Saturday, February 5, 2011


“Mr Billingsly. Come to the front desk. Mr. Billingsly, to the front desk.”

The intercom’s quality was low. The voice had a hollow, tinny sound yet was distinct enough for Harry to get the message. He rose from his chair and walked across the gleaming linoleum until he arrived at the front desk.

An older woman was reading from a form lying on the blotter before her. When he came to a stop she gave no sign that she noticed him. She continued reading. She wore the uniform of an auxiliary, on its shoulders a captain’s insignia. She had steel gray hair, cut short. When she finally brought her eyes up she looked not at his face but at the center of his chest. While she spoke she never once looked into his eyes.

“Your place of residence, Mr Billingsly, is sector IV. Yet it says here, in this report, that the arresting officer apprehended you in sector VII. Perhaps you could explain.”

“I fell asleep on the bus.”

The Captain grimaced. Her whole body seemed to tighten in a spasm of disgust.

“You are aware, Mr Billingsly, that a Citizen III is not permitted inter sector travel without special permission from the Ministry. Are you aware of this, Mr Billingsly?”


“Yet you had no permission, no travel card issued by the Ministry. And still you were in sector VII when you reside in sector IV. Perhaps you could explain this to me?”

“I fell asleep on the bus, mam.”

“We are dealing with the law here, Mr Billingsly, not sleeping patterns or personal self indulgence. You are a Citizen III. For inter sector travel you are required to have a permission card. You were out of your sector without a card. Are you aware of the penalties involved?”

“Not really.” Actually Harry was painfully aware of the penalties involved but thought it best to pretend otherwise.

“You will address this officer employing the proper formalities, Mr Billingsly.”

“Sorry, Madam Captain. I am aware that there are penalties but am ignorant of exactly what they are.”

“Then I will inform you. Termination in the most serious of cases. A prison term for the less serious. A location bracelet and daily reporting for the minor. Into which category, Mr Billingsly, would you say your particular case fits?”

“I don’t know Madam Captain.”

“Of course you don’t know, Mr Billingsly. You are one of those ignorant persons who cannot be bothered knowing such things and yet complain bitterly when the consequences of their irresponsible actions fall upon them. Is this not true?”

“Yes, Madam Captain.”

“There are many of my colleagues who would like to see the city cleansed of persons like yourself, persons who make no contribution whatsoever and who are a millstone around the neck of the New Reality. I must say I cannot help but sometimes agree with them. Do you agree with them, Mr Billingsly?”

“I can understand their point of view, Madam Captain.”

“Offences against the law are inexcusable, Mr Billingsly. Yet the Sentencing Tribunals have better things to do than deal with insignificant persons such as yourself. You have had no other charges against you in the past ten years. Therefore I am dismissing you with a warning. Sleep at home, Mr Billingsly. Second offences are always sent to the Sentencing Tribunal. I don’t think I would be giving away any secrets to tell you that a second offence is almost always dealt with by termination. The fact that a Citizen III even comes before the Tribunal is almost enough cause for such a sentence. Do you understand, Mr Billingsly?”

“Yes, Madam Captain.”

“Go then. There are others waiting.” She pushed a signed Dismissal card across the surface of the desk. Harry picked it up and walked out of the building.

Harry’s ‘residence’ was a room in a brick block in the Citizen III area. The building had no heat or electricity, and no plumbing. Residents peed into a drain in the basement which miraculously, still emptied into the sewer system. They defecated into plastic bags, tossing them, in the black nights when the city was in almost total darkness, into the garbage bins of the administrative center nearby. They used the public tap outside the building for water and cooked on single burner gas stoves, containers purchased on the black market. The building, its foundations disturbed by shelling, part of its east end torn away by mortars, was a miserable wreck. Most of the windows were blown out, the doors askew and the brick walls were cratered here with holes and there with long cracks extending from the roof to the foundation. All night long, when the city’s din had gone to sleep along with most of its citizens, the building emitted pops, creaks and groans any one of which very well may have been the announcement of its final collapse. Yet somehow, day after day, week after week, it managed to stay upright keeping the rain off the heads of its fifty-six residents and protecting them from the worst of the wind and cold

On the walk home Harry decided not to tell anyone in the building about his arrest. This did not, of course, include Louise. They shared a room on the top level, a strange room with the floor, ceiling and walls covered with bright orange insulated tarps Louise had stolen six months before from a construction site. The construction site was an official one for there had been no other kind of construction site for a long time. Those outside of official culture had to make do with the crumbling and the dilapidated. Material to make such dwellings livable had to be bought at high prices on the black market or stolen. Louise, a small woman with the lithe quickness of a young boy, was an excellent thief. The proceeds from her thievery provided most of their essentials. The penalty for stealing was termination. “Also the penalty,” Louise would say. “For not eating.”

