Forty years later…
Austin Alexander Whittom, Captain, Yuma Army
A Field, Across the River, Just Southwest of Sacramento’s Southern Gate
9:15 a.m., April 12th, 2070
The city sprawled before them, defenseless. You could almost hear the screams of terror. At least, it was fun to image you could.
High walls would not save the Sackies.
It was a characteristically beautiful Californian day, though, of course, no such thing as “California” had seen a sunrise in over forty-two years. Still, as it had for the people of the United States back then, the sun now shone in a brilliantly clear azure sky for the new rulers of this wasted world. The serene majesty of the cloudless horizon and the dry, heady wind sweeping across the field belied the danger of the day: there simmered a pot-full of water set upon the stovetop twenty years ago; soon it would boil over.
On one side of this soon-to-be arena, the Republic of Sacramento’s citizens waited for the wave to crash upon them; in the other corner amassed the wave, the host of Yuma, a collected horde of fighting men from every province of the kingdom. The festering wounds left by the useless struggles of a bygone year would tear open anew today: this final grudge-match would drench the parched grasses and earth with the blood of the young, the young who bore the torches of their elders into the year 2070 — a year that might well see the end of an empire, or two.
It’s hard to imagine, short of being there and seeing it for yourself, just how much space the army of Yuma occupied. Picture this: sandwiched between The 5 to the east and the Sacramento River to the west, a long, snaking line of men had advanced on the city. After the order was relayed down that line, it took a full hour for all units to fan out across the yellow grass and dirt. Some of those on the left flank were fortunate enough to escape the hot touch of the sun beneath the branches of California sycamore and black walnut trees; the men on the right clustered, as best as they could, in the shade of a raised freeway on-ramp. One and all, they waited for the remaining units to form up and for the impending battle speech, that last breath before the world descended again into havoc.
Captain Austin Whittom breathed deep; it was a good day to be a badass fighting man of Yuma. A damn good day.
The air was thick and sticky with salt from the evaporated sweat wafting off thousands of bodies boiling in the afternoon heat. It had been a long journey from Wheeler Ridge, and New Yuma before that. Some weeks ago, dozens had accumulated at the capital, sent forth to recruit hundreds from the nearest settlements. They, in turn, rode out in all directions, scattering themselves across the kingdom, raising King Davis’ call: “Yuma rides to war against Sacramento.”
Fighting for king and country was the solemn duty of every Yuman in this dark age, but not everyone jumped at the opportunity quite as enthusiastically as they should have. Some easily and readily remembered their oaths, rising to the battle cry of “Death to Sacramento; death to the enemies of the king!” Others were hesitant, obstinate even. They required a reminder particular to each case: beating the children, raping the women, hanging a few of the men, decapitating the village elder… In the end, the collateral damage was small when set against the result. The army now gathered within sight of the city-state of Sacramento was nothing short of magnificent. Ten thousand warriors stretched across that field, west of Elk Grove — the largest force seen since the ending of one world and the beginning of the next. It had come to rest in front of the Sacramento River, at last. A more diverse collective could not exist; these bloodthirsty fighters had been pulled from all the regions and territories that had coalesced into a new nation after The Fall.
Now, in all shapes, sizes, and colors, they’d come to overthrow the greatest evil. The heat, the energy of the moment plastered a smile on Austin’s face. The only group among the assembly that he’d have preferred stay home was the Skin-changers — so called, by the way, for their habit of peeling the skin off their enemies’ faces and wearing the flapping, spongy trophies as masks. A fear tactic. Highly, highly effective. Austin nervously burped up half a mouthful of bile just thinking about it. Well, whatever needs doin’. He spat. Whatever’s gotta happen so we win.
Various contingents had spent the previous few days securing the army’s flanks and rear. Specifically, SanFran and those other towns partnered with the Sackies had to be dealt with swiftly and decisively. Reason being, SanFran had been given remote communication technologies by Big Brother Sacramento. To negate that potential advantage, Lieutenant Colonel Wynkoop had ordered a volley of Yuma’s precious mortar rounds. His troops, positioned at the tip of abandoned Oakland, had blasted North Beach from across the bridge. The shelling had the desired effect, destroying most of the town center as well as its one radio tower. (Yuma didn’t have to worry about any other such towers because the population of SanFran was concentrated in that one location.) Moments later, a contingent of cavalrymen armed with assault rifles had charged across the Oakland Bay Bridge, riding into SanFran, tearing it apart. A few of the horsemen were obliterated by landmines laid along the bridge and roads — which must have been one horrid sight to see, the guts of horse and man shredded and thrown like stringy garbage over the asphalt and rusted out cars — but the vast majority survived and did not slow or show fear for even a second, so the story goes.
