Tags: Assassins of the Free, chapter, combined military force, contestant, democracy, dissident, Game Day, game show, molecular tracking device, MTD, novel, personal risk, politics, science fiction, social stratification, speculative fiction, technology, television, The Game, totalitarian
Gregor Klimt did not feel bad about Jody’s murder. The act had granted catharsis from his gruelling struggle to Comfortable Status. Though the switch from disfigurement to death had been forced, it had come easily.
Gregor was adamant Jody had deserved to die. Greed had passed her sentence; he’d merely executed it. Had she been satisfied with her lot, she’d have lived to enjoy it with her lover. The New Deal had brought unprecedented social order, but it protected humble and greedy alike. The arrangement was technically efficient, but morally bereft.
Gregor saw a mission; something worth pursuing now his material quest was over. He had the training and resources to discourage avaricious citizens from seeking Free Status. He liked the idea of being fate’s instrument and started scanning the Internet for others like Jody. Part of him wasn’t serious about being a vigilante. It went along for the ride, convinced this was a phase.
Ever since The New Deal’s prospectus had appeared five years earlier, a rumour had circulated. Six months after the cut-off date, it was confirmed. ETAT had classified all its Members as Free – including those whose net worth qualified them for lesser classifications only.
Most Members thus promoted were technically gifted. Their motive to join ETAT hadn’t been fiscal and they’d fallen far behind their mercenary peers. But ETAT needed technocrats as much as the rest of its diverse membership. So it raised them beyond their means to vouchsafe their loyalty.
The public outcry triggered The New Deal’s first significant opposition. Citizens hitherto content under the new order were enraged at the exemption of poorer ETAT Members from Game participation. Relative inequity exploded perceptions of absolute equity. People were as reluctant as ever to give anyone a free ride.
ETAT had believed society’s enthusiasm for The New Deal had earned it a degree of policy latitude. This was a serious underestimation of human nature. At least the damning revelation had been suppressed until after The New Deal became universal law. Surely dissension would not bring calls to dismantle the system?
Action groups formed within days of the inequity becoming known. Like rain down a window, cells linked and gained momentum as they hurtled to a showdown with their flawed government. ETAT’s greatest crisis imperilled decades of concerted effort.
In breach of their classification contracts and in spite of the heavy punishments prescribed, citizens began to barter for and consume higher-echelon goods. MTD data sites reported an alarming jump in Rich Class food going down Poor and Comfortable Class throats. The Combined Military Force was soon awash with cases.
At an ETAT crisis summit, a solution was tabled that moderate Members feared most: the full use of ETAT powers to quell the uprising. The resolution carried. Those advocating restraint were forced to concede that totalitarianism trumped democracy at enforcing humane policies. Despite its failings, ETAT was still humanity’s best chance of living in harmony with itself and the planet. It was too late to abandon the means with the great goal so close.
The Combined Military Force had never been so well-funded, nor enjoyed such a diverse career structure. Though the former police, army, navy and air corps staff still mistrusted each other, none could deny the colossal benefits of their amalgamation. They had status formerly accorded only by war. If ETAT fell, so would their privileged position.
ETAT ordered the CMF to arrest every citizen conclusively proven to have breached their classification contract. Case priority was assigned according to level of political activity. Resistance leaders went first. In opposing ETAT verbally, most had also undertaken civil disobedience. Their punishment was therefore legal. In a brilliant coup over public hearts and minds, however, ETAT did not arrest even the most vocal leaders who’d protested within the terms of their contracts.
ETAT thus emerged from the fracas with its corporate image intact. It had kept its own laws – though it had patent power not to. This, coupled with the diminished supply of leaders, made people reconsider their rage. The New Deal had been a good thing. Punishment for crime was now established as a sure thing. Perhaps it was wiser to forgive and forget.
