The Home of the Brave

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Science Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic
War heroes share stories in a futuristic, bleak vision of New York.

Submitted: April 12, 2009

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Submitted: April 12, 2009

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It was the sort of pleasant autumn day where the terrifically cold winters the city was known for had yet set in. Past the balmy days of summer, with visible lines of heat bouncing from the maze of concrete making the air so thick and humid that you could never be sure you were breathing. The breeze soothed my aching limbs, if only for the brief, sporadic seconds it managed its way through the maze of flesh and blood I was trapped inside.

The line moved forward another inch, and I took my single step forward as I had done for the last one-hundred and forty-two steps, I was counting. I looked skyward, and the shades of perfectly arranged blues, offset by the slow and methodical white clouds.. I coughed into my arm, a testament more to my own lungs than anything. They weren’t what they used to be, nor my heart– which beat at the whim of mechanical circuit board and wiring sewn into my chest, or any of the other broken machinery I call my body.

A finger on my shoulder, suddenly, and I turned around. The man there, younger than I, yet more defeated looking. With sunken-in eyes, thin lips, and premature wrinkles across his dark face, offered the pitiful smile of a defeated man and said,

“You alright, mister?”

“Yes,” I said between coughs and wheezes. “I think I’ll be alright, thanks.”

“You got any air?” he asked.

“No, I left mine at home.” I stopped coughing then, yet I was still out of breath. Lifting my head to the sky, I inhaled deeply as the man turned and walked back to his place in the line. The sky was perfect, yet imposing, daunting, tainted. When I was a boy, I had a snow-globe my grandfather had given me. The farmhouse within the glass dome was always picturesque with the snow settled about the ground. Whenever I shook the globe, often harder than I should, and the snow became displaced, whipping around in whimsical circles, you could see vaguely a white crack running the course of the entire dome.

I shook it too hard one winter and it slipped from my hands, smashing onto the ground and breaking itself along the fault line. The house broke from the glue that held it as water seeped across the carpet like blood. I was shocked. The house had been underwater all along, and the snow wasn’t snow at all, but tiny white specks, floating mockingly in the water.

Looking skyward today, I can barely make out a slender crack running across the dome of the world. Like the snowglobe, it was more visible when the earth and sky gets shaken up, in times of war when the oxygen factories all replaced with wartime ones. I knew elsewhere in the world, in Beijing and Bangalore, the sky was almost permanently black. I pitied the poor people, beyond the safety and comfort of the palaces and barracks. It didn’t matter whether they were the enemy. I still pitied them.

It was a miserable set of affairs, staring at the crack breeding itself at the roof of the world. And every time I closed my eyes I felt I might never open them again, else I would open them to find myself suddenly in an altogether miserable and unfamiliar place. And this new world would be filled with unfamiliar and miserable creatures, reveling in misery.

I told that to a psychiatrist once, and they started to ask me loads and loads of questions. They asked me this and that about my life, my parents, the war. I answered everything she threw at me, and all she would do is rap her phony fingernails on the clip board, toss her hair back, and say, “ah, interesting.” It killed me, it really did.

My eyes shot open, I had been unaware they were closed, and I saw the crowd slide forward around me. Totally familiar. Yet altogether miserable. I wanted very much to reach the edge of the line, which was perhaps the width of ten men standing abreast. I began to move toward it, and people slid away very easily, offering polite smiles or friendly nods. I was wearing my uniform, too small for me now in the stomach and too large in the shoulders, I felt out of place in it.

At the edge of the line, which was really more of a thronging crowd, I noticed the presidents voice. It had been playing all along, I am sure, but from the center I couldn’t hear it. Or perhaps I hadn’t been listening. I glanced around, the presidents words seemed mangled together, impossible for me to place in sentences. In the distance near the front of the line, I spotted his face, cool and composed– the ever-present smirk across his face. It was an image on a telescreen, perhaps one-hundred meters across, vastly dominating the entire side of a very large building.

He was an aging, attractive white man, with grey hair immaculately combed and a beard trimmed neatly. His eyes, black like coal, were set behind very thin-black-rimmed glasses which he wore exclusively for show. He wore an expensive suit and on his lapel was an old American flag, fifty-nine stars gleaming.

