A winnowing of the masses.
First published by Pif Magazine, Issue No. 230, July 1, 2016.
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The release chopper hovered over abandoned land, near former Philadelphia. Lucius listened to the count of the crew chief, "three," "two," "godspeed," and slid out the rear hatch with a bearing of one-eighty. Twenty-two hundred hours, no moon.
He flew a Powered Stealth Glider, preferred for deploying an Immigration Deterrent Agent (IDA) in the 2080's. Little more than Syrotex super cloth, composite struts, and a small rear motor, meant for three hours of flight then disposed of. Lucius coasted a hundred meters above the swampland at a hundred twenty kilometers per hour. A LectroMap controlled navigation, signals turned off to avoid detection, maps having been updated that afternoon. He hung below the glider head forward like a bat, silent, the small hum from the motor drowned by the squawks and burps of the fetidness beneath.
Lucius was a veteran, his sixth mission, missions lasting four to six weeks – Border Security gave the agents wide latitude. How many more? He didn't know, could opt out any time, no questions, no recriminations, take a cozy outpost out west, Idaho, Montana, or a staff slot in Toronto. Most agents got out after four because of the casualty rate, twenty-one percent per mission, calculating four times twenty-one made eighty-four and the next mission put you over. Superstition. The rules of probability reset the clock each mission, always twenty-one.
Lucius wore the latest survival suit, a double layer of Syrotex with sandwiched electronics for cooling and varmint repulsion. The electronics recharged through heat and motion. Syrotex was ultra-light, waterproof, breathable, self-cleaning, and almost indestructible. From the neck down, the camouflaged outfit rode close to the body protecting every millimeter, but for the latest suits, the Model G's, the masterstroke was the automated waste elimination system with integrated bidet. Lucius still found it incredible he could crap his pants and moments later be clean and tidy. Hats off to the engineering wonks of Border Security.
An oval Plastex helmet fastened at the neck. It appeared camouflage from the outside but from the inside gave all-around visibility with UV protection, adaptive tinting, night vision, and magnification to 40x. The helmet contained read-outs for maps and materials, including leisure – Border Security let the agents take whatever they wanted. All controlled by pupil movement and blinks.
The motor stopped. Nylon cord unfurled and Lucius rappelled into green-black water to his chest, buoyancy tubes arresting his sinking. He hand-paddled until under canopy with feet touching. Soon he was slogging on a knee-deep path, felt like an old macadam road.
Lucius was in top physical condition, training administered by automated stress and aerobic machines. An IDA not up to snuff at mission time was scrubbed.
Lucius was smart. He held bachelor and graduate degrees. Border Security didn't want gorillas, wanted agents to think, do no more popping than necessary.
Lucius approached his objective, a narrow north-south oasis, a strip of high ground with a spring-fed brook, a favorite squatting spot for illegals. It was evening. Lucius found a cozy spot in the crook of a cypress, inflated his integrated mattress, turned in for the night, woke with the sun at his back. He watched the oasis for a while, zoomed, scanned, checked his sensors. Around four hundred illegals, meaning four or five armed smugglers guiding them.
Lucius waded into chest-deep water, reduced buoyancy, and squatted to neck level, could go under if need be. He advanced toward the near shoreline of the oasis taking an hour to cover a hundred meters. He zoomed and found a smuggler on sentry duty at the south end of the land mass and another further north. They wore obsolete Model B suits without gloves or helmets.
With a blink and pupil shift, Lucius activated the Glytox Automatic Acquisition Ground Weapon System, the latest in individual armament. Its magazine curved down the back of Lucius's helmet while the chamber and barrel poked out the top. Lucius acquired the sentry on the kill screen, put a laser dot on his forehead, and gave the blink. The Glytox made no noise, not even a swoosh. The sentry dropped.
Lucius turned his head to the right, acquired the second smuggler, and fired. The smuggler fell sideways but this time a cry went up. Lucius sank to eye level and moved north.
