I stand over the FNP soldier, gun pointed at his head.

The sky is dark, the field a landscape of muddy trenches. The only remaining hint of living vegetation lies some three hundred yards away, a sketchy dark outline against the ring of mountains beyond. Bright muzzle flashes pop in and out of existence across the field like a swarm of fireflies. It smells of metal, ozone, and death.

Rain streams down my gloved hands, across the matte black of my gun barrel. Droplets form and slide one-by-one down the muzzle like marching soldiers, collecting into one large drop at the tip that falls…and is quickly lost in the dozens streaming from the sky to spatter my enemy’s face. His sickly eyes squint up at me from underneath thick greenish folds, like a zombie, or an alien.

Hard to believe he’s one of my fellow countrymen.

He sneers up at me, showing vampiric teeth as he garbles something in the FNP language, a perversion of Standard. Despite my inability to understand the slang, there’s an animalistic lust in his eyes that tells me what it is.

An insult. A threat.

My hand tightens around the grip of the gun, finger easing toward the trigger.

But something stops me.

It interrupts my current of thought, catches my attention from underneath the surface, like a gold nugget suddenly churned up from a riverbed.

A glimmer of doubt.

It shocks me with its novelty. Doubt? How can there be any doubt in what I am doing? The FNP are traitors to our ideals: stupid at best, evil at worst. They would have us ruined as country. And just look at them! Deformed by genetic therapy as if to reflect their deformed ideology in their outward appearance—an appearance which makes them indistinguishable from one another. How could I doubt the virtue of eradicating this person—this…monster?

And yet the doubt remains.

I ease off the trigger.

As soon as the muscles of my hand relax, I feel a surge of heat in the back of my head. And then I’m remembering, remembering things as if perceiving them from inside a VR system, watching them on the screen.

There’s a newscaster in a gray suit against a shining blue background. The flashing news ticker gleams with the letters CDRP, and I feel the warmth of recognition, of trust. The newscaster throws to a video and I see an FNP mob terrorizing a group of college kids, an FNP thug knocking out an old army veteran, CDRP representatives ducking toward their bulletproof transports as a crazed gunman wearing the FNP insignia fires past them. The video cuts away to the FNP leaders descending a marble staircase to a podium where they stand with vague, politicians’ smiles condemning all violence, denying that these attacks have anything to do with them. It cuts to a broadcast of an FNP channel where a squad of pundits is parroting those lies, building bunkers of words to hide their guilt and protect their power.

I feel a surge of anger.

The FNP is so vile, so twisted… brainwashed to the point where they can’t even see their own moral corruption. They even think they are heroes, that they are the ones saving the country from us, while any rational, clear-thinking person can see otherwise.

The FNP monster reaches toward me with one hand and I kick his arm aside, leaning forward into the butt of my gun, finger tightening again on the trigger.

Before I joined the army, I had hoped the FNP’s followers would realize their mistakes and seek redemption. But that’s no longer possible. Redemption is a hope only for free-thinking people, not for brainwashed chattel. They cannot be persuaded, and so the only way to answer their violence is with violence of our own.

In my mind I sense the distant, diluted pulses of my squad’s emotions. I hear gun shots, death cries. I feel the rush of adrenaline: the thrill of duty, and winning, and righteous victory.

I’m startled as a bright flash of lightning overloads my eyes and static washes over my vision, like a station change on a VR satellite broadcast. A rumble of thunder passes overhead as I blink away the white spots.

I notice suddenly that the air is cold. My wrists and neck are slick with chill water. The same scene is before me, but it looks different. The colors are duller, less saturated. The brown of the mud is more mottled with less orange tinge. The shade of the sky is grayer and less bruised. My gun is aimed at…a person.

There is wide-eyed terror on his face—a face that is shockingly ordinary. There are no folds over the eyes, no odd tinge to the skin. His mouth is moving rapidly, eyes half-closed against the rain, hair plastered to his forehead. Rivulets of water run down the natural channels in his face, across his lips, into his open mouth.

