Today we present our story, an Honorable Mention for the L. Ron Hubbard “Writers of the Future” Award for the fourth quarter of 2019. We feel this story speaks a relevant and important political message for our current times and current political assassinations: NO WAR PLZ. Now, our futuristic pre-apocalyptic political farce (with frogs),
Despite all the rarities kept in the eastern wing of the Conservatory of Magnificent Creatures, Frank Durward always found himself at one otherwise unnoticed exhibit. The soft buzz of a dim light kept him company; it cast shadows upon his stifling black suit and too-tight tie. Frank preferred these quiet moments in the Conservatory’s aquarium to the insane bustle of political fundraisers. As a second-year representative of the Unified Colonies of the Western Hemi, he decided it was the fundraisers he hated the most. “You get used to them,” his fellow representative had said. “And after a while, you might even like them.”
But no, he preferred the aquarium. The light shone upon Frank’s neat blonde hair, too neat, too kempt; and upon his face, fresh and young, his dark eyes lost in a reverie beyond youthful years. They were almost asleep, the red-eyed tree frogs. He wished he could have seen the poison darts in person, not just as simulated holos or pictures in a flat-screen book. But, the tree frogs: here was color, here was life; here was beauty, too. Their colors: the vibrant reds, blues hued of the deepest sky, the bright, innocent greens, like fresh grass. Their languid movements, something out of the corner of their large crimson eyes, and then–a sudden–
“Frank! I thought I’d find you here.” Seth was his Colony-mate, Representative Smith. There were other representatives in his Colony, other reps more his age, but Frank trusted Seth’s fifteen-year gap and even the grays intruding upon his thinning hair. In little time Frank had discovered a good mentor and friend. “It’s not the National Zoo, I’ll tell you that much. Come on, you’re missing your fundraiser.”
“They don’t have tree frogs.”
“You’re right, they don’t. They’ve got booze and impatience. We should get going.”
“Not the fundraiser, the National Zoo. The Conservatory is one of two zoos in the UCW that has tree frogs.”
“They have a tree frog thing. Come on, Frank.”
“They’re all simulated. I hate the videos.”
“Frank. Come on. It’s your fundraiser.”
“I know. But…”
“You’d better get used to it. You trust me, right? Let’s go.”
Seth and Frank entered the main reception hall. String music played, and the room was far brighter than the aquarium. The Conservatory’s fundraiser was for Frank and Senator Roth, from Frank’s opposition, both of whom supported the Conservatory.
“And here he is, a true champion of our work here at the Conservatory. Let’s give Representative Durward a healthy applause.”
The lights were bright and Frank shaded himself. When his eyes adjusted, he’d made out the blood-red walls, a scene of Epimetheus’ marriage stenciled in; members from both parties, his Progress: Forward Party and the opposing Eagle Party, a sea of black-and-white and wine; and the President of the Conservatory, waving him up to the podium.
“Where did Senator Roth go to? Anyway, let’s welcome the representative up. I think he needs a little more applause to help him up here.” The President of the Conservatory gave a laugh.
“Come on now,” Seth said. “Just use the notes I gave you. You’ll do fine.”
It was not the first time Frank had given a speech for a fundraiser, but it was the first fundraiser for him. Partly for him. He came up to the podium and balanced himself on it. The sea of black-and-white was thankfully more invested in drink. He balanced his precarious speech on the note cards.
“Thank you all for coming,” Frank said. A few of the Unified Congress clapped. Frank paused. “Thank you for… I mean, so, the Conservatory is an important institution for the good of our nation, in that it preserves the Earth’s precious…”
Tuesday was when things started to unravel.
“What a loon,” Seth said. The two representatives sampled from the Congressional buffet. “He’s been here, what, twenty years? More, more like twenty-four. And to propose something so… preposterous! He’ll get killed next election cycle.”
Frank picked up an omelet on his plate. “What? Who? No wait, what’s going on?”
“Senator Roth. He proposed war.”
Seth and Frank sat down. Seth’s plate was piled with sausages and bacon and croissants; that is, more modest than the typical surf and turf breakfast of most of the UCW Congress. “What do you mean he proposed war? He doesn’t have that power.”
“Of course not! What the hell is he trying to do?”
“So? We’ve won seven of the last nine wars.”
“He doesn’t want war with Whatthefuckistan. He wants war with the U***.”
Frank spat out his omelet.
“Not a fan of asparagus,” Seth asked.
“It always slips you up on Tuesdays, the aspara-”
“No, wait. So Roth wants war with the U***?”
Seth laughed. “I guarantee he’s not going to get it. It’s absolutely insane. We’re both nuclear powers, and the only thing that would win that war are the nukes themselves. Not even the roaches would survive our arsenals.”
“What is he trying to prove?”
Seth almost finished all his sausages. “Probably some populist joke. I don’t know.”
“Like I said, it’s not going to happen. It’s political suicide to propose such a thing. Literal suicide to vote it through. He’s lost it.” Seth stood up. “You got a few million last night, I want to say about four. I’m surprised Roth got anything last night, but they probably wired it through before he proposed his stupid bill.”
“What did Roth get?”
“Who knows, right? Probably another twenty-ish. Like I said, the Conservatory is pretty small, but it’s a good place for you to start. Come on, we’re expected early today.” Seth tossed half a pile of breakfast and something made Frank unable to finish his. “Just remember this time: Tuesdays are asparagus and ham and pepper and… I forget what else. Frogs, maybe.”
