Jay Madison, escorted by six armed guards, marched down the dimly lit corridor toward his execution. It was to be a public event, filmed and broadcasted live for every citizen of the Equal States of America. He knew how it would happen, what pain he would be subjected to before he was given a final peace. For the first time, he thanked the Justices for taking his tongue and sewing his mouth shut; it would muffle his screams.
He wore no handcuffs because he had no hands to cuff; they’d taken those upon discovering Jay had learned how to sign if the situation arose where he couldn’t speak. His legs were shackled though, the chains kept loose. The jangling sound of defeat provided the auditorily-pleasing effect that the Justices were going for; the sound of the Independence chained, tried and found guilty.
The Independence had been short-lived. Jay had had a promising career in the public sphere (not that there was necessarily a private sector anymore). He had risen amongst the ranks, slowly creeping toward a Justice position, if the whispers in the Capitol corridors were anything to go by. He had been young when the Uprising had occurred, had grown up in the Conditioning Schools, had never thought to question the new ways like some of the older folk had earlier on. They’d been quickly silenced, their internet privileges at first stripped, then their public privileges and then, Jay later discovered, their privilege to live.
The Equal States of America had been founded, according to the curriculum of the Conditioning Schools, to rebuild upon new foundations, to erase the sins of the past and start anew with no one privileged at the expense of another. “The days of slavery and genocide are in the past. We have learned from them and have moved on. It’s time to forget, to pave over the graves of the Founding Fathers who allowed and benefited from these travesties, to build a symbol to humanity that will last ‘til the end of time. A country where every man and woman can stand on equal footing and look each other in the eye and say, ‘This is ours.’” President Cal Benson, the last president of the United States of America, had said that in his second inauguration to an audience of millions.
What had begun as pandering to the citizens, free healthcare, a pension, and schooling evolved into an all-seeing government. After all, when a government buys you why wouldn’t they want to make sure their investment behaves as they wish?
Cal Benson was later executed. The presidency was replaced with the Council of Social Justice, a select group of individuals selected only by those who had been designated by the First Council Meeting of 2042 as having the capacity to vote, meaning celebrities and those with the proper name who agreed with the status quo. Those who questioned the new ways would find their answer at the end of a barrel of a gun, if they were lucky. It was offensive to question and those deemed to have been particularly offensive would have their drawn-out executions broadcasted online to millions of eager citizens who would always watch. Entertainment had been censored and was subject to government editing, which didn’t leave much afterward, and so executions were one of few permitted ways for a bored populous to qualm their bloodlust.
This position was where Jay had found himself exactly one year ago, which seemed about as far away as the day he was born. Well you know what they say, Jay thought, Time flies… He had been an S.J.E.: Social Justice Editor. These positions were highly prized, as experience in this field almost guaranteed one a future as a Justice. After all, who was more in tune with equality than those that created equality? Art was the hardest thing to apply equality to. Who was to say what was equal and what wasn’t? Was a movie offensive to anyone? Was a book, a painting, a song going to cause anyone to question themselves? Who was so in tune with the status quo, so woke to the citizenship, that they could accurately suspect (project, Jay thought) what would offend, what would make one less equal to their fellow man? A future Justice, that’s who. And so, on his first day on the job, Jay had sat eagerly at his desk and opened the first email which held an attachment that would launch his career in government, or so he had thought at the time. In actuality, it had launched nothing except his downfall, had sent him through torture and pain and brutality that seldom few could cope with.
The file attachment was a short video, no longer than ten minutes. It showed a pretty meadow, alive in the bright moonlight of a summer night. Frogs croaked beneath the swaying tall grass in the mud below. A song of royalty played, of pride and opportunity, cheesy as a dream yet it inspired Jay to sit up straight in his chair. Jay could almost feel the heat of that night on his skin in the air-conditioned office he had sat. If he closed his eyes, the imagery still alive in his mind, he could see the muted light of the moon, could hear the crickets and locusts and the frogs, an owl hooting in the distance, other unfamiliar forest dweller sounds that melded together and in unison calmed his mind and spirit. He never wanted to leave that meadow, despite the humidity and mosquitos. It was unlike anything he had ever experienced, unlike anyone of his generation had experienced because, as he would soon find out, nothing of the sort was ever released to the public. The video faded to black. A name appeared on the screen, the photographer who had recorded the scene, Donavan Jacobs, and then the video ended. Jay watched it again. He greenlit it before moving on with his work.
