The Cave

Hey there, hypothetical reader. I know it’s been a while since my last post, but I’ve been busy with boring real-life stuff recently, and haven’t had too much time for writing. Also I’ve been realizing how hard it is to come up with original content, even on a semi-regular basis!

Anyway, as promised, here’s the full version of The Cave, which is based on a trip I took to Tennessee with my family recently. This is the first time I’ve posted a first draft on this website, so comments and suggestions would be extremely appreciated, and I’ll take them into consideration when I do my editing. Thanks!

The Cave

 

Luke: I won’t fail you. I’m not afraid.
Yoda: You will be. You… will… be.

– Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back

~-~

 

 

“I will keep you safe,” Ian said, his watery blue eyes fixing us each in turn. “I’ll keep you far away from anything dangerous, I promise.” My limbs still felt like they were full of ice, but as the twenty-five-ish guide looked at me, I couldn’t help but grin.

We stood on a crumbling promontory; our boots crusted with the dirt and leaf mold carpeting the path. In front of us was a rock wall, fifty feet tall at least, its cracked grey face framed in lichen and Virginia creeper. A river chuckled its way downstream from its base, cloudy with sediment and limestone. I saw none of it; I had eyes only for the mouth of the cave to the left of that rock wall, grinning up at us.

The cave. The last time I was in a cave, I was six years old, clutching my Aunt’s hand and wailing at the weight pressing in all around me and the darkness lurking beyond the reach of electric spotlights. She tried to keep me calm, but I would have none of it. I had been bundled outside to wait for the rest of our family to finish their tour.

“Okay,” said Ian, “everyone ready?”

When there was a little too long of a pause, Noah, the other guide, chuckled. “I guess not, but we should probably get going anyway,” he quipped.

We picked our way down another steep slope and I found myself in the mouth of the cave. Light drifted down here in lazy motes, filtered by the canopy of trees overhead, and illuminated dimly; a jagged edge of a rocky slab here, a swathe of pebbled ground there. I glanced toward the back of the chamber. There, nestled coyly amid the tumble of half-seen rocks, was a glaring oval of dark. I felt my stomach clench, then roil.

“Hey guys, take a look at this,” said Ian, and I tore my eyes away from the back of the cave’s foyer. I tried to focus on what our guide was saying.

“Can you see the arch of red rock on the wall here?” he said, “any guesses what it is? Here’s a hint, this cave was once an Indian tribe’s home.”

“Is it, uhm, paint or something?” I hazarded, letting the question distract me.

Ian shook his head. “No, that mark took thousands of years to get there. Any other guesses?”

“Was one of their houses there?” Kate asked.

“Close, but not quite. A fire made that mark. The Indians built it here because the smoke would drift out of the entrance to the cave and not fill up their home with smoke. The red color is actually the iron in the rock, which was brought out over many generations where a really hot fire burned in this spot.

People used to live here. For hundreds or thousands of years. Nobody really had much to say about that.

“Ready to move on?” Ian asked.

And so we flicked on our headlamps and turned towards the darkness. We followed the tunnel deeper into the ground, our boots making vast, echoing clatters as we stumbled over rocks. Eventually, we reached a rusting iron gate, its rough red bars twice as thick as my bicep. Ian muscled this gate open, and it creaked with weight and age. One by one, we followed him into the dark. Noah closed the door behind us.

 

~-~

I love the man that can smile in trouble, that can gather strength from distress, and grow brave by reflection. ‘Tis the business of little minds to shrink, but he whose heart is firm, and whose conscience approves his conduct, will pursue his principles unto death.
– Thomas Paine

 

~-~

 

 

Inside the cave, the only light was from the headlamps we all wore on our helmets. In the bluish reflected light from the LEDs, the walls and ceiling were covered with tiny droplets of moisture, painting the world with glints of blue and red and gold. The cave floor was infinitely varied. One moment we would be sliding down a channel carved by thousands of other visitors into the slick clay, the next we would be clambering across rocks with deep gulfs stretching into black oblivion on either side.

We passed from wonder to wonder, each more intricate and ethereal than the last. There were columns of rock that looked like precisely dribbled candles, tiny stalagmites with hollow insides that dripped water onto the clay below, and great flanging curls of rock that adorned the walls like stone curtains.

Ian gave us their names as we passed each one.

“This one’s the mountaineer,” he said, as we passed a looming tower of rock with a grim face glowering out behind a stony beard.

“That’s the ice cream machine.” A stalagmite hung from the ceiling, dripping onto a glistening lump of clay that looked eerily like a scoop of chocolate ice cream.

“R2-D2 and C3P-O,”

“The mammoth,”

And so on. What I had not reckoned on was just how physically difficult caving would be. We climbed up slick banks of clay, shuffled along in a sitting position when the ceiling became too low, splashed through icy pools of shallow water, and always kept at least three points of contact with the ground or what we were clambering across. The air was cool, but incredibly moist, and soon my hands, boots, and butt were spackled with sweat, clay, and cave water. My panting breath swirled the dusty air, sending it into half-seen whorls in the beam of my headlamp.

Those lights bathed forests of frozen stone in blue circles, while all around us was nothing but blackness and the chuckle and plop of dripping water. Eventually the walls and celling flared out around us as we walked, and we emerged into a vast echoing chamber with sloping floors that intersected the ceiling. Noah called the room the Amphitheater.

Ian told us a little about the chamber and told us to go explore. He scrambled up the sloping cave floor like a spider monkey, sat down, and watched the rest of us fumble our way around the room. We clambered around for a few minutes, sliding on the amphitheater’s slick clay floors.

“Hey,” my sister, Kate, called from across the room. “Come check this out!” Her voice echoed past me and on into the dark. Slowly, I picked my way across from where I had been fruitlessly trying to climb up a clay embankment, and looked down into a chute of rock, perhaps as wide around as the grill on my mom’s front porch.

“Oh yeah, that’s a little crawl,” Ian said from behind me. “It pops out over there, under that ledge. It’s really cool, you should do it, Kate.”

My sister looked skeptical. “How narrow does it get?” she asked.

“The entrance right there is the tightest bit. Any takers, guys?”

Kate drew in a half breath, and then said “Sure. I got this.”

Mom was next: “I’ll give it a try.”

Ian glanced at me.

It felt like the whole earth was pressing in around the feeble beams of our headlamps. The darkness felt heavy, wet, oppressive. Hungry. I kept thinking of 127 Hours, or a story I had heard on NPR where they played the dying moments of a trapped caver. I could hear his voice now, as his brain swelled and he hallucinated that he was in his girlfriend’s living room…

I drew in a breath and let it out.

“Nahhhhh. Fuck that.”

My boots made clicking squelches as I shuffled them through the tacky clay on the ground. My sister went down into the hole first, whacking her helmet on the rim of the hole before she got herself oriented right. Then she was gone, but I could hear her muffled deadpan;

“Wearing a rain jacket was optimistic.”

My mom went next.

 

~-~

“The Way of the Samurai is found in death. When it comes to either/ or, there is only the quick choice of death. It is not particularly difficult. Be determined and advance.”…”This is the substance of the Way of the Samurai. If by setting one’s heart right every morning and evening, one is able to live as though his body were already dead, he pains freedom in the Way. His whole life will be without blame, and he will succeed in his calling.”

 

– Yamamoto Tsunetomo.

~-~

 

After we left the Amphitheater, we picked our way through more dank, dripping tunnels full of meandering and treacherous strips of rock called rimstone. We splashed our way across an underground stream, and entered another big chamber that Ian called the chapel, because a couple had gotten married there in the 70’s. The walls were huge flanging curtains of rock that adorned the walls like curtains. In the middle of this room was a raised stone dais, where we took a rest, and Ian decided to do a lights-out exercise. We all sat down in a circle, and one by one, we clicked our headlamps off. For a few heartbeats, I could see a greenish ghost of my flashlight dancing in my vision. And then – nothing.

“Wave your hand in front of your face,” said Ian. For a moment, I thought I could see movement, but it was just my eyes responding to what they should have been seeing. The darkness was absolute. Almost instantly, my ears pricked up (boom, phrasing). I could hear everything, the dripping of water, the chuckling of the underground river, the distant echoes of laughter from a boy scout troupe we had passed earlier.

“The only place on earth that are as dark as caves are deep ocean trenches,” Ian said, “If you spent a week in here, you’d go blind, but you’d start hallucinating long before that.”

Some kind of bedside manner you’ve got there, Ian.

I focused on my breathing, taking big lungfuls of cool, moist air in through my nose, and letting my body relax as exhaled. Something clicked, as I huddled in the inky black, knees drawn up to my chest. I felt focused, collected, despite our guide’s less than reassuring . For the first time since I had entered the cave, I thought, really thought, about where I was and what I was doing. I was almost a thousand feet underneath some redneck’s farm in Tennessee, inside of the earth. Pretty cool. And I wasn’t hurt or dying at the moment, so why worry about it so much? I found that part of my brain that had been yammering at me to lose my cool for the past hour, and told it to shut the hell up. It did.

We stayed that way, in silence, listening to the dark all around us, for another few moments. Then, Ian switched on his headlamp.

“Who wants to go see something, like, really cool?” he asked.

 

~-~

Fear is excitement without breath.

– Robert Heller

~-~

 

 

Ian was scrambling over rocks like a mountain goat, chattering all the while, while the rest of us, even Noah, struggled to keep up with him in his sudden exuberance.

“This is where people used to get tombstones,” he said, gesturing to a spot where regular lines were scored in the cave wall. “They believed that the more effort you put into burying someone, the more important they were to you. Too bad this is all limestone and the tombstones probably wore away after five years.”

“You spend… a lot of time… in here… don’t you?” I panted, as we scrabbled our way up a clay embankment.

“Oh yeah,” our guide replied. “At new years I camped two nights in here and met this really cool hippie couple. Watch that stalactite. So we were drinking some of their homemade tequila, and this guy, the husband, was telling me about how he hikes up to mountaintops, with no food, and will just spend three or four days sitting up there naked. Far out, right?”

