Republic of Jesters

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Clipped Wings

The space was a large cavern with a yellowish-grayish hue. It extended for a long ways, eventually getting to a point where the cavern tapers off into a dark tunnel. The walls of the space were quite peculiar. If you walked up one side of wall - that’s if gravity wasn’t doing its job that day - you would eventually find yourself on the other side of the tunnel without having to ever touch flat ground. That’s because the walls and roof were in a continuous transition. When Robert glanced at these walls, the surface of them reminded him of a honeycomb, except instead of being made out of wax hexagons, the walls were made up of concrete squares.

A thundering noise emerged out of the dark tunnel. It grew louder and louder, and eventually two lights peeked out of the tunnel. These lights were connected to a flat face that came nearer as the seconds progressed. This was a goofy looking vehicle, and when it finally stopped in front of Robert, there was no debate; it was a Washington subway train.

The train was in pretty rough shape; the breaks let off a horrifying squeal when it stopped and some of the doors were having difficulty opening. Robert could tell that the train has seen better days, but then again, this car has been running for over 60 years. He could tell from the snub nose and modernistic design that this train was one of the original Rohr subway cars sent over in 1976. ‘That’s pretty impressive,’ thought Robert. ‘These machines are older than me, yet they’re still working. Sure they have their faults, but kudos to the mechanics that fix these beasts.’

In Roberts view, mechanics were the unsung heroes of the current logistic system because they kept the country’s rolling stock rolling. The pocketed populations of America relied heavily on aging trains, so a crack team of mechanics was needed in each city or major transferring point. It was also a very difficult occupation seeing as resources were no longer abundant. People couldn’t simply send word to a parts distributor and get a new replacement anymore, so these men and women had to really know what they were doing. Appropriately, they each had the skill of a 1990’s Cuban mechanic along with the resourcefulness of MacGyver. So any praise given to the hard working mechanics of the Republic was well deserved. This subway wouldn’t be in front of Robert’s face if it wasn’t for them.

Immediately after the subway’s doors opened, a number of men ushered out of the rear of the train, each with a crate in his hand. The mass transit systems of District headquarter cities served as efficient ways of distributing supplies within cities, which explains all the loaders on the subway today. Freight-train yards were few and far between and delivering goods by using trucks was no longer feasible, so the transit systems had to step up in their wake. The New York City Subway, the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority, the Chicago ‘L’, the BART; these were no longer system designed entirely for transporting people, they now helped distribute essential goods as well.

Of particular importance, at least for the Washington Metro, is Metro Center station. Metro Center has long been a transit hub of Washington, even during pre-Restructuring times, but it has even more importance now seeing as it’s the stop where the two remaining lines, the Red and the Blue, converge. The loaders/unloaders will have a fair share of work to do because lots of supplies need to be transferred off the Blue train then onto the Red. At least the loaders didn’t have to transfer the crates to the upper level where the Red line’s platform was, that would mean the train would be stopped forever. They had porters to do that job, many of which were materializing before Robert’s eyes.

Knowing that the whole unloading process was going to take a while, the train operator stepped out of the train and onto the platform. He looked to be about Robert’s age and he had on a dusty brown suit. His hair was mostly covered by an Alpha Corp. hat – the only mandatory piece of clothing for his occupation – but you could make out a number of mangled, grey curls that where a few inches long protruding from the hat. He lit up a smoke with a match and then started talking to the nearest person, which happened to be Robert. “How do you do today?”

“Fine, fine,” replied Robert. “How long do you think the unloading is going to take today?”

“You better get comfortable,” said the operator while taking a drag of his cigarette. A smirk crept across his bearded face as he blew out the smoke, then he finished what he was saying, “There’s a lot of fuck ups working for the Logistics Department, you know, fresh off the farm type of boys. So we’ll have to see how smoothly this goes.”

“I hear ya man. We heading to Franconia-Springfield?”

The operator nods, then said, “End of the line. We got another long stop off at Potomac Yard though. Make sure you have some quality reading material on hand.”


“Hey, if you’re heading to Franconia-Springfield, does that mean you’re heading out of the city?”

“Yep, I got an assignment out near Southampton.”

