The wages of poverty are death, Trevor Carmicheal didn't want to pay the tab. He clawed out of the Lower Caste and found an Upper Caste wife. His brother Tom stayed in poverty and found the Rough Riders. Now Trevor had to choose between his new life of prosperity and stopping his brother before the bill came due.
Credits and copyrights
By Derwin Lester II
Edited by Derwin Lester II
Cover Art by Matt Sweeny.
Copyright 2019 @ Divided By Zero Books. All rights reserved.
Copyright 2022 @ Divided By Zero Books. All rights reserved.
This would be the last time. I said that last week. Maybe I'll say it again next week. Who knows? I took a deep breath and prepared myself for the smell. His house had a radius to it. Walking up the three steps to the front door, I walked in and glanced at the stairs to my left. I did my best to ignore the smell that I hoped wouldn't stick to my clothes. At the top step was my brother, his gut hanging over his belt as he pointed the barrel of his rifle at me.
"Are you fucking serious right now?" I asked.
He chuckled with contempt, and said, "I didn't know it was you, you should have called ahead."
He took his finger off the trigger and pointed the barrel away from me.
"I come here every week at the same time! You know this!" I yelled at him, as the smell of dog urine started to overpower my stomach. I walked to the kitchen and into the back room. It was coated in dog shit. He was letting the dogs use his back room, instead of taking them outside. I wanted him to be better than this. Anything but this.
I walked out the back door and gasped into the fresh air. His chickens were squawking at the sight of a human. The door opened behind me, and his dogs ran into the chicken pen. The smallest dog liked to pick fights with the rooster. He was white with mud in his coat but seemed happy. The rooster less so. After a quick tussle, the white dog ran back into the house with a whimper. The rooster stood triumphant, although it left the humans alone. He had been hit with my brother's cane enough times to get the message.
"I wanted to run something by you." My brother said, as he filled a bucket full of chicken feed and walked into the coop, spreading it out to his flock. "I'm looking at a house to buy, but I'm having a little trouble with the down payment. I wanted to know if I could borrow about five thousand, and I'll pay you back at eight percent interest. That's better than any Imperial Bank on this planet."
I nodded; stone faced. "I'll think about it, Tom." Is all I said. I just got a decent job, but I didn't start till tomorrow. He was hitting me up already. I knew he’d never pay me back. Never mind the two times he went bankrupt; he could barely make rent.
"Well, let me know fast. Houses don't stay on the market very long these days." He told me, as if he was going to do something else with his life. I wanted him to get it together. I kept coming around, hoping he would. "You ready to go?" he asked, as the feed bucket was emptied. I nodded and walked around the side of his house to where my ground car was parked. I couldn't do another trip through the back room.
He got into the passenger side, and I buckled my seat belt. I looked over to him and noticed he hadn't. "Tom, you gotta buckle your seatbelt."
He rolled his eyes and complied. "Winston Carmicheal would be rolling in his grave."
"Our uncle the terrorist?" I asked, pulling out of his driveway and setting the auto pilot to the food pantry.
"Our uncle was a freedom fighter!" Tom said, boasting as the smell of his clothes percolated throughout my ground car.
"First of all, you not wearing a seatbelt does not make you a freedom fighter, it makes you die like an idiot. Secondly, you and I both served in the Human Soldiers of Earth, so I don't know why you find terrorists cool all of a sudden."
My brother's eyes lit up. Someone was engaging with him. That didn't happen much after mom died. "He died fighting for the cause!"
" The humans lost the war a hundred and twenty years ago, Tom."
We spent the rest of the ride in silence after that. My dad was from the Lower Caste, and they were often emotionally invested in weird revolutionary fantasies. It didn’t matter that the Rough Riders had been missing for twenty years. I turned on the radio. Crap. Jim Greene was on.
"Hello there, fellow travelers. Senator John Hook is letting one hundred thousand blue skinned refugees into North America, to take away jobs from you! Why, they won't work at all! All they'll do is take what little food you have off your table, and Hook will hold a gun to your head till the blue skins are full. Never mind the H.S.E. veterans that live on the street. Veterans that fought the Blue Skins for twenty years! Never mind the working man who lives paycheck to paycheck. Now the Blue Skins will be supported by your paycheck! But don't worry, fellow travelers. Rough Rider Six is in direct communication with me and has assured me that the next uprising is just around the corner!"
