“A brilliant and daring novel. Gallagher’s prose is sharp, energetic and witty, his characters are fiercely alive, and the cracked vision of America he creates is a monstrous thing of beauty.” —Phil Klay, award-winning author of Redeployment
The author of the “urgent and deeply moving” (The New York Times) Youngblood returns with this bold and provocative novel following a group of super-powered soldiers and civilians as they navigate an imperial America on the precipice of a major upheaval—for fans of The Fortress of Solitude and The Plot Against America.
Thirty years after its great triumph in Vietnam, the United States has again become mired in an endless foreign war overseas. Stories of super soldiers known as the Volunteers tuck in little American boys and girls every night. Yet domestic politics are aflame. Violent protests erupt throughout the nation; an ex-military watchdog group clashes with police while radical terrorists threaten to expose government experiments within the veteran rehabilitation colonies.
Halfway between war and peace, the Volunteers find themselves waiting for orders in the vast American city-state, Empire City. There they encounter a small group of civilians who know the truth about their powers, including Sebastian Rios, a young bureaucrat wrestling with survivor guilt, and Mia Tucker, a wounded army pilot-turned-Wall Street banker. Meanwhile, Jean-Jacques Saint-Preux, a Haitian-American Volunteer from the International Legion, decides he’ll do whatever it takes to return to the front lines.
Through it all, a controversial retired general emerges as a frontrunner in the presidential campaign, promising to save the country from itself. Her election would mean unprecedented military control over the country, with promises of security and stability—but at what cost?
Featuring Gallagher’s “vital” (The Washington Post), “evocative” (The Wall Street Journal) prose, Empire City is a rousing vision of an alternate—yet all too familiar—America on the brink.
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Chapter 1 CHAPTER 1
Sleepy and half-drunk, Sebastian Rios tried to reason with the message carved into the wall of the subway tunnel. He’d spent the evening with friends and coworkers, celebrating the republic’s birthday, and was attempting to get home. There’d been many toasts and his mouth tasted of rye. His head swam slowly, like an eel. “Defy,” he sounded out to himself. “De-fy.”
He ran his fingers over the word. Someone had spent time with it, he thought, given the depth of the notches that formed the letters. He appreciated that the message was both plain and mysterious, at once grounded and a bit mystical, too. Just above it lay a small, pale sticker of the American flag, its corners frayed and colors bleached by time. Sixty stars and thirteen stripes. It didn’t strike Sebastian as odd, anymore, all those rings of stars in the blue canton.
It was a Friday, late, languid midsummer in Empire City. Sebastian turned around and set his back against the wall. He’d intentionally stood away from others but a man had neared. The stranger wore rags and a vacant smile and held a dull metal pole. He began waving it around like a sword, something everyone noticed while pretending not to. Sebastian adjusted his earbuds and cycled through songs on his phone.
The stranger’s pole whizzed by a few feet from Sebastian, close enough for him to feel a light draft. Sebastian looked up, taking in the stranger’s mesh cap with the words CRETE WARFIGHTER in bright yellow on it. He was old enough to be from that war, Sebastian thought. Why wasn’t he at a rehabilitation colony? Veterans with troubles lived there. But—bureaucracy. Mistakes happened. Sebastian understood that.
A bell sounded through the station. “The threat index is blue,” a woman’s automated voice said. “Homeland Authority reminds citizens to remain guarded.”
Blue was good, Sebastian knew. No change.
The stranger in rags felt otherwise. “Defy!” he shouted, pointing to the message on the wall and hopping into the tunnel. Sebastian ignored him and so did everyone else.
“Defy!” the stranger repeated. He lifted his metal pole. Then he plunged it into the third rail, cracking the protective casing. The stranger’s body lit up like an illum round. The stranger fell. Smoke rose.
Oh, Sebastian thought, looking up. This is different.
The citizens on the platform screamed while Sebastian moved into the tunnel to check on the stranger. Rigid and red, the smile had remained on the man’s face.
“Masha’Allah,” Sebastian said. “Be easy, dude.” Then he made the sign of the cross with his phone over the stranger. He felt stares from across the platform. They didn’t understand and, to his mind, never would. Then Sebastian walked home. Whatever powers he had, they didn’t include resurrection.
