This one was published in J. Haldeman, with C. G. Waugh and M. H. Greenberg (eds.), Body Armor 2000 (New York: Ace, 1986).
RIGHT TO LIFE
Thomas A. Easton
Fred Ayala was a loser. So were his wife, his ﬁve kids, and several million other Americans. He hadn’t had a job in over a year, for there were too many people and too little work, and every employer in the country preferred new bodies to giving raises.
But Fred was about to do something about his problems. He would give his kids some hope of getting off the welfare. He would open up their future, though it might be his last effort.
He tucked the cuffs of his green slacks deep into his heavy combat boots and tugged the laces tight. He eased the tension across his knees by pulling three inches of fabric from his boot-tops. He stood, and the pants bloused exactly as they should. Howe had given him a roll of red plastic tape. He handed it to his wife and watched her stretch it down one outer seam.
“Be sure it’s straight, Maria.”
“It is.” He turned to let her do the other leg. Her straight black hair, the clean pink line of the part, were just a few inches from his face. She smelled of soap and cooking. She owned no perfume.
Maria stood and stepped back. She looked appraisingly at the stripes that now ran down each leg. “They’ll do. You want the tunic now, dear?”
He took it himself from the back of a rickety chair. The tunic was the one thing they hadn’t been able to buy or steal. Maria had had to make it from cloth Howe had provided. It ﬁtted better than the pants. He shrugged it into place and grinned. With his short hair and close-clipped mustache, and with his tanbark skin, he didn’t look only like a soldier. He looked like a veteran.
“You look like you did when we got married.”
“That was a lotta years ago.” Three boys, two girls, and three miscarriages. Six arrests. “And too damn few paychecks.”
“Good years, though. I wish this thing wasn’t just cloth.” Maria smoothed the tunic over his shoulders. The movement called his attention to how their life had broadened her. Naked, the stretch marks made her belly a washboard. Her breasts were already stretching. She was a palimpsest of ages, her fate an inevitable tradition. She had little notion that once, for a few brief decades, even poor women had been able to say “No!” to pregnancy.
Fred too wished the tunic were the ﬂexible armor of the true military. Then, he thought, he might have some hope of real success. “We’re expendable,” he reminded her gently. “Where are the guns?”
“Under the couch.” He moved as if to bend down for the weaponry, but she waved him back. “I’ll get them. You don’t want to muss those stripes.”
She had to go to her knees to pull the heavy carton into sight. It bore the markings of a large downtown department store, and it had been delivered by one of that store’s trucks. Maria’s face, as she lifted the lid, was as expectant as if it held an impossible new coat.
She handed her husband the antique Uzi. He checked the magazine and slung it across one shoulder by the strap. She handed him a heavy belt with two holsters. She handed him the matching automatics, solid .45s, and a bandoleer. He strapped them on and accepted the grape-like cluster of grenades. One by one, he hooked them to his belt.
The carton was almost empty. Maria lifted out the long machete and stood. “Where does this go?” The answer wasn’t obvious. Fred Ayala was already so festooned that there seemed no place for it to ﬁt.
“Down my back. There’s a catch on the bandoleer.”
He stood stifﬂy while she fastened it into place. “I don’t know why you have to have this. It won’t do you any good.”
“The outﬁt needs it, Maria. I wouldn’t look right without it.” He shrugged, and his load of metal clanged. “But it might be useful. You can never tell. Now, where’s that placard?”
“By the door.” As they left the room, he shook himself to settle his gear. The noise was less this time, but Maria added. “You shouldn’t make so much noise. The kids might wake up.”
“Okay, honey.” He hesitated. “It wouldn’t be fair to say good-bye.”
“It would only stir them up.”
“Yeah.” He turned to face her. He cupped her chin with a gentle hand. “You’d better get that sign on me.”
He stood still while she ﬁtted his head between the sheets of cardboard and knotted the string ties around his waist. It was like a picket sign, one loudly printed announcement for his front, another for his back. Both read:
Fight for Fuel
The accompanying photo might have been of Fred, except that it showed a black kepi on the star’s head.
Fred’s kepi still swung from the hook behind the front door. He took it down and ﬁtted it carefully into place. The short neckcloth tickled his ears. “Well, that’s it.”
