For my anarchist friends. I’d link the site, but it tends to disappear at odd moments. Please buy his books.
Cloak of Anarchy–Larry Niven
Square in the middle of what used to be the San Diego Freeway, I leaned back against a huge, twisted oak. The old bark was rough and powdery against my bare back. There was dark green shade shot with tight parallel beams of white gold. Long grass tickled my legs.
Forty yards away across a wide strip of lawn was a clump of elms, and a small grandmotherly woman sitting on a green towel. She looked like she’d grown there. A stalk of grass protruded between her teeth. I felt we were kindred spirits, and once when I caught her eye I wiggled a forefinger at her, and she waved back.
In a minute now I’d have to be getting up, Jill was meeting me at the Wiltshire exits in half an hour. But I’d started walking at the Sunset Boulevard ramps, and I was tired. A minute more…
It was a good place to watch the world rotate.
A good day for it, too. No clouds at all. On this hot blue summer afternoon, King’s Free Park was as crowded as it ever gets.
Someone at police headquarters had expected that. Twice the usual number of copseyes floated overhead, waiting. Gold dots against blue, basketball-sized, twelve feet up. Each with a television eye and a sonic stunner, each a hookup to police headquarters, they were there to enforce the law of the park.
No hand to be raised against another – and no other laws whatever. Life was often entertaining in a Free Park.
North toward Sunset, a man carried a white rectangular sign, blank on both sides. He was parading back and forth in front of a square-jawed youth on a plastic box, who was trying to lecture him on the subject of fusion power and the heat pollution problem. Even this far away I could hear the conviction and the dedication in his voice.
South, a handful of yelling marksmen were throwing rocks at a copseye, directed by a gesticulating man with wild black hair. The golden basketball was dodging the rocks, but barely. Some cop was baiting them. I wondered where they had gotten the rocks. Rocks were scarce in King’s Free Park.
The black-haired man looked familiar. I watched him and his horde chasing the copseye . . . then forgot them when a girl walked out of a clump of elms.
She was lovely. Long, perfect legs, deep red hair worn longer than shoulder length, the face of an arrogant angel, and a body so perfect that it seemed unreal, like an adolescent’s daydream. Her walk showed training; possibly she was a model or dancer. Her only garment was a cloak of glowing blue velvet.
It was fifteen yards long, that cloak. It trailed back from two big gold discs that were stuck somehow to the skin of her shoulders. It trailed back and back, floating at a height of five feet all the way, twisting and turning to trace her path through the trees. She seemed like the illustration to a book of fairy tales, bearing in mind that the original fairy tales were not intended for children.
Neither was she. You could hear neck vertebrae popping all over the park. Even the rock throwers had stopped to watch.
She could sense the attention, or hear it in a whisper of sighs. It was what she was here for. She strolled along with a condescending angel’s smile on her angel’s face, not overdoing the walk, but letting it flow. She turned regardless of whether there were obstacles to avoid, so that fifteen yards of flowing cloak could follow the curve.
I smiled, watching her go. She was lovely from the back, with dimples.
The man who stepped up to her a little further on was the same who had led the rock throwers. Wild black hair and beard, hollow cheeks and deep-set eyes, a diffident smile and a diffident walk . . . Ron Cole. Of course.
I didn’t hear what he said to the girl in the cloak, but I saw the result. He flinched, then turned abruptly and walked away with his eyes on his feet.
I got up and moved to intercept him. “Don’t take it personally”, I said.
He looked up, startled. His voice, when it came, was bitter. “How should I take it?”
“She’d have turned any man off the same way. That lady has staples in her navel. She’s to look, not to touch.”
“You know her?”
“Never saw her before in my life.”
“Her cloak. Now you must have noticed her cloak.”
The tail end of her cloak was just passing us, its folds rippling an improbably deep, rich blue. Ronald Cole smiled as it it hurt his face. “Yah.”
“All right. Now suppose you made a pass, and suppose the lady liked your looks and took you up on it. What would she do next? Bearing in mind that she can’t stop walking even for a second.”
He thought it over first, then asked, “Why not?”
“If she stops walking she loses the whole effect. Her cloak just hangs there like some kind of tail. It’s supposed to wave. If she lies down with you it’s even worse. A cloak floating at five feet, then swooping into a clump of bushes and bobbing frantically -” Ron laughed helplessly in falsetto. I said, “See? Her audience would get the giggles. That’s not what she’s after.”
He sobered. “But if she really wanted to, she wouldn’t care about . . . oh. Right. She must have spent a fortune to get that effect.”
