As I pulled the truck up to the Jersey barriers blockading the dam, a searchlight blazed to life and trained on the cab. A voice from behind the searchlight exhorted us to stop where we were, and provide an accounting of our business. I rolled the window down to call out into the darkness.
“I’m Oly, part of a downed ambulance crew from Swedish American Medical Hospital. We’re willing to offer medical assistance as needed.”
The voice was silent for a beat, then retorted in a desultory tone, “Yeah, nice cover, ‘Bed, Bath, and Beyond.’ Better turn around and take your ‘Linens n’ Things’ ass elsewhere, fuckin’ Egyptian cotton ‘Pottery Barn’ bullshitters.”
I stammered for a moment, and the familiar sound of guns shifting impatiently suggested I take the path of least resistance. Flummoxed, I shifted the truck into reverse and began a 13-point turn, simultaneously ejecting our mechanical dog from the cab in the deep shadow of the backlit truck to reconnoiter. Taking pains to grind gears and swear creatively in the execution of this turnabout, I noted a figure swathed in the corona of the searchlight approaching from behind the barriers. The figure materialized at my window, affecting the bemused grimace favored by drill sergeants and schoolmarms. He signaled to me to slow my roll.
“Hold on here,” he grunted, “maybe we’re jumping the gun.” I noted with admiration that he resisted the lowest-common-denominator urge to render his observation into a pun by punctuating “jumping the gun” with a nod to his firearm. Here was a professional. I leaned my arm 2.0 out the window ostensibly to crane my ear in his direction, concomitantly putting my most eligible weapon between him and me. “Name’s Felix. You say you’re a medical team? Do you have a doctor?”
I indicated my copilot, the Doctor. “Yeah! This guy’s an ace doctor! Maybe you recognize him from TV spots?” Our interlocutor shrugged that he had not. I felt the Doc deflate slightly next to me, and made a mental note to address this affront to his self-esteem before it had a chance to fester. “Well, he’s a doctor, and this is Marcus, a technician.” Felix leaned closer to the window to peer at Marcus, who approximated a salute from his position of partial repose in the low-slung bunk. My comm crackled to life as the airborne portion of our cadre advised a range of measures from caution to murder.
Felix asked to see our badges, to ascertain our status as EMT’s. I strangled the first syllable of the iconic line from Treasure of the Sierra Madre, replying instead in the basic affirmative. It sounded like this: “Badg…buh…Yeah.”
He inspected my and Marcus’s ID cards; the Doctor shrugged meaningfully, which nonetheless seemed to satisfy Felix. “Alright, you boys can leave the truck here, and come inside.” We disembarked the semi containing our Artificial Invalid, to the sound of our cohort back in the ambulance shrilling about leaving Sun Tsu unattended. Marcus discreetly recalled the dog to sit and stay guard. We followed Felix toward the dam offices. He turned to address us once more, “I hope you don’t mind; I’ll have to ask that you let us hang on to your weapons.” I winced as my comm, the volume already at its lowest setting, clipped and squealed a garbled series of invectives from Marge.
“Sure,” I grimaced, compensating perhaps a little too loudly. I entrusted my SMG to a nameless associate of Felix; Marcus and the Doc followed suit with varying degrees of alacrity. I devised from the Doc’s placid countenance—in contrast to Marcus’ and my strained expressions, that at least one member of the team had disengaged his comm. Felix ushered the three of us into the spartan administrative warren of the Lower Baker River Dam. He offered us a place to sleep, a conference room cum dormitory complete with cots. I gently suggested that Marcus, prone to night terrors, would probably be better off in the bunk of the semi. I assumed this would placate the restless remote squad in the ambulance. Marcus shot me a look that was, in turns, dejected, conspiratorial, and resolute. Thatta boy. He saw which way the gears were spinning.
