– An Immaculate Conception –
The orange juice gave out a gurgle of protest before it disappeared down the drain. She placed the empty carton along with the others in the recycle bin. Her back ached and her hands trembled. Beads of perspiration clustered around her temples. She would feed the solids into the disposal unit and then rest for a while.
It was always like this. Furtive, feverish activity. Fear of discovery. Anxiety. Guilt. She felt like a criminal. It was a weekly ritual, getting rid of the foods and liquids before bringing in the next supply; an essential step in her carefully wrought strategy for survival, liking switching on the viewscreen and letting it broadcast unseen and hardly heard all day, and running the cold water every few hours. The groceries, the drinking water, even the puerile soaps from the network: they were all contaminated, but their consumption had to be recorded in the system.
The disposal unit was on now, growling in anticipation like a hungry beast. She dropped some potatoes into the whirring black mouth. The beast crunched and swallowed up the offering, and then whined for more.
She grew her own potatoes and all the other vegetables she needed in the big garden at the back of the cottage. The garden also provided wild strawberries in the summer, gooseberries and blackcurrants, and there was a solitary apple tree at its far end. She picked mushrooms in the woods and set snares for rabbits. She kept chickens for their eggs and sometimes their flesh. And, of course, there was her prize possession: Carla, the goat, from whose milk she manufactured a crude sort of cottage cheese. Everything she ate was pure and natural and unsullied by their chemical. She drew water for drinking and cooking from the little stream among the trees, knowing that it, too, was untarnished.
It was all hard work, and she had had to learn everything from the beginning. Little tasks that she performed so naturally now, like plucking and gutting, even milking, had seemed so barbaric at first. She was a regressive in the new age of enlightenment, a twenty-first century savage, but she was also a survivor, a mind survivor. When the stream froze over last winter and the chickens didn’t lay and Carla dried up, when she had had to subsist for weeks on old potatoes and chicken soup, she kept telling herself that she was winning, that her mind was still her own, free, protected from their malevolence.
There were things she missed so much, of course. The taste of fresh bread. Sugar. Tea. Chocolate. Hot bacon. Crisp, dry white wine. She could get them all in the stores in town, but she daren’t ever taste them.
The disposal unit whirred impatiently. She dropped in the half-dozen eggs, quickly, one after the other, and then tossed the container into the recycle bin. The machine crunched gratefully. She felt clammy and dizzy. She needed to rest. Destroying the evidence, she thought. It seemed so petty, so futile, but the records of her purchases would be stored on the system, like her usage of fuel and water, and the programmes she selected from the network. The system was their monitor, silently sifting, analysing, seeking out the unnatural and irrational patterns. The system, the network, the security force: they were all arms of the apparatus that ensured obedience to the Elixir.
The old man’s gaunt face appeared suddenly in her mind. The long silvery hair. The benign smile. Large brown eyes like those of a docile animal. She worked in the city then, an analyst, a part of the system, in the big block that overlooked the supermarket. It was not long after the War. The new Golden Age had begun. He turned up one morning, dishevelled, out of place, carrying the little placard. He stood outside the supermarket every day for almost a week. The placard had a simple, stark message:
He didn’t say anything, just stood there and smiled benignly. The security men were also smiling when they came for him. They were smiling when they knocked him to the ground and tore up the placard. They were smiling when they kicked him until he was bleeding and unconscious. They were still smiling when they threw his body into the back of the security cart. The street outside the supermarket was clean and healthy and uncluttered again.
The bleeding, broken vision of the old man came to haunt her time and again, but she didn’t mind the haunting. His fate served as a reminder, a reassurance of her own mission.
The Golden Elixir. She remembered how the media and then the governments had quickly dubbed it. The most important scientific discovery of all time, they claimed. A new drug that could be absorbed into the human system to destroy the brain impulse that created evil. It had seemed so improbable, a gigantic con, but when the drug was tested it turned hardened criminals into pious saints. The benefits were incalculable. A bright, new horizon had opened up; the dawn of a Golden Age; a world free from crime and bigotry, in which humans could pursue their personal ideologies without rancour or ill-will from others, without interference. A miracle, many said; God-sent. But they had to fight a fucking war before it could be introduced! It was the war to end all wars.
She smiled thinly, sadly. That was the grand irony, the irony of all time. Millions perished in the War. The might of Islam had been crushed, never to rise again. There was peace now, though, and order; a sense of calm; complacency, perhaps. For the first time in its existence, the human race was united in tackling the issues that really mattered: protecting the environment, eradicating poverty, improving the quality of life, exploiting the vast potential offered by the colonisation of other planets.
The drug – the Golden Elixir – was everywhere now. In foodstuffs, the water systems, even in children’s candy. People seemed content, too. They smiled a lot, anyway. She was apart from them, though; Elixir-free. Distanced like that, she could sense that somehow their happiness lacked vigour and substance; like the ubiquitous smiles, it was so artificial, so insincere.