Jay was paged to the Senior Editor’s office within a half hour.
“Jay! Please come in. Sit down. Would you like anything?” the Senior Editor had asked quickly in succession, not expecting an answer but still expected to have offered. “How’s your first day?”
“It’s going great, thanks for asking.” Jay smiled. There was a code of etiquette that must be followed (S.J.M., V.458, 01.24.2092), where you can never assume anything about the person with whom you are speaking, but also must prepare for nearly any possible situation. Offense to One is Offense to All. “And how is your day going?” Jay continued. “I hope well, but if not please don’t hesitate—”
“Jay.” The Senior Editor interrupted. A break from the code to be sure, but Jay nodded calmly for the mustachioed man to continue. “Apologies, of course, but I need to talk to you about something that passed by your desk today. The Meadow, we like to call it here.”
Jay shifted uncomfortably in his seat. “You’ve seen it before?”
“I wouldn’t say it’s a test, but it’s a—well, we have to set a proper course for those just starting out. So yes, The Meadow is the first assignment of all our editors. You’re not in ‘trouble’ or anything of course, but I need to ask…why did you approve that video?”
Jay shrugged. “Why not? It’s my first day, like you said. Perhaps I missed something? Some hidden message? I confess, I was a little distracted. The music in the video and the way the grass moves in the wind, it was almost hallucinating. It won’t happen again.”
“You got it exactly right, Jay. I find it calming as well, but not everyone does. Does that make sense? I don’t want to assume that we’re on the same page.”
“I guess…I’m not sure I’m following.”
“Well.” The Senior Editor looked past Jay at the other editors before lowering his voice. “You and I, we find the video…I’m not sure what I’d say. Calming, or—what did you say?”
“Right. By the…beauty of the scene, I suppose. But others, they might be uncomfortable by the scene. Suppose someone had some bad recollection when they watch that video. Maybe a childhood experience in a similar meadow, or on a similar night, that they’d rather forget. Well we release that video and they, of course, watch it and now they’re traumatized. We’ve hurt them, and the last thing we want to do is hurt people.”
“But…” Jay cleared his throat, lowered his voice as well. “Isn’t it just a meadow? While I, of course, understand that we don’t want to offend, and forgive me if what I’m about to say can be viewed as offensive, as I can’t find any other way to describe it but…if something as simple as that isn’t approved, what is? If a peaceful meadow is offensive, isn’t everything?”
“No, not to everyone. And no offense taken.”
“What wouldn’t be offensive, then?”
“Imagery and the like that have been approved for public consumption by the Justices, of course.” The Senior Editor blushed. “I didn’t mean of course like that.”
“No offense,” Jay muttered, his brow furrowed. “I’m just…could I see an example of what’s appropriate?”
“I’m sure you’ve seen them a thousand times if you watch that sort of thing online. Here’s something.” The Senior Editor turned his computer display toward Jay. He pressed play on a video. Cheerful music played. A diverse group of friends discussed the cutest cats of 2092. “You see? No one would be offended—I mean, it isn’t likely…my sister’s allergic to cats, come to think of it…” he quickly swiveled the display back around, almost causing it to fall off the desk, and turned off the video. “Look, that’s the type of stuff that’s been approved.”
“I’ll of course follow whatever the Justices believe promotes equality. I’m just trying to understand.”
“Well, that’s the thing!” The Senior Editor seemed pleased that the conversation was almost at an end. “Not everyone would understand the beauty of the meadow, or that odd song that rattles on throughout the whole thing. That’s why it’s offensive.”
And that was the moment something clicked in Jay’s mind. He could pinpoint the start of it all to that very moment, with the Senior Editor wiping perspiration from his wrinkled forehead before taking a shaky drink from his mug of coffee. From there, sitting in that stuffy office, Jay could map out everything, from one to the other, that now led down a musky hallway toward his death.
