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Living Standards

by Bill Kowaleski

Table of Contents

Living Standards: synopsis

In a future world marked by extremes of poverty and wealth, 13-year old Jiri has known only poverty. One day, a wealthy woman appears in Jiri’s enclave, the slum he calls home, and offers his mother an unimaginable amount of money for Jiri’s services. Little do Jiri and his mother know what the woman intends, but they accept. As Jiri grows and prospers in his new life, he becomes involved in a dangerous movement that will change his life and everyone else’s as well.

Chapter 14: The Supreme Council

part 1

Jiri had never attended a Supreme Council meeting in person, only by teleconference. Staff members filed silently to their seats, never acknowledging the staff of another councilor, sitting earnestly and quietly at a long table liberally provisioned with tiny devices with earpieces and microphones for discreet communication with the staffer’s councilor, and large-screened comms that connected to a secure network accessible to fewer than a thousand people in the entire world.

The tables created an outer ring around the long, lacquered, dark brown meeting table around which twelve comfortable, upholstered leather chairs awaited their assigned owners. The position of each seat had meaning, with the Chairman, perhaps the most powerful person in Greater North America, seated at the head.

As at all government functions, the most important person sat or stood before a backdrop of the flags of the three old nations that had united to form Greater North America, and so it was in the Supreme Council chamber. Jiri looked closely at the brightly lit red-framed red maple leaf on white background, the gaudy red and white stripes with a blue corner dotted in stars, and the red, white and green banner of old Mexico. They certainly didn’t go well together, at least from an aesthetic point of view, but GNA had never adopted a single banner, always flying all three flags in random sequences to emphasize the equality of its three parts.

Most councilors had from three to six staff members, but Bain made do with just Jiri and John Chester. They sat directly behind his assigned place, in the middle of one of the longer sides of the table. Highly directed spotlights brightly lit the table leaving the staff seats in dimmer light, the better to create the illusion that the councilors worked without support.

If a councilor chose to attend via teleconference, he or she would appear to be sitting in the usual assigned seat on screen while those attending in person saw a convincingly lifelike holographic projection of the councilor seated at the table.

Jiri broke protocol by casting discreet glances at the support staff around the table while everyone awaited the ceremonial arrival of the councilors. Almost every staff seat was filled now, with men and women of all ages and many different ethnicities. Across the meeting table from him, a little to his right, he saw a handsome young man with dark, well-groomed hair that looked very familiar. The face was a little fuller than he remembered, the posture a little less erect. He jabbed John Chester in the side and whispered, “Do you see that guy over there? Could it be...”

John’s face switched from boredom to shock. He leaned into Jiri’s ear. “Your co-star, Carlo. Looking a little the worse for wear, but quite clearly him. Whatever you do, don’t wave to him or acknowledge him. That’s just not done in here.”

As John spoke, Carlo’s wandering eyes stopped on Jiri’s. For an instant they widened, and his mouth opened, but he quickly recovered, restored his bored expression, and continued his scan of the room.

“Whose staff is he on?” whispered Jiri.

John counted seats from the end of the table. “Fourth in, that would be Teresa Walters, Chair of Consolidated Energies. She’s one of the most reactionary of a very reactionary bunch. I saw her quite a few times at the Gates’ house; one of the few women who used the performers. She’s well into her sixties now. I wonder how much Carlo is enjoying his privileged position.”

“He could always do it with anyone, anytime. It was his core competency,” Jiri whispered.

John tried mightily to stifle a chuckle but enough of one came out to concern their immediate neighbors who cast disapproving stares.

The lighting directed onto the meeting table brightened, a door just behind the display of flags opened, and the councilors paraded slowly into the room. Everyone stood. They came in from lowest status to highest, Bain in the middle, moving to their assigned positions and standing behind their chairs.

Last of all, the Chairperson, Antonio Greene, Chief Executive of Wealth Bank International, walked purposefully through the door, head down, arms swinging. He stood behind his chair and nodded toward a small window flush with the ceiling in the wall opposite him. Loud music suddenly erupted, North America the Beautiful, the national anthem of the united republics, an awkward adaptation of the old song America the Beautiful, with the extra syllable “north” inserted in a way that destroyed the rhythmic flow of the old song.

