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From Chapter 21

The guards served us coffee in the morning. No breakfast, just a strong, slightly sweet brew. Jack and I sat on the mattress inside our death cell, sipped the coffee, and watched the two armed guards having their coffee and energy bars. The soldiers were young and carried themselves with pride. They carried short-barreled carbines and shock batons. The guards watched the computer screen above their heads. Other sanctuaries were broadcasting recorded concert music. Occasionally there was a transmitted live performance. This morning they were showing a recording of the movie Casablanca, an old-time classic.

In the middle of the movie, we had a visitor. Michael Stern came, accompanied by Lieutenant Moore. The two guards immediately snapped to attention.

"At ease," Moore commanded. "Mr. Stern is here to see the condemned. He's been through security check."

"Much obliged," Stern remarked.

"You have ten minutes," Monroe said. "Make the best of them." She moved back to the door and gave me a cold stare. I held her gaze and that seemed to piss her off. Stern walked up to the steel bars, and Jack and I stood up, our coffee forgotten. Stern gave us a careful look-over and sighed. "God, you two look like hell."

"You don't look too good either," Jack said after shaking his hand through the bars.

"How are you, Michael?" I said.

"Tired, Tanya. I'm tired and afraid. What've you gotten yourselves into?"

"What needed to be done," Jack commented. "But I'm glad you're not a part of it, or you'd be dead."

"Maybe," Stern said. "I wanted to see you one last time."

"I'm glad you came," I said. "You were our good friend and teacher."

"And you were one of my best students. Why'd you do it?"

Conscious of the limited time we had, I told him my reasons. He listened and looked deeply into my eyes. "I believe you." His eyes turned on Jack.

"Mr. Mitchell, you have a good woman by your side. You're meant to be together."

"Yes, we are," Jack said. "She's the best thing that's happened in my life. And we will die together."

Stern smiled grimly. "Maybe not. There's a small chance you can make it."

"Michael, they're going to hang us tomorrow," I said.

"No, they won't."

"What?" Jack grasped the iron bars tightly. "Don't tell me we're forgiven."

The older man sighed. "I persuaded General Pierce to spare you from the gallows and replace it by banishment to the surface. I know chances of survival there are slim, but it's better than nothing."

I raised an eyebrow. "You persuaded him? How'd you manage that?"

"I'm still one of Pierce's familiars. That's why you didn't confide with me about this coup despite our friendship. Well, I do have the general's ear. He may be cruel, but he's willing to listen. Please don't look at me like that. I was never an informant. Pierce and I have a lot in common. He respects my knowledge and experience, and he needs me. These are desperate times, my friends. Do you really think other sanctuaries are still governed by a democratic process? Think again."

I took a deep breath and let it out. "Michael, given the latest data from the drones and satellites, what are our chances? Can we survive out there in the wasteland?"

"You want practical advice? There are no rules up there; it's every man for himself. There'll be other survivors. They'll be hungry, desperate, and most likely hostile. Use common sense. Find some clothing and weapons. If possible, transportation. You heard about the free radiation zones, I presume?"

"Yes, but are they real?" Jack asked. "The whole planet is poisoned."

"The planet is more complicated than you know," Stern said. "But if you want to survive out there, you'll have to become stronger than you can ever imagine. There are things out there we cannot explain. If you live long enough, you might find out what it is. Now then, are you ready to take on what's left of civilization?"

"We can try," I said firmly. "We'll take this chance."

* * *

Captain Smith was in charge of the security detail that escorted us to the top level of the sanctuary. Surrounded by armed guards, Jack and I rode the open elevator platform designed to carry heavy loads. When the elevator reached the top level, we were ordered to get out. We were brought through the main subsurface tunnels into the vehicle repair and assembly area. Repair and welding crews were busy restoring the war machines. I noticed the massive armored behemoths that had greeted us at the entrance to Crystal Temple so long ago. The repair crews paid us no attention, but the security checkpoints were thorough. After what seemed to be a long journey, we ended up in front of the heavily armored doors.

"Look, they even got an honor guard for us," Jack commented at the sight of troopers clad in advanced antiradiation suits. There were six of them, all armed to the teeth. An armored personnel carrier loomed behind them, a tracked angular box bristling with weapons and sensors. One of the faceless "astronauts" jumped down from the armored car, approached us, and saluted.

"Sir," he said, "we're ready to transport the prisoners."

"At ease," Jack said with a grin. "Nice suit, mate. Who's your tailor?" The trooper ignored him.

Smith returned the salute. "Sergeant, you have your instructions."

The faceless man nodded and barked at his troops, "Secure the prisoners!"

With our hands still cuffed behind our backs, Jack and I were ushered into the armored vehicle. We shared the inner troop compartment with the soldiers whose expressions we couldn't see, but we were given plenty of pushes and shoves until everyone settled in. The back door closed, and I heard the engine growling. I didn't see the armored gates open. The armored car rolled forward, and soon the smooth concrete road leading to Crystal Temple was replaced by rough terrain. Jack and I sat and glared at the faceless soldiers around us. After what seemed to be an eternity, the armored car stopped, and we were ordered to get out. Under the watchful eyes and barrels of the carbines, our handcuffs were taken off. The soldiers got back inside the vehicle, and the faceless sergeant looked down at us from the hatch of the armored turret armed with an automatic cannon.

"Don't even think about returning," he growled, "or you'll be shot on sight."

With that, he slammed the hatch shut. The armored car growled, turned, and sped off back to Crystal Temple. Jack rubbed his wrists, and I did the same. The cuffs had been a bit too tight. We were all alone under the lead-colored sky obscured by thick, cumulous clouds. Far in the distance, silent lightning flashed, illuminating the distant ruins. I took a breath and adjusted the collar of my leather jacket. Our black jumpsuits had been taken from us, but we were allowed to take our own clothes. I wore the same clothes I had started with when I escaped our family's country house after my father's last fateful phone call. The air around us was not cold, maybe sixty degrees. We had avoided the worst of the nuclear winter. Unfortunately, the nuclear spring didn't look so promising.

"Free at last," Jack said and glanced at the sky. "It doesn't look like it's going to rain. I'd really hate to get wet." He turned his head in my direction. "You okay?"

"Just peachy," I replied. "What now?"

Jack took out his pocket watch and flipped open the lid. "Well, it's one in the afternoon. We must find shelter and food. Let's get moving."

"I'm surprised no one took your pocket watch," I said. "Why'd they let you keep it?"

"Condemned man's last request." Jack closed the lid of the pocket watch with a snap. "I don't suppose they let you keep your Swiss Army knife?"

I shook my head. "I gave it to Chris. Poor kid was devastated. We've lost some good friends, Jack. I'll miss them."

"Me, too. Well then, let's be off and may good fortune smile on us."

"Good bye, Crystal Temple. Hello, wasteland," I said.

We began our trek heading in a westerly direction. We didn't have any particular destination in mind. We had no dosimeters to tell us how much radiation our bodies would be absorbing. Death, invisible and silent, would be following us every step of the way. Stern said there was a slim chance we could survive. Whatever time we had, Jack and I would spend it together.

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