When Harry told Louise she grew very grim. “No more runs,” she said looking intensely in to his eyes. Harry blinked a few times, ran his right hand over his face and replied, “I know. No more runs.”

After their supper of three baked potatoes and two apples, Louise took Harry’s Dismissal card and disappeared down the back staircase. When she came back, an hour later she pulled from the back pocket of her jeans a small roll of bills. The gangs controlling the black market issued their own currency. Louise had already done so but to include Harry they recounted the bills and had a discussion on what they were going to spend it on. This had partly already been decided by Louise who, before coming back to the room, had hidden half the bills in a secret place in the basement. Harry had the bad habit of giving money away and Louise saw as one of her duties to protect him from his overly generous impulses. When their discussion was finished they washed themselves from a five gallon pail of water in the corner and went to bed.

After the last, and most severe Crisis and then the Great Collapse which followed, up to three quarters of the population had been thrown into what had once been called the under class and was now called the official category Citizen III. There they found the old under classes – the poor, the disabled, the ill, drug users, gangsters and criminals who, both taking pity on the new arrivals and in their own self interest, taught them the ropes. The gangsters and criminals preyed on them, of course, as they prey on every one, but they also supplied the organizational structure creating the black market and as well a kind of rough hewn aristocracy among the Citizen III’s. They were successful in their world in the same way that members of the Official Culture were in theirs – they controlled and commanded resources, they had organization and planning and they could both reward and exact vengeance. Official Culture fervently wished that the great mass of Citizen III’s would evaporate, commit hari kari or go away somewhere and, quietly, politely, starve to death. They didn’t, of course, for human beings, Citizen III’s or otherwise, are greatly attached to the land of the living and loathe to leave it merely because they have become an inconvenience to others.

After it consolidated its hold on power, Official Culture was much troubled with the issue of what to do with the Citizen III’s. Fierce debates and a long period of in fighting and political wrangling finally resolved itself by the emergence of a dominant group referred to by every one, even they themselves, as the Eliminationists. As the name implies their proposal for solving the problem of the Citizen III’s was to exterminate them. But controlling elites are always greatly outnumbered by the population at large and must be careful not to pursue projects creating a fulcrum of this discrepancy. Even to act in a way bringing attention to the discrepancy is potentially dangerous.

In all the major cities a combination of police, army and militia units began a series of planned entries into the vast areas occupied by Citizen III’s and, in an orgy of murder, terror and violence, butchering everyone who came within their grasp. For some weeks they were successful and, excepting some sporadic resistance, unopposed. But the Citizen IIIs, led by an alliance of members of the old educated class thrown into their midst and the gangsters, organized and began to fight back. In the capital, the city of Harry and Louise, and in similar actions in other cities, this is what they did.

Informed by people of conscience from the Official Culture, for there were many among them who privately opposed the barbarism of the Eliminationists, that their enemies were about to launch a truly horrific assault, nicknamed ‘the final push’, on a certain date, at a certain time, they formed a deep U in their territory pointing away from the direction they knew the attack would be coming from. They evacuated this area. Along the edges and at the bottom of this U they created fortified positions, massing behind them large numbers of fighters. At the open top of the U they stationed a line of mobile fighters whose job would be to lightly resist, retreat, lightly resist, retreat, until they had drawn the enemy fully into contact with the fortified positions.

The enthusiastic Eliminationists, drunk on their past successes, delirious with visions of total victory, drawn by the easy collapse of the retreating Citizen III line, drove resolutely forward until they were stopped by the fortified positions manned by great numbers armed with weapons admittedly primitive but at close quarters very effective. Before they could recover and begin an orderly retreat two other forces of citizen III’s, armed with the best weapons thievery and the black market could supply, hit them on the flanks at their point of entry, joining hands, so to speak, at the center of their rear and cutting of their retreat. The butchery following was truly horrendous. Driven by fear, hunger and hate and the desire for vengeance for the murder of their relatives and friends, the Citizen IIIs came streaming over the walls of the fortified positions and slaughtered the invading force without exception. In the capital when it was all over, sixty thousand dressed in official uniforms lay dead in the streets.