ETAT sped the healing with another brilliancy. Without revealing the nature or distribution of the Molecular Tracking Device, ETAT published samples of evidence used to convict those it had arrested. People close to the offenders saw that ETAT had disciplined only the guilty. There was nothing to pin on the party. No one had been punished who hadn’t first broken their written promise to ETAT. By all accounts, ETAT had acted swiftly, fairly and with absolute accuracy. What previous government had ever done likewise?
ETAT’s mysterious power to glean explicit truths became the stuff of urban myth. Citizens saw the cartel as omniscient, just as Neville Major had predicted. Yet the demise of the resistance had established ETAT as a benign force. Only the wicked would ever taste the iron fist; the law-abiding would stay snug in the velvet glove.
A paradoxical spin-off from the quashed rebellion was a dramatic increase in Game contestants. It was as if society had suddenly accepted that ETAT was in power for good and that The Game was the only path to significant self-advancement. While most people toiled for minor increments in their stratum, a significant proportion leapt for the one above. And when several citizens made multiple jumps to Free Status, the flow of hopefuls swelled even more. The term ‘Freedom’ gained a new financial meaning which dictionaries soon picked up.
ETAT, badly shaken by the uprising, was keen to enhance its image. But the growing number of contestants posed a problem. Too many were making it through. Especially alarming was the ingress into the Members’ own echelon. ETAT wasn’t prepared to finance so many reckless winners. The Game and its related industries were critical to the economy. It was the sole legal outlet for dissidence – the solution when all else had failed. It was a self-funding crime deterrent and a means of execution. It couldn’t be tampered with lightly.
ETAT discussed the issue at length, goaded by each new intruder into Freedom. Finally, consensus was reached on a bitter solution: the odds of meeting death on The Game would have to be raised.
Game Day was introduced as a sweetener. Few saw it as more than an ersatz public holiday. ETAT waited for a backlash that never came. Those disenchanted by the reduced chances of success failed to fire those not intending to use The Game. For the latter, the altered odds simply meant spectacular television deaths more often. The flow of contestants eased in close accord with ETAT modelling. People enjoyed their annual day off. Life went on.
Gregor was one citizen who couldn’t forgive ETAT’s reclassification of its own Members: his own struggle had been too desperate. His hatred of the Free deepened with ETAT’s every move. The shortening of odds he found doubly offensive. First, he saw it as a blatant ploy by the government to insulate itself from the masses. Second, he was nauseated by the citizens who continued to strive for Free Status despite the greater risk. To Gregor, they’d devalued their lives beyond comprehension. He quickened his search for someone to set as an example.
His name had been Pablo Guano. Before escaping Comfortable Status, he changed it to Nimon Freemon. Nimon had made three successful jumps, rocketing to Free Status. Fans worshipped his home page. He was a symbol of fearlessness and success; the patron saint of Game contestants.
What set Nimon apart from other social climbers was his prior statement of intent. A year before his first jump, he announced his plan to make all three jumps in three months. Surrounded by the drivel of thousand other Game hopefuls, his manifesto attracted little interest. On achieving his goal, however, his dated Net entry proved he’d foretold his destiny. Eschewing the lure of interim achievements, he’d spent barely a month at the Rich and Superrich strata before moving to his ultimate goal. His sheer determination made him an icon – both for people too frightened to make their first jump and for one-time contestants unwilling to risk their lives again.
Fascinated with Nimon’s instrument choice, Gregor had watched all his Game appearances. Very few contestants selected the Mincer. When a punter chose to risk the spiked rollers and flailing knives, it was always a big deal. Gregor, with his deep hatred of all Game participants, derived great satisfaction from watching them reduced to pet food when their luck failed. To him, the Mincer was the only instrument that dealt a sufficiently painful death to grasping punters. Not surprisingly, he was furious when Nimon Freemon defeated the Mincer three times running. Nimon further enraged Gregor with his behaviour on becoming Free.
