DiscoverScience Fiction

Piss & Vinegar

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Must read 🏆

Unforgettable book from a forgotten writer. This book is a treasure and I highly recommend it.

Synopsis

When the twenty-three Altoonian spaceships arrive at Earth, they not only shatter the shaky peace of the place, they thrust Vice President James Fenimore Hunter into a role he may not be ready for. While the aliens keep saying they’ve come in peace, the real reasons and the real costs are more than the vice president can ignore. Unfortunately, in his bungling attempts to stop this absurd madness, he unwittingly makes the most foolish decisions and chooses the worst allies, and thereby becomes the unwitting agent of the apocalypse. But he needs to make things right...or die trying.

I am quite honestly blown away by how good this book is. Based on another reader’s review, I skipped ahead to the section “About the Author” to learn more about Sam Sumac. I wondered whether it was a continuation of the story somehow, but looked it up and there is an actual Sam Sumac Association devoted to sharing his work. I, for one, am thankful because this is a talent that deserves recognition. It seems that Sam wrote this book (and others) after his return from deployment in Vietnam. I point that out to draw attention to the fact that his futuristic science fiction was sent in 1984, when he envisioned President Ted Kennedy (and I don’t think he particularly cared for him). 


The story is not entirely original (he even references the old black and white alien movies), but it is told in an original way with many elements that I have not seen prior to this. For example, what if an alien ship arrived carrying two species of aliens? And what if what the aliens had to offer us presented a devil’s bargain for what we might be willing to give up in exchange? I appreciated the fact that alien ships landed in multiple places throughout the world simultaneously. It’s nice when the US isn’t considered the capital of the world by invading aliens, as is too often the case (at least in movies). Sam Sumac’s insight into domestic terrorist groups and their connections to white supremacy and Christianity is surprisingly timely. 


The story is told from the POV of Vice President James Fenimore Hunter (first-person past-tense). He is journaling the events leading up to the destruction of the world and he starts from the end, then works his way back to the beginning, ending up with a present-tense telling. It is masterfully done. VP Hunter is plagued with regret for all of the decisions he made and the actions he took that led to the annihilation of so many, and he hopes to absolve himself of the guilt he feels. Unfortunately, after writing of the events, he rereads his writing and sees himself as the villain and wonders how he can make things right. If nothing else, he hopes his journal will help guide those who seek to rebuild after he made such a mess of things. He is a sympathetic character and it’s difficult to read this without wondering how you would react in the same situation. What mistakes would you make? Is he really such a bad guy? Or was he just weak?


The writing is clever (calling a government operation code-name Pajama Bottoms) and engaging and the plot moves forward at a relentless pace. It never drags and it never feels rushed. I just wanted to keep turning the pages to find out what would happen next, and it really is nothing I could have entirely predicted. There were some great quotes too, none of which really need context to be appreciated: 


“I’d been involved in politics long enough to know more swallowing than spitting happens in Washington.” 


“Isn’t it sad to say it is those people who are the most focused on doing something positive for the greater good who are the easiest to bamboozle and lead astray?”


“I was suddenly struck by the funny notion that the day’s actions were going to be like a tap-dancing faerie in golf shoes atop the pimple on a giant's ass, and the inanity of this thought made me laugh out loud.”


I am now a fan of Sam Sumac and I will be anxiously awaiting the release of more of his works. Even if this is his best, I cannot imagine any of the rest being bad. I am so glad someone found his works and bothered to assimilate the pages. They uncovered a treasure.



Reviewed by

I am a writer, editor, proofreader, and an avid reader.

Synopsis

When the twenty-three Altoonian spaceships arrive at Earth, they not only shatter the shaky peace of the place, they thrust Vice President James Fenimore Hunter into a role he may not be ready for. While the aliens keep saying they’ve come in peace, the real reasons and the real costs are more than the vice president can ignore. Unfortunately, in his bungling attempts to stop this absurd madness, he unwittingly makes the most foolish decisions and chooses the worst allies, and thereby becomes the unwitting agent of the apocalypse. But he needs to make things right...or die trying.

Himalayan Blunder


Needless to say, the arrival of the Altoonians was the most momentous and catastrophic event to ever befall our planet.

Having a massive fleet of gigantic alien ships come here looking for asylum would’ve been impressive in and of itself, but the disastrously destructive events that followed can only be described as truly earth-shattering.

As White House Chief of Staff Morty Brahmson said so understatedly to me during those first days of our interspecies interactions, “Those Altoonians are certainly bringing a spark to our world these days, aren’t they?”

It’s funny to think about his wording now, since it turned out to be so backwards and wrong, yet spoke so directly to the inevitable combustion the aliens were going to cause. I mean, everything’s certainly blown up in our faces, that’s for sure!

Lately I’ve found myself wondering if we could’ve been spared any of this. After all, if the aliens had only found some other inhabitable planet in the Galaxy, all of our lives would have remained intact and unchanged. Of course, we now know their coming to this planet was no accident – they knew we had something to offer them before they all started heading our way – but we didn’t learn this fact until it was too late. Because the collision between our two cultures was not in any way, shape or form a random occurrence, it could not have been circumnavigated by altering the conditions.