Maria tipped her face up to him. He cupped her chin again and kissed her. He did it thoroughly, and she responded eagerly. She might have wanted to keep him home this night.
As he closed the door behind him, he thought he heard her whisper, “Come back, darling.”
“Damn it!” the delegate from Boston swore. “I’d hoped that Texas aggie wouldn’t show.”
“You knew he would, though.” His wife stood by the hotel suite’s single window. Her cornsilk hair caught a red gleam of neon from the city outside. Her purse sat on the bed behind her. “He was there when the Party was founded. He nominated our ﬁrst President, William.”
“And he seconded the next four. I know.” William Notter ran bony ﬁngers through thinning hair. “But he’s the most meat-headed man here. Or woman, for that matter. He sees no need for change, Terry. It’s all holy writ for him.”
“Perhaps he’s right.” The woman turned to face him. She was three years older, and she was dressed conservatively, properly. But the heavy, blue cloth couldn’t hide her body or dim the ﬂash of her matching eyes. He ached for a moment, but there was no time. The big session was tonight, after three days of preliminaries, and he had to be on time. He was the leader of his faction, and if the Party was to stay in power much longer, they had to win.
“If he is, then we’re all damned. The inﬂation hasn’t stopped in thirty years, and unemployment hasn’t gone below ﬁfteen percent in ten. It’s even getting worse.” He gestured angrily. “We can’t go on the way we have been.”
“Ben Bowles won’t compromise.”
“Then we’ll have to outvote him. I think we have enough of the delegates with us.”
“He has a lot of friends, William. And some of them. . .” Terry crossed the room and laid a hand on her husband’s shoulder. She didn‘t have to reach very far. She was nearly as tall as he. “And not everyone sees the crisis.”
“I know.” He sighed and put an arm around her waist. “But for twenty years we’ve been forbidding birth control. It’s no wonder there are more high-school grads on the market now. They’re fresh, they’re cheap, and they’re pushing older men out of work, when they can ﬁnd jobs at all.” His expression lightened when she kissed the line of his jaw. He rubbed his cheek with his free hand. The stubble wasn’t long enough to deserve a second shave. He sought her eyes. “Nuts. I’ve got to run down there now, honey. Are you sure you don’t want to sit in?”
She shook her head. “Still, I’m glad our two are in college.”
“We’d have more than two if you didn’t have that irregular period.”
They both grinned at that. The rich and powerful had always ignored their own laws. “Maybe I’ll show up for your cousin’s talk. About nine?”
Howe had assured him there would be no trouble as long as he remembered the placard. And she seemed to be right. The subway car was less than half full, but no one moved away from him, and the similarly equipped girl at the other end of the car had received only a glance when she took her seat beside an off-duty cop.
Fred Ayala had been on the train for only ﬁve minutes when a ﬁve-year-old boy tugged at his hand. He had been seated beside his mother when Fred had boarded, and his eyes had gone wide with wonder at the soldier so close. He was too young to read. “Hey, mister!” He tugged at Fred‘s hand again. “Hey! Are those things real?” He laid a hand on a grenade.
Fred gently pushed the small ﬁngers aside. “Of course they are. Do you think a soldier carries toys?”
The boy’s mother stifled a laugh. Fred grinned at her. “Have you seen the movie?”
“Not yet. We’re all going on Saturday. Is it good?” Her dark eyes were still laughing at her son‘s eager curiosity.
“You bet. I’d give you some tickets. But l passed all mine out this afternoon.” He shrugged apologetically.
“That’s all right.” She stood and caught her boy by the arm. The train was slowing for a stop. “At least you’re working.” As the doors opened, she waved and left. The boy struggled for a moment, but by the time they were out of sight, he was running ahead.
Fred turned from the door, still smiling. He raised an eyebrow at the girl down the car. Lisa was her name. He didn‘t know the rest of it, but she was serious, intent, and cool. She ignored him, just as she always did the men in their group. She gave all her attention to their plans.
So, he thought. Let her be. They would have to change trains soon, and then . . . He felt tight, apprehensive. He’d have to loosen up.
