Issue 8, January 2011
Immaculate: Listen to Robert Eccles read this story
By Jack Skelter
Deck Logan took a deep breath and entered the waiting room, braving the sharp, appraising stares of the other men sitting within its utilitarian confines.
As the door slid shut behind him, Deck glanced around, looking for a vacant seat. Eventually he found one, a metal chair like the rest, sandwiched between an elderly gent and a tubby man. Deck made his way to the seat and eased his wiry self down on its cold surface.
"I see the Yul Brynner look is vogue in this joint," the elderly gent on his right said conversationally. "Did they make you shave your head, too?"
Deck nodded and gave him a small, uncomfortable smile.
"It's for their own convenience," the elderly gent said. "Makes their job a little easier. Although I must say," he added ruefully, rubbing his pate, "that the hairless style does not suit everyone."
Deck almost laughed. He glanced at his fingers; they were trembling. Relax, Deck chided himself, relax. Licking his lips, he asked the elderly gent, "Is this your first time?"
The elderly gent's eyes twinkled, as if the query were a vastly amusing jest. "Heavens, no, son; it's my third," he chuckled. "But the third time's the charm—or so the Ancients used to say."
Deck smiled his small, edgy smile. "This is my first," he said, and then, with an elbow, nudged the bloke on his left. "How about you, pal?"
The tubby man flinched; he tugged at the collar of his white skinsuit and regarded Deck with green, watery eyes. "Um, yeah, me too. First time." He paused, and then ventured, "Say—did you guys, uh, tell your wives you were, like, going here today?"
"Mine knows," Deck replied. "We talked this to death beforehand."
The elderly gent smiled wryly. "Bless her, but my wife nagged me to return here, lads."
The tubby man nodded; wringing his hands, he blurted out, "Bessie doesn't know I'm here—it's stupid, I know. But it's our anniversary tomorrow, and I kind of wanted to give her a surprise, you know—if ever I, uh … " He trailed off, blushing to the roots of his close-cropped hair.
At this, the trio became silent, staring at their hands and listening absently to the wisps of small talk floating about the room.
After a while, the elderly gent turned towards the two and cleared his throat. "They say, lads, and by they, I mean the pundits, they say that when the new Administrator takes the reins next year, the Policy may be modified—even abolished—and these … ah, formalities will become completely unnecessary."
Deck mulled these words over. "What do you think, gramps?"
The elderly gent shrugged. "I think," he began, and then rolled his eyes towards a centurion who had just entered the room. "I think we should hold our tongues now."
Conversations died as the centurion waddled to the center of the room, his potbelly swaying beneath his loose silver tunic. He cleared his throat and, without preamble, intoned:
"Glued under your seats, gentlemen, you will each find a sealed envelope containing a colored card. That card will serve as your pass to enter the inner room to which your color group has been allocated. When I give the signal, you are to open the envelope, take out your card, and proceed to the appropriate room through the color-coded exits at the back. I needn't remind you all that swapping, bartering, or exchanging of cards is prohibited, and shall have severe consequences for the transgressors and their families." The centurion paused, and then asked, "Are there any questions?"
Hearing only sniffs and muffled coughs, the centurion nodded and said, "Very well; take out and open your envelopes — now."
The men inside the room complied. Deck found himself staring at a bar-coded plastic card. "Blue," he muttered.
The elderly gent waved his card at Deck. "Same."
"Red," said the tubby man.
The elderly gent stood up and clapped Deck on the shoulder. "We'd better get going, lad."
"Good luck," the tubby man said as he got up and elbowed his way into the queue for the red room.
Deck got to his feet and joined the elderly gent in the blue queue. As the line moved forward, Deck glanced to his right and saw a scrawny, goateed man standing in the yellow queue.
"Hey—is that you, Rick?" Deck said.
The goateed man turned his head and blinked in surprise. "Yo, Deck. Long time, no see."
Deck nodded. "Middle school—eons ago."
"How's your mom—Mrs. B? That leg still troubling her?"
"Nah, she had it replaced by a Morrison prosthesis couple of years ago." The goateed man shook his head and grinned dryly. "She's so happy with it that she wants to saw the other one off, too."
Deck chuckled. "Good old Mrs. B."
The goateed man smiled. Waving his yellow card, he said, "Hey, Deck—good luck in there."
"You too, Rick," Deck said as he stepped through the doorway and entered a blue-walled corridor.
"Right through here, gents," a security guard said. He waved a stun-baton towards an arch-shaped contraband scanner. Deck and the others stepped through the device without incident—save for the elderly gent, whose passage caused the scanner to shriek.
"Step aside and hold still, sir," the guard said, running an e-wand over the elderly gent's upper torso. The wand squealed as it skimmed over the old man's jaw.
"What do we have here?" the guard said as he grabbed the elderly gent by the jaw and forced his mouth open.
"Dentures," the elderly gent managed to say.
Dubiously, the guard peered inside the old man's mouth and, after pressing a button on his wristband, said, "Let's see what the doc has to say."
