The Most Dangerous Blog

Chicken Soup for the Bubonic Plague: Novel Excerpts, Short Stories and Essays

The Sortie–Excerpt from ‘The Hangman’s Valley’

slave caravan

Chapter 12–The Sortie
“The way you have to look at it,” Robin’s new companion William said, “is that the Red Riders are true cowboys—on the long drive—and we’re the cattle.” William arched his brow over his bulging round eyes and gave Robin a knowing nod.
It was only yesterday when they had first been chained together, a linked pair on a long manacled centipede of captives that marched west along the road to Cibola. After they had dragged Robin on the ground for a mile, tearing his skin and turning his young body blue, after he had suffocated on several occasions when his arms failed him, the fifty or so Red Riders ran into the main column transporting over a thousand slaves west. Robin was stunned at the sight of so many humans in bondage, whipped and shouted at, moving along by gunpoint by another hundred Red Riders.
Cowboys, Robin thought; that’s exactly what they were, driving chattel day and night to an unknown destination. A small wagon train brought up there rear, containing supplies such as ground corn kernels that were mashed into a paste and served to the slaves with a bowl of water. Only because there was no grass for them to graze on, Robin figured. Robin had spent only one day on the line, as the other slaves called it, but already he was sick of the marching, sick of the pain from his shredded back, sick of the corn paste and, most of all, sick of the chains.
The chains recalled to him the story of an ex-slave he once knew.
After the strangeness with Alfonso and Henry Martin Vickers, none in town seemed surprised when, at the beginning of Robin’s last summer at home, a black man spent a few weeks in town on business. Every Sunday Robin and the rest of the townsfolk saw the negro up close for a few hours when he attended church, as there was no other church in town for the colored man to go. Robin’s parents had mentioned how the man was a former slave, freed by the War, and how nice it was that slavery was a thing of the past in America. But few respectable people in town ever talked to the man himself, especially not Robin’s parents. One Sunday, while assisting the Reverend and the organist with the closing duties of the church, Robin watched the black man approach the surprised Reverend and beg for a moment of his time.
“A dilemma I has myself, suh,” said the black man to the Reverend, as Robin polished the metal and wood of the organ and pretended not to overhear.
“Yes, well, what is it then?” queried the Reverend, removing his white habit in a hurry, anxious to be away.
“Well suh, many here’s knows me by my Christian name, Absalom, which my mother blessed me with, it da one and same thing I received from her before she bein’ sold away. But as a chile’, my second name a come from my ol’ dead mar’suh, his family name bein’ Compson. So a half my name be beautiful to me, while da other half be staining me with memories a’ ugliness. I ain’ no slave no more, an’ I figured, now dat’s been so many years, I think I’s safe in sayin’ I ain’t gon’ be no slave again, so it round ‘bout time I finally rid myself a’ this damned name. I’m my own man now, ain’t I?”
“Please, son, no blasphemy in this house!” gasped the Reverend, shocked.
“Pardon, revered suh, just it’s this dilemma what got me right agitated. That’s why I’m here—for some true guidance, suh. If you can help.”
“And what exactly is it you want me to help you with?” asked the Reverend, his patience lost.
“I needs me a new name!” said the ex-slave. “It’s not right fo’ me a go ‘round callin’ myself Absalom Compson now is it? What I need is a certifiable second name that will keep me good with myself and God, and gimme all the advantages and stations that come in life ta those with blessed names!”
“You want me to help you with choosing a last name? That is something one does not usually choose for themselves.”
“I know dat, suh, but I figure my situation is unusual enough dat it’s upon me to decide my name.”
“You may be right,” said the Reverend, eager to draw the conversation to a close. “A name from the bible, as your mother chose, though controversial her choice might be, is just fine then. Have you decided on any names yet?”
“Yes!” said Absalom, “I right got me one dat sho is sweet. And blessed!”
“And what is it?” asked the Reverend, ready to shoot it down if it proved as vulgar as he feared.
“David! Not so bad, is dat, suh?”
“David? That’s traditionally a first name. You have also chosen the name of the father of Absalom.”
“I know, suh, that’ the reason I chose it. You see, suh, I don’t know my father, and only name ever given me was my slave mar’suh’s. But second name is from one’s own family, and father. With my situation, I’m my own father, so I have to get myself my own name; and as I is a father, of myself, my name of me as a father’d be David. Because I, suh, is Absalom, and dat name is blessed. Will you bless me now father, as David, too?”
Absalom implored with such heartfelt innocence that touched the Reverend, who was mostly a good man, and converted him to his cause; the Reverend truly desirous now to help Absalom solve his dilemma.
“Of course, my son, yes” said the Revered. Read the rest of this entry »


Vultures–Excerpt from ‘The Hangman’s Valley’

