When Michael and Ashley reached the dining hall, it was largely empty, other than for the members of the patrol and a few people who hadn't gotten to eating until later in the evening. After walking through the meal line in silence, they walked down the center isle and sat at a table near the exit.
Ashley caught Michael peering at the clock in the distance. “What's up?”
“I have a briefing with the patrol at nineteen hundred hours, just checking how much time I have,” Michael said, sticking a fork into his food. “You know, this looks an awful lot like the food I used to eat at military messes back in twenty thirteen.” He sniffed the forkful, “Smells about as awful too.”
Ashley laughed, having to hold her mouth shut lest she spit her food out. She chewed and swallowed. “Was it really this bad? I thought you guys had it all.”
Michael too was chewing, and nodded to agree with her before forcing the gruel down his throat. “Yeah, we did have it all. I guess we threw it all away.” He watched Ashley's face become sombre. “You alright?”
“Yeah,” she said, her eyes dropping to her food as she picked at it with the fork. “I was just thinking about my family.”
“What about them?”
“Well, my grandparents miraculously survived the nuclear war, they lived with us in a small town not too far from here while we tried to ride out the radiation and just ... well we just tried to survive, really.”
“I'm sorry, I didn't mean to bring up bad memories.”
“No, don't be sorry. They're good memories. My grandmother used to say that those were the best days of their life. But they did talk a lot about the years before the bombs fell. Most of the history I know beyond sixty one was told to me by word of mouth.”
“Really? What did they say?” Michael asked, genuinely interested in what could have triggered the nuclear holocaust.
“Grandma used to say how she grew up in the second great depression. She said the governments borrowed themselves into debt, and then tried to borrow themselves out. The economic system was so inflated with fake money that didn't have any real world value attached to it, that when investors tried to withdraw what they were purportedly worth, the money just wasn't there.
“Then the lenders were at the door. I'm not talking some company down the street, I'm talking whole countries; countries we'd been funneling money to for decades because big corporations got filthy rich outsourcing manufactured goods to them. Here we were, borrowing money from the same people we paid to build our stuff.”
Michael nodded, remembering the onset of this in his own time.
“So what did we do?” she asked rhetorically.
“What did we do?” Michael asked, leaning over the table, barely sitting on his chair.
“We went to war,” Ashley said. “We got in our boats and our planes and we teamed up with all the other indebted countries and spent what little money was left in our pockets to fight the debt collectors. The problem is, there were so many of them. Countries that were once the third world, the shit holes of the planet, had become proper industrial Meccas. They were the little brothers that grew a lot bigger than we'd expected them to.”
“When did this war happen?” Michael asked.
“That's the thing, it wasn't the war you're thinking of. This wasn't world war three. Grandpa used to tell us it was a shadow war, another cold war. We fought on other people's soil for other people's resources, all because the people we owed so much money to wouldn't build our stuff anymore.
“If I had to guess, I'd say the lending countries started knocking at the door in the mid twenties, and the shadow wars started shortly after the embargoes. I think the really harsh fighting was going on in the middle east, even though the big players were countries like India and China.
“Grandpa worked in the wood industry during the thirties, and he remembers when the wages dropped, but the prices of goods continued rising. He used to say the rich got richer and the poor got dead, and he wasn't lying. People couldn't feed themselves, so they starved or became farmers.
“Grandma said that's when the government started losing its grip, and began turning for the worst. She said that they passed laws to stop people from growing their own food, forcing them to buy the food that was ridiculously priced in grocery stores they couldn't even get to because they didn't own cars or didn't have any fuel for them.
“According to my parents, the farmers started fighting first. It was nearly twenty forty by then, and the civil unrest had been going on for some time, but wasn't really at everyone's doorstep until then. In the early forties, she said everyone was afraid. Government police would burn down illegal crops and raid homes that were thought to harbor farmers or grow operations. Imagine that, making food illegal, it's ridiculous.”
“It is,” Michael thought, shaking his head at the thought of it.
“So by the end of the forties, the civil war was in full swing. I mean it's not like the people were taking over the country or anything, they were just no longer wishing to be part of it. You know, farmers have always been picked on throughout history because they're too busy trying to make food to fight. But eventually when they're pushed hard enough all they have left to do is hide in the woods and shoot back, and that's what they did.”
“So there was a civil war in the late forties?”
“Yeah, it went on for quite some time.”
“So it ended before the nukes fell?”
“Just barely, my parents used to say they still felt it was going on when the bombs fell, I think the government just lost interest in trying to force us to comply and didn't care anymore if we grew food, unless you were close to big cities.”
“But your parents weren't close to big cities.”
“Nope, that's why they weren't wiped out with the masses.”
“Huh, and no one knows who dropped the bombs?”
Ashley shook her head. “I'm sure someone did, but they're probably dead.”
Michael was nodding when he noticed the hands of the clock in the back of the room. “Oh crap, I'm late. John's going to blow a gasket. Look, thanks for dinner Ashley.”
“You're very welcome, next time you'll pay.”
Michael laughed at the joke. “Alright, I'll bring a fine wine.”
“You'd better,” she said, watching him as he ran out the door. She sighed. Her heart was soaring and she wished he could stay because coming down was going to be rough.