Fund The Future.
From the Author: I took a long hiatus from writing for Shattered Citadel (almost two years). And I am sorry for that. I've had a couple of hard years and sadly SC becomes secondary to life. This particular story has special meaning to me and I hope you enjoy it. 14082015

“I think a curse should rest on me — because I love this war. I know it's smashing and shattering the lives of thousands every moment — and yet — I can't help it — I enjoy every second of it.”

​​- Winston Churchill

SC: Better Days

Lower East Side, New York, New York, USA, Earth [Sol], 09022041

“Goddamit woman. You think I'm not trying? You think I enjoy being broke all the time?!” He angrily stood up from the table and flung his chair against the wall and it snapped into several pieces. He picked up one of the broken legs and moved toward her.

“Baby, I didn't mean that. I'm sorry.” She tried to get up from her chair in the table but he was there with his makeshift club and motioned for her to stay seated.

“There is no work! I look everyday! I am starting to get sick and tired of your attitude! Look at my pants!” He grabbed her head and pushed it towards his crouch. “LOOK!”

“Stop it Chris!” She cried out in fear.

He let go of her head and continued, “See those holes in my pants? I want to get a new one, but I can't. You think I want to walk around looking like a bum with his dick hanging out?!”

“Of course not.” She whispered.

He stepped back from her and looked down at his pants in resignation. “I haven't bought myself anything since... I don't remember when. All the money I get goes to you and that fucking kid.” He dropped the broken leg on the floor and continued speaking softly to himself. “I took her and her kid in. I don't understand why she's such a bitch to me.” He turned and walked out of the kitchen towards the front door. He paused as he reached the door. He noticed the child wide awake in his room and sitting up on his bed. He shook his head and opened the door to leave.

“Where are you going Chris?!” She cried out angrily.

“To my other girlfriends apartment! Don't worry about where I'm going!” He left slamming the apartment door behind him.

The child crept out of his bed and peered into the kitchen. His mother was sitting on the floor crying with her head in her hands. She looked up and stopped crying. “What are you doing up?”

“I'm hungry.” He said while feeling the hollow churning inside of his stomach. He hadn't eaten properly in days and his normal habit of sleeping off the stomach pains wasn't working anymore.

“You're hungry?” She said enraged by his response. She grabbed the broken leg from the floor and threw it at him in frustration. “GO BACK TO SLEEP!”

Midtown, New York, New York, USA, Earth [Sol], 21062048

He hated it when it rained. The water would seep into his shoes through the holes in the bottom of his shoes. He tried to cover the holes with duct tape, but it worked only half of the time. His ill fitting business suit he bought at the second hand store was soaked and starting to smell. Cheap fabrics and moisture didn't mix well. He did his best to ignore it. The smell was faint but it was getting to him.

He entered the New York Board of Education Office and signed in with the security desk. The security guard sent him up to the twelfth floor where he signed in for a second time at another security desk. He was given a number and led to a drab waiting room. He took an open seat and waited for his turn. The room was filled with dozens of young people waiting to meet with a Board of Education official. They all sat quietly reading from their tablets or playing on their phones as they waited. He had nothing to entertain himself with and looked around for something. He found a discarded newspaper on the floor and picked it up. “Father of Fusion: Dr. Tran Found Dead in LA Home,” read the front page of the paper. He flipped through the pages and skipped all the other news until he reached the section for the colonies. He read everything he could about the colonies beyond Earth and quietly sat in his chair envisioning himself there. He wondered where he would live once he emigrated there. Would he live in New Eden? A metropolitan city of twenty million built along the red sandy beaches of the man-made Great Martian Sea. A city that was built in just five years from nothing. Or would he live in the Asteroid Belt? Living inside the great cities built in hollowed asteroids where the walls were lined with pure platinum. Or would he live on Earth's Moon? He wondered how it'd feel to wake up everyday and see the Earth rise from his window. The Earth was never very kind to him so he suspected he'd most likely feel relief in having gotten out.

“Mr. Chastain?” A voice called out across the room. He sprung up from his seat and raised his hand. The man who called him motioned for him to follow. He followed the man out of the waiting room down a long corridor until they stopped at a door. “Mr. Chastain your Education Rep will be Becky. Go inside. She is expecting you.”

He entered the room and smiled at the Education Rep but she was so busy looking through his files on her computer she didn't even bother to look up at him. “Please sit down Mr. Chastain.” She said. He sat down and she spoke again, “96 on the USCPT, graduated with honors, 95 average over four years of secondary and advanced courses... Aeronautics and engineering. Looking into engineering I assume?”

“Yes ma'am.”

“Have any colleges in mind?”

“Yes ma'am. New York Institute of Technology or New York University School of Engineering.” He said excitedly. “I'd need something local since I still plan to work while going to school.”

She looked up from her computer and sighed heavily. “That's not very smart.”

“I know college is expensive. I have to keep working to pay for it.”

“Are you saying you can't afford college?”

“I have money saved up if that's what you're asking.”

“You have the grades for these schools, but you'd need at least this much saved to gain entry.” She flipped the monitor around and showed him the amount he needed. His heart sank in his chest. He hadn't expected it to cost that much. Years of sacrifice and buying nothing for himself meant nothing now. His savings only covered twenty percent of the cost. He nervously lowered his glasses and cleaned the lens on a rag he had tucked inside his pocket. He shook his head as he carefully avoided putting too much pressure on the legs of his glasses. The slightest pressure would cause them to break off again. The only thing keeping them together was super glue.

“I don't have that much. I have only fifty thousand saved.”

“That's not nearly enough. For fifty thousand you can put a down payment for a two year degree at a community college.”

“I can't do that. No one hires people with two year degrees.” He also knew that those schools were severely underfunded by the government. Those degrees were not worth the paper they were printed on, but he didn't dare say that out loud.

“You don't really have a choice Mr. Chastain.”

