Introducing "The Red Zone: A Football Story From A Hot Planet"
The debut of a new longform fiction project on The Action Cookbook Newsletter
|Jul 23, 2020||6||4|
Hello! I’m debuting a new feature here on The Action Cookbook Newsletter, something I’ve teased over the past week. A new work of longform fiction entitled The Red Zone: A Football Story From A Hot Planet, it’s a speculative fiction story following an independent football team struggling to survive in a climate change-ravaged version of the year 2070 where the United States has drawn back its borders.
I plan to deliver this story to paying subscribers in regular serial installments over the next several months; today, I’m sending the first chapter to everyone. It’s too long to fit the whole thing in an email, so the first half of it is included in this blast, and there’s a link at the bottom to continue reading the whole thing on the website. (You can also start on the website, here.)
This will not replace any of the regular content you’ve come to expect from The Action Cookbook Newsletter, including the much-loved Friday lifestyle guides; it’s a bonus feature on top of all that.
I hope you read it; I hope you enjoy it. It’s a story I’ve been working on in one form or another for several years, and the time feels right to share it. I appreciate your support.
Now: The Red Zone.
The world doesn’t change all at once. On a long enough timeline, though, the small changes add up. A trickle of water slowly carves a canyon, a degree of warming causes a foot of flooding. Things get hotter and angrier and more dangerous, bit by tiny bit. It happens so slowly you hardly notice it until you look back and see how much has changed.
There’s any number of stories you can tell about the end of the world. An asteroid splits the Earth in two. Alien warriors from a more advanced civilization arrive to destroy us. A super-volcano bathes the world in fire, a climate shift cloaks it in ice. A Biblical revelation or a science-fiction end.
The truth is likely less certain. Less immediate.
You see, the world can end for some while it goes on just fine for others. This is the way it always has been. An unfathomably apocalyptic scenario for a comfortable society is another’s reality right now. There is always suffering somewhere and safety elsewhere.
It’s just a matter of where the lines are drawn.
We’ll come back to that.
“You aren’t going.”
“You know I am, Ma.” Simo kept packing, shoving clothes and books into the threadbare duffel bag. The bag was his father’s, back from before, and it hardly seemed big enough for the length of trip that lay ahead of him.
“I’m not letting you get wrapped up in this, too. Those boys from town, they don’t know how bad it is out there. I do.”
“Half the guys on the team have been downriver before. They know what they’re doing.” He stood up, looked his mother in the eye, and softened his defensive tone. “It’s all planned out, Ma. It’ll just be a couple of months.”
“Half the guys on that team haven’t seen a damned thing, Mo. I know what happens out there—I saw what Manny came back like. I’m not letting that happen to you. You think things are tough here? You have no idea how tough it gets. We’re lucky.”
“We’re broke. It’s just eight games. It’ll bring in enough money to help feed the town for half the year. We need it, Ma. And I trust Coach Ragsdale. He’s looking out for us, alright? He’s not gonna send us into anything we can’t get out of.”
“I’ve known De a lot longer than you have, Mo. He’s a nice man, but he thinks he’s a lot smarter than he is. His promises don’t mean a damn thing once you get down past the big road.”
“Ma.” Simo zipped the bag halfway, as far as the rusted zipper would go, and placed it on the bed. “I’m doing this for us, alright? There aren’t a lot of ways to make money right now. The people who pay for this, they’ve got money. More than we’ve ever seen. We just play long enough to get what we need, and we’ll come right back home. I promise you. I’m not gonna let anything bad happen.”
“Bad things have been happening my whole life, Mo. I don’t see why that has to change now.”
The engine was already running when Simo got to the school. The bus was a relic from the wars, a heavy personnel transport that seated two dozen, with cargo holds underneath and narrow slots for windows running the length. Most of the real armor had been scrapped off years ago, put to better uses, but the retrofitted solar engine worked better without all that extra weight anyway. Hundreds, if not thousands, of vehicles just like it had been left behind after the army pulled out. Some still ran, like the one the Saints were packing up right now. They were used for farm vehicles, ambulances, transport between the scattered settlements of the new South. The ones that didn’t run—ones missing parts, ones that never got solar engines after the oil ran out—they often became housing. They had a sturdier frame than any of the relief pods. The rest were left to rust, fading into the landscape. Nature would soon overtake them, like it overtook everything else when given enough time.
