It was a good movie, though | The Newcomer – Chapter 6

Note: this is Chapter 6 in an ongoing series of speculative fiction about an alternative history of the USA. Chapter 1 can be found here.

The cab ride to the train station, the security line, finding his seat. It was all a painful blur. He wished he hadn’t misplaced his sunglasses somewhere in the previous evening, which was now a jumble of fragmented memories.

Sleep and pain and numbness swirled in his brain as he sank deeply into the seat that matched the number on his ticket. Time passed, and he missed the otherworldly sight of the Las Vegas strip receding into the distance.

It was the smell of coffee and pancakes that woke him. An attendant was leaning down to place a tray with a full breakfast before a middle aged man who was sitting on the other side of a little table that folded out between them.

At least, Tucker assumed that the table folded out. It wasn’t there when he’d first sat down. Neither was the middle aged man.

“Good morning, comrade,” said the attendant. “Will you be having breakfast, as well?”

“I… Yeah,” said Tucker, rubbing his eyes. “Yes, ma’am. And some coffee, black.”

“Would you like the vegan option?”

“Just give me some of them pancakes,” said Tucker. “And eggs and bacon, just like he’s got.”The attendant placed the tray before Tucker and poured a stout cup of coffee before moving on to the next pair of rows. Tucker picked up his fork and contemplated his meal. His stomach was both begging for and dreading the first bite.

“Long night?” asked the middle aged man, who was holding a syrup-soaked slice of pancake delicately above his plate. He wore a dark suit with an even darker red tie. Tucker noticed that he wore a little enameled sickle and hammer pin in his lapel.

“Somethin’ like that,” said Tucker, deciding to start with a bite of eggs. He checked his watch, which he was starting to get in the habit of doing. Already past 10am.

“Vegas is the best place in the Union to lose some great memories,” said the man, before taking another careful bite. He reminded Tucker of someone, somehow.

Tucker decided to concentrate on his eggs, scooping up another forkful. Now that he’d started eating he felt inclined to continue, his hunger winning the battle with his nausea, though the subtle rocking and rolling of the train car wasn’t helping things.

“You’re headed to Oakland, then, Mr. Tucker?” asked the man. Tucker swallowed a mouthful of coffee in a hurry, almost burning his throat.

“Excuse me? We met before, mister…?”

“Vasquez. Call me Seth. We haven’t met. Forgive me for approaching you like this. We have a lot to talk about.”

“That so?” asked Tucker, suddenly losing his appetite. He placed down his coffee cup and leaned forward a bit on his elbows. The little table was more flimsy than he’d expected, so he eased back.

“I work for the Security and Defense Bureau of the Communist Party of Los Angeles,” said Vasquez, flipping a business card from an inner pocket and extending it toward Tucker. It was emblazoned with a bright red sickle and hammer that matched his lapel pin.

“Good for you,” said Tucker. “I still don’t know who you are.”

Yet, somehow I do, thought Tucker.

“I’ll answer all your questions, Mr. Tucker. Don’t worry. Just relax. Finish your breakfast.”

“I did,” said Tucker, pushing the tray away. He only had a couple of inches of clearance before it bumped into Vasquez’ tray, but it was enough to serve his intended gesture. “Now tell me who you are, Seth Vasquez, and why you know my name.”

“Like I said, I work for the government,” said Vasquez. “We have access to the records of all Newcomer records, for security purposes.”

“I thought there wasn’t no government out West. Y’all are anarchist and what-not.”

“That’s a hypocritical deception,” said Vasquez. “The Anarchists have their hierarchies, as do the Mutualists, and the Christian Socialists, even the Individualists. But we in the Soviet Enclaves don’t try to conceal our social structures. Everything is transparently and fairly organized, just as Marx himself intended.”

“I’m not much interested in politics,” said Tucker, flatly.

“Neither am I, frankly,” said Vasquez. “I just want a better world for my children.”

“I ain’t got no children,” said Tucker. “Excuse me.”

He sidled out of his chair and stood, feeling his head swim and ache dully with the shift in blood pressure.

“I’m gonna go get some fresh air.”

