Author Topic: Chapter 17  (Read 1417 times)

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Offline Daen

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Chapter 17
« on: June 10, 2022, 02:58:16 AM »
Chapter 17

Tin chatted with Benny on the short drive over to where he lived. He found the older man to be personable, and apparently as easygoing as he'd appeared at first. In the back of his mind, Tin was always alert—due to his military training and being a hunted man—but he felt he could relax around at least this one member of the Community.

Margo and Beb were in the back seats, and he could see Margo's barely concealed scowl. While Beb was open and willing to listen, Margo was still guarded. Actually it went further than that. If he didn't know any better, he might think she was taking this Community's philosophy personally.

As they got out of the car, Benny gave them a casual warning. "Toni's my stepdaughter. She doesn't know anything about the Spyglass or how we use it to fund the Community. She's not old enough to make an informed decision, so we all agree that kids her age are kept in the dark. I hope I can trust you to keep the secret around her."

"What age is the cutoff for your group?" Beb put in curiously, after they'd all agreed to hold their tongues.

"We decided on eighteen. So far, twenty or so kids have reached that point, been told the truth, and agreed to participate in our meetings. Or at least watch them, if they have nothing to say." Benny sighed briefly. "I'm sure they're not the most exciting thing a teen has to look forward to, but these decisions affect the entire Community. I only hope Tony recognizes that in a few years."

Tin thought back to how he'd felt at that age. Massively conflicted about a great many things, and living in constant fear of his father. No, his experiences were no good when it came to comparing to a normal teen's life. He could understand why most teens were bored to death of anything and everything administrative or political. Which was, whichever way you looked at it, what those meetings were all about.

"Oh, you should know that you'll be recorded on an exciter the moment you step into the house," Benny added. "It doesn't cover bathrooms or bedrooms, but every other room is under surveillance."

Tin gave a startled look over at Margo, and could see she was thinking the same thing. It reminded him of that first day he'd been in her office. Before he could ask why, though, the front door opened.

"Hello hello!" A woman in her forties said enthusiastically, moving forward out of the house and shaking their hands in turn. "I'm Sheila. It's such a pleasure to meet you all."

Tin endured the assault on his arm stoically, resisting the urge to pull away. He instinctively distrusted people who were overly cheery, or chatty, and she was both. Even Margo seemed taken aback by the woman's fervor as she shook her hand. "Thank you for inviting us," he said diplomatically.

Sheila herded them all inside and introduced them to her daughter. Their daughter Toni was standing back in the living room: the picture of teenaged uncertainty. She seemed a bit overwhelmed by the three sudden guests, but adapted quickly. Margo was standoffish, and Tin was being peppered with questions from both Benny and Sheila, so Toni focused on Beb instead as they all set the table.

It turned out Toni was interested in architecture and engineering. As a fellow builder, Beb grinned and started going off on her own projects and how aesthetics blended with and sometimes contradicted functionality. She had a way with kids, apparently.

When the table was set and dinner was placed, Tin expected there to be some kind of grace said, but the family just dug in. He followed their lead, and found that Benny hadn't been exaggerating. The food was delicious even for leftovers, and between skipping breakfast, avoiding the Community's hired guards, and tracking down where they'd taken his friends, Tin was starving.

He had to force himself to eat slowly, and asked some questions about Dr. Poe, partially to break up the flood of questions coming his way. Tin carefully avoided asking questions about Poe's death because of their young audience, but instead focused on what the old man had been like while staying here in Masontown.

By the time dinner was wrapping up, Tin had a better understanding of this family, and by extension the others around them. When he'd first heard about this all-for-one idealism of theirs, he'd expected something like Soviet Russia when it came to their lifestyle. He could tell that Margo was just as surprised as he'd been to find that they lived lives almost indistinguishable from most Americans. They had roofs over their heads, and heat for their home. They had a TV, and phones, and exciters like everyone else. Tin waited to get more details until after Toni left, though.

