include_once("common_lab_header.php");
Excerpt for The Divided States of America Vol. 1 by , available in its entirety at Smashwords






The Divided States of America

Volume 1

Edited by J Alan Erwine




Published by Nomadic Delirium Press at Smashwords




This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each person. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then please return to Smashwords.com and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.




Copyright 2018 by Nomadic Delirium Press

All stories and poems are copyrighted in the names of their respective authors




All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any informational storage and retrieval system, without the written consent of the publisher, except by a reviewer who wishes to quote brief passes in connection with a review written for inclusion in a magazine, newspaper, broadcast, etc.




Nomadic Delirium Press

Aurora, Colorado




Contents

An Introduction to The Divided States of America

The Dustbin by Tyree Campbell

The Wall is Beautiful by Mike Morgan

Green in 2110 by Debby Feo

It’s In the Water by J Alan Erwine

What Lies in the Wastelands by Ian Brazee-Cannon

Calivada Dreaming by Debby Feo

Can’t Go Home Again by Ian Brazee-Cannon

Where Do You Go From Here by Ian Brazee-Cannon

A Cavallo by Debby Feo

Back to the Old Ways by J Alan Erwine

Delivery by Lorelei Suzanne

Alaskan Everglades by Debby Feo

Trail of Payne by Ian Brazee-Cannon

Behind the Scars by Ian Brazee-Cannon

Frozen Ambitions by J Alan Erwine

Path to a New Life by Ian Brazee-Cannon




An introduction to The Divided States of America:

No one can say with any reasonable certainty when the United States of America began to fall apart. Many point to the presidential election of 2016, but most believe the breakup started long before this. Now, in the year 2110, the former United States is made up of 13 nation-states and The Wastelands. Some of the nation-states have prospered under self-rule, while others have declined. Some nation-states are very accepting of outsiders, while others trust no one…sometimes not even their fellow citizens. There is chaos in some places, and order in others…sometimes too much order.

The first state to break away from the USA was, not unexpectedly, Texas, and from there, things continued to spiral out of control as the national government tried to hold on to control that the state governments wanted back, and eventually, the federal government was no longer able to control the states, and the break-up came about.

Some of the nation-states kept the name “America” in their new names. Some did this as a tribute to where they had come from, while others did it to remind their citizens of what they were breaking away from. Others adopted new names, or took on names that were given to them.

Borders in some areas are heavily patrolled, even walled in places, while other borders have no protection at all…mostly it depends on the views of the new government and its citizens, even though sometimes those two groups still don’t agree. Let’s face it, greed and independence are bred into the human race, and even allying with others that have similar viewpoints does not necessarily mean that they will always get along.

If you’re interested in learning more, please click http://www.nomadicdeliriumpress.com/dividedstates.pdf to see a map of the new nation-states and to read a little about each of them.




The Dustbin

By Tyree Campbell


As Pierce reached the crest of the hill, he caught a flash of pale flesh, a spark of hair the color of fresh copper, moving fast through the forest several hundred yards away. The glimpse was enough to give him the impression of the runner as a woman, supple and slender. He heard shouts, a rifle firing. Soldiers had flushed their quarry and were running her to ground.

Ahead was a Y intersection, the two dirt roads leading along the north and south slopes of the valley. She was running toward the south. The soldiers, then, had come from the north. Pierce knew that road, and surmised that they had stopped along the shoulder on the rise to the bridge that crossed the river. Since the end of the Wisconsin glaciation the river had cut through limestone on its way down the valley to the Missouri River. Likely the woman lived in one of the caves, fishing the river, perhaps husbanding a dispersed kitchen garden. Now that part of her life was over. Without his intervention, probably all of it was.

It was not his concern. People died every day by murder or misadventure. Weariness in his very bones made it easy for him to dismiss her plight. His five-year quest for revenge completed now, he longed for nothing but a peaceful place to lie down and pass on. He was done with it. Done with it.

Still he looked. She continued to flee.

Five years in paramilitary service had familiarized Pierce with all the good words, and he knew how to cluster them together with hyphens for best effect. Several of them seethed from his mouth as he slammed the gearshift into second, flattened the accelerator, and gunned the jeep down the hill and onto the south road. In decades past the county would have dispatched road crews to spread fresh gravel, trim back the trees, and mow the grass and wildflowers that grew along the roadside. Nowadays the road passed through a tunnel of vegetation, dark as dusk, before it emerged into the valley on the other side of the forest. The jeep's shocks were more than a match for the uneven surface, and Pierce pushed the vehicle past forty, gripping the steering wheel with hands at ten minutes to two, as the manual recommended and as few people heeded, fighting with the wheel as potholes and ruts tried to alter his course. If the woman kept to her pace and direction, and if she weren’t caught or shot, she would reach the south road in another minute, perhaps less. Over the noise of travel, he heard another shot. A single shot, not automatic fire: they weren't trying to kill her, merely to wound her or to bring her to a halt. If possible, she was to be taken alive—although perhaps to some of the soldiers her condition upon capture would not have dampened their interest.

