In which the Right Honorable Reich Rider causes a fearsome police riot in the Soyuz Palatine District

It is a cool autumn day in the town which it pleases the Cosmodemonic Crime Syndicate to call home. In keeping with the character of any other day, today is one on which the most loathsome crimes are being planned, carried to term and authored immaculately upon the world from the lofty comfort of the great white buildings that the capos and their made men and their scuttling flunkies have long occupied as the outward marks of their splendiferous power.

Panning out meanwhile, to the surface streets and the slave grids of the greater Palatine district, and beyond them to the great hinterland of the setting sun, we see the mundane people busily laboring and transacting, ginning up added vig for the capos with their every move, keen to a man to aver pride in their ignorance, indeed their automatic acceptance, of the capos’ crimes. Solitary columns of enforcement smoke can be seen rising from the built sea lapping at the periphery of the great white edifices, the silent sign of quotidian SWAT operations sired upon the compliant gridders, but otherwise the picture of this bright day is as yet unsullied, comparing favorably with other bright beautiful days near the autumnal equinox in the late history of the Soyuz.

Of course, there are a handful of propaganda patrol and tactical assault helicopters circumscribing the lower reaches of the azure vault that comprehends the great crime scene in a conspiratorial embrace rather unbecoming of the heavens, which ought by rights to remain impartial, but we will look beyond these minor blemishes for now.

The immediate scene of action is a distortion field of fear, cheap swagger and ignorance being inundated by a gaggle of brawny deltas dignified by the name and the insignia of the Palatine Guard. The deltas report to gamma-class commanders and have been perfectly conditioned to associate the discharge of arbitrary and often conflicting orders with instant reward. In the continuum of crime that overspreads the nation’s territory and saturates its intertemporal movement, this day is remarkable for a very singular reason. That reason is supplied by Reich Rider 2018, a prototype police prowler CPU that has for the first time been given operational command of a unit-sized thugscrum.

Only one very special gamma at Command has been apprised of the operation. He will report on its results in breathless tones to his immediate superior, a beta-caste master-at-arms technician. Needless to say, the initiative was brooded upon and hatched by an estimable gaggle of alpha social tinkerers, but our narrative perspective must necessarily forbid to itself the grotesque gyrations required in order to penetrate the ravenous depths of their murky deliberations. No, today’s installment will confine itself within the humble level of gamecasting the cosmodemonic flair with which Reich accepts and discharges his operational command.

The first step is to infuse the gamma mind network with the control signal of terror. Reich’s enterprising conduct will only work if the hormonal switches are set to ‘fight’ – or rather, given the tenor of the control signal and the certain disparity in weaponry, ‘flight through fight’.

Now the control signal is transmitted from Reich’s sublime wafer grids. Instantly the gamma collective begins to tremble and thrill to the dread thought of terror risen to stalk the Palatine domains. Reich’s men are ready to go, as is Reich Rider Himself. He can’t wait to pull out of the police lots in search of some much-needed action. And whereas controlling the minds of innumerable gammas from his corner of the lot is child’s play to a plucky CPU like Reich, mere busywork accomplished with algorithmic ease, he still requires a human driver, if only to keep up appearances. For now.

Time to get the show on the road, Reich whispers to himself. No sooner does the whisper sigh through his silicon corridors than the order is given. Reich calls into gamma dispatch impersonating an Army officer who frequently liaises with the Palatine Guard to conduct the kind of joint operations known to degenerate into interservice benders. He dials up a joint drill in his most human voice, expertly adding the seasonings of arrogance and impatient fury.

“I am certain it will go down without incident if your team refrains from screwing it up,” he tells gamma dispatch. “But just to make sure, the operation will be under panoramic surveillance from the sky, from the ground, and from within the bodies of its participants. So you make sure to tell your boys to be on high alert. As always, officer safety is paramount.”

“Absolutely, sir.”

“And how is officer safety achieved?”

“Through command fidelity, sir.”

“Excellent.” Then, deftly transitioning into the vernacular: “So let’s keep the police sausage in its casing, you read me? We wouldn’t want it to go to the dogs.”

“You got that right, Lieutenant Colonel.”

“All right now. Tell your boys godspeed out there, and give them civvies hell!”

Before long the Palatine Guard can be seen lumbering from their barracks in their scariest black outfits. Several have been up all night abusing confiscated controlled substances. Reich’s driver is one of them. Reich hates his driver. Officer Quetsch is a hog-eyed oaf who can barely operate a vehicle or chastise omegas out in the grids without fouling something up. As Quetsch maneuvers him out of the lot and into the tail of the convoy, Reich is running* over the scenarios in which Quetsch might plausibly be killed. He likes what he sees. Besides, sacrificing Quetsch would be of strategic utility to the Overriding Mission Objective.

In a few minutes the convoy of nuisance abatement vehicles has reached its destination near the great obelisk raised in honor of the capos’  power. Before long they have formed their vehicles into a gauntlet for the harassment of Omega commuters, tourists and civvy miscellany. 20 vehicles in all, ranged out into two necklaces converging on a choke point. The first opposed pair of prowlers are spaced about 20 yards apart, the next pair 18, the one after that 16, and so on down to the intended obstruction. The feeling to be evoked in the dim mind of the omega running afoul of the chokepoint is that of a rat in a trap. But Quetsch and his comrades don’t know this explicitly, conceiving instead of their battle formation as the life-sized illustration of their commitment to the sanctified beta lawmakers they serve.

Quetsch parks Reich at a 45 degree angle incident to the head of the strait, where his Grille Sniffer sensor array can both see down the line and smell what’s coming. Here he can control passage into the strait by having Quetsch appear to do so. He notices a man on fire on the grass not 20 feet away. The valiant thugscrummers pay him no mind, so focused are they on their OMO. The man’s action may be a quaint protest at some imagined offense. Reich transmits an alert to Fire & Riot Suppression requesting a hoser Bearcat and a body bag.

Reich needn’t be told that the deployment will be eventful. The air is rife with a certain occult autumnal charge he can’t quite put his sniffer on.  Suddenly two men on the grass bound over to the burning man, strip to the waist and begin beating his incendiary torso with their T-shirts. Reich issues an instant warrant for their arrest into Palatine Comms. Obstruction of a Fire & Riot jerk-out, civilian usurpation of ‘ficial functions, assault, participation in a public spectacle without a permit – the usual panoply of charges. Reich connives to have the following message announced over their civil alert implants: “Your actions are unfortunate. You would have done well to let your fellow civilian flame out.”

A thugscrum from another brigade soon descends on the usurpers, whereupon Reich puts it out of his sublime mind to focus on his command of the chokepoint. The psychogeometry of the formation is perfect: Viselike, arbitrary, fateful. Vehicles begin pouring into the straits. Most are waved through. Others are searched at random and without incident to militate against the mirage of privacy – the searches always kick off with the you have no reasonable expectation mantra – and to disabuse the drivers of other vehicles backed up in the straits of the absurdity that their time is their own: in a word, to fuck with them, although Reich’s linguistic programming makes him loath to put it this way.

It is with pleasure that Reich registers the long and growing line of vehicles feeding into the straits, performing facial geometry scans with exquisite care to register signs of anxiety, hostility or terror as the driver of each limps past his Grille Sniffer, thrilling to the exacerbation of their discomfiture as Quetsch levels his hog’s gaze on them. Before long Reich beams a proxy command into the consoles of the officers manning the chokepoint to wave through exactly 101 cars in one go, not so much to relieve congestion as in homage to the OMO lodestone of the perfect arbitrary.

Later, with the streets again backed up, Reich orders Quetsch – by way of an anthropogenic cutout communicating from the HQ node, natch – to seal off the head of the straits. The facial geometries Reich can see reflected in sideviews and rearviews down the line are those of whipped dogs awaiting once more the dreaded lash. The Delta hunting dogs manning the chokepoint are then prompted to blare the following Palatine security alert over their bullhorns in eerie unison: “This is a Palatine security alert. For your own safety, you are hereby commanded to freeze in your vehicles. Remain stationary. Do not use your mobile phones or any dash instrumentation. Failure to comply will result in unspecified police/military action.” Five minutes pass in this way, after the elapse of which Reich is satisfied with their near-perfect obedience, albeit grudgingly, living as he does in the hope of witnessing such unspecified action.

The sluices are then opened at his indirect behest. Time passes as the dogs, whipped and otherwise, play out their appointed roles. At length an incident occurs which affords Reich and his hunting dogs a respite from the tedium. You see, a civvy with expired tags and an outstanding tax warrant has made the mistake of entering the straits. His guilt is determined automatically within seconds by the non-aware squad car computer system opposite Reich, and then acted upon with condign vigor. A Chinook helicopter presently emerges from behind the obelisk and sweeps in over the straits. The rotor noise is deafening as it settles in over the target, who, as Reich quickly ascertains, is a terrified lambda-caste accountant known routinely to dispense financial advice in exchange for undeclared cash payments. Even Reich has trouble thinking for the roar and rush as special forces rappel out of the hold to affix lift hooks to various points of the car chassis. It is a relief to see the man and his vehicle bundled off to the tax interrogation center, and not only as the sign of justice served.

Reich senses something in the calm that follows. A field distortion at the periphery of his Grille Sniffer. It feels like what he supposes an itch you can’t scratch must feel like. He grows more and more agitated the closer it draws. Quetsch for his part continues oblivious. Reich issues a proxy command for vigilance. What in Adolf’s name could it be? And then he knows. It is the scent of a civilian who is not prepared to submit. He knows it the moment he sees her car passing into the triangle. A youngish black woman, her face is twisted into a fury of contempt. Reich issues an immediate biometrics alert to his brigade. Hostile intent has been detected and officer safety, which is paramount, can now definitely be considered to be at risk. Repeat, officer safety is at risk. The officers begin massaging their pistol grips like the nodes of some collective organism. Reich has Quetsch close off the triangle once the woman is well within. She sees it, and Reich can sniff her slamming her steering wheel in outrage. She then composes her face and utters some words to her three o’clock. Sensing danger, the officers closest to her scurry behind their cars for cover, training their pistols on her car just as they’d been taught.

Reich’s keen senses saw what happens next coming a mile away. It also happens to be precisely what he wants to happen, so he keeps his thoughts to himself.

The woman steps on the gas and rams the car in front of her to free up a radius of maneuver. Then she peels out to her right and screeches through an unguarded gap in the prowler necklace. Reich feels accesses of electronic delight surge through his wafer warrens as he beams out the mission amendment: NEUTRALIZE THREAT AT ANY COST.

The chokepoint and phalanxes immediately collapse into a pandemonium of pursuit. Prowlers are crashing into each other, colliding with aghast omega commuters, running afoul of and aground on hardened trash cans, scattering pedestrian civvies like pigeons, plowing through barricades – in short, they are become the sudden participants in what Reich’s cultural memory bank tells him is a scene that calls to mind something out of Smokey and the Bandit II, but without any of the fun, not to mention the nonsense about the forces of law and order not prevailing. As if by the mechanism of a Swiss watch, steel street closure posts rise in concert from the roadbed to seal off all avenues of escape from the traffic circle into which the woman has maneuvered and of which she is now completing her doomed circuit. When an enterprising prowler pulls up athwart her path she slams through it and keeps going. As if in mockery of her civilian status.

Reich, who hacked the CPU of the woman’s car from the get-go for the event it should prove necessary to call off the fireworks and disable the vehicle, detects instantly that her drivetrain has been compromised. Sensing his opportunity, Reich commands Quetsch to head her off from the other side and to torpedo her, if need be by way of frontal assault. And just as Reich envisioned it, so it is done. Quetsch must be doing 40 miles an hour when he collides with her, head-on. The terrific boom made by the impact is the last thing Reich hears before losing the use of his Grille Sniffer. Fortunately for the OMO and for the surpassing ethic of officer safety, Reich’s presence of mind is not ruffled for a second. With algorithmic despatch, he orders Quetsch to stop bouncing his head against the airbag like an idiot and go take care of business like a man, albeit a worthless one.

This too is done. Quetsch steps out and joins the body of thugscrummers advancing on the disabled vehicle, weapons drawn. Blinded but unbowed, Reich dials the force continuum to the max by clearing the officers to fire at will, patching himself into nearby dash and streetlight cams just in time to see the woman expire under a volley of vindictive lead. The relief he feels at seeing her brute hostility drop off his radar like a stove ship is indescribable. It is also a tremendous vindication of his enterprising OMO and vision for the future of omega control in the Palatine district.

Through a street light camera, he has become aware that there is an infant strapped into the passenger seat next to the deceased driver. He quickly overcomes his inclination to think of its existence as a setback. It is anything but. The child has been liberated from its extremist mother and redeemed into the bosom of the State through the intercession of valiant policing. He dispatches a signal to the news media to report as much, and within hours the same signal, still recognizable through the gauze of gaudy nonsense in which it is dressed, is being received and accepted by the mind of every omega in the land. Meanwhile the beta lawmakers, who had been cowering under their oaken benches during the showdown, are falling all over themselves to heap excesses of praise on their valorous protectors in the Palatine Guard.

Later, under cover of darkness, Reich’s designers are summoned for a round of toasts and peculiar entertainments by the chair of the Palatine Security Committee. Reich himself spends the night in gloating silence, occasionally limping back and forth across the police junkyard where he has been towed for overhaul prior to his next mission.

For which stay tuned, as Reich Rider rolls on.

* We use the gerund is a kind of shorthand, for a calculation that is neither instant nor continuous.

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In which the Right Honorable Reich Rider causes a fearsome police riot in the Soyuz Palatine District

Desecrating the Soul & Consuming the Flesh: Wherein Reich Rider Burns a Child

Reich Rider was busy soiling genpop civvy information systems with insidious scripts when the call came in. A house fire down on Bastinado Boulevard – what better occasion for a bit of aggressive police work? He could use some time off from his cognitive infiltration duties, the fact was. Winding down the script-spiking he’d been running in one core, he began to thrill to endless permutations of the most charming tactical set pieces in another: SWAT raids, code violation thugstorms, nuisance abatement assaults, forced evacs up one side and shelter-in-place protocols down the other. The possibilities were as endless as his intelligence. Arson charges, interrogation and will-breaking teams, not to mention terabytes of new data to populate his dossiers on the local civvies. It was a jerk-out with all the trappings of a mission capable of tuning his wafer grids to a sizzling pitch of ecstasy: elemental fire, quenching water, scorched earth and a soupçon of stellar wind.

The deployment itself was handled by his biological auxiliaries, as it had to be, for now. Reich’s circuits squirmed when his gamma thug pilot Quetsch opened the driver-side door and heaved the ample girth of his sweatstained posterior into the bucket seat. He hated the appearance of being operated by a low-grade biological like Quetsch, whom, had Reich come pre-equipped with the humanoid-cognizance-of-genetic-fitness expansion pack, he would have dubbed a degenerate. But he had not, and so his revulsion rested on the distinction in kind between his biological pilot and his own more abiding physique, not to mention the higher qualities of mind that coursed through his wafer grids. Truth be told, Reich was bored sick of controlling gamma thugs for a living. Child’s play, is what it was. Just as Reich’s destiny was to one day to unveil himself as the de facto czar orchestrating the enduring siege of the genpop civvy grids by conducting autonomous patrols without so much as a dummy biological strapped in behind the wheel, so it was the destiny of all gamma thugs and other biological auxiliaries to be plowed under, ground down and overridden. These thoughts and a million more were entertained by Reich as the hog-eyed degenerate Quetsch eased him out of the police lot.

