This is the first chapter from my dystopian novel, tentatively titled, Boy Privilege.
As I crossed 15th Ave onto the north side of the University of Washington, I replayed the advice my father had given me the night before. He’d been in his office at home, and on the clip, his broad, bearded face was lined with concern.
“Jonas, remember the future is about flexibility, choosing the right path downstream. You can’t fight the current. Doing the right thing is following your principles, and trying to guess what’s coming. We can’t know how history will judge us, but we can try.”
The weariness in his voice came from more than the arrests President Williams had just carried out. I knew that stress from his work at Oracle was grating on him, but he wouldn’t tell me any details.
“Regulation, education, innovation,” I said on the clip, reciting the social mantra he advocated.
“Good man. I’ll see you this weekend?”
Reaching the path across campus, I closed the recording onmy contacts and sighed. His words and advice didn’t seem so infallible now. I’d made my decision, but I wanted my mentor Dr. Ochs’ opinion too.
The temperature stood at the mid-sixties, the new norm for an early November day. The lawns on campus were all sere away from the trees, due to little rain this fall, and the university unable to afford the water. On buildings and open spaces egraffiti glowed and popped in moving colors and shapes, making it almost impossible to not look at: Fuck Williams before she Fucks you, was scrawled above an image of her wearing a massive purple strap-on, holding an M-33 and grinning insanely. She had wings, fangs, a forked tale, and laser eyes, which were razing Seattle.
Ahead, on the sandstone foundation of Parrington Hall, another read: Support the Teacher’s Charter! It snapped out of existence just I looked at it, when the college’s AI censor made a new sweep. I shook my head. As much as I sympathized with student and teacher’s financial problems, a barter system would never work.
Around me on the path, students wore tank tops and shorts, trying to make the best of the continual drought. Through my phone contacts, I could see the projected AR avatars which most wore. A grizzled Captain Blackman from the VR game Freedom Travels marched past me, followed by Tam Fernandez, one of the recently arrested Green-party activist. Others appeared as models and sports stars.
I never wore avatars in public. Too cheesy, plus most my heroes were writers nobody would recognize anyway. As I approached the Hall, a delivery drone buzzed toward the upper windows of its glass trapezoid, probably delivering professor Och’s tea, or someone splurging on coffee.
As I crossed inside the building, I could hear chanting coming from somewhere south, near Odegaard Library and Red Square. I almost thought I could make out my girlfriend Kim’s voice.
My eyes flicked to the time in the upper left of my HUD: 9:01am. The protests had already started.
I mounted the steps to Och’s office. The building was nearly empty as most students and many professors had walked out today. Not only because of the arrests, but because it was the first anniversary of William’s election. Tuesday, November 2nd, 2049.
When I reached Och’s corner office on the third floor, he was at his desk, eyes scanning through a holo-doc. He had short grey hair, a boxy, stolid face, and a flat Midwestern brogue, hinting at his birthplace in Des Moines, Iowa. A shelf behind him held pictures of his family, a wife and two teenage sons. His office, like most of my English Professors, was lined with printed books. They were all nostalgic like that.
He’d taught my Comp I class, and I was now taking an environmental literature course with him. For all his educated exterior, his gender leaned high-masculine, and he sometimes told stories of dealing with physical confrontations as asides that I found relatable in their similarity to my father. Even when working at a premier AI development company, my dad still found time every week to spar at our local Krav Maga gym.
He looked up from the doc. “Jonas, hey.”
I closed the door, leaving only an inch line of gap. I took the seat in front of his desk.
“Wasn’t sure if you’d be here,” I said.
“Comp class today,” he sighed. “We’ll see who makes it. And you? Going to protests?”
“Yeah,” I said. “That’s what I came to see you about.”
He nodded. “I’ll probably see you there.”
“It’s not just that. My partner Kim, and my best
friend Danny . . . They’re both talking about working full time at the local Green office, or even joining the Elves. And with this whole barter ultimatum from the student council–”
“It’ll never happen,” Ochs said, shaking his head.
“I hope not,” I said. “I just worry I won’t have a college to attend next semester. But we can’t just sit by while she arrests anyone she likes and brags about building a Singleton. She’ll get us all killed.”