She obligingly returned her plate to the kitchen when asked, and went upstairs to finish her homework, thanking Beb for the tips on her architecture project. After she was gone, Tin helped Benny wash the dishes, exchanging words across the open kitchen with the rest.

Margo had apparently been waiting for this opportunity. "Benny, you said we were being recorded on an exciter inside this house, in every room except for bedrooms and bathrooms. I assume other members of your Community are watching us right now? Is that why you invited us here in the first place—so that you could interrogate us in a more relaxed setting while they all watch?"

He raised his eyebrows for a second, and then smiled over at Sheila. "I did want to ask you about Jia Haldar and tell you about Al, but otherwise you're correct. Good guess. I don't know for sure, but I'd bet a few of them are curious. And yes, they can watch us if they want to."

"So much for an altruistic, trusting society," Margo said, a note of triumph in her voice, as if she'd just called them out on their hypocrisy.

Beb looked concerned at the sudden shift from a friendly tone to an adversarial one. "Margo—" she began, but Benny held out a soapy hand towards her.

"No, it's all right," he assured her quickly. "We won't take offense at anything any of you say, and we're happy to discuss it in good faith. We're not ashamed of what we are, or afraid to defend our actions."

"What you are is a community of thieves!" Margo said sharply. "You take from others to benefit yourselves. There's no debating that: you admitted it yourselves!"

"Yes, our Community is built on theft," Sheila agreed confidently. "Just everyone else in this country."

Margo gave her a scornful look. "Come again? I haven't stolen anything- I worked hard for everything I have."

Beb turned a little pink at that, apparently holding back a laugh. Tin felt a little amusement himself. No doubt Margo had had to skirt, bend, or straight-up ignore the law repeatedly as part of her job as an investigator. Sheila didn't seem to notice, or she was too polite to comment on it. "I'm not accusing you personally of stealing," she went on, "but if you're going to judge the Community's way of doing things, shouldn't you judge the rest of America in the same way? The rest of the industrialized world too, for that matter? Yes, the Community takes money from other people in order to help our own people. But how is that different from AFI, or any other company? They also take money from their employees, and from their customers. They just call it cost-cutting and increased prices."

Benny smiled slowly. "The difference is where that money goes. In a corporation, the money goes to the CEO, CFO, Management, etc, and to the company's shareholders. As much as possible goes to the people at the tippy-top, and as little as possible to the employees and customers. Here, the money goes to whoever needs it most. We all have money for things like health care and education. There's no such thing as one person or family falling on hard times here, because the whole Community would rather take a slight hit to our standard of living than allow even one person to be left behind. We all agreed on that years ago when we first came to Masontown, and it's held steady ever since."

Margo shook her head vehemently. "Human nature just doesn't work that way. You might be able to run this little commune of yours for a few years, but eventually things will break down. Human greed will take over, with some people having more and other people having less. In the end your Community will collapse entirely, leaving nothing but chaos and ruined lives. At least in the rest of the country, there are rules keeping the rich from taking everything from the poor. You won't have those rules protecting you when your little 'utopia' falls apart around you."

Beb turned even pinker at that, and Tin let out a restrained snort. Margo looked at him sharply, and he shook his head. "If you think that the rich aren't taking everything they can from the poor, you need to hone your investigative skills a bit more," he said softly. "The very rules that 'protect' the workers and customers are influenced by the same people they're meant to hold back. You're one of the rare self-employed people, Margo, and you're still barely keeping your head above water. For the vast majority of entry-level workers, they're basically slaves. The only reason the wealthiest on top aren't taking even more from them is so that they can keep pretending we live in an equal society. If it weren't for the twenty-four hour news cycles telling people that we have a democracy and everyone has an equal say, America would have gone the way of monarchical France a long time ago."

Margo stared at him as if he'd literally stabbed her in the back. "You were a soldier, Tin! You fought to protect this country!"

"I made a mistake," he said bluntly, and her eyes widened.