I took a deep breath and rolled my eyes. Jim Greene played to the crowd of people that screamed at Imperial Librarians for not carrying copies of the United States Constitution.
"Can you believe that idiot wants to allow more of those blue skinned refugees into human territory?" My brother asked me, as the world passed him by outside the passenger window. "We spent twenty years fighting them and he wants to bring them here."
I sighed and spoke. "We spent twenty years occupying a pre-industrial planet to mine it for FTL crystals. The only reason they pulled out was because there were no more FTL crystals. The least we could do is let their people start over here on Earth."
"Not if all they want is a fucking hand out!" My brother said, as we pulled into the free food pantry. I didn't bother to point out the irony. The line stretched outside the door. As we got closer, the smell off my brother's clothes melted into the stench of the free food line. Lines like these were common in my life. It was only in the last few years that I didn't need to beg for food. I hated begging. I hated him more for putting me in this position. But I wanted to love him. I wanted him to be the big brother he pretended to be when I was a kid. So, I protected his ego from pointing out the obvious. As the line continued, and we collected the free boxes of food, I realized I protected him because it allowed me to pretend. I hated myself for being such a coward. So, this would be the last time. I said that last week. Maybe I'll say it again next week. Who knows?
I was born into the Lower Caste. A charity hospital that oligarchs used as tax write offs. Not that I was complaining. That’s the way the game was played. I learned to play the game myself after I got off active duty and went to University. I found a good wife and a government job with access to Imperial hospitals. Life in the Upper Caste wasn’t super complicated. Don’t spend more than you make. Take a bath. Show up to things on time. People made it harder than it had to be.
I got out of bed, mentally calculating my morning chores. The litter box on the second floor. Raising the blinds on the first. The dehumidifier in the basement. Watering the garden out back. Watch out for the poison ivy. Run the dishwasher. Make her lunch. Cook the potatoes for breakfast. She loved potatoes. An hour later, Marylin got out of bed to the smell of frying potatoes.
“There you are.” She said, smiling.
I stirred the potatoes in the crackling pan and said, “Here I am.”
Her arms slipped around my waist as she asked, “How did it go with your brother yesterday?”
I sighed. “About as well as last week.”
She squeezed me tighter and said, “You’re a good man.”
I scooped the potatoes from the skillet and onto her plate. “I hope so.”
She released me from her iron grip and took the plate of potatoes. “Isn't today your first day at the office?” She asked, shoveling potatoes into her face. Her bus would be here soon.
My multi-function device beeped. A notification from the Newsfeed. “Thirty-seven arrested at the Jim Greene rally for disorderly conduct in downtown Indianapolis.” I checked the names of the dead. My brother wasn’t one of them. He wasn’t on the list of the arrested, either. My heart skipped a beat. He was at large.
“What’s wrong?” She asked.
“The Greene rally was busted up...”
She held my hand and squeezed it. “Your brother made his choice. Now you make yours. What are you going to do?”
“Be on time for work.” I spoke. She squeezed my hand again and nodded. I couldn't save him. He didn't want to be saved. A half hour later, I was ten minutes early to the office, but my shoes didn't feel right. They were comfortable, of course. They were running shoes. But I was waiting in a room. I felt ashamed of my approved running shoes issued to me from the Human Soldiers of Earth last year. The only other pair of shoes I owned were old H.S.E. combat boots.
"Trevor Carmicheal?" Asked a man with nice shoes.
I stood up and said, "Yes sir?"
He chuckled, and told me, "I think between the two of us, you can just call me Eli. May I call you Trevor? Or do you still go by Sergeant?"
I shook my head, and told him, "No. I'm just Trevor, now."
Eli nodded with a warm smile and shook my hand. "Pleasure to meet you, Trevor. Let me show you around."
I followed him through the door and was struck by how run down the place looked. The old carpet with blood stains in it. The light bulb that hung free from the ceiling tile. The fifteen empty desks that filled a quiet office space. A large desk in the back of the office with a large comfortable chair.
