Category Archives: Indivisible: Come and Take It

Indivisible: Come and Take It, Chapter 19

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“They take up arms against their ruler; but in this they deceive themselves, for experience will prove that they will have actually worsened their lot.”

—Niccolo Machiavelli, The Prince

Chapter 19

 

“What is this dump?” Mae asked as her cab pulled up to the entrance of a hotel.

“This is Kaul’s Drive-thru Lodge, Miss. This is where I’ve been instructed to take you,” answered the cabbie in thick accent.

“Splendid,” Mae replied, rolling her eyes as she let herself out onto the curb and stood next to a faux-stone pillar under a frayed red awning, clutching her Luis Vuitton Monogram Canvas Pegase 55 carry-on while the driver fetched her matching suitcase from the trunk. She tipped him for his effort, turned, and dragged the bag through the smudged glass doors as the driver scurried back into his cab and pulled away. Inside, she found a lobby  decorated with laminated honey oak floors, sprayed stucco walls and brass-colored hardware accents. Mae checked her hair and lipstick in an oval mirror before rolling her bag up to the desk. Behind it sat a frumpy Caucasian with a mullet, seven-day stubble, and black horn-rimmed glassed that sat askew on his asymmetrical face. He was immersed in his cell phone and did not immediately acknowledge her presence as she stepped to the desk. Mae pinged the bell on the counter, not forty inches from his ear. The attendant finally looked up.

“Can I help you?” he asked, squinting at her through his cloudy lenses, but after seeing her, he straightened his posture in a fruitless attempt to make himself seem more appealing.

“I need my room,” Mae snapped.

The attendant sighed and began swishing a mouse around, clicking through screens on his monitor. “Single or double?”

“How about your presidential suite? Does it have a jet tub?”

The attendant was unfazed by her sarcasm. “Name?”

“I was told it would be reserved for Maiden Lane. M-A-I-D-E…”

“I found it. One sec…” The attendant typed and typed and swished his mouse and typed and typed and scanned the screen and swished his mouse and typed and typed.Then he retrieved a passkey from a drawer. He swiped it and rolled his pear-shaped body, wedged into his office chair, over to the printer and pulled off some paperwork. Then he rolled back and laid it on the counter. “Sign here, please. You are responsible for any incidentals.”

“No. I was told incidentals would be covered.”

The clerk straightened his glasses and read through the agreement. “Oh, you are correct. Sorry.”

He set the page and a Bic pen with a flower taped to the end down on the counter and pointed to where she was to sign, leaving a greasy fingerprint smudge. Mae dug through her purse to retrieve her own pen and signed the document. “Here’s your key, ma’am,” he said, following it with a wide, crooked-toothed grin accompanied by two eyes that didn’t quite align staring through his smudged lenses.. “Room 221. Go left there, take the elevator up to two, then it’s down on the right. It overlooks the pool.” Mae rolled her eyes again and took the pass key.

“Is there a bar in this dump?”

“Yes ma’am. Go through those doors, then right. You can’t miss it.”

“Can I leave this here for now?” she asked, glancing at her suitcase.

“For sure. I’ll put it back here.” The attendant pushed himself up from his rolling chair and stepped out from behind the counter to take it.

“It’s Luis Vuitton,” Mae explained, hoping that would inspire some higher degree of care from the attendant. Unimpressed, he grabbed her suitcase and yanked it across the floor, scuffing it along the edge of the counter before shoving it into the closet behind his desk. He turned and winked.

“Got ya covered, ma’am.”

Mae passed through the doors and turned to her right, entering Gusher’s Lounge. Inside was a cove built for maybe fifty patrons with blue, short-nap carpet patterned with gold fleur des lis. The space was filled with low castor chairs surrounding round, honey oak cocktail tables. The walls were floor to ceiling smoked mirror tile. The bar was finished in honey oak with more faux-brass trim. Behind it stood a balding middle-ager in a black apron. Mae immediately dismissed the dozen or so patrons as fucktards. She strutted up to the bar, wiped the stool off with a napkin, and took a seat.

“What’ll you have?” asked the bartender, who Mae noticed was missing an eyetooth.

“A martini. Gin. Your best gin. What do you have? Oh, Bombay will have to do, I guess. Dry. On the rocks, not up. Garnished with a lime peel.”

“Absolutely.” The bartender turned to fix her drink.

Mae looked ahead, into an unobscured patch of smoked mirror on the wall behind the bar, between a bottle of Seagrams and a neon Rolling Rock sign. She was surprised by what she saw–a victim staring back. The image of herself beaten, disoriented, weak, evoked an image in her mind of some pathetic orphan. Disgusted by her diminishing aura, she got up, went into the restroom and locked the door. There, she stood before the mirror, staring at the loser staring back. She ran the faucet and dabbed her face with water. She pulled her hair back into a ponytail. Then she reached into her bag and took out her lip gloss. Wrong color. She tossed it back in and rummaged for the other, the plum. It was stronger. She heard a knock on the door. She ignored it and touched up her mascara, hardening and intensifying her eyes. She pulled at her collar, stiffening it. Finally, she took a deep breath, exhaled, and straightened her posture, throwing back her shoulders. The person staring back in the mirror wasmuch improved.

She heard the knock again and she unlocked the door to see a woman from a different world. She was shorter and broader, had blotchy skin and coarse, dull, badly-dyed, reddish hair, cheap makeup and ill-fitting clothes. They looked each other in the eye, the alien sizing Mae up, looking as if she expected Mae to wilt and step aside. Mae barred the way, defiantly, as a cold smirk formed in the edge of her plum lips. They looked each other up and down, then stared at each other for several more seconds. Mae wondered if this pitiable wench might have been her in some other life, if things had somehow gone awry. No. Of course not. No matter how sideways things might have gone, she could never evolve into the troglodyte that stood before her. Mae could never fail at life to that extent. She could overcome anything. She always triumphed. She had found herself on that path once before and remedied it, leaving her husband to save herself from the ignominy of being a hick undersheriff’s trophy wife, spending weekends downing pitchers of light beer and listening to classic rock cover bands.

Mae’s confidence recharged at the sight of the loser before her, filling her up with strength. Her eyes fired back at the wench, silently saying, “make way, bitch, or I will cut your throat.” The wench, a survivor herself, found her resolve weakening. She glanced left and right. After determining that no one was watching, she acquiesced and stepped aside. There was nothing for her to gain and too much to risk. She would make her stand another time.

Mae returned to her seat at the bar to find a filled martini glass waiting at her place. The bartender returned, buffing a mug.

“I said on the rocks, not up, ” Mae pushed the drink towards the edge for the bartender to take it back. He took the glass and scowled as he waddled off to fix her another. Mae again checked the smoked mirror between the Seagrams and the Rolling Rock sign. The person staring back was the Mae she recognized. Her world was righted.

“You come off of Air Force one?”

Mae turned toward the voice. A burly fellow with stringy gray hair, a weathered face and the dark, elusive eyes of a long-time alcoholic sat two stools down.

“Were you talking to me?” Mae asked.

“Yes,” he answered in a phlegmy tenor that trailed off into a burst of coughing.

“As a matter of fact, I did,” she answered. “How would you know that?” She watched as he stirred the ice cubes in his clear drink, a vodka something. His visage reminded her of a troll. Hideous. Neckless. Hunched. The grey blotchy flesh of his face had the consistency of pizza dough. It looked as if it might slough off his cheekbones at any moment.

“You look the part,” he answered.

“Oh, do I?” Mae asked, feigning interest in continuing the conversation.

“I’ve lived here twenty-seven years. It ain’t hard telling who the muckety mucks are.”

The bartender returned with her martini, bowing as he presented it before her as though she were a royalty. She gestured him away with a flick of her hand.

“What is your name?”

“I’m Dieter.”

“So tell me, Dieter, how do I get a flight back to civilization?”

“Like to where?”

“How about like New York or Boston?”

Dieter sipped his drink. “I’d say your best bet is fly out of  Bismarck. You’ll have to connect in Minneapolis, though.”

“How would one get to Bismarck from this place?”

“You could take the bus,” Dieter answered, mockingly. “Or…” He shrugged.

“Or what?”

“Well, it just so happens that I am headed that way tomorrow morning.”

“To Bismarck?”

“Through there. Headed to Rapid City.”

“What’s in Rapid City? Visiting Mount Rushmore?”

Dieter wheezed out a laugh, then cleared his throat. Then his eyes flashed. “Business,” he answered in a tone with a purposefulness that thumped like a bass drum.

Mae raised her glass to her lips but pulled it away to ponder. She certainly wasn’t going back to DC, not any time soon. What would she do, there? Stare longingly out her brownstone windows at the passing black limousines while she pumped her quads on her elliptical? New York and Boston would be pricey, and close…too close. Too many limos with muckety mucks there, as well. She needed time away from Babylon to clear her head and plot her next move. There was only one place to go that made any sense.

“How far is Rapid City from Denver?” She asked, expecting Dieter to aspirate his drink. But he didn’t. He didn’t seem fazed at all.

“Four hundred miles, give or take,” he answered. “Why don’t you just fly?”

“Fly into Denver? That’s a crapshoot half the time.”

“Yeah.” Dieter grinned. “Or maybe that’s a manifest you don’t want your name on.”

Mae raised her glass to him, took a drink, then set it down in front of her and swished the garnish. “Never mind, then,” she said as she turned away from him and faced the bar mirror. She kept watch on his reflection between the bottles.

“What would it be worth to you?” Dieter asked.

Mae made eye contact with him in the mirror. “I’m sure we could come to some sort of arrangement.”

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Indivisible: Come and Take It, Chapter 18

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“They take up arms against their ruler; but in this they deceive themselves, for experience will prove that they will have actually worsened their lot.”

