In which we learn who the hero(es) were.
“I go to all that trouble and do all that work and break an ankle and you wind up being the heroine. It just ain’t fair. Not fair at all.”
”I forgive your ingratitude because we heroines are noble and self-sacrificing.”
Natalie gave him a big hug and a small kiss on the cheek. Niall returned the hug and regretfully let her go. He was astonished that she had touched, even kissed him. Something had happened to Natalie. She was seriously changed and Niall was delighted.
“All right, tell me how you did it. Everybody I’ve heard from just said you’d saved lives and brought the people of the POM colony out practically on your back fighting off fierce POMists at every turn. What really happened?” Niall asked.
“What really happened is that a lot of poor scared people got brave enough to trust Felipe. He’s the real hero. He never lost his cool even when people were threatening to torture him to death. He just kept being cheerful and accepting their abuse as if it were okay. I’ve never seen anything like it.”
“But what did you do? It’s you I want to hear about.”
“Okay, pushy,” and she stuck her tongue out at him. “I heroically allowed strange men to see my underwear and pushed around a baby trying to get born and gave away my aspirin. That’s what I did. Wasn’t I brave?”
“Somehow I think there must have been more to it than that.”
”Well, maybe there was, just a little. Really it all happened because the time was right. We just happened to show up in the wrong place at the right time. Of course, I suspect that Felipe may have been a plant.”
Niall’s old paranoia grabbed a double handful of his stomach at that. “What do you mean a plant?”
“I mean that not one person in a hundred is that cool when people are roughing them up and threatening their lives. Felipe played the POMists like a violin. He never made a misstep. I think they really would have tried some stronger questioning if he hadn’t said what he did. He took a blow to the head but nothing more than that and neither of the others of us was even threatened again. He talked to the crowd and to the preacher. I wonder what his name really is. Anyway he talked to the crowd in a way that allowed them to believe him rather than the man they had trusted for the last 15 years. Now how many 65-year-old men can do that? Not many. I think he was a plant.”
“Who planted him there?”
“The Payers, of course. No one else could do it. It had to be the Payers.”
“But why would they do such a thing?”
”Because they knew the people in that colony were suffering. They’ve been watching that colony for years. At first because they were afraid of their coming out and attacking the locals. Then because it looked like they were in trouble. But every time the Payers knocked on the door, so to speak, at the roadblock, it was slammed in their faces.”
“Why didn’t they just get the army to break in?”
“Who would pay for that? What good would it do anybody? If they didn’t want the Payers, that was their business. Come on, Niall, you know this stuff.”
“I guess they couldn’t very well tell the army what to do anyway.” Niall said with a shamefaced grin.
“Yes,” she said and looked at him suspiciously out of the corner of her eye. “They watched the folks there from one of their high-altitude unmanned cameras and the colony never noticed it. But I think Felipe was asked to be close to that colony in case there was an opportunity to get in there. You’ll notice that he didn’t try to keep us away from the roadblock and he never made any effort to escape at all.”
”Well neither did you, madam heroine.”
“Listen, hombre, if I’m going to be a good Payer I have to do what a good Payer would do. If Felipe was going to stay and make no effort to get away it was obviously the thing to do. I just tried my best to follow his lead. Then, once we were in the valley and I saw how wretched they were, it just about broke my heart. I had to help however I could.”
“What happened to Steve and Arnie? The last I saw of them they were on their way back to try to kidnap the Mayor.”
“They didn’t get the chance. By the time they got close to where the rest of us were, there were three helicopters and a bunch of small trucks in the valley and people were celebrating and eating. The Mayor and his whole family, even his son, were at Gordon’s place waiting to see if Rebecca could be saved. They had her on oxygen and pumped full of antibiotics and were giving her blood and all sorts of things. They took her and her mother out on one of the choppers. I took care of the baby and Cindy. I think you’re going to like Cindy.”
“She’s the Mayor’s youngest daughter. I think she had as much to do with getting them to allow us to come in as anybody. She’s quite a girl.”
“But what about Steve and Arnie?”
“Oh, yes. Well, the helicopters flew over them and they followed off toward where they were landing. When they got there, they saw that almost everybody they knew was there and they just walked up and started talking to their friends. It wasn’t until later that people noticed that they had new guns. You should have seen their faces when they tried to show the others how good the guns were and they couldn’t get them to shoot at all. I guess they didn’t know that those guns were set to operate only when you are holding them.”
“I didn’t know about it either until I bought them. Each of the folks I bought a gun from kept assuring me that the rifle was my personal gun. I’m afraid that it wasn’t until the second purchase that I figured out what they meant. I know the boys never suspected. If they hadn’t been so frugal about the ammunition, they would have done some test shooting and found out for themselves.”