It was a classic case of wealth exceeding class. Nimon discarded the modesty and self-restraint he’d displayed during his quest for Freedom and surrendered to conspicuous consumption in a self-engineered publicity blaze. Though alienating some of his early followers, he attracted many more. He became their hero for snatching a perfect life from the jaws of death. He was Midas without the catch. And he was hell-bent on letting everyone know how very good it was at the top.
He bombarded the media with infomercials celebrating his success. ETAT permitted the indulgence, since it focused public attention on The Game’s upside. Nimon’s tacky narcissism made Gregor want to rip his heart out and puke into the cavity. Yet he forced himself to watch everything Nimon put out. He conceded that they had one thing in common: they could both see the future. In Gregor’s version, Nimon’s boundless happiness would be terminated by a little-known but highly motivated Comfortable Class vigilante who also posted his thoughts on the Internet.
Gregor’s desire to liquidate Nimon was tempered only by his determination to get away with it. He realised he’d been freakishly lucky with Jody’s murder. It had been a botched act of rage, riddled with danger. Though he knew nothing of MTDs, Gregor shared the growing feeling on the streets that ETAT had a data network second to none.
Of the many chance events that had aided his escape, only the thunderstorm was obvious. He reasoned that other factors must have thwarted the detectives, but couldn’t imagine what they were. Wary of underestimating the system, Gregor became fanatically conservative in his movements. Though only a fraction of his security regime reduced his exposure to MTDs, it was enough for the moment. ETAT had yet to consolidate its power base. Until then, Gregor was a hard citizen to trace.
He began a coded dossier on Nimon Freemon. To minimise risk of detection, he copied information long hand, rather than print downloads. It was tedious work. Nimon was a prolific consumer with no pattern to his movements. To set up a kill, Gregor needed to identify in advance an event that Nimon would be sure to attend. For months he tracked his target in vain, purging his frustration with ever more punishing workouts.
Nimon’s life was one long party. Wherever he went, fans used their precious recreational leave just to be near him. The New Deal prohibited them from consuming higher-class goods, even as guests of a Free citizen. So those at Nimon’s table were unable to dine. The only taste of Freedom allowed by law was Nimon’s body. And according to Gregor’s research, Nimon distributed a great many samples.
After yet another month of watching Nimon grow fat, Gregor was ready to abandon him as too unpredictable to target. Then came a breakthrough.
In addition to his infomercials, Nimon posted stories, essays and letters. Permanent idea storage was an easy form of immortality – one of the few things he couldn’t buy. Invariably, the stories described his adventures as a Free man, the essays dealt with what it took to become Free and the letters encouraged fans to follow. It was self-indulgent dross, but the fans loved it. Many tried Nimon’s recipe for success. Their deaths boosted Game ratings, earning Nimon continued ETAT tolerance.
Gregor, bucket at the ready, studied everything Nimon wrote. He thus quickly detected the change of tone of an essay marking Nimon’s half-year anniversary at Free Status. Gregor noticed a dilution of enthusiasm with which Nimon described his earthly pleasures. He was vague and wistful. His love of Freedom seemed to have waned and his concluding remarks were ambiguous. Gregor sensed he was on to something and waited for Nimon’s next offering.
It was another story. This time Nimon was a ‘handsome pauper’ – fighting a medieval battle against poverty and oppression, with The Game a fearsome three-headed dragon. As usual, the hero succeeded in his quest and began to enjoy the good life. Gregor was discouraged; he’d hoped for something different. He waded through hunts, feasts, jewels and dancing girls – all metaphors for Nimon’s real-world exploits. Only at the last page did Gregor’s pulse quicken.
The story ended on a speculative note that presaged a sequel. Or three. It seemed to Gregor that Nimon was starting to foretell his own destiny again. Only this time his goal was to become an ETAT Member. All the wealth and pleasures of the world weren’t enough. Nimon wanted to push the buttons of power and, by the sound of it, give his fans a leg-up into the good life.