I glanced over at Kate and cocked an eyebrow. She grinned.

“Okay,” Ian eventually exclaimed. We had been clambering through a low corridor, but our guide had climbed over to the left side of the tunnel, where a shelf of rock opened up to reveal a narrow slice of darkness that sloped away downwards. “This is a little crawl that’ll spit us out by the surprise I want to show you. It’s also near the river, which we follow to get back to the exit. Here we go!”

With that, our guide turned to face the crevice, and slid forward, wriggling his torso. For a moment, his clay-caked Nikes kicked in the light of our headlamps, and then they were gone too. I knew I had to go next. I couldn’t let myself think too hard about what I was about to do.

“Who – Oh, you got it, Nick,” Noah said. I faced the crevice, letting my headlamp illuminate the descent, and hurled myself forward.

Inside, the crevice was much wider than I had thought, though I couldn’t raise my head too much without scraping my helmet against the stone above me. I didn’t even have to use my arms much to move forward, and just let my body weight carry me down the rock shelf, which was covered in slimy clay. The descent wasn’t as steep as it had looked from the top, and after six or seven feet, it widened and heightened again to reveal a chamber perhaps the same size of a car interior. Ian was waiting there, a grin plastered across his face.

“You made it, nice. Let’s wait for everyone.”

I sat up, looked down at my clay-drenched chest, and let out a shaky species of laughter that was one part release of nerves, one part excitement.

 

~-~

 

I say I am stronger than fear.

– Malala Yousafzai

~-~

 

With all five of us crammed into the tiny space, the chamber that had seemed refreshingly wide quickly became claustrophobically small. As Noah came squirming out of the tunnel, pushing his backpack in front of him, Ian turned to our family.

“Okay, here comes the hard part. Go slow, if there’s a tight spot, stay calm and work through it. I’ll be right in front of you and I’ll toss you the rope if you need a pull. Remember to breathe!” Then he was off again, easing headfirst into the passage that led onward. I was right on his heels, cracking my helmet on the tunnel mouth in my haste to follow.

Once again, my mind tried to start thinking the thoughts that would spiral into fear, or panic, if I let them. I drew in a deep lungful of air, feeling my beating heart in my throat, the tenseness in my neck muscles. Then I exhaled in a deep sigh, and turned off my brain for the next few minutes. I crawled forward, feeling like I was crawling under barbed wire in a boot camp montage. The ceiling dragged against the top of my helmet, grinding it against my scalp. My breath hissed between my teeth and swirled against the stone inches from my nose. My world narrowed, until the only thing that mattered was the next place to dig my forearm into, whether my next foothold would slip too much or not, and how to pull myself past the next burr in the rock.

The sound started as a whisper, a susurrating hiss that echoed up from somewhere in front of me, so soft that I thought it was my breathing echoing off the cave walls at first. As I clawed my way up the passage, dragging myself forward handhold by handhold, the sound grew and grew until it became first a chuckle, then resolved itself into the full throated laughter of water tumbling over rocks. As soon as I realized this, I could see the light from Ian’s headlamp peering back at me from the end of the passageway.

I emerged from the tunnel into yet another large room, illuminated by the thousands of glittering droplets of water that reflected our LEDs back at us. Half of this chamber’s floor was sandy, but towards the far end of the chamber there was a drop of three feet or so that led into the source of the river I had seen flowing out of the cave mouth so long ago. The spring bubbled up from under one of the cavern walls, which tapered into an arch above it where centuries of flowing water had worn away the rock. I could see something on the wall by this natural arch, something that looked like writing.

Ian gestured that way. “Go check it out,” he said, “I’m gonna make sure everyone makes it out.”

I walked over to the spring, my boots sinking deep into the fine sand on the riverbank. There, written on the wall in black greasepaint, were countless signatures. Some were the usual: EB + TY, inside a heart. Chris was here. But there were two or three of these signatures that stood out from the rest, separated by a reverent halo of bare rock. One read Saunders and Smith, 1821. The second read RJ, 1832.

 

 

 

 

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Another Poem

Hey all you imaginary readers! Here’s another poem I wrote more recently.

 

 

Epigraph:

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– Francisco Goya

 

 

The Giant

 

The Giant stands,

Boiling worms fill his head,

knowing he could just stoop,

Could melt like lead.

.

His horizon is empty now,

His people, ground under human heel.

The laughing mountains are gone,

monoliths crushed with fire and steel.

.

The Giant dreams

of a Joutunheim fastness,

of smiling and dancing with the dead.

Even in sleep, they lurk beyond veils of brass.

.

Dreaming makes waking torture,

a rot beneath his eyelids thrust.

His tectonic body hemorrhages

red that trickles down pitted cheeks, rust.

.

The Giant feels,

gnawing against the scabs of past faults.

Except when it matters;

his heart pumps Kelvin cobalt.

.

Sinews snap, knees buckle.

A brittle sentinel is he

cracking, but still reaching forward, up,

grasping at mercury.

.

Note: I have to put periods in between my stanzas because I can’t figure out how to make a line break in this editor!

Cold

I wrote this story in high school, just dug it up on my hard drive and thought I’d post it here. I think the assignment was to base the story on a picture, and I’m pretty sure that this is the photo I used but I’m not 100%. Hope you like it!

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Cold

 

Birds sang over the farmlands around Sharpsburg. Wind rustled the leaves of the trees, and a deer leaped through the grass, startled by the scent of man. The Honorary Captain Alexander Gardner sat not twelve yards away, and the deer veered away from him, and bounded into the trees. Gardner drew a shuddering breath. This far away from the camp, away from the gibbering horror of the surgeon’s tent, one could close their eyes and imagine that nothing had happened on this tiny rural plot, that nothing had changed. The sounds, the gentle September breeze, all reminded him of his home in Scotland. The deep russets of the lowland trees, the rich, mahogany scent of his jeweler’s workshop in Paisley, each called out to Gardner as he sat amongst the grey coated dead.

Peace was elusive in an army headquarters, and nearly nonexistent after a battle. In his darkroom, where the scents of silver halide and wetting agent masked the burning odor of blood and powder smoke, Gardner could find some solace from the conflict outside. Now, sitting with his eyes closed, far from the frantic movement of the camp, Gardner felt some of that serenity fill him, eclipsing the horror of the past two days around the Antietam creek.

And horror was all that remained after battle, Gardner reflected. For almost two years now, Gardner had been an ancillary to General George McClellan, and it had never changed. Before a battle, men were full of fear and excitement. A strange silence would engulf a unit, Gardner would notice, a pause pregnant with anticipation. Mathew Brady, Gardner’s superior, had once said to Gardner that the 7th New York’s Chaplain would often hold prayer meetings with the entire regiment the night before a battle. Men would talk about their victory, about how this time McClellan would drive straight through Lee, and how they would march to Richmond and string Jeff Davis up by his heels.

Battle itself was an indescribable phenomenon for Gardner. Battle was bravery and cowardice, the thunder of guns and choking clouds of powder smoke. Battle was men who had once been countrymen blasting lead at one another, one standing close enough to see the terror in the other’s eyes. Battle was blood, the fragility of life, and the futility of death. Battle was often heroic, desperate charges, stands, and furious pursuits. Gardner had seen Burnside’s men hold the stone bridge with such tenacity and ferocious will that it had made Gardner want to pick up a rifle and join them. Gardner was captivated, fascinated by battle, and that was one of the reasons he loved to photograph the fighting, to capture the stubbornness and bravery of men, and the glories of war.

But if Gardner was captivated by war, it also was repulsive to him. War left no glories for those that lay around Gardner, twisted and broken in the mud. The only reward they could expect for their heroics, their courage, and their service was glassy eyes and a shallow grave. Gardner had not known them, except as members of the faceless rebel host. Gardner knew that history would not know these men. Their names would fall into oblivion, and be covered as their bodies would be covered with soft Maryland earth, far from their homes.

Gardner opened his eyes and studied the scene before him. The grey September sky wreathed the fields in saturnine gloom, echoing the grey of the rumpled uniform coats on the dead men. The cold wind rustled the leaves of a few scattered trees. The dead lay in a rough line, having been dragged or carried there for  burial by triumphant northerners. The dead were limp, their faces upturned, their eyes reflecting the swirling iron of the clouds. ‘Looking for God’ Gardner thought. How these broken, limp things had once been living, breathing men was hard for Gardner to fathom.

Gardner stood, primed his camera, and took a picture. Later, when he displayed the picture in Brady’s gallery, he would think that as long as the picture was displayed, people could remember those who fell that day on Antietam creek.

Ozone

Hey this is a poem. I sometimes write them. Read it. Tell me what you think.

Ozone

Epigraph:

 

Crouch, as best you can, on the balls of your feet – heels touching, head down, and hands covering ears.

– The National Parks Service on Lightning Safety

 

It is not light we need, but fire; it is not the gentle shower, but thunder. We need the storm, the whirlwind, the earthquake.

– Fredrick Douglass

 

There is a moment enthroned

deep in my memory,

crowned with boundless exhilaration,

shrouded in fear’s regalia.

.

Huddled on the shoulders of

great grizzled peaks,

man and mountain together

watch the still and gathering dark.

 .

Green and purple clouds brood there,

with wispy beards and brows

shaking fists and clenched teeth,

their hot gaze smothering.

 .

Stillness, a sudden cold breath.

Time translucent, in razor-bright slivers.

Waiting,

life throbbing in my ears.

.

A breath becomes a scream,

the gibbering fury of a fanatical legion.

Their chants howl through the aspens,

their tears of rage slash down in wavering sheets.

.

Icy bullets flense flesh and rock,

cold and stinging and derisive.

Mad laughter echoes between lonely peaks;

dry boulders clattering in a manic maw.

 .

The sky speaks.

