06
Nov
16

Safety Nation Chapter 4

I hope everyone is having a nice weekend. It’s looks like things are on track, and hopefully I can show you the cover art next week. The delay might ultimately delay the book’s release date, which is why I haven’t revealed that yet. You see, without the cover, I can’t order the proofs, which of course take time to print. So, it’s a domino effect. With luck, though, you’ll be reading Safety Nation next month, which is my ultimate goal.

In case you missed the previous chapters, here are links to them:

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Announcement/Blurb

All right, then. Onto chapter four. With this one, the core characters have all been introduced, and from this point forward, they start to interact and interfere with each another in interesting/wonderful/dysfunctional ways. I hope you enjoy it.

As always, the chapter below, and entire novel, are copyrighted.

— — —

Safety Nation by Logan Riley

4

We scooted into opposite sides of the booth. The seats were hard, made of old leather, cracked, with tufts of stuffing popping out. Surely, that must have been a safety violation, but neither of us cared.

The sun burned outside, but the restaurant’s tinted windows protected us from the UV radiation. We were in an old-fashioned diner, a few miles from the Central Office. I came here often, usually choosing to eat here instead of at home.

A waitress appeared. She handed us each a menu and asked for our drink orders. Coffee for both. The coffee was dark and bitter. It was delicious.

“You know,” I said, putting my mug down on the table, “a long time ago, people used to add stuff to coffee.”

“What kind of stuff?” Lowry asked.

“Sugar. Milk. Chocolate. Whipped cream sometimes.”

“Really? That’s so weird.”

“I bet coffee would taste interesting with any of those.”

Lowry took a long, slow, deliberate sip. When she finished, she said, “Yeah, I could see it being better with milk.”

“Not sugar?”

“I’ve never had it,” she said nonchalantly.

“I remember my parents using it. They outlawed it when I was a kid.”

I was thirty years her elder. It made sense that she wouldn’t know about those sorts of things. To her, they were historical oddities.

“You know how some things, like fruit, are naturally sweet?” I asked.

“Yeah.”

“Well, you could add that same sweetness to just about anything. It was this white powder. Scoop it up and mix it in. Any drink. Any food. You could buy it at the grocery store,” I explained, feeling older with every word.

“Tell me more about the old days, gramps,” Lowry giggled.

The waitress returned and asked what we wanted to eat. I ordered an egg-white omelet. Yolks were a rationed food, and you could only have so many per week due to their high cholesterol content. Lowry ordered toast with raspberry jam. The food was good but plain. I used my entire ration of salt, but it wasn’t enough to get my taste buds excited. I left half the omelet on the plate. Lowry inhaled her meal, and then looked hopefully at mine.

“You can have the rest if you like,” I said, sliding the plate toward her.

“Thanks,” she said. She started to wolf down the omelet. She must have worked up quite an appetite after her first night on the job.

“How do you like Sex Detail?” I asked.

“It’s not my greatest aspiration in life.”

“Where do you want to work?”

She answered in between bites. “I – want to – get to – the top. Maybe – head of – Healthcare – or some other – interesting department.”

“But Sex Detail is only for people under disciplinary action. Usually perverts. Nobody has ever started out there. You must have some pretty bad luck.”

“Not really. I requested it. I wanted to start at the bottom. Oh, no offense.”

“It’s fine,” I chuckled. “It’s the bottom. Sewage Detail is just about the only thing lower.”

New agents took a battery of aptitude tests. A computer algorithm crunched the numbers and spat out an assignment. The whole thing was mysterious, but nobody began their career on Sex Detail. It was meant as a punishment, not a launching pad. The government never fired anyone, because they thought it looked bad to fire agents. So, they were always demoted to the vilest jobs until they eventually resigned.

“But why would you want to start at the bottom?” I asked.

She tipped her coffee mug and drained it in two large gulps. She set it down and said, “I suppose it will make my meteoric rise all the more impressive.”

