“Nice” by Jamie Mason
Names are the lifeblood of revolutions. The French who rose against their Burgundian oppressors did so in honor of Joan the Maid. The American Colonists rallied against Britain under George Washington’s banner. And the Cubans who overthrew Batista stormed Havana with the name Fidel Castro on their lips. Names provide impetus, momentum, direction for popular uprisings and without one at its core any insurrection is doomed. And so we who seek to end the dictatorship that has enslaved humanity invoke the identity of the great hero who inspires us:
It is the anniversary of the Overthrow. The execution of Emile Vonnegut, child frightener, has just been broadcast and Michelle Michelle, host of Group Spank (“your liNk’s social equity enforcement program”) is announcing the round-up of four thousand middle-aged Eurasian grandmothers for their collective violations of the Kindarchy’s Social Consideration Code. A festive mood prevails. People are in the streets.
“Everything else had been tried,” says Fred, who is old enough to remember. “Communism, Capitalism, Political Correctness, D3…All that trial and error left behind a big mess. The Kindarchy imposed order with the SCC. My friend Violet said it was brainwashing but I didn’t care. All I cared was that Violet might be a lesbian. That bothered me because I once got invited to a lesbian’s Christmas party and saw how everything at her place — even the cat — was female. It was a weird scene that didn’t jibe with my medication and I didn’t want it happening in my personal space.”
We nod respectfully. Fred’s perspective on pre-Kindarchy history is a lodestone to our revolutionary cell and we absorb his wisdom like sunlight.
He stops his monologue and glares at Michelle Michelle’s image on the liNk screen.
“Looks like a stunned goldfish,” he mutters.
We know that Fred’s statement regarding lesbians — like his habit of saying things people aren’t supposed to say but that are true — is not racial-sexist-religio-gender prejudice (nor the capital crime of being Not Nice) but simply the result of Fred’s sincere, enduring dislike of everyone and everything.
Fred cannot help being what he is. It is why we revere him.
Stepha, Dyce, Drayce and myself take advantage of our enrollment at the Polytechnic to pilfer bomb-making materials from the chem labs, green-houses, maintenance facilities. Whenever one of us flags in our efforts to bring the war to our oppressors, we quote the wisdom of our mentor.
“‘Everyone’s supposed to care,'” I intone when Dyce stumbles with a box of chemicals at the curb. ” ‘About all the victims. Scattered around the world’s front yard like so much firewood. But we don’t. We just pretend to.'”
“Righteous true, brother.” Stepha unlocks the trunk of our borrowed SUV. The clock on the Science Building says it is two a.m. The campus lies still beneath a blanket of night. So when a police car slides out of the shadows and lights up behind us, it is a complete surprise. We freeze as the door opens and a policeman emerges holding his nightstick, not bothering to sheathe it as he approaches.
“Good morning. Are you happy?” Though he speaks softly, the cop’s utterance of the customary greeting holds an undercurrent of menace.
“Yes, officer,” I reply quickly. “Very happy.” A total lie, but I don’t feel like getting my skull caved in.
“How about the rest of you?” He taps the palm of his hand with his cudgel. “All happy? Because if not then we have a problem.”
Deviating from the approved mood (which the Kindarchy enforces, where necessary, with pharmaceuticals) is the kind of casual rebellion expected in our circles. But social conditioning is difficult to break, even for dedicated revolutionaries. We revert to our childhood selves in the presence of the cop — compliant, eager to please — as he pokes through the box in Dyce’s arms.
“You have permits to remove this stuff?”
“Yes officer.” Stepha reaches into her jacket. As the cop’s eyes follow her hand I slip the automatic from my pocket and chamber a round. By the time the cop turns I have him covered.
“That’s Not Nice,” he says. But he raises his hands all the same. Drayce secures the cop with his own cuffs and we swaddle his head with Stepha’s hoodie before pushing him down into the leg-well of the rear seat for the trip home.
