RADIATION IS NOT OUR FRIEND

Time for the ol’ class fieldtrip.

“Take your seat, James,” said Ms. Hatcher. “You have a very special role today. Do you remember where your seat is?”

“Yes, Ms. Hatcher,” said Jimmy. “Mine is the easiest to remember.”

“That’s right, James,” said Ms. Hatcher. “Now, take your seat.”

Today was an exciting day for him, and for everyone else, for that matter. They were finally beginning their fieldtrip to the Yard, a day long in the making. As his friends and fellow classmates boarded the bus right along with him, Jimmy was just happy he didn’t have to sit through another boring class. He liked the fun stuff anyway.

“Everyone, take your seats!” called out Ms. Hatcher. “If you can’t remember your assigned seat, just ask me!”

They all piled in and took to their assigned positions.

Jimmy took his seat in the back, and it was a special seat, something he was very proud of. Fifth grade was tough enough without special duties, but Jimmy had never, and would never, complain about his assigned role. Ms. Hatcher saw something in him that was great, and he was proud of that.

“Now, I want everyone to thank Mr. Jackson for driving us today,” said Ms. Hatcher. “He’s very, very good at his job, so he deserves our special thanks.”

“Thank you, Mr. Jackson!” said all of the kids at the same time, including Jimmy.

The older man smiled, took off his dark-blue bus-driver’s cap, and wiped the dark skin of his brow before putting his cap back on his balding head.

“You kids hold tight now!” he said in excitement. “We are going to have some real fun today!”

“Yaaaaay!” cheered everyone, and even Ms. Hatcher clapped in return.

Ms. Hatcher clutched one of the two poles at the front of the bus as the vehicle powered up.

“Now, everyone, be sure to pay extra-special attention to all instructions today!” she said firmly. “You’ve all practiced and practiced for just this day, and now this day is here, so you all know what to do! You have to listen to me and Mr. Jackson whenever we give orders!”

“Yes, Ms. Hatcher!” said everyone.

The thick lead and steel wall that comprised the exit to the compound rolled upwards as red lights swirled in warning on the garage ceiling. A klaxon blared as the compound door opened to its maximum height, and the bus rolled out into blazing daylight.

“In the old days, school buses used to be yellow,” explained Ms. Hatcher, “but as you know, that color changed to varying gray splotches. Does anyone know what the color of our bus is called?”

Donny Bueller raised his hand in tentative reply.

“Yes, Donovon?” asked Ms. Hatcher.

“Camouflage?” replied Donny.

“Yes,” nodded Ms. Hatcher. “Does anyone know what type of camouflage?”

Sarah Holiday raised her hand, and Ms. Hatcher nodded her head in response.

“Urban camouflage,” said Sarah confidently.

“That’s right!” smiled Ms. Hatcher. “Camouflage gives the bus some visible protection from attack. We call it ‘urban’ because we live in the city, so it’s city camouflage. We learned to use camouflage by observing wildlife that used natural coloring to hide from predators…when we had natural wildlife, that is.”

Jimmy checked his seat monitor to view the black and white images outside. There was nothing, really, but burnt-out buildings, old blackened vehicles, and debris here and there. The streets were relatively clear of obstacles, though. The Engineering Corps had done a good job of moving junk and whatnot off the roads, though that job was extremely dangerous.

“Now, once we’re past the red line,” said Ms. Hatcher, “we’ll go into red alert mode. You have to watch your screens for that. Once we’re in red alert mode, I want you all to remember your assigned tasks, okay?”

“Yes, Ms. Hatcher!” said everyone.

Jimmy was brimming with excitement, and he could tell everyone else was, too. Everyone had been practicing hard for this day, and this was more like a test than a fieldtrip anyway. It was time to show off what they could all do.

He looked over at Madison Taylor, the only other student assigned to one of the “special seats.” She smiled over at him and nodded once in understanding. They were both going to be busy once the bus crossed the red line, so they were comrades in arms for the day.

It did not take long to reach downtown, though it felt like an eternity.

Jimmy braced himself as the bus neared its first checkpoint.

“Here we go, kids!” said Mr. Jackson. “Everybody, hold on and get ready!”

Red lights flashed on the bus roof as they crossed the red line on the satellite map.

“Now, class!” cried Ms. Hatcher. “Take positions!”

Jimmy smiled and nodded once to Madison, and she smiled and nodded once back to him. They both hit their elevation buttons at the same time, the lead and steel ceiling panels above them slid open, and their seats slowly rose upwards until they were in their assigned positions within the ball turrets on the roof.

Jimmy grasped the large handles of the flame gun within his ten-year-old hands. He watched the monitor in front of him for any and all threats, and he knew Madison was doing the same. The other students were on the side guns and/or threat location, though they were not as exposed as Jimmy and Madison were.

“Here they come!” said Mr. Jackson over the crackle of the intercom. “We’ve got dogs at nine o’clock! Ball gunners, we’ve got vultures coming in from five o’clock!”

“That’s your side, James!” came Ms. Hatcher’s voice.