Ochs leaned forward, his face kind and earnest.
“Jonas, you’re one of my best students. I also happen to agree with you. It’s good you’re staying involved in politics. But English and writing are your passions. No matter what happens, you have to follow those.”
“Thanks, Dr. Ochs. I just don’t know what to tell her.”
“Per gonna to give up dance?” he asked
I was surprised he’d remember this detail about Kim, but didn’t know her pronouns.
“I don’t know. Probably do more public performances. But she seems really serious, so is Danny. I don’t want to break up because I don’t have time to be that involved.”
“I don’t blame you. Look, stay up on your studies, don’t get arrested, and you’ll be fine. I don’t know your partner, but she should understand that.”
“Yeah. What do I tell her about joining the Greens?”
“Tell her yes, volunteer at their office. With enough pressure, this legislature will get overturned. We all know the charges are bullshit. Just don’t let it take up all your time.” He smiled, and I sat up a little, feeling calmer now.
“How’s the essay going?” he asked.
“I wish they’d listened to Jack Turner in ‘96. Maybe we wouldn’t be in this mess.”
“Yeah.” I paused, hesitating before bringing up the other worry on my mind:
“You think this will really start a war?”
Ochs swallowed, rubbed his forehead. “Probably.”
I was surprised at this. I said, “My father doesn’t. He says because she can already see the cost, she won’t go that far. She’s probably already got a stronger oracle than she’s admitting.”
Ochs ran a hand through his hair. “I’m not so sure she cares about the costs.”
“The school’d definitely close then, huh?”
“Don’t start thinking too far ahead. Who knows what the courts will do with these cases? Or what the Democrats and Greens do to get them released.”
I straightened, ready to leave. I could see Ochs’ had work to do, and this wasn’t his office hours.
“All true. Well, I won’t keep you, Dr. Ochs. But I wanted to ask: what will you do, if this turns into secession, or worse?”
He leaned back in his chair, stretched.
“Join the Army, probably. Or stay here, for whatever ROTC overflow comes up.”
“Really? You’d serve under her?”
He smirked. “Not much choice if there’s a draft. And despite what the left says, not everyone in the military likes Williams, or is going to go along with this. It wouldn’t be fun, but it might be safer.”
“I find that hard to believe. Liberia sounded terrible.”
He glanced up at the doorframe above me, eyes distant.
“It was, but it’ll be a walk in the park compared to a real war here. Even then, it might not be the worst option after you graduate. Military service can shelter you from politics, to a degree.”
I could all too easily imagine Kim’s response to this idea. And being in the military for a national civil war didn’t sound all that safe.
“I’ll think about it,” I said. “Thanks for meeting, Dr. Ochs. I’ll see you tomorrow in class.”
“All right, Jonas.”
As I reached out to shake before leaving, a vicious boom came from behind Ochs’ window that stung my ears and dislocated my vision. It shook the building and books tumbled from his shelves, thumping all around us. I could feel the impact from the noise in my balls. Ochs put his hands up in a cower as the window behind him slivered into fragments. There came a roaring, like a heavy wind, and a cascade of tinkling, as all the windows in the building shattered and fell to the green below.
I found myself on the floor, with my head up against Ochs’ desk. Through the ringing in my ears, I could hear heavy breathing from nearby and screaming from one of the offices next door. I got up on one knee, saw Ochs’ head pop up on the other side. His face was pale, eyes fully open, mouth in a strange grimacing smile.
He stood up and brushed the glass from his shoulders. He turned to the window, which was now just a black metal frame, the sill a pool of glass gravel.
“My God . . .”
I came around the desk behind him, and looked down the hill towards 15th Ave.
Through the trees that lined the edge of campus we could see a rising gray mushroom cloud from an explosion. Leaning against the gritty sill, with a shock of recognition, I saw that the smoke billowed from Schmitz Hall, where the ROTC offices were located. As it cleared, we could make out the corner of 41st Street, five hundred feet distant.
