“Man is a creature that can get accustomed to anything, and I think that is the best definition of him.” -Fyodor Dostoevsky
They repainted the MRAP again. The armored vehicle had once been green, then tan, then black, and was now a light blue, complete with stenciled writing on the side like General Patton’s ice cream truck.
“Protection at Home for Protection Abroad”
In his seat, Michael thought about the moving target that he rode in, wondering if the many layers of paint added any extra protection, and the nonsense phrase that the marketing department came up with for them. The self driving truck was a hodgepodge of replacement parts, welded sheets of scrap metals, a somewhat functional engine, and a guidance system based on maps that were ten years out of date. That Michael put a good chunk of his pay into the truck, along with all the gear he carried, was typical of his team and throughout all the recruitment teams of Deluge, Inc.
Michael thought about the briefing they got earlier. “Don’t kill if you don’t have to. If you need to shoot, try to wound them. Getting shot at does not permit you to shoot back.” Same shit, different day. All these different ways of saying that he was expendable should have angered him, but he’d accepted the cold reality of his work much the same way one accepts bumper to bumper traffic or walking through rain without an umbrella. “It is what it is” was his mantra and he often repeated the tired cliche like it was his trigger phrase.
“Doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, does it Mike?” Gomez asked.
Michael gave a slight nod, hoping to stop the loudmouthed Gomez before another tirade. The dozens of stories he told couldn’t all be bullshit and if even three or four were true, then he was lucky to still be alive and out there, luck counted more than anything else.
“I mean,” Gomez complained, “who are we protecting when we knock in some old woman’s door and snatch her grandson to go fight the rest of the fucking country. And since when is fucking California abroad? I lived in California when I was a kid. Seemed like anywhere else to me.”
“Well it ain’t no more, Slow-mez,” replied Chief, slapping him on the back of the head. “If you’d have paid attention, you’d know that sixty-two percent of the population supports our mission when framed in terms of protection from internal and external threats.”
Chief Axel was all Michael knew him as. No first name. No family. Not even sure if Axel was his real name. SEALs of his era took on call signs, something about security. Michael suspected this was a parlor trick divined from pure ego. They were arrogant like that. It was said that when Navy SEALs run into battle, not far behind were their publicists and ghost writers. Fake names probably sold a lot of books and movie deals.
“Meaning, if we tell the public that the fugitives they are harboring are dangerous and the enemy outside our borders are dangerous, too, then they are more likely to comply and help us get troops on the front lines. Which means a heavier purse for us,” Chief explained, settling the matter.
The engines started up and the MRAP rolled out of the basement garage of their headquarters, followed by a large tractor trailer. Michael got up from the bench seats that lined the walls of the truck and looked out the small porthole window behind him, noticing the streets were empty that day and finding the quiet alarming.
Gomez started a story about one of the many women he’d been with. Chief paid him no mind, instead escaping into his book. They were always Romance novels, with the bare chested Fabio’s on the cover and a lustful looking woman hanging off his arm. No one said anything about it. Everyone has their preferences. Newbie listened to the story with great interest. Michael hadn’t yet learned his name, Newbie didn’t rate that yet. He’d been with them for eight months but he still acted like Bambi in the forest. But where Bambi ran away from gunfire, Newbie seemed drawn to it and he’d shown himself dependable when it counted. He’d earn a name soon enough.
As Gomez went on, Caroline rolled her eyes. There were only a few women in their sector, soldiering not the first choice most girls put down on Career day. She didn’t say much and didn’t react when the others would poke and prod her, hoping to get a rise out of her. She waited them out with quiet dignity, like those marble statues in the museums that Michael was forced to visit as a child. She was not attractive by most men’s standards, but that stopped very few from trying to get in her pants. Gomez ended with a raunchy punchline, which got a laugh from everyone, even Chief. Donahue laughed the loudest. He always laughed loudest and first, even if what was said wasn’t funny. He laughed even louder at things that weren’t funny. He was imposing, though average in height, he cast a long shadow and a steely gaze that kept most everyone on his good side. Donahue was the type that tortured small animals as a kid and saw most everything as his plaything until he grew tired of them and that complicated the team dynamic they all strove to create out of professional necessity.
