The Opium of the People

By J Alan Erwine

Albert stumbled away from the flames and smoke, coughing as he reached the sidewalk. All around him voices cried out as if in ecstasy each time the conflagration behind him grew in intensity. Albert panicked when he felt someone grab his arm. He turned, expecting to see a soldier from the Guards of the Holy Order. Instead, he was rewarded by the hostile glare of an angry youth. Albert coughed more forcefully. "Can't breathe."

The kid sent Albert sprawling to the pavement with a rough push and the mob drew away toward the fire. Albert picked himself up and frowned at his skinned palms. Automatically, he looked around for his glasses, but then he remembered he'd had genetic implants put in a month earlier. After twenty years of wearing glasses, it was difficult to get used to his new eyes.

Behind him, Albert heard the voices of the mob reaching a crescendo. He didn't need to look to know what they were burning; he'd experienced the acrid smell of burning books too many times recently. The mob was burning the holy texts of other cultures while pounding feverishly on their own Fundamentalist Christian Bibles. Albert shook his head in resignation and continued on his way to his small apartment through the virtually empty streets. He remembered when the streets had not been so empty. That was before the comet tore through the atmosphere and before the American people gave themselves over to the Grand Patriarchs who told them God had spared them.

Now the streets were lonely, almost as lonely as Albert was. Soon he'd be home, and he was dreading to see how his wife would react. The last time he'd gone to a book burning, she'd curled up on the floor and cried for twenty minutes. What would she do this time, he wondered. Her behavior had changed so much, but then so had everyone's.

When he reached his apartment, Albert slowly unlocked the door, dreading what he'd find on the other side. As the door creaked open, Albert was surprised to find the apartment dark. Gingerly, he walked in and laid his keys on his desk. He'd expected dinner, like always, but there were no smells of cooking food, badly cooking food.

Albert crossed the apartment as quietly as possible. Adriana must have had yet another of her headaches and was probably sleeping. He didn't want to wake her. Opening the bedroom door, Albert was surprised to not find her in bed. With a shrug, he walked to the kitchen to start dinner. She hated him using her pots and pans, but he had to eat.

As he waited for his pot of water to begin boiling, Albert walked over to his desk to look through the mail. Glancing out the window, Albert saw a form in a long black coat walking the street below his window. The figure stopped and looked right up at Albert, who quickly got out of the window.

A yellow sticky note grabbed Albert's attention. "Gone to the market," it said. No love, Adriana, or anything, but that wasn't a surprise. With a shrug, Albert walked back to the kitchen to finish preparing his spaghetti. He stopped short of the linoleum floor. Adriana never went out this close to dark. Why would she have?

A sudden horrifying thought overtook him. For the last few months, they'd been fighting constantly. Every day, Albert railed against the Grand Patriarchs more, and Adriana fell more under their power. Could she have? No! Then Albert suddenly realized what her absence meant. He raced back to the window and saw a figure in black standing against the wall of the apartment building across the street, staring at the front door of his building.

Leaving all the lights on, Albert raced out his apartment door, heading for the back stairs. He only hoped he'd get out in time.

hr width=35%> More than six hours passed before Albert stopped walking the streets and thought about what was going on around him. Adriana had finally given into the oppression he was sure of it. He'd always known she could be weak, but he'd never expected this. It would only be a matter of days before she was helping the Fundamentalists in their cause, a sort of modern day kapo. His only choice was to leave the city, and fast. Heading west seemed like his best option. The heavily populated East Coast would be just like Washington D.C., filled to the breaking point with Fundamentalists and their Hitlerian ways.

West it would be, but how? The trains were out; they'd be too heavily guarded. Just then, an armed soldier wearing a long gray wool coat approached him. He wore the polished gold cross that was the sign of the Guards of the Holy Order.

Albert mumbled a curse under his breath.

The guard said something to him in Latin, something Albert didn't understand. He'd learned the most common greetings as a survival mechanism, but the guard was using a greeting, if it was a greeting, that Albert was unfamiliar with. When Albert didn't answer, the guard slowly began to pull his rifle from his shoulder.

Albert didn't stop to think, couldn't stop to think. He lunged for the guard with a force he never thought himself capable of. The guard tried to lurch away, but he couldn't escape the desperate man's grasp. Albert felt his fingers grab at the man's throat, trying to reach into the guard's larynx to pull it out.

