The Red Zone: A Football Story From A Hot Planet - Chapter 1
The full Chapter 1 of The Action Cookbook Newsletter's serial fiction project
|Jul 23, 2020||7||6|
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 subscribers in regular serial installments over the next several months; today, I’m sending the first chapter to everyone.
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.
The first stop on the Saints’ tour was to be in Vicksburg, a short hour down the river in simpler times. There wasn’t much that could be done in a straight line these days, though, and a 50-mile crow’s flight became a 150-mile inverted horseshoe of a journey, first following the river north into Chicot, what used to be the southeastern corner of Arkansas. Some of the higher parts of the state got to stay inside the fence, but an especially flood-prone triangle of the river basin poking up nearly to Memphis was outside. They’d go north to find a river crossing at the Greenville Bridge, a rusty and derelict bridge that was one of the few fixed connections available on the Outside. Down in Vicksburg, right past their destination, the old Interstate 20 loomed as a barrier—a heavily-fortified passageway right through the Red Zone, secured by military guards.
One of the last vestiges of the old country, it carried the traffic of commerce between the still-wealthy metropolises of Atlanta and Dallas. Rather than skirting around the northern finger of the zone, it punched right through it, connecting the border towns of Jackson and Monroe. Officially, the big walls that now flanked the highway were to protect traffic on this narrow isthmus of civilization, but the people Outside suspected they were to hide any glimpse of them and maintain the illusion that there weren’t people still living on either side of it.
The journey would take a whole day, slowly bumping over the cracked, worn and potholed highways; Coach Ragsdale quietly fretted about getting delayed at the bridge. He wanted to reach Vicksburg before nightfall, when the patrols were more active, more brazen. He knew Delfin had considered this, had considered everything that might befall them, but he still worried. He changed the subject without it having even been breached.
“These Vicksburg boys are gonna give us a run.”
“Well I guess we’re just gonna have to give ‘em a run back.” Delfin kept his eyes on the road.
“You watch the vids?”
“You know I did. Got about 20 pounds a man on us up front. Hell of a pass rush, too.”
“I could turn us around.”
“Won’t be anything to go back to if we do.”
They both let the thought hang in the air, the bus’s loud hum drowning out the dread.
“If we can keep Cal on his feet, we got a shot.” Delfin was the optimist of the two.
“Bet’s gonna need to have the game of his life.”
“He does every time.”
Ten rows back, Simo watched wide-eyed through the portal as the countryside rolled by. There wasn’t much to see but rows of pines and the occasional farm field, but it was more than he’d ever seen. His whole life had been confined to a 15-mile radius around the place he was born, never further north than the Cutoff or south past the old aid station in Transylvania. Some of the other boys would go on days-long hunts, heading downriver or west toward Bayou Macon tracking packs of hogs, but Simo’s mother never allowed it. She’d held him close to her his whole life. Life was hard for everyone in their part of the world, but she’d tried to make it a little bit softer for her only child. While other parents believed in toughening their children up to face a harsh world, Maianna Belizaire felt it was her mission to make the world beautiful for him until he knew better. Everyone deserved a chance to see it that way, if only for a time, she knew. She bought books from the traffickers, anything she could get her hands on, weathered and ratty paperbacks that crumbled to the touch and smelled of years of musty rot. After a long day’s work over at Cornell’s Farm, her back sore and her feet numb and buzzing, she’d sit with him, demand to know what he’d learned about the world today. She’d help him through the words he’d struggled with—he was under strict orders to keep a list, and she’d work through each one, sounding out their meaning, their etymology, their use. “Knowing is worth knowing itself,” she’d repeat, steadfast in her belief in an education he might never get to use.
Now, as he stared out the window, he realized how little he actually knew about the world. The landscape was at once familiar and alien, the same kit of parts he’d seen all his life rearranged into new shapes, new views, new fields. It was the same feeling he’d get reading a word he didn’t know. The letters were there, and he could try to sound it out. But he didn’t have a clue what it meant.
It’s a curse to call someone a gifted athlete—often a barely-coded insult to their intelligence and dedication. There was no other way to say it, though: Simo was gifted. Lightning fast and limber, he could scramble to the upper branches of the gnarled bald cypress trees near their house in seconds. Maia had long reminded him there was no shame in running from a fight, because the faster man was still a winner. “Stay alive, and you’ve shown all you need to show.” When class would let out at the town’s little school, he’d run home at a full sprint, wasting no time with the boys hanging out after.
