These highlights are from the Kindle version of The Final Day by William R. Forstchen.

The Final Day

Only a few years back, the line had become that twenty-five was the new eighteen. Most kids were expected to go to college, get a degree, start their first job on the career ladder, date for a while, at last find the right partner, settle down, and around twenty-eight to thirty finally start a family. It was again like the world at the time of the Civil War—to marry at sixteen, seventeen. An unmarried girl at twenty-one was seen as already becoming an old maid.

The old guy had most likely spent many a night kicking himself with that memory of all the computers he had once owned and then thrown out rather than storing away. Again, the throwaway society before the Day. At least some of the old-time ham radio operators had hung on to those precious devices and had them stashed away “just in case.” Some even took pride in the niche hobby of actually operating old ham radios with vacuum tubes rather than “newfangled transistors.”

Then the long years of what was called a Cold War, civilized nations ready to unleash a thousand such flashes of light over their enemies, no one realizing at first that when they created those first such bombs, it was not the blast, the fire as hot as the heart of the sun, that could destroy; it was something subtle, a mere microsecond of a massive gamma ray burst ignited out in space, that as it raced to the earth’s surface at the speed of light would free off electrons in the upper atmosphere’s oxygen and nitrogen—and as it did so building up to an overwhelming static discharge that could cripple the greatest nation in the history of humanity and leave 90 percent of its citizens dead two years later.

No nuclear blast had leveled what was once said to be the pulsing heart of the Western world… just quietly turn off the switch, and in an instant, it was as uninhabitable as Antarctica or the searing Gobi Desert… its once fertile lands that had greeted Henry Hudson and Peter Stuyvesant long paved over—except for Central Park, where it was rumored that feral dogs, once tamed and loving golden retrievers and spaniels, had been wiped out, replaced by breeds of mongrels who again hunted in packs and would kill anything, including a man foolish enough to wander into that overgrown forest.

Increasingly scarce was .22 ammunition so that it was hardly on the trading market anymore, worth far more per round than the rabbit or squirrel it could put on the table. The weapons to be valued for hunting were the old flintlock rifles, once the realm of history buffs, reenactors, and muzzle-loading hunters. Lead salvaged from dead car batteries and saltpeter from manure pits provided two of the ingredients. Sulfur came from the old resort spa of Sulfur Springs down in Rutherford County, which long ago had provided the crucial element for gunpowder manufacturing from the colonial period and the Civil War.

There was even talk of scrounging up enough bronze or brass to make several small cannons for defense, a strange thought given the town had endured air attacks from Apache helicopters and now had a precious Black Hawk in their possession, a world of retro weaponry mixed with surviving remnants of a prior age.

As to the regular army prisoners, especially the helicopter crews that had slaughtered many in Forrest Burnett’s community, there had been outright calls to execute them. But John had had enough of executions, even though many—especially Forrest’s community, which had endured the atrocity of being strafed by the pilot—cried for blood. In the end, John ordered them banished, pushed to the far side of the barrier on Interstate 40 at the top of the mountain and told to start walking. Chances they would survive a week were nil, and it was decided by all that the punishment was just.

The fire within the stove was now crackling hot, radiating warmth. He remembered an old favorite author who wrote on Americana, Eric Sloane, his works filled with wonderful detailed sketches of life long ago, stating that a wood fire heated you twice—from the labor it took to cut, split, stack, and haul the wood and again when it finally burned as it now did before him.

There was no jail in the town, except for an overnight lockup for the occasional drunk and disorderly. In such a time, to punish someone by locking them up in a warm jail, feeding them, and then having to feed and compensate someone to watch over the offender was absurd. An infraction of stealing other than while mobilized for military service resulted in a civil court. If the theft was not crucial to the survival of a family or the entire community, the standard punishment had finally become a sentence to labor in the communal farmlands. Thus it was for that looter in search of a stash of gold or silver, who labored for a month and then disappeared the night his sentence was completed.

A supreme irony was for all those who had secured their precious metals in bank vault safe-deposit boxes. With the failure of electricity, the vaults were automatically locked, sealed as tightly as some long-lost ancient tomb, owners of what some claimed were hundreds of ounces of gold only able to stand outside the empty buildings and stare forlornly.

Etiquette was never to ask people if they had a secret stash of some precious item like chocolate, honey, coffee, or cigarettes. One waited to be offered.

The Saturday-night bath was again a nineteenth-century ritual of heating water on the stove and standing in an old washtub, soap again a mixture of lard and wood ash and crushed mint leaves to at least create some kind of pleasant scent.