Frank felt like he shook a million hands and got two million congratulations for last night. He even saw his party’s Whip, who at least smiled at him. They took their seats, Seth a few down from Frank, and argued through the usual agenda: schools, roads, police, disclosure of campaign funds. It was an “interminable talk” Seth had told him the first week he was elected, and Frank was starting to see why.
“My district is performing above the benchmarks! I do not see why your district…”
“But your district has these funds! Of course they’re benchmarking their benchmarks!”
“But your district is slimy and putrid. And mine is not blah blah blah…”
“But you, sir, are also slimy and blah blah blah blah…”
Frank yawned. It would be another three weeks at minimum before they voted on anything, and for three months out of the year he was bored out of his mind. They voted on five bills last year; of which two were ratified. Frank was thankful he didn’t have to say anything, not until he proposed something. Most reps hadn’t done that in over ten years. The gavel sounded.
“We shall recess for the afternoon session. Gentlemen, let us adjourn for now.”
The halls were abuzz.
Frank saw a few Eagle senators surrounding Roth, swarming like flies on an open patch of meat.
“The people have always felt tension and antipathy toward the U***, tension and …”
“This could be a rallying cry for our party!”
“This scale of fear, it’ll make the few stragglers in our party fall into line.”
“This proposed war, it’s obviously not going to happen. What sheer brilliance! I’d never imagined a more perfect-”
“You’re right,” said Senator Roth. “This is what our people need.”
The dour expression of his squarish face slipped into a snakish smile.
The handful of them passed by Frank, hardly a glance in his direction. Seth came out of the chamber.
“Idiots, all,” Seth said. “Of all the reckless things we’ve done in the Unified Congress…”
“What do you mean,” Frank asked.
Seth shook his head. “I mean that, yes, we’ve done some miserable things. We’ve set up wars all throughout the Eastern oil empires. We’ve even turned some of our allies into enemies, just to keep our country together. Fear is a powerful motivator, and sadly nationalism is the only glue that holds us together. But this… to suggest utter annihilation… what recklessness, sheer recklessness.”
“How is this different than our war with Aceitestan?” Frank scratched his head. “Other than it’s never going to happen. It’s just more posturing.”
Seth sighed. “You may not know this. In fact, it sounds like you definitely don’t know this: that our approval in the Unified Congress was at a lull when we suggested that war. And even though we didn’t win the war, not per se, we roused up the vomit of patriotic fervor. We may have come out of the war in dishonor and debt, but also in political victory.” Seth’s expression took to the ground. “I’m ashamed of my job.”
“But it’s not like you voted it through.” Frank asked again. “Right, Seth?”
“I wish I could just be a banker. Deposits and mortgages, let people buy a house…” Seth turned and walked away. “That’s all I really wanted from life,” his voice echoing in the empty hall.
Frank’s aide arrived late.
“You need to be here on time,” he said to her. “We could’ve turned away our constituents.”
They both knew this to be a lie: as a fresh-faced representative, there was almost no one interested in dealing with a powerless politician. He was a black sheep, or worse than a black sheep, really. More like a bull without its … horns. Only personal friends would stop by, and none had today.
Meghan attempted to straighten her blouse and settle her dark hair back into place. “I’m sorry Frank, it’s just… the train was—”
“The train keeps happening all the time. Remember: if I had taken my internship so lightly, I never would have …”
Frank lectured to her; he somehow found the words to chastise Meghan, while he had no words before his own fellow politicians, at the fundraiser or on the floor. She bit her lip and nodded and said “okay” and “of course” an appropriate number of times.
“I’ll try not to let it happen ah-”
“I’m sorry, but you’ll have to try harder.” Frank thought. “Make it not happen again. I could’ve had to deal with an irate voter, and you know I don’t have time to…”
She nodded one last time. “Okay. I promise I won’t let it happen again,” she said without conviction.
“Thank you,” Frank replied. “Now let’s get to the legislation.”
Meghan pulled out copies of the handful of bills, closed her oversized bag, and took a seat on the couch. “Okay, so Frank, which one do you want to start with?”
“Let’s talk about the road thing. Rebuild Our Roads Act. It sounds like a good one to start with.”
“So,” she said, “it’s not about rebuilding roads. It’s actually about shutting some down. Some of the roads in our district are so broken down that—”
“But I thought it was about rebuilding.”
She shook her head. “It’s about giving it the appearance of rebuilding. But I read it through: it’s about buying more police service cars to park on these roads, to make it seem like they’re being worked on. There’s not even an end date in mind for the supposed ‘repair.’”
“So it’s a sham?”
“Yes,” Meghan said.
“How much are the cars?”
“More than the roads?”
“But Fleet Autos just kicked a hundred thousand my way. Right? Last night?”
“Well then, a tricky situation. I think the cost of these cars will be less in the long run than the costs of constant yearly repair. Right?”
“After three years, yes.”
“Okay, it’s simple. Look at the long term, then,” Frank said.
She knew it would be a long afternoon. Meghan sighed.
Frank returned home.
The television flicked on in the room. The National News Correspondence talked about a handful of notorious crimes, the weather, a feel-good story about a veteran who crowd-funded his medical expenses. Frank’s was a feel-good story a couple years back: a white middle-class male who picked himself up by his bootstraps. But that was long ago, a million news cycles. No mention of the Unified Congress, no mention of Roth’s bill in this latest cycle.
