Get This Man a Laptop

He walked with a limp in his right leg. That was the first thing they noticed. The second was the calm clarity and certainty with which he spoke. Later, but not until much later and separately, they would figure out that he timed his meeting so that he would be alone with them in the long hallway between the Terminal and the B-Concourse. Even with his limp and the fast clip at which Slater walked, he’d have them exclusively for thirty seconds.

“Captain Slater, Miss Brooks. You have a problem.”

“Thanks for bringing that to our attention, buddy. Take a number. We’ll get right on it.”

“Well, actually, you have several. To be specific, those problems are 400,00 plus or minus 15,000, seven days, forty, too damn many, January 9th, plus or minus two days, and democracy.”

“Okay, so you can count the population of Onondaga County and the number of troops that the army left behind. What are the others?”

“Seven days till every toilet in the place is overflowing and dysentery breaks out. The too damn many and the democracy are linked. The population of the Zone is too big for your infantry to manage. You want to give the appearance of rights and freedom, but only enough to keep people in line because real freedom here would be anarchy, and anyone over the age of twenty-one knows what a clusterfuck that would become.”

Brooks opened her mouth to say something, but Slater turned and cut her off. “Why January 9th? My projections say the 21st.”

“I don’t know how you got that figure, but it’s too optimistic. First of all, people will overeat on the holidays. They’re going to want to celebrate Christmas and New Year’s. Old habits die hard. Second, the shrinking daylight will drive people inside. They’ll get bored and want to eat. Third, people will notice the shrinking and rotting supplies, and they’ll subconsciously overeat just because they’re scared.”

“Well, I lied. My projections actually say the food will run out on the sixth, plus or minus one day.”

“Maybe so, but I’m guessing that you’re probably going to implement a food conservation program in early December that’ll net you three days’ worth. It’s not going to be enough.”

“Brooks, we could really use this guy. He’s sharp. We need to find him an office and a laptop.”

“What on earth for? Nine Mile is going to melt down in about three weeks–I’d sell any property you have in Oswego if I were you–and the Canadians will annex Niagara Falls long before the Corps of Engineers ever restores hydroelectric power. We’ll be out of power by the end of the month. Better charge your iPod while you’ve still got the juice.”

He held an old brown pressword clipboard up to his chest but pointed at his right temple. “Besides, I have everything I need right here.”

He continued. “Now, you’ll never hear me say this in public again, because from here out, I’m nothing but an inventory clerk, but you’ve got to hear me out on this. We have to do something about the population. We need to encourage people to move on, but we have to find a way to retain the strong ones. I figure this place can support a population of twelve to fourteen hundred if we really stretch ourselves. I think I know how it can be done, but I don’t like myself for thinking it very much…”

Brooks interrupted. “You’re talking about converting or abandoning more than ten thousand people so ten percent can make it. We can’t do that. No way in hell.”

Clipboard turned to her, softly but unmistakably confident. “No. I’m talking about the survival of…”

Slater put his hand in the air. Clipboard stopped. Brooks’ jaw dropped.

Slater accelerated his pace, and both Brooks and Clipboard fell in line behind him. They walked in silence to the dead half-story escalators at the B-concourse and stepped down them toward the long-abandoned gate 19. Brooks opened a door marked Private. They stepped inside and sat at a conference table that had been set up in a room too small for it.

“Okay,” Slater said. “Let’s hear what you have to say.”

“It’s simple, really. If we don’t make life more unpleasant for people around here, life is going to become impossible around here. We need more people to do unpleasant jobs. We need people to leave. The more we lose, the more we win. If we don’t cut our population here by fifty percent by January, we’ll have seventy-five percent starvation by April.”

“That doesn’t make sense. That’s sick!”

“Check the numbers, Brooks. Slater already knows. Look at him. He knows. He knows why we’re here. We’re here to die and take as many of them as we can with us. We’re not a lifeboat. We’re bait. I’ll go out with the first assault, wherever you decide to send it.”

Slater contradicted him for the first time. “Nope. You’re staying here. You can do all that work from a clipboard?” Clipboard nodded. Okay, then. I’m going to need a plan for a winter’s supply of firewood for 750 people by Wednesday. Make it happen.” Clipboard flipped to a fresh page and was already writing down figures as he left the room.

Brooks’ jaw dropped. “Seven fifty! But there are fifteen hundred people here! You’re going to kick out half the population of the Zone? Or are you going to kill them off in combat? Maybe we’ll have a dance competition?”

“No, Brooks. We’re going to lose a lot more than that. I’m just planning for a safety margin of twenty percent. It might be a cold winter.”

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