After the Bomb
Fiction by M Teresa Clayton
The city looked like a trash heap for as far as the eye could see. Buildings no longer stood tall and proud, announcing the names of businesses and what had once been representative of the many people who gave the better part of their lives to the success of those companies. No windows to reflect the time of day as the sun made its way from east to west and no doors to welcome customers and clients when they came to call. Bones. Just bones of city life. There were no cries for help, no screams of terror, not a sound came from this landscape.
Where were the birds, the squirrels in the park in the center of this district and, as I stood there taking it all in, what district is this? There was no delineation between townships, there was no way to tell one neighborhood from the others. Bodies lie among the heap of stones but were burned beyond recognition. I couldn’t tell a child from an adult, a black man from a white man, an office worker from the tradesman. There were no fire engines, no ambulances, a few police cars that were barely recognized from the devastation, except for a blue or red light that survived the tumult and demolition.
I stood with two other men, wearing our protective suits and masks. The only sound made was the inhale and exhale of our own breathing through these masks. Three men. We were given our orders to go in and find survivors. We would soon be reporting to our superiors that no one survived. There simply wasn’t anything left of the city. We stood at ground zero and our equipment was resounding with rapid beeps, warning that the environment here was not safe. I wondered where we could go that would be safe?
We had no idea who was responsible for this attack. We had no idea if there was more to come. Where could we go to be safe?
Each of us began to enter the debris, searching for anything that suggested life existed here. Joe went off to my right and Mike was further away to my left. I was center and in command of this recognizance mission. I heard my superior ask for a report. I tapped my microphone to respond and simply could not find the words. I needed to find the right metaphors for what simply could not be described in ordinary words. There was nothing ordinary here.
“Sir. This is Andrew Suskin reporting, Sir. I am standing approximately a mile within the city limits as I recall them. It’s difficult to explain what I am seeing here, Sir.”
“Can you see if any of the buildings are still standing?” “No, Sir, nothing remains here. I am looking at a boneyard of bricks and mortar and not one person is recognizable, burned, Sir. Burned beyond… I’m sorry, Sir, I cannot find the words. Death is everywhere, and our equipment is screaming at us. The radiation must be incredibly strong here. Do not enter zone three, Sir. I repeat, Do Not Enter Zone Three! I am calling my men back and we will report to base and decontamination. I pray the radiation has not reached us inside of our suits. I have never seen readings like this.
I looked down at my arm. It was shaking nervously, and the suit was black with soot and possibly something else. It seemed to be spreading up my arm, as if it had a mind of its own as if it were alive. “Joe, Mike, return point. We are getting the hell out of here.” I could feel something on my right leg moving. It felt a bit like water, but it was running up my leg at a steady pace.
“Andy, this is Mike here. Joe is down, I am looking at him right now and…” I could hear him gagging and possibly throwing up. “Mike, report what you see.” “Andy, his face is black, he is unconscious and not responding to any stimulation at all. His eyes, Sir…” Again, he choked.
“I’m sorry Sir, his eyes are no longer there. Just holes where they once were and his face is slowly being distorted.” I couldn’t believe what I was hearing but I could still see the black substance moving slowly up the arm of my suit, possibly looking for a way inside. Something was certainly inside my suit where my right leg is.
“Meet me at the point. Now”
“Do we just leave him here, Sir?” “If you think you can drag him with you, then let’s get him back to base. If not, leave him and get yourself back to point before this spreads.
“Sir? Before it spreads?”
“Report back immediately, soldier.”
I ran back to our point of entry, to what once was a bustling city, filled with shoppers, workers, children in the park… now surrounded by a gray mist over everything and a deafening silence inside. Mike came running toward me. I could see the black substance on the front side of is suit.
“Let’s get out of here, get cleansed and try to get this out of our minds.”
“Sir, your arm…”
“I am aware. You have it on the torso of your suit. Let’s get going now. I don’t want to find out what it is. Let the scientists figure it out.” We jumped into our jeep and began our return to base, using the same route we followed on the way in.
I tapped my mic, “Sir, we are about five minutes out and minus one. Joe… well, something attacked Joe and we were unable to remove him from the area.” No one spoke back.
“Sir, Andrew Suskin reporting Sir. Entering the perimeter of base. Come back?” No one responded.
We made it back to base and every man and woman was covered in this tar-like substance that seemed to be burning or consuming them. Some were worse than others, in different phases of decay.
“Mike, let’s get ourselves into decontamination and get out of these suits. I don’t know what is going on here, but we need to get to a safe place.”
Mike nodded in agreement.
We made our way to the decontamination area and hosed off before removing our suits. I took the chemical decontamination and sprayed my arm and leg, as well as Mike’s torso. Whatever this is, it was intelligent enough to find a way in.
“They nuked us. What else was in that bomb?” Mike asked nervously.
I looked at him and hesitated. Truthfully, I had no idea what was happening or how.
“The nuke would have flattened everything for miles and there would be a radiation cloud to be concerned about. This… this is something I’ve never seen or heard about. Perhaps it is a byproduct of the nuke. But, no organism could survive that.”
I had to laugh. But after a short moment of levity, I had to think. What would be able to survive? Or, did the nuke release something? Did the radiation create a new organism that wasn’t expected?
The chemical shower felt good and seemed to stop the movement of the tarry black substance in its tracks. Both Mike and I got dressed in our uniforms and proceeded to assess the situation here at the post. No one had survived. We searched everywhere and everywhere we looked was covered in that living tar.