It was this speed that led Coach Ragsdale to recruit the skinny young boy for his team; he knew that he didn’t fit the gritty, tough mold he usually looked for in his players, but a gift is undeniable even if it’s not the one you asked for. He hoped, in time, that the boy would put on some weight and prove valuable as a tight end or defensive back. This season was going to be mostly about inuring him to the realities of the game and of life outside of Lake Providence. They’d always carry a few bench bodies for emergency substitutions, injuries and the like, but most games his core eleven warriors played every down, every snap. If things went right, Simo would never see game action.
It was past midday already when they reached a roadblock guarding the approach to the Greenville Bridge. It was a sight when it opened, sixty years ago: a gleaming, modern cable-stayed bridge spanning the big river between Arkansas and Mississippi. Today, it seemed like it remained standing out of sheer spite. A handful of the big suspension cables had been snapped, and metal plates lay over holes in the roadway, a product of a counter-insurgent bombing campaign during the unrest of the late ‘40s. It was controlled now by the Greenville Militia, a mostly-peaceful but heavily-armed contingent of former insurgents who defended the bridge and supported a small community by charging tolls.
A guard, a youngish man with a serious face and a Jiangnan rifle slung over his shoulder, signaled for them to pull over. Coach Kerr threw the bus in park, and bounded off to negotiate. They carried little in cash, but Del was a skilled negotiator who always had a way to get things done. It wasn’t clear from inside the bus exactly what transaction he was making, but he could be seen carrying on an animated, if friendly, conversation that eventually required three more guards to join in. He opened the front cargo hatch and removed a small package, handing it to the oldest of the guards. After a short discussion, the guard waved to his comrades up the road, and they began the process of removing the barricade. A flatbed trailer laden with large water tanks, it had the chocks removed from its wheels and was slowly pulled aside, towed by a team of oxen. Delfin burst back onto the bus, satisfied. Coach Ragsdale said nothing, just nodded.
The view from the bridge was spectacular. Simo had seen the river before—it was impossible not to, living where they did—but to see it from above was to experience flight for the first time in his life. He was too thrilled to be nervous as Coach Kerr steered the heavy bus nimbly around the potholes and plates on the pock-marked span. A new world lay on the other side of that river, even if it might be worse than the one he was leaving.
“You better hope we don’t fall in,” Nibs grumbled. “Never find our bodies, just wash out to sea if we don’t sink into the mud at the bottom first. Get eaten by them giant catfish.”
“Man, quit tryin’ to scare me, alright? Ain’t gonna work.”
Nibs smiled, then nodded to a spot fifty yards upriver, where a shape could be seen sticking out just above the muddy water in the trees. Most of it was submerged, but it was immediately clear what it was: a GL250 Gharial armored transport, identical to the one they were riding in.
“Ain’t gotta try.”
“You tell Devonn?”
“Nah, man. She’ll get word. I don’t need her trying to talk me out of it.”
“So you gonna let me talk you out of it, then?”
“You should come with me.”
Hosea Priester was resolute. He hated life in Lake Providence, and he was willing to risk anything to get out. Three seasons on the Saints had bought him a little time—he was one of Coach’s most valuable men on the line, and he appreciated the favorable treatment it got him back home—but he knew this was the time to go. Near the end of the season, the team’s planned tour would swing through Jackson, and he could simply defect—walk up to the guard booth at the gates and declare for the Amnesty. It had been a long-standing, vaguely-official policy of the government up North; strapped for bodies in their seemingly-endless series of foreign and domestic military conflicts, they would take anyone who arrived as a recruit.
This included residents of The Red Zone, even though they weren’t officially acknowledged to exist. Four years of service in the Army, and Hosea would be rewarded with clean documents, the key to a new life in the remaining parts of the country. He could make money to send back to Devonn and their baby, and eventually send for them. He was aware of the stories, aware of what happened to Manuel Belizaire, but as he’d told his younger brother Tillman before, “I’d rather die trying than just die here.”
“I gotta stay. I gotta watch over Ma.”
“Ma’s fine. Tougher than you or me. We’ll send rations back. Two less mouths to worry about feeding anyway.”
