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The Oasis is Burning

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1.2 - Checkpoint Chickie

You have certain expectations of the thugs in a legally questionable paramilitary force under the control of a local despot. Sure, this guy had all the accoutrements - the body armor retouched in red and blue with the city seal and ex cineribus ad immortalitatem etched over the chest guard, the shrouded MP5 slung over one shoulder, the cheesy mirrored shades. But he was a twitchy bastard, far from the iron man you’d expect in the military getup. He was probably thirty, but the way he fidgeted gave him all the bearing of a fourteen year-old comic book geek trying to bluff his way out of a fight.

“Sir, I’ll need a few minutes of your time. Let’s see some ID.”

“All right.” My driver’s license was literally up my sleeve. In a situation like this, there’s no need risking a bullet by going into your pocket, something I learned from a previous close call. “You get a lot of use out of that automatic pea shooter?”

“Do you plan on staying in Lawrence, or are you passing through?”

“The bus is a half-mile down the road, so I guess I’m staying.” It was now transparent that this was a routine and the guy had memorized it by rote.

“Let’s see...Mr. Atticus...Gainsborough? Hey, don’t you write for some website?”

“That’s me. Writer for some website.”

“I read some of your stuff back in the day. That piece you did about the militias out west? That was some real shit.” He froze up for a few seconds, searching for his spot in his mental script. “...Do you have a residence for your stay? If you don’t have a reservation, there may be a vacancy at the Virginia.”

“I’m at the Eldridge.”

“Okay. There are a number of journalists that are staying there, but I hope you are aware that the Eldridge is inside the restricted area?” He pointed at a city map hastily set up in the lot behind him covered in hostile colored circles. “...The red zone is in active conflict, we take no responsibility over what might happen if you travel through that area. The orange zone represents our perimeter. The yellow zones are restricted, we ask that you not be in those areas unless you have a compelling reason. I can upload an enhanced interactive version of this map to your Pardner if you want.”

“Won’t be needing that, thanks.”

What those colored circles really represent are what might happen to some rabble-rousing asshole who gets caught there without the commissar’s approval. The red zone means three rounds in the ten-spot. The orange zone means a tazing, microwaving, or maybe just a good old fashioned beating if the high-tech methods aren’t fun enough. The yellow zones mean a stern lecture, possibly chased with a quick pop to the jaw.

“The other thing you should know is...one second sir, could you step over here?” He steered me to a recently painted spot in front of a round apparatus covered in eye-like lenses and sensors. “Thank you, now just stay put for a few seconds.”

Even though I’d never seen this mechanical abomination before, I could take a stab at what it was. It had to be part of the FASTR system, the next generation of civil rights-violating technology. Employing multiple complementary forms of biometric tracking, the system makes it easy for any local despot to reliably track his subjects. Already I was wondering where the state was getting the scratch for everything I was seeing. Maybe Goldie shook down a friendly billionaire, or perhaps the Administration pushed a few extra pallets of federal cash into the local coffers.

The friendly thug cleared his throat. “As I was saying, the Eldridge is within an area frequented by the followers of Leroy Timugen Brigg.”

“Yes, I’m familiar with the Briggs.”

“Good. Now, there are a few things you should keep in mind should you encounter a group of Brigg followers. Do not talk openly about politics around them. Avoid words that may be mistaken for political terms such as ‘justice’ or ‘equality.’ Should you speak any languages besides English, do not use those languages or make a point of pronouncing loan words correctly. If you do offend a Brigg follower, do not try to placate him with gifts of expensive alcohol or exotic foods.”

“Can I whistle around them, or is that a beating?”

“You might want to be careful about that. Brigg followers dislike many kinds of music and we haven’t figured out which ones yet.” His scripted spiel over, the thug’s posture immediately went slack. “How do you plan to get to Mass? Massachusetts Street, I mean?”

“I’ll just walk it.”

“It’s a ways, you know.”

“S’all right. I’ve never been here, I’d like to get a feel for the place.”

The friendly thug wasn’t having any of it. “It would look bad if you just wandered around. There are car services around here, they’re a rip-off but no one stops them.”

“Nah, I’ll just rent a car later, but thanks anyway.” I gathered up my crap for the walk to town. “By the way, I’m not sure the phrase on your armor is quite right.”

“If you can read Latin, then that’s another thing you should probably keep to yourself.”

It’s not like I took the long route for my health or for the scenery, or even for something silly like money. You learn a lot about a place by walking through the areas that your typical traveler just speeds through. West 6th Street is a typical transport corridor, which is to say that none of it was on fire when I passed through. It certainly wasn’t the war zone that the talking heads would suggest. No, it was off in more subtle ways. Less traffic than one might expect. The odd bit of political graffiti on the side of a gas station. And then there were the security force thugs. Not many of them, maybe one every third block until very close to Massachusetts Street. Not enough for security, just enough to send a message. Americans aren’t used to seeing men with machine guns hanging around the corner store, and when that does happen everyone knows that some serious shit is waiting at the threshold.

On Massachusetts, they weren’t even that subtle. Nothing says “safety” like passing through a checkpoint on the way to your hotel. I’m not sure if the guys on the rooftops were sharpshooters or just onlookers. Those two dodgy-looking guys peeking out of that little dimple of an alleyway could have been drug dealers, but they also might have been secret plainclothes operatives looking to trap any agitators who espouse radical beliefs about people being able to vote. Paranoia will do funny things to your perception and the hangover certainly wasn’t helping, but a street full of gunmen wasn’t exactly the best place for a hair of the dog. I didn’t care about the story at that point, I just wanted to lay down someplace where I wasn’t being watched.

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