It was now one minute before JTM would head out into the world. He had to find some way to do something meaningful. He still had no idea of what that might be, but he was sure that he couldn’t find it in Louisville or in any of the other “islands of civilization” that were administered by the New Order. Those people were just as distracted with shiny images as he had been.
The clock reached 9:01 am and he started to roll off his table. As soon as his hips slid over the edge he had to grab it and hang on; if he hadn’t, he would have fallen. After a minute or so, he stabilized and found that he could walk steadily, but he was still nauseated and in pain. He looked around for drugs but found none.
Through the haze surrounding his thoughts, he knew that he’d have to get out of Louisville and head toward the mountains to the south. He figured that he could handle up to a four hour drive, and if anyone within that distance knew about meaning in life, that would be where he’d find them.
* * * * *
Bix had been dead for a week. Their parents were away on corvée and came back in time to bury him in a group funeral. Eighteen men and women from Nashville South had died from the cesium-137 that they inhaled, ingested, or touched at Fort Knox. What surprised JTM at the funeral, and affected him in a way he couldn’t explain, was that his parents and a few others broke through the safety lines to touch their child’s coffin. They knew they might be exposed to radiation, but they didn’t care.
Bix had always been ignorant. Not stupid, but ignorant. He spent nearly all his time sitting in front of a plasma screen. He watched, ate, watched more, then played games wearing his Virtual Reality goggles. Aside from that, he did very little. He and his friends went to Fort Knox because it was like an open-air VR game, not because they wanted the gold for its own sake.
That’s why they grabbed the container of cesium-137; it looked like a magic container from one of their games. It was very carefully made, impossible to open, and had a small window, through which shined an eerie blue light. They brought it back with them as a game treasure, nothing more. What killed JTM was their attempt to open it.
After two days of hacking at it with screwdrivers, chisels and whatever else they could find, Bix and his friend Jerome brought the container into the front room of the Mohammed’s apartment and chipped away at it as they watched election results and porn. So, when one of them finally broke it open, the blue powder spilled all over the couch… precisely where JTM would be sitting a day later.
The cesium sunk into the fabric and padding of couch, and every time someone sat on it, cesium dust was expelled. JTM spent several hours on that couch, and inhaled two or three times a lethal dose.
* * * * *
Although all three news corps were saying that the attack on Fort Knox was the work of a terrorist cult called White Rose, that was just a fabrication. In truth, Fort Knox was attacked by an old leftist group, who used a few middleweight drones to dump the cesium on the gold depository. They dumped leaflets along with their radioactive poison, saying that they were “striking a blow at the core of capitalism.” The news corps, of course, never mentioned it.
The cesium had been gathered from abandoned hospitals along the East coast. Cesium-137 had been used for anti-cancer therapy, back when cancer was more aggressively fought. A lot of it was simply left behind when the New Order stopped supporting remote hospitals, handing the leftists an opportunity.
White Rose had been the New Order’s chief boogeyman for years, being blamed for one problem after another. No one understood what they wanted, but they did know that it was a suicide cult. What made them famous was an attack on an Enforcer Station near Jacksonville. The local enforcers had surrounded a group of people who refused to leave their homes, which had been appropriated by the State of Florida. After a cursory warning, the enforcers fired their pistols and rifles into the houses. These people, however, were still armed, and they shot back.
What happened next was blocked by the news corps, but caught on video by at least four privately owned drones. The footage showed the enforcers bringing in flamethrowers and burning five occupied houses to the ground; but first, they blocked the doors with cars and debris. At least twenty people burned to death inside of them, and one drone’s footage showed enforcers purposely turning their flamethrowers on people jumping out of windows. Two men somehow survived the fires, only to die three day later in their jail cells, having suffered only minor injuries previously. None of the enforcers were held accountable in any way. The usual “following their training” and “heroic protector” slogans ran in the news. Most people believed the news and ignored the drone footage… it was the easiest thing to do.
A week later, three old men, all between seventy-five and eighty-five years old, walked into the enforcement station and shot everyone in a black uniform, killing ten and injuring many more. Then, they walked back outside, shot up the patrol cars, placed signs around their own necks, and found a comfortable place to sit. From there, they shot every black uniform that passed, until a pair of drones showed up and killed them. Images from the scene, broadcast on all the networks, showed their signs, which read, I finally did something that mattered. Will you?
All the esteemed broadcasters said that this was proof of their evil. Everyone knew that the brave enforcers were merely doing as they were trained, and that only terrorists would disobey legal orders. They called these terrorists White Rose because all three men were found wearing either a necklace or a pin with a white rose on it.
* * * * *
JTM walked out of the hospital fairly well and saw a small delivery van pulling over in front of a florist’s shop. As the driver checked his screen for the details, JTM, without thinking, leaned into the open window, grabbed the keys, and looked at the driver, almost nose to nose.
“I’m dying of radiation poisoning. If you don’t get out of this truck right now, you’ll die too.”
The driver all but leapt from the van. JTM climbed in and started driving. A glance at the rear-view mirror showed him why the driver fled so quickly; he could barely recognize himself: he had just a few tufts of hair and reddish blotches all over his head. He looked horrible.
He found a can of Red Bull on the floor and sipped it slowly as he drove south. It gave him the energy he needed and he only vomited once. In two hours he was into the mountains and looking desperately for someone who could tell him what to do.
During the drive JTM tried to devise a plan, but had to give up on it – he was too weak and disoriented to do anything but drive. He would have to work with what he already knew. Somewhere ahead, there had to be someone who could help him. And just as he thought that, another unexpected image came into his mind: The sign that the White Rose men wore. Those people knew something about meaning.
And then, after less than three hours driving, he went around a sharp turn on a small road and saw a homemade roadblock. He slowed and approached it. As he did, three armed men stepped out of the trees and stood behind the barrier. They held up their hands, telling him to stop, which he did. These would have to be the right people. He stopped the van, turned it off, and stepped slowly out. He was about 50 feet from the barrier and the older man looked at him carefully.
“You’re not well, son.”
“You’re right sir, I’m not.”
“From Fort Knox?”
“Yes, but I wasn’t one of the people who broke in. It was my brother. He brought back a can of radioactive material, and that’s what got me.”
“I’m sorry about that, son, but I’m not sure why you’re here. You have to know that you’re past the point of no return. There no medicine that can save you now.”
“Yessir, I know that.”
“Then why are you here?”
“I have to find the cult of the White Rose.”
“The White Rose? What’s on your mind, son?”