North America, 2099 AD
I took the money.
I remember it like it was yesterday. My father had called it a war chest, said it was the weapon of my future—my education. I knew this money was all he and my mother had. How could I take it?
But my mother had insisted. “What do you want us to do with it?” she said. “You’re the reason we saved this money all these years. If you refuse, our lives will be wasted.”
I can still see myself sitting on that old creaking train, scared out of my mind. I knew good and well that when a young man left the South, he never came back.
As the train groaned beneath the weight of its battered steel and gathered speed, I looked out the window and saw my father nod farewell. My mother couldn’t let go of me so stoically. She ran alongside the train with tears streaming from her blue eyes until she collided into the iron chest of an ungodly tall centurion. When I close my eyes, I still see his blond hair whipping out from beneath his golden helmet. Just before we disappeared into the King Charles Tunnel, I saw him grab my mother and drag her back to where my father had been standing. My father was already gone.
That was three years ago.
Today I’m coming home, but I haven’t done what my parents sent me out West to do. I haven’t finished school and never will. My parents won’t be waiting for me on the landing where we said our good-byes. They’re gone now, and I won’t see them again.
The train jerks as its brakes screech against the hot rolled steel of the rails. The behemoth slows and breathes thick waves of billowing smoke before coming to a stop inside the once magnificent station of the South. With its thirty-foot ceilings, ornate murals, and crystal chandeliers, this station was once the pride of a community. Now it’s nothing but a thin, pathetic shell of its former self. The murals haven’t been cleaned in decades, and most of the chandeliers were shattered during the Great War. Those that survived hang unlit. The station looks like the rest of the South and the people who live here—exhausted.
The slim door of my cabin opens, and the conductor appears. He’s short, with a potbelly and a handlebar mustache. He examines the passengers’ papers in a gruff yet efficient manner. Behind him follows a centurion who eyes each passenger with a mixture of suspicion and hatred. He’s large, like the man who grabbed my mother, but not nearly as tall. I have the contours of that man’s body memorized and will know him when I see him.
There are only seven passengers in my cabin. Leaving the West to travel south isn’t a smart thing to do. The growing unrest and coming war has made my home a dangerous place. The man across the aisle shakes as he scrambles to produce his papers. Nervous.
My papers are resting on my lap, where they’ve been for the final hour of the journey. This is the moment I’ve been waiting for, and I’m ready. One more test and I’ll be home.
The lies already have been told.
More important, the lies have been believed. All I have to do is keep from retching onto my boots, which I’m on the verge of doing. My turn.
“Papers,” the conductor barks. Not a question, an order.
I hold up my ID card and travel visa for him and the centurion to see. The conductor snatches them from my hand while the centurion glares down at me from behind the dark shield of his helmet. I stare resolutely at my reflection in his shield. I’m beginning to look older. At twenty-three I’m no longer the fat-faced boy who left this place. My visage is longer, my blue eyes a shade darker, and my sinewy muscles hardened from countless hours of running sand dunes, flipping oversize tires, and learning to kill. I departed this place a boy; I return a man.
The conductor examines my ID card and says, “American?”
Keeping my eyes fixed on the centurion, I reply, “That’s what it says on the card.” I’ve vowed not to be intimidated by these soldiers.
The conductor furrows his brow. “Yes, young man, I’m able to read. I’m not some ignorant Southerner. But I’m asking you a question, a privilege that won’t be afforded a third time. Are you an American?”
I look the conductor in the eye. “Yes, born and raised here in the ignorant South.”
“And your reason for leaving the West? Your visa says you’re still a student.” He checks his watch. “If I’m not mistaken, the fall semester starts in less than a month.”
Here comes the hard part. My eyes nervously bounce from the conductor to the centurion, who has lifted his shield to examine me closer. His face is classic Nordic: bright blue eyes, snowy white skin, and a sharp nose that curves down like the beak of a bird. But his expression is anything but centurion. This man’s face isn’t full of hatred. Instead he looks at me as if admiring a work of art. This isn’t what I want.
My eyes dart back to the conductor. “My parents were abducted by the Kingdom,” I say. “I’ve come home to handle their affairs. The Office of Record has already processed their papers, and they’re waiting for me at their house.”
