…but you can, too! The first installment will be posted here as well as there. Subsequent installments of Broken Rice will be patron-exclusive on Patreon first, but will also appear in ebook form after a short delay! I explain it all over on my Patreon page — but before you click the link, please enjoy the cover art for Broken Rice below. I really enjoyed making it (even if some moments were kind of a pain in the butt) and I’m really pleased with how it came out. 🙂
Coming soon to Barnes & Noble and Kobo.
Haven’t read the previous installments? Click here to go to Part 1!
And now… Part 3, the bizarre conclusion:
But in the cold, glassy sunlight filtering through wispy gray drizzle clouds on Inauguration Day, he knew. Moments before stepping out on the stage, standing head bowed behind heavy navy curtains blazoned with the eagle of the Seal, he knew. A moment later, his cue, and he stepped out into sudden applause. The applause died quickly, leaving behind a confused coda of isolated claps, then a hush.
He shuffled. His back was bent. He looked old. Intricate combover abandoned limp on one shoulder like a dying cotton candy stole, shiny pink skullcap skin stretched tight to the chilly gusty wind, he shuffled. Old.
Election night, he’d been twenty years younger. And he’d been old and dark-baggy-eyed then.
“Is the President going to die?” a little girl in the front row asked her mommy, loud, into the silence. Mommy shushed her. The news cameras zeroed in, producers hissed did we get it? Did we get it? Into earbuds. But it didn’t make the news. Trump took the podium and the crowd tensed so viewers at home could feel it in their bones. Waiting for him to stumble on the step behind the high podium, fall, break a hip, end the term before it was begun. But he stepped up. Bent the mike. Leaned his head in. Pursed lips. Brushed rotten cotton candy hair off his shoulder into the wind’s cold. Spoke.
“THE FUCK IS WRONG WITH YOU PEOPLE?” he thundered, back straightening, shoulders broadening, wrinkles filling in, years falling off, eyes raking the crowd. The crowd recoiled, a step back, stomping toes and bumping shoulders, catching balance, milling in shock like ducks frozen in the bellow of a hunting dog.
Blazing copper hair like Trump had never had spilled out of his scalp like Play-doh out of a Fun Factory, defying the wind to lay itself in a defiant sweep. His wrinkles filled in flat and vanished. The bags under his eyes sucked up and smoothed over. Muscle swelled the arms and shoulders of his jacket. His gut sucked in and stayed sucked.
Like plucking a daisy, Trump plucked the microphone from its stand and ripped it from its wood mount, the cable tearing the wood open in an abrupt line down the front of the podium like a root ripped out of clay soil by the lever of a falling tree. His other hand, of its own accord, popped a tiny rhizome of raw tumeric into his mouth and he chewed it in jagged crimson teeth. His eyes lit baleful blue, the color of the hidden sky.
“Go, they said,” Trump said to the crowd as it surged and stamped like a half-panicked beast, its million heads locked to the stage unwilling, captured on the tether of his amplified voice. “Go and see what they are. And I went. I went. I went among the rubes forty years, stepped into the shoes of this gilded Narcissus and played carnival barker to you until—I thought it could never happen and you proved me wrong—you made me your leader. You cheered as I spit on your institutions. Ruled by fiat, ignored your rules, declared wars, bombed the brothers you called others, played your prejudices and emotions, watched you tear down opposition by force and declaration, watched those who knew better fall quiet and cringe back and the few who dared stand torn down by your hands without a word of encouragement from my lips.”
“Mommy? What’s the President?” the little girl asked mommy, but nobody heard. Nobody but Trump, growing taller, ears unfurling and spreading wide, sliding higher on his head. Sudden claws bit bright lines into the microphone in his hand.
“They’ve learned, I said. They’ve passed through their crisis in the last century. But over the last four years, even on the lands most ravaged by that crisis, the other-hate has risen yet higher, emboldened. By me. By you. Still ready to hate your other-brothers, back and forth, both sides of your politics, all the multitudinous sides, fighting, slouching into violence.”
