Unfamiliar strings of sinew are lodged between her teeth and Beth pokes absently at them, eager to dispel the odd sensation, but reluctant to lose the sweet tang of spareribs. Perhaps, the last meal she will ever have, best make it last!
They had all hugged after dinner, her mother and father like conjoined twins, hovering at each other’s side, lending each other support as they alternately faltered in their attempts at bravado. Grandpa Will and Grandma Eve are effusive, but bland. It is as if they have already seen too much, know too much, just get it over with, no sense fussing, wisdom perhaps?
Now, there is only herself and her demons, writhing in the cocoon of the sleep pod, staring at the dull light above her. Her lips form words, sentences, phrasing and then discard them. The scales of her mind weigh the options, sorting them into potential winners and losers, until the weight of loss tips winners into losers, and they meld together into the morass now pounding at her temple.
Her slender fingers push at her temples, steadying the rhythm, her Medibadge pulses obligingly in time to remind her she should calm down. She wonders how Jack is getting on. Is he there yet? With the Dark-Earthers? Have they already disabled his MediBadge?
“Ping.” Beth’s Comms- chip alerts her to the 23:00 hourly update of submission statistics. 80%. Good old Pareto principle, Beth scoffs to herself. REMINDER: YOU MUST SUBMIT BY 23:59 TONIGHT, the Comms-chip demands.
“Ping.” Again. Rapid-fire, a voice shouts in her conscience. “REMINDER, A VIRUS IS ACTIVE. DO NOT TAP ON ANY SUSPICIOUS MESSAGES. REPORT ALL SUSPICIOUS COMMUNICATIONS TO NUN.”
Beth checks her Comms device for other messages. She has set it to divert all messages from unknown sources to “Delay for later inspection”. She has no intention of opening any of them, careful to ensure she, and her family, cannot be implicated in the Dark Earth actions when Jack’s absence is noted. Today’s count of new messages in her Delay Folder is over 200, yesterday it was 100, will it be enough to transform the hesitant to defiant? She has checked her logic over and over. If more than 10% accept the emails, believe the transmissions, and do not submit, the algorithm will not be activated.
“Ping.” “REMINDER, YOU HAVE NOT SUBMITTED. IF YOU DO NOT SUBMIT YOU ARE CHOOSING TO BE TERMINATED.”
Beth stares at words tattooed in glowing caps across her left forearm. A voice message was apparently no longer enough – the emergency broadcast system was being used. You’re joking! No more softly, softly. Clearly, time to bring in the grim reaper. No more we’re all in this together. Now apparently, do it or die!
“CHOOSING TO BE TERMINATED” slowly fades as Beth stares. Her pale skin is flushed and her pulse leaps in a thin blue slither across the tendon at her left wrist. “SUBMIT NOW” glows anew across her forearm.
Beth leaps from the sleep pod and slams her palm to her thigh. The hourly pings had lodged insidiously in her conscience, but this was another level. She can no longer look at her arm, frightened of its demands; a whining gnat sucking at her sanity She knows the Comms-chip will pulse and flash in a spiraling crescendo until she does as it demands.
She pulls a thick jumper down over her arm, dulling any potential display, but still, it pulses. Her right hand clutches at her wrist, her head lowers, and her body curls into a tight ball, anything to smother its call. “Just shut up,” Beth whimpers into her chest, knowing the futility of her actions as the pulse at her wrist reverberates through her ribcage against her heart.
She can feel the machine pulse, entwining in her aorta, sucking oxygen from the air as she tries to still her rising fear with ragged breaths. Small blue tentacles at her wrists swell as they too fight the rising tide of panic, desperate for oxygen.
“Stop it Beth!” she gasps, thrusting her arms outwards and leaping to her feet. Control yourself. You are not one of them. A sheep to be herded to the required response. You are smart. You know there is an option. You do not have to obey. This has to end.
Her feet pace the floor, as she forces herself to breathe evenly, steadily in time. One, two, three, In. One, two, three, out. One, and two, and three, and in. One, and two, and three, and out. One, and two, and three, and four, and in. One, and two, and three, and four and out. She can feel the gentle chill of cool air as it enters her nostrils and soft warmth above her lip as it leaves her body.
She is ready.
Beth activates the thought transmission button and logs in using the secure code she was provided with for ChooseLife.
An artificial voice reads the rules to her in a warm accommodating tone.
- “All citizens must submit a statement of 100 words or less indicating how their continued existence will assist the Earth and its inhabitants to www.ChooseLife.gov.nun by 31 December 2120.
