“What did you do during the Great Reset, Grandad?” she squealed excitedly, the words tripping off her tongue in fluent Mandarin.
In the centre of the cage stood an ornate, candle-lit altar. Its upper panels had been cut in triptych form and each panel bore a letter from the old western alphabet: N, H and S. Behind it hung a gilded reredos depicting a coronavirus, its central protein spike outstretched, imparting the spark of life to the reclining Sage, whose fingers could be seen reaching out, but never quite touching, the spike. Running in European style, from left-to-right across the bottom of the image, was a slightly amended excerpt from the Sage’s translation of the New PCR-Testament. Embossed in a plain, puritanical font it read: “The Lord Coronavirus, He who delivered us from The Temptations, creating the Sage (Genesis 24:6.1).”
At its foot knelt an old man, evidently in prayer. Though he faced the alter, his eyes had strayed towards the impenetrable darkness beyond their cage. Out there lay the wilderness. The crucible of The Temptations. Hazy, half-forgotten memories still lingered. They came bubbling up now from that most dangerous of personal traitors, his unconscious. The greasy, voluptuous joy of it all. Unadulterated, untrammelled, rollicking, infective, glorious, filthy human life… biological proximity, dirt, penetration, tongues, sex, risk, sweat, uncertainty, sex… laughter… sex…
The sound of her voice dragged him back from the volcano’s edge. Shaking, dripping with sweat, appalled at this lapse into unholy reverie, he wrenched his dilated pupils back to the reredos and set to mumbling his prayers once more, now with renewed vigour.
The girl paused, a smile playing across her face as she pondered the inherent theatricality of all pieties when they start to fray at the edges. He wasn’t Grandad, of course. At least, not hers. She was nearly thirteen and a half now, and no-one could accuse her of naïveté. If he was anything at all, he was Disease Vector #213698/Z. She was #2398702/J. The two of them had been thrown together during the ‘Great Purification’ of the 2030s.
A strange time, she reflected. The Carriers, usually so bovine, so eager to please, had suddenly begun to defy the Sage. Tiring of his cloying solicitude and worn down by the acts of economic penance he demanded so regularly, they had taken to mocking him, jeering him in the streets – nay, worse – questioning the precepts of his Faith. Windows in people’s houses were left open each day for two or three minutes longer than had been declared safe. Lungs were left un-bleached overnight. Parents even demanded the return of their children from the Purity Incubators.
The trouble spread until, in the end, the entire Carrier herd were to be found bovinely transgressing The Laws of The Model, violating The Regulations and flouting The Everlasting Lockdown as a simple matter of course. Wild and promiscuous emotions, of a kind The Sage’s prim, bureaucratic mind could never hope to understand, had all too evidently been whipped up by The Temptations.
Then one restless night, the Lord Coronavirus had appeared to him in a dream. “Blot out Man,” He had commanded. “Exorcize not The Temptations, but the bodies possessed of The Temptations. For all flesh hath corrupted his way on Earth.” Thus were the seeds of a post-human eschatology sown. “Where there art no bodies,” the Sage had decreed the very next morning, “there can be no Temptations; and where there art no Temptations, there can be no Sin.”
Nailing this thesis to the door of Westminster Cathedral, he clutched a wad of spreadsheets to his heart and solemnly vowed, by all that was sterile, to burn the Carriers, each of them, one after the other, and, in so doing, to keep them safe – safely dead – from The Temptations once and for all. His disciples, the Tracers, were dispatched to round up all Non-Carriers and deliver them unto safety. What pure flesh remained – like that of her and her Grandad – had been herded into cages, two Disease-Vectors at a time, and loaded onto the deck of an Ark made of gopher wood.
Some of the girl’s most vivid memories were of the subsequent journey out to sea. On the morning of the second day, homesick and missing her parents, she’d looked back to find the horizon flickering and blurred; like mascara, smudged along a neatly ironed crease. The righteous epidemiological fires of the Sage had been lit, she remembered thinking, shocked even then at how a sentence possessed of a syntax she would once have dismissed as absurd, could now appear so obviously to fit the facts.
Scattered plumes of thick, black soot rose from the charnel house of the Old World, eventually coalescing into one giant, brooding miasma. The Carriers, or what was left of them. Suspended particulates, waiting to be scattered to the four winds, from one end of a now purified Earth to the other. Mum. Dad. School. Friends. Childhood.
The little rattlebag of grief which life had slung across her shoulders was overflowing with words like this. Nouns. All in the past tense. Petrified morsels gouged from living pain. “Blessed are the prophylactic givers,” Grandad had pronounced as he stood by her side watching the shoreline admiringly. “For they shall inherit the Earth.” That was the last day she’d ever looked back.
“Tell me, tell me, tell me Grandad!”
Her voice rang out across the cage, the forced cheerfulness of the thing obvious even to her. Not that the old somnambulist had heard her above the sound of his own neurotic mumblings. Grandad. She should drop the word, really, but in the cage system, some of those deeper human impulses that predated the advent of lockdown had persisted, and it was now something of a custom for the youngest Disease Vector to refer to the other inhabitant of the cage as “Grandad” or “Grandma”.