He stepped to the edge of the stage. The microphone finally gave up with a low wail of feedback; crumpled in his inky claws it fell to the stage decapitated. The little girl, mommy now fled, stood in a half-circle of trampled sod. The crowd behind her compressed backward, wide eyes flashing white fear, gazes still held. Broad silky wings, gold and copper, unfolded and shredded Trump’s jacket. The slabs of his chest and abdomen, covered in copper velvet with the nap of the short dense fur of a cat’s nose, heaved in deep breaths. Trump knelt at the edge of the timbers, down, down, chest laid almost on his knees, wings thrust upward like blooming flowers.
“Little girl, you know the truth. You are afraid, yes?”
“Yes, sir,” she said. Her knees quivered slightly, but she held her spine straight and her eyes full open.
“Bravery is doing right in the face of fear. It is seeing what is truly there when fear tells you to see threat. It is seeing threat only where threat is real.”
“Yes, sir,” she said.
Trump spread his wings and leapt. In moments, the clouds swallowed him. The frantic milling of the crowd stilled and the people began to pull deep breaths and blink, as if waking. Only the claw-torn shreds of his shoes fell back, scattered wide by the twisting wind.
Want more to read? Click here to find one of my novellas and several short and flash stories to read for free right here on my site.
Pictured: cover model and artist and damn fine stepson Erik Elliott.
The blurb (LENGTHY PREVIEW BELOW): Keshawn Bolling lives in a future of total government control. His religion, his education, even the length of his hair are dictated to him, Worse, his own father is one of the enforcers. He wants out; rumor says there is freedom to be had in the orbital habitats. But getting there won’t be easy, and freedom is a slippery thing to define…
The preview, about 30% of the text:
I Pledge Allegiance
By S.A. Barton
Copyright 2014 S.A. Barton
of the North American Union
and to the Republic for which it stands,
One nation under the Lord, Jesus Christ
who grants Liberty and Justice to All.”
I recite it from the screen with a smile, emphasizing the bolded words, my face a mask of enthusiasm. The smile is required. So is the emphasis. The menu won’t progress unless I do it ‘right’, and truancy is a misdemeanor for student and parents. A felony, on the third offense.
ENTER BIOMETRIC SCAN OF FINGERPRINT TO CONTINUE
SWIPE CREDIT/DEBIT CARD TO CONTINUE
NAUD $0.125/INSTRUCTIONAL HOUR
ENTER DNA IDENTITY SCAN TO CONTINUE
I stick my thumb in the slot under the fingerprint scanner and a surface like fine sandpaper licks the skin like a cat’s tongue. The screen displays a segmented don’t-tread-on-me snake chasing its own tail in a figure 8: working.
WELCOME KESHAWN BOLLING
((1)) Citizenship: Yr11Mo8: Pretest: Economic Obligations of the Citizen to the State
((2)) Mathematics: Yr11Mo6: Study Exercise: Algebra: Basic Competency: Binomials
((3)) History: Yr11Mo3: Lecture: Vulnerabilities of Democratic Governmental Forms and their Practical Remedies
((4)) Elective: Yr9Mo12: Lecture: Photography: Composition of Images For Esthetics and Legality
I know I should catch up on the history. The number in front of that option blinks sluggishly: mild urgency. If I neglect it for another couple of weeks, it will begin to flash more quickly. After that, my other options will disappear.
Most of my options disappeared, in reality, before I was born, before my parents were born, in the First American War. The Second American War and the War of American Unity nailed the coffin lid down.
The History option isn’t there for most students after Year 6. It’s there for me because the Citizenship Test Panels everyone takes at the end of Year 5 decided that my career would be Instructor: Correctional Facility. A specialized prison guard, a political re-educator. My Pa’s position probably has something to do with that, along with my more-than-average intelligence.
The smart ones are the ones they want to keep close, in the heart of the system, under maximum surveillance. Smart is dangerous.
I touch the elective icon instead, and tap my bulky camera to the spot indicated on the screen. My homework images upload. I hate the camera’s bulk, its jellybean neon-green color; it was the smallest and least gaudy I could find. Law dictates a camera must be a minimum of 8 inches by 6 by 3 and cased in plastic of a high-visibility color. Cameras must be easy to spot; unauthorized photography is a felony.
I’m not worried about the non-elective classes anymore.