At the bottom of the hill Pierce rounded a gentle curve where the elevated roadbed took him a dozen feet above the forest floor. A sharp turn of the wheel and a firm boot on the brakes sent the jeep onto the graveled shoulder on the oncoming side of the road, the north side, where he reckoned the woman would emerge. With the gearshift in neutral and the idle low, he cocked an ear, listening. The forest here was almost black some five yards into it, so thick was the vegetation, but Pierce thought he heard muffled thrashing, a body thrusting past leaves and branches. A shout, and another. Probably by this time her pursuers were closing on her. He squinted, seeking nuances of movement through the leaves, swatches of pale flesh through the trees. She had to be in there somewhere.

Suddenly she was there, as if she had materialized at the bottom of the slope. She rushed up the incline toward him, just as two of her pursuers emerged from the forest with rifles at port. Already Pierce had unslung the pump-action crossbow and nocked a bolt. Her climb blocked his view of the soldiers, and his aim.

He barely had time to register that the oncoming young woman was worth looking at. The flash of her seared his mind. Tallish, slender, breasts the size of oranges and as firm, full pubic ruff almost as coppery as her hair, pale skin splashed all over with large, pale freckles, eyes dark in the shadows, though they might be green, thin lips slightly parted to draw the breaths necessary to maintain her flight, hair and body wet as if she had been bathing when flushed out by the soldiers, eyes wide and then narrow as she found him and took him in.

Down,” he yelled, and immediately she spilled forward onto the lush wildflowers. The implicit trust astonished Pierce, but he had no time to evaluate it. He aimed, fired, drew the cocking slide to nock another bolt, aimed, and fired. Thung snick snick thung. Neither soldier had time to bring his rifle to bear before the envenomed shaft struck him in the face, where the skin was bare. Both pitched forward directly where they were struck.

Climb in,” Pierce yelled, still aiming at the forest.

The young woman rose and scrambled up the remaining slope and into the back of the jeep, clambering over the passenger seat to sit down beside him. Already Pierce had the vehicle in motion, his eyes both on the road and in the rearview mirror. The woman reached behind the seat and seized the M16 there, and the two thirty-round banana clips duct-taped together. While Pierce sent the jeep hurtling through the tunnel of overhanging branches, she cleared the weapon, inserted the clip, and chambered a round—left-handed, Pierce noted—and took up a watch aft, protecting against pursuit. She was mumbling to herself, barely audible, but enough to tell Pierce that she knew some good words, too.

The road gave onto the valley without warning. In one moment, the forest concealed them; in the next, they were exposed. Almost as if the soldiers had been waiting for their emergence, a mortar round erupted a hundred yards short of the road several seconds later. Pierce flinched, but kept driving. The woman twisted in the seat and brought the rifle to bear on the bridge almost a thousand yards away. Pierce glanced at the bridge. A covered deuce-and-a-half truck was parked just short of it, and several soldiers were pointing their rifles toward the road. Pierce heard the tell-tale crumpf of a mortar being fired, and this time the round landed closer by half. A few shards of metal struck the jeep. One sliced across the point of the woman's left shoulder, and a line of blood welled. The wound was not deep, and she made no sound of complaint, or gave any sign that she was in pain. Clearly she wanted to return fire with the rifle, but that meant firing directly above Pierce's head.

Another glance told Pierce that the soldiers were reboarding the truck. Evidently they meant to challenge the woman's escape by taking the valley's north road until they gained a more favorable position. Pierce pulled the jeep to the far side of the road and stopped. While the woman looked a question at him, he unlocked the magazine of bolts from the crossbow and inserted another magazine, cocking a fresh bolt into place, this one a much darker brown than its predecessors. As he climbed out of the jeep, the woman came around the front of it.

Pierce took aim at the far abutment of the bridge just as the woman began firing. The unanticipated reports of the rifle distracted him, and when he turned his head to look at her, the view of her took his breath away.

