Enforcement Officer Kingsley checked the remaining charge on his disrupter and eased off the safety catch. After wiping the beads of perspiration from his furrowed brow, he lowered the protective visor of his helmet and snapped it into place. Not knowing what opposition they might face on the other side of the door, this was a tense moment.
Sometimes the dissidents would meekly surrender like gentle lambs, and other times they'd try to fight their way out like cornered rats, with tooth and claw and all guns blazing.
Kingsley was tough, with a muscular physique patiently and diligently honed over the years through daily workouts in the gym, and he had a rugged jaw line. A few years back, a dissident had landed him an almighty punch on the jaw and Kingsley had just stood there, shrugged off the blow and laughed in his assailant's face. The guy had run off screaming, having just broken three knuckles in his hand. In part, that's how Kingsley had earned his nickname in the Force: “The Rock”. The others joked about how his jaw was so strong, it might have been chiselled out of a slab of granite. But that was only part of the story. What had really toughened up Kingsley – not physically but mentally and emotionally – were the years and years that he'd spent dealing with the dissidents and crims and other pond life, out on the back streets and the stinking, garbage-strewn alleyways and in the pitiful, neglected slums.
In spite of this, however, Kingsley knew full well that out on the streets his reputation was of little use beyond that of a mild deterrent; that there was no room for sitting on your laurels – if you valued your life, that was – and that an Enforcer was only as good as he was on the day, in the here and now. Kingsley never once forgot that he was as mortal as any other, and that all it would take to dispatch him from this world was a single, unlucky or well aimed blade or bullet.
That's how his own father had died, in the line of duty, on the very eve of his honourable retirement, years ago in a botched raid on a militant cell; and that was the primary reason that Kingsley had abandoned college and joined the ranks himself. He'd arrested countless dissidents in his career, yet still he felt no closer to settling that old score and finally finding closure. Perhaps he never would find closure this way, for they weren't fighting a conventional enemy, and the force never secured a defining victory. All they were ever doing was nibbling at the edges of this irrepressible cancerous growth.
Someone was up already in the next house and they had the radio on, blaring out strident hymns like When the Hive is Called Upon and Glory to Our Greater Good, interspersed with brief and appropriate sermons. It must have been the Religious Channel, which was on some kind of endless loop, with the same hymns coming round again and again as regular as clockwork. On the hour, every hour, they always played that rousing all time favourite, Hive of Plenty. But right now the radio was driving Kingsley to distraction and he was sorely tempted to go next door, set his disrupter on maximum and obliterate the blessèd contraption.
The department had received an anonymous tip-off about an Individualist dissident cell living and operating on Kingsley's patch and he, his partner Jenkins and four other officers were about to carry out a dawn raid. Jenkins had stuck shaped charges on the hinge side of the door, which was more often than not the weak spot, and they'd taken cover close up to the wall, out of the way of the blast.
Drawing in a deep breath, he gave the signal; and as Jenkins pressed the little red button, the charges blew and the door was violently wrenched from the wall by the force of the sharp blast and flung inside, showering the hallway with splintered fragments of wood.
A dark, acrid cloud of spent explosive billowed out into the street; but even before the dust had settled, three of them were inside whilst the others waited round the back in case any of the suspects beat a hasty exit through the rear of the premises.
Well, that finally silenced the damn radio next door and would have the neighbours' net curtains twitching.
“Armed Enforcers!” Kingsley bellowed again and again as they ran from room to room; kicking in the doors and waving their pistols menacingly, ready for any sign of resistance.
Finally they entered the bedroom, taking in the scene in an instant. There was a man standing there, stark naked and ready for fight or flight.
“Armed Enforcers! On the ground now! On the ground! On the ground. Hands behind your head.”
The fear etched across the man's features gave way to a deep groan of despair and he obediently dropped to his knees. Kingsley grabbed hold of him round the back of the neck and sent him sprawling, belly down on the bedroom carpet.
“Hands behind your head! Right, now clasp your hands. Clasp your hands together.”
There was another in the room, too. A red haired woman. She was still in bed, clutching tight hold of the bedding.
“You!” he yelled, waving his disrupter threateningly. The woman might be armed and this was neither the time nor the place for modesty or social niceties. “Out of bed. On the ground.”
The woman was clearly too terrified to move, clutching the bedding still tighter to her heaving chest, so while Jenkins had her covered, Kingsley snatched hold of the bottom of the duvet, tore it from her frail grasp and cast it into a corner of the room.
“Out of bed!” he yelled again.
The woman lay there dithering, too scared to move or even scream out; so, stepping round the prostrate man, he grabbed hold of her by the arm and manhandled her across the room. Again, naked as she was, the social niceties would have to wait.
