The Charred Tree

Diaspora: The Veracity of Need

“No food today. Come back day after tomorrow. Maybe then.” The woman in the gray uniform of the Commissariat of Sustentation held out the ration chit without looking up. Gold threads in the uniform’s piping and insignia flashed with each movement. The dancing bursts of reflected light pulled Jon Hooper’s attention to the gaudy patch—an oriental dragon encircling an eagle holding sheafs of grain in its claws. It was supposed to symbolize the government’s commitment to provide for the people. Jon stared at the emblem without moving.

The Commissar looked up from her screen and shook the proffered ration card. “There is no food for you. Your assigned number is too high for you to receive rations today. Please take your credentials and leave.” Her voice had risen in tone—taken on an official quality—and Jon recognized the implied threat in the way she stressed the words. Had he missed the verbal clues, it would have taken a complete mental defective to miss the menace in her gaze. He heard a faint creak of leather and knew the guards on either side of the door were now alert to the possibility of trouble. He could feel them watching him and he finally broke out of his reverie.

“Oh, sorry. Yes, of course. I’ll come back Thursday. Thank you, Commissar.” He took the card and put it in his coat pocket as he turned to leave and make room for the next person in line. The woman’s eyes were those of a predator and she watched every move he made as he left. The guards made no attempt to hide their scrutiny as he left. Jon walked through the glass and steel door into the street and looked back in—the Commissar was talking with the next person from the queue but the older of the two guards was looking back at him through the glass. His lips formed a stream of silent words. A report of Jon’s behavior was being recorded somewhere in the city. Great.

Jon looked up and down the street and saw a normal day. The sidewalks were crowded with people going about whatever business they might have in this district of the city. The street was dirty and trash bins were stacked haphazardly along most of the curbs. Despite the recent increase in staffing for the Directorate of Public Sanitation and Beautification, refuse accumulated faster than it could be hauled away for sorting and recycling. He doubted it would ever get any better—there were too many people on the planet.

A man in dirty coveralls bumped into him. “Come on, guy, don’t just stand there!” He sounded more impatient than angry. “You trying to get the attention of some ambitious gendarme or something?” He quickly stepped around Jon and stretched his stride to make up for the lost time. The man was right, of course. Anyone disrupting the flow of traffic was pretty much asking to have a policeman start asking questions. That was never a good thing. Jon began walking toward the entrance to the underground; he could see the blue sign hovering over the sidewalk a couple blocks away.

Jon’s thoughts wandered as he walked. This had been the third time this month his ration allotment number had been changed—each time to a higher number. Luckily, he had insisted that he and Sara go a bit hungry for several weeks to set aside a reserve of food. His wife worked at the Ministry of Exploration but that did not insure they would eat if there was a shortage. On the contrary, the United Council viewed scientists as a safe group. If… No, it was ridiculous to delude himself. When the next shortage occurred, the ones perceived as being the most dangerous would be fed. A revolt would be a bloodbath for the people and a problematic headache for those in charge. Council members never seemed to miss an opportunity to make their own lives easier.

Jon’s feet carried him down the steps into the dimly lit underground transit system. At the first landing, he decided to walk to the platform and choose his destination at that point rather than choose now and take the autowalk. He enjoyed the chance to use his muscles on something other than the exercise equipment. As he neared the bottom of the stairs, he saw the sign—two kanji characters that together meant the black market was near. The symbols under the sign indicated the maintenance door under the stairs would lead to the market. He glanced over his shoulder. He didn’t feel like he was being watched or followed, but he checked anyway. It was illegal and extremely expensive to buy from the black market but many did anyway because there was no other way to get food if your allotment numbers weren’t chosen by the Commissariat—or if they kept being adjusted upward. The alternative was to starve. Some even thought that was what the government wanted.

A few steps later, Jon turned to the right and opened the gate labeled “Authorized Personnel Only” before calmly walking toward the shadows under that stairs. No hesitation. Confidence and acting the role—like you belong in a restricted area—was much more important that looking the part. He had expected the entrance to be within spitting distance of the gate but he encountered no doors or branching passages. Jon began to wonder if there was a maintenance entrance under the stairs or if perhaps he had misread the message. He had walked nearly a hundred feet from the gate and was approaching the last wire-wrapped light hanging from the ceiling when he found it. The kanji forms were freshly scrawled in chalk on either side of the door. Jon reached for the access panel and entered a code.