—Niccolo Machiavelli, The Prince

Chapter 18

 

Marzan walked down the road while the boy shuffled along behind, checking on the him from time to time to make sure he wasn’t falling too far back. When he lagged too far, Marzan would slow his pace to allow him to catch up. It began to drizzle and soon after that the boy began to sob once again. Marzan heard him and stopped to wait for him. When he finally caught up, Marzan noticed that the rain had mostly washed his face clean except for the soot that ran down from his nostrils and gathered around his mouth. The boy hadn’t cared enough to wipe it away, having been preoccupied with his grief. His hair was badly singed, burned off in places and clumped in others. His clothes were damp.

“Just a little farther,” Marzan said. “Then we’ll find a place to stop for the night.” He turned to start walking again but he didn’t hear the boy’s footfalls behind. Marzan turned back. “C’mon, boy. We gotta keep moving.” But the boy just hung his head and wept. Marzan approached him again. “You can’t stay out here on the road alone. No one is coming. You’re wet. It will get cold at night and you’ll get hypothermia. You need to be by a fire tonight to dry out.” The boy just stared at the ground and cried. “Listen to me,” Marzan continued, “you’ve got to keep moving. It won’t be much further. I promise. You can do it.” The boy started shuffling forward without raising his eyes from the ground.

It darkened as they plodded along together for the next two miles. The drizzle stopped just as they came to the bombed out wreckage of another car. It had been pushed off onto the shoulder to clear the road. Not far away, just before the trees, Marzan could just barely see three makeshift wooden crosses planted in the ground. He shielded the boy the best he could from seeing it, worried that it might trouble him and slow their progress if he were to notice the graves.

They had put another hundred yards behind them when Marzan decided it was time to make camp. “C’mon, let’s go this way,” he said to the boy. They turned off the road, scrambling over a course littered with dead logs and branches of trees felled by the beetle blight. It was getting dark with the cloud cover blocking out the moon and starlight. They kept on for several minutes until Marzan decided that they were invisible to anyone on the road. He stopped and began to feel around for dry branches to build a fire, but everything was damp. He pried apart a rotting log and managed to rip out some suitable kindling. Once the crumbling pieces of pine bark were burning, he carefully added more and more and then added the driest twigs and pine needles that he could find until the fire built enough energy to burn the damp branches he had snapped off the dead pine trees. He scavenged together a pile of fuel now that there was light to work by and stockpiled it nearby. The two of them sat down against a thick log to warm themselves and dry their clothes. Marzan aspired to build a lean-to for shelter from the rain, but he was too exhausted and stiff to move. His side was aching and his feet were blistered. He carefully fed and stirred the fire until it burned brightly, an oasis of heat and light in the damp blackness. They both soon fell asleep

Marzan awoke to the cool air and soft light preceding sunrise. He was shivering. The fire was reduced to coals and white ash. The sky was pale blue and the terrain of skeleton pines, saplings and junipers looked different than he had envisioned it in the darkness. They had not gotten as far off the road as he had thought they had. He could see the strip of cracked asphalt not a hundred yards away, through the mix of living and dead trees.

He expected to find the boy still sleeping but discovered that he was gone. He stood and stretched up to look around for him. His body ached. His blisters were raw and burned. His mouth was like cotton. “Boy!” he shouted. No answer. “If you can hear me, we gotta get moving. We gotta find some water. I’m headed back to the road.” Marzan took his first stiff and wobbly steps. His side immediately cramped. He groaned as he pushed himself forward, slowly stepping over the fallen logs and branches. As he moved his body, his aching muscles surrendered to his will. His joints loosened. “Boy!” he shouted again. He looked in all directions but saw no sign of the boy. Marzan walked out of the trees and onto the clearing off the shoulder of the highway. He looked back down the road the direction they had come. Not far back sat the wreckage that had been pushed onto the shoulder. Then he saw the boy standing there.

“What are you doing?” Marzan asked when he reached him. The boy didn’t answer. Marzan chose a different approach. “Are you hungry?” The boy stood silently before the graves, staring at the shoddy crosses. “I have some food. But we should get water first.” The boy didn’t respond. “Okay. I’m headed that way, down the road. I’m going to find us some water.” Marzan left the boy and started south. The road was straight and flat. His pace was slow because his blisters burned as his shoes rubbed on the raw skin, and so the boy was able to catch up. Marzan looked back after a hundred yards to see if the boy was following. Just as Marzan was about to pass out of view of the wreckage, he saw that the boy was back on the road and walking his way. He slowed his pace even more to allow him to get closer.

Marzan eventually came upon a slowly churning creek that passed under the highway and pooled in clear deep water off the west shoulder. The warm sun was rising in a cloudless sky. The boy caught up to Marzan as he was filling his canteen. They went off the road a bit and Marzan collected some kindling and dried branches and built a fire. He removed the plastic cap of his canteen and set it onto the edge of the fire ring. The boy sat across from him, tossing pine needles into the flames. After several minutes, steam began to vent from the canteen spout. Marzan let it boil for a while, then he used his sweatshirt to take hold of it and set it to the side to cool. “I hope that’s good enough,” he remarked. He opened his satchel and took out two MRE packages. “Do you want a blueberry turnover or a bacon and cheddar?” The boy didn’t answer. “Here, try the blueberry,” Marzan said before starting a tear in the package with his teeth and tossing it to him. The boy grabbed it, opened the package and proceeded to devour the contents. Marzan took a bite of his ration and continued talking with his mouth still full. “We’ll get you back to your family. We’re gonna go down that road a ways, maybe thirty miles or so, right between those mountains there.”

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Indivisible: Come and Take It, Chapter 17

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“They take up arms against their ruler; but in this they deceive themselves, for experience will prove that they will have actually worsened their lot.”

—Niccolo Machiavelli, The Prince

Chapter 17

 

Air Force One completed one final circumnavigation of North America’s heartland before landing at Minot Air Force Base. It was 2300. Mae was awake and alone in her seat, frustrated they had not yet returned to Andrews as planned. T was elsewhere, lost in some chamber in the flying bunker. Mae had not seen Forteson since their rendezvous in his berth 20 hours earlier. The plane taxied and came to a stop, the darkness illuminated only by blue runway beacons.

“Excuse me.”

Mae’s eyes shifted from the portal to a secret service agent standing in the aisle, speaking to an aide in the seat three rows ahead.

“You’re going to need to come with me,” the agent said.

“Why?” asked the bewildered aide.

“I’m sorry. I cannot give you any more information. Please come with me. Do you have your suitcase with you?”

“Yes. It’s in the overhead.”

The agent opened the latch and scanned the tags. When he found the appropriate bag, he pulled it down. “Is this your suitcase?”

“Yes.”

“Please follow me.”

Mae watched, her mind racing, attempting to discern what the aide had done to be publically escorted off Air Force One in such a conspicuous manner. Then she heard another agent.

“Excuse me…excuse me, sir.”

“Yes? What is it?” answered the Assistant Secretary of Something-or-Other. “Sir, you will need to come with me. Please gather your things.”

T was right, she thought. The purge, the first actualization of any coup, had begun. She’d hoped to shield herself from the guilt of gawking at the humiliation of the victims suffering the ignominy of being perp-walked off the jet. She feigned sleep.

“Mr. Roberts,” she heard. “Will you please come with us?”

“Why? Why? I didn’t do anything.”

Mae pitied Roberts. There was no use in asking ‘why’? Why humiliate yourself? Just accept it with dignity, she thought.

“Ma’am, will you please come with me?”

“Why me?” asked the Special Assistant to the Director of Adminstration-of-This-or-That.

Mae felt secure wrapped under her thin blue blanket. She had engineered her survival by virtue of her special relationship with the new VP. And she still had T. She had played both sides. She felt comfortable and relieved, as one feels after waking from a terrifying dream and realizing that it didn’t happen and that all is quite right and well. She pulled the blanket in tight and tried to sleep as the pleas and protestations of the purged echoed in the aisle. It grew silent as the traitors and their rolling bags were finally escorted away. Then a thought of T crashed into her mind like a rock through a window.

“Ms. Lane?” asked a voice from beside her.

Mae assumed it to be an attendant. Then, before opening her eyes and answering, she hoped it was an attendant. “Yes,” she replied, as she carefully opened her eyes and saw, to her horror, a secret service agent standing in the aisle.

“You’re to come with me. Please bring your things.”

“Why? Why me? What’s going on?”

“Ma’am, I’m just going to need you to come with me. That’s all I can tell you at this time.”

Mae sat up, letting the thin blue blanket fall off to the floor. Bewildered and suddenly aware of the attention of those seated around her, she cobbled her effects together into her bag.

“Is your suitcase here or stowed below?”

“It’s in the back.”

“Is it clearly identified with your name?”

“Yes. Why? What did I do?”

“We’ll have someone retrieve it.” The agent spoke a few inaudible words into his lapel.

“Where are you taking me? What’s going on? Wait! I need to speak to David Forteson first. Just hold on a second. She reached for her phone.”

“The agent reached for her wrist and kept her from dialing. You can call once you are off the plane. Just follow me, ,ma’am.”

Mae stood up in the aisle and found her knees trembling. The agent took hold of her carry-on. She scanned the surrounding seats and noticed that staffers were watching clandestinely, casting pitying but fleeting glances towards her. She felt disoriented and humiliated. She speed-dialed T on her cell but he didn’t answer. The agent guided her down the gangway. She searched the faces in the seats as she walked. Everyone averted their eyes in disgust as she passed. She felt a chill run down her arms and her heart began to pound. An urge to cry welled up but she crushed it by converting it into anger.

“Where’s my suitcase? I need my fucking suitcase!” she snapped as they reached the exit door.

“This way please, ma’am.”

“Get your god damn claws off me,” she barked.

Another agent stepped forward and ushered her out the door into the whine of jet noise and the thick, hot, black air of night. Her legs carried her down the stairs as if they were directed by some other force. She reached the concrete surface of the tarmac where, just ahead, six black SUVs were parked.

“I said, where’s my fucking suitcase?” she repeated.

“It’s being brought down for you, ma’am. It will be here any moment.”

