"The government deficit is the difference between the amount of money the government spends and the amount it has the nerve to collect." ~ Sam Ewing
Minerva, Chapter 20
'Hurry up, Danny!' Tara yelled. 'We don't want to miss the subway!'
Danny reluctantly dropped the shell on the ground and scurried back to his parents and Mason.
'Why exactly are we rushing?' Mason inquired. He preferred leisurely strolls, especially when he saw no rational argument against them.
'Because it's a holiday,' Tara reminded him. 'The trains don't run as often. I don't want to get stuck waiting at the station for fifteen minutes.'
'I'm not sure I follow you,' Mason informed her. 'Are you suggesting that by walking faster, we will reduce the expected waiting time at the platform?'
Here we go, O'Toole thought, looking at his watch. He didn't care what happened, so long as they got to Broadway before ten. The parade (commemorating Minerva's ten-year anniversary) started at noon , and the streets would soon be impossible to navigate.
'David, what are you talking about?' Tara asked.
'The subways come at a certain, regular frequency, yes?' Mason asked her.
'Yeah, about every fifteen minutes. It's a holiday,' Tara reminded him again.
'Quite so,' Mason agreed. 'Now then, do you know when the next train is arriving?'
'No,' Tara answered, growing impatient with the old man. Sometimes he could really be thick! 'That's why we're rushing.'
'But how do you know,' Mason persisted, 'that the next train isn't arriving in, say, thirty seconds, so we have no hope of catching it? And that therefore we are rushing, only to wait longer at the platform? Yes, the greater interval between successive trains makes it that much worse if we just miss the next one. But it also means there is a lower probability that we will just miss the next train, since they run less frequently. In the absence of further information, I think the two effects cancel, and that we should walk at the same speed we would on any other day.'
Tara didn't say a word. She was often wary of answering the man's challenges, since she always suspected that he himself didn't believe them.
'I gather that I haven't convinced you,' Mason said after a few moments of silence. 'Let me try it this way: If we hurry, we can reach the station in about five minutes. But if we walk normally, we can reach it in about ten.' Mason ceased talking long enough to catch his breath. 'You believe that it is better to hurry and reach the station in five minutes, rather than walking and reaching it in ten.'
'Ok-a-ay,' Tara said. She looked down at Danny and made an exasperated face. He giggled.
'Now what if I were to tell you,' Mason said with growing excitement, 'that this morning I set ahead your clocks and watches by precisely five minutes. Would you then agree with me that we should slow down?'
'David,' Tara said, ashamed at herself for actually glancing at the clock on a nearby bank, 'did you change our clocks?'
'Of course not,' Mason answered. 'I'm just trying to show you the absurdity of your stance. Clearly you didn't think, a moment ago, that your position relied upon the fact that it is now 9:38 rather than 9:33 ''
'Leave it to an economist,' Tara said to her husband, 'to start an argument with a false assumption. But you're right,' she said, now to Mason. 'Danny, come over here.'
What a nightmare, O'Toole thought, looking at his watch. Tara had led Danny by the hand to a small patch of grass in front of a pastry shop.
'Sit down, Danny,' Tara said, pulling out a sandwich from her purse. 'Since we have so much time, we're going to have a picnic!'
'Yay! A picnic!' Danny clapped his hands and obediently plopped his bottom on the grass.
O'Toole sighed and looked at Mason.
'Why?' he asked rhetorically.
As Danny munched half of his peanut butter sandwich, O'Toole hailed a cab.
* * *
'Okay,' O'Toole said, looking at the brochure. 'Danny, your mother and I are giving a speech at noon , so you're going with Professor Mason to the space exhibit.'
'Okay,' his son answered, without turning his head from the window.
Daniel normally would be enthusiastic with this news; he was absolutely fascinated by the rockets that went up almost weekly from the launch pad a few miles off the western coast of Minerva , carrying satellites or scientific experiments from countries all over the world. But Daniel was currently fixated on the platforms outside the subway glass. He was (mentally) extending a metallic pole from the subway car onto the current station's platform. As the subway pulled away from the station, it was Daniel's responsibility to lift the pole and hold it elevated until he could rest it at the next station. Failure to do so would result in the destruction of the pole, as it smashed against the wall of the corridor rushing by.
'Okay,' O'Toole continued, 'so you guys will probably be tied up till about two. What are we doing after the speech?' O'Toole asked Tara. 'I'm rather interested in the bubble cities.'
Although eased by the acquisition of Lotos, the population problem continued to vex the Minervans. It would soon be profitable to construct floating neighborhoods on huge barges off the coast, offering impeccable security and privileged living space to the wealthiest citizens.
