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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.
She selected an unnaturally bright yellow muffin and a lukewarm cup of brown liquid, and took her tray to an empty table. There were a lot of empty tables. Anyone with spending money ate off-campus, where good meals could easily be found—and which meant more money for the chancellor’s fast-food cronies. Machine-generated pop music blared throughout the food court, another way to make eating unpleasant. The muffin tasted like artificially sweetened sand.
Where was her contact? She tried not to look around. Be discreet, that’s the first thing. Someone is always watching. She took another bite of the dry, awful muffin. She stared at her phone display as if she were studying. Finally, someone approached. He seemed old enough to be a graduate student and wore a blue T-shirt with a logo for a game company. He carried a cup of the bilge coffee.
“Avril Stenmark? Hi, I’m Cal, a longtime resident here, and I want to be sure you’re getting along all right. May I join you?”
She studied his face: brown, smiling, and innocent. Fake innocent. “Yes, please. Thanks. I’m doing pretty well, all things considered.” She gestured at the remains of the food on her tray with disdain.
He nodded as he sat down. He wore a visor-screen, which would be telling him things as they spoke. “Yeah, it’s not like it used to be. So, you’re from near Chicago, your profile says.”
“Kenilworth. It’s a suburb.”
“A nice one.”
She caught his reproach: a wealthy suburb, so she’d never struggled. She was a white girl, very white—blond, in fact—who’d led a sheltered life. “I know what’s going on,” she said.
“Yeah?” He leaned forward, but he looked doubtful.
“Can we talk here?”
“That’s why the music’s so loud.”
The dormitory management was part of the conspiracy, then. Well, they could choose better songs. No matter. She had decided exactly what to say, one example of outrage out of so many, this one especially relevant because she’d heard the mutiny would have a nationwide protest soon. He would know that she understood what she was getting into. She spoke quietly so the music would hide her words. “I know why protests are banned in a lot of places. They didn’t do that to protect protesters, or I mean, that wasn’t the first step.”
He nodded, staring at her face. His visor might pick up signs of lying. Fine. She wasn’t about to lie.
“A while back, protesters went to the Supreme Court to ask for protection from the police because they had the right to protest, they said. The right to free speech. And the court said that they had the right to protest, but so did antiprotesters, and if the two sides clashed, that was the price of freedom.”
He nodded. He had to know this, even if most people had no idea about the history behind the bans.
“So if antiprotesters did something, like fire guns over the heads of crowds to scare people—which was the test case—and that made protesters panic and run, and if someone got hurt running away, that was the protesters’ fault. The court said free speech doesn’t guarantee the right to speak safely. But the ruling effectively abrogates that right. The dissenting opinion made the need for physical safety clear. If you can’t speak safely, you can’t speak. And the attacks got even worse after that.”
She’d read the dissent. She’d learned a lot, including the meaning of the word abrogate. Cal seemed to be listening patiently.
She leaned forward, tapping the table for emphasis: “That’s why some cities, even whole states, banned protests—to protect protesters. That’s just one of the cases that got us here, into the mess we have now where none of us are safe.”
He showed no reaction. “Have you ever been to a protest?”
“Well, no, not exactly.” But now she wanted to do that more than anything else. “I saw one just a week ago in Chicago, it went past in the street while I was there.” She lowered her voice to a murmur, afraid she might shout. “Maybe you heard about it. A drone killed a dog.”
He shifted in his chair. “Tell me about your family.”
Why did that matter? “Um, my mother is a property manager, and my father is a lawyer.”
She nodded—and then she understood.
“Michael Stenmark,” Cal said, reading something on his visor. “Assistant United States attorney for the Northern District of Illinois.”
She could explain. Yes, he worked for the Justice Department, and she never understood why, since it made him so angry. “He’s the one who told me about how wrong the Supreme Court was. He…” Her father hated the Prez and his constant theatrics, he hated everything the Prez and his cronies did in Washington, but that wasn’t something she should say to just anyone—in fact, to hardly anyone. Maybe not even to this Cal guy. Who exactly was he? Could she trust him?
“You talk to him often?”
Even without a visor of her own, she read the suspicion in his face and suddenly knew how this conversation would end. She wasn’t going to get to join the mutiny. She swallowed. Be discreet. She took a deep breath. She wouldn’t throw a fit and attract attention.
It wouldn’t matter that she didn’t talk to her dad much because he was always busy. Her mom had been in touch every single day since she’d arrived on campus, and Mom talked to Dad, so it was like talking to him. He might tip off the authorities—anyway, that was what the mutiny would think.
But he wouldn’t tip them off! It wasn’t fair to reject her for her father’s job. In fact, her father would help the mutiny if he could. Wouldn’t he?
Probably. Or maybe not. No one could trust anyone anymore. Not even family.
She said quietly, firmly, hoping to save face, “We have to fight back.” Her father had once told her to always act undefeated, no matter how badly things go—because you might see those people again, and you want them to think you never get handed a defeat, only a setback.
“I can’t help you,” Cal said.
I’ll show how strong I am. They’ll see that I can help them. But she said nothing, not trusting herself to remain discreet.
He stood up. “I’m glad we got to talk.”
“Yeah.” She tried to smile. Although she’d eaten a meager breakfast, she felt like she might throw up anyway. The music throbbed in her ears and on her temples.
“Hey,” he said, “I know it’s tough being new on campus. If I can help you out some other way, I’ll be around. This is Dejope Hall, and we have our traditions, and one of them is watching out for each other.” He was speaking loudly now. “I’m glad we had a chance to talk.”
“Thanks.” She wondered if he meant that or if he was just saying it for eavesdroppers.
He walked away. She stared at the sickly yellow crumbs on her tray. This was only a setback.
Copyright © 2021 by Sue Burke