They loaded the Bronco with every bit of fuel it could take, all the canned goods, and vitamin supplements, and medicines. The snow had packed hard in the cold, and the sun was bright and merciless.
The wide Commando balloon tires rode over the hard packed drifts as if it were pavement. Steve had worried that the Bronco would bog down in the snow, but he kept it moving. There were a few soft spots, but with enough speed, he bulled through them.
Pehruz laughed. Steve looked over at him. "What's funny?"
Pehruz looked back. "this reminds me of driving in the Dasht-e Kavir – the Great Salt Desert north west part of Iran. Much colder here, though."
Steve laughed over the sound of the engine– it WAS similar to driving in desert sand. "Never drove in Iran, but I think I've heard of the place you're talking about. This is kind of like the Mojave, but you're right, much colder." He slewed the Bronco around a felled tree.
The children squealed as they enjoyed the wild ride. Steve glanced in the rear view mirror. Maryam looked to be enjoying the ride considerably less well.
Steve looked at his radiation meter, duct taped to the dashboard. It was in the high safe to low dangerous zone, but it seemed to be wiggling lower and lower, spending more time in the safe band.
He was on the Millersport highway, avoiding abandoned vehicles in the snowdrifts as he roared down the road. Occasionally, he saw flickers of movement, but he was unwilling to stop to check them. Maybe later – it might be worth it to come up here and forage, look for supplies or survivors.
The road smoothed out as he got south of Amherst. He looked around at the snow drifts.
"I'll be dipped." He said. "I think they might have plowed this, guys."
"Plowed?" said Pehruz, his eyes bright.
"That sounds like a level of civilization I was NOT expecting this close to the blast area" said Steve.
At the bridge over the Erie Canal, there was proof positive.
A road block.
"Hoo-ooo-llll-eee Sh-iii-tttt." Whistled Steve. "Guys, I dunno, but I think we're safe, or at least one HELL of a lot safer than we were."
He stopped the Bronco on the Erie County side, and stepped out. A couple of figures in MOPP Gear, but with blue helmet covers instead of camouflage, stepped out of a prefab shack at the far end. One walked forward while the other stayed at the concrete berm, rifle propped on his hip barrel skyward.
The fellow walking toward Steve pulled off his mask. "Particulate Level is safe here today, Sarge." He said, "Cold as hell, but safe," he coughed, breath coming out in big clouds. "Foraging mission?"
Steve saw the NCSD printed on the helmet cover, and the corporal's stripes on the man's vest. He figured the man for a Niagara County Sheriff's Deputy. The Deputy probably figured him for a military person sent out on a foraging mission. He decided to try bluffing.
"Yep, Corp." he said. "Foraging and a little recon up toward Amherst." He said. "got some good stuff – food and medicine – and some survivors – both of them doctors."
Not as if it was a real lie…and he didn't say doctor of what…
The Corporal grunted. "Good. Let me check you over and clear you in. We can use some refugees that know something useful. At least they aren't more damn lawyers."
The Rahman's were silent as the Deputy approached the vehicle. Of course, their cultural conditioning had made them to fear a government official approaching them.
But the deputy, who had stowed his mask inside his protective vest, just looked inside the Bronco and smiled. "Hi folks, I'm Corporal Jim Wojowoda, Niagara County Sheriff Department. Welcome to Pendleton."
"Hello, Corporal Wo-jo-woda." Said Pehruz, stumbling over the unfamiliar name, "I am Pehruz Rahman, I was Doctoral Student at University of Boofalo, this is my wife Maryam and my son, Ali, and my daughter, Fairi."
The Deputy whistled. "Damn, you did pretty good, Sarge. Food, medicine, AND some pretty healthy looking refugees. Did you find the vehicle up there, too?"
"Yeah" said Steve. "It was parked in a garage, keys on the wall in the kitchen, looked like the probable owner was dead right there."
"We ought to call you Sergeant Scrounge from now on." Laughed the Deputy.
"What everybody else does." Said Steve. "Everywhere I go, finding useful stuff and getting it to where people need it is one of my talents."
"Well, just remember to use you talents for good." Said the Deputy.
"You know it" laughed Steve.
The Bronco was waved through the roadblock. "The usual." Said Deputy Wojowoda.
"Sure thing." Said Steve.
"Where are we going?" asked Maryam.
"Well," said Steve, "I'm headed down Saunders Settlement road right now, only way to go." He looked in his mirrors. "I dunno if those deputies are in radio communication with anybody or not. There was a whip antenna on that temporary building, but a generator next to it that wasn't running."
"So what will you do?" said Pehruz.
"Stick to the original plan." Said Steve. "Stay straight on this road for another five miles to my folks place and see if they are alive.""