“What about grants or scholarships? Do I qualify for those?” He asked.

She looked like she was about to laugh, but she stopped herself when she realized that he was serious. “Who told you about those?”

“My father.”

“Honey, those don't exist anymore. They haven't for a long time. During the Depression those were the first programs to go.”

“So you're telling me I won't be able to go to college for engineering...” He stood up and managed to smile. “Thank you for seeing me today Becky.”

He turned to walk out of her office, but she called out to him, “Mr. Chastain... there is another way.” She pulled out a business card from her desk and gave it to him. He left her office and looked down at the card. “Education Solutions Student Loans – We Provide for your Future.”

Spanish Harlem, New York, New York, USA, Earth [Sol], 19042051

“This is so sudden. Can't you wait until after I graduate? No. No. I understand I signed the contract, but hear me out. I am just a year away from getting my degree. If I'm forced to pay the loan now... I won't be able to pay for school and I'd be kicked out. How will I be able to pay you back if I don't have an engineering degree?” He stopped speaking and patiently waited for his loan representative to reply. “That's not my fault that the company has gone bankrupt and needs the money now.” He paused again to let the rep speak. “I know I signed the damn contract. You don't have to remind me. Is there anything I can do to postpone this?” He paused again and sighed heavily. “Thank you for your help.” He hung up and tossed his phone across the room. He screamed in frustration, “fuuuuuuuuuck!”

He slapped on some clothing, grabbed his bank card and ran out the door into the streets. He ran as fast as he could to his bank. Loudly praying to God that he would get there in time. He ran into the bank so fast that it startled one of the customers inside withdrawing money. He smiled at his good fortune. There was no line. He ran up to the teller completely out of breath and swiped his banking card. He paused for a few seconds to catch his breath and said “I'd like to withdraw money from my bank account please.”

The teller looked at him suspiciously and said “swipe your ID please.” He smiled and placed his hand on a silver tablet on the counter in front of the teller. The tablet turned green and confirmed his bio-signature. “How much would you like to withdraw Mr. Chastain?”

“All of it please.”

“One moment while I complete the transaction.” The teller turned away from Chastain and punched some keys into his computer but a loud error sound kept ringing out. “Mr. Chastain it appears your account has no money in it.”

“What?! There should be at least 229,000 U.S.D. in it. ”

“It appears a company known as ESSL has seized all of your assets with us.”

“When did this happen?!”

“About ten minutes ago.”

He said nothing. He couldn't believe it. The news was so devastating that his brain couldn't process it properly. In one fell swoop he was destitute, homeless, half a million in debt and forced to end his dreams of being a engineer. He knelt down on the floor of the bank and couldn't help but cry in his hands.

Financial District, New York, New York, USA, Earth [Sol], 14062055

He sat at his desk and smiled. For the first time ever he felt like he had made it. The last few years were brutal for him. He worked countless jobs in fast food and retail just to stay afloat. He languished in extreme poverty under the crushing weight of his college debt. It followed him around like a succubus sucking up all of his fortune and energy. It refused to disappear and leave him be. It had never been satisfied before, but he had finally landed a job that would pay enough to keep the beast in check. It filled him with great joy at the prospect of being able to finally afford a new pair of glasses.

“You like your desk Mike?” A sweet voice asked him.

He swiveled in his office chair and turned to face the Office Manager. “I love it Amy. Thanks for the candy you left on my desk. Not going to lie. It makes me feel loved.” She laughed and smiled.

“Don't forget that you have training with Al in a few minutes.”

“Definitely. I can't wait.” She left and he turned back towards his computer. He moved his fingers along the keyboard and felt proud of himself. He may not be an engineer but for the first time in his life he was being paid for his intellect. For being creative. Not for flipping burgers or putting up with tedious mind numbing tasks.

He went to the training session and sat with three other trainees. Three very attractive and pleasant women. They chatted among themselves until Al walked into the room. Al was a tall bald middle aged man who wore thick horn rimmed glasses. “Hi, guys. I'm glad you all decided to join the Salio team! Salio means to 'jump' in Latin and we are the number one maker of financial deal toys and tombstones in the business. We are THE brand for recognition products. The Depression is over and times are good again for deal toys.” He motioned for the trainees to look at the assorted deal toys on the table. “On the table are a wide variety of deal toys for you all to check out. You'd find plexi, wood, metal, custom, crystal, die-cast, limestone, bronze and even 3D etched deal toys. By the end of this training you'd know what all that means and how to make them. Most importantly you'd learn how to sell them to our clients.”

Mike Chastain picked up the deal toy closest to him and looked it over. It was a clear slab of plastic cut in the shape of Texas. It has the Chinese flag sandblasted on the back of the piece while engraved on the front was some text.

Texas Petro Federation
has been acquired by
Chinese State Petroleum
for $1,840,000,000 USD
Bank of China acted as
financial adviser to
Chinese State Petroleum”

“I see Mike has picked up the TPF deal toy.” Al walked over to Mike and took the deal toy from his hands. He lifted it up for all to see. “Chinese State Petroleum purchased one of the biggest oil production companies in Texas and had us make this deal toy to commemorate the event. To most people this is just a simple paper weight, but to a banker... an investor... anyone who's anyone in finance... this is their visual resume for their office. This recognizes a huge financial event like an IPO or bankruptcy they spent months working on. This also shows to the world that they made money. Lots and lots of money. The more deal toys a man in finance has the more powerful he is. It's a tradition that's been around since the 1970s and it is our jobs to make these guys look good.” Al spent the day training them and concluded that days training by letting the trainees roam the back room of the Salio office. The backroom had thousands of deal toys from past clients crammed on dozens of shelves. Deal toys from Facebook, Coke, Apple and hundreds of other companies. Mike spent a hour looking through them. He was fascinated by all of the deal text on the deal toys since they gave him a glimpse of the history of the world through finance. He say all the companies that ceased to be during the Second Great Depression and saw the alarming amount of worldwide companies gobbled up by Chinese corporations in the years after. Mike was about to leave for home when he noticed a familiar symbol on one of the deal toys. He pulled it out from the back of one of the shelves and read its text in horror.