Frank walked past the television and the bed before it. He unbuttoned his suit and took a shower. The television’s voice amplified. It flicked now to a sitcom about a group of friends who worked at an upstart tech firm.
“Dammit.” Frank’s voice echoed in the shower. “That stupid girl …. And now I miss my show …”
After drying off, he buttoned into his synth-silk pajamas and watched the ending credits.
He watched an old nature show at two in the morning. It was perhaps inaccurate to call it morning, as the sun had yet to come up on Wednesday. The show, however, did have a nature theme.
A rhino gored into a tourist. A gorilla beat a woman who fell into his cage. Another man toyed with a scorpion on his hand while his assistant watched. Most of the species on the show had met their demise decades ago.
Frank sighed, and rolled in bed a few hours more.
He took the shuttle up to the Capitol. He lived in a relatively affluent district after his inauguration, but almost all the Congress people moved to the outskirts of the Capitol. A more controlled environment, they found. A few maintained second and third homes off in more isolated areas of the UCW, places Frank would hope to hear about and never hope to see.
He sipped from a bottled water on the shuttle and took the escalator up the Capitol stairs. He passed by a small crowd holding signs—there always seemed to be a crowd once a week—and passed by the police pushing them off into police hover-wagons. He flashed his badge at security.
A man stood outside Frank’s office. He seemed to be dressed respectably; except his white shirt was a grand too cheap; he wore slacks, not a full suit; and his suit jacket was worn, a bit threadbare near the elbows and seat. Frank assessed it was one of his constituents, and went to the cafeteria instead.
He picked up an omelet, an orange (fresh from a local greenhouse), and a short bourbon, just in case. A voice came to him from the corner of his ear.
“You’re mighty early,” Seth said. “I saw the work you did on the ‘Rebuild Our Roads’ bill.” Seth nodded. “Thanks for that.”
“It seemed the right thing to do. Hey, I think I’ve got a constituent waiting outside my office.”
“They let him in?”
“You sure he’s yours? Could be lost. Why would he want to talk to you?”
“Looks like you got food. Let me grab something, too, I’ve got to fill you in on yesterday.”
Frank took a seat at the cold granite table. Seth came back with steak and eggs.
“Needed an extra boost today,” Seth poked the steak with his fork. “The lobster didn’t look that great, anyway.”
Seth related to Frank the events in the Senate.
A gaggle of Eagle Party representatives had conferred with Senator Roth and agreed that, indeed, his bill (“The Freedom from Fear Act”) would be introduced into the House. Draconian sanctions upon the U*** and any flagrant disregard for the sanctions would lead to a strike; Roth took care that the actions of the strike were more detailed than the sanctions. Senator Roth—the majority leader—not only sponsored the bill but could guarantee a vote on it in the Senate. Another two dozen Senators co-sponsored immediately, perhaps sensing re-elections soon. The floor asked vague questions, nothing too probing or oppositional. No one remembered Roth’s answers after they adjourned.
“Vote?” Frank asked. “I thought it goes to the Senate committee.”
“It already did,” Seth answered.
Seth nodded. “Weren’t you listening? That was yesterday; all of twenty-five minutes. You can’t get ten people in the room in twenty-five minutes.”
Frank scratched his head. “That’s something.”
“Maybe you should’ve joined on,” Seth said. “Half the party’s on board. If you were to cosponsor, maybe you’d get a little more cachet for your first bill.”
“My first bill?”
“Yeah,” Seth said. “The Save the Slime Act. You got your back scratched, time to scratch the Conservatory’s.” Seth shrugged. “I don’t know. You know how it is. They’ll pass you what they want you to pass.”
Frank tapped at his desk, waiting. Meghan came in, almost an hour late.
“A man came by today.” Frank stared at his aide.
“Okay,” she said.
“A voter came by.” Frank crossed his arms.
“He passed me in the hall. He was furious. He practically spat all over me, that kind of furious.” Frank stopped Meghan from responding. “No. His street hadn’t been paved. The police shuffled him off it, and apparently our security let him in here. Thank God they finally escorted him out before anything happened to me.”
“You promised to be here on time. I’m sorry Mary—I mean Meghan—but I have to let you go. I’d be ineffective in my position if I continued to let this happen. Especially since this is such an important office and my time is … important.”
“I have to let you go.”
His aide sighed. She stood there a moment, and Frank wondered if he’d have to order security to take her out. “Frank, you … you made me …”
“Made you what?”
“I just wish you’d understand. I live in the Plants.”
“That’s sector R3, bordering R4. This suit, I can hardly afford … you probably take that for—never mind. Just, please, try to understand where I’m coming from.” She shook her head. “Literally. Where I come from. I thought you, of all people, might understand.”
“I’m sorry, but it’s not my job to understand your situation. It’s my job to vote and pass legislation.”
“Frank, you should try to understand. Come by this Friday, 2:00 pm, the Rolfe Street exit on the El. I’ll be waiting for you. Please. You should see.”
Frank stared at her. Tears welled in her eyes. He hadn’t not considered calling security, but she said goodbye instead, leaving her affects on her desk.
The heels of her shoes echoed in the hall.
They discussed the bill on the House floor.
