Volunteer Crisis Response Corp One’s mortality rate is fifty percent for first-year volunteers. All volunteers are told this at orientation. Volunteers are seated at tables of ten.

“Half of the people at your table will be dead one year from now,” a Bull tells them.

The volunteers believe those who do not look at the faces of their tablemates in the silence that follows have a better chance of surviving their first year. Most have heard this rumor and will try not to look around. One or two will look around anyway. The truth is, the ones who look around are the ones with the advantage.

A small advantage, but an advantage.


There are always volunteers. No substantive effort is made to reduce first-year mortality rates. People are not a problem. Also, nobody calls the service Volunteer Crisis Response Corp One. Official short hand is CRC. There are two reasons for this:

First, there is no Volunteer Crisis Response Corp Two.
Second, no one really volunteers.


The leading cause of death among CRC volunteers is blunt force trauma. Other common causes include smoke inhalation, immolation, asphyxiation, drowning, decapitation by flying object, common exsanguination, and a range of lightning-related fatalities. This includes direct strikes, contact injuries, “side splash” (current transfer from one struck volunteer to the next), and ground strikes. Blast injuries are classified as blunt force trauma. Cowardice could be considered a unique cause of death, but only insofar as it is a subset of blunt force trauma delivered by Bulls.


Jokes among veteran CRCers include:

Q: “How does CRC put out a fire?”
A: “Smother it one volunteer at a time.”

Q: “What’s CRC’s flood abatement procedure?”
A: “Everyone pile up!”

Q: “What do you call a CRC responder in the field?”
A: “A lightning rod.”


Most crises are related to severe weather, also known in the Donut Hole as “the weather.” No one talks about the weather literally, just as no one quantifies the heat in Hell.

Someone who has outlived their usefulness, given up hope, or is generally clueless is known as “a weatherman.” The same term applies to men and women.

“She came out of orientation a total weatherman,” for example.
And in response to the obvious: “Thanks for weather report.”


The Donut Hole is a rights-managed territory.


A Bull says: “Report to CRC.”
The new volunteer asks: “Hey Bull, what’s CRC really stand for?”
One Bull says: “Cry, Run, Cover.”
Another Bull says: “Crushed Runts Cowering.”
Another Bull says: “Conducting Random Currents.”
Another Bull says: “Crutches Rarely Carried.”
Another Bull says: “Charbroiled Roasting Champs.”
Etcetera, etcetera.


The former states of Kansas, Missouri, and Nebraska comprise the formal Donut Hole, supplemented by large tracts carved out of southwestern Iowa and northern Oklahoma. Relocations come from the sweet life on eastern and western seaboard. New York, Boston, D.C., Atlanta, the Las Vegas-Los Angeles corridor, Seattle, Portland, and the Bay Area.


The unemployment rate in the Donut Hole is zero percent.


After my first fire with CRC, a Bull named Foley lead a division of surviving first-year responders to reclaim materials from the scorched plain on the outskirts of one of the agricultural belts. Silver foil humps dotted the ashen routes to the abandoned trucks.

Inside of these humps, clusters of volunteers all roasted together. Retreating volunteers pitched their heat shields as a last resort. Because these heat shields were often pitched in haste, in disbelief, and far too late, they failed in the 90th percentile. Most suffocated when the fire wall sucked up the oxygen, but not all. The blunt force trauma of trucks speeding away from the line accounted for a share.

Foley the Bull paired off first-years for labor:

“You and you, you and you, you and you. Grab gloves for those Sweet Potatoes.”

We pulled on heat gauntlets to our elbows, the leathery protection of glass blowers and crematorium feeders. The duty was not for the dignity of the dead, but the salvaging and recycling of materials.

I remember asking Foley the Bull why he called it Sweet Potato duty.

“‘Cause they slipped off the sweet life and got baked.”


If you weren’t in the Donut Hole, you were probably on the Donut.
People living on the Donut eat the sweet life.
Your sweet life is also slang for your past.
The sweet life is also known in the Donut Hole as the sweet cheeks.
When you slip off the sweet cheeks, you’re in deep shit.


How to perform Sweet Potato Duty by the manual:

1. Stand on the opposite side of the sweet potato with your partner.
2. Kneel down (remember to protect the lower back) and locate the pull tab handle on your side of the sweet potato.
3. Grip the pull tab with both hands.
4. Warning: Toxic fumes may vent from the sweet potato.
5. Simultaneously pull back and up on the tabs.
6. If the foil on your sweet potato is not unduly damaged, the foil will give way and the sweet potato meat will fall away from the foil.
7. Inspect the sweet potato meat for salvage.
8. Roll salvage inside the foil and tie the roll closed with loosened tabs.
There are no instructions pertaining to the sweet potato meat.


