Unity of the Citizenry
by Stephan James
The last moments I saw Horton alive, the Patrol Authority Technicians had grabbed him and were leading him to the gallows. My eyes stared, unable to block out the sight, the sound, the knowledge of what I’d done. Yet I couldn’t turn away. I could only remember.
We’d begun innocently enough, two guys bitching in a bar on the near west side of town, complaining about our lack of fortune and opportunity, all the while trying to hide our lack of ambition and responsibility for our actions.
Eventually, the subject turned, as it does amongst the commoners, to the current political situation and what we could do about it. The disheartening conclusion was, unfortunately, nothing. We resumed drinking in silence.
After the fifth or sixth beer, as I was getting ready to stumble off my stool and catch a cab, Horton grabbed my elbow and liquor-whispered in my ear. “There is something we can do.”
I paused for a moment, then nodded. “So you’ve heard, too,” I said, my speech slurring and my eyes blinking too slowly.
“I guess,” he said, still on his stool. I was on the floor, and had to lean down just a little to talk to him. He glanced around the half-full tavern, as if gauging the opportunity. “What have you heard?”
I leaned down and took his elbow. “Not here.” I wasn’t yet prepared.
His eyes searched mine for honesty, for genuineness, for the chance to finally put something right. “Where?”
I thought for a minute, then gave Manchester Horton the location of our damnation. “Corska Park,” I said, with a little nod. “Tuesday.”
His assent was little more than a tip of the wrist to finish his beer, and a wave with his free hand to see me to the door. “Okay, Wellin, have a good night.” I showed myself out, and shivered. Only partly from the chill in the air.
* * *
He arrived an hour late. I had been sitting at the south edge of the artificial pond, watching the ducks and runners and homeless glide by. As Horton walked up, I joined him on the path that would take us around the lake in about fifteen minutes. I guessed that was enough time to get what information I needed.
He started. “What have you heard?” Pushy. Evidently he’d forgotten that you need to build trust first and offenses later.
“Take it easy, man. Slow down.” His eyes slowly bled that suspicious, shifty look of someone watching for a PAT. The Patrol Authority Technicians, a fancy way of saying thugs, were the hired bodyguards and police force of the Reds. They’d been in power for more than a decade and, thanks to our sweat and sacrifice, could afford to keep themselves there. Which was why I was interested in what Horton had to say. “Now, start small. Tell me one thing you know.”
He studied his feet as he walked, and hesitated as a woman and her dog passed. “Have you heard of the Greens?”
“And the Blues?”
“Until now it’s been nothing more than rumors.” He looked over at me, and for the first time I really saw him. Wide eyes, thick dark hair, broad shoulders and long arms, covered in a heavy overcoat that did much to disguise the shape hidden beneath. I wondered what his story was. I wondered how he saw me. I wondered if he saw through me.
“Are you sure about this?” I asked. To be honest, I think I was asking myself, too. I hoped that he would deny it, would dismiss the opportunity with that small wave of his hand that he’d given at the bar, that he’d let me out of this contract I was dangerously close to accepting, for better or worse, until death parted us. “I mean, I can walk away now and forget we ever talked.” I thought I meant it.
He stopped, took me by the elbow again, and sized me up. I knew he was seeing my worn shoes, my hatless head, my cold nose and thinning cheeks. “Do you like it?” he asked. “Do you like working until June to pay income taxes? Not to mention sales taxes, excise taxes, luxury taxes, sin taxes, purity taxes, transient taxes, resident taxes? Do you like the ‘freedom’ they give us to choose whether to work six days a week or not at all? Do you like not knowing whether your wife will have something to cook for dinner?”
I tried to interrupt but got cut off. “I see you’re not poor. But you could be,” he snapped his fingers, “just like that.” I knew he was right. We started walking again. “What kind of life is that?”
“It’s not much,” I admitted, “but it’s what we’ve got now.”
“Yeah, now,” he said. “But what happens a year from now? Six months? Tomorrow? It’s no way to live a life. They know that. You know that. So are you willing to do something for change?”
I seriously considered leaving. I had visions of sprinting along the path, bursting into the parking lot, and driving like hell back to my wife, kids, uncertain future, and telling them to shove it. But I knew I couldn’t. They wouldn’t let me go. They had me. And now I had to do what they wanted. So I stayed. “Yeah,” I said, “I’m in.”
It was a minute or two before Horton spoke again. “What do you know about the Greens?” I still didn’t know which side he favored, so I played it cautious.
“Greens? Sort of communist, right? Everyone does their part, gives a little back, spends a couple of weeks at boot camp each year, works at the garden in Lewsky once a week.” He nodded along as I spoke. “Nonviolent, I think.”
“More individualistic, reinstating the voluntary army, but still giving people more freedoms. They’ve said they want to go back to the old electoral rule, instead of Perpetual Councils. They think it’s better that way. Fewer governors, less Ministry, lower taxes.” I couldn’t meet his gaze.
“Which do you like?” he asked.
“Does it matter?”
He thought about that for a moment. “Yeah.” We were nearing the end of the path, coming close to a crucial time. “Listen,” Horton said, slowing down to draw out the moment. “Friday. Atz’s Pub, back room, around ten. The Greens are meeting. Come with me?” I nodded and shook his hand.
I didn’t know where Atz’s was, but I’d find out. As he left, he dropped his eyes, as if shamed, as if asking, Is this right? I didn’t have an answer.
* * *
I knew they know what I’d been up to, and didn’t even try to avoid it. I wouldn’t have made it home if I’d tried to skip the expected “information session.” I left the park and headed south towards a rendezvous I dreaded already.
The lower side of town was, both literally and figuratively, the armpit of the city. Expansion had grown south, along the highway, and west, where the open farmlands were chewed up for housing developments, yet the slums in between had been left to fester and rot. It had happened easily, what with buildings falling down, streets mangled and sore, lawns that looked like the mange had taken root and never would leave.
I picked my way through the narrow streets towards the address they’d specified at the last meeting, driving carefully. I was willing to leave it all if I saw danger, but, ironically, as I neared the checkpoint, the scene calmed.
Streets seemed less dirty. Buildings had fewer broken windows, factories showed at least the appearance of having been occupied in recent months. I concentrated on the near future, when I could get out of this place and head back to the west end, to my apartment and wife and kids and semblance of order. I wanted it all to end.
The door stood off at the end of an alley. Strange, I never learned who they were. I just assumed, as they told me, that it would be better for me and my family if I told them what I knew.
I knocked, half-expecting a thin voice to spurt out of a rectangular slot, asking me for the password. I guess they knew me, expected me, and the door opened after a short pause. Two PATs stood inside, erect in their white uniforms, large weapons draped across their chests. “Fellas,” I said, but they didn’t reply.
Copyright © 2016 by Stephan James