The guard slammed the butt of his rifle into Albert's stomach. Albert kneed the man in his thigh, not even noticing the pain in his stomach. Then he punched him in the throat. The guard staggered back, dragging Albert with him. Locking both hands around the guard's throat, Albert began to squeeze with a strength he didn't think he had. The guard punched at Albert, each blow from his fists growing weaker. Finally, with a desperate wheeze, the guard collapsed to the ground.

It was only once the guard was down that Albert thought of searching the streets for other people. There weren't any, at least, not at that moment. Albert looked down at the guard and shivered. He wasn't breathing. With a sad shrug, Albert pulled the guard into a nearby alley and began to strip him.

It was only ten minutes before Albert stepped out of the alley in his new outfit. The guard now safely ensconced in a dumpster under three day's worth of trash. As Albert left the alley, he pulled the dead guard's I.D. and holo chits from the long coat. He used the search mode on the small metal apparatus to find his new identity.

"Sgt. Aaron David May," he said aloud, almost laughing as he realized the man had to have changed his name.

Albert continued to search through the holograms and wasn't pleased to find a picture of a beautiful young woman with the dead guard in what was obviously a wedding hologram. The next holo sent Albert's stomach into his throat. Lying in a crib were two babies, obviously twins, no older than three months. Albert shook his head. It was far too late for second thoughts.

Tossing the chits back into his pocket, Albert headed for the gates out of his sector of the city. He figured the guards in other sectors would be less likely to recognize him as not being Sgt. Aaron David May. He just hoped the guards at the gate wouldn't know Sgt. May. If they did, Albert's escape would be one of the shortest in history. The idea of being shot while standing before a barbed wire fence didn't appeal to him. What good was a martyr if nobody knew he was dead?

It was only as Albert approached the gates that he realized that Sgt. May's holo I.D. wasn't going to match his face. The kid had been of similar build, but their faces looked nothing alike. Albert began to hope desperately that the guards would only check his nametag. Of course, if he had to do a print or retinal scan, he was dead. A DNA test would of course produce the same result.

He approached the gate with determination and what he hoped would look like confidence. He flashed his tags and a salute to the two officers in the first gatehouse and was rewarded with a sudden buzzing sound from the gate in front of him as it prepared to open. Once open, he hurried through, trying to look like he wasn't hurrying. As he walked the hundred yards between the gatehouses, Albert could feel the guns trained on him from above. It might have been his imagination, but it didn't matter, he was sure the guns were aimed at him. When he reached the other end of the barbed-wire corridor, Albert noticed that the two officers in the guardhouse seemed more attentive than the last two. He walked forward and tried to stand so that his face was shadowed. He flashed his tags to the officers in the guardhouse and waited. One of the officers stared at him for a full ten seconds before letting him through.

Just as he walked through, two enlisted me walked into the guardhouse.

"Have you seen Sgt. May?" one of them asked.

Albert almost froze in mid-stride, but he continued walking. As soon as he was in the shadow of a tall building on the other side of the gate, he began to run. As he ran, he thought he heard a voice behind him.


He wasn't sure if he heard it, and he really didn't want to find out. He just ran, hoping the footsteps he heard were only the echoes of his own.

After ten minutes of flight, Albert stopped to catch his breath. Surprisingly, the streets had been virtually devoid of life, except for the cat-sized rats. He continued to breathe heavily. He was in too bad of shape for this kind of strenuous work. He was a professor, not a soldier. As his breathing slowed, Albert suddenly knew the absence of life had changed. He felt the approach of the man from behind him more than he heard him. Albert stayed crouched over, hoping the person would pass. He didn't.

A voice suddenly said something to Albert in Latin. Albert took a few seconds to translate the words he could understand to himself. He wasn't pleased with the translation. The man had addressed him as a junior officer.

Slowly, Albert stood erect and turned. He wasn't pleased with what he saw. The man behind him was dressed in a jet-black uniform with a red collar adorned with a gold cross on each side of the opening at the throat. Even the man's boots and gloves were a black darker than death. Albert swallowed hard. The man was a member of the Charismatics, the Grand Patriarchs equivalent of the Gestapo.

"Do you not have papers, Sgt.?" The man asked.

