|THE FUTURE by Maxwell I Gold |
Can’t say I recall much. Towers of light, foggy voices, immutable and sticky like squirting too much toothpaste on your brush. Most people with half decent sense ignored anything that was even seemingly suspicious in our modern time. Hell, most people who had any sense enlisted into the Army of the Future, honestly. Least that’s what they tell me. Important people in lofty towers with shiny names and more money than they could count. Besides, wasn’t really much else to fight for since the Collapse. No need for governments, military, police, you name it; all of it pointless to the Future.
No one really remembered the world before The Collapse, so I enlisted. People said it was the smart thing, the right thing for someone like me to do, the only way to keep the world safe, the only way to keep the world pure. My boyfriend, Eric, thought I was fucking insane, and he made that clear,
“What are you doing? Nothing good ever comes from the Future. You know that. People join and just disappear! You want to be like that?”
Eric and I met before the Collapse, and he was a nascent protester against the Army of the Future. He thought the whole thing, the Army, was a show, a farce for something darker, more sinister, something unspeakable. He thought it was a place where they sent people like us. Disappeared from the world, erased from existence entirely though to keep my own mind from conjuring some of the worst possibilities; I let Eric’s worry sink into the swamp of conspiracy and romantic bliss, pleading with him that this was the only way.
There was peace, a place for us to call home and a place for us to be who we wanted to be, “There hasn’t been a reason to need the Army of the Future, so maybe it’s not necessarily a bad thing. We’re just protecting the world we have. Protecting our future.”
I couldn’t blame Eric for his anger or suspicions; he wasn’t the only person who felt this way about the Future. There were others, protesters in the capitol preaching a new way, and not the way of the Future. I tried to ignore the news where crowds of people clamoured at the administrative offices and public buildings, demanding the Army disbanded. It made for great television and the Future was dressed to the nines in splendid garb, brandishing automatic weaponry capped by silvery bayonets. Truly, it was a sight to behold. Though, it never escalated. Eric’s playful cynicism always made for playful commentary, “They really dressed up for the show, didn’t they?” He was pretty stubborn, though I thought it was the only way, the Future, and in these times, who’d listen to fucks like us anyways?
“I still think there’s another way,” Eric continued, as I packed my things preparing to head out. A decommissioned school bus, muffler sputtering, waited for me outside the house.
“No, this is the only way. It’s the only way for us, and you know that. You know what happens if I refuse to go now.”
I saw the look of fear, the awful sanguinity welling up in Eric’s eyes, but one of us had to be strong, “I have to go now, babe. I’m sorry. I promise I’ll be back. You know I will.”
Cold silence and tension filled the space between us as our hands touched, “No, you won’t. Don’t lie to me, at least give me that much. Just promise you’ll never forget me or this place or us.”
Clutching his hands, I struggled to produce a smile, even a glimmer of a simper, “I promise.”
“You better go, the future is waiting for you,” he sighed.
The bus ride was a pain in the ass, uncomfortable, hard seats, no heat, or windows as if purposefully shielding new recruits from the location of the Future’s training bases. I suppose from a military perspective that’s not a bad idea, though I felt more like a cramped sardine, packed and sealed, preparing to be opened up by some hungry creature, rather than a great soldier of the Future. Who was I to question their methods? Eric’s words clung in the back of my mind the entire trip, sticky with regret. Had I made the right decision? Too late now, I thought.
Three hours out from Columbus on this godforsaken bus and I began to taste the smell of freshwater. Screeching, rusty brakes echoed throughout the cabin when I saw we’d reached New Ashworth, a small no-nothing town on the edge of Lake Erie, my home for the foreseeable future. The site of a former old world military base withered and decayed; our barracks was a holy mess.
A spherical structure bending under the heavy weight of rust and time, the cheap aluminium roof peeling like mouldy fruit, “So, this is the great Army of the Future?”
“Yeah, what did you expect?” came a soft voice, breathing with ease, warm and soothing down the nape of my neck. A nice break from the cold.
“Something a little more grandiose, not a broken-down RadioShack,” I laughed, “You a new recruit too?” Turning, I barely noticed the guy, short, with trimmed blonde hair and hazel eyes, “Aren’t you kind of small for an army recruit?” I joked.
