*Sorry this is so late. There have been… interruptions.*
The Bombs Bursting in Air
Sarah A. Hoyt
The holo board on the side of the road read “Emergency. All Vehicles and persons, please turn on the next right and wait for inspection.”
I had just flown in to Sea York, dropped from long-distance altitude to local altitude, and was cruising maybe two feet above the glistening ceramite surface of Queens, the main road from the coast into the heart of the seacity.
The billboard’s words made my fingers start for the control panel of my flyer. And then I stopped.
What was the emergency, precisely, and what would the inspection entail?
Since at least the twentieth century this sort of impromptu search of the general public had been used for everything, from terrorist threats, to interdiction of illegal substances to stopping kidnappings.
This one might mean everything or nothing.
I felt the back of my neck prickle, and despite the controlled climate in my flyer, felt a trickle of sweat trail down my back, under the plain, white work shirt I’d donned for the occasion.
The inspection could be for the same reason as my mission. And if it was for the same reason as my mission, it could paradoxically impair what I had to do. The Usaians were not stupid. They were a great many things, yes, but not stupid. Were they stupid, they wouldn’t have all the security apparatus of Earth on high alert for years. Were they stupid, they wouldn’t be illegal. If they were stupid, I’d be out of a job.
Not being stupid and having an inspection attempting to prevent their planned show of force before the vote of the legislature of Sea York tomorrow, they would be extra suspicious of anyone in their midst.
I spotted an alley on the left, before the next turn right, and took it, keeping my eyes peeled for anyone following me. But all the other flyers, in the sparsely traveled road seemed to be staying on the main throughfare and following instructions.
No surprise about it, either. The alley I’d ducked into was so narrow that my flyer, one of the cheaper sports models, designed to appeal to bachelors and young couples, almost scraped on both sides, and it took some finessing and maneuvering, to keep from doing so.
At the end of the alley, randomly, I turned to the right into a slightly larger road, one that was lined with the semi-spherical pink homes built in a hurry at the turn of the century to accommodate immigration to the seacity, and now mostly occupied by the working class and called by the derogatory name of mushrooms.
The street was quiet. Too quiet. I realized that there were no kids playing outside, always a bad sign in this neighborhood, and the prickle at the back of my neck increased.
Something was wrong.
My mission was supposed to be simple. I was supposed to spy on the Usaians. Not infiltrate them exactly. Security services from all over the world have tried to infiltrate them, and, technically speaking, it should be easy.
I mean, they were a secretive religion but one that was created from so many disparate strands, and involved so many different people, and so many sects that it should have been easy for a relative stranger to claim to be a recent convert.
The problem was that the vast majority of Usaians were just believers. They knew nothing of their agenda, their covert actions. And those who were leaders or close to the leaders, from whom the directives of the movement emanated were not stupid.
We’d never fully been able to understand how infiltrators were spotted. Back at headquarters we had data gem upon data gem full of case studies, though, and it was hard to deny they had been spotted and either committed suicide – sometimes in ways that required acrobatic ability – or simply vanished. The vanished ones were more worrisome. At least they worried those considering taking up the mission.
It hadn’t worried my older brother, Paul, but then it could be said that Paul had always been overconfident. He’d disappeared while on mission 5 years ago, never to be heard from again. It was suspected he’d become a victim of the Sons of Liberty, the terroristic branch of the Usaians, but the fact no one knew for sure that the Sons of Liberty existed made the whole thing a nightmare of suspicion and implication.
Thinking of Paul made me clamp my jaw together hard, to stop the itch in my eyes. My father had died in the year since Paul had gone missing, died without knowing what had become of his first born, died without even the consolation of a funeral for his son. And I was not going to cry.
I might be a woman, but that didn’t mean that I could cry in public. Father had been a member of the International Alliance of Peacekeepers and Paul and I had been raised in the traditions of the force, and eventually joined. Keeping the peace, protecting order and sustaining established authority was our mission. It left very little room for private sorrow. Paul had died in the service of order and peace. Dad had lived for that service. And now it was my turn.
