Read The Living Online

Authors: Anna Starobinets

The Living

The Living

Anna Starobinets

Translated by James Rann

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There is no death.

Document No. 1 (leaseholder’s private entry)

September 439 Anno Viventis
First day of the waning moon

…The doctor who did my analysis was not too worried at first. He just said that the connection can malfunction, so he’d have to do everything again, sorry that I’m making you wait. He froze, not blinking, looking past me, through me. His pupils were narrowing and widening spasmodically, in a sort of jerky rhythm. Then, once the rhythm was established, he shut his eyes for some reason. As if he couldn’t hold three layers… but that never happens with medics… So, he must have gone deeper; but why? The office smelled strongly of sweat, and I held my breath. I noticed that his eyelids, his forehead and his nostrils had a wet sheen. I thought: something’s wrong with him, this doctor, it’s him that’s malfunctioning, the connection’s working fine… When he opened his eyes again his face looked as if he had just seen the incode of the Butcher’s Son, or maybe not just the incode, but the Son himself, with his weary workman’s smile and his foul-smelling axe, covered in blood, just like in The Eternal Murderer.

‘I need to perform the procedure again,’ he said, and I noticed that his hands were shaking.

‘For a third time?’

He did not say anything in reply, just detached one sensor from my stomach and attached another identical one.

For about a minute we sat in silence: me in that huge cold chair and him opposite me. I thought, if there, inside me, there is someone from the Blacklist, some maniac like the Butcher’s Son or Rotten Rick, then I won’t get to see him, I won’t see him even once, and they’ll keep him in a House of Correction,
in solitary, and they’ll feed him three times a day and not say a word to him, they won’t say a word to him until the day he dies, and he’ll never know what for. I thought about how hypocritical it was to call them Houses of Correction. No one has ever tried to correct anything there. They just keep them there. Stuffed and silent…

Then the sensor squeaked, and the doctor read off the result again; everything seemed to suggest that it was exactly the same as before.

I asked, ‘Is there something wrong?’

He said nothing.

‘Is there something wrong with my baby?’

He got up and paced around the office. ‘His father…’ The doctor’s voice rattled like a beer can skittering along the road. ‘Do you know him?’

‘No. It’s a festival baby.’

‘Get dressed,’ he looked past me, ‘and wait out there in the corridor. I’ve called the SPO.’

‘Is he abnormal?’

‘What, sorry?’

‘The baby. My Darling. Is my Darling on the Blacklist?’

‘Ah… no…’ He finally looked at me, but the way he looked was somehow strange, as if from afar, as if through binoculars, as if I were hovering somewhere on the horizon, as if I were in
socio
and not there in front of him. ‘No. Your Darling is not on the Blacklist.’

‘Then why the SPO? What have I done? What is the nature of my violation?’

‘I’m not authorized to say,’ he said absent-mindedly and at that moment stopped noticing me. He was clearly occupied by some other conversation in a deep layer.

The SPO officer did not hurry. He appeared after about forty minutes, and I spent all of those forty minutes in the corridor, watching the females going through various office
doors, all stressed, irritated, accustomed to the terror of the discovery that awaited them, trying to prepare themselves for the worst, but all the same stubbornly clinging on to the best. Hope. Hope glowed on them like radioactivity. Waves of toxic hope flooded the corridor. Please let it be sorted. Please not now. Please let me be empty.

They are different when they come out of the offices. The empties move with the smooth and swift gait of dancers, as if they have become slimmer, as if they have been made lighter by the emptiness swirling round inside them. The others step heavily, as if they have put on weight instantaneously. Their gaze is turned inward; oh, that well-known humble gaze, that evaluates, that tries to examine and understand the useless little thing growing inside them. Humility, responsibility, duty – that’s what their psychotherapists will say to them tomorrow. Humility to Nature. Responsibility to your Darling. And Duty to the Living. Yes, it’s hard. These three elements of harmony will cause you some difficulties. But you will find consolation in the other three. Pleasure, stability and immortality. And now let’s all stand in a circle, take each other by the hand – anyone who wants to can put on contact gloves – and repeat together: ‘The Harmony of the Living is formed of six
components
: humility, duty, responsibility, pleasure, stability and immortality.’ And all together now: ‘The Harmony of the Living depends on me personally.’