“The Freedom Act sets these benchmarks! But which benchmarks should it …”
“But we have benchmarks from previous acts! I do not see why you insist upon …”
“Your proposed benchmarks are stupid and awful. But mine are …”
“Stupid and awful? I should remind the floor of our fair Representative’s mother before we …”
Seth shot Frank a look. Frank was ready to speak up; perhaps Seth was right. Perhaps he should support a popular bill. But before Frank could say something, Seth chimed in on the floor.
“Might I remind our Chair that we are still paying for our excursions in Aceitestan, Musacasia, and the Coco Islands. We cannot afford any more financially reckless actions! And might I further remind the floor that over thirty-five percent of our debts are held by the U***. Almost fifty percent, if I recall. These proposed sanctions are not only insulting and incendiary, but in light of our debts crisis, do not make any logical—”
There was buzz on the floor. The Chair, Representative Short—who was actually rather tall and imposing—called for order. Short took the floor.
“Thank you, Seth. Let me say that The Progress Party finally has something of worth to add to our discussion.” Representative Short cleared his throat. “About one hundred seventeen billion dollars of worth to add. Yes, if we impose our rather reasonable sanctions with the U***, then obviously we are under no obligation to pay them back these debts. Representative Smith, might I add how helpful you—“
The floor erupted again. The Chair knocked a gavel. “Order! Order I say!” The room bubbled and boiled. “No, fools, not disorder! Order I say! This is not order!” It started simmering down. “More order, I do say! More!” At some point the last vestiges of political anger died down. “Thank you,” the Chair said.
“The cancelation of our debts to the U*** is of grave consequence, of course. We mustn’t go lightly into this critical decision.” Short continued, stroking his chin. “I think we must consider how best to leverage this kind of windfall for our glorious Unified Colo—“
The heat came into the room again. It was a long session.
Seth kicked up his feet on the desk in his office.
“I thought you were going to support this one,” Frank asked Seth. Seth’s secretary glanced up at Frank, he wasn’t sure what kind of look, and she turned back to her phonecall.
“How’s that bourbon treating you,” Seth asked.
“It’s fine, but you said I should support this bill. What are you trying to do here?”
Seth smiled. “I’m giving you practical advice. Really good advice, actually. You should follow it.”
“Which is why you’re not,” Frank said. “Well howdy do to you, too.”
“He’s got principles.” Seth’s secretary spoke up.
“I can’t,” Seth said. “Not this time. I’m sorry Frank, and this isn’t going anywhere, not even one foot outside of this room: I’m not running for reelection.”
Seth nodded. “I’m shooting myself in the foot here. I thought you’d be quick enough to see it. But Frank, I’m wiped. I’m tired of this fuckuppery. You’ve only known it for, what, three years?”
“And every time I come back here I hate myself. So I’m done.” Seth met Frank’s eyes. “Enjoy your bourbon.”
“I love when you have principles,” Seth’s secretary said. She turned to Frank. “See?”
“But Seth, no one willingly … wait, but what am I going to…?”
Seth shrugged. “I’m sorry, but that’s honestly not my problem anymore. You’re a smart one, you’re quick. You’ll catch up. You’ll learn the game.”
“Yeah,” his secretary said, “hasn’t he been good enough to you?”
“Seth,” Frank said. “But Seth…”
“You know I’m right. My constituents will hate me for opposing this. But I have to.” Seth finished his drink. “Go outside. They’ve got signs for Roth. They want a war. They need this war. I want no part of this.” He sighed.
Seth and his secretary chatted of other things: weather, weekend plans, wife’s estrangement. Frank’s mind drifted off, until his feet carried him that way, too.
Outside there was a gathering of a few dozen protestors. Frank saw the white police uniforms, but they weren’t escorting the protestors away.
Frank walked up to a woman with a sign. “What are you here for,” he asked her.
She pulled her sign down to his eye level. Sen. Roth Save Us Please
Another sign: Roth Hears Us
And another: BURN THEM TO THE GROUND
Seth was right: Roth’s war hawking was gaining support from constituents. Little did they understand his intent and political posturing. So there were only two dozen confused voters outside. Only two dozen so far.
Tomorrow there would be almost two hundred.
On Thursday, Frank did not catch the news. He left the tele-screen on another nature channel (a woman taunting a lion; another woman wrestling a stingray underwater), some white noise while he stared at the ceiling. On his trip in, the conductor made a rare announcement:
“My apologies, but we will be delayed coming into the Capitol today. If you need to make the trip, I suggest an alternate route: the next stop at…”
Frank scratched his head. This had never happened; construction was always brief and always at night. He wasn’t sure who yet, but he knew someone was to blame. A head or two in the construction division would roll. (Ungrateful indeed! Especially after the “Rebuilding Our Roads Act.”)
He got off at the next stop. He was three blocks away, and would have to walk the rest of the way. Thankfully, he caught a hover-taxi.
“The Capitol? Sorry, but I’m not going that way.”
“What do you mean you’re not going that way?” Frank was stunned. “You’re a taxi. You go where I say.”
The driver shook his head. “Not that way, not today, sorry.”
“Why, I’m the Representative from Section 4R, and I swear, if I have to walk all the way to the damned Capitol, in my nice leather shoes, no less…”
“Oh?” The driver shook his head. “4R? Not today; maybe for Roth, but not for you today. Let me say that you’d end up walking it either way.” He drove off.
“Rude! I’ll have to…” Frank thought for a moment. “He’s not going to like having no roads to drive on. Karma to you, you ass.”