Bet Barrilleaux hobbled to the luggage hold with his gear, his knees aching worse than ever. It would be his fourth trip out on a barnstorm, and though he hadn’t discussed it with Coach Ragsdale, he knew it was going to be his last. The toil of fifteen seasons of the game, from mud-lot games behind the school to five years on the touring circuit, had long worn away the last bits of cartilage. He’d hoped to quit after last season, but he knew there wasn’t anyone in town ready to take his place on the line. He was built like the players of the past; stout, thick, with tree-trunk legs and nearly three hundred pounds of bulk. In lean times like this, he cut a rare figure. He’d never relied solely on that size, though. His footwork was nimble, light and quick, even as his pain grew worse. His hands were the best Coach had seen in decades. Fifty years ago, his talents might have gotten him out of a place like Lake Providence, taken him to bigger fields and brighter lights.
Today, it only got him a place on the bus.
“Barrilleaux!” Coach Ragsdale looked up from his checklist, and strode over to his veteran player. “How the knees feeling, son? You ready?”
“Feelin’ good, Coach. Ready as any of us are.”
“I need you more ready than the rest of us, son. Half these kids haven’t ever been out of town. Del and I are counting on you to help keep them in line. We’ve got a lot to manage between the trip and the gameplan. It’s your job to watch the young ones. Make sure they have what they need and don’t get us in trouble.”
Ragsdale patted Bet’s shoulder. “I don’t want to go any more than you do, son.”
Bet offered a wince of a smile in reply.
“Come on, get on the bus. You’re gonna end up sitting next to Nibs if you don’t hurry.”
“You don’t want me keeping him in line too?”
“Son, if I thought you could do that, you’d be coaching this team.”
“Maybe I will. Take that clipboard right out of your hands.”
“Wait ‘til I’m dead, son. I don’t need to see you doing a better job than me.”
Bet shoved his bag in the cargo hold and climbed on. He hated that smell inside the bus. Synthetic oil, water damage and two decades’ worth of sweat and fear. It didn’t smell like anything else but The Damned Bus, and it forced back memories of his previous trips that he could happily do without.
Most of the team was on the bus already, a nervous energy surging through the dozen or so young men fidgeting in their seats. Flores and Vannay sat near the front, rehashing an argument for the hundredth time. McClendon listened to a headset, nodding along to something, shutting out the rest. Tejada stared out the small window, pensive. The Priester brothers, the biggest muscle on the team behind Bet himself, sat silent and still, each taking up a full seat on either side of the aisle. Bet knew about the rumor that they were thinking of signing up for the Northern amnesty draft, taking a chance with their lives in the hopes of getting somewhere better. He’d always thought that was a suicide mission. Right now, squeezing into this junk heap for another season, he figured it wasn’t much different than the deal everyone on board was making with themselves.
He collapsed his big frame into an open seat next to Eddis Calvert, the only one aside from Coach who he knew he could talk to on the same level. Calvert was going into his third season as Lake Providence’s quarterback. He wasn’t flashy, but he was steady, sharp and serious, a leader on the field. He’d taken a big leap between his first and second years, adding four inches and forty pounds to his frame. The run-heavy offense the Saints relied on meant he took a lot of hits, even with Bet blocking for him, and Coach hoped the added size would help him weather the beating he was in for this season.
“Big man.” Calvert offered a forearm to Barrilleaux.
“Pretty boy.” Bet knocked his giant forearm into his quarterback’s.
“How’s your people?”
“You’re my people right now, glam. This bus is my people. Fourteen little brothers and two pissed-off uncles.”
“Y’all are asking about my knees so much I think you’re tryin’ to run me off. Who’s gonna protect your ass if I go home?”
“Alright, alright. I know you’re ready, Bet. Might be the only guy on this bus who is.”
“Don’t you forget it, Atlanta.”
“Shit, man, quit callin’ me that.”
“With that movie star smile? Kid, you should be up there playin’ in the easy leagues and making money. Makin’ folks swoon. Be like Graves Gardiner and shit.”
“We ain’t play that kind of ball, though. You wanna QB up there, you gotta run that fast game, not this ground-and-pound shit.”