The agent waited with her on the tarmac between the black SUVs and the gangway stairs until a yellow taxi pulled up.

“What is this?” Mae asked.

The officer opened the door and directed her to get in. “Please get in the car, ma’am.”

“What about my suitcase?”

“It’ll be here any moment.”

Mae threw her carry-on bag into the backseat of the filthy cab and got in. The officer closed the door, sealing off the jet noise. She dialed T again. This time he answered.

“What the fuck is going on?” she yelled.

Silence.

“T?”

She heard him breathing.

“T, talk to me. Tell me what is happening.”

“I’m sorry, Mae. There have been some changes.”

“Changes?” she asked as she watched a half dozen other staffers with confused looks on their faces being led down the gangway and then put in an impromptu taxi queue. “What changes? What do you mean?”

“Personnel changes.”

“Is this the coup?”

“It’s not a coup, Mae.”

“You said it was a—”

“I didn’t say any such thing, Mae.”

“Yes you did, you—”

“You inferred that, Mae. There have been some changes in the staff, that’s all. The new executive team determined that it was best to move quickly to right-size the team.”

“What?”

“The president and the vice president went through all of our staffs. You didn’t make the cut, Mae. I’m sorry.”

“Why?”

“Mae…”

“Why, T?”

“Forteson…the team decided that they didn’t believe you were one hundred percent trustworthy. I did everything I could.”

Mae immediately knew why. “What about you, T? How in the hell did you make the cut?”

“Mae…”

“How, T?”

“They need me to implement the plan.”

“They oppose your plan.”

“Plans evolve to meet the changing reality.”

“What am I supposed to do, T? How do I get back to DC?”

“The driver should have an envelope for you. Ask him for it.” Mae tapped the driver on the shoulder and he handed it to her. “Open it,” T advised. “There should be a cell phone in there and some severance paperwork. That cell is encrypted. It goes directly to secret service. Use it if you get into a jam. They’ll get help out to you. That’s the best we can do for you.”

“What about expenses, T? What am I supposed to do without money?”

“You are no longer employed by the department. I’m sorry but you are on your own. Your severance will be processed within two weeks.”

“What the hell, T?”

“I’m sorry, Mae.”

“You abandoned me. I did everything you asked me to do. I don’t deserve this. No one has been more loyal to you than me. Not even your wife.”

“The driver will take you into Minot for the night. We’ve covered the fare and the room and incidentals. You can book a flight home tomorrow.”

“What about—”

“There’s nothing else I can do. I can’t be speaking with you anymore.”

Someone tapped on her window. It was another secret service officer with her suitcase. The driver popped the trunk and the officer loaded it in. He slapped the car twice and jogged back towards the gangway. Another agent standing in front of the taxi directed the driver to proceed. The cabbie put the car in gear and drove off the tarmac, through a security checkpoint and onto Highway 83 towards Minot.

Mae opened the web browser on her personal phone, pulling up the AmericaOne News Network. “VICE PRESIDENT CLANCY TO RESIGN” scrolled across the screen in front of a picture of the White House. “PRESIDENT TO ADDRESS NATION AT 10 AM EDT.”

She raised the tinny volume on the phone as a sober reporter with a deadpan stare, standing in front of the White House, started to speak.

“…None of this is a surprise to those inside the Beltway. The president has been looking to make a change for some time now. The choice to replace the vice president was not a surprise either…”

“Of course it isn’t,” Mae muttered, sarcastically.

“…The president is going to tap the DoD for VP Clancy’s replacement. Deputy Secretary of Defense, David Forteson, will be sworn in this morning as the next Vice President of the United States.” A black and white picture of Forteson looking heroic, only because it was shot outdoors from a low angle, appeared on screen. “Mr. Forteson is widely regarded as a rising star, not only in DC but in corporate circles as well. Although young, he has a wealth of experience in national security matters.”

“He has wealth, all right.” Mae mumbled.

“Forteson is forty-eight years old, a graduate of Harvard, cum laude, and has built an impressive resume working in a civilian capacity with the U.S. Army and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, primarily in an advisory role…”

Mae turned her phone off and stared out the window, watching the blue tarmac lights stream past, fearing she was finished in Washington.

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Indivisible: Come and Take It, Chapter 16

READ FOR FREE IN ITS ENTIRETY! NEW CHAPTERS TO BE POSTED WEEKLY.

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“They take up arms against their ruler; but in this they deceive themselves, for experience will prove that they will have actually worsened their lot.”

—Niccolo Machiavelli, The Prince

Chapter 16

 

In the morning, Jimmy Marzan marched out of the abandoned town of Walden with a 9mm, a canteen, a backpack filled with bullets, matches, MREs, and a satchel to be delivered to Captain Al A. Rick–who was very much still alive. Minutes earlier, the bus driver had taken the other six men into the cooler to view the corpses. Each of them had chosen to return to their units after they had seen the dead. Three went north and three went west. Marzan went south, alone.

The faded, cracking asphalt ran straight as an arrow, flanked on either side by miles of flat, featureless, high basin. The road was abandoned, not a single car had appeared five miles into his trek. The temperature was not oppressive, but the sky was a cloudless azure and the bright sun was getting high. The sun and the pace of the hike made him sweat, but the dry, thin air evaporated it in a flash. He thought about taking a drink but knew he had to hold out as long as possible until he found another source of water.

The road bent to the southeast, following the arroyo that spread into a lush, green field. To his right, about a thousand yards off, he spotted a large irrigation pond. He stepped through the barbed wire fence along the road and hiked through the green wheat towards it. He searched for a container to hold some extra water, but only found an old plastic milk jug that was cracked and useless. He sat down in the grass on the edge of the water to rest. A breeze blew in, down off the hazy mountain range far to the west, over the treeless plain and across the water, cooling Marzan as he sat in the brilliant sun. He rested there for an hour, drinking half his canteen, his eyelids getting heavy. A blue heron glided down, its broad, swept wings fully extended and slowing its descent. It landed, standing on its sticklike legs in the middle of the pond, and proceeded to gracefully stalk through the water, occasionally lancing aquatic morsels with its slender beak. Then it extended its giant wings once again and lifted off, headed south. Marzan fell asleep.

He was startled awake by a distant explosion. He looked around for the smoke plume. Hundreds of black birds had flown in and populated the far shore. The sun was past its zenith. It was perhaps 1600 or so. Massive cumulonimbus clouds were building in the west, over the mountains. James surmised that it would probably rain within a couple hours. He stood up and stretched the stiffness out of his joints, looking in all directions for the smoke from the explosion. Then he found it, south, in the same direction he was headed. He scrambled through the grass towards the road and through the barbed wire. The gray band of silent asphalt ran directly into the black smoke perhaps four or five miles ahead.

“Perfect,” he muttered. He searched the skies for helicopters or contrails but there was nothing. “Drone strike,” he guessed.  He resumed his march, directly towards the distant smoke.

Not a single car passed him on the road. After three quarters of an hour, the plume had vanished. The sky had grown hazy as the front moved in from the west. He heard the shearing sound of a fighter jet but he couldn’t locate it in the patina of wispy clouds and scattered, blinding rays of the waning sun. The roar faded to the east. The road extended infinitely. He was hungry but he thought it better to save what he had.

He passed a herd of black cattle grazing just to the west of the road. Then he spotted a cowboy, guarding them from horseback two hundred yards off. He was watching Marzan, a rifle slung on his back. Marzan waved but the cowboy just sat in his saddle, watching. Marzan walked on down the road without looking back, but sensed the mounted sentry’s eyes were still on him until the topography took him out of view.

The farmers and ranchers withdrew from the economic chaos and realigned their lives with their neighbors and communities. They withheld the vast portion of their produce as well. They weren’t about to exchange the fruits of their labor for worthless, green pieces of paper. The government’s forces tried in vain to redistribute the rural hoards, but it proved a fruitless endeavor given the manpower required for such a large scale intervention. Inflations and wars are invariably less cruel to rural folks. No historical army has ever had enough manpower to occupy, terrorize and loot the entirety of the countryside of any sizeable province with any permanence or efficiency, especially in the Twenty-First Century when there are thirty support personnel for every pair of boots on the ground. Life in the country carried on in spite of the insurrection, largely unabated, unless you factored in the need to guard one’s livestock from rustlers. The rural areas drew into themselves and the urbanites went hungry or bartered their wedding rings and car parts and furnishings for sacks of potatoes and stale bread, biding their time until the FEMA trucks, with their blue eagles emblazoned on their sides, rolled in to the local football stadiums to distribute forty-pound blocks of cheese and dried noodles.

Marzan hiked onward, trying to put his thirst out of his mind. His side, near his wound, began to cramp. The sky grayed and the air cooled, bringing some relief. Still not one single car passed by. He figured he had walked ten miles or so. He could feel the skin on his heels begin to slide and blister against the collars of his sneakers. His toes and tendons ached. His entire body was stiffening with each stride. The sky darkened and the wind whipped in swirls through the tall green grass near the road along the creek bed. A herd of antelope grazed, auburn specks a thousand yards or so to the east. The jets of another military aircraft snarled in the distance, invisible above the clouds. The road rose in elevation and the prairie grass eventually yielded to patches of aspen and pine.

Ahead lay a half-mile jaunt, straight as a ruler, climbing to the horizon. As he approached the crest he saw faint smoke. He picked up his pace, his feet aching and side burning now with every step.  He crested the rise, but the source of the smoke was hidden beyond the next crest. Exhausted and with his blood sugar plummeting, he slowed back down into a walk. The aspen gave way entirely to a ghost forest of dead pine trees. Ravaged by a blight carried by bark beetles, the endless forest of skeleton lodge poles draped with drooping, stripped branches swallowed up the road ahead. Through the rotting spires, Marzan could see the land rise, forming into foothills that rolled like a building tide of black to the south. The plume of smoke was wide and tall now, looking as if it was just beyond a bend in the road ahead. But he lacked the energy to run for it again.