Austin wished he could have been there, leading that charge, but there’d been preparations to make at the front. He’d been needed elsewhere. His time for glory would come.
Every last one of the defenders of North Beach had been shot to pieces within the hour. Anyone too frail or panicked to fight back had been captured and delivered to Wynkoop for judgment. (Most were executed. The strongest were kept for Re-Education purposes; more recruits for the Kingdom.) After that, the Golden Gate and Oakland Bay Bridges had been demolished using controlled explosives conveniently requisitioned from SanFran itself. Anyone still hiding out in that town would be either too demoralized or broken to be of any further threat.
As had been done to SanFran, the other, smaller settlements surrounding Sacramento — Concord, Modesto, Stockton — were handled with extreme prejudice. Despite dealing with only a fraction of Yuma’s grand army, not one of those huddling group of cucks stood a solitary chance in hell. Universally, all resistance had been wiped out. The strongest men were enslaved for future conscription into the army; the women, those who retained all of their limbs, were thrown into the Camp Followers’ tent, where they would alleviate the stresses of battle, one man at a time (usually).
Two days ago, Wynkoop and the other vanguard units had rejoined the main body of the army. Finally! It had all led to this, this moment. An hour that would live in infamy. Children would sing rhymes about this day forever. Austin’s name would ring in eternity, carried on the lips of his cult following until the end of time.
His speech, therefore, had to be perfect. He’d worked on it for days, all throughout the march north. It had to hit just right; the chroniclers of the king were listening; the king was listening.
Austin had been chosen for this honor for a very particular reason. As the captain who replaced the king’s own cousin, Jack MacLeroy, murdered by Sacramento, his words would ring truest in rallying the alliance of nations set to annihilate the last and greatest enemy. There was a lot riding on this moment, needless to say.
Kicking his horse into a trot, he rode to the front. Tugging on the reins, he turned to face the rank and file infantrymen, the mounted officers, and the King. Austin cleared his throat. His voice would carry quite far, out here in the open, but he still wouldn’t be heard by most of those gathered on the killing ground. That didn’t matter. He only had to be understood by the chronicler, the officers, and his liege lord, Grayson Davis II.
He snorted into his handkerchief and tucked it into the breast-pocket of his brown officer’s vest. Here goes nothin’.
He stood in his stirrups. To be heard, he had to shout at the top of his lungs: “Your Highness, landed lords of the Kingdom of Yuma, friends, brothers, my fellow patriot subjects, gimme your ears. I won’t take much of your time, knowing how badly y’all wanna get started. Some o’ you know me; I’m the man who was given the hard job of filling Captain Jack MacLeroy’s shoes. I’m gonna give it my best shot. Who I am, though, ain’t the least bit important. What is important is the reason why we’ve come here today. Here we are, on the field of final victory — betcher asses, we are. Are you as hungry as I am to smash some greedy liberal bastards?”
An animalistic cry ripped through the ranks.