Chapter 11–Vultures
“This is a favorable sign,” said Peter, pointing to the sky.
“Up there?” Robin asked. “What are you pointing at?”
The two of them were lying down beside each other in their bedrolls, on top of a butte further west in the valley, staring up at the night sky after filling their bellies with cold food, having decided not to light a fire to avoid being seen from a distance and attracting unwanted attention.
“It’s the time of year, we are lucky. The sky can hold many favorable signs for us. Do you see it?”
“Directly overhead there, see that bright star? Down and left we have another, less bright, and then to middle but lower again we have a star, then right a star again, see? Then, back to middle, and look much lower, and there another star. This is very beautiful. What do you see?”
The night sky had no less than a million stars, and it seemed funny to Robin for Peter to pluck out five to read a sign. Robin followed Peter’s finger anyway, and he thought he recognized the cluster Peter described.
“I see it. But what’s the sign?” asked Robin.
“What does it look like to you?” Peter eagerly questioned.
“An odd cross of some kind, or maybe a diamond.”
“But you are forgetting the tail!” Peter stabbed his finger into the air insistently.
“A bird, then. A large bird.”
“Exactly!” Peter cried out. “Very nice, birdy. You have good eyes, and imagination of fortunate person. That is the constellation, Aquila, ‘the Eagle,’ and we follow that ornament of the heavens west to the earthly wonder at the center of Cibola, the City of Aquila; the Eagle City! It is much favorable sign, no?”
“I guess it’s an eagle,” said Robin, “but there are so many stars, they kind of muddy up when they’re together.”
Peter laughed. “It was the ancients of Greece who first called these stars the Eagle, not me birdy. And they not always seen direct above us, with much bright beauty. I have known many things, and this I tell you now: the Eagle, agent of Jupiter, will guide us and protect us from above and welcome us to his home in Cibola. We will be safe on this journey. Very nice, no?”
“It does sound nice,” Robin said, “but it still doesn’t really look like an eagle.”
“Close your eyes, birdy, and in your dreams perhaps you see this eagle in flight.”
Robin shut his eyes to the stars and slept.
He awoke in the middle of the night as a puff of wind passed over his face. He opened his eyes and saw a large winged shape pass in front of the moon, eclipsing it for a brief second, before swooping away and out of sight. Robin bolted upright.
“Peter!” Robin hissed, his eyes trained on the sky, but there was no response. Robin turned and saw Peter asleep, drooling into his bedroll, having missed the strange creature in the sky. Robin lay back down and kept his eyes peeled for a time, watching for the creature’s reappearance, but soon his eyelids grew heavy and he was asleep, dreaming of large birds that he was never sure were actually eagles.
Peter woke Robin before dawn, and after breakfasting on honeyed biscuits they descended the buttes, fed their horses, and returned to the road as the sun crested the eastern horizon. Robin looked west for the aqueduct but that part of the country was mostly dark, its faint blue light but the memory of yesterday’s sinking sun. They yawned but did not speak, riding the old road in quiet peace as sleep departed their minds and the beauty of the natural world surrounded their bodies. Desert buttes cast long shadows west, but outside the shadows the morning sun gave dusty rocks, dry shrubs and everything else a golden glow. Of fauna, however, the valley was still lifeless. Robin felt he roamed through a world painted and sculpted, where nothing moved or breathed, except for him, Peter and the horses.
Later in the morning, as he began to forget about the lack of animal presence and count himself blessed to have such natural beauty all to himself, another long shadow drifted across his face, blocking the sun from his being for an instant. Robin looked left, but strangely saw no butte between him and the eastern sun. The shadow flickered once again and Robin looked above him and beheld an enormous winged creature, possibly the same from the night before, or from his dreams, hovering and circling high overhead.
Peter rode up beside him, his gaze also aloft.
“Is it our guardian eagle?” Robin asked with apprehension.
“No. This, birdy, is a vulture.”
A deafening, high-pitched scream erupted from the lone vulture overhead and Robin and Peter covered their ears.
“Why is it circling us?” Robin asked, ringing out his ears with his finger as the vulture’s scream trailed off and silence returned. Robin did not particularly like this first sign of wildlife in the valley. Though the vulture unnerved him, he was still surprised when Peter pulled out his rifle and aimed it toward the sky.
“I don’t know, but I don’t like it,” Peter replied as he closed one eye and lined up the shot. His movement of the gun matched the circling of the vulture, with Peter leading the bird by just a second. Peter was about to pull the trigger of the rifle when the bird flew into the sun again and Peter cried out as the star temporarily blinded him. Read the rest of this entry »

Preserves–Excerpt from ‘The Hangman’s Valley’