“Education Solutions Student Loans, LLC (symbol)
We represented Education Solutions Student Loans, LLC
In its successful chapter 11 reorganization into
Education Solutions Holdings, LP
Over US $892 Billion
Kim & Welsh & Lee”

Al walked up behind Mike and spoke, “Hey you found the ESSL deal toy. I think it was some sort of huge student loan company. Those guys went bankrupt overnight and the guys responsible for its reorganization made a killing in that deal.” Al chuckled knowingly to himself. He took the deal toy from his hands and put it back in its place on the shelf. “See you tomorrow Mike.” Mike nodded and left. When he reached the street he became angry. Angry at the world for being so unfair. For mocking him in his moment of triumph.

Financial District, New York, New York, USA, Earth [Sol], 17082055

“We will avenge our fallen sailors and marines. Our mission is clear. We will keep the world safe for democracy. We will stop the Hegemony advance across Asia and...” the television suddenly switched channels to a music variety show and he went back to reading the news about the war from his new tablet computer as he waited.

“Hi Mike,” he turned smiling as he recognized her voice. She smiled back and grabbed his hand to pull him outside of the coffee shop. He had recently met her online on a dating site and they quickly fell for each other over the last few weeks. As he still held her hand he pulled her into him and kissed her. “Oh my God! Not out here. There are kids everywhere.”

“Well Audrey they have to learn about the 'birds and the bees' somehow and I'd rather them learn it through us.”

She laughed and said “You're a psycho.”

“I am psycho. In fact I'm crazy... Crazy for you.” He kissed her again.

“You're also very cheesy.” Audrey laughed and smiled again.

He loved the way she smiled. Her smile was wide and beautiful. It made him happy every time to see it. Her blue eyes looked up into his and they were radiant and bright like two blue sapphires. Her short curly brown hair fell just above her shoulders and a few strands managed to cover up some of her 1950's style black glasses. She wore heels but even with them on she still barely reached his chin. He had to bend slightly every time to kiss her. “So how was work?” He asked her.

“It was work.” She sighed and continued, “They had me working on meats prep again. I must have prepped like two hundred Foie Gras today. How about you Mr. Deal Toy?”

“Finally finished with training and I'm covering for another account manager now.”

“No way?”

“Yes way. Got to pitch my own designs to a client too. The client loved my cowboy boot shaped design made in the Texas flag colors. So assuming everything goes smoothly I just sold a hundred units.”

“That's awesome!” She hugged him and smiled.

“It is. Sadly I won't be making any commission from it. It's not my account and I won't have any for months.”

“Well it's a start. You should be proud.”

“I am. Thanks Audrey.” He led her through the narrow streets of downtown Manhattan and towards a great Thai restaurant he knew of in the neighborhood.

As they attempted to cross Fulton street a massive crowd of people prevented them from doing so. They held signs that said “No to War,” “Better Red than Dead,” “China is our Friend,” “Down with Capitalism!” They had gathered in front of the U.S. Military recruitment depot and were preventing people from leaving or entering. Some of the protesters hurled red paint at the entrance. One man threw the can itself and it broke through the glass window. Shattering it. The police arrived but looked tired and unprepared to deal with the crowd. They were quickly overwhelmed by the protesters who forced them back into their cars. The protesters pushed against the cars and flipped them over with the police still cowering inside.

“Audrey... want to go to another spot I know uptown?”

“Yes. I'd like that.”

Financial District, New York, New York, USA, Earth [Sol], 12092055

He sat on his desk tired. He had been working well past six at night for weeks. Everyday his boss Al would give him more and more work to do. He would have to cover more and more of his coworkers. Especially the ones that Al fired. Which lately was a lot. He did as he was told and worked up to ten at night to compensate for the workload without extra pay since he made only salary. He worked on some new designs and monitored the international emails until he received a call.

“Hello Mike Chastain with Salio. How can I help you?” He said immediately as he picked up the phone.

“Mike, I thought you were going to pick me up tonight.” Audrey said over the phone.

“I'm so sorry Audrey. I forgot. I was covering for Tara who was fired today. She has so much work she's behind on that I'm trying to catch up. Poor woman had like two hundred accounts and now they are mine until Al divvy's them up among the other account managers.”

“Are you coming?”

“I'm so sorry for forgetting. Can we just make it a takeout and netflix night tonight at your place?”

“Okay. Please hurry.”

“See you soon baby.”

Inwood, New York, New York, USA, Earth [Sol], 01102055

Her naked body pressed against his as they laid together spooning on her bed. She awoke in his embrace and moved closer to him. Shaking her body seductively in his arms.

“You need to stop that.” Mike said with a wide grin.

“Stop what?” She said with a smile as she pressed her body harder against his.


“I can't help it if you think I'm so sexy.”

“You are. I'm so lucky to have you.” He brushed her curly hair with his hands and kissed the back of her neck. He was happy to be with her. Before her he had no one. He was always so fixated with surviving that he never stopped to love. To focus on his own happiness. He just existed to survive. To work. Before he didn't have the money to take a woman out to dinner or even a movie. It embarrassed him and so he stayed alone. Now he was so happy to have the basic things in life including a woman of his own.

“Are you hungry?” Audrey said as she turned her head to see him.

“I could eat.” He said. “Want to order something?”

“No. I'll cook you something.” She jumped out of her bed excitedly.

“I'm excited. You are a chef. Its probably going to blow my mind.”

“It will. It will.” Audrey slipped on her panties and opened a bottle of lotion. She rubbed it on her face and body.

Mike watched her as she lathered herself in the lotion. “That's one mystery solved.”