Perhaps he would feel better when he got there. They had all been waiting a long time for this night. Ever since they’d known it would be possible. Howe hadn’t found it hard to recruit the few malcontents she needed. Fred felt a dim glow of pride that he had been chosen from the thousands in the city. Twenty years of being thrown in jail for possession of a rubber, of poverty and pain and frustration, had been too much. But Fred knew he was hardly the angriest of his fellows.
When he stepped aboard the new train, he was pleased to see three other Legionnaires already seated, though they weren’t together. He and Lisa found places as far from each other and the rest as they could. Despite their costumes, they weren’t
supposed to seem together.
They stayed apart until their station loomed up on the line. Then all ﬁve arose and stood waiting by the doors. Uzis and grenades clashed together, but they didn‘t speak, not even when the doors slid open and they stepped onto the platform with twenty others. Every car had its handful of soldiers. For a moment, the subway looked like a troop train, but the advertising placards disarmed the few spectators, and there were no security men this far from the Party’s meeting rooms.
Anna Howe, of course, was near the front of the train. She wasn’t in uniform—she was too fat to be accepted as a sandwichman, even by a tugboat maker—but every eye sought her immediately. When she lounged toward the wall, the rest followed suit. They would prop up the walls until the rest had come. Two dozen were too few to storm the Secret Service.
Alone, none of them had drawn attention, but so many in one spot drew stares, and the stares doubled with their numbers when the next train pulled in. Still, Yenbo Legion was being shown at a theater a block away. If the sight was unprecedented, it was nevertheless comprehensible. Perhaps they were gathering to collect their day’s pay, where they wouldn’t have to sacriﬁce a piece of it to the turnstiles. Perhaps they were gathering to catch the show together. Sandwichmen did get free tickets.
At least, that was the impression they were supposed to give. Howe had counted on it, and Fred Ayala saw her grin when no one did anything but stare. No questions. No alarms. But she did seem relieved when the rest of her assault troops arrived. If she was three men short, it didn’t matter. Sixty should be enough, and the three cowards might survive the night.
As soon as most of the bystanders had disappeared up the broken escalator, she bounced off the wall and started walking up the platform. Their intended exit led directly into the hotel’s lower level.
Her sixty followed her.
From his place in the third of the thirty ranks of soft-bottomed folding chairs, William Notter had a good view of the podium. He could hear the clink of the glass when the speaker sipped his water. By craning his neck just a little, he could see the Secret Service men in the wings.
He had already had his say. “The right to life” had made a ﬁne campaign slogan in the 1990s, but its consequences had been insidious. It had brought the Party into power, and it had let them ban abortion and birth control. However, in time it had stifled the economy. It had meant larger families and more unemployment, and taxes had had to rise to meet the welfare bill. The Party had been morally right, perhaps, but they had not met the country’s needs.
The other delegates had received his reasoning coldly. For them, as for Ben Bowles, the moral right was the greater good, and nothing else mattered. He had got them nodding, though, when he spoke of the next elections. They could see the threat there.
They had been ready when he had turned the podium over to the California delegate. They had listened when he told them the Party would have to loosen up. Not that they would have to go whole hog and allow the evils of abortion again, but they should let the people plan their families, let them spend their money on themselves. Let them feel grateful to the progressive, humanitarian, beneficent Party. The Party that stood for everyone‘s right to a good life.
But now Ben Bowles was talking. He had let a dozen others precede him, but at last his impatience had got the better of him and he had asserted his seniority. “I don‘t care,” he was saying. He waved a stray wisp of smoke away from his heavy face. “I don’t care if we do go down to defeat in November. We will go down in glory, and we will not be the baby-murdering heathen the good Mr. Notter is asking us to become. We will not force the people to prevent the sacred union of seed and egg, to risk the wrath of a justly outraged God by murdering His handiwork.” He was blustering, but not everyone would see it. His words had for too long been the Party line.
William Notter registered the sheen of metal ﬁber in the fabric of Bowles’s suit coat. He noted the thickness of padding. He wondered why the man felt it necessary to wear armor in the bosom of his Party. Was he afraid someone would try to assassinate him? That was more his own style. Fascinated, Notter hardly felt the hand on his elbow. “Bill!” The hoarse whisper, though, did reach him. He turned his head.
