Excerpt – Glory Zone

Chapter 1

This was the time of evening when the flickerbombs came in. The battle line cordon of airvees would get most of them, lighting up the sky like the aurora borealis, but a few would get through. One grape-sized flickerbomb could level a whole city block.

Jeff was due at his daughter’s house for his sixty-fifth birthday dinner in a half hour. He could walk it in that time. Safer than taking the five-minute conveyor ride. Conveyor junctions were favorite flickerbomb targets. The odds of one hitting his particular conveyor line were long, but why take a chance? Besides, it was a clear spring evening, nippy but pleasant.

He’d asked his daughter Lotus not to invite anyone else. It would be just Lotus, son-in-law Clancy, and his two granddaughters. When turning sixty-five meant being sent off to fight a war he’d have almost no chance of surviving, it was hardly a time to celebrate.

Halfway there, the sirens howled and the city went dark. Jeff had never understood the reason for the blackout, since every incoming bomb was precisely programmed. He looked east and held his breath as the swarm closed in fast on the city. Faint pinpricks of pulsing light, growing to what looked like thousands of fireflies, filled the night sky. The waiting crescent formation of hypervelocity air vehicles opened up with rapid-fire beams, picking off one flickerbomb after another with astonishing speed. The sky bloomed and crackled with brilliant flashes of red, yellow, orange, and searing white. He felt the thud of the explosions in his belly, and there was a strong burnt ozone smell in the air. It was all over in five minutes, but two of the swarm got through. One veered off toward the other side of town. The other seemed to come right at him. All he could do was wait to see what would happen. There was no way to outrun or outguess a flickerbomb. Each had a built-in target. If you were not in the target zone, you were okay. If you were, you were dead.

The one heading his direction suddenly angled straight down and exploded a kilometer away. The shock of the impact and the blast of heat that followed almost knocked him over, but he managed to keep his balance. He judged the location to be a conveyor tube junction where three lines came together, surrounded by a large complex of shops and cafes. Jeff shook his head. Everything blown to bits. Hundreds dead. Would this stupid war never end?

Jeff resumed his walk, thinking about his daughter Lotus. He had no idea where she’d gotten the brains and drive to become a first-rate trauma surgeon. She had a thriving practice and was considered one of the best at replacing damaged organs in time to save lives, and the absolute authority in the delicate business of connecting nerves back together after replacing a spinal cord. She had promised Jeff she’d cook a birthday dinner for him on the day he retired.

***

He gave his tall, blue-eyed daughter a hug and looked her over. She had high cheekbones in an oval face, sun-bleached hair, and the strong shoulders of a long-distance swimmer. Lotus looked a lot like his ex-wife Rita, but was polar opposite in personality. Rita was nervous and scattered. Lotus reliably steady, rational, quick on the uptake.

“Where are Clancy and the girls?” he asked.

“Clancy took them to a school play,” she said. “Megan has a part. They’ll join us virtually for a few minutes before the play starts. Then it’ll be just the two of us tonight, Dad, so I pulled two meals from Central Food Dispensary. Eggplant essence baked Italian style with Noocheez and tomato flavor.”

“My favorite dish,” he said. The familiar aroma of food heating in the kitchen was relaxing.

She put two steaming plates on the table, and a bottle of red wine. “I doctored it up with extra Noocheez because I know you like it that way.”

He sat down and sniffed the eggplant dish. “Smells great.” He poured wine while she hung up an apron and came to the table.

She said, “How was your last day at the office?”

“My farewell present was a toy gun with a cork in the barrel. The inscription said pop gun for the top gun.” Jeff laughed. “Let me show you the real gift. New ringcom.” He extended a little finger and flashed a thin gold ring with a crystal chip embedded. “Latest model. Displays whatever you ask for in a full-color, full-smell hologram … time, weather, spatial position. Also a virtual transporter, communicator, chip reader, and personal secretary. Brain wave activation. Just think what you want. Lights up and does everything but mix martinis.”

She ran a finger over the surface of the obviously expensive gold ring. “Beautiful. The people at your office must have liked their boss. Mine’s an older model but still works.”

As she spoke, the crystal in her older-model ringcom began flashing. “They’re ready,” she said. “I’ll complete the transfer.”

Clancy and the two granddaughters appeared at the table in virtual form, and sang a ragged version of happy birthday.

