two of them exchanged a brief look before turning back to me.
“Boys care to tell us what happened since we last met?” I asked searching my expression database for congenial smile I think I pulled it off, but without a mirror I never knew for sure.
Starke cleared his throat and stood unfolding a map. “You may recall last time we met the MVDF was pulling out of one of their forward operating bases. My group joined up with another militia at almost the same time. . . I think you know our new leader?”
I nodded. “I think we met, but I don’t recall his name.”
Starke nodded and continued to look at the map. “Well you were kind of busy last time I saw you. What ended up happening with you guys? The PLM was busy bugging out of the area after the nuke.”
All talk ground to a halt.
“Nuke?” my voice was a whisper and I was sure I’d misunderstood him.
Starke nodded and took a marker and made two X’s on the map. “Not like thermonuclear weapon, but nuclear material. Here at Palisades nuke plant and then down the coast at Cook Nuclear. The populations from those areas were swarming the nuclear plants, looking for aid, electricity maybe. Maybe they wanted to play some Madden. Who knows?” Starke shrugged. “Anyway, the people overran the guards at the one plant, here” he pointed at one of the X’s “the Feds, they tried to drive them out but with their resources spread so thin they didn’t commit enough resources.” Starke and I shared a laugh at that. “So after some fights back and forth, the Feds they realize that maybe they don’t need to take the plants. . . maybe they just keep the people from having them.” Starke shrugged again. “You can do the math there.”
We all stared quietly at each other for a while. Eventually some more coffee was brought out. Starke sat down and turned in his seat looking at me. Michael wasn’t there as far as we were concerned nor was O’Toole. This conversation was just between us.
“So most of the lower southwest quadrant is considered uninhabitable. No telling how they fucked up the lake. . .” he trailed off for a minute lost in his own thoughts. “We had wounded we had to evacuate because we didn’t know how far the fall out was going to spread. . .” he raised an eyebrow at me.
I kept my expression neutral as I swallowed that. I had escaped from friendlies. I am a genius. I nodded to Starke and hoped he knew that I got the message.
“Where did you hear all this? Were there survivors or what?”
Starke shrugged and leaned forward placing is arms on the table. “Survivors? Probably. Hell if I know. We heard it from an Indian News Station. India, indian. Caught it on shortwave.” He laughed here “I don’t know how much of it is propaganda, but India actually sounds relatively stable now. Of course that because they nuked the living shit out of Pakistan, but y’know, give peace a chance an’ whatnot.” Starke whipped out a can from his back pocket and offered it around making a question into a statement. “Chew.”
Michael and O’Toole passed, but I leaned forward and took a pinch,completely ignoring Michael’s disapproving look.
With the offer of tobacco it was my turn now to talk which I did with some care. “I was in a firefight. It was a weird one. It was really hairy at first, but I was on my gun and was taking the enemy down as fast as I could work the bolt.”
Starke and O’Toole both nodded since they knew this part well. “There was a lull in the firing and even though we were winning I held out the white flag when I realized the unit was friendly.” I smiled “We were all kind of confused in that fight; tough to tell the good from the bad when they don’t wear uniforms you immediately recognize.” I said veiling the reference to their new urban camo outfits in my comments.
I saw the ‘fuck you’ in Starke’s eyes but kept on talking. “I went out thinking the other side realized I was trying to sue for peace and then I took a shot ” I pointed to my side “in the back.”
Starke’s eyebrow’s flew up, but as he was facing away from Michael the expression was hidden from him as well as the fact that Starke’s eyes locked onto O’Toole. The implication was unmistakable.
“Good ol’ friendly fire.” I said and locked eyes with O’Toole “I’m sure you’ve all been through that before. Or may soon. Happens when you work with a bunch of untrained types.” I let the threat hang there though there was really nothing I could do about it at this point.
Starke gave me a nod, his jaw clenched tightly shut.
Michael decided to interject at this point “Well that’s terrible news. Terrible!” he shook his oversize head sadly. “To think that the government would do such a thing to their own people!”
We all nodded our agreement.
“So what brings you guys to our little slice?” I asked.
Michael smiled broadly his eyes practically sparkling “These fine men have brought news. There’s going to be a fight soon. ”
Starke nodded. “The Feds have holed up in Lansing. Several unconnected groups are heading this way. Final push and such. We’re out scouting, hoping to find supplies or recruits.” Starke shifted in his seat a bit to look at Michael. “Your leader here was telling us you’re raising an army for him.”
