Dried blood crackled into dust between the folds of George Guess's buttoned shirt. It had been white once. Before they killed his wife and daughter.
George lay against the frozen hard-packed mud, in the thin shadows beneath a forest of spindly twigs, trying to shake the image of their cold faces.
"...she was only six...," he growled in a low whisper. His gas mask fogged with every furious breath. Tears blurred his vision. Everything he did now was for them. No matter how ugly, no matter the cost.
Quietly, he chambered a round into the barrel of his old Marlin .30-30. Searing hate rushed through his veins, melting the ice cold blood turning fingers into stone. With each pulse, the pain of his broken ribs returned and he saw their faces again.
George squeezed his eyes shut, pushing away the tears and focused the frozen block of his mind on why he was here. On why they'd been taken from him.
"Oklahoma." He whispered, repeating it in a kind of mantra. George let everything else slip away but that word, that place. He had to get there.
In the distance, a patrolling swiftboat bounced along the surface of the Mississippi river, heading towards his hiding spot along the Tenessee side, just three miles north of Memphis.
He flipped the lens on the scope and peered at the black earth rimming both sides of the putrid waterway.
That word cycled through George's brain in an endless loop. He'd wanted to tell Rachel, his wife, but couldn't say more than 'Because'.
She pleaded for answers, threatened to stay behind. Saying anything more and the eavesdropping phones, televisions and other devices would know his reason too. These 'hepful' machines were made by men. Men with agendas. Agendas he finally understood.
He was careful to take quick glances through the lens as the sun set in front of him. Too much movement and the glass would reflect, signaling his location.
If Rachel had just turned off the barrage of talking heads on the news and thought about it, she'd have understood why.
George placed crosshairs over the two National Guardsmen in the boat. As he did, a wordless thought crept forward. He hadn't hunted like this since he was a child. Banned for decades, the acidic air killed most animals. The ones that lived were unfit to eat, cancerous husks of fur with lungs that slowly liquified with each breath.
Three billion people in the US, living shoulder to shoulder, weren't much better off, even as they insulated themselves against nature. Add that to the other thirteen billion in the world and it was obvious. The earth was sick. There was no more green on the ground. That color had leached into the sky, leaving behind only black.
Everything and everyone around George, the entire world in fact, was in a full sprint towards death. He denied it for the longest time, fought against the mortality of the human race and when he'd almost given up hope, he'd found a solution. A cure.
But the men with agendas had a different idea and in George's mind, their scheme was far worse than the disease. It was then he understood there is no such thing as a cure. Not really. Every solution only creates new problems, prolonging the inevitable with a heavier cost.
This was why he was here. 'Why Oklahoma'.
The patrolling swiftboat he stalked through the scope received a call. The soldier pressed his hand against the side of his mask, nodded, then motioned the driver to ground not more than twenty yards from George. Only a mile of water now separated him from Arkansas, and then after that, his prize: Oklahoma.
George's heart pounded in his chest. The boat slid towards the shore, grinding to a halt.
If he was going to do this, he needed to move fast. George spread out his arms to push off but they'd grown stiff, sloth-like from the hours laying against the cold dead earth.
George cursed his 55 year old body.
Just then, raid sirens echoed through the jagged valleys of the sprawling metro. Rat-tat-tat bursts of gunfire proved it was pure chaos in the city as martial law had the population in complete lockdown. No one could cross state lines.
As George sighted again on the two disbarking National Guardsmen, wearing long coats instead of their heavy armor, he knew he'd made the right call to look for a weakness elsewhere.
The two men lifted their masks to light up a smoke beside the grounded boat as the sun settled into a blood-orange haze across the water behind them.
George's heart raced. He'd never done anything like he was planning to do now. He was a creator. He was an inventor, an engineer in his former life. But that was yesterday. Today, he was something else.
Sirens continued to wail, while a faint buzzing, like a swarm of locusts, grew louder behind George.
The Guardsmen let the cigarettes drop from their lips, frozen in place as George felt the sky above him grow black. Distant mountains swallowed the sun but the following twilight advanced too rapidly to be natural.
The buzzing grew louder, turning into a thunderously pounding thud repeated a million times over, forcing George to take his eyes off his escape plan.
Between the crooked charcoal spires, as if the forest were made of burnt matchsticks, he could see a churning tidal wave of machines swallow the diseased sky. The sight defied logic. An infinite cascade of drones--black coffins with wings--stretched across the horizon from North to South, shutting in the earth.
George's greatest fear had come true. Midnight had finally come to America.
As the boiling, inky nightmare separated man from the heavens, glowing paper squares, the colors of Autumn slowly drifted down to the ground. George was locked in awe as each fluttering piece of paper played, in perfect synchronicity, a song that had once been an inspiration to him. A simple, cheerful song now turned dreadful.
"Imagine there's no countries. It isn't hard to do..."
The stain of darkness pushed overhead on its trek across the continent. George followed it with his eyes, just as the Guardsmen did, until their backs were turned to him.
"Nothing to kill or die for... And no religion too..."
The papers still hung in the sky above them when George felt his heart thump in his chest. This was his only chance.
He picked up his rifle and sprinted from the safety of the tree line.
"Imagine all the people... Living life in peace. You may say I'm a dreamer..."
George slammed the butt of his rifle into the back of the driver's head, knocking him into a permanent dream. The hot rush of blood pumping through George's veins had cracked the ice of his frozen mind. Pent-up thoughts exploded through his skull.
As he cast a glance down at the man, George suddenly knew the difference between an optimist and a realist. A realist can't afford morality. There is no right or wrong, there is only what is necessary.
"But I'm not the only one..."
George spun his rifle around and pointed it at the other trooper. Their eyes locked.
"I hope someday you'll join us..."
George's head lilted to the side in a gesture whose words were spoken by the song. The Guardsman eyed his attacker. The skinny, mud covered--or was that blood--man in slacks and a dress shirt, shakily holding an ancient rifle...
He reached for the pistol strapped to his side. George squeezed.
"And the world will be as one..."
As the song continued, the ground was covered in a singing quilt of orange, yellow, umber and red. George stripped the men of their gear, putting on a longcoat, and loaded onto the swiftboat. He pulled the throttle into reverse, yanked the wheel until the bow pointed at the distant shore, then slammed the control forward.
Stuck to the half-windshield was one of the singing squares. On it was printed a simple message:
George knew better than anyone. The Union was coming.
And just like its drones, it was going to roll over this world, destroying everything George ever cared about.
In its place would be a new world, completely foreign to him. A nightmarish future he brought to life. A future only he could stop if he could just get to Oklahoma.
He pulled out his wallet and laid it on the dash, opening it to the last photo he had of his family.
"No matter how long it takes. I'll make them pay. All of them."