The van carrying Melanie and the other protesters stopped. The driver, who wore one of those blue corporate security uniforms that suggested governmental authority without actually bearing any real insignia, called gruffly back to the five young women he had detained, “Don’t give us any trouble now, girls, and we won’t have to make this bad for you.”
The doors at the back of the van opened. Melanie saw five big men in uniforms similar to the drivers, carrying stun guns. They could have been the same men who had manhandled her and the others back at the federal building, or they could have been five completely different large, hostile men.
Melanie sat on a bench that ran the length of the van, next to two other girls dressed in the black jeans and black t-shirts they had all worn to make their statement against the informational blackout thrust upon the nation by the corporate laws. Across the van’s scuffed metal floor two more girls sat. Melanie tried to remember their names—they had all introduced themselves that same day in the chill of the autumn morning in Indianapolis. After the security thugs had come and first fastened their wrists together with plastic zip ties and then—something new and very unwelcome in corporate detention—put tape over their mouths, “Just to spare our ears, sweetie,” no solidarity-forming conversation had been possible.
Detention had represented part of the plan, of course. The media would report on the fifty young women, peacefully protesting—well, mostly peacefully… harassing the workers going into the federal building and throwing eggs was just enhanced free speech—detained by federal security or, even better, one of the government contractors against whom the girls had come to protest. Surely the media were even now blasting the images of the corporate thugs taping the girls’ mouths shut to the net.
Could there be a better metaphor for our corporate overlords’ injustice? Melanie thought, trying to make herself feel triumphant rather than frightened and out of control as she saw the obvious leader of the big men with the stun guns beckon to her to get up and disembark from the van. Thugs. Lackeys.
The fact that the men only seemed to want to do their jobs, and perhaps didn’t even like having to threaten young women, however foul-mouthed and disrespectful, with rough treatment, didn’t change Melanie’s mind. Corporate lackeys might remain blissfully unaware of the violence inherent in the system, but their unawareness didn’t change the violence—a force of injustice, Melanie thought, so much greater than any rough treatment they could give a few young female protesters that she told herself she would be happy to suffer even atrocities to show the world that the corporate laws must be repealed.
Feeling truly sullen, and doing her best to add an extra layer of sullenness to her appearance—quite difficult with a taped mouth, she realized—she got up with the others and moved to the back of the van. One of the thugs took her by the upper arms and lifted her to the ground as if she weighed no more than a feather.
Thug, she thought automatically to combat her potentially positive impression of the professional, respectful way he had assisted her. With two security men in front of them and two behind, they marched into the building in front of which the van had parked.
At that point Melanie started to become anxious. They weren’t in the city. They weren’t in front of the kangaroo corporate court where she had been taken before. The five girls in the van seemed to have no company from other vans carrying the other girls—including Melanie’s friend Kat—detained at the federal building. They seemed to have arrived at some kind of suburban office park. Just before she passed through the glass doors to the lobby of the nondescript low-rise building Melanie cast her eyes up and saw what must be the name of the company who owned the building.
The man in the charcoal suit and red tie, across the desk from her, didn’t put a question mark on it.
“How do you know that? I didn’t give my name to…”
He continued to look down at his tablet, dwarfed by his big hands. They grow them big at Selecta, a wayward thought said, attempting to relieve some of Melanie’s anxiety and failing miserably.
“Nineteen. Three previous detentions.”
“Look,” she said, trying not to sound scared. “I know my rights.”
That drew an amused smile from the man in the suit, and he looked up at her for the first time since he had sat down, after painlessly removing the tape from her mouth with some kind of special solvent that smelled like lilacs.
“Actually, Melanie, I don’t think you do.”
Anger flared up in her chest, driving the fear nearly away. The feeling of not knowing how to find a purpose, of being out of control, rose with the anger, but she pushed that back, too, forcing herself to believe that the fault lay with corporate thugs like this man. “Yes. I do. I know that they’re not the same as they were ten years ago, before the corporate laws, but the Constitution is still…”
His brown eyes, to her annoyance, seemed to twinkle. “I noticed you had a strong civics program at your high school. Surely you learned that the Constitution, as a document consisting of those slippery things called words, has always been and will always be subject to interpretation.”