But soon Frank saw why the taxi drove off: a contingent of twenty people carrying signs walked the street toward the Capitol. They took up the whole of the road up, no mean feat considering it was twenty-five feet across, and they spread out to stop traffic. They were chanting Frank didn’t know what, maybe arguing all out of sync, and shaking their signs. He jogged to catch up with them.
“What are you doing,” he asked. “Did you know you’re blocking the road?”
A man glared at him. “That’s the point, moron.”
“Well, if I had hover transport, I’d be inclined to make you part of the road.”
He shrugged. “Go for it. Maybe my miserable insurance could feed my wife and son, at least.”
The protestor kept marching on. Frank approached another protestor, a hopefully less annoying one. “What are you doing out here,” he asked her.
“MARCH,” she yelled at him. “SAVE US FROM THE U***!”
“What? What are you talking about?”
“THEY’RE ROBBING US BLIND!” She replied.
“What? Are you serious?”
“MARCH FOR FREEDOM!!”
“Do you have to yell so loud…?”
They continued and Frank followed behind them at a distance. He would be late to get in, late for … he wasn’t sure what, but maybe he’d miss the breakfast buffet and only be served lunch. He spat under his breath.
“I see you got some air,” Seth said.
“They’re really out in full force,” Frank said. “Thank God the police took their sweet time.”
“Yeah,” Seth said. “I don’t blame them. Twenty versus two hundred. That’s calling in the security guards, even.”
“Two hundred? I heard one hundred.”
Seth shot him a look. “Seriously, now, NNC? At least two hundred. I’m probably way off, anyway. That idiot Roth.”
“What do they seriously think is going to happen?”
Seth scratched his head.
“Well, I guess it’s working. People are getting riled up. All that ‘patriotic fervor’ in them.”
Hmmm, was all that Seth said.
“What a power play. I guess I have to hand it to Roth. He knows his people.”
Seth said nothing, drifting back to his office, drifting back into thought.
The day’s session in the House was contentious to say the least:
“You are a putrid, slimy—!”
“Let me state for the record that your own putrid sliminess has—“
Roth was absent from his office the whole day. The discussion about whether or not to bring the “Freedom from Fear Act” into the House committee was stalled in his absence. No one knew where Roth was, nor why he wasn’t rousing his own party for the bill he was sponsoring. Last Frank had heard, he had dropped off in the Senate Minority Leader’s office, a cross-party coup, practically.
And Frank was right: he’d missed breakfast. The stir-fry for lunch didn’t tempt him, either.
On his walk back to his office, Frank came across the contentious senator. It appeared that he was coming back from Seth’s office.
“Roth!” Frank swallowed the large piece of apple he’d started. He coughed. “Roth! Why weren’t you in session?”
Senator Roth did a rare thing for such a powerless representative. He stopped.
“Roth, what are you up to?”
“Shoring up support,” he said.
“You know Seth is against it,” Frank said. “What a waste of time.”
Roth smiled. “Go ask him,”
“Why are you so hell-bent on this bill? It’s insane. What if we get into war over this? We’re cancelling so many debts, the U*** is going to be pissed.”
The senator nodded. He stuck up a finger, as if to reply, but calmed himself and walked past Frank.
“Where are you going? Why this bill? Why now?”
Frank’s voice echoed down the hall, missing its target. Frank turned the corner and headed to Seth’s office.
“I came across Roth in the hall,” Frank said. “He slithered away from me. I can’t support this stupid Freedom act, not with such an ass at the helm of it.”
Seth’s head was bent, doing something unusual, something Frank had never seen: he was writing. On paper.
Frank was concerned. “Didn’t you hear me? You’re right. We can’t support this, this … insanity.”
Seth looked up. He shook his head and kept writing. “I’m sorry, Frank.”
“What do you mean? What are you doing?”
Seth’s secretary came from a storage closet and set down a stack of letters on Seth’s desk. “Oh. It’s you.”
“What do you mean you’re sorry? Seth, what’s going on?”
“Take one,” Seth said. “I’m sure you haven’t found time to read any letters from your constituents. They’re,” Seth paused. “Enlightening.”
His secretary gave one from the top of the pile. Frank opened it:
Dear Representative Smith,
My name is Kyle, and I support the Freedom from fear Act. I hope you do, too. This is an important bill to me, because right now, my family does live in fear. We live without freedom. I hope you act upon this, and support this bill too, but let me tell you something about my family.
We escaped the U*** and came to the W. Hemi three years ago. When we came, we had nothing to show for it. We had no money, no home, no job. Me and my wife. Right now, we are oh, I have a child, too. Anyway we are struggling to get by and the U*** threatens our very way of existence. We need them eradicated. All of them.
So please do support this bill with all your heart, as I do, as my wife does too. Sincerely,
“Seth, this is nuts. Wait, are you writing back?”
Seth nodded. “Yes, Frank. It’s about time I listened. And about time I spoke back.”
“You’re writing. By hand.”
“They wrote me by hand,” Seth said. “That’s only fair.”
“I’m confused. So you’re going to support this damned thing?”
Seth pointed to the stack of letters.
“Don’t you get it,” Seth’s secretary said. “He’s got some morals. It’s what his people want.”
“But Seth, you said so yourself, this is the path to utter destruction! It’s … I know I’ve said this a lot, but it’s insane!”