Sebastian woke in his studio apartment the next morning, hungover and alone. He drank from the glass of water he’d placed on the nightstand hours earlier and checked the calendar on his phone. A commitment waited there like a blister: Mia Tucker’s engagement party. Could’ve sworn that was next weekend, he thought. Time seemed to be speeding up to him.
A gift, he remembered. People like this notice.
It was with such a resentment that Sebastian showered. He changed into a pair of slacks and the only unwrinkled dress shirt in his closet. Deciding against a tie—he wanted to make clear he was not of Wall Street or Connecticut—he threw on a sport jacket and a pair of aviator sunglasses and stepped into the day. Monitor drones hummed from above, ever-steady, summer light beating down. Sebastian squinted into it, wondering when the absurdities of life had turned into something else.
An anxious minute passed until a cab pulled over. “Uptown,” he told the driver. “Park and Sixty-Fifth.” He took out his phone to avoid conversation. The cab smelled of old potato. Sebastian lowered his window. Boiled air rushed the breach.
On his phone, Sebastian read an article about Congress repealing an amendment to allow the president to run for yet another term. The parties of the governing coalition cited wartime precedent and extolled the move. The parties in the minority argued that it brought the nation closer to authoritarianism. Sebastian thought the president grimaced too much in his photos, which called attention to a protruding vein in the center of the man’s bald head. He was dour enough as it was. Sebastian wanted a political leader who’d smile every now and then, even if they didn’t mean it.
The cab arrived at the restaurant. Sebastian had never eaten there, but a web search yielded a year-old “Intoxicatingly Elegant” headline from the Imperial Times. The menu consisted mostly of foods with French-sounding names but also offered “a variety of neo-nouvelle cuisines,” which Sebastian couldn’t comprehend, even though he was good with words. He put away his phone and paid the driver, tipping too much because he was bad with numbers.
Sebastian looked up at a three-story building the color of melon and sighed. If he had finished reading the review online, he’d have learned he was looking at a Greek Revival town house that had once served as the headquarters for a conservationist club founded by Teddy Roosevelt, and had a garden patio in the back he might enjoy. He hadn’t read that, though. Besides, his mind was elsewhere.
Two people with silver hair blocked the restaurant entrance, a man and a woman. They held drinks and appetizer napkins and appeared to be arguing in a restrained sort of way. Sebastian tried to part through them to get inside. The man put his arm around Sebastian’s shoulders and pulled him to the discussion. Manners mattered to Sebastian, even though he pretended otherwise, so he didn’t resist. The woman seemed disturbed by his sunglasses, and kept trying to peer under them.
“Here’s one of Mia’s military colleagues.” Sebastian didn’t say anything to that. The man’s tongue carried conviction on it. “No other country in history could wage the Mediterranean Wars and last, let alone prosper. Don’t you agree, young man?”
Sebastian nodded. The silver-haired man continued.
“A testament to our warfighters. But where’s the strategy? What’s the endgame? We learned this lesson in Vietnam: battles must be won before the war can be. Decisive battles.”
“And your solution would be?” the woman asked. “You still haven’t said.”
“Wogs need to be treated like the enemy they are. Same as we treated the British. Same as we treated Nazis. How we beat back the red gooks in my day. Overwhelming force, no apologies.”
“We’ve been at this thirty years, Bernard. When is enough enough?”
“When our way of life is secure. George Orwell said that.”
Sebastian felt sure he’d spent more time in the Near East than the silver-haired man, and he didn’t think George Orwell had said anything about securing a way of life, but he wasn’t about to argue with a member of the Next Greatest Generation. Especially one wearing his old combat ribbons on his blazer. They’d saved the free world from communism. So he kept to listening. It seemed a heavy conversation for an engagement party, but at least they weren’t talking investment portfolios.
“Isn’t that the whole issue? They don’t fight normal. So when we go into these countries to help, to rebuild, they blend in with the population.”
The woman was right, Sebastian had seen it himself in Tripoli. But the man remained undaunted.
