The EDSA Maglev hummed over traffic.
12 minutes behind schedule.
Magistrate Nolan Ramirez stared out the window. A 20-foot high, 10-foot wide smile beamed at him. It was the eighth he’d seen in fifteen minutes. The huge teeth belonged to Directress Rizza Garganti – head of the country’s largest Foundation-Charity, a saint in Manila’s socialite scene.
Prominent. Well-connected. Untouchable…
He was taking her in.
“Magistrate Ramirez, Department of Social Security,” he declared, as TodoTondo’s main door irised open. He held out his CELPH, and the device forced every screen on the 77th floor HQ to show his identification.
A shaken secretary said, “regarding what, po?”
Ramirez told him why.
The Magistrate was led down a twisting corridor, past leering guards, right into the Directress’ office. There, behind a huge desk, on a call – was Garganti herself. Her pointing finger shot up.
The secretary left.
Reaching into his jacket, Nolan retrieved his iPiece. The lens tapped into his CELPH – and lines of data floated everywhere. His gaze – and CELPH – swept the room. The front office’ synthetics starkly contrasted with the Directress’ corner-side loft. Organics – wood, stone, and glass – housed hidden circuits. Creatures comforts, displays and…a gun drone…behind a false painting of Rizal’s Bagumbayan execution.
Iron fist, in a velvet glove – thought Ramirez – just like Garganti.
A signal cut-off.
“Apologies, Magistrate. That was my doctor.”
She was lying. Ramirez’ CELPH sourced the call to Social Security.
“I’m here to take you in.”
“No.” she said, placing her CELPH on the table – its glass display, showing his ID, shifted to wood grain.
“You refuse a warrant?”
“Let us say I’ve…developed health concerns, and need authorization from counsel to proceed. It won’t take long,” she gestured towards a chair, “please.”
“Half an hour. That’s it.”
The magistrate flicked his wrist, and the wheeled chair sped towards him, lashed to an invisible whip.
Propelling himself towards Garganti, his iPiece informed him the +COBONPUE NARRA LIMITED OFFICE CHAIR+ was locked into its lowest setting. He imposed an override – and it rose. They met eye to eye.
“Fancy pet,” Ramirez said, noticing the animal, a +LION/TIGER HYBRID.THREAT:LEVEL ALPHA+ chained behind her desk. He had seen smaller cars. “Deliberate cross-breeding is banned under the Caloocan Conventions.”
“Picked him up off the street.” she replied, patting the Liger’s massive head.
It purred thunder.
“I’m sure you did,” he said.
“Fancy coat,” she nodded approvingly, “Bench? Last season though…”
“A gift.” He said, never taking his eyes of her.
“I’m sure it was,” she smiled, “listen, Nolan…or, Ramirez? Which should I call you?”
“‘Magistrate, or Officer.”
“Officer, I read the warrant – I will come with you. But for now, while waiting, can we just talk?”
The Magistrate blinked.
“Sige. Call me ‘Nolan.’”
“Very well, Nolan. Enlighten me, what do you hope to accomplish, by arresting me?”
“Rizza. Please call me Rizza.”
“…Rizza…this is a simple questioning, a standard inquiry at Dispatch…”
“Why not here?”
“That wouldn’t be standard, then.”
She sighed, swatting her CELPH as if a fly landed on it.
“I’m an old woman, Nolan. I don’t have time for this.”
Garganti stood. As she turned around, the wall behind her misted into Makati’s skyline. A warm afternoon sun spilled into the room.
“Tell me, Nolan. How many holoboards of mine did you see on the way here?”
“Odd, I commissioned eight.”
“That must cost a lot…for a charity.”
“Those kids in Tondo need help, Nolan. We need to get our message across, and pictures,” she emphasized, turning her head slightly, “are worth a thousand words.”
“Most of them…lies,” he leveled.
“And yet people will choose a beautiful lie…over an ugly truth. You work on the SOCNET, Magistrate. You know social media. How people are. Who they pretend to be.”
She turned towards him.
“What they hide.”
“What people do on their SOCNET feeds, is their business,” he paused, “but you seem to think otherwise.”
Ramirez mentioned that TodoTondo controlled what beneficiaries publish on their personal SOCNET accounts.
“So? What’s wrong about that?”
“You’re making them parrot what you say. Their contacts won’t know the difference.”
“We’re ensuring our message is properly communicated.”
“That’s called propaganda.”
The Liger, sensing her stress, approached her. She stroked it. The plush fur gave against her touch. Garganti sat back down.
