Richard sipped nervously at his seven-eleven coffee. He sat on a bench, watching the trams rattle down the center of Bourke Street, filled with people with somewhere to go. He’d like to be preparing for his interview inside a warm cafe. But with only a few dollars in his pocket, a three dollar coffee on a park bench would have to do.
This interview meant a lot. He’d finished his post-mandate education, which, unless your parents paid, left you indentured. If you weren’t able to start making down-payments, you’d end up working as an indent for one of the big firms. Even paying the interest was enough to keep you from labour. His sister had been an indent for ten years, before she’d been taken. He thought of her and shuddered; he didn’t want to share her fate. He’d learnt how to keep his head down and toe every line. He couldn’t bear to imagine his parents losing him as well. He hit the dregs of his cup, stowed it in his knapsack for recycling credits, and stepped back into the blustery street.
“So I see you studied Social and majored in Virality?” the interviewer, Jerry, asked with a mix of boredom, contempt, and what Richard hoped was a little pity.
“Yeah, I’m really passionate about how people connect and share information as a group,” Richard replied. He left out that Social was one of the few courses that was in his credit range. Without any collateral or connections, a more prestigious stream like Law or Human Resources was out of his reach.
“Look,” Jerry said steepling his fingers, “we take a lot of Socials through at Mega-Bang. But until you get some runs on the board, we can only offer you an internship.”
Richard deflated visibly, but Jerry continued. “We understand that most of our grads face indenture, so we do offer to pay the interest on your edu-loans. It will be a second, sub-loan. It’ll get deducted from your pay if you are offered a position.”
Richard lit up. With the interest paid, (for now), he’d be able to avoid working in the mines, or doing personal service for a C level.
“Thanks so much. I’m sure that I’ll be able to get you big numbers on some content pieces I’ve been planning.” Jerry smiled and replied, “I’m really looking forward to seeing your work.”
Jerry’s smile didn’t make it to his eyes. Most new interns ended up burning out, defaulting on their subs, and indented to Media-Corp, the parent corporation of Mega-Bang, doing site excavation for data centres.
Jerry stood up and put out his hand. Richard followed his lead, stood up excitedly and gripped it, looking Jerry in the eyes confidently. Their wrist chips registered the gesture and the agreement was added to Media-Corps ledgers.
“This doesn’t sound so good Richard,” his dad said, reviewing the terms through their blinky old Holo-Graph. “They’re only paying your interest, and even that’s a loan, which could end up leaving you out of options for an indent later.”
Richard’s dad was a ‘millennial’, a generation broken by the Good Depression, left unable to afford housing, education or healthcare. He had a hunch to his back from 30 years of driving cars at night and working a food truck during the day. Richard felt embarrassed by his dad’s print shirt, tucked into his overtight pants, buttoned up to his chin. His hair was in a bun, covering his bald spot. I guess parents are always going to look like they come from some cheesy old stream, he thought ruefully.
“Dad, you don’t get it. I just need to get some runs on the board, and then they’ll put me on wages. I’ll be able to help with rent at home, and our household credit will go up, so you’ll be able to get your hip looked at.”
“Looked at bullshit,” his dad dismissed. “When I was your age, we didn’t have to get loans to stay alive. I’ll be fine.” Richard knew he wouldn’t.
“We’ll be fine Richard,” his mother murmured in assent, her eyes never leaving the Holo in the living room. The steely-eyed Acting Prime Minister, her square jaw set out defiantly, stared back.
“Our efforts in eradicating the worst of the Islamofascist terrorist sects need support from the People’s Parliament,” the APM called passionately, seeming to brim with frustration. “If it isn’t granted, we won’t be able to keep our people safe from the chaos in Asia and the EU.”
All the while, a flickering stream of death tolls and footage from war zones around the world passed beneath her. The stream seemed to dance, reflected, in her eyes, like the light of a cold blue fire that only she could see.
Richard didn’t know why they bothered. Most of the Islamic agitators and collaborators had been rounded up and put safely off-shore into de-radicalisation centers. In Australia there was nothing like the violence that happened overseas. In fact, Richard had never known anything but quiet, peaceful streets, thanks to the immigration bans, curfews and detentions.
Richard shuddered, imagining life in a city full of the chaos and terror of London or Berlin. Bombs going off, protests, riots. This chaos was imprinted into his understanding of the world, fear emblazoned on his subconscious by the Holos and projections that smeared the city with their bloody blue light. Of course, he’d never visited. The travel ban meant only delegates and representatives could leave, but why would he? It was chaos over there. Here it was safe.
Sally looked up from her Ramen, a flicker in her periphery resolved into Richard. Why did he insist on meeting in the city, where just about anyone was allowed. He had always been so safe and predictable, but since he’d finished his post-mandate, he’d become almost reckless, desperate to avoid indenture.
