The Way Forward

Sacrifice

"Is too much humanity bad for people, or is too much people bad for humanity?" -Walt Kelly

They brought Carl into a dark room, with a single point of light, whose origin was impossible to distinguish. A desk and chair were the only things that he could see. They hadn’t said much to anyone from the group, except to point out facilities they would need. Two of the little ones had been hurried away for medical treatment due to exposure.

They had each been asked to give an account of how they had gotten all the way to Illinois from the West Coast. After a rest and his first decent meal in months, he was glad to tell them whatever they wanted to know. Whoever had started this war, this Civil War, Carl simply wanted it to be behind him.

He turned as the door opened again and three nondescript men in clean jumpsuits walked in, but one directed the other two to the edge of the room. Carl could only see the speaker, holding a drive that he plugged into the wall. Those were pretty rare these days. Carl wondered why a government man wouldn’t just have servers dedicated to holding the recordings. When he was done, the man turned and asked Carl to take the seat.

“Sure thing,” He said. “Mr…?”

The man was slight of build, and had thinning hair. He had a short brown beard and worry lines around the eyes, but he couldn’t have been more than thirty. His voice was soothing and paternal. “Have a seat, Carl. We are going to get started.”

“Okay, what would you like to know Mr. Have-a-seat?” Carl couldn’t help himself sometimes.

“Oh, no need for paranoia, Carl. The war is over. We just want your account of what happened for posterity and so that we, the government, know exactly how this kind of thing affects people. The system broke, and we want to know how. That’s all this is. What good does my name do, in that context?”

Carl got a very uneasy feeling at that response, but he wasn’t quite certain why. He pulled the chair out and sat down. The man asked him to verify his identity again, and a few other details for the reports header. Finally, the friendly man asked about Edmund.

“Ed? We met him just North of San Francisco.” Carl began. “There were twelve of us, and we were starving.”

*

"We had straggled North along the coast to avoid the radiation from the nuclear blasts that decimated Arizona and Nevada. The rebels had dug in so deep that the Feds couldn’t dislodge them any other way. Food was scarce, and not a single one of us knew how to hunt.

We did manage to get some game, by various means, but we were not prepared for cleaning and skinning an animal. Hell, Kelly had been a PETA member. By the time we got to the Bay area, we were starving. Bandits and rebel bands had stripped the city nearly bare, though.

In the maze of broken skyscrapers and shattered condominium buildings were stacks of dead. Two corpses hung from a street sign, and had been hanging for several months from the looks of it. Their hands were tied together and a sign hung nearby.

Kelly was horrified, and began screaming and running to cut them down. She stepped over several bodies to reach them, and as she got close a man shouted. He told her to stop, but on she went. Someone heard the word trap and several men went after her, but, um, boom! Big explosion, lights up the morning, and we went from twelve to eight in a flash. I was stunned, and when I came to, he recognized the arm next to him as Kelly’s by the mood ring she worriedly rubbed all the damned time. He had no idea where the rest of her was, though.

The shout had come from a man named Edgar, who had been tracking us since we came into the city. He was trying to make head or tails of us. A lot of bandits used civilians as bait, and some roving parties had turned to cannibalism to survive. Ed had tons of news for the group, but not much of it good, and almost none of it “reliable”, he admitted. He claimed to know about a place near Chicago that may be safe if it was still standing."

*

“How did he know about this place?” The man asked. “Did he say?”

“No, just that he had heard about it from some Feds he ran into.” Carl answered.

“What Feds?”

“He didn’t say, man.”

“Okay, please continue.”

*

"There was something in Edgar. He’s this tall, lanky, middle-aged man in mismatched clothing, he had a backpack loaded to the brim with camping supplies and apparently knew how to hunt. They all begged him for help, but he hesitated. He agreed to feed us, but wouldn’t even talk about coming with us. Something about the guy made you want to like him. He didn’t talk much, but when he did it always improved the situation. He had an answer to every problem, and most of them so simple that the rest of us felt stupid for not seeing it ourselves, you know? He was always reassuring.

After two days, it seemed our welcome was worn out. They begged one last time, but he shook his head and politely said that they didn’t know what they were asking of him. I am the comic-relief of the group, the smart ass, and seemed to rub Edgar the wrong way from our first talk. I had to try something, though.