“Are you coming back to the school?”
“I think my sentence requires that.”
“Don’t you have any other reason for coming back?”
“Well, maybe one or two,” he said with a broad grin.
On the bus trip back to the school, Niall had a couple of hours to contemplate. He had just been through a rather harrowing experience. But now that it was over, he began to ask the questions of himself that he had been too distracted to think of at the time.
First, he thought, when you consider that Felipe had been in contact with the computer network the whole time of their capture, why hadn’t the police descended upon us within hours, if not minutes? They had certainly known about it. Why had they allowed the kidnapping to go on and on that way?
Second, when I was in the several towns with the boys, we were often in view of the Jeeves and he must have known that I was acting under duress. Why hadn’t they pounced on the unarmed kidnappers and freed me?
Third, when Felipe was being threatened with torture and death, even then the minions of the law sat on their hands and did nothing. Didn’t they care at all for Felipe and Natalie?
Fourth, and taking a much longer range point of view, they must have known that the children of the colony were suffering and in a couple of cases dying for want of medical treatment. Why hadn’t they come in then and saved them?
On the other hand, I’ve been afraid of an all-controlling State, of a computer system that forced everyone to do as their hidden masters commanded. This POM colony seemed to provide ample evidence that at least where they were concerned the computer system wasn’t being used to control. In fact, now that I consider it, the computer system didn’t try to control the colony even when a payer and Natalie were being threatened in the most direct and personal way. If there really was a secret cabal of Payers that controlled the whole nation, then they were either asleep most of the time or they were the most hands-off management team I can imagine.
Okay, perhaps I’m taking the wrong point of view. Let’s take the point of view of a policeman in one of those small towns. He would know that we had been captured and threatened. What should he do? Well, there was a Payer there and everything that was said within his hearing could be heard. If Felipe had wanted the police to rush in and rescue him, he could have said so. Second, I doubt that the policeman would have been able to get there in less than 30 minutes or so even if he knew exactly where they were. No, wait. They did know exactly where Felipe’s wristwatch style contact was.
Well what would have happened if the sheriff and a posse had descended upon the party in the woods? They could have surrounded them and… well that could have led to shooting and who knew what would be the outcome of that? Also, Felipe didn’t seem to think he needed rescue. In fact, he must have been delighted when he was captured, both times. It was his chance to get into the colony. But still, what about Natalie and Jean and me? Were we in danger? Sure we were. Would we have been in less danger if there’d been a SWAT team bearing down on our captors?
Consequences! I keep forgetting that the Payers pay for consequences. If I were a policeman, the worst thing that could happen would be for the victims of a kidnapping to be killed due to something I did. If I were to go barging in there to make an arrest, it wouldn’t matter whether I caught or killed the bad guys if the victims were killed or even badly wounded. Okay, so maybe the police were right to not come in right away with guns blazing. I have to admit that I wasn’t really in any danger from Steve and Arnie, except maybe when Steve was driving. I never asked for help. I really didn’t want them to stop us, because that might have made Cal shoot Natalie. I guess the police knew that also.
We weren’t able to buy guns until after the POM police had captured the others. Even then the guns they sold me could only be fired by me. I guess the police were right to not interfere with us.
But that situation in the colony still gnaws at me. Natalie was in danger and they did nothing. Well, they must have listened in but basically they did nothing. Okay, Felipe is in their hands because he wants to be and help is, say, an hour away. If they were to try to save Felipe by force, then the whole reason for his being there is forfeit. So they were letting Felipe play the hand as it was dealt. But Natalie didn’t volunteer for that mission and Jean certainly didn’t ask for it. He spent most of the time panicked. But was Natalie ever really threatened? Certainly when they appeared to be putting pressure on Natalie, Felipe diverted them and actually ended the questioning altogether. He took a shot to the head but all in all there was never any imminent danger to Natalie, I suppose.
And how did things work out? Well the POM colony is getting food and tools and improvements to most of their houses and the road is being improved. I suspect that most of the children will be leaving when they’re older. Of course everybody from the colony is doing what they want to do, whether staying or leaving. I guess it couldn’t have worked out much better.
I wonder what they’re going to do with Cal and Billy and the others. Will they imprison them or exile them? Let’s see. What would make the most money? I guess reforming them and having them become productive workers would make the most money. But how do you do that? Arnie wants to go to school so I guess I’d let him do that. Billy’s just a boy still, so he should probably go to school as well. Cal, well he’s older and he was sort of a ring-leader. But he was in a POM society from his point of view. Maybe in some other situation he wouldn’t have resorted to force. Maybe he should be allowed to go to school, too. Of course I’d want to keep an eye on him. What am I saying? The computer keeps its "eyes" on everybody. That would be easy. So if Cal is let off I can’t see why Steve wouldn’t be let off as well.