“You’re late,” she said sternly, “I ordered without you.” “That’s ok,” replied Richard, “I know you don’t like coming into the CBD.”
“I don’t know why you insist on spending time here, everyone know’s it’s dangerous.” She looked nervously at the Vietnamese waitstaff, imagining them brandishing machetes, slicing into Richard’s neck, then turning their gaze to her. She shivered, then looked back at Richard.
“Well that’s just the thing, I’ve actually got a job here.” He paused triumphantly, then continued, “I’m going to be a journalist!”
Sally looked at him blankly. “Content and streaming,” he added hurriedly. Barely anyone called it journalism. But he’d secretly been inspired by his sister’s tales of journalists uncovering conspiracies and filming in war zones, so the term had stuck with him.
“Why does it have to be in the city Richard? I don’t want to have to meet you here anymore,” Sally replied tersely. “This is where the best media is babe. I know that the streams make it seem dangerous, but there’s never really been an attack.”
“They detained a group of plotters just last week,” Sally said primly. “Who knows what they would have done, they could have been attacking right now! We could be dead.” She turned her head down, retreating into her Ramen.
Richard knew the detainment she had mentioned, the organisers of the Radical-Left for the Humane Treatment of Islamic and Indigenous Australians. They’d been found with seditious material, extra-national communication logs, and known links to existing Islamo-fascist suspects. Deep down he doubted that they’d planned to do anything violent, but it was better to be safe than sorry.
“That’s the reason I need to be in the city Sally,” Richard implored. “This is where everything is happening.”
“Well, I’m just worried that it will mean everything will start happening to you.” She replied, not looking up from her bowl.
Richard looked around at the crowd in the media-pit. Hungry eyes all gazed intently at the patchy holographic display, where the form of the Content Head was picked out in semi-transparent blue planes. With this technology she was able to address 15 media pits around the country, without leaving the C-level compounds, where crime and poverty had essentially been eradicated.
“We’ve got a new wave of intakes, so give ’em hell!” she crowed. Richard looked around at the other newbies. They were easy to pick, all being jostled and cheered by the older streamers and content producers. The new intakes gave each other sideways glances. They were in this together, for now. Only a few of them would end up on wages.
“Our Acting PM, with great foresight and love, is tightening curfews for non-caucasians. Obvy this is great for our team, more room for us at Friday night drinks right?” They all cheered half-heartedly. You were supposed to act supportive of the things the APM did. Anything short of approval on your face would be registered by the facial recognition technology in people’s Oculars. Short of that, someone with a bone to pick could denounce you, and you’d have to make your case in front of the People’s Court. That didn’t happen so much anymore, but dad said that lots of his old friends were exposed as radicals that way.
“The APM’s office wants some content to support the announcement, so let’s see if we can catch some radicals out at night. Bonus points if you stream some getting neutralised. We really want to show people the kind of thugs that the Border and Citizenship Bureau will be taking off the street.” The media bosses eyes were sparkling with fervour as she said this. She probably hasn’t been on ‘the streets’ at night since the Triple Dissolution and the Night of Retribution, Richard thought, then cursed his impetuous mind. That attitude had been his sister’s downfall.
“Haven’t they already got all the radicals?” one of the new faces asked. There was a sudden ripple of silence, and those nearest to the questioner seemed to edge away imperceptibly. The newbie gulped, the whir of a camera affixing itself upon her. “I mean, the state has been so thorough, I thought that everyone had been caught, and the curfews were being lifted.”
The media bosses’ faces seemed to stretch out of the platform towards her. “It’s not our place to question the APM. If she says that there’s people that need to get off the streets, then that’s what needs to happen.” She looked around the room and continued. “Now I want 15 hours of content from all of you by next week. Everyone is dismissed, except you, newbie,” she said, a hand materialising to point at the hapless questioner, now surrounded by an ever widening gulf in the crowd. “You stay behind.”
A journalist’s job used to be to question this stuff, Richard thought guiltily. He could almost hear his sister’s voice, brash and challenging, mocking him for his compliance. He hoped his face remained supportive, a rictus of rapture, amazed by the APM’s wisdom. Despite his qualms, he scurried out the door, Ocular active, in case he saw a radical in the halls. He had to make sure he got that content before anyone else. He had to get on wages.
Richard’s tram route home took him along Sydney Road, once a panoply of Turkish cuisine and wedding dresses, now another empty street, the shops all boarded up. He remembered his dad taking him into All-Night-Kebab, (during the day) and the owner giving him baklava. The rich dense flavour was like nothing he’d tried in Upfield, where it was all hot chips and flat whites.
