By Marie Peffenköver
“Here too it’s masquerade, I find:
As everywhere, the dance of mind.
I grasped a lovely masked procession,
And caught things from a horror show…
I’d gladly settle for a false impression,
If it would last a little longer, though.”
– Johann Wolfgang von Goethe –
The puddle reflected the grey houses of the Town which stood huddled up together along the street, one by one, just like a set of teeth. The rooftops which were touched by the glaring rays of the cold winter sun shimmered whitely, driving out some of the dark shadows on the grey asphalt.
The Man did not pay much attention to this struggle. He knew it all too well. With determined but still unhurried steps in soft black shoes, he walked past the array of buildings towards the huge Canteen Dome which sat enthroned in the centre of the Town like a giant spider. The queue was long today, yet with his usual patience, the Man lined up, nodding gently towards people he recognized.
When it was his turn, the Man grabbed a bottle of white milk, a colourless protein sandwich and an ashen vitamin bar; it did not really matter to him. It was just food, after all. With a quiet but forceful Beep, the Cashier pulled the supplies over the scanner, thus noting the exact time and magnitude of the Man’s lunch in his Electronic Identification Pass. The Man had once been told that a very long time ago, people had had to exchange paper notes and small pieces of iron for their food. Money had been the word, he remembered. This all was already centuries ago when people were called by ridiculous names instead of their functions, a long time before the Age of Security, before the Listeners had installed the bugging system and before they had introduced Electronic IDs. It must have been a frightful time, the Man thought.
Suddenly, something interrupted his mind games, something… unusual. Confused and his eyes screwed up, the Man let his gaze wander through the dining room, over hundreds of people and dozens of Guards.
His gaze remained locked at a young woman, twenty maybe, who was just about to sit down at a table nearby. There was something unusual about her hair. Deep down in his memories, an idea, a hunch started growing that almost broke the surface of ignorance. Like a shadow, this notion writhed and twisted, yet he could not hold it. It simply escaped his mind. The Man shrugged his shoulders. Since quite some time, here and there, he became overwhelmed by this feeling that something fell out of place. Which – of course – was nonsense. The Listeners would never let that happen.
The jarring ring of the bell indicated that lunchtime was over and with a silent routine that spoke of generations of rehearsal, all people in the hall stood up like one wave which poured out of the huge entry doors on the streets. Bright and round as a ball, the sun had reached its zenith, stretching its thin, pasty beams down to Earth like a skeleton’s bones. The Man turned up his coat’s collar and crossed the grid of streets and houses until he reached the Supply Station whose long-drawn rectangular colossus of concrete rose up into the sky like a warning forefinger. Other Suppliers were already sitting at their places in white, open offices and wrapped white and grey food into the respective packages. At his place, the Man discovered a pile of small apples of which he was supposed to put always exactly one into each lunch package that slowly rolled past on the assembly line. He had just grabbed one of the fruits when he…
Stopped. Froze. Could not move. Had to rub his eyes. Watch again. Had to remind himself to breath out…breath in, no, he thought, I am dreaming, hallucinating, my mind is fooling me!
To put it simply, the apple looked…well…different. He had no other word to describe what he saw, had nothing he could compare it to. Just like the hunch he had had when seeing the woman in the dining hall this morning, yet at the same time not like this as well.
The Man sat there at his desk, one hand still at his coat’s button facing, holding the apple with the other one, the head bowed as if he was showing respect for something higher that only he could understand. Sunken into his own thoughts, the Man did not hear the demanding sound of the bell, warning him to continue working, to not disrupt the constant flow of the assembly line; nor did he hear the voice coming out of the speaker of the bugging system asking “everyone!” to carry out their duty for Society’s best.
Only when a rough hand tapped on his shoulder and a dark voice asked “Are you alright?” he stopped brooding. Tall and strong like a bear, a Guard stood behind the Man’s desk.
“Working time has already begun”, he explained the obvious, “and you have just been sitting here for the last minutes, starring at this apple like it’s gonna eat you.” He made a chuckling sound but then became serious again and examined the Man’s face for signs of a disease. “No, no!”, the Man quickly answered but then began to scrutinize the Guard’s face. Should he risk it? Should he show him what he had just discovered? It was perilous, that was for sure. Maybe everything was just in his mind after all and the Guard would declare him crazy and then he would disappear like all the sick and the old did. But he simply had to try it. “Wait!, the Man thus said hastily and held the apple a bit tighter. His eyebrows raised in surprise, the Guard who had just been about to continue his round through the work stations came back. “What is it now?”
Without a word, the Man held the small fruit out to the Guard, both nervous and excited about whether the other man would see the same as he had.
