Short Story: “Limited Hangup”

What would you do with an illicit video? (This is part of a series related to my novel, “Burnout Fever”, which is available for the Nook reader and app. Catch up from the links listed here or here.”)

“Limited Hangup”
Part 9 of a series
by P. Orin Zack

“Or how about this one?” someone else said happily, getting into the spirit. “After a hard day farming the corporate commons, a bunch of randy backroom boys and girls go down to the Grange Hall for a little hoedown. Imagine, if you will, an impromptu square dance on the big sidewalk outside the SEC. Someone calling out the do-si-dos as the pin-striped assembly conducts the mergers and divestment dance for passers-by!”

“Even better,” another suggested, “a couple of dancers get out of line, and the caller has some black-clad enforcers reign them in. They could jump out of a black sedan parked nearby and come in past the onlookers.”

Derek Boa winced as the festive scene coalescing in his head turned into an activist roundup. The group that he spearheaded, Constitutional Evolution, was more like a progressive think tank. The one gathered around a computer screen with him wanted action in the worst way, and he was determined to head it off. “Stop. Please! I’m serious. That all sounds like it’d be a blast, but it’s also a really bad idea. That video isn’t what you think it is. It’s disinformation.”

They were in the basement office of Kelly Ranfour, the earnest former science teacher standing across the semi-circle from him. Seeing the curriculum he’d taught shredded in favor of pap generated by right-wing religious zealots had been the last straw, and he spoke out against the intrusion. The district administration claimed there was no secret blackball list, but looking for another position told him otherwise. He knew about protected secrets, and had attracted other disillusioned victims of subterfuge to do battle with the apparatus of repression.

“What’s eating you Derek? Do you think that surreal puff piece we just watched is some kind of limited hangout?”

Boa tore his gaze from the familiar face in the video playback window. “Not exactly. If it were, then admitting that the so-called ‘Ownership Society’ – all that blather about individual investment accounts for everything – was simply a way to drive the sheeple to the stock market for a good fleecing would be some sort of confession. But they’re proud of it. They think it’s a great idea. There’s no reason for them to confess anything.”

Alexis Gruthe, a portly woman just to Boa’s right, snorted. “Yeah, right.”

Ranfour smiled at her, then turned again to Boa. “You think that’s their bottom line on this? That when the framers said ‘promoting the common good’, what they meant was bolstering business interests? That the common good has nothing to do with the people, and they’re not afraid to say it to our faces?”

“I think the guy who made the video wasn’t concerned because it wasn’t for public distribution. He could afford to blurt the truth because it was just a training exercise.”

“And how do you know that?”

Boa frowned. Even he had secrets to keep. “Because I recognize him. I’ve seen him before, and I know that he’s an agency trainee. They don’t let trainees do real psyops, so this can’t be one.”

Alexis shook her head in disbelief. “And we’re supposed to take your word on this? How do we know you’re not a plant? If the video Kelly got his hands on could really hurt them, someone would be sent out to ID the leaker, round up everyone who’s seen it, and lay in some damage control. I have no more reason to buy your explanation than I did the claim that a Boeing jet could fly over 500 miles an hour at 700 feet without tearing itself apart, and then cause the World Trade Center to vanish like a magician’s trick.”

Ranfour turned to her. “Maybe not, but I do. I can vouch for Derek.”

“Only because Rodney Falk’s a friend of yours,” she countered. “That’s like saying I should trust the manager who fired me because you know someone on the company softball team. It won’t wash.”

“Look,” Boa said flatly, “my reputation is out there for anyone to smear. We don’t hide our identities. In fact, I made a pitch recently to the city’s chamber of commerce. All I ask is that you hear me out. Then you can decide for yourselves whether to go through with your hoedown outside the SEC.”

“All right,” she said. “I’ll listen.”

“Great. Here’s what I know. The guy on the video – call him ‘Ron’ – made it to serve two purposes. The first, the surface one, was to satisfy the assignment he was given. As a trainee, he’s got to demonstrate that he understands the processes he’ll be using once they turn him loose. But there was another level as well. He gave his word to watch our backs. He –.”

“His word?” It was another of Ranfour’s group, an overweight man about thirty. “Now we have to take HIS word, too?”

Alexis smirked, her eyes darting to a replay of some old memory.

“As I was saying,” Boa persisted, “he promised to help us out. But considering his situation, that help would have to be indirect. In a manner of speaking, he’s a mole, and running his own psyop against the agency.”

“In that case,” Ranfour said, “he’d best watch his own back. He’s not playing with amateurs.”

