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EP154: Union Dues – Freedom With a Small f

By Jeffrey R. DeRego.
Read by Nuri (of CandyCorn Studios and Artist Alley).
Discuss on our forums.
All stories by Jeffrey R. DeRego

Closing Music: “Juzt Mizunderztood” by Norm Sherman.

My head throbs. I think about the mess in the fridge, the heaps of crap in the flat while I force the clumps of wet clothes into the dryers.

As far as I know I am the only Union member who works outside the system, the only one tasked specifically with fighting crime, secretly, of course. Darksider put the program together with one of the Luminaries as a way to explore expanding our role in the maintenance of Normal society. He chose me specifically because I am the only super-agile who is also an orphan. Therefore, I won’t be tempted to throw my costume in a dumpster and make a break for mom and dad.

Communication with the Union ended seven months ago. Darksider was supposed to make sure that a stipend was deposited into a bank account under my phony name every month. But that stopped too. I don’t know why. I tried everything to make contact short of walking up to the Boston Pyramid and knocking. Not that it would have done any good since none of the regular Union knows I even exist.

Rated R. Contains sordid occupations, drug use, and violence. Welcome to the city.

Referenced Sites:

The Union Dues Series

Tales of the Zombie War

SciFiDig interview with Jeffrey DeRego

The DrabbleCast

Comments (39)

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  1. Void Munashii says:

    I love Union Dues. I would love to see a collection fo these get a major release like “Infected” has.

    I take issue with the disclaimer this episode was really dark though. Compared to “Off White Lies” and “The Baby and the Bathwater” this story had an almost upbeat ending for a Union Dues story. I spent the last ten minutes waiting some horrible betrayal by the union that never came.

    As for the story itself, it was very enjoyable, but once it was sorted out who Josie was, there was no more mystery for me. Once the InnerCity (InterCity?) honchos were introduced, I had the whole rest of the story sorted out, save for that sense of dread for a betrayal that never came.

    The story is a little preachy about how a privatized police force is a bad thing. Then again, I cannot think of any fiction where a private police force is a good thing (Shadowrun, Robocop, Kuffs).

  2. V says:

    Hmm. See, on the positive side, this story describes realities of struggling economically . . . but some of them are quite overblown. I really DO NOT appreciate the way the police union (its treatment is unclear and it is even conflated with a corporation) is used as an antagonist (with faceless and disgusting members); we certainly don’t need more union busting in this country where corporations and the government have a stranglehold on their workers already. Part of the reason we have such weak worker protections in this country is that the unions have been weakened, corrupted, and displaced, and union-busting is tolerated and even expected by all.

    I think the Mata Hari shit is kinda trite. Her bet with her coworkers sounds more like a dare made betwen waitresses than sex workers. And this isn’t the only superhero story I’ve seen that problematizes superhero organizations….Mur Lafferty’s Playing for Keeps and I think also the comic Astro City have done it before. Just makes me grouchy.

    I also find it hard to believe that a coke addicted, alcoholic main character would be capable of the feats of skill she manages in this one…I also love how they don’t bother to try to fix her addiction at the end.

    Since when are there empty mills in the North End? That place is as crammed as Manhattan and the real estate is very hot. Was it for some twisted sort of verisimilitude, tarring the evil union cops with an ethnic brush? I guess I should be thankful he wasn’t uber stereotypical and went for Southie.

    Overall, my judgement is that although it is well written, this is very patently a story about an orphaned exotic dancer written by a middle class American hetero white guy. If I’m wrong, do tell.

    And that’s just my radical lefty 2 pennies. Because, although people don’t always admit it, the stories we tell say something about our views of the world we actually live in, and by extension our politics–even if there isn’t a name for our position. It may not be propaganda, but just like journalism it isn’t objective. It can be a tool to provide perspective, or a distorted and voyeuristic distraction.

    Nice try on DeRego’s part, I’ll give him that.

  3. CandyCorn Studios » Didn’t Use the Sexy Voice says:

    […] read a story for Escape Pod, my favorite online fiction magazine. Why favorite? It’s a PODCAST, so I can […]

  4. Storman_Norman says:

    I love the Union Dues series. This one wasn’t as good as the last one, but was still enjoyable and on par with the series. I kinda dig the dark overtones in this superhero universe. I think it’s refreshing.
    And to V: it’s a story and maybe this alternate universe has mills in the North End.

