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The Summer of '30: The Start of Something Incredible (7.1k; scifi, mature content) (1 Viewer)

My name is Jack Browning. I remember the eventful year of 2130 very well. The Frenkish Winter Patrol team lost by a very narrow margin to Mecharussia during the Vancouver Games in one of the biggest upsets in the history of the Winter Olympics. Symanski and Davis released their revolutionary findings on cognitosphere-developed consciousness. And, of course, the Atlantic War started as the Commonwealth burned. Not that I cared about any of that: I was ten years old and living the best life I could. And to me, 2130 was the year of adventure. I didn’t care about the Olympics or some war waging across the ocean.

My family lived in the Paz District right on the outskirts of La Reina. We’ve always lived in that house at 140 Prince Road, ever since dad got out of the army thirteen years before I was born and my sister Marjorie was just two. My folks are still there, and my brother Howard will probably be the one to take it over when the time comes, so I guess the family will always be there. Mom wants to book permanent residencies at the Seaside Sanitorium and move to Florida, but I know dad will never leave that house. He pulled every string he could to get assigned a proper house in the suburbs. Military preferential credit, family preferential credit, a guy he knew who knew a guy in the Housing Office…he loved to tell the story of how hard he had to work to get our place, especially when he felt we were taking things for granted!

I was a good kid, I guess. Above average in school, but nothing too extraordinary. My siblings were always the smart ones. Marge is sitting in the bridge of an Asimov and Howie is building reactors in the Baltics, if that tells you anything. I was more of the creative type. I had my friends, but I was content to keep to myself, building the coolest scenes with my holoset or making my own games with the VR kit. Hell, even just doodling with good old pen and paper when I didn’t have any 22nd century amenities on-hand.

Dad was a cop with the Highway Patrol, but he was in the army before that. Always the real patriotic sort, willingly enlisted on his eighteenth birthday before conscription could gobble him up. It was the late nineties and he just missed the window for Africa or Austronesia, but he did stay long enough to serve on Mars. He never liked to talk about Mars that much, but I think that’s where he picked up his knack for wide-open spaces and desolate frontiers. Guess that was why he joined the Highway Patrol when he just as easily could have landed a job in the city department. He’d be gone for days at a time, out on duty in the Sierra Madre or the Mojave.

Mom was a specialist social worker, her niche letting her be a stay-at-home mom most of the time and when work did come up, it could usually be done remotely. When I was old enough to catch on to working habits, I thought her job was easy. She worked a couple of days a month, if that! Needless to say…her niche was not a very pleasant one. When she did work, odds were it was something disturbing, not worth talking about here. She struggled with depression through most of my childhood, but she never let any of the kids see it.

All in all, I’d say my life was pretty solid. As solid as any Frenkish boy could ask for, really. No excitement, but excitement doesn’t really make for a nourishing and well-adjusted childhood, does it? But in the summer of 2130, I got my taste of excitement. Of adventure. The reason this seemingly mundane story from my childhood is worth telling. And to think, the thing that set it off was that stupid TV show…

Childish idealism aside, it was still the greatest adventure I’ve ever had. I wouldn’t trade the summer of ’30 for anything.

“Now arriving. Paz District South, Goodview Drive. Please check any bags or loose items and depart in an orderly manner.” The automated voice of the train chirped as the maglev came to a smooth stop. Once the train came to a complete halt and the side doors all hissed open, many of the people on-board stood up and walked out into the aisles. I recovered my own bookbag and joined the line-up.

There were some grown-ups leaving the train, but most were school-aged kids, some younger than me and some college-aged. The Paz District was a suburban one, created to give larger families living in the city of La Reina some space to raise their children in safety and comfort. Dad always talked about how hard he had to work to live here before I was even born. He wanted nothing less than a big house and a yard. Sometimes I wished I lived closer to the city since there’s so much more to do, but it’s alright here, I guess.

As I stepped off the train, I waded my way through the sea of kids and teenagers to regroup with my friends. This was a ritual I put up with everyday on my way to and from school, but not for much longer. Tomorrow was Friday the 19th. The last day before school let out for Summer Recreation. Three months of pure freedom!
My usual comrades were waiting a bit farther down the platform, near the security booth – Frankie, Benji and Barb. They were easy to find together. Frankie with his sports jersey, Benji with his funny looking glasses and Barb's blonde head towering over all of us a bit...