He paused in prayer this time, half turning to face her. As he did so she realised that the point at which this desiccated little man started, and the machinic disciples of the Sage ended, had over the years become irredeemably blurred.
Peering through the candle-lit gloom it was just possible to make out the dashboards on the apnoea monitors, infusion pumps, ventilators, electrocardiograms, pulse oximeters and physiological monitoring systems that had been crushed together to form the lower half of the alter. Wires, electrodes, tubes and sensors stretched out like dendrites from this giant nerve centre, probing the man’s chest for immoralities, interrogating his thorax for prodromal sympathies. Watching. Waiting. Hoping to catch Disease Vector #213698/Z in the sacrilegious act of fomenting infection. Defilement of the throat, blaspheming of the lungs, desecration of the stomach.
The Sage would find out. The Sage would know.
At the man’s feet lay an array of petri dishes, test tubes, vials and other assorted gathering pots for coagulated servility. Blood, urine, faeces, saliva and sputum. They were all there; all the usual suspects. Collaborators. Fifth columnists. Known associates of The Temptations.
The Sage would make them talk. The Sage would break them.
What a way to live, she reflected. Or rather, what a way to pass the time whilst waiting to be killed. For it was, after all, only a matter of time for them both. You had to face that fact. When the body of a ‘Non-Carrier’ finally betrayed itself, when it was finally found guilty of harbouring The Temptations, of putting the health of the entire ship at risk, the only thing left was excommunication and the finality of “the sacrificial distancing”. All true, of course. But you didn’t have to fill in the time between now and then by acting like a… well, like Grandad.
Not, that is, that Grandad seemed particularly put out at the prospect of being stripped naked, forced into a full Hazmat suit, gagged and bound and then thrown overboard with an old ventilator tied to his feet. One of the True Believers, was Grandad. A Clapper, that’s what she’d once heard Mum call people like him; “the type you’d find bragging on Facebook about how they’d remortgaged the family home and forced the kids into street prostitution just to ensure a profligate senior manager at the NHS wouldn’t need to default on his monthly hire purchase car repayments”.
So blind, so unshakeable was Grandad’s faith that when his time came The Sage wouldn’t need to bother with the Hazmat suit or the old ventilator – just tell him it was written in the scriptures that he must now fill up his lungs with water and die, and you’d be guaranteed that his last words before going under for the fifth and final time would be, “How high?” A True Believer, indeed. “If my sacrificial distancing saves just one life,” he was always telling her, coaxing just the right mix of ‘martyrdom’ and ‘self-adulation’ from his vocal chords, “Then it’ll all have been worth it.” Moron.
“Grandad! Tell me, tell me, tell me!” she shouted again.
He normally insisted on taking a rectal swab about this time of day (“Watched arseholes,” as he always insisted, “don’t host pathogens”), and she was trying everything she could think of to distract him.
Inspiration suddenly came to her. For fear of being overheard by the Sage, listening in as ever via microphones embedded in the reredos, she craftily modulated her toy-like, as yet unbowed tones to those of a conspiratorial whisper.
“Did you fight Comrade Coronavirus on the beaches, Grandad? Just like Churchill, Grandad?”
“Churchill was a fool, sweetheart. He should have listened to the appeasers.”
Nonsense, of course; but having noticed he’d put the swab back down on the altarpiece, she bit her lip.
“No, I hid under my bed. It was the only reasonable course of action. Empowering, in its own way. You see, although I could see things were falling apart, I quickly realised that it didn’t matter if I abandoned the great rattling, discordant caravan of public life to slink off home with nothing but my own weight to burden me. The Sage was always going to be there, pedantic and willing to take up the reins and steer me, you, all of us, in what he felt was the right direction. With each sanitised, disinfected day that passed, down there under the mattress, I felt life becoming simpler, easier.”
“But did you refuse to surrender, Grandad? Did you face up to your fears, Grandad?? Did you fight Him on the beaches, on the landing grounds, in the fields and on the streets?? Tell me what happened, Grandad?”
“You know, darling, it wasn’t my job to defend the false idols that for so long we were brainwashed into worshipping – freedom, free speech, liberalism, rugged individualism, democracy and… er, well anyway, all of those filthy, subversive, degrading Temptations,” he said, emphasising the last part of the sentence and casting a wary eye up towards the reredos. “Besides, if they’d been any good for us we’d have been allowed to keep them, wouldn’t we?”
“No, I’m glad those days are behind us. In any case, we’re happy now, aren’t we?”
“That’s right. Safe, too. Now you be a good girl and hook yourself back up to your ventilator and your electrocardiogram monitor. Here, let me strap you in. Pop your mask on too. And if I can just ease this bag back over my head… there, that’s it. Now, shush! The Sage will be doing his rounds soon, checking our samples for any Temptationary Taints; making sure we’ve been keeping our bodies free from pathogenic infection. In some ways, I wish he’d do more to protect us. Oh heavens, I do so hope I don’t disappoint him.”
“I said, ‘Night night, Grandad.’”
“Night night, darling. Sage bless you. And thank you, NHS.”