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(complete text full story - 11,142 words)
(first of three sections)

        Jason did not like entertaining his boss at home, but there was no way round it. Home entertainment was one of the core values of the New Patriotism, and that was why Jason had the barbecue going in the yard on Sunday afternoon. It wasn't compulsory to go to church on Sunday, and Jason didn't, but on Sunday you really had to "do something apple pie," as the saying went, otherwise people would start looking at you sideways, and maybe take the time to actually start listening to what their Neighbor Friend systems were recording through their whisper-catching microphones.
         So there they were, the three of them, all blue-eyed, sandy-haired and suntanned, the two males looking quasi-military even in blue denim. Colonel Clay in particular still looked upright and orderly, even though he was a little drunk by now, and started to ramble as he lapsed into one of his speeches.
         "A true patriot does what he's told," said Colonel Clay.
         Vindaletta laughed, as if the colonel had made a joke. It was a nervous laugh, a miscue. She had been on edge for the past six months, ever since the president had made his Nomenclatural Denunciation speech, which had denounced, amongst other things, "people who walk around with weird names when they could change to something normal."
         Drunk, the colonel could get really difficult to handle. Jason's solution to this difficulty was to offer the colonel another drink, even though it was arguable that the colonel had already downed three or four too many. The colonel had just accepted the drink when the doorbell rang.
         "I'll get it," said Vindaletta.
         And she was off, gone, escaping.
         "Something wrong with that girl," said Colonel Clay. "You should never have married her. She's too tense ... every time she's near me she freezes up. Sure she's not involved with something?"
         The question was, at one and the same time, a joke and yet not a joke. Ever since the loss of Houston, you had a duty to ask that kind of question. Jason had noticed that the colonel often had his eyes on Vindaletta, and he was worried about how far the colonel's thoughts were moving in the direction of paranoia.
         "Well, uh, she's trying to change her name," said Jason, thinking that the truth would serve them best. "You know, uh, Vindaletta, it's a bit, well, non-standard. Her parents were on some kind of magic incense path when she was a little kid, you know, crystals, candles, that kind of stuff."
         "The stuff that we discourage," affirmed Colonel Clay.
         Discourage? Well, if you could call battering ram raids and sledgehammer vandalism discouragement, sure. These days, crystals, incense and mystic visions belonged in the radioactive box marked Corrosive Cultural Dissonance, where they shared house with other unpatriotic phenomena, such as wife swapping and open source software.
         "So, uh, she's trying to change her name to Cindy," said Jason. "She got an okay from the Anti-Infiltration Commission. That wasn't so tough. After all, she's married to me, right? But final approval, uh, that's being held up by some hardnoses on the local Militia Committee."
         "Well, we know how those guys are," said Colonel Clay.
         Both Colonel Clay and Jason Auxilva Babrette worked for the Patriot Service, which was as federal as the FBI. Their ultimate loyalties were to Washington, and their shared vision was one of eagles armed with lightning. Theirs was the cohesive vision of unified power: one homeland, one people and one leader.
         But the Militia Committee represented a different kind of America, one which did not like being "micromanaged by barcodes," to quote a famous pamphlet. The Militia Committee was philosophically hostile to automatically rubber-stamping anything the federal government had said "yes" to, and that was tough for someone like Vindaletta, who was put in the position of being ground between two stones.
         "That wife of yours run off, has she?" said Colonel Clay, as Vindaletta's absence lengthened.
         "Could be," said Jason, trying to make light of it, though to tell the truth he was starting to wonder if he should go and see what had happened to her. But just then Vindaletta came back, looking worried.
         "A friend of yours," she said. "Max Shlam."
         And Jason felt as if he had just fallen out of an airplane, minus a parachute.


