Tuesday, February 16, 2016

The Plain of Bitter Honey by Alan Chin

The Plain of Bitter Honey by Alan Chin
Published by Bold Strokes Books

This story represents a dramatic turn in my writing. It is a futuristic story of two brothers, one straight and one gay, who battle a corrupt government and each other. This is not a gay romance, although several characters are gay. This is a tale of survival, of devotion, of finding deliverance and atonement.

This is what Bob Lind, the reviewer for Echo Magazine, had to say about it:
I've said in the past that Alan Chin is my favorite author, and that is still the case with this new book. It is best described as a sci-fi/speculative/political novel, so unlike any of his previous works I have seen, and he handles the genre with mastery. The story is action-packed, well-constructed and expertly told, with a diverse, developed cast of gay and straight characters working together in situations that risks not only their lives, but perhaps the future of this country. Bravo … five stars out of five.

Twins Aaron and Hayden Swann are fighting a corrupt government taken over by ultra right-wing Fundamentalist Christians in 2055 America. Each brother fights in his own way, Aaron with bullets, Hayden with words. Then one night their world is turned upside down when they are caught in a government sting and they must both flee north into the badlands between San Francisco and Canada, where the only safe haven is a place called The Plain of Bitter Honey, a refuge where heads of the Resistance operate. But the brothers don’t know that government agents are tracking them to the hiding place of the Resistance. Can they find the inner strength to survive?

At last, Aaron opened his eyes to find himself staring into eyes that were disturbing in their clarity. Those eyes bored into his; they seemed to dissolve all questions and all answers within their depth. They were the eyes of a man watching the trajectory of a stag leaping off a cliff, with more amusement than horror, but at the same time expressing sympathy for the stag.

 “I’m sorry that I’ve put you in danger,” Aaron said. “I’ll never do it again. Packs?”
“Because you’ll give up these underground activities?”

“Because I’ll keep this shit far away from you.”

“Okay, packs.” Hayden hooked his little finger through Aaron’s and gave it a tug. He leaned forward and kissed Aaron on the lips—a loving, sensual kiss. Aaron didn’t resist. Considering our circumstances, Aaron thought, this might prove to be our last chance to show affection.

Hayden pulled back. “No matter what, I love you.”
“I know.”
 “Yes, but I wanted to say it out loud, just once.”

Hayden squeezed Aaron’s hands with icy fingers. “What about this Julian fellow. Does he make you happy?” Aaron asked, already knowing the answer.

“Brother, have you forgotten the last chorus of Oedipus: Call no man happy until he is dead.”
Aaron nodded. “You writers are so full of shit.”

They kissed again before Aaron led his brother back into the living room. All eyes turned toward them.

“Listen up, people,” Aaron said. “It’s time for a hasty retreat. We’ll go over the roof in pairs, three minutes apart. Hopefully they’re not watching the alley. Stubbs, you take Maggie. Hayden, you and Julian can leave the way you came, but you’d better hurry.

We’ll meet up at the safe house in the Castro in three days time.”

Stubbs and Maggie checked their handguns; both clicked their safety off.

The Armenian hissed, “Van coming. Looks like Marwick’s.”

Aaron rushed to the window. A black van was too far down the hill to identify. He’s guessing, Aaron thought. He snatched the binoculars and waited. Seconds ticked by like months until the van moved close enough for him to check the license plate. His heart fell. He turned back to the room to see Stubbs and Maggie still standing at the doorway.

“Go dammit; go now.”

Stubbs took Maggie by the arm. They disappeared into the hallway.

“Hayden, Julian, change of plans,” Aaron said. “You both go over the roof.”

Aaron dashed to Hayden, pulled a Glock from his belt and held it out. “Things might get dicey. Take this.”

Hayden shook his head.

They glared at each other, and Aaron saw the emotions churning behind his brother’s eyes.

“Shit,” Aaron hissed, returning to the window. He dropped the Glock beside the mirror and his wallet. As he picked up the binoculars he wiped the sweat from his forehead before training the binoculars down the hill.

The van chugged up the street. When it reached the end of the block, the two Homeland HumVee-Xs dashed out of hiding, again, to block the road. The van stopped as four uniformed men jumped out of their vehicles. Two officers converged on the driver’s door, one barking orders and the other standing off with his gun drawn. The other two sauntered around the van, their M4s held at the ready. One officer walked to the driver’s door and shined a flashlight on the driver, no doubt asking to see I.D. cards. The driver’s window slid down; red flashes burst and shots rang out. The van sped backward, spraying more shots. From the rooftops on both sides of the street, spotlights sprang to life, casting theatrical beams on the van. Machinegun fire cut the air, pelting the van with red tracers from above.

There was no way to help them. Aaron waved at his team still standing in his living room. “Everybody! Go now, over the roof! GO!”

They all rushed out the doorway, except Hayden.
“Aren’t you coming?” Hayden asked.
“I’m right behind you.”
“Brother, I’m simple, not stupid.”
“Look, dammit, they’ll be here any second. Now go. Hurry!”

A crashing sound yanked Aaron’s head back to the window. The van spun out of control, smashed into a parked car, and flipped on its side. Bullets peppered the van for another half-minute. The noise sounded like a twelve-foot string of firecrackers. Then it stopped, leaving a stunned hush. No sign of life registered within the van. Two officers lay on the street, motionless. Smoke rose through the beams of spotlights, a shifting pall between the borders of light.

