Mr. Church had few pleasures in life. He spent his days grinding through a job that bored him and everyone around him. He spent his days off huddled up in a capsule apartment, clicking through webpages, consuming approved content, and occasionally finding some of that approved content stimulating enough to experience a vague sense of enjoyment. A perennial bachelor with no hobbies to speak of and no opinions on which to speak out, he was more or less a model citizen.
Still, there were a pair of little weaknesses that were keeping him on the ‘less’ side of that expression. Firstly, he had a disquieting fondness for travel. Any administrator worth their salt would look twice at somebody with a propensity for international holidaymaking, but Mr. Church’s pattern of behaviour was even more noteworthy. He would horde vacation time, stockpiling it for months on end before spending it all in one extravagant binge overseas. There was a time, not so long ago, when this fact alone would have been enough to condemn him to a permanent leave of absence somewhere off the grid. But the administration was more enlightened now than in years past, more lenient. As a result of this lenience, Mr. Church’s wandering feet were presently unshackled. A citizen of his grade was free to travel, true, but there was an unsubtle preference for that travel to remain within the state. The newer, kinder administration wouldn’t bare its fangs on matters of preference. But it would turn its gaze. Hundreds upon hundreds of patient, unblinking watchers, hiding in plain sight behind screens, wires and lenses. At their most attentive, they collected every act and every pattern, tracked every step of a foot or stroke of a key. This information, once digested, was regurgitated before a human overseer, a trigger man who would comb through the data, just looking for a reason to shoot.
That is where Mr. Church’s second indiscretion became relevant. He was a poor voter. The same dull, unopinionated rigor that made him such a steady payer of taxes, such a punctual reporter of metrics, also made it very difficult for him to engage in the voting process. It seemed he simply didn’t care. He had no interest in matters of policy, nor could he be riled up by appeals to emotion. In general terms, these were both ideal qualities from the administration’s standpoint. The dizzying breadth and penetration of the current voting system was designed largely to placate the public’s appetites in this regard – to provide a constant outlet for their intellectual and moral panics, to drip-feed them with the opiate of apparent self-direction. It was a chew toy, a pacifier for an electorate prone to bawling. And chew they did. Even a citizen of the lowest grade could expect to be casting a vote on the hour, rendering numerical their views on trade, tax, borders, justice, civil rights… anything that could reasonably mobilise them, but not too much. Keep them feeling happy and powerful, and so alleviate the need to actually provide happiness or power. The view from the top was that it was better to let the masses paralyze themselves than to go through the trouble of crippling them. The despots of past generations had lacked both the imagination and the tools of distraction needed to prevent rebellion, and so had found false solace in autocracy. The present view was that democracy was one of the finest and most loyal servants of any budding autarch.
Mr. Church, however, was not playing with the toy that had been so kindly provided to him. In fact, he was barely even meeting his minimum quota for votes cast and petitions signed. To say nothing of the quality – he engaged with his sacred, democratic duty as little more than a chore, often spending less time on the voting system in a month than most spent in a day, throwing votes away without care or consistency. All this, of course, was being recorded. Such admirable passivity was a growing chink in his armour. The administration would not act on matters of preference, but it would feast on matters of technicality. Failure to engage with the state’s democratic process was, technically, illegal. It just so happened that this hazily-defined law was only ever levied against those with nonpreferable traits. Which was all fair game, as far as the general public was concerned. At least, they never seemed to vote on the matter.
So, as Mr. Church returned to his capsule apartment one night, still flush with foreign adventure, he was in tremendous danger. Unbeknownst to him, he was walking on a well-slicked precipice. His dalliances abroad had left him with a voting backlog that would have to be cleared, tonight, and cleared in a fashion that left no room for doubt. What appeared to be a quiet evening at the computer was in fact a matter of life and (eventual) death. In a surveillance office, somewhere in the depths of a nameless bureau, an executioner watched on. This man was under strict instructions, of which he wholeheartedly approved, to authorise Mr. Church’s disappearance at the first hint of democratic indolence.
His name was Mr. Collins, a veteran of his post and a hardliner of the oldest possible school. To him, all people were either patriots or deviants. The former adhered to the will and values of the state, whatever those happened to be on the given date. The latter, well… whatever went on in those off-the-grid locations was too good for them. He was not especially competent, but he was attentive beyond measure, and that was far preferable. He carried out his assignments to the letter and without hesitation. His citizenship record was impeccable. He took what praise and material reward he was offered with clear pride and warmth, but never pursued any beyond his station. Needless to say, his higher-ups were quite content with their pit bull.
Certainly, Mr. Collins was feeling rather muzzled. He’d been at this long enough to remember the good old days, when scum like Church would be whisked away without a second thought. Now he had to wait, watch as this shameful excuse for a citizen continued to enjoy the freedoms of a state he so clearly did not appreciate. He’d read the dossier, seen the data, and he hated him. He hated him even before having to spend months of dedicated, intimate surveillance on the man. That exacerbated things. Anybody spending that much time abroad was up to something. Anybody turning away from their civic privileges was a false citizen. In Collins’ mind, Church was almost certainly a spy, a terrorist, a covert theist, or something equally grotesque. But he was wily enough to tread water. The data alone was never enough to indict him – merely to indicate the form that such an indictment might take. Thus the need for some more discerning, more human eyes. They’d gotten soft, upstairs. Putting checks on their own powers when simple common sense would suffice. But rules were rules.