“Ahhh, a PR man,” said the operator with a surprised look on his face. “I wouldn’t have taken you for a PR man. Well shit, maybe I should hold my tongue when I’m discussing the Logistics Department.”

The man had reasoning for his skepticism. Robert’s job, after all, was to narc people out. On an average day, Robert received reports that indicate recent ‘underworld’ activity in the area. When an Alpha Corp. Homestead discovers that one of their consumers has an imported item, a report is sent out to the districts PR office. When a lot of reports pile up from a specific Homestead, say a dozen or so, a silencer is sent out to that Homestead to investigate the issue.

Usually the issue is a starving independent farmer who is trading some of his or her own produce for some Alpha Corp. produce. In the Republic of America, it’s legal to own and farm your own land, but it’s illegal to trade with a Homestead employee. This system greatly discourages independent citizens because more often than not they lack the proper skills to produce a well-balanced diet that will last them the year. Herein lies the genius of Alpha Corp. Since most people can’t attain subsistence, they will give up trying and will join an Alpha Corp. Homestead. Recruitment is easy enough and following orders is much easier than having to supply for oneself. It’s the sole reason why all the Homesteads across America are well stocked with employees.

This is a system that works and it’s the PR people’s job to make sure that it isn’t threatened in any way. The silencing assignments that Robert has done in the past, for the most part, have gone smoothly. He goes to the Homestead, waits around for a few days, spots out the perpetrator, and then gives them the ultimatum: either you pay a $2,000 fine or you join a Homestead. Anyone with a brain will choose the latter. Since they’ve been caught they know they aren’t the most self-reliant person, and it’s impossible for them to raise enough money anyways, seeing as they’re separate from the domestic market. So the only real option is to be recruited into a Homestead. This reasoning is why Robert’s assignments have been problem free. Everyone he has dealt with has dropped their fists of sovereignty and joined the system.

Although never dealing with them, Robert has heard of silencers who have ran into independents that have opted to pay off the fine. This, however, raises more attention towards the independent because there is only two logical ways they have attained that money: either they robbed a Homestead or they deserted. Both are criminal acts, and if someone were to pay the fine, the local security force would be alerted immediately. Once again, they’re better off just becoming a productive member of the Alpha Corp. team.

As far as Robert knew, the train conductor didn’t fit into any of these categories, but the conductor still had reason to filter his words. If he spoke wrongly about the Logistics Department to certain PR people, he could easily be flagged for an investigation. Robert was aware of this, so he tried to put the man at ease. “Don’t worry about it,” he said. “I’m not that type of PR man. The more you work with narcs, the less you want to be like them.”

A loud argument broke out near the end of the train. Robert faintly made out the words ‘shit crate’ being repeated over and over while the loaders yelled at each other. The operator’s attention was roused. He knew that he was the one who would have to sort it all out, so he grabbed the half smoked cigarette out of his mouth and threw it on the tracks in front of the train. “See what I said. A bunch of farm picked fuck ups.” With that final word in, he speed walked his way to the tail end of the train.

Robert looked towards the altercation. From his distance, he could only make out a group of men surrounding a broken crate that was spilling a fair amount of brownish solid onto the platform’s brickwork. He could take a guess at what it was, and if it was that, whoever was responsible for putting it on the train was going to be in some deep shit and might be heading back to the Homesteads.

Having some pity for the culprit, Robert decided to board the train. He didn’t want to see who was going to get their ear pinched by the operator, so Robert strategically chose a seat where his back would be facing the platform. He had some time to kill, so Robert took the operators advice and pulled a book out of his bag.

The book he selected is titled The Critical History of Contemporary North America which was written by Gerald H. Trudeau in 1987. Robert found this book while voyaging through a derelict, independent bookstore one weekend day and so far he has enjoyed it. Having been born in 1985, the book was interesting to Robert because it provided for some unusual explanations to what he observed around him as he was growing up. Maybe you could call it skeptical nostalgia, or a re-imagining of memories; it ultimately changed the way Robert looked at past events. Also, it wasn’t dry like a textbook, but it covered many of the same topics that you would find in a textbook. So he liked it. Since many of the topics overlapped in time, the book didn’t need to be read in a particular order, so Robert decided to read something that was on the topic of his journey. In the table of contents he found an article titled The Death and Life of Great American Transit Systems. He flipped the book over to page 253 then began reading the article.

