Jonathan Hughes was almost done for the day. The Kings County Farmer’s Cooperative Number Three was under a hiring freeze, so he was doing the job of near two men. He couldn’t put the extra hours on his time report, but the work still had to be done. If he didn’t want to be paid for the official hours and carry the rest on his own there were plenty of folks waiting to take his job on those terms. He was fifty seven years old and glad they hadn’t already forced him out for a younger man.
He’d outlasted the previous three owners of the land and survived the transition to government control of the farm as well as consolidation with other private tracts. The land was about the last agricultural land this close to LA. If they hadn’t enacted very strict anti-urbanization laws about twenty years ago, he was sure the fields would all be condos and subdivisions right now. It slowed it down, but he had no doubt the population pressure would have it paved over and built up in another two decades. He wouldn’t be here or working for the Coop in twenty years so that wasn’t his concern.
The field he looked over had been in almonds until forty years ago. He remembered passing them on the way to school. Old Mr. Gant who he’d worked for out of high school had told him stories about the same fields being in tomatoes, and had unbelievable tales of migrants hand picking them in the fields. Funny how none of those changes had ever seemed important enough to be in his history lessons.
Last year the field had been in beans and it was planted in rye right now. It was so short it didn’t look like the rye when he was a kid. You’d have to run a roller over it to make it lodge. The last couple years had been iffy for frost. He’d seen hot years and cold, and two serious droughts in his career. If it didn’t fully mature for grain it would serve for silage at a good price, as well as keep down the weeds for the spring planting. The weeds were all herbicide resistant now, but the government planting manual said they had to be used. The rye really helped as long as you didn’t say that was a reason for planting it. Jon would have spent the money on fertilizer, but then he didn’t have stock in any herbicide companies.
The sun was near the horizon and he was done repairing the piping for the irrigation. A bright line across the southern sky caught his eye and he looked. It was unusual to see a meteor so bright against the steel blue sky even this near dusk, and then there was another and another…
The streaks from the east were joined by others lower on the horizon to the southwest. They all converged on an unseen point well below the horizon. LA? Jon wondered, but no, it was angled too far to the west. He wasn’t sure where it was aimed. The huge ‘V’ of bright points all vanished over the horizon to a meeting point he couldn’t see, then a flare of light spread a silvery cloud that expanded and changed colors. Even this far away it had lightning visible flashing around the edges, low and to the left of the sunset.
Fewer, but more substantial tracks pierced the odd cloud and lit it up with flares from underneath. Jon stood mouth hanging open shocked at the scale of it spanning a quarter of his horizon, all in silence. The birds he hadn’t been aware of consciously hearing reminded him of their presence by their sudden silence, making the familiar scene of the field eerie and alien by the changes.
The whole sequence repeated on almost as grand a scale and then a flare lit up fully half the horizon bright enough to dazzle his vision and make him look down. If he hadn’t been sheltered behind the curve of the Earth he’d have been blinded. As the multicolored fireball lifted above his horizon, cooling as he watched, a faint rumble from the initial bombardment finally reached him through the ground, a noise he’d have shrugged off as a minor natural earth tremor another time.
He pulled his phone out of his pocket to call his wife, but there was no connection showing. When he looked across the field to the pump house the light outside that showed it had power was dark. That’s when he realized how bad it was. If the power was out this far north, LA was certainly down. If what he understood about atomic bombs was right it would be down hard for weeks at least, or even months, maybe longer given how screwed up all the supply and repair had gotten lately. About that time the ground wave from the big bomb passed through, so strong it made him catch his balance.
Hell, he had a hard time keeping simple farm machinery in repair. What would the power companies do if their high tech gear was all badly damaged? If the pump house across the field was down he’d bet anything all the pumps and valves and aqueduct controls to feed LA were dead junk.
No water in LA and it would revert to desert so fast the city people would be astonished. No power was almost as bad given how city people lived. No traffic controls, no elevators, no refrigeration in the stores, no bank processing. It would be a unholy mess. He’d known for a long time that if things fell apart in LA most folks would stay there until it was far too late to try to leave. But the few that knew better would still be a mob spreading out from the city.
