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last update 2018-11-10 14:51
by Quintuplicate, licenced under cc by-sa
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CHAPTER ONE.
Selected. What I've been waiting for all my life.
If I were ten right now, it wouldn't be--Selected to them means bully. I can still remember how I went home covered in bruises, because they'd called me "the girl whose daddy means she'll be Selected". And I can remember my father, flanked by the Triple-C's with their semiautomatic Sten guns, and shouting "give their parents a good hiding before they're shafted off.
And I can remember being in Township Normal School gazing around, and listening to the principal say "You are all special. You are the only ones from your precincts to advance to this coveted position. Men have killed and threatened to get their daughters here, but that matters not, because you are here."
And the flailing and screaming, like chickens at an Official People's Dispensary, when we spoke in anything other than Official Lingua Franca, or called each other by anything other than our Unique Identifiers.
And how that was the first three years of our life at the Normal School, how everyone passed all the Second Phase Examinations because they were so easy, and how the real grit began in Intermediate School.
And how we struggled together through Linotype Machine Operation, Militia Studies, memorizing all the Addresses of past Directors, and all the silly mnemonics and rhymes we made up to help us remember.
And how at the end we took the Final Measures of Competency and now the principal is speaking.
"I would like to remind you that, contrary to the beliefs of your families and your friends, that being Selected is not the end, only the beginning. You and your communities have all given up so much for your Selection, but true Citizenship demands more sacrifice. If you have not qualified for Selection, do not despair. You have contributed more to the System than ninety-nine percent of all Nationals. Based on the subjects you did pass, you will receive a position as a Specialist. While the door to further advance is closed for you, your allowance is more than sufficient for a comfortable life and a wholesome retirement. But, a word of advice to the Selected: you must prepare yourself to survive six years of loneliness, and either achieve or feign achieving Realization. Otherwise, you will be an Auxiliary--respected, but never a full Citizen. The doors are open for you--if you are willing to work. The gates have been taken down --for those who are ready to suffer. The avenue to the future is paved--but twists and turns abound. "
We would applaud if we hadn't memorized it twenty thousand times over already.
Then the rest has been shown to us, through hundreds of Career Fridays: we step on the Stratoprops, our two-shilling tickets paid for us, the windows darken, we step off at the Glass Palace to rest up and be briefed, then off we go to our postings.
CHAPTER TWO.
The concrete building that marks the district headquarters of the Twelfth State of the Sixteenth Federation is monolithic, with a strip of glass, on which visible strips of dark gray mark the floors, serving as a window.
"Division 565 reporting for duty." "Stand-to!" the principal, who is now our commander, orders, and we stiffen like sails in a gale, even though we know no Chastening awaits us. "Very good," a secretary pronounces, and begins taking Identifiers.
"565-0001." "As ordered!"
"565-0002." "As ordered!"
We have done this every morning, so even breathing is harder than this exercise in "proper alertness and orderliness," neither of which you would display after just a year of practicing and figuring out all the tricks. It takes a while to get used to the new numbers, but Numerical Arts is a tough subject and they don't let you pass until you can do 100 three-digit additions in 3 minutes while singing along to the Confederal Anthem, and now it's finally come into use.
"565-1048." "As ordered!"
The call goes down the 10 row (which is ordinally the 11th row, students are given a Chastening-enforced reminder) and I can breathe.
The call takes up most of the day, and that night we subdivide ourselves into our Units. It's simple really. Every member of every Unit is exactly 625 from the members preceding and following her. "Roll-out!" the call comes over the system, and we all remove the green packs from our bags to reveal some crinkly bedding that can either be folded over to be used as a cover or be shared with another member who forgot hers. "Whatever you do between Lights-Out and Wake-Up is none of my business, none of your business with each other, and none of anybody's business. You can not sleep a wink and I will not care at all if you do your jobs adequately." Our principal loved to say that.
As soon as Lights-Out happens and darkness settles over the huge room, whispering floats above us like dragonflies over a marsh at dawn. Some click out their E-I Lighters, activating them with a quick rub on their bedding, and start chatting in small groups.
Township II got the numbers between 5650625 and 5651250, so I am the only representative from my township in my Unit.
"How did you get Selected?"
"I answered the question on the Battle of Marble Arch in 1968 correctly. It was a company of Parliamentarian militiamen against a battalion of Confederalists, and they fought for twelve hours despite being outnumbered five to one. When victory came to the Confederalists they were astounded, for none among the Parliamentarians came to surrender, then their commander realized that the Parliamentarians slew over half of his men, and they had killed three times their number. The Convention was so impressed by their tenacity, that it ordered that a pension of one golden shield per month be paid to every descendant and relative of the deceased militiamen, forevermore."
The others feign admiration, but this is another one I've memorized thousands of times.
One rule that was never enforced--even during the tough years opening Normal School--was the rule that all Units had to sleep in a neat four-by-four group, with a pathway one sheet wide between adjacent Units. There never was a night when we didn't wake up having slept where we chatted and sat, in little dishevelled groups of friends.
And just as our eyes conquer the forces of Darkness so that it is reduced to a mist, the forces of Fatigue arrive just as promptly, and our eyes droop. Like insects at dusk the sound of E-I Lighters clicking off, sheets being unrolled, and goodnights lasts two minutes then there is one minute of silence, then nothingness.
CHAPTER THREE.
