Author's Note: This is the ninth installment of an exploration of some of the possible futures discussed on this blog, using the toolkit of narrative fiction. Our narrator finally has his interview with the President of the Lakeland Republic, asks some hard questions, and prepares for a trip into unexpected territory.
Finch flagged down a cab as soon as we got out onto the sidewalk, and within a minute or two we were rolling through downtown at however many miles an hour a horse makes at a steady trot. Before too many more minutes had gone by, we were out from among the big downtown buildings, and the unfinished dome of the Capitol appeared on the skyline. Finch was in high spirits, talking about the compromise Meeker had brokered with the Restos, but I was too keyed up to pay much attention. A day and a half in the Lakeland Republic had answered a few of my questions and raised a good many more that I hadn’t expected to ask at all, and the meeting ahead would probably determine whether I’d be able to get the answers that mattered.
The cab finally rolled to a halt, and the cabbie climbed down from his perch up front and opened the door for us. I’d been so deep in my own thoughts for the last few blocks that I hadn’t noticed where we’d ended up, and I was startled to see the main entrance to the Capitol in front of me. I turned to Finch. “Here, rather than the President’s mansion?”
The intern gave me a blank look. “You mean like the old White House? We don’t have one of those. President Meeker has a house in town, just like any other politician.” I must have looked startled, because he went on earnestly: “We dumped the whole imperial-executive thing after Partition. I’m surprised so many of the other republics kept it, after everything that happened.”
I nodded noncommittally as we walked up to the main entrance, climbed the stair, and went in. There were a couple of uniformed guards inside the outer doors, the first I’d seen anywhere in the Lakeland Republic, but they simply nodded a greeting to the two of us as we walked by.
We pushed open the inner doors and went into the rotunda. There was a temporary ceiling about forty feet overhead, and someone had taken the trouble to paint on it a trompe l’oeil view of the way the dome would look from beneath. In the middle of the floor was a block of marble maybe three feet on a side; I could barely see it because a dozen or so people were standing around it. One of them, a stout and freckled blonde woman in a pale blue gingham dress, was saying something in a loud clear voice as we came through the doors:
“...do solemnly swear that, should I be elected to any official position, I will faithfully execute the laws of the Lakeland Republic regardless of my personal beliefs, and should I be unable to do so in good conscience, I will immediately resign my office, so help me my Lord and Savior Jesus.” Three sudden blue-white flashes told of photos being taken, a little patter of applause echoed off the temporary ceiling, and then some of the people present got to work signing papers on the marble cube.
Finch led me around the group to a door on the far side of the rotunda. “What was that about?” I asked him with a motion of my head toward the group around the cube.
“A candidate,” he explained as we went through the doors. “Probably running for some township or county office. A lot of them like to do the ceremony here at the Capitol and get the pictures in their local papers. You can’t run for any elected position here unless you take that oath first—well, with or without the Jesus bit, or whatever else you prefer in place of it. There was a lot of trouble before the Second Civil War with people in government insisting that their personal beliefs trumped the duties of their office—”
“I’ve read about it.”
“So that went into our constitution. Break the oath and you do jail time for perjury.”
I took that in as we went down a corridor. On the far end was what looked like an ordinary front office with a young man perched behind a desk. “Hi, Gabe,” Finch said.
“Hi, Mike. This is Mr. Carr?”
“Yes. Mr. Carr, this is Gabriel Menendez, the President’s assistant secretary.”
We shook hands, and Menendez picked up a phone on his desk and asked, “Cheryl, is the boss free? Mr. Carr’s here.” A pause, then: “Yes. I’ll send him right in.” He put down the phone and waved us to the door at the far end of the room. “He’ll see you now.”
We shed coats and hats at the coatrack on one side of the office, and went through the door. On the other side was another corridor, and beyond that was a circular room with doors opening off it in various directions. Off to the left an ornate spiral stair swept up and down to whatever was on the floors above and below. To the right was another desk; the woman sitting at it nodded greetings to us and gestured to the central door. I followed Finch as he walked to the door, opened it, and said, “Mr. President? Mr. Carr.”