Albert let his hand slip towards his pocket where his I.D. chits were; the whole time wondering if he could pull Sgt. May's gun and take another life. He doubted he could.

"I wouldn't consider pulling the gun," the Charismatic said. "I doubt you're faster than me, and I don't think you're trained in using guns."

Albert was surprised by the man's assessment of him, but he knew he shouldn't be. Anyone could have figured out by now that he wasn't Sgt. May, so he definitely shouldn't be surprised that a Charismatic had figured it out.

"Come with me," the man ordered. Albert hadn't seen a gun yet, but he decided to follow the man anyway.

The man led him four blocks back in the direction he'd come from. Albert was sure he was being led back to the gates, but then the man turned down a side street and led Albert to a part of the city he'd never been in, one of the wealthiest parts of town. That thought was even more frightening to Albert than the idea of being shot at the gates he'd lied his way through earlier. The city's leaders lived in this part of town.

The man stopped in front of a house and produced a blindfold. Albert stared at the piece of cloth in horror.

"Put it on!"

"And if I don't?"

"I'll kill you right here."

Albert only stared at the man for a second before he shrugged and pulled the blindfold over his eyes. He figured he was dead anyway, but he was hoping he might stand a chance of surviving if he cooperated.

Surprisingly, they didn't enter the house. Instead, they continued to walk down the street, turning several corners before the man stopped Albert and began to spin him. It reminded Albert of a childhood game he'd played, but this time he didn't want to find out what the donkey might look like when he was finally allowed to take the blindfold off, if he was allowed to take it off.

Once Albert was sufficiently disoriented, they walked for another ten minutes before Albert heard them enter a house. The sound of hardwood floors echoed beneath their booted feet until Albert heard a heavy door slide open. The man gingerly led Albert through the open doorway and then stopped. It was only a few seconds before Albert heard the door slide closed behind him. Then there was a sudden dropping sensation. They were in an elevator. The thought was disconcerting to Albert who had heard rumors of scientific experiments being conducted on atheists in basement laboratories.

A door slid open and Albert was assaulted by cigarette smoke. The unexpected smell caused him to gag. While coughing, the blindfold was suddenly pulled from his head. Staring at him were four men, all of them holding automatic weapons. Albert quickly realized they weren't military men. Two of them had beards, something the Grand Patriarchs would never allow their men to wear, which seemed strange to Albert given Biblical history.

"You're Dr. Albert Silverberg, aren't you?" one of the men asked. For some reason the man looked familiar to Albert.

"Yes," he answered. He wasn't sure why he was suddenly being honest with these people. Maybe it was because they weren't military, or maybe it was because they had guns.

"I was in one of your 18th century lit classes at Columbia before the Grand Patriarchs took over," the man said, suddenly smiling. He looked at his associates and pointed at Albert. "He was the best professor Columbia had."

The others still stared at Albert with what he interpreted as distrust. "Well, thank you," he answered, trying to ignore the others' stares. "I thought I recognized you, but I'm afraid I don't remember your name."

"Names aren't important," the man that had escorted Albert suddenly cut in. Albert's former student nodded his head in agreement. "So, Dr. Silverberg, why are you in a death soldier's uniform?"

Albert was surprised to hear what the government would consider a heretical statement. "I, well, I was trying to leave the city."

"Where were you planning on going?" his escort asked.

"West, I guess. I just wanted to go someplace where I wouldn't have to watch them burn books and heretics."

"West isn't any better," his former student said.

"Canada's the best place to go," his escort said.

Albert stared at the men in the room now polishing their weapons. "Why are you telling me this?"

"We heard the government was looking for you," his escort said. "Apparently your wife turned you in as a heretic, and the government was quite happy to listen to her. It would seem you're not very popular with the government."

Albert nodded. It had not surprised him that Adriana had turned against him, nor did it surprise him now that the government had condemned him. He was surprised it hadn't happened earlier. What surprised him most was that he'd suddenly found himself in the hands of an underground rebellion. It seemed like too much of a coincidence to him.

"So you think I should head to Canada?" he asked.

"Seems like the best option," his escort answered. "You should be safe here until the government attacks."


"The Grand Patriarchs are planning on trying to annex Canada with a military operation."