Bull Foley was something of a mentor. He learned names, but not all the names. Foley was my Bull coming out of orientation.

“You,” Bull Foley said to me during our first orientation visit, “you’re no different than anyone here. Your compass pointed you the wrong direction.”

It was still dark. I couldn’t see him. I could feel his breath moving around me. It was like a fog carrying his words. You become very sensitive during orientation.

I didn’t speak. I hoped he would say more.

He didn’t. I tried to provoke him: “Am I’m here to get my compass fixed?”

I wanted him to slap me.

“No,” Bull Foley said. “You don’t need a compass. You’re not going anywhere I don’t take you.”

“Fix me,” I said.

“I know what you want.”

He left me in the dark. I didn’t hear his voice again for two months.


How to perform Sweet Potato Duty in actual field conditions:

1. Once assigned a partner, scan the field to identify sweet potatoes which have not experienced blunt force trauma, do not appear to be in excessive heat zones, and are not moving.
2. Using eyes and subtle body language, signal the best picks to your partner.
3. Follow standard manual procedure steps 3 − 5.
4. If sweet potato meat is fused to the foil (common), shake foil vigorously.
5. If meat does not separate cleanly, it falls to the junior partner to cut meat away from the foil.
6. The senior partner has first pick of any usable salvage. If necessary, the junior partner holds the foil while the senior partner cuts away and stores any salvage.
7. In the event a survivor is discovered, it falls to the junior partner to dispatch the survivor.
8. Roll non-looted salvage, tie tabs, repeat steps 1 − 7 as needed.


After my first fire, Bull Foley paired me with a towering skeleton named Jacco for sweet potato duty. We were both first year volunteers, so this complicated seniority issues vis-a-vis meat and salvage. Though we had not been on duty before, we knew the procedure by word of mouth.

The first sweet potato fell out of the foil easy. He had a small belt of good tools for the looting, and no face.

“Not my monkey, not my circus,” Jacco said.

I took the tool belt.


Every relocation to the Donut Hole is remanded to orientation. Orientation is the center of the center. The asshole’s asshole. Solitary. Waves of solitary bleaching you. Washing away. Relocations marinate until they’re soft. Months and months. No human contact, no speech, nights a week long, days the same.

One day, a Bull comes to evaluate. It’s not uncommon for new relocations to fall in love with their Bulls, so grateful they are for any company at all.

After Bull Foley’s first visit, I began to have fantasies he would beat me, just so I could experience human touch.

I’m saying it resets standards for your life.

These feelings fade.


Our second sweet potato was alive, barely. His charred legs stuck to the foil, while his arms wandered above his head in slow orbits like insect antennas.

“Not my monkey, not my circus,” Jacco said again.

I thought we had established seniority. Not at all. We had only established who would participate and who would not.

I had never killed anyone. Jacco intuited this. He considered the sweet potato.

“You put the boot on the neck.”

I wedged my boot under the meat’s peely red head. I do not think he knew what was happening. He had his teeth, but no other features. He gnashed and padded about.

Jacco gestured with a corner of the foil he held aloft, “Now with the pressure.”


The surplus of inexpensive human capital makes the Donut Hole the manufacturing hub for all of North America and several global markets. Ninety-five percent of manufactured goods are exported. One percent of goods are imported.

This assumes you do not count the human capital imports.


Everything after orientation glows with a halcyon aura.

For example: I trained in a manufacturing unit responsible for building low-cost smoke detectors for export to China. We’re cheaper to run than machines. Ten hours a day, I operated a labeling machine which applied a short phrase to the under-chassis of the smoke detectors.

I couldn’t read the label. It was in Chinese. I never learned what it said. My task did not deviate for most of a year. But I was surrounded by people again. The factory was clean. I loved my work. I imagined Chinese couples with Chinese children in a Chinese megalopolis sleeping beneath my smoke detectors. It was one of the happiest years in my life.

The label could have said: Eternal vigilance.
The label could have said: For the protection of dreamers.
The label probably said: Made in America.


Some have a hard time letting go of their sweet life.

These magical thinkers talk as though they will return to the Donut. Steadfast in their denial, they come to believe their fantasies. They pepper the Bulls with questions about appeal, retrial, pardon, release.

