Monthly Archives: October 2013

“Below the Triangle,” by Joseph Hirsch

Below the Triangle

by Joseph Hirsch

Camp Killeen, located in Southern Iraq about 150 miles north of the Kuwaiti border, was probably the least dangerous place in country. The Americans didn’t care much about it, and it didn’t seem to be on the insurgent agenda either. It had gone without a single attack since its inception as a fueling point some four years ago. It was jointly guarded by the Army and the Air Force, who didn’t seem to notice or care when local Iraqis placed wooden planks on the concertina and hopped over to have a look around. Base command said not to shoot, as it was clear that they were there for discarded scrap metal and not to scout for mortar positions.

The base was compact, protected from windstorms on all four sides by storage containers. There was one small helipad near the center of the camp, buttressed on one side by a volleyball pit and on the other side by a basketball court. There was a morale center, a motor pool, and two satellites; one tactical, one tropospheric. There wasn’t much else. The few soldiers visible during the daytime wandered casually and without purpose.

The only recent development that posed a threat to the peace which had reigned here since the beginning of the war was the circulating rumor that Syria had been funneling money to the local insurgents in order to challenge the coalition. The two reservists relaxing in PTs under the smoking camo shielded their eyes and tightened their lips against the dust that rose as the Chinook touched down. Usually it was a Black Hawk.

“That’s the first one of those I seen,” the one said, flicking the cherry from his Newport into the sand.

“Probably a general,” the other one said, standing up from the picnic table, just in case. Both men were old, outranked by active duty soldiers half their age.

The rotors whirred, slicing above and below each other, sonic whap-whapping that split the natural silence of the desert. Two men in desert camo stepped off first, in full battle-rattle and carrying a sizable tough box between them. They squinted against the kick-up of dust and did a straight line for the two smokers.

Both wore earplugs and one shouted. “Where is the VTC?”

The one reservist pointed a short-distance to where the basin of a satellite served as a landmark above the sand-battered corrugated tin. “Over there.” The other nodded his thanks, nodded to his compatriot, and they took off.

Shortly thereafter a slower, older man with a more determined bearing came out of the hatch, striding as if each step could serve as the eternal pose for the statue he one day aspired to become. They saw the star above the cat eyes on his Kevlar and their assholes puckered. Their first salute in six months, unless you counted the lazy half wave they gave their L-T.

“Sir,” both of them said.

“Relax, gentlemen.”

They did their best not to look uncomfortable in his presence and he did his best to pretend it worked, secretly enjoying the way it put them ill-at-ease. He disliked the idea of being intimidated by men he outranked, but that had been the way it was with this damn private they’d had riding with them the whole time. And he got the feeling that it was only going to get worse when they got down to brass tacks. He wasn’t looking forward to it.

He dealt with the two fat shit bags before him, presenting his question, confident that he would get an answer if their girth was any indication. “Gentlemen, what time does the chow-hall open?”

“For lunch, sir?” The first one asked. He realized his idiocy too late and could only squirm while his friend rebounded for him and fought through his own jitters to say, “Eleven-thirty, sir.”

“Thank you.” He smiled, a tiny, intimidating man. He followed his bearers, and the last of the retinue came filtering out of the black innards of the Chinook, two…privates?

“What the fuck?” The bald reservist who smoked Newports said, voicing the thoughts of his friend. Two unkempt infantry men (neither one with weapons) marched out of the back. The lead one struck them as battle-shattered, the other one battle-hardened, but both came across as tested. They ignored the brass and headed over for the smokers.

The shattered one took a seat on the edge of the bench, facing away from everyone, not bothering to acknowledging them. The other one made up for his friend’s bad manners and went up to the two, shaking their hands one at a time. “Y’all got a couple cigarettes, man?” He took his Kevlar off and wiped his hair. He dropped down, sighing and sitting his helmet between his legs.

“Sure. Marlboro lights okay?”

“You got any menthols? My boy only smokes menthols.”

The other reservist thought it was strange that Crazy should consider himself too good to ask for his own cigarettes, but he volunteered, “I got Ports.”

“That’ll work.” The friendly newcomer said, much obliged and tapping his buddy on the shoulder, who reached over with a mud stained hand, accepted his square and puffed without a word, his back still to the group.

“So what are y’all here for?”

Jeffries (his name was stitched on his cat eyes) said, “He knows,” nodding his head toward his friend, “but he won’t tell me.”

“Huh,” was all the other one could say.

The first two off the Chinook, lighter a tough box, came back from the Video Teleconference Center, shouting and motioning for their cares to get a move-on. Jeffries debated putting out his cigarette, couldn’t bear it and puffed desperately to replenish his lungs in the few seconds it would take to get his partner moving, and said as he smoked, “ Come on, Gates. You dragged my ass out here, now be cooperative, homeboy.”

Staring off into the distance, the one with his back turned asked, “Are we going to do it now or what?”

“Nah, I think it’s chow time first, dawg.”

“I want to get it over with.”

“I’m fucking hungry, man.”

Gates sighed, stood up, stretched to emphasize the time he could take, the strange superiority he exuded in a rank-conscious world where he was supposed to be at the bottom but for some reason was on top, in intimate contact with the sun even, whom he stood and stretched before. Then he followed his friend, and his complaint to hurry the fuck up.

Curious and grateful for the relief from the unbroken boredom of eight months of deployment without violence, the two reservists followed them to the chow hall, and sat at a respectful enough distance to monitor the goings-on without undisguised eavesdropping.

A stray mongrel dog crossed their path at the hand washing station. Fur sprouted randomly from where it hadn’t been ripped or rotted away from the beast. It was thin, legs stilts and ribs skeletal fingers. Jeffries feigned to rush and strike and it flipped to its belly. Gates crouched down to the dog in that position and rubbed it.

It’s nice to see he doesn’t hate animals as much as people, the Reservist thought, squirting sanitizer into his hands and keeping an eye on them from where he stood. Less than six months ago there had been a standing order to shoot any dogs caught wandering around post. They were magnets for Lechemoniasis and a host of other health risks including rabies. He wished it was still like that. He was from the countryside, and though it would have been a poor substitute for hunting, it would have been something. He definitely wasn’t going to get a chance to shoot any Iraqis. If he wanted to see Iraq, he had to go back to his room and turn on Fox News.

There were five ceiling-mounted televisions in the dining facility. All blared some reality television with a news ticker scrolling across the bottom. The kitchen staff were Nepalese, brown men with starch white chef hats and plastic gloves. They served food, collected trash, and wiped tables with a smiling obeisance that bordered on slavery. Sometimes you could catch them staring at the soldiers with pure hatred, but the soldiers never seemed aware of it.

By this point the two Reservists were livid with Gates, though they couldn’t understand why. Their inability to understand only made them hate him more. It was the way he sat apart for one thing. There was the general with his two staff sergeants, who with their armor off could be visibly identified by their sashes as MPs, and the other private, all sitting together and eating in harmony.

And then there he was, all alone at the other end of the table, eating…what else would a childish, fucking child eat? Ice-cream! Ice-cream piled decadently with whipped cream and nuts and maraschino cherries, and he only appeared to pick at it. How the hell did a man not develop an appetite in a war zone?

Despite his small meal, he was the last to finish, and he took his time sauntering over to the VTC building, stopping to pet the dog, which apparently had approved of his tenderness sufficiently enough to warrant meeting him at the other end of the chow hall. Though they hadn’t seen him secrete it, the two angry Reservists saw him feed the dog a piece of lunch meat. Jeffries shouted for him to hurry up. He stopped to finished the second half of the Port he’d been forced to snub over at the picnic table. Then he disappeared into the building with the camo-mesh draped satellites on its roof…

Sergeants Hernandez and Beck finished setting up the machine, checking and double checking connections while Brigadier General Harvey paced back and forth. His blouse was hung over the backs of one of two chairs. The other chair was intended for Gates.

Jeffries set a half-frozen Gatorade on the table. “Can we smoke in here?”

“Get that off the table and away from the equipment.” Sergeant Beck said sternly. Jeffries yanked it up, uncapped it and guzzled. The AC roared in the small room. The floor was tiled and inlaid with intricate Arabic writing. There was only one small window that gave a view onto sandy rock bleaching a skeletal white, burning eyes even behind sunglasses. There was no wavy blurring of the horizon. Horizons didn’t exist. Neither did clouds.

“Are we ready?” The General asked. A huge sweat stain reached from his Spartan upper-body, hardened chest, to the gut bequeathed by time that not even a five mile jog four times a week could efface.

“Should be, Sir. Just let us confirm.”

Sergeant Hernandez took the cue and opened the manila file, standing in the center of the table. Sergeant Beck gestured for Private First Class Gates to take a seat. He sat across from him. The Sergeant took out a felt-tipped pen, uncapped it and placed it around his subject’s arm. This seemed to clear it up for Jeffries. Gates had probably raped some girl and now they were flying him out of Baghdad because they didn’t need this affecting the morale of the company. That would explain why he was so down the last few weeks. He had ruined his life and the life of some girl. But who? Diaz? She was a candidate. Gates didn’t seem like a rapist, though.

“Is your name John Crawford Gates?”

“Yes.”

“Are you a soldier in the US army?”

“Yes.”

“Is your social security number Two-Niner-One?”

“Don’t read his full fucking social.” The General said, cupping his sweat-marinated face with withering patience.

“Sorry, sir.” Sergeant Hernandez choked. Sergeant Beck had a full mustache of sweat now, though he didn’t notice it until the beads dropped onto the results ticking out of the mouth of the polygraph. He quickly wiped at his face.

“Just read the last four.” The General said.

“Yes, sir.” Sergeant Hernandez said, continuing. “Are the last four of your social security number ‘Eight-Five-Niner-Three?’”

“Yes.” PFC Gates said.

“Right, then. Moving on.” Sergeant Hernandez rifled to the back of the file, to the prearranged, scripted question handed all the way down from Lieutenant General Cleary’s office, a boss to the brigadier general, impossible to fathom. The question on this post-it carried the weight of the world.

