Curtis skirted the yurt, eying it warily. It was set back from the road and surrounded by a defensive wall and Curtis could see a wellhead, watering troughs and hints of outlying buildings. Goat herders, some outpost of a main camp which was, no doubt, further down the Luray Valley. It was noon so the men were out somewhere along the rocky paths but there’d be kids and women and all of them were armed and loud and would not take kindly to his appearance—white guy, slung rifle, clean shaven and wearing a ball cap, therefore infidel, therefore enemy. Jihad was an old fashioned concept, but, out here in the mountains, some of the clans kept old ways and the opportunity to strike in the name of Allah was a rare gift. Curtis just might be somebody’s Christmas.
He chuckled at that. Christmas. The word alone would guarantee a beheading—that is, if anyone even knew what it meant anymore. He was pretty sure he was one of the last people on Earth who did. He could march right up to the wall and shout “Merry Christmas!” at the top of his voice and they’d just stare at him. Then shoot him, but not for offending Allah.
No, just for being Curtis.
Right on cue, a couple of kids, robes flying, ran jabbering up to the wall, pointing and looking frantically back at the yurt. After all this time, Curtis could still only pick up a phrase or two, no head for languages, but he was, obviously, the subject of discussion. Two or three full burka’d women came out on the platform, rifles ready, and jabbered at the kids and it turned into a jabber fest. Curtis kept to the opposite shoulder, his head down, staying away from his own rifle and it dawned pretty quickly on the women he was no threat. They silenced the kids and it now became a stare fest. Yes, take an eyeful, a broken, gray haired trudging white man, the last one you’ll ever see. Something to discuss around the goat pull tonight.
If they’d known him, they’d just shoot. Family honors avenged, dead relatives put to rest. Curtis doubted very much any family he’d decimated years ago in the Hindu Kush had made it over here, but they’d be happy to claim a flimsy kinship if shooting him settled a wandering ghost. But he looked so harmless. Now.
Not then. Curtis, Lieutenant, trim and deadly in a flight suit, standing on the deck of the USS Ronald Reagan, eying the ancient F-18 with some jaundice. “You sure it’ll fly?”
The Master Chief spat tobacco (tobacco!) over the side of the carrier, an amazing feat given the distance and wind, eying Junior Pilot Curtis with equal jaundicity. “It’ll fly. It’s virgin.”
“All original parts. Never been rebuilt. Last of its kind. Don’t break it.”
“You do know I’m going on a bombing run.”
The Master chewed some deeper cud. “You break it, your next run’s in a Sopwith Camel.”
Curtis laughed and mounted and fired it up and, oh, so sweet, the speed and maneuverability and perfection of target acquisition and aim, even with unreliable satellites, and he made unnecessary passes over the burning village just to feel the beauty of it, marvel at it. Man, the old days, when an F-18 was so common it was cannon fodder and the real pilots, in Granpap’s time, flew 16s and 14s and the Air Force had those wondrous 15s. What he’d give to pull one out of a museum and do this. But he must content himself, because there just weren’t enough still flyable.
“You’re going into fighters,” his instructor at Pensacola had said and Curtis had thrilled.
“Spads?” he’d asked.
The instructor, Clemmons, yeah, that was him, had smiled. “No. Jets.” And Curtis almost fainted dead away. Jets! He knew he had the Right Stuff, that rare element of reflex and decision and control that qualified for the top tier of warcraft—those fast, maneuverable, heavily armed, propeller driven A1s—which meant he’d be off Houston on border patrol and see plenty of action, but jets! That was like selection for astronaut training, back when there’d been astronauts.
But it also meant the Third Afghan War.
The First had been the routing of the Taliban after 9/11, justified, and the Second was due to the nuclear exchange between Taliban-run Islamabad and Western ally New Delhi, so, also justified, and the Third, well, just because, and it was an excellent way to get yourself killed, flying clunky, cannibalized death trap F-4s or, in Curtis’s rare case, treasured F-18s (also cannibalized, but with greater care) and it was a worrisome trade-off. “Let’s have a kid,” he’d said, that last night to Becky, as she slipped her fine, white, tight body out of the bed and into her own flight suit (C-130s, poor girl) because a sense of his own mortality had come upon him. She’d snorted “Get real” and left and was brought down the next day by a drug lord’s Red Eye, not enough of her to scrape together for a decent burial.
After eradicating the Taliban hellhole, Curtis had cruised back at supersonic speed, his heart singing, the burning village a screensaver, to find the Reagan heavily engaged with a Chinese fleet that had snuck up the coast (radar so unreliable anymore) and he was out of ordnance and had to land and somehow, somehow, was rearmed and back out and dropped torpedoes on the destroyers and battleships, surprising the bejesus out of Chinese admirals who were pretty sure all those sleek, fast, used-to-be-good American jets were rare enough they constituted no more threat. Right Stuff, Mao, Right Stuff.