The convoy passed Chestnut street, where Michael’s friends Bobby and Brandon lived when they were kids. They went to college on baseball scholarships when Michael enlisted. Bobby played a season for Cleveland before May Day. Later, they were drafted and Bobby died in the Appalachia Campaign. Brandon’s body was never found, but they figured he was at the Siege of Fort Benning. The time line fit, but there was never any way to confirm it. Rumor was, the retreat was so swift that even the wounded were left behind.
They reached the edge of Jersey City and were about to pass Checkpoint X, the last safe spot they’d see for sometime. Michael got up from his seat and climbed up into the turret, manning the fifty caliber machine gun that provided security for the convoy. The autonomous vehicle got from point A to point B well enough, but lack of proper maintenance, a pitiful budget for equipment, and a low value for human life meant that Michael’s watchful eye was often the difference between life and death. As they passed the checkpoint, the guard on the ground gave him a friendly wave and a smile, which Michael did not return, let alone acknowledge
A couple hours passed and the truck crossed over an old metal girder bridge and a loud crunch was heard and the whole vehicle jumped. Michael tried to see what they’d hit, but the truck didn’t slow and there were more important things to look out for. All he saw was a fog hanging over the river and a blown up toll booth, whose E-Z pass sign seemed to flash on and off, though that was impossible.
“I’m going to do a weapons test”, Michael called over the radio.
“Okay”, Chief grumbled. It seemed Michael interrupted another joke, the word buzz-kill was thrown around him more than once. He didn’t like jokes. There was nothing funny about what was going on and even in the days that he could laugh, he doubted there was much to laugh about. He fired twenty-one rounds in three round bursts into the sides of buildings, knocking away the brick, steel, and concrete that were once homes and businesses. He put three rounds in an old car, hitting the gas tank and causing an explosion.
It was another hour before they got to their sector. The neighborhood used to be a few cul-de-sac’s with large houses on wide stretches of property, covered in grass and trees and tacky lawn ornaments. Michael’s father used to call these McMansions, assembled off the line, piece by piece with inferior materials, without craft or care. Many winters sagged the roofs of a few and almost all the windows were broken in every house. The once pristine, manicured lawns were replaced with cardboard shantytowns.
Any open space was converted to gardens, even if they never grew anything. The land wasn’t barren, as wild flowers and weeds bloomed most everywhere else, but since the fall, the green thumbs either headed West, died, or faded away. Michael was used to this kind of thing by now. The people lucky enough to live in the houses fit three to four families in a room. Latrine pits were set up at the mouth of neighborhood and the smell of burning excrement spread carcinogens to people who wouldn’t live long enough to die of cancer, but would have to live every moment with a nose full of burnt shit. Their truck and the Semi crawled up to the center of circle and Michael and the others unloaded.
“What the hell did we roll into?” Newbie asked.
“Refugee camp of sorts,” Michael replied. “Just keep your eyes open and the radio channel clear.”
“Okay, Mike. If you say so.”
“Relax. Turn on if you have to. These people can smell fear. A whiff of that and you’re fucked.”
“I’m good. I don’t use that stuff unless I need it.”
Lucky bastard, Michael thought.
Chief grabbed his megaphone, climbed up next to the turret and spoke aloud.
“Good Afternoon, my name is Chief Axel. We are from the Bureau of Military Affairs, Recruitment and Acquisitions, a subsidiary of Deluge World Wide. Today, we are here to clear your neighborhood and find the dangerous individuals who are making life unsafe for all of us. Your cooperation in this matter will be greatly appreciated and allow us to get out of your way quicker.”
Chief, standing on top of the truck, covered head to toe in body armor and brandishing a compliment of weapons, looked like an executioner, but sounded like a Walmart greeter.
“Donahue, Conners”, Chief called into the channel, “Go to the head shed and talk to the HOH. Remember, be diplomatic in there. We don’t have enough bodies or ammo. Newbie, take Mike’s place in the Crow’s nest.”
The Main house had a two car garage and the only window that wasn’t boarded up was the basement window on the side closest to the cul-de-sac’s neck. It was the only house with a lawn, yellow and brown in most spots, but freshly mowed. A goat tied to a post was chewing on grass On one each of the boards, in spray paint, read the neighborhood’s laws.
1. No stealing from Arlo.
2. No touching Arlo’s women.
3. Arlo’s word is law.
After circling the property, feeling the eyes inside on him, Michael went to the front door and knocked, Donahue covering him from the sidewalk. An emaciated child answered the door.