What I was going to do was come to Sea York ahead of what the Usaians were calling “a show of presence” designed to intimidate the legislature into not outlawing them.
I was going to find out how they got their orders, which would lead to their central authorities. Once those were found, the legitimate governments of the world should be able to prove that this worship of a long-vanished system of government was not a religion but a dangerous political movement, one that intended to take over the whole world.
Once we discovered who their top men were, and who was giving orders, downward, we would be able to dispel their crazy notion of individual power, or individual action. We should be able to defang the poisonous idea that the authority to govern should rightly reside in the hands of the governed.
And now there was someone on my tail, I realized. Or at least a battered, small, red flyer was following me through the silent neighborhood.
I took three turns at random and it followed, on my tail.
It was either really inefficient at tracking, or it wanted me to know I was being followed. The sweat down my back was now a river. I bit my lower lip while I tried to reason it through.
It could be a Usaian, of course. I had established an identity for this mission, of course: Natasha Borodin someone who had been flitting for years on the outskirts of Usaian circles without fully converting, at least that anyone knew. The id this flyer broadcasted was tied pretty strongly to that identity. It might be that they considered me enough one of them to try to protect me. Or it could be they suspected me enough to want to verify what I was up to.
Or, given my supposed sympathies, it was entirely possible that the constituted authorities were following me, perhaps – the idea made me smile – because they suspected me of being one of the secret leaders of the Usaians.
I kept an eye on the flyer behind me as I turned to a slightly larger suburban neighborhood, this one with houses that looked like they could have been built in the 21st century, save that the slight sheen of ceramite and dimatough gave away that they weren’t wood and stucco. And stopped, suddenly.
In the middle of the road was a barricade. It took me only a second to realize that it was an official barricade. The seal of Sea York occupied the center of the barricade, an eagle with the bar sinister. And everyone behind it wore the bright orange uniforms of Sea York peace keepers.
I had a split second to make a decision. If they were looking for drugs, kidnapped children or weapons, I could go through. Natasha Borodin had no guns. The ones I did have were behind the panel, where no one could ever find them, or at least no one who wasn’t a member of the Inties. Those who worked on international peacekeeping shared that kind of secret across the various nations, protectorates and territories.
Too late I realized I hadn’t had the local broadcast on, and that it could have told me what the search was about. I tweaked the control panel and heard “believed to be dangerous elements” and also “subvert the order” but the words in the middle were garbled, and while my flyer, having stopped, came to rest gently on the pavement, three men had come out from behind the barricade, burners at the ready.
The little battered red flyer had vanished.
Subvert the order and dangerous elements had to refer to a public movement, not to drugs or kidnapping. Which meant –
I punched the take off button and shot straight up, amid the trees that lined the peaceful street. Branches scraped the side of the flyer, and there was an explosive sound. An alarm sounded from my controls. A quick glance told me I’d been shot and that something was seriously wrong with the electrical systems.
Sea York Peacekeepers shouldn’t be that quick on the trigger. They were a corporate territory, still controlled by a board of directors. They had a voting assembly, in which those who owned shares could have their say. Because of that, they were loathe to either offend investors or scare away potentially skilled migrants.
It was part of the reason they were lousy with Usaians.
Which meant they were spooked, and the only thing that could have spooked them was the proposed “demonstration of presence” of the Usaians. No one knew exactly what that was supposed to mean, except that a press release from someone claiming to belong to the Daughters of Liberty had said it would show how large their numbers were in Sea York and show their nature as productive, integral members of a thriving society.
And of course, my evading their barricade. But a search of the flyer would have revealed my supposed Usaian sympathies, and if they were that spooked I’d at the very least have spent a night in jail and been unable to complete my mission.
Or I’d have to reveal myself and trust the discretion of local cops.
I snorted, even as I started looking for a place to land. The control panel was beeping distressingly, and I was going to go down hard and fast either way. Better choose where to go.
The only place I could think of to aim for was a private beach on the edge of the seacity away from all roads. While the peacekeepers were bound to follow me, I would probably be able to find a pathway from that beach that would be hard for a flyer to follow.
