The Cradle

We have a rule: once a kid reaches the age of ten, we don’t use them to spread the fire anymore.

I took my son to the cradle the day after his ninth birthday. Nine is a good age for this. When kids are little, they have no comprehension of how the world works, relying on you for guidance. They trust you. Tell them they’ll be okay, and they’ll believe it. The youngest one we’ve ever used was four, a boy, and he gave me a thumbs-up right before he ran towards the fascists’ checkpoint. A thumbs-up and a trusting smile. I’ll never forget it.

The sacrifices one must make to free our country. I know what history will say about us, but history has a lot to talk about. Sooner or later, we’ll be a footnote against the course-changers like the second world war or the DC Incident.

The DC Incident. I’m using the fascists’ term for it but it’s our term too, we’ve adopted it. The DC Incident.

My son wasn’t afraid. I waited until he was nine because I don’t want him going in completely ignorant. I want him to experience the world the fascists have given us–shape his understanding of our mission. This isn’t an excuse to kill and maim; it’s a fight for freedom.

It’s a fight for our lives.

The fascists maintain a ten mile perimeter around the cradle. Only authorized personnel are allowed through, and authorized personnel include security and scientists. The fascists make grand claims about restoring law and order to our country, but enough cash helps the perimeter guards look the other way. I’ve been coming here for years.

It was the first time for my son. Lanky like me when I was his age, Ryan took after his mother in other respects. He had a curious, determined gaze, and he perched on one knee, overlooking the cradle. His gaze peering back through history to the charred ruins of a once great capital. The DC Incident, indeed.

“Careful,” I said, the air filter deepening my voice. “You don’t want to rip your suit.”

The radiation suits were top of the line, surplus stolen from a truck. There are hot spots all over the country but the cradle is the worst.

“Did you check your geiger?” I asked.

He ignored me for a few moments. Such a contemplative boy. I wondered then if he would go through with it. Little kids are easier to fool, true, but even they have second thoughts. Our primal nature sometimes defies even our trusted authority figures. A five-year-old girl refused to go at the last minute. We feared the opportunity was lost, until I procured a Hershey bar. Kids are still kids, and she annihilated a convoy.

He raised his geiger. “Ten.”

I smiled inside my suit. The filter blessed him with an authoritative voice—a man’s voice. What he could have become. If not for the fascists.

“Can we proceed any further?” I asked.

“No. The cradle’s too dangerous.”

“Good.” I shuffled up beside him, looking out over the cradle. I carried a pack on my shoulders—supplies for both of us—and I pulled out a pair of binoculars. I handed them to him. “Careful, don’t press it on your screen.” I waited for him to get the binos in position. “What do you see?”

He didn’t hesitate. “Ruins.”

“Tell me what the blast center looks like.”

Again, no hesitation. “Dark.”

I didn’t take the binos from him. I’ve seen the cradle so often I dream of it, both what it is now and what it was before the DC Incident. The blast radius isn’t dark, it’s a scar, a black scar on the earth. Outward, some ruins linger. The Washington Monument lost most of its inside like a bomb blast ripping tissue from one’s calf. It tilts to this day over a dry pool, charred and reflecting nothing, and year by year the monument inches towards collapse.

“How many people died that day?” I asked.

“Over 200,000.”

“How many died later?” I took a step towards the cradle and my geiger clicked. “And why?”

“Over 10,000,” Ryan said, still peering through the binos. “Radiation.”

I crouched beside him. The streets leading to the cradle were cracked, hardened puddles of melted asphalt. When the DC Incident occurred, it blinded witnesses for miles.

I pointed towards the wastes. Where the halls of Congress once stood, close to the blast center. Vaporized in seconds and they were the lucky ones. “Do you know why they did it?” I asked.

“Because they’re fascists.”

I smiled again. The simplicity with which a child views the world. Older, wiser…but not jaded. Nine is the perfect age to spread the fire.

“But do you know why?” I gave him no time to answer. “They wanted to blame us.”

“So they’ll be the heroes and we’ll be the bad guys.”

“Yes,” I whispered, my air filter changing my whisper into a growl.

I didn’t ask if he was done. I gave Ryan all the time he needed. It is impossible to understand our fight until you come to the cradle and see for yourself—I should know. I puttered around in my youth, engaging in mischief against the fascists. I thought stealing tires and ammo counted as a strike against them. I had no clue who I was dealing with until I came here, and glimpsed their work for myself.

At last, Ryan lowered the binos and said the words a little kid wouldn’t think to say and in that moment I knew I would never have to bribe him with a Hershey bar.

“I’m ready.”

It took us a day to make it back to camp. Cleansing our suits in a sunset world. I prepared a quick meal and allowed Ryan to spend the evening talking to his mother.

I didn’t sleep well. Every time I closed my eyes, I saw that four-year-old boy, his smile and his thumbs-up. The price we pay in our fight against tyranny. The fascists have a lot to answer for.

We got ready. Our disguises would pass us off as beggars, and Ryan’s mother strapped on his vest under his disguise. I watched his face for any sign of hesitation, fear. His mother tugged his robes down over his vest and looked him over, head to toe.

“He’s ready,” she said.

Ryan gave his mother a hug and told her bye. She closed her eyes as they embraced, but she would save her tears until after he left—such a remarkable woman—and in this house, in the nameless ruins of a coastal city, I laid my hand on Ryan’s shoulder.

“Let’s go.”

I drove us north, in a gray Ford truck whose steering wheel rattled. I abandoned the truck several miles later and we slipped in unnoticed among a stream of beggars. As we approached the base, I leaned in close to Ryan.

“The guards have been paid off,” I whispered to him. “They’ll pretend to check you and you’ll breeze right through. After that, do you know what to do?”

He nodded.


I stopped, and he turned to face me.

“This is it,” I whispered. I searched his face again for any sign of hesitation, fear.

“I’m ready,” he said.

He left without saying goodbye. My boy. Nothing in him but determination.

I’m so proud of him.

A Tennessee native who’s lived in France, China and Japan, Travis Lee’s recent publications include ‘Service & Sacrifice’ in Volume 15 of As You Were: The Military Review and ‘A Mermaid’s Garden’ in the August 2021 issue of Sixfold, where it finished in the top five in the Summer 2021 Fiction Contest.

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