After the economic crisis of the twenty-first century the people in power concluded to instil a greater desire to work among those they governed. There were too many doing too little and getting too much, and the endless stream of resistance was becoming increasingly difficult to silence as neighbours turned to one another for aid and the perception of family started to include those outwith personal genetic spectrums. From their towering spires and gated drives they shuddered and watched communities gather with the just weapons of belief and voice. As they looked they saw visions of all they had built fall into reclaim at the hands of those who could not possibly understand the implications of their actions, they said. Something must be done at once, they said. With panic bobbing their apples they scurried at night to their castle moated on one side by the Thames and locked themselves in a small room around an oval table set with triangular ham and cheese sandwiches to whisper away from the eyes of the journalist-hawks who crowed not for justice but for blood, any blood, at their gates.
They bundled in scientists, psychologists, chemists and theorists who shared their vision, their advice made passionate by the unsaid threat of funding cuts laid out on the oak between the crumbs and coffee. Recognising the swiftness with which morality was dashed against the rocks of individual financial security even in the nation’s most intelligent gave birth to an idea that would later be known as the Death Value.
Sweat patches under their arms marked the weeks spent cornered in the theatre they had built themselves, hidden in the wings. When the wax in their ears was no longer sufficient to drown out the wail of the orchestra outside as more and more strings were added to the noise of disillusionment they invited their final guest.
He was an imperious man with small eyes set into a lined face that could have been carved from rock. The only movement in his face as he strode across the room was the soft swing of his jowls below a thin, downturned mouth. As he sat, their eyes nervously watched him cross one suited leg over the other. They envied the open collar of his white linen shirt and strength of his gaze behind his rectangular black-rimmed glasses. The media giant surveyed them all individually, pointedly resting his eyes on the yellowing marks at their armpits making even the seasoned men flush. Finally, he smiled widely, pulling the skin on his cheekbones and forehead back towards his skull, baring his intent like a fox that spies an exhausted family of rabbits. The conductor had arrived.
‘You’re all looking a little pale, gentlemen.’
‘We need your help.’
‘I have a villa in France you would love, Prime Minister.’
‘Perhaps another time. We need you to package something for us.’
‘Package or deliver?’
The giant leaned back in his chair and placed his left hand in the grip of his right as the exhausted politicians divulged their brainchild and granted him loco parentis. He listened intently, moving only his eyeballs to follow the presentation around the room, betraying no reaction. If they had moved closer they would have seen the fingers of his left hand begin to whiten.
Finally, the sagging Prime Minister pleaded, ‘How do we make them agree with this?’
The conductor tapped a beat with his right forefinger on the knuckle of the opposite hand, formulating an idea with the same care a fisherman builds his fly-bait.
‘Do you have any brandy in this cage?’ At a nod from his leader one of the men jumped up and scurried to the door, relaying the order to a member of staff outside.
‘Two minutes,’ he said on his return. And so the two minutes were tapped out on the wrinkled knuckle as the politicians played with their pens and threw desperate glances at one another.
A young woman entered the room with a glass of amber liquid balanced on a silver tray. She placed it in front of the conductor who thanked her graciously.
‘What’s your name?’ he asked her.
‘Pat,’ she said quietly, turning to flee.
‘Tell me a bit about yourself, Pat. Where are you from?’ Pat was a small girl in her late twenties with delicate, beautiful features, which had secured her position on the staff despite her Liverpudlian accent. The tray shook in her palm as she answered him.
‘And what brought you to London, Pat?’
‘There was nowhere else I wanted to be.’
‘And your family, what do they do?’
‘My parents are retired, now, but they never did anything special. I didn’t grow up in a very nice part of Liverpool. My younger brother’s still there, he’s just got a job as a brickie.’
‘Does he enjoy it?’
‘Not really. It’s a shame, he’s smarter than the rest of us put together but he couldn’t afford to go to uni, and people only take you seriously if you have a degree nowadays.’
‘Thank you, Pat.’
Bowing her head, Pat left the oval room. Her questioner stood up swinging his suit jacket from the back of his chair and pulling it over an arm.
‘So much untapped potential,’ he sighed, pulling the jacket over his other arm. ‘If only people were treated equally.’ He straightened out his arms and shrugged the jacket into place on his shoulders, smoothing the collar. He picked up the glass sticking his nose past the rim to suck in the aroma of the amber liquid and then held it up to the light.
‘Give them hope gentleman.’ He drew the glass to his face and upturned the liquid into his open mouth. ‘Before they give you hell.’
