Whistler did have another cup of the instant coffee, after all. Quijano laid it out for him as they ate a pack of stale vending machine shortbread. They called the event "The Big Bang" for short. Nukes in DC. Major cities up in flames (both petrochemical and nuclear in origin), even not-so-important places like Tucson hit. Infrastructure failing, power and water often unavailable (the bigger the municipality, the more things there were to go to shit), civil government dead or scattered, and a lot of deaths from environmental factors like too much heat during the summer and too little during the long weird winter (which appeared to be everywhere). Over and over, Quijano was honest about the ambiguity of their information, saying things like "We don’t know exactly what happened, but we think…" or "Some guys from Iowa came through on motorcycles, they said they’d heard…"
"So most of this is your best guess?" Whistler asked, filtering the last of his coffee through one of the dust-dry cookies.
"Who, though?"
Quijano scowled. "My best guess would probably be wrong. A lot of the early attacks looked like suicide bombings. That’s pretty standard MO for your basic Islamic hairball. But then the other stuff…railroads being torn up, factories set on fire. That’s not what the sons of the desert like to do."
That was an interesting question that could wait for another day. More pressing was "So, who elected you?"
"Nobody," Quijano said. "We volunteered. Somebody has to organize basic services."
Basic services most people had taken for granted, like a feeble attempt at sanitation (drag the dead out of the homes that were still standing and burn the bodies, a civic duty that had few takers). Law Enforcement. A census. When water and power failed, those who still could tried to flee the still-standing parts of Tucson. The death toll, Jackson said, was steep and horrible. The old, the ill, and the very young died from the heat and thirst and the actions of the more predatory refugees.
Whistler remembered the flocks of black birds over the city like a roiling storm cloud that only folded in on itself but never shifted position. That was Darwin’s dance on a huge scale, and it was staggering to imagine that happening across the nation…at least in the places that hadn’t been nuked. The realtor with the big rack had said he was lucky. Insisted on it. She was right.
The coffee was gone and the cookies were just crumbs. "Gotta get back," he said, pushing back from the table. "Coyotes like to come in for a look around dusk."
"Of course."
Jackson led him outside. The Beetle was there, with a bunch of new scratches in the pitted paint, punctuated by 7 or 8 bullet holes in the sheet metal. The rear tire wasn’t flat, though. Some mountain-man lookin’ dude in a ZZ Top tee-shirt and a Dumbledore beard handed Whistler the keys and said "Couldn’t fix that window, but we found a radial tire for that busted one. It’s gonna drive funny, but it’ll get ya home."
"Thanks," Whistler told him. He’d been expecting to have to hike back to the ranch on his sore ankle.
Quijano came out, carrying his rifle. "It’s kind of dirty, you need to clean it."
"No charges about those guys I…(killed)…shot back there?"
Jackson said, "Pretty clear case of self-defense. We don’t normally patrol that far but we heard the gunfire."
"I’m glad you did," Whistler replied honestly, stowing the rifle in the passenger seat.
Quijano stood by the driver’s door. "We might need to ask a favor of you, from time to time."
"Like what?" Whistler’s voice came out a lot more distrustful than it had sounded in his head.
"Help out. Maybe help us keep the main highway clear. If we want to rebuild…if this damn winter ever ends…we need to get around, even if it’s just the edge of the city. The center of town is pretty well just charcoal. Lot of things are easier to do as a team."
That was reasonable. Besides, being around other people he could get a little more information on what was going on, if not on what had already transpired. "Yeah, okay."
And that was how he found himself driving toward the little school on that early morning in April 2009. Spring had come late, but it had come, the melting snow leaving behind long greasy smears on the dirt, the dead lawns, the streets, the newer cars now as dead as the passenger pigeon; the noxious black slime even dripped from cacti.