Gregor hefted the large kettle bell he used when musing. ‘If that little shit’s going into politics, he’ll have to attend ETAT functions. And if he gives any clue in his putrid stories … I’ll be waiting.’
Read Chapter 24.
Brought to you by The Feisty Empire.
Pic by David Reeves.
Tags: chapter, Game Day, novel, personal risk, prison, science fiction, social stratification, speculative fiction, superstition, zodiac
Xania Starwoman appeared, as always, before the 10:00 news on Good Morning Everyone. Her format hadn’t changed in twenty years, save for the addition of Game prophecies. Millions habitually switched to her segment, despite the study which had proven her as psychic as a control rabbit.
‘Capricorn: beware of adhering too firmly to your principles, your tenacity may appear arrogant to some…
‘Aquarius: a large sum of money…
‘Pisces: travel is imminent, but look before you…
Penny Travis breathed in sharply and clutched her cracked cup.
‘You’ve been feeling vulnerable lately. Stop, unwind and centre yourself, for only in this space can you decide what is right for you. Concern for others must take second place as you confront a major decision with life-altering consequences.’
Penny reeled at the words.
‘Game indicators: water, blue, one, five, Tuesday. An especially good day for the journey to Comfortable.’
Penny sat trembling in her grubby kitchen, racing among the omens.
‘Physically vulnerable.’ She had never adjusted to the anti-depressants prescribed after her classification three years earlier. Daily headaches and nausea left her drained and fragile.
‘A major decision with life-altering consequences.’ What could this be but the question that had consumed her for months: whether to risk her life on The Game? Though her cleaning shift began in an hour, she remained in a trance.
‘Water.’ She’d always favoured the Tank. Death by drowning was definitely preferable to the invasive, bloody nature of other Game devices.
‘Blue.’ This was a Virgo colour and Penny’s favourite. In keeping with its purpose, The Tank was aquamarine. Penny stared at her brochure, also blue. A stylised albatross beckoned her to a new horizon, beyond which lay…
‘Tuesday.’ Tuesday was Penny’s twenty-fourth birthday. It was Friday, but being Poor she’d have to wait three weeks for her next weekend. She wouldn’t even have time to think it through. But what was there to consider that she hadn’t agonised over during countless broken sleeps?
She hated her shoebox unit, her dirty, no-brain job and her woeful spending power. Her glutinous breakfast mocked her senses and she pushed it away in disgust. She felt like an experiment. Question: How long can a human survive on food which is nutritious but utterly devoid of excitement? Answer: Until she goes insane. She was an insect. Worse than an insect. At least bees got to fly and eat pollen.
Transition to Comfortable would mean infinitely more than the name implied. Penny didn’t know how much longer she could stand her existence. Time, space, quality, choice; these were the halls of her paradise. Better to reach for them or die trying.
The shrill tone she’d set to cut through her tranquillisers shocked her. Mechanically she accepted the call.
‘Travis, what the hell are you doing? You’re supposed to be at Airport Five!’ The florid face of Penny’s team leader crammed the screen. The cut of his tunic was Comfortable, his brashness classic nouveau riche.
‘I’m not feeling well,’ said Penny, finding a new hole in her tracksuit pants.
‘Bullshit; you were fine yesterday. I suggest you get out there if you don’t want to lose another one of your precious weekends.’
That did it.
‘I’m taking my Game Day.’
‘Game Day? You don’t have the guts, Travis. You and I know…’
Penny keyed the brochure number before she could change her mind. A friendly-looking receptionist appeared.
‘How can I help you?’
‘I… I’m taking my Game Day today. I’d like to see a …consultant.’
‘Sure… Penny. I see this is your first time. I’ll fix you up with someone nice.’ He paused. ‘Nils Muller. Would 13:30 suit you?’
The question hung in the stale air. Penny gazed around the cell she’d haunted for nine years. The wallpaper stains stared back impassively. ‘Yes. Thank you.’
‘Great! Good luck!’