“What is it, Rose?” His interrupter slipped into the seat beside him. She was the delegate from South Dakota, older, with the weather-beaten look still so necessary in the western states. Her gray hair was drawn back severely, but her smile was infectious.
“The President’s here, Bill. He’s waiting in the hall.”
Of course, he thought. He’ll want to hear the vote, and he’s sure to know that just his being here will help it. It’s too bad we banned the press. But secrecy was safe. Calling attention to yourself was not. They had proved that long ago.
“Then I’d better go get him,” he said. “You tell Bowles his time’s up.” He rose and sidled past her.
He paused at the ballroom doors to straighten his tie and tuck his shirt in more ﬁrmly. When he pushed the doors open, he found his wife greeting his cousin with a kiss. The three of them had been friends for years, and she had, she said once, had trouble deciding between the two men. Though she had no regrets, she assured her husband.
The President’s bodyguards shifted protectively as he entered the hallway, but his path cleared immediately. They knew him. “Hi, Jack.” They both smiled at the old joke as they shook hands.
“How’s it going in there, Bill? Did you get the idea across?”
“It’s a pretty sure thing. Though Bowles is trying his damnedest to haul them back on the straight and narrow. Have a good trip?” Notter slipped his arm around his wife as he spoke.
“So-so. But the copter made it. Midway’s a mess, you know?”
“O’Hare’s worse, these days. Or so I’m told.”
His cousin checked his watch. “What are we waiting for?”
Notter cocked his head toward the room behind him. “For Bowles to ﬁnish. Rosie’s given him the word.” As he spoke, the applause began to sound through the closed doors. “Ready?”
Two of the guards stood aside to watch the hall. The rest followed their master through the doors and into the crowded room. The noise died immediately as the President was recognized.
The Notters found seats together as Bowles stepped gravely down and the President approached the stage. He climbed the short staircase, faced his silent audience, and engulfed the microphone in one large hand. “Gentlemen,” he said. “And ladies. I understand that you have all thoroughly discussed the most important plank in our platform. I trust you understand it.”
His audience laughed politely. “Very well, then. As the titular head of our great Right-to-Life Party, l don’t feel it would be amiss for me to conduct the voting on this issue. I will canvass you myself.”
A few seemed disturbed at that. They had expected the Party’s secretary to run the show. He was a traditionalist himself, and the other traditionalists felt they could count on him to interpret a voice vote correctly. The President, it seemed, was of another mind.
The results surprised no one. The score was 283 to 114, and the Party would change. The President said it when he closed the tally:
“The die is cast. We may not be as righteous as once we were, but we will continue to hold this nation’s reins. We will continue to steer the nation’s path as close to righteousness as is humanly possible. If we have had to loosen our grip on a principle, we may rest assured that our grasp of the right is still far, far firmer than that of the New Democrats. We know that they would return us all to the evil days of the mid-twentieth century. We. . .
Anna Howe led her group into the nearly deserted underground tunnel. The stores that lined it were closed, and few people had any other reason to use it at this hour.
A wall clock said it was only 8:45. They had a quarter of a mile to go, and they had plenty of time to take their intended formation. Fred Ayala stepped up beside his leader. She seemed bulkier than usual, and he could feel the rigidity of cheap plastic armor beneath her jacket when he bumped her side.
“You know the way, Fred.”
He nodded silently, suppressing a sudden wave of revulsion. He had rehearsed the route two weeks before. What had she rehearsed? They were supposed to be on a suicide mission, but she was plainly ready to survive if she could.
“Then take the point. We want to surprise them.” She let herself slip back along the column, pausing regularly to encourage and promise, telling her people of the good they would do, reminding them of their roles. It wouldn’t do for anyone simply to open ﬁre. Their objective was more than mere random slaughter.
Fred squelched his thoughts and increased his pace. His weapons rang faintly together, in time with his step, but he could do nothing but pray they wouldn‘t give him away. Once he was a hundred feet ahead of the rest, he could slow down and be quiet once more. Until then, he could only pray.
There was no one in sight at the hotel door, loosening his pistols in their holsters, he beckoned the others on. He unslung his Uzi, and then he thought of his machete. If he met anyone, that might really be better. Quieter. He used the sheath to prop the door open and advanced with the blade naked in his hand.