There’s a popular method Bulls use to remedy magical thinking. They play along. They provide hard cases with vague news, hints of reversals, reassignments. Magical thinkers are encouraged to write long letters describing the errors in their relocation, grievances, asset lists from their sweet life. This can go on for months.

Eventually, a triumvirate of Bulls meets with the magical thinker, and the exchange goes like this:

One Bull says: “We’ve received final word on exactly how long you’ll be here.”

Another Bull writes the number 8 on a slip of paper, folds it, and pushes it across the table.

The magical thinker reads it and asks: “Eight what? Days? Months? Not years. Not eight years.”

Then the third the Bull says:

“Eight? That’s not an eight. You’re holding the paper wrong. Turn it sideways.”

They all have a good laugh.

Back to orientation for the magical thinker.


Suicide is simple. Pick a direction. Walk a long time.


In our second year, Jacco regularly rode in the aft steering pod of the eighty tonner. I piloted the cab. Bull Foley scanned the horizon, divining the wobble of perpetual dust devils.

“Bearing 278 at 120 steady,” Foley said.

I lined up the arrows on the windshield and accelerated to 120. The back of the tonner lagged behind.

“What’s at the edge of the Donut Hole?” I asked on the internal com.

“Drones,” Jacco said.

“What’s after the drones?” I asked.

“More drones,” Jacco said.

“Tighten up, aft,” Foley ordered.

The eighty tonner shivered into heading 278 alignment as Jacco brought the rear around. Someone in the belly of the tonner snored in the com.

“But what comes after those drones?”

Jacco sighed.

“It is still more drones.”

I wiped my face. My hand smelled like a hot dog boiled in lemon detergent. We were all lightly chemical burned from spraying a fire break around a medical complex.

The tonner thundered through heirloom furrows of ghostly corn. Someone murmured in a dream on the com.

“But what’s beyond all the drones?”

Bull Foley’s voice broke over all channels:

“It’s drones all the way out, boys.”


I don’t believe it’s drones all the way out.

There are rings of drones. Below the rings are clouds of nanotech blackflies, chattering to their parents winging high above, calling for white hot nullification. Take an extended stroll in the hinterlands of the Donut Hole and the blackflies will follow you until the drones draw down.

The moment before the strike, the blackflies scatter, which is how you know your life sentence is about to get its period.

I like to think if you go a little farther America gets American again.


A manufacturing division within the Donut Hole constructs the drones and blackflies. Veteran manufacturers at times train to become special case drone operators. Human operators are more useful for reconnaissance flights to assist with CRC work compared to AI flights. On killing, it’s the opposite. AI drone/blackfly families kill in the 99th percentile on first strike, but human operators are pros at precision maiming.

Drone/blackfly manufacturing facilities are also patrolled by drone/blackfly families.

I asked Bull Foley if a drone operator has ever looked the other way when another drone operator has tried to escape.

“Why would they want to do that?”

“I’m saying would one look the other way. If one wanted to.”

He thought for a moment.

“That’s some one-hand-clapping shit right there.”


Human drone operators are said to work in “emigration reform.”


Bull Foley relocated at age 17. Nothing to his mind had been especially sweet about his sweet life.

One night very late he partied with friends and they got high and borrowed a MARTA Redline train after hours in Atlanta. At some point, everyone got off the train except young Foley. After ramping the train up to full speed, he wandered to the last car in a stupor to find his friends. He passed out and rode the train through the end of the airport line.

He was a fat kid then and relaxed from the drugs. He survived with a lacerated liver, flowering ribs, and two chopstuck collar bones. The impact and subsequent fire demolished the airport station and choked traffic to Atlanta-Hartsfield-Jackson for six weeks.

Soon after he received the best medical attention available in Atlanta, Foley was relocated without protest from his aunt, sole guardian. It wasn’t the first time he’d inconvenienced Atlanta, but it was the biggest.

Foley estimated he was in his late 30s when he became my Bull.

“You know,” he said. “Birthdays aren’t really a thing here.”


It is hard to imagine Foley as a fat kid. Foley tells me he didn’t appreciate anything he had when he was a fat kid. I imagine Foley as a fat kid and it makes me sad. Foley tells me he was born for the Donut Hole. He says that everything he was supposed to appreciate was put here, waiting for him. I imagine anyone as a kid, fat or otherwise, and it makes me sadder.


Sometimes, when our tonners raced home under a stone lid of thunderheads, retreating from a breaking northern line of F5 tornados, and the light was aquamarine, and errant bolts of lightning struck the radar stations in purple arterial streaks, a feeling would rise in my chest which would seem like gratitude, were it not for everything else.