The dialogue box folded upon itself, replaced with a crude screen saver of Penny’s design. A figure labelled ‘me’ stood in a chamber which filled with water. The Game brochure albatross flew in, rescued the figure and carried it to a golden sunset. The water spilled out to become the sea and the sun sank beneath the new horizon as Penny prepared for her appointment.
All classes below Free were allowed one Game Day per year, on which they could forego a shift to discuss Game participation with an ETAT consultant. Though all potential contestants knew the various program formats, few committed themselves without a face-to-face discussion. Rigorously selected and trained, the consultants obliged their clients with as much data as they desired.
With current and projected statistics, footage of every past contingency and intricate models to explain the mechanics of death, citizens claiming to be ill-informed after their session were invariably rorting for a day off. Sham clients didn’t bother the consultants; rather they provided the chance to hone closing skills. A surprising number of citizens with no intention to play found themselves signed up in under an hour.
Nils Muller’s office was minimalist. A light well behind his chair held quartz chips and a cactus.
‘Can I get you anything, Penny? Tea? Coffee?’
‘No, thank you.’
‘Are you sure?’
‘Yes, I’m too nervous to drink anything, um…’
‘Nils; Call me Nils. Please, have a seat.’
Muller assessed Penny as she settled. Young, pleasant looking, a bit thin, badly in need of a haircut. Her face suggested honesty and moderate intelligence, but her eyes spoke despair. He narrowed her likely punter profile to ‘Catatonic’ or ‘Dramatic Recanter’. Both were unpopular with audiences — the former boring and the latter casting doubt on the voluntary nature of Game participation. Muller set about confirming his suspicions.
‘How can I help you today, Penny? I see you’ve never taken a Game Day before.’
‘N..no, I don’t th..think it’s right, unless you’re serious.’
‘And are you serious, Penny?’
She bit her lip, brow furrowed. ‘Yes. I think I am.’
‘But thinking isn’t good enough though, is it Penny? One needs to know. Do you not agree?’
‘Well yes, I do agree. It’s just that…’
Muller leaned forward, sensing a quick victory. ‘Just that what, Penny? What is it? I’m here to help; you can tell me.’
Penny took a halting breath. ‘Well, just that… after watching the show a billion times, reading the brochure and agonising for months over the most important decision of my miserable life, I was really hoping for a nice consultant, like I was promised. I don’t mean to be rude, Nils, but you’re making me feel very rushed. I just got here and you’re acting really pushy.’ She blew her nose into a damp tissue. ‘I don’t think it’s very fair, given what I’m here to discuss. Do you?’
Muller’s pupils shrank to specks. He straightened slowly and pressed his fingers into a white-tipped pyramid. ‘You would prefer another consultant?’
‘No; I just need you to be a bit human, that’s all. I know this is your job and everything, but please try to see it from my side. I’m on the verge of a one-in-two shot at death. I have no living family and no real friends. I need to discuss my situation and make the choice that’s right for me. Couldn’t we just talk? I’ve been alone and at my wits’ end for so long…’
Muller toyed with the idea of freezing her out, but realised he was more interested in seeing how the session would end. He produced a box of large, snowy tissues and slid it towards her.
‘Penny, I’m sorry. I thought you were… a different sort of person.’
She sniffed and took a tissue, marvelling at its soft strength, wishing she could have the box. ‘Well, I’m not.’
‘I see that now and I was wrong. Please forgive me. Can we begin again?’
‘Sure. Um, I think I’d like that coffee now, if it’s still going.’
‘Of course, absolutely. Coming up.’
They adjourned to a small table. Penny’s uncharacteristic outburst had felt strangely uplifting. Being so close to her decision gave her a heady feeling of destiny. Muller was now completely attentive. The crisis over, she detailed the events that had brought her to his office. Food ranked high in her litany of complaints: gritty coffee, brackish butter, vascular meat; never enough for company unless she sacrificed something else.
