If the fully planned and conditioned world … comes into existence, Nature will be troubled no more by the restive species that rose in revolt against her so many millions of years ago, will be vexed no longer by its chatter of truth and mercy and beauty and happiness. Ferum victorem cepit: and if the eugenics are efficient enough there will be no second revolt, but all snug beneath the Conditioners, and the Conditioners beneath her, till the moon falls or the sun grows cold. – C. S. Lewis
Today I shall go out. I have cowered too long. I will emerge from my back-alley room to walk the streets, to breathe the frosty air, to browse the outdoor bookstall I have spied from my grime-encrusted window. Maybe I will even eat at a restaurant. Yes, I must. I am sick of the paltry meals the Firm leaves at my entry twice each week, which I quickly grab as I open and close the door. I am sick of the same food day after day: powdered milk, desiccated fruit, stale hard bread that I crack with my incisors, cold viands of meat embalmed in thick white grease. But worse than the food is the isolation. I have not spoken to a human being in months. There is risk, I know – much risk. But I have decided. Today I shall go out.
What is my background, you ask? I was born just before the end of the Directors’ War, in a cave not far from the Rocky Mountain Vault. Of the Old World I remember nothing, but of the post-war decade I remember much. I remember how the still-standing government buildings had been decontaminated and reoccupied; how the remaining scientists and intellectuals had been rounded up from the caves and valleys where they had sought refuge; how they had been locked up (my father among them) in re-education centers; and how they had emerged a year or two later as Conditioners, their minds firmly dedicated to the furtherance of the State.
I remember the small but still habitable worker’s cottage near the Vault in which my family had been placed by order of the Directors. I remember the smell of the ancient pine wall-boards that scarcely kept out the cold; the smoke from Mother’s kitchen stove, vented directly to the roof above; our paltry collection of plates and spoons, left over from the long-gone pre-war occupants of our home.
I remember my mother’s reminiscences of the Old World, (related to me when I was still very young, in the pre-surveillance age, when such memories could still be spoken). I was intrigued, in particular, by her tales of her parents and brother, who had fought with the anti-Directorship forces, and from whom she had become separated at age thirteen. She presumed they had been killed in battle, but was not sure. At any rate, she had heard nothing about them since early in the war.
About my father I remember mostly his never-ending devotion to his work. There was little joy when he came home from his job; he would stare for hours on end at a blank wall, lost in an unfathomable world of reverie. But I remember, also, my father’s wardrobe – dozens of clean blue suits, white shirts and blue ties, neatly arranged in the shack’s only closet. Even in that era of great want, the Directors ensured that their Conditioners were well-dressed. There was one exception, however: their shoes. The Conditioners all wore depressingly pale brown shoes, invariably a size or two too large, that gave them a clownish look despite their otherwise fine sartorial style.
My father was a mathematician and computer programmer who worked not directly from the Vault, but in one of the array of office-buildings on the downslope side of the mountain. In the Old World, it is said, these buildings had constituted a vast business complex, housing a large number of capitalistic firms. But in my youth, they were occupied by an army of Conditioners who I enjoyed observing as they scurried to and from work, their suits flapping in the wind, their sunbaked briefcases swaying at their sides.
The Conditioners’ office complex was not well maintained. I remember the weeds and junk trees that surrounded the perimeters of the buildings, and how one particularly intrusive tree had sent its roots directly under a sidewalk, creating a bulge just a few meters outside the office’s entrance. I remember one morning’s arrival crush, when one of the Conditioners, with his outsized shoes, tripped on this irregularity, plunging headlong onto the pavement before him, spilling the contents of his briefcase. I remember his panic in trying to retrieve the blowing pages; how he plunged after each sheet as if it contained the secret of life; how he grasped the sheets with both hands, and stuffed them, crumpled and dirty, back into the crevice of his briefcase. Most curious of all, however, was that the fallen Conditioner’s co-workers did not stop to help him; rather, they just walked around him, staring blankly ahead as they always did. Finally, the procession came to an end and the doors of the Center were locked with a metallic clank that could be heard throughout the neighborhood. For the rest of the day, until the Conditioners re-emerged to go home, the buildings remained completely silent, as barren and foreboding as they had been during the many years they had been unoccupied.
And yes, by the way, the Conditioners were all men – not a woman among them. The Directors, it seems, appreciated that men had for centuries been habituated and bred for war, gangs, cadet corps, and such; and were thus tractable to the call of a dictatorial collectivism in a way that women were not.
