Stories By Gabriel Boutros
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A dystopian vision of the not so distant future. The War on Terror continues unabated, and North America's Muslim population has been rounded up and settled in huge internment camps. Climate change has been ignored until the very air we breathe has become poisonous. A militaristic administration clamps down on civil rights in the name of law and order. And in Montreal, a government employee begins to hate himself, his life and the people in it.
October 17, 2039:
When the time came Richard knew there would be a high probability of serious injury, not only to the Cons, but also to innocent by-standers. He’d told them he didn’t want anybody to get hurt, and that, despite his big talk a few days earlier, he believed they should remain a non-violent movement.
But Suzanne had spoken to him quietly the night before in her kitchen. She held his hand and gazed into his eyes as she told him how proud she’d been when he’d spoken up at the last meeting. She was glad he understood that some pain was necessary, or else people wouldn’t react.
“The sheep,” she said, “will keep walking down the chute unless something scares them. Only then will they open their eyes and see where they’re headed.”
Richard didn’t respond. He knew that even scared sheep couldn’t stop themselves from going to slaughter, but he didn’t want to contradict her. She saw his hesitation and asked him if he was afraid, with a look that told him she would only accept one answer.
“Of course not,” he lied, looking down to avoid her searching gaze. “I just want to make sure I’m doing the right thing.”
“What else can we do, Richard? The public is so apathetic they can’t be shaken out of their torpor with clever slogans and colourful signs.”
She brushed the hair out of his eyes and bent her head to look into his face.
“Without some pain they’ll never see that the administration is run by militarists and elite industrialists who are happily enriching themselves while families are poisoned by the very air and water around them.”
Now Richard stood inside the library’s entrance, remembering her words, and smelling her perfume like she was still holding his hand. He watched as his fellow students trudged in and out of the building. Most carried small waist-packs containing their study discs and some nutri-snacks under their coats. He worried that somebody would wonder why his pack looked bulkier than everybody else’s. Surely nobody would expect him to be carrying an actual textbook around. But nobody gave him a second look.
In the street, in front of the RCMP station that was next door to the library, several patrol cars were parked. He watched as two Cons, their air-masks hanging from their belts, chatted amiably while they leaned against their cruisers. They were happy about something: one of them laughing out loud while squeezing his colleague’s arm, before they both strolled into the station.
Richard wanted to imagine that they were laughing about an arrest they’d made, maybe some innocent and harmless old man, but he couldn’t. It was easier to hate a faceless administration than it was two buddies sharing a laugh. Whatever passion he’d felt in Suzanne’s apartment had dissipated. This would have been easier for him if his heart was still full of anger, but there was no turning back.
He looked at the antique digital clock on the library wall: it was 9:45 AM. They’d told him to plant the bomb at 10 o’clock, five minutes before the planned detonation, to minimize the risk of discovery. But his heart was beating too rapidly, and he could feel the sweat pouring down his face. He was sure he’d faint if he had to wait much longer.
Nobody’s going to find it anyway, he told himself, as he placed the waist-pack behind a bench near an exterior wall.
The detonation was set to expand outward, toward the police detachment, and not inward where the students were crowded into a tight space. Still, the chances of some of them being seriously injured, maybe even dying, were fairly high.
He repeated to himself some of Suzanne’s arguments that he’d memorized as a mantra: All shortages are tools of the administration; hungry people pay more for food; there’s always someone else to blame.
He took a deep breath and told himself that it had to be done. After this act of defiance the administration would have to take them seriously. And Suzanne would know that he was a real man.
He just hoped that nobody he knew would get hurt.
June 6, 2039
Nobody said a word. The people gathered as they did every weekday morning, starting at the corner nearest to his house, then in a line that snaked down the block to the next street. In a matter of minutes there were two hundred of them, their faces hidden behind the rubber and glass masks that kept them alive.
It was another orange alert. Eight straight days. Allen Janus couldn’t remember it ever being this bad.
He waited for the metro-bus, trying to ignore the cries of a baby in a plastic-covered basket carried by the woman behind him. Every time she slid her hand through the vent-slot to comfort the colicky child the basket jostled Janus, who stared up at the murky sky and thought of blue skies and open fields. His own plastic cover-all, zipped up to his neck, pinched him at the waist. It had begun fitting him quite snugly due to his sedentary lifestyle and the fact that exercise was not recommended for people over forty.
The discomfort he felt was nothing compared to what would happen if his air-mask stopped functioning. He thought of the clean white gauze he’d placed into its filter that morning. By the time he got to work it would be shit-brown and need to be replaced. The orange-flashing signs above the exits of his office building reminded all employees to make sure the gauze in their mask-filters was regularly replaced.
He remembered a middle-management type named John something who hadn’t bothered to clean the filter for two days during an orange alert. On his way home on the metro-bus he began having difficulty breathing because no air was getting through. The old gauze had solidified, clogging the mask’s air passages. In a panic, he’d pulled his mask off and taken in great gulps of the toxic air.
He ended up dying on a gurney in the hallway of the New Montreal General Hospital’s over-crowded emergency ward, his lungs full of puss from the infection that had rapidly spread through-out his body. All because he had ignored administration regulations that filter-gauze be replaced at least twice a day during orange alerts.
A soft, but growing, rumble in the distance brought Janus out of his reverie. Some of the people in the usually silent line began whispering nervously. He looked down the road, trying to see what was making the sound which came from behind a squat apartment building two blocks away.
After a few seconds he saw a multi-track approaching; it was the RCMP’s preferred vehicle for urban patrols. Several agents hung off the sides of the lumbering grey truck, holding small wooden bats in their free hands.
What the hell’re they up to?
There was the sound of scuffling behind him, followed by a muffled yell. He turned and saw two people, their faces and shapes hidden under their protective clothing, pushing through the crowd and heading away from the multi-track. The sudden roar of the vehicle’s engines announced its acceleration toward the pair, and they burst away from the crowd, running frantically in the opposite direction. One of them slipped a package out from underneath his topcoat and threw it away as he rounded a corner.
Nobody tried to stop them, nor yelled out in their direction. As the multi-track approached the metro-bus line several people turned their heads away instinctively, or averted their eyes. Janus, though, found his attention drawn to the nearest agent, hanging off the passenger door. The glass shield of the agent’s air-mask was mirrored, making it impossible to see his eyes, unlike the masks worn by civilians. Yet the man seemed to be staring right at Janus, who couldn’t pull his own eyes away. As the vehicle rumbled past their intersection, the agent’s mask remained fixed on Janus, who suddenly felt sweat soaking his shirt.
With the multi-track about 50 meters away the agent turned his head and pointed his bat in the direction that the two runners had disappeared. The vehicle turned the corner and the sound of its engines took a long time to fade away. Janus’s heart beat rapidly. He was unsure why he’d felt compelled to stare at the agent, yet wondered why such a simple act should be so terrifying.
He took a deep breath and reassured himself that the RCMP had no interest in someone like him. That obviously wasn’t the case for the poor bastards they were chasing. Perhaps they were criminals or radicals; maybe even enviro-terrorists. He wondered what would happen when they were caught, never doubting that they would be. Few people ever got away.
Once the half-track was gone there was some furtive whispering among the people in line, but this quickly died down. Soon, everything was back to normal. Some people coughed lightly or cleared their throats, and several, trying to behave casually, gently touched the timer on the coms in their ears. Janus did so as well. It was 8 AM.