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Short Fiction: Experts Agree

(my take on some aspects the Covid-19 situation. With apologies to George Orwell)

Angela’s foot slipped off the proximity marker. She frantically regained her place in line, but it was too late. The thin, nagging alarm sounded and attracted the attention of a masked distance-compliance officer. The figure approached and loomed menacingly. “Wait your turn,” the unseen woman barked. “Think you have a right to get in any quicker than anyone else? Let me see your moves!” Having practiced dutifully at home before the mirror, Angela was prepared. She did not have the grace and skill of an eighteen-year old social-media star, but still managed to push her pudgy, middle-aged form through the basic routine. Within the confines of the proximity marker, she put her right foot in, her right foot out, then in again; following this, she turned slowly around with her arms tucked up and flapping while she quacked in Morse code, ‘We are all in this together’. Her voice was hampered by her white particle mask, and she soon found herself out of breath and nearly shouting. Before she had completed her revolution, she could tell something was wrong. The young woman in line behind her was staring in horror, the portions of her face visible above her crude mask of old toweling and duct tape had blenched white. Angela felt a scalding, judgmental glance from the tall, overweight man ahead of her, even through the branded superhero print of his designer face covering. What am I doing wrong? she thought, terror struck. I practiced this—! The compliance officer bent in closer, raising her bamboo rod. “That was last week’s recommendation!” she hissed. “Haven’t you been watching the Daily Guideline Updates? This week, experts agree we need to cluck like chickens!” “Oh, right! Of course--!” Angela switched nervously into chicken-mode and finished two more turns, apparently to the officer's grudging satisfaction. She growled, “Remember—We Are All In This Together! “We are all in this together!” chimed the others nearby. Soon the words straggled up and down the queue like a wave vibrating through a child’s spring toy. Thudding the end of the rod heavily and with a bit of obvious regret into her gloved palm, the officer moved on down the line. That was close, thought Angela. Can’t have them suspect that I don’t always plan my day around the Daily Updates. Thank goodness the code stayed the same. The previous month’s phrase was, ‘Save lives, Stay Home’, and she had not yet mastered that in either chicken or duckspeak. By then, the line was ready to advance. The proximity markers allowed each person to shuffle forward one place at a time. Outside the markers, along the edge of the buildings and in the miles of traffic-free streets, other figures huddled below makeshift tents or slept in piles of garbage. Those safely within their markers did not seem to be aware of those lying in the streets. Or if they were, they reassured themselves there were many different ways of being in this together. Generally, they merely adjusted their masks and stared straight ahead. Angela told herself, This is so exciting! Finally, everything is getting back to normal. Slowly but surely. If we just keep following what the experts agree on, may be in a couple of years, they’ll let a few more in at a time. Over the next two hours, the line slowly moved along the sidewalk and up the front steps of the building. As Angela eventually drew near the front doors, she felt her heart beating faster, her palms sweaty. “Are you on the list?” demanded the contact ambassador stationed at the entrance, voice muffled through layers of organic, recycled brown paper that had been steam-dampened and formed into a wasps' nest-type helmet. Angry, dark eyes flashed through a hole in the paper; an essential-oil impregnated cloth muffled the space before the man’s mouth. “Yes, yes—it should be right there,” said Angela, pointing to the paper, flustered and terrified that something might go wrong at the last minute. It had taken months of online scheduling and direct calls to the office, but she had finally secured a time slot, was finally here. “Yeah, okay—I see it,” grunted the official. The eyes intensified their glare as they took in her white mask. “Where did you get that? That’s a heroes-only grade mask. You a hero?” “No, no, sorry. I'm not.” “An Essential?” “No, I’m artist...I mean, I was. I had one of these around for keeping out dust while sanding. No one has said I can’t use it---,” “Well, you can wear it the rest of the day, but when you get home, you need to get yourself something cloth or paper. Experts agree that cloth or paper is good enough for non-Essentials. Got that?” “Yes, yes, of course.” “Go on in, then,” grunted the man curtly. Gratefully, Angela slipped past the contact ambassador and stepped into the dim, cool soaring peacefulness of the building. A seat was assigned her about three-quarters of the way in. She quickly found and claimed it, looking around excitedly. There were only a handful of familiar faces there. She recognized Bob Whitsun, an engineer at a big local company, and smiled to herself fondly. Bob was showing off a personal harness and collar contraption he’d clearly invented himself; lengths of floppy foam pool noodles stuck out from his neck, revolving lazily as they kept everyone, including his family members, at least three feet away from him at all times. Others tramped up the aisle in mismatched gardening boots—experts having agreed about a month previously that the different colors, which absorbed and then released solar radiation at different rates—offered a staggered immunity against infection entering through the feet.

Sliding into her place, Angela tried not to stare too hard or obviously at the changes made in the church since her last visit. Has it really been a year? She asked herself. Some days it seemed longer. Some days, it felt like this had all happened in just a few weeks, or in one night. Like a nightmare. Some of the statues were covered, reminding her of Holy Week. Other artworks above the altar had been removed outright, to make room for the towering photos of the two revered national Medical Experts. Angela, and most others present, had forgotten when to stand sit or kneel; the presider kept pausing and glaring at them, his disappointed sighs audible through his white linen mask. That day’s reading was about rendering unto Caesar; beneath the serious yet reassuring visages of the Experts, the sermon dutifully expounded at length on this theme. At Communion time, the presider and his trained assistant, heavily masked and gloved, brought forth two trays of small plastic cases; the participants were called forward one at a time, sprayed lightly with disinfectant, then allowed to collect and take their pre-assigned case back to their seats to consume the small, sterile host within. Shaking, Angela took out the host in her fumbling gloved hands and quickly consumed it. Her head was suddenly throbbing with the stress and excitement of the moment. The church interior seemed to spin around her. She clutched at the back of the pew ahead of herself to keep from collapsing. Experts agree, she reminded herself. If everyone played it safe and followed the scientifically designed phases and guidelines, they’d all be back to normal in a year or two. Or three. Because they were all in this together, whatever it was they were in.

(c) 2020 S.Kirk Pierzchala

Enjoy this glimpse of our nation's near-future? Check out my full-length cyberpunk techno thriller, Echoes Through Distant Glass! Available here (I recommend the paperback to safeguard your library against future digital censorship): ebook or paperback.

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