“Magistrate, the point is, I have the public’s sentiment. I’m a saint. Even if you took me in today, by this time tomorrow, I would be broadcasting to everyone’s CELPH – telling them that justice prevails, tagging #charity wins, and how government has attempted to abuse its power – pursuing politics over progress. I trust whatever my speechwriters tell me, basically.”
She steepled her fingers.
“You know everyone moves faster than governments. Foundations, corporations, NGOs – we can do more good, for more people, faster. Help, when they need it, disaster relief while they’re still alive for chrissake. Why jeopardize that?”
“No one is saying you are doing a bad job, directress,” TodoTondo’s balance sheets floated over Garganti’s face, “based on your centavo-per-peso ratio – your NGO helps the needy more efficiently than most NGOs.”
“Exactly! So what’s the issue?”
“Oversight. Being the ‘least corrupt NGO’ isn’t something to brag about. And unlike you, people vote for government. We don’t just show up somewhere, teach kids competitive drone racing, then start ‘managing’ them.”
He brought up a hand to forestall her reply.
“There are also complaints that you’re trying to monopolize charity itself – advising the poor to turn down others’s offers, or turning other beneficiaries against charities they’ve already signed up for.”
“Magistrate, it’s not our fault if they find us to be a better deal…”
“We’ve had reports that you’re advising your kids to ask support from other charities, corporate programs, even private sponsors – then have them credit your NGO for help they receive – which they post on SOCNET. You don’t find that slightly…unethical? Socially? Financially?”
Garganti shook her head. “Not at all.”
“Your accountants must be brilliant.”
“The best – all from Ateneo.”
“If by ‘best’ you mean ‘morally flexible,’ sure. Nevertheless, your beneficiaries are in effect, double-dipping. Each one is receiving support allocated for two people.”
“Nolan, are you saying we shouldn’t help these kids?”
The Magistrate sensed a voice recorder switch on.
“What I meant was, you are cutting off people’s choice. By centralizing the resources of everyone who wants to help, you control how they are doled out. And based on a contract specimen we have – you are demanding an awfully high cost for “charity.”
The Magistrate rattled out the contract’s clauses.
“Must attend all TodoTondo events…”
“……no definite pay…meal allowances only…surrenders all rights to images and video…”
“…not an employee…no benefits…may be terminated at any time…”
“…may not work or provide service to other parties without written permission…three years after termination…”
Halfway through, the recorder switched off.
The Liger growled.
“Magistrate. We manage these kids. We make sure, they are taken care of,” she whispered, “We don’t ask our kids for anything.”
“Except their freedom.”
“Freedom! Ha!” She stood. “That’s rich!”
The Liger’s mango-sized eyes followed her as she paced.
“Have you ever skipped meals?”
“…all the…” he began.
“…for a month? A fortnight? A week? You Magistrates are all the same – cushy private school rebels looking for a cause. But apparently, patrolling the streets and wearing Mayne Frame is too…stifling? Was it the mask? Or did you want everyone see your face?”
“You know nothing about me, Directress, this isn’t about me.”
Her hand chopped air.
“Oh shush! I’m putting everything into context. You can’t help these kids, because you don’t think like them, you don’t feel like them. You don’t know HOW. You have privilege.”
She tapped her CELPH and the image of a 20th century classroom ghosted between them.
“Before your time – before neural shunts beamed lessons directly into the brain.”
A teacher was in front of a classroom, asking students throw crumpled pieces of paper into a waste basket next to her.
Almost every student in the first row made their mark.
Not one in the back row did.
“Your advantages are momentous – moment by moment – and you don’t even notice,” Garganti continued, “you don’t have to commute, or do laundry, or clean. You’ve never had to worry about your next meal, or where you’d sleep, or getting home alive. You’ve never stolen, sold drugs for, or sold yourself for money to feed your siblings, maybe even your parents. Some of our beneficiaries do. Every. Day.”
There was a long pause. Garganti looked out, onto Manila’s depressed area, before whirling on him.
“Now, listen carefully, officer. While our contracts may seem repulsive to you, and you can’t imagine anyone agreeing to these terms, for some people, they are a very logical option. If you were a parent with seven mouths to feed, and with a single signature, could stop worrying about just one of them – what is allowing a couple of pictures on SOCNET worth? What is a promise saying they won’t leave for another NGO worth? What is not paying your…”
She jabbed a finger at him
“…ridiculously high withholding tax plan worth? Surely it’s less than a single human life!”
Nolan’s gaze was fixed on the image of the classroom.
“So. Freedom? You have that, Magistrate. Good for you. Some people don’t. And you can’t help these kids, Nolan.”
