With the first step out of the way, Mason allowed himself to exhale.
In the months since he’d fled the United States, he’d been working with Augustina to get his Open Ground policies ratified — no small feat, for an outsider working with an unofficial leader in a country that values nationalism and prestige as much as the Argentines — and many of them were finally coming to fruition.
Mason was unsure of his status in the country at first, as his arrival was sudden, and what he proposed dramatic. Once he had Augustina’s support, however, the pieces fell into place very quickly.
Too quickly, he thought on the mornings he woke up to the song of wharf traffic and the smell of rotting paper. He’d had a small flat built in one of the warehouses he owned, but he barely ever saw it, spending most nights curled up on the floor in an unoccupied office or conference room at the President’s mansion, La Casa Rosada, jolted awake by the sound of the janitors arriving each morning.
Mason threw himself into the project, but found even his unusual aptitude for quick creation was outpaced by the speed of a government with a purpose and a capable and influential taskmaster leading it. Despite working from the moment his eyes opened until the second they clanged shut at the end of the day, Augustina was on him every other minute to finish preparing the necessary write-ups and details about the plans so she could get them approved, signed, stamped, and committed to law.
On the afternoon Mason strutted into Augustina’s office and rapped on her desk with his knuckles, telling her the completed document was in her mailbox, she told him she knew, and that the piece was already being picked apart by proofers and legal experts. They’d have a new draft ready for him to look over by the end of the day.
A few days later, the formal work was done. They would have the resources necessary to build a half-dozen Open Ground territories, the land already selected and earmarked for the purpose, and all that was left to do was fill the spaces and show the validity of the project so the government could decide whether to go public with the news or to keep it under wraps.
Mason assumed that meant they were keeping anxious fingers over big red buttons that could explode the entire project, but at least the initial race was run and won. It didn’t take long for Mason to reach out to the first person he had in mind, Xerxes, leader of the Singularity Group, to see if he was interested in what Argentina had to offer.
Thankfully, he was, and Xerxes, along with several thousand of his followers, were now in place, living on a patch of land the government thought was worthless and expendable in the southern reaches of the country. By giving up that land, in perpetuity, according to the paperwork, though he knew the word had a different meaning in politics, they had purchased themselves an agile, motivated neighbor with which to trade and grow. A neighbor who would not involve themselves in Argentina’s desire to become the prime influencer in South American politics. A neighbor who, if worst came to worst, could be easily squashed and replaced.
That last point was left unspoken by anyone, but it was implicit, and Mason assumed it’s what eventually convinced the local politicos to let the project move forward. He was glad it didn’t come up, as he wasn’t so certain such a conflict would be the easy victory they expected.
Now that the first settlers were in place, it was up to Mason, the unofficial head of recruitment for the project, to find more groups who would be beneficial to the area. The plan was to have five groups entrenched and trading with the government before any announcements were made, so the success of the venture would be Argentina’s, not that of some other country who took the idea and showed gains first.
Unfortunately, finding other groups worth having was proving to be a troublesome task. By definition, the groups who wished to secede from their countries were extreme, and within those extremes were a lot of traits that wouldn’t play well with others. Those who could easily integrate themselves were doing just fine under their current governmental situation, and as such felt little need to pull free. The ones left on the cutting room floor were what he had to work with, and what he would have to figure out how to sew into a larger, if distinctly paneled, quilt.
The fully fleshed-out concept of Open Ground, along with the title, emerged during one of dozens of discussions he had with Augustina after fleeing the US for Argentina. Augustina was the most powerful person in the country, even if she pulled her strings from behind the throne, not in front of it, and as a result she was able to get the gears moving incredibly fast once they had identified the real issue they wanted to address.
“The issue is one of sovereignty,” Mason had said during one of their meetings. “What we need is a zone completely free of any government influence. A place where these groups will be free to plant seeds and evolve independently and push boundaries we’re unable to push while living within the relative safety of nation states.”