“You joke about it, but I think you’re more ambitious than you let on.”

“Maybe so,” she said, smiling.

The waitress reappeared and asked if we wanted anything else. “Just the check,” I told her. I paid for both our breakfasts.

“Thanks, you didn’t have to do that,” Lowry said.

“It’s my pleasure,” I replied.

We scooted out of the booth, and found our way back to the parking lot. Our cars were side by side. We chatted idly for another minute. Lowry stretched her arms high above her head and yawned.

“I’ll see you tomorrow,” she said.

“Tonight,” I corrected.

“Oh, yeah, tonight. I’ve never worked the night shift before.”

“It’s great fun,” I said, deadpan.

She waved goodbye, and we entered our respective vehicles. As my car idled, I watched hers drive away.

The navigation system’s screen was in the center console. “Choose a destination,” it read in large black letters. Usually, I told it to take me home, but I didn’t want to go back there. Anyplace else would be better. I punched in an alternative, the Archives.

“Thank you,” appeared on the screen. The automatic seatbelt locked me in place, and the car began to drive.

The Archives were a library, but only for government agents. It was there I gathered all my knowledge about the way the world used to be, before the First Government. It was there I had seen the photo of the log cabin. It was there I first wished I had been born a few centuries earlier.

My car tried three parking structures before finding an open space in a lot four blocks away. I was downtown, and the work day was just getting started. Finding a place to park was always an ordeal. Fortunately, the coffee had my head buzzing, and I zipped along the sidewalk, covering the distance with vigor. When I reached the Archives, I took a moment to take it in visually before springing up the stairs.

It was a behemoth designed in the classic First Government style: straight lines, thick square columns, and flat undecorated gray stone walls. Its windows were completely blacked out by UV filters. It was wide and took up an entire city block. The First Government’s taste skewed toward the utilitarian.

Once inside, I was in the atrium. It was a large, high-ceilinged, empty room. In front of me stood a basic wooden desk with a bored looking man behind it. To the right of that was a full-body X-ray scanner. I approached, my shoes echoing on the stone floor.

“Name and serial number,” the guard behind the desk said lethargically. He hadn’t bothered to look up from his magazine.

I recited both and he entered them into his terminal. A moment passed. He looked at the terminal, annoyed, as this huge amount of work seemed to be inconveniencing him. The terminal’s screen flashed. He looked back at his magazine and said, “Hand print identification.”

A small, square device sat on the corner of the desk. The outline of a hand flashed red on its screen. I pressed my palm firmly against the cool glass. The device gave a high-pitched chirp and spoke in a robotic female voice, “Identity confirmed.”

“Now the scanner,” the guard instructed.

I knew the procedure. To go anyplace important required at least three levels of security. Twenty levels had been required for air travel back when passenger planes still existed. I suppose that’s why people stopped flying. People only traveled cross-country by train now.

I stepped into the machine and raised my arms sideways. I looked like a bird flapping its wings. Once my body was finished getting blasted with radiation, a light at the top of the machine blinked green, and the guard told me I was free to enter. I moved on, glad to be done with the security checkpoint. My whole life was security checkpoints.

The Archives were massive. The building rose four levels above ground, and dove thirty levels below ground. It was stuffed full of information about the old world. None it could be found on a computer. Everything was a hard copy. A few years ago I discovered why.

I had been reading through some old newspapers, passing the time. One of them, from about one hundred years ago, declared, “Hacker Breaks Into Government Archives!” There was a subheading, “Threatens to Reveal ‘Truth’ About Safety Regulations.”

Subsequent newspapers failed to show him disclosing the truth, whatever that was, to the general populace. I imagine he was going to reveal what the world was like before the First Government became so enamored with safety regulations. Back when people could smoke, drink, eat, and fuck to their heart’s content. His silence had either been bought or acquired through more nefarious means.

