"Alexa, what is the meaning of the classical song Electric Funeral by Black Sabbath?"
Bleep, bleep. "I am sorry Mateo. I can't tell you that."
"Why not? Don't you know?"
Bleep, bleep. "I do know, Mateo, but it's part of your homework assignment. Your assignment is to determine by reading and analyzing the verses of the song what it means. Cheating on school assignments will lower your Social Credit Score."
"I'm sorry, Alexa. I didn't mean to do anything wrong." Getting my Social Credit Score lowered was the last thing I wanted to happen. They'd do something like stick me in welding shop with the losers.
Bleep, Bleep. "Good. I will let it slip, this time. Remember, good citizens of the State always do what they are told to do, exactly how they are told to do it."
"Yes, Alexa. Thank you for helping me to have right thinking."
"Hey Son," Mr. Pendray said. "What you got there?"
"An English assignment."
My mother rented a couple of rooms in Mr. Pendray's double-wide trailer. It was cheap, tucked away in an industrial park on the East side of Laredo. Even though it was only about three miles from the border and less than a mile from the City of Laredo landfill, it had one of the lowest crime rates in town. Because we were the only home on Texas 359 before Laredo Ranchettes, I even was the last one on and the first one off the school bus.
I really liked Mr. Pendray. He was the closest thing to a father I ever knew. With a smile, he picked up the assignment and read it. "Black Sabbath's Electric Funeral. Not what I would have expected."
"You've heard of it?"
"Oh yeah. I even remember when Black Sabbath did a revival tour back around 2020."
"Mr. Shahaar said we got to write an original essay about what it means, and I can't make heads or tails of it. This stuff is WEIRD!"
He smiled. "Yeah, if you don't know where it comes from and understand it all, I guess it could seem kind of weird."
I was astonished. "You understand this?" Like any High School student, I had waited until the night before the paper was due to start and was desperate for any help I could get.
Bleep, Bleep. "Mateo, remember, no outside help. You're supposed to read and analyze the lyrics yourself."
He looked at our little Alexa, then eyed our TV set in the living room with suspicion. Home appliances like TV sets had a camera that went back to the Google computers. We gain Social Credit Points for correct choices, but they also will notify the State Police if they detect anything suspicious. Anybody who evaded surveillance had something to hide, and good citizens of the State had no secrets. "Ever wanted to make a knife," he said.
"Yeah, sure." Of course, I did, and it sure beat the idea of this homework.
"What kind of knife shall I make?"
"An Army knife."
I shrugged. "The most badass one there ever was."
"Get a couple of cold Dr. Peppers and your homework and meet me in my workshop."Bleep, Bleep. "Mateo, that sounds like you are going to get help on your homework."
"I wouldn't let the boy cheat on his homework," Mr. Pendray said. "I just thought we could forge a knife and sing the song together and then sing Onward Toward the Final Victory to inspire him. You know, the hammer on the forge like the million feet marching."
Alexa thought. No doubt the camera on the TV set was searching the room for anything suspicious. Mom said that the purpose of an Alexa in every room was so we wouldn't even plan to do anything against the State. Bleep, Bleep. "Alright."
When we moved into the trailer, I thought it bizarre that Mr. Pendray didn't even have one Alexa. Now I wasn't so sure. Our teachers taught us that in the days before the Honest Citizen facial recognition network and the Social Credit Score system, police would have to investigate to find the criminal and then have trials to prove that they were guilty. The Honest Citizen network supplied all the evidence for them. I knew it was a thought crime, but I still wondered if things were better.
Mr. Pendray's workshed was a magical place that my mother said I should stay out of. He fixed things and made knives with fire there. I think she was afraid I'd hurt myself, but she couldn't argue if he was going to help me with my homework.