“Well”, the Guard said after a long silence, “I see an apple which you are supposed to put into the lunch boxes. Or are you telling me you don’t want to work here anymore?” His voice received a threatening undertone. “No, no, look!” With some disappointment that he could not get completely out of these words, the Man turned the apple around, tried to let it be lighted up by the dazzling brightness of the neon lamps. “Look closer!” The Guard started to get angry. “Well,”, he moaned between his teeth, “apparently, you refuse to do your work properly. Which means” and he pointed at the Man with an accusing finger, “that you disobey orders. The Captain will not be amused to hear about that!”
With a quick move, he grabbed the Man’s sleeve, indicating him to follow him. “Wait!”, the Man shouted and, reflexively, tried to take hold of the Guard’s hand, yet only caught the collar, pulled too hard and…
The eyes opened in astonishment, the mouth opened in a silent protest that never left his lips, the Guard stumbled backwards, waving his arms like some exotic insect. For a moment, the Man thought, they were both frozen in this moment. The moment before the Guard hit his head on the table-edge. A dark liquidity congregated on the grey floor.
The silence that followed the fall breathed into the room like a lurking beast and was echoed thousandfold by the high walls. Hundreds of eyes fixed the Man and the Guard; eyes that could not and did not understand what had just happened. No one had ever attacked a Guard. Muffled sounds from the Town were hurled by the wind against the closed window. The Man could not move. Was he scared? No. He did not really know what would happen within the next minutes and yet, he was not scared. His entire life, the Man had never done anything against the orders. He had always dressed as the code laid down. He had always taken his meals punctually in the great dining hall. He had always been kind, he had always done a good job at work. He had never sworn, nor been impolite, nor had he said anything against the Listeners. He was a perfect citizen of the Town, just like everyone else.
But now, he just turned around, started to run. He fled. He fled from the upcoming memories that made him see what was not there, he fled from the accusation in the eyes of the other people, he fled from the angry buzzing of the machines that had never been forgotten before and he fled from the silence that covered everything and everyone like a thick, warm coat. Although he did not know where, he just had to leave. Down in the street, he crashed into a crowd that had gathered around the house, confused by the rumours which had spread faster than a disease. The Man looked into the quizzical eyes of five Cooks, three Nurses and four Seamstresses. And all of a sudden, this naive, dumb, ignorant look made him mad.
“Don’t you see what’s going on?!”, he shouted, for a moment shocked by this strong emotion he had never felt in such an intense manner. “Do you never ask? Do you never wonder how we are all that…uniform?” Yet he already knew the answer. Until today, he had never really questioned anything either. He had just taken it all for granted.
In a last convulsion of despair, the Man held the apple far about his head so that everyone could see what he was doing. With one hand, he rubbed the smooth surface of the fruit to show them, to make them see. Screams became louder when the people started to understand. One Nurse even began to cry. The sharp sticking of a syringe plunged into his shoulder blade just when he was about to make a step towards the crowd. He started to feel dizzy. The two Guards grabbed him by the arms when his sight turned black.
Pensively, the Executive Designer looked down at the unconscious Man who had been strapped up on a daybed. “How many?” The Deputy Designer checked his notebook. “With the ones on the street…thirteen in total. They have all been reset already.”- “Good.” The Executive Designer nodded. “What are we going to do about that one?”, the Deputy Designer asked, pointing at the Man. With a deep breath, the Executive Designer turned towards his team which was ready to follow any command he would give them.
“That one is a very special case. I talked to the First Listener. He and I agree that there must have been a malfunction of his breeding cell. A scan of his brain and neural system was very…well…interesting. That objective started to develop unusual intelligence. It gained strong feelings of dissatisfaction with our society. And I have no clue how, but it became able to see colours again. It could remove the white paint of other objects and started to question. The First Listeners thinks that a few cans of paint might have expired, so we are starting a re-paint of the objects concerned. But let’s begin with this one.”
They attached the electrodes of the Binary Boltzmann Apparatus on the face, chest, head and toes. The Executive Designer pressed the reset key and tiny digits flitted across the screen. Two of the younger Designers brought another machine that resembled a very filigree piping syringe. Five orange laser beams searched the tied body for lacks of paint. With a silent, almost triumphant beep, the gadget recognized small stains where bronze-coloured skin had come to light. A small trunk-like hose winded its way out of an opening and covered the revealed skin with thick white paint. When the procedure was finished, the whole body was hidden under a dense layer of pale make-up.
Satisfied with the result of his work, the Executive Designer pressed a key on the bucking machine. “Sir”, he spoke into the speaker, “we’re done. It’s all been brought back under control.”- “Good”, a voice groaned out of the little box, “very good.” The person at the other end took a deep breath. “But let me tell you this: I will not tolerate such a mishap again. Be careful.”
The Man walked through the street, his hands buried in the pockets of his coat. It was cold this morning and the pale fog of the night subsided only reluctantly. White frost turned the grey asphalt into a slippery bottom. The Man’s soft, black shoes did not make a sound. Shrouded in a grey winter jacket, he hiked towards the Supply Station.
The open door swallowed him like a black hole.