“Come on, soldier, we are getting out of here. Let’s head for Fort Leonard Wood and give report.”
I put my gun in my holster and put a rifle in my lap. In the back of the jeep, we added an arsenal of weapons in case of attack. Two soldiers would need enough firepower to possibly fight a much larger number of enemy forces.
Mike looked like he was going in front of a firing squad. The fear was shared by this soldier as well. I didn’t know what we would find in central Missouri. The city and outlining townships were no longer recognizable, they were gone, wiped off the map, and there was a new threat… a bi-product that could think and kill.
As we drove past the outlying areas that supported farms with cows and pigs that were empty. The ground was black, there were small black mounds lying everywhere. The thought that it had made its way this far from the drop site was disconcerting at best. Neither of us said anything despite the obvious visual observations being made. We made it to the post. A soldier at the gate screamed at us
“Turn around, get back, keep on driving and don’t turn around!”
I stepped out of the jeep and approached the soldier. “Is it here? How many men have survived? We will go in and get them out. It was at that moment that I became aware of the substance in his mouth. As he yelled out to us, black oily goo was spilling out. I ran back to the jeep. “Turn this jeep around.”
“Where do we go?”
“I don’t know. We’ll just keep driving until we find a place that has not been affected by this.”
“Sir. Your arm. I looked down and saw that the black tar was back. I quickly pulled my pant leg up and it was there as well.
“Mike, stop the jeep.” Mike pulled over and put the jeep in neutral.
“Pull up your shirt.” Mike was near hysterical seeing the tarry substance on his torso. “What is it going to do to us?”
“I have no idea. I’m going to give something a try and hope it succeeds.” I got out and took the extra can of gas from the back of the jeep. “I’m going to pour some gas on my leg. I need you to light it up.”
“O my god, Sir. Are you sure about this?”
“It’s an order, Mike.”
I poured just enough gas to cover the mass and Mike struck the flint, lighting the liquid. I didn’t feel any burn, but the black tar did. It made a sound like a scream as it burned beneath the gasoline. As soon as I could feel the flame hitting skin, I threw myself on the ground and rolled to put out the fire. We both looked at my leg and there was no evidence of the tar. We did the same to my arm and then, Mike’s torso. There were small areas of burn but for the most part, we were unscathed, and the tar was gone.
“This is the only thing that will work. We have to go back to ground zero and set it on fire and then set everything under tar we see as we move across the country.”
Mike said nothing. He jumped into the driver’s seat and we turned to return to what once was the city of St. Louis.
We stopped at every gas station and rigged the pumps to let the gas flow freely into the streets and surrounding areas. Once out of harm’s way, we threw a few grenades into the mix and watched it explode into flames. It didn’t take long to leave a burning path behind us as we drove from town to town. It seemed we were the only survivors. The flames burned hot and high into the sky. The smoke was blocking out the light of the sun. Having driven for a day and a half, we found ourselves somewhere near the gulf.
I was shocked by what I saw there. Where water should have flowed in waves, a solid layer of black tar lay on top and the blackness went on to the horizon.
“Mike, we haven’t seen anyone alive between St. Louis and here. I imagine the same could be said for every city in every direction and, whatever that is out there, will have covered every waterway, all wildlife, and to kill it, we will have to burn down the rest.”
“What are you suggesting, Sir?” he asked.
“Sooner or later, we will be covered in this substance. If we try to survive, there is no water and no food. We could try the grocery stores for food and water, but I believe we will find those places covered in black, just as we have seen kitchens and restaurants lifeless beneath this alien substance.”
“Are you suggesting…” Mike stopped and looked at me with real fear. I already knew. It had been covering me for hours and had made it up to my neck and lower jaw.
“Are you prepared to die, Mike?” I asked.
Mike pulled his shirt up and looked down in horror. He immediately removed the shirt and saw that his arms were covered, and it was moving, expanding.
“Sir, it doesn’t hurt. I don’t know what it is doing to us, but it is not causing pain. Do you think it will take what it needs and then leave us? Perhaps there are survivors back there. Maybe this will go away, and all those people and animals will be okay. Do you think that is possible?”
I reached down to my belt and unclipped my last grenade. I made sure to do this without Mike’s knowledge. He was hoping for something that I knew could not be.
The tar substance had consumed its victims and everything in its path. There were no bodies to resurrect. There was no plant life to recover and now the water was completely covered in this substance. It was alive. I had no idea how long it could survive after it consumes everything on this planet. I just wanted to put us down humanely and I would try to do this without Mike’s knowledge, saving him any more fear. I pulled the pin and held the grenade in my hand.
“No matter what happens here, Mike, I’m sure that where we are going will be a much better place.” I lifted one arm to hug him close to me as I placed the other hand with the grenade between us. I released the lever.
Earth was no longer a beautiful blue and green orb sitting in the sky. It was now known as the “Black Planet” and no other life form would come near its gravitational pull. Did other life-forms know what had destroyed the planet? Did they know what the black tarry substance was?
The story told in other galaxies was that man and his killing machines had created their own destruction. Other stories told of something hitting the Earth from space and the black substance was an alien life form. No one really knew for sure. No one would ever come close enough to find the answer.
The Galactic Counsels agreed that blowing the planet up could release the substance and put other planets in jeopardy. They considered burning it, but without understanding how the blackness worked and survived, they feared the gases released could be fatal or the ashes would somehow enter the outer areas and again, pose a deadly threat.
So, the Black planet was watched as it stood as a reminder of just how vulnerable life on any planet really is.