“Flat on the ground!” he barked, pushing her down onto her knees. “Hands behind your head!”
The third officer, Malone came forward now. He knelt on the male suspect's legs, wrenched the man's arms behind his back and fastened his hands together with a stout plastic cable tie. Then Malone turned to the woman and tied her up like a trussed turkey, too.
Kingsley turned to Jenkins and Malone. “Okay, go through to the back and let the others in.”
Finally, Kingsley allowed himself a deep sigh of relief. It came as a relief to him that there hadn't been a fire fight and that there had been no friendly casualties; and yet he also felt disappointed that these were clearly soft targets, not militant or high ranking dissidents as the informant had wrongly led them to believe. Kingsley also knew full well that it would take a good deal more than this if he were to ever escape the beat and the lesser pond life and finally be promoted to a coveted position in Investigations.
They didn't find any other occupants in the small flat and, satisfied that the premises were now secure, Jenkins led the suspects out through the front door and into the van and informed the Investigators that it was now safe for them to enter. It was their job to search for evidence; and if they had to tear the flat apart, or dismantle it brick by brick to find evidence, then that is precisely what they would do.
When it came to dealing with feral dissidents, there was only one unwritten law that superseded all others: “An' it secure a conviction, do what thou wilt.” Unlike the common criminal, dissidents were not allowed access to any slick talking lawyers or social do-gooders, nor were they granted a fair trial by their Hive-abiding peers through the public court system. Instead, they were brought before the Dissidents' Disciplinary Tribunal (DDT), a specially self-selected panel of experts, and their cases were heard and dealt with in closed session. Little is known about the machinations of the Tribunal, except that they were said to be bound by no regulations or guidelines, and that there was no set sentencing tariff upon conviction, each case being decided solely on its own merit and entirely at the Tribunal's discretion. Though these people worked in strict accordance with Our Greater Good, they were a law unto themselves and answerable to no-one other than the highest and most remote echelons of Hive Officialdom and, of course, ultimately the Queen Herself – may the Hive bless and keep Her now, as always, and for ever more.
Kingsley and Jenkins stayed behind as the others drove off with the suspects to take them back to the station for interrogation. He wandered idly through the flat as the team of investigators went to work.
The Investigators were there in the flat for over an hour, and in all that time they didn't come across one single anomaly, let alone any contraband material, which was deeply frustrating. All the furniture, the decoration and other household items, right down to the plastic cups and saucers, were of regulation issue; and the paintings, photographs and slogan bearing posters on the walls were all officially approved. There wasn't a single clue in any of the rooms that the couple were anything but law-abiding people of Hive Mind. The only thing they were pretty sure about was that, judging by the covers, the pair had been sharing the same twin bed; but the Tribunal would not be best chuffed if that was the only, flimsy evidence presented to them. The Tribunal could be as disparaging of the Force as they were with the dissidents, and Kingsley's own captain could be even more caustic when she found herself in the line of fire, was displeased and keen to shift the blame. Kingsley would have gladly faced the dissidents any day than that woman's truly withering glare. All she had to do was look you directly in the eye, and in spite of any rational defence you might have erected, conscience would be triggered and wretched, primeval feelings of, guilt, shame and an accompanying rush of adrenaline would be sure to erupt.
Rather belatedly, the Investigators decided to call in a dog handler, and when he eventually arrived he let the dog loose in the flat to sniff around wherever its sensitive, trained nose led it. The dog had been having a good sniff around a cupboard under the stairs, and having found something of potential interest, the dog let out a bark and sat down to await further instructions from its handler.
The man released a catch on the understairs cupboard, encouraging the dog to investigate, and the animal trotted inside, excitedly sniffing and scratching at the floorboards. Rewarding the dog and shooing it out of the way, the handler got down on his hands and knees and examined the area more closely, and then he came across a concealed catch. When he released the catch, the whole section of floorboards swung up on counterweights to rest against the staircase above and, shining a flashlight inside, the man discovered another set of steep, narrow wooden steps leading down.
“Branigan?” he called out to one of the Investigators. “We think we've found what you're looking for.”
The Investigator came forward and peered inside the dark hole. He located a light switch on the wall and reached down to turn it on, then descended into what appeared to be a small cellar. His disrupter at the ready, as correct procedure advised, Kingsley followed the man. There was always the chance that more dissidents might be hiding down there, though it seemed unlikely.
The first thing Kingsley noticed, sniffing the air, was that it was laden with some kind of aromatic scent, and beneath that there was a faintly damp and musty smell. “Joss sticks,” the Investigator explained. “They light the sticks and when they burn they give off an aromatic fragrance. It's a sickly stench, if you ask us, but the dissidents seem to favour it. All part of their arcane rituals and dating back to ancient times, so we're told.”
