The Oasis is Burning

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1.3 - Integrity

My one travel extravagance is a decent hotel room. Not that I haven’t stayed in some rough places before - sleeping on the floor with those militia bright bulbs because they hadn’t brought enough bedrolls and cots for themselves, let alone some intruding journalist - but it remains at the top of my list of priorities. I’ll gladly live on twenty-five cent instant noodles, generic soda crackers, reused coffee grounds and $6-per-liter scotch if I get to choke it all down on a large bed at the end of a quiet hallway.

The Eldridge seemed like a nice fit. Located in the downtown area just a few short blocks from the outer edge of the crisis zone, it would save money on gas and mileage while providing a lovely morning view of the looming carnage. Plus, it would be the first hotel I’ve ever stayed in with its own paramilitary guard - a service I probably won’t request ever again, but which does have a few benefits. No belligerent drunks marching past at 3:30 in the morning, for one.

The drawback to staying at a decent hotel during some sort of major event is that you end up dealing with the rest of the media. Journalists, on a whole, are the biggest assholes you’ll ever meet in your life, and that’s a declaration only partly inspired by how many of them hate me. In the 21st century, you’ve got two basic categories of national journalist. You’ve got your independent journos, reporters forced out of their old departments because it’s much too expensive for news agencies to report the news anymore, who you never see because their fans only provide enough cash to do some couch-surfing through the rougher precincts of the world. Then you’ve got your opinion journalists, your celebrities of the dying art, whose impressive connections allow them access to vast expense accounts. They only leave their stately corner offices to recapture the glory days, spending their long weekends diddling each other or buying illegal scrips or doing other things they wouldn’t want their respectable colleagues to know about, and repay their benefactors with an easy column they could have written from home. The world is truly a just and fair place.

Fortunately, I managed to secure an expense account of my own before the industry turned off the tap. It’s a consequence of one of my previous assignments - not necessarily because I did a stellar job (people like me seldom win Pulitzers), but because it ended with a trust fund tweaker/accused double murderer putting the barrel of an empty .38 under my chin and dry firing it a few times. My editor felt a little guilty about sending me to that maniac’s apartment, so now I get to stay in respectable hotels.

This respectable hotel had an armed guard by the elevator. Perhaps he was there to give some sense of peace to the frat-rat wannabe journos gathered in the bar out front, or maybe there was some legit threat against the residents. If there were any crooks waiting to ambush me on the way to my room, I sure didn’t see them.

I burned one in the bathroom to ease my headache and reflected on what led to this shitstorm. “Integrity,” that was the watchword.

The Electoral Integrity Center on the outskirts of Topeka was never the highlight of my travel reel. Had I known what would happen less than a year later, I probably would have asked more questions when I toured the place (i.e. least the sliver of one building that they let the rabble-rousers see). I could have broken in to one of the other buildings, not that I would have gotten much out of seeing a little city of servers.

The grand tour starts in a small museum of United States election paraphernalia - voting machines, ballots, election kitsch. It’s all part of a walk through the history of voter rights and voter suppression, there to let onlookers know that what’s going on inside isn’t such a big deal no matter what some agitating blogger might say. Then comes the Q&A, with an mathematically diverse selection of state employees walking the attendees through the process of filing for an exemption. As Sec. Augustus is so fond of saying, anyone who wants to vote, can vote. It’s all a matter of putting in the effort.

There’s a best-selling novel in there, the tale of a lone soul overcoming the empyrean might of a megalomaniac and his town-sized computer complex, struggling to snatch back his humanity from the blind calculations that remorselessly sort him into the political underclass. Here in reality, it’s more the struggle of one poor sap trying to endure writer’s cramp as he fills out a ream of paperwork, a far less sexy image.

What those computers do is process data points on every person in the state database and assigns each one a risk-of-fraud rating. The ones with a “green” rating are go to vote. A “yellow” rating earns one extra scrutiny, while the poor bastards rated “red” are right out. “It’s not all that different than the systems used by many police departments to contain crime,” said Sec. Augustus on his billion-dollar baby. “Who could possibly object to using the same technology to secure the future of our democracy?”

Of course, there were many people who objected to the project. There were those who didn’t trust a secret algorithm to decide who held basic rights. There were those who questioned the logic in spending so much money to fix something that doesn’t seem to be a problem. For that matter, there were those who wondered where the state got the money for the monster at the time when Governor Goldie’s economic schemes were still killing the coffers. After the first wave of outrage, Sec. Augustus released one of his much-loved press releases announcing that algorithm had been tweaked to send most of the red voters into the yellow category.

Some of the talking heads considered this a great concession, which makes me wonder what their contract negotiations look like. All Augustus did was part with something he knew he would never get. Even in this version of the United States, no one could get away with summarily disenfranchising voters en masse with a computer. But use that same computer to bury certain classes of voters in paper and you have yourself a policy. After all, anyone who’s willing to put in the effort can get an exemption. Balanced against the right to vote, what’s five hours of documentation and a day trip to the capital?

This wasn’t going to pass without comment, not even with the other leading lights in my profession doing my best to ignore it. The EIC hadn’t even begun operations yet and already someone had cut through the outer fence and spray painted “Freedom is not Commodity” on a small exterior building. Spotting one of my colleagues leaned over to me and whispered, “Someone’s going to burn this fucker down.” That might have actually been better for everyone. Instead they did something a lot more dangerous. They protested. And that’s what led me, a year later, to a three-star hotel full of drunken assholes and surrounded by cheap wannabe stormtroopers.

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