Light and sound and blinding flash,

the ground shying

from the bite of inscrutable rhetoric.

 .

Rocks tumble in stricken,

clattering torrents which harmonize

the roaring wind, the hissing rain,

the screaming lightning.

 .

All around is rampant light

and a smell like spring and sparks.

The air tastes like victory,

as clear as inspiration.

 .

That moment is catharsis and bubbling awe,

And complete insignificance.

Grinning.

Spine buzzing and bone drenched.

 

 

17 Years

HEY hypothetical readers. This is another story from a creative writing class I took in my freshman year of college. I think the prompt was to write something with a specific tone in mind, and so I decided to do something a little different and wrote this, a kind of supernatural/horror story. Hope you enjoy it!

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17 Years

In rural Tennessee there is a legend of a creature that wanders from town to town, spreading madness and ruin in its wake, preying on the troubled and weak of heart. On certain summer nights, those lonely folks who live deep under oak and hemlock pull trailer curtains closed, and lay a loaded shotgun beside the bed. There in the dark they whisper of things that stalked the earth long before man or woman could dream.

 

~

 

The Stranger was bubbling out his life under the blood moon. Stuart held the Stranger’s head in blood slick hands and prayed for headlights, but none came. The Stranger’s sickly twisted body was illuminated in old man moon’s hungry orange stare. Stuart felt very alone, out on the interstate in the dark, surrounded by clawing trees.
The man in Stuart’s arms made a clicking noise every time he drew breath. The sound seemed to fill the world. Stuart could feel it through his hands, like something was trapped in the man’s chest, shoving against his ribs – click- snap-pop.

“They’ll be here soon” Stu muttered, filling his ears with something other than the Stranger’s terrible breathing – click-pop-click – like a dying fire spitting sparks.

“I called an ambo. Headlights, man, just wait. They can move you.”

The Stranger let out a noise like a bundle of twigs snapping. Stu looked down at him and saw that he was laughing. Stu wanted to drop him in the dust and run. The night air pressed down around them, anticipating. The Stranger made a feeble gesture with two mangled fingers and Stuart reluctantly bent down, his ear full of the Stranger’s hot breath.

“I’m not going,” click-click-pop “anywhere” click-click “Stuart.” Then, much louder, the mouth widening into a manic grin full of broken and bloody teeth,

“You’re mine now.”

Something, probably a rabbit caught by a fox, screamed somewhere in the night. Sycamores and pines rustled in a warm night breeze. Crickets buzzed. Somewhere overhead, a jet passed by. In that moment, all Stuart could hear was the Stranger’s crackling, rasping breath and the sound of the world changing.

-=-

 

It was a brutally hot afternoon, the kind of heat where you could hear your blood pounding in your ears, though you could hardly hear anything over the cicadas. It was one of those years when there were thousands of the little bastards, buzzing their short lives away, flitting from the shade of Spanish moss into the shimmering afternoon heat. They made Stuart feel tired.

Stu had been sitting in front of his diner listening to Casey’s Last Ride on WKNP. Smoke curling from his cigarette pooled in lazy circles on the ceiling of the screen porch, to be scattered by a squeaking fan. His left hand idly picked at the curling paint of the siding behind his head. Stuart had rested his sweating glass of tea against his cheek and caught movement in the weird, swaying reflections that clung to Main Street’s asphalt.

Garrett’s battered F-150 materialized out of that wavering haze and parked across the street. Garrett, his face and skinny arms blistered with sunburn, stepped up onto the porch, tying on his grimy apron.

“Mornin’ Stu,” he said, and collapsed into an adirondack that creaked under him. “Anyone come in yet?”

“Nope,” Stuart replied, and then yelled inside “Hunter, you’re off!” Hunter, Stu’s daughter, gave her father and her father’s buddy a withering glare as she swept out of the screen door and walked out into the shimmering street, probably to find those no good Ernmeyer boys. Stuart sighed.

“You made the kid stay? You said there weren’t nobody in. That’s cold, Stu. I wouldn’t even be here if you could do any honest work.”

“You couldn’t get another job if you tried. Hunt needs someone looking over her shoulder. God knows her mother don’t give a shit what she’s doing.”

“Kelsey. She’s always been bad news. Didn’t I tell you? I said ‘Stu, don’t go doin’ nothing you’ll regret -”

“You didn’t say shit.”

“But then you went and married her. You’re hopeless, my friend.”

“We used your car to drive to Memphis and get hitched!”

“Just because I was the only junior at Riley High with a car doesn’t mean I approved. I lent it to ya’ll with a heavy heart.”

Stu rolled his eyes and flicked the butt of his smoke into a bucket by the door, reached for another. “Go make us some lunch Garrett. Talking about High School makes me feel like my old man.”

Smirking, Garrett headed inside, the screen door screeching and slamming behind him.

Blood thundered in Stuart’s ears, and sweat trickled down his face. The cicadas buzzed. The humidity pressed down on him, making skin and air indistinguishable. Stuart gazed into the middle distance, watching the reflections of the trees shudder in the heat pooled on the asphalt of Main Street. That was when he first saw the Stranger.

 

At first, Stuart just thought it was a trick of the road mirages; some vague shape, snapping in and out of sight at the crest of a hill just beyond Gallagher’s Gas. Stuart blew greasy strands of blond hair out of his eyes and squinted, and the distorted shape of a man leapt into view. Stuart watched the guy amble slowly up Main, hands on the straps of a battered frame pack, heat haze trailing around his boots. The guy saw Stu eyeing him and waved.

Stuart sighed inwardly as he waved back. It wasn’t that he disliked drifters; in fact he had a bit of a soft spot for the occasional wanderer. It was just that money was tight and he couldn’t really afford to feed someone for free. The guy approached, leaned his pack on the foot of the porch steps, and stretched expansively.

“Hey there, my main man Stuart! How’s it hanging?” The Stranger, as Stu mentally labeled him, was tall, with greying hair and black, glinting eyes. His denim jacket was faded at the shoulder from the sun, and his dungarees were tatty at the hems. He stood, grinning a mossy yellow grin up at Stuart, who was momentarily speechless.

“Well? Invite me in?”

“How the hell do you know my name?”

“It says it right on your sign, so you must be old Stu himself. Lemme bum a smoke and get off my feet, if yah don’t mind.”

“Familiar fella, aren’t you?”

“Only way to be, bud.”

“Sure come on up here, take a load off. Hope you don’t mind Winstons.” The Stranger’s boots sounded hollow on the oak boards of the porch as he settled himself into the chair next to Stuart. Wordlessly, Stu offered him a cigarette and the man lit up. They smoked for a few moments, until the silence became oppressive.

Stu shifted uncomfortably, then said, “These cicadas are something, huh?”

“Yeah, they’re good company for a road warrior like myself. This is a great year for them too.” The Stranger spoke with the drawl of rural southern rednecks everywhere, like he was talking around a lip full of chaw.

“Yeah, fucking things are everywhere. Where you comin’ from?”

“Oh, around. You know, there’s big mojo every 17 years. All sorts of critters raise their heads, summer like this one, not just cicadas.”

There was a little noise from inside the diner that made Stuart look around. He caught a quick glimpse of Garrett peering out from behind a shade, watching them. Stu glared at him, and Garrett withdrew. Moments later, the screen door squealed on rusted springs as Garrett emerged, carrying a limp cheese sandwich.

“Hey Stu, you alright out here?” The Stranger gave Garrett a wave, and Garret stared back with flat, unfriendly eyes.

“Yeah, we’re fine. Why are you being so skeevey?”

“Is this gent a customer?”

“Damn hoss, show the man some hospitality. You’re acting like more of an asshole than normal.”

Garrett said nothing, just raised his eyebrow at Stu and handed him his sandwich. The screen door screamed as he went back inside.

“What was his problem?” The Stranger asked, thick blue smoke curling from his mouth with every word.

“Garrett’s just an herb. We’re not used to strangers in town, just some of us are less particular ’bout it than others.”

“Happens all the time, people don’t always take kindly to strangers. Now, Stu my man, I’v got a few bucks burning a hole in my pants, and I’ve got a hanker to get lit tonight. Where’s a fella to do that herebouts?”

“Well bud, I guess it’s almost five. I can give you a ride out to my favorite bar, if you like.”

“That sounds like a plan. I got just enough for the first round, then you’re buying.”

“Sure. Just give me a few to close up here.”

The screen door howled and slammed behind Stuart as he walked into the dingy coolness of his diner. Dust and smoke from the range made light from the grimy windows pool in brown shafts on the dark wood floor. Garrett was at the register and gave Stu a wary glance.

“Stu, Hunter left something for you.”

It was a sticky note, taped on the till. Dad, cover for me.

Stuart sighed.

“Fuck. Kelsey’s gonna rip me a new one. God damn it, that girl.” Stuart leaned on the chipped Formica counter and put his head in his hands for a minute, massaging his pounding temples.

“ I got to make sure she makes it back home tonight.” Stuart stood up, untied his apron, and hung it up on a peg by the door to the kitchen. As he turned to leave, Garrett put his hand on Stu’s shoulder.

“Just go home, man. You’ve got enough on your plate. Besides, you already been talking to a hobo today, don’t need any more bad luck.”

Stu slapped his hand away.

“Climb out of my ass. And also, you need to bitching about out-of-towner customers in here. We’re a dollar away from being just like that guy out there.”

“I’ve told you, Stu. You can’t trust –“

“I don’t care what your godamn grandma said about the gremlins that crawl out of strangers necks. Keep that superstitious bullshit out of here. You close up tonight.”

“Fine. Billy’s later?”

Stu ignored him. Cursing under his breath, Stuart stormed out, and slammed the rusty screen door behind him. He gestured at the Stranger, who had his boots up on the porch railing.

“Well, come on then. After the day I’ve had, I need to get loaded.”

He and the Stranger ambled over to Stu’s rusted and peeling Buick. Stu started the coughing engine, flooded it and stalled.

