Of Constructs and Men is the next title, which focuses more on the objectification of women and how their rights can be taken away at the discretion of those in seats of power. The story revolves around Letitia Dube, whose son was taken away shortly after birth. Her quest to get him back leads her to the discovery of genetically-engineered soldiers, experimented on since infancy, and plans for war with the Alliance. Her hand is forced and she carries the burden of stopping a war that would tear apart the Alliance and would expose the star systems to the Trade Collective; a conglomerate of highly capitalistic businesses that strip systems of every resource, and have no issues with slavery.
“Amanda, darling,” said the high-pitched secretary of the third floor as she peeked in through Letitia’s office door. Her red curly locks hung in her face.
“Candy. How can I help you?” Letitia asked, hoping to have the expected chit-chat end as soon as possible.
“Mr Bram has some firefighters going to take care of the crap at the dumpsite downtown, but they need a supervisor. I figured, with your experience, you’d be perfect for the job.” Candy twirled a lock around her middle finger. Letitia sighed and rubbed her temples; Amanda knew how to do that, not her. Perhaps it was a bad idea to swap identities.
“You don’t have to do anything, just watch that they don’t sit around and drink while the trash is burning, is all.” Candy’s attempt at reassurance made Letitia feel uneasy. What if something went wrong, she had no idea how to handle it? Being off-site, she could call Amanda and ask, she reasoned. It felt like a test, perhaps for the promotion that Mr Bram hinted to her a month ago?
“Fine. When?” she asked. Candy’s green eyes sparkled at her response.
“Oh, um, now.” Candy shrugged her shoulders, not in uncertainty, but in apology for the sudden task.
“Now?! Are the men there already?!”
“Not yet. They’ll be there in about five,” Candy said as she slipped away. Letitia panicked; it was half an hour’s drive from Icorn. She groaned and gathered her things, saved her work, and switched off her computer to leave. She hurried down the stairs to the underground parking lot; she didn’t dare to risk elevator traffic. She hooked the wire from the car’s phone into its jack and dialled Amanda’s number as soon as she turned the ignition.
“Hello,” came the hushed voice on the other end.
“Mandy, I need your help!”
“Tish? What’s wrong?”
“I’m on my way to the dumpsite. I have to supervise the team sent to destroy the trash and I have no idea what to do if shit hits the fan!”
“Okay, just breathe, Tish. Nothing goes wrong with that unless some guy gets drunk and falls into the fire. Just make sure they don’t drink. Somehow they think ‘fire’ and grab a case of beer, then hold a party until it dies.”
“Yeah. It’s easy, just chill. If something happens, call the Fire Department,” Amanda huffed a giggle. She sighed relief. Amanda continued to unload the actions she should take for any possible scenario. She thanked Amanda and hung up. She turned into the dumpsite.
A dark grey cloud of smog and soot trailed from the ground ahead, high into the sky where it hovered and blotted out the sun. Icorn was bad but the site was on a whole new level. There were surely more environmentally-friendly methods to dispose of the trash. Letitia navigated down the gravel road until she saw the orange and red of flames.
“You must be Amanda,” said one of the firemen as she got out the car. She nodded. “well, it’s nice of you to join us, finally. We have it under control, you can go home if you want.” His voice rang with a tone of insistence. Amanda warned they would try to rid her of them. She smiled then went to collect the beach chair from her boot. She was thankful Amanda kept it there, in the case of a spontaneous holiday; she was an eccentric woman. Letitia unfolded it in position, sat, and read the book Amanda gave her for Christmas. She listened to the firemen complain of thirst.
A few firefighters scurried around behind the burning trash in front of her. The thick smoke shrouded them. A fireman rushed out of the blanket then sped back in. Another repeated the action. Letitia frowned and put the book in the pocket that hung off the right arm of the chair. She squinted. Again, the action occurred. Muffled panic underlined their words, inaudible in the distance. She leant forward.
“Shit!” one of the firemen shouted. The others raced to him, and Letitia followed shortly after. The firemen were on the other side of the huge heap of trash. She walked around the barrier, coughing her lungs out despite the mask they gave her. The smog was thick and black. She couldn’t see her feet anymore. The heat was unbearable.
She knew little about burning trash but she felt something was not right with it. Another column of fire burned amidst the smoke, far from the trash heap. The firemen raced around it in panic, dowsing it with retardant and wet clay, but the flames burned on.
“What’s going on?!” she asked the closest fireman who collected a wheelbarrow full of sand near her.
“There’s coal under here!” she screamed her reply. Letitia frowned, coughed again, then tailed the woman.
“What does that mean?”
“It means someone fucked up when they clayed the foundation!” she said then hurried off toward the new fire that grew in size along the ground. Letitia retreated to her car, dying for a breath of fresher air. She pulled out the phone from its compartment.
“Mandy, something’s wrong! There’s new fire and it won’t die. Someone fucked up the clay and the water won’t work…”
“Tish, calm down, take a deep breath and start again.”
