Mr. Chiappelli extrapolates what happens when well intentioned, but poorly executed legislation is enacted. And they called it the “Patriot Act”…
Everyone understood when Ricardo was taken into custody. He was a bad man otherwise they wouldn’t have come for him. He had immigrated to the country sometime in his teens. Foreign enemies might have brainwashed him. It was possible that he was a sleeper agent. Peter never really thought about it. As far as he was concerned, Ricardo was just another neighbor. The only thing that made him stand out was his habit of working on his car in the front yard.
Arrests happened a lot. It was a scary time to be alive. That was one of the reasons Peter and Elizabeth never had any children. The nations’ enemies had gotten clever. They had gone deep underground. It took a concentrated effort by every citizen to root them out now. Both Peter and Elizabeth did their part. They had their national IDs, their shoulder implants, and all the correct club affiliations. Peter worked as a forensics detective with the local police and Elizabeth taught political science at the community college.
So it came as a great surprise when they came for Elizabeth.
It was a Wednesday afternoon. When Peter pulled into the driveway, he noticed that Elizabeth’s car was still there. She was late for her evening class. Inside, the house was undisturbed. With the fear that comes from something out of the ordinary, Peter crept through the house. As each room turned out to be empty, his worries increased. He kept expecting to round the corner and find Elizabeth’s body lying on the ground, rigor mortis setting in, bowels evacuated.
His horror was never realized. He returned to the kitchen and heated up some leftovers for dinner when the doorbell rang.
Denise from next door was standing out front looking nervous.
“Hi. What’s up?”
Denise looked both ways before speaking. Peter felt his professional mask slip on. What she had to say wasn’t going to be pleasant for either of them. “They came for your wife today.”
Peter nodded, his mask revealing nothing. “Who came for her? Which division?”
“I don’t know. They were in suits.” That ruled out the police and the SWAT teams. Unfortunately, that left Internal Security. “I thought you should know.” Her eyes filled up with tears. She quickly turned away to wipe them. “Bye.” Denise hurried away.
His face still bland, he watched her go. If Elizabeth turned out to be guilty of something, then both he and Denise would be hauled in as part of the routine investigation. One terrorist usually meant that a cell had been discovered, so Peter had always been told.
Thoughts of eating fled from his mind. Peter sat on the couch and thought. Elizabeth was a professor which had always put her at risk. Some of her journals always bordered on subversive. They were filled with comparative articles that could be described as propaganda. It was a risk that came with the job. Same as his. It rarely happened, but it was possible for some irate suspect to attack the forensics detective assigned to their case.
But why go after Elizabeth? She was at a community college. She was a small fry. Practically every day she complained that the students slept through her classes. It must be a mistake. But who ever heard of Internal Security making a mistake? They had complete access to everyone’s records. They knew where she had been, who she had been with, what she had been doing. In the ceiling, there were cameras that had been installed by the Home Security Act. I.S. could just replay her old tapes if they had any doubts.
He slept fitfully that night. Without Elizabeth, the bed was colder than usual. Just as he was about to drift into unconsciousness, he would reach an arm over and have it come down on empty bed. It was so unnerving that it woke him up again. Peter thought about calling his brother, but is was best not to involve anyone else. When the alarm finally went off the next morning, it was a relief.
Pulling out of his neighborhood, Peter switched the car to autodrive and stared out the window, lost in thought. Why had they taken Elizabeth? What could she have done? The looming skyscrapers of the city caught his eye. His car wasn’t taking him to work, his exit was before the skyscrapers. He hit the manual override button. Nothing happened.
Peter switched on the map. The many pop-up ads bugged him, which is why he usually left the map off. It brought up a black box with the words Security Override written in red. Panicked, Peter tried to open the door. It refused to budge. His car was now in their control. Trying to control his breathing, Peter sat back down. It made a certain amount of sense. If Elizabeth was a suspect, they would want to talk to her mate.
