Chapter Two

Dwelling cluster FQ47 was a lifeless place. The buildings sat haphazardly in a circle, each one crumbling and filled with the stench of death. There was but one Viewer for the entire cluster, and it was an ancient thing, that played only static. Occasionally it would flash with the famous logo of their great civilization, and those were days of celebration among the mostly dying and decaying population.

27FQ47 lived in dwelling FQ1. She never ventured outside. Outside was a pale imitation of Before. She recalled the lush valley where she had been born, however fleetingly. Now the grasses were short and brown, and the trees were all dead, or charred and toppled over. 27FQ47 did not go outside, because outside there were cameras. There were officials. Outside, the world was cold and dead. Her neighbors shuffled about in their gray, regulation clothing, eating gray, regulation meals, talking about gray, regulation things.

In dwelling FQ1 though, things were much the same as they had always been. The furniture was the same as Before, with plies and piles of useless pots, pillows, paintings. The Enforcers did not dare try and cut her down, because she was old. She was crumbling, with papery skin and one useless eye. Her hair had long ago gone gray and fallen out, which was just as well, for hair had been banned. She was sure to die any day, and so they left her be.

27FQ47 remembered when she was Margaret. She could not recall what her surname had been, or even if her first name had been Margaret, but she liked to imagine that it was. She liked to imagine lots of things. She pretended that she had grandchildren, who ran about her dusty halls. She pretended that she had a husband, who sat with her and held her wrinkled hand in his. She pretended that she had children, who baked her cakes in her ancient, broken oven.

But these things would require love, and love had died long ago. It had struggled of course, far outliving dignity, freedom, and choice. They had tried for so long to crush love, attempting to leave only hate and pain. But they had not known that love and hate and pain are all names for the same thing: passion. And so they killed passion, and all that was left was Google.

She was left very much alone, aside from meals slid in her rusted mail slot each morning and each evening. She would sit alone in her house and cry, pressing her shriveled hands to the broken glass of the clock, to the shattered figurine on the shelf, to the faded photograph of some man whose name and relation to her she had long forgotten.

Day after day, she sat and wept. She brought grief upon herself, because grief was the only thing she knew how to feel.

Until one day.

The previous enforcers were arrested. She believed it was for "criminal negligence". They were taken away, and a new man arrived.

He was tall, with curly blonde hair the color of sunshine. His eyes were blue like the ocean. 27FQ47 could not quite recall the ocean, but somehow, she knew that his eyes resembled it. His skin was tanned and his teeth were the whitest things she had ever seen.

But his perfect white teeth were always bared in an animal expression. His blue eyes were narrow, and manic. He gave 27FQ47 the impression of an angry lion, half-starved and desperate for the taste of blood and flesh between its teeth.

"27FQ47?" he said, as he stood at her doorway. He spoke in a low, menacing growl.

The old woman nodded, for she had long ago forgotten how to speak.

"Come with me."

And so she went.

The journey was long, and 27FQ47 was shoved from one crowded train car to another. They all stank of waste and despair. The people in them all appeared distorted. One woman had bones protruding from all places in her frail body. She reminded 27FQ47 of a broken doll. One little boy had eyes that were far too large, even for a child. They were bloodshot, and protruded too far out of his tiny head. One little girl, barely an infant, had scars running down the length of her head. She had no mother or father to carry her, and so was shoved in the corner of the car, cushioned with hay and the clothing of those who had not survived.

27FQ47 was alone. The room she was in was small, with pristine white walls, and a ceiling covered in one word, over and over and over: Google.

She could not recall how she had gotten there, but that hardly mattered. She would die soon, and be nothing more than a memory. Just like Before.

"Subject 27FQ47, do you know why you are here?" The voice came from nowhere, but 27FQ47 had long ago learned to stop questioning such things, or anything, for that matter. She nodded, her neck aching at the effort.

"Good. Most cases are difficult. They plead their innocence over and over, knowing it is hopeless. But you're smarter than them aren't you? I suppose that is how you managed it for so long. Holding on, I mean. It would have been difficult for most people, to clutch onto the past, but not you. That is what is so comforting about madness, I think. It gives you abilities far beyond those granted to the sane. In the old days, madness was often mistaken for brilliance. But we can't have brilliance here, can we? Brilliance causes dissent, and dissent leads to uprising, and then we'll be back in the same directionless shuffle that we lived in before. Don't you agree?"

27FQ47 did not like this voice. It adored hearing itself. In any case, she nodded, knowing it would be useless to argue. Not that she could, beyond shaking her head.

"Splendid."

Suddenly, there was something before her. It was dark and rounded at one end, but at the other it was sharp. It gleamed, reflecting her pale, worn face back at her. 27FQ47 saw the liver spots that snaked around her face, the two yellowed teeth protruding from her mouth, the glassy, glazed appearance of her eyes.

She lifted the object, nearly touching it to her chest, where her feeble heart strained to beat. But she dropped it, letting it clang onto the ground.

The sound still rang in her ears as the shock jolted through her body.