The People’s Assembly
Mirja was the first. Since then, who knows? I’ve lost count. Hundreds? Oh, sure.
MEER-ya. M-I-R-J-A. She didn’t want it. She didn’t even know about it. She was dead, for Jah’s sake.
But I’m skipping ahead. Back to the massacre.
You know how we did school back then, right? We had online classes, some VR venues, but they were crappy. Most classes I climbed out of bed at some ungodly hour and dragged my tired ass to an RL classroom. A mile and a half on foot—rain, snow, sun if I was lucky, but Chicago’s not a sunny clime. Jah, listen to me—I’m turning into my granddad.
Chicago was in Illinois. They teach you that in history class, right? Our fifty, nifty United States? We had to learn ’em all by name and their capitals. Every state had a capital, with a state government. We had this crazy idea that folks could govern themselves, you know, at the local level? See how that makes sense if we’re not all in one homogenized Worldstream, no states, no borders, only meaningless districts? In RL, geography matters.
Right. The massacre.
One rare sunny day I’m walking across campus, headed to a seminar. The topic is—guess what?—the Worldstream. We’d heard the rumors, but nothing concrete. The Consortium had just formed, announced the new architecture, and released the spec. They’d gone on tour, hitting all the comp sci hot spots, like UC.
University of Chicago. My alma mater.
The Worldstream was all we talked about, me and Porter, a Black kid from South Chicago I’d known since forever, and the rest of the geek squad. Mirja, too, although she had other interests. This People’s Assembly thing. You know that name, right? The P.A.? I thought so. Mirja was into the P.A. deep.
So, half hour before the seminar starts, I’m passing the quad—big, open space in the middle of campus—and I hear a rumble, like crashing surf only muffled, and some guy with a bullhorn talking over the noise, all garbled, but you can tell he means business. The crowd (now they say) is in the thousands, filling up the whole quad. I don’t plan to go there, but once I’m in earshot, curiosity takes over and I detour.
From the back of the crowd, I see the bullhorn guy on the steps of the admin building. If you don’t know him, you can’t describe him, he’s that far away and he has a bullhorn stuck in his face. But I know him—Chas Royce.
Yeah, that Chas Royce, screaming through that bullhorn, all distorted like an over-modulated voice synthesizer. He sounds clearer from inside the quad, but it doesn’t matter if the crowd can’t get what he’s saying. He’s not telling them anything they haven’t heard a hundred times. He’s getting them amped up, like a preacher at a tent revival.
A tent revival. It’s like…never mind. Not important.
And amped they are. The ones in the back, where I am, aren’t too riled up…yet. They might be curious, like me, and not really into the whole P.A. thing. But the ones up front, who got there an hour early, the kind who never shut up about the ball-less government, broken alliances, Russian aggression, and Chinese hegemony—Jah, that got tiresome fast—all those folks are waving their signs, jumping around, pushing forward like a mob on Black Friday.
Black Friday. It was the day after Thanksgiving. Biggest shopping day of the year.
Anyway, Chas yells, “What order?” and they all go, “New order!” “Whose assembly?” “People’s Assembly!” On and on, yada yada, until the back-and-forth morphs into one solid roar, crowd jumping, signs flapping, until they tire out and Chas starts in again.
“Do you vote?” he asks, and the crowd goes, “No!” and he says, “I don’t blame you! You get to the polls, you look at the ballot, and what do you see? Self-serving bureaucrats in fossilized factions who don’t give a shit about America! It took us 250 years to sink this low, but here we are. Patriotism? Dead! Public service? Dead! More perfect union? What a joke! Americans were the heroes of the world, now we’re the bums—because petty politicians put party and power ahead of America! They get rich while you pay!”
That gets them going. Is there anything more vexing than being taken? Even if you’ve already bought the con, nobody likes being a mark.
They keep up the yelling, hoarse and red-faced. Even the looky-loos in the back get into it. One guy in a black sweater comes at me, wild-eyed, shouting, “Whose side are you on?” I think he’s going to knock me down. I back away, and he keeps coming. Then he turns this way and that and goes after another slacker. That’s my cue to get the hell out of there, not waiting for their enthusiasm to fizzle, and for Chas to fire up the call-and-response and boot the cycle back to main[ Look for opportunities to make computing references in a slangy way.].
I circle the crowd and leave by a side path toward the comp sci building. The Guard troops are right there, helmets and shields in front, rifles behind. I don’t remember seeing them, but I must have. Who could miss them?