It is cold outside. I bundle myself in a dense, down-filled winter coat, a red yarn cap, and a thick woolen scarf with a curious plaid design of blue, brown and white – an artifact from the Old World that was bequeathed to me by my mother. I open the door of my apartment and step into the hall. I descend the stairs. So far so good. I brace myself at the front door, and with a charge of unfailing will, I open it. The frigid, fresh air embraces me.
I walk down the street and toward the bookstall that has so piqued my curiosity these past months. But I do not stop there – not yet. I keep walking, warily scanning the people I pass. Nothing out of the ordinary – yet. I see a restaurant and remember my vow to obtain a decent meal. The restaurant is not crowded. I step in.
The restaurant is a relic of the Old World – red brick walls with bulging slabs of mortar connecting the interstices; drab brown wooden booths with shiny, worn seating; dull fluorescent lights blinking irregularly overhead — and with a scent of stale grease pervading everything. But compared to the environment I just left, it is heaven.
I seat myself in the most obscure booth available and slowly remove my wraps. There are only a dozen or so customers scattered randomly around a few other booths and tables. None of the other patrons seems to be paying attention to me, although I remain in the line of sight of a brunette woman who evokes some murky memory in the depths of my mind. But since I can make no overt connection, I pay her no attention. Instead, I prepare to eat.
As a boy, I wondered with a child’s curiosity just what the Conditioners did inside their mysterious buildings, but, of course, I never dared to ask. Even then I understood that such questions would place me under suspicion, surveillance, and questioning that might have disastrous consequences for my family, struggling as it was amidst the ruin and scarcity of the post-war era. Even in the confines of one’s own home one would never ask such questions for one never knew if or when one’s words were being recorded. Indeed, it was wisest to assume that each spoken word was being heard, recorded and analyzed by some nameless, faceless agent, deep in the bowels of some building – perhaps even the Conditioners’ Center so nearby.
Consequently, in those days, verbal communication had virtually ceased as a means for expressing abstract, philosophical or political messages; it was reserved strictly for communicating the necessary physical actions of life – for eating, movement, or general household interactions. But inasmuch as the soul was still possessed of urgings to express deeper thoughts, different forms of communication had evolved – forms comprising of bodily gestures, glances, and most subtly of all, the language of the eyes. Indeed, there was a saying in those days, sometimes whispered in darkened corridors, sometimes beneath the waning moon – and only by the very, very brave: The voice belongs to the State, the eyes to Humanity.
The most important event of my youth was the day that the Directors criminalized love. On that day, the emotion which had sustained humanity from time immemorial was decreed to be illegal. Anyone expressing, whether verbally or by action or deed, anything that could be construed as an appearance of love was liable to immediate imprisonment in the vast incarceration system of the State (which had, in fact, been constructed in the Old World days of capitalism).
One of the first victims of the new law was my mother — my mother, who was the very picture of loving and caring devotion. There was no way she could hide her essence; in fact, she had probably been selected for her fate long before the promulgation of the law. My father and I dared not say anything, of course, though we spoke to each other eloquently with our eyes. And of course, I secretly cried myself to sleep for many months thereafter.
Of course, I now understand the purpose of the anti-love law. In order to achieve a race of automatons, it was first necessary to be rid of emotion of all sorts – and love was the most obvious and extreme place to start. But as it turned out, the Directors only had success in the immediate environs of their milieu – in their mountainside redoubts and other strongholds. There remained pockets of resistance in both remote rural areas, and in the cities. The rural holdouts did not concern the State, for in the long run they could be defeated one by one. The cities, however, were a greater problem: dissent was widespread, and emotional response, though well hidden, was common. Hence, the current push by the State to extend its control over the cities.
I examine the menu. To be sure, this will not be a connoisseur’s meal, but compared to what I am used to, the coming moments will be a delight. I emulate Thackeray and order roast beef with gravy and mashed potatoes, washed down with a carafe of cheap, but adequate, red wine.
I am obsessed with my meal and do not look up until I am completely finished. Then I glance in the direction of the brunette woman who is the only person in my line of sight. Am I imagining things, or is she flashing a message of danger with her eyes? Of course, I cannot be sure, since the language of the eye is a very parochial art, having evolved independently in many different locations since the war’s end. One could never be sure if the same signal meant the same thing in one region as another. On the other hand, I recall what my mother told me many years ago: that the language of the eye was not really a new innovation, but had existed in the Old World as well. Signals of the eyes, eyebrows, lips, and other facial muscles were built deeply into our psyches, and, as micro expressions, had a universal meaning that could be intuited even by a child.