He had assisted Quijano and Jackson and the other members of the ad hoc posse/citizen’s committee or whatever you wanted to call it. He’d helped clear some debris from blocked runoff channels so the spring thaw wouldn’t wipe one of the few remaining bridges that spanned the dry riverbed in North Tucson. He had pitched in on a few other tasks, and even started learning a little advanced first aid. The volunteering wasn’t entirely selfless, as the committee would share a little gas with him in return for his labor. It seemed fair.
Even though they didn’t screw around when it came to law and order, Quijano and his people had done a decent job of making this widely spread "territory" safe, to point that they had managed to reopen a small school as well as a little post office (which reminded him of something somebody had once said about a triumph of hope over experience).
So when Whistler saw the black smoke spinning up into a column like a warning finger, it seemed right and proper that he climb into the now much-more battered Bug and head over to check it out. He was pretty sure he was the closest volunteer around with a working automobile, and he could get on scene fastest. Maybe he could get there and stop the spread of the fire. With so many empty homes, there was a lot of flammable material sitting vacant, with who knew how many propane tanks or lawn mowers with tanks of gasoline slowly percolating into vapor in the warming air.
He wove through the back streets that dipped and rolled with the high desert terrain, jogging through mostly empty housing tracts, crunching over broken glass or the brittle carcasses of tumbleweeds that had bounced free of backyards and dead lawns.
As he left a cluster of one-story faux-adobes and got onto Cortaro Farms Road, he crested a rise and now the smoke acted like a finger pointing down, directly at the burning structure, and that’s when he knew it was the school. He was suddenly oriented with a destination and a route he’d traveled many times. He mashed the pedal on the VW, hearing the sewing machine whine with all 1200 cc of the mighty four-cylinder engine as it gave him everything it had.
As he was propelled at his top speed of fifty miles an hour, he passed a few people who had emerged from random homes. He honked at one fool who had wandered into the middle of the road to get a better look. Yeah, vehicular traffic was still rare and the remaining residents of NorTuc had gotten out of the habit of looking when they crossed the street.
He wasn’t the first to arrive. Others, probably parents of the students, had seen the smoke; they were in the parking lot on bikes, a Vespa was laying on its side, and there were even a couple of horses tied to the chain link fence.
It wasn’t really even the sight of the flat roof aflame that rendered him briefly immobile with shock, or the four-foot wide metal cross from the top of the entry way laying on the sidewalk beside the burning American flag, the same flag some nostalgic patriot had put up when the school had first reopened. It wasn’t even seeing ten black Toyota trucks in a semi-circle in the little parking area, their front fenders facing the entry to the school, snuggled in between the building and the little forlorn rose garden that was circled by the drive.
It was the men inside the vehicles and standing in the back of those black trucks shooting automatic rifles into the burning building.
What his eyes were seeing was so completely unexpected that his brain couldn’t make sense of it. He might as well have been looking at an elephant in a jaunty straw boater playing boogie-woogie on the piano. That kind of thing just didn’t happen, not in any sane world.
His feet went slack on the pedals and the VW rolled slowly down the street toward the school, Whistler still trying to understand everything that was taking place before him. Even as he looked away from the firing squad in the trucks, staring at the school in disbelief, he saw a window break as a chair flew through it and more smoke ribboned into the air. Then a woman, a teacher he guessed, tumbled through the empty frame and onto the ground. She sprang to her feet and reached back into the room. She hauled out a small coughing kid, basically tossed the boy to one side and reached for another. Her hair was smoking as she reeled another one of her students up onto the window frame.
And that was when the people in the trucks shot her.
A bunch of them were firing at her, and the impact of so many bullets pummeled her into the white cinder blocks and sent the child in her arms tumbling back into the waiting inferno. More bullets chewed up the dirt, destroying the both the spotty lawn and the little boy that had just been snatched from the flames.
All lack of comprehension was gone, the piano-playing elephant of unreality disappeared. Now that everything was real, his senses returned. The crack of the fire, the too-fast-to-count gunfire from people in the Toyotas. The scalded rubber scent of the tarpaper burning. Screams of trapped people, screams of parents running for the school and watching all of their hopes and dreams get blown through their chest as they were felled by bullets from behind.