The conductor opens my travel visa, a tiny blue booklet with a golden etched profile of King Charles’s face. “Deacon Larsen. It says here that your father is a laborer and your mother a maid. Their assets can’t be too extensive. And you mean ‘selected’ not ‘abducted,’ don’t you?”
“My father was a laborer, sir. And my mother was a maid. And…” Easy, I tell myself. I clear my throat and say, “Yes, sir. I’m sorry. They were selected by the Kingdom to serve in the northern camps…where they both died, unfortunately.”
The conductor yawns. “They died honorably in service to the Holy King Charles. All honor be given to his name.”
“All honor be given to his name,” the centurion and I repeat in submissive, robotic unison.
Bile rises from my stomach and climbs the walls of my throat.
The conductor acts as if nothing has happened. “You’re an only child?” he says.
I swallow my vomit and feel it torch my esophagus on the downward plunge. “Yes,” I say through clenched teeth.
“How long do you expect to stay?”
“I’ve been granted a year’s leave from my studies.”
He lifts an eyebrow. “A long time to suspend an education.”
“I’ve applied to take courses at the University of the South.”
The conductor grins. “Bit of a joke, right? Compared to the education you’re receiving out West in Old California? Do they even teach medicine in this backcountry of slaves and misfits?”
“They offer courses on anatomy and chemistry.”
The conductor grunts. “You’re to report to the Office of Record every Monday at noon to check in with your supervisor. Since today is Sunday, you have tomorrow’s itinerary. Understood, young medicine man?”
I nod. The centurion’s ruddy face shines with interest, as if he’s on the verge of asking a burning question. But of course he doesn’t. Centurions rarely speak to Americans, unless it’s to bark an order or inform someone they’re about to be shot.
“Very well then.” The conductor flips shut my visa and hands it and my ID card back to me. “Go in peace to serve the Kingdom and the venerable King Charles.”
“May the gods ever help me,” I say, feeling the bile return.
The conductor and the centurion move past me and out the back door of the cabin.
And there it is. I made it home!
The official story is that I’m returning to the South to handle the affairs of my deceased parents. But it’s a lie. My parents are dead, and no amount of pomp and ceremony will bring them back from the grave. The real reason I abandoned the safety of my studies—studies that would have given me a privileged life in medicine—is that I’ve decided to betray the Kingdom.
I haven’t come home to handle petty paperwork. I’ve come home to avenge my parents’ deaths and join the resistance. I have no interest in blessing the dead; I’ve come to bury more.
The Southern heat wraps me in an unwanted embrace of moisture and defeat as I step from the train. Three years living by the sea has made me soft to the climate, and I’ve forgotten how oppressive the summer air can be. I wipe sweat off my face with my sleeve and move cautiously from the train into the station. I’m fully aware that I now walk among people who will kill me should my motives be uncovered.
I watch as families embrace with the joy created by long, uncertain absences. Mothers welcome sons with wide-open arms. Husbands kiss wives with abandon, as if their children aren’t watching. Fathers lift smiling children high into the air; their laughter colors the air with bliss.
But none of this brings me joy.
I collect my trunk and drag it outside the station to wait for a taxi.
There I discover the rumors are true; the Kingdom’s presence is everywhere. Lining the streets are banners with large images of King Charles’s face printed on them. The king is scandalously young; he looks like a teenager. He has tousled brown hair and bright-green eyes. The muscles in his face are taut, as if he’s ready to shout an unholy order. Ruthless is the word that flashes through my brain.
No one in the taxi line speaks.
As I wait, my mind wanders through the tumultuous history of recent years. Travel privileges were revoked only two months after I left for Old California. The era of Great Uncertainty finally had come to an end when the English squashed the Chinese uprising and seized governmental power in this country once and for all. It had been a full decade since any single authority had ruled the vast land that was once the USA.
When I left there were maybe five thousand centurions in the South. The giant Nordic who took my mother represented the threat of what was to come. I’m told there are now more than one hundred thousand centurions infecting our land. If this is true, King Charles understands what’s happening—that this is where the rebellion will start
This means the centurions, who are coldblooded killers, must be dealt with accordingly. When it was certain the English would take over, the Brits sent an open call to the world’s mercenaries—“Come! Fight! Get rich!” That’s all it took. Hundreds of ships steamed into Old New York Harbor and dumped countless soldiers onto once mighty shores.