        There was nobody at the front door. Had Vindaletta been hallucinating? No - no such luck. A sharp, piercing whistle drew Jason's attention to a car parked across the road. That whistle! Max Shlam had at least half a dozen socially inappropriate mechanisms, of which the whistle was just one.
         Once Jason was in the car, Max drove off, clear of the security cameras which the neighbors undoubtedly had hooked up to the Local Matrix software in their home computers, scanning for anything their Neighbor Friend systems missed. Max punched a button which filled the car with country and western music.
         As they drove along the streets - really normal Sunday afternoon streets, with kids flying kites and guys polishing their computer-controlled lawnmowers - they could have been just two guys out for a drive. But there was nothing normal about this visit. Jason had not seen Max in ... well, how long was it? Five years? Something like that. No, just two years - they had met by chance at cousin Linda's wedding, just a brief meeting, a brief hi, their life of escapades and shared conspiracies over by then, neither of them wanting to resurrect it.
         "Hey," said Max. "Check out the Ebolas."
         Sure enough, there they were, on the corner, a loitering group. Well, not much of a group, really. Jason's first interpreting blink registered an entire pack of them, spears in hand. But, looking again, he saw there were just three, two carrying fishing rods (of all things!) and the third empty-handed.
         "It's probably nothing," said Max, flipping open his cell phone, "but I'll call it in."
         And he thumbed the quick dial button which opened the line to the Instant Report facility, and made the call. Driving while using a cell phone was strictly illegal, but an exception was made for any call to the Instant Report Facility, and the system was set up so that any cop who stopped you could easily check to see whether calling the facility was what you had really been doing.
         "You ask me, the only good Ebola is a dead Ebola," said Max, closing the phone.
         Technically, hate speech was still illegal, and something the president ritually denounced at least once a year. The official line was still one of tolerance and inclusion. Officially, we don't hate you. Officially, we don't think of Houston as a crime committed by your race. We recognize this act of terrorism as the work of a small group of terrorists, and we condemn all race war talk as the bigoted ranting of criminal extremists.
         Even so, when there were no "mixed and others" around, from time to time you would hear a certain amount of casual slur-speech, at least when people were off the record - Ebolas, oil babies, oil skins, the only good one a dead one. Colonel Clay was given to that kind of speech, for example. Vindaletta, too, on occasion.
         But Jason never spoke that way, and did not like it when other people did. According to the official line, the New Patriotism was not a whites-only affair, and it was the official line to which Jason subscribed. He wanted to think that he belonged to an America which at least made an honest effort to reach across lines of color and culture, even if it didn't always succeed.
         "So," said Max. "I guess you're wondering why I came round."
         "Yeah," said Jason.
         He had been wondering fiercely, in fact - the way you wonder when you're on death row and you're waiting for your execution date.
         "Then let me explain," said Max.
         And he did, and the more he explained the more concerned Jason became. This was bad, real bad. But Max made the situation really plain: either Jason helped, or Max would tell the world exactly what Jason had done, and they would go down to destruction together.


        "A good soldier follows orders," said Colonel Clay, commenting on the case of Lieutenant Chomsky, who had breached orders by talking to TV about conditions in the geriatric wing of the Guantanamo facility.
         "But what if he's asked to do something wrong?" said Jason.
         The question came out of nowhere, and, afterwards, Jason had no idea what had prompted him to ask it. That wasn't the kind of question you asked these days. It wasn't as if Jason was drunk. He hadn't been drinking at all.
         "It's a preemptive world, Jason," said the colonel. "You don't wait for the other guy to draw a bead on you."
         That had nothing to do with the topic under discussion, which was about senile old men with bed sores the size of saucepan lids, not preemption. So Jason had no idea how to answer, and Colonel Clay apparently took his hesitation as defiance.
         "You hear me, son?" said Colonel Clay. "Is this the day I have to preempt someone?"
         There was a threat in that blurred, drunken, not quite logical question. When you argue with a drunk, reality stops making as much sense as it ought to. Still, Jason knew he had spoken out of line, and that the colonel was seriously thinking about punishing him, and wanted him to know it. The colonel did not have to threaten Jason directly. To make a tangential threat, it was sufficient to introduce the word "preempt" into the conversation. In the world of the New Patriots, the world of people like Colonel Clay, preemption was the New Good.
         "You hear me?" said the colonel again, more harshly this time.
         And Jason realized, to his horror, that he had made the mistake of wasting time by thinking when he should have been speaking.
         "I sure do, colonel," said Jason. "Can I get you another drink?"
         The barbecue had turned out badly, really badly indeed. Jason's best hope now was that Colonel Clay would drink so much that he would wake the next day with no memory of any of this. It was the use of the word "preempt" that had made Jason ... well, scared. Admit it! Yeah, definitely more than just a little uneasy. "Bourbon would be nice," said the colonel. "Do you know the difference between bourbon and whiskey, son?"
         Difference? They were one and the same thing, weren't they? Or were they? If not, then Colonel Clay was the kind of person who would think it sinful not to know the difference.
         "I'm not a drinking man," said Jason. "I'm a teetotaler. Just like the president."
         "Now what's that supposed to mean?" said Colonel Clay, looking at him through narrowed eyes. "Speak to me, son. You're inviting - invite - you're invoking the president's name here. teetotaler? Exactly what the hell is that supposed to mean?"