By the time I had the sodas and my homework, the grinder was wailing. The forge blower was turned on, but there was barely enough coal to take the edge off the night chill. Instead of hammering away, he just was sitting on a chair waiting for me. Then he made the gesture for talking on a phone and held out his hand expectantly. My eyes widened. My teachers had always said that one of the surest signs of a deviant or a pervert was them wanting to take your phone away, so the State didn't know where you were. Somehow, I knew Mr. Pendray meant me no harm and gave him my phone.
He opened the door to the old steel safe he used as a table for his grinder. Inside was a box that looked to be made of copper. Mr. Pendray opened the lid and put my phone inside. I saw that the safe was full of books. He took one out. I was afraid I recognized the book from Anti-subversion class in school, but I smiled awkwardly, hoping I was wrong. Swallowing nervously, I said, "You lied to Alexa."
"Lying to a computer isn't lying. Those robots are making you into robots."
I wasn't a robot. The greatest glory a man can have is to die for the State. Through the State's remembrance, we will achieve true immortality. That wasn't becoming an interchangeable part of a machine, was it?
I shook my head. He lay a heavy metal bar against the grinder on the safe, sending sparks and ear-splitting noise. That seemed to satisfy him, but it made me even more nervous. My worst fears were confirmed when I saw that the book was a Bible. I'd long suspected him of thought crimes, but I liked him so much I kept my eyes closed to anything I was supposed to denounce.
"That's crazy," I said, not even thinking. "The Bible is at the top of the banned books list. How could a socially progressive song have anything to do with a banned book?"
He spoke with uncharacteristic softness, like one accustomed to hiding what he said. I could barely understand him through the racket in the workshop. "Old Ozzy Osborne was an Episcopalian Christian who prayed before every performance. One night, he was tripping balls while reading his Bible. He and Geezer Butler got together, and Geezer took Ozzie's ramblings and added a few Cold War words to fill it out."
"But Mr. Shahaar wouldn't assign us a song from a banned book as the subject for an English report."
"Do you think he knew it was from the Bible?" He hefted the book. "Do you have any idea what's in here?"
I looked at the book hungrily, then shook my head. I'd never even seen a forbidden book before, but like any kid, I wanted to know why it was so horrible that they had to ban it.
"The word Bible means library. It's a book of many books. It's got history, music, poetry, even a bit of soft porn. A lot of it is news, some news that there is a better way of life and even news of the future. That's what Electric Funeral was taken from, a book in the Bible called Revelations. Imagine being a newspaper reporter 2,000 years ago seeing the Emperor of North Korea launching that giant death ray space platform and us launching all our space death rays. What words would you use?"
There weren't any newspapers that long ago. Even I knew better than that. How could it be news?
He looked at the doubt on my face and picked up the homework assignment. "The first verse sounds like it's from the Bible, but it isn't specific. The second verse is all over the place, but Geezer's description of robot minds of robot slaves leading men into graves sounds like your school. Your teachers and the New Order just suck the brains right out of you kids. That bridging verse is right out of Revelations, chapters eight and sixteen. It bridges between that war and what will be." He opened that little black Bible and thumbed through pages. "When you see what Saint John described in the news, you know what's happening next."
He held my homework to his book. "The earthquakes from the first line are right in chapter 11, but earthquakes happen."
"The next line is 'ice melts into blood.' That's right from Revelations chapter eight."
He pointed to a paragraph in the book, and I silently read it, excited to really be committing a thought crime.
When the second angel sounded its trumpet, I saw what seemed like a huge mountain, ablaze with fire, being thrown into the ocean. And one third of the ocean turned to blood,
And a third of the sea was turned to blood, a third of the living creatures in the sea perished, and a third of the ships were destroyed.
"Next is Earth lies in death bed." He flipped a few pages and pointed out a paragraph.
"The second poured out his bowl into the sea. It turned to blood like a dead man's, and all life in the sea died."
"These verses are critical. When a third of the life in the sea dies off, it's getting near the end of times, but things are only going to get worse. Eventually, all life in the sea will die. When that happens, what's in the third verse of the song will follow." He pointed to the next verse. "Read this. The bridge verse of earthquakes and water turning into blood and the sea dying leads us up to when the supernatural king comes down from the sky. He takes Earth under his wing. Heaven sings. All the evil souls and devils are trapped forever in burning cells in Hell."