“They said the same about our war. Until they didn’t,” he said. “Locals helping enemy are enemy. Families of terrorists are terrorists. That’s how the wogs fight. That’s how it works. Weren’t you a protestor? Flower power didn’t save Saigon from the horde.”
“That’s not fair.” To be accused of being a peacemonger was a big deal for older people, Sebastian knew. “We were doing what we thought was right. We were trying to protect our friends and classmates. Our brothers.”
The silver-haired man turned to Sebastian again. “How would you feel, young man,” he said, “if your friends and classmates took to the streets with picket signs while you were getting shot at for your country?”
“Hmm.” The Found Generation, protesting war? An absurd thought. They’d been raised to trust the government. But Sebastian didn’t say that. Instead he repeated the common wisdom used for years to resolve conversations like this. “It’d be strange. I know we’re all thankful the protestors helped end the draft, though. Made the all-volunteer force possible. Which is how you all finally won Vietnam.” Should he add the pat phrase you were supposed to use here? Why not. “Praise to the Victors.”
The veteran and the protestor both nodded at that. Sebastian excused himself, saying he needed to find the betrothed. Eighty or so people were inside the restaurant, talking and laughing, gathered in clumps like raked leaves. Glass chandeliers hung from the ceiling and bathed the room in a yellow glow. Every man he could see wore a navy blazer with a bright summer tie. He tugged reflexively at his own collar. Waiters with trays moved around the dining room in step. Sebastian took a breath and routed for the bar, cutting through groups with apologies he didn’t mean. He looked for people he might’ve known from before but recognized no one. Maybe it’s the wrong engagement party? he thought. Then he spotted the gift table with a placard on it that read, “Tucker—Stein.”
A gift, Sebastian thought. Whoops.
The bar line proved long and slow-moving. Sebastian kept his head low but his ears open. He listened to a conversation in front of him. A middle-aged man was complaining about his niece going to a pricy school like Empire State to become a teacher. He listened to a conversation behind him. A pair of brokers about his age were complaining about the unreliability of their drug dealer. Getting high in Empire City used to be easier! He listened to a conversation adjacent to him. An elderly woman was complaining about the Tucker grandfather. She was descended from Mayflower pilgrims, too, she said. Where did he get the nerve?
This fucking place, Sebastian thought. Becoming an American city-state had only made it more of a bubble. He rubbed at his eyes under his sunglasses, wiping away beads of sweat. The line remained slow-moving. He looked up and studied the wall behind the bar. A watercolor of a broad-shouldered man wearing a Stetson and a mustache like a bandit covered it. The man stood in front of a fallen gray elephant, presumably shot by the musket the man held in the crook of his arm. He resisted an impulse to salute the painting. Serious people stood around him, and serious people took things like watercolors seriously. Still, the gun and the elephant stirred something in him. What it was felt slippery to Sebastian. He had strong feelings neither about guns nor elephants.
“Of course you’d be here,” Mia Tucker said, approaching Sebastian from the side. He grabbed his whiskey and coke from the bartender—he hated drinking beer on an empty stomach—and congratulated his friend with a hug.
“Drinking away the day,” Mia continued. “Tsk-tsk, See-Bee.”
Sebastian smirked at the old nickname. “It’s a party, you know?”
“It is,” she said.
Tall and thin, Mia didn’t look like the type of woman who’d served in the army, Sebastian thought, which he knew was probably sexist of him, but he still thought it. He’d always thought of her more as a tennis player, or the serious friend in a romantic comedy. Her olive skin and close-cropped raven hair emphasized features he’d once described as “hawkish” in a profile for their college newspaper. Wearing a floral maxi dress, she may as well have been attending a fraternity formal instead of her own engagement party.
“You look nice,” he said.
“Thanks,” she said. “You look like you.”
Sebastian and Mia’s friendship had begun as freshmen in Philosophy 101, which felt like a long time ago to them both. The next semester she’d convinced him to join the army ROTC program with her, something he’d soon drop but she’d find much purpose in, becoming the cadet commander their senior year. Just the second woman named to that position in Dupont University history, Mia went on to commission as an active-duty officer and fly attack helicopters in the Mediterranean Wars, fighting terror across four combat zones (Syria, Albania, New Beirut, and the Barbary Coast).