“It’s what we owe our people,” Seth said.
Frank showed concern for his friend.
“Frank, you’ve only been here one year…”
“And you haven’t seen the worst of it. Read your letters. You’ll see. These people are starving, they’re in pain, and it’s all because of us. We’ve been building mansions on their backs. We’ve been tapping their veins for our wine. It’s wrong. And the chickens, so to speak, have come home to roost.”
“But Seth, they can’t mean that.” Frank shook his head. “They just can’t.”
“They do,” Seth said. “Roth was right. This may be the only justice they get in this life.” Seth sighed. “It may be the only good thing I do for them.”
“But then, we’d … the whole world would be dead. Everyone would be dead.”
“And that’s exactly what they’re going for, Frank.”
Frank stood there. He didn’t know what more to say. The secretary shooed him away, reminding Frank of all the letters that lay ahead for them.
Frank stood in his apartment.
The television was off. It was quiet and dark. He looked at the stack of letters he placed on his nightstand.
He opened the first one. A tale of suffering and woe. An excitement for the new bill. A misguided hope of freedom, in this life or, more likely, the next. The next letter, a homeless man, he cannot even vote, but his siblings hoping that this bill would pass. The third letter, to the point: “Let them burn. Let them all burn.”
Frank was speechless. His stomach turned. He was in no mood to watch the macabre nature shows. He called the President of the Conservatory and asked for yet another favor.
Frank spent the night on a chair in the dimly lit hall. The tree frogs were asleep. He dismissed the security guard.
“It’s okay,” Frank said. “I’m not sure it’d make a difference anyway.”
The guard left, puzzled. Frank watched the tree frogs rest. The committee in the House would be tomorrow. The votes would likely start first thing next week. The frogs’ large eyes were closed. He closed his eyes, too.
“What did we do to deserve this,” he asked them. “Maybe nothing. Maybe it was all the nothing…”
Friday came by. Frank left early with a box of personal belongings.
The train let Frank off at a degraded little spot. He held the box of Meghan’s things, feeling out of place. The concrete barriers were darkened with soot and grime, and a man lay supine across a bench, blanketed in last week’s newspaper. Frank turned his eyes to the ground. He wasn’t sure what to look for, only that he probably didn’t want to see it.
Meghan was not there. The train left, and Frank turned back toward the platform to wait for the next train, but the supine man had sat up and started talking to himself. Frank waited at the bottom of the stairs to the platform, watching the scraggled people pass by: an old man with a long, white beard; a mother herding her three small children forward; a young woman on alert; two men after work in onesies, the smell of sweat breaking the monotony of chemicals and rotted milk and waste recycling. A different sea of white and black resided here: black hearts, white police uniforms. An officer beat a whimpering man.
A group of several young men chatting in too-new, too-colorful wardrobe came in the direction of the train platform. Frank’s genteel real-wool suit stuck out like the proverbial sore thumb. He didn’t want to risk other sore parts, and left before the young men noticed him. He left the box at the bottom of the El’s stairs.
He passed a corner market, he passed shuttered businesses, he passed a few street carts offering … he didn’t know what. He passed garbage in the gutters, crumbled sidewalks, a small collection of bullet casings. Frank looked up and looped around, but found that he was lost. He couldn’t navigate these strange, winding streets. It started to rain cold.
Frank wiped the rain from his forehead. He saw a bridge not too far, and walked quickly toward it. The rain started to come down harder.
Voices echoed under the overpass. He sighed, unable to find respite in this wicked part of the city. A smell of sweet smoke wafted toward him, and as he turned back into the rain, a voice came out.
Frank turned around to face an older man, or maybe he just looked older: wrinkled and rough, looking mid-forties, unshaven and smoking a thick hand-rolled cigarette. “It is!” The man said. “Why, little Frankie Durward, what are you doing here?”
“I’m sorry, but do I…” Frank reached back in his memory. “Who are you again?”
The man’s laugh wheezed out, the echo of his voice sounding like an evil god. “Well,” he wiped his eyes, “They say success makes you forget your friends, and I guess it’s really true.”
The man smiled. “You got it, yeah! Do you remember? We were in math class, fourteenth level. You taught me all the calculus I ever forgot. Those were times.”
“Al? Big Al?”
“Not big anymore, no.” Al patted his scrawny belly. “I can’t believe you actually – hey, there’s someone else you should meet.” Frank stood still. “Come on, come on,” Al waved him in. “Out of the rain already!”
Frank followed Al under the overpass. It stunk of pungent urine, and no wonder: a woman squatted and urinated off on the edge of it. The rain battered the sidewalk outside, its harsh noise coupled with amplified laughter.
Al guided him through a small crowd of people to the other side. Al pointed to a man by himself, the laughter coming from the shadowy figure. “Maybe you remember…”
The man turned around, and the laughter was replaced with a quiet terror. The man backed away.
Frank recognized the brownish curls of hair, the now-broken glasses. He edged toward the figure. “Derrick, is that you?”
He flapped his arms at Frank, as if trying to conjure him away. “No… NO! He’s come, I told you He’d be here!”
“I’m sorry,” Frank said, “I had no idea that–”
“Away, Satan, drive away!”
“Derrick,” Al said, “he’s not the Devil. It’s Frank! Little Frankie Durward.”
Derrick wrapped his arms around himself. He screamed like a scared child. His teeth chattered after the shriek.
