Josh glanced at his watch. It was a Rolex, one of the few relics of the comfortable life in the former United States, along with his pipe, his clarinet and his biology book, that he’d taken with him when he came to this remote corner of the world in search of a new life.
Four o' clock. It would be three more hours to go until the fighting started. At least he and his troops wouldn't have to go far to take up their positions--the enemy was right inside this old waterfront warehouse building, two flights down. That's more or less the way things had been since the Java Convention of 2018 confined fighting to indoor locations at night. There had been just too many civilian casualties, and after thousands of years of warfare, the nations of the world just got fed up and decided to do something about it.
Now, there weren't even any nations in at least half of the world, just the two shifting alliances--the Force of Honor, our side, and the Confederacy of Twelve, their side. Unlike the nations of the 20th century, which controlled their populations through ideology, religion or nationalism, neither alliance had any ideology to speak of. Instead, they recruited members through neighborhood loyalty, village loyalty, family loyalty. Everyone knew that they made their money from the sale of drugs and of human organs for transplants.
Josh looked around the room. Sandbags had been set up around all the windows. His troops had no uniforms--some had worn the same dirty old clothes for two, three weeks. Some slept, some played cards, some listened to radios, some played with miniature computer gameboards. Zoltan and Kika slept on mats on the floor. Alan Goldberg was reading a copy of the Tibetan book of the Dead. I guess that's an appropriate choice for a man who might die at any second, Josh thought to himself.
The one thing none of the troops were doing was eating. The last rations of edible food ran out yesterday—the United Nations truck was a week late now. The same truck was supposed to take out the garbage, so the room was permeated with the sickening smell of half-eaten, rotting food.
Josh's troops were from all over the place--from Hungary, Syria, Egypt, Cyprus, Greece, Sicily, the reconstituted Khazar empire in Baku. They all ended up here after the massive population shifts that took place at the end of the last war. A few even hailed from right here in Bosnia, where the whole thing started.
Oh God, he thought to himself. Caribou is pacing the floor again! "God damn it!" said Caribou, a short, stocky man who had served with Josh as an observer in Iceland a few years ago. "Those bums! Who do they think we are! I'll kill them all! God damn it!"
Well, Josh thought to himself, sighing, they're my troops, and it's my responsibility to entertain them.
Josh clapped his hands. everyone looked up at him. "Hey, everybody, I have an idea," he said. "let's play a game. This is a poetry game." Josh grabbed some pieces of paper from his notebook and started writing some words on them. "These are emotions--love, hate, disgust, despair, hatred, laughter. I'm going to put them on the floor," he said, placing each one on a different area of the floor. "Now all of you take turns. You have to close your eyes until you feel yourself landing on a piece of paper. Then you have to open your eyes and make up a short poem about that emotion. okay?" The guys and girls eagerly nodded--anything to break up the waiting. "Okay! who wants to go first?"Caribou stepped forward immediately. After he volunteered, the ice was broken and the troops began to lighten up. Josh congratulated himself on this idea--he had once seen some neo-hippie types playing this game in Golden Gate Park.
Suddenly, the mood was shattered by a knock on the door. The troops froze. "Who is it?" yelled Bucharest Joe. "It's Mike!," said a voice from the other end. Everybody relaxed immediately. Mike was the unit's scout, and one of its most trusted men. Josh opened the door to see Mike, a rotund, white-haired man who looked much older than his real age of 43, breathing heavily. "What's going on?" he asked with concern.
"There's a wounded man on the stairs between the second and third floors. He's one of them--the Confederacy of Twelve--was cleaning his gun when it happened," Mike said hastily. "Wanna carry him back to his own lines?"
Josh thought for awhile. He looked at his watch. Still two hours to go. According to U.N. rules, they couldn't start shooting until then. However, five years of being in the forces told him that you couldn't trust anybody. But he knew that Manuel personally was an honorable man, as Shakespeare would have said, and that Manuel's troops would do what he told them to do.
He turned to Josh. "Let's go for it," he said. "But if they start shooting, we leave him there and run for it. Our lives are more important than his." Josh was halfway to the door when Mike tried to block him. "Josh," he pleaded, "let me go. As the leader, you're too valuable. I'm a scout, remember? I know my way around."
Josh shook his head. "As the leader, I'm responsible for everything that goes on here, and it's my duty to go," he said. "Well...OK," Mike said hesitatingly. "But I'll go with you."
They both exited the door and started descending the cinder-block stairway of this former museum building, Mike leading and Josh following. They knew every step might be their last. An asthmatic, Mike sweated and breathed heavily, and at one point had to stop to take his UN-issued marijuana inhaler. The smell of urine was everywhere. "Reminds me of Co-Op City in New York, where my grandmother used to live," Josh thought as he gazed at the generations of graffiti on the wall and the broken, long-obsolete fluorescent lights on the ceiling.
Half a flight down, they saw the guy, clutching at his stomach, bleeding and groaning. Josh took the guy's arms, Mike his legs. They carried him down the stairs, blood dripping onto the floor and onto their clothes. They reached the Confederacy's headquarters and knocked on the door. "Who's there?" a voice from the other side of the door cried out.
"Josh and Mike from upstairs," Josh cried out. "One of your men wounded himself cleaning his gun on the stairway. We've got him right here. Please let us in."
There was a long silence. Then the door opened. Josh and Mike brought the guy in. Almost as soon as they entered, two of the Confederacy guys took the wounded man away from them and whisked him into an Ultrasonic Healing Booth at the other end of the room. In a few minutes, the machine began to emit a pink light and a soft hum. It's nice that these guys can get a hold of this new medical technology, Josh thought, bitterly remembering the painful stomach infection he had to suffer through in Iceland.
