BLAKE AND THE SNAKE
Blake averted his eyes, then forced himself to look.
The man was visibly in shock. His wife, her head draped in a hijab, tightly gripped her young daughter. Silent sobs shook the girl’s body.
A mercenary stood in front of them, his features concealed by a black mask. He scanned an inflamed barcode tattooed on the man’s arm, checked the result against a list, and pushed the man to his left. The man stumbled in that direction and fell. The woman tried to follow, her eyes wide with fear, but the mercenary grabbed her, pulled her sleeve up, and scanned her tattoo. Then he checked the woman’s barcode against the same list and signaled that she remove her hijab.
The man struggled to his feet and shuffled forward, trying to help his woman, but the mercenary Tasered him. The man fell, thrashing, to the dirt. Two other mercenaries picked up the flopping man and dragged him away like a sack of potatoes. The daughter began shrieking.
With the man safely dispatched, the mercenary yanked off the woman’s hijab, checked her against the image on his list, and sent her in a different direction. She lowered her eyes, her chin trembling, and reached for the little girl. The mercenary snatched up the child and shoved her in a third direction, away from both parents. The child screamed louder and higher. When the woman tried to grab her daughter, other mercenaries forced her away.
The image pulled back, revealing a camp where mercenaries surrounded hundreds of frightened people, scanning their tattoos and directing them in different directions. A caption on the lower right side of the screen read LIVE, OCTOBER 17th, 2046: BRITISH SERVITUDE EXCHANGE—LONDON CAMP, BRIXTON. SECOND MONTH OF THE FREEDOM ACT PROGRAM.
Blake Frye broke away from the huge screen in the shop window. Every day, London turned uglier. Luckily, he only had to endure this long weekend vacation, and they’d go home tomorrow. Although lately, the surety of tomorrow felt uncertain.
He looked up Oxford Street toward Marble Arch, involuntarily scanning every person walking up and down the street. Blake had expected more foot traffic. In the not-so-long-ago past, Oxford Street had been the most celebrated shopping artery in the world. Now misery lingered here. The scars of the war with the Second Ottoman Empire endured in just cleaned but not rebuilt devastation. That dour change represented everything he witnessed about London in the news from every source, with slave camps, disregard for human rights, demolished streets, and extreme poverty. Most of the stores on the famous commercial boulevard now sported bars on their windows and drone surveillance. Some of the stores had disappeared, leaving behind dark and deserted buildings. Other stores pumped up their appeal with colorful decorations and moving electronic facades. What survived of the street commerce now aggressively attracted the few people with money to spend. But few of the shoppers out and about wore rich garments; most appeared as poor and broken as pedestrians in New York.
Blake’s guilt pressed deeply against his spirit. He felt as though he was taking advantage of their misery, surrounded by so many gaunt faces with little to eat, or a safe place to live. As a rare member of the tourist demographic, he stood out, a braggart who shone like a beacon of lost prosperity.
He turned his head to check on Isa. His wife crouched near a young homeless boy, deep in conversation. The two shared a brief laugh. His joyful wife, always finding some tiny glimmer of positivity. Blake hated this vacation. London was supposed to be a rich and cosmopolitan city, with an intense cultural and artistic community. But he felt oppressed in this new London, an odd reaction for a police officer. It was partly due to his own actions, of falsely displaying his family’s wealth while 95 percent of the world’s population wanted for so much. He hated that the key sentiment was falsely, and even worse, he hated to be forced to boast. He couldn’t even tell Isa that he loathed being in London, as this trip had been his idea, his gift for their anniversary.
He sighed. He’d been embracing the word hate too frequently. Although, truth be told, he’d been thrown out of his regular lifestyle, normalizing the feeling of…not hateful; more like unsettled.
Blake turned his back on Isa and activated his wristband. He selected the DRUGS folder on its holo-display, then double-tapped on one of the names and dragged the icon of a pill being showed from the display onto his skin, where it melted and disappeared. Then he turned around and saw Isa approaching.
“Come on, HoneyB.” Isa grabbed his hand and dragged him to the homeless kid. “This is Tom. He’d been on the streets for three weeks now. Came to London from Manchester to find his girlfriend. He guesses that she was taken by the Corp Police while in London with her parents, a month ago.”
Blake nodded. “Hey, Tom.” The kid frowned at him. Blake knew he looked tough and aggressive and supposed his expression came from his years on the police force, though Isa had a different theory.
The kid gathered a rucksack to his chest in a protective gesture and said, “You bacon.” Not a question. More like a statement made in anger and disappointment.
“I’m sorry, me what?” Blake said.
“You one of them. Your lady’s too good fa’you.”
“No, Tom,” Isa intervened. “He’s not Corp Police. We’re Americans.”
“You think that when Corp Police gets there, in America, the pigs’ll side with the population? Bacon always root for power, for money. Not for people.” Tom pulled his possessions even closer and turned his back to them.
Blake watched the kid for a few seconds. What could he say? Even if the Corp Police did come to the States—a move that Blake would fight against—the possibility had no relevance to a homeless boy in London.