“A bit, but there’s no discriminating in the Future,” he said, “name’s Courage,” smirking, “I could say the same about you, slim.”
“Pleasure to meet you. Quite a nickname,” I said.
“I guess. It’s the only name I’ve ever known. I was an orphan, brought up in one of those government sponsored homes. Real nice. My parents, from what I was told, died during the Collapse, so I left. People up top said I had a lot of spirit. A lot of courage, so that’s what they started to call me, and it stuck. They said the Future was the only place for someone like me. And well, next thing I know, I’m on a bus headed towards something better.”
Courage carried the look of a person who suffered, a victim of an imperfect system, “So, where are the rest of the recruits?” I asked.
“Looks like it’s just the two of us,” he smiled, grabbing his duffle.
“Two of us?” I questioned, “Isn’t that a little small for a batch of recruits?”
No response, but a soft wince in the frigid Ohio air, “You’re funny. Do you even know what the Future is? Or did you think it was some fucked up fantasy, where the political and societal strife in the Time Before was a bedtime story, an after-thought.”
Stiff. My body felt tense, uneasy as if the air was harder to breathe, the words felt like sticky goop clogging my throat, “Should we be talking like this? Courage, it’s only the first day and I’d prefer not to be reprimanded.”
The short, bulky man huffed, “Come on. Let’s get some rest, while we can. It’ll be a long night.”
Courage sauntered ahead, me dragging lazily behind in the virescent openness of the grassy field where an endless horizon of blue freshwater painted the dulled skies. The barracks was a real piece of shit, fifty years old at least, early twenty-first century. It was like looking at a dying ghost, still freshly dead, a sign from the time before or a warning. The flimsy aluminium siding peeled as the wooden beams seemed rotted from the inside out. Old electrical systems, entirely outdated, snaked along the back of the old structure.
“Well, someone really took a hammer to this place.”
“You could say that,” Courage said, kicking in the door, a cloud of dust ballooning up from the cracked floor.
Racks of old mattresses sagged over wiry frames, bent and brittle, hanging on wood pillars where mothballs and cotton corpses dangled in the shadowy dusk of the immature night.
“Cosy, real cosy,” my finger pressing against the rock-hard bed, Courage casually made a home for himself in one of the grimy, pit-stained mattresses, “you don’t seem taken aback by the state of this place. It’s almost like you’ve been here before.”
He laughed, “I’ve seen worse. Plus, you get used to it after a while. Expectations of the ugly and the shocking fall short after what I’ve seen,” almost indignantly, he scoffed, hurling his duffle onto the bed as the whole thing moaned under the weight of a burgeoning leather bag.
“And what kinds of things have you seen?” I prodded.
The wrenching sounds of the mattress halted; hazel eyes slowly peered over the wilting feathery pillows.
“I’ve seen the future,” snorting a bit, as if trying to hold back some great secret or worse, Courage slid into the bed. Suddenly he fell unresponsive and dim, the amber shine was almost dead as he stared into the emptiness of the barracks, looking past me.
Not being in the mood for cheap laughs, rolling my eyes, I looked back at Courage, “Come on, this isn’t the time for jokes. Seriously, what’s going on? What is so bad?”
Something wasn’t right, and something wasn’t adding up in the Future. Maybe because I’d never truly experienced fear, or the sensation of death, loss, or the scorching nothingness that inevitably swallows us all one day. Courage had the hardened face of someone who’d seen the unimaginable, calloused fingertips and worn cheekbones like a Promethean doll, tossed around by the gods.
“Misfits,” he sputtered, his chin trembling as the dim lamp danced a shadow over his harrowed visage, “Fucking useless lives.”
“Who?” I said.
“You don’t want to know the things I’ve seen,” Courage sighed, cracking a forged smirk, “you, me. People like us. Government approved misfits. Blacks, fags, Jews, women; petty insults to the brightness of the Future. Pushed farther into the greyness, so the sanitized cities and plastic suburbs can always look just a little brighter.” The forced smile, the stony laughter was heavy as it hit my soul, with a kind of existential revelation as Courage carried on, “Why the fuck do you think they paint the Future so bright and shiny? Why do you think the Army That Never Fights needs so many willing recruits? There’s always a price for security, even if perceived. And the Future has a hefty price tag.”