“Greetings,” the president said. “citizens of this country. Old and young. Rich and poor. Black and white. Welcome, one and all, to another beautiful day in America. The time is eleven-thirty, Monroeville time, and the weather is immaculate. Good news, citizens. The monthly EDS reports are in, and United States manufactories have yet again outperformed foreign competition in the production of oxygen for consumption and export. Oxygen production is up half a percent, keeping pace with the rising production of electronics, automobiles, and micro-fusion energy cells– as well as good old fashion American consumables. Grain production is up a whopping two percent across the board, with miscellaneous consumer goods production up a third of a percent. The state of the union, ladies and gentlemen, is strong…”

I looked away from the screen as the voice of the president continued to read the notes he had gotten from the national Economic Data Sheet report. I looked downward now, away from the crack in the sky to the body I was trapped in. My uniform was ironed, freshly washed and pressed. With creases running down the length of my black trousers and my medals pinned proudly to my chest.

The pavement was cracking. I looked to the edge of the sidewalk, where it dropped a foot and met the street where cars and trucks occasionally milled by. Gras grew, and grew from the cracks which streamed across the road like rain.

It didn’t matter even if they could clear the skies. Even if they weren’t just masking all the smog and carbon particles and pollution, even if they were really cleaning it up and not just making it invisible I don’t think it would have been enough. The core was too damaged, and it didn’t matter how healthy or clean the flesh looks, because when a fruits core was rotten, so was the fruit.

From the corner of my eye I glimpsed another blue uniform, like mine. And wading through the crowd eager to let me through with smiles and nods, I saw him; half turned from me and watching the telescreen. An Asian man, probably my own age, in a black uniform not unlike mine. Thinking of the cracks in the sky, I approached him and gingerly rapped him on the shoulder.

“No thanks,” he said, and I rapped again. He turned and a wide smile spread across his round face. I extended my hand.

“Arthur Sinclair,” I said. “forty-fourth mobile infantry division. ’56. New Volta.”

“I’ll be damned,” he said, in a much deeper voice than I would have expected. “Robert Chang, two hundred thirtieth ranger division. We were your pathfinders.”

“’56?” I asked.

“’54 to ’58, I was career.” He replied, and coughed a little, taking a long drag on small oxygen bottle he took from a pocket inside his army coats pocket. After inhaling deeply, he offered some oxygen to me. I declined, and the oxygen canister disappeared back inside his coat, behind his metals and pins.

“Gold eagle,” I said, spotting the emblem, polished and gleaming on his chest. “What’s that, ‘bravery in the face of uncertainty’?”

Robert Chang smiled. “At its best. With me, it was more recklessness.”

“Oh?” I asked. “What happened?”

“I was young.” He started. “Foolish.”

“What happened?”

“Well, like I said, I was young. I had a gun full of bullets and I was always looking for someplace to put them. We were camped out in the jungle around Oog– you know, the only civilization in that hellhole. We were marking locations for the ground attack. Can you believe that? Scouts setting up recon– satellites couldn’t see into that damn forest. So, anyway, we was looking for rebels and setting up drop sites and evac points and all that–“

“Drop points?” I hated to interrupt him, he was swelling into his story.

“Yeah,” he said, deflated. “Drop sites.”

“Drop-side Charlie, into Ouagadougou?”

“Yeah, we set that up. You drop there?”

“Yeah,” I said. “Small world.”

He shrugged, the line moved forward six or so feet. We stepped forward as Robert Chang took another drag on his oxygen, I heaved again, then refused his offer to share his air. I was beginning to wish I had brought mine, after all, but it was all the way at my apartment. It was probably gone by now, he had left the doors unlocked.

And he could picture it now, the air, his telescreen, and the K-14 rations he had hoarded by eating only twice a day, all gone. It would be the ledgedwellers. Unsophisticated. Uneducated. Refugees, ruffians, and the children of refugees and ruffians. Breathing the nation’s air and eating the nation’s food. Robbing the nations possessions while they sleep or go about errands.

Arthur Sinclair’s eyes drifted to the telescreen of the president as Robert Chang breathed in his precious bottled oxygen.

“Our troops have captured the city of New Naypyidaw, or now, New Utah City, and we’re winning the war in Burma“ the president said, and the crowd was suddenly riddled with applause and whistles. Arthur cheered with the rest of them, Robert quickly breathed in his oxygen to cheer. The president on the telescreen, seemingly knowing his audience would be temporarily distracted, paused a moment before continuing. “We’re winning the war is Egypt.” More cheers. “We’re winning the war in Columbia.” Still more cheers. “We’re winning the war in Alaska. Anchorage will be in our hands by Christmas, and you can count on that.” Yet more cheers, and these, the loudest yet. “But we can’t do it without your willing support– which is why your Congress has voted to renew the draft, to be up for renewal again in twelve months time. We need you. Be a Hero. I am your president, God bless America.”