Jeff blew them kisses and said, “Thanks, guys. Good luck with your play, Megan. Hope you get a standing ovation.”

Clancy said, “Curtain’s going up in a few minutes. Gotta go. Happy birthday, Jeff.” They disappeared.

He ate a little of the eggplant dish, stopped and gazed out the window. “How’s the practice going?”

“The usual,” Lotus said. “Yesterday I had four people from an airvee crash, two mangled construction workers, a flickerbomb casualty, and a hiker who’d fallen a hundred meters onto jagged rocks.”

“Spinal injury?”

She nodded. “Smashed his spinal column. He was paralyzed and hardly breathing when they brought him in. We replaced the column with one from his clone bank and got the new spinal cord connected. We’ll have him walking and talking by the end of the week.”

“Did the others make it?”

“All but one. We found out at the last minute her body parts were never transferred to a local clone bank when she moved here. Either she forgot to have it done or there was a screw-up in the system. By the time the parts got here from the original bank it was too late.”

“Not the first time that’s happened, I hear.”

Lotus finished a bite of the eggplant dish. “They’re working on ways to link the clone banks with address changes for automatic parts transfer, but it’s still a work in progress.”

Jeff sipped more wine. “I can’t come to terms with this change — off to fight a war at my age. I’ve always held out the hope this war would be over by the time I turned sixty-five, so I could get to know my grandkids and start enjoying life.”

Lotus’s voice was intense. “You’ve always found a way, Dad. I know you’ll come back. I just know it.”

“I’ll sure try,” he said, “because I have a long list of things I’d like to do before I die.”

“I know you’ve talked about remodeling your house, doing all the work yourself.”

“And I’d like to put in a flower garden. Join a hiking club. Camp in the high mountains. Learn an ancient language in an underground language school.”

“Why? Our Universal Kwikspeak is a perfectly good language.”

“They say some of the pre-chasm languages were far more expressive. There was one called English. Another called Chinese. It would be fun to speak those.”

“And dangerous,” Lotus replied.

“Don’t worry. I doubt I’ll get to do any of this because the war goes on and on.”

Lotus let out a long sigh. “I know I’ll have to go in too, when I turn sixty-five. For me, that’s still a long way off, but the gloomy thought hits me from time to time. I hear you get rotated back after thirty days.”

The sadness that Jeff had been pushing away suddenly welled up inside him. “I hate to disillusion you, but hardly anyone survives the first week, let alone a month.”

She frowned, then her face brightened. “I hope you’ll let us give you a sendoff party before you go.”

He shook his head. “Just as soon not.”

“Aw, c’mon, Dad. Everybody wants to wish you well. Aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews, cousins, grandkids. Just a big family party. It’ll be fun. Whaddya say?”

Jeff finally nodded. “Okay. I guess I can handle one more party. It’ll be nice to see everyone before I go.”

“Okay if mom comes?”

He thought for a moment. “If she wants to.”

“Any chance of you two patching things up?”

“Afraid not. I still care for your mom, in a way, but we just can’t live together.”

“You still love her?”

He looked at the hope in his daughter’s eyes, and hated to dash it. “No. Love died somewhere along the line. I realized one day that’s the way it was. She knew it too, and packed up and left. Told me she wanted her own space. She gets the house when I leave for the front.”

The hopeful tone in Lotus’s voice turned somber. “Aren’t many fairytale endings in the real world, are there? What are you going to do for the next thirty days?”

“Have to spend some time with the lawyers to make sure you and your brother are taken care of. Rest of the time I’ll probably just walk a lot.”

Lotus smiled. “Blue Hills Park?”

Jeff held his hand knee-high. “I remember the picnics we used to have there when you guys were little. If the weather’s nice tomorrow, I might take the conveyor to Blue Hills and then hike to the top.”

“Want company?”

“What about the kids and your work?”

“Clancy can get the girls to school.” She got up and poured hot stimbev into two cups, and brought them to the table. “I haven’t had a day off in weeks, and I can use some fresh air. I’ll get the other surgeons to fill in. I’ll bring a picnic lunch.”

“Can’t turn down an offer like that, can I?”

 

Chapter 2

It was a steep two kilometers up to the park from the conveyor stop at Foothill and Vista. They both liked natural spaces and places, so they stopped every few minutes to wander off the path and look at plants that were beginning to flower after a long winter.

“Wild honeysuckle in bloom,” Jeff yelled from behind some bushes.