As the anthem ground out, verse after tedious verse, two for each of the three countries in the union, sung by an overambitious tenor whose ear-splitting voice shook the water glasses on the table, Jiri discretely looked at each councilor. Here was no evidence of the physical fitness mania that gripped the wealthy zones all over the world. These people were soft, flabby, sagging, and sometimes quite old. They were nearing or over the century mark, Jiri estimated, based on current capabilities in life extension technologies.

They didn’t need to be beautiful to attract mates; they could pluck them out of the enclaves at will. And they didn’t need to worry about their weight; modern medical technology kept their arteries clear and their pancreases functioning normally despite fatty, sweet diets.

But there was one exception: Bain. Jiri felt a grudging respect for the man. At least he tried to look as good as he could, perhaps because of his recent political career.

Now Jiri focused his attention on their clothes. Bain had lent him a twentieth-century style wool business suit in charcoal stripe and a solid-colored tie that he’d had to show Jiri how to knot properly. It was garb that felt as ancient and ceremonial as the robes and wigs still worn by British judges and just as impractical.

Wealthy men and women wore pseudo-silk — or real silk, if they were especially wealthy — and micro-sheen clothing: fabrics loose, comfortable, and cool in the hothouse climate of a glacier-free world. Traditional twentieth-century business suits were impossibly uncomfortable, but every male in the room wore one, and every female a feminine version with ankle-length skirts. The dark, heavy woolen garb created the feel of a funeral, and the pompous ceremony only added to that impression.

The music finally ended, the Chairperson sat, and everyone followed his lead. Bain’s presentation was third on the schedule, and that meant that Jiri and John would sit in silence, surrounded by a barrier that descended smoothly and silently out of the ceiling, blocking all sight and sounds of the meeting. It appeared to be a thin layer of shimmering, opaque silk, but John had explained that it was an electrical field that created interference patterns with sound and light waves. Only a diffuse light penetrated the field and, John said in a normal tone of voice after the field had descended, “We could shout at the top of our lungs and they’d never hear us.”

“What if we stood and tried to walk through it?” Jiri asked.

“It would provide no resistance, you’d just pass through. But that would be the last time you’d ever be invited into this room, I can guarantee you that!”

The field stayed in place for at least a half hour, then suddenly it disappeared. The Chairperson spoke, “Mr. Lee, are you prepared to make your presentation now?”

Jiri walked to the presentation podium and stood beside the wall-sized 3-D screen. As he opened his mouth to speak, the Chairperson interrupted, “Mr. Lee, as always, your presentation was thoroughly reviewed. We have added some supporting evidence in the security situation part. As a result, all persons without Clearance Level One will now be silenced. Mr. Lee, you are now granted Clearance Level One. Do you understand the implications of this privilege?”

“No, sir, my apologies.”

“None needed, it is understandable, as you were not prepared for this. It means that you could, at any time, be put under surveillance; that all your comm contacts will, from this moment forward, be recorded and subjected to computer analysis for national security issues. You will receive a new comm, one that cannot be shut off, one that will track everywhere you go.”

It took all the self-control he could muster to hide his reaction. How could he ever again contact Mira? How could he prevent her from contacting him?

“Thank you, sir, I humbly accept the responsibility you have entrusted to me.”

The chairperson and all the councilors smiled. It was the perfect response.

Jiri began. The video clips that they’d added about the security situation were shocking. In addition to the loss of control in the Seattle region, large swaths of central old Mexico, most of the states of Arizona and New Mexico, and the region from old Montreal to Quebec City were also lost.

The army, recruited almost exclusively from the enclaves, was unreliable and rebellious, and the long-standing practice of outsourcing many military functions had led to a breakdown in the command structure.

Almost everywhere, raids on warehouses that sat on the fringes of the enclaves were endemic. The resulting loss of sales was so significant that it had depressed demand, causing a recession. Unemployment had risen to levels unknown since the days when jobs began being repatriated. All this led to people with time on their hands, time to organize into gangs that stole even more goods, time to organize into militias that now controlled many enclaves.

“Thank you for adding this supporting data,” Jiri said. “It makes my argument for reform even stronger. Now, let me outline a program. It includes higher wages, universal education and health care, new housing, and opportunities for clavies to rise into the middle class. The long-term goal of this program is to create a mid-twentieth century kind of middle class, a large group that has a stake in the republic and will support the government.”

As he presented the details of his proposal, his eyes moved about the room. He noticed that Carlo and several other staffers were busily tapping on their screens and talking into their earpieces. He finished and asked for comments or questions.

