This is the first chapter of my military sci-fi novel, tentatively titled, Sibling Rebellions
On the morning of November 2, 2053, like most of us, I was consumed with what the day might bring, but these were jangled up with my own personal life. As I crossed onto the north side of the University of Washington, I was replaying the advice my father had given me the night before. He’d been in his office at home, and on the clip, his broad, bearded face was lined with concern.
“Jonas, remember the future is about flexibility, choosing the right path downstream. You can’t fight the current, but you can follow your principles.”
The weariness in his voice came from more than the threats of violence on the first anniversary of President Williams election by the ASC and counter-threats from the far-right. I knew that stress from his work at Oracle was grating on him, but he wouldn’t tell me any details.
“Regulation, education, innovation,” I said on the clip, reciting his political mantra.
“Good man. I’ll see you this weekend?”
Reaching the sidewalk path across north campus to Parrington Hall, I closed the recording on my eyephone contacts and sighed. His words and advice didn’t seem so infallible now, which was why I was meeting my mentor Dr. Oats.
In Seattle, the temperature that day was in the mid-seventies, and luckily there’d been no forest fires, so the air was clear. The lawns on campus were all dry away from the trees, and north of the path in front of the Law Department in the Will Gates building, workers were cutting down another maple dead from warming. On buildings and open spaces, egraffiti glowed and popped in moving colors and shapes, making it almost impossible to not look at. Fuck Williams before she Fucks you, was scrawled above an image of her wearing a massive purple strap-on, holding an M-33 and grinning insanely. She had wings, fangs, a forked tail, and laser eyes, which were razing Seattle. I shook my head at the crudeness and stupidity of it.
Ahead, on the sandstone foundation of Parrington Hall, another read: Support the Student Charter! It snapped out of existence as the college’s AI censor made a new sweep.
Around me on the path, students wore tank tops and shorts and bikinis, trying to make the best of the weather. Through my eyephone, I could see the projected AR avatars many wore. A grizzled Captain Blackman from the VR game Freedom Travels marched past me, followed by Tam Fernandez, then an icon of the Green party. Others appeared as models and sports stars.
I never wore avatars in public. I thought them too campy, and most of my heroes were writers nobody would recognize anyway. My girlfriend Kim often chided that I was just too insecure about expressing myself, which was closer to the truth. As I approached the hall, a delivery drone buzzed toward the upper windows of its glass trapezoid, probably delivering professor Oats’ tea, or someone splurging on coffee.
As I crossed inside the building, I could hear chanting coming from near Odegaard Library and Red Square. I almost thought I could make out Kim’s voice. My eyes flicked to the time in the upper left of my HUD: 9:01 am. The protests in Seattle–and the whole country–had started right on time.
I mounted the steps to Oats’ office. The building was nearly empty. Most students and many professors had walked out; some had stayed home in fear of a clash or shooting on campus.
When I reached Oats’ corner office on the third floor, he was at his desk, eyes scanning rapidly back and forth, reading something on his eyephone. He had short grey hair, a boxy, stolid face, and a flat Midwestern brogue, hinting at his birthplace in Des Moines, Iowa. A shelf behind him held pictures of his family, his wife, and two teenage sons. Like most of my English Professors, his office was lined with printed books. They were all nostalgic like that, of which a fair amount had already rubbed off on me.
He’d taught my Comp I class, and I was now taking an experimental literature course with him.
He looked up from the doc. “Jonas, hey.”
I took the seat in front of his desk. “Wasn’t sure if you’d be here,” I said.
“Comp class today,” he sighed. “We’ll see who makes it. And you? Going to protests?”
“Yeah,” I said. “That’s what I came to see you about.”
“My partner Kim,” I said. “And my best friend Danny . . . They’re both talking about working full-time at the local Green office, or even joining the Elves. And with this whole Charter ultimatum from the student council–”
“It’ll never happen,” Oats said, shaking his head.