Josh and Mike looked around. The Confederate fighters, both male and female, were lounging around, listening to music, playing board games, reading, waiting for the hour of combat. In other words, the scene was more or less the same as in the Force of Honor headquarters, except for the fact that the Confederates all wore spotless, olive-green uniforms.
A door opened from an inner office, and Manuel, a short, dark, man with a moustache, came out smiling, reaching to shake Josh's and Mike's hands. Manuel was a former Bolivian soccer star who had fallen into disgrace because of his involvement with a drug cartel. Then, he threw in his luck with the Confederacy of Twelve. He motioned toward the Ultrasonic Healing Booth. "He'll be all right in a day or so," he said, with only a hint of a Latin American accent, "although it may be a week before he can fight again. Won't you two come into my office?"
Without a word, Josh and Mike followed Manuel. They couldn't believe what they saw. Manuel had decorated his office with wood paneling, a glass-topped mahogany desk and plush red chairs. On the wall were portraits of the Confederacy's long-deceased founders, the Texas oilman. Bobby Lee Prescott, Russian Admiral Vladimir Roschenko, and the Imam Abdullah al-Husseini from Saudi Arabia. But what interested Mike and Josh most was a working solar-powered coffee machine, together with a tray of bread, rolls and cookies, on the desk.
"What's going on?" Mike asked with a trace of anger. "We haven't gotten any deliveries in days." "Well, you must understand," Manuel said, smiling, "We have our connections. But why don't you sit down?" He poured two cups of coffee, adding milk from a small refrigerator behind the desk. "Why don't you sit down and eat?" Josh took little sips of coffee, and carefully removed the crusts from the rolls before he bit into them. Mike gulped down the coffee and stuffed himself with bread like there was no tomorrow.
"Ah," Manuel said, lighting up a cigar, "it is truly unfortunate that I would have two meet two such distinguished gentlemen as yourselves in such circumstances. After the war, I invite you both to the new, expanded Confederacy of Twelve as my guests!" He puffed away. Too bad they don’t have any pipe tobacco, Josh reflected, on guard all the while for any sudden moves.
Josh and Mike both finished. Mike wiped his mouth with his sleeve while Josh looked at his watch. "Time to go," he said to Manuel.
"Aha! Very well. I'll escort you to the door," said the Bolivian, getting up. "Ah, war! Even the great writers like Hemingway, Stephen Crane, Tolstoy, Remarque haven't been able to fathom it," he exclaimed as Josh and Mike exited and went back up to their own base.
Josh and Mike entered their headquarters and sat down. Josh looked at his watch. Six-thirty. Just another half hour before another night's round of fighting began. He looked around at his troops. An hour or two from now, some of them would probably be dead. Caribou was pacing back and forth again, yelling "God damn it!" Josh just let him be. In another corner of the room, three of the guys were harmonizing a song from the last century:
"Under the boardwalk
"Down by the sea
"On a blanket with my baby
"That's where I'll be."
Ever since he had joined the Force of Honor, escaping from a hysterical, depressed wife who lost jobs, screamed and threw things constantly, Josh had constantly volunteered for the hottest spots--Iceland, Zimbabwe, Israel-Palestine, and now Bosnia, where it all began. And still, this waiting was the worst, worse than actual combat. Even if they won the battle, was that any solution? Rumor had it that the U.N. had recently approved the old railway terminal as a fighting site. And if that was the case, you could be sure Josh's company would be sent there next.
Bitterly, Josh recalled the "Song of the Conquerors" that they had taught to him in the training camp:in Berkeley:
"We are the Force of Honor,
"Conquering everything in our way,
"Our voices ring over the countryside,
"We herald a brand new day!"
What if he died? He could just imagine what his obituary would say: “He survived two years in Iceland, but he couldn’t survive three months in Bosnia.” My God! Maybe he could run away, take refuge up in the countryside. There was still time. He could even make everything up to his wife. He couldn’t believe that even now, in the year 2047, mankind hadn’t thought of another way to resolve its differences than war. The last thing he wanted to be was a war hero, to inspire other unfortunate young men and women to suffer and die in the same way.
Wait a minute! He pushed these thoughts away. He was a leader, responsible to his men and women. Besides, if he ever found his way back to San Francisco, he would be immediately shot as a traitor, since the rump United States government based in Denver wasn't very friendly to the Force of Honor.
He looked at his watch. Seven o'clock. Time to go. He breathed deeply. He called the troops over. "Okay," he said to everybody. "Me, Mike and Bucharest Joe will go halfway down the stairs. Then, when the shooting starts, everyone else follow. Tonight, I think we're gonna at least push them down to the second floor, and we hope down to the first floor! Now, are we gonna do it?" "Yeah!" Full of enthusiasm, the trio then opened the door and silently tiptoed halfway down the stairs. But for this first time since the battle began, the Confederacy fighters weren't there waiting for them. Had they, sensing defeat, vacated the building? Or was it a trap? For years, rumors had been floating around that the Confederacy was perfecting invisibility technology. Had that time finally come?
Josh turned to the other guys. "I'm going down to take a look," he said. He slinked down the stairs as quietly as possible, keeping close to the wall.
And then, 20 years spent overcoming a youthful exposure to radiation poisoning, a summer cross-country trip, three years of marriage, four years of teaching high school biology, and five years spent in exotic places throughout the world all came to an end in one second.
New York, USA