This week's pitch took us into uncharted territory, a new genre in speculative fiction that neither of us had ever
made a stab at previously: alternate history. Each of this week's stories has to do with current events in the
year 2006-- if a single event in history had occurred differently.
“Why are we minutemen!” It sounded like a question, but it wasn’t really an interrogative. No. It was an imperative, a command.
“To protect the borders, SIR!” And there was the response, all in cadence, one voice from many voices, with that pounding, drilling, driving, period point of a title on the end.
“And why did we build the wall!” He was standing in the front of the room, at the base of the auditorium, on a little raised platform, a man made of crisp straight lines. His dark blue suit was impeccably pressed, and practically gilded across the chest with the ornate memorabilia of his accomplishments in the service of our nation. Gray hair cropped so short that it was almost a suggestion framed a face of darkly tanned and heavily creased skin. So the picture of a general. What else could he have been?
“So that the borders will protect the nation, SIR!” The chorus-crowd was so much younger than he was. They were boys and girls, but mostly boys. Aged about fifteen, plus or minus half a year. They were wearing uniforms too. White and blue, red epaulets at the shoulders. Like the American flag vomited all over them.
“Who do we protect it from!” His expression was severe, all glaring eyes and furrowed brow. But his voice wasn’t really that loud. You’d expect it to be loud, facing a crowd that size, and it was no whisper, but it didn’t really need to be loud. You don’t need to yell when you’re speaking the known truth – when the audience is conditioned, they know the words, they respect the authority.
“All those who seek to take our freedom, SIR!” All of the eyes in the multitude locked straight ahead. I knew that, but I didn’t see it, because my eyes faced front too. My voice was just a part of the collective refrain. It made me feel ill sometimes, like being in that bible story, being swallowed down in the belly of the whale. Being absorbed like that. I hate it. But did I have any more choice in the matter than Jonah did?
“Alright, students, you may take your seats.” The class sat down in a sudden susurration of shuffling polyester-cotton blend. I sat down a quarter beat late, and wondered if anyone notices.
He cleared his throat. Crossed his hands behind his back. The general at parade rest. Then he deigned to speak to us.
“So Mr. Bournier, where did we leave off this morning?” He was talking to the prince of the class, a smart, tall, athletic kid with dark brown hair, and pale pale skin. Also a world class sycophant.
“Sir, we had discussed the closing days of the second great war. We spoke of how the allied failure to accept dissident scientists from Germany led directly to German exploration of sub-nuclear arsenals, and how the concomitant use of these weapons led to the glassing of Western Europe. You told us how European ex-patriots, such as my own great-grandfather immigrated to the United States and ignited the previously disreputable scientific program here, leading directly to our own production of sub-nuclear weapons.”
“Excellent description, Mr. Bournier. You may be seated. Mr. Salvehas, tell us what happened next.”
Salvehas was a nervous kid. The general picked on him because he knew it. I hated watching him stand up before the class, all sweaty palms, and nervous energy, the big zits on his forehead glowing like bright red street lights.
“Uh…uh..SIR, the, uh, nuclear, I mean SUB-nuclear, warfare left very little standing on the European subcontinent. Everyone either left or was dead. I, uh, read in a book that so many bombs were dropped that the air was filled with dust even here. People got radiation sickness as far away as Greenland. Russia, uh the Soviet Republic, suffered from famines until 1964. Much of the area is growing back now, but, uh, most people don’t want to live there, cause of the cancer, and the background rads, and it’s mostly a big desert anyway….”
“Mr. Salvehas, what bearing does that have on your position as a minuteman?” The general was going for a gut punch. He loved to remind us that we weren’t supposed to know everything. That we weren’t supposed to be Science Core, or Soc-Welfare, or Policy. He loved to drill in that we were grunts, here to walk the wall, to believe in the policy and to carry it out. That’s what I hated most - how he tried to crush everything that didn’t fit into his definition of what we should be.
What was wrong with Salvehas asking questions, or wondering about the ecological impacts? We’d all heard the rumors about dying forests. We all knew that the Mexi-gulf oil fields were drying up and that Alaska was one big toxic tundra wonder-wasteland. All you had to do was look at the pictures. Even state news had to let some of the truth out sometime. I had heard the underbreath whispers about rumors of an African paradise, where there were still animals bigger than dogs, and forests. Where everything wasn’t locked up and catalogued and covered in barbed wire. Sure, I had done my homework just like everyone else. But at least I was able to admit that a lot of it was bullshit. And I had read other things too. Things that the general wouldn’t have wanted me to read.
Salvehas was stuttering. He was saying something about “no..no..” and then general was starting to go on about the founding of the Japanese Imperium, and their annexation of Australia in the 1970’s, going off down that worn and dusty road about how we’ve got to focus, how it’s our job to walk the wall, to know that we’re protecting the people inside it. He was saying how we have to focus on science and the improvement of the arsenal, how we have to be ever ready, how we protect the homeland no matter what comes, because the Empire is out there, and if it isn’t them it’s someone, and look what happened last time we were caught off guard – poof no more Europe- and how only the United States can serve as a preserve for civilization, how dark times are just an inch away, and that was when I finally did it.
That was when I stood up.
I can’t imagine what I looked like at that moment. I’m sure I thought I was going to vomit. I even tasted it in the back of my mouth. And everyone was looking at me like they’d been slapped, because I was standing without permission, because my hands were clenched. Because I was shaking and I looked so angry. When I spoke my voice was shaking, but it wasn’t loud, I wasn’t screaming. I know that.
“You’re wrong. We’re wrong. We aren’t the last preserve of freedom. We’re the place it goes to die.”
He looked at me like I was crazy, and then he looked at me like I was holding a gun. And he was pissed.
“Freedom isn’t something you can get with a nuclear warhead! It isn’t something you can hold on to that tightly! We’ve smothered freedom with paranoia!”
That would have been enough to get me expelled or at the least put into rehab. It was dishonor, it was disrespect. But I didn’t stop there. If I stopped there, what would the point be? It isn’t my opinion that matters – it’s the truth that matters. And so I turned around and started talking to the class.
“At the beginning of the class he was always talking about Washington and Adams, how they had to fight for what was right, how they had to defend the helpless. But there were other founding fathers too! What about Jefferson or Franklin? How many of you have even heard of those names? They believed that freedom was a gift, that curiosity and art and stuff like that was part of human nature! That these were our inalienable rights! Have any of you even read the Declaration of Independence? Without the black lines?”
The general was marching towards me now, I could hear him trip-tropping up the linoleum steps, and I was sweating, little beads popping out on my face, heart pounding like the hooves of a running horse. His face was pale, and his eyes were screaming at me, just screaming, I could tell. When he locked his hand around my upper arm I could feel the fingers closing on the bone, his grip was that hard. And then he dragged me, literally, out of class. I didn’t kick, didn’t scream, just went limp, just didn’t fight back. But I kept on talking, kept on telling the truth.
Passive resistance they call it, and I’m not the first, I won’t be the last. They can lock me up, or they can throw me over the wall, but I won’t be quiet. I won’t stop. And there’s more like me, more every day, more people who are starting to remember what America is about, where we came from, what we were supposed to be. Soon, there will be a million voices, all screaming for freedom.