Jelis stopped digging. She shrugged her harness off, letting the old-fashioned Exo-Shoveller drop to the ground. Who cares, anyway. It was obsolete. It only moved up and down, and then only a maximum of fifteen inches. It had no other action; no reverse, no side-to-side and no voice control. Just an on and off button on the belt. You couldn’t find an older, more worthless model if you dug in the hardware pits for a year.
Bright Horn crackled to life. “JELIS? WHAT IS THE PROBLEM?”
Jelis looked up at the drone floating above her, performing its standard figure-eight
float. Rumor had it that its flight pattern was based on bees, but no one could be sure of that anymore. Now, pollination was done by BEAS. Botanical Eugenical Apian Synchronates, or something like that.
Jelis glared up at Bright Horn. “It’s caught up on something. I gotta dig on my own, okay?”
With a whirr, Bright Horn lifted off, back up to its 150-foot altitude cap. Only the State’s Big Eye could go higher, up to 1,000 feet. Beyond that, it was all Homeland’s Secur-Oc, and that was something else, entirely. You didn’t want one of those breathing down your neck. Not for anything. They were nasty. But Bright Horn—they were still manned locally, and they weren’t lethal. The voice was modulated, and it could be someone from your own community running the joystick, maybe someone you ate with, or someone you slept with. Who knew, Jelis thought. She edged her way down into the pit, careful not to slip.
These pits were goldmines. Back in the day, as the Teachers liked to say, being dramatic—way back when—back in the Warrior Century, people did not refit. Hard to believe. Nobody refitted at all. Everything went to the place they called The Dump. It took seven PhDs to figure out that wasn’t an acronym. Turned out it was just a noun from a verb.
Jelis was a Level 5 Terroir Refitter. Meaning, until her Civil Probation was over and she’d learned her lesson, she was assigned to mining in the Remotes, pits that once served villages and hamlets, whatever a hamlet was. Maybe, if she could keep straight, she could work herself up to a Level 3, or Level 2 even, to a place where they had left some trees. Her dream would be to make it up to Nautical Refitter. Her brother, Jepense, was a Nautical, but a Level 3 In-Lander, meaning he worked rivers. That could be nasty work. No visibility, especially on the Muddy. No. Her dream was the Ocean. She’d seen pictures.
Jelis tugged the shoveller aside. She was looking for aluminum, crinkly nuggets that usually looked black, sometimes shiny, in the dirt. In training, they had shown pictures of what it had looked like originally, fantastic ribbons of brilliant aluminum rolled out thin and spun onto a wood-paste carrier. They said everyone used it. Everyone. Hard to imagine, just going to your Magazine and buying a box, just like that.
Jelis scrunched down. The shoveller’s blade was caught on something.
“Shi…ugar.” Jelis morphed the curse word into an AB—Acceptable Blaspheme. Bright Horn was listening and she was trying not to get additional time added to her probation by breaking anymore Civil rules. It was a constant struggle. Obedience didn’t come easy for her. She was too much like her mother. Impatience in line, cursing, disrespect of superiors, counter-walking in public ways, theft from society. “For Christ’s sake!” she had shouted at the Court Officer. “It was two pennies! On the treadway!” Her six months for Theft From Society was extended to a year for Aggressive Disrespect of an Official. And she was off to Pit #44593299.
The shoveller pierced something, and then stalled. Jelis got down on her knees and started troweling the thick dirt aside. It wasn’t easy work. Back in the day, the early refitters layered tons of clay over the top of the pits, and then, in the years that followed, the quick-strippers came—miners out to make a buck—and they had scraped the clay around willy-nilly, looking to find the good stuff quick and get out. That meant that now, with the current Total Refit plan, workers like Jelis might find a 3-foot layer of clay, or 6-foot- or even deeper, which required the caterpillar men to come with their mobile worms and go under. That was something to see. And, the men who ran the caterpillar were prime. Not like the men around here. Jelis had put her name in for the Lotto, but then so had everyone else, and she didn’t win a ticket. A Twenty-four with a prime caterpillar man would be something like Christmas. Even a Twelve would be close.
Jelis’ trowel hit the obstruction and she scraped more of the thick clay aside. She started to curse but caught herself. It was a milk jug. There were worse things to get hung up on, yarn or fishing line, but not by much. These things were hollow, and once the blade went in, you couldn’t shake it. You had to cut it off.
Resigned, Jelis stood up and got her bandana out of her pocket. She turned the reflective mirro-lar side up to the sky and tilted it left and right several times. Level 4 got a call button. Level 3 got a one-way radio. Level 1 and 2 had voice buds. But Level 5, a lousy shiny bandana! What century was this, anyway?
Bright Horn descended and hovered. “WHAT IS THE ISSUE, JELIS?”
