At the heart of Bloc 217 was a preeminent display of power and prestige: Tarrabia Hall, aptly named after the president. The Hall was an expansive, industrial-looking building whose footprint consumed an entire city block, plus or minus a few thousand square feet. Except for some weather-induced pockmarks and surface etchings, the building was in decent shape for being over one-hundred years old. The neighboring buildings, however, were a dilapidated mess.
The weather in Bloc 217 since the Thomas event had been an unpredictable mixture of acid rain, tornadoes, and brutal wind storms. For that reason, the Hall had been constructed out of unfinished concrete and unbreakable, polycarbonate glass. Although the Hall’s design was aesthetically pleasing, the building’s architecture was purpose-driven; concrete was the only building material that could survive the atmosphere’s punishing backhand.
Nestled within the Hall’s protective, and often secretive, concrete walls was an impressive lobby/foyer, a childcare center, a war history museum, an expansive library, a technological museum (where old robots, toasters, and the like were stored), a few secret chambers, and a one-thousand seat auditorium.
Both museums and the library were open to the Subsisters--the residents of Bloc 217--once a month, free of charge. The museums and library were rarely, if ever, visited by the non-wealthy, though. Not because they didn’t have an interest in historical artifacts and old literature, but because the non-wealthy lived in housing projects that were more than thirty minutes from the Hall. Since their oxygen tanks only held thirty minutes of oxygen, they would never make it to the Hall on their oxygen allocation. And even if they did make it, they’d never make it home. Public access wasn’t taken into account when the president was selecting a location for his Hall.
The auditorium, on the other hand, was accessible by invitation only. These invitations, personally approved by the president, were for soldier recognition ceremonies. If you received an invitation to one of these ceremonies that meant you were on a very short list of the president’s trusted insiders.
“You know I hate these ceremonies,” Ethan groaned to his wife. They ambled through the lobby holding hands on their way to the auditorium’s massive double doors, past all the pomp and circumstance that riddled the lobby. His military dress outfit made his gait rigid. She, on the other hand, sauntered elegantly in her long, black evening dress. They were both a humble image of prestige. He continued: “All of this shit is just an excuse to throw an extravagant party. It serves no purpose other than to make the other Subsisters jealous. It’s ridiculous.” He held back all the things he really wanted to say. Not because he was being polite, but because speaking out against the president was frowned upon, and treasonous if done by military elite.
His wife let go of his hand and clutched his arm tightly, pulling him closer to her.
“Well, Ethan, this entire ceremony is for you,” she said, flashing a doting smile at him. “Captain Killick, the Bloc’s hero.” She batted her eyelashes playfully at him. “Save me, Captain Killick! Save me!”
“You’re a nut,” he said playfully, giving her a little hip check. “They could have just sent me a letter and a box of fruit and I would have been happy with that. And that,” he said incredulously, pointing to a giant cardboard cutout of himself, “...what the fuck is that?”
She eyed the cardboard cutout and giggled, letting out a cute snort. She covered her mouth quickly, trying to pull that snort back in.
“See,” he pointed at her covering her mouth. “You know exactly how ridiculous this all is. A giant cutout of me? Really? I hope they don’t expect us to take that thing home.”
Their interaction was playful, cute. She rested her head against his shoulder as they continued walking to the auditorium’s double doors. On impulse, she looked behind them, back toward the main entrance where the childcare center was.
“I feel bad leaving Miriam in a room full of kids she doesn’t know,” she said, staring at a glass-enclosed room by the main entrance where feral kids ran wild--childcare! Miriam, their eight-year-old daughter, was part of that chaotic crowd of children.
“She seems to be fitting in just fine,” Ethan said, pointing at Miriam chasing kids around the childcare with a foam sword. They continued on to the auditorium.
Ethan suddenly stopped, focusing on the Bloc’s nightscape through the lobby’s massive windows. The low-level clouds in the night sky glowed bluish-green; a sign that the atmosphere’s toxicity was minimal. The winds had picked up. Debris tumbled through the streets. Dust devils danced chaotically. He was certain the acid rain wasn’t far behind. All he hoped for was that the storm settled before he and his family headed home.
“I’ll tell you what, these storms are getting worse, not better,” he said, solemn. “We keep telling the Subsisters that we are seeking out new locations for us to settle, but it’s been forever now and we’re still here. It’s starting to feel like we’re just pacifying everyone, giving them false hope.”
He watched as Subsisters walked along the sidewalk, passing in front of the lobby windows. Some of the Subsisters were wearing OS-11s, while others--the non-wealthy--were forced to navigate the elements in their cheap oxygen masks. He shook his head, disgusted at the blatant demarcation between the rich and the poor, and even more perturbed that they may be selling lies to the masses. He just wanted to reach--
“Captain Killick,” a sweet voice called out, snapping him out of his moment of reflection. His gaze was immediately captured by an attractive female usher dressed almost as elegantly as his wife. “Sorry to interrupt, but the Auditorium is ready for you.”
