You can read the opening chapters of Corona Crime here.
A novel by Robert Pimm
Chimeric Brain Mouse Speaks Out: ‘I WANT MY BABIES TO BE HUMAN BEINGS!’
National Enquirer 2086
Jake Moonrath was on his way to re-possess a stolen lifetime when his best friend Ed Zipper and Ed’s wife Abigail briefly became parents.
The window of Ed and Abigail’s suite at the Hughes Procreation Center in Santa Monica had been propped open “to help baby breathe”. For a few instants, the new-born infant’s cries mingled with the reggae from the nearby Feeding Frenzy milk bar and the whispering of the breeze in the palm trees.
Senior Obstetrician Dr Alan Beasdale 100 took the freshly-chipped baby from the nurse and handed it to Abigail.
‘Is your husband OK?’ Beasdale said. ‘He seems distracted.’
Abigail peered up at the medic. It was hard to talk to a man whose face was covered by a mask. All she could see was his bright blue eyes and a fringe of dark hair so thick it looked unnatural.
‘He’ll be OK when Jake gets here,’ she said. ‘They can escape for a beer.’ She nuzzled the baby’s cheek. ‘For an hour, anyhow.’
The obstetrician peered at the new father, who was staring out of the window, frowning. ‘This fellow Jake an old friend?’
‘Jake is a Coronatime enforcement agent.’ Ed turned towards Abigail and the baby as if wondering what they were doing there. ‘Chasing down a Termination Contract. I hope he’ll make it here soon.’
‘I would love to meet him,’ Beasdale said. ‘But I have another delivery at 12.30.’ When he raised his eyebrows, Abigail saw the skin around his eyes was perfectly smooth. ‘Will you excuse me? Press the button if you need anything.’
‘Sure.’ Abigail beckoned to Ed, who had yet to hold the baby. ‘Come and sit down, sugar.’ She patted the sheets and felt a moment of calm as the doctor closed the door behind him. ‘Let’s all get to know each other a little.’
Northbound on the crumbling concrete of I-405, Jake clenched his teeth and cranked up the music.
Let us sing more cheerful songs,
more full of joy!
Yeah, right. How could you be full of joy when you were about to expose yourself to a severe risk of life expectancy reduction, or even death? The pulse tracker on his bracelet was blinking red.
Soon, he should be with Ed and Abigail, meeting the new kid. But first he had to put ’Time-expired Jennifer on the slab where she belonged. What if the Termination procedure hit a problem?
The danger ahead made Jake wish he could slow the vehicle. But he could no more change the speed of his Albuquerque Cheyenne Classic than any other driver on the sparsely populated highway. At forty miles per hour, he was locked in a safe distance behind the Nagasaki Commemoration up front. He eyed the Korean car’s smooth lines. An elegant roadster, much favoured by women. ’Time-expired Jennifer herself owned one, as it happened. But not for much longer.
Jake had been turned on to Jennifer’s case by the Chattanooga Life Exchange Foundation (“CLEF – your key to a better life”) two days before. The moment he had entered his holo room, a man with a moustache and dark-rimmed glasses had appeared, leaning forward over a desk that had materialised with him.
‘Baker 109, CLEF, Chattanooga,’ the recorded holo had opened. ‘Case for you.’
It was routine: a cash-poor, mid-aged woman going nowhere, forty years actuarially-certified life expectancy in hand, deciding to cash in her assets.
‘So,’ Baker 109 had said, biting the end off each word, ‘she takes out a generous Termination Contract with us here in Chattanooga and becomes, maybe for the first and certainly for the last time in her life, rich enough to live in style. Which she does, with gusto. Nothing wrong with that.’ He had coughed and wiped his moustache with a handkerchief.
‘However. Following much indulgence in moon-gazing, fancy vacations and so forth, she meets the usual younger man, who says, as young men do – ’ Baker had coughed again and read from a screen on his desk ‘ – beautiful mother, please don’t leave me. Termination Contract or no, I’ll hide you away in a little house in the big city, and we’ll make love ‘til the day we die.’ Baker had smiled. ‘Whenever that may be. Mr Moonrath, we’d like you to enforce the contract.’
Jake felt the Cheyenne slow for the Beverly Hills turn-off. The streets grew wider. Houses retreated beyond swathes of shrubs and lawns. Upmarket malls stretched for block after block.
The neighbourhood felt safe and prosperous. But ’Time-expired Jennifer and her boyfriend could be waiting to ambush him. His chest tightened. He turned to face the back of the car and closed his eyes. Time for calm.