" Most of our work now is done by algorithm, which I programmed." Eli said, as he sat down at his desk. "Senator Hook told you what job you applied for?"
I shook my head, and said, "He just to me to apply and not ask any questions."
"Yeah, that sounds like him. Officially, this is an office of the Imperial Senior Citizen Pension Committee. Since the anti-cannibalism bill passed, we have to figure something else out for the old people on this planet."
I nodded. My hands didn't shake like my brother's. I never had to eat human meat.
"Unofficially, we keep society in balance." Eli told me. " Mostly through the Newsfeed. But also, other stuff. "
"Through mis-information? Fake news?" I asked.
Eli cocked his head to the right and raised his left eyebrow in thought. "Yes...but not in the way you're thinking. Our job here is to keep society stable. That boils down to figuring out what people want and giving it to them. Most want to live in the least amount of discomfort they can stand, which currently means clean water and not having to eat human meat. If eighty percent of the population lives there, they will go about their day and die quietly of cancer instead of hunger."
"What about the other twenty percent?"
"Well, there's ten percent with ambition. Most of those are from the Lower Caste and move up the system through the Human Soldiers of Earth. One percent of those find their way to us."
"The military is a social mobility system?" I asked.
"I mean, it's also a military.” Eli said. “Like we just finished stripping that planet of FTL crystals. We couldn't just send mining teams there without occupying the place."
"Why are we allowing refugees? Don't get me wrong, I'm all for it after what we did there. But that's just making the Lower Caste angry." I told him, as he opened a bottle of something brown and poured me a glass. I smiled, and accepted the glass, waiting for him to pour his own before I started sipping on mine. Damn, that was good bourbon.
"That's exactly the point. That's where the Newsfeed comes in. See, there's always a bottom ten percent in any society that will never quite conform. They need an organizing principal that keeps them focused. It used to be the Rough Riders. No, the Empire didn't start the Rough Riders. But we never finished them, either. Keeping them alive kept the lowest of the Lower Caste focused on a controlled detonation. The Empire would let them rattle their sabers and scream about freedom, but once they got to feeling good about themselves, they'd send the H.S.E. in to remind them who's boss."
"The civilian casualties would drive people to their side."
Eli smiled, and said, "That's what Senator Hook said, too. If people believed there was a human opposition voice to the Empire, they could live in that belief, and it would be enough. So, he programmed the A.I. bot that creates new Jim Greene content."
"Jim Greene is an Imperial Bot?"
Eli chuckled and said, "Yep. The visual facial structure was based off a blend of my father and a barber he knew in university. That's how one man can have three broadcasts per day."
I took a sip of the bourbon and said, "Yeah, but he says the same things every day. The Empire is bad, and the next great uprising is just around the corner."
Eli nodded. "That's all they need to hear. We throw in some positive messages about the H.S.E., since so many of them served the Empire. Gives them something to be proud of."
"Yeah, but the H.S.E. is ran by the Empire." I told him, as my bourbon was getting low. He offered the bottle and I filled it back up. "How can they hate one but love the other? Its all the same soup, right?"
" It's in those contradictions that we keep society stable. Jim Greene's videos help us keep track of those most unstable and focus them in one direction. Your brother is on that list, by the way."
Jim Greene poisoned my brother's brain. Made him resent everyone. Pushed his wife away. I sat the drink down and asked, "You manipulated my brother?"
Eli's eyes looked into mine with detached sadness, and said, "If we didn't, someone else would have."
I put the drink down, wanting to punch him. "Jim Greene turned my brother's brain into radicalized mush...and you did it with an algorithm? He's just a name and a number on a list, huh? Well fuck your list." I said, through barely contained rage.
Eli finished his drink, and said, "You're on the other list, by the way. The top ten percent who move up. I figured you'd turn down the job. Well, the algorithm did. You'll probably find a job somewhere in food distribution to the Lower Caste and be a credit to your community."
I chuckled with contempt, and said, "You don't know the future."
Eli shrugged. "I don't. But the algorithm does. I do know that Jim Greene has called his Indianapolis supporters to a rally today. Your brother had a 99% chance of going. You had a 99% chance of trying to stop him and being late for work. But you seem like a one percenter to me. Here, imma show you something.”