“Biggest testes in the family,” the Tucker grandfather had said at her college graduation dinner, something only Sebastian had laughed at. Everyone else had stared at their plates, no one harder or deeper than Mia.
That had been six years before, though, before Tripoli. Before a lot of other things, too.
They caught up on mutual acquaintances and gossip. Had he heard about the volleyball girl joining the separatist cult out west? Some people just couldn’t get it together. Had she heard about the creepy Sig Ep from sophomore year who fell off a cruise ship? Police suspected his new bride had pushed him. Sebastian was figuring out how to bring up the night before when a pale man approached and put his arm around Mia. She pulled him in as if gravity depended upon it.
“Jesse Stein,” the pale man said, putting out his hand.
Sebastian did the same. Jesse squeezed hard and tilted both palms toward him. Sebastian squeezed back and introduced himself, all the while thinking, I hate alpha power games. They’re so un-alpha.
But he said, “Congratulations. Good to finally meet.”
“I’ve heard a lot ab-about you,” Jesse said, a verbal tic almost coached away dashing his words. “You’re another Yankee who went south for school.”
“Who says that anymore?” Mia asked. Her voice made it clear that Jesse should not be saying it anymore. “And he’s not. He’s not anything. He’s from California.”
Her attention shifted to an end of the restaurant before Sebastian could summon a response. She patted both men’s forearms and walked that way. Sebastian whistled, low and without melody. Jesse tapped his foot and looked at the ground.
“So,” Sebastian said. He always felt awkward around people his age who had money. He was also surprised. Mia’s type in college had been different. Tall, dark, and awful, mostly. “How’d you kids meet?”
“Through, uh, work.” Jesse coughed and straightened his tie—Sebastian took in his choice of a classic sack suit, deciding it was a good decision for someone with his build, round and loose, like an old balloon.
“Fantastic.” Sebastian patted Jesse’s shoulder and swigged more whiskey and coke. “Well done on the rock, man. That thing could blind Stevie Wonder.” He tapped at his sunglasses for effect.
Jesse laughed, an honest, raw laugh, Sebastian thought, which pleased him. For a few minutes Jesse explained the complexities of diamond negotiations. Sebastian tried to care but couldn’t, his mind drifting to the night before, and the man who’d defied his way into suicide.
“You were in Tripoli, too, right?” The question brought Sebastian back. Jesse stuck out his hand again. “I know it’s a stupid thing to say, but America Honors the Warfighter.”
“Oh.” Sebastian laughed. “Not a soldier.” He raised his now-empty glass to his lips to suck an ice cube. He hated nothing more than the conversation to come, and something hot burned in his chest. “I was the hostage they rescued.”
“That’s right.” Jesse’s voice turned flat. “I knew that.”
The questions came as they always did, in the same order. Yes, Sebastian had been the kid who went to war on winter break. A magazine intern looking for a story and his MIA cousin. Second cousin, really. No, he hadn’t embedded with an American unit. Because he’d fashioned himself rebellious back then, like a fool. No, they still hadn’t found his cousin’s remains and probably never would. How did he get there? By renting a car in Egypt and driving west. It’d been that easy.
Most people stopped asking questions then, either because of the subject matter or because of the strange pitch Sebastian put into his voice. Jesse pushed on, though, something that surprised Sebastian more than it bothered him. He found the memories of it all had become vague recently, like a fog he couldn’t grab, so he stuck to the facts. Who? The Promised Day, a pan-Arab insurgent group. Where? Different basements around Tripoli. How long? Twenty-six days. What’d he eat? Flatbread. Sometimes dates. How’d they treat him? Well, except for one short guy with a scar like an asterisk splayed across his neck. Why didn’t they kill him? Sebastian didn’t know, but his family going on television and saying they’d pay a ransom probably had something to do with it. Yes, that had upset the government. What did they talk about? Soccer, sometimes. Supermodels and actresses, other times.
“Then you got saved.”
Sebastian began chanting with supreme tedium. “Recognizing that I volunteered, fully knowing the hazards of my chosen profession. Never shall I fail my comrades.” He was trying to sound ironic but couldn’t quite pull it off. “Energetically will I meet the enemies of my country. Readily will I display the intestinal fortitude required to fight on to the objective and complete the mission, though I be the lone survivor. Rangers. Rangers lead the way.”
