Doc Damon turned and looked up the moment he stepped off the porch. He saw the weather vane on the farmhouse pointing north.
But from the north . . .
Kansas City, St. Louis, even Chicago – good old Chicago, where Mayor Daley stole the election for Jack Kennedy – still glowed at night like an old alarm clock.
Radiation drifted in with the wind from the north, from the ruins of the cities as well as the craters where the missile silos had been, scattered across the Mid-West plains.
Damon walked back in the house and dialed the university.
'Mornin', Tom,' the retired professor said. 'You see which way the wind is blowing?'
'I've already checked the dosimeter on the greenhouse,' his younger colleague replied. 'The levels did go up, but we're still below 20 background rads. No need to run up the red flag today.'
'Great, I'll be out in a few hours.'
Dr. Roger Damon lived ten miles from Texarkana, but there were only dirt roads from his farm to the highway, and what was once I-30 was now a patchwork of potholes.
The provisional Republic of East Texas had cordial relations with the Free City of Tyler, which had kept the oil flowing all these years from the pump jacks scattered throughout the Piney Woods.
'Thank goodness they've kept the refinery in Tyler running,' he thought.
As he neared the city, his battered Chevy pickup rumbled over a wooden replacement bridge where the original concrete structure had crumbled. He could feel the planks sag.
Damon was a professor emeritus of agricultural sciences. Tom Ledkins was the ag department head now. The old man recalled when his new grad assistant arrived from UT-Austin in the summer of '62.
They had just settled in together when it happened. October 1962 – that's when everything ended.
That's what people often said when referring to the war.
'That's When It All Ended.'
The Provisional Republic of East Texas was strung along the I-30 corridor from Sulphur Springs to Arkadelphia, one of many polities which arose in the interstices of the ruins of civilization in America.
Texarkana was its capital, and what had once been the University of Texas' branch in the city had been, for over 40 years now, the only college in the region. Tom Ledkins came to the UT-Texarkana campus in September 1962 to be Damon's grad assistant in plant genetics. He was there when the missiles flew.
He had helped keep the university up and running all these years, as Doc Damon's protegé and right-hand man, and had taken over as the department head when the old man retired a decade before. The old professor still kept an office for whenever he drove into town.
He rubbed his backside as he slid out of the seat of the ramshackle pickup, and steadied himself on the running board.
He looked at Ledkins and grimaced. 'I'm getting too old for this,' he groused.
'You're always complaining about one thing or another,' said Ledkins with a smile.
'At my age, there's always something to compain . . . I mean, complain . . . about!'
The pair walked to the university greenhouse.
The old man ran his hands over freshly picked ears of corn.
'No irregularities that I can see,' he said. 'Is that what you found?'
'Yes. I think the genomes have stabilized,' said Ledkins.
'I wondered years ago whether I'd live long enough to see this,' said Damon with a slight waver in his voice.
Ledkins knew what he meant – the end of mutations and defects.
'Some people thought the die-offs and mutations would never end,' said Damon, almost to himself.
Ledkins ran his hands through a pile of purple-hulled peas.
'When I was an undergrad student, I hoped one day to study with Dr. Borlaug and help feed the world population,' he said. 'I guess the war took care of the problem.'
Dr. Damon looked up. 'How are things in the human population?'
'We're doing good. Some stillbirths, but at this point, I think it's fair to say the badly mutated or injured have died off or become hopelessly sterile.'
The younger man walked over to a desk and picked up a sheaf of papers.
'I just got a fascinating packet from the Transvaal, from the human genome project at the University of the Witwatersrand.'
The old professor cocked his head. 'What do the folks in Johannesburg want with us?'
'They're interested because we've had to deal with ongoing problematic background radiation for so long. They have completed some fascinating research on human chromosomes – research we probably would have carried on if things hadn't been so bad here.
He looked across the lab table at the old man.
'Do you ever recall hearing about recombinant DNA?'
'Goodness, that was the most speculative, cutting edge technology before the war,' he said. 'They had just begun mapping the genetic code. There was talk that it might be possible to, uh, splice genes using viruses to transfer genetic material to different places in the . . . what did they call them?'