The hallway carpets muffled his tread. There was still no one in sight. He hesitated at the ﬁrst intersection, waited for the others to reach him. He turned the corner. Still no one. The stairs were where he’d found them before. He went up the three ﬂights silently. The glass door to the second ﬂoor was ajar, and he could see a guard, his gun safely holstered, his back to the glass.
Fred Ayala slipped his arm between door and jamb. He slashed viciously, and the guard fell. The machete jammed in the broken skull.
Fred left it, and with it his last compunctions. He had not been sure he could really do it, for he had never killed before, not even in the army.
The next guard would surely not be alone. Machetes would be useless. He signed to the man behind him to remove the body and open the door.
They gathered on the landing and the stairs. Anna Howe cautioned them. “Just the pistols first,” she whispered. “A few of you have silencers. Go ﬁrst.”
Five minutes later, Fred passed two more bodies. The shots had made no sound. No one had noticed, and now they stood just outside their target. As they doffed their placards, they could hear the sound of a speech. Anna seemed to listen. “Fine,” she whispered. “Be sure you get him. Use the Uzis.”
Fred glanced at the bodies by the wall. He felt only faint surprise that they failed to disturb him. He wished he knew what was being said behind the ballroom doors. “Go on,” Howe hissed. “Don’t miss!”
He leaned on the room’s ornate double doors. They all heard, “. . . to the evil ways of the mid-twentieth century. We. . .” A burst of gunﬁre rattled down the hall. He could wait no longer. Fred leaped into the room. As Howe had instructed him, he let his Uzi chatter its message across the seated delegates and into the podium. The others poured past him, and their guns turned his chatter into thunder.
A Secret Service guard ﬂung himself toward the President, but too late. The reinforced podium disintegrated in the storm. Body armor failed. Both men fell as other guards tried to return the fire. Fred saw a girl beside him go down, her back exploding from a dumdum. But all the guards, for all their training and dedication, were too slow, too frail.
The Party‘s delegates screamed and died as the intruders turned their ﬁre upon them. Fred held back when he recognized the moderate leader, Notter, but others did not. Notter went down as an Uzi’s slugs hammered his chest.
Silence fell. Anna Howe pushed through the rubble of toppled chairs and moaning wounded. She put her pistol to a young blonde’s head, and then she kicked a slender body onto its back. Fred recognized Notter once more.
Anna’s body blocked his view as she ﬁred downward. “So much for him,” came her words.
The occasional raps of pistols killing off the wounded punctuated the silence. Fred moved, seeking and finding his own bloody victims. Few of the bodies wore his uniform.
They had triumphed. The Party was now both headless and brainless. The New Democrats would have to win the election, and the people would regain control of their lives.
The sirens began screaming in the streets.
“Go now! Run!” As Anna Howe bellowed her ﬁnal orders, they all turned, not quite stampeding for the open doors. Fred glanced behind him as he ran, and he stopped. Howe was stepping quickly toward the large room’s only other door. Where was she going?
He turned and followed, eager to take a safer route if she knew one. He was only a step behind her when she stepped into the hall and bent. She had not heard him, her hearing dulled, perhaps, by all the recent thunder.
She was helping a burly man to his feet. Fred heard, “The money! Where’s the other half of the money?”
“Drop your gun first,” said the man. She did, and after he stepped on it, he turned and pointed down the hall, “In the first ladies’ room, in a briefcase. It’s all there.”
Fred suddenly felt sick. He recognized the cultivatedly Texan accent of the one man they had railed against most of all.
There would, he knew, be another gun battle. There would be cops in the lower levels, on the street, in the subway. Maria might well wait for him in vain. But it would all be useless anyway. Bowles had found the way to land the presidency for himself and his vision of the Party, riding a wave of popular revulsion and sympathy he, himself, had stirred up.
Fred stiffened, determined. He knew he couldn’t let it all fall through his hands. Not now. The armored suit coat may have saved Ben Bowles from stray shots, but the head was vulnerable, as was Howe’s.
Gunﬁre echoed in the room behind him as he raised his Uzi. He felt the impacts of heavy slugs, but still he pulled his trigger even as he fell, and hoped the shots were destined to be true.