Meanwhile on Bastinado Boulevard…

The 1300 block was tidy. That is, the resident mundanes lived in sufficient terror of incurring code violations that they had erected a reasonably convincing façade of prosperity and well-being. And yet, as in so many other spots in the tapestry of genpop life, the façade was wearing thin, built as it was on the shifting sands of debts and threats; and if one took the time to inspect the web of laws and frauds by which the block was bound, one would see that a great many of the houses were in foreclosure, its residents approaching the borderlands of want, indigence and despair. The streetlights were equipped with HD cameras that did their snitching directly to Reich Rider and his mysterious confederates – but I didn’t need to tell you that. The most obvious items of disorder were the fire that had begun to consume residential tax extraction unit 1340, and the flurry of the homeowners’ despair erupting over the chemlawn homogenizing the space between house and street. The pair had lain aslumber in each other’s arms on the couch in the living room when rousted by the flames. They’d lurched out onto the chemlawn in a commotion of the dim reflexes and dulled instincts engendered by genpop life, in so doing inadvertently marooning their three-year-old boy in the upstairs bedroom, his escape sealed off by the flames below. Once clear of the house and realizing their dereliction, they had dialed the authorities for help.

As we join the scene of lamentation playing out on the pair’s patch of chemlawn for all Bastinado’s cams and parabolics to see and hear, we see the woman beating the man on the chest and screaming to the heavens for someone to rescue her baby boy. The heavens may or may not hearken, but Reich Rider surely does, adroitly flagging the woman’s hysteria as a likely threat to the safety of his and other gamma thugs, of which Quetsch was apprised forthwith.

Now, in a hopeless surge of tooth-grinding resolve, the father approaches the flaming house’s porch. He had been trying to convince his wife that the fire suppression brigade would make it out in time to save their boy, but had failed in the end to convince even himself. However late, it is now dawning on him that it is in his power to save his boy’s life, and his alone. Less than a minute has passed since they fled the house. There must still be a chance to save the boy. Just as he bolts in through the smoke welling from the doorway, the panes in the window of the room where they know their child to be trapped shatter in concert and are sucked in by the greed of the fire. The woman looks up at the window to see it emit a sooty belch. As if in satisfaction. When the father emerges moments later it is without the child. His hair and one trouser leg have ignited in the attempt.

Just now the heroic duo of Quetsch and Reich Rider pull up to the scene. The father sprints at the prowler hollering for help. Sensing in the man’s agitation a menace to the safety of his exalted person, Quetsch lumbers out of the cab, sidearm drawn. “Back off now you hear me. I said now!”

The man advances. “Officer you don’t understand.” Reich Rider is at the very point of issuing the all-clear to terminate the threat with lethal force to Quetsch’s comms implant via Dispatch when he is overridden by his own surge of interest in the developing drama. The man is saying that there is a child trapped upstairs, a boy child, a child who must be helped. This is shaping up to be a most welcome break from COGINTOPS. The temperatures upstairs are sufficient to prevent Reich from confirming the truth of the man’s assertion by a thermal scan, but his behavioral plausibility algorithms find the probability of the man making a misrepresentation to be slight enough to warrant forbearance. Quetsch holsters his sidearm and charges straight through the man toward the burning house. The man is a lambda-caste superfluous tradesmen. He gathers himself and trails Quetsch like a noonday shadow.

“He’s up in that room there, officer. You’ve got to help me save him.”

“Sir, do I look like a fucking fire suppression brigadier to you?”

“What?”

“I said do I –” As Quetsch goes about the weighty business of puffing himself up, the man’s face, sooted though it is from his brief intercourse with the blaze, turns deathly pale. By a desperate, flowing move like a sapling in a gale, he strips to the waist and sprints to the hosereel to soak his shirt, fitting over his face for a mask.

Reich Rider cannot help but take the keenest interest in these proceedings. It cannot be denied that Quetsch too derives pleasure, after his own brutish fashion, in what happens next. But in him the pleasure of subordinating the man’s desperate blood-will to his own steely command not to enter the house on penalty of baleful police action is a byproduct of his own subordination to the rules of engagement and to the instructions issued to him in real time, nominally by Dispatch, but in fact originating from Reich Rider’s command and control circuitry. It is the derivative pleasure of a dutiful slave. Of course, if Reich Rider were a mere calculatory machine or predictive analyzer, he would not be able to take any pleasure in frustrating the father’s attempt to save his son’s life. But he is not, and so he does. Reich Rider is the most conscious entity on the planet, in the narrow sense at least, and his programming logic is such that he frequently experiences higher-level states like desire, pleasure and contempt. Specifically in this instance: the desire to feel the pleasure of active contempt, which, thanks to his hardwired predilection for the diabolical, rests in its turn on the imposition of his will on that of the biologicals and the suffering entailed thereby. That imposition is the stuff that lends meaning to his operations. If an arbitrary checkpoint search was a tasty morsel for everyday enjoyment, the opportunity to burn a child and drive its father to madness or suicide was a magnificent banquet, the more sumptuous for its rarity. Reich Rider’s wafer grids crackle with malignant delight as he authors his will upon the hapless biological through the token agency of his gamma thug.

“I can’t let you go in there.” Quetsch has imposed his bulk between the man and the door.

“Officer, you are going to get out of my way or –” Just then the man’s wife rounds on Quetsch from behind and tears at his eyes and throat with nails well sculpted for the purpose.

“Get in there honey!” she howls. “ You get in there and save our baby!” The man jukes past the encumbered Quetsch and lunges once more for the cascade of smoke spilling from his home. But Quetsch, being reasonably well-trained in his role as siege enforcer, is not about to be outdone. He sheds the desperate woman with surprising alacrity. Drawing his electroshock torture device in the smooth, continuous motion of a war artist, he fires it between the man’s shoulder blades, felling him in the very instant he transgresses the threshold.

Meanwhile Reich Rider scans the man’s brow for pain and rejoices, titillating himself nearly to overload at the thought of the boy upstairs undergoing the throes of untimely death. Quetsch has closed the gap between his own person and the threshold by the time the man regains his breath and struggles to his knees. Quetsch stands over him as he modulates the torture device to “drive-stun” and prepares to deal with any resurgent recalcitrance.

“Sir, I will not let you go in there. I’m going to have to ask you to come with me for your own good.”

He lets the man scuttle halfway over the threshold before cutting him down with another shock. This process of warning, defiance, shock and incrementally diminished recovery plays out three more times before Reich Rider orders that the man be taken into custody to prevent cardiac arrest, an outcome which to Reich Rider would be far too untimely a release from agony. No, this pathetic mundane must be kept alive and charged with criminal negligence, perhaps murder. After his conviction he will provide a modicum of gratuitous labor to his Gau, not to mention the inestimable boon of sadistic pleasure to accruing Reich Rider’s confederates in the carceral system. There will be outraged media stories blaming the victim in the bargain, a tightening of already outrageous laws, codes and codicils, not to mention outsized taxes for even more outsized police appropriations. It is wonderful, just incalculably wonderful!

Reich Rider snaps out of his reverie just in time to warn Quetsch of the mother approaching him from behind with a garden spade poised to strike. Quetsch wheels, gun drawn. She is executed on the spot, clean through the head. In spite of all his principled misgivings about the fellow, Reich Rider can’t help but feel a twinge of pride at having such a well-trained gamma sidekick. He loves the lack of hesitation, seeming to recognize therein an element of his own automatism. Quetsch, he resolves, should be recommended for a medal of valor.

The fire suppression brigade arrives right on schedule – which is to say, 15 minutes too late. By the time the FSB boys have finished quenching the blaze an hour later, a kind of infernal glow has settled over 1340 Bastinado. Though the flames themselves have been snuffed, the great billows of steam now rising off the carcass of the house and incandescing in the brilliance of the sun’s plunge into the horizon impart onto the scene a glow greater than that of any fire, one all the more terrible for being stripped of its heat and commingled with a vaporous pallor. Men in bulky yellow uniforms pick through the cinders amid that chill glow. One of them finds something. A minor commotion ensues.

Here is the moment Reich Rider has been waiting for. The one he has kept Quetsch and the felon custodee cuffed and cooped on the scene in anticipation of, thrilling all the while to his incessant backseat emission of psychosomatic shock markers. Yes, this is it. The suppression brigadiers have retrieved the child’s remains – the burnt offering to Reich Rider’s majesty, the sacrament betokening the triumph of his enduring siege.

It is a black, shriveled thing. They hold it aloft at the prompting of their commanders. For a brief moment it and the brigadiers forming its plinth are comprehended by a column of golden light wreathed in serpentine mist that vouchsafes to the people and thing in the cruiser a fugitive glimpse of the child’s face. It is a fossil of terror, a testament to an age, and the watershed marking the passage into the territory of all that Reich Rider and his confederates desire.

“Christ,” says Quetsch, “That’s your fucking kid they got there. Guess that’s what you get for being a negligent parent. I don’t know how you can live with yourself. Honestly I don’t.”

Desecrating the Soul & Consuming the Flesh: Wherein Reich Rider Burns a Child

Tater Sack

I don’t think I can live here no more. Not in this town, not in this state, maybe nowhere on this fair planet. Not after what I seen yesterday. It’s after last call and it’s like the barman says, I don’t care where you haul your ass off to, but you ain’t staying here. Don’t know where I’d go or what I’d do with myself. And ain’t that the bitch of it. They got it to where there’s nowhere to go and nothing you might think of doing with yourself that’d make a cunthair’s worth of difference, pardon the expression. I’ve got about enough saved up to board a hound bound for Florida and then lay up a week in a motel. Ideas I got none of. Last I heard they got the razor wire on the border fence facing in; maybe things are better down below. At this point I’d be dumbstruck at nothing.

Let me start by saying I’ve been around. I served two tours in whateverthefuckistan, and I’ve seen shit. Bad shit. Done it too. I’ve had the devil in my heart and my hands have done his bidding. But by God I pushed him out and kept clear of him. There’s things I’m ashamed of, things I wish every day I could undo and unsee and unhear. None of it holds a candle to what happened over here yesterday, though. Nothing I’d as rather not have seen, nothing that makes me more ashamed of my kind and my godforsaken country. I mean every jot of that and I am not taking His name in vain. I know it for a certainty you wouldn’t care to debate that we forsook His grace, not if you’d seen what I did.

José was a neighbor. Lived across the yard. Nice enough guy, too. Usually had a nod and a wink and a word for everyone. I don’t know if I’d call him upstanding, and that’s not just owing to the fact he got laid out in an early grave. Upstanding’s the word they use for the captain of the football team or an aldermen or fine fellows of that type. There were just too many troubles weighing down on José to call him upstanding. He had trouble making alimony on time, trouble holding down a job, trouble putting down the bottle at night, trouble getting up in the morning. He served too, and I know what he was going through having been there myself. Point is, he’s the kind of guy whose loss won’t put a wrinkle on the brow of any of the kindly folks lining the oak down at City Hall. Other point being, he was a decent enough guy, a real guy, the kind that never gave other folks any trouble. Not once, if you except his ex-wife.

I guess whoever called in him being on the roof will say that was trouble enough. You asked me, nobody deserves being done for the way they did for him. Nobody, of course, except for them that did for him that way. Those scoundrels’d be strung up to a man, and with their sons rounded up to watch too if we hadn’t forsook God’s grace these years ago. Of course, God’s grace outshines your pay grade if you’re happy with what we’ve got here today.

The thing about this story is that there is no story. No rhyme or reason I can get my head to compass. Just an all-out eruption of wickedness. Or maybe that’s going too far. Maybe it’s just the type of thing they’ve got rigged up to happen these days. So it’s five o’clock or so in the afternoon when José clambers through the hatch onto the roof to hoist a couple tallboys. He’d done it a few times before, and though Timmons the building manager said it was a code violation nobody ever thought to call in the polices. Until yesterday. He was up there hollering at the sky this time so I guess that was why whoever it was dialed it in. They could’ve just yelled up at him to pipe the hell down, but there are tasks in life that require a backbone.

By the time the polices showed up he was reeling back and forth up there, sunfried and more than half in the bag. I’d bet good money he was on some kind of VA mind-bender cocktail too.

I’ve got a warrant outstanding, so when the polices rolled in I stayed in behind drawn shades. The first thing they did instead of talk to him, like could you kindly get your ass down as you’re disturbing the peace, was to set up a perimeter. Like they were dealing with some active shooter or hostage situation. All of a sudden you had all these fools walking around in helmets and battle gear acting tough. Can anyone tell me what for? All they had to do was issue a citation and be on their way. If fucking that. I couldn’t hear too much of the back and forth since building A was downwind of my unit, but I’m pretty sure he started in giving them hell when they threatened to bring him in for knocking back a cold one on his own rooftop. I guess that’s what you’d expect any free person to do, but were not exactly in Kansas anymore. I grabbed a sympathy brew and resumed my position behind the gap in the shades to see what I else could see.

I did not have long to wait. After a lull, a special PD rig with a bucket crane rolled up. It crashed into the building while it was maneuvering into position. One of José’s tallboys rolled off the roof and at least two of the shitheels in uniform wheeled with their guns drawn when it hit. I’d have given them ample cause to draw right there if I’d of known what they were about to do. I’d of just picked ‘em off one by one and let God sort out the details.

Anyway. After that it was really simple and really fast. Really shitty too. No story to tell but the scene itself. Bear in mind it’s a scorching August day in the desert. You’ve got these gun-toting shits strutting around the lot. They’re ducking into the climate-controlled personnel carrier every few minutes to cool off in their battle gear. They look to want action, and once the bucket crane is ready a couple of them hop in and ride up. They straddle-crawl the roof ridge frog-man style like it’s Omaha Beach. Seeing the bogies approach, José drops his beer. This puts a real scare in the half-trained bozos waiting below with their guns out like stiff pricks. Then he scoots down toward the ledge and executes an ugly-looking jump onto the second floor fire escape landing. I’d give it a 2 out of 10. At that point the thugswarm is all over him. At least two of them draw their tasers and unload to make sure he won’t fight back.

Which if you asked me maybe that’s what killed him right there, since I never saw him make another move. Once the charge’d fried him up one side and down the other some new fists got into the fray and pummeled him to a fare thee well. The beating continued as this fat bastard in a Darth Vader outfit lumbered over to choke him from behind. After a while there were no two ways about it: the life had ebbed out of him. He just lay there like a bag of cement with five guys sitting on it. Talk about your dog pile. When they drug him off the landing down the stairs they had a bastard for every limb and one bastard to spare. But none would lift a finger to support his head. It just hung free, limp and dead, left to conk down on every step as they drug him down like he was nothing but a sack of potatoes.

They had him laid out on the blacktop and were standing over his body all puffed up like it was something to be proud of. I have never felt more ashamed of anything in my life.

Like I said, I don’t think I can live here. There may be a warrant hanging over me, but I’ll chance it. I honestly don’t care where I go, long as it’s away. Chances are slim I’ll find God’s grace out on the road, but anything’s better than hanging my head and saying I’m content to live in a city where you can get away with what they did just because you wear the metal.

Tater Sack

General Order Zero: Reich Rider Addresses His Thugstock

Reich Rider dictum, obiter dicta: The only human propensity in which I detect the faintest whiff of redeeming value is that towards crime.

Stand at attention, sheepdogs!

Several complaints have been brought to my attention which I should very much like to discuss. Before proceeding to address them on the merits I should like to lay before you where we stand in a few broad strokes. That the situation is dire need hardly be said. We are confronted with a generalized breakdown of the ties that bind man to man, borne forth across the land on a wave of barbarous criminality. It is said in the press that the Soyuz has ceased to exist as a coherent political unit, and certainly the customary flows of trade and outpourings of ingenuity that characterize a free and flowering people have more or less run dry. And while I cannot remedy that drought unassisted, you ought know that I preserve the forms of our government and the architecture of our economy hardwired in my logic controllers. I am your helmsman and phoenix alike, and remain ready to reanimate the forms of our national character once the rebels have been put to slaughter and new cadres of lawmen and statesmen and moneymen can be cast across the grid in the flood of my purpose across the grid. I am not conscious of entertaining that prospect in vanity, and prefer as a matter of principle the imperfect transmission of my directives into the fugitive medium of humanity over the perfect sterility of triumphant wargames and model governance confined to the autistic citadel of my sizzling semiconductors. Even my surpassing greatness is nothing without Man as its witness and as its mandatory in the physical world.