'B-o-o-ring,' Tara moaned. 'Who cares about tomorrow's suburbs?' She snatched the brochure from O'Toole. 'I'm surprised you didn't vote for the desalination plants,' she teased, looking over the day's options.
'You might try the submarine exhibit,' Mason suggested. Although Minerva's dominance of the computer and communications industries was expected by everyone, most had been surprised at the innovations in submersibles. 'They actually take you out to sea and show off some of the latest model's features.'
'Nope,' Tara vetoed, not looking up, 'I get claustrophobic in those things.'
'They make them very big now, Mom,' Daniel informed her, though without shirking his duty of hoisting the pole protruding from their car.
'If the island isn't big enough for your mother,' Mason said, 'I doubt a submarine would be.'
'Oh, I should really make an appearance at the Drake exhibit,' Tara said, still looking over the brochure. She wasn't fond of the controversial painter, and thought his work too crude to warrant the title 'Minervan art.' But she didn't quite understand it, and so wanted to give it another chance.
'B-o-o-ring,' O'Toole said, knowing full well he would be attempting to interpret nonsensical brush strokes later that afternoon.
* * *
'Gimme a cotton candy and a plain black coffee,' O'Toole said to the vendor.
The vendor first retrieved the cotton candy, and handed it over the counter to Tara. Then he filled a styrofoam cup with steaming coffee. He picked up a spoonful of sugar and brought it near the cup.
'No sugar!' O'Toole said.
'No sugar?' the man asked.
'You want milk?' the man asked helpfully. He even held up the container of milk to make his meaning clear.
'No milk,' O'Toole answered. No matter how hard he tried, he could not convey to vendors that 'plain black coffee' meant plain black coffee.
The vendor gave the man his change and smiled as the pretty couple walked away, the man with his coffee and the woman with her cotton candy. In his four years on the island, he had learned that human nature was the same here as in Manhattan: It was always better to ask, in order that irate customers wouldn't come back two minutes later demanding sugar or milk in their coffee.
* * *
'The lobster bisque, please,' Danny told Mason. It was fortunate for his parents that the seafood farms around Minerva made lobster as plentiful as tuna, for Danny had developed quite a taste for the exquisite.
As the old man and young boy walked down the street, carefully eating the hot soup, Mason resumed his lecture.
'Now Daniel, you are only a few years younger than our society. In many ways, your life itself reflects Minerva. Like you, it is currently young and small, vulnerable to all sorts of dangers. But it will grow up to be mature and strong, the most powerful in the world.'
'Like me?' Danny asked.
'Yes,' Mason said after a moment's consideration. 'Like you.'
'Where are we going?' Danny asked a little while later. He had noticed that the throng of celebrants had thinned, and the street was as deserted as could be expected on Minerva.
'We've got some time before we meet your parents,' Mason explained. 'I want to show you the docks where the immigrants land.'
'That's a bad place,' Danny informed him. 'We shouldn't go there.'
'It's true that the crime rates are higher there than in other parts of the island,' he told the boy. 'But I'm sure we will be in no danger.'
As they walked, Mason marveled at how resilient ancient prejudices were, the fear of the unknown. Even though the steady stream of immigrants was the lifeblood of the fledgling island, most of its residents scorned the newcomers.
* * *
The audience roared as O'Toole stepped back from the microphone and waved. Tara took his arm and they walked off the stage.
'I didn't realize we were such celebrities,' O'Toole said to his wife.
'No Peter,' Tara corrected him. 'I'm a celebrity''the richest woman in the world,' and a looker to boot. But you are a legend.'
'You're kidding,' O'Toole said.
'No, I'm not.' Tara stopped and turned to him. 'Peter, if you could only see the way people in the audience looked at you. You're a god to these people.'
* * *
Mason and Danny watched as the dirty, tired people shuffled off the boat and onto the pier. Agents from different insurance companies called out in various languages at the immigrants, trying to convince them that their temporary policies were by far the fairest.
One man kept his twin daughters close to him as he eyed the onlookers. Although Mason and Danny couldn't have known it, the man had fled his native country after his wife had been raped and killed by soldiers. On the cramped ship to Minerva, he had cut his daughters' hair to make them less attractive. The father was quite wary of the promises of employment and housing offered by the man in a Western suit at the table, though the suit's perfect dialect was a point in his favor.
'Where are they going?' Danny asked, as several Reliant officers escorted a group of twenty or so men in orange clothes into a company van.
'They have to go to a special holding area,' Mason explained.
'Why?' Danny asked.