And so, I become uneasy. I pay my bill, bundle up in my winter wear, and leave the restaurant as unobtrusively as possible. I am back in the street.
Inasmuch as I grew up in a stronghold of the Directors’ State, and given that my father was a Conditioner, it was natural that I should follow him in that occupation. In fact, I had no choice. Had I dissented, I would probably have been shipped off to prison or some re-education camp.
The occupation that was chosen for me dealt with the creation of numerous time series representing price movements in the entity known as the “stock market”. I coordinated with the Economics Division, which broadcast both scheduled and opportunistic pieces of “news” that were disseminated to the public on a regular basis. My job was to create price movements in individual stocks and indices that were plausible with respect to this manufactured “news”. I was well versed in statistics and behavioral psychology, and my product pulsed through the internet at thousands of quotes to the second, cruelly feeding the ever-vascillating greed and fear of the gullible masses. I was good at what I did.
My understanding was deep. I knew that the stock market was, in fact, an institution that had had its origins in the Old World — in an era of capitalism and free enterprise. This history was perfect for purposes of the State. It allowed for a factual foundation upon which layers and layers of mythology could be built, upon which success stories could be fabricated, rags-to-riches tales invented, the hopes of the multitudes grounded. The people could believe with all their hearts that they were the heirs of a tradition of independence, entrepreneurship and freedom. They could watch the fluctuations of their portfolios and relish dreams of wealth, exotic travel, property ownership, and mastery over their fellow beings. But in fact, I knew, the “market” had made these people slaves.
The “market” occupied people’s minds intensely. It made them watch hour after hour of mind-numbing financial programming. It made their minds ripe for mathematicasl systems, price-earnings ratios, employment numbers, price indexes and manufacturing statistics — all numbers invented by the fertile minds of the Economics Division. These numbers meant nothing but what the State wanted them to mean. Did the State wish people to be complacent (as was normally the case)? Then it reported upbeat numbers, and I manufactured my price series accordingly. Did it want the people to feel fear, or did it wish to generate support for severe economic or political measures? Then it published negative numbers. And if there was any discrepancy in the numbers, no matter: the numbers could always be revised.
Overall, the goal was to keep the people quiet, satisfied and obedient. This meant that the general direction of stock prices had to be upward. Of course, there had to be moments of excitement, too, or the market would become boring, and people would lose interest. So on occasion I injected outsized market moves in one direction or the other, sometimes coordinated with the Economics Division, but often on a purely random basis. Still, over time, the people were rewarded with more dollars in their accounts. At the end of each year, most people felt that they were wealthier than they had been the year before.
Of course, I knew that this “wealth” so coveted by the masses was entirely phony; that the State compensated for the growth in dollars by a corresponding rise in prices, so that the purchasing power of the people was held constant — or rather was reduced, when one considered the ever larger portion of production that was taken by the State each year. How unlike the philosophy of the Old World, I thought, and in particular the ideas of an ancient author — Adam Smith by name — whose book I had found among my mother’s old belongings and read a long time ago, who had asserted that the wealth of nations resided not in piles of specie or financial balances, but rather in the availability of goods and services, and in productivity. But with the Directors’ “death of science” scenario, there could no longer be any growth in productivity, nor invention, nor effieciency; and so there could no longer be an overall advance of wealth.
For the greatest part, the populace was utterly deceived and pacified by the State’s economic machinations. On occasion, however, someone would catch on, and on even rarer occasions, that person would talk. This was, of course, a mistake. What would happen was an unwanted night-time visitation by the secret police — black-hooded, heavily armed, stupid, and wholly obedient — the very minions of Satan. I shudder to think of it.
Although in the beginning my work had been a challenge, after a few years it had become routine. It bored me, but more importantly, it rankled my soul. Deep down, I knew I should not be doing what I was doing. But I had no choice. This was the job I had been groomed for, and to stop, or even to do less than my best, would only lead to imprisonment and maybe death. But one day a very peculiar message was delivered to my desk. It was a detailed report concerning the activities of a resistance cell operating in the nearby city. It contained the names and addresses of the organization’s members, as well as the location of a meeting that the group had planned in the near future.
