Max’s watch pinged, and the screen of his phone lit up. He groggily reached over and held up the phone to look at the screen.
MAIL: 1m ago
Government Social Media Team
It is our sad duty to report that this month your grade has dropped one level to grade D. This is because…
“Oh man,” Max blearily brushed the hair out of his eyes, and opened the phone to read the email.
“Tweets contrary to government policy…” he muttered to himself. “Criticism of a foreign government… Sheesh. They’ll be busting me next.”
He shook his head, then stopped.
“Conversation in a bar that expressed acceptance of homosexual practices?” He scratched his head. “I don’t remember that.”
He tapped on the link onscreen and saw a transcript of a chat he vaguely remembered having the other night.
YOU: I think we’re too hard on those people, you know… it’s not right
“And they’re dinging me for that?”
He looked around, to see if the light on the alarm clock was lit to show that they were listening. It was off. Maybe it was just an urban myth that the light only showed when they were listening, maybe not; all the same, he didn’t trust it.
He decided to get up. It was another hour before the alarm was due to go off, but he wouldn’t be able to sleep now anyway.
Max got dressed and brushed his teeth in silence. He wanted coffee. He checked his watch. At least one coffee shop would be open by now.
“23, lock door,” he said to the front door on the way out. “Alert on all.”
“Door locked. All alerts on,” the door replied in its slightly metallic voice. He liked the old-fashioned robot voice. One of the neighbours used one called “Marilyn,” which was supposed to be based on a real person, although Max had no idea whom.
He turned and walked down the stairs to the ground floor of the building. Max’s flat was on the second floor, so the walk wasn’t so bad. He was a little overweight, he knew. But the health app was taking care of that. And the gym subscription was only a couple of thousand a month, which wasn’t so bad. He ought to go, probably. At least it would help his social standing score, if nothing else.
“Grade D,” he muttered, shaking his head.
It was Saturday morning. His usual coffee shop wasn’t open on Saturdays, so instead of going left, he went right and walked down the street, away from the town centre.
Legion was a small coffee shop, run by one man and his son. Not much to look at, and the coffee wasn’t so good, but at least it was cheaper. There was nobody in when Max arrived, other than the man he recognised as the owner – a small man, with thinning black hair and a protruding gut.
“Black coffee,” he asked. The guy behind the counter nodded. He checked the menu, then put three hundred dollars in coins on the counter.
“Not seen you here before,” the owner said, putting a saucer on the counter, and adding sugar and a spoon.
“My usual place is closed on Saturdays,” he replied. “It’s nearer. And I don’t usually come out this time on a Saturday morning, but I had some bad news.”
“Yep,” the owner nodded. “It’s that time of the month. Social credit day.”
“Uh-huh.” For the sake of making conversation, Max asked “how’s your rating?”
“I got a B,” he replied. “Though I don’t really deserve it I suppose. I just basically post the odd thing now and then and they seem to be happy with that. Mainly about this place and the coffee.”
“Play it safe,” Max nodded. “Good plan.”
“I have a friend,” the owner continued, in a quieter voice. “He, er, helps people. You know, if you’re finding it hard to get a job or something, he tweets on your behalf and your rating goes up.”
He pointed upwards with one finger, as though to emphasise the last point, and looked Max in the eye.
“I can introduce you,” the owner raised one eyebrow. “If you want me to.”
Max looked away. “Maybe some other time.”
The owner shrugged, and turned his back. He filled the portafilter with ground coffee, placed it into the machine, and then switched it on. He turned, placed the filled cup on the saucer in front of Max and scooped up the coins.
The hot coffee looked pretty good, and Max picked it up and drank some. It was good. He cleared his mind of thoughts, and just enjoyed the coffee.
He got about halfway down the cup before his brain finished processing the previous conversation. He put the cup down on the saucer and beckoned to the owner, who came over.
“I’ve been thinking,” Max said. “Can you introduce me after all?”
The owner smiled, nodded, put a finger to his lips, then made a thumbs up. Max returned the gesture, and went back to his coffee.
Max finished the coffee, pushed the cup back, and felt a hand on his shoulder. He turned to see a middle-aged Chinese woman, with dyed red hair, looking at him.
“Hello?” she asked. “You wanted to see my friend?”
Whatever signals the owner had made, had gone over his head.
“Ah yes,” he coughed. “I’m told he does…”
“Social media work?” she asked, cocking her head slightly, and smiling cynically. “Sort of.”
“OK,” Max said. “So how do I -”
“Shall we go for a walk?” she interrupted. “It’s such a nice day.”
“Er, OK.” he nodded.
They left the coffee shop and started walking, continuing along the road. It was cold and overcast. Max pulled his coat a little closer against the chill.
“So,” he said. “What do -”
She held up a finger. “Let’s not walk and talk,” she said.
She led him long the road, taking a few twists and turns along the way. They walked for a few minutes in silence.
“Where are we going?” Max asked. She didn’t answer.
Eventually, she led them to a tower block. It had an old fashioned door, with a key.
“Charming,” he said. She turned to look at him and smiled. He wasn’t sure whether the smile was conspiratorial or hostile.
They walked up to the third floor, and she knocked three times on the door, paused, then twice more. The door opened.
The man who answered was tall, much taller than Max. He waved them in, then produced a box and opened the lid. The Chinese woman dropped her phone and watch inside.
“And you,” the man said.
“Why?” Max asked, and was nudged, hard, in the ribs for his pains. The man shook the box at him again, so he took out his phone, took off his watch, and reluctantly put them in the box, which the man closed and put on the hall table.