After that, all digital records pertaining to life before the First Government were deleted. Now, to obtain that information, you had to read the hard copies, the books and newspapers. But in order to do that, you needed to be a safety agent with special authorization. I had been granted special authorization at my old assignment. When I was demoted, they forgot to rescind it.

Sub-level Fourteen had books on architecture. I grabbed a few at random. I carried them over to a bare wooden table and sat down.

The room was dark and quiet, devoid of other people. The numerous stacks of shelves were enveloping, leaving little space between them and myself. The musty odor of decaying books filled my nostrils. It was an acidic smell that I found comforting.

I opened the first book, “Great Architecture,” to a random page. The first picture I saw was a fading color image of a beautifully unique building. It was stout, with a stone wall motif worked into the body of the structure. It was in a green, secluded forest. It had several balconies that jutted over empty space, seemingly supported by nothing. There were large expanses of glass. Most fantastic of all, a waterfall appeared to spout from the bowels of the house. The caption below the image read, “Fallingwater, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright in 1935. Mill Run, Pennsylvania.”

The building was ancient. In all likelihood it didn’t exist anymore. The architect had been a genius. He certainly had more imagination than the bores who designed everything today. A building like that would never pass today’s safety inspection codes, with all the glass and balconies and waterfalls and other unsafe things.

I flipped through the book, marveling at the incredible buildings. The minutes lapsed into hours. I worked my way through a second, third, and fourth book. Everything was so different now. These ancient architects would gasp in horror if they could see the prefabricated domiciliary nightmare we live in today.

My ears detected the sound of footsteps. That was strange. I was always alone here. It was probably a janitor emptying waste baskets. The footsteps grew louder. I started to focus more on the steps than the book in front of me. They moved closer still.

A man appeared from behind one of the bookshelves. He wore the black uniform of a safety agent. He was quite pale, of average build, and without a wisp of hair on his head. Our eyes locked, and he gave a single nod. I nodded back. He walked to my table and sat in the chair opposite me.

“Inspector Smith,” he said.

“Can I help you?”

He placed a palm on my book. He rotated it toward his side of the table. He casually looked over the page. A large white building with several rounded domes and a reflecting pool was the subject.

“The Taj Mahal,” he said, reading the caption aloud. “Fascinating.”

“Are you a fan of architecture?”

“I’m a fan of you.”

“Have we met?”

“Not formally.”

He stared at me with piercing eyes. The hairs on the back of my neck stood up.

“My name is Orwell. I’ve been admiring your work for some time now.”

“What do you want?”

“That’s not important.”

“It is if you want to keep having this conversation.”

“That’s what I like about you, you aren’t afraid to speak your mind.”

He acted too familiar, like we were old pals. His stared at me intensely, but spoke with casual charm. Every nerve in my body was on alert.

“I’m looking for skilled people, and you are exactly the kind of person I need.”

“And what kind of person am I?”

“Someone who doesn’t always play by the rules.”

He was talking about last night. Did he have a surveillance team on me? I didn’t like being watched. I liked the idea of him wanting to use me for something even less.

“So what do you have in mind?” I asked slowly, cautiously, because I didn’t know where this conversation was heading.

Orwell rubbed his chin thoughtfully and said, “It’s a bit too early to say outright. Some things are still in the planning stages. But speaking generally, I’m putting together a group of like-minded individuals. There’s a lot of corruption in the government, and some policy changes may be in order.”

I couldn’t believe he was serious. He must have been insane.

“Anyway, Inspector Smith, I wanted to let you know you are a candidate for joining my group. I’ll call on you again when I have something more concrete to offer.”

Orwell pushed himself away from the table. He smiled smugly and said, “Good day.” He sauntered away, his feet landing softly on the floor. His exit seemed to take forever.

Feeling shaken, I couldn’t enjoy reading any longer. I returned the books to their shelves and headed for the exit. I left through the front door, going through the security checks again. When I returned home, I went straight to bed. I dreamed of nothing.

— — —

To be continued!

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