“What mystery?” She asked.

“How your skin is so damn smooth.”

She laughed and put on her bra. “Do you like cheese?”

“Yes Chef.”

“Okay.” She said as she left the room and went off to the kitchen.

He pulled out his tablet and read the news. It was the same as the day before. More anti-war riots and the Allies losing in India, Southeast Asia and the colonies. The once peaceful colonies were now a hotbed of war. He scrolled through the pictures taken from the streets of New Eden where Hegemony agents detonated a car bomb in the Allied capital on Mars. Hundreds of bloated bodies lay strewn in the streets from the bomb. Their bodies half frozen from the cold temperatures of the red planet. He shook his head and moved on to read about the Allied campaign on the Moon. One of the few instances of good news for the Allies. The Chinese military base of PRCC Ziang fell to a joint US-Indian offensive near the Lunar North Pole. Thousands of Allied soldiers died taking it but according to the news it knocked out the biggest weapons factory the Hegemony had on the Moon. He put the tablet down and walked over to the kitchen.

“Are you planning to put any clothes on?” Audrey said while hard at work making breakfast.

“I'm a nudist now. I must be free to express myself.” He said while placing his arms to his sides as if he was Superman.

“You're silly. It should be ready soon. Hey, remember you were going to tell me about that thing Al did at work yesterday?”

“Ah. I almost forgot. We had that company margarita party where we voted for the best margarita and he got drunk. You know Al. He loves to brag about how much money and power he has. Just the other day he showed me a picture of his new sports car and told me that it was a concept car worth millions with only ten in existence. Well amplify that by a hundred when hes drunk. At the end of the party he was throwing ice cubes at the cleavage of the women at work while screaming 'ice bucket challenge!' He was trying to land the ice cubes in between their breasts.”

“'Ice bucket challenge?'” She asked.

“I had to look that up myself. Its an old charity thing where people dump ice water on their head to raise awareness for ALS, a disease that was cured fifteen years ago. People stopped doing that after it was cured so that reference flew over my head too.”

“Nobody said anything? That's kinda offensive.”

“Al is the third most powerful man in that company and no one wants to lose their job at Salio. It is crazy hard to find work in this economy. They say the Depression ended years ago but it doesn't feel that way. Not to me anyways. Plus the women didn't say anything... so why fight it? That kind of stuff is rampant in Wall Street and Al is one of the 'Boys of Wall Street.' They do whatever the hell they want because they have money and power.”

“That sucks. I know I wouldn't take that.”

“I know you wouldn't baby.”

“Probably why all your co-workers are women. Don't you think it's weird that you're the only man who works there that isn't a VP or CEO?”

“The thought had crossed my mind, but Al likes to hire them young and pretty. He probably likes to be surrounded by women.”

“So what about you?”

“I'm so handsome that Al hired me. He took one look at me and fawned over my masculine good looks that he made an exception. Although graphic design is almost all men so it isn't a complete taco fest.” He said smiling.

“You're crazy Mike. Put on some clothes and lets eat.”

“Yes, honey.” He went back to the bedroom and stopped to think. He lied. He never thought about that. Thinking about it now he did think that was odd.

Financial District, New York, New York, USA, Earth [Sol], 08102055

“It doesn't look like this war is going to end anytime soon. So Salio is pulling out of Asia altogether and that will affect our Australian, Indian and Japanese accounts. Fortunately they only constitute about 15% of our total clientele. Asia wasn't even a profitable region for us so no big loss. What will affect us is that since the war started we've been cut off from our vendors and factories in China so every deal toy needs to be made in our factories in Quebec. This will drive costs up and eat into our profits so we need to adjust.” Al said as he pointed at the monitor in the meeting room that showed the regions of the world that was no longer being served by Salio.

Jessica raised her hand and Al motioned for her to speak, “I hear that 'the Heresy' are invading India. How will this affect our call centers and graphic designers there?”

“I think they're called 'the Hegemony.'” Mike said as he took notes on his legal pad.

“Who cares what they're called. What matters is that they are cutting into our profits. So far the 'Hegemony' invasion hasn't affected our Indian workers who are centered around New Delhi. The fighting is far to the north and to the east where India borders the Islamic Empire. Which is a good thing. We lose our Indian workers... that'd eat up into our profits even more. Indians are reliable cheap labor for Salio and if I could hire them exclusively I would. What I pay you guys here I can hire three of them there. Remember that. Now go out there and sell some deal toys.” Al shut off the monitor and everyone began gathering their things to leave the meeting room. “Mike please stay here I'd like to speak to you.”

“Yes Sir?” Mike asked as everyone filed out of the meeting room into the main office.

“I want you to continue covering for the other account managers. This is the time everyone goes on vacation and I want you to cover for them.”

“It was my understanding that Elena was going to be the one who was going to cover and that I was going to get my own accounts.” Mike said.

“Plans change.”

“How long do you expect me to be covering, Sir?”

“Until Christmas. Now get back to work.” Al said annoyed.

“Thank you, Sir.” Mike went back to desk and sighed. He hated covering for others. He had his own workload plus theirs to complete and it was always a huge detective game. There were hundreds of emails, papers and messages that he had to sort through to figure out what exactly he had to do to keep each account moving along. It was a giant puzzle that he didn't know where all the pieces were. It took time and that was something he had in short supply. He had to do everything quickly or Al would immediately scold him for his slow pace. He felt like he was being set up for failure. Everyone else was already handing their own accounts and he was the only one still without any. Covering just meant late nights stuck at his desk unable to see Audrey.

Al approached him again, “Next week Muhammad from our London office is going on vacation so I want you to come in at 5AM all next week to compensate for the time difference. Understand?”

“Understood, Sir.” Mike said feigning optimism.

