Who knew that the crazy homeless guy was right all along? Sitting at his kitchen table, fashioning a hat liner from aluminum foil, Jack thought back to his days in the late ’90s as a newspaper reporter. It was a small satellite office for a larger newspaper, housed in a converted convenience store. The homeless guys in the neighborhood had been so used to returning the college kids’ beer cans for change that the alteration didn’t deter them. Instead of seeking money, they came in to see validation of their crazy theories.
Or so Jack thought. One in particular had amused him. “There are subliminal messages in textbooks!” he’d shout. “The sheriff is trying to control my mind, so I put foil on my windows!” he’d wail. The staff of four reporters had an unwritten agreement that they’d take these nutjobs on a rotating basis. Unless you were on deadline, the next one up would take the crazy guy – and they were all guys – into the conference room. Jack always seemed to draw the one they dubbed Subliminal Man. There was a 20-minute limit; if it went that long, another reporter would come in to alert the rantee of an urgent phone call. The homeless guys seemed to understand this process and respected it, dutifully leaving when it was time.
Jack folded the foil into a cone, then rolled the point down to create a skullcap of sorts. The sides were then rolled up to hold it all together. He fitted it inside a baseball cap and stuck it on his head before leaving his apartment. It was an unseasonably cold New Year’s Day, a brisk 48 degrees according to the Minneapolis Tribune app on his iShades, so he had decided a walk was a nice way to enjoy the day off. The problem was that an idle stroll led to idle thoughts, and Jack didn’t want to spoil the walk by having to worry about either avoiding the sensors or keeping a rein on his mind. Thus, the foil cap. Subliminal Man had something there; the sensors were high-tech, but they were, well, foiled by foil.
It was a tricky dance, dealing with the sensors. Jack had purchased his house from a friend who had had lined half of the rooms with foil and then covered it with plaster and paint to avoid detection. He had left the other rooms unshielded because a house that didn’t show up on the grid would draw immediate suspicion. If Jack wanted to think about sports or reality TV or read the preapproved publications on his tablet, he would sit in his living room. If he wanted to discuss politics or read a novel or look at underground pamphlets, he would sit in his study or guest bedroom. The bathroom was most difficult. Like a walk, a shower is where the mind wanders. But the sensors know how much time people spend there, so shielding it wasn’t an option.
As Jack walked near the sensor closest to his home, he decided to test the hat with a relatively innocuous notion. “I wonder if the president fully thought through the repercussions of selling the Upper Peninsula water rights to Mexico,” he thought. He carefully chose his words, knowing it would be categorized as “tepid doubt” if picked up, and thus earn only a mild tasering from one of the roving monitors. He even lingered under the sensor so he would be easier to find, but nothing happened.
Mollified, he started walking again. It was the 10th anniversary of the coup and the resultant issuance of martial law, but that was nothing to celebrate. Patriot Act II had instituted things like ThoughtControl and the TreasonCams that certainly hadn’t made his life any better. And when the media was nationalized, he lost his job and had been forced to work at a flag pin assembly plant. Subliminal Man’s conspiracy theories had seemed laughable at the time; they were quaint now. There was no conspiracy necessary; everything was out in the open.
As he turned a corner to head toward the riverwalk, the artificial daylight gave way to Situational Darkness. He looked up to determine the cause and realized he was at the center of the blackout. A high-power LED on the nearest sensor tower shot a beam at his head and an automated voice declared, “Jack Simmons, you are being detained for treason! Your thoughts have been recorded and have been found to be in violation of Patriot Act II’s Treason Deterrence Protocols. Remain in position until an officer can apprehend you.”
He knew it was futile to run. The sensors could track him anywhere. He must have messed up the foil hat, and the police, growing craftier by the day, likely figured out that he was testing the system earlier and waited for an infraction worth prosecuting.
As he contemplated his fate, he saw people gathering in the shadows of the Situational Darkness. At first just a handful, but the crowd soon grew. They advanced, weapons in hand, to exact their own justice. Mob punishment was not only legal, but encouraged because it saved money. Because the TreasonCams were infallible, there were no trials or appeals. Scooping a bludgeoned suspect’s remains from the sidewalk was cheaper than apprehending and housing him, so any police response would surely be a long time coming.
The citizens gathered around him in a circle, chanting as they had been taught on television, “Kill the traitor! Punish the treason! Protect the country!” The first blow drove Jack to his knees, the next brought him to all fours. With each strike, Jack couldn’t help but think of the zombies of old outlawed movies, mindless beasts bent on destruction in the name of self-preservation. As the last of his blood leaked onto the sidewalk, weapons were sheathed and neighbors started to discuss the coming football game and reality TV results as they walked back to their homes.
John Kenyon is a newspaper editor in Iowa and keeps the blog Things I’d Rather Be Doing (tirbd.com). He has published stories with Thuglit, Crime Factory, Beat to a Pulp and many other purveyors of crime fiction.