Natalie didn’t say anything about any of them being arrested. I think I’ll call Felipe and ask what was done with them.
Niall opened his phone and asked to talk to Felipe Sanchez. After a brief pause he was answered.
“Hello, Niall. How’s your foot?”
“Oh the foot is great, given that it’s broken. I can’t understand why it doesn’t hurt more. When I’ve had broken bones in the past they hurt lots more than this. Maybe this is one of the benefits of getting old.”
“More likely it’s a benefit of modern medicine. They have suppressed most of the pain signals just above the break so you only get about 10% of the sensation. That way, you still know if you’re abusing it and yet it doesn’t hurt much while it heals. Neat, no?”
“Very neat. Ah, I called to ask what’s going to be done with the four young men from the POM colony who kidnapped us. Do you have any idea?”
“Nothing, so far as I know. Neither Natalie nor I will press charges and I don’t think Jean wants any more to do with our criminal justice system than he has to. Why, were you thinking of pressing charges?”
“Well, no, but didn’t they violate the law?”
“Well, they did and they didn’t. You see, we were going into their territory. We were in their valley. They didn’t come out and grab us off the streets of Albuquerque.”
“What do you mean, their territory? This is all U.S.A isn’t it?”
“Sure it is. But they didn’t want to be a part of us and we didn’t have any objections. So, in effect, that land was not in our jurisdiction. They didn’t have to go to the U.N. or anything to be recognized as a separate nation because they really didn’t need to have relations with other nations. But they clearly didn’t want to be part of what we were doing, so they weren’t part of the U.S. either. In other words it was their land, not ours, so they could do whatever they wanted there.”
“You mean that if they had killed you and Natalie, that the police wouldn’t have interfered?”
“It wasn’t in their jurisdiction. We went there voluntarily and thereby had to accept their laws, informal as they are.”
“What about Arnie and Steve? They took me outside the colony to several towns that definitely were a part of the U.S.”
“Did they do anything illegal while there? Did they attempt to harm you in any way? Were you cooperating with them?”
“I see what you mean. While they were in the U.S. they were good boys so there was no law violation. And I guess that what the Mayor and the others did to you and Natalie was done in their country, so it didn’t violate any laws either.”
“Exactly. I went on their land voluntarily. It’s true that I didn’t expect what happened. I thought we’d just be warned off by the roadblock guards. But I got lucky.”
”Lucky? You call that good luck?”
“Sure. I have a lot of new friends now and people have been very complimentary to me for my handling of the situation. In fact I’ve been interviewed on several TV shows already. I’m famous for a few days.”
“All right. I’ll let you call it good luck if you must. Perhaps it was good luck in retrospect. But it sure seemed to me to be bad luck. I think. Of course… well never mind. Congratulations on your fame and popularity. I think you were already very popular with everybody who knew you but now lots more people know you.”
“Gracias, amigo. Is there anything else I can do for you?”
“I don’t think so. Thanks for setting me straight about the colony.”
“It was a pleasure as always to help new Payers.”
Niall closed his phone and sat staring out the window of the bus not really seeing the beautiful scenery outside the window. Well if there is a secret cabal, I don’t care. If they’ll allow a group of people to secede informally like that, just declare themselves out, then I guess they can’t be oppressing many people. They let all that happen just because we were on their property. If what Felipe says is true, they wouldn’t have even gone in to arrest his murderer if someone had killed him. I don’t know if Felipe was a plant or not but he certainly was a volunteer if he was a plant.
I always thought I’d hate having a computer watching me all day every day. But it’s not half bad. It’s just a computer, it’s not a person. In some ways it’s like having a dog watch me and know about me. It doesn’t matter that he’s watching. Of course, the computer is a lot smarter than a dog in numerous ways. If I have trouble, there are lots of things the computer can do to help me.
I still don’t want to be a Payer but I’ll finish out this course with the others. Serve my time, so to speak. I wonder how Natalie feels about me. I’m sure she likes me but does she care about me the way I’m coming to care about her? Once she becomes a Payer will she have to stay single? Could I give up some luxuries to live with her at the standard level?
I think that would be easy. These last weeks have been rather pleasant living in the dorm or barracks. I guess it’s the people that make a place good to live in rather than the amenities.
At least now I don’t have to try to get my family out of the country.
The bus rolled to a stop and people began standing to retrieve their overhead luggage. This brought Niall out of his reverie. Well, here we are. I think I can begin a real life now. I think I can enter into this brave new world without too much paranoia.
Niall stepped off the bus into the bright New Mexico afternoon and, carrying his suitcase, entered his new life.