Part 1- Survival

"Only the dead have seen the end of war."
-Plato


I

The Decimation

My vision slowly brightens as the last remnants of a nightmare escapes from the confines of my mind. The back of my hand meets my face as I try unsuccessfully to ward off the orange rays of sunlight poking through the cracked window pane. It is still early morning, and the sky has a pleasant purplish hue, reminding me of the fruit flavored chewing gum rations we would sometimes get from the government. Birds greet each other in high pitched trills as they commence their morning chorus with gusto.

This is it, the day of the Decimation.

I slide off of my bed, grunting as I stretch limbs that have been asleep for the past seven hours. I really don't want to get up. But I know that if I fail to show up for the Decimation, I could be dragged out of bed and shot by the MP's. Evading the Decimation is a serious offense, worse than stealing even.

With that happy thought, I stumble over to my dresser, getting out some clean clothes to make myself presentable. I swap out my usual grey sweatpants and t-shirt for a simple, woven, black sweater and a stained but clean pair of khakis. Leather shoes that always seem to be a bit snug, maintain a vice-like grip of my feet where my running shoes would usually go.

I hastily comb my short, chestnut-brown hair in front of the small mirror on top of my dresser while checking for stubble on my chin. Satisfied with my appearance, I take one last look at my bedroom, knowing full well that I might never see it again. It's small, in fact it used to be a storage room, only having room for a bed, nightstand, dresser, and a small chest in the corner for my belongings. A lump rises in my throat, and I turn away. I will see it again, even if I am conscripted. I will survive to see my room again.

I go next door to the living room of my family's apartment. Living room in the loosest sense as it is also our kitchen, dining room, and my mom's bedroom. We used to live in a bigger place while my dad was still around. But ever since he passed away eleven years ago when I was six, my mom had to move to the apartment we live in now to make ends meet.

I miss my father. I can barely remember his face now after so many years have passed. But every so often bits and pieces flash through my mind: My dad sitting at the dining table, a cup of coffee in hand as he reads the paper, shaking his head at the stories he read. My dad laughing with me and my mom as he chased me around the house. The first day of school, when the only thing I remember is the firm grasp of his hand…

I walk over to the fridge where my mom usually leaves notes for me in the morning, and sure enough a pink sticky note is placed in plain view with a message written in the neat lettering of my mother.

Mathis,
Small accident by the docks this morning.
Had to go to the hospital early for work.
Breakfast is on the table.
I'll be there for the Decimation.
Good luck today, and remember that I love you!
~Mom

A small smiley face is drawn in pencil at the bottom next to her name, making me smile in return. "Love you too mom," I whisper quietly to myself.

I sit down at the round wooden table by the window, glancing downwards at the meal my mom had left for me. A bowl of government issued oatmeal greets me, though on closer inspection, specks of brown floated on the surface of the otherwise greyish mush. Curious, I tentatively scoop a spoonful into my mouth. Cinnamon! I shake my head in wonder. How the heck did mom get her hands on some cinnamon! I think to myself as I eagerly dig my spoon into the oatmeal for another mouthful. She must have bartered some medicine for it.

I look out the window as I eat. There's a TV mounted on the wall across from the table, but we have to conserve our electricity rations for more important things, and besides, most of the stuff the TV shows is government propaganda. The window is a far better choice for the morning's entertainment.

I finish my bowl, scraping miniscule bits of oatmeal off the bottom with my spoon, wishing there wasmore. The government never supplies us with enough food, only enough to get by, with amounts based on a family's dietary needs. This is to prevent "excessive obesity in the populace" as they put it. I honestly think they're just trying to kill us. The least they can do is be honest about it.

Putting the bowl in the sink, I push past the door and into the hallway of our apartment complex, making sure to lock the door behind me. Usually the hallway would be abuzz with activity, with residents calling out to each other on their way to school or work, but today it is as silent as a grave. School and non-essential work is canceled for the Decimation. Those with jobs essential to the city, like my mom at the hospital, would still have to work, but will get an hour break to watch if they wish to. Most of the neighbors on my floor don't have kids my age, so were probably sleeping in.