No, the only ingredient of happenstance in this entire story was the fact the Altoonians were so arrogantly myopic in their thinking that they believed they could take what they needed from us without having to pay a price for it. As advanced as they were, they could not see the devastating conflicts their attitude would ultimately unleash on all of us. I’d like to think if anyone involved had known our two peoples were destined to destroy one another, we would have waved each other off as frantically as a Navy Landing Signal Officer trying to dissuade a crippled bomber from landing on the deck of his aircraft carrier.

But that didn’t happen. And while I’ve spent far too much time trying to affix some kind of blame onto a legitimately guilty party, this has been an act of futility. After all, if an experienced species of galactic space travelers like the Altoonians didn’t have the foresight to see the explosive end to our mutual contact, how could we relatively innocent Earthlings ever have known what was really going to happen?

For most of us, the only preparation we had for any kind of alien contact came from those Hollywood monster movies we had watched as kids. So I guess it made some sense, once we knew an alien invasion was inevitable, for most of us to begin playing those roles we’d seen on the big screen. Instead of facing the trying situation calmly, we grabbed our heads with our hands and started screaming irrationally almost as soon as the Altoonian ships reached our corner of the universe. Talk about not being able to make a good first impression. Our species greeted the visitors with the embarrassing image of a gigantic flock of chickens running around aimlessly with their heads cut off.

That’s not to say our initial, embarrassingly child-like response caused the turmoil which followed. When the initial shock that we were going to make contact with an alien species finally wore off, calmer minds did prevail. I’d like to think we did regain our composure enough to at least get things started off on the right foot. Once it seemed that the Altoonians were a peaceful species and not a conquering invader bent on our destruction, our two species did begin to establish a relationship together as we cautiously embraced one another like innocent teenagers at their first dance.

But this idyllic peacefulness did not last long. The appearance of an unanticipated mutual dependence instantly began to destroy the seemingly perfect alliance between our two species. It’s been my personal experience that whenever something appears to be perfect, it’s only a matter of time before it all topples down into an unrecognizable pile of shit.

As I look out the windows of my hotel suite now and I see the destruction and fulmination outside, I can state with a clear certainty that the seemingly perfect arrangement between us Earthlings and the Altoonians did just that!

Even though I am more than willing to accept full responsibility for my part in the destructive result, I think there were several other elements which combined with my own actions to make everything go up in flames as it did. I know it might seem like I’m splitting hairs here, but – let’s face it -- a brilliant chemist named Dr. Bernard Bishop, an impossibly enticing alien female we initially code-named Eve, and the free press all played their own role in what transpired. Unwittingly, each of us in our own way struck the fragile bonds between Earthlings and Altoonians from different angles until the whole battered mess was far past the point of no return.

Even though I may have doused the smoldering wreckage with gasoline, I truly believe these three entities would have been enough to do the job...all by themselves.

Dr. Bishop’s initial discovery upset the whole unstable apple cart by creating a series of interconnected exchanges of needs and wants between the two species. Eve -- God bless her -- exposed the real and unholy cost to the new arrangement. And the free press finally was allowed to do its job and reveal to everyone what was really happening. Together they created a situation only one agent from a complete implosion.

Unfortunately, this agent turned out to be me. Sometimes you just can’t win for trying.

Ah...I’m getting ahead of myself, aren’t I?

Before I go any further with this account, I guess I need to introduce myself and explain how I ended up alone on the top floor of the abandoned Willard Hotel in the midst of the apocalypse. My name is James Fenimore Hunter, and I am the 43rd Vice President of the United States. Technically speaking, I am now currently the 38th President of the United States, since I assumed the position officially that moment when I stabbed President Ted Kennedy with a Pfaltzgraff Holiday Cake knife in the White House Kitchen three days ago.

The title of President no longer has any bearing, though, thanks to the fact that the country of the United States of America currently does not officially exist. However, since I have to live with the knowledge I simultaneously stabbed my dear friend in the neck and my country in the back on the very same day, I am forced to wear this official moniker and its inherent responsibilities like some kind of a god-awful tattoo of shame for the rest of my short life. Now that I can clearly see the horror resulting from my own actions, I can only fall back on the lamest of excuses.

I thought I was doing the right thing.

When the shit really hit the fan, my Secret Service security detail whisked me away from the White House. The two senior agents, Jim Richardson and Harvey Sanderborn, made a quick tactical assessment that the nearby old Willard Hotel provided a better defensible structure to stash me in while we waited out the oncoming strife we knew was going to momentarily hit the capital city. Before we hastily departed 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, however, they instructed the other three agents of the team to grab whatever arms and mobile phones they could. With this task completed, we calmly walked down into the secret tunnel built back during the Truman Administration renovations of the White House. It led past the doorways of the bunkers under the Department of the Treasury building and out onto F Street.

When we emerged back into the sunlight after our subterranean flight, there was absolute chaos boiling over outside. Most people were justifiably panicking, so all of the city streets were a teeming scene of unchecked pandemonium. Due to this, no one noticed the passage of our ragtag group as we slipped into the courtyard of the Willard. There, hidden behind a fake garbage dumpster, we found the unmarked doorway. This opened to a secret staircase that led to the protective haven of the private suites on the top floor of the venerable hotel, and after the six of us entered that portal, we disappeared from the madness outside.