There were bells and bleats from across the road and Curtis saw a rather large herd of goats crest a ridge overlooking the encampment. Two young men and an old one, dressed in robes, carrying long sticks with their rifles slung, ran among the goats, moving them rather casually along the path before they spotted their wives and children lined up and gazing at the slowly trudging Curtis. They froze, then the jabber fest began again, louder as they called across the stone walls to each other and the young men ran up opposite Carl and yelled, “You go! You go!” and Carl held his hands up placatingly and said, “I am," but they remained fierce. The old man cocked his weathered, leather-creased face and made a sharp command, the young ones shutting up but still looking combative. “Christian?” the old man asked Curtis.
The old man nodded. “Would you stay for meal?”
Curtis stopped, considered. “Lochay?”
The old man smiled. “Yes, lochay,” and he clapped his hands and repeated the word to the astonished young men who glared at Curtis but what could they do, sanctuary had been invoked and Curtis followed the old man to the yurt and slipped out of his backpack and rifle and allowed the women to wash his feet and dress him in a decent robe. So tired, so hungry, and he didn’t mind being on display tonight, the subject of much Pashtun discussion as he ate that delicious goat stew and the old man held court and gained much prestige for hosting the last of the enemy. The last.
Curtis had disembarked at San Diego, a shiny new Navy Cross on his chest and thirty days leave granted for that rare thing, an American hero, and he flew commercial to San Francisco. Maybe three or four people on the plane, and absolutely no one in the concourse. Eerie, and Curtis had looked about him nervously as he walked deserted hallways down to baggage, the only persons he saw a large tribe of obviously related people getting off a flight from Ethiopia and gathering at the check-in to sing and pray their happy deliverance to the New Lands, he supposed. Curtis had ignored their happy smiles and singing and waves at him and collected his bag and walked his empty way to the Hertz counter. Row on row of dusty cars and the one clerk on duty was genuinely surprised when he showed up, surprised and quite pleased.
“It is good, it is good!” He bobbed his bearded, sub-Saharan African face as he led Curtis up and down the rows offering incentives and discounts and upgrades.
“How long since you’ve had any customers?” Curtis asked.
“It has been moons, my young aviator friend, moons, and we are so pleased you have come that I am very happy to offer you this!” A flourished hand and there, a Cadillac CLS.
Curtis gasped. “How old is this thing?”
“Ah, my young heroic friend, it is not old, it is classic, and I will give it to you at a weekly rate normally reserved for those trashy cars,” and he waved a disdaining hand over the TaTas (wonder if the clerk knew how funny that was in English?) that filled the majority of the spaces. “It has been converted for propane, but,” and he gave a conspiratorial wink, “there is a switch under the dash for gasoline, and I actually can give you a tankful for a small price,” another wink, “so you can feel the true power of this beauty.”
Curtis had driven it off the lot and down the streets of empty San Francisco, row after row of boarded stores and townhouses, some sagging on their foundations, depressing him. Even more, the squatters, suddenly pouring out of a complex as he passed, the mobs of brown and black and robed children racing behind him shouting some desert ululation as their elders lined stoops and laughed and pointed. Then another ghost street, far more ghost streets than there were Moroccan mobs.
He drove the hills above Tiburon and, as usual, Granpap on the porch of his cabin, the eternal pipe in his mouth. How he still found a decent supply of tobacco, Curtis had no idea. Must be friends with the Chief. “Nice NC.” Granpap gestured at Curtis’ uniform.
“This old thing?” and he sat down and refused a pipe but accepted the glass of moonshine. “Good Gawd,” he choked the death juice down, to Granpap’s chuckle. They watched the sunset then the moon. “Didn’t expect the Chinese to show up,” Curtis finally offered an explanation.
“Umm,” Granpap tapped a cinder, “they shoulda all been engaged in the north, right? Not bothering with you pissant 'Muricans and your silly arguments with Islam. Why, they shoulda just left y'all alone, what with fighting the Uighers and all.”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” Curtis waved down the inevitable lecture on strategy and preparation and how things were so much better in Granpap's day. Which they were.
“So, what now?” Granpap asked.
“They want me to go on a recruiting tour.”
Granpap busted a gut on that one. “Recruit who? The Africans? The Bedouins roaming the Valley there?” He pointed down the mountain. “Maybe all the Afghans that are taking over the East Coast.”
“There’s still some Americans left.”