“Did you have a hand in coordinating the attack on the South Gate at Camp Zulu, Baghdad?”

The room tensed. “No.”

“Do you know anyone involved in coordinating the attack?”

“No.”

“Is it true that you went to your company’s staff duty desk at around oh-twelve hundred hours on the night of September Eighth to report that the South Gate at Camp Zulu, Baghdad would be attacked on September Ninth at 0845 am with a vehicle born IED?” Sergeant Hernandez exhaled.

“Yes.”

“Do you know how you came to acquire this information?”

“Yes.”

The proctor looked to the General. This is why he had been shepherded away three hundred miles south in the dead of night with only a nominal explanation given to his chain of command. This was a war, and wars were concrete. Anything intangible brought in the ether, which brought in a fog that not even the night vision goggles could cut through. The next question scared the shit out of all of them and no one wanted to ask it. Gates looked happy to answer it, sitting there placid as a camel.

“Are you re-affirming your initial statement, that the exact time, nature, and location of the attack came to you in a dream?”

“Yes.”

The General reddened, turned away and looked out of the tiny window, his arms folded. “Have you told the truth during this session to the best of your ability?”

“Yes.”

“Okay, man. Your done.” Hernandez tucked the manila folder under his armpit, Sergeant Beck continued annotating, and Jeffries asked, “Sir, you mind if I go to the shoppette and get some cigarettes?”

“Sure, son.” He said. “Take this soldier with you.”

“Can I take this off, sir?” Gates asked, pointing to his arm. The General nodded to his staff sergeants. “Yeah, man.” One said, helping him with the Velcro. He shrugged to the silent trio and went outside to join his friend.

“Fuck, man.” Jeffries said, “I need some cigarettes.”

“Me, too, homey.” Gates said, feeling refreshed now that he had escaped from the dubious and high-ranking inquisition. If they had asked him if he was psychic he would have said ‘No’ and probably would have passed with flying colors. Weird shit happened. That didn’t make you psychic. Sometimes you thought of a song and then someone next to you started singing it. So what?

It took them less than two minutes to traverse the entire post. As it turned out, there was no shoppette, only a small Hajji shop that sold bootleg DVD’s (pornos if you could communicate to the vendor, through a mixture of body language, air humping and pidgin dirty talk, ‘flick-flicky’), souvenir prayer rugs, and custom-stitch combat patches. They had cigarettes, but they only sold them stale and by the carton. Gates hung out outside while Jeffries went inside and haggled with the fat Shi’a man.

It would be a minute on those cigarettes. He could tell from the haggling tone that Jeffries was in the process of buying jewelry for his on-again off-again fiancée. When he got paranoid about her fucking other men he would attempt to re-sell it to another Hajji shop down the line. That had been the cycle so far, en route here. They had stopped at Foxtrot, a joint-multinational range, where he had bought her a faux Cameo with a very real price, called her on the morale line, detected something in her voice that made him think she was fucking one of her coworkers, and attempted to resell the jewelry to another vendor at Camp Jericho, a little bit north of Basra when they had stopped to refuel.

Gates wasn’t a sadist, but he derived some comic relief from the back and forth. But that wasn’t the only reason he wanted Jeffries around. He was alright peoples, in general. They hadn’t been close friends. Gates had no close friends in the unit and had been standoffish even before he turned into Nostradamus, but Jeffries had been the only one in the unit who hadn’t pissed him off at some point, so when they brought him into the Multinational conference room in the palace and told him he needed someone to come along and be a third-party witness, Jeffries’ name popped into his head, and now here he was.

He didn’t know this, as he leaned against the side of the shop, posted and itching for nicotine, but he had saved Jeffries from a detail that had been killing him for the past six months. He was on Perimeter Lights, which entailed walking alongside an aging Bobcat manned by an old Iraqi man, dressed in Kevlar, ballistic vest and gloves, plus full combat load, eight to twelve hours a day in the sun, watching the old man replace lights on the inside of the wall. The job was a farce.

The old man had no interest in anything but his five dollars a day, and here he sat, eighty pounds of gear in one-hundred and forty degree weather, four-thousand rounds a minute devoted solely to a geriatric who had probably known the Prophet Mohammed when he was a teenager.

When Jeffries heard he was packing up and heading down south, minus most of his gear, Gates could do no wrong in his eyes from that point onward.

He came out of the shop with two bags, pulling a carton of Newports from one and splitting it open for his partner. “There you go ‘bro.” Gates was afraid to ask what was in the other bag. Jeffries was shitty with money in realms beyond jewelry: magazines, computer accessories, I-pods, Amazon.com, he manages to remain as broke in Iraq as he was in the states. Most men and women in uniform ensured Iraq wasn’t a total loss by at least getting out of debt. Jeffries would have nothing to show for it, except for his life, which was a lot, now that Gates thought about it.

“Thanks, Jeff.”

“No problem, cuz.”

They tore the cellophane from the packs and walked slowly, temporarily free from the brass. They were supposed to rendezvous back with the bigwig at Chow. After they broke bread together, it was back to the VTC to evaluate the results of the polygraph. So they had from now ‘til 1700 to kill, and not a lot to do.

Jeffries took a square from the pack and tamped one out for his friend. They crowded his OIF Zippo and blew out smoke. Jeffries scratched his right eyebrow with his cigarette hand and mumbled as smoothly as he could, “Holy shit.”

Both of the female airmen turned their heads, one down, and one away, revealing the chocolate chips of their boonies. Their earrings stood out, majestic femininity like perfume after a deluge of sewage.

“Yo, you take the black one, I’ll take the white one.” Jeffries said.

“Dude, you’re black. The black girl’s not going to be feeling me.”

“How do you know until you’ve tried, white chocolate?”

“Yeah…” He laughed for the first time in awhile, waving smoke away and happy for the futile diversion of women he knew had no interest in fucking him. The Army (or the Armed Forces since they were in the Air Force) was like society, in that women generally fucked up and men down; Air Force fucking Army was down. But maybe they wanted to slum it…

“Bitches.” Jeffries said. “They’re here for four months, six months tops, if they get extended.” Both of them had already been in Iraq for six months. Six more to go. Unless they got extended. Then twelve more months. A year. Jeffries stared after them, torn between lust and jealousy. Gates tapped him on his shoulder, a gesture that told him to let it go.

They came over to the sandpit, where a half-assed volleyball game was in progress. A few airmen in PTs were scrimmaging with Army on the basketball court. Since their PTs were packed, Jeffries and Gates took up spots on the bench. Gates let his feet dangle between the slats, kicking the underside of the rail.

He listened to the basketball bounce, and the volleyball thud, and thought about the dream that had gotten him here. He had been upside-down in an up-armored Humvee and Specialist Rose was already dead from the impact of the rocket, in two halves. Sergeant Merrick wasn’t dead yet, but he was on his way. He had somehow instinctively yanked Gates down from the turret as they reached critical mass in the rollover, just barely missing the ravine where he would have most certainly drowned.

A small fire within the cab had ignited a pin flare which ricocheted around inside. He thought it was an accidental discharge from one of the dead men’s dislodged M-16s but no evidence of rounds had been found in the aftermath. The lead and third truck had formed a textbook box around them, Dustoff was alerted, and spotted a daisy chain of IEDs off to their right.

They were given the order to cordon the area, all remaining gunners would secure the area from their vantage (the Singars inside the truck hadn’t been disabled, and Gates had heard the whole thing lucidly, thinking I’m not remaining. I’m the gunner that’s not remaining. They think I’m dead.) For some reason them thinking he was dead was more unendurable than being dead. The only thing worse, and this he was sure now and forever was the worst thing, was burning flesh.

It penetrated you, if you had any sympathy, the way your drunken friend puking next to you made you want to puke. Burning flesh invaded you, against all reason, it felt like a sin to breathe it in; the horror of realizing that it was the same as eating someone. He thought of Eucharist in grade school, sitting upside-down and feeling like he would be cut in half if someone didn’t bring in the Jaws of Life soon, thought about how he could never eat fast food again, no meat, no celebration meal with his family when he got back. How could he tell them? I breathed flesh. I breathed Sergeant Merrick and Rose. It wasn’t that he wouldn’t forget what burning flesh smelled like. He wouldn’t forget what it tasted like.

Either Dust-OFF or Recovery called in EOD and fed them the nine line. Gates hadn’t recognized the voice so it had probably been Dust-Off. The chain was determined to be at a great enough distance, though he still should have been recovered first, if they were going off the SOP. Whatever the case, someone triggered the chain, but they hadn’t anticipated how close the chain crept to him. There was no way they could have known that the rest of it was submerged underground.

The Terrorists were usually as lazy as the Americans. This had been a bang-up burial, no tell-tale Bugs Bunny mound of dirt, wrong turn at Albuquerque. It went off twenty feet from his upside-down head where the blood was rushing, not close enough to kill him, or even really hurt him, just close enough to give him a concussion that knocked him into a dream that told him Camp Zulu, Baghdad would be attacked on September Ninth at 0845 am with a vehicle born IED. He remembered a phrase his father had ingrained in him since about age five: smack some sense into you. That’s what the concussion had done. He wasn’t psychic. It had smacked some sense into him.

Besides, potentially being psychic didn’t bother him. He laughed. He could become a superhero. Locate Bin Laden through Afghani caverns with his X-ray eyes.

“What you laughing at, man?”

He shook his head. “Nothing.”

He hit the Port hard, knowing there was a whole carton there if he needed it. “Hey, look who’s here.” Jeffries spun around. Gates spun too. The dog was following them, a nomad who knew life outside the wire better than either of them, yet still managed to wag its tail.

Gates bent down to pet it, him. “Don’t ever touch me again.” Jeffries said, smoking and disapproving. Gates ignored him, patted the dog’s stomach, and spotted a pink knot in the middle of the dog’s belly.

“This dog’s got a hernia.”

“What are you, a fucking vet? Come on, man. He probably got it lifting weights, which is what I feel like doing. Let’s go.”