Looking back, I am greatly ashamed by the cowardice I showed during those hours. Not only did I not confess to the American people that it was I who had murdered the President or that it was I who had played a direct role in bringing this destruction to our beloved world, I also didn’t act any better than the rest of those other bastards who knew the end was coming and still ran for the exits like the rats of a sinking ship. We all made sure to get our asses to safety, but we didn’t let anyone else know they needed to do the same.

I’m pretty sure the small secretarial pool in my office in the Eisenhower Executive Building all came to the painful and blood-chilling realization that they were screwed at the same time. If they joined the mass exodus out of the building and ran into the streets, there’s a fairly good chance they mixed in with the fleeing throngs and escaped. If so, they may still be alive today. But I can imagine my intensely loyal personal secretary, Mrs. Pretlowsky, and her two assistant secretaries, Nancy Bliss and Sarah Deminson, faithfully staying in the office to await my return until it was too late for them to escape.

If so, they probably became victims of The Army of Christ, and I can only hope and pray they were dead before the raping and the torture commenced.

The concealed entrance in the courtyard of the Willard Hotel, the unknown staircase to the top floor, and the ultra- secrets suites were not the only security features. The code of the punch key access pad on the external doorway not only allowed us to enter without detection, it automatically registered our group with the hotel staff as an unknown entity. The hotel’s log for that day wouldn’t reveal that the acting President of the United States was staying in the Presidential Suite. It would merely show that “*” was somewhere in the hotel.

This security feature was designed to allow high ranking government officials or visiting dignitaries to have more privacy than any of us probably deserved, but I’m now wholly convinced it saved my life. When the roving, killing teams of The Army of Christ were unleashed upon this city and they came to the hotel to find any potential targets inside, they didn’t know to look for me there because the secret check-in system worked without a hitch.

Once we were in the safety of the suite, my security detail began busying themselves by fortifying our space to provide me with a refuge from the unthinkable violence building outside. Because I actually believed the country was going to be able to rebound quickly after a short-lived conflict, I went on behaving like I was still President. I sat down to prepare the speeches I was sure I’d soon be giving to outline the strategies for handling the defeated Altoonians and re-unifying what was left of America.

I actually believed I wasn’t really in any danger. Even worse, I was convinced I would be in the perfect position to retake control of the country once this short and violent hiccup had passed.

To understand the extent of my delusion, you should know I thought the suite provided me a fabulous box seat to watch what I still believed was going to be a dramatic, yet brief flare-up down on the streets below. So, as I got myself settled in and comfortable enough to witness all of this, I even regretted I didn’t have a big bucket of popcorn to munch on during the main feature. As it was, I just wanted to sit back and watch the show.

Ach, what an ass I was...and still am.

When the first thunderous concussion shook the entire building and torrents of lead began to hit the facade indiscriminately, I slowly came to understand I’d completely underestimated what was going to happen. The violent ruination of the Capitol building, the fiery destruction of the White House and the detonation of a bomb at the base of the Washington Monument were the irrefutable proof America was now in the tight grip of a major shit storm. And when the killing teams began to pursue the frenzied mobs of panicked people into the surrounding buildings and even into our very own hotel, I finally came to the undeniable conclusion that we humans, as a species, were completely done for.

But the decision to hole up in the suite of the Willard turned out to be a very good one, tactically speaking. For some reason, none of the gunfire being sprayed around like uncontrollable lawn sprinklers was aimed directly at our windows, and although we could hear the killing teams cleaning out the rooms below us, no one ventured up to our secure floor. Because of its secret access and the hotel’s altered registers, the entire top floor of the hotel was overlooked. We did, however, have to listen to the grisly violence taking place beneath us and I knew the horrific sounds we were hearing were those of the systematic murder and torture of people less fortunate than us. This took its toll on all of us in the suite.

In the face of these desperate times, however, Jim Richardson and Harvey Sanderborn remained completely calm, cool and collected. When the nerves of the younger agents in their team began to fray, they kept them focused enough to discount the incomprehensible violence engulfing the world around us and make sure their president survived this conflict. Ah, those two men were such professionals! I was kept in the main room, far away from the windows, as they set about guarding the entrances and maintaining our perimeter. They quietly evaluated our situation, and then they confidently declared we were as safe as houses.

I knew better. As a student of history, I knew most fortifications under siege have capitulated because of the most non-violent of reasons. Sure, the destructive impacts of siege weaponry – be it battering rams, catapults, trebuchets, powerful long range guns like the Schwerer Gustav, the new strategic Wolverine bomber, or even the Minuteman ballistic missile – all have helped loosen the resolve of these fortified towns or cities, but the most common cause for surrender in these situations has resulted from two seemingly and wholly innocent factors, the presence of edible food and potable water.

While those Secret Service agents turned the suite into a kind of defensible bunker, they were beyond dismayed to discover we didn’t have any food and had only two five gallon jugs of water. It’d been assumed the suite’s small pantry was going to be as well-stocked as usual, but due to a recent renovation of the unit’s kitchen during the prior week, there was no food anywhere to be had. With the dangerous darkness of the impending night beginning to engulf us and the swirling flames of violence beginning to consume the world all around us, we found ourselves safely ensconced in a formidably fortified shelter...but without one scrap of food.