The road climbed steadily. James stared down as he walked, at the pavement just beneath his footfalls. His sweat had oozed through his shoes and attracted a coat of brown dust. His knees and lower back ached. His breaths synchronized with each of his steps. He superstitiously avoided the cracks in the asphalt. The pain in his side grew. Then he looked up and saw it.

In the oncoming lane, some hundred yards ahead, sat the smoldering chassis of a sport utility vehicle. The cab was blackened with the front end splayed apart and the hood flipped up over the windshield. The road just ahead of the wreck was charred into a starburst pattern that filled the lane.

Marzan thought better of approaching the carnage as a second drone strike often came down to finish off anyone attempting to render aid. He thought that he might veer off the road a few hundred yards and continue south through the dead forest for a mile or so before rejoining the highway. But then he heard something—a sobbing sound coming from the sticks to his right. It was a child’s sobs. He scanned the deadwood and spotted the source.

“You all right there, little man?” he said to a boy that was hiding behind a stump. “You come outta there.” The boy slowly emerged. He looked about ten or so, and was dressed in a sweatshirt with burned sleeves. His hair was singed and a good portion of it was burned off. His face and hands were blackened with soot. His cheeks were streaked clean with his tears. Marzan ambled down off the shoulder of the road and approached him. “Were you in that car?” The boy just sobbed. “Here, take a drink.” Marzan handed him his canteen. The boy took a sip from it. “Drink some more. Drink it all.” He watched as the boy drank it all and handed it the empty canteen back. “Can you tell me your name?” The boy wept. “All right. All right,” Marzan said, trying to comfort him. “You stay right here. I’m going to check out the car.” Marzan turned and hiked back to the road. A feeling of dread filled him as he closed in. The wind had stopped and it was completely still. Ravens had gathered on the road but the car was still too hot for them to pick it over. The tires had melted off and the engine, or what was left of it, had broken loose and rested on the surface of the road. A small fire burned in the pool of fluids spilled beneath it. It reeked of burning rubber and oil. The ravens scattered as he came upon it. The cab was concealed by the rippled and smoldering hood. He walked to the driver’s side to look in. All the windows had been blown out or melted away. The interior was blackened with melted upholstery, and the panels and dashboard were disintegrated. The incinerated remains of two human beings sat in the front seats. One still clutched the steel ring of the steering wheel with its charred phalanges. The flesh of their faces was seared completely off leaving only an insane grin of teeth and hollowed eye sockets. A tuft of long hair flowed out from the back of the passenger’s skull. Marzan’s mind flashed to the last image he had of Michael Rollins, cooked alive by phosphorous in his Humvee.

He stepped back and looked up at the sky and caught his breath. It was gray and featureless, now far from optimal conditions for drones. Yet he felt anxious about staying there. He jogged back to where the boy was. “Are you hurt?” he asked the boy who didn’t answer. Marzan checked him over for wounds. Other than the burns, he found him intact. “You’re gonna need to come with me.”

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Indivisible: Come and Take It, Chapter 15

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“They take up arms against their ruler; but in this they deceive themselves, for experience will prove that they will have actually worsened their lot.”

—Niccolo Machiavelli, The Prince

Chapter 15

 

Jess was riding with Croukamp in his truck, headed for the post office, when the eardrum shattering roar of a low flying F35 startled Croukamp, nearly causing him to steer his truck right off the road. Just on the verge of the sound barrier, it gave no warning of its approach. Croukamp stopped the truck momentarily to gather his wits as the wake of air-shredding rumble trailed off to the west.

It was June. The threat of snow and hard freeze was now weeks behind, except for at the highest altitudes.  The meadows of prairie grass were deep green. The aspen and willows and cottonwoods were full of leaves. Gardens were poking up.

They finally arrived at their destination—the open-air market that had built up in the open lot adjacent to the post office. Several dozen awnings shaded stacks of wares and sundries. Others held signs stating their trade: plumbers, carpenters, electricians, laborers. Customers would approach, they would come to an arrangement, or not, and part ways. People dealt and haggled, trading stacks of Reagans and Roosevelts or scrip or .556 or copper wire or junk silver for this or that. There were no queues. A long line at any vendor indicated a shortage. The price would be raised or new vendors and new supplies would appear. Unlike the FEMA station, where people wasted half their day moping through a maze of roped lines to receive a basketful of crude surplus products under the glare of armed storm troopers, the bazaar was vibrant and buzzing with industrious faces darting this way and that, filling their carts and wagons with goods. There was no visible security. It wasn’t necessary. Almost everyone was inconspicuously armed. To attack or assault someone at the bazaar would be suicide. You might as well be trying to rob a gun show.

A sheriff’s deputy cruiser rolled slowly by, but was driven off by the icy glares that seemed to say, “you’re not wanted here.” Other than citing or arresting people for this or that infraction, the police didn’t have any real purpose at the bazaar. An uneasy truce had evolved between the police and the traders who perceived them to be an inhibiting bureaucracy of no benefit. No one was in any mood to accept having their booth raided because their homemade cheese didn’t have the correct government guild stamp of approval. The edict enforcers had originally tried to crack down on the spontaneous market by hauling several people off to jail, but then several deputies awoke in their beds to the crash of Molotov cocktails setting their cruisers ablaze. They stayed away from the market from then on, holed up in their green zones and checkpoints, only occasionally making patrols to remind people they were still there.

Croukamp haggled with a vendor for chicken feed while Jess darted into the post office where the line snaked out the door. She shuffled along in it for forty-five minutes, averting eye contact with the other frustrated citizens. The two postal workers at the counter, overworked and exhausted, sighed and sulked as they accepted and retrieved letters and packages for the exasperated persons in the queue. Jess wasn’t in that line which was probably several hours long. She had to wait just to access her postal box. People walked past her with their letters. Some looked pleased, others angry, tossing them into the waste bin on their way out. The line crept forward. The wait seemed fruitless to Jess. The envelope she was anticipating was never there. Her long, weekly ordeal was always in vain.

Finally, she reached the boxes. She stood before hers and produced her key. She pushed it in and turned the lock. The tiny door opened. The box was jammed with printed spam. She reached in and wrested the wad of envelopes loose. She locked the door and hurried out, not bothering to check if what she had been waiting for had arrived. She found Croukamp waiting in his truck.

“Do you need anything at the market?” he asked.

“No. Not today.”

“Did it come?” he asked.

“I haven’t looked yet.”

Croukamp fired up the old rig and they headed back. There were more cars on the road than she had remembered seeing in a long time. That was a good sign. Normalcy was returning. But then a squad of Black Hawks flew overhead as they drove by the lake. They were heading due west, deep into the red zone.

“What do you think they’re up to?” Jess asked.

“Tough to say. Extraction, maybe.”

Jess watched the choppers until they disappeared over the hilltops. Then she became aware of the bundle of mail she clutched in her lap. Her eyes moved from the window to the letters. Her thumbs began to flip through them, searching for one in particular, hoping against hope that it had finally come.

Croukamp braked. They stopped in a line of cars just beyond the only stoplight in town, at the base of the dam of the lake.

“What is it?” Jess asked, looking up.

“Random checkpoint,” Croukamp grumbled.

The line of cars crept forward. Many were loaded with items purchased at the bazaar: produce, implements and tools, construction materials, fuel. The checkpoints had become a growing nuisance. The sheriff’s department set them up at random to search for items of contraband, but essentially everything was contraband. Transporting flammable liquids was deemed illegal as it might be weaponized and used by insurgents. Due to looting and thievery, the transport of tools without a government approved bill of sale was also against the law. The same went for construction materials and clothing. Food and produce sold without the inspection and all the required approvals of USDA, FDA, NAFTA, USASA[1], DICT[2], and or DHS might result in the spread of unsafe products,  the transmission of disease or illness or it might economically harm or disadvantage the government licensed producers. Anything transported in a vehicle travelling on the king’s road could be deemed illegal contraband. Since travelling on the king’s road is a privilege and not a right, the mere presence of what could possibly be construed as contraband provided reasonable suspicion and thus authorized the state’s or county’s gendarme to stop and search any vehicle and detain any driver it pleased.

The sheriff department’s ranks of reasonable and conscientious local law enforcers had been depleted, only to be replenished by Americorps conscripts from faraway places with no connections to the community. The new deputies found themselves driven out of the marketplace, but they couldn’t just accept defeat and leave it be. As authoritarians, they were psychologically bound to re-assert their authority. The department didn’t really care about enforcing the Byzantine government code regarding the sale and transport of goods so much as they simply wanted to remind everyone that they were still the only legitimate enforcers of the law, and that just because they were excluded from one public space by a group of anarchists didn’t mean they were impotent. The purpose of the checkpoint was that of all checkpoints–to recapture and compel respect for their authority.

Prior to the crisis, any attempt to challenge the legality of detaining and searching people without a warrant was swept aside by a government and courts emboldened by a servile and naive populace who were spooked by mass media reports of terrorism or drugs or drunk drivers or illegals or the virus du jour. Each compromise seemed reasonable to the serfs. But those fears weren’t based on any statistical reality and the continuous piece by piece surrender of civil liberties for the sake of mitigating imaginary risk set the nation on the irreversible path to the complete subjugation of the fundamental right to movement and to be secure in one’s person and effects. The new paradigm had taken full root and flourished into a thorny, noxious vine that had spread into every nook of society.

Jess scrunched her pile of letters together so as not to see what had come or not. She didn’t want to know good news or bad news while they idled in the creeping queue. They sat silently for forty minutes until her curiosity finally got the best of her. She thumbed through the letters again: bills, spam, coupons, propaganda… and then she saw it. An envelope from her life insurance underwriter. Her heart began to thump. She carefully tore open the end. Then she blew into it to separate the fold. She reached her thumb and forefinger in to extract the contents. It was a letter. She scanned the administrative gibberish and let her eyes flow down to the perforation. It was a check. The life insurance payout for her husband’s murder had finally arrived. Five hundred thousand dollars. It wouldn’t go very far, but it would be enough to pay off her mortgage and perhaps buy a winter’s worth of firewood.

