The Oathkeeper’s Reason

The flash fiction challenge this week from Chuck Wendig over at terribleminds.com was a Random Title Challenge. There are two columns, each with 20 words or phrases. I rolled 15 both times, and ended up with “The Oathkeeper’s” and “Reason”.

Footprints copy

Out of everything the Radiant Nationalist Party could have dressed her in, little could have been worse than the white dress they had chosen for Marie. Normally, those in her position were dressed in thick garbs of black. A practical choice, as the material hid stains and held up under multiple washings. Marie rubbed the cheap muslin between her fingers, trying to produce heat from the small gesture. The falling snow kept sticking to her eyelashes, forming tiny crystals that created vivid starbursts and rainbows out of the bright lights she stood in. The Oathkeeper in the green padded uniform standing next to her knocked her in the arm. She dropped the muslin only to grab her necklace instead, thankful she had been allowed this small dignity.

The stage below her bare feet creaked as she shifted, trying to avoid both the snapping bulbs of the reporters and the shadow of what stood before her. Her former supervisor Director Cave, got up on the stage, avidly avoiding eye contact with her. He went to the front of the poorly constructed platform and listed Marie’s reasons for being on the stage. The platform was another deviation from the norm. Ground level was usually sufficient for events like this, but given the crowd she had attracted, whose shouts drowned out Director Cave’s words, it had been a necessity.

Director Cave turned and beckoned her forward. She took one step, but reversed almost instantly. She looked at the footprint she had melted into the thin layer of snow before the green Oathkeeper pushed her. She didn’t go backwards again, but she stepped forward carefully. Making sure each footprint was evenly spaced from one to the other. When she arrived to the construction of wood and gleaming metal, she got to her knees, feeling the snow soak through the thin fabric.

Director Cave came up to her, placing her neck gently into the half carved circle as the Oathkeeper came forward with a basket. When Director Cave’s hands didn’t move right away, she chanced a look up at him. She tried to smile. It made it worse. He stepped back to a metal lever a short distance behind her. When she heard the sea of white scream as the guillotine released, Marie closed her eyes and grabbed her necklace, imagining the shouts were that of remorse instead of celebration.

***

“Marie.”

“I assume the decision of my punishment will be made within the next few hours?” Marie said, stepping into the jail cell.

Director Cave, her escort, followed her inside. “Marie, you got to give me something here.”

“I don’t think they even list a Society Debt amount for treason. Just a picture of a noose, or blade in this case.” She crossed her arms, examining the cracked walls that breathed the frost of the outside winter air. “You should include structural improvements in your next budget.”

“Did the Blackgaurd threaten you? Is that why?”

“The money you’ll save on overflow will cover the cost. You might have burst pipes though. Unless they shut the water line off?” She peered into the toilet to confirm the presence of water.

“Oathkeeper Blaustein! Why did you let him go?”

The Director’s shouts rang in the room, and Marie finally faced him, showing the wet face she had tried to keep from him. She swallowed hard and took off her jacket—the green coat signifying her position in the Radiant Nationalist Party.

“I’m not an Oathkeeper anymore,” she whispered.

***

“Okay, I’ve been here a few times. This is not the way to the holding cells,” Jayden said. She remained silent. This had less to do with being brash to her prisoner and more to do with keeping her nerves inside her queasy stomach where they belonged.  She dug her sidearm into his back, but it didn’t shut him up.

“Where are you taking me?”

He was getting louder. Marie swallowed hard, knowing it would be easier if he knew. But her throat was so thick, that the best she could do was cough. He began to slow down.

“My family can pay my Society Debt. And even if they couldn’t, I still have twenty-four hours in the holding cell before the Gallows.”

“I’m not taking you to the Gallows,” she finally managed to say, but it came out in a low grumble that ended in a squeak. “I’m taking you out back.”

He stopped and faced her. “Taking me out back? Shooting Blackguards in alleys isn’t legal yet.”

Before she could explain herself further, an Oathkeeper came around the corner. His hand on his hip holster told Marie he had heard everything. Knowing that she was officially handing in her jacket no matter what now, she raised her own gun and shot him in the neck. When she jabbed Jayden to move forward, he compiled silently and stepped over the puddle of red. By the time they reached the back exit, she quickly told him how to avoid the street patrols and gave him implicit instructions to leave the city as soon as possible.