“I hope not,” I said. “I just worry I won’t have a college to attend next semester. And I agree William’s new FHR act is weak, but I’m not going to leave school and start burning down suburbs and factory farms.”
Oats leaned forward, his face kind and earnest.
“Jonas, you’re one of my best students. I also happen to agree with you. But English and writing are your passions. I don’t know your partner or your friend, but no matter what happens, you have to follow your vocation.”
“Thanks, Dr. Oats. I just don’t know what to tell her.”
“Per gonna give up dance?” he asked.
I was surprised he’d remember this detail about Kim but didn’t know her pronouns.
“I don’t know. Probably do more public performances. But she seems really serious, so is Danny. I don’t want to break up because I don’t have time to be that involved.”
“I don’t blame you. Look, stay up on your studies, don’t get arrested, and you’ll be fine. I don’t know Kim, but she should understand that.”
“What do I tell her about joining the Greens?”
“Tell her yes, volunteer at their office, great. Just stay away from the Elves. The FHR is weak, but it’s better than nothing. They’ll be lucky to pass it with all the Republicans opposed and the Greens and Parecons on the fence.”
He smiled, and I sat up a little, feeling calmer now.
I paused, hesitating before bringing up the bigger question:
“You think this will start a war?”
Oats swallowed, rubbed his forehead. “Maybe.”
“Really? My dad says she probably already has a stronger oracle than she’s admitting. And seeing the cost, she won’t push anyone that far.”
Oats ran a hand through his hair. “I’m not so sure any course will save us from that. Or any oracle. The Elves and ASC want a violent end to capital. The other side is ready to take up arms at the thought of another tax hike. She can’t appease everybody.”
I straightened, readying to leave. As enthralled as I was with Oat’s insights, I could see he had work to do, and this wasn’t his office hours.
“Thanks for the advice, Dr. Oats,” I said. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”
“All right, Jonas.”
As I reached out to shake his hand, a vicious boom rattled Oats’ window, stinging my ears and dislocating my vision. It shook the building, and books tumbled from his shelves, thumping all around us. I could feel the impact of the noise in my chest. Oats put his hands up in a cower as the window behind him slivered into fragments. There came a roaring and a cascade of tinkling as all the windows in the building shattered and fell to the green below.
I found myself on the floor, with my head up against Oats’ desk. Through the ringing in my ears, I could hear heavy breathing from nearby and screaming from one of the offices next door. I got up on one knee, saw Oats’ head pop up on the other side. His face was pale, eyes fully open, mouth in a strange grimacing smile.
He stood up and brushed the glass from his shoulders. He turned to the window, which was now just a black metal frame, the sill a pool of glass gravel.
“My God . . .”
I came around the desk behind him and looked down the hill towards 15th Ave.
Through the trees that lined the edge of campus, we could see a rising gray mushroom cloud from an explosion. Leaning against the gritty sill, with a shock of recognition, I saw that the smoke billowed from Schmitz Hall, where the ROTC office was located. As it cleared, we could make out the corner of 41st Street, five hundred feet distant.
Fires licked from a hole in the second floor of the building. Around the intersection of 15th and 41st, people were prostrate, covering their heads, the street littered with debris. Now they rose and ran towards campus or back down 15th. A person with long hair, lying on the sidewalk right below the building, did not get up.
Two hundred feet away, on the path I’d just walked, I saw an arm, half on the sidewalk, half on the grass. At first, I couldn’t process it, I thought it was a jacket, a pile of clothes, a backpack, but it stood clearly in focus, the brown fingers splayed, the bicep darkened by blood or the explosion. My head reeled, and my gorge started to come up. I bumped into the desk behind me, clumsily cutting my hand on a glass shard.
“Christ, it’s the ROTC . . .” Oats turned around, called across the hallway.
“Kent, are you all right?” Dr. Philips, my Caribbean Literature instructor, was his neighbor.
Philips knocked open the door, rubbed his shaggy brown hair with one hand.