She was standing frontally toward him with her feet shoulder-width apart, wet copper hair plastered to her shoulders and back, the butt of the M16 socketed into the corner of her left shoulder, right arm bent, rifle barrel fitted into the V of her right thumb and fingers, left cheek against the stock, sighting at the bridge and the soldiers on it. Carefully she squeezed off round after round, her breasts below the rifle trembling slightly with each recoil.

Pierce lowered the crossbow. The sight of the woman—her nakedness, her open posture, her combativeness—had aroused him to the point where he wanted nothing more than to mount her, right then and there. A hard ache in his chest reminded him that he needed to breathe, and he drew a sharp inhalation and returned his attention to the abutment. A soldier fell from the bridge into the river twenty yards below. Seconds later, after Pierce had sent two bolts flying toward the abutment, they heard his scream. The woman emptied one magazine, removed and reversed it, reloaded, and continued firing, this time at the covered back of the truck, which was now beginning to move across the bridge. Pierce sent three more bolts into the abutment, then thumbed a button on the side of the crossbow. Immediately a great gout of orange erupted at the joint of the bridge and the abutment, and that end of the bridge collapsed. The truck and several soldiers on foot tumbled into the river.

A third mortar round fell, this one far short of the road. Pierce boarded the jeep, and the woman reluctantly joined him. With one hand on the wheel, Pierce replaced the new magazine of crossbow bolts with the old one, folded the wings of the crossbow, and slid the weapon into a sleeve alongside the back of the seat. The woman set the safety on the rifle and returned it to the back seat.

Aware that she was watching him intently, Pierce said nothing. In truth, he did not know what to say. More than three years had passed since he had had an interaction with a woman that bordered on the sexual, but that was not the cause of his silence. He had the feeling that there was something else that he was supposed to do, that something was not quite right, and he had no idea what it was. He sensed no danger from the woman, yet clearly she was dangerous.

She was sitting with her legs crossed at the ankles and her hands folded demurely in her lap, and she was looking at him in a way that suggested that he was supposed to look at her—this much he saw out of the corner of his eye. But did she expect him to look, or did she want him to look? Either way, why?

They reached a section of the road that was relatively straight for the next few miles. Pierce turned his head to look at her—at her face, at her eyes wide and pale green now, the irises flecked with gold sparks that seemed to dance with mirth—and he was very careful to look directly and only at her face.

“Nice shooting,” he said.

The hint of a smile toyed with the corners of her mouth. “I was firing for effect,” she told him. Her contralto had just a touch of smoke, as if her throat was dry, and a slight inflection that he could not identify. “I had no real hope of hitting anything at that range.”

Pierce returned his eyes to the road ahead. “And yet you hit something.”

“I don’t mind your looking at me.”

Stunned by her candor, Pierce managed to maintain a bland expression. He slowed the jeep to a crawl and turned to look at her: at her face, where for a long moment he saw in her eyes his own reflection; at her left shoulder, where the thin line of blood was already scabbing over; at her breasts, trembling with each pit and pothole the jeep passed over; at the coppery pubic ruff under her folded hands, still moist from her bathing; at her legs, extended deep into the foot well. He did not indulge in a tour of her body so much as demonstrate that her assumption was in error.

“I presume nothing without invitation,” he said.

“I'll just have one engraved for you.”

A mile of silence followed after he returned the jeep to speed. Without looking at her, he said, “That duffel bag in the back seat has clean clothes you're welcome to. There's an extra pair of boots in the foot well behind your seat that should fit you, albeit loosely.”

Deliberately she turned toward him to kneel on the seat, to reach back for the bag, to allow her right breast to nuzzle his shoulder, to make him aware of the proximity of her bare right flank and hip. Pierce was torn between enjoying the contact and wondering why she was doing it to a stranger she had just met. It didn’t add up. Most strangers of opposite sexes were far warier.

At last she turned back around and began to dress, neither slowly nor teasingly, but with an economy of movement that nevertheless might have been accompanied by brassy music for disrobing. She had selected an outfit like Pierce's of camouflage tee, jockey briefs, cammie trousers with a black web belt, thick green socks, and the boots he had mentioned. Finished, she spread her hands, inviting his assessment of the result.

Pierce glanced at her but said nothing. Another mile passed.

“You haven't even asked my name,” said the woman.

“I don't want to know your name.”

The woman's upper incisors caught on her lower lip and nibbled it lightly. Presently she whispered, “That was harsh.” As if in defiance of his wishes, she added, “It’s Jenny Lee.”

