Author: C.A. Gray
Series: The Liberty Box #1
Kate Brandeis has it all: a famous reporter at the age of twenty-four, she’s the face of the Republic of the Americas. She has a lovingfiancé and all the success she could wish for. But when she learns of the death of a long-forgotten friend, her investigations unravel her perfect memories, forcing her to face the fact that she’s been living a lie.
Jackson MacNamera, trained from a young age in the art of mind control returns to the Republic for his mother’s funeral. Within a few hours of his arrival, authorities collect Jackson and take him by force to a room ironically called The Liberty Box, where he must choose between surrendering his thoughts to the new Republic, or fleeing for his freedom.
Kate, bereaved and confused, finds her way to a cave community of refugees, where Jackson seems to offer her an escape from her grief. The two forge an uneasy bond, and in the process, Jackson learns that Kate has some insight which may help the hunters in their attempt to free other citizens from the tyranny of the Potentate. Against the expressed wishes of the Council, the hunters plot a series of daring raids, attempting to prove that not only is freedom possible, but that the citizens are not too far gone to desire it. But with the odds so stacked against them, can the refugees succeed in their rescue missions right under the Potentate’s nose?
Prologue: Twenty Four Years Ago
Smoke billowed up into the sky as far as the eye could see. Benjamin Voltolini took a step back as a looter dashed in front of him with a torch, lobbing it at the vacant bank not ten feet away. Within minutes, it went up in flames. The other looters cheered, throwing rocks to shatter the windows, or lobbing more torches for good measure.
The banks had gotten the worst of it from the start.
Calmly, Ben weaved his way through the crowd, head up, his expression vacant, but with a hint of amusement that he could not quite erase. He’d intentionally ripped his clothes and caked them in mud to blend in, so that he could steal a large container of gasoline from one of the few remaining gas stations. He paused every so often to change his grip or wipe the sweat from his brow with the back of his hand, keeping as far away from the flames as he could.
He’d left his Mazerati well outside the city limits. He had a long way to go.
By the time Ben drove up to the fortress built into the side of the mountain, the sun dipped low behind it. Two armed guards stood by a high chain link gate, and they leveled their machine guns at him as he slowed to approach.
“Whatever happened to a simple greeting?” Ben muttered to himself, but raised his hands in the air behind the windshield.
One of the guards pulled some sort of device to his mouth and spoke rapidly as he jogged to Ben’s window.
“Identify yourself and state your business!”
“Benjamin Voltolini, Venture Capitalist.” Ben’s teeth gleamed in perfect rows. “Here to present to the former Congress of the United States of America the answer to all of their problems.”
“Do you know any members of the Tribunal personally? Have they summoned you?”
“I guarantee they all know me by reputation.”
“Get lost,” the guard ordered.
“Oh, I don’t think you want to do that, Sergeant—” Ben read the young man’s lapel, “—Branson, and I’ll tell you why. Pretty soon I will be the dictator of this country. And I never forget a favor. Nor a slight.”
“I tell you what, you arrogant bastard,” Sergeant Branson snarled, moving the safety off of his weapon. “I’ll give you to the count of ten, and by the end of it if your tires aren’t screaming on this pavement,” he pointed out into the wasteland, raising his gun, “I’ll give you exactly what you deserve.”
Ben looked Sergeant Branson up and down, as if committing him to memory. “Go on, then.”
The sergeant’s mouth fell open for a moment, unsure how to respond to this. “One!” he shouted, “Two!”
Ben watched him as the sergeant’s face turned various shades of red and finally puce by the time he reached number nine. Then, just as he leveled the weapon with Ben’s face and was about to pronounce the number ten, Ben punched the accelerator as hard as he could—not in reverse, toward of the wasteland behind him, but toward the locked gate up ahead. The other armed guard scarcely had time to leap out of the way before Ben plowed through. The gate itself snapped open and huge sections of the fence clattered to the ground in its wake.
He saw the commotion behind him from the rearview mirror, but didn’t slow down until he reached the courtyard, skidding to a stop just before he crushed a fountain in the shape of an eagle. The burnt rubber smell assaulted him even before he opened his car door.
He stepped out, opened his arms wide, and held up his hands in a gesture of both surrender and welcome as most of what remained of the Congress filed out of the meeting hall in disbelief.
“So this is the secret lair of the last vestiges of Congress!” he declared.
“Who the hell do you think you are?” snapped an old man with a shiny pate.
Ben gave a little bow. “Forgive my rather dramatic entrance, gentlemen. It was the only way I could get past your guards. Excellent young men. You should give them both a raise.” He chuckled at his own joke.
“Nobody gets paid anymore,” snapped one of them unnecessarily.
“Oh?” Ben raised his eyebrows in mock surprise. “Well, that’s a shame. I can help you fix that.”
“You can help us pay our guards?” cried one, incredulous.
“I can help you get paid again yourselves,” Ben clarified, “you and everyone else in this country. Well…” he chuckled again, “more or less.”
“That’s Ben Voltolini,” he heard one of them whisper to another, and then the whispers swept throughout the crowd. “The billionaire?” and “Where did he get gas for that car from, anyway?”