The conductor exited, flicking his wrists as he mentally sketched the score.
And so the system was upgraded. The annual Death Value Test would score each person’s mental and physical health and intellect, determining their earning/spending potential and offering them access to their worth through a suggested career, no matter where their journey began.
The headlines marched into the public psyche, column after column of words scrambling on top of each other to bear down on their subjects, open capital letters snarling and crossed ‘t’s taking arms, slicing through the doubt that bubbled in human throats across the island before popping and sinking into the individual’s belly to become passed gas. ’Equality at last!’ they preached from their devout printing pulpit. ’Opportunity for every man and the everyman’. Just as the papers left their inked branding on their reader’s fingertips, so the loops of ’y’s and ’g’s lassoed themselves around the whites of eyes widening in fear and soothed each soul into gratitude, each watery surface a plane for them to imprint, leaving a trail of dotted ’i’s to float in their harvested embryonic sac like cataracts.
Finally, a system devised for the individual that had no bearing on their family name, a system built on intrinsic potential and capability offering equal results to all; a foetus to be nurtured like any other, a baby to be played with, a child to be shaped, and an adult to be productive. ’Flawless,’ boasted a Sunday front page. And as the individual basked in the glow believing the deformed ear of Westminster had heard their now-hoarse voice, legions of the people fell under the weight of the each word. As they gave into the sterile, boisterous force of the government’s foot soldiers, their tired bodies gratefully bequeathed their sight to a new order. Their vision became blurred and the deformed ear uncurled above them, opening itself like a rose in bloom, pinned to the sky’s lapel, dripping red promises into the trenches they lay scattered in.
With all eyes set on tomorrow history ceased to be seen and folded itself away like an old love letter laid to rest in a photo album. Whenever questions were raised a new barrage of headlines would assault the public consciousness like the needle entering a junkie’s vein, and as the information expelled itself into their brain they would relax in the high of being taken care of. Finally. Flawless.
As people slotted into their correct role like coins in a jukebox Britain boomed. Universities tussled for legacy in this new age and threw funding at science departments, economics departments, engineering departments, and a boy from Brighton joined the ranks previously withheld from his family before him in Durham University’s Chemistry department.
He was small for the time, grazing five foot nine when he eventually learnt in his late teens to stand at full height. He practiced puffing out his chest every morning and frowned at his reflection as he brushed his teeth, but his gait betrayed humble beginnings and disbelief sat on his shoulders so that when he walked they curled into a stoop despite trying to copy the proud, languid swing of his fellow students’ arms. The result gave him a bizarre, lateral silhouette as his neck jutted out further than a jaw of his postcode’s ever could.
Lofty with placement but burdened with gratitude he lay in his bed at night fantasising about his name embossed in legend. Gripping underneath his pyjama’s waistband, he envisioned standing on the shoulders of his future colleagues who in daylight stared down on the top of his square head. The gel he used to garner fictitious height stuck to his pillowcase - his mother always begged him to wash his sheets more often.
He devoted himself to his degree and often his lecturers would see him working in the lab long after his classmates had gone out drinking. Something about him made many of the professors a bit nervous and they would smile firmly, ducking out of sight as his pale blue eyes lifted from the screen, wide and bloodshot. He reminded them of the lab rats with their nervous tails but challenging look. Only he could feel the quickening of his heart and its quick sink every time they hurried away from him, too unnerved by his unflinching pupils to ask about his work.
Unable to meet the eyes of those who worked alongside him, he set his sights higher. While his year group hosted dinner parties and mixed vodka with tequila, he took to having quiet pints alone in a corner of the lecturers’ pub on campus. He would sip his expensive Guinness slowly and watch the different faculty members shake the rain from their umbrellas by the door and greet each other demurely. He heard the Humanities and Arts professors bemoan slashed budgets and the head of Engineering relay the influx of female applicants. His ears fluttered whenever troublesome students were mentioned and he became angry listening to the fondness with which some stories were told - the justification of ‘quite the character’ made his stomach twist like a dying dog. And as he eavesdropped on all the mutterings he watched the esteemed staff bury their knuckles in their eye sockets, wipe the lenses of their glasses and squint in the artificial twilight at the drinks menu. He noticed the frequency with which they massaged their temples and shared painkillers – he thought of the dull thrum in his own brain that was the only constant he had gone to bed and woken up with since starting university.