Our town lays at the edge of a large freshwater lake, one of the few large freshwater lakes in the world not contaminated with radiation or choked full of pollution and debris. The government likes to keep it that way. Before the Third Great War, our town was once part of a larger city in the area known as the Great Lakes Region. Now, with the smoldering ruins of the city still in the distance, our town is one of many settlements providing clean drinking water to the rest of the Empire. Our town has an official Government name but no one cares to remember it. We simply call it Cloverbrook, after the verdant green meadows growing among the bombsites in the west.

A fine mist covers the unpaved streets on my way to the town meeting hall. A trickle of people joins me, all going in the direction of the hall. From time to time, I give a terse nod or "Good morning," to people I recognize, but I can see the same look of dread and fear in their faces that is probably reflected in mine.

Which of us will be the unlucky few? Which of us will be decimated? I think as I focus my gaze on the ground in front of my feet.

"Hey Mathis!"

A familiar voice interrupts my train of thoughts, and I force a smile as James trots up next to me. "What's up, James. How are you doing this fine morning?"

He lets out a slight snort, "Oh I'm doing good… Or about as good as you can get with the threat of death over your head!"

We both laugh but not too loud or for too long. Laughter is rare on Decimation day, and we don't want to attract too much attention. I have to admit though, laughing about something does wonders for my mood. James always brings the best out of me, his enthusiastic and carefree attitude contrasting with my usual reserved demeanor.

As my laugh slowly dies, my apprehension returns. "So today's the day huh?"

James shrugs. "Hey man, my brother said it wouldn't even be that bad! It's just all that nail biting you do leading up to it. Only one out of every ten of us… chances are it won't even be us!"

I look over at him to see if he's being sarcastic. He's wearing a grey, long sleeved polo over a pair of worn black jeans. His caramel colored face is set in stone, as if trying to convince himself of his own words.

Decimation is just another fancy word for conscription. We learned in history class that decimation was a form of military punishment in an Empire called Rome long ago not so much different from ours. In the Roman military, the commanders would sometimes "decimate" a legion, picking one out of every ten guys… then having all his friends kill him with rocks. I can't imagine what that would be like… to have all my friends stand over me and bash my skull in with stones.

Nowadays though, decimation has taken on a whole new meaning. Every year, all the seventeen year olds would be marched out, and one out of every ten of us will be drafted into the armed forces. It probably isn't as bad as getting your head bashed in by your friends, but the fighting is fierce up north in what used to be Canada, or whatever pockets of resistance that remain overseas. The government won't let you know this of course. The news reports are always filled with praise for the brave men and women claiming victory after victory for the Empire, and pictures in the news reports always show some soldier offering a portion of their rations for grateful villagers under Imperial "protection". But most people know better or at least suspect that something's off.

The men and women who do return from their service are not unchanged. They either become depressed husks of their former selves or become overly aggressive, utterly loyal to the government, and indifferent to the plights of the people they grew up around. The handful that do come back relatively unscathed, tell horror stories: a war of attrition that never seems to end, sniper attacks, improvised explosive devices, an enemy that always fades back into the local populace…

"Hi James! Hi Mathis!" A feminine voice speaks up from behind us, and we both turn.

James immediately brightens, "Keara! Wassup girl?" He drags her closer to him and she giggles. "Mm! You look fine today!"

Keara smiles and twirls her blond locks shyly. I give her a once over, and I have to agree… she does look fine today. She wears a sky blue blouse tucked into a white skirt that came up just above her knees. The edges of her sleeves are a bit frayed… but other than that, she looks flawless. My eyes linger longingly at her slender legs, and I quickly move my gaze elsewhere.

"You guys nervous? I know I am…" Keara's smile dies at her lips, and she gets a faraway look in her eyes. I remember that her older sister, Kaylie, was conscripted for decimation two years ago… she never returned.

James tucks her closer to him, "It's going to be alright. Just wait and see. Hang out by the lake later?"

"Mm, kay," Keara lifts her head up to plant a kiss on James's lips. The nearby building suddenly becomes a heck of a lot more interesting to me. James, Keara, and I have been good friends for many years. I always seem to forget that James and Keara have been dating for almost a semester. Am I envious? A little bit. I always had a bit of a crush on Keara; I just never had the courage to ask her out. She has blue eyes, like me, but my eyes are dark blue while hers are a light sapphire. They sparkle like raindrops in the sun whenever she smiles.