“Derrick, no, it’s me!”
Frank walked toward him, but Al held him by the arm.
“Hey, Frank, it doesn’t look like a good day for him.”
“Frank,” Al said. “Frank, maybe another day.”
The memories flooded Frank.
The four of them: Frank, Big Al, Derrick and Jack. The boring classes, the clueless teachers. Pregaming cheap rotgut, heading over to the sorority parties. All the stupid things, all the things they shared together.
Then Frank’s test scores came back. Admission. The others: he never asked.
Frank was lucky. He never had to realize how else his life could … get derailed.
Frank asked about Jack. Al shook his head.
“Take the transfer to the yellow line,” Al said. “That’ll take you back to your apartment.”
“So what happened?”
Al didn’t seem to hear.
Frank shook his head. “Al, I … I’ll be back.”
“No you won’t,” Al said. “You were always sweet like that, to lie.”
Frank started to say a few more words, but Al squeezed his shoulder. “No, just do your thing. You made it, kiddo. You really made it.”
Al faded back into the night. Frank was too stunned to say goodbye. His ride home was long.
…have patrolled the streets in an attempt to disburse the unruly malcontents. We suggest faithful citizens stay home, lest police forces mistake them for these clearly paid protestors.
And let us remind viewers that our police are working overtime. These are your tax dollars at work! These malcontents are draining our coffers in their rage!
Here is an image of perhaps fifty, no, less than fifty such rioters at the Capitol. They don’t even realize that session is off on the weekends. And now our brave policemen and women breaking up the crowds before any injury comes to them.
Our reporter John Jones is on the site at L7 near the Unified State House talking to a member participating in these heinous riots. John?
Thank you, Mary. So my understanding here is that you are rioting in front of the Unified State House. Why aren’t you at work?
Work? What do you mean work? What work is there to be had? I haven’t kept a job in two years, and the measly three months of Government Support Rations hasn’t covered *bleep*.
But surely you aren’t looking hard enough. There is work to be had.
I can’t afford to work. Taxes, taxes and taxes. And then death. I’d make less holding down a full sixty hours than doing odd jobs. You and your cushy—
But your family! Why don’t you think of your family?
He left me here, long, long ago.
Of course they would. No self-respecting citizen would—
He’s dead. They’re long dead. You miserable ignorant *bleep*. I hope you fry in this coming war.
So there you have it. Mary?
Thank you, John. As we’ve just seen, irrational discontent has taken over. Is there an instigator? Has something gotten into our food supply? To offer us enlightening speculative discussion, we have on our panel…
The National News Correspondence had covered the riots all weekend. On Monday, the Capitol was cleaned up. No protestors—or really, supporters—were on the steps. They were cleared off and blocked off. NNC newscasters had arrived in full force on the steps. Even they didn’t know what Monday would be. It was the vote. A reporter caught a legislator walking up the steps to the Capitol.
“Senator! Excuse me, Senator!”
Frank stopped, a deer in headlights. “Yes,” he said dreamily.
“Senator,” the reporter continued. “Do you support the new ‘Freedom From Fear Act?’ What do you think will happen over the course of the week? Will it get a vote in the chambers?”
Frank took his time. “I will vote on it.”
“Which way? Will it even get a vote?”
Frank pondered some more. “I will vote yes.”
“There you have it,” the reporter turned to the camera. “Senator, ummm… a senator expressing his approval for…”
Frank walked up the steps. “Senator,” he told himself. “Well, that’s not going to happen, either.”
The cafeteria was quiet. It was thinly populated, and almost silent. Frank was glad to see nothing had changed on the menu: Steak, eggs, lobster. He ordered a piece of fruit (“Anything, it doesn’t matter”) and a tall bourbon. He ordered another bourbon after that.
He set the drink on his desk. It was overflowed with letters. He knew what they said. One was set aside, addressed from Meghan Moore, his former aide.
I heard you came by. I hope you see now. I hope you start to understand. Good luck, Frank.
It was unsigned.
Frank sat back in his chair, staring at the crumbling stacks of letters. Paper letters. He wanted to knock them off his desk, to rip through them, to chew and spit them out. But instead, he sat there staring.
The “Freedom From Fear Act” had come out of committee in the House. 8-1-1, for it. It would be rushed for a vote in both chambers in the afternoon session, before another riot could break out on the streets.
Frank walked the halls.
They were silent, too. His footsteps echoed along and down the marble walls. Every office was closed and locked. He knew of one that wouldn’t be, and walked to the other side of the Capitol.
“Do you want a seat,” Senator Roth asked Frank.
He’d never been inside. Roth’s office was large. Degrees hung upon the walls, and professional photos of his meeting various celebrities. Roth’s desk was cluttered with photo frames of all sizes; his family, his three smiling children. Roth in those photos had one, too, a slight smile. Frank almost smiled. He declined to sit down.
“Very well,” the senator turned from his computer screen. “I saw you on the news.”
“Yes,” Frank said.
“So you will vote for it?”
“Yes,” Frank said.
“Good.” Frank stood before him uneasily. Roth turned back to his work.
Frank almost left, but his curiosity caught on one last thing. “It’s us, isn’t it? It’s always been about us. Tell me, has it ever…?”
Frank stopped the thought.
Roth cleared his throat, not turning from the screen. “Thank you, Frank. For your vote.”