I expect to be gone by the time the rest of my options disappear.
If the man standing behind me is with who I think he is. I wonder how he’ll avoid being picked up for questioning when I’m gone.
“Playing hooky, kid?” the man says, setting his coffee and muffin down on the battered tabletop opposite my own coffee. I look up from my tablet, let the textbook go black. He’s broad across the shoulders, chest and upper arms heavy with muscle, looks like Army except for his close-trimmed salt and pepper beard, well under the 2” legal maximum length. Army on local police duty, then. My legs tense with the urge to run, to disappear. I force my face to smile, not hard after years of insincere Pledges of Allegiance, and take a deep breath.
“Registered day off, sir,” I say. Army men are always sir with a smile. I offer my thumb. “Please scan me to verify, sir.” I’d rather spit in his fat privileged face.
He pushes his coffee to the side with the back of his hand and leans in close over the yellow poppyseed-topped muffin.
“Calm yourself, Keshawn,” he says quietly. Between us, he brings a finger up and teases a few long strands out of his hair, which I had thought was all safely under the 4” legal maximum for men.
He twists half a dozen hairs around his finger and raises an eyebrow at me. The hairs are at least double the legal length. They protrude from over his left ear for an instant before he tucks them away again. They’re a symbolic forelock, worn very thin so he can tear it off and throw it away if arrest is immanent.
He’s a secret Jew, a living felony offense. He has given me power over him by showing me that forelock, a dangerous act. He must be one of the people I’ve been trying to reach since 9th year, with careful hint-phrases in approved online discussion forums and on paper slips left in key library books, carefully inscribed and carried wrapped in blank paper so they can be left without fingerprints.
I hope he’s one of them. He could easily be an agent of the secret police. But if I don’t take a chance I might never get another one.
“30th Street Labor Center, 8AM,” I whisper, then I lean back, pick up my tablet, and stand. I’m not fool enough to try to have a prolonged discussion somewhere so public.
“Thank you sir,” I say in a calm conversational tone, “but I’m a student. If I fail I might have to do day labor, but I’ve got no plans to fail.” I turn and walk out without waiting for an answer and head home. Day labor recruiters are common in the city. Even the gainfully employed often solicit for the 10% finder’s fee the labor centers offer. Pretending he offered me work is a good cover, I hope. It has to be. After all, I’ve got no plans to fail.
On the other hand, nobody does. But the Correctional Centers are always full.
“Hey, Ma,” I say over the dinner dishes with the water running. I’m washing, she’s drying. Pa has gone to his study to work on the constant documentation his job requires. He’s Army, local Police division. Another privileged face; this time, no chance I’m mistaken—but I do love him, too. But while I might love him, I don’t like or trust him. This isn’t a conversation I can have with him around; I’m certain he’d turn me in.
“What is it, baby?” Ma asks. I’ll be baby to her for as long as she lives, never mind I’m six feet tall and have to trim my facial hair every day, running a 1/8” clipper over my face and neck. I can’t shave clean; I’d like to, to seem younger, less imposing, to draw fewer hostile looks from police on the street. My deep black skin already gets me too many looks from the mostly Caucasian and Hispanic cops. The beard, this last year, has made it worse. But the razor bumps eat me alive if I shave clean. I’ve tried.
I turn up the water louder, let the plate I’m holding rattle the bowls in the wash water.
“Hire someone to watch me tomorrow,” I say, voice low. Half of the appliances are voice activated and every microphone is on 24/7, government computers listening for red flags. “30th Street. I’ll show you who.”
“Oh,” she says, and that’s it. I imagine she must have sounded like that when Pa asked her to marry him, a happy little gasp. She’s known I’ve wanted out for a couple of years now. She puts her towel down and hugs me, I let the plate go into the wash water and hug her back. I’m always surprised by how small she is, only a little thick and her head hardly comes up to my shoulder. She’s happy for what makes me happy.
She’s never told Pa I want out, I’m certain. That says it all about him in my eyes. Maybe he was different when I was little, but he’s an Army man through and through now. But I will miss Ma.
In the morning Ma swipes her card in the house tablet and calls an autocab.
“30th Street Labor Center,” she tells it, then waves her hand though the VERIFY dialogue box projected in the air.