'Double helixes. A pair of Brits figured out that RNA-DNA pattern in the 1950s. They got the last Nobel Prize, back in '62.'
The old man sat down on a stool. 'Wow, I haven't thought about that in years.'
'Well, the two main research groups, in the RSA and New Zealand, have been able to carry on that research,' said Ledkins.
'Of course, their main impetus has been to see if it is possible to minimize birth defects,' he continued. 'And now, according to the papers they just sent me, they have another project in mind.'
The old man rested his hands on his knees. 'Go on, I'm listening.'
'They have been doing some cutting edge research on how we can better cope with the lingering background radiation in areas that need to be repopulated. You know, between Wits and the University of Auckland, they've just finished 30 years of plotting the human chromosome.'
The old man waved his hand in the direction of the university lab building as he mopped his brow with the other.
They continued to talk as they walked into the academic building, where an evaporative cooler put out gusts of moist air.
'What do they want with us?' asked Damon.
'They think they've identified a non-coding gene segment in the human chromosome that may offer some somatic resistance to radiation,' said Ledkins.
'Sorry, young man,' Damon said, smiling. 'Now you've lost me. What exactly is a non-coding gene segment?'
'One thing they've learned, now that they've finished the Human Genome Project, is that they can't see any apparent use for maybe half of all the genes. There's a lot of junk and redundancy in there.'
'I see. And they think this redundancy in the hereditary substrate is nature's way of providing plasticity in evolution,' said Damon, 'and they want you to look in our population, which has had many people born and living with amounts of background radiation since the war, to see whether any of these non-coding gene fragments have shifted around to where they can be useful in providing resistance to the somatic effects of radiation. Right?'
Professor Ledkins stopped and stared with a smile at the old man. 'Damn, you're good!'
'What do they plan to do with that information? Use that gene transference idea and put viruses to work splicing genes?'
'Like I said, Doc, you've still got it.'
The old man sat down heavily on a stool in the lab.
He smiled. 'What's in it for us?'
'They've offered to ship us a Confocal 3-D laser scanning microscope, made by Leica-SA in 2001.'
'Sounds like a good deal. I'm glad to see research moving ahead so well, after getting knocked back for so many years. I remember how bad things were, right after . . . it all happened . . . '
Ledkins walked over to his old battered binocular microscope which still had Property of the University of Houston embossed on a metal plate at its base. The best Bausch & Lomb had to offer at one time, it had been retrieved from the ruins of the city in the 1970s.
He squinted as he flicked the switch and popped in a slide. He peered intently into the eyepiece.
'You know, I think I can find the gene segment the folks at Wits are referring to. Once I pick it out in a sample, I'll be able to find it in some of our subjects.'
They both turned as a young dark-haired woman walked into the lab.
'I'm sorry, I didn't mean to interrupt.'
'That's OK, Jeannie, I was just filling in Doc Damon here on the samples we're planning to take – you know, for the folks in South Africa.'
The old man smiled. 'What about you, young lady?' She laughed. 'Of course. I was born since the war.'
Ledkins turned back to the microscope. 'We've made a special effort to line up parents and children, to see if we can detect any change in the chromosomes between those born before and after the war.'
'The whole Vega family is coming in,' said Miss Thompkins. 'That's five people born before the war and eleven after.'
Damon waved his hand. 'I knew Mike Vega back in the 1950s! He was the groundskeeper at the football stadium.'
Ledkins chuckled. 'He's still going strong, and works in his garden every day.'
He pointed in the direction of the window and the greenhouse they had just left.
'That's where we get some of our test corn.'
'Sounds like y'all have everything under control,' said Damon as he rose. Ledkins and Thompkins smiled at each other.
'I'm going to my office.'
'It's nice to see him come in every so often,' said the grad assistant after he left.
'I know, it helps keep him up and about. He's almost 90 now, you know,' said Ledkins.
He flipped through a box of slides.
'He's one of the last of the generation who got us through those times,' he said as he popped another slide in.
'You were there, too,' she said.
'Yes, but I was even younger than you are now. I just helped out in any way I could.'
He turned his head to smile at her.
'Let me know when you start to collect those samples.'
Ledkins caught a flash of his black armband out of the corner of his eye as he reached forward to make some adjustments to the Confocal microscope. He leaned back.