He’d made a few half-hearted preparations, hoping he never needed them, but it came down to using them now or never, because in a few hours they’d be useless. He let out a big sigh. He was too old for this crap and having to be a refugee. But he didn’t want to be here when the mob came north. He walked to his truck and didn’t lock up the pipe shed or put the gear away. That was all valueless now. Stuff from a previous life.
He held his breath briefly, anxious, but the truck started, which meant he might be alive in a week. Apparently the EMP wasn’t that bad this far away. If the last weapon that pounded Vandenberg had detonated sixty miles up all of southern California would have had the older legacy systems fried, including his truck ignition, but Jonathan had no idea about all that.
It was a dark green 2069 GM Brazil hybrid diesel and belonged to the Coop. It was no coincidence he’d watched and waited until the same year and color truck came up for sale locally and bought the same vehicle for himself. He drove the company truck back to the fenced equipment yard and parked beside his own vehicle. There was the supervisors car parked right by the entry, not in his assigned space, and some sort of emergency light shining in the office window. It was darker now with the sun completely down, and he welcomed the dusk to cover him switching plates with the Coop vehicle. That accomplished Jon went in the office where his supervisor was talking earnestly on the Coop radio net to somebody. The man waved at him, distracted, and didn’t stop talking. From what he could hear of the conversation he simply wanted to what was going on and the fellow on the other end was probably as clueless as he was. He grabbed a note pad off the desk and scribbled:
I no longer work for the Coop, effective immediately. Jonathan Hughes 10/11/2090
He put it down with his fob for the company truck on top of the pad. That was also his key that unlocked the field gates and other areas to which he had access, and he walked out. As he was driving out the gate he saw his boss in his rear view mirror. He finally came out the door, with the pad in his hand, in time to see Jonathan driving away down the access road. Too late, and there was really nothing to talk about. The man would have simply argued he needed to stay there and lend his support until things were normal again. Jon had his doubts the man would see another paycheck for a long time, and any return to actual normal might take years.
It wasn’t like the produced a variety of products that could support people the way an old fashioned family farm could. Nothing of any particular use like grain or oil seed was even stored on the property. They all got transported straight from the field to silos and storage far away. In a week they’d all be as hungry as the city folk if they couldn’t shop at the local market.
Very few people even had a personal garden, certainly not Coop workers. If you lived in company housing like the Hughes did you had a company ground crew do your little patch of yard weekly, and nobody was encouraged to even put a few flowers around their door. It just made extra work for the yard crew. Mostly they mowed your stuff right along with the grass. They didn’t have seed and supplies to fend for themselves come spring even if they could last until then, and without fresh deliveries of diesel fuel, which seemed unlikely, they couldn’t plant and harvest a full growing season even though they had the equipment.
The reason he switched plates with the Coop truck was law enforcement scanned plates continually. If he left the county in his personal truck he knew he’s be pulled over before he was a hundred kilometers from home and interrogated about his intentions. There weren’t officially internal passports, but if you didn’t have a destination that could be checked you could end up sitting in the local lockup for a few days. That seemed a bad idea right now.
They didn’t pull over agency vehicles. He knew that from experience, because he’d driven as far as south of Bakersfield and north of Modesto for parts and supplies and never been pulled over. His boss was OK, but a little dense. He had no doubt the man would never notice the plate switch. If things went as badly as he imagined they could get the truck might be sitting where he parked it a year from now and nobody the wiser.
He stopped at the Coop garage and topped his tanks off. Nobody was there and normally there was a second shift in the repair shop. The fuel was gravity fed from an above ground tank and needed no power. This was the first really serious illegal thing he’d done, stealing fuel. The plates were a minor matter in comparison. If they’d closed the gate and locked the place up it would have been messier, since he left his fob with his boss, but he knew the man would think of that first thing. It was just how his officious mind worked. He’d been mentally prepared to drive through the gate if he needed to get fuel, and had bolt cutters under the seat to unlock the nozzle, but he was glad to avoid all that.
The thought occurred to him that he might get supplies for the truck from the repair shop, but it was dark and he didn’t know where things were stored. He could delay and get caught in the act, fumbling around, looting the place. Jon quickly dropped the idea, not even checking to see if the building was locked up, and headed home.