People still call it rush hour, but there are no old-style traffic jams. Central computers coordinate vehicles perfectly; with private cars restricted to top political occupations only. Neighbors share autocabs often, keeping the traffic density manageable. The ride is smooth; the traffic lights are relics, colorful gargoyles decorating the intersections. The autocab regulates its speed so it never has to stop until it reaches its destination. The red lights are always casting their warnings in the distance, but nobody really notices—because of all of the closer distractions, because the traffic never stops.
At the labor center, I hold Ma’s hand and let her appear to be leading me. But from a half-step behind I guide her with firm pressure along the rows of hopeful day laborers. There are more workers than there are jobs for; thirty percent of the population is assigned to Laborer: Nonspecific and set loose to fend for themselves, most with a Year Six education or less.
I see the broad-shouldered secret Jew and guide Ma to him. Her finger hovers, two workers to the left. My eyes downcast, peering just high enough to see her finger, I twitch her hand right, right, squeeze.
“You,” she says. “Can you watch my son at school and make sure he logs a full seven instructional hours, and pays attention to them? One dollar now, one dollar when you deliver him home. He’ll pay the autocab with his card.”
“Two and two,” he says.
“One and two, firm,” Ma says. Laborers are expected to bargain, a nod to entrepreneurship, but not to bargain too much. They’re lowlier than anyone but a beggar. And three bucks less twenty percent for the Labor Center and forty percent for taxes is about the going rate for a day of light work. It leaves the worker enough to pay for a cot and two meals in a bachelors’ housing hall.
“Done,” he says. He doesn’t offer to shake on it—women don’t shake. It would be a misdemeanor indecency. In fact, it almost violates ‘public decency’ that she’s at the Labor Center, unaccompanied and hiring a worker, at all. But, as the ‘For the Ladies’ releases from the NAU Department of Moral Hygiene have it, children are part of the household and a mother’s job is the household’s upkeep, so it’s still okay for her to hire someone to watch me do my schoolwork. At least for now. A few of the men, laborers and employers, still cast suspicious glances at her.
Business done, we follow her outside and she calls an autocab from her pocket tablet. The one we arrived in is gone; autocabs never wait. Our wait for the new one, though, is not long either. Outside of times when large public rallies are held, more than five minutes would be unusual.
“I’m John Porter, by the way, ma’am,” the secret Jew says as we wait at the curb outside. I glance at him, then away. Playing the part of moderate resentment. He doesn’t look like a John Porter to me. An alias? I wouldn’t begin to know how having an alias would be possible. Identity is DNA and fingerprint tracked from birth. Maybe I’m thinking overdramatically, excited by our subterfuge. I breathe deep. Remain calm.
Am I the only person who feels a little bit of disappointment along with the excitement of reading about various plans, achievements, and speculations of NASA and other space agencies around the world?
I’m glad there’s talk about the next Mars probe and the possibility of a manned Mars mission sometime…soonish…maybe…in the nebulous indefinite future. I’m glad there are people tinkering with rocketry still, seeking ways to refine current technology. I’m glad there are people researching ion drives trying to make them stronger and more efficient.
But it’s all kind of pale compared to what might have been.
We in the USA like to say, “we put a man on the moon”. Well, we did. And then we didn’t go back. The moonwalkers are dying of old age and we still haven’t been back. Well, what good is that?
If the US isn’t going to do it, I hope someone does. Maybe it will be a private effort and not a national one when it happens.
However it happens, I hope it’s soon. If there’s anything humanity needs, it’s the return of the frontier. There really aren’t any left on Earth, and we’re a restless people. When there’s nowhere new to go, we start to jostle. Sometimes the jostling turns to fighting. We really don’t need to be fighting. Not when we’ve nukes to toss around if we get really mad.