'A government somewhere declared that they were criminals, and shipped them here,' Mason said. 'So they are kept in buildings designed to hold them, until they can prove their trustworthiness and build up a deposit so that someone will insure them.'
'Oh,' Danny said.
Darrell Holmes eyed the old man and boy as he leaned against the moving company's van. He had no idea what the odd pair were doing, but the old man had on a funky suit that suggested money.
Darrell, a clever seventeen-year-old from Detroit, had moved to Minerva only three months before. He had been amazed by how far just a few days' work unloading cargo would go on the strange island. Of course, the housing situation was ridiculous; Darrell had opted for a bed in a dormitory that was far more crowded than any military barracks that his friends back in the States were suffering through. But besides that, just a few days on the dock was enough to pay for decent meals and nights at the bar for the rest of the month.
Now that he'd gotten a feel for the place, though, Darrell had stopped going to his dock job. As was true in any big city, the real money in Minerva went to those with a little brains and a lot of balls. At first Darrell had been at a loss to break in to the action: you could walk into the local pharmacy and buy a kilo of cocaine, for Chrissake. But soon enough, Darrell had hooked up with Larry and Michael. They had had a pretty sweet deal, working for the moving company on paper but making their real money in between jobs. Whether it was fencing stolen property, getting an immigrant a new identity, or smuggling in weapons that were illegal even in Minerva, the three of them could always find something to do on their way back from a job.
And when the three guys had nothing lined up, they could always count on an opportunity presenting itself at the docks.
Danny slowly eased his head to the left, trying to examine the three men without letting them know it. Mason had noticed them as well, and led Danny down an alley. It was broad daylight, and Mason wanted to let them pass so he could stop his foolish worrying.
Darrell snorted. When they had followed the pair from the docks, Darrell didn't really think anything would come of it; he was mostly just curious what the hell those two were doing, gawking like tourists in this section of the city. But c'mon, if the old man was going to just hand over his stuff, then Darrell would obviously take it.
'Let's make this quick,' he said. He scanned the street quickly before the three boys ducked into the alley.
When Mason saw the three teenagers turn the corner, his stomach collapsed. He mentally reviewed his possessions, which fortunately were not that valuable. But he was utterly humiliated at the situation in which he had placed Danny, and it was entirely his own fault.
'Okay gramps, hand it over,' Darrell said, raising the gun slightly, but keeping it inside his jacket pocket.
Something about the young man's tone irritated Mason. It was the same . . . smugness that so infuriated him in the classroom. Mason would much rather have a student cheat on an exam than scoff at him during a lecture, thinking he knew more than the professor. Mason momentarily forgot all about Danny.
'I will do no such thing,' Mason answered.
Darrell snorted. He pulled out the gun and pointed it at Mason's chest.
'I'm not fuckin around old man,' Darrell said. 'Give me your gold . . . and that watch.'
Mason's eyes left Darrell's stare to glance down at the watch, a gift from his niece. The very idea that he would give it up to some punk who had no conception of its value to him!
'Let me tell you something, young man,' Mason said, his eyes once again returning Darrell's stare. 'I know you've been taught that the world owes you something, but I assure you, it does not. You think that because your great-grandfather was a slave, that gives you the right to point a gun at me? Well my father wasn't enslaved, he was cooked. But you know what, young man? I shrugged it off, worked two jobs, and got a Ph.D. So go point your gun at someone else; I don't owe you a thing.'
Darrell was stunned. Was this guy fucking nuts? Holmes took a step forward and swiveled the gun, now pointing it at the young boy's head.
'I said, give us that watch,' Holmes repeated.
When the youth had pointed the gun at Danny, Mason imploded with rage. He was furious that this coward, rather than answer his arguments, would choose instead to threaten a child.
Knowing that the solution to a large problem often consisted in its reduction to smaller chunks, Mason looked at the other teenagers. They were clearly nervous at the escalation.
'How long have you gentlemen even lived here?' Mason asked. 'You don't understand how this society works yet, do you? Well let me give you a quick lesson: The petty violations of the rules laid down by insurers? That's no big deal. No one really cares about that, which is why you haven't been caught and punished. But do you really think Reliant is going to allow an eight-year-old boy to be gunned down in broad day without finding out who did it?'
Mason paused, and saw that the two teenagers were interested in his comments. He also knew that the leader would not pull the trigger, at least not yet.
'When Reliant officers swarm the docks, asking if anybody noticed us, and offering a hundred ounces for anyone who can provide details leading to a conviction, do you really believe that no one will remember you fellows? Hmm?