And the motherfuckers in the trucks were cheering.

Whistler’s thoughts arced through his brain like flashes from an over-amped strobe even while it seemed like he was moving with the slowest of hungover old man speed.
He stomped the VW’s accelerator as he slewed into the parking lot. He grabbed the deer rifle from its now-normal place in the passenger seat with his right hand while his left straightened the steering wheel to aim the little Bug right at the center of the group of trucks.
Then he popped open the driver’s door and rolled out.
He was only going twenty-three miles an hour when he hit, only, but the asphalt took its pound of flesh, a fingernail, and a hunk of his hair as he tumbled across the parking lot, hugging the rifle like it was a baby. He fetched up hard against a low wall around the small rose garden in the front of the school, and that rang his bell when his forehead cracked into the bricks.
In his mind, he was up on his feet and hopping over the wall to safety, but in the new city of North Tucson, he slumped there for a second, dizzy and scraped and half-blind from the blood running down his face.
The crash of the Bug into the trucks was surprisingly loud and satisfying. He painfully jerked his head up in time to see two of the trucks just off from the center of the group buck forward from the impact of the VW, and it was gratifying to watch at least three of the passengers go backflipping out of the beds to smash into the parking lot like a Beanie Baby hurled by toddler in frustration. Glass flew, metal tore like it was cereal box, and those bastards on the ground didn’t get back up.
The firing stopped for a beat and the cheering trailed off as the gunmen turned to see what had attacked them.
Whistler didn’t require the recalled admonition of an old-timer to get him to his feet just enough for him to flip backwards over the wall into the garden.
Everything hurt and when he struck the ground, it very specifically hurt where the skin was abraded and his clothes were shredded, where the nail-bare finger was under him and grinding into the dirt. The pain was like a cold splash of water, clearing his head, even as the thoughts were strobing too fast to be individually recognized while at the same time they formed a coherent mental image. Kill these evil fucks.
He heard a weird voice in his head. "Stick and move!" He’d heard it, somewhere, but hadn’t the time to think where. It sounded like the best advice he’d ever gotten in his entire life.
Whistler juked an elbow up over the top of the wall then yanked it down as he dove toward the small gated entrance. Paint and cinder block flakes spat into the air where he’d been seen, but by then he had crouched at the edge of the gate, drew the rifle up and blew a man over the roof of the Toyota.
He didn’t see where that bastard landed because Whistler scrambled away from the gate, driven by that voice impelling him to "Stick and move!" He was able to shoot three more of the figures in the trucks before they realized their plan for the morning had changed.
They weren’t men to him. He was only shooting at shapes through the scope, at dark murderous blurs who had been cheering or chanting as they had cut down children and teachers and parents.
But there were more of them than him. Their automatic weapons weren’t as accurate, but they could pump out a lot more lead than he could and so they turned from the burning school and opened up on the cinder block wall.
Chips flew, and then chunks of the cement began to topple around him. Bullets that took out a cement wall? He’d never seen that in the movies, he realized as he curled up and did his best to become one with the soil.
Then for a moment, the firing paused. Whistler risked lifting his face from the dirt, feeling the grit all over his back rasp into his skin. His ears were ringing from the gunfire, but he could hear the attackers yelling to one another, shouting orders or commands. Then they started shooting and shouting some more, but this time in a different direction.
Move. Whistler, no higher off the ground than a Dachshund, darted for the far side of the garden and dove over the wall. When he hit the ground, the scope on the deer rifle kinked in the middle and the front optic popped out.
He risked a quick look at the parking lot. He didn’t really ‘see,’ he more formed an impression. The locals had fallen back; he had a sense of people holding one another in shock. Meanwhile the assholes in the trucks were shooting toward the school again, but this time, not into it. They were aiming for the northeast corner.
Whistler whipped his eyes over. Somebody was there and son of a bitch if they weren’t hurling flaming debris at the trucks, right where the Bug had banzaied them.