The door exploded outward and Jon was thrown against the far wall.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

The first thing Jon noticed was the smell of antiseptic cloying at his nostrils. His head pounded a painful beat which his body answered with an equally painful syncopated rhythm. Over it all was a constant—maddening, really—ringing in his ears. Hospital, he thought. His eyes would not open and he felt the adhesive pull of tape holding rough gauze around his head and face. He made the most telling discovery when he reached to remove the bandages from his face—he couldn’t because his hands were in restraints.

“Dhhctmr! Hmmh’s hawmhk. Hhm trhhmd thm mhhv hmhz hhhdz.” The voice—was that Sara?—came from the left but it was so muffled he could not make out what she said. He lifted harder against the restraints. The high pitched tone, the pain, the gauze covering his face. Everything was closing in and holding him down. He couldn’t breath. He struggled; panicked. He thrashed his hands against the bonds; writhed his body against the straps holding him down. He screamed and it sounded like rushing water in his ears. Jon knew he was going to die mummified in sterile gauze.

“Ghmt  hrdhrlm hin heer! Hhz shhezhhg!” A new voice from the other side cut across his awareness as his hysteria drove his body to fight harder for survival.

Jon felt weight—bodies, strong and moving—fall across him and hold him still. His mind quailed as the darkness fell in on him. He felt a prick on his arm. Unconsciousness came quickly.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

The next time Jon awoke his body jolted upright and he looked around the room. He felt his heart trying to pound its way past his ribs. His hands were still restrained but the shroud around his head was gone as was the strap across his abdomen and shoulders. The high pitched whine still covered most of the signals his ears sent to his brain but his head and body seemed to have completed their sadistic musical number. He looked around the dimly lit room and took a deep breath—antiseptic and the institutional lack of color and no-nonsense-ness that had marked every hospital room that ever existed.

No one else was in the room. The wall monitor was dark and the displays showing his vital signs glowed mostly green with some yellow numbers mixed in. Jon reached to expand the display but his hand was brought up short by the cuff strap. Why was he restrained to the bed? What had happened to him?

The door opened and a nurse walked in. Her white scrubs were neat and pressed. She stood by the foot of the bed and compared his chart with the readings next to him. “You have had a rough couple of weeks, Mr. Hooper. How are you feeling? Can you hear me?” Her words sounded like she was speaking to him through a few feet of water and a pillow, but he could understand her.

“Ye…” He coughed. His throat was dry and he swallowed once before noticing that she held out a cup of ice chips to him. He took them gratefully. “Yes. I can hear you but it is all muffled.” The effort hurt his throat.

“No need to shout, Mr. Hooper. I can hear you fine. Your hearing should improve as your ears heal.” She spoke slowly and enunciated each word carefully to help him understand. “How do you feel?”

He stretched his arms and legs as much as the restraints would allow. “I’m sore. It hurts to move but not in a bad way. Back of my head is tender but its not pounding like it was before.”

“Before? So you remember when you woke up the first time and had the seizure? Most patients with head injuries don’t recall moments like that. I’m not surprised that your head hasn’t fully healed yet. The surgeons had to completely reconstruct the back of your head after the impact. The explosion slammed you into the wall and collapsed the back of your cranium.” A blond curl slipped from under the cloth cap that covered her head and she tucked it back in without thinking about it.

“Yes. Uh…can you tell me where my wife is? Her name is Sara.”

“Mrs. Hooper has been here most of the time since you were brought in. She left a few hours ago with the detectives from Security. I’m sure she will be back before the evening meal.” The nurse made a final addition to the chart and replaced it in the holder.

“Security? What do they want with her?” The pain in his head began a slow beat. Sara had never done anything that should interest the Directorate of Harmony and State Security.

“I wouldn’t know, Mr. Hooper. They can tell you when they talk with you. They have had your room guarded since you were admitted and have asked about your progress every day. They are quite interested in you.” She looked him in the eye and smiled. “Can I get you anything else before I go?”

“No, thank you.” The nurse turned back toward the door. She had said something about an explosion? He looked at his hands and arms and saw no cuts or burns or bruises. “Wait! Yes, one question: You said ‘weeks’ earlier. How long have I been here?”

The nurse turned and looked at him as she walked through the door. “Seventeen days.” The door closed softly behind her.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

“Mr. Hooper, I’m hope you understand that we want to get to the bottom of this so we can close your case. Would you mind helping us with that?” Detective Ronald Gaff—as he had introduced himself—from the Directorate of Harmony and State Security sat heavily on the metal chair beside his bed. His companion in a black suit had not offered a name or been introduced and stood in front of the door looking bored.

Jon sipped at the orange liquid in the plastic carton he held and nodded as he put it down on the tray in front of him. It had been two days since coming out of the coma. Sara had sent messages telling him not to worry and that she would come back when she could. Apparently something at work had gone awry and she had to take care of it personally. “Yes, Detective. I had hoped to be able to see my wife before getting into any serious conversations but anything I can do to help.”