As former military men, this fact was deeply troubling. Even though the great World War II general George S. Patton once said the gas for his tanks was more important than getting food for his troops -- since the men could eat their belts -- we all came to the conclusion that the six strips of leather around our waists would not be enough to keep us alive for too long. And, I can tell you, as the sun rose the next morning, we were so hungry we could’ve eaten a horse!

When Jim Richardson and Harvey Sanderborn called all of us together to discuss the situation and to make a plan for what to do next, we huddled together like a football team as those two laid it all out for us. As they saw it, the problem was quite simple. We were here, the food was there. We needed to get there to acquire the food and bring it back here. Their initial plan was for two agents to leave the suite and head down to the hotel’s kitchen to forage for any food while the three remaining agents stayed up in the suite to protect me. All those men were so good, devoted and patriotic that the next few moments were filled with all of them talking at once as they each volunteered to go on what amounted to a suicide mission.

I don’t know why I did it, but I raised my hand like a schoolchild. When the Secret Service agents all saw me acting like this, I think they were more than a little embarrassed for me. It obviously pained him to do so, but Jim Richardson eventually called on me. I told them that, although I didn’t want to hurt their feelings in any way, I thought their plan, although a good and safe one, was somewhat heavily flawed. Even if the out-going agents were successful in finding some food, they could only bring back what the two of them could carry.

When you’re in the midst of a survival situation, I reminded them, you usually had only one shot at getting things done the right way. If so, it made much more sense to have all of us scavenge for food, since we could bring three times more food back up to the suite than the original plan. Three teams of two would be much better for such a mission because it gave the group a solid force out in front to scout ahead, a middle worker bee pair, and a rear guard to provide cover.

While Jim Richardson and Harvey Sanderborn listened intently to me, the other agents waited for their response. After a brief moment of silence, they acknowledged the validity of my plan, but then they made it crystal clear there was no chance in hell I was going to leave the suite for any reason. They declared they hadn’t risked life and limb to get me to safety, just to put me back in harm’s way, but they did acknowledge I was correct about more men being able to carry more food.

So, they made up a new plan. Two teams of two agents would go on the mission to find the food while one agent remained with me in the suite for protection. The idea was to obtain twice the amount of food and not leave me completely vulnerable.

The agents then all resumed talking at once again as each volunteered to take the most dangerous parts of the mission.

I still was not happy, and -- maybe due to the ravenous hunger I was starting to feel -- I decided to pull rank. As the acting President of the United States of America, I ordered all five men in the security team to be directly involved in the mission. I pointed out, if I were given a firearm, I could protect myself sufficiently in the fortified suite while the two teams of two men and a fifth floater went out to scavenge for food. Since five men nearly made up a military squad, it was much more likely to succeed than two separate teams.

At first Jim Richardson and Harvey Sanderborn refused to accept that my plan made sense, but then its plausibility hit home. At the same time, they had to acknowledge the fact I had just issued a direct executive order. So, begrudgingly, they gave in and decided to enact my plan.

After I was given a loaded Colt M1911 semiautomatic pistol with two extra clips, I was told to situate myself under the bed to await their return. I took up my position as the five men headed to the front door. They were all stern as pallbearers as they double checked their armaments and listened to the two senior agents lecturing them about the rules of engagement and the modes of communication. With the violence outside our windows settling down from the maelstrom it had been during its nocturnal crescendo to a now scattered patt-patt of gunfire and an occasional explosion here and there, the five men walked out of the main door and disappeared without any fanfare or salutations.

I waited for their return under the bed for the rest of the first day, the next night, and half of the following day.

Every sound outside was like the ticking of a clock I could not ignore, and with each and every passing second, I found myself praying for the safe return of my security detail, even though the longer their absence became, the more sure I was about their mortality. However, up until to the very last moment, I held onto the faintest glimmer of hope in my heart that at least one of those brave and well- trained men would make it back safely with some food.

When the sun took its mid-day elevation during the second day, I knew the truth. I came out of my hiding spot and foolishly ventured over to one of the suite’s windows to have a look outside. That’s when I saw Jim Richardson’s and Harvey Sanderborn’s heads stuck atop the light poles across Pennsylvania Avenue. That grisly sight made it crystal clear to me that every one of those five men was now dead. The stark reality of my current situation took away my breath.

A sudden movement in a window in the National Press Building across 14th Street caught my attention. A man was looking down onto the destruction, and as our eyes locked onto one another, I thought about the moment of intimacy we were sharing as we both discovered just how truly bad things had become. Incredibly, the man had the gall to wave at me. Before I could return the gesture, I watched as his brain sneezed out the side of his skull and his lifeless body crumpled out of view. I instinctively dove to the floor and chastised myself for stupidly sauntering around exposed windows.

We’d given a hidden sniper an easy target and the chance to draw a bead on us. I knew if there were anyone else alive in these buildings, we were all like the moles in one of those “Whack-A-Mole” games kids play at the county fair midways. Seeing the stranger’s unpleasant fate, I decided to crawl back into my den under the bed.

