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Authors: Charles Kennedy Scott

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BOOK: Bang
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‘What we got here, then? She got a Life on her? ’Ave
it!’

A circle of feet approached Delilah through her doze,
their legs frighteningly giant from where she lay. Her fearful eyes followed up
these bodies. At their peaks: orange heads. Orange eyes. These, then, they were
orange users.

‘This piece ain’t got no Life – why else you think
she’s out here? She lost it, din’t she. Can’t get in her housing unit, without
her Life. Now she’s here, roughing it.’ He turned to Delilah. ’Fancy a party,
darling?’

Delilah said nothing. Once she might have called an
officer, on her Life, sought help. But not now. Not anymore.

‘Firsty?’ asked one.

‘What?’ asked Delilah.

‘Firsty?’ said another, cracking open a pouch.

‘Water?’ asked Delilah, with suspicion, with great
desire.

‘Sure, my pretty. Of course it is.’

‘Not laced?’ checked Delilah. ‘With
orange
?’

‘Here, drink.’ Her tongue would take the risk, she thought.
She drank. And once she started …

A shape came forward, dark, and a contact of white
light.

I’m not having much luck today, thought Delilah, going
dizzy. The air unit dully echoed then gurgled when her head hit it. She
wondered why she hadn’t taken out Life insurance, wished she had, then she
passed out with the banging of a tooth.

She came round and the men lay asleep around her.
Tired, strange feeling, she got up. One of the men had glued a flowing blond
moustache under his nose, made, she rapidly deduced, from chunks cut from her
once-long mane. When she walked through the men, they snored happily, and even
opened their eyes to smile at her. Two held hands. One blew a friendly kiss and
touched his Life to his chin – a common solicitation to share contact
details. But quickly he slapped his forehead remembering Delilah had no Life.
Then smacked his head hard against the floor. Get out of here, go now, she
urged herself. Lightup was an hour away, the sweepers would come through soon,
with their violent tidying.

Risking the fast lane, she pulled her clothes straight
as she sped. How she’d get cleaned up she didn’t know, public amenities were
no-go when you had no Life from which to deduct a credit to open their doors.
The swift air knocked blood flecks from her eyelashes, from her remaining hair.
She groomed herself as best she could, noticing with sudden shock that on one
hand a fingernail had been replaced with what looked like, from its pinkness, a
section of prawn shell. She tried to pick it off with her tooth but this was
the banged tooth that was badly cracked and she winced hugely. She chose
another tooth but the shell was glued on tight.

‘You! Violation. Pull over. Pull over now. Violation!

Delilah swore under her breath. And stepped backwards,
and then again, and off the slow lane, and to a halt.

‘I’m going to have to check your Life, madam. Hand
over your Life for instant licence verification. Make it snappy if you don’t
mind. I am on my way to work and abhor lateness. Come on, what are you waiting
for! There is no slack in the law for prevarication.’

‘But I no longer have my Life,’ said Delilah.

‘You were in the fast lane, madam. Are you trying to
tell me you were travelling in the fast lane without the relevant licence?’

‘I have the relevant licence – in my Life. But
you know I haven’t got my Life any more.’

‘I know nothing of the sort, little lady,’ answered
Officer JJ Jeffrey.

‘I reported it missing to you.’

‘Me? I’ve never seen you before in my life, you tart.
Now give me your Life for instant licence verification.’

‘Officer, are you serious?’

‘Don’t I look serious! Does my stern nose not tell you
how serious I am?’

‘You have kind eyes,’ said Delilah, looking for a way
out.

‘They are not my eyes, you stupid girl. Last chance:
your Life.’

‘It was stolen yesterday by a man with a tan.’

‘Stolen yesterday? A man with a tan? Do you think I
was born this morning? Tans are illegal. No, this will not do.’

‘And without it I slept rough. I was drugged, I think,
and I fell and broke my tooth. My hair was cut and made into moustaches and I
had a prawn shell glued to my fingernail. How worse did not happen I do not
know. I am lucky to be here.’

‘No you are not. Nor is there any evidence of such
injuries,’ said the officer. ‘You have simply applied your makeup badly. You
like the idea, do you, of the System?’