Wake-Up blares over the loudspeakers, but most of us have been laying supinely with our eyes open before that. We hop out of our bedding and start rolling it up and folding it into our green bags.
Preparation is still the same, as are the Cleansings. Four minutes of cold aspersions from the sprinkler system and a fancy name are all we get to clean ourselves all day.
"Present yourselves!" "As ordered!"
Little white rectangles are projected onto the ground, and little forklift arms descend with green tin lunchboxes. They are sealed with a combination lock. I turn it to 565-1048 and it opens to reveal an assortment of cold cuts and sausages along with toast and butter on the side as well as an egg fried sunny side up overflowing it all. Powder packets for blueberry and raspberry juice lie in a separate compartment. This would be a good breakfast, if I hadn't had the same one every morning for six years.
The forklift arms remain in front of me, poised to stab me in the eyes, but I am used to this discomfort. The breakfast is quick because nobody needs to savor the tastes they know sideways, backwards, inside out and upside down. After the brief breakfast the forklift arms lift and return shortly with a thick crudely bound folder.
The cover reads
"FOR INSTRUCTION OF NEW CADETS.
THE MONETARY SYSTEM OF THE CONFEDERATION."
There is also an embossed image of the Confederal Shield: a conglomeration of the escutcheons of the twenty Federations of the Confederation, that seems out of place when the rest of the folder looks slapped together. But you can never spend too much on impressing the Confederation.
Then a brief shuffle on the floor as the loudspeakers proclaim "Rearrange!" Like Stratoprops in the Capital City right before the Convention is in session, we put on our green packs and slide across to our daytime 100-by-100 position.
I thought Literacy and Primacy School before that should have taught everyone how to read long sentences, but the loudspeakers still bark "For the aid of the illiterate, the information package will be read out aloud. It is, as follows:
'The basis of the monetary system of the Confederation is a coin weighing 42 grams, called the golden shield, consisting of twenty-three parts gold and one part silver. Due to its softness, it is not suitable for anything but as a notional unit. Instead three systems are used. They are:
1. The Pound-Shilling-Cent System. The shield is divided into 5 pounds, each of 20 shillings, each of 100 cents.
2. The Dollar-Mill System. The shield is divided into 10 dollars, each of 1000 mills.
3. The Crown-Penny-Grain System. The shield is divided into 20 crowns, each of 60 pence, each of 16 grains."
TAKE CARE! Alternating precincts must always employ different systems, to better prevent escapes.
TAKE CARE! Banknotes are never to be printed or to fall into the hands of Subjects.
(As issued by Government Circular No. 784, and amended by GC Nos. 1394, 2357, and 2468, which, along with their legislative histories and brief commentaries and annotations, are enclosed in this folder).'"
The folder contains about eighty pages, but the thing just read out is only the first page. The second page is a table of contents, which reads
"GOVERNMENT CIRCULAR NO. 784, ANNOTATED.
1. Monetary system.
I. First Federation.
Legislative debates--court cases--amendments
II. Second Federation.
Legislative debates--court cases--amendments"
And I give up because it shows the debates over whether to adopt it, how its courts have interpreted it, and how it has been amended, in all 20 federations, for each of the 108 sections of GC no. 784, and for 3 other circulars. Oh, well. I save them anyway because I need toilet paper on my posting.
CHAPTER FOUR.
My Assignment Information Slip is a novelty, surprisingly. The slip that will control my fortunes reads simply:
"1048--339A--1753A--2268A--2976A--3564A--4178A".
The "A" means that they had failed Selection and become Auxiliaries instead. This would dispel many doubts, but if they needed to be dispelled by this announcement, they would be some real stubborn ones, because most of them had been already dispelled by it being constantly drilled into my head in Intermediate School.
Then follows two more days of camping in the big room, two more days of whispering after Lights-Out, and two more days of being counted. This is supposed to be a time of "becoming acquainted with each other's sensibilities and tolerances", but all my Auxiliaries have a look that says the only reason they don't want to rip my throat out is because they want to rip the Confederation's throat out more.
The frigidity subsisting between us gets its first rift on the plane.
"How are you liking the trip?" I ask the girl next to me.
"None of your business, you Selected sugar baby!" she retorts. "4178a, it's time to get over the fact you failed." "I'm never going over the fact I failed this unfair FMC exam. And don't call me by that slave name either. I'm 565-4178, and 565-4178 I will be!"
Oh well, so at least the black-haired girl next to me is 4178.
Most of my baggage and all of my toilet paper cum reading material is in the lower compartment, and I've read the Confederation Airlines flight information booklet a million times already. "We are touching down at District J for a short stopover to refuel. You are welcome to refresh yourselves and resupply at the terminal, where there is an Official People's Dispensary. For those on official business there is an automat and a cafeteria. If you have run out of or otherwise lost the Universal Interchange Coupons that should have come with the flight ticket, please see a Confederation Airlines stewardess immediately. We wish you a pleasant journey on Confederation Airlines--Widest in Wingspan and Armspan, Longest in Route Miles and Crew Smiles, and Highest in Altitude and Attitude!"
The flight seems to be following a chaotic path, forcing me to resort to my mnemonic-making skills again. There: Charles Is Dead Having Been Jarred At Something. Of course, there is nothing after A, even though the flight must return. That's because my assignment is in District A. Still, it's good to stretch your legs after two continuous hours in the air, although it might be on airline tarmac. "Transit passengers here!" a steward waves his arms and shouts, and as if by command a bus appears in front of us.