I mentioned this feeling to Foley in my fifth year on CRC, and he said it sounded like I was gunning for a promotion.


Population size is not a tracked metric in the Donut Hole. Fragmented international activist groups attempt to measure relocations per year by conviction rates, but official stats are not organized publicly by the Justice Department. Gross export volume, as a measure of manufacturing production, is a stronger indicator of the effective population, but is still subject to fluctuations in global demand and non-U.S. production factors.

There is relatively little interest in the activist cause within the Donut Hole, which is hard to explain to activists. Jacco sums it up this way: “The wolves are happier of themselves, than under care of the sheep.”


That is not to say there aren’t factions of extreme folly.


For instance: The temporary shortage of Dauphin® brand Neonatal Smart Strollers due to a work stoppage at the Topeka Moon facility.

Initially, the plant shutdown was blamed on a chemical fire, and Bulls dispatched CRC to contain the blaze.

Drone surveillance indicated the fire had consumed one of the three customs warehouses where finished strollers awaited export. When lightning rods weren’t replaced after wind storms, buildings took undirected strikes. These strikes often caused fires.

Our first year volunteers rushed out of the tonners to work the blaze. They were systematically cut down by the workers of the plant. Machinists had taken up firing positions along the manufacturing rooftop building.

The entire Topeka Moon manufacturing facility was occupied.

“What now?” I asked Bull Foley.

Surviving first-years scattered. The snipers took potshots at the tonners. Small shell fire rattled off the windshield glaze in green sparks. The firing stopped. A phalanx of machinists poured out of a nearby loading dock with what looked like homemade machetes to clean up our stragglers.

“Should we leave?”

Bull Foley watched the machinists go at the newbies with the homemade machetes.

“And miss the show?”


The tonner rattled. A tonner is a castle on wheels. A tonner is your best friend. Tonner manufacturing is among the holiest professions.


Drones prowled the perimeter of the Topeka Moon at low altitude. Someone had put a plan together to end the occupation. We weren’t a part of it yet.

The largest swarm of blackflies I had ever witnessed amassed themselves above the Topeka Moon. Each no bigger than a wafer in the palm, they formed a thick blanket above the roof’s acres. They absorbed the machinists’ exploratory sniper fire without complaint.

The swarm grew denser, tributaries of blackflies feeding the main reservoir. The black ocean undulated. Their collective hum thrummed the tonner and a powerfully resonant note occupied the occupiers. Occupying workers abandoned the roof and crawled down the factory hatches. They sought refuge, regrouping safe in the knowledge that no drones would strike a factory, but unsure what the mass of nanotechnology above their heads might mean.

Thousands of yards in all directions, the wan sun died. The firelight from the burning warehouse flickered beneath the midnight of the swarm.

On invisible cue, the mass descended. Blackflies funneled into vent and port and cracks in windows and loading dock doors. What seemed quite impossible to contain drained into the plant.

Jacco ducked his head into the cockpit to watch the blackfly infiltration.

“Goodnight moon,” he said.


The blackflies suffocated the occupiers in under an hour. A few escaped from the facility to surrender. Drones vaporized them once they were well in the clear between the factory and our tonner. When it was over, we hosed down the hot ashes of warehouse one. The functioning blackflies left under their own power.

The rest of that week we dug out their corpses, shoveled and swept up the dysfunctional and dead-eyed blackflies, and restored the factory to working order for the next round of machinists, many of whom watched us clean out the old crew as part of their job training. We ate and slept in the tonners.

A special medical dispatch removed a dozen bodies for field autopsies. The cause of death was obvious, but the details would be instructive.

Field surgeons discovered some machinists with blackfly chassis fully intact in their duodenum.


Those strollers were in demand. The Sweet Life made many a fragile baby.


Babies aren’t manufactured in the Donut Hole. This is not to say strenuous attempts aren’t made. Fucking across the gender spectrum is transacted to relieve pressure and entertain distraction. But there’s no outcome. All inroads are designed to be dead ends. Whatever we are fed in orientation undermines swimmers, spoils eggs, snuffs the spark of life, wets the odds. Our blood is swimming with tiny machines we ingested which make other tiny machines. In spite of this, stories of secret births circulate, improbable exceptions to the rule.

I wouldn’t want to see one of those exceptions to the rule.


I may have given the impression that CRC is made up of men only, or that the Donut Hole is comprised only of men, or that men and women are segregated into camps or compounds. For all I know, it may have once been that way. But that sort of thinking is expensive from a resources standpoint. Violent death is a great equalizer.

Fucking and dying never change.