The Mistake that Burned Kansas

It was the light that woke her — scorching the edges of the blackout curtains. The one grubby window in the tiny orderly bunk room blazed like the sun had come calling.

Rina swung her feet over the side of the sagging bunk, scrubbing sleep out of her eyes. The dingy digital clock on the wall blinked at 3:44 am. She’d only be down for 20 minutes.

She stood and flipped the curtain aside. She saw the silhouettes of the boxy block towers of the hospital. Their drab gray brick wasn’t much to see day or night, but now they were washed out into sketched lines. Around the edges, her eyes met with sheer blinding light. It burned ghosts of the towers into her vision. Behind them, a column of fire bloomed higher into the sky than she could see.

Then the sound hit.

A physical thing. It crushed Rina’s window to shards and hurled her against the far wall.

***

Rina woke up in pure darkness. She could feel her eyes open, but otherwise, she couldn’t tell the difference. She could hear a low ringing in her ears and nothing else.

Her entire body burned. Where her scrubs touched her skin, it felt raw, but it was more than that. It felt like her nerves were being boiled — like her skin was splitting apart. Her mind was a fog of pain.

They would never hear the story of what happened in Kansas. Would never learn that it was all a horrific mistake, a bad piece of code reproduced in the wrong thread at the wrong time. Safeguards failed, people failed, weapons worked, and America burned itself.

She needed to get out onto the ward.

Adrenaline carried Rina up to her knees. Something in her arm popped as she pushed, and a new burst of fire exploded in her brain. It wouldn’t hold her weight, but she had more pressing concerns. A surge of nausea oozed up her spine, and her head roared like storm whipped waves. It took hours to subside, or it could have been minutes. She left her dinner on the floor.

Rina couldn’t hear herself breathing, which she took as a bad sign. She gritted her teeth and used her good arm to find the wall.

“You can do this,” she mouthed.

She let out a quiet battle cry as she leaned on the wall and staggered to her feet. Both legs seemed to be working. Little victories. She fumbled along the wall for the door, found the handle, and pulled. It stuck on something she couldn’t see, but she put her weight into it. Finally, something gave, and it scrapped wide enough for her to push through and out.

The hall was just as dark as the bunk room, which was strange. The hospital should have had backup systems running. She knew this place well enough to navigate it without much light, thought, or sleep, but the dark made her skin crawl. She found and slumped against the far wall and hobbled toward the main floor. Her socked feet padded slowly in search of a clear path. She could worry about glass shards later. For now, there was a ward full of kids that needed her.

***

Little voices murmured in the dark. Rina let out a sigh. She could just make out some of the words.

“Where … adults?”

“…. mom”

“It hurts….”

“What happened, …… dark, ….. no, no, no, no—”

Rina rounded the last corner and found a huddle of little forms. They were crowded around a wavering light propped on the nurse’s station. She could see a few more outlines in the closer beds around the room, still tangled in tubes, and connected to useless cords running to overturned monitors. The beds beyond were swallowed by gloom. Once cheerful stuffed dogs and giraffes leered out, scuffed, torn, and tangled from dark corners. Every one of the wide windows was shattered. The night outside was hot and eerily still.

As Rina limped closer, two of the bigger kids stepped in front of the others.

“Who’s there?” a girl said. Her voice wavered, but she brandished part of an IV pole.

“It’s doctor Rina, Georgia,” Rina said, holding her hands to her sides and hoping they could see her.

“Oh God, thank God you’re still here,” Georgia said. She rushed up and hugged Rina.

Rina let out a hiss when Georgia squeezed too hard on her bad arm. She could feel Georgia shaking.

“Oh God, are you okay Dr. Rina?” said Georgia flinching back.

“I’ll be fine,” Rina said, “are all you kids okay?”

Rina headed toward the desk murmuring greetings and squeezing shoulders as she passed. She found a trauma cart overturned with its contents spewed across the ground. With a bit of scrounging, she found a sling and finagled it into place.

“Georgia?”

Rina turned back to find Georgia staring at the floor where she’d left her.

“We found nurse Tim and Nila… we haven’t been able to find Angie, or Rob, or any of the others. W-we tried, but it’s so dark, and no one came, and….” She trailed off into quiet sobs.

“It’s okay, honey,” Rina shuffled back to her and drew her back toward the light, “let’s gather everyone up, and we’ll get out of here. It will be okay.”

***

Rina took the emergency crank flashlight from the nurse’s station and searched the ward for other survivors. She found bodies. Tim had been the nurse on duty. It was a quiet night, and Rina was in the middle of a double, so she’d left it in his hands. She found him pinned under a huge storage cabinet. She didn’t find a pulse. She found Rob and Angie, and other tiny broken bodies left like fallen leaves scattered in the sun to dry.