The drive through Niagara County seemed surreal to Steve.
After the horrors of the last month, the destruction of Buffalo and it's surrounding suburbs, here, just twenty miles north – it seemed almost normal.
The sun was bright, the snow was deep, and the roads were not plowed as well as usual. Then you looked a bit closer.
Some of the trees showed blast damage. Few of the houses had cleared driveways. Most did not even have footprints around them, or smoke coming from the chimneys.
Steve shivered. He had the feeling that a lot of people had frozen to death in these houses. They passed some burned out houses…probably homes where somebody had tried to heat with something that had gotten out of control.
As they passed the last rise, Kevin caught sight of the white ranch house. He leaned over the set back and yelled "There's Grandma's House!"
"Not so loud!" said Steve. "I can see it." But he could also see the thin plume of white smoke curling from the chimney. That told him someone was alive there. He could feel his eyes getting wet.
As he pulled up to the house, his eyes were wide. There was a Black-and-White Ford Bronco in his parent's driveway, with the logo of the Niagara County Sheriff's Department on the side.
"What the hell?" he asked.
He parked alongside the road, and got out of the Bronco.
As he walked up the driveway, the door opened, and a Deputy stepped out. "Thanks, Carl, so I'll stop by Saturday for that."
"Sure, Pete, I should be able to get that done by then." A large man, grey bearded man followed the deputy out the door. He looked at Steve and his eyes were wide.
"Boy, where the hell you been! We been worried sick about you!"
"Sorry, Dad, just needed some time for the weather to clear up!" said Steve.
Kevin had crawled out of the truck and ran up to his grandfather. "Grampa!"
The Deputy looked on with a smile. "Where you come in from, Sarge?"
Steve looked at the Deputy and put out his hand. "Staff Sergeant Steve Hunter, 914 Tactical Airlift. I got caught up in Amherst by the attack. Today was the first day I wanted to chance making a break for it."
The deputy whistled. "Amherst, huh?" he shook his head. "Day-am-anh. That is pretty heavily destroyed up there. He pulled out a radiation meter. "You're clean."
"I know my contamination protocols." Said Steve. "and got a good rad meter of my own" he said, holding his up.
"Looks like it." Said Pete. "Well, hey, let me pull out, so you can pull in, Steve, and I'll be on my way. I'll be back to pick up that pistol on Saturday, Carl."
"You bet, Pete." Said Steve's Dad. "Might get it done earlier, now that I got some help."
They got the Bronco into the driveway, and started unloading it. "Rad count is elevated here, but not too bad." Said Carl. "Just don't like to push things too much."
They went into the basement, where a large barrel stove kept the area nice and warm. Steve's mother, Tomiko, was sitting in a recliner near the wood stove.
"My apologies" she said as she struggled to sit up, "but my arthritis is really bothering me in this weather."
"You poor thing," said Maryam as she held the woman's gnarled hands. The arthritis had bent and twisted her cartilage so that her hands were permanently crabbed. Despite this, she was still working on cross stitch pattern by the light of a Coleman lantern.
"It is just another trial in my life." Said Tomiko with a laugh. "I have survived a war – TWO nuclear wars, cancer, arthritis…I swear, I think I might never die at this rate…heaven doesn't want me, and Satan must be afraid I'm going to take over."
"Two nuclear wars?" said Pehruz, lifting an eyebrow.
Tomiko laughed, and then coughed. "Yes. I was a secretary in Tokyo in World War Two. My parents kept telling me it was two dangerous there, and after the factory burned down in a firebomb raid, I went home while they rebuilt." She chuckled, but it was a laugh without humor. "I got a train ticket home, but the train was attacked, so I had to walk the last twenty miles." Her eyes were distant as she remembered. "I saw a single B-29 over the city, and it dropped a package with some parachutes. In Tokyo, we knew that was the instrument package – the main attack wave was right behind it. So I took cover." She coughed again. "A soldier told me I was foolish, there were no more bombers – and then the brightest light I had ever seen filled the sky. I dropped to the bottom of that ditch and stayed there until the blast wave and the light stopped…and when I come out of that ditch, Hiroshima was gone.
"How could you come to America, after they did that to your country?" said Pehruz, cocking his head.
"Hmph. Young man, you have no idea what kinds of idiots were running the Empire in those days. I'm surprised it only took two bombs for them to surrender." Said Tomiko. "As it was, I figured that any country that had that kind of power – it was a good idea to be there." She screwed up her face and frowned comically. "OK, so I guessed wrong. So sue me."
Later that evening, Pehruz and Maryam sat with Steve. The children were playing a board game on the floor by the stove, while Steve's parents sat in recliners flanking it. The lamp cast its light over Tomiko as she still moved her gnarled hands over the embroidery hoop.