She sat back down.
“You’re not like them.”
As the afternoon sun waned, Manila’s lights slowly winked on.
“I can’t help them…but you can?”
“Yes. And I am. Are we done?”
He called up the NGO’s financial statements, thought for a long moment, then stood, and paused.
“But, what are you getting out of it?”
“Just seeing how everything adds up. What are you, personally, getting out of helping?What’s in it for you.”
“You start TodoTondo…showing up at an impoverished area…teaching kids how to drone race. You take the best pilots, have them compete in tournaments. Some do well.”
“I’m very proud of what we’ve accomplished. What’s your point, Magistrate?”
“Some do very well. TodoTondo gets credit.”
“That’s right, we get prestige, and leverage – to ask sponsors for more funding. Again, what is your point?”
“I am saying you’re getting far more than you’re giving up. These kids are benefitting you, far more than they realize – and those benefits aren’t trickling down.”
“What are you saying? We give them a monthly stipend, meals, extra money for their families…”
“Enough to stay alive, but not enough to leave, for other jobs, or work for other organizations.”
“Magistrate have some respect. Before us they had nothing. We took a chance on them, invested time and effort. We gave them dignity.”
“And with all due respect, Directress, you cannot give people dignity – you can only remind them they have never lost it.”
Garganti’s chin jutted out.
“Our beneficiaries can leave at any time, Magistrate, we’re not stopping them.”
“Your non-compete terms mean that if they quit, they can’t work. If they can’t work, they can’t eat. Your contracts keep them leashed.”
“They are loyal.”
She glared at him.
“You see, Directress – you’re kind of right about me. I am a rebel, but have a cause. I’m suspicious of blatant altruism. My higher-ups don’t like me. They think I’m a cynic. That’s why I was assigned this case. And one of the first things I saw was – who the hell allows you to spend that much money on advertising, but barely enough on meal stipends?”
A chime forestalled her reply. Garganti tapped her CELPH.
Nolan could not crack its encryption, but sensed the ID was from his Department.
“My doctor,” the Directress said.
“You’re lying, there is no ‘health issue,’ that call was from Social Security.”
“Oh I wasn’t lying,” she insisted, stroking the Liger’s head, “I have a health problem…”
Rizal’s painting fell exquisitely slow. A drone’s red eye glared as its guns whirred. Seven silenced barrels spat twenty-one high-velocity slugs. Each thunked behind the heavy chair Ramirez hid behind.
“Ay potang-ina yan. (Son of a bitch!)”
The Magistrate propelled his shield forward. The drone swerved aside, pausing a moment. All the time he needed.
He raised both hands – concentrating.
The drones bullets, exquisitely manufactured and precisely engineered, were also smart – with fins guiding them towards distant targets. Nolan hacked each one, forcing them aside, before reaching into the drone’s mind itself. Its rotors seized, and it gave a feeble chirp as it crashed.
Then a bus hit him. The Directress had unchained the Liger. Ramirez’s iPiece registered the collar’s signal, but could not break its connection to Garganti’s CELPH. The Magistrate looked to one side. His chair tore towards the beast, who splintered it with a swipe.
“Let go of your CELPH, Nolan.”
“Dispatch will be alerted if I do.”
“Let me worry about that, Magistrate.”
He slid the device forwards. The got off his chest. It circled him.
“Now, where were we…’slaves’…right?”
Garganti’s arm twitched. So did the Liger’s.
Nolan seethed as blood streamed from his arm.
“Think about this as your personal sacrifice,” Garganti said, “if you discredit us, what happens? All those kids lose their jobs, their income, and all those corporations who’ve pledged support get their names dragged through muck.”
“I am not discrediting your organization, I was just taking you in for questioning,” he eyed the Liger, “supposedly.”
“But you see, it’s like a bicycle, and I’m the fundamental cog. I stop, the whole thing stops. We stop, the whole thing falls over. You’d do more harm than good. Isn’t that the motto of Social Security?”
“Our motto is ‘To each, their own,’ that means the freedom to choose.”
“Ahh but Magistrate, what choice did these kids have anyway? Let’s be honest here. Some of these kids have sold drugs, sold themselves, stolen money, taken lives…no company would employ them. Their futures, well…seriously. What futures?”
“That doesn’t make yoking them to your cause with onerous contracts right. And your organization is reaping most of the benefit.”
“Oh get off it. You like financial statements? Here’s the bottomline – we are helping these kids. End of discussion. They have nothing to live for anyway – look at them, what’s their fate? Blue collar laborers. Manual workers. What kind of a life do they have? At least if they join, they have a shot, a real shot at making some money, lifting their families out of poverty, maybe become famous – just look at Asio de Guia – he’s rising fast in the under-24 circuit.”