The fact there was a hidden marksman somewhere out there using a high powered rifle to pick off targets in the windows of the surrounding buildings put me on alert. I had proudly served in the United States Marine Corps during the Vietnam War as a spotter for one of history’s most notorious snipers, so I’d seen, firsthand, the dangers a well-concealed shooter presented. Once, outside of Da Nang, I’d spotted our assigned target over a mile away. Concealed in the jungle foliage to the point of being invisible, my sniper had used his specially modified M2 Browning .50 caliber machine gun with a Unerti scope to take out the assigned Viet-Cong general.

Interestingly, that enemy general was about the same distance from us that day as the steps of the Capitol Building are from the base of the Washington Monument. In fact, the span was so great, there’d been a four second lag from the moment of the rifle’s concussion to the hitting of the target by the bullet. If the Marine choir had been ready to begin singing the National Anthem at the moment the trigger was pulled, they’d have had enough time to get to“Oh say can you see, by...” before the bullet ripped through the general’s chest and extinguished his life! Isn’t that fascinating?

The shooting of the stranger in the National Press Building reminded me that any unessential movement in the suite could be an invitation for instant death. Underneath the bed I was safe, so I curled up there into a ball and thanked the fates the sniper hadn’t spotted me first. As it was, I’d had enough of a glimpse of just how bad things had become outside – I didn’t need to see any more! I could use my imagination for any future pictures, and perhaps that’s really the safest way to view anything dangerous.

What was clear to me was that nothing made sense anymore. I mean, why would anyone behead such good and dedicated men like Jim Richardson and Harvey Sanderborn and then place their body-less heads on light posts? Why would anyone shoot strangers whose only sins were looking out windows at the carnage fuming on the streets below them? For no good reason I could see.

Once I understood that no member of my security detail was ever coming back, I had to accept the fact I was now on my own. If I was to have any chance of survival, I needed to get myself food and more water. And with my stomach making the mournful sounds of a Tibetan Death chant, I knew I needed to set off on this mission immediately.

However, since the only chronometers at my disposal were now disabled due the loss of electricity during the initial assault on the city, I wasn’t sure exactly what time it was. The analogue clock beside the bed was as dead as the men of my security detail, yet its motionless arms continued to report the fact that this world had come to an unceremonious end at exactly 12:34, but the clock was no longer able to say whether the moment had happened in the day or at night. However, like the old saying states, it was right twice a day!

Even though I didn’t know the exact time, I could tell from my hiding spot the shadows of the room were stretching and waning enough to signal another dusk was approaching. I was desperately hungry, so I decided to forego any caution and head right out to search for food. I crept over to the front door of the suite and slowly stood up to look out of the peephole. Because the hallway lights were off, it was too dark to see two inches in front of my face out there. The depth of the darkness coming through the tiny aperture was total, and all I could make out was the reflection of my cornea in the peephole lens. Foolishly, I began to unlock the front door to open it and get a better look.

As I peered out through this little crack, my view was completely blocked by the back of a Coke machine. At first, this perplexed me. But then I realized my security detail had moved the heavy vending machine from the end of the hallway to completely obscure the doorway to our suite. That’s why it had been so dark through the peephole! Even though I hadn’t heard any evidence the killing teams had made it onto our floor, even if they had, the Coke machine would have completely hidden our door from their view. My security team’s attention to detail had ensured my room would continue to be safe from detection.

But the discovery of the protective barricade also made my current situation even more perilous. I was not only as hungry as a bear, I was now technically trapped inside a food-less and fortified hotel room with no way out. It seems strange now to recall this as being the very moment I first started panicking. After watching our entire world implode, I couldn’t believe things could get any worse. But being ravenously hungry and, at the same time, cornered alone inside an empty and lifeless hotel room – well, these details all combined to create a devastatingly hopeless situation for me. I started to hyperventilate and I had to sit down on the floor and put my arms over my head to catch my breath.

When all hope seemed lost, my hand grazed a piece of paper sitting atop the narrow table next to the suite’s front door. I pulled it down and took out my USMC butane lighter from my pants pocket to make a flame so I could read it. It was a handwritten note from Jim Richardson. In it, he described in great detail the strategy of the Secret Service agents and what my contingency plans should be in case they did not return from their mission. The note was brimming with optimism.

For a man who was destined to lose his head, he had been overly confident in his ability to return with ample food. He even had a positive spin on the possibility of not returning. He was certain I’d have the wherewithal to get the required food myself if left alone. I must say, reading his message left me both impressed and annoyed with the man. In the end, however, the faith he, and all of those poor sacrificed men, had in me turned out to be the motivation I needed to survive, if for no other reason than I couldn’t let those dedicated and loyal agents down!

The note also contained the highly pertinent information about a secret door in the back of the suite’s main closet. This was the entrance to a hidden tunnel which ran back to the stairway we’d originally used to get to the suite. Apparently, the camouflaged doorway in the courtyard, the automatic and anonymous check-in, and the unknown back staircase up to the top floor were not the only secret components of the hotel. The architect of the most recent renovation had also been charged with creating various other hidden devices to allow the high profile guests of the hotel a multitude of choices to escape whatever or whoever was pursuing them. He was definitely a believer in there being more than one way to skin a cat.

Harvey Sanderborn had opted to take his team out the front door and down the main hallway because he wanted to continue to keep the hidden passageway completely unknown. In other words, he had voluntarily taken his men down into the belly of the beast in an exposed manner to preserve the secret exit for me in case any last-ditched escape efforts were needed. Who knew anyone could show such selflessness and such foresight?