“You gotta be easy with her, hoss.”

“I know,” Stu growled, “Its my car.”

Stu started the Buick again and the engine caught. He peeled out in a cloud of smoke, and sped down Main.

“I have to make sure my kid gets home. Hope that’s OK.”

The Stranger just picked his teeth with a thumbnail, staring out into air made thick by fluttering cicadas.

 

They sat parked across from Kelsey’s trailer for almost two hours. Stu played WKNP on the radio, and the Stranger tapped his hands on the dash and grinned. The sun sank below the horizon, bathing the car in a red glow, and making the lengthening shadows of the trees press in around them. Cicadas gave way to crickets, and a firefly flew in the Stranger’s window. He picked it up and let it crawl between his long, thin fingers. Purple clouds chased rosy ones out of the sky, and Mars glinted as a blood moon opened its orange eyes to glare down on earth.

“Why the long face?” The Stranger’s grin made Stuart angry. He wished he hadn’t brought the man with him now.

“Nothing. Bear with me.”

Soon Stu could hear a stereo blaring Kenny Chesney coming down the dirt road behind them. An SUV pulled up in front of Kelsey’s trailer. An indistinct figure scampered from the car into the trailer, and moments later, Stuart heard shouting coming from inside. Stu started up his engine again, acrid exhaust filling the Buick as he did.

“That girl is no damn good.”

“She yours?”

“Yeah.”

“Lives with her mama?”

“Don’t see as how it matters to you.”

The Stranger leered at Stuart, dark eyes glittering in the moonlight. The silence stretched, and Stu couldn’t help but look away.

“Whatever man. I could use that damn drink now.” Stuart cruised out of Sunnydale Mobile Village, dust spitting up from the Buick’s wheels. As he steered for Billy’s Saloon, his mind was not on the road, but on his family. He should spend more time with Hunter, he thought. She needed him, no matter how much Kelsey hollered. Plus, having her around kept him grounded. It had been good working with her these past few weeks, even though she hated every second of it. He should talk to her about these little awol stunts she kept pulling. He’d do it first thing when she came in tomorrow.

These thoughts kept him company until he and the Stranger pulled into Billy’s. Stuart parked next to Garrett’s F-150, which was sitting alone in the lot. The Stranger got out and, without a word, disappeared into the bar. Stuart shrugged.

“Good riddance.” He said, and spat viciously. He ambled in and sat at the bar, ignoring the Stranger, who stared at him from a booth. Bill Wythe, the bartender and owner, strolled over.

“Whatcha want tonight?”

“A pitcher of Bud and a Wild Turkey. Hey, is Garrett here?”

“Naw, I took his keys and sent him home.”

“Damn man, that’s a long ass walk.”

“Too bad. He was lit and yelling about ya’ll having a fight. He knocked down one of the old timers. Had to kick him out.”

“Stuart there said he’d kill that lazy fuck if he had half a chance, that Garrett fella.”

Bill and Stuart glanced up at the Stranger, who had spoken from his corner booth. From here, the only thing Stu could see was the man’s yellow-toothed grin. Stuart gave the bastard a look that could melt ice and turned back to Bill.

“Yeah, I didn’t say that.”

“Whatever,” said Bill, “He had to go. Just stay out of each other’s way for a couple of days, or go and pick his ass up and bang each other for all I care. You’ve been in here too much lately, I get tired of your ugly face.”

Stuart scoffed and took his first shot. So began a night that would be worthy of one of his father’s worst benders. Stuart drank. He drank until he could not remember the diner, Garrett, the Stranger, his family, or his name. He drank until he sang along with Hank Williams on the juke. The Stranger watched him the whole time, grinning. Nobody sat next to him. Eventually Stuart was drunk enough to dance with Patty Dugger, and drunk enough to get thrown out of Billy’s by Hank Dugger, Bill shouting at him all the way. He was so drunk that he ended up puking his guts out on the side of Garrett’s pickup.

“Home.” Stu mumbled to the listening night. He wondered if he should find the Stranger. He decided that the Stranger go fuck himself for all he cared. The next few minutes were a grey blur. Fumbling with keys. Struggling to start his car. Waving at Bill Wythe, who was shouting at him.

Stuart puttered down the road, the Buick coughing along in low gear. He wove his way onto 374, and drove into a tunnel of looming trees, into the night. His headlights sliced away at the slick, oppressive dark. His head spun and the trees clutched at his car, brittle claws crackling with his passing.

Then, clear as rain, he knew he should stop. He should find a parking lot somewhere and sleep it off.

“Too far away now,” he muttered aloud, “Too far down.” The road turned endlessly in front of him, like the bottom of a hamster wheel. Something like fear turned his gut, like an animal stirring under wet leaves, but he paid it no mind. Stu closed his eyes, just for a second. The wind from the window was cool on his face, and if something followed him, and passed him by there, alone on the road, he paid it no mind either.

 

And if, alone in the dark, a man stumbled toward home, and was taken by cold, thin fingers that reached out of the hemlocks, no one knew, and no one minded. And when that grinning thing finally flung him into the path of oncoming lights, he was glad to feel the cool radiator grille when it caressed his face.

 

 

 

THUDCRUMP

 

Skidding off the road. Panic. Pain, as things snatched at his face and gouged his arms. A second of terrible confusion as the world seemed to teeter and falter. Then ancient airbags exploded out of the Buick and slapped him in the face. The fabric burned, shattered his nose, and smashed his right arm against the gearshift.

 

Then there was silence.

 

Night peepers shrilled as Stuart groaned and looked around. Confused, he slapped at the airbag in his face and was surprised to see that his arm flopped weirdly at the forearm. Pain gushed through him as sobriety came back in a horrible, gut wrenching rush. Awkwardly, he used his left hand to open his door and step out of the car. His head spun. The Buick was in the ditch at the side of the road, front bumper mangled and crushed, and the open door tone bonging incongruously. Stu stumbled a few steps and sat down hard on the asphalt of the road.

Then he heard a moan.

 

-=-

 

 

What just happened? I must have hit my head, Stu thought. I’m afraid.

The man in Stuart’s arms made a clicking noise every time he drew breath. The sound seemed to fill the world. Stuart could feel it through his hands –

“They’ll be here soon” Stu muttered aloud, filling his ears with something other than terrible breathing – click-pop-click, like a dying fire spitting sparks.

Then, sudden as blinking, the figure in his arms calmed and looked up at him with eyes that reflected the orange glitter of the moon, and spoke.

“It,” pop-click-click “was” click-click “chasing me.” Then, much more softly;

“It hurts,” click-pop-click “Oh Christ.”

Something, probably a rabbit caught by a fox, screamed somewhere in the night.

Then Stu heard a sound he had never been happy to hear in his life. Sirens. There was an ambulance, maybe a cop too. As the headlights sliced away the darkness, Stu felt relief wash over him.

“Hey man, they’re here!”

He looked down at the crumpled figure in his arms.

 

It was Garrett.

 

 

Later, in the back of the police car, the road lit by flashing lights, Stuart thought about his family. He might not ever see them again. Bill Wythe had called the police on him. Beyond the plexiglass barrier separating them from Stu, the two deputies talked about bad blood and arguments, bath salts and mutilation. The cruiser’s window was cool on Stuart’s cheek. As the dark landscape past him, illuminated in the garish red and blue of the police car’s lights, cicadas that had hibernated for 17 years slept again. Peepers orated over the gentle meter of crickets. The blood moon shone through the twisted branches overhanging the road, painting the asphalt in dappled orange. And something watched Stuart from the depth of the trees, loping along in the dark just out of reach of light. It was grinning a yellow grin, and chuckling with breath like rotting leaves.

My First Story

propaganda4

SO, because this is my first post, I want to preface by saying hello, welcome, and if you’re reading this I’m a happy man. My name is Nick Steele, let me tell you about myself. I’m a 20 year old student at Virginia Tech,  majoring in political science and minoring in psychology. However, my passion has always been books, and more recently, writing. This past semester I took a creative writing class, and it lit a fire under my ass, and so here I am, trying to integrate this new love into my life. My goal as of today is to find a job doing something writing-related, probably freelance to begin with. Of course, when trying to break into doing something like this, there’s the classic dilemma facing my generation: in order to get this entry level job, please show prior experience.  So I had the idea that I would make a blog which would be a portfolio of my past work, and also be a way to share my stuff with you folks out there. I want people to read my writing, talk to me about it, show me where I need improvement, and, ideally, enjoy it.

My first few posts will be older stories that I wrote either for school or for the hell of it. This first one is my baby. I wrote it for that creative writing class I mentioned earlier, and I’m so happy with it for a few reasons. First, I felt like it was really topical, and integrated other stuff I’m interested in (read – politics). Secondly, it’s the first time that I’ve written something that was more than just a vignette, and even though it was tons of work it was really rewarding to watch it develop and change. Also, I should mention that workshopping in class played a huge role in how this piece came together, and hearing from people makes me execute at a higher level. If you have any comment, thought,  question, or suggestion, please reach out! I’ll write the contact section of this site right after I finish here, and hearing from people is really so important to me. Thank you, I hope you like…

 

A Collection of Post-Republican Documents

 

Forward

 

For the past century, the end of the Republican Era has fascinated people, from school kids to philosophers, from young anthropologists to decrepit enthusiasts like me. Is there a single living person who doesn’t admire the mythic figures from that age of high morality? However, I must warn you that these are not the stories your grandfather told you at bedtime when you were a kid. Rather, I am proud to present a window into a time that has been extremely influential on today’s society, in the words of those who lived through it.

My hope is that this primer can help to shed some light on the human drama that is so ubiquitous in the post-republican era. Often times, holos and histories ignore how fundamental the changes and struggles of this period were for the ordinary person. There are thousands of primary sources from the period, the largest armed conflict since the Second World War. It was the most public war in the early digital age. Consequently, this selection is just the tip of the iceberg that awaits the true enthusiast. I encourage each and every one of my readers; if you enjoy the stories of the individuals I have presented here, do some digging in the large quantities of public information available on the subject.

