This story is heavily inspired by my recent reading of the background to the wargame Infinity, which is a very enjoyable science-fiction setting full of readily-embraced cyberpunk tradition and cliche. It has its villainous factions, which are evoked here, but something I generally like in dystopian fiction is settings where the abuse of the rules is not something the elite get away with too easily; if a dystopia is to be authoritarian, I would want it to be one where the control is absolute and dispassionate.
This is rather what I like about Judge Dredd.
Had the limousine’s windows not been tinted to near-opacity, they would have shown a depressing view. Miles upon miles of fields that should have been being worked by the great automated planters and pickers that sat at the end of each, but were instead mud-sodden expanses, quite useless. The floods had receded, in a fashion. There was no longer the rush of people trying to escape these small riverside towns – Chanhei, Anzhe, Tianli, the three names that had dominated the news these past few months – just a sad procession back into houses that would need refurbishment, drying-out and in far too many cases major rebuilding work.
Whoever was inside the black car could not see this reality, and was somewhat glad for it. Talk of the Three Towns had dominated her life as it had the headlines, and while the news would eventually find something new to obsess over, it was going to continue to dominate her life for a very long time.
Minister Helena Ling, Chancellor for the sprawling administration that encompassed the Three Towns, was sat in a crowded limousine with a bored-looking girl of eleven wearing a simple dress of the same slate-grey as Helena’s suit, and the awkward, claustrophobic presence of a bodyguard provided by the regional security forces. To Faye Ren, Civil Agent Third Rank, the very thought of taking a several-hour car ride to the airport brought back bad memories of unappealing family holidays, of carsickness and traffic jams and all the other awkwardnesses and discomforts they brought with them. Being stuck as observer to someone else‘s awkward family road trip was easily worse. An agent of Faye’s rank might just be permitted to speak a few words unrequested to Minister Ling’s driver.
“Madam soldier, might I ask you a question?”
Faye hesitated. Minister Ling nodded.
“What happens when you need to go in your armour?”
Faye was fully aware this was the sort of question children asked. She also had no idea what kind of a response would not provoke the narrowed-eye venom of the Minister and an inevitable black mark on her record for disrespect to a State Agent.
“A soldier has a little more self-control than you.” Before Faye had a chance to speak Helena broke the silence. The words had a distinct anger behind them.
“Madam soldier, do you get scared when it’s a war?”
“I… guess I wouldn’t be human if I didn’t.” If the first question had left Faye wondering how to respond, it had simply been a pleasant buildup to this real trap. Helena’s eyes seemed to pierce the helmet’s optical baffles and visors.
“That’s a shame. I was assured by your superiors that the money I allocate for defence spending went on a fearless, loyal and ruthless army. Perhaps I need to better assess where it is going.”
“I… well, yes, I might be scared when someone is shooting at me, but isn’t, you know, actual bravery being able to put that aside and, well, do what has to be done and-”
“Probably.” The minister reached into the travel-bag at her side and produced a laptop. “Now, Susan, please stop talking so your mother can do some work. Before you ask we are scheduled to stop for lunch in two hours. You may not have anything to eat before then. And you, gun for hire, keep an eye on my daughter. Ensure she does not do anything.”
Faye had the impression that to Helena Ling, anything was an incredibly literal term.
The two hours which followed were close to the most boring of Faye’s life. Her choices had been watch Ling senior type with furious intensity, or watch Ling junior fidget in her seat. Ordinarily, a period of inactivity, of simply observing and remaining alert, would have been second-nature, simply the unremarkable busywork of soldiering far from the front line. But something about being confined in a staff car, with nothing to look at save severe and/or bored women in dark grey outfits, without even a landscape to watch pass by, had been quite different to standing watch.
Disaster had been, thankfully, averted early in the trip. Ling junior’s rapidly paling expression and panicked look had been allayed by the administration of an antinauseant tablet from Faye’s personal medical supplies, the sort of medication intended to be taken in event of the inevitable effects of unclean drinking water and probably not suitable for an eleven-year-old’s carsickness. Shortly after taking it, the girl had fallen asleep. As they pulled into the service area, she showed no signs of waking and Faye was beginning to panic slightly.
“I see we have arrived for lunch. Take my daughter. Feed her, relieve her or whatever it is one is supposed to do here. I will take a sandwich in the car.”
“Payment? I believe state taxes pay for defence funding. I pay state taxes, thus I have provided you with the money in advance.”
