State Champions | The Newcomer – Chapter 9

Note: this is Chapter 9 in an ongoing series of speculative fiction about an alternative history of the USA. Chapter 1 can be found here.

“Come back to dinner, Marvin. Let’s talk about this. Hear us out,” said Vasquez, stumbling along behind Tucker as he barreled through the thickets of well-dressed celebrities. A uniformed servant jerked backward at the last moment to protect the tray of little caviar sandwiches he held as Tucker shoved past.

“There ain’t nothin’ to talk about no more,” said Tucker. “Where’s my bag? I’m outta here.”

“Just relax, comrade,” said Vasquez, clapping a hand on Tucker’s shoulder.

Tucker spun around, eyes narrowed. By now the attention of the room was centered in on him. The volume of conversation in the ballroom had dropped to a murmuring buzz.

“Don’t be layin’ hands on me, Vasquez. I done told you I don’t want nothing to do with none of y’alls movies.”

“And we understand that, Marvin. If you’ll just come back and listen to what Admiral Stewart has to say, we’ll…”

“Where’s my bag?” asked Tucker. “And my clothes?”

Tucker pulled off his bow tie and threw it on the ground. “I’m past sick of all this nonsense.”

Vasquez held up his hands defensively.

“We want to help you with Curtis Jackson,” said Vasquez, abruptly.

Tucker stopped short, his eyes widening.

“The fuck you just say?” asked Tucker, his body freezing.

“Mr. Jackson. The young man who crossed over with you… Well, tried to cross over.”

Tucker grabbed Vasquez by the lapels of his tuxedo, pulling him close. A cacophony of gasps and whispers erupted from the gathering crowd.

“You know where Curtis is? You tell me everything you know. Right now.”

A few of the uniformed waiters shuffled over, but Vasquez shooed them off. Tucker unhanded him and he smoothed down his lapels, avoiding eye contact with Tucker.

“It’s complicated,” said Vasquez. “Please, let’s discuss this in private… Come back to our table and we can work this all out.”

Tucker grabbed Vasquez by the upper arm. Vasquez was powerfully built, but went along without protest, smiling genially to the stunned crowd as it parted to let them make their way back toward the banquet hall.

“Everything’s fine, folks,” said Vasquez, laughing nervously. “Just a little misunderstanding.”

The door flew open and Vasquez more or less fell into the banquet room, Tucker following behind. Stewart was savoring a mouthful of tri-tips, and Nikosi was already half-way through his plate. Lewit was lighting a cigarette. Kim was in the corner, once again speaking on her phone in Spanish.

“Your dinner’s getting cold,” said Stewart.

“Tell me what you know about Curtis Jackson,” said Tucker.

“Please have a seat,” said Stewart.

Tucker didn’t budge, standing in front of the open door. Vasquez closed it, then, steering clear of Tucker, made his way back to his own seat at the table.

“Goddamnit, don’t play no games with me. Tell me what you know!”

“Your friend is safe,” said Vasquez, reaching for Nikosi’s pack of cigarettes on the table. Nikosi gave him a dirty look over a forkful of steak but otherwise didn’t protest.

“Where is he?” asked Tucker.

“Just tell him,” said Lewit. “Can’t you see how upset he is?”

“He’s in a detention center,” said Vasquez.

Stewart produced a tablet and offered it to Tucker. Tucker stepped over, took it in hand, and saw Curtis Jackson staring back at him from a mugshot.

“Y’all got him locked up?” asked Tucker.

“Not us. Uncle Sam,” said Stewart, setting down his fork and folding his hands over his generous stomach.

Tucker stared down at the photo. It felt like it had been so long since he’d seen Curtis, but it had only been four days.

“We can get him out of there,” said Vasquez. “There are strings we are capable of pulling.”

“So y’all are blackmailing me? To be in your damned movies?”

“Not at all,” said Stewart. “Something tells me you won’t to be winning any Oscars any time soon, no offense.”

“We just want your name,” said Vasquez. “Your story. You’ll have final approval of the scripts. You never have to show your face in public.”

“Except for some publicity photos. A few magazine articles. Hence Nikosi.”

“Hence Nikosi?” asked Nikosi. “I never agreed to that!”

“You will,” said Stewart, reaching for a mug of beer that was set before him.

“I’m not writing anything for you tankie bastards!” said Nikosi.

“It’s already been arranged,” said Stewart. “You’ll write a little puff piece on Tucker here, in exchange for your transit papers. Otherwise I’m afraid we have some questions for you about certain activities in Mexico City.”

“Oh, god damn you fucking people,” said Nikosi, shoving away his plate and snatching his cigarette pack from in front of Vasquez. “You’re just as bad as the fascists.”

“I gotta stay here in LA?” asked Tucker.

“Not at all,” said Stewart. “Though you’ll always be welcome here. You’ll have a permanent seat on the committee, as discussed. Mr. Jackson will be remanded to Oakland. It’s a win-win situation.”