I asked Felix for a sandwich, to determine the resources of our new mandatory rest stop, and to make conversation. He asked, “How much do you know about what’s going on?” I told the entire truth, i.e. that I’d been on an ambulance when the bombs hit, and noted that the bombs seemed clustered over major cities and suburbs. He frowned at what was certainly old information, but he had to know he was fishing pretty sparse waters. Not many people knew anything about what was happening, with the possible exception of a mildly racist caricature stored in the back of a truck 20 yards away. He intimated, “I’m the chief engineer of this and the Upper Baker dams. The guys outside are utility workers, but they can form a civil guard”—I heard ‘militia’—“as well as anyone. We’ve had to chase off some opportunists, but mostly we just keep the dam pumping power to Concrete. Not sure if anyone further down the pipes is getting it, but ten to one that if they are getting it, they’d miss it if we let the fires die.” I was distracted while attempted to gather clues about the facility, but noted that it was my turn to speak, so I intoned an old proverb about hard work. Felix was nonplussed, and generously pretended he didn’t hear. He led me, nutritionally sated, and informationally tantalized, back to the room. As he closed the door, he bid us good night, and pointedly reminded us “Dams are complex instruments. Don’t wander around. Goodnight.”
The night passed without incident, from my perspective. In the morning, the susurration associated with a nearby dam was joined by the general din of breakfast occurring in a nearby room. I roused myself and the Doc, and wandered down the hall toward the smell of coffee. There was a brief and unsatisfying social exchange, the details of which I won’t record here. Engineers are very…efficient people, with little patience for jocularity.
Felix arrived, and invited my cohort to join him in an idling Subaru. He quipped that a stray dog made life interesting for his guards overnight, but that it seemed to have bonded with our third team member. Chagrined, I apologetically observed that sometimes you forget to mention all the equipment you bring with you. Marcus huffed from behind my left shoulder…another affront for which to make later penance. Felix shrugged, implying the omission was of no consequence, and I glanced over to see three guards making merry around the dog, who was yipping unnervingly and wagging its tail. We got into the Subaru, amid a new (probably well-founded) bout of objections from Marge. Before I switched off my comm, I heard her say something about having control over all their defenses. My heart briefly turned to ice before the soothing sounds of John Denver spewing from the radio and Felix’s uncharacteristically warm tour of the town of Concrete relaxed me once more.
We arrived at a greasy spoon, where we were welcomed by a plump server named Doreen. She showed us to a table, “Felix’s usual,” already laden with coffee, eggs, pancakes, toast, and hashbrowns, similarly “Felix’s usual.” Observing Doreen’s familiarity, I wondered momentarily about Felix’s sexual proclivities, but reminded myself I was once more in a small town, and everybody was probably fucking everybody and it didn’t matter a Tinker’s damn. I then bestowed my attention on a mountain of Belgian waffles before me, while a new figure, self-effacing but authoritative in a blue hoodie, addressed us between bites of eggs benedict. He was the duly-elected mayor of Concrete, and gave us a more nuts-and-bolts version of how the town worked to complement Felix’s earlier travelogue. We were, it seemed, the answer to a prayer. The previous medical professionals worthy of the name had been called away during the aftermath, and hadn’t returned. If we were willing to stay in town and help out wherever possible, our needs would be provided for, including food, shelter, companionship, and power for our truck. I’d earlier explained that the truck held a server farm containing volumes of data germane to life after nuclear holocausts, etc. As you can imagine, this was done while my comm was threatening to melt under the intensity of Marge’s ire. I’d explained that the truck was our early attempt at having something useful (knowledge is power, it’s great to learn, etc). The mayor, Judd, and our host, Felix, were both satisfied that we could hook up our truck if we were willing to contribute to the day-to-day happenings in the town. Already on the hook, but pretending reticence, I asked if we could try to contact the estranged portion of our ambulance crew, with whom we had parted ways over a dispute regarding “women’s issues.” (comm: “WHY YOU MOTHERFUCKER”)
With negotiations complete and our immediate and future needs addressed, we began the trek back to the dam. Marcus pantomimed a laborious attempt to contact our long lost brothers-in-arms, and instructed them to rejoin us.
End of log.