Tin took a deep breath. "I should probably explain that," he said, looking around at everyone else. With the heat of this argument, the dishes had been forgotten, so he got to work on them again. "When I was little, I saw the ads on TV, of soldiers and sailors and pilots. I saw proud, skilled, fearless men defending our nation and keeping us all safe, and I thought, 'I'd like to be that someday'. When I joined up and got through my training, I was actually excited to get out there. I knew that American values were superior to others, and was eager to spread those values anywhere I could. It wasn't until I was actually out there, during my tours, that I started to see the real truth."

Beb leaned forward in her seat. "That other peoples' values were just as important as our own?"

Tin shook his head. "That we never believed in our own to begin with! We weren't protecting people, or helping people, or setting a democratic example for people. We were advancing American interests, not values. Economic interests above all. We were there for the resources, or the strategic importance of the areas, and no other reason."

"He sighed. Don't get me wrong; I will always value the people I met on my tours. My team... are like family to me. Even more than family actually. We forged bonds that are way beyond any blood ties. But I was young when I joined up—I was still practically a kid! I saw American exploitation overseas and I didn't like it much, but I didn't realize how we were also being exploited, until long after I got back Stateside. It took watching those very same friends fall on hard times for me to realize that our system doesn't give a shit about the people on the bottom. And that's because the people on top control the system."

He worried he'd gone too far, but Margo was a big girl. She could handle hard truths for her job, so she should be able to handle hard truths in her society as well. Grimacing, she turned to her right. "What about you, Beb? Are you buying any of this?"

Beb had a deer-in-headlights look for a few seconds, but then sighed. "I don't talk about my dad much, but I bet you've looked into his life on your own time. He worked in an auto parts factory for thirteen years. He would spend what, twelve to fourteen hours on the line, six days a week, all for just over minimum wage? I remember wanting to sit in his lap when he came home, and read stories with him, but mom wouldn't let me. She said he was too tired, and she was right. He worked himself to death for me, Margo. All so that I could go to college and become an engineer. It wasn't because he liked that factory—it was because he didn't have anywhere else to go! He'd worked five different jobs before that, and they were all minimum wage. He went to college too, you know. He wanted to be a lawyer, but he and mom both had to work so hard just to make ends meet, that he never got the chance." She shook her head slowly. "I don't know if what the Community is doing is right or not, but the rest of the world is definitely wrong."

Sheila reached out and squeezed Beb's hand briefly, and Benny cleared his throat. "I also worked on a line for years," he put in. "I was cleaning and packaging chicken meat in a poultry factory, and I hated it. Still it was all I knew, until I heard about Dylan's machine shop opening up and got hired there. I met Sheila while working for him, and it was like an entirely different world! He paid us what we were actually worth, which is why his companies all went belly-up, but it was my first taste of actually feeling worthy."

He shook his head for a moment, as if clearing it. "You're definitely right about one thing, Margo. Human greed will always be a problem. There will always be a few people who want more than they need, and will take it if they can get away with it. That's why all the money we get from the Spyglass is an open book. Any adult in the Community can see exactly what information we get, and exactly how we use it. The people who use that information to 'steal' money, do so while being recorded on exciters, and anyone can look up those recordings. All the books are open for anyone to see. That way everyone is kept honest... by everyone else. Actually, Sheila's one of the accountants who verifies the books and helps allocate where the funds go." He smiled over at his wife.

"We itemize what we spend on who needs it most," she explained in response. "There are fourteen diabetics here in the Community, and each one has access to the insulin they need to survive. There are five disabled people, and each one has a wheelchair, and altered car provided to them by... everyone. One of my closest friends has a rare brain disease. The medication to keep it at bay costs well more than any average citizen could afford, but the Community provides it for him out of our total income. If the Community hadn't been formed, Alex would have died years ago! Instead, he's able to teach history at our high school. And it's not just health care, either. We have no homeless, unemployed, or unwanted people, anywhere in town. We don't allow anyone to be those things, because we don't want to be those things ourselves!"

