K. J. Pedersen
“GET OFF, MATTHIAS!” I shouted. “Get the fuck off of me, asshole!”
Matthias-Paulus Osric Wudeforde sat astride my chest. The smug fucker grinned like a cat. My whole body ached, my knees were scuffed and grass-stained, just like the palms of my hands and elbows, my nose was bleeding, and I knew the pain was visible on my face. “What’s wrong, Matti, my boy?” he said. “Is a friendly game of C-ball too much for you deal with?” Then he sat down hard on my abdomen and forced the air from my lungs.
I couldn’t very well fight back considering his knees had my arms pinned to the ground and his hands were on my shoulders. I tried though and he responded by leaning his full weight into me. I shouted, or tried to manage a shout, at least. “Goddamn it! Get off! Get off!”
“Does it hurt?”
“What do you think?” I cried out. “That’s my collarbone, asshole!” I felt tears well in my eyes.
The smug, wicked look on his face broadened. He pressed my shoulders harder. The pain in my collar bone and across the top of my chest was unbelievable. “You should stick to A-ball like all the other boys. C-ball is for men,” he said. “Or better yet, bookworm, stick to the library.”
“Get off or I’ll kick your ass so hard — ”
“You’re not in much of a position to do anything.” He pressed one fist right into the middle of my chest, removed the other hand from my shoulder, and then with that fist jabbed me between the ribs with his knuckles. “How does this feel, cock?” He ran his knuckles up and down my ribs quickly, viciously. It hurt and I winced. “You’ll kick my ass? Ha! I’m stronger than you are.”
“Bullshit! I outweigh you by twenty pounds and I’m two inches taller than you are, Matthias. Now get off of me or I’ll make you sorry.”
He laughed at me. I hated being mocked. He knew it too and laid the mockery on thick. “Sure, Matti, my boy, whatever.”
Matthias was right though: He was stronger. Sometimes I would get the better of him when we wrestled in the gymnasium, but that usually wasn’t the case. Two out of three times, he’d have me pinned to the mat in less than five minutes. Matthias was a natural athlete, like my brother, and also like my brother, he’d never gone through that awkward, gawky “teenage boy” stage. I was myself finally passing out of it, but the telltale signs of it — the long limbs and slender torso — remained.
The two of us had never been close friends, but I’d known him for years. We used to play together when we were kids sometimes. We played computer and virtual reality games, went dirt biking or swimming together. That was about it. We still did things together, every now and then. Jakobus too had been our friend. He thought our friendship was weird because Matthias and I acted more like rivals than buddies.
“Get off,” I said once more to him.
He shook his head. “No,” he said in a plain, matter-of-fact way, “this is fine.”
I lost my temper and the next thing I knew Matthias was on the ground and I was on top of him. I had my knee in the middle of his chest. His eyes were wide with surprise and pain. And I just ground my knee into his chest.
“You like that, Matty-Paulus?” I demanded. “Huh? How do you like it?”
“You two, cut it out!” That was Tórsten Ceorlson, Matthias’ best friend. “Get the ball back in motion! You’re breaking the rules!”
I ignored Tórsten; I was angry. My nose was still bloody, and I felt the viscous stream on my top lip. For one brief moment, the idea of beating the shit out of Matthias crossed my mind. I don’t know what came over me, but I wanted to hurt him. I wanted to humiliate him.
“Okay, okay, Matti, you’ve proven your point,” Matthias said. “Now get off.”
I adjusted my position a little, so my knee was on his abdomen, just under the sternum. I leaned forward, into him.
“God Almighty!” he screamed. “Get off! That fucking hurts!”
“Now you know how it feels.”
I stood up and walked away. Matthias picked himself up slowly, rubbed the center of his chest, sternum, and upper abdomen with the heel of his hand. He winced. He had hurt me, so I hurt him. Tit for tat.
“You’re breaking the rules, guys,” Tórsten said. “The ball must always be in motion.”