Fires licked from a hole in the second floor of the building. Around the intersection of 15th and 41st, people were prostrate, covering their heads, the street littered with debris. Now they rose and ran towards campus, or back down 15th. A person with long hair, lying on the sidewalk right below the building, did not get up.
Two hundred feet away, on the path I’d just walked, I saw an arm, half on the sidewalk, half on the grass. At first, I couldn’t process it, thought it was a jacket, a pile of clothes, a backpack, but it stood clearly in focus, the brown fingers splayed, the bicep darkened by blood or the explosion. My head reeled; my heart raced, and my gorge start to come up. I bumped into the desk behind me, clumsily leaned into it until pieces of glass pressed into my palm, then cut as I jerked them away.
“Christ, it’s the ROTC . . .” Ochs turned around, called across the hallway.
“Kent, are you all right?” Dr. Roberts, my Shakespeare instructor, was his neighbor.
Roberts knocked open the door, rubbed his shaggy brown hair with one hand.
“Liam, Jesus, what the hell was that? My window’s all blown out . . .”
“Come and look.”
He stepped into the office, taking in the desk and floor covered in shards, like a domestic break-in. Warm air was blowing in through the wide window. The glass crunched under Roberts’ steps. As he rubbernecked with Ochs, I pocketed a round piece of glass off the desk. Something told me I’d want a memento from this moment.
In that same moment the blaring klaxon of the fire alarm started. I could only barely make out Ochs’ yells over the noise.
“We’ve got to get the hell out of the building.”
We stepped out into the hallway, now filled with the few teachers in office. Up ahead, I saw Dr. Shearer, who taught social media communications, being held up by the elderly Dr. Martinez, the rhetoric instructor, as they shuffled towards the stairs. Shearer was screaming, and I saw her face was cut in many places, and streams of blood ran from her closed eyes. I thought of the climactic scene from Oedipus Rex. My mouth flooded with spit as another wave of nausea hit me.
More shouting as we moved to the stairs. From the opposite side of the floor I could hear the English chair, Dr. Munoz, shouting an all clear. As I paused at the stairs, my head swimming, I felt Dr. Ochs’ strong hand on my shoulder, and we moved down with the growing flood of students and instructors from the other three floors.
Outside the building, I could smell the smoke, a sharp chemical tang. In front of Parrington, Schmitz Hall was obscured by trees, but the smoke was curling higher and higher above campus. People coming up the path from George Washington Lane and 15th were shouting that the ROTC and Veteran’s Affairs office had been bombed. My eye contacts were rolling with alerts and real-time news:
Robbery in progress at–
Bombing in University district
“Oh my God, a bomb just went off next to Red Square–“
Active shooter at–
National Guard Armory under attack
Ochs was now gesturing and calling for everyone to move around the building, north, to Parrington Green, and from there off campus. As I followed him, I looked up at the building. Only its thin steel superstructure remined, the shattered windows forming a two-inch deep layer of glass in a circle around its drip line. All the rhododendrons and pines growing in the beds next to the walls were covered in it, like the glaze of an ice storm that had just suddenly melted.
I’d dialed Kim, and was typing out a mass text to friends, when the phone and Wi-Fi went out. This sent a shock of fear through me. Had the bombers done this? Or the police? Across the lawn, I saw a drone fall out of the sky, apparently remotely deactivated. Panicked, I scanned the scene, trying to assure myself that neither Kim nor any of my friends would be in Schmitz for any reason. But if she was out protesting . . .
As we moved around the building, following the pathway, the view opened up to another of the intersection. The collapsed person was still there, as well as the arm. As I looked, a man, badly burned, fell out of the hole in the building, and the crowd around me screamed and shrank back.
“Should we help him?” I asked Ochs, leaning into him and pawing at his arm.
“He’s dead,” he said. “Ambulances will be here soon. Everybody stay together,” he shouted. “Move across the green!”
His voice seemed detached somehow, his eyes glazed, scanning past the bodies. I wondered what he was thinking. I realized, for the first time, that I didn’t know anything about his service in Liberia, or his time in the Army. He seemed surer and less nervous than the rest of the department, even Munoz, who was taking up the rear of the crowd.