Chapter 9–Preserves
Amazingly, Robin’s ribs were healed. He was awake after a sound sleep, lying in bed alone and feeling not a wince of pain. He gently pushed each of his ribs with his fingers, feeling for a tender spot and finding none. He took a deep breath and exhaled slowly. He coughed heartily and felt only strength. Robin wondered how such a drink, unheard of and mysterious, had healed him so quickly. Don Alvarado, the old woman and Peter had helped him, and he was grateful. Feeling healthy, he realized he was very awake, and very hungry. He started wondering how long he had been in these underground rooms, and if Sister had been looked after. He thought of the western road, and the sun, golden like the hair of the injured girl, and they called his being. But before he could go, he thought, there was still the question of his connection to someone called the Prince.
The door opened and the hairy brute Don Alvarado called Marcos walked in beside Peter holding a lantern that illuminated their excited faces.
“Birdy, thank God. You look much better. Here, you must eat,” said Peter, smiling pleasantly and in a good mood.
Marcos had a tray in his hands, loaded on top with a plate of bread and cheese, and what looked to be a glass filled with plain fresh milk, mercifully white and not red. Marcos passed the tray to Robin as he sat up quickly, aching to fill his empty belly.
“Thank you, Marcos,” Robin said. Marcos grunted back a response and walked out of the room.
Peter stood over Robin and watched the boy dig into the food. The staleness of the bread went unnoticed by Robin, who smothered it with strawberry preserves that accompanied the cheese, eating until he licked his sticky fingers.
“This is the nourishment you need, little spring Robin. You must finish the food, because Don Alvarado will ask something of you, and there must be strength in your little body, yes? The drink has amplified your hunger.”
Robin nodded in agreement as he drank a mouthful of milk.
“Hah! You already are finished, I think? You eat like me; very good.”
The food and drink worked its way into his belly, stimulating his need for answers.
“Sister?” he asked, swallowing the last of the milk.
“Your horse? She is spoiled princess, now, I think. You were a very naughty boy not to feed and brush her before you started your drinking, but we take good care. Marcos is most stupid, but he love horses, and I think Sister is becomes his favorite. Sister likes him too, maybe because she smells you on us people. Very smart creature, no?”
“Will I be able to see her?” Robin asked.
“Yes, but after meeting with the Don, which is after breakfast, which, if you are done, is now, no?”
Robin wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and brushed off crumbs from his chest. “Ok, I’m done, see? Now can we go?”
Peter smiled at the boy. “Robin is healthy now, and has full belly, and thus he wants to leave the people and be on his way, is that it? You are in great hurry? I am only kidding. Put on your clothes and we’ll walk together.”
Robin did as he was told, putting on a fresh pair of clothes laid for him beside the bed, and followed Peter through the door into a cramped tunnel lined with wooden boards packed into dirt walls, a single corridor amongst the underground miner’s hive of which he was a guest.
“How long have I been recovering?” Robin queried Peter as they kept their heads bowed marching beneath the low ceiling.
“Lost track of time down here, no? I hate this place. Not too long, Robin, just a week.”
“A week? It’s felt like only two days!”
Peter sighed. “The drink, it’s a nasty one. You only had enough of it to take you out for a week. When I drank it, I was in such bad shape I was down here for a year. Now I can’t stand this place. I feel like ugly little rat in damp old cellar, running in circles.”
They proceeded down the tunnels. At one point Robin walked past a wooden board lining the wall that seemed to have sprung loose and, glancing at the exposed earth behind it, he noticed a row of polished white globes packed into the dirt. Puzzled, he was about to stick his hand in and grab one when he noticed that from each base of the globes protruded a ridge of enameled teeth. Human skulls. Robin shuddered, and ran to catch up with Peter.
Arriving at the end of the corridor they came to a large iron door. Robin was surprised something of such weight adorned a miner’s tunnel underground, but he was even more surprised by what he saw beyond the door when it was opened, as Peter pulled a lever and gestured for Robin to step through.
Robin entered a large, rectangular hall, at least five times the size of the room in which he had first met Don Alvarado and constructed in the same manner. The walls were lined with a great many bunk beds and down the middle ran two rows of tables and benches. It looked as if the miners’ barracks and dining halls above ground had been replicated below ground; but, unlike the deserted buildings above, this hollow was bursting with people. Forty plus men and a dozen odd women were bustling about in the middle of the activity of a meal, eating and drinking and arguing. Robin looked at Peter in awe.
“The whole town moved underground?” Robin asked. Read the rest of this entry »

The Pilgrim–Excerpt from ‘The Hangman’s Valley’

The Pilgrim1
Chapter 8–The Pilgrim
“Birdy, you awake?” Peter opened the door to Robin’s chamber and shined a lantern into the room. Robin had been awake for a little time after the old woman left, thinking over his dream to continue west, when the turning of the door knob surprised him. He was relieved to see Peter, happy for the company of one less clairvoyant and mysterious.
Peter shut the door and hung the lantern onto a hook in the wall before grabbing a squat stool from the corner of the room and loudly dragging across it the wooden floor, setting it beside the bed. Peter stumbled through his motions, collapsing as he sat on the stool. Robin smelled on him what seemed an entire bottle of brandy, and was reassured to notice that much of it had actually made it to Peter’s insides. Peter belched loudly and spoke a phrase in a guttural language Robin did not understand, apologizing or toasting his health. Beyond the room must be numerous tunnels, Robin reckoned, but within this chamber he heard no sound of activity coming from outside. He suspected the dirt walls insulated the compact caverns, and the din of silence Robin was left with, when he was alone in the room, had been unnerving and kept him awake. The blundering boisterousness of a drunken Peter was the exact remedy his sagging spirits needed to enliven his chilly body and return his mind that, when not shepherded, always wandered west.
“You not awake, are you?” Peter asked. Robin’s eyes were open and he looked curiously at Peter for a moment, unsure how to respond.
“No,” Robin said finally.
“I supposed to let you rest, they say, but everyone resting, and I know you only one awake. Red drink make you feel cold, no?”
“I suppose it does,” said Robin.
“Drink is bad. I had once, and never again. That’s why Peter very different from others in the valley. I my own man, I make my own decision. I no like these other old ones, who need rest so much now. Maybe I leave, like Alfonso. He was own man, too; and crazy, like me. It’s good to know you like Alfonso. Once, I thought things different, here, but still the same. Maybe worse. Same everywhere, you know Robin? Same everywhere,” He slipped into a language of harsh consonants. Robin did not understand, but he also did not mind.
Peter continued until finally, looking questioningly at Robin, he implored, “No? No? No?”
“No,” Robin replied.
Peter chuckled to himself. “Oh, little birdy, you are right, very right. I have been wrong all my life, but grace of God tells me I’m wrong and for some it is curse but for me it is life. A cursed life. Life that led me to this place, where now I wander and stagger awake, while many bad people sleep for the night, and many good people sleep forever.”
Peter proceeded to tell Robin the story of his life.
Winter had been cold and spring had been rainy, and when fall came that year and it was time to harvest, as it was the year before and every year before that, uniquely, this time, all the crops were dead. Peter remembered early in his youth how simple the growing of grain seemed, and how shocked he was to learn that one year, nothing grew at all. He lived with his Junker father in the city, who he accompanied on visits to the country only a couple times a year. That year, the usual harvest festivities on the country estate were cancelled. His father’s provincials had forsaken them. The money was running out, and though things were bad for his father in the country they were even worse in the city. The old guilds were falling to a new wave of industrials that plagued the traditions of the Empire, and city life became fraught with danger. This was four decades ago, Peter reckoned, in Prussian occupied Poland, his ancestral squatting grounds.
Upset as he was by the failure of the harvests and the changing of their lifestyle, Peter the youth was entirely preoccupied with other thoughts. As a young man, he desired to love as many women as possible; but his greatest desire was to, quite literally, make a name for himself.
His father’s financial woes kept him from activity in politics during that time, as did his own preoccupation with the opposite sex, but Peter was not entirely ignorant of the important changes occurring amongst the people during that time. Peter had grown up with the local tongue, was taught French by tutors, and spoke proper German and Polish with equal fluency, the advantages of growing up in cosmopolitan company and on a country estate, and in every language of the Empire Peter heard the talk of freedom in the air, and rights, and other words complex and dubious. Words too abstract for a young boy and the ignorant population of a country to understand, his father said. The protests started about that time, followed by the killings and the arrests and the trials. Peter, too young to be involved in activities against the state himself, was of the age to seek out older acquaintances that were happy to boast to Peter the significance of their defiance.
One night, after one such meeting with some older friends on their campus, Peter was walking home when he too was arrested, though he was given no reason as to why. At first he thought it was because of his father, then later he thought it was because of his mixed associations, but after a few silent years he thought there was no why, that he had just been at the wrong place at the wrong time. Read the rest of this entry »