With a loud sigh, Isa pulled Blake away. They crossed the road and stopped. Blake pulled out his tourist map of the city.
“That there’s Oxford Circus,” Isa said, pointing to a circular intersection in front of them. “Famous in the nineteenth century for having circus elephants brought from Oxford performing their dancing routine right in the center, while lions and tigers guarded them from all around, ensuring every bystander paid attention to the elephants and the acrobats.”
He smiled, relieved. His wife could breeze through a war zone and still find a source of light and goodness. “You should be hired as a guide, love.” He gave her a quick hug. “The cities would be much more interesting in your version of history.”
They walked into Oxford Circus and slowed to get their bearings.
Isa asked, “Where to now?”
Blake checked his watch—11:36 a.m. It was getting closer to his secret meeting hour. They weren’t far from the meeting place, but he didn’t want to risk Isa’s safety.
“I’m done with Oxford Street, Circus, and whatever other Oxford stuff they have,” he said. “If we take what’s-its-name…Regent Street, down that way, we’re going to Piccadilly Circus. Can’t wait to hear its story.”
“Well, mister, it seems English people loved their circuses…”
Suddenly, dozens of men in black suits filled Oxford Circus and Oxford Street, boxing the whole area in with vans bearing the BSX (British Servitude Exchange) logo. They demanded papers from anyone with Middle Eastern features, and detained every homeless person. Many people ran or tried to hide, but agents ran after them, and violence erupted on every corner. Blake cursed under his breath, angry with himself for missing the signs before the Corp Police raid.
Isa turned, searching around, then gasped when she saw two men in black catch up with Tom and smash the kid into a wall. As they threw him to the ground and cuffed him, Blake took Isa’s hand and squeezed, ready to stop her from going after Tom. Instead, she remained motionless, apparently frozen in panic.
Like two prehistoric insects caught in amber, the two American tourists stood amidst the onslaught, useless, helpless, fearful. Blake hated his helplessness as he waited for the nightmare to finish. He scanned the area for escape routes, his body tensed and ready for action. But Isa touched Blake’s chin and eased his head down. He assumed he was frowning, looking ready to pounce on the Corp Police. He met her eyes, trying to smile reassuringly.
Within five minutes, the street was almost empty, only well-dressed white people walking calmly past, as though they had witnessed similar scenes before. The Corp Police had retreated, their vans filled with potential subjects for servitude. It left a bitter taste in Blake’s mouth.
He walked faster down Regent Street, Isa barely keeping up with him.
“Sweetie, it’s all right. Let’s—”
“Since when do they grab homeless people off the streets?”
“I don’t know. It doesn’t say anything in the Freedom Act with respect to the categories of people they can arrest.”
“And that’s the brilliance of the Act: no limitations. They can define and redefine what turns a person into property, into a slave!” Blake said loudly enough that people stared, or crossed the street to avoided them.
He took a breath. He had to remember where he was. Oppressive London. Not home. This city wasn’t a democracy anymore. His rights, Isa’s rights, could be lifted at any time and no one would ever know, or care, back home in the States. He stopped, waiting for Isa to catch up. Despite her obvious fear, she met the entire situation with a brave face. He focused on her jacket, staring at the pink buttons. She remained silent. He counted the buttons, first up, then down. Two of them were turned in the wrong direction. He twisted them, trying to align them. They simply slipped back into their rogue positions.
She placed a hand on his hands and squeezed gently.
He swallowed hard, looked at her face, and took a deep breath. Their fear slowly lifted. The danger was gone for now. They could return home. He smiled and tried once more to rearrange the wayward buttons.
“There,” he said. “I’m sorry.”
“Don’t be, sweetie.” She kissed him lightly, and smiled. “It’s not your fault.”
“I wanted to come here.”
“And I agreed. I mean, if we don’t see London today, in a couple of years it may be too late. Now, let’s go to Piccadilly Circus and see what makes it so special.”
A text box overlaps the player’s interface:
Here at Underground Press Resistance we’re happy to present a documentary smuggled from the claws of tyranny. It’s been produced by a brave team, most of whom have already paid dearly for their courage and professionalism. But the truth has to be shouted to the whole world. We need to know so that we can resist.
The title popped up on the screen: Debt Hunters. Producer: Isabella Frye.
The screen filled with a world map from twenty-five years ago. The United States stretched from Canada’s border to Mexico’s border and from the Atlantic to Pacific. The European Union encompassed all of Europe minus the UK.
A voice-over narrated: We all know when all this began and how we got from the Great Division to the Last Depression.
A chronological bar appeared at the bottom of the map. At the starting point on the left it said Great Division (2021), then it stretched to a midpoint marked Last Depression (2044), and ended at a point marked with an X (Present). The picture of President Donald Trump overlapped the map and then floated to the left and positioned itself above the starting point. More pictures appeared along the timeline: San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge being blown to bits; Chinese troops taking down the American flag at the Hawaii State Legislature; dead children, skeletal from starvation, covered in snow in the shadow of the Empire State Building.