Even though it was hopeless, Peter turned on the radio and tried to find news. Thousands of radio stations were available. The vast majority of them played musicmercials of various genres. Peter found a news station and tuned in. Another hurricane, another drug bust, another celebrity arrested for some trivial crime. Nothing about the revolution that threatened to disrupt everything.
Nervously, Peter turned the radio off. Maybe the reason that there was no news was because the revolution had been stopped. Outside, dilapidated buildings blurred past. There was graffiti and trash everywhere. It looked like the kind of place the enemy lived in. Maybe he had been captured by the enemy. He wasn’t an important man in the police force, but he did know how to investigate a crime scene. That information could be useful to the enemy.
Braking sharply, the car turned into the underground parking of one of the buildings. It came to a stop next to the elevator. Two men in suits stood waiting. They took Peter by his arms as his car door opened. There were three cameras watching them. In the shadows, Peter caught glimpses of soldiers in full riot gear.
A logo in the elevator confirmed that he was in the custody of Internal Security. Somehow, it didn’t reassure Peter.
“What’s this about?” Peter asked.
“You don’t need to know.” One of the suits answered.
Peter considered asking about his rights. But that would only indicate a guilty conscious. Only the enemy worried about their rights. It was how they could subvert the system. As a good citizen, Peter remained quiet.
The elevator brought them to a well-lit office. People bustled about. It was more subdued than the police station that Peter worked in. Probably because I.S. worked on more sensitive cases. The suits escorted Peter to a small room with wooden paneling on the walls. There were three chairs around a small table with cameras visible in all corners.
“Have a seat.” The suits ordered before departing.
Peter sat. In his thoughts, he had been replaying his entire fifteen year relationship with Elizabeth looking for any clues. There had been some of the usual griping about the government, jokes about the perpetual surveillance and what I.S. had in their digital archives, venting at tax time.
Time crept by. Peter began to think that they had forgotten about him. Good citizens were patient. The enemy was subtle, it required time to catch him. One time, after they had been dating for a year, Peter had suspected that Elizabeth was cheating on him. He bugged one of his buddies at I.S. to review some of her old tapes. She really had been spending all that time at the library reading old biology books. To assuage his guilt, he surprised her with dinner for a month after that.
The room smelled faintly of cigarettes. There were a few nicks in the wooden paneling where someone had pushed a chair back too quickly. Peter wished that he had a Personal Entertainment Device, a television, or even a book. Boredom was beginning to set in.
Hours crept by, minute by minute. Eventually, Peter laid his head on the table and tried to sleep. He was innocent, that much he knew. Elizabeth was innocent as well. The only conclusion that he could reach was that it was all a big misunderstanding.
When Peter had lost all sense of time and slipped into that dazed state just before sleep, the interrogator entered the room. He had a female agent with him. They took the other two chairs in the room.
“Peter Murphy. Husband to Elizabeth Murphy?” the interrogator began.
“Yes.” Peter answered with weary alertness.
“This is Agent Spencer. We have a few questions about Elizabeth Murphy’s work.”
The interrogator’s cool, professional manner bothered Peter. Peter just wanted to scream out his and his wife’s innocence. Instead he nodded. Only the guilty proclaimed innocence.
Agent Spencer placed a dossier on the table. “Elizabeth Murphy was working on a theory of group organization rooted in biological systems. Are you familiar with her work?”
Before answering, Peter forced himself to stick to short responses. “No. She wanted to wait until she was done before sharing it.”
Agent Spencer nodded agreeably. “It’s an old theory. Have you heard of the Gaia theory?” Peter shook his head no. “It theorizes that the entire planet is one living organism. There is a lot of indirect evidence in favor of it. One piece of evidence is other living creatures like yourself. Your body is composed of trillions of individual cells all working for the common good. We think of you as alive and not as a colony of cells. Do you follow me so far?”