“Til skidt medt du!” I swore at him in Scandian without even thinking about it. At home, my mother, brother, sisters and I spoke dansk more frequently than Anglisc. It was merely habit. “This is just gymnasium, Tór. Who the fuck cares if we’re breaking the rules or not?”
“That boy-fucker has such a filthy mouth, doesn’t he?” Matthias said to Tórsten with a grin. They nodded in complete agreement with each other.
Boy-fucker was a common, crude substitute for homosexual, and it was tossed around all the time. It didn’t matter if you were homosexual, bisexual, or heterosexual, all the boys called each other that in the gymnasium, in the locker rooms, on the street. I used the term too, but since I’d discovered Johannes was that way, I’d found also the term grated on my ears.
“Can we continue the game now?” Tórsten said finally.
Matthias was a demigod; he was above it all. I may have gotten the better of him for one brief moment, but he looked as smug as ever, as if nothing ever happened. He put his arm around Tórsten’s shoulders. “Pick up the ball, Mattæus, and let’s finished this,” he said.
I brushed the grass and grains of dirt from my raw and bloody knees and elbows.
Matthias rolled his eyes at me. “Does it hurt, laddy?”
“Fuck yeah, it does!” I spat.
His lips curled. “Hurry up.”
There were times I hated Matthias-Paulus!
Jakobus van der Hoff and his fourteen-year-old brother Christof were at the other end of the field. Jakobus grinned at me and shook his head. He shouted, “Come on, time’s almost up. Let’s finish the game.”
Christof ran toward me like an eager puppy. Since school started in September, he’d become my shadow. I couldn’t not turn around without stepping on him. He was suffering from a serious case of hero-worship. And Jakobus, I knew, didn’t approve of his open adoration. He probably thought I was going to corrupt his little brother and introduce him to older girls, wine, and hashish.
Well, truthfully, the idea of getting Christof stoned had its appeal. After all, Johannes and I was only fourteen when an older neighbor boy, Mikael Lundmark, introduced us to herb. It was like an initiation rite, I guess.
I picked up the ball and tucked it under one arm.
“You kicked his ass,” Christof said to me loud enough for Matthias hear.
Matthias and Tórsten both laughed.
Christof grabbed my wrist and looked at my palm intently. He touched the scuffed skin gently, like a tender, curious child might. “Does it hurt?”
“How many times do I have to be asked? Yes, obviously,” I said and yanked my hand away from him.
Matthias snarled: “Pull Chrissy from your tit and let’s finish the game, Matti.”
Christof blushed, but I couldn’t help but smile at Matthias’ comment. He had a good sense of humor ... for a complete asshole, that is.
The two teams of twelve each bunched together again in two opposing knots. Then I placed oblong hide-covered ball was between us and stepped back. Jakobus and Christof were on my team. Matthias and Tórsten were on the opposing team.
“Now!” one of the boys shouted.
It was a mad dash to grab the ball. Matthias scooped it up, ran, but one of the boys on my team knocked it from his hands. Then, suddenly, Jakobus had the ball. He dodged past Tórsten. Matthias lunged at him, and he tossed the ball to me.
I caught it, ran back a few feet toward our goal line to give myself room to maneuver, and then ran forward. I brushed past two boys on the other team, dodged Tórsten, and then found myself cornered. I passed it off to Christof. He nearly dropped it.
“Run!” Jakobus yelled. “Christof, run, brother! Run!”
Christof pulled the wobbly ball close to his chest to steady the catch and ran. Four big sixteen- and seventeen-year-old guys from the other team came down on him. He was just this little 5' 6" fourteen-year-old. He looked like he was going to wet himself. Right before they were upon him, he tossed the ball back to me.
They were on me like heat-seeking missiles. I ran with the ball and....
I hit someone hard, knocked him over, and tripped over him. My jaw ached. It felt broken. I heard someone yell, “Oh, shit!” My mouth was covered with blood and I swiped at it a few times. No, my jaw wasn’t broken. It just hurt. I turned around and then I saw who I’d knocked to the ground. The game stopped and everyone huddled around the boy.