Up ahead, the whole Law Department was out on Parrington Green, assembled uphill in front of the glass square of the Will Gates building. I scanned through the crowd of students coming up the tree-shaded Memorial way from Red Square and the Student Hub, looking for Kim, or anyone I knew.
We reached the law crowd, and hundreds of students gathered in the center of Parrington, along the two paths leading from 42nd Street. Thousands of voices were talking at once about their eyephones, or were trying to find their friends, or information on what was happening. Many were crying. Administrators and instructors moved through the crowd, trying to calm the hysterical or restrain those trying to flee.
“You OK, Jonas?” Ochs asked, looking hard into my face.
“Yeah, I’m OK,” I said. He nodded and stepped away, moved towards the small circle forming around Dr. Shearer.
A rising wail of sirens approached from the west and south. Two police cars stopped at the intersection in front of Schmitz, followed by two firetrucks and ambulances. The police dived into the building, the firefighters tapped a hydrant and started dousing the flames.
Soon two police cars moved up the campus paths from 42nd towards the gathered crowed, followed by two ambulances. They parked fifty feet away, on either side, and we waited for instructions.
The officers emerged, shouting for the rushing crowds to get back, move away from the cars. I realize, in a kind of shock, that they imagined the bombers could be among us. The crowd huddled together, confused and cowed by the authoritative barking.
Soon they conferred with our professors, and directed us to move up Memorial Way, towards the fraternity and sorority housing, north of campus. As we moved back, I turned to watch other officers at the Schmitz intersection kneeling to check the pulse of the two bodies. They paused, spoke into their comms, and moved out of sight towards the back of the hall.
I kept bumping into people, turning around to look for Kim. Things seemed super-clear, each moment etched into my mind. A hyperreality set in, images, sounds, all being limned into my brain. Each blade of dry grass, the shards of glass on the rhodies around Parrington, the hazed bright overcast sky. But the meaning had become garbled. Why was I here? What had Dr. Ochs and I been meeting for?
From a chaperoned group coming up behind, I spotted Kim’s black hair, tight shoulders and heart-shaped face. Shouting, I push my way through the crowd towards her. Ochs yelled behind me, and one of the nearby officers shouted, his face a mask of anger, but he turned away when I merged with the other crowd. I saw Dr. Meyers, Kim’s haughty middle-aged female dance professor, glare at me, but I ignored her, racing to embrace Kim.
“Jonas!” she shouted when I got close. “Oh my God, are you OK?” She came in for a hug and I squeezed her. “My phones not working, I tried to call you,” she said. “I thought–”
“The police shut the wireless down, I think.”
I saw her best friend Arielle walked behind, holding hands with her partner. Both were crying.
“Have you seen, Danny?”
She shook her head.
“I’m sure he’s OK.”
I nodded, swallowed a lump in my throat. We stared at the growing crowds, all merging together into a mass parade up Memorial Way. A thousand students, maybe more.
Who had done it? Not the Elves, who only targeted large companies, or ultra-rich trying to build on the few wild places left. Right-wing militias or Outsiders wouldn’t target the ROTC. It had to be the Communist Party, or the Red Army Faction, whose numbers had been growing since William’s election.
As I squeezed Kim’s sweaty hand, two heavy shots rang out from nearby, followed by two more, echoing off the buildings. Everyone hit the ground, and the whole crowd threw up a wail. An active shooter. And we were out in the open.
I tried to cover Kim with my body, but she put an arm around me, shaking, and I stopped. It seemed pointless. Could my body stop a bullet? I could smell her perfume mixed with sweat, and the sharp aerosol of her hairspray. I tried to remember what we were supposed to do in an active shooter situation. Bar the door? Turn off the lights? But we were outside.
“Run!” called a familiar voice. I rolled over, my knees and hands damp. Fifty feet away, Dr. Ochs was shouting, up on his feet, waving his hands.
“Run! You’re out in the open.”
I sat up on one knee, saw he was the only one on his feet. Then Dr. Munoz joined him, then other professors, all telling us to run. I stood, hoisted Kim up with me. It was then I saw what had happened to the police.
