Pictured: cover model and artist and damn fine stepson Erik Elliott.
The blurb (LENGTHY PREVIEW BELOW): Keshawn Bolling lives in a future of total government control. His religion, his education, even the length of his hair are dictated to him, Worse, his own father is one of the enforcers. He wants out; rumor says there is freedom to be had in the orbital habitats. But getting there won’t be easy, and freedom is a slippery thing to define…
The preview, about 30% of the text:
I Pledge Allegiance
By S.A. Barton
Copyright 2014 S.A. Barton
of the North American Union
and to the Republic for which it stands,
One nation under the Lord, Jesus Christ
who grants Liberty and Justice to All.”
I recite it from the screen with a smile, emphasizing the bolded words, my face a mask of enthusiasm. The smile is required. So is the emphasis. The menu won’t progress unless I do it ‘right’, and truancy is a misdemeanor for student and parents. A felony, on the third offense.
ENTER BIOMETRIC SCAN OF FINGERPRINT TO CONTINUE
SWIPE CREDIT/DEBIT CARD TO CONTINUE
NAUD $0.125/INSTRUCTIONAL HOUR
ENTER DNA IDENTITY SCAN TO CONTINUE
I stick my thumb in the slot under the fingerprint scanner and a surface like fine sandpaper licks the skin like a cat’s tongue. The screen displays a segmented don’t-tread-on-me snake chasing its own tail in a figure 8: working.
WELCOME KESHAWN BOLLING
((1)) Citizenship: Yr11Mo8: Pretest: Economic Obligations of the Citizen to the State
((2)) Mathematics: Yr11Mo6: Study Exercise: Algebra: Basic Competency: Binomials
((3)) History: Yr11Mo3: Lecture: Vulnerabilities of Democratic Governmental Forms and their Practical Remedies
((4)) Elective: Yr9Mo12: Lecture: Photography: Composition of Images For Esthetics and Legality
I know I should catch up on the history. The number in front of that option blinks sluggishly: mild urgency. If I neglect it for another couple of weeks, it will begin to flash more quickly. After that, my other options will disappear.
Most of my options disappeared, in reality, before I was born, before my parents were born, in the First American War. The Second American War and the War of American Unity nailed the coffin lid down.
The History option isn’t there for most students after Year 6. It’s there for me because the Citizenship Test Panels everyone takes at the end of Year 5 decided that my career would be Instructor: Correctional Facility. A specialized prison guard, a political re-educator. My Pa’s position probably has something to do with that, along with my more-than-average intelligence.
The smart ones are the ones they want to keep close, in the heart of the system, under maximum surveillance. Smart is dangerous.
I touch the elective icon instead, and tap my bulky camera to the spot indicated on the screen. My homework images upload. I hate the camera’s bulk, its jellybean neon-green color; it was the smallest and least gaudy I could find. Law dictates a camera must be a minimum of 8 inches by 6 by 3 and cased in plastic of a high-visibility color. Cameras must be easy to spot; unauthorized photography is a felony.
I’m not worried about the non-elective classes anymore.
I expect to be gone by the time the rest of my options disappear.
If the man standing behind me is with who I think he is. I wonder how he’ll avoid being picked up for questioning when I’m gone.
“Playing hooky, kid?” the man says, setting his coffee and muffin down on the battered tabletop opposite my own coffee. I look up from my tablet, let the textbook go black. He’s broad across the shoulders, chest and upper arms heavy with muscle, looks like Army except for his close-trimmed salt and pepper beard, well under the 2” legal maximum length. Army on local police duty, then. My legs tense with the urge to run, to disappear. I force my face to smile, not hard after years of insincere Pledges of Allegiance, and take a deep breath.
“Registered day off, sir,” I say. Army men are always sir with a smile. I offer my thumb. “Please scan me to verify, sir.” I’d rather spit in his fat privileged face.
He pushes his coffee to the side with the back of his hand and leans in close over the yellow poppyseed-topped muffin.
“Calm yourself, Keshawn,” he says quietly. Between us, he brings a finger up and teases a few long strands out of his hair, which I had thought was all safely under the 4” legal maximum for men.
He twists half a dozen hairs around his finger and raises an eyebrow at me. The hairs are at least double the legal length. They protrude from over his left ear for an instant before he tucks them away again. They’re a symbolic forelock, worn very thin so he can tear it off and throw it away if arrest is immanent.
He’s a secret Jew, a living felony offense. He has given me power over him by showing me that forelock, a dangerous act. He must be one of the people I’ve been trying to reach since 9th year, with careful hint-phrases in approved online discussion forums and on paper slips left in key library books, carefully inscribed and carried wrapped in blank paper so they can be left without fingerprints.
I hope he’s one of them. He could easily be an agent of the secret police. But if I don’t take a chance I might never get another one.
“30th Street Labor Center, 8AM,” I whisper, then I lean back, pick up my tablet, and stand. I’m not fool enough to try to have a prolonged discussion somewhere so public.