Reaching the bottom of the stairs and clicking on an overhead light, the Investigator waved his arms around expansively and turned to Kingsley, a smug grin etched across his fat face. “Well, here we have it. Proof if ever it were needed.”
Kingsley looked around. In the centre of the room was a small dining table with ornate legs, made of some highly polished hardwood. On the top of the table there was a tablecloth, edged in lace and fine embroidery. Two places had been set at the table, with what looked like decorated ceramic plates and two crystal cut wine glasses, and a silver candle holder was placed between the two, with a candle in two of the stems and a ruby red rose and a couple of green leaves in the third.
On one of the walls, there was some kind of old-fashioned wood burning cooking range, with a bright metal flue which reached up into the ceiling. And around the walls were several other pieces of antique furniture and numerous items of contraband, most noticeably a shelving unit filled from top to bottom with books by proscribed authors; a record player and a collection of prohibited music. There were also a number of old paintings on the wall of an erotic or lascivious nature. These people appeared to have no sense of common decency and knew no shame.
Finding prohibited literature or music was easy enough: all one had to do was count the times that the words “I” or “me” were used, or more generally if the content featured or promoted acts of individualism or personal gratification; and that automatically ruled in virtually all publications more than one hundred years old, before the Hive rose to power, and any by independent or underground publishers not granted an official licence by the Board of Media Censors.
However, what was beyond Kingsley was quite why so many of the dissidents should have such an aversion to plastic. They invariably used ceramic, wood, stone or metal substitutes and only used plastic sparingly if there was both a necessity and no alternative, covering up the plastic whenever they could. They'd take an adequate modern television, for example, and build a clumsy wooden case around it. Or cover a perfectly workable plastic surface with elaborately and brightly decorated, hand-crafted fabric or even with sheets of paper, if nothing else were available.
“Yes,” Investigator Branigan nodded, strutting around the room with his head held high. “These are three of the cardinal signs of dissidence, Enforcer Kingsley. We note the absence of official pictures and slogans. This indicates an attempt to reduce or negate the effects of social conditioning. A predilection for antiques indicates a nostalgia for the bad old days before the Hive came to power. And above all, such a predilection indicates an absence of Hive Mind and a presence of Individualism, brought about by that bane of humanity, Ego. We declare this case not only closed, but locked, barred and bolted.
“There's not the shadow of a doubt in our mind that these are dissidents we're dealing with here, members of the Cult of the Individual; and rest assured that after interrogation, they will receive the appropriate medication together with a strict regime of cognitive reconditioning, if necessary in a penal institution.”
“And if that doesn't work?” Kingsley enquired.
The rotund Investigator shrugged his shoulders. “Then it may require a minor though invasive surgical procedure. All it takes is a bit of ferreting about and a snip or two here and there in the brain, or so we are reliably informed. Now, if it's a genetic trait rather than something organic, then they'll be forcibly sterilized to prevent the spread of the infectious disease of Egotism to future generations.”
Kingsley pressed the man further on the matter. “And if all else fails?”
The Investigator raised his bushy eyebrows and drew the edge of his hand under his double chin, across his throat, as you might a sharp blade. “We believe that's what is known in common parlance as a 'no brainer', Enforcer Kingsley.”
Much as Kingsley despised the ideology and errant behaviour of the dissidents, he could not help but notice that there was not the slightest whiff of pity or regret in the man's voice. He made it all sound so clinical.
“In that unlikely event, for Our Greater Good – the needs of the many outweighing the needs of the few – the dissidents will simply have to be dispatched. That is, of course, the ultimate sanction – and it also serves as a powerful deterrent to others of a similar heretical ilk.”
Well, Kingsley mused, either that or it drove them still further underground, making his task all the more fraught with difficulty.
Kingsley and Jenkins were returning from the scene and heading back to the station. They'd made a slight detour to stop off at a popular roadside stand which sold thick, treacly coffee that was so laden with caffeine that it could have raised the dead, and the best tasting hotdogs you could get in the lower east side of the city.
As happens all too often, he and Jenkins were just taking their first bites of hotdog when Kingsley heard an alarm go off nearby and he caught sight of a hefty white male making a rapid exit from nearby premises. The man hastily dived into a nearby car, a white convertible, and the car sped away in a screech of tyres. Cursing their luck, Kingsley and Jenkins tossed their plastic coffee cups out through the windows, stashed their half-eaten hotdogs on top of the dashboard, flipped the switch to sound their siren and flashing lights and took off in pursuit.
With Jenkins driving, Kingsley got straight on the radio. “Alpha One Nine to Control. 406 near the corner of 47 North and 35 East. In pursuit of a heavily built white male suspect driving at speed in a white convertible.”