But this was not all. Slaughter accomplished, the victorious Citizen III’s marched out of their area to the Main Administration Center and after a brief battle where they quickly overcame resistance, ravaging through the buildings killing everyone in sight including fifteen of the twenty members of the Governing Council. Some of the surviving members of the council who fled to army camps outside the city, wanted to send the army into the city and quash the rebels but wiser heads prevailed. The Citizen III’s now possessed large amounts of weapons seized from depots and armories and quickly swallowed into the belly of deep Citizen III territory. The army had no real Intelligence on these people and the generals, unsure of the loyalty of their troops, did not want to play a game of blind man’s buff. Instead elite units were sent into the city to retake the administrative center. This was easily accomplished for the Citizen III’s had retreated back to their own sector. Army engineers followed, building a series of four ring walls around the administrative area.

The Eliminationists were disgraced and replaced by those supporting a policy of containment. Army and police units moved out of the administrative area and reoccupied police stations and neighbourhood administrative buildings. But things were different from before. Excursions by the army and police out of their fortified centers now had to be done in force and large sections of deep Citizen III territory were now inaccessible to them. There was a pause, a truce of a kind, but it was an uneasy truce, one which could easily break out at any moment into all out war.

Harry Billingsly was a Buddhist monk. When the Eliminationists invaded Citizen III territory he helped man the barricades but while carrying on his shoulder a medic bag rather than a gun. He first worked behind the walls of rubble thrown up by Citizen III fighters then followed behind them when they flowed over the barriers to attack the Eliminationists. The slaughter distressed him deeply but he was a focused and practical man. He said silent prayers for the dead, both Eliminationist and Citizen III, while administering morphine and antibiotics, cleaning, stitching and bandaging wounds. He didn’t sleep for three days and three nights. He had the smell of blood in his nostrils for a month after.

Louise, on the other hand, commanded a small rocket launcher, one of the weapons the Citizen III’s used to knock out tanks and armoured vehicles. She also did not sleep for three days and three nights and for a month after had the smell of cordite in her nostrils. After the Citizen III’s took the administrative center she came back into her own area and collapsed in the hallway of her building. Harry found her there and carried her up to their room and put her to bed. She slept for thirty six hours. When she got up Harry was sitting in an old armchair by the entrance door. In his lap was the sawed off shotgun she carried with her on her thieving excursions. She walked across the floor and, full of fury and indignation, took it away from him. Harry smiled, glad to see her back to her normal self. He reached into his pocket and handed her a dozen shells he had found while tending the wounded. She took them and put them on the kitchen table.

“What’s the Buddha going to think of you sitting there with a loaded shotgun?” She asked him.

“I often run into people,” said Harry, “who seem to forget that the Buddha was a very practical man.”

“I don’t think you would see him carrying around a shotgun.”

“O I don’t know. Before he became the Buddha he would have carried the weapons of his day - spears, swords, bows. He was a Prince, after all.”

Before Louise put the gun away under the bed she checked the chambers. They were empty.

“Superstitious behavior on my part, Louise. If they had tried to come through the door I would have loaded it quick enough and both killed and died before I let them get to you.”

Harry had not fallen asleep on the bus. He was lying. But the Buddhist injunction against lying was over ridden by the fact that if he had told the truth he would have been executed and under such circumstances, telling the truth would have been tantamount to committing suicide, a much greater sin than lying.

The Buddhist organizations, some five years ago, had been disbanded and disappeared officially but in reality had gone underground. They formed a strong underground for they were organized, accustomed to silence and not incapacitated by fear of death. They spread out and melted into the population. Then they formed lines of communication and after a time of discussion, a program of practical action. Their members living on the fertile plateaus in the mountains five hundred kilometers north of the city organized the local people and began a vigorous program of cultivating even the more marginal plots of land. They called on their members in official culture to infiltrate committees controlling food production and use their resulting majority on the committees for the north to under report food crops in the area. The surplus they distributed through their own network, mainly to Citizen III communities in the cities. The gangsters, seeing they were feeding much of their community, left them alone. They made more money off gambling, the sex trade, guns, drugs and luxury items.

The foodstuffs, mostly rice, dehydrated potatoes, beans and flour, were sent down from the mountains at night in mule trains. At the foot of the mountains they were transferred to trucks and, again at night, driven on back roads into Citizen III areas of the city. Official Culture Intelligence began to hear reports of this but many of its officers were Buddhist. When complaints came up they were shuffled off to sympathetic officers who, after much investigation, came up with nothing. The group which drove the food into the city were even provided with a patrol schedule for certain roads. Sometimes patrols were ordered out of sectors where trucks were soon to come into areas where there was no activity.

Harry was the head of food distribution for his section of the city. When he had gone by bus to a meeting of other section heads he had broken an unwritten rule – never use a means of transport easily accessible to the agents of Official Culture. Usually he walked or bicycled but that day he had been delayed, was afraid of being late and the bus was much faster.