The Army would offer a meager stipend by Northern standards, but it would be a fortune back home. It could buy Ready Bags, if nothing else—the waterproof kits of food and medicine still produced years after the war and able to be delivered by solar drones. It would be enough to ensure their mother’s safety until his time was through.
“She doesn’t get a thing if you die.”
“I ever died before?”
“Come close plenty.”
“If you haven’t come close, you ain’t livin’, little bro.”
Hosea made sure Tillman remembered he was the older one, even if the younger Priester had several inches and twenty pounds on him.
“You think Coach knows you’re leaving?”
“Hell no. He wouldn’t have let me on the bus if he did. He was friends with Belizaire, you know.”
“So what’s the plan?”
“Just play the season as it is, until Jackson. We get to Jackson, I slip out right after the game, head to the wall, and declare. All there is to it.”
“Who’s gonna take your place on the line?”
“Hell if I care. Cal can block for his damn self.”
“I don’t like this, Hos. I think you should stay. One more year. See your baby.”
“You should come.”
Tillman sat in silence, considering the stories he’d heard. Hosea had always been his leader, his guide post. Only fifteen months in age separated them, but his older brother was confident and fearless in ways he’d never been able to muster. He’d followed him their whole life. Hunting trips around the lake, an ill-advised raft trip that left them hiking back for days, and onto the lines of the Saints. They operated as a package deal, and that was perfectly fine with Coach Ragsdale, who relied on the ‘twins’ to bolster the right side and anchor his ground game. Tillman had no interest in taking his chances in the Northern forces, but he didn’t have much interest in going it alone for the first time in his life, either.
“I’ll think about it.”
Two hours past the bridge, Simo noticed they were slowing down. Nibs opened his eyes. “He’s being careful.”
“Del. He knows what’s out there.”
“The camps.” Feria looked animated for the first time since they’d gotten on the bus, a quickened pulse evident in his flickering eyes and suddenly fidgety hands.
“We’re close to the Delta Forest. That’s one of the places they run out of.”
“What are you talking about?”
Simo’s blank look in response exasperated Feria.
“Man, ain’t that momma of yours teach you about shit? The Legitimate States Defense Force. The Fence-Cutters. Only people worth a damn around here. Started by deserters from the Northern army years ago. They’re the only ones that stand up to the patrols.”
“They the ones that run those radios?”
“Nah. Same side of things, but the radio folks only warn where the patrols are. The Cutters do something about it.”
“They fight the patrols?”
“They kill them. Make a point of it. I hear they’ve never taken a prisoner in twenty years of work.”
“They run wildcat strikes up north, too. That’s why they call ‘em the Fence-Cutters. Break past the defenses and do as much damage as they can.”
“So the people who don’t want to think about us have to think about us. Remind ‘em we’re here.”
“Don’t the patrols come after them?”
“They do. But they ain’t beat them in twenty years. Even the mercs on the patrols aren’t willing to lose blood like the Cutters are. You go into the Forest after them? No one’ll ever see you come out.”
“So if they’re the good guys, what’s Coach K. worried about?”
“Can be hard to tell who’s good and who’s bad. We drive slow, let ‘em get a good look at us. Show we aren’t a patrol, show we aren’t a threat.”
“What do you mean, get a look at us? There’s no one out there.” Simo scanned the landscape for signs of life, but saw nothing.
“They’re out there. They see us.” Feria stared out the window. “That’s what I’m gonna do one of these days. I’m gonna join up with them. Do something real. Hit back.”
“Back for what?”
Feria closed his eyes again. The conversation was over, and Simo knew it.
“I hear Vicksburg’s big up front.” Calvert wasn’t nervous, or concerned, but simply stating one of the few things they knew about tomorrow’s opponent.
Barrilleaux nodded. “I pulled in a few minutes of one of their old streams. They’re big all around. Hard hitters, too.”
“Gonna be a grind.”
“Yup. We just gotta keep selling power up front, hold the line, hope we can sneak Nibs through on a few big counter plays. Maybe we even get you a look at some play-action throws downfield.”
“You know Coach R. ain’t gonna want to see that.”
“I know. That ol’ saw about three things happen when you throw and two of ‘em are bad, right?”
“Yup. He’s gonna want to keep it on the ground the whole time.”
