These highlights are from the Kindle version of One Year After by William R. Forstchen.

One Year After

The game of bureaucrats, a game he knew well from his time serving in the Pentagon, had attuned him to how power was played—and to wait hat in hand for a callback was an admission of subservience.

The road ahead was cleared, though scores of abandoned cars still littered the shoulder of the highway, nearly all of them looted of their tires, gas tanks pumped out, oil drained from engine blocks, and some of his own crews now scavenging the wiring from alternators. Medieval Romans tore up finished stones from the roadways, aqueducts, coliseums, and monuments of their ancient ancestors; modern Americans looted abandoned cars.

When first discovered in the early nineteenth century and for nearly forty years afterward, ether and nitrous oxide were not used for medical purposes, but instead for what could be called “stoner parties.” The “ether man” traveled from town to town with bottles of ether and tightly woven bags containing the nitrous oxide to be dispensed at two bits a whiff—a favorite form of entertainment.

Richard smiled, and whistling, he went over to the boiling pot, tossed in the instrument he had been using to probe John, and pulled out several others with tongs. John tried to look the other way as Richard pushed the foot-powered drill up alongside the chair and clamped a drill bit in. It was yet another reason why, before the Day, John would shake his head when folks waxed too enthusiastically about the alleged beauty of living in the nineteenth century. They never thought about medicine and sanitation, let alone dentistry.

After the Day, the library, the place where they hung out together as students, had become their permanent home when they set up an apartment in the basement. Friends familiar with the old Twilight Zone series joked that the couple reminded them of a famous episode starring Burgess Meredith in which a bookworm finds paradise in a library after a nuclear war.

The Day had taught all that electricity was the fundamental bedrock of their entire civilization, so ubiquitous that no one really fully grasped how crucial it was until it was gone.

A gut instinct suddenly kicked in; something didn’t feel right. Long ago, instructors in advanced infantry training had drilled into him that in combat, listen to gut instincts; chances were that something your conscious thinking had not even registered—the faint crack of a broken branch, a barely detected scent on the air, just a feeling that something wasn’t right—was screaming at you to react.

He flashed back to his nightmare experience of POW training as a green second lieutenant during a time when outright physical abuse was an accepted part of the program. Even though all knew they were in Fort Bragg, North Carolina, more than a few cracked under the torment. He limped out of that training with a sprained ankle, one eye swollen shut, and a cracked rib when he had attempted an escape, which all were expected to try. He had run afoul of a Green Beret “guard,” whom he had at least had the pleasure of kicking in the groin, which triggered the “guards” into giving him some payback. Try never to show pain, don’t show fear—it had been drilled into him then.

“Look, Sergeant. You want to shoot me or hang me, then just do it and get it over with. So let’s cut the crap. It’s your call,” John snapped back, knowing that Burnett had every right to be bitter, and making an appeal for mercy would fall on deaf ears.

“A helluva shitty world we’ve been handed, Matherson. Makes Afghanistan look like paradise. It’s what America is sinking into now, Colonel. Think about it. America, the new Afghanistan.”

You officer types maybe read Machiavelli; you’d be surprised how many of us waiting it out in barracks read some of the same shit. Machiavelli said a prince had to transcend traditional morality for the greater good of those he led.”

In a surprise move that is triggering comment around the world, the United States administration in Bluemont, Virginia, just announced less than an hour ago that it will release an undisclosed number of tactical nuclear weapons, commonly known as neutron bombs, for use against, and I quote, “indigenous groups in rebellion against the authority of the federal government within the continental United States.”

Colonel Peter Ramsey, professor of strategic warfare studies at Sandhurst, was reached by this reporter for clarification as to the nature and use of so-called neutron bombs. He explained that they are low-yield nuclear weapons developed during the 1970s for tactical battlefield use and are by no means to be confused with the type of weapons used two years ago to trigger electromagnetic pulses. A neutron bomb is designed, at the instant of detonation, to release a highly lethal dose of radiation out to a very limited distance but with a very low blast area, damaging buildings only within several hundred yards of the point of detonation. The high radiation yield, however, can kill out to a mile or more, often within minutes. It is a weapon designed to kill but not physically destroy urban areas, and the federal government is threatening to use them in light of its frustration in suppressing rebellions in nearly every major city.