Upon returning from a two month trip to Europe, I had asked one of my colleagues how her trip was. She responded by saying, ‘I had a great time. The cities I stayed in were beautiful... and surprisingly, one of my favorite features of the cities was that I could go anywhere within the city and I would always be in a reasonable distance from a metro station. There was no need for a car, which would be silly for a traveler, and no need to ride a taxi. In Berlin, Barcelona, Paris, even smaller cities like Munich, I found that this was the case. You know Gerald, why is it that American cities of similar sizes don’t have transit systems that are nearly as efficient? And by the way, leave New York City out of your answer, cause that’s an anomaly.’

Now this is a complex question to answer and I could have given her numerous reasons, such as the difference in densities between North American and European cities, or how the devastation of World War II made digging subway tunnels easier, or the policies of post-war America that favored automobile ownership, but I chose to give her an unorthodox explanation. It’s unorthodox because not many people know of it, and not many people would believe it if they heard it, but nevertheless, it is the truth. The explanation: the Great American Streetcar scandal.

In American cities during the first few decades of the 20th century, public transportation was supplied by streetcars and electric train lines. These systems were in no means perfect, but they did provide an adequate means of transportation. People could get to wherever they had to go on the streetcar system because cities tended to have several lines, each of them extended to different parts of the city. I can’t speak for all of the past population, but things seemed to be alright during that time and people generally held public transportation in moderate to high regards.

However, like all forms of transportation, the status quo eventually changed. Streetcars started disappearing rapidly and were replaced by busses and regular cars. People started driving themselves, and they were happy doing it, whereas anyone riding the bus was ashamed of themselves. Private automobiles were desirable, public transportation was filled with undesirables. That’s the way it was and that’s the way it has been since.

But how did this happen so fast? Walking to horse riding, for a significant percentage of the population, took hours to progress – in a geological time-frame - yet the public transportation to private automobile transformation took just seconds. Surely there was something going on here, and of course, there was: it was a mixture of competition, the very thing that drives America, sprinkled with a heavy dose of foul play.

The early history of the transition starts with a major automobile manufacturer - which we will call Lieutenant Engines to avoid litigation - creating a special task force unit whose goal was to replace America’s electric railways with cars, trucks and buses. ‘We’ve got 90 percent of the market out there that we can…turn into automobile users,’ said the President of Lieutenant Engines. ‘If we can eliminate the rail alternatives, we will create a new market for our cars.’ In the 1920s, LE started their mission by buying major streetcar and bus manufacturing companies. LE made these companies subsidiaries of the LE Corporation and effectively manufactured buses under their names. Conspiracy to monopolize the sales of buses and supplies would be the first step in the long winded scheme.

The next step: acquiring the transit systems themselves. This step would take a number of years, but the first big break came in 1935 when the Public Utility Holding Company Act (PUHCA) was passed by Congress. Before 1935, most streetcar companies were private companies owned by electric utility holding companies. Streetcars were provided subsidized electricity because they were owned by the electric company. This meant that operating costs were reduced, along with rider fees. But the PUHCA caused great difficulties for streetcar operators because the act made it illegal for a business to supply electricity and provide public transportation to customers. So, many of the previously existing electric railway suppliers folded because of the terms set by the PUHCA.

In their wake, National City Lines acquired a number of local transit systems. By 1936, just one year after the PUHCA, National City Lines had already owned 13 transit companies. Aided by investments from Lieutenant Engines and a number of other automobile related companies – oil, tire, taxicab, even a highway user’s alliance – the NCL Company continued buying out existing rail lines in other cities. Los Angeles, Baltimore, Oakland, Cleveland, Philadelphia, even systems in New York was bought out.

Once the transit systems were purchased, National City Lines replaced the existing streetcars with buses that were supplied from LE or one of their subsidiaries. Once again, LE had some doings in the mischievous plot. In response to all of this, public transportation in these cities took a fatal blow; ridership had been severely reduced because the busses had fewer routes then the streetcars had lines, and services were less frequent. It seemed as though nothing could restore the old, positive attitude towards public transportation, save another oil crisis.