“There you are, Jack. Thought you got lost in the crowd…” Frankie said as I jogged over to them.
“I just about did. Thanks for sticking by me Jerks!”
“It’s every man for himself when the train stops! You just got swallowed up.” Barb teased.
“You guys straight up left me behind last week!” Benji whined. “But we had to wait for Jack!”
“That’s because Jack isn’t a dweeb!” Barb said, punching him in the side. Benji flinched but didn’t say anything. Being around Barb, you had to learn how to take hits like that! And he was more used to it than any of us!
“Whatever, Jack’s here. Let’s get out of here, then.” Frankie turned to depart, all of us following his lead.

Francisco “Frankie” Sarasqueta was my best friend for as long as I could remember. My dad is best friends with his dad (well, one of his dads, Javier. He’s got two). They met in the army and they moved into the Paz District at the same time. Guess it only made sense I’d grow up hanging out with Frankie. He likes to think he’s the ‘leader’ of our little group just because he made the Gravball Team and got popular in school because of it, but the only one who falls for that is Benji. Barb makes fun of him all the time and I know enough of his secrets that he knows better than to try anything with me! Still, Frankie is basically a brother to me, and I know we’ll always have each other’s backs.

Benjamin and Barbara Wesson (just Benji and Barb) are twins, but aside from looks, they aren’t much alike. Benji is really smart and gets the best grades in school. He’s normally quiet and shy. I think the only reason he fell in with Frankie and I was because Barb did, but I like hanging out with him (even if he can be a total dork sometimes!). Barb, on the other hand, is one of the coolest girls I know. She’s always clowning around and can never stay out of detention. And she likes all sorts of boy stuff too! Howie says she’s my girlfriend to tease me, but I think he’s just mad he still can’t get one!

In school, we were taught that there are no more wealthy people (or “parasites” as the teachers call them), but Benji and Barb always have the coolest toys and the biggest allowances to spend when we go places. Dad says it’s because their grandpa is a senator who lives in New Rome and nearly every grown-up in their family is a member of the Imperial Socialist Party and have jobs with the local government. And those are just “perks” that come along with that sorta thing. I don’t mind, though. They’re very generous with their extra cash and new toys!

We walked through the neighborhood chatting as we usually did, passing rows of white picket fences and houses with big yards. There were a lot of landscaping robots out doing yard work today, so we had to talk loudly for anyone to understand us.
“I hope he goes back up into Sioux country and meets back up with the native espers!” Barb opined. “That episode where Chief Sees-Dead-People and his army of ghost warriors nearly scalp Major Heckler were sick!”
“Nah, he needs to go to Mexico and meet Vásquez like they’ve been leading to for the past ten episodes!” Frankie retorted.
Naturally, we’re talking about our favorite show – “The Last Gunslinger”. It’s set during the Long Winter, and our hero is Jack Ruger, the toughest post-nuclear ranger in the Southwest (and we share names, how cool)! And every week, we get to see him shoot and beat up all sorts of fascist thugs and capitalist robbers in his quest for revenge! And it was Thursday, meaning a new episode was on tonight at seven!

“Frankie, you coming over to watch tonight?” I ask.
“Sorry, I can’t!” He groaned. “Papi is making me clean my room before I ‘mess it all the way up’ over Summer Recreation! I’m still gonna watch it though. I don’t care if I get yelled at!”
“Come watch it with us, Jack!” Barb offered with a grin. “Our TV is bigger anyway!”
“No, he can’t!” Benji butted in. “Mom said she’s having the Little Pioneers over today!”
“Ugh, fuck the Little Pioneers!” Barb groaned, always looking for a chance to curse.
“But we were Little Pioneers!” Benji reminded her.
“And I hated every second of it!” She whined as she turned back to me. “Sorry Jack.”
“Eh, that’s okay.” I wave them off. “Just promise me you’ll all watch it? I’m not holding back with the spoilers tomorrow!”
“Bet.” Barb replied, prompting a nod from everyone else. “Jack, Frankie – we’ll see you tomorrow!”
“See ya!”