One day the family didn’t appear to open the store. A few days later the shop was looted. Eventually the storefront was boarded up, by whom, no one knew. Richard got off the tram. It used to run all the way into Upfield, where he lived with his family. They’d stopped running the trams outside of Zone 1.
He leaned into the cold wind, walking past one of the few remaining food outlets. It was run by an Iranian family, who’d cleverly rebranded to “All-American Hot Dogs”. They also sold burgers, and the staff wore baseball caps, anything to distance themselves from people’s vague ideas of ‘the threatening foreigner’. He peered down the alley next to the shop and saw one of the serving boys smoking a cigarette. He was talking to a swarthy older man, with a thick beard and a nondescript, heavy-looking jacket. The serving boy passed two packages from behind the door to the man. It looked to Richard like they weren’t speaking English, which was illegal. Richard felt a little thrill. If he caught this on his stream, it’d get big numbers, maybe lead to an arrest. He could almost hear his sister, calling him a racist, but thinking of the wages, he activated his Ocular, and started filming.
The man shook the server’s hand, who disappeared back into the restaurant. He then turned and went deeper into the alley. Richard hurriedly made his way around the block, so he could catch up with the man, without seeming to follow him. He rounded the corner in time to see the man enter a dilapidated housing estate. Everyone knew that’s where radicals gathered. All the estates had a similar layout, so Richard knew he could circle round the back, and observe the central courtyard from the rear. Nothing much had happened so far, so he decided to follow him in, to try and get some good stream.
As he circled around the corner, he had to duck out of view behind a storage locker. The enclosed courtyard was full of people. A large woman walked around, handing out creamy cakes from a platter, and a little girl sat at the end of a long table. The table was bedecked in a large, pink table cloth, filled with half-drunk cups of fizzy drink and plates laden with balls and pastes, in colours and shapes Richard had never seen.
The man who he’d been following turned in to the courtyard, his thick beard split by a huge grin, and he called out in a language Richard couldn’t understand. The young girl at the end of the table turned around, and shrieked excitedly, leaping from her chair and running over to the man, who picked her up and spun her around in a huge embrace. The aura of the dangerous radical was dispelled as he put the bags down on the table, and reached into his jacket. He pulled out something wrapped in a fine cloth and gave it to the girl. At the same time, people nearest his bag split it open, and started passing out its contents, more steaming dishes to add to the already groaning table.
They all returned to their seats, and started to talk happily, passing plates back and forth, filling and draining cups of the sweet soft drink. Their open friendly manner was alien to Richard. He didn’t even know his neighbours; his mother had taught him that it was not safe to spend time alone with people because they could denounce you for seditious thoughts. Then, if you were alone together you’d have no one to speak in support of you. It especially worried him around Sally’s father, a party official, who clearly didn’t approve of him. He always seemed to be trying to get him alone. Perhaps he was being paranoid, but he knew her dad would love to see him off to the labour camps, and out of Sally’s life.
He was snapped out of his reverie by sudden shouting. He looked up, and saw the man he’d followed stand up shouting, knocking back the table. Figures in dark blue jumpsuits burst into the courtyard, guns trained on the gathering. A young man tried to make a dash for it, and one of the faceless sentinels put a bullet into his head. The young girl whose party they were crashing started crying and making her way to the bearded man with her arms outstretched. She took a butt of a gun to the face, and crumpled. The bearded man was held down, arms restrained with black zip-ties, face now calm and impassive, pushed into the bounty he’d provided. The agents clinically zip-tied everyone at the party, and put black bags on their heads. The boy who’d tried to escape was put into a body bag, and thrown unceremoniously onto a waiting hover. They proceeded to march the party guests out, a now faceless line of hoods.
Richard sat shivering against the wall, hidden behind the bin. He was in shock. He’d seen an entire family destroyed, a young boy killed, all by the people that were supposed to keep him safe. Finally the fear of being caught out after curfew drove him to his feet, and towards home. He replayed the scene on his Ocular as he trudged along blindly; the little girl’s face turning from joy, to horror, to a bloody mess, all so quickly. The leader of the family trying to calm everyone after the first shot was fired, only to be unceremoniously face-planted into his meal. Richard’s goal had been to get content about radicals and raids, but he knew instinctively this isn’t what Mega-Bang wanted.
Sally lay on her single bed, listening to the thud and shuffle of her parents moving around the house. She felt safe in her bed, in her house, her little gated community, where no one could come in, or out, without an ID chip.
She’d been trying to Viz with Richard all afternoon, but he wasn’t responding, and it was nearly midnight. The fear of the outside world was starting to creep into her safe space. She soaked in the warm, fine fibers of her neatly made bed, the golden lamplight diffusing her feature wall with a comforting glow. The tacky aquarium Holo Richard had given her gave the other corner of her room a cool tint. It used to remind her of Richard’s safe, comforting presence — his awkward attempts at courtship as he shyly delivered the gift under her father’s baleful glare. But now it seemed to chill her, a reminder of his new, alien behaviour. She shivered, and decided cocoa in the kitchen would dispel her fears.