Lotus came to look. She laughed. “And two hummingbirds fighting over it.”

Blue Hills Park was shady and quiet. Only two other tables occupied. Jeff said, “Think I’ll hike to the top of The Knob.”

“I’ll get the lunch ready,” Lotus said. “Don’t be gone too long.”

The Knob was a hill at the edge of the park with a 360-degree view. Jeff hiked the zigzag trail at a steady pace and got to the top in fifteen minutes. He sat on a rock and looked out at the expanse of the city on the plain below. It was one of those rare spring days when the sun was warm, cooled by a westerly breeze, and the sky a vast dome of soft blue with a few puffy clouds on the far horizon. He’d been up on The Knob many times, but never when it was this clear and the view in all directions unlimited. He breathed in the fresh air in great draughts as his eyes took in the feast of sights in the world below. The snow-tipped mountains far to the north. The plain that rolled west of the city to the far horizon. The low green hills to the south and the chain of lakes to the east.

He got up, stretched, yawned an enormous yawn, tilted his face skyward, and said, “Thank you for giving me this wonderful day.” He knew he’d lingered too long, so he headed down the trail at a trot.

“You were up there long enough,” Lotus said. “The stimbev’s getting cold and the lemonade’s warm. You must have enjoyed it.”

“It’s really special up there today.”

Lotus laid out sandwiches and FrootSnax on two plates. “Better dig in.”

Jeff bit into his sandwich, and made an O with his thumb and forefinger. “Delicious! Cucumber and cashew. My favorite.”

As Jeff was about to take his second bite, his ringcom lit up and a mandatory hologram appeared. The same thing happened to Lotus.

“It’s the Parade of Heroes,” she said.

Two surviving veterans of the war on the Northern Front – a man and a woman — wore blue sashes pinned with medals dangling from different colored ribbons. Marching to the beat of the regimental drum corps, they led the Parade of Heroes down the city’s main avenue to the cheers of the throng lining the streets, confetti raining down on them from the windows above. They were followed by a crack rifle regiment, flag bearers, and a regimental band blaring patriotic tunes.

“I’ll miss you, Dad, and the kids’ll miss their grandpa,” Lotus said. “You gotta promise to come back. Get lots of medals and lead the Parade of Heroes, like these two.”

He’d heard rumors that the two parade leaders were the only survivors out of the ten thousand soldiers of the 77th Division. Little chance of coming back, he thought.

“You really believe that stuff?” he asked.

“It’s what we learned in school,” she said.”To lead the Parade of Heroes is the highest honor that every patriot lives for.”

“Yes, but do you believe it?”

She hesitated.

He ordered his ringcom to make loud music. Under the blaring of trumpets, he said, “The noise should block out the sweepers. Tell me how you really feel.”

“I’ve always had doubts,” she said. “It doesn’t make sense that everyone has to die at sixty-five. But the patriotic stuff they teach in school is very powerful. You’re trained to believe it’s your solemn duty and a great honor to fight in this war when you turn sixty-five, to keep our homeland safe from the blood-thirsty hoard that’s trying to take our land, rape our women, and destroy our way of life. Still, it’s never felt right to me. I’ve always suspected something else is going on. Exactly what, I don’t know. But something.”

“And if you refuse to serve,” he said, “it’s the Shaming Circle. Most people would rather die in the war than die that way. So, I’ll put on the uniform and go to war, and I’ll try my hardest to come back.”

 

Chapter 3

Jeff walked to the small wine shop at the end of the block on his once-a-week visit. He liked the old fashioned smell and feel of the place. They carried his favorites and always had interesting new arrivals. “I need a bottle for storage,” he said to Morrie, the small, nattily-dressed man behind the counter.

Morrie brought up a hologram listing Jeff’s storage holdings. “I see you like a full-bodied red.”

Jeff nodded. “Something that’ll be ready in a year or two.”

Morrie walked to a wall of racked red wine bottles. He pulled one out and displayed the label. “Just in from Chile’s Maipo region. Excellent small winery. Fine vintage. Deep flavor. Nice finish.”

Jeff took the bottle and studied the label. “You seldom steer me wrong, Morrie.”

“Shall I put it in storage for you?”

“I’ll take it down to the cellar myself.”

Morrie’s ringcom flashed. “I’ve unlocked the door at the head of the stairs and the door to the cellar. They’ll lock behind you.”