Benji and Barb lived a couple of streets away, and it was here when we would go our separate ways. As always, Frankie and I had another block to go until we were home.
Frankie and I either did two things when we were left to our own devices for the last leg home. Casually talk, or race. I could tell by the look in his eye he was in the mood for the latter.
Without a word between us, we began a sprinting full force towards our houses, bookbags and all. We’ve scraped plenty of knees doing this, but it was a proud ritual.
Frankie was always more athletic, so there were no surprises when he won. I’ve probably won all of ten races in the hundreds we’ve had and all could be explained on something other than a speed advantage on my part. It was still good fun.
“I win!” He yelled as he ran through my yard, hopping over several bushes to get to his own.
“Yeah, yeah…” I take a second to catch my breath before turning back to him. “Tomorrow?”
“Tomorrow.” Frankie bids me farewell as he runs to his door and closes it behind him, leaving me to do the same.

There it was, 140 Prince. My home for as long as I’ve been alive. The beige-and-black paneling was as familiar to me as the back of my hand. I’ve never thought much of it, really, but apparently this is one of the best houses someone can have in all the Empire. Most of the kids I go to school with live in apartments in the city, a lot less room and if they want to play outside, they have to go to the park.

Compared to a lot of the surrounding houses though, our grass was becoming overgrown and weeds began sprouting up from the garden. Dad said landscaping robots were a “dumb waste of money” and that he could do it himself for a lot cheaper. But he hasn’t done any work on the yard in a while. The other day, I heard mom say she was going to kick his ass if he didn’t get out there and make the yard “presentable” soon. He just grumbled about it.

I casually open the front door to my house, the blast of cool air conditioning from our enclosed front porch clashing with the hot springtime sun. As I close the door behind me, I throw my bookbag aside, onto the nearby countertop where it will stay until tomorrow morning.

“Jack? Honey, check the mail pneumo, will you?” The familiar voice of my mom called out, obviously hearing my entrance. “I think I heard it ding just a minute ago!”
I stopped my journey deeper into the house to do exactly that – I checked the mail pneumo. I watched an educational movie on the mail system one time. Before the Long Winter, people apparently had boxes that they kept outside and these trucks would go out every day and hand-deliver it. Nowadays, mail is usually delivered by pneumatic tubes directly into your house.

Sure enough, there was something in there. A single letter decorated with all sorts of Grand Imperial Military insignia. That meant it must have been from my sister, Marjorie.
I walked into the kitchen where my mom was standing, doing some prep work for dinner.
“What was it?” She asked, not taking her eyes off the pot she was stirring.
“Something from Marge, it looks like.”
“Must be her monthly check-in, then.” Mom turned towards me, smiling. “Go hand that to your father. You know it’ll make his day.”
I rolled my eyes but made my way to seek out dad.

After the short walk through the kitchen, I was in the living room. Sure enough, dad was propped up in his favorite (and very worn-out) recliner, still wearing his Highway Patrol uniform (though his jacket and pistol belt were slung across the coffee table). Normally he’d be deep into a nap at this point, but the news on TV was holding his attention. Something about a war in Europe.
“The fashies done did it, Jackie.” Dad said, shaking his head. “They’re storming the Commonwealth. Already taken Denmark, goin’ for Sweden and Norway now. The CAF is getting chewed up and spit out.”
“Ms. Koch said the Commonweath is part of the Entente, and if they go to war, we have to also. Does this mean there’s gonna be a war?” I blink.
“Not right yet. Empire ain’t allowed to have muscle in Europe, even on allied soil. And the freakin’ Technocrat cowards in office are tryin’ to keep us out of it. Back in my day, ol’ Vásquez woulda said ‘damn the treaties’ and ‘damn the liberals’ and marched a million boots in there. Let our boys and girls do their jobs and get rid of ‘em once and for all. Damn shame the world don’t work that way no more…”

Dad then picked up the remote and completely muted the volume, focusing his attention back to me.
“Eh, I wouldn’t be worried, Jack. Worst comes to worst, we get involved and spank those fascists into next week. Ain’t nothin’ gonna happen to any of us.”
It was then that he eyed the envelope in my hand. I guess he saw the military symbols and practically yanked it from me.
“Ensign Marjorie Browning, Grand Imperial Space Force. Fifth Fleet, Sector Defense Activities Ceres.” Dad read the sender information aloud with a wide grin. He says it out loud every time. It’s annoying, but mom says he’s just proud.