All of the four nearby officers were down, shot in the chest or neck. The nearest was trying to hold the blood in, thick clots of it bubbling up between his fingers. His eyes were huge, red lips making silent calls for help. All around us, students were screaming and shrinking back from the bodies. I watched, unable to turn away, as his hand gripped tighter, and the blood squirted between his clutching fingers.
I took Kim’s wrist in a grip and sprinted out of the crowd, northwest, past the near side of the law building, towards our apartment. Almost as one, the rest of the crowd scattered in every direction, except southwest towards Schmitz.
My feet dug into the grass. We reached the sidewalk leading to the law building. I tripped on it and we both went down, hands sinking into the lawn. Back on our feet, gunshots rang out to our right, and we dropped again, my heart feeling as if it were going to explode out of my chest. I swiveled my head around, and in the distance saw an officer emerge from Schmitz, firing his pistol up at the rooftop of Gates. Another piercing shot cracked overhead, and his body stiffened, while the back of his head fell out in a spray of gore. His hands went slack, and the pistol dropped to the sidewalk. Everything in my vision shook, taking in a hundred stimuli at once: the officer’s knees awkwardly under his body, the firefighters cowering behind their truck in their heavy boots and yellow suspenders. On the breeze I could smell blood and fresh urine. I saw again the image of the brains coming out of the back of the officer’s head. It flashed and repeated, a red horror on continuous flicker. The savory oatmeal in my stomach flooded up in a violent surge, spraying all over the grass and my chest. I wiped my mouth, saw Kim had lost her breakfast smoothie; green splotches of it dotted her tights. Tears streamed from her face, snot hung from her nose.
My knees felt like rubber, but my whole body urged me up, away, to escape. We clawed to our feet and hurtled forward towards the edge of Gates and the seeming safety of the trees lining the edge of 15th Ave and campus. Kim tugged on my hand and we slowed.
“He’s that way, don’t run that way!”
“No!” I roared, and yanked violently on her arm. She yelped, but caught her feet and followed me down to 15th.
Another rapid string of shots rang out. I could hear the lighter pop of officers firing back from cover near Schmitz. They were only targeting the police. If they wanted to kill us, they would have done it by now.
We jumped down the raised embankment along 15th, ran up for one block then sprinted down 43rd. Crowds were everywhere, flooding away from campus, and sirens were howling all around us. Getting to 11th Ave, we rounded the corner on Roosevelt and reached our apt door, gasping for breath.
I shook so bad I couldn’t focus typing the pin on my contacts, and finally had to sub-vocalize to get the door to unlock. We ran up the stairs to the third floor, ignored other tenant’s shouts for information or attempts to stop and help us.
We rushed into the apt and collapsed on our couch, panting. My head rolled at the thought of only being here only an hour before. We reeked of vomit, sweat, grass and mud. Our clothes were filthy.
“Oh, my fucking arm,” Kim moaned, holding her elbow. “I think you sprained it.”
“When you yanked me towards the shooter.”
I wanted to argue with her, but I couldn’t find the words. After a few minutes, I lurched up, still breathing hard, went to the sink and chugged water from a glass. Kim slipped from the couch, down to the floor. I melted down after her and we curled together. She was shivering all over. I found that I was too, and the rug made little folds underneath us.
“Oh God,” she moaned.
“It’s OK. Baby, it’s OK.”
“Jonas, they killed them, they shot them.”
“It’s over. We’re gonna be OK.”
“It has to be Red Factions. What if they take over town? We’ve got to get out of here.”
She started to get up, and I held her tighter. Despite the fear in my chest, I said:
“It can’t be. There’s more police, more soldiers. It’s just an attack. We’re safe here.”
I wasn’t sure if I actually believed this. We lay on the carpet, shivering and rocking, while outside the discordant howl of sirens rose, and the smell of burning crept in through the closed windows. I crushed my eyes together, wishing everything would go away.
Just then, the phone and internet came back on, flooding my HUD with information. Danny was alive. Arielle was alive. And Ochs. Then my mother was calling. Her face was pale and drawn.
“Jonas,” she said. “Are you OK?”
“There was a shooting on campus, we just made it home. Are you–”
“Jonas,” she cut me off. “Your father’s dead.”