“Why are you doing this?” Jayden asked, one foot out the door.

“Here.” She  gave him the sheet of paper she had shoved in her pocket from the morning’s meeting. She pointed the gun down the alley. “Go. Tell as many people as you can.”

His eyes went wide after a quick skim. He nodded once and ran. Once he was out of view, Marie threw up in the corner and went back inside the station with her hands in the air.

***

Marie was sitting at the processing desk toying where her necklace’s charm. It had been a slow day that offered little in distractions. A couple of Radiant Nationalist school kids had been brought in by their Truant Officer, but the rest of the day had been spent in a meditative stupor. When Oathkeeper Johnny brought her a man in cuffs, she nearly broke her necklace’s chain in surprise.

“Jayden Haroldson. Caught him on a college campus handing out flyers without a permit.”

“My daughter lost her dog, dammit,” the man in cuffs said.

“I also found this on his person,” Johnny said, shoving the man forward so he keeled over on Marie’s desk as Johnny held up a small bag of what appeared to be weed. He leaned forward and said, “I checked it. It’s his third offense.”

“I have a license for that,” Jayden grimaced.

“Which you conveniently left at home, right? Marie, would you mind taking this Blackguard back to holding?”

Marie stood up, and with nausea in her stomach, she withdrew her sidearm. “Sure,” she said.

***

“Okay, we got a pretty quick meeting here today,” Director Cave said, hollering over the general murmur of the Oathkeepers. Marie took a donut and sat in the front row, discreetly winking at her superior as he struggled for control. He sighed, and finally let out a shrill whistle. “Alright, thank you for your undivided attention. Just two things. One, save me a bear claw or there will be hell to pay, Johnny.” A room laughed easily.

“Two, and this is the biggie people, Society Debts have changed. ” He passed out sheets of paper as groans filled the air. Marie’s fingers trailed down the prices of Society Debts for jaywalking, theft, manslaughter, smiling hopefully when she realized there was no separate column for Radiant Nationalist Member debts and Blackguard debts.

“What the hell?” Johnny shouted once he got a copy.

Director Cave lifted his hands as the murmur started again. “The Raven Act was passed in yesterday’s session.” Marie froze as she read the fine print on the bottom. “So for those of you who haven’t been reading the inner-department memos—Johnny—all citizens will have the same Society Fees. But any Blackguard repeat offenders will be transported to the newly constructed Pacific Prison Camp.”

“Which basically means every Blackguard citizen over the age of eighteen,” another Oathkeeper piped in. The room laughed again as Marie shoved the paper in her pocket.

***

“Prison camps?”

“Yeah,” Director Cave was leaning on top of her desk like he did every day after lunch. This afternoon, he had brought coffee. She had brought cookies.  “It’s an idea being thrown around. Someone got in their heads that it would help our prison overflow in the cities.”

“Oh,” she said, taking a moment to think as she dunked her cookie in her coffee. “So… what will the camps be like?”

“From what I understand, it’ll be a labor camp of sorts.”

She took a very long drink of her coffee. When she set it down, the cup rang hollow. “Labor camps?”

Oblivious, Director Cave only leaned in to steal another cookie. “They’re calling it the Raven Act. Bringing it up tomorrow. I doubt it’ll pass, but you never know.”

She touched the hidden Star of David necklace beneath her uniform, hoping he was right.

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Reality Checks In: Part 1

The flash fiction challenge this week from Chuck Wendig over at terribleminds.com was to write a superhero story and roll for a sub-genre. I got Cyberpunk and created the following superhero origin story:

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When Bernadette accepted Reality’s terms and conditions without reading it, she hadn’t realized how dangerously she was living. She wasn’t alone. The average user view time on this 16,000 word legal document was under six seconds. So when Bernadette and the other 123 million users who were logged in at 11:03 AM (ET) were infected by the hack later to be known as the Boost Upload, she had no legal recourse. Section 16.7 clearly stated Reality would not be held liable for any cerebral damaging caused by outside operators. But it wasn’t section 16.7 that Bernadette came to fear. It was 16.8.

In the event of any outside errors, Reality will exercise all options necessary to reestablish program normality.