Frank nodded. Roth adjusted a photo on his desk. Before he left, Frank thought he wanted to say something more, but Roth remained immersed in memory instead.
It was time in Frank’s chamber.
There was no discussion. Some of the representatives’ wives were there. He recognized a few of them from the fundraiser at the Conservatory, but most Frank had never seen before. Some representatives he hadn’t seen, either. He felt queasy.
“And now, the Armageddon Vote.” Speaker Short wiped his brow. “I cannot stress this enough: this war will lead to the certain extinction of our species. The President himself wishes that we consider all alternatives, particularly ones that don’t kill us all. I am strongly urging our party, no, both parties, to please consider the fate of our planet. So then, in this most insane vote, let us stress sanity and decorum and take our nays first.”
The House was ragged. There were more bloodshot eyes than Frank had ever seen. Frank felt he was one of those sets of eyes. On the floor, he wanted to vote against, but he didn’t want to betray his word. He couldn’t. The world would falter because of his honor.
The nays were counted. 138 out of 422 total. It would a slaughter in every sense.
“Speaker, I ask that we recount the nays–surely some of us do not know the impact–”
“Can you not read the writing on the wall? Dammit Stevens, we’ve screwed the pooch on this one, and the rooster’s come back to roost.”
“That doesn’t even make sense. You’re mixing meta–”
“Do you think I care? This is simply about what we deserve, what we have earned in our lifetimes. That–”
Senator Roth came in to the balcony. He took a seat. Frank looked down a few seats to Seth. He was crying into his desk.
Roth’s voice boomed out over the quiet chamber. “Retake the vote.”
The Speaker nodded. “Once more, for the nays. And please, remember…” He didn’t finish his thought. There was more discussion. Many of the Reps were talking to themselves, shaking their heads. 127 this time.
The Speaker sighed. “And the yeas, and the abstains. We have not lost yet.”
272, 23 abstaining.
“This, this is…” The Speaker sounded his gavel. “This is disgusting. You disgust me. Fine: then to hell we shall go. May those coals burn your bare feet, may your soul empty and leave you the hollow shell that you’ve proven to be today. All of you: you disgust me.”
Seth wailed at his seat.
Frank felt the shadow of regret hover about him, even after Senator Roth left.
“Speaker,” Frank approached the Speaker. “Speaker Short!”
He turned to Frank. “Not now, not now. As we speak, they’re voting unanimously in the Senate. Can’t you see we are all doomed?”
“I suggest we have a day to prepare for our ultimate outcome. Some of us have families, and things to attend to.”
“Why,” the Speaker asked. “Does it matter at this point? Do you really want to spend time with those ingrates? The President is warming the missiles as we speak. Go to the Congressional Bar.”
“I don’t have a family, myself,” Frank said.
“Better, then go find a hooker. What else would you want to do with your insulting stay of damnation?”
“I’d like to go to the Conservatory. Just one last time. Before it all.”
The Speaker cackled. “What?”
Frank continued. “I miss the tree frogs. I do. They are gorgeous things, and to think we are ending their lives as well…” He didn’t say anything more. He thought about apologizing to them.
“Very well. What a stupid thing, but quite frankly, go for it. Do anything you want. Anything. By the end of the day we’ll leave this planet fifty degrees warmer.” Speaker Short moaned. “We might as well abolish laws at this point.”
Seth looked up. “It is unfair, isn’t it?”
Frank turned up the aisle to him. “What?”
“We’re going to extinguish almost all life on this planet. You’re right: that’s unfair to the tree frogs. Even I feel sorry for the little bastards.”
There was a slight bustle in the House.
“That is unfair to those tree frogs. Maybe…”
“Who cares for a handful of nearly extinct species. Who cares…”
“Yes but– ”
“Let us think about the creatures we’ll be ending with our vote. Surely they should have some say in their own extinction.”
“Who cares? We’re all doomed!”
The Speaker had already left. Yet the representatives started chatting amongst themselves. Seth looked around; he was astonished. All the interminable talk had coalesced into conversation. Perhaps even thought. Once-silent voices bubbled up.
“The tree frogs should have a vote in this!”
“What, are there maybe a dozen of them?”
“What about the fish?”
“In the aquarium, of course. They need a voice.”
“I have countless cockroaches in my district!”
“Those don’t count, they’re not sentient enough.”
“Rats, then! We’ve got enough support to overthrow our stupid human vote!”
A few Reps brought in the Speaker again. He coughed. “Okay, fine. A final consideration: a study of the sentient species to be considered in our vote. We’ll leave it open-ended until we can–”
“One week.” Roth’s voice boomed out. He had reentered the House. “Take one week, and I shall grant us one week in the Senate.”
There were chatterings down on the floor. “One week. Enough to end the blather.” Roth left the chamber one last time.
The vote came through. “One damned week,” the Speaker said. “Like it’ll matter. This new bill shall be held in study for one week. Go notify the President: we have given him one measly week to stock the Presidential shelters…”
There was clapping on the floor. No one could quite say why. Seth wiped tears from his eyes.
“Frank. I’m so sorry you had to witness all this. Hardly your second year, and…”
“Come with me, Seth.”
“What? Where, why? What’s the point?”
“You heard Roth,” Frank said, “we only have a week to turn this around.”
“What, to gather votes from tree frogs?”
“No,” Frank said, “to bring hope to our people. I have some ideas. Get those letters and call your driver: for once, we’re going campaigning.”