If you couldn’t already guess, my sister is in the Space Force. I don’t remember what exactly she does. Something boring with communications, I think. But she’s in a gigantic Asimov warship way out in the Belt, the FIS Verne, and all my friends think it’s the coolest thing in the world. I did too, for a while, but she can’t even show us pictures of any of the guns or Vanguard marines in their sick suits of power armor! We’ve only seen her standing outside of it.
Dad says one day she could captain it or maybe even become the Admiral of her own fleet, but I think that’s just him bragging on her. Dad says she’s not his favorite, that he “doesn’t have favorites.” But he never smiles like that when I build an awesome holoset or when Howie brings home one of his good report cards! My sister is fine, I guess, but she’s fifteen years older than me. She was always more like a “mini mom” than a big sister, at least before she got shipped off to outer space. I actually kinda miss her now, but on the plus side, I got her room!
As dad opened the letter and began reading it, mom came in and began looking over his shoulder.
“What does it say, dear?”
“Ah, usual stuff. She’s doin’ fine. Her rotation’s up in November. She’s gonna stay with us for a few months before goin’ back.”
“Well, we’ve got all summer and most of autumn to clean out the basement and set her up in there. I doubt Jack will let her have her room back.”
She was right. I wasn’t planning on it!

“I just hope she stays safe.” Mom sighed, breaking the momentary silence. “If we’re getting involved in that nasty business in Europe…”
“Eh, I ain’t worried about her.” Dad brushed her off as he folded the envelope up neatly and handed it over to mom. All of Marge’s letters were kept in a special drawer in the kitchen. “Even if her ship does get transferred to fight the Oldies, she’s safe in that Asimov. Those monsters are practically invincible, and the ON ain’t got nothin’ that could even scratch one, far as I know.”
“If you say so dear…” Mom relented, clearly not as sure as he was.
“Enough of that. Jackie!” His attention darted back to me. It was obvious he was trying to change the subject...
“Your birthday is comin’ up and you ain’t told anyone what you want!”
“A pair of Wilson Combat CQB Elite 1911A1s chambered in .45 ACP.” I say with a straight face. “The pistols Jack Ruger carries in Last Gunslinger.”
“Jack, be realistic!” Dad groans. “You know you can’t own a pistol ‘til you’re sixteen! And I’m not willing to pay for the Steel Works to print out a Wilson Combat! Your mother ain’t forgiven me for the last time I got somethin’ custom printed…”

He turned to her with a smile and a slight giggle, prompting her to roll her eyes.
“Boys and their toys…” She remarked, turning back towards the kitchen. “I know that holoset you’ve been eyeing, Jackie!”
“Oh, the Lunar Strike Team Kit?” I asked loudly so mom could hear from the kitchen. “Nice!”
“If that’s what it’s called!” Mom called back. “Just saying. I know of it!”
“Holosets are great, but they’re not guns…” I said, quiet enough so only dad could hear me.
“Oh, you want guns, do ya?” Dad smiled as he came over to me and put me in a headlock. “You got your .22 and you ain’t big enough to move up yet, buddy! .45 would send you flyin’ across the room! You can’t break out of this, you ain’t strong enough to handle .45!”
“Nuh uh!” I playfully squirm, trying to fight back. Dad was too strong for me to do anything now, but someday I’d be big enough to kick his butt! And hopefully soon, so I can get Ruger’s pistols!

After a few moments of horseplay, dad let me loose and ruffled my hair. “Jackie, if you never listen to a word I say, listen to me now. Bein’ an adult ain’t fun. I took my childhood for granted. One minute my life was all video games and action figures. I blinked, and the next minute…I’m twenty-four, I’m shootin’ people on Mars and…my girlfriend calls me to tell me I’m a father. I’ve got a baby girl waitin’ for me Earth-side. I think…I think that’s when I realized I wasn’t a kid anymore. And I wasn’t ready.”
“Wait…mom just called to tell you about Marge?” I frowned. “After she was already born?”
“Hell, I never even knew she was pregnant!” Dad flashed a reminiscing smile. “Your mother’s never been the kind of woman to make an extravaganza over little things. Just like me. No bullshit to be had. One of the many reasons I love her. But that ain’t the point I’m tryin’ to make. Point is, growin’ up sucks. The world is scary and things don’t get any easier. Promise me you’ll just enjoy this time of your life. You ain’t ever gonna get it back.”
“I promise.”
“Good.” Dad said, patting me on the shoulder. “If you’re still hankerin’ for guns, I’m gonna hit the range here shortly. Was gonna ask if you and Frankie wanted to tag along, but I know that stupid show y’all like is on tonight…”
“Last Gunslinger is not stupid! It rules!” I stomp my foot defensively.
“Yeah, yeah…” Dad groans, returning to his recliner. “Just don’t let your mother know you’re watchin’ it. It’s a bit outside your age range…”
“I won’t, dad…”
I make my way to the other side of the living room towards the stairs. However, before I can make it up to my room, my dad stops me again.
“Love ya, buddy.”
“…Love you too, dad.”

