October 2010

“What makes you think it’s a pot party?” Ben asked.

“Well, as you can see on the flier, it’s taking place in Gerry Hall, room 420, and begins at 4:20 pm on April 20th. You’ll also note the solicitation for ‘amateur entomologists’ to ‘bring their own roaches’ and ‘budding chiropractors’ to come and get their ‘joints kissed.'”

Ben nodded, eyes grim. “Let’s roll.”

“Uh, Ben, last I checked we were criminal justice minors and members of the Student Patrol,” Dave cried. “We don’t have the authority to bust anybody for anything.”

“Leave that to me,” Ben said, rubbing his hands. “You just leave that right to me.”

Political movements in Deerton had a way of being triggered by the oddest occurrences. There was the time Angus McPherson took his S-10 through the Deerton Wash & Wax without removing his rod and tackle from the bed, for example. The gear had been plucked out by the washer arm and tangled in it, so the next three cars through the wash were scratched and pummeled by whirling hooks and sticks. The Wash & Wax’s owner refused to pay damages, and her husband was the mayor; before long the entire administration was swept out of office.

The turmoil of ’05 began when a ram escaped from Casey Winterburn’s goat farm on US 313 and made its way into the Mountaintop and Pinewood apartment complexes. Both were cul-de-sacs surrounded by drainage ditches, leaving the animal with no way out, and were peopled by commuter students from Osborn University. Most of the students were out-of-staters or from one of the big east state cities–not the sort to take meeting a ram in social settings well.

At the time, Tecumseh County Animal Control was run by Mayor Routon’s brother-in-law. They received dozens of calls from Mountaintop and Pinewood, some from panicked big-city folk who’d barricaded themselves inside, but took their sweet time responding. TCAC claimed overwork at the time; scuttlebutt later had it that the truck was being used to move furniture between houses and wasn’t dispatched until that task was done. Even then, the situation was handled in a way guaranteed to provoke the complex residents: rather than using a tranquilizer (which would have cost $10 per shot), the TCAC used a .22 caliber rifle and took three shots to down the ram. Residents emerging afterward found bullet marks in the wood exteriors of their buildings.

The mayor refused to force TCAC to issue an apology, despite the fact that Casey Winterburn had made the rounds the next day doing just that. And the stage was set for confrontation.

“Nuclear, biological, chemical?” Negathrust said. “People have seen it all, and worse. You’ll be lucky to make the 9 o’clock news locally with that sort of thing. If you want to get taken seriously, you need to drop these old standbys.”

“And what, exactly, do you suggest replacing those ‘old standbys’ with?” said Spectrecide. The lair’s HVAC cycled, bringing his billowing cape to a standstill. “Causing mayhem and murder on a vast scale if one’s demands aren’t met is quite the feat with neither murder nor mayhem.”

“Old-fashioned is what it is. It’s all about marketing these days, Spectrecide, and your marketing is stuck in the Walter Cronkite era. Sure, back in the day, if you could get the old goon to take off his glasses emotionally you’d shock the world. But things are different now.”

The line’s on the old villain’s face deepened. “You’re just tearing me down now,””Not even offering any useful advice.”

“Marketing! Marketing is the name of the game these days, Spectrecide. Market well enough and you’re untouchable. Market well enough and crazy normals will do your dirty work for you!” Negathrust paced back and forth, accentuating key words with pumps of his omnithrust gloves.

“I don’t understand,” Spectrecide sighed, fiddling idly with his disintegrator pistol.

“Count Skullthorn has been quietly funding a multimedia blitz that’s made Nosferati the 90210 of this century’s 15-20 female demographic. The Deathjester had himself portrayed by an Aussie hunk in a major motion picture and now copycats are springing up all over the country!”

Once all the delinquents were loaded, their restrains were removed and the shuttle lurches skyward, taking a path along the high-security clearance route. It snaked between the highest towers of the City core; lit by the rising sun, it was an intensely beautiful scene. Squout found his stomach knotting itself up as the pilot wove the shuttle around.

“Hey,” one of the other delinquents said to him. “What’re you in for?”

“People call me Squout. I disrupted the City Sepulcher services.”

The delinquent scrunched his face up. “That’s it?”


“Pfft. People call me Richat, and I shot a City patrolman with his own heater!”

Squout felt sweat pricking down his neck. “Why’d you do that?”

Richat shrugged his scrawny shoulders. “He was about to pull over the shuttle that I stole.”

“That’s nothing,” said another delinquent. “I cut the brake lines on a citytram!”