Yeah, I knew Chas. Chas thought of Mirja as his protégé. He spent a lot of time at Mirja’s and my apartment—no, really, he did—and the two of them’d yak all night about crumbling alliances, and paralysis, and how the Earth is burning up and nothing’s getting done about it because we’re all a bunch of limp dicks, all over the world, but especially the U.S. It was hard to argue with them on the facts, since it was so obvious, what with another major weather-related disaster every month, saber-rattling in Europe, and China stepping up in every international crisis while America sits on her ass, and yet another high-ranking politician getting indicted just because he was stupider than the other crooks too smart to get caught. When they got into it, I usually checked out and let them reinforce each other’s foregone conclusions while I did my own stuff—until Chas hit on his favorite subject. That’s when I couldn’t stay out of it anymore, when Chas went off on the “rickety, antiquated American framework.”
“Corruption, impotence, abuse of power,” Chas’d tick off his usual list of grievances. “Our biggest problem is, we can’t solve big problems.” The guy was a great debater, armed with the facts, able to counter every objection. He’d lay out his cool, calculated case for upheaval while I’d sputter, and Mirja would look at the floor.
So, I meet Porter at the seminar, which is an eye-opener. Up to then, VR had been a gaming platform, a fantasy world, where a player could be anything, look like anyone, be totally anonymous. But the Worldstream is simulated real life, where all the avatars look just like their owners, identities verified by a foolproof algorithm. And the architecture is genius—supports an almost unlimited number of avatars in the same place at the same time. Turning it into a real platform would be a vast undertaking, but for the first time, we see a path—and the endpoint is awesome: instant face-to-face interaction, massive cost and energy savings—we can feel the excitement in the hall.
Until the phones start beeping.
A hundred go off at once, all telling us the same thing: Shooting in progress—campus lockdown—initiate active shooter protocol—all students and staff shelter in place.
Well, I don’t have to tell you that’s the end of the seminar. All around me folks are calling out, trying to find out what’s happening. I’d call Mirja, but I’m not quite ready to start speaking to her again, and I’m not sure she knows anything I don’t know anyway. It’s about the time someone in the back shouts, “There’s a shooting in the quad!” that my phone buzzes again, this time with a text message from Chas.
UC trauma center—meet me—hurry.
A Bad Call
In Chicago, we had twenty, thirty shootings every weekend. We got numb to it, didn’t even react unless some maniac went off and blew away a dozen or more at a time—which happened about twice a month in America.
I’m not making that up. That’s why every school, church, movie theater, shopping mall, and college had a plan if ever an active shooter got loose. Our plan was for everyone to hunker in their classrooms and bolt the doors and stay put until the cops sorted things out.
Which is what happens next, or should, except the speaker is from Chain Corporation, one of the Consortium companies, and of course he has no clue about “active shooter protocols.” The sponsor, a comp sci professor with no sense of organization, panics and starts for the door. Some guy in the back yells “Lockdown!” and points at the big, red button on the wall by the exit, but the prof is out the door in two seconds without hitting it. Five students head down the stairs for the button but the first one trips and the rest stack up behind him.
While that pile sorts itself out I tell Porter, “I’m going,” but he grabs my arm and says, “Stay put.” I twist out of his grip and make it to one of the back doors, opening it just as someone punches the button. The door slams shut behind me. The magnetic locks engage. Porter and the rest are sealed in for the duration.
The hospital’s a mile from comp sci and I sprint the whole way, passing freaked-out folks running like from a zombie horde. I’m huffing by the time I get to the trauma center and turn the corner.
The lot is jammed, people filling in the spaces between squad cars and ambulances, and more vehicles are coming, blowing their sirens, flashing blue and red, until the crowd parts and lets them through. Some don’t wait. Bodies are climbing up the hoods and rolling off the sides; people are banging on the windows of cop cars and on the sides of ambulances. One ambulance stops a good thirty yards from the entrance with no way forward, and the EMTs fling open the doors and pull out the stretcher, one of them holding an IV bottle high and the other backing through the crowd, elbowing them aside.
I check my phone.
UC trauma center—meet me—hurry. Chas’s text message is ten minutes old.
I’m taller than most of the crowd. Craning my neck, I try to size up the situation near the entrance. The closer to the hospital, the crazier it looks. Another stretcher comes by, the lead guy seemingly an expert at parting crowds, so I let him run interference while I draft in his wake. I get to within twenty yards of the door when a cop almost as tall as me and half again as wide blocks my way.
“No admittance,” he rumbles, like an oracle.