“Well.” Jesse’s words were flat again. “And the helicopter pilots.”
“True. I owe a lot to Mia. And the others.” Sebastian took a breath and raised an eyebrow. The feeling in his chest had cooled. “That’s the short of it. Empire News did a piece about it last year. If you’d like the government-approved version.”
Jesse laughed again, less sincere this time. He asked if Sebastian still worked in media.
“Homeland Authority,” Sebastian said. “Became a PR flack.”
The two men parted ways with promises to hang out soon, the kind that only sound hollow afterward. Sebastian got another drink. He moved through the next hour in a trance, going from social circle to social circle with the stupid grin of a man overmatched. Sebastian knew little of Connecticut, and even less of Wall Street, but the Tucker family transcended even his ignorance. Mia’s great-great-grandfather had made a fortune in steel, later founding the nation’s seventh-largest investment bank. Though the company had long ago gone public, Mia’s father still served as its asset management CEO. Despite the crash of the global economy, life for the Tuckers hadn’t changed as far as Sebastian could tell. That bothered him when he bothered to think about it. He couldn’t help but think about it in the restaurant.
“Eight hundred thousand just doesn’t get what it used to,” someone said. “Don’t those people understand they’re voting against their self-interest?” another asked. “Who summers in the Antilles anymore?” still another said. Class resentment raged within Sebastian, but he kept it hidden and sheathed, remembering that such a weapon never struck clean. He nodded and smiled. He also ate a lot of bacon-wrapped dates.
While Sebastian listened in on an obligatory “Where were you during the Palm Sunday attacks?” conversation, Mia’s stepmom patted his arm. Sebastian had thought that Mrs. Tucker—who insisted he call her Linda—disliked him, but she pulled him away with friendliness in her grip.
“Hello, Mrs. Tucker,” Sebastian said.
“Take off those sunglasses,” Linda said. “You’re indoors.”
You know damn well why I wear these, Sebastian thought, though she probably didn’t. He kept them on.
“You’ve been requested,” Linda continued. “A new friend of Mia’s. Don’t...” Linda trailed off. “Just be normal.”
Before Sebastian could ask what that meant, Linda led him to a woman in a long green chemise leaning against the back wall. A tattoo sleeve of black-and-red flames breathed down her right shoulder to the elbow. She wore no jewelry except for a dull labret piercing above her chin and little makeup, and her arms were crossed. Sebastian thought she looked bored. She had curly brown hair and big, green eyes he labeled “sad,” then “defiant.” Sebastian grinned wide.
“Here he is,” Linda said. “Meet Britt, Sebastian. We were just talking about your, umm. Experiences.”
Sebastian’s grin slid away. Anything but that, he thought. Can we talk about anything else? He began chewing on his bottom lip. Linda said, “If you’ll excuse me,” and disappeared into the crowd. Sebastian whistled low to himself. He was about to lead with another “So” when she spoke.
“My brother,” Britt said. She uncrossed her arms, a faint omega symbol on the underside of a wrist turning out against the wall. “He was one of the guys who saved you.”
“Oh.” Sebastian had to jam some goodwill into his voice. He knew what his rescuers’ families held against him. “I’m. Well. So sorry for your loss. And grateful. Very, very grateful.” He was genuinely both of those things, and did his best to convey it in his words, all the while knowing she’d find the words empty and worn. They always did. “I’d love to hear about him. Whatever you’re willing to share.”
“He didn’t die.” Britt lifted an eyebrow in amusement as Sebastian raised his in surprise. Three Rangers of forty had survived. “I’m Pete Swenson’s sister.”
She finally smiled, and Sebastian noticed the smallest of gaps between her front teeth.
“Oh. Wow.” Sebastian stuck out his hand. “Your brother’s a hero.” She didn’t return the gesture, so he returned his hand and kept talking. “I mean, all the Volunteers are. But especially him.” She still didn’t do anything, so he still kept talking. “Didn’t they just finish filming a movie? They’re playing themselves? It was on the news.”