Albert couldn't believe what he was hearing. The world had suddenly taken on a surreal tone and he was having trouble grasping reality through the haze of confused messages he was receiving from the world and from his own brain.

"We'll help you get there," his former student said. "Once there, hopefully you can help the people realize what's going to happen."

"How can I help?" he asked, doubting the truth of what he was hearing.

"We have a network of dissidents from this country that we've helped reach Canada," his escort said. "One more voice, especially an intellectual's voice can only help. We're not expecting you to convince them on your own. We just think you could help the people already there."

Albert could feel his strings being tugged on once again. "Why should I believe you? Why should I do what you tell me?"

"Because," his former student said, "if you don't go, we'll have to kill you." Albert nodded somberly. He knew that even though he'd escaped one puppeteer, he'd just found a new one. "When do we leave?" Albert asked.

The ride to the border in the back of the truck passed without incident and ended with a bone-jarring ride over a rough road. Finally, the truck stopped and the rear door opened from the outside.

"Everyone out," one of the men said. Albert didn't care who it was.

They all piled out of the truck and hurried to the water, pulling a motorboat from the bushes.

"Get in," someone said to Albert, emphasizing the order with a shove that sent him sprawling to the bottom of the small boat.

They were no more than thirty feet from the shore when shots began to ring out. Albert ducked into the bottom of the boat as his rebel associates returned fire. The sound of automatic weapons echoed off the still water. There was a pause, the firing resumed, then ceased. Albert raised his head for a look, but the sound of a bullet whizzing by his ear sent him back flat. He heard a thunk and saw one of his companions fall towards him, hit by that bullet.

More shots echoed. Albert could see small holes in the boat where bullets had penetrated. He looked up and saw someone fall overboard. It was obvious to Albert than none of them were going to make it.

The boat suddenly began to spin and curve in an uncontrolled way. Albert cautiously looked around him. All of the men that had come with him were dead. Without thinking, Albert dove overboard. Shots continued to ring out. Albert swam away from them.

He had no idea how long he'd been swimming. He didn't even know how far he had to swim. He just kept going. As he swam, he felt the coldness of the water seep into his bones until he was numb. With every stroke it felt as if the anvils he knew had to be attached to his arms were getting heavier.

Finally, Albert felt his hand scoop mud off the bottom. He looked up. In the distance, he could barely make out the shadows of trees. He stood up and collapsed back into the water. He tried to stand up again, but fell forward. He struggled to stand again, but couldn't. Darkness began to overtake him as he felt water beginning to run into his mouth. Then the blackness overtook him.

Sunlight assaulted his eyes before he'd even opened them. "Good morning," a voice said to him from the distance. He coughed once and then again, surprised to not find water coming up in the coughs. "You gave us quite a scare last night," the voice said.

Albert opened hie eyes and found himself lying on a cot. A man in camouflage drab stood by his side.

"Don't worry. You're safe," the soldier said.

Albert saw the man was wearing a UN patch on his shoulder with a Canadian flag underneath it. "Who are you," he managed to croak.

"I'm Col. Robert Adams of the Canadian Military."

Albert nodded.

"We're preparing to attack your country," Adams said in a blunt tone.

Albert's eyes widened.

"Don't worry, Dr. Silverberg," said Col. Adams. "It's not what you think. It's a NATO operation under UN auspices. We're going to set things right. Your government in exile has approved the plan."

"How do you know my name?" Albert croaked.

"We were expecting you, of course. The Underground sent word that you were coming and that you'd be brining some important information with you."


"It was in your fake papers. There was a small microchip they'd stolen. It gives us all the details on troop strengths, which are minimal. The government doesn't have all that much military power. You Americans should be ashamed of yourselves, falling in line behind them like you did."

"Herd animals," Albert answered. He thought he could feel his strings being tugged on again.

"What?" the soldier asked.

Albert sat up with an effort. "I said they're all herd animals."

The guard nodded.

"I'm requesting political asylum," Albert said.

"Of course."

"First thing tomorrow, after I get rid of this horrible taste in my mouth, I'm planning on applying for citizenship."

"That shouldn't be a problem, Dr. Silverberg. But we are going to restore the rightful government to your country. The America you knew should be back within six months."

"Yeah," Albert said as he rose to his feet. "I know, but what difference does that make?"

The End

Copyright © 2000 by J. Alan Erwine



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