*An excerpt from Damien Ober’s forthcoming novel (August 2014), DOCTOR BENJAMIN FRANKLIN’S DREAM AMERICA
THE STORY SO FAR: 1777. Colonial America. A year after uploading the Declaration of Independence, a mysterious internet plague has broken loose in the cloud, killing any user who accesses a networked device. Seizing the moment, the British take control of New York and Philadelphia, scattering what little remains of the rebellion. Just when all seems lost, George Washington reappears from off-the-grid to pin the remnants of the British army at Yorktown. Independence is won, but with the countryside in ruins and internet commerce impossible, the former colonies teeter on the brink of collapse. Thomas Jefferson organizes a feisty, small-government opposition to fight the overreach of Washington’s Federalist administration. Their most valuable weapon in the struggle to “save the ideals of the Revolution” is Doctor Benjamin Franklin’s Dream America, a new open-source social networking portal which will revolutionize representative government, return power to the people, and make Congress and the Presidency irrelevant…
1781. The Death has swept the land, a mysterious internet plague that kills any user who interfaces with a networked device. Huge death tolls within both armies have reduced the Revolution to a series of ugly gorilla engagements. The British army holds tenaciously to New York. From their base in Manhattan, they terrorize the countryside, hoping to break the rebellious spirit off the upstart colonists. George Washington and his army have vanished. Hopes are that he’s still out there, ordered every smart device in the ranks be tossed into the Delaware. Perhaps he lurks somewhere in the woods of New Jersey, off the grid. 56 men signed the Declaration of Independence; this is the story of their deaths.
Richard Stockton :: February 28th 1781
Richard Stockton is asleep in bed when the door splinters apart. A hand into his hair yanks him to the cold wood floor. He looks up and sees it’s not the British, but other Americans – Loyalists – and him, the prize of a long hunt. Their leader kicks him in the back so hard that Stockton will never stand up straight, not ever again in his life. “And here’s one for The King, a Signer!”
Stockton is dragged out front where the beating continues. Around him on the lawn, the family that had been hiding him is slaughtered. The wife of the house raped right there under the open sky as dirty men stand around open-mouthed, gazing. Nearby, some British soldiers watch as the slaves bash in the head of the overseer, their black skin all slimy with blood. A few Loyalists have found the little plot of headstones – the family members taken by The Death. Their piss steams the air as they saturate the graves.
Shackles and cuffs are applied. A rope tied to the cuffs and the other end to a horse. The horse is whipped and rides from the property with Stockton rolling over and over on the ground 10 yards behind. The human sounds fade. Just the thunder of horse hooves. He opens his eyes, sees through the kicking mud, another man being dragged.
The next day they arrive at Morven, his abandoned estate. The place is crawling with Redcoats. All the furniture has been moved onto the lawn where it burns in several crooked piles. Chunks of his life float in the cool air, one edge ash and the other still embers. He has no idea what’s become of his wife or his remaining children. Through the windows, he can see officers making themselves at home. Just as he’s wondering about his cherished databases, Stockton sees them, his harddrives, all the information he’s gathered throughout a lifetime of meticulous collection, piled up and blazing. Men are emerging from the house just then, tossing more and more of the plastic shells on top. Stockton realizes that with no internet and no prospect of its return, he may be witnessing the actual eradication of information, never to be recovered.
He’s told he will swear loyalty to the King and when he refuses, they only smile. Stockton calls the soldier in charge a savage and the guy knocks him out with one clean blast in the mouth. They reattach him to the horse and drag him off for the coast.
Stockton is thrown into the hold of a leaking boat which bobs in the harbor. Vomit and shit and blood slime the floor and most of the way up the walls. Every morning they come in to dump the dead into the bay and ask if there’s anyone who’s changed their mind. And always there are, men who will now swear loyalty. These are taken up into the light.
The men here aren’t dying of The Death. They starve or cough themselves away instead. There is no food. The only water is rain dripping between the planks from above, has the taste of rotted cabbage. Some men come in and beat Stockton unconscious. It takes a while, Stockton actually asking out loud for that guy who could do it with one punch.
They pile him limp into a cart that overflows with other unconscious men. The ones who survive the trip are put in cells in a freezing prison complex. At sunset Stockton is dragged outside where he lays naked until they drag him back in at sunrise. Each night, as he shivers under the stars, he dreams of Morven, his home. Stockton imagines it as it was before the Revolution, before The Death. His family is there, his databases all intact. In the library, while the fireplace crackles low, a child plays Afghani music on the grand piano, her fingers twittering consecutive keys to expertly pluck notes the instrument was not designed to reach. Stockton has a smartreader in his lap, but has paused his reading to gaze lazily about the room…
Stockton is not sure what’s happening when he’s taken to a room that’s just another cell but with a desk and a fire and some royal officers drinking tea and chatting as if he’s not there. They tell him it has been six weeks and he can’t remember having eaten once. They give him a smartphone and tell him to press his thumb on the touchscreen and when he does they tell him he has just sworn loyalty to King George 3.
But Stockton doesn’t care.
He and a hundred others are marched off to Trenton. There, given to a band of colonial troops, a little scavenger club hiding out in the woods. But it’s not just a club. They come over a hill and there it is, the Continental Army. And so it is true, George Washington is still alive. Stockton is driven back to Morven where his only surviving daughter waits for him. The entire family is gone but for her and her new husband, fellow Signer and patriot, Dr. Benjamin Rush.
Stockton doesn’t talk much, if ever. He never asks what happened to the rest of the family because he knows he won’t survive hearing it. He has his meals chosen and his clothes laid out, spends his days sitting in his desiccated library, the drive stacks hulking empty to the ceiling. The wires have all been cleared out, but there’s no way to keep Stockton from remembering the harddrives. He can’t get that image out of his mind, the melted plastic and metal, leaking from the fire in a few feeble rivulets.
One afternoon, Rush comes into the library to find Stockton seated upright, his eyes and mouth hanging open. In the days leading up, even his footfalls had ceased to produce sound. Rush summons the new servants, has the body taken away, quickly, before his wife returns and has her father’s defeated face seared into her mind forever.