A world without evil, they predicted. She could have believed it – Jesus, she did believe it! – until the incident with the old man. It was a nasty, trivial, little incident, really, when compared with the magnitude of good that was being done elsewhere in the world, nations working in concert to cure the sick and feed the hungry. But it marked a turning-point for her, a personal watershed. The brutal actions of the security men had convinced her that evil still lurked in men’s minds. It hadn’t been banished at all, merely suppressed. A great reservoir of evil had been created, held quietly under control, ready to be channelled.
Her cheeks were hot now. She felt nauseous. She gripped the edge of the sink. She had to be unwavering. There was a conspiracy! The old man had known about them: the mind controllers. The drug was the key to their control; the system their monitor; the network their propagandist; the security squads their means of enforcement.
Above the grinding of the disposal unit, she heard the familiar, piercing bleep of the viewphone. Her hand jerked up and switched off the machine. She stood there for some moments, her heart pounding, and then hurried into the dayroom. A bronzed, muscular man – one of the network’s many look-alike soap idols – dominated the viewscreen. His words were murmured, almost inaudible. She sat down at the console, facing the soap hero. She tried to compose herself, to regulate her breathing. The red light on the console flashed impatiently. The bleeps seemed to grow more strident. She drew in a deep breath and touched the volume control key and then the key marked VISUAL RECEIVE.
The soap hero vanished instantly, replaced by the head and shoulders of a young woman. Blonde-haired, blue-eyed, the face tanned and healthy like that of her predecessor on the screen. Full red lips. And that smile; that sickly-sweet, insincere smile.
‘Mary Virgo?’ the caller asked. The voice was also sweet and bubbly.
‘Yes,’ said Mary airily, smiling brightly. ‘Can I help you?’
‘Hi. I’m Jenny from the Statistical Records Centre. I logged a message to you several days ago requesting an interview for the Annual Census.’
‘Yes, I remember.’ Mary smiled again. Her armpits felt wet and sticky. Her hands were shaking. She kept them hidden below the console. The message was stored in her mail file. Its title had flashed across the console screen every morning like an accusing finger.
‘Oh, good,’ Jenny gushed. ‘Would it be convenient if I conducted the interview right now?’
‘Yes, of course.’ Mary’s grin was more strained now.
‘That’s excellent,’ Jenny bubbled. ‘Now, please watch your console screen. I’m transmitting the personal data we hold for you. Please check this data, make amendments where required and then activate the SEND key.’ The words were spoken quickly, parrot-fashion.
Mary looked down. It was all there in neat, luminescent letters. Her name, Identity Number, date of birth, sex, colour, creed, residence, occupation. The profile of a lonely spinster, living in seclusion, dependent on the credits she had saved over the years, supplementing those credits with occasional work at home. Her consumption patterns had to fit that profile.
She pressed the SEND key.
Jenny responded immediately.
‘Thank you, Mary,’ she said. ‘Now, a few more questions, if you please.’
Mary smiled up at the viewscreen.
‘Do any other persons reside with you at this time?’
‘That’s it, Mary. Now, please enter your signature code.’
Mary did as requested. Jenny signed off with a final, sickly smile. The soap hero appeared again, this time with his arms around a tanned, svelte young woman, who looked remarkably like Jenny.
She sat back now and tried to massage away the tension in her neck. Her head swam with the effort of talking to Jenny, and blood still pounded in her ears. But it felt good to be off her feet at last, to rest for a while. She would erase Jenny’s message before she left the console. Another task completed. The system squared again. It still didn’t know about, Joe.
She smiled inwardly, a real smile. Joe had come to her one cold, miserable day last winter. He was a big, shaggy, shuffling man with strange, hypnotic eyes. He said he was an itinerant joiner needing shelter for the night. Somehow, he had known that she was uncontaminated like him. A doctor originally, he had recognised the conspiracy early on, even before the War began. Like her, he had struggled to avoid the drug and to escape detection. Some force – magical, mystical: she neither knew nor questioned – had brought them together. She loved Joe for his strange, eccentric antics and for the warmth and succour that his body provided. He was away now in search of others like them – ‘the untouched’, he called them – but he would be back in time for the delivery. He had promised.
Thinking of Joe, she felt more relaxed, more at peace. She placed her hands lovingly on the swelling of her belly. The birth would not be for a few weeks yet. The baby – their baby – would be kept from the system. She was certain of a son. He would come into the world with a mind that was fresh and free and pure. An immaculate. They would teach him to go out and spread the word, to warn others of the conspiracy. Born of Mary, the Virgin, and Joseph, the carpenter, he would be the new Messiah, the new Jesus. The world waited for the salvation he would bring.
She smiled serenely. Her eyes glinted green, reflecting the glow from the empty console screen.
– o –