Inwood, New York, New York, USA, Earth [Sol], 16102055

The weekend sun shone down on them as they sat outside waiting for their brunch to arrive. Mike was stuck working on his tablet. Sorting through hundreds of emails and ordering hundreds of deal toys into production. Audrey reached out and put her hand over the screen. “Mike? It's the weekend. You shouldn't be working.”

“I'm sorry baby. I'm so behind. Muhammad's European clients are super needy. Change this. We want more designs. Better designs. Cheaper designs. We want it to spin. They don't seem to grasp the concept that we don't work on the weekend. I also have to fact check everything. I had a client from Spain tell me that him and Muhammad agreed on a price of 300 dollars per unit, but that is well below the retail mark up. I looked and looked and found no such agreement. If I had approved that price, it would have been my ass. He was trying to pull a fast one on me since I'm covering.”

Audrey took the tablet from him and put it in her purse. “You Sir need a drink.” She grabbed a pint of beer from the passing waiter and gave it to him.

He drank the beer and noticed the book she was reading face down on the table, “The Rise of Homo Sapien Sapien: Cro-Magnon to Modern Man.” He finished his beer and waved at the waiter to pour him more. “I often forget that you went to school for Anthropology.”

“Well there aren't any jobs anymore for Anthropologists. I became a Chef because I had to adapt. Although I don't want to be a slop-jock for the rest of my life. Didn't you want to be an engineer?”

“Yes. I did. Mainly because I've always wanted to be up there.” He said as he pointed up towards the sky. “Engineering is an easy ticket into the colonies.”

“Did you talk to a AJISA recruiter recruiter about going to the colonies?”

“Yah, but it is the same answer as before. They want me to have a degree or else they won't take me. It's even worst now though.”

“How so?”

“With the war going so badly here on Earth the AJISA recruiters are swamped with recruits wanting to get off this planet.”


“Yup. When I first tried to join AJISA a few years ago there was just me and two other crazy assholes waiting to enlist for the colonies. When I went to their office last week there was a line that stretched three blocks waiting to enter.”

“Wow. Maybe they know something we don't.”

“Maybe... It's good you're still keeping up with it.” He said pointing to her book clearly changing the subject. “I can't remember the last time I had time to read a book on engineering.”

“Well, if you don't use it you'd lose it.”

“Is that another one of your Kentuckian sayings?”

“No. It's a common saying.”


“Yes! People say it all the time.”

“Never heard anyone use that phrase before. It must be from Kentucky.” He said getting ready to dig into his meal that the waiter just brought out to their table.

She shook her and laughed, “Freakin' New Yawkers.”

Financial District, New York, New York, USA, Earth [Sol], 22112055

Mike locked the office door behind himself as he left. As usual he was the last person out of the office. It seemed these days Al gave him more and more work to do. What started like a dream job had become a nightmare. He didn't know how or why, but somehow he had fallen out of favor with his boss. He knew his days at Salio were numbered. Al was trying to force him to leave by giving him impossible tasks to complete, constant reprimands at work and preventing him from getting accounts of his own. He wondered what he may have done to make him this way. He thought about his options and knew he was in a bad spot. It took him years to find a job like this and he wondered if it'd take another couple of years to find another like it. He didn't want to go back to working his ass off in labor and fast food jobs just to barely make it. He was going to have to soldier on and do everything Al asked of him. He had no other choice.

He walked down the desolate empty streets of downtown Manhattan alone. Lost in his own thoughts until he heard a man call out to him. “Sir! Sir! Can you help me?” Mike approached the man who sat on a pile of folded cardboard boxes. The man was missing both of his legs above the knees and had a horrible fresh scar across his face. “I haven't eaten in two days. I'm so hungry. Can you spare some money so I can buy myself something to eat.” He could hear the pain and embarrassment in the mans voice as he asked for money. He dug into his pocket and gave him what he could. The man reached out to accept the money and revealed a US Marine Corps tattoo on his arm as he did. The man noticed Mike looking at his tattoo and quickly covered it with other hand. “Thank you for the money, Sir.”

“My father was a Marine. He once told me it was the only thing he did that he was proud of. Thank you for serving, Sir.” Mike turned to leave for home.

The man began to cry and quickly corrected himself. “You're the first person to thank me for my service since I lost my legs.”

“There's no way that's true.”

“Some shithead the other day told me that I deserved to lose my legs. Only because I fought in the war. I survived the massacre of Taiwan just to be told by some asshole in a suit that defending my country was wrong.” He began to sob again. “Maybe he was right... Here I am without my goddamn legs... begging for money on the sidewalk.” Mike heard the despair in his voice and he knew nothing he could say would bring him back. “I lost everything. They all died and I survived only to live in my own piss and shit. I wished I died there!” He turned and walked away towards the subway station. Long after he boarded his train and came home he kept hearing the legless veterans sobbing. He couldn't get it out of his head. There was nothing he could have done for him. He was living on a razors edge himself. He was always only two pay checks away from being destitute and his future at Salio was uncertain. His father was right. The world was a twisted place. The good get screwed and the bad live like kings.

Financial District, New York, New York, USA, Earth [Sol], 20122055

Mike was excited to come into work today. Every account manager had taken their vacation and he no longer had to cover for them. He was determined to ask Al for a chance to manage his own accounts. He knew he was up to the task. Plus it would be great to have the commission that came with them. Today he had only his own work to do and by the mid afternoon he was all done. For the first time in months it seemed like he would actually go home at five.

“Mike you hear the good news?” Jessica said leaning against the wall near his desk.

“What news?” He asked.

“We met all of our sales goals this year and we're all getting a big Christmas bonus.”

“No way?”

“Yes way. We'll be getting them tomorrow at the party.”

“That is good news. How'd you find out about this?” Mike asked.

“Al told me. I'm surprised he didn't tell you,” Jessica said with a wide smile on her face. She was lost in her own thoughts of what she would buy with the extra money.

