“You will be watched,” the inquisitor said.
“I understand,” Ren said. His back and arms ached from being shackled.
“If you do not refrain from incorrect thinking,” the inquisitor said, “you will be detained again. If you persist, you will be removed, so that you do not contaminate productive citizens.”
“I understand,” Ren said.
The inquisitor held out a familiar packet of papers. “Take this– they have been updated with your latest offenses.”
Ren reached to take the papers. But as he did the inquisitor held on to them. Their eyes met.
“You infect your mind with false beliefs,” the inquisitor said. “The only truth is power, and who holds it. The sooner you accept that axiom, the sooner you will find your place in the order of things.” He let go of the papers, waved a hand. “You are dismissed.”
Ren left the police station, walking out the front gate past the fortified pillboxes on either hand. Even though he was leaving, the machine-gun muzzles protruding from the pillbox firing slits tracked him until he reached the street.
He had no money, and no tokens; he could not ride the rattling trams. One shuddered past him, shedding sparks from its pole, as he turned toward home along the sidewalk. The tram was packed with people– men, women, a few pale children, all silent, each as alone as if they were the only ones in the car.
He walked down along the littered sidewalk, past the offices of the local ministries– Internal Security, Propaganda, Corrections– all unadorned edifices of stone as grim as skulls. The guards at the entrance of each watched him, gun-muzzles followed him, but he just kept walking.
Beyond the Ministry district there were more people on the sidewalk, shabby, exhausted-looking men and women who each looked as if they were hurrying somewhere they didn’t want to go. Their breath steamed in the cold air. No one met his eyes. In general, it was safer that way.
Up ahead, there was a commotion on the sidewalk– helmeted Security men were clearing the space in front of one of the fortified townhouses that lined the street here. “Make way, make way!” the guards shouted. They pushed pedestrians out of the way and threatened others with shock-batons to open up a path from the townhouse’s gate to a huge car that idled at the curb. Ren stopped some yards short of the cordon, but still close enough to see the well-fed, well-dressed man who stepped through the gate toward the car. He was followed by a younger woman, expensively-dressed in her own way. Even the weak winter sun flashed on the diamonds about her throat. Both man and woman stepped into the car; doors were closed and the vehicle sped away from the curb.
Ren went on. Crossing the Way of Victory, he reached the checkpoint on the northeastern side of the intersection. “Papers,” the lead sergeant said.
Ren handed them over. The guard surveyed them, and his eyebrows went up. “So! Fresh from a stint with the District Inquisitor, eh? Hope you learned you lesson, citizen.”
“I know I did, sir,” Ren said.
The sergeant gave him a hard look, as if trying to detect sarcasm. “Make sure of that,” the guard growled. “You don’t want to stay on the inquisitor’s radar. Unhealthy.”
“Yes, sir,” Ren said.
Just at that moment, there was a shout. Across the Way, a guard at the checkpoint on the northwestern side grabbed the coat of a man, then shoved him to the ground. The man fell heavily, striking his head on the concrete. The guard hit the man with his shock-baton; Ren could hear the crackle of electricity. The fallen man shouted in pain. The guard hit him again, and then another joined him. The fallen man writhed on the sidewalk.
“Fah,” the sergeant said. He handed Ren his papers back. “Get out of here.”
Ren obeyed. He walked away, the cries of the fallen man echoing in his ears.
Ren turned a corner and went down the Avenue of Purity. Some distance along he began to pass a queue of people. They were lined up and waiting patiently for one of the ration stores, slowly shuffling forward, carrying cloth bags. Ren’s stomach rumbled, but he had about as many food vouchers as he had tram tokens. He walked on.
After three blocks he reached the head of the queue, which disappeared into the entrance of the store. A few yards ahead on the sidewalk was the exit. People emerged with their bags a little more full than when they entered the store. They hurried off into the fading evening light, most of them clutching their bag close.
As Ren approached, a woman emerged from the store. She was small and thin. As she stepped out on to the sidewalk ahead of Ren, a youth darted across the street. He bore down on the woman. “Give me the bag, bitch!” the young man yelled.
The woman, looking terrified, back away, but she only fetched up against the rough stone of the building behind her. She clutched her bag to her chest. The young man, thin himself but still much larger than the woman, grabbed at the bag and got a hold on its fabric. “Let go!” he shouted in the woman’s face, jerking at the bag.
Ren dashed forward. “Leave her alone!” he shouted.
The youth turned, startled to be attacked in turn. He tried one more time to tear the bag away from the woman. The bag’s fabric ripped; out spilled a bunch of shriveled carrots, a loaf of bread, a plastic bag of rice, several potatoes. The potatoes bounced and rolled along the sidewalk. The youth let go of the bag, reaching for the bread. But Ren was upon him, and instead the youngster grabbed a potato at his feet, turned and ran.
The woman was already kneeling down, frantically grabbing the potatoes. Ren hesitated, long enough to make sure the youth was not going to come back; then he turned and knelt as well, rescuing a stray potato and the bag of rice.
“Don’t take my food!” the woman cried. She looked up at him with frightened, pleading eyes.
“I won’t,” Ren said. He handed her the potato and the rice.
The woman looked at him with disbelief, then snatched the food out of his hands. “I have children,” she said.
“I understand,” Ren said. “It’s all right.”
The woman stuffed the rescued food back into her bag. She tied the bag’s strings together and held the rent closed with her hand. “I…” she began to say, and then stopped. Ren had a feeling she didn’t know what to say.
“Do you live far away?” he asked. “It’s probably best if you don’t go alone. I’ll accompany you, if you wish.”
“I…I supposed so,” the woman said, every word packed with uncertainty.
Ren walked with her two blocks north, and then five west. The whole way the woman clutched the bag to her chest, while darting sideways glances at him, as if expecting him to turn on her at any moment.
After several minutes they reached the doorway of a tenement on the Street of Hope. Ren sensed the woman relax even as she touched the gate. “I’ll be all right now,” she told Ren as she pushed it open.
“Good,” Ren said. “Good night, then.” He turned away.
“Wait,” the woman said. Ren faced her. She looked puzzled, as if he were some inexplicable physical phenomenon. “Why?” she asked.
Ren smiled. “Merry Christmas.” He turned away, toward home.