Ahead of his time, sophomore Sam Marlinga offers us a rich piece of speculative fiction. In this vivid short story about a soldier in a time after the “Second American Revolution,” Marlinga sheds light on various themes that resonate so deeply in a generation plagued and made anxious by militarization, violence, and an uncertainty of what the future holds. Read “Lesser Evil” below.
“Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun.” – Mao Zedong
We fly westward across the desert and into the sun, kicking up a cloud of dust as I wake. The humvee bounces as Twitch opens up the throttle on the abandoned highway. I’d been dreaming and couldn’t remember what it had been about, it was a feeling that I could reach for but not quite grasp. I sigh and close my eyes, cradling my M16 and resting my head against its barrel. Sleep doesn’t come easy to me. Not anymore.
I can only hear the sounds of the humvee, the road, and the wind. If it was five years ago, we’d be talking, laughing, probably blasting music, maybe playing cards. Now we’re just scarred and pale masks, clinging to our guns and the last few remnants of hope. We aren’t soldiers joyfully fighting for a sense of justice anymore, we’re a death squad meandering viciously across the burning and crumbling ruins of the country we used to call home. The curtain has lifted and there are no illusions left.
I glance down at my burnt right palm. Oddly enough, the scar tissue reminds me of a better time. On the cusp of the revolution, I protested in the streets of the capitol. Everyone was united. Different races, genders, religions, creeds, had all stood together in solidarity for want of better lives for ourselves and our children. Then we cried havoc as the tear gas flew. In a moment of what I’d been told was passion and bravery – stupidity in actuality – I’d picked up the grenade and thrown it back at the pigs, both turning my hand black and earning me the attention of the rebels. When they found out how well I could aim down a sight and pull a trigger, that lead to the assault rifle I’m holding. I study it as I have so many times before and Bones, asleep next to me, shifts and rests her head on my shoulder, probably having a nightmare. The dead haunt all of us from the other side of our black and crimson rifles. The colors identify us as a faction of the National Peace Bureau and award us license to kill anyone the regime deems a threat to the New American Republic.
And kill we had. I hadn’t been counting, but if I had I probably would’ve lost track years ago. You can’t know exactly how many people die when you throw grenades into platoons of soldiers. Originally, when the revolution had a clear direction and a pure heart, we were a special force tasked with defending the people from the militant old regime, be that the police or soldiers. But then it all went sideways. Instead of cooperating with the leftist revolutionaries, the old United States government had attempted to violently suppress the protesters, only succeeding in galvanizing the movement. The Second American Revolution devolved into what really should have been called the Second Civil War. We greatly outnumbered the supporters of the old regime, but we were completely out-gunned. However, with careful strategy – some of which on my part – we were able to either convince the militarized police to join us or execute those who wouldn’t.
The war is drawing to a close and the rebels can taste victory, but we lost the battle for our souls a long time ago. The chaos distorted the liberal vision of the revolution. We were joined by anti-government rightists, anarchists, and even fascists. The leaders had said we needed all the support we could get, so we welcomed them. That moment marked the beginning of our descent. Our rebellion against the old United States caused everyone with a grudge against them to want to aid us. The New American Republic was in bed with Russia, China, Saudi Arabia, and virtually every other country that represented the tyranny that we had set out to dismantle. Throughout our downward spiral, it became clear to those of us working behind the scenes that as soon as the war was over, we wouldn’t see the new beacon of freedom rise from the ashes. We were sliding into a totalitarian dictatorship the likes of which the world hadn’t seen in almost a century.
“We’re getting low on fuel,” Twitch calls from the front.
“There’s a gas station a few miles up the road,” Knight says. He’s the newly appointed leader of the squad, due to take my place after I leave. “The owner is sympathetic to our cause. Wake Bones up. And keep your guns ready, just in case.”
I nudge Bones awake and ready my M16, loading the magazine, flipping the safety off, chambering the first round. We arrive at the gas station and exit the humvee. Bones fills the tank while Twitch and Knight watch for any disturbances. I don’t know either of their real names, and I don’t need to. The lives we had are gone, and those names don’t mean anything anymore. I walk toward the convenience store next to the gas pumps. It’s been months since I’ve had a cold soda. Rainbow follows me.
I open the door and walk in. Working with the rebels kept the power on, but it meant that there weren’t many customers. The owner looks up from behind the counter. As he moves his eyes upward, he sees the black and crimson rifle first, and then his eyes stop at my face. I can’t help but touch the ugly scar that twists upward from the left half of my mouth. I got it on one of my first missions in the field when a soldier dropped a live grenade after I shot him in the back. The flying shrapnel tore a half-smile into my face that had earned me the nickname Joker. The Peace Bureau was already infamous, but my exploits on this five-year Blood Meridian-esque crusade earned me a very specific reputation within our ranks. I’ll stand trial for war crimes eventually, and I deserve every ounce of punishment they decide to dole out.