Ælfric Cynricson, a skinny seventeen-year-old, was on his side in the grass writhing in pain. There was blood streaming from a cut above his right eye, right above the eyebrow, down the side of his face and into his long, mousy-colored, wispy-fine hair. Now I understood why my jaw hurt so — I’d struck him in the forehead with my chin. Then I saw the way his arm was twisted underneath him....
Oh, Jesucristus! Oh, God, oh, God! I kept saying in my mind over and again. I got down on my knees beside Ælfric in a hurry. Please don’t be broken, please! I reached out and touched his arm.
“Ælfy? Ælfy, is it broken?”
He was crying now and the tears mixed with the blood. His face was slick with both. The look of pain in his eyes horrified me. Oh God, I’ve broken his arm. A lump formed in my throat and tears stung in my eyes. No, please; you’ll be okay.
I touched his arm again. He winced, but then moved his arm.
“Mattæus, is Ælfric’s arm broken?” I heard someone ask.
More boldly, I touched his arm again. He didn’t wince this time. “Is it broken, Ælfy?” I asked.
“I don’t think so,” he said. “My head. It hurts. It hurts so much.”
“The clumsy fucker ran in front of you,” Matthias said to me. “It’s his own fault.”
I turned on him, angry with his derisive tone, and the lack of concern for Ælfric’s well-being. “Shut up.”
The gymnasium instructor pushed through the throng of boys which had gathered about us. “That’s it. This game is over.” He knelt down beside me and gave Ælfric a gentle pat on the shoulder. “Ælfric? Can you stand?”
“Jakobus, Tórsten, help Ælfric to the medical room.” He looked at me, then at Matthias, and the others. “The rest of you, go back to locker room. Your behavior on the field today was un-fucking-believable! Do I make myself clear? And you, Matthias: You’re on the team. If I ever see you play like that during a game, a real game, you’re as good as gone.” Then he gave me a contemptuous look. “Mattæus, I don’t care if he stepped into your path or not. Watch where you’re going next time.”
* * *
Jakobus came back into the locker room from the nurse’s office a few minutes after the rest of us filed in from the playing fields. Watching him, I felt suddenly a pang of sorrow that our friendship was strained by our differences, and that we had a falling out. We had taken two different courses and adhered to two different world-views. He was a Young Conservative; I was libertarian. He was a theist; I was agnostic. He was a supernaturalist; I was an humanist. But still, he was my friend, and I had loved him as a brother for as long as I could remember.
He was handsome, I suppose, and was always smiling. His expression was as cheerful as Lukas’ despite the fact that when it came to discussions of religion, Jakobus became downright grave. The happy expressions of joy and love of life suited him much better than somber assertions of Christian doctrine, and the austere currents of thought common to the “Sons of the Apostles and Prophets” within Northern Orthodox branch of the church. I had not welcomed this change in him. But as long as he was smiling, I was happy. He had bright blue eyes and honey-colored hair, darker than my brother’s, which he wore medium-length and swept forward upon his forehead (a very popular style, especially with jocks). His hair was a tangle of curls, almost unmanageable, but strangely enough, it suited him. He wasn’t smiling at the moment though; he was shrouded in gloom.
“Is Ælfric going to be okay?” I asked concerned by the look on Jakobus’ face.
“Yeah,” he said, “but you messed him up good. The nurse is sending him up the street to the health clinic. Possible concussion. He’s already got a black eye. And every inch of that kid is going to be black and blue.” Then he reached out and touched my jaw. I recoiled in agony. “You look pretty beaten up yourself.”
“Yeah, Jaapi, I’ve got to clean up,” I said and wiped the drying blood from my lips and chin.
“Any teeth knocked loose?”
I shook my head.
“That’s good, at least.”
What a rotten day this is turning out to be, I thought.
I felt bad for Ælfric, and for more than just knocking him senseless.
Matthias could rightly accuse me of being a bookworm, insult and kid me for it, question my athletic ability, or whatever, but because my family was squarely middle-class and well established, it meant little. It was not so much a personal attack; it was scarcely more than a ribbing. With Ælfric though such comments — and they were all too frequent — really were insults. For not only did he have the misfortune of being skinny and awkward, bookish, and shy, but he was also lower middle-class.