A rumpled-looking medic in a white lab coat emerged from an alcove, reeking of cigarette smoke. He flashed a penlight inside the elderly gent's mouth and ran a handheld medical scanner along his jaw. "Dentures," he declared before ducking back into the alcove.
"All right … move along," the guard said as he waved the elderly gent through.
Rejoining the queue, the elderly man shuffled a few paces behind Deck. With the others, they entered a wedge-shaped anteroom with a pulsating pink door on one side and a pulsating blue door on the other. A centurion … squat and muscular … stood before the tense, unspeaking group.
"You are all volunteers," droned the centurion. "Here of your own accord. Nonetheless, if for any reason you want to change your mind, just step through the pink door over there; it leads to the exit in the main foyer. Otherwise, step through the blue door—but bear in mind: once you do, you may not turn back." The centurion checked his chronometer, and said, "You have one minute."
An uneasy silence settled over Deck's group; there were no coughs, no sniffles, no clearing of throats. For a long second, Deck eyed the pink door, and then, with a deep breath, looked away and stepped through the blue one.
At his heels trotted the elderly gent. "Point of no return," the old man remarked as they marched along a pulsing blue corridor. Behind them, they heard the shuffling footfalls of their group mates.
Another centurion stood waiting at the end of the corridor. With practiced ease, the burly man took Deck's card and waved an e-wand over it; in the same motion, he waved the wand over Deck's skinsuit, turning it into a subdued shade of blue.
"Cell number One," the centurion said to Deck, handing back his card. "At the end of the left-hand hallway. Move along, now, move along."
Deck waved good-bye to the elderly gent and made his way down the hallway, wrinkling his nose at the stench of burnt insulation and stale sweat. Counting the numbers stenciled on the duralloy doors, he located cell number One. He inserted his card in a rectangular slot beside the door and entered the cell after the door whooshed open.
Deck blinked twice as the door whooshed shut and the pinlights flickered on. A tall, unassuming locker stood on the right-hand side of the tiny cell; on the left was an ion-ray teevee displaying the current date and time. On the wall opposite Deck was a closed serrated door.
"Here we go," Deck mumbled as he tugged the locker open. Pensively, he examined the locker's contents and, with trembling hands, extracted a short, heavy object.
Behind him, the teevee flashed to life. "Event starting in thirty seconds," an electronic voice cawed, reading the text onscreen. "Blue on Yellow; Blue on Yellow; get set, gentlemen. Twenty seconds. Ten seconds. Five, four, three, two … "
Deck turned to face the serrated door; he crouched and gritted his teeth.
The door whooshed open.
With a roar, Deck sprang out of his cell and dashed towards the center of the white-walled arena, his feet nearly skidding on the polished duralloy floor; off to his right, he glimpsed his group mates doing the same.
"There go the Yellows!" someone yelled. "After 'em!"
Deck swiveled his head and saw a pack of yellow-clad, knife-wielding men rushing towards him. Unhesitatingly, Deck raised his mace and dove straight at the nearest one.
"Yeearghhh … " Deck nimbly sidestepped the Yellow's knife thrust and, without pausing, swung his mace overhand and smashed it onto the man's pate. Seeing their point man fall, the other Yellows backpedalled and jumped out of the way.
"Look out … behind you, lad!"
Reflexively, Deck ducked, twisting his body sideways. A metal club grazed the side of his head and thudded against his arm, sending his mace clattering to the floor. Through the spots of light dancing before his eyes, Deck beheld his ex-schoolmate, Rick, raising the club for another blow.
Knees wobbling, Deck barely managed to dodge Rick's second ferocious swipe. I'm done for, Deck thought as the club clanged on the floor.
"Five minutes until the end of the Event," a voice announced over the arena's PA system.
Deck scuttled backwards and scowled, seeing in his mind's eye the tearful, disappointed face of his wife. I won't give up, Nicola, he thought. By the gods, I won't.
Six paces away, Rick's face was split by a wide, bloodthirsty grin; he hefted his club and began edging towards Deck.
Deck tensed his leg muscles and held his arms out sidewards. "Hey, mama's boy," he taunted, flicking his fingers in a come-get-me fashion. "Gonna make your fat, peg-leg mama cry, you gutless sissy."
Howling, Rick closed the gap and swung hard at Deck, who ducked beneath the club's arc and punched Rick twice in the groin.
Rick let go of the club and doubled over on the floor, face twisted in agony. Now or never, Deck thought as he leapt on top of Rick and wrapped his fingers around his neck.
Deck squeezed, ignoring the blows and punches raining on his head and shoulders; at one point, his grip involuntarily loosened as a yellow fist struck his right temple, but with a low, desperate growl he renewed his efforts until Rick lay limp and unmoving in his hands.
"Time's up; the Event is over," said the voice over the PA system. "Cease all activities; I repeat, the Event is over … cease all activities."
Drenched in blood and dripping with sweat, Deck staggered to his feet and rubbed his right temple. He felt dizzy, teeth chattering as the flow of adrenaline in his veins began to ebb.