“Don’t worry,” I say, moving to grab a Coke. “Just here for a drink.” The scar means that I can’t wear the gas mask that I would otherwise, so I’d taken to wearing a black bandana and sunglasses in order to hide my extremely recognizable face. Unfortunately, not using a gas mask led to my vocal chords being shredded by the various tear gasses and other non-lethal poisons used in war. I could give Janis Joplin a run for her money in a competition for the raspiest voice.
The owner stiffens as I walk toward the counter. I set the bottle down as Rainbow watches from behind me. I pull a torn leather wallet from my pocket, pull out a crumpled five dollar bill, place it on the counter and turn around without another word. I didn’t need to pay the guy, but it helped me feel for a second like I still had the semblance of a normal life.
After we walk out, Rainbow and I both instinctively glance up at the reflection on one of the gas pumps in order to check and make sure the owner hasn’t pulled out a gun to shoot us in the back. But the only thing that moves is his mouth, forming one word.
Rainbow cocks his head. “You gonna do anything?” It wouldn’t be the first time I’d killed someone arbitrarily, and it probably wouldn’t be the last. There would be no repercussions. Not for a Peace Officer. Rainbow raises an eyebrow. Out of all of us, he’s the one that swam through this ocean of blood and walked out still having a good sense of right and wrong. He’d been one of my only real friends during the war.
“No,” I say, looking down. “Not today.”
“Quit fucking around!” Knight yells. “We’ve only got a few hours of daylight left.”
Once we were moving again, I can only stare out the window. We’re moving west so that we can stamp out any of the last pockets of resistance in South California before I’ll be handed off to the base of operations in LA. I’d been selected to be groomed for a position as an Assistant Secretary of War in the new president’s cabinet. Because the Bureau was so good at covering its tracks – and murdering anyone who could identify us – and the new regime had so much influence over the media, they were going to shape me into a “battle-scarred hero of war” and use my image as well as my strategical prowess. I’d be sitting on top until it all came down again.
Or at least, I would if I wasn’t planning on leaving the country with Bones. There’s a growing faction of idealists within the ranks of the new regime that’ll eventually plot against the totalitarians. The totalitarians are completely aware of this – at least at the top levels – and intend to quietly execute all of the idealists. They’re walking a thin line that if crossed, will most likely lead to another revolt. In the chaos, Bones and I will escape. First to Brazil, where a surgeon’ll patch up and alter my face just enough that I won’t be recognized and then we can continue on to Switzerland.
A few hours pass in silence and I look over at Bones. We don’t love each other. Or rather, in the lives we’re living, we can’t. The weight of the guilt and the constant violence have rendered our hearts inert. Maybe after a few years we’ll be able to feel something. But for now we need each other. And that’s enough.
“Stop up there,” Knight tells Twitch. “I heard that somebody might be hiding near the border to intercept us.” We stop at the base of a small plateau as the sun starts to set. “Rainbow, you’re the fastest climber, get your ass up there and take a look.” He hands him a pair of binoculars.
“Sure,” Rainbow says. He turns and starts up the plateau. As soon as he’s about halfway up, Knight goes back to the humvee and grabs a large case and opens it. I see an all-too-familiar black and crimson DSR-50 sniper rifle.
“What’s that for?” I ask.
Knight turns to me, eyes grave. “Rainbow’s wife has connections to the idealists. They’ve both been designated for liquidation.”
Everyone else stays silent, waiting for my reaction.
Can I save him? No. That would mean killing Knight here and now. The rest of the squad would follow me, but no one at HQ would believe that either we were attacked and only he was killed or we had good reason to murder one of our own. They’d execute every single one of us for treason. I look at Knight, then at Bones, then at the DSR Twitch is assembling. I’m the best shot out of all of us. Given the angle and distance, Knight’s bullet would most likely hit in the lower back and he’d leave my friend up there to bleed out. Rainbow is the best of us, always has been. He deserves to lead a long and happy life, and the best I can give him is a quick and painless death. All of this goes through my mind in less than a second.
“Give me the rifle,” I say. Knight nods and Twitch hands it to me. I ready myself on the roof of the humvee as Rainbow reaches the top. He looks out through the binoculars and I aim carefully. I exhale and steady the barrel and my permanent grin faces out toward the world. The last thing Rainbow sees is the setting sun as he lowers the binoculars. A crack echoes across the desert and the silhouette of his skull explodes outward as he falls to the ground. No one moves.
“Let’s go,” I say.
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