If the National Ministry of Peoples found out about me, they would drag me to the center of the town square and hang me. I’ve watched it on the state news. Political prisoners, men and women and children who dare to speak out against the regime, or those who have grown too weary to abide.
They could be forgiven for not giving the Ministry’s soldiers their water, their bread. They could be forgiven for not burning their books that the Ministry demanded. They could be forgiven, but they are executed. So the rest of us fools, meek as mice, cower and whisper and nod submissively, but underneath it all our anger turns like a worm in our hearts.
I am a Dev. I spend hours facing an old computer monitor working for the Ministry of Advanced Technology. Simple tasks, reading citizens’ emails and social networking messages, spying on the populace through a pixilated filter. When the General isn’t monitoring my activity, I send encrypted messages, try to warn the professors and political activists, but they are always captured and disappear. I’m left monitoring their empty email folders, walls that won’t update.
“You’ve been summoned,” the General says resting his hand on my shoulder.
“Summoned?” I ask. I have never heard of somebody from our group being summoned. I look around at the other Devs before staring up at the General. “Summoned for what?”
“The Minister of Justice and Peace made the request. Official channels.”
My heart freezes. The worm stops turning inside. “The Minister…” I trail off.
“Yes, the Minister himself. I’m sure it is nothing you can’t help him with. He has a particular challenge that requires your specific talents.”
“It is with great pride,” I say. “That I serve the National Party with humility. I hope that I can assist tomorrow as my wife and daughter have dysentery and I must get them their ration of water.” I know they’re waiting for me, huddled together on our bed, shivering with fever.
“They can wait,” the General says. “I will personally attend to your family as you will be taken to the palace forthwith.”
Who has sold me out? I try to comprehend this betrayal as the palace guards, two doltish and lumbering brutes, escort me through the town square. The interminable town square, wide enough to swallow oceans. The guards boots click against its cobblestones. I can’t feel my limbs, tingling and numb, as we pass Grecian columns. The same columns that sit on our paper currency. Our country’s worthless currency, devalued like my life.
The Minister’s Attendant, a slender man with a slender mustache, meets me at the palace entrance. I hate the sight of this man, the caterpillar crawling above his absent upper lip. I hate the sight of the interior of the palace, its gilded vases and candles, it’s paintings of our National Minister. It looks like a goddamn church inside here.
“Ah, good,” the Attendant says. “I’ll show you to the network closet.”
“Network closet?” I ask, holding my relief cautiously in check.
“Yes, network closet. You are familiar with what a network closet is, aren’t you?”
Network closet better not be a euphemism for an execution chamber. I mumble something nonsensical wishing I could drive a screwdriver through the back of this man’s neck.
He leads me through a narrow hallway to a door. A naked bulb illuminates a network closet. All of the cross-cables have been ripped out, multicolored copper wires littering the floor.
“Evidence of vindictive sabotage,” he whispers, his voice a thread and needle weaving through my ear. “You must fix it. Posthaste.”
“Shut up,” I tell the man. “Let me concentrate.” Inside I’m cheering the efforts of the previous workman who has damaged the palace’s telecommunications, but my shoulders sink upon the realization that I will now be the one fixing it. If I don’t I will be met with the same end as the saboteur.
The Attendant’s face puckers as I waive him off. “Now, see here,” he sputters. “Nobody tells me to shut up.”
“No, I will not waste a second of the Minister’s time.” I’m beginning to enjoy kicking this little bureaucrat. I have the power. He is dependent upon me completing this job. “I must attend to this disaster immediately. Who damaged these cables? Have you caught the perpetrator?”
His face falls, and he cowers like a dog whose owner holds a rolled up newspaper over his nose. I almost feel sorry for him. What if he is a brother in arms like me, working from the shadows to bring down the Ministry? He could have been the one who trashed the network panel. And I have become the iron heal of the regime breaking his spirit.
“Well, brother?” I ask to test him.
“We are trying to locate the perpetrators,” he says, either ignoring my signal or ignorant of the code.
“More than one, eh?” I pick up the copper wires with the Attendant standing over my shoulder watch me. He murmurs and frets as I punch cable pairs into the PBX board. I string new cross-connects, and write down the cable pairs and port numbers.
“Done,” I say handing him the updated port list. “Now I must get back to my wife and daughter. They have been without water since yesterday.”
The Attendant grabs my arm. He grips it with such earnestness and stares so intently at me that I think he is going to whisper something conspiratorially in my ear. Brother, we are with you. We will rise against the fascist regime. Down with the National Ministry of Peoples.
I’m about to tell him who I am, let him know that I am working against the Ministry, but he speaks first.
“Dev. You will now see the Minister directly. There is a delicate matter that requires your attention.”
I shake myself free of my previous intention. Had I almost revealed myself based upon the look of a government employee? Holy hell, I thought. I have to be more careful than that. Years of work lost.