Jimmy watched the screen in front of him as dark shapes flew out of half of what used to be a high-rise. The grotesque birds were each as large as a fourth grader, and each of them had razor-sharp talons and twisted corkscrew beaks with spines along their ugly featherless necks.

Jimmy swiveled his turret, flipped on the gas switch, and then hit the ignition trigger as he doused the leading birds of the flock with white-hot flame. The burning fowl slammed into the street behind them as Madison roasted more of them upon the passing of the flock overhead.

The rest of the flock scattered after that, survival taking priority over food in their twisted, chaotic instincts.

Emaciated, furless mutant dogs with oversized fangs dashed into the street to eat the corpses of the burning fowl.

Jimmy’s eyes widened at the sight of them. He’d studied the various types of mutants, but only in class, and he’d only fought them via simulation. Real life was much more exciting and much more dangerous.

He checked the Geiger counter next to his monitor, and it indicated 100 microSieverts. It ticked up to 115 in a matter of seconds, then 135, then 165, so they were nearing a hot zone, and that reading was just the interior of the bus.

He couldn’t imagine what it was like outside, probably two or three full Sieverts, enough to fry him to a crispy critter. He was suddenly glad he’d had his dose of nano-bond this morning, because even the interior of the bus was starting to get dangerous, at least for an exposed length of time.

His attention was snapped back to reality as Mr. Jackson’s voice called out over the intercom.

“This is where it gets dangerous, kids!” he said. “Hold on!”

“We’re entering a humo-zone!” said Ms. Hatcher. “Everybody, stay on alert! Mr. Jackson may have to run through barriers, so prepare for impact! Don’t worry about the bus; that’s what the reinforced cowcatcher is for, but mutant attacks still might penetrate our shielding, so we need preemptive strikes before any attacks can reach us.”

Jimmy silently thanked the heavens that their bus was camouflaged, or they would have never made it this far. The mutant creatures out there could spot color differences from miles away, even through all of the burnt-out buildings in the way.

Ms. Hatcher continued to teach as the bus sped along through downtown. Her voice was loud and clear over the coms, even with the overlapping crackle of radioactive interference.

“As you’ve learned in class, humos have human DNA,” she explained. “They’re much more intelligent than the other mutated life, and they have been known to use primitive weapons alongside their natural attacks. However, their most dangerous feature is the ability to look human at times, but make no mistake, they are not human, and they must be eliminated like any other mutated animal. Does everyone understand?”

“Yes, Ms. Hatcher!” replied the class into their coms, including Jimmy.

“Now, everyone, get ready!” called out Ms. Hatcher. “The first barrier is coming up!”

“Here we go!” cried Mr. Jackson a second later.

The bus shook as a loud crash hit Jimmy’s ears. He checked the monitor to see chunks of concrete and brick scatter along the sides of the bus, wreckage of what was left of a crude humo-barrier they’d just crashed through.

Loud dings and thumps hit the sides of the bus as thrown objects were flung at them.

Jimmy checked the monitor to see humos appearing from out of makeshift shelters here and there, and some of them were truly grotesque. Some of the humos had multiple arms or legs, some were covered in boils, some had weird, malformed limbs, and some had weird, elongated limbs, but they all looked vaguely human, which was disturbing in itself.

Jimmy checked the fuel for his flamer. It was at 90%, but there was no reason to blast anything until he absolutely had to, and that was in spite of the fact that he was both excited and afraid.

“Humos at ten o’clock!” called out Mr. Jackson. “Humos at three o’clock, too! We’re about to hit another barrier, kids! Brace for impact!”

Jimmy knew that the guns on each side of the bus were busy repelling boarders. He knew this, but it still surprised him when a humo landed on the roof right in front of his camera.

Mr. Jackson plowed through the next barrier, but this one had been connected to some kind of metal and stone tower, and that construct tumbled in pieces across the top of the bus. Along with it had come an intruder, and that intruder was what held Jimmy’s attention for the moment.

The young teen girl on the camera looked to be about twelve or thirteen, a little older than Jimmy, but her face was beautiful, though smudged with dirt. She had bright eyes, though what color, Jimmy couldn’t tell because of the black-and-white monitor, but she had an angelic face, one that radiated purity beneath her mop of short dark hair. She wore the basic rags that most humos wore, and she reached forward and touched the camera with one extended, normal-looking human finger.

Jimmy wondered if she were some sort of captive, but he also wondered how she could survive at all in such outside conditions. The Geiger counter next to the monitor read 600 microSieverts, and that was just inside the bus.

Time seemed to slow as the young teen girl looked at the camera with bright, longing eyes, probably bright-blue eyes, eyes that stared right through Jimmy’s screen and into his soul. It was the expression upon her beautiful face that ate at him; it was one of terrible want and hopelessness, and that combination was something that wormed its way straight into Jimmy’s heart.

He was snapped from his hesitation and mental lack of wherewithal by the firm, calm, and instructive voice of his teacher.

“You’ve got a boarder, James!” stated Ms. Hatcher over the com.

Jimmy watched with wide eyes as the girl on the screen transformed. Her beautiful face split down the middle to reveal a huge maw filled with circles of spiny teeth, and dark tentacles slithered out from that maw right toward the camera.

