I woke a little before dawn. I usually do. Before I came to the camp, I still woke up early, but not always before the sun rose. I have more trouble sleeping here.
Maybe it’s the lack of beds.
The advantage of turning in earlier is that you can find a spot a little further from the drafts at the doorway. The disadvantage is that you have to crawl over everyone else to get out and pee.
Someone had stolen the shoes I wore yesterday. I’d left them by the doorway to dry a bit in the night air. I should have known better, and kept them at my side while I slept. The risk would not have been eliminated, but it would have been significantly reduced. It was one of those little moments that made me glad I’d been assigned to a camp in a more temperate area, rather than one that had colder mornings. There was no snow on the ground here, not ever, and I knew that if I could keep blood flowing through my toes until mid-morning, they’d warm up to be almost comfortable. I took off my wool socks and stuffed them in a jacket pocket, rather than wear them out on the ground. My feet would heal. I may never replace a good pair of socks. I’d be fine, really. Still, I’d had those shoes for almost a month. I’d grown to like them. It’s so hard to find them in my size.
I peed in one of the collection tanks, faint steam rising up from it in the morning air. About a dozen of us had worked for three months to collect the materials we needed to build it. The water would be distilled out and filtered for reuse. The rest would be mixed with other components to make fertilizer for the garden. I headed to the garden next, hoping that the early hour would mean there’d be some berries left I could grab for breakfast. I could probably find some glop at the commissary, enough to fuel me for a few hours, but even a handful of real fruit was a great joy, and an increasingly rare treat as the days grew shorter.
Mo was already at the blueberry bush. He sat with his legs folded under him on a small blanket, and smiled at my approach. One corner of the blanket had been folded over, and when I sat on the dirt next to him, he silently flipped the corner flat, revealing a generous pile of dark blue spheres, spiked crowns bristling from each one. “Yours, my friend.”
“You’re too kind,” I told him, and scooped about half the berries up in one paw. I ate them slowly, one at a time, as he bowed toward the burgeoning sunrise and recited his fajr.
I didn’t pace myself well. As slowly as I thought I ate, and as briefly as he prayed, my hand was empty well before he finished. I waited, watching the glow of dawn and listening to him speak a language I didn’t understand. I didn’t need to understand it. I didn’t even need to believe it. I just needed to sit quietly and watch the sun rise.
Mo represented only one of many faiths in the camps, but his was the first. Most Muslims were deported or arrested within a few months of the election under the new Anti-Terror acts. Mo was born here, which made him less suspicious, and converted in college, which made him far more suspicious. He would have been deported, but as this was his country of origin, there was nowhere to send him. After Brexit and Europe’s subsequent anti-immigration policies, many borders were closed to exiles. American-born Muslims who refused deportation to Islamic countries--usually because sharia law in such places made it even more dangerous for them--only had one alternative. Freedom Camps.
He settled back, a change in his posture and bearing telling me that he had finished, and eyed the remaining berries. “They are all yours. I have mine.”
“Didn’t want to be rude.” The berries were in my hand before I finished speaking, and in my mouth the next instant. I smiled at him through a chipmunked face. “Breakfast?”
He nodded, rolled up his blanket, and joined me for a walk to the commissary. “Something is different about you. New shoes?”
“Do you like them? They’re all the rage in the East Coast camps this season. I ordered mine right away, and they just arrived yesterday.” I gestured grandly at my bare feet. He chuckled. I had never seen him wear shoes. By now, his feet had surpassed leather for sheer toughness, and I wondered whether he would even notice walking on broken glass. I stepped gingerly, watching so I could avoid the more obvious rocks.
Our Freedom Camp was one of the oldest, meaning it had been hastily assembled without much planning, and no improvements had been made by anyone but the occupants. The sanitation was rudimentary and often needed repair, leading to our own development of the urine stills and composting toilets. They couldn’t handle the volume generated by all the occupants, but it was enough to offset the faulty facilities. A little. We spent a lot of time repairing things ourselves, knowing that in the time it would take for the official crews to take care of things, the camp would have been cleared by cholera or norovirus. Maybe that had been the plan.
Main Street, the broad central corridor which ran the length of the camp, was used primarily by the pseudo-military types who were in charge. They drove back and forth in old military trucks, proudly wearing bastardized uniforms and enforcing whatever new policy of abuse they had for the day. We called them camp counselors. Never to their faces. We avoided them mostly by avoiding Main Street.