At this point in my explanation, my colleague had said, ‘But this was during the rise in popularity for the automobile. Cars were more affordable and everything seemed to cater to the motorist. The negative attitude towards public transportation seems inevitable, at least in my opinion. There’s less freedom of choice in where you start and end off, it takes more time, your personal space is severely reduced. I could think of a thousand reason why driving yourself is preferred.’

To put it into perspective, I reminded her of how this conversation originally started. There were also plenty of reasons as to why people didn’t want to drive, so I gave her a case history: Los Angeles.

Welcome to the Los Angeles metropolitan area, the automobile capital of the world. Now, isn’t it ironic that the city known for its vast freeways system is also notorious for its traffic congestion? You would think that the freeways would thin out the traffic. But it doesn’t.

Now the traffic issue isn’t the only issue that Los Angeles faces, but it certainly is the one you hear about the most. There are a number of underlying causes to the problem, but in my opinion, the Great American Streetcar scandal played a major role.

In 1925, Los Angeles had the largest electric railway in the world. The density and scale of streetcar network would’ve made its contemporaries envious. At the time, only one in ten Angelinos owned an automobile, so the 1,100 miles of track and 900+ trolleys that served them were held in high esteem. At the core of this network were two main systems: the Los Angeles Railway and the Pacific Electric Railway. If they had gravestones, their DOB would both read ‘1901’ while their final years would be 1963 and 1961 respectively. But National City Lines, or one its subsidiaries, had acquired these systems years before in ongoing plot to dismantle electric railway lines…

Having heard no sounds that would signify a moving subway train, Robert took his eyes off the book. Curiosity had got the best of him. What he noticed at first glance was that the operator’s booth was still unoccupied, so it was suiting that the train hadn’t moved yet. Sure, the trains don’t run on any formal schedule anymore, but residents still rely on them to get people and supplies moving. To think, there are trains behind this one that can’t move until this one’s out of the way. One of those loaders must have really screwed up if they caused this big of a delay. Robert felt some sympathy towards the responsible loader because they would probably never hear the last of it. Hell, Robert figures the loader won’t be sent back to any old Homestead, he or she will probably get sent to one of the Homesteads up in Alaska. This whole incident is going to weigh heavy on their conscious.

Trying to avoid these thoughts, Robert started wondering what life must have been like in the streetcar era. It probably wasn’t much different. People walking around, going to work; Actually, Robert’s occupation wasn’t too far off the work that private investigators did. Snooping around, following leads, sweet talking luxurious women. Well, maybe not that last part. What ever happened to private investigators anyways? The majority of books and movies that came out during that period, or were set in the 1920s-40s, seemed to include a P.I. If not the protagonist, there would at least be one lurking around in the plot. Did private investigators turn into private security? Robert had seen a lot of security personnel, both pre and post-Restructuring, so maybe that was the case. If the books and movies had any truth to them, it seems as though 5% of the population was employed in the private investigator industry. That fairs well with Roberts P.I. to private security theory. What he has experienced in his life is that there are a lot of security guards, maybe even 5% of the population’s worth. But their jobs seem more different than they are similar. P.I.’s are cooler; they don’t just stand around, or nap sitting down, in office building foyers waiting to let in overachievers who want to get some work done three hours before the building unlocks its doors. Or lets the glass revolving doors rotate…

Uh huh, what was Robert thinking about again? Oh yes, a comparative analysis of the streetcar ear to modern times.

There was probably more music going on in the streets back then. Any medium, well, just movies really, depict the streetcar street scene as one that is filled with music. Everywhere you went it must have been an improvised jazz concert. You didn’t hear music that often in the streets anymore. Everyone was too busy getting to their destination, or they were on their ARTifacts. Nobody picked up a musical instrument and starting playing it in the streets. Or maybe there wasn’t any music in the streets after all. Everyone knows how accurately movies depict real life. And besides, the movies that Robert had seen that were set in this time period were actually released 30-60 years after the streetcar era. What did the directors do to get historical accuracy on the atmosphere of the time? They probably never lived through that era, so they wouldn’t have a clear picture of what was going on. Robert thinks that they must’ve asked their fathers or grandfathers. That’s not the most reliable source either. Someone who had their finest days in that time, and their mind was now aged, would probably be filled with biased nostalgia. ‘Back when I was your age, the streets were filmed with music. Not cars, no no, streetcars, pedestrians, and jazz bands. We would ride the streetcars and hear 20 different songs that we could all snap too. And we didn’t have to worry about being mugged back then, nuh uh. See, there was no such thing as crime. It was a 1960’s invention, probably brought on by those fuckin’ good for nothing hippies… or maybe it was those queer beatniks with their goatees and communist plots…’