The message could not possibly have been meant for me, I thought. It came from the secret police, a fearsome department that I only rarely communicated with. It must have been delivered by mistake … though still, my name and office number were on the cover. But in any case, there was a problem. I now knew something that I should not know – something that could be very damaging to the State if word of its knowledge of the dissenters’ plans should leak out to the group itself. I kept the information to myself, hoping that no one would discover the error — if error it was.
There were other interpretations of my predicament, however. The message could have been sent to me purposely, maybe to test my loyalty, to see if I would report it. Or maybe, just maybe, it was sent by a dissenter secretly ensconced in the upper echelons of the Directors’ hierarchy, who for some reason believed I might be involved, or could become involved, in subversive activity. Maybe someone had read my eye language, or maybe it was someone who had known my mother, and believed that I might have inherited some of her moral courage.
About a week passed, and nothing more happened. No one suspected a thing. I was beginning to feel safe. And then I was delivered an even more surprising missive; it contained the address of the Firm, that shadowy organization that sheltered and fed dissidents and outlaws on the run from the State who had found their way to the city. But more surprising yet, the packet contained a Director’s pass, duly signed and stamped, that would allow me egress from the Planners’ compound and access to a vehicle, and thus a means to reach the city.
Now my quandary became acute. If this was simply a loyalty test, then I would be arrested as soon as I tried to use my pass to leave the compound. It would be the end of me. On the other hand, if this were a true invitation to join the resistance and to participate in subversion to the State, then to decline would be to deny the very essence of my being. The next few days generated a high level of anxiety within me. Surely, I thought, someone would notice the dull introspective language emitted by my eyes. But then, I was among the Conditioners, who were among the least adept at interpreting such communication. They noticed not a thing.
Finally, the effective date of my pass came. I had at last decided what to do. Immediately after my day’s work, carrying a small bag with only the barest necessities, I approached the main gate of the compound. I was frightened. The iron bars thrust upward from the bedrock like rays of darkness from the netherworld. Under intense searchlights, the guard’s soulless eyes, set deeply in a scarred, brutal, angular face, gazed at my pass, then at me, again and again. He was suspicious, trying to detect some irregularity in my demeanor, something that would give me away. But eventually he waved me on. I left the compound, requisitioned the car that my pass allowed, and drove off. I felt more exhilarated and free than I had ever felt in my life.
I walk down the street, away from the restaurant and toward the bookstall. No one is following me as far as I can tell, but I know that the State’s police are not so naïve as to use a solitary stalker in their surveillance; rather, they work in relays and teams, such that my position would be known from several vantage points at once. As long as there is anyone on the street, it is possible that I am being watched; and moreover, there are all those windows and alleyways ….
It is getting dark. I stop at the bookstall. I have wondered for months what books were displayed there. Amazingly, there are many books that are decades old, having been published in the Old World. They are clearly subversive. Surely this spot must be monitored. And yet, this is the city. Maybe the State is too busy elsewhere to bother with this minor nuisance.
I browse contentedly for about fifteen minutes, feeling physically more relaxed, but intellectually stimulated, as I read passages from Aristotle, Kant, and others. The synaptic pathways of my forebrain, long dormant, are activating. Ah! If only I could live like this forever!
Then I look up. Across the bookstall from me is the brunette woman from the restaurant. I look into her eyes. She is relaying a message, this time unambiguously: eyes halfway open, then fully open, then pupils down and subtly to the right – unmistakably meaning danger. She removes a slip of paper from her handbag, places it inside a copy of Kennedy’s Profiles in Courage, and leaves.
I look briefly about me, and seeing nothing unusual, proceed to the other side of the stall, pick up the copy of Profiles, and buy it. I leave immediately, and in the encircling darkness, walk back to my apartment.
My escape from the Directors’ Compound went smoothly. I entered the city without incident and went directly to the address of the Firm that had been provided me by my anonymous in-the-ranks collaborator. I found the location in a wretched, old section of the city, poorly lighted and glum. The building itself was Victorian Gothic, a vestige of the 1890s, with a fire-dried, deep-red brick façade. The foyer opened to a broad wooden stairway whose well-worn planks bespoke years of ancient, long-forgotten activity.
I ascended and knocked at the door. I was answered by a slight, dark-complexioned man with a drooping mustache and semi-bald, tousled brown hair. He quickly ushered me in. I appeared to be in the reception area of some Old World business establishment – maybe a lawyer’s office. All of the doors were closed.