“Please. Please. Please…”

He’s saying the word so rapidly that bubbles form between his lips, the sound of it drowned out every few seconds. Even so, I recognize his South Ward accent.

He’s from my district. I—

I feel a jolt up my spine. My mind skips for a moment…

 

I’m staring at mud. Water is pooling in a set of indentations at my feet. Droplets fall around me. The air is steaming.

Indentations! Where the FNP soldier was lying!

The thread of the past few minutes returns and I snap my head up and around. I scan the entire field, squinting against the rain. And there! I spot motion by a mound of dirt and rock: the muddy, grooved tread of a military boot disappearing into a foxhole.

I run after him, every one of my strides absorbed by the soft ground so that I’m forced to work doubly hard. The landscape becomes a blur of red and brown, peppered with the steel-gray of shrapnel, bullet casings, and unexploded mortar shells.

I leap over an arc of barbed wire and land hard on a slab of rock. The impact shoots up my heel and through my calf, unsteadying me for a moment at the edge of the foxhole. I look in but the FNP soldier isn’t there. I soon spot him, however, a muddy lump crawling quickly through a narrow trench, leaving a thin trail of too-bright blood across the muck.

I run forward, straddling the trench, and drop down behind him, kicking down onto his back. I feel his taut muscles shudder and then collapse underneath the weight of my foot as he goes to his stomach. He rolls over, swiping pathetically at the air, missing me completely.

He’s back to his original appearance. Clearly what I saw in that brief lapse of reality was some sort of trick, an FNP mind-manipulation technology.

Angrily, I pin his arm down with one foot and press the muzzle of my gun against his head. I rest my finger against the trigger and…

But even with the rage pounding through me, my mind stops me again. The doubt creeps back in. I stand there, motionless, staring at the alien features, unable to rid my mind of the pleading man I saw just a moment ago.

Uncertainty funnels through me. My pounding excitement is countered by a numbing weakness. My scattered thoughts stagger between flashing visions, not news reports this time, but memories from my own life. I can feel myself trying to confirm the differences between us, me and this man I’m about to kill.

I remember learning the CDRP slogan at Action Training: Unity. Country. Economy.Learning how it symbolized the entire people rising together toward a good for all. Learning the lies of the FNP slogan: Strength. Nation. Prosperity.

I remember the first interparty debate in which I participated. One of the FNPs shouted at me, “A Unity of Tyrants! A Country of Fools! An Economy of Nepotism!” I retorted with, “Strong Criminals! National Decay! Prosperous Thieves!”

I remember the first street fight: knuckles and elbows, hot breath and scraping fingernails. And the last: chunks of pavement and broken bottles, blood and bodies.

 

The droplets have stopped their steady march down the muzzle of my gun. Now they sprinkle side-to-side off the tip with the motion of my shaking hands. I feel cold. There’s a pain and a tightness in the back of my skull and in my temples.

And I stand there, frozen.

An explosion shakes the ground. Jolts me into awareness of my chaotic surroundings. Our battle line is being pushed back—back towards where I’m standing. Soon, I’ll be surrounded by a hail of bullets.

My eyes refocus on the FNP soldier. He is slumped against the side of the trench, neck at an awkward angle. He’s no longer staring at the muzzle of my gun. His gaze is beginning to drift, to lose its focus.

I have to decide.

De-cide. Like homi-cide or fratri-cide. Cide, from the Latin, meaning to kill, or to cut. Decide: to send myself down one path by cutting myself off from another. Hacking a million potential universes to pieces. Destroying a million lives that could have been. Ending all those ethereal possibilities in but an instant and with a single thought. And starting with the very real, very palpable life right in front of me.

A decision. A cut.

What can I do when what I know in my heart conflicts with what’s in front of my eyes? What can I do when that perception is in conflict with itself? Looking around, it’s like I’m in limbo between two hells. In this vast empty plain, there’s nothing else on which to fix my mind, nothing to consider except my fate.

Better a certain hell than this one.

I place my finger on the trigger one final time, swallowing down the sickness I feel. I aim my gun…

 

THE END

*****

Photo by Donations_are_appreciated (Pixabay)