Austin continued, “Behind them walls sit the most selfish men on Earth. They’re what’s left of the worst that the Old World had to offer. The last stain on the face of what our grandfathers called ‘America.’ Today, we finish the work they started. Let’s knock down them ivory tower eggheads — purge the shit-stains, once and for all!” Cheering from the men. “For more ’n twenty years, Sacramento has oppressed us, Sacramento has put its boot on our throats, has stolen from us — from us and every other free town and nation in the wasteland. I don’t know ’bout you, but I can see what their ‘Republic’ really is: a dictatorship hell-bent on controlling all the water and food in these parts. We’ve been givin’ ’em their way for too damn long. It’s time we got ourselves a fair standard of living. For the safety and security of your families, you owe it them to take back what’s rightfully yours: freedom, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The Sackies stole it, goddamn them. Well, today we steal it back from their cold, dead hands!” More cheers. Louder. Rippling through the assembly. “The Sackies are cowards, cowering in their fortress, alone and cornered. Weak. Ready to be crushed. But we are the biggest and best alliance of soldiers ever seen.” He paused to let that last statement linger in the sudden stillness. Then: “Yuma is here, of course—” The Yuman infantrymen barked like dogs and bayed like wolves, stamping their feet, and clattering the flats of their shortswords against their helmets, a cacophony fit to split the earth—“and there are represented the cities of liberated Flagstaff and Chula; Tucson and St. George; Grenadia, Salt Mine, Bandolier, and Rippo; there’s Solvang and Lompoc; and the Ridgecrest Raiders have come in force, I see (Leave no man alive!).” At the sound of their battle cry, the Raiders ululated from their raw throats, a terrible sound, and rattled their totems made of brass bullet casings. Austin was glad they were on his side. He held up a hand after a moment to ask for silence. “The whole world is united against Sacramento. The proof is right in front of y’all. See, there, a whole lot of Wild-Childs from so many different tribes, tribes that just a few months ago were at each others’ throats. That’s the true power of the Sackies, I’ll tell ya: they can turn even the worst enemies into friends, if it means everyone gets a swing at Sacramento.” Laughter. “My fellow patriots, only the death of all Sackies can make this land great again! That’s why the Gutters and the Godless came down from the north. And there are members of the old and noble Lakota Sycuan Kumeyaay Federation…” Silence. Austin had forgotten they hadn’t come willingly. Damn. Fucked my flow. He hesitated for half a beat before pressing on. “I see Facers and Flayers—” The hooting of approval at this bolstered his nerve again. “The savage Toe Yufum is here, and, with him, Ol’ Patti Crooked — it’s an honor to have y’all; and I see a good amount o’ Vees among us, proud and brave, come a long, long way from Vegas.”1 He expected no Vee would be laughing at that jibe, but it didn’t matter; the others, especially the Yuman nobles, grew hysterical. “And, look, even the crippled and handicapped have come out today! The deaf and the blind have rolled themselves out of their holes to join us.” More laughter. “I guess even the handicapped hate Sacramento with a vengeance!” Thunderous applause and several stray whistles.
“So,” he continued, “now that we got our ten thousand able-bodied men and women with a hunger for revenge… I for one have an idea ‘bout what we should do next.” Shouts and foot-thumping. The rattling of sabers and rifles against metal armor. “My friends, today is the day we smash Sacramento into dust and take everything they have for ourselves. At last, Yuma will be the undisputed ruler and guardian of the wasteland, and all o’ you who joined us on this day will reap the rewards forever and ever! Let’s crush the Goddamn Sackies and end those smug libtards!” he cried, punching the air. “Yuma!”
The cry — “Yuma!” — rippled outward toward the tree line and river on the west side and the freeway overpass on the east. Within a minute, ten thousand fists were raised. The noise was deafening. Austin smiled again.
He said, “Long live the king!” and, with that, he rejoined the royal cohort.
Damn that felt good.
Best of all, better than any response he’d gotten from his fellow soldiers, the king gave him a small nod and a smile. Basically, Austin was now set for life. He could write his ticket anywhere after today, after Yuma’s inevitable victory.
What a glorious day, a day to burn into his memory forever.
I love my goddamn job, he thought.
And there it was: the hush before the storm. The boiling water in the pot reached the rim.
The king, decked out in his gilded military vest, medals glinting on his chest, commanded his bannermen, “Take the river. I want it running red. Sink anything that moves.”
The bugles sounded. Austin’s heart pounded.
The war was on.
Whole columns of men marched alongside the river, keeping it to their left, heading north. They would take and hold the northern position, cutting off the Sackies’ access to their precious river. Meanwhile, Austin’s own units moved in unison, heading northeast, toward the southern gate.
But first, before they could smash themselves against those walls, they had a river crossing of their own to make…
The national sport of Yuma was football, as it was played in the days before The Fall. The game required exceptional endurance, precision, and strength. Bravery, the cardinal virtue of the kingdom, was demanded of every player on every team. Only the greatest rose to the top; there were no bitch-ass consolation trophies, as there was no consolation in war. Brendan Stillman, Austin’s old coach had told him, once, “Everything in Yuma, from the day you’re born until the day you close your eyes for good, was made to prepare you for the only real job out there: battle. To fight and kill for the glory of your king is the only thing that’ll make you worthy of the food you’ve eaten, the water you’ve guzzled down. We raised you from a pup to a dog of war, and you’ll damn well bite who we tell you to.”
Words to live by.
To a true Yuman, then, football and war were one and the same. You never gave up, never gave ground. Whatever happened, you did not surrender. You played until you couldn’t get up again, in rain, during an earthquake, whenever. War wouldn’t wait for you to be well-rested and in a good mood. Neither could the scrimmage.