An obese man sitting at the first seat to the right of the Chair, rose. His nameplate read Charles DuPuis UCG. “Why not just let these clavies revolt? Then we’d have the excuse we need to kill them by the tens of thousands. That’d solve our problems for a generation or two.”

Jiri studied DuPuis’ face closely, but it revealed little more than annoyance. He had been instructed to respond only to questions directed to him. He stood silently. Almost at once, another councilor rose. She was seated to Bain’s left and therefore of lower status. She was a very elderly woman, saggy, swaying as she stood, wrinkled despite the telltale line scars of plastic surgery. Her nameplate read Rebecca Stewart, Univ Tech.

“Chuck, you are such a flaming asshole!” She cackled witch-like. “You kill ten thousand of them, ten million of them will come after you. You’ve got no idea of how many of them there are. And do you really think our outsourced army is going to lift a finger? They won’t go into Seattle; they won’t go into Phoenix. I think the young video star has some good points. We could buy a lot of time if we offered these people some hope.”

“We can just move to our homes in Europe or Australia if they rise up,” DuPuis replied. “Who cares if they make a mess of this country? We can move back in when they realize they need our help. Or...” — he paused dramatically — “we could deploy the Final Defense.”

The Chairperson rose to his feet. “That topic is never discussed in the presence of staff!”

DuPuis whispered, his voice full of contrition, “My apologies, sir. Strike it from the record, please.”

Bain now rose. “Move to your homes offshore: that’s a fine solution for some, but there are six million of us in this nation. How can six million people just suddenly leave? Some of us like it here, call this our home. My protégé has made some excellent points. We should at least try these reforms. As Ms. Stewart so correctly states, they will at least buy us time. And I’ve done the numbers; we can afford them.”

Teresa Walters now rose. As she did, Jiri could see Carlo speaking rapidly into the earpiece that connected him to her. “Reforms!” she said, spitting the word like foul language, her face contorted in indignation. “Reforms are what Gorbachev gave to the Russians, and what happened? They revolted even more quickly!

“Reforms just encourage the masses, convince them that they have real power. Reforms make the masses stronger and us weaker. I’m not signing on to that! No, what we need is to re-establish control of the army. We need to raise military pay, eliminate those outsourcing contracts. Then we can crack down, kill the revolutionaries, set an example. Believe me, reforms aren’t going to buy us anything.”

Bain looked pointedly at Jiri. “Mr. Lee, do you have a response to Ms. Walters?”

“Yes, respectfully, Ms. Walters, but Mr. Gorbachev, while he did lose control of the Soviet Union, went on to a very lucrative career, becoming far more wealthy than he ever had been as the leader of that country. And the ruling class made out pretty well in post-Soviet Russia. Yes, there were losers, but the reforms saved the country from a possible civil war. I don’t need to remind you what happened to the ruling class after the Russian revolution beyond saying that they were massacred by the millions. That’s exactly what I want to avoid.”

“Yes,” Bain added. “The history of revolutions that overthrow the wealthy isn’t a pretty one. It’s a history of mass murder, of a complete loss of a way of life. It’s something we could be facing right now. I don’t like our odds if we choose the path of slaughtering those who oppose us. It will make it that much easier for them to justify slaughtering us when they get the chance.”

“They’ll slaughter us anyway, Bain,” Teresa Walters replied. “Have you read their little manifesto? It’s their guiding light, and it’s full of language about killing us. No, it’s kill or be killed. Believe me! We’re all going to have to make a personal decision at some point. For me, it’s fight as long as I can, and if it isn’t going our way, get out, like Charles suggests.”

The room erupted in loud, uncontrolled shouting. Jiri stood silent and still, trying to hear as much as he could, trying to read the faces of the councilors to determine how many allies he had. His presentation had clearly struck a sensitive nerve, a nerve of fear and doubt. He admitted to himself that Teresa Walters could be right. The resentment seething in the enclaves might already be too great to stop with reforms. The loss of control might already be too far advanced to reverse.

The Chairperson allowed the disorder to continue for several minutes, then produced a large wooden gavel from under the table and began pounding. The room quickly quieted.

“All staff, please leave the chamber. Councilors, we will now have confidential discussion and then a vote on this proposal.”

* * *

Proceed to part 2...

Copyright © 2016 by Bill Kowaleski

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