Back on track: their hygiene was probably similar. Or no, maybe modern city dwellers have it worse off. Robert showered once every couple days, which was way higher than average. Robert really lucked out though because he lives in a building with public showers, but many other Washingtonians aren’t so lucky. They probably go to the public bathhouse twice a week or so. How often do you think the average city dweller showered back in the early decades of the 20th century? Hell, that’s more than one hundred years ago. Did they even showers back then? Or did they have to take baths in water that their brothers, sisters, parents and uncles already bathed in?

At least they probably had better clothes. Robert had this outfit for five, maybe six years. He did have other ones, but they were all in pretty rough shape. The old time city dwellers at least had access to new clothes every so often, seeing as there was a textile industry back then. Sure, practically the whole city of Atlanta is dedicated to making clothes for Americans now, but that doesn’t compare to when practically all of New England, then the South, then the Third World was dedicated to making clothes for Americans. That’s getting out of the streetcar era though, going towards the period when Robert was growing up.

One thing’s for sure, people are moving around the city in a similar way. Walking never died, but electrified rails have experienced a resurgence. All the major district cities rely on their subways or their light rail transit systems. During the early days of Restructuring this was a bit of a letdown. People loved their automobiles and were reluctant to adopt a new way of life that focused on trains, but what were they supposed to do once gas was more expensive than gold? Decorate their lawns with their 400 horsepower dream machine? Sure, people thought they were eagles with clipped wings once they had to ride trains again, yet they had to get used to it if they wanted to function. Most of them were headed to the Homestead anyways where they could walk everywhere, and walking never killed anyone. Well, a bunch of hikers actually, but hiking and walking are different. Sort of. Anyways, interurban transportation is now very similar to the streetcar era.

Except, instead of having sub-stations all around the city, like the streetcars needed, these modern systems are hooked up to nuclear plants. The third rail that Robert is riding right now is hooked up to the Chevy Chase Nuclear Power Station. This was one of the early Restructuring programs: to have a longer lasting source of energy for the district cities so that they can manage the Homestead resources. So, Alpha Corp. stockpiled uranium and plutonium then built a bunch of nuclear reactors, or they used ones that were already built. Sure, nuclear reactors were controversial; people never forgot about Chernobyl, or Three Mile Island, or Fukushima, but nuclear powered cities was the only practical solution.

You have to keep the cogs greased somehow. Fossil fuels were out of the question, and there hadn’t been much advancement in renewable energy technologies during the early decades of the 21st century because frankly, there wasn’t much money in it. If you were going to produce technology, you might as well make consumer technology. Be the first company to sync up a smart phone with a microwave so you could heat a burrito during your commute home; don’t be the first company to make a wind turbine that powers one thousand homes. However, wind turbines and solar panels have been implemented at a small scale, but for big things, like powering whole transit systems, they were out of the question. So, left with no alternatives, nuclear power it was. Plus, if the reactors where located in soon to be deserted suburban areas, like the Chevy Chase Golf Course, the public wouldn’t be harmed, or outcry, if something went wrong.

They have been really frugal with the power as well. Once the transit system got its share only essential buildings are provided heating and lighting. This helps keep the nuclear waste down and more uranium left over for the next day. It does get on Robert’s nerves though. They figure that they don’t need to light Robert’s office? Why stop at the cafeteria and other sections of the main floor? It can’t take much more to light the offices above. Is his PR work not essential? Do those finance duds have indoor lighting throughout their building just so that they can run their solar powered Texas Instruments? Who calls the shots, saying what is and what isn’t essential…

Before Robert could wrap up his thoughts he started dozing off. If it’s going to be a long train ride, he might as well just sleep it out.

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