“Sure. She wouldn’t ruin it for Jacques Casanova himself.” I thought unfriendly thoughts toward the girl in the cloak. There are polite ways to turn down a pass. Ronald Cole was easy to hurt.
I asked. “Where did you get the rocks?”
“Rocks? Oh, we found a place where the center divider shows though. We knocked off some chunks of concrete.” Ron looked down the length of the park just as a kid bounced a missile off a golden ball. ” They got one! Come on!”
The fastest commercial shipping that ever sailed was the clipper ship; yet the world stopped building them after just twenty-five years. Steam had come. Steam was faster, safer, more dependable, cheaper in time and men.
The freeways served America for almost fifty years. Then modern transportation systems cleaned the air and made traffic jams archaic and left the nation with an embarrassing problem. What to do with ten thousand miles of unsightly abandoned freeways?
King’s Free Park had been part of the San Diego Freeway, the section between Sunset and the Santa Monica interchange. Decades ago the concrete had been covered with topsoil. The borders had been landscaped from the start. Now the Park was as thoroughly covered with green as the much older Griffiths Free Park.
Within King’s Free Park was an orderly approximation of anarchy. People were searched at the entrances. There were no weapons inside. The copseyes, floating overhead and out of reach were the next best thing to no law at all.
There was only one law to enforce. All acts of attempted violence carried the same penalty for attacker and victim. Let anyone raise his hand against his neighbor, and one of the golden basketballs would stun them both. They would wake separately, with copseyes watching. It was usually enough.
Naturally people threw rocks at copseyes. It was a Free Park, wasn’t it?
“They got one! Come on!” Ron tugged at my arm. The felled copseye was hidden, surrounded by those who had destroyed it.
“I hope they don’t kick it apart. I told them I need it intact, but that might not stop them.”
“It’s a Free Park. And they bagged it.”
“With my missiles!”
“Who are they?”
“I don’t know. They were playing baseball when I found them. I told them I needed a copseye. They said they’d get me one.”
I remembered Ron quite well now. Ronald Cole was an artist and an inventor. It would have been two sources of income for another man, but Ron was different. He invented new art forms. With solder and wire and diffraction gratings and several makes of plastic kits, and an incredible collection of serendipitous junk, Ron Cole made things the like of which had never been seen on Earth.
The market for new art forms had always been low, but now and then he did make a sale. It was enough to keep him in raw materials, especially since many of his raw materials came from basements and attics. There was an occasional big sale, and then, briefly he would be rich.
There was that about him: he knew who I was, but he hadn’t remembered my name. Ron Cole had better things to think about than what name belonged to whom. A name was only a tag and a conversational gambit. “Russell” How are you?” A signal. Ron had developed a substitute.
Into a momentary gap in the conversation he would say, “Look at this,” and hold out – miracles.
Once it had been a clear plastic sphere, golfball-sized, balanced on a polished silver concavity. When the ball rolled around on the curved mirror, the reflections were fantastic.
Once it had been a twisting sea serpent engraved on a Michelob beer bottle, the lovely vase-shaped bottle of the early 1960s that was too big for standard refrigerators.
And once it had been two strips of dull silvery metal, unexpectedly heavy. “What’s this?”
I’d held them in the palm of my hand. They were heavier than lead. Platinum? But nobody carries that much platinum around. Joking, I’d asked, “U-235?”
“Are they warm?” he’d asked apprehensively. I’d fought off an urge to throw them as far as I could and dive behind a couch.
But they had been platinum. I never did learn why Ron was carrying them about. Something that didn’t pan out.
Within a semicircle of spectators, the felled copseye lay on the grass. It was intact, possibly because two cheerful, conspicuously large men were standing over it, waving everyone back.
“Good,” said Ron. He knelt above the golden sphere, turned it with his long artist’s fingers. To me he said, “Help me get it open.”
“What for? What are you after?”
“I’ll tell you in a minute. Help me get – never mind.” The hemispherical cover came off. For the first time ever, I looked into a copseye.
It was impressively simple. I picked out the stunner by its parabolic reflector, the cameras, and a toroidal coil that had to be part of the floater device. No power source. I guessed that the shell itself was a powerbeam antenna. With the cover cracked there would be no way for a damn fool to electrocute himself.
Ron knelt and studied the strange guts of the copseye. From his pocket he took something made of glass and metal. He suddenly remembered my existence and held it out to me, saying, “Look at this.”
I took it, expecting a surprise, and I got it. It was an old hunting watch, a big wind-up watch on a chain, with a protective case. They were in common use a couple of hundred years ago. I looked at the face, said, “Fifteen minutes slow. You didn’t repair the whole works, did you?”