She walked through the high-arched hallways, feeling the shadows slice through her body as she passed between doorways where the light spilled out. Every so often, the world would become a scarier place, but she knew it would pass.
“Hi hon,” her mother said as Sally entered the kitchen. “You seem a little pale, are you feeling ok?”
“Sure mum,” Sally said, “just a long day at the edu-center.” Sally went to make a cocoa and her mum intercepted her. “Here, let me make it. You go sit with your father, he’s had a long day too, I’ll take care of my two darlings.”
She saw her dad sitting exhausted on their circular couch, which wrapped one of the new ‘All-a-Round’ Holos. The light bathed him, his tie undone, his normally neat hair flicked back.
“Hey sweetie,” he said, “you look beat.”
“I’m just worried about Richard,” she replied. “He hasn’t gotten back to me since his first day at work.” She paused and looked up at him. “He got the media job,” she said hopefully, as if to prove that Richard would finally be worth his regard.
“Media,” her dad said dismissively, “what a waste of space. When I was coming up in the party the journos were all lefties, commies or terrorist sympathisers. I had to deal with them pretty harshly.”
Sally knew a bit about her dad’s history. He had joined the Unity Australia Party as a young man, spurred on by the Melbourne Shootings. He said it had woken him up to the dangers of immigration and loss of white culture. He said it didn’t matter that the shooters were white. It was ‘symptomatic.’
She didn’t know exactly what his job at the Party was, but she knew he’d been there on The Night of Retribution, where 13 ministers who refused to vote yes on an immigration control policy had been violently beaten and some killed by an anonymous mob. People rumoured that Unity Australia had orchestrated the event, to intimidate the other parties. Whatever they said, Sally knew what her father had told her was true. People were sick of politically-correct politicians that were putting good, honest Australians at risk.
“How is work Dad?” she asked tentatively. She was always worried about upsetting her father; he could fly into a rage if she said the wrong thing. But today he seemed exhausted, but elated.
“Very good Sally. We got final approval for the new budget and security measures for the Border and Citizenship Bureau.” He looked at her quizzical expression and laughed. “So basically we can get rid of all the dangerous people that have been hiding behind those lefty scum. We can finally get the Australian economy back on track.”
“That’s great dad,” Sally said noncommittally. She’d heard on the news that the economy was struggling, but her life was very comfortable. As a leading party member, her father had access to the latest technology, a town car, and never ran out of rations, even when trade sanctions from China tightened.
Sally’s mum came in to the room, hot chocolate steaming on a tray. “Your father is doing important work,” she said proudly. “Before we had you, before we were married, there were immigrants everywhere, the streets weren’t safe!” She placed the tray, and took a seat between them, handing out the steaming mugs of cocoa. Sally took the warm mug in her hands, and let the aroma fill her nose. All fear was dispelled. She felt safe in the knowledge that her father was making the world a better place.
When Richard got home he entered quietly, hoping to avoid his parents. He crept through the hallway that split the middle of the narrow house his parents had rented since he was born. He passed by his sister’s room, now a testament to dull, dumb hope. His parents hadn’t touched it, except to dust, since she’d been taken. Richard stopped for a moment, and opened the door. He would often sit in here when he was younger, as if to feel his sister’s strength and passion, as if it permeated the walls.
He remembered that he’d cried when she called him a little fascist after he participated in the White Australia march. He hadn’t understood why she was mad. His teachers had told him that Australia should be proud of its white heritage. She’d told him about the way things used to be; people from all over the world, sharing their ideas, their recipes, their history, but that had all been lost since the deportations and detainments. He thought it sounded chaotic and confusing, but he never said so.
He sat on her bed, and looked at her old terminal, a hand input model from before he was born. That’s what had landed her in trouble. He didn’t know how exactly, but Richard knew she would go to an ‘Internet’. It sounded sort of like a corporate holo-channel, but people like his sister managed it. He didn’t quite understand it, but she’d been writing and reading pages on an Internet that had been critical of the Acting Prime Minister.
At the time she’d been talking a lot about how combining judges and police was going to cause trouble. He didn’t understand. If it made it easier to keep us safe, then why worry? So he’d just nodded politely when she brought it up. After a few weeks of talking about it, going to protests and marches, and writing on her terminal, she was gone. After that Richard learnt very quickly that he shouldn’t ask questions about her disappearance. It was for everyone’s safety, she’d done nothing wrong, and it was just a misunderstanding, his father had said. His parents went on as if everything was normal, so Richard did too, but every so often he heard his mother sobbing in this room.
