Sunday, November 24, 2013

At The Speed of Blood 2

I joined the fourth company, a regiment assigned to rail construction security. This sounded benign. It wasn't. President Adams bold rail project met massive resistance in the south west from a group calling themselves the Texas Recusants. A loosely affiliated, yet shockingly effective, sect of maniacs, these savage terrorists vowed to resist the Nation's last chance at survival.

The Recusants started as an obscure cult with a stone-aged mindset that grew horrifyingly fast with their involvement in the drug and flesh trade. The old world imagery and mythology served as a convenient screen to obscure what was in reality just a criminal enterprise with rather twisted forms of group cohesion. But, the formula worked. By the time President Adams took office, the Recusants had concluded a successful campaign for secession, claiming the entirety of Texas and southern portions of New Mexico and Arizona. Calls for civil war went out, but President Adams did not heed them. Unwilling to spare the life for what was in reality, the three worst states in the union, she decided on a policy of containment coupled with an intense focus on grand scale public works projects to revitalize the Nation. The key stone was rail system.

I remember the commentators at the time describing it as an "adrenaline shot". That did it justice in many respects; seeing those tracks cut through encroaching chaos made people feel more alive then they had in many years. President Adams gave the people hope and she earned their love.

At boot camp this sense of enthusiasm infected nearly every cadet. Only one stood out: Mike. He was naturally immune to the promise of the future. Nothing mattered to him, and everything sucked. Only the potential for personal glory could rouse him. And until the moment to earn it arrived, only the cheap thrills of base living intrigued Mike. He made a game sex and dabbled in cruelties against enemies and the unaffiliated badlanders that bordered on obscene - even in the rule-less frontiers. He repeated with sickening self-satisfaction his personal motto: "I fuck and I kill. I am the circle of life." This attitude of his, this dismissiveness and  condescension, made me hate him. If I could have discretely killed him, somehow stabbed him, unnoticed in the heat of battle, I would have.

Mike enraged almost everyone around him. It only took a week of his underhanded comments before I broke down and tried with all of my might to smash his nose. I had hoped for a swift and decisive retribution, but instead I had only given him license to humiliate me further. He beat me savagely. His skills seemed insurmountable. But the more damage he expertly inflicted, the harder I fought.

Mike and I were complete opposites: he was the picture of privilege in every way. He had every natural gift and inherited treasure imaginable, like some kind of mythic hero, and he seemed to hate life for all its generosity. I, on the other hand, had nothing. I was nothing but incarnated stubbornness. I push through everything without the slightest ability or skill because I refuse to give up. And for a brief moment, in the grip of our one sided contest, we caught a glimpse of these opposing pulls in each other. It was a portent. I resisted it then, of course, but I sensed that fate would turn our struggle into fraternity once it revealed to us what we had to offer each other. Mike would come to see in me the one thing he lacked: a fight. He was all ability, all skill, and everything came easily to him. The smoothness of this kind of existence sapped his grit. But, me? Fight is all I had; a brute, stupid fight like a fist slamming against a steel door.  

For our brawl, we both got three weeks of sand bag duty. We had to work side by side in the blistering heat. The work was grueling. The first few days were spent in silence. But then, we started talking.

"You can really take a punch", he offered.

"Yeah," I came back, "you're lucky they confiscated my knives at base."

He laughed. We shared memories about the days before everything went to shit. "Back then," Mike said, "you could enjoy making love to girls, but now it's just a way to waste time." He went on, "this world's so fucked up, the only thing I got to look forward to anymore is to check out epically".  

"Fuck that," I said. "They're gonna obliterate every piece of me, before I stop. There won't be anything glorious about it."

By the end of our punishment or mutual respect was full blown. By the end of basic, we were brothers. We served together for a year on night patrol. We held off a Recusant attack on a supply line headed to the Pacific Northwest together. That earned us a place in the forward assault. When we set out to bring the fight to Recusant territory we felt like a burning ember about to drop on a pile of paper. It never occurred to us that they would decimate us. For as much as I liked play out scenarios in my head, to anticipate everything, I never thought they would cut Mike down with almost cruel indifference, and leave him to linger lifeless and inglorious in my dreams.