So I guided my flyer, losing altitude at an appalling rate, over to the little expanse of black sand, bordering the sea. The sand was black in most seacities, since it was the worn away grains of the dimatough used to build the original island. But before I landed I knew I’d made the wrong choice. The beach was maybe fifty feet long by twenty feet deep, and, what was worse, it was bordered on all sides by high, shining, black dimatough walls.
A frantic finger on the controls failed to get the flyer to lift. All I could do was land as gently as I could.
Not gently enough. I lost power entirely and dropped the last six feet, with a force that jarred pain through my head and made my teeth hurt.
Before the pain subsided, I was unbuckled, and kneeling on the floor, searching for the spot that would open the compartment where I kept my weapons. If I was very lucky, they’d merely fired on me out of panic, and they wouldn’t pursue me.
I didn’t believe in luck. Most people who did were dead. Like Paul.
Finding the slightly raised combination pad by touch – something impossible if I hadn’t known it was there – I tapped my combination and the secret compartment on the side of my seat slid open. I dove in, coughing against the smoke suddenly filling the flyer cabin, and found two burners, by touch, before my brain informed me that the smoke must be due to the electrical trouble in the flyer, and that if I stayed around to look for the long distance weapons I was going to either choke or roast.
So, instead, staying low – smoke rises – I crawled to the control panel and punched the emergency door opening button. The door slid open partway, the smoke poured out of the flyer, clouding my view of the outside, and I thought if I just walked out and there was anyone ambushing me, I would likely get shot.
So, instead, I threw myself out at ground level, and landed in a roll that took me to the side, and partly under the flyer, burner in hand.
Before I’d stopped rolling I knew I’d made the right decision, as a burner ray flew by above me, probably in response to indistinct movement in the smoke.
Which meant not only had I been followed, but my pursuers had anticipated my movements and “followed ahead”. Not exactly difficult, since I’d been maneuvering on a crippled flyer, but also not precisely easy, since I’d got here as soon as I could.
That type of precision and organization seemed to speak of an official organization, the sort that governments could put in play. On the other hand the Usaians had managed to survive despite being outlawed in ninety percent of places around the world.
I scooted further into the shadow of my flyer, and located three spots where, even through the spoke, the light shone unnaturally, probably on the surface of flyers. Three of them, damn it. And me alone and with a winged flyer.
When all else fails, try razzle dazzle. Razzle dazzle, followed by sufficiently fast firepower can sometimes work.
So I spoke loudly, trying to keep my voice to “young woman” and “Confused” and using as close as I could to the broad Sea York accent on Glaish, “Who are you? Why have you shot my flyer?”
Right after I spoke, I rolled sideways, and predictably, a burner ray shone through where I’d been. Whoever was after me was serious, and cared very little for whether they’d be pursued for killing me. So – the Usaians?
But a throat was cleared near one of the shining areas, and a voice said, “Claire Briand, do you wish to surrender?”
My real name shocked me for a moment. Who could have my real name? My identity as Natasha Borodin had been laid so deep, I doubted even local authorities could have gotten it, much less the Usaians.
The only people who could know it were—
My own people, the Internationals, or as we called ourselves, the inties. And if my own people were after me–
I started to open my mouth to say I’d done nothing that I needed to surrender or be punished for, and then stopped. If they’d come to arrest me, lawfully and normally, they’d have shouted what I was supposed to have done, and my name, and asked me to surrender, before shooting at me.
If they had come at me with killing force, what I’d done or hadn’t done were of no consequence. Someone wanted me dead.
I crawled forward a little, careful to keep in the shadow and the smoke. Right now, in a place this size, surrounded by hostiles, I had basically chance zero at surviving. Unless, of course, I managed to make the smoke far more intense, which would give me cover to—
I wasn’t sure to what, since right then my only options seemed to be to swim out to sea and drown. From my mental map of the place before landing, those straight dimatough walls extended on either side of the little cove and my chances of being able to swim the couple of miles before the next island before my arms gave out were next to none.