He glanced around the corpse-littered arena and saw the elderly gent sprawled on top of a pile of blue-clad bodies, mouth bloody and gasping for breath.
"We made it, lad," the elderly gent said through his broken dentures as Deck helped him gently to his feet. "By the gods, we made it."
"Yeah, by the gods," Deck managed to say as they hobbled arm-in-arm towards the glowing pink hole at the center of the arena.
"Know how many you got, mate?" asked a beer-bellied guard as the medic bound up Deck's wounds in the treatment alcove.
Deck shrugged. "One, I think." Rick.
The guard chortled. "Guess again."
Deck shook his head and shrugged once more, dislodging the bandage on his left arm. "Hold still, dammit," barked the medic.
Grinning, the guard said, "Two … you iced two." The guard pushed a button on a handheld controller and gestured towards a teevee perched on a wall. "Your first target … the one you conked out with a mace," the guard said as he replayed the event in slow motion, "died three seconds before the finish. So technically it's counted as an arena kill, in your favor."
The medic snapped his latex gloves off and lit up a cigarette. "You're done," he said to Deck. "Bugger off."
Wincing, Deck got off from the medical gantry and cocked an eye at the guard. "Two arena kills," the guard said, handing two e-chits to Deck. "Two less mouths for the State to feed."
Deck glanced at the e-chits and pocketed them, awkwardly. "Uh … thanks."
The guard smirked. "It was either you or them, pal; believe you me, you've earned those chits."
Deck nodded … "Yeah, thanks" … and then broodingly left the treatment alcove. As he headed towards the main foyer, he noticed the beer-bellied guard following him.
"Anything I can do for you?" Deck asked as the guard sidled up to him.
The guard licked his lips and glanced around furtively. "Listen," he said in a low voice. "I don't mean to be crude, but you don't really need two chits, do you? I mean, in these times, one should be enough, eh? Besides, you're a natural brawler; you can get another chit anytime you want. But me, well … I, uh … "
Deck pinned the guard with an earnest gaze. "Speak plainly, officer."
The guard flushed, and said, "Sell me one of your chits. Fifty thousand credits, tax-free."
Deck rubbed his nape thoughtfully. After a while, he shook his head. "Sorry, but the answer is no."
The guard glared at him sourly. "Sonovabitch," he spat as he turned on his heels, leaving a red-faced Deck to exit the building alone.
* * *
His left eye swollen shut, Deck unlocked the door of his eightieth-floor apartment and stepped inside.
"Honey, I'm home," he said, closing the door behind him.
His wife Nicola rushed out of the kitchen and held out her shapely arms. "How did it go, dear?" she asked breathlessly, pulling him inside their cramped bedroom.
Deck rummaged through his pockets and found what he was looking for. Grinning through his bruises, he extended a swollen hand and dropped the two e-chits on her outstretched palm:
PROCREATION PERMIT (ISSUED PURSUANT TO THE POPULATION CONTROL & MANAGEMENT ACT)
The bearer of this e-chit and his spouse shall be entitled to one (1) * legitimate conception. This permit shall expire one year from date of issue. (*Miscarriages occurring within the first term of pregnancy are excepted; restrictive conditions may apply)
For several seconds, Nicola stared unblinkingly at the e-chits. Then, in a flurry of motion, she squealed and laughed and jumped up and down.
"Two chits … how marvelous, darling!"
Deck hung his head. "Honey, I'll be honest: a guard asked me if I could sell him one of those, and I, well … I said no." He touched his puffy face and shrugged. "He offered me a lot of money for it; enough to cover the down payment for that farm in the country we've always wanted. Maybe I ought to talk to him again and … you know … "
Nicola gave him a dimpled smile. "Don't be silly, dear," she said, activating the e-chips with her thumb as she hugged Deck to her bosom.
Nestled between his wife's breasts, Deck breathed deeply, savoring her heady floral scent; he felt himself stiffening, aroused by the raw, unmitigated passion oozing from her pores. In unspoken accord, they undressed each other greedily, flinging their clothes and the e-chips on top of the nightstand as they rolled onto bed and covered each other with wet, fervid kisses.
"Twins," cooed Nicola as she cradled her husband's head and pulled him on top of her. She moaned as his hardness first probed against her belly, and then, finding its mark, slipped urgently inside her. Locking her feet onto the small of his back, she whispered, "Let's have twins, darling."
Flushed with victory, the Logans began to rock together in a rapid gasping rhythm as the e-chits winked impassively at their shuddering forms and scanned and probed and scanned.
Jack Skelter is an Auckland-based barrister and solicitor whose fiction has appeared in various publications, including Murky Depths, AlienSkin, Short-Story.Me, and Aphelion. He had been, at various stages in his life, the managing editor of a campus newspaper, a part-time magazine writer, and a frenetic lead guitarist before getting sidetracked into law. Now a laidback bass player, he is aided and abetted in his musical, legal, and literary pursuits by his gorgeous wife, two pretty daughters, and their ghostly white cat.