Shane was correct the night before when he said my father was bureaucrat. And Máire was equally correct when she insisted a bank vice president is not a petty bureaucrat. But that was precisely what Ælfric’s father was: a petty bureaucrat. I think he was an insurance salesman, or a claims adjuster, or something along those lines. Who knew; who cared? He was one of the millions of lower middle-class paper-pushers who managed the titanic money-economy of the AFR while at the same time barely managed himself to cling to what has been called ‘a respectable station in life.’ And even though his class of lower-end professionals was better off than eighty percent of the public generally, they were at the very bottom of the social caste system among those who were enfranchised. (Only twenty percent of the public met the property and/or income requirements necessary to vote.) And because there were so very few sons and daughters of working-class parents in the academies, it was the lower middle-class kids who usually found themselves at the bottom of the heap.
I may have felt bad for Shane, for his situation, but at least he was defiant in the face of adversity. I had a great deal of respect for him, even if he was rash. Ælfric was timid; I pitied him and was ashamed for it. Pity is a weak emotion, and a poor motivator, but I’d always felt a need to stand up for the bullied. In this, as in so many other things, I was like my mother, and her father.
I pulled off my football jersey carefully and sat down on the bench between the banks of lockers. Then I took off my shoes, socks, and shorts. Jakobus changed clothes. Christof undressed too and then sat down next to me so close his thigh brushed against mine. I tried to move away from him.
“Yes, Christoffel, what do you want?” I replied rather too harshly. I used his real nickname and not the nickname Matthias had given him, Chrissy, which was more frequently used by girls than by boys (except in Hibernia, where any attempt to emasculate the diminutive would land you in some very serious shit).
He didn’t say anything.
“Move over; give me some room,” I said. “Hell, you’re practically sitting in my lap.”
One of the other boys on the aisle smirked, and said, “I thinks that’s the idea.”
“Shut up, Ealdred,” Jakobus said. “Keep your mind out of the gutter.”
Christof blushed but didn’t say anything. He looked at my scuffed knees and elbows as best he could without actually touching me and moving my limbs to get a better look.
Christof had medium-length blond hair, like his brother, only his hair was lighter, the color of wheat fields, and very straight. Unlike Jakobus, he seldom smiled, but had a very mild expression. Not dull — anything but dull — just mild. There was a look of intelligence in his eyes that reminded me of my mother, which in turn, reminded me of myself. He was a pleasantly handsome, gentle boy, and so painfully shy it was embarrassing to watch him interact with others socially. Still, he had his friends, to whom he was fiercely loyal, and he played A-ball like nobody’s business. He was better than I was, and I knew he’d make the team come spring.
“What is it with you, Christof?” I asked. His attention unnerved and embarrassed me, but I played along, not wanting to hurt his feelings.
Jakobus gave me a disapproving look.
“Nothing, Matti,” he said finally. “I’m just hoping you’re not hurt too bad.”
I rolled my eyes. Ealdred chuckled. Another boy down the row a few feet snickered, and muttered, “Oh, that’s so cute. It’s puppy-love.”
With that, Jakobus slammed his fist into the metal lockers with a loud crash. “Christof, leave Mattæus be!”
* * *
I padded into the bathroom adjoining the locker room. It was a long, rectangular room with half a dozen urinals, two toilet stalls, and eight sinks with mirrors. There was a full length mirror on the far wall and next to it was a first aid kit. I went to wash up in front of a mirror and sink. The room seemed private, and a lot less noisy than the locker room. The image to greet me in the mirror was pained. My face was covered in dark, blackened and rusty-colored blood, now crusty, dry. My jaw was swollen and beginning to bruise. I pulled free the rawhide cord that kept my hair bound in a topknot and let it fall to my shoulders. I washed my face, watched blood-red tendrils swirl in the basin, then down the drain. To forget the pain, I closed my eyes. The water on my face felt so good, and I took a long, grateful drink of the ice-cold water from the tap.