The realization hit me. It was seven o’clock. Go time!
I rushed towards my TV, eagerly flipping it on.

My timing was on point as an advertisement came to an end and a familiar musical score brought forth the introduction in all its glory…
“In the aftermath of the apocalypse, Sergeant Jack Ruger was a soldier with the United States Provisional Government. However, after refusing orders to commit unspeakable atrocities, he was betrayed by the dishonorable Major Heckler and left for dead in the brutal malpais of the American Southwest. However, after being saved by Vasquista revolutionaries, Ruger devoted himself to the righteous cause of revolution! Now, with his guns in-hand, he wanders the deserts, mountains, and cities of the post-nuclear west in his insatiable quest to deliver justice. Jack Ruger is…The Last Gunslinger!”

The techno-western theme swelled as I was greeted with the usual sequence. Scene after scene of Ruger punching people out in bar brawls, shooting at faceless bandits and winning pistol duels with his famous quickdraw. It was the same intro every episode, but I would be lying if I said it didn’t get me pumped every time!
As the introduction faded, the usual text revealing the episode zoomed into frame with a ringing gunshot.

As that text faded, the camera panned down over a rocky desert landscape, the smoky air obscuring the sun, which was little more than a solid orange circle in the sky (we were taught this was what daytime looked like during the Long Winter). Another text bar took its place, this time simply materializing with little fanfare.

As the final bit of text disappeared, a figure appeared over the dark horizon. It was our hero, Jack Ruger, dressed in his usual attire of a long duster coat over a lightweight military plate carrier and a wide-brimmed hat. His signature rifle, a weathered HK 417, was slung over his shoulder. The spurs on his boots rattled with each step he took. I wasn’t exactly sure why he wore spurs considering he didn’t ride horses all that often, but I wasn’t gonna deny it didn’t make him that much cooler!

He made his way through a series of narrow canyon passes, revealing a mountain looming overhead. Ruger cautiously made his way through the hills, keeping a hand on one of his pistols at all times. After moving a bit farther into a valley, Ruger peeked around a corner, spotting a makeshift campsite. Its sole occupant was a rough-looking old man. Judging my all the scrap and knick-knacks that surrounded him, he was some kind of scavenger. It seemed as though he were unaware of Ruger’s presence, however, as he tried to move in closer, the old man quickly turned to face him, catching him out in the open.

“Back off! I ain’t easy pickins, raider trash!” The old man pointed an old AR-15 at our hero, duct tape holding much of it together. “I know how to use this thing!”
“Hey now, easy! Easy…” Ruger slowly turned and the corner and calmly deescalated the situation, making a point to keep his hands away from his pistol belt. “I ain’t no raider. The name’s Jack Ruger, and my guns are intended for the fascists and robbers who started this mess.”

“Ah, you must be with the socialists…” The prospector lowered his weapon and slung it back over his shoulder. “Can’t say I’d call myself one, but anyone fightin’ the good fight against the provisionals is a friend a’ mine. You’re welcome to my humble camp, friend.”
“It’s good to see a friendly face…” Ruger tipped his hat. “But I gotta ask ya…what are you doing so far out, old timer? This ain’t a place for honest folk.”
“Well, if it ain’t a place for honest folk, I gotta ask what you’re doin’ out here…” The scavenger defensively retorted.
“Duty, mister. I have reason to believe an old ‘friend’ of mine, Major Heckler, is in these parts. You ain’t happened to see any remnants of the US army hangin’ around, have ya?”
“Most folk I know stay away from the army. Bad news.” The old man shook his head. “But you? You’re out here lookin’ for ‘em…”
“Heckler is a fascist war criminal and near the top of the Vasquistas’ hit list. Not to mention, he nearly killed me for my refusal to slaughter innocent women and children while they cried for mercy.” Ruger looked the prospector in the eye, revealing the long scar that ran across his face. A parting gift from Heckler, those who watched the pilot episode would remember. “I’ll chase that bastard through the gates of hell if it means I get to pull the trigger on him.”