“Due process!” Melanie cried, the man’s calm making her even more agitated. “Unreasonable search and seizure!”
“My organization’s understanding of the words due and unreasonable,” the man said mildly, “is undoubtedly rather different from yours.”
Melanie felt a chill go through her. “Where am I?” she said, trying to keep her voice down and hearing it shake as poor compensation. She felt tears prick her nose.
The face of the man in the suit grew sympathetic. “You’ve been remanded for special correctional action, according to a secret clause of Corporate Act 7.”
“Secret clause?” Melanie said weakly. She looked down at her hands, still bound together by the plastic zip tie.
“It’ll be best if you just focus on cooperating, Melanie,” the man said. “My name is Mr. Jones. I need you to confirm some details about yourself so that I can configure your program in a way that helps you the most.”
Melanie felt her brow furrow in mingled puzzlement and resentment. She looked up at him, doing her best to show the contempt she wanted to feel. “If you think I’m going to cooperate with… with… whatever the fuck this is… you need to have your head examined.”
Anger seemed to flicker in the man’s eyes, of such severity that Melanie’s heart quailed, but Mr. ‘Jones’ contained himself. “That’s your decision, but I should warn you that if you don’t cooperate—or, worse, if you decide to lie—your program will prove a much less pleasant experience than it would if you answered my questions truthfully.”
Program. That word again. “What kind of program?” Melanie asked, careful to keep the contempt going.
“I can’t tell you that right now,” Mr. Jones answered, “because we’ve determined that a defaulter’s initial session is more effective when they don’t know what to expect, and because you wouldn’t even understand my explanation. I can tell you, though, that it’s experiential, and that it’s specially designed for you.”
“What does experiential mean?” It didn’t sound very menacing at least.
“It means you’re going to go through a series of experiences designed to rehabilitate you.”
Melanie’s eyes went wide, but she narrowed them with conscious effort and spat, “You mean to make me a corporate lackey.” Yes: she could usually find purpose and even the ghost of happiness along that path. Much easier to blame the government and the corporations at least for the time being, until she could figure out why she really felt out of control all the time.
She had hoped to see the anger again in Mr. Jones’ eyes, as an indication that she had pierced his facade, but he only smiled. “I know that’s how you see it, Melanie. I can’t change that from where I’m sitting, but I promise that your program will offer you some alternatives.”
Now Melanie didn’t have to feign her contempt at all. “How I learned to stop worrying and love the corporate laws,” she said, enjoying the chance to make one of her favorite allusions, to the subtitle of the immoral Dr. Strangelove.
But Mr. Jones still refused to rise to the bait. “Again, I know that’s how you see it. My perspective, and that of my organization, is different. Your program will present you with the choice of whether to try to see the matter in a different light than you have before.”
She thrust away the idea of trying to figure out more about what exactly the program constituted, since he clearly wouldn’t tell her, and he also clearly wanted her to pursue that angle and get nowhere. Instead she made an attempt at appearing businesslike. “And if I choose to continue to see you and the rest of the corporate hegemons as a threat to free civilization?”
Mr. Jones’ eyes narrowed slightly. Maybe Melanie hadn’t scored points, but she didn’t think he’d expected her to cut to the chase.
“Community service,” he said after a brief pause.
It was Melanie’s turn to be taken aback. “Like, cleaning up sidewalks?”
“Not even that onerous. Counseling girls like yourself in a Selecta facility.”
Melanie shook her head, now thoroughly confused. “I don’t understand.”
“I know,” Mr. Jones replied. “But I’m hoping I can persuade you to cooperate enough at least that I can optimize your program for you. I have a tech waiting for you, after we wrap up this interview, so I’m going to go ahead and do my best to confirm the details I need to confirm. Our data suggests that you’ve had sex with two men, Melanie. Is that right?”