In this 100-year anniversary edition, I have included some passages from my 2131 bestseller “How the Great Experiment Failed” to provide a little context and color to the documents I have collected. My hope is that this will help the layman envision themselves in the shoes of the men and women of old America without needing to reference another text.

And so, without any further ado, I present a little collection of documents from after the fall of the great republic.

 

– Dr. Qi Tuolumne, University of Greater Beijing, 2136.

 

~-~

 

“What a cruel thing war is… to fill our hearts with hatred instead of love for our neighbors.”

– Robert Lee
~-~

 

Olivia Saleh

Arcadia

Los Angeles

 

[Excerpt from The Saleh Tapes, a series of audio recordings of conversations between Arcadian Deputy War Minister Olivia Saleh and Arcadian Internal Affairs Minister, Dr. Kent Wentworth. March 21, 2036.]

 

Dr. Wentworth: Olivia, so nice to see you. Please, have a seat.

 

Olivia Saleh: Hey. So, mind telling me why I’m here again?

 

Dr. Wentworth: I’m sure you know. The incident with that reporter? The word is that he won’t get out of the hospital for another six weeks. Do you feel like talking about it?

 

Olivia Saleh: Not particularly.

 

Dr. Wentworth: Let me rephrase that. You owe Internal Affairs an explanation, especially after I put my head on the chopping block for you.

 

Olivia Saleh: Look, freedom of the press doesn’t give any asshole with a camera access to my personal office. We’re at war, right? He could have been there to kill me and he got what was coming to him. So, who ratted me out? Or was it security cameras? I know they’re everywhere; Big Brother’s got to keep an eye on people in the land of the free.

 

Dr. Wentworth: It wasn’t surveillance footage that got you sent over here, Olivia. Several people witnessed the altercation, but when I reminded them of your importance to this administration, they decided not to go public. These sources – they said that you were intoxicated.

 

Olivia Saleh: You want to go there? Fine, I’ll bite. For the sake of argument, say I was drinking. So what? I have a responsibility to defend myself if an aggressive trespasser breaks into government property and accosts me. If I happened to have had a drink, that’s just his bad luck.

 

Dr. Wentworth: I thought we agreed about this. You said that you wouldn’t have another drink while you were in public office. I know you haven’t been going to the meetings. Why not?

 

Olivia Saleh: I’ve been too busy trying to make sure the nation survives; once in a while that tends to cut into my free time.

 

Dr. Wentworth: Answer the question, Olivia.

 

Olivia Saleh: If you’re worried about my performance, recommend that I get fired. I’m sure that in six months they’ll find three people who’ll kill themselves trying to do my job as well as I can. You can find me in the war department, doc.

 

~-~

 

Maya Cooper

Arcadia

Mile High Airbase, Colorado

 

George Smiley                                                                                             March 9, 2036

Chase Tower, 201 N Central Ave,

Phoenix, AZ 85004

Arcadia

 

Dear Father,

 

I hate to send messages by snail mail, but all other communications have been suspended, alas. Too risky, they say. So, I hope this letter finds you before you get too worried about me. All is well here, more than well, in fact. I write with wonderful news. I got the job on General Farrow’s staff. I’m now his aide and runner. I got shiny new uniform bars and a not so shiny requisition motorcycle, pretty cool, right?

I got to meet Brad Farrow in my last job interview, and he was expansive, a big guy with a waxed mustache and wandering eye syndrome. Even in Arcadia, some people never get with the times, I guess. The word is that he’s the next Eisenhower, but he didn’t command anything bigger than a squad when he was a captain in Saudi Arabia. Either way, we’ll see how good he really is once we move on the Commonwealth’s western border. On that note, Mile High Command has been bustling lately. We got a whole squadron of big semis and TONS of gas from Nevada yesterday, so I guess we’ll be on the offensive before too long.
My new job is mostly menial, keeping high command informed on the supplies arriving in Boulder Station from back west. However, in between counting MREs and spare tents, I’ve gotten to meet some new friends. Yesterday a few of the folks from the General’s staff had the night off and we went out on the town. Most of them are the usual bunch, a little officious but pleasant enough. My favorites, though, are the press embedded in the General’s staff. You should look up Jane Gladwell. She used to be a photographer for National Geographic, but now she’s shooting pics for the AP. I get the feeling we’ll be spending a lot of time together. She’s funny, and smart as a tack, which is a rare combination around here. Best of all, she’s a gossip.

So last night most of the other aides had gone off to some other bar, and I ended up chatting with the lovely Ms. Gladwell for hours. She told me about a time when she had tried to do a portrait for General Farrow.

“He personally requested me,” she said, “and he was really into it. He made us put him in makeup and everything, ”

I grinned. “Gotta look good if you’re going down in history, right?”

“Erm but, Maya – I mean, uh, Major,” She rolled her eyes. “Gah. I’ll just call you Majoya.”

I laughed. People are always so awkward about rank, it’s all totally contrived, but at least she made a joke about it. “Maya’s fine right now.”

“Ok, cool. The portrait thing though – it’s more absurd than I could make up. He dressed up in field uniform, rubbed dirt all over himself, and wanted me to take his picture like he was surveying a battlefield. He said to make sure he looked ‘noble, but approachable’. It was ridiculous.”

I just giggled, and we kept on talking, but don’t you think that’s interesting? Maybe the real Eisenhower cultivated his own image a bit too, but I doubt he was as sensitive about it as Brad Farrow. Fatal flaws, man. Oh well, every CO has their little quirks, a side effect of potentially leading so many people to their deaths, I guess.

In other news, I’m sure you’ll be thrilled to know I’m dating someone. He’s a Captain, Manning Cox, in charge of supply; I actually met him while he was trying to herd a bunch of terrified cows out of a boxcar. He seems reasonably interesting, and he’s taking me for dinner and dancing at the Boulder convention center on Friday, there’s gonna be some big party for officers there. Don’t expect any grandkids yet though, we’ll see if he can impress me.

Anyway, that’s really all I’ve got time for; in about an hour I’ll be back at the station counting boxes of artillery shells or something. I’ll have more interesting news next time, but you always say to pay attention to first letters, right? Say hey to the other kids for me,

 

Maya

 

~-~

 

Excerpt from “How the Great Experiment Failed”, by Doctor of Historical Anthropology, Qi Tuolumne, of the University of Greater Beijing, 2131.

 

In the year 2036, the country known as the United States of America died. The great experiment had failed. Though the people of that time called themselves Americans, and their struggle the second Civil War, it cannot be so recognized, as America would never reform the shape or regain the influence it had maintained for almost three centuries. The two factions in this conflict, Arcadia and the Atlantic Commonwealth, became bit players on the world stage and a destabilizing force in the region, paving the way for the rise of the Sino-Mandarin Federation as a world superpower.

However, despite the evidence to the contrary, this conflict had far reaching implications on world history, and our culture of today can still feel the resonance of those long past events. For these reasons, a deeper look into the causes and events surrounding the fall of the Great Republic is infinitely valuable to historian and modern politician both.

The root cause of the Arcadia-Commonwealth War can be traced to fossil fuel shortages, like many of the wars of the twenty first century. Due to an over-estimation of oil reserves by eager drilling companies, America came to rely increasingly on imported OPEC oil in the 2010s and 2020s. This set the stage for the foreign policy crisis of 2022, the Green Line Offensive. Over a period of two weeks in February of that year, Palestinian troops supported by Saudi Arabian artillery and air strikes took control of much of the Israeli West bank, and declared themselves an independent state.

This put the international community in an awkward position, the United States most of all, as both Israel and Saudi Arabia had been staunch allies of America for decades. The international governing body of the time, the U.N., was hamstrung from stepping in by flaws in its command structure. Old China and Russia were indifferent to instability in the region due to cooperative drilling treaties in the North Sea, and vetoed the U.S.’ pleas for intervention in the Middle East in the high chamber of U.N. governance, the security council.

Frustrated with the tepid response from the U.N., President Drum, an instrumental figure in the upcoming drama, decided to put American boots on the ground anyway, ostensibly to defuse the situation. However, his hawkish tendencies soon became clear, as he concentrated forces in the Red Sea and launched a land invasion of Saudi Arabia, citing the 2016 Panama Papers as a causus belli to oust what he called “The radical Islamic theocracy that dominates the Saudis.”

The resulting conflict, called the Six Weeks War, was catastrophic for the American forces and American influence worldwide. With Drum micromanaging operations from Washington, American troops made lightning fast progress across the Saudi heartland, captured the capitol, Riyadh, and imprisoned the Saudi royal family and key religious leaders. At home, Drum crowed his victory, little knowing the counterstrike that was gathering its strength.

Saudi generals who had escaped the occupation of Riyadh signed a treaty with Kurdish Peshmurga, promising them the regions of Jwaf and Arar in exchange for military alliance. Kurdish and Palestinian forces from the north and Saudi regulars from Medina in the west fell on the Americans in Riyadh. The slaughter lasted sixteen days before the then Brigadier General Bainbrick, highest ranking American officer left alive, surrendered to the allied Arabian troops on May 1st, 2022. The new leaders of Kurdistan, Palestine, and Saudi Arabia allowed the Americans to withdraw, but placed an oil embargo on the United States, which began its financial collapse. However, this is only the background percussion in what was a symphony of domestic unrest in Old America. To better understand the situation, we must turn our attention to the American heartland for the election and presidency of Ted Drum.

 

~-~

 

James Melville

The Commonwealth

Outside Pittsburgh

 

Ms. Asiah Fletcher                                                                                  February 14, 2036

2100, Gated Clover Lane

Savannah, GA, 31401

The Atlantic Commonwealth

 

To the love of my life,

 

I am writing to you today from our barracks outside of Pittsburgh to tell you that the company finally got its orders. We are going north, to help prepare for the push to finally take New York. Tamara is sitting next to me, cleaning her SAW while I write this, and she wants you to know that we are going to break some Bloody Hearts.