Margo grimaced, as if she wanted to continue arguing, but even she seemed taken aback. Probably by the idea that their books were open for anyone in the Community to see. Tin hadn't been expecting that either, but it did make sense. In a truly equal society, there would be no need to keep the books secret. In fact, doing so would undermine the society itself, come to think of it.


About half an hour later, they were sitting in the living room. Toni had come downstairs for a minute to say goodnight. Her project was done, and she had school in the morning. Margo greeted her distantly, still trying to wrap her head around the way they did things here. After Toni left, she remembered that it wasn't just the five of them watching.

"I hope you're all enjoying the show," she said sardonically, gesturing at the exciter mounted on the far wall.

"Oh, most of them have probably gone to bed by now," Benny said dismissively. "We're getting up there in years, and for a lot of us, living in an actual house instead of on the street is a novelty. They have even more reason to get a lot of sleep. But if you want, we can see what they're up to."

"What do you mean?"

Benny rose from his chair, and went over to the exciter on the far wall. "I'll show you." He fiddled with the controls for a minute, and then nodded with satisfaction. On his command, two more figures just appeared in the living room! Benny waved at them. "Hey, Carol, Hank."

They waved back, from the pair of lazy-boy chairs also being projected. Discomfited, Margo tried not to stare at them. "Uh, hi."

"Carol and Hank live about four blocks north of us," Benny explained. "They're usually up at this hour." He pressed another set of controls, and the two of them disappeared again. "Looks like the Kenninglys are up too, as well as the Ijiwa family, and old man Darren. They're all neighbors, and they usually keep the same hours we do."

As he switched through them one by one, greeting them in turn, Margo tried to parse the new information. When he was done, she walked over to the exciter. "I thought your people had put this exciter here to keep an eye on us while we were in your home. Are you saying there's actually one in every house in this neighborhood?"

"The whole town, actually. There's one in every residence. Well, except for those retirees on the far side of town. Some of the Community visit them from time to time, but unless they're suffering, we decided not to risk telling them or offering them help. So far, they seem to be fine."

Margo didn't want to be sidetracked, so she focused on her earlier question. "Why do you have these exciters everywhere? I mean, don't you want your privacy?"

"I did, once," Benny admitted. He reached out to Sheila, and took her hand. "We both did. But a lot of people use privacy as an excuse for isolation. 'I do my own thing', they tell themselves. 'That means I'm independent and strong.' All they're really saying is that they're alone. Besides, there is some privacy. Like I said before you came in, the exciters don't cover bathrooms or bedrooms. But if there's an emergency, everyone in town will be able to see what's wrong and come to help. It's like a supercharged version of Life Alert."

Sheila smiled. "On days when Benny has to leave early and Toni's off at school, I'm left all alone. I hate eating on my own, so I do breakfast with my friends. We can be across town from each other, but still eat breakfast at the same table." She paused. "Mostly. Not every kitchen or living room is set up the same way, so sometimes people are partway through a table, or walking through walls. It makes for some funny jokes in the mornings."

"Wow," Beb spoke up. "So everything you do in your house, all day and every day, is recorded? And anyone can see not just what you're up to now, but what you've done in the past?"

"For the last two years, anyway," Sheila said, looking over at the exciter. "Only people who are eighteen or older can look at the feeds... because some of the Community's residents are less than careful about their state of dress. Most of them don't care if anyone's watching or not. I suppose without obvious cameras pointed at them, it's natural to forget you're being recorded."

Benny stepped forward with her. "There were some objections to using the exciters this way at first—mostly the same issues Margo brought up about privacy and ownership. But as a whole, the Community quickly realized that if we have nothing to hide financially, we have nothing to hide socially, either. When we stopped putting ourselves above other people, or letting other people put themselves above us, we learned how wonderful other people can actually be!" He concluded triumphantly.

Sheila gave him a patient look. "He likes to talk about philosophical issues when it starts to get late. Come on, let's get the guest rooms upstairs ready for you. If you want to stay the night, that is."