When Austin had befriended Jack MacLeroy, they bonded over the game. Before they were soldiers, they were fifteen-year-olds, big for their age, signing up for the Yuma Paladins, the best team in the kingdom. The Paladins had won the last four consecutive Blood Bowls, an impressive record, everyone agreed. But for Coach Stillman, it was never good enough: “Work harder, dig deeper. None of you mutts are resting on your laurels on my watch.” Coach was a tough old son of a bitch — had to be, ’cause he’d lived through the end of the world. He bled his team dry, accordingly, but it always got results.
Legend had it that he was one of the original founders of New Yuma, which made him a god to awestruck Austin and Jack. But he’d never talked about those days, which earned him the undying respect of his men. And he returned that respect to them; after every grueling training season, he’d totally clam up, giving them the only sign they’d get that they were ready. Jack and Austin had loved him for his pride, his quiet trust in himself and in them.
Back in the present, his horse stirring beneath him as he scanned the steel walls of Sacramento, Austin was reminded of Coach. The old man’s motto, the two words he’d spoken every day of his life as long as anyone had know him, sprung up in Austin’s mind: “No mercy.” When you got your opponent cornered, you didn’t let up. You never gave an inch, never hesitated. Instead, you capitalized; you went for the throat. Kick them while they’re down. Because they’d do the same to you.
Well, Austin saw Sacramento lying before him, in no way ready to receive the hard, swift kick in the dick that was coming. So he smiled.
The same principle, “no mercy,” held in Yuma’s other national pastime: dog-fighting. Whether two hungry curs were duking it out for their lives, one on one, or a whole pack scrambled against a rival pack, you’d never see the dogs rein in their bloodlust at the critical moment. No, they went for the kill, the jugular-bite, every time. You could learn a lot from an enraged canine.
Yuma was, essentially, the world’s biggest dog; ten thousand heads now levered open jaws of metal to reveal teeth of steel and gunpowder. Sacramento’s jugular was exposed. It was basically over. The day they’d all waited for, trained for their whole lives, had come.
All those rough and hungry years of merciless food and water rationing would finally be over. No more sick and weakly livestock. The territories would overflow with captured crops, grain stores, chickens, cattle, horses. God, it’d be beautiful.
Sacramento was the reason Yuma struggled and was always forced to bring in new resources through conquest, just to survive. Sacramento’s greed had justified their taking of everything good left in the wasteland, from clean water to advanced machines and medicines.
Meanwhile, death had to be the penalty for stealing anything in New Yuma, because everything in the kingdom belonged to the king. It had to be that way; Sacramento had hoarded so much that almost nothing was left for anyone else. The royal government did what it had to in order to keep its subjects to survive. With the tyrant gone, however, the rules would change. The laws would be loosened. The world would be saved, and Yuma would be on top, now and forever.
The only obstacle that remained between Yuma and victory was the river, and Austin had the privilege of leading the first charge across it.
The time had come; the infantry began to move, shaking the ground by the collective force of their thudding boots. All around Austin, songs were sung as units marched in formation, their maneuvers coordinated by bright signal flags. You couldn’t help but admire them all as they milled around you.
To the frontlines were sent the Facers and Flayers, always hankering for a fight, gnashing their stubby teeth in anticipation. After them went the big blocks of Yuma infantrymen, those grunts equipped with short, iron swords and padded leather armor which had been covered in strategic places with iron plates. The mere fifteen hundred working-order firearms remaining in Yuma’s possession now all rested in the hands of the noble officers, the heavy cavalry, and individual unit commanders (corporals and above). Everyone else got melee weapons. No sense complaining. Simple butchery, after all, had been enough to bring the other settlements of the wasteland into line, and it would be enough to cut up Sacramento. Guns, anyway, were just a crutch for the Sackies to lean on because they didn’t have the will or the balls to fight like real men. And, besides, when Sacramento fell, every Yuman would have a gun again, returning the kingdom to the glory days of its founding. Then that age-old promise that America once upheld would finally be fulfilled: the right to bear arms would be restored and good men would use that right to rule fairly over the free peoples of the world.
Most of the royal cohort remained behind as the sword- and axe-wielding grunts pushed forward, the nobles feeling no need to engage in this opening salvo.
Austin rode alongside the marching soldiers, some four hundred of them, his personal pistol in one hand. The sun was high in the sky; sweat vapors wafted from the bared necks and soaked armpits of the men, including Austin himself. The musky stink of his horse hung in his nostrils.