“Yeah.” Britt couldn’t hide her disdain. “Something like that.”
Pete Swenson’s sister doesn’t regard him the same way everyone else does, Sebastian thought. That’s interesting. He wanted to ask about it. But her voice suggested wariness. So did her posture. She must get questions about him all the time, he realized. So instead he asked how she knew Mia.
“I reached out a couple years ago,” Britt said. “We got coffee. She was there with you all. With the cythrax bomb and everything. I wanted to know more and my brother wasn’t here. We became friends.”
Sebastian didn’t know what Mia had told Britt, over coffee and after, but he knew what she shouldn’t have told Britt, because it was the same things none of them were supposed to tell anyone. The cythrax bomb was definitely one of those things. He’d only told his mom because he figured all nondisclosure agreements had mom clauses, even federal government ones. He took a long drink from his whiskey and coke and pretended like Britt had said something normal instead.
A waiter passed with a tray. Britt snapped at him while looking the other way. It worked. The waiter stopped and lowered his tray of vegan jalapeno poppers.
There it is, Sebastian thought. A moneyed bohemian. Most bohos were, these days. The culture and the counterculture grew from the same seed of privilege. Who could afford to be genuine anymore? No one Sebastian knew, not since the new recession. He’d sold out to Homeland Authority and wasn’t afraid to admit it. That’s the difference between me and the boho sorts, he thought. Honesty. Britt ate the vegan jalapeno popper with a neatness that could only be taught, rigid fingers and tiny, minute chews and a paper napkin folded in half like origami, not one crumb escaping. He pushed away a joke about it and asked where home was.
“Been in Gypsy Town awhile,” Britt said. “We’re originally from the Federal City area, though. Little suburb called Troy.”
“Right. Of course.” Every war journalist on the planet had christened her brother the American Hector. Wasn’t it stranger than fiction, they all asked? Something to be considered, certainly! No art in propaganda anymore, Sebastian thought. Just blunt force. He asked if the Volunteers were still in Hollywood.
“You don’t know?” Britt asked. She sniffed in confusion, crossing her arms again. The omega tattoo disappeared into her body. “They’re here.”
“Here here where?”
“Here. Empire City. The movie’s over. They’re on leave until they deploy back to the Mediterranean. Finally convinced the War Department to let them be soldiers again.”
Something between wonder and panic dropped through Sebastian. The Volunteers were here, in the city here? And going back over there? Nothing about that made sense to him. They were supposed to be in Hollywood or touring the country, raising money for the government. That was the deal. He was figuring out how to ask particulars when a digital jingle sprang from within Britt. She pulled a phone from an unseen pocket and looked at it. “Boyfriend,” she said.
Sebastian nodded and pantomimed smoking a cigarette. He headed outside for the patio, focusing on the ground as he walked. He needed to think, and wanted air and smoke for that.
A dozen or so partygoers had pushed out to the patio as well, but they all seemed the same to Sebastian. Faceless and prim, fatheaded and fake. He grabbed a seat in a corner where no stranger could sneak up, and took out a thin pipe shaped like a cigarette and packed with weed. A gray sun, masked by a grayer sky, hung on the horizon like a dreary disco ball. The sidewalks swelled with noise and angst. Where they all found the energy to do it, to do any of it anymore, Sebastian didn’t know. He watched and smoked, content to be detached, detached to be content. The Volunteers were here, somewhere. Sebastian knew he should find them. He hadn’t seen any of them since the hospital in Germany. They’d gone on to do brave things, incredible things. They were using their powers for good. He wanted that, too. Not just the brave or incredible parts, but the going-on. That matters, he thought. It matters a lot.
On his phone, Sebastian skimmed through fan theories on a Utopia message board. He hated giving any time or attention to state TV. But the show challenged the old rules. The cinematography, especially. If Bobby Kennedy had lived to become president—a genius conceit. River Phoenix mostly pulled it off, the accent notwithstanding. Sebastian never missed an episode.
Sebastian was trying to figure out how to repack his one-hitter unnoticed when Mia found him.
She sat next to him and pointed to his pipe. “Really? Here?”
