Let It Burn – Robert Vaughn

Dear Whoever This Is,
Mankind fucked up, one last time.
This isn’t some cautionary tale about what we should have done, or a recipe for what we should do next. Too late for that. It’s just a story about how our final, fatal mistake started, what happened, and where it will end.
How did it start? With a small fire in the Amazon rainforest, near Manaus. It was a relatively dry year — thank you, climate change — so it soon got out of control. Who knows what ignited it, lightning or a flicked cigarette butt? Doesn’t matter. It took two-and-a-half months before the fires burnt the entire forest to the ground. No global coalition formed to put out the fire. No one cared enough. A smoldering wasteland remained, and from its ashes rose the phoenix of corporate greed at its finest.
Companies from across the world came to South America and built factories on those ashes. They paid government officials to look the other way when it came to safety and environmental standards. The result of these less-than-ethical practices was that the entire region experienced a great economic boom. People called it the South American Economic Renaissance. Then the leaders of the South American countries pulled their now-considerable resources together to form the largest nation in the world, the South American Union, or SAU for short. It became the world’s newest superpower.
With a superpower that cared nothing for the environment, rivers that watered the entire continent were clogged with ash and debris, and the polar ice caps were soon melting even faster; water levels were rising and becoming more acidic, because the SAU spewed huge amounts of carbon dioxide into the biosphere. The world’s lungs became the world’s heater. This fact divided the world. Half wanted the SAU to change its ways for the future benefit of the Earth. Half didn’t, because of their greed or apathy. There were even mixed opinions amongst the SAU’s own citizens.
A US-led collation issued an ultimatum to the SAU: rethink your manufacturing and environmental policies, or face heavy economic sanctions. Ironic, right? But sanctions from America weren’t a concern of the SAU.
So what happened? The SAU president responded by saying that for far too long, the US had been the world’s biggest hypocrite. “America has told the world what other counties should and shouldn’t do environmentally,” he said, “but for years, places like Flint, Michigan went without clean water. They say we need to take care of our people, but if an American goes to the hospital, they can face bankruptcy because of high medical bills.”
The SAU’s president made an offer to American citizens: If they wanted to have affordable and quality healthcare, not go into debt for higher education, live in a country that made economic decisions based on logic and not feelings, have elected officials working for the people and not for the lobbyists… “My country welcomes you with open arms! The American dream is dead, and America killed it.”
The SAU’s president was right.
While they bickered, things got worse. The ice caps continued to melt at an alarming rate. The weather became more extreme. Each hurricane season became more devastating. In 2025, hurricane Trevor hit Florida — by far the most destructive hurricane in US history. Between 8,000 and 16,000 people lost their lives, and it caused over $400 billion in damage. The SAU decided to win the hearts and minds of the people, and donated a large sum of money to Florida to help them rebuild. They said, “Despite what our leaders may think of each other, people need help. The people of Florida are in the hearts, minds, and prayers of the SAU.”
Outwardly, the American government was thankful; but on the inside, where it mattered, they hated the gesture. They hated the fact that a country that had just spoken harsh truths was lending a helping hand. They hated it even more because the American people appreciated the SAU’s help. America was supposed to help other countries, not the other way around.
Later that year, two massive terrorist attacks took place in the SAU, one at a major factory and another at a mall. Massive explosions ended the lives of over a thousand people. Shortly after, a video surfaced on the Internet, where a group claiming to be backed by the US government took responsibility for the attacks. The group claimed it took matters into its own hands to save the environment, to send a message to the SAU to change its ways.
Unofficial reports and conspiracy theorists claimed the SAU actually orchestrated the attacks itself, then fed false intel to the intelligence community to make it appear the US did it. There were many conflicting reports thereafter. Of course, the US denied having anything to do with the attacks. At the end of the day, half the world saw the SAU as victims of an American terrorist group, while the other half believed America was falsely accused. Soon after the attacks, the SAU cut all diplomatic ties with the US and declared war. Half the world sided with the US, the other half with the SAU.
And just like that, World War III happened.
Conflicts broke out worldwide; conventional warfare, for the most part. Despite saber-rattling from both sides, no one wanted to push “The Button” and cause nuclear winter… but that all changed in 2030 in Mexico. Both sides had troops on either border of Mexico, ready to pass through and invade the other side. The only problem was, Mexico wanted nothing to do with the war. The US issued a warning to Mexican leaders: if they allowed SAU troops to travel through Mexico, the US would view it as an act of aggression. Despite the warnings, Mexico caved under SAU pressure and allowed SAU troops and their allies to travel through Mexico in exchange for economic resources to boost its sagging economy. The US issued another warning, this time to both the SAU and Mexico: SAU troops had 24 hours to leave Mexico or face severe repercussions. The warnings were disregarded, and on February 8th, 2030, the world that I knew ended.
The US launched a successful nuclear attack on Mexico City, the Mexican capital. Eight million people gone in the blink of an H-bomb. Men, women, children, soldiers: all vaporized in an instant. A million others were sickened and later died due to radiation poisoning from the fallout. When I heard the news that America had pushed The Button, I knew it was only a matter of time before the world as I knew it would change forever. Mutual Assured Destruction went out the window at that point.
I live in the middle of Bumfuck, Nowhere USA, far from the Mexican border. I thought I was pretty far away from any worthwhile target, but World War III had just gone nuclear, so anything was fair game now.
I was in my living room, glued to the TV and my cell phone, absorbing any information being broadcasted, when the hair on my neck stood straight up at the sound of the Emergency Alert System howling from both, alerting the public to prepare for an honest-to-God nuclear attack. Turns out the SAU has nukes after all. Seeing as how I live in Tornado Alley, I have a basement full of food, bottled water, emergency supplies, hell, even a solar generator; but I’m equipped for bad weather, not World War III. I don’t know if I’ll be around for five more minutes or five more days.
I guess this is the part where I’m supposed to hand out pearls of wisdom, like how we should have saved the Amazon and the rest of the environment. Or how everyone should have been more diplomatic. Well, there’s no happy ending, no words of wisdom to impart. We, humanity, have supremely fucked up.
If I’m around for a bit longer, maybe I’ll write something else. If not, oh well.
Jessie Morgan Baker