“You have arrived from the Directorship?” my contact asked.
“What information do you have?”
I opened my briefcase and handed my information about the dissident group to the contact. He looked it over quickly.
“We have a lot of work to do over the next days or weeks. We can’t do much for you now. We’ll have to place you in a safe apartment for a while. But we’ll get back to you. I’m sorry we can’t tell you more now.”
I was led out of the office and taken to my apartment. And that’s where I’ve been since then.
I am now back in my room. I open the copy of Profiles and remove the note that was placed there by the woman at the bookstall. It says, simply, that I should meet my contact tomorrow at 11 o’clock on Main Street between 15th and 16th Streets.
Consequently, that is exactly where I find myself standing this morning. I am looking for someone, anyone that might be my contact. But what I see is something else — a member of the secret police force walking toward me, only half a block away. Tall, gaunt, sinister, and dressed in black, he stands out from the crowd like a wolf surveying a flock of sheep. He strides confidently, turning his head from side to side as if he were looking for someone.
He is looking for me.
A chill races down my spine and a flood of thoughts runs through my mind. Did he know I would be here? Does he have accomplices, or is he alone? Does he have a gun? But most of all, has he seen me?
I have to get away. I can’t keep going straight ahead – that would be suicide. But neither can I bolt and run – he might start shooting, and surely he would radio his accomplices who are likely in the neighborhood as well. With both forward and backward motion ruled out, I have to think “to the side.”
Fortunately, the street is crowded. Immediately ahead of me is a group of about six persons who have emerged from a restaurant just seconds before. I edge my way to their rear. Perhaps my adversary will think I am just a part of the group. He gazes my way, but my face is hidden by the group. He looks the other way. I am safe for the moment.
My only hope is to dart into a small alleyway about five paces ahead. The problem is that my adversary will be nearly parallel with me by then, and judging by the way he is scanning left and right, he will be looking precisely in my direction. Still, there is no choice. Grabbing perhaps a second’s advantage while my adversary’s head is turned away, I leap ahead, skirt to the right, and enter the alley at a full run.
Almost immediately, a shot rings out. Then another. I keep running for what seems an eternity, with bullets ricocheting along the red brick walls of the alleyway. By what grace I know not, I am not hit. Finally, I emerge from the other end of the alley and into the next street.
My relief is short-lived, however. Awaiting me are two burly men, clad completely in black just like my adversary. They quickly tackle me and throw me into the back seat of a waiting car that then speeds off.
As soon as I can, I look up. Facing me is another man dressed in black. He has a full white beard and wears gold rimmed glasses. His look is not menacing; rather, his eyes convey a quiet benignity. I then notice that he was wearing a cleric’s garb – of what order I cannot tell. He holds out his hand and says, “I am Father Gapon.”
“Ah, but Father Gapon is known to be an informer. So I am in the hands of the secret police,” I say.
“In a sense,” he replies. “I play three roles in life. I am a cleric, secret policeman, and rebel. At this moment I am a rebel, and your savior. Your adversary, from whom you so adeptly escaped, has been neutralized. You are safe.”
“What do you intend to do with me?” I ask.
“You have been selected to work with us. You will keep your job with the Conditioners. You will continue your research as you have always done, but you will send to your superiors only the most ordinary information. Anything of significance you will forward to us.”
“But how can I return, after I left so abruptly? Aren’t they looking for me?”
“No, we have arranged a cover story to account for your absence. You will be provided a pass for your return. As for the Conditioners, by their very conviction they will not suspect you. They are programmed, as you know, to be obedient, and they do not question dictates from above. And I am the one who writes these dictates.”
“But with all of these roles, who are you really, then?” I ask.
“I am the leader of the opposition, who also works in the innermost layer of the Directorship. I am also your uncle – your mother’s brother. And the woman who you saw at the restaurant and the bookstall is my daughter Estelle, your cousin. We have been watching you for some time, but circumstances have not been propitious for us to contact you until now. But you are clearly of an independent mindset, and you belong with the second revolt. We are stronger than you think. The coming months and years will be decisive in overthrowing the Directors, and your position and expertise will be of the utmost importance. We will train you in clandestine communications, so that you can continue to work at ease, while remaining in contact with us. In a few days you will return to your routine.”
I am relieved. Were it not for my complete exhaustion, my mind would be reeling with questions and scenarios of the future. But I am tired, and I sleep.
(To be continued.)