I felt someone swat my rear and I jerked upright immediately. It was Matthias-Paulus. Like me, he was naked excepting white briefs. He left his hand on my right buttock.
“You like playing ass-grab with the boys, don’t you?” I said and pushed his hand away from my bottom.
He shrugged. “When there aren’t any good-looking girls around, yeah.”
Matthias was so casual about it one might think he was joking. I knew he was bisexual though. He didn’t so much brag about it, but there were hints, innuendoes of his encounters, and such. He played both C-ball and A-ball, and just about every guy on the teams knew. Of course, he wasn’t the only bisexual jock around either. I knew Andreas Bjórnsson-Edithson, his friend Wolfwig Engelhardtsón, and Tórsten were too. And there were others.
“Well, around me, keep your hands to yourself.”
He grinned again, that smug, cat-like grin. “Yeah, Matti. Whatever.”
I shook my head. What was the point in arguing with him? He did things his own way.
“I wonder what your girlfriend Ama would think if she knew you play both sides of the field so to say.”
Again, he just shrugged. “Why would it bother her? She does too.”
That was news to me. Ama Winricsdohtor was Lindi’s best friend. For one brief moment I wondered if she and Lindi.... No. Not Lindi. Definitely not.
He giggled — he actually giggled. “Ah, the pleasures of Sapphic love. I wish Ama would let me watch.”
“Enough gossip,” I said. “What do you want?”
“I came in here to apologize, Mattæus,” he said. “You were right to call me an asshole. I was acting like an idiot on the playing field this afternoon. I’m sorry I tackled you like that. And I’m sorry I didn’t get off when you told me to.”
I shrugged his apology off. “Whatever.”
I watched him for a moment. There was no sign of deceit in his eyes or at the corners of his mouth. There was no smirk. “Okay, Matthias,” I said finally. “Apology accepted.”
He nodded, but didn’t say anything, and stood there looking at me, studying me for a moment. I felt self-conscious being undressed with him and alone. I looked him over too. We had sized each other up before, when wrestling, and in trying to devise a strategy to beat the other.
The two of us were rivals in many ways though he outclassed me in athletics on every level. I knew it and usually would admit it without shame. It was matter of fact. He was faster and stronger, and he was determined to prove it again and again, in and out the gymnasium. One might say he wanted to ‘rub my nose in it.’ He played A-ball and C-ball. He wrestled. He could fence, ride a horse, swim and dive, and run well. He had the body of an Olympian god. Johannes, Lukas, and Matthias-Paulus were champions. Nevertheless, he was jealous of me. There were times his animosity was naked, raw, and very bitter. Our rivalry had nothing to do with athletics, and little to do with social status either, as he too was middle-class (his father was a small capitalist, the sole owner of a chain of electronics stores in North and Suth Lancascir). No. In truth it wouldn’t even be proper to call it rivalry. He resented my creativity, intelligence, and ability even though I was a poor student. When we were younger, we’d argue, and then, unable to outmaneuver me verbally, he’d resort to calling me names. Bookworm, of course, was his favorite. Well, that and boy-fucker.
When we fourteen, he was horrible. He’d insult me, fight with me, physically and verbally, play pranks on me in front of his other friends. He pulled down my pants in the lunch hall once exposing my underwear to a hundred or more of our classmates, boys and girls. I was humiliated. And then, suddenly, out of nowhere, he’d want to make up. It was a cycle, it replayed itself as we got older too, and I knew that’s what was happening now.
Of course, when we were fourteen, he could get away with it. I was scrawny and couldn’t fight back effectively. Johannes was already 6' 2" and 170 pounds. It was our first year in the senior academy and he already played on the varsity C-ball and A-ball teams. He spent his time with the older boys, seventeen-year-olds in their last year at Sceofeld Academy, jocks, including Matthias-Paulus’ older brother, Philippus-Brandt. Everyone called Jóni my ‘big brother,’ even though he was only twenty-two minutes older than I was. But I never let it get me down. I knew I would reach at least the 6' 2" mark, despite the fact our father was only 5' 9½". I took after mum’s side of the family. I looked like they did. They were my folk. Mum was relatively tall for a woman (as tall as my father), and her father, Kristianus Tórvaldsson was 6' 2", while her brother Peder was 6' 3". Yeah, I knew I was going to shoot up tall like they were; I was a late bloomer, that’s all.