[1] USASA The United States Agricultural Safety Administration

[2] DICT The Department of Interstate Commerce and Trade

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Indivisible: Come and Take It, Chapter 14

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“They take up arms against their ruler; but in this they deceive themselves, for experience will prove that they will have actually worsened their lot.”

—Niccolo Machiavelli, The Prince

Chapter 14

 

Air Force One had not touched ground for three days. During the daylight hours, Mae found the omnipresent whine of the jet engines almost unbearable. At night, it comforted her, reminding her of being a child and falling asleep in the backseat of the family car on late drives. She was told to expect a return to Andrews in the morning. She longed to be back on the ground and home so she could sleep in her own bed.

Forteson came up behind her in the media room and touched her shoulder. He whispered into her ear, took her hand and led her away to his berth. It was 0200 and no one other than security and one of the pilots was awake. He opened the door and guided her into his cabin. It was hardly large enough to contain a twin bunk and a nightstand. The walls were dressed in warm, tactile textures. It was lit by a single LED light, casting a dim, warm glow. The cabin did not have a window.

Mae set herself down on the bunk. Forteson closed the door and sat beside her, putting his arms around her. They pressed their lips together. Forteson’s right hand pulled her blouse loose from her skirt and then slid under and up it, caressing past her abdomen to her bra. With their mouths still engaged, Mae unfastened her buttons, then she reached down and loosened Forteson’s belt. They pulled off their clothes and Forteson peeled back the covers on the bunk. They tucked their naked bodies into it with him on top. Mae wrapped her legs around him and Forteson grabbed hold of her hair with one hand. Bracing himself with his other in the narrow bed, he pressed into her. She writhed. Her mouth fell open as her back arched and her breasts heaved. He grunted as the force of his thrusts and tempo built to climax two minutes later.

They held each other in the tiny bunk, silently soaking in the tingly afterglow of their orgasm, heated, sweaty bodies intertwined. Mae wondered what he was thinking. Not whether or not he loved her, but rather if she could keep him as he moved up the rungs of power. He fell still but she knew he was awake because his breathing was silent. She cocked her head to look at his face so she could see if his eyes were open. He was staring at the ceiling.

“What are you thinking about,” she finally asked.

Forteson drew in a long breath and held it for a moment before exhaling. Then he answered. “Nietzsche.”

“What?”

“And I turned my back on the rulers when I saw what they now call ruling: bargaining and haggling for power with the rabble.”

“What are you saying?” Mae asked.

Forteson grunted in response.

“Are you trying to tell me that, after all your life as an elite, you’ve just now become cynical about politics?” she asked wryly.

Forteson grunted again, affirmatively.

“I wish I still smoked,” she said.

“Why?”

“I miss the cigarette after sex.”

“What was it about it?”

“I don’t know. Maybe the nicotine prolonged the afterglow.”

Forteson grunted again.

Mae rolled over onto him, bracing her chin on her forearms crossed on his chest. “So what made you think of Nietzche five minutes after banging me?”

“I don’t know. You just asked me what I was thinking about.”

“Let me try this again, then. What made you think of Nietzsche?”

“Reach in that stand there…” he directed her.

Mae turned, reached out her left arm and opened the top drawer. She looked in. Inside lay a pack of Marlboro Lights, an ashtray, and a chrome Zippo lighter with the Sepulcorp logo on it.”Isn’t it illegal to smoke on an airplane?” she asked coyly.

“Laws don’t apply to us. But if you’re anxious about it, I won’t tell if you won’t”

Mae took out the pack and plucked two cigarettes loose. She gave Forteson one, lit them both and set the ashtray on top of the nightstand. She took a long drag and the nicotine rushed into her lungs and bloodstream and into her brain, making her feel as if her head was floating away from her body. She set the cigarette down in the ashtray and rested her head back on Forteson’s shoulder.

“There’s something you need to know,” Forteson said as he exhaled a long drag.

“What? That you love me? Don’t tell me that. It will ruin everything.”

“I certainly wouldn’t want to ruin everything.”

“So is that it?”

“Sorry to disappoint you, but no.”

“What then?”

Forteson took another pull and exhaled. Mae watched the blue smoke undulate in the golden glow of the diode light. “I need to know something.”

“What?” Mae asked, head spinning from the buzz.

“I need to know if I can trust you.”

Mae looked surprised. “Of course you can trust me,” she assured him.

“Because if I know that I can trust you then I can make things very good for you,” he continued.

“Yes, yes you can trust me.”

“Good.”

Forteson took another long drag, exhaled, and stared upwards in contemplation. The corners of his mouth formed into a grin.

“Well?” Mae asked.

Forteson’s face broke into a full smile. “I’m going to be the vice president.”

Well, that was easy, Mae thought to herself. “Really?” she asked out loud.

“You don’t sound all that surprised.”

“I’m excited for you, but I’m not surprised because I already knew that Clancy was out.”

“T tells you too much.”

“When?” Mae asked.

“Days. Hours, maybe.”

“Does Vanessa have something picked out for your swearing-in ceremony?”

“I haven’t told her, yet.”

“Ooh, now I feel special—you telling me before telling your wife.”

Forteson took another pull on his cigarette.

“So why you? Why not some pliable establishment guy—a senator or a governor?”

“Because the joint chiefs need a strong voice close to the president. They thought I was the best fit.”

“They’re not advising him already?”

Forteson exhaled slowly. “They are.” He turned his head and looked into Mae’s eyes. “But the joint chiefs are one heartbeat away from losing control.”

“So you’re an insurance policy?”

“Clancy has ideas that don’t align with the joint chiefs. If I’m in, then there is no risk of a change in course.” Mae wrapped her leg around the future vice president. Forteson continued. “You don’t need T to tell you how dire things are. There’s talk of a breakup, of a DC fire sale, selling off most of the federal assets, slashing the military two-thirds, mothballing four aircraft carriers. It’s like we’ve become the Soviet Union in its final days. Morale is at its nadir. The currency is ruined. Doc controls a quarter of the country and we’re losing ground every day. Two percent of servicemen defect or go AWOL each and every month. That’s twenty-two percent per year. Factor in the casualties and suicides and in six months we will be past the point of no return. The military will be watered down with conscripts to the point that it will be useless. At that point, the country will be lost. We have one last chance to put it all back together, to make America great again.”

“And you are a key part of it?”

“I’m in the circle of trust, my family, the other key families.”

Mae flicked her ash. “So what’s the plan?”

Forteson sighed, reached over and stubbed out his cigarette, then lit another. The whine of the jet engines filled in the spaces of the conversation. Their smoke rose and roiled just below the ceiling. Mae listened intently. Forteson finally continued. “There was a banking panic back in 1907. Know anything about it?”

“I’ve heard of it, but my economics education didn’t go back before the Depression.”

“Well, it was a transformative moment, an unparalleled crisis. Markets crashed. The New York banks got squeezed mercilessly by the masses—people pulling their savings out. The banks collapsed and the contagion spread. The entire economic system hung in the balance. The country itself was on the brink of ruin.”

“But then?”

“The families stepped in and bailed the banks out. The Morgans, the Rockefellers, the Fortesons, the Rothschilds, they invested their own fortunes to save the system, to save America.”

“Did they really have a choice?”

“Had they not done what they did, everything would be different. Who knows, maybe the communists would have taken over. We certainly wouldn’t have been able to enter World War I. How would it have ended without U.S. involvement? Britain reeling and bankrupt? Germany in control of the Middle East and Africa? The state of Israel still a pipe dream?”

“So what was their reward for saving the country?”

“The Fed, of course. A central bank, owned by the families was their payback. Congress, Wilson, they gifted it to them in exchange for saving the system. America, as it is presently constructed, would not exist without the Fed. America would be a confederation of squabbling states, trapped in the 19th Century while the rest of the world marched on. Who financed the expansion of Washington, DC? The Fed did. Who financed Social Security, the bailouts, the economic booms, the military? Hell, we’d probably all be speaking German right now, if not for the families.”

“So they’re coming to save us again?”

“Yes. But it’s so much bigger now. The families don’t have enough. Everything they have is invested in the central bank. It has to be saved. But the families are over-leveraged. Their wealth is tied up in the banks, in the debts owed to them by the U.S. government. A hard default would ruin them all. The banks, the trusts, the multinationals, the military industrial complex…they would all be destroyed. And hundreds of millions would suffer. The system has to be preserved and rebuilt.” Forteson took another long drag and exhaled. He looked into Mae’s eyes. “I’m not a fool, Mae. I know you’re close to T, but his plan is in opposition to what the families want. It’s very important that you not tell him or anyone about this. If this leaks out it could get bloody. No one wants to lose this fight. The stakes are too high. The losers will be ruined. The joint chiefs don’t want a bloody coup. Coups are damaging to national prestige. An open coup would strain our foreign policy efforts. Can I trust you to keep quiet? It’s only for a few days, until I’m sworn in.”

Mae smiled. “Yes. Of course you can trust me.”

“Good. Because if you prove yourself reliable there will be a role for you. I’ll help you. I’m already a key influencer. In a week, I’ll be a heartbeat from the presidency. In a year, I’ll be the president. You’ll get a secretary position.”

“Secretary of what?”

“What difference does it make? HHS, HUD, Education, Interior. I know you’re talented. And you’ll have paid your dues.”

“What about T?”

“Mae, I need to be frank with you. Your boss is widely perceived to be the architect of this economic disaster. Maybe that’s not fair. Maybe he’s a scapegoat. I don’t know what he could have done to stop it. But rightly or wrongly, they are going to pin it all on him. He’s finished in government. The banks, Goldman, Chase, they won’t touch him after. He’ll take a lucrative retirement in the French Riviera or the Bahamas.” Forteson sat up in bed. “I’ve got to piss. I’ll be right back.” Forteson got up out of the bed. He stood naked at the side of the bunk and stubbed his cigarette out in the ash tray. Then he slid on his trousers and t shirt and left the room.