Confederation Airlines might be a private company and not care about who we are as long as we pay, but Normal School habits die hard. We sort ourselves out, Selected in front and Auxiliaries in the back. A shy double-ponytailed girl and I are the only Selected on the bus, so that was easy. I hear the Auxiliaries jostle and argue in that peculiar civil fashion for who is in front. The bus driver shouts "Sucks to your plans and sucks to your organization! We're going and they're not taking a single mill if some of you fall!" and the auxiliaries pile in like children playing musical chairs.
"That's your organization for you!" the bus driver slams on the brakes just after we got to full speed, and does it again later. "The bus driver...is it right that I envy him?" the shy girl whispers to me. "At the moment, he's more powerful than any Confederation and any Convention." "Any more talk about some stupid Convention, I'll accidentally drive into the path of a plane!" he shouts as he slams on the brakes a third time. But that gets me thinking, and I'm sure she is too. Show up to work drunk on Mondays, late on Tuesdays, and not at all on Wednesdays, and play tricks with the passengers on Thursdays and Fridays with impunity. No Reviews on Saturdays either, just a day on the 50-Mill Express to the city for a day of drinking and brothel frequenting. Who wouldn't like that? No wonder they always dedicate so much space to "falling into the trap of indiscipline" in the Pamphlets.
CHAPTER FIVE.
The airline terminal is so familiar that I could navigate it with my eyes closed. Not because I've used them millions of times, but because I had to build a model of it for Normal School, which I got a zero on because the fourth rafter on the left was misaligned. (The point is, it was easy academically but grueling psychologically. The fact that everyone passed with flying colors despite zeros being handed out like candy should tell you about how many easy assignments there were.)
It's almost like a "spot-the-difference" game. Every terminal I stop at I look at what is different from the last. I've never gotten more than 10, so far. Found one: the sign for "confederation airlines exchange kiosk" has about an "m"'s worth of whitespace on the left more than the one in District B. Still, it's the same bold all-lowercase Futura, bookended with a confident arrow.
A line of Auxiliaries is waiting meekly by the stand for the two Selected. They must be cursing us in secret, our power to award Infractions, and all our privileges. The shy girl is next to me, and we go to the stand together. I feed four coupons into the machine, and it churns out four dull copper 10-mill tokens. She puts in six.
The Auxiliaries seem to have decided on their order already, so like an army on the march they step forward to the machine in the order in which they were waiting for us. Then we head to the Official People's Dispensary with an attached sit-down restaurant.
"Can I take your order, please?" "Can I see the menu?" the shy girl hesitates. "Steak, please, medium rare," she coughs out, as if that wasn't the only main course on the menu and the only way to cook the steak, "with an egg, please, over medium," she exhales, as if that wasn't the only side dish on the menu. "And for dessert, pistachio flavored ice cream, please," she forces out.
"May I have your attention, please. This is for all onward-bound passengers on the Twelfth State Threader, Service 1612ter. We are sorry to announce that due to a most unfortunate complication in the engine of the Stratoprop, we will not be able to depart until the complication is rectified. We promise you that every opportunity will be taken to rectify the complication at our earliest convenience. For those on official business lodgings are provided in Transient Housing, which you will find by going down the fire escape located adjacent to the automat. A supplement of Universal Interchange Coupons will be issued to supply necessities during the trip. Once again, thank you for bearing with Confederation Airlines--Widest in Wingspan and Armspan, Longest in Route Miles and Crew Smiles, and Highest in Altitude and Attitude."
This was one of our lesser-taught lessons, meaning we only had to memorize this hundreds, rather than thousands, of times.
We clamber down the rusty handholds into the abyss. My companion feels like complaining too, but we've all heard stories of how the Auxiliaries treat cowardly Selected. So with a stiff upper lip she enters, and I do too. But after a while the steady and increasingly worried breathing comfortably echoing before me cuts to a halt, and I hear a muffled "Ow!"
I try to climb down further, but my feet only find solid ground. Coming to realization, I rush over guided by her panicky exhalations.
As I inch closer a pair of hands pull me down. Someone nuzzles next to me and whispers "why doesn't this place have any damn lights? I think I broke my fucking arm." Then more expressions of pain, interspersed with Infractions of the Unacceptable Profanities Rule.
"Can someone help me carry her? I think she broke an arm." Then the lights kick in, as she shouts "F...finally!"
Two other girls put their arms around her waist and one takes her legs. Even then, we are unable to do anything other than set her down on the next bunk. "Anyone passed Telex Operation?"
"I did," a black girl in the back pipes up. "And I'll go," she says.
I scrawl out a warrant to requisition temporarily the Telex machine, seal it with my Identifier stamp and hand it to her. "Good luck."
Her eyes are the only things that indicate anything other than indifference, because they indicate terror at suffering a violent death at the hands of the Auxiliaries.
CHAPTER SIX.
I don't see the Superminijet pull into the airport, though I can imagine it: blue lights blinking, one on each wing, a klaxon horn mounted on the top, piercing the air at three hundred miles an hour. As soon as it came to a stop the nurses would jump off and run to the terminal, with the doctor trying his best to keep up carrying the equipment.