“Good. That’s good, Mr. Hooper. The first thing I need to know is what were you doing down by the maintenance door? We know you tried to open it because the system registered your prints even though it deleted the access code; but why were you there in the first place? Train or track maintenance doesn’t really fall into the skill set of a financial analyst.” Gaff shifted his weight from one buttock to the other.

“Maintenance door? I can’t say that I remember anything after I tried to get our food rations.” Jon remembered it well enough—right up to the explosion—but there was no good explanation for his presence there; the best explanation was no explanation at all and claim amnesia. “I wish I could help you on that.”

“Nothing to worry about. If you don’t remember, you don’t remember. That’s just how things are sometimes. We did find some marks around the area the are sometimes associated with the black market. You know—illegal food, pirated media, drugs, even everyday stuff that doesn’t meet quality control and is dangerous but some schmuck sells to make a few bucks. It’s a real problem and undermines the care and provisions the government sends out to everyone.” Gaff covered a small cough and shifted his weight again. “Lots of things our government does to keep everyone healthy and happy that some people think they’re too good for. Black market is where they go and part of my job is to shut it down. You know anything about the black market?” The detective watched Jon closely.

“No, sir. Sara and I get our ration of food and products from the Commissariat of Sustentation the way we’re supposed to.” He hoped Sara had explained everything the way they had planned if they had questioned to her. His mind raced to identify everything that was in their quarters and he could not think of anything that could be considered contraband.

“Really? Because we found something interesting in the quarters you share with your wife. We found quite a lot of extra food. Can you explain how that is? The Commissariat is directed to provide every citizen with what they need to live each week but we found enough food in your place to last a couple of people for at least two weeks. How and, even more importantly, why were you hoarding food, Mr. Hooper?”

Jon’s mind raced. “All the food we have is from the Commissariat, Detective Gaff. I don’t know why our having it is a problem.”

Gaff’s expression was tolerant, as if he was explaining to a child that the sky is blue because it’s blue. “It’s a problem because you didn’t eat it. If you still have it and you aren’t undernourished, which you aren’t, then you had to have eaten something else instead. Since you were injured in an explosion at the entrance to a known black market location, it follows that you’ve been buying and eating black market food. Am I not correct, Mr. Hooper?”

Jon felt his pulse quicken. He had not realized that having too much legitimate food would be a problem. Too late he saw the peril. “I’m feeling tired now, Detective. Can we finish this conversation later?” He had to think and he couldn’t do that with a speeding heartbeat and pounding head.

Gaff leaned forward with his forearms on his knees. “Actually, we can’t do that. You see, we have everything we need. The judge has already looked at the evidence and found you guilty of sedition and illegal commerce. We had a tip on you before you nearly killed yourself on that booby-trapped door; the commissar and the guards at the Commissariat office a few blocks away called it in. You were a little too distracted—a little too independent—compared to everyone else. You stood out. The guard watched you leave and we were getting someone in place to follow you when you tried that door.”

“So the Directorate of Harmony and State Security nearly killed me with while trying to shut down the black market?” Jon was uncertain how that fit in with everything else.

“The bomb? Nah, that wasn’t us; if it had been you would have been a layer of jelly on those walls instead of only banged up. Looks to me like someone got the codes mixed up to get into the market. Either you put in the wrong code or they set the trap for the wrong code. Don’t matter to me none. They were gone by the time we got there to scrape you up and send you here.” Gaff leaned back. “You mind telling me what the code you used was? Might come in handy in our investigation.”

Jon knew there was no use in expressing outrage or innocence. He’d been found guilty, no doubt sentenced as well. “No. If you want it you’ll have to take it the old fashioned way. I won’t volunteer it.”

“Well, I figured as much. Don’t worry. It’s such a trivial thing no one’s gonna lay a hand on you for it. Besides, you’ve been sentenced so we can’t touch you now.” Gaff shifted his weight again.

“What did I get? The deep mining operations out in the Pacific or did the judge go old school and send me to Siberia?” Either would be a painful death within six months of beginning the punishment.

Gaff chuckled. He pulled a green tinted envelope—the kind used for official documents and orders—from his pocket and tossed it onto Jon’s chest. “Neither. That’s where my associate in black over there comes in.” He gestured toward the heretofore silent man in front of the door who stepped toward the bed and offered his hand to Jon. “Mr. Hooper, this is Dr. Halven Donnelly with the Bureau of Settlement at the Ministry of Exploration. You’ve been exiled.”

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