“What’re we gunna do with him?” Drayce whispers, shifting his feet on the cop’s chest.
“Fred will know what to do.” I wish I felt as confident as I sound.
We arrive back at the co-op. Stepha pounds on Fred’s bedroom door for a full quarter-hour before he shuffles into the hall in his slippers and bathrobe like an annoyed bear roused from hibernation in mid-winter. “What do you little reprobates want now?” he growls, pulling the carafe from the coffee machine and filling it under the faucet.
“We need your guidance.” Stepha’s tone is diffident.
“That’s all very nice,” Fred snaps. “But you’re taking up my ‘me’-time. Get on with it!”
She pulls the cop into the kitchen. Fred drops the coffee carafe. It explodes across the linoleum in a spray of water and Pyrex fragments.
“Wise one, we have captured this servant of the Kindarchy and we -”
“WHAT THE FUCK IS WRONG WITH YOU PEOPLE?!? Are you CRAZY? Kidnapping a POLICEMAN for God sakes! You wanna get us all KILLED?” Fred rummages in a bathrobe pocket for his anti-psychotic meds.
“We thought you’d be pleased.” Drayce sounds vaguely hurt. “You hate the Kindarchy.”
“Sure I hate the Kindarchy! Anyone with two brain cells to rub together hates the Kindarchy! BUT I’M NOT ABOUT TO GO TO JAIL FOR DECLARING WAR ON IT FOR GODSAKES! Where’s my yogurt?”
“O Great Fred, this -”
“I NEED MY YOGURT! To counter-act the effects of my meds and keep me regular. Dammit, if I’ve told you once I’ve told you a thousand times: the YOGURT in the FRIDGE is MINE!”
The cop, his head still swaddled in Stepha’s hoodie, commences to jerk and twist. I stab the back of his right calf with my boot-heel and he crashes to his knees. Fred produces a pill bottle and twists off the cap.
I jerk my chin at the cop. “What do you want done with him?”
“I don’t know! It’s YOUR revolution. CHRIST! Gimme a glass of water.”
Stepha, dutiful follower, draws one and hands it across to Fred who downs both pills then mutters he is going back to bed. Stepha watches him stomp back down the hall back to his room and slam the door. Into the ensuing silence she whispers:
“But Fred — the revolution belongs to
Fred did not found our movement. We found Fred.
He lived in the alley behind the delicatessen where Stepha and I bought the sandwiches for our Sunday evening revolutionary study group. I remember we were reading a biography of Che Guevara that week because, as Stepha and I discussed it, our words were drowned out by a passing Kindarchy Kompassion parade. Boots stamping, horns blaring, they flooded the street crying Party slogans (“feelings before reason!” and “nice equals good!”). Annoyed, we ducked into an alley to avoid the crowd. And heard muttering as we passed a dumpster:
“…and it makes me sick how people invent these elaborate social charades to hide the fact that they don’t give a rip about anyone but themselves!”
We stopped, entranced. Here was a voice daring to say aloud in public the kind of thing we only whispered to one another in anti-Kindarchy cell meetings.
“What’s particularly galling is the way they reinforce their own identity as compassionistas by pointing fingers at others and squealing, ‘See? There! He doesn’t care enough!'”
We crept around the side of the dumpster, searching for the owner of the nasally voice.
“WHY NOT JUST ADMIT THE TRUTH?”
The voice was coming from inside. Raising myself on the bumper of a parked truck, I peered over the dumpster’s edge.
Among a circle of trash bags, an overweight, balding middle-aged man in a frumpy winter coat sat cross-legged, the sole of one shoe dangling to reveal a set of filthy toes. He was ranting to a stuffed alligator:
“Who the hell would want to be a teacher in this day and age? Little cretins control everything now! That’s what ‘Kindarchy’ means, you know. Not just, ‘oh, we’re so kind.’ But kind as in ‘children.’ You know. From the German?”