        Morning. Jason felt as if he had a hangover, which was most unfair. Because, these days, Jason was a teetotaler, just like the president, who was on TV right now, speaking at the Dome of the New Constitution about his hopes of running for a fifth term. Yes, and maybe a sixth, if the Constitution was changed yet again to let him do so ... and you could easily argue that it would be unpatriotic not to change it.
         "I hate him," said Vindaletta suddenly.
         "Who?" said Jason.
         "Him!" said Vindaletta, jabbing an assassinating finger in the direction of the TV screen.
         Jason was mildly surprised. If he hadn't been feeling so low, he would have felt astonished. For, surely, everyone recognized that the president was a nice enough guy, and, realistically, you couldn't blame him for the unreasonable attitude of the Militia Committee which was giving Vindaletta so much trouble. Jason said so.
         "If you really loved me, you'd give me more support," said Vindaletta, with frustrated grief.
         Were those tears in her eyes? Surely not.
         "Hey, it's only some silly trouble over a name," said Jason, wondering what she was getting so worked up about.
         "It's not!" said Vindaletta. "They're stalling on my passport and I can't get into med school and they're never going to let me be a doctor and I'm lucky if they don't come and arrest me!"
         Jason glanced at his watch. He had precisely three and a half minutes in which to calm her down, then he would have to be out of the door, otherwise he was going to be late for work.
         "You know," said Vindaletta, "you never asked Colonel Clay for that letter."
         "We've been through that," said Jason. "I don't want to owe him one."
         A official Letter of Friendly Advice from Colonel Clay, phrased in appropriately official Neighborspeak, would almost certainly give the Militia Committee the necessary shove. But, as Jason saw it, Vindaletta's name change would get approved sooner or later - probably - so there was no point in piling up unnecessary obligations.


        Driving to work in his truck - patriots buy bigger engines - Jason chewed over the problem of Vindaletta and her unreasonable hatred of the president. You didn't have to like the president - after all, it was a free country - but it had to be admitted that there were a certain number of people who couldn't tell the difference between "I don't like the president" and "I want to shoot the president".
         And, on top of that, who could honestly dislike the guy in the White House? Okay, so mistakes had been made - even the president himself had admitted that much. In retrospect, for example, war with France could probably have been avoided. But no sane person could fail to recognize that the president was a fundamentally decent guy.
         As Jason saw it, the problem was not with the president and not with his policies, either. The problem lay, rather, with the instruments which the president had to work with. He couldn't do all the interrogating and incarcerating himself, so power got handed down and handed down until it ended up in the hands of people like Colonel Clay, a guy you wouldn't really trust to look after a pit bull.
         And the answer to that, as Jason saw it, lay in the up-and-coming generation of young patriots, meaning people like himself.


        "Just on time," said Colonel Clay, standing at the door with his stopwatch in hand as Jason entered the office.
         "Sir," said Jason, opting for safety.
         "Well, I don't have to remind you what our target is this month," said the colonel.
         "No, sir," said Jason.
         And, five minutes later, he was hard at work. In the next cubicle, Goth had that hellish harmonica music going again. Jason, who had really sharp hearing, could hear it leaking out from Goth's junk-and-just-as-cheap-as-it headphones. He experienced a really serious homicidal urge. He stopped work and put both his hands flat on the table, then lifted his shoulders and dropped them. Then shuddered, releasing tension from his body.
         Weird stuff, but it worked. Vindaletta had taught him that.