“I have family in there,” I say, but I don’t, of course. I’m crafting a convenient lie.
“You’re not injured. No admittance,” he repeats, like I missed it the first time.
He’s in no mood to haggle, so I stand aside for the next stretcher. I tap into my phone:
Outside 50ft from door.
I’m not the only one trying to get in. The lady next to me is screaming like her baby just got snatched, I mean going ape, shouting, “Diedre! Diedre!” I don’t know if she’s hoping Diedre’s in the crowd, or if Diedre’s inside and she thinks she can scream loud enough for Diedre to hear. The cop is unmoved.
“Raúl!” I hear my name coming from the direction of the building. I see Chas at the door, and he looks ragged, shirt soaked through with blood, and blood on his face, too. He bullies his way through the crowd, and the police get in front of him, but all he has to say is, “I’m Chas Royce!” and they let him pass.
I’m not going anywhere in the crowd, but Chas gets to me in no time and grabs my arm, leaving bloody fingerprints on my sleeve.
“It’s Mirja,” he says.
He drags me through the crowd while I’m processing that. Every obstacle he comes up against he says the magic words, “Chas Royce!” and the crush parts like the sea before the chosen people.
However insane the scene is on the sidewalk, it’s a thousand times crazier inside. Casualties are lined up two deep by the wall, some sitting, some standing, mostly minor injuries from the looks of them, but a few who are bleeding profusely. I’m suffocating in the heat, the sour sweat smell mixed with the iron tang of blood up in my nose starting to turn my stomach. I really don’t want to retch in that crowd, so I’m holding my nose and clutching my gut. Chas is blazing a trail to the admittance window, and the six or so nurses or whatever they are behind the window are full frenetic, phones, papers, clipboards hovering between them, ignoring the babble from heads poked through the opening, and from the tiers of people squeezing in behind them. We hit a wall two yards out, with Chas still yelling, “I’m Chas Royce!” which isn’t making an impression on the masses.
“Chas, what happened?” I ask him, but he’s still pushing and doesn’t hear me. I grab his arm and pull him back, like I’m blowing the play dead after forward progress.
That’s a football term. American football.
“Chas, what’s going on?” I shout in his face.
He gives up trying to get to the window. “The fucking Guard!” he yells. “They opened up on us.”
You’ve studied it, right? So you know what went down. The feds, specifically the president, being the paranoid prick he was, deputized the Illinois Guard and put them in the quad to “preserve the peace.” Get that? Keeping us safe from a bunch of college kids. The Commander in Chief made out the People’s Assembly to be a public menace, and armed troops were his way of showing he took this dire threat seriously. So, he sent in the Guard. It was a bad call.
Chas had the audience foaming at the mouth, and those Guardsmen were a symbol of everything they and the entire P.A. movement despised. So, when Chas went on about “these fucking motherfucking lying, stealing motherfuckers,” those soldiers turned into a stand-in for the hated regime and the kids closest to the line got abusive. That sentiment spread like a juicy rumor and in minutes the whole quad was screaming for blood.
“It was a nasty scene,” Chas says, “and getting worse. I knew I had to calm them down, and I tried, but by then they were crowding the soldiers and the soldiers were trying to hold the line. Christ, those Guardsmen weren’t much older than the students, and they were terrified. I could see it in their faces and how they gripped their rifles like they were hugging a baby blanket. The crowd kept pushing, and the front line kept pushing back with their shields, when one or two in front unholstered their nightsticks and flailed away. When the blood started flowing, that’s when it turned really ugly.”
And you know what happened next.
“What about Mirja?” I yell.
“Lost in the crowd,” he yells back. “I can’t reach her.”
“Is she hurt?” I ask.
“I don’t know,” he says. “She was near the Guard where the stampede was when they started shooting. She might be hurt, or just out of touch. All I know is, she’s not answering her phone.”
I must look scared shitless, because Chas’s eyes open wide, then he spins back to the window and shouts, “I’m Chas Royce!” over and over, but no one’s letting him pass.
I watch this for about ten seconds before I shove Chas and eight or ten others aside and come through the window at the attending nurses, grab a clipboard and pinwheel it across the room. Lucky for me, the nurse sees it coming and deflects it with her arm.
As hard as it was for Chas and me to get to the window, the cops don’t have any trouble at all, and they grab me from behind, get me in a very effective choke hold, and pull me out the entrance. They must have their hands full with other crises because they don’t do anything else to me, like charging me with assault or disorderly, but dump me on the sidewalk, where I sit trying to sort things out in my mind while insanity rages around me.