The dog seemed to mistrust the change from affection to investigation, and limped away from Gates, who turned back to his friend. “Let’s go.” Jeffries was already peeling off his blouse, revealing heavy muscles, bowed and corded with veins like tree roots. He was a gym rat, spent what money he didn’t waste elsewhere on supplements (both legal and iffy) and he came in third on the Camp Zulu Strongest Man competition and actually managed to take the Humvee Lift event in the male category.

Gates, on the other hand, did the minimum to pass the PT tests. “You go ‘head, man. I’m gonna check out what passes for a library on this shit heap.” They passed the clearing barrels where two flyboys charged their sidearms into the bins before heading inside.

A Hindi man who seemed transcendentally beyond the everyday woes of Iraq stood at the counter where he signed out ping pong paddles. Behind him were board games like Risk and Monopoly that no one ever played. The main room was set up with couches divided between Play Station and X-Box loyalists, crouched like zombies temporarily galvanized by a brain thrown their way. They played mostly sports and World War Two simulators, with one or two committed Role-Playing devotees finding quiet solace in an epic adventure off in a corner.

They both signed the clipboard, and Jeffries took a towel. “Alright, man.”

“Laters.”

They walked in separate directions down the corridors painted with symbols representing all of the units that had come before them. The names of casualties were written to the sides of the various symbols. All of the KIA belonged to units that were passing through. This post had never known violence.

Gates walked into the library, the only other habitué a middle-aged woman in PTs who had to be an officer, probably in the medical field. He tried random books from the shelf, knowing that he wouldn’t find anything good. He took a book and went to lie down on one of the couches, letting his feet hang off the edge. He stared at the ceiling, fixing his eyes on an overhead fluorescent transom. He had a headache. He fell asleep.

Later, he didn’t know how much later, he felt someone tapping his foot. Gates sat up, propped on his elbows. It was Jeff. “How was the gym?”

“Fucking sucked man. They got all their equipment from English soldiers, so it’s all in kilos. I don’t know the metric system,” Gates reached up his hand, and Jeffries helped him up, “Except when I was stationed in Germany. Someone taught me how to convert kilometers into miles and back. I forget how. It’s helpful on the autobahn, though. How was your nap?”

Jeffries only stopped talking because he realized that he’d asked a question and was therefore compelled to wait for a response. He would have kept going, amped as he was on a heady mix of endorphins and testosterone, having lifted after the long hiatus imposed by their trip down here.

“It was bad.” Gates said, referring to the nap.

“Oh, yeah. Why’s that?”

They walked back out the front. Jeffries waved goodbye to the Hindi. “I had a bad dream.”

Suddenly Jeffries stopped and Gates walked on, toward the dining facility and their 1700 meeting with the general. “Oh, yeah, about what?” Jeffries waited, as if for a life-or-death prognosis on his own health.

“Let’s get this fucking thing out of the way.” Gates said.

Dinner was a grim standoff, a silent affair. The Televisions all blared the same news, two talking heads with opposing viewpoints on Iraq, the chattering argument cast a few feet above the heads of those enduring it and ignoring those who talked about it. The general and his non-commissioned officers sat on one side of the table, Jeffries on the other, staring at Gates expectantly, tortured and hating his friend almost as much as the General. They all watched him pick at his Sundae, run the plastic spoon along the top, coating it with Hershey’s syrup. He finally ate the maraschino cherry.

Gates was the first one out, pitching his mostly-intact dessert into the trashcan held by a smiling Nepalese man. The General was next, followed by the NCOs, then Jeffries.

Back in the VTC room the general laid it out for him simply, conceding a defeat of kinds, and the process pained him, thus his medium. “Hernandez.” He said.

Hernandez, who was apparently in charge of all paperwork, unfurled the results which dropped well to the floor like some kind of medieval decree. The pages were littered with pen marks and post-session footnotes in a shorthand of waves it would have been impossible for anyone not trained in the art to interpret.

The general spoke. “These results indicate that you are telling the truth. Or at the very least you believe you are telling the truth. I don’t know everything there is to know about the polygraph machine, but Sergeants Hernandez and Beck do, and according to what they tell me, no one knows everything there is to know about the polygraph. It’s not infallible. Am I right, sergeants?”

“Yes sir.” They conceded.

“So…” Gates asked, “what are you telling me?”

The general flinched at the omission of ‘sir’, but continued all the same. “Either you are a very good liar, in which case you did have prior knowledge that an attack was to take place at Camp Zulu, in which case you are a traitor and will be punished to the maximum extent under UCMJ, probably sentenced to death…”

For some reason, even though it wasn’t his life at stake, Sergeant Beck gulped audibly. “And, in addition, you are a sociopath…Or.”

“You’re psychic.” Sergeant Hernandez spoke, hope for this contingency forcing him to speak out of turn.

“Or,” The general said, choosing to ignore him rather than get angry. “You’re psychic.”

There was silence. Then Private Gates said. “So what you’re telling me is…” He looked to Jeffries. They exchanged mutual looks of confusion. “I’m sorry, sir.”

“Look, son.” The general’s double-chin, more a result of gravity than fat, trembled. “ We can either rule out or confirm your psychic abilities, right here, right now.”

He marched over to the paper, snatched it from Sergeant Hernandez, who sought to protect it like a baby and cringed as the general tore at it. “To hell with all this. What I want from you right now, is to tell me something else. Tell me something that’s going to happen tomorrow. And if it happens, hell, I’ll go to the chapel and kick the cross off the alter, you can get your happy ass up there and I’ll start praying.” The general looked around. Catching his breath, and gauging the effect of his words, he continued again, albeit this time more carefully. “Look, none of you were even in the Army as long ago as the Bosnian conflict. Maybe Sergeant Beck.”

Sergeant Beck shook his head, though it seemed to be a rhetorical question, the way the general carried on. “My point is this. The Cold War wasn’t so long ago that I’m not willing to entirely rule out psychic phenomenon. If what you’ve got can save American lives, I’m all for it, son.”

Gates, opened his mouth, looked to the others for help, which wasn’t forthcoming, and spoke timidly. “…So?”

“SO GIVE ME SOME GODDAMN PROOF, YOU LITTLE SHIT!!!”

“That’s easy.” The private said, the placid camel again. “I’ll be dead tomorrow by noon.”

Sergeant Beck interjected, his training kicking in. “Are you saying you intend to hurt yourself. Because if you are, I’m required to inform your chaplain and place you on suicide watch.”

“Jesus.” Gates massaged his temples, and headed for the door.

“Private!” The General shouted. “You give me something to go on now, if you want this project to continue. Otherwise, we’re on the next thing flying back to Baghdad. I’ve wasted enough time, money, and resources on your ass. Now if you don’t want a court martial for colluding with the enemy, you give me something.”

Private First Class Gates said, “I’ll have something for you tomorrow at 1300, sir.”

He left, not slamming the door behind him, but closing it gently. Jeffries stood outside with him, pulling a cigarette from his pocket. He handed one to Gates. “Here you go, dawg.”

“Thanks, dawg.”

They leaned against the wall, hearing the continued tirade of the general rain down on his remaining men. “Hey, man.” Jeffries said.

“What’s up?”

“Thanks for getting me out of Baghdad. This is some pretty funny shit. I like watching that guy blow his top.”

“Me too. Hey.” Gates tapped Jeffries.

“What up, man?”

The sun was relaxing its hold, throwing a more endurable gold and casting back its white, the phosphorus replaced by a chilly sepia. “Give me a couple packs to take back to the tent. Where the fuck do they got us staying anyway?”

“I don’t know. Let’s go talk to Billeting.”

“Alright, man.”

They headed off in a random direction, looking for someone who might have the key to a room where they could lay down. “Hey, Gates.” Gates was preoccupied. Jeffries toyed with his name in the interim it took for him to come back. It was the interplay. No one else called him Jeff. “Gates of heaven, Gates of hell, the gayness of Gates.”

“What up, Jeff?”

“If you’re thinking of suicide…” Jeffries grew somber, centered himself in front of his friend. “Can I have your DVD player?”

Gates laughed, the second time in eight months. “Sure Dawg.”

Night came, without mortars or helos, the pulse of silence, the mild twittering of insects in the stagnant reeds, somewhere outside the rusting concertina and the ease of Iraq’s secret, this place where nothing happened. That was the subject in the General’s tent, where he lay with his two aides. They were using the polygraph tough box as a makeshift table for a game of spades. They threw down their cards and bullshitted, engrossed enough to give up on the psychic, at least for the time being.

“This post goes four years without an attack, and then the day after he shows up, you expect me to believe…” He stopped, his words were falling on deaf ears. He lay with his head in the direction of his mini-fan. A goddamn General without air-conditioning.

With Jeffries asleep, Gates was the lone soul taking advantage of the 24 hour internet café. He had sent an e-mail to his father, something about a football game he’d caught part of in the dining facility and for his father to please comfort his mother if something happened to Gates; he’d sent one to his sister, wishing her luck in law-school, good luck with the bar, and with all her life, and if something happened to him, to keep on going; one to his brother, saying that he knew how bad it sucked to be living at home with mom and working a shitty job, but it could be worse. You could be in Iraq.

Then he sent one to his mother. But he didn’t know what to say. Opting for laziness and brevity he sent, I Love You. He stood up, rubbed the sides of his head, and said ‘Goodnight’ to the female airman running the Internet Center. She looked up from her game of Solitaire and wished him a good night. He headed back to the tent where Jeffries was snoring loudly with his stinky-ass feet exposed. He dug all of the Newports out of his pocket except for one cigarette and left the packs on Jeffries’ gently heaving chest. They jingled slightly when they touched the dog tags hanging outside of his shirt.

The soldier who’d given them their linen had claimed that the tent had been treated with a highly flammable material in order to ward off mosquitoes, but when he lit the cigarette, he did not meet the pre-noon doom. So he smoked, killing himself and time. Then he slept.

Morning woke him with a tongue on his hand, gently along the knuckles, then tickling the palm into consciousness. As animal friendly as he was, he was startled by the dog. He jumped up and woke Jeffries in the process.

“What’s up?”