"I like your parents." Said Maryam. "So unlike my own parents, but I feel …like I'm at home."
"Yes." Said Pehruz. "I think I feel more comfortable now than I have ever felt in this country. Maybe more comfortable than I have ever felt in my life." He said, with a bit of wonderment. "More safe."
"They have that effect." Said Steve.
"Your father reminds me of one of the old folk tales. " she said something in Farsi, and then translated – "Father bear" – she said – "He reminds me of an old, wise bear from the fairy tales of old."
Steve smiled. "You are not the first to make that comparison. Big Griz is one on his nicknames…but not least because, despite his large bulk, a lot of it is muscle, not fat. You do NOT want to make him angry…or you will see the comparison to a Grizzly bear." He shook his head, "A big, angry Grizzly bear. He used to have a part time job tending bar, and you do NOT want him to have to come out from behind the bar to straighten out a problem."
At night, the upper floor was shut off and sealed, and the water drained from the pipes.
Everyone slept in the main part of the basement, with a bucket in the laundry room for sanitary purposes. "I'll turn on the pump in the morning and dump it out" said Carl.
"Better than Grandma's house." Said Steve. He looked at the Rahman's. "My grandmother's house didn't have running water, so she had an outhouse until she moved out – what – ten years ago?"
"Less than that," said his father. "She didn't move in with your Uncle until late '76. So…more like eight years ago."
Maryam looked at the two men. "So, living like this is not that strange to you?"
"Well," drawled Steve. "the radiation is a bit of a new thing, but no running water, crapping in a bucket, wood stoves, kerosene, no electricity – yeah…not exactly a strange experience to us."
In the morning, breakfast was pancakes and venison sausage, cooked over the woodstove. "Sorry, no eggs." Apologized Carl, "but we had the last of them awhile back. At least chickens mature fast – we have some breeders that survived down on Ransomville Road. Might have some eggs back in our diet by summer."
"This is not pork sausage?" asked Pehruz, uncertainly.
"My friend, I am not a Muslim, but I would hope by now you would understand that I would not mock your faith." Said Steve. "No, it is deer, a wild animal, a game animal, becoming more of a pest animal than a game animal – well, WAS a game animal…but certainly not a pig, nor related to one."
Kevin rummaged on one of the bookshelves and found an old copy of Bambi. "here's a picture of one."
Pehruz was reassured. "It Certainly is not a pig."
Carl laughed. "Some of them got into the wheat and corn and ate like pigs – which is why the local farmers appreciated when folks would – ahem- "thin the population" a bit."
Steve laughed. "I don't think I've eaten beef in this house more than half-a-dozen times in my life – nor pork."
"Beef or Pork costs cash money." Said Carl. "I could buy a box of shells and shoot a buck and feed you guys for a couple of weeks – or spend that money on beef and feed you for one meal."
There was a rumbling noise outside. "That must be your brother, coming back from the clinic."
Going up stairs, Steve heard a clumping at the door, and a large man was hanging his gear in the entryway.
"yo, bro." he called.
"Steve! Bro! You made it!" There ensued a few minutes of brotherly bear hugs and backslapping.
"You know it, dude. Think a mere airburst is going to get me?"
"Uncle Muck!" said Kevin, as he came around the entryway.
"Hey, Ranger Boy! You're looking good!" Gimme Five!" said mike, as he hugged his nephew.
The Rahmans had come upstairs to see the new arrival.
"Mike, I brought in some refuges – Pehruz Rahman – doctoral candidate in Particle Physics at UB, his wife Maryam, going for her master's in computer science, and their kids Ali and Fairi."
"Cool, glad to meet'cha." Said Mike. "Iranian?" he asked, cocking his head.
"We were." Said Pehruz, with an embarrassed look. "We had to flee the Ayotollahs."
"Cool." Said Mike. "Well, I hope you didn't have any family near Tehran – not sure what is going on, but it looks like somebody – probably the Soviets - put some tactical nuclear strikes down that way this week."
"I was working the clinic over at the jail, and that came over the radio on the official channel last night."
'What the Hell is that about?" mused Steve.
"Dunno, bro." said Mike. "I'm just a dumb-ass Airman Medical Technician. You're the NCO guy studying to be an oss-if-er. You tell me."
"When does the killing end?" asked Maryam.
"So catch me up, Bro, what's been going on?" said Steve, as they settled into the basement again.
"I've been doing EMT work, mostly at the County jail." Said Mike. "Ugly shit has been going down all over the country, bro."
"Well, duh." Said Steve. "Global thermonuclear war."
