Avril heard chanting ahead, coming from around the corner.
“All equal—equal all!” voices chorused to a drumbeat and echoed off the skyscrapers in downtown Chicago.
She hesitated, turned, and began walking the other way. Chanting meant a protest, and she couldn’t risk it, even though she knew exactly what they meant. For a moment—just a moment—she considered joining them. American citizens had been reclassified: some first-class, some second-class, and some people stripped of their citizenship entirely. She believed in equality, she argued for it with her friends, the protesters were right … but protests got violent too often. She’d come downtown to meet a friend on a sunny August morning, to visit an art museum and have a nice lunch before they went their separate ways to start college, nothing more.
She kept walking and she hated herself. Any violence wouldn’t be the protesters’ fault. That was what made protests dangerous. Still, it sounded like only a couple of dozen voices. Few people would dare to protest at all. Maybe such a small number wouldn’t attract a counterprotest. Now a half block from the corner, she looked back. She could watch as they passed on the cross street and give a thumbs-up from a safe distance.
They came into view, a lot of them elderly. Who else would have free time to protest on a workday? Some carried signs displaying five words in script from the Declaration of Independence, and she knew which ones. A man dressed like a Revolutionary soldier played a snare drum: an old-fashioned protest for old-fashioned freedom. As she raised her hand to signal support, everyone started running in all directions. Without waiting to find out why, she turned and ran, too.
A buzz zoomed down the street behind her: a drone. Oh, no. She stopped and threw herself flat against a building, took a deep breath, and held it. Up and down the street, everyone froze. The drone hovered in the middle of the street, oversize blades whirling. Sometimes a counterprotest drone would be attracted to movement and attack, and the blades would slash like razors.
It spun slowly around as if observing, searching; then it banked and dove in her direction. She tried not to blink, tried to will her heart to stop pounding, her clothing to stop stirring in the breeze, her body to stop trembling. The drone slowed and hovered over the sidewalk in front of her at the same height as her throat, and after too many infinite seconds, it flew slowly up the block past protesters and passersby pressed against the walls like wide-eyed statues.
She heard a dog bark and didn’t dare turn her head to look. The drone’s buzz dropped in pitch as it swooped … and the dog’s bark was cut short—a yelp, a howl, and people screamed. She squeezed her eyes tight and shuddered. Another howl, a small crash, more screams, but now no buzz. The drone must have been damaged, maybe destroyed. She let out her breath, finally, inhaled deeply … exhaled and inhaled again, listening to her breath instead of street sounds. One more breath to be sure she was steady, and she turned away from the uproar, opened her eyes, and did not look back as she walked.
Avril sent her friend a message canceling their day together. She needed to think—alone and hard.
A week later, she’d made a decision. She was about to join the mutiny. Would it be risky? Of course, but … that dog. She had arrived at the university only a few days earlier, a mere incoming freshman, but she could fight back in a lot of ways. Any minute now, the mutiny would begin—she felt sure. So she’d made a few comments at her dormitory’s traditional welcoming party around the old firepit, and she’d met people who said they might have a connection. Now someone was going to join her for breakfast to talk specifics.
She left her dorm room and waited for an elevator, aware that people like her should be content with the state of the nation. Her parents could pay for a good education and an upper-end dorm. But unlike almost all of her smug, self-satisfied classmates back in high school, she knew better. And here at the university, did the other people in the hallways or on the elevators know better, too?
The dormitory’s food court proved the need to mutiny all by itself. She walked up to the door, held her hand in front of a scanner for admission, and gritted her teeth.
The Prez keeps me safe. Liberty must have limits. Hard times require hard choices. Sure. Freedom was old-fashioned, and the world had changed. She’d heard that mantra too many times. But things just kept getting worse. Now only first-class citizens could attend universities or vote. Vote!
She joined the long line for the one food-service area open. The other vendors had lost their licenses, their shelves now bare, their counters unattended. The windows of the big ground-floor room still offered a view of the pretty little lake next to that edge of the campus. Bright artwork graced the walls. But gone was any sense, which must have once existed, of community, of the excitement of learning, of intellectual freedom. Even the decades-old once-stylish sleek hallways and architecture reminded her of something the past did better than the present.
“This food is punishment,” she murmured to the young man ahead of her.
He glanced back at her and shrugged. “There’s shortages.”
“Not really, not this,” she said. “There’s plenty of food available all over. It’s just not being served here anymore.”
He shrugged again and turned away, unwilling to risk talking, but he knew—everyone had to know—a new chancellor had been forced on the University of Wisconsin to destroy it, especially the Madison campus. Step one involved needless, niggling austerity. Breakfast had become a choice of greasy overprocessed pastries, gritty cereal, some sort of fake milk, equally fake juice, and something that didn’t even smell like coffee. And it was so easy to engineer quality synthesized coffee!
Step two, she imagined, aimed at closing down the campus with its forty-five thousand students and thus destroying the city of Madison, long a beacon of liberty. The Prez and his supporters couldn’t even muster subtlety. They didn’t have to anymore.
Copyright © 2021 by Sue Burke