His wife, Jenny, was familiar with his concerns they might have to leave the Coop some day, if not visibly enthusiastic about the idea. She was aware he’d buried some things near the family vacation home they still owned north of Sacramento. His younger brother owned half of that still, but he didn’t expect to see the man and his family there for one simple reason. They lived in San Diego and he couldn’t see them making the journey with no advance warning at all that it was time to bug out.
When he arrived home he backed up right to the front door. No point in trying to be subtle now, he wanted to be on the road before every fool and his dog figured out what was going down. When he opened up the door there was soft luggage and cloth shopping bags filled and tied shut in a line all down the hall. There was a camping lantern filling the kitchen with light and his wife was still packing things from the pantry. It was a tremendous relief he wasn’t going to have to persuade her.
“I have most of the kitchen stuff done. Can you take these plastic bags and grab all the good blankets and some sheets from the bedroom? I already have your clothes and shoes in a couple bags there,” she said, pointing down the hall.
“Thank you, thank you for all the time you saved,” Jon said, hugging her.
“Of course,” she said, giving him a quick pat on the back with both hands and disengaging. “Hugs latter when we are safe. No time to waste now. Tell me about it on the road.”
Jon didn’t speed. He actually had to go a little faster than he’d have liked to not draw attention to them for going too slow. The truck would have gotten a little better mileage slower.
He related his view of the battle standing in the field to his wife as he drove. She related finding a functioning radio station after the big ground wave and being surprised they were calling it an earthquake and saying nothing at all to suggest hostile military action.
“That’s crazy,” Jonathan said. “The whole sky was lit up with reentry vehicles coming in from both directions. Nobody could mistake it for what it was.”
“How many people stand out in an open field like you and see the sky?” Jenny asked. “It was well after dinner and most shift workers would be inside after dinner. For that matter how many city dwellers have a good view of the sky down near the horizon? It’s all blocked with other buildings and signs and crap. And once the power was out the net would go down and those few people who caught it on their phone couldn’t post it for their friends to all see.”
“What is the point of hiding it?” Jon said. “It’s going to come out eventually.”
“Huh! The same point as what we’re doing,” his wife said. “They’re buying a few hours to set up and deal with it before the mob gets ugly. We’ll be at the cabin, God willing. I imagine they are trying to get all kinds of emergency power set up, at least for things like hospitals and police stations. They’ll be trying to call up National Guard units with no effective net or phone systems to reach them. Begging Vancouver for help just like they’ve been trying to get for the Gulf states back east. What we need to do we just may accomplish. I don’t give them much chance at all to get a handle on it. People are loath to go out in the night with no lights, They expect them to come back on. They always have before. But tomorrow morning a few people will start wondering if they shouldn’t be running for somewhere safer. By tomorrow night it’s going to be a mess.”
They rode in silence awhile through the night. There was almost no other traffic.
“There isn’t anything they could say to make it better,” Jon decided.
“Nope. Once people figure out the power and water aren’t coming back on for days, they will realize they have half a tank of gas or forgot to plug the car in to charge after work…and they have half a bag of corn chips and a couple past the best use date cans of beans dip, and the pizza place sure as hell isn’t delivering. Well, they’re going to go crazy.”
“I’m sorry, I thought maybe you didn’t get it the last couple years. I thought I might have to convince you to evacuate when I got home,” Jon admitted.
“I got it. I was just never comfortable talking about it. I’ve been the one to tell Cindy several times over the last couple years that if things ever got really bad to come to the chalet. Even if they have to walk there. I’m not sure our son-in-law gets it either, but I think Cindy does.
Jon grinned, as bad as things were. He never called the cabin the chalet. The stupid thing was as dated as could be by the architecture. The stupid thing looked like an old Dairy Queen from his youth. When his parents were alive it was considered stylish.
“LA is going to be a jungle,” he decided, dreading the vision.
“Not for long,” Jenny said. “The fire hydrants won’t work either.”
Nobody stopped them. The local police were too busy with other matters to stop an agency registered truck driving legally and carefully down the expressway through their jurisdiction. If they were a problem they would be somebody else’s problem soon.