“We’re gonna keep it there most of the time. He’s the Coach. But if we can open up a few good looks it might be our best shot at sneaking out a win on these guys. We’re not gonna beat them in the trenches.”
Barrilleaux respected Coach Ragsdale. He wouldn’t ever talk from a place of defiance or insubordination, but he’d always felt that his coach was cautious to a fault. The teams they played with all stuck to traditional schemes, run-heavy playbooks that emphasized blocking and stoutness on the line. Since he restarted the team a decade ago, Ragsdale had run a variant of the Power I—an offense developed over a century prior at the University of Maryland. It was safe, and it was the sort of thing the sponsors liked to see, but it required bigger bodies than Lake Providence had in order to be successful, Bet believed. Beyond himself and the Priester boys, the Saints were small. He thought sneaking in a few pass plays here and there could take advantage of the little bit of speed they had. McClendon, the weak-side tight end, was fast and loved a scheme on and off the field; he’d be game for anything that bought him some touches. They’d make it look like improvisation, like they’d seen an opportunity and taken it, rather than a premeditated plan to undermine Coach. Bet just wanted to win, and he knew they weren’t going to win without getting crafty.
It was just starting to get dark, but for the first time in hours, they noticed lights ahead. The lights weren’t from the city itself, but it meant they were close. The walls of Interstate 20 could be seen from miles away: a sheer, imposing concrete face topped by flood-lit guard towers every quarter-mile. It was an impressive expense for a country that wasn’t supposed to have any money, Coach Ragsdale quietly scoffed, but he knew better than to think it was actual irony.
There was just more money in fear than in sharing.
Vicksburg lay in the shadow of this wall, a city surviving both in spite of it and because of it. When the fortified highway sliced the city in two, the government quietly left an opening, a nondescript tunnel connecting the northern finger of The Red Zone to its much-larger southern swath. It was one of the few places to cross, and if it didn’t exist, they might have had to take responsibility for those northern reaches. They preferred to engineer around it.
The bus rolled into the location Coach Kerr had been sent, near the old city high school. A pair of rusted quonset huts sat back from the roadside in what had once been a city park. He pulled to a stop, and waited. It was quiet, and growing darker by the minute, with only the linear constellation of highway lights a half-mile south illuminating the warm, hazy night as the sun slipped below the horizon beyond the river.
“They remember we’re coming?” Coach Ragsdale shifted, discontented.
“They remember.” Coach Kerr turned off the engine. Ten minutes passed, then twenty. The bus was silent, none of the players wanting to break the awkward tension. It was completely dark by the time a figure in black whirred up on an electric motorcycle, a ‘40s era Davidson that showed every bit of its age. The figure dismounted, and strode to the door of one of the huts, unlocking it and stepping inside. A generator hummed to life, and lights could be seen to flicker on. The figure stepped outside, and removed their helmet.
“Come on in, what’re y’all waiting for?”, hollered a baby-faced man of barely thirty. “Come settle in. Dinner’s on its way!”
A palpable wave of relief washed through the bus, and the players slowly rose, legs stiff from the day-long journey, and piled out of the bus and over to the hut. It was nicer than Coach Ragsdale had expected inside—spartan, but clean, dry and spacious, with cots for each of the players to sleep on and even ceiling fans keeping the heat bearable. Some places they’d end up sleeping in tents, or even in the bus, but lining up a game with Vicksburg had been a lucky coup; the Gators usually played teams of better stature than the Saints. An outbreak of the Lowland Flu had caused Pascagoula to abruptly cancel their season, opening a window for the Saints to slide in. Coach knew it would be a tough game, but it would be good to see how his men could compete against a strong opponent, and Vicksburg had earned a reputation for hospitality to visiting teams. They weren’t enemies. Their goals were shared, even if one side had to lose.
“Barston Smith,” the young man proffered a hand, “we spoke by Satphone?”
“That was me,” Coach Kerr clarified, shaking his hand firmly. “Nice place.”
“It’s not much to look at, but it’s sturdy,” the young man nodded.
“You’re the head coach?” Coach Ragsdale inquired, hoping not to sound too accusatory.
“Took over last year,” Smith smiled, either not sensing or not minding the implication behind the older coach’s question. “John Bart coached the Gators for twenty years, and I learned by his side for the last five of them. We owe this whole operation to him.”
