*Sorry guys, still working on this. Hoping to put it up by noon tomorrow. Sorry.*
On A Far Distant Shore
Sarah A. Hoyt
It was nothing. Less than nothing. A glimpse out of the corner of the eye, a flash of color. Tell me, is that something to risk life and security on? For a stranger? And one you never liked?
I’m not a fighter. My parents tried to make me one, at least as far as their religion demanded. Weekends of camping rough and weeks of training in survival and weapons didn’t make me like it any better. I didn’t like fights, and I didn’t like camping, and I didn’t like being prepared for a revolution that never came.
And after father died, I didn’t like anything my parents had taught me. It’s all very well to believe that some supernatural force endowed humans with the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. But where was dad’s right when push came to shove? He died like other men, and they burned his remains, and he was as gone as the mythical Usa, that land of freedom that was the core of my parents’ misguided beliefs.
I was not a Usaian. I hadn’t left the religion because it was forbidden. The proclamation that anyone found belonging to the cult would be killed hadn’t made me leave. It was that I could no longer believe in it.
I’d left home, I’d trained in accounting. I was suited to it. I understood numbers. Numbers worked for me. At the age of twenty eight I was in charge of all the accounts for Good Man St Cyr, the ruler of Liberte Seacity, one of the fifty most powerful men in the world, the men who between them controlled our entire civilization, managed all our technology and kept the world in peace and prosperous.
What did I have to do with the Good Man’s body guards, or a purge within their ranks?
There had been many such. The Good Man had the ultimate right to choose who serve him, to decide who had betrayed him. His word, his choice was the final decision. There was no appeal.
Sometimes, in the hallways, I walked past a clerk, or a cleaner, a guard or a bureaucrat, shackled, between armed men.
Sometimes I walked past a little earlier, while the person who’d displeased the good man was being shackled.
Which was happened that morning. The morning that would change everything.
The man leaning against the wall was huge. One of the guard commanders, judging by the stars on his shoulders. When Liberte was colonized it had drawn from all French speaking territories, including some African ones. This man looked like he drew a disproportionate amount of his heritage from Africa. Not pure African, but a mix that gave his skin the tone of dark bronze, his very short hair a black-blue glint.
He stood with hands splayed on the wall. One of the other men patted him down. What caught my attention was the sense of tension in the man being frisked. He felt like a spring, compressed and pushed, about to lash out.
I stopped, not wanting to get in the middle of a fight. Not that there was much chance of one, as four other men pointed burners at him. If he tried anything, he’d be dead before he could take a step.
But it was no part of my pay to get in the middle of a fire fight.
The guard frisking the man removed a burner, then another, then yet another from hidden holsters in the man’s uniform. I had the impression his tension grew, but he didn’t move. Another burner and then another made a small pile on the floor. Then the manacles came out and the guard shackled the erstwhile guard commander. Another guard just stood while the other frisked the prisoner.
The men with burners seemed to relax a little. They spread out. Two ahead. Two behind, and the guards who hadn’t drawn burners, one on each side of him.
And that was when the man dropped the thing he’d been holding, somehow, in his hand. Perhaps it had been in his sleeve when his hands had been spread on the wall. But now it was grasped tightly in a fist, just below the manacles.
He dropped it, unnoticed. The men around him were expecting something else. An aggressive movement. Not a dropped bit of cloth.
I saw it fall on the polished black floor, crumpled, rumpled, a scrap of cloth. In red, white and blue.
It was a flash at the corner of my eye.
I should have walked past. I should. And I’d still be the Good Man’s accountant, with a secure job and a bright future.
Instead, I stood, rooted to the floor, staring at the scrap of cloth on the floor, barely breathing.
My mind told me to walk past. My mind told me it was nothing. Probably not even fabric. Some note paper. Some discarded insignia. But I knew what it was. I knew what it was all along.
And when the guards had vanished, marching their prisoner around a corner, I approached the scrap and picked it up. It felt sweaty in my hand, the creases marked with dirt. It was no bigger than my palm, a scrap of some ancient material displaying a white star on a blue background and a white stripe with just an edge of red.
I smoothed the creases out of it, without thinking. Mine, that dad had given me shortly before he died was just a broad strip of white with red on either side. These pieces of flags that were said to have flown, once, over the mythical Usa were both the membership symbol, the object of veneration and the promise given to every Usaian. The man they arrested had been a Usaian.
It should mean nothing. Many people were Usaians. Before the seditious philosophy that men were born free had been banned worldwide, five years ago, they’d been woven through all the structure of the seacities, all the land territories, every protectorate and satrapy under the rule of a Good Man. In the territories where they had been welcomed they’d been prominent and all but ruled.
It was no surprise that the Good Men had forbidden the religion. What was surprising was that anyone had tolerated it so long.
Since it had been forbidden, there had been captures of the religionaries. Big and small ones, and some public executions and some private ones. Hundreds, perhaps thousands of Usaians had been killed. I hadn’t been keeping track. I could even understand the rationale for the arrests and executions.
I willed my hand to drop the scrap of cloth, but it wouldn’t. Instead, exasperated, I shoved it in my tunic pocket, knowing I would be arrested or worse, should it be found on me.
The day slid by like a surreal dream. My steps seemed to loud on the polished black dimatough floor. The numbers wouldn’t add up. And the scrap of cloth on my back pocket radiated imagined heat. I felt like everyone could see I was carrying it. Everyone would know. Everyone.
I worked quietly. I probably looked absolutely normal to everyone else, but my senses were sharper, working harder than ever before. The slick, well worn buttons of the comlynk on which I worked seemed rough. The sounds around me, even my co-workers’ breaths seemed too loud.
“Samuel D’Avenir,” someone said. “A secret Usaian.” The cloth on my pocket burned against me.
I purposely tried not to hear, tried to compute the revenues from the Good man’s business at Shangrilla, but the numbers, always so easy, seemed meaningless. In my mind I saw the man named Samuel D’Avenir, and wondered if he was even alive still. He’d brought this on himself. My father had also brought his death on himself.
I realized I’d worked late, and was the only one left in the accounting office. There wasn’t anything particularly unusual about that.
What was unusual was that I couldn’t simply go home. And that I had a forbidden bit of cloth in my back pocket.
I don’t remember making a decision. Perhaps I don’t want to remember it. I found myself walking an unaccustomed way, behind the kitchens, to where the dungeons were in which prisoners from the household were confined.
My hands were sweating, my legs felt like they’d drop off, I didn’t have a burner, I couldn’t remember anything I’d learned in self defense or survival, I was going to die, and I couldn’t get my legs to stop walking towards trouble.