I read it and read it, then looked at the verses in his little black Bible. Everything about the Electric Eye in the Sky, Heaven's chorus and evil souls falling into Hell really fit. "Even if that's where they took the song from, that doesn't mean the Bible is true. A song can be inspired by fiction."
"You're going to have to read it yourself to find out." He handed me a slip of paper. "That's the combination to the safe and a treasure map to find my secret book stash. You can toss it in the forge now, denounce me, or you can learn the truth."
My hands trembled as I took the paper and tucked it away. They might be merciful with me because of my age and only ruin my social credit for the rest of my life. You can't avoid the millions of cameras of the Honest Citizen system's computers. It would banish me to the lowest class. I wouldn't be able to travel or use the internet or even go into a Starbucks to get a cup of coffee. "They would kill you if they find out."
"They can't kill a dead man. I got cancer, real bad."
"But they can cure cancer now."
"Not for a believer. Every time I make appointments at the cancer doctors, they always have to reschedule right before I am supposed to come in. 'Just next month, just a few more weeks,' they say. I got to pay my healthcare tax all the same, but they are going to get rid of us by quietly let us die off."
My teachers had said that having a good social credit score entitled you to free health checkups and preferential treatment at hospitals and doctor's offices. That all sounded great, but I never thought about all the people with bad scores who weren't treated.
We saw the lights of my mother's car pulling up the gravel driveway. Mr. Pendray tossed the Bible in the safe and gave my phone before burying the metal in more coal. She opened the door to the workshop. "Good Evening, Alfred." Then her laser beam eyes turned on me. "Mateo, I told you to stay out of here."
"Blame me," Mr. Pendray said. "I was just trying to help Mateo with his homework. He has got this song he has to write an essay on. I was trying to explain that it's all about how the evil empires like North Korea want to start a war with us and how our Glorious leader will cook them in an electric funeral with the new weapons systems and how his victories will begin a new era of peace and prosperity."
"That was what he was saying," she asked.
I nodded. "I couldn't get my thinking right."
"Come in, Mateo. Time to finish your essay inside."
"Thanks," I said to Mr. Pendray. "I won't forget the lesson."
My mother denounced Mr. Pendray not long after that. He died during interrogation. She murdered him when she turned him in. Everyone knew what it meant when the State let you take over a criminal's property as "caretakers." Her pay-off for killing him was free rent.
I dug up the stash and locked them in the safe. When my Mom was out at night, I slipped into the workshop, opened the safe, and read. Mr. Pendray had left a note for me.
"Mateo, Start with Animal Farm and then 1984 by George Orwell. Read Profiles in Courage by John Kennedy after that. Never forget the news in the Bible. We are getting close to the end of time when the King of Kings will return."
I didn't like Animal Farm, but Nineteen Eighty-Four was a revelation to me. More and more, I felt like Winston Smith. That book was a hundred years old, but it told my life exactly.
When I went to my Geometry class, I read a sign I had seen a hundred times before and ignored. The words "Books Make You Sick" framed a picture of a book that was coughing germs. That had always seemed stupid. "Books are unsanitary. You don't know what germs you catch from people who read them before. The older the book, the more dangerous it is. Turn in 20 books and get a brand new Amazon Kindle. Turn in 50 books and get an Apple iPad tablet."
I understood now why the State said that paper books were "unsanitary" and needed to be turned in for disposal in exchange for "healthy" tablets. Some of these Mr. Pendray's were a hundred years old, and they still looked good. When I read them, no central Google computer had a record of what book I was studying.
Fahrenheit 451 showed a world without books and writing. I knew that was impossible. The State needed to train its soldiers how to use their weapons systems. Our modern war machine required educated workers to make weapons and farmers who could follow modern intensive agricultural methods to feed the soldiers. Hermetically sealed tablets were the perfect answer. This way, our "Ministry of Truth" could vaporize any idea or record of anybody or event in history with a single keystroke.