"Naw, I mean ugly shit. Insurrection type shit." Said Mike, his face serious. "Secretary of State is down in Georgia, I guess they got some kind of Klan uprising down there- thousands of White supremacist, Aryan Nations, all those whack-a-doodles gathered at Stone Mountain and trying to found a White Homeland. Some want to just lynch the Blacks and drive them out – some want to enslave them again."
"Shee-it." Said Steve, his face grave in the firelight.
"Army out of Benning and Bragg – what didn't go over to Germany, and the National Guard, and a bunch of Volunteer Militia, is trying to hold them back – but its ugly, bro, ugly."
Pehruz was trying to follow the conversation – but he got the gist – "It is the economics of scarcity – survivors fighting desperately in the ruins." He shook his head. "It is a story as old as time."
"True, my friend." Said Steve, "But a story I had not thought to seen played out here."
"Ugly shit in Cleveland, too." Said Mike. "It's warmer there, but that just meant people didn't die as fast – here, people froze when the power went out. Down there, it rained, and they walked in the freezing rain, ingested the fallout particles…
"Hibakusha "– said Tomiko suddenly, putting down her embroidery, her eyes distant. "Atomic-bomb-afflicted-people." Is how that translates into English." She said. "I was lucky…more lucky than smart – I always wore a cloth mask because I was afraid of germs – later I learned that it probably protected my lungs against the fallout particles…and I was always picky about washing my hands and making sure my food was clean. I'd rather go hungry or thirsty for days than take a chance…and so I did not get the radiation poisoning that so many others around me got."
She shook her head. "We stayed by the sea, and mother and I washed off in the Ocean every chance we got, because of the dust – the salt was itchy, but it was better than the dust. Later – much later, we found out the dust was radioactive. People that left the white dust on their skin developed burns, and many died."
Impulsively, Maryam hugged her. "Thank you." She said. "Thank you for surviving, and thank you for being smart."
"Eh?" said Tomiko. "I did nothing but sit in this basement, this time." She said, tilting her head at the Iranian woman.
Maryam smiled at her. "Without your son, I think we would be dead in our basement by now. Now…I think we have a chance to survive this."
Steve looked at Mike. "So what's happening here?"
"I dunno how we dodged a nuke." Said Mike. "Best anybody can figure, somebody in the Soviet Missile Command REALLY fucked up." He laughed. "Of all things, they nuked Jamestown."
"Yer shitting me?" exclaimed Steve. "Jamestown?"
"Yeah." Said Mike. "I shouldn't laugh, but fer chrissakes, 2 megatons for Jamestown is something like, what, a kiloton per person or so?"
"More like ten kilotons per person, something like that – 25,000 people divided by 2 megatons – shit, don't mean nothing, anyway – but damn." Steve shook his head. "Jamestown."
"If you can figure it out, you're doing better than anybody over at the County. That's got them all scratching their heads, when ever they bother to think on it."
"Was it a military base?" asked Pehruz. "I think I have heard of this place, but I am not terribly familiar with the area."
"Little farm community, just south of here in Chataqua County." Said Steve. "Not a military base, never was, as far as I know. That one's a stumper."
"The EMP knocked a lot of the electricity off line, the blast wave and the first storm took down electricity in almost every home in the county." Said Mike. "Places with emergency generators came on line, I guess the Power Project is pretty much up and running again – trouble is, something like half the people in the County froze to death in the storms, they think."
"Damn." Said Steve.
"A lot of the farmers, folks with wood stoves and such, they pulled through." Said Carl. "But folks that need electric for their furnaces – they froze – if they couldn't get to someplace warm. Some people froze in their cars, trying to get somewhere warm."
Mike shook his head. "Lot of people's cars won't work now – them electronic ignitions – the bombs scrambled the electronics in them."
"I got a message for you, Bro." said Mike "Sheriff Villella wants you to come down to the Jail with me tonight – he could use another Medical technician on the night shift."
"Good deal." Said Steve.
Pehruz had an odd look. "I did not realize you were such an important person, my friend."
Now it was Steve's turn to be puzzled. "Important?"
"You are in the military, and your family is well-connected to the Sharif here. I think I should treat you with more deference."
"Oops, cultural miscommunication time. The County Sherriff is just the senior Law Enforcement person for the area – OK, he is kind of important, especially in this crisis, but I'm just another worker bee. Nobody special. In Iran, I think the Sharif is a high official for the Shah, no?"
"Someone who works for the Senior Law Enforcement Official in the Area is not "just" a worker…at least, not in my experience." Said Pehruz.
"He might need your help, too." Said Steve. "A doctoral candidate in Particle Physics might know a lot of information we might need to know about how to cope with the radiation problems – especially come springtime and the snowmelt – which is not that far away."