The road bent slightly to the north, bringing them closer to the river. They passed the remains of small farms, the skeletons of their barns rotting, their fences in disarray. Stalks of corn grew where the previous year's seed had fallen, and the ears might have been harvested, but there was no one to tend to them. Rats and mice ate the corn, snakes ate the rodents, and raptors ate the snakes. Pierce glanced up: the blue sky was clear of raptors.

Jenny was gazing pensively at the farmland to the south. Weeds had overtaken the dirt roads, which clearly had not been graded since things fell apart. TFA, some called it, thought Pierce, following her gaze. This was the year 24 TFA, or 2110 in old notation. There was no particular day assigned to the collapse; rather, a series of events had occurred, some more disastrous than others, and afterwards the world lay irrevocably changed. Billions were dead. One nation would break away from the old republic, and then another, and eventually there was no United States, just several smaller countries, and of course The Badlands. A blessing in disguise, that was, thought Pierce.

Still, some areas had more than others. That was when the troubles began.

“You’re pensive,” she said.

As much was evident; Pierce did not respond.

“Okay, I get that you’re not happy with me around,” she went on. “So, what are you going to do with me?”

“Not what you fear, I daresay.”

“But you did look.”

Pierce rolled his eyes. “Of course I looked.”

“And?” she prodded.

“Where is this going?”

“Where are we going?”

We are going to Aunt Maude’s,” Pierce replied. “I will continue on my way.”

“Aunt Maude’s.”

Pierce sighed. He had no desire to talk with her, and yet he kept responding to her. Months had passed since he had said anything to anyone. He liked it that way. His war was over. It was time to . . . to . . .

“Dammit,” he said, and slapped his hand on the steering wheel.

“I did not mean to upset you,” she said.

He pursed his lips, blocking a comment. Briefly he considered whether to remain silent. Against his will, he liberated the words. “Maude’s is neutral territory, by unspoken agreement,” he explained, trying to use as few words as possible. “Folks from The Wastelands stop by, as do the Indian Nations, the GLC, Appalachia, and the CSA. They stop by for peace and quiet on their way from one place to another. Maude takes in strays. She protects them, feeds and clothes them, arranges for their education, and finds work for them to do. There’s an old sign on the window by the door. A spotted dog on a yellow background, and the words ‘Safe Spot.’ No one would violate this place.”

“And you’re going to leave me there,” she said, her voice now as dull as a lead bell.

Her tone clutched at Pierce’s heart. She puzzled him; he’d thought she would be grateful.

“Say something!” she snapped.

“You’ll be safe there.” The words sounded lame in his ears. He glanced at her; quickly she turned her face away, but not before he saw the tear.

He made mental fists. He tried to tell himself he was better off alone; he’d had years of practice at that. But did that signify? Why would the woman want him? He was almost twice her age, and from a different generation. Or were the generations so different, these days?

With a little snarl of irritation, Pierce pulled the jeep off to the side of the road, where there was enough shoulder for parking. He did not shut the motor off. He leaned back in the seat and twisted a little toward her. She continued to avert her face.

Pierce found a soft tone that he hadn’t used in years. “Jenny?”

She turned to look at him. Tears rolled down her cheeks.

Pierce took a deep breath to steady himself. “I’m used to being alone,” he told her, as gently as he could. “I’m better off alone.”

Jenny blinked. “How would you know, if you haven’t been with someone?” she asked him.

He smiled in spite of himself. “A point for you. Jenny—”

“You’re not the only one here who has been alone,” she broke in, rushing her words as if she were afraid he would cut her off before she got all of them out. “I kept track of the days in my cave by the river. My parents were killed when I was fourteen. We had a secret room underground, where we could go in case of attack or a tornado. You couldn’t find it unless you knew exactly where to look for it. That room saved me. I stayed there until the food ran out. Then I found the cave . . .” For a few seconds her face twisted in agony. “Oh, God, my cave!” she wailed.

“Jenny—”

She brushed her hand at him. “Eight years there,” she went on, her voice choked now. “My drawings, my sketches, my poetry and writing and observations. My work . . . my life was in that cave. Gone now, all gone.” She fell silent, and he allowed her that, waiting for her. “I-I used to make little whistles from green saplings,” she said, as if to herself. “You slide the cylinder of bark free and make a little indentation in the wood, then put the bark back on. Well, there’s a little more to it. I never learned to make whistles that had more than one tone, although I’m sure there’s a way. So I made eight whistles, one for each note. Sometimes . . . sometimes I would play all day.”

“Jenny . . .”

“I had conversations with myself,” she said. “Long conversations. The way the river flowed along the banks. The flowers that grew there. A poem by Longfellow; another by Macauley. I had an old copy of Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilych, and talked it over with myself after I read it. That’s gone, now, too; they destroyed everything I had. Everything I am.” Thumbing tears away, she peered at him. “Do you have talks with yourself, too?” she asked.