“I’ll signal when I want to come back up.” Jeff descended the long flight of stairs and went through the second door into a wine cellar many times the size of the small shop upstairs. He made four turns down long aisles before coming to his personal rack. He unlocked it and slid the new bottle into an empty space. He locked the rack and walked to the end of another aisle facing more wine racks.

He focused a thought on his ringcom and the end section of the wine rack swung away, exposing the entrance to another stairway. Jeff went down the steep steps to a lower level and stood in front of a knobless door marked private. He held his ringcom in front of a glowing inset panel. The door slid open and he entered.

“I want to find out all I can about warfare in the ancient civilization,” he told the librarian.

She was in her fifties, a retired university lecturer on post-chasm history. She studied him with worried hazel eyes. “Jeff, you’re a good customer, but you know as well as I that pre-chasm libraries are against the law. Books on paper are not supposed to exist.”

“What are you trying to tell me, Joyce? The black market’s dried up? You can’t get books anymore?”

“What I’m trying to tell you is I’m not crazy. I’m willing to take some risk because I love books and I believe passionately that we must find the truth about pre-chasm civilization.”

He nodded. “Because finding the truth about pre-chasm life is the key to knowing why we do things the way we do now, right?”

Joyce looked at Jeff for a moment. “There are oddities. Things we do nowadays because we think they’ve always been done that way, but don’t make a whole lot of sense. The origins have to go back to something that happened in the old civilization.”

“Such as a war that never ends,” Jeff said.

Her brow wrinkled. “I carry mostly pre-chasm literature, plus a little pre-chasm history, and some ancient text books. But nothing at all about war. If they ever find this place, they’ll destroy the books, and I’ll be fined and probably serve time. But if they found military stuff on the shelves, I’d be branded a subversive and they’d execute me on the spot, no questions asked.”

“How do you know?”

“It’s common knowledge among librarians.”

“Where can I get what I’m looking for?”

The librarian looked down, then shifted her eyes back to Jeff’s face. “I don’t know. Even if I did, I wouldn’t tell you, for your own good, and mine.”

“You’re sure?”

“Possession is a capital offense. Abetting is a capital offense. We’d both be executed.”

Jeff looked into Joyce’s worried eyes. “Okay. I don’t want to put you at risk,” he said, trying to hide his disappointment. Where, he wondered, can I get what I’m looking for?

“I know you’re always looking for anything new on pre-chasm history. But why war books all of a sudden?” she asked.

“I have to report in a few weeks. Curious about how ancient wars were fought.”

She slid a hand across the counter toward Jeff, empathy in her eyes. “I hope you come back home, and I wish I could help.”

He squeezed her hand. “It’s okay, Joyce. Don’t worry about it.”

 

Chapter 4

Jeff had to argue to keep the farewell dinner confined to immediate family. Lotus wanted to add more people.

They finally agreed it would be only his brother and his ex-wife Rita and her two sisters, plus the spouses, children, and grandchildren. They ended up with a total of twenty-six. Sixteen adults sat around one long table and ten grandchildren were seated at two smaller tables.

One of Jeff’s nephews, Fergus, a blue-eyed thirty-five-year-old accountant with thinning blond hair, stood up. “Recharge the glasses. I want to propose a toast.” When the champagne glasses had been topped, the nephew said, “To Uncle Jeff. May you come back safe and sound and live to be two hundred. Much love from all of us.”

After the “hear-hears” and ringing of spoons on glasses, the nephew rose again. “Uncle Jeff, you’re going to look great in your new uniform.”

Jeff replied, “To be honest, I’d rather stay in the clothes I’m wearing.”

“Don’t you want to defend our way of life against those barbarians?” Fergus asked. “If we don’t stop them, that bloodthirsty hoard will take our land and rape our women.”

“So they say,” Jeff replied.

Fleur, a niece in her twenties, chimed in. “But isn’t it a great honor to serve the cause?”

Jeff set his champagne glass on the table. “I might agree if I thought this war made sense. But it doesn’t. We actually know nothing about the enemy. Only what we’re told. The war goes on generation after generation. No resolution. They attack, take some of our ground. We stop them, push them back and take some of their ground. Then they attack and the cycle starts again. They flickerbomb our cities, and I’m sure we do the same to theirs. The official line is they want more land for their expanding population. And our side is defending our territory and our way of life. But you’d think after all these years, one side or the other would have won, or the problem settled by negotiation. But no. Something else has to be going on.”