- Citizens under the age of 10 or deemed persona non compos mentis must be considered within the submission of their primary carer.
- Any citizen who does not submit will have their MediBadge incapacitated on 01 January 2121.
- Our AI program (ChooseLife) has undertaken comprehensive data analysis of the 10,000 years of documented human existence and determined key actions which will enhance humanity. The program has been rigorously tested and has an efficacy of 99.9 %.
- Citizens must make positive actions evidencing their commitment to their statement by 30 June 2121. Those citizens failing to adhere to their statement will have their health chip incapacitated in the Mid Year Census. (“MYC”)
To begin your submission, simply tap on your Comms-chip. When you are complete, your submission will be read back to you, and you will have an opportunity to correct your submission. If you are ready to begin, tap twice on your Comms-chip now. If you would like to exit your submission, tap once. A reminder all submissions are due by 23:59 on 31 December 2020. Are you ready to proceed?”
There is only one thing she can say. One thing that is not capable of interpretation. Beth clears her throat, speaking in a clear strong voice.
“I choose life for all. I do not submit. I will ensure this decree cannot be actioned.”
Her fingers are steady as she taps at her Comms-chip twice and then listens as the AI repeats her words back to her, a sentence now devoid of any emotion.
Beth taps her wrist again, accepting her submission, and collapses to her sleeping pod exhausted and empty. She had expected to feel elated by her first revolutionary steps, but instead, she lay pale and insipid, her voice reduced to the soundbites of words recorded for the purpose of teaching children to read.
Unbidden, Vlad’s hollow laugh returns to her “And why would they not just turn them off anyway? The outcome is already determined. The submission is a ruse. The program has already determined who the ten percent are.”
“We’re going to bed now love.” It is her father, her mother no- doubt cocooned at his side. “Have you done it?” his voice wavers, unsure what or how he should end this evening, but knowing he must.
“Yes. It’s all up to the program now. We’ll all know tomorrow. Nothing more we can do.” Beth calls back, her voice dull. “I’m wiped out by all this, see you in the morning,” she adds, eager to discourage her mother’s soft feet as they shuffle outside her pod.
“Good night love. It will all be alright, I’m sure,” her mother cheers, as much for herself as anyone else within hearing.
0600 Hours”. 1 January 2021
Beth scrubs at her eyes as her wrist pings and buzzes. She must have slept. Doesn’t seem possible. She can only remember fragments of dreams; tall swaying grass, Tran’s copper-brown gaze, Jack’s hunched shoulders, rancid fur in dark tunnels, Mum’s dewy eyes, Dad’s furrowed brow, the Grans; all plaited into a pulsating ouroborus.
Her attention is demanded, and the import of morning descends into her consciousness. Not looking will not change the outcome. She breathes deeply. In, one, two, three, out, one, two, three, stands and stretches, before sitting again. It was important to ensure her brain has an adequate supply of oxygen to understand.. or .. procrastinate. Whatever! Just find out!
Beth taps, and an authoritative male voice begins. “91% of the citizenry completed their submissions. In accordance with NUN Decree 2120/50, the 9% of the citizenry who did not submit, will have their MediBadge incapacitated. A further 1% of the population has been chosen by the AI program for incapacitation. Life will be extinguished within seven days for incapacitated citizens. All citizens will be advised of their status by 06:05 Hours direct to your Comms-chip. Incapacitation will begin at 06:15 Hours. The NUN would like to take this opportunity to thank citizens for their cooperation in ensuring the continued existence of the Earth and its inhabitants. We offer our sincerest condolences to those who have been incapacitated or who have loved ones incapacitated. Your sacrifice will always be remembered and honoured. A memorial will be dedicated on 08 July 2021, to commemorate and allow others to express their appreciation for your service to Earth. Free, confidential counselling is available at all times to assist you with your experience.”
It was done. Her plan had failed. Only 9% had not lodged. Sheep, herded to a pen, hoping they would not be held aloft – a sacrificial lamb so others may feast. Fat tears of shame well at her lashes and roll across her cheeks. She wipes at them with the heels of her palms as her wrist pings anew.
06:05. Has her dissent marked her for incapacitation? She draws a deep breath in and out. Her lungs shudder and her tears still.