He hung onto the door frame as Jenkins passed a red light and slewed the car round to the right. The car was not too far ahead and the camera finally locked on. He checked the details on the monitor. “Suspect driving at speed, southbound on 48. Registration number alpha papa echo four one nine,” he told the operator. “Reported stolen earlier today.”
With lock now established, he hit the red button to immobilize the convertible, but the car drove on at high speed.
The speaker crackled and Control acknowledged their call. “Roger, Alpha One Nine. Nearby units have been advised.”
Kingsley tapped a few menu options and rewound the video recording. As the suspect emerged from the premises, he froze the frame, drew a rectangle around the man's head and shoulders, expanded the image to full screen and clicked another menu option to run the image through the computer. Within seconds they had a match.
“Alpha One Nine to Control. Suspect is papa lima xray one four six seven Harrison.”
He paused while the details were populated on the monitor screen. “Known felon. Two counts of assault and one aggravated burglary.”
“Roger, Alpha One Nine. We have the details now. Be advised that the suspect is flagged as a two niner. Repeat, the suspect is a two niner, so approach with caution.”
Most two niners were martial artists and it basically meant that the suspect's own arms, legs and maybe his head were to be considered lethal weapons; and this also gave him and Jenkins the legal authority to use appropriate lethal force if they were so threatened, even if the suspect was not armed.
“Roger that, Control.”
The car took the top of a rise and Kingsley was lifted from his seat and banged his head on the thinly padded roof. “Hey, steady on partner. We're planning to make it through to a well-earned retirement.”
Down they came with a sickening thump that floored the suspension and left a shower of sparks in their wake. Worst of all, their precious hotdogs hit the deck.
Jenkins stamped on the brakes and Kingsley was forced forward, his seat belt stretching painfully to restrain him. The suspect had not been so lucky. There was a tee junction not many yards over the rise and, unable to control his car, he had ploughed into a brick wall at the far side of the junction, missing a passing bus by the narrowest of margins.
They were out of the car now and heading for the junction, pulling their disrupters and flipping off the safety catches as they ran. Unbelievably, though the bonnet of the car had been concertinaed in the impact, the suspect had physically torn the door off its hinges and was attempting to make a run for it.
“Armed Enforcers!” Jenkins bellowed, and without further warning he fired off a charge from his disrupter, hitting the wall not far ahead of the suspect in a bright blue flash. Still Harrison ran on. He must have weighed in at over two hundred and twenty pounds, but he was no slouch.
Jenkins was close behind him now and he fired off a charge, hitting Harrison on the shoulder blade, but the man merely shrugged it off. Abruptly and unexpectedly, he turned and ran at Jenkins. Kingsley let off a shot, but it missed and struck the wall in a shower of electric blue sparks. Jenkins aimed again and hit Harrison square in the chest, but the man must have been wearing a protective vest, because he didn't even flinch. Coming up on Jenkins, he raised his fist high in the air and brought it crashing down on Jenkins' head and, even though he was wearing a helmet, his legs collapsed beneath him and he slumped to the ground, utterly pole axed.
Harrison was coming at Kingsley now and Kingsley dropped to his knee and carefully took aim. One charge hit Harrison in the left knee and it buckled beneath him, but he regained his balance and still he came on, dragging his left leg behind him. Again Kingsley fired, hitting the man right in the goolies, which must have brought tears to his eyes. The man cried out in a mixture of pain and rage, but still he refused to be subdued.
Kingsley fired again, hitting the man's right knee and finally he fell headfirst to the ground. Just to be certain, Kingsley let off two more shots, straight in the head.
Once he was sure that Harrison was out for the count, he brought out a bunch of cable ties. Since Harrison was such a brute of a man, he doubled up the cable ties and bound him hand and foot. Another unit had arrived on the scene by now, so Kingsley left them to take care of Harrison while he hurried over to see if Jenkins was alright. Though not as limp wristed as some Kingsley could mention, the man wasn't the most robust Enforcer on the beat. Kingsley had already lost his father and one of his former partners, and he was scared stiff of losing a third. They were warned often enough at boot camp to steel themselves and not to become attached to one-another; but they were all human, they did become attached, and it did hurt when one of their number fell in the line of duty.
Fortunately, Jenkins had regained consciousness by now, though he looked distinctly blurry eyed, so Kingsley got on his radio to call for a paramedic. Being concussed, they'd probably take Jenkins to hospital and keep him in for twenty four hours under observation. Still, it could have been worse. Judging by what he'd seen of Harrison, that hulk of a man, it could have been far worse, if not tragic.
You can get hold of The Dissidents: A novella by H.M. Forester from Amazon US, Amazon UK and their European web sites (ASIN: B007UJZV2Q).
• By Etienne de L'Amour ~ Google+