- NASA refuses funding Inspiration Mars’s manned mission to Mars in 2017 (dnaindia.com)
- Details of 1st Private Manned Mars Flyby Mission Unveiled (space.com)
- Space Agencies Of The World, Unite: The U.N.’s Asteroid Defense Plan (npr.org)
- International Space Station Turns 15 (sys-con.com)
- How Greenhouse Gasses Saved Mars (science.time.com)
- Gold rush in space? Asteroid miners prepare to prospect (hispanicbusiness.com)
- Asteroid miners go after most precious resource: water (mining.com)
- Examining Buzz Aldrin’s roadmap to Mars (nasaspaceflight.com)
- To the moon? NASA passes the torch for space commercialization (nbcnews.com)
- NASA shelves fuel-efficient tech, effectively slashes outer planet exploration (slashgear.com)
Copyright 2013, S.A. Barton
Cover art copyright 2013, Erik Elliott
“Jesus Christ,” I said, “are you trying to tell me you think America is Heaven?”
“Archangel Jesus Christ may he look over us and keep us safe in the name of King Elvis the Lord all our days Amen,” he snapped, the words coming so fast he sounded like an auctioneer. A pissed-off auctioneer, at that. Alarmed at the intensity in his words and eyes, I wondered if I’d made a mistake talking to this possibly—probably—crazy man. But his outburst was short-lived; he deflated and slumped back in this chair.
“Look, uh,” I said, “are you in a cult or something?” I regretted the words the instant they came out of my mouth. If he really was crazy, that was probably the exact wrong thing to say.
He gave me a frown. A small, lost Mona Lisa of a frown. “That’s probably how it started, from what I’ve seen here. One of the first things I learned after I arrived was that Elvis was dead. The King, dead. According to scripture, he lived through all of the Epidemic Ages, up to the refounding of the great Church in Vegas. Nine hundred and thirty-three years he lived, so says The Book. The epidemics won’t start for twenty years still, if those dates are right, and he’s already gone. Been gone and dead for decades. And dead of overdoing drugs and food, like a flawed human being, not the spirit of the Lord living in the flesh. And if that’s true—and I’ve heard it from more than one person here—then maybe The Book is just a story and my life has been lived in service of a lie. Dammit.” He looked down into his coffee and I gave my Denver omelet a try. Not bad, but nothing to write home about. He took a bite out of his peanut butter cheeseburger, and then another. I watched him eat and thought about what he had said.
“Epidemics. Twenty years from now,” I finally said.
“You’re from the future.”
“And you worship Elvis.”
“Thankyouverymuch,” he said. Just like I’d say amen in church. I wanted to believe him. He didn’t look crazy—at least, he didn’t look any crazier than any other person eating a peanut butter cheeseburger while dressed in a white sequined jumpsuit in the middle of the night. The look in his eyes said ‘shellshocked’ more than it said ‘crazy’. We finished our food, ordered pie and got a top-off on our coffee. He did that saying grace thing over it again.
“No offense, but are you saying grace for the coffee?”
“Coffee is sacred to the King. It’s part of the Eucharist. We don’t use it as an everyday drink. It’s strange having it like this, with a meal, like it’s just something wet to wash food down with.” He took a sip, shook his head and gave a little snort of a chuckle under his breath.
“What do you usually drink it with?”
“Nothing. It’s only for services.”
“That’s a shame,” I said, and I meant it. I had never thought of coffee as a holy beverage before, but I certainly did have a kind of reverence for it, upon reflection. A lot of people did.
We sat drinking coffee for a while, looking out the window. Even in the middle of the night, the road didn’t stay empty for too long between cars. We watched them go by in ones and twos; the people in them came in ones and twos also. No families out and about so late. The men were gray and drawn; the women mostly painted and showing plenty of skin.
“You know,” he said after we had watched for a while, “at first I thought they were priestesses or nuns.”
“Who?” I asked, puzzled.
“The prostitutes. You know, we’ve been watching them go by?”
“How would they be nuns, dressed like that, out in the middle of the night in cars with men?”
“Well, they’re not dressed quite right, sure. But still.”
“How would you expect a prostitute to be dressed?”
“Heh. Most of ‘em wear the white jumpsuit, just like a priest or a monk. Sequins for ordained, no sequins for lay.”
I laughed. “No pun intended?”
“What?” His face was blank.
“You said, ‘lay’. That can mean what you said, someone with a church who isn’t official. But it also means sex. You know, you get laid.”
“Huh,” he said, “I guess we don’t use ‘lay’ that way in my day. You rock, you get rocked.”