Bullets splatted the swamp water where Lucius had been. Old-style automatic rifles – lots of noise, no acquisition systems.
Lucius completed a flanking maneuver coming ashore north of the illegals. He discerned fire from three rifles, moved south, located one smuggler then beyond a second. They were looking east into the swamp, into the sun, firing bursts. Lucius dropped them with pops to the sides of their heads.
He moved toward the downed men. Illegals appeared to his right, a mixed crowd, half women, many kids, all ages. The third rifleman exited the vegetation and threw down his weapon. Lucius popped him in the forehead.
The illegals screamed and ran. They ran south, mothers holding children, couples holding hands. Lucius scanned for weapons. He let stragglers take their time, let them gather belongings, fill water bottles. He checked to the north, checked along the brook, trailed the crowd as they floundered south, checked their flanks for strays, did not have to pop anyone else.
Lucius rolled the smuggler remains into the swamp along with the antiquated weapons. He scanned the oasis, first along the brook, then the west side of the brook, then back to the larger eastern piece. He searched up an old road dotted with pieces of tar. An alert from the sensors. Lucius moved to the corner of a cellar hole and looked down on a human, prone, stomach down. Bollocks, he thought, just what I don't need, an up-close stay-behind. Lucius activated the Glytox and set a dot on short, black hair just above the human's nape.
Lucius thought back three weeks to a farewell party for an IDA who had tossed it in, announced his last mission. Fellow agents gathered at his apartment, whiskey and beer flowing, taboo topics drifting into the conversation. The outgoing IDA, his voice up, opined that balking at a close-in popping constituted not so much a breach of operating procedures – whiskey slopping over and dribbling on his fingers – but the hanging onto of a shred of humanity. There followed a few small laughs.
On the fringe of the conversation drifted Jane, Lucius's supervisor, blond with streaks of gray, two missions before going administrative, so not without standing among the IDA's. Lucius had taken a seat on the retiring agent's divan and Jane joined him, hip to hip, knee to knee.
"Jane, you're a terrible flirt."
"Lou," said Jane, "I do hope you're not going soft on us."
Lucius extended an arm toward the remnants of the conversation. "Just boy chatter."
"You must keep to your training. The ten-one rule."
"Jane, can't you see we're in the midst of a party?"
"Right, but I do hope you won't forget your ten-one."
The wonks had determined that outside ten meters IDA's could be trained to treat humans as action figures, as in a simulator. That was the first part of ten-one – never get within ten meters. The second part was to not procrastinate, to place the dot and give the blink within one second of ascertaining target.
Lucius jumped into the cellar and nudged the human's calf with his boot. A woman rolled on her back, his age, white swamp sneakers, light blue Plynthetic pants, white top of the same material, breasts rising and falling. She had wide nostrils and brown eyes set apart, more resigned than scared. Lucius thought, well, if I've gone this far, might as well be hospitable, and formed a smile until he remembered, of course, she couldn't see through the camouflaged helmet.
"Say, love," he said, "why don't we head across to the brook. Nicer there."
Her breasts still heaved. "Then what?"
"Then we'll have a chat. C'mon, now. You can't stay here. And can't be going into the swamp on your own. Right then?"
At the brook, the woman slipped into a pool formed by a small waterfall, held her head under, emerged. Lucius sat on the brook's edge. "Here's the thing," he said. "I don't mind you hanging about if you're not a nuisance. We can set you up with a little hut or whatnot. But I need some assurances."
Lucius brought both hands to his neckline, pulled the quick-release, and lifted his helmet away. He felt the rush of heat and humidity, breathed in a wisp of cool from the brook.
"Can I have some assurances then?"
"Why you're black like me."
Lucius relaxed his shoulders. He formed a small smile. "Nobody up north takes notice of race."
"Course they do. Everybody does."
"No, they really don't," said Lucius. "No more than hair color."
"Go on. Nobody stands out?"
"Well," said Lucius, "Newfies maybe."
The girl narrowed her eyes.