A standard-issue medical kit contained an adrenaline shot. Faye sincerely hoped that the service area lavatory did not have CCTV in it, or indeed anyone else when Susan Ling began crying from sight of the needle.
In a fashion a meal was purchased, the cafeteria staff giving an extremely wide berth to the woman in full military armour escorting a tear-streaked child. The very sight was the sort of thing that did not invite question or interaction.
“Madam soldier, why did you-”
“Be quiet, please.” Why did you stick me with a needle in a toilet cubicle was the sort of question that would invite questions all the way up the chain of command, because it was the sort of arrest technique that the Service reserved mostly for adults, and definitely for more discreet places than motorway service areas during the rush hour.
“I’m sorry. I won’t be bad again. Thank you for the medicine that made me not be sick. Mother was very angry last time I was sick in her car.”
“I can imagine.” Mental images returned of a past deployment. Nausea’s byproduct part of the fog of smells that simply said fear.
The meal was hardly enjoyable, but it served a purpose. Susan seemed to like it, suggesting that the ready consumption of food on a par with barracks rations provided it was served with brightly-coloured accoutrements was some universal trait among small children. Having eaten, Faye went through the usual rituals of parents escorting a small child on a long car journey, including the purchase (at her own expense) of a book for the trip. And so, with resignation, they headed back to the limousine.
“My driver has taken leave from his duties a moment, we will wait here a little. Did the soldier feed you?”
“Yes, she bought me a rice bowl and a book to read for the trip.”
“That is a pleasant gesture. I wonder if anyone would fear the Security Service if they were to gain a reputation for being nice big sisters to small children.”
The vehicle began moving again. Ling senior resumed typing. Ling junior embedded herself in her book. The tedious peace was so absorbing that Faye completely failed to notice they had left the motorway early until a sudden jolt of a rough farm-track nearly shook Helena’s laptop from where it sat.
“What the hell is happening?”
No response. Faye tapped on the partition between passengers and driver to silence, and then tried to unfold her awkward, armoured frame within the confines of the car to unlimber her rifle from beneath the seat. Unfortunately the combination of the several inches of height a suit of full combat armour added to someone, and the decision of Helena Ling to pull herself upright in full acidic rage at the same moment Faye tried to find her gun led to a tangle of limbs during which the door opened and nobody noticed the flash grenade that rolled in until unconsciousness hit.
Sweet oblivion was probably the least accurate image in the poet’s arsenal, at least to describe the sorts of unconsciousness a soldier faced. The sleep a flash grenade brought on, the utter sensory overload, left one anything but pleasantly asleep to awaken as if in paradise. Instead one pulled oneself upright, ears screaming, eyes fighting fiercely against daylight, and checked one’s hearing as best one could.
Susan Ling was crying. Helena Ling was saying something very angry at Faye that thankfully she was still too deafened to hear.
They were in a- cage? Cell? Hard to say. It was a wooden building, so much was clear. Rusty equipment sat around it, and Faye tried to identify it. Chains. Some kind of- an anchor. Right. A boatyard. Based on where we were, and where we were going, this is probably Chongfu. Fishing town. Escaped the floods.
Their captors had stripped Faye of her armour, leaving her only in the leather undersuit. Of course, this meant no rifle, no sidearm and no medical kit.
Regrettably, her hearing had returned. Ling seemed to have a repertoire of about three complaints that she cycled through in various orders until somebody listened. Susan was still crying, interspersed with screaming. Ignoring the racket, Faye knelt and checked her ears and eyes for permanent damage, greatly relieved to see her own body had obstructed most of the blast.
With a rattling of corrugated metal, someone – or, it turned out, several someones – entered the warehouse. Two men in balaclavas with rifles, wearing old-fashioned military uniforms. The sort that hadn’t been worn by anyone serving a real flag for a long time. And, as if things could not get any more cliché, a woman in round-lensed, retro-styled sunglasses with terribly dated bouffant hair and a laughable look in black catsuits, holding Faye’s rifle and smoking – of course – a long cigarette.
“I’m sorry, is this some reunion of failed film actors or something? Have I been selected for some hilarious viral prank to be all around the info networks tomorrow? Because between the incompetence of my own entourage and the frankly ridiculous nature of this whole-”
“Shut up, Minister Ling.” The woman, Faye noticed, had a twitch in her left arm. She was holding the rifle lower than a normal person would, clearly struggling with the weight. “This is being recorded. Answer these questions.”