It was wet under the VW. Shiny, even iridescent.
Whoever was hugging the corner of the school, they were risking a flaming wall falling on them or getting shot to shit by the gunmen in the trucks. Whoever they were, they were Whistler’s kind of people and he had a sudden inspiration about what they were trying to do.
The Lord hates a coward. Another weird voice, kind of Irish. He must’ve knocked himself silly when he’d rolled clear of the Bug, he thought as he stood and lifted the rifle. He didn’t need the scope here.
Crack, and down went one of the attackers, something odd fluttering from his head, like a scarf.
Over ten left, the predator-hunting part of Whistler’s mind told him. Take as many with you as you can, that same part told him with frightening relish. Whistler swung the rifle barrel at the first motion he saw on the truck, one of the attacks turning a weapon on him. Behind that figure, a streak of yellow and orange tumbling through the air in an arc, lost to his peripheral vision as it fell behind a truck.
Then came an odd whump noise and flame rose up in an almost graceful curtain around the two wrecked trucks and the dead Beetle. Whoever had been throwing the incendiary debris at the attackers had found the gasoline that had splashed free from the wrecked vehicles
The shouting and commands became frantic as men leaped away from the flames that now seemed to be hunting them. The trucks on the ends started up and backed away frantically, trying to escape the fire that curled around tires and darted up into engine compartments.
Men in the beds of the trucks fired wildly at nothing and anything as the trucks jerked and bumped around, trying to get out of the parking lot.
But then the cavalry arrived.
They came on foot, they came on dirt bikes, they came in old Caddies lightly frosted with rust. Many of them were retired military, like Quiano who bounced into sight in a sand-rail dune buggy. All of them from the homes and dwellings and tents all around had came packing heat, from .22 target pistols to booming Desert Eagles, shotguns and AR-15s.
Whistler kept his head down while the fight was being decided and justice was being delivered. He didn’t know if he could have stood, anyway. He had never been more tired in his life. He could almost go to sleep right here in the dirt and warmth, if he wasn’t so thirsty.
First the shooting stopped, and then the sound of the engines disappeared, and then the only sounds were the hungry chewing sounds of the flames and some distant weeping.
Whistler got very slowly to his feet, a three-stage process that involved first getting to his knees, then straightening his upper body, and finally pushing himself up with one hand on the chewed-up cement wall and the other on the deer rifle.
A tall white man in his fifties leveled a big-ass revolver at him. "Hold it!"
Quijano, over by the burning trucks, turned. "Easy," he called out. "Whistler, that you?"
All Whistler could do was lift hand as high as the bottom of his ribs in reply. He took two unsteady steps, and then just sat on the garden wall.
Most of the trucks were ablaze. Figures were scattered on the ground or lay, half consumed by the flames. Of the school, the roof had collapsed and parts of the outer walls had fallen in. Weirdly, almost hallucinatory, there was a short women in what looked like an expensive business suit moving among the fallen attackers, kneeling by each one. He wondered dizzily if she were a doctor or a nurse.
Whistler tried to say something, but his mouth was so dry his lips stuck together. Quijano gave an order, and someone passed a Hello Kitty thermos over. Whistler hoped to Christ it hadn’t belonged to one of those poor students, but he unscrewed the lid and gratefully drank the plastic-flavored water anyway, swishing it around to rinse some awful taste out of his mouth.
Some shouts from near the burning school made him leap to his feet, but it was just two of the volunteers bringing over a prisoner, a thin, black woman. She looked homeless, but hell, they all did.
"Is she one of them?" Quijano asked.
"Found her hiding behind the back stop," was the answer.
"No," came a clear and well-articulated voice from the parking lot. Whistler turned. It was the well-dressed woman, who had stood. She had something long in her hand, and the afternoon light flashed off of it, where something dark wasn’t dripping. "She’s the one who made their trucks explode."