Bernadette wasn’t one of those who noticed her Boost immediately after logging out. It seemed like any other normal work day. She had plugged into Reality at 8:00 AM sharp for her secretary position for a transport conglomerate, specializing in hard data transfers. Her construct (which was not the petite, white brunette she was in real life, but rather an overweight, elderly asian) had greeted the few people who had scheduled online meetings with her supervisor. She spent the rest of the day sifting through the instant chat room. Originally, her construct was identical to her actual looks. But after dealing with users who would pop into her work’s chat room and then try to private message her later, she had gone with a stock image instead.

Like the other 123 million users, she had blacked out in the chat room when the hack had occurred. But as her boss refused to upgrade their data package, she had simply assumed that they were experiencing connectivity issues. When she logged out for her lunch a few minutes after the black out, she stretched her unused muscles, got out of the lumbar support seat she had splurged on last month, and removed the helmet that encased her head completely. Once she smoothed the static out of her split ends, she opened the door to her apartment and walked to the town square for lunch. When she reached her sandwich shop, the one she visited every Tuesday, she made her usual order. She sat in the back corner booth, watching people walk in with helmet hair and the same clothes she had seen on them last week. One man came stumbling in with a beet red face; she uncomfortably wondered what kind of program he had been hooked into. Still, everything seemed normal, until the cook called out her order.

“Corn beef on pumpernickel with two large pickles and a glass of milk.”

She made it halfway to the counter before she stopped. “Excuse me?”

The well-known angry cook, a Spaniard named Javier, shoved the plate further toward her, causing it to teeter at the counter edge. “Don’t make me say it again.”

Bernadette stared at his mouth. In her mind, she heard his words as English. But his lips and voice were still speaking Spanish.

She tried to reason it. Maybe she had come here so often she could just understand Spanish as easily as she could English. But as she tried to recall certain words, all she could think of was corned beef (Carne en conserva) and hurry up (Ándale). She touched her lips, then her ears; frozen. Javier grumbled, grabbed the plate, and appeared ready to dump it either on her head or in the garbage. But all movement came to a stand still when the red faced man standing at the register exploded into flames. Only seconds after that, the woman behind the register started screaming so loud, it caused her own head to explode. Bernadette sat down on a chair while everyone else ran away. Javier extinguished the remains and called the police. The line was busy for over an hour.

That night, when Bernadette was beneath her favorite purple blanket and curled into her dipped suede couch, she finally gained the courage to turn on the news. Every channel was reporting the end of the world. Plants strangling a busload of children. Meteors falling from the sky, all hitting the same spot on an apartment building. Teenagers rapidly aging from pimples to dust in a matter of seconds. A gravitational anomaly sucking a nursing home into itself.

It was a nightmare.

But for Bernadette, the horror was in the words of the newscasters in China, Japan, Russia, Italy, and every other country she had on her channel network. She understood them all. And not just their words, but their body language. Their speech, carefully crafted to not exhibit panic, was betrayed by their shoulders, their eye movements, their smallest finger twitches. She knew which ones were hiding secrets like her own. Which ones had seen a death before their eyes. Which ones were certain the world would end tomorrow.

The next morning when Bernadette logged into Reality, she was notified of a system update. As always, she skipped over the terms and conditions. She leaned back in her chair as her helmet turned on. A low hum sounded and she realized they were running a diagnostic on her neural pathways—normally reserved for those creating new user accounts. When it ended, it didn’t log her in. Instead, a message popped up in front of her eyes.

A representative will be contacting you shortly.

That is what she read. What her brain registered, was this:

You have been infected. We are coming for you. 

Slowly, Bernadette took off her helmet. She set it on it’s padded post next to her chair she had yet to pay off. She stood up, exited the upload room, and grabbed the purple blanket she had left on the couch, placing it over her shoulders like a cape. When the buzzer rang only a few minutes later, she opened the door to find a plain clothes stranger. Not a police offer or representative from Reality like she had expected. But he nodded seriously, which read to her that he was here for a specific mission. She folded the blanket tighter around her shoulders.

“Ma’am, you’ll have to come with me.”

Is what he said. But what she heard was this:

“Come with me before they find us.”

He held out his hand, his eyes wide with knowing and knowing her. And for no other reason then that, she dropped the blanket, grabbed his hand firmly, and followed him out the door.

To read part 2, follow this link.