The Diary of One Who Disappeared

Below is a preview of my 30,000-word novella, The Diary of One Who Disappeared. It takes place 25 years after the events of my novel, A Fickle and Restless Weapon, and shares the same fantastical milieu (although it can be read as a standalone piece).

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Priority Communiqué
To DESD Director Richard O’Brien
For Your Eyes Only
Wednesday, October 3 MMXL

Dear Director O’Brien,

Once again, I must thank you for this grand opportunity to both spread the Word of Our Lord and work with the Orientals to revive the fortunes of our great North American Union and restore our empire to its former glory. With the Holy Father at our backs, hallowed be His name, we will once again become a force with which to be reckoned, and the Department of Economic and Spiritual Development shall forever reap the gains. Our faith will move mountains.

I am currently ensconced within a cabin on the NAUS Zior and awaiting lift-off, the airship passage procured through our liaisons at Stewart AFB. DESD Agent Grade Five Ailene Noonan occupies the neighboring berth, as per her wishes. I noticed a certain reticence on the part of the vessel’s officers and crew as we boarded, toward both Agent Noonan and myself. It is tempting to have a word with the captain of this vessel; after all, this long-haul flight will last around ten days, during which time we will all be cooped up together, colliding in the corridors and stepping on one another’s toes.

Our flight plan will take us northwest over the NAU provinces at the Arctic Circle, and thence through Russia and south along the coastlines of Japan, China, Viet Nam, Siam and Malaya, before arriving at our destination in The Republic of Tinhau. Captain Bergeron has informed us of the increased risk of air piracy as we pass further into Southeast Asia, but he is confident that his vessel’s armor and phlogiston cannons will shepherd us through any such altercations.

This evening, Agent Noonan and I shall discuss our strategy in dealing with Tinhau’s Ministry of Stability, for both cooperation and conversion. I take solace in your own words, sir, that we must establish a friendship for mutual benefit, as well as to bring these Orientals to the Lord Our God so that they too will know the Kingdom of Heaven. I am filled with anticipation in doing His great work.

It is approaching time for reflection and prayer, and thus I must end here. I will report again several days hence as we reach the wireless node at Anchorage.

Your Obedient Servant and Emissary,
DESD Agent Grade Three Lucas Lehrer

 
from the paper journal of LL
Wednesday, October 3, 2040

To the future, to a time of peace and spiritual communion and contentment: From the age of recovery, from the age of doublespeak, from the age of the Holy Empire of the North American Union—greetings!

Ha. Peace? Communion? Contentment? Who am I trying to fool exactly?

I’ve just emailed my first missive off into the æther, to wend its way to the ordinator squatting like a toad on O’Brien’s desk. God help me but I feel unclean.

How did it get this bad? Are we all just trying to out-devote each other, prove who’s the most penitent? I take comfort in the Creator, that He is always watching over us and guiding our actions, but does anyone honestly think that He’s scrutinizing every single one of us, judging us on the enthusiasm and intensity with which we’re expected to praise His name? It all just feels so hollow. The price for civil service in our great theocracy. Show your adulation, work yourself to death, never complain, praise the Lord at any and every opportunity, or it’s to the salt mines of Utah with you!

Ailene is next door. Separated by a thick metal wall, and so much more. Eight years we’ve been married, eight years I’ve done everything asked of me, yet it’s never enough. Not when I gave her credit for the Raleigh project that resulted in her promotion, not when she got rid of all my furniture after the wedding, not when she insisted on the vasectomy. I’d hoped that this voyage to the East might rekindle something lost between us, maybe even get her in my bed once again, but the possibility seems increasingly unlikely. This mission is my own brainchild, and her resentment at being dragged along is like a physical thing, coming off her in waves. “A Grade Three should not think above his station,” she’s said so many times. An easy thing for a Grade Five to say.

God bless it, I’ve never felt so alone. Where did things go so wrong? It’s been over fourteen months since the last time we had sex. Why did I even bother with the vasectomy at all? When we got married, I believed (naïvely) that there was no problem that couldn’t be overcome with patience and understanding. Now I know better.

I’m reading over these words, and this feels really angry. I am angry, but at the same time, I still love her. Am I a complete idiot? We’ve been through so much together, shared a lot of pain and sacrifice. I’d feel like a quitter if I simply gave up now. Things have been bad lately, but maybe if she gets a bit of space, she’ll realize how much she needs me. One can always hope, right? For the duration of this mission, we can at least be professionals.

