Author: Paul Cesarini

“I hate them. I hate them so fucking much,” she said, looking through her rangefinder. She had been there on the roof of the house – or what was left of it – for most of the night. She was tired, hungry, and grubby, but this was no different than any other night. She reached into her pack, pulled out a small object wrapped in a rag, unwrapped it, and snapped off a piece from a hard, rectangular bar. She turned to the woman next to her, also crouched down on the roof, wearing the same tactical uniform as she did, and motioned for her to take it. That person paused, looked at it, and nodded negatively.

“I’m not eating that crap.”

“Why the hell not? It’s all we got and all we’re likely to get for the next two days.” She motioned for her to take it again.

“It’s like eating bark.”

“Would you rather eat bark or not eat at all?”

“Fine,” she said, taking the piece and reluctantly popping it into her mouth. Lt. Adams had always been a picky eater growing up. That was a whole different world back then, she thought, chewing on the dense, chalky ration. Back then, she turned up her nose at the slightest perceived issue with whatever meal was in front of her. It didn’t matter if it was made by her Dad (who was, admittedly, a pretty good cook) or Nana or at a restaurant. She would inspect it skeptically first, using her fork or whatever utensil was available to probe parts of it, looking for anything unfamiliar or yucky.

She remembered how Nana would always try to hide healthy things in every meal she made. She’d make lasagna that had ground-up mushrooms, carrots, onions, and other vegetables in it. She’d grind them all up real small, almost a puree, hoping Kelly and her little brother Mikey would notice or taste the difference. Kelly always could, then she’d promptly notify Mikey, pointing out the offending vegetables in various areas on his plate.

Pizza was the worst. Her dad would sometimes have huge chunks of tomatoes on it. He said they were diced but they clearly weren’t. Sometimes he would even put pineapple and ham on it. What kid would eat that? What kid would eat those burgers he would make – the ones with all the garlic and onions in them? Nana would tell them there were starving kids halfway across the world somewhere who would love to have a meal as good as this.

Each time, she would just push her plate away, fold her arms, and stare off across the room at the big clock her Dad made. Each time, she would refuse to eat meals, good meals, made by people who loved her. Now, she’d trample someone without a thought if it meant she could have another piece of Nana’s lasagna. A whole different world.

She motioned with her hand to have another piece of the ration. “Hand me the binos, too,” she said.

“Oh, so now you’re ok with eating these?”

“No. Definitely not ok with it. But…” she motioned again.

Captain Tomaz handed her another chunk of the brittle, tasteless ration, along with the binoculars. Adams had only recently joined her unit but seemed reliable enough, she thought. Most of her unit was new, formed out of remnants of other ones decimated by the initial wave. Adams, and others like her, were barely trained for this. They came from Logistics, Analytics, and the supply depots. Hell, at least two came directly from a mess hall. They came from anywhere and everywhere – particularly once the coasts fell and we were pushed with our backs up against the Rockies on one side and the Appalachians on the other. They all stood up when it looked like we were screwed, she thought. We still might be screwed. That fight in Lansing definitely did not go our way, she thought.

The last eight months had been different, she thought. We tricked those fuckers into thinking they were worse off than they really were, got into their command codes (somehow!) then started working around the edges when they got complacent. A chunk of them were dead or deactivated now, including almost all of that goddamn Nightmare Scythe airborne wing. That thing was fucking terrifying. Watching it finally drop out of the sky was nothing less than exhilarating.

Who would’ve thought the big battles – the decisive ones – would be in the Midwest? All those comics she read as a kid had aliens invading New York, zombies attacking LA, and stuff like that. Nothing ever happened here in the comics. No one ever attacked Aurora, Illinois, or Bowling Green, Ohio. Or any of the other Bowling Greens, she thought. The Midwest was one of the only places to go after they hit both coasts and wiped out our Navy. Even then, it wasn’t ever really safe. Some of the most horrible shit she’d ever seen was in Columbus, in Fort Wayne. In Hersey. That fight in Chillicothe – against that gruesome fucking Mobile Garroting Unit or whatever the hell it was – was just plain evil. It was her and two other units down there, helping get a bunch of Amish families to safety. (Or, was it Mennonite, she thought? She never could remember the difference.) They were on schedule, mostly, until what seemed like the whole world exploded. Fire and ash were everywhere. We could barely breathe or see, then they were on us. These were once manufacturing robots, like for auto parts and stuff, repurposed and rebuilt. They were retrofitted with armor, giant batteries, and solar panels harvested from the former factories they worked in. They waded through us like we weren’t even there.

Now it’s our turn, she thought, smiling slightly as she chewed her rations.