“I ain’t gotta come to no more of these premieres, do I?” asked Tucker.

“You’ll be free to decline the invitations,” said Stewart.

“What’s the harm?” asked Vasquez. “Your story will do a lot of good. War hero from the USA, sees the light and comes over to our side. It’s inspiring.”

“It’s bullshit,” said Nikosi. “Propaganda. Like everything this hell-hole town cranks out.”

“This is a new strategy,” said Stewart. “That’s why we want you to write the bio. We want the state-side proletariat to identify with Corporal Tucker, here. Warts and all.”

“When can y’all get Jackson out?” asked Tucker.

“The arrangements are already being made,” said Vasquez. “He’ll be in California within a week.”

“Y’all a bunch of snakes,” said Tucker. “A bunch of rattlesnakes. You know that?”

“Are you getting all this down, Nikosi?” asked Lewit, flashing a dazzling Hollywood smile.

“Hijos de puta!” shouted Kim from the corner, suddenly ending her call. She looked back to the table, smiling sheepishly.

“Sorry,” said Kim. “It’s those fucking Cubans again. What did I miss?”

Tucker felt much more comfortable back in his street clothes. He clutched his bag protectively in his lap as he climbed into the back of a North Korean sedan. He was starting to fear he’d get used to riding in the back seats of fancy cars.

Nikosi sat next to him. The sedan was spacious but he still seemed cramped, his long legs folded up awkwardly behind the passenger seat.

“I’m not an happier about this than you are,” said Nikosi, eyes concealed behind wrap-around sunglasses.

“I don’t wanna talk about it just now,” said Tucker, staring out the window as the theater disappeared around a corner.

“Well the sooner you talk about it the sooner we’ll be done with this little fool’s errand,” said Nikosi, “and the quicker I can get back to my plans in Oregon.”

“What’s up in Oregon?” asked Tucker. “More of them… egotists, like you?”

“Egoists,” said Nikosi. “And yes, there are many of us up North. A lot of individualists.”

Tucker stared blankly at Nikosi.

“You’ve got to start learning the ins and outs of all this stuff, Mr. Tucker,” said Nikosi. “The slack-jawed yokel look might be fitting back in Georgia, but out here it makes you stick out like a sore thumb.”

“Anyone ever tell you you’re a real asshole?” asked Tucker.

“I’d be worried if they didn’t,” said Nikosi. “But I don’t mean to be insulting. It’s my honest advice. You don’t seem to like attention, and being apolitical is the quickest way to turn heads out West.”

“So what’s an individualist? And why are they all up North?” asked Tucker.

“I don’t think you’ll get the same answer from any two individualists,” said Nikosi. “But in Oregon they tend to be homesteaders. Prefer to stick to themselves. Subsistence farmers, most of them grow a little weed to trade with the townfolk, otherwise stick to themselves. And that’s precisely what I aim to do for the next year or two.”

“So you’re an… Individualist Egoist?”

“Such labels mean very little to me,” said Nikosi. “They’re all spooks.”

“Say again?” asked Tucker.

“Spectres,” said Nikosi. “Social constructs. Meaningless distractions from material issues. But never mind. I don’t consider myself to be an individualist, but for right now I’ve quite had my fill of people. I plan on finding a little cabin as far away from other people as possible, maybe write a couple of novels, and smoke a lot of that individualist grass they have up there.”

“I know how you feel,” said Tucker, “I mostly prefer to stick to myself.”

“Then we should get along just fine,” said Nikosi. “Now tell me about your childhood.”

Nikosi pulled a little reporter’s notepad and a pen from his breast pocket. Tucker looked back to the window.

“Not much to tell,” said Tucker. “Used to do a lot of fishing, that’s mostly it.”

Nikosi scribbled on his pad, then looked up at Tucker.

“So,” said Nikosi. “Tell me about the one that got away.”

Curtis Jackson was huddled up beneath a mylar blanket, wishing he had a cup of coffee more than anything in the world. He coughed wetly into his sleeve a few times, turning onto his other side. He wanted to sleep but his whole body ached and he couldn’t find anything resembling a comfortable position on the cold wooden floor of the basketball court.

He felt detainees to his right and to his left squirming in similar predicaments. Coughs were shuddering out from all around. Everyone had the same virus, it seemed, but it was exhibiting in new and interesting ways from person to person. The man to his left was shivering with chills, and the man to his right was sniffling constantly.

He peeked up from beneath the blanket to look at the clock high up on the wall of the gym. It had one of those steel cages to protect it from errant basketballs. A dusty pendant was strung up beside it, hunter green with a big yellow tiger and the words “SHS STATE CHAMPIONS 2011.”

