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The Hard Knock of Freedom

Evan Marcroft is a writer of fantasy, science fiction, and horror residing in Sacramento, California. His work has appeared in Metaphorosis, Pseudopod, and Strange Horizons. When he's not busy writing many more stories than he sells, he's hard at work helping repossess your car.

Thirty years to the day after the death of The Government, Abel reports to his shift at the VariaCorp Tire Factory. His job is to inspect the tires the machines make to ensure that they are fit to put on VariaCorp cars, cars that he can choose to buy because without The Government he is free, cars that he can afford if he only works hard enough. Of course Abel does not own a car. He does not know anyone personally who owns a car. He has only seen them in VariaCorp advertisements emblazoned on T-shirts and sidewalks and human irises, or as droplets of glinting mercury streaking along the paid X-Pressways whose curling filigree cast whirlpool shadows on the part of the city where he lives, charging by the yard traveled. But that has nothing to do with anything--what matters is that he has that option. He has access. And that is good.
His shift today is fourteen hours long. At noon he is permitted a fifteen-minute break to sit down at his work station. He thirsts and hungers in silence waiting for the track-mounted Minimum Sustenance Tube to move down his row and pump protein pulp down his throat. Abel can admit his conditions are miserable, but nobody can stop him from taking the force of his labor to another factory if he so chooses. Still, he considers himself lucky to have a job at all. So much can be done by machines these days, and who has the right to tell a Creator what kinds of labor he can or can't employ?
Five minutes before Abel's shift ends he is taken aside by the automated foreman and informed that he is being let go from his spot on the line. The faceless machine tells him that he will not be receiving his days' wages because he did not complete his shift as his contract required. This is his last day, but he will not be receiving his pension either. No reason is given for that.
Abel protests of course; there was a contract when he was hired, an agreement between two consenting parties. The machine, as expressive as a concrete wall, insists there were no such terms, inviting him to prove it, to produce such a contract. Abel cannot, because it was company policy to keep the only copy, and he goes home with not so much as a pat on the back for his years of service.
This is fine, Abel tells himself. It is good that a Creator like VariaCorp can do what they want with its money. Were he to demand from them what they did not consent to give, he would be no better than The Government, who once thirsted so greedily for the sweat of one's brow. How great it is to have loosed the shackles of regulation, he insists to himself. How wonderful to live right and free.
His walk home is noisome as ever, the crumbling sidewalks encrusted with months of festering garbage. It is his neighbors' choice to pay for trash collection if they want their streets clean. No-one can force it on them. If they had more money between them, perhaps they would. Still, as he picks his way over gut-slit trash bags and overflowing diapers gone scabrous on the concrete, he stumbles over memories from a long time ago, when the yards were green, and not from all the plastic.
The digital face of his building is playing a special message when he at last arrives home. The smiling but stern countenance of Bootstrap John the Self-Made Man, perennially handsome hero of the Creator's Revolution, urges onlookers to celebrate freedom from the tyranny of law. Be merry, my friends, he booms, his blue eyes burning with a pioneer's courage. But be vigilant, today and ever further. Share this day with your neighbors but watch them with one eye. The Government may be defeated, never to return, but those who would see it restored are still among you. Do not let them take your wealth. Do not let them grow fat on your labor. Dig out the Leeches from our consenting aggregation of citizens and report them to your company's Freedom Enforcers.
Abel struggles up the stairs to his apartment, weighed down by the ingot of dread gathering mass in his gut. He knows it is not owed to him, but the loss of his pension continues to gnaw at him. He'd pinned so many hopes to its guarantee. He might have even bought a car and seen what the world looks like from up where the wealthy fly. It would be futile to go to the police, however. Even if they took his case on credit, VariaCorp will simply pay them to ignore him, and he will not likely get his money back. There are other police firms with higher standards--unbridled competition is the soul of a great aggregation, he hears Bootstrap John intone--but he could not afford them in a thousand years.
Which is all good, of course. That is the natural way of things. As Bootstrap John always says, the only inherent bonds between men are those of services asked and services willingly rendered. It is a Wrong Thought to expect anything more, and criminally Governmental to force them.
But the Wrong Thoughts have not abated by the time Abel unlocks his door. This is his sanctuary, his private domicile, but once his landlord hears that he has lost income, he will be out on the street within hours. He may not be given the time to gather up his wealth. Such that it is. His tired eyes slump around his tiny apartment. There are his clothes, his three shirts and two pairs of trousers; there is his tiny television. All his possessions in the places he chose for them. The bounteous wheat, Bootstrap John would call it, of so many years of harvest.
This is not the end for you, Abel insists to himself. Bootstrap John says that any man can become a Creator with the twin engines of brain and backbone. When one lives right and free, there is no end. But then he remembers his father, who tried the same thing, who in that sudden and heady void of law after the fall of The Government had tried to make a Creator of himself. He'd invented a water purifier that fit in one's pocket and could turn the filthiest runoff drinkable in minutes flat. But then VariaCorp had come knocking, saying he'd stolen the idea from then. If they were lying, how was it they were already producing it faster and cheaper than he ever could? Cease and desist, they said. If you're not a Leech, that is.
Abel remembers how he'd taken to the streets to denounce VariaCorp as thieves and Leeches themselves. Their Freedom Enforcers had visited not long after, with a harder knock, and he'd never seen his father again. Which was only right, only a symptom of true freedom, he'd told himself then, over and over until the words ground his sadness down to a stump.
To speak ill of VariaCorp in public is to invite a visit from their Freedom Enforcers, but between these four walls he is beholden to no one. Until he is evicted this is still his private domicile, the only place where the company would never dare conceal a hidden camera. There are no paid police to stop him from speaking the shameful truth that thrashes in his heart, just this once.
With window shut, with hands cupped around his mouth, Abel whispers, "fuck VariaCorp. Fuck Bootstrap John. Fuck all of them."
And in the gaping silence that follows, he has a gut-wrenching realization.
In the absence of an employer he is his only authority. These are his innermost desires geysering uncompelled to the surface of him. More than he ever wanted anything, he wants the money that he is owed--yes, owed. He wants to turn out the foreman's pockets and seize what was not consensually given, to rip away VariaCorp's right to its wealth, to say that they must pay him--or else. Worse, he craves what he never earned. Clean streets, for nothing, protection, for nothing. Justice, a future, for nothing.
He thirsts for the sweat of Creators.
Abel reels, bile surging up his throat. Bootstrap John was right, as ever, Even dead, The Government is everywhere, among the people and inside them.
Inside him.
Abel is The Government.
He stumbles to the bathroom to retch into the sink, understanding even so that the sickness in him will never come out. When he hears the hard knock on the front door he knows who it must be and welcomes them. The Freedom Enforcers have come to liberate him from himself.
Thank God they were listening after all.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, June 7th, 2019
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