‘No, sir. Not at all,’ and Delilah held up her
prawn-fingernail finger.

‘Do not gesticulate at an officer! It now looks and
sounds to me like you’re very keen on the System. Yes it does. After all, I ask
myself, why otherwise would you be in such flagrant violation of so many rules?
No, there is no doubt in my mind.’

‘I am innocent.’

‘Correction, you are debauched.’

‘Please not the System.’

‘Yes, and you’ll come along now. Your troubles are
only just beginning, believe me. You don’t know what’s in store for you. No, ha
ha, you most certainly don’t.’ JJ Jeffrey clapped his hands and with a shiny
boot kicked Delilah in her backside. ‘Move, criminal!’ he screamed, and shoved
her onto the slow lane. ‘You know where we’re going.’

But Delilah shook her head. Denial was all she had.
And it wasn’t much.

The Authority topped the
three-hundred-and-thirty-three-storey-deep building. It was said you could feel
the warmth of the Earth’s core down there at its bottom. But if you did you
probably weren’t coming back up, and wouldn’t see lightup again. The System
itself began at the hundredth floor and went all the way down to
three-hundred-and-thirty-three. Delilah plummeted directly to hundred-and-one and
got kicked into a holding chamber. There was no light, only the scuttle and
scrabble of odd sound. Plus the laugh of an unseen and unseeable other. JJ
Jeffrey attached Delilah’s hands to the sensor braces in the wall behind her
and placed a mask over her face.

The officer left Delilah now and went off for a very
long breakfast. He ate well, of course, being a System officer. He was an
ardent worker, and admired by colleagues. He’d brought in a filthy youngun on
the way to work. This would be a good day, he could feel it. With Delilah he
could now deliver the public disinformation bulletin that upstairs had been
badgering him for for so long. But not before he’d put her through the
System – or at least given her a taste of it. A taste was the absolute
minimum she ought to expect. Really she should expect a great deal more.

‘Good morning, JJ,’ said JJ’s superior. ‘Word has it
you have a reprobate on the Panic Unit. Splendid. You intend to do the bulletin
with her, is this right? That should get the Center off upstairs’ backs. I
assume you’ve checked: no relatives.’

‘No one, sir.’

‘Nobody we can sue if she doesn’t cooperate?’

‘Not a soul.’

‘Do not use that kind of language! Now give me that
egg, yes, the one on your plate. I have not had an egg for seven years.’

‘I’d rather not, sir,’ said JJ.

‘Give me the egg, damn you. I haven’t liked you, you
know, not since you lost your eyes. You lost your personality when you lost
those eyes. You used to have a twinkle. Give me the egg. Or I will break you. I
will snap you. The egg!’

‘No,’ screamed JJ.

‘This instant, It is the yellowiest egg I’ve ever
seen. I want it!’

‘It’s
mine
.’

‘If I can’t have it, no one can!’ The superior lifted
the table and threw it at JJ Jeffrey. Then stormed off, late for other work he
was responsible for. JJ furious also, with egg on his face, took the lift (a
complicated matter in itself) down to 101.

Through Delilah’s mask came oxygen, in varying
degrees. Clamped on her face was a System Panic Mask. She panicked, and her panic
turned the air cold and restricted its flow, worsening her panic. Calmness
heated the air, made it extra abundant, and all the attendant dangers this
brought, including panic, which would take her right back. Delilah discovered,
after much disturbing, and involuntary, experimentation that only with
controlled
panic, could she get the air just right. Then, just when you thought you were
doing well, the air would heat up, become too rich, because you were getting
too calm. Then panic. Panic would come back, cold, with restrictive air. Until
Delilah had learned to control her
controlled
panic. It was horrid. Who
invented such device? And if this was only floor 101 … The sweet spot, she
found, was sweet panic – where you felt queasy almost with terror and almost
with joy. The System understood such boundaries. Of the human system. The
System wanted Delilah in a panic. A controlled panic. That was the System. And
this was a very small lesson for Delilah. One she knew she’d need to learn, if
she were to survive the System. Today wasn’t going very well either, she
thought. Then she began to panic again, and to lose its control.