There were rumors that back in the twenty first great great great great grandad had been bio-enhanced by his parents. But I suspected if he’d been enhanced at all, it had been for intelligence and maybe for some physical coordination and ability, since he’d been a policeman, like everyone in the family time out of memory. I very much doubted he’d been enhanced for long distance swimming, and I certainly hadn’t.
But right then, I needed smoke so I could have a chance of not getting shot while I decided whether to die by drowning.
Unfortunately I was a peacekeeper, not a flyer mechanic. I had no idea why my flyer was smoking. According to regulations, all the stuff in there was supposed to be non-flammable, from the circuits to the inner furnishings.
Well, the circuits certainly weren’t, I told myself. I had a brief, mad idea of shooting the power-pack, but that was followed by the certainty if I got past the housing I’d cause an explosion that would wipe out all life on this cove. So, it remained…
I could shoot the other flyers in the same place as mine, but supposing that they weren’t made of the same sadly flammable, and probably illegal materials nothing would happen. And supposing they were, all that would happen would be stranding enemies here with me. Oh, and pissing them off.
Damn it, what I needed was cover, and then a way out of here. In desperation, I realized I’d crawled almost all the way back to my front door. I doubted I was visible where I was, in the shadow of the flyer, but I could see the two nearest flyers, one on the right, and one to the left of me, each of them official vehicles, designed to carry more than one person. There were four men near one, and two near the other. Right.
I shot an arm up into the open door of my flyer, and fired on hot and wide dispersal. As I rolled back behind my flyer, two shots found places where I’d been, and I cursed because I’d exposed myself for nothing, and the flyer’s interior turned out to be regulation non flammable.
Then there was a sound like “fwoosh” and a series of crackles, and thick, acrid smoke poured out of the interior of my flyer.
There were coughs and the sound of people scurrying.
One of the coughs came from near me. Very near. Almost touching. On my right. I pointed my burner at it, at the same time I looked.
There was a man crawling on the ground, near me, and at my turning to him, he lifted both hands, to show he was disarmed. “I’m here to help,” he whispered.
I couldn’t see much of him through the smoke, save that he was dark haired, and that there was something like amusement in his eyes. The kind of man who’d be amused with a burner pointed at him would be … like my brother. A little crazy, a lot daring, and not knowing when he was in trouble.
I hesitated, which was stupid, because in such situations hesitation is death.
He said, rapidly, “I was told to tell you Grind and Luck.”
This stopped me cold. Grind and luck were the two things that dad said were needed for success. By grind he meant study and he’d said it so often it had become a sort of family joke. I blinked at the man, and said, “Paul?” I knew he wasn’t Paul, of course. My brother’s hair, like mine, was light brown, not that black shock of hair visible through the smoke. But I couldn’t think of anyone else who would have known the family’s saying.
He shook his head. “Not here. Will you trust me?”
Two seconds to decide. Anyone who had interrogated Paul before his untimely demise might have got that out of him, even if it was a weird thing to get in interrogation. Then again, shoot someone full of babble juice and you get the strangest stuff.
On the other hand, even if he were someone who had done away with my brother, or someone in contact with those who had, he was just one man. As opposed to the six out there.
I lowered my burner and nodded. He nodded in turn. He’d been speaking in the almost soundless whisper that seemed to have gone unnoticed amid all the coughing and movement on the other side, but of course even whispers were dangerous.
He motioned for me to follow and stood enough to run half crouched through the smoke. I followed, more by detecting motion than by seeing him. At least once a burner ray barely missed me, passing close enough to singe my hair, which told me that the motion had also been detected by my pursuers.
I almost hit a flyer, at a dead run, but the man was there, stopping me, and sticking his finger in the flyer’s genlock. It was the battered vehicle that had followed me. The red one.
As the door slid open, my friend or captor pulled me up. He smelled of sweat and soap and was strong enough to lift me into the flyer without seeming effort. I took a deep breath, and he was already at the control panel.
“They’ll shoot us as we take off, I’m afraid,” he said. “So I’ll have to take off fast enough they won’t hit us.”
The take off tossed me to the floor, and as soon as we gained altitude and stabilized, I came up again. He hadn’t taken my burners, which was either a sign that he was not hostile, or a sign that he was stupid. I had my burners pointed at him as I said, “Sons of Liberty?”