My psychotherapist reckons that tactile contact and group repetition is absolutely perfect training. Painful, but helpful. He says that dancing in a circle and singing in a choir is a sort of model. In the circle you understand way more clearly than in
socio
that you are part of the Living… In the circle you feel more protected. In the circle you’re not even afraid of the Five Seconds of Darkness.

‘…No death!’ the planetman slumped heavily into the empty chair next to me and placed a square black briefcase by the
legs; the mirrored mask stuck to his face was a little bit murky and covered in blotches. ‘It’s hot today…’

‘What is the nature of my violation?’

‘There was none.’

‘Then why do you want to interrogate me?’

‘It’s my job.’ The planetman looked at me intently and, as far as one could tell by the expression on his mask, squeamishly. ‘Please, put this on.’

He held out another mirrored mask, which was also less than spotless.

‘Is using a “chatterbox” compulsory?’

‘The conversation device is compulsory.’ He shook the proffered mask impatiently. ‘Put it on. It’s completely sterile on the inside. Like that, thank you, Hanna… It’s just a conversation. Nothing like an interrogation…’

The mask was cold. Cold and sticky, like the touch of some deep-sea creature.

‘Now I am going to connect your mask to the conversation device… Mm-hm… and mine too… There we go. It’s just so our conversation will be recorded, that’s all.’

Beneath the mask his voice suddenly changed horribly, turning into a sort of monotonous buzzing.

‘On completion of our conversation you will receive a copy of the transcript. The conversation device cannot cause any harm either to you or your…er…er… foetus. It is made of ecologically sound…’

‘What is the nature of my violation?’ I also buzzed like a defective electric doorbell.

‘There was none.’

‘I don’t understand what’s going on.’

‘Me neither,’ he smiled with his mirror mouth. ‘I don’t understand either. That’s why you are required to tell us everything relating to your…er…er… foetus in as much detail as possible.’

‘It’s a festival baby.’

‘I said in detail…’

Would you like to suspend session with document No. 1?

Yes
no

Document session suspended

Move to new document or terminate session with this box?

Moving to document No. 3 …

Document No. 3
(Transcript of conversation between leaseholder and SPO officer, dated 10.09.439 A.V.)

SPO officer:
You are required to tell us everything relating to your foetus in as much detail as possible.

Interlocutor 3678:
It’s a festival baby.

SPO officer:
I said in detail.

Interlocutor 3678:
Today, on the first day of the waning moon, I appeared at Medical Centre No. 1015 in relation to the law on monthly population control. The doctors established that I was pregnant…

SPO officer:
Had you previously attended the Centre regularly?

Interlocutor
3678:
Yes, of course. I come here every month.

SPO officer:
Have the doctors at the Centre ever established that you were pregnant before?

Interlocutor 3678:
No. This is the first time it’s happened.

SPO officer:
Have you not had sexual contact before?

Interlocutor 3678:
I have.

SPO officer:
Did you have fertility problems?

Interlocutor 3678:
No.

SPO officer:
Then why is this your first pregnancy?

Interlocutor 3678:
I took precautions.

SPO officer:
That is forbidden.

Interlocutor 3678:
I have permission.

Interlocutor 3678 rummages through her handbag. The sensor shows rise in body temperature of 0.3˚, increase in pulse rate to 130 beats per second, pupil dilation to 6.3mm – 2.8mm over the norm for given lighting conditions.

Interlocutor 3678:
Here you go.

Interlocutor 3678 shows a document to the SPO officer: a permit for the use of contraceptives, issued on the basis of medical opinion confirming the Interlocutor’s marginally subnormal mental development.

SPO officer:
Tell me about the festival in more detail.

Interlocutor 3678:
The child was conceived at the regional Festival for Assisting Nature during the last new moon, as part of the population control programme, in accordance with the law about planned…

SPO officer:
Could you identify the father?

Interlocutor 3678:
Are you making fun of me?

SPO officer:
I am doing my job.

Interlocutor 3678:
How could I identify the father? I keep telling you: the baby was conceived at the festival, how could I know which of…

SPO officer:
How many partners did you have at the festival?

Interlocutor 3678:
Five… Seven… I don’t know.

SPO officer:
According to our data, the Reproduction Zone at the last Festival for Assisting Nature was visited by 1,352 men. We will bring them to you for identification. Will you be able to recognise your partners amongst them?

Interlocutor 3678:
I don’t know. I’m not sure… I am not obliged to do that. The law on the confidentiality of sexual relations isn’t going anywhere.