Sebastian held his fingers to his throat. “It is medicinal,” he said like a robotic voice box. “Please don’t tell my boss. My pension isn’t vested yet.”
Mia laughed, a bit too easily to Sebastian’s mind, which put him on alert. “How are you, See-Bee? I’ve missed you.”
Sebastian readjusted his sunglasses and stuck the pipe into his pocket. “You’re asking if I’m seeing anyone.”
“It’s your engagement party, Mia. Not the place to confess an undying love.”
She sighed the sigh of someone playing a part. “You know what I mean.”
“I met Britt Swenson earlier,” Sebastian said. He wasn’t quite ready to ask the question he’d come here for, so he asked the question he’d found here instead. “You know the Volunteers are in the city now? And going back to the war?”
Mia tilted her head. “My handler told me last week. Yours didn’t?”
That made Sebastian grunt. “Mine’s been busy.”
“You look skinny.”
Sebastian considered telling her about what had happened at the subway the previous night. Instead, he said, “I’ve always been skinny.”
“Jesse likes you, you know. Despite my trying to convince him otherwise.”
“He’s cool. Good choice, senorita.” Sebastian scratched his head and leaned close to Mia. “Curious,” he said. “You fly anymore?”
“Of course not.” Mia paused for a beat, then another. It’d been three years since Tripoli. She raised her eyes to meet his and narrowed them to splinters. “You disappear anymore?”
Sebastian laughed, quick and short. “Just teasing,” he said.
“I’m not. Don’t play around with what you can do, Sebastian. They’ll crush you.”
Sebastian clenched his jaw and felt his chest seize up. He looked back out into the maze. Mia was right, of course. But he didn’t like the way she’d suggested he didn’t understand the stakes. Was he being sensitive? Perhaps, he allowed. We all have our vices.
Mia patted his knee and said she needed to get back inside. He apologized for forgetting a gift and said he’d see her in there. A minute later, he decided to ghost. He walked off, concentrating on his feet moving along the sidewalk, counting each step silently until he got to twelve. Then he started back at one.
Anytime someone came up too close behind him, he stopped and let them pass before continuing. He knew he was a cliché, maybe a couple different ones, but he didn’t care. All he wanted was to be by himself. A block from the restaurant, he hailed a cab by stepping into the street.
“The Village,” he told the driver. “Take the expressway.”
This proved the wrong choice. Traffic piled up a half mile north of the Jubilee Bridge. Cars crept along in sleepy monster fury, and Sebastian’s legs began cramping, then twitching.
The driver pointed to the radio. “Crazy shit,” he said.
“What now?” Sebastian asked. He hadn’t noticed the radio was on.
“The consul who collapsed in Federal City yesterday. He’s a deader.”
“Damn.” Sebastian had seen some scroll somewhere about it. “Steps of the Nixon Memorial?”
The driver nodded. “Someone hacked his pacemaker. Zap! Just like that.” The driver spoke with the abrupt, flexing voice of an Empire City native, like his words had been rolled through gravel. “Technical error, they’re saying. Please.”
“Terrorism?” Sebastian asked.
“Not the separatists’ style. They go for the big bombs, the big blood. The wogs? Had a price on his head, true enough. But the jihad don’t have the tech. This was an inside job.”
Conspiracies were the last vestige of the vacant-eyed, Sebastian believed, of the mediocre-minded, the not-quite-read-enough, the too-stupid-to-realize-it. Inquisitiveness was not a substitute for critical thinking, nor paranoia for reason. The American government made mistakes, sure. Because it was a government. It didn’t always tell the truth but it was always true. It’d saved him, and he was a nobody, a citizen like any other. They still came for him in Tripoli. He tried to remember that any time his skeptical bone was tapped.
Still, though. An inside job made some sense. The consul had been scheduled to brief Congress on the progress of the Sinai occupation. Or lack thereof.
“Maybe it was his wife.” Sebastian smiled to make sure the driver knew he was joking. “Love and war.”
“Maybe.” The driver snorted. “Treacherous times.”