“Excuse me. Sir?”
He whirled, yanking a toy ray gun from his pocket and pointing it at me.
“WHAT DO YOU WANT?”
I smiled. “I’d like to invite you to address our study group this evening, sir.”
After some cajoling and the offer of a free meal, he warily agreed to accompany us home. So it was that Fred became our mentor and guide. For those planning to destroy a system based on forcing people to be nice to one another, Fred was the perfect teacher. We peppered him with questions. His wisdom was invaluable.
“Fred,” we asked, “was life better before the Kindarchy?”
“Better? Listen, I’ve been living in that dumpster since the Nineties. It’s MY place. MINE! At least in the old days they used to empty it fairly regularly.”
I produced a notebook. “So there were better municipal services before the Overthrow?”
“Are you kidding? There have NEVER been good municipal services! They always spend as little as possible on stuff like that so the fat-cats can line their pockets and have fancy dinner parties and drive nifty sports cars and…GODAMMIT, DON’T TOUCH THAT! THAT’S MY SUITCASE!”
Puzzled, Dyce stopped halfway to the front door with the plastic trash bag he had just lifted from the floor.
Adjustments were necessary. We had to arrange for Fred to be seen by a psychiatrist in order to receive the medications necessary to render him less dangerous to us. And the stench in the apartment hung heavily until he overcame his phobia of the bath-tub. Fred said he would feel more secure if Stepha came in and washed him but we drew the line at that in favor of operant conditioning, creating pleasant associations between Fred and the tub using hard candy and Frank Sinatra records. We found a half-dozen one-piece jumpsuits Fred’s size at a ChinaMart clearance sale and fed his stinky clothes into the incinerator. Once he was washed, clipped, combed, fed, dressed, and medicated, Fred was ensconced in a lounge chair in the living room and invited to hold forth.
“Great Fred, what caused the Overthrow?”
“People like you. The war and violence and earthquakes. All your fault!”
“The natural disasters?”
“NO!” Fred took a swallow of the beer we allowed him before understanding the negative side-effects this had on his meds. “The…massive corruption. And sexual perversion! Weird shit involving kitchen appliances and housepets! What do you THINK?”
“So…it was a Biblical thing?” This from Drayce sitting cross-legged with a notebook open across his lap and our Social Sci text (Tribal Nastiness: Toward a Semiotics of Pre-Kindarchy Civilization) on the floor beside him.
Fred spat out a macadamia nut. “Bible? Fuck no! None of that religious bullshit. People don’t need scripture to be self-righteous and idiotic — although it helps. Just plain old human stupidity is enough!”
“So the Kindarchy exists because people are stupid?”
“WELL WHERE DO MOST POLITICAL MOVEMENTS GET THEIR START?”
“But -” Drayce touched his textbook “- it says here after the failure of D3, the majority of the world’s population was starving, unemployed, and miserable.”
“Idiot!” Fred threw his empty beer can. “That’s Mankind’s natural state!”
Of course Fred had first-hand knowledge of the Overthrow. He recounted the Kindarchy’s abrupt formation and meteoric rise, their (very polite) machine-gunning of the D3 governing council and (thoughtful but insistent) imposition of the Social Consideration Code. Kompassion Rallies and citizen informant cadres sprang into being as the Kindarchy’s grip on power tightened.
“Was there a sense of hopefulness in the air?” Stepha asked.
“Of course.” Fred ripped open the tab on a fresh beer. “The doomed always feel hopeful.”
“It’s stats time, good people! This week’s high-scoring group of offenders are responsible for over six thousand contraventions of the Social Consideration Code…”
A loud banging interrupts Michelle Michelle’s intro. The cop is kicking at the closet door again.
“…as observed and reported by diligent citizens. And so a representative sample has been rounded up…”
BANG BANG BANG!