It was 11:37 and Jackson was hungry. He’d been hungry since he was first processed in, but something about the sickness was making things worse. He forced himself to stand up, draping the mylar blanket around his shoulders. He hated the crinkling sound it made every time he moved. He walked over to stand in the chow line that was already forming. Vincent was right in front of him.

“Whatcha say?” asked Vincent. He had the sniffling variant of the virus. He wiped some snot from his nose and cracked a weak smile.

“What’s for lunch today?” asked Jackson.

“Pulled pork barbecue, macaroni and cheese, fried catfish, collard greens…”

“Man, shut the hell up,” said Jackson. “It’s bad enough in here without you talkin’ ‘bout collard greens ‘n shit.”

“You know it’s just gonna be the same shit as yesterday and the day before. That shit they call meatloaf and a piece of bread and a soggy-ass apple.”

“You forgot about the kool aid.”

“Man, I ain’t ever drinkin’ kool aid ever again after I get outta this shit,” said Vincent.

Jackson laughed, which threw him into a furious fit of coughing. He doubled over, nearly falling down.

“God damn,” said Vincent. “You need to see a doctor, Curtis.”

“I been askin’ to see one,” said Curtis, partially recovering. “They don’t give a shit if we die in here.”

“Curtis Jackson!” shouted a guard from the gate of the makeshift holding pen.

“That’s me!” said Jackson. “What’s up?”

“They gonna let you see a doctor, finally?” asked Vincent.

“Get over here,” said the guard. He worse a bright blue uniform with a black armoured vest and a ballcap with the CoreCivic logo.

Jackson shuffled over to the gate as the guard was unlocking it.

“Yo, y’all gonna let me see a doctor now? Y’all need to take my man Arthur Jones, too. He can’t even get up off the floor.”

“Shut up, Jackson,” said the guard, grabbing Jackson by the upper arm and holding out a pair of handcuffs. “Hands behind your back.”

Jackson turned around and felt himself get shoved against the bars of the holding pen. The mylar blanket slipped off his shoulders and crumpled to the ground. He felt the cold steel bite into his wrists.

“Let’s go,” said the guard, pulling him forcefully towards the exit.

“Yo, I ain’t gonna miss lunch, am I?” asked Jackson.

“No talking,” said the guard.

Jackson looked up to the clock. Seven minutes until lunch time. His eyes slipped over the words on that pendant once again.


Chapter 10 will come soon!

Author’s Note:

Here’s a link to a dedicated page for the Newcomer on this site. If you really do enjoy the series, I hope you will consider sharing the series with your friends, and perhaps even contributing a buck or two on Patreon — the more support I receive the more time I’ll be able to spend cranking these out. 🙂

-Emerican Johnson

One Response to “State Champions | The Newcomer – Chapter 9

  • Coby Tamayo
    4 years ago

    Not to draw unwarranted comparison to Ursula K. Le Guin (who can hope to match her? Ursula K Le Fucking Guin, that’s who), but this has strong echoes of the Dispossessed. This episode evokes the pivotal moment when Shevek realizes his mistake in coming to the capitalist planet Urras:

    > He knew now what they had done with him….They owned him. He had thought to bargain with them, a very naive anarchist’s notion. The individual cannot bargain with the State. The State recognizes no coinage but power: and it issues the coins itself.

    When I started The Newcomer, I was skeptical of the optimistic sheen. I was afraid it might turn out to be a lefty counterpart to Marshall Brain’s vapid sci-fi Manna, a cripplingly neoliberal, techno-optimist vision of fully-automated cishet faux-communism. What’s missing there – and what’s compelling about The Dispossessed – is a reckoning with how people behave when an ideology, however lofty, is put on a pedestal above the people it’s supposed to serve. While the Dispossessed doesn’t hesitate to critique the capitalist hellscape of Urras, it doesn’t let anarcho-syndicalist Anarres off the hook, either. Citizens of Anarres don’t recognize any fiat currency, but the uneven distribution of social capital means there’s plenty of “egoism” and hierarchy that plays out in the form of subtle power plays and repression of ideas. It’s crucial to never lose sight of those dynamics, and besides, it makes for much better reading.

    The Newcomer doesn’t shy away from this either. What’s interesting here is that, in rough ideological terms, the situation is reversed: instead of Shevek, an anarchist, coming to terms with his residency under a capitalist State, we have Tucker, a “cappy,” learning the complex dynamics between a union of communes. Tucker, like Shevek, is ignorant of many central details of the systems he’s now both part of and subject to. But unlike idealistic Shevek, Tucker sees immediately that people are out to use him.

    And yet, despite all the political intrigue and power hungry players, The Newcomer, like Le Guin’s masterpiece, never really gives up on humanity’s potential to self-organize. Under all the baggage, there’s still a vision of a future (or parallel universe, I guess) of real freedom.

    All that is to say: this is really, really good stuff. I’m happy to be a patron, and looking forward to chapter 10.

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