“Hop up on the edge of the sink, Matti,” he said and went for the first aid kit on the far wall.
“No need,” I said.
He came back to where I was and pulled out alcohol, bandages, and a washcloth. “Just do it. Stop being so argumentative.”
“Argumentative? Me? You’re argumentative; you’re always looking for a fight.”
“No way, that’s you.”
“Uh-uh.” He shook his head. “You.”
We both laughed.
“C’mon,” he said. “Hop up there.”
I nodded finally and did what he asked. All the while I watched him as he wet the washcloth, poured alcohol on the bandages. He had a serious expression on his face. Then he washed the grass-stains and blood from my elbows.
We were face to face. Matthias was very good-looking; solid, athletic. He had a ruddy complexion. In fact, he was sunburned, proof that he spent most of his time outdoors playing sports. He wore his hair medium-length and swept forward too. It was pale, yellow-blond, and mostly straight. He had ice-blue eyes. I could see why he had such as easy time with the girls, and why he was shameless about his bisexuality. He was attractive to both sexes and confident.
“This is going to sting,” he said and wiped my elbows, one after the other, with the alcohol-soaked bandages.
“I told you so.”
I clenched my jaw tight against the stinging. He went on then and washed my palms and applied alcohol.
“Why are you doing this?” I asked him.
“Because I caused it to happen in the first place.”
He moved on and attended to my knees.
Out of nowhere and without any apparent reason, he said, “Christof has a crush on you.”
“Yeah,” I said not wanting to admit it to even myself. “You noticed too, huh?”
“It’s the way he hangs around, the way he looks at you. He is so eager to gain your approval.”
“It happens,” I said finally.
He nodded. “Boys that age are always looking for approval from the older boys and young men. Like Justus Thurstanson. He’s a little younger than Christof; he just turned fourteen. He’s always hanging around. I can’t move without bumping into him.” He laughed. “I was the same way. I had a crush on my big brother’s friend. Remember Mikael Lundmark?”
I nodded and grinned knowingly.
“What?” he asked.
“So did I. Mikael was sexy. It’s a stage boys go through,” I said. “We grow out of it.” As soon as the words were out of my mouth, I regretted them.
“You might have,” he said. “But bisexuality is more common than you’d care to admit.”
“That isn’t what I meant.”
“Your brother and Lukas haven’t seemed to grow out of it either.”
I felt myself blush.
Thankfully, Matthias let it drop, and changed the subject. “Are you and Lindi fucking yet?”
“Oh,” he replied. “You’re physical with each other though, yeah?”
I nodded, then added, “But I’m not ready for a sexual relationship yet. And I don’t think she is either.”
“Jesucristus, Mattæus, don’t get so defensive,” he said. “All I meant was: Really, me too. Ama and I aren’t having sex yet either. And for the same reason. I’m not ready; she’s not ready. It’s not so uncommon. People develop sexually at different rates. Tórsten lost his virginity at fifteen. Others don’t have sex until they’re in their twenties. It’s no big deal.”
I was surprised by his frankness and his philosophical approach to sex. From the way he bragged, I would have expected more of the same, and not such a thoughtful statement. I was also surprised by the tenderness he showed as he cleaned my wounds. It was intimate, it was embarrassing, but it felt so good to just sit, relax, and let him wash my knees and bandage the cuts.
“All finished,” he said.
I hopped down from the edge of the sink.
“I know we’re not exactly best friends, and it has been a long time since we did anything together,” he said. “But what say we get together tonight, see a movie ... smoke some herb. You know, whatever.”
“Okay,” I said.
“Yeah, right on.”
* * *
Shane met me after school ended by my locker in the administration building. “You have a ride home this afternoon with Jakobus?” he asked.