“Part of what will make this work,” Augustina had said, “is making sure they have nothing to lose. They’ll have to start from scratch. This will allow them to build independent and self-sustained networks, rather than sub-countries, depending on more established countries in order to survive. It will have to be a very balanced relationship, or I fear we’ll see the Open Ground reclaimed, and any who resist crushed as an example to others.”
They decided part of what would allow Open Ground networks to exist independently was a pact among participating countries to protect Open Ground populations from outside pressure. That is, if another nation threatened or tried to coerce those who lived on Open Ground, there would be allies nearby to put their foot down and help shoo off the aggressor.
But that’s where expectations started to collide with reality.
“You know someone, at some point, is going to try and break the rules,” Augustina said. “I don’t know who will fire first, and if it will be a threat of the military sort, but these rules will be tested. Pushed. Actions intended to bring about a new stability by destabilizing existing structures don’t happen without a catalyst.”
“I think you’re probably right, but I don’t know that there’s a solution for that,” Mason took a deep breath before continuing, “beyond hoping these Open Ground networks and their allies are tight enough, valuable enough to each other, by the time that happens. So they stand with each other. If they’re not, this will be a movement that’s killed in its infancy.”
After meeting with Augustina, Mason had walked from the Casa Rosada back to his home in the warehouse district on the outskirts of Boca, a tourist attraction that had seen better days. Mason tried to enjoy the colorful buildings and a spattering of European tourists, as he had, after all, negotiated hard to be able to walk wherever he wanted without an escort, but found his mind drifting away from the moment and back to the conference room.
Xerxes was a good fit, but so far Mason’s search for other groups who had similar attributes — resourceful, ambitious, extreme, but in a nonviolent way — had come up short. There were groups of neo-hippie pacifists scattered throughout the Pacific Northwest, but none of them would be self-sustaining. The groups who were self-sustaining, like the survivalists entrenched throughout Montana, Wyoming, and Northern Colorado, were also fiercely territorial.
Other groups had popped up on his radar and then been quickly discarded. An old enemy of Xerxes’ ran a group called Steel Silo, for example, but as far as Mason had been able to determine, all registered members had scattered to the wind a decade before.
He did have a call scheduled with a representative from a group called Citizen’s Solution that might prove fruitful.
From what he’d been able to ascertain, CS was a group of highly professional rabble-rousers who had significant financial backing, media support, and political influence, despite their illegal activities. Mason checked his tile as he walked up to one of the two warehouses he owned, but stopped short when he noticed a silhouette standing in the doorway at the top of the stairs.
He paused, unsure of whether or not the other person had seen him, but the figure spoke and removed any doubt. “Mr. McCann. I wasn’t sure when to expect you, so I hope you don’t mind I waited here until you arrived.”
The woman stepped forward into the light from where she was leaning against his doorframe and revealed herself to be a petite, forty-something Asian woman in a dark pantsuit and crisp white blouse. “I’m Celia Black. We spoke yesterday.”
Mason unfroze and approached the bottom of the stairwell. “Miss Black, ah, I was under the impression we would be speaking online.”
She smiled at his discomfort and leaned forward against the metal staircase railing. “I prefer to do things in person. I find it’s far easier to take measure of a potential relationship, and the people on the other side of them. Don’t you think?”
Mason started climbing the stairs. “I suppose so.” He reached the top and shook her hand. She had a firm grip and wore black leather gloves. “You should have let me know you were coming. I could have arranged a place for you to stay, and offered a security detail. This isn’t the safest part of town.”
Still shaking Mason’s hand, Celia put her other hand on Mason’s arm and assumed a pitying look. “Oh Mr. McCann, that’s very sweet of you, but I’ll be leaving the country as soon as our meeting is complete. And when it comes to security,” she pulled her hand away from his arm and snapped her fingers. Four red tracer dots, the kind projected by sniper rifles, appeared on the wall behind her hand, dancing across the bricks. “I’m well taken care of. Thank you for the concern.” She snapped her fingers again and the dots disappeared.
