Spearmint leaned against the stripped, burnt out shell of a 2076 Ford Mustang and had one of his frequent flashbacks. In it he was a sixteen year-old speeding through town in the same model of car, copbait red and stolen from his father. Every thirty seconds his dad called and left a vicious message that if anything happened to the classic Ford, passed down to him from his father, Spearmint's life would end in violent use of power tools. His father was not a nice man. It was his way to compensate for being short.
The problem was it never happened. His family would have never been able to afford a sports car, mostly because there were five kids and only one income earned by his mom—Spearmint never met his dad. The car was probably from a commercial, and the dad an antagonist in a movie or something, but Spearmint couldn't quite pinpoint the vision's origins. He gave up and considered it a victory that he'd identified it as fake at all. The syphilis had progressed to his brain and was playing sinister tricks. The rumour among the troops was that years and years ago, before everything went to shit, syphilis could be easily cured and nobody ever got tuberculosis or any of the dozens of other afflictions they feared daily. It seemed like nostalgic bullshit.
The car provided adequate cover for the moment, but this deep into enemy territory there would be heavy air support for the opposition and none for Spearmint's platoon. The entire mess was the insane Lieutenant's fault. He'd been ordered three weeks ago to secure a hill. So he did. And then he kept going, securing a small town just beyond the hill, and then clearing the surrounding woods. The commander was so impressed he sent reinforcements to maintain the positions captured by the platoon, and told the Lieutenant to keep going until he couldn't go any further. So Lieutenant Sketch did. And now they couldn't go any further. Or go back. The mission was a success.
Spearmint reloaded his rifle, checked his sidearm, and tried to remember how they all got their nicknames. He couldn't even remember the Lieutenant's real name anymore and barely remembered his own. Maybe that was due to the infection. Lieutenant Sketch got his name because he had a dangerous habit of forcing everybody to huddle together while he sketched out plans in a tiny reporter's pad he carried around, like a coach drawing up the team's next play, as mortars crashed down. He would draw out a messy series of Xs, Os, arrows, squares, lines and measurements until everybody convinced him they understood, even though the drawings were always incomprehensible.
Spearmint got his name because he always chewed fresh spearmint whenever they found it growing in the fields outside demolished towns. He was one of the last soldiers to be bestowed a nickname and, by the time he was given one, the platoon was clearly running short on inspiration.
Sketch kept referring to the enemy soldiers as "the enemy" because it was impossible to figure out which army they belonged to. Decades ago, after the countries and continents had all disintegrated faster than anybody dreamed possible, people became desperate for something to identify with. It was like human beings had all suddenly become homeless and were wandering the world, shocked and disoriented, looking for a place to put down heavy armloads of patriotism suddenly made irrelevant. The old religions were resurrected but when everybody grew tired of feeling bored— or of feeling guilty when they weren't feeling bored— the churches and mosques and synagogues were sent back to history. Next came fashion, but everybody wore the same clothes, and there wasn't enough of an emotional attachment. Race, culture, economics, even hair colour were all tried, and had parts that worked, but none felt complete. The ultimate solution was obvious and elegant, and in a few short years divided up the population into a perfect new order. A world of ownerless armies, militias, gangs and police forces staked out new allegiances and the wars began.
The rest of the platoon joined Spearmint in leaning against the car, with the Lieutenant kneeling in front of them. There were only nine soldiers left. The day before there were twenty. The Lieutenant picked up a handful of dirt and sifted it through his fingers like he was looking for gold. He didn't find any.
"I have no idea where we are. Feels kind of good to be lost, don't you think men?" Sketch asked, trying to rally his soldiers for death.
"No, sir." Spearmint replied. There was a thick silence.
"Where's the badass Spearmint, huh? The mean motherfucker I always liked. Don't pussy out on me now, soldier. We're not going home, lads. This is our last stand. How do you want to go out, huh? Want to put makeup on like those cross-dressing faggots in the Madonna Liberation Army and die with lipstick in your pockets? Want to sit around and bleach each other's teeth like the fucking Kardashian Front. No! We go out like men. We go out defending our Queen and the republic we swore to protect to the death. This, men, this is why we're alive!"