Mae listened for his footsteps as they faded away down the galley. When she couldn’t hear them any longer, she grabbed her cell and texted T.

“Forteson will be VP. Bankers and JCs behind it. You are out.”

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Indivisible: Come and Take It, Chapter 13

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“They take up arms against their ruler; but in this they deceive themselves, for experience will prove that they will have actually worsened their lot.”

—Niccolo Machiavelli, The Prince

Chapter 13

 

Marzan heard the engine of a truck and scurried into the trees for cover. The six others followed him, and together they watched the truck approach, hidden by the woods and the bend in the rutted road that ended in the meadow in front of them. The sun was fading and the men, dressed in their thin jumpsuits and flip flops were succumbing to the chill. The truck’s engine echoed in the trees as it neared. Its gears ground and its suspension squeaked as it navigated the trail towards them. A puff of blue-gray exhaust rose above the treetops and then a tattered, yellow school bus finally emerged, bouncing and heaving into the middle of the meadow before Jimmy and the others.

“What the fuck?” whispered one voice.

“What should we do? It’s getting cold out here,” asked another.

“Why don’t you go out there and check it out,” replied the first.

“I’m just sayin’ it’s getting cold. That’s all.”

“We got no food or water. We can’t hike out barefoot and we ain’t gonna make it through the night in these pajamas. So what are our options?”

The bus driver honked the feeble horn.

“I’ll go check,” answered Marzan. “Cover me.”

“With what?”

Marzan smiled, revealing it was a joke. He stepped out of the trees and hiked briskly towards the bus, hands raised.

The driver opened the bi-fold door with a screech as Marzan neared. “Where are the others?” he asked.

Marzan didn’t answer until he reached the open door.

“I asked you a question, soldier.”

“They’re scattered around. They’re scared.”

“How many?”

“There are seven of us.”

“If you assholes want a ride you better get in, pronto. This is my last stop of the night and I ain’t coming back.”

Marzan stuck his head in and saw nothing but empty green seats. He turned back towards the others and shouted. “It looks copasetic. I’m getting in.”

He climbed in and the six others tentatively emerged from the woods, slowly coming forward. One by one, they all got on board. With great difficulty, the driver turned the bus around in the field and took them back down the road. The men sat silently, trading stares with each other, afraid and uncertain of their future, clinging to the seat backs as the bus heaved on the bad road.,. The bus was still navigating the rugged trail when darkness came.

James, who was sitting in the front row, finally broke the silence in the darkness and asked the driver where they were headed.

“I’m taking you south, to Walden. We’ll get you some food and gear, there. Then you can all make your way back to your units.”

“So we’re free?” asked another.

“I said ‘make your way back to your units.'”

“How far is Walden?”

“About an hour once we get to the highway which is just up ahead.”

“Is this Wyoming?” asked another soldier. “I thought we were in Mexico. I got all twisted around in that shithook.”

The arc of the headlights finally revealed the highway. They stopped at the very end of the ruts, where the trail connected to the gravel shoulder. The moon was down and the darkness was now complete. Ahead, the black prairie extended to a horizon of stars. There was nothing out there, not a single light, not a billboard, not a street lamp, not even a distant ranch house window, just an unknowable ocean of shadow and the unreachable night sky. Other than the gurgling school bus engine, the night must have been the way the Indians had known it, before the barbed wire and the railroads and the homesteads and the genocidal invasion. Marzan found it alluring. Then the driver pushed the clutch, revved the engine, and plunked the transmission into gear. The bus pulled onto the asphalt and the smooth road was a relief, releasing the tension built during the jagged ride before.

“So they traded for us?” Marzan asked the driver.

“They did.”

“What did the feds get for us?”

“Freddy got a great deal for you seven wretches. Doc gave them a pilot they shot down.”

“A captain, I imagine? I bet he was a treasure trove of information.”

“Probably. Doc interrogators worked him over good. He looked worse then you guys. Busted arms. Lost an eye. But I don’t know for sure how much of that happened in his crash. Looks like Freddy worked you guys over, too.”

“Screw him. I hope Doc broke his arms,” shouted a soldier a few rows back who spat on the floor after saying it.

The driver flicked on the interior light and spied them all in his rearview mirror. “Look at all ya.” He shifted gears. “You’re all wounded. How many had some sort of surgery?”

“They put me out to set my leg,” answered one.

“They took out my appendix,” answered another.

The rest including Marzan raised a hand.

“There’s a lot of that appendicitis going around. I’d no idea it was so contagious. I imagine they thought you weren’t going to be able to fight for a while. Suppose that’s why they chose to swap you.”

“We sound like commodities,” one observed.

“It’s like football teams making trades. This time, Doc got seven wretches for one officer. Doc’s probably hoping three or four of you can get back in the game.”

“What else would we do?”

“If I was you, I imagine I might want to go home…wherever that is. But that’s another reason we’re going to make a little stop in Walden, first.”

“What do you mean?” asked Jimmy.

“To convince you all to stay in the game.”

They drove for an hour on the dark highway. It was open country and clear night. The sheath of stars was visible down to the horizon in all directions. They did not pass a single car the entire way. Finally, the driver pulled them off the road and around to the backside of a large, cinderblock building.

“I’ll be right back,” said the driver as he got up. He pulled the squeaky lever that opened the bi-fold door and motioned for Marzan to follow him as he went out. The driver took Jimmy to a steel door leading into the building they were parked behind. He took out a ring of keys and unlocked it.

“Cover your mouth with this,” he said, handing Marzan a white shirt-shirt. He tied a bandana over his own face. “Breathe through your mouth.”

“What’s in there?”

“Motivation,” the driver answered as he yanked on the door three times to pry it open.

The odor poured out of the warehouse as if the door were a levee holding back the sea. It surged out and over Jimmy Marzan in a torrent, nearly knocking him over. The driver grabbed a flashlight sitting on a shelf next to the door and clicked it on, pointing it at the floor.

“It smells like death in there,” Marzan mumbled through his mask.

“Come this way.”

He led Jimmy through what appeared to be the warehouse portion of a grocery store. Boxes of rotting food were stacked all along the walls. Marzan’s flip-flops grabbed and peeled off the tacky floor as they made their way. Halfway in, the driver shined his light on the stainless steel door of a massive, walk-in cooler. The stench nearly made Marzan double over. The driver kept walking.

“Keep up,” said the driver. “It’s right over here.” He shined the light on another steel door held secure with a padlock. Bracing his flashlight under his chin, he took out his keys and opened it. “There,” he said, shining the light onto the shelf at the far end, “get yourself some go-fasters.” Marzan looked in nervously. “It’s all right. I ain’s gonna lock you in. Okay, okay. I’ll go in with you.” The driver went in first and fumbled through the shelves. “What are you, an eleven?” He grabbed a pair of sneakers off the shelf. “Here.” He tossed them to Jimmy.

“Grab a dozen pair or so. Put them in this bag, here.” The driver stepped aside and shined the light for Jimmy as he stuffed the shoes into the trash bag. “You see that pile, there?”

“Yeah.”

“Grab all those sweatshirts and sweatpants and throw them in the bag, too. Some of those socks, t-shirts. Some of those rations over there, too…”

“Drag those bags out. Here, you hold the light. Shine it there.”

The light revealed a gun rack and twenty carbine rifles. Above it, a shelf with pistols and boxes of ammo.

“Take this.” The driver handed him a 9mm. He pulled two boxes of cartridges down and six more handguns and put them into his bag. “Can you carry all that?” he asked Marzan.

“Yeah, I’m good.”

They went out of the locker and the driver closed the door and locked the padlock. He took the flashlight back from Marzan.

“Is that stuff safe in there?’

“Sure. The town’s abandoned. Who the hell would come in here with that smell, anyway?”

They retraced their steps through the warehouse, lugging their bags and rifles. They stopped at the walk in cooler.

“What’s in there?” Marzan asked, heaving as he tried to speak.

“I told you, already. Motivation,” said the driver. I was going to wait until tomorrow but go ahead, open it. You’re all gonna get a good look sooner or later.”

Marzan set his bags down, trying not to breathe too deeply. He stepped towards the door but looked back over his shoulder to the driver only to be blinded by the beam of his flashlight.

“Go ahead,” urged the driver behind the light.

Marzan reached out and grasped the handle.

“Hold your breath.”

Marzan started to turn it.

“Wait.”

Marzan stopped.

“Here, take my flashlight.”

Marzan reached back and took the light. The driver backed away with his bags. Jimmy squeezed the handle with one hand, holding the flashlight in the other, trying not to breathe through his nose, the t-shirt still wrapped around his face. The handle clicked. He pulled, slowly opening the door.

“Go on,” said the driver, still backing away.

Marzan raised the light. The beam traced a path along dried blackened puddles covering the floor. The light found its way, tracing the stain deeper into the crypt. Then he saw shoes. Then pant legs. Then the hem of a dress and a coat. He raised the light. A gray arm. Then a sleeping face. And then another. And another. Silent and still. Cold and gray. Six. Twelve. Twenty. And finally, a tiny hand.

Marzan backed out and slammed the door shut. He knew what was behind the door before he had opened it, but its revelation still disoriented him. His legs staggered. He grabbed his bags and hurried out of the warehouse where he vomited.

“Did you see what you thought you’d see?” the driver asked as he came up behind him.

“I don’t know.” Jimmy answered, still bent over and coughing. “Who are they?”

“They’re dead people.”

“Who, though? They were civilians. Why?”

“Death squads.”

“Who would do that?” Marzan asked as the driver clicked the flashlight off and locked the door.

“Are you motivated, now?”

“How is seeing that supposed to be motivation?”

The driver’s voice darkened. “Because that’s why we fight.”

“That isn’t what war is supposed to be.”