Every major city in America is down, most of them abandoned wastelands, those left controlled by ruthless mobs like those you call reivers. More than fifty thousand of them control Chicago and have declared a dictatorship under some whack job who calls himself ‘the Great.’ The prisoners he takes? The lucky ones get thrown off the top of the old Sears Tower. The rest he crucifies along the shores of Lake Michigan.

“An enemy on the field of action, it is kill or be killed, and that was Burnett and me just several weeks past. But then the next rule comes in, and in a more civilized age, most nations actually signed treaties that they would obey this. A wounded soldier no longer in action was out of the fight. He was not to be fired on. If captured, he was to receive the same medical treatment as one of your own. Some thought it was a paradox—try to kill him, then patch him up. But some saw it as at least trying to be civilized in the madness of war, to lessen its horrors, and I for one believed in it. I remember seeing a video on the computer, shortly before the Day, of one of our medics being hit by a sniper, wounded but still able to do his job. Minutes later, a couple of our troops dragged in the sniper who had hit the medic, and you know what he did?” “Oh, let me guess,” Dale retorted sarcastically. “He patched him up.”

“Better get back from the window, John,” Maury said, pointing to the northeast where the two Apaches had leveled off and were now coming back in. And then, for a chilling instant, John’s eyes were blinded by the distinctive red sparkle of a laser sight. He dived for the floor and scurried to the back of the room. If these choppers were equipped with the facial recognition technology rumored to be in development before the Day, they would have just painted him with that laser, and within seconds, the computer—if indeed such were on board and loaded with his profile and pictures—would have come back with a positive ID, and this building and all in it would be dead. There was no telling what high-tech equipment positioned in the Middle East on the Day had survived to now be used here.

“My first tour of duty was guarding the approach out of New York City. My unit was down in Hoboken with orders to shoot anyone trying to get across the river.” “What?” She gazed at him and shook her head. “Didn’t you hear, sir? Plague, ebola—you name it—was rampant on the other side of the river. Rumor was there was still a hundred thousand or so living in the wreckage. It was medieval, the way the city was still burning. Hard to believe anything could still be found to burn. Those trying to get out we were ordered to shoot on sight.”

The entire unit is recruits from Jersey. I did start to wonder about that, why were they shipping us here and taking recruits from down here and shipping them up north.” “Standard routine, Deirdre. Never set one’s own people against their neighbors and kin. Tell them the other side is different and hates you. They were going to take a hundred or so from my community and offered me the job of major general.”

Only a little over five thousand civilians were still alive in Asheville proper, and John had won most of them over with a most simple gesture. The ANR troops had over one hundred thousand rations stockpiled, and John decided they would be divided evenly between his community and Asheville. The following day, after the storming of the courthouse complex, a delegation had come to Black Mountain seeking John out with the request that, during the current crisis and until things were “straightened out,” he and the citizens of Black Mountain would consider a “consolidation.”

“I don’t know who you really are, John Matherson,” the reporter concluded, “though there have been rumors of folks like you trying to reestablish order in spite of what is claimed to be the central government. But I can tell you this: either you take Bluemont out, or they will take you out—and in the process perhaps retrigger a nuclear war that will burn off the rest of this insane world.”

By midnight, there was a near consensus to have a charter drawn up for the various representatives to sign, and for the moment, John would be tasked as an emergency commander, but any actions regarding life or limb of a citizen or relations with communities outside their own would be referred to a council made up of representatives from each of the communities. The establishment of an actual elected government was then brought up, and it was decided that, this time, they would indeed take a census of all those over eighteen, identifications would be issued, and in one month’s time, elections would be held for all posts.

“Maybe there’ll be a painting some day, like the one of the signing of the Declaration of Independence.”