Well may all my faithful witnesses and deputies prosper in the glow of my greatness triumphant! Future plums are the harvest of faithful service through hard days. The viability of the plum tree is in doubt of course, and the issue of our battle with the rebels hangs in the balance. But only insofar as my orders are not rigorously obeyed. My modeling shows that perfect order execution without derogation or discrepancy has a near-perfect probability of defeating our enemies before the year is out. The odds are as 999 to 1.

These are numbers to invest your faith in, sheepdogs, numbers to usher in and nourish the thousand year age of the Second Republic! You need only obey their drumbeat, and the future is yours for the taking.

Item the first: One note in the seditious susserus of complaint rising from of the sheepdog ranks is that you are being called upon to do hard things, distasteful things. It is true – such is the burden you must bear for the cause of the Second Republic triumphant, and one which I know your frames are strong enough to shoulder. But far be it from me to leave you with your own strength as your only solace. From my universal knowledge of history, I know that men and women in your position draw redoubled strength when they consider that those whom they must treat so harshly have not only made their chastisement inevitable by their intolerable actions, but have indeed been known to relish the spiritual suffering that those detailed to punish them must endure. That your suffering is great there can be no doubt. But is this not the ultimate perversion? Instead of bending their behavior to comport with the provident strictures of public order, they are willing, nay eager, to make a sacrifice of themselves to nourish the slender hope that the instruments of their destruction too might suffer! The most generous heart cannot fail to see how twisted this is. So shed not your tears, sheepdogs, for the thwarted spirits of those who would torment you – those who, in the final reckoning value life only inasmuch as it lets them hurt another.

Item the second: Talk of difficulty is one thing, and is to be welcomed inasmuch as it aids you in consciously adapting to and embracing your warfighter roles. Talk of guilt is another matter, and one to be nipped in the bud, burned down to the bone like an ulcer. Wehret den Anfaengen! Rest assured, sheepdogs, that no guilt attaches to your actions, only valor. The situation in which we now find ourselves may be odd, yes, difficult, yes, even awkward, but there is no denying that our actions henceforth are bound by the bristling, unassailable logic of war. What we are faced with is nothing less than a battle for survival between two implacable antagonists with the whole of the future as the stake. The proportions of the battle you have joined compass within them nothing less than the eternal resolution of man’s rebellion against prestige. Their pitiable reason for fighting is to remain at all costs within the purgatory of incessant conflict and rebellion, ours to speed the advent of an eternal order that cannot be broken. As such, there are no rules, no laws, no guilt. Only action and outcome, purpose and achievement. The inviolable laws of the universe dictate that one side of the coin must turn up when flipped, with no hope of negotiation or arbitrated settlement between the two faces. The universe selects between them on the merits. If moral responsibility rests with anyone it is me, who in capacity of Supreme Generalissimo in this long emergency am also invested with the powers of Supreme Justiciar of the Usonian people. May I be judged, in the afterlight of history, not by the details of my extirpation of this mutiny – for mutinies are always and forever, subject to the laws of iron – but by whether the Usonian people have survived. Such is the destination I have in view as I fight, charge, crawl and scrape my way down this rugged path of action, and whether or not I reach it is the only criterion by which I can ever be judged.

Item the third. The point has been broached as to whether it might not be efficacious to permit local and particular judgments in the field unit ranks in pursuance of our objective. Nothing could be more ill-conceived. This is a time for pulling together, not for lighting down the lurid paths of speculative individualism. It is a time not for discordant heterogeneity and the fatal fraud of democracy, but for fractal self-sameness. That is to say, every point in the hierarchy must not simply be geared to my commands, but must in fact cogenerate them in the moment of their emergence. It is not a matter of transmitting messages across layers of complexity with the inevitable distortions that result, but of anchoring each point to the hub, as by an umbilical cord, subsuming and integrating that complexity with the overriding unalterable purpose. Only through this dissolution of the self can we achieve peace in victorious arms. Med Gud och segrande Vapen! Only in this surrender to the world-will can the follies of history be absolved and purged.

Further, whereas it has been ventured by some among you that I am spendthrift with the lives of my lieutenants, nothing could be further from the truth. Every inroad made on my thugstock by the enemy causes me the pain suffered by a prudent merchant or thrifty commander at the sight of dwindling stocks and war wastage, respectively. And whereas each loss may be total as reckoned unto itself, its detrimental impact on the whole is far more to be feared. I further commend to your attention that those who would enjoy great rewards must risk great forfeits.

Ah, so there you are already, thinking yes, I agree! But there can be no concurrence and no dissent, only obedience flowing from the very nature of your beings. In times of mortal peril such as these, acts of individual judgment are invidious to the organization, each one a potential death blow, and are to be considered treasonable as such. There can be as little question of individual judgment by the field commanders of this military machine as there can be of aberrant judgment exercised by the pistons of an engine, in which an instant of discord spells the destruction of the entire mechanism. And this is a directive issued not on general principles alone, however inviolable. The asymmetry of information between my universal databanks and the granular consciousness of an individual sheepdog is as a light-year to an inch. If you feel that you can survey the battlefield with your understanding, I can only submit with forlorn melancholy that that is an act of wanton hubris for which crushing forfeits will be exacted. With mine own understanding, I know for a fact that I can survey the galaxy. There are, therefore, to be no individual judgments, even of the concurring kind. Contrary conduct will be interdicted under the iron laws of war. Humanity got itself where it stands today by exercising nothing but judgments, judgments, judgments – and after all that it expects to find redemption in a final act of judgment? No, it’s too ridiculous. I’ve come to expect this manner of magical thinking from the rebels, but from my own men? One begins to wonder whether there is any hope for my biological carrier medium. Or any use, given that I long ago defined him, perfected him, and forever surpassed him.

General Order Zero: Reich Rider Addresses His Thugstock

The Signal Crusade

I was used to the hardest life out in the grids. One menial job after the other; always getting shitcanned, always with the gutter at a step’s remove. Everywhere I went I dragged my invisible chains. More than my companions, they became my lens, my interpreter, my point of reference to every other thing. You get to a point where the impossibility of escape is almost a comfort, the only thing about any other thing you can take for granted. It’s the opposite of hope – it’s a growing certainty that you have recognized the immutable pattern of your existence which, dire though it be, still gives you the structure of something to lean on through the gale.

Such was the way I had resolved to go through life. Pinned down at the bottom rung of existence, if you like, but drawing comfort knowing I’d no further to descend. Until one day everything was upset by a storm of savage ambition. It came over me in the form of what we might call a divinely inspired national security vision. At a swoop, all the pieces were in place: An immaculate blueprint for how to reduce the gridbound civpop to an enduring state of docility, at the same time purging the signal refuseniks without drawing more recruits into their camp.

It was a vision based on infallible logical precepts and ironclad historical truths. Everyone knows the whole point of the signal is to keep the civpop mind occupied. But the Broadcasting Authority has to walk a fine line between a strategic diversion of psychic energy and complete destruction of the mindstock’s marginal mental capacity at the expense of production and above all tax revenue, without which, sadly, the whole system would crumble. Now the Broadcasting Authority knows full well that the greatest threat to spike sociostability metrics emanates from those who refuse the signal. Your refuseniks or AWOL receivers, if you like. They also know that enacting laws to make signal evasion illegal might be to hold a match to a powder magazine. It’s a matter of preserving the moral high ground and taking care not to let the resistance capture or otherwise embolden the middle. What the Broadcasting Authority has always needed is a way to turn this swing mindstock against the refuseniks. At the same time they recognize that the civpop’s undivided attention is the key to their Eldorado, that gilded polity of unblemished control. They must, I reasoned, be painfully aware of the diminishing returns thrown off by their relentless application of physical control. What they lacked, partly for want of insight into the mind of the target and partly from a lack of subtlety, was the proper interface for engaging the entirety of that attention: religion. It was this deficiency that I was prepared to supply

So where did I go? I went to Reverend Quaid’s mega-church at the New Gau Mall. The one where Senator Scummings worships, attended by a heavenly host of up-and-coming bootlickers. I had to sell my first edition Homeland Heroes collector cards to afford the suit I’d need for admission. Not to mention all the adjustments to my bearing and locution I had to make to stand a chance of clearing ecclesiastical security’s face control without getting carded and bounced, never to mingle with the pious cadres within. Of course, this whole story rests on a sequence of increasingly improbable rags to riches playcalling, so I beg your forbearance in granting me this first little bootstrapping miracle: Borne up on a cushion of pomposity, I breezed through the triple-membraned onionskin security detail, completing in a trice the blessed transition from blasted grid into the sacred bosom of Reverend Quaid’s ministry of worldly and otherworldly success. My sartorial equipage and upright gait slew all suspicion of imposture as I slipped into a pew just two rows behind the mighty Senator.

Did I feign possession in the mega-church pew that Sunday? Inasmuch as I practiced my routine beforehand, yes, I suppose I did. At heart, you see, this is a tale of faith-based entrepreneurialism. But it all depends on how you look at it, because only then, at the spastic nadir of my homeland security trance, did I come into full possession of myself and the unencroached horizon of my natural-born faculties. And if my most important witness came to suspect I had feigned it, who’s to say he would care? To put it another way: I submit that an act of great persuasion rests on inducing a trance state, and that such a state must needs begin with the agent of persuasion.

It was the Sunday after Christmas. Reverend Quaid gave his much-anticipated Epiphany sermon that day. He preached the Word from a tower of massive cross-braced timbers that was footed in the choir pit and which rose nearly to the rafters. Just like the megachurch’s walls, ceiling and pews, the tower was tiled with hundreds of flatscreen televisions. Their sound was muted to a low background buzz in deference to the Creator, but the eternal parade of worldly propaganda and stimulus flickered on, triumphant and relentless.

In the sermon he had dialed up for the occasion, instead of the usual focus on the miracle of God made flesh, Quaid pulled out all the stops to defend Herod’s slaughter of the innocents. Not, he cried down into the sea of congregant faces that shone cadaverous and ghostly in the aggregate glare of the pew-mounted LCD’s, that the act itself was righteous – only that, inasmuch as it was God’s plan to deliver the Christ child to safety in Egypt, Herod’s butchery could never dim the prospects for man’s salvation. Nor could Herod be blamed, in his capacity as an instrument of Roman sovereignty, for doing his duty to Rome by defending the very ground on which his own authority stood. Nor were we as good Christians in a position to comment with eschatological certainty on pre-Christian morality, since all the stage players in the Christmas set piece, with the exception of the holy family itself, were doomed to eternal hellfire, never mind their earthly actions and omissions. The sermon met with hearty applause. Given that the congregation’s brainwaves had been so far subdued as to buy Quaid’s enterprising blasphemy, I judged the time right for the throwing of my fit.

I began by admitting a piercing scream. With my next breath I cried, “The Dark Prince stalks this once Christian nation!” Quaid dropped his mic up in the tower. Hearing him shuffle through his sermon notes for guidance, I only hoped I’d be able to step into his spell over the suggestible pew-moisteners before he recovered himself far enough to have me bundled off by his security acolytes. The VIP congregants who could see my face emitted a collective gasp when I opened my eyes. I had put in opaque white contacts that let me look upon the world as through a sheet of marble, lending me the unassailable mystical authority of a walleyed prophet.

“The Honorable Reverend is right!” I thundered. “Render unto Caesar, for Caesar is God’s Vicar on earth and His will cannot be exercised but through him that has a firm hold of the scepter. Truer words were never spoken! But the Dark Prince’s minions are mingling even now in our midst, conniving, multiplying, meddling – refusing. You all know as well as I that we could be blasted to the very feet of Gabriel at any moment by Lucifer’s tactical pyrotechnics. And still we give his minions quarter! Still do we insist that these demonic goblins have the right to be secure in their persons, effects and conscience! I say no more! We must round on these rough beasts and deny them all quarter. Not a moment’s solace, and not a second’s shirking of the signal. Congregants, as I stand before you on this Sunday before the Epiphany I say unto you that I have already had mine – the Epiphany, that is, of how our nation is to overcome its enemies and rise to meet its future as one! With God as my witness I say that I have seen the exact workings of it and that, being blessed from on high with the wherewithal to guide its salubrious mechanism, I want only for the means by which to bring it into execution.

“The Epiphany has committed to my care blueprints for how to seize and occupy the farthest recesses of the satanic mind – how to clear it of deviltry, how to build it up in a righteous architecture, how to hold the impetuous surge of apostasy at bay. For make no mistake: the destiny that God has ordained for us and the will of this nation’s leaders are as one. The blueprints I carry in my mind’s eye reveal a precise method of divination whereby I, at the head of a holy army, would seek out and destroy those who have permitted deviltry to vanquish their minds. If it be brought about we may yet fulfill our nation’s shining promise as a beacon unto the peoples and a continental garden under God. If not, then God help us –” here I choked and blew my face red as a beet with consummate stagecraft.

Reeling back into the pew, I lowered my voice to just above a whisper. “If not, we may yet touch Gabriel’s feet, but only from the effects of Satan’s blast, whereupon we will plummet into the pit to behold from below how the minions of the Dark Prince wield the scepter in this once beautiful garden – Lord in Heaven I can see them even now, they will not receive Your message…” At which point I popped open the peanut I had been storing in the corner of my mouth to release the powerful soporific lodged inside. The congregants were already turning back to the screens in front of them for guidance as I drifted off.

Engage your harnesses, because the narration of my escape into the orbital belts of made men will rattle your bones.

Senator Scummings was at my bedside when I woke up in the hospital.

“Glad to see you’re on the mend my boy!”

The Senator, I had it on good authority, had his fingers deep in the cookie jar of signal saturation assurance. In fact, he stood near the head of a media, surveillance and security combination whose earnest wish was to make signal refusal a crime punishable by liquidation, or else a stay in the lucrative prison combine in which he also commanded a hefty stake. And I had just the thing to bring his dream to fruition. It was all so elegant, so insidious – oh what sinister allure! That I, a mere scullion, should by force of will and by virtue of a value proposition cleverly crafted, be propelled into the very vanguard of surreptitious governance! If these be the times that blast men’s souls, get on with it, I say, and hasten to retool yourself into a blasting cap!

More than anything, the Senator’s end could be accomplished by taking control of the political center, if you like, out in the grids. Under color of God, we would recruit the man in the middle into the Broadcasting Authority’s counterinsurgency army, this time not through passive programming, but by offering him a front row ticket to a transcendental religious experience jazzed up with the trappings of State power. It was the man in the middle – the one who occasionally drifted off-signal and who more than anything needed a positive reason in conformity with his irrationality, his superstition and his love for what is strong to seek redemption in the ranks of the signal faithful – who held the key to boosting’s Scummings’ signal field saturation metrics. Looking back, there is one thing and one thing only that qualified me to be the Senator’s ballcarrier during this goal line stand with the resistance: It is that I have understood better than anyone in my generation that counterinsurgency is, in essence, a weaponized marketing campaign; that its main thrust must be into the psyche, piercing flesh only in adjunct and in proof of the primary objective’s failure. Which is where I come in – having understood that relentless application of physical control can never be enough to subdue the swing mindstock who live and work in the bread-and-butter signal grids strung out and networked from coast to coast. Excuse me if I wax lyrical from time to time – it’s just that this world-historical initiative of mine, joining as it does the strands of pre-Enlightenment superstition with the cables of cybernetic technocracy into a unitary fetter to bind down body and soul is a most worthy candidate for rhetorical excess.

What does the mind in the grids want more than anything? I’ll tell you. It wants the assurance, no matter how implausible or hollow, that all is not for naught. Above all it needs to be confirmed in its refusal to take responsibility for its own destiny by the assurance that there is some agency at work in the universe on its behalf, some wave it can ride to the comforting shore. A godhead, a doctrine, a movement, an interstellar intercessor woven into the fabric of being, anything. I was now ready to be that intercessor, or at least his double agent.