The Kingdom organized these killers into what is now called the “Centurion Guard” and charged them with squashing any uprising that opposed King Charles’s control of the country. And that’s precisely what they did.
My taxi pulls up. The driver is a black man who introduces himself as “Miles.” “You don’t look like you’re from around here,” he says. We pull onto a skinny street jammed with traffic. Miles rolls down his window. Car horns blare, and the smell of burning rubber wafts into the cab. My sweaty back sticks to the cheap vinyl of the seat.
“Born and raised,” I say.
“Never had one.”
“What brings you home?”
Our eyes meet mine in the rearview. What brings you home? I’ve heard rumors about secret phrases used to test a person to see whose side he or she is on. I can’t be sure if this is such a query, but it feels that way. I open my mouth then shut it.
Finally I say, “My parents died. I’m here to manage their affairs.”
“I’m sorry,” Miles says warmly. “You’re young.”
We lumber through heavy traffic, and I stare out the window. This city, Oxford, as it is newly named, has become an odd blend of industry and desolation. Although it was once a budding metropolis, the Great War reduced its vitality to life support. As we near downtown, I see an old high-rise that once projected two-hundred-foot-tall holograms across its glass. You could see the blazing images from anywhere in the city. The building is now draped in what must be the largest and most grotesque banner in the world; King Charles’s face covers the entire thing. It’s a two-hundred-foot-tall idol. The rest of the skyline is a patchwork; some buildings are lit, others dark and abandoned.
Miles snakes his way through downtown traffic before jetting off onto side streets.
“You’re a Southerner?” I say.
He keeps his eyes on the road. “Yes, but I left for many years and have just recently returned.”
“What brought you back?”
His eyes appear in the mirror. “A job.”
I motion to the crumbling taxicab. “This one?”
He shakes his head. “No. I came home for a…project—something I could do only in Oxford. Still sounds strange calling it that…Oxford.”
Miles turns onto my street and parks in front of the house where I grew up. It’s nothing more than a fat cube of adobe with a tattered roof and a red door. I regard it briefly then look away. “I hear many Southerners are coming home,” I say, “which seems odd, given the scarcity of work to be had.”
“Not to mention the violence,” Miles says. “This city is on the verge of chaos, my friend.”
“So I hear.”
Miles twists in his seat and extends an outstretched palm. I lean forward and shake his hand. He says, “So tell me then, my friend, why have you come home?”
He squeezes my hand hard, and I feel as though my chest might burst open. He’s begging me to say it, and it’s driving me mad. I need someone with whom I can share my anger and my unquenchable thirst for revenge. I desperately want to tell him the truth, to confess everything. I decide to do it.
But then he releases his grip.
“I told you,” I say, my voice thick with anxiety, “I’ve come to bury the memory of my parents.”
Miles holds my stare for a long second before returning his gaze to the front of the car. “My teacher says we ought to let the dead bury the dead.”
“I don’t know what that means,” I mutter, peeling some worn bills from my wallet and handing them up front.
Miles sighs. “I know you don’t.”
I swing the door wide and climb out of the cab. Miles helps me lift my trunk and sets it on the sidewalk. Then he slinks back into his tired yellow cab. This man is either sincerely crestfallen that I haven’t confessed my true motives or a very fine actor. He puts the car in drive and begins to pull away.
I call after him, “Miles!” I trot across the few yards that separate us. “What’s the project, the one you could only do in Oxford? I…might be interested in hearing more about it.”
A smile breaks wide across his face, revealing a mouth of brilliantly glowing white teeth. He wags a long finger. “Yes, my friend! I suspected that might be the case.” The smile vanishes as Miles cranes his neck to see if any cars are coming down the road. There’s no one else in sight. “Meet me tomorrow night,” he says, “after sunset, at the entrance to the park downtown. Are you familiar with it?”
“Tell no one.”
I nod and swallow hard.
“Rest well, my friend,” he says seriously. “You’re going to need your strength in the days to come.”
Then Miles is gone, and I’m left with nothing but the crippling thought that I’ve just tied a noose around my neck.