The footage played back in his mind’s eye, this time without help from the Ocular. He imagined it was his sister on the receiving end of those blows, his sister crumpling at the knees as a bullet left the back of her head. Had that boy left a little brother waiting for him at home, sitting in his empty room, hoping for someone to talk to? He thought of his sister, calling him a little fascist, and his resolve steeled. It might not be the footage Mega-Bang wanted, but it’s what people needed to see.
He quickly stitched together the scenes, the laughing family, the warmth and togetherness, shattered by gunfire, anonymous figures slamming women and children to the ground. The wreckage of the party left in sudden stillness, the food coagulating on the ground, soft drink mixing with dark patches of blood and sauce.
He uploaded the content to his new Mega-Bang channel, with the name, ‘Is this what our security budget is paying for?’ He did this all laying in his sister’s bed, the interface splayed out on the roof. He slowly drifted off to sleep, knowing she’d be proud of him, and that he’d done something close to what she would call journalism.
Richard woke with a start, his Ocular littering his vision with notifications. He blinked to the top of the pile, and saw that his stream had been run nearly 200,000 times; he had message upon message littering the timeline. Everything ranging from, “ged em while their yung,” all the way to a more compassionate, “TOMGLY, dey wr just hvin a partay LOL.”
He sprung out of bed, excited to head into work. Hours streamed were the main measure for most streamers, and he’d been streamed for 3223 hours in total, almost unheard of for a minute’s footage.
He kissed his mother on the cheek optimistically, and patted his dad on his back as they worked through their breakfast. They both looked up startled. “You’re in a good mood today son,” his dad said uncertainly. His generation had learnt that change often brought trouble. Richard thought about explaining his success, but they would just worry; they had never really got past their old Holo-graph; Ocular streams were a bit beyond them.
“We heard you come in late last night Richard,” his mother asked querulously, “was everything ok?”
“Yeah mum,” Richard said, heading for the door, “just issues with the translinks.” That seemed to quell her concern, it fit into her world view — everything was breaking down, so why would the trams be any different?
Richard arrived at the door to his new workplace, and stopped for a moment to take a deep breath, preparing himself for.. what… cheers maybe? A nod of recognition? A gram from the Content Head?
Settle yourself Rich, he thought, you just had a good stream, it’s a good start, but you’ll have to go further than that to get wages. He grabbed the handle, but it didn’t budge. His wrist chip should buzz him in, but it was inert. He tried again, and the handle stayed fixed.
He heard an impatient huff from behind him. He turned around and saw people starting to mass behind him, wanting access. He hopped out of the way. “Second day,” he said apologetically, “must be a mix up.” The crowd streamed through the door, ignoring him. If he wasn’t worth access, he wasn’t worth a glance.
Richard walked away quickly, not wanting his new workmates to think of him as ‘that creep at the door.’ As he strode away, directionless, faking purpose, he called up his feeds to message the Employee Liaison. The inertia of trying to open a closed door returned when all his outgoing functions wouldn’t respond to his blinks.
Richard sat down at the same bench where he’d first prepared himself for the interview, next to the pay-per-use toilet that seemed to emerge from the ground. It stank of piss and vomit, but acted as a buffer against the arctic winds that barrelled through Melbourne’s unforgiving grid of streets. He brought up his stream. A few guilty peeks at his comments would boost his confidence, then he’d go to the Tellecorp. Obviously his identi-chip was playing up, and it was affecting his interfaces.
He immediately noticed that the video was much shorter. And instead of showing just the party, it began with the man exchanging the bag, followed quickly by his first initial panicked shouts. It cut to a tight zoom of hooded figures being shuffled into the darkness by calm border force agents. The final screen was a mug shot of the man he’d followed, and a tagline, ‘Arrested — Coordinating Terror Cell.’
Richard suddenly felt colder than the wind buffeting him. Who had done this? How did they get his private Ocular feed? How did they change a live stream? He noticed all the sympathetic comments were gone. In their place was a slew of comments encouraging the police force, calling for more funding to the APM, and speculating about what the man had been planning.
“It was just a birthday,” Richard expelled, the words whipped from his mouth by the wind. What chilled him most of all was his own profile. Name and photo stripped, a blank account. All content deleted but this, a video entitled, “Successful Raid on Islamofascist.” He was suddenly no one. He stepped back into the wind, not knowing where to go.
He made his way to the mall that ran through the center of the CBD. Here business people still thronged. Here there was still the pulse of humanity. He let the crowd of people pull him along, as if just appearing in the field of vision of enough people would confirm he existed. Suddenly he heard an excited call, “Richard!”