“I guess that makes sense,” I said, “that fits right in with Elvis. So no celibate priests. Or nuns, I guess, if ‘hooker’ means the same thing to you.” I wondered again if I should be having this conversation at all. A casual conversation over coffee, with a probably-madman cult member talking about the theology of a dead rock star and the religion of two thousand years from now. But with two cups of coffee under my belt and the waitress pouring me a third my desire to sleep was gone. This guy and his tall tale were just the ticket, the unreal cherry on top of the big fat sundae of unreality that was Vegas in the wee hours.
“Oh,” he said, answering my question, “they’re not the same thing. A prostitute who wears the suit and sequins, she’s taken holy orders and her fee is a tithe to the King. If she’s a nun, well, she’s expected to marry when she comes pregnant and it’s an honor for any man to raise the King’s children. If she’s a priestess, odds are that sooner or later she and some lucky priest will get hitched and the kids come up in the church. Some women sell sex on their own, without the blessing of the church. That’s not just immoral, it’s blasphemy. Doesn’t happen much, I don’t think.”
“That’s ridiculous,” I said, forgetting myself. “How can a whore be a priestess? Sounds like some kind of pagan nonsense,” I said.
“The King told us to be fruitful and multiply,” he said, raising an eyebrow. “How in the world do you do that without sex? You expect church leaders to show the way. In all things.”
“But hookers?” I knew arguing religion with a stranger was a bad idea, but I couldn’t help myself. That just sounded so wrong, so sinful.
“Not hookers, dammit,” he said, giving the table a rap with the flat of his hand. The spoons jumped on the shiny tabletop, but only a little. “A hooker is keeping it for herself. A prostitute is doing it for the King, and fifty percent goes to the church.”
“So the difference is how much money she makes?”
“She shouldn’t get anything? She’s bringing money into the church, isn’t she? A priest or priestess gets paid for preaching.”
“It just seems so… don’t your churches just turn into… I don’t know, dens of vice?” It sounded like something out of a very old movie, some melodramatic line from a corny goody-two-shoes with an unnaturally square jaw. But I didn’t know how else to say it.
“Not really. There are laws about that kind of thing, and the church has its own rules. There’s nothing wrong with sex as long as you don’t use it to hurt people. It’s about the most natural thing we do aside from eat. If you want to see unnatural, watch what goes on in a bank. Then go watch the animals for a while. See if you see an animal explain compound interest to another animal anywhere in the natural world. You won’t find it, but pretty much anything more complex than an amoeba has sex in one form or another. Get down,” he finished, and he kicked the table over and yanked me down behind it. The glass of the window exploded, crunchy grains showering over us as we ducked our heads.
Earlier today I watched a bit of the Zimmerman trial (if you’ve been living under a rock or live outside the USA where I’m guessing it’s not such a big news item, here’s a basic rundown) because I’m somewhat interested and also apparently a bit masochistic this morning/early afternoon. As I listened, something occurred to me: the literary world has something to offer the justice system.
We don’t need jurors listening to all this testimony, viewing all this evidence, listening to the lawyers work to spin it this way and that.
We need a board of editors instead. Think about it. Who else is more qualified to cut a story down to its essential details and throw all the fat away? Who else has seen more convoluted plots and worked to make something understandable out of them? Who else is trained to ignore flowery prose and overwrought adjectival constructions (which are basically what lawyers do when they’re speaking aloud)? Who else is experienced in stripping all that flowery-ness and adjectival overdoing down to terse, clear prose?
The only catch in my idea is the fact that professional editors just don’t have the time. They’re already buried under their slushpiles, I can’t imagine getting them to take on trial work as well.
What a shame. They’d be perfect.
…here comes Speed Glacier! Just a buck-ninety-nine for 12,000 ridiculously ecoterroristic words featuring wishy-washy earth warrior Moon Wolf B2.
Speed Glacier is a farce of ecoterrorism and the human urge to belong. It brings together a very unlikely and slightly misnamed weapon with a group of individuals that seem just as unlikely… unless you’ve been paying attention to popular culture and/or the news. Speed Glacier is a novelette of about 12,000 words.