“Liam, Jesus, are we being fucking bombed? My window’s all blown out . . .”
“The ROTC. Come and look.”
He stepped into the office, taking in the desk and floor covered in shards. Warm air was blowing in through the wide window. The glass crunched under Dr. Philip’s steps. As he rubbernecked with Oats, I pocketed a round piece of glass off the desk for a memento.
The blaring klaxon of the fire alarm started. I could only barely make out Oats’ yells over the noise.
“We’ve got to get the hell out.”
We stepped out into the hallway, now filled with the few teachers in office. Up ahead, I saw my social media communications professor, Dr. Shearer, being held up by the elderly Dr. Martinez, as they shuffled towards the stairs. Shearer was screaming, and I saw her face was cut in many places, and streams of blood ran from her closed eyes. I thought of the climactic scene from Oedipus Rex. My mouth flooded with spit as another wave of nausea hit me.
More shouting as we moved to the stairs. From the opposite side of the floor, I could hear the English chair, Dr. Muñoz, shouting an all-clear. As I paused at the stairs, my head swimming, I felt Dr. Oats’ strong hand on my shoulder, and we moved down with the growing flood of students and instructors from the other three floors.
Outside the building, I could smell the smoke, a sharp chemical tang. In front of Parrington, Schmitz Hall was obscured by trees, but the smoke curled higher and higher above campus. People coming up the path from George Washington Lane and 15th were shouting that the ROTC and Veteran’s Affairs office had been bombed. My eyephone was rolling with alerts and real-time news:
Robbery in Progress at–
Bombing in University District
“Oh my God, a bomb just went off next to Red Square–“
Active shooter at–
Seattle National Guard Armory Under Attack
Oats now called for everyone to move around the building, north, to Parrington Green, and from there off campus. As I followed him, I looked up at the building. Only its thin steel superstructure and rooftop solar panels remained. The shattered windows formed a two-inch deep layer of glass in a circle around its drip line. All the rhododendrons and pines next to the walls were covered in it, like the glaze of a melted ice storm.
On my HUD, I’d dialed Kim and was subvocalizing a mass text to friends when the phone and Wi-Fi went out. This sent a shock of fear through me. Had the bombers done this? Or the police? Across the lawn, I saw a drone fall out of the sky, remotely deactivated. Panicked, I scanned the scene, trying to assure myself that neither Kim nor any of my friends would be in Schmitz for any reason. But what had happened to the protest at Red Square?
As we moved around the building, following the pathway, the view opened to another of the intersection. The collapsed person was still there, as well as the arm. As I looked, a person tumbled out of the smoking, shattered second floor of the building, and crumpled on the sidewalk. The crowd around me screamed and shrank back. The person did not move.
“Should we help per?” I asked Oats, leaning into him and pawing at his arm.
“Per’s dead,” he said. “Ambulances will be here soon. Everybody stay together,” he shouted. “Move across the green!”
His voice was detached, his eyes glazed, scanning past the bodies. I wondered what he was thinking. I realized–for the first time–that though I knew he’d been in the Army and served in Liberia, I had no idea what his time there had been like. He seemed surer than the rest of the department, even Muñoz, who was taking up the rear of the crowd.
Up ahead, the whole Law Department was out on Parrington Green, assembled uphill in front of the glass square of the Will Gates building. The workers had abandoned the dead maple tree, cut down, surrounded by orange tap. I scanned through the crowd of students coming up the tree-shaded Memorial way from Red Square and the Student Hub, looking for Kim or anyone I knew.
We reached the law crowd, and hundreds of students gathered in the center of Parrington, along the two paths leading from 42nd Street. Thousands of voices talked at once about their eyephones or where their friends were or information on what was happening. Many were crying. Administrators and instructors moved through the crowd, trying to calm the hysterical or restrain those trying to flee.
“You OK, Jonas?” Oats asked, looking hard into my face.
“Yeah, I’m OK,” I said. He nodded and stepped away, moving towards the small circle forming around Dr. Shearer.