 
Supplemental

Captain Bergeron has invited us to eat in the officers’ mess during the voyage, so that’s where Ailene and I met for dinner. Ailene only sipped her ginger ale and picked at her food, avoiding my eyes the whole time. Our conversation consisted of banal chit-chat, the same bullshit we go through at every shared meal, barely twenty words spoken between us. I tried discussing the mission, but Ailene refused to talk about it. Halfway through the meal, she excused herself and left for her cabin, her food mostly untouched. She claims she’s got motion sickness, which has given her nausea and “a piercing headache.” I don’t know whether to believe her, even when she says she’s ben vomiting since the moment we made way. Part of me is sympathetic; I know how terrible that can be. Another part of me takes guilty pleasure at the idea that she’s feeling so awful. I wonder if that makes me a bad person.

Thankfully, I’m feeling fine. I have a strong inner ear, and I’ve always been solid on boats and airships. Dad claims I was born during the worst of Hurricane Jane, like it conferred on me some special ability, an iron stomach. Like a swee on one of those reservations. Man, what a boring superpower to have. Non-Vomiting Man!

It was probably my imagination, but I could swear that the captain’s gaze lingered just a bit too long on Ailene while we were in there. Regardless, he didn’t bother to invite me over to the captain’s table with the rest of his senior staff after Ailene left, so I quickly finished my lonely meal by myself, then left for my own berth.

Not the most auspicious start to the trip.

***

 
Thursday, October 4

Ailene and I met up this afternoon at the observation deck, located just below the bridge in the forward section of the ship. 180 degrees worth of bullet- and shatter-proof plastic windows, revealing cloudless skies a startling blue. In another life, we might have been enjoying such a view while on a pleasure cruise, celebrating our upcoming anniversary. Instead, we were both bent over a table discussing operational and diplomatic tactics.

She seems to have recovered a bit from her motion sickness, if it ever even existed, insisting on getting right down to it. I took her through my binder of research, months of work, emphasizing cultural details, chains of bureaucratic command, economic achievements, religious sensitivities, etc. As the superior officer, she’ll be taking the lead, showing her authority, blah blah blah, then turning things over to me to negotiate the actual details with the Ministry of Stability folks. I’m still doing the lion’s share of the work, and O’Brien knows it; he’s already promised me a promotion to Grade Four if we succeed.

After around an hour and half, Ailene sat back, eyes glazed, and said she’d need to read the rest of the research report later, that her headache had returned and she needed to lie down. And then, without a word, she closed the binder, tucked it under her arm, and left the room.

I couldn’t believe it. As a Grade Five, it’s certainly her right, but I do feel a bit possessive of all the work I’ve done. The only other copy is back with O’Brien at DESD headquarters. I almost got out of my chair to retrieve it, but I couldn’t move. I’m such a coward.

***

 
Friday, October 5

Today was spent largely in my cabin, just like the evening before; I only emerged for meals, in order to minimize the odds of coming across Ailene in the corridors. The metal walls thrum with the vibration of the airship’s engines; the dull grey seems to close in on me. I imagine that this is what the cabin on a submarine feels like, but among the clouds.

The clouds are no longer a threat, and thank the Almighty for it. I was thinking about the Range again today, that time just before it disappeared forever. The safety lectures by our assistant principal, delivered with the same intonation as his morning sermons; the daily drop-and-scurry drills; the aftermath-videos of the Midwest, some which had taken place in Wisconsin, so close by. I still have the nightmares so many years later, where I’m a helpless child caught in an attack, paralyzed with fear, unable to move while the Range patiently hunts me down with its green lightning. Twenty-five years after the Creator smote the abomination (the official story), or it just drifted back to wherever it had come from (my theory), yet it still has the power to terrorize me.

I’ve always taken comfort in the fact that I’ll see everyone I’ve ever loved in Heaven, and live in the utter bliss that comes with God’s grace; when I was a kid, I could visualize the afterlife so concretely that I felt like I’d arrived there without the trauma of death. For so long, I’ve believed that the existence of Heaven is an inviolable fact, but now I can’t help having doubts.

Ailene still doesn’t know it, but I actually read the pamphlet that had been stuffed under our door by those anti-theist hooligans back in August out of curiosity as much as spite. They had some interesting points: that when we die (the 85% of us below the pay grade for life-extension treatments), our atoms and nutrients will merge with the soil, or drift through the air to blend with countless other living beings on the planet. That we’re all connected, and that in one way we pass on, but in another way we can never die.

But still, no communion with the Almighty, no reunion with loved ones, no everlasting bliss? It’s just too unsettling to think about.

***

 
Priority Communiqué
To DESD Director Richard O’Brien
For Your Eyes Only
Saturday, October 6 MMXL

Dear Director O’Brien,

We have successfully landed at Anchorage, praise the Holy Father for our thus far uneventful sojourn! The wireless connectivity at this node is sufficiently strong enough that transmission of this missive should reach you immediately. Our stopover will last just under three hours, so that the airship’s engines and supplies can be replenished and bolstered before our transition out of NAU territory and into the Orient; I will check for any response before we re-embark, should you feel the necessity of replying. I must admit to a certain nervousness, as I have never before left our holy homeland, but I trust in the Lord’s wisdom and in His divine plan to get me through.