Our squad captured two Arcadian deserters this morning, and dear God they were so thin, and just dressed in rags. One of them was a kid, and he cried when Cook brought him some food. They said that the Bloody Hearts are all like that because the rebel government holds their pay in arrears to “support the state”, and it made me realize that no matter what might have happened in Washington, the Commonwealth cause is as righteous as ever. Captain Culver would have let them stay with us, but some Black Coats (I guess I’m supposed to call them Legates, but no one does) came and took them off to HQ. Your sister wasn’t too happy about that, and she tried to argue, but one of the Black Coats was a Lieutenant, and Tamara’s stripes weren’t worth much against him. She’s still muttering about it right now, you know how your sister is.

I miss being warm. I miss you. I dream about that trip we took to St. Catherine’s, the beach, those long summer nights… I wish I could call you and hear your voice, but your sister says that even the General uses paper for his orders, so that the enemy can’t jam or intercept them. Speaking of which, I actually talked to General Bainbrick. Robert Crawford and I were on sentry duty by the gates to our squad’s bivouac, and he was just walking around, with only one aide. He talked about the weather, asked if we were keeping warm, and shook our hands. It was amazing. Even though I’d rather be anywhere than here, with that man in charge, I know I’ll come home safe.

Did you know Davis, as in Davis, is up here too? He’s a volunteer in the brigade’s engineer corps, a corporal now, I think. First thing he did was sneak up behind me and yell “’Shun, conscript-private!”

Asshole.

Anyway we got to talking about home, and when I told him that I’ve been writing you, he asked if you could check on his Nana for him. I know he’d really appreciate it. He said she lives on Carnegie St, in a house with yellow shutters. I guess she doesn’t have anyone around since he’s volunteered.

God, I wish I’d volunteered. The volunteers don’t have the Black Coats crawling all over them, like we do every day. They get their own mess, all the best duties, everything. But I can’t complain, if I think about it too much I only get more homesick. Tell me everything that’s happened since your last letter. My commanding officer, your dear Tamara, says to give your parents her love. How is your class? Are those kids behaving themselves? Are you all getting enough gas, cuz there’s none up here.

 

I miss you. I love you. I think about you every second of every day.

Conscript-Private J.P. Melville.

 

Long Live The Commonwealth

 

~-~

 

Olivia Saleh

Arcadia

Los Angeles

 

 

[Transcript of Deputy War Minister Olivia Saleh’s Speech to the Emergency Council, May 27, 2036.]

 

Honorable Interim President, Members of the Emergency Council, my fellow Arcadians, I stand before you today in awe of what we can do together. Four years ago, I was weeping for the death of freedom, for the death of a nation, and the treacherous victory of tyranny and ignorance. If you had asked me then, I would have said that there was no hope, that good men and women were doomed to be shackled. But here we stand, people of all colors, creeds, and religions, FREE AND PROUD. [Uproarious applause]

My dear, dear friends, we rose out of the darkest time in our nation’s history to build something beautiful, something that will stand the test of years and rise like a phoenix to take its place beside ancient Athens or Revolutionary France as an example of what humanity can do when we come together and work as one. But, as you know, though we have moved mountains together, the dawn is still far away.

I want to share my story with you today. My colleagues might call this amateur; what politician shows her true colors on national TV? [Audience laughs] My great-grandfather came to the Old Republic, the great melting pot, seeking freedom, equality, and justice. My Mother, Malia, my father, Karim, and my sister, Fatima, were all Americans, and they loved the old country, warts and all. They did not hide who they were, my mom wore her hijab proudly, and my sister was unafraid to hold hands with her wife in public. Then, four years ago, the rebels took Washington, where we were living and working at the time. You all are familiar with the stories before General Bainbrick and the Civilian Protection Treaty. In the chaos and slaughter, the bombs, and destruction… I was separated from my family. I haven’t seen them since that day. [The room is silent. The Minister’s voice breaks, but she keeps talking in a hoarse croak.]. Fatima and Tanya, her wife, were part of the 77. Goldenbaum’s fanatics murdered them on the steps of the Supreme Court, for the crimes of illegal marriage, Islamic radicalism, and defacing the culture of America. Neither my sister nor her wife were practicing Muslims. My father was marched to a work camp in Louisiana, but never arrived there. My mother, as far as I know, is still alive in a Puerto Rico gulag.

There’s the reason we call the Conservative junta and their mindless followers Ignorants. Those people don’t know the first thing about human dignity, about basic rights, about anything good or right or just. They spit on what this nation once stood for. It is our duty and our privilege to teach those tyrants and their mindless cattle a lesson the world will never forget, with fire and steel and lead. [The tension releases from the room in a rush of cheers and applause.]

Time and time again, since the birth of this country, good people have had to stand up and say, “Enough is enough.” Ladies and gentlemen, that time is now, now more than ever. As my family was, so every human being is entitled to the pursuit of happiness, to live a life free from fear, and to have a government that supports and succors them in their times of need. I will defend those rights until my last breath, with the blood in my veins and the fire in my soul. I know that my sister is looking down on me from heaven with joy, knowing that I stand shoulder to shoulder with so many people that feel the same way, people that still believe in the democratic dream, people who still believe in one another. That is why every man, woman, and child must support this war, and endure any hardships that the Emergency Council asks of you, because no matter how arduous they seem, the Emergency edicts are for the good of the people.

Finally, I’d like to say a few words about the bravery and importance of our soldiers, who even now are out there in the field, fighting to secure a better future for our children. In times like these, we look for a leader, a hero, a figure to lead us out from under the shadow of tyranny that threatens to overwhelm us. However, we need no heroes to fight the Commonwealth. The strength to achieve victory is within all of us. We call our brave officers or victorious generals heroes. We put the one who struck a damaging blow on a pedestal, and they reap the lion’s share of glory. What we do not see is the thousands who fight with those brave men and women; ordinary people who stood up to be soldiers for a just cause. They may never be recognized for their achievements; they won’t have wealth or power when this fight is over. They are the heroes. Those who rise up for what they believe in, those are the people who should be recognized as the soul of Old America. They are the true Arcadians!

[cheering]

 

~-~

 

Maya Cooper

Arcadia

Mile High Airbase, Colorado

 

George Smiley                                                                                        June 2, 2036

Chase Tower, 201 N Central Ave,

Phoenix, AZ 85004

Arcadia

 

Dear Father,

 

I’ve finally got a few minutes to myself to sit down and write you another letter. So much has happened. The big news, of course, is the upcoming offensive. The fact that there is going to be an attack on Commonwealth territory is no secret, but high command has been very tight lipped about where the actual attack is going to be, due to rumors that enemy agents have penetrated the army. If there really is a mole, they’d have to be the cleverest, most devious, and most charming agent alive; the MP’s haven’t even arrested anyone yet.

But enough gossip. I’ve been itching to vent about the fat stacks of bullshit I deal with on a daily basis. Top of the pile is doing secretary duty for the General. Sound routine to you? Not so. Whenever I’m around him, I play an absolutely fascinating game that involves carefully watching for wandering hands, as dear General Farrow likes his palms to be full of subordinate. Charming, right? He spends twice as much time in front of the press corps’ cameras than he does with his military advisors. He’s particularly fond of scheduling interviews, which he spends pontificating on how “my good, homegrown lads will show those Commonwealth buggers what’s what”. What an idiot.

Most people around here worship the General, though. Manning Cox, with whom I just celebrated a beatific six-week anniversary, is one of them. I find his Labrador-like reasoning is often representative of the army’s thoughts.

“You’ll see, babe,” he’ll reassure me, leaning against my desk while I go through the requisitions of an incoming shipment of freeze-dried potatoes, “Farrow might seem odd, but he’s in charge for a reason. He’s, like, some kind of genius. Graduated one of those big schools, you know, the military ones. Anyway I bet he was top of his class.”

So I’ll keep smiling and doing my own lapdog impression: “I’m sure you know how all that stuff works, you’ve been doing this soldier thing way longer than me.”

To round out how interesting my new job is, have you ever tried spending six hours debating the merits of the different rail lines between Colorado, Dallas, Oklahoma City, and Kansas City? I have. I don’t recommend it. We’ve been doing these meetings twice a week for the past month now; I guess high command is really concerned with the feasibility of supply trains to some big targets.

Anyway that’s what my life has been like these past few weeks, take your pick of what seems most interesting to you. I have to go; Jane Gladwell is banging on my door, says she needs to talk about something important.

 

My best,

 

Maya

 

~-~

 

Excerpt from “How the Great Experiment Failed”, by Doctor of Historical Anthropology, Qi Tuolumne, of the University of Greater Beijing, 2131.

 

It was the year of the Cherry Blossom Transition here in China when Old America took it’s first steps towards chaos. In 2016 C.E., President Teddy Drum was elected for his first term in office by a landslide. His campaign was a marked change from how Old American politics had been historically conducted. Drum brought a dynamism and polarization to the political stage that had not been seen in that country for many years. His charisma was only matched by his boundless personal fortune, with which he funded his own campaign. His opinions were considered abrasive by many, but the majority (particularly the conservative, Caucasian one) of Old Americans saw him as an innovator who could end the deadlock that had been common in the bicameral lawmaking body of the time, Congress.

During his campaign, Drum developed a close friendship with two of his subordinates. The young, intense Rudy Goldenbaum was one of Drum’s speechwriters, and the brash Baptist, Johanna Ascario, was his campaign lawyer. Though Drum’s stump speeches showed little of their influence, the candidate came to rely more and more on Goldenbaum’s carefully constructed arguments and Ascario’s searing rhetoric. In turn, Goldenbaum and Ascario formed the core of a group of young businessmen, Wall Street speculators, and heirs to old southern money that were Drum’s fiercest supporters. In secret ritualized meetings, this clandestine group aspired to reshape Old America into a Commonwealth run by the rich and powerful.

