As soon as the cell door slammed shut, Calvin Rae knew he was in the darkest place he’d ever been. The torturer’s boss had given him an hour to cooperate. No rights, no legal recourse. This was the American Union, not the United States. His wife had betrayed him. They’d branded him a traitor, a disgrace to his country, to the uniform. They’d forced him to commit unspeakable acts in the name of their greater good. Now he was a captive of those he’d once served. Fifty-nine minutes to go.
He arose from the thin mattress atop the metal bed-tray, the extra-large orange jumpsuit taut over his chest and shoulders. Shuffling barefoot to the steel sink, he craned his neck and regarded himself in the scratched, unbreakable mirror of polished metal. It was positioned for the average detainee, too low for a man of his height. The three-day stubble on his sturdy, defined jaw and the intensity in his earthen-brown eyes told of the ordeal he had endured. His heart sank to as-yet uncharted depths as he thought of what was happening to his wife at that moment. He was hurting badly, and never before had felt so alone. The soldiers hadn’t harmed them when his wife had betrayed him, sending them both into captivity. His pain was not physical. Not yet. In less than an hour that cruel bastard of an intelligence officer would be back though, and the woman torturer, masquerading as a doctor, would soon get to work. His military buzz-cut felt prickly to the touch as he ran his fingers through it, exhaling, despair welling up to claim any vestige of hope that remained. He sat back down on the holding cell cot, bowed his head, shaking it in self-loathing, in disgust at what he’d done, at what he’d been made to do. He blamed himself for the choice he’d made so long ago, when the world made sense. Now he was paying for it. Paying for it with interest. Now thirty-six years old, he’d sown the seeds of his own downfall in 2066, sixteen years ago, when the country was still the United States, when he was an undergrad, full of hope, a life of divergent possibilities still before him. Only one choice had seemed rational at time: to accept the two-year Army ROTC scholarship and commit to active service after graduation. In the sixteen intervening years, his life had converged to this moment, this place, this precipice, beyond which he saw only darkness.
2066 was a fateful year. The Global Depression had only just begun. His parents had lost their jobs—and later it would turn out, their careers. With it went the support paying for his studies. High fees, no jobs. Prospects seemed grim. The Army offered a secure career, training, comradeship, purpose. The Army offered him a meaningful future. The alternative risked a lifetime of debt, bullshit jobs and succumbing to the high-tech distractions from meaninglessness that afflicted so many. The search for purpose, to be something great, to serve a higher cause, to make his mark. He knew these were driven by the finite nature of life, by mortality. Returning to backwater New Zealand—where he’d spent the first ten years of life before moving to America with his parents—had been an option then but wasn’t any more.
States south of the US-Mexico border, and elsewhere, had been in turmoil ever since 2066. By 2069, the Mexican State had all-but collapsed, its carcass fought over by heavily-armed factions. America’s southern border was like a sand barrier built by kids on the beach as it failed to hold back the tide. A great, king-tide of humanity in all its forms. Refugees. Economic migrants. Criminals. Insurgents. Stability was at stake. Like never before, the military was a bulwark against the growing threat of civil unrest. People never thought it could happen here. But it did. Extraordinary times called for extraordinary measures. What was once beyond the pale became the inevitable, as the electorate found solace in the easy fixes of demagogues and extremists. Wolves in sheep’s clothing. The Overton Window well and truly shifted. Shifted right. Shifted to President White, the old duopoly withering on the vine of political history as the toxic, forbidden fruit of the Nation First Party swelled to replace it. Election year, 2072, and President White and his party won a landslide victory, controlling both the House and the Senate.
Rae gritted his teeth, then let loose a ferocious roar, a caged lion furious at his captors, at the world, at himself. Panting, he hauled himself up, and gripped the cold cell bars, resting his head against the hard steel, faintly aware of the uptick in activity in the forward operating base outside. From somewhere distant came a disturbance, shouting, something else indiscernible to his current state of mind. His conclusion: testosterone-fueled soldiers being put through their paces for what seemed likely to come next. More war, more violence. The distant sounds died down.