Oh, the black gal had been throwing the flaming debris. At a nod from Quijano, the volunteers stepped away. Whistler raised the thermos to the homeless black woman in a salute, and she stared at him for a moment before walking over to take the plastic jug from him and help herself to a long swallow.
"Thank you," the well-dressed woman said.
"You’re welcome," the black woman replied quietly. She looked at Quijano, who nodded again. The homeless woman gave a last look around, her eyes lingering on Whistler before something that might’ve been the ghost of a memory of a faint smile touched her lips. She offered him Hello Kitty. He shook his head. She took a scuffed backpack that was held by one of the volunteers, slung it up on her shoulders and began to jog away. Soon, she was out of sight. She was pretty damn fast, faster than him, for sure.
"And thank you," came the cultured voice of the woman, and Whistler got to his feet, feeling like he should do something polite.
He changed his mind about that when he saw that the well-dressed woman held a folded piece of windshield in one hand, the glass still held together by the safety sheeting that was part of all modern autos. The broken edges were sharp though, to judge by the blood that dripped off the long edge. Whistler’s eyes went past her to the man she had been ‘helping.’
Sweet Jesus, she cut the poor bastard’s throat.
Whistler looked at her face. She was short and a little roundish, and tears were flowing from her eyes. She didn’t seem to be aware of them, had no knowledge she was crying. "I appreciate what you did," she said in that clear voice. "My…children were in school. They didn’t make it out."
"I’m sorry," he mumbled, and then he had to turn away. Not only had he failed, she was the most spooky thing he’d ever seen, up to then. He’d see a lot worse things later.
Quijano came up to them. He took the woman by the shoulder and gently disarmed her. "Anne, I’m going to have one of the ladies take you home."
"That would be very kind," Anne replied in that deathly calm voice. She extended a wet, red hand to Whistler. "I wish we had met better," she said. It didn’t completely make sense but he knew what she was trying to say.
He forced himself to take her hand and give it a courteous squeeze. "Me, too."
When she was led away, Whistler wiped his hand on one of the more intact sections of his pants. "Who…who were those assholes?" he managed to say, gesturing at the wrecked trucks, but meaning the burning schools, the dead children, the whole awful goddamned mess.
Quijano bent and pulled one of the scarves off a dead man. In the sun, the man’s dark skin was growing puffy, the black beard and hair shiny with blood. The Acting Captain didn’t answer, but waved the scarf at another volunteer. "Jordian or Syrian, probably," the volunteer responded.
"Those," Quijano said, dropping the fabric back on the ground the way you’d drop a foul repugnant thing, "are probably the people who attacked us. The U.S., that is."
And so, the volunteers won their first battle against invaders who had a shocking lack of concern for civilian casualties or civility. The volunteers awarded Whistler a "new" car for his efforts at the school. It was another old VW, but it ran. Nothing could take away that lingering feeling of failure that stayed with him, so he remained with the goats pondering what he could have done better.
Even that pained him. Every now and then, he’d hear a sound that would make him jerk his head around even as it made his upper lip sweat. It would turn out to be one of the goats. It was always one of the goats, but the noises they made in distress could be distressingly human. He came to hate walking the field in the evening. Dark lumps lay on the ground, far too similar to the shapes that had been left in the ruins of the school. It was only the goats, once more.
You did everything you could, more than one of the volunteers had told him.
But it hadn’t been enough.
Still, it was a surprise to him and the little community when months later, the invaders returned with a full army, not a squad, and they moved north, burning homes and enslaving the population, slaughtering those who resisted.
To men like Quijano, who had experienced their share of combat, they knew when it was time for a strategic retreat. Whistler had seen the smoke for days, and he was watching the sky when Quijano drove up in a Chevy sedan from the 50s. The backseat was loaded with food and clothing, while a woman and small poodle sat in the passenger side.
"We’re pullin’ out, Whistler," the Acting Captain said. "Those ragheads–"
"Marcus!" the woman shushed.
"The invaders are back. In force. We can’t stand up against ’em. They’ve got weapons, transport. Fuel."