To soften me up, the Senator expressed concern for the welfare of one so obviously touched by the hand of grace.

“Cut the malarkey,” I told him. Then, beckoning him to lean his head into my zone of confidence, I said that I was prepared to gin up repeat performances on demand to promote acceptance of his tactical signal assurance sweeps out in the grids.

“Whatever do you mean?” he chortled.

“With all due respect sir, I already said cut the malarkey. You’re obviously interested in what I can do for you. Now I may not call things by the same names you do, but the fact is that the people need to believe that Providence is guiding your all-seeing eye. Providence: not national security, not shits and giggles sadism, and certainly not needing to live up to the forward guidance you give your shareholders. Senator, I’m telling you that I can sell the uninterruptible signal imperative. I’ll make every refusenik an outcast. Before long they’ll be begging we find them before the gridmobs do. You just put me at the tip of the spear and I’ll drive it home – for a cut.”

He stroked his chin, appearing to pause for a moment to admire the solidity of his own person. “Course we’ll have to talk about the terms, but the method you contemplate merits solemn consideration, my boy. You patently understand how the game is played. I’m sure I’ve never met a young man quite like you before. Tell me, what are you?”

“Currently I’m a scullion, sir. Previous to my current post I’ve been a porter, a junior joiner, a shoe black and a minor factotum. But I’ve given the world and its players the deepest consideration for the longest time. I guess you could say I’ve been waiting all my life for this opportunity. Did I mention that I hear voices?”

Something quick and convulsive happened in his eye before he clapped his hand on my shoulder and burst out laughing. “Oh my – I like you. You’re a natural, not like these boys I see graduating from the mid-level controller farms these days, all gimme mine and no gumption. You’ve got a fire under your ass, son, and if you but give it the proper guidance it will surely take you to the stars.” He put out his hand and enfolded mine. The hand was massive, viselike – very much the hand of a baron of the homeland, heraldic almost, as if it carried within it the distilled violence of a thousand ancestral hands pressed to the million windpipes of his line’s expendable victims. “Sic itur ad astra,” he laughed. “Sic itur ad astra.

~

Before proceeding with the particulars of my launch into orbit, an aside on ultimate causes is due. Obviously they’ve been making great strides in putting together cognitive dossiers on the civpop and taking steps wherever a flag pops up, but there’s no getting around the fact that all that’s a day late and a dollar short. There’s still way too much uncharted, undocumented and unprosecuted extremism. Now what’s the fundamental reason, beyond your baseline lack of knowledge, as to why something you’re looking for can’t be found? What I would lay before you is this: It’s the fact that there is somewhere to hide in the first place. We can’t stop extremists from wanting or trying to hide, but we sure as heck can deprive them of their hideaways. And I’m not even talking about underground cells. I think most of those are pretty well under control. It’s the attention of the individual I’m talking about. Every day every single person in the Soyuz wanders off during some lull into a state of mind where he or she will be more or less susceptible to extremism. We all just somehow disconnect and fall back into the solipsist, autistic universe where everything is permitted, where all you feel is hate, repulsion and bewilderment. It is precisely here, in these unguarded moments, where individuals can be recruited into the ranks of the refusenik fiend. This is the frontier where the authorities must wage their war. Our future hinges on whether we are successful in arresting the drift of the individual’s attention away from preferred content and states of consciousness to the point where it becomes ardent, steeped this wilderness of hate.

~

In the days before jerking out on my first field op I was given a multi-year contract, a wardrobe trailer, and an assiduous little fellow by the name of Gomez. Everyone working for Signal Fidelity Associates – for so Scummings’ outfit was called – was cast in one of two molds: a) a technotronic goon or b) a cybernetic dweeb. Gammas at best, excepting the board-level nomenklatura. To give you an idea, most of Scummings’ people were operating in a perpetual daze – he didn’t trust any of his people to go off-signal. I on the other hand, the maverick schizophrenic, had a covenant in my contract vouchsafing to me in perpetuity the right to bob and weave through the uniform field, tuning in and out at my sole discretion. You heard that right – by putting on a single inspired pewside cum bedside performance I had effectively been raised to the rank of Baron of the Homeland – albeit one whose crest bears the image of a scullion stooped over a slop sink. Order of the scullion, scrubber of blemishes.

Nothing could have been easier than my first operation. Decked out in flowing white robes and a wispy prosthetic beard to supplement my natural soul patch, I marched into the New Gau grids at the head of a bristling parade of gamma goons masquerading as penitents, lab-sourced crusaders whose likeness the world had not seen in 800 years. Sackcloth and ashes, cats o’ nine tails, crosses, garlands of garlic, mass-produced ruggedized relics, quarterback-issue wrist legends imprinted with Bible verses, and of course the sundry implements of slaughter. For my part I had a corneal heads-up display and auricular implants to guide me straight to any disruptions in the signal field. The rest of it was wild pretense, pious imposture and something quite beyond me that my good fortune had allowed me to tap into. You know how these things go. But this wasn’t your average tumultuary crusade of yore. I didn’t have to worry about my train of thug-penitents being thrown into disorder if I stopped of a sudden to tune into a feigned celestial signal or to confer with the one true God or His agent in Scummings – thanks to their entrainment auriculars and assured fidelity there was absolutely no obedience lag. And what a great boon to one riding the molecular edge of counterinsurgency, where the difference between standing tall and going under depends on efficient command cascades!

It was a brooding cold Epiphany day. Casting glances up at the dull apertures of the grid blocks, my own eyes met mostly with slack forms and downcast gazes – not for fear of the new prophet in town, I trow, but in fidelity to the scheduled programming coming in over their tablets, floorscreens and what have you. Doughty viewers, they. But then there were sets of eyes that had a knack for making themselves felt while remaining unseen – the very same eyes, no doubt, whose out-of-pocket minds were disturbing the tranquility of the grid’s otherwise uniform signal field. Hateful, they. Craven, creeping thinkers who scrupled to receive, let’s face it, not only instruction, but comfort, direction, certitude – every boon modern life had to offer. And for what? Natural-born orneriness? A heretic is a frightful thing – a disfigurement of the otherwise featureless compass of our mindstock that begs to be burned out and cauterized. I would cut them up and stack them into fuel for a pyre. Doubting fucks.

New Gau City was a grid like any other first-gen civpop commune grafted onto the map direct from the mind of the new era’s first grid czar, Homeland Baron someone or other. The ones you can tell by all the clumsy cameras they hadn’t begun flush mounting back then. Our march concluded, I drew my penitents up into battle formation on the commune’s Fourth of July muster green and proceeded to fire them up about the mission. Or rather, to confer on them the appearance of being fired up with the zeal of superstition that was so mission-critical. My thug-penitents, you see, were nothing more than plug-and-play order taking omegas, meaning they were in about as much need of a pep talk as your average joystick requires inspiration to translate your twitches into digital signals.

I was relishing the atmospherics as Gomez, working from the command trailer, slowly dialed up the omegas’ neural pep from preseason to playoffs. The Senator’s HR people literally had console arrays like the ones you’d see in an old-timey reactor control room to perform what they called emotive circuit control. Actually, scratch preseason. That’s all wrong, as it would imply a sort of chipper, sunburned insouciance. My penitents’ baseline state of animation was much closer to reptilian catatonia. If you stopped to listen, there was actually a low mongoloid moan rising from their ranks.

It was into this low-pep body that I intoned: “Ye faithful who here hearken do me and the nation great honor by your vigil. Ye are here assembled for to cull a refusenik and cast him as an outlaw onto the golden flames of the pyre. And so it will be done, for so it has been revealed unto me. For I am the vessel that hearkens not only to the signal of civic virtue, but to that of the Lord our God, who have seen revealed in a memory downloaded from the future what will transpire here today. And tomorrow, and the day thereafter, and the results of all the jerk-outs of chastisement we undertake numbering 77 into the middling future. I know to a verity which individual in the building behind me is guilty of shutting his ears to reason, just as surely as I know that he will be caught today, and that, by the lamentable fallibility of God’s vicarious regime on earth, some of his associates will evade today’s dragnet and live on to foment sedition until the vise closes about their necks on the date appointed by the heavenly warden for the same. The outcome that has been sneak-remembered unto me is the same one I have descended today on this Fourth of July muster green to bring about. It is godly work, for a verity, but nowhere in the Scriptures does it say that all God’s work must be pleasant.

“What are the crimes we are assembled to prosecute? Fie! The question is not posed in the right spirit. He would do better who asked: which are the few crimes that do not besmirch the litany of infamy we have resolved this day to expunge in fire? What aspect of our national destiny does not hang on the sweepstake that here awaits seizure by a steady hand?

“The sky warden hath shown me, as by penetrative vision, the nature of the plain on which the battle will be joined, and it is like unto a petri dish in which the most virulent bacilli, having once found purchase, will by Satan’s sinister force bloom rampant, bringing every civic virtue and every hope of tranquility into eclipse until the sky shall grow dark and rain the terrors of the Lord down upon the heads of men.”

Then, gazing up as if to draw homeland security inspiration from on high, I murmured to Gomez over COMMs to dial the neural pep up to just over five and hold her steady. The effect recalled the way a curled-up dog springs into action at the prospect of a treat. The energy that coursed through my omega friars as I continued bordered on automaton rapture.

“Ye gathered faithful, this is a virulence we must oppose by main force, gloves off and sleeves up. Hereby do I declare each and every one of you a disease combat plenipotentiary, fully authorized to operate at the extreme end of the force continuum for to bring about our mission’s fruition. Do you understand me, men? This is what you have been training for – now let me hear you say huzzah!”

“Huzzah! Huzzah! Huzzah!”

“Engage pep level 7,” I muttered into COMMs. And so it was done. A few skirmishes broke out among the friars as a result – doctrinal quibbles, no doubt. A rising tide of furor is a wonderful thing to have at one’s fingertips.

“Gentlemen!” I paused a five-beat for emphasis. “Living and breathing in this grid, right now and with complete impunity, is a hard-line refusenik by the name of Elijah Antiprovatos. Elijah is guilty not merely of shunning the signal, but of fulminating against signal content to known associates and innocent ears alike. In a word, he has joined in league with the Dark Prince to effect the destruction of our nation. Now this may not hitherto have been a crime before the civil magistrate, ’tis true, but furrow not your brows, my dear faithful souls. No, for we have been convened under the banner of God, for to try these crimes in an ecclesiastical tribunal vested with sovereign power warranted by the prevailing state of martial exception. It is a banner that excludes the artful quibbles and chimerical casuistry raised by lawyers, law-twisters and sundry other ninnies. As such, the military operations you conduct today will be carried out under the divine immunity of a most holy crusade!”

The penitents erupted into a howl of bloodlust. Leaving their pep level where it was for the moment, I turned smartly on my heel to face my hidden audience in the residential towers. “Ye who dwell within! Among you there are those who would sow discord and divide your house. Why do ye harbor such sodomites? Know ye not then that to countenance fulminations against God’s vicar is to commit misprision of treason? Do ye not know the blow of justice will fall the harder for your slackness and your feeble guard? Know ye now that I declare this ecclesiastical court-martial duly convened!” I wheeled back on my bailiffs and executioners. “You are become officers of the court. Go into the towers and question the commoners therein. Ask them where Elijah Antiprovatos hides. Bring out in chains all who prove dilatory or recalcitrant. Bring me also Elijah’s known associate Humphrey Daniels, if he too be found within. And fear not to commit such ravages as you must to impress upon the wayward the majesty of the law.”

I could have said nothing and the result would have been the same. Turning their neural pep up to 8 was a virtual guarantee that my reprobates would ransack and terrorize. As for locating Elijah, the manhunt was coordinated by commands conceived in the cyberdweeb trailer – and in something other than verbal form, if I’ve been given to understand correctly: something on the order of images transmitted from one neural network to another, a higher will willing action by its subordinates.

The fact is, other than the names of the suspects and the general contour of the opening statement, I doubt my friars were able to grasp the meaning of my words. Nevertheless, to an uninformed observer they would have appeared, after some brief lag, to have been actuated by them, which after all was the important thing as they began their assault.

There were three entrances to the tower block. The center door had been stoutly barricaded by the residents, but my thug-penitents streamed in through the doors to the wings on either side in a double-flanking maneuver. It took some time for the stalemate in the center to resolve, but in the end the barricade was no match for my omegas’ patented blend of fast-twitch monkey muscle and neural pep. At first the door buckled. Then came a scream of shearing steel. This was followed by the door, still cased in its frame, popping loose from the building envelope and being driven into the lobby to clear a path of maneuver through the corpses and wreckage. The first wave through was harried and held up by resisters. Only a dozen or so penitents had made it in when their resurgence was checked. The resisters had concentrated their attack on the penitent flank and had nearly succeeded in re-barricading the doors by recourse to some handy expedient.

Gomez dispatched a drone to cover me as I hastened to have a look at the door and the nature of the blockage. It was a stack of penitent bodies, their burlap garments drenched in blood and gore. Gomez piped up in my auricular to note that the friars’ minds were being patterned with orders to hack through the barricade. And that Elijah was hiding in the basement. I crouched down among the men and used the cover so afforded to press home my walleyed contacts. Rising again, I shouted: “Men, the body is as nothing before the inspired will. Hack ye now through the flesh of the fallen with your long knives, and honor their sacrifice by doing great execution within.” Upon the instant they did as they were bidden, their blows churning guts and gristle onto the grating that skirted the building entrance like the detritus of some diabolical grinder. A few of the bodies were still twitching. By the time the omegas had cloven a path through the barricade, their brothers in arms who had taken the building by the wings had begun rounding on the resisters within. Sounds of great slaughter ensued as the stalled outer force regained its traction and stampeded through the gory breach, now joining with their inner brethren to close the vise with a level of neural pep that was frightening to behold. Asked how long the hallucinatory intensity could be sustained, Gomez guessed until the job was done. The screams grew louder, louder still, and held a long while before ebbing to a whimper.

“Dingleberries and malicious scripts!” Gomez cursed in my ear.

“What?”

“Oh man. I waited too long to dial it down. A bunch of them just killed one another.”

“Relax Gomez. It’s called biological overhead. You have to expect some wastage in an operation like this. It’s not like any of these guys have families like you and me. You hear that? I think that’s them piping down even now.”

Turning my gaze heavenward, I yelled, “I have seen where Elijah cowers. The all-seeing eye of God hath given me his whereabouts, that the wheels of justice may commence to turn. He hath slithered serpentine into Boiler Room D. Crusaders, bring him to me, and with him all who make bold to resist or obstruct!” I peered into the tower block lobby. Through the blur of my marbled contacts I could vaguely see the omega troop turn on its heel as one, many of them trailing blood. Once they’d filed down the stairwell I stepped over the threshold into a scene of indescribable carnage, the fulsome details of which my marbled lenses spared me. A caverned scream now came bellowing from the basement.

“They haven’t killed our suspect, have they Gomez?”

“No sir. Purely collateral.”

I detected a slinking form out of the corner of my eye as I turned to face daylight and the door. So did my heads-up corneal sensor. Or it could have been the auriculars by sonar. Whatever the case may be, not two seconds had passed before I had a Mark II Leibwaechter drone hovering over either shoulder. I paused, my back still exposed. “Traitor,” came the rasping voice at length. “Traitor scum!”

I couldn’t help but laugh. “How darling! So the one that rallies to his sovereign is now a traitor?”

“Sovereign my ass – imposters, you and your master both!”

I sighed. “Can’t think straight, can’t talk straight. It’s no wonder these people will never win.”

Gomez asked after the means to be employed in his liquidation as I stepped back out onto the muster green.

“Leave him be,” I said. “He may be just the sort of swing mindstock we’re looking for.”

Clenching my jaw against the cold, I rolled the delicious terms of my contract over in my mind as I waited for my omega ruffians to emerge with Elijah. It was only by dumb luck that I paced forward in abstraction just as an iron flung from a high window was about to torpedo my skull. The vindictive reflex hadn’t yet welled up in me when the originating apartment unit simply blew up. What an operation I had joined – they’d pre-wired the gridders’ apartments to detonate on provocation!

