Short Story by Jack Bragen

[dropcap]T[/dropcap]here was a long line of people that formed at six in the morning at the door of the Department of Domestic Poverty (Concord, California Branch), because it was Wednesday. People needed their restriction cards refreshed so that they would be allowed to buy food and cigarettes, so that they could pay rental fees on their cubicles, and so that they wouldn’t be subject to a fine and imprisonment.
As I waited in line, I remembered how events had unfolded, even though it was illegal for me to think about this. The government had become increasingly controlling, increasingly sinister, and increasingly omnipotent.
It had happened in stages, each change being spoon-fed to the public so that it would be harder to point out the gradual erosion of liberty, and object that the government was pulling a fast one.
A man next to me deliberately jostled me with a pretense of it being unintentional. “Sorry,” he said. It was a mock apology. He was a towering, stocky man and I didn’t want to argue with him.
“Don’t worry about it,” I replied, not knowing how I could appease the gentleman.
“Pardon me,” he said, in that tone of voice that bullying men use — that fake politeness. “Can I go ahead of you? I’m really in dire straits.”
I replied, “We are all in dire straits. I can’t give up my spot.” I sized up the antagonist, looking for vulnerable spots in case it came to a fight. If I gave up my spot to him, what would stop the next person in line from asking the same thing? And the next?
Meanwhile, an enforcement droid, the type on wheels rather than legs, had shown up. It was within range of stunning either me or the man with whom I had been arguing. “You two, present your cards! You first!” The robot pointed a mechanical finger at my opponent.
We were both about to get pain-whipped. It is excruciating pain and no one wants it. Afterward, they refresh your card because you are usually too weak to continue standing in line.
There were a few people who routinely misbehaved, preferring the physical agony over having to wait all day to get their card refreshed.
My opponent produced an aluminum baseball bat seemingly out of nowhere, and caught the enforcement droid by surprise. It was quickly reduced to a heap of sparking electronic pieces.
Everyone in line cheered.

"The Poverty Line." Art by Christa Occhiogrosso

More enforcement droids were coming. I counted five of them and they had their weapons readied. But people had taken enough. The people who had been waiting in the long line so that they could continue their meager existences were angry. They surged at the enforcement droids and collectively smashed them to bits.
In the process of this spontaneous rebellion, one person was shot. An ambulance appeared that had been electronically summoned. Emergency medical care had become worse then a joke, and the ambulance was merely a disposal service. The crowd gathered around the ambulance and overturned it.
I spotted the man who had started it all. He was stooping over the remains of the robot he had destroyed, and was apparently trying to refresh his card using the electronic pieces. I saw him smile and get ready to walk away.
I quickly walked toward him. “I’ve got to shake your hand,” I said. “I’m Al.” I reached toward the stranger.
He reached out a hand. “Baker,” he said, introducing himself.
“Way to go, Baker,” I said.
I swiped my card on the electronic piece that I had seen Baker use, and we both slipped away from the angry crowd which was now breaking windows. I stopped at the food bank and got some food, and went to my cubicle where my wife and daughter waited. I would have a story to tell them.