According to the note, once I traversed the tunnel to the flight of stairs and then used these to get down to the ground floor, I could possibly find the kitchen and, thereby, some food. I crept over to the closet and found the doorway behind the ironing board. I moved this aside, opened the door and slid inside the tiny and cramped space. It was completely dark, and I had to crouch down to fit.

As I made my way, I was too hopped up on adrenaline and ravenously hungry to be cautious and I blindly bumped into the perilously low-slung pipes criss-crossing the space. If there had been anyone with a stethoscope listening carefully through the walls, they’d have heard the repeated crack of my skull against these objects and my responding curses. But, fortunately for me, no one was there to listen, and I successfully made it to the end of the tunnel – bruised and battered, but alive.

Once I’d opened the concealed door there, I found myself back in the lightless secret staircase. I listened intently for any sounds. My heart was beating so loudly, it was hard for me to hear anything else. I tried to calm myself down, but was nearly apoplectic with fear.

Then, some of my repressed memories from the multitude of missions I’d participated in during the war came rushing back to me. During the countless operations undertaken, our little Marine sniper team had spent night after night traveling silently through the perilous jungles of Southeast Asia to get at our selected targets. These nightmarish experiences had gripped my stomach with tension at the time, but now the memory of them actually caused me to relax. I guess the fact I’d survived those murderous assignments in a faraway land now lent a new feeling of confidence to me, and I felt my body and my senses regaining their war-time preparedness.

I started descending slowly, one step at a time. Jim Richardson’s note gave me specific directions to the hotel’s restaurant, and it directed me to “head down” there to gather the necessary food. The macabre and unintentional pun between this direction and his current state out on the light post struck me as humorous, and I found myself tittering and giggling like a schoolgirl as I made my way as silently down those stairs as I could.

Looking back on what I’ve written down so far, it’s clear I was certainly struggling with holding onto my sanity during those earliest moments of this crisis. Considering what had transpired and the current condition of the world all around me, I think it’s completely understandable. I mean, even though I don’t feel much pride in reading just how mentally unstable I was as I navigated my way through a world gone mad, I was more than a little justified in being a bit undone by the horrors of those times. I also feel compelled to add I’m doing much better now.

Anyway, going down this staircase in the pitch dark was akin to descending into the levels of Dante’s Inferno. With each step into the abyss, the noxious aromas grew stronger. There was a mixture of sulphur, burning plastic, and grilled chicken in the air, and this last odor only amplified my hunger and made me impatient to quicken my pace. However, my military training continued to provide me with the restraint to slow down and let my alerted senses process my surroundings. I stopped for a moment and stood motionless in the pure dark void of the space. I could feel the slightest static upon my skin. My body hadn’t felt like a dangerously honed weapon in quite some time, and the resultant rush made me giddy with excitement.

When I finally reached the ground floor, I found another hidden doorway. This one opened into the main hallway of the hotel. I listened for sounds coming from the other side, and when I didn’t hear any, I slowly and silently opened the door and stepped out. This once lavish and ornamental corridor had been ravaged. Every piece of furniture, every piece of art on the wall, every chandelier, every light fixture, every mirror or piece of glass had all been smashed and shattered as completely as if they’d been put into a mortar and crushed down to particles by a massive pestle.

Undeterred by this, I made my way furtively among these ruins toward the kitchen. The space was so lifeless and barren it seemed as if a tidal wave of destruction had flowed in, smashed everything into tiny bits, ebbed after being sated, and then moved on to the next shoreline.

I was surprised to find the kitchen crudely illuminated. Apparently, the marauders had lit all of the hotel’s cans of Sterno to create some kind of an all-hours chamber of horrors. The fading blue flames now lit up the space with an eerie marine habitat lighting effect, and I half-expected to find a mermaid with seaweed in her golden hair.

Instead, I came upon an old man in a fancy business suit seated upon a metal prep kitchen table like he was a member of a royal family. He was passively chomping on what appeared to be a turkey leg, and he didn’t react at all when he saw me. His eyes were the color of watered-down Scope mouthwash, and he regaled me with such calmness I quickly became more unnerved by his quiet presence than I would have been if he’d made an aggressive movement towards me. The way he continued eating his meal while staring blankly back at me reminded me of one of those steers on the other side of the barbed wired fence who are chewing their cud while impassively watching the world with an air of disdainful oblivion.

My Colt was safely lodged in the back of my waistline, but I did not reach for it yet. There was no need to, since the man hadn’t done anything to constitute himself as a threat. As the two of us continued to wordlessly stare at one another, our mutual silence became uncomfortable. I did not expect to meet another living soul, and certainly not one who would be so banal as they casually ate their meal in the epicenter of such devastation and death.

I looked more closely at the man. His white hair and beard were both scraggly and very dirty, but if they’d been clean, I had the feeling he’d have been a dead ringer for Santa. As it was, he was so slight of frame the dark tailored suit hung loosely on his body and he looked like a child wearing his father’s clothes. That’s when I noticed the blood and the bullet holes in the fabric of his outfit. It took my mind a few moments to recognize the suit as belonging to one of the agents of my security detail! The anger from this discovery began to boil over inside of me, and I whispered hoarsely at the man, “Where the hell did you get that?”

