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Guaranteed Heroes by William Lashner

Guaranteed Heroes



In the wake of the unprecedented financial, martial, and nuclear disasters that struck the United States in the early 1960s, and during a time of violent unrest all across the land, with great pomp and difficult circumstance, a second constitutional convention was convened in 1964 within the riot-ravaged heart of Philadelphia.

There were bands and gaudy public ceremonies, mass prayers, and far too many flags, as from every state still remaining in the union the preeminent politicians, business leaders, and thinkers of three generations traveled to Philadelphia. The task facing these intrepid men, and the single woman who was allowed in their ranks, was to envision a different kind of nation, no longer conceived in false notions of liberty, nor premised upon rights to be exercised only by the brave or the criminal. Something new was required, something sturdy and bold: a fair deal to embolden a reborn American patriotism.

As the forward course of the country was debated in closed sessions in New Independence Hall, an entire nation huddled around its televisions and radios for any hint of what was happening inside the locked room. Reports of varying accuracy were leaked from the convention site and the various options were debated by solemn newsmen, discussing possibilities from fascism to communism and every type of political scheme in between. Finally, after months of rumor and speculation, the presiding officer of the convention, the distinguished CEO of General Motors, Robert Krist, announced over the airwaves the premise of the revised Constitution to an expectant nation. In high tower and isolated farmhouse, the citizenry held its breath as the future of its nation was revealed.

The new Constitution, Krist declared, would offer something radically different to rebuild the nation's confidence and solidarity, premised upon the singular idea that the people's government would not just provide, but guarantee the building blocks of the American dream. Every citizen of the new nation would be guaranteed education, health care, housing, and, most significantly, employment at a living wage. In short, all citizens would be guaranteed dignity and economic security for the whole of their lives.

The reaction was overwhelming and overwhelmingly positive, but even as cheers and hurrahs rose from the four corners of the land, Krist warned in his crisp southern accent that this would not be a government of handouts or tender mercies. There was a nation to renew, a pride in the fruits of one's labor to be restored. Every citizen would be required to do his part; every person had a role to fill in rebuilding this great and good nation. There would be no slackers. In the New America, work would not only be guaranteed but required.

"Let us bind our wounds," Krist famously said, nine months before he would ascend to the presidency, which he would hold for nearly two decades, "and march arm in arm into our future. Let us support one another as we retrench and rebuild. Let us create a bounty to be delivered to our children and our children's children. And most importantly, let us get to work. God bless you all, God bless the Grand Constitution of the New American Government, and God bless the United States."

True to the promise of that announcement, the nation in time entered an era of broad and sustained prosperity buttressed by a soaring stock market. The guaranteed jobs program became a rousing success, even as the government, to continue to shoulder the costs of its guarantees, was forced to drastically cut back its spending and eliminate services in the sectors of the country blighted by nuclear disaster. Through the process of disincorporation and relocation, stripping the radiated lands south of the Dakotas and west of the Mississippi of their populations and their federal protections, hundreds of billions were saved in government expenditures, allowing the guarantees to continue without ruinous rates of taxation.

Protests over the relocations raged briefly, but a firm military response, along with the announcement from President Krist that the nation had finally reached full employment, subdued the dissent. Employment thereafter remained officially full month after month, year after year. Anyone who couldn't find a job was legally determined not to be trying hard enough.

Even as the last of the relocation riots were quelled, the first Labor Camp for the Malcontented was built alongside a mountaintop mine in Martin County, Kentucky.


Moonis Fell, in orange pants and a ribbed T-shirt, his wiry black hair greased tight to his skull, leaned his tall frame over the chessboard and let the possibilities unspool like film through his mind.

If he backed away, his position would be nigh impregnable and Gaston, with his unchecked ferocity, would wreck his army on the shoals of Moonis's defense. Yet there was something unsatisfying about hunkering down and waiting. His life heretofore had been nothing but retreats; he played chess to transcend his limitations, not enforce them. Staring at the position so hard the pieces shimmered on their squares, he began to see the possibility of an unexpected attack. Everything depended on an aggressive response by Gaston, but if there was anything he could count on from Gaston it was aggression. Moonis let the moves play through his mind one after another-bam, bam, check, bam, bam, bam, mate-saw clearly the whole of the sequence, bright and strong as polished steel.