“Several insect species like ants, bees, and termites also exhibit a comparable phenomenon with their own colonies. It is accurate to speak of them in terms of individual creatures and as colonies. Naturally, many people have attempted to place humans in this category. After all, we speak of political states as having their own wills.”
“Your wife has spent a great deal of time reviewing this literature. We have a long list of the specific items your wife has downloaded, borrowed from the library, and bought.” The interrogator interjected.
“Elizabeth Murphy began to work on a new line of reasoning. Something can be said to be alive if it can die. So in a backwards way, she tried to prove societies were alive by proving that they die. Death is a biological process. Organisms decay and decompose. Now where would the wife of a forensics scientist get an idea like that?”
Ice ran through his body. “I don’t know.” he said weakly.
“Fair enough. Would you describe the process when a body decomposes?” Agent Spencer leaned back in her chair.
“Well, first rigor mortis sets in. The muscles lock up. The internal checks of the body are deactivated and the enzymes used to digest food and create energy begin to digest the body from the inside. Smells from the body attract scavenging insects that enter the body through any openings they can find. It can take as little as two weeks to naturally turn a body into a skeleton.”
During his explanation, both the interrogator and the agent nodded their heads. They continued the interrogation for several hours. They asked about conversations that he had with his wife that he had forgotten about. They asked him about his views of the government. They asked him if he thought society was decaying. Peter knew the right answers. They tried to reveal him as the enemy in more oblique ways. They grilled him on every aspect of his life except his wife’s theory.
When it was over, Peter felt naked. It was like a whole medical school of doctors came and probed him.
“Usually we hold the suspect indefinitely, but you’re highly thought of in your department. We had a special request from your chief to let you return to work. I guess we can let you go.” Agent Spencer said, smiling as if the whole episode was just a minor inconvenience.
“What about my wife?” Peter asked.
“Mr. Murphy, I regret to tell you that Elizabeth Murphy is dead.” The interrogator said, without a hint of regret. “She was executed as an enemy theorist earlier today.”
Shock set in instantly. Two new suits came and escorted Peter back to his car and sent him on his way. When the car pulled out of the garage, Peter could see the sky for the first time since he arrived. It was dark. He began to cry. Elizabeth was gone. It hurt him like someone had physically chiseled away part of his body.
He cried for a long time. His car brought him back to his empty house. Elizabeth’s car was still in the driveway. Dragging himself inside, Peter went to bed and stayed there for a couple days. His chief called and Peter told him briefly what happened. They granted him an extended leave.
His tears dried up after the second day. They were replaced with bitterness and depression. Plodding around his house in his pajamas, Peter looked at all of Elizabeth’s textbooks. She was not the enemy. But when they killed her, they made Peter their enemy. And if her theories were dangerous to them, Peter would learn them and finish them.
The trick was to become the enemy without being detected. Peter was savagely aware of the many cameras and microphones sprinkled through his house. If he started to repeat the research that Elizabeth had done, he would end up repeating her death. He returned to bed and thought. Basically, her theory was a thought experiment anyway.
They killed her, therefore, he would assume her theory was correct. What about it was dangerous? If this society was dead, then it would soon be rotting. And the enemy would decompose it. They couldn’t allow that.
First the body dies and undergoes rigor mortis. The muscles of society lock up. They stop moving. They flex to a familiar shape and freeze. In short, they become conservative. Peter strained his mind to think of examples. The study of politics was not generally encouraged. A couple times Elizabeth had referred to the current administration as conservative. She was a political scientist. That was good enough for him.
That established that the society was dead. Without checks, the enzymes would digest the body from the inside out. What were society’s enzymes? Enzymes broke down food to create energy. Farmers? The power company? That didn’t make any sense to Peter. Energy is power. What else creates power? Peter stared at the camera in the corner. His hair was sticking up and he hadn’t shaved in days. He probably looked crazy to them.