“…for punishment according to a method you, the viewers, will select. Ready for Group Spank? The number to call is…”
BANG! BANG BANG!
I step over, rip open the door. The cop, twisted around on his back with his cuffed hands beneath him is poised, butt-first and heels raised, to buck the door again. He stops cold when he sees me and makes a mumbling sound around the rag stuffed in his mouth. I draw it out. “Whaddya want?” I snarl.
“Water,” he gasps. “And I gotta pee.”
Water in, water out. The human equation. I frog-march the cop into the kitchen as Michelle Michelle announces that evening’s offender cohort (“male Chasidic children under age six!“). I stand him in front of the sink and, after scanning the counter to make sure it is clear of anything sharp enough to use as a weapon, undo his cuffs. “No funny stuff,” I say, handing him a plastic cup. “Water, a toilet run then back in the closet.”
“Thank you,” he gasps. I reflect on how tired I am as he leans over and spins the tap. Foaming water over-gushes the top of the cup and the cop tips it to his lips. I examine him from scalp to boot-soles as he chug-a-lugs. I have never been this close to a police officer before. He has the clean-cut, close-shaved look you might expect and I am surprised at the state of his uniform shirt. Aside from a small, asymmetrical bump on the left collar wing, the material is completely smooth. The cop finishes his water, wipes his mouth, and then presses the bump in his collar. A red glow creeps across his shirt collar. Cursing, I knock the cop to the floor and re-cuff him.
“What is it?” Stepha bursts into the kitchen.
“Some kind of alarm!” I grab kitchen scissors and attack the collar. The material is surprisingly tough. “He just pressed it!” I am almost halfway through when the moan of a siren rises softly in the distance, swiftly joined by another.
Dyce and Drayce pile into the kitchen. “Where’s Fred?” I demand. They both point to the living room. “Take him -” I shake the cop “- out the back door!” I separate the glowing bump from the cop’s shirt and grind it underfoot. Stepha, Dyce and Drayce hustle the cop through the rear exit onto the fire escape and I poke my head into the living room.
“Fred. We have to go.”
He sits staring blankly at the image onscreen of a group of children being rounded up at gunpoint and herded on board a bus. “Those children.” Fred’s voice is neutral as static, as white paint. “They were deemed Not Nice. So they’re going to…”
“That’s right Fred.” The scream of the siren rises in volume. I glance toward the window.
He turns to me. “Doesn’t it strike you as a bit ironic that the end result of enforcing a law that everyone has to be nice to one another is state-sanctioned killing?”
“Sure Fred. Ironic. Yeah. Listen, we’ve got to -”
“BUT THAT’S THE PROBLEM WITH THE KINDARCHY!” Fred has somehow managed to get ahold of a can of beer. He pops it open now and brandishes the foam-laden container. “NO SENSE OF HUMOR!”
I don’t see anything funny about what is happening onscreen. But a second later I don’t see anything at all because somebody has burst into the room and slammed a black canvas bag down over my head. Then the world is all terrifying blind movement guided by rough hands and the exaggerated sound of my own breathing as I am dragged downstairs and shoved into the rear of a vehicle. Car doors slam closed and then open again and I am dragged on another journey through a long echoing corridor that ends inside a closed room. The bag is lifted from my head.
I am sitting at a steel table bolted to the floor of a concrete room, Fred beside me. Hands fisted, I worry the knuckle of one thumb with the tip of the other as I wonder what will happen to us next. What becomes of those who cross the Kindarchy? A few end up on Group Spank. But these are misdemeanor cases, mostly. Kidnapping a policeman is definitely Not Nice — a capital crime.
The door opens and a cop enters bearing a wooden rocking chair. He sets this down on the floor then steps aside to make way for an old woman in clunky shoes and a faded gingham dress who shuffles in behind him. She pauses to examine us, her watery blue eyes calm. She reaches out with gnarled hands to grasp the arm-rests of the chair and lowers her thin, bony body into the seat, panting audibly for a few seconds with effort before speaking to the cop.