“My name is Conners. I’m looking for a few people who skipped their draft day. Can I speak to whoever’s in charge?”
The small child looked like he could have been anywhere from eight to fifteen. It was tough to pin considering how horrid and dirty he was. Michael wasn’t even entirely sure he was a boy, or one of “Arlo’s women”.
“Arlo is this way, Rep,” the child said. Michael entered the house, checking for any surprises, booby traps, or kill holes from the second floor. After clearing the front room, he popped back outside to signal that it was okay to enter. Donahue came in, did his own check and then the pair followed the boy up the stairs to meet whoever Arlo was. Outside the master bedroom, stood a short, stocky man with a deep scar on one cheek and a spear made from an old, wooden coat rack and a kitchen knife duct taped at the end. Michael thought it looked ridiculous, but if he wasn’t armed, hadn’t eaten much in a while, and lived like an animal the way these people were living, he was sure that the spear would give him pause. The child didn’t notice the spear and spoke to the guard like one would to a co-worker. The guard looked Michael and Donahue up and down, then opened the door, announcing their presence to Arlo.
“Arlo, these Reps are here for our people.”
Arlo, who was laying in a California King Bed, naked as the day he was born, and surrounded by ten equally naked women on the bed, sat up to receive the two recruiters. He took no actions to cover himself, instead forcing everyone to see his naked body. He had the remnants of a more muscular frame, hairless and a few shades shy of midnight black. His manhood on display was not the spectacle that would usually warrant a crowd, but Arlo stood proud, projecting aloof confidence, as if he was daring someone to call him out. Michael guessed that those who did were given swift retribution and chose to make no mention of it.
“Gentlemen, welcome to my home. My name is Arlo and these are my friends,” he said, motioning to the women laying on the bed, who met them with shy looks and giggles. “You’ve already met Rodney, the head of home security, as well as Anthony, the ward of the estate. Megan, could you please bring a couple glasses of water for our guests.”
One of the women, a short blonde, who looked well fed compared to most of the other people in the neighborhood, got up and walked into the master bathroom. Her long lochs covered her reduced bosom and though it was clear she’d lost weight, she maintained her curves and childbearing hips. She returned a few moments later with two full glasses. Michael took the glass out of politeness. Donahue drank the whole glass in front of everyone as if he’d just finished a marathon, letting several drops hit the ground. Michael noticed the boy, Anthony, looked at every spilled drop with anger and wanting as the three wet spots slowly dried into the carpet.
“Refreshing, thanks”, Donahue humored, “ Now, are you the homeowner?”
“I am indeed. Are you surprised? Is it shocking to see a black man own a home in this day and age?”
“No, its just that,” Donahue started.
“We saw the windows. Figured that whoever owned the signs wouldn’t be so… articulate,” Michael stepped in.
“Smooth, Rep. Very smooth. Some people around here are as sharp as snowballs, so I keep the rules quite simple. I’m sure even you could follow them”.
Donahue motioned towards his rifle, but Michael cut in before anything happened that couldn’t be taken back.
“Now, we have a list of names we’d like you to go through and see if you can identify any of them. Any name you give us can be exchanged for credits. D-Coins. Worth more than gold, at least that’s what the tickers say.”
“Look around, Rep. Do you see any open D-Marts nearby? Is there a new aid station that I’m not aware of? Flip a switch anywhere in the house, there’s no power. If you haven’t noticed, Crypto is useless here and I need my people. I need guards to keep my water safe from thieves. My neighbors are always looking for weaknesses to exploit. I need my women to warm my bed at night. I get cold and lonely so easily. My people aren’t going with you.”
Arlo stood firm, hints of laughter coming from the guards and the women. Donahue looked annoyed Michael stone faced.
“Okay, fine, for every body you identify, I’ll trade you a quarter box of FedRats. Think of it this way. More food for your household and less mouths to feed,” Donahue replied.
Arlo got up from the bed and put on his robe, a pink bathrobe with purple polka dots, then walked towards the two recruiters. He towered over both of them and stared them down. Neither man blinked and a genial smile came over Arlo’s face. He stretched out a hand towards them.
“Half box,” he replied and Donahue accepted, shaking Arlo’s hand in regal fashion. “Though, I doubt anyone of my people are lawbreakers. My people are good and honest citizens. My neighbors across the main road, however, are a different story. You’ll have more luck over there.”