“Oh, now.” He clicked the back open for me.
The works looked modern. I guessed, “Battery and tuning fork?”
“That’s what the guard thought. Of course that’s what I made it from. But the hands don’t move; I set them just before they searched me.”
“Aha. What does it do?”
“If I work it right, I think it’ll knock down every copseye in King’s Free Park.”
For a minute or so I was laughing too hard to speak. Ron watched me with his head on one side, clearly wondering if I thought he was joking.
I managed to say, “That ought to cause all kinds of excitement.”
Ron nodded vigorously. “Of course it all depends on whether they use the kind of circuits I think they use. Look for yourself; the copseyes aren’t supposed to be foolproof. They’re supposed to be cheap. If one gets knocked down, the taxes don’t go up much. The other way is to make them expensive and foolproof, and frustrate a lot of people. People aren’t supposed to be frustrated in a Free Park.”
“Well, there’s a cheap way to make the circuitry for the power system. If they did it that way, I can blow the whole thing. We’ll see.” Ron pulled thin copper wire from the cuffs of his shirt.
“How long will this take?”
“Oh, half an hour.”
That decided me. “I’ve got to be going. I’m meeting Jill Hayes at the Wiltshire exists. You’ve met her, a big blonde girl, my height -”
But he wasn’t listening. “Okay, see you,” he muttered. He began placing the copper wire inside the copseye, with tweezers. I left.
Crowds tend to draw crowds. A few minutes after leaving Ron, I joined a semicircle of the curious to see what they were watching.
A balding, lantern-jawed individual was putting something together: an archaic machine, with blades and a small gasoline motor. The T-shaped wooden handle was brand new and unpainted. The metal parts were dull with the look of ancient rust recently removed.
The crowd speculated in half whispers. What was it? Not part of a car, not an outboard motor, though it had blades, too small for a motor scooter; too big for a motor skateboard . . .
“Lawn mover,” said the white-haired lady next to me. She was one of those small, birdlike people who shrivel and grow weightless as they age, and live forever. Her words meant nothing to me. I was about to ask, when –
The lantern-jawed man finished his work, and twisted something and the motor started with a roar. Black smoke puffed out. In triumph he gripped the handles. Outside, it was a prison offense to build a working internal combustion machine. Here –
With the fire of dedication burning in his eyes, he wheeled his infernal machine across the grass. He left a path as flat as a rug. It was a Free Park, wasn’t it?
The smell hit everyone at once: a black dirt in the air, a stink of harf-burned hydrocarbons attacking the nose and eyes. I gasped and coughed. I’d never smelled anything like it.
The crescent crowd roared and converged.
He squawked when they picked up his machine. Someone found a switch and stopped it. Two men confiscated the tool kit and went to work with screwdriver and hammer. The owner objected. He picked up a heavy pair of pliers and tried to commit murder.
A copseye zapped him and the man with the hammer, and they both hit the lawn without bouncing. The rest of them pulled the lawn mower apart and bent and broke the pieces.
“I’m half-sorry they did that,” said the old woman. “Sometimes I miss the sound of lawn mowers. My dad used to mow the lawn on Sunday mornings.”
I said, “It’s a Free Park.”
“Then why can’t he build anything he pleases?”
“He can. He did. Anything he’s free to build, we’re free to kick apart.” And my mind flashed, Like Ron’s rigged copseye.
Ron was good with tools. It would not surprise me a bit if he knew enough about copseyes to knock out the whole system.
Maybe someone ought to stop him.
But knocking down copseyes wasn’t illegal. It happened all the time. It was part of the freedom of the Park. If Ron could knock them all down at once, well . . .
Maybe someone ought to stop him.
I passed a flock of high school girls, all chittering like birds, all about sixteen. It might have been their first trip inside a Free Park. I looked back because they were so cute, and caught them staring in awe and wonder at the dragon on my back.
A few years and they’d be too blasé to notice. It had taken Jill almost half an hour to apply this morning: a glorious red-and-gold dragon breathing flames across my shoulder, flames that seemed to glow by their own light. Lower down were a princess and a knight in golden armor, the princess tied to a stake, the knight fleeing for his life. I smiled back at the girls and two of them waved.
* * *
Short blonde hair and golden skin, the tallest girl in sight, wearing not even a nudist’s shoulder pouch: Jill Hayes stood squarely in front of the Wiltshire entrance, visibly wondering where I was. It was five minutes after three.
There was this about living with a physical culture nut. Jill insisted on getting me into shape. The daily exercises were part of that, and so was this business of walking half the length of King’s Free Park.