A loud crack wrenched me from my sleep. Flashes of purple light silhouetted LT's face. The ancient helmsman seemed to clutched even closer to his wheel. The bus accelerated, heaving and bucking more ferociously as it hurled over the fissured road. We bounced helplessly in our seats. Even through this commotion, LT kept his eyes fixed on his book. The rest of us exchanged looks of acceptance. We were under attack, in moments we could call be dead.

Then, the back of the bus lit up as fire from the turret strobed in through the visored windows. A metallic hail of expended shells rained down the roof with a ferocious chime.

The familiar cacophony of war quickly chased my unpleasant memories back to their keep.

My eyes fixed on the back window, and through the blinking of the night sky, I could make out a massive vehicle on our tail. I recognized it immediately as a vessel of the damned. We were being set upon by monsters.

After the the success of President Adams rail system, most of the roadways, especially those outside of the urban cores, fell into disrepair. The oil crisis had prompted the rail system, and the oil industry never recovered from it. Petroleum became an oddity and a symbol of a decadent past. The petroleum lifestyle, however, did not die out entirely. Through the efforts of a few intransigent oil devotees, this diabolical commodity clung to existence with the tenacity of the undead.

Brilliant scientists attempted to resolve the problem from the other side, by designing state of the art vehicles to run on alternative fuel sources, like our gas powered PMC bus, but this had no effect on the petroleum fiends. So devoted to this condemned and arcane mode of living were they that it is rumored they entered into a pact with the devil to preserve it.

In some of the more remote villages of the frontiers, you can hear all manner of tales concerning the nefarious machinations of the oil fiends. Stories of necromancy and blood lust abound. The whispered lore has it that some of the worlds last oil reserves lay under the lands of the reclusive Ice Tribes, who because of increasingly brutal winters succumbed to cannibalism. Cannibalism, according to the legend, became a kind of folkway, an institution - a fierce protection against the elements and outsiders. But all this eating of people resulted in brain disease. The Ice Tribes grew ill, afflicted with rogue proteins - prions - that yielded debilitating madness. The illness wrought death and destruction on the community. Unwilling to change tradition or abandon their bounty under the frozen earth, the tribal medicine men devised some kind of homeopathic treatment for the prions that involved fresh blood from the unafflicted peoples of the world. Hence a perfect trade presented itself to the Ice Tribes and the oil fiends. To get their coveted petroleum, the oil fiends became blood marauders, hunting down the innocent and draining them of their life. The arrangement was quite beneficial to the Ice Tribes and oil fiends, and quite hellish for everyone else.      

Different groups of oil fiends had different names, but collectively we knew them as Vampirates.

These were the monsters chasing our bus. This is why they hadn't simply obliterated us: they needed to subdue us, to keep a few intact to hook to their blood pumps. They needed every drop they could drain to barter for the Ice Tribes' oil.      


Friday, February 10, 2012

At The Speed of Blood 1

The bus seemed to stumble over the barbaric surface of the roads, and we swayed in our seats as the tires found ever new ruts to struggle with. The light outside began to dim, night was waking. The hatch in the ceiling to the rear of the bus opened and the Turret Gunner climbed down the ladder. Her body was long and tight, and again I felt a stir. I looked forward to shake it. When I peered back she was shaking the shoulder of a passenger next to the ladder. He rubbed his eyes and pulled a pair of glasses out of his pocket. They said a few words to each other - he and the beautiful mystery - that I couldn't make out, before he gave up his seat and headed up the ladder.

The tires on the road were growling more, they were growling louder. This told me that we were getting further from the little patch of civilization we had left. This should have set on edge yet the primal, arrhythmic thumping of the tires had a hypnotic effect on me. My eyelids sagged with ritual effect and I was soon asleep.