He was forced to admit to himself that he did, more often than he cared to think about. In response, though, he merely nodded.

“Jenny. Why?”

A smile tugged at the corners of her mouth. “Why you?” He nodded again, and she said, “Well . . . you’re kind of craggy, and there are more than a few gray hairs in that black mop of yours. You have kind eyes; you’re probably not aware of it. But none of that is why. I don’t need Apollo. I need to be with someone who makes me feel safe. I need to be with someone who hasn’t given up.”

“But I have given up,” said Pierce.

Jenny shook her head. “You rescued me. That’s not the act of a man who has given up. And yes, you looked at me. Looked, but made no move whatsoever to touch or to take. That’s not the way of a man who has lost his self-respect. No, if you’ve lost your purpose, it’s only because you haven’t found another purpose yet.”

“You must have read a lot of books in your cave,” said Pierce.

“I had over a hundred, although about a third of them had pages missing or were rotting.” She paused to stare at him. “Why are you smiling?”

He did the math. “You’re what, twenty-three now?”

“Old enough. So are you.”

“That’s right, do ‘old’ jokes.”

They both laughed. Pierce laughed harder, and harder, and finally broke down in tears. He lowered his face to the steering wheel, and sobbed. His entire body quaked with his grief. Moments later—it might have been seconds or minutes, he did not know or care—he felt her hand on his back, just below the nape of his neck. Her fingers caressed him. She was silent; he thought he would not be able to stand it if she spoke to him. He had no ears for her words of comfort. It was not all right. It wasn’t going to be all right.

And then, miraculously, it was.

Moments ticked onward; his weeping subsided, and finally stilled. He lifted his head, turned it, and saw her face, inches from his. Eyes the color of polished serpentine regarded him tenderly. He found himself longing to fall into them.

A man could get lost there.

Or found.

“Talk to me,” she whispered.

He found his voice. “They’re gone,” he breathed. “I killed all of them I could find.”

Tiny furrows appeared on the bridge of her nose. “Who?”

“The . . . the presidents.”

“But . . . but they’re dead. Aren’t they?”

Pierce sat back. Jenny set her hand gently on his thigh, and gave it a little squeeze. “Talk to me,” she urged once more.

“They all had tombs, or memorials, where their bodies lay or their ashes rested in urns,” he explained, his thoughts gathering momentum now that he had decided to talk. “Most had archives as well. Jenny . . . I’ve spent the past five years going around to each of them. I destroyed the tombs and the memorials and the archives, all I could find. I opened the urns and cast the ashes to the wind, and crushed the urns. I burned the bodies and cast away those ashes as well.” He drew a huge breath, and slowly exhaled. “And now that’s over. I can do no more. I’m done.”

“We’ll see.”

He stared at her, but before he could speak, she said, “Tell me why.”

“Why,” he sighed. “Oh, Jenny. I’ve read history books, and newspaper archives, and all sorts of things, anything I could find. This used to be one country, a great country, founded on the principles of freedom for all. Little by little, we lost it—or it was taken from us. Finally we devolved into shrieking hordes, each demanding rights at the expense of others. Too many people, Jenny, too many people who kept wanting more and more. And so, we fragmented, disintegrated. We balkanized. And here we are.”

“But . . . the presidents?”

“They were in charge, Jenny. They symbolized this fragmentation, they allowed—even encouraged—these disparate groupings. They played people like Satan’s orchestra. Now most of those folks are dead. The ones that survive, are doing just that: surviving. But it’s not enough just to survive, Jenny. If there is no growth, there is only death.”

She smiled. “And you want to die?”

“No.” He shook his head slowly. “No, not . . . not now.”

She laughed softly. “I reckon I’m to blame for that.”

“Jenny,” he said, and did not know what else to say to her. She was too unexpected. For someone like her to be thrust without warning into his life . . .

She broke into his anxieties. “What do you want to do?” she asked.

He made a face. “I have a cave, a very safe place,” he said. “I was going back there to . . .”

“To die?”

“Maybe.”

“You said ‘was,’” she reminded him. “And now?”

“Jenny, we just met.”

“Discovery is fun. I’ll try not to snore.”

“I don’t know whether I do,” said Pierce. “Nobody’s ever nudged me awake.”

“If I nudge you awake, it won’t be to stop your snoring.”

He rolled his eyes.

“You really didn’t answer my question,” she pointed out.