She waved her hand across the floor, indicating the way to the auditorium. Her motion made her look like she was a model presenting a car at an auto show.
“Excellent,” he responded, feigning excitement.
Ethan’s wife clocked this, giving his arm a loving squeeze.
The usher catwalked into the Auditorium.
Ethan dramatically bowed, motioning with his hand for his wife to follow the usher. She chortled at how ridiculous he was being, but loved every second of it.
A quick look around the auditorium revealed hundreds of men all dressed in military dress outfits, and all the women--their wives--dressed in fancy dresses. There wasn’t one woman representing the military, but that was by design. That’s because women were forbidden from serving in the upper ranks of the military. Not because the brass wanted to discriminate against women. Rather, the brass felt that women added more value in other areas of service. Namely, in keeping their husband’s happy so they were battle-ready. It was misogynistic, but the policy was never protested so there didn’t appear to be the need for change.
As they walked down the aisle, behind the female usher, Ethan’s wife turned around, eyeing hum curiously. “Are you anxious?” she whispered to him, pointing to his thrumming fingers that danced against his thigh.
He looked down at his fingers, quickly shoving his hand in his pocket, trying to hide his obvious tell. “Annoyed. That’s all. I’d rather be at home with you and Miriam.” He cracked a fake smile at someone who had waved at him from the audience. “Not here. Something just doesn’t feel right about tonight.”
“But tonight is your night,” she waved her hand across the auditorium. “All of these people are here for you, Ethan. To recognize you for what you did for the Bloc. For Captain Killick’s heroism. You should feel honored.”
“I know I should,” he mumbled. “It’s just...you know...these things make me very uncomfortable.”
“Just smile, shake hands, and take photos. It’ll all be over before you know it,” she winked at him, placing her petite hand against his chest. “I love you.” She whispered, patting him on the chest, giving him a look that said You can do this, Ethan.
Their usher continued to guide them down to the front row where two seats had been reserved for Ethan and his wife. The seats couldn’t have been anymore front and anymore center. There was no hiding from the spotlight in those seats. It was show time!
“Here you are, Captain Killick,” the usher said as she pointed to their seats.
Ethan studied the usher’s name tag, which was conveniently placed just above her ample breast. “Thank you, D-814.” He was immediately flabbergasted to find out she was an LB-231. An LB-231? Her realness was dazzling. There were other versions of LB-231s that looked as real as humans, but she...she captured his eye unlike any other had.
As his wife sat down, D-814 flashed a huge smile at Ethan, winking at him flirtatiously before she walked away. He fought the urge to follow her with his intrigued eyes, but temptation beat prohibition.
“As you all know, a few weeks ago, our Bloc experienced an uprising from the well-funded terrorist group, the Quislings,” Colonel Grobyc announced from a podium on the stage. His voice was deep, commanding. He was an oak of a man with hawkish eyes, making it look as though he was always suspicious. And he was completely devoid of smile lines; a consequence of his mantra: There’s nothing to smile about. Not here. Not ever.
Ethan had joined the Colonel on the stage before the Colonel’s speech started. He stood a few feet from the Colonel, at attention, staring off into the audience, counting down the painful seconds until he could leave that wretched stage.
Colonel Grobyc continued: “Within minutes of the first explosion, the Quislings were able to hack into Digix’s Central Control Server and disable the Population Management System. That allowed them to power down the Bloc’s security force LB-231s and breach Digix’s headquarters, unchallenged. Once inside, they kidnapped twelve of Digix’s top research scientists at gunpoint. One of the scientists fought back and was immediately killed by the Quislings. But the other eleven, they acquiesced and were taken to an unknown location.”
Colonel Grobyc paused, eyeing his prized possession on the stage: Captain Ethan Killick. The Colonel pointed his hand at Ethan, continued: “But thanks to the heroism of Captain Killick, the scientists were rescued without incident and the terrorists arrested and subjected to days of interrogations. As a result of those interrogations, we were able to identify the Quislings top lieutenants. The shot callers; traitors who we discovered were people that we called our friends and co-workers. Traitors who were embedded at the highest levels of our government, as cabinet members and trusted advisors. These traitors leaked information about the Bloc, which allowed the Quislings to execute such a sophisticated attack on the Bloc. To hurt us at our core. But...”
The Colonel paused, eyeing Ethan. A moment of silence, of reflection.
“...thanks to Captain Killick, we’ve rooted out the Quislings. We smoked those vermin out of their holes and rid our Bloc of their hate. But that doesn’t mean we have rooted out all evil. With the Quislings disbanded, that just leaves an opening for someone to fill those shoes under a different name, behind a different face. But as long as we have brave men like Captain Killick on our side, we’ll always have a team ready and willing to fight for what’s right. To fight for us. To fight for our Bloc!”
President Tarrabia, seated in the front row next to Ethan’s wife, flashed a giant, almost sardonic, grin.