  5. J. R. DeRego says:

    I’m actually going to weigh in here and address some of V’s comments…

    “Since when are there empty mills in the North End? That place is as crammed as Manhattan and the real estate is very hot. Was it for some twisted sort of verisimilitude, tarring the evil union cops with an ethnic brush? I guess I should be thankful he wasn’t uber stereotypical and went for Southie.”

    Since about 1805 when the first mill, Sutter Mill, opened along the Acushnet River in New Bedford Massachusetts, where this story is set. Abandoned mill complexes in the North End of New Bedford, include-

    Chamberlains, Cliftex, Berkshire Hathaway, Continental Screw, Cape Cod Sportswear, Madewell, Oshkosh, Dawson Brewery, Revereware, Pierpont Glass Company…

    Yahoo has this awesome feature, “maps”, you should use it.

    “I really DO NOT appreciate the way the police union (its treatment is unclear and it is even conflated with a corporation) is used as an antagonist (with faceless and disgusting members); we certainly don’t need more union busting in this country where corporations and the government have a stranglehold on their workers already. Part of the reason we have such weak worker protections in this country is that the unions have been weakened, corrupted, and displaced, and union-busting is tolerated and even expected by all.”

    InterCity Incorporated is a private security company, not a union. It’s a strike in name only, they management is trying to increase their take from the city.

    “Overall, my judgement is that although it is well written, this is very patently a story about an orphaned exotic dancer written by a middle class American hetero white guy. If I’m wrong, do tell.”

    Nice try but I don’t raise to baiting.

    “And that’s just my radical lefty 2 pennies. Because, although people don’t always admit it, the stories we tell say something about our views of the world we actually live in, and by extension our politics–even if there isn’t a name for our position. It may not be propaganda, but just like journalism it isn’t objective. It can be a tool to provide perspective, or a distorted and voyeuristic distraction.”

    Wrong on all counts. Absolutely wrong. ALL counts. If you think you are inferring ANYTHING about me from these stories, you are sadly mistaken.

    As for the rest, hey, that’s what you got from the story, groovy.

  6. Void Munashii says:

    InterCity!

    Thank you! I’ve been wondering about that for awhile (and been too lazy to actually try and research it)

  7. tim callender (babylonpodcast) says:

    I’ve been enjoying the Union City stories for quite some time, but I must admit this one was a bit flat.

    At first I was, well, upset with the semi-graphic account of drug use and sex, but then, in the scene where Crimson is struggling to get into uniform and out the door (and failing) I suspected we’d get a fascinating story about a hero who had fallen in too deep and couldn’t get out. But then, it was simply a hero-undercover tale, and a bit disappointing.

    All in all, enjoyable if a bit flawed.

    As for all the comments about the subtext in the story – well, maybe I’m just a dim bulb, but I took it all at face value and made no assumptions regarding Mr. DeRego’s supposed socio-political agenda. Keep ‘em coming, J.R.!

  8. SFEley says:

    Folks:

    Just a reminder about the comment rules. You can say anything you like about the stories. Good, bad, vile, whatever. But personal criticisms and insults are uncool, whether against the author or against other commenters.

    Nothing’s gone over the line yet, but if certain lines of debate continue I’m gonna have to start moderating. And that makes me cranky. Please keep disagreements respectful.

  9. […] Pod #154 – Offers up the story Union Dues – Freedom With a Small f by Jeffrey R. […]

  10. Brian Deacon says:

    V said:
    “It may not be propaganda, but just like journalism it isn’t objective. It can be a tool to provide perspective, or a distorted and voyeuristic distraction.”

    I shudder at the idea of a collection of fiction that purports to have objectivity. In journalism I think it’s just an unattainable goal in any pure sense. In fiction, it’s just an outright bad idea.

    +1 for distorted and voyeuristic distractions!

    And moreover, when a story does reveal something about the author’s political views, it would get pretty boring if all we ever saw were views that we agreed with. Our little echo chambers are pretty comfortable, though, and I don’t claim to be any less susceptible to it than the next guy. It has become increasingly easy for us to just stay inside our echo chambers. It has been through force of will that I’ve been exposing myself to podcasts and/or news sources that I find whacky. When my better angels rule, I can even learn something rather than just rolling my eyes at the people I usually call willfully ignorant wingnuts.

    But as to V’s reaction… I think it was to some extent just a misread of where Messr. McLargeHuge was going with the theme. To the extent that we were to get any political message from the police force, I don’t think it had anything up or down to say about unions, and a lot more about the evils of big business. In more primitive terms, those cops weren’t “union goons.” They were Blackwater.