Ben gestured inside the fortress, adding, “May I?”
Now the hoary members of the Tribunal stepped aside one by one, exchanging glances with one another that suggested they knew this was against their better judgment—but really, what harm could there be in hearing him out?
The entrance led to a long hall lit by torches, the light from the sky growing dimmer and dimmer as they walked.
Torches, everywhere torches, Ben thought with disgust. It was like the Dark Ages all over again. But not for long. Everything is about to change.
At last the hall opened up to a wide, irregularly shaped room looking like it had been hewn out of the side of a mountain—which, in fact, it had. The men filed in behind him to their seats, and Ben walked to the white boards at the front and grabbed a marker. He wouldn’t need to draw much, but this established to all that he had the floor, which was his intention.
“Gentlemen,” he grinned. “Indulge me just for a few moments whilst I remind you all where we are.
“The United States is no more. For one hundred and twelve days now, there has been rioting in the streets. You, the remnant of the Congress who were not killed in those first few days after the collapse, now fashioning yourselves the Tribunal, emerged, and have attempted—badly, I might add—to maintain order as a police state. You haven’t the manpower to arrest all the rioters, of course, so instead you have resorted to gunning down citizens at will. I am not judging you.” He held up his hands as the protests began, the mocking smirk never leaving his face. “I understand that there is a greater good at stake. You are doing all you can to maintain order. But you and I both know that it is not enough. Creating order, and maintaining it, requires money.”
“As if we don’t already know that,” someone grumbled from the front row.
“Ah, yes,” Ben said calmly. “But where does the government get its money from?”
The question was patronizing, and the Tribunal glowered at him collectively, refusing to play along.
Undaunted, Ben answered his own question. “Taxes,” he said.
“There’s nothing for us to tax, idiot!” shouted one. “There’s nothing left!”
“Of course there is not. The people have to get back to work first so that you can garnish their wages. But I understand your conundrum—how can you create jobs for them when there is no industry left, when the few functional businesses left are being razed to the ground as we speak by angry citizens needing to feed their starving families?
“This is where I come in.” One hand fluttered to his chest, an affected gesture he’d perfected. “In the last ten years, I’ve funded two projects in particular that have the potential to turn this nation around, from absolute destitution and anarchy to a thriving Republic.” He paused. “Yes, that’s right, I said Republic, not Democracy.” He waited to be asked. When nobody did, he continued, unfazed, “The first of these projects is a genetically engineered version of the Epstein Barr Virus, distributed by an airborne vaccinia vector.
“Epstein Barr has been around for many generations now. This particular strain is highly virulent—much more so than the original strain, primarily causing anemia and severe fatigue.” He uncapped his marker and drew a squiggly line on the white board, and an incomplete squiggly circle next to it. Then he drew an arrow, where the first squiggly line fit inside the circle. “This,” he pointed to the circle, “represents the vaccinia vector. It is a version of smallpox, minus the portion that makes it smallpox. Now it’s just a shell, a perfect delivery system for other genetic information. It has been engineered to cover hundreds of miles at a time once it is released. In this case, it is a delivery system for the Epstein Barr virus.”
Ben read confusion and disgust on their faces. One said, “So you want to make us all sick?”
“Not sick,” Ben held up one finger, “exhausted. You see, anemia slows people down. Takes the fire out of them. Takes the fight out of them. But it will not last forever—eventually people’s immune systems will be strong enough to fight it off. This baby will buy you—oh, about six months. Oh, and not us, mind you. I have vaccines against the virus for a—ehem—select few.” He cleared his throat with a contrived little cough.
“Six months to do what?” someone shouted.
“I’m so glad you asked.” Ben said graciously. “This brings me to the second brilliant invention I’ve funded in the last decade or so: the common carrier brainwave.”
Blank stares met him. Ben turned to the white board again, erased the vaccinia vector and its contents, and instead drew something he only just remembered from gradeschool: a sine wave.
“Pretend for a moment, gentlemen, that this is a brainwave. Everyone, every human being, has a brainwave that corresponds to this carrier wave. Now, yours, or yours, or yours,” he pointed to a few in the front row, “all have slight variations unique to you, but they all have a form more or less like this one. Just like we all have an idea what fingerprints look like, but each person’s fingerprint is slightly different, variations on a theme. Yes?”
“Get to the point,” someone shouted in the back.
“This is the point,” he said. “In broadcasting, all information gets transmitted via a common carrier wave, right? Brainwaves work the same way. The variations upon the carrier are what transmit information. Your thoughts are like that. Variations on your specific carrier wave get interpreted by your brain as information.
“Now. What if we, the government, the Tribunal, could create a broadcasting center that would broadcast a version of the common human carrier brainwave that was slightly altered, to suit our purposes? Once the citizens of this new Republic are fatigued and a bit addled, they’ll be highly suggestible.”
“You want to brainwash the public?” cried one.
“That is an ugly way to put it,” Ben retorted in an injured manner. “I prefer to think of it as reprogramming the way they think—for their own good, of course. What we must do in order to create a productive, healthy society is to alter human nature.” There was a cry of outrage, and Ben shouted over them, “Come now! Which of you can refute the fact that the U.S. collapsed because the rich refused to share their wealth for the common good? That they were motivated by selfishness and greed?”
