America's dark future is virtual reality Civil War reenactments, endless propaganda, a sprawling wall, and a thinly concealed past before President You-Know-Who.
Narratives about the past are one of the key ways we control the future. And those narratives are becoming ever more malleable, as our news sources grow more partisan and filtered. Autocrats round the world already combine online censorship with alternate histories to retain power—so what if such propaganda took on a distinctly American flavor, in the not-too-distant, combed-over future? With virtual reality? I've said enough already, so here goes nothing. -the Ed.
When Roy Johnson IV finally died on the battlefield, he was relieved.
Generally, this had been Roy's time to relax from, as his dad put it, the "pleasure and honor" of participation. Unless he drew a Last Standing role—wherein he'd have to follow directions until that final cannon roar—the last third of any Reenactment was spent lying prone on the ground, pretending to be dead. It was his favorite hour-and-change of the month. Years ago, when The New Confederacy was "a newborn tot"—Roy's dad constantly reminded him—this meant "baking in the sun ass-first 'til you were riper than a well-done porterhouse." But now, Roy III would bark before sending his son into fake battle, "least you kids have that display doohickey you can tool off in for awhile."
In the words of Roy IV's generation, this meant surfing The Web. Fallen re-enactors were awarded "free Web time" for their service, an amendment written into law a few years back, during the Congress of '38 (or, 2055 for the ancients still on "old time"). And Roy was more than happy to make use of it. He wouldn't usually have any specific plans on what to do with this prize, usually hopping from the latest Townies episode, to wiki-thumbs of The Long War, to a bit from his favorite comedian Jammy Hack, then start the cycle all over again. But this month's Reenactment was different. This time, he had a purpose. It started in detention.
Roy was serving for mouthing an ill-timed will-you-date-me query to Betty Franklin in the middle of Professor Cherington's history lesson on the dark period before The Long War. "Not here you don't," and out came the yellow slip. It was his first detention. No talking, looking, miming, or otherwise communicating during the full 180 minutes. Breaking the rule was grounds for another detention. Rumor had it that a couple punks stretched their first detention into years, and that one of them never came out again. So when a mysterious note seemed to materialize out of the air and land on his desk, Roy instinctively palmed it and waited until he got home to take a look.
That night, in his locked bedroom, under the covers, away from the Eye, he opened it. Inside was a scrawled map of The New Confederacy, with The Wall, as always, creating its border. Roy had once seen The Wall, in person, on a mandatory fifth grade field trip. The very tippity-top of it, at least, in the far distance, since their trip had ended at the outermost guard post due to an unfortunately timed red alert.
"Probably someone trying to climb over," Cherington had said, which was a regular phenomenon, according to his older classmates, who'd also complained about their trips being ruined as well. "Have more freedom here, and they want in."
The note showed more than just the country's outline, though. Inside its borders was a bubble, and within it the word "UserID," followed by a series of random-looking numbers. A dozen arrows spread methodically outward from the bubble, past The Wall's various sides to points beyond. Roy memorized the numbers, but wouldn't dare try them on the connection at home or school. Punishment for tinkering with The Web was far worse than regular detention. So, he waited for Reenactment.
See, Roy knew The Web worked a little different on the battlefield than it did everywhere else. After last year's Reenactment of The Battle of Sutro's Mill, his buddy Knox had bragged about the amount of porn he was able to watch while everyone was running around, this illegal activity possible due to an exploit that merged battlefield devices into one Web output, making singular traces impossible.
"I saw things going into things you wouldn't believe," said Knox. But he wouldn't go into more detail of how, spoiled shit that he was. Knox had always lived a blessed life, not least due to his being grandson to one of the New Confederacy'sFounders, the crew that reclaimed the 137,000 square-mile chunk between the Mississippi and Talladega National Forest—supplementing the border with The Wall where natural borders wouldn't do—for The True Leader back in '01, after The Rigged Election and The Long War. His dad parlayed his family ties into a gig as a Reenactment programmer, which Knox rubbed into Roy's face whenever he could.."Well, well. Private Floyd Jackson is more than just chum," Knox informed him, after Roy was given his latest assignment. "You're gonna be one busy asshole this time." Exactly what Roy didn't want, not this time, not when he had that mysterious UserID string to try out.
After his parents turned off the highway towards the bowl-shaped field where once the mighty Fort Hollow stood, so long ago that not even the ruins remained, and dropped off "their little star," idling in the snarl of traffic that at some distant point ended in a parking spot in the dirt, Roy walked to the back of the staging area line.
"What side you on, boy?" asked the old man ahead of him.
"Confeds," Roy said.
"Stand tall then, son," the old man said as he escorted him to the front. "You're representing heroes. Great again."
"Great again," Roy was required to say, and did so.
The clerk asked his body size and returned with a small synthetic sheath, which hung over his arm like the shiny spent skin of some enormous reptile. Roy walked to the makeshift changing station, pulled shut the curtain behind, and wormed his way into the sleeve. He walked in that exposed yet fully covered way to the tent's other side, where he traded his name for a box marked "Private Floyd Jackson." He carried it to the blanket his family had set in the sea of Reenactment spectators.
His dad opened the box and withdrew the wool coat that'd been fitted specifically for Roy's build, and held it open for his son to don as if a king. He sat the gray Kepi hat on his son's head, then snatched the replica musket and breathed deeply from its hickory shaft. He flipped the gun and blew into its muzzle so a whistle pierced through the crowd's chattering anticipation. He retrieved the seven Minie balls found in the kit and swirled them in his hand like a magician prepping a trick.
"Seven's good," said Roy Johnson III. "Means you're getting action."
The younger Roy found the metal tin, opened it, and withdrew the lens case. One at a time, he inserted the contacts into his eyes.