Happy Sixty–Short Story

the event
Happy Sixty
David Mann woke up at dawn on the morning of his 60th birthday, walked to the basement workshop of his modest suburban home, and dug through a stack of old belongings until he found the never-opened chest he had locked 40 years previous to the day. It was a wooden chest no bigger than a shoebox, with a rusted latch and padlock. He had misplaced the key in the intervening years, but the lock responded to the judicious application of a hammer. There inside was the gift given to him on his 20th birthday; the gift that had remained unopened for 40 years; the gift from the stranger, who was at once both mysterious and familiar. He referred to that man as a stranger, but every time David looked in the mirror he saw his features becoming more and more like those of the old man, and less like the young man who’d turned twenty years ago. The old stranger had brought David the mysterious chest as gift, as well as a torrent of jumbled words. The words the old stranger spoke had sounded incoherent at the time, but over the decades he had discovered they were predictions about the course of his life, accurate with a startling intimacy; accurate in every detail, and never wrong. David hovered over the unopened chest. After 40 years, he’d finally discover what was inside. He opened the chest.
David Mann—known in the community as Dr. Mann, gifted surgeon and teacher—was a family man. He and his wife Heather had successfully raised two kids into adulthood. Soon after the nest became empty, David and Heather retired to sail the Caribbean. Friends and family saw a couple happily living out their hard-earned dreams. But only David knew the truth. Everything since his twentieth birthday had been done in adherence to a strict plan.
He unwraps a present from his grandmother—a paisley shirt. He’s twenty years old today—September 9, 1973—and home from college for the weekend, happy for the company and the home cooked meals. His family insists he wear the shirt. The collar is itchy. Ever since he graduated high school he’s found the house increasingly stuffy. He steps outside for a moment onto the back stoop to get some fresh air in the cool September evening.
The sky is clear, but David senses a growing electrical current in the air. The sound of chirping crickets dies out. Then, a flashing burst sears his eyes. A soundless bolt of lightning strikes the clothes line in the backyard. David, stunned, blinks his sight back as the crickets’ chirping returns. From amongst the line of drying sheets a bald, old man in a lime green jumpsuit tumbles to his knees. David runs to help. The old man, gasping for breath, thanks David as he gets up.
“You ok old man?”
The old man smiles. “There you are, David. How about that.”
“Do I know you?”
“Not yet,” said the old man. “But you must listen to me, there’s not much time.”
The old man picks up a small wooden chest from beneath the clothes line.
“A birthday gift, for you.”
David looks at the old man cross-eyed. “Who is it you said you were?”
The wind returned to the old man and an unexpected energy issues from his being. “In this chest is a gift, but you must not open it today. It is a gift for you on your 60th birthday. Until that time there is much you must do.”
“Wait a second—”
“No!” interrupted the old man. “Listen carefully. You must save the world, and your family.”
“What are you talking about?”
The old man grabbed David by the collar with a surprising strength. “Graduate college. Go to medical school. Residency at Cook County. There you’ll meet your wife.”
“What are you telling me?”
“I’m telling you your future, dammit! Now, you’ll wander around a little after your residency—Ohio, California, elsewhere—but you must take the job in Madison!”
“Yes, Madison! Then flying lessons, get an airplane; sailing lessons, get a boat. You’ll raise two kids—a boy and girl. Take care of the family. Travel as much as you can. Be healthy—take special care of your heart.”
“Why are you saying all of this?”
“Because you’ll need it! Every bit of it. Manage your money right and at 55 you retire. Move onto a boat. Become a captain. When you’re done sailing, volunteer for the Red Cross. Make sure the boy leaves D.C. after college, and the girl leaves New York. Stay in Madison. Then, on your 60th birthday” he said, as he handed David the chest, “you may open this box.”
Forty years later, after a lifetime spent following the shadow of the old man’s predictions, David stood in his basement workshop staring at the open chest. Tucked inside squishy foam, as if it was a firearm, was a single, matte black, rectangular object that looked like a hardcover book. He withdrew it from its casing and discovered the object was much thinner than he expected, rounded on the edges and quite smooth to the touch. There was the silhouette of an apple in the center. He turned it over and saw a large screen. It couldn’t be.
It was an iPad 5, which weren’t even released yet. A charger was beneath it at the bottom of the chest. He plugged the iPad into the wall and pressed its lone button. The face of the old man appeared on the screen.
“Welcome, David,” the old man said. In the video, which appeared to have been recorded on a webcam, the old man sat at a desk in an office. He wore the same green jumpsuit, as if the video was made just before they first met on his 20th birthday.
“If you are watching this video that means you have followed my instructions over the past 40 years. Congratulations. Happy Sixty. But now, finally, your true moment has arrived. I’m sure you’ve guessed by now, but let me confirm it for you—I am you, at age 75. In the year 2028 I traveled back in time to visit you, when you were 20, to give you guidance so that you can change the horrible events of the future. Today I must give you your new mission. Our entire lives have led to this.”
David wished he had made a pot of regular coffee before he decided to open the chest.