“What happened to—” Coach Ragsdale had hesitated as he asked the question, but his line of inquiry was cut short as the door swung open again, and a large young man carrying three big metal trays entered.
“There’s the food!” Smith spun on his heel, and helped the man unload the trays onto a table, sending him out to bring in the rest. “C’mon, boys, I bet you’re hungry after that bus ride!” A happy clamor arose as the Saints crowded around to serve themselves. Even Coach Ragsdale’s stomach growled; he hadn’t had a full meal in days, as he’d been preoccupied with the final logistics of their departure. It was a fine-looking meal, too—river carp and wild boar, still warm from the Vicksburg commissary. His worries could wait; the season was just getting started. There was plenty that could go wrong, but little he could do to prevent it. He filled a bowl and ate quietly, while his players loudly chattered. The game would be early the next morning; most of their games were. The afternoons were too hot, even at this time of year. Evenings were for teams who could afford the lighting, and could compete for viewers in the better time-slots.
Coach Smith wished him luck, and they agreed to meet on the field just after sunrise to set up the broadcast. “Good game tomorrow, Saints!”, he bellowed, as he stepped out the door and into the steamy night.
“Lights out in 20, Saints,” Coach Ragsdale grumbled. He sensed this slight bit of reverie would be the last they had for a while.
He prided himself on being an early riser, but by the time Coach Ragsdale got to the stadium, a worn, ratty grass field with rusted bleachers surrounded by trees that looked ready to overtake it, Delfin was already there, fiddling with the Box.
To make money as a football team—in The Red Zone or anywhere else—you needed viewers. In the North, this meant what it always had; partnerships with official broadcasters, experienced camera crews, technicians, support staff, and stable arrangements with advertisers and media channels to air your games.
Down here, it meant doing it all with a Box.
Nobody up North was going to send their own camera crew outside the fence to capture these games; they would be filmed and packaged remotely, using drone-mounted cameras and off-site commentary. The Box was what made it possible. An all-in-one production kit, they were leased out to teams in The Red Zone for a fee—one that could be earned back with profit by staging games that would draw in enough paying viewers. The latest version of the Box, a three-camera model, had been delivered to Coach Kerr’s property by solar cargo drone just a couple days prior, and he was still working to get a handle on firing it up.
“You got that damn thing ready yet?” Deo resented the whole process.
“It’ll be ready. Just haven’t connected to the satellite yet.” Delfin didn’t look up. He loved working with Deo, but wearied of his impatiently football-only mindset.
“Could just work off Vicksburg’s cameras.”
“Let them run their own damn broadcast. We cut our own deals. We got our own offerings.”
“What’s that mean?”
“We’re not here just to be a cupcake, are we, De?” He continued to fiddle with a keypad on the outside of the case.
“Of course not.”
“Right. So we’re not gonna broadcast like we’re the undercard in our own games. We’ve gotta get our own following, not just people tuning in to see us get our asses whipped.”
“I didn’t know you had so little faith in my coaching.”
“It’s because I have faith in your coaching that I’m saying this.”
He must have entered something right, because the Box blinked to life and opened up. The three drone cameras whirred awake, floating out of the case and into a holding pattern several feet in front of them. A projected image flickered above the case, showing a clean-shaved man sitting in a nice, brightly lit room. “Coach Delfin! I’ve been waiting for you to get on. What took so long?”
“You changed your codes.”
“We improved the security of our link-up in this latest model. We do expect you to be on time nonetheless.”
“Game’s not for an hour,” Deo bristled.
“You must be the head coach.” The man on the other end smiled. “Coach Kerr has told me about you.”
“He tell you that I’m in charge of everything that happens with my men?”
“We wouldn’t have it any other way, Coach. Please, relax. I know you’ve had some bad experiences with broadcasters before, but I do think we have a compelling strategy this year. I’m sorry, I didn’t introduce myself, I’m Ja—”
“Strategy? What strategy do you have for my team?
“De, calm down,” Delfin interjected. “It doesn’t have anything to do with what’s happening on the field, it’s just a production strategy, okay?”
“We’re going to focus on the unique qualities of your story, give context for the on-field product.” The man smiled, weakly.
“The hell does that mean?”