Al suddenly appeared behind Mike and put his hand on his chair. “Mike I'd like to see you in my office now.” Mike saved his progress and followed Al into his office. Al motioned for him to take a seat and he did. “Mike there's no easy way to say this but I don't think you're a good fit for Salio. Effective immediately I will be terminating your employment with us.”

“What? Why?” Mike asked caught completely broadsided by the timing. He didn't expect Al to so brazenly fire him before Christmas. “I did everything you asked of me and I put in the time.”

“Yes. You put in just what was necessary. Not more. You never went above and beyond for Salio.” Al said motioning with hands like a rocket soaring. Mike was speechless. He had no idea what he was referring to. He stayed extra everyday. Came in early everyday. He sacrificed so much for Salio. “You're a good guy,but you're not a good cultural fit for Salio.” The door opened and a burly security guard came in and stood behind Mike. “Don't bother clearing your desk. Jeff already did it for you. Jeff please escort Mr. Chastain off Salio property.”

Hell's Kitchen, New York, New York, USA, Earth [Sol], 21122055

Audrey sat across the table from him and sipped on her coffee. She placed it down on the table and stared into the black liquid deep in thought. The coffee shop was packed with people laughing and loudly talking with each other. They were the only ones in the coffee shop who sat silently at their table.

“Well I think you need some time to sort things out.” She finally said. “I don't think we should be together anymore.”

Mike looked up and nodded. “If that is how you feel Audrey.” He maintained a facade of strength but he felt like his insides were torn asunder. He loved her and he wanted more than anything to be with her, but it was over. They had said everything they needed to say and he knew he couldn't convince her to change her mind. He smiled at her and gently placed his hand on her cheek. Wanting to touch her one last time. He looked into her deep blue eyes and quickly turned away to gather his things. “I have to go Audrey.” He was going to say “I love you,” but he caught himself and just walked outside. Leaving her alone in the coffee shop.

He walked aimlessly through Midtown Manhattan and tried to keep his emotions in check. He didn't blame Audrey. He understood why she did what she did. It was survival. Pure and simple. He was what the finance industry called a “losing stock.” You sell or abandon a losing stock before it ruins your portfolio. She was protecting herself and he knew that. He loved her and he wanted the best for her. He was doing the right thing by not fighting it, but still felt like shit because of it.

He passed through Times Square and shook his head at the sight. What was once a vibrant street filled with lights and the best stores in the world was now a makeshift shanty town. The world suffered greatly from the Great Depression and nowhere was that shown more clearly than at Times Square. When he was younger he remembered the stores slowly going out of business when the tourists stopped coming. One by one they closed until there were none. The lights and sky high billboards all but disappearing when companies couldn't afford to keep them going. Broadway closed down for good when most couldn't afford the luxury of going to see a play. All that was left were dilapidated theaters filled with the homeless and decade old posters plastered on walls for shows that no longer exist.

“Excuse me, Sir.” Mike turned and saw an old man reach out to him from inside an abandoned police booth he had made into his home. “Do you have money to spare?” Mike reached into his pocket and gave him a few dollars. He would have given him more but he only had so much money left himself. He had no job and the benefits that this father and grandfather enjoyed like unemployment benefits went out the window with the Depression when the government ran out of money paying both its national debt and what it owed China. He thought it almost funny that the U.S. sacrificed so much to pay back the Chinese only to have inadvertently paid for its war machine against the U.S. “Thank you, Sir!” the old man said happily. Mike nodded back and all the way home all he could think about was... how long until he was like that man begging for money on the sidewalk?

Holbrook, Long Island, New York, USA, Earth [Sol], 25062060

The harsh sun shone down at him and burned his exposed skin as he worked out in the open. His back hurt as he dug into the hard Earth with a shovel, but he ignored the pain. He was almost done and he wanted to go home before the sun set. He hated walking home at night. There was no sidewalks and he constantly had to avoid drunk drivers on the roads. It was so much worst without any sunlight. He finished digging and leveling the hole in the ground that will eventually be a pool.

“Good work on the dig.” His boss Johnnie came up behind him and placed his hand on his shoulder. “The install team will take care of the rest tomorrow.” He nodded at Johnnie and carefully policed the area around the dig. He collected the tools and equipment and placed them back in the company van. “Are all the tools back in the van, Mike?” Johnnie asked.

“Yes. Everything is accounted for.” Mike replied.

Johnnie counted the cash their clients gave them for the job in front of him and then shook his head in disgust. “Sorry man. No tips today. The cheap bastards. Hopefully our drought ends soon.” Johnnie said sighing loudly.

“Johnnie from your lips to God's ear. My droughts has been going on for five years now.” They both laughed together.

“I feel you. See you tomorrow.”

“Yah, I'll meet you at the shop.”

“Sounds good. I can pick you up tomorrow so don't worry about getting to the shop. I'll pick you up at six.” Johnnie hopped into the company van and drove off.

Mike walked towards the other direction and followed along the side of the highway home. He walked for an hour as the sun began to set. Most of the cars drove past him at ridiculously fast speeds, their wheels picking up pebbles that would fling past him like shrapnel. He did his best to avoid them because they hurt. A long convoy of military trucks approached from behind him and drove past. He watched the convoy pass with interest. These military vehicles weren't American. They were painted in a plain olive color with large strange letters etched on the sides he didn't recognize. One of the dozens of military trucks passing by slowed down and parked on the side of the road in front of him. A soldier leaned out from the back of the truck and called out to him in accented English, “Where you going?”

“Deer Park. It's down this road.” Mike yelled back.

“Hop on. We are going that way. Hurry.” The soldier said. Mike ran up to the truck and the soldier helped pull him up. As soon as he was in the truck the truck lurched forward and it retook its place in the long convey.

“Thank you so much for the lift, soldier.” Mike said gladly.

“No worries. Car break?”

“Can't afford one.”