2072—ten years ago—was the year he joined the elite US Army Rangers as a First Lieutenant. His mind went back in time, bringing some temporary relief from his current torment. He’d grown to be a proud American, a patriot, a defender of the people, a defender of the country his dear parents at that time still called home. No one knew how the State of Emergency called in 2072 would end. At the time, he only knew how it had begun: with a spate of seemingly unstoppable terrorist attacks on major American cities that all the power of US law enforcement, intelligence and the military couldn’t quell. Anger now seethed inside him as he wondered if the elements of those same agencies that had been meant to protect had actually orchestrated it. What followed was a toxic mix of home-grown uprising against unemployment and inequality and an insurgency, supposedly led by Mexican crime lords and supported by foreign enemies. Ripe for exploitation by President White and Nation First. Protest groups and criminal gangs occupied parts of many American cities as the authorities were stretched towards impotence. Refugees, fighters and criminals continued to flood across the Mexico-US border as well as from the Caribbean and further afield. Democratic Alliance forces secured the Canadian border. Already diminished trade, faded. The once-mighty global US military network shrunk to a handful of outposts as any units of meaningful strength were recalled to support the Homeland. The true intent of President White’s ideology revealed itself gradually. Not until a few days ago did Rae realize that his allegiance to the noble ideals of the United States had been subverted by propaganda and fear and means hither-to unused. The American Union came into being after the referendum of 2074, wiping away nearly three-centuries of the US Constitution. What followed was known as The Renaissance. Only now did he grasp its true implications.
Catching his breath, he turned and leaned against the bars, eyeing the surveillance camera embedded in the stark white ceiling of the cinder block cell. No doubt, Intel Prick was enjoying his anguish. What choice was there but for him to betray those he now trusted? Those on the right side of history. His wife had betrayed him, but he didn’t blame her. How could he? She’d tried to warn him, but they had her just like they now had him—in an impossible position. It wasn’t just the prospect of torture that scared him—he’d been trained to deal with that, as far as any person ever could be. No, it was what they were threatening to do to his wife. To get him on trumped-up charges of domestic abuse. To give her away, to be used and abused, beyond his reach, a life as the plaything of a powerful man twice her age. A wave of nausea sent him stumbling towards the steel toilet and onto his knees. He wretched uncontrollably, tears welling as he threw up bile and the meager contents of his stomach. Spitting out the noxious, acidic remnants of sick, the specter of suicide came to him for the first time.
“No!” he screamed out, resisting those thought, pushing them away. “No, no, no. Not gonna give in to you bastards! No fuckin’ way!”
If they were going to torture him, he’d die resisting. Better than the life of captivity, of slavery that awaited him even if he did tell all. He’d send his mind to a different time and place, a sanctuary from the worldly pain they would surely inflict. Perhaps he’d go back to the time spent as a smiley eight-year-old boy on the Coromandel beach digging holes with his dad. Hot water beach was what they called it in New Zealand on account of the geothermally-heated water that rose up to fill holes dug into the sand. He felt the welcoming embrace envelop his bony little body as he giggled excitedly getting into the hole filled with steaming spring water. The sun was low in the cloudless sky, its golden rays illuminating his dad’s beaming face as he leaned down and ruffled his boy’s hair. Rae realized he was smiling, and in that instant his face sagged as the spell broke and his devastating reality came rushing back.
He stood, wiped his mouth clean and spat on the floor, eyes boring into the surveillance camera above. A renewed strength born of resistance to his captors made him stand tall, a crazed but determined smirk growing. He stared to infinity as thoughts came of his wife. How he’d wake up to see her sitting beside him, studying her awakening husband. In her azure-blue irises he saw her love, her understanding born of a past of mutual struggle and support. He thought back to the time she’d entwined her fingers with his as they planned the life they wanted to build together. A life together which seemed destined to be unfulfilled. Their children never to be born. Never to play on the beach without a care in the world. A solitary tear slid down his cheek, fragility overwhelming him with grief. His nightmare of reality had reasserted itself once again, a smirking demon ready to heap more misery onto his flailing soul. The simple truth was, there was no escape. Disarmed, caged and surrounded by thousands of combat-ready troops, only an intermittent flame of hope kept total darkness at bay.
Five days earlier, the world had been a very different place. The mission to the Space Station Erasmus. The hideous, extraterrestrial Screamers and the causative parasite, which had plagued swathes of Earth since ‘the Arrival’, three years ago. His bid to save humanity from that extant affliction had changed everything. He recalled those fateful days just gone as the arrow of time relentlessly delivered him to the moment of dread, now just minutes away.