I must have said something right because Edgar showed up the next day as they headed East towards the Great Lakes. Along the way, he showed them how to camp securely, how to find things around them to eat and he even told stories to the kids. He was the answer to our prayers and they were certain that this man could get them there safely.

It wasn’t until we stumbled onto the rubble-guy that we realized who Edgar actually was..."

*

“Was his name not really Edmond, or…?” The man asked an open question.

“How the hell would I know? He didn’t have ID or anything. I mean, we realized he was some kind of special-forces or something.” Carl got a chill thinking back to how quickly it had happened. “He was crazy quiet. If it had been an ambush, they would’ve all wound up like the bait guy.”

“The ‘bait guy’?” The friendly man’s eyes narrowed.

*

"One of the young guys, Bobby, had pointed out the guy trapped halfway under some rubble, with his legs apparently crushed. The minute Ed came up, he pushed everyone down to the ground and all emotion fell out of his face. He was completely unmoved by the man’s cries for help and completely deaf to everyone else’s plans. He motioned for them to be quiet and gave instructions for the kids to be hidden nearby.

We were all confused, wanting to run to the guy and help. Ed said he was going alone, though. He put down his pack and pulled a gun out and told us to stay quiet and stay put until we heard from him. Then he disappeared into the rubble.

It was really quiet. We were all trying to hear what was going on up ahead. We figured that he might’ve gotten wind of another trap and, after the last time, we weren’t taking any chances. It was kind of eerie. Knowing he was out there, but we couldn’t see him at all. That’s kind of what gave it away, for me. I loved old war movies. Those guys could sneak up on anyone, anywhere. So I was the only one who didn’t jump when he slipped back in without a sound.

He said it was all clear, but we needed to decide what to do with the guy in the road. Kevin, the old guy, said we should dig him up and bring him with us. That’s Kevin, man. He was always looking out for people. A few other’s nodded, but Ed shook his head.

He said that if we brought the guy, we all have to carry him and feed him. And we couldn’t afford to do that. When he said we should kill him, we were all pretty dumb-struck. Like, whoa! Man! He just decided to execute this guy who needed our help. Shit! Kevin huffed, and argued with him. Everyone got heated, except for Ed. He just stood there, taking the abuse. It was weird.

He still didn’t want us near the guy, though, so when we ate and sent a plate to the guy Ed would not hear about anyone but him taking it out there. Just in case, he said.

Then we heard the gunshot, and I knew why he never yelled at Kevin. He already knew what he was going to do. He wasn’t asking our permission, he was telling us why he was going to shoot this poor guy no matter what we said. Then he brought the food back. He didn’t even give the guy the food first. He split it between the two kids.

We started to worry, but this guy knew his stuff. No one was ready to make a scene."

*

“What were his political beliefs?” The friendly man asked.

“His—his what?” Carl blinked. “What the hell does that matter?”

“Well, you said yourself, this man has military training…”

“Yeah, he definitely did.” Carl said.

*

"When we got into open country, Ed put the gun away and showed us how to make spears. Just sharp wood, you know? For hunting, and protection from animals. A bullet won’t stop a bear. Even my city-boy ass knows that, but Kevin started grumbling again. This was weeks later, but he would not let go of the guy in the rubble.

At first, a lot of people listened, because it scared us. How cold Edmond had been about it. Honestly, though, it was like an isolated incident. He was good with the kids, he helped us out and taught us things. He said all the time that he would teach us how to shoot, if he could just get us some weapons. I mean, he could’ve turned the gun on us, but he always helped. After a bit, we stopped worrying about it.

Bobby and Tyler, especially, looked up to him. He hated me though. I was always running my mouth. I can’t really help myself.

So anyway, we wind up not needing the spears. We hardly saw any animals at all, and most of them were sick. Some kind of radiation or biological weapon, we thought. Everyone had a theory. The end result was the same, though. We couldn’t trust eating anything that we found. It got worse when we saw the campfires behind us.