Isaiah Meeker, President of the Lakeland Republic, was standing at the far side of the room, looking out the window over the Toledo streetscape below. He turned and came toward us as soon as Finch spoke. He looked older than the pictures I’d seen, the close-trimmed hair and iconic short beard almost white against the dark brown of his face. “Mr. Carr,” he said as we shook hands. “Pleased to meet you. I hope you haven’t been completely at loose ends this last day or so.” He gestured toward the side of the room. “Please have a seat.”
It wasn’t until I turned the direction he’d indicated that I realized there were more than the three of us in the room. A circle of chairs surrounded a low table there. Melissa Berger and Fred Vanich, whom I’d met in the Toledo train station, were already seated there, and so were two other people I didn’t know. “Stuart Macallan from the State Department,” Meeker said, making introductions. “Jaya Patel, from Commerce. Of course you’ve already met Melissa and Fred.”
Hands got shaken and I took a seat. Macallan was the assistant secretary of state for North American affairs, I knew, and Patel had an equivalent position on the trade end of things. “I apologize for the delay,” Meeker went on. “I imagine you know how it goes, though.”
“And you seem to have put the time to good use—at least for our garment industry.”
That got a general chuckle, which I joined. “When in Rome,” I said. “I take it that’s not one of the things visitors usually do, though; Mr. Finch here looked right past me this morning.”
Finch reddened. “It really does vary,” Patel said. “Some of the diplomats and business executives we’ve worked with have taken to buying all their clothes here—we’ve even fielded inquiries about exporting garments for sale abroad. Still, most of our visitors seem to prefer their bioplastic.” Her fractional shrug showed, politely but eloquently, what she thought of that.
“To each their own,” said the President. “But you’ve had the chance to see a little of Toledo, and find out a few of the ways we do things here. I’d be interested to know your first reactions.”
I considered that, decided that a certain degree of frankness wasn’t out of place. “In some ways, impressed,” I said, “and in some ways disquieted. You certainly seem to have come through the embargo years in better shape than I expected—though I’m curious about how things will go now that the borders are open.”
“That’s been a matter of some concern here as well,” Meeker allowed. “That said, so far things seem to be going smoothly.”
Macallan paused just long enough to make sure his boss wasn’t going to say more, and then cleared his throat and spoke. “One of the things we hope might come out of your visit is a better relationship with the Atlantic Republic. I’m sure you know how fraught things were with Barfield and his people. If Ms. Montrose is willing to see things ratchet down to a more normal level, we’re ready to meet her halfway—potentially more than halfway.”
“That was quite an upset she pulled off in the election,” Meeker observed. “I hope you’ll pass on my personal congratulations.”
“I’ll gladly do that,” I said to the President, and then to Macallan: “It’s certainly possible. I don’t happen to know her thoughts on that, but a lot of people on our side of the border are interested in seeing things change, and she’s got a stronger mandate than any president we’ve had since Partition. Still—” I shrugged. “We’ll have to see what happens after the inauguration.”
“Of course,” Macallan said.
“One thing we’d be particularly interested in seeing,” said Patel, “is a widening of the opportunities for trade. Obviously that’s going to be delicate—it’s a core policy of ours that the Republic has to be able to meet its essential needs from within its own borders, and I know that stance isn’t exactly popular in global-trade circles. We’re not interested in global trade, but there are things your country produces that we’d like to be able to buy, and things we produce that you might like to buy in exchange.”
“Again,” I said, “we’ll have to see what happens—but I don’t know of any reason why that wouldn’t be a possibility.”
She nodded, and a brief silence passed. Vanich’s featureless voice broke it. “Mr. Carr,” he said, “you mentioned that you found some of the ways we do things here disquieting. I think we’d all be interested in hearing more about that, if you’re willing.”
Startled, I glanced across the table at him, but his face was as impenetrable as it had been the first time I’d seen him. I looked at the President, who seemed amused, and then nodded. “If you like,” I said. “At first it was mostly the—” I floundered for a term. “—deliberately retro, I suppose, quality of so much of what I’ve seen: the clothing, the technology, the architecture, all of it. I have to assume that that’s an intentional choice, connected to whatever’s inspired your Resto parties in politics.”
Meeker nodded. “Very much so.”
“But that’s not actually the thing I find most disquieting. What has me scratching my head is that your republic seems to have gone out of its way to ignore every single scrap of advice you must have gotten from the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the other global financial institutions—in fact, from the entire economics profession—and despite that, you’ve apparently thrived.”