“Gerald, dear, would you mind leaving us along for a few minutes, please?”
“Certainly, Mrs. Brierly.” The cop withdraws, closing the door softly behind him. Mrs. Brierly turns her attention to us once he is gone.
“The two of you have been denounced as Not Nice. This is a serious offense, one which strikes at the very core of our belief system as citizens of the Kindarchy. You’ve had some time here in the Quiet Room to consider your crime. How do you plead?”
Fred stirs. “Is this a trial?” he demands.
“There is no trial for this offense.” The old woman shrugs. “Consider the question a formality. Do you believe you are Not Nice?”
I consider the question carefully. But before I can frame an answer, Fred is off and running.
“I think I’m a jerk, actually. A complete heel for the most part. But what does ‘nice’ really mean, anyway?”
“Well, legally, the term connotes a willingness to consider the feelings of others.”
“Oh, I see. A consideration for their feelings. As opposed to actual concern for their welfare.” Fred has been allowed his pills. A prescription bottle of them sits on the table before him. He picks it up and begins fiddling with the cap.
“How people feel is at the core of their welfare, don’t you think, Mr. Buckley? Or may I call you Frederick?”
“You may not. And honestly, Mrs. Brierly, I can’t say I much care how people feel…if caring about their feelings consumes whatever energy I might have left over for perceiving their condition.”
“But how they feel is the basis of their condition. Don’t you think, Frederick?”
“No! Their condition is the basis of their condition! Like those poor bastards you’ve got living out in the street, so focused on being nice and not offending anyone by being poor that they don’t have time to notice they’re eating out of garbage cans. How you feel about it doesn’t make a goddam bit of difference! It’s doing something about it that counts.”
“But before you can make a change, you have to feel that something is wrong. Otherwise, you wouldn’t have any reason to make a change.” The old woman is sharp for her age, and utterly convinced of the righteousness of the Kindarchy’s doctrine.
“Not. True.” Fred gives a pained grin. The pill bottle is not cooperating. He sets it down on the table and folds his hands beside it. “If someone is bleeding to death, I don’t have to feel sorry for them in order to stop the bleeding. I just have to get a bandage. Similarly, if an automobile accident or a house fire or a thermonuclear war occurs, I can feel bad about it all I want. But how I feel doesn’t make a damn bit of difference if I don’t call the paramedics or the fire department or boogaloo my skinny white ass down the steps of the nearest bomb shelter before radiation starts falling out of the fucking sky, now does it? In fact, taking time to figure out how I feel about these things might actually impede my response to them. So I don’t have to feel. Nor do I have to think about how I should feel or worry that it might not somehow be in accord with some socially sanctioned, government-approved, politically correct goddam pattern. All. I have to do. Is act.”
“But what if you act wrong, Frederick?”
“Then I’ve made a mistake and I’m wrong! And I’ll try to do better next time!”
“And how does that make you feel?”
I peer sidelong at Fred. The question’s timing is laser-fast, intended to flummox him. But rather than allow it to, he draws a deep breath and answers smoothly: “Not nice.”
Move. Counter-move. Check.
Mrs. Brierly smiles. “Shall we have some cookies and milk, dear?”
“That’s my punishment for being Not Nice? Cookies and milk and a chat with the nice old lady in the rocking chair?”
“It’s just the preliminary phase, dear. Now. Would you like a cookie?”
“Got any scotch?”
The cop who’d carried the rocker enters again, as if summoned, with a pitcher of milk and a thick china plate stacked high with chocolate chip cookies. As he sets it on the table between us, Mrs. Brierly takes the top one with a smile and holds it up for our examination.
“Baked these myself,” she says proudly. “The secret is in the lard. A little Crisco goes a long way. But I suppose you know that, dear. I can’t eat these anymore.” She smiles sadly. “The chocolate chips play havoc with my dentures. Little fragments break off and get stuck in the grooves. And they’re devilish hard to wash out. Like you.”