The cell was opened, and Susan was let out. She reached for a jug of water sat on a drum of cabling, and was forced back by one of the armed men.
“I apologise for her abysmal lack of manners.”
“How droll. I doubt you would want her drinking the water anyway. My name is Charlotte Chang-”
“So are you eco-freaks or something? I thought you all hated leather.”
“Frankly I couldn’t give a shit about the small furry animals, but unfortunately for you I do rather give a shit about the fishing industry. Particularly the needs of people who use the river.”
“Get to the point please.”
“For the record, you are Helena Ling, Chancellor of the Tri-Delta region?”
“Are you aware of the flooding caused by-”
“Poorly maintained flood defences, yes.”
“And what is being done about it? Particularly the industrial water pollution caused by the flood waters breaching the boundaries of filtration tanks at nearby chemical plants?”
“A full inquiry. Those responsible for it will be tried under Imperial law.”
“Would you like to say, for the record, where you are going today? Where you were going?”
“Go fuck yourself, you filthy mutton dressed as lamb.” The tension between the two women was fascinating to Faye.
“That’s the wrong answer. I think Susan looks a little thirsty, but the good news is we’ve drawn some nice fresh water from the river-”
“I was headed to speak as an independent consultant at the Fourteenth Symposium on Industrial Standards.”
“Please, pour little Susan a nice glass of-”
“I was going to speak at the Symposium as a representative of Ling-Fei Fine Chemicals, a company I hold a thirty-five percent share in, reduced from fifty-eight percent following my assumption of political office. There.”
“And there we have it. Will you now arrest yourself on camera for all the good viewers at home, given it was a Ling-Fei plant that-”
Faye did not even think, trusting instead in her training and the long hours spent learning how to overpower an armed foe in a hostage situation. Snatching at Chang’s weaker arm she pinned the woman, forcing her to drop the rifle, and then with a sudden, instinctive brutality smashed her face into the water jug.
The other guards were clearly not prepared for this, and to Faye’s relief did not grab Susan.
Chang was screaming, for the combination of glass jug, remnants of sunglasses and splintered cable-drum had not done her face any favours. The terrorists had not been expecting to fight and hesitated long enough for Faye to shoot one of them at which point the other surrendered.
“Please get that thing out of sight of my daughter, it will give her nightmares.” Helena swept Susan under her jacket and made for the door as Faye kicked the incoherent Chang into their cell.
The limousine had been abandoned just outside the warehouse, and once safely back on the road Faye recommended a detour to the local garrison.
Agent Second Class Zhao was awaiting them. A sweep of the area was well underway.
“This is a significant PR blow, Minister. How will you respond?” Not a journalist? Faye momentarily wondered who was talking, until the figure in the doorway properly entered the room. One of the Counter-Insurgency Taskforce.
“Ah, well, of course, there will be changes at the highest level. Please, secure me a channel to state broadcasting. Is it open? Good. Citizens, I am Minister Helena Ling. You might have seen, or will see, a broadcast confession regarding my partial responsibility for the Three Towns flooding. I do not deny these allegations and am taking full action moving forwards to ensure that these regrettable events do not happen again. The Ling-Fei Corporation has taken actions without my knowledge or consent and as a result I resign from its board of directors, and furthermore dissolve the company to be purchased by the State. Until it is proven in full compliance with the Statutes of Industrial Standards, it will cease operations. Furthermore I am stepping down from the Chancellorship to spend more time with my family, although will remain as an impartial non-governmental advisor. Moving forward, anyone affected by the Three Towns flooding or Ling-Fei negligence will be represented in an open court by the state prosecutor to receive compensation.”
She closed the line, and sat down.
“A noble speech, Minister.”
“Thank you. Might I use a telephone?”
“Indeed.” Ling took the handset and walked out of the barracks, as Susan was taken off by the base medic, enthralled by the android woman’s small, burbling surgical drone.
“Quan? It’s Ling. There’s been a setback. Call in some of the overseas accounts, shift the Ling-Fei assets to one of the other corporations in the holding. Get someone clever from legal on the line to stand in The State versus Ling-Fei, try to minimise payout. I am laying low for a while but before long- hello? What’s going on?”
“I think, Minister Ling, we need to have a talk about your loyalty to the state.” Zhao was waiting in the wings.
“What was it you said you wanted taxes to go towards again Minister? Fearless, loyal and ruthless agents of the state?”