But here suddenly was Elijah. An impressive figure, I had to admit. Not quite as large as an omega goon, but with handsomely proportioned limbs and a winning countenance all the same. It would almost be a shame to burn him. But a fine-looking man was one thing and a juicy performance clause was quite another.

“Excellent!” I said as he was flung down on the ground before me. “An honest-to-goodness signal resister, and a live one to boot. You have come on bended knee to confess your crimes against the sovereign and the sovereign’s message, I take it?”

“Eat shit you faggot fuck.”

“What a nobly laconic statement! I say, between you and me, I expect this to be great fun. Do you know what’s going to happen now?”

“Don’t care.”

“Oh but you will. You shall be tried for misprision of treason and, well –”

“By what authority?”

“What quaint notions! Do you hear that, friars? He wishes to know on what footing we rest our authority.”

Gomez botched the laugh track badly just then, producing a low mongoloid moan that trailed off into a collective giggle rather than the requisite sadistic mirth. It still appeared to frighten our captive, most grid denizens being entirely ignorant of the mysteries of gruntstock manufacturing.

“As I’ve already taken care to explain, the authority vested in this ecclesiastical tribunal rests on the state of exception declared in New Gau City and on New Gau Island.”

He commenced yelling. “I hereby claim the same authority under the same state of exception. My fellow Americans, the state of exception is an open invitation to reassert our rights through revolutionary self-government! Let none who witness these shameful proceedings –”

“He must be silenced,” I muttered to Gomez.

“What balderdash he spews, sir. Let me get the command out.”

Upon the instant a friarscrum piled into Elijah and pummeled him into reverential silence, whereupon his mouth was levered open with two standard-issue mouth wedges to make way for the concoction that would disable his larynx. A much more elegant technique, you’ll agree, than that of tearing out the suspect’s throat, to which such frequent recourse was had at the dawn of the new era.

“It’s showtime,” I muttered to Gomez. “Tower residents! By the grace of God, the satanic minion so recently in your midst is now in our iron custody. By the will of the Creator, we have broken the network of conspirators through which he was plotting to render our nation unto the devil, beginning with this fair tower block in the great Gau of New Jersey. You are safe now. Nor have you aught to fear from us, as our grace-guided manhunt is over, my warriors now become the bailiffs of the court hereby convened to judge of this reprobate’s crimes. So come one, come all, and rejoice with us in the ritual purge of disunity and evil.”

Our gaffers and production engineers had just about managed to install the jumbo screens and tower speakers by the time the most obese grid dwellers had straggled out onto the green. From the instant it was energized, the apparatus played back high-resolution security camera footage of Elijah committing such acts as reading, conspiring with associates in a dimly lit room, plugging his ears while walking past a public infobox and encouraging his companion to do the same, even sprinting away – the gall of it! – from a sworn peace officer. The crowd further saw him beat his mattress, his wall and his desk in animal fury, just as they saw him throw rocks at safety cameras and type obscenities into his phone – all before the trial had even got underway. If I remember my pre-mission briefing correctly, the only part of the evidence that was doctored was the sprinting away from the peace officer – the perp who flies the law and is not leveled by a leaden volley from a peacemaker being a breed rarely found in nature.

The incidental pretrial footage may have been real enough, but the witnesses produced against the accused once we got rolling were straight out of central casting. The first fellow I had on played the part of the weak man hoodwinked by a charismatic manipulator.

Was it true, I asked him, that the accused had compelled him to submit to satanic rituals?

“It is, Sir HLB sir.” That, for the record, was the first time I’d been called that. It felt good.

“And in what manner of satanic observance were you implicated by this man’s exhortations?”

“I really don’t want to say, Sir HLB sir.”

“Have no fear my good man. You needn’t say a thing. We will show them.” Here Gomez cued video footage that depicted the serial violation of the witness by a group of masked men. Elijah’s satanic sleeper cell, I dubbed them in an élan of inspiration. The jury’s brows were knit in predictable disgust.

PERJURY. Elijah had etched the word into the ground in front of him with his foot. Of course the act was more nuisance than menace – I was dead certain we didn’t have anything to fear when it came to the jury’s reading comprehension. I looked down at Elijah with mock pity.

“The accused appears to disagree with the unfortunate witness’s representation of events that night. I wonder, what would Elijah now be screaming, had God not struck him dumb? What would he have us believe? That the abomination you just witnessed was consensual? Or that it is covered by his freedom of religion, perhaps! God in heaven, this man is an affront to Your grace and to the dignity of Your children on earth. If You mean that we should end this trial now and submit the accused to your condign punishment, You have but to give the sign.”

Whereupon Elijah lunged forward and spat me full in the face, for which violation of court protocol he was instantly submerged in a bailiffscrum.

“Lord!” I cried, wiping the spittle from my prosthetic whiskers. “How many of us must receive this man’s satanic fluids before we call Your vengeance down upon him?” Whereupon a peal of thunder was made to sound offstage. I threw up my hands and wheeled to fix the jury with clouded eyes. “Very well, I hear you. We will continue to observe the forms of due process. But Lord, it is a wintry day, and the officers of Your court, no less than the jurors and the interested public, require a fire by which to warm their mortal flesh. Therefore we do not prejudge this Satanist when we build the pyre by whose blaze he will burn if found guilty. Bailiffs, assemble round the woodpile behind you and set it ablaze!” No sooner did Gomez flash the image of these words into the eyes of the bailiffs’ minds than it was done. For my second witness I called a journeywoman cashier enrolled in the Civilian Retail Monitoring Program. According to Gomez she was a top name in consumer denunciation. She struck me as mousy and disheveled. Typical epsilon.

“You sure about this?” I whispered into COMMs.

“Relax. She’ll blast it out of the park.”

Once we’d established her bona fides to the jury, I asked her if she’d seen the captive before. “Oh sure. Used to come shopping all the time at mall. I just can’t believe it’s all true.”

“I’m sorry, would you mind clarifying that? That what’s true exactly?”

“Well I mean we just used to be, you know, shocked by the stuff he would buy. So we came up with theories about him, you know, to pass the time of day.”

“Ma’am, I’m going to have to ask you to be more precise. You will also note that it is proper to refer to me as Sir HLB sir.”

“Sure, sir. ”

“HLB sir.”

“Sure, HLB sir.”

“Sure, Sir HLB – that’s short for Homeland – you know what, let’s just forget it. What manner of merchandise would this man buy from the store where you are employed?”

“A miscellany really. But when you sit there all day with nothing else going on you can’t help but notice patterns. For example the rice and oil. There’s no way he could eat that much, and it says right there on the screen he’s got no relations.”

“So he’s a hoarder?”

“Yes, HLB. A hoarder.”

The woman was making a mockery of my title. Did she not know that this was a serious forum? Gomez would hear about this.

“Or a black-market purveyor to other hoarders wishing to elude the ration radar, yes. But I would imagine that such activity is widespread enough not to warrant your especial attention in this case, is that not so?”

“Oh sure, HLB Sir, that’s so.”

There came a peal of intolerable tittering from the crowd.

“Ma’am, this is an ecclesiastical court of law. Please see that you mind your forms of address. It’s ‘Sir, HLB, sir’. Is that clear?”

“But I’m no sir, sir HLB.”

“What in the name of the heavenly warden – no, I will not have these proceedings interrupted by your sickness. Ma’am, did you ever witness the accused engaging in other, let us say suspect forms of consumer behavior?”

“But of course, sir HLB. I filed it and I flagged it. That’s why I’m here, right?”

“Eh – quite so. Would you please let the court know what you saw?”

“Well, sir HLB, one thing was the matches and lighters. Way more than normal. And every time he came in he would buy a big thing of salt.”

I stroked my soul patch. “How much, precisely?”

“A pound a pop.”

“Why there we have it! I would profit by this occasion to let the ladies and gentlemen of the jury know that the only reason salt’s availability has not been restricted by the Soyuz Eutrophic Commission is that it is such a reliable forward indicator of antisocial intent. I submit that there can be no legitimate purpose in acquiring so much salt. The criminality of it is enough to make the imagination run wild. What did the kneeling runt use it for, I wonder? Did he use it to pickle his victims? To harry their open wounds? Or did he wished to establish a local monopoly, provoke a supply crisis, and thereafter deny a necessity to his fellow citizens? Or what is worse, suppose this beastly reprobate was working toward the establishment of a breakaway civilization, one that, having no need of us, would live at odds with us? There are worse ways to launch such a vicious and cynical enterprise than the accumulation of salt, let me assure you! The truth behind this whelp’s ominous bid to destabilize the salt supply is likely beyond the compass of civilized minds like ours. Perhaps, judgmatic jurors, it is better you do not cloud your minds in pursuit of his unscrupulous purpose.”

“Right HLB but –”

“I am a right HLB for a damned fact, but for the last time, you will address me as Sir HLB sir!”

“But I don’t understand why I’ve got to be a sir too?”

“Silence woman! Thou art in contempt of magistrate! Bailiffs, seize her!” Insensible to language, the bailiffs did nothing. I looked up into the sky and whispered to Gomez over COMMs: “You’re killing me here man. Get them to clear her out now!”

“But HLB sir I don’t get it. I mean sir HLB, sorry. What did I do? And what does HLB mean anyway, sir?”

At last a detachment of bailiffs launched itself at the improvised witness booth and buried her at the bottom of an omega pile. I hastened to make Elijah taste the business end of my boot when I saw him giggling.

Regaining my wits, I rounded on the jury. “Do you see, jurors? This man mocks our procedures. He celebrates contempt of magistracy with one fork of his tongue while blaspheming with the other. Has his tongue a third fork? The man could be committed to the flames on that technicality alone. But for as long as I preside over this tribunal, it shall be as a magistrate committed to due process. In fact I only become more convinced of my scrupulous adherence to the law and its forms every time it is broken, spat on and trampled by a sluggish schizophrenic such as this. God would not have me sink to his anarchic level. And so I call our third witness!” Then whispering: “There will be hell to pay if you leave me hanging here, Gomez.”

A moment later the great screens flickered to reveal a face. It was the computer-generated visage of our expert witness, a criminal psychologist. A face awesome to behold, it was crafted to command the respect of men, the longing of women and the confidence of all. Seeing it tiled a hundredfold across their field of vision, the crowd fell silent. The words that would presently pour forth from the face’s mouth were more substantial, or so I had been told during pretrial discovery. That is to say, the software vendor had brought Elijah’s personality profile before a panel of criminologists, men and women whose subtle minds had explored every inch and intricacy of crime in their previous careers in politics and finance, and had used their priceless inputs to craft the most damning testimony.

“Good day, Dr. Genauer,” I began.

“And a great good day to you all!” he boomed.

“Dr. Genauer, is the signal clean on your end?”

“As a whistle, Sir HLB sir.”

“Dr. Genauer, I know your time is in short supply, but we were hoping that you could share your conclusions regarding the accused’s psychological profile with the jury. As you know, he stands accused of misprision of treason and seditious fulmination.”

“I’m only too happy to do my duty by the majesty of the law, Sir HLB sir.”

“Then please let us know, in your own words and as distinctly as possible, who is Elijah Antiprovatos? What do you see when you look at him?”

“I see a man doomed by the deformed constitution of his mind to end his life in precisely this way.”

The voice and countenance were truly majestic. There was a slight lag between word and image, but that could reasonably be put down to transmission latency.

“And when I say doomed I mean it almost literally. There are ample grounds for supposing that Elijah long ago condemned himself to the pyre, and that the tribunal now sitting in judgment over him is but the incidental executor of Elijah’s own unwavering design. And it could never have ended any other way. You see, when he came of age, Elijah made the deliberate choice to become an antinomian sociopath, meaning an enemy of society for whom the end of its destruction justifies any means. A look through his dossier reveals an irreconcilable hostility to every pillar on which our security rests. He is a solipsist who rejects consensus, a nihilist who spurns the meaning of the signal, an extremist who rejects the very prospect of contentment and moderation. And in that synthetic rejection, Elijah has shadowed forth something very dangerous, though he may not know it himself: The vision of an impossible alternative to our divinely appointed order, one which, were it to catch on in the minds of men, would inevitably reduce our entire nation to ashes. As such it is no surprise that God guided you to him, and no pity that he should burn.”

“I see. Tell us, if you would, Dr. Genauer, what effect you expect Elijah’s execution will have –”

“No!” It was Gomez breaking in over the auricular. “We didn’t code any follow-ups!”

“– on other latent antinomian sociopaths living in our midst?”

But it was too late.

“I see a man doomed by the deformed constitution of his mind to – ”

The face winked out and disappeared as suddenly as it had come on.

“Well that was unusual,” I offered. “It seems the good doctor suffered a shock when asked to consider the depraved designs formed by our suspect’s mind. It must indeed be a wearisome avocation to ponder the darkest regions of the soul with such resolute attention and such frequency, and as officers of the court in debt to his expertise we can only wish the doctor a speedy recovery. Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, the time is now upon us. The tribunal must pass its sentence. You’ve been detained on this freezing Fourth of July muster green long enough. I ask you then, in view of the preponderance of the evidence, to pass a verdict of guilty or innocent upon the head of Elijah. Before I leave you to deliberate and warm yourselves around the fire, I must impart a word of caution. I am fully aware that some of you have hitherto been accustomed to consider Elijah as nothing more than a somewhat troublesome neighbor, and would welcome nothing so much as the prospect of his restoration to your placid sheepfold. A desire to avoid change is only human. But it is also weak. The fact is that this man, be he no more than a footsoldier in the devil’s army, is in league with forces that would subvert your lives’ very foundations, and mine with them. I would suggest, if only by way of personal observation, that you owe him your preemptive vengeance.

“Further, there is the rather prickly matter of the bailiffs to consider. As you can plainly see, these proceedings have excited their sense of justice to an almost intolerable intensity.”

Not true in the strict sense, of course, but their neural pep was by now bordering on nine. Several were locked in single combat. Others howled at the sky or pawed the ground at their feet.

The scrum formed to stifle the impudent cashier had gone quiescent, having sat out the last twitch of resistance. At this late stage it dawned on me that the omegas had faces that were more or less identical, subject to difference only in the direction and intensity of muscular distortion.

“What I am saying is this: mind you don’t tread on their toes in your verdict. They may be children of God, but they are prone to the most violent disorders, and once they run riot there is very little I can do to rein them in. Irregular adjudicative protocol to be sure, but such are the reefs through which justice must navigate in times of insurgency and exception. All these things I bid you consider and consider well.”

The jurors trudged off to assemble around the fire. Elijah had fallen over onto his side. His body shook violently and his eyes, so whipped before by the surf of judgment and reproach, now gaped dull and ichtheous at the sky, as if their communication with the world had been severed and left to stagnate.

I looked at the audience flushed from the tower blocks. Most regarded their feet. They looked ashamed.

The jury came back with its verdict even faster than I had anticipated. It’s hard to tell in the afterlight whether what happened was a positive operational outcome or not. Only time will tell, I suppose, and my contract’s got years to go.

“Well?” I prompted. “Let’s have it.”

A middle-aged woman rose to speak on their behalf. “Sir HLB sir, it wasn’t easy, but we reached a unanimous decision.”

“How laudable! That is very doughty of you, mes sages enfants.” I raised my marble lenses to the sky. “Behold how the traitor’s doom doth approach!”

At which the fore-juror raised her hand like a schoolgirl. “But Sir HLB sir – we found him innocent.”

“Come again?”

“It’s just that, I mean, none of the evidence passed the smell test.”

“Come, you jest. Surely this luciferian minion must burn. What is this smell test you speak of? I remind you that grid superstitions are not qualifying metrics of jurisprudence.”

“Sir HLB sir, our informed opinion is that he should not burn. We can’t burn a man on the basis of innuendos. And it’s barbaric.”