Chess was not the most popular game in the gray wooden barracks. Most of the men played poker on the round table in the middle of the long room or huddled by the far wall, outside the view of the cameras, and threw the red dice with their corners rounded by the rough cement floor. But the misfits of the crew-the unhinged, the psychopathic, the blithely violent-gravitated to chess. Moonis was a regular.

The others liked playing against Moonis; he kept his mouth shut and was prone to the crushing mistake. It was common knowledge among the chess players that if you stayed alive long enough with Moonis Fell, you'd end up with his cigarettes in your pocket. But the truth was, Moonis never lost a game in his head. Once he saw the victory play out in his consciousness, he no longer cared much about the board, and it didn't pay to win too many games against these mutants. Especially someone like Gaston, thick as a hydrant, with a bull neck beneath his wide, ugly face and a shiv in his shoe. The only challenge then was making defeat seem wholly legitimate, a challenge Moonis cheerfully met more often than not. Each time he lost, it was designed to bespeak a failure of character, not strategy. In chess as in life he had raised losing to an art form.

But he and Gaston tonight weren't playing for a few dried-out Marlboros. Gaston had goaded him into playing for a full unopened pack of cigarettes, and though Moonis had placed his usual box of Marlboros beside the board, Gaston had somehow gotten his hands on a pack of Gauloises. Filterless? Mais bien sur. Moonis considered the danger and weighed it against a perfectly harsh French smoke, something Camus might have slipped between his teeth before working on his scorn. Moonis rubbed his jaw, pushed his bishop, punched his clock.

Two spectators, leaning on a post as they waited to play, chewed their cud and shook their heads as if the mistake were as plain as that tattooed number on Moonis's shoulder. "Cud" was what the farmhands called the betel nuts supplied by the company to prisoner and guard alike, along with uncured tobacco leaf and lime powder, a concoction designed to enhance the work product of the farm.

"A desperate attack to delay the inevitable, my friend," said Gaston in his rough French Canadian accent. Gaston was also chewing the cud, his smile a crimson smear of malice. "So out of character. It is a pity, but I will have to punish your disrespect."

Moonis didn't respond, didn't look up from the board. His eyes behind his thick round glasses remained as impassive as the bishop he had advanced.

"Let us see how my queen sticks like a fork in your throat." Gaston slid his queen forward, simultaneously attacking Moonis's knight and rook, exactly the overly aggressive move Moonis had anticipated.

As Gaston punched the clock, and the spectators chortled, Moonis again saw all the moves, including now the violent moves that would come after the mate, and understood the consequences of continuing that route. This was his last chance to turn away from victory. Moonis was always more comfortable in defeat and, after losing, he was sure that he could bum one of the French cigarettes off Gaston. Moving his rook out of danger would tilt the board in Gaston's favor. But as he stared down at the table, the cellophane on the pack of Gauloises glinted like a Frenchwoman's pale-blue high heel, and Moonis realized he wanted it, not just a single cigarette but the whole damn pack. There was so little to want in this craphole, other than escape or death, but he wanted this.

So it would be weakness, not strength that drove him once again, consequences be damned. Fine. Better to embrace weakness than nothing. He made his move.


Gaston placed his hand on his queen, stared up at Moonis, and spit a red blob of betel into a steel pail on the floor before making a slashing move. The rook died a quick painless death.

"Check," said Moonis as he made his move and punched the clock.

"Wait a minute," said Gaston, examining the board anew as if it were a live, mutating thing that had just bared fangs it hadn't possessed a moment before. "Wait. What?"

"What I said was clear enough."

"I heard you, yes, but wait."

"Don't worry, I'm not going anywhere," said Moonis, raising his gaze now to stare straight at Gaston. "Except maybe outside under a ribbon of stars to smoke your Frog cigarettes." The laughter of the spectators stiffened Gaston's jaw. Peering into his opponent's eyes, it was as if Moonis saw a spark of his own disrespect igniting a vapor cloud of gasoline. There wasn't going to be another move; Gaston wasn't going to allow Moonis the satisfaction of playing out the mate.

