Land of the Noble Free
By Joel Tagert
Art by Mark Mothersbaugh
Published Issue 084, December 2020
Lionel was on a mission, but as he moved through the alleys he still scanned the dumpsters for food or other useful items. Buying things was dangerous. He wore sunglasses, a wig, and a mask over his mouth and nose, crudely printed with human features. Periodically he would change all three. The cars knew your face.
It was night, but even so he walked under eaves and awnings whenever possible, feeling the gaze of heavenly eyes upon his shoulders, heavy as anvils. Death came from above. His stride was erratic, even comical: a skip, a hop, a limp, a spin, a slide. He was a fool dancing on a cliff, a leaf blowing in the wind. The streetlights analyzed your stride.
He slipped behind a hedge, then over a chain-link gate into the narrow slot between two apartment buildings. He slid through it, only too aware of the crunching of pea gravel under his feet, until he reached the other side. There he opened the gate and took a quick right into a covered cinder-block enclosure where two dumpsters hulked.
It was dark and redolent, the concrete sticky with unnamed dreck, but he doubted he’d been seen or tracked. It was as safe a meeting spot as you could find in the city.
Fortunately he didn’t have long to wait. In a few minutes someone else slipped into the enclosure, holding a bag of trash. They were singing an old tune, as if to themselves: “When they poured across the border, I was cautioned to surrender …”
“This I could not –” Lionel began to complete the coded phrase, but he stopped short when he saw a third person enter the cinder block enclosure. “Who the hell is this?”
“Easy, easy,” said his contact, Cory Marquez, face dominated by a large, bushy mustache. “This is Mandy, she’s fine, she’s with me.”
Lionel shoved Cory aside, shining a pen light on her. Small, blonde, a squirrely face. “Do you have a phone on you?”
“Sure,” she shrugged.
“It’s a Tagabond.”
If she’d been carrying an Americom phone, he’d have had to run for it and take his chances, but Tagabond still liked to play at neutrality. “Give it to me.”
“You’re not going to smash it or something crazy, are you?”
“No, here. Put it in this.” He dug in his pocket, opened a small dark gray box.
“Fine.” She dropped it in. He glanced at it just long enough to check that it was indeed a Tag, then closed the Faraday box. “Why are you making me do this again?” she said to Cory, obviously her boyfriend.
“What? You asked to come along!”
“Well, I didn’t know your friend was such a freak.”
“What the fuck were either of you thinking? What we’re doing is dangerous,” Lionel said. “It could get us all arrested. You want to end up in a reeducation camp?”
“It’s just a phone.”
“Just a phone,” he repeated, anger vibrating in his voice. “Just a phone! Who’s president right now?”
“Not what, who! Who’s president?”
“Gables. So what?”
“Harry Gables died a decade ago. Polonium poisoning.”
She frowned in the gloom. “Bullshit. I saw a press conference with him literally yesterday.”
“No, you saw a video of a press conference with the image of someone who looked and sounded exactly like Gables. Namely an actor with Gables’ face digitally mapped onto his own. Believe me, Gables is dead as a doornail.”
“That’s literally insane.”
“It’s not only perfectly sane, it’s common knowledge to everyone not using an Americom or a Tagabond phone in Americom territory. It’s literally what the whole world knows to be true, except all you millions of sweet idiots slurping up Americom’s jizz. Monica Wells is president and has been for six years. Before that it was Desi Barnes. Sound familiar? No? I’m so surprised. Let’s try again. What year is it?”
“This is such bullshit. Cory, I can’t believe –”
“Just answer the question. What year is it?”
“You’re just talking nonsense.”
“He’s not,” Cory said quietly. “Listen to him.”
From his pocket Lionel took a phone and handed it to her. Mandy turned it over in her hand, the green-leaf logo on its back unfamiliar. “Is this a Seed?”
“You’ve heard of it, at least.”
“This is illegal.”
“Yeah, what the fuck did you think I was saying? Now scroll, and I’ll tell you what we’re doing here.”
The screen lit her face from below as he spoke. “Everything you know is a lie. Your idea of history, your whole media landscape, is constructed, a myth. Your whole society is constructed that way, and everyone in your country are like so many mice in a maze. Only you were born in the maze, and you don’t know your way out. The people you see on screen mostly aren’t even real people. They’re generated by AIs for the explicit purpose of keeping you doing exactly what you were doing before, manipulating your habits and your beliefs to their own purposes.
“And here’s the kicker: It’s not even humans doing it. It’s AIs. Even the people you think are in charge are using the same phones, looking at the same made-up information. Your government isn’t communicating with you via your phone: your phone is your government. Listen to me: Your country is being run by an AI, and you don’t even know it.”
On screen she saw images, headlines, videos contradicting everything she’d learned in school: an alternate reality that she had no way of verifying except by leaving her country – which she was not allowed to do. Lionel set down his backpack. “That’s why I’m here. We’re trying to break down the digital wall, but it’s difficult. If you even stop using your current phone, the system will flag you. So here.”
From his bag he withdrew what looked like a normal phone case. “Put your phones in these. Turn them on. They’ll simulate all your usual activities, convincingly enough. Then you’re free to use these.” He handed them each a new phone. “They look like Americom phones, but they operate on an encrypted satellite beam to the Seed network. You can’t buy anything with them though. My advice is to use your usual phones when you’re out and about, and the Seeds at home, or whenever you want to see what’s really happening out there.”
He held out his hand for the phone Mandy was using and she slowly handed it back. Her voice, when she spoke, was shaky. “Is it like this everywhere? What about the other side of the world?”
Lionel scoffed. “Most countries are worse. Closed dystopias with locked-down populations and national AIs competing with each other for resources.” He zipped up his backpack and put it back on. As he stepped out of the enclosure, he turned his head and said in parting, “Don’t believe that other-side-of-the-world stuff though. Everyone knows the world is flat.”
Joel Tagert is a fiction writer, artist and longtime Zen practitioner living in Denver, Colorado. He is also currently the office manager for the Zen Center of Denver and the editorial proofreader for Westword. His debut novel, INFERENCE, was released July 2017.
Mark Mothersbaugh is a Conceptualist. As an undergraduate art student at Kent State University, Mark began creating work in the late 60s and has created tens of thousands of works to the current day in various mediums including, rubber stamp designs, mail art, decals, prints, ink illustrations, oil paintings, ceramic sculptures, manipulated photographs, video, film compositions, sonic sculptures, rugs, screen savers and so on.
While touring with his band DEVO, it was not uncommon for Mark to lightly “correct” or add onto the bland paintings and prints that adorned the many hundreds of otherwise unmemorable hotel rooms that he occupied for one night at a time. Using a van, bus, hotel room, airplane, or any space as his workspace, he has created over 40,000 drawings which serve as the genesis of ideas that later emerge in his larger projects.