“Like what?” Fleur asked.

Jeff’s daughter Lotus broke in. “You have to be pretty dumb not to know.”

There was silence in the room. Everyone looked at Lotus, then the niece. Finally Fergus, the nephew, said, “I’ve heard all those population control theories. I think they’re just plain crap.”

Lotus’s face tinted pink. “Maybe you should start thinking for yourself, instead of buying the propaganda.”

“Not propaganda. It’s known fact,” Fergus replied. He turned to Jeff with concern in his voice. “But Uncle Jeff, you’re not considering …”

Before he could get his next word out, every ringcom in the room lit up and mandatory holograms appeared over each one.

The hologram was a scene of a circle painted yellow ten meters across in the middle of the city’s Central Square. Two metal rings were embedded in the center of the circle, an arm’s length apart.

“The Shaming Circle,” Fergus said. “Some poor bastard tried to run or hide to keep from serving, and they caught him.”

Jeff’s niece Fleur hissed.”Serves him right.”

Then the room was quiet as they watched the ceremony unfold. A skinny man who looked at least sixty-five, with stooped shoulders and matted hair, was pulled into the Shaming Circle by a rope tied around his neck. Two uniformed guards shackled his feet to the metal rings protruding from the ground, and used the rope to bind his arms against his body.

A bell rang and a voice announced, “Mathew Finley, you tried to escape your sacred duty to fight off the evil invaders and protect your homeland. You will now be branded a traitor.”

One of the guards pulled a glowing iron from a bed of coals next to the circle and poked it hard against Finley’s forehead. Jeff winced as smoke curled up from the point where the iron burned the letter T into the man’s skull, and the stench of burning flesh gushed out of the holograms into the room. Finley’s features contorted and he emitted a long, painful scream.

A bell rang again and the voice announced, “It is shaming time.”

A roar of boos, hisses, and shouts of Shame rose from the mob in the square.

When the hooting peaked and began to ebb, the voice announced, “Proceed to the rock pile nearest you and do your duty.”

The mob hurried to nearby rock piles, picked up fist-size rocks and stones and, moving in for the kill, hurled the missiles against the man’s body. After a fifteen-minute non-stop blizzard of stoning, Finley’s broken, bleeding, and lifeless body was removed from the square.

Jeff, on the verge of retching, shook his head. “Brutal beyond belief,” he said. “But not unexpected from a government that kills off its citizens at sixty-five.”

The howling of air raid sirens stilled further conversation. The city’s outside lighting went dark, and Lotus’s wall-glow interior lighting dimmed to a murky twilight. The concussion of hundreds of flickerbombs exploding in midair shook the house, and flashes of brilliant light penetrated the seams in the blackout curtains, sending crazy patterns dancing on the walls.

The bombardment stopped, and the lighting slowly returned to normal. No one spoke, as they waited to see if any of the bombs got through. Finally, the high-pitched whine of an incoming flickerbomb was followed by an explosion that rattled the house and tipped over glasses on the table.

Jeff rose and parted a blackout curtain. “Miller Junction, where lines forty-three and forty-seven come together. Flames are shooting hundreds of feet and lighting up the smoke column. Looks bad.” He returned to his chair and the silence continued.

Fleur, the willowy niece, stood up. “What could it be besides a real war when they keep attacking us with flickerbombs, and trying to take our land?”

“I know,” Lotus said, “and they send in sabotage teams to blow things up, but you should at least consider the possibility of a hidden agenda.”

Someone said, “Careful, Lotus. Listening posts sweep all the time, and they start tracking when they pick up certain words.”

Jeff said, “It’s okay to be careful, but don’t let fear drive out curiosity. For myself, I often wonder if this war has its roots in the old civilization.”

His nephew said, “Isn’t pre-chasm society irrelevant? That’s what we learned in school.”

“Not so sure. I just wish I could get more information about those times. That’s the only way we’ll ever know.’

Jeff’s brother laughed. “You always were the rebel in the family. Lotus comes by it honestly.”

From Jeff’s forty-one-year-old son, Zachary, “But you are going to serve, aren’t you?”

“I’ll be in uniform day after tomorrow.”

“And you will fight?” nephew Fergus asked.

“The idea of killing another human is hard to accept. But once they put me on the front line with a rifle in my hand — I hope I won’t let anyone down.”