“In July of 2014,” the older David continued, “a little less than a year from your current time, the Event occurred. The Event was so cataclysmic as to destroy millions of lives and alter the balance of power and stability throughout the planet. It has killed everyone we ever loved. For fifteen years I have been working to gain access to a time machine, so that I could change the past and stop the Event. Now the moment has arrived, and it is up to you.”
A slideshow of future news articles and photos of mass destruction appear one after the other on the screen. “As far as we know, this is what happened. In the early summer of 2014, Hurricane Corrine hit the Chesapeake and DC Metropolitan area. The devastation was enormous, hundreds of lives lost and billions of dollars—but this was nothing compared to what would come only days later. The world did not know it, but the greatest loss during Hurricane Corrine was the failure of the electrical infrastructure of a secret military installation in Northern Virginia, near Fort Belvoir, known only to a select few circles as ‘Area 10.’
“At the time of the natural disaster, the commander of Area 10—a Major Watts—was vacationing on Roanoke Island. Due to the highly important nature of the installation, his duty was to return as fast as possible. However, the extent of the destruction, and Major Watts’s own personal injuries, meant he was delayed by a day. One day too many. You see, the installation was a brand new, top secret, officially non-existent Defense Department supercomputer. After the hurricane, other leadership decided to switch the operation of the nation’s defense network back to the former computer, which had been scheduled for de-operation. On July 3rd, as our nation was preparing to celebrate its independence, the entire defense network was returned to its former home run by the outdated supercomputer. Unfortunately, the former supercomputer had been compromised in the interim. A large team of veteran hackers based in the Middle East—we think Iran—were already inside. Once the network was transferred, the hackers gained access to a goldmine of top secret data. They were only inside the mainframe for two minutes before their presence was noticed and the entire network was sent into its default emergency setting, but hackers had enough time to absorb about 5% of the most sensitive information on the planet. The Iranian hacker team intensely analyzed the data and within 24 hours discovered a US program that itself was also hacking into the network of another country’s nuclear defense program: Russia’s.
“The US plan—in the event of nuclear war—was to hack into Russia’s network and use their arsenal against them. Simple and safe. The problem was Russia’s computer defense network was always several weeks behind the latest hacking developments. With a little time and effort, it was possible for the most elite hackers to peek inside Russia’s network—and maybe even take it over. That’s exactly what the Iranians did on July 4th, 2014. The US and the rest of the world were completely unprepared. The hackers remotely launched 4 ICBM’s from Pervomaysk, all of which hit their targets. Boston, New York, Baltimore and Washington, DC were leveled, 10 million dead, before Russia pulled the plug.
“As a member of the Red Cross I was one of the first to respond to the disaster. The Third World War ensued over the next 2 years, but I spent that time helping to evacuate the east coast. I had nothing else to do. It took me years before I was sure, but I know now that my daughter died in the destruction of New York, and my wife and son in the destruction of DC.
“During those first weeks in the aftermath I tended to a man by the name of Adams, an Army Captain who was sick with fever after surviving the blast. In his delirium, he revealed he was a responsible for the administration of a top-secret installation in Northern Virginia. He mumbled frequently about ‘Area 10.’ As he healed, word got out about what had likely happened. Area 10 was revealed to the world. In his undying shame for his part in the failure to uphold national security, he told me everything. Over the following years I learned what a principal role Major Watts played in the slew of rash decisions which led to our destruction. I told myself if I ever got a chance I would go back in time and help Major Watts; to save my family, and stop the Event from ever occurring. Little did I know, I’d one day be in the position to do just that. Or, rather, it is you who is in position. Finally.”
12:06 PM. July 2, 2014. Roanoke Island, Outer Banks, North Carolina.
The wind is picking up. The news tells us the tropical storm might turn into a hurricane, but it will only briefly touch land, and well north of here. I know different. Yesterday I went hang-gliding at a local rental shop. Major Watts and his wife were in my group. Once the hurricane strikes, I’ll make contact.
The wind is raging now. I’m well inland, underground beneath the staunchest house on the island. But even if there wasn’t an impending hurricane outside I couldn’t sleep. To think, the East Coast may be ravaged by a nuclear holocaust in less than three days. Well, not if I have anything to do with it. At least my family will be safe. But I must make sure the world is a safe place for all of us…
At last—this heroic talk is making me sleepy. I’ll call it a night. This is my last entry in the diary before my mission. If all goes well, nobody will ever read it.
The hurricane bombarded the island for four tortuous hours. When it was done, the Island resembled a ruined sandcastle, destroyed by the tide and the feet of an impish god. I grabbed my stocked backpack and ran into the wind. A mile down the road was the beach hotel where Major Watts was staying. I discovered the hotel roof partially caved in when I arrived. Inside, about 30 people were huddled together in the kitchen of the hotel restaurant. Major Watts was weeping over the body of a woman reclined on a countertop. I ran to them.
“Major Watts?” I asked.
The man turned around, devastated but uninjured.
“I’m Dr. Mann. I’m with the Red Cross. I’m here to bring you back to…to Fort Belvoir. There’s an emergency.”
“A doctor? Please, you must help.”
“Where are you hurt?”