SPO officer:
Naturally, you are not obliged. It is only a request. A request from the Service for Planetary Order.

Interlocutor 3678:
I’ll grant your request, if you’ll explain to me what is going on.

SPO officer:
OK, I will try and explain it to you. At the Festival for Assisting Nature, in which you took part, the
existence
of 610 people was temporarily terminated in the Pause Zone. Simultaneously, in the Reproduction Zone, 611 people were conceived. Of these, 610 are the direct incarnation of those who had been in the Pause Zone – all the incodes match perfectly. And only one, your festival baby…

Interlocutor 3678:
Is that the reason you’ve frightened me so much? Fofs!
1
That’s just hilarious! It has been proven that for festival children only in ninety-five per cent of cases do the pausers undergo stable reproduction, and in the remaining five per cent the incodes can come from whoever. So what? You stuck this thing on me just to tell me that my Darling’s incode doesn’t match one of the pausers’? Well, so what? I really don’t care whose incode the kid has, smin,
2
the main thing is that it isn’t some criminal’s… He’s not a criminal, is he?

SPO officer:
I don’t know.

Interlocutor 3678:
Well I do know. The doctor said that my Darling is not on the Blacklist.

SPO officer:
That is correct. The incode of your foetus does not appear among the incodes on the Blacklist.

Interlocutor 3678:
Then what’s the problem?

SPO officer:
The problem is that the incode of your foetus… the incode of your Darling does not appear anywhere at all.

Interlocutor 3678:
I don’t understand. What do you mean by that?

SPO officer:
Exactly what I said. His incode does not have a counterpart code in any of the codes stored in the global database: not a single one in three billion. In essence, your future child does not have an incode at all. Instead of an incode both of the devices used for your intrauterine scan read ‘Void’.

Interlocutor 3678:
Void?

SPO officer:
Void. Zero. He has no in-history. Your Darling has had no previous lives.

Interlocutor 3678:
So then… but… how then… whose place has he taken? I mean, has one of the livings temporarily ceasing to exist not been reproduced? They’ve disappeared? Is that what’s happened?

SPO officer:
Far from it. No one has disappeared. Someone new has been added.

Interlocutor 3678:
That’s impossible! You’re an SPO officer – you should be ashamed of yourself! Are you in one of those sects or something? What is this heresy? For it is written: ‘The Number of the Living is unchanging, the Living is three billion livings, and neither by one shall this number be diminished, nor by one shall it be increased, for eternal rebirth…’

SPO officer:
Don’t get worked up, I’ve read the Book of Life too and learned the key passages off by heart. But a fact is a fact. The population of the Living has changed and is now three billion and one. And that ‘one’ is your Darling with his ‘void’ incode. I am afraid you have no idea how serious this is. So far no one does.

Interlocutor 3678:
He… my Darling could be a risk to the harmony of the Living?

SPO officer:
We can’t rule it out.

Interlocutor 3678:
Will they put him in a House of Correction? Why are you shaking your head? He’ll be… They won’t let him be born? Will I have to have an abortion?

SPO officer:
It’s not up to me to decide these things. Over the next seven days ‘the Zero problem’ will be examined at the very highest level. For the duration of this period you will remain in hospital under observation. You do not have the right to leave the confines of the ward until such time as a decision has been made by the Council of Eight. Tomorrow you will be sent the first 300 men who took part in the festival, for identification. Is that all clear?

Interlocutor 3678:
Yes.

SPO officer:
I have one last question. If you have permission to use contraceptives, why did you not take precautions at the festival?

Interlocutor 3678:
Because I wanted to conceive.

SPO officer:
What do you mean by that?

Interlocutor:
Exactly what I said. I wanted a child.

SPO officer:
Explain that.

Interlocutor 3678:
My medical certificate allows me to take precautions, but it does not absolve me of my duty to the
Living. I carried out my duty. Do you have a problem with any of that?

SPO officer:
Nothing of the kind. Your position deserves every respect… Thank you for the conversation.

(end of transcript)

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cerberus:
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‘Oh, come on, enough is enough, Ef, terminate. Let’s go and have a beer. This bloody bank is as stuffy as the Living’s
backside
. And this bloody mask will melt right here on my face if I’m not chugging on a cold one soon.’

Move
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‘Alright. You’ve talked me into it.’ Ef jabs sluggishly at ‘terminate’ with a bandaged hand. ‘Let’s go and have a beer.’

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