“Even if he does get caught, Kelly, he’ll have given us this training video. It was a gutsy thing to do. He must have learned something that put him over the edge, just like it did all of you. So I think we should learn from it. Getting it out may end up costing him his job. Or worse. Remember who he works for.”

“Okay. So maybe he meant us to learn something from the video. What?”

“How the people being paid to undermine your efforts think, for starters. Even the format – one of those faux-news stories local broadcasters are so eager to fill time with – is important. It gives us a reason to recognize them, and treat them with even more suspicion than if they’d been produced by some corporate lobby’s PR flak. Having corporate slime supply the ‘news’ is bad enough. But this…”

“You know, Derek, none of us just fell off the turnip truck this morning. The only reason we monitor the mainstream media –.”

“C.C.C.P. – the Corporate Controlled Complicit Press.” Derek corrected.

“Whatever. The only reason we monitor them is for practice unraveling the spin. It’s educational.”

“Well, so’s this.”

Ranfour gestured towards the monitor. “That video was crap. Trying to convince people that corporations are the 21st century equivalent of the commons is ludicrous. Nobody’s going to believe that bilge.”

“Of course not. Nobody was ever supposed to have seen it except Ron’s instructor. But that’s precisely why it was possible for him to get away with it. He’s telling us that this perverted logic actually reflects the perspective of the self-proclaimed masters of the universe. The big difference between this and a real fake-news piece is that this one can show us a much more deeply hidden truth, one that those self-important maggots use to manipulate both the government and business.”

“And that is…?”

Derek thought for a moment. “Work it backwards. Assume that this cover story contains an element of truth, mixed with a load of hogwash. I think that truth is that the power brokers consider the corporations to be the only important players on the global stage.”

“Oh, come on,” Alexis said in exasperation. “Like that’s new. Paddy Chayefsky wrote ‘Network’ way back in the 70s. It was Howard Beale’s big revelation – that corporations were more important than governments anymore – and he got murdered on his own program to protect them. So what?”

“So this. What if those players permitted Chayefsky to say that because his movie script was the morsel they were willing to toss out to keep an even bigger secret? What if Network itself was a red herring?”

Ranfour sighed. “And I suppose you know what that deeper secret is, too?”

“I can guess. It’s pretty obvious that the players have engineered the fascist shift that’s going on right now in this country, and I sincerely doubt the principal beneficiaries are the people we know about. As powerful as the public face of the junta might be, they’re still only human, and subject to all the weaknesses that entails. I’d say the power behind the putative throne is the corporatocracy. Not the people who think they’re controlling those multinational conglomerates, but the fictional persons themselves. All this repression that’s being rolled out is being put in place to protect people that don’t even exist. As far as they’re concerned, we’re all expendable. Only the money matters. When you look at just about everything they’ve done from this perspective, it all makes sense.”

“Even so. How does knowing that help us?”

“For one thing, it tells us where to focus our efforts. My crew can turn their attention to ways of disentangling business’ tentacles from the workings of government. That’s far more important than fine-tuning the way committee chairs control what gets to the floor of the House, for example.”

“You can do what you want,” Alexis said evenly. “But I still don’t see any reason to call off our performance.”

“Maybe not call it off,” Ranfour replied, “but perhaps alter it a bit.”

“What did you have in mind?”

A mischievous gleam lit his eyes. “Instead of suiting up in business-suit drag, how about we do up some corporate-sponsored racing get-ups? The only thing I’m stuck on is whether to use the logos of the companies we love to hate, or to make up some for the ones active back in Jefferson’s day. You know, so the founders in our street sketch would really be representing their constituencies.”

“We could spice up the dialog, too,” Alexis countered. “This could be fun.”

“So, you’ll go with a change in focus,” Boa said, assessing the reactions of the group, “but you’re steering clear of anything to do with this fascist shift we’re in?”

“Well, yeah. Staging a public action is one thing, getting hauled off for calling them out on that is something else again. I’d rather be around for another action than to make this our last act.”

“Interesting. And I always thought you guys had more nerve than we did for being so out front about it.”

“It’s a trade-off, Derek. I’d never have to nerve to suggest some of the structural changes you’ve talked up. If the government adopted your suggestions, you’d really be responsible for whatever came of it. That kind of responsibility scares the heck out of me.”

Boa looked down at Ron’s face on the monitor. “Me, too. But the thought of what we’ll end up if I do nothing is scares me more.”


[Afterword: The series continues in “Vocal Threat“.]

Copyright 2007 by P. Orin Zack


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