“This from you, the greediest of them all!” someone snarled.
Ben raised his eyebrows in mock offense. “On the contrary, I am proving right now that I’ve invested my wealth in the ultimate good of the people! But as I was saying, it was because of the greed of the rich that eventually all of the government programs to support the needy ran out of funds, requiring us to borrow from overseas to keep our government afloat. But in that process, we buried ourselves in such a deep hole that eventually no other nation was willing to lend to us anymore. And then, as you know all too well, the United States eked out a few last years by printing more and more money, leading to such massive inflation that a loaf of bread cost thirty dollars—and then the whole system collapsed on itself. U.S. dollars are worth about as much as toilet paper. Businesses collapsed, people lost their jobs and subsequently their homes, and they can’t afford to buy anything—so they started stealing what they needed, causing even the few remaining businesses to go under until resources were consumed and nobody has anything. That’s where we are now.
“But all of this happened because of the greed of the wealthy!” Ben declared. “If they would simply think of the greater good, as you fine gentlemen have been trying to do all along, if they would do their part in helping society, then all of us could rebuild a nation much stronger than the U.S. ever was!”
After a long pause, during which Ben could tell that the Tribunal considered his words, someone asked skeptically, “And you propose to do this how?”
Ben was waiting for this question. “By fundamentally changing human nature,” he replied again, his eyes twinkling. “You all recognize, of course, that what I propose is a socialist system. And of course you all know that socialism does not work, in most cases, because men are too busy looking out for themselves, and never for the good of their fellow men. They protest. They rebel against their lot.
“This is why the common carrier brainwave is so important!” he declared. “Don’t you see? We must change the way men think.”
There was a long pause, and then someone shouted, “And this will work on—everyone?”
“It has worked on about ninety-seven percent of our test subjects,” Ben returned, “but that extra three percent would require us to collect an imprint of each citizen’s individual brainwaves. Once the population has been infected, we will set up stations around the nation where citizens can be scanned, and make the scanning mandatory. That way, we will be able to find and eliminate the rebels before they can become a problem.”
“What if they don’t come?”
“Easy enough. We’ll offer rations of food to those who come, and a threat of jail to those who don’t. Still, not everyone will show—but it’ll be easy enough for us to track down the remnant, since my technology can detect and locate undocumented brain waves.”
“So you’ll just—kill the dissenters?” cried someone. “Anyone who doesn’t do what you want them to? That’s murder!”
Ben raised his eyebrows. “Is it so much worse than shooting rioters to protect the rest of the people? What I propose is no different than that, and much more effective. In both cases you will eliminate the few for the good of the many.”
There was silence, then a slight murmur rippled through the crowd. Someone from the back shouted, “So you infect them and brainwash them. What then? What exactly do you envision for the future of this socialist nation, Voltolini?”
Ben’s face took on a bit of a glow. “Picture this,” he declared. “There will be no private businesses. All of them will be government-run. Everyone will be a government employee, and will be placed in a position that best suits his abilities. Higher education will exist, but only for those who score high enough on placement exams; everyone else will be funneled into trades or physical labor. The education programs will be selected for the individual, based upon aptitude. And because there will be no market to determine value of a given skill, everyone will make the same hourly wage—but all of it will go into government coffers. Then the government will dole out what each person needs for survival, and no more than that: a standard ration of food, health care, housing, and etcetera.
“The primary difference between this new Republic and other socialist systems is that the people will have a mindset of true selflessness and altruism. They will adore their government. They will see the government as a loving parent, meeting their needs with abundance—because that is what they will be programmed to believe. Anyone who resists will first receive another injection of the virus to see if they can be rehabilitated. In the event that the second attempt also does not work, they must be swiftly eliminated. This is absolutely necessary, or we risk rebels who might start a revolution.”
The irregular room burst into murmurs at this. They were excited murmurs, as Ben knew they would have to be—he had thought of everything.
“But!” he cried out, his voice ringing over the chatter of the crowd, and he waited for their voices to die down enough before he declared, “in order for this vision to become a reality, you will need a strong leader!”
“You, I suppose?” cried one.
“Of course,” Ben grinned. “I am the one who knows more about both of these measures than anyone. I will, of course, require your complete allegiance. This will be no easy task. The time for dissension and such antiquated ideas as checks and balances has come and gone.”
“What will you call yourself? The President?” shouted one, scornfully.
“Oh, no no no,” Ben said, softly. “The title of President implies a democracy, and I do not wish to be misleading. I will call myself—the Potentate.” Yes, he thought, sighing with pleasure. What an appropriate title.
The Speaker for the Tribunal put it to a vote. Ben Voltolini was elected Potentate with an eighty-five percent majority in the last democratic act of the former Congress of the United States of America.
As his first act as Potentate, Voltolini declared that the nation would henceforth be known as the Republic of the Americas.
“Gentlemen of the Tribunal,” he declared, “we are making history. Together, we shall create the world’s very first utopia.”