Margo gave Tin a surprised look. "Is it really that late?"

He lifted his watch. "I didn't notice either. We can call a cab to take us back, but I'm in favor of staying."

"So am I," Beb said immediately.

"Our guest rooms aren't as comfy as your hotel, but I think you'll find them adequate," Sheila said, standing up with some help from Benny.

There it was. The crack in the story that Margo had been waiting for. "How did you know we were staying in a hotel?" She asked quickly.

Benny shook his head. "Still suspicious of us, are you? After you were caught outside the Spyglass, Dylan and his team checked out your car. Inside were directions to that particular hotel, and pricing for three rooms."

It was still too convenient for Margo, but she had to admit the evidence lined up. There had been no hesitation in Benny's response, too. Either he was the world's fastest liar, or he was telling the truth.

Margo looked down briefly. "Sorry. I'm skeptical by nature—it's part of my job."

"No need to apologize. We've thrown a lot of weird information at you all at once. It's natural to respond carefully. Now, would you like to see your rooms?"

There were only two guest rooms upstairs, but Beb and Margo had stayed at each other's homes many times. Tin got the other one to himself while they laid down in separate beds in the larger guest room. They hadn't brought any toiletries or extra clothing, what with being kidnapped and all, but they were only going to be here a few hours before heading back to Jersey City in the morning.

"So you were pretty hostile back there," Beb said from across the room, after they'd settled down a bit.

Margo was trying to get comfortable in the unfamiliar surroundings, and looked over at her. "Maybe. I was getting a total Waco vibe from these guys at first."

"And now?"

Beb just wasn't going to let this go, was she? Margo sighed, but turned in her bed. Maybe it was for the best that they talk it out, at least. "I still find the Community to be creepy, but at least it's not a cult. Every cult has a defined leader or leaders, and their authority is absolute. Any members who oppose them are punished harshly. In some cults, even killed. I would have expected Dylan Murad to be in charge here, given that he got things started, but he's not. You saw how he answered to the group, back in that high school meeting."

"What about Janice? What did she call herself—president?"

"Presider," Margo corrected her. "Yeah, she was running the meeting, but she answered to the people as well. When it came time to punish Dylan, it was the group itself who decided what that punishment was. I assume there's some kind of code of behavior, and if someone violates it, they get a standard punishment. If there are unusual circumstances, they can always ask for an exception from the Community itself."

"That sounds fair and democratic," Beb said, sounding pleased. "What's wrong with that?"

Margo shook her head. "Because it's fragile." She gestured out the window. "Do you know how many people out there truly, actually believe that the earth is flat? Or that vaccines are harmful instead of helpful? Or that the earth isn't actually heating up? People will believe anything because we're fearful and stupid. All it takes is one attention-seeker with even a little charisma, and anyone willing to listen to them will believe whatever they say, usually because either they already want to believe it, or they're afraid it's true. It hasn't happened here yet, but it's only a matter of time before it does. Then the Community will collapse, just like I said."

Beb frowned. "I don't know, Margo. If one guy starts telling lies here, wouldn't other people call him out on it? Benny talked about how isolated he used to feel, until he and Sheila became part of the Community. Isn't it easier to convince an isolated person to believe stupid stuff, than it is to convince a connected person? Maybe these people are protected from things like mass hysteria because they can rely on each other to fact-check things. And feelings-check things too, come to think of it."

"Maybe. I'm still betting they're going to fold, but I'd like to think you're right," Margo said quietly.

That seemed to be enough for Beb, and her breathing slowed a bit as she prepared to sleep. Margo tried to relax as well. She thought about some of the demagogues she'd seen on the news. Just like the cult leaders she'd studied, they usually preached isolation, as Beb had said, and advocated separating their own people from the rest of the world. The Community preached the opposite, or so they claimed. Only time would tell if they really meant it.
« Last Edit: June 10, 2022, 03:12:32 AM by Daen »