About the Author
Brian Nelson is a former Fulbright Scholar who holds degrees in international relations, economics, and creative writing (fiction). His first book, The Silence and the Scorpion: The Coup against Chavez and the Making of Modern Venezuela, was named one of the Best Books of 2009 by the Economist. His work has appeared in the Virginia Quarterly Review, Christian Science Monitor, and the Southern Humanities Review, among others. He lives in Denver with his wife and two children.
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US Naval Academy, Annapolis, MD January 27, 2025
Rear Admiral (upper half) James Curtiss awoke with a gasp, instinctively reaching for the FN Five-SeveN pistol on the nightstand, pulling the slide with a metallic clank and sweeping the room. His heart pounded against his ribs as the tactical light of the pistol illuminated ghostly circles in the dark room: the dresser, his uniform hanging on the closet door, the TV. Then he saw a flicker of movement. Someone was here, in the room. He acquired the target, center mass, and began to squeeze the trigger ... Then he saw his own face, painted with fear, reflected in the mirror. He lowered the pistol and let out a long exhalation.
It had taken him a bare second to go from deep sleep to "the hardness" — to the soldier with his weapon cocked, teeth clenched, ready to kill. But just as quickly as he had filled with violence, he deflated. Reality flooded in. It's just a dream, he reminded himself. Just a fucking dream. But not just any dream. It was the dream he couldn't shake. Ever since Syria.
He was standing in a huge tunnel: the enormous gray fuselage of the C-17 Globemaster. He was dressed in his ceremonial whites, a wide rectangle of colored ribbons on his left breast. In the dream, there was no sound. Someone had muted everything but the staccato click of his heels on the corrugated metal deck. Click, click, click ... Attached to the fuselage, surrounding him like giant bullets in the cylinder of a revolver, were six coffins draped with American flags. Ramírez, Chen, Thompson, Anderson, Day, Edwards. As he moved forward into the belly of the plane, another six coffins appeared, draped in flags just like the first six. Moses, Brewer, Hoffman, Vargas, Lightfoot, Jackson. Click, click, click ... On it went. Every few steps, another six coffins would appear out of the gloom, each name conjuring a hard drive of images: a smiling young face, a joke told at a picnic, a man pushing a child in a swing.
The cargo door opened, and he raised his hand to shade his eyes from the light. He couldn't see, but he knew what was out there: fathers, mothers, wives, husbands, and children. They were waiting for what was left of their boys and girls, their husbands, wives, fathers, mothers. He didn't want to go out there, but he made himself. There were hundreds of them, and they were, like his soldiers, all races and creeds — white, black, Hispanic, Asian, and, like him, Native American. They stared at him, their faces blank, expressionless. No one spoke, no bugle played taps. But now, in addition to the clap of his heels, he heard the wind blowing — a lonely, solitary sound that whistled and echoed inside his head.
As an honor guard carried the coffins from the plane, a little girl in a white dress emerged from the crowd. She came to him and took his hand. It felt like forgiveness, her small hand in his, and he followed her willingly. She led him to a small lectern. But he had no speech prepared, because there were no words that could soften this. He fumbled. He saw an interminable line of hearses moving like an assembly line toward the open aircraft. The girl was holding a present. A red box with a white bow. He took the box and untied the ribbon. Inside was a revolver. He took it, cocked it, and put the barrel in his mouth. It seemed the right thing to do; a fair trade for what he had taken from them. He glanced down at her, then sideways at the families. Then he pulled the trigger.
He sat on the edge of the bed, the sudden sweat on the inside of his T-shirt cooling, making him shiver. Nothing in the room looked familiar.
Where the fuck am I?
You're back in Annapolis, you stupid Indian. He ran his left hand through his hair, then looked down at the pistol in his other hand. It had been eight years since he last led his soldiers into combat — eight years since he was promoted to a maker of PowerPoint presentations, since he became a senior officer who conducted warfare from a command center in Florida, watching live satellite and webcam feeds as his soldiers risked their lives in dusty streets nine time zones away. Eight years, but the training was still there — the reflexes, the familiarity. The gun felt so comfortable in his hand ... and the dream. He put the barrel into his mouth, just as he had done moments ago in the dream. He tasted the cold polymer and gunslick. Just for a second, he considered pulling the trigger but he stopped himself and put the gun down gently on the nightstand.
One thing was for sure: he needed to get that little bitch out of his head. If she hung around in there much longer, he was going to take her up on her offer.
Jim, as your commanding officer, I think you should consider seeing a psychiatrist.
Shrinks are for pussies, sir.
That's what I thought you'd say.
Then why'd you open your goddamn mouth?
A shrug. All right. I won't force you, but if Evelyn leaves you, don't come bitching to me.
He looked at his watch — 4:15 a.m. You've slept enough, old man. The chopper would be here in an hour anyway.