He looked around, who could it be? Most of his friends had ended up at the mines or on indents in the north. Maybe it was someone from work. “Richard, it’s me!” His gaze followed the voice to its source, a friendly-looking man stepping out of one of Melbourne’s once famous laneways. The man walked over, smiling, and put his arm around Richard’s shoulders. “Hey mate, it’s been too long,” he said, matching Richards pace, but slowly walking him out of the throng.
The crowd parted naturally. All faces turned away, as if some magnetic repulsion was in effect. “I’m sorry,” Richard stammered. “Do I know you?” The man seemed not to hear him, exclaiming instead, “You bet I am! And we absolutely have to do that dinner with your parents, I’ll give you a lift.”
Richard, trying to be polite, continued with the man, started to realise that he was being walked down another laneway. He started to struggle, but the man’s grip became like steel on his shoulder. As they passed through the mouth of the alley, and Richard lost the line of site of the crowd, the man dropped the jovial act, and grabbed Richard’s wrist, pulling his arm around his back.
They marched along like this, going deeper into Melbourne’s winding alleys, to an unmarked car parked in front of a dumpster. Richard’s cries and exhortations went unnoticed. The man stayed resolute, almost disinterested. As they neared the car, Richard twisted enough to make eye contact with him.
“Why are you doing this?” Richard cried hysterically. The man seemed to be about to respond, but changed his mind, and instead lazily punched Richard in the face, his fist making a tight little arc. Richard, stunned, was bundled into the back of the unmarked vehicle, the back seat completely cut off from the front, the windows completely blacked out.
“Wait a minute, what’s happening?” Richard stammered to the door as it shut, taking the light with it. He felt the car start up, and began scrabbling around, looking for purchase, exit, context. With a click and a whir, an old holo activated, filling the space in front of him with an officious, anonymous face.
“Welcome to the Australian Border and Citizenship Detainment Process. You have been accused of the below-mentioned crime.” The words, ‘Aiding and Abetting a Terrorist Organisation and Disseminating Anti-Australian Propaganda’ flashed below the face in the holograph. “You will now be taken to a processing center, where an independent inquiry will decide your guilt or innocence.”
“Wait!” Richard implored, but the face continued, “If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear. This message is authorised by the Special Powers Act of the Australian Integrity Resolution. As of now you are a detainee, and your citizenship is nullified until further notice, with all rights and privileges associated with it.”
The next few days were a blur. They took him through a series of identical steel-walled rooms. They wouldn’t tell him anything, or explain what was going to happen to him. Earlier on in the process, Richard, indignant, had demanded to make his phone call and talk to his lawyer. It was something he’d seen on his mum’s old holos. “You haven’t got rights here you piece of shit,” the guard on duty had responded, backhanding him so hard that Richard could feel the knuckles dragging across his cheekbone.
They hadn’t fed him for days, and every hour they would bang on his door, startling him awake if he wasn’t already. They kept him in an an empty metal box, tall enough to stand in, or sit down, but no room to lie flat. There was a small hole in the floor where he could relieve himself, and at what felt like random intervals they would deliver a meagre bowl of gruel and a plastic cup with water in it.
After an indeterminate amount of time, measured only by bowel movements and a progressive feeling of despair, the door opened, and a guard grabbed him by the scruff of his collar. He was still wearing the clothes they’d taken him in, now sour and chafing. They kept the room too cold to take them off. His hands and feet were linked together by a long strand of polymer plastic, but he was able to shuffle in the direction the guard pushed him.
He stumbled into another identical room, a metal container with air vents overhead, and sluices on the floor, leading to a drain. The guard took his position at the door. The holo of a face and part of a torso appeared on the other side of the table; a kindly old man, who looked at Richard with good humour.
“Oh Richard, look at the state you’re in,” he said paternally, “you look like you could use a drink.” Looking up at the guard he said, “Get the poor boy some orange juice.” The guard left, and while he was gone, the man said, “Now, I’m Derick McMahon from the Citizenship Board, and it’s my role to figure out if you’re a good Australian, or if what they’re saying about you is true.”
“I am a good Australian sir, there must be some mistake,” Richard sobbed. “Now it says here,” the man continued, “you published a stream that shows you at the scene of an illegal meeting of insurgents, AND you created anti-border patrol propaganda, doctoring footage to show our brave soldiers in a negative light.”
The face seemed to grow brighter and distort as the man’s voice rose on the phrase ‘brave soldiers.’ Richard, woozy from lack of sleep and the sudden brightness, nodded numbly.
“I’m sorry, I really am, but they were attacking children!” The holo’s face returned to neutral, as the guard entered with his orange juice. Richard drank it thirstily and immediately started to feel better, a warm glow permeating his body.
“That probably feels pretty good, doesn’t it Richard?” Derick said kindly. Richard looked fondly at the face floating in front of him, the face who would sort this mess out, and get him back home safe.