Four minutes to South Clark. He pictured entering the house, repossessing Jennifer’s lifetime, collecting evidence, and driving to Santa Monica. He would cut the risk by observing the property before entering. Should he tell Ed he might be late? Maybe he and Abigail were enjoying quality time with the baby. Jake opened his eyes and punched the Birth Channel in on his bracelet. He left the music playing.
…All men become brothers
Under the sway of thy gentle wings
The Birth Channel was a misconceived Central Authority initiative to encourage reproduction by publicising the joys of childbirth. The programmers had trouble finding content: today, Abigail Zipper was the only birth on-air. She was sitting up in bed, cradling the child in her arms. Ed was sat next to her, shoulders hunched. A display showed a readout from the baby’s Coronatime bracelet and spine implant: the heart was going pow, pow, pow, firm and strong.
Jake smiled. Soon, he would be sharing Ed and Abigail’s big day. But first, he had to bring to justice a woman who was trying to steal something of immense value: her own life.
The Cheyenne coasted to a halt. Jake took a deep breath, turned to face the front and switched to the Crime Channel. He would be broadcasting himself, soon.
A Neon-Glo blue Nagasaki stood in the driveway of 137 South Clark. All polished up and maybe now someplace to go. Jake recognised the mix of artificial bushes and flowers in the yard, Tropical Medley it was called. Only the super-rich had time for a real garden these days. The tab scanner in Jake’s bracelet showed no sign of life. The house must be data-shielded.
What was happening inside?
Jake sat motionless, watching the house where ’Time-expired Jennifer had taken refuge. A few extra minutes would make no difference. He breathed out, breathed in, and waited.
At last, the red light on his pulse tracker disappeared. Jake flexed his fingers, activated the lapel holo camera he was required to wear during operations, and reached to open the car door. It was time to show the world what happened when the law caught up with a couple of Coronatime criminals.
EXTREME SUFFERING JUSTIFIES EXTREME MEASURES
One Life Army atrocity verification code
Sue Phu looked out at the rain and sighed. Three days into her confinement and still no sign of a break in the weather. From her front door the Mekong stretched, shimmering in the downpour. What kind of welcome was this for the new baby? Between her breasts a drop of sweat rolled down, a cool tickle which melted into warmth where her swollen belly rose against her dress. She yelled to her daughter, Last Chance.
‘Last Chance! Is the water still hot?’
‘Come and try it.’
Last Chance was crouched over an open fire in the corner of the hut, watching steam rise from a cauldron. She had helped deliver two of her mother’s children. The first time, the water had been too cold and Sue Phu had nearly died. Water-borne hepatitis, the man in the boat had said when he came for the baby. It was the only time Last Chance had ever seen him leave the boat. He had put on a special suit, like a space man, to take the blood sample and examine Sue Phu, his gloved hands holding back her eyelids so far Last Chance was worried her mother’s eyeballs might fall out.
The man had left lucky charms after that, to help keep Sue Phu and Last Chance healthy. Now they had glass bottles full of powder to sprinkle around the hut; pills to swallow before and after the stud-boys came; and red pellets which fizzed and boiled in the river water Sue Phu and Last Chance drank when the bottles they bought from the supply boat were all empty.
Sue Phu stepped inside the hut, touching the metal box over the door for luck. The box was smooth and cool; the man in the boat brought one whenever a woman in the village bled for the first time. A black dish on the roof stored up the sun in the box and shone it out during the night, from a glass eye on the front. The man in the boat said the box helped him know if Sue Phu needed anything.
Sue Phu had mixed feelings about the man in the boat. He never bargained. The prices he paid were falling. Sue Phu had even toyed with the thought of keeping the new baby, if it was a girl. But she couldn’t afford it. It was good that the man in the boat supplied for free the stud-boys without whom nothing would have been possible. All the women were serviced thus. They never saw any other men, or any other people at all, apart from the man in the boat.
Not since the time of Sue Phu’s great-grandmother had men lived in the village. What had happened to the men was a subject of dispute. Some said the Americans had killed them when they lost the great war, long ago. Others said the corona had killed the men and left the women. That had been when the aeroplanes had stopped flying, and the jungle had grown back across the country.
Some of the younger women said the virus was a myth – how could it exist, when no-one in the village had ever died from it? How could men ever have lived in the village, when the man in the boat took every male child away with him? The man in the boat, when people dared to ask him, smiled and said nothing.
Two days later, the rain stopped and Sue Phu delivered with the help of Last Chance a yelling, healthy baby boy. Last Chance said the new baby was crying so loud the man in the boat would hear. Sue Phu was delighted. She had never given birth to a boy. The first four babies she had sold had all been girls. Holding on to Last Chance, her fifth, had been an act of superstitious folly, as though such a demonstration might persuade the gods of her indifference. Penury had been averted only by the fascination the child exerted on the rest of the village: women had crowded in, taking turns holding the infant and bringing small gifts of food. But the gods had paid scant attention: Sue Phu had gone on to produce four more baby girls, one after another.