"Golly, she's been roughed up pretty badly," the doctor says after a cursory look at her arm. "X-ray, please." He takes an X-ray picture of her arm. "Well, it's been fractured in not just one, but two places. I suppose you'll have to rest up for two or three months. You're in no condition to climb up to the main floor--""I'll help." With the help of several nurses she advances up the rusty handholds to the clinic.
I catch a glint in an Auxiliary's eye, like a wolf when it's seen its prey. Is that 4178? In the flesh. But she might just be unskilled at hiding her emotions. Perhaps the others hate me ten times more, or are just waiting for ten times longer before falling upon me with ten times more ferocity? I put these notions--and the Auxiliaries-- to sleep with a laconic "Retire."
My dreams have always been jumbled messes, and this night's are no execption. A Stratoprop bursts its way into the room, setting the orderly-laid-out bunk beds aflame--the whole building caves in to reveal the field outside the Township Normal School--a thunderstorm starts and the school shakes as the bus driver curses us all--we are launched into a green pack of bedding enough to hold one hundred--the pack of bedding splits open and now we are under the sea--then the sea booms and vibrates
"This is a repeat for your convenience. Due to the unavailability due to her taking an extended convalescent leave of one important passenger on the Twelfth State Threader, Service 1612ter, all passengers on official business are hereby instructed to follow the Selected coded 565-1048 and await further instructions. The flight will depart immediately due to an earlier-than-expected rectification of the complication."
My Normal School instincts get the better of me and I immediately tweet the whistle placed over my undershirt, waking up the few Auxiliaries still sound asleep. "Assemble, urgent!" "As ordered!"
I leap from my bunk onto the ground, remembering to bend my knees. It seems that it's with these random acts of courage and indifference towards personal injury that you gain their favor and approval. "Stand-to! March!" "As Ordered!"
We scramble up the ladder to the terminal, then we proceed in a brisk shuffle-walk down to the boarding gate. An obviously sleep-deprived Confederation Airlines travel agent is also there, and he leads us in a run to the Stratoprop. We climb the stairs into the Stratoprop, and the doors shut with a "psshh" almost before the last person gets her last foot in the door.
"Auxiliaries, alert!" "As ordered!"
"Until receipt of an order from the State by Telex telling me what to do, you are with me. Treat and respect me at all times with the deference you would accord to your own Selected. Deviations from acknowleged practice will be dealt with with the same severity as under your own Selected. Do I make myself clear?"
"Yes!"
The Stratprop lifts into the air with amazing speed, and I barely have time to do my seatbelt before the plane has lifted into the air. Next stop is my posting, and I feel glad for that.
CHAPTER SEVEN.
This is the second time I've been unnaturally awakened.
"We're running out of propane, sir. Do we still have reserves of kerosene?"
"Only enough to keep us afloat for forty-five minutes."
"Ordinarily I'd make a break for the runway and pray to God we're on the mark, but we're carrying passengers on official business today. Stupid Convention, always making those people who can't do shit but regurgitate every new bullshit dogma they come up with like my fucking parakeet the boss of people who've been flying in all kinds of situations for twenty years," the captain sneers. "I hope they can still learn something they didn't memorize thousands of times."
"Selected 565-1048, your advice is urgently needed in the cockpit," the flight engineer says solemnly, barely able to hide the mockery in his tone of voice. Shame he isn't an Auxiliary, because then I could Infract him until more parts of him were red than white.
"Okay, Miss Selected, we need your help to make a decision.
As you can see right now, we are in a heavy fog and we cannot see the ground. Air Traffic Control is not responding.
1. We can make a dash for the runway. This is the quickest, but riskiest of solutions. The odds are nine out of ten this plane will perish with all hands on deck if you do this; even if it does not the odds are nine out of ten on top of that we will not arrive without incident. Actually, make each of the probabilities I just mentioned ninety-nine percent; no, nine hundred ninety nine permille.
2. We can land at an alternative airport. There are none in the range that we can fly to at maximum fuel efficiency with the amount of fuel that we have.
3. We can land at any other piece of flat ground. The disadvantages to this option are so obvious even you are aware of them; but we think there no other choice.
You choose. Time's a-wastin'."
"Option one." "But--" "Option One."
The dinky blinker lights on the plane barely help it see four feet in front of it, and the copilot nervously gazes at the chart and adjusts his compass. "One hundred thirty-five degrees a-starboard, sir--twenty-five degrees a-port, sir--HARD A-STARBOARD, sir--sixty degrees a-port, sir"
The plane rapidly lunges from left to right, but at last it emerges from the clouds, to see a bit of runway, barely making itself visible in the mist!
"Now there's the problem of when the runway ends. Christ, we should've brought Randall."
"That bastard? Hell--LOOK OUT!"
We almost graze the nose of a Stratoliner. Far too late our wheels touch the runway, but the copilot screams "We're going across the runway, not along!"
One almighty jerk and the Stratoprop rights itself, but it is still careening down the runway far too quick for comfort.
"We won't be able to brake in time..." the captain must have whitened a whole bunch of his hair today. "Here's an idea...let's take off again!" "What? But we have no choice..."
Just seconds before the runway ends, we lift off again into the gray mist, which swallows up the airport.
"There's an airstrip here for the State Air Militia Flying Corps. It's disused but hopefully the Self-Masturbation Corps haven't trashed the place."