Mike tormented my dreams like he tormented me in life. His bloodied face, that heart rending agony in his eyes - they always waited for me. I couldn't sleep without them. They were brands of failure. Part of me thinks Mike would have enjoyed my torment.

I was a young man when I joined the Democratic Defense League. Like it sounds, it was an emergency auxiliary military branch created by President Adams to help preserve the nation. The standards guiding enrollment were relaxed and I got in at sixteen. I was filled with a burning desire to be a hero, to fight for my country. When the Cartel Wars of Succession erupted in the southwest, everyone sensed that the end was approaching. When the Wars were made worse by the implosion of the oil industry the remaining supply lines - many of them from the north - fell prey to unholy marauders. It wasn't long before our fight turned into an all out struggle for survival.


Monday, January 23, 2012

Dulce Et Decorum Est Pro … Mori (part 3)

The rest of the crew could wait; I had to curb the creeping fear that I had made a terrible choice. People troubled me. Being with them made me uneasy. Not all people, of course, but in groups my instincts always told me that there was someone in the midst to mistrust, someone among them who’s out to get me. This peculiar entity next to me, for example, this floating grin could be up to something. All these people I didn’t know could be up to something. My throat began to tighten, and then a flash of assurance came. I knew who I was. It is in the clamor of war  that I can still my thoughts – but anywhere else my thoughts bubble up from the recesses of my mind. They pop up here and there and echo through my head and keep me from focusing on anything. I can’t hold a civilian job because of it, or keep a woman or a friend of or a goal in mind. It’s the wall between me and a normal life.

I belonged on this bus because I didn’t belong anywhere else.

The back of the seat in front of me had the beginnings of a hole in it. I opened it wider with my finger, and the cheap vinyl flexed and sagged as if it had given up without a fight. Why was I always fidgeting with things like this? What impulse compelled a man of my skill and experience to become possessed with a child’s curiosity?

Why does a state of the art Natural Gas War Transport Bus have pleather seats? My finger was gouging the seat again. I have moments of possession I can’t control. There was a dead body once like this. Its skin was unreal like this. The other boys used a stick but I used my finger. I remember the teacher found us… There was something about this contradiction – the out of place cheap seats – that was reflected in this motley host. Why was someone with my experience on a conscript bus with so many young people. There was something shabby about it. It was the appearance of quality, but cheap inside. That was this whole operation. Just a trick to make money.

The thought passed, like anything close to the truth must.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Dulce Et Decorum Est Pro … Mori (part 2)

His words rang false in my ears. They sounded forced and artificial like LT himself. This was a Private Military Contractor transport bus; the only thing the passengers on it shared was a lack of alternatives. I had served in a real army before, where fraternity and bonds of loyalty turned many into one. But none of that existed here. This pathetic group was bound by need or a failure to make it in the meek but honest world of civilians. Instead, these misfits traded their lives for money, their dignity to serve as henchmen for some corporation bent on reclaiming some of The Badlands that were once part of a great nation. No, we weren't defending our homes or families, we were serving as tools for rich men who saw limitless opportunity in everyone-else's catastrophe. No, not comrades. Just others.

I looked at their faces and wondered what had pulled or pushed them onto this bus. Just ahead of me was a mountain of a man whose fresh faced profile belied a youthful excitement that surely clashed clashed with my unenthusiastic scowl. Maybe an adventurous spirit tricked him onto this bus. Maybe it was the drudgery of life on The Frontier that made him susceptible to the tall-tales of adventure in The Badlands that the old burnouts peddled in the taverns. Maybe that wasn't all. Maybe his size indicated an obstinacy in his blood, like his genes carried out their plan build this massive frame despite the meager rations on The Frontier. Perhaps, it was the desire to test what must have seemed like limitless potential. I couldn't know for sure, not now.