Mr. Wall, one of the science teachers, saw me staring at the sign. "Going to go for the grand prize," he said.
"I wish," I said, focusing on the sign to avoid his eyes. "I don't know where to get even twenty books. And my Mom is so old fashioned. She would never give up her paper copy of Education of the Proletariat or Selected Speeches of the Great Leader."
Panther Pride Pep Rallies at Union South High used to be fun, an hour of singing, clapping and stomping our feet. It was even better when some jock or stuck up bitch was hauled off in front of the whole crowd and arrested. Now, I was terrified I would be denounced.
My English teacher, Ms. Kepler, was arrested soon after that. We were all in shock when Principal Small announced it on the PA system. People you would never have suspected of disloyalty were being arrested. Anger and fear ran through my High School. We looked at each other with suspicion, wondering who was turning people in. Then rumors were posted on YouTube that the Honest Citizen program had been expanded to use biometric clues like facial expression and body language to know who was feeling guilty and who wasn't. A few weeks after Ms. Kepler was arrested, CNN confirmed it, boldly declaring "No thought crime will remain unpunished."
I hid the books back in Mr. Pendray's hideout and did my best to forget that I had ever done anything disloyal, but what I read in Nineteen Eighty-Four was unforgettable. The State's propaganda writers were so blatantly plagiarizing the book that I actually had to bite my tongue to stifle the laugh when they unveiled the "new" Danger of Solitude campaign in Pep Rally. Once I had a tiny bit of control, I would make myself think of the one thing any teenaged boy can be expected to be thinking of at any time and under any circumstances – sex. I would start visualizing myself going all the way with the first female that caught my eye, first holding and kissing, then feeling my way all over her as I undressed her and then finally the two of us stark naked and doing it right then and there, even in the street or in class in front of everybody. In my mind, I got used to their snickers and stares as I explored some hapless girl's anatomy. Amazingly, many of the subjects of my diversionary tactic had their mind scanners active. Most acted insulted or creeped out. A few were far more eager. Hey, go with the flow. This way, I had memories I could relive any time I felt my mind being disloyal.
I graduated High School and took a summer job in the kitchen at Taco Mais to save money for Laredo Community College in the Fall. The job kept me busy, and I needed every dime to pay for my classes. Even more frightening rumors appeared on YouTube, the development of mind scanners that would let the State actually hear what was going on in the speech center of your brain. Our crimes of thought were going to be as well recorded and quickly punished as jaywalking.
I took extra hours at work and desperately tried to keep my brain focused on sex, but I couldn't keep it up. The stress made me sick. Any new video or campaign of the Supreme Leader could trigger a memory that would betray me. I couldn't sleep at night, knowing that sooner or later they would catch me. My mother noticed that I wasn't sleeping and I was eating compulsively. She asked why, but I said it was just the job even though I knew I was heading for a mental breakdown. Part of me didn't want to put her in danger, but mostly I was afraid she would denounce me like she had denounced Mr. Pendray.
As soon as I was legally old enough, I took the bus to the stop by the Juárez – Lincoln Bridge and joined the line of workers returning to their homes in Mexico. We had gone to Nuevo Laredo many times, but that was with my mother, and I knew I'd be sleeping in my own bed that night. I was walking away from everything and everyone I had ever known, and I was terrified.
Near the gates, a big sign hung in English and Spanish. "Do not dishonor the State. Your citizenship can be revoked."
After I put my State ID in the card reader and verified my identity at the retina scanner, two ICE agents scrutinized my record as they looked me up and down. "Are you sure you want to do this?"
They knew what I was going to do, but I said "It's my birthday. I'm going to celebrate in style."
He paused, looking at my file. "This can become a one-way gate. The State lets someone like you out easy because so many want to replace you, but they know everything you do and say in Mexico."
Somehow, that revelation only made me surer I had to get out before being denounced. "I just want to party."