“They’re just going to focus a little bit more on us during the game. Some sideline shots, some interviews with pla—”
“Mr. Ragsdale, I assure you that it will all be done in a respectful, controlled manner, and—”
“Just film the damned game. Both of you. No bullshit.”
Coach turned and walked back to the quonset hut. He had asked Bet to get the team ready while he surveyed the field; he hoped they were ready.
It’s a beautiful morning here in Vicksburg, folks, and the Gators probably expect an easy win today against the Saints of Lake Providence, a plucky upstart from the other side of the river. I’m James Cherone, and this is Old School Football, the kind your grandfather played and your grandkids will one day, broadcasting live from the former territories of the United States—
Eddis knew the game plan. Keep it on the ground. Feed it to Feria, Vannay and Flores, or keep it himself. Grind, grind, grind. He didn’t always agree with Coach Ragsdale, but he was a good soldier and the most stable quarterback Lake Providence had had since the team was restarted. He was proud of that.
—Quick snap to Calvert… the big man hands off to Anibal Feria, who cuts right, has a la— no! He’s wrapped up by number 68 for Vicksburg, Hussein Jones… gain of only about a yard on the play—
He trusted Bet Barrilleaux. A lot of the guys on the team were young, undisciplined. They’d follow instructions during practice, but as soon as they were between the lines they’d lose focus, get overhyped, and miss assignments. Bet never did. Sometimes he got beat, or simply out-muscled, but he always knew where he was supposed to be and what he was supposed to be doing.
—4th down and short, gives it to Vannay... OH, HE’S LAID OUT FOR A BIG LOSS… Center Trus Tejada just got bowled over by the nose tackle McGehee, that’s a turnover on downs, Vicksburg’s gonna start with great field position here on the Lake Providence 42—
Eddis did dream about playing up North, but he knew it was a fantasy. Their game looked so much smoother, so much more artful. It wasn’t all about hits, it was about finesse, timing and strategy. He didn’t have the biggest arm, but he was accurate when he was allowed to throw. Didn’t put it anywhere it didn’t belong. He could have really thrived if he’d had a chance to play up there, under the big lights in Atlanta or Detroit or Duluth. Hell, anywhere where they could practice in the offseason instead of toiling to survive. Streams of the Northern games could be brought in sometimes, if the Sat-link was working. He knew these players weren’t any better than he was. He also knew that the only way to cross that fence was to have a Jiangnan put in your hands.
—The Gators have strung together a six-play drive here, looking to punch it in just before the half... option pitch right to the big back Kelly, bounces off the tackle, cuts back in, he’s wrapped up at the three, but he’s still up, and MUSCLES IT THROUGH for the touchdown...Vicksburg takes a 6-0 lead with the conversion to follow—
Vicksburg retreated to their locker room, a small cinder-block building behind the old bleachers, for halftime. There wasn’t a visitor’s locker room, so the Saints sat on their helmets on the sideline, exhausted. The hazy morning was already growing hotter, the humming of the cicadas louder. Coach Ragsdale didn’t care for rousing halftime speeches, and focused on strategy.
“We’re not out of this. Their right side’s been slipping all game, we keep attacking that side. No funny stuff.”
Calvert was stiff. He’d been taken down hard a dozen times in the first half alone. A few of them were late hits, but it’s not like there were referees to flag them. Penalties would only be called if a coach requested, and a judgement would be made by the broadcasters up North. Fans hated when you did that, so it almost never happened. Better to shake off the hit and give one back on the next play.
“Coach, they’re stacking the box against us. We can take advantage. If I can get Euby in the flat we’re looking at a big play.”
“We’re not playing that trick shit, Eddie. Stick to the game plan and we’ve got a shot. We don’t need to innovate, we need to execute.”
The second half was more of the same story; the Saints went four-and-out on their first three drives, and Vicksburg punched in another score to make it 16-0. It wasn’t about execution. It was about size; they were giving up too much weight on the line, and they were getting overpowered. As they lined up back on offense, Calvert punched McClendon lightly on the shoulder. Euby knew what they’d talked about.