"It's a joke," said Lucius. "What's your name?"
Lucius had a mahogany face and skull, round, and – at this stage of the mission – bare, it being the practice for agents to shave hair and beard before going out. The inside of his lips glimmered red when he smiled. The woman was a darker brown.
"Clara," she said.
"Lovely name. Call me Lou."
"Um, Lou. What do you get out of this arrangement?"
"Sex is not an issue if that's your meaning."
"Not an issue?"
"Right. Regulations prohibit sex on missions. It's a bore, I know, but management is quite adamant. There's been meetings and such."
Clara's head tilted back in the water and her eyes roamed the sky. "You're watched every minute then."
"There's no minders," said Lucius. "No signals in or out until mission's end. But that actually reinforces the need for proper behavior. Don't you see?"
"Lou, I've never known a man with proper behavior. But maybe that's why you northern folk got the upper hand."
"Not at all, it's geography, Clara, geography that did you. Where are you from then?"
"Atlanta. Or where Atlanta used to be."
"Not anymore. So I just hang out here while you do your thing? Stay out of trouble?"
Lucius gave her the nod.
"What happens at the end? When you're done here?"
"Ah, a thorny issue."
"Is it true they'll execute me if I go on up there and I'm found out."
"You wouldn't go up there. You wouldn't make it. But, yes, the immigration policy is quite cut-and-dried."
"I don't understand that. Aren't y'all supposed to be this bastion of civility? Where everyone's taken care of?"
"Quite so. For citizens."
Clara's eyes had teared. She oscillated her arms to maintain balance in the brook.
"It's a matter of dire necessity," said Lucius. "Even up north we're losing habitable land at an alarming rate. All we can do to take care of ourselves, don't you see?"
Lucius had not provided Clara complete intelligence. Proper behavior had not overridden sexual desire. What happened was early on Border Security tagged as high severity what they called (with bureaucratic indelicacy) the "masturbatory issue" or, when illegals became involved, the "fornicatory issue." Brainstorming ensued. The wonks suggested a chemical solution, implanting in outgoing agents a slow-release Exosterone tablet, just enough to impede libido. Senior male staff objected, countering that operational efficacy would plummet, favoring an in-suit stimulation solution along the lines of waste removal. There were angry rants – "cutting their balls off" and such.
Lucius recalled a lunch date with Jane, just the two of them, a decent place, bottle of white half gone. She was reconstructing a meeting of the division bigwigs over Exosterone, mimicking Archie their division chief, swinging a spoon to her front, pouting her lips, pushing her teeth out: "How can they be popping illegals if we're taking their testes?" On a refrain of "taking their testes," Jane tumbled her wine glass, then lost balance and slid from her chair to a sitting position on the floor still swinging the spoon. A fine lunch, thought Lucius, then pondered lady agents, could do with more ladies in the field, but they just didn't have the same predilection for popping as the boys.
The chemical solution, easy to implement and cheap, went to testing. To the chagrin of senior male staff, Exosterone appeared to enhance agent performance, in addition to achieving the desired libido effect. Like most agents, Lucius didn't mind Exosterone, in fact, found life in the field more agreeable without a nagging sexual appetite, knowing it would return within a few weeks of mission's end. The agents adapted. Traditions and jokes evolved, raising the flag at mission's end and so forth.
As for his off-hand, illiberal remark regarding Newfies, well, it held more than a grain of truth. The Newfoundlanders in Border Security stood out. Lucius wasn't sure why, whether it was the slant of their teeth, the slant of their heads, the slant of their words, the way their eyes wandered. Perhaps because the encroaching seas had all but obliterated their homeland. An odd lot.
Ole Ned came off as the oddest. Nickname of course, real name Edwin or Edgar Something.
He'd entered the service before Lucius's time, enlisting from Grand Falls-Windsor (in the middle of the island, high, secure yet), went out with the initial wave of agents, completed ten missions, a record, and vanished on the eleventh.