    Lastly, I cringed when I saw Jeffrey responding to the post. It must take super-human restraint to sit back and watch people rip apart or misunderstand what you’ve written without responding. But that’s got to be such a slippery slope. I certainly don’t blame you for jumping in, Jeffrey, but I’ve got to think that you just can’t come out of it cleaner than when you went in. But it would take a saint to rise above every time.

    As to the story, I enjoyed it. Not my favorite Union Dues story, but a solid piece. I hope for more, I hope for better, but I certainly think another one of this caliber would be plenty good enough to have a happy home in my Escape Pod feed. It was time well spent. Thanks, Jeffrey.

  11. Daniel J. Saylors says:

    I came to know Escape Pod only last
    year on my way to an Anime Convention
    and one of the first stories I was
    introduced to was Union Dues and I’ve
    became a big fan.

    This latest installment was one of the
    more enjoyable of the stories, The contrast of the sex,drugs and rock & roll lifestyle shows that even the union members fall on hard times with
    out the proper support of peers. I look forward to hearing more from The Union and Escape pod.

    Personal Note: Stephen as a fellow adult with ADD but one that’s dealt with it sense childhood, I’d like to say your words about it in the intro where moving, I was put on loads of meds growing up to “treat” my “illness” and lets just say I truly know what it is to be a zombie. 250mg of methylphenidate HCL can do that to a child.

  12. me says:

    Stripper by night, superhero by… later that night.
    Its been done.

    Good story but it didn’t seem to fit with the others in the series, it wasn’t too dark but it seemed to be more about the plight poor than the specific difficulties associated with being part of the union.

  13. Mari Mitchell says:

    This is first story of group I have listened to. I intend to go to the first podcast here and listen all the way through, but I am still working my way through your sister sites.

    For me this was not bad but not a huge wow.

    I did like the song.

    I have to great friends with ADHD and one did find out until they were an adult. It impacts so much. But it comes with gifts too.

  14. Delysid says:

    Best episode closing quote ever: “Writing is like prostitution. First you do it for love, then for close friends, finally for money.” – Moliere. Followed by best EP closing song ever: Norm Sherman’s “Juzt Mizunderztood” Quite the triumph!

    Story was good too, though I’m not a fan of superhero tales in general, w the notable exception of Paul Verhoeven’s movie “Robocop”, and to a lesser extent the South Park boys’ flawed but very funny “Team America”.

    As you might guess from the above, I like superhero tales that (a) deconstruct the essentially fascistic core of the superhero mythos; and (b) reveal & explore the human fragility under the superhero mask.

    “Team America” completely ignores (b), human fragility under the mask, but that’s forgivable because it’s a total farce and the characters are deliberately 2-dimensional parodies.

    “Freedom with a Small f”, scores big on (b), fragility under the mask, but shares with the rest of the Union Dues series the failing of giving not the slightest critique or even bearing any apparent consciousness of (a), the fascistic core underlying most superhero stories, which I would define in its simplest terms as the belief that “enlightened” might makes right, and society needs superpowered heroes who will break the rules & several heads to do what’s fundamentally “right” to protect us from ever-present evil forces lurking all around us intent on destroying all goodness & light.

    The black & white moral world-view, and faith in the benevolence of benign wielders of extreme violence who operate secretly to “defend” us, is the heart of fascism’s appeal to our darkest fears, and I don’t like it in superhero stories any more than I like it in foreign or domestic state power.

    On another tack entirely, “Freedom with a Small f” does appeal to my secret belief that exotic dancers who I find most attractive are all doing it to supplement their income while they study nuclear physics or neuroscience at the local university, when they’re not busy doing good works for the poor or organizing anti-corporate political action.

    You can see the small step from this to strippers being actual super-heroes as a matter of course. Luckily, no one so cute and adorably hot could possibly also be a fascist, so my earlier concern is not applicable to the scantily clad upholders of freedom & justice in my imagination.

  15. OK story, though there was a glaring plot hole: how does the protagonist identifiy the villains? This weakness is so obvious that the author himself has a character ask that very question. And I’m not very happy with the answer.

    Loved the zombie song lyric!

  16. fishyswaz says:

    Upon finishing the listen, I found that I had enjoyed the story as I have all of the Union Dues stories, however something bothered me.