Some half audible whispering from the rear of the bus drew my attention there. Another tall, passenger was whispering in a woman's ear. He had a slighter build than the Adventurer in front of me, and he appeared to be at least ten years older. From the look on the woman's face, the whispering was something illicit that incited her. The scene put me off. I have always hated any manifestation of joy that excluded me. I tried to communicate my disapproval with a fixed scowl, but at that moment they were aware of nothing but each other. I suspected this was their reason for being on the bus. They were likely embroiled in some tawdry affair, and their reckless lust probably earned him a blood vendetta with the woman's betrayed former lover. Some enraged husband, probably, with power in the community, discovered their trist and had it out for this Lothario, and so on the bus he climbed with his little lover in toe. My scowl turned to a smirk as the thought of his certain death in the Badlands came to me.



Thursday, December 22, 2011

Dulce Et Decorum Est Pro … Mori (part 1)

This morning was redder than most, like it was a warning. I heard the heavy bus clamoring down the haggard road to my apartment complex. My roommate heard it too, and new look of eagerness came over his face.
“Matt, you don’t have to do this. There might be an opening at the plant in a few weeks, and I can cover your rent until then.” he said in a rushed voice.
    I told him that I appreciated his concern, that he was a true friend, that I would never forget all that he had done for me, but that the dye was cast and my fate was rolling done that pitted road. The mundane life in the plant, the work-a-day world, wasn’t for me, we both knew it, and there was no sense in proving one more time.
    One of my cats pressed against my leg with greed and affection. Bandit knew I was leaving, and probably for good. I scooped him up and smiled into his generous eyes.
“Goodbye little buddy,” I said with a melancholy tone I didn’t intend. “And thank you, Ron, for lookin’ out for these guys while I’m gone. Don’t let them get into the garbage too much.”
“You’ll be back soon. They won’t even notice that you were gone.”
    I don’t know why, but part of me found Ron’s stubborn optimism kind of endearing. I smiled; we both knew it wasn’t true. The bus was now growling just outside the barricade of our complex. I stared calmly at my cramped duffel bag waiting by the front door.
“That’s my ride,” and with those words I left my little life, all the while hiding the anxiety that was turning over and over in my gut.  

The front gate opened slowly and not without complaint. The belts were loose and they wined as they did their work. The monster on the other side shook as it idled. The armor plating that dressed it rattled with a low growl. The bus looked like war – singed and marred. Its wheels were thick and deeply grooved in order to travel the shattered and crumbling roads. There was a turret on the roof, and through the thick film on the glass I could make out the image of a woman. She seemed stiff, stoic, and angry. There are not many women on The Frontiers, and those working in the plants seemed like they were made of sorrow and porridge.  This woman was young, beneath the angry twists in her face, and I found her very attractive.  And at that moment I felt my first jolt of fear – like the recognition of something still human and soft inside me was the first loose thread of an unraveling confidence. But as quickly as this nagging unease had bubbled up, it was chased away by the hydraulic hiss of the bus door.

    The Driver was perched over the wheel like a gargoyle. His wispy white hair stuck to his sweaty face. The Driver’s advanced age seemed as out-of-place as the Turret Gunner’s beauty and youth. Both of these human extremes had vanished from The Frontiers long ago. I had an unexplained impulse to give the old man a coin, like it would somehow improve my journey. I climbed the steps and the Driver gestured to rear of the bus with a jerk of his neck.
    The armor on the windows made the galley dim and the sun that seeped in striped the faces of the other passengers with slats of gloomy light. Aside from a low watt fear, their expressions were stiff like a child who’s just taken some bitter medicine. No one’s eyes welcomed me or even acknowledged my presence. Halfway back, there was a strange character with his neck craned down into a book, resting in his lap. He seemed completely out of place in some kind of oblivious shell. So, I stowed my bag and filled the space next to him.
“My name is Matt.”
    He turned his face from his book and scrunched his forehead as if this custom perplexed him.
“People just call me LT.” He said in a chalky tone. Then straightened his neck and the stream of light flowing in through the window swept across his peculiar grin. The light isolated it from the rest of his face and for a moment he reminded me of the Cheshire Cat without any of the charm. His floating smile told me, “look around, these are your comrades, Matt.”