Many of the real military abandoned their posts following the decrees after the election. At first, there were some court-martial trials and military prisons briefly filled with AWOLs, but it soon became clear that there weren’t enough personnel loyal to the new regime to maintain the practice. Rumors spread that ships full of naval crews and entire army battalions had either defected or found quiet places to establish small bases elsewhere in the world, retrieving their families if they could, and essentially becoming tiny nation-states. It was hard to tell how much was true. With the stranglehold on the media and Internet, even those outside the camps had to rely upon word-of-mouth for any unfiltered news of the world. Inside the camps, we only got coded messages from our families and friends outside, or reports from new campers.
The camp counselors we had were exactly the sort of people who should never be in charge. Picture people who thought a twenty-foot wall topped with razor wire and sporting sniper towers every quarter-mile along the Mexican border wasn’t enough. Even with a hundred-yard mine field buffer. Picture people who dress in bedsheets and tall, pointy hoods. Even worse, picture people who will blindly follow whoever is in charge, without ever asking, “is this right?” People who have never, not really, made a choice for themselves, instead allowing someone else to pour opinions and attitudes into their ear, and listen to whomever yells loudest, rather than to those making the most reasoned arguments. Then give them power over exactly the people they fear most. That’s why we avoided Main Street. We walked parallel to it, a few blocks to the south, where a careful eye could spot a few scrawled messages reading “Make America Hate Again.”
Most of the Habi-Pods were just shipping containers or old railroad cars. They had been arranged in rows with just enough space between for a crane truck to unload them. Later, that spacing allowed them to be stacked up to four high, with increasingly suspect stairways and ladders leading up from ground level. At first, there were cots, chairs, and some other rudimentary furniture. Later, as population in the camps rose more quickly than the supply line could satisfy, people started making furniture and hammocks out of whatever we could find. Those who got good at it developed a sort of cottage industry, working for trade, but it was difficult to hold on to anything long in the camps. Like my shoes. One of the later decrees was that personal property in the camps was limited to what each person carried with them. I couldn’t really claim that someone had stolen my shoes, because according to the rules of the camp, they weren’t my shoes. They weren’t anyone’s shoes. They were everyone’s shoes. The despot had reasoned that since many of us were essentially socialists, we could share whatever property was inside the camps.
We weren’t socialists. Most of us were dyed-in-the-wool capitalists. There were quite a few former small business owners who had voted for him who had ended up in the camps. They had thought he would be a better choice for them than his political opponent, because he espoused business growth in his campaign. After election, he quickly made several changes which made it obvious that he was only interested in growth of major corporations and heavy industry. Large companies consumed smaller companies, or drove them into the ground. Electric and hybrid vehicles were declared illegal, ostensibly to encourage development of American petroleum resources. National Parks were opened for drilling and mining under the argument that to ignore those resources would be wasteful. Global warming escalated. The small business owners, and any others who opposed the draconian edicts, were given the choice to leave the country or enter the camps. Those who could left. Those who couldn’t afford it, or whose political exile papers were denied by other countries, ended up in camps.
I wasn’t given the choice. I protested the new regime. I wasn’t a leader; I wasn’t an activist. They were rounded up before me. But as the louder voices were silenced, smaller voices like mine became harder to ignore. Soon after the election, the major news networks were threatened with sanctions if they stepped outside the new socio-moral guidelines. Later, specially-appointed Monitors were assigned to each media outlet to ensure that all material was approved before broadcast. That was around the same time that similar censors--call a spade a spade--began trolling the internet with bots and filters designed to eradicate messages which ran counter to the despot or his policies. There had been foreshadowing during his campaign, when he called for the termination of journalists and even judges who spoke against him. At the time, he had claimed that conservative outlets should fully support him, as he was the duly-chosen candidate of his party, and that conservatives speaking against him should follow the party line or be silent. Liberal voices were dealt with more simply, as a petulant child might: he called them names and said they were lying, then yelled until they shook their heads and gave up. After the election and Monitors, he claimed that any dissenting voices weren’t properly supportive of him, and thus un-American. If they were not American, they should leave.
Or go to the camps.
The only problem with attaining total media control across the country was that it was only one country. Media personnel who left the country and continued reporting their views--or worse yet, the facts of what happened here--were beyond his purview. The world was full of places happy to tell others how badly things were going in America. Some felt we were getting comeuppance. A few may have seen us as a dire warning against tacitly choosing totalitarianism. I made some public observations online comparing the media control to that enjoyed by the leaders of China and North Korea, where the populace was fed only what the government allowed them to believe. I had made other dissenting views, but I guess they had already culled the loudest voices, and mine was heard in the relative silence. I was collected from my home, which was seized by the government, along with any possessions I wasn’t carrying, and taken to a Freedom Camp. There was no trial. When I asked, I was told that it was held in my absence. I asked about my right to face my accusers. They told me that I had supplied all evidence against me myself when I posted it online, that I had been found guilty of seditious and inflammatory speech, and that I could say whatever I wanted in the Freedom Camp. That’s why it was called a Freedom Camp. I was free to do as I liked within its confines. I asked if I would be free to have contact with the outside world. One of them struck me with the butt of his rifle. When I woke up, I was laying in the dirt inside the fence. Naked. They had taken what few personal items I’d managed to collect before they took me from my home. Apparently, they were also free to do whatever they liked.