    I really found this reading a bit too flat for the story. Not that it was deficient really, just that the narrator’s voice didn’t match the image of the character that was being created in my mind. It lacked a certain experienced, self destructive, and/or edgy quality that I seemed to expect from an extensive booze and dope abusing orphan who also happens to be a superhero.

    I’m sure that speaks much more about me than both the narrator and the story, but there it is.

  17. I do like the Union Dues stories, but this one was especially captivating. Gritty doesn’t begin to describe it. I guess I’m just a fan of darkness.

  18. Yicheng says:

    I enjoyed it. I’ll echo Martin’s remark that it didn’t seem to make sense how Crimson was able to ID the Intercity Cops. Crimson did seem to do a lot of coke pretty much continuously throughout the story, to the point where I was expecting her crash sooner or later, but I guess we can attribute it to her super-agile metabolism being able to breakdown toxins faster than a normal person would. I can see where the stripper angle would offend some people, but I think the writing should be judged for its own sake, not the ethnicity/sex/religion of the author.

  19. BadMonkey says:

    I loved this week’s reading! Nuri voice was spot on for story. I say more Nuri!

  20. Vance M. says:

    I always get excited when a new Union Dues is on Escape Pod. And just like all the other stories, this one did not disappoint me.

    I love the world the author has created, the depth and creativity of his characters and the not so happy endings. The voice and tone of the author fit perfectly for this story. I enjoyed the dark, dank, depressing, disturbing, drug filled and disillusioned world of Freedom with a Small f.

    Though a striper/superhero combo has been done before…the devil is in the details. Sometimes people need to relax, go with the flow, and just enjoy the story. There really is nothing new under the Sun nowadays but readers with open minds can appreciate how inventive authors like Jeffrey R. DeRego can rearrange whats familiar and create something new.

    Can’t wait for the next installment.

  21. Joe Arndt says:

    I think what the most interesting about the Union is that it’s a lot like the United States. They have limitless firepower at their disposal and tout themselves to be the most powerful and what the world needs. Yet, they’re so desperate to find a use for the power that they experiment by unleashing a little bit of it at a time and see what happens. Meanwhile, people’s lives are destroyed. There’s no check for the Union. They can do whatever they want to behind closed doors because they have all the weapons. Sure, they put on a public face, and smile so that everyone doesn’t get too upset, but it’s what they don’t let the people know that’s the most dangerous.

    In this instance, loosing one of their heroes as an experiment to fight crime, knowing that the girl really hasn’t had any unsupervised experience on her own, seems like a dangerous game. If they were doing it because it was the right thing to do, I doubt I’d have much of a problem either. However, it comes off as merely a PR move to make the Union look better. Let’s also suppose that the girl wasn’t fortuitous enough to run into the group of men that happened to have kidnapped the chief’s daughter. Her own problems with drugs would have escalated further, probably getting her killed eventually. I hate that the Union would so willingly treat the lives of its members as an expendable commodity. Especially since they have the attitude of “We can, so we will.” Bleh.

    Good story. My response to what was said above – demonizing unions being wrong – I feel that the blame lies with those that abuse power rather than learn to use it wisely. This happens universally, be it in government, big business, unions, and any time people are given power by others.

  22. Allen says:

    I’ve gotta echo the question “when are we gonna see a collection of these published?” (and yay! I got to download this in time for work…)

  23. Robin says:

    The download link on the website for this and several back all seem to be 404 :(

  24. Howie Feltersnatch says:

    I enjoyed this, like all Union Dues stories, but I was a little unclear as to what her superpower was supposed to be. She can jump really far? Or was it that she can suck down a lot of booze and coke? If so then, hey! I’m a superhero too!

  25. scatterbrain says:

    Love this series.

  26. I’m getting 404 Not Found too.

  27. Marius Cross says:

    The story was ok, nothing special. However, the ending song was absolutely BRILLIANT! I can’t get enough of that poor angsty zombie. Poor thing, avoiding those well-placed headshots.

  28. beer myths says:

    The Union Dues stories are very good. I enjoy them very much!

  29. Brett says:

    I loved the story! That’s not surprise to me though, I love all the Union Dues stories that EP has run. To answer Howie, I think she was super agile. I’m pretty sure it was mentioned once, but I’m not sure.

    Also (as one of those liberal, socialist types), I think it’s good to get the occasional story to remind us why it’s a terrible idea to have vital services provided by people whose responsibility is to their stockholders, not to the public.