“It’s not me, it’s my wife,” he said, swaying above the woman on the countertop.
I looked at her and saw a lot of blood on her left side. A makeshift tourniquet covered the wound but wasn’t doing much good. Her eyes were closed, but she was still breathing, if laboriously.
There was internal damage and she required immediate surgery. Major Watts acted as nurse. I used the supplies in my bag and in a couple hours the internal bleeding was stopped and her breathing returned to normal. I left Major Watts with his wife and went to the bathroom to wash up. Major Watts walked into the bathroom a few minutes later.
“Dr. Mann, right?”
“That’s right.”
“Fort Belvoir, you say?”
I nodded. “Area 10.”
Major Watts peeked outside to make sure nobody was eavesdropping and then locked the door.
“I figured I had to get back there, but I couldn’t leave my wife behind, not like that.”
“That’s what I’m here for. The region has been hit pretty hard. Hurricane Corrine touched the mainland as a Category 5, with a direct hit on the DC area. We were just at the edge of the worst of it.”
“We have 12 hours to get back to base. There are some in the administration who are talking about relocating the network back to its former home in the old supercomputer.”
“What? But that’s being deactivated. The system has been open to compromise for weeks.”
“Then we’ve got to get back. But hell, the bridges have been destroyed.”
“Then we need a boat.”
On the leeward side of the island Dr. Mann and Major Watts found a small, sturdy sailboat in a dry-dock garage. It was the last boat left intact on the island. They sailed across Albemarle Sound from the Outer Banks to the mainland. Three hours of heavy winds threatened to capsize their boat several times, but David’s nautical experience made up for the Army Major’s naval greenness. They landed in Davis Bay, south of Elizabeth City, a stone’s throw from the regional airport.
“Let’s hope it works,” grunted David.
The wreckage of hangars and aircraft were strewn about the runways behind them. David and Major Watts stood just inside the entrance of the one large, blocky concrete hangar left standing. An old National Guard modified Beechcraft Baron twin-prop was inside the hangar.
“Find some fuel!” David hollered as he ran to inspect it. “We’ve got 6 hours left before we’re too late. Flying this thing will take at least a couple hours, so let’s move it!”
An hour later they were a mile above the ruins of North Carolina. David consulted the flight charts in his bag and positioned their course to the Davison Army Airfield. Major Watts looked approvingly as David adjusted the dials.
“A surgeon, sailor and pilot? Is there anything you can’t do?”
“I’ve been lucky to have some training. But I can’t do everything. When we get there, it’s up to you to keep our network safe. They surely won’t listen to me.”
The Major nodded. “I appreciate everything you’re doing, Dr. Mann.”
Major Watts looked out the window and smiled. “We’ll be there with plenty of time.”
“We’re not there yet.”
Minutes before their destination the plane’s left engine began to sputter. David looked sidelong at it and watched a foul black cloud burst as the propeller came to a full stop. Major Watts’s eyes widened.
“Don’t worry,” David said, “we’re fine as long as we have one engine.”
The control panel popped and fizzled and in seconds the second propeller lurched to a stop.
“Oh shit.” The plane began to descend into a heavy nosedive. The airfield was nowhere in sight. Beneath the plane, the DC suburbs stretched for miles.
“We’re going to have to set it down on a street.”
“God help us!” shouted the Major in terror.
“Come on,” said David. “We knew it couldn’t be that easy.”
The plane rattled and threatened to spin, but David held it steady. Right before they nosedived into the ground, he pulled back as hard as he could. The front tilted up and they crashed on the plane’s belly. It ricocheted down a long street, losing a wing to an oak and flipping completely over before it came to a stop. The cabin of the Beechcraft Baron miraculously remained intact.
Dr. Mann and Major Watts unbuckled and dropped to the ground.
“You alright?” David asked.
“I’m fine, but how close are we to the base?”
“I’d say it’s still miles away. We’re running out of time.”
“Dammit!” shouted Major Watts. He paced around, breathing heavily. “Who knows what could happen if we don’t get there.” He grimaced and clutched at his chest.
Oh no, David thought. Major Watts fell to the ground. David rattled something from his bag.
“Here,” David said, pushing two little white pills into the Major’s mouth. “Take these.”
Major Watts ate the pills as he writhed on the ground, groaning in agony. But the fit passed as quickly as it had come on. The major, covered in sweat, sat up and looked David in the eye.
“Hot dog, you thought of everything, didn’t you? What were those?”
“Aspirin,” said David.
“You brought those in case I had a heart attack?”
“No,” said David, “in case I did.”
Major Watts chuckled and looked around. The entire residential neighborhood was destroyed. Few houses and trees were left standing. Something silver glinted in David’s eye amongst the wreckage.
“How do we reach the base now?” The Major asked, wincing as he spoke.
David looked at the shining burst of silver—a 1978 Porsche 911.
“Follow me,” he said.
They reached Area 10 with an hour to spare. The personnel at the base had split into factions, and outside leadership was threatening to pull rank. Major Watts ended any discussion of that. The network of the Defense Department was saved. The Major called David later to thank him.
2:00 PM. September 9, 2014. Fort Belvoir, Virginia.
David approaches the podium. A medal is pinned to his chest. Words of thanks are spoken which will never be spoken again. There are no reporters. The medal is then withdrawn. Area 10 does not exist. David leaves the Fort with nothing more than he came with. His wife, son and daughter are waiting for him at a hotel in DC. He enters the room, the old stranger in the lime green jumpsuit drifting further from his mind every day. Happy sixty-one, they sing. And many more.