I saw it the first night. Ed made a watch schedule and was constantly on people about it. Hike twenty miles a day and a guy wants a nap! Nope! Gotta be up an extra three hours, and we never saw a thing. It was useless ninety-nine percent of the time, but I was up and saw the fire. We decided to change direction, but there it was again the following night. The third night, Ed said that they had to be tracking us so he was going to go find out what was going on.

Ed ducked out like he did, and when he came back, he was shaken. I mean, when a guy like Ed goes cold you know someone is going to probably die. He pulled Tyler and Bobby aside, and then Kevin gets up-in-arms about everyone having a say. The look Ed shot him was scary, man.

I have no idea why I did it, but at this point, my dumb-ass asks if I can help. After a beat, Ed says that the guys behind us are catching people. A whole bunch of people tied to a home-made wagon and at least six armed men. That’s me though, I always find the dog-shit in the yard the hard way.

It was kind of exciting, sneaking through the woods with this certified bad-ass, you know? Everything was so vivid, and I could hear everything. It took all night, but we got to the fire, and I wasn’t prepared for it. It was twelve or thirteen people tied up together. White, black, man, woman, kid…it was all kinds. The armed guys were all white, though.

Most were tied to this pick-up truck that had been stripped down and tied to horses. There were three girls who were unfortunate enough to be pretty, though. They were tied in these…yokes? Is that the right word? Yeah, those things that hold you bent-over. You can imagine what for. It was like something out of a movie. These guys doing evil shit, just because they could. It got me so angry I wanted to rush out there and kill the first guard I saw.

Ed warned me before we came, though. He told me to keep my cool no matter what. He had a plan that we had to stick to. Tyler, Bobby and I were going to throw our spears and when they ran at us, he could shoot them from the “flank” (whatever the hell that is). So, I try to get myself under control, because Ed explained that if we didn’t do our jobs, he would kill us himself. We believed him.

My spear missed, but Tyler and Bobby hit their guys. All I could do was run back to the trees as all these shots start coming our way. Man, I’ve never been so scared in my life! I hid behind a tree with a big branch I found and when the guy chasing me got there I whanged him really hard in the face. He might’ve been dead already, but the rifle went off and scared the shit out of me!

It wasn’t until later that I realized Tyler was dead. Got his face blown off when that guy fired. I was so focused on the swing that I hadn’t seen him coming to help me. I went back to where the guy I had laid out lay with a rock in my hand and…I don’t remember it really well, but there was blood up to my elbow."

*

“So, you killed him?” The friendly man asked.

“Yeah, I just don’t know when.” Carl smirked. “What I saw that night…I would do it again in a heartbeat.”

*

"Two guys were still alive. One might even have lived except that Ed shot both of them while they screamed that they were forced to. That really upset Bobby. The captives even said that some of these guys were captives themselves. Ed didn’t care. At least not until Kevin had to get involved.

Bobby told him what had happened, and then onto the fucking soap-box he goes. He wasn’t even there. He said we had no business risking ourselves for strangers. Which was weird, because he starts trying to win those folks over almost the minute they arrived.

We know he saved you, but how can we trust a man who won’t give us a say? He took or most able people and put them in harm’s way. Don’t we all have a say is what risks we take? Think of the children!

I always wondered if he was a politician before the war. Anyway, he starts challenging Ed at all the meetings. All he has is problems with this idea or that plan. Never-mind that he suggests the exact same thing a few days later. Up until we got to Waukegan, it wasn’t really more than background noise, you know?

Then we find a guy in the street, covered in blood. It was Bobby that saw him first, and he ran to Kevin instead of Ed. Kevin takes the soapbox again to announce how he is going to save this guy from certain doom at Ed’s hands. Ed says once that anyone who heads out there gives away our position, but Kevin sneers at him. He had a point too, the last time it hadn’t been a trap at all. So off he went toward the guy.

Ed told him don’t go out there, but he ignored him. He wants to be the hero this time, I guess. In any case, it never happened. He grabs this guy and turns around to come back, when Ed shot him right in the head. All of us stopped for a minute because we just couldn’t believe that he shot Kevin.

We didn’t have long, though because, right away, someone started shooting at us. We ran, but two of the captives we had saved got killed. The little boy was the worst. It even got to Ed. Cody, his name was. Ed kind of…erased the kid from memory.