“New fire, not by trash. Something about coal underneath it. Water doesn’t kill it, and the woman said someone didn’t clay properly. I don’t know what’s going on!”
“Shit…” came Amanda’s first response before she hung up. Letitia looked at the phone in disbelief. What the Hell was going on?! She sat on the ground next to her car, waiting for Amanda to call back when sirens and flashes of red and white flew past her toward the trash. She got up and ran after the firetruck without thinking. Anxiety stripped away voluntary command.
Jets of white foam sprayed from the hoses onto both flames. Only the trash’s fire died out. She watched the fiasco, unable to move or help. She would get in the way. The firemen drilled into the ground around the second fire, which served to make it bigger. A couple of dump trucks arrived soon after and wasted no time in tilting red liquid mud into the drilled holes. Was that their plan? They ignored her throughout the afternoon; she didn’t matter as long as she stayed away. The fire raged on and spread deeper through the dumpsite. They had to kill it soon before it reached the makeshift houses in the surrounding township.
The sky turned dark from the smoke which hid the midday sun. Ash rained down over the entire downtown area. Law enforcement vehicles raced up and down the streets in the distance and tried to evacuate the people. Echoes of crying and shouting resounded through the area. A cacophony of sirens and engines drowned the scene. She couldn’t move.
“…nda?” a trailing voice called out in the white noise. “Amanda!” it called again. Letitia slowly turned around to see who it belonged to. She didn’t want to take her eyes off the chaos, but she still didn’t have control. “Amanda!” Mr Bram raced to her and wrapped a cold, wet blanket around her shoulders before bending down to pick her up. She couldn’t protest it. She wanted to stay, to see how it turned out. What was going on?! He carried her to an ambulance that waited by the dumpsite gate. She felt small with how easily he walked despite her dead weight.
She stared at his ice-grey eyes, contrasted by the red around it from the smoke. She was too uncomfortable to budge or speak, partly paralysed by fear; not of the raging fire, but of him. She didn’t trust him. The paramedics fiddled around as soon as he laid her on the stretcher. He was prepared. Too prepared. No one, not even Amanda, was that calm and quick in such a scenario. Did he expect it to happen?
She shut her burning eyes in a dismissal of her paranoia. Tears flooded out through her eyelids. The pollution affected her judgement, and yet, she couldn’t take her eyes off of him. She didn’t want to miss anything. He stood with his hands on his waist and looked out at the undying terror several meters away. His suit’s jacket flew around in the wind. When did he lose it?
Evening relief came, but the ground was too hot for it to matter. Mirages, illuminated by the wide-spread fire, scaled across the horizon. It wasn’t going to die, they were. Exhaustion numbed her ability to react. It could sweep over her and she wouldn’t lift a finger to stop it. Perhaps it was best to let it consume her. Junior wasn’t really alive anyway. Amanda would be fine without her, and Thomas was too young to care if she disappeared.
“It’s no use, sir. We can’t put it out.”
“Bury it again,” Mr Bram said to the Chief Fireman. He nodded then turned away and shouted orders to every department at the scene. Mr Bram turned his attention to Letitia. “How’re you feeling?”
“I don’t know,” she replied. He smiled and moved to sit beside her in the back of the ambulance. “How did this happen? What just happened?”
“Some twat didn’t seal off the pit like he was contracted to do,” he said, rubbing his blackened knuckles together. She didn’t expect him to tell her anything. “He knew about the mine fire, but did he take it seriously?! Nooo, he wanted to save money.” Why did he feel comfortable enough with her to rant?
“Wait, a mine fire? And you knew about it?” she asked. How could he have been so careless?! It wasn’t like him to let a risk hang around.
“I should have known that incompetent prick didn’t do a proper job,” he mumbled. She watched his beige hair ruffle in the hot breeze.
“So, what caused the mine fire if it wasn’t the trash?” she asked and regretted it. She should not get close, but there she was; betraying her instincts.
“Ah, there’s a tale of history. A few decades ago, there was an explosion in the coal mine down there,” he pointed to the horizon in the east, “They thought they killed it, but just to be sure, strict rules were put in to prevent, well, this.”
“I guess they were wrong,” she remarked. They watched the people running around trying to contain the fiery threat. It was almost comical. She resisted the giggle. She scanned the open plain. The history bugged her. “But how did no one know? How does a decades-old fire go unnoticed, I didn’t even know they could burn so long?” The thought escaped her lips. What was she doing, entertaining the conversation like that?!
He creeped her out but she couldn’t seem to stop talking to him. It must have been the fumes in the air. She needed to tread carefully; he should never find out who she was. He was the bad guy, she reminded herself; he took Junior away from her then covered it up! He was the reason everyone thought she went mad. Maybe he would let something slip or maybe the rapport would get her to the Light Tower. She rationalised to justify the indulgence.
“See the smoke scattered all around the place?” His hand glided over the township in the distance.
“That’s part of the mine fire? I thought they were camp fires…” She paused after realising how prejudiced she was to the people living there.