The Empty Chambers–Excerpt from ‘The Hangman’s Valley’

Mountain Pass
Chapter 4–The Empty Chambers
In the ancient canyon called the Keystone Pass one phenomenon in particular was noticed amongst its few surviving travelers. Robin discovered it like the others before him, as soon as Sister stepped around the first sharp bend of the canyon and he took his first breath. The air of the canyon was impossibly heavy. It seemed saturated with complete stillness unlike any other place Robin had known. Robin coughed and gasped as if a rope had been tightened around his neck. When his initial fear subsided, he deepened his breath in the hope he might acclimate to the density and immobility of his surroundings. The thickness felt like a warm liquid, easy to let into Robin’s chest but difficult to force back out, making his eyes water and vision blur as his body rejected the weighty, enveloping calm. Though the canyon connected the windy prairie basin to the open valley beyond, its twists and turns through the mountains were so pointed and innumerable the air became trapped, never to squeeze out the other side. Nevertheless, creatures were known to pass through, but if they lingered longer than a day in the stagnant air the lack of oxygen drove their mind to madness, followed shortly by loss of bodily function and death. Even at its beginning Robin was already light headed, and, though he and Sister were similarly tired from a long day’s ride, he knew they must not rest until their exit from the Keystone Pass.
As his body adjusted to breathing in such a condition, the strangeness of his immediate surroundings began to creep into his conscious mind. The moon and stars were likely out, but Robin saw little of their faint light actually endure at the bottom of the canyon. He was without a torch or lantern, but his unpreparedness, for the time being, seemed forgiven. The canyon was well illuminated; the source, an eerie, incandescent moss which grew in patches on the walls and often seemed to glow quite bright. It was the only living thing Robin saw in the darkness, but he heard thousands of sounds of unknown origin echoing throughout the canyon. As Robin moved along the canyon floor, he encountered places where the walls stabbed in at points no wider than a buggy, while other times the canyon opened up into rooms as large as a church. Sound had a funny way of moving through these rooms and the condensed air. Robin thought he heard his own name called half a dozen times before he first replied.
“Hello?” Robin called, waiting.
There was no answer, save the unnaturally wavering pale light of the inanimate lichen on the wall. He continued forward, his nerves heightened before every bend in the passage.
After a while, he entered a patch of the canyon covered in total darkness, where Robin was required to grope the rock walls to feel his way forward. Unlike the rumored abilities of the colossus’s white horse, Sister was unable to see in the dark, and her wary steps told Robin she might be as afraid of the canyon as he was. Robin constantly whispered to her, rubbed her neck and patted her, as much for her own comfort as for his. Robin stopped his whisperings from time to time to listen intently, certain someone was whispering back. There were forks in the canyon up ahead, and the last thing he must let himself do was get lost in this echoing maze. Robin tried to remember the path he had overheard at the mission.
“They said ‘right, right, left, right, right?’” Robin asked Sister. “Or was it ‘right, right, left, right?’ I’m not sure. I guess if I return the opposite way I go left at the first juncture no matter what, though. So stay to the left and let’s try and spot this fork in the road.” Sister huffed back at him in agreement.
Robin was glad he kept his eyes on the left, because, but for a thin void, the glowing moss continued along the walls; he nearly missed the forking path had the void not caught his eye. The fork extended away at a perpendicular angle, whilst the rest of the canyon continued on into unknown depths. Robin took sister left and headed into the darkness, the welcomed moss declining the opportunity to accompany them. They proceeded in the absence of light, and for such a long ways as to spark uncertainty within Robin.
“Does this part of the trail not have the moss?” he asked. “Have I missed another turn? Is this the right way, or did I not remember it right?” He stopped talking out loud, as every burst of his voice perversely echoed throughout the whole canyon, and they were both already too unnerved.
Feeling with his hands, Robin came around another sharp bend until the trail opened up into a large, lofty chamber, the glowing moss finally returning to the walls and the walls to his sight. And, most unexpectedly, standing before him in the middle of the chamber was the only man Robin had ever killed.
Robin was shocked to the point he nearly fell backward off Sister. The apparition, however, stood unmoving in the center, threatening to go neither backward nor forward. The man appeared exactly as he had the day he died; on the day Robin killed him. Henry Martin Vickers, a middle aged man of no particular fame or fortune, who passed through the wrong town at the wrong time, wore the same lapelled suit and suede shoes Robin remembered from the day of his death. There was also the open, questioning eyes and taut rope around his neck. The one unsettling difference between Henry Martin Vickers the man and the apparition was the latter’s eyes, which were both disturbingly removed. In their place, from deep within vacant unburned sockets, burst forth tiny orange flames. Read the rest of this entry »

Gone West–Excerpt from ‘The Hangman’s Valley’