A rising wail of sirens approached from the west and south. A swat van and two police cars stopped at the intersection in front of Schmitz, followed by two firetrucks and ambulances. The police dived into the building, the firefighters tapped a hydrant and started dousing the flames.
Soon the swat van moved up the campus paths from 42nd towards the gathered crowd, followed by two ambulances. They parked fifty feet away.
Four officers emerged from the back, shouting for the rushing crowds to get back, move away from the cars. I realize, in a kind of shock, that they imagined the bombers could be among us. The crowd huddled together, confused and cowed by the authoritative barking.
Soon they conferred with our professors and directed us to move up Memorial Way, towards the fraternity and sorority housing, north of campus. As we moved back, I turned to watch other officers at the Schmitz intersection kneeling to check the pulse of the two bodies. They paused, spoke into their comms, and moved out of sight towards the back of the hall.
I kept bumping into people, turning around to look for Kim. Each moment was super-clear and etched into my memory. A hyperreality set in with every image and sound being deeply limned into my brain. Each blade of dry grass, the shards of glass on the rhodies around Parrington, the hazed bright overcast sky. But the meaning had become garbled. Why was I here? What had Dr. Oats and I been meeting for?
From a chaperoned group coming up behind, I spotted Kim’s black hair, tight shoulders, and heart-shaped face. Shouting, I push my way through the crowd towards her. Oats yelled behind me, and one of the nearby officers shouted, his face a mask of anger, but he turned away when I merged with the other crowd. I saw Kim’s haughty middle-aged female dance professor glare at me but I ignored her, racing to embrace Kim.
“Jonas!” she shouted when I got close. “Oh my God, are you OK?” She came in for a hug, and I squeezed her. “My phone’s not working, I tried to call you,” she said. “I thought–“
“The police shut the wireless down, I think.”
I saw the long red hair of her best friend Arielle, who walked behind, holding hands with her partner, Ray. They were both dressed in leotards, Ray’s muscles bulging in his spandex. Both were crying.
“Have you seen, Danny?”
Kim shook her head.
“I’m sure he’s OK.”
I nodded, swallowed a lump in my throat. We stared at the growing crowds, all merging into a mass parade up Memorial Way. A thousand students, maybe more.
Who had done it? The Elves only targeted large companies or those trying to build on the few undeveloped and wild places left. Right-wing militias or Outsiders likely wouldn’t target the ROTC. It had to have been the ACS, or the Red Army Faction, whose numbers had been growing since William’s election. I would soon learn I was not far off.
As I squeezed Kim’s sweaty hand, two heavy shots rang out from nearby, followed by two more, echoing off the buildings. There was a brief burst of automatic fire from the police, then silence. Everyone hit the ground, and the whole crowd threw up a wail. An active shooter. And we were out in the open.
I tried to cover Kim with my body, but she put an arm around me, shaking, and I stopped. It seemed pointless. Could my body stop a bullet? I could smell her perfume mixed with sweat and the sharp aerosol of her hairspray. I tried to remember what we were supposed to do in an active shooter situation. Bar the door? Turn off the lights? But we were outside.
“Run!” called a familiar voice. I rolled over, my knees and hands damp. Fifty feet away, Dr. Oats was shouting, upon his feet, waving his hands.
“Scatter! You’re out in the open.”
I sat up on one knee, saw he was the only one on his feet. Then Dr. Muñoz joined him, then other professors, all telling us to run. I stood, hoisted Kim up with me. It was then I saw what had happened to the police.
All four nearby officers were down, shot in the face or neck, the shooter avoiding their helmets and body armor. The nearest was trying to hold the blood in, thick clots of it bubbling up between his fingers. His red lips made silent calls for help. All around us, students were screaming and shrinking back from the dying police. I watched, unable to stop, as blood squirted between the nearest officer’s clutching fingers until his hand fell away, and he lay unmoving.