The captain breathes a short-lived sigh of relief, and turns his plane to point towards to the airfield.
I head back to the main cabin. "Hey, done blowing off the captain's cock, Selected?"
CHAPTER EIGHT.
The Constitution of the Confederation guarantees trial by jury and indictment by grand jury, and who are we to negate that? Field Manual F-10, Emergency Trials, was another one of our burn-into-your-head manuals, and already now the other Auxiliaries are wide-eyed as they know what will happen next.
"If you're with me, you're on the Trial Jury. If you're not, you're on the Grand Jury. Come with me please."
"We indict--" "Not now."
I take them into the galley, where I read out "Will you and every one of you, as Grand Jurors, swear on your honor as a Citizen of the Confederation, to indict and present every person brought before you and obey and uphold the Constitution of the Confederation, the Federation and the State, and the principles of justice and liberty?"
"Yes." Some of them are shaking, positively trembling.
"So, do you indict the defendant, 565-4178?"
"Yes." "I can't hear you!" It's Normal School all over again. I can sort of see why they did it now. It's so relaxing. "I can't hear you." I pull out my Infractions Sheet, and mime making a mark.
"Yes! YES!" they scream, one after the other. "WE INDICT AND PRESENT A TRUE BILL--" "That's enough." They look as though they've fainted. A few might vomit as soon as I turn my head. "You are dismissed. DISMISSED!" "As Ordered!"
The Grand Jurors troop back into the cabin. "4178, you have been indicted for reproachable speech around a superior in command. I therefore, under article 213 of the Code of Criminal Procedure (Cadets) of the Confederation, place you under close arrest and hold you under strict custody, without recourse to any judicial writ."
"Confess and die, or die anyway." This is a quote from 672-1789, the advocate-general for the Fourth State of the Fifth Federation. She still holds the record for most criminals executed on a plea of guilty in a single year. Of course, her own advanced techniques were used against her at her final downfall in 1969, but the three years of 1966, 1967 and 1968 remained still the years during which the Confederation had the most vigour, the most strength, and the most readiness to deal harshly with Parliamentarians and other separatist felons.
"The defendant is hereby ordered to make a statement."
"I'm sorry..."
"Sorry? You're like a child, saying sorry when you're in trouble. Let me tell you, I've been meaning to do this with you a long time. Reduce your holier-than-thou provocative mouth to your rightful place. Of course, you're still spacing out, so this--" It's still hard to get used to haranguing defendants. While I can't go on long tirades like the prosecutor-judges of the 1970s, this is probably enough to intimidate an Auxiliary.
"I didn't mean to..."
"I don't need your excuses. And I need your regrets, not these shallow regrets you express to get me off your back either, but real regrets too. Are you paying attention? Because this is not a threat. Whatever you do or say, including nothing, in the next five minutes will result in an Infraction. As you know, an Adverse Report issues from eighteen Infractions, which...you know what, you're a waste of my time. If you're not going to reform yourself, fine, then I won't reform myself either. There's no reason for me to forgive you when you are unwilling to correct yourself. The statement is over."
The tiniest trace of a tear appears in the corner of her eye, even though she's trying her best to keep it back, and it's like being Selected all over again. Somehow I think the shy girl will love them. "I just made an Auxiliary cry!" I think to myself. No, this is even better than the day I was Selected.
"The defendant is ordered to report for examination. First question: How on earth did you think it was even slightly acceptable to use such debased language in front of your superior?"
"I...I don't know."
"Maybe you should've thought about it. Second question: When did you start developing such an insolent attitude towards lawfully constituted authority?"
"I never..."
What is left of her rational thought centers is routed by the emotional parts as she breaks down in tears.
"Well," I look up, "what's your verdict?"
"Guilty!"
"Well, you said it, not me."
"I have decided to extend a special dispensation to the defendant. She will be awarded only one Infraction rather than the two to four that the Confederal Sentencing Guidelines suggest for a typical case of this nature."
"Th...thank you." She falls at my feet, in tears.
"Breaking barriers," the Pamphlets had said. "The life of a Selected is one of constanly breaking barriers. Habits are given up which you didn't know existed. Mental obstacles you took for granted are destroyed. Constant reconstruction to the end, is the watchword of all true Selected."
"Good job," I say, patting myself on the back.
CHAPTER NINE.
I almost don't feel the jolt that means we're starting to descend. Effortlessly this time the pilot drives his plane through the clouds into the ground below, shadowed in some parts, uncovered in others.
"Requesting permission to land. We are running out of fuel. This is an emergency! If you do not let us land here, we have no fuel to go anywhere else!"
"I can't see the airstrip..." I remark.
"What do you mean, we'll need to stall for ten or twenty minutes! We're lucky if we can hang in there for five!"
The pilot curses and we plunge.
"Your masturbators have thirty seconds to get out of our way, or they will be put to good use for once in their lives oiling our wheels!"
Our angle is getting steeper now, and we are approaching a nosedive. One great banked turn that leaves us thinking the wingtip must have scraped the ground, and we are aloft again. "There are men drilling on the runway!" The copilot exclaims, but it is too late to turn back. As we land, militiamen step back in perfect formation clearing a path for our wheels. "We've landed!"
Whatever mood of celebration there was remaining in the plane was shed with the tears in the little trial I had.