In November 2016, Drum won the presidency on a Republican ticket by a narrow margin against an older senator from the north of the country. Almost immediately his approval ratings skyrocketed to record levels. His business connections and aggressive foreign policies led the Old American economy into a boom, and the country prospered. By the time of his second term, Drum was wholly convinced that he could do no wrong. This led to his appointment of his two protégés into high office. Johanna Ascario was appointed to a Supreme Court seat, and Rudy Goldenbaum became the head of the newly formed Division of Morality. The Division of Morality, in particular, quickly gained a dark reputation. Rumors of the atrocities committed by federal agents against immigrants and minorities began to circulate throughout the country, and the embers of discontent began to smolder.

 

 

~-~

 

James Melville

The Commonwealth

Trenches Outside New York City

 

 

Ms. Asiah Fletcher                                                                                            June 7, 2036

2100, Gated Clover Lane

Savannah, GA, 31401

The Atlantic Commonwealth

 

Dearest Asiah,

 

I am so sorry I haven’t been able to send you a note for so long. I know that news about last week’s engagement outside New York has probably reached home by now, and I want to start off by saying that I’m fine, and so is your sister. Not a scratch on us, but I do have a pretty rough concussion. I want to tell you about New York, or what I remember about it anyway.

The night after we arrived at the New York FOB, the artillery opened up. I was asleep like a rock in my bivvy when your sister shook me awake.

“Come on,” she said, “you don’t want to miss this.”

We ended up walking towards the top of the rise where Bainbrick’s main camp was, me cussing and stumbling and tripping on rocks, your sister shushing me every time. I was still rubbing the sleep out of my eyes when I heard the first howitzer go off, somewhere to our right. I could feel it in my chest and stomach, a deep, juddering lurch. Tamara and me were walking through a copse of trees, when a light blossomed from somewhere in front of us and painted the world in eerie, clawing patterns of white and indigo. A moment later I heard the sound of the exploding shell, a dozen bolts of lightning going off at once.

There was a moment of pure silence, like the whole world was holding its breath. Then, a shell from the Arcadian lines arched across the field in front of us and exploded far to our left, spraying glowing shrapnel into the air like a Fourth of July firework.

That whole night we sat in the long, wet grass at the top of a hill and watched flashes of light throw death back and forth, like a demented Ping-Pong game or something. Near dawn, I was dozing when an ear-shattering howl overhead made me jump up and look around. As I watched, a whole section of the rebel lines erupted into smoke and fire. A moment later the explosion’s huge, crackling thud rolled past us.

“Those must have been our fighters,” Tamara said when we could hear ourselves speak again.

“I thought we didn’t have fuel for them anymore,” I said, my eyes on the huge gouts of fire and smoke spouting from the shattered section of mud wall the jets had struck. How many lives had just been snuffed out?

“Guess Bainbrick’s been saving some for today,” she said, nestling her head back into the crook of her arm.

I wonder what they’re saving for us over there, I thought.

 

I don’t remember a lot about the battle itself. I don’t want to. What I can picture best is the morning before, when the conscript company was in reserve and we had nothing to do but wait. We were playing a distracted game of poker for cashews, all of us half scalding because we were too close to the campfire, half freezing from the flecks of snow that spat down from the sky.

“Jacks full of threes,” Robert said. From somewhere behind him, one of our howitzers fired, then another. You could feel the reports rumbling through the ground better than you could actually hear them, even though it sounded like God was popping off caps from a magnum right next to your head. Everyone in our half-circle flinched a little bit, and then tried to avoid each other’s eyes.

“Ante up,” said Arthur Nguyen, his voice trembling a little. We waited there, drinking too much coffee and trying to distract each other from what we all knew was about to happen. I don’t think I’ll ever eat cashews again. I still can’t get the taste of the damn things out of my mouth.

Eventually, Captain Culver strolled into the middle of camp and stood on a truck bed with a megaphone.

“Listen up. Just to reiterate, Squads A through O are with Lt. Harding and me. Staff Sargent Fletcher has P through S, and they’ll be screening our right flank and forming skirmish lines there when the main body engages. T will now be helping take casualties to the field hospital, which is in Brigadier General Hughes’ encampment. Let’s give `em hell, we’re Oscar Mike in five.”

I don’t want to talk about the fighting much. The noise was the biggest thing about it – a constant crackle of small arms and the leonine booms of large ordinance. I got my concussion when a JDAM the Arcadians had rigged as a mine exploded 500 yards away from me. Your sister probably saved my life right after that. She dragged me into a foxhole while I was lying there on the frozen mud, bleeding from my ears. I saw – I saw people in Captain Culver’s company blown down like they were empty plastic bottles in a hurricane. Robert Crawford is dead. So are Arthur Nguyen, Lt. Harding, Jen Torvald, Cookie, Captain Culver, and most of the conscripts in Bainbrick’s army. We were sent in first, to soak up enemy ammunition. And someone in the field hospital told me that the assault is continuing tomorrow.

Asiah, I want to come home. I can’t do this anymore. I want to go home.

 

Conscript-Private J.P. Melville.

 

~-~

 

Olivia Saleh

Arcadia

Los Angeles

 

[Excerpt from The Saleh Tapes, a series of audio recordings of conversations between Arcadian Deputy War Minister Olivia Saleh and Arcadian Internal Affairs Minister, Dr. Kent Wentworth.. July 17, 2036.]

 

Dr. Wentworth: Sorry about the wait, Olivia, please come in.

 

Olivia Saleh: What’s going on? You look like you were up all night.

 

Dr. Wentworth: I got a call at four this morning. Apparently there was a fire in the Boulder command center late last night, and my people are crying arson. One of my agents up there, Charles Mackey, was just found stabbed to death and stuffed into a locker.

 

Olivia Saleh: Ugh. I’m sorry to hear that, doc. We’ve been dealing with that particular headache this morning too. You know the gas stockpiles were all destroyed? It had to have been Commonwealth agents. Bastards.

 

Dr. Wentworth: I know the War Department does mail screenings – has there been anything odd there, any red flags?

 

Olivia Saleh: I’ll let IA know if anything comes up. They’re overworked and understaffed, so it could be a while.

 

Dr. Wentworth: Well, on a happier note, your career has really been in the spotlight recently. My people tell me you’ve been going to the AA meetings, and I had a chance to catch your speech the other night. My wife and I thought it was really good stuff, really inspiring.

 

Olivia Saleh: My speechwriters really cooked up a killer. The members of the Emergency Council got to clap each other on the back, the public got it’s dose of nationalism, and I even got to shake the Interim President’s hand after the speech was over. It was fucking fantastic.

 

Dr. Wentworth: You sound bitter.

 

Olivia Saleh: Hah. Did you know that the Council spent a quarter of a million dollars on the reception we had after that speech? There are thousands of people starving to death in the refugee camps outside LA right now. How’s that for hypocritical, huh?

 

Dr. Wentworth: That sounds an awful lot like anti-government sentiment, you know.

 

Olivia Saleh: You know, Kent, I really don’t understand you at all. One minute you seem almost human, and the next it’s back to the mind games. What do you want from me, my life story? Is this your twisted idea of work flirting? What’s wrong with you?

 

Dr. Wentworth: It’s my job, Olivia. Maybe if there had been someone playing some “mind games” with the staff at Boulder, we could have caught this Commonwealth cur before they could do any damage. I just want to make sure that you’re truly loyal to the Emergency Cou-

 

Olivia Saleh: The Council can shove –

 

Dr. Wentworth: Loyal to Arcadia, I mean.

 

Olivia Saleh: As long as there’s a Commonwealth soldier still alive, I’ll rip him apart with my bare fucking hands. That work for you, doc?

 

~-~

 

Maya Cooper

Arcadia

Mile High Airbase, Colorado

 

George Smiley                                                                                     July 16, 2036

Chase Tower, 201 N Central Ave,

Phoenix, AZ 85004

Arcadia

 

Father,

 

Alpha and Omega, that’s the passage you quoted at your brother’s funeral, right? I’ve been thinking about that a lot today. I know I’ve mentioned Jane Gladwell in my other letters. She’s dead. The official report is that she committed suicide, but there are some crazy rumors flying around the camp that a Commonwealth agent murdered her. Even though I don’t really believe it, I have to ask myself how someone like Jane could possibly kill herself? She seemed so vivacious, so happy and energetic. I guess people like that always have a dark side. Alpha and Omega, yin and yang, right?

Tangoing with Captain Cox seems inappropriate after a tragedy like this. I broke up with him last night, tried to let him down gently. His sloppy attempts at consoling me were just too much for me to stomach. Honestly he was a conquest of convenience; I guess I needed something (someone?) to do between all that vitally important Quartermastery.

Oscar Galbraith, an MP, came to interview me about Ms. Gladwell’s death. I told him everything I could, but when I asked he said that the investigation was ongoing and that I should wait for news like everyone else. Apparently he’s been going through her personal data – emails, the cache on her computer, that sort of thing – to see if that can help them turn up information on her death. God. I’ve thought about Jane too much for one day.

Kilos of gasoline – I’ve spent so much time the past few days making sure that the precious few gallons of the stuff that the Arcadian Emergency Council could scrape together are well guarded. I feel like throwing myself into menial tasks is how I’ll drag my hindbrain away from thinking about what’s been going on around here. Even though our final destination is still a tightly guarded secret, we will finally moving out on the 22nd. I can’t wait to leave; I’ve spent too much time stuck in stuffy rooms with too many people too few windows.

Charlie Mackey, some guy from the Internal Affairs office in LA, is here to see me. I’d better wrap this up.