Church would be voting tonight, a hundred times or more. He had to, if he wanted to make his quota. Collins was secretly hoping that he’d just fall asleep. Let the clock run and find himself waking up somewhere entirely unfamiliar. Sadly, Church wasn’t quite that stupid. He would reach the bare minimum. This, Collins knew, was all a part of his treasonous design. He did not even entertain the thought that Church’s minimal participation was a result of minimal interest. Innocent apathy would necessitate innocence, and that idea was off the table as far as Collins was concerned. Guilt was a matter of fact – the trick lay in proving it. His aging skin formed into a snarl as he leaned back in his chair.
Church shed his outdoor clothing and put down a hefty batch of souvenirs. The computer assured Collins that these items had all been vetted in transit, and were perfectly above board. He rejected this conclusion, but followed along with the clemency it required. There was, for some reason, and in spite of his best efforts, no law against souvenirs. The bag of bomb components, biological agents and outlandish foreign pornography would have to stand. Church then shuffled over to his desk, booted up his laptop, and logged in to the voting system. He yawned audibly. Collins surged forward towards the monitor, then sat back again, deflated. Had he sighed, or swore, or otherwise demonstrated explicit displeasure towards the task… well, that might have been good enough. Yawning, according to the powers that be, was not conclusively disrespectful. It would be Collins’ neck on the line if he jumped the gun. A perverse state of affairs, as he saw it. But he knew the rules inside and out. He’d get something.
He had until midnight to meet his quota. Easy enough to crank out a hundred or so clicks in that time – that was all the computers looked for. But beneath that flat turf lay a pitfall just bristling with technicalities, all sharpened and ready to pierce the veneer of citizenship that Mr. Church had so artfully constructed. Proper engagement, by the letter of the law, demanded that votes be cast across a ‘full spectrum of policy areas’, show ‘internal consistency’, be free from ‘demonstrably seditious or ulterior motivation’… all open to Mr. Collins’ interpretation. These were the tricks that the long arm of the administration kept up its sleeve. Overuse would lead to outrage – apparently, it would be imprudent to go stomping out beloved figures on these grounds. Mr. Church, however, was a boil of the sort they were most often used to lance. Somebody unwanted, but not particularly criminal, who would not be missed. He was barely even known, let alone beloved.
Mr. Church began to make his civic voice heard. Over the course of hours, Collins’ expression changed. He began with a look of contented malice, that of a trophy hunter who knows that the prey will walk into his sights, sooner or later. Over time, that face wilted, drooped into embittered belligerence. The grimace of an easy task turned sour, part surprise, part anger, all dug-in heels and rekindled enmity. By the end, all that remained were two of the more volatile components – incredulity, and anger. In short, it was a bravura performance. Church fluttered untouchably through the democratic process, casting votes with the generosity of confetti and the precision of scalpels. He tickled the keys with all the skill and elegance of the pianists of old, each click and press serving as one particle in a tune that was sweeping, cogent and (to Collins’ ear) utterly maddening. It was grotesque, an irreverent composition, the work of a rogue Shostakovich who did not fear censure, because he knew the rules and the rules were too soft. A liberalising, ‘humanitarian’ platform across all areas, from court cases to tax code. Utterly distasteful, but undeniably consistent, and undeniably thorough. Collins could feel his muzzle tighten, feel the ties on his hands. He watched, impotent, as Church returned for an encore performance, surpassing his legal minimum by a healthy amount. That, he felt, was a slap in the face.
Collins clenched his teeth so hard they felt close to breaking. Somebody must have coached this prick, some foreign spymaster or domestic traitor. There was no way he could have designed so complex a scheme on his own. But there was nothing ‘demonstrable’ about any of it. By the letter of the law, he was looking at a perfect citizen. And he was a slave to that letter, an increasingly cruel and temperamental master that now stayed his hand from wiping away the smug, hateful stain on his screen. He had lost in this invisible duel.
That instant, that thought of defeat, was the moment when something clicked. Hot rage transitioned into cold, and a strange sort of smile found its way back to Collins’ lips. Yes, Mr. Church (or least the Mr. Church in his mind) was very clever. He had held Collins in check, danced mockingly over very tripwire, exploited the clemency of his home all in an effort to undermine it. A master of technicality, an enemy of the state, and completely devoid of any rigor or virtue save for this power of gamesmanship. And there, he had failed. Games are comprised of players and rules, and Mr. Church had mastered only one of those things. He had not considered that a human administrator, for being human, might break rank. He had not considered that an angered, vindictive man with a bomb might detonate it regardless of his own proximity. He was prepared only for an opponent who was as clever and dispassionate as he was. He had not considered the inverse.
With a flash of intense satisfaction, Collins issued the order.
It took a couple of days for Collin’s arrest to go through. He had been planning on killing himself in that time, but never mustered up the will to pull the trigger twice in such quick succession. Somewhere, in his heart of hearts, he still believed in the administration. Believed that his handlers would stay true to him, that his ardour and loyalty would be recognized, that they would overlook this minor indiscretion and focus on the humble, willing servant behind it. He did not put up a fight. Perhaps this tiny, paralysing speck of faith did not waver even as he was beaten, bagged, and ushered away.
In a dim and frigid room, somewhere in the depths of a nameless prison, Mr. Collins found himself shackled, starved, and lost in some muddled borderland between despair and elation. Across from him, now pale and bruised, was a familiar face.