It looked like a counter; Feria broke full-speed to the left side, but McClendon spun around the defensive end, straight into the flat, with no one within five yards of him and open field ahead. Calvert hit him with a perfect pass, a tight spiral right at his chest—
—We’ve got a bit of a stoppage here while they check on Calvert, who absolutely got his bell rung by the defensive end Desrochers… looked like a play-action pass on that one, Coach Ragsdale showing some trickery for Lake Providence... Might’ve been a touchdown, too, if the tight end McClendon had held onto it, but he left his quarterback a sitting duck... While we’ve got this break, just want to remind our viewers that for all their silver and mercury needs, there’s no one better than Paracelsus Health Products, now accepting six forms of digicoin and International Yuan… alright, I see his feet wiggling, our man’s alright...these boys that play down in The Red Zone, they aren’t soft like those grass-dancers up North, they can take a hit and get right back up...they’ve got him on his feet, let’s see those claps on the stream, folks, give it up for Eddis Calvert, a real grinder for the Lake Providence Saints. It’s fourth down, with the Gators leading 16-0 as we approach the end of the third quarter—
Simo hadn’t played a single down, but he was shocked by how rough the game had been. They’d played hard in their scrimmages back home, but this was a different degree of violence. His teammates weren’t just getting tackled, they were getting ground into the mud. The coach for Vicksburg had seemed so nice setting them up the night before, but he wasn’t showing them an ounce of mercy now. The Gators were attacking on every down. His face must’ve betrayed his horror.
“It’s not personal, kid,” Coach Kerr said, looking up briefly from the broadcast box, which he’d been monitoring closely even though it didn’t require any input from him. “They’re doing what the viewers want them to. You’re getting a following in this game if you’re pulling up or taking it easy on folks. You’ve gotta play vicious.”
“Is Cal alright?”
“He’s shrugged these off before. You’ll learn to do it, too.”
—and that’s time here in Vicksburg, folks, with the hometown Gators closing out a 24-6 victory against the visiting Saints of Lake Providence. It wasn’t much of a contest today, unfortunately, with the bigger boys controlling the game from the jump. Lake Providence saved some face late, their lone score coming on a hard hit by linebacker Aníbal Feria, who just knocked the lights out of Vicksburg’s Wardell Lewis, leading to a scoop-and-score by corner Euby McClendon. It was too little, too late, as benchwarmer Rendell Richard didn’t have much luck taking over for starting quarterback Eddis Calvert, who sat out the fourth quarter with a buzzer—
They shambled onto the bus, sore and depleted. Vicksburg’s coach had graciously sent them off with an extra ration crate and some fresh water, and the players silently ate as they pulled away from the field. Calvert slumped in his seat, his head between his knees, a towel draped over him to keep the light out. No one said a word.
The highway wall looked even more massive up close; a sheer concrete face forty feet high. It was fortified like this anywhere it crossed signs of civilization, with a wide cleared berth and lower fences through the countryside. The hum of traffic could be heard from within; there were people inside there, passing through their abandoned country without ever seeing them, without ever being forced to acknowledge their existence. It was a 120-mile causeway built in the name of holding firm against the advances of an angry sea. In reality, it was a capitulation, a lie. An engineered attempt to claim that what the country had done was necessary and logical and not a cruel and senseless abdication.
Feria rose from his seat and slipped quietly down the aisle of the bus toward his quarterback. Bet stopped him; he knew that Calvert needed to rest, needed to shut out the world until they got to their next stop. Feria knew, too; he quietly handed the big man a small bottle from his bag. Damabonal. The painkiller was nearly impossible to find outside the fence; it was too expensive for most anyone down here to buy even if they knew where to get it.
Feria just shook his head. “You give it to him when he needs it.”
He went back to his seat.
The tunnel crossing wasn’t a grand gate. It was little more than a culvert under the big highway, albeit one with twelve feet of concrete above it, lest any of those unacknowledged people slipping through it get it into their mind to try and hurt the big road above them. Delfin eased the big bus slowly through the darkness. On the other side, there was light. On the other side lay the larger expanse of the places that had been left behind by a society that only remembered them when it wanted to be entertained. On the other side lay the rest of their season, one that they’d struggle to survive at this rate.
The Lake Providence Saints were in dire need of a change, and that change would have to come soon.
They drove into the light, ever south.
This is the first of eight installments in the The Red Zone; future installments will be rolled out on a regular schedule over the next several months for paying subscribers of The Action Cookbook Newsletter.
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Thanks for reading.
— Scott Hines (@actioncookbook)