The man seemed unsure of what I was asking about. He first looked at the piece of food in his hands and then down at the bloody front of his suit. His eyes rolled back into his head and he shrugged his shoulders.

“Aw, it beats the shit out of me,” he said.

I asked him how he came to be there and what he had seen, but he gave the same response as his first one. It beat the shit out of him. I shook my head and clenched my jaw in frustration, but I couldn’t get a straight answer from him.

From his appearance and his overall aroma, I think he was probably one of those street people who were so prevalent those days in the shadows of our city. Clearly he’d been a mentally demented individual even before the assault by The Army of Christ on Washington, D.C., and I’m sure the horrifying events he’d lived through as of late hadn’t probably helped him in the least. Because he had neither any information nor any new advice to offer me, I didn’t waste any more of my time on him and started my search for food.

I had not noticed the copious amount of blood on the floor when I first walked in, but now I saw how the off-white linoleum looked like it had been freshly painted with it. Since the warmth of the kitchen air was drying the blood and it was becoming more tacky, each step across the floor made the sound of some grotesque tearing and ripping noise. There was far too much blood on the floor to only be from the five members of my unfortunate security detail, and my brain struggled to comprehend the depths of the grisliness that must have taken place in the space.

I looked over at the fryolator and saw it contained fried amputated hands and feet. My brain refused to accept what it was seeing, and I kept staring at the sight, the gears slipping and skipping inside my head like a broken watch.

Then everything became clear at once, and I knew the homeless man wearing my beheaded security team’s suit and sitting contentedly there on the table consuming his meal was not eating a turkey leg at all. He was devouring a human foot. I turned back to angrily confront him about this, but he was gone. Even though I frantically tried to find him, there was no trace. His silent departure made the hairs on the back of my neck stand straight up, and once again my fragile sanity was threatened.

I needed to gather up some food and get myself back up to the safety of my suite, so I stalked right over to the piles of canned goods inside the disheveled pantry to start picking them up into my arms. Right next to the piles I serendipitously found the two duffle bags my security detail had brought down with them, so I began filling them with whatever I could get my hands on. The growing darkness of the room made it impossible to know whether I was taking soup, SPAM, fruit, canned corn, or evaporated milk, but it didn’t matter. I just needed to get as much food as I could before heading back upstairs and avoiding the killing teams.

By the time I’d crammed the two bags full, I could barely walk under their weight. I put them down softly on the floor and set out to find a can opener. It may seem ludicrous to risk getting captured by spending any time looking around for such a seemingly trivial detail, but I knew from personal experience having the proper tool would actually make all of the difference between my survival and a miserable death. My search ended when I found an old fashioned church key can opener in the piled contents of a drawer dumped onto the blood-covered floor.

I staggered back down the hallway. The duffle bags were not only heavy, the cans clinked and clunked so loudly with each step that I felt as stealthy as a medieval knight trying to sneak across a stone floor. The door to the staircase was designed to blend into the wall panels of the hallway, so I had to feel my way with my hand to find it. I was sure I was going to be pounced on at any moment by an attacker, so when I heard the noise of something stirring somewhere in the depths of the night, I froze with fear. I was convinced it was a member of a killing team, another cannibalistic street person, or even a stray dog. But, when nothing happened, I frantically pushed on the door and it reluctantly gave way.

After bringing the two duffel bags into the stairwell and starting to close the door, the golden lettering on the cover of a book lying in the detritus in front of me reflected enough light to catch my attention. Next to this book was a busted violin. For reasons that are still a mystery to me, I scrambled over and grabbed them both before bolting back into the secret staircase.

As if I could magically hold back any of the tumult, I leaned onto the backside of the door to catch my breath.

I started to ascend the stairs with my heavy booty. But with each labored step, I began to incant quietly to myself like a mantra the repeating answer the foot-eating homeless man had uttered to me in the kitchen when I’d confronted him. It seemed the most fitting thing to say in the middle of such an unimaginably bad reality, and by the time I reached the top of the staircase, I had repeated the saying 185 times. Like I said, my mental stability back then was as wobbly as the current ravaged remains of the Washington Monument. But I am much better now.

Back in the safety of my suite, I randomly opened two cans – one of fruit cocktail and another of tuna fish – and devoured them savagely. After not having had anything to eat for several days, neither my manners nor my palate were subtle at this point. After I had sated myself, I set about to store all of the cans of food.

My first plan was to put them in the suite’s empty pantry, but then I realized it made the most sense to keep them close to me if I were going to continue to take refuge under the bed. I carefully constructed walls of cans around me under there, but because the room was now completely dark, the make-up of these tin barricades was totally helter-skelter. I looked forward to having enough light again in the morning to be able to assemble some sort of organization to my supplies, but I was becoming too tired and I decided to deal with them later. I lay my head down on a folded coat and shut my eyes.

Before I allowed myself to fall asleep, I turned over and grabbed the book I had risked my life to procure. I used my lighter to take a closer look at the front cover. In the faint illumination of the butane flame, I quickly identified the golden lettering on the red cover and saw it was, in fact, made up of Oriental calligraphy. There seemed to be something fitting in finding a book in a foreign language in the middle of a world that become so warped and alien. Actually, you could say it fit it to a tee.