“You were a soldier? A provisional?”
“Yeah. I was. But enough about me. Back on-topic; what are YOU doing out here?”
“Wait a minute…Jack Ruger…former soldier…you’re the one who rode into Phoenix a couple months back and single-handedly killed all the police…” The scavenger recounted. (I remember that episode. It was such a good one!)
“Police officers are thugs and scum of the highest order.” Ruger casually brushed him off. “Far as I’m concerned, I liberated that town.”
“Heh, you ain’t gotta tell me. You’re alright, Mister Ruger. So I reckon I can trust ya…”
The old scavenger looked in both directions and in the cliffs overlooking them, scanning for anyone who could be listening in or watching them. When he determined the coast was clear, he leaned in closer to a hesitant Ruger.
“Between you and me, Mister Ruger…I’m lookin’ for the Western Reserve Gold. Been lookin’ for it for damn near two years. All my hard work in scoutin’ it out has led me here, to ol’ Chiricahua mountain.”

Ruger blinked, dumbfounded. “Wait a second…you’re out here lookin’ for…lookin’ for the Western Reserve gold?”
“Yessir.” The old man replied with no hesitation or shame.
After Ruger took a minute, obviously trying to process the outlandish situation, he sighed. “Say you do find the gold. What then, mister? It’s the end of the world. That gold ain’t worth nothin’ right now. Even if the human race manages to dig itself out of this hole, there are two outcomes to all of it. The NRRR or the provisionals. New Rome might say thank you when they take it back from ya, but they sure as hell ain’t gonna make ya rich. And the provisionals?”

Then, Ruger drew one of his .45s, turned towards one of the cliffs overlooking them, aimed up and fired a single shot. The entire sequence was lightning quick. At first, it didn’t look like he hit anything. However, the camera panned out and revealed a lone rifleman, dressed in a US army uniform and aiming a scoped rifle at the pair from behind a rock formation. After a second, the soldier slumped over and fell off the cliffside. His body landed a few feet away from the prospector, revealing that Ruger’s bullet cleanly pierced both the rifle scope and the lens of his gas mask.

“That…that’s a gen-u-ine USPG soldier!” The prospector fearfully remarked as he slowly approached the body and kicked at it. “And you killed ‘em!”
“Like I said, I have reason to believe Major Heckler is in these parts. And that means USPG soldiers. Saw him as I came in. Wasn’t sure what he was up to.” Ruger said as he holstered his pistol with a stylish spin. “He was gunning for you, stranger. About to take his shot before I took mine.”
“Y-you saved my life, mister Ruger!” The prospector smiled widely. “And if that sniper was hunting me down, that must mean I’m on to somethin’! Listen, it’s only fair if I cut you in on this. Half of whatever I find is yours, just keep watch while I do the lookin’. If any more provisionals show up, you can-“
“Enough with the gold.” Our hero interrupted him, annoyed. “The Vaquistas have got a mutual aid center down Agua Prieta way. They’ll help anyone in need. Mexicans, Americans…you should give up this nonsense and go.”
“I’m afraid no one is going anywhere, Sergeant Ruger…”

Ruger and the prospector looked towards the direction of the unfamiliar voice. Sure enough, standing over them on one of the cliffs was Major Heckler!
Ruger quickly reached for his rifle, but he stopped when he noticed dozens of laser sights pointed at his body. There must have been a hundred provisional troopers quickly rising from hidden positions on the cliffs, all guns trained on our hero and the old man!
Ruger casually put his hands up with a slight smirk, prompting the old man to do the same (though he did it with much less style).
“Heckler…so you have been hidin’ out here. Kind of ya to come directly to me. I was startin’ to get kinda tired of lookin’.”
“So cocky, Sergeant Ruger…” The Major menaced. “Even while you’re staring death in the face, you remain confident. Foolish…yet respectable. Your treachery is quite disappointing. You were one of my best men…”

“We all make mistakes.” Ruger shrugged his shoulders. “Mine was fallin’ in with the status quo all those years. Doin’ General Brock’s dirty work…and yours.”
“You are strong and valiant, but not smart.” Heckler taunted. “To think, a soldier as fine as you to actually buy into that…commie claptrap! We are going to destroy the pests that have plagued us for so long. Mexico will be subjugated. The United States will be pacified. And New Rome will burn…”
“This country’s built on lies and damnation, Heckler. America is done!” The hero spat, fed up with Heckler’s arrogance. “This country’s been dead for a long time. We’re nesting in its corpse and pretending otherwise, ‘Major’. Whatever rises out of the ashes…there ain’t gonna be room for evil men like you…”
“I grow tired of your sanctimonious rambling, Ruger.” Heckler motioned for his troops. “Men! End that nuisance!”

