(Read the first part here.)
There was a rapt knock on the door.
Agnes turned her head towards the direction of the door and frowned. It was Labor Day—-everyone in the cubicle complex should be at work, laboring for the holiday. Who would be at her door? And for what reason? Immediately she wondered if it were the Enforcers, the governmental patrol team, here to escort her to the Desert several days early. Agnes’s heartbeat accelerated as she looked around her prep room at her few belongings she would need to pack—-the framed diploma from Training Camp on her bedside table, the machine gear necklace that she never wore but touched every night before rest, a handful of coffee beans (workers never saw fresh coffee beans, so these were like rare gemstones), and of course, her gold worker’s jumpsuit. Unfortunately, she had realized, she would not be able to take her refrigerator with her because it was too cumbersome to transport.
The rapt knock came again, and Agnes startled. She wasn’t ready to be escorted away yet, but she hoped the Enforcers would allow her just a few minutes to collect her possessions.
Grunting as she pushed herself up from the bed, she hobbled around the divider curtain and into the kitchen. Agnes approached the door and placed her hand upon the screen in the middle, and after it processed her handprint and emitted a beep, she took a step back as the door automatically opened inward.
But there were no Enforcers standing outside her door. Agnes frowned again when she laid eyes on a woman in her thirties dressed as a Slantia soldier in gray cargo pants and a gray zip-up athletic shirt. She had a square jaw and sun-browned skin, and a purple-tipped Mohawk that was combed back at the moment. Her figure was tall and built strong, like a soldier. This woman was leaning coolly upon Agnes’s door frame, and smiled when she saw Agnes.
“Allo,” the woman said, giving a curt nod. She grinned with half of her mouth, and stood up straight. “Agnes?”
Agnes’s first reaction was panic; what had she done to merit a soldier showing up at her cubicle right before retirement? Did they find out about the silver fork she had accidentally stolen a few years ago? She had never stolen anything from the Factory, except that one day, when she found it in her baggy jumpsuit pocket on the shuttle home…
The soldier could see the panic in Agnes’s widened eyes and frozen body language. She grinned wider and tapped with her finger a patch right above her left breast. Agnes followed the gesture with her eyes and studied the design—-why, this woman wasn’t a soldier after all. Slantia soldiers had the insignia for Slantia with the machine gears design; this woman had the image of a cog shattering. Was she a rebel?
Rather than feel more at ease by the realization that this woman was not a Slantia soldier but some rogue imposter, Agnes did not feel more comfort at all. In fact, Agnes felt more panicked and her first instinct was to dash to her intercom and report this woman to the Enforcers. But something about the woman’s confident, friendly nature kept Agnes in her spot, growing more and more curious why she had found her way to Agnes’s doorstep.
“Who are you?” Agnes asked. Her voice quivered more than she thought it would, and she felt discouraged by how old she sounded, even to herself.
“Good question! I’m Ramona,” the woman said, and glanced about the cubicle from the doorway for the first time. “May I step in?”
Agnes considered it for a moment, but she was still on guard. Ramona sighed and added, “If you want me to leave, I’ll leave. But, my explanation is long and you look like you might want to take a seat.”
There were quite a number of thoughts going through Agnes’s head right at that moment. First, she had never heard of this unknown organization, and so whatever Ramona was working for was probably not a government-approved group and therefore enemies of the state. Agnes could be killed on sight if seen fraternizing with an enemy of the state, and while she wasn’t thrilled to be shipped off to the Desert, she still was desperate to continue fulfilling some purpose for her nation, and therefore wanted to remain alive. Additionally, it was almost sacrilegious to not work on Labor Day, and so Agnes was somewhat offended that Ramona was doing house calls for rebel work when she should have been grinding in a factory. On the other hand, maybe she was a part of some secret, newly-founded government division, and was there to tell Agnes that she would actually be going into a more prestigious working class instead of retirement. And above all else, Agnes was so darn bored with her day off that she was willing to entertain this woman’s request rather than go back to sitting in silence and waiting to rest that night.
“Sure,” Agnes said, and took a step to the side so Ramona would have room to enter and take a seat at the table. The door shut behind her and Agnes looked about the kitchen self-consciously. It had been a decade since she entertained guests, and wondered foolishly if the place looked clean enough to Ramona; it did, of course, because there was a required deep clean of the facility every Sunday night, when a little robot cleaning device installed in each cubicle would rapidly dust, sweep, and sanitize all surfaces.
“Would you like some coffee or water?” Agnes asked, trying to recall her hosting manners. She wondered if she had drank her coffee too fast or if the jitters she felt were just her paranoid nerves.
“That’s not necessary, Agnes. Just take a seat here,” Ramona said, petting her Mohawk with a sweeping motion and pushing out the chair next to her with her foot. Agnes groaned as she lowered herself into the seat, and adjusted its position at the table.
Ramona smiled a wide grin again and nodded to indicate the beginning of her story. Agnes gripped her hands in her lap tightly.