“Trying to. I just got here, really. These guys are green. Like pine saplings.” I looked at Michael, since this was our first chance to really discuss such things it probably came as an unwelcome surprise to him. “Of course, I’m not in charge here so I couldn’t commit forces one way or the other. If I had to send anyone it’d be the guards. They’ve got the gas tanks for a fight and at least some discipline.”
Michael nodded at my assessment, looking displeased. “So be it then. I’d be happy to support this effort, even though it cost me dear. Do you boys know when this fight is going to take place?”
Starke looked at me. “Not too soon. Probably the next couple of weeks at the soonest. Of course, if you like we can take your men with us and start getting them trained up.”
Michael nodded “Yes. Yes, indeed. I think that’d be just fine.”
“Michael, I don’t know if you are aware, but Mr Starke here was also a Marine.” I smiled at the little psychopath “his experience may be invaluable. If I could have him look at the range set up, he might remember some things I’ve missed.”
“That would be fine. I’d welcome the help and I’m sure it’ll make your job easier as well.” Michael nodded and smiled as though indulging a small child. “The sun will be up shortly if you gentlemen can spare the time?”
“Be happy to help.” Starke confirmed folding his hands in front of him, waiting I think, to be dismissed.
I saw my chance and took it “Uh, gentleman, if you don’t mind I’d like a minute to speak to Michael, alone.”
Starke nodded, standing up and seizing O’Toole by the arm. “Sure thing.” he said pulling O’Toole along after him.
Michael hopped down off his chair and waved at a nearby guard “See that these men get some food and water. Replenish their supplies, too.” The guard nodded and escorted them from the room.
“Michael, I’ve been hoping to have a minute of your time. I hope you don’t mind.”
Michael’s thought’s was not truly present but he nodded and resumed his seat at the table.
“I know this may not meet with your approval, but given current happenings I feel it may be more than a good idea. It’s a necessity.”
Michael focused on me with tired eyes. “If you need something else, just tell John . . .” he started to wave me away.
“Well not exactly.” I said.
He raised an eyebrow at me “Okay. Out with it.”
“If you’re thinking about taking on the Feds then we’re going to need all hands on deck.” I put the idea out there and waited for him to seize on it.
“What do you mean, brother Stephen?” He asked. Michael was aging before my eyes. Slumping into his seat almost impossibly growing even smaller.
“I’d like your permission to train the women–those that are fit–how to shoot. Not the physical training the men have gotten, but as a last line of defense for home ground.” I gestured to the area of the camp behind me.
Michael nodded and thought about it for a moment. “No. Absolutely not. It is not woman’s work to make war. Women are here to serve men, to please them, rear children, and take care of the things we must needs let slip in order to wage this war against the heathen.”
“Have you ever heard the name Simo Häyhä?” I asked changing tactics.
Michael shook his head. “I can’t say that I have brother.”
“Simo Häyhä was a Finnish sniper in World War II. During the course of his service, he managed to kill 505 enemy combatants. That happened over the course of one year. From 1939-40. There was only one more sniper that even came remotely close to matching his skill. Her name was Lyudmila Pavlichenko. She killed 309 men. ” I leaned forward to indicate how sincere I was “They killed almost 1,000 men between them, using the very rifle you were so far sighted to provide for your men. Your army.”
Michael sat back in his chair locking eyes on me, searching for something. Finally he let out a sigh and nodded. “All right. You may train them.” he held up a stubby finger “With the understanding that they are the last line of defense.”
“Thank you, brother.” I smiled “When this war is over, I think you will be regarded as a prophet for your vision.”
Michael smiled tiredly “God willing brother. I am just here to do his will.”
I turned to leave but stopped “Brother Michael, you look tired. Are you well? Should I send for Sarah?” I smiled down at him “We need you to strong. We can’t have you leaving us before you’ve served your purpose.”
Michael smiled at me and nodded “I want that more than anything brother. But I’m fine. I just need to get some rest.” He hopped down out of his chair and took my hand in his own “I’ll send for Sarah later, when I’ve had some rest just to make sure. I thank you for your concern brother. It’s touching to know that humanity still knows compassion even in these dark times.”
I closed my other hand around his and smiled “You just concentrate on keeping your strength up. We need you to be strong for a while longer.”
I chuckled inwardly. Stay strong at least until I have a chance to bathe my knife in your blood.