I’d baulked at doing it briskly, though. Who walks briskly in a Free Park? There’s too much to see. She’d given me an hour; I’d held out for three. It was a compromise, like the paper slacks I was wearing despite Jill’s nudist beliefs.
Sooner or later she’d find someone with muscles, or I’d relapse into laziness, and we’d split. Meanwhile . . . we got along. It seemed only sensible to let her finish my training.
She spotted me, yelled “Russell! Here!” in a voice that must have reached both ends of the park. In answer I lifted my arm semaphor style, slowly over my head and back down.
And every copseye in King’s Free Park fell out of the sky, dead.
Jill looked about her at all the startled faces and all the golden bubbles resting in bushes and on the grass. She approached me somewhat uncertainly. She asked, “Did you do that?”
I said, “Yah. If I wave my arms again they’ll all go back up.”
“I think you’d better do it,” she said primly. Jill had a fine poker face. I waved my arm grandly over my head and down, but of course the copseyes stayed where they had fallen.
Jill said, “I wonder what happened to them?”
“It was Ron Cole. You remember him. He’s the one who engraved some old Michelob beer bottles for Steuben -”
“Oh, yes. But how?”
We went off to ask him.
A brawny college man howled and charged past us a a dead run. We saw him kick a copseye like a soccer ball. The golden cover split, but the man howled again and hopped up and down hugging his foot.
We passed dented golden shells and broken resonators and bent parabolic reflectors. One woman looked flushed and proud; she was wearing several of the copper toroids as bracelets. A kid was collecting the cameras. Maybe he though he could sell them outside.
I never saw an intact copseye after the first minute.
They weren’t all busy kicking the copseyes apart. Jill stared at the conservatively dressed group carrying POPULATION BY COPULATION signs, and wanted to know if they were serious. Their grim-faced leader handed us pamphlets that spoke of the evil and the blasphemy of man’s attempts to alter himself through gene tampering and extra-uterine growth experiments. If it were a put-on, it was a good one.
We passed seven little men, each three to four feet high, traveling with a single tall, pretty brunette. They wore medieval garb. We both started; but I was the one who noticed the makeup and the use of UnTan. African pigmies, probably part of a U.N.-sponsored tourist group; and the girl must be their guide.
Ron Cole was not where I had left him.
“He must have decided that discretion is the better part of cowardice. May be right, too,” I surmised. “Nobody’s ever knocked down all the copseyes before.”
“It’s not illegal, is it?”
“Not illegal, but excessive. They can bar him from the park, at the very least.”
Jill stretched in the sun. She was all golden and big. Scaled down, she would have made a nice centreshot for a men’s videozine. She said, “I’m thirsty. Is there a fountain around?”
“Sure, unless someone’s plugged it by now. It’s a -”
“Free Park. Do you mean to tell me they don’t even protect the fountains?”
“You make one exception, it’s like a wedge. When someone ruins a fountain they wait and fix it that night. That way if I see someone trying to wreck a fountain, I’ll generally throw a punch at him. A lot of us do. After a guy’s lost enough of his holiday to the copseye stunners, he’ll get the idea, sooner or later.”
The fountain was a solid cube of concrete with four spigots and a hand-sized metal button. It was hard to jam, hard to hurt, Ron Cole stood near it, looking lost.
He seemed glad to see me, but still lost. I introduced him. “You remember Jill Hayes.”
He said, “Certainly, Hello, Jill,” and, having put her name to its intended purpose, promptly forgot it.
Jill said, “We thought you’d make a break for it.”
“You know how complicated the exits are. They have to be, to keep anyone from getting through an exit with like a shotgun.” Ron ran both hands through his hair, without making it any more or less neat. “Well, all the exits have stopped working. They must be on the same circuits as the copseyes. I wasn’t expecting that.”
“Then we’re locked in,” I said. That was irritating. But underneath the irritation was a funny feeling in the pit of my stomach. “How long do you think-?”
“No telling. They’ll have to get new copseyes in somehow. And repair the beamed power system, and figure out how I bollixed it, and fix it so it doesn’t happen again. I suppose someone must have kicked my rigged copseye to pieces by now, but the police don’t know that.”
“Oh, they’ll just send in some cops,” said Jill.
“Look around you.”
There were pieces of copseye in all directions. Not one remained whole. A cop would have to be out of his mind to enter a Free Park.
Not to mention the damage to the spirit of the park.
“I wish I’d brought a bag lunch,” said Ron.
I saw the cloak off to my right: a ribbon of glowing blue velvet hovering at five feet, like a carpeted path in the air. I didn’t yell or point or anything. For Ron it might be pushing the wrong buttons.