“Ground and pound’s all I’m good for.”
“Yeah, but you’re awful good at it.”
Bet smiled. He liked blocking for Eddis, and respected his experience. They’d played together for years around town. There was a limited window for young men to play football—after a few years you were expected back home, helping out on the farms, going out on boar hunts, and taking shifts on patrol watch. The sport wasn’t about making a career, it was about making enough money from the sponsors to bring back supplies from the border post. It was a deal that kept the town alive, even as everything else seemed destined to kill it.
Lake Providence had been one of the poorest towns in the country even when it was still within the country. Nestled between the Mississippi River and the oxbow lake that gave it its name, it had topped out at a shade under seven thousand residents a century ago. That number dwindled through the first few decades of the 21st Century, then plummeted when the Withdrawal took place. More than half the population headed north, taking their chances with the Resettlement Bureau. Some couldn’t afford to leave, or didn’t believe the government’s promises to take care of them. Others simply refused. Decades later, they hang on in defiance of the odds. Two thousand people live in the town, more isolated from the rest of the world than ever. Farming was the only real business for most of the town, and it still wasn’t enough. Good crops didn’t grow as well as they once did, even with the rich river basin soil. It was too hot.
Officially, no one and nothing from up North was allowed past the fences, but commerce thrives on the blurry edge of legality. Jackson had long been an unspoken point of exchange, a trading post on the edge of the fence where the people the government wouldn’t even admit existed could buy things from up North. Buy what they needed to keep on living where they weren’t acknowledged to be living.
The Saints weren’t good, but making money on football has never been just about winning. It takes two teams to play a game, and if enough people want to see a good team play, it doesn’t really matter who’s on the other side of the ball. Since Coach Ragsdale came home ten years ago, they’d lost three games for every one they’d won, but it was enough. The Saints would bring in money win or lose, and few people in the town or on the team expected wins by now. They just had to make it there and back safely.
Simo was the last to arrive at the bus, and Coach Ragsdale was annoyed with his first-year player. “Showing up on time means you’re late, son. And you aren’t on time.”
“Sorry, sir.” Simo found a small pocket of space left in the tightly-packed cargo hold to squeeze his bag in. “My ma—”
“I know, son. Nobody’s mama’s happy to see them go, but you’re gone now. While we’re out there, you better listen to what I say, you hear me? There’s a lot of ways to get in trouble on the road. I’d very much like to avoid all of them.”
“Get your ass on the bus. And good luck with your seatmate. I bet you’re the first one on next time.”
Simo clambered on, and scanned the rows. With some of the bigger, older players taking up more than one seat, and the front row reserved for Coach Ragsdale and Assistant Coach Kerr, there was only one spot left. Right next to Nibs.
Aníbal Feria wasn’t fun to be around, but he was one of the most valuable players on the team simply for the way he played. He was ferocious, fast, and seemed to have no regard for his own safety or anyone else’s. That was as true off the field as on. He played both ways—most of the players on the undermanned Saints did, and the fans ate up the ‘Ironman’ connotations—but it was on defense that he really thrived. He was small for a linebacker, but he delivered the most punishing hits of anyone on the team. They were the kind of hits that’d make highlight compilations and get the Lake Providence Saints attention. For a team of their stature, any bit of attention was good, and it was worth putting up with him off the field to get eyeballs on them.
“Uh, you mind if I—” Even though it was a small town, they’d never run in the same circles. They hadn’t directly interacted during their half-dozen loose scrimmages, either, the sloppy practices that were all the preparation the team had before leaving. Still, Simo knew enough of Nibs to tread carefully. He’d heard the reputation, and he’d seen the pain he delivered even in practice.
“Sit down,” Feria growled, “and shut the fuck up. I don’t talk on the bus, you got it?”
Simo opened his mouth to answer, but quickly realized the question wasn’t one in search of an answer, and offered a meek nod instead. Feria closed his eyes, but not to sleep.
The engines roared to life, and Coach Ragsdale boarded the bus, clapping for his players’ attention.