The commissary was a quonset hut, a long, semi-cylindrical building with large overhead doors at each end and harshly buzzing lights high above the concrete floor. Mo and I got in line, received our trays, and found a pair of seats in an acoustic irregularity we had discovered. Large television screens at both ends of the hall continually broadcast messages from the despot and his advisers. Reminders of how we were expected to behave, reports on new policies outside the walls, news of dubious factual value. Our spot was in a small pocket where the broadcast was almost silent. It was our favorite place to sit in the commissary.
Supplies for the camps, including food, are mostly the cast-offs of the outside world. Meat that didn’t quite meet the standards, produce that had gone a bit soft, three-day-old bread. Sometimes, we’d get lucky and positively identify the contents of our meals. More often, it was the formless stew we called Glop. It made the gardening efforts that much more appreciated. In a few rare cases, people managed to bring in some livestock and maintained tiny breeding populations. They were jealously guarded, and it was always easy to find volunteers to help care for and raise the animals, because helping in any food production effort inside the camps was the best way to gain yourself a share of the yield. Any food you could recognize was a rare luxury.
After we returned our trays, we headed toward Zeke and Margarita’s place. They kept a small herd of goats by the east border of the camp. I helped tend the herd. Mo was trying his hand at making cheese. A sudden pain in my foot sent me hopping a few steps, and I doubled back to collect the framing nail whose head had driven its edge into my heel. I carefully nudged Mo down a shoulder-width gap between shipping containers, and crouched near the far end. He leaned casually against one of the containers, blocking view of me from that side, while I scratched “Make America Hate Again” into the brightly painted metal under a large hashtag mark. “Some day, they will catch you doing that,” he warned, his voice casual.
“They’ve already caught me.” I stood and followed him out of the gap. “Good thing, too. I’m a dangerous man.”
“Full of dangerous ideas.”
“Like freedom of the press.”
“There is no press here.”
“Freedom of speech, then.”
“Yup. Wacky stuff like that.” I chose not to linger on that topic. He had been here longer than me, and was wary of showing any signs of faith in front of the counselors, knowing that they’d shout “terrorism,” and he’d get disappeared to an even darker hole.
“Truly revolutionary ideas.”
“Me and Tommy J, buddy.”
We bumped fists, knowing it would piss off some of the counselors. Here, that gesture wasn’t just a greeting. It was a reminder of a time when the word Freedom still meant something, as recently as the former presidency. A man the despot actively sought to discredit, defame, and unseat throughout his terms. The henchmen who served the despot remembered, and minor accidents commonly befell those who showed support of the former president, or either of the despot’s greatest opponents during his election bid.
There was a subtle irony there.
The election should have been closer. The despot had gained support from many people who were so upset that their candidate didn’t do better in the primaries that they switched parties. Mistakes made by party personnel were blamed on the other candidate. Many people who had thus voted for the despot were now in the camps with the rest of us. Maybe they just weren’t “real American” enough.
Others had fled, seeking asylum elsewhere. Short-sighted anger, like that shown by the despot, had cost us everything, not just an election.
Many had hoped that we’d only have to put up with him for four years, eight tops, but the changes he wrought even before launching weapons against supposed enemies will have ramifications for generations. That was before he instituted martial law and suspended further elections. Congressional opposition was handled as he had handled detractors to his campaign: with abuse, harsh criticism, and tirades. Whenever possible, he would find ways to push them out of office entirely. His favorite line was an old catch phrase: “you’re fired!” Several were in camps. More, we suspected, were just… gone.
A whining, petulant, bully of a man-child had been elected to the most powerful office in the free world, and still there were people who seemed surprised when his presidency continued just as his candidacy had. Healthcare decisions were made by appointed committees, carefully governed by insurers, and individuals could not choose their care options. LGBT communities were forced into actual, physical communities much like the Freedom Camps, but where many suspected they were subjected to reeducation and chemical treatments to “cure” them. Corporations were given limitless power, and individuals were robbed of their rights. Anyone who spoke out against his atrocities were exiled or locked up because they were inciting unrest, or acting in a seditious or treasonous manner.
We put a bully in office, and he took everyone’s lunch money.
We should have seen it coming.