Suddenly, another noise cut the silence—the throaty growl of an engine starting below Aaron’s window. Aaron glanced down to see a man straddling his brother’s motorcycle. The lean figure and dreadlocks were unmistakable. Hayden gunned the engine to get everyone’s attention. The spotlights turned on him. He revved it once more and flew up the street in the opposite direction.

“What the…?” Aaron whispered to an empty room. On a hunch, he glanced at the coffee table, and his heart imploded. His brown wallet, which held his I.D. card, was missing. In its place was Hayden’s calf-skin wallet.

The screech of tires whipped Aaron’s head back to the street. Two HumVee-Xs now blocked Hayden’s exit. Uniformed men leaped from the vehicles with rifles drawn.

Hayden slid into a tight turn and gunned the engine, rocketing him the opposite direction. He bent low over the handlebars. But now he was barricaded in from both sides of the block. Hayden came to a dead stop in the middle of the block. The searchlights zeroed in on him, yellow and brilliant, catching him like Bambi in the headlights. Someone shouted in a throaty voice. Two officers on each side of the block dropped to one knee and raised their M4s to a firing position.

It appeared to be a stalemate.

Aaron knew his brother was drawing all the attention on himself to give Aaron a clean getaway, but before he could move the front door burst inward. Officers rushed in with weapons held at the ready.

“Freeze, motherfucker!”

The apartment lights were still off, but the glow of the spotlights outside, like artificial moonlight, filled the room. Aaron could see them clearly, five rifle laser-beams aimed at his chest. He slowly raised his hands.

Two of them held their weapons on him while the others searched the apartment.
Aaron didn’t hear the car as it pulled to the curb below his window, but he did hear the double thud of an expensive car door opening and closing, and the quick footsteps coming up the stairs. A man—designer-dressed in a black, double-breasted suit, hand-stitched cowboy boots, and a cartoonishly large, silver cross at his throat—strolled through the doorway and moved toward Aaron. Emblazoned on this lapel was the insignia of the Christian States of America, the red circle encompassing white stars and a blue cross, which never failed to turn Aaron’s stomach. The man’s Ray-Ban sunglasses riveted on Aaron, moving up and down as if he were measuring him for a coffin.

“Aaron Swann?” he demanded.

Aaron recognized his sleek and undertaker-pale features: Deputy-Chief Whitehall, head of Homeland Operations for the Western Division, and junior member of the Holy Council. Maggie had assembled a dossier on Whitehall with his photograph on the inside cover and details of his meteoric rise to power. So, Aaron thought, the big dogs are here. That’s a very bad sign. Rumor had it that Whitehall always came in on huge successes. His forty-year-old face was scrubbed, shining and as animated as a Broadway actor. He pushed his shades up to rest in his platinum-colored hair. His eyes glowed with excitement, and his voice resonated a confident chill.

“No,” Aaron managed to say, having no idea of how he would pull off the bluff.
“Very slowly, show me your I.D. card.”

That’s when it hit him. He swallowed. “In my wallet, there on the coffee table.”
Whitehall picked up the wallet, removed Hayden’s I.D. card, and scrutinized the picture and the information it held. A flashlight illuminated Aaron’s face; he couldn’t see anything.

“You’re Hayden Swann?”

Aaron swallowed again. He had religiously lived by the motto of ‘look out for #1,’ but his brother was the sole exception to that rule. They were two halves of the same person, linked by an indefinable force. The decision seemed to flicker before Aaron like a candle-flame held close to his eyes, and in spite of the fact that he knew he was putting a noose around his brother’s neck, he whispered, “Yessir.”

A silence followed, as if he had caught Whitehall off balance, which was surprising that anything could do that. Whitehall had a reputation of being the rock on which his church was built.

“Am I led to believe that that would be your brother, Aaron, on the motorcycle?”

Alerted by his use of the passive voice, Aaron hesitated. He felt a cold drop of sweat slide from under his armpit and meandered down his flank. He closed his eyes.

“Not to worry,” Whitehall said, “Jesus protects us all.”

Aaron opened his eyes, blinked twice. Had he heard right? The silver cross ticked at Whitehall’s throat as he swallowed.

“Yes,” Aaron said.
“Where are the others?”
“What others?”
“Stubbs, Maggie, The Armenian? And your boyfriend, Julian Stoller?”

Aaron supposed he should have been surprised that Whitehall knew them all by name, even the fact that he knew Hayden’s boyfriend’s name when Aaron had only learned minutes ago, but he wasn’t. Whitehall and his team had obviously had them in their sights for some time.

Whitehall used his flashlight to illuminate the Glock sitting beside the cocaine. He seemed on the verge of saying something else, but changed his mind. He flipped open his communicator and barked a coded order Aaron didn’t understand.

At that moment a shot rang out in the street. Aaron half-turned to see his brother jerk forward. The officers were firing quite carefully. The second shot thrust Hayden backward. But he still moved, still straddled the bike. He gunned the engine and the bike leaped forward as officers fired more rounds. Hayden sagged over the handlebars. The motorcycle went down, sliding before an array of sparks.

When Hayden tumbled to a halt, the spotlights bore down on him again. His body lay motionless in the cheap yellow light. Aaron’s insides felt like a windowpane that had shattered, and through the shards of what had once been his life—his orthodoxy—he mumbled a bewildering cry.

For Hayden’s sake, Aaron prayed to God that his brother was dead.

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