“It’s been in plain sight all these years. No one bothered to ask about them so we didn’t tell.”
“What did you mean by bury it again?” She knew the answer but she needed to hear him confess to a cover-up. She needed something she could hold against him.
“We don’t have the funding or technology to dig out the fire, not if it’s spread this far.” He sighed. For the briefest of moments, he was human instead of the robotic corporate she painted him to be. He actually cared. “Well, I’ve got a township to evacuate, so if you’ll excuse me?” He got up, bowed to her and walked around the ambulance. She traced his movement then realised what she was sitting in. It was too large to be an ambulance. Her car drove up in front of her and a man in a blue suit emerged from it.
“Your car, Miss Ranger,” he said as he handed her her keys. “Mr Bram cleared you for the day off and suggested you check into the hospital.”
“Thanks,” she said, unsure of Mr Bram’s intent. Did he suspect her? He couldn’t have, or he wouldn’t have told her about the mine fire. Unless he was that confident? He was a narcissist, that much she could tell, but wasn’t reckless.
She slid into her car, dizzy and nauseous, and started for home. Her chest felt heavy and humid. A burning sensation scratched at her throat and lungs. Her eyes watered without end and her sinuses blocked up. It was difficult to breathe. Perhaps she should get checked out, but where? She didn’t know how far his reach extended or how much he influenced those under his thumb. She wished her father were still alive, he would have nursed her back to health in no time.
Letitia looked in her rear-view mirror and saw how high the cloud of smoke extended. Rings encircled its waving pillar, which faded the higher it got. It was fortunate the wind was calm. She looked to her left as she drove through the dumpsite gate. She expected to see a horde of evacuees, but instead, only a few families leaving the township. Why weren’t they getting away?! Some people were stubborn to spite themselves and everyone who depended on them. She wept for the children who were forced to stay under the blanket of poison. Her head began to spin. She had no choice: she had to go back.
Extra Lines of Story:
“Miss Ranger?” the elderly secretary called into the waiting room, “it’s time. He’ll see you now.” Letitia took a deep breath in.
“Must it be a war?”
“Because they don’t listen any other way.” She hesitated, trying to find an argument.
“Follow me?” Letitia asked Katie.
“Always, sir.” She wrapped her hand around Letitia’s forearm and grinned. It was time.
For a moment it was quiet; the glass no longer shattered and the explosions halted, but its echoes carried on up the cylinder.
“It’s just you and me against the world, Thomas.” Letitia pulled Junior closer and sighed. It would be better, she promised.
“You don’t have enough funds.”
“I don’t understand…”
“Betar is no more. You cannot afford housing here, Miss Ranger.”
Defeat overcame Letitia. He was gone. Her knees buckled and she shrugged to the floor in despair. He was gone.
Mr. Bram’s hand rest on her shoulder. She looked up at his smirk. His eyes reflected the bold presence he made at the hospital.
She blamed him for it, like she blamed him for getting her mixed up in it, Junior’s situation, and Kate’s death. She glared at him.
Letitia watched the festivity through the kitchen window. She wasn’t ready. She was happy for Amanda, but she wasn’t ready.
Mr. Bram smirked. He knew it would happen; she was a pawn in his game. Letitia followed him out. Vengeance was hers.
“You needa leave, Tish!” he grabbed her arms for her attention and stared into her flawless brown eyes, “It’s not enough we win.”
Katie was a soldier of honour. Her every word commanded respect. Letitia didn’t understand why Katie pledged her loyalty to her.
Despite his pale complexion and the holes littered where tubes once stuck, Junior was peaceful. The moment wasn’t her favourite.
Letitia looked out the porthole. The turbulence through the atmosphere frightened her, but Junior and Thomas didn’t stir.
“I’m here for you, Mandy.” Letitia smiled at the broken remnant of her best, and only, friend. She would not let her waste away.
“I have an idea,” Amanda winked at Letitia, despite her bloodshot eyes. “You become me. Get our boys back. Make trouble.”
Plasma tore open the sky and, in that split second, she saw it. The calm didn’t precede the storm, it lay in wait at its peak.
“And what if they wanna try a normal life?”
“We can’t really stop them, can we?” Letitia shook her head and dropped her gaze.
The girl turned around in march, her boots stomped against the tiles toward the target dummy. She raised the machine gun.
She wouldn’t send them. “There will be no war!” Her words resonated throughout the Tower. She cringed at the acoustic feedback.
John looked back at the flames that engulfed the Light Tower.
“They still in there, aren’t they?” Letitia sighed. He nodded.
“What?!” Letitia mumbled.
“Junior’s DNA doesn’t match yours or John’s, Mrs Dube.” Dr Henrie plucked at his eyebrow in thought.”
Congratulations, Mr Dube.” John turned to the voice and saw a menacing grin on the staunch figure at the door.
The pod revealed a little boy. Cuts and bruises covered his body; some scars were white and faint with age, others scabbed over.