"Mind if I do the honors," his dad said, and stuck an old military pin into his jacket, which completed the circuit.
Roy felt a stinging sensation in his body as the body sleeve booted up. Almost immediately, visuals came. Floating over his dad's squinting face—the closest the man ever got to a proper smile—were the name, stats, and date of birth for Private Jackson. The broad strokes of The Battle of Fort Hollow they'd all learned in grade school—the Heathens tried to take The New Confederacy's stronghold, but our brave boys made a courageous stand and turned the war's tide. Here, though, Roy learned that Jackson was to die in this battle, and that he was born and raised and lived his entire life in the 30-mile radius from the fort. The other bits and pieces that'd scroll across Roy's display that day would be filled in by Knox's dad, whose job was to color in the unknown blanks of each soldier's walkthrough. Some was artistic license, as no one could know what happened every second of every single battle. But the big moments had verifiable proof available for all to read in The Square's historical archives, or on The Web, which citizens could read at home during sanctioned browsing time.
The alarm rocketed through Roy's head like a sucker punch. "BATTLE STATIONS" blared across his view in block font and obscured his mom's face as she kissed him good luck. His younger sister waved a casual bye and went back to filling in the Fort Hollow coloring book that came free with each turkey leg meal deal. His dad patted him on the back, and Roy followed the trail of participants winding their way through the gallery like an army of ants. At the split, brothers fist-bumped, fathers and sons hugged, strangers who'd fallen in with one another doffed their hats in a gracious parting.
"Hope you stretched," Knox said at The New Confederacy meeting point. This month, he was playing the role of Private Rath Napier, which history books had little to say about. If Knox's past "luck-of-the-draws" were any indication, Napier had either spent the entire battle instructing troops from well behind the lines, or was immediately killed while just happening to be under one of the field's few shade-providing trees.
The countdown began and the actors followed their timeline-specific arrows at the bottom of their displays. Roy slapped Knox high-five and moved to his spot. The shift from one second to zero was met with an audible alarm, a roar from the gallery, and two bursts of smoke, one from their lines and one from the distant Heathens. Roy's personal display read "FIRE IN 3, 2, 1," so he shot his first bullet. His three-dimensional arrow pointed forward into the volley, so off he went.
The screams of the fake wounded echoed through the field, providing a sonic bed that were sporadically pierced by bullets whizzing past Roy's ears. The smoke billowed and wafted and hung stationary in the air to provide the tableau with the feel of a waking dream or some religious ceremony. Soldiers on both sides fell, and many lay in the dirt with a look of surprise or disappointment, while others tried to scurry back to their lines, dragging behind them their legs, now physically incapacitated by their newly-restrictive body sleeves.
"WARNING!" flashed in Roy's display, so he ducked, and above his head passed a phantom cannonball close enough to take in its wake his cap. Roy's display read "LEAVE THE HAT," and he followed his arrow to the left. He shot as instructed, reloaded, shot again. A Heathen soldier in the distance fell, but Roy couldn't tell if Private Jackson could lay claim.
His arrow advanced him on the right flank, behind a line of calvary. When he arrived, one of the horses froze and fell, its rider jumping just before being stuck under the hefty beast. Roy sidled behind it for protection, and fired as instructed into the smoky haze. He felt the horse's panic and whispered calmly to it. It was constricted by its leg sleeves, and the rider rolled back over to help. "Here, gal," said the rider, and from his waistband withdrew a small device like a pellet gun. He located a patch under the horse's stomach and set the device against it. In moments, as the chaotic sounds of war enveloped them, the horse breathed the rhythmic sounds of sleep.
Roy's arrow turned him to the right and told him to load a shot. He steadied his musket on the horse's side and synched their breaths like a pair of dancers. He watched as instructed, and through the smoke formed a shadowy monster, then a silhouette, then a man in the uniform of a Heathen general. It was the old man who'd escorted him in line, his face now bloodied, glowering, trying to make sense of the chaos before him. As instructed, Roy waited.
The old man saw the muddy horse, but the scene's murkiness—or, perhaps, purposeful censorship provided by the company, he'd later suggest over a pint that evening—didn't allow the enemy's musket to register. It was only when he was a foot from Roy, when the young New Confederate's instructions told him to fire, that the old man realized General Arturo Gonzalez's life was to end at that moment. The red squib hidden in the chest of his sleeve blew outward and squirted Roy's face with a liquid that smelled like Play-Doh. The old man winced with the over-enthusiastic chops of a community stage actor, fell to his knees, and slowly set himself face-down, the mud on his uniform's back quickly drying into the cracked landscape of the vast deserts Roy had once read about.
Roy was waiting for instructions of how to spend his final bullet when a pain ripped through his chest, activating his own squib, spraying the horse with Jackson's red. His display shouted "FIRE!" so he pulled the trigger and his final shot ascended harmlessly into the sky. His body sleeve froze into a cast and, thinking quickly, he fell toward the horse to provide him with shade as he awaited the battle's conclusion, which, Roy panicked, could happen at any moment.
"Good move, kid," spoke the old man from some mysterious place beyond the horse. "Y'know, I was a big deal before today. If you wouldn't've gotten me, who knows how this might've turned."
"A great sacrifice to be great again," said Roy.
"Great again," the old man was required to say, and did so.
Roy heard the old man humming the first bars of the Townies theme song, shook off that temptation and, at long last, input that mysterious string of numbers into his display's UserID prompt. And as he lay dead, with musket plumes loosening into the misty gossamer that signaled the battle's approaching end, Roy's display on his newly-opened Web took him to a document titled, bluntly, "From Beyond The Wall: The New Confederacy's True History." He clicked through and soon found out what had really happened at The Battle of Fort Hollow.
Art by Sam Laughlin.