“I hijacked a shipment of nutri-gel!”

Squout drew back, suddenly hoping that the shuttle ride was a short one.

The message had been secured to the underside of Lee’s beach chair with string which–on closer inspection–was actually braided strands of fine threads from a sheet or blanket. He hesitated; there were plenty of other chairs about on the island beach, and an inviting day of gazing out over crystal-clear azure seas beckoned. Picking anything up, much less reading it, seemed like an unfathomable bother.

But curiosity got the better of him, and Lee retrieved and unfolded it. The writing looked faded and weathered in the tropical sunlight but was easily legible.

“Try to remember last week.”

Lee smirked. Of course he could remember last week. He’d swum out to the sandbar with Claudette, and…no. That had been two days ago. And the sand castle building…that had been last week, hadn’t it? No…the long lazy days and nights seemed to stretch out and contort in time even as Lee thought about them. The sand castles had been only three days ago. Lee felt a mild chill go up his spine.

He couldn’t remember last week.

The note continued. “Didn’t think so. Check under the bed in the empty room at the end of the hallway.”

The haven south of Cascadia had once been a gated residential development, called Maplewood, laid out as a series of brick townhouses in a cul-de-sac, fenced in and surrounded by a drainage ditch with a pool and a common green in the middle. When it was being built, students from Osborn University had picketed it, citing Maplewood as a particularly egregious example of urban sprawl and a lack of eco-consciousness.

Later, when the city was overrun by the Addled and violent marauders from the countryside, Maplewood found a new lease on life. The narrow gaps between townhouse blocks were filled in with chunks of torn-up pavement, the ground-floor windows and doors facing out were bricked up, and the cul-de-sac became a fortress. With the pavement torn up for use in fortifications, the fallow land beneath was sewn with crops. The recreational complex in the middle was filled with lifestock, and a well was sunk near the pool which found a new calling as a reservoir. Close proximity to a sporting goods superstore–which had also been picketed into its location on Cascadia’s outskirts–gave the refugees within the means to defend themselves.

That, coupled with the position’s natural defensive value, had allowed it to endure when other havens in the area, like the one at Osborn University, had been overrun. Harrister usually saw to it that he made a trading stop there; the Maplewoodlians knew the value of what he peddles and had picked the rest of Cascadia bare.

Now, that easy money looked increasingly like salvation.

It was a tough read, drier than a philosophy text.

How is our society prisonlike? It’s dedicated to concealing things, hiding things, an imprisoning people not in jail cells but something far more powerful. The government–state, local, and federal–collects information on us all the time. Fingerprints, police records, Social Security information, forwarding addresses. The private sector does too, through the internet and retail stores. They see which websites you visit so that they can target you with ads, and see what products you buy at the register thanks to barcode scanners so they know how effective those ads are.

Basically, there’s a lot of information out there about you and me–information that we have no access to. Imagine a person who wanted to collect all his information. They barge into the county court house and steals their file; they goes to their internet service provider and download their information off the servers.

What happens to this person? They’re thrown in jail, of course. After all, they’re guilty of breaking and entering, going where they’re not supposed to go and taking what they’re not supposed to take. Never mind that the information belonged to them originally, or that it was collected without their consent.

But the funny thing is, even though many people know about the information people gather about us, no one tries to retrieve it. Even in the digital age, when accessing it could be as simple as guessing a password, no one tries. Why? Because the people in power have done their best to make our society do most of their job.

If a policeman had to follow you around everywhere to make sure you didn’t do anything wrong, that would be a tremendous strain on the government. Far better to make society itself act as the policeman. After all, who would want to steal their personal data? It’s not important, after all–just silly little things. Who would want to commit a crime? You’ll just go to jail and people will look down on you. Some people do these things anyway, of course, but there are few enough that they’re easily locked away.

If our society said information access was a fundamental human right, people would be more likely to disobey the people in power, who tell us that some things must remain “secret.” People would break the rules, and eventually break the people that made the rules too. Everyone has the right of access to any information held by the state or by private companies. Everyone has the right of access to any information that is held by another person and that is required for the exercise or protection of any rights.

These are fundamental, undeniable rights of humankind. But the people in power would say they’re not, and they’d say we’re silly for thinking so. But the reality is that they would soon fall from power if information were free, as it ought to be. Those in power remain in power because of the oppressive society they and those before them helped create. Freeing information–all information–from their grasp is the first step toward making things better. Without information, there is only nothing.