He got dressed, and twenty minutes later he was standing on the seawall on the east side of the Yard, looking out at the Severn River and the Chesapeake Bay beyond. It was bitter cold, the temperature just south of zero. He shivered and his teeth chattered, but he didn't care. He welcomed the discomfort; he felt he deserved it. Beyond the snow-covered stones, the bay was undulating in grey scale, rolling high and beautiful and forbidding as only the deep water could.
He had been summoned. Ordered to report, but without details or explanation. At his rank, that was unusual. It annoyed him, but it also piqued his curiosity. Something was up. But what, he wasn't sure.
The world was more or less at peace. The eighteen-month civil war in Saudi Arabia had turned into a stalemate, and — much to the relief of global markets — both sides were now exporting oil as fast as they could pump it. The rest of the Middle East was as stable as it ever was. There were monsoon floods in Bangladesh, and China was rattling its saber over PACFLT operations in the South China Sea, but that had become routine. Whatever they wanted him for, it was something else. Mitch's call had come late, and while the CNO's voice had been cool, Curtiss had still detected an urgency there.
Behind him, snaking across Dewey Field, were the footprints he had left in the snow. They led back across Holloway Drive to Bancroft Hall — to Mother B, the biggest dormitory in the world. She was mostly dark and still, with only a few windows lit. He imagined the cadets inside clutching desperately to their last moments of peace before reveille, just as he had done when he called the place home thirty-seven years ago. It had changed little since then. It still sat huge and daunting, at rest but never sleeping. It struck him now as it had when he first saw it. The building was a living thing — a massive respiring organism. It held not only the entire brigade of over four thousand midshipmen, but also the residue — the pain, humiliation, tenacity, and tears of every cadet who had ever come through its doors. A huge aggregated mass of emotion that encompassed everything those boys and girls had been when they arrived — brave, frightened, optimistic youth — and everything they became: hardened, beaten, and burned into officers of the United States Navy. Inside those walls, you felt their essence like a layer of greasy paint. Their victories and their tragedies, wherever they had gone, even if they had gone nowhere.
All cadets hated Annapolis, but he had hated it more than most. And year after year, he had avoided coming back here. But this year when they asked him to give a guest lecture, he had agreed. Now he knew it had been a mistake. Whatever he was looking for, whatever he needed, it wasn't here. Jesus, you do need a shrink.
He supposed he had come looking for himself, for the man who had arrived here in 1988. The young man who had believed the recruitment posters. Join the Navy. See the world. Adventure. As well as the thing the posters didn't say: that along with that life of adventure, someday, in some distant port far from the shitty Oklahoma reservation he had escaped, he would meet a beautiful girl and live happily ever after. That was the boy he wanted to meet. The boy who had looked on the veterans with envy, who saw ribbons and medals as things to strive for, not as reminders of pain and suffering and destroyed families. He saw traces of himself in the cadets, but the way they looked at him made him uneasy, because it was just the way he had looked at the decorated Vietnam vets in 1988: as heroes, as someone to emulate. They could read the ribbons and medals on his uniform like a résumé, and to them, he knew, he seemed the epitome of a badass: Bronze Star with "V." Combat Action. Sharpshooter Award. Navy Cross. "The Budweiser." Bosnia, Afghanistan, Operation Enduring Freedom, Syrian Liberation. As the cadets had huddled around him after his lecture, pestering him with questions, he suddenly felt that he was on the other side of a great and terrible lie.
That was when the CNO had called. He had excused himself and gone into the wings. "Jim, I'm gonna send a chopper up for you in the morning. Something's come up and we need to talk."
Now, standing in the bitter cold, he turned his attention away from Bancroft Hall and back to the Chesapeake. It was rolling rough and surly, with long deep swells, as if huge humpbacked monsters were roving just beneath the surface, stretching, trying to break free. A bit of orange sunlight reached his face, and he felt the slightest change in temperature on his lips. At that moment, he heard the approaching thump of rotors, steady and smooth. A minute later, the Sikorsky SH-3 Sea King appeared just over the treetops and banked majestically over the roof of the Nimitz Library. It was a beautiful sight, and he was touched by a sudden sentimentality. Taken all together — his sleepless night, the history of this place, the brooding Chesapeake, the white Sea King in flight and the way the sun flash refracted through its dragonfly rotors — it stirred something in his chest. Beautiful. But he dispelled the romantic feeling almost immediately and strode across the snow to meet the chopper. It flared up a moment, then settled onto the snowy field. The door opened immediately, a gangway was lowered, and a marine sergeant stepped out and saluted him. He returned the salute and climbed aboard. Then they were off, rising quickly. As they banked to the west, he looked down over the Yard. He still hated the place, yet he had to admit, grudgingly, that Annapolis had also given him a great deal. He drew on this place — particularly the fact that he had survived it — over and over again. It came down to something very basic. It had trained him to do things he didn't want to do. It sounded simplistic, but it was the truth. There was a wide gap between a man who could force himself to do difficult things, and other men who could not. And not just the horrible things he had done: killing a young man with a knife, extracting a bullet from a friend's guts with rusty pliers, sending men off to die. No, it was the-day to-day things that made the difference: getting up at four thirty every morning, voluntarily going five days without sleep, swimming six miles. Over a lifetime, that discipline added up.