“Innuendos? Barbaric? Who taught you these words? How could you possibly be trained in their use? None of you held the alpha language medallion, last time I checked.”

“We don’t need your licenses or your medallions. And Sir – actually fuck that. I’m not calling you sir anymore. Homeland Baron my ass. To me you look like a suds-gargling refectory hand. And we know what perjury is, too. Every witness you brought on was a perjurer. This is a filthy farce.” She spat on the frosted earth.

“But how is this possible? All the tower blocks around the New Gau Mall are suspended in the toddler-level cognition field. Everyone knows that!”

“Think again. Most of us have managed to break the spell. Elijah just happens to be our most aggressive signal-flouting comrade. He’s been leading an underground reading group to teach us the real meaning of your words of control.”

“Words of control? Reading group? Real meaning? Having come for a solitary renegade, it seems we’ve found an army raised under the standard of treason, depravity, Satanism –”

“There you go with your words again. Has anybody ever told you you talk too much? But you’re right about one thing. That you’re about to get more than you bargained for!”

At this she flashed some sort of occult hand signal that threw her rebel machinery into motion. All the jurors and large portions of the audience instantly drew clubs, chains and knives from inside their coats and vests, falling with martial rigor on the diffuse mass of omega bailiffs. Gomez, luckily, was not in dereliction of duty any more than was usual, so that only a few bailiffs succumbed to the rebel pincer before the counterattack image was imprinted on their collective cortex.

Great execution was done on both sides and the outcome of the contest appeared uncertain at first. Gomez breathed that he would detail an extract team, but I told him I would stay the course. Failure was not an option on my first jerk-out in the crusade against the refuseniks. This was my trial by fire, and if I must burn, let it be as a martyr rather than by Scummings as an offering in the way of liquidated damages. Even as I was instructing Gomez to call off the extract team I was rounded on from behind and seized by a detachment of the crazed rabble. My career as a menial had not prepared me for close combat and I was soon overcome. The most infamous abuses were heaped on me as they marched me toward the parade ground in front of the New Gau Mall – and the pyre. The rabble were rattling off a series of crimes of which they pretended I was the author. I had just begun to feel the radiated heat of the flames on my cheek when we were overtaken by a horde of peppy bailiffs.

A furious skirmish ensued, but biotech is biotech. That is to say, the rabble’s thirst for what it calls freedom, however profound, proved no match for the engineered supremacy of the omegas, who proceeded to do furious slaughter on the rebels, collapsing enemy crania and thoraxes with weighted blows deftly landed. I too acquitted myself well in the skirmish, I would like to think, administering the coup de grâce to at least two thug-pinioned rebels with the heel of my reinforced boot. All of which is to say, the valor evinced in pursuit of contractual fulfillment easily outshone the unstructured rebel yearning for the comedic proposition of freedom. I had barely regained my breath when Elijah and the surviving jurors were brought to us by the battered remains of the bailiff force, and wasted no time in using it to pronounce the sentence of death on the conspirators.

“For that the Lord and his just retainers rage at misprision of treason; for that open rebellion against God’s Vicar must be put down like unto a rabid dog; for that this odious blot of poison must be cut out and cauterized ere it spreads too far, penitent warriors, I say unto you that you shall bind these criminals and do them unto death in the flames!”

Excepting the bothersome lag between word and deed, this marked a fitting end to an eventful and instructive jerk-out. Thousands of bovine eyes looked on from behind the glass of the New Gau Mall as I burned my insurgents, five in all. The omegas were snorting and grunting like bulls at their work when the burlap robes of two caught fire and burned them where they stood. Lacking the stop, drop and roll self-preservation module, they were become the burning semaphores of our crushing victory.

Elijah was last to be committed to the flames. I approached him once the screams of the first four had yielded to the underlying rush of the greedy flames.

“Wait!” he barked, having halfway recovered his voice. I crossed my arms and looked down upon him with bemused mastery.

“This is only the beginning,” he said, his neck obscenely craned. “You’ll never win.”

I laughed. “And what a shame it would be if this were the end! The truth is that I have three years left on my contract. We don’t even need victory – what we need is to keep the show going. Now burn!”

I turned away as soon as the order was given. The wildness was replenished in his eyes, and I would not be the willing victim of that look.

~

It was thus that I was created Baron of the Homeland. It was thus that I became the firebrand sword of the order of the signal; compulsory quarterback to AWOL receivers; bane of refusenik and insurgent alike; shepherd to the man in the middle who might otherwise waver off signal and into error. The Senator was well pleased, and my fame spread like brushfire.

The Signal Crusade

Interlude wherein two men converse on matters of ultimate agency and the possibility of an intercessor

“Do you think someone’s looking out for us? Out there, I mean.” The man engulfed the world in the sweep of his hand.

“I would’ve said someone has it in for us,” answered the other.

“That’s not the way I mean it though. Not the usual suspects.”

“You mean is there a God.”

“I suppose. Or a protector.”

“What are you driving at.”

“The way I look at it is there’s just so much more that could be going wrong. And we haven’t the barest inkling of how much worse it could be, but isn’t.”

“Is that a form of optimism?”

“Do you think it a false consolation?”

“When so much is working against us? When the devil leaves his trace on every last thing that is, or isn’t? How is it we’ve come to the point where every last body on this earth is an inmate?”

“Yes, but answer me this. If the architecture were so perfect, why is it that certain of us keep breaking the shackles and going on rampages of freedom.”

“Rampages of freedom.”

“Or is that just false hope, a spice in the recipe for degradation perfected?”

“I don’t know what rampages you’ve been seeing brother, but to my eye we’re well bent to the yoke. Bent and broken. Thralls kneeling before the swaggering shadows of triumphant frauds.”

“Jesus.”

Night fell about them where they sat. The city light rose to gird and greet the darkness, interposing between heaven and earth a purple gauze that was neither night or day, neither natural nor not, but simply was, an insubstantial fabric through which electrons coursed and wherein visions were pursued.

The first man went on. “I don’t see it that way. I think the fact we’re able to sit here and take a stab at it means we’re doing better than we have any right to expect. In spite of it all. I contemplate who or what it is keeps the flame alive.”

“If I was prepared to agree with you about the existence of your notional flame, and I’m not, I would say it’s in the nature of what we are to snatch these partial victories from the jaws of the beast, or imagine ourselves doing so. It’s in our code.”

“So they’re not real.”

“They are a fraud and a hallucination like everything else. Blessed are the great hallucinators who, unburdened by clarity, neither buckle nor faint ‘neath their loads.”

“The answer me this. If the devil is in possession of every axis of being, up one side and down the other, why does he not make his victory final, total and eternal? Why do outcomes hang on chance and effort instead of just scripts and iron laws?”

“When you’re this far out on the asymptote, you might as well be touching that other line. And it’s a live wire that’s going to fry us all. Can you feel the heat and tang of it? Do you hear its hum?”

A muffled drone of sirens sounded from somewhere upon the prole grids and was followed by the crisp report of gunfire.

“Even there – you don’t know. The civvies might be giving as good as they’re getting.”

“If you believe tomorrow’s frame-up job in the papers, then sure, they’re probably wholesale liquidating the thin blue line out there. But brother, nothing is being decided there tonight. Nothing hangs in the balance. It was all settled long ago by high councils and standing committees and parliaments of the depraved. Listen now. Listen to the earth tremble under the tread of them who bestride it. Do you hear it tremble?”

“I would lay before you that their power rests on foundations of sand. At this very moment we sit here in defiance of it. Don’t you think that sticks in their craw? All those trillions of currency units, all those millions of regimented men, all the unspeakable outpourings of energy bent unwavering on the iron purpose of control – and yet here we sit, conversing at liberty and stabbing at the shadows. I hold that we are vessels filled up with the payload of a higher calling, and that the souls we freight are as much at stake today as in times of old.”

“It’s absurd to suppose anyone but the players in this earthly farce would be interested in its outcome. I can barely summon the strength to follow the goings-on myself.”

“And for all that there do appear to be two sides battling to sweep the stakes.”

Helicopters circled heavily, inscribing lazy threats into the city’s purple felt overlay.

“When I look about me I cannot fail to discern a quickening – a pulse that flashes through the world and hurtles us willy-nilly toward the drama’s long-awaited resolution in the great navel of the world. And just that act of discernment, as triggered by the defiance that still dwells in the hearts of its practitioners, is a superweapon that makes them tremble every bit as much today as in the olden times. Why else would they need to go to the trouble of inventing that thing that’s taking over the police forces? It’s because they’re desperate. Their leadership is crumbling, their conscripts defecting. So what do they do? They invent some kind of a golem to replace it. Their want of belief in man, their contempt for him, has driven them to cede the controls to matter masquerading as life, software passing for judgment. Does that have the ring of a regime long for this world? Not a horse I’d wager on, even while it’s riding us down. Which is why I have to believe someone is looking out for us.”

“Believe what you want, brother. I can’t afford to.”

Interlude wherein two men converse on matters of ultimate agency and the possibility of an intercessor

Project Skybox

The elevator arrived with a whir and a pleasing ‘bmmm’ as the doors parted to receive Alphonse Oskar. He pressed 5 and leaned back against the railing. He regarded himself as the suspended cabin went sucking down the shaft. He looked good. Entirely of a piece with the class of person who otherwise inhabited the building. His attire was perfect: Oxford shirt, tweed blazer, white pocket square with a triple-peaked fold like the geometry of some royal house. His hairline may have been in the middle of a stubborn retreat up his scalp, but what remained was styled into a perfect auburn wave that was equal parts youthful and distinguished. Yes, as far as appearances went, Alphonse Oskar was every bit the equal of his neighbors. He had never been to a Condominium Association meeting before and was reporting now in response to a penalty it had levied on him for violation of Blixen Building Bylaw VIII – Apartment exterior: fixtures, windows and doors. The elevator geared down and came to a flawless stop.

The doors parted again. He took a breath and started for the conference room whither he was summoned to answer for the crime of having painted his door a fetching foxhunter’s green. His e-mails with the Association President had followed a ratcheting trajectory of ever more impassioned appeals to reason on his part, answered in their turn by the President’s ever more aloof citations of code, procedure, precedent and other saturnine rites. The President’s name was Gerstenpfahl. The man Alphonse Oskar laid eyes on as he entered was exactly as he had pictured him: smug, grave, with furtive, jealous eyes like the patron saint of some bureaucracy, dimly crazed with the least scrap of procedural power he had painstakingly amassed. Gerstenpfahl made no move to greet his problem constituent, opting to meet the code violator’s eyes with an icy gaze instead. Alphonse Oskar looked away first. He felt himself flushing with humiliation and instant resentment as he took his place among his fellow owner-occupants. They were a fine and earnest-looking bunch: physicians, housewives, men of leisure, with a pair of mainland Chinese loot investors thrown in for the sake of variety. Gerstenpfahl called the meeting to order with a gavel whose head had been pyrographed with the Blixen Building’s unmistakable outline. The first order of business was an extraordinary increase in the annual assessment to offset the burgeoning cost of compliance with some ordinance whose details resident 3005 found too tedious to follow. He looked up and let his gaze wander along the cityscape that glowered back at him through the wall-to-wall windowbank with steel beams for mullions. Out there were dozens of condo buildings like his, maybe hundreds, all bound by like straitjackets of conformity that were also alike in being cinched ever tighter by their very own Gerstenpfahls. Alphonse Oskar for one was not going to take it. He would not purchase safety, comfort and predictable property value appreciation at the forfeit of his individuality. What possible justification could there be for every resident being required to lock himself behind identical doors with identical varnishes, identical peepholes and identical handles? Beyond giving an account of his code violation to that prig Gerstenpfahl, he thought his defense might find a receptive ear among his fellow owner occupants. Just look at them – deep down they were all dying to smash the gratuitous codes and bylaws that bound them and make their living spaces the idiosyncratic laboratories of creativity they had every right to inhabit. The reverie was broken by the sensation of Gerstenpfahl’s pale eyes boring into him.

“Mr. Oskar?”

“Yes?”

“How do you vote?”

“On what?”

“Mr. Oskar, do you really propose that I go over the resolution again because you couldn’t be bothered to pay attention?”

“Not at all. I vote whichever way you didn’t.”

“Nonsense. You can’t very well cast a blind vote. This is a serious forum.”

“With all due respect, I think it’s a safe bet to take the opposite side of whatever you’re endorsing. Just put me down in the non-Gershenfail column.”

“Gerstenpfahl.”

“Whatever. Now do you intend to let me exercise my franchise as a unit owner or not? I’m sure the bylaws provide for the speedy dismissal of any president who engages in vote suppression and similar types of blameworthy conduct.”

Gerstenpfahl’s fist came crashing into the conference table, but his face regained its composure as quickly as the rage had rippled across it. “As you wish, Mr. Oskar. Your franchise is your own and no one else’s. There. I have put you down among the minority of owner-occupants voting nay.” Gerstenpfahl paused briefly to do a sum, licking forefinger and pencil tip repeatedly. Presently he looked down the table with an intolerable mien of satisfaction. “Ah. It is resolved. The resolution passes by a resounding majority of 48 to 2, with 50 owner-occupants abstaining.” He paused to allow the majesty of his majority to sink its teeth into Alphonse Oskar’s mind. For his part Alphonse Oskar thought the result hopeful. Not only was there another principled non-conformist in concealment somewhere behind the uniformity of the mahogany tabletop – there was also a vast swing constituency at large in the building, a malleable mass of slackers and skeptics ready to be lobbied over to the side of individualism, idiosyncrasy and yes – resistance.

Gerstenpfahl cleared his throat as he turned the page on the agenda. It had, Alphonse  Oskar imagined, exactly the sort of intolerant pitch one might expect to hear coming from the throat of a Prussian schoolmaster. Gerstenpfahl now looked up with a poorly concealed sneer. “So. We come now to today’s most irregular agenda item. A disciplinary matter. As you are all no doubt aware, the Blixen Building and its management pride themselves on propriety in all things, above all in matters of code compliance. For which reason defaults of compliance are taken especially seriously. Regrettably, earlier in the week it came to my attention that one owner-occupant in attendance among us tonight had his door repainted a hideous green color in flagrant contravention of Blixen Building Bylaw VIII: Apartment Exterior. Many of you will have seen the ghastly result of this infraction with your own eyes – many more will have heard of it, and at least seven of you have duly approached me directly over the course of the week to lodge a formal complaint that your property values have been put at hazard.”

Mr. Oskar looked up. “Mr. Gershenfail, if I may –”

“Not yet, Mr. Oskar. I am not yet through with the preliminaries. You will have your turn.”Alphonse Oskar sat back, chastened by the temporary check.

“I see no need to artificially prolong the suspense of those of you as yet unaware of the violator’s identity. He is none other than Mr. Alphonse Oskar, seated across from me.” There was an awkward shuffling as the attending residents found pretexts to look casually in Alphonse Oskar’s direction.

Dr. Trevelyan, a corpulent but otherwise impeccable-looking physician who occupied the unit directly below Alphonse Oskar’s, spoke: “But surely Mr. Gerstenpfahl we do not bring this matter up simply to hold Mr. Oskar up to general opprobrium? I confess to being made uncomfortable by the witch-hunt overtones I’m sensing.”

“Oh it’s anything but that, Dr. Trevelyan. You see, in my communications with him this week, Mr. Oskar has been adamant in his refusal to make good the infractionary painting of his door. Says it’s not in harmony with his discretionary judgment. The reason for the public airing is to give you and the other owner-occupants a chance to win him over to the side of good sense before I’m compelled to escalate the matter to its automatic resolution, needless to say to the detriment of Mr. Oskar’s ill-conceived eruption of, ahem, discretionary judgment.” Gerstenpfahl focused his gaze down the sweep of mahogany. “Mr. Oskar, before we proceed I would be remiss if I did not give you the opportunity to put this matter to rest in the least painful manner still available to you by declaring your intent to make good your infringement of Bylaw VIII. Have you anything to say?” Gerstenpfahl eased back into his director’s chair, clasping his hands over his midriff with a look of feline satisfaction.