“Thanks to the unwavering bravery of Captain Killick and his team, the Bloc--our Bloc--is a much safer place for us all to live in,” Colonel Grobyc shouted to the audience. “For this, the Bloc and President Tarrabia thank you. We,” he waved his hand across the audience, “thank you.”
President Tarrabia eyed Ethan, giving him a nod of acknowledgement. Ethan looked down just in time to see the president staring at him.
On cue, Colonel Grobyc and Ethan faced each other.
The lights dimmed dramatically.
A spotlight lit up both men.
“Captain Killick, we are all here today to witness your receipt of the Supreme Mark of Bravery, a mark that symbolizes your value to the Bloc and epitomizes your superiority amongst your fellow men.”
Inside, Ethan was cringing. He was just doing his job; not something special.
Suddenly, a attractive female usher pushed a cart into the spotlight and parked it between both Ethan and the Colonel. It wasn’t a cart in the traditional sense. It was more of a large cauldron that had been fitted with wheels and a push handle. Inside the cauldron was a pile of red hot coals and poking out of those coals was a long iron rod with a leather-wrapped handle.
The Colonel grabbed the iron rod by the leather handle and removed it from the pile of coals, revealing a crescent-shaped tip--the Bloc’s trademark. It was a branding iron!
Ethan removed his jacket, handing it to the attractive usher who stood behind the cart. He rolled up the sleeve on his right arm, exposing a muscular forearm.
The Colonel cradled Ethan’s forearm in his hand, creating small indentations with his fingertips.
“The Bloc is forever indebted to you and your family, Captain Killick,” the Colonel said loudly, pointing the tip of the branding iron to the sky. “Vicit unum sumus.”
The audience erupted with applause, all rising to their feet.
Ethan snapped to attention, careful not to yank his forearm from the Colonel’s hand.
Without warning, the Colonel drove the tip of the branding iron into the soft underside of Ethan’s forearm, pressing firmly, but not too hard. The red hot iron cankered several layers of his flesh, emitting smoke as it burned his flesh.
But Ethan didn’t flinch. He was a soldier by any definition. Hardened to a fault.
After what seemed like an eternity of silly celebration, Colonel Grobyc dislodged the branding iron, leaving behind a perfect crescent-shaped welt on Ethan’s forearm. The Colonel looked up at Ethan’s face, shocked that Ethan hadn’t displayed an iota of emotion from the branding.
“You’re a truly impressive warrior,” Colonel Grobyc whispered to Ethan.
A nurse appeared from backstage and quickly wrapped Ethan’s forearm with a piece of translucent latex, protecting the crescent-shaped welt--his Supreme Mark of Bravery. When she was done wrapping his forearm, she stood before Ethan and bowed, captivated by the Bloc’s new hero.
Ethan, visibly uncomfortable by the nurse’s gesture, looked across the stage at his wife. As he locked eyes with his wife, she placed her hand on her heart and mouthed the words “I love you” to him.
He couldn’t help but break protocol.
He smiled back at her. It was an uncomfortable smile, but a smile nonetheless.
After some ceremonial handshaking, Ethan and his wife made their way from the auditorium to the lobby where a female usher waited with Miriam. At the sight of her parents, Miriam ran to them, hugging her father and jumping into her mother’s arms. It had only been a couple hours, but to Miriam, it felt like an eternity.
The three of them walked toward the Hall’s main entrance where other partygoers were donning their OS-11s, preparing to brave the hellacious storm outside.
President Tarrabia, accompanied by his security detail, rushed out of the auditorium and headed toward Ethan. His cigar left a trail of smoke as he marched through the lobby.
“Captain Killick,” President Tarrabia called out. “Can I have a minute of your family’s time?”
Ethan immediately recognized the voice. He turned, snapped to attention, saluting his boss. Ethan’s wife and Miriam stood by attentively.
“Of course, sir,” Ethan responded.
President Tarrabia studied Miriam, then eyed his smoldering cigar. He immediately handed his cigar to one of his team, motioning for that team member to get rid of the cigar. It was a warm gesture of respect. Subtle, but purposeful.
“I just wanted to personally thank you again for what you did for the Bloc and for saving Digix, a company I consider my most prized possession,” President Tarrabia lightly brushed his hand across the top of Miriam’s head. “I was never fortunate enough to have kids of my own. But I did have Digix and I poured my heart and soul into that company.” He studied Ethan and his beautiful family, then continued: “So I guess in that respect, Digix was my child, my family. And you saved that family. For that, I am forever indebted to you and your family.” He studied Ethan’s wife, careful not to be inappropriate, then continued: “We are all family now. And family watches out for each other. Always.” Without another word, the President turned and walked away. His security detail following close behind.
Ethan looked at his wife and shrugged.
A member of the President’s security detail clocked Ethan’s shrug. “He’s not a fan of goodbyes. Never tell him goodbye.”