In a future America ravaged by natural disaster, pandemic, and political unrest, a fundamentalist faction emerges.
We’re thrilled to share an excerpt from 40 by Alan Heathcock, out from MCD on August 2nd.
In a future America ravaged by natural disaster, pandemic, and political unrest, a fundamentalist faction emerges. As the Novae Terrae gain power, enticing civilians with bread and circuses, a civil war breaks out between its members and the US government.
Mazzy Goodwin, a young soldier, only wants to find her little sister, Ava Lynn. One day, she wakes in a bomb crater to find wings emerged from her back. Has she died? Been gifted wings by God? Undergone a military experiment?
The world sees a miracle. Mazzy is coaxed into seeing it as an opportunity: to become the angel-like figurehead of the revolution, in return for being reunited with her sister. Her journey leads her to New Los Angeles, where the Novae have set up the headquarters for their propaganda machine—right in the ruins of Hollywood. Aided by friends old and new, she must navigate a web of deceit while staying true to herself.
I’d always supposed America’s demise would be from the war over race and culture that’d been smoldering for decades. Or maybe a survival-of-the-fittest scrum from a neglected climate that had become increasingly belligerent. But it was the pestilence of bare grocery shelves that dragged our nation to the brink.
Outcry arose for the government to do something. President Maeva Bon Martinez, who’d been in office not a year after a bitterly disputed election, offered a hard-line stance they’d root out the culprits and bring them to justice, and the American people would not go hungry. Despite the bluster and rhetoric, the damage Jo Sam had inflicted was devastating, the food supply impossible to recover in a mere growing season or two.
My unit was deployed to guard the streets surrounding the San Pilar armory as citizens stood in lines for loaves of bread, government cheese, a pathetic scattering of carrots and onions and potatoes, and packets of powdered nutritional supplements.
I could feel the contempt the people held for us, could see it in their eyes, in the way they clutched their children near. These were not foreigners. We were no occupying force. We were all Americans, who just as easily could’ve been neighbors back in Jaynesville, people like those I knew from school and 4-H and sat beside in the pews at Western Valley.
I wanted to shout that I understood their fear. That I worried about Mama and Ava Lynn back home. That I, too, was angry. But I knew my uniform was a symbol for a government that had failed its nation, and it seemed only prudent to uphold the soldier’s voiceless oath to peace and order.
It was surely Jo Sam who flooded the internet with crazed stories devoured by the hysterical masses as classified secrets uncovered. I overheard the accusations: the government was starving its citizens to control and enslave them; senators were throwing decadent orgies of sex and food; the president was ritualistically feasting on babies to gain nefarious favor from their blood.
Perhaps the people truly believed the lies. Perhaps they merely embraced what they knew were lies as to temper moral credence into their outrage. However parsed, desperate minds shrieked in the streets for revolution. Anti-government sentiment blanching the temperament of town, we soldiers were deemed coconspirators. We were called every awful thing: fascists and traitors and devils.
Each day, the tensions nationwide escalated with news reports of hospitals overrun, and children and the old dying in droves from sickness related to malnutrition. Urban centers were hardest hit, though rural counties in the arid south were reeling. Riots and looting broke out across the country, strict curfews instituted in New Orleans, Dallas, Kansas City, and Seattle. A bloody conflict, killing nine, erupted over the last gallon of milk in a minimart outside of Boston. A man in Utah was beheaded protecting his cellar’s shelves of preserved peaches.
Mayhem abounding, the Novae Terrae was hardly an afterthought. Then, one bright Sunday morning, white trucks pulled up before all the local churches. One can imagine the chorus of famished prayers emanating from the steeples, and the subsequent hallelujahs when congregants walked out into the sunshine to find White Sleeves unloading corn and beans, peppers and melons and leeks and berries, plentiful and free for the taking.
Memory was as fleeting as a hunger fed. We passed through the mirror’s glass, Jo Sam no longer the shadow of a toothless cult, now hailed a savior, the streets of San Pilar teeming with white-sleeved penitents ambling into Sunday service in their crisp gold coats, armed with rifles and righteousness, and singing hymns of praise unto the Lord of Might and Mercy.
The white sleeve bounty was delivered to churches for five straight Sabbaths. With the ranks of the Novae Terrae swelling nationwide, the president’s approval numbers at a historic low, Sergeant Nazari detailed our mission to disperse throughout the region, intercept the White Sleeve trucks, and commandeer their cargo. The order had come from the top. From here on out the relief effort would come from the United States government or not come at all.
The spin out of the White House was that this was a matter of public health, which was clearly a lie because all we did was drive the White Sleeve trucks to be unloaded at the San Pilar armory, where a woman wearing a Food and Drug Administration badge inventoried the stock and used us soldiers as laborers to set up the building as an official distribution center.
This was about power. Power and control. We expected the same angry crowds as during the famine, though now with uniforms and rifles. We planned for riots, wore full battle gear, but on the Wednesday the center opened we found the streets of San Pilar eerily empty. All of the shops closed, not a soul roaming about, it was like a scene straight from the quarantine days of the pandemics.