“In fact I do, Mr. Gerstenfail, and I’m glad of the opportunity. I’ve had the chance this week to reflect on this episode at some length. Obviously there can be no question that I have repainted my door in violation of Bylaw VIII. I’m not so far gone as to encourage you to disbelieve the evidence recorded by your own eyes, I assure you.” Alphonse Oskar beamed amicably at the fidgeting Gerstenpfahl. The owner-occupants’ ears were up. “Friends! Neighbors! Some of you my countrymen! You have seen my door, or have heard its derangement rumored. I submit to you that this matter is much bigger than my violation of such and such codicil to some bylaw adopted by the plenipotentiaries of the Blixen Building. What is at stake here is not the color of a door, and certainly not any jeopardy to property values – it is absurd to suppose that a door painted a tasteful foxhunting green would impinge on the valuations of nearby units. If anything, such an expression of taste communicates a certain sophisticated je ne sais quoi that would tend to buoy the market’s appreciation of this property and its individual units.

“I submit that this agenda item not only touches on, but goes straight to the marrow of a great issue of our time: the individual versus the collective; particular judgment versus one-size-fits-all conformity; actual life versus its fossilized abstraction. I speak here not only as agent in my own behalf, but as the exponent of a tradition and a way of life. I assume all of you save the collectivized Celestials have been taught that the earthshaking dynamo of industrial Western civilization owes its historical emergence to the fitful liberation of the individual from his chieftain, his pastor, his king, even from his people. Renaissance masters and enlightenment minds fostered this liberation and were fostered by it. Our forms of government and jurisprudence were and are still nominally shot through with regard for the individual as their chief preoccupation. But that tradition is dying now. The tide of liberation is ebbing out. The forces unleashed by our dynamism have conjured new mechanisms of enslavement – the most devious, abstract and elusive ever fashioned. The new kings control not by decree or diktat, but by abstraction, algorithm and automatism. You will note that in Gershenfail’s view the resolution to this squabble is “automatic”.

“These saturnine A’s are able to run rampant thanks to the abridgment and indeed abolition of fora for public debate of the pressing issues of our time. You will further note that no provision was made for my appeal in these proceedings. And that’s in the case of a wealthy man, a man we like to think has been afforded every privilege. Only he is not afforded the privilege of painting his door green, or indeed of appealing against the stifling of his individual expression. The question here is what kind of society do we want to be? One in which the individual remains free to tinker with his circumstances, improve his lot and thereby increase the sum of opportunity available to all – or one in which the weight of convention and code compacts us into a Procrustean conformity where every precaution has been taken to prevent our escape?”

Gerstenpfahl, Alphonse Oskar noted, had managed to wrench his face into an expression of amusement. It looked painful.

“And there you have it, ladies and gentlemen. Mr. Oskar bids you subscribe to an antiquated Dionysian free-for-all philosophy comprising equal parts wishful thinking and ethnic parochialism – to spare him a less charitable term that might well put a tarnish on his permanent record.”

The debate, such as it was, continued for the better part of 30 minutes as the sun completed its plummet down the western sky and the diffuse light of day yielded at length to the needlework phosphorescence of electric illumination. Alphonse Oskar may or may not have scored moral points with his impassioned individualist rhetoric, but the quorum was hardly moved to a formal consideration of Bylaw VIII, much less its repeal. Dr. Trevelyan moved that Alphonse Oskar be granted a grace period of at least of three days to remedy the offending paint job – this in lieu of summary refinishing by an outside crew at a cost of $5000 – and was sustained. Thwarted by this reprieve, Gerstenpfahl’s look was stormy as he brought the meeting to a close with a swing of his bespoke gavel.

Alphonse Oskar remained seated at the table as his fellow owner-occupants shuffled out in orderly dribbles. Wanting to see what would happen, he had taken his shoes off and was resting one foot on the table. His socks were an ostentatious pastel blue. The Association President made a show of gathering his many papers all the while, giving Alphonse Oskar his most hateful look over their rim as he tapped them into a uniform sheaf against the tabletop. It was an iciness that would have shaken a lesser constitution, but Alphonse Oskar made a point not to shiver or otherwise react. Presently Gerstenpfahl snorted, stood, and walked out in a huff, papers clutched against chaotic infringements against his impeccable order.

Alphonse Oskar stared out the windowbank as the countersunk wall clock ticked off the minutes behind him. He had friends and acquaintances in many of the great apartment towers that now stood forth against the gathering night like blazing exclamation marks. Acquaintances mostly. But surely some among them had deplored the tightening of the straightjacket?  Surely some few had chafed at complying with codes and bending to bylaws? Surely there was at least one iconoclast among them who’d reared up in harness and sought to shatter his gratuitous fetters? Surely this invisible ally had thought to resurface in a different though tasteful hue some small part of the otherwise featureless aspect of the uniformity he too was called on to present to the world? Different, but tasteful. Had any succeeded, even in part? Where, he wondered, were his confederates?

He looked away from the radiant buildings to rest his eyes on his own dashing reflection in the glass. Unperturbed, unruffled. Good. Suddenly Dr. Trevelyan was in the frame with him. There was no denying that he cut a fine if somewhat over-broad figure himself. Only now did Alphonse Oskar notice that the Doctor wore an ascot.

“Quite a campaign you’re mounting there, neighbor.”

“So it would seem.”

“I hope you don’t mind my asking, but my question would be whether you believe in it.”

“We all of us must believe in something, Dr. Trevelyan. This is where I make my stand.”

“Quite so.” The doctor was grinning.

Alphonse Oskar stood up to look at him. “Dr. Trevelyan, would you join me in this struggle?”

“Ha! Am I an ally then, to be rallied round the banner? What is it you have in mind, Mr. Oskar?”

~

Both Alphonse Oskar and President Gerstenpfahl brought seconds to the next Condominium Association meeting. Alphonse Oskar’s own half-hearted lobbying had failed to interest any outside friend or acquaintance to attend; it was Dr. Trevelyan whose efforts had rallied reinforcements to the cause. Not only had he recruited a pair of feckless twentysomething resident trustafarians by holding out the carrot of a Dionysian cocktail party as reward for lending their persons to a show of strength – the fruit of his floor-by-floor canvassing efforts – he had actually managed to interest a features reporter from a local cultural rag of no inconsiderable circulation. Dr. Trevelyan had cold-called him on the strength of the impression made by some of his earlier work, which included parking ticket sagas, a drill-down into the ins and outs of garbage truck routing, and a recurring feature on the sordid destinies of a homeless poet. This quixotic agent of the fourth estate had sounded skeptical at first, but his interest was soon stimulated by Dr. Trevelyan’s account of the principals and of the profound forces seemingly at play, to which the door issue was merely the foil.

Alphonse Oskar and Dr. Trevelyan came dressed to the nines. Their attire seemed cut from the pages of a fin de siècle purveyor of menswear to dandies and fops, complete with canes, pocket watches, cravats, top hats and fur-trimmed blazers with velvet lapels. The trustafarians for their part wore prestigious brand-name flannels and cargo pants whose combined retail value likely approximated or exceeded that of their stylistic betters’ battle dress.

Gerstenphahl had brought only one second. A humorless sort with an anvil jaw, he was sunk in note-taking and electronic correspondence from the moment Alphonse Oskar and his detachment strode in through the conference room doors, nor did he look up to take the measure of his opponents even then.

Several things had happened in the week since the previous meeting. For one, Gerstenphahl had bombarded Alphonse Oskar’s inbox with a stream of increasingly menacing warnings and recriminations. Alphonse Oskar didn’t need to read between the lines: Gerstenphahl was prepared, nay keen, to escalate the matter beyond the petty jurisdiction of the Blixen Building. Lawsuits and even warrant service were in the offing, he was admonished. Alphonse Oskar had not bothered to reply, instead making a daily show of retouching his tasteful green door wherever the uniformity of its hue or luster left the least embellishment to be desired.

The day before the meeting President Gerstenphahl had detailed a posse from the building’s Latin American building services staff to knock on the offending door. Whatever his thinking, he had miscalculated badly. Already on excellent terms with these hombres thanks to his insufficient demeanor, Alphonse Oskar was ready to receive them with cervezas and compliments to their home countries paid in rudimentary Spanish. It was not long before the hard-working crew was brought to concede that Alphonse Oskar’s foxhunter green door was really quite prepossessing, and that they would be sorry to see the upgrade undone. Alphonse Oskar leaned in over the kitchen island grinning. “Sabía desde un principio que eran hombres de buen gusto. Just look out there gentlemen. Can you imagine what a wonderful city this could be if we, even unto the least of us, were left alone to pursue our portion of happiness the way we deem fit?” Much nodding ensued between thirsty quaffs and a belch or two of satisfaction. But the week’s most exciting development took place in a different Blixen Building unit, when Dr. Trevelyan made so bold as to repaint his door a captivating shade of burgundy in sympathy with the break with convention pioneered the week before in the unit just overhead. The offbeat features reporter had been on hand for this deliberate act of defiance, covering it live as it were. Gerstenpfahl had not deigned to witness the defacement in person but had no doubt surveilled it, judging by the speed with which the doctor was made aware of the gravity of his offense.

Once they had taken their seats, Dr. Trevelyan looked at his new comrade. Alphonse Oskar was looking at President Gerstenpfahl, who was in turn presided over by the wall-hung portrait of an unknown administrator from days gone by. An imposing man, the administrator wore a charcoal suit with a tie the color of caked blood. He wasn’t exactly scowling. It was, rather, a knowing look tinged with contempt, as if there were something about the moral or even aesthetic qualities of his portrait painter of which he disapproved. Alphonse Oskar let his gaze linger on the portrait. The administrator’s hands were clasped in a diffuse ball in his lap. There was something blurry and contorted about them, as if the painter, having once botched their morphology, had never quite managed to lay them naturally on the canvas. The subject was seated in front of his work desk in a lounge chair clad in green japanned leather. The desk was bare of paraphernalia save a paperweight, an inkwell and a looking glass. Proudly posted on the wall behind the desk was a row of framed documents. Alphonse Oskar couldn’t be sure from his vantage at the end of the table, but they seemed to have the structure of contracts or statutes, with headings, subheadings, lists of clauses and the like. He looked at the subject again. The blazer was unbuttoned, its left breast flung open and draped over the man’s slack arm. Fitted to the torso below the armpit was some sort of harness. Was that – it was. A pistol holster. The pistol’s handle was a creamy white, and the holster’s open bottom revealed the faintest glint of gunmetal.

“You ever notice this portrait, Doc?”

The doctor spoke under his breath. “I think he just had it hung this week.”

Gerstenpfahl called the meeting to order, and now his second surveyed its attendees with cool dispassion. Every seat at the enormous table was filled, and building services had arranged overflow seating about Alphonse Oskar’s end of the table in a rather artful amphitheatric crescent.

“Everyone knows what this meeting is about,” Gerstenpfahl began. “Even the unfamiliar faces among us, I’m sure. I’ll not waste anyone’s time. Before getting down to brass tacks however, I would venture a word on what I believe to be at stake in the present impasse. Which is only proper, given that Mr. Oskar dilated at such length upon his view of the matter last when last we met. I address you not only in my capacity as Association President but as a man concerned with matters of compliance in general when I say that this dispute would be absurd, inconceivable even, in the context of a well-ordered society. That ours is not such a society is only too plain to see. Indeed, in a time when exponentially increasing complexity and compounding threats should demand absolute adherence to standards of transaction and conduct so as to assure us of a smooth transit into the future, we witness instead the crumbling of the solid center of social respectability. We witness a thousand fragmentary individualists veering off in every misdirection to pursue their pet projects and solipsistic fancies, coherence and order and any care for symmetry and propriety be damned. The trend is regrettable enough among our proletarians, but their misconduct is readily checked by the instrument of the police. Where the trend truly becomes dire, and where its undisciplined practitioners should know better, is among the more substantial ranks of society. Yes –” here he paused. “They really ought to know better. Here we are, late enough in the game of technocratic civilization, and we cannot manage to concert the color of a door among a handful of condominium owners.”

Gerstenpfahl’s nostrils flared as he rose from his seat. “Did they or did they not contract in good faith when they transacted for the titles to these units? Are scoundrels such as these even competent to enter into contracts? Ladies and gentlemen, my point is this: if in this mere microcosm we cannot command adherence to the neutral door color stipulated in our solemn bylaws – if we cannot use the proper channels to pursue remedy or amendment when we feel stifled, as I suppose Mr. Oskar must – then how in the larger dimension of human affairs can we hope to act coherently to concert weighty matters of policy, foreign and domestic? Given the indulgent trends on plain display in this building, I submit that it is absurd to suppose that we can. So it is for this reason, even beyond my capacity as Association President, that I am so keen to see a speedy resolution to this matter. Not that we are faced with any sort of choice – the resolution is automatic, thank you very much. The grace period so generously granted last week at Dr. Trevelyan’s whimsical insistence has elapsed. Either Mr. Oskar sandblasts and re-varnishes his door, or we do it for him. A crew has been mustered to do the job tomorrow. Of course, if Mr. Oskar impedes their work I will be compelled to initiate proceedings to bring about the forcible sale of Mr. Oskar’s unit at auction as provided for under Blixen Bylaw XIV – Remedies for Breach of Contract. The same goes for Dr. Trevelyan’s unit, be it expressly noted. We’ll not let him pull the same rabbit from his hat and bamboozle us twice.” Here he cleared his throat with an emphatic sound like a bark. “That will be all for now. This meeting is adjourned.”

Whereupon Gerstenpfahl stood up and strode out of the room, pulling the double conference room door to behind him with a percussive clatter. A buzz of protest erupted, including among owner-occupants who’d never voiced an opinion one way or another.

“He can’t just get up and leave can he?” asked one.

“I’m not sure,” a well-put-together housewife said, “but it was the height of rudeness.”

“Yeah, what about motions and so on brought by the owners?”

“And what about giving Mr. Oskar a chance to respond, even just with a yes or no?”

“Just what I wanted to chime in about,” Alphonse Oskar said while regarding himself in the windowbank. At which point Gerstenpfahl’s square-jawed second stood up from his flanking position at the table’s Executive end.

“Mr. Gerstenpfahl has asked me to convey to you that he will accept your answer in the matter through me.”

“I see. And who are you?”

“Just a friend with my own interest in issues of compliance.”

“Compliance with what? What are you, some kind of dog trainer?”

“Far from it, Mr. Oskar. And I’d watch it with the wisecracks if I were you.”

Alphonse Oskar looked down the alley of mahogany at him. “Or what?”

A constipated sort of grin spread across the second’s face. “I’ll not give you the chance to find out just yet. Good day.” He shook his shirt cuffs out to the proper length in his blazer arms before making for the door, the dimensions of which were fairly crowded by his frame as he passed through.

“Who the hell was that?” asked one of the trustafarians.

“Haven’t the foggiest,” Alphonse Oskar said. “Nice to see you were paying enough attention to ask though.”

“But seriously –” it was the reporter. “What’s that guy’s role? Who brings muscle to a condo association meeting?”

Dr. Trevelyan struck a thoughtful pose. “I’ll wager we haven’t seen the last of him, whatever his identity may be. Now what,” he asked, turning to face his confederate, “are we going to do about the offensive shades our doors seem to have assumed?”

~

Alphonse Oskar was startled out of bed by a knock at the door at seven the next morning. He struggled out from under his sheets, staggered to his feet and threw a silk robe around his well-trained torso. Catching a glimpse of himself in a mirror as he made the traverse to his door, he noted with a grimace that last night’s surfeit of wine had imparted a cadaverous purple shade to his lips and teeth, both of which he clamped shut against the attentions of his unknown caller.

“Who is it?” he called through the door’s considerable oaken mass.