Granpap snorted. “White people who still believe in God and Country, that you mean?”
“Good luck with that. Good luck finding any white people, period. Might go look in the Appalachians. The hillbillies are still having kids.”
Birth rates. It all came down to birth rates and Curtis didn’t feel like another boring diatribe on his Duty to Population. “You could have had more yourself, old man.”
“Yeah, if I’d been a cheatin’ man. But Granmomma had all those girl problems. Lucky she had your dad, at that.”
“Well, then Dad should have.”
Granpap chuckled. “Not the zeitgeist. All that big family, Dad-in-charge and meek little wifey stuff died about the same time God did.”
During the weeks Mom had been reorganizing European companies while Dad was deployed to Iraq, Granpap came over with DVDs of old, old shows like Ozzy and Harriet and Father Knows Best and it had been like science fiction. “Why did it change?”
A moon-tinted shrug. “People got rich, got selfish. Lots of cash and cars and fun and investment in the present. Kids? An afterthought. Poor people, though, they invest in the future, so they push out kids. Lots of kids, hoping one or two of 'em will reach Paradise or Nirvana or whatever those people believe in.”
“And now they’re coming here.”
“Why not?” Granpap smacked the pipe and sparks flew upward. “Lots of open space. Always was, but now,” he laughed, “there’s open space everywhere. Japan’s pretty much empty, the Uighers moving on that after they finish off the Chinese, who’re regretting that ‘one-child’ policy now, I'll bet. The Chechens have got half the steppes and’ll have the other half before too long. England is an Islamic country now and, pretty soon, we will be, too.” He looked at Curtis. “Your services will no longer be required.”
Curtis was sent to DC to be a poster boy and make recruitment videos that were never mailed. He lived on an empty street in Rosslyn, the Syrian landlord so ecstatic to have a paying customer in an empty building that he paid for the utilities. Which were sporadic. “No one wants to live in the cities anymore,” the Syrian fumed. “They all want farms to raise goats. Goats! Have you heard of anything so backward?”
Curtis rented a plane to fly back and tend to Granpap in his final weeks, the airlines now so packed with immigrants you could barely get a seat. Or would want to. “A slow Apocalypse. Like the Celts, the Romans,” Granpap had wheezed from his oxygen tent, “the Aryans, too. Not that the Aryans were anything like those idiot Nazis said, but they’re gone.” And so was Granpap.
Curtis stayed. His Navy paychecks had stopped coming weeks before, and he was the only one showing up for work so he doubted he’d be missed. The cabin was self-sufficient and he lived there for years, until the Saudi lawyer and two of his enforcers came, traditional garb mixed with jeans and guns. “A Turkish family has successfully bid ownership.” The Saudi was almost apologetic.
“I inherited this place,” Curtis said. “I thought you people were big on inheritance.”
“The law is now different.” More apology.
“That’s not American. Not at all.”
The Saudi blinked at him. “What do you mean, that’s not American? Laws are American, especially when they change. And they’ll change, again. Don’t you see what’s happening?” The Saudi waved his hand over the place. “You ‘Americans’ forgot your purpose. The Turk and his family waiting for you to leave, they’re just discovering theirs. Right now, they cling to the old ways. Their children, though, are reading your history and admiring your patriots and their children, well, they’ll be Americans. Real ones. It’s an idea, you know, not a skin color. Or a religion. Please leave.”
Curtis took a backpack and started walking. The streets and towns were empty; the countryside was not. He would stay for months in a city, for months not seeing anyone except curious Egyptians or Somalians or whoever they were poking through the rubble, gasping in surprise whenever he appeared, sometimes running up to stare or, for the few crazies still left, to swing a sword at him. Those guys were usually suppressed by their companions, who would gabber and gesture Curtis away and he would move on because the crazies would come looking for him, some tribal memory of duty to Allah as spark. In the countryside he invoked lochay and would be feted, a novelty, other tribes coming from miles around to look at him. He told stories of the war through the increasingly rare interpreters, earning his keep, earning enmity, too, although lochay kept him safe, after a fashion.
He told the same stories to the old man and his family that night, the young men muttering and eying Curtis with bad intent but the kids settled in giggling, like they were hearing ancient tales of far away times and deeds and races long gone. The Iliad.
“You could stay.” The old man saw Curtis to the gate in the morning.
“No thanks.” Curtis accepted some dried meat and fruit and moved onto the road.
“So where are you going?” the old man called.
“There’s supposed to be some of my people left around Morgantown, at least that’s what I keep hearing.”
“Your people?” the old man started. “But we are your people now.”
Curtis stopped, considered that, then shook his head. “Not yet. But you will be.”
He headed north.