“I’m gonna need to cut.”
“OK. BUT YOU HAVE TO USE PROPER FORM. YOU KNOW THAT. FOR THE RECORD. JELIS, YOU SHOULD KNOW BY NOW HOW TO USE PROPER FORM.”
She knew how but it irritated her. It always had. It was like she was a child. Bright Horn was lecturing her like she was a child.
“AND DON’T FORGET YOUR Ps AND Ts.”
Jelis held her breath and counted. Her mother had taught her to do that when she was just a wisp of a girl, with braids tied up with ribbons. Her mom sometimes called her Heidi, for some reason. And she’d also counted sometimes, too.
“Please, I would like to request the use of a blade….a knife, specifically…Jelis F. Russo, Section 8, Pit# 44593299…Thank you.”
“I’VE ALREADY DISPATCHED RACER YOUR WAY. GOOD JOB, JELIS. GOOD FORM. YOU’RE LEARNING. GOOD JOB.” Bright Horn buzzed up and away.
Racer arrived, in his yellow coverall, his toolbelt riding jaunty on his hips, the makings of a carb-gut starting to hang over the front buckle. He was this dig’s EO—Equipment Officer—one of the Triums that oversaw the whole Remote. The others were the Production Officer and the Social Officer, who never came out to the pit itself, staying in their Quads day and night, for the most part, running the show while never seeing the show. Doing everything from a handheld. They would die in the heat of the pit in high summer, Jelis was pretty sure. Racer, on the other hand, even if she didn’t like him, at least knew where the pit was, and like now, standing above her section, on the rim, got to experience the rising pit-plume, full-bore.
“Hey, Jeli-baby, what’s up?”
Jelis looked away. She hated the way he spoke. He spent hours streaming H-wood movies from a century ago, trying to perfect what the critics called Smartspeak. They had originally called it SmartAssSpeak, but Homeland had got onto them about corrupting the civis with profanity, so it got clipped.
“What can ol’ Racer do you for?” He smirked at her.
“I need a knife. I’m hung up on a milk jug.”
“Again? You must look for them, Jelis…”
He came down into the pit like a pro, one foot leading, the other foot sideways, dragging back, to act as the brake. “Whoo-wee, doggie! Looks like you’ve got some beauties there!” He nodded toward her bucket with the large nuggets of aluminum she’d unearthed today. “Looking good!” He gave her a thumb’s up.
He got out his recorder and held it up between them. He arched an eyebrow at her. “By the book, Jels-baby,” he warned. “This goes straight up to Homeland, so no fudging around, fudging being one of his favorite ABs, when everyone knew he was itching to say the old thing. But Racer could control himself. He’d gone from being a private worker to official Refit School and was now an EO. He said in a low voice: “Don’t get cute.” The threat was unmistakable. Jelis nodded, icy and begrudging.
Racer cleared his throat, clicked the button, and began: the standard opening P&T, then his serial number, name, some more numbers, the Pit number, then the Request, then his Assessment of the Request and the Requestee, and ended with: “Please consider my request and Thank You for your attention.” Listening to Racer morph into this slick toneless recitation reminded her of grease and made her want to scream and vomit all at once. She hated it. False. False. False. That was all she could think. Lying false words, shoved down their throats, to be regurgitated…..every single one of them. She was disgusted, listening to him drone on. She was disgusted with herself because now he held his recorder up to her face. It was her turn to give her PII and make herself obedient to the Homeland’s ubiquitous need to have everyone mouth the required P&T. If this was what it took to get a simple blade, she couldn’t imagine the crap you’d have to wade through to request a powersaw, like the arbormen used.
Racer’s radio clicked. Homeland’s Comfort Voice crooned: “Permission granted. Time limit: 10. As of…..now.”
Racer unclipped the metal guard of the sheath on his belt and brought out his Level 2 knife. He handed it toward Jelis, haft first. She reached out to take it. This was a moment, now, when something like trust passed between them, this handing of the tool from one to another, this passing of the blade. Jelis’ hand was steady but her insides were wobbly with tension. When her hand closed around the haft, she recognized that she now had, in her grasp, one of the things that made Homeland the most uneasy about its civis, that moment when the citizen had something akin to power. What really unnerved them was putting into a civis’ hands a tool that could also be a weapon. That’s why they watched and regulated and recorded and timed and logged and catalogued, and stored and reviewed and archived and cross-referenced every request. Daily. It had started with the logging of diesel fuel and fertilizer. Now the Department of Weaponry encompassed everything from nukes down to jump ropes and marbles. That department was larger now than even the ‘thoughts and words’ boys.
“Ready, Jelis?” Racer asked, his eyebrow arching again.
She nodded. He let go of the knife. Slowly, she turned to the offending milk jug.