Louise was afraid for him. To come to the notice of Official Culture at all was in itself dangerous. Some police agent, trying to fill a quota might pull your name from a file, puff you up as a dangerous plotter in the latest fashionable paranoia and have you rounded up and eliminated. This had happened to people Louise had known personally.

She gave money, through a gangster connection, to a corrupt official who had the record of Harry’s arrest completely removed from the files. She did not tell Harry anything about this. It would worry him and stir up his moral scruples. Louise justified the expense not only by her love of Harry which was a truly focused and monstrous river of love, but by the fact that he was an important part in the food delivery chain. There were lots of people depending on Harry. The gangster agreed, cutting his fee for the file removal down to one half the usual price.

As a further measure Louise browbeat Harry into allowing her to follow him when he went out on his duties. “If they catch you,” she said, “they just might shoot you right there. It happens.”

Harry shrugged.

This incensed Louise. “OK for you stoic Buddha man but what about the hungry ones you leave behind?”

“Someone else would take my place and continue on,” he said.

This affected Louise as if she had been struck a powerful punch in the stomach. She broke down and wailed with such despair and abandon Harry had to hold her in his arms for ten minutes before she could stop. When she could speak she said, “There is no life for me without you. You know that.”

“I’m sorry.” Harry said. “You can follow me if you like.”

After this Louise shadowed Harry when he went out. The thieves collective she belonged to, recognizing she could work far less as a result, began paying her a small weekly salary.

In the early mornings Harry sat zazen for two hours while Louise knocked on doors in their building delivering food. When she got back to the room he was finished and had breakfast on the table, waiting. When they were finished eating he took off his sitting robe, an old blanket with a rough hole in the middle, and put on his street clothes. Under his jacket Louise made him wear a Kevlar vest. He always carried his medic bag hanging from his shoulder. Louise wore an oversized workman’s jacket. Under this was buckled a homemade leather harness with a holster on either side for two shotguns. In the pockets of the jacket she carried extra shells.

Louise went out first, crossing the street and waiting just inside a narrow alley on the other side. Harry came out, smiled sheepishly at her, something she told him not to do but which he did anyway, and started off down the street. Harry walked boldly, not strutting or with arrogance but with a kind of radical acceptance of the often confusing reality of the streets which Louise was sure would lead him to embrace even some terrible violence which might come his way. She sometimes made fun of his walking but in truth she admired it. She thought Harry a very courageous man, much more courageous than herself who relied on guns and quickness as allies against the violence. She followed some fifty feet behind. She told Harry that if anything happened he was to hit the ground and cover his head. She planned to shoot the shotguns a little high. He might be hit by a stray pellet or two but would be OK. She didn’t tell him this because she was afraid he might insist on remaining upright and dying with his attackers. He had promised her he would fall down but you never knew with Harry. Sometimes he could be very strategic and very sneaky.

Three months after the defeat of the Eliminationists official culture began to crumble. The gangsters cut off their food supplies and demanded outrageous payments to restore the flow. There were pitched battles and everyone you saw on the street was armed to the teeth. Official Intelligence assassinated four high ranking gangsters. The gangsters retaliated by, in one spectacular morning, killing the President, the Vice President, the Chief of the Police Ministry and the Chief of Intelligence. Official Culture was thrown into chaos. They retreated behind their ringed walls and were forced to pay exorbitant prices for food. Then in a counterattack the army created a corridor through the city to bring in supplies and foodstuffs. Every night the gangsters attacked its weak points and made off with convoys of supplies. The soldiers, farm boys for the most part and half starved themselves, began to desert in droves, reasoning that at least back on the farm they could eat. Taking whatever they could get their hands on for barter they went back to their places of origin.

A new hard man rose from the inner ranks of Official Culture. He made a deal with some gangsters and mercilessly exterminated others. He worked tirelessly to secure his power. He clove the remnants of the army to him by giving it extra rations and new weaponry. Not even bothering to bring trumped up charges against his enemies he had them shot wherever they sat or stood. He tried to attack the Buddhists for whom he had a particular hatred but found it hard to get a bead on them. He ordered Intelligence to infiltrate and destroy their food distribution program but Buddhist officers in the service blocked him. They equivocated and sent up smoke screens until he started planning a bloody clean up of the department. In the planning of this cleanup he brought in two high ranking secular officers whom he thought he could trust. At one of the planning meetings one of these officers, in despair at the approaching glutting of his service, pulled out his pistol and shot him through the head. Everyone was so terrified they fled the room leaving the shooter alone with the dead man. Ever the disciplined professional, the officer put another bullet through the leader’s head to make sure he was dead. Then he walked back to his unit. Later that day he left the capital. The Buddhists smuggled him north and he disappeared into the mountains.

