My article posted earlier. Enjoy this chapter, it'll be the last one for a week or so as the author has another life.
He navigated to the heart of the city, through which he must pass. The towers had been growing and he found himself in their canyons. They out-loomed those of the old Manhattan of New York City. His every sense protested. His hands were sweating as he saw the banks of cameras at every intersection, dozens of cops, sensor gates, dogs, and helicopters near the financial district. He thought again about the trillions of electromagnetic emissions that were about, and the ultra-secret government reports about their effects on the human neuronal system. Basically they were all slowly short-circuiting to death, slowly going mad as their organs grew disoriented from the commands of their brains. Thus the mass psychoses, the murders, drug addictions, child abuse, cruelty to animals, and the rest. That and the poisoned food, air, water…
He was coming to Broad Street. The canyons were growing deeper, the hum boiling around him like a whirlpool. Millions of windows were emerging from dusk, millions of illuminated eyes appearing in the molido above. On the ground walks and sky walks millions of people. On the sides the bikes and jitneys.
He saw a city rescue service ambulance parked ahead, its cherries whirling. Betts tried not to rubberneck, but like everyone he gave in. Two motor scooters had run into the rear of a government food truck. The drivers had clotheslined on the loading bed. Their scooters had kept going and were crumpled under the front wheels. Suddenly Betts glanced at one of the rescue men—yes, it was Gilmor, zipping up a body bag. Betts nearly shouted, checked himself just in time.
“Get on, or I’ll scan you!” a cop snarled at Betts. And Betts stepped on the accelerator, remembering there was a fine of a day’s rations for rubbernecking. And if he was scanned it would be discovered he was on the unreporting list…. And again the computer would have done him in.
Betts glanced at a camera as he passed on—another mistake. Well, he was grateful anyway that this accident hadn’t occurred deeper in; traffic there was worse. He didn’t want to slow down. No. In the System you were always safer if you were moving quickly. The abnormals exposed themselves by moving slowly. The traffic curled again as he approached Market Street.
The System always wanted to know where you were, even if you were poor and had no debt. Betts, no stranger to vanity, thought the System had classified him a “one percenter”—a high security risk. He had the background: prole parents, athletic, high grades in school, an “Unreliable” political rating in college, which he left after three semesters. Then his combat infantry experience. Such a profile interested the System, especially Executive Rescue, which was always looking for talent—or ferreting out potential insurgents. As he crawled along in traffic his mind wandered; he found himself relaxing a bit as he approached his neighborhood.
He passed a billboard; an attractive woman was about to sip her bottle of “Sabra” brand beer. He thought of Executive Rescue’s special branch staffed by women agents. They were polished and beautiful, often the daughters of the elite and bored with the prospect of matchmade husbands and easy living, of political dinners and parlor intrigue. They wanted action, they wanted to ride the bus, they wanted to meet interesting men, who were few in their class. They were called “butterflies.” Any man a butterfly targeted was pretty much finished. Human quality, a cultured person of manners, had become so rare that to even be near one unsettled you.
He ached to be in the Free Zone. This life exhausted him, demoralized him, insulted him. Any open space free of cameras, proles, cops, helicopters, ads and buildings, filth and brutishness and squalor, sounded to him like paradise. He particularly wanted to see the desert country of the southwest. He had found a picture book in a dumpster, a century old, of spectacular sites in the old states of California, Utah, Arizona and New Mexico. The stone formations of the Ancient Ones, their cliff dwellings; the starkness, the pure sunlight coming down through a clean sky and purifying the land—to him it was fantastic, a living hallucination which the System prohibited. He wanted it. He would die trying to get it.
Above all sometimes, he wondered if the people of a century earlier in the United States understood what they had. It was the nearest to paradise a common man would ever have on Terra. And Betts understood why they lost it: they got too soft. It would happen to any people, any culture, that had ease too long. This was the weakness of the human animal. Jack London wrote about it.
Betts passed a man and woman fighting on the sidewalk. The passing crowd was pooling around them. The man had the woman by the hair and the woman was flailing at his groin. Betts found himself thinking now about the animals of the wild spaces. He thought them more valuable than human beings. Every time he glanced a fox in the city, or a raccoon, he saw a mutant trapped by human habitation. In the old United States millions of intelligent, sensitive people were horrified by the rape of Nature by the System, a juggernaut of destruction established by needs of debt servicing. Thus the banks had established a system that placed military and police power at the service of private corporations. All over Terra no cultural or ethnic resistance, no defiance based on traditional borders, was tolerated. The United States military had become a hit team, deployed to crush opposition. If the situation required finesse, so-called “elite” units would be deployed to assassinate key resisters. In the jungle night, in the altiplanos, on the coasts, naval and army teams would enter a village, a town, and kill the natural leaders of a community.
And all the time the System’s media peddled military adventure to the increasingly soft, degenerate, male slaves of the Federation’s termite colonies, implanting the lie that the military life was most virile.
Betts piloted on. There now was the bell tower of St. Agnes’s Church , a navigational mark. St. Agnes was remarkable for one thing most important to the culture now: it had its original windows. They were ten meters high, stained glass made by Flemish glaziers in the 19th century, imported specially for the job. They were extremely rare; original stained glass was prized by collectors. Most windows had been looted out decades ago, or destroyed in the wars. Betts looked at them as he passed. There was Jesus, there his Disciples. Christianity was gone from the cities now. He barely remembered his grandmother, Sophie, a pious Christian. St. Agnes was her church. She gave up her Presbyterian church and took after this one. Christianity was cultural sabotage, Betts had concluded. What tore up Europe more through the ages than the Christian schisms?
He thought of her as he crept the car along the beaten streets, smelling her perfume again, hearing her voice. She was holding him; she was gentle and soft, unlike her son, his father. And then he was thinking of his father, when the man punched Betts so hard he flipped off the back porch. He was seventeen. The next day Betts joined the army. Betts never saw him again. Any of them.