The bus driver laughed. “What did you think a civil war would look like? Guys marching around in uniforms? Generals riding white stallions yelling ‘charge’? You’ve been watching too many movies.  This is what civil war is. It’s dead civilians hung in a meat locker. You should know better. You’ve already seen it firsthand.”

“But that was different.”

“How so? Because it happened overseas, ten thousand miles away, in some Third World rat hole? Because the dead babies over there were just foreigners? What made you think a war would be any different here? It’s the same men waging it. And it’s all they know.”

Marzan was overcome.

The driver put his hand on Marzan’s shoulder and tried to comfort him. “Look man, I’m sorry you had to see that, but you had to see it. This fight, it ain’t about real estate, or some fucking piece of paper, or taxation without representation, or states’ rights, or making this asshole king or that asshole king, or any of that bullshit. It never was. Only the dumb fucks fall for that flag-waving garbage. They’re the ones that go charging off into battle, whooping and hollering right into the trap, and they all end up dead in the first month. No, everyone with a brain knows that politics ain’t any reason to go to war. One boss is the same as another. Been that way for 10,000 years. War is nothing but loud politics—rich people settling their disputes by getting poor people to kill each other. Flags, pieces of paper, shitty anthems, they ain’t no reason to kill or be killed. Now, what you saw back in there, that’s a real reason. War ain’t worth fighting until it finally comes down to kill them before they kill you and yours. Here, stand up straight so you can breathe.”

Marzan stood upright and took in the cool night air.

“Look at me,” the driver said. Marzan stared into his blazing eyes. “Now you’re just like those insurgents you massacred overseas. Now you have a real reason to fight.”

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Indivisible: Come and Take It, Chapter 12

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cati

“They take up arms against their ruler; but in this they deceive themselves, for experience will prove that they will have actually worsened their lot.”

—Niccolo Machiavelli, The Prince

Chapter 12

 

A white pickup truck pulled into Jess’s driveway just before noon. Croukamp noticed it as he was sitting at the dining room table, scraping the carbon off the firing pin of his rifle and watching Brooke play with her dolls. He put the pin down on the towel and reached for his revolver.

“Jess?” he shouted. “Were you expecting someone?”

“No.”

“Want me to see who it is?” he asked.

“No, I’ll go.” She came down the stairs.

“Here, take this,” Croukamp said, handing her the pistol as she passed. He returned to reassembling his rifle with urgency. Jess put the pistol in her belt and covered it with her jacket before going outside. It was sunny and cool. New grass was poking up through the mat of brown stalks flattened by the heavy winter snow. The bluebirds, so blue they seemed to glow, had returned to build their nests and pluck the cutworms from the mud. Flocks of robins hopped along the ground, scavenging for worms.

“Hello there,” came a voice from inside the truck.

“Identify yourself,” Mae demanded.

The driver opened the door and got out. “It’s me, Officer Hiserman. Don’t you remember?”

Mae sighed. “I don’t have time for this.”

“There’s no need to be rude, ma’am. I was just in the vicinity and I thought I’d check up on you. I heard there was some gunfire around here the other night.”

“I don’t know anything about that other than I heard some thieves came through and ransacked some houses. Heard they were ripping the copper wire right out of the walls.”

“Yeah…” Hiserman rubbed his neck after getting out of the truck. “Petty thieves, I’m sure. Last I checked, stealing copper doesn’t warrant shooting, though.” He studied Jess’s face as if he was a poker player searching for a tell.

“I don’t know what stealing copper and other things warrants, but if a gang of armed looters wanted to storm my house, I wouldn’t hesitate to shoot them….if I had a gun, that is.”

“What if they were down the road a bit?”

“I’m not really interested in having this discussion. I’m very busy.”

“I don’t think it would be wise to be shooting at copper thieves.”

“Who are you? Are you a sheriff’s deputy now, too?”

Hiserman let out a coy laugh. “I told you, I work for the county, we all work together, help each other.”

“Well, I live in this county, so here’s how you can help me out,” Jess explained. “You can go find out why your pals over at the sheriff’s department never show up to stop the looters. Come back and let me know what you find out.” Jess turned to head back to her house.

Hiserman laughed again. “Whoa, you’re a feisty one.”

Jess turned back, eyes flashing. “Don’t insult me. Just do your job. Then go away.”

“You know, firearms are not permitted in the county right now. That goes for handguns, too.”

“What do you call that thing on your belt?” Jess asked. “Is that some sort of meter reader?”

“I work for the government, ma’am.”

“So you don’t have to follow the rules because you work for the government?”

“I’ve been vetted, trained, and permitted.”

“So how are people supposed to defend themselves out here?”

“Call the sheriff.”

“The landlines are dead. We haven’t had electricity in over a year. Even when the cells are working, the deputies never come out.”

“That’s not my problem. They have to weigh every situation. Sometimes there are concerns for officer safety.”

“If they’re afraid to do their damn job then maybe they should get another job.”

“The deputies’ first concern is always for their personal safety.”

Jess rolled her eyes. “In the meantime, what do you suggest I do if a gang comes back?”

“I’d suggest you leave.”

“Leave my house? So they can raid it and take everything?”

Hiserman grinned and turned back to his truck. He reached inside and pulled out a paper grocery bag. “Where is that precious little girl of yours?”

“Why is she any of you concern?”

“I just wanted to give her something.”

Hiserman extended the bag to Jess but she didn’t take it. She noticed the pink fuzz of a stuffed animal poking out of the top.

“She has plenty of toys.”

“There’s some canned goods and some treats in here, too.”

Jess’s instincts told her to refuse it even though refusing food out of personal pride seemed self-indulgent in these times. Hiserman set the bag on the hood of his truck. He reached inside his cab and pulled out his clipboard and pen and began scribbling.

“What is that?” she asked. “Is that your citation book?”

“Yes, as a matter of fact, it is.”

“What in the hell are you citing me for? Refusing your charity?”

“I’m citing you for illegal well water use.”

“What are you talking about?”

“Your well is permitted for domestic use only. But you have a hose running from your spigot, there, into your garden plot.”

“Why are you singling me out? Everyone has gardens here.”

“I’m just doing my job, ma’am. The law is the law. Just because everyone else is breaking the law doesn’t mean you are exempt.”

“For Christ’s sake…”

“You should let me help you. I can make things easier for you.”

“By how? By not citing me? You can make things easier for me by just leaving me alone.”

Hiserman continued writing.

“I’m not paying any fine,” she declared.

“The court’ll get a judgement. Then they’ll put a lien on your property.”

“For running a hose?”

“I don’t make the laws, ma’am. I just enforce them.”

Jess smoldered. She thought for a moment about Ian’s revolver. She didn’t seriously consider using it, but its presence popped into her mind.

“All right,” she said. “I’ll accept your generous gift. Is that good enough for you?”

Hiserman looked up from his clipboard and smiled. He clipped the pen in and set it back on the dashboard of his white county truck. He grabbed the grocery bag off the hood and handed it to Jess.

“What do you say?” he asked as she took it.

Jess’s black stare burned with hatred as it fixed on his face.

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Indivisible: Come and Take It, Chapter 11

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“They take up arms against their ruler; but in this they deceive themselves, for experience will prove that they will have actually worsened their lot.”

—Niccolo Machiavelli, The Prince

Chapter 11

 

“Where are we?” Mae asked T who was sitting beside her as she looked out the porthole window.

“Minot Air Force Base,” T answered.

“North Dakota?”

“Correct.”

“Why are we here?”

“To refuel and resupply would be my guess.”

“Yeah, but why North Dakota? It’s awful,” Mae answered, longing for her cosmopolitan Beltway and $500 martinis.

“Not sure. Maybe they stop here so no one is inclined to get off.”

“How long before we take off?”

“Don’t know,” T whispered, “but we need to talk.”

“What about? Where?”

Mae followed T’s stare as he looked back over his shoulder, then forward, searching for anyone who might be within earshot. The coast was clear.  “Here is as good a place as any. Let’s just keep our voices as low as we can.”

“What’s going on?”

“Something. I don’t know for sure, but there’s a vibe.”

“A vibe?”

“That’s right. New faces are coming in, meeting with the POTUS. Schedules are getting rearranged.”

“That’s it?”

“It’s something. It’s big. I have inside knowledge that they’re dumping the Veep.”

“What?”

“Yeah. Word is Clancy will resign Friday.”

“What does that mean?”

“I don’t know for sure. I can’t imagine why the president would drop him mid-term. He was a champion for my Amero Plan. If he goes, we lose a great deal of political capital.”

“Won’t the president appoint someone with similar views?”

“This is politics. I don’t think it’s entirely under his control.  We’ll have to see who they bring in. That will tell everything. If I could only get the jump on who the new veep was, I could protect us; I could position the Treasury Department better. We have to be wary. They always throw a bunch of people under the bus when they make a change of this magnitude. I don’t want us under that bus, Mae.”

“What can I do?”

“I need to know who has the inside track. If not that, then I at least need to know who is applying the pressure to change VPs; who has the clout to make him resign? Who’s driving this?”

“In other words, find out if we’re the enemy of Clancy’s enemies?”

“I know the banks are against the Amero Plan, most of them, anyway. They’ll fight nationalization tooth and nail. If one of theirs gets the appointment, then we’ll have to adjust our game plan significantly.”

“Who do you think the front runners are?”

“Let’s hope it’s Senator Thurman from Ohio. He’s sponsoring the Amero legislation. Plus he went to Yale with the president, keeping it in the club if you know what I mean.”

“Any others come to mind?”

T hesitated in answering until two aides passed by on the aisle. “I don’t know. Abrams, maybe? He’s a Goldman guy, though. It would be pretty radical to put an actual banker retread into any high office. But if it’s him, I might be placed on a plane to Bermuda.”

“But your plan has the president’s and the senate’s support…”

“Yeah, they’re on board, mostly thanks to Thurman. He has all the opposition either bribed or cannibalizing itself. But he’s doing this at great risk to himself. The big banks account for half his campaign contributions. That’s gonna dry up for him in the next election cycle. He’ll probably have to retire.”