As the soldiers raised their rifles, our hero let out a sharp whistle.

In the blink of an eye, explosions rocked the mountains behind them and a couple dozen armed insurgents rose from the high ground, shooting at the troops below. It was the Vasquistas! While Heckler and most of the US soldiers were distracted and trying to return fire on the immediate threats behind them, Ruger quickly shoved the old man behind the safety of a nearby rock formation and spun his pistols out of their holsters.

What followed was a long sequence of awesome gun battles. Ruger must have killed dozens of soldiers himself! I spent nearly the remainder of the episode just sitting in awe of the long action sequences. I ended up crisscross applesauce about two feet away from the screen, as always!
It ended fairly predictably; Heckler got away right before our hero could cut him to pieces with his Bowie knife after his guns ran dry. However, the cliffhanger ending revealed that Ruger, the prospector and the Vasquistas tracked him into a secret cave network within the mountains. The final scene consisted of everyone looking at a giant pile of gold, tucked away in the rocks!

Funny enough, I learned about the Western Reserve in social studies last year. Ms. Henry devoted almost three whole classes to it. It was the biggest bank heist in history and it happened right here in La Reina (but it was closer to the ocean in the old part of the city that was called “Los Angeles” before the Winter), pulled off by a group of revolutionaries called the ‘New Roman Liberation Front’. They used all sorts of cool gadgets to do it, including Russian machine guns, homemade power armor and even a stolen Skyranger! They were going to use the gold (the spoils of ‘war profiteering’, Ms. Henry called it) to help with the civil war, but the nuclear exchange happened and the Long Winter started just a couple days after the heist. Anyone who was involved probably died. Now no one knows where the gold is. It’s one of history’s greatest mysteries!

As the end credits began rolling, I rose up and began stretching out of some of the muscles I wore out with my awkward sitting. However, just as I took my attention off the TV to retrieve my comphone (it was ritual for everyone to start texting their thoughts after every episode), a blaring announcement made me turn my head back…
“Attention Little Gunslingers! If you enjoyed this week’s episode, ‘The Treasure of Chiricahua’ and the potential rediscovery of the Western Reserve gold, we are offering bounties to any aspiring young rangers who are willing to help the Imperial government recover this lost fortune!”

I quickly returned to my former position in front of the TV, watching as the announcer spoke over real-life images of the locale just seen in the show.
“The Imperial Office of Nature Services has undertaken an archaeological expedition into the Chiricahua basin, long lost to history since the days of the Long Winter! Among other things, it has been proposed by several historians as a potential location for the Western Reserve gold featured in this week’s thrilling episode of the Last Gunslinger! Thanks to collaboration with the Office of Education and the Office of Public Information, we are giving ambitious and responsible Little Gunslingers a chance to partake in this historic event! All viewers are invited and are encouraged to ask your parents or guardians about this historic and educational opportunity! Please visit the IONS website for more information. Until next week, Little Gunslingers, where this thrilling arc will be concluded!”

I darted out of my room and down the stairs into the living room where mom and dad were lounging. I knew what I had to do.

“Absolutely not!” My mom frowned, crossing her arms.
“But mom!” I whined. She didn’t even give me time to explain!
“No! Your father says it’s dangerous!”
“She’s right, buddy.” Dad agreed, not looking up from his comphone. “Christ’s Rebellion Army is out in those deserts. They ain’t done nothin’ yet to make IDISA clean ‘em out, but a lotta guys from the station have been shot at out that way. Your show is gonna get people killed…”
“Nuh-uh!” I defiantly put my foot down. “It’s an archaeological dig!”
“Just last week, your father had to go out to that area!” Mom obviously didn’t care. “They were shooting at cars, Jackie! I’m not letting my youngest son near terrorists!”
“Hell, I ain’t scared of some pansy-asses who worship some dead old raghead.” Dad was quick to calm her down. “But I also ain’t a ten-year-old boy. That part of the desert is pretty dangerous, Jack. Your mother and I just want you to stay safe.”

Like every grown-up seemed to be, my parents were worried about the Christ’s Rebellion Army attacks. Dad told me the CRA were a “batshit bunch of Pentecostals” from the Midwest who started kidnapping people on the highways and shooting at patrolmen after the government shrunk their reservation a few years ago. Rumor has it they moved into the Southwest after a scuffle with armed citizens outside Chicago.