The air held a damp chill, the sky the putrid green that precedes a storm. At first, I thought the lights were just pops of heat lightning. But these lights, round and fuzzed, didn’t flash and vanish, and moved through the clouds as if mechanically steered.
The first raindrops pattered down, lifting dust off the pavement. Through the gloom of rain and dust, we saw the headlights coming up the road. Like a funeral procession, car after car passed in front of the armory and trolled through the business district’s brownstones to turn into the parking lot of the elementary school.
With the crawl of vehicles, the clouds filled with lights, I looked to Nazari, who’d turned his back to us while speaking to someone on his radio. Then Nazari called for our fire team to come with him. The rain falling harder, we piled into our tactical vehicle.
We didn’t drive to the school, but parked at the edge of the strip, near enough we could surveil, but far enough away as to not provoke. The Novae gathered in front of the school building. The children were dressed in white shorts and gold vests and caps. Those who’d brought them seemed to be their parents and relatives, as they knelt in front of the kids, hugging their necks and bidding them farewell as if they were parting for a week at sleepaway camp.
An older woman in a gold gown and a wide-brimmed hat lined up the children on the sidewalk, checking off names on a compad. Sergeant Nazari called it in to Higher, but we were ordered to not engage, to remain in our vehicles and do nothing more than use our external cameras to document what was happening.
Do not engage? Remain in our vehicles? From my seat in the rear, I peeked at the monitor mounted on the front console. The rain drumming down, the woman in the gold gown was leading the kids out into the open field beside the school.
My spine stiffened, a shock of pain shooting up the back of my neck. I looked to the others in my fire team, all men, all with their chins tucked into their tac vests, hands folded in their laps.
“They’re taking the children,” I said.
No one looked up or responded. A buzzing rose in my ears, what I thought was inside my head until the interior lights of our vehicle fell dark. The front console gone black, we had no camera, and the rain on the windshield bleared our view.
“They’re taking the children,” I said again, louder, now pleading.
The rain drubbed harder, cracking like gravel on the truck’s roof. No one budged or said a thing. A boy named Lashaun sat directly across from me. I called to him, but he didn’t look up.
Had my voice been emptied of sound? Had I become but an imprint of air? I felt the lines of my form fading, and panicked that I’d soon vanish if someone didn’t acknowledge me.
My back clenching, the rain pounding and the droning buzz and the darkness, I could’ve cursed or screamed, but instead I shoved through their knees, Sergeant Nazari only shouting when I threw wide the rear hatch and scrambled out onto the road.
I bolted through the rain and off toward the school. I was just beyond the strip when they materialized as if from the clouds, combat drones lowering like spiders around me.
I stopped and turned a circle in the road. The drones like a cage around me, I noted the White Sleeves on the roofs of the brownstones with their rifles trained down on me.
My squad remained in our vehicle, though I heard the turrets engage and saw the truck’s guns swing to cover the schoolyard and one tilted toward the rooftop snipers.
Then the blustery sky grew all the darker. An enormous shadow, perfect and rectangular, lowered into the clouds above the field. The air became heavy, like breathing smoke. From the rectangular vessel burst light like sunlight, the raindrops within glittering with a thousand tiny prisms.
The Novae parents roared a cheer. The children in the field all lifted their hands to the light. The woman in gold was the first to drift skyward. Then the children rose from the earth as if bound by a collective coil, levitating en masse, like a mobile of golden ornaments hoisted by invisible wires.
I struggled to process what I was witnessing. As I squinted against the brightness and rain, the children’s gold-vested bodies grew small in their ascent, and the woman high above them passed into the rectangle’s mercurial blackness.
The combat drones peeled away to follow the cargo up into the gathering dark. It was primal and irrational, like a child trying to shoot the moon with an arrow, but I raised my weapon to fire upon the monolith in the clouds.
Before I could tap the trigger, and though I heard no shots, bullets ripped the flesh of my upper back. I shrieked and bucked. My carbine flew from my grip to clatter onto the road. Then Nazari was behind me, hooking his arm around my shoulders and dragging me back toward our vehicle.
The fire team’s gunners unleashed a torrent of cover. Nazari hauled me around the rear of the vehicle and shoved me inside. I lay in the darkness between the boots of my team and the sergeant hopped in and slammed shut the hatch.
I shrieked I’d been shot. Lashaun shone his helmet light over me, asking where I’d been hit and saying he didn’t see anything. Liquid fire bubbled up my spine. I willed my trembling hand up over my shoulder and down under my vest, but no blood came off on my fingers.
I’d felt the impact. How had I not been shot? I bit my chin strap to ride the pain, a pressure on my shoulder blades like blazing irons boring through the skin. Then the truck’s interior lights flickered and held and the buzzing that had become the ambient noise of the world fell hushed.
Nazari yelled for the driver to go. Lashaun yanked me off the floor and threw me into my seat. As we sped away, I braced my helmeted head against the rain-streaked window and grimly eyed the field beside the school, the children gone, as was the chute of light and the portal of shade, the parents in gold rushing the road, victoriously thrusting their rifles at the green spitting sky.
Excerpted from 40, copyright © 2022 by Alan Heathcock.