A few days after each birth, the man in the boat would visit, examine the baby, then bow to Sue Phu, his right hand flat against his heart. That meant the baby was OK. He would give Sue Phu a small case wrapped in a pink ribbon – for a girl – containing a number of dollar tokens. Then he would leave, with the baby. There were fewer tokens for a girl than for a boy. This time it would be different.
Sue Phu was nursing the child outside her front door when the boat came. She knew the sound: the roar of the engines rising to a scream as the boat hit a patch of open water, then dropping to a burble as it toiled between the river houses, vulnerable on their bamboo stilt platforms. The man in the boat looked after the women of the village. He had an interest in them, for sure. She held the child to her breast.
The boat came to rest in front of the house, rolling in the dark, calm water. Last Chance peered round the door. The vessel, longer than any two houses in the village and streaked with the rain of a hundred summers, was the most beautiful thing in creation. Life would have ceased without it. Yet its attraction was tinged with dread.
Sometimes, when Last Chance misbehaved, Sue Phu threatened to sell her to the man in the boat. In fact, the man in the boat had several times offered Sue Phu a cash payment in return for being allowed to take her daughter on board. He told her that as Last Chance grew older the price would be less; and that when the girl first bled, the price would fall to nil. Sue Phu had always refused.
On the boat a door opened and the man came out, blinking in the sunshine. He was tall, with long fair hair falling down over his shoulders, and wore only a sarong. The word “Peace” was tattooed on his left breast, above a white bird. On his left wrist was a smooth black band. Although the man in the boat had been coming to the village for as long as anyone could remember, he looked younger than Sue Phu.
‘Good morning, Sue Phu,’ he said. ‘I hear you got something good for me.’
Sue Phu nodded from her waiting place, three paces back from the edge of the platform. The man was always polite. His face was permanently set in a smile of friendship. Yet there was something about him that made her afraid. Not his eyes, which sparkled when he caught her glance. Nor his walk and posture, both of them humility itself. The stalking gait of the boat crew – short, hard men who spoke a language she did not understand – was more hostile. Rather, it was as if the man in the boat was gazing at her from a place far away, where Sue Phu’s life had no more meaning than the scurrying of an ant on the forest floor.
Many years ago, after a glass of rice wine, Sue Phu’s mother had told her the boat crew were angry because they were incomplete.
‘They are not like the stud-boys. They are smooth down there.’ Sue Phu’s mother had touched herself between the legs. ‘There is nothing hanging down. Or sticking up. It is the price they pay. It makes them irritable.’
‘Price?’ Sue Phu had frowned. ‘What price?’
‘The price of freedom. They want to ride on the boat, they pay. So they cannot bother us. Simple.’
‘But what if they do not want to ride on the boat? What happens to them then?’
Sue Phu’s mother had gathered her up and kissed her on the forehead. ‘I do not know. Maybe one day you can ask the man in the boat.’
But Sue Phu had never dared.
Now the ritual was beginning. Still standing in the boat, the man put on a face-mask and gloves, then took from one of his grim-faced crew a package sealed in plastic. He tore it open to extract a white tray with high sides and a fabric lining. He placed the tray on the cane matting at the edge of the platform and stepped back.
‘May I see the baby, Sue Phu?’ the man in the boat asked.
The tiny boy began to cry. Sue Phu did not kiss or comfort him. It was too late for that. She laid the infant gently in the tray, then knelt down at the back of the platform. She saw a fat tear well up on the baby’s cheek and trickled down, but suppressed the urge to step forward and wipe it away. Instead she watched, expressionless, her hands folded in her lap, as the man tickled the baby’s toes, examined its eyes, and, using a disposable syringe, extracted a sample of blood. The baby yelled lustily. Sue Phu bit her lip as the crewman took the blood inside, slamming the door behind him.
Everyone said they tested the blood to check that the father was one of the stud-boys. If the results came out wrong, the man in the boat would still take the child but would pay nothing. Sue Phu could not remember this happening. How could it, with no other men in the village? But they always took blood into the boat before any baby was passed fit for dollars.
The door stayed closed. The man in the boat sat in a chair at the stern, gazing at the river, ignoring Sue Phu and the baby. Sue Phu stared at the door into which the crewman had disappeared, willing it to open. There was something painted on it, faded by rain and sunshine. It looked like a severed hand, transfixed by a knife. A lizard ran out from the house onto the floor matting and stopped dead, its eyes rotating comically as it tried to decide whether to stay frozen or run away. Further down the riverbank, beneath the overhanging trees, something splashed into the water.