I never knew why there were terrorists who actively worked to hurt other people, but school of all places set the record straight. Not long after the Empire was founded, we took a bunch of people and put them in “reservations” way out into countryside. Ms. Koch said it was “radical” religious groups that got taken away - Amish, Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses and Pentecostals mostly. The government labeled them “savages” because they had outdated cultural customs and didn’t want to obey the law. Disease ended up killing a lot of them, and schools nowadays teach that it was a “genocide” (Ms. Koch said we’ll learn more about it in a couple years). Because of all the problems, a lot of them left the reservations and became terrorists, blowing stuff up and killing people until getting stopped by IDISA. Savage terrorism doesn’t happen that much these days, but it still can.

“But Dad! The government approved it! They’re the ones hosting it.” I tried again.
Mom still looked unphased, but Dad blinked and set his comphone down.
“Well, Anna, the boy makes a point. What did the commercial say? Who is runnin’ that show?”
“The Office of Nature Services! With the Offices of Education and Public Information, too.” I grinned. I knew I could win dad over.

“Hell, they’re bound to have security locked up tight.” He shrugged. “With that in mind…I ain’t got a problem with him goin’. Hell, it’s educational.”
Yes! I knew if I could hook dad, it would only be a matter of time before mom would give her blessing! Dad was never the type to give an outright “no”, usually brushing off the kids’ proposals he wasn’t crazy about with “ask your mother” (who was more than happy to say “no”).
“I don’t know, Paul.” Mom sighed.
“Listen, how about Javier and I drive the kids down there on Sunday?” Dad proposed. “I can use my badge to see what’s goin’ on behind the scenes if you’re still worried. Besides, if they’re opening up Tombstone for Roamin’, we’ll wanna see that…”
It was clear Dad was vouching for me at this point! Like he said, he probably just wanted an excuse to go Roaming. I don’t see the appeal (it’s just exploring pre-Winter ruins with guns and geiger counters), but him and Javier are both big on it. Two years ago, they even took a “Roaming vacation” to a small, poor country in Europe called the “Baltic Union” where there were plenty of sites and more danger. They got stranded there for a month because the Baltic government completely closed off the country on account of the Namibian Flu.

If dad was going to Roam or not though (and probably drag us along with him), I was going to find the treasure of Chiricahua!
Mom let out a defeated sigh and crossed her arms before looking back over my way.
“I still don’t think it’s a good idea. But if your father and Javier are tagging along…”
“Yes!” I pump my arm and victory. I then dart over to mom, wrapping her arms around her waist and hugging her tightly. “Thank you, thank you, thank you! I’ll stay safe! I promise!”
“I know you will, honey…” She patted me on the back before gently nudging me back. “It’s your father I’m worried about! Roaming when there’s terrorists around…”
“I ain’t scared of pansy-ass savages! Hell, I survived my trip to the Baltics, didn’t I?” Dad was quick to defend himself. “And they’ve got all sorts of nasty bandits that make the CRA look like Little Pioneers! I’m talkin’ very rapey bandits!”
“Paul!” Mom frowned at him. “Watch your mouth!”

Back in my room, I casually fall into my bed and grab my comphone from my nightstand. Predictably enough, Frankie, Benji and Barb were all blowing up our group chat. I could tell from the most recent messages they were already talking about the Chiricahua Expedition.
“Mom said we could go” Barb’s text read. “But she cant drive us if we want to do the weekend. Committee meeting or some shit”
“Dad & Papi said I could and would be happy to take us if we want. Dad is off this weekend” Frankie replied.

I knew when I jumped in, I was gonna be hailed as a hero…
“Mom & Dad cleared it Dad even offered to drive us” I send with a grin on my face.
“Frankie, Dad told me that he wants your dad to come roam with him. Something about an old cowboy town”
“Yeah, Dad said he wanted to get Paul and check it out lol”

We texted one another well into the night, as was usual. Before I knew it, it was ten o’clock. My bedtime, which I thought was stupid and unfair, Howie could stay up as late as he wanted, usually! Regardless, I quickly turned my TV off, slid my comphone under my pillow and got into a solid sleeping position right as my mom opened my door to tell me goodnight like she always did. She would take away my phone if I was still messing with it at this hour.
Once the coast was clear, I recovered my phone and we resumed our texting, all excited rambling about Chiricahua. This summer was gonna be the best ever!