“Remember,” he cautioned. “Everything you touch, everything you do is being scanned. It’s on my record, too, you know. Capiche, Jeli-baby?”
Jelis nodded. She squatted down and drove the blade into the belly of the milk jug.
Three things happened at once. The milk jug, which still had some residual casein inside, sheered apart in three sweet pieces, releasing the shoveller’s blade, Racer’s recorder started an oscillating warning tone, and State’s Big Eye drone suddenly dropped down and zoomed back and forth across the entire pit, its strobes pulsing, its loud voice announcing; ALERT! ALERT! INCOMING METEROLOGICAL ATTACK! TAKE COVER NOW!
Racer turned away from Jelis, hunching his recorder inside his overall collar, trying to hear his message. Then he was shouting back into the recorder and scrambling up out of the pit. He looked back toward Jelis. “HAIL!” he shouted. “GET BACK TO YOUR CONNIE!” He disappeared over the rim.
Jelis stood still. Racer had not waited to secure his knife. The rain was already starting. Hard rain. Storms like this came up out of nowhere now, dangerous and unpredictable. It was time to go. Jelis reached down to grab the shoveller’s harness with her free hand but she slipped, fell backward, and then slid down on the slick clay past the milk jug, toward the bottom. “No!” she shouted out, in panic. The pits filled with water quickly in an attack. She had to get back up to the rim, or she could drown. Her foot hit something, stopping her slide. She reached for it. Something black. An old-fashioned garbage bag. Tied with a simple overhand knot. There were lots of these in the pits still. This pit had so many that the Archeos had said they didn’t want any more reports unless the cache was really something. The refitters could take a look and decide. Unofficially, of course.
In desperation, Jelis held on to the knot, pulling herself up with one hand, digging the knife into the thick soil with the other. She was struggling to stand up just as the sky went darker and the rain began to change. It turned suddenly cold and icy, stinging her hands. She could feel the drops growing larger, striking her back and shoulders and the top of her headpiece.
Suddenly, a small tear began in the bag, opening just below where Jelis’ fingers dug into it, below the knot. She tightened her hold and the bag came loose from the soil. She slipped, going down on one knee. She caught her breath. Through the tear, she could see a square corner…some sort of pattern…the unmistakable edge of the brick-like compression of paper stacked together….
No wonder the bag was so heavy. No wonder it was like an anchor on this slippery slope to the abyss below. She had found a bag of books!
Jelis made a snap judgement. She rose up from the kneeling position slowly. She redoubled her grip on the knot, twisting the black plastic around her fist. One thrust at a time, she used the knife as a piton to work her way up to the pit’s rim, dragging the bag along. It was tough work. All the other refitters had long fled the pit.
In an instant, the sky unleashed the hail, the first pieces the size of a thumbnail. It always got worse. God knows how long this storm would last. By the look of the sky, it could be a full day event. Sometimes, it went two days. Damage to the connies—short for Constructs, their housing units—was always to be expected, to some degree. The crops…well…bye bye. Hail was the only thing that grounded Bright Horn and Big Eye. That, a blizzard, or a haboob, were the only things that might disrupt Secur-Oc’s surveillance. Homeland liked to say they had everything squared away for their civis, but they were wrong about meteorology. It was bigger than they were, and they didn’t like it. Events like this would never get reported. Just like they didn’t exist. And if you talked about it more than once or twice, you’d get written up. Simple as that. It was supposed to be just like it didn’t happen.
But it was happening. The hail chunks were growing larger. They stung when they hit Jelis’ hands and arms. They hurt when they thudded down on her back, and thumped on her headpiece. One struck her cheek. Jelis was at the rim. The hail was pounding down on her now and she ran toward her connie. She was number 14. The furthest one. The ground was covered with hail pellets now. She slipped and fell flat, but she never let go of the knife or the bag. She got up and ran on, as fast as she could. She knew it was her only chance to look at the books. The hail had grounded the drones, and the satellites’ links would be blurred by the weather. No other person was outside. Not Racer. Not any other refitter. Just her, alone, in a high-magnitude hailstorm, hauling a black bag of contraband and holding a knife, for which the ten minute permission slip had now long run out, so she was way over-time and therefore illegal, and since she was here for Civil Probation, that would be enough to get her kicked over to Maximum Penal. Then her additional time would be spent in a Pen. Just like her mother.
But Jelis would not let go of the bag. She well knew what she was doing. She knew the Protocol of Print. She knew it was verboten to have anything printed on paper. She knew that everything she read had to be on an apparatus, either a handheld, or a screen, or a microreader. It had to have been pre-read and passed by the Censor Department, no if, ands, or buts about it. Period. Full stop.
Refitters were always finding books. Or remnants of them. Pages here and there. Sometimes a magazine. Not the Magazine, where you bought your goods, but an earlier use of the word. Sometimes with words, sometimes with lots of pictures.
