Mojave Desert, North American Republic – 7/4/2070
“Do you think you’re human or something else?” Dock drives another flag into the barren soil, and a puff of dust flies up to choke the air. He stumbles back, coughing.
“Careful, you’re on the edge.”
He peers over his shoulder to find he’s less than a foot from the deep ditch in the ground where a fence should be but isn’t yet. “Think they’re ever going to get around to finishing this little ‘public safety project’?” Under the midday sun, it’s hard to see the current end of the fence through the glare, but it’s at least two miles of desert away, and it hasn’t gotten any closer since they halted construction last week. One of the trucks got blown to bits—driver and all—in the raid. No one’s volunteered to replace him yet. No one will until someone is held at gunpoint.
“I doubt it. When does the government ever finish anything but lives?” I march past him, counting ten paces, and pull the pack of bright red flags from my bag.
“You shouldn’t say things like that out loud. Never know if you’re bugged or not.” He snatches the package from me and plucks a few out, staking one several inches askew from the line of red we’ve been drawing for the last six hours. “Passive aggression works better, especially when the people you’re pulling it on are too stupid to recognize it for what it is.”
“Even if they recognized that, I sincerely doubt they’d care. Passive aggression is safe, Dock. You don’t overthrow totalitarian regimes by being safe.” I scan the arid landscape on the opposite side of the ditch. Somewhere, miles and miles away, is a Coalition camp—hundreds of soldiers from fifteen countries and counting are likely preparing for another raid. I’ve heard they apologize for each kill they make that isn’t a government official or corrupt military leader, but if I met one of them out here, I’d blow his brains out regardless. We have enough people in this country trying to kill everyone they can get their hands on. Last thing we need is people outside this country doing it, too.
“So you don’t consider your weekly ‘Book Club’ meetings safe?” He waves a flag in my face, knowing it’s a low blow, knowing I’m not in the mood to be teased for my failures. Haven’t been in the mood for years. No, haven’t been in the mood ever. “Hiding in a closet with ten to fifteen people discussing manifestos rife with misspellings and ideas borrowed from Romantic poets? Sounds pretty damn safe to me.”
I seize his wrist and squeeze, harder and harder until the skin splits under my nails. He lets the flag drop to the ground with a sound lost in the desert winds. Shock. Horror. Confusion. Intrigue. Those are the things normal people would feel if someone in my condition demonstrated above-average physical prowess. Dock, on the other hand, jerks his arm free, stares me down from his ten-inch vantage point, and smiles.
“It won’t be a disability, then?” He flicks the edge of the bandage over my right eye—socket. “I was afraid, when I first heard, that you’d be discharged and shipped back home for factory labor or something. Should have known you wouldn’t let them.”
“I have things to do out here. My ‘Book Club’ has grown substantially over the past few weeks. Everyone likes battle-scarred leaders. I’m getting pretty popular.”
“And what will you do after you reach the peak of popularity? Start a revolt?”
Overhead, a buzzard squawks as it circles around an oddly specific area of the ditch. It’s a good quarter mile away, and I squint to penetrate the glare: there’s a spot in the sandy soil that’s distorted, kicked-up, revealing a slightly darker shade of slightly less-parched earth. There was a struggle. I take off, and Dock calls out for me to Wait, it might be dangerous! But I need to see what tragedy has unfolded today. Every day. I want to know all about all the tragedies. Because maybe, one day, I’ll find one worse than mine.
(Not today, though.)
At the bottom of the ditch is the body of a boy.
He was shot in the forehead and kicked off the edge into the dirt to rot. A number of desert animals have already had their way with him. Pieces of his flesh have been bitten and ripped and pecked, and both his eyes are gone. Ants march in circles around his lips and climb into his mouth to gather whatever hints of sugar are left on his decaying tongue.
“Jesus!” Dock slides to a halt beside me, a whirlwind of dust clinging to his well-worn uniform pants. He tries (desperately) to hold in a surge of fury topped with a hint of hopelessness, but his clenched fists start shaking from the strain. “What do you think he did?”
I kick a small rock off the edge of the pit, and it hits the boy square on the nose, scaring the ant army into a frenzy. “I imagine he dared to think he was human in a country that branded him something else.”
“What? A slave?” He gnaws on his parched lower lip. It splits. But his tongue pokes out and laps at the tear before it can cost him any precious water in our little desert wasteland. “Is that what they think we are? Slaves? Beasts of burden? Dogs?”
“Does it matter?”
“Are you okay?” His calloused hand wraps around the one I’ve pressed against my bandaged face and guides it away. “Does it hurt? An infection?” A finger tries to sneak underneath the gauze to tug it up, but I bat his hand off course.
“They’re paying for a new one. Special-order and everything. Took a picture of my good eye to make the best glass replica money can buy. Some shit about getting rewarded for my service. Do you really think they’d let me die of an infection, Murdock? I’m an investment.”
I grab him by the sleeve and spin him around, unzipping one of his backpack pockets to reveal a box of matches and an unlabeled bottle of whatever accelerant Dock’s been given just in case. “Not a revolt. A revolution. I’m starting a revolution.” I hand him the bottle and remove a single match.
“The ‘Book Club’ Revolution? You going to call it that?” A shaking hand uncaps the bottle, and the top slips out of his fingers into the ditch. It lands near the boy’s half-eaten left ear. It doesn’t matter, though. There’s only enough in the bottle to burn one body.
“No, I want us to be called something playful yet dangerous.”
He dumps the bottle in one motion, clear liquid splattering over the boy’s dirtied uniform. “Like what? Zara and the Revolutionaries? Zara and the Republicans? Zara and the Rebels?”
I strike the match and toss it into the abyss. The boy goes up in flames.
“Zara and the Battalion? Zara and the Beasts of Burden? Zara and the—”