Erniesum Onestone, a barrister of Italian-Czech extraction, had devoted his entire life to the law, first for Austria-Hungary and later for the newly-independent nation of Czechoslovakia. He’d consulted on the drafting of the nation’s constitution as well as numerous pieces of civil law, learning the enormously complex system from square one. An inveterate practical jokester and fervent nationalist, Onestone delighted in tweaking the system and those within it precisely within the bounds he’d helped establish, though never to an extend which might harm his beloved nation.

Such a life didn’t lend itself to starting a family, and all of his immediate family had died during the war, leaving Onestone to seek other ways to make his mark as he lay dying of lung cancer in 1927. Months of work in his law office resulted in an enormously detailed will that became a national sensation when it was read upon his death. One hundred and twenty-seven clauses contained instructions for the dispersal of an estate swollen with sixty years of legal fees.

A million-koruna mansion to two barristers who were both spendthrifts and notorious enemies.

A cash prize equal to twenty years’ wages to the woman in Prague who bore the most legitimate children over the next five years.

A fully-paid membership in a prominent upper-crust social club for a notorious Bratislava pimp.

And, most mysteriously, a professionally made safebox with instructions not to open it for 80 years–protected by a generous endowment for a family to guard it (invalidated by premature opening).

Distant relatives fought Onestone’s bequests in court, but the wily old barrister had known what he was doing and the will stood as was, unaltered. The rival barristers put up with each other for five years before agreeing, through intermediaries, to sell the property and split the proceeds. Three Prague women won the baby race with a fourth given a consolation price, each tied at five children apiece.

As for the sealed strongbox…it vanished from history. Most of the relevant records were destroyed in the accidental firebombing of Prague in 1945, while the family Onestone had subsidized to look after his treasure vanished in the maelstrom of war. The box was lost to history.

Until now.

The wind was still howling, but at least the rain was beginning to taper off. It tore through Eric Doyle’s tattered green vest, casting billowing waves through it. He was tempted to discard it, but the pockets were weighed down with ammunition.

Eric pulled a round out of his pocket and looked at it. The .22 cartridge looked ridiculously small and weak cupped in his palm; it would only emit a weak crack as it left the barrel of his tiny varmint rifle. The shotguns, on the other hand, would let out a thunderous roar as they turned his chest into a pink swamp.

He shuddered at the thought. Eric had seen such nasty wounds already that night, and as he crouched in the shade of one of the roof air conditioners with a ridiculous pop gun in his hands, he was all but sure that was how it would end.

Noises up ahead. Beams of light slicing through the darkness. Eric switched his own light off, and closed the bolt on his gun. If he could get a clean shot off, maybe the rain would disguise the noise it made. Maybe, by some miracle, he could get all three of them, or at least signal the chopper when it arrived…maybe there was some hope, if not for Eric, then for the people trapped inside.

“Got it,” he heard a voice say. Something heavy struck the ground, audible even through the gale.

Eric chambered a round in his rifle and took a deep breath. Just like at scout camp, with the calm summer air replaced by high winds and torrential rain. And a flesh-and-blood target to boot.

The unmistakable sound of a shotgun being pumped shattered his concentration. Something jammed into the small of Eric’s back, and hot breath was suddenly in his ear.

“Drop it.”

Eric’s rifle splashed to the ground.

“Listen…” Eric whispered.

“Too late now,” the voice hissed.

The deafening roar of a shotgun blast tore apart the world.

“I think…I think you might be right,” I said. “I also think I might be going crazy.”

“What if you’re not?” she asked.

That night, I resolved to see for myself. Fortified on the flights of fancy I’d seen during the day, I felt like a book, open and ready. Not to be read, but destined for something entirely unexpected. To be bronzed, maybe—a book made statue. Or perhaps to have flowers pressed between the pages—my pages—each leaving a mark upon and changing the other.

It was all easy enough. Reach up, grab, pull down. The tearing sounded much as you’d expect it to.

On the other side?

Stars. The corner of Leighton and Burrick, downtown. A dusty old gas station with a sign in Arabic. A city growing out of a vast, purple forest canopy. All at once, in a rush like a breaking wave.

So I stepped out—just for a moment. There’s something to be said for Myra’s paper-thin membrane, wrapping the everyday into a neat brown package. There’s something to be said for seeing only what you can perceive and nothing more.

But for now, I was content to skate among planetary rings in the arm of a distant spiral galaxy, to pirouette on a molten surface all but consumed in a solar corona, to break upon far-distant shores thrilling with every undulation.

I was stepping out. I’d be back—but I wouldn’t ever be the same. Myra would be proud, wherever she was.

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