At last the boat door opened and the crewman emerged. His face revealed nothing. He said a few words in his guttural language. The man in the boat continued to gaze at the river. As if he had all the time in the world. Then he turned to Sue Phu and placed his right hand flat over his heart.
His palm was covering the white bird, she saw.
‘It’s a deal,’ the man in the boat said.
Sue Phu blinked. Her eyes were filling with tears. Eight times before, the man had taken her baby. It never got any easier. Behind her, she heard a whoop. Last Chance was jumping around and yelling. Two pregnant women peeked from the doorway of the next hut.
‘You done it, new baby,’ shrieked Last Chance. ‘You done it.’
Ignored by everyone, the baby cried.
The man in the boat stepped forward and looked down at the child. ‘Say goodbye?’ he said to Sue Phu.
Sue Phu shook her head. She had no baby now.
The man watched her for a moment, then addressed the child. ‘Say goodbye to your momma, kid.’ He took the plastic tray and placed a package, tied with a blue ribbon, on the cane matting. ‘This is for you, Sue Phu.’ The infant continued to sob, reaching out a tiny hand like a gesture of farewell.
At the rear of the boat, a crewman grunted as he lifted a pack of groceries onto the far end of the platform that surrounded the house. He sprayed down the package, sprayed his hands, then returned below deck.
‘May I say that we’re grateful for all your good work,’ the man in the boat said to Sue Phu. ‘If you are thinking of having another child, I should remind you that with eight already in our care plus little number nine here, you only need one more to retire and receive a regular payment for the rest of your life. Then you can leave all the work to Last Chance.’
Sue Phu spoke quietly. ‘You bring the stud-boys. I will be waiting.’
‘We will be back. As soon as we think you’re ready.’ The man picked up the tray and walked towards the rear of the boat, which slipped its moorings and began to move out into the channel. Sue Phu could hear the baby crying as the man opened the door and went inside. Then the door closed, and the crying was gone.
If you’re the kind of person who likes the idea of staying in bed for the rest of your life, Coronatime may be just your cup of tea.
Early Central Authority advertising, quoted in “Why Coronatime Stunts Society”, Zenon Kool, Schlaraffenland Press (out of print)
Jake was about to open the car door when he saw his bracelet signal an incoming call. He shook his head. Then he saw it was Ed. He killed the lapel holo and made the connection.
‘Hey.’ Jake murmured into the bracelet, his eyes focused the house. ‘Make it quick. You know I’m on an op here.’
‘Sure. Sorry, man.’ There was a moment’s silence. ‘You cased the place? It’s a Termination Contract, right? The subject will be agitated.’
‘Yeah, I watched for nearly half an hour, all good. I learned from the master, Ed. But I’ll be late.’
‘No worries. I’ll get out of your hair. Listen, Jake.’ Ed paused.
‘What is it?’
‘Be good to see you here. Something’s not right. But I can’t figure out what it is.’
Jake’s lips curled into a smile. ‘You uneasy, man? Don’t worry. It’s called fatherhood. I’ll be there as soon as I can. I promise.’ He terminated the call and stepped out of the car.
Across the road from the Hughes perimeter fence, a blonde woman stood outside the Feeding Frenzy milk bar, inspecting her face in the mirror of a scratched, pale-blue powder compact. It was a bright, clear morning, and few people were about. No one saw that the woman wore no powder, or make-up of any kind; her face was perfect already. When the breeze sent a strand of her hair curling up into the cool moist air she frowned as if troubled by some personal anxiety and snapped the compact shut.
It was nearly time.
Long ago, in another existence, the woman had been trained to ask little, and to give everything. It did not trouble her that only one person would ever know the greatness of what she was about to achieve. It was enough that she, Athena, was mistress of her own destiny. She entered the Feeding Frenzy.
The owner of the milk bar was a One Lifer, whose conviction that music should be played loud was classified in most theological reference works as a religious belief. When he saw Athena enter his establishment he at once dried his hands on a towel woven from recycled fibres by Native American artisans and hurried out from behind the counter. The tall blonde woman was his first customer of the day. Her DNA tab registered on his till. Her credit record showed that when she visited cafes, she normally consumed only a single health drink and never left a tip. But when he saw her shift her hips to pass between the tables, and caught her scent as she threw her jacket over a chair, he forgot about tips. It made a nice change from the usual beach bums and health workers who hung out at his place. In fact, he couldn’t help feeling pleased that the cafe was so empty. Perhaps he could strike up a conversation with her.
He had no idea that for the rest of the day it would be standing room only in the Feeding Frenzy.
Want to continue reading?
Buy ‘Corona Crime’ now