Ron didn’t see it. “Actually I’m kind of glad this happened” he said animatedly. “I’ve always thought that anarchy ought to be a viable form of society.”
Jill made polite sounds of encouragement.
“After all, anarchy is only the last word in free enterprise. What can a government do for people that people can’t do for themselves? Protection from other countries? If all the other countries are anarchies too, you don’t need armies. Police, maybe: but what’s wrong with privately owned police?”
“Fire departments used to work that way,” Jill remembered. “They were hired by the insurance companies. They only protected houses that belonged to their own clients.”
“Right! So you buy theft and murder insurance, and the insurance companies hire a police force. The client carries a credit card -”
“Suppose the robber steals the card too?”
“He can’t use it. He doesn’t have the right retina prints.”
“But if the client doesn’t have the credit card, he can’t sic the cops on the thief.”
“Oh.” A noticeable pause. “Well-”
Half listening, for I had heard it all before, I looked for the end points of the cloak. I found empty space at one end and a lovely red-haired girl at the other. She was talking to two men as outré as herself.
One can get the impression that a Free Park is one gigantic costume party. It isn’t. Not one person in ten wears anything but street clothes, but the costumes are what gets noticed.
These guys were part bird.
Their eyebrows and eyelashes were tiny feathers, green on one, golden on the other. Larger feathers covered their heads blue and green and gold, and ran in a crest down their spines. They were bare to the waist, showing physiques Jill would find acceptable.
Ron was lecturing. “What does a government do for anyone except the people who run the government? Once there were private post offices, and they were cheaper than what we’ve got now. Anything the government takes over gets more expensive, immediately. There’s no reason why private enterprise can’t do anything a government-”
Jill gasped. She said, “Ooh! How lovely.”
Ron turned to look.
As if on cue, the girl in the cloak slapped one of the feathered men hard across the mouth. She tried to hit the other one, but he caught her wrist. Then all three froze.
I said, “See? Nobody wins. She doesn’t even like standing still. She-” And I realised why they weren’t moving.
In a Free Park it’s easy for a girl to turn down an offer. If the guy won’t take no for an answer, he gets slapped. The stun beam gets him and the girl. When she wakes up, she walks away.
The girl recovered first. She gasped and jerked her wrist loose and turned to run. One of the feathered men didn’t bother to chase her; he simply took a double handful of the cloak.
This was getting serious.
The cloak jerked her sharply backward. She didn’t hesitate. She reached for the big gold discs at her shoulders, ripped them loose and ran on. The feathered men chased her, laughing.
The redhead wasn’t laughing. She was running all out. Two drops of blood ran down her shoulders. I thought of trying to stop the feathered men, decided in favor of it – but they were already past.
The cloak hung like a carpeted path in the air, empty at both ends. Jill hugged herself uneasily. “Ron, just how does one go about hiring your private police force?”
“Well, you can’t expect it to form spontaneously.”
“Let’s try the entrances. Maybe we can get out.”
It was slow to build. Everyone knew what a copseye did. Nobody thought it through. Two feathered men chasing a lovely nude? A pretty sight; and why interfere? If she didn’t want to be chased, she need only – what? And nothing else had changed. The costumes, the people with causes, the people looking for causes, the peoplewatchers, the pranksters. . .
Blank Sign had joined the POPULATION BY COPULATION faction. His grass-stained pink street tunic jarred strangely with their conservative suits, but he showed no sign of mockery; his face was a preternaturally solemn as theirs. Nonetheless they did not seem glad of his company.
It was crowded near the Wiltshire entrance. I saw enough bewildered and frustrated faces to guess that it was closed. The little vestibule area was so packed that we didn’t even try to find out what was wrong with the doors.
“I don’t think we ought to stay here,” Jill said uneasily.
I noticed the way she was hugging herself. “Are you cold?”
“No.” She shivered. “But I wish I were dressed.”
“How about a strip of that velvet cloak?”
We were too late. The cloak was gone.
It was a warm September day, near sunset. Clad only in paper slacks, I was not cold in the least. I said, “Take my slacks.”
“No, hon, I’m the nudist.” But Jill hugged herself with both arms.
“Here,” said Ron, and handed her his sweater. She flashed him a grateful look, then clearly embarrassed, she wrapped the sweater around her waist and knotted the sleeves.
Ron didn’t get it at all. I asked him, “Do you know the difference between nude and naked?”
He shook his head.
“Nude is artistic. Naked is defenseless.”
Nudity was popular in a Free Park. That night, nakedness was not. There must have been pieces of that cloak all over King’s Free Park. I saw at least four that night: one worn as a kilt, two being used as crude sarongs, and one as a bandage.