A fearful committee of six arose from the ruins. Among them were a man and a woman from the south. From the events which had occurred over the past few years they had developed a bitter, experiential wisdom. They dominated the committee not by terror but with the force of their arguments. They ordered in special army units personally loyal to them to secure the ring walls and did not leave the administrative area for three years. They embarked on a program of rebuilding which showed considerable sagacity. They opened negotiations with the business clans now in exile in a country to the south. In return for certain guarantees they allowed them back into the country handing over to them the right to operate in certain market sectors of the economy. They negotiated with the Buddhists a reentry into food production and distribution. The Buddhists demanded an oversight committee with teeth and got it. Some of their major monasteries were allowed to reopen. Some of the gangsters became respectable and went to work for the businessmen.

The committee drew in the horns of the state. They reduced the numbers of police, bureaucrats, the armed services. They transfered whole sections of Intelligence over to a new ministry devoting to explaining the changes to the population. They removed all political offences from the statutes and repealed the laws creating three classes of citizens. Travel restrictions, requirements to register with the police were removed. A consumption tax system was introduced and, surprisingly, it was accepted by the majority of the population as a necessary evil. Hospitals and schools were restaffed, rebuilt and resupplied.

The new private enterprise food distribution system gradually pushed out the old Buddhist system. Harry was now running a food bank, distributing the excess from the business system. But he had grown weary and wanted to leave the city not for the monastery in the north where he originally had come from but for a Buddhist area in the mountain plateaus to a life of farming and meditation.

At first Louise was against it. “What would I do up there in the boondocks with a bunch of bowers and statue kissers?” she asked.

“Grow beans,” answered Harry.

“You should have mentioned that before, Harry. As long as I can do such an exciting thing as grow beans then how could I have any objections?”

Finally after weeks of discussion and argument Louise agreed to go. But first she extracted a quid pro quo. “I want two children, maybe three.”

“OK.” Said Harry.

“But before you said you didn’t want children.”

“Circumstances were very different.”

“You won’t hit them will you?”

“Certainly not. If one of us were to hit them it would most likely be you. You hit me.”

“Yes but you deserve it when I do.”

“And so will you say to the children.”

“When I become a mother it will be different.”

“Why?” asked Harry. “My mother hit us with the broom and only stopped when our legs grew long enough to outrun her.”


“Well nothing. Such things don’t leave until they are replaced with another.”


“Understanding. Way of seeing things.”

“O boy, here comes the holy lecture!”

“Nothing holy about that. Very pragmatic I would say.”

“I don’t think the Buddha is going to smile on a violent person like me.”

“Why do you say that? The Buddha would look at you and see a fierce, loyal, vigorous minded woman – just the kind he likes.”

“Sitting is boring.”

“I don’t know how you can say ‘boiling oil over a blazing fire’ is boring. To my mind worrying about what you are going to eat tomorrow or how many wrinkles you have is boring. And dreaming about perfect motherhood too.”

“You are a cynic.”

“No, a realist. There are things you could do to prepare for being a mother. Dreaming about them is not going to help you.”

“OK. OK. I’ll sit with you one stick in the mornings. But I’m not going to bow to statues or chant any of those weird chants of yours.”
“Not necessary.”

“And sex too. Don’t get any ideas in your mind of turning me into one of those wimped out Buddhist nuns.”

“What’s wrong with sex? I like it myself.”

“I know you do.” Louise reached out and patted his forearm. “Don’t worry. I’ve gotten used to your Buddhist pals over the years. To tell you the truth I like them better than most. They have a sense of humor. Gangsters, for the most part, have no sense of humor. They take themselves very seriously.”

“In the world they inhabit they have no other choice.”

Three months later Louise took the balance of their savings from her hiding place in the basement and used it to outfit the trip north. They bought two mules, chosen by Harry who had experience with mules, and a bright red wagon fitted with pneumatic tires and ball bearing wheels. Harry built a wooden structure over the wagon and they stretched one of the orange tarps over it. Then they packed up everything including the other tarps which they tied onto the side of the wagon. On the outskirts of the city they met six other wagons, some Buddhists some not, and started off on the journey north. Louise and Harry sat very comfortably on an old love seat Harry had installed up front. Louise reached out and grasped Harry’s head and pulled it down to her stomach. She often did impulsive things like that so Harry was not surprised. He relaxed, head in her lap, very pleasant.

“Did you hear that?” She said.

“Hear what?”
“The baby’s heart. Tick tock. Tick tock. Can’t you hear it?”

No comments:

Post a Comment