He left his wallet in the pub one night and returned for it and his bi-weekly pint to find the owner had barred him under the old tradition that undergraduate students were not permitted to drink there. He tried to have a hushed argument with the man but the proud, grey-haired Englishman wasn’t interested and impatiently whipped the boy with his damp tea towel to usher him out. His face burning with embarrassment, he fled past a table of professors, two of whom had tutored him. He shot a furtive look back over his right shoulder as he pushed open the front door and saw them both gently raise their drinks at him in recognition before he sped into the miserable spring evening.
‘Isn’t he one of our first years?’ asked the woman, continuing her tumbler’s trajectory from the tabletop to her lips.
‘Yes,’ answered her colleague, lowering his own glass of red wine to a stained plastic coaster. ‘I can never remember his name, though.’
Benny Profane found a grey hair the day he confirmed his legacy at twenty-two. From that wet March evening he had devoted any spare moment in his four year degree to finding the cure for the headaches afflicting millions induced by ten hour days spent in front of screens. Inspired by contact lenses he created a synthetic film to place over his eyes and counteract the harsh, unnatural light burning into his retinas every day. Dissatisfied with the discomfort and short shelf life he presented a serum for his final research project just two years later. Injection would result in a thin film over the eye but was only permanent if administered to the rat foetus at a crucial point in physiological development. His amazed professors immediately granted Benny a first class Honours degree and while his peers attended their graduation he was already instated in a government-funded research centre preparing for human trials.
The project was successful in its aims, however years of trialling revealed the serum could not be administered without leaving the human subject colour-blind. Parched with guilt, Benny Profane drowned himself in rum every night in a bid to forget the names of the children he had resigned to a life of black and white. Benny drank himself to death before his fortieth birthday. His name was forgotten long before the children’s. Not to be dissuaded from a relief to the epidemic of headaches and pain in Britain’s workers, the project opened its arms to pioneers across all fields to find a solution for the ‘affected sight’.
The project was moved to Wiltshire with another lump sum thrown at the Defence Science and Technology laboratory. The natural character of the area that weaved among the grasses had been pierced by razor wire fences and bled out between the spiked metal gates after the government claimed Porton Down for their own in 1916. The Dstl claimed seven thousand acres of the land marked ‘Danger Area’ on local maps and was treated as a black hole by the media that hushed its presence with vague phrases such as ‘top secret’ and ‘science park’.
Every few years angry animal rights activists would print vilifications after horrifying footage of torturous experiments on rodents and monkeys was released. But like excitable children in a plastic ball pit, the public collected these inconsequential necessities, batting the titbits of information between them for a week before losing interest and finding interest in another of the hundreds of balls to choose from – same size, same shape, perhaps even the same colour - their gummy mouths closing around the sterilised plastic as the shadowy figures of their big brothers watched from behind the netted enclosure. It was the silence between the predictable uproars that was even more oppressive as the human test subjects and deaths were deliberately buried at the bottom of the pit so that the children could fall innocently among corpses without being frightened by their names.
Inspired by media artist, Blake Shaw, who had developed a programme that allowed him to remotely project his video art and other footage by way of painting surfaces with receivers, the project was approached by another programmer who said he could load the synthetic serum with ‘enzyme receivers’ that would then react with ‘enzyme transmitters’ they could paint onto surfaces, or project, or even sew into fabric, to stream the world in a new spectrum of colours.
He cured the blindness. The result allowed the injected to see the technological world in dazzling shades of colours artists could only weep to think of. And all the old relics were replaced with E-replicas or painted over with E-paint to bring them back to life. Heightened beauty the people had never before seen marked ownership of this new, brighter planet, and the barrier between the iris and the screen allowed people to plug in for endless enjoyment without fear of damaging themselves.
The serum was initially offered as a choice to pregnant mothers, but cities grew larger as the injected flocked to join the bright jungles and dazzling skies, vowing never to return to the grey wastelands of their past and, angry at their own missed opportunity, the children of those who opted out of the project themselves opted in; some were sad to see only grey when the injected experienced such joy in the city and wished the same for their offspring, others noticed that old displays had stopped going into production and didn’t want to isolate their own children, especially in the workplace; the rest were sick of being compared to offices of bright-eyed workers. It was hardly news in the capital when the injection was made mandatory, and by that time no one went outside the dazzling borders for long enough to see the protests from the non-injected against their grey backdrop.
If communes sprang up it wasn’t reported, and eventually their children joined the ranks, too.