“My name is Ramona and I am not a Slantia soldier like you first thought, although I used to be. Today I am a Slanted Soldier, meaning I have renounced my position as a Slantia soldier and joined the Slanted cause. I know that we have been taught that this is a treasonous act of the most evil of spirits, but I have discovered there are many things we are taught in Slantia that are lies founded upon more lies. I also know this is hard to accept at first, and especially after a long life of believing, but it doesn’t have to be too late for you to learn.”
Agnes had heard of these radical anti-nationalists in the news; she had heard that they were dirty, uncivil, brainwashed, and dangerous. She almost laughed as Ramona spoke of this “country of lies,” which was the most ungrateful way she could refer to the great nation of opportunity and pious work. Despite her ill-educated lecture, though, Ramona was not very much like Agnes’s mental image of a rebel.
“You’ll go to the Camp,” Agnes said firmly, crossing her arms. “For your unforgivable treason, you will spend the rest of your life at the Camp wishing you never scorned such a giving nation.”
Ramona bit her lip and squinted at Agnes, nodding slowly. “Denial. That’s understandable. You see only what you want to see. Your reality is what you pay attention to. It’s my challenge to show you what you are missing.”
Agnes shook her head. “No. There is nothing to see. You are an ingrate, and I liked you the smallest bit a moment ago, but now I’m sure I hate you. What are you doing at my cubicle? Are you trying to collect donations, you worthless peasant?”
Her sudden defensiveness was offputting to Ramona, but she was used to resistance. She took a breath and mustered another wind.
“Agnes, I am here because I want to help you. You talk about me being ungrateful, but you have been used your whole life by this nation, and now it is going to throw you away. Who’s truly ungrateful? Your great state is ungrateful. It does not care about you; it is only trying to suck the life out of you to make another dollar and increase its power over this planet.” Ramona stopped and shook her head, having gotten riled up on the subject and lost her intention. “Anyway. Typically retirees are transported to the Desert after just a day, but as you know, your case is peculiar. You have a week, due to a ‘scheduling error.’ My team has given you this week so that you may join us. At the end of the week, when your transporters arrive, you will have already been gone for days, with no trace—-except! We will plant a simulated corpse in your apartment. Your country will think you have died from old age. But on the converse, you will be alive, and free—-more free than you have ever been your whole life, and doing more meaningful work than you ever did while washing dishes.”
“This is preposterous and disgraceful!” Agnes shouted, her voice cracking. Her throat felt scratchy but she waved a finger at Ramona. “You want me to fake my death so I can be kidnapped by a bunch of savages who spit on the very country I gave my life to?”
“I gave my life for this country, too,” said Ramona. “And it has scorned me, and billions of its citizens. They only want you to focus on the cogs, on the gears that are turning, so it will distract you from the actions the entire machine is performing.” Ramona’s voice was pleading, and she reached a hand across the table towards Agnes, who did leaned away from Ramona. Ramona sighed and glanced at her watch.
“I think it’s time for you to leave,” said Agnes. She felt angry—-an emotion she hadn’t felt in a while, and it felt like her whole body was on fire; her heart was racing, her face felt hot, her nerves were tense, and her blood was pulsating frantically. She did not ask for this random criminal to visit her, and she did not know what she did to warrant Ramona’s interest in her.
Ramona closed her eyes and shook her head. “I must honor your request,” she said solemnly, without moving but to open her eyes and look at Agnes carefully. “Before I go, I will warn you not to report me. Normally, it would be impossible to have a conversation in your cubicle without it being monitored, but my team has rigged your unit for the duration of our visit so that the Enforcers have no knowledge of my presence here; we’ve overrode the video and audio feed. If you report me, you will surely be convicted of senility and thoughts of rebellion.”
As Ramona spoke, Agnes grew even more frustrated; now she was threatening Agnes? This was outrageous!
“The best thing is for you to pretend this never happened—-well, the best thing would be if you joined me, but if you must refuse, then pretend this never happened.” Ramona stood up from her spot at the table, and Agnes glared at her, watching her moves very closely.
But Ramona made no gesture of violence, and simply paused at her place at the table and looked sadly at Agnes, who remained silent with rage.
“Would you like some time to re-consider? I can come back tomorrow if you’d like to sleep on it,” Ramona offered.
“I fuel the great machine,” Agnes simply replied, voice wavering with her hatred of Ramona.
Petting her Mohawk as she nodded, Ramona walked towards the door. For a moment, Agnes thought she wouldn’t be able to leave without her handprint, but then Ramona put her hand to the door’s screen and it opened for her. How deep was the infiltration of the Slanted Soldiers? Agnes wondered.
As Ramona stepped through the door to leave, she paused and said, “We know about the silver fork.”
Agnes’s heartbeat stumbled and missed a beat.
But all she said was, “That was an accident.”
To be continued next week in Part III.
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