“What about the supremes? If you get it through, will it be challenged?”

“The POTUS owns the court so long as he stays inside the lines. They never rule in any way that undermines the legitimacy and authority of the federal government. Never.”

“Who else might oppose the plan, then?”

“Corporate influencers—multinationals sucking on the federal teat, defense contractors. As you know, their budgets are going to be slashed under my plan. Then there’s Likud, the EU, the Saudis. I don’t need to remind you how upset they already are at our international military disengagements. We’re only going to cut back more.”

“Supporting a candidate is one thing but could Israelis and Saudis actually depose a sitting VP? That doesn’t sound plausible.”

“Why not? They get them elected all the time.”

“What about the Department of Defense?” Mae asked, feigning ignorance. She regretted asking it, but it was so obvious a topic that to not ask about the DoD’s involvement would be revealing; it’s not what is said so much as what is not said.

“I didn’t want to go there,” T answered.

“Why?”

“Pushing and pulling campaign contributions is how the game is played, but a putsch to replace a sitting VP by an executive department like the DoD is a whole different thing. You’re talking about a military coup. I’m not sure I can even model how Treasury would deal with that.” T looked around again for eavesdroppers.

Mae felt a mist of cognitive dissonance cloud her reason. Her loyalty was to T, but T existed by the grace of the president. It was reasonable to expect DoD to try to protect their gravy train and mission, but changing the veep would not be enough. Other than breaking a senate tie, the veep didn’t have much power. She knew where T’s thought process was headed. She knew he wanted her to find out what Forteson knew. Forteson worked for the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He was a made man. He knew everything.

Mae sensed that T knew more, but that he was probing her for confirmation of it. They looked at each other, Mae sensing that he was trying to read her micro-expressions. He had masterfully guided her to what she was about to offer to do and she was helpless to resist it.

“So?” she asked, in an attempt to convince T she knew nothing more and was submitting to further instruction.

“What does he know?” T asked.

“Who? What do you mean?”

“C’mon, Mae. Forteson.”

“Don’t make me do that, T.”

“What is he to you, Mae? What has he done for you? What can he do for you? I discovered you. I made you. You cannot hide things from me. You owe me your complete loyalty. There’s no one else who will be your champion.”

Mae had no response. She thought about Forteson, his charm, his power over her. Mae did not believe in love, but she believed in desire, and she felt it for Forteson unlike any other man she had ever known.

“Come on, Mae. You’re not a schoolgirl. This is the big time. You’ve gained access that is very valuable. Help me so that I can help us. He must have revealed something during your pillow talk. Or maybe his cell phone went off when he was on top of you…”

“What’s wrong with you, T?”

“What’s wrong with me? Think rationally, Mae. Don’t let an infatuation cloud your reason.”

“There’s no infatuation.”

“You’re lying.”

“I’m fucking him, that’s all.”

“You’re helplessly in love.”

“No, I’m not. I can end it anytime.”

“That would be a waste. I’m not asking you to do that.”

“I can’t spy on him, T. I’m leaving,” she said as she started to get up. T grabbed her arm and slammed her back down into her seat.

“What the hell?”

“You listen to me, Mae. This is no time for teenage romance. People’s lives are at stake here. I mean that. If this VP move is coming from the DoD then we have a great deal of maneuvering to do if we are going to survive. They’re not going to stop with veep. This is only their first step.”

Mae shrugged off his arm but remained seated. “What do you care? If you get fired you’ll just get on with Goldman or Chase.”

“Oh, you think that’s how this will be, just business as usual? If this is a DoD move then everything is different. I mean that. I’m not going to have any banker friends after this. I’m all in, Mae. We’re all all in. If the DoD is behind this, do you think the brass hats are going to just slip their guy in and call it good? No. If it’s a coup then this is just the start. They’ll turn the whole Beltway inside out. They’ve got their own guys, Mae, an army of West Point grads. They’ll cut us all loose and bring them in, maybe they’ll even put a few of us on trial to scare us away from ever attempting a comeback. We can’t let that be us, Mae. We’re almost there. My plan is going to save the government from ruin, but if the president goes then we won’t get to finish the job. Worse, we’ll be made into pariahs. We’ll be blamed for everything and they’ll get all the credit. We can’t let that happen, Mae. Help me.”

“What am I supposed to do, T?” Mae acquiesced. She felt helpless and weak for falling into his snare, but she knew he was right.

“The next time you and Forteson are together, you find out what’s going on. You get confirmation that the VP move is coming from DoD. Then you find out what is going to happen next. That will give me a chance to either insulate the president or undermine the joint chiefs.”

“I feel like you’re my pimp.”

“Don’t you ever forget it.”

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Indivisible: Come and Take It, Chapter 10

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cati

“They take up arms against their ruler; but in this they deceive themselves, for experience will prove that they will have actually worsened their lot.”

—Niccolo Machiavelli, The Prince

Chapter 10

 

“Get him up!”

The guard unlocked Marzan’s chain link cage and threw open the door. Two storm troopers reached in, grabbed him by the ankles and dragged him out. They bound him with plastic zip ties around his wrists and hooded him as he lay face down on the ground. Jimmy did not resist. The four-by-four cage he had been in for weeks had rendered him stiff and weak.

He was taken outside. The sun was warm on his hooded face and shoulders. They stopped. He was lifted up into the back of a truck and made to sit on a bench seat and he sensed there were other men in the back of that truck with him, but they were silent. Jimmy didn’t speak, either. The engine turned over and they began to roll. The ride was bumpy; they were off the pavement.. Jimmy smelled the dust that blew in. He tried to remember the left and right turns but they changed direction multiple times. The engine whined into a lower gear. They were climbing.

“Where are they taking us?” someone finally asked.

“Shut up, Doc,” barked the MP riding with them in the back.

The truck rumbled on, bouncing and swerving, engine roaring for nearly an hour. Then it stopped. The tailgate was opened. The prisoners were lifted out and set on the ground, then marched away from the truck where they were made to kneel in a line, shoulder to shoulder.

“They gonna shoot us?” whispered the prisoner next to Jimmy.

“Don’t know,” Jimmy answered.

“They can’t do that.”

“Why not?” Jimmy replied.

“Shut your suck!” shouted an MP.

The last prisoner was pushed into the line. Marzan heard him whimpering at the far end. The rest were silent. Marzan leaned his head back, raising his face and letting the warmth of the sun penetrate his hood.

He sensed a presence melting into him in the form of the sun’s warmth. He prayed that death would be instantaneous. His anxiety dissolved. He was unafraid.

Someone yanked the charging handle on an M4 behind them. Marzan heard the prisoner next to him fall forward. He must have lost consciousness, he thought. It became completely silent. The whimpering and even the sounds of anxious breathing ceased, as if everyone had was holding their breath. Only the faintest trace of a breeze blew. James Marzan stared at the sun through the black cloth of his hood.

Was it worth it? he asked himself. There were a multitude of paths he might have taken to avoid this final moment. He could have chosen to never report to Captain Rick. He could have just blended in with the population. He could have stayed in the Humvee with Rollins, turning a blind eye to his atrocities. He could have never enlisted in the first place. Where would he be now if he had never enlisted? Probably unemployed, living in his mother’s basement, getting fat, going insane with isolation and loneliness, becoming less and less human by the day.

Was it worth it? he asked himself again. All the things I’ve done and seen, he mused, I’ve seen so much more than the zombies back home. A lifetime’s worth? Back in Shariastan…all those insurgents I killed. For most of them it was them or me. They told me I was fighting for America’s freedom, but then they sent me home to do the same thing to Americans. Whose freedom was I fighting for? What became of my brothers…my brothers who brought me here? When I was one of them, they taught us to hate the insurgents because they are animals and speak in tongues. But then I became the insurgent. We are all Americans and we look the same and we speak the same and were raised as Christians. Now my brothers hate me because I betrayed them. I guess I can’t blame them.

Would I do anything different if I had my life to live over? I don’t know. Probably not much. Did I accomplish anything with my life? I suppose I made that bastard Rollins dead. And what about Bob Garrity? I didn’t technically kill him. That woman there could’ve come back for him or called someone for help. But he is dead now and he wouldn’t be dead had I not done what I did. So it goes. I’d say he had it coming.

So what am I? Am I a soldier? I fight. Did I fight for anything worthwhile? I don’t know. I hope I did. 

Jimmy thanked God for the sun in that moment. He breathed in the scent of the pines and tasted the air for the last time. He smelled water. He had never noticed the smell of water before. He waited for the end. He didn’t ask for forgiveness.

“Your time with us has ended,” shouted one of the DSF soldiers. It was the voice of the one who had pulled Jimmy out of the coffin weeks before. “I have something to tell you. As much as it pains me, it turns out that you traitors, you shit-sucking maggots, you actually do have some value. I’d say you have value, all right, value as target practice, but it seems that you have more than that. You lucky bastards have been sold. You’re being exchanged for some of our own. Go figure. Who would have thought a pile of trash like you would be traded for American heroes.”

Several of the insurgents began to breathe sighs of relief.

“You all need to wait here until your ride comes along. Don’t come back to us, either. You won’t get another chance like this.”

Someone put a wooden handle into Marzan’s hand behind his back. It felt like a cheap steak knife. He heard the truck start, then shift into gear and drive away.

“Is it a trick?” asked the prisoner next to Marzan.

“We’re gonna find out,” Marzan answered. “Here, let me cut you loose.”

Marzan cut his neighbor’s zip ties loose. Then the other prisoner returned the favor by cutting Marzan’s hands free. Marzan removed his hood. They were in a meadow at the edge of a pine forest at the end of a dirt road that ran towards the west, judging by the sun. There were seven of them, each in orange jumpsuits and flip-flops. Those who were unbound and unhooded were looking at each other in astonished relief.

“What do we do?” asked one.

“Wait for our ride, I guess,” answered another. “We ain’t getting far wearing these Jesus boots.”

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