Why would he mention H. G. Wells’s epitaph? John wondered. He had read Wells as a kid, but all he could remember was The War of the Worlds and an old movie, Shape of Things to Come, Wells wrote the script for back in the 1930s predicting the coming of World War II.

In the midst of death, life was again trying to reassert itself. The historian in him knew such was true; after every brutal annihilating war, the primal instinct was to repopulate, to replace with a new generation all those who had been lost.

“Moore’s law, named after one of the founders of Intel back in the 1960s, postulated that computing power as defined by the number of transistors per square inch will double in a very rapid progression. It meant that computing power, speed of calculations, storage, all of it will increase at a geometric progression, while at the same time cost per unit such as a hard drive for example will plummet. That Apple IIe we first brought online had around 64K, not megabytes or gigabytes, but 64 kilobytes’ worth of chips in it for around three thousand dollars of 1980s money. Eight years later, it was obsolete and thus wound up in the basement down here, and I bet in Black Mountain alone we could find a couple of hundred of them not plugged in on the day things hit the fan and therefore perhaps still viable. Imagine if we had two hundred of your old clinker Edsels. Unlike computers, they were run and resold until finally just junked. Not so with computers, and that is what has Ernie and me fired up.

“No chain is stronger than its weakest link. No data is foolproof. Turing built a system from scratch and was able to break down the German codes, looking for patterns of usage coming from those German Enigma machines that supposedly could be programmed to create billions of variables and thus thought to be uncrackable. Come on, historian, how did we figure out the Japanese were going to hit us at Midway in June 1942?”

We were picking up radio chatter about a ‘Target X,’ indicating the Japanese were preparing for a massive naval strike. One of the cryptanalyst guys at Pearl Harbor came up with the idea of Midway Island sending out a report that their desalinization plant to provide fresh water on the island was off-line and they were desperate, the message to be sent via a code we knew the Japanese had already cracked. “The message was sent, and only hours later, radio traffic from Japan was monitored that extra desalinization equipment would have to be shipped to Target X once taken. Bingo—we knew where their next offensive would hit; we had our carriers waiting to receive them and wiped out their carriers in a surprise counterstrike. It is a textbook example of code breaking changing the course of a war.”

“History, John. It has always been thus. Take the veneer of civilization off, a major power receives a visceral blow and totters. Nature abhors a vacuum. Amazing—the years of political correctness pumped out in our colleges became an education of national guilt. Some out there along the West Coast actually say we deserved what we got for our past sins and welcomed a chance to try out socialism. Just feed us, and we’ll get along with whoever is in charge.”

You most likely know that every major city of a quarter million or more east of the Mississippi is gone—a twisted, burned-out, perverted wasteland. They just were not sustainable without modern technology. That and all social order broke down within a matter of days.

I have a strong sense of faith, John. Your reason for coming here so many years ago was motivated by a tragedy, the illness and impending death of your wife and a place to raise your girls after she was gone. But as I look at it now, I feel you were led here by God for a higher purpose.”

As they climbed out of the jeep, John looked around with envy. Ernie had a full workshop in the basement garage, and not just the workshop of a casual handyman. There was arc-welding equipment, tool-and-die-making equipment, and a hoist for pulling an engine block out of a vehicle, and lining one wall were boxes of unopened rations.

We’ve lost so much, he realized, but then again, maybe we are learning again about the simple gifts of still being alive.

Both he and Bob had been taught a code of honor when it came to their own dead. Not even a body was ever to be left behind, no matter what the cost of retrieving it.

“During the war,” Maury interjected again, “I mean the Second World War, it was found that some bored sailor on a U-boat was playing chess via Enigma with a friend back at naval headquarters. ‘Queen pawn to queen pawn four’ type stuff.”

“Well, it was stupid, but when the pattern was realized, people at Bletchley Park were decoding it and then transferring that knowledge to important stuff, even while they were laughing about how the guy back at headquarters was a lousy player and placing bets as to who would win.”

Does Wallops Island, Virginia, sound familiar, General?” “Nice beaches. Camped there years ago.”

The sergeant’s trim but muscular build, ramrod-straight posture, and demeanor was a giveaway to John. The ceremonial guard was one of the most exacting assignments in the military. It was not just the very public task of standing guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier but also for all military funerals and beyond that any ceremonial event requiring military presence in D.C. itself. Behind the scenes, it was also a highly efficient combat force, one of the top ready reaction forces inside the beltway.