I expected shock or fear or something, but he looked around over his shoulder. He had olive skin, an aquiline nose, and dark brown eyes under heavy, straight eyebrows. His teeth, when he flashed me a smile, were white and very straight. “Let’s discuss your predicament, instead,” he said, not seeming to notice the burner pointed at his head. “Who do you think betrayed you?”
“Who do you think told the authorities of Sea York that you were a dangerous Usaian subversive, in charge of the demonstration of presence tonight, and that you were coming to organize Usaians?”
I blinked stupidly at him. “No one. The people who knew of my mission—” My mouth felt suddenly dry. “The people who knew—” The people who knew included my boss Mark Vanel who had been trying to make our association less than professional, despite the fact that he was married and I was not interested. Had he been upset enough by my refusal to lay a trap for me, and get me murdered by the police of Sea York? Surely no one could be that angry at a refusal?
And then I though perhaps not angry, but scared I’d make it an official matter. But still– “Why would the authorities of Sea York shoot at a suspected Usaian?” I said. “They haven’t been made illegal yet. The assembly doesn’t vote until tomorrow. That’s what the dmonstra—”
“They would if they received a message coded through trusty channels that said that this person about to enter their city was a turncoat peace keeper and was bringing bombs for the Usaians to set off at various locations.”
“Yeah,” he said. “This could be made worse if someone cracked usaian code for the occasion tonight and got the code name.”
“For the event tonight. It’s coded “bombs bursting in air.””
“They’re going to bomb Sea York.”
“No,” he said. He’d turned back to the control panel and his hands were flying madly. “No, we’re not. We’re not that stupid. But it’s easy to get hold of just enough information to make it plausible.”
I’d caught the shift. I still had the burner pointed at him. “You’re a Usaian.”
“My name,” he said. “Well, my name of record is Juan Remy. I was named for my grandfather who was chased out of his home in the dead of night, when he was a child. My real name is John Adams Remy. Now if you excuse me a moment, I need to take some evasive maneuvers, or we’ll have busies up our nostrils before we even land.”
“I could shoot you,” I said.
“You could,” he said calmly. “But if I thought you were stupid enough to do so, without realizing it would crash land you, I would have disarmed you.”
I bit back the “you and whose army?” that rose to my lips, and instead said, “You killed my brother.”
“Your– Paul? Paul Briand? No.”
The denial was flat and had the ring of truth. I still kept a burner in each hand. If Juan hadn’t killed him, someone else had. Someone in the Sons of Liberty. And they might very well be at the end of this flight. Or at least that’s what I thought as we dove down and into an underground parking garage.
The ceiling closed behind us, and we were in a small space that looked like a private garage. There were a mop and a broom against one wall, and a pile of tools against the other. But as I stepped out of the vehicle, by the light from the ceiling I noticed the flyer was green.
Juan saw me looking and grinned. “It’s a compound in the paint. We have had it for years. Allows us to escape pursuit.”
“As you bring disorder and perform acts of terrorism?” I said.
He blinked at me. “Not normally.”
“Do you know who killed my brother?”
The “What” had not come from Juan and it was in a very well known voice. I turned to see my brother standing by a door, the light shining behind him, and making his blond hair brighter. He was older, I thought, and not just by the five years he’d been missing. What I mean is he stood straighter, and he looked more… grownup.
He was wearing blue pants and a white shirt, and looking at us with the expression of someone who had come out of greater light into a dimmer place.
“Claire!” he said, at the same time Juan said, “I got her, see.”
My brother crossed the garage in three steps to squeeze me in a bear hug. “Claire, damn it, so long, and we were so afraid you’d be dead before we could get you.”
“I don’t understand– I thought Juan– I thought the sons of liberty had kill— I thought you were dead.”
Paul let go of me, “Meet my brother in law, Juan Remy. Come in, come in. We have to get the kids fed and everything ready for the demonstration tonight.”