“I’d like to start us, everyone who’s willing, on the road back,” he answered slowly. “If I could do anything, I think that’s what I would do.”

“It’s said that a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step,” she pointed out. “Maybe . . . the recovery of a nation begins with two people.”

Pierce shook his head. “What can two people do?”

“Help others; isn’t that what governments are supposed to do?”

“But we’re not a government,” he argued. “I wouldn’t even want to be; we’re just two people.”

“So far. But I didn’t mean government-type help. I meant helping folks. Like . . . okay, maybe they need a school. We can encourage them to build one; help them build it, even.”

“And . . . teachers?

“We have to start somewhere. Parents can teach.”

Pierce sighed. “And I suppose I could donate some of my library.”

Her eyes brightened. “You have a library?”

“I’ve salvaged all the books I can,” he said. “One time, I came across one of those used book stores that hadn’t been ransacked yet. I made five trips, that time.”

“You have a library,” Jenny breathed. Her face saddened. “I don’t even know your name.”

“Jeremy Pierce.”

“Jerry and Jenny,” she said. “Ad astra!” Now her eyes matched the smile on her lips. “And now?”

“To Aunt Maude’s, of course.”

“Oh?”

“I’m hungry,” he said. “Aren’t you?”

“Oh! And then?”

“Then we go home, and you get to browse my library.”

Now her smile became a veil over a secret. “I think the library will have to wait a little while.”




The Wall Is Beautiful

By Mike Morgan


"Suck it up, buttercup."

Rick Moreno looked sideways at his partner, his face deliberately devoid of expression. He let the words wash through him, knowing from bitter experience it was best not to let Mitch's comments get under his skin. If he got angry about things Mitch said, he'd be annoyed a hundred times a day. And Rick was tired of being angry.

As always, there had been the shallowest of reasons for Mitch’s reflexive outburst. Rick had only asked if they really had to patrol the same uneventful stretch as yesterday, all over again.

"It is a dull patrol. You gotta admit that." He motioned through the windshield at the never-ending vertical expanse of white-painted concrete: the Texas Wall. "Don't you get bored of looking at it?"

Mitch Olaski grinned, sunlight glinting off his tinted glasses as he drove the patrol vehicle. No self-driving trucks for the Texas Border Patrol, no sir. None of that foreign filth allowed in the great independent nation of the Republic of Texas. Just old-fashioned gas guzzlers driven by regular good ol' boys.

"I think it's the most beautiful thing I ever saw. Tall and wide and covered in motion sensors. It's the greatest thing the Lone Star Republic ever built. Fills my heart with joy on a daily basis."

The track running parallel to the Wall in Cameron County was dusty and filled with potholes. Rick gritted his teeth as the truck lurched through a particularly bad patch. Yeah, it was the track's condition making him grit his teeth. That was it.

"Kinda sick of it, myself," Rick muttered.

"Y'all need to be more patriotic, Ricardo, as an agent of the Border Patrol."

"Rick," he replied reflexively. He winced, knowing how Mitch would respond.

"Ain't your name, Ricardo. You ain't a Texian and you shouldn't try to pretend."

Quietly, he answered, "I'm not pretending to be anything. You can see I'm not Texian by heritage. But everyone calls me Rick. It's my nickname."

"Shouldn't be such a delicate snowflake, Ricardo. Don't suit a man in this line of work."

Rick bit his tongue. It was pointless to argue with Mitch. He had an answer for everything, and all his answers made Rick's skin crawl.

*

Rick stared at the view leading away from the Wall instead: dry, cracked earth dotted with brittle-looking brush and the occasional desiccated tree. Chaparral, his mother called the brushlands, but the term was nothing but a strange-sounding word in a foreign language to Rick. He had never learned more than a handful of Spanish words and phrases.

These days there was barely enough water to sustain the live oaks, and the remorseless heat was causing a new fungus to spread like wildfire, killing off the mesquite. Sometimes, Rick liked to bait Mitch, asking him what was causing the climate change in southern Texas. Mitch had a variety of answers, none of which made a lick of sense. His latest had been "China."

Rick thought it must be exhausting finding so many different types of "other" to blame.

The drought was perpetual and there was no more federal relief to lighten the load. There was no more federal anything.

Mitch gestured over his shoulder with a thumb, grimacing at something in his rear-view mirror. "Hate those damned things."

Rick twisted his head back to take in the eastern side of the panorama. Brownsville, shabby and sweltering in the furnace of the Texian summer, lay behind them. Above and beyond the city of a quarter million souls hovered a thin line of black specks.