"You two about done yet?" I joke.

"Oh calm down, Mathis. Could be our last day together you know? Might as well enjoy it!" Keara's lips press together as she realizes what she had just said.

It gets uncomfortably quiet. James nudges me in the rib, "Way to be a buzz kill bro. C'mon, come over to the lake afterwards with us, we'll have our own little celebration there."

We pass familiar buildings left and right, and I can't help but feel a pain of nostalgia for them all. There is the street corner where I played ball as a kid. The lamp post which led us home after dark. I had lived my whole life here, I didn't want to leave…

James stops in front of us, as if considering something. He turns to us, a glint of mischief in his eyes. "The pier isn't far from here… One last trip before we go?"

Keara and I nod.

The three of us take a left past a large warehouse and walk a few minutes to where the sight of the lake greets us. The Pier is just a large walkway made of wood that extends into the lake. On normal days, the Pier might be occupied by fisherman catching some of the freshwater fish in the lake. Today though, only seagulls loiter around on the wooden deck. To the left of us is a stretch of sand, a common destination for my classmates to congregate after school. To the right of us are the docks, where boats of various sizes are tied. Off in the distance, the water bottling plant can be seen.

James tells us to wait as he goes below the Pier. He returns a few moments later with a plastic cooler covered in sand. He opens the battered white lid and reaches inside. His hand comes up with three glass bottles, which he hands to us. The bottles are part of his "secret cache" which he keeps buried in the sand under the Pier. Only to be brought up on special occasions.

I take a seat next to Keara as we dangle our feet over the Pier's edge. I pop open the tiny metal cap over the neck of the bottle, and it starts to give off a slight fizzing noise. "Cheers," I say with a small smile. The three of us raise our bottles, before taking sips of the contents.

It's only carbonated water, probably been kept in that little cooler for several years. But it's extremely hard to come by. I savor the contents, taking tiny sips. The water has lost most of its fizziness from the time it spent in storage, but it still retained some of the original fruity flavor. My eyes wander over the lake. It shines brilliantly in the morning sun, and has a pinkish hue. A mist rises from it and wanders its way into town.

"It's times like these," Keara says quietly, "when I wish we could just freeze in time, you know?" She takes a long drink from her bottle.

"Save some for later!" James laughs, "We'll drink the rest if we return."

"When," I say quietly.

"I did say 'when'."

"Whatever."

Keara laughs, and I can't help but crack a smile. We continue like this in silence, just sharing each other's company. I glance over at the position of the sun and nod over to James. "It's time."

James helps Keara up and we dust ourselves off. We stand there looking at each other, not wanting to move. Finally, Keara offers, "Good luck?"

"Good luck," I agree.

"Always," James says.

We continue our journey until the town hall looms menacingly over us. The path leading up to the town hall is crowded with people. Soldiers stand at attention on either side of the road in their uniformed finery. Antique rifles with shiny bayonets mounted at the ends of them are clutched in their gloved hands, and a tank is parked at the top of the steps, its long turret pointed out towards the crowd. I roll my eyes. It's a given that the military will make a show of force on Decimation day to remind the people who's in charge, but is a tank really necessary?

The town hall is a building made of concrete and marble, made to mimic the Greek temples of old. It's by far the most richly decorated building in our otherwise humble town. Today, banners of the Empire are hung off of the rooftops. The sight is a familiar one in our militaristic government: A black flag with a golden eagle holding onto a globe of stars, a ribbon of red and white stripes flows horizontally behind the globe. Flanking the steps, two giant bronze eagles sit on marble pedestals. Their baleful eyes seem to almost pierce right into the souls of passerby's. James, Keara, and I avoid looking at the eagles as we climb up the steps.

I've lived here long enough to not question the government's authority; the best a guy can do is to keep his head down and not cause any trouble… And why should I cause trouble? The government might not be perfect, but at least we don't have any of the problems in our society from the days before the takeover. There are plenty of places that are a lot worse.