 

-.-. — …- . .-. / -… .-.. — .– -. .-.-.- / .— .- -. . / –. .-.-.- / .-. . … .–. — -. … .. -… .-.. . –..– / . .-.. .. — .. -. .- – . -.. .-.-.- / -… .- -. –.. .- .. / .–. .-. — – — -.-. — .-.. / .. -. .. – .. .- – . -.. .-.-.- / ..-. ..- .-.. .-.. / .-. . .–. — .-. – / .-.. . ..-. – / .- – / -.. . .- -.. / -.. .-. — .–. .-.-.- / …. .- .. .-.. / – …. . / .-.. . –. .- – . … .-.-.-

 

Forever devoted,

 

Maya

 

P.S.- please excuse the scribbling. I’m just in a terrible mood, and this letter was my latest victim.

 

 

[Editor’s note: Something seemed off about the end of the above letter. Upon long hours of research, the doodle was revealed to be a pre-digital cryptogram. It reads:

 

cover blown. jane g. responsible, eliminated. banzai protocol initiated. full report left at dead drop. hail the legates.]

 

~-~

 

Excerpt from “How the Great Experiment Failed”, by Doctor of Historical Anthropology, Qi Tuolumne, of the University of Greater Beijing, 2131.

 

The real deterioration began when Drum was elected to his second term as President, this time with a congress that was susceptible to his particular blend of threats, bribery, and cajoling. In 2021, Drum announced the rollout of his new homeland security plan, called the normalization edicts. This series of laws passed the legitimate lawmaking procedures of the time, but they became grounds to stamp out religious and racial minorities.

Then came the Green Line Crisis and the Six-Weeks War in Saudi Arabia. Drum was fanatic about the military campaign and poured tax dollars into the project without congress’ consent. The American people began to doubt Drum, and as it became clear that the Six-Weeks War was a complete failure, a coalition of citizens and politicians formed the Arcadian Party. This group was dedicated to the elimination of Drum’s policies and those who approved of them, and many of these oppositionists would later form the core of the Arcadian government in California.

However, as Drum’s detractors grew in numbers, his grip tightened on the reins of power. The Division of Morality began requiring official inspectors in every media outlet across the nation. Rumors grew of a huge new prison complex in Puerto Rico that housed those convicted of crimes against the state and Drum’s detractors, who disappeared with predictable regularity. Laws were passed eliminating salaries for public office, meaning only those who benefitted from Drum’s reign could be elected. As Drum’s second term neared its end, the nation held its breath.

In 2024, President Drum overtly seized power and ruled for four more years, ignoring the fact that his dwindling detractors in Congress tried constantly to impeach him. When Drum announced that he would take power permanently, ten people, including members of his secret service and the minority leader of the Senate, assassinated Drum in 2028. They were arrested, and while their judicial proceedings dragged on the Vice President, a reformer, took power.

Then, in 2030, there was the Goldenbaum revolution. In the two years since Drum’s assassination, Goldenbaum and Ascario had been transforming Ascario’s Morality Division into the Legates, pseudo-religious fanatics who were absolutely loyal to the duo. In May 2030, Goldenbaum and Ascario, the former in his hometown of Montgomery and the latter in Washington D.C., seceded from the union, backed by their newborn Legates, who at this point included many conservative governors and high-ranking military officers. They claimed that radicals had assassinated President Drum and were now controlling Washington.

This was the final straw. The nation was now divided, and chaos set in. On one side were the opposition, who at first called themselves Loyalists and later Arcadians. They believed that Drum and his supporters were intolerant, power-hungry opportunists, bent on exploiting the lower and middle classes for their own gain. On the other side was the conservative Commonwealth, who asserted that they were bringing propriety, morality, family values, and prosperity back to the Old Republic. Both sides called themselves Americans.

Open war broke out on the east coast, with the Arcadian army attacking the Goldenbaum rebels, but stemming from various factors, the newly formed Commonwealth won victory after victory with General Bainbrick, the hero of Riyadh, and General Stokes as their commanders. For two years, they steadily advanced up the east coast before becoming entrenched outside of Baltimore, Maryland. In Montgomery, the temporary conservative capitol, Goldenbaum gathered a volunteer army, marched it up the coast, and took Washington D.C., aided from within by Ascario’s Loyalists. During the volunteer army’s advance, Ascario ordered the use of napalm to clear the streets for Goldenbaum’s troops. The loss of life during the capitol’s fall is incalculable to this day.

Once the city was taken, Goldenbaum and Ascario held a canary court that tried and convicted 67 people of ‘morally aiding’ Drum’s ten assassins, who had still been imprisoned in the city. Their Legates executed all 77 people on the Supreme Court steps on July 4th, 2032. As news of the fall of Washington spread, a faction of Arcadian supporters aboard the Fourth Fleet in the Gulf of Mexico launched an ICBM at the city of Montgomery. Though the missile had only a single warhead, the death toll was well over 200,000.

The international community was horrified. The economic sanctions that many countries around the world imposed on both sides of the conflict were crippling, and the industrial capability of both sides was severely limited. The EU, The Baltic States, and Japan entirely broke off diplomatic contact with the Old Republic and the warring factions within it. The situation looked increasingly dire, as both the Liberals and Conservatives began preparing to launch more nuclear strikes.

As mutually assured destruction loomed, General Bainbrick approached the ragged Arcadian forces under General Hood in Pittsburgh. While not making peace, for Bainbrick believed in a more moderate view of Goldenbaum’s dream, the Civilian Protection Treaty did establish a new standard for war; weapons of mass destruction, total war, and urban combat were agreed to be unnecessarily destructive. Future battles were to be conducted only between armies and soldiers on ground that had been thoroughly vetted beforehand. General Stokes, Bainbrick’s second in command, marched to Washington and massacred the Goldenbaum volunteer army in a single, bloody melee on the National Mall. While he tried and executed several high-ranking members of the Goldenbaum conspiracy, both Goldenbaum himself and Johanna Ascario vanished into thin air. Stokes then reestablished Congress and elections. Bainbrick, despite enormous public pressure, declined to be nominated for the Commonwealth presidency, though he continued to have enormous influence in new single chamber of Congress.

However, the legates survived their leaders, and idolized them, Goldenbaum in particular. They continued to operate under the new law in the name of preserving morality. Meanwhile, the Arcadians, or bloody hearts, while still fighting a defensive war outside of New York City in the north, gathered their forces in a line of forts in the Rockies, especially in Colorado. As Bainbrick pushed General Hood back towards New York, the Arcadians, led by Generals Cole and Farrow, planned a counterattack from Mile High Airbase in Boulder, to strike the Commonwealth in the rear. Both sides denounced the atrocities committed in the chaos of 2030 as unethical and horrible, yet the fight slogged on.

 

 

~-~

 

James Melville

The Commonwealth

Trenches Outside New York City

 

 

Ms. Asiah Fletcher                                                                                         July 24, 2036

2100, Gated Clover Lane

Savannah, GA, 31401

The Atlantic Commonwealth

 

Asiah,

 

I don’t think you’ll ever see this letter, I doubt Legate screeners will ever let it through. I don’t think I’ll ever see you again. Do you know, I can barely remember your face? You feel so far away, like something below the western horizon. My life is different now. I’m different.

The Black Coats executed Gunnery Sgt. Tamara Fletcher this morning for moral crimes against the state. Your sister is dead. I doubt that you’ll find out this way, but I have to tell you the truth about her death, and what she died for. Bainbrick has captured eighty some Arcadian soldiers since the beginning of the battle for New York. There were whispers that the Black Coats were – well there were rumors, but I didn’t know anything for sure until they brought one of them into the field hospital where I had been moved.

I was sitting up in bed, doing a crossword and using the pencil to lever the bandage around my head out of my eyes. Your sister was visiting me, covered in sweat and grime, and she was telling me about her promotion to Gunnery Sergeant when a commotion started coming down the ward towards us. Two doctors were jogging a gurney down the hall, surrounded by a cloud of nurses carrying IV bags and bloody towels. This group stopped next to my bed, and before one of the doctors pulled a privacy curtain around the bed, I got a glimpse of the figure on the stretcher, which was dressed in the tattered remains of an Arcadian uniform.

It was – disfigured.

Tamara and I glanced at each other, horror in our eyes. We’d both seen a lot of shit in the past few weeks, but that… thing…

The doctors were speaking.

“Get me 40ccs of cyclobenzaprine and two more bags of O positive.”

“Some more Celox on this abrasion, it’s not clotting. We have to stop the bleeding.”

“Doctor, I can ring for a surgeon, we can get in there and try to save –“

“No, I’ve got orders from that shark Prelate Gordon. We’re to stabilize the patient and release him back into Legate custody, nothing more.”

“No, we can’t let them keep doing this!”

“I have orders. Nurse, leave now if you can’t handle this.”

Tamara’s face was getting redder and redder. She stood up, sat down. My mouth was hanging open. Prelate Gordon was the leader of the Legates embedded in Bainbrick’s army. Had the legates done this? What were they doing to captured Arcadians? Tamara stood up again, and unbuckled her sidearm. Without a word, she walked behind the curtain where the doctors had taken the Arcadian prisoner.

“Who the hell-“ someone said.

“Everyone, get the fuck out of here.” Tamara’s voice was calm, almost placid.

Doctors and nurses scurried every which way, calling for MPs. In the heartbeat of silence that followed, I could hear a rasping, sibilant whisper. Then a report banged off the whitewashed walls of the ward. A shocked patient screamed. A moment later Tamara walked out from between the curtains, shaking, her pistol dropping from limp fingers to land on the linoleum with a dry clatter.

“They were going to keep him alive,” She said, “keep him alive, like that.”

“Did he – “ I asked, my voice shaking as much as hers.

“He asked me to,” She said. “I’ve got to go tell someone what the Legates are doing to those prisoners.”

She stalked out of the ward, fists shaking at her sides. That was the last time I saw her. Later, I heard that she reported to General Bainbrick himself, who turned her over to the court martial that sentenced her to execution this morning. I’m deserting the army. I’ve already gathered all my things, and found a route west. Maybe I’ll go to Canada. There’s no war up there.

 

I’m sorry.

 

James