A man in a tweed suit and horn-rimmed glasses steps from the ranks of militiamen, and pretends to know what he's doing as he makes a fool of himself trying to order the stewardess to lay out the stairs. The stairs are laid out, all right, and the man looks all pleased with himself.
"You are heroes. True heroes! The Rebels occupied the district headquarters, and were getting ready to spring a trap on your plane! They had assault rifles and rocket launchers trained on you already! I don't know what possessed you to take off again, but God Almighty, that must have been one hell of a kindred spirit! Oh, introduction. I'm the commander of the 763th Battalion of the 9th Infantry Brigade of the militia of the Twelfth State of the Sixteenth Federation. And we needed a firing squad."
They are silent. If human beings could turn bright green, they would look like a field of tall grass.
"Bring them in."
Two boys, not much older than twelve or thirteen, not much taller than five feet, and covered in at least fifteen wounds to say nothing of their innumerable nicks, cuts, and scratches, are brought in with two older teenagers grabbing an arm of each of them. The commander reads something out.
"DEATH WARRANT.
We the lawfully appointed representatives of the good people of District A, do hereby condemn the Accused to the Supreme Penalty of Death, for the high crime and misdemeanor of Cowardice. This morning, while they were manning a machine-gun nest, they fled the nest so that they could seek help. Under the Code of Crimes and Punishments of the Twelfth State of the Sixteenth Federation, 'cowardice, when committed in time of public danger, is punishable by death.'"
They are turning red and purple. And their nether regions look like the marshlands that lie a few miles north.
He hands me a Battle Rifle, and I gladly take it. Several other Battle Rifles are also handed out to Auxiliaries, and one stare compels them into doing it.
"Ready."
I pull the bolt. I wince as it springs back.
"Aim."
I make doubly sure the sights are aligned to his heart.
"Fire."
Click.
He is almost ready to faint, but he picks himself up, stands and shouts "I'm alive! I'm alive! Thank God!"
"Let this be a sign of the mercy of the Confederation. Now he is sentenced to one hundred stripes of whipping, well laid on!"
I have never seen terror become excitement become fear so quickly. He is taken away in as intense a state of unsteadiness as he came.
CHAPTER TEN.
Highway 1612AJ: 4 lanes on each side, a median strip planted with generic trees whose leaves, even, are aligned, and a speed limit of 80 miles per hour obssessively posted up at every mile. A gantry sign alternates with a cantilever sign every two miles a half mile after the speed limit signs. This one-hundred-foot gray ribbon spreads on through jungle and desert always ruler-straight. The engineers who had built this road were careful to make everything seem normal and flat as a pancake: where the road passed through a rise, they built a cutting; where the road passed through a drop, they built an embankment. They refused to admit defeat to either mountains or gorges who stubbornly chose to stand in the way of their straight lines, and a little bronze plaque is all they used to memorialize their inferior predecessors who chose to cowardly dig a tunnel or build a viaduct rather than moving the dirt around them to keep the highway level. Every time we pass through a mountain we glimpse the sun shining through a gap the exact width of the highway, bordered with artificial slopes forming perfect ninety-degree angles with the ground.
I would marvel at all of these achievements, if I hadn't memorized how these were accomplished a thousand times for Design and Engineering.
We come to a gentle stop. Oh, it is because we are coming to a tollbooth: the words "25 CENTS PER PERSON IN SILVER" are fixed to the top of the tollbooth, with a glamorous arrow directing our attention to the right. A Service Station is there.
Our bus inches over to the parking lot, and we all disembark. "At liberty," I order, "regroup in two hours."
The Auxiliaries scatter off making the best of their short-lived liberty. As for me, I walk over to the center of the Service Station, where there is a fountain. The jets of water beat a black stone monument that reads:
"HIGHWAY 1612AJ, SERVICE STATION 4.
Highway 1612AJ is a Confederal responsibility under the Intercontinental Highways Act, 1971 (No. 48), as a Tertiary Intercontinental Highway. They serve a vital role connecting Districts to each other and State capitals, while Primary Intercontinetal Highways connect Federations, and Secondary Intercontinental Highways connect States with each other and Federal capitals. They are to be accorded the same role as Threader services of Confederation Airways and Intercity services of Confederation Railways.
Service Station 4 is a Federal responsibility under the abovenamed Act. It is to provide the same services as a Nonprimary-Nonhub Airport of Confederation Airways, and an Intermediate-Level Station of Confederation Railways.
Erected By Order of the State Road Commissioner.
1973."
The logo of the Confederal Road System follows it all, the two hemispheres of the earth depicted as the two headlights of a car.
There is no name on the bottom. Oh, it was Ulf Larsson. He was one of the ablest and most hard-working men of the early Confederation, using all his energies on promoting a uniform road and integrated transport system throughout the whole Confederation. But because he was totally apolitical, he was sentenced to political exile in 1975. He lived out of the rest of his life quietly on a generous pension from the Confederation on condition that he keep his mouth shut, which he did.
An Official People's Dispensary, a restaurant, and a travel agency embrace the fountain, forming a 270-degree arc with the parking spots radiating from the fountain. I could explore the place blindfolded too since I built a model of it as a Construction Project. Of course other people's movements weren't accounted for in the model, and I don't have a blindfold with me anyway. I enter the Official People's Dispensary by climbing up a ramp to push open a side entrance.