On a normal day, the entrances to King’s Free Park close at six. Those who want to stay, stay as long as they like. Usually there are not many, because there are no lights to be broken in a Free Park; but light does seep in from the city beyond. The copseyes float about, guided by infrared, but most of them are not manned.
Tonight would be different.
It was after sunset, but still light. A small and ancient lady came stumping towards us with a look of murder on her lined face. At first I thought it was meant for us, but that wasn’t it. She was so mad she couldn’t see straight.
She saw my feet and looked up. “Oh, it’s you. The one who helped break the lawn mower,” she said; which was unjust. “A Free Park is it? A Free Park! Two men just took away my dinner!”
I spread my hands. “I’m sorry. I really am. If you still had it, we could try to talk you into sharing it.”
She lost some of her mad, which brought her embarrassingly close to tears. “Then we’re all hungry together. I brought it in a plastic bag. Next time I’ll use something that isn’t transparent, by d-damn!” She noticed Jill and her impoverished sweater-skirt and added, “I’m sorry, dear, I gave a towel to a girl who needed it even more.”
“Thank you anyway.”
“Please, may I stay with you people until the copseyes start working again? I don’t feel safe, somehow. I’m Glenda Hawthorne.
We introduced ourselves. Glenda Hawthorne shook our hands. By now it was quite dark. We couldn’t see the city beyond the high green hedges, but the change was startling when the lights of Westwood and Santa Monica flashed on.
The police were taking their own good time getting us some copseyes.
We reached the grassy field sometimes used the by Society for Creative Anachronism for their tournaments. They fight on foot with weighted and padded weapons designed to behave like swords, broadaxes, morningstars, etc. The weapons are bugged so that they won’t fall into the wrong hands. The field is big and flat and bare of trees, sloping upward at the edges.
On one of the slopes, something moved.
I stopped. It didn’t move again, but it showed clearly in light reflected down from the white clouds. I made out something man-shaped and faintly pink, and a pale rectangle nearby.
I spoke low. “Stay here.”
Jill said, “Don’t be silly. There’s nothing for anyone to hide under. Come on.”
The blank sign was bent and marked with shoe prints. The man who had been carrying it looked up at us with pain in his eyes. Drying blood ran from his nose. With effort he whispered, “I think they dislocated my shoulder.”
“Let me look.” Jill bent over him. She probed him a bit, then set herself and pulled hard and steadily on his arm. Blank Sign yelled in pain and despair.
“That’ll do it.” Jill sounded satisfied. “How does it feel?”
“It doesn’t hurt as much.” He smiled, almost.
“They started pushing me and kicking me to make me go away. I was doing it, I was walking away. I was. Then one of the sons of bitches snatched away my sign -” He stopped for a moment, then went off at a tangent. “I wasn’t hurting anyone with my sign. I’m a psych major. I’m writing a thesis on what people read into a blank sign. Like the blank sheets in the Rorschach tests.”
“What kind of reactions do you get?”
“Usually hostile. But nothing like that.” Blank Sign sounded bewildered. “Wouldn’t you think a Free Park is the one place you’d find freedom of speech?”
Jill wiped at his face with a tissue from Glenda Hawthorne’s purse. She said, “Especially when you’re not saying anything. Hey, Ron, tell us more about your government by anarchy.”
Ron cleared his throat. “I hope you’re not judging it by this. King’s Free Park hasn’t been an anarchy for more than a couple of hours. It needs time to develop.”
Glenda Hawthorne and Blank Sign must have wondered what the hell he was talking about. I wished him joy in explaining it to them, and wondered if he would explain who had knocked down the copseyes.
This field would be good place to spend the night. It was open, with no cover and no shadows, no way for anyone to sneak up on us.
We lay on wet grass, sometimes dozing, sometimes talking. Two other groups no bigger than ours occupied the jousting field. They kept their distance; we kept ours. Now and then we heard voices, and knew that they were not asleep; not all at once, anyway.
Blank Sign dozed restlessly. His ribs were giving him trouble, though Jill said none of them were broken. Every so often he whimpered and tried to move and woke himself up. Then he had to hold himself still until he fell asleep again.
“Money,” said Jill. “It takes a government to print money.”
“But you could get I.O.U.’s printed. Standard denominations printed for a fee and notarized. Backed by your good name.”
Jill laughed softly. “Thought of everything, haven’t you? You couldn’t travel very far that way.”
“Credit cards, then.”
I had stopped believing in Ron’s anarchy. I said,”Ron, remember the girl in the long blue cloak?”
A little gap of silence. “Yah?”
“Pretty, wasn’t she? Fun to watch.”