“Me?” Fred asks.
“Mm.” The old lady hums as she puts the cookie back. “You. Folks like you get stuck in the grooves of the social system we’ve concocted. Mankind has searched for centuries for a way to live that doesn’t involve brainwashing or political coercion. And with the Kindarchy, we’ve finally found it. There’s no founding document, no dogma, no catechism of beliefs. There’s just each other. And our feelings. They’re our final authority and consequence. The perfect, self-perpetuating, internalized legal system that keeps everyone in check. Until someone like you comes along and gums up the system. You’re a threat, Frederick, because you think instead of feel. There’s an old saying that the world is a comedy to those who think and a tragedy to those who feel, and we can’t allow any comedians in the Kindarchy. Clowns are far too dangerous. So the problem with people like you is — how do we get you to feel?”
She nods to the cop named Gerald, who produces a remote control from his pocket and activates a liNk unit set into the wall. The image appears of a bare room with brick walls. Set into the ground before one wall is a series of wooden posts fitted with straps. I recognize the grooves in the post and chips blown out of the wall behind it as bullet holes.
Fred turns to Mrs. Brierly. “You’re going to execute us.”
“Oh, no.” She shakes her head, then nods to the cop again. He hits another button on his remote and, on screen, a door opens into the room. A group of cops hustle in, dragging Stepha, Dyce, and Drayce.
“They’re part of the Underground.” Mrs. Brierly clucks softly and shakes her head. “You know. Those hooligans who graffiti that happy face with the bullet hole in it in protest of the Kindarchy? They said you are somebody important in their movement. A commander. They said they aren’t worried about our capturing you. They thought you were strong enough that, if we arrested you, exposure to you would cause our interrogators to doubt. They confessed all this to us under interrogation. Confessed they thought you were strong. But of course, you’re not, dear. Not that strong. Nobody is.”
As they begin strapping my friends to wooden posts, Mrs. Brierly adds quietly, “We’re not going to execute you or your friend, Frederick. That wouldn’t be…nice.”
It is the anniversary of the Overthrow, and people are in the streets.
I am still adjusting to my release from Re-education Camp three months ago. The ability to move freely, to enjoy the many benefits of our wonderful civilization, to participate in joyous celebration of the Kindarchy’s glorious Founding is a little overwhelming. I hike among the citizens, honored law enforcement officials and flocks of Happy Homeless, their Kindarchy-sanctioned robes fluttering in the wind as they beg for spare change. During the period of my confinement, the streets have been renovated and great liNk units installed in the sides of buildings so that we can all be attuned to state-sponsored programming and announcements as we bustle about the city.
Familiar music sounds.
“Good evening and welcome to another edition of Group Spank, your liNk’s social equity enforcement program. I’m your host, Michelle Michelle. And let’s get right into tonight’s fun with a self-condemnation…”
I pause, staring up at the nearest screen (the word “goldfish” popping into mind for some reason). I had been required as part of my parole to make a self-condemnation of my own, so I always watch them with interest.
A man’s face materializes there.
“My name,” he begins slowly, “is Fred. I have been identified as an enemy of the State and arrested and confined…”
I frown. The speaker seems vaguely familiar.
“…to reform institutions for the past twelve months. I am guilty of various anti-social acts against the Kindarchy, including treason, sedition, drug addiction, and the capital crime of being Not Nice. And you know what?”
“I don’t CARE! You people are all SHEEP! You don’t like that? Well the TRUTH HURTS! I calls it like I see it! You people -”
I feel an inexplicable smile tug the corner of my lips as the broadcast is abruptly interrupted for a commercial break.
|Jamie Mason’s stories have appeared in On Spec, Abyss & Apex, and the Canadian Science Fiction Review. His novel Echo was published in 2011 by Drollerie Press.