“I really am sorry, I just think that the border agents were really rough, and that maybe there’d been a mistake. It was just a kid’s birthday party.” The face smiled, understanding. “So you were at the party, and you did record the footage?”
“Well sort of,” Richard replied. “I followed them to see where the man was going.” Richard felt a blow to the back of the head that cut through the warm glow. “Answer the question!” the guard barked. Richard looked, imploring, to the glowing face. “I’m sorry Richard, but you must give clear, succinct answers. Were you, or were you not in the vicinity of the illegal gathering in question?”
“Uhh,” Richard looked up nervously at the guard who looked ready to strike. “Yes,” he responded.
“Good Richard. It’s very important that you are completely honest with me or I can’t help you get home.” The face’s forehead wrinkled earnestly. “Now this is a tricky one, did you, or did you not, illegally film confidential security activities of our border agents.”
Richard hesitated a moment, then returned, “Yes.” He gulped, confused, with warmth in his belly, pain in the back of his head and bright lights filling his vision. “And finally, did you edit this footage and publish it.” “Yes,” Richard uttered, defeated and confused.
The face seemed to suddenly lose all humanity, asymmetry and expression. “Thank you for your confession. You have been judged guilty of the crimes listed below. These are Class A National Security Offences. You will be stripped of citizenship and taken to a detainment camp. Remember, you can appeal this decision and alleviate the severity of the sentence through information about other illegal activities or possible radical elements.”
“Wait, Derick!” Richard tried to reach out, the ties on his hands and feet still restraining him, “I didn’t know what I was doing, I need to explain-”
“There’s no point talking kid,” the guard said with something close to pity in his voice. “It’s an AI. They just need to get the Yes, and you’re done. Now get up. We’ve got more dets to process.”
Sally sat alone by the inactive All-a-Round, the room defined by its absence of light. Her father emerged, another murky shadow against the wall.
“Hey sweetness, you seem down,” her father uttered into the darkness. Sally looked up. She tried to steady her voice but she felt as red and raw as her eyes. “Richard hasn’t answered a Viz, nobody’s home at his house. I’m worried something has happened to him.”
“Sally, my dear, that Richard boy was never good enough for you.” Sally’s father sat down and put an arm around her. It felt leaden and heavy, weighted with things unspoken. “If he’s gone and left you, that just proves he’s no good.”
“But dad, he wouldn’t just disappear, he’s just got his new job, his parents need him around…” All her tears suddenly returned. She hated crying in front of her father, but that just made them come all the harder.
Her father’s voice took the steely, even tone that she knew proceeded a deep rage. “Well then maybe he didn’t choose to leave, maybe he did something wrong and we had to take him.”
Sally looked up, the sob torn from her chest, red-rimmed eyes staring at him. “You know where he is, don’t you!” She rose to her feet, “You and your stupid bullies have taken him because you don’t want us together!” She seemed to realise she’d crossed a line. Her inflated posture and raised voice suddenly dropped to nothing. To no avail. Her father was suddenly up, his strong hand around her wrist, pulling her through the lounge, the kitchen, the halls, shouting all the while, “I know him, I knew his father, I know their type, liberals, pansies, too afraid to stand up to evil in the world, too afraid to speak their minds, too afraid to fight!”
He threw her into her room, cutting a silhouette against the soft light of the hall. “Now forget that little shit, forget you ever knew him, delete all your streams with him, or you’ll end up over there with him.” And with that he slammed the door, leaving Sally in the darkness, stunned, splayed on the bedroom floor.
After the interrogation, Richard was led through a grimier, more worn series of passageways. They stripped him of his clothes, hosed him down, and put him in a dull, beige, canvas jumpsuit. By this point Richard was weak from whatever they’d put in his orange juice. His body ached and he had trouble standing. When they finally came to a door, a soft groaning could be heard from behind it. The guard swiped his chip at the door which slid open, revealing a room full of gaunt figures, maybe 30 in total, with just enough room to stand.
The guard pushed Richard into the throng which wordlessly accepted him. They kept them there for an unknowable amount of time, the throng bending and moaning. As one collapsed, one was added. Their shit and piss fell to the floor and through the grills. No one spoke for fear of reprisal from the guards. Their only expression; a formless moan that seemed to come from everyone at once.
The sleep deprivation continued, the lights flickered and oscillated in intensity. The stink from the carrion pits made Richard sleepy, dizzy and nauseous. All the while, over the loud speaker, a voice repeated, “Be considered for a lighter work detail, inform on collaborators and enemies of the state. You have committed crimes against Australia, do the right thing and make amends for your crime.”