Lucius had seen Ole Ned in the flesh his fourth week of basic IDA training. It was between missions ten and eleven for Ned. The training staff had brought him in as a specimen of experience, to tell the recruits what it was like in the wild. The recruits asked how do you stand it for weeks at a time, the heat, the water, the critters, the insects?
"It's not so bad," said Ned. "It grows on you."
The recruits laughed.
A year after he failed to rendezvous, rumors floated that Ned was alive, couldn't kill a Newfie, had gone native. It became a running joke. When an IDA came in from the field, other agents asked not how did it go but, "Did you see Ole Ned? How's he doing?" The returning IDA would reply, "Why Ned he's looking fine. Hale as can be."
Two agents (that Lucius knew of) had gone over the edge, insisted it wasn't a joke, that Ole Ned was out there, they had seen him up close, spoken with him. They were given medical discharges under section 64.
Storms roiled for five days. At dawn of day six, Lucius left the encampment and waded west to the southern tip of a smaller oasis, little more than roots and vegetation resting on swamp water. An alligator swam his way, felt the anti-varmint vibrations, turned back. The smaller oasis interdicted a known immigration trail. Late morning the sensors picked up movement to the south, a swarm of human bodies. Mid-afternoon the illegals came into view hip and waist deep in the green murk.
Lucius counted two smugglers and eight illegals abreast before him, many more behind, over a hundred. At two hundred meters, Lucius popped the smuggler on the left. As he sank away, the smuggler on the right hid behind an illegal, yelled for them to keep advancing. Tentative steps lurched the mass closer. Lucius popped the closest two. He then popped the illegal being used as a shield and took out the second smuggler. A third smuggler was making his way forward in the mass. Lucius picked him off.
The illegals backed away, turned around. Lucius tracked their retreat for another hour before returning to the home oasis.
"You look awful," said Clara.
Lucius had submerged his body in the brook and pulled his helmet.
"Do you want some tea? Natural ingredients."
"I could do with a spot."
"You've got a stressful job, Lou, shooting folk. How'd you get into it?"
"We call it popping. You know how it goes. I was young. It seemed like an adventure. Once I was in, well, peer pressure and all that. My, that's a fine cup of tea, Clara."
"Boys like popping, don't they, Lou?"
"They do, Clara. In the beginning." Lucius put his lips to the cup and drew away some tea. "But it's important to keep in mind the dire necessity. There's no other way."
"When you get done here, what happens?"
"Oh, I'm choppered out along with my backup." Clara squinted. "We're tiered. My backup is Al, nice chap, second mission." Lucius jutted his chin. "About twenty clicks north of here."
"Will you be shooting me before you leave?"
"It's popping, Clara, and I really don't think I could do that. Even if it were in your best interest."
Two nights later Lucius came awake to the vibration of the sensors. Something big slithering his way. Lucius applied night vision, zoomed, could not get a visual. The sensors indicated less than ten meters.
A whisper undulated across the low-lying night air. "Don't be doing anything rash, lad."
Lucius recognized the voice. Feck me arse, he thought, is it a section 64 then? "Ned?"
In response, a chuckle.
At dawn, Lucius zoomed and scanned.
"Easy as she goes, lad." And the apparition rose from ferns and moss.
From basic training, Lucius remembered an imposing mortal a hand under two meters with thick red hair, trimmed beard and mustaches, and pale blue eyes below bushy brows. There was no doubt from its stature and crooked face that here stood the same life form, but head and facial hair had gone gray, still thick, untrimmed, flowing past shoulders, beard past the navel, mustaches obscuring the mouth.
He wore thin shorts and a sleeveless pull-over. On his back rested a small rucksack and hanging from that an old AK-2047-W assault rifle. They were rugged weapons. They could be held underwater (hence the W), banged against rocks, would still fire. They had 128-round magazines, but were noisy, inaccurate, no acquisition system.
Ned looked around.
"Got a playmate, I see."
He dropped the rucksack and rifle, sat down, and pulled out ready meals. Lucius removed his helmet.