But now, as the school and his past shrank behind him, he feared the meeting with Admiral Garrett because he feared that they were once again going to ask him to do things he didn't want to do. Terrible, terrible things.
* * *
"These are images from a village called Dagzê, in the Nyingchi Prefecture in the Tibetan Autonomous Zone," the commander said, stepping toward the huge iSheet mounted on the wall. Curtiss was in the Pentagon, at a huge conference table with CNO Garrett and a group of high-level officers and spooks. "The official Chinese media says that these are victims of a new disease, which they are calling Tibetan fever. They claim it only attacks Tibetans and that everyone else is immune, including the ethnic Han Chinese."
The images were haunting: hospital wards full of sick Tibetans — men, women, and children. Then a scene from a filthy morgue: bodies stiff and stacked like lumber, not even covered with sheets. The camera had caught one weary hospital worker, a young man who looked sick himself, his eyes open wide, horror legible on his face. Next, an image of a school yard with a playground made from wood and plumbing pipes. Four girls in colorful Tibetan clothes: white blouses, sky-blue silk skirts, elaborate beads in braided hair. They lay unmoving on the ground, apparently struck down while at play.
Curtiss found himself pushing his coffee away. As much death as he had seen, he should have gotten used to it. But he never did. In fact, the older he got, the more it seemed to bother him. And those Tibetan girls' clothes — they were so familiar, so Indian, almost identical to Choctaw dress.
He had seen a briefing on the outbreak yesterday, but had considered it minor. Wrong assumption. But how could it kill so quickly? It didn't make sense. Unless ...
"This is satellite footage from near the Ganden Monastery, close to Dagzê."
Now Curtiss had to lean forward to sort out what he was seeing. A green, windswept hillside dropping away to a huge valley with sharp white mountains in the distance. It would have been strikingly beautiful if not for what he also saw there: five huge funnels of black smoke rising off five distinct hillsides, each ascending like a black tornado into the stratosphere. Massive towers of smoke. And there was something else in the air, also swirling and rotating — a huge column of them. The commander gave an audible, and the image began to zoom down toward the earth. The things in the air were birds, he realized — thousands of them. No, tens of thousands. Tan and brown, resembling eagles, with enormous wingspans. The camera seemed to pass very close to them as it fell through their mile-high vortex.
On the hillsides there were thousands more, in a seething, squabbling mass. Shoulder to shoulder, they pecked and clawed and fought among themselves. Only here and there did he see what was underneath: the red and pink and white of human corpses. Rib cages and spinal columns.
He had to rack his brain to remember his East Asian history. Sky Burials. Most Tibetans didn't bury their dead; it was not the Buddhist way. They laid them out on hillsides, prayed, and sang mantras while the vultures came and devoured the remains. He remembered that nothing was left behind; that would be bad Karma. Even the bones were ground up, mixed with meal, and fed to the birds. It struck him as a ghastly custom, but then again, he supposed being stuck in the ground and fed to worms wasn't all that pleasant, either. Supposedly, it was soothing to the Tibetans to know that the remains of their loved ones were flying over the earth, quickly recycled into the living.
"When was this footage taken?" asked Brigadier General Corey Wilson.
"This is live," the commander said, "and it has been going on for three days. The funeral pyres you see are for people of high status, since wood is scarce in this part of Tibet."
The commander's words had sent a chill through the room. There was something about watching things live that hit you harder.
"Officially, the Chinese say that seven hundred people have been infected and a hundred have died; however, these images show that's impossible. Our estimates show at least four thousand infected, with almost one hundred percent mortality — sometimes happening very fast, as you can see.
The screen went blank for a moment, as if to emphasize the sensitive nature of what the commander was about to say. "We have a man — I'll call him the Fly — inside the Tangshan project, who has been updating us on the Chinese program.
"His report of yesterday gave us a shock. The Fly stated that the outbreak is not a real disease at all, but a new weapon system — — a nanovirus, designed in the Tangshan lab, that can selectively kill based on a victim's genetic code. This synthetic virus was intentionally released in four villages in the Nyingchi Prefecture as a weapons trial."
This caused a stir, and the officers began to whisper and mumble among themselves. Curtiss kept his mouth shut.
Excerpted from "The Last Sword Maker"
Copyright © 2018 Brian Nelson.
Excerpted by permission of Blackstone Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Prologue: The LetterPart One: The Ends of PeacePart Two: The RacePart Three: Red Dragon RisingEpilogue