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Apocalypse Now

Chapter One: Begin the Beguine

By David bar Elias


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Manhattan, New York, British Empire
February 12, 2001

Benjamin Franklin Station had been constructed in the 1840s, as a nexus for the new lands to the west of the Thirteen Colonies. Its Victorian design of sombre darkness and crass arches got at least one petition per week to the Mayor of Manhattan for it to be "re-vitalized" (that is, removed).

You would have never heard such a complaint about Ben Franklin Station from Liam Nuttall. The tall Marylander of Scottish descent, dressed in a plain black and brown overcoat to shield his lank frame from the chill of the moaning wind outside, strode into the station to fulfil his duty.

"Don' forget boy," Liam Nuttall's great-grandfather had told him repeatedly. "A Nuttall 'is always patriotic, and will never shirk from duty. Danish shrahp'nel maht 'ave taken me out of the Second War, but I bloody well don' regret a' thing. Our glorious Empire is based on that, Liam. An' if you forget it, then you maht as well be a soddin' pommie or Socialist!" Strong stuff to tell any five-year-old, but Liam Nuttall had considered himself, even at that young age, to be as unflappable in duty to the Empire as great-granddad had been both a heavy drinker and staunch Conservative, unusual for someone in Edinburgh, a Liberal stronghold.

The Nuttalls had proven to be surprisingly lucky. They'd been visiting relatives on holiday in Baltimore when an experimental nuclear reactor contaminated most of the Highlands in radioactive debris in a gross meltdown (not long after great-granddad's funeral) in 1947. They'd of course been invited to stay in Baltimore (with their house considered too close to Ground Zero to seriously consider returning too.

A Nuttall is lucky, boy, and don't you forget about it granddad had reminded him.

Eventually, Liam Nuttall, staunch patriot (and Whig, thank you very much), volunteered for the army. There hadn't been much to do in the 1970s, after the brief skirmishes against Haijou in the Third World War. Other than watching the newsreels covering the occasional rebellion in Africa or some other spot of bother, General Boredom had proven to be the worse foe. Waiting patiently for action to be sparked....any action, it hadn't been until the early '90s, when Quebec and the Empire almost came to blows over the collapse of the Grand Banks fisheries, and Lieutenant Nuttall's men had been stationed on the St. Lawrence. The Dauphine's defence line, built upon since the French Dissolution of 1799, was a daunting site to behold, and Nuttall had eagerly looked forward to scaling it for Queen and Country.

Then the diplomats settled it. Frustrated over the sheer emptiness that army life had begun to spiral into, Liam Nuttall had resigned his commission. It was the single most painful memory that Nuttall had logged into his brain; his parents hadn't spoken to him for almost a year after that. He had also come to sincerely regret his decision, and was too ashamed to try to rejoin (he knew how many officers felt about people like that).

He made his retirement in Baltimore as a kindly bachelor, writing an occasional thriller for the North American Review of Books or some other such publication. Life was simple, but it was good.

Until last week. Last week, Liam Nuttall had received something so implausible that he found himself reading it out loud in a Scottish burr, something he had hoped had left him. He still had the document in his breast pocket. He had every word memorized:

Dear Sir,

Having served in Her Majesty's armed forces honourably as a Second Lieutenant for many years, your skills are now required once again. You are to report to the King George Military Academy and Training Centre no later than the 20th of February for re-commissioning as a Second Lieutenant in Her Majesty's armed forces. Failure to acknowledge this new order of events shall be regarded as desertion and gross High Treason, and punishable by the Defence of the Realms Act.........God Save the Queen

Unusually blunt for a call-up letter of any kind. Despite the fact that he was balding, and that his sight wasn't nearly what it used to be (even as a new recruit in 1973, he had required rather thick spectacles), Liam Nuttall wasn't going to shirk in his duty.

Not again, at least (as he put it using hind-sight).

And so, striding along Platform 11 to Troop Train 11-B, with another card marked with the term 'RS' on it (of which the meaning was a mystery) in his pocket, Liam Nuttall moved to restore honour to his name and heal the hole that his previous resignation had left him in his heart.

The compartment was already half-full by the time Nuttall found a window seat.

It was only then that he noticed that there were many other men in the crowd of milling would-be soldiers that were just as old as he was.

What the hell? Are we trying to annex China or something? He laughed softly at that last thought; the idea of any nation subjugating that empire of one billion industrious and tough-minded folk struck him as surreal, to say the least.

His thoughts were interrupted by a thud to his right. He saw that he had company. A snot-faced, pock-marked, and greasy haired form of company; Liam Nuttall disliked him on sight.

"'allo, 'allow!" boomed the scrawny man, who looked as though he were auditioning for the role of a Dickensonian villain in a play in Baltimore's theatre district. He extended his hand. Nuttall shook it firmly...after all, a Nuttall always had the strongest great-granddad had drilled into him. "Name's Campbell. Adam Campbell! Fresh outa the city o' Brooklyn!" His accent sounded like the bastard son of a Cockney and a long-time resident of Manhattan's sister city. "What are ya doin' heah, gramps?"

"As a matter of fact-" began Nuttall, only to be cut off by the slovenly Campbell. The greasy man pointed suddenly at another recruit sitting two rows in front of them; he had a plain skullcap. Liam couldn't tell if he was Muslim or Jewish, although he would have assumed that latter.

Campbell took something out of his breast pocket. "Watch me pop one ovah the sheeny," he hissed, flecking the object, whatever it was, at the Jewish recruit.

Unfortunately for Campbell, the object narrowly missed the Jew and hit the man sitting in the next row-a big beefy man with very little neck. He turned around sharply. Adam Campbell ducked beneath the embroidered seat. The beefy soldier, his hair splattered with what looked like egg yoke, looked behind him. The Jewish would-be victim pointed him to Nuttall's row.

You're mine mouthed the bullish recruit at Nuttall. In the shock at being accused of such a dastardly prank, Liam Nuttall was only snapped out of that stupor by the stupid sniggering of recruit Campbell.

Then the train, groaning with the weight of the new (and returning, in many cases) recruits, began its journey to the illustrious King George Military Academy and Training Centre.

Of course, none of the men on board the train, least of all the greatly affronted Liam Nuttall or the wretched Adam Campbell, knew of the maelstrom that they were about to be sucked in. The fair majority would never grow old enough to engage in the contented sort of retirement that Nuttall himself had oh so suddenly been jerked out of.

The train moved north.

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