Then she bemoaned her teeth; perfectly serviceable but crooked and stained. How she envied higher citizens their elective dental. And cosmetics! What sort of system could deny her this comfort? Not even a mask to shield her from herself and others during the unrelenting grind of her pathetic station. Her frustration poured like bile from a bladder. At last she summarised.
‘I hate being Poor; all I want is to be Comfortable. I don’t want to die, but I can’t keep living this shitty life. My only way out is through The Game. I need you to tell me about it.’
Muller picked up his tea. ‘Could I ask you to be more… specific?’
‘You mentioned you were once Poor; now you’re Rich. What was your first time like?’
Muller’s cup froze mid-way to his lips and he was back on the Wheel. Only after the locked shutter slid into place could he return to the present. ‘It was absolutely terrifying.’
‘Why’d you do it?’
‘I was twenty-two, immortal. The Game was new and exciting. The odds were completely different then and the prizes unbelievable. I didn’t think about it much, just did it. It was only when they strapped me down that I realised what I was doing.’
‘But you did it again, didn’t you?’
‘Yes; the same year in fact. Like I said, it was frightening, but it was also very hard to lose then.’
‘What numbers did you chose?’
Muller recited his selection from memory.
‘I don’t know, they just felt lucky.’
‘So you were superstitious?’
‘No, but I see what you’re saying; it looks like I was.’
Penny leaned forward. ‘Nils, I’m very superstitious. I know it’s crap, but I have to have something on my side. I’ve got this feeling, this sense that I have a winning combination. I want to go in the Tank and use all the numbers containing one or five or divisible by five. I can only make it if I play this Tuesday — my birthday. I need to know what you think. Am I crazy? Will I live?’
Muller looked at the eyes, now centimetres from his, and prised the careworn fingers from his sleeve. ‘I wish I could tell you, Penny, but I can’t. All I’ve got are stats, rules, toys and pictures. I’m not psychic. The only thing that matters is what you believe. Do you think you’ll die if you play?’
‘No. I don’t.’ Penny barely recognised her own voice.
‘Then go for it! And have a drink for me when you get there.’
Penny felt a sense of calm. She was ready. The meeting had merely confirmed what she already knew. Xania Starwoman, charlatan or not, would protect her in the Tank on Tuesday.
Muller saw his opportunity, tapped in her preferences and swung his monitor. ‘Read this very, very carefully Penny. Then if you’re absolutely sure, sign it.’
Already in her next world, Penny skimmed the contract and put her hand to the screen.
Muller witnessed the document, retreated behind his desk and touched a button. Four burly roadies entered through a sliding door.
‘Escort this contestant to the Holding Wing,’ Muller ordered. ‘Penny, I wish you all the luck in the world. I’ll be watching for you on Wednesday.’
Penny jolted out of her reverie. ‘Tuesday, Nils.’
Muller said nothing. The roadies closed; Penny leapt from her chair.
‘Nils, I asked for Tuesday; for Tuesday Nils.’
Muller realised he’d entered the following day by mistake and shrugged. ‘Once you sign, that’s it. There’s nothing I can do. Good-bye.’
Penny fought the men holding her. As she was manoeuvred through the door, she screamed at the inverted image of Muller placidly witnessing her departure. ‘Nils! What are you doing? You know I wanted Tuesday. That was my special chance; my birthday! You’ve killed me, Nils. Nils!
Muller advised Penny’s employer and creditors, noted that she had no emergency contact and opened the dossier on his next appointment.
Penny was gagged against further outburst and spirited to a processing area. Forced to surrender her belongings and don coveralls, she was bundled into a van and driven to Prison 67. A feeling of defeat overwhelmed her and things began to blur. By 16:40 she lay exhausted on a narrow bed in the Contestant Holding Wing. Eventually she fell into a heavy sleep, thick with dreams of drowning.
Read Chapter 05.
Brought to you by The Feisty Empire.
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