Tucker turned and began stumbling down the aisle towards the car’s exit door.

“The observation car is this way,” said Vasquez, who was right on Tucker’s heels.

“Right,” said Tucker, spinning around to face the other direction, which made his stomach protest.

“You don’t mind if I join you, do you?” asked Vasquez, leading Tucker toward the front of the train.

Tucker said nothing. He focused on watching where his feet stepped, trying to block out the landscape blurring by through the windows that lined his periphery.

When they came into the hot, dry, open air of the observation car his stomach immediately settled a bit, and he breathed in deeply as his hands gripped the rail to give his body some sense of stability. Carefully, he opened his eyes and looked out into the expanse.

This was still the desert. It was reminding him of his time in Iraq. He frowned. He could feel little wisps of sand against his face, and the sun was very warm, even in the shade of the car’s aluminum roof.

“Ya know, you wouldn’t believe it, but Oakland is pretty cold this time of year,” said Vasquez.

“It’s June,” asked Tucker. “I thought California was hot all year long.”

“You’re thinking of Southern California,” said Vasquez. “That’s why I moved to Los Angeles, initially. Spent a couple of years in San Francisco, just couldn’t handle the weather. I grew up in Baja, can’t stand the cold.”

“It gets pretty cold in Atlanta sometimes,” said Tucker. “Even snows, every now and then.”

“You like the cold?” asked Vasquez.

“Hate it.”

“So you might appreciate my offer, after all,” said Vasquez.

“Offer? Will you please tell me what the hell this is all about, Mr. Vasquez?”

“Seth,” said Vasquez. “I’m here to recruit you.”

“Have a nice day,” said Tucker, releasing the railing and moving to turn back to the rear of the train.

“Just hear me out,” said Vasquez, trying to block Tucker’s path. He was a sturdy man. Lots of muscle under that dark suit, Tucker could tell.

“I ain’t joinin’ no army, I done told Lam that and all them other ones. I’m through with all that.”

“I’m not with the army,” said Vasquez. “I told you, I’m with Security and Defense. We could use someone with your experience in… other ways.”

“You want me to be a spy?” asked Tucker, his voice raising.

“Please, Mr. Tucker, a measure of restraint,” said Vasquez. “Nobody wants you to be a spy. We simply value the experience and judgment of a man with your experience. We could use your insights.”

“Not interested,” said Tucker. “Have a good day.”

“Look, I told them you’d say that, yet here they sent me. Will you just let me say what I’ve got to say, do my job, and then I’ll leave you in peace? Otherwise they’re just going to keep pressing.”

“Alright, fine,” said Tucker, sitting back on one of the hardwood benches that lined the inner aisle of the observation car. “Listen, you got a cigarette?”

His head was pounding.

“I’m afraid this is a non-smoking train,” said Vasquez. “But. Come with me.”

Tucker looked up at Vasquez. Vasquez helped Tucker back to his feet and guided him forward, through several train cars. Tucker noticed that most of the passengers were sleeping soundly. Most of them looked even more hungover than he was.

They came to what seemed to be the front of the car. There was a passage door, but no windows, and no handle to open it. Vasquez pushed a button on a little console next to the door and said, “It’s me.”

After a few moments the door pushed open and a younger man in dark gray overalls pushed it open. Vasquez gently shoved Tucker inside, and he realized they were entering the engine. They walked past some little sleeping bunks and a very cramped-looking little lounge, really just another one of those fold-out tables and a couple of uncomfortable-looking bench seats. Someone was sleeping on one of the bunks as they sidled through.

The crew nodded in greeting, and otherwise ignored Vasquez and Tucker, simply looking out over the vast emptiness that sprawled before them and occasionally muttering into their headsets. It was a little loud from the train’s powerful engine, but not as loud as Tucker thought it should be, even with one of the windows cracked open.

Vasquez took Tucker to that window and reached into his pocket, producing a pack of Camel Reds.

“You knew these were my brand?” asked Tucker.

“Just a coincidence.”

“I ain’t even smoked any of these in years,” said Tucker, suspiciously.