It was the same everywhere. Roll into one village to go fuck another. As soon as Arlo said that, Michael knew they’d be going home with a full load.
“You might be right,” Donahue replied with a smirk, “but in that case, we’re going to need your help rounding them up.”
“Naturally. What kind of citizen would I be if I ignored my duty to my country?” Arlo replied, with more laughs coming from the gallery. Donahue put a map on the bed, and Arlo began explaining the defenses the neighborhood across the street had. Arlo explained that his men would feint a frontal assault, when another guard burst into the room, frenzied with excitement.
“Arlo!” the man yelled, “We’ve got him!.”
Arlo pulled his attention off of the war plans.
“Where is he?”
“We’ve got him in the backyard, ready for you.”
Arlo turned his attention back to the Michael and Donahue.
“Excuse me, Gentlemen. I have more pressing business.”
“Hey!”, Donahue yelled, “We didn’t have to be as cordial as we have been. We can do this another way real fucking quick.” Doanhue then moved his hand to the rifle slung across his body.
The two guards pointed their spears at Donahue’s neck, while Michael drew down on Arlo with cold indifference.
“Trevor, Deandre, lower your weapons. Donahue, please understand, someone has been siphoning water from my aqueduct and that’s been causing me all kinds of headaches. I can be much more useful to you if you allow me to first take care of this small business.”
Donahue took his hand off the rifle and Michael lowered his.
“You’re the boss, Arlo. But, don’t jerk me around.”
“Thank you. And after, I’ll shower you in derelicts.”
Arlo led his guards, the two recruiters, plus a few of the women downstairs and out the back door. All through the house were other guards, other women who were noticeably less well fed, as well as a handful of children running around. The backyard was mostly converted into garden planters, surrounded by a six foot wooden fence, reinforced with a variety of different kinds of scrap metals like street signs, old refrigerators and other appliances, and anything else that could keep Arlo’s neighbors out of his property.
Two burly guards, carrying similar makeshift spears flanked a skinny, shirtless man, whose unkempt beard and showing ribs made it look like he’d be stranded on some desert island. His skin was burned by the sun’s harsh rays on several parts of his body and his swollen brown eyes strained from too much crying. Bruises lined his sides and arms, which he wrapped around his body, shaking himself forward and back, muttering ‘I’m sorry’ over and over again.
Arlo walked over the the beaten man and raised his head to see his face.
“Who sent you to steal my water? Was it Tom Andrews? Roger? Annette down the street?”
“No one. I was just thirsty.”
Arlo slapped the man across the face. He wore a few rings which tore into the man’s already bloodied skin, cutting deep gashes into him as the blood that had built up in welts burst like water balloons onto the ground below.
“I hate liars. Do you see those tomato plants in the corner there? The shriveled up ones that look like they could really use a drink?” He grabbed the man’s head and turned it towards the garden.
“They wouldn’t be that way if someone had only taken a few drinks of my water. You’ve stolen at least ten gallons over the last week, I figure. Who did you steal them for?”
“No one, I swear!”
Just short of licking his lips, Donahue looked like he was going to need a few moments alone as Arlo continued to beat the man. Like a shark in frenzy, Donahue cultivated an aura around himself whenever blood was spilled that could best be described as primitive lust. Writhing on the ground, the man could barely get any words out. He tried to scream, but only a whisper could come out and the bizarre sight of a man whispering for his life made Arlo laugh.
“There exists about one and a half gallons of blood in a human being, thief. Tell me who sent you so I can get another eight and a half back from them!”
“Roger,” he whispered. “Roger sent me. Please, don’t kill me. Please, I want to live. I’m sorry. Please.”
Arlo, satisfied, put his hand out as one of the guards brandished a hunting knife and placed the handle in Arlo’s open palm. Arlo walked over and grabbed the man by his matted hair, manipulating him so that his chin was up as he placed the blade across the thief’s neck.
“Before May Day, I worked in finance,” Arlo declared. “I used to commute to the city every day and I made money hand over fist. But it never gave me any satisfaction. Not any real satisfaction, anyway.”
Arlo danced the knife around the thief’s neck, as small bits of his beard fell to the ground into the pool of blood below, looking like rowboats in a crowded pond.
“But now, I have a small kingdom. I’m responsible for every action that occurs on my land. I took a political science course in college, we talked about the state’s monopoly on violence. It was the cornerstone of law and order. Today, I am that law. And the monopoly is mine. And I take immense satisfaction from that.”