He remembered one more comment from The Senior Editor prior to his leaving that office and never returning. He had stood up, nodded curtly with pursed lips, the way some men do in awkward moments when they’d rather the situation be over and done with than drag it out any longer, when the Senior Editor, his brow furrowed and his glasses low on the bridge of his nose, said, “Mr. Madison. Just—it isn’t our place to question. One does so themselves at times—internal questioning—but that needs to be—what’s the word—suffocated? No, stifled, that’s it. Because it isn’t our place to question.”
Jay had tried to hold back, but the anger rising within him boiled upwards and out his mouth like steaming froth. “Then whose place is it?”
The Senior Editor’s face grew red, making his brown mustache appear comic, as if a child had drawn him. “You don’t question humanity, Madison. These are rights of every human, to not be offended—”
“At the cost of my freedom to—” Jay cut himself off, looking out the window for any drones that might’ve picked up on what he was about to say. He cleared his throat. “Well, sacrifice for the greater good, right? Gotta cut some down to size. Anyway, it won’t happen again, I can guarantee that.”
It was night and all the other Editors had left for the day. It felt humid and Jay’s thoughts were loud and unorganized. He couldn’t pin any of them down, but his conscious rang like a bell. Before he could question it, Jay greenlit The Meadow and quickly left the office, never to return.
By the time he’d woken up the next morning it was front page news. Donavan Jacobs had been publicly arrested and soon after would be executed for the public good. Jay never forgave himself that, even if he hadn’t thought it would be a possibility. Even now, as he walked toward his televised execution, he could feel Donovan Jacobs with him, and all the rest who had died for a dead cause. They all faced a final death today. They’d given their lives for a purpose and now that purpose was to be buried and forgotten.
“Pick up the pace,” one of his guards said before nudging Jay with his rifle. “Got a schedule to keep.”
Jay breathed heavy through his stuffy nose, causing a kettle-like whistle to echo off the cement hallway with each step. One of the guards thought that was damned funny, his comrades telling him to shape up before they entered the auditorium. Jay could hear the crowd from here. There must be at least 2000 people on the other side of those doors that lay ahead, probably more, packed to the brim with sweating cretins who wouldn’t rise for their rights but will clear the afternoon to enjoy an execution.
He reflected upon the beginning of The Independence. Just a dozen people gathered in spider-ridden cellars, backrooms of bars and restaurants that none of them would otherwise honor with their patronage. He remembered one meeting, when the Independents began to grow in numbers, where they met in a parking garage. Everyone parked on the 1st floor and just sat and listened to Jay speak of the right to offend, to question, to view a god-forsaken meadow and be the only person in the world who had found it interesting without worrying about making someone else sad by the thought of being left out. He’d speak about how freedoms are stacked like dominoes; if you push one down the rest will follow. His words were fuel for a lost and confused generation of men and women who had been told their entire lives how incredibly special they were, while at the same time being told that they were the same as everybody else.
The Independence began to sprout up all over the nation. Any videos of Jay online were quickly deleted, so members would pass around grimy flash drives of not only his speeches and rallies, but other restricted videos, art and suggested readings, books about as hard to get a hold of as the burned Constitution.
Houses were raided and torched, the occupants never heard from again whether they were truly part of the Independence or not. Jay had a choice to make. To allow the cause to disappear into obscurity and hearsay or rise up. He hated violence but wasn’t naïve. It was time to take up arms.
The first attack happened in Boston, where the Editors called home. The Independence, led by Jay, stormed his old offices and took control of the software utilized to silence the populous. This was Jay’s first nationwide address, and this is what he said: “If you find me offensive, turn this off. That’s your choice. It’s not the choice of your government. I believe in a country where every person can censor their own information without silencing others. We used to measure our worth by the freedoms we’d obtained. Now we measure each other by how fearful the other is. This country was founded on bloodshed and chaos, by rebels who drowned the status quo in the Boston Harbor. It’s time to revisit our roots, not those that we collectively have shed but the foundation that made us great in the first place: an individual’s right to say what they want and defend with their life their right to say it. My name is Jay Madison, and I have every right to say whatever I damn well please. If you feel the same join the Independence.”
It took a full 24 hours for the government to get control of the internet again. By then the match had lit the fuse that blew a hole in the stability of the ESA. The rebellion had begun. Jay would’ve cried right then, thinking of those early days when all that laid before him was liberty or death. But he was dehydrated. His body couldn’t muster a single tear.