Some considerable time later, his breakfast clean out
of his mind though not off his chin, JJ Jeffrey came in and unshackled the
other prisoner who’d been laughing. JJ Jeffery circled the room ten times then
left clapping his hands. The prisoner’s breath approached, and then the
prisoner himself. Delilah could not see him, only feel him. The prisoner
prodded Delilah with what she could only imagine to be two handless stumps of
arm, their radius and ulna split like grotesque V-signs. A bell rang and the
door again opened. A man whose presence Delilah did not this time recognise
came in and made a cracking sound and led the prisoner away – the prisoner
now laughing all the louder. Delilah realised that recognising one presence
from another was a small part of the terror of incarceration by the Authority.
She started crying. As she began to cry, and then wail, she took deeper and
deeper inhalations of oxygen, and this in turn made the air hotter and then she
panicked and that turned it colder, all her controlled panic lost now, and the
air reached a very low temperature, and she began to feel a deep unbearable
chill. She knew, of course, that this was it, her end, twenty-four hours after
she’d lost her Life. This was how it went. She’d heard such stories but never
believed them. You didn’t with disinformation. Now she welcomed her finish, and
gave up hope as the System set about freezing her from the inside out, her
bronchia soon to resemble a frosted tree she’d never again see an image of. Nor
would she spend that day in the rich suburbs with their ten-lane moving floors
and spectacular fake blue skies, places she’d only ever heard about but longed
to visit. She had never been so cold. Her teeth chattered and chipped away
uncontrollably at the broken incisor and tore at the web under her tongue.

The threat of the System was omnipresent: if one did
not obey all set out by the Authority one would fall foul of the Authority and
be subjected to the System. No consultable guidelines existed on what was or
was not foul of the Authority. It was written nowhere that tans were illegal,
but everyone knew, everyone had heard, and ignorance was no defence. Nascent
law passed by word of mouth from the Authority ten miles away, through the more
zealous of officials, to the Center of Disinformation, a place of great gossip.
Once there, it was idly, and sometimes inaccurately, disseminated. This
maintained a sufficient ambiguity vital for officers such as Officer JJ Jeffrey
to carry out duties and exercise good judgement, just as law enforcement
officers and operatives had for many years.

Then a voice. ‘Come with me, prisoner. I bet you
regret your transgressions now, don’t you.’

Plunged next into a hot bath Delilah still had no
doubt of her approaching demise, merely that it approached now more slowly and
more horribly.

‘Wash behind your ears,’ said Officer JJ Jeffery,
standing over her, an apron of a fat lady over his inside-out uniform, and
wearing glasses that clouded his vision so that he did not have to look at
Delilah’s nakedness. ‘Give me that brush. I will do your back. Give it to me, I
say. I bet you did not think you would be in such a luxurious bath when you
climbed out of your fluffy bed this morning! I can tell you are very taken
aback by the generosity the System has to offer. All this water! Isn’t it a
shame that you cannot drink it.’ JJ Jeffrey poured in more and more bright
liquid. Delilah had had no water for twenty-four hours and she’d straightaway
drunk some when she got in this bath. It was normal for the Authority when
using hot baths in the System to lace the water with emetic drugs. ‘Come on my
dear, that’s right wash your hair. No, let me do it. And then I will cut it.
You are not the only hairdresser round here.’ The officer leant over and
lathered mush into Delilah’s hair then he shaped it. With some electric
scissors he cut it into a new style. When he had done this, quite forgetting
that a moment ago he’d been scrubbing her back with a harsh brush, he pushed
Delilah with a hand on her head under the water. When she came up, rather
struggling for breath, her first sight was a yellow plastic duck bobbing in the
water under her nose. ‘What do you think of that?’ asked JJ Jeffrey, ‘It is a
lovely duck, don’t you think?’ Delilah, who had never been so cold inside
compared to so hot outside, shivered both from her deeply chilled lungs and her
overheated skin, which vibrated the duck wildly and made it go round in
circles.

BOOK: Bang
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