All around us are people I recognize, classmates, neighbors, friends. Almost the entire junior class is present along with worried parents and curious onlookers. Some of the kids in my grade are lucky, they don't have their seventeenth birthdays until after the Decimation. Even so, nearly four hundred kids, dressed in the best clothes they have, file into the center of the hall in neat lines after signing in. Rows of seats are placed on either side of us for parents who came to watch. I glance around for my mom, but there are still too many people milling about, so I take my place next to James and Keara.

The meeting hall itself is a large rectangular room. A stage at the far end is lit up with bright spotlights and huge display screens are mounted above. Balconies line the walls to the side, filled with the rich and privileged of Cloverbrook. I glance up at the figures there begrudgingly. The children of the rich never have to take part in Decimation.

In happier times, the hall would be used to hold important meetings or host school dances. Today though, Military Police patrol with sub machineguns at the edges, faces hidden behind their black visors, bodies covered in brilliant white body armor. On stage, a squad of soldiers in full dress uniforms hold their assault rifles and stand at attention while a pair of officers with gold bars on their lapels chat amongst themselves.

After the MP's make sure everyone's here, a signal is given to the commanding officer, a tall woman with brown hair tied in a tight bun, who then steps up to the podium.

"Good morning everyone, and welcome to this year's Decimation," her diction is crisp and confident, her eyes like cool steel as her gaze sweeps over us, "Today, we remember our duty to our country by participating in the Decimation. There is no greater honor than to be chosen," her eyes lock onto each one of us in turn, as if speaking directly to the ones that will be decimated. Is it just me, or did her eyes pass over mine? No, impossible. The names are randomized, not even the commanding officer knows who will be picked. Not possible.

She goes on to recite us a brief history lesson of why the Decimation takes place. How our glorious Empire was born out of the nation known as the United States of America nearly twenty five years ago. How the country was plagued by crime, violence, drugs, and other vices. Enemies killed our troops overseas, politicians squabbled in marble halls, and the people took their freedoms for granted. Nothing got done. All that changed when our great leader, General Cesario, led a military takeover of the government. The treacherous president was executed and the many politicians rounded up and massacred. The document known as the Bill of Rights was destroyed and replaced with the Bill of Privileges. Criminals were rounded up and terminated with extreme prejudice. Cities which were deemed "unredeemable" were firebombed to extinction. All in the interest of establishing order in our world of chaos.

The world looked on, not believing their eyes, and while they were distracted, our Special Forces and troops stationed around the world crept into nuclear facilities, disabling the weapons of our enemies. By the time they realized what was going on, it was too late. Nearly half the world was destroyed in the event known as Eagle Fall, ravaged by the nukes of the Empire. Our former allies betrayed us and declared war on our newfound nation, starting what is now known as the Third Great War. After hundreds of millions of lives were lost on both sides, our Imperial Forces finally claimed victory! But our former allies just wouldn't give up, and to this day our troops must be sent to different parts of the world to pacify the rebels.

The woman continues to talk as she looks up from her notes on the podium, "And so… In return for the order and security provided by the Government, each year the citizens of the Empire must participate in the Decimation, so that the Empire can continue to provide protection to its citizens and the disillusioned rebels at our borders. It is a great honor to serve your country, and I offer my congratulations to any whose name is called…"

She nods to the officer standing at her right, and he taps a few buttons on his plexiglass tablet. The display screens above the stage light up to reveal the Government seal. I can almost hear a collective intake of breath among the crowd gathered. This is it. In the next few minutes, nearly forty of us will be standing up on that stage…

I can feel the tension rising like a wave. Keara grips James's hand next to me. My heart pounds in my chest as a bead of cold sweat rolls down my temple.

The woman begins to read names from a tablet in front of her while the names appear one by one in big bold letters on the display screens. From time to time, a cry of anguish can be heard as a familiar name is recognized. I can hear nothing but the pounding in my ears. The woman's voice echoes around the room.

The stage is filling up with kids my age, some wearing faces of determination and others with tears rolling down their cheeks. The woman is nearly three quarters of the way through.

Please don't be me, please don't be me…

The woman looks up from her plexi as her mouth opens to announce another name.

Please don't be me…

"Mathis Massey."