“I assure you, it’s just a coincidence.”

“The hell it is,” said Tucker, accepting a light.

“Now let’s talk about your plans,” said Vasquez.

Tucker took a deep draw, looked out the little porthole of a window, then looked for somewhere to ash. Vasquez reached over and grabbed an empty coffee thermos from nearby.

One of the crew members began to protest, but Vasquez made a quieting gesture with both his hands and the crew member shook his head with annoyance and turned back around. Tucker reluctantly ashed into the thermos.

“I ain’t got no plans,” said Tucker. “I’m just gonna live in Oakland, be a carpenter. That’s all I’m gonna do. That’s all I wanna do.”

“Sounds great,” said Vasquez. “Really. I’m sure you’ll love Oakland. It’s a great town. So let me just present to you an alternative plan, and you can think it over. Alright? Just think about it, that’s all we’re asking.”

“Present whatever you want,” said Tucker. He was enjoying the cigarette, which was making him even more unhappy. “I ain’t gonna be interested, I can already say.”

“Say you become a consultant for us,” said Vasquez. “It would come with responsibilities, but it would come with privileges as well. Full party membership, a permanent seat on the Workers’ Council of Los Angeles, a real chance to serve your new homeland.”

“You got the wrong guy,” said Tucker. “I just wanna build cabinets and stay out of trouble. I done had enough trouble in my life.”

“There won’t be any trouble,” said Vasquez. “You have to realize, we don’t get a lot of people with your experience coming over here. I’ve seen your service record. Special forces, combat experience, a lot of it was classified.”

“I was just a grunt,” said Tucker. “You probably know more than I do about all that shit they had me do.”

“That’s not true,” said Vasquez. “And you know I know that’s not true.”

“Anyway, it don’t even matter. That was all almost a decade ago. It’s all different, now. We ain’t even at war with Iraq, no more.”

“They.”

“Huh?”

“They’re no longer at war with Iraq. You’re no longer a United States citizen, remember?”

“Whatever,” said Tucker. “Man, I ain’t into any of this. I don’t want no part of none of it.”

“Why don’t you come to Los Angeles for a few days, let me show you around. We can check out Hollywood.”

Hollywood? That’s where he’d seen Vasquez before.

“You’re that sniper guy,” said Tucker. “I knew I’d seen you before. Yeah, you was in that movie! Amerikee…”

“Amerikayi,” said Vasquez, seeming suddenly uncomfortable. He reached into his pocket and grabbed the cigarettes, pulling one out for himself. “Yes, that’s one of my responsibilities. The Workers’ Council decided I would be a good face for the armed forces.”

“Well I can tell you right now, I ain’t gonna be in no movies,” said Tucker, laughing. “Not that y’all would want me to be in one, anyhow.”

“No, I don’t think that’s what the Party has in mind for you, Mr. Tucker,” said Vasquez.

“Is all that true, then?” asked Tucker. “You really get all them confirmeds? Somethin’ like over a hundred, wasn’t it?”

“There were some embellishments,” said Vasquez. “The rest of my unit deserves a lot more credit than they got in the film. The screenwriters insisted on using what they call ‘composite characters.’”

“Wish we had you in my unit,” said Tucker.

“Seems like you did alright without me,” said Vasquez. “Of course, we were technically on different sides, so it’s probably best that we didn’t meet over there.”

“Everybody and his mother was on different sides over there,” said Tucker. “Anyway, enough about all that.”

Vasquez nodded in agreement, and they both smoked in silence for a few moments. Tucker could hear the train crew muttering calmly into their microphones, and it was reminding him even more of Iraq. He looked out the window and tried to think of something else.

“It was a good movie, though,” said Tucker. It was all he could think to say.

“Thank you,” said Vasquez, ashing into the thermos.


Author’s Note:

Thanks again for waiting for this chapter, Incidentally, I’ve set up Twitter and Mastodon accounts for The Newcomer as well as a dedicated page on this site — I do enjoy the positive feedback I’ve gotten on the series. If you really do enjoy the series, I hope you will consider subscribing to those social media accounts, 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

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