Beth taps at her wrist. She is ready. An elderly woman’s voice fills her ears. “Congratulations. Your submission has been accepted. During the period since proclamation of the decree, the NUN has also monitored the activities of its citizens, to consider appropriate replacements for outgoing members of the NUN. It has come to our attention, that you have an in-depth knowledge of the Black Market and Dark Earth. This is valued by the NUN. You have been appointed a member of the NUN, effective immediately. You will receive access details by secure comms at 06:10 hours to allow you to access NUN and begin your induction.”
Outside her sleep pod, Beth can hear her grandmother’s thin voice wailing. “No, no, no. They can’t.”
Grandpa Will’s rough cry fills the corridor, followed by thundering steps as her parents run towards them.
“No!” her mother shrieks.
“Oh, Eve, I am so sorry,” her father’s voice is soft, muffled by the circle of his strong arms, that now attempt to hold their family tight.
Beth stares at her wrist. Membership of the NUN is anonymous and cannot be declined. It is one of the ten immutable principles of NUN governance, compulsory democratisation.
“Beth! Jack!” Her mother shrieks, suddenly alert to the enormity of the new normal.
“Mum,” Beth replies quickly as the screen to her sleep pod dissolves, and she steps into the corridor. Her father’s arms are tight about the family, careful to ensure no errant string splits and shakes itself loose from the familial twine. “What’s happened?”
“It’s your great-grandmother,” Dad replies.
“It’s all my fault,” Grandma Eve sobs. “I did it wrong, I should have saved her, it was my responsibility.”
“Don’t blame yourself, Evie. It’s like Beth said. We just don’t know how or why they chose. It’s nobody’s fault. It’s just life. Not fair!” Grandpa Will soothes, his eyes begging Beth for confirmation, as he strokes his wife’s soft white curls.
“He’s right,” Beth mutters, her hand rubbing Eve gently on the shoulders. “We don’t know. Only the NUN knows.”
Eve’s soft protestations are drowned by hiccupping sobs, as Jen holds her mother tight, her voice slowly reassuring in soothing, measured words. “It’s not your fault. We will all go … together, later today, to the care home to say goodbye. We can visit every day until it’s time.” Beth lets her hand fall from her grandmother to gently tug at her father’s sleeve. Her mother has not noticed Jack’s absence yet. Beth has to tell them.
Dad looks up following Beth’s eyes as she motions towards Jack’s room with a twitch. He nods slowly, pats his wife gently on the shoulder, and follows Beth towards Jack’s room.
Beth opens her mouth, but her father raises his hand. “Don’t tell me too much Beth. I think that is best. Is he safe?”
“Can you reach him, if you wanted to?”
She nods again.
“Good. Then all your mother needs to know, for now, is that he is safe, and hanging out with mates after too big a night. OK?”
Beth’s eyes register surprise and reluctance.
Her father reaches up, his hands sliding through his hair, and resting at his temples. He draws a deep breath and looks sharply into Beth’s grey eyes.
“Sometimes Beth, we have to make hard choices, and we just have to keep sight of the end goal. How we get there can be a very winding and unexpected journey. Right now, we have to hold it together for them.” His head motions down the hall towards the tight ball of this family as his hands lower to Beth’s shoulders.
“Oh Dad, we have to tell her. She’ll want to see him, to know.”
“Not now, and when she does, I’ll figure it out.”
“Figure it out! What about honesty, doing the right thing! All that stuff you hammered into us!”
“Beth, I know it’s difficult to understand now. You’re young, but as you get older you are going to learn that truth is slippery, often we choose a version of the truth, that is palatable – that doesn’t catch in our throat and choke us,” he sighs, his hands pulling Beth into a rough embrace.
“Beth, I think we all need a warm drink. Wake Jack will you and come through,” her mother beckons to them as she turns her parents towards the shared living space.
“Just give me five minutes, then you follow,” Dad whispers as he releases her. Beth turns her back, mocking a slow walk down the hall, and then turns to see Dad mutter in Mum’s ear. Jen stares at him, her face taken back then shakes her head and smiles.
“Here Beth. I’m glad YOU were here. Seems nothing will change your brother. I’m sure he’ll turn up when he’s done celebrating. As longs as he’s safe!” Beth’s mother passes her a steaming mug, and she cradles it in her hands, remembering another time, in another place where she needed to gulp to dislodge dry lumps lodged firmly in her throat.
Beth checks her wrist, tapping softly. A soft voice slips into her conscience as she swills liquid from side to side. “The terminal in your workpod has been updated to allow NUN access, you must access this device within seven days to commence your induction. Failure to do so will result in incapacitation of your MediBadge.”