At one point they were all herded out and into another room, which seemed to move independently of the building. There was chaos and confusion as the container lost a level surface. The feeling of nausea and vertigo seemed to tell him they were changing elevation. A roaring sound slowly engulfed the room and it became deathly cold and hard to breath. Richard had never been on a plane, but an old man said knowingly, almost wondrously, “I think we’re flying, I think we’re in the air.”
After the chaos became normal, Richard managed to get the closest thing the prisoners could to sleep, half-standing, half-slouched against the person next to him, ready to snap awake at the sound of a guard. When he awoke, the cold had been replaced by a dull, muggy heat he’d never experienced.
The heat intensified, like a hammer that beat on his skin from inside and out. With a dull thud and a rumble, the container seemed to come to a halt. When the doors broke open, instead of the dull, metallic glow of the corridors he was expecting, a harsh blue light broke in.
As they were herded out, his eyes adjusted, and he realised he was outside. His relief was palpable, tears rushing out of his eyes as he felt the natural breezes and panoply of smells rush past and through him. He first took in the dull, leaden green of heavy canopy, then the rough, red earth, divided by unpaved roads. Finally he resolved on the details of barbed-wire enclosures, filled with hopeless, gaunt people. The barbed wire seemed to wend away into the distance, and thickset guards stalked around the grounds, guns cocked and at the ready.
They were marched into an already crowded pen, the guard shutting the gate and calling out harshly, “You are now wardens of the People’s Republic of Nauru. As new immigrants you will be required to work to pay off the cost of your accommodation, medical needs and upkeep.”
A bearded man with a top-knot that reminded him of his father called out, “When can we return home? What have we done to deserve this? You’re treating us like animals.” The guard lazily pointed his rifle at the man, and shot him in the head. “You have no home, you are criminals, expelled from the Great Nation of Australia. You are now at the mercy of these kind people. Expect no rights, no privileges, just toil and death.” Richard bowed his head. He didn’t want to die here.
Sally was lost. It’d been months since she’d seen him. Months where the worst had come true, and yet still, the world had gone on. She couldn’t talk to anyone, she knew that. She’d tried over and over again to dial his Ocular, but the day after she saw him last, his contact had disappeared. All that was left of him now were the old Viz streams she’d saved.
She decided to go to Southland shopping compound. It made her feel better being surrounded by nice things where only people with security access were allowed. After going through the checkpoints, she floated through the produce section. She used to feel so safe in places like this, but now it was cold comfort. Wherever Richard had gone, he’d probably thought he was safe too.
Her gaze lingered on a fine batch of apples, rich and red, almost like the apples from a fairytale. Her focus resolved on a figure in the space behind them, turned to face the other way. But she knew that hunch, that stoop. It was Richard’s mother.
“Mrs Anderson!” she cried, running around the produce section to greet her. “Mrs Anderson, it’s me Sally!”
“I’m sorry, you must have me confused with someone else,” Mrs Anderson said in a brittle, cheerful voice.
“Mrs Anderson, I don’t understand I-” Richard’s mother grabbed Sally’s arm and uttered quickly, “Richard is gone Sally, John is gone.” She seemed to suddenly deflate, to shrink. “Sally I know this is new to you but you have to forget him, or you’ll be next.”
Sally stepped away, shocked, confused, only coming to a stop after colliding with the rough-hewn palettes behind her. She felt the grain dig into her palms as she gripped for balance.
“But Mrs Anderson…” It was already too late. Richard’s mother had left her shopping behind and scurried away, now just a head bobbing away into the crowds.
Sally tried to pursue her, to demand her to see that her son was gone, to demand that she should care. She felt the eyes of the security guards on her as she ran through the center and out the checkpoint. Suddenly it seemed like every Ocular was trained on her. Her breath became fast and shallow as she ran home. She knew what it meant when people went missing, that they’d led secret lives. That they’d planned to hurt people or hurt the country. But she just hadn’t wanted to admit that Richard could be bad, that he of all people was a race traitor, or a terrorist.
He’d got himself in this mess, and he’d put his family, even her in danger! She knew she needed to forget about him and move on. But it didn’t fill the empty park bench seat where they used to meet for lunch, before he got a job in the CBD. It didn’t give someone for her to Viz with when the fear got bad.
She made it to her bed, gasping for air through her tears, and brought up their old Viz streams. There was the face that had filled her room when she couldn’t sleep, talking about school, about their future. Suddenly it had turned into the mask of a wrecker, a murderer, a radical. She thought about what her dad said, of her ending up with him. Two radicals on a stinking island, with no Ocular, no Southland, no trips in the town car.
Her cries became muted, turning to a raspy, focused breathing. She flipped through her Viz streams and every time his face appeared, she twitched her thumb, deleting the moment forever. Deleting the last bit of him from her life. Only when he was completely gone could things be normal. Only then could she could be safe again.