Doc Damon had been gone a month now. It was time to move on, he thought. He took the armband off, and folded it neatly in his desk drawer. As he sat back down, he remembered that his old friend and mentor died the day after the microscope arrived. He had never seen it.
Ledkins caught a glimpse of his own gray hair reflected in the viewer of the microscope. 'People used to retire when they reached 65,' he thought. 'Not any more. Not when the work goes on.'
It was people like Damon, he thought – the same hard-working level-headed people who were left behind after It All Ended – who had worked day and night to stabilize society and keep civilization going.
The bombs had done the worst damage, but the famine and breakdown in society had destroyed just as much – if not more.
Places such as Austin, where Ledkins remembered so many good times in college – and which hadn't been touched by a bomb – had slid into barbarism. They said the Warlord Whitman and the Barton Springs Banditos still ruled the city with guns and blood.
It would be easier to send settlers into depopulated areas than to fight to bring back the rule of law to places such as that, where the people had destroyed themselves, he thought.
He heard Jeannie come into the lab. He spoke without looking up.
'I'm checking the samples you laid aside. So far, so good. You were right.'
'We had a good three dozen subjects.'
'These three samples you indicated all seem to have the radiation-resistant DNA moved to where it would be somatically effective,' he said as he leaned back from the microscope.
'Of course, I would suppose with so many people walking around with shattered genes after the war,' he continued, 'some of the ones we've been looking for would float around and settle where they would be effective.
He peered back into the microscope. 'This lateral transfer of the previously non-coding DNA is exactly what the folks in Joburg were asking us to look for.'
'I've finished collating the results of the physicals for our subjects,' she said. 'They certainly seem to bear out the theory. Everyone seems healthy enough.'
There was something in her voice that made him look back up again.
'Is there something else?'
'The three people with the laterally-transferred DNA: did you notice who they are?'
He looked over at some notes. 'Carl Dombeck, Tom Burlingham and Mike Vega, Jr. Is there a point?'
'Mike Vega, Jr is the old man who keeps the garden at the edge of town.'
'Are you sure? I assumed it was his son.'
'No, he doesn't have any sons. Mike Vega is 87. He was 45 when the war happened. Remember, he once worked here at the university? Doc Damon remembered him.'
'But the resistant DNA is where it should be!'
Jeannie held out her hands. 'Sorry, it doesn't make any sense to me, either. He was born with that gene fragment right where we were looking – but at the end of World War I, not World War III.'
Ledkins rested his head on his chin. 'OK, that makes no damn sense.'
'Maybe you should go and talk to the old man. There might be something in his background to explain it.'
Ledkins pushed his stool back.
Mike Vega's home was just past the cordon maintained by the Texarkana Municipal Militia. Because the roads were so rough, Ledkins took Doc Damon's old Chevy pickup which the old man had left him, rather than subject his Corvair to the pounding of the road.
When he pulled up, Vega was hacking at the hard, dry earth with a hoe. The old man looked up. Ledkins pulled off his hat and nodded respectfully. Vega let his hoe drop.
'Professor Ledkins! I am honored.'
They shook hands at the gate. The old man still had a firm clasp.
'If you have come to tell me after the tests that I am too old and must die soon – that is not news!'
They both laughed, and Vega motioned the professor inside his small frame house. It didn't have electricity, but the widower had a refrigerator that ran on propane.
He poured Ledkins a tall glass of iced tea and crushed some fresh mint from his garden. Vega poured a glass himself and Ledkins looked at him – carefully, but respectfully – as he drank. The old man has Indian features – very Mayan, thought Ledkins. Perhaps that was a clue. He knew it would be impolite to come right to the point, so he made small talk for 15 minutes before Vega wiped his damp hands on the front of his overalls and put his hands on the table to signify it was time to really talk.
Ledkins spoke simply and clearly about what he had been researching, and looked carefully to see if the old man followed him.
'My father lived to be 92 and never was sick a single day,' said Vega. 'His father lived to be 88 and never so much as wore a coat a day of his life. We are a strong people. It is in the blood.'
'Yes, but your father and his father didn't live their lives with the poison in the air we've had since the war,' said Ledkins.