The Official People's Dispensart is self-service, but someone appears to have vandalized the coin slots of all the shopping carts. But Aisle A is still frozen foods, arranged in the fashion of a five-course meal: appetizers on Row I, side dishes on Row II, main course on Row III, dessert on Row IV, and snacks on Row V. Exactly one of each meal lies on the frozen-food aisle. I grasp Item A.I-3 (french fries), Item A.II-4 (chicken salad), Item A.III-2 (beef meatballs), Item A.IV-6 (cream pie) and Item A.V-3 (waffles with maple syrup). After every item is grabbed another one of that item rolls into place ready for the next customer. I quickly perform an interleaving--1324324653, and enter that number on a rotary dial located at the end of that aisle. It spits out a ticket that reads "5 cents", and struggling to grasp the meals with both arms the ticket is blown away from my fingers and lands on the checkout desk. I remove a five cent coin, and the cashier accepts it with a factitious smile. "Thank you for shopping with the Official People's Dispensary Network. Does this entry accurately describe you and your transaction?"
I take the little slip she holds in her hand, on which is scribbled "565-1048 A1324324653 5c" and I draw a check in the little space left in the end. She waves me away.
The interstitial gap between the dispensary and the restaurant hosts a little washbasin and a coin-operated microwave. The microwave stuffs itself with a few more gratuitous five-cent coins, and my meal is now hot all the way through. This also, incidentally, makes it even harder to take to my table.
I sit along the counter and collect a fork from the wooden silverware holder at the end.
Tightly rationed packets of flavor skirt my taste buds: salt one second, pepper the next, butter after that. A signboard above the counter cheerfully reminds us:
"The food you are eating has been ensured by the Department of Food Science at University College No. 3 of the Twelfth State University of the Higher Education System of the Sixteenth Federation to be a Sustainable Taste. Sustainable Tastes have been developed from chemicals that trigger and excite the excitement and enjoyment sensors in your brain, but not in so large quantities that you grow numb to or tired of that taste."
"Hah." The young man next to me complains. "Just like not feeding a man enough so he won't be full."
I instintively reach for Form 213, the Indictment Charging Form, when I see that he has a suit on. The lapel reads "Confederation Surveying Corporation: A Public Enterprise." Oh, well. I left Form 213 in my suitcase anyway and I'm not in the mood to pose more leading questions.
"Well, hello, Selected." he says. "I'm a surveyor. And you're--administrative?"
"Yes." I reply. "How is being a surveyor?"
"Oh, the Official Opposition always campaign about surveyors being oppressed and promise to increase our wages, but to tell you the truth they don't know a damned thing. We are about as oppressed as this place is underwater! Sure, ten cents a day might not exactly buy royal fare, but we only need to work thirty weeks in a year and they give us a travel allowance of twenty-five golden shields to while away the other twenty-two. But as you know, the Official Opposition are totally a legitimate rival to the government." He winks.
"Well, due to various mishaps I haven't actually started my administrative work yet. But so far it's looking promising." I confess.
"Good luck then, Selected."
He leaves probably to order more wine from the National House of Entertainment. Still, I can't blame him; if I could have liquor at the subsidized rate of fifty cents a gallon, I would be drinking it by the barrel, too.
CHAPTER ELEVEN.
We enter the capital of District A passing through a building at the sixth floor. I behold glass windows peeking on people working on typewriters, teenagers walking on the footpaths lining both sides of the highway, daring each other to mount the rusty barriers marked with peeling yellow paint separating them from the road, office workers walking into and out of a sterile white door beckoning the way to more clean white stairs threading up and down the building lit by clean white fluorescent lamps.
Then it all vanishes as clean as it came.
The name of the building is engraved in small monumental script above the entrance, but I know what it is called without looking: the Gate. And now the highway will become a triple-decker, with the directions stacked on top of each other. Below would run an elevated train, then further down would be the main road with a tram in the middle. And the Underground City. There's always an Underground City.
That is, until a rocket flits past the front of our bus and detonates on the building opposite.
"Don't slow down! If we stop, we make ourselves a target! Keep moving, keep moving!"
The bus driver is more frightened than a three-year-old alone in a graveyard at midnight, but fright beats death any day of the week. "We need a safehouse!" the radio operator says. Then another rocket hits the opposite carriageway, and he jumps. The radio is thrown in the air and the antennae find a nice warm home in his crotch when it finally comes back to land emitting static. The operator grabs the radio while wincing in pain, and jerks the slider with much more force than he needs, bringing us out of the slider zone.
"There is a safehouse. Civilian Transport Vehicle 1902134, can you hang in there for two miles?"
"Two miles? If we didn't have some hardcore guardian angels we wouldn't even be talking to you right now!"
"Okay, wait a bit..."
Then it happens.
Luckily, it hit the front tire. Unluckily, it happened at all.
The tire seeps gas for about two seconds, then it finally lets it rip. The bus is propelled about fifty feet into the air.
"Grab on to your neighbor's seat, for fuck's sake!" The driver orders, before the seatbelt he pretended to buckle retracts and propels him out of the bus.
I hold on to the handle in front of me for dear life as the bus continues skywards. Then a collective yell is heard, as we realize the bus is hurtling downwards, with the front up. The Auxiliaries in the back start putting their heads between their knees, and several people in the rows in front of them follow suit.