“Thank you sir,” I say in a calm conversational tone, “but I’m a student. If I fail I might have to do day labor, but I’ve got no plans to fail.” I turn and walk out without waiting for an answer and head home. Day labor recruiters are common in the city. Even the gainfully employed often solicit for the 10% finder’s fee the labor centers offer. Pretending he offered me work is a good cover, I hope. It has to be. After all, I’ve got no plans to fail.
On the other hand, nobody does. But the Correctional Centers are always full.
“Hey, Ma,” I say over the dinner dishes with the water running. I’m washing, she’s drying. Pa has gone to his study to work on the constant documentation his job requires. He’s Army, local Police division. Another privileged face; this time, no chance I’m mistaken—but I do love him, too. But while I might love him, I don’t like or trust him. This isn’t a conversation I can have with him around; I’m certain he’d turn me in.
“What is it, baby?” Ma asks. I’ll be baby to her for as long as she lives, never mind I’m six feet tall and have to trim my facial hair every day, running a 1/8” clipper over my face and neck. I can’t shave clean; I’d like to, to seem younger, less imposing, to draw fewer hostile looks from police on the street. My deep black skin already gets me too many looks from the mostly Caucasian and Hispanic cops. The beard, this last year, has made it worse. But the razor bumps eat me alive if I shave clean. I’ve tried.
I turn up the water louder, let the plate I’m holding rattle the bowls in the wash water.
“Hire someone to watch me tomorrow,” I say, voice low. Half of the appliances are voice activated and every microphone is on 24/7, government computers listening for red flags. “30th Street. I’ll show you who.”
“Oh,” she says, and that’s it. I imagine she must have sounded like that when Pa asked her to marry him, a happy little gasp. She’s known I’ve wanted out for a couple of years now. She puts her towel down and hugs me, I let the plate go into the wash water and hug her back. I’m always surprised by how small she is, only a little thick and her head hardly comes up to my shoulder. She’s happy for what makes me happy.
She’s never told Pa I want out, I’m certain. That says it all about him in my eyes. Maybe he was different when I was little, but he’s an Army man through and through now. But I will miss Ma.
In the morning Ma swipes her card in the house tablet and calls an autocab.
“30th Street Labor Center,” she tells it, then waves her hand though the VERIFY dialogue box projected in the air.
People still call it rush hour, but there are no old-style traffic jams. Central computers coordinate vehicles perfectly; with private cars restricted to top political occupations only. Neighbors share autocabs often, keeping the traffic density manageable. The ride is smooth; the traffic lights are relics, colorful gargoyles decorating the intersections. The autocab regulates its speed so it never has to stop until it reaches its destination. The red lights are always casting their warnings in the distance, but nobody really notices—because of all of the closer distractions, because the traffic never stops.
At the labor center, I hold Ma’s hand and let her appear to be leading me. But from a half-step behind I guide her with firm pressure along the rows of hopeful day laborers. There are more workers than there are jobs for; thirty percent of the population is assigned to Laborer: Nonspecific and set loose to fend for themselves, most with a Year Six education or less.
I see the broad-shouldered secret Jew and guide Ma to him. Her finger hovers, two workers to the left. My eyes downcast, peering just high enough to see her finger, I twitch her hand right, right, squeeze.
“You,” she says. “Can you watch my son at school and make sure he logs a full seven instructional hours, and pays attention to them? One dollar now, one dollar when you deliver him home. He’ll pay the autocab with his card.”
“Two and two,” he says.
“One and two, firm,” Ma says. Laborers are expected to bargain, a nod to entrepreneurship, but not to bargain too much. They’re lowlier than anyone but a beggar. And three bucks less twenty percent for the Labor Center and forty percent for taxes is about the going rate for a day of light work. It leaves the worker enough to pay for a cot and two meals in a bachelors’ housing hall.
“Done,” he says. He doesn’t offer to shake on it—women don’t shake. It would be a misdemeanor indecency. In fact, it almost violates ‘public decency’ that she’s at the Labor Center, unaccompanied and hiring a worker, at all. But, as the ‘For the Ladies’ releases from the NAU Department of Moral Hygiene have it, children are part of the household and a mother’s job is the household’s upkeep, so it’s still okay for her to hire someone to watch me do my schoolwork. At least for now. A few of the men, laborers and employers, still cast suspicious glances at her.
Business done, we follow her outside and she calls an autocab from her pocket tablet. The one we arrived in is gone; autocabs never wait. Our wait for the new one, though, is not long either. Outside of times when large public rallies are held, more than five minutes would be unusual.
“I’m John Porter, by the way, ma’am,” the secret Jew says as we wait at the curb outside. I glance at him, then away. Playing the part of moderate resentment. He doesn’t look like a John Porter to me. An alias? I wouldn’t begin to know how having an alias would be possible. Identity is DNA and fingerprint tracked from birth. Maybe I’m thinking overdramatically, excited by our subterfuge. I breathe deep. Remain calm.