'This wasn't the first war our people have lived through,' said Vega.
'Certainly, the first of this kind,' said Ledkins.
The professor stopped in mid-sip.
'What do you mean?'
The old man chuckled in a very sardonic way and then looked very stern.
'You white people are so vain. You think you invented everything.'
The old man laughed again at the professor's expression.
'My father's people were priests in the temple of the Aztecs before the coming of the Conquistadors. They were priests in the temple going back thousands of moons. And they served the Aztlans before the Aztecs.'
The old man leaned on the table and looked down his nose at Ledkins.
'Our family legends say the Aztlans warred among themselves and cast fiery lances that withered the crops and burned up their great cities. My father's people were blessed by the Corn God for their service in their temples, and given drops of the blood of the Gods, so they would not be harmed by the fiery death.'
The old man nodded at the professor's stunned expression.
'Yes, I thought of those legends in the days when It All Ended, of those fiery lances falling from the sky. It seems your people were not as wise as they thought. They made the same mistake my ancestors made`.'
Vega laid his hand on his chest.
'My people learned their lesson, and never made the weapons of fire again. Will your people learn the same lesson?'
'I don't know what to say,' Ledkins stammered.
The old man's expression changed completely. He put on a big smile.
'Say, 'thank you for the cold mint tea, señor!''
As they walked to the road the old man cast a brief downward glance which told Ledkins he had been respected with a great insight. They shook hands, and the professor made the dusty drive back into Texarkana in Doc Damon's old pickup.
'Although it's obvious that in some cases, the resistant gene relocated itself laterally as a result of a mutation produced by radiation exposure,' said Ledkins, 'it's apparent in Migel Vega's case that the mutation occurred naturally, possibly as a result of exposure to naturally occurring radioactive material. At least, that's what the report to the folks in the RSA will say.'
'So you'll blame it on NORM. Think they'll buy it?'
'I don't know, Jean. What else can we tell them?'
The young lady looked at him. 'Do you believe Vega's story?'
'I really don't know Jeannie. I really don't know.'
He leaned into his desk and dropped his first draft of the report into a drawer. As he leaned back, he looked down and noticed a steel blue revolver – like the kind Mike Hammer would have used – nestled in the back.
Everyone carried guns, back in the first days after the war. He'd had to use it a few times himself. The thought of the futility of it all passed through his mind like a mist. A thought that made him dizzy.
'Are you OK, professor?'
He looked down and shoved the drawer shut with his foot.
'I'm just tired.'
He tried to gather his wits about him. 'What else do we need to do today?'
'Well, I don't know about you, but there is something I need to do. I've put off something for a while.'
He looked up and saw she was smiling at him.
'I know how much Dr. Damon meant to you, as a mentor and friend,' she said. 'I know how much you miss him, and how much you've thought about him since he's been gone.'
'I just wanted you to know, since I haven't said it before, that you mean as much to me,' she continued. 'And I look forward to you helping me in the next few decades as Dr. Damon helped you.'
Ledkins shaded his eyes against the late afternoon sun.
'Thank you, I really appreciate it.'
'Good afternoon, Professor Ledkins.'
'God . . . Good afternoon, Jean.'
He walked over to the window and watched the young lady get into her patched up Rambler and drive away.
For a brief second he focused on his reflection on the glass. He sucked in his breath as he thought he saw another man looking back at him – a very different man, in jaguar furs and gold ornaments – a very different man, but with the same expression as his.
He looked again and saw it was indeed only his reflection.
'Some time in the past, another man had to make a similar decision,' he thought.
To go on.
What made it worthwhile wasn't to do it for yourself, he thought, but for the next generation.
Just as Doc Damon had kept going – when he knew he'd never live to see things really get back to normal – now it was his turn to help the next generation rebuild.
'Perhaps the next time won't be as bad,' he thought.
'Maybe the next time won't come at all.'
Story Copyright © 2007 by Lou Antonelli. All rights reserved.
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About the author
Lou Antonelli lives in deepest darkest East Texas. He is a professional journalist and has won awards in news, feature, column, sports and editorial writing from the Texas Press Association and the North and East Texas Press Association.
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