Nile drones. Unmanned, self-guiding aircraft with fuselages the size of lawnmowers, carrying packages of toys and groceries from the warehouses of the 'We'll sell you anything!' Nile Company to houses and businesses in the northern nations. They flew over the international waters of the Gulf of Mexico, going around the Texan coastline.

Mitch liked to take potshots at the drones during his rest breaks.

"Texas chose not to let them fly over its territory," pointed out Rick. "It's only reasonable they take another route."

"Don't trust 'em," spat Mitch. "Never will."

Rick didn't bother to reply. As far as he'd ever been able to tell, Mitch didn't trust anything or anyone.

*

"Let's take a break," suggested Rick. "There are no alert signals from the Wall."

Mitch pulled the truck over without much of an argument. He knew as well as Rick did that there hadn't been an illegal crossing in four months, and that attempt had been made much further west up the Rio Grande valley where the Wall was shorter and less intensively monitored.

The patrol didn't have many breaches to investigate these days. It was as if the drybacks didn't want to enter Texas anymore.

"She's a beauty."

Rick regarded Mitch levelly as he swung his legs out of the cabin and clambered down. Mitch was already out of the vehicle, smiling a satisfied smile as he basked in the nearby sight of the eighty-foot-tall wall. Razor-wire on the top glistened in the heat shimmer.

"So much better than the one Trump tried to build," continued the sunburned patrol agent proudly. "A real marvel. And no one can deny it works."

Rick blinked slowly. He briefly considered asking why the wall had been constructed along Texas's southern border rather than its northern one; the north had been the source of much of the larger influx of economic and environmental migrants ever since the catastrophic re-emergence of the super-dustbowl and the long, slow collapse of human civilization in the heart of the North American continent. But he already knew the answer: the immigrants from the north had the right skin color.

Instead, he commented idly, "That amount of concrete, don't you think it could've been used to build something more useful, like homes or hospitals?"

Mitch took out a packet of chewing tobacco and busied himself getting a wad ready. "Don't be ungrateful, Ricardo. Border security gives you a job."

"Yes, it does, and I am grateful for the salary." He resisted the urge to point out how useful his college education had turned out to be. Five years in the patrol and Rick was still a junior-level agent. The salary he was on, he had only paid off a hundredth of his student debt. He wondered if he'd have to pass on his college loans to his as-yet-unborn children for them to finish paying.

"You're better off than some."

Rick felt his jaw muscles tighten. But that was all the reaction Mitch earned. Rick's mask held. "Yes, there are many not as fortunate as me." Again, he left much unsaid. Like how his family were Tejano and had only lived in Cameron County for six hundred years. They had seen the anglos arrive. They had seen the first, brief Republic of Texas. They had lived through the centuries of the United States. They had still been there for the founding of the second republic.

Rick wondered when the Olaski clan had arrived in Texas. A few decades back? Yeah, why would Tejanos be entitled to a share of the anglos' stolen wealth?

He imagined saying these things out loud. He imagined Mitch purple in the face, swinging a punch.

Rick settled for asking, "Ever hear how St. Petersburg was built in the eighteenth century? The Russians used slave labor. So many slaves died in the city's construction, they started calling it the City Built on Bones."

"There's that fancy education of yours showing again. Y'all got a point to make or do you like the sound of your own voice?" Rick couldn’t tell whether Mitch was genuinely annoyed or simply going through the motions.

"I'm just thinking about how the wind blows hard around the foundation blocks on the Wall and the sun bakes down on it and sometimes the concrete chips away. I looked at a base block once, up close. Swear to God I saw a bone in there. A long bone, like a femur. It's the kind of thing that gives a man pause."

"Animal bone. Probably a coati."

Rick blinked in the glare of the fierce sun. "A coati?"

"Yeah, they're big critters. And the contractors weren't too picky on what got thrown into the mix."

"Haven't seen a coati round these parts in a long time."

Silence thickened between them.

"How's your mother?" asked Mitch unexpectedly.

"She's fine." Rick's reply came out harsher than he'd intended. He strode to the back of the truck and wrenched one of his sodas out of the cooler.

Mitch's surprised voice carried around the bulletproof bulk of the vehicle. "The hell's up with you?"

*

"You turn up for work looking like that?"

Rick stared back at Mitch, silently daring the man to say more. The briefing room fell quiet, other patrolmen carefully not looking their way. Morning light through the Brownsville Station windows lit everything in a pale golden glow.

The bandages felt tight about his left forearm. Painkillers had numbed the ache of the knife wounds but Rick could still feel the tightness where his skin was glued together. With the short sleeves of a Patrol uniform, the bandages were clearly visible.