Meeker’s face broke into a broad smile. “Excellent,” he said. “Excellent. I’ll offer just one correction: we haven’t succeeded as well as we have despite ignoring the economic advice of the World Bank and so forth. We’ve done so precisely because we’ve ignored their advice.”
I gave him a long wary look, but his smile didn’t waver.
“Mr. Carr,” Melanie Berger said then, “Since the end of the embargo we’ve been approached four times by the World Bank and the IMF. I’ve been involved in the discussions that followed. Each time, their economists have made long speeches about how the way we do things is hopelessly inefficient, and how we’ve got to follow their advice and become more efficient. Each time, I’ve asked them to answer a simple question: ‘more efficient for what output in terms of what input?’ Not one of them has ever been able, or willing, to give me a straight answer.”
“I had a lecture on that subject yesterday from a bank officer,” I told her.
Her eyebrows went up, and then she smiled. “Not surprising. It’s something most people here know about, if they know anything at all about money.”
I nodded, taking that in. “So what you’re suggesting,” I said, as much to Meeker as to her, “is that the rest of the world doesn’t have a clue about economics.”
“Not quite,” said the President. “It’s just that our history has forced us to look at things in a somewhat different light, and prioritize different things.”
It was a graceful answer, and I nodded. “The question that comes to mind at this point,” he went on, “is whether there’s anything else you’d like to see, now that you know a little more about our republic.”
“As it happens, yes,” I said. “There is.”
He motioned me to go on.
“When I drew up the list we sent to your people right after the election, I didn’t know about the tier system, and I’ve got some serious questions about what things are like at the bottom rung of that ladder. I’ve read a little bit about the system, but I’m frankly skeptical that anybody in this day and age would voluntarily choose to live in the conditions of 1830.”
“That’s actually a common misconception,” Jaya Patel said, with the same you-don’t-get-it smile I’d seen more than once since my arrival. “The only thing the tier system determines is what infrastructure and services gets paid for out of tax revenues.”
“I saw a fair number of horsedrawn wagons on the train ride here,” I pointed out. “That’s not a matter of infrastructure.”
“Actually, it is,” she said. “Without a road system built to stand up to auto traffic, cars and trucks aren’t as efficient as wagons—” Her smile suddenly broadened. “—in terms of the total cost of haulage. That doesn’t keep people in tier one counties from having whatever personal technologies they want to have, and are willing and able to pay for.”
“Got it,” I said. “I’d still like to see how it works out in practice.”
“That’s easy enough,” the President said. “Anything else?”
“Yes,” I said, “though I know this may be further than you’re willing to go. I’d like to see something of your military.”
The room got very quiet. “I’d be interested,” Meeker said, “in knowing why.”
I nodded. “It seems to me that whatever you’ve achieved by this retro policy of yours comes at the cost of some frightful vulnerabilities. Ms. Berger told me a little about the war with the Confederacy and Brazil, and of course I knew a certain amount about that in advance. Obviously you won that round—but we both know that the Confederacy wasn’t in the best of shape in ‘49, and I really wonder about your ability to stand up to a modern high-tech military.”
“Like the Atlantic Republic’s?” Meeker asked, with a raised eyebrow.
I responded with a derisive snort. “With all due respect, I’m sure you know better than that. I’m thinking about what would happen if we ended up with a war zone or a failed state on our western borders.”
“Fair enough,” he said after a moment, “and I think we can satisfy you about that.”
“I’d like to suggest something,” Berger said to the President. “Defiance County is first tier.”
He glanced at her. “You’re thinking Hicksville?”
“We’ll have to find someone.”
“Tom Pappas comes to mind,” she said.
The President’s face took on a slightly glazed expression, and then he laughed. “Yes, I think Tom will do. Thank you, Melanie.” He turned to me. “Have you made any plans for tomorrow?”
“Good. The day after tomorror, there’s a—military exercise, I think you would call it—in a first tier county a couple of hours from here by train. If you’re willing, I can have my staff make the arrangements for you to go there tomorrow, have a look around, stay the night, see how our military does things the next day, and then come back. Is that workable?”
“I’d welcome that,” I told him, wondering what I’d just gotten myself into.