He came to an intersection. On his left the corner of the St. Agnes yard. There in the shadows she was: St. Agnes herself, behind the iron fence. She was of exquisite marble—what skill!—and the air had not eaten her too badly. She was sitting there, a virgin in the folds of her pastoral clothing, her face haloed by her head dress, head bowed as she was hearing the eternal promise of the Martyr, the lamb in her lap blocking the advances of men.
He came to Third and Market. He saw the river. The traffic was thinner here, much thinner, and the forms of human wrecks were appearing in place of the more energetic workers of downtown. But he was relieved to be home; as always the ancient streets and buildings warmed him. He turned into the alley, passed Church Street, Arch Street, the dark old doorways. The car bouncing on the cobbles. He blinked—a hem of skirt flashing in the corner of his eye, disappearing in a doorway. He yanked his head around; no one was there. He dismissed the apparition. He was nervous, that’s all.
He slowed to go around potholes. He turned into his alley, passing under clotheslines. The carriage houses appeared, some burned hollow, violated by graffitti. There was the eyeball, the giant bloodshot eyeball that had been there for years, done with skill and anger. He remembered seeing it the night Gilmor and his partner had snuck him home, when everything looked underwater. The giant eyeball.
He bumped down the 400 year old alley, wondering what his neighbors would think of the Ministry Of Health car. He passed the crowded old tenements, whose windows were so close together they looked tiny. Prole windows were like that. He came up beside the only street lamp in this alley; a railroad rail served as the post, with a crudely-welded arm at the top, and a dim bulb protected by rat wire. That was the best the city government could do for Betts’ alley. But the Old City took care of its own.
Darkness, weeds, litter, an atmosphere of psychic disorder. Betts cut the headlights and could barely make out the walls as he backed the little car into a garage. He cut the engine and sat there a few minutes, allowing his eyes to adjust to the darkness, listening. It was remarkably quiet; he heard muted music, insects in the weeds. A car horn from far off. He felt the eyes on him from windows. He cut the two-way and got out and locked the door and moved across the alley to his apartment building. A minute later he was back with aluminum foil and electrical tape. He popped the trunk and with a flashlight to see, covered the transponder with the foil. He wrapped it tight with several layers. Taking the dead man’s clothes and his agency notebook, he returned to his apartment.
He only could hope a DPS cruiser didn’t notice the car. Well, he didn’t have time to hide it better. He would leave in a few hours anyway. There is no perfect plan. But you tried. Action was the only way out. Better to light a candle than curse the darkness.
When he came back into his apartment building the familiar sensations hit him: cheap greasy food, cigarettes, beer, garbage, anger. People in the old days were smaller; he always told himself that whenever he maneuvered his way up the narrow stairs, his head just inches below the ceiling. Yes, people were much taller now—but less healthy.
He entered his apartment. He faced the first object, placed purposively: the old painting Grandma Sophie had given him, a landscape of what was called Bucks County. That was an administrative unit of Pennsylvania in the old United States. The country was just north of Philadelphia, along the upper Delaware. The painting showed a barn and below it a farmhouse, made of stone. The land was green and rolling. The country there, if it was really like that, must be very beautiful. Betts knew the elites favored that area and many had permanent homes there. Over there, his grandfather’s portable radio… This was Sophie’s couch, too. Betts had gone back to his father’s house, when the man wasn’t home, and taken all this. Poor Sophie had died in a terrible rail sabotage during the second insurrectionary period. That one failed, too.
The resisters were very stupid about target selection. Provocateurs had infiltrated their groups and induced them into self-defeating actions. The resisters now were much, much smarter. Forget about leading the masses. They are are cattle.
Over there, the television. It was built into the wall and it came with the apartment. Every apartment had a television—by law. The landlord must provide it. The lessee paid a small fee every month for the programming. It was almost nothing, essentially free. It was the greatest narcotic in history. Tyrants of old would salivate over TV. Betts watched the evening news, when he didn’t feel like reading, to practice his analytics, to gain a sense for the System’s intentions. The System’s planners were always twenty years ahead of the herd’s thinking. Generally, he reasoned in the opposite direction from what the broadcasts were saying.
For example, if the System was claiming great progress in the war against the Australian resistance, Betts figured the resistance there was nowhere near defeated. Or if the broadcasts said the wheat harvests from the Ogallala Cooperative was a record this season, he assumed it was short and more would have to be imported from South America. Generally, if a thing was going well the System was quiet about it, because if a problem was solved the public expected the System to lighten up somewhere else—on taxes, on travel or the price of cigarettes. But there was always a new emergency, and new threat. The System maintained itself by evading comprehension, by chaffing, by diversion.
Betts turned on the box and dropped onto the couch, bone tired from the stress. Would there be an alert about a missing MOH inspector? The screen lit up; a commercial was on. It was a toothpaste ad. The guy was impossibly handsome and the girl was Aphrodite, and their teeth were perfect and white as the polar caps were said to be in the old days. They lived the good life and what was wrong with looking at people who lived the good life? It kept you going… The news program returned. Betts often thought how standardized these faces were. The presenter’s makeup was so thick he thought she looked like a corpse. Fuck this. He seized the remote and shut it off.
He shut his eyes, but knew he wouldn’t sleep well. Not yet. He was still wound up. Goddamn, he was fucking wired. He would never sleep. But he would have to try. In the army he had been much more tired than this, tired after a week sometimes of constant movement, of firefights and artillery strikes. This was nothing. But still, he was tired and this was twenty years after. He started reviewing what he must do with that little car out there. It was his passport to freedom. It had fallen into his lap and he must use it carefully, as if the gods had given it to him.