We eventually found a place big enough for us to hole-up in until the morning. We followed the interstate bypass around the city and ran into our a Fed patrol. Freaked Ed out. He insisted on hiding the guns or we might be shot as rebels, but the food as well? Like you guys don’t feed your soldiers! Well, actually, the phrase was will be shot, and he said no women. It was like bandits, only much more dangerous, he said.

So, four of us let ourselves be known, and they frisked us. I guess everyone stuck to the story and left out the guns. It was weird, I will say that. They cared more about where we were from than where we were headed, and they searched us several times. I got a bad feeling and looked at Ed, but he only gave me the slightest of head shakes to quiet me down. I think we all silently agreed not to give away where the rest were hiding. We told them we would bring everyone over, but we really just wanted out of there. They had other things to worry about anyway, we told ourselves.

Except they followed us to the camp. Some thought later that Ed must’ve been slipping, but I think he knew there was no way out of it. If we killed soldiers, we would be rebels, whether we were or not. Then we would all be doomed.

So, they demanded any money or valuables that we had or they would just execute us all as traitors. It was almost expected. Like, par-for-the-course, you know? Except we didn’t have anything to offer. There was only one thing that the soldiers kept staring at…the three girls that we had saved from the stock-thingies. Ed asked for a minute and pulled the girls aside.

I don’t know what he said, but two looked on in shock while the third girl burst into tears. The oldest of them had taken a shine to Cody and kept staring at the remaining three little ones. The one that was crying just kept shaking her head ferociously. Like trying to physically remove a thought. The other two nodded, and went with the soldiers.

The next morning, they came back to us. Roughed up and stunned. It wasn’t pretty. Almost none of us could stand to look at them in the eyes. Ed and I did, though. That’s what most of these people won’t understand. Ed saved us by taking this stuff on. We had him to blame for anything, and he knew it.

Every decision. It was always one evil, or another. You wouldn’t have known it from the outside, but I think it tore him up. It had to. I felt it, after that guard I killed. I did that, and I did it so that someone else wouldn’t have to. Ed forced the hard decisions, and took them right out of our hands so that we didn’t have to live with them. Could you look a girl used as a biker-gang sex slave in the face and ask her to do it one more time? Even to save a life?

What kind of an asshole could do that to another human being? Someone with eighteen other human beings to take care of, that’s who! It didn’t make a difference, though. No one would speak to Ed after that. The girls began shaking and would lash out at the mention of his name. Kevin’s wife, Sandra, has everyone centered around her, now. Even Bobby thought that bringing the stranger along might have been a mistake, in hindsight.

They started saying he was inhuman, and even that he was evil. It made me sad, but I damned sure didn’t want them leaving me behind in the wilderness like they tried to do to him. The weird thing was that he knew. When I snuck him food, he never asked to get back in. He never imposed himself and stayed about an hour behind us, but never farther. I think he had to choose from the lesser of two evils at every turn. Without him, we would have died out there. I have no doubt in my mind. He kept us alive when our own sensibilities got in the way and he even let us hate him for it, because he knew we needed it."

*

“Now, let me ask you something,” Carl paused. “How evil must a man be, to have that much humanity in him?”

The friendly man was obviously rapt by the story. “That’s a good question, Carl. I would have liked to have met this ‘Edmond’. It sounds as if he was a most incredible person.”

“Was?!” Carl was stunned. “What happened?”

“Suicide,” The man said. “In his cell, this morning. A note was left.”

He handed a small lined piece of paper to Carl. In neat block lettering:

“I saved as many as I could, as often as I could. The burden lies heavy, and I am happy to put it at your feet, sir. Please take care of my charges,

An Old Soldier”

While he had been reading, Carl didn’t notice the needle that was slipped into his neck. He died before he finished the word “soldier”. The two men from the shadows hefted his corpse onto a gurney waiting outside as the friendly man entered some notes into the file.

Subjects name, charges, sentencing, and execution. Why Washington wanted to bother, he didn’t know. Far simpler to say that the person had never been found. With millions dead and missing, what were eighteen more? There was a nation to preserve, after all.

Now Reading
The Way Forward