The president’s face vanished and was replaced by a static advertisement for the army. A soldier in combat uniform– a modern model, steel plates over and interlocking wire mesh, helmet equipped with a small telescreen with video and audio implants. In his hands he gripped an American Flag with sixty-six stars. A rifle slung across his back, he was running forward. Wide text at the bottom scrolled across the image: ‘BECOME A HERO IN THE MOBILE INFANTRY CORPS. YOUR COUNTRY NEEDS YOU.’

Robert Chang started to speak again, but he had to return to his oxygen tank before he had said much. Perhaps he was older than he looks, Arthur thought. And glanced back to the billboard, now showing a detailed map of occupations and invasions, a world pockmarked by X’s and O’s, red and blue arrows pointing in all directions. ‘YOUR COUNTRY NEEDS YOU still gleaming on the screen.

Arthur’s eyes drifted up the building, the rows and rows of windows stacked neatly on each other into little-boxes of studio apartments. And there were the ledgedwellings– cheap tents and weakly erected scaffolds built, as their name implied, upon the ledges of the buildings where no more people would fit inside. Bedrolls, barbeque pits, weak railings, and caches of ration foodstuffs surrounding the building on all sides every twenty stories where the steel and glass face lurched inward. It was the solution to rampant homelessness on the street.

“As I was saying,” Robert Chang started after he was certain he would not need any more canned oxygen, at least for the time being. “We were setting up posts to screen for westbound refugee traffic, and looking for rebels. We found this lumber camp deep in the rain forest. Nothing spectacular, satellites would have just shown bits and pieces of nondescript buildings, shielded mostly by the thick canopy. We searched a little and found all the woodcutting equipment, saws and trucks and all that. Pretty routine. Then my buddy, Tex–god bless him, sharp guy– he commented that there were truck tracks going in both directions toward the Oog, lots of them. But there weren’t any signs of deforestation. After a second, everyone in my platoon had their hands on their rifles. We got back to work, searching the place overtime and found a hidden cache of rifles and ammunition, right inside the body of one of the saw-machines. Someone, probably Tex again, said something about the tracks looking like they’d gone down and back to the city at least once every couple hours for the last few days. We’d already been pushing our luck. We weren’t a combat unit, we were strictly scouts. We were about to head off, our C.O. was about to give the order, then, BLAM.” He uses his hands to motion an explosion, starting with two fists and fingers become outstretched as he gently pulls his hands apart. “Mortar fire. The very first shell blew Tex apart, he was still down on his knees, weapon on his back, just examining the tracks, real close like, trying to figure out how long ago they’d last left. Then there was some more mortar fire, it was all up front– at the tree line, blasting foliage aside. They didn’t want to destroy their cache, I thought, and felt oh-so-clever for figuring that out.”

Robert Chang began to laugh, and the exertion sent him into a coughing fit, I held his shoulder and asked him if he was alright, as he took out his oxygen and took another long inhale. As he breathed deeply from the small tank, and yet again I was offered some. Yet again I declined politely. After the oxygen was put away, Robert began to turn, and I asked him to finish his story. He continued as if he had never stopped.

“I think I stopped feeling clever and proud of myself when the small arms fire started ringing out. I figured it was mostly theirs, we were still trying to reconstitute ourselves in whatever building we had run to after the shells landed. I was in the big building, a garage, I figured where they kept the trucks. Some of it must have been ours, the steady, thrumming, semi-silenced rounds of an American techno-rifle. But for every steady, engine-sounding stream of gunfire, there was the wild thundering clamor of two or three Kalashnikovs. It’s hard to believe, ain’t it? Two-hundred years and those wood-stocked, steel-frame, gas-operated monsters are still standard issue across the world. I don’t even need to tell you about the shit we had– infrared sights, electronic targeting, digital map uploads, magnetic propulsion, depleted uranium shells, night vision, automatic reload, 200-round capacities, digital scopes, faster-than-sound bullets. ‘Land Warrior’ beaming satellite maps, real time logistics, troop concentration, and the enemies strength right into our telescreens. A whole command post. Land Warrior, ha! Satellite intel…in a jungle. A jungle! Our maps didn’t show us a damn thing except a green hellhole with the occasional muzzle flash. A great job that infrared sight did, too– targeting our buddies and every goddamn monkey for twenty miles. And don’t get me started on magnetic-propulsion, how much did those guns jam, every ninth, tenth shot? It didn’t matter if you had a 200-round capacity if you were jamming every three seconds or if you had to reload the electron-charge pack every five. They gave us all that stuff just to look pretty. I swear that’s the truth sometime, to make us look pretty and to pad the pockets of some arms manufacturer and some politician somewhere. Back in China we never…”

I tensed up, and he could tell. “Oh,” he said apologetically. “I forgot I’m not supposed to talk about…about the dragon. Promise not to report me?” I smiled, and coughed a little, stopping myself before I devolved into a full fit. For a second, Robert looked as if he was about to start coughing as well, but he did not.