Hearing Quijano’s words brought the bitter taste of failure back to Whistler’s tongue. Unwelcome memories of small, charred, twisted forms were vivid before his eyes. "You just giving up?"
"No. Retrench, reload, re-aim."
"Where are you going?"
"The missus is half-Apache. We’re going to the White Mountains, hole up there for a while. You need to get out, too."
"I’ll go with you," Whistler volunteered.
"I’ve got another assignment for you," Quijano said. He reached beside him, picked up a pack. "I need you to head west. Your orders are in here."
His orders?
"We still have a President," Quijano said. "We…a whole bunch of us…are fighting to get our country back, Andy." Nobody called him Andy anymore. "I can’t draft you, Whistler, but I think you’ll volunteer."
He shoved the backpack at the other man. Whistler took it, surprised at the weight. "Why do you thin–"
"Because you rammed your VW right up the ass of a death squad of those murderous camel-jockeys when all you had was a rifle. Because you give a goddamn."
His wife made a disapproving noise at Quijano, who ignored her to get out of the old sedan. "I need a yes or no, Whistler. Hate to spring it on you, but that’s the way it goes." He glanced back toward the distant smoke that smudged the bottom of the sky.
"Will…will I have to kill people?"
The Acting Captain seemed to actually consider it for a few moments. It really was a fair question. "Probably. Maybe a lot. Maybe just a few. We’re fighting against the Caliphate of California. The resistance calls ’em them Caliban."
Whistler’s mind put it all together in a strobe blur of thought: The scarves worn by the attackers. "Jordian or Syrian." The chanting, the guttural song of the attacker’s speech. The toppled cross. The murdered children. "California Taliban."
"Close enough to the truth."
One of the goats had come up to sniff the car, and then gave a questioning tug at the leg of Whistler’s jeans. The goats will do just fine without me. "Okay," Whistler said.
"Outstanding," Quijano told him, unzipping the backpack. "Everything you need is in here." Whistler glanced in to see some typed sheets, what looked like a walkie-talkie radio with a plastic token strapped to it. And a grenade. The Acting Captain held that up. "This is the most important part," he said. "If it looks like you’re going to be captured, you have to blow up the radio."
"And myself?"
"That’s up to you. Rather not lose you just yet, Whistler. You’ve got grit, son."
Whistler jabbed the pack. "How’d you get all this?"
"From Valley Forge. Headquarters for the resistance. Old military guys are good for something." Quijano zipped the flap back up. "Good luck, Whistler."
They shook hands solemnly while the goats and Mrs. Quijano looked on.
After the Chevy pulled away, Whistler opened the gate. In the past, the goats might have wandered onto the state road and been run down, but that was unlikely to happen in the New Now. It was about four hours until sundown. He could get some miles under his belt by leaving now.
He put some clothes and food in the back of the Bug, a rifle and pistol in the passenger seat. The backpack went next to it. He used an old roll of fence wiring to strap the grenade to walkie-talkie, and he laid them close at hand, snuggled in the seat as carefully as a sleeping baby goat. He had a spare can of gas and that went in the trunk (in the front, like all those old VWs). Whistler took a last look around, because after reading his orders, he was pretty sure he wasn’t coming back.
The school burned for days. Anne had watched from the little dead rose garden, even sleeping there until the embers atop the cracked foundation of the building had cooled. Then she had scooped up a handful of the ashes from where her twins’ classroom had been, smeared the charcoal over her face, and walked away.
He hadn’t planned on ending up in a trailer with goats for company. All of the plans he’d ever made or imagined or thought about hadn’t included this world in which he found himself. But this…it felt right. It felt like this was an existence that would matter to more than just him.
The Caliban, or assholes like them, had brought the fire to America, to his backyard.
There had been a lot he couldn’t do anything about. Now, it looked like he could do something.
Whistler would bring them the fire this time.


If you’re intrigued and want more, pick up The Big Bang today! You can also watch an interview with author Roy "Griff" Griffis by clicking this link!
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