“If there weren’t any laws to stop you from raping her, she’d be muffled to the ears in a long dress and carrying a tear gas pen. What fun would that be? I like the nude look. Look how fast it disappeared after the copseyes fell.”
“Mmm,” said Ron.
The night was turning cold. Faraway voices, occasional distant shouts, came like thin threads in a black tapestry of silence. Mrs. Hawthorne spoke into that silence.
“What was that boy really saying with his blank sign?”
“He wasn’t saying anything,” said Jill.
“Now just a minute, dear. I think he was, even if he didn’t know it.” Mrs. Hawthorne talked slowly, using the words to shape her thoughts. “Once there was an organisation to protest the forced contraception bill. I was one of them. We carried signs for hours at a time. We printed leaflets. We stopped people passing so that we could talk to them. We gave up our time, we went to considerable trouble and expense, because we wanted to get our ideas across.
“Now, if a man had joined us with a blank sign,he would have been saying something. His sign says that he has no opinion. If he joins us he says that we have no opinion either. He’s saying our opinions aren’t worth anything.”
I said, “Tell him when he wakes up. He can put it in this notebook.”
“But his notebook is wrong. He wouldn’t push his blank sign in among people he agreed with, would he?”
“I . . . suppose I don’t like people with no opinions.” Mrs. Hawthorne stood up. She had been sitting tailor-fashion for some hours. “Do you know if there’s a pop machine nearby?”
There wasn’t of course. No private company would risk getting their machines smashed once or twice a day. But she had reminded the rest of us that we were thirsty. Eventually we all got up and trooped away in the direction of the fountain.
All but Blank Sign.
I like that blank sign gag. How odd, how ominous, that so basic a right as freedom of speech could depend on so light a thing as a floating copseye.
I was thirsty.
The park was bright by city light, crossed by sharp-edged shadows. In such light it seems that one can see much more than he really can. I could see into every shadow; but, though there were stirrings all around us, I could see nobody until he moved. We four, sitting under an oak with our backs to the tremendous trunk, must be invisible from any distance.
We talked little. The park was quiet except for occasional laughter from the fountain.
I couldn’t forget my thirst. I could feel others being thirsty around me. The fountain was right out there in the open, a solid block of concrete with five men around it.
They were dressed alike in paper shorts with big pockets. They looked alike: the first-string athletes. Maybe they belonged to the same order or frat or R.O.T.C. class.
They had taken over the fountain.
When someone came to get a drink, the tall ash-blonde one would step forward with his arm held stiffly out, palm forward. He had a wide mouth and a grin that might otherwise have been infectious, and a deep, echoing voice. He would intone, “Go back. None may pass here by the immortal Cthulhu,” or something equally silly.
Trouble was, they weren’t kidding. Or: they were kidding, but they wouldn’t let anyone have a drink.
When we arrived, a girl dressed in a towel had been trying to talk some sense into them. It hadn’t worked. It might even have boosted their egos: a lovely half-naked girl begging them for water. Eventually she’d given up and gone away.
In that light her hair might have been red. I hoped it was the girl in the cloak. She’d sounded healthy . . . unhurt.
And a beefy man in a yellow business jumper had made the mistake of demanding his rights. It was not a night for rights. The blond kid had goaded him into screaming insults, a stream of unimaginative profanity, which ended when he tried to hit the blond kid. Then three of them had swarmed over him. The man had left crawling, moaning of police and lawsuits.
Why hadn’t somebody done something?
I had watched it all from sitting position. I could list my own reasons. One: It was hard to face the fact that a copseye would not zap them both, any second now. Two: I didn’t like the screaming fat man much. He talked dirty. Three: I’d been waiting for someone else to step in.
As with the girl in the cloak. Damn it.
Mrs. Hawthorne said, “Ronald, what time is it?”
Ron may have been the only man in King’s Free Park who knew the time. People generally left their valuables in lockers at the entrances. But years ago, when Ron was flush with money from the sale of the engraved beer bottles, he’d bought an implant-watch. He told time by one red mark and two red lines glowing beneath the skin of his wrist.
We had put the women between us, but I saw the motion as he glanced at his wrist. “Quarter of twelve.”
“Don’t you think they’ll get bored and go away? It’s been twenty minutes since anyone tried to get a drink,” Mrs. Hawthorne said plaintively.
Jill shifted against me in the dark. “They can’t be any more bored than we are. I think they’ll get bored and stay anyway. Besides-” She stopped.
I said, “Besides that, we’re thirsty now.”
“Ron, have you seen any sign of those rock throwers you collected? Especially the one who knocked down the copseye.”