“Alright, men. Some of you know the drill and some of you don’t. Welcome to the Saints. We’ve got eight weeks ahead of us, and it’s gonna be the longest goddamn eight weeks in some of your lives. Let’s try not to make it the last eight. Those of you who’ve left LP before, you might’ve seen the dangers out there. The roads are rough and there’s people on them we hope to god not to run into. If we get stopped for any reason, you keep your damned mouths shut and you don’t do a thing unless Del or I tell you to. Do you understand me?”
The players murmured in assent.
“We’ve got a tough schedule ahead of us. A lot of these teams have more money, more experience, and more training than us. But if anyone on this bus thinks we’re not gonna play our asses off and do our best to win every game, they should quit wasting my food, water and time and go back to Mama’s farm.” He made direct eye contact with Simo, who quickly looked down.
“We don’t have much.” He lingered over the words. “But I need you to believe that Lake Providence is not a joke. That the Lake Providence Saints aren’t a joke. You will do your best, and you won’t just bring money and supplies back to our town. You’re going to bring respect to our town, win or lose.”
“Makes this same goddamned speech each time,” Feria quietly hissed without opening his eyes.
Delfin Kerr, Coach Ragsdale’s lone assistant coach, struggled onto the bus carrying a large, black, hard-sided metal case. Del, as most of the team called him, wasn’t just a coach. He was the operations manager, broadcast coordinator, logistics wizard and more. Coach Ragsdale ran the game on the field; Del ran everything else. He’d planned out their whole barnstorming schedule, negotiating game contracts with each team and sponsor deals as well. He knew where they could travel safely and where they couldn’t, and how to get them out of a bind in the places in between. He’d monitor the Bands, the patchwork network of volunteers who reported patrol activity. Coach Ragsdale trusted him with nearly everything he couldn’t manage himself, trusted him with his life.
“Box is ready,” Del said, sliding the big case into the empty seat across from Coach Ragsdale’s. Simo watched intently from his seat. He didn’t know what it was, but it seemed like it was too important to put in the damp cargo hold with their bags, food and water. “Damn thing gets heavier each year.”
Del slid into the front seat. In addition to his other jobs, he was also the team’s driver.
“Say goodbye to Lake Providence, men,” Coach Ragsdale boomed. “Let’s hope we make it back.”
The world got hotter, and not enough was done to stop it. By the time the consequences truly began to mount, it was far too late.
When trying to picture a dystopian vision of the future, you might fall into the trap of thinking that the pain is shared equally, but pain is almost never shared. It’s dealt to the people who have the highest pain thresholds, the people who’ve built up a tolerance from years of taking society’s lashes for them. It’s true in the present day, and the future is no different.
It’s the year 2070, and it’s a different world from the one we know today. The biggest changes didn’t come until decades of smaller things had cleared the way for them, though, worn down the edges like a trickle of water. In the 2020s, the disasters grew more frequent. Pandemics. Wildfires. Stronger and more unpredictable storms. By the 2030s, they were an everyday fact of life. Hurricane seasons were longer, stronger, more destructive. Huge swaths of the Gulf South were ravaged, rebuilt, and ravaged again, with tens of thousands killed and trillions of dollars in property damage done.
For years, experts had warned that we would need to pull back from the coasts, that the tides would continue to rise, the waters continue to warm, and the devastation would only get worse. In the early days, though, the allure of the water’s edge was still strong, and people held tight. By the early 2040s, though, after a three-year stretch of unprecedented damage by a parade of storms, a breaking point was reached. Working in collusion, the nation’s insurers decreed that they would no longer back mortgages in a large, mutually-agreed-upon portion of the coastal and Delta South.
States governments, already facing bankruptcies and demands for austerity, had little recourse or ability to intervene. The federal government, for its part, had already been stretched thin by a series of ill-advised military engagements in the past two decades. President Lujan attempted to step in, attempted a bailout, but the drumbeat of opposition from the northern states was too strong. No further federal aid would be extended. Property south of the insurers’ red line was rendered effectively worthless, and without tax revenues, effectively ungovernable.
Ultimately, in 2045, a stunning decision was made—unable to adequately provide for the residents there, the government redrew the southern border, hundreds of miles north.