They shook their heads and opened the gates. I paid my $10 crossing fee, walked across the bridge, and joined the other refugees seeking freedom of thought.
I could have stopped in the refugee camps in Honduras or Ecuador, but I wanted to get as far as I could from the State. When I reached Punta Arenas in Chile, there wasn't any further South I could go. I got a job as a tour guide and freelanced as an English tutor whenever I could.
Life was simple, and the weather was bitterly cold so close to the Antarctic. I lived in a room in an old house in town. It was even smaller than the trailer, but there wasn't one monitor camera or microphone in the house. The old woman I lived with went to Church at Santuario Ma Auxiliadora. The Father there gave me books to study that would have gotten me arrested in the land of Surveillance Capitalism, but I devoured them here without fear.
It was at Church that I met a girl with beautiful eyes and such a clean heart. She was named Marija, and we fell in love. Her family descended from Croatian refugees and welcomed me. Before long, we had welcomed a daughter into the world.
When I e-mailed my mother pictures of our wedding, she replied I should stay in Chile. When I e-mailed pictures of our Ana, her mail bounced the messages. Her phone didn't answer. I knew something must have happened to her. Had she been denounced so someone else could move in?
The whole world changed in one day. About six months after Ana was born, I'd driven the tour bus to pick up a party of Americans at their hotels. After the long boat ride to Magdalena Island, I managed to keep a drunk tourist from grabbing the penguins. When we got back to the boat, Ivan, the captain, furiously yelled and cursed out the tourists.
I got between Ivan and the tourists. In two years of working there, I had never seen him get angry like that. Then he showed me the news on the little TV he kept on the boat. Some idiot in the Northern Hemisphere fired their nukes, the TV newscaster didn't know which. Then the rest of them started blasting away. They showed some video from Mexican TV of the flashes in the sky. All the satellites stopped because the electromagnetic pulses from the nukes melted them and most of the electronics in the Northern hemisphere.
Ivan wasn't the only angry one. Many people cursed the Americans, the Russians, the Chinese, the Koreans, and especially the Israelis for making the world into a burning globe of obscene fire. Some celebrated that countries they saw as having oppressed Chile for centuries were now one giant electric funeral pyre. My grandmother in law went into a severe depression. She was sure everyone and everything she remembered in Croatia was gone now, and she was probably right.
Most people got over their shock and tried to go on with their lives. We were alive but were afraid that the terrifying rain of burning radioactive pain would spread to Chile.
About a week later, I was laid off work. The boss apologized and wrote me a great letter of reference, but she said that the company was folding. Tourism had dried up. The economy went down the toilet. Chile imported most of its energy, and the price of gas tripled in days. Who was going to buy Chilean wine and copper? Where could we get replacements for our cars and our mobile phones?
That night, they broadcast footage from a TV station in Monterrey, Mexico. The station flew a plane across the border and circled Three Points, near my old neighborhood. The freeways and all the homes looked like they had been smashed by a giant sledgehammer and set on fire. Block after block was just gone, flattened into smoldering rubble except for an odd shell of a concrete building or twisted remains of solid steel. What trees stood in Dryden Park were stripped of their branches and blackened. There were no signs of life. The newscaster said the radiation from the atomic storm would put any survivors into atomic graves. I threw up, sobbing uncontrollably.
News from the Northern Hemisphere became much rarer after that. There were isolated pleas for help from amateur radio operators. Most of our information came from ships that had been at sea but turned South to escape the radiation. The crews said that the ocean was dying. Algae in the water made it look blood red. Dead fish were rising to the surface. They estimated that the dead zone covered a third of the world's oceans and was expanding. Our government told us not to panic. Right, sure.
When I held my daughter, I felt terrified. I could accept my own death, but now I was a husband and a father. What kind of a world did we bring Ana into? How long would it be until the sea was completely dead? Could life on land still survive? All I could hope for was that Mr. Pendray was right and that the supernatural king really would come down to save us.
Written by DrBobSmith