“Not really,” I said. “If I see him in the parking lot, then yeah, but — ”
“How about if you take the bus home with me this afternoon,” Shane said. “I mean, you left your shirt there. And I want my shirt back too.” He tugged at my sleeve — his sleeve.
I kidded, “I’ve got your jockeys too. You want them back too?”
He laughed. “Shut up.”
“Sure, let’s go.”
We crossed the parking lot and walked toward the bus stop.
I tapped the face of my wristwatch. “Call Johannes,” I said. My watch chirped for a moment as it connected with Johannes’ personal number.
“Hey, this is Johannes,” the answer came.
“Jóni,” I said, “I’m going to catch the bus back home. So don’t worry, I’m not going to steal the car from you like I did the other day.”
“Make sure you don’t,” he said. “Aren’t you going to catch a ride with Jaapi or Lindi?”
“No, I’m with Shane. We’re going back to his house.”
“Shane there with you?”
“Hey, Shane,” Johannes said.
“Hey, Jóni,” he replied.
“Matti, listen,” Johannes said, “I’ve got to run. C-ball practice is going to start in a few minutes.”
“Farvel,” I said.
“Ja, hej-hej, broder.”
We stood at the bus stop with a few of our classmates. Kalli Komensky, Lindi’s former friend, stood there. I didn’t know Kalli well. She was dating Toby Beorcleah, I knew. And that had something to do with Kalli and Lindi’s falling out. At least that’s what I’d gathered from Lindi. Maybe it was pure catty jealousy between them. Who knew?
Kalli smiled at me, then at Shane. I could tell by the way she looked at Shane they knew each other well and were friends.
“Toby drove you here this morning, isn’t he going to take you home too?” Shane asked.
“No, the creep,” she said. “He skipped the last class with of the day. He’s with Wulfric. They went downtown Niew Lifrapol.”
“So that’s where they went.” Shane shook his head. “They totally blew me off.”
Kalli laughed. “That’s Toby for you. Spontaneous to a fault.”
The bus came a few minutes later and let us board. Shane and I managed to find seats by the rear door. We chatted for a moment, and then, as so often it did, our conversation turned to politics. Shane had always been a political-minded fellow. That may have been one of the reasons we both got along so well. We basically agreed on political matters, even if he was a Red Republican, like his father. Well, at least he was a left-wing Red Republican, which made him essentially an anarchist, and therefore very much opposed to the party’s authoritarian, statist right-wing.
“Haven’t you heard the bellicose language pouring from Niew Dunham, Hannover, and particularly from Shanghai and Moskva?” Shane asked.
“Yes, I have,” I replied. “Angry words, so what?”
“Twenty-five years ago was it just ‘angry words’ when politicians in Niew Dunham and Shanghai threatened embargo if the Indians didn’t revoke the protectionist measures they’d enacted against the Constitution of the Terran Republic with its Free Trade mandate?”
“The Senate and Federal Court of the Republic will avert any crisis this time around. A lot was learned during and in the aftermath of the Anglo-Indian War.”
“In which my father was forced to fight.”
“Yeah,” I said. “I know. And it was the war and his conscription which radicalized his world-view. Yes, Shane, I know.”
“If you saw your friends die the way he did — ”
“I’m not arguing with you, Shane; I understand where you’re coming from. But this is not the Anglo-Indian War any longer. The world has changed,” I said. “And the crisis on the border between the Republic of the Rus and the Sinæ Republic will pass. Everything east of the Lena River in the Iakutian Province has belonged to the Sinæ since the 1980s; the Rus will just have to accept it.”
Shane pressed on: “In 2035, the Republic was established immediately following the atomic attack at O-a-u, the destruction of the Onolulu shipyards and harbor, and the loss of twenty-thousand lives. Because the Anglo-Sinitic War escalated to the use of that single atomic torpedo in the harbor, the specter of atomic warfare was conjured again from its 20th Century grave. The war between the AFR and Sinæ was ended by treaty ten days later, and the Republic was established in the following months to prevent further wars, and to control fission and fusion weapons. Right?”