“I see.” Mason understood the implied threat, but also understood it was all part of the show. The conversation she’d come to have had already begun. She was doing her best to establish leverage. “Won’t you come inside? Your people are welcome to join us for a cup of maté, if you’d like.”
“Oh I’d love to, thank you. My people will be fine out here, though, and I’m sure I have nothing to fear from a man of integrity like yourself. A man of peace, if I judge correctly?”
Mason opened the door and stepped aside so she could precede him into the flat. It was a small space. Simple. But that simplicity gave it a kind of elegance, despite its location in a run-down part of town. “I suppose I am. Trying to maintain what peace already exists, at least. There’s only so much one person can do to increase the amount of peace in the world.” He closed the door and began to clear the piles of notebooks that had accumulated on his chair and desk since he’d had the place built. He piled them in one corner of the room and offered Celia his only chair. He sat cross-legged on the bed.
“I don’t think you give yourself enough credit, Mr. McCann. I’ve heard whispers about what you’re up to, this Open Ground policy, and it’s really quite clever. A pressure valve for the world. It could really make a difference and help ease some of the tensions surfacing around the globe.” She folded one leg over the other and leaned on one elbow, resting her weight on his desk. “I’m hoping you’ll reconsider developing this policy any further.”
Mason paused only a moment before replying, “Pardon? You’re asking me to stop working on Open Ground?”
“Despite your belief that it may help maintain what little peace is left in the world?”
“Despite my belief that it’s your belief it will achieve such. It is my belief you have good intentions, but would trade the potential of real change for short-term solutions.” She sat up from his desk and leaned forward in the chair.
“It is our belief, Mr. McCann, that pressure needs to continue building, that the world needs to be a pinprick away from bursting, before real stability and peace can be achieved. It’s our belief that maintaining a status quo, even one slightly changed from what we’ve experienced over the past few thousand years, is not ideal.”
Mason maintained a neutral expression, but could feel a skeptical tone creeping into his voice. “You want to push the world to the brink, in hopes that doing so will force people to change for the better. And in a permanent way.”
“We want to push people to the brink so they can see where this path leads, Mr. McCann. There are some, you included, I think, who are capable of extrapolating on what’s happening now and understanding what it means for our future. This is not the case for most of the world.”
“But your concept isn’t a new one, Miss Black. What you’re proposing is brinksmanship. The only difference from how it’s been done in the past is that in this case, the world wouldn’t know who it’s fighting against until the very end. What happens when we reach that point, a point of no return, and nothing changes? What happens when those in power fail to take consequences into consideration, the way they’ve always failed to do, and everyone in the world, billions and billions of people, suffer as a result? Your method of escalation isn’t a solution. It’s just another problem.”
“I disagree, Mr. McCann. Sometimes increasing the potency of a problem can be a solution, in that it brings other solutions to the forefront. Our group is made of people who believe with all their being there is a problem, and in order to solve it we’ll need to tap more minds and resources than we currently have access to. By making everyone, every politician and citizen and businessperson, a part of the solution, we’ll be united. Your way, I’m afraid, fails to reach that level of involvement. Your Open Ground policies serve only to create more divisions and allows for more ineptitude.”
“But you didn’t answer my question, Miss Black. What if the world is pushed to the edge of a cliff, and no solutions, or no suitable solutions, are forthcoming?”
“Then,” she said, standing up and moving toward the door, “we push the world over the edge. And those who learn to fly will be able to clear away the rubble and build something better.” She grasped the door handle and paused before turning it. “We’re not at odds, Mr. McCann. See that we never need to be.”
Mason felt his stomach jump into his throat as the door closed behind her. He could hear her footsteps on the stairwell, and several other sets of footsteps joining her at the bottom.
He had to force himself to get up from his seat on the bed, and to accept that apparently Citizen’s Solution was not interested in being a part of the Open Ground initiative.
Mason went to the window and peeked through the blinds to watch Celia Black leave. His back went rigid and his fingers let the blinds slap shut after he saw her guards and recognized two of the faces: the muggers who had tried to steal the Opus device from him in the same district months ago.