Besides the several city-wide riots that broke out, there were two battles of the War for Independence; The Battle for a Voice and The Battle to Silence It. These were what those of Independent stock called them. The ESA didn’t have a name for them as far as Jay knew. They happened successively in two days of bloodshed. The first battle was decisively an Independent Victory. They sacked The Collective (the city formerly known as Washington D.C.) and took the Justices hostage. The second day the ESA blew the city to bits, killing tens of thousands, including most of the Independence and three of their own Justices. Their decision to do so, to kill so many innocents, was easily rationalized. It was best for everyone. It’s easy for a government to sacrifice their citizens when they’ve determined the individual worthless.
Jay was taken prisoner. In his first forced address to the nation, where he was told to tell the ESA citizens that he was a villain worthy of nothing more than death, that his conquest was for selfish reasons and all those who had perished were on his shoulders, Jay simply said, “Individually we choose to stand together.”
For that little stunt they cut out his tongue and sewed his mouth shut. At the second forced address he was told to simply nod in agreement to his crimes as they were read aloud. Instead he signed with his hands, “To each a voice.”
His hands were chopped off, and now he marched toward his final address where he would be tortured and executed, streamed live to every citizen of the ESA. He was to nod in agreement with every crime read against him, just as before, or the torture would last long and death would come only after hours of excruciating pain.
It was hard for Jay to comprehend how he got here. He’d never been a strong man. He hadn’t been a soldier, had never fired a gun prior to the Independence. He hadn’t even been in a fist-fight. All he’d been was himself and for that, he was to be killed. This was what he drew his strength from. He might be a weak man, scared of what was to come, but he’d be damned if he’d be told how he could feel about the situation or how he was allowed to react.
“Here we are,” one of his escorts said. The man took a deep breath before opening the steel doors.
The auditorium was mockingly silent. The stage was brightly lit, and the whole place smelled like sweat. Jay’s chains echoed throughout the building as he walked toward the stage. Dozens of cameras caught his every step, red lights blinking as they streamed to millions.
Two of the surviving five Justices stood stoically on the stage. One of the men was badly burnt from The Bombing of the Collective. Jay walked up the steps and stood between the two. He took a deep breath and turned, wearily facing his self-inflicted destiny.
“Jay Madison,” the burnt Justice said. “You stand here today of your own accord. Do you agree?”
Jay nodded. No one had forced him to rebel except himself.
“You are guilty of leading thousands in a revolt against your country, causing the death of many. Do you agree?”
Jay nodded. He felt those who had given their lives for the cause with him on that humid stage, helping him to stand straight.
The Justices couldn’t help but grin at one another. Jay imagined that this was going much better than they’d thought. “Well then, very good Mr. Madison. All that remains is this: do you confess of your selfish desire for power, to caste down the common man in favor of your own wants and needs, no matter the cost, and that you were wrong to do so?”
Silence. It felt heavy and sticky. The stiches in Jay’s infected lips itched terribly. He fought the urge to scratch them with hands he didn’t have. The bruised stubs at the end of each arm burned. His face was hot and felt as if it might explode from the pressure of the situation.
He began to hum. It took everyone a moment to realize what was happening. The silence embraced the song Jay hummed, a song that hadn’t been sung for generations, not in public anyway, but they all knew it now; the Meadow Song, as Jay’s generation called it. The song that proudly played beneath the warm dirt of the moonlit clearing. Jay had discovered its original title was The Star-Spangled Banner. His muted rendition was broken and ugly, interrupted by Jay inhaling through his blocked nostrils, choppy as he fought against his entire being’s wish to surrender.
His stunt meant a painful and lengthy death, but perhaps it could be the birth of something new. Jay looked out at the auditorium and didn’t see fear in the eyes of those that watched, nor did he see confusion, and most surprisingly he didn’t see hate. No, what he saw was pride behind all those staring eyes, pride in Jay’s sacrifice, but most of all pride within themselves for what their individual souls were deciding to do in that very moment. The Justices saw it too and knew that Jay’s Execution wasn’t the end, but the beginning.
From the cracking whip Jay’s blood watered the parched Independence. When the end came, the bullet that tore through Jay’s still-humming head assured its blossoming.