“Why are you out here? Long Island is not a good place. Nothing close. Very boring.” The soldier said clearly not a fan of the area. There were six other soldiers in the back of the truck and they all nodded their heads in agreement. They went back to talking to each other in a strange tongue Mike never heard before.

“Work. Had to leave the city and came out here for work.” He said regretfully.

“You a strong man. Why aren't you in the war?”

“Tried already. It'd be better than digging pools for a living. The army rejected me because of my age. I guess they only want eighteen year old men.”

“Rejected? You guys need soldiers. Lots and lots of them... I don't get America. You Americans fight this war like crazy people. Like you don't want to win. Some of you even act like war isn't happening. Even after Hawaii you guys still pretend.”

“I'm more worried about surviving than the war to be honest.”

“The war is survival. We learned that when those ben zona took our homeland. They came and took everything. They will do the same to you if you Americans let them.” The soldier said shaking his fist in anger. He looked out and yelled out to the driver in his strange language. “This is your stop.” The truck slowed down and they let him off. As the truck departed the soldier yelled out, “Shalom!”

Deer Park, Long Island, New York, USA, Earth [Sol], 01072060

He couldn't sleep and found himself staring at himself in the mirror. He put his hand on his face and felt his weathered skin. Years of hard work out in the sun had completely eliminated his youthful features. He was just thirty years old but he appeared much older. He lowered his hands and looked at all of the old scars, insect bites and cuts he had on them. He wanted to punch the mirror and shatter it into a million pieces out of frustration but he thought against it. He decided to go out instead. He walked towards the local convenience store and stopped when he approached the train tracks. The gates were lowering and off in the distance he saw the faint light of an incoming train. He broke into a full run and ducked under the gates. He stood in the middle of the track waiting for the train to come.

He thought about his life and how much of a failure it had been up to this point. He thought of what his eighteen year old self would have thought of him. He had wanted to be an engineer. He wanted to be a colonist. None of those things had happen and none of it would ever happen. He had no future. He was tired of being nothing and of doing nothing. He was tired of the constant struggle to survive and wanted to die. He didn't want to be fifty and still be alone, hungry and destitute.

He looked up at the sky and looked longingly at the moon. Ignoring the loud horn from the train and wondered what life would have been like if he had made different choices. What if she had stayed with him? What if he had been given a chance instead of constantly being put down by others? He closed his eyes and accepted his death. He only hoped it would end quickly. Through his closed eyelids he saw a blinding flash and suddenly everything went silent.

He wondered if he was dead. He opened his eyes and saw that all of the lights were off. The train had stopped a mere two blocks from where he was standing. The power went out and without power to propel the magnetic train it had collapsed and stalled. The passengers aboard the train poured out bleeding and screaming from its exits. The sudden stop threw them all forward and many were injured. The passengers started running around aimlessly and ducked under cars and into ditches. The lights flickered back on and a loud air raid horn wailed in the distance. Soon another air raid horn closer to him came to life. Soon all he could hear was that damn horn and he staggered off of the tracks covering his ears. People started pouring out of their houses and ran back and forth crying out in terror. He wondered what the hell was going on and noticed more flashes coming from above him. He looked up and watched as the night sky turned into the biggest light show he had ever seen. He stared mesmerized at what he later would learn was the U.S. fleet desperately attempting to shoot down hundreds of nuclear missiles heading towards them.

Fort Victor Victor, Babylon, Long Island, New York, USA, Earth [Sol], 12102060

He stood in formation with hundreds of other men from all across Long Island. He had received his draft papers two weeks earlier and was now going through processing for basic training. It had been three months since the Hegemony bombarded the American west coast with hundreds of nuclear missiles and overrun most of the western U.S. with its invasion forces. The surviving U.S. government had enacted emergency powers including the drafting of all men of military age and the suspension of habeas corpus. The Hegemony was still rapidly advancing across the country and last he heard they were in Midland, Texas and pushing though the Great Plains. He was in one of thousands of new military training facilities created throughout Free America to train millions of men to be thrown against the Hegemony onslaught. This training facility used to be a high school but it, along with all the neighboring buildings and a park, were commandeered into a makeshift base. All of the new draftees stood together in what was once the schools football field and nervously waited for something to happen.

Their trainers stood together sorting through paperwork until a a truck drove into the field and a dozen soldiers poured out. They weren't Americans. He knew that from the uniform they wore. Eleven of the foreign soldiers moved through the ranks inspecting the draftees and correcting them as they went. The leader of the foreign soldiers approached the American military trainers who were sorting through paper work before and saluted them and individually shook their hands. They started to speak to each other but he couldn't make out what they were saying.

“Get your fucking hands off me you piece of shit!” A man angrily shouted from the middle of the formation of draftees. The American trainers went silent and looked towards the cluster of draftees. Two of the foreign soldiers dragged out a man from the formation and tossed him in front of the trainers. The man stood up and brushed off the dirt from his expensive designer jeans and turned towards the two soldiers and flipped them off.

“What seems to be the problem, Private?” The highest ranking American trainer asked.

“My problem? My problem?! My problem is that I'm here. I shouldn't be here with these fucking rejects.” He said with an air of superiority.

“I'm sorry to hear that. What makes you think you shouldn't be here, Private?” The trainer said sounding concerned for the man.

“Because of who I am!” He shouted.

“Please enlighten us then.” The trainer said.

“I am a very important man. I work for Kim & Welsh & Lee. I demand to be let go.”

“Are you saying you are a 'critical homefront personnel?'” The trainer inquired.

“Yes I am.”

“What's your name?”

“Jack Welsh Jr.”

The trainer looked through his papers until he found the mans paperwork. “It doesn't say anything about you being 'CHP.'”

“Well I should be!” He yelled.

“Why do you think you're 'CHP?'”

“I am a partner in one of the most influential law offices in New York!”