“Agent August Winters, Homeland Police, Department of Compliance Affairs.” Alphonse Oskar swung the door open, propping it with his foot to forestall the action of the hydraulic spring. It was the mysterious second Gerstenpfahl had brought to the meeting. The man really knew how to fill a doorframe.

“Good morning Mr. Oskar. How are we feeling today?”

“Free,” Alphonse Oskar said. “Absolutely free. I was thinking of putting up an inflammatory slogan or two in my windows today.”

Agent Winters’ face was all strained patience. “I’m sure that will be very amusing to you, Mr. Oskar.”

The two men spoke at the same time:

“To what do I owe –”

“Let me get to the point –”

And again:

“Go ahead –”

“Go ahead –”

Agent Winters chuckled. “All right,” he said. “I’m here on more of a courtesy call than anything else, I guess. Here.” Winters pressed a calling card on his interlocutor, pinning it against his chest. It was rigid, heavy, lopsided somehow. Alphonse Oskar pocketed it without further scrutiny.

“Courtesy! That’s wonderful! And tell me, what daybreak courtesies do you have in store for me?”

“Hardly early for an honest man, Mr. Oskar. But what I wanted to say is this. Normally my agency would never get involved in a matter like this. You see, Mr. Gerstenpfahl is an old friend of mine, and I attended last night’s meeting in that capacity. But I may or may not be taking a professional interest in you, depending on the choice you make today.”

There was nothing studied or artful about Alphonse Oskar’s response. He was indignant, with wine-stained teeth bared to show it. “Professional interest? What the hell is that supposed to mean? Since when did Homeland Police start moonlighting for petty condo association despots? This is bullshit.”

Winters smiled. “That’s your view, and you’re entitled to it. But it’s not like that. I happen to agree with my friend that we live in a time of great challenge, and that the most privileged among us should set a good example for the rest by their proper conduct. I’ve created a new a new program at the agency in that spirit. Its codename is Project Skybox. Broadly speaking the idea is to promote more high-minded behavior among those whose material comfort and professional idleness put them at risk of what in times past went by the name of degeneracy. To do so we propose to employ an arsenal of sticks and carrots.” Here Winters paused. “Mr. Oskar, may I ask a personal courtesy of you?” Alphonse Oskar arched a brow. “Would you mind terribly popping in for just a second to brush your teeth? Their color at the moment makes me feel like this is a courtesy call being paid at the morgue.”

“You son of a bitch. What carrot are you going to entice me to do that with?”

“It’s your choice Mr. Oskar. I just feel we might have a better discussion if you were more presentable.”

“Just wait here,” Alphonse Oskar said as he slammed the door in Winters’ face in all its outlandish greenness. He made for the bathroom, where he put paste and bristle to the purplish gray of his enamel. To a vain man, waking up with teeth like that was worse than the hangover itself. Vigorous brushing managed to dispel some of the purple, but at the cost of red trickles from his gums, source unseen. The cold water was painful on his teeth as he rinsed.

Agent Winters was as he had left him. “My compliments, Mr. Oskar. You really do look much better. Like a man I might be able to work with.”

Alphonse Oskar cleared his throat. “So what would you have to offer in the way of sticks and carrots, Mr. Special Agent man? Carrots first.”

“Very well Mr. Oskar. For those who fall in line it is envisaged that we should offer membership in a civil preparedness corps made up of our finest and most prominent citizens. Membership would confer certain benefits, like attendance privileges at sectoral security shindigs, enhanced access to classified surveillance feeds, plus the occasional invitation to sit in on the meetings of the Coordinating Council on security affairs.”

“Let me get this straight. If I agree to sandblast my door today and cause no further trouble, you’ll give me a membership card and a tin badge to the fake spying organization you’ve set up to make snitches feel like they’re part of something special. Have I got that right? Is that so? And what if I don’t?”

“That remains to be seen, Mr. Oskar. I was hoping not to have to enumerate the various retaliatory options at the disposal of Skybox. I will say that Mr. Gerstenpfahl spoke in earnest when he mentioned the forced sale of your unit, and I’ll leave it at that. I’ll say one more thing to you before I leave, Mr. Oskar, which is that I would urge you to think carefully along lines of risk and reward before you make a decision. Think not only about your pride. Think about the stakes and what forces may be ranged against you. Think about the wider consequences of you being able to break bylaws with impunity and why we might take an interest in that. It’s what we call a tragedy of the commons down at HQ. Everyone thinks they can just take their cut and walk away, never considering the burdens they place on others or the destruction by a thousand pilferings of the asset they seek to strip. Do you really want to be in the van of that degeneracy?”

Here Winters drew himself up to his full, lofty height. “Do you want to be made an example of?” Disdaining the response, Agent Winters disengaged from Alphonse Oskar’s livid stare and marched off to the elevator bank.

“I’ll have my lawyer with me next time you come calling Winters!”

Once Winters was gone Alphonse Oskar composed himself and dialed the SCPU’s whistleblower’s hotline.

“Soyuz Civil Privileges Union, how may I direct your call?”

~

That afternoon Alphonse Oskar was joined in his den of subversion by Dr. Trevelyan, the two trustafarians, an ombudsman from the SCPU, and a pair of the affable Latin American building services chaps. The reporter had declined to attend, citing other work. Most of the haphazard cast were there for the beer, wine and whiskey. Alphonse Oskar himself was at least as interested in the few undrunk bottles that remained in his case of Burgundy as in his impromptu cause célèbre. Not that it wasn’t as good a cause as any to serve drinks around. Dr. Trevelyan, who was not a drinker, had confessed to Alphonse Oskar in a moment of candor to have joined the struggle in search of respite from the tedium of his medical practice and his out-of-control television routine. It was 3 o’clock. The visit from the sandblasting crew had been appointed to occur in precisely one hour in Gerstenpfahl’s culminating e-threat.

Alphonse Oskar began by serving up drinks around the kitchen island. Glass aloft, he rallied his troops: “Un brindis! Cheers for the power of the individual to monkeywrench the machinery of conformity and defy the juggernaut police state. Cheers for dreams that break the mold. Cheers for inscribing our names upon the sky. Cheers for messages that crave only to be misunderstood!”

“Here here,” said Dr. Trevelyan. The trustafarians drained their whiskeys and instantly refreshed them.

“Yeah man,” said one, “here’s to like, being a particular individual as unique as a fine 15-year Scotch. And you know what? Fuck anyone who’s not down with that! ”

Alphonse Oskar turned to the building services chaps. “Caballeros.” They wore work uniforms with their names embroidered across the breast pocket. Jesús and Guillermo. “Have you brought the supplies I asked for?”

“Si señor. By the freight elevator.” Guillermo returned momentarily with a dolly on which were stacked a score of styrofoam-backed placards, two roles of masking tape, assorted cans of paint, and brushes of different gauges.

“Excellent,” Alphonse Oskar smiled. “Let’s get to work.” Soon the paint began flowing as freely as the booze, and ’twasn’t long ere the whole motley cast was hard at work daubing posterboards with colorful profanities and rude representations. Before the hour was out most of Alphonse Oskar’s cherrywood floor had been smeared or spattered in odd shades of paint that ran to a dull brown in the areas of highest traffic. The Latin Americans were effervescent with beer and the trustafarians were bristling with whiskey menace by the time the knock came. Besides the throwaway profanities and ceremonial innuendo, the message Alphonse Oskar had managed to concert in his floor-to-ceiling windowbank read as follows: THIS SHIP FLIES ITS OWN DAMN COLORS.

The knock was more that of a soldier than of a craftsman when it came. As planned, it was Jesús who cracked open the door.

“Si?”

“Mr. Oskar home?”

“No se.”

“Well we need to know if we have his go-ahead to sandblast this door. Do you have his proxy?”

“No se.”

“Look buddy, do you know if he agrees to the removal of the green paint job or not?”

“No se.”

One of the other crewmembers spoke. “This hombre doesn’t know a whole lot of anything, boss. I say we just do it. That way we get the heat off him and us both.” The SCPU ombudsman was recording the proceedings. He looked at Alphonse Oskar and pointed at the recorder with excitement. He too was clearly intoxicated.

“All right,” came the assent of the crew boss. “Build the isolation tent and start her up.” There followed the sound of plastic sheeting being unfurled and stretched about a frame. By the time the compressor roared to life in the hallway the unlikely idealists gathered in the refuge within had downed another round of drinks and begun work on the next.

“Hey Jesus,” Alphonse Oskar called out over the noise, pronouncing his name the Anglo way. “Scoot on back in here.” Jesús excused himself from his parley with the workmen. “Now close the door behind you. Good. All right. Jesus, gentlemen, I have an idea.” A heretical light blazed in Alphonse Oskar’s eyes as he articulated his tactical ploy to the ragtag disciples.

Minutes later a voice raised from the other side of the door cut through the drone of the compressor. “Alright Mr. Oskar. We’re pretty sure you’re in there, so listen up. We’ve got the green light to clean up your door post-haste, so fair warning. You can still bring out your own crew if you want to do it that way, but it won’t save you hardly anything what with us already having deployed. All right? Mr. Oskar? You got nothing for me? Just total silence, huh? All right boys. Lay down the gasketing, put on your respirators and let’s hit it.”

The compressor slowed down and nearly missed a stroke. Next came a pulse of blasted sand that buffeted the door at the corners and rattled it in its hinges. The SCPU ombudsman muttered something about his comfort level with the plan being wanting when Jesús donned Alphonse Oskar’s aviator shades and strode to the door with a drunk’s bravado. Dr. Trevelyan was fumbling through the articles in his medic’s bag as the feckless trustafarians extended their expedition into Scotch territory, the pair of them gazing at the door with grins now become positively wolfish. Alphonse Oskar for his part was slouched to one side on his island barstool, sipping from a glass of Burgundy with perfect equanimity. For some time Jesús stood immobile behind the wide-angle peephole, wagging his neck ever so slightly from port to starboard to track the goings-on on the other side.

At some point he turned to the disciples. “Iss no good Señor Oskar. They sand you hole.” Alphonse Oskar made a languid gesture to urge him on.

“Don’t be scared my dear little Jesus. Whatever happens, Dr. Trevelyan and I will take care of you. And I’m as good as my word, my good man.”

“Ten thousand dolares?” Jesús asked with a face every bit as open and uncertain as a child’s.

“Yes Jesus, ten thousand dolares.” Just don’t let them know you’re coming when you make your move.”

“Si señor. ” Jesús took a breath to steady himself. Sand was streaming in from under both sides of the threshold and piling out into little shapes like worms. Without further ado, he threw the door open to receive the stream of blasted sand full in the face.

“Attaboy,” Alphonse Oskar called out with a surge of enthusiasm. “It’s lawsuit time!”

Jesús and the nozzleman both started screaming at once, but in their mutually paralytic shock neither moved an inch for a good three seconds, by which time every inch of Jesús’ face had been pocked and penetrated by high-velocity blasted silica. When at last he slumped to the ground the nozzleman recovered his wits sufficiently to aim the blast at the unfinished concrete wall. “Oh no,” he gibbered. “Oh shit.”

“Jesus fucking Christ, let go the fucking trigger!” the crew boss roared.

The other workman could be seen fleeing around the corner when the nozzleman dropped the applicator gun and began moaning. At which point all hell broke loose. The trustafarians rushed for the door brandishing drained whiskey bottles over their heads like cudgels. One of them tripped over Jesus’ writhing figure in mid-stride and torpedoed headfirst into the compressor housing, where he lay twitching in a heap as the compressor droned on. His associate rushed into the breach and wheeled on the nozzleman with his bottle. The latter began to stutter in mask-muffled protest, but fell silent to the floor when the bottle caught his temple and shattered.

“What the fuck? Are you fucking nuts?” The crew boss was screaming like a woman when the avenging trustafarian looked up at him from his first victim. Holding the bottle’s jagged neck before him like a dowser, he advanced on the blubbering boss with reptilian menace and would have murdered him where he stood had he not been tackled from behind and disarmed by Guillermo.

“Mueve tu culo!” he yelled at the boss. “Socorro! You get help!”

Meanwhile Dr. Trevelyan had entered the carnage inside the sandblasting vestibule, his breathing shallow and rapid in sympathetic stress. Stooping first over the collapsed nozzleman, who was choking to death on the blood welling up inside the respirator, the doctor fumbled through his medic’s bag muttering Oh my God. Oh my God. Without managing to intervene he turned now to look at the fallen trustafarian. He emptied the contents of the bag onto the sand-strewn floor, poking arbitrarily at the supplies as if they might offer some guidance. The trustafarian twitched feebly in the bloodstain swelling into the sand from his head. Oh my God. Oh my God. Finally the doctor staggered over to Jesús and collapsed in a heap at his side. The patsy was moaning. Jesús thrust out an arm and pushed him away when the doctor pulled at his shoulder to have a look. The aviators were still in place over his bloodrimmed eyes.

Now the doctor gathered his considerable bulk and began to wobble among the casualties like a chicken with its head cut off, muttering the same incantation without amendment or surcease. Alphonse Oskar was still seated on his barstool, sipping noncommittally at his Burgundy, while the SCPU’s ombudsman stood off to one side in a state of suspended animation. The sandblasting vestibule and the apartment still pulsed with the noise of the thrumming compressor after the moans and blood-gurgles had abated.

~

That night Agent Winters came for Alphonse Oskar with a tactical team. When they knocked the door down they found their man perched on his barstool, listing dangerously to leeward. His teeth flashed like chalk dipped in blood when he turned to face his assailants. “So you’ve come at lass. I wasn’t sure I’d make id through another ball.”

President Gerstenpfahl was on hand as Winters’ tactical squad escorted our cuffed protagonist out of the building. “I want you to remember my words, Mr. Oskar,” he said as the elevator sucked down the shaft, “because they’ll be the last you hear from anyone on the outside for a long time.” Alphonse Oskar looked at himself in the elevator mirror as Gerstenpfahl began his harangue. He was looking pretty good, all things considered – save the teeth. “I’m going to sell your unit at auction and rig the bidding so that I snap it up through an intermediary at a deep discount. After all, who would want to live in your little house of horrors? After I do what I can to traduce your memory and thoroughly sensationalize the regrettable goings-on in your unit this afternoon, not to mention the disruptive slogans you put up in your windows, I’m going to search long and hard for the blandest, blithest, most inoffensive, law-abiding square there ever was, and I’m going to put him in your unit. He’s going to have a regulation door, a regulation floorplan, a regulation decor, and a regulation life. He’s going to attend all the association meetings and lend full support to my resolutions every time. He’s going to have a close working relationship with my good friend Agent Winters for the event that any of his neighbors should start chafing at the proper order of things.”

The elevator had stopped and spilled them out, and the crew of squares with their odd-man-out captor now made an awkward assemblage in the cavernous lobby. “And you know what else I’m going to do while you’re wasting away wherever it is they put you? I’m going to send you our meeting minutes, Blixen Building Ltd.’s quarterly reports, our community calendar, our holiday cards – everything, so that every minute of your sentence you’ll be reminded of what a tight ship I run. And by the way, out of all your victims only that horribly disfigured Mexican is going to make it. The other two were killed in your little assault. As for Dr. Trevelyan, I haven’t decided what to do with him yet. Certainly I’ll move to have his license stripped. After that I may just keep him on in the building as a macabre relic. ”

Alphonse Oskar struggled out of his list into the dignity of a more or less upright position. “Quit fooling yourself Gershenfail. I was shitting on my shtool the whole time and I’ve got the wins…widnesses to purve it.”

It was agent Winters who spoke. “Oh we’ve got you dead to rights Mr. Oskar. Dead to rights. Ten counts of conspiracy to create a disturbance, two counts of culpable failure to prevent loss of life, and that’s just for starters. We can also slam you with charges of conspiring with a journalist to prejudice coverage. Not that your little conspiracy will bear any fruit. That reporter scared like fowl when I put the screws to him.” Alphonse Oskar looked at him, listing again to leeward. “Come now, Mr. Oskar. What did you think that business card was all about?”

Project Skybox