When the end came, it was the people in the cities who suffered the most.
Barbeau lay low on the snowy roof of the abandoned ski chalet, focusing his 10×50 binoculars on the great plumes of black and gray smoke spiraling from the general direction of Washington, D.C. It appeared Interstate 66 was still blocked heading west. Exactly who had commandeered the roadway—Barbeau couldn’t hazard a guess. But the ice and freezing snow were making passage all the more difficult for them.
He stoically watched a steady stream of heavy military transports plow eastward into the besieged nation’s capital. They had been the only vehicles on the road for days, and he briefly wondered which of the six service branches they served. After the bitterly contested 2028 presidential election, none of the military forces remained united. Instead, their generals backed any one of a number of juntas that sprung up like hydra from the three remaining political parties, all vying for scraps of power.
Now is the winter of our discontent, indeed.
For Barbeau, the end had been expected ever since the federal court system had its judges announce their partisanship at swearings-in. Traditional black robes had been replaced by boldly colored ones, officially declaring federal judges’ political alliances. The majority of Supreme Court justices had adopted vermilion robes with Crosses of Saint James embroidered in black along their sleeves. The minority jurists impotently sulked in their indigo robes, politicking about better days, which no one believed would come.
Under the new normal, Barbeau knew that the protection of the law would wholly diminish as individualism and violence increased. His hunting knife and trout lines were no match for the weaponry of rogue military groups, but he had made preparations for all sorts of eventualities.
In the end, it’s always tribalism, Barbeau mused, shifting a bit on the roof to get a better view of the procession as it neared Haymarket. He watched out of curiosity more than anything else. As a former high school history teacher, he had a pretty good idea what the end of an empire looked like and what the near future would entail. Chaos. Reruralization. A return to tillage, herding, hunting, gathering—and communal living, assuming starvation didn’t turn the remaining populace feral.
It would be a while before there was peace in the valley. Maybe a year. Maybe longer. Maybe never.
After the fall of Rome, it took nearly 700 years for the west to reclaim the necessary political stability and economic complexities that made cities thrive. His students were always shocked to learn that civilizations could regress, and dramatically so. Whenever a civilization decayed from within, it collapsed—quickly—like a rotted tree under the slightest duress.
In one of his many PowerPoints, he’d shown bored 17-year-olds what happens when governments lose the ability to regenerate and progress: civility ends, culture disappears, and order ceases. They regurgitated his bullet points on his written exams to earn their passing grades, but did they truly understand that every kingdom started and ended the same way? They were getting a front row seat to the contractive phase of an empire now, he bitterly laughed.
Muffled reports of gunfire were heard as a phalanx of unidentified vehicles attempted to intercept the military convoy. Through the binoculars, Barbeau placidly watched a military vehicle unleash a number of MK19 grenade machine guns, launching numerous 40 mm grenades which exploded on impact, neatly affecting all within a five-meter radius. This far into the 21st century, his former high school students could not convert millimeters to inches or meters to miles. But he conceded they were right in the end—at this point in human history, knowing how to convert such arcane measurements wouldn’t have made much of a difference in their lives anyway.
He sat back on his heels, making a note to check his trout lines before heading back to his bunker, nestled deep in the bowels of the former lodge. Barbeau had squatted in the abandoned ski resort in Linden, Virginia ever since the global depression hit in late 2026, just after the hospitals and public schools closed for good. Seven years of relentless pandemic variants had taken its toll, spiking unemployment to 34%, a number much higher than even the darkest days of the Great Depression.
He remembered teaching his AP United States History students about the implications of the Dirty 30s, the lessons an advanced civilization should have learned, the failsafe measures that governmental officials should have implemented, the personal civic responsibilities that citizens in a democracy should have taken. Using outdated and somewhat biased textbooks, Barbeau had tried to convey what even historians from antiquity had known—the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse travel together: war, famine, plague, and death.
“Men’s hearts shall fail them,” he remembered his grandmother grumbling while they watched the national news together—before all media had merged into Meta. Before she died, his grandmother had attended Mass every day, sitting on an empty pew, her prayer beads worn down with her worries as she entreated a God to intervene in a world gone mad. His mother had rolled her eyes, muttering about dangerous superstitions and opiates of the masses, but Barbeau had found comfort in his grandmother’s faith.
Barbeau noted the military caravan carried on from the thwarted attack, eventually moving entirely out of his view. He put the binoculars back in their case, clamoring back down from the roof to the main floor.
“I found walnuts,” a young girl said to him when he returned, motioning to a small pile. She had been using one of her boots to crack the walnuts open, extracting the nut meat with his hunting knife. The clever girl had already gathered wood for a small fire to heat their water.
“How did you find so many?” he smiled, pleased with her resourcefulness.
“Squirrel tracks in the snow,” she replied matter-of-factly. “And the trout lines were empty.”
“Then we’ll have walnuts and some apples from the cellar for dinner. That sounds like heaven to me. Now, what story should I share with you?”
“Romulus and Remus,” she replied, just as expected.
He nodded. Retelling the tale of two orphans suckled by a she-wolf was his granddaughter’s favorite myth, and empires had been founded on far less.