I took Kim’s wrist in a grip and sprinted out of the crowd northwest, past the near side of the law building, towards our apartment. Almost as one, the rest of the group scattered in every direction, except southwest towards Schmitz.
My feet dug into the grass. We reached the sidewalk leading to the law building. I tripped on it, and we both went down, hands sinking into the lawn. Back on our feet, gunshots rang out to our right, and we dropped again, my heart feeling as if it were going to explode out of my chest. I swiveled my head around, and in the distance, saw an officer emerge from Schmitz, firing his pistol up at the rooftop of Gates. Another piercing shot cracked overhead, and his body stiffened while the back of his head fell out in a spray of gore. His hands went slack, and the pistol dropped to the sidewalk. Everything in my vision shook, taking in a hundred stimuli at once: the officer’s knees awkwardly under his body, the firefighters cowering behind their truck in their heavy boots and yellow suspenders. On the breeze, I could smell blood and fresh urine. I again saw the image of the brains coming out of the back of the officer’s head. It flashed and repeated, a red horror on continuous flicker. The savory oatmeal in my stomach flooded up in a violent surge, spraying all over the grass and my chest. I wiped my mouth, saw Kim had lost her breakfast smoothie; green splotches of it dotted her tights. Tears streamed from her face, snot hung from her nose.
My knees felt like rubber, but my whole body urged me up, away, to escape. We clawed to our feet and hurtled forward towards the edge of Gates and the seeming safety of the trees lining the edge of 15th Ave and campus. Kim tugged on my hand, and we slowed.
“He’s that way, don’t run that way!”
“No!” I roared, and yanked violently on her arm. She yelped but caught her feet and followed me down to 15th.
Another rapid string of shots rang out. I could hear the lighter pop of officers firing back from cover near Schmitz. They were only targeting the police. If they wanted to kill us, they would have done it by now.
We jumped down the raised embankment along 15th, ran up for one block then sprinted down 43rd. Crowds were everywhere, flooding away from campus, and sirens were howling all around us. Getting to 11th Ave, we rounded the corner on Roosevelt and reached our apartment door, gasping for breath.
I shook so bad I couldn’t type the pin on my eyephone and finally had to sub-vocalize to get the door to unlock. We ran up the stairs to the third floor, ignoring other tenants’ shouts for information or attempts to stop and help us.
We rushed into the apt and collapsed on the carpeted floor, panting. My head rolled at the thought of being here only an hour before. We reeked of vomit, sweat, grass, and mud. Our clothes were filthy.
“Oh, my fucking arm,” Kim moaned, holding her elbow and sitting up. “I think you sprained it.”
“When you yanked me towards the shooter.”
I wanted to argue with her, but I couldn’t find the words. After a few minutes, I lurched up, still breathing hard, went to the sink, and chugged water from a glass. Kim climbed up to use the bathroom, came back to the floor. We held each other there; she shivered all over. I tore a blanket from our couch to cover us.
“Oh God,” she moaned.
“It’s OK, Baby, it’s OK.”
“Jonas, they killed them, they shot them.”
“It’s over. We’re gonna be OK.”
“It has to be the Red Faction. What if they take over town? We have to get out of here.”
She started to get up, but I held her tighter. Despite the fear in my chest, I said:
“It can’t be. There’s more of us, more police, more soldiers. It’s just an attack. We’re safe here.”
I wasn’t sure if I actually believed this. We lay on the carpet, shivering and rocking, while outside the discordant howl of sirens rose, and the smell of burning crept in through the closed windows. I crushed my eyes together, wishing everything would go away.
Just then, the phone and internet came back on, flooding my eye-contact HUD with information. Danny was alive. Arielle was alive. And Oats. Out of my periphery, I could see Kim rapidly reading and sub-vocalizing texts. Then my mother was calling. Her face was pale and drawn.
“Jonas,” she said. “Are you OK?”
“There was a shooting on campus, we’re home. Are you–”
“Jonas,” she said, cutting me off. “Your father’s dead.”