There were similar patches of tightness on his face. His lip was a swollen mess and he was having a hard time seeing out of his right eye.

Mitch mumbled something about Rick being a disgrace to the uniform and how he should stay home if he couldn't keep out of trouble. But Rick was already walking past the shaven-headed man, taking his seat for the morning meeting.

He didn't speak to Mitch until they were on the road, forty minutes later.

*

"So, you were in a fight, then?"

"I was jumped."

Mitch was at the wheel again. He always insisted on driving. "And you didn't do nothing wrong." It was more a statement than a question.

"I was taking medicine to my madre, walking along Kopernik Boulevard. Four white guys started shouting at me."

"Oh, they were 'white guys,' huh? Not 'guys?' And you think I'm the racist." Not getting a response, Mitch added, "You can walk away, you know. When people shout at you."

"I tried. They wouldn't let me."

"Shoulda told them you worked for the Republic."

"I did. That seemed to make them even more mad."

Rick didn't say anything else until the truck reached the Wall and the dirt track that ran parallel to it.

"Twenty years ago, you know what they called Brownsville? They called it Browntown. On account of how almost everyone was Mexican-American. Spanish was the most common language. Now, it's the same as every other Texian city. Malls and chicken fried steak as far as the eye can see, and Spanish is banned."

Mitch frowned. "No need to speak Spanish when everyone's Texian."

"Do you ever wonder where they went, Mitch? The thousands of people who didn't look like you."

The blunt-nosed man wouldn't look Rick in the eye. "People move on. Wall needed a lot of construction workers. Stands to reason people would migrate where they were needed for each section, as it was put together. They went farther and farther west, way I heard it."

"They never came back."

Mitch scratched at his peeling nose, his other hand loosely gripping the wheel as the truck juddered on the track. "Yeah, well, construction's a dangerous job."

*

The motion sensors were picking up something strange, so they drove to the tower controlling the units with the strongest readings. All Rick could make out on his handheld pad was that there was some kind of ground disturbance in the vicinity of the Wall.

Mitch made it clear he thought someone was starting a tunnel.

Rick jumped down from the cabin of the patrol truck and picked his way between waist-high prickly pears and scrawny blackbrush bushes. His boots scrunched on loose gravel as he made his way over to the tower's entrance. Catclaw vines hung over the doorway, hooks ready to catch on his jacket.

Damn, his arm hurt.

Mitch wasn't impressed with the spread of the vegetation. "Why isn't this place better maintained?" He pursed his lips at Rick. "And don't you start on how we can't have maintenance and low taxes at the same time."

"I would never say such a thing, Senior Patrol Agent Olaski."

Rick waited as Mitch punched in the security code and the door lock clicked open. They entered the tower's vestibule as the lights were still flickering on.

Mitch checked the logs on the touchscreen of the local server node in the back room while Rick brought up the same data on his personal pad. The readings made no more sense now than they had earlier.

"It's a ground disturbance but I can't tell what sort." Rick cleared his throat. "Want to head up top and take a looksee?"

*

Mitch preferred the binoculars, so Rick scanned the distance using the zoom function on his pad while the older agent was still fiddling with the focus wheel.

"It's the Mexicans," said Rick. "They're digging in the ground on the other side of the old riverbed."

"The hell?" breathed Mitch. "What they up to?"

Rick let the pad pick out various details and enhance the images. On the tiny screen, he could see at least fifty men at work with shovels.

"Those are Mexican army uniforms," he observed. "Must be a unit out of Matamoros." That was Rick's best guess, anyway.

Among the sea of army green were a few specks of taupe: men in overalls rather than uniforms. They must be lower ranks or a prison detail, he thought. It was hard to make out for sure, given the distance. He noticed the men in overalls carried on working when the army types stopped to take water breaks.

"Don't care if they're military or not, they try walking onto Texian soil they're gonna get a welcome they won't like."

"I don't think they're interested in crossing the dead old lady, Agent Olaski."

Mitch gaze him a look of dumb incomprehension.

"People call the Rio Grande that, on account of how it's dried up," Rick explained. The river had been diverted near its source in Colorado more than a decade back. The northern nations had little patience for the first of the separatist states and, in a time of water scarcity, even less desire to share with a land that didn't believe in unity anymore.

"Your people might call it that but no one else does."

Rick fought off a sense of exasperation. "Either way, they're not crossing the border. Looks like they're planting things in those holes."


Purchase this book or download sample versions for your ebook reader.
(Pages 1-27 show above.)