“We’re under attack, dawg.”

They got their towels, sandals, and hygiene kits and headed for the latrine. Jeffries smoked a cigarette with the hand not holding his loofah and Gates chewed his toothbrush.

“So you made it through the night.”

“I’m not supposed to die until today.”

“You’re crazy, dude.”

“I hope so.”

“If you die,” Jeffries said, “Then I’m gonna die, too. ‘Cause I’m gonna be shadowing you all day.”

“If you try to follow me when I tell you not to, I’ll beat your ass.”

“Ha.” Jeffries busted up, his face toward the sky. Then, when that position got to be too much, he leaned over. “It’s going to be hard, considering I’m an ex-golden gloves contender who can bench twice what you weigh. I bet you can’t bench half what I weigh.”

They stopped short, noticing that their three friends were coming from the other direction.

“Great,” Gates said. But it was unavoidable on a small post. They all continued into the latrine, as civil as possible under the circumstances. Any awkwardness was compounded by them being forced to strip naked in front of each other. Minus his star and plus a stretch-mark ridden paunch, the General seemed less commanding. They all took their stalls.

“Oh, yeah.” Jeffries said, continuing their earlier conversation. “I know Akido, too. I bet you don’t even know what Akido is.” His voice echoed, the only one at ease enough to talk. It reverberated through the silence imposed by the others. They stepped out, toweled and dried off, all five of them occupying the mirrors simultaneously. Someone else came in to shave and had to wait. Gates wondered if he might have to take on all four of them.

The groups parted and went back to their respective tents. They began changing into their duty uniforms. Jeffries had on his DCU top and his boxers, and was in the process of putting on his socks. “You going to chow, Ice Cream Man?”

“Yeah, man.” Gates said, reaching down to one of the adjacent folding cots and extracting one of the metal bars from the cross-hatch teepee it formed. “Just give me a minute.” He waited until Jeffries was faced away, bent over and tying his shoe.

He heard the sound as he was bringing the metal bar down, his friend about to form a question, cut into a plaintive whine that garbled as he caught the bar flush on the protruding bone at the rear of his head. Gates cracked him one more time, bringing it down like a club and stabilizing the sledgehammer force by going down on one knee. The bar fell from his hands and dropped to the floor, where it rattled. His heart beat fast. He crouched down to feel his friend’s pulse. It beat steadily, but he was out.

Gates walked out of the tent, into the day. The dog was on his doorstep. He bit his lip and kicked it with his steel toe on its snout; it snarled, betrayed. The contortion from love to the bared hatred of its teeth was not the note he wanted to go out on. He stared up at the sky, hoping for something, but there were no clouds and the sun hurt his eyes. He walked the post, searching for a spot away from people, but it was hard when it was this small. He settled for a small mound near two storage containers, with two guard towers equidistant from each other, some fifty feet away. He put his head in his hands and breathed. He should have kept a cigarette.

As of Monday, at least 2,112 members of the US military have died since the beginning of the Iraq war in March 2003, according to an associated press count. The figure includes two military civilians. At least 1,870 died as a result of hostile actions according to the military’s numbers.

The AP count is 4 higher that the Defense Department’s Tally, last updated Monday.

The latest deaths reported by the military:

– Marine Corporal Thomas D. Jones Jasper River, Oregon, died in a helicopter crash in Anbar; assigned to the Marine Medium Helicopter squadron 354, Marine aircraft group 35, 1st Marine Aircraft wing, 2nd Marine Expeditionary Force, Camp Pendleton, Calif.

– Army PFC Jason R. Gates Cincinnati, Ohio, died from direct mortar hit near Talil; assigned to Rough Riders, 35 Inf BN, 12 Inf Bgd. Camp Gradier, Colorado

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“He’s Still a Mariner,” by Alpha Unit

Richard Phillips is no hero. He himself said so. He was captain of the Maersk Alabama when it was seized by Somali pirates back in 2009 and says that the real heroes of the whole incident are the US Navy, the Navy SEALs, and the merchant mariners who sailed with him.

Some of the crew members who sailed with him swear he’s no hero. They’ve been telling the media that it was his recklessness that got the ship into the hands of the pirates in the first place. Nine of them have filed a lawsuit against the Waterman Steamship Corporation and Maersk Line Limited alleging that the companies willfully sent their employees into an area where pirates were attacking merchant vessels and showed a willful disregard for their safety – mostly for financial gain.

In their lawsuit they detail some of the physical injuries and mental anguish they’ve suffered as a result.

Captain Phillips admits that he ignored calls to stay at least 600 miles off the coast of Somalia, but he told ABC News that it didn’t matter. He had never been that far from Somalia before and ships are sometimes taken 1,000 miles out.

He also said that everyone in the Merchant Marine has to face pirates at some point, adding, “If you don’t want to deal with piracy, you need to get another job.”

Captain Phillips has the support of his union, the International Organization of Masters, Mates, and Pilots. Steve Werse, a union executive and a sea captain, told ABC that warnings of pirates off the Somali coast were so numerous in 2009 that if you listened to all of them you’d have never left port.

He also explained that the warnings were just advisories of suspected pirate activity and carried no legal weight or authority. There is nothing “magical” about sailing 600 miles off the coast, he said, because pirate attacks have occurred even beyond 1,000 miles off the coast.

The Masters, Mates, and Pilots union represents licensed deck officers, marine engineers, state pilots, unlicensed seafarers, and shore side clerical and service workers in the maritime industry. Captain Phillips and his union have taken advantage of the publicity surrounding the movie about his kidnapping to draw attention to the Maritime Security Program (MSP), which is run by the Department of Transportation.

The program keeps 60 ships ready to carry cargo for the US military at war, and it carried 95 percent of Defense Department cargo during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, from tanks to food. In return, the federal government provides the ship owners with an operating stipend to offset the increased costs of maintaining their ships under US registry. (It’s cheaper to register elsewhere, because of US labor and environmental regulations.)

Budget cuts due to sequestration were scheduled to reduce funding to MSP next year, which led the US Maritime Administration to warn ship owners that a third of the vessels in the fleet could be eliminated. But the fleet has been preserved now that President Obama has signed into law the bill to reopen the government. MSP funding is to remain at a level sufficient to maintain the entire 60-ship fleet. Congress has to approve funding every year.

The Maritime Security Program provides vital services to the military, but for mariners, it’s really about preserving jobs. He’s famous, but Captain Phillips remains a working seaman.

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“The Claustrophobic Detective,” by Joseph Hirsch

Another short story by Joseph Hirsch. This story was originally published in Underground Voices Magazine in 2008 – Robert Lindsay.

The Claustrophobic Detective

by Joseph Hirsch

Tongue Town, so named for the mishmash of cultures that kept it from being called solely Little Italy, Chinatown or Turkey Town, was fifteen square blocks of food smells and banners strewn like clotheslines between old buildings. It was a small borough of differing Gods who were either at war with each other or were unaware of the other’s existence. And maybe in the case of the most Zen deities, the right to disagree was respected intact.

The Law rarely came down here. Policing, for the most part, was done internally. If one of the squad detectives touched the tip of the Tongue, it was usually for a cheap lunch. Junior Detective Bishop deliberately avoided the place when he could, because it was equally hard to enter or leave. His dissatisfaction with being forced to come down here was now palpably written across his stubbly pale face, which was partially concealed by steam emanating from the grates at his feet, moistening the weatherproof sheen off his loafers, and combining with smoke from the cigarette he kept in his mouth. That was the one good thing about this part of town. It was still legal to smoke here.

He craned his neck upward, to the sliver of clouds banked between the walls of the brownstones piled shoulder to shoulder all the way down the street, like an eternally reflecting series of mirrors. The only available light was coming from the crime scene, which gave off a sickly purple neon that overshadowed the neon coming from even the riskiest venture of food poisoning at the shadiest of restaurants, or any case of VD from the battery of whorehouses, both human and robotic, populating the city. It was something that he didn’t want to understand. And this one, this womb, was apparently owned by a Chinese man, or at least one pandering to a cliché as old as the coolie. Won’s Womb.

Clever. But moving closer to the pumpkin-shaped chamber, throbbing iridescent light, stronger than the reds and blues of the beat cops’ cruiser, he saw that the man detained in flexi-cuffs was indeed Chinese, or at least of Asian extraction. Bishop drank in the smoke from his cigarette, and navigated around the gawking crowd. He thought he could faintly detect the victim through the venous skin of the pumpkin, which was about half the size of the brownstones abutting it on both sides.

The two cops holding the perp-proprietor must have divined Bishop’s occupation from his bearing alone, because he flashed no badge, and said nothing to them, but they still let him through the cordon. “You want to talk to him?” They asked, of the man held between them, chomping at the bit to plead his case, and maybe hang himself without the benefit of a lawyer. Bishop held up the hand in which he carried his cigarette, and said, “In a minute. Let me take a look at the victim first.”

“You don’t want to do that.” The second cop said, his stomach souring in sympathy for Bishop. The proprietor struggled, and shouted. “No smoking in my womb!”

The two cops pinioned his arms behind his back, in full ninety-degree uncles. “You got bigger problems, now, chief.” Bishop continued smoking his cigarette, and for the first time, stepped inside of one. He had resisted them until now, content to remain simple of this habit. The more mystified he remained by it, the better off he was. At least, that was how he reasoned it.

There were twelve licensed wombs in the city proper, with talks of zoning space for another three within the upcoming fiscal year. Most moral watchdogs considered the things eyesores, or the craven province of men (usually men) too weak for reality. But from the sky, in a plane or in a rocket, their beauty could not be argued, and they formed a tryst of purple lights, a skyline whose unintentional shape could be argued as endlessly as drifting clouds.

Bishop, who had never even left the country, let alone the planet, could not appreciate their beauty. And if he ever had appreciated them at some point in the past, all such thoughts would have been banished, washed in the blood of this victim, now a formless pancake of melted bone, and skull so thoroughly crushed that it had been flattened almost to two dimensions. Bishop didn’t lose his lunch, but the way the close confines incubated the corpse did test the veteran detective’s stomach. He countered the impression with cigarette smoke, and the small satisfaction that the man who had crushed this poor bastard didn’t want him smoking in here.