“Collared on your terms,” he eyed the Liger.
His iPiece flashed angry red letters.
“What happens to the pilots who don’t make it big? How many of your aspirants fall back to menial labor? They could’ve spent time studying, or training for other fields. Even the famous ones, what do they become? Actors? Models? This is The Philippines, so maybe politics, right? If so…”
Ramirez felt light-headed. He heard a voice echo from far off.
“…The policies they are learning, that these type of contracts, are ok…are teaching them leashes are normal.”
“That leash is tied to an organization that helps less-fortunate people. Can’t you see that we’re all just trying to move forward…on to something better? For everyone?”
“Do the dogs realize this?
“…Some. Not all. Does it matter? What they don’t know won’t bother them. Good. Bad. This all in your head.”
“Ha!” blurted Ramirez, dropping to a knee, “…your thinking…this thinking…furthers the poverty problem. You focus on charity, instead of activism. You…use poverty, as porn…profiting off others’ misery – a middle man – you’re telling everyone ‘sure, you can help, but only through us!’”
Garganti stabbed forward.
So does the Magistrate, who at the same time, closed his eyes…and saw through unblinking sight.
From a distance, Ramirez heard the drone’s guns roar – its fire catches the Liger mid-leap at precise points – paw-forearm-shoulder. Dagger-long claws are nudged just enough, and the Magistrate guides three rounds towards the Liger’s head – straight into the beast’s collar.
He sighed, and stroked the Liger’s head.
“Good. Bad. It’s all in your head.”
“What?” the Directress blinked. Now it’s her head that swam.
“I said, ‘Good. Bad. This all in your head.’”
“Case File 701-409-88 – Quezon City, Manila. Neural Shunt Sub – Rizza Garganti”
Magistrate Ramirez watched the woman in front of him open her eyes, as the door behind him banged open. Someone entered.
He held up his hand.
“Good evening Ms. Garganti. I am Magistrate Nolan Ramirez. Your application for a Foundation is hear by denied, indefinitely. Further, you are ordered to appear in court…” he sent the file to Garganti’s CELPH, “on charges of probabilistic assault with frustrated homicide…..so it is ordered.”
“And may I say, you got off lightly. If I hadn’t defended myself, you’d have been charged with probabilistic murder.”
“I don’t get it. My NGO? Where am I?”
“Common for first-timers. You are at QC Dispatch 39. You walked in today at 13:07, applying to expedite an NGO application via neural shunt psych test. It is now 15:04.”
He swiped the air, and saw a miniature scene of Garganti unchaining the Liger, played.
Ramirez swiped again, and it froze.
“You have failed.”
“I don’t get it…though…why did I fail?”
“You can take it up with a higher court, but ultimately, it’s because you show beneficiaries something to have, but blind them to what they could have. Foundations should be morally solid”
The Magistrate’s fingers moved, and words floated between them.
“You said in NS that NGOs are like bicycles – falling over when you stop. In reality, you’re more like a train – once you get momentum going, there’s really no stopping you. And when you take a wrong turn – the more people you get on board – the harder it’ll be for everyone when we hit the brakes. So we stop you, before you even start.”
“But, I could learn from this…I can’t start one, now that I know this?”
“Sure you could, you probably will, through a third party or shell corporation, but if you’re involved, we’ll know, at that’s a flag. If you really want to help, that shouldn’t bother you, right?”
“No…but I’m not guilty of anything, Magistrate.”
“Nor will you ever be, at least,” he digitally closed her file, “not for this department. Told you I’d take you in.”
“You’re a moron.”
Ramirez laughed, before downing another sweet potato fry.
“Risking a coma? Really?”
“Hey I needed her to confess beyond reasonable doubt, ok?”
“Yeah but, brain damage? What’s THAT worth?”
“Something odd about that case file. She tried to kill me…”
“So? Nothing new, happened to me today. Twice.”
“Yeah but she did it after an outside signal.”
“You mean, she used her CELPH for a call?”
“…unless she knew someone on the inside, and anchored her in…”
“Dunno, couldn’t trace. I’ll look into it later.”
They continued scarfing down their burgers.
“Well…corruption in government. Occupational hazard,” said Nolan’s friend “That’s why Social Security is here, right? To prevent that?”
His friend reached across and clapped Nolan’s shoulder.
“Don’t lose hope.”
“Of course not,” Ramirez laughed.
I never had any.
To be continued.
-By Reginald C Tolentino