I left the United States for a life in New Zealand on March 16th, 2020 – a country far, far away from Donald Trump, the US healthcare system, and the world I once knew. This move was over a year in the making, something I had considered for years and finally brought to fruition. I knew that moving to a new country would include some unexpected events, but a pandemic was far from my list of potential surprises. I left the United States two days before the New Zealand border closed, and nothing about the world has been the same since.
Leaving the US and embarking on this adventure has shifted my perspective in numerous ways. As I finish editing my soon-to-be-released novella, Brothers in Arms, I realize that the evolution of this short story (several years in the making, now, accounting for years of lost inspiration in residency) has paralleled my own growth as a person and citizen of the world.
Brothers in Arms is a story from Dmiri’s point of view, split between the events of the “past” when he lost his rank, and the events of the “present” just following Forsaken Lands II: Sacrifice. Without spoiling too much, Brothers in Arms was originally a story of triumph. I wanted to show Dmiri at his best – orchestrating a military coup, convincing others of his ideas, rallying people to his cause. Dmiri is a person of principal and skill, who we only start to know in Sacrifice. I wanted to show what he gave up to get where he was, and how he gets the opportunity to bring his grand plans to bear.
The skeleton of the story has remained the same, while the themes have radically changed. As I went through a period of demoralization in residency (nearly quitting medicine altogether), divorce, and changes in friends (some new, some lost), I started to see how the reality I created in my head wasn’t quite what I wanted it to be after all. In many ways, we humans need to believe in grand ideas to make sense of the world, to protect ourselves from the anxiety that accompanies uncertainty. We want to believe that the people and institutions we admire authentically embody the virtues we project on them; we’d like to think that good triumphs over evil eventually, and those who are supposed to “stand for something” are built on solid foundations. Some people manage to hang on to these beliefs for the long-haul, and I can certainly see the appeal. It’s cleaner, safer, and easier to live in a world where permanency and absolute truth exist.
Pulling away the curtain to see a more unadulterated world (do we ever really see reality as it is, anyway?) is not always something that happens quickly. I have experienced it in fits and spurts, flashes of recognition that something is deeply awry interspersed with moment of clinging to the safer belief in what is familiar. In the end, though, there must be a breaking point – the moment where what is seen cannot be unseen…
…for me, anyway. It seems that there are plenty of people who choose to see only what they want, epitomized by the great mask debate that rages on in the country of my birth. I digress.
Brothers in Arms is no longer a story of triumph, though there are elements of success and finding camaraderie. Losing one’s faith in people and institutions is not epitomized by a sense of success; a “victory” in these instances is hollow. What is gained when we see things we once managed to ignore – things like systemic racism, sexism, abuses of power, and unprincipled people masquerading as stalwart authorities – is contrasted by the loss of the security we once had.
The feeling that we are left to grapple with in the end of the day is grief, and that is the story of Brothers in Arms now, years after I typed the first words on the page.
Darker themes aside, I’m glad to be in New Zealand and I’m extremely excited to be on the cusp of publishing for the first time in five years (what?!). There is one other short story on a back burner which might show up between now and the release of Forsaken Lands III: Redemption, but I can be certain now that Redemption will one day be finished. In the meantime, look out for Brothers in Arms hitting the internets in the next 1-2 months, and check out this excerpt –
I’m not a nervous person – at least, that’s what I tell myself. I had been a part of the Celet military in some capacity since I was eight years old; twenty-four years, all-tolled. Absent gods, when did I get so old?
I pride myself on being calm and well-conducted under pressure, but judging by the way I had worn a four-finger dent in my desk with my incessant rap, rap, rap on the wood, any bystander would assume I was plagued with the mental disease. I was starting to wonder if it was true myself. Perhaps I had misjudged my vices all these years.
I was grateful for the knock at the door to my quarters. I laced my fingers together in the hope that they would calm themselves. “Come in,” I called.
The door clicked open to reveal my visitor, Second Eling-Mai Nyugen. She was fully clad in the Celet officer blues, dark hair pulled back in a severe-looking bun, all within specs. Her pistolet hung at her side practically halfway down her leg – Mai was small even among the Celet people, but carried with her an imposing presence. Her thin fingers rested on the grip of her weapon, a sure sign of her own apprehension. She had nothing to fear inside this room; it was what waited for us outside on the Zhyra outpost which set our nerves on edge.
True to protocol, Mai closed the door and stood just beyond its threshold, waiting for my instructions.
I waved at her inelegantly. “I think we’re well beyond protocol by now, don’t you?”
Mai’s shoulders remained stiff and strong when she approached my desk and sat across from me. I imagined I look haggard in my rumpled two-day-old uniform with sleeves pulled up over my elbows. I hadn’t properly slept in as much time, of course. The mess of classified documents I procured from one of the shipments we dropped off two weeks ago were sprawled out in front of me, marked up by my own hand so haphazardly that even I couldn’t read it.
Mai’s sharp eyes took all of it in with one sweep. Her cheek twitched.
“The watchers are reporting land,” she told me. “We’ll be there by sundown, unless you’d like to postpone.”
“Is that what you want to do? Postpone?”