Could he possibly burn this place with one careless ember, the way someone might fall asleep in an armchair, and burn their house to the ground? It was a thought.

The warmth of the place entered him, but he was only conscious of it when he realized that he would have to leave at some point, and be forced to walk back outside filled with the knowledge of death, before Forensics and the photographers had their turn with it. The feeling was something like the hard, hot needles of a shower in a cold room, steaming ridges of goose bumps all over your body, and urging you to remain where you were. He gave into it, then, because he so rarely caved in to anything. Take away cigarettes and he was without vice. He was of the Christian minority, attended a church in a dense nest of mosques, was loyal to his wife, and was one of the few men in the department who was not an alcoholic, closet or open. But still he gave in, for now, allowing himself to slide along the wall, into a crouch, staring at the final obstinate cherry of his cigarette. It warned of its impending death by burning his fingers, and staining the nails black.

He began to understand, against tough will, why some men paid a quarter month’s wages to scurry here, to the very essence, which had finally been expanded, ballooned to the size of a home, and then exploited by men like the handcuffed proprietor outside.

Overpopulation, man stacked upon man, racial unease, war, disease, the live broadcast feed of footage that rolled into every home when the work day was done, and it was time to repose with horror… He understood these men, could even see himself becoming one if he didn’t get the hell out of here, soon. Now the only thing that remained to be understood was why the proprietor had felt the need to kill this sad case, who had done nothing but patronize his business.

If it wasn’t a case of cold murder, then it was a case of negligence. And in that case the man standing outside would be fined heavily, and his shop would be closed down. Either way, he had some music to face. Bishop ditched his cigarette on the fleshy floor of the chamber, and stepped back outside, down the gangway to the ground, where the crowd had thinned some. The owner was still animated in his protest, and the two policemen were still struggling to keep up with their care. Bishop glistened with condensation from the womb. Now all I have to do is chew the umbilical cord with my cigarette-stained teeth, he mused. He stepped to the proprietor, who lunged forward with his neck, as if he could bite Bishop with his very words. “I told you not to smoke in there!”

“And we told you you’ve got bigger problems, now.” One of the cops said, pinching the man’s forearm along the shoulder, until he could only concentrate on his pain. Bishop pulled the man away to a neutral corner, giving the cops a look of weary brotherhood, conveying his need to have a crack at it his way, while also hoping the man now somewhat viewed him as his deliverance.

“Could a man spend twenty-four hours in there?” Bishop asked, in a low, commiserating tone. It seemed to put the proprietor at ease, and he leaned in, speaking into the detective’s tie, as if it were a listening device. “You mean, physically?”

“Sure.” Bishop said, genuinely curious. His question wasn’t really pertinent to the investigation, but only he knew that. The proprietor, the Won maybe, gave a shrug, and then spoke. “I would imagine so. After all, it’s not a sauna in there, but…” He paused with a chess-master’s sense of deliberation, then spoke, “But you’ll never find out.”

Bishop leaned in, so that they were almost kissing. The cops watched the dialogue, perplexed. The few remaining bystanders also watched. Bishop spoke. “Why not?”

Screams rent the city street, tearing the air like the clatter of a municipal garbage truck’s metal-on-metal retrieval. It was a woman, fine crows’ nests on the sides of either eye, stretching out to weathered sandpaper skin. She looked to be older than her husband. She shouted, threw her fists, and her hair flew, and both of the cops restrained her, reaching the limits of their patience, itching to use the mace bobbing on their utility belts. The husband turned from Bishop, shouted something to his wife in Chinese, and she immediately receded. He then turned back to the detective, whose question he had forgotten. But Bishop hadn’t forgotten it.

He asked again. “Why don’t you know if a human could withstand twenty-four hours inside your womb?” He realized how insane the question sounded, but he had already asked it, and the suspect had an answer. “Because.” Won said. “Even if it is physically possible, it is not financially possible for most men. It would cost far too much. Any man who had that much money probably wouldn’t need the comfort of the womb. He could probably find solace, elsewhere.”

But if not? Bishop suddenly thought about it, glad that he was not a billionaire, since a millionaire probably couldn’t swing it these days. But a tycoon probably had enough money to simulate gestation, give himself a full nine months in there. For some reason the thought made him shudder, and he latched onto the investigation, for its sense of reality.

“Okay.” Bishop said. “Since you haven’t shouted for a lawyer yet, you might as well talk to me. What happened? Did the thing malfunction? Or did you contract the chamber on him because you wanted to see what it felt like to kill a man? Help me out.” Bishop placed his hand on the pack of cigarettes in his pocket, remembered how his defiant smoking had angered the man moments before. He thought better of it, and left the pack where it was, and waited for an answer.

“Neither.” The man relished the pregnant mystery of his pause, with a wan smile, and spoke. “He asked for me to contract it, all the way. And I did, and he died.”

Tires screeched, car doors slammed, and men climbed from two plainclothes sedans, pulled into cattycorner herringbones formation. It was Forensics, and the photographer. Something grisly for you boys, he thought. A giant squashed fly, to put your own lives in perspective, and make your Sunday prayers a little hollower.

“So assisted suicide, huh? That’s your story and you’re sticking to it?”

Won smiled. “It’s in writing. I’m no fool. The money was right, and with a signed and notarized contract, I consider my case more than airtight. If you would let me…” The man struggled with his cuffs. Bishop drew a serrated K-Bar from his jacket pocket, and cut the flexi elastic. The two cops got jumpy, and he pulled out another pair to allay them. “Got my own.” He smiled. The cops eased back along the side of their cruiser. Forensics and the photographer did a beeline for the womb. There was no media yet, but there was definitely a story developing here.

With shreds of cuffs dangling from his wrists, Won extracted the folded paper from his pocket, and presented it to Detective Bishop, who read:

I, Jonathan Lanfree, do sign my life over with full knowledge and forethought, to Won’s Womb…

Bishop refolded the contract, tucked it in his breast pocket, gave the man a grace period to massage the red burns along his wrists, and then he placed the second set of flexi-cuffs on him, and led him over to the two cops, who were salivating over the chance to restrain him once again, for whatever reasons. Bishop then dug the pack of cigarettes from his pocket, extracted one, lit it with a match, and walked back into the purple pumpkin, flashing with the strobe from a camera, over the sounds of the screaming proprietor. “I told you ‘no smoking’! You respect my property!”

Bishop entered, listened to the interplay of voices, grizzled banter to see who felt the least about the situation, or who could make the biggest joke out of it.

“Quite the miscarriage.”

“This is why abortion’s legal.”

Flashes, strobes, light. His vision tunneled, paramedics entered the domelike chamber. He thought he could detect veins in the onion-like skin of the ceiling. The more people entered, the greater his sense of panic, until the entrance was entirely blotted out with bodies, and he fought the tide, as reasonless fear mounted in his stomach, turned him toward the wall, and he saw the smug face of the proprietor, like a hologram, contract signed and little smile, the admonitions about the cigarette, which he now ground into the wall. It hissed and extinguished, leaving a blotch that promised to wear all the way through the tent-like material to the other side, if enough force was applied.

Bishop swung, punched, and his hands became sticky, his mind blank and fevered. One of the forensic crew looked up, someone who recognized him from a double-body job a few weeks back. “Jesus Christ, Bishop! What the hell are you doing?”

He lifted on his haunches, the force of his punches sliding off the lubricating walls, until he tore through, making a finger-sized hole, which he widened by parting it with both hands, pulled outward in a breaststroke motion.

“Be professional, man! This is a crime scene!” Then, when it became clear that words had no effect, his inter-departmental friend shouted, “Someone get him!” Everyone but the photographer laboring over the corpse rushed to the opposite side of the room. But it was already too late. He had torn through the wall, and when he fell through to the other side, it was without the benefit of gangway or plank.

Upon impact, he found that his head hurt, his ears rang, and his neck was stiff with impending pain, which would probably last for weeks, but he was now free, or at least freer than he had been moments before. He didn’t know why he had done it.

Above him stood Tad Mercer, head of the Forensics team. His beer-belly bulged against the twin confines of his suspenders, splashed with a loud, garish design. The cigar jutting from the side of his mouth definitely trumped the cigarette which Bishop attempted to fish from his jacket pocket, when it became apparent that he wasn’t paralyzed from the neck down. Mercer spoke. “Well, Bishop…That’s one hell of a Caesarian.” He laughed, and Bishop laughed, looking up at the little bit of sky, where it was trapped between two buildings.

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The White Hole, by Joseph Hirsch

A short story by Mr. Hirsch. This story deals explicitly with race. It was controversial at the time, but the editor liked it and I think it has held up well with time. It first appeared in 3 AM Magazine in 2007. – Robert Lindsay.

The White Hole

By Joseph Hirsch

Before his death, Anton Walters III had been one of the most powerful and influential voices in the White Power movement (though he would have preferred the term ‘Separatist’). In fact, Federal sources revealed that he had taken part in a telephone conference from within the confines of his compound in Spokane, Washington, concerning the Nazi Low Riders, a notorious prison gang, and whether or not they should allow members with Latin blood into their ranks.

His vote had been a predictable ‘Nay’, but it had fallen on deaf ears. The drug trade and changing times had drowned out his vote, and it was best he died when he did before having to witness any further decline within the movement he had helped build.

Walters had first made his presence felt in the mid-Eighties. Before that, his writings mostly concerned big game hunting and the best methods for defense against nuclear fallout. He printed his manuals at his own expense, though the costs must have been offset or eaten by his bread and butter enterprise, which was, conveniently, running a printing press.

His works frequently showed up at Gun Shows and Trade Expos, though they weren’t displayed prominently, and he didn’t begin to receive feedback until his thoughts, and his pen, turned to the question of Apartheid during the height of the tumult in South Africa. He gained his fair share of supporters, and a few critics, after calling for the assassination of Nelson Mandela.