I paused, staring away from Courage, feeling like a total dope. A complete moron, a fuck up. The heavy freshwater air pressed through the wilted siding, tickling my nostrils, as if I could taste the familiar bitterness of Eric’s last words crawling into my ears, corroded, waiting to die there, and for me to find it, only to hear them say, I told you so.
Courage’s smile melted into his face when he saw my reaction, “So, tell me. What was your price?”
Goosebumps crawled all over my skin, followed by a trembling warmth, “His name was Eric. He didn’t want me to join. He, we, knew something was wrong but felt this was the only way. I made the choice to join, so nothing would happen to him.”
“Sounds like a happily ever-fucking-after,” Courage scoffed, “he probably didn’t want you to leave, right?”
“No,” I dropped my head, “he was pretty adamant that I stayed or found another way for us to live. To continue to live.”
Courage’s lips bubbled a confident smile once more, “Now there’s the happily-ever-after I remember. The ultimatum of survival. Live on the margins or live in the Future, and I see the choice you made.”
“It’s the only choice. The only choice we have. From what I gather, you seem like you understand that better than anyone,” I protested.
“You think I didn’t try? That I didn’t try to make a different choice? To escape? To choose a different future?” he snapped back.
“I—I’m sorry, I didn’t mean…” a sound as if whirling gears or an engine starting up roiled in the background mixing with the ambiance of the lakeside environs.
“You should be,” Courage scolded me, snapping back into himself, “You don’t know the Hells I’ve faced or the clouds of death out there that wait for you, for me. I’d never wish a fucked-up place like this on anyone, endless burning, day after day and for what? For security? Freedom? For The Future?”
I watched him roll a sleeve up, displaying a strange mark on his wrist.
“What’s that?” I asked, the noises growing louder this time as if chimneys were coughing bloody soot, clearing their throats.
“Don’t worry about it. You’ll get one soon, but the ink washes out eventually,” Courage sighed, as the noises were becoming more apparent, as if a great beast were slothfully trudging across the fields towards us. The dilation of Courage’s eyes grew thin and terrified.
“Get out,” he said, suddenly.
“You heard me,” he was sweating, a sense of urgency welling up in his throat, “You need to get out of here while you can, before it’s too late.”
The amber dim of his eyes had slowly begun to return, “Courage, I don’t understand. I’m not just going to leave you here. We can get out of here together!”
“Look,” Courage cut me off, throwing my arms to the side, the anger and passion apparent in his gaze, “Open your fucking eyes!”
He protested, grabbing my hands. All at once, the heat, blood, and sweat coalesced into a singular sensation as his fingers pressed against my skin, “Open your fucking eyes, already! You still have a chance, unlike the rest of us. See this mark?” Pressing my hand into his arm, “I’m not getting out of here again and they will make sure I don’t. I can’t let you die here or let them win. I’ve seen too many others I love disappear and that’s all they want: to see us disappear,” his voice was drained of music, sucked clean of his courage.
“I—I don’t understand, Courage. Please, let’s just get out of here,” the scent of freshwater air was slowly becoming rusty, as if the mechanized thing was oxidizing the air, transforming the atmosphere, like a gaseous fog enveloping the barracks evaporating my tears.
“There’s no future, no Future here. Do you understand me? Now, go! Get out while you still can!”
The hissing and gruelling noises of something almost inhuman rustled outside; coming closer as if to consume this entire place in a vaporous, liquescent corrosive mass. Snuffing us out, getting rid of the misfits. Cleansing the future. The lamps overhead began to quiver, lightbulbs flickering and the entirety of the structure seemingly on the brink of collapse. The heat inside my body was rising, nervousness and terror simmering, slowly rising to boiling as I felt Courage push me towards the door.
“You’ll thank me for this some time. Eric will thank you for this,” was the last thing I remember, before Courage slammed a balled fist into my face.
Can’t say I recall much after that, towers of light, the smell of gas, foggy voices, immutable and sticky like squirting too much toothpaste on your brush. I guess that’s why they call me the Future, now.