“So, this is my point: That didn’t prevent three of the Republic’s constituents — the AFR, Sinæ, and India — from waging war only seventeen years later, did it? Did the Senate not pass a treaty in an attempt to end the war, did the Terran Federal Court not declare the war illegal?”
“Yes — ”
“But the war raged for seven years regardless and reduced the Indian Republic to ruins. Fifteen million were killed, mostly Indians, particularly along the Indus, in Sind, and the Punjab. Even today India’s infrastructure is such a ruin that it remains a protectorate of the Terran Republic.”
“Like I said: A lot was learned as a result of that war, Shane. That’s why the federal court system was thoroughly reformed in the early 2060s. That is why arbitration between nations is, and always has been, the Republic’s first priority.”
“But here we are twenty years later with the nations of Europa, Terra Nova, and Asia drawing up the battle lines again — ”
“Battle lines are not being drawn up. Not even between the Rus and Sinæ. Saber-rattling is the stuff of international politics. Always has been. And most of that warmongering garbage is coming from anti-Republican forces such as the National Patriots’ Party and the Christian Nationalists. There are only seventeen Senators affiliated with either party. That’s seventeen out of six-hundred-fifty seats, Shane.” I stopped for a moment. “Wait, hold on, Shane, that’s our stop coming up.” I pulled the cord to let the driver know to stop at the next sign.
We got off the bus together and walked around the corner to catch #74 southbound.
“Why have we laid the hulls for two new missile cruisers at the Niew Lifrapol shipyards since July then?” Shane asked as we waited. “The warships weren’t in the federal budget passed in March, were they? And both Conservatives and Liberals voted for the tax increase for military appropriations in May’s special session. It was late April when the dispute along the Lena flared.” He tapped his palm with his index finger. It was his habit when he argued or tried to make a point. “Your mum wrote an article for Freedom & Fellowship about ‘our’ increased military spending since the Iakutian dispute, and since the Alemannian, Scandian, Francian and Russian republics defied the Constitution and threatened to levy tariffs on steel, autos, and heavy machinery in June. April, May, June, July — the events are all sequential.”
“Don’t misrepresent my mum’s work,” I said. “The point of her article was that because the only tax revenue the State collect is from sales taxes — a very regressive form of taxation — that the State should not squander it on additional military hardware, particularly when the Republic was established first and foremost to put an end to military conflicts. Any increases in the sales tax, she believes — and I agree wholeheartedly — should be applied to investment in public infrastructure such as roads, railroads, sewers — waterworks generally — and finally to programs designed to reduce the high rate of unemployment.”
“But she also cited specifically the 20th Century axiom: War is good for the health of the economy.”
“Military spending can stimulate industry,” I said. “That’s what she went on to write.”
“The AFR and Sinæ Republic are closely bound through trade and effective condominium of Pacifica. And the Rus and the republics of Europa are closely bound as well because of their common interest: The Eurasian Federation.” He paused. “Where Sinæ goes, the AFR will follow. Where Russia goes, Alemannia, Scandia, Francia — all of Europa — will follow.”
I bit my lip and nodded. “I understand what your saying. And I don’t like where you are headed with it.”
“Neither do I.”
“But you’re still wrong, Shane. The Terran Republic is a federal state. It is the State. It isn’t weak and ineffectual like the old International Council was. Whatever difference there are between the AFR, Alemannia, Sinæ, and the Rus, the Republic will resolve.”
To be continued....
* * *
Anglisc — the language of the Anglians — is more like Old English than Modern English. To give this story the proper “flavor,” I have used a good number of Old English proper names and place names, such as Godric, Ælfric, Ealdred, Eadmund, Ama, Sceofeld (Sheffield), Mamescaester (Manchester), Lancascir (Lancashire). At first, when this novel started to form in my mind, I considered writing this story using, to the greatest extent possible, English words of Anglo-Saxon origins to maximize the atmosphere. But I soon realized that was too daunting a task.
Scandian, and specifically the dansk dialect is basically a modified form of the Danish language. I’ve taken liberties with it here and there to emphasize that this an alternative future history.