Frontier Cabin
Chapter 1—Gone West
A terrible knocking shook the log frame of the tiny homestead and Robin was awake. He kept his eyes closed as loose bits of dirt tumbled from the sod roof onto his face. The distance between the door and the bed shrunk in his mind. There was no escape. A single, horrifying thought echoed over the din.
“The man in the mask,” whispered Robin, crippled with dread.
But the thought was sustained only as long as the percussion of hard knuckles on worn wood; when it faded, Robin heard a voice he had never heard before. He sat up, wiping the dirt from his face, relieved to know the figure behind the door was only a stranger.
“Open up, Mr. Osterholz,” the hard-knuckled voice said. “We know you’re in there.”
“This sign don’t fool us,” joined a second voice, gentler and tubercular. “We saw your new horse when we rode up. You can’t act like you already left.”
The big brown eyes of his brother’s mare studied Robin through the window at the back of the homestead. He looked at her and his surroundings, contemplating escape from the two strangers. The hinges on the window had long since rusted, but it still might open. The mare, her reins tethered to a clothesline beside a small garden plot, was removed of her saddle; it waited inside, next to the bed. Robin figured, as he jumped into his boots, getting the saddle and himself through the window was his best and only option for escape. Robin gave the window a push and it rattled open. Beyond the homestead, infinite miles of dewy grass shed the final husks of night.
“We’ll be back on the trail in no time,” Robin whispered to the mare, rubbing her warm flesh. He looked east. A volcanic orange erupted into a semi-circle around the horizon and he straightened up. “The sun’s about to rise.”
“Mr. Osterholz?” shouted one of the men at the door.
“Go away,” barked Robin, doing his best to speak gruff and low, as he imagined the voice of Mr. Osterholz.
The two men muttered back and forth to each other outside the log walls.
“Look, Mr. Osterholz,” the gentler man began, “We only came to help. Put the liquor down and open the door. Let us help you.”
Robin squeezed his saddle into the window frame but the opening was too slender. He pounded once on the saddle and then listened. The men outside the door fidgeted with impatience. He resumed pounding, harder this time, pleading for the saddle to pass.
“Mr. Osterholz?” The homestead shook again.
Fear replaced caution when the saddle refused to budge.
“Stand back,” he whispered to the mare.” He lunged at the saddle with his shoulder and watched it shoot through the frame. It grazed the rusty hinge and Robin winced as he heard a crack. The window held for a moment before the hinge finally snapped. A swarm of glass burst from the ground as if he had disturbed a hive of bees. Robin blinked; the swarm was golden, reflecting the pre-dawn squall of color in the east.
The noise was too much for the men outside to tolerate.
Hard knuckles shook the homestead one last time. “We’re armed, you pig-faced Hun, and we’re coming through.”
Robin squirmed into the vacant window as a kick and a crunch broke the door. He tried to pull his body through, but the two men streamed into the room, each grabbing a leg. He managed to hold onto the ledge for a brief moment before they wrestled him back inside, just enough time for Robin to catch a glimpse of the garden plot next to the clothesline. Three small mounds of fresh dirt, one long and two short, were placed in a row, from which not one plant grew. His fingers slipped from the window ledge and he fell onto the packed earth of the homestead floor. Wind shot from his lungs as he bounced off the ground. The two men, their faces dim and obscure, looked intently at Robin.
“What in the hell—”
The sun wedged itself from beneath the earth and the day was new.
Light, bounding into the homestead through the open door, swept out the last of the shadows. Illuminated was a boy of fifteen, scrawny for his age, prone on the ground with his fists clenched over his stomach. His skin was pale; his short hair an ashy blonde. His loose jacket, a couple sizes too big; his cotton shirt, a size too small. His pants were secured to his waist with a leather belt. His boots, muddy and scuffed, had been new when he set out on the trail. He preferred them dirty. His exposed eyes, blue as the western sky, rippled beneath squinted lids. Here was a creature with something to prove.
“You’re not Osterholz!” exclaimed the large one who had knocked so forcefully on the door. A metal Sheriff’s badge glinted at Robin from his wide chest.
“We may be too late,” said the other. Robin noticed the second man wore a white collar and a round hat; a style used only by preachers.
“Where’s Osterholz, boy,” snapped the Sheriff. Read the rest of this entry »

The Gondolier–Short Story Excerpt

CharonThe fog was heavy on the Laguna Veneta, obscuring the bell tower of San Giorgio Maggiore on the right and the banks of the Lido in the distance. Nothing but the weighted bow, combing through the mist, was visible to the tireless rower. He stood at the stern of the gondola, as he had for years, sometimes verbose and sometimes silent, but always his eyes forward, vigilantly watching for each bend in the canal, for each destined mooring. There were times when the muscles of his shoulders ached, when his knees shook and his hands grew weary about the oar; but his eyes never tired. For even then, as he stared through the layers of fog rolling in from the Adriatic toward the mainland, he looked for her.
He had first seen her clothed in white, in the Abyssinian manner, her tanned hands clutching the front of her dress to lift her hem, her exposed feet stepping into the waters of Lake Tana. She was amongst a large crowd about the banks that day, her reserved smile becoming playful as she waded into the water up to her hips, amongst a group of other women similarly covered in white.
“Why do they bathe with their clothes on?” he had asked Captain Bonbiolo as they cut through a grove of fig trees shading the banks where the crowd was gathered.
“They aren’t bathing, young Benetto. They are worshipping. It is Timkat, the festival of the Epiphany.”
Benetto approached the gathering with Captain Bonbiolo and the few other Italian officers stationed at the Residenza in Gorgora, Amhara Province, Ethiopia. A group of local priests, costumed in hues as varied as birds-of-paradise, passed the Italians in khaki.
“The priests have blessed the water,” Captain Bonbiolo said, nodding at the retreating procession. “Care for a swim?”
Benetto assented absently. He watched her laugh as a group of boys splashed in the water. The other women were leaving but she walked out slowly. Benetto removed his boots alongside Captain Bonbiolo and the other officers. When she walked onto the sandy beach, he paused to watch her dainty toes surface from the water. He tried to recall the small face that looked at his, but after so many decades it was becoming impossible. He recalled the sensation in his gut, however, and the color of her cheeks as she looked away; flushed, pink as a blooming tamarisk.
The gondolier sustained the vision in his mind, even as a blackness began to creep in and dim the joy of the memory. A blackness dark and shiny; like motor oil, or the crisp black uniform of Centurione Mancini, the leader of the volunteer Milizia garrison also stationed in Gorgora. The Milizia blackshirts, compared to the regular troops stationed at the Residenza, were hardliner Fascists; and none more so than Mancini, their commanding officer.