Ned asked how the hunting was going. Lucius told him about the group he'd chased off the oasis at the beginning of the mission, the group he'd turned back the day previous.
Ned said, "I'll show you another route they're using. Not on your maps yet."
They munched their meals. Lucius asked, wasn't it hot out there without a survival suit? Wasn't the air turgid? Wasn't it lonely?
An hour later, Ned led the way off the home oasis, southwest, then west, swamp and cypress, waist and chest deep. Lucius couldn't imagine being without a suit. Ned in shorts and sandals. Alligators approached him, turned away. They went through a thicket of black wasps. The insects split like the Red Sea before Moses.
About noon Ned stopped. Lucius said the new route didn't look like much. Ned said they were getting desperate. There was a group coming up, would be here soon. Lucius checked his sensors, zoomed to the south, found nothing.
Mid-afternoon the sensors came alive. Ned said he would go southwest a few hundred meters taking their left flank. Wait for his move, he said, and disappeared into the swamp water. Lucius saw him come up for a gulp of air eighty meters out. Then he went under again.
The illegals came into view at four hundred meters. Lucius sank in the swamp to eye level, his camouflage helmet merging with the slime.
Three hundred meters. A smuggler to the front, a smuggler on the western flank. A large group, eight to the rank. Lucius couldn't tell how deep.
Two hundred meters.
The group had waded forward another fifty meters when Ned rose to his waist on their flank with screams and gunfire, slime pasting his gray hair and beard to face and body. Under his mustaches an abyss expiated the pierce of a swamp raven. The AK-2047-W chattered to the sky with flame and smoke.
The illegals turned and ran as best they could in murk to their waists and chests. Some dove and swam. They dropped packs. The smugglers ran too, in fact, led the retreat. Lucius didn't blame them. He would have run himself.
Ned was rummaging through dropped packs that had yet to sink when Lucius waded up to him. Ready meals, knives, bullets, electronics, narcotics, distilled spirits. Ned hummed as he selected and discarded.
"You see," he said, "no need to be popping anyone. Just give 'em the wee scare."
Ned continued to hum, select, discard. Then tossing his head toward the home oasis. "What's to become of your sweetheart?"
Lucius disclosed a vague plan. Inserting Clara into a group of illegals being turned back.
"Lovely," said Ned.
Ned evaporated on the way back to the home oasis.
Next morning Lucius lowered himself in the brook and removed his helmet. He pulled off his gloves and beckoned to Clara. They squatted a meter apart in the water butterflying their arms.
Lucius said, "Your chances of making it north and surviving are twenty percent. Do you want to give it a go?"
"How do you get twenty percent?"
"Ah," said Lucius, "our guest of yesterday, the gentleman with the white beard, he'll clear some hurdles. Otherwise your chances would be zero."
Ned would drop in on Al, the backup IDA, Lucius explained, have a word. That would get Clara out of the border lands into the abandoned lands. The abandoned lands were dotted with abolitionist outposts. Clara knew of the abolitionists? So-called because they advocated an end to the zero-immigration policy and the popping of illegals. They were known to pick up strays who made it past the agents, provide forged identities and transport north. Ned would drop in, have them keep a lookout.
"Then shouldn't my odds be better?"
"Many obstacles," said Lucius. "Twenty kilometers to navigate on your own. And we don't know about Al, whether he'll really let you through. Whether you'll find the abolitionist outpost. Whether they can set you up. Not be under government surveillance."
"Many obstacles," said Clara.
"And if you make it through, the rest of your life is on guard. The slightest mistake and you're all done. Suppose you made it through and one day saw me. What would you do?"
Clara shook her head.
"Not a thing," said Lucius. "Too dangerous to even give a glance. And you've got to lose that accent."
Clara smiled. "You mean, roight then, mate, instead of y'all, mate?"
Lucius wasn't smiling. "Don't you see this is a matter of life or death?"