Rina sat for a long time, taking deep breaths and trying to steady her hands. She looked up at the little band of shadows waiting for her to lead them back to the world. She was all they had.

Rina patched up what cuts and bruises she could for her little group before leading them out. Some kids pushed others in wheelchairs while the bigger kids helped her clear a path through the halls. Mercifully they were on the first floor, but even so, it was torturously slow going. They didn’t run across any more staff. Searching, and maybe finding more bodies, felt wrong to Rina. Her kids had seen tonight enough, and she needed to get them out and safe. There were so few of them left, she owed them that much.

Their progress was slow and made slower by stops to catch breath or wretch as they moved. The sun smeared the horizon with blood as they crept out an emergency door hanging half off its hinges. A haze lay over everything, but Rina could see well enough the shattered city around them. Overturned cars chocked the street. Trees lay — some snapped in half some torn up by the roots — tangled with utility lines. Fires burned here and there, but nothing else moved. The world was dead quiet.

Behind her, the blasted husk of the hospital lay half-collapsed. What wasn’t rubble was laced with gaping wounds in the brickwork yawning up at the sky. Rina didn’t want to think about what happened to the souls on the upper floors, or what might have happened if the pediatric ward wasn’t on this side of the hospital shielded by the bulk of the building.

They stopped to rest for a moment, and in the waning light, Rina could see pale faces, drawn with pain, skin covered in red burns. She could hear shallow, quick breathing, and choked sobs. Some swayed on their feet. It tore her heart out to make them keep moving.

“Come on kids,” Rina said. She turned away from where she had seen the pillar of fire, gritted her, and started to walk.

***

It took a day for them to find anything but broken windows and collapsing walls. A day of slow and excruciating walking before they saw other survivors milling around in search of loved ones or grimly marching toward some unseen safety.

The first man they saw limped crossed their path dragging a bad leg and hunched over.

Rina motioned for the kids to stop and called out, “Sir, are you alright?”

The man didn’t react and shambled on.

Rina followed him. It wasn’t difficult to catch up to him.

“Sir?” She reached out with her good hand. “I can have a look at your leg if you would like.”

The man started and staggered the moment her hand touched his shoulder. He turned his head and Rina got a good look at him for the first time.

His ears were melted to his head. His face was so disfigured by a mass of burns that she couldn’t make out many features, but the soundless scream that tore at his mouth and forced open bloodshot eyes spoke to an agony so intense that Rina took an automatic step back.

“Oh, God, I’m so sorry,” she said.

The man’s eyes were clouded, and a moment later he forgot she was there and limped away.

Rina took a deep breath, “think of the kids,” she said to herself as she turned to rejoin them.

In time they came to a military blockade. Trucks, fences, and floodlights made a wall. From the light came figures, and Rina’s kids were taken by wraiths in sealed suits. She saw them carried through before she collapsed to the cracked pavement.

***

She woke up exhausted but alive. Tent walls danced around. She was hooked to a tangle of IVs, and half her body was bandaged. Her arm was properly splinted. Looking around she saw kids occupying the beds surrounding her similarly trussed up and treated. Rina felt better, and she knew enough to see that for the warning it was.

It took two days for the ax to fall. Their bodies were being torn apart from the inside by a fundamental force of the universe. Their cells ripped apart. They were shutting down. The littlest went first. They couldn’t stand against it.

Rina saw them off with kind words and comfort — the only things she had left to give. She was a gaunt bled shade of herself standing by their bedsides, but she would see them safely off. She owed them that much.

Time was meaningless in the end. Days, hours, and minutes shifted around the tent-like dust in the boiling sky. Georgia was the last to go. She shook so violently that she couldn’t speak. Rina sat with her — she could not have stood if she wanted to by then — and held her hand. As Georgia’s breath slowed and the furrows in her gaunt face, hard-worn by pain and worry, slackened, Rina knew she could rest.

***

They would never hear the story of what happened in Kansas. Would never learn that it was all a horrific mistake, a bad piece of code reproduced in the wrong thread at the wrong time. Safeguards failed, people failed, weapons worked, and America burned itself.

As Rina closed her eyes to rest, all she could see was that blistering light and the ghosts of a city seared into her eyelids.

Maher Akremi is the Program Manager at Women of Color Advancing Peace and Securityfocused on the development and implementation of the Organizations in Solidarity program. He is also a published fiction writer, largely specializing in flash fiction and short stories, and uses his writing as a medium for activism.

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