“Yes, I do.” A man at the front of the line said, and a hydraulic sounded as a metal door slid open, closing a second later.

“Before I knew it,” Robert said. “We were getting pounded from all sides, and I mean pounded. We couldn’t return fire; we were trapped in our separate buildings. We couldn’t coordinate, couldn’t properly defend ourselves. And we weren’t a combat unit to begin with. Strictly scouts, pathfinders, and snipers. They could have slaughtered us, they had us suppressed with small arms fire, and they could have just wrecked out buildings with mortars. I don’t know why they didn’t. The best I could think was that they didn’t want to wreck their structures…their little playhouse set. Maybe they thought they could use it again. Maybe they thought we hadn’t sent the coordinates in already. We had, as soon as we found it. And we had just requested reinforcements. They wouldn’t send in a helicopter, and it would take ground forces at least 40 minutes. They said they were sending in ground forces, but we knew they weren’t. We’re scouts. When scouts get ambushed, ‘tough shit, you’re on your own.’ And we were. Me and three other guys, good guys, only guys I know Id let watch my back– were in the big machinery room, with the weapons cache. I figured we were probably safest from mortars. There was one big sliding door, we cowered against the far wall, like animals at the zoo. A rebel ran by, below his thick sleeveless Kevlar vest, he wore only a dirty white t-shirt and torn American jeans. My gun flashed red as he turned sideways toward me, the word ‘fire’ flashed on my guns viscreen and I squeezed in the trigger. The bullet slammed into his heart, as the gun knew it would, and his center of gravity toppled backward, sprawling him on the ground. And already, my electron micro-fusion charge pack was dead. God, we really needed that UB, didn’t we? Precious Ubitrium. That’s why we were there, anyway, and god, we needed it. If only to power our guns so we could get more… I didn’t reload it. I threw the gun to the ground. It locked up, the trigger retracted as my fingertips left the sensor pad. One of the guys in there asked me what I was doing. Then I threw open the weapons cache. Started pulling out AK’s, 12mm pistols, frag grenades…none of that molten plasma shit. I got a medal…this one here, under the eagle…for ‘improvising with weapon ordinances below class III’ makes it sound like I took only what I could get. Screw that. I said, if we were going to play the third-world cesspool game, we were going to use the third-world, cesspool toys, and damned if they didn’t work. I took two rifles, machine guns, fully loaded. One in each hand, I ran out. Bullets slammed into my vest, it felt like I ran headlong into a wall. Then I stretched my arms toward the treeline and depressed the triggers of both guns. I must’ve looked like…like…what’s his name? The man they used to worship, from the flat-movies? Rambo. I looked like Rambo. People started to run. Us and them. Our guys running to the supply cache, trading in God’s Marvels for mans Murderous Past.”

“Sir,” a man in black uniform with a disconcerting smile said. Offering a hand to Robert. The black door was open, a long white hallway led to a nondescript office-looking brown door. An American flag hung nonchalantly beside it.

“Just a moment,” Robert said, and the man in black reluctantly folded his arms across his chest. “We were leaving, high-tailing it out of there. We thought they would counter us at any moment. I found some spray-paint in the camp, lying cap less on the ground next to some of the machinery. I took it and I wrote…something, on the outside wall. I can’t remember what. It said…it said…no, I can’t remember.”

“Sir…you’re holding up the line.” The man in black said, trying to remain polite, the smile fading from his professional face.

“I think,” I began, with a spark of realization crossing into my eyes. “I was there. In ’56, we ran across this lumber camp in the middle of the jungle. The wilderness had started to reclaim it, vines were growing up the ramshackle tin walls. Through some of the vines…I saw…writing, but I can’t remember what it said. But… I have my holotapes at home, records from my helmet. Reviewing them would just be a click away. I’m as curious as you are now, I’m afraid.”

“Ah, it’s too late for that now. Goodbye, it was a pleasure having met you.” He said, turning from me. “Yes,” he said to the man in black. “I am sorry. Carry on.”

“Do you,” the man said by rote. “On your own free will, forfeit your life to ensure the continuation of resources for the state and its citizens, as according to U.S. Act 110023B, and documentation signed by your own hand, as long as two months prior? And do you agree to the method of termination agreed upon as long ago as aforementioned signature?”

“Yes,” Robert said with a great, unfulfilled sigh. “I do.”

“Very good sir.” The door slid open, and Robert walked unhesitant forward. Shoulders hunched, toward the far door, taking a long drag on his oxygen as he went.

And then, I was next.


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