Ahead, he could see a disorganized column of retreating Sackies rushing for their city’s southern gate, which had been raised. Between them and Yuma’s vanguard stretched a thin line of enemy soldiers. The defenders had spread themselves between two towers that appeared empty. This outpost, lying on Sacramento’s side of the river, would shortly become Yuma’s first foothold in Republican territory. Somehow, the men guarding it had not broken in the face of the overwhelming force that was headed their way.
After the shock of witnessing their insane stubbornness faded, Austin laughed. What did they hope to do? They certainly weren’t going to stop the advance. Maybe the hope was to hold Yuma off for long enough to allow those fleeing idiots behind them to reach the city. Yeah, that must be it. The women and children — cowards — are making for the gate, figuring that’ll keep ’em safe. And these assholes are giving up their lives to buy them time. Like it’ll matter. Well, whatever. Die now, or die in a few hours — Austin couldn’t care less.
He also could wait no longer. His blood had boiled over.
“Charge!” he screamed.
The men, with the Wild-Childs at the front, broke into a full-on sprint, aiming for the narrow bridge that rested in front of the outpost. A crack like thunder rang out, then, and one of the Facer forerunners fell to the ground. Immediately, the dozens behind him swarmed over his body and pressed on, undeterred. Their feet pounded the dead man into mush.
Snipers in the towers, Austin noted. He shouted to his men, “Go! Go! Death to Sacramento!”
There was a bridge ahead. It was wide enough only for two men to walk shoulder to shoulder, which forced most of the vanguard to wade through the river on either side. The water came up to the sternum of the average man.
With the first two lines scrambling onto dry land on the opposite bank, the Sackies opened fire in full. The Wild-Child conscripts’ bone and brass suits of armor were no match for the piercing M4 rounds unleashed. In bursts of gore that Austin could see even from fifty feet away, man after man was knocked down and back. Many of the bodies wound up in the water again and floated downstream. They did so until they caught on something, maybe a boulder. There were simply too many for the river to bear; the corpses, buffeted against the wooden bridge, formed a sort of dam. This served as a secondary, improvised bridge for the next wave of warriors.
Austin patted himself on the back for his excellent foresight. And that is why the Facers and Flayers went in first.
Now, Yuma crossed the river in force.
Bye-bye, thought Austin.
Even with their M4s and tactical shotguns, the Sackies couldn’t stand against a few hundred enraged Yumans and Wild-Childs. The latter simply piled on top of the former. Machetes and swords flailed in bloodied hands, biting deep into the meat of the Sackies, spraying their juices across the field. Each of the defenders was sliced and stabbed from ten directions at once, his screams quite literally cut short.
Austin’s triumph, however, didn’t last long. His horse reared.
He only heard the echoing boom of the sniper rifle after he was pitched from his saddle. Hurtling through the air, he curled into a ball. He was lucky, in a way; he landed far away enough that the frenzied horse’s hooves didn’t cave in his skull. Unfortunately, the dive had busted his leg.
He couldn’t bring himself to look at the source of the searing pain under his knee.
Swearing with everything he had, he screamed for his men to kill. “Take no prisoners!”
Rolling onto his side, he scrambled away from his still-bucking mount and found himself on a small patch of sun-baked dirt. From there, he watched as the infantry, their iron armor glinting in the light, hurled the cut up bodies of the snipers from their towers. At the same time, the last of the outpost’s defenders were hacked apart by two hundred serrated blades.
With a delirious half-smirk, Austin thought, The only kind of kill is overkill. Sputtering, he struggled to keep his eyes open.
Heaps of dead littered the field beneath the towers. Mounds of iron armor and brass and bone ornaments sprawled between the bodies. An unholy mess. But they’d done it, they’d taken the crossing.
Sacramento was as good as theirs!
The pain in Austin’s leg grew unbearable. His wrist was flaring up, now. Probably broken, too. He willed himself to stay awake until a field surgeon could find him. If he passed out now, he might be presumed dead, and then he’d never get to watch Sacramento burn. That was all he wanted, really, to witness it smolder and disappear, as if it had never even existed. For Yuma. For the king. For his best friend, Jack MacLeroy, taken before his time.
Austin’s wounded horse finally keeled over and died. Again, luckily, it did so far away enough from him that its fall didn’t crush him.
A few moments later, some soldiers who’d doubled back found him and one of them ran to the main camp in order to summon a doctor. Good thing, too, as Austin could hold on no longer.
Tasting the salt of his sweat and the copper of his own blood on his lips, he slipped into unconsciousness.