For the next five minutes, Spearmint thought. Then he realized he didn't have long anyway and was simultaneously relieved and crushed. Everybody knows they're going to die someday. But actually meeting death is such a shock, like finally meeting an old online friend in person. They never look as expected. He picked up his own handful of dirt and copied the Lieutenant. It was odd to think in minutes he would never feel anything again.The hammer was heavy and the chisel kept slipping so he kept striking his fingers. Every time he did, she'd laugh. There was nothing else to do, so their grandparents had given them each a hammer and a chisel and told them to go carve their names in the rocks down at the park. Kids had been doing it out of boredom forever, and the dark black rocks were tattooed with names and dates going back over a hundred years. Some of the lazier ones used spray-paint, but that defeated the entire purpose of killing time. This is ridiculous, she said, what are we in the 1900s? He complained that his grandfather never let him use the laser to carve things because it was too dangerous, then hit his fingers again. She giggled and took his hand in hers. Neither one of them had goggles on and bits of rock kept flying up at their faces with every blow. His oldest brother had to go to Toronto for surgery, so his mom had taken the three oldest children with her and left him and his sister with her parents. The small town was so boring it felt like it was dying. The mine at its centre was like a black hole, sucking colours right off the houses and the trees and the flowers until everything was grey. Frank and his sister were the only children for blocks, surrounded by old, wrinkled miners who stood at unnatural angles and kept asking how old they were with a strange envy. Their grandparents tried to keep them entertained but were lost when it came to small children. Most of the town, including Frank and Daniella's grandparents, were Italian immigrants so were all aligned with the Sinatra Brigade. The wars hadn't reached the town yet, but every now and then scattered gunfire could be heard on the outskirts. They dragged out their task as long as possible, carving full names, dates and even the exact time of day into the tiny mountain. When they finished, they ate the lunch their grandmother had packed while gazing over the empty, faded playground. The carving perfectly matched their personalities—Frank's was a shaky mess and Daniella's was a perfect work of straight lines and precision spaces. "Do you think Eddie's going to be ok?" Daniella asked after a long while. "Of course. It's not that big a deal." Frankie replied, popping three pieces of gum into his mouth. "Grandma says you're going to get cavities if you keep chewing that stuff. Why do you chew so much? You smell like a mint factory all the time." "I'd rather smell like mint than smell like you." "Haha. Funny. Frankie?" "Yeah?" "I don't want you to fight." "I have to." "Maybe you could run away." "Where?" "I don't know. Somewhere." "There isn't anywhere." Daniella looked sad. "So are you going to join the Brigade?" "No. It's lame. I'm going to choose something cooler." "Grandma and grandpa are going to be pissed." "Let them. I'm never coming back here anyway." A week later Frankie came back to carve Eddie's name in the rocks as a memorial. He had no idea that, within fifteen years, all three chiselled names would be headstones.
"Two hundred miles south of here Starfleet and the Rebel Alliance will wipe each other out. Team Edward and Team Jacob will decimate each other on the plains. Westcoast and Eastcoast are already all but extinct, and the Hipster Guerrilla Offensive is confusing the shit out of the north so all they do is read each other poetry during the day and slit each other's throats at night. Men, our army might be small, but it's smart as fuck. We know a pawn can win a game of chess."
Some of the men grumbled and looked down at the ground, but most just stood perfectly still. They stared through Sketch to the hills beyond the shattered village, recalling family dinners and women they'd never see again. They were a scarred bunch of men whose spirits had been broken then fused back together hundreds of times, each repair leaving a slightly harder and more jagged soul. Lieutenant Sketch paused for drama, then cracked a practiced, sarcastic smile.
"But sometimes, you just need to smash the board and stab motherfuckers to death with the splinters. This will be one of those times boys. Through our sacrifice, the republic and the Queen will live on."
The Lieutenant took a small radio out of one of his pockets and set it down on the hood of the mangled car. It only played one song, over and over. A bold, thunderous score that was the Queen's theme song. It wasn't very good, but troops played it all the time because it was their duty. Then he sat down beside Spearmint, just under the glassless window of the car. He took his field phone, GPS and other equipment out of his pockets and dropped them to the ground. Then he started loading up his weapons. The others in the platoon followed.
Sketch had just finished putting his sidearm back in the holster when a shot from a sniper passed cleanly through his head, entering near the hairline and exploding from the base of his neck in silence. He fell to the dirt and Spearmint suddenly realized he was now sitting in a pool of blood. Another soldier went down and the rest of the platoon scattered like rats. They ran into doorways and ducked behind piles of rubble and realized Sketch's plans had actually made a difference after all. Spearmint scanned the rooftops but saw no sign of the sniper. He heard the sound of a tank rolling a few blocks over and knew they were in trouble. Gunfire erupted from every direction, pinning them down.
Taking cover behind a hollow building, Spearmint looked at the blackened bricks and thought about the rocks back at his grandparents' house. For a moment he was there, sitting on the rocks with his sister, worrying about a brother who was already dead. Was this really better? When everybody pledged allegiance to their Celebrity and joined the armies they were only teenagers. How could they know what they were doing? Everybody said the Old Word way of countries and religions fighting was much more brutal, but that seemed impossible. The world was so busy at war that celebrities hadn't existed for almost a century. All this fighting was over movie stars and musicians who were long dead. If the Old World was more violent than the new one, how could it produce fame when the new one produced only martyrs?
The platoon was being massacred. As Spearmint returned fire the building on the other side of the street disintegrated in a shower of splintered brick. The explosion of the tank shell was so loud it punctured Spearmint's eardrums and he went deaf. He threw his arms over his head as the concrete flew at him, then everything switched off. When he regained consciousness he was lying face down tasting blood, a pile of broken bricks on his back.
Spearmint tried to pretend he was going to sleep and the visions in his head were dreams being born, not his consciousness seeping out forever. The Queen's anthem stopped, there was silence, and then it started up again but at a slightly slower tempo as the batteries in the radio drained. It sounded much better slower. It sounded sadder and more surreal. Shouts rose up in the background and he knew the enemy soldiers were closing in. Would it be better to die face down or face up? It was a terrible song and she was no queen. She was a seventeen year-old country music singer whom none of them had ever met.
BIO: Matt Peake lives in Ottawa, Canada, and spends his time writing short fiction, poetry, IOUs and fake patents of nobility (unfortunately, demand has dried up recently). While working as a freelancer for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, Matt once produced a radio documentary about people in their early 30s experiencing a "quarter life crisis". Most listeners assumed this demonstrated Matt's complete inability to perform basic math, but those people are pessimists who do not believe they will live to be 120. Matt is not on Facebook.