But he continued on, undeterred, until he contracted throat cancer in 1986 after a lifetime of indulging in both smoking and chew tobacco. He underwent radiation therapy and beat the disease despite his advancing years. And maybe the brush with death could explain the shift from hard-line essays to the dreamy speculation of his fantasies, which would go on to arouse the minds of his extremist readership.

His flagship character made his first appearance in a book entitled, simply, The Norseman. The book concerns a put-upon farmer whose wife leaves him for a strapping young black man, taking both of their daughters with her in tow. The distraught farmer, after having lost everything, goes into his backyard, falls among the furrowed ranks of corn and beseeches Christ for mercy. The farmer’s crop turns fallow the next day, leaving him without a harvest.

Embittered now, and dark of mind, the farmer turns to the Old Gods, and he summons Odin, pleading not for mercy, but for revenge. Against all logic, and told in a prose that keeps it from becoming laughable, a galleon with twenty-four oarsman rows its way onto his farm, a Viking to match the greatest of black virility at its helm. Cloaked in the pelts of fierce beasts and wearing a horned helmet, the Norseman vows to succor the poor farmer’s hatred.

The Viking then goes on a tear across the plains, until he finds the wife and the ‘moor’, as the Viking refers to him. Happening upon the couple as they are in congress in a sleazy motel, the Viking proceeds to decapitate the black man and then orders the wife to fellate him, after which she joins her lover in a heap at the foot of the bed. The novel ends with the Norseman returning to the farm, the farmer’s children in tow, clinging to his strong body…

The Norseman became a runaway success and went through five printings before Walters realized he would need to find a legitimate publisher to handle the demand. The first installment was followed by five sequels, all of which were equally successful and relied heavily on the same formula of a white nuclear family disrupted by an outside influence, usually in the form of a black man.

All of the follow-up novels sold just as well, or close. Walters’ proudest hour came when the original installment appeared in a reversible omnibus with The Turner Diaries, the only other Separatist/ Supremacist tract to surpass his own books in sales.

The success of the series allowed him to move from his single-wide trailer to a log and cedar split-level situated on ten acres of verdant wilds, with enough room for a shooting range and a small tribe of deer, each of whom was assigned an appropriately Nordic name. His favorite, was, of course, Odin….

****

Walters had a younger brother, Edgar, who lived some few-hundred miles away in Missouri. Walters the Eldest had tried to impress upon his brother the perils white womanhood would face in the coming century, but Edgar was a happily married and well-adjusted state trooper with two sons of his own whose beliefs ended at the Methodist Church he and his family attended every Sunday. He regarded his brother with some fear, and couldn’t for the life of him understand where he had gotten his ideas, as their parents had been of tolerant stock, especially considering the time and place from whence they came.

Unfortunately, Edgar’s wife left him (though not for a black man, as he repeatedly assured his older brother), and he contracted the cancer which was a part of their shared heredity. When it spread to the lymph nodes, and it became clear that he wasn’t going to beat the disease as easily as his brother had, Edgar found himself with no choice but to remand his children over to his older brother’s care.

John and Eric Walters came to live with their uncle in the Spring of 1995. John had been twelve at the time, Eric eight. After showing each of the boys their rooms, and making them feel at home, Anton proceeded to indoctrinate the children in such a way that Edgar, if he could hear it from within the confines of his coffin, would have probably rolled over in his grave.

No one knows for certain what went on at Compound Walters, but if we were to speculate, certain shows of youthful normalcy such as hunting and sports were allowed. But the pickup basketball games and the laps swam around the lake were probably greeted with caveats from the sideline: “Good, grow strong for the white race.” And the outings with the shotgun might have been prefaced: “Pretend that deer’s a black man,” or something along those lines.

The boys were home-schooled. Most of the outside world was filtered out. The one exception may have been the satellite TV, which Anton couldn’t resist, with its constant stream of damnation that fed his mind whatever thoughts of impending apocalypse or greed it needed for confirmation of Society’s collapse, everything from the spinning Wheel of Fortune to the wild fires in Arizona, Armageddon spelled out on the big-screen with closed-captions to boot.

The extent of the abuse the children suffered, or even if there was abuse, is unknown. We can assume there was some form of abuse, else why would Anton Walters the Third’s body have been found tied to a chair in front of the television? As to how the children took their White Pride education, when Walters was found, dead and starved, attached to the chair in front of the TV, the screen was blaring BET, an assault of Rap Videos in surround sound, gloating in front of his incontinent body. No one could mistake this ironic finish for an accident. When you consider that the Satellite package included more than three-hundred channels, the erstwhile Walters brothers had obviously intended to send a message to whoever found the old man, his body lighter a few credit cards.

The trail of the aforementioned credit cards stopped somewhere in Seattle, and no one had seen or heard from the brothers for at least a year. If they were alive, or where they were…it was all an unknown….

….But that wasn’t the bank’s business. Their job was to foreclose on the house, and bury its history. After the injunction was waived, a crew was ordered to restore the inside, another crew to handle the grounds outside, before the log mansion was to be set on the auction block; for Walters, in the white-heat of his creativity, had neglected to give the federal government its due.

The under-the-table atmosphere of the conventions where his books were sold only encouraged his dodgy behavior, and it was only after the IRS discovered that he owed eight years of back taxes that the body had been discovered. God knows the state of decomposition it might have been found in had it taken longer to uncover his fraud.

As it stood, the body had been taken out of the house months ago. After they removed the SS regalia and everything else that flew in the face of the man’s repeated statements that he was merely a ‘Separatist’, the rest of the home’s contents were auctioned off. The final detail was the lawn, which still needed cutting.

The two foreman, both beefy white men, stood posted on the side of the pickup where they kept all the landscaping tools. Their six-man Salvadoran work crew had undone the flatbed, pulled out the mowers and weed whackers and had gone to work. The two men shouted over the sound of their crew. Grass as fine as dust blew out from under the rusty machines, groaning out a stream of fuel that mixed with the sun and spelled Spring.

“D’ ya hear they found the kid?”

“Who?” The other one asked, lighting a cigarette and wondering if it was a safe thing to do with all the fuel residue around here.

“The nephew. You know the story here right?” The boss looked irritated, quizzically staring his friend down and wondering if he was going to have to explain the whole fuggin’ thing again.

“Yeah, yeah. I know. Crazy-ass clansman.”

“No. Wasn’t no clansman. But close.”

“Yeah, so anyway. The nephew.” The second one said, prompting him again.

“Yeah, right.” The first one said, picking it back up. “They caught his ass in Arizona. Dumb fuck was using his uncle’s credit cards to buy himself lunch at a Burger King.”

“Huh.” The other one said, leaning his elbows against the side of the truck. He noted that only one of the Salvadoran crew was wearing a mask to protect himself from the fumes. Was he some sort of foreman among them? he wondered. The hierarchy for him ended right here. He didn’t know anything about them. The Salvadorans were Mexican to him. Among these musings, the light bulb went off.

“Wait.” The second one said.

“What?” His boss said. His friend’s voice sounded contradictory. He didn’t know they were having an argument here.

“I thought there was two of them.”

“Two what?”

“Nephews.” The second one, whose name was Chet, said.

His boss, Harmon, wanted to argue, but knew he was right. It was his turn to say it. “Huh.” He said.

Huh, it hung in the space between them. Which was alright, since it was too hot to speak anymore. The chips of grass flecked up and stung their faces, like thorns or mosquitoes, pesky inanimate insects unearthed as the ground was brought back to proper manicured form. It was too hot to even look at those Mexicans, Salvadorans, let alone do what they were doing, God bless them, working without a sound usually, except for the one now, coming toward them, the one wearing a mask.

He spoke in rapid-fire Spanish. They wouldn’t have understood him even without the mask, but that only made it worse. “Good God, man, what?”

The man overcame his panic enough to pull the mask from his face, let it slide down to his sweating neck. He pointed to a spot where his countrymen were gaggled together. “Aqui!” He shouted. The foreman and his underboss brought themselves up from their sticky idle alongside the pickup truck and headed over to the point where the men were gathered like mourners around their dead.

“Okay. What the fuck?” The first white man said.

“Aqui.”

“Yeah. A key. A key to what, man?”

A nuclear symbol, the black and yellow triangles, a yellow jacket warning harkening from the Cold War days, stood out on a metal bubble, protruding from the ground, a circle riveted with steel bolts, like a shield. Around the circumference of the steel bubble, were the words White Power, traced like the outlines of reflected smiles or the most primitive of fish.

Both of the men exchanged glances. What the hell? With the bank’s consent, and with two of its representatives present, a welder was called in, a friend of the foreman’s. All in attendance gave him and his torch a respectful berth, the Salvadorans marking the furthest reaches of the perimeter, the foremen a little closer, the two bank reps the closest, as this promised to be of the most relevance to them. Whatever it was, it would either raise or lower the value of the property as a whole. They wouldn’t know until the man with the torch, faceless beneath the mask, had burned a hole in the bubble.

The sparks reached their apex as it popped, then yielded. The welder gripped the manhole cover in his gloved hands and threw it to the side. He pulled the lid of his mask from his face, revealing sweaty eyes that could barely do more than squint.

“Who’s going in?”

No one had to. Someone was coming out, stooped, mistaken for a midget, since the gait was that of age, but it was the cramped space that had wizened the boy. They all stood and watched him. He visored his eyes with his hand, stared at the circle of people around him, and spun three-hundred and sixty-degrees. It overwhelmed him, and he fell in his dizzy spell onto the grass. Two of the Salvadorans ran to him. Another one went for the water in the trunk of the pickup. The boy’s chest was heaving. He was hyperventilating.

One of the bank reps, the woman in her mid-thirties, stepped around the boy and the group gathered around him, and she peered inside. It was cool, a dank cave, counterpoint to the heat outside; the cool, mixed with her own curiosity, beckoned her further, and she descended within.