Jimmy flipped the charge switch and electrified the outer rim of the ball turret. The humo-girl popped off the back of the bus, sparks surrounding her, and Jimmy hit the ignition switch on the flamer. The girl lit up like an ancient Christmas tree, and then she was rolling in a wreath of flame upon cracked pavement a moment later.

“Good job, James!” encouraged Ms. Hatcher over the com.

Jimmy shook his head to get himself back on track. He would have to talk to Ms. Hatcher later about the interaction; they really needed to add something like this to the simulation runs at the compound. He was lucky, however, to have had a nonlethal encounter with a humo, and because of that experience, he would not be taken in by another one of their tricks.

But good news was already on the way.

“We’re through, kids!” called out Mr. Jackson. “It’s smooth sailing to the Yard from here!”

There was a loud cheer over the com as the whole class celebrated.

Jimmy smiled and breathed out a sigh of relief. He was still wired, but he felt really good, regardless.

“We are off alert,” said Mr. Jackson. “I repeat, we are off alert.”

“Everyone can relax for now,” said Ms. Hatcher. “It’s only five minutes to the Yard.”

Jimmy hit the elevation button and waited as he was lowered from the ball turret position. He sat back and smiled over at Madison as soon as he was back in the passenger position.

“Wasn’t that awesome!” asked Madison in a hushed breath.

“Yeah,” nodded Jimmy. “It was just like the simulation…Well, almost like it.”

“I know,” grinned Madison. “It was intense. It’s going to be even more awesome when we get to the Yard, though.”

“Yeah,” replied Jimmy. “I’m ready for the next level.”

They both relaxed as the bus neared its destination, both of them enjoying a few quiet minutes to reflect on their overwhelmingly successful run. It was not long, however, before Ms. Hatcher announced their arrival at the Yard.

“Okay, class,” said Ms. Hatcher. “We’re almost to the Yard. As you know, this is both a fieldtrip and a transfer. Once we’re at the Yard, you’ll head in with me and be assigned to a new teacher…”

There were immediate cries of protest and disbelief from the entire class. Jimmy had suspected that Ms. Hatcher would be leaving them, but he hadn’t wanted to believe it.

“Hush!” called out Ms. Hatcher. “Hush, now! You all knew this day would come! We’ll get you assigned to your new rooms, and then you’ll each be going into your fields of expertise. You won’t have just one teacher anymore. You’ll have at least three or more from now on. You’re becoming adults, and this is what’s expected of adults…”

There were even more cries of protest and a few groans of despair.

“Everything’s going to be fine,” explained Ms. Hatcher. “You’re all going to have a lot of fun without me. It’s time for me to teach a new class with new kids…Don’t worry…It’s not the end of the world…again…Anyway…Anyway, class, the Yard is coming up, so I want all eyes on your monitors…All eyes to the monitors, class!”

Jimmy turned his eyes upon his own monitor. The Yard was coming into view, and it was much more intimidating than he’d ever suspected.

Thousands upon thousands upon thousands of charred, blackened skeletons and bones were heaped upon each side of the street. There were so many that Jimmy thought his eyes would pop out of his head upon viewing them.

“It is estimated that around 96% of the world population died during the first few years of World War III,” said Ms. Hatcher. “That means only 4% of the world’s populace survived, not including humos. For example, if one hundred people were fleeing a burning building, then only four would have escaped the fire.”

Jimmy had heard this lecture before, but the enormity of those numbers still escaped him. All he had ever known was the compound, so he could not imagine what the world would have been like living outside with all of those people before the Great War.

“The Yard is where our city disposed of most of the city’s dead,” said Ms. Hatcher. “For some reason or another, the humos avoid this place, which is why our adult training facility is located here, otherwise known as Compound A. You were all living in Compound C, the children’s creche. You’ll learn about Compound B, the strategic resources facility, once you graduate your adult training. Anyway, you’ll be living in Compound A from now on. Now you get to live in a bigger space with better training and more advanced equipment.”

Jimmy thought about this, but he still didn’t like the idea of losing Ms. Hatcher to another class. It bothered him a lot.

But Ms. Hatcher seemed to know what was on his mind.

“I know I’m leaving you, class,” she said in a sad tone, “but I wanted you to know that these last few years have been wonderful, and I’m so proud of you all. Thank you all for doing your absolute best. I’m going to miss every single one of you.”

Jimmy could just see the glint of a tear in her eye, even from the back of the bus.

“Let’s not be sad now!” smiled Ms. Hatcher. “Let’s not be sad! Let’s finish the trip with a song instead. We all know which one to sing, don’t we?”

And they did. This was a no-brainer.

They all picked up in song as Ms. Hatcher led the first verse. Jimmy sang loud and clear alongside Madison, because even though they were losing their teacher, they were gaining a bright future.

“Raaaaadiation is not our friend!” sang the class. “Raaaaadiation is not our frie…end! We’ll kill anything that it might send, ’cause raaaaadiation is not our friend!”

Radiation is not our Friend Copyright © 2021 Matthew L. Marlott

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