Violence creates power. That was something Elizabeth had told him back when he joined the police department. Violence is the ultimate power. At the time she was just needling him. States need police and armies. But they have to be kept in check or they go after their own citizens. Just like enzymes go after the body’s own cells. No wonder they thought she was dangerous. In a way, when I.S. executed her, they confirmed her theory.
But the state was still powerful. It still held its’ shape. It should be decomposing. Revolutions should be breaking out all over. Where were the scavengers? Internal Security was good about stopping the enemy before they did anything. There might not even be any organized enemy. In which case the state would remain in a state of mummification. You could fight off decomposition for centuries through mummification, but in the end, entropy wins. Everything decays.
There was an alternative explanation that also fit the theory. Perhaps the state wasn’t mummified. Skin is very good at holding things together and keeping scavengers out. Peter had seen it at work. A body that doesn’t look too bad, maybe some blood trickling from the mouth and nose, but the second something pokes it, the skin sloughs off and the putrid juices inside spill out. In an instant, the body is destroyed.
A plan formed in Peters mind, the only place that I.S. couldn’t monitor. Things had been quiet for a long time with no enemy attacks. Internal Security had been able to concentrate on going after regular citizens, slowly undermining the very state it was designed to protect. A drastic attack now would force a drastic response from I.S. It might be the poke that would burst the bloated corpse of the state.
Starting immediately, Peter would return to work and make it his business to be very meticulous. I.S. would see that he was working hard to prevent any further suspicions from falling on him. Eventually he would be called on to do ballistic fingerprinting on a gun or a spectrum scan on a blaster. Ordinarily, it would only take a few rounds for him to work with. But Peter would order an excessive number of bullets. I.S. would see that he was just being overly cautious.
It was painful, at first, for Peter to return to work. His co-workers tried to express their condolences, but they had to avoid making it seem like they approved of Elizabeth lest I.S. take a notice of them. Eventually they stopped trying. Eventually they simply went away, leaving Peter to work alone. And after putting in long, lonely hours at work, Peter would return to his empty house.
Finally the opportunity that Peter was waiting for arrived. A farm worker had shot and killed another farm worker. To conceal his tracks, he had returned the weapon to the armory where it was cleaned and stored with a dozen identical weapons. To seal the case against the kid, Peter needed to find the murder weapon. With a sense of approaching destiny, Peter filled out the requisition sheet for several boxes of ammo.
The rest of the day passed slowly.
When Peter arrived the next morning, the rack of guns and boxes of ammo were waiting in the basement at the firing range. He carefully observed his morning rituals, nodded to the people who needed nodding to, and went into the basement. Next door to the firing range was the I.S. monitoring station that kept track of the police. The door was shut.
At the firing range, Peter put on the protective goggles, gloves, and ear plugs. Then he meticulously loaded each weapon with a full clip and set them out on the table. Two I.S. cameras passively recorded his actions.
Taking a deep breath, he put the final phase of his plan into action. He brought the first gun up and shot at both cameras. There was probably a third hidden away somewhere. Hopefully it wouldn’t matter. Quickly Peter gathered up the guns and left the room. He kicked in the door to the I.S. station. There were two startled looking men trying to figure out what to do. Peter shot both of them and the computer screens they were staring at.
Then Peter climbed into the elevator and hit the up button. By the time he stepped out on the upper stories, the bottom would be teeming with I.S. agents. He took the brief trip to collect himself and arrange the weapons on his body in some kind of order. It would only take a poke and his role was done. The elevator door dinged and opened. Peter stepped out.
As impassively as a white blood cell attacking rouge cancer cells, Peter began to fire bullet after bullet into the political officers who populated the upper reaches of the office building. It would stir things up a bit. A respected member of the community turns out to be the enemy and attacks the heart of one of the most secure places in the city. Even while he emptied the guns, Peter knew that this meant his death. But what did the death of a single cell matter to the body. He owed it to Elizabeth and her theory. Dead things need to decay in order for life to continue. Whatever came next had to be better.