I put my burners in their holsters, as I stumbled into a tidy home, presided over by a dark haired woman and seemingly full of children. Seemingly because once the noise and confusion subsided the apparently multitude of kids resolved themselves into two boys, Paul Revere Briand and Charles Carroll Briand aged 4 and 3 and a little girl Elizabeth Hamilton Briand, aged two.
“I converted, you see,” Paul said, shoveling apple sauce into his daughter’s mouth, while his wife, Martha, tended to the boys, seemingly ignoring their movement and screams, and managing to make sure food made it into them and not onto their hair and clothes. Mostly.
“I don’t see,” I said. “By their insistence in taking down all government and promotion of anarchy the Usaians are a force for criminality and disruption in the world. If they took over, in the chaos, their leaders would end up in charge, and everyone else under their heel.”
Paul wiped his daughter’s mouth and picked her up. Elizabeth peered at me suspiciously, and I wondered what I was going to do about this. Nothing, of course. The Usaians weren’t illegal in Sea York. At least not yet. And even if Paul was technically a deserter, I wasn’t about to denounce my own brother. I also was having trouble with the idea that Paul could have converted to an evil philosophy. He was happy-go-lucky and far too self confident, but that didn’t mean he was hungry for power or willing to cause anarchy.
“Ah, no,” he said. “That’s what the Good Men and their functionaries say. To say otherwise would mean admitting that the Usaian system, while in use, created more prosperity more widespread than any other in history. And admitting too that what the Usaians wanted was a smaller government, one that took account individual freedoms.”
Elizabeth was peering at me through her fingers, and looking like she’d smile if I just smiled first.
“You see,” Paul said. “I was betrayed, from inside, as you were. I have no idea who betrayed you or why, but in my case it was someone who wanted my place. Anyway, I ended up in prison in Syracuse, suspected of being a Usaian, which since I’d tried to infiltrate– Well, the Usaians saved me. Mind you they saved me to get information from me, but then Juan and I hit it off, and then I realized that under our system, in the international police, under all the systems in the domains of the Good Men, we have no defense against this sort of maneuver. And in the process I’d found that in the old US, in the system my captors believed in, there was a thing called innocent until proven guilty. There were… protections.”
“It must mean a lot of bad people went free,” I said. “In fact we learned that the country was sunk in chaos.”
He shrugged. “Only at the end, and by that time, they’d given up on their beliefs and system. Yeah, some guilty people probably escaped, but more importantly, innocent people weren’t condemned. There was… some protection for the individual. All of the laws were geared to keep the individual safe from an oppressive state.”
“I didn’t say no state, hon. I said that the state had to be kept in check. They understood the need for a government, but that it should be kept in check.”
He looked across at his wife, who was making some sign. “Now?” he asked.
“Now, she said. “Let me have Ellie. You and the boys set them off.”
“Them?” I said.
Paul grinned at me. “Operation Bombs Bursting In Air.”
I couldn’t believe my brother would speak that cavalierly about killing people, but I didn’t know what he could be speaking of, either. I followed him and two excited little boys out onto the terrace just outside the room where we’d been. It was a round little space, much like others all around, at the top of the house, used – by the look of the abandoned toys – as a play area.
Paul swept the toys aside, and started setting up cylinders. Juan had come out, as well, and was keeping the two boys back.
“Let them light the fuses,” he said, as Paul was finishing up his incomprehensible preparations. “They’ll remember it forever.”
Paul nodded. He brought out a lighter, and took both his sons forward, and had them both hold the lighter, near a fuse on the ground near the line of cylinders.
Martha had come out, with Ellie. Juan was doing something or other behind us.
“Now,” Martha said, looking at a watch. “Now.”
Paul guided the boys’ hands towards the fuse. The fire caught. There was a fzz sound.
And suddenly the cylinders exploded in red, white and blue light, in a conflagration so violent I jumped back. And bumped into Juan who laughed, and steadied me, before he stood, unfurling and holding aloft a banner in broad red stripes and stars.
Around us, terraces were exploding in light, all over the seacity. There were even some up at the top, from the garden of the chairman of the ruling corporation.