Agent Noonan been brought up to speed on the mission, and has assumed operational control. She will take on the role of sole liaison with the officials from Tinhau’s Ministry of Stability once we arrive. I am only to act in an advisory capacity, as is more consistent with my station.

The Alaskans appear to be a hardy people, well-acclimated to the frosty climate, no doubt because of their fervent fundamental beliefs in the Word, with which all good NAU citizens share; I am chagrinned to discover that the climate here is so cold at present, when the leaves have just begun turning back home in Manhattan. I find myself unprepared for the biting winds here, taking refuge in the shops and food establishments of this way station.

As always, I welcome any advice and guidance. Otherwise, I shall communicate once again when we have reached the megalopolis of Tokyo. I remain

Your Obedient Servant and Emissary,
DESD Agent Grade Three Lucas Lehrer

 
from the paper journal of LL
Saturday, October 6

Pirates! Sweet God in all His glory, I have never been so terrified!

Not thirty minutes after we reboarded the Zior (without any reply from O’Brien; unsurprising, but still annoying) and once more lifted into the skies, our airship suddenly echoed with concussive fire. We lurched from one side to the other, I’m presuming as part of evasive maneuvers, and my notebooks, æ-reader, and official materials all tumbled off of my desk into a mess upon the floor.

I left my cabin and made my way down the corridor and up the steep staircase to the observation deck to find out what was going on; halfway up, the ship jerked to the left, and I slammed into the railing (my upper arm is already visibly bruised, and aches like the devil). The observation deck was empty; I approached the windows, gripped the handrail, and saw our enemy.

I expected an opposing airship of equivalent size and armament, but was shocked to see instead half a dozen small human-powered ornithopters, with wings like hummingbirds or dragonflies, a two-person crew visible behind each of their windshields, and portable flak guns mounted underneath. They must have seen our ship at Anchorage and decided that it would make a fine prize. The small thopters were spaced out along even intervals, and partially encircled us. They fired in coordinated bursts, the blasts making the Zior shudder and boom, but they had underestimated our defenses; the ship’s protective armor was more than enough to protect us. I shouted in surprise as our phlogiston cannons deafeningly returned fire, the green light annihilating two of the thopters completely and sending a third tumbling to the earth below in a trail of black smoke. In one shot, we took out half of the pirates’ attack force.

As the ship turned to face the others, I realized that I wasn’t alone; Ailene stood beside me, her whole body quivering, just as mine was doing. She turned and looked at me, the fear evident in her eyes, and then covered my hand on the rail with her own. We stayed still and silent for the rest of the battle, as the Zior’s machine guns quickly destroyed the remaining enemy ships. It was over. It had barely lasted ten minutes, and the only sounds in that room were the engines and my pounding heart. Ailene and I didn’t move; it was like a spell, and I didn’t want to break that tenuous connection, even as my body hummed with adrenaline and excitement. She breathed heavily through her mouth; I wanted to ask what she was thinking, wanted to know if this simple touch of hands meant something more, despite everything we had done to each other. She turned to me, and inhaled as about to speak, when the door to the observation deck banged open and Captain Bergeron strode in.

“There you two are!” he shouted, and Ailene’s hand jerked back from mine. “A bit of excitement to shake up the day, eh?”

“Excitement?” Ailene said, an icy tone in her voice, a tone I knew well. “A bit of excitement?! They could have blown us all up!”

“Nah, those were small fry. Hardly worth the bullets, really. Wait until we get to southern China and northern Siam, where the ships are bigger, and better armed. Then we’ll see some fun!”

“Captain…”

“Relax, ma’am. My crew is trained for these types of engagements. We’ll see you safely all the way to Tinhau, no problem.”

The captain made a noise in his throat, tipped his hat, and stepped back out through the door, leaving the two of us alone again. Ailene glanced at me, any tenderness replaced by a mask of stone, and I knew that whatever that moment had been was now over. She hurried toward the door, and through.

I stayed there for a while more, calming my thoughts, and my pulse. I’d forgotten how her touch could make me tingle, even if it was brief. And I know she felt something too; she’d lowered her guard, revealing a small part of the woman I used to love. It made me wonder if our marriage isn’t beyond help.

When I came back to my cabin about an hour later, I could almost feel her on the other side of the wall. Is she thinking about me? Did it mean something to her as well?

***
The Diary of One Who Disappeared is copyright © 2017 by Jason Erik Lundberg.
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