The days of thunder and towering fire passed, but not without the slow chugging on of time in the face of such bedlam. Once it was finally played out, the nation went from a writhing snake rife with parasites and disease into a patchwork of cities that were bleeding out. Still, a sense of centralized government had to replace the loosely fitted groups stationed along the train route. Ellit was dead, caught in one of the fires that consumed the Markets. Gutierra had been jailed, partly for her own protection, partially because she had cracked under pressure and spilled the beans. The representative’s testimony, the information she leaked so freely like a hole in a garden hose, was not overlooked by acting President Lawrence Burdress.
It had been a revolt, a coup d’etat, and a riotous time for the country. Incumbent president Reed had been ousted, but given the option to work with Lars. The notion came to the president as a betrayal of the highest degree. Even after Gutierra had revealed the government’s involvement in the ‘House System,’ there was no sense of cooperation. Reed denied every allegation, and where such denial may have worked in days of order, amid the chaos, they became the cries of the guilty just before they were forever silenced. With such damning information in hand, Lars could do little but direct traffic when it came to the ‘House System.’
There had been half a dozen of the Houses scattered throughout the states, with more implied to exist in other countries as partner projects. What they were was little more than a private Market for those with more money than sense or civility. They were like laboratories trying to devise a perfect living sex toy to put on the Market. Each and every subject in the testing labs were born into the House or brought in so young they never knew the outside world. As for the staff, it was awash with politicians in executive roles and scientific minds that might have once had a successful future, only to be curtailed by a career in flesh. Of all the staff, however, there was the name that burned brightest at the top of the list.
The name that called the most attention to Lars was not Bill Ellit’s brother, who was a supervisor over the Chicago chapter of the ‘House System,’ nor was it Gutierra’s most prominent financial backer who had funded the newest House in Baton Rouge, but Peter Andre. It shouldn’t have struck anyone as a surprise that Lars denounced the man, but on the surface, some didn’t quite understand the animosity. Lawrence saw through the disguise as easily as if the man had only grown a mustache. His father concealed his identity behind his mother’s maiden name, doing little else to dissuade from his identity. Of course, he had never expected such a turnabout to take place. However, all such anger for the man was a lost cause. The former handler for ‘young talent’ was long dead. Just as dead as the notion of the Love Market.
Keeping with his slogans and model for his campaign, Lawrence did little more than shovel dirt on the dying embers of the industry. Those few neigh sayers that hung about insisting the infrastructure for the Markets would take decades to rebuild were quashed as policy came into place preventing the commodification of flesh in any such manner. And where that opposition looked to other countries for a new life where Markets still attempted to reign over all, they witnessed the end of the global economy of lust. After America was washed clean of the filth, other countries followed, if not for the riots than for the lingering doubt that worse acts were taking place under the table. Concerns would have quickly turned to war again had there been a conflict to chase.
It took very little time to find the culprit behind the wastes that were once the Holy Lands. A malfunction had detonated a nuclear device still in its launcher. There was no outside attack, no bomber to place at the scene of the incident. Only an unfortunate accident that laid waste to many, yet served as a door into further policy changes.
A summit was to be held, discussing the total disarmament of nuclear arms. The environmental damage would be considered, not to mention the hesitation of world leaders, and the acute awareness of the plague the devices were on the face of humanity. Still, before any discussion of world powers to end the atomic age of war, there were the incoming soldiers from the foreign conflicts that had quieted. Among the many were those to be recognized for the peril faced in racing towards the site of detonation as well as aiding in the extraction of so many otherwise left to die in the fallout.
With the White House looking more like so many abandoned factories scattered throughout the country, President Burdress held the ceremony on the grounds of the recently toppled D.C. Market. It was to be a show of progress, the past buried and left to rot away, today the stepping stone to a better future. Where Lars may have been something of a pacifist, he had to acknowledge the heroes in the face of nuclear devastation. Lining the stage were a dozen American infantrymen of various ranks, all to receive the newly invented Golden Eagle, a badge honor for those survivors of nuclear conflict. Among them stood Piper and Perez, two of the closest to the explosion. Sequoia sat in the first row of seats before the stage, the furthest away from Piper she had been since the incident in the Middle East. Beside her, Piper recognized a familiar face though it seemed out of place, even if the wheelchair was in no better repair than when she had last seen it.
Lawrence had finished his speech on the virtues of those to be honored and had made his way down the chain to the duo. Piper was still wondering why Gregor’s father, of all people, was stationed so close to the stage; however, curiosity faded in two words, ‘Maxwell Perez.’ As her name was called and she received her own Golden Eagle, she looked to her superior in awe, as though she couldn’t quite believe that face had adorned the wall beside her most recent lover’s room.
Numbly, she whispered, “Is that your father beside Sequoia?”
“We don’t look that much alike, do we?”
“Your brother looked less like him.”
It was well after the ceremony that Piper confided in Maxwell how she had come to know his brother, leaving out the detail of any intimacy they shared. For his part, Gregor Perez senior had trouble recognizing Piper with her appearance so altered. However, the old man produced a letter, rough and torn, looking as though it belonged in a museum and not handled so roughly. It was not a promising note but a hopeful message from Gregor. The Wilderness had proven dangerous, but with President Burdress in charge of things, change was coming.
With the winter dying away in the early days of April, it looked like a natural spring for the first time in years. The sun was lively and bright, warming the cold grounds that had produced so little for years. They would be the bounty of the country once more, and with their military stipends, Perez and Piper would be the hands to work such soil. Compensation was dealt to Sequoia as well as any Marketer found to have been manipulated by the state or others. Yet, her money followed the makeshift parents that ventured into the Wilderness to rebuild their lives. And in time, the Wilderness would become the rural, the farmsteads, once more and the twisted and grotesque image of the Love Markets, a memory left only to stalk nightmares. It would not come all at once. It would take generations and lifetimes, but as the days grew short, even into the winter of Sequoia’s life, the dread dreams were forgotten, and the flourish of hope reignited.