Donahue was sweating, speechless, watching with an intensity usually reserved for hyenas, vultures, and other scavenging animals. Michael watched on with no emotion one way or the other. It was what it was in his mind. But, then, a thought occurred to him, causing him to shout out.
“Wait. What is his name?”
Arlo looked over, annoyed. Donahue was visibly frustrated, blueballed.
“What does that matter?”, Arlo asked.
“If he’s on my list, then he’s worth more to both of us alive.”
Arlo thought it over for a moment, then removed the knife from the thief’s neck, wearing a devilish smile.
“Very well, he’s yours if he’s on there.”
The man,who could barely whisper, tried with all his might to speak, but couldn’t. Michael decided a different approach.
“Nod if you hear your name. Abu Nasir Ali.”
The man, who most certainly was not Abu Nasir Ali, with all his might, shook his head as if he wasn’t at all injured. Satisfied, Michael looked at Arlo to gauge his reaction. He had a stern look on his face for a moment before smiling wide.
“Wonderful! Now that that is taken care of, lets see what other trash I can have taken out.”
Arlo formed up his men, about twenty, into a neat formation. Arlo himself, took out a pistol that looked as if it had never been fired. It was a nickel plated, forty-five caliber M1911 with custom grips and an imposing shine. On the side, engraved over the slide, were the words “Ultima Ratio Regum”. Michael was spying it and Arlo approached him before they set off on the short march across the desolate street that divided the two miniature kingdoms.
“You know any Latin, Connors?”
“In France, King Louis XIV built a massive palace as a testament to his greatness. Versailles, ever heard of it?”
“He lined the outer walls with cannons and inscribed on them were the words ‘Ultima Ratio Regum’. The last argument of Kings.”
They caught Roger and his neighborhood by surprise. There was little resistance. The men and women selected went in willingly, most looked half starved and probably wouldn’t survive training, but that was of no concern. The recruiters were paid by the body. The new recruits got used to their new names quickly, but were then told their service numbers would prove to be more important. Deluge had a new unit of soldiers destined to bring the country back together again. Arlo, getting his justice, executed Roger and several others. Donahue was pleased. Michael saw a few women were segregated away from the rest. Arlo would have a few more bedwarmers for the cold nights ahead.
Chief gathered the team around before heading back, a wide smile on his face, matched by most of the others, save for Michael.
“Good work today, people,” Chief declared. “Sixty-Three Americans for the cause. Drinks are on them tonight.”
“Gracie Pub?” Gomez asked.
“Where else?” Caroline asked.
Finally, Abu Nasir was loaded into the truck, laying on a makeshift stretcher. With the little strength he could muster, he called out to Michael, beckoning him over before the doors were shut.
“Thank you for saving my life,” he struggled to get out.
“All I did was delay the inevitable, Abu.”
Michael was about to close the door to the Semi when one of Arlo’s guards came towards him.
“I’d like to go, too. I’m on the list.”
“What’s your name?”
“Whatever name you haven’t called yet.”
“Trust me, you’re better off here. You have food, shelter, and from what I saw, more than enough incentive to stick around. You don’t want to go.”
“As soon as you leave, shits gonna hit the fan. There’s gonna be a war. Arlo pissed off a lot of his neighbors and doesn’t have enough strength to fight them all himself. Is it really worse there than it’ll get here? I doubt it. At least with the army, I’ll have a gun. Here, I’ve got a fucking stick and a knife.”
Michael looked him up and down, waiting for him to waver, but no such weakness came. His mind was made up. Michael stared at the list, looking for an unclaimed name, “Paul Reed. Service Number 328078996.”
“Paul Reed,” the man replied as he climbed into the back of the truck. Michael closed the door behind him.
The trucks left the cul-de-sac, having enough bodies for the day to be considered a good haul. Michael, taking his spot in the turret watched as the night sky was obscured by rising black smoke from back the way they came. He wondered if Paul Reed was correct. Arlo acted untouchable, but there was always a bigger fish. If they’d rolled into Roger’s territory, it would have been Arlo’s head instead. But that didn’t matter. There had been a hundred Arlos and hundreds more to come. Each of them content with their small kingdoms and each of them would be toppled in an afternoon if the price was right. “It is what it is”, Michael murmured as they reached the highway towards home.
Amazing first chapter; I'm about 200 pages into the novel now