        Like all the offices of the Patriot Service, this one in the little town of Trotter, in West Virginia, was about a year and a half behind in processing claims and applications. The stated goal of the Service was to cut that backlog to three months, though how they were supposed to do that in the light of a twenty per cent budget cut was something of a mystery.
         Encouraged by the colonel, Jason was doing his best, operating on the theory that the most efficient word in the world is "no". Say "yes" to someone and you can easily end up doing ten, twenty, fifty times the work.
         Jason was doing compensation reviews, studying the claims of people who had graduated from the camps years after having been arrested as Latent Illegitimates - wrongly arrested (or so they claimed). These claims went back to the bad old days of the statistical intervention methods used by the Prevention Commission.
         Got a funny name? Well, that's ten points. Left handed? Three points. (Three of the five captured Meltdown Day terrorists had been left-handed, though nobody really knew whether that was diagnostically significant or whether it was just a statistical fluke.) Immigrant from a predominantly Islamic country? Fifty points. Child of such an immigrant? Forty-five points. Your Attitudinals show you don't like dogs? Thirty points.
         With enough points, you were deemed to be a Latent Illegitimate Activist, and you ended up in one of the camps, which were not too bad, once you had adapted to sexually segregated dormitory living and a calorie intake limited to what medical science had deemed healthy. The problem was, however, that seven years in the camps (the statistical average) could really trash your mortgage, your marriage and your prospects of making it in major league baseball.
         "You can't imagine how I've suffered," said Osama Surfseagull plaintively, complaining of having been lost his chance to become an opthalmologist.
         "Hey, don't overclock yourself," murmered Jason to himself, unsympathetically, as he checked the records. The guy had gone and deliberately changed his name after ... when? Ah, here we are ... right after the Mecca Incident. "You should be getting old and gray at Guantanamo Bay. Not living happily in ... where is it? Salt lake City?"
         Jason did a double-take. If Osama Surfseagull was one of the denizens of Salt Lake City, then what was his claim doing here, in West Virginia? Jason did a quick check, and realized he'd spent the entire morning, more or less - it was now 11.47 a.m. - mindlessly working his way through a bunch of claims which had originated in Utah. How could he possibly have missed that?
         "Ice hockey!" said Jason, fiercely - this being the most potent expletive he allowed himself.
         He realized he had been a victim of the practice obscurely known as toe boning, now all too common in federal organizations. Everyone was struggling with budgetary limitations - wars have to be paid for, you know - and was subject to the doctrine of Lean and Mean, under which the least efficient organizations were punished by further cuts in their available resources.
         Part of the toe boning problem was the one-strike-and-you're-out policy for electronically branding captured computer hackers. Now, with a click of a mouse, any manager could locate any ex-hacker in his or her organization. If everyone knew how to get in touch with a hitman, there would be a lot more murders, and the toe boning epidemic was undoubtedly made worse by the fact that ever manager knew how to find a handy hacker.
         "I'm going to go to lunch," said Jason in disgust.


        Back at his desk after a twenty-minute flex-time lunchbreak, Jason spent two and a half hours undoing the work he had done that morning - his stubborn resolve was that crime should not pay - then toe boned the package from Utah to one of the computers Patriot Agency's computers in Denver. As Denver was still under general quarantine, with a dawn-to-dusk curfew in place, it would be some time before the Utah toe boners got their data package back. If ever.
         "Easy," said Jason, the job done.
         Jason had once been a hacker, too. But one of the good ones. One way too smart to get caught.
         (Well, almost too smart to get caught. To be honest, Jason had slipped up. Once. But once was all it took. In consequence, his bewildered high school math teacher had gone to jail for twenty years, loudly protesting his innocence to an indifferent world, Jason's illicit collection of movies and music having been discovered on his computer. A bit sad, when you thought about it ... but Jason had never liked the guy.)
         "Vindaletta? ... yeah, Jason ... that's right ... no, I should be home by midnight ... yeah, yeah, I know I promised, but something's come up ... well, you know how it is ...."
         Phone call made, Jason opened a can of Clearhead and sucked it down. Then he settled down to work again, grimacing slightly at the twinge of pain from his back. All this chair time was killing him. He used to be a long-distance runner before he joined the Patriot Agency, but these days the only exercise he had time for was the walk to and from his truck.
         Okay. Down to work. Is this one of ours? Yes. Then give it a no and move on.


        Name? Max Shlam. Say what? Yes!
        "Max," said Jason softly. "Don't do this to me."
        Max had said that he would not be putting in his application for at least a fortnight. He had said that it would take him at least that long to set things up so the application was guaranteed to come directly to Jason. But here it was, on Jason's screen.
        Worse, it was tagged with a message from Colonel Clay.
        "See me before you start work on this."
        What could possibly have drawn the colonel's attention to this particular file? Did Colonel Clay know of the personal connection between Jason and Max? Well ... Jason and Max had been at the same school, and had both been on the team which had placed fourth in the International Computer Games Championships at Las Vegas. So, yes, it was reasonable to assume that some kind of screening program had red flagged the file.

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This story, "Patriots", made its first appearance when posted on Hugh Cook's website on 2003 January 10 Friday.

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Copyright © 2003 Hugh Cook. All rights reserved.

PATRIOTS - SF story SF about terrorism, story about government surveillance, AI story - read complete sf story online - fiction writing website - sci-fi story by Hugh Cook

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