The sound of an old modem dialing up echoed against the marble. The sound of antiquity, if antiquity ever had a sound, is a modem’s crackle like hay in a windstorm. While the rest of the world moved on to T1 and wireless connections, our country remained mired in its dilapidated infrastructure. Our country’s enemies draw caricatures of the Minister as a cotton farmer refusing to upgrade to a cotton gin.
He watches me. Those soft eyes set between sagging jowls, banal and empathetic, belying his ruthlessness. His tongue combs through his mustache after state dinners, searching for any last scrap of meat that might have deposited itself there, the temerity of food. I think of the billboards that show our Minister looking off into the distance, his eyes wistful with the promise of bountiful harvests, bread and water.
Take the state newspaper, its photos and propaganda, shred it in a blender and pour it into a bowl of goat’s milk. That is the mush that settles in our brains, a mix of the contradictory and absurd. Our Minister. We serve the National Party with humility, but the worm turns in our hearts, and we seethe.
He sits behind his colonial desk waiting for me. His Attendant pushes me forward, his hand on my lower back. I cast my eyes down and bow.
“Thank you, The Peoples’ Minister,” I whisper. “Your light casts no shadows across our great country.” There are three approved phrases the public are allowed to say to any high ranking member of the Ministry. You are lucky if you never have to pick which one of them to mutter through gritted teeth for fear that your insincerity will call you out as an enemy.
“Rise and be greeted,” the Attendant says.
As is custom I rise and wait as the Minister assesses me. I feel like a piece of meat, every nook and cranny of my soul scrutinized by this dog who wants only to devour my soft tissue.
He murmurs his approval and casts his hand out. The Attendant retreats and we are alone.
“Dev,” he says smiling. “Your General tells me you are one of our country’s best. You alone have discovered hundreds of terrorists. Found where their rat nests lie, where they breed and infect our people with their disease of revolution. Incurable. Has to be cut out. You are better than our country’s finest doctors as you have taken a scalpel to the cancer that eats at our borders.”
He always demands an audience, and he would keep talking if it were only a bed of dolls with hollow eyes staring up at him. I nod as his words prod at me like bayonets.
“I have a problem,” he says. “You will find a solution to my problem. But you will not breathe a word of what we do here today. You will not tell your wife. You will not tell your daughter. Do you understand?”
“Yes,” I say. I see my wife and daughter sick, tangled in blankets, the General watching over them. I realize now that his volunteering to attend to my family was leverage to ensure my cooperation. A tuning fork has been struck, my wife’s soul resonating across the fields and ghettos, through the canals and sewage tunnels, over the town square and up the palace stairs, ringing in my ears and vibrating me to my core. I will cooperate with whatever sick request the Minister will invent. I will protect my family.
He motions for me to approach, and I do. I am his puppet. I stand beside him and smell his cologne.
“See here,” he says pointing at his computer. It’s a new model, one that has not been provided to the Ministry of Advanced Technology yet.
I look at the monitor. It shows the login page to a censored social networking site. I am impressed that the Minister was able to circumnavigate our firewall to access the site, and I comment on his prowess.
“That is your first mistake. The last Dev made assumptions too, and tried his hand at sabotage. As you can see he is no longer with us.”
My body contracts and my eyes grow wide with fear as I apologize. I understand now that somebody previous to me has helped the Minister access the site, and ripped out the network cables at some point. The courage of that stranger, somebody lost to the tattered pages of our country’s history. What is courage but a tourist book of suicide? The cripple holding a gun to his heart, or the intellectual fighting for revolution, one in the same married in death.
“Enough of your mea culpas,” he says. “Stand here and put your fingers on the keyboard.”
I do as instructed, fearing electricity might jump from the letters into my veins. Is this some fantastical way for the Minister to enjoy my execution?
“I want you to create a profile for me. I want it fully integrated with the marketplace so that I can access goods and services from businesses outside our country. I want it connected to my children so that I can read their posts and see their activity.”
His children, like so many dictators’ children before him, had been sent to colleges and universities outside our country to give their future rule a shade of legitimacy with their degrees in political science, architecture and agriculture.
“I can set up your profile,” I say, my voice shaking. I hate how weak I feel. “I can link it to the Ministry of Treasury.”
“Good,” he says licking his mustache. “I need access to my cognac and cigars. Now, I’ve been told that I will be able to see my children’s activities. They represent the Ministry as they promote the Peoples’ message outside our borders. I must be sure that they are behaving themselves. I do not want any embarrassments while they matriculate.”
“About that,” I say as I type furiously, making him a profile and sending link requests to his children. “You can only request that they add you to their network. After they agree, you will be able to see their activities.”
“What?” he asks grabbing my arm. He pulls me down so that I am tilted sideways and level to his face. “Why do I have to ask? There should be no asking.”
I struggle to keep my balance as I answer. “That is how the site was built.”
“Change it. I do not ask permission.”
“It is not up to me. The site was built before time. We have no control over it. We can only block it or monitor it.”
“Before time, eh?” He pulls me closer. “Did God himself build it?”