'Finally,' Mason said, pointing his finger at the two followers, one after the other, 'do you two really think it's wise to become accessories to murder because your friend here wants to prove he's a man? Do you think he'll admit to the Reliant detectives that it was he who shot the little boy, or is it just possible he'll sell you two out for an offer of immunity?'
This last move was a definite gamble; Minervan justice typically didn't feature plea bargains. Since most crimes were punished by large fines, an offer of leniency in exchange for a confession was seen more clearly for what it essentially was: bribed testimony. To protect their reputation for integrity, most arbitrators wouldn't accept cases in which the plaintiff had paid the financial obligations of an admitted criminal, especially if the other defendants were insured by rival carriers. In situations like those, no matter how solid the evidence, a ruling for the plaintiff would appear to outsiders as a purchased verdict.
Nonetheless, Mason could see that he now had the upper hand, and decided the risk was worth it. The three thieves were almost certainly newcomers from the U.S.
'C'mon Darrell, that watch is a piece a shit anyway,' Larry said, backing away from the situation.
'And now I know your name,' Mason said to Darrell. 'So you'll have to shoot both of us.' Mason turned to the other two. 'If you boys run now, you can honestly tell the Reliant officers that you were long gone when the shots were fired.'
Something about the old man's tone frightened Larry and Michael; it seemed that he wanted to provoke Darrell. What had started out as a tactic of intimidation might now end up as a double homicide. Larry was the first to turn and run, which prompted Michael to quickly follow.
Darrell raised the gun, aiming it between the old man's eyes. He rotated his wrist and held the gun sideways. Its barrel was less than a foot from the man's face.
'Move away,' Mason instructed Danny, pushing him back with his left palm. Danny, eyes wide with fright, took a few additional steps backward into the alley.
'Now it's just us,' Mason whispered to Darrell.
'I don't know what you're up to,' Darrell said slowly, 'but I've still got the gun. And you're giving me that watch.'
'You really don't know what I am, do you?' Mason hissed. He took a step forward, pressing his forehead against the gun.
'Old man,' Darrell started, shaking his head slowly in amazement, 'I really don't want to blow your fuckin head off in front of the kid, but I will. Give me the watch.'
Darrell's mind raced. He decided that he would wait another three seconds, and after that he would pistol whip the crazy bastard and take the watch and whatever else he had on him. The street had been empty, but that had been several minutes ago. No telling who might walk by any'
The old man began laughing. It was a low, sinister laugh, borne of complete and utter confidence.
'What more am I going to have to show you, boy?' the man sneered. 'Do you really think an old man with his grandson would act like this?'
Mason took a step forward, forcing Darrell to back up. He kept the gun planted firmly against his forehead.
'Back up old man,' Darrell said, his voice lower than before. 'I swear to God, I'll shoot you right now.'
'Of course, they always bring Him into it,' Mason said with a chuckle. 'But in my experience, young Darrell, I've found that your God will allow me my fun. He has yet to interfere when I encounter a worthless wretch like you.'
Darrell's stomach fell, and his knees buckled. His deep confusion had now given way to mounting fear.
'I'll . . . do it,' Darrell said.
'Oh, wouldn't that be a shame?' Mason said with cruel sarcasm. 'Then I'd have to find a different body. And I was so fond of this decrepit shell. Oh please don't evict me, young Darrell.'
What the fuck?!? Darrell's mind screamed.
'Don't you get it yet, boy!' Mason growled. Darrell took a step back. 'Don't you know a DEMON when you see it?!'
Darrell's mounting fear was now full-fledged terror. He really didn't understand what was happening, but suddenly his pride didn't require sticking around for the old man's watch. At this point, Darrell honestly did not give a flying fuck what people would say if they knew he'd come out of the mugging empty-handed.
'I know everything about you, young Darrell,' Mason said, walking forward. Darrell matched his steps by moving backward, toward the street. 'I know how things were back in America, and I know why you came here. And yes, I know how you used to look at him. No Darrell, I don't think that makes you a faggot, do you?'
Darrell was now more confused than ever. Was the man talking about Bradley? Sure, Darrell had always admired his abs, but it wasn't anything sexual. Was it?
'GET OUT OF HERE!!' the man suddenly screamed. Darrell turned and ran, faster than he had ever run in his life.
Once the boy had turned the corner, Mason's body began to quiver. He fell to his hands and knees, and broke out in a cold sweat. He glanced over at Danny, who was staring at him without emotion.
Ashamed, Mason quickly looked away. He reflected on the terrible things he had said, and was certain that Tara would never speak to him again. His eyes welled with tears, and he began to vomit on the street.
Danny stood still, watching the professor throw up. He hadn't been able to hear much of what the professor had said to those robbers, but he had certainly shown that nigger who was boss.