“Private Welsh I don't think you understand what grants an individual 'CHP' status. They are specialized doctors, scientists, engineers, skilled factory workers, miners, policemen and even farmers. Without them the war effort would grind to a halt. How is being a lawyer critical to the war effort? Will you write a 'cease and desist' letter to the Hegemony?”

“Do you have any idea how much I'm worth?!” Welsh bellowed.

“Let's find out. Rav Samal Aron can you please help Private Welsh.” The trainer motioned to his foreign counterpart and the soldier ran up to welsh and punched him hard in the stomach. Welsh doubled over and fell hard to the ground.

“Get up Private!” Aron screamed in accented English. “Show me! Show me how much you are worth!” Welsh said nothing and just groaned on the ground. “Your money is worth shit. Your position in life is worth shit. All that counts is if you can fight. Maybe you are just worth the bullet it takes to kill you. If we lucky the bullet you take will save someone who is worth something.” The soldiers Welsh flipped off before picked Welsh up and dragged him away.

The American trainer now focused on the other draftees and spoke in a loud commanding voice, “I am Master Sergeant Prince and this is my Israeli counterpart Rav Samal Aron. His rank is that of a sergeant first class in our army and you will listen to everything he and his Israeli trainers have to say. They fought the Hegemony in Israel and are battle hardened veterans. It is our intention to make you all soldiers by the end of these four weeks. It is in all of your best interests to learn and take these lessons to heart because in five weeks I guarantee you that you will be fighting the Hegemony.”

2km N of Reelfoot, Mississippi Defensive Line, Kentucky, USA, Earth [Sol], 17012061

“Chastain get out there and fix those cannons. The ChiCOMs managed to seize island number 8 between us and occupied Missouri. They will most likely try and hit us soon. I know you're quite the handy man and I need you out there. We don't have enough time to wait for the Corps of Engineers to get here. Can you do it?” Chastain nodded at his commanding officer. His CO turned and spoke to another officer, “Take eight men and go over the top. Make sure Chastain reaches the cannons and is able to fix them.”

Thirty minutes later the American side of the Mississippi in that sector opened up. Hundreds of artillery pieces went off at the same time. Showering the Chinese side with thousands of rounds every ten seconds. Nine men climbed over the top of the American trench line. One of them was immediately shot dead by a Chinese sniper as he climbed out. Chastain climbed out after the eight remaining soldiers and followed them as they crossed the no-mans-land between the trench line and the Mississippi River waterline. Two more soldiers in front of Chastain died from sniper fire and the others closed ranks around him. They used the anti-tank obstacles as cover while Chastain repaired the automated defensive cannons that dotted the beach. These cannons were automated dual magnetic rail cannons that were designed to stay hidden in their protective shell inside the ground until the cannons sensed the enemy approaching. The cannons would pop out of the ground and hit the enemy with soda can sized shells at 5000 MPH. These shells easily destroyed enemy vehicles and liquefied human bodies.

Slowly they made it to each damaged cannon. Chastain was able to repair all twenty three damaged cannons and returned back to the safety of the trenches with the remaining five men. Not long after they returned the American artillery barrage ended and the Chinese launched their attack. The attack lasted all night but the line held and the repaired guns tore through the first waves. Greatly easing the fight for the American defenders.

Chastain sat down to rest after spending the night defending the trench. He opened up his ration box and ate his nutrition bars. Most people hated them because not only did they not taste good but they also left you feeling hungry. For Chastain he never had that problem. He was used to being hungry and to him he was eating like a king. He chuckled to himself at the thought that all of his life he was inadvertently training for this war.

“Chastain?” His CO stood over him and smiled. “Fine work you did out there.”

“Thank you, Sir.”

“I wanted to tell you that tomorrow you are getting transferred. I am sending you to Montreal.”

“Montreal?” He said excitedly. He knew that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers were headquarter there now that Washington D.C. Was a smoldering radioactive crater.

“Someone once told me that you were going to be an engineer before the war and I pulled some strings. You're a smart man and a good soldier. You're being wasted here.” He handed Chastain his transfer papers. “Good luck Chastain.”

Chastain opened the paper and read it to himself and couldn't help but cry from joy.

Private Mike Chastain – AC201DYKMAN.NY
Effective immediately Pvt Chastain will undergo further training for engineering. He has an engineering degree from New York Institute of Technology and shown numerous instances of advanced knowledge of the subject under combat situations. He is not being utilized properly and has been reassigned. - General Cruz, US Army

Fort Eagles Landing, Sea of Tranquility, Earth's Moon [Sol], 18032062

The shuttle hovered over the lunar surface and waited over a deep crater. The space within the crater parted to reveal a hidden hanger door which the shuttle descended into. The shuttle landed and its door opened. Dozens of Allied soldiers walked out of the ship and into the base. One soldier broke from the crowd and walked towards a small window. After all that suffering and all that struggling. He was now on the Moon. In a few days he would be heading to Mars for a long tour of duty. He stared at the small yellow orb suspended in space known as Earth and laughed. He found it funny that the war was the best thing to ever happen to him. Every minute of it had been a blessing for him.

It didn't matter anymore how rich you were, who you were born to or how many follows you had online. Everyone was equal in death. You either fought or you died. You had the skills needed to survive or you starved. In the world before the war a man like him was destined to die abused, forgotten and poor. Now he was worth something. He could die tomorrow and he would die happily because he had made it. He loved the war and it didn't matter to him that hundreds of millions were dead. To him most of those who died deserved to die. They were evil men and he was glad to see them die in the battlefields of North America by the bushel. It was easy to keep others down and make them work for you but in this brave new world that was no longer an option for men like that. The new ruling class were the the fighters and the men who did things. He laughed once more and began to sing Goo Goo Dolls “Better Days” aloud to himself.

SC: Better Days
A man struggles to survive in Pre-War America. A story set in World War 3 based on the Shattered Citadel Universe.