The bus starts turning somersaults in the air. At about its fourth 360-degree turn, it flips off the highway and hits the roof of a building next to it. But the momentum of the bus is not about to be stopped just by that. It bounces off the roof and lands on the ground with its wheels to the sky.
I unbuckle my seatbelt and grasp my way to the newly redesignated floor of the bus by grappling the luggage rack. The emergency exit on the new floor is unusable, of course, but I try several times to find the open door button on the now upside down dashboard. My fingers actually just barely meet that elusive button the last time before an Auxiliary points out that since the bus driver got out through the now broken wind shield we can too.
No one fancies being scratched by the broken glass, but there isn't much of a choice. My attempt to scoot myself out on my feet, hands, and bottom doesn't end up quite well when a piece of broken glass finds itself a nice warm home in my posterior.
Nobody is about to make the mistake of laughing now.
"Nobody move! Stop there!" A man in a green uniform comes out and holds a Battle Rifle at us. "Don't you know that impersonating a Confederal public servant is a first-class felony under section 1235 of the Code of the Twelfth State of the Sixteenth Federation?"
"Don't you know that impersonating a militiaman is a first-degree felony under article 491 of the Criminal Code of the Confederation?"
"Come with me to company headquarters, then we can sort this shit out."
Just as we start walking, an artillery shell hits the bus and obliterates it. Signs of decay and destruction everywhere: shattered glass all over what used to be ultramodern office buildings, chunks of concrete littered all around what was fine government buildings, toppled signs and traffic lights at what used to be bustling intersections. When we come to a manhole he lifts it and says "Go in. It's down in there."
Tired men playing cards and chess, a man huddled on a bunk bed, trying to catch the shadow of the lamp with his eyes so he can get some sleep, is this what the Confederation has turned out to be?
Nobody looks up when we enter. "Sit down," the man orders, surlily. "Well, at least we've fulfilled our quota of prisoners for the month. Could always palm them off as impersonators."
No one speaks. A few acknowledge him by grunting and nodding.
The silence hanging over the makeshift base feels sacred. None of us dare disturb it even when it is crying for help.
"She's bleeding out." A soldier points at one of my Auxiliaries, and says. As the man next to him turns to look at her, he pockets a three pence coin. The victim's eyes stare wide-eyed, then contract as he realizes he's been duped. There is no other reaction on his part than a dismayed expression.
Then an ear-piercing scream, and she falls.
"Oh, more decomposing bodies?" the man who was trying to sleep says, "We just got the Lieutenant's body out of the way."
And he takes one great breath, lays his head against the wall, says: "Why can't you turn out the light", and stiffens. It is only then that I notice his sheet is covered with blood around the waist.
"Those are either great last words or terrible goodnights." the man that seems to be in charge of it all observes, and performs several tests on him. Yes he is dead, and so is my Auxiliary.
"Now where do we dispose of them? Let's just chuck it down into the sewerage and let them handle themselves."
"I don't see a problem with that. But are you expecting the walls to come down by themselves?"
As a matter of fact, they do come down by themselves, followed by a surprise squad of unarmed Nationalists.
"Hands up, Confederalists! And they'll stay up until and unless you renounce the Confederation and embrace the Union of National Republics forever!"
They start surrendering but I remove my Battle Rifle and am cocking it when they suddenly turn and run before us.
"So..." the soldiers playing chess remark, "victory?"
"Far from it. Now we gotta find a new place for our company headquarters and replace all our tripwires."
"Yeah well, this way the battalion sees us taking some risks at least."
"Fair enough."
"Well, let's get a good night of sleep before we start the pack-up tomorrow."
Which five Auxiliaries and seven soldiers don't survive.
The next morning, they wrap that great-last-word guy in his blood-soaked blanket, and throw him onto the pavement of the Underground City a few feet below. "Such a shame," someone reflects, "we could've wrapped another guy in that blanket."
"Maybe a third guy, but now we'll have to grasp them by their shrunken limbs."
The next throw kind of misses the mark, and his corpse is slung over a utility pipe.
"Now this shit's gonna fester all through the underground complex."
The third corpse lands on the bloodied blanket uneventfully.
"Lemme betcha the threepence you took from me and an extra threepence this one will land right on mark."
The fourth corpse lands face up with its feet touching the third corpse's head.
"Nope, I keep my threepence."
"Yeah, you don't."
But neither of them wants to be wagered on about where they will land, so they keep their hands to themselves.
As they are bringing in the fifth corpse, the alarm blares.
"They've tripped Advance Listening Post No. 45." A soldier pulls out a reading from the teleprinter, and says.
"Here's a reading coming from 51." "62!" "27!"
"Oh God, no. The Counter-Offensive has started."
"I thought we had them cornered in the city center of District A HQ?"
"Where you been reading that tosh from? The Confederation Gazette? They don't know shit about the facts on the ground. The fact is, we only control the city suburbs, the main roads, and some large rural towns, and that is if you define 'control' as 'hiding in bunkers looking at maps like we do."
"I think it's a ruse. The little raid last time didn't set off any warnings."
"They were trying to earn a quick crown or two. They wanted to scare us so we could pay them to go, but that little Miss Selected had the real big guns. If they'd set off the tripwires this time all the battalion would have come to our defense. And they'd get punished by the Nationalists too for 'wasting resources.'"
"They're coming!"
"Hopefully one grand volley of Confederal vengeance will scare them off..."