A motion sensor triggered and brought her out of the dark. The subterranean eight by six world illuminated, and she saw what the boy had seen for…how long? The answer was there, above a shelf where a bible, a bottle of vitamins, and a 9mm Beretta semi-auto handgun were resting. Fortunately the gun (which looked loaded from here) seemed untouched. The teddy bear, on the other hand, appeared to have been snuggled until mangled, a source for the child’s fear that had endured until one of the black sequins that was its eye fell from the socket, under the wear of spit when it wasn’t wrapped around a sucked thumb. Better the teddy-bear than the gun, she thought, before marveling at the digital face which was precise down to the second….

13:10:05:23:09

Thirteen months, ten days, five hours, twenty three minutes and nine…no ten…now eleven seconds the boy had been down here, alone. With foodstuffs, a teddy bear, vitamins, and a handgun. A pulley hung from the ceiling. She clutched the base of the square knot, and walked from one end of the six by eight cell to the other. She immediately felt a breeze as slats yielded in the ceiling, revealing a most-primitive form of cross ventilation, which sent her to the other side of the room, and the child’s only other form of entertainment: a military-issue, World War One style gas mask.

Up above, the other man cradled the boy who had been forced to grow to pubescence in a space too small to even use the bathroom. The boy stared into his eyes, looking like he was about to die, more probably about to pass out. He mustered some words for the man, too faint to hear without reaching down.

“What, son?”

The boy repeated it. “Did the n—— take over?”

The man winced and drew back, maybe because he was black, and the boy had spoken in commiserate tones, as if they were on the same team. The man fought his repulsion, looked up to make sure no one else had heard, then leaned back in. The boy didn’t know what the word meant. Or, if he had at some point, he had somehow forgotten in the intervening year. The man cradled him and knew the words meant nothing, didn’t know whether the boy’s brother or the boy’s uncle had locked him down here. But he wanted to kill somebody.

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Filed under Guest Posts, Literature

The Last Slice of Pizza, by Joseph Hirsch (A Dystopian Science Fiction Novel)

Brief Synopsis:  Michael Fermi is what many people would uncharitably describe as a “loser.” He is in his mid-twenties, living at home with his mother and delivering pizzas for a living. His life is about to change, however, as he has been selected by an alien race which intends to install its parasitic spearhead in his body in order to use him for their own purposes. This unseen race, known as the Grand Arbiters, will use this method of bilocation to observe humanity through the eyes of the lowly pizza man, in order to determine whether or not Man should be eliminated, and his precious Earth destroyed alongside of him.

The Last Slice of Pizza

By Joseph Hirsch

What the Reader Doesn’t Want to Know

The President of the United States of America walks into the War Room, flanked by two four star generals and the Secretary of State. While there is an impressive, massive table dominating the room, this is not the War Room we have grown accustomed to from countless movies and TV shows. There is a stainless steel carafe of water on the table, centered on a tray with three drinking glass that have been left untouched. The White House Press Secretary and the Vice President of the United States are the only people in the room who are seated. Everyone else stands, either uneasily against the wall or off to the side of the President.

The Press Secretary says, “Mr. President, at three-forty five am this transmission was intercepted at Cape Canaveral along with a decryption cipher, which arrived via radio signal at ten second intervals over the course of the following forty-five minutes. At that time, all communications ceased.”

The president has his ring finger pressed against the side of his skull, the fingertip flush against his hair which became shot with gray roughly a year into his second term. His golden wedding band is dull from being rapped repeatedly against the surface of his desk in the Oval Office.

The message is then played: “Homo sapiens, you are being contacted because we wish to inform you that several tons of radioactive explosives have been placed in the molten core of your Earth. This bomb cannot be defused, and requires no secondary trigger mechanism. It has been activated by the positively charged ions, rotation, and convective motion of your Earth, which are responsible for producing your magnetic field. The bomb will detonate in twelve hours.”

A terrified murmur makes its way from one to the other of those assembled in the room. The most powerful man on Earth has been reduced inwardly to a whimpering child, though he is still man and leader enough to conceal his terror from those who look to him for guidance, and who still want to believe that he can get them through this.

“In order to dissuade you from your doubts, reticence, or your suspicion that this may be a hoax, we have decided to incinerate a star whose coordinates we have provided to your scientists at NASA. This incineration will take place roughly eleven hours before we destroy your Earth.”

The president has clasped his hands together, as if praying, though he is more likely deep in thought, as those close to him know the Ruler of the Free World to be a closet deist, a yuppie agnostic who attended church more to plug himself into the political pipeline when rallying for his senate run, than out of any sort of religious ardor.

“Each of you who have been made aware of this message is to meet at coordinates which have been provided in a document accompanying the cipher of this transmission. You three-thousand humans will be spared and taken aboard our ship. Your immediate families will also be spared. If, however, you inform anyone not included on the manifest of either what is to happen to the Earth o he manifest of either what is to happen to the Earth or of the coordinates where the airlift is to take place, you will be incinerated along with all of your unfortunate Homo sapiens friends. End…”

Static ripples, and the Vice President turns the volume down. The President looks over at the Press Secretary, who removes his bifocals and wipes the fogged glasses with the triangular end of his paisley tie. “Mr. President, a star was in fact incinerated a little bit more than two hours ago.”

“Which star?” The president is grim, but still not panicking.

The Press Secretary swivels in his seat, undoes the half-Windsor knot of his tie. “It was a star we hadn’t even located or named until its coordinates were provided in the encrypted signal.”

The president is deep in thought, pondering the greatest crisis his nation, his planet, has ever faced. The irrepressible conflict between the North and South which claimed more American lives than any other war, the Cuban Missile Crisis whereby mutual destruction may have just been narrowly averted, the banking meltdown in which economies from Reykjavik, Iceland to Manhattan Island almost collapsed due to bad credit default swaps-all of it pales in comparison to the calamity he now has to face.

Every one of the other people in the room is grateful that the decision rests with him. Never has the crown laid heavier upon the head, or the political chalice for which men competed seemed more poisonous a drink. The President of the United States of America thinks about his constituents, about his enemies, about the hardy souls who came out to shake his hand when he did his tours of the heartland damaged by tornadoes and floods. He thinks about his responsibility to them, and he is tempted to ask one of his generals if they might not be able to triangulate the source of that signal and perhaps fire upon the target. He knows that the languishing Star Wars program is a pipe dream, and that some Hail Mary fantasy of sending a nuclear payload aboard a satellite toward the hostile aliens would make a good yarn in a popcorn flick, but this is not a movie.

The President stops thinking about his voters, his friends and enemies in Washington, the sycophantic press corps. He shifts in his seat, and the Presidential seal stitched into the leather headrest frames his head for a moment like a halo. He thinks about his wife, his children, his shaggy spotted Cocker Spaniel, and the choice becomes obvious. He glances at everyone in the room, and finally lets his eyes settle on his shiny loafers, because he is too ashamed to meet any gaze right now.

“Have Air Force One readied, and give the pilot the coordinates listed in the cipher accompanying the signal from space.”

An audible sigh goes up from those assembled in the War Room. There is the sound of papers shuffling, and then they all disperse. No one makes cellphone calls or sends emails, since those can easily be intercepted thanks to programs the president himself has signed off on via executive fiat. His decision has alienated him from his liberal base, and garners him no credit from his enemies who see him as too dovish, but he has done what he thought was right for the American people. It was easy, he muses as he walks through the halls of the White House, past the presidential portraitures, to be a protestor when one didn’t receive the kinds of briefings he got daily. But to stand on that carpet and hear about the terror cells, the loose uranium, the new surface-to-air shoulder fired rockets, day in and day out, and to keep those secrets to oneself, that made the decisions that much harder. It was his second term anyway. Better to alienate the base in order to protect them.

All of it had been for nothing, though.

He runs out to his helicopter and salutes the marine as he boards, a boards, a final wash of guilt making its way over him before it is drowned out in the roar of propellers as he takes off into the sky.

The termites dance away. Another one of the little maggots makes communion with the others, sharing his secret with them, bearing tidings from aboard a vessel where the unseen until now Arbiters are assembled to speak. They wear the same metal shells as Mama, but Wichman, Mars, Kammisch and I can sense alien life pulsing beneath the scaled metal armor. One of them speaks, its voice oscillating through some kind of modulator:

“Mercury we need only for the mining of calcium and magnesium.”

This motion is seconded, and each of the steel-sheathed Arbiters vibrate as a harmonious accord flows across their ranks. A canister filled with the pseudocoelomate rotifer Nanobots recently jettisoned from Earth appears in their midst. One of the Arbiters cracks the glass case like a giant opening a walnut with his massive hands.

A scattering of thermal termites, like floating tinsel, shows the Arbiters a scene of destruction which excites them, makes their slimy, pestiferous bodies writhe inside of the steel shells that make them seem so much stronger and more o much stronger and more formidable than they actually are. The Earth explodes, and something like a gestalt orgasm makes all of the extraterrestrial trolls applaud.

The Earth is now a radiant sun, and through the observation window a fleet of ships drifts into view to form a colorless bulwark that blots out the stars. Their force fields deploy, tessellated striations of jagged lightning, a kinematic orchestration which pushes the Earth until it sits where the sun once was, shoving the sun into an adjacent galaxy. The ships groan and turn to face the other direction. Their ballistic waves of purple light press Mars until it moves where the Earth once was. The moon stays in place.

From within this vision which has been brought to us thanks to our shattering of the little bank teller’s tube, I can hear Wichman laughing. “Clever, evil bastards.”

“That was not Earth we just visited,” Mars says.

“Captain Obvious,” Wichman shoots back. Kammisch is silent, as am I. We watch the Arbiters, sated on that main course of destruction, now treated to a desert which consists of a sadistic show well beyond man’s conception.

The President has done as the Arbiters have commanded him. He has managed to beat Benjamin Franklin’s sage advice about men and secrets, and he has assembled an intergalactic Noah’s Ark, this collection of senators and their families, generals and aides-de-camp, speechwriters and their spouses. They wait patiently for their starship to come. It arrives, a facsimile of the drop ship where we now sit watching this scene unfold, only of course much larger. They board quietly, frightened, like obedient cattle, forming the shape of a new docile animal which is composed of all of their shuffling bodies, a pachyderm bound for God-knows-where.

