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God State

Michelle Ann King writes science fiction, fantasy, and horror from her kitchen table in Essex, England. She loves zombies, Las Vegas, and good Scotch whiskey--not necessarily in that order--and her favorite author is Stephen King (sadly, no relation). She's sold stories to a variety of anthologies and magazines, including Strange Horizons, Interzone, and Black Static, and her first collection Transient Tales is available in ebook and paperback now. See transientcactus.co.uk for links to her published books and stories.

On the way out of the gig, I stop at the merchandise stall to get a t-shirt. I find one in my size and pull out my wallet, then hesitate. It looks good quality, but the color--almost exactly the same blue as a scanner booth--puts me off. I read somewhere that they call that shade "Spectral Indigo," and ever since then it's given me a slight case of the creeps.
I put the shirt back and join Casey outside. Most of the crowd is heading for the station, and conversation buzzes around us. Everyone's smiling, looking like they enjoyed themselves. Well, nearly everyone.
"What's up?" I ask Casey. He's walking hunched over, his hands shoved in his pockets. "Didn't you like it? Don't tell me you're into that electro-folk now, or whatever it is Josef keeps playing at home?"
He doesn't reply, so I elbow him. "Or was it too loud for you? Is that it? You are getting on a bit, after all."
"It's not that. It's the opposite of that." He shakes his head. "You go to a gig, you're not supposed to stay in your seat the whole night, sipping coffee and clapping politely, then queue up to leave by row number."
I blow out a sigh. Oh God, here we go again. "Seriously? You're complaining that people don't get rat-arsed, fling bottles of piss at the stage, gob in your hair, and trample you underfoot in the rush to get the last tube? You miss that?"
Casey puts his head down against the wind, which is carrying a fine spray of rain. "I miss the spirit of it, is what I'm saying. People used to have a bit of life in them. They were angry, they wanted to fight the system. Change the world. That's what I miss."
"Mate, in case you haven't noticed, the world doesn't need changing. People haven't got anything to be angry about, so why shouldn't they enjoy their cappuccinos and leave a building in an orderly fashion? Consideration and good manners aren't bad things, you know."
Was I hoping he'd listen to me, for once? That he'd say, "Fair enough, that's a good point," and leave it there? Maybe. Hope springs eternal, and all that.
"They're bad if they're forced on you," Casey says. "If they're implanted in your head against your will."
We reach the zebra crossing outside the station and a blue Mini obligingly stops. I raise a hand in thanks and we hurry across.
We duck inside and Casey grabs my arm. "Don't you ever wonder where it came from, this perfect society of ours? Did we undergo some kind of spontaneous spiritual evolution? Is it the Age of Aquarius? Angelic intervention? Is that what you think happened, Max?"
I shrug as we join the queue for the station scanner, behind a young couple with matching copper curls and a man with a baby buggy. "Does it matter? Society functions properly, people have good lives. I can't see what's wrong with that."
"I know," Casey says sadly. "That's exactly the problem."
The scanner tech calls the guy with the buggy forward into the booth. The young couple and I take a step forward. Casey doesn't.
"None of this is real," he says. "It's a construct, designed and created by a covert alliance between government and big business."
I give him an exaggerated eye-roll. "You need to get a new hobby, Case. Conspiracy theories are so last century."
"Can't you see what's going on?" he says, his voice rising. "It's all about money. People living in communal housing, with everyone pitching in to look after the kids and the elderly? Great. Billions saved in welfare. People eating properly, not doing drugs, taking exercise? Great. Billions saved on the NHS. People not getting into fights, stealing shit, or killing each other? Great. Billions saved in the criminal justice system."
"Well, now you put it like that, I see what you're saying. People are safer and healthier than they've ever been and the country saves money because of it. What a terrible, dystopian nightmare we live in. Nineteen Eighty-Four's got nothing on this."
Sarcasm works, sometimes. Derails him into a different argument, at least. But not today.
He shoots me a disgusted look. "People used to protest against the government trying to run their lives--the nanny state. But what we've got now is worse. It's a God state, and it doesn't just tell people what to do, it makes them do it. How people vote, how they think, how they spend their money--it's all pre-arranged. Nobody gets to choose for themselves anymore."
The man with the baby buggy comes out of the scanner booth, and the girl behind him goes in. One more step forward. Still Casey doesn't move.
An old woman in a yellow mac dashes into the station, her hair and coat dripping. "Excuse me, love," she says to Casey, "are you in the queue?"
"No," he says, the same time as I say, "Yes."
"He's in the queue," I tell the old woman, giving her an apologetic smile and grabbing his arm. He resists for a second, then lets me drag him forward. Despite everything, he doesn't like making a scene in public. Some things stick better than others.
"I'm not going in that thing," he says, his voice low and harsh. "That's how they do it. All that stuff about bacterial contamination? It's bollocks. They fixed the antibiotic resistance thing years ago--if it was even true in the first place. I wouldn't put it past them to have invented the whole thing just to drive up the price of the drugs. But anyway, the point is that once they scared everyone stupid about plagues and epidemics and untreatable bugs, enough so that we let them put those bloody booths everywhere, they started using them for what they really wanted all along--mind control."
The first red-haired girl exits the scanner and her girlfriend goes in. We're next.
"But you can break it," he says urgently. "The memory wipe, the conditioning, it starts to come apart after a while. You can override it if you try hard enough. Come on, Max, think. It never used to be like this. People never used to be like this. You have to remember."
"I do," I say, watching the second girl leave the booth. "That's the thing, Casey. I do."
"Next," the scanner tech says.
Casey looks from me to her, frowning. He steps back, but the queue's built up behind us and he just bumps against a wall of people.
The scanner tech looks him over with a practiced eye and adjusts something on the booth's control panel. Then she slides open a compartment on the side and removes a stun gun.
"I'll wait for you on the platform," I tell Casey.
When we get back to the dorm I kick off my shoes and hit the kitchen. Josef's there, grilling cheese on toast. "Good gig?" he says.
"I thought so."
He takes a huge bite of his bubbling toast and chews industriously. "Where's Casey?"
"Gone to bed. He's got a bit of a headache."
Josef grins. "Bit loud for him, was it? Poor old sod. Oh, hey, I picked up one of these today." He points at a brochure on the table. "It's for the new personal scanners. They're doing a special deal in our area, big discounts. Could be worth having one put in, I reckon."
I flip through the brochure, its pages filled with pictures of the little spectral indigo booths, and can't suppress a little shiver.
But I nod as I put water and aspirin on a tray for Casey. "Yeah. Could be."
The End
This story was first published on Friday, August 19th, 2016

Author Comments

When you get to a certain age, conversations with your mates often turn into a nostalgia-fest about The Good Old Days--although it's usually debeatable whether this idealized, romanticized past was better than the present at all. I tried to explore some of the ambiguity in this story--which is better here, the past or the present? I think it's still debateable.

- Michelle Ann King
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