I wasn’t surprised. In this darkness? “Do you remember his-” And I didn’t even finish.
“Yes!” Ron said suddenly.
“No. His name was Bugeyes. You don’t forget a name like that.”
“I take it he had big, bulging eyes?”
“I didn’t notice.”
Well, it was worth a try. I stood and cupped my hands for a megaphone and shouted, “Bugeyes!”
One of the Water Monopoly shouted, “Let’s keep the noise down out there”!
A chorus of remarks from the Water Monopoly. “Strange habits these peasants.” “Most of them are just thirsty. This character-”
From off to the side: “What do you want?”
“We want to talk to you! Stay where you are!” To Ron I said, “Come on.” To Jill and Mrs. Hawthorne, “Stay here. Don’t get involved.”
We moved out into the open space between us and Bugeyes’s voice.
Two of the five kids came immediately to intercept us. They must have been bored, all right, and looking for action.
We ran for it. We reached the shadows of the trees before those two reached us. They stopped, laughing like maniacs, and moved back to the fountain.
A fourteen-year-old kid spoke behind us. “Ron?”
Ron and I, we lay on our bellies in the shadows of low bushes. Across too much shadowless grass, four men in paper shorts stood at parade rest at the four corners of the fountain. The fifth man watched for a victim.
A boy walked out between us into the moonlight. His eyes were shining, big, expressive eyes, maybe a bit too prominent. His hands were big, too, with knobbly knuckles. One hand was full of acorns.
He pitched them rapidly, one at a time, overhand. First one then another of the Water Trust twitched and looked into our direction. Bugeyes kept throwing.
Quite suddenly, two of them started toward us at a run, Bugeyes kept throwing until they were almost on him; then he threw his acorns in a handful and dived into the shadows.
The two of them ran between us. We let the first go by: the wide-mouthed blond spokesman, his expression low and murderous now. The other was short and broad-shouldered, an intimidating silhouette seemingly all muscle. A tackle. I stood up in front of him, expecting him to stop in surprise; and he did, and I hit him in the mouth as hard as I could.
He stepped back in shock. Ron wrapped an arm around his throat.
He bucked. Instantly. Ron hung on. I did something I’d seen often enough on television: linked my fingers and brought both hands down on the back of his neck.
The blond spokesman should be back by now; and I turned, and he was. He was on me before I could get my hands up. We rolled on the ground, me with my arms pinned to my sides, him unable to use his hands without letting go. It was lousy planning for both of us. He was squeezing the breath out of me. Ron hovered over us, waiting for a chance to hit him.
Suddenly there were others, a lot of others. Three of them pulled the blond kid off me, and a beefy, bloody man in a yellow business jumper stepped forward and crowned him with a rock.
The blond kid went limp.
I was still trying to get my breath.
The man squared off and threw a straight left hook with the rock in his hand. The blond kid’s head snapped back, fell forward.
I yelled, “Hey!” Jumped forward, got hold of the arm that held the rock.
Someone hit me solidly in the side of the neck.
I dropped. It felt like all my strings had been cut. Someone was helping me to my feet – Ron – voices babbling in whispers, one shouting, “Get him-”
I couldn’t see the blond kid. The other one, the tackle, was up and staggering away. Shadows came from between the trees to play pileup on him. The woods were alive, and it was just a little patch of woods. Full of angry, thirsty people.
Bugeyes reappeared, grinning widely. “Now what?” Go somewhere else and try it again?”
“Oh, no. It’s getting very vicious out tonight. Ron, we’ve got to stop them. They’ll kill him!”
“It’s a Free Park. Can you stand now?”
“Ron, they’ll kill him.”
The rest of the Water Trust was charging to the rescue. One of them had a tree branch with the leaves stripped off. Behind them, shadows converged on the fountain.
I had to stop after a dozen paces. My head was trying to explode. Ron looked back anxiously, but I waved him on. Behind me the man with the branch broke through the trees and ran toward me to do murder.
Behind him, all the noise suddenly stopped.
I braced myself for the blow.
He was lying across my legs, with the branch still in his hand.
Jill and Ron were pulling at my shoulders. A pair of golden moons floated overhead.
I wriggled loose. I felt my head. It seemed intact.
Ron said, “The copseyes zapped him before he got to you.”
“What about the others? Did they kill them?”
“I don’t know.” Ron ran his hands through his hair. “I was wrong. Anarchy isn’t stable. It comes apart too easily.”
“Well, don’t do any more experiments, okay?”
People were beginning to stand up. They streamed toward the exits, gathering momentum, beneath the yellow gaze of the copseyes.
© Larry Niven 1972
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