An arrow slid along the chronological bar from left to the right, the map changing alongside it, and the voice-over continuing its narration: We’ve been through our second civil war, secession, reunification, Russian and Chinese invasions, dismantling of the European Union and rebirth of the Eastern Bloc, the first nuclear war at the hands of the Second Ottoman Empire, so…
The arrow reached the X at the end of the chronological bar. The map looked completely different from what it had at the start. The USA was diminished, and the eastern half of Europe was covered in a red swath that stretched from Switzerland to Canada and over Alaska. It was labeled with the Russian insignia.
…the Last Depression was bound to happen in a world torn by wars over resources and irreconcilable differences between East and West. What followed—the total collapse of the global market, the drastic climactic changes that brought the death of billions in a span of only three years and the sudden disappearance of vast resources on a continental scale…all that forced the search for a different social and political system, for different management of the remaining resources, and a new direction in international trade. All this was expected.
The map was replaced by footage of mass graves with hundreds of corpses stacked on top of each other, followed by footage of camps with worse conditions than those in the Nazi death camps.
And yet, HOW did we get from the Last Depression to today’s rotten reality? How did we solve humanity’s greatest crisis by bringing back slavery?
– Extract from the documentary Debt Hunters. Producer: Isabella Frye
Blake’s coffee was getting cold. He was a coffee man, through and through. He drank coffee in the morning to wake up, during the day to stay alert, and sometimes at night to relax and get some shut eye. Obviously, this need for java was all in his mind, but what wasn’t? What wasn’t in his mind was out of his control, so he didn’t care about anything else.
His favorite joke with his brother had been about the two soldiers: Soldier One asked Soldier Two, “Do you know what went through our lieutenant’s head?”
“No,” replied Soldier Two. “What?”
“A bullet this big!” said Soldier One.
That was back when two brothers could joke about soldiers and laugh. Kids didn’t know better. Later, the brave new world made them both aware of war, and of all sorts of atrocities where a bullet through one’s brain was most certainly not a joke. The lesson he’d learned from that childhood joke was that nothing else mattered in life but what you had in your head and what you made of the world you lived in. People could be selfish, your health could fail, but your mind was the only thing keeping you afloat, through the good times and the bad.
Blake came back to the present, and glanced at Isa. She was absorbed in browsing through the apps on her wristband, probably downloading some new ones and trying to figure out how they worked. He returned his attention to the news he was watching on the display floating above their tabletop. He took a sip from his coffee, then placed the cup back on the table in the exact spot it had been, turning it so that its handle was on his right-hand side.
The same caption that had appeared in the morning was again superimposed over the horrific images: BRITISH SERVITUDE EXCHANGE: LONDON CAMP, BRIXTON, LIVE. England’s first slave camp. There was talk of building a few more camps around London, as the capital was the biggest slave resource in the country. Most of the immigrants and refugees had arrived here in the last decades. Seventy-five percent of the potential servitude subjects were concentrated in London. Some of them were now trying to flee, to escape back to their homelands. But it was already too late for them.
The image pulled back even farther, revealing more of the servitude camp. Tall, electrified fences with guard towers every fifty meters surrounded dozens of long metal structures with small windows.
The demonstration snaked along for several kilometers. Most of the protesters looked Middle Eastern or Central Asian, and held cardboard signs and banners stretched between metal poles. The slogans repeated, again and again, NO TO SLAVERY! NO MORE CORP POLICE!
The protesters marched and shouted on Charing Cross, passing three important targets on their way down to Whitehall: the prime minister’s residence at 10 Downing Street, the Metropolitan Police headquarters nearby, and the Corp Police headquarters. Corp HQ had been established right next to the Metropolitan Police, probably in an effort to give the force more legitimacy. One head of the protest snake crawled down Charing Cross and another one wound down Regent Street, both moving toward the same targets.
At the Cranbourn intersection, several police cars blocked Charing Cross. One police officer stood behind a car, shouting into a megaphone, “Your protest is illegal. Please stop and go home! Your protest is illegal!”
The snake wavered for a few seconds. The people at the front paused before they turned left and poured down Cranbourn Street, toward Leicester Square. The energy of the crowd, as those from the back pushed ahead, would not be contained by a barricade.
“Now, that’s what I call an anniversary trip,” said Isa. “Bad news and an absent-minded husband.”
Blake snorted and spilled some coffee. Grinning, he gestured to Isa to give him a minute with the news. She chuckled and grinned in reply. He dabbed at the coffee on his shirt with a napkin, then tucked the used napkin under the edge of his plate. The best choice would be to stop watching the news and enjoy the few moments of false vacation he still had left with his wife. But relaxation and joy seemed unattainable when the entire world was profoundly changing.
And yet, in Leicester Square, one of the few places untouched by war, life seemed to go on as if nothing had changed. Blake had heard that London in October could be particularly wet and miserable. Not cold; more like grim and moody. But that Sunday the weather mimicked a late summer day—warm, sunny, and lazy. In Leicester Square, usually bustling with people, noises and an entire mélange of aromas wafted past, all slow and pleasant. The sidewalk was perfumed with the scents of hot pies with gravy sauce, and dark ale.