The radio trundled on. Police robots in Indiana had blown up a Sears. The body count was forthcoming. Some would always believe only radical wogs could commit such acts. Others seemed almost relieved when the far west (and very white) separatists made news for the same. Both groups of militants were largely made up of vets of the Mediterranean Wars, something Sebastian liked to sneak into conversations. A verbal pipe bomb, of sorts, meant to disrupt any pretense. The veterans came from opposing sides, sure, but that was the joke.
“Want to know what I think needs to be done?” the driver asked.
Only now did Sebastian notice the blue infantry cord dangling from the cab’s rearview mirror. The driver wore a mesh cap with the words VIETNAM WARFIGHTER in bright yellow on it. Sebastian wasn’t sure he wanted to be in the cab anymore. Between Mia and the silver-haired man at the restaurant, he’d had enough vet-splaining for the day.
“How’s traffic?” he asked.
The driver pointed to the bridge, then to his ears. Distant sirens filled the space between.
“Could be another jumper,” the driver said.
Sebastian slid a twenty-dollar bill into the driver’s tray and exited, slamming the door behind him before the driver could reply. He didn’t care that he’d overpaid, or that the summer heat felt like steam. He began walking home.
“Stop being emo!” Sebastian yelled at the bridge. Maybe there was a jumper up there, maybe there wasn’t. Either way, he felt something loosen inside him. “Either do it or climb down! Twelve-year-old girls draw it out like this!”
The horns of angry, delayed motorists served as the sole response, twirling flashes of emergency vehicles soaking the moment in pomp. How selfish can someone be? Sebastian wondered.
Then he thought, the jumper’s probably thinking the same.
He yelled at the bridge, again, this time in solidarity. “Defy!”
Again, only car horns replied.
Sebastian walked slow and south. A messy dusk loomed, black and slate wrapping together like an ice cream swirl. He found it calming and the anxiety from earlier embered out. He thought about things long out of his control and things still in it. He thought about the dead hostages at the Indiana mall, and the terrorists, too. He thought about prayer. He thought about Tripoli, and his home, and his MIA cousin. He thought about the Volunteers, and the cythrax bomb. An hour passed. Smelling liquor in his sweat and with his throat dry, he stopped at a corner market. He bought a bottle of red wine, though he hated wine. In this America, Sebastian thought, emotion can only be expressed in regurgitation. Cultural regurgitation. Drinking wine from a brown bag is that. So drinking wine from a brown bag is the thing I will do.
He walked across a footbridge over the expressway and found a bench near the river. The dirty water flowed by with hurry. The Prince Bridge imposed itself to his left, all cables and pillars and might. In the twilight, Sebastian couldn’t figure out if it was blue-gray or gray-blue. He decided it didn’t really matter. Across the river in Gypsy Town, defunct smokestacks and the sugar plant sign stood proud. Shiny high-rise condos surrounded the stacks on all sides, reminding Sebastian of the man and the elephant in the watercolor for some reason.
There’s nothing gypsy about Gypsy Town, Sebastian thought. He smirked, finding that clever. It should be called Trying-Too-Hard Ville.
He texted some friends to see if they wanted to join him on the bench. No one responded. Then he tried his handler. He didn’t respond, either. Typical, Sebastian thought. Passing joggers rustled a scrawny wild turkey from nearby foliage. Sebastian finally had company.
“Simon the Zealot!” he said, as the turkey emerged. “A past from the blast.”
When Sebastian had first moved to Empire City, Simon had been a favorite find on walks along the river. Named after a long-dead painter who’d lived in the district, Simon had landed from parts unknown years prior and become a local legend. Empire City did not house many wild turkeys.
Sebastian poured a splash of wine on the ground. He’d decided he and the zealot were kindred spirits. This resulted in an annoyed cluck from Simon, who was scrounging the shrubs for food. After a day of drinking on an empty stomach, the wine was hitting Sebastian harder than expected. “Stupid turkey,” he muttered. His eyes began to ache, which gave him the motivation necessary to tip back the wine bottle and finish it.
“I need to get my shit together,” Sebastian told the turkey, which was true.
He lingered with Simon and the inanity of personal tragedy a bit longer, then returned to the city for a slice of pizza. Sebastian felt invisible for much of the walk, but when he woke the next morning, hungover and alone, he didn’t know if it’d been his imagination or his power.