“I…” Mai trailed off uncharacteristically. She shook her head. “I just thought I should ask before we proceed.”
I couldn’t fight the smile. I tried to straighten up, pulling the wrinkles out of my uniform jacket. “This is still a voluntary mission. You can go below deck and I will happily call you my prisoner.”
I might have been hallucinating, but I thought I saw her fight off a smile, too. Instead she just blinked. “And you can still turn this ship around.”
Mai, I’m asking you as your friend – are you sure you want to go down for this?”
“If I wanted to abandon the Resolute I would have jumped off at Tayk like everyone else,” she caught herself just in time, “sir.”
“You still can’t call me Dmiri,” I mused. Ever since we’d graduated from the academy together she used my rank or title when speaking to me. I supposed that was partly my fault for keeping people at a comfortable distance. My reputation in the fleet was a good one – I was trusted, even liked by most, yet I could count on one hand the number of people who really knew me. Mai was one of those people. She knew me all too well. I watched as her lips pressed together. She did not find this amusing.
“Dmiri,” her voice lowered, the use of my name so surprising that I jumped and hit my knee against my desk. She acted as if she didn’t notice. “Are you sure you want to go down for this?”
I couldn’t quite meet her gaze. Instead I rested my eyes on the papers, fatigue stinging me with each blink. She asked a question I’d been asking myself constantly since we found those manifests.
I swallowed. Damn and hell, this anxiety issue would kill me. “They cannot court martial a legend.”
Mai glanced to the side with a grunt of disapproval. “Not all of us are legends.”
“They will be reasonable,” I told her, and impressed myself with how confident I sounded. It was a skill I’d had since I was too young. I could convince and charm people by making them think I knew what I was doing. What I’d learned by practicing this skill was that I was not the only one pretending; in reality, no one knows that they are right. Leadership is a costume, nothing more. “We’re just asking questions.”
Mai, of course, knew this secret too. Her dark eyes sparkled with silent understanding when they met my own. “You should change,” she remarked, standing and folding her arms behind her back. “I will bring us in.”
She half-bowed to me, as was custom, and turned to leave. “Mai?” my voice crackled. I would need to exorcise my uncertainty before I showed my face to the rest of the crew, let alone to my adversaries.
Mai looked at me over one shoulder. “Yes, Dmiri?” her own voice was soft.
The silence between us was warm, if just for that moment.
“Captain,” she concluded, disappearing beyond the door.
When I stood my muscles ached, and not with good reason – they ached not from being active, but from sitting, keeping my spine jammed vertical in a chair for much too long. I traced a finger along one piece of paper, despairing at how little my work had won me.
Codewords and cooked numbers. The ledgers were full of shipments marked as if they were simple supplies – food, water, containers, bandages. Deep in the paperwork was much darker stuff: thousands of bullets, hundreds of weapons, and medical equipment I wasn’t qualified to judge. Jamming devices – a few dozen of them – more than the entire continent had produced in a decade. The military hadn’t employed jamming devices since the Rice-Wheat Uprising nearly fifty years ago.
Goods befitting a peaceful mission of resource-gathering they were not.
I strode across the room, fussing with the buttons on my jacket. One of them popped off, clattering on the floor. I didn’t bother to hunt after it. The jacket, undershirt, and pants hit the deck just before I reached the door to my bathing suite. The light clicked on in the cramped space, and I was greeted with my reflection, inescapable from the position of the showerhead.
I could deceive myself into believing I was less vain than the masses, but this would be folly. For all I felt like a jaded old man, I was still young, particularly for my position. The bits of gray peeking out from my slightly-too-long-for-regulations black hair were my penance. I was the youngest captain of a Class 1 naval vessel in Celet history, a journey which required a level of physical training and academic rigor which most would find excessive. I could have saved the stress and accepted the usual course in life, arriving in the very same position just five years in the future. No one would have been disappointed.
No one, that is, except me.
For all I would tell anyone who asked otherwise, I still wished I could have achieved what I did without inviting the gray in my hair. I built so much out of my life – so much to lose.
I turned the knobs, tensing when the frigid water coursed over my forehead, chest, and back, a procession of shivers jolting me from the mental fog. I breathed deep, hoping to chase out the pain in my chest and the closing of my throat. I pressed my forehead to the wall and hit my fist against the stone, teeth bared. I would not turn back. I couldn’t return home with suspicion in my heart. I could do as everyone else apparently had done – bury the truth, accept the lies, wait for a promotion. That wasn’t the man I decided to be when I joined the military. I had plenty to lose if I continued, yes, but I had just as much to lose if I turned back. I would rather risk imprisonment than lose my self-respect…
Every moment I spent under the water was another moment the ship forged on. Time was limited and I was running out of space to house my fears. The chest pain receded just enough that I could hit the faucet and remove myself from the shower. Some might not bother with shaving their face at such a juncture, but I did – I wouldn’t have my crew knowing that I’d spent two days wracked with uncertainty in my quarters. I donned my uniform, grabbed my pistolet out of my trunk, and straightened up. My bones ached and popped.
Beneath the rational weight of my decision I knew the truth – I would never go home again.