Once aboard, their vessel launches into space, and as quickly as a rifle tracking skeet, the Arbiters watch them through the display window of their own ship and one of the aliens presses a button which sends a ray out to intercept and obliterate the vessel filled with the only Earthlings besides us four men watching in terror, as a satanic orange and red mushroom cloud consumes itself and then dissolves into shards, fanning out into the vacuum of space.

The Arbiters roil and slither inside their steel suits, pleased and hissing, tearing themselves into shapes which resemble uncoiling strands of especially pliant taffy or fiberglass insulation. They are not so much hideous as imbued with a primordial ugliness which should not know sentience. Each of us sees bits of them slithering around in their suits, thanks to the diligence of the thermal termites worming their way into cracks and joints, and though I haven’t spoken to the other men, I can feel their anger rising as just I can feel my own.

Things that look like these Arbiters, formless ooze, should not rule over us, should not control who lives or dies or the manner in which we perish. Those politicians who fed off the blood of the people deserved to be booted from office, sure, and one could maybe make a Guy Fawkes argument that they even deserved death for the betrayal of their constituents, but killing their families, their wives, and children is beyond the ken of even Old Testament Yahweh in all but his most vindictive mood.

I am, after all, something of an authority on God, as much as any man can be short of knowing beyond a shadow of a doubt that He empirically exists. God did not, in that Gutenberg Bible I keep by my nightstand, tell the inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah that they would live, only to kill them anyway. If Lot’s wife had not turned around and disobeyed him, if she had kept her eyes forward, then God would not have turned her into a pillar of salt merely to amuse himself.

I dig my fingernails into the lifelines of my palms until they begin to bleed, cursing the slime bags for their formlessness, which leaves them no necks to even wring. I want to throttle them, too, to strangle one, but I have to keep my anger in check, because the silkworms are still spinning their web, showing me that I am in fact wrong in my assumption that we four aboard this drop ship are the only human beings left alive. The Arbiters in fact decided to keep a certain number of human beings alive for their own purposes, which were cruel, but not without a cold logic that I find hard to refute.

Several hundred sport utility vehicles, like the ones I saw around the neighborhood where I had once lived with my mother by the lake, are arranged in a long line on the rusted tundra of the Martian basalt. “Stau,” Kammisch says.

“Ja,” I reply.

But how? How or why is there a traffic jam on the surface of Mars? One of the Nanobots, not hindered by atmospheric concerns, weaves its way across the rocks toward the line of SUVs. Each of the drivers, men and women shanghaied from Earth, marooned now on Mars, grip the steering wheel of their car. Each vehicle’s porous doors and sunroofs are sheathed in a cocooning membrane of elastomeric seals reinforced with a space age polymer, like the doors on our mother ship. Nothing can get in and nothing can get out, but these men and women who have been abducted from carpools or crosstown errands do not need more oxygen than they already have, because the thermal termites will provide that, just as they would continually rewire the digestive systems of the drivers so that hunger would never become a problem, either.

Gas would certainly not be an issue, as I already know from experience. The termites are rerouting all of the atoms and molecules into a feedback loop, whereby any gas that is burned will in turn create more gas in a cycle of perpetual motion better than any sort of zero point energy theorized by Barry Mars in his most outlandish mood. The people drive in circles for days that turn into months, which become years that in turn morph into generations. They beg for death, but the termites keep their hands sealed to the wheels. The red clay of Mars looks so much like the brimstone of Hell, but nothing from Dante or Sisyphus could rival the punishment these commuters are forced to endure, as the worms in the engine blocks pump more and more fossil fuel into the Martian atmosphere.

Co2 gases form a greenhouse shell over Mars, and the Arbiters observe and laugh, this multi-century project a diversion that lasts them in their infinite cruelty the equivalent of only a few hours. Their hideous voices, rasping and scarred, carry across the desolate Martian expanse. Over one-hundred Mbar of surface pressure is realized, the temperature rising degree by degree, until the Nanobots are forced to vacate and the drivers are finally released from their torment, melting to the liquefying hulls of their Denali and Expedition and Yukon utility vehicles.

From an astral perch the Nanobots watch, nesting like lapdogs on the contours of the metal suits that the Arbiters wear. After the cars melt, the rocks begin to undergo thermal decomposition, and hissing C02 and H20 make noises eerily similar to the laughter of the monstrous aliens, gases coming in wavering steamy fingers from the ground where it cracks with molten volcanic life.

Our hatred for the evil Gods melts in that moment. No matter how wicked we consider them to be, they are giving us something that had been the provenance of no man, no matter how holy and faithful to God he was, or devoted to science he might have been. We are seeing the beginnings of a new world, the new world in fact.

A tundra region opens above the regolith, and life as small as the Nanobots appears, little pioneer biota that appeal to the part of each man that he keeps hidden, the part that wants to pet butterflies but fears how that might appear to other men.

“Oh, shit,” I think I hear Wichman say, and he starts to cry. It is contagious. We hear each other’s voices, but see only the memories of the termites, each passing on a bit of knowledge to the next in case it prematurely senesces or is consumed in flames.

The little butterflies with their purple and blue patterns are resistant to the ultraviolet rays which lash the cragged surface of this new Earth, and they excrete acids that further dissolve the rocks and flatten the mountains into low naked hills, and banded marble cliffs which form a rim around the first ocean. We can taste the nitrogen and oxygen as they are introduced, across the chasm of centuries and despite the limited sensory perception of the little wormy hosts sending back data one broken image at a time.

The one ocean of New Earth breaks into two oceans, forming an aqua-frothed Pangaea wreathed in salt in the northern boreal area and a second sea in the southern hemispheric Hellas Planitia zone. Minor tweaking is performed by the bulwarked convoy of drifting sky fortresses, which casts a giant shadow over the Earth which has become the new sun, and Mars, which has become a home for the Arbiters. Giant louvered parasol sunshades emerge from the abysses inside of the great ships, and they adjust the orbital eccentricity of every planet until the Council of Arbiters achieves that revolting harmonious accord again. They writhe in their elemental suits, and rap their chainmail knuckles against the top of their table.

The millions of aliens who have moved into the Milky Way are happy with this new living arrangement. We four remaining humans above this drop ship are less so.

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Filed under Guest Posts, Literature, Novel

“How Happy Are Recent College Graduates?” by Alpha Unit

I remember reading an article roughly 25 years ago about recent college graduates who had jobs as bike messengers and coffee shop baristas. The author, the late William Henry, was asking if too many people were going to college.

People still want to know. Now questions about the employment prospects of recent college graduates are raised throughout the mainstream media continually, for good reason. There is a glut of college graduates but a shortage of jobs that college graduates want to take – or feel they deserve.

More and more of them are taking jobs that don’t require a college degree, which pushes people without degrees out of those jobs.

Alana Semuels, writing for the Los Angeles Times, compares past and present:

In 1970, only 2% of firefighters had college degrees; now 18% do, according to Richard Veddder, an economist at Ohio University. Fewer than 1% of taxi drivers had college degrees in 1970; now 15% do. About 25% of retail sales clerks have college degrees, Vedder said.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that 48% of employed college graduates are in jobs that require less than a 4-year degree. For college graduates under 25, over half are in such jobs.

Not surprisingly, a third of 4-year college graduates don’t feel that college prepared them well for employment, as a report by McKinsey & Company found last year. Graduates who are most dissatisfied majored in visual and performing arts and liberal arts – although a third of science, business, finance, and economics graduates feel the same way.

McKinsey found that half of all graduates would choose either a different major or a different school if they had it to do all over again. Students most likely to wish they had majored in something else are those who studied visual and performing arts; language, literature, and social sciences; and accounting, economics, and finance.

Students who attended the nation’s top 100 schools fared somewhat better, but 4 in 10 settled for employment outside their intended area.

The group that fared worse than average in all measures were liberal arts graduates. They tend to be lower paid, deeper in debt, less happily employed, and slightly more likely to wish they’d done things differently.

In contrast, graduates from 4-year STEM programs were above average on most measures. They feel better prepared for employment, are more likely to be in a job that required their degree, are more likely to have an above-average income, and are more likely to choose the same major if they had it do over.

But Robert Charette warns against emphasizing STEM at the expense of other disciplines. He says that without a good grounding in the arts, literature, and history, STEM students narrow both their worldview and their career options. He cites a 2011 op-ed piece by Norman Augustine, the former chairman and CEO of Lockheed Martin, who said:

In my position as CEO of a firm employing over 80,000 engineers, I can testify that most were excellent engineers. But the factors that most distinguished those who advanced in the organization was the ability to think broadly and read and write clearly.

Charette’s view is that everyone needs a solid grounding in science, engineering, and math. In that sense, he says, there is a STEM knowledge shortage. To fill that shortage you don’t necessarily need a college or university degree in a STEM discipline, but you do need to learn those subjects, from childhood until you head off to college or get a job.

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Filed under Alpha Unit, Education, Guest Posts, Higher Education, Labor

Cougar Kittenrearing

Too funny.

Too funny.

Cougars are pretty darned funny critters.

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Filed under Animals, Humor

Woman Gives Birth on Back Lawn of a Mexican Hospital

Mazatec woman gives birth on the back lawn of a hospital.

Mazatec woman gives birth on the back lawn of a hospital.

This Mazatec Indian arrived at the local clinic in the small town of Jalapa de Diaz in Oaxaca far gone into labor. She only spoke Mazatec, so the workers at the clinic could not seem to understand her. She waited around for two hours and then went back out to the back lawn and gave birth on the lawn. The clinic workers then took care of her very well. Sad case, honestly. Story here.

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Filed under Health, Mexico, Regional, Women

Tribute to Ray Charles

Ray Charles, blind musician.

Ray Charles, blind musician.

You gotta love it.

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Filed under Celebrities, Humor

What Is This Thing?

What the Heck is it?

What the Heck is it?

Ok, I’ll put it back in my pants now.

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Filed under Animals, Humor, Weirdness, Wild