“This way,” he said, and brought them through into the main room.
The main room had a sofa, two armchairs and a large television, much like every other main room Max had ever known. A rug of vaguely Eastern design – what they called “modern Persian” – was on top of the carpeted floor.
Seated on the sofa was a very fat balding man. His shirt looked one size too small, and the underarms were wet with sweat.
“Please,” the fat man said, “sit down.”
“What is this?” Max asked, sitting in one of the armchairs. The tall man stood behind the chair, towering over him.
“I don’t take on everyone for a client just at first glance,” the fat man said. “I need to see people, to inspect them.”
The fat man sniffed the air.
“I need to smell them.”
Max gagged a little, imagining the fat man smelling him like a pair of dogs in the street. He pushed the mental image away.
“Your name?” the fat man asked.
He grinned, exposing a row of surprising white and probably expensive teeth.
“I like your caution,” the fat man said. “It will serve you well.”
Max scratched his cheek. “It hasn’t so far.”
“There,” said the fat man, “I beg to differ. So far, you haven’t disappeared suddenly, nor have your finances been frozen for unpatriotic behaviour, nor have you been interrogated for something you said on social media.”
“How do you know I haven’t?” Max asked.
The fat man chuckled.
“You wouldn’t dare come looking for someone like me if you had,” he replied.
“OK,” Max shrugged. “Fair enough.”
“What is it you want to do?” the fat man asked, leaning forward a little. “Get a better job? Get a loan?”
“I don’t know,” Max replied. “Just to… I don’t know… not have to worry about things so much.”
“Everybody wants that,” the Chinese woman said.
“What are you willing to do?” the fat man asked. “Are you willing to pay? To just fix your own life? Or do you want to change the world?”
“I don’t know,” Max replied. “I really don’t.”
“Because I need to be careful about who I take on as clients,” the fat man leaned forward and tapped the side of his nose. “I hope you understand.”
“It just seems to me,” Max went on. “That once, we didn’t live in this sort of time. There was, y’know, freedom of speech. You could say things without being listened to in your own home.”
“Are you one of those?” the tall man asked. “Are you an anarchist?”
“No,” Max started. “Absolutely not.”
“Why not?” asked the fat man.
Why not? The question had never occurred to Max. He’d heard rumours, of course, everybody had. There were places you could talk freely, if you looked carefully enough. What did they call them?
“Do you mean the resistance?” he asked.
The fat man shook his head. “As a movement, the resistance ended a long time ago. The Underground Supporters, they call themselves these days.”
Max took this in. He was swimming in dangerous waters here. What the hell had he got himself into in the last few minutes?
“The Underground Support?”
The fat man smiled and leaned back.
“Of course, if you’re not interested, I can…” he left an uneasy implication hanging in empty air.
Max thought for a moment.
“I’m interested,” he said. “I’m just…”
Max nodded. The fat man stood up and proffered a hand. They shook. The fat man’s hand was surprisingly warm and dry.
“Someone will be in touch,” the fat man said. “There’s a lot you can do and you don’t really know it.”
Max tried to smile, but he felt a frisson of fear anyway.
“What do I do?” he asked.
“Wait,” the fat man said. “Just wait”.
Max walked home, alone. It took him nearly an hour after leaving that small flat to find his way home.
“23, any messages?” he asked the door.
“No messages,” the door replied.
“Open please.” He pressed his finger to the plate.
He spent the rest of the day in a strange state. Both excited and scared. What he had done, what he had said, could not be unsaid. But the suspense was so killing.
Nine. Ten. Eleven o’clock came and went. Nothing.
At twelve he went online and ordered his shopping and bagels with simulated cheese and a mocha for lunch. They arrived shortly afterwards.
He watched the news channel. One PM came and went. Two men were executed for treason following an enquiry by the Special Department. A woman who was found to be a member of “Americans for Democracy” had blown herself up on the subway in New York. Two protesters for the “Group for Religious Tolerance” were sentenced to twenty years hard labour.
Max turned over to one of the music channels and let the familiar sounds wash over him.
Was he doing the right thing? Surely, there were some things that needed to be suppressed for society to be happy – that’s what they kept saying, wasn’t it?
He stood up, thinking he might read something.
“The New Common Good”, by Davis Hughes. Like everyone, he had a copy – it never hurt to at least pretend to be a party member – but he’d never actually read it. Max opened it and looked at the chapter headings.
Freedom Is Not Free: Why Free Speech Is Detrimental To Society
Desirable And Undesirable Religious Behaviours
Might Makes Right: Strength Is Power
He put the book back down.
The afternoon whiled away. Two o’clock came and went with an old documentary about sharks. He wondered what sharks had been like, before the seas changed. People used to eat fish, years ago. A strange idea. Might as well eat pandas or rhinos.
After the documentary, he turned to the Execution Channel, where they were preparing a death sentence for “Sexually Deviant Practices”. It was funny, he thought, that they never came out and said what the practices actually were. They always said they never wanted to encourage them. He turned over again before they said how the man was to be executed. The last time he’d tried watching, he’d had to turn over and then throw up.
The rest of the afternoon passed in a blur. He wasn’t sure what time he fell asleep, but the watch said 10.20 PM. Max went to bed. Maybe there had been something in the coffee, but Saturdays often did this to him. But he was lucky, he supposed. How anyone ever put up with a working day longer than twelve hours was beyond him.
“Hey clock,” he said, getting into bed. “No alarm tomorrow.”
“No alarm, confirmed,” the clock replied.
Max slept for a few hours.
He woke up at four AM. Someone was knocking on the door.
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