Officially, all residents south of the new border would be offered assistance relocating to new communities in the North through the hastily-formed Resettlement Bureau. The program was underfunded and quickly corrupted, though; wealthy residents and corporate landowners cleaned out the coffers, leaving virtually nothing for many of the people who suddenly found themselves living outside the boundaries of the United States. Many left anyways, seeking work in the booming cities around the Great Lakes, or applying for asylum at the Mexican border.
Some remained, though. There were a handful for whom it was a matter of principle, a validation of anti-government mindset where the new arrangement felt like a libertarian paradise they’d always sought. For others, it was stubbornness—a refusal to live and die anywhere else than where their families had always lived and died.
In most cases, though, it was simply a matter of having nowhere else to go.
They stayed, and small communities survived in what would come to be known in popular parlance as “the Red Zone”. The federal government officially recognized the population of what they stiffly termed “the Southern Ecological Reserve Area” to be zero, but it was likely in the hundreds of thousands, if not more. Larger settlements remained around key travel routes, but countless small towns like Lake Providence soldiered on, too.
In these communities, the opportunities were scarce. That had been true long before the government officially walked away from them, though. Hunger was always a problem, and small-scale subsistence farming and wild game hunting was the lifeblood for most residents.
Football offered a different degree of opportunity.
The game had seen its own sea change in the past half-century. By the 2030s, it was clear that the game could not continue to exist as it had for its first 160 years. The Supreme Court ruling in Fournette v. NFL declared the NFL and NCAA liable for traumatic brain injuries to players. Most colleges, universities and high schools abandoned football entirely, no longer finding it worth the financial risk. There were other sports that wouldn’t destroy your brain.
Professional football, teetering on financial ruin, had to adapt, had to lower the physical risk to stay in business. The rules of the game were drastically changed; what existed by 2070 would look as foreign to a viewer in 2020 as what was played by Princeton and Rutgers in the first game in 1869. Contact was lessened. The field widened, and speed and skill prioritized over size and strength. Traditionalists decried it as “basketball on grass” or “chickenshit football”. They bemoaned the loss of hard hits and stout play in the trenches. Others accepted it and moved on, and the sport evolved as it always had.
For those who didn’t accept the change, the old game became an emotional rallying point, a piece of political and social identity. Old game films were cherished for their brutality and danger, prized as a reminder of ‘better times’. The hunger for fresh, live games never went away, either. There was a demand that needed to be filled, and people in The Red Zone could fill it. Outside the fences, legal protections were nil, liabilities non-existent. Traditional, hard-hitting football thrived, with the implicit knowledge that no one could be held liable for what happened to the players.
Games were staged for lucrative broadcast to viewers up north, with sponsors funding live streams shot by drone cameras. The quality of play in these games was a mixed bag, but the level of violence in them was at least as important as the skill, if not more. Spread offenses were eschewed in favor of simple, paleolithic, three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust schemes. Penalties were rare; hard hits were encouraged. Teams could only survive if they gave the viewers what they wanted, because otherwise those viewers would find someone who would give it to them. The beauty of the free market.
Some organized, relatively well-heeled teams emerged, with stable fanbases supplying a steady and predictable income. These teams would play home schedules on real fields, with quality equipment and training. Others, like the Lake Providence Saints, survived on the margins. They were mercenaries, traveling from town to town in search of buy games that could help them turn a meager profit.
There was a lot of danger in being on the road like this. If a transport broke down, there might be nowhere to stop or no one to call for help. The roads were treacherous, having suffered decades of neglect and decay. Wildlife thrived amidst the diminished populations of the countryside.
More than anything, though, the danger came from the patrollers.
The Reserve Area Security Patrols weren’t law enforcement so much as they were a predator filling a void. Officially, they were tasked with sweeping the Red Zone for signs of foreign incursion or other illicit activity that might threaten life up North. Their real purpose, with tacit approval from the federal government, was to maintain order in the territory through intimidation, violence, theft and worse. They operated with impunity, sometimes raiding the settlements, but usually sticking to highway robbery. The danger was ever-present; travel was a gamble.
Though there was little cohesion or contact between the scattered communities remaining, a loose communication network developed to warn each other of patrol movements. Using obsolete technology—citizens-band and ham radio, a network of couriers and code-talkers—they were among the only protection residents of the Red Zone had.
In December 2070, the Lake Providence Saints took to the road with a modest goal. Their season would be anything but routine.
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