She had done what she considered a pretty admirable job walking herself back from her fear. When she had heard that she would be able to choose community service at some point during whatever the fuck they might call this program, she had thought everything would work out fine. Now, however, Melanie’s heart started to beat very fast again. How could they know that? Knowing her name was probably a trivial matter of facial recognition or reading some chip embedded in her identicard even though they hadn’t taken it from her pocket. Knowing how many guys she had slept with seemed a very different thing indeed.
Still, she knew she needed to remain defiant, both as a tactic to hold herself together and as a gesture against the corporate machine against which she had vowed to fight with every fiber of her being. “That’s none of your fucking business.”
Mr. Jones, to her surprise, made a note on his tablet and went on to the next question, apparently unperturbed. He looked up again into Melanie’s glower.
“Were you spanked at home, Melanie?”
Melanie’s jaw dropped. “What…” She paused to turn the horrible blush that she knew had suffused her pale cheeks into a flush of anger to the extent she could. “I’m not going to answer that.”
“As you wish,” said Mr. Jones, making another note on the tablet. “Alright, last question, which I’m asking really as a formality since you’ve chosen not to cooperate. How frequently do you masturbate, Melanie?”
Shame and anger competed now for which would supply the most heat to her cheeks—to her whole upper body it suddenly seemed.
“If you answer, I promise you that your program will be much easier to get used to,” Mr. Jones said amiably.
“What the fuck kind of a program is it?” Melanie said through gritted teeth.
He gave her a final eyebrows-raised look of interrogation, as if still hoping she might answer the awful questions. Then he said, “The kind I’m afraid will make you wish you’d answered my questions.”
He picked up the receiver of the phone on his desk and pressed a button. “You can come get Melanie,” he said.
Two large orderlies in hospital scrubs came for her. With a pair of shears from his desk, Mr. Jones cut the zip tie to free her hands, after helping her up from her chair. Melanie saw no possible benefit in resisting, and so she followed the orderlies down the nondescript hallway to what looked like a single-bed hospital room. A man, also in scrubs, who was clearly the tech to whom Mr. Jones had referred, sat at the desk reading a laptop. At the side of the bed stood one of those pieces of hospital equipment that at least in the shows could either measure your heartrate or shock you back into life.
The tech looked up from his laptop. “Hi, Melanie. My name’s Oscar, and I’ll be running your program. Go ahead and lie down on the bed and I’ll get you hooked up.”
Melanie’s eyes went wide. “Hooked up?” she demanded.
But it appeared that for all his similarly mild-mannered appearance Oscar was not inclined to the same patience Mr. Jones had shown her. “Strap her to the bed,” he said to the orderlies.
“Wait!” Melanie cried. “Wait… please…”
She couldn’t help resisting now, because the orderlies didn’t give her any instructions as they lifted her into the air, holding her arms tightly at her sides, and placed her on the bed. While one held her down the other strapped her ankles, waist, chest, and neck to the bed with webbing restraints.
She looked at Oscar, who hadn’t moved from the desk during the restraining of Melanie. His attention remained fixed on the computer monitor.
“You decided not to answer any of the questions?” he asked in a reproachful voice. “Are you sure about that?”
“I… I…” Melanie stammered, very frightened now.
Oscar rose, turning to look at her for the first time since she had come into the room. “The beginning of your program is going to be rather scary, I’m afraid. But remember that it was your choice.”
“Please,” Melanie said, just wanting a little time, but Oscar began taping some sort of wire leads to places on her skull that he identified with a little tool like an otoscope that he moved gently around in her hair until it chimed softly and he placed a lead there.
“Last chance,” he said as he placed what must be the tenth or eleventh lead—Melanie had quickly lost count.
“Please,” she said again, straining against the strap that held her neck, but Oscar only returned to the desk and clicked the mouse a few times.
“You’ll want to lay your head back now,” he said, “and you might want to close your eyes.” Then, as if he had suddenly become a recording, he went on, “Melanie Smith, by authority of Section 17 of Corporate Act 7 (b) you are remanded to the Selecta Virtual Discipline and Rehabilitation Program.”
He clicked again, and Melanie’s last impression of the hospital room was a fleeting discomfort as her head snapped back against the bed.