Lucius handed Clara a LectroMap lifted from an illegal's pack. He demonstrated its use, how to find her way on the ground without sending out signals. He had her memorize the location of an abolitionist outpost.
"What happens if they catch me? Will there be – an interrogation?"
Lucius took her hands. They had the feel of electricity at low voltage.
"Actually, it's quite civilized. You'll never know what happened."
Clara left the following morning. A month later the mission was up. Lucius tramped north and put out a signal. Al responded and they linked up at the extraction point, pulled off helmets, Lucius with fifteen millimeters of black hair and beard, Al coated in reddish brown. They lounged, waiting for the chopper. Protocol was to not compare notes, to be debriefed separately.
But a bit of banter was permissible.
"Did you get a glimpse of Ole Ned then?" said Lucius.
"Sure enough," said Al, "and he's looking grand."
Lucius went out twice more. He took great care with the ten-one rule and never dealt again with a close-up situation. He relocated often avoiding another night encounter with Ole Ned, or maybe Ole Ned didn't fancy a second visit.
On the last mission, on the last group, they kept coming. He popped two smugglers at two hundred meters. He popped two illegals. They didn't stop. They were eight and ten abreast. Lucius popped everyone in the first rank. As they sank, the second rank walked over them. Lucius popped everyone in the second rank.
At eighty meters they stopped, the rear ranks banging into the front, milling about, looking in his direction, looking back.
When Lucius put in his release-from-active request, Jane had him up for the mandatory chat. She sat behind her faux maple desk with brushed stainless legs. Lucius took a seat to the side on a plaid half-couch. They stepped through some bookkeeping necessities on the holly.
"I'm glad to see you're getting out of it," said Jane. "You've done your bit, Lou."
Jane produced clear tumblers and a liter bottle of whiskey, a third full, a blend but of good quality. "You're not adverse to an afternoon drink, are you?"
Jane poured and they clinked glasses. "It's not just the risks," she said. "And the hardships. I think it rips your soul apart. I'm glad you're out in one piece."
Lucius sipped his whiskey.
Two years later the IDA program disbanded. Immigration attempts from the south had gone to a dribble, maybe due to IDA enforcement, maybe because the swamplands had become too noxious to traverse. Problems internalized as the shifting geography forced population adjustments in the north. The government initiated a "citadel" policy, walling up habitable areas and requiring residency or a visa for entry, treating non-authorized entrants as illegals.
Lucius slipped into the citadel bureaucracy, office in Toronto, a co-op in Guelph, half-hour commute by high-speed transport. He started dating a woman three floors below. The relationship lasted eight months. On its last day, Lou said, "Why must it end? I don't rant and break things, do I?"
"Quite the opposite," she said.
One Saturday Lucius dropped down to the garage of the co-op tower, checked out a local transport, and set destination for Maryhill Mall. En route he adjusted his grocery list, transmitted it, leaned back, relaxed, dialed in an adventure movie, IDA's were fighting giant alligators in the abandoned lands. He laughed.
He docked the transport at the mall and was walking to the grocery when a flashback hit.
For Lucius, flashbacks didn't come in dreams. He didn't have nightmares, wake up sweating, falling, like other agents he'd listened to in therapy. He slept well. The flashbacks hit him while he was awake, sometimes sitting around, sometimes walking around, sometimes in public places like now. They popped in, swapped realities, popped out.
The flashback that hit him in the mall was the most recurring, pasty gray hair and beard rising from swamp water, open throat screaming, AK-2047-W flaming. When Ole Ned popped out, Lucius found himself at a standstill, lower lip trembling, heart at the quick-step. He looked left and right. The few odd stares but no loony police.
At the grocery, he logged his transport number, picked out a few more items, marked "no rush," approved the debit. Wandered to the Auld Tyme Pub, took a booth, ordered a single-malt whiskey, water on the side, plus a pint. Resumed the movie. The IDA's were gaining on the alligators.
A waitress walked by without offering a glance. She was pretty, about his age. Black like him.