Anything printed had to be turned in. And you had to do a GPS report. And you got reassigned to a new section. Once you found print, you couldn’t work that sector because of the potential for more contamination, just like rad exposure.
At her connie, Jelis passed her left wrist over the entry pad to read her chip. Her connie was old, manufactured when Homeland was experimenting with a Required Perpetual Roommate. But that had been abandoned after a couple decades, so now, the rule was one connie per person, even if it was an old double-bunker. And these old connies were nuclear powered, with something they called a ‘glow-worm.’ It was old technology but dependable. Even now, in the face of this growing maelstrom, her laminated door clicked open one vertical slat at a time, and the lights powered up all around the room.
Jelis dragged the bag inside. The door clicked shut. She paused and considered the knife in her hand. Having this knife—this weapon-tool—without proper permission was a crime. A high penalty crime. She should call Racer. He would be in trouble over this, too.
She went into the galley and washed the dirt off the blade. She dried it and after a moment of calculation, she knew what she would do. Under the micro, this connie had a really old relic called a toast-oven. She pulled it open. The knife fit in it. She pushed it closed. Good enough for now.
The bag was surprisingly resistant to being torn open further. On her knees by her bedside, Jelis took out one book after another, and laid them on the rug, side by side. She could not believe the stash. They smelled, but of earth—hearty and rich—not stinking of decay….
Her bell rang. Jelis recoiled.
“Jelis, let me in. Now.” It was Racer.
Jelis went to the door. “What do you want?” she called through the slats.
“You got my knife? You better have my knife…”
“I….I lost it….” Jelis paused, for effect. “I’m sorry. I lost it in the pit.”
“You lost it?!” Racer unleashed a torrent of oaths and threats.
Jelis closed her eyes and listened to the rant on the other side of the door.
“I’m sorry. I’ll look for it tomorrow….”
Racer exploded. “We’re under mandatory lockdown. Hail predicted for 24. And there’s a Tornado Warning for the whole of Zone 19. We’re all gonna die. If we’re lucky. Before the Inspectors get the report on this… ”
She heard him punch the side of her connie, and then his strangled oaths gradually faded into the weather roaring outside her door.
In the bath-cube, Jelis stripped off her coverall and pulled on a day-shirt. She went back to the books and knelt on the rug. One by one, she read the titles, the way her mother had when she was teaching her how to read, when they’d come home from the Library. …Civil Disobedience. The Magna Carta. The collected writings of Thomas Paine. The works of Jean Jacques Rousseau. Letter from the Birmingham Jail. Escape from Sobibor. Confessions of Nat Turner. Life of Nelson Mandela. The Man in the Iron Mask. Les Misérables….
From the bottom of the bag, Jelis pulled out a spiral-bound notebook. She opened the front cover. Inside, in thick marker, was written: “Political Science 410: The Mechanics of Resistance in Western Culture.” Page after page followed, full of close, neat handwriting.
The last things in the bag were two palm-sized dictionaries, Collins Latin and Collins French. Jelis thumbed through the French dictionary. A piece of paper was stuck in toward the back on a page with the verb Être. To be.
On the opposite page was the verb Lire. To read.
Je lis nous lison
Tu lis vous lisez
il/elle lis ils/elles lisent
She looked up the word Je. “I.” She looked up the word lis. “Present tense of the verb to read, 1st, 2nd, and 3rd person. Je lis. I read.”
Her hands began to shake. She looked up the word pense. “First person singular of the verb penser, to think. Je pense. I think.”
Jelis sat back on her heels, her jaw slack. Then her fingers flew through the pages. Espérer. To hope. J’espère. I hope. Jespere, their little brother who had not survived their mother’s incarceration. She had died while serving a term for Conduct Unbecoming a Model Civis—for writing a letter in an underground paper protesting the closing of the local library.
Jelis knelt for a long time, considering her situation. The black bag….she would cut apart. Smuggle bits back to the pit. The knife…she could smuggle that back too….drop it in the stormwater….or use it to bargain with Racer if he found out about the books….
Jelis pulled the mattress off the bunk. She began laying the books on the frame like a mosaic, the thicker ones toward the foot. Before she repositioned the mattress, she chose a book at random. A slim volume.
She shut off the lights, except the one on her headboard. She pummeled her pillow into the shape she liked and pulled the duvet up over her. She could hear the raging storm, the howls of rising wind and the metallic clatter of hail against her connie’s siding. She pulled the duvet closer and turned the collar on the light to narrow the beam on the book. She opened the cover carefully so as not to dislodge any of the yellowed pages. She read out loud, the way her mother would, the words of the title: On the Duty of Civil Disobedience.
She turned the page and began.