He pulled out his Multi-Function Device and pushed a button, causing a projection to expand onto the far back room of an office. Weightless black boxes with strange titles floated in-between us, a foot off the desk. Eli waved his hand, sorting through each file.
The list got stranger from there. “Did one of the boxes say, ‘Uncomfortably sexy zombies?” I asked.
Eli laughed, and said, “Yeah, you’re not ready for that one. Hey, lemme ask you a question. Do you know what alternate timelines are?”
I nodded. “In University, they taught us that time was like a tree. Sometimes it branches...did one of those boxes say Zombie King?”
Eli chuckled and said, “Years ago, the Zombie King was traveling through the multiverse and spreading a virus that turned humans into decaying cannibals. He was stopped by Winston Carmicheal, among others.”
“My uncle? The terrorist?” I asked.
Eli looked confused. “He’s not your uncle.”
Then it was my turn to look confused. “My dad told me he was. They went into the H.S.E. together.”
Eli gave me a sad look of understanding. “Trevor, no one has studied Winston Carmichal, across all of space and time, more than I have. He absolutely did not have any siblings in this timeline.”
“That can’t be right.” I said, my stomach sinking. He lied to me again. “We did a thorough background check on you. That means we did one on your father. Trevor...Winston Carmicheal enlisted in the H.S.E. to get out of the old Chicago camps. Your father enlisted out of Indianapolis. Tom Carmicheal spent his whole enlistment in a supply office on the lunar docks. Winston Carmichal was either putting down Rough Rider uprisings or going on Liberation Campaigns to the outer colonies. Outside of potentially the briefest of encounters, they did not meet.”
“What happened to Winston Carmicheal?” I asked.
“He escaped our timeline, after murdering a city councilman. The official story was that he died in a terrorist attack. Now...well, time is kinda funny when you’re crossing timelines. For us, it’s been nearly twenty years. For him, its been...maybe five? We’re not sure.”
Eli had a ping pop from his pocket. He pulled his MFT out of his pocket and said, “This is Eli.”
He nodded three times, and ended the call. “Trevor, I wish we didn’t have to do this now, but we don’t have a choice. Listen carefully. Your brother is here. We think he’s armed. The building is being evacuated.”
Behind me, I heard a door open. I stood up out of the desk and walked into the row of empty cubicles. My brother came into the room, pointing a knife at me. At least it wasn’t a shot gun this time.
“What are you doing here?” He asked, snarling.
“Have you hurt anyone yet?” I replied.
“I will if they force me to.” He smirked, almost proud.
“Who forced you to come here?” I asked back.
“I have my orders,” Tom said, puffing his chest out. “I’m a Rough Rider now...I’m important in the organization, Trevor...”
“Oh Tom...Jim Greene isn't real...” I said.
“He’s real. I just spoke to him.” Tom told me, crossing his arms.
Eli stood ten paces behind my brother, and said, “Green is an AI program designed by this office. He’s a release valve, just like the Rough Riders were. The Empire, by design, let the Rough Riders live so they could funnel the troublemakers all into one place. That’s what Jim Greene does. That’s why you’re here.”
Silently, a small automatic laser rifle descended from the ceiling.
“So, what, I’m stupid?” he asked Eli, gripping the knife. I kept looking up at the rifle, hoping Tom wouldn’t make any sudden moves. But I didn’t tell him to watch out. He made his choice. I made mine.
Eli shrugged, and said, “Just the target demographic. We follow what you say and do on the newsfeed. Jim Greene planned the rally today because we wanted him to. You’re here because we wanted to take you in without killing you, as a favor to our new employee.”
Tom ran his hands through thinning hair. His eyes darted back and forth, trying to make sense of it all.
“This is a trick...” He said, looking at me. “I am a Rough Rider! You’re one of them, now. You betrayed me...everyone betrayed me!” He yelled, lunging at me with the knife. The automatic rifle fired one shot directly at my brother’s heart. In an instant, his confused angry eyes went blank. His body fell to the floor with a muffled thud. I ran to him and shook his shoulders. Begging him to wake up. Pleading with Eli to get help. Nothing could be done. The laser pistols were deadly. That was the point. But what was the point of my brothers blood smeared all over the carpet?