Gaston, proceeding directly into his after-mate rage, pushed himself to standing and narrowed his eyes. As the spectators whooped and backed away, Moonis jumped to his feet and grabbed the two packs of cigarettes off the table just before Gaston, with a mighty heave, sent the table flying toward the wall, where table, board, clock, and pieces landed on the huddle of craps players.

Amidst the twisting sounds of crash and shout, Moonis and Gaston faced off. Gaston bared his stained teeth, and then bowed as if making a courtly Old World gesture of respect to his opponent before rising with a blade in his hand.

"You cheated me, you black bastard," said Gaston.

"Life is loss, Gaston," said Moonis. "Accept that and your time here will be less troubled."

"I accept only that you are a lying thief."

By now the whole of the barracks was in an uproar. A crowd of men in orange pants, swarthy men either shirtless or with ribbed T-shirts, encircled the combatants, the metal of their shackles-their Oregon boots-scraping the cement, the men anxious for a show of raw violence. Crimson teeth were bared, fists were balled. Blood dripped across the smile of one of the dice shooters who had been crowned by the sharp corner of the chessboard. The smell of body odor and tobacco, of men confined together in hatred and despair, was well-nigh overwhelming as it mixed with the men's cheers and curses.

"Knife the bastard."

"Rip him in the gut."

"Kick him in the nuts."

"If Moonis falls, I get his shoes."

The two men circled each other, their left legs sliding across the floor due to the shackles on their ankles.

"Six to five on the Canadian."


"Burst his spleen, Gaston, but don't get blood on my new shoes."

Moonis was taller than Gaston-he was one of the tallest men in the camp-but Gaston was twice as strong. If it came to a wrestling match, Gaston would snap Moonis's back like a twig. Moonis needed to dodge Gaston's attacks like a matador in a ring. He might have a chance to survive if he could-

Gaston lunged.

Moonis faked left, slipped right, and pushed Gaston past him with the hand not holding the two packs so that Gaston fell into the crowd, jabbing the knife into some poor sap's leg. Moonis backed away with satisfaction. Goal number two was to avoid death; goal number one was not to crush the cigarettes. He spotted a young detainee in the crowd.

"Hold these for me, kid, will you?" he said as he handed over the two packs of cigs.

"For three Ros."


"Four," said the kid.

Gaston now was back upright, tossing the knife from hand to hand, sliding his left foot so the metal bar beneath his shoe scraped the floor like an iron fingernail.

"Five," said the kid.

"You learn fast. It will be your undoing. Done," said Moonis before calling out to Gaston. "Can't we work this out?"

"That is what we are doing, my friend," said Gaston. "Working it out."

"I mean without the rumble and the blood."


"The problem with violence, Gaston, is that it's boring. Violence has been done to death. Let's try to be a little more inspired. What about a game of chess to decide?"

"So you can cheat me again."

"Chess isn't like love; you can't cheat chess."

Gaston-leaning low at the waist, his knife held out in front, his eyes now as red as his teeth-bellowed like a wild beast and charged madly, knifepoint diving at Moonis's gut. Moonis faked left, faked right, stood frozen for a moment as the Canadian rushed forward, and then slammed his hands on top of Gaston's head as he leaped over the charging mass of muscle and steel. Gaston flew into the crowd once again as Moonis landed awkwardly and pain slashed through his weighted ankle. He fell forward, slamming his forehead on the cement floor.

By the time Moonis shook his head clear and spun around, still on the ground, a leering Gaston, blood streaming from his nose and running across his mouth, was staggering toward him. Moonis backed away like a crab as Gaston advanced. Moonis looked around for a weapon-nothing. He looked for a route of escape-nowhere to run. He thought of something, anything to say that would save his life.

"Vive la France?"

"Fuck France," said Gaston.

"Yes," said Moonis. "I'm with you there."

That's when the doors burst open with whistles and shouts. The crowd blew apart as six guards in their brown uniforms, billy sticks high, charged into the barracks, slamming their cudgels down on any head they could find until they reached Gaston, still standing in the middle of the circle, the knife suddenly gone. It took four of the guards to subdue the bellowing Canadian, cuff him, and throw him up against the wall.

Just another stinking night in Archer Daniels Midland LCM 204. And Moonis Fell, still on the floor, his ankle screaming in pain, shook his head and laughed that he was still here, in this camp, still alive. Would the tangle of brutal disappointments in this life know no end?