I closed my lighter and let the darkness swallow everything whole again, closed my eyes, and, truthfully, slept like a baby.

When the sun rose the next morning, it wasn’t just the dawn of a new day outside the Hotel Willard, it was also a new beginning for me inside it. Because the mission to get food had been a success, I was feeling a shred of hope. In spite of having my security detail meet such a most unfortunate end, I felt empowered by my own success, especially since others, much more qualified than I, had failed. Whereas I could have been bogged down with survivor’s guilt, I let my small accomplishment give me the slimmest optimism. With an adequate amount of supplies and plenty of water, I knew I could hunker down and wait out this awful storm. Oh, how my spirits lifted.

My hips were sore from climbing the stairs with the heavy duffel bags and sleeping on the hard floor under the bed, so I tried to turn over in my cramped little sleeping space to get more comfortable. When I did, I brushed against the broken violin and it made a twangy protest about my movement. In the excitement of getting back safely to the suite, I had completely forgotten about the broken instrument. Now I picked it up and looked closely at it. I had no idea why I’d risked everything to stop and take such a useless and meaningless object with me, but there it was.

The violin was a wreck. It had only four strings remaining intact, and they stubbornly ran from the peg box, down the neck and to the tailpiece. As I gazed upon this ruined musical instrument, I wondered why it’d been in the Willard Hotel in the first place. Maybe there’d been a stringed concert in the luxurious lobby or there’d been a serenading quartet during a brunch in the lavish dining room before the murderous hordes invaded the capital. Either way, someone had smashed the beautiful and fragile instrument during the violence of the riots. If nothing else, it seemed rife with symbolism as to what was currently happening to our world.

When I strummed gently on the strings, it responded painfully, like some kind of castrated ukulele, and I stopped because I found the raspiness of the notes to be so unpleasant. There was, in fact, nothing pretty about this vestige of a more peaceful time, so I carefully removed one of the strings by unwinding its peg and taking its nub from the tailpiece. I coiled this piece of wire up and put it into the flaps of my wallet. I’m not a complete masochist, but ever since I had attended a performance of Dvorak’s Violin Concerto by Itzhak Perlman, the sounds of violins continued to haunt my memories and I wanted a piece of the world I had helped destroy, no matter what happened.

The day’s new light flooding into the suite allowed me to see the book I’d also recovered from the hallway. The golden calligraphy on the candy apple red cover stood out like they had electricity in them. I opened it, and, much to my surprise, I found the title page was written in English. It proudly declared:

THE DICTIONARY OF AMERICAN IDIOMS by Yan Bu Youzhong

On the next page, Youzhong started his introduction by saying that, after the historic visit of President Richard Nixon to their country, the President of China had personally asked the author to compile a book of American idioms to help him when he was invited back to the United States. Youzhong then declares, in no uncertain terms, his book was written to help the reader understand the nuances of the colloquial dialects of the English language so as to avoid any embarrassing gaffes that could sabotage purposeful conversations.

The use of idioms, he goes on to explain, can be particularly difficult to master, as they involve using foreign words in such a different way that the implied meanings can be nearly impossible for many Chinese speakers to figure out on their own. He advises the reader to keep the book with him or her at all times to provide insights whenever needed.

I began to flip through the pages. The first idiom I came to was a fish out of water. The book translated this to mean To flop breathlessly on the ground like a golden carp. I turned a few more pages and came to blow your mind. The book’s translation of this was To cause the cerebral cortex of your brain to unexpectedly exit your head.

The more definitions I looked up, the more errors I found. Somehow the author had gotten nearly every

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idiomatic explanation incorrect and he had given its literal translation instead of its meaning. On a lark, I looked up it beats the shit out of me to see what a visiting Chinese President would have made of an encounter with a cannibalistic street person in the kitchen of a devastated hotel. According to the book it meant An event when a physical confrontation results in a sudden involuntary removal of feces. I found this to be most amusing, and I cackled like one of the witches in Hamlet.

But then I had a Zen moment of enlightenment.

If the author of this silly book had gotten something relatively mundane like idioms so dead wrong, I needed to make damn sure people in the future knew the truth about me and my involvement in the apocalypse of our world. Even though I have great shame about my role in the destruction of life as we know it on Planet Earth, I still think -- if my choices and decisions are taken in the context of the events we were all living with at the time -- they do make a certain amount of sense. I can live with the thought of me being burned in effigy, but being labeled as some kind of a monstrous megalomaniac in the flawed history books of the future is too much for my pride to bear.

To ensure this doesn’t happen, I’ve decided to become my own chronicler of these past events and to show what was occurring at the highest levels of the last American government from the very moment we first became aware that a fleet of alien ships was heading our way, to the current situation of the broken and burned world we now find ourselves having to endure.

As to who will be around to read my account when this is all over, well, it beats the shit out of me. 

About the author

The facts about Sam Sumac are hazy. Many details of his life have not been corroborated. He was born in Buffalo, NY. He joined the U.S. Army and fought in Vietnam as a Tunnel Rat. After the war, he suffered mental breakdowns, sold shoes, wrote sci-fi novels, and then vanished without a trace. view profile

Published on June 13, 2020

Published by Black Rose Writing

100000 words

Genre: Science Fiction

Reviewed by