  30. Gary H says:

    I haven’t read all the comments, and I don’t plan to. Thank you, Steve, for this story. The past few haven’t been my favorites and this one reminded why I listen – to have fun.

  31. V says:

    I doubt Mr DeRego will see this but–
    apologies for coming across as an asshat.

    You have some points, I have some points.

    To be candid, this story hit me very hard when I first heard it, and I was having a rather crappy day as well … wrote the second half of that comment of mine crying my eyes out.

    So there’s a positive comment I should have made: any story that can get you where you live, as it were, can’t be mediocre, that’s for sure.
    I admit there are aspects of it that I think need work…not completely comfortable with the portrayal of the main character…but it has some force. I guess it bugged me in some of the ways Sin City bugged me, and would do so even if a woman had written it.

    I’m sorry for engaging in what was tantamount to an ad hominem attack; that is not my usual practice, and as someone with lots of workshop experience, I know better.

    Next time I get angry and am about to comment, I’ll wait.

    Nice touch also on the automated answering for the superhero report line, by the way ( :

  32. J. R. DeRego says:

    No problem V, we all have bad days :)

    I should have “checked myself before I wrecked myself” too and also come off less like an asshat. The only stuff that really bugged me at all was misconstruing Boston for New Bedford. I was born and raised in New Bedford, will someday move back there, and I plan to die of old age (or in a swordfight with ninja robots) there. I have a tremendous love for my little city, even with its staggering current economic and social problems.

    The rest? Meh… I can’t choose how people perceive me based on the stories I write.

  33. V says:

    Thanks for your understanding.

    And I’ve actually been to New Bedford, and live near Boston.
    So my brain did a simple switch-trick and I couldn’t refer to a text to remedy my error. I heard North End, and my mind went to Boston.

    By the way, you might like this book…about Lowell rather than New Bedford, but still possibly applicable.

    The Lowell Experiment: Public History in a Postindustrial City.

    And who knows….I see more stories, I see you differently. I’ve heard a lot of the Union Dues stuff, and none of it has bored me yet, so I’ll still be listening.
    ( :

    All the best.

  34. Blaine Boy says:

    This makes you realize what it truly means to sacrifice. What it means to make a sacrifice for the good of others. The question is though, who is making the sacrifice? For those intellectuals who have read Brave New World or 1984 you know where I’m going here. For those of you who haven’t or still don’t know what I’m trying to say, I’m trying to say that Josie has been swallowed up as a cell in the societal body because of the government. The title really fits: she has no freedom, a higher power has stripped it from her.

    Doesn’t it scare you when you can’t be your own being and make your own choices… experience life as you see fit? On the other hand, shouldn’t only the few suffer so that the many can live happy, productive lives? When can we say that one person’s life isn’t important enough to allow THEM to live it out?

    It’s a great story and I love how it played out (I could see the ending a mile away). Still, aren’t you worried that maybe YOUR child/friend/family member might be spirited away to become a faceless drone in the service of a government that is itself faceless and therefore even more capable to expend it’s human resources. When did humans become resources anyways?

    Keep up the good work guys.

  35. Roy says:

    Would someone PLEASE find Mr. DeRego an illustrator?! The Union Dues stories are amazing and would fit even more amazing on my bookshelf, on top of Watchmen.
    I would pay handsomely for the graphic novel versions of these stories!

    Exceptionally well done DeRego!

  36. @ Roy Regarding a illustrator for the Union Dues stories, Might I make a suggestion. There is a very talented artist friend of mine whom I think might
    be right for the job. This name is Steve Bennett, he was one of the youngest animators in japan starting in his early teens working for Studio Aoehyma. If I had the time and he could find the time I’d love to ask him to graphically novelize Mr. DeRego’s stories. as long as he approved of course

    to visit his website and see some of his work and read more detailed bio click on the link

  37. […] grim addition to the “Union Dues” superhero series, Jeffrey R. DeRego’s “Freedom With a Small f” features an undercover superhero who seems to have been abandoned by the Union. She […]

  38. Steven says:

    Not emo. At all. Not even the crap the kids call emo these days.

    (When I went to GT I had Yaszek for my SciFi class, she was pretty good)

  39. Storman_Norman says:

    Hey, Union Dues Junkies, Clonepod ( a podcast, mostly devoted to kid-friendly PG-13 type stories) is running a Union Dues series of their own. It deals with younger characters, but still Jeff manages to twist that dark creepy feeling in. Check it out if you’re a fan of this series.