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short story by K. Kylyra Ameringer

When the nation fell, it fell not with a bang, but a whimper.

The final coup by the ruling regime was welcome by many; the people were promised that all the bad guys - drug dealers and addicts, prostitutes, gangsters, and terrorists - would be cleaned up. Law and order was established, right-wing style, with swift justice and little fuss. The filthy immigrants, who took jobs away from deserving citizens, were either deported or 'dealt with'. Employment was up, the streets were cleaned, and as far as most people knew, there was no objection to any of the changes.

When the intellectuals began to disappear, many thought nothing of it. They didn't know anyone personally affected, and the dogma of the day provided all the comfort in cold words that anyone could ask. 'Dissent is the seed of terror' was a favorite. The appearance of armed guards on the streets meant nothing; they were there to protect citizens. Yes, of course mass protests were banned - too easy for a non-conformist upstart to slip in and cause trouble. And private conversation monitoring? Well, who wouldn't be for that - unless you were looking for trouble?

It all seemed so sane, so natural to the isolated citizens. Their news and information had been restricted for longer than most of them were alive. The propaganda fed through the airwaves told them the nation was great, the last stronghold of democracy. The somnolent public gulped down the lies, and ignored their armies marching on country after country. Alternatives to most citizens were cut off. Internet access was restricted, and satellites automatically banned transmissions from the rest of the world. Although travel outside of the country was not restricted per se, it was made financially outside the reach of the average Joe to make it non-existent except for a select few.

Andy felt she was going mad.

Six months ago, she'd been at Berton protesting with the other students. She'd been there when the troops came, and lined up with guns pointed at the placard waving University body. She'd been there when the shooting started and saw Judy, her best friend, fall with a bullet wound through her head. Screams. Running. More shooting. Then most frightful of all - the tanks. They were at the south end of campus, cutting off the students' retreat. Confusion. Where to go? Where to go?

She found herself running past the Library on Scarborogh Street and heading toward the Botanical Gardens. Her legs burned, her lungs were on fire, and she could barely see through a haze of tears. Run! Hide! Her thoughts were like a rabbit's; all she wanted was a warm, safe hole to crawl into.

In the distance, she could see the smoking ruins of the Botanical Gardens long before she reached them. Blind panic. Andy ignored her legs, her lungs, and her heart that now felt like it would explode at any moment, and put on an additional burst of speed. She headed west, off campus, and lost herself in the maze of city streets. When she finally stopped to rest, in a dirty back alley with overflowing garbage bins, she had no idea where she was. She was numb with shock. All she clearly remembered about that moment was that she wanted her parents. Without thinking, she used her cell phone to call home.

It didn't take long for the police to find her. By the time they did, Andy was shivering and only half conscious. She saw the flashing lights through a haze of anguish, and found she hadn't an ounce of fight left in her. They handcuffed her roughly and threw her in the back of the squad car without informing her of her rights. Under new law, Andy was branded a dissident, and therefore had no rights.

There was no trial. Andy was moved from the city jail to the county jail to Feldon State Prison, where she spent 148 days in isolation, if the meal rotation was to be believed.

Now she is on a bus for a long journey east. There are only two other prisoners, both women. An armed guard stands with a rifle at the ready near the front of the bus. No one speaks. Andy recognizes where they are going long before the National Park signs come into view. Valley Mortis.

'Why are you taking us here?' It takes all of Andy's courage to break the silence, but she does it. The other two female prisoners shrink away from the aisle and hide their faces. Andy sees what is happening before it occurs, and she tries to brace herself for the butt of the guard's rifle in her face. Her eyes blur with tears, but she manages to not cry out.

'Shut up,' is her only answer.

Andy hears the wisdom of the words, and keeps her silence, but her fear mounts. They won't. They can't. But her mind brings up story after story of disappearances, people who were taken and never heard from again. Most think they've been deported, since the President (he still insists on being called President even though no vote put him in power) has long had the power to strip anyone of their citizenship, and Flick News did an entire hour program on deportees called 'Where are They Now?' showing previous citizens incorporated into other cultures. Flick even dug up a couple living in Hong Kong, who said the move had ended up being the best thing that happened to them.

But there is no airport in Valley Mortis, Andy's mind whispers.

The bus drives a long time before it stops. There seems no reason to stop where they do; it is the same desolation they've been seeing since they entered the park. It is desert; stark, bare, and blazing hot. There are no buildings, no prisons to be transferred to. Just an iron spike in the ground. Andy's fear triples.

'Off the bus,' the armed guard orders.

Andy feels the world tipping under her. This can't be happening; this is a free country, for Christ's sake. It's just some scare tactic, some exercise meant to break them.

But her rabbit mind doesn't accept that, and keeps running around and around in circles. My Mom. My Dad. Spencer, I could have married him. Barbara. I'll not get to see her grow up. My studies... never even finished my degree. I'll never get to see that little lake again... loved to spend time there. Every summer, with fireworks. So proud to be a citizen. So proud to be part of it all...

Heat, white hot. Scorch. So thirsty. Chain rattles.

'I'm a free citizen, damn it! I have rights!' Andy cries.

The sound of a gunshot rings three times across the empty landscape. Andy falls in the land of the free, a bullet in her gut. She is meant to die slowly, meant to suffer for her crimes against the country.

Whirl of dust. The bus leaves. Alone now, with the pain.

A vulture circles lower and lower. It lands on a rock, and smells the death smell just a few tantalizing feet away.

Andy sees the hungry mouth. I'm a free citizen, her mind protests one last time.

A whimper escapes her before the vulture moves in.

Whimper by K. Kylyra Ameringer