I stand hobbled over close to his face listening to the wind rush in and out of his nostrils. I hear his teeth grinding against each other like boulders sliding down a mountain.
“Look,” I cry. “One of your sons accepted your link request.”
He lets go of my arm and stares into the screen. He looks helpless, his face sucking up the light from the monitor, like a baby pig curled to its mother’s belly. His half sunken eyelids, his tongue darting out. I could crush him at this moment, grind his pig face against the screen, free the people from his tyranny.
“Clicking here you’ll be able to see you son’s status updates,” I say. “And here to see his posted pictures.”
Courage. If only it were as ubiquitous as the smog from the smelting plants, a vast reservoir to breathe in and change history. The worm spins like a gyroscope in my heart as I imagine my hands around his neck, choking off his cries. The keyboard falling to the ground. Keys scattering across the marble to spell out the future of our country.
The Minister is engrossed in viewing his son’s profile. He reads his posts and chuckles. “Ah,” he cries out. “He does me proud. This future of our great nation. Listen to this: ‘Trotskyite professor said God don’t exist. He will see his Salvation.’” The Minister nods and smiles. “He has such a sense of humor.”
I see this tyrant turn almost human as he looks lovingly at his son’s pictures. Goddammit. I want to kill him, but I see myself in his fawning face as I think about my own child. She’s waiting for me at home, waiting to crush my neck with her little arms, hug me and never let me go back to work. Stay home, daddy, she commands. Don’t trick me.
My hands tremble as I try to breath in courage. I inch closer. The Minister doesn’t see me, content, drowning his eyes in the blue glow of his monitor. Pictures flit past, the tyrant’s son standing in front of Radcliffe Library, huddling with a group of scholars, drinking tea, playing ping pong. Activities foreign to the populace trapped here.
Reaching for him. Why have we been left alone? Perhaps this was the plan all along. The earnest looks of the Attendant, the room cleared of cabinet members, senators, and guards. It was as if the entire state apparatus had gently placed a knife in my hand and pushed me into the room.
“The Minister does not like to be touched,” the Attendant says standing behind me.
“Uh, yes,” I stutter. “I was about to show him the live-chat feature.”
“Oh?” he asks. “Through his neck? Odd choice for a computer interface.”
Now the Attendant is having fun at my expense, kicking me with his little bureaucratic feet, smirking at me with his lipless mouth. He had been lurking in the shadows all along, waiting for me to make a mistake. Only seconds remain before he will snap his fingers like a flamenco dancer. Seconds before the guards will rampage through the door and throw me off the balcony. I brace myself.
“You are dismissed,” he says curtly.
I open my eyes, and like a freed prisoner I am mute. Unbelieving.
“Well, Dev? Are you deaf?”
“No, no,” I say. “You mean I can go home? To my wife and daughter?”
The walls evaporate and I am air. I fall through the sky, my matter merging with cloud. I rain down on the town square. I’ve escaped. All that lies between me and freedom is the ocean of distance to the other side of the square at its gates.
“Good work, brother,” the Attendant says at my back as he closes the palace doors.
They shut at my back and I stride forward with purpose. The guards wait at the other end, lounging against themselves, oblivious that an enemy held concert with their leader. I will live to see them executed, held responsible for the deaths of my countrymen. My confidence grows with each step.
The gates. How welcome their spikes, their iron flanks. I pass under the arch and pause to look down into the canal. The canal is connected to a network of underground passages and sewage tunnels. How did they let me escape this far?
“Hold there for a sec,” says one of the guards, his Pygmalion body shifting into animation. “The Attendant is trying to get your attention.”
I look behind me and see that the Attendant has wiggled out from the palace walls and is running toward us. He holds a sheaf of paper above his head and is calling out. I can make out his words faintly at first, echoing across the square. The words rebound off each other, intensifying like a wave. We all stand there dumbly, watching him approach.
“Way op way op… wait sop sop… wait stop. Wait! Stop!”
What has this slimy little bastard done? Has he found the string of code I deposited into the Minister’s computer, like pushing a worm into the ground? Has he alerted the General, who holds the throats of my girls? Has he come to detain me?
“Stop! You must stop!”
Or is he chasing me down to help the Minister with some other trivial task? Help him lift his fork to his mouth. Wipe his ass. Regretful tasks, but I will live. I will pretend. I will go along to get along. Cower and whisper and nod submissively. Twist like a worm in the fingers of a fisherman.
I look down into the canal. I could jump now, wiggle into the tunnels, but the General will execute my wife and child. If I stay rooted to the ground, they will execute me, and maybe my family will live. The canal’s water is dark, framed by brackish stains against the stone.
“Wait! Stop!” He’s getting closer.
We deny. Then we bargain. Then we run to avoid our fate. The worm turns in our hearts, and we project courage. In the end we are all cowards.
I jump into the canal and disappear down the length of dark tunnel. I am sobbing as I run.
Jesse Rowell is an SFF author featured in multiple publications, including NPR and several literary journals. He can be found at https://jesserowell.com
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