When evening eventually drew its long sigh over the work day and the monkeys fled to their social lives she chose to walk home in a bid to salvage her haemorrhaging thoughts that would have no doubt given her away as a traitor to the lump sum of people on the tube home. She decided to loop through Shoreditch and along its lengthy high street that was wide enough to lessen the oppression of the buildings bearing down on either side.
It helped that Shoreditch was oddly shorter than the rest of Zone One, which made the distinctive area feel more like a play park than a city with its small, funky buildings. Perhaps this was why its streets were lined with bars, eateries and clubs that were already filling up with the frustrations and jubilations of pent-up workers.. Unless part of a group, everyone else walking along the street had their headphones plugged in, but she didn’t see anyone nodding their head along to the beats projected in their ears. Inside the bars sat groups of co-workers nursing vodka sodas or gin and tonics boasting about their value and the physical evidence of it they exalted in, treating their new designer whatevers like the flesh of Christ. The place was crawling with many of the country’s finest minds but none could bring themselves to notice, let alone discuss, the unquestioning voracity with which they consumed in order to exhibit their lives.
She latched onto the repulsion storming her veins that had earlier buckled under the heaviness of fear, and shoved her head down to keep her eyes on the ground as she walked so she would not be contaminated with jealousy.
It took her just under forty minutes to reach her neighbourhood in Hackney, but the walk hadn’t been long enough to dispel the thoughts of Benny Profane bloating behind her eyes. She didn’t know why the injection hadn’t worked on her, and she hadn’t heard even rumours of other people seeing they way she did. She had briefly tried to research the phenomenon secretly at university but found no answers, only documentation of 100% success rates. The fear and isolation that had kept her from sharing her secret only intensified as she searched. She quickly gave up trying to find an answer.
She stopped at a junction not far from her building, peering East through the darkening shadows towards the Wick and considering a quick change out of her work gear then heading back out for a run along the canal. The Dstl loomed in her mind, its barbed image conjured from anecdotal evidence found in the margins of the internet.
Just as she stepped onto the road a deafening car horn ripped through the quiet causing her to jump backwards onto the pavement with a yelp. Her wide eyes darted to the left and witnessed a car aiming at a driveway brake suddenly about 100 yards away. A figured dashed past the car bonnet before running across the main road and nipping into a side street opposite. Instinctively, she tore down the street in pursuit of the man, hardly registering the pain in her overworked legs.
‘BLOODY ZERO!’ Screeched the driver through the open window before continuing into the driveway. Her breath came in ragged, excited bursts as she ran despite her health, positive her keen eyes had captured a yellow scarf tied around the man’s neck in the twilight. She skidded around the corner onto the side street he had raced down just moments before, but the residential road curved away, ensuring he was already lost to the night.
She stopped suddenly, quivering, realising she had no idea what she would say to the man, if anything, when she caught up with him. London’s cold soul tugged at her own in the dimming light and dragged the litter of its citizens through the gutters, the artificial grating of plastic on concrete echoing down the small, eerie street. Defeated, she hunched over and put her hands on her knees, feeling her resolve slip through the soles of her feet and into the cracks of the double ‘yellow’ lines.
A high-pitched voice lilted towards her out of the dark and, looking up, she saw a young girl of about nine standing at an open window pressing a smartphone to her ear. From the half of the conversation she could tune into, she realised the girl was dutifully reporting the Zero-people to the police. The girl was back-lit by the room that cast a shadow over her tiny features and blurred the outline of her fair hair so that it glowed ever-so slightly. The girl’s head bobbed apathetically as she hung up the phone.
It wasn’t until she reached out to close the window that the girl noticed her audience. She surveyed the woman below her in the green suit trousers and white collar poking out of the beige trench coat. The woman was carrying a navy satchel across her chest by way of a white leather strap with navy stripes criss-crossing along it. The girl instantly liked the young, pretty woman in the nice clothes and cool bag, and thought she’d like to grow up and have a DV that allowed such a life, which was no doubt a glamorous one if she lived in Zone Two.
The girl called down to her. ‘What are you?’
The woman turned her head to look down the street in the direction of the running Zero, frowning under the streetlamp that caught her in a circle of light and captured her shadow. The girl shifted impatiently waiting for an answer. The woman looked back at her and smiled, even though her cheeks seemed to hang from her bones in sadness.
‘I am only a child myself,’ she said. She stepped out of the pool of light and her shadow sprang from the ground, stretching behind her as she walked slowly back to the main road.
The little girl changed her mind about the pretty woman with the cool life, and posted a status about the weird encounter and nonsensical answer, which got 78 likes and meant the girl fell asleep feeling happy and accomplished that night.