And voices were singing, out of sync, something about “can you see.” Juan was singing behind me, and his voice was joined by Paul’s and Martha’s on “the bombs bursting in air, gave proof through the night that our flag was still there.”
I couldn’t believe the number of … fireworks? Or the number of flags flying. It must mean fully two thirds of Sea York were Usaians. The corporation couldn’t vote to outlaw them, not matter what the pressure brought by the Good Men. If they did, they’d lose all of their productive citizens. Or most of them.
In the dark, I found Paul had put a hand on my shoulder, “You see,” he said. “We’re not violent. We just want to live according to our beliefs.”
“But this belief in… in the power and … and sacredness of the individual is dangerous.”
“So it is. For those who want power over other humans. For the rest… well, it’s not a simple, easy and clean cut idea, but by its very nature… It’s much harder to be a tyrant over those who believe each person is sacred.”
“But a central governor, a good one, can create order and—”
“Order,” he said. “And stagnation. And injustice. Is order the most important thing?”
“You used to be a policeman,” I said. “You cared about order.”
“I’m still a policeman,” he said. “Here. I care about justice. Order can mean only that a criminal is keeping everyone else under control. Graves are very orderly. Justice is different. It means everyone has equal value under the law, and that no one will be allowed to create order at other’s expense.” He laughed a little, as though at himself. “Well, that’s the theory at least. We try.”
“You didn’t come to see father before he died,” I said.
Paul sighed. “I tried to contact him. I tried to contact you. I couldn’t come see him. We are illegal in Liberte, and people there know I’ve converted. People in the inties know I’ve converted. My attempts to contact you and dad were intercepted.”
“They– Dad died thinking you were dead. They wouldn’t let you contact us?”
“No,” he said. There was a bitter laugh. “It wasn’t orderly. It would create confusion. I named little Charles after dad.” He paused. “Well, not the middle name.”
Fireworks were still going on from every terrace, and Juan had affixed the flag to the edge of the terrace, and was setting up a second round.
“They said you were going to do a demonstration of power,” I told Paul. “That things would explode.”
“Well,” he said. “To be fair they have.” He looked around at the fireworks, with a smile on his lips, but there were tracks of tears down his face. “Even I didn’t know it would be these many people. One problem with tyranny is that it isolates you. You’re never sure if you’re alone. We passed word, to people we trusted. We didn’t know how far it reached. Well, I don’t think we’ll be outlawed come tomorrow.”
“No,” I said.
“You can go back, you know,” he said. “If you wish.”
I thought of going back. I’d been betrayed and lied to. That didn’t hurt as much as knowing they’d prevented dad from knowing his son was alive and well, or from knowing he had grandchildren. That, that betrayed a lack of concern for … for people, and for what was right and just that meant, to my mind that everyone of these people could at any minute become Mark Vanel. Because all that counted to them was power, and people in positions of power, not the vast masses they had power over. If you weren’t important to them, you didn’t matter. To anyone.
I cleared my throat. “This… individual thing… I mean…”
“What?” Juan asked. “Everyone being entitled to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness?”
“That,” I said. “Sounds good. And implausible.”
“It is,” he said. “Both. But we have… I mean… if you want to study how good and implausible it is…”
“There are classes, and ways to learn,” Paul cut in. “And you shouldn’t trust Juan. He has three wives and fifteen children in different seacities.”
“Liar. It’s only two wives and five children,” Juan said, in a tone that meant it was no wives or children. He grinned, just as he had when I’d pointed my burner at him. I had a feeling he could be dangerous and not because of multiple wives.
Paul bent and lit the fuse and set off a fresh round of red, white and blue stars. The little boys shrieked and clapped.
Through the haze of smoke and exploding fireworks, the terraces nearby showed fluttering flags, the striking and strange stars and stripes: the symbol of an alien philosophy that might or might not be as crazy as it had been painted.
But my brother wasn’t crazy. And I doubted his family was.
I squinted at the waving flags. Tomorrow, I’d learn more.
And here’s the link to the inimitable Alma Boykin’s story: https://almatcboykin.wordpress.com/2015/07/04/excerpt-pattersons-war-the-new-founders-war/