It seemed he had aged ten years in the past two. His hair, cut short, had gone nearly entirely gray; the rough stubble of a beard actually was looking white, his features gaunt, eyes a bit sunken, complexion sallow. It was the look of his world, again reminding him of photographs of long ago, the aged and chiseled features of boys in their early twenties after a couple of years with the Army of the Potomac, having survived Antietam and Gettysburg and all wars since.

“Site R was built back in the early 1950s,” Bob began, and John smiled. It was almost like the start of one of his lectures delivered at the War College. “It was built as the fallback position for the Pentagon and civilian government in case of nuclear war. At the time it was built, the thinking was that the commies”—he paused with an ironic smile—“excuse me, I mean our good friends the Russians, if they launched an attack, it would come in with bombers, and we’d have six to eight hours’ advance warning. So the military decided they needed a bunker, a damn big bunker to house upward of twenty-five thousand personnel. It had to be far enough away from D.C. not to be caught in the blast radius of a twenty-megaton warhead and the resulting fallout, but close enough that it could be reached by ground within two hours, by air within twenty minutes.

“Thus Site R. That’s why a modern four-lane highway was built from D.C. to Frederick, Maryland, back in the 1950s. Convenient as well that, with Eisenhower as president, it was damn near in his backyard with his farm just down there on the other side of Seminary Ridge. Whenever things were looking hairy, Ike could always just go to his farm for a while without triggering a panic and be just a few minutes away from the biggest shelter in the country.

“Legend is that he cried out, ‘Men of Maine,’ and then went on to proclaim that perhaps only once in a century were so few men gifted to hold such responsibility, that whether their Republic lived or died now rested in their hands and their hands alone and let each man embrace that duty, if need be with his life. “Maybe that is us this day,” Bob said. “The Republic might rest in our hands before this day is out.”

John caught bits of the Ninety-First Psalm, what many called the soldier’s psalm, “Thou shall not be afraid for the terror by night; nor the arrow that flieth by day. Nor the pestilence that walketh in darkness, nor the destruction that wasteth by noonday…”

“What doesn’t happen in front of CNN never happened,” John said softly. It was a bit of advice John remembered being spread among the troops just before going into Iraq. Of course there were rules of engagement with his army. But there was also the fundamental fact that war ultimately was and is the application of brutality, and if it saved the lives of men under one’s command, all bets were off, at least if CNN wasn’t there.

“For enlisted personnel, their oath includes that they are only required to obey orders that are lawful and are held morally and even legally accountable if the order is immoral or violates the military code of justice and/or the Constitution. That became important post-Vietnam, after the Mỹ Lai Massacre.

“I spoke to a woman who said her husband claimed that a select few knew something was coming but assumed it would be just a nuclear strike on D.C., and I would guess maybe New York.” John wearily shook his head. “Just D.C. and New York,” John whispered again. “Just ten to fifteen million dead. My God, what kind of mentality thinks such a loss would be a small number and that would reset the political paradigm in their favor.”

“I must add that I believe that some, for perverted reasons, saw this as a means of seizing power, no matter what the ebb and flow of politics, fearing perhaps they would soon be voted out of office. And the sickest crime of all is that—to paraphrase Milton, who in Paradise Lost once wrote of Satan—they felt it was better to reign in the hell they created than to serve in heaven.

As for those who once ruled from Bluemont, some had indeed met their fate at the hands of angry mobs that eventually stormed the facility while their “Praetorian Guard” had shown the wisdom of standing aside, in the same way the original Praetorians would do at times with an unpopular emperor when a mob stormed the imperial compound. Many, though, had managed to disappear, John musing that such was often the case with people like that, a few cropping up as far away as South America and Africa, though one such nation thinking it would be a friendly gesture publicly hanged several of them.

Upon the revelation that Bluemont had indeed planned to loft an EMP over the southeastern United States, nearly every officer in the military had refused to accept further orders and within days declared that their oath was to the Constitution; as such, they would follow legal orders from a higher commander who had not been tainted by direct association with Bluemont and waited for such a person to be chosen. It was finally agreed that an admiral aboard one of the surviving carriers, who had ordered his SEAL team to seize the nuclear-tipped weapon at Wallops Island and was clearly untainted by any direct association with Bluemont, would serve as chief of all military operations